The Western Devaluation of Knowledge

By Charles Osburn. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013. 314 pp. $80.00 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1-4422-2879-5.

The Western Devaluation of Knowledge is an original critique of modernity. Here, Charles Osburn, dean and professor emeritus at the University of Alabama libraries, reverses the near ubiquitous association of the march of progress with the supposed advancement of knowledge, presenting a number of sometimes familiar complaints through an examination of how stages in the development of our modern way of life have changed not only our valuation of knowledge, but our use of knowledge as well as our ability, or even willingness, to know. The disruptions of technological and societal advancement to tradition, culture, and value are examined according to the devaluations they effect. Here, Osburn gradually and comprehensively develops the history of an idea, chapter by chapter introducing new perspectives, developing his subject dimension by dimension.

Osburn often refers to his book as an “essay.” The term, perhaps an exaggeration so far as modern usage, is in certain ways a useful descriptor. In defining his terms, Osburn is aphoristic, providing definitions without argumentation. Often, said terms are defined according to commonplace and prejudicial understandings; for instance, capitalism, globalism, and certain aspects of culture are frequently presented in their most negative aspects. Such definitions are justified by quotations from an authority or writer on the subject—either immediately or in the notes—but this does not negate the familiarity of his phrasings. This may be an attempt to take modernity on its own terms, to more completely describe the subterranean revaluation of knowledge, within the framework of the familiar. Focusing theorizing to a single variable tends to throw it into relief.

At the same time, significant ideas are developed at length. Osburn proceeds by examining said ideas according to historical and cultural works on the subject. The bulk of Osburn’s chapters does not concern knowledge directly, but instead the development of ideas which will later be called upon to inform discussion of knowledge itself. For instance, Osburn’s first chapter on the “Ways and Means of Cultural Change” introduces the groundwork for how said devaluation of knowledge is possible. Early on, tradition is introduced as the positive counterpoint to modernity: “Modernity is the opposition to tradition, for it is continuous introduction of new ideas into competition for the attentive consciousness of a critical societal mass” (10). Where technology is associated with modernity, the parallel value of knowledge is associated with tradition (237). Later, the myth of progress will be developed to encourage a sense of purpose lost with the decline of tradition (228).

Osburn develops a number of foundational modern ideas covering management, work and leisure, capitalism, standardization, human time and its management in an industrial sense, and the development of value in order to later come to an understanding of knowledge and its devaluation. Only in a society where knowledge has been given a monetary value can it be devalued. Osburn provides an example in the change in opinion of the humanistic and scientific education: “Although in terms of knowledge per se the academy may assign equal value among the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences, it is clear that the sciences and technology are of necessity privileged in the economics of academic research” (128). Understood as something with value, knowledge may be accorded a worth and, in economic competition, grow continually narrow—something Osburn suggests may be the “ultimate cost of progress” (215). In contrast, the potential rediscovery of knowledge may allow modern man, increasingly mechanized and morally compartmentalized, to engage in authentic social choice (250-1).

In its extensive references to history, Osburn's book is a valuable resource. The endnotes to his chapters are a valuable source of original quotations and additional interpretation by the author. However, this careful attention to other scholarship is also a weakness. Sources are quoted extensively as authorities, but rarely engaged with critically. While quotations are provided as descriptive evidence for viewpoints on progress, knowledge, and other topics, opposing viewpoints are not presented or discussed. Additionally, Osburn's discussion of topics such as money, management systems, and globalization are extensive, but perhaps too extensive. His history can verge into prehistory, and seem almost tangential. Osburn is more engaging in discussions more directly related to his thesis. For instance, a section on the decline of reading is especially illuminating. Osburn discusses the growing availability of the written word through technological advance along with the growth of literacy. Here, the reversal of traditional understanding of progress is especially illuminating: “For the expanded literate population,” writes Osburn, “The purpose of reading had become that of a momentary diversion, no more than just a way to make time pass more quickly” (69). One recollects the fiction controversy in public libraries. Osburn might have spent more time in this direction.

Schopenhauer suggested that important books ought to be read twice. The first time, slowly, with great attention, to develop an understanding of the author’s arguments; the second, immediately after the first, so one can read with the author’s designs already in mind. Osburn's The Western Devaluation of Knowledge is a book that awards not only close reading, but this very re-reading. Here the author's style imitates the knowledge process, rewarding the study of early chapters and reflection. Osburn's book is a valuable resource for the student of the modern worldview, as well as for the foundational aspects of modernity covered throughout. It is, in many ways, a personal take on the modern sense of knowledge, drawing together unique examples and ideas.

Peter Ward

West Islip, New York