Knowing Knowledge I: Knowledge Is a Historical Process, Adam Riggio and Steve Fuller

Author Information: Adam Riggio, McMaster University,; Steve Fuller, University of Warwick,


Editor’s Note:

Adam Riggio

First, I want to say how much I enjoy reading your introductions, simply for their dizzying feeling. You synthesize so many ideas throughout the history of philosophy that you weave together a whole new narrative of that history in only about 20 pages. I feel as though more academic writers would consider such a new take on the discipline’s history to constitute the subject matter of a whole book. It certainly could be. But, of course, the best philosophy is always about more than the history by itself. 

wwI_postcardThere are two very big ideas in this introduction that I want to ask you about, and I’ll discuss the biggest one later. I’d like to talk about the history first, particularly how your take on the origin of the two modern models of epistemology as emerging from the First World War.

I think I’ll follow how you lay out the history if I call the focal epistemic question in Analytic philosophy, how an individual can be sure that his claims about the world are true. This question guides a person’s thinking down the path that knowledge isn’t even a matter of social processes, but of the individual’s engagement with the world by himself. It fits well with that I learned of early Analytic philosophy during my doctorate. Bertrand Russell was so disturbed by David Hume’s arguments for skepticism of our intuitive empirical knowledge that problems of knowledge (access to the world and the nature of the propositions through which we understand the world) took on a central importance for his philosophy.

What I never really learned in my early philosophy classes was how deeply the terrifying political situation of the twentieth century’s first decades influenced concerns that we were always taught had nothing to do with politics. You’re right (and you’re quite illuminating) to frame the verificationist and historicist conceptions of scientific knowledge as an intellectual response to the First World War.

marinettiThe danger when teaching philosophy from such a historically situated perspective is that it can all too easily produce the kind of situation that my early professors feared when they avoided teaching us the social and political contexts to philosophical problems: that we would dismiss the problems themselves as mere functions of historical events. I personally do not believe that truth is so untouched by history that revealing the historical conditions of an idea’s generation reduces it to nothing more than a symptom. But I can understand why many people would have this intuition about historicizing knowledge, thanks to the popular linkage of the true with the universal with the eternal.

But the War’s effects weren’t just a matter of losing faith in scientific institutions for having supported such a terrible human catastrophe. The Great War had literally mechanized man, transformed him into a mechanism of no more individual value than a bullet or an artillery round, and men were used and discarded in the same way. These are the core ideas of Ernst Jünger and Filippo Marinetti, who are important philosophical touchstones for my next big philosophical project on contemporary utopian hopes.

Aside from the diversion of my own future work, I want to get back to this issue of the Great War, because I see a tension here that I think is a creative one. You describe yourself as an agent-centric social epistemologist, which you had identified with the individualist framework of engaging questions of knowledge. Yet the historical process of how we formulate our questions of knowledge is also essential to your thinking, and you identify that historicism with a focus on collective or social knowledge. So how do you unite an individualist approach to knowledge with a framework grounded in social processes?

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Steve Fuller

Adam, first, let me thank you for picking up on the significance of the First World War in framing the contemporary philosophical imagination, both on the analytic and continental sides. It’s something that I had already detected when working on Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper, now over twenty years ago, but the comprehensiveness of its impact has only gradually dawned on me. As I got into the intelligent design controversy, I also observed that this was the time of the anti-liberal and pro-fundamentalist turn in Christian theology (à la Karl Barth), which began the myth that the integrity of pious religion had to be protected from scientific hubris.

