Knowing Knowledge Part VI: Threats to Public Knowledge, Adam Riggio and Steve Fuller

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


Editor’s Note:

Adam Riggio

Before I start my critical points regarding Chapter Five in Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History, I want to say how much I appreciate the opportunity for this dialogue. The institutional structure of research universities tends to prevent prestigious research chairs from engaging in one-on-one debate with unaffiliated scholar/writers like me. Especially since I can become highly and fundamentally critical of some of your perspectives and priorities. 

I haven’t really taken part in such an open dialogue that crosses institutional hierarchies so radically since my undergraduate years. It’s a weird thing to say, I know. I discovered just how unusual my own undergrad was when I started visiting other universities during my graduate school years.

bradley Memorial University’s Philosophy Department has had, since 1989, a discussion group called Jockey Club. We’d meet every week to discuss an article that one member of the department community brought to the group that week. Once the discussion started, everyone could talk person to person—professors of all ranks at the same table with graduate students, at the same table with undergrads, at the same table with friends who weren’t professionally affiliated with the department.

However, when I look at the university sector as a whole, I see increasing social stratification and an institution-wide shift in priorities away from how you describe universities as working in this chapter. You discuss how universities are the place where knowledge is distributed to a popular audience, the students who gather there from throughout all sectors and classes of society for their education.

Your book ignores what I take to be the most dangerous threat the modern university system has ever faced, one that’s not only explicitly attacking the enlightened model of universal education you describe, but is also winning. Last week, I just discovered that your own institutional home, University of Warwick, is experimenting with outsourcing its academic labour.

The priority of the modern university is becoming profit-seeking and revenue-generating instead of enlightening the public. Its priorities, designed as it was along the Prussian model of combining intensive disciplinary research with undergraduate instruction, have only rarely been about public enlightenment anyway.

For most of the history of the modern university, it has been an elite institution. Participation was usually restricted based on social class (apart from a few outlying individuals). Beyond this, the leadership of many of the most prestigious American universities instituted anti-Semitic admissions policies, and openly courted the Nazi German government right up to 1942.

Universities were genuinely democratic places of public enlightenment, as you describe their essential mission, from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. Mass accessibility began with the mass enrolment and expansion of the sector in the United States through the GI Bill. Only a generation later, a critical mass of students were taking advantage of that democratic space to make revolutionary challenges to the status quo.

These challenges were crushed by military force, as in the violent crackdowns on anti-war demonstrators at Kent University in 1970 and of peace/environmental activists at People’s Park in 1969. The military invasion of University of California’s Berkeley campus was ordered by that beacon of modern enlightenment, Ronald Reagan.

flower_power Today, neoliberal management policies have eroded the institutional ability of universities to create places of genuine free speech: students are too crushed by debt to bear the risks of large-scale political activism, and most professors are chronically underemployed or casually employed, so lack the income security and academic freedom to do their own activism. Professors in a more secure position can easily become isolated from the everyday concerns of those outside their professional circles, and can easily drift away from the material concerns of those around them who aren’t so lucky.

Your account of the career of Barry Commoner as someone who combined knowledge production in the university sector with a career of world-changing activism is inspiring, but I fear it is obsolete. Humanity faces new threats to our knowledge and our survival, which requires creative thinking and action to forge new solutions.

As I read Knowledge and think through its ideas, I’m increasingly uncertain that your vision of a newly reunified science is a workable new solution for the current era. I’ll touch on this more directly as we discuss the conclusion of the book, but I ultimately wonder if your opposition to the conclusion of post-modernism, that the Emperor Science has no clothes, throws out what was productive about this critique along with the problems it created.

Here’s how I understand your account of the post-modernist critique of the mainstream way of telling the history of science. The mainstream (or Whig, or Orwellian, or Kuhnian) tells a single narrative of science’s history, every detail of which justifies the current state of the discipline. This isn’t necessarily how every scientist understands her discipline’s history, but it’s how popular culture understands science’s history.

The post-modernist critique of the history of science is to reveal the Whig’s lie. There was always a pile of divergent models of investigation and frameworks of global understanding, each with different strengths and weaknesses. The contingent circumstances of human history has resulted in the dominance of the paradigms that constitute the current mainstream.

newton Not only has science contained multitudes of ways that it could have gone, but this conceptual diversity continues today. The categories are different; alchemy, for example, is no longer taken seriously in the circles of professional researchers and intellectuals, as it was when Gottfried Leibniz was inventing calculus. But there are still irreconcilable disciplinary differences: a qualitative sociologist works with different guiding concepts than a geneticist, different again from an ecologist, and different again from a quantum physicist.

There isn’t only one science, as a unified and consistent framework paradigm to understand the world, and there never was. Likewise, there isn’t only one history of science, but ten thousand histories depending on where your focus lies throughout humanity’s past and what modern paradigm whose genesis you want to explore.

