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Author Information: Søren Harnow Klausen, University of Southern Denmark,

Klausen, Søren Harnow. “New Practices, Open Questions: A Reply to Bertolotti.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 35-38.

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In his perceptive comment on my “No Cause for Epistemic Alarm” (Klausen 2017; henceforth NCEA), Tomasso Bertolotti argues that new forms of organizing and conducting science, like radically collaborative research (henceforth RC), deserve to be examined closely and critically. I agree wholeheartedly. But I do not think that there is, at least as things stand, any reason for alarm. I fail to see anything inherently problematic in the way RC is currently conducted; and as for its possible problematic consequences, we have no significant indications. It is not that I am highly optimistic about the prospects of RC. It is just that we have neither theoretical nor empirical reasons for being particularly suspicious at the outset. It is also true, however, that even in the absence of such reasons, social epistemologists and philosophers of science had better keep a close watch over new developments in scientific practice.

Epistemic Alarm

In NCEA I argued that there is, more specifically, no reason for epistemic alarm. Bertolotti suggests that I may have been too quick to draw this conclusion. He rightly points out that the pragmatic, social or political effects of RC may in turn have significant epistemic effects. I have myself stressed that epistemic and other normative factors interact so closely that it makes a purely (or narrowly focused) epistemic evaluation of real-world affairs almost impossible (Klausen 2009a; 2009b; 2015). Especially on an externalist epistemology, which I favour, a large range of factors can be potentially relevant for the epistemic evaluation of a certain process or arrangement. In principle, there is no end to them, as even an inquirer’s nutritional condition could influence the reliability (or other significant epistemic properties) of a belief-forming process. So if the advance of RC significantly changes processes of credit allocation, the scientific reward system, recruitment processes, or the public perception of science, this is likely going to have epistemic effects as well.

The claims I make in NCEA are quite compatible with this, however. They are, first, that there is no reason to assume that existing epistemological frameworks cannot cope with RC (which is therefore not a cause of epistemological alarm, to put it more precisely)—and, secondly, that it is an open question what the result of a detailed epistemological assessment would eventually be.

Precisely because epistemological a priori considerations are hardly able to discriminate between different forms of organization of epistemic labour, and the empirical evidence is scarce, to say the least, I think we should withhold definite judgment (but surely allow ourselves to speculate). We should also, as social epistemologists or philosophers of science, put more effort into initiating and designing relevant empirical studies. Comparing the merits and drawbacks of different scientific practices is complicated and difficult, and no decisive result should be expected in the short run. On the other hand, every bit of ever so limited, but more or less solid empirical evidence will be a leap forward as compared to the present state. Treating the historical record as such evidence would be wrong, as we know very little about how alternative practices would have fared. Criticizing RC or other new scientific practices merely on the grounds that they break with a venerable tradition that has proven immensely successful in the past is really not very convincing.

Bertolotti makes an interesting analogy between science and gossip. I think it is very fitting; in some respects even more so than Bertolotti himself seems to think, in other respects perhaps less so. Inasmuch as he and Magnani are right that abductive inference is central to gossip (Bertolotti and Magnani 2014), that is one significant point of similarity. More generally, scientific communication does appear very gossip-like; and since gossip, as understood by Bertolotti, is a potentially efficient source of knowledge, this does not by itself do anything to discredit science.

The difference between gossip and (traditional) science lies, according to Bertolotti, in their different accountability structures (whereas he contends that RC is more gossip-like and so in a way could be seen as a regression back into pre-scientific practices). I think there are more obvious differences, having to do not so much with accountability as with the reliability of the input sources (e.g. controlled observation and experiment and the use of rule-guided inference versus casual observation), the degree of expertise of the group members, the reliable declaration and easy identification of such expertise, the degree of formalized organization (as I pointed out in NCEA, radically collaborative science is in fact more firmly organized and in a way more transparent than old-fashioned collaboration between individual scientists), etc., etc.

On Radically Collaborative Science

Bertolotti seems to assume that radically collaborative science is markedly different from traditional science with regard to accountability and centralized control. In NCEA I question this assumption, arguing that so-called traditional, small-scale science has been indirectly massively collaborative, but in an even less transparent or regulated way. As I see it, one of the noteworthy similarities between science and gossip is precisely their accountability structure. Bertolotti quotes Peirce’s description of scientists’ “unreserved discussion with one another … each being fully informed about the work of his neighbour, and availing himself of that neighbour’s results” (Peirce 1958, 7.51; quoted in Bertolotti (2017, 17).  But this is an extreme idealization. Scientists are very rarely fully informed about the work of their neighbours, and they seldom engage in fully unreserved discussions, for that matter (Bertolotti assumes, with Ayim (1994) that discussing unreservedly is also an essential feature of gossip. While it may be correct that gossip is often shared with less reservation than what is typical of official scientific communication, I am not sure if this is quite right).

As an example of the kind of loose accountability structure I have in mind (and take to be typical of even old-fashioned, single-author science), notice that I quoted Bertolotti and Magnani’s view about the central role of abductive inference in gossip earlier in this paper, with apparent endorsement. You—or some other academic colleague—may have picked that up and might even go on to use it as a premise in some future piece of scientific reasoning. But frankly the reasons for Bertolotti and Magnani’s claim are not completely transparent to me, at least not at the time of writing. I actually read their paper quite closely some years ago, and remember their proposal as well argued, while I am not sure that I became completely convinced, and have forgotten some of the details, anyhow. This did not prevent me from referring to it in passing. And in my experience, you cannot always expect a researcher to have read a text closely and penetratingly in order for her to refer to it and even use some of its claims as premises for her own work.

Of course, one might say that this is not how it should be. But for one thing, I fear that actual conformity with the strict ideals of traditional science would stifle scientific progress to such a degree that we had better live with the errors, imprecisions, rashness and sloppiness that comes from not enforcing those ideals too rigorously. More importantly, the ideals are very far from met in practice. And it is a mistake—in fact a rather common and problematic mistake, I think—to evaluate a practice on the basis of ideals to which it merely aspires.

Of course, one could also say that traditional science does, at any rate, have a clear accountability structure, which distinguishes it from both gossip and RC. Inasmuch as there is a single author, or small group of authors, it is clear who is to be held accountable for the results and methods presented, regardless on how much the author actually knows about the work she is presenting. But this is a mere formal status. It does not ensure that the author is in any epistemically privileged position. It may oblige her to put her cards on the table if we demand her to do so; and we might reasonably expect her to vouch for her claims. Yet by doing so she may merely disclose the degree to which she has relied, blindly or semi-blindly, on the testimony of others.

Bertolotti and I agree that there is no reason to be particularly alarmed (as I understand this notion) by the advance of RC, but good reason to keep a close eye on it. But while an analysis in terms of accountability structures etc. may be of academic interest, an assessment of its actual merits and drawbacks (aimed at determining the appropriate societal response) must focus the epistemic work it actually does (as well as its moral and political consequences). Merely pointing out how RC deviates from an ideal that was never fully met by real-life science, anyway, does not warrant any substantially negative verdict. As I argue in NCEA, even if the claim could be sustained that RC leads to a loss of knowledge, this would merely show that knowledge is less important than we have assumed—as long as the overall consequences, including the epistemic ones, turn out to be sufficiently positive.

I very much share some of Bertolotti’s specific worries, for example that the Matthew Effect hampers the diversification of science (but see Strevens 2006 for an appropriately nuanced discussion). I suspect that there are significant drawbacks of big science, for example that it leads to a disproportionate allocation of funding to certain hyped fields or avenues of research. But I do not see these problems as having anything to do with the radically collaborative nature of big science (as I notice in NCEA, big science may in some respects be too streamlined and conformist; part of the problem seems to be not epistemic anarchy, but rather epistemic overregulation). And so we can—and should—speculate, but also accept that we know very little for sure. There are lots of wide open questions regarding new scientific practices, which call for calm and realistic assessments and empirically informed studies in social epistemology.


Ayim, Maryann. “Knowledge Through the Grapevine: Gossip as Inquiry.” In Good Gossip, edited by Robert F. Goodman and Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, 85-99. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas 1994.

Bertolotti, Tomasso. “Science-Like Gossip, or Gossip-Like Science?” Social Epistemology Review and  Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 15-19.

Bertolotti, Tomasso and Lorenzo Magnani. “An Epistemological Analysis of Gossip and Gossip-Based Knowledge.” Synthese 191, no. 17 (2014): 4037-4067.

Klausen, Søren Harnow. ”Applied Epistemology: Prospects and Problems.” Res Cogitans 6, no. 1 (2009): 220-258.

Klausen, Søren Harnow. “Two Notions of Epistemic Normativity.” Theoria 75 (2009): 161-178.

Klausen, Søren Harnow. “Group Knowledge: A Real-World Approach.” Synthese 192, no. 3 (2015): 813-839.

Klausen, Søren Harnow. “No Cause for Epistemic Alarm. Radically Collaborative  Science,  Knowledge and Authorship.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 3 (2017): 38-61.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce Vol. 7, edited Arthur W. Burks. Cambridge: MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Strevens, Michael. “The Role of the Matthew Effect in Science.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 37, no. 2 (2006): 159–170

Author Information: Jensen Alex, Valerie Joly Chock, Kyle Mallard, and Jonathan Matheson, University of North Florida,

Alex, Jensen, Valerie Joly Chock, Kyle Mallard, and Jonathan Matheson. “A Review of Linda Zagzebski’s Epistemic Authority.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 29-34.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

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Epistemic Authority: A Theory of Trust, Authority, and Autonomy in Belief
Linda Zagzebski
Oxford Univerity Press (reprint 2015)
296 pp.

Like with her celebrated Virtues of the Mind, Linda Zagzebski again examines the application of concepts familiar in a different normative domain to the epistemic domain. In this case, the connection is with social and political philosophy and with the concepts of authority and autonomy in particular. The book covers a broad range of contemporary epistemological topics, attempting to gain insights from those is social and political philosophy. In what follows we will briefly summarize the book and raise several points of criticism.

Analyzing the Chapters

Zagzebski makes her own position of the book clear from the outset—that subjects should indeed take beliefs on the authority of others, and in fact must do so to act rationally. However, before this argument is given, she insists that the reader understand why there is such a “strong proclivity” to denying this argument (6). In Chapter 1, Zagzebski follows the historical progression of thought that led to this cultural pattern, arguing that it has led to our modern societies to have a strong emphasis on autonomy and egalitarianism, ultimately diminishing the value of authority outside of oneself.

In chapter 2, Zagzebski develops her account of trust. She defines “trust” as a combination of epistemic, affective, and behavioral components that lead us to believe that our epistemic faculties will get us to the truth, feel trusting towards them in that respect, and treat them respectively (37-8). She argues that this trust is rational upon reflection, relying on her understanding of what it means to be rational, “to do a better job of what we do in any case—what our faculties do naturally” (30). According to her, we naturally try to resolve dissonance, where dissonance equates to internal conflict between a person’s mental states. She concludes that epistemic self-trust is the most rational response to dissonance, including the one produced upon discovery of epistemic circularity: the problem that one has no way of telling whether one’s epistemic faculties are reliably accurate without depending on those same faculties.

Zagzebski moves toward the substance of her argument in her third chapter. She argues that considering how one’s faculties are bound up with both the desire for truth and the belief that they can access the truth, commits one to trusting the faculties of others. This leads into Zagzebski’s principle of “epistemic universalism,” which asserts that another person having some belief itself is a prima facie reason to believe it, given that the other person’s epistemic faculties are in order and that they are epistemically conscientious.

Zagzeski expands the circle of trust to include emotions in Chapter 4. She argues that we have the need to trust in our emotional dispositions, in particular the emotion of admiration, that will then give us another foundational reason for epistemic trust in others (75). In regards to our natural emotion dispositions she says that “we need basic trust in the tendency of our emotion dispositions to produce fitting emotions for the same reason we need basic trust in the tendency of our epistemic faculties to produce true beliefs” (83). It is from this emotion of admiration that we can then conscientiously trust in other epistemic exemplars.

In chapter 5, Zagzebski argues that authority in the epistemic realm is justified. Based on Joseph Raz’s account of political authority, she defines authority as a “normative power that generates reasons for others to do or believe something preemptively” (102). Here a preemptive reason is one that replaces other reasons the subject has and is not simply added to them. Zagzebski proposes an epistemic analogue of Raz’s Preemption Thesis, which states that the fact that an authority has a belief p is a preemptive reason for me to believe p (107). She also formulates epistemic analogues for Raz’s Normal Justification Thesis in order to justify taking a belief on epistemic authority. Zagzebski proposes that the authority of another person’s belief is justified for me when I conscientiously judge that I am more likely to form a true belief and avoid a false belief, or that I am more likely to form a belief that survives my conscientious self-reflection, if I believe what the authority believes than if I try to figure out what to believe myself (110-1).

In the sixth chapter, Zagzebski focuses on the concept of testimony as it relates to epistemic authority, advocating for a trust-model of testimony. On her account, testimony is a contractual “telling” which occurs between a teller and hearer, in which both sides have responsibilities. The teller implicitly requests the hearer’s trust and assumes the associated responsibility. The hearer also has expectations of the teller, especially when a future action is carried out according to the content of the teller’s testimony. Because of this contractual nature, the standard of conscientiousness is higher in testimony than in the general formation of a belief. The authority of testimony is justified both by the fact that believing the testimony will more likely get the truth than self-reliance, as well as the fact that beliefs obtained through testimony are more likely to survive self-reflection than those formed through self-reliance.

Zagzebski turns her attention to epistemic communities in Chapter 7. She argues that epistemic authority in communities can be justified by one’s conscientious judgment that one is more likely to believe the truth, or to get a belief that will survive one’s self-reflection if one believes what “We” (the community) believe rather than if one tries to figure out what to believe by oneself in a way that is independent of “Us.” Here communities are seen as an extended self. Zagzebski would argue that communally acquired beliefs are more likely to survive communal reflection, which follows from her “extended self” argument. Thus, as long as one accepts one’s community as an extended self, one can in this way acquire reasons to believe on the authority of one’s community.