But it was only after recently reviewing Michael Gordin’s Scientific Babel that I realized that the First World War also provided the basis for English becoming the unequivocally dominant scientific language in the world, since before that time French and especially German had been giving it a strong run for its money. Put bluntly, if you were an intellectual in the ‘long nineteenth century’, as Eric Hobsbawm dubbed 1789-1914, you had to know all three major European languages to be truly in the game. Before 1789, you could know just French, after 1914 you could know just English.

harvard But this great shift to English had little to do with the UK but rather to the rising stature of the US as a global player and safe haven for political migrants. Indeed, the UK is interesting only insofar as this former colonizer so easily passed on the torch, effectively allowing Harvard to replace Oxford by start of the Second World War. (I’m one of the last Americans who felt that their education would not be complete without going to Oxbridge.) This was a role that Americans took up with gusto, as evidenced by the courses on ‘Western Civilization’ and ‘Great Books’ that started to proliferate post-Versailles, which presupposed that the US is the guardian of a precious cultural heritage that strife-torn Europe is always on the verge of losing. This worldview got its comeuppance in the ‘canon wars’ that dogged US humanities departments in the 1980s and 1990s.

I should also add—but promise not to digress further!—that the whole analytic-continental configuration of contemporary philosophy is more specifically American than generically English. For example, the dominance of ‘naturalism’ within analytic philosophy remains—even a half-century after Quine—an overwhelmingly American phenomenon. (I often wonder whether there has ever been much reading of Quine in British philosophy seminars, outside those of his Oxford nemesis, Peter Strawson.)

And then consider the peculiarly decontextualized ‘great books’ style of dealing with continental figures, which treats recent German and French thinkers as if they were delivering wisdom from a secular Axial Age—as first the early Muslim imperialists and then the Christian scholastics treated the ancient Greeks—an ironic reversal of ‘the past is a foreign country’! Such a practice makes sense if you are dealing with works in translation. (In contrast, philosophers from outside the US learn English—and, more to the point, learn about Anglophone culture—to read the analytic works in the original, for better or worse!)

nuremberg But back to the point: The First World War is comparable to the French Revolution and the falls of Athens and Rome as world-historic spurs to the philosophical imagination. The Cold War may well turn out to have had a similar significance—especially if we move in a decisively trans/post-humanist direction by giving cybernetics the philosophical respect it deserves.

However, notwithstanding the Second World War’s unprecedented global carnage and the continued fixation on Hiroshima and the Holocaust, at least by ‘moralists’, I rate WWII as an elaboration and amplification of the First World War’s themes and a transition to the Cold War’s themes—but not so philosophically interesting in its own right. The First World War infected science with Original Sin and the Cold War paid the ironic compliment of turning us into deities stuck with dirty hands.

On the larger point of whether this historical consciousness trivializes philosophy’s timeless themes: Actually these ‘timeless themes’ sound pretty trivial if they’re expressed in a manner that abstracts too much from history. So, ask ‘What is justice?’ or ‘What is truth?’ and you’ll just get a lot of incommensurable answers, on the back of which some smart-ass analytic philosopher will conclude that these are ‘essentially contested concepts’, as if that shed light on the matter!

Here Richard Rorty was basically right. Philosophy addresses the sort of world in which one wishes to live, and from that standpoint it becomes important to know the historical context in which certain things could be taken for granted and others had to be explicitly argued for. (The rhetorical binary of ‘presumption / burden of proof’ has been central to my social epistemology from the outset.) Rorty was a brilliant theorist of historicity. We may or may not live in the worlds presumed by philosophers—not only philosophers in the past but in the present as well, especially if we have reason to believe that cultural differences matter. (Here continental philosophy stands guilty of mystifying this point by suggesting that stuff in French or German is inherently better than stuff in English. It’s simply different, the value of which we then need to decide.)

In terms of how to deal with philosophy’s historicity, I offer two general policies:

1) Interesting philosophy, even if it accepts the status quo as its starting point, is trying to move to someplace better. In other words, it is ‘normative’ in the strong legal-political sense of ‘corrective’ (again central to my social epistemology). But this requires that you understand the philosopher’s destination in light of his or her starting point. It’s unlikely you’ll want to take the exact same journey but you may find either ends of it useful for your own purposes, on the basis of which you can then make your own way to wherever you want to go.