So with all this conceptual divergence in science, I don’t think your conception of philosophy as meta-scientific knowledge is quite going to work. This chapter, in part, describes philosophy as the discipline that understands the core concepts of different scientific disciplines, maps them relative to each other, and explains their significance. It sets up a rivalry, or at least a hierarchy, between philosophy and science that, while not the same as Kuhn’s philosophical abbey shepherding the scientists who dwell in ignorance of their knowledge’s true nature, at least parallels it.

I conceive of philosophy, as a practice, as the creation of concepts. Scientists can therefore do philosophy as well, as Leibniz did when he was developing differential calculus and the corollary concepts of dynamism, as well as Descartes when he was developing coordinate algebra and the accompanying concepts of space. Tim Maudlin’s work traces how quantum physics research has created new concepts of causality that are completely foreign to the armchair-bound discipline of philosophical ontology.

So meta-scientific philosophical knowledge can include the mapping of divergent concepts and histories, as you describe, but more importantly understanding innovative scientific concepts in dialogue with the practitioners of science themselves. As creators of concepts, innovative scientists would be philosophers as well.

❧ ❧ ❧

Steve Fuller

What perhaps most distinguishes my version of social epistemology from both the analytic version and science and technology studies more generally is my sustained focus on the university as a site for the production and distribution of knowledge. In fact, in the near future I plan to write (another) Machiavelli-inspired text, called The Academic Caesar, [1]which is about the Realpolitik issues facing the academic who enters a university leadership position.

fuller I am concerned with many of the same issues as you are, but I suppose I would prioritize them somewhat differently. I believe that what is primarily at risk from neo-liberalism is, to put it bluntly, the brand value of ‘university’. The end of the Cold War also brought an end to guaranteed public support for universities.

They have responded largely by embracing the ‘knowledge society’ ideal, which amounts to trying to be all things to all people to compete more effectively in a wider range of markets. The most serious casualty has been the Humboldtian unity of teaching and research, which is now subject to a division of labour, both sides of which are increasingly placed on short-term contracts. [2]

However, the quick gain of this strategy has been that universities—or perhaps the things called ‘universities’—have expanded massively, resulting in an unprecedented upswing in the number of students, teachers, researchers, resources—you name it.

But this growth very much has the character of a business cycle bubble, and so one might reasonably expect it to burst at some point. Indeed, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel would like to see it happen sooner than later, and hence has created a fellowship programme to lure young aspiring entrepreneurs from attending university in order to apply their intelligence to projects that won’t require so much red tape—such as passing exams—to be realized. You may frown at this policy but even without Thiel’s largesse, clever people like yourself are abandoning academia for careers where you can apply your skills and interests with more direct feedback and, quite possibly, satisfaction.

In short, if the logic of capital manages to shake down an overinflated academic establishment, is that so bad—especially if those thrown from it end up raising the intellectual level of civil society, while at the same time making decent money? [3] While I believe that we need to attend to the short-term concerns of the academic ‘precariat,’ progressive thinkers need to resist the temptation of adopting a Detroit-style mentality that sees the indefinite extension of employment as an end in itself.

After all, the perquisite of tenure was supposed to be existential protection from the worst consequences of making your ‘findings’ public: You may be reviled and despised but you will not be fired. This principle was enshrined in German academia at a time when a generalized right to free expression was not in place. In other words, the presumption was that you had to demonstrate your worthiness for the sort of freedom afforded to you by tenure.

toronto_strike To be honest, the generalized right to free expression, while important for other reasons, has tended to obscure the original point of academic tenure, which was basically to confer a guild right. This is why I strongly endorse performance reviews for tenured academics to see if they are pushing the frontiers of knowledge in ways that their unprotected colleagues are loath to do. I am also quite liberal with regard to how one might demonstrate this pushing of frontiers (i.e. peer reviewed publications need not be the gold standard).

Perhaps this is not how performance reviews are currently used in academia but this is where I stand, and I would be happy to see time-servers lose tenure or be forced to reapply for it. And as for the precariat, my view is that they should show commitment to the Humboldtian ideal, which importantly includes a commitment to the promotion of the university as a distinct institution.

In other words, I believe it should be possible for people relatively low on research but strong on teaching and administrative competence to acquire tenure. To be honest, I am less concerned about the outsourcing of teachers than the outsourcing of top administrative posts—mainly because the quality controls on the latter are so weak and yet the stakes are so huge.

Concerning my interest in the ultimate unity of knowledge: First of all, let me say that I generally believe that the best route to philosophy is from outside philosophy. I base this on both historical evidence and on my own experience. Even though I always found philosophy a comfortable home for my interests, I believed—even as an undergraduate—that it is a mistake to start there.