In chapter 8, Zagzebski examines moral epistemic authority and its limitations. Zagzebski sees no reason to deny that there are epistemic exemplars in the moral domain, considering the rejection of moral truth and egalitarianism as possible reasons for rejecting moral authority. She argues that testimony is not an adequate model for most moral learning because of two limitations: (1) testimony lacks motivational force and (2) it does not offer understanding. According to her, the way in which one can get a moral belief from another person has to do with the emotion that grounds such moral judgment. She claims that testimony is able to convey conceptual judgment and relevant similarities to persons or situations that elicit emotional response, but this is not sufficient to produce the emotional response itself (172). It follows then, she argues, that “I do not take a belief on authority; I take an emotion on authority, and the emotion is the ground for my moral belief” (174). The argument gets extended in the following chapter to religious authorities. Applying her earlier argument to this context, she defends the claim that individuals often conscientiously judge that if they believe in accordance with their religious community they will do better, and so often individuals are justified in deferring to their religious community.

In Chapter 10, Zagzebski turns to the contemporary debate concerning peer disagreement. As she diagnoses the debate, it is primarily a conflict between the competing values of egalitarianism and self-reliance. Zagzebski sees steadfast views of disagreement overvaluing self-reliance and stronger conciliatory views overvaluing egalitarianism, and finds both mistaken. Her own take on the debate is to construe peer disagreement as a conflict within self-trust, where one finds dissonance amongst the things that she trusts (her opinion, her peer’s opinion, etc.). Given this, and her preceding argument, Zagzebski’s recommendation is to resolve the dissonance in a way that favors what one trusts the most when thinking conscientiously about the matter. There is thus no universal response to disagreement. How any given disagreement is to be handled will depend upon the particular details of the case, in particular, which psychic states the subject trusts the most. For instance, one’s trust in a particular belief may be stronger than one’s trust in what appears to be evidence to the contrary, in which case it would be rational to resolve the dissonance while maintaining one’s belief.

In the final chapter of Epistemic Authority, the author primarily seeks to elucidate her notion of autonomy, ultimately to defend the claim that autonomy is not compromised by her model of epistemic authority. Autonomy is the primary property and function of Zagzebski’s “executive self,” which seeks to eliminate psychic dissonance through self-reflection. Zagzebski claims that conscientious judgment and self-reflection are the most reliable ways of avoiding epistemic dissonance —that being conscientious is the best one can do. She maintains that we should trust in the connection between rationality (as manifest in the act of conscientious self-reflection) and actually being right, because self-reflection is the only way we can assess if our beliefs have survived (which in turn is the only way we can get the truth).

Assessing Epistemic Authority

We turn now to a critical assessment of the book.

One general concern is with Zagzebski’s account of rationality and epistemic justification, which is central to her overall argument. She claims that, “rationality is a property we have when we do what we do naturally, only we do a better job of it” (30), and of central importance here is our natural desire to achieve a harmonious self. (31) Dissonance amongst our psychic states (beliefs, desires, emotions, etc.) is thus to be avoided, and a conscientious judgment about what states will harmoniously survive our self-reflection is what justifies those states. A problem for this account is that it is not sufficiently truth connected.

Zagzebski attempts to adequately connect her account to truth through the achievement of psychic harmony. She claims that, “the ultimate test of whether my faculties have succeeded in fitting their objects is that they fit each other.” (230) Such a coherentist account, however, is fraught with well-known problems. There are many ways of having harmonious states that are nothing close to truth conducive. The problem comes from the fact that harmony can be achieved in more than one way. In fact, any state can be protected so long as one is able to make accommodations elsewhere. Zagzebski recognizes this fact, and claims that some ways of resolving dissonance are better than others, but these preferential ways are simply those that one conscientiously judges to not create future dissonance. Such an account simply doubles down on trusting harmony and can be seen to give the wrong verdicts.

For instance, consider a father whose son is away at war. Suppose that the father then is given a substantial body of information that his son has been killed. However, the father simply cannot come to believe that his son has died. It is psychologically impossible for him, and he recognizes this fact. In terms of planning his psychic future then the belief that his son is alive will clearly be part of the picture. He can be certain that this state will survive his reflection (even his conscientious reflection) since he recognizes it to be psychologically immovable. Thus, his only paths to harmony are to distrust and abandon all states in conflict with that belief. It is apparent, however, that such a course of action is not to be recommended, and the remaining belief that his son is well is not justified for him. Sometimes, doing one’s best is not good enough. This holds in epistemology as well. While the father ought not be faulted for his belief, it is not justified for him.

A related issue concerns the role of reasons on Zagzebski’s account. From the outset, Zagzebski’s account centers around trust. The motivation for this seems to be that there is no non-circular defense of the reliability of one’s faculties. However, it is not clear what Zagzebski makes of such epistemic circularity. It might be thought that it is implied to be defective, but if so, it would be nice to hear more about the problem since many epistemologists have defended some kind of circularity. Adding to the confusion, however, is Zagzebski’s claim that she, and others, have “strong circular reasons to trust her epistemic faculties” (93). If such circular justification is possible, then the motivation for the role of trust is diminished. In addition, a large portion of the book is dedicated to arguments that individuals have various kinds of prima facie reasons (i.e. to believe what others believe, to trust others as I trust myself, to trust those who are conscientious).

While the arguments for these principles are quite plausible, there are several reasons to be unsatisfied. First, missing from the account is anything about the strength of these reasons or what kind of considerations would defeat these reasons. Without this further information, it is unclear what to make of these reasons and how they affect our overall outlook. Second, it is difficult to see what role these reasons can play in Zagzebski’s overall account of rationality and justification. Since, for her, rationality and justification are a matter of one’s conscientious judgments, the role of reasons seems to drop out entirely.

One’s reasons may influence their conscientious judgments, but they needn’t, and when one’s conscientious judgments go against their reasons, on Zagzebski’s view they ought to go with their judgment. For instance, in applying her account to the epistemic significance of disagreement, Zagzebski’s proposal is to resolve the dissonance resulting from discovered disagreement in accordance with what one conscientiously accords the most trust. However, on her account, significant errors regarding what one conscientiously trusts have no role to play in terms of what the subject is justified in believing. Many will see this as a significant cost since misplaced trust is not without epistemic consequences. A final concern with Zagzebski’s account of reasons concerns her preemption thesis.

Zagzebksi claims that, “the fact that the authority has a belief p is a reason for me to believe p that replaces my other reasons relevant to believing p and is not simply added to them” (107). This thesis raises some questions (i.e. where do those reasons go and can they ever return?) as well as some problems. One problem concerns ability. It is unclear how one would be able to comply with this principle and replace their current reasons. A deeper problem, however, concerns the consequences of compliance. If one looses their own reasons on an issue, they could lose information critical to both the future evaluation of the putative authority and the relevant claim. This seems to allow for a dangerous way for a putative authority to maintain its authority because the other reasons in the domain have been replaced and are no longer relevant.

Zagzebski also fails to consider cases in which an epistemic authority abuses his/her authoritative status. For instance, a noticeable gap in the book is the lack of attention paid to the problem of epistemic injustice. Perhaps even more worrisome is that Zagzebski’s account appears to actually exacerbate the problem of epistemic injustice. Prejudices can be, and often are, unintended. That is to say that a prejudiced person is likely unable to recognize his/her own prejudices. Further, biases are sticky—they don’t change easily.

Given all of this, it appears that the best way to avoid future dissonance is by adjusting the states that conflict with the biases. While such and accommodation of biases might be the most effective route to harmony, it is surely not the rational course of action. When biases survive reflection, the subject’s conscientious judgment is informed by prejudices that are both unfair and unfounded. Thus, Zagzebski’s account can be both epistemically and morally defective. Epistemically, because the hearer would miss out on a truth that, according to Zagzebski, he/she is naturally interested in acquiring (33), and morally, because an epistemic injustice could be inflicted on a person/community as a result. The apparent rational survival of biases affects our ability to accurately trust others and recognize epistemic authorities.

This problem only seems to get worse when applied to epistemic communities. Consider intergroup bias and groupthink—a community is very likely to acquire and entrench beliefs that confirm the community’s group identity, while simultaneously believing that it is thinking conscientiously. The epistemic opacity which was concerning at the individual level is only aggravated at the community level.

For Zagzebski, the community itself was formed out of chains of individual conscientious judgments, meaning that both individual and group distortions are compounded upon one another in any given community. If the gender bias survives a community’s reflection, then, under Zagzebski’s account, the community could be justified in trusting the belief that a female scientist is distrustful even when there is evidence against such belief and/or against the bias itself. This would lead to community reinforcement and distancing from others given that the community would trust the way in which they acquire beliefs (which includes trusting the bias even when they fail to recognize it) and distrust those communities that acquire beliefs in a way they don’t trust (without the bias). This appears to be highly problematic.

Zagzebski’s Epistemic Authority will no doubt play a role in shaping a number of the contemporary epistemological debates. Her connections drawn to political philosophy provide a novel way of viewing a number of epistemological problems. While we find a number of problems with Zagzebki’s final account, Epistemic Authority will be of value for anyone interested in engaging in these debates.

Author Information: Gregory J. Lobo, Universidad de Los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia,

Lobo, Gregory J. “Reason, Morality and Recognition: On Searle’s Theory of Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 22-28.

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J. Angelo Corlett (2016) has written an essentially negative assessment of John Searle’s (2010) theory of human rights. He faults Searle principally because “Searle construes human rights in purely institutional terms”, but also because, according to Corlett, “Searle does nothing to address, refute or render dubious the dominant ethical notion of human rights as being essentially non-insitutional (moral)” (2016, 461).[1] Finally, Corlett counters this understanding of Searle’s analysis of human rights by suggesting that “human rights contain a morally normative element, one which is non-institutional and is not and cannot be fully captured by Searle’s analysis” (2016, 461-62).

In this dialogue with Corlett’s piece I will draw on the same text on which he most relies to characterize, and criticize, Searle’s position: Chapter 8, “Human Rights”, from Searle’s 2010 book Making the Social World. I will be arguing that Corlett’s representation of Searle’s thinking on human rights is not accurate, and that, in fact, Searle’s position on human rights is actually very similar and perhaps even identical to the one Corlett appears to prefer. In other words, I will be hoping to demonstrate that Searle does not construe human rights in purely institutional terms; that Searle in fact argues for an ethical, non-institutional understanding of human rights—one quite in line with what Corlett calls the “dominant ethical notion of human rights”; and that, indeed, Searle argues that human rights demand an ethically normative foundation, on which his analysis built.

The Moral (and Institutional) Ontology of Human Rights

According to Corlett, “Searle’s conception of human rights is purely institutional, e.g. he believes that such rights are products only of social construction” (2016, 454, my emphasis). At a later point he refers to “Searle’s wholly institutional conception of human rights” (2016, 458, my emphasis). Now, it is true that Searle conceives of human rights as being the product of social construction, insofar as human beings articulate them using speech acts, using in particular what he calls the status function declaration. But it is not true that Searle thinks that human rights are purely or wholly institutional. In fact, Searle explicitly rejects the pure institutionalist vision of human rights. He unambiguously aligns himself with the position Corlett is defending when he compares real pure institutionalists, people like “Bentham and MacIntyre, who think of themselves as stating obvious commonsense facts when they say there are no such things as universal human rights, and most of the rest of us, who think there are indeed universal human rights” (2010, 182-3, my emphasis). Against, for example, Bentham’s “claim that any genuine right has to be backed by law” Searle argues that there are “lots of informal rights that one has that are not legally sanctioned” (2010, 192) or institutionalized.

When, then, Corlett insists that, pace (his reading of) Searle, human rights “exist quite apart from (whether or not they are recognized by) law and society” (2016, 456), it turns out that he is not arguing against Searle’s actual position. For Searle does not argue that human rights only exist when recognized by law and society; he clearly states that one of the things he wants to defend and explain in his chapter on human rights is the “claim that human rights continue to exist even when they are not recognized” (2010, 181). This seems to be Searle agreeing with Corlett. And he gives a simple example of what he means: the right of a spouse to be consulted on major decisions that will affect him or her, “is a perfectly valid right, even though there is no law that guarantees it” (2010, 192), Searle argues. He also believes that humans have a right to silence, which he believes exists, even though there is little institutional recognition of it (2010, 195). Thus, Searle’s position is not as Corlett represents it. Corlett, again, states that Searle’s positions entail that “human rights cannot be both institutional and moral (i.e. non-institutional)” (2016, 455), but as we have just seen, Searle allows for rights both institutionalized and not.

Still, according to Corlett, a real problem with Searle’s “notion of human rights is that it does not even address the reasons that leading philosophers of human rights have provided in favor of a non-institutional analysis of human rights”, where by non-institutional “is meant that such rights have essential moral properties” (2016, 454). But here is what Searle actually says in this regard: “I do not think you can have an intelligent discussion about human rights without discussing certain biological characteristics of human beings, and […]  what is valuable in human life” (2010, 192).

I read Searle to be saying here that pre-institutional factors—human nature, if you will—have to be taken into account when thinking about human rights, which suggests he is not the pure institutionalist nor the naïve social constructionist that Corlett maintains he is. But Searle is also insisting here on the need to talk about what is valuable in human life when thinking about human rights; that is, he is talking about a basic morality, only with regard to which human rights can be enunciated. Corlett’s criticism would seem to be misdirected, since the target of it seems to be in agreement with him. Indeed, the italics in the following sentence are Searle’s own:

the justification for human rights cannot be ethically neutral. It involves more than just a biological conception of what sorts of beings we are; it also involves a conception of what is valuable, actually or potentially, about our very existence (2010, 190).

Here, I think, Searle is making the very argument for moral reasoning in thinking about human rights that Corlett faults him for not even pondering.

Rights and Reason

Corlett then explores the possibility that “human rights might not be […] mere human creations […] but rather human discoveries by the light of reason” (2016, 455). We are to understand that he thinks that Searle thinks that they are “mere human creations”, the more or less arbitrary product of sophistry and whim rather than reason as such. As if arguing against Searle, Corlett makes the point that “[h]uman rights may be both institutional recognitions (social constructs) as well as discoverable by way of reason to be what are moral rights above and beyond what societies say they are” (2016, 455). But again, Searle does not disagree with this assertion: he is not in disagreement with Corlett on the role of reason in elucidating human rights.

