Francis Bacon is usually credited with first delivering to us the notion that ‘knowledge is power’ in a collection of religious meditations published in 1597 entitled the ‘Meditationes Sacrae’. Apparently Volkswagen agree. Of course it’s difficult to imagine what the 16th century English philosopher would have made of this bold endorsement by one of the world’s largest automobile manufacturers. Perhaps, given his strong ties to the early empiricist movement and influential role in the development of experimental science, Bacon would have taken great pride in the show of technological prowess implied by the billboard advertisement. Regardless, it seems somehow unlikely that the creative mind behind this campaign was principally concerned with the philosophical origins of its core sentiment. Even less so that Volkswagen’s intended audience should be restricted to a relatively small, albeit international group of distinguished Bacon scholars. So, what is the claim that ‘knowledge is power’ really doing here.
The answer, it seems to me, lies in the question of what kind of power is being touted. For Bacon, the claim that ‘knowledge is power’ can be best understood within the context of the scientific enlightenment of his day. He was deeply influential in the establishment of empirical methods in the sciences and in promoting the idea of scientific and technological progress on the basis of these methods. It was, therefore, advances in our knowledge of the natural world that represented for him a previously unrealised and unwielded power.
To an extent, this is precisely the kind of power that Volkswagen are keen to appeal to. In the image above the slogan, the car’s reflection is covered with a series of complex mathematical equations suggestive of the extensive technical understanding that is presumably required in the design and construction of an automobile. Drawing our attention to this fact is Volkswagen’s way of highlighting just how clever their cars really are. And that’s the interesting part. According to the manufacturing and marketing teams at Volkswagen, it is the knowledge that has gone into the development of this new model that renders it desirable. Power, it is assumed, is something that we want and knowledge is a manifestation of power. As long as we identify power with knowledge and knowledge with Volkswagen, then buying Volkswagen gets us something we desire.
Here’s the campaign in syllogistic logic for those with an eye for formalisms:
P1) Knowledge is power
P2) Power is desirable
C1) Therefore, knowledge is desirable
P3) Volkswagen have knowledge
P4) (from C1) Knowledge is desirable
C2) Therefore, Volkswagen is desirable
Of course the assumption that power is what we want is playing an essential role here and plenty of worthwhile analysis could be undertaken with respect to that premise. However, whilst I am wearing my epistemologist’s hat it is the role that knowledge is playing that interests me most. At first glance, the appeal to knowledge is evocative of Bacon’s original sentiment and the seemingly unlimited potential of scientific and technological progress. But this is an advertising campaign and as such another level of analysis is required. The aim of this campaign is not to tell us something about how tricky it is to construct cars. At least that is not the ultimate aim. The point is to sell them. In this context then, a new answer emerges to the question ‘what kind of power is knowledge’. It is not only our knowledge of the natural world and the power of scientific progress that is being employed here, nor is it the power to manufacture ever faster, safer and sexier cars. For the marketing teams at Volkswagen at least, knowledge is selling power. And we have been sold.