Christmas Message 2015: Talking the Talk and Walking the Walk, Steve Fuller

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick,


Editor’s Note: Beginning in 2012, I asked Steve Fuller to provide a Christmas greeting—or, end-of-year reflection of sorts (see 2012, 2013 and 2014). In this tradition, and at this time of resolutions, Steve challenges us to examine our intellectual commitments and resulting actions. For 2016, Steve urges us to consider how we follow the principles (walking the walk) that we express with such philosophical sophistication (talking the talk). In the days and year ahead, we hope the opportunity arises for you both to enact and share your intellectual convictions with the SERRC. Thank you for your extraordinary support over the last four years. We realize the future together.


Image credit: Jim Collier

The journal Social Epistemology was originally edited at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where I held my first academic post. It was also where I wrote the book by that name. One thing that was already clear back then, in the late 1980s, was that social epistemology is something to do rather than simply talk about. My first editorial assistant, Stephen Downes, made this point explicit one day, when we were trying to figure out why—even back then—analytic philosophers who claim to practice something called ‘social epistemology’ seemed to be so clueless. 

The ‘doing’ of social epistemology in those days was mainly about promoting interdisciplinary dialogue on the pages of the journal and in my own writing. As a rule of thumb, for any philosophical issue, someone other than a professional philosopher probably offers the best guiding intuitions. Only once those intuitions have been worked out, can philosophers bring something distinctive—albeit typically subtle—to the table. At least this is how I explain to myself why as someone who spent much of his adolescence reading philosophy decided to delay formal study in the subject until graduate school. It became clear to me very early that everyone philosophically interesting from Hegel to Russell came into the field from somewhere else. As a result, I took the lightest major Columbia offered, History and Sociology, which allowed me to sample across most of the disciplines.

However, it is worth stressing that although philosophy comes after some other disciplinary work, what it does is not a matter of ‘underlabouring’ (Locke’s word for his relationship to Newton). Rather, it is something closer to a Gestalt switch, which after all involves no more than taking the same parts and rearranging them into a new whole. While it’s customary to treat with suspicion the idea that philosophy is about ‘world-views’, in fact this is not so far from the idea of philosopher as Gestalt switcher. Continental philosophy at its best does this. And at its best—pace Alan Sokal—continental philosophers are improvising on generally agreed histories of the sciences, be it linguistics (Derrida), psychiatry (Foucault) or cybernetics (Deleuze).

This last point relates to why analytic philosophers never get beyond talking the talk to walking the walk. An interesting difference between analytic and continental philosophy is the role that criticism plays within each. Both schools of philosophy are quite disputatious, but analytic philosophers dispute from the get-go.

Had Jacques Derrida been an analytic philosopher, he wouldn’t have presented his central claims in a large book called On Grammatology, which purported to turn the ontological priority of speech and writing on its head by re-reading Rousseau, Levi-Strauss, etc. Rather, Derrida would have written a short article arguing for the possibility of doing such a thing—and then would be promptly torn to shreds by colleagues who claim that the task is impossible, based on false premises, fraught with unintended consequences, etc. The function of the criticism would be to discourage further action—at least until these issues have been dealt with satisfactorily. And anyone familiar with how analytic philosophy works will know that this day will never come—though in the process some people may make careers as ‘masters of the telling counterexample’.

In contrast, disputes in continental philosophy are more the outcome than the source of professional reputations. The disputants are typically people with substantial works behind them, who are for some reason or other thrown together in conflict—sometimes by a third party, such as a publisher or a ‘real world’ event. What typically happens here is that both parties are forced to redefine themselves in the face of what amounts to systems-level opposition. In other words, they need to become philosophical about their own philosophy, a Gestalt switch of sorts, which can have lingering effects on how readers subsequently think about them. Whatever else one may wish to say about continental philosophers, they act like philosophers—they don’t simply talk about how one might do philosophy, which is the impression conveyed by the more analytic mode of criticism.

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been here before—in the history of science. The High Middle Ages was full of sophisticated and often prescient disputation about the constitution of physical reality. However, these were arguments pitched at the level of pure possibility, which were rarely developed in the relevant detail—especially with empirical support—before they were criticised. The resulting positions were often better explained by the particular criticisms they had faced than any correspondence to physical reality itself. This is not to deny that useful ideas were generated were along the way, which were harvested—and, crucially, developed without continuous exposure—by the protagonists of the Scientific Revolution. Indeed, when historians speak of the ‘hermetic’ character of the Scientific Revolutionaries, they partly mean the extent to which their writings travelled under the radar of constant scholastic scrutiny.