In a response to commentators on his 2010 book, Searle (2011) avers that a right can be considered legitimate “only if it can rationally be justified by a correct conception of human nature, a set of values about human beings, and can rationally impose an obligation on all human beings to respect it” (2011, 740). I see no substantive difference between this analysis of the basic reasoned, moral ontology of human rights and that given by Corlett. Are not Corlett’s “moral rights” more or less exactly the same as Searle’s rights, which must be based on “a correct conception of human nature” and “a set of values about human beings”? When Searle asserts a belief that a justified human right can constitute a rational (reasonable) obligation on all human beings is he not echoing (but really, is not Corlett echoing Searle?) Corlett’s insistence that there are moral (human) rights above and beyond what particular societies recognize? If the answer to both these questions is affirmative, then Corlett is disagreeing with someone who actually agrees with him.

In keeping with the idea that Searle is a pure institutionalist and anarchic social constructionist, Corlett also reads Searle as saying that “human rights are epistemically subjective” (2016, 454); however, what Searle says about this is not that human rights are epistemically subjective, but that “arguments” about human nature and morality, while essential to a discussion of human rights, “are not demonstrative, in the sense that any rational person is bound to accept them on pain of irrationality” (2010, 192). Such arguments—but not the rights themselves—thus are condemned “to have an element of epistemic subjectivity” (2010, 192). But given the fact of epistemic subjectivity, Searle insists (and contrary to the view that Corlett seems to impute to him), “it does not follow that they are arbitrary or beyond the scope of argument” (2010, 192). While Corlett goes so far as to invoke the specter of a white supremacist society justified by “Searlean madness” (2016, 456), which can only be stopped by a conception of human rights as reasoned moral rights, I think I have quoted enough from Searle to prove that his theory does not lack an understanding of human rights as essentially reasoned moral rights, quite in agreement with Corlett.


According to Corlett’s reading, Searle’s theory of human rights “would seem to imply that social recognition is […] necessary for X to be a human right” (2016, 457). Searle does not argue this. He allows that some people (his foils are people he characterizes as pure institutionalists like Bentham and MacIntyre) can make a convincing argument that this is the case (2010, 183), but Searle himself partakes of the “commonsense assumption that you do not lose your rights in cases where they are denied or not recognized” (2010, 183). Rights exist as rights even if they are not recognized, and indeed, as Searle more pointedly puts it: “you are [not] entitled to the existence of rights, but rather, you are entitled to the recognition of rights that already exist” (2010, 183, my emphasis). The issue is not social recognition of the right, but social recognition of the right of the person in question to enjoy the right.

We can understand more clearly the difference if we follow Corlett’s take on Searle. According to Corlett, contrary to “Searle’s purely institutional conception of a human right [which] makes room for the idea that a human right may change as society’s attitude toward that right may change, the moral conception of a human right holds that such rights do not change” (2016, 457). But Searle too is seeking to enunciate more or less eternal human rights. His problem, to which he flatly admits, is that on the basis of his moral and theoretical reason, he can only firmly articulate two: the right to life and the right to freedom of expression. But although it seems evident to me that different times and places produce different understandings of what rights exist (of course, it is quite possible that advances in moral reason will finally elucidate a definitive set of rights sometime in the future), what is crucial for Searle is society’s attitude towards the potential bearers of those rights.

The history is clear: at different times and places peasants, workers, criminals, women, victims of imperialism, gay people, trans people, but also the bourgeoisie, the royalty, and so on, have all been deprived of being recognized as humans, that is, as bearers of human rights, of being entitled to their rights. One might put it this way: one can say that human rights have always existed. But all members of the human species have not always been recognized as humans entitled to those rights.

An Example: On Being American, On Being Human

In order to drive home his point about the problems of Searle’s theory—problems which, I have been trying to show, do not actually exist, Corlett turns to the example of Brown v. Board of Education of 1954. According to “Searle’s wholly institutional conception of human rights”, as Corlett again characterizes it, Black Americans “had no valid claims to equal opportunity in education prior to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954” (2016, 458). As we should now be able to appreciate, Searle’s analysis entails nothing like this. Searle in fact would agree that U.S. blacks had valid claims—but he would ask, was their right to have such claims recognized? Not recognized as fully-fledged humans and/or Americans, did the dominant social perspective even recognize them as being able to have valid claims? Many people tried to ignore their claims; many could not conceive of black people even having claims. Searle would make much of this, no doubt. But he would not and does not argue that their claims were invalid or non-existent because institutions did not recognize the claims.

Searle is not a strict institutionalist, but he is fundamentally concerned with the role of symbolic operations in realizing the social world, that is, in causing it to be, to happen, which means that Searle’s focus is fundamentally on recognition. Thus, his theory points to what is so momentous about Brown—not that the Supreme Court recognized the valid claim to equal education, but that, based on rationality, reason, morality, and so on, it recognized that Black Americans actually had rights—in this case the right to equality of opportunity in education. That is, they were recognized as beings, citizens, Americans, having the right to have rights.

Nonetheless, certain very influential sectors in the states of Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, and elsewhere of course, did not recognize the Court’s recognition of the right of Black Americans to have rights—and here of course the emphasis (not exclusive by any means) on institutionalism remains incredible important. So the valid claims existed, the rights existed too, even before the Brown decision, and Corlett is mistaken when he says Searle’s theory denies their existence before the decision. But on top of this error, he entirely misses the point that Searle’s theory actually illuminates: what Brown did, or tried to do (and might still be trying to do in an America still plagued by racial inequality), was recognize Black Americans as Americans, entitled to all the already existing rights that other Americans enjoyed.

To be clear: for Corlett, the Brown decision “did not imply that all of a sudden blacks gained a right that they did not previously possess” (2016, 458)—and Searle would agree. But he would not agree with Corlett that the Brown decision meant that a “moral right was finally recognized by law” (2016, 458). Rather, Searle’s position would be that Brown institutionalized (attempted to institutionalize, in the face of opposition from other institutions particularly at the state and local levels) the recognition that Black Americans were in fact fully-fledged Americans and thus entitled to the right to equal opportunity in education (had the right to that right).

And just as being an American is a status, so “we must treat [in analytical terms] being human as a status”, Searle insists (2010, 181). For many people, this will not do. What I mean to say is, while most of us want to say that being human is not a status, not an existential condition, but an essential and self-evident fact, often times, in societies even today, certain people hardly enjoy the status of being human at all—at least from the perspective of certain other people and/or institutions. Thus, a person who kills a cop becomes a cop killer and is thought of as something less than human.

In wars, including civil wars between, as they say, brothers, the enemy becomes something other than and generally less than human. For certain Islamists, and in some Islamic States, Jews and infidels are not human. Some men often do not seem to treat some women as humans, and to be fair, vice versa. The so-called counter-revolutionary dissident is not human, but an enemy of the people. The bourgeois is a parasite, a leech. And so on. The all too simplistic notion that “if you qualify as a human being, you are automatically guaranteed human rights” (Searle, 2010, 181), is, well, all too simplistic. For, indeed, you have to first qualify as a human being.

Searle clarifies this when he explores the case “in which something satisfies the X term [i.e. it is an instance of the species homo sapiens] but is denied the recognition that goes with the Y term [i.e. it is not seen as a symbolic human being, but is seen rather as something other and less than human] and correspondingly denied the functions [the rights] that go with the Y status” (2010, 181). The rights exist, but an instance of the human species might well be denied those rights because he or she or it is not recognized as a member of the human community (the old sense of the outlaw, of being beyond the protection of law is relevant here), and thus is not understood to have a claim on, or a right to, those rights. It may be biologically human, but it is not symbolically human. This is the basic logic behind the reasoning of all those who are accused of violating human rights.

Searle purports to “share the commonsense assumption that you do not lose your rights in cases where they are denied or not recognized” (2010, 183).  But he also says that to be human does not mean that “you are entitled to the existence of the rights”. Contra Bentham and MacIntyre (and Corlett’s representation of Searle’s thinking), the rights exist. What being human means, or counting as human means, or should mean, is that “you are entitled to the recognition of rights that already exist” (2010, 183, my emphasis). To be human means, or should mean, that you have a right to human rights. The argument then, for Searle, is not that rights do not exist if they are not institutionalized, for he seems to be saying: they do exist. They question is: is the claimant recognized as having the right status and thus having the right to have the rights? What this then means is: “the justification of any rights that are assigned to [or claimed by] beings solely in virtue of being human will have to depend on our conception of what a human being is” (2010, 192).

Some people still don’t see political enemies, or women, or minorities, or gay people, or foreigners, or immigrants, or fetuses, or persons in vegetative states, or criminals, as human beings, and thus do not feel that they are entitled to human rights, or at least certain human rights. Perhaps a pithy way to grasp the importance of Searle’s notion that being human is a status (which, if recognized, entails the right to have rights) is to remember that animal rights activists want everyone to understand that animals, in fact, are humans too.


Corlett seems to be at loggerheads with Searle because he, Corlett, asserts or argues for the non-institutional existence of rights grounded in moral reason, and claims that Searle argues against such rights. I hope to have shown that Searle does not do this, and, to the contrary, seems to be on Corlett’s side. For Searle argues too that rights exist, that their existence can be deduced or constructed or discovered by reasonable, rational, ethical, perhaps disinterested (that is to say, impartial, neutral), members of our species—but he insists that their existence, which is not in question, does not entail the practical recognition that every biological member of the species is entitled to the right. Because in addition to the reasonable, rational, ethical people who are given to discovering or constructing, and feeling themselves bound by, human rights, there are many people who are less ethical or perhaps differently ethical, who are quite partial and very far from being disinterested, and who thus are not given to recognizing either certain people—minorities, gays, women, differently abled, Jews, poor people (the list unfortunately is quite endless)—as really human and thus automatic bearers of human rights, or the rights as rights per se.

One must recall that the point of departure for both of Searle’s book length investigations into social construction and institutionalization are what he calls the basic, non-constructed, ontologically given “brute” facts. Despite being a social constructionist, he believes that “we should at every point try to consider the biological basis of what we are discussing” (2010, 192), which leads to his “completely naturalistic conception of human life and society [which] is consistent with a belief in the existence of universal human rights” (2010, 198).

In his conclusion to his chapter on human rights, Searle reaffirms that his view of things is “consistent with a belief in the existence of universal human rights” while insisting that debates on “human rights […] cannot be ethically neutral” and in fact “require […] a certain set of values” (2010, 198). With regard to human rights he says, explicitly: “This does not mean that they are arbitrary, or that anything goes” (2010, 198). He insists that rights exist, and that they be grounded in moral reason, and thus his view is far from being incompatible, much less antithetical to that propounded by Corlett. Additionally, however, he makes a contribution to the philosophy of human rights whose importance, I think, is hard to exaggerate, when he points out that what is crucial is that their potential bearers be recognized as actual bearers, that each and every member of the human species must be recognized as a fully-fledged member of the human community and thus as entitled to the rights that accrue, automatically and inalienably, to each and every member of said community.


Armstrong, Josh. “Vision Science”. Los Angeles Review Review of Books. (2015). Accessed: 1 August 2017.

Becker, Howard. “Book Review: John R. Searle Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.” Science, Technology & Human Values 36, no. 2 (2011): 273-279.

Berger, Peter & Luckmann, Thomas. The Construction of Reality. A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Random House, 1966.

Corlett, J. Angelo. “Searle on Human Rights.” Social Epistemology 30, no. 4 (2016): 440-463.

Searle, John R. The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Free Press, 1995.

Searle, John R. Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Searle, John R. “Replies.” Analysis 71, no. 4 (2011): 733-741.

[1] Apart from any logical criticisms of Searle’s theory, what equally seems to motivate Corlett’s negative assessment of Searle’s theory of human rights is to be found in the third endnote to his article, where he writes that “the aim of this article […] is to expose Searle’s total lack of even recognizing a human rights tradition that speaks loudly against his own analysis” (2016, 472). Corlett is not the first to take issue with Searle’s blasé indifference to the work of others. Becker (2011)  complains of his failure to “show any great engagemente or familiarity with the work social scientists do” (2011, 274), while Armstrong, who declares himself a “sympathetic” reader, nonetheless notes that Searle “fails to engage” with ideas that conflict with his own, and tends to ignore the works of philosophers—especially women—that “bear directly on the themes” he discussess (2017). As Armstrong suggests, Searle often writes as if the only important philosophical voice is that of “Searle and Searle alone”. And indeed, I myself was taken aback by Searle’s total failure to mention even once the Berger and Luckman classic The Social Construction of Reality (1966) in his book The Construction of Social Reality (1995). None of this, however, is central to the present discussion.

Author Information: Adam Riggio, New Democratic Party of Canada,

Riggio, Adam. “Beyond Socrates: The Philosopher as Creative Craftsperson.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 13-21.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image credit: Diogo Duarte, via flickr

This essay is a response to Robert Frodeman’s insightful “Socratics and Anti-Socratics: The Status of Expertise,” published 22 May on this site. I hope he, the rest of the SERRC community, and our readers will forgive the lateness of my reply.

Frodeman’s essay continues his challenge to the orthodoxy of academic institutions whose detailed manifesto was Socrates Tenured. He calls us to remember the rebellious character of philosophical thought. Philosophy today is a discipline institutionalized in the university system. It is a science requiring several years of training in its techniques of research and analysis. When I say science in this context, I mean it in the sense of a disciplinary (and disciplined) field of knowledge whose producers require expertise if they’re going to build high-quality product. Think of the old-fashioned German term Wissenschaft and you will have an effective image.

At the heart of Frodeman’s argument is the image of Socrates—the persecuted activist who was executed for obnoxiously challenging the moral and political orthodoxies of his society. His recent work explores the tensions and paradoxes between free thinkers and subject matter experts. The most important question in “Socratics and Anti-Socratics” is what kind of expertise marks the philosopher in the academy, and what kind of expertise marks the philosopher as the free thinker.

Frodeman’s answer—with which I agree—is that there appear to be two kinds of expert in the discipline of philosophy. There is the sub-disciplinary subject matter expert who offers a complex body of content to be mastered. This is his Anti-Socratic category. Then there is the free thinker who acts as a gadfly in her community, the expert in destabilizing popular certainties and common sense, who offers training in the deft use of techniques to do so.

The disciplinary thinker systematizes and delivers received wisdom using institutionally sanctioned techniques. The critical free thinker asks incisive questions that identify the material shortcomings and paradoxes of received wisdom when it’s put into practice. The two constitute a single movement in thinking among a community. A disciplinary approach to understanding the world becomes mainstream and institutionalized, and critics show how those mainstream ideas have become inadequate to the world in which they practice. Yet for all its questions, Socratic philosophy leaves the most important inquiry hanging: Now what?

