Our knowledge economy

It seems the experience of suspecting oneself to be a fraud is getting both worse and more common

Students of Socrates learn that wisdom is grounded not in knowledge per se, but in the knowledge first of all that you know nothing. They learn it a lot, in fact. For notwithstanding the profound truth of the sentiment, the great man used the idea to get himself out of many a tight spot.

I found myself in a tight spot recently. Engaged to address a mostly Austrian audience about Gert Jonke, a fascinating but mostly untranslated Austrian novelist, I thought I'd better come clean about my own poor command of German. "Standing here, I must admit, I feel a fraud," I prepared to begin.

The speaker who preceded me was a professor of German and noted specialist in contemporary Austrian literature. "Standing here," he began, intending to profess a lack of specific expertise, "I must admit, I feel a fraud."

A tight spot, as I say. Indeed, when you can no longer even admit with credibility to feeling a fraud, the spot is not merely tight. It is one that boasts panoramic views of an encircling hole so profoundly black that all that stopped me jumping in was long experience of standing up in front of people while suppressing a persistent desire to throw up my hands and explain that, in fact, I know nothing.

That said, it's nice to be reminded that I'm not alone in feeling a fraud. Among academics, in fact, the commonness of the feeling is well documented. In 1950, alive to the distress of her junior faculty, the sometime dean of Harvard's Radcliffe College, Bernice B Cronkhite, wrote them a helpful manual.

"Am I, or am I not, a fraud?" she asked them. "That is a question which is going to mean more and more to you year by year. At first, it seems agonising; after that, it becomes familiar and habitual. Much later, it becomes … almost hopeful."

I've often heard something similar said by actors about stage fright; that it never goes away, that one learns to live with it, to value it, even, for the nervous edge it lends the routine of repetition. But then again, being a fraud is in the job description for actors, whereas academics are paid to know what they're talking about. Supposedly.

My suspicion, though, is that the experience of suspecting oneself to be a fraud is getting both worse and more common.

In the financial world instances of fraud seem to surface daily, just as do the conclusions that everyone taken in must, in failing to spot the fraud, be implicated too by virtue simply of not knowing their business properly. (Certainly, investing money with a man whose name is Madoff seems to be on a par with checking to see whether "gormless" has been excised from the dictionary.)

But the financial sector is just the beginning of a depth of fraudulence that threatens to sink the whole sphere of our working lives. The root cause, I suspect, is that the value of craftsmanship – of the idea that the value of something derives from the skill with which it was made – has sunk steadily, for a century at least. But its fall has been masked by an equally steep rise in the value of salesmanship, of the idea that the value of something derives from what it can be sold for. The idea of actually knowing what something is, in other words, has ceased to be especially valuable.

This applies even to our concept of the self. As that arch-fraud Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard pointed out so effectively in The Postmodern Condition, the self is no unifying essence, but merely "a post through which various kinds of messages pass". Our very notion of identity, he argued, and credibility, has come to be grounded on a structure in which fraudulence is barely distinguishable from authenticity.

"Know thyself," Socrates was also fond of saying, when he wasn't saying that he knew nothing. But if the self is itself fraudulent, what do we do then?

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