Why so Romantic and A Priori? A Reply to Bakhurst and Sismondo, Ilya Kasavin

SERRC —  May 10, 2017 — Leave a comment

Author Information: Ilya Kasavin, Russian Academy of Science, itkasavin@gmail.com

Kasavin, Ilya. “Why so Romantic and A Priori? A Reply to Bakhurst and Sismondo.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 20-22.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3zC

Please refer to:

Image credit: Yakub Annanurov

It is my pleasure and privilege to respond to the critical comments on my paper provided by David Bakhurst and Sergio Sismondo (2017). These comments represent a clever combination of significant knowledge of both STS and Russian philosophy—a rare occurrence. Bakhurst and Sismondo help me realize that my style of discourse relies, perhaps, too much on tacit knowledge and shared opinions that should be articulated in order to serve if not as an additional argument then, at least, as an apology.

Toward a New Agenda

I am aware that the idea of searching for a new agenda in the philosophy of science and STS, which appeals to the Russian tradition (even putting aside Russian religious philosophy as I do), is an ambitious task and might look too brave. Yet, mainstream philosophy does pursue such ambitious agendas—one might consider John Stuart Mill, the Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Willard Quine, Thomas Kuhn—and well-elaborated concepts interpreted, reinterpreted, and developed by contemporary scholars. French historical epistemology and German Neo-Kantianism are much less popular. Surprisingly, the same is true in the case of William Whewell who launched the program of historically-oriented philosophy of science over one hundred years before Kuhn. Still, Whewell remains largely forgotten in the shadow of Mill, his liberal rival.

A similar lack of attention to the Russian tradition in the philosophy of science also makes it difficult to provide clear guidelines for extracting a kind of unified picture of science, or knowledge, out of the works of Russian thinkers. Hence, my efforts to compose a more or less unified pool of Russian scholars for my purpose might look implausible. And this moves Bakhurst and Sismondo to assert that “Russian cosmism, for example, is a million miles from Ilyenkov’s Marxism” (21). My counter-argument for this case is as follows. Pantheism builds the common historical roots for Russian cosmism as well as for Hegel who inspired the version of Marxism elaborated by Ilyenkov. This is a crucial point for the “objective ideal forms” (Ilyenkov) and “noosphere” (Vernadsky) that seem to be very close to one another. Also, cosmism and Marxism might be portrayed by someone like Popper, from the perspective of his gradual social engineering, for their faith in long-term social forecasting, which serves a basis of every global project. It would be naïve to justify a theoretical unity of Russian philosophical tradition using a thorough historical/philosophical analysis. Still, the Russian thinkers I mention share a holistic view of human knowledge that might be well dubbed “integral knowledge”.

Bakhurst and Sismondo are quite right pointing out the origin of “integral knowledge” concept in Ivan Kireevsky’s works. Nevertheless, I appeal to this concept in the later interpretations by Shpet—where it is released from any religious meaning. Following this interpretation, I propose an expanded concept of knowledge and the corresponding expansion of epistemological subject matter. According to the latter, every conscious phenomenon (perceptions, notions, beliefs, values, norms, ideals etc.) and, moreover, every cultural and social artifact have epistemic content. This notion leads beyond the limits of classical epistemology which continues to define knowledge as justified true belief (in spite of Gettier problems). I am sure that one needs an expanded concept of knowledge to deal with global projects (large technosocial units) within STS. Thus, appealing to “integral knowledge” is a normative rather than a descriptive stance; it is primarily a requirement of the current development within the “social philosophy of science” than an extraction from the history of (Russian or whatever) thought.

On Case Studies

I share the critical evaluation of what Bakhurst and Sismondo call “whiggish accounts” (21) of science (the “armchair image” of science also applies), which is typical in some aspects of analytical epistemology. The best representatives of Russian philosophical tradition were proponents of a historical/sociological vision of science and also dealt with case studies (Boris Hessen). So, I have no doubt in case studies as a significant means of philosophy of science seeking an empirical foundation. Moreover, there should be no bias between philosophy, on the one side, and history and sociology of science, on the other side; such a boundary looks obsolete. Nevertheless, many case studies (perhaps it is better to call them “empirical studies”) have very little theoretical/philosophical outcome, or their outcome is trivial. (I won’t mention here any names in order to avoid an unnecessary quarrel.) And I am sure these cases can stimulate a vivid interdisciplinary interaction, especially if philosophers get involved in their interpretation. Still, there are brilliant examples of a different kind, case studies that provide real theoretical progress and serve as the gold standard for STS research (works by Harry Collins, Steven Shapin, Karin Knorr-Cetina and Peter Galison among others) that justifies the constructivist and anti-cumulativist view of science. Perhaps the expanding community of STS empirical researchers should be more alive in practice to case studies that follow such standards.

As to my Karakum Canal research, which I did exactly as a standard case-study, there was no place in the general article in Social Epistemology for the detailed historical and sociological evidence. I might refer here only to my paper[1], where one finds some more empirical evidence based on rare Russian sources in the Karakum Canal history and in-depth interviews with specialists in hydrogeology and hydraulic engineering. Actually, such a huge artifact like Karakum Canal altogether can hardly be a subject matter of a case study, though most of my empirical evidence deals only with the first four years of its history. Moreover, Bakhurst and Sismondo might be correct in pointing out certain “romantic” and “a priori” elements in my attitude. These elements will be more understandable in terms of the current discussions between Russian economists, who contrast a social-engineering approach (Alexej Kudrin who supports financiers following Georgii Schedrovitsky’s ideas) with a global project approach (Ruslan Grinberg who acts in favor of “industrialists”) in search for a state strategy for economic growth. In this framework, the Karakum Canal history acquires a more normative, than descriptive, meaning in the Russian context going beyond STS towards the social philosophy of science and technology. But this is the other side of the coin.


Bakhurst, David and Sergio Sismondo. “Commentary on Ilya Kasavin’s ‘Towards a Social Philosophy of Science: Russian Prospects’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 4 (2017): 20-23.

Kasavin, Ilya. “Towards a Social Philosophy of Science: Russian Prospects.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 1 (2017): 1-15.

Kasavin, Ilya. “Mega-Projects and Global Projects: Science Between Utopia and Technocracy.” Voprosy filosofii 9, (2015): 40-56 (in Russian).

[1] “Mega-Projects and Global Projects: Science Between Utopia and Technocracy.” Voprosy filosofii 9, (2015): 40-56 (in Russian).

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