Frodeman’s duality of an opposition between Anti-Socratic institutional experts and Socratic critical experts is fundamentally unfinished. His picture results in a tension and a conflict that appears insoluble. We must show how criticism is institutionalized to become a new mainstream better suited to the current era. An act of innovation in thought must complete this movement, and prepare for it to repeat as the new model of knowledge ossifies and faces its critics in the future.

Who Are a Socrates and a Protagoras Today?

But such innovation is no systematic synthesis out of the SparkNotes version of Hegel. That would be too simple. For instance, there need not be any content of the original calcified disciplinary framework that survives its creative assault—progress may include sweeping away the old way of doing things entirely.

Take the following analogy as an illustration: picture an artistic scene and society that has been entirely corrupted through a gentrifying city, and the collapse of any financial investment except for a few big-name producers. Rhetorically speaking, who in their right mind would ask Damien Hirst what is new, hip, boundary-breaking, and exciting in installation art in 2017?

Same thing for an academic discipline—major players who are at the end of long careers and have built significant institutional support are rarely connected to fresh younger scholars pursuing previously-neglected new directions. For the sake of this argument, lay aside—but please never ignore—the more vile and corrupt forms of decadence into which an institutionally-established academic all too often falls upon their old age.

Frodeman began his short essay with an example of a contemporary debate among the disciplinary community of academic university philosophy and the different lay experts of activist communities. This was Rebecca Tuvel’s essay in Hypatia on the possibility of transracial identity. The reception of “In Defence of Transracialism,” to put it mildly, inspired some controversy. The immediate, most hostile, response was that Tuvel’s article had done a kind of violence to transgender people. The intense criticism was called a “witch hunt” in New York Magazine.[1] In response, some members of Hypatia’s editorial staff issued an apology for having published Tuvel’s article in the first place. Higher-ranking editorial and board staff of Hypatia then denounced the apology, and some editors have resigned from their positions.

Perhaps the most straightforward lesson we can learn from Tuvel’s transracialism controversy is that academic research journals should simplify their editorial structures and have policies that clearly define the boundaries of responsibility and power for each staff member. Frodeman sees a more profound lesson, where this transracialism controversy is an illuminating example of different visions of expertise. Tuvel’s supporters take the stance, generally described, that her qualifications as a researcher specializing in feminist philosophy and the study of race and gender legitimate her right to articulate and defend her stand in the public sphere. Tuvel’s critics, generally speaking, hold that her legitimacy to speak on transgender issues should be rooted in material experiences of transgender life.

How would this fit into the binary Frodeman develops of Socratic and Anti-Socratic thought? Anti-Socratic thinking grounds the legitimacy of expertise in disciplinary knowledge of the academy. Socratic thinking focusses on challenging that disciplinary legitimacy, on grounds that the subject matter expert misses important aspects of reality thanks to its concentration on a limited number of ways of knowing. The expert speaks with self-assured certainty, while the gadfly challenges the expert by identifying important aspects of life that the expert’s disciplinary lens misses. So Tuvel would be an expert, that expertise allowing her article to walk us through a variety of different ways to understand what a genuine transracial identity could be. Her critics would be the gadflies, interrogating the limits of Tuvel’s expertise, showing how her disciplinary approach misses aspects of transgender people’s lived reality that are critical to understanding the material possibilities of trans existence.

Limits of Institutional and Critical Knowledge

I want to spend some more time analyzing the Tuvel controversy and some related issues, because I think this case reveals kinds of expertise that can supplement Frodeman’s vision. First, the institutionally-sanctioned expert describes some investigation into a real phenomenon using her disciplinary tools. So what tools did institutionally-sanctioned expert Rebecca Tuvel use to explore the possibility conditions of transracial identity?

If you read “In Defence of Transracialism,” you will find that Tuvel has masterfully used philosophical methods of conceptual analysis. Her essay fits seamlessly into the tradition of moral, ethical, and political philosophy established with G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica. She examines a number of different ways in which we can conceive of the personal and physical transformations of gender and race, most of which other philosophers in the field of feminist and gender studies have developed or analyzed.

Tuvel’s overall argument in the essay starts with the presumption that transgender identities are legitimate, then runs through several different ways we can understand the ‘trans’ of the transgender such that transracial identity could be legitimate. She concludes, from her analysis, that while several conceptions of transgender’s ‘trans’ cannot apply successfully to transracial’s ‘trans,’ there is at least one that can. Therefore, Tuvel concludes, it is possible to develop your own transracial identity, although the circumstances in which such an identity would be legitimate are much more narrow than those for transgender identity.

That’s all fine in its own context. At the same time, “In Defence of Transracialism” is clear evidence that the tradition and methods of philosophy which Principia Ethica began is out of steam and out of step. These methods cannot offer the insights that moral debates of our era require. There are several reasons why they fall short. One is a matter of audience. The essays published in journals like Hypatia are intended only for other disciplinary experts who have been sanctioned as such by the discipline’s institutions. They have been hired or are on the job market for positions in university humanities departments. The disciplinary community was not where the intense critique of Tuvel came from: it was the community of intersectional political activists. They had very different priorities in political thought and engagement from institutionalized academics, which made them an inappropriate audience for Tuvel’s explicitly conceptual essay.

An important aspect of this audience mismatch comes from a more fundamental way in which the academic mainstream style of moral and political thinking through conceptual analysis falls short of what our times call such thinking to achieve. Frodeman understands the controversy over Tuvel’s article as a matter of different standards of expertise competing over which will provide the popular ground rules for investigations of various possible trans identities. That was an important part of the controversy, but I think the idea which sparked the most fiery debate was over the real-life issue that brought the notion of transracial identity to public consciousness in the first place: the human train wreck named Rachel Dolezal.

When You Are Caught Unexpectedly in Reality

The debate over Tuvel’s essay unfolded as a matter of competing standards of expertise, what gives someone the legitimacy to speak on trans issues in public venues. However, in the eyes of her most strident critics, Tuvel’s primary offence had nothing to do with that, but that she introduced her inquiry as a comparison of actual transgender people with Dolezal. It suggested that Dolezal’s demented idea of transracial identity was of the same type as transgender people’s painful and risky innovations in the material possibilities of human identity. Tuvel’s argument unfolded at a highly abstract level of purely conceptual analysis about the possibility conditions for a transracial identity that considered no real people. She discussed only the ontological and ethical possibility conditions of a legitimate transracial identity.

The problem was that her introduction mentioned Dolezal as having brought the idea of transracial identity so forcefully to public consciousness. In those few first paragraphs, Tuvel used a casual, non-technical vocabulary. Any institution-bound academic humanities researcher would interpret such vocabulary as signalling the cursory scene setting of an introductory paragraph. University academics are encased so thoroughly in a professional world and discourse of experts that they know such words are inconsequential. It is common sense that the vague words of the introduction were precisely introductory, and that the words which really mattered would follow.

Outside the discourse of the university world, where political arguments are literally and frequently matters of real people’s lives and deaths, it is common sense that the most important words of a politically relevant essay are its links to material reality. They are the words that explain why what follows matters to all our lives. In Tuvel’s essay, the only words that linked her analysis to the lives of real people was her brief comment about Rachel Dolezal’s media circus. So the common sense of a political activist would take Tuvel’s essay as an explicit, if dry, comparison of transgender people to Dolezal herself. The institutional knowledge of Anti-Socratics had failed so epically in practical matters.

A Socratic Voice in the Marketplace of Content

It is clear from the most insightful and accurate examinations of Dolezal’s priorities and personality that her own transracial identity possesses nothing of what Tuvel herself could most charitably grant even an inkling of legitimacy. I want to focus on the only piece of philosophical writing I could find that cut through the idiotic ejaculation of witless soundbites that made up the enraging, sorry media spectacle of Dolezal. When I call this essay philosophical, I use the term in a very Socratic sense. Ijeoma Oluo isn’t a university professor. She is a Seattle-based journalist. But her interview with Rachel Dolezal has a Socratic spirit: a determined, intelligent interrogation of a mystifying world, aiming to understand what order there might be to its politics and morality.

I do not want to walk through Oluo’s entire article. You should read it yourself, because even after I discuss its most salient points for my own discussion, her interview itself is rich with ideas. It could be the seed of a novel with the psychological depth of Alice Munro, whose protagonist is as vile and magnetic as the greasiest creations of Mordecai Richler. The advantage (or horror) of the story is that its protagonist is a real person. Tuvel’s entirely abstract approach remains blind to what Oluo’s Socratic interrogation of the real woman Dolezal discovered: the practical impossibility of genuine transracial existence.

Oluo’s interview with Dolezal reveals the latter’s attitude and approach to her transracial life. Dolezal herself has not adopted a transracial identity for anything like the reasons transgender people pursue their identity. A transgender person faces incredible danger because of their identity.

Transgender people are frequent targets of violent hate crime, including murder. They often experience discrimination, both from fellow citizens and from aggressively transphobic elected politicians. Such hateful atmospheres of daily massive and minor persecutions cause terrifying mental health problems. Suicide rates of transgender people are horrifyingly high.

Rachel Dolezal has experienced none of this suffering in her attempt to live as a black woman. Oluo’s interview reveals that she believes herself to have suffered at a similar intensity, that she takes herself to be a victim of persecution. Oluo’s interview with Dolezal is a philosophical conversation about the nature and purpose of the latter’s own transracial identity. Its nature is in a decision that Dolezal made, based on her shoddy understanding of what social construction means. Dolezal understands race to be socially constructed, but she believes that the socially constructed is entirely unreal, a matter of simple human decisions about what to believe in.

Revealing Our Inadequacies

As any professional practitioner of the humanities knows, socially constructed systems of knowledge are as durable and resistant to change as a society itself. Anyone who has read any accessible, affordable, straightforward book about social theory knows that. Rachel Dolezal chose to become black to demonstrate, through her own example, the unreality of race. Oluo’s interview revealed Dolezal’s self-image as a messianic martyr ushering a post-race society into existence. She sees herself as a one-woman harbinger of a utopian humanity. The ego, self-importance, and ignorance on display is dazzling.

Even Tuvel gives a very glib account of social construction in “In Defence of Transracialism,” describing the practical possibility of genuine racial change like so: “Although race change is theoretically possible, whether it is practically possible will depend on a society’s willingness to adjust its rules for racial categorization to better accommodate individual self-identification.” As a scholar of inter-disciplinary feminist traditions, she should know better.

But the rarefied abstraction of her style prevents her from engaging with the physical difficulties of changing socially constructed institutions and cultural mores. Tuvel’s only engagement with the problems social construction’s inertia causes for a transracial identity is when she leans on Sally Haslanger’s conception of race. Haslanger’s notion that race is a matter of how others see you is interesting, but its conception of identity sticks to a community’s interpellation—a technical elaboration on the basic notion that race is a matter of how others see you.

These ideas are simply not adequate to the psychological and ethical complexity of Dolezal’s actual derangement. The thinking of this real woman, not an abstract consideration of the possibility conditions of transracial identity, has driven this political discourse about what the boundaries of racial and ethnic identity can be.

What Would a Creative Philosophical Discourse Look Like?

Oluo’s interview was never written with an eye on the controversy over Tuvel’s article or her arguments. Nonetheless, comparing how both writers approach the issue of transraciality illustrates the ossifying tendency of institutionalized disciplinary thinking and the fire in the belly of a Socratic interrogator. Tuvel’s approach to analyzing the possibility conditions of transracial existence was so tone-deaf because she was concerned only with a technical academic debate in the language of a narrow humanities discipline.

Hers was an argument entirely for the world of scholarship, and Tuvel’s expertise was entirely within that narrow disciplinary scope. She might privately maintain the political relevance of the issues she discussed, but how she discussed them utterly sidestepped the issues’ political relevance. Oluo is an improvement, her work being rooted in the critical interrogation of a real person’s actual values. Her thinking and writing shows the acuity of a philosophically sharp mind employing complex concepts of race, ethnicity, and social construction to the values of a real person, and that person’s attempt to impose her values on a hostile world.

The establishment voice has spoken and been shouted down. The gadfly has revealed the sad truth and could only walk away, exasperated. The camel and the lion have had their say. Can anything be built from this?

The most important groundwork of building a creative philosophical discourse is to admit the inadequacy of all the concepts you know best. The politics of race and nation throughout North America, Europe, southern Asia, and Africa today calls for publicly engaged philosophers and other humanities researchers and writers to engage and develop new ideas to battle racism and violence.

Rachel Dolezal’s twisted reasoning is an unfortunate blend of philosophical incompetence and delusions of grandeur. Ijeoma Oluo is uniquely perceptive in having understood this, and having been able to identify through the shrieking buzz of Dolezal’s extended media circus the precise ways in which her reasoning fails. Rebecca Tuvel fares far better than Dolezal herself, but still relies on the bloodless detachment of scholarly debate to engage with issues of many people’s real lives and deaths. Both Socratic interrogative criticism and Anti-Socratic disciplinary expertise have proven inadequate to the task.

The approach to racial politics that missed the mark most wildly was Dolezal’s own, for two reasons. She failed to understand the material power of socially constructed norms and institutions, and she was motivated by an egotistical desire to make herself a messiah for the revolution of a raceless world. Tuvel at least understood enough about the humanities’ scholarly debates on the nature of race to say something coherent. But her scholarly approach failed to comprehend the real urgency of race politics for our current moment. Worse, she did not even understand how her work would be received outside the scholarly community.

Both her article itself, as well as the reactions of Hypatia’s editors, supplies further evidence that disciplinary academic training does not prepare one for effective activism.

Tuvel’s failure was clearly empirical. She did not understand what is at stake for real people in questions of transgender and transracial identities, or at least wrote as if those stakes did not matter for her question. Oluo’s greatest success in her interview with Dolezal about transracial identity was her application of an incisive philosophical mind to an empirical case, understanding the ideological and political priorities of a real person.

A New Empiricism: Material Thinking

So whatever philosophical approach to political thinking succeeds will be essentially empirical, a unity of conceptual rigour and meticulous, systematic observation. Philosophers must understand human actions with the same analytic attention to detail as they have understood concepts and ideas for the last century. Such analysis must understand human action at the individual level of single people’s decisions and beliefs in their daily lives. But it must also understand the systematic dimensions of action, the complex web of relationships in which human activity is interlinked across the globe.

