Handbook of Knowledge and Economics
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Handbook of Knowledge and Economics

Edited by Richard Arena, Agnès Festré and Nathalie Lazaric

By illuminating the philosophical roots of the various notions of knowledge employed by economists, this Handbook helps to disentangle conceptual and typological issues surrounding the debate on knowledge amongst economists. Wide-ranging in scope, it explores fundamental aspects of the relationship between knowledge and economics – such as the nature of knowledge, knowledge acquisition and knowledge diffusion.
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Chapter 16: Knowledge and its Economic Characteristics: A Conceptual Clarification

Ulrich Witt, Tom Broekel and Thomas Brenner


Ulrich Witt, Tom Broekel and Thomas Brenner 16.1 INTRODUCTION It is broadly acknowledged now that knowledge plays a crucial role in understanding technological change and its impact on economic activities (cf., e.g., Feldman, 1994; Nonaka et al., 2000; Antonelli, 2001; Mokyr, 2002; Murmann, 2003). With a growing body of research in economics focusing on the role of knowledge, a growing number of concepts and classifications of knowledge has been developed since the first elaborate attempt in that direction by Machlup (1980). One distinction that, among others, will serve as a reference here goes back to Polanyi (1958). It is the widely used distinction between tacit and overt, or implicit and explicit, knowledge (see Cowan and Foray, 1997; Cowan et al., 2000 and the literature cited there). While knowledge is considered overt when it is openly accessible to everybody and understandable, for tacit knowledge this is considered not to be the case (Cowan and Foray, 1997; Zack, 1999; Cowan et al., 2000; Lissoni, 2001). A distinction like this is made with the intention to bring out characteristics of knowledge that are regarded as significant. Yet, what the significant characteristics are depends on the context. Distinguishing tacit from overt knowledge does not seem of much help, for instance, in deciding whether or not knowledge has a public-good character – a question that figures prominently in the economic literature (e.g. in welfare theory; see Arrow, 1962, or new growth theory; see Langlois, 2001). Some authors claim that, once knowledge exists, it has properties of...

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