Author Information: Jim Collier, Virginia Tech, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Collier, James H. “Social Epistemology for the One and the Many: An Essay Review.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 15-40.
Jim Collier’s article “Social Epistemology for the One and the Many” will be published in four parts. The pdf of the article includes all four parts as a single essay, and gives specific page references. Shortlinks:
Part One, Social Epistemology as Fullerism: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3ZY
Part Two, Impoverishing Critical Engagement: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-402
Second, Remedios and Dusek depict the epistemic agent as a social actor by staging roles and casting Fuller in them—“knower of the future” (3), public intellectual (5), intellectual provocateur (121), or designated, or aspiring, super-agent (131-132). Social epistemology inhabits a tediously didactic world in which social intercourse imparts triumphal object lessons owing to Fuller’s academic charisma.
Knowledge as Flux
Knowing Humanity in the Social World poses a central question: “What kind of being should the knower be” (3)? An initial answer: The knower should be an epistemic agent who practices agent-oriented epistemology. An epistemic agent, Remedios and Dusek tell us, occupies (or potentially occupies) numerous positions, contingent upon shifting “boundary conditions” (4). Shifting boundaries regarding race, religion, or technology, for example, demand that we continually reconsider what being human means.
Nevertheless, being human always entails being an epistemic agent. To show an epistemic agent “making knowledge to act in the world” (31), Remedios and Dusek choreograph social intercourse as action tied to particular roles. Take, for example, the role of “intellectual provocateur” (121), which runs throughout the book. Steve Fuller, who prominently plays the role, proactively assumes great risk by intervening against the scourge of consensus belief. The intellectual provocateur thus demonstrates his superiority to the “passive” agent in the “‘passivist tradition [which] includes Malthus, Spencer and Darwin’” (70).
I will show that Remedios and Dusek regard Fuller as an academic charismatic. William Clark’s (2007) thesis of academic charisma posits that “a group of people ascribe certain extraordinary abilities or power to a person. That person has charisma in relation to the ascribing group, whose members become active or passive disciples or followers or fans” (15).
Academic charisma, as Clark indicates, reproduces an institutional rationality historically associated with the European research university. I suggest that Remedios and Dusek’s notion of the epistemic agent can be reduced to academic charisma, as embodied by Fuller, thus replicating the institutional logic of the research university. The aspirational epistemic agent ultimately functions within a risk-averse environment normed by self-regulating scholars.
Fuller models epistemic agency by partaking in seemingly edifying social roles and intellectually consistent actions (we are assured). See Fuller testify in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (70-71), and then act as self-appointed guardian and reinventor of intelligent design theory (79). See Fuller oppose “ecological correctness” while defending Nazi science (118). See Fuller embrace post-truth (122). See Fuller invent risk-taking proposals for others to secure our enhanced human future (Chapter 7). See Fuller point out the theological assumptions at work in contemporary science (27) to help re-enchant students’ pursuit of scientific inquiry (5). Fuller carries out these actions on behalf of a futurist agenda. As we will become humanity 2.0, Fuller’s academic charisma authorizes the proper lessons for us to learn as we follow the path of social epistemology.
Remedios and Dusek attempt a philosophical rationale for Fullerism’s vision of the epistemic agent by proposing an “agent-oriented epistemology”:
Focuses on the agent, unifying knowledge in terms of the agent’s worldview and purposes. It rejects or [sic] the division of intellectual labor and total deference to experts, at most critically accepting expert opinion. It has affinities with idealism (bold in the original indicating the term is in the appendix). (141)
A Paradoxical Expert Against Expertise
Knowing Humanity in the Social World reads as a sustained argument for agent-oriented epistemology. Agent-oriented epistemology rejects deference to expertise. The practical, and emphatic, treatment of Fuller as an expert whose even curious pronouncements deserve serious consideration contradicts the book’s argument. To be sure, Remedios and Dusek hedge that agent-oriented epistemology rejects total deference. Even accepting this hedge, the meaning of “total deference” remains unclear and potentially mischievous.
That said—referring to first part of my review—I find Remedios and Dusek’s deference to Fuller complete (if not total). Moreover, Remedios and Dusek call for interlocutors to recognize—and, in so doing, assent to—Fuller’s wisdom based, in part, on his great expertise and mastery of dialectical method.
From the definition of agent-oriented epistemology, the agent sets the terms for how to achieve, and what counts as, unified knowledge given their worldview and purpose. Such appears in keeping with idealism, which they define as “the doctrine that reality is mental” (145). The relation between idealism and agent-oriented epistemology tends to be sketched by gesturing to canonical figures in eighteenth and nineteenth century German and British philosophy.