Techniques for achieving this analysis of action can, at least most obviously for now, be found in the discipline of ethnography. This includes rich skills of observation, understanding how reasons, ideology, and relationships throughout and across social networks, impact the development of personalities and self-conceptions. Philosophical reflection should no longer begin only with concepts, but with the personalities that put concepts into practical action through their individual and community’s ideologies and moralities.

Begin from understanding human thought in the real world of practice, where people are making a living and building their lives. Probe people’s political beliefs, moral ideals, relationships with their communities, countries, and the rest of the world, as well as how a person actually understands who and what she is. Analyze those concepts systematically. That means understanding how those concepts shape a person’s thinking and life priorities, as well as their internal coherence, paradoxes, and contradictions. Analyze how those concepts fit together into a broader philosophy or ideology, their coherence, paradoxes, and contradictions in co-existence as they build a single world-view. Understand what kind of world and personality those concepts will build in a person or community that lives according to their implications.

Begin with the world, work in thought, and let thought guide you to a better understanding of the world. Then communicate with the people whose ideologies, ideas, and philosophies you are analyzing. One of the central reasons for the enraged reaction to Tuvel’s essay was that she wrote it in a format appropriate only for journals of the professional academic humanities.

Even subtle differences in writing style helped doom her popular reception. She wrote her introduction as an unimportant prologue, where many in the popular audience read her introduction as a substantive hook. Adapting philosophical writing style to a popular intellectual audience with composition techniques from popular current affairs and journalism genres can be an aid to clarity and true practical impact. I am, of course, not talking about some institutional impact factor rating, but the real impact that philosophy can have: simultaneously interpreting the world and changing it.

Creative developments in philosophy come in many forms. They are all responses to changes in a society where typical ways of thinking and talking about ideas were shown to be inadequate. Different circumstances brought this inadequacy about each time philosophical creativity became required. We need to acknowledge when the old ways of doing things will not work as they did before, and see what has changed in the world to make our old ways ineffective. We must understand the causes of our own obsolescence, and upgrade our practice and skill-set to keep up with the demands of a world that will not bow to whatever is convenient for our established approaches to knowledge.


“Editors Quit at Feminist Journal that Compared Transgenders to Rachel Dolezal.” The College Fix (2017):

Flaherty, Colleen. “(Another) Shake-up At Hypatia.” Inside Higher Education (2017):

Frodeman, Robert. “Socratics and Anti-Socratics: The Status of Expertise.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 42-44.

Jeffries, Stuart. “German Philosophy Has Finally Gone Viral. Will That Be Its Undoing?” Foreign Policy Magazine (2017):

Oluo, Ijeoma. “The Heart of Whiteness: Ijeoma Oluo Interviews Rachel Dolezal, the White Woman Who Identifies as Black.” The Stranger (2017):

Singal, Jesse. “This Is What a Modern-Day Witch Hunt Looks Like.” New York Magazine (2017):

Tuvel, Rebecca. “In Defence of Transracialism.” Hypatia 32, no. 2 (2017): 263-278.

Zamudio-Suaréz, Fernanda. “Months After ‘Transracialism’ Flap, Controversy Still Rages at Feminist Philosophy Journal” Chronicle of Higher Education (2017):

[1] The use of the term “witch hunt” can easily be interpreted as a politically-charged denunciation of Tuvel critics with the same terms of abuse that progressive activists receive from Trumpist and alt-right conservatives. Voices in the academic community who are generally conservative about the institution have been unsparing in denouncing Tuvel’s critics. Although they may have overreacted, the editors who issued the apology in the light of controversy no more deserve aggression and pile-ons than Tuvel herself. Brian Leiter, a reliable weathervane of belligerent conservatism in the academic humanities, has been especially vile to former Hypatia editor Cressida Hayes, describing her as hypocritical, unprofessional, and appalling.

Author Information: Christopher M. Brown, University of Tennessee at Martin,

Brown, Christopher M. “Some Objections to Moti Mizrahi’s ‘What’s So Bad About Scientism?’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 42-54.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image credit: Tom Hilton, via flickr

In these critical remarks, I raise a number of objections to the arguments Moti Mizrahi (2017) employs in his attempt to defend (the usefulness of) a position he calls Weak Scientism.

Is Weak Scientism Really Scientism?  

According to Moti Mizrahi, we can distinguish Strong Scientism—“Of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the only ‘real knowledge’ (2017, 353)—from Weak Scientism—“Of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the best knowledge” (2017, 354). Mizrahi goes on to argue Weak Scientism is both the position traditional advocates of scientism should adopt and the position those who want to defend philosophy against charges of uselessness should attack (2017, 354).[1] Many contemporary philosophers, specifically, and academics, generally, accept Weak Scientism (or at least a position that closely resembles it).

If only for the reason that it focuses our attention upon an influential contemporary philosophical perspective, Mizrahi’s paper is a very useful one. That being said, Weak Scientism is not really strong enough to warrant the appellation, ‘scientism.’ For one could accept Weak Scientism and not only agree that philosophical knowledge exists (as Mizrahi notes), but also think philosophical knowledge is extremely valuable, indeed, nearly as valuable as scientific knowledge itself. For that matter, one could accept Weak Scientism and think that religious knowledge is nearly as valuable as scientific knowledge.

In fact, if Mizrahi’s Weak Scientism is really only a claim about the relative value of different academic forms of knowledge, as Mizrahi seems to admit in a couple of places (see, e.g., 2017, 354; 356), then one could accept Weak Scientism and think that personal knowledge, moral knowledge, and religious knowledge are more valuable than scientific knowledge. One might suppose, therefore, that neither traditional advocates of scientism, such as Alex Rosenberg (see, e.g., 2011), nor those who think philosophy is useless, such as, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (see, e.g., 2010) and Stephen Weinberg (see, e.g., 1994), will find Mizrahi’s Weak Scientism to be a position that is quite strong enough to communicate their own (negative) attitudes toward philosophy or philosophical knowledge or non-scientific forms of knowledge more generally.

How is Weak Scientism by Itself Relevant Where the Philosophy-is-Useless-Objection is Concerned?

Mizrahi says: “I propose . . . Weak Scientism is the definition of scientism those philosophers who seek to defend philosophy against accusations of uselessness . . . should attack if they want to do philosophy a real service” (2017, 354). But why think that? For it is hard to see how the philosophy-is-useless charge gets off the ground just given Weak Scientism. For example, in order to get the uselessness charge from Weak Scientism we might argue as follows:

1. If scientific knowledge is better than philosophical knowledge, then philosophy is useless.
2. Scientific knowledge is better than philosophical knowledge.
3. Therefore, philosophy is useless [from (1) and (2), MP].

Even if one grants (2), why accept (1)? For, clearly, the consequent of (1) does not follow from its antecedent. Indeed, it wouldn’t follow even if the value of philosophical knowledge were quite a bit lower than scientific knowledge.

To make good on the philosophy-is-useless claim from a scientistic stance we need something much stronger than Weak Scientism, for example:

4. Only cognitions that rise to the perfection of knowledge are useful.
5. If scientific knowledge is the only kind of knowledge, then philosophy is useless [from (4)].
6. Scientific knowledge is the only kind of knowledge.
3. Therefore, philosophy is useless [from (5) and (6), MP].

But we don’t have anything like the argument above in Mizrahi’s paper. Therefore, Mizrahi’s attempt to mediate the discussion between defenders of philosophy, on the one hand, and defenders of the philosophy-is-useless claim, on the other, by way of Weak Scientism is a non-starter.

Problems for Mizrahi’s Argument for Weak Scientism, Given the Number and Kind of Philosophical Assumptions at Play in the Argument

Mizrahi argues that Weak Scientism is defensible, namely, it can be defended against objections (2017, 354). One objection to Weak Scientism he fields is

(O1) It is epistemically impossible to offer scientific evidence for Weak Scientism.

Mizrahi does not say why (O1) should be thought to be an objection to Weak Scientism other than noting the objection is inspired by the self-reference problem for the verifiability criterion of meaning (2017, 355). At any rate, Mizrahi thinks (O1) is false and defends the falsity of (O1) by offering what he takes to be a scientific argument for Weak Scientism. Here follows a schema of that argument:

7. One kind of knowledge is better than another quantitatively or qualitatively.
8. Scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) in terms of the number of journal articles published and the number of journal articles cited.
9. Scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) insofar as scientific theories are more successful than non-scientific theories (including philosophical theories) where the success of a theory is understood in terms of its explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success.
10. Therefore, scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific forms of knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) both quantitatively and qualitatively [from (8) and (9)].
11. Therefore, scientific forms of knowledge are better than non-scientific forms of knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) [from (7) and (10)].

In his defenses of (8) and (9), Mizrahi makes quite a few controversial philosophical assumptions. This section lists some of these controversial philosophical assumptions, discusses the significance of their functioning as background assumptions for Mizrahi’s argument for (8) and (9), and, at the end of the section, develops four general problems for Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism, given the central role these controversial philosophical assumptions play within that argument.

First Assumption

The first controversial philosophical assumption at play in Mizrahi’s defense of (8) is his decision to think about knowledge teleologically or operationally. He states that for the purposes of his argument: “‘knowledge’ is meant to refer to the aim or goal of inquiry or the final product of inquiry” (2017, 353). In another place, citing the work of Francis Sparshott, Mizrahi states, “[f]or the purposes of this paper, I have operationalized ‘philosophy’ as simply ‘what [professional] philosophers do’ (Sparshott 1998, 20)” (2012, 356). Mizrahi’s reasons for thinking about academic knowledge pragmatically are themselves pragmatic: not only are the natures of philosophy and science matters of great debate (2017, 356), but, if Mizrahi does not think about knowledge teleologically or operationally, it won’t be possible for him to measure the quantity of knowledge in scientific and non-scientific disciplines, something Mizrahi needs to do in order to make his argument for (8).

Second Assumption

Mizrahi’s pragmatic approach to thinking about knowledge is itself, of course, philosophically controversial. But, in addition, Mizrahi’s defining knowledge as a goal of inquiry is a way of thinking about knowledge that seems to entail many forms of non-academic cognitions can’t count as forms of knowledge. Indeed, much human knowledge is obtained without any sort of explicit inquiry on our part, as Mizrahi himself concedes, e.g., the knowledge of the heavens that comes by way of lazily gazing up at the night sky (2017, 354). So, we have a second controversial philosophical assumption as a background assumption for Mizrahi’s argumentation: knowledge is the goal of inquiry.

In order to justify his focusing on academic forms of knowledge for the purposes of his defense of Weak Scientism, Mizrahi notes that scientists such as Hawking, Mlodinow, and Weinberg have academic philosophy in particular in mind when they criticize philosophy, and Mizrahi thinks that philosophers who criticize scientism are comparing academic philosophy with science when they do so (2017, 356). In arguing for this latter claim, Mizrahi cites Sorell (2013, x) as a representative example. Mizrahi writes:

. . . when he defines scientism as ‘a matter of putting too high a value on science’ Sorell (2013) compares science to ‘other branches of learning or culture’ (emphasis added). Accordingly, it is clear that the debate between scientists who are critical of philosophy and philosophers who charge critics of philosophy with ‘scientism’ is about academic knowledge produced by academic disciplines, as opposed to more basic sources of knowledge, such as perception, introspection, and the like (2017, 356).

There are a couple of things to note about this passage. First, Mizrahi apparently feels justified in equating Sorell’s expression, branches of learning and culture with academic knowledge. That’s puzzling. Does Mizrahi really think (Sorell thinks) that all learning and culture is confined to what happens within the walls of the academy? Second, we might ask about basic—or non-basic—sources of knowledge such as knowledge of persons, moral knowledge, and religious knowledge. Does Weak Scientism say scientific knowledge is better than those forms of knowledge? At any rate, Mizrahi seems to imply in a couple of places (see, e.g., Mizrahi 2017, 354; 356) he is really defending a position weaker than Weak Scientism in his paper, one we might call, Very Weak Scientism:

(Very Weak Scientism) When it comes to the kinds of knowledge produced within the academy, scientific knowledge is the best.

Third Assumption

A third controversial philosophical assumption at play in Mizrahi’s argument for (8) is the view that the quantity of knowledge of each academic discipline—in terms of both its output and impact—can be measured. Mizrahi recognizes that the position that knowledge can be quantitatively measured is a philosophical assumption, but he does not see this as a problem, since an argument’s making philosophical assumptions is not a sufficient condition for it counting as a philosophical rather than a scientific argument (2017, 356). Grant Mizrahi’s claim that an argument’s making philosophical assumptions is not a sufficient condition for it counting as a philosophical rather than a scientific argument. But the point here is that the view that academic knowledge can be quantifiably measured is a philosophically contentious one, to say the least.

To see why that is so, consider again that in order to measure the amount of scientific and non-scientific, academic knowledge—as Mizrahi needs to do in order to make his argument for premise (8)—he needs to define knowledge teleologically—as the goal or aim of an academic discipline—or operationally—as what academics produce. But thinking about the nature of (academic) knowledge in that pragmatic way is philosophically controversial. Therefore, thinking we can measure quantitatively the amount of knowledge across academic disciplines is itself philosophically controversial, since the latter assumption only makes sense on a pragmatic account of knowledge, which is itself a controversial philosophical assumption.

Fourth Assumption

The fourth controversial philosophical assumption Mizrahi makes use of in his argument for (8) is the assumption that the quantity of knowledge of each academic discipline—in terms of both output and impact—can be accurately measured by looking at the publications of participants within that discipline. Let us assume, if only for the sake of argument, that the quantity of academic knowledge produced by academic disciplines can be accurately measured. Compared to the quantity of knowledge produced by academic publications, some academics believe that just as much, if not more, knowledge is acquired or disseminated within a discipline by way of the good teaching that goes on within that discipline.

To measure the quantity of knowledge within a discipline merely by examining the academic publications within that discipline shows a decided bias in favor of the philosophy of education currently dominating contemporary universities, one which places the highest value on making new discoveries[2] (whether about starfish or about some text from the past), a philosophy of education which is itself rooted in an empirical scientific way of thinking. So, not only is this fourth philosophical assumption contentious, it is also a question-begging assumption: for we would expect the output and impact of scientific knowledge to fare better than non-scientific academic knowledge in an environment where knowledge is primarily understood in terms of publishing new discoveries.

