During this most recent graduation season, I was reminded of the oft quoted remark in commencement addresses: "knowledge is power." As with all sentences with an "is" in them, the meaning can be interpreted in two different ways. It may seem like a simple equation, but it is actually unclear which way the equation runs. So I thought I would point out these two opposing meanings just to make sure we are reflecting on what we mean when we say "knowledge is power."
Meaning #1: If you have knowledge, then you will have power. The idea here is that the acquisition of knowledge results in social power. The one "in the know" holds a certain power over those who do not. The knower is a go-to-guy. This is the usual meaning at commencement addresses: "hey, don't worry that you have all this debt and will never make as much as your friends, because you have power on account of your knowledge."
Meaning #2: If you have power, then you will have knowledge. This is the opposite of the above meaning. Although the former is more traditional and therefore quite common, this meaning is gaining significance in our contemporary world. The basic idea here is that knowledge is really just power in disguise. Another phrase illustrates this: "the winners write the history." In other words, those who exert power have the influence to promulgate their view of what has happened and therefore generate knowledge. The social critic is the one who is able to unmask the power dynamics behind so-called knowledge. This need not be a cynical vew: if you want to be apart of the spread of knowledge, put yourself in a center of great influence.
Is there some other sense to the equation I have missed?
Which meaning do you usually imply when you say this phrase?
What happens when we mean it one way but it is taken another?