Additionally, Remedios and Dusek rely on repeated portrayals of agents—“Fuller’s preferred epistemic agent follows proactive rather than reactive or precautionary principles” and “advocate[s] greater risks on the part of scientific researchers and the encouragement of arrangements whereby people can knowingly volunteer as subjects of risky or dangerous experiments” (37)—with little analysis as to the “kind of being” that would advocate such measures.
The reader receives little understanding—beyond the dialectical arrangement of prominent scholars—of the potential stakes in the comparative dispositions of agent- and object- centered epistemology. For example, Remedios and Dusek regularly observe that the “Cartesian knower,” the kind of knower associated with analytical (not Fuller’s) social epistemology, “does not make knowledge” (32-33). Rather, she gains knowledge by deriving, or receiving (e.g., from experts, 38-41), true relations between a statement and an actual state of affairs in the world.
For Remedios and Dusek, being really human in the social world entails doing the things that epistemic agents prefer—now and in the future. Now, the epistemic agent “makes knowledge to act in the world” (2). In the future, scientifically and technologically enhanced humans will, given their godlike predispositions, become godlike. A folk religious psychology, integrated with “cognitive economics” (36), underwrites Fuller’s conception, as depicted by Remedios and Dusek, for human action.
In short, humans “leverage beliefs to action” (31). We hypothesize what will happen in particular circumstances, use our beliefs to maximum advantage, and engage in a process of making (‘constructing’ seems a less preferred term) knowledge “to act in the world” (32). “To act in the world” remains a hopelessly vague designation that Remedios and Dusek try to vitalize, in Chapter 3, through repetition.
Repetition does not answer the raft of questions regarding, for example, the implied status relations among humans, agents, and makers—a status, we are told, that will assuredly change for the better in our enhanced future. Disconcertingly, “object-oriented” (32) epistemic agents appear lesser since they are not makers of knowledge but, rather, takers of knowledge from experts (38).
In addition, such agents neither broker their beliefs (cognitive naïfs perhaps), nor assume the extraordinary risks to achieve the necessary goals on the path to our hardwired purpose to transcend humanity. Lacking a general explanation of what acting in the world entails, Remedios and Dusek resort unironically on the social role-playing of the ur-agent, Steve Fuller.
Remedios and Dusek’s rely heavily on establishing and reiterating Fuller’s own Promethean character and the Promethean character of associated projects (7, 67, 98, 99). In part, what licenses Fuller’s apparently rebellious creativity in unsuccessfully defending Intelligent Design theory and in, among many other acts, “heroically arguing” (5) for humans’ centrality in creation—despite Copernicus and Darwin’s centuries of influence—derives from how one sees the role of public intellectual.
Fuller occupies many normative guises to convey social interaction. The social epistemologist and knowledge policy maker (128), of course, but Fuller also devises roles for many settings and possible worlds—“humans 1.0” and “humans 2.0” (109), deviant (and normal) interdisciplinary agents” (51), techno-Goethes (51), proactionaries (109), academic Caesars (120)—the list goes on as do the changing duties assigned to the roles.
Fuller supplements his dizzying array of original appellations with reconfigurations of more familiar roles—the intellectual (ix), the public intellectual (5), the teacher and the researcher (55). Fuller deserves credit for creative staging. The roles he envisions, and re-envisions, lend themselves to a kind of re-enactment of Peter Abelard’s exploits in which orthodox thinkers (Darwin’s defenders substituting for doctrinaire Christians) get their comeuppance through well-timed or overwhelming intellectual maneuvering.
Our actors can follow Fuller’s example as he “has mastered … both philosophical dialectic and ‘the higher gossip’ with an uncanny ability to find the educational and social roots of thinkers: natural scientists, social scientists, and philosophers to shed light on the roots and motivations of their thought” (11). Such a presentation reminds one of the criticisms of the disingenuousness of certain Socratic dialogues. In a similar way, Fuller represents the master dialectician who reveals not only the errors in their interlocutor’s thinking, but also their true motivations.
