Commodious knowledge


This paper offers a novel account of the value of knowledge. The account is novel insofar as it advocates a shift in focus from the value of individual items of knowledge to the value of the commodity of knowledge. It is argued that the commodity of knowledge is valuable in at least two ways: (i) in a wide range of areas, knowledge is our way of being in cognitive contact with the world and (ii) for us the good life is a life rich enough in knowledge.

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  1. 1.

    Notable exceptions are Lewis (1996) and Radford (1966) who have denied that knowledge requires belief and Hazlett (2010) who has challenged the thesis that knowledge is factive.

  2. 2.

    For more on different types of value see e.g. Korsgaard (1983), Kagan (1998) and Rabinowicz and Rønnow-Rasmussen (2000) all of which are reprinted in Rønnow-Rasmussen and Zimmermann (2005).

  3. 3.

    Traditionally, final value was thought to be the same as intrinsic value, i.e. value that accrues to something in virtue of its intrinsic properties only. Moreover, intrinsic value was thought to contrast with instrumental value. However, there has been a growing consensus in recent value theory that final value need not be intrinsic. A famous example of final extrinsic value is that of Princess Diana’s dress, which is valuable for its own sake, but derives this value at least in part from its relationship to Princess Diana (Rabinowicz and Rønnow-Rasmussen 2000, p. 121). Similarly, some have argued that instrumental value is not the only kind of non-final value. Zimmermann (2015, Sect. 6) considers the case of a medical test the results of which indicate that the patient is in good health. Zimmerman notes that it is not implausible to say that, in this case, the results are also good. In contrast with good health, which is arguably finally valuable, the positive results are not valuable for their own sake and hence are not finally valuable. What’s more, the good results are not a means to good health either and so aren’t instrumentally valuable. As a result, the type of value that attaches to the results has to be non-final non-instrumental value.

  4. 4.

    Pelletier (2010, p. 128). Pelletier also points out that mass terms are generally regarded to have divisive and cumulative reference: one can subdivide the stuff to which a mass term can be correctly applied infinitely and the mass terms will continue to be correctly applicable to its parts (divisive reference) and one can add as much of the stuff to an existing quantity of it as one likes and the term will continue to be correctly applicable to the resulting mass (cumulative reference). One might think that this is implausible for knowledge. After all, if we take away the justification component from a bunch of beliefs that make up some quantity of knowledge, for instance, ‘knowledge’ won’t be correctly applicable to the resulting mass. But notice that this is not a special problem for ‘knowledge’. After all, if you chop up some water molecules that make up a quantity of water and take away the oxygen atoms, say, ‘water’ won’t be correctly applicable to the resulting mass either. Pelletier (2010, p. 129) suggests that this problem may be solved by distinguishing between metaphysical and semantic facts. The thought is that while as a matter of metaphysical fact water consists of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, this is not recognised semantically, at least not in English. Whether or not this solution works need not concern us here. After all, so long as the problem is not exclusive to ‘knowledge’, we can, for present purposes at least, safely ignore it.

  5. 5.

    See Treanor (2013, 2014) for a view similar to this as well as an illuminating account of how one might measure amounts of knowledge.

  6. 6.

    One could point out that we tend to attach higher value to scarce commodities than to readily available ones. However, it is not market value that is at stake here; it is instrumental value related to our epistemic goals. Analogously, while the market value of truffles is higher than that of bread, it is undeniable that, due to its ready availability, bread is more instrumentally valuable for our survival.

  7. 7.

    Goldman and Olsson also offer a second example, namely that of good motives for actions. The idea is that good motives are a type of state that acquires value from its relation to good action. Over time, good motives have come to be valued independently, “in themselves” (Goldman and Olsson 2009, p. 33) as they put it. Now, it is not clear to us what exactly Goldman and Olsson mean here. Is it that good motives come to be valued for their own sake? Whatever the answer to this question may be, we think that it is very plausible that good motives are valued for their own sake. As we already pointed out, we are also sympathetic to idea that Value Inheritance holds when the value of the type is final value. So, we are happy to grant that Goldman and Olsson have succeeded in identifying a case of Value Inheritance. It’s just that the case is not of the kind we were looking for. After all, at least for all Goldman and Olsson have argued, the value inherited here is final, not instrumental.

  8. 8.

    A promising place to look are normative properties. For instance, possession of legal tender is a type of state that has the instrumentally valuable normative property of entitling you meet financial obligations by using it. We think that the idea that the instrumentally valuable normative property is inherited by each token of the state type carries promise. If, in addition, knowledge has instrumentally valuable normative properties, we would have what it takes to argue that knowledge has instrumental value that is inherited by each token item of knowledge. That said, we will not pursue this line in any more detail here. Suffice it to say that the instrumental value that we argue attaches to the commodity of knowledge is not a normative property. Even if Value Inheritance holds for normative properties, there still is little reason to think that it holds for the properties that, according to our proposal, make the commodity of knowledge valuable.

  9. 9.

    Note also that, for water, too, there may be other ways in which it is valuable. For instance, it may be that water but not liquid hydrogen is suitable for the purposes of irrigation.

  10. 10.

    Again, it is easy to see that the same may hold in the case of water.

  11. 11.

    Note that this is not to say that attaining a flourishing life in a given domain involves an exceptionally high degree of flourishing in that domain. It also doesn’t mean that one has to attain equal degrees of flourishing in all domains or that a eudaimonic life will be out of the question for anyone who attains significantly different degrees of flourishing in some of these domains.


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Thanks to Synthese’s referees for their thoughtful comments on this paper. This work was funded by an OT grant from KU Leuven’s Special Research Fund (BoF).

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Correspondence to Christoph Kelp.

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Kelp, C., Simion, M. Commodious knowledge. Synthese 194, 1487–1502 (2017).

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  • Epistemology
  • Value of knowledge
  • Meno problem