2) One should imagine that all the possible futures for philosophy are already inscribed in its past, albeit usually as unrealized potential, in which case re-examining the history of philosophy is never a waste of time. While Popper was certainly correct to maintain that the future cannot be predicted, it wouldn’t be our future unless it projects a line of descent from our past. Personally I have always thought that the 19th and early 20th centuries contain much unrealized potential in this sense.

Finally, speaking in most general terms, my interest in epistemic agency—and the individuation of agents more than ‘individuals’ per se—is rooted in the idea that one can’t really say much about rational epistemic change without the ability to ascribe responsibility for actions based on whatever forms of knowledge are possessed by agents. Of course, agents are conditioned—’pushed and pulled’, as Robert Nozick liked to say, alluding to supply and demand—by various social forces, some quite historically overdetermined.

Nevertheless, the autonomy of agents resides in their unique resolution of these forces, which is tracked by the series of decisions they take and their response to the consequences. In this respect, the pivotal epistemological issue for me is not individual vs. collective, since as a good Hegelian I see the two poles as complementary, but rather agent- vs. object-centeredness. My social epistemology is much more concerned with the constitution of epistemic agents than the constitution of epistemic objects, which I believe are ultimately just the (social) construction of the agents.

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4 replies

  1. When I read “knowing knowledge,” I immediately wonder whether or not the writer has reified the knowing process by calling it “knowledge.” We socially construct “objects” whenever we agree upon a topic of conversation, or, as is often the case in philosophy, whenever label something about which we agree to argue. What I want to argue about is the ontological status of that socially constructed object labeled “knowledge.”

    I want to maintain the distinction between a written text and the meanings attributed to it by the writer and its various readers. The marks on paper — or on a screen — are outside the skins of writer and readers, but the meanings they attribute to those shared, skin-out phenomena are all skin-in, covert, private. My experience is that there are some people who say that this distinction is so obvious that it is pedantic even to call attention to it, and that there are others, especially in the Durkheimian tradition, who insist that at least some of the readers “share” meanings, and that some even “share” the meaning intended by the writer, and thus have a true understanding of the text.

    Dick Moodey

  2. Adam: “ The Great War had literally mechanized man, transformed him into a mechanism of no more individual value than a bullet or an artillery round, and men were used and discarded in the same way.”

    I don’t know what to do with this kind of claim. In spite of the “literally,” Adam says nothing that I am able to take literally. The “Great War” is the grammatical subject and the metaphorical agent. “Man” is the grammatical object and the metaphorical product of the “Great War.” There was no “big man” that was transformed into a mechanism, and there will milliions of people during and after the war who valued human beings much more than a bullet or an artillery round. The last phrase in the sentence, however, does point to a horrible reality, but the force of it is lost by Adam’s use of the passive voice – “men were used and discarded.” I contend that the political and military leaders were the ones who used and discarded men as if they were of no more value that a bullet or an artillery round.

    Steve: “The First World War is comparable to the French Revolution and the falls of Athens and Rome as world-historic spurs to the philosophical imagination.“

    Where is “the philosophical imagination” located. Is it in the “brain” of the “man” that was mechanized by the Great War? I deny that there is any such thing as a collective philosophical imagination. I contend that imagination is something that only individual persons, with real brains, can have. To write of “the philosophical imagination” is to imply the reality of a “group mind.”

  3. Steve: “In this respect, the pivotal epistemological issue for me is not individual vs. collective, since as a good Hegelian I see the two poles as complementary, but rather agent- vs. object-centeredness. My social epistemology is much more concerned with the constitution of epistemic agents than the constitution of epistemic objects, which I believe are ultimately just the (social) construction of the agents.”

    Dick: Although I am not a good Hegelian, I see “agent vs. object” as two poles that are every bit as complementary as “individual vs. collective.” I’m not sure that Steve would disagree with that. It might be that Steve would disagree with my distinction between two aspects of epistemic objects. One aspect is socially constructed, but the other aspect is the “brute fact” aspect of epistemic objects. The lion that notices me is a brute fact that might eat me, even though my perception of, judgments about, and decisions in the presence of that lion have been socially constructed. There are real aspects of the lion that limit the variability of my social constructions.