Fuller’s various roles as a social agent complicate Remedios and Dusek’s idea of how we enact knowing. Take, for example, Fuller’s role as an intellectual provocateur. Remedios and Dusek tell us:
As an intellectual provocateur, Fuller has taken on Darwinism and defended Intelligent Design (ID). Fuller has taken on Kuhn, upset sociologists and philosophers of science, and defended his version of normative social epistemology. Fuller has taken on science and technology studies (STS) on several issues including post-truth and defended his version of normative social epistemology. (2)
Evidently, we should afford Fuller the prerogatives arising from his role as dissenter in these cases. In the framework detailed in Chapter 1, and carried throughout the book, Remedios and Dusek insist we credit Fuller for “taking on” seeming sacred cows and dominant views. When Fuller questions whether Darwin was a true scientist (71), or forwards a “very original” (69) version of ID, do we occupy the realm of intellectual provocation or silliness (assuredly, the two are not mutually exclusive)? The novitiate epistemic agent begins at a disadvantage when confronting Fuller’s ideas on terms prescribed by Fuller, or if we tilt the meaning a bit, by his epistemic agents.
On occasion, however, Remedios and Dusek locate Fuller in the contested terrain of live debates; the most well-known of these being Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. In the Foreword, Fuller manages our expectations:
Generally speaking, my work tends to be contextualized in terms of already existing debates, where my interventions are often difficult to accommodate and hence easily misunderstood, if not outright dismissed. Remedios and Dusek identify those dialectical contexts well, often introducing figures whose positions are relevantly compared to my own … as well as adjudicate on what counts as fair and unfair criticisms of my positions. (emphasis mine, vi)
Fuller indicates that “already existing debates” (e.g., regarding intelligent design) are not capacious, or conceptually rich, enough to supply the necessary resources to be properly understood (such terminological poverty may also result in being dismissed). Fuller refers to the dialectical contexts of his interventions, and Remedios and Dusek echo and amplify this idea as “endlessly ironical dialectic” (10). Thus, if the stage does not accommodate the designated social role we shift the temporal horizon to the future (134), or to the boundless, while further suggesting our interlocutors may not yet know the full significance of their words or actions.
In contrast, William Lynch (2016) criticizes Fuller’s theodicy as underwriting great misery and suffering in support of an ill-conceived transhumanist future. Lynch’s profound and detailed criticism (even referenced by Fuller in the Foreword) of Fuller’s religiously inspired history commands attention. Remedios and Dusek give the argument two sentences (73) before shifting to a brief discussion of evolutionary selection mechanisms for human abstract reasoning. I mention the lack of attention to Lynch’s work to illustrate the kind of critical shallowness not uncommon in the book.
Stepping Back From Their Greatest Risk
Allow me to mention what I understand as an additional hedge at the moment of critical encounter. Remedios and Dusek, and Fuller, invite the interlocutor to consider fully, or accept, certain commitments (discursive, normative, ontological, metaphysical, and so on) as designated, in part, by a particular social role. Such requests—often implied, misapprehended, and inseparable from specialist discourse—seem in keeping with the spirit of the philosophical principle of charity. But let me offer an example where such commitments can run afoul of differing, completely understandable, interpretations:
Though we support the advantages of Fuller’s notion of epistemic agency … we find fault with some aspects of Fuller’s notion of agency that he attributes to the scientist … We note that Fuller’s notion of “scientist,” which lacks psychological richness and is associated with a thin notion of agency, seems to be incompatible with Tversky’s and Kahneman’s experimental results … which seem to favor a thick notion of agency … Fuller argues that the thick notion of “scientist” excludes the notion of “scientist” as one who is trained to have a “scientific mindset.” (40-41)
The ceaseless kind of terminological calibration illustrated above—the relative thinness or thickness of the agency of “the scientist”—keeps academics employed and, at best, results in tedium. Remedios and Dusek explain less well the role, if any, of the social agent (they do not employ this term). For example, the jockeying above regards the relative agency of the scientist—a plain reference to a professional social group and, so, not to an individual unifying knowledge in terms of idiosyncratic purposes.
Given the vague neo-Kantianism on offer, Remedios and Dusek sketch “reactive” epistemic agents (37) referring to the work of Alvin Goldman and, in passing, Nelson Goodman (70), and Catherine Elgin (36-38). Goodman’s solution to the problem of induction and his resulting constructivism tagged as “conservative” Goodman and agents act passively insomuch as they believe, and react to, experts (with certain allowances for independent knowledge). Fuller’s agents, then, are active and proactive knowledge makers, whereas Cartesian agents are passive (reactive) and precautionary.
The problems of reference and context—presented above as terminological calibration and social agency—arise commonly in philosophical critiques of neo-Kantism or mental constructivism. Remedios and Dusek try to provide workarounds—an rough admixture of Fullerism, theodicy, technological determinism—packaged as agent-oriented epistemology.
On reading Knowing Humanity in the Social World, I revisited William Clark’s Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University (2007). I remain fascinated by the relation among the material aspects of scholarship, the academic reward system, and epistemic influence and obedience. Clark offers particular insight into the attitudes—the awe, mystery, and reverence—resulting from epic individual productivity.
