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A Hermeneutic Approach to the Knowledge Economy

Augusto Cusinato

If we didn't get into muddles, our talks would be like playing rummy without first shuffling the cards ... (G. Bateson)

.. . as long as we know how to play rummy.


Although mainstream economics continues to ignore the hermeneutic turn that occurred in the last century, enterprises are de facto adhering to it in their creative praxes. Having outlined a hypothesis about why and how this discrepancy happened, the chapter provides a reassessment of both the notion of the 'knowledge economy' and of the relationships between knowledge and creativity. Showing that a hermeneutic approach endows actors with incomparably higher creative potential than the usual cognitivist approach, the chapter further explores the spatial dimension which is inherent in hermeneutic practices. This exploration leads to a reassessment of Durkheim's seminal notion of generative milieu, with specific reference to collective learning. As a result, the concept of landscape turns out to be crucial in enhancing learning and creativity. With the aim of building a bridge between the theoretical and the empirical parts of the volume, this chapter finally provides an analytical frame for scaling milieus, from the dialogical to the organisational and further to the urban scales. In order to achieve this, it proposes the operational notions of 'Knowledge-creating Milieu' and 'Knowledge-creating Services'.

1 Introduction

The assumption of mainstream economics—that the distinguishing feature of the knowledge economy is industry's massive and constantly increasing recourse to knowledge,[1] largely thanks to the advent of ICTs—is right but shallow. My opinion is that a deeper change is occurring within firms, which mainstream economics is not equipped to ascertain because of its persisting adherence to the triad individualism-behaviourism-cognitivism, on which it grounded its distinctiveness within social sciences and against the classical 'political economy'. Taking into consideration the long-running epistemological debate about that triad, which can be condensed as a criticism of modernism, a much wider horizon opens, ranging from sarcasm and irony against the naivety of moderns (and especially their presumption of having acquired a reliable way of progressively eschewing naivety from the scientific domain) to a more compassionate and ethical stance with regard to the fact that human beings are in any case destined to live with it.

Hermeneutics shares this latter acquisition: instead of proceeding towards the extreme (and ultimately authoritative) options of nihilism and/or relativism, it proposes a praxis, not for seeking the truth, but for unveiling those unconscious and ideological devices that drive viewpoints and eventually allow them to be affected by a sort of cognitive blind spots.[2] With specific reference to scientific method, these blind spots hinder subjects from devising empirical-logical tests which could be decisive in rejecting possible critical hypotheses, so that the very basis of logical-empiricism is subject/exposed to radical questioning.[3] The praxis that hermeneutics proposes fundamentally lies in shifting the cognitive focus from the relationship between mind and external objects to the relationship between minds. This needs to take place in order for it to be possible to perceive dissimilarities and, especially, traps in the ways relationships with and within 'things' are established. Interpretation rather than explication thus becomes the main cognitive stance (rather than 'tool'), which shifts the main focus of attention onto what the cognitivist approach sees as disturbances, such as ambiguities, dissonances, misinterpretations and slips.[4]

From the historical viewpoint, it would be reasonable to assume that the hermeneutic approach would essentially remain confined to the philosophical and aesthetic domains inside which it originally formed, and would in case pass 'by osmosis' into society at large mainly through cultural debate and generational turnover. Yet, and this is a crucial idea of the book as a whole, these steps are taken, not only at an unexpected pace, but surprisingly through enterprise. 'Surprisingly' because enterprise is one of the most spectacular creations and the champion of modernity. As announced in the Introduction, the hypothesis is that, despite the patent lack of interest on the part of economics (Lavoie, 1990), this unexpected outcome rests on the concurrence of at least three conditions: (a) a resurgent interest in innovation, (b) the advent of ICTs and (c) the pragmatic realisation, within firms, of the greater creative power of a hermeneutic approach to knowledge and creativity[5] by comparison with the usual cognitivist approach.

Whilst the centrality that innovation has assumed in advanced economies does not deserve further examination within this chapter, some clarification is needed of the idea that ICTs are at the origin of a shift towards hermeneutic praxis within enterprise, just because the mainstream thought gives them a strengthening power with respect to the cognitivist approach to creativity. The next Section is devoted briefly to this issue. Section 3 examines the implications of a hermeneutic approach with regard both to the notion of creativity and connected praxes. After showing its greater heuristic and generative power, the Section attempts to systematise the debate about the triad of knowledge-space-creativity, which still suffers an inhibiting connection with the cognitivist approach. This leads to a reassessment of Durkheim's seminal notion of 'milieu' and the suggestion of the notion of “Knowledge-creating Milieu” as a basic analytical tool for examining that triad from a hermeneutic viewpoint. Finally, Section 4 provides a methodological frame for empirical investigation on knowledge-creating milieus at various scales (firm, city and region), which works as a bridge to the second part of the volume.

  • [1] See the seminal works of Machlup (1962), Drucker (1968)
  • [2] Our recourse to this metaphor is designed to underline that fallacies rather than errors are at stake in this connection (Coe & Wilden, 1978)
  • [3] One among many: Von Glasersfeld (1984)
  • [4] Since it is impossible to recall here the course and the map of the hermeneutical debate, we can only quote the author who, in our opinion, best renders this epistemological but also ethical turn, Ricoeur (2004)
  • [5] Since Schumpeter (1934 [1911]) distinguished between 'ideation' and 'innovation' within the creative process, and identified the entrepreneur's figure with this second kind of activity, mainstream economics has usually focused on 'innovation', leaving the question of ideation to other disciplines, such as psychology and applied research. Though the Schumpeterian distinction is crucial (and also captive) on the analytical plane, it does not fit well at the pragmatic level because innovation itself also entails ideation (Lane, Pumain, van der Leeuw, & West, 2009). This is why we prefer to make general recourse to the more embracing term 'creativity', which encompasses both activities, except when we refer explicitly to the mainstream economic approach
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