    I also wonder to what extent Steve attributes different meanings to the “subject-object” polarity and to the “agent-object” polarity. My guess is that he wants to emphasize overt actions of persons, rather than their covert acts of knowing.

  4. I second Adam’s statement that the introduction to Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History is a somewhat dizzying summary of a great deal of history. I had never before thought about how deeply the notion of being created in the image and likeness of God has remained in the background of so many diverse philosophers and schools of thought.

    Steve uses constructed types — multidimensional categories — creatively. He says, for example, that “social epistemology may be regarded in one of three ways: (1) as a branch of epistemology; (2) as a branch of sociology; or (3) a field that transcends the difference between (1) and (2).” The products of his regarding social epistemology in these three ways are brief sketches of constructed types. These can be regarded as ideal types, in the sense intended by Max Weber. They are not descriptions of any particular person, but models that empirical cases more or less approximate. In his description of the central models for radial categories, however, George Lakoff points out that the ideal type is just one of the several kinds that are possible: the anti-ideal, the salient exemplar, the typical case, etc. (Moral Politics, pp.9-11). From this perspective, I would say that for Steve, both (1) and (2) are anti-ideal types, and (3) is his ideal type, for that is the one about which he says that it “serves as a regulative ideal for my own social epistemology” (p. 6).

    Steve give his readers a table (Table 1, p. 6) that contrasts (1) and (2) on six dimensions:
    1. social organization of knowledge
    2. symbol of social epistemology
    3. knowledge as a principle of social order
    4. division of labor
    5. discovery vis-a-vis justification
    6. knowledge vis-a-vis power

    Salient exemplars for (1) are Descartes, Hume, and Popper; for (2) are Durkheim, Plato and Comte. Steve Fuller himself is the salient exemplar for (3). It seems to me, although I am willing to be corrected on this point, that (1) corresponds to what Steve criticizes as “analytic social epistemology,” and that (3) corresponds to his “political social epistemology.” This leaves (2) as a necessary corrective to (1), but, by itself, inadequate. It is an aid to the construction of a type that “transcends the difference between (1) and (2).”

    In Table 2 (p. 15), Steve contrasts agent-oriented social epistemology with object-oriented social epistemology on seven dimensions:
    1. nature of knowledge
    2. underlying metaphysics
    3. status of humans
    4. structure of mind
    5. Christian precedent
    6. locus of academic authority
    7. temporal authority

    These also are constructed types — multidimensional categories. I judge “agent-oriented social epistemology” to be Steve’s “ideal type,” since he says (p. 14) that this is where his sympathies lie.

    The book is organized into discussions of various ways of regarding social epistemology, and, again, I characterize the products of Steve’s regarding social epistemology in these different ways as the construction of different types. The are epistemology as (the numbers refer to the numbered chapters):
    1. cognitive economics
    2. divine psychology
    3. psychology of science
    4. epistemology of science
    5. sociology of science
    6. counterfactual historiography

    By calling attention to Steve’s use of constructed types as a major conceptual tool for organizing his book, I do not mean to imply that I think this is bad. On the contrary, I consider constructed types to be useful and necessary. There are two great dangers in their use, however. The first is that they can be mistaken for actors, or agents. They are, rather, categories into which agents can be put, and it is always important to avoid the reification of types. The second danger, that of stereotyping, is related to, but different from, the first. The person who stereotypes might be clear about the distinction between the category and the member of the category, but mistakenly, and rigidly, attributes all of the defining characteristics of the category to all of the members (perhaps with a few noteworthy exceptions). By calling attention to these dangers, I do not mean to imply that Steve commits either of these fallacies. I believe him to be too careful a thinker to commit these fallacies, although anyone can experience an occassional lapse.

    Dick Moodey

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