When Biography Becomes Theory
Earlier, I claimed that Remedios and Dusek model their epistemic agent on Fuller. He represents an unrivaled intellectual and social force given brute productivity and official recognition. Remedios and Dusek show that Fuller takes his occasional lumps during debates, but wins when the proper hermeneutic aperture widens in the end. Yet, Fuller’s sociological backstory remains undertheorized. Clark’s thesis regarding “rational authority” and “academic charisma,” in particular, demystifies some of this missing theoretical backstory. His socio-historic insights speak as to why and how Remedios and Dusek pursue their project, and explain the sociality of the university in way Fuller’s Humboldtian ideal (47) or University 2.0 (48) do not.
Clark defines academic charisma and rational authority this way:
The original charismatic religious figure was the sorcerer, then later the priest and especially the prophet, the herald of a new cult. Regarding academia, part of academic charisma sprang from this topos—the teacher as spiritual or cultic leader … [and] … Part of academic charisma sprang from this topos—the martial, agonistic, polemical cast of academic knowledge as it developed in medieval Europe … A group of people ascribe certain extraordinary abilities or power to a person. That person has charisma in relation to the ascribing group, whose members become active or passive disciples or followers or fans. (14-15)
The rational shares with the traditional the virtue of stability. Rational authority or rationalization—such as embodied in state bureaucracies and managerial capitalism—have the power to alter or even revolutionize a traditional social order, but achieve relative social stability at the same time … But rationality can be charismatic … [L]ike modern capitalism, the research university achieved an amazing “dynamic equilibrium” (M. Norton Wise) by the cultivation of charismatic figures within a broader sphere of rationalization. (15-17)
Academic charisma at the research university inheres more in individuals than in collective, corporate, collegial bodies … [I]f an Isaac Newton or an Immanuel Kant has sat in a particular chair, then the ghost or spirit of that individually famous academic infuses the chair. One of Stephen Hawking’s many claims to fame is that he occupies “Newton’s chair.” (19)
Remedios and Dusek’s reliance on Fuller as a model for the epistemic agent participates in this parasitic culture of academic charisma—an idea that derives from Max Weber’s broader concept of charisma. A way to understand Fuller in Knowing Humanity in the Social World is as a prominent (if not canonized) academic who endorses and follows the normative conventions set by the traditional research university. Remedios and Dusek also accept these conventions—most prominently, I find, in working presumptions about behaving in accord with the academic merit and privilege established in Chapter 1. These presumptions yield explanations as to how we should regard Fuller’s provocations, for example. Clark opens up Remedios and Dusek’s presumptions to socio-historic scrutiny that reveals the epistemic agent to be a manifestation of charismatic academic.
Recall that the epistemic agent rejects “the division of intellectual labor and total deference to experts” (141). In Remedios and Dusek’s model, Fuller’s ascribed encyclopedism substitutes for the division of intellectual labor. Put plainly, if an epistemic agent possesses encyclopedic knowledge, they need not rely on the social conventions governing intellectual labor.
Do You Need a Hero?
In a similar vein, Remedios and Dusek regard Fuller as an expert in everything but name. The more refined point, derived from Clark, is that Remedios and Dusek accept academic merit—and Fuller’s particular standing and agency—as a form of rational authority that transcends expertise. Our Fullerian epistemic agent, then, does not need to defer to expertise given his rationality. Practically speaking, Fuller’s power conveys from the sociality of the university. In Fuller, we see embodied the bureaucratic rational authority of the university transfigured by charisma—the exceptional powers of an exemplary individual.
Fuller heralds a belief system, social epistemology, if not a new cult, his particular version of transhumanism. Knowing Humanity in the Social World imparts extraordinary power to Fuller which, in turn, rationalizes wrongheaded, if not desperate, positions marked as necessary for human advancement. Here, in particular, my concern grows about our (broadly speaking) inability to detect bullshit in the effusive work of an academic charismatic. As Frankfurt (2005) argues, the bullshitter cares only if the listener is persuaded, and cares nothing about truth or falsity. Note Remedios and Dusek’s interpretive soft-shoe on the idea of truth:
Though the epistemic agent is socially constructed, the standard by which the epistemic agent is evaluated is truth-oriented. For Fuller, truth is a systematic representation of reality, a grand unified theory of everything. To achieve this type of scientific knowledge, it is an open question as to the type of agent that would be most appropriate. (emphasis mine, 34)
The epistemic agent worries, to varying degrees, about being in the ballpark of truth. However, since we do not know who, or what, an agent is now, or will be in the future, we cannot situate the kind of truth needed to the kind of agent that needs it. The evaluation of whether or not an epistemic agent is truth-oriented awaits a unified scientific theory. So, does the epistemic agent care about truth? Yes, apparently, to the degree that caring about truth yields, or does not yield, knowledge.
