Essay 58: Machlup and Knowledge-Watching

Fritz Machlup is an underappreciated emigre economist from Vienna. His 1962 book, The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States (Princeton University Press, 1962), is a “bible” of knowledge-watching and the zones where knowledge meets information, where Machlup was very prescient.

Fritz Machlup was an Austrian-American economist who was president of the International Economic Association from 1971–1974.  He was one of the first economists to examine knowledge as an economic resource, and is credited with popularizing the concept of the information/knowledge society.

Born: December 15, 1902, Wiener Neustadt, Austria
Died: January 30, 1983, Princeton, NJ

Machlup distinguishes five types of knowledge:

  1. Practical knowledge
  2. Intellectual knowledge
  3. Small-talk and pastime knowledge
  4. Spiritual knowledge
  5. Unwanted knowledge

These five kinds of knowledge are discussed and analyzed in Machlup’s The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States starting on page 21 (and are discussed in Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post Industrial Society, 1976, Basic Books, page 175).

The more comfortably one can link types 1, 2, and 4 in the list above, the more “together” one’s understanding might become.  One does not have to be “dismissive” of Type 3.

Pleasant diversions are a a part of life and have their honorable place. One reason (to give a simple example) we’re drawn to poets like Wallace Stevens is that they seem to “sit comfortably” in their various (knowledge) roles: insurance salesman, poet, thinker and don’t “line up” or “array” these types of knowledge in a conflictual way but seem to “smile down” on all of them finding beauty everywhere.

Workaday knowledge might not have to “fight with” other kinds of knowledge. Insurance, say, is a form of risk-management and risk is essential to life and economics, as we have seen elsewhere.  Economics looks at cost-benefitrisk-uncertainty all together when it goes beyond the narrow confines of academe to become a fuller quest.  Cost-benefit analysis by itself is too restrictive.  Start with Machlup as a highly intelligent “backdoor” into these domains of knowledge, information, learning, social contexts.  This would help give you a handy additional “flashlight” on schooling in society including universities and campuses.