So far I’ve been discussing those who talk the talk but fail to walk the walk. But there is a reverse version of the same problem: namely, those who abandon walking for talking. This phenomenon is perhaps harder to detect, but it happens when people stop believing in their own words and hence dissociate themselves from their consequences. It’s the ‘I didn’t really mean that’ moment. You can see the moment coming when someone starts to claim they’re speaking in a ‘metaphorical’ rather than a ‘literal’ mode, implying that they should be absolved of whatever follows from what they say. Science and Technology Studies (STS) is an object lesson in this kind of behaviour, whereby authors sound quite radical on the page but then retreat into some dubious semiosis once in the face of some pushback.

Last year’s Christmas message made reference to Bruno Latour’s hasty retreat on the pages of Critical Inquiry in 2004 over the pushback that social constructivism had received from scientists marching in Alan Sokal’s volunteer army. This year, to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’ (PDF), I pause on Donna Haraway, who has with increasing vehemence claimed that she meant ‘cyborg’ simply as a metaphor for the hybrid status of women in today’s ontology, something which could be strategically used to feminist advantage if women embraced the scientific and technological horizons behind the image of the cyborg.

Nevertheless, Haraway would not be figure she is today had her readers limited her insights to internecine feminist struggles. Yet, as Veronika Lipinska and I have argued in our chapter in The Future of Social Epistemology, Haraway has proven hostile to appropriations of her work by transhumanists and, more recently, transgender advocates. Moreover, like Latour, Haraway feigns an air of surprise and befuddlement at the (mis)appropriation. At one level, her response is in line with the world-historic cluelessness of Thomas Kuhn, except that from the very start Kuhn dissuaded his fans from any radical interpretations (though he himself simply kept silent on the events of the day). He didn’t simply wait for unpalatable consequences to kick in.

I have always believed that if one talks the talk, one should walk the walk. Any position or principle worth following is bound to have both substantial positive and negative consequences. It matters less whether you can anticipate all of the consequences than whether you can deal with both sets of them as part of a common normative budget. Many bad consequences may be ‘owned’ as affordable losses or means to a higher end, if value of the position or principle is indeed sufficiently high. To be sure, this is easier said than done. Nevertheless, it informed my involvement in the landmark US court case over intelligent design, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, which marked its tenth anniversary this year. As I reflect here, I continue to see my service as an expert witness for the defence as taking literally what I know to be true about the history, philosophy and sociology of science.

Merry Christmas and Happy 2016!

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2 replies

  1. As I have already mentioned to you, Haraway was the phd supervisor for Allucquere Rosanne “Sandy” Stone. Sandy Stone wrote what is now regarded to be the founding text of transfeminism and transgender studies “The Empire Strikes Back: A Post-Transsexual Manifesto”. That fact alone testifies against the likelihood that your claim about Haraway is correct. I have not encountered a single transgender person who would validate your claim that Haraway has recently come out as “hostile” to transgender advocates? Who are these transgender advocates that you speak of, anyway? If you claim about Haraway is largely along the same lines as the one you and Lipinska make in the draft chapter that you sent to me to examine, then the collective should know that the “hostility” you charge Haraway is drawn for the most part from implications that you and Lipinska draw from the text rather than any explicit statements of transphobia. The charge that you lay against Haraway is highly dependent on specific “gnostic” interpretation of transgender subjectivity that serves the transhumanist agenda you and Lipinska are trying to push. There is little evidence that you have consulted with any key texts in transgender studies. “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage” by Susan Stryker might be a good start.

    Your position on this is highly appropriative. You and Lipinska are both cisgender people (as far as I know?) trying to capitalize on transgender subjectivity while erasing the complexity and diversity of transgender narratives. Moreover, the “Cartesian” setup you use to oppose Haraway and transgender embodiment is one that in recent history has been used by second wave radical feminist to vilify transgender subjectivity. As a result, I would be surprised if you could make a solid case that such a Cartesian self-understanding reflects the majority of currently working trans academics and researchers who study and advocate for the authenticity of transgender embodiment.

    I sent you a list of resources and you ignored my email. By all means, go ahead and publish this, it’s your life. But you might want to google “cultural appropriation” some time. Walk the talk, and talk the walk? Not your walk to talk, mate. Contact me if you want me to connect you to a young social theorist who works on transgender issues, but don’t be surprised if she refuses to tow the line you more than likely want her to push. Merry xmas.

  2. Thanks for this. You’re right, Lipinska and I have a transhumanist take on transgender, and we’re influenced by Martine Rothblatt in this regard. However, the transhumanism is leading our argument, not the transgender. And whatever version of transgender identity Haraway may accept, it’s not one that is easily reconciled with the transhumanism that many of her ‘cyborg’ fans think she supports. We recognize — and yes, you did point this out to me — that the grounds for legitimizing transgender identity is fraught with hazards. However, because we come at it from transhumanism, we’ll just have to admit to the charge of having a ‘Cartesian’ view of the matter. But we stand by the interpretation of Haraway.

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