To put the point another way, sampling just the publications produced within academic disciplines will not present us with a representative sample of knowledge produced within all academic disciplines. According to a traditional liberal arts understanding of education, teaching as a means of passing on knowledge from one generation to another is just as important, if not more so, than the making of new discoveries, and that context, we might think, is more fecund for the output (teaching) and impact (learning) of knowledge in liberal arts such as literature and philosophy. To put the point here still another way, it looks as though Mizrahi is actually defending the following thesis in his paper:

(Very, Very Weak Scientism) When it comes to the knowledge that is produced by academic publications, scientific publications are the best.

Fifth Assumption

In arguing that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge in terms of quantity of knowledge, Mizrahi makes a fifth controversial philosophical assumption: the quantity of knowledge—in terms of output and impact—of each academic discipline can be successfully measured by looking simply at the journal articles published (output) and cited (impact) within that discipline.

There is no doubt that the journal publications within a field give one a good sense of what subjects are receiving attention within that discipline at a particular time. And this includes new discoveries and new arguments within a discipline. But to reduce academic knowledge to the number of journal articles produced and cited within these disciplines neglects to take into account important differences between disciplines concerning the relevance of the history of those academic disciplines for knowledge produced in those disciplines now. For example, the history of science is less relevant for the practice of science today than is the history of philosophy for the practice of contemporary philosophy.

Although historians sometimes study philosophical texts from the past merely as historical artifacts, many contemporary philosophers treat important philosophical texts from the past as extremely—even indispensably—relevant for the practice of philosophy today. To count only journal articles when quantifying over impact of the knowledge of a discipline is, again, to adopt a scientific, discovery-oriented, approach to thinking about the nature of knowledge. For how often do the works of Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Dostoevsky, just for starters, continue to have research impact on the work of historians, social scientists, theologians, literature professors, not to mention, philosophers? So Mizrahi’s argument either begs the question against non-scientist academics for another reason—it neglects to count citations of great thinkers from the past—or, by focusing only on the citation of journal articles, the sample Mizrahi uses to make his inductive generalization is simply not a representative one. Or, perhaps Mizrahi is actually defending a weaker thesis yet in his paper:

(Very, Very, Very Weak Scientism): When it comes to the knowledge that is produced by academic journals, knowledge that comes from scientific academic journals is the best.

Sixth Assumption

There is a sixth controversial philosophical assumption that Mizrahi makes in arguing for (8), namely, each piece of knowledge acquired in a discipline should be treated equally where measuring its quantity is concerned. As we’ve seen, Mizrahi thinks scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge because scientists publish more journal articles than non-scientists and the journal articles published by scientists are cited more often—and so have a greater “research impact”—than do the journal articles published by non-scientists (2017, 355-58).

Consider an explanation alternative to the one Mizrahi offers for why there are fewer non-scientific academic papers produced and cited than is the case with scientific papers, and consider just the discipline of philosophy. We might think scientific journal articles get cited more often than do philosophy journal articles simply because, at any given time, there is more consensus among scientists than among philosophers. And, as David Papineau (2017) has recently suggested, perhaps the higher amount of disagreement among philosophers compared to scientists is due to the fact that philosophy is harder than science. If Papineau is correct, then perhaps there is also less output of philosophical knowledge when compared to science, not because science is in some sense better than philosophy, but because it is simply harder to arrive at philosophical knowledge than scientific knowledge.[3]

Consider also Aristotle’s famous claim that a little knowledge about the noblest things is more desirable than a lot of knowledge about less noble things.[4] Mizrahi’s argument assumes Aristotle is wrong. That too is a controversial philosophical assumption. For it is an honest question to ask how we should compare, in terms of relative value, a smaller amount of knowledge about a more important topic—say philosophical topics such as, the nature of God, the nature of the human person, or the best form of government—to a greater amount of knowledge about a less important topic—say topics studied within scientific disciplines, such as stars and starfish.

Seventh Assumption

In his attempt to defend the thesis that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge, Mizrahi assumes that a theory A is qualitatively better than a theory B if A is more successful than B (2017, 358). He thus thinks about a theory’s qualitative value in pragmatic terms. So we have a seventh controversial philosophical assumption in the background of Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism.

Eighth Assumption

An eighth controversial philosophical assumption Mizrahi employs—also in his argument for (9)—is the notion that a theory A is more successful than a theory B if A is more explanatorily successful than B, more instrumentally successful than B, and more predictively successful than B. Mizrahi defends this philosophical account of the successfulness of a theory by way of citing the work of some contemporary philosophers of science concerning the criteria for a successful scientific theory, which philosophers of science speak of a theory’s success in terms of its explanatory power, its instrumental success, and its predictive success (2017, 358). Apparently, Mizrahi thinks these criteria for a successful scientific theory can be rightfully applied as the measure of success for a theory, simpliciter.

But why think a good philosophical theory should enjoy predictive success, i.e., the power to “make novel predictions that are borne out by observation or experimentation” (Mizrahi 2017, 358) or meet ‘the criterion of testability,’ i.e., “As a general rule of thumb, choose the explanation that yields independently testable predictions” (2017, 360)? To think that a theory T is successful only if—or to the extent that—it enjoys predictive success or testability is to beg the question against non-scientific ways of knowing, ways of knowing that do not, by their very nature, employ controlled experiments and empirical tests as an aspect of their methodologies. As Edward Feser has noted (2014, 23), to compare the epistemic values of science and philosophy and fault philosophy for not being good at making predictions is like comparing metal detectors and gardening tools and concluding gardening tools are not as good as metal detectors because gardening tools do not allow us to successfully detect for metal.

Are good philosophical theories instrumentally successful, i.e., “theories [that] allow us to intervene in nature and causally manipulate entities, events, and processes” (Mizrahi 2017, 358)? It depends on what one means by ‘theories that allow us to intervene in nature and causally manipulate entities, events, and processes.’ If, by that expression, one means “thinking that leads to curing diseases or building bridges and other pieces of technology,” then philosophical theories will, we might think, not compare favorably with scientific ones.[5] But, again, philosophy by definition isn’t in that sort of business.

So to say science is qualitatively better than philosophy because science leads to technological innovations is like saying instrumental jazz is qualitatively better than Gregorian chant because jazz makes use of musical instruments. On the other hand, if by ‘intervene in nature,’ etc. one means “doing that which conduces to human happiness,” then it certainly will not be obvious that scientific theories are qualitatively better than philosophical ones, unless Mizrahi also assumes that human beings are better off with modern technology than without it. If so, we will need to add another controversial philosophical assumption to the (growing) list of controversial philosophical assumptions at play in Mizrahi’s argument in defense of Weak Scientism.

On the other hand, Mizrahi is correct that good philosophical theories explain things. But Mizrahi is skeptical about whether philosophical theses such as external world realism or scientific realism explain more than do competing anti-realist theories, so he concludes that philosophical theories do not compare favorably with good scientific theories in terms of their explanatory power. Whether Mizrahi is correct in that judgment depends upon just what a philosophical theory needs to explain, e.g., does it, all things being equal, need to make sense of common-sense intuitions about reality? In addition, we might wonder whether philosophical theories that count as responses to skeptical theories really represent the explanatory power of the best philosophical theories. For it is notoriously difficult to overcome skepticism on the skeptic’s own terms. But what about the explanatory success of Aristotle’s hylemorphic dualism as a theory of substantial change, or a natural-law/virtue-ethical theory as a theory for why human flourishing requires noble human conduct, or theism as an explanation for the rationality of believing in the reliability of cognitive faculties that have arisen by way of an evolutionary process, to pick just a few examples of philosophical theories that have great explanatory power?

Of course, none of the theories just mentioned are believed by even a majority of contemporary philosophers. But that not all—or that even a majority of—contemporary philosophers agree about the relative explanatory value of a philosophical theory A is no good argument that A does not actually explain what it sets out to explain—and better than do other theories. To think that a philosophical theory A is successful only if all, or a majority of, philosophers accept A is, we might think, to misconstrue the nature of the philosophical enterprise and the kinds of questions philosophy treats. It is again to beg the question against distinctively philosophical methodologies, which differ in kind from the consensus-inviting methodologies of empirical science.

Ninth Assumption

A ninth controversial philosophical assumption at work in Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism is the assumption that each piece of knowledge acquired in a discipline should be treated equally where measuring its quality is concerned. Assume, if only for the sake of argument, that we should use the same criteria to evaluate the relative success of a scientific theory and a non-scientific theory. And assume also the following Aristotelian epistemological axiom: less certain knowledge (or less explanatorily successful knowledge or less instrumentally successful knowledge or less testable knowledge) about a nobler subject, e.g., God or human persons, is, all other things being equal, more valuable than more certain knowledge (or more explanatorily successful knowledge or more instrumentally successful knowledge or more testable knowledge) about a less noble subject, e.g., stars or starfish.

Consider, then, a piece of philosophical knowledge P and a piece of scientific knowledge S, where P constitutes knowledge of a nobler subject than S. If S enjoys greater explanatory power and more instrumental success and greater testability when compared to P, it won’t follow that S is qualitatively better than P. In other words, contrary to what Mizrahi wants to assume, we might think philosophers and some other non-scientific academicians treat subjects of greater existential/axiological import than the subjects treated by scientists. Admitting as much, of course, does not mean thinking scientific knowledge has no value. Just as the advocate of Weak Scientism might think philosophical knowledge has great value, so the critic of Weak Scientism might think scientific knowledge has great value.

Four General Points

Having noted (at least) nine controversial philosophical assumptions Mizrahi makes in arguing for Weak Scientism, one can make four general points.

First, it seems reasonable to reject some—even all—of the controversial philosophical assumptions that function as background assumptions in Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism. Indeed, we’ve examined some reasons for rejecting some of these assumptions. Therefore, a number of serious philosophical objections remain for the argumentative strategy Mizrahi employs to defend Weak Scientism.

Second, as we’ve seen, many, if not all, of the nine contestable philosophical assumptions Mizrahi employs in his argument for Weak Scientism one would accept only if one already accepted Weak Scientism or Strong Scientism or some position closely allied with one of those positions. One might be excused for thinking, then, that Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism is question-begging.

Third, Mizrahi is at pains to maintain that his argument for Weak Scientism is a scientific and not a philosophical argument, and this because a significant part of his argument for Weak Scientism not only draws on scientific evidence, but employs “the structure of inductive generalization from samples, which are inferences commonly made by practicing scientists” (2017, 356). Grant that inductive generalization from samples is a central feature of Mizrahi’s argument, since he argues from samples of scientific and non-scientific work (number of journal articles published and number of times those articles are cited in a given time period) in order to generalize about the quantity and quality of scientific knowledge and non-scientific knowledge, respectively. Even so, Mizrahi can’t reasonably maintain his argument is thereby a scientific one, given the number of controversial philosophical assumptions employed as background assumptions in his argument. Mizrahi’s argument rather looks like a philosophical argument that defends one of its key premises—premise (8) in my formulation of his argument—by way of drawing upon some contemporary work in information science.[6]

The point here is not that Mizrahi’s argument in defense of Weak Scientism makes philosophical assumptions. We might admit that all science proceeds on the basis of some philosophical assumptions among its background assumptions. But the background assumptions of scientific arguments are largely non-controversial for the community to which those arguments are addressed, namely, the community of practicing scientists. We might think, therefore, that in order for Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism to count as science, the background philosophical assumptions he employs need to be largely uncontroversial for the community of thinkers to which his argument is addressed. Of course, the community of thinkers to which Mizrahi is addressing his argument for Weak Scientism includes not only scientists, but also philosophers, literature professors, indeed, all kinds of thinkers. Now, all nine of the philosophical assumptions at play in Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism highlighted here are highly controversial within the community of thinkers to which his argument is addressed. Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism is therefore not a scientific one.

Fourth, Mizrahi offers Weak Scientism as the position traditional advocates of scientism should adopt (2017, 354; 364). Why should they adopt it according to Mizrahi? They should adopt it “if they want to have a defensible definition of scientism” (2017, 354). And by “defensible definition,” Mizrahi means, one that “can be successfully defended against objections” (2017, 354). As we’ve seen, Mizrahi’s defense against objection O1 is his argument for Weak Scientism. Now, as Mizrahi notes, traditional advocates of scientism believe philosophy is useless or of little epistemic value (2017, 351-54; 356).

Once traditional advocates of scientism therefore become aware of the number of controversial philosophical claims that function as background assumptions in Mizrahi’s argument, they will (absent a serious intellectual conversion) consider Mizrahi’s argument to be an argument that is useless or of little epistemic value. Therefore, as far as the traditional advocate of scientism is concerned, Mizrahi has not successfully defended against objection O1, and so, he has given traditional advocates of scientism neither a good reason to think Weak Scientism is a defensible definition of scientism nor a good reason why they should adopt that view. If Mizrahi’s argument is going to be at all convincing for the traditional advocates of scientism, they need to be convinced first that philosophy is useful and has high epistemic value, which is not something Mizrahi attempts to do in his paper.

An Objection to Mizrahi’s Defense Against the Circularity Charge

In defending Weak Scientism, Mizrahi also attempts to defeat the following objection to Weak Scientism:

(O2) It is viciously circular to support Weak Scientism with scientific evidence.

Mizrahi’s attempted defeater of (O2) relies on the following claim:

12. Deductive inference is only defensible by way of deductive inference (2017, 362).

But why think (12) is true? Consider propositions such as ‘1+1=2’ and ‘a whole is greater than one of its (improper) parts.’ We can’t defend the truth of these sorts of propositions by way of deductive inference or prove they are true. But we don’t need to. Rather, we know such propositions are true by way of some non-inferential mode of knowing. It seems reasonable to say we come to know the validity of deductive rules of inference such as modus ponens in a similar sort of manner (see, e.g., Feldman 2003, 3-4).

Mizrahi goes on to claim,

13. “. . . if it is viciously circular to support claims about science using scientific evidence, then it is viciously circular to prove the soundness of inference rules using logic” (2017, 363).

According to Mizrahi, the consequent of (13) is false and so he also denies its antecedent. But perhaps we should rather affirm the truth of both the antecedent and the consequent of (13). Since there are ways other than deductive inference to know the rules of deductive inference—by some sort of non-inferential mode of knowing—there is no inconsistency in affirming both a scientific argument for Weak Scientism is a circular argument and we have knowledge of the rules of deductive inference.

