So you do have a plan! Yeah Mr. White! Yeah science!
- Jesse Pinkman
The difference between techne and episteme as well as the concerns which come from the in the popular show “Breaking Bad.”
In the first episode of that show, when the two protagonists, Walter White, a brilliant chemist, and Jesse Pinkman, a drug dealer down and out on his luck, first meet to cook meth, Pinkman is dismissive of White’s systematic approach to the process. Pinkman is confident that his well-practice techne is sufficient, and is dismissive of the procedure that White creates to synthesize the meth. Objecting to White’s assertion that they won’t be adding chile pepper to their method, which was his specialty before teaming up with White, Pinkman asserts that cooking meth is art, and that he is an artist. Unimpressed, White responds that it’s all chemistry, all episteme. Once White finishes, though, Pinkman is astonished at the quality of the meth that White created, praising him as a great artist. Once again, White asserts that it’s all science; everything he did could be broken down to episteme, a system of principles, chemistry, which his knowledge of enabled his action.
The differences between the techne, cooking meth, and episteme, synthesizing it, are further emphasized later on in the show during the first episode of the fourth season. In that episode, White is being held hostage by a local meth kingpin, Gus Fring, and White is arguing that he is needed because of his scientific skill. An assistant to Frings’s operation angrily argues that neither White nor his episteme are needed for Fring’s operation, saying: “It’s called a cook, because everything comes down to following a recipe.” White, once again the scientist, retort’s that assertion that everything can be reduced to art by peppering the assistant with questions about what to do given certain scenarios. “What happens when you get a bad barrel of precursor? How would you even know?” “What happens in the summer when the humidity level rises and your product goes cloudy?” An artist working simply off of his craftsmanship would not know the answers to such scenarios, which would ruin the batch of meth he is cooking. Someone working from the systemized knowledge of chemistry like Walter White, though, would be able to deduce the proper responses based on his knowledge of the principles involved. Whereas techne, cooking, is concrete, and context dependent and thus cannot deal with situations it has no familiarity with, episteme is able to overcome such adversities because it is manipulating the world according to universal if-then statements.
Walter White’s experience in the criminal underworld is illustrative of the the use of episteme in society. Of concern to studying how people cope with knowledge in society is how the episteme is stored and transmitted. In “Breaking Bad,” it is quickly apparent to those who meet him that White is a man who has innate access (by that I mean he doesn’t need reference to books or the internet) to knowledge about chemistry that no one else around him does. Those who decide to work with him can thus incorporate his knowledge of chemistry into their business models by having him be in charge of their meth production and by having White advise on such concerns. In addition, since White’s episteme is so unique, there are no close substitutes to him, and so whereas a lesser chemist may have been a disposable asset, White is essential because without White the organization wouldn’t be capable of producing meth of the purity he ensures.
Thanks to Walter White, his business partners are able to act as if they had his knowledge of the general principles of chemistry. Within those associations, White is the store, so to speak, of that episteme, and cooperation with him is the means by which his episteme is transmitted in society. As long as White’s knowledge is unrivaled, White was able to create a sustainable specialization for himself within the criminal underworld of methamphetamine as a source of episteme, and is able to trade that knowledge for what he wants, be it money or security, with others. All-in-all, a division of labor is created which enables those ignorant of the principles of chemistry to benefit from it through cooperation with Walter White.
The story of Walter White in “Breaking Bad” is also illustrative to why episteme alone cannot generate economic growth and material prosperity. With his episteme, Walter White is able to synthesize meth which is, by the end of the series, demanded across the world and makes him no small fortune., that he is in a position to provide as-if access to that knowledge to others is a matter of institutions and trade. When a meth head on the street is able to get an unparalleled high with the use of White’s special blue meth, they are able to act as if they had knowledge of how to create meth of that purity themselves. The precondition for this is a division of labor in which those meth heads are able to cooperate, though indirectly, with White in order to have access to his episteme. A division of labor, in turn, has preconditions of its own if it is exist, and there are rules of the game that have to be set to ensure that self-regarding cooperation is possible such as punishing transgressors and negotiating contracts. Since the meth trade goes on in the black market, institutions evolve within it, independent of the courts, which ensure the operation of this business and the division of labor which supports it. This division of labor, in turn, allows for White to be able to offer his episteme to society, or at least to those on the black market.
That people across society would put their episteme to use in order to satisfy the wants of other people in an impersonal division of labor, though, is itself that needs explaining. It seems obvious to us that people would use the episteme they have about certain topics in the division of labor in order to exploit their knowledge to gain a money income. When someone watches “Breaking Bad,” the ethical question which comes to mind is why is White using his knowledge of chemistry in the criminal underworld to get money not why is White using his knowledge of chemistry to get money. That White would also be alert to the opportunity of using his knowledge to sell specialized products to others is itself something not universal to human nature. Simple entrepreneurship may be, everyone may be an entrepreneur in a loose connotation of the world when acting as to better their situations, but not everyone is even aware of the opportunities to be an entrepreneur on the market. For Walter White to specialize as a meth synthesizer and for a division of labor to emerge with that as one of it’s important nodes, then White would have had to be alert (and willing) to that opportunity for specialization. Such a frame of mind is something that economics, whose basic organon is to explain all human behavior as instances of the maximization of an objective, well-defined function with only income and prices as its arguments, cannot explain.
“Breaking Bad” is thus a distinctly bourgeois story. Walter White is neither using his knowledge of chemistry to get favors from a local prince nor is he using that knowledge in hope for seeing God in the geometry of creation as part of a perceived journey towards ultimate salvation. Both of those are very real possibilities, Su Song (1020- 1101) built an immensely complicated water clock for the Han emperor in the 1090s that served the bureaucratic purposes of managing the Chinese state and Roger Bacon (1214-1294) was a Franciscan monk who pursued empirical research of the world throughout his life to better man’s understanding of God’s creation. Walter White created meth so pure that is purity became a mark of his work and sold it on the black market in order to get enough money to support his family after he receive a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. Three different premises for the use of episteme in society, and only one corresponds to a scenario where there could emerge a society-wide division of labor that enables anybody who has enough cash to act as-if she knows White’s knowledge about chemistry. The profit-maximization in terms of money and income that explains so much of modern society is behavior which happens in context of a bourgeois society, and the emergence of that bourgeois society over history has involved phenomena not amendable to analysis simply in terms of indifference curves and budget constraints.
Others in society are able to benefit from the episteme of a few specific experts by cooperating in a division of labor which provides them as-if access to that knowledge. Within the grand system of human cooperation that is the market, someone is able to enjoy the benefits of a Coca Cola as if he had the knowledge of how to create it by buying it from a convenience store. Through self-regarding trade, the episteme of one is made available to another, and thus the knowledge of a few is made to service the many. The creation of this grand system must be understood within both institutional and cultural contexts that enable to emergence and continuation of the division of labor. Institutions are important because not all strategies of action are compatible with its maintenance, and if strategies that deny others their property titles are able to proliferate in society, then the division of labor will break down. Culture, all of whose aspects cannot be broken down as institutions understood as rules of the game, enables the enlargement of the division of labor by making people more alert to entrepreneurial opportunities on the market.