If bullshitting yields knowledge, then on with bullshit. In the confusion of where and when to locate, or model, either agency or truth, why not default to the privilege of spirit of the charismatic academic? Referring to Clark’s thesis on academic charisma, and given my reconting of Fullerism, one can read Knowing Humanity in the Social World as an exercise in extending Fuller’s agency to make acceptable immoral and contradictory ideas. Accepting such ideas validates and extends the charismatic power on which Fuller’s futurism depends.
Knowledge-making remains an inescapably social process, but I also assert that academic scholars, in particular, fail to recognize the practicalities and normative obligations that arise in the process of this work. While Remedios and Dusek need not account fully for these obligations and materialities, the subject of their book resides firmly in the logic of academic production. The bureaucratic discipline imposed on Fuller, on Fullerism, and on social epistemology that results in such a bizarre vision of the future goes unquestioned.
This vision also goes unquestioned because a charismatic figure with extraordinary abilities and platform spouts it. Yet, our reactions and reception of these ideas seems very much in keeping with the university’s logic of “novelty and conservatism” (Grafton 2006) that Clark chronicles. To know humanity in the social word of the book means, perhaps, to know only the sociality of academic charisma.
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 See John Horgan (2015) on the joys of being rightly provoked by Fuller.
 My notation points to what I gather is a typographical mistake—the unintended inclusion of the word ‘or’—as the sentence makes sense if posed: “It rejects the division of intellectual labor and total deference to experts, at most critically accepting expert opinion.”
 Remedios and Dusek use the infinitive form of the verb ‘act’ exclusively in describing this process. As such, the epistemic agent seemingly must make knowledge first in order to then act. In addition, Remedios and Dusek state that agents can also “leverage belief into action” (6, 31, 32, 36). While similar, these formulations invite confusion regarding the agent’s status, and holding knowledge or belief, and the subsequent processes involved in act and action (Do we also leverage belief to act (as opposed to? Are the actions based on leveraged belief somehow different than the actions based on making, or made, knowledge?)
 The maker versus taker ethos, in light of Fuller’s cognitive economics model, appears particularly insidious.
 I offer the adjective own to underscore how one might compare competing, and complementary, Promethean projects and character. As Fuller explains regarding another such project: “Well, the thing is— Well I think look, the attractive feature about Trump I think to a lot of these transhumanists is his Promethean character. Like, there is no limit, right. Trump leaves all the options open. And I think that’s a very attractive—This is the libertarian streak in transhumanism coming out, right. That in some sense you don’t imagine that there’s some limit already there. So not even the laws of the government can stop me, right. This is why Trump in the beginning got into all this trouble with the judiciary in the United States. Because he was constantly just making laws up on the hoof through executive orders” (original emphasis, https://bit.ly/2mE8vCs).
 “When people ask me what social epistemologists should be doing, my answer is that they should be in university administration, they should run the corporation. You know at the end of the day, you want to be running the corporation, you will be the manager of the corporation” (130).
 The world of pre-existing debates consists of decidedly more difficult social terrain for epistemic agents to traverse. The Wikipedia entry on Kitzmiller notes: “Fuller’s testimony was cited by lawyers for both the plaintiffs and the defense in their closing statements” (my emphasis). Margaret Talbot (2005) lends additional context: “In Harrisburg … the defense offered as a witness Steve Fuller … Fuller, who wore thick-framed Woody Allen-style glasses, waved his arms a lot, and delivered profuse answers at a breathless pace, said that he thought evolution offered a better explanation of biological diversity than intelligent design, but he also argued that it was ‘kind of bad news epistemologically’ to have ‘taken-for-granted theories’ like evolution ‘in any given discipline.’ Besides, he added, it might be interesting if science was ‘reconfigured so that the notion of design would be taken as a kind of literal unifying concept.’ Fuller bounced with glib, manic energy as he riffed on the history of science (at one point, the Judge suggested taking a break – ‘water or decaf only’), dispensing postmodern lingo about science as ‘a self-perpetuating elite’ committed to ‘policing’ its own boundaries” (77).
 Fuller holds the Auguste Comte chair in Social Epistemology.
 Weber clarifies: “The term ‘charisma’ will be applied to a certain quality of individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a ‘leader’.” (1922 , 241)