An Objection to Mizrahi’s Claim that Philosophers Should Not Use Persuasive Definitions of Scientism.

Mizrahi argues that one who uses a definition of scientism that suggests those who endorse the scientistic stance have an improper attitude towards science (call such definitions persuasive definitions of scientism for the sake of simplicity here) “begs the question” (2017, 351; 352) against the scientistic stance, or otherwise errs by not “show[ing] precisely what is wrong with scientism” (352). Mizrahi draws an analogy between offering persuasive definitions of scientism and defining abortion as murder (352). Interestingly, this analogy actually allows for a more charitable interpretation of what authors might be doing when they offer persuasive definitions (or descriptions) of scientism, namely, such persuasive definitions or descriptions of scientism are actually conclusions of deductive arguments. To see this, consider first the following argument for the claim, abortion is murder:

14. Abortion is the direct killing of a human fetus.
15. The human fetus is an innocent person.
16. Therefore, abortion is the direct killing of an innocent person [from (14) and (15)].
17. The direct killing of an innocent person is murder.
18. Therefore, abortion is murder [from (16) and (17)].

In the argument above, (18) is a persuasive definition or description of abortion insofar as it communicates disapproval of abortion. Say Jane uses the argument above to communicate to John why she thinks abortion is murder. Whatever else John might think of Jane’s argument, John would be wrong to say Jane begs the question here in thinking abortion is murder or Jane has not shown precisely what (she thinks) is wrong with abortion.

Consider the possibility, then, that someone who offers a persuasive definition or description of scientism has also given an argument for defining scientism in that fashion. For example, consider an argument that has the following form:

19. Scientism is the view that science is the only, or best, kind of knowledge.
20. Therefore, if scientific knowledge is not the only, or best, kind of knowledge, then scientism is a view that commits its advocates to putting too high a value on—or having an exaggerated confidence in—science [from (19)].
21. If p, then scientific knowledge is not the only, or best, kind of knowledge.
22. p.
23. Therefore, scientific knowledge is not the only, or best, kind of knowledge [from (21) and (22), MP].
24. Therefore, scientism is a view that commits its advocates to putting too high a value on—or having an exaggerated confidence in—science [from (20) and (23), MP].

Now, if Jane offers an argument for (24) that has the logical form of the argument above, then when she describes scientism in such a way that communicates disapproval of scientism, in doing so she neither begs the question against the scientistic stance, nor fails to show precisely what (she thinks) is wrong with scientism. One strongly suspects that authors such as Susan Haack (2007) and Tom Sorell (1991; 2013) can be read charitably, but also plausibly, as doing something similar when they sometimes offer persuasive definitions of scientism.[7]


Aquinas, Saint Thomas. Summa Contra Gentiles. Book One. Trans. Anton C. Pegis. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991.

Aquinas, Saint Thomas. Summa Theologiae. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Allen, TX: Christian Classics, 1981.

Aristotle. On the Parts of Animals. Trans. William Ogle. In The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941.

Brown, Christopher. “Some Logical Problems for Scientism.” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 85 (2011): 189-200.

Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.

Feldman, Richard. Epistemology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2003.

Feser, Edward. Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction. editiones scholasticae, 2014.

Haack, Susan. Defending Science—Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Hawking, Stephen and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. New York: Bantam Books, 2010.

Mizrahi, Moti. “What’s So Bad About Scientism?” Social Epistemology 31, no. 4 (2017): 351-367.

Papineau, David. “Is Philosophy Simply Harder than Science?” The Times Literary Supplement On-line. June 1, 2017. Accessed July 11, 2017.

Rosenberg, Alex. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2011.

Sorell, Tom. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. First edition. London: Routledge, 1991.

Sorell, Tom. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. Kindle edition. London: Routledge, 2013.

Sparshott, Francis. The Future of Aesthetics: The 1996 Ryle Lectures. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Weinberg, Stephen. Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist’s Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature. New York: Random House, 1994.

[1] Mizrahi is not the first to consider the possibility of a position such as Weak Scientism as a candidate for scientism; see, e.g., Sorell (1991, 1) and Brown (2011, 196-7).

[2] Or, as often is the case, new ‘discoveries.’

[3] In addition, the greater output of science surely also has something to do with the fact that today there are more working scientists than there are working philosophers, which is itself rooted more in cultural conditions that have something to do with an implicit acceptance of scientism by the majority of business owners, university administrators, professors, journalists, and politicians than it does the relative objective value of philosophy and science.

[4] See, e.g., On the Parts of Animals, Book I, chapter 5 [644b32-645a1]. See also St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles, book one, ch. 5, 5 and Summa theologiae Ia. q. 1, a. 5, ad1.

[5] Although it seems one can plausibly argue that modern science has the history of Western philosophy as a necessary or de facto cause of its existence, and so the instrumental successes of modern science also belong to Western philosophy by transference.

[6] At least in this respect, if not in others, Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism resembles William Lane Craig’s Kalam cosmological argument for the existence of God such that most of that argument’s premises are contestable philosophical assumptions, but one premise, i.e., that the universe has a beginning, Craig defends (not only by philosophical argument but) by way of drawing on scientific arguments (see, e.g., Craig 2008, 111-156).

[7] I’m grateful to Merry Brown for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

Author Information: Boris I. Pruzhinin, Russian Academy of Science,; Tatiana G. Shchedrina, Russian Academy of Science

Pruzhinin, Boris I., Tatiana G. Shchedrina. “On the Specifics of Russian Philosophy: A Reply to Mikhail Sergeev.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 37-41.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image credit: jaime.silva, via flickr

Mikhail Sergeev presents a view on Russian philosophy that, until recently, dominated both Russian and international historical-philosophical literature.[1] On this view, one interprets Russian philosophy as religious-orthodox in its essence. Accordingly, everything else comprising Russian philosophy gets presented as the result of western European influence and, therefore, is not original to it. However, since the 1990’s, the character and the direction of philosophical investigation in Russia has changed. Beginning in 2010, different views on the cultural-historical sense of the Russian philosophical tradition have arisen and reduced the role of religious orthodoxy. Still, this approach unrightfully narrows the circle of personalities, ideas, and topics that actually formed the Russian philosophical tradition and, as a result, limits an understanding of Russian culture as an intellectual and existential source of this tradition.

Beyond this narrow scope are dozens of original thinkers and the entire directions of thought—Russian philosophy of psychology (Georgiy Ivanovich Chelpanov, Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky, Sergey Leonidovich Rubinstein, etc.),[2] unique logical investigations (Mikhail Ivanovich Karinsky, Nikolay Aleksandrovich Vasiliev, Vladimir Nikolaevich Ivanovsky),[3] the ideas of phenomenology, hermeneutics, semiotics (Gustav Gustavovich Shpet, Roman Osipovich Yakobson)[4],[5] and others. Even the ideas of religious philosophers are impoverished (for example, the semiotic ideas of Father Pavel Florensky).[6] Further, these developments do not include directions such as Russian neo-Kantianism.[7]

“Impoverishing” Thought

To clarify of our thesis regarding the “impoverishing” of Russian philosophical thought, we offer an analogy to the Western-European philosophical tradition. Christianity, of course, played an important role in its formation, but its intellectual content, its personalities, and its basic themes are not limited to Christian influence, just as the European culture that sustained philosophy for two thousand and fifty hundred years is not limited to Christian ideas. In European philosophy, one studies thinkers as different as Kant and Nietzsche, Pascal and Descartes, Spinoza and Kierkegaard alongside one another. European thinkers do not try to reduce French philosophy to Catholic doctrine, or the German intellectual tradition to Protestant canons.

There is an idea of philosophy as a cultural phenomenon, the specifics of which are in a particular relation to the world—a reflexive and self-reflexive one—and the icons of its expression vary in different nations. Meanwhile, international specialists in the history of Russian philosophy often reduce Russian philosophy and, by extension, Russian culture to Orthodoxy. A powerful influence in developing of this point of view were the publications of histories of Russian philosophy prepared by philosophers—emigrants of the orthodox orientation in different years (Vasiliy Vasilievich Zenkovsky, Nikolay Onufrievich Lossky, Sergey Aleksandrovich Levitsky and others). However, in analysing the positive aspects of their works, it was not often mentioned that emigration resulted in these philosophers knowing only one social sphere of “Russian” reality—the Orthodox church (all other forms of sociality such as state, language and culture were alien). Consequently, philosophers stressed in their work the role of Orthodox religion in the formation of Russian intellectual culture. Detecting the Orthodox specifics of the Russian intellectual tradition, therefore, can be counted as a form of philosophical self-identification (as mentioned above regarding historians of Russian philosophy).[8] The spread of these self-identifications in broad humanistic and historical-philosophical circles provides clear evidence of these “orthodox” influenced schemes of Russian thought and cultural development in Western world.

Today, it is obvious that the excessive emphasis on the confessional component stimulates interest in Russian philosophy and culture; yet, to rather exotic, mysterious and mystical phenomena. In addition, the accentuation of Orthodox religion deepens the gap between Russian pre-revolution philosophy and philosophical approaches of the Soviet period—the continuity becomes lost, the interconnection of these two periods of Russian intellectual cultural development vanishes (a connection not recognized by many at first glance).[9] Thus, the confessional focus of the Russian intellectual tradition greatly impoverishes the intellectual content of Russian culture and its philosophy.

Issues of Translation

Mikhail Sergeev points out, in particular, that there exists a tradition of translating the term tsel’noe into English as integral. We are familiar with the reasons for this translation. But we are not satisfied with the translation itself. The fact of the matter is that the basis of both the English word integrity and its Russian calque integrativny are lay Latin words—integrum (complete, tseloe), integration (integration, vosstanovlenie, vospolnenie)—that in Russian mean unity (ob’edinenie), interpenetration (vzaimoproniknovenie). In its origin the condition of integral knowledge is disconnected—after it is restored, completed—that presupposes the integration of various elements (or parts) into one. However, whole—tsel’noe—knowledge in the Russian philosophical tradition is not restored from different parts but originally whole, complete, undividable, indecomposable on various separate elements, self-evident—i.e. requesting the grasp and understanding of the sense in communication, in the sphere of talk. Only such knowledge has a concrete nature, has dignity (to use a term of Pamfil Danilovich Yurkevich). The concreteness and focus on communication today can be considered a characteristic feature of Russian philosophy. In our translation, we relied on the change in the content of term tsel’noe that occurred in Russian philosophy in the 20th century. We find it important to outline the differences of the apparent philosophical sense that began to form in the religious-philosophical works of Ivan Vasilievich Kireevsky, Vladimir Sergeevich Solovyov and Pamfil Danilovich Yurkevich which adds further concrete logical, phenomenological and hermeneutical connotations in the works of Mikhail Ivanovich Karinsky, and Gustav Gustavovich Shpet.

If we lose these perspectives it means, for example, that we overlook the basis of Gustav Shpet’s phenomenological ideas (the originality of which was valued by Husserl). We also lose Shpet’s emphasis on hermeneutics’ epistemological role. On this issue, Shpet wrote with reference to the Russian tradition of “positive (polozhitel’naya) philosophy” [10] that remains unmentioned by Sergeev as his attention is focused on the idea of integral knowledge based on faith. Meanwhile, Shpet wrote to Husserl that he searched for the basis of phenomenology in Plato’s works.[11] In the process of writing History as a Problem of Logic,[12] Shpet was interested in how the problem of the cognition of historical reality was postulated before Kant, who tore reason from sensuality.

The theory of knowledge which followed Kant’s raised the question of how to “stitch” together what Kant pulled apart (in the works of the neo-Kantians, for example, and of religious philosophers). Some philosophers who took this road followed reason, some followed sensuality, and some pursued mysticism. Shpet (as well as structuralism and semasiology) demonstrated that dividing reason and sensuality is not productive, and suggested that Kant made a mistake. Knowledge is indeed a primarily whole and the source of cognition are words since—even in the case when we represent the outer world with our sense organs or if we logically construct, and after substantiate, the imagined world—we can justify ourselves only when we verbally inform other people about our actions.

For Shpet, knowledge is born from the act of communication. Thereafter, the problematics of cognition shift from the problem of reason and sensuality corresponding to the problematics of expressing what is known. In order not to miss this principal change in epistemological problematics that is found in the Russian philosophical tradition we, speaking of whole knowledge, do not use the term “integrative knowledge” (because this term is associated and assigned with a certain epistemological tradition). We refer the reader to Shpet’s idea of “intelligible intuition” that allows people, including scientists, to understand each other. Exactly this aspect of wholeness puts Shpet in the tradition of Russian philosophy because, as a foundation of communication, it unites the concreteness and universality of knowledge. As a consequence, Shpet addresses Yurkevich who rigidly follows epistemological traditions of Plato and Kant. After Yurkevich relates his ideas on God, Shpet corrects him. In epistemology, we must speak not about God but about humans. This is the main point that we articulated in considering the Russian epistemological tradition. In the framework of this tradition, knowledge emerges as having a certain and special sign-symbolic structure the investigation of which requires a special theory of knowledge—a hermeneutical one.

Russian Philosophy’s Emergence

We could give quotes of Russian philosophers who support our thoughts about the existence of a specific Russian epistemological tradition. Also, we could offer numerous arguments by contemporary Russian investigators on this topic. For example, we could detail Chubarov’s position who wrote about Kireevsky, Solovyov and Homyakov as precursors of phenomenology in Russia in the Anthology of Phenomenological Thought on Russia.[13] But, to sum up the results of our discussion with Sergeev, let us point out the following.

A modern look at the content, cultural sense, and place of Russian philosophy at the end of the 19th, and the beginning if the 20th, centuries connects with the emergence of a new dimension in the research work of historians of Russian philosophy—of the orientation on actualizing the Russian philosophical legacy as a whole cultural phenomenon, and on its correlation with modern philosophical problematics. The formation of this view on the specifics of Russian philosophy was realized by the project “Russian Philosophy of the First Half of the 20th Century.” During the period between 2012 and 2017, 26 volumes about Russian philosophers were published. These publications focus on the modern character of Russian philosophers’ ideas, fitting them within the framework of actual philosophical problematics. More than 100 Russian and international researchers of Russian philosophy collaborated on the project.