Here I was influenced by both the trajectory of the great 19th century thinkers and the example set by my fellow students who majored in philosophy and quickly became obsessed by Donald Davidson’s account of truth.[4] The question, then, is what is the ‘value added’ by addressing philosophy directly.

What I definitely don’t believe—and which your position veers towards—is the idea that philosophy embellishes, and perhaps entrenches, one’s pre-philosophical existence. To be sure, metaphysics has often played this role, especially in the modern era where it has been a source of ‘world-views’ in the absence of any explicit normative guidance by a secular state.

weber_in_pencil To be sure, this trajectory has by no means been entirely bad. Widespread intuitions about social justice, filtered through Neo-Hegelian metaphysics, helped to turn the redistributive welfare state into a political ideal in early 20th century Britain. But this was a process that was quite explicitly shepherded along, first by the left-leaning elements of the Liberal Party, which in turn resulted in the creation of the Labour Party.

This is a historical example of a larger process—namely, that philosophy-driven unification requires a repeated willingness to juxtapose ultimate ideals and empirical challenges. At the least in principle, this dialectic issues in a ‘win-win’ situation in which the ideological depth of the party grows as it improves the lives of a broader swathe of the electorate. For this reason, Max Weber made a big deal about the emergence of ‘parties’ as social formations defined by ideological coherence, rather than, say, your parents or your job.

Marxism in the 20th century is clearly the philosophy that understood this point best of all, and its history remains a rich object lesson of how things can go both very right and very wrong. But here one should not neglect the modern refashioning of the Roman Catholic Church as ‘Neo-Thomism’ as aspiring to a similar role. Alasdair MacIntyre is perhaps the main secular philosopher to be clued up here.

And last but not least, we should not neglect the very ambitious ‘unified science’ programme of the logical positivists, who had global linguistic governance in their sights as the platform for the most efficient production and distribution of knowledge that the world had ever seen.

You might say that all these unificationist schemes are in principle doomed to failure, but I’m not so sure—especially given the new capacities and attitudes that have been unleashed by our digital age. In any case, if we were take an anarchist view of the matter, in which everyone appropriates philosophy to their needs and interests, then my guess is that the conceptual difference between chaos and order would ultimately disappear.​

[1] The word ‘Caesar’ is deliberate because it originally carried the connotation of primus inter pares—‘first among equals’.

[2] I was already talking about this more than a dozen years ago in Knowledge Management Foundations.

[3] This is what I believe you will end up doing.

[4] Don’t ask.

Categories: Comments, Interviews

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1 reply

  1. Adam: “Not only has science contained multitudes of ways that it could have gone, but this conceptual diversity continues today.”
    Dick: I agree.
    Adam: “a qualitative sociologist works with different guiding concepts than a geneticist, different again from an ecologist, and different again from a quantum physicist.”
    Dick: Each of these types has a a degree of conceptual diversity that mirrors that conceptual diversity you attribute to science.” To deny this is to stereotype the folks you categorize.
    Adam: “So with all this conceptual divergence in science, I don’t think your conception of philosophy as meta-scientific knowledge is quite going to work.”
    Dick: I agree that Steve’s “conception” is not going to work, by itself, but I think that Steve probably can continue to do good work by using this conception as a heuristic tool.
    Adam: “I conceive of philosophy, as a practice, as the creation of concepts.”
    Dick: This conception is not going to work, by itself, but I think that you probably can continue to do good work by using this conception as a heuristic tool.

    I believe that there are as many ways to go in philosophy as there are in science, and the diversity of paths holds for each of the disciplines and sub-disciplines. I am not, however, simply saying “Let a thousand flowers bloom.” I am willing to listen to someone who does say this, however.

    Adam: “As creators of concepts, innovative scientists would be philosophers as well.”
    Dick: And vice-versa?

    Steve: “What perhaps most distinguishes my version of social epistemology from both the analytic version and science and technology studies more generally is my sustained focus on the university as a site for the production and distribution of knowledge.”
    Dick: So, are you making a lack of sustained focus on the university as a site for the production and distribution of knowledge a DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC of your categories: “analytic social epistemology” and “science and technology studies?” Or, are you asserting a probability, something to the effect of saying that a practitioner of either analytic social epistemology or science and technology studies is less likely that you are to focus, in a sustained manner, on the university as a site for the production and distribution of knowledge? If you treat this as a defining characteristic of your two categories, then you are stereotyping whenever you attribute the whole set of defining characteristics of your categories to the the individual persons you put into those categories. If, on the other hand, you are asserting relative probabilities, I would be more inclined to agree with what you say if you were to use the language of probability and relative frequency. These would be assertions that it would be possible to verify or falsify by empirical research, if anyone would take your assertions seriously enough to design and carry it out.

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