From: Philosophy and Human Values (1990) Lecture 6: Nietzsche – Knowledge and Belief

Transcript: First, what’s supposed to be so scandalous about Nietzsche. Nietzsche is supposed to hold the scandalous view that knowledge is a form of power. Now that is scandalous because knowledge is knowledge. It’s objective. You know, like journalism. And it would be scandalous to show that wherever we find knowledge, we will find it structured and constructed around a system (or systems) of power. Won’t find one without the other. Now, one can think of this along the simplest pedagogical models. By that I mean the classroom models. I mean, I ought to know this from teaching the university. I know how to pass along knowledge.

To get someone to believe me in the last analysis, I give them an “A”, which I could replace with a “happy face”. They are used to that, it’s from kindergarten. They are both just symbols, right, of achievement. They’re not getting paid for this stuff. Just give them a little “A”, they smile. That same system starts in kindergarten: “happy face”… “A”… runs through to “F”. “F”, no face… blank. The same thing would work in kindergarten. That form I used looks fair. I mean, I am grading objectively. But the point is deeper. That what the knowledge is based on is my spot of power as the teacher. That’s what it’s based on. Now, you would go: “oh no – it’s based on what’s really true!” Yeah, but… but… how does that get meted out and parsed out? Who decides that? Well the blunt and ugly answer is: we do. The teachers do. We decide.

Now there are clear counter examples to Nietzsche’s argument. In mathematics at its simplest levels, I will grant you, that if we are doing a mathematics course, I could grade objectively. But I will also grant you that nothing of great importance to human values hangs on truths that everyone can accept. That two plus two equals four, that A is A, are all acceptable, and they are acceptable precisely because nothing of very great human importance hangs on them. The moment you go a little beyond that in any direction, even in math class, when you discuss for example the philosophy of mathematics, then the disputes start, and then power at some point has to insert itself and decide.

So, an important part of Nietzsche’s investigation is in the interconnection between the forms of knowledge and power. Forms of… and for the purposes of our course… forms of ethical behaviour and power, ah, are the subject of his most important book. Well, maybe not his most important, but certainly the one that is the most coherent: “On the Genealogy of Morals”, by Nietzsche.