It is to the project’s findings that we addressed our article—“The Ideas of Cultural–Historical Epistemology in Russian Philosophy of the Twentieth Century”—in Social Epistemology. The article did not pretend to be historically-philosophically complete; its main aim was to lend this unique view on Russian philosophy to one aspect of epistemology. Given the article’s length and purpose we neither explored the new, now forming, view on Russian philosophy, nor the overall historical-philosophical investigation of terminological apparatus (and conceptual language) of the Russian philosophical tradition.

We are grateful to Social Epistemology and Mikhail Sergeev who provided us the opportunity to touch on these topics in the response to his critical considerations.

[1] Sergeev, Mikhail. “‘Integral Knowledge’ and Enlightenment Rationalism: A Reply to Pruzhinin and Shchedrina.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 4 (2017): 1-3.

[2] Lektorsky V.A. (ed.) Philosophy of Psychology. Moscow: Politicheskaya Encyclopedia (ROSSPEN), 2016 (series “Russian Philosophy of the first half of the XXth century” edited by Pruzhinin B.I.). (In Russian).

[3] Bazhanov V.A. (ed.) “Logical-Epistemological Direction in Russian Philosophy” (first half of the XXth century): M.I. Karinsky, V.N. Ivanovsky, N.A. Vasilyev. Moscow: Rossiiskaya Politicheskaya Encyclopedia (ROSSPEN), 2012 (series “Russian Philosophy of the first half of the XXth century” edited by Pruzhinin B.I.). (In Russian).

[4] Shchedrina T.G. “I Write as Though I Was an Echo of the Other”: Outlines of the Intellectual Biography of Gustav Shpet. Moscow: Progress-Traditziya, 2004. (In Russian). Shchedrina T.G. “Gustav Gustavovich Shpet.” Moscow: Politicheskaya Encyclopedia (ROSSPEN), 2014 (series “Russian Philosophy of the first half of the XXth century” edited by Pruzhinin B.I.). (In Russian).

[5] Avtonomova N.S., Baran H., Shchedrina T.G. (ed.) “Roman Osipovich Yakobson.” Moscow: Politicheskaya Encyclopedia (ROSSPEN), 2017 (series “Russian Philosophy of the first half of the XXth century” edited by Pruzhinin B.I.). (In Russian).

[6] Parshin A.N., Sedykh O.M. “Pavel Aleksandrovich Florensky.” Moscow: Rossiiskaya Politicheskaya Encyclopedia (ROSSPEN), 2013 (series “Russian Philosophy of the first half of the XXth century” edited by Pruzhinin B.I.). (In Russian).

[7] Bryushinkin V.N., Popova V.S. (ed.) “Neo-Kantianism in Russia: Aleksandr Ivanovich Vvedenskiy, Ivan Ivanovich Lapshin.” Moscow: Rossiiskaya Politicheskaya Encyclopedia (ROSSPEN), 2013 (series “Russian Philosophy of the first half of the XXth century” edited by Pruzhinin B.I.). (In Russian).

[8] Pruzhinin B.I., Shchedrina T.G. (ed.) Epistemological Style in Russian Intellectual Culture of the XIX-XX Centuries. From Personality to Tradition. Moscow: Rossiiskaya Politicheskaya Encyklopedia (ROSSPEN), 2013: 447. (In Russian). Shchedrina T.G. “The Archive of an Epoch: Thematic Unity of Russian Philosophy.” M.: Rossiiskaya Politicheskaya Encyclopedia (ROSSPEN), 2008. (In Russian).

[9] Pruzhinin B.I., Shchedrina T.G. “Russian Philosophy as a Culture-Historical Phenomenon: The Problem of Integrity.” The Herald of Vyatka State University for the Humanities no. 2 (2015): 17–24. (In Russian).

[10] Shchedrina T.G. “The Archive of an Epoch: Thematic Unity of Russian Philosophy.” M.: Rossiiskaya Politicheskaya Rncyclopedia (ROSSPEN), 2008, 43–44. (In Russian).

[11] Shpet Gustav, Edmund Husserl. G. Shpet’s Response Letters. Translated by V. Kurennoy, Igor Mikhailov, Igor Chubarov, notes and attachment by Vitaliy Kurennoy. Logos, no 7. (1996): 123-133. (In Russian).

[12] Shpet G.G. History as a Problem of Logic. Critical and Methodological Investigations. Part 1: Materials (1916) / Editor in-chief and complier Shchedrina T.G. M., St. Petersburg: Universitetskaya Kniga, 2014 (In Russian).

[13] Chubarov I.M. (ed.) Anthology of Phenomenological Philosophy in Russia. Vol. I. M.: Russian Phenomenological Society, Logos, 1998. (In Russian).

Author Information: Neil Levy, Macquarie University,

Levy, Neil. “The Bad News About Fake News.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 20-36.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Image credit: Paul Townsend, via flickr


We are surrounded by sources of information of dubious reliability, and very many people consume information from these sources. This paper examines the impacts on our beliefs of these reports. I will argue that fake news is more pernicious than most of us realise, leaving long lasting traces on our beliefs and our behavior even when we consume it know it is fake or when the information it contains is corrected. These effects are difficult to correct. We therefore ought to avoid fake or dubious news and work to eliminate it.

We consume a great deal of fiction. We seek it out for entertainment and we are plunged into it inadvertently. While the dangers of fiction have been a subject of philosophical controversy since Plato, the contemporary environment raises new worries, and also provides news ways of inquiring into them. In this paper, I focus on a subset of fictions: that subset that has come to be known as fake news. Fake news is widely held to have played a surprisingly large role in recent political events and appears to be proliferating unchecked. Its scrutiny is among the most urgent problems confronting contemporary epistemology.

Fake news is the presentation of false claims that purport to be about the world in a format and with a content that resembles the format and content of legitimate media organisations.[1] Fake news is produced and reproduced by a range of organisations. Some of them manufacture fake news deliberately, to entertain, to seek to influence events or to make money through the provision of click bait (Allcot & Gentzkow 2017). Some outlets serve as conduits for fake news due to deliberately permissive filters for items that support their world view, operating a de facto “print first, ask questions later” policy (the UK Daily Mail might be regarded as an instance of such a source; see Kharpal 2017). Genuinely reputable news organizations often reproduce fake news: sometimes because they are taken in by it (for one example at random, see Irvine 2017), but more often deliberately, either to debunk it or because politicians who they cannot ignore retail it.

Fake news raises a number of obvious concerns. Democracies require informed voters if they are to function well. Government policy can be an effective means of pursuing social goals only if those who frame it have accurate conceptions of the relevant variables. As individuals, we want our beliefs to be reflect the way the world is, for instrumental reasons and for intrinsic reasons. Fake news can lead to a worse informed populace and take in those in positions of power, thereby threatening a range of things we value. It might have genuinely disastrous consequences. However, while the threat from fake news is serious, many believe that it arises only in limited circumstances. It is only to the extent to which people are naïve consumers of fake news (failing to recognize it for what it is) that it is a problem. Careful consumption and fact checking can eliminate the problem for responsible individuals.[2]

In fact people often knowingly consume fake news. Some consume it in order to know what the credulous believe. Others confess to consuming fake news for entertainment. Most centrally, in recent months, fake news has been unavoidable to those who attempt to keep up with the news at all, because it has stemmed from the office of the most powerful man in the world. Journalists have seen it as their duty to report this fake news (often, but not always, as fake), and many people believe that they have a duty to read this reporting. Fact checks, for instance, repeat fake news, if only to debunk it.

According to what I will call the naïve view of belief and its role in behavior, fake news is a problem when and to the extent to which it is mistaken for an accurate depiction of reality, where the measure of such a mistake is sincere report. On the naïve view, we avoid the mistake by knowing consumption of fake news, and by correction if we are taken in. The naïve view entails that careful consumption of fake news, together with assiduous fact checking, avoids any problems. It entails, inter alia, that reading the fact check is at worst an innocuous way of consuming fake news.

The naïve view seems common sense. Moreover, advocates can point to extensive psychological research indicating that in most contexts even young children have little difficulty in distinguishing fact from fantasy (Weisberg 2013). Fiction, it seems, poses no problems when it is appropriately labelled as such; nor should fake news. I will argue that the naïve view is false. Worries about fake news may indeed be more serious when it is consumed by those who mistake it for genuine, but more sophisticated consumers are also at risk. Moreover, fake news corrected by fact checking sites is not fake news disarmed; it continues to have pernicious effects, I will suggest.

Some of these effects have received a great deal of attention in the psychological literature, if not the philosophical literature, though not in the context of fake news specifically. There is a great deal of evidence that people sometimes acquire beliefs about the world outside the story from fictions in a way that directly reflects the content of the claims made in the fiction,[3] and there is a great deal of evidence that people are surprisingly unresponsive to corrections of false claims once they come to accept them. To a large extent, I simply review this evidence here and show how it applies in the context of fake news. In addition, though, I will argue for a claim that has not previously been defended: consuming fake news shapes our further beliefs and our behavior even in those (many) cases in which we do not acquire false beliefs directly from the fiction. The representations we acquire from fake news play some of the same roles in subsequent cognition that false beliefs would play.

I will not argue that the costs arising from the consumption of fakes news outweigh the benefits. The claim that the media should report fake news when it is retailed by central figures on the political landscape is a compelling one, and I do not aim to rebut it. However, showing that the knowing consumption of fake news is itself a serious problem is a significant enough goal to justify a paper. If I am right that the costs of consumption are far from trivial, that should serve as an impetus for us to formulate proposals to minimize those costs.

Against the Naïve View

The naïve view assumes that mental representations are reliably and enduringly categorized into kinds: beliefs, desires, fantasies and fictions, and that we automatically or easily reclassify them given sufficient reason to do so. On this picture, fake news is a problem when it results in representations that are categorized as beliefs. That problem is averted by ensuring that the representations we form as we consume fake news are not wrongly categorized. We will then not access them when we self-ascribe beliefs and they will not guide our behavior in the manner characteristic of beliefs. Sometimes, of course, we make a mistake and are misled, and a false claim comes to be categorized as a belief. But the problem may be solved by a retraction. All going well, encountering good evidence that a claim is false results in its reclassification.

This naïve view is false, however. The available evidence suggests that mental representations are not reliably and enduringly stored into exclusive categories. Instead, the self-ascription of beliefs is sensitive to a range of cues, internal and external, in ways that can transform an internal state from a fantasy into a belief.

Minded animals continually form representational states: representations of the world around them and (in many cases) of internally generated states (Cheney & Seyfarth 2007; Camp 2009). These representations include beliefs or belief-like states, desires, and, in the human case at least, imaginings (which are presumably generated because it is adaptive to be able to simulate counterfactuals). These representations have certain causal powers in virtue of the kind of states they are; beliefs, for instance, are apt to be used as premises in reasoning and in systematic inference (Stich 1978; AU 2015). These representations include many subpersonal states, to which the language of commonsense psychology apply only uneasily if at all. For ease of reference, I will call these states ground level representations.

When we ascribe states to ourselves, these representations powerfully shape the kind and content of the attitude ascribed. It remains controversial how exactly this occurs, but there is widespread agreement that cues—Like questions probing what we believe—cause the activation of semantically related and associatively linked representations, which guide response (Collins & Loftus 1975; Buckner 2011). Perhaps we recall a previous conversation about this topic, and our own conclusion (or verbal expression of the conclusion). Perhaps we have never thought about the topic before, but our ground level representations entail a response. The person may generate that response effortfully, by seeing what their representations entail, or automatically.

Belief self-ascription is powerfully shaped by ground-level representations, in ways that make it highly reliable much of the time. Beliefs entailed by these representations, or generated by recalling past acts of endorsement, are likely to be very stable across time: asked what she believes about a topic at t or at t1, for any arbitrary values of t and t1, the person is likely to ascribe the same belief (of course, if the person is asked at t and t1, she is even more likely to ascribe the same belief because she may recall the earlier episode). But often the representations underdetermine how we self-ascribe. In those circumstances, the belief may be unstable; we might self-ascribe p were we asked at t but ~p were we asked at t1. When ground-level representations underdetermine beliefs, we come to ascribe them by reference to other cues, internal and external.

Consider cognitive dissonance experiments; for example, the classic essay writing paradigm. Participants are assigned to one of two groups. One group is paid to write an essay defending a claim that we have good reason to think is counter-attitudinal (college students may be paid to defend the claim that their tuition fees should rise, for instance), while the other group is asked to defend the same claim. (Participants in this arm may be paid a small amount of money as well, but compliance is secured by mild situational pressure; essentially appealing to their better nature. It is essential to the success of the manipulation that participants in this arm see themselves as participating voluntarily). The oft-replicated finding is that this paradigm affects self-ascribed beliefs in those who defended the thesis under mild situational pressure, but not those paid to write the essay (see Cooper 2007 for review). That is, the former, but not the latter, are significantly more likely to assert agreement with the claim they defended in the essay than matched controls.

These data are best explained by the hypothesis that belief self-ascription is sensitive to cues about our own behavior (Bem 1967; Carruthers 2011). Participants in the mild pressure arm of the experiment are unable to explain their own behavior to themselves (since they take themselves to have voluntarily defended the view) except by supposing that they wanted to write the essay, and that, in turn, is evidence that they believe the claim defended. Participants in the other arm can instead explain their behavior to themselves by reference to the payment they received. In this case, external cues swamp the evidence provided by ground level representations: college students can be expected to have ground-level representations that imply the belief that their tuition should not rise (indeed, control participants overwhelmingly profess that belief).

Choice blindness experiments (Johansson et al. 2005; Hall, Johansson and Strandberg 2012) provide further evidence that we self-ascribe mental states using evidence provided by our own behavior, together with the ground-level representations. In these paradigms, participants are asked to choose between options, with the options represented by cards. The card selected is then placed in a pile along with all the others chosen by that participant. In the next phase of the experiment, the cards are shown to the participants and they are asked why they chose the options they did. Using sleight of hand, however, the experimenters substitute some unchosen options for chosen ones. On most trials, the participants fail to detect the substitutions and proceed to justify their (apparent) choice. Choice blindness has been demonstrated even with regard to real policy choices in a forthcoming election, and even among the respondents who identified themselves as the most committed on the issues (Hall et al. 2013). While these respondents were more likely to detect the substitution, around one third of them defended policies they had in fact rejected.

Again, a plausible explanation of these data is that respondents self-ascribed belief via interpretation. The card they were presented with was drawn from the pile that represented their choices, they believed, so it was evidence that they actually agreed the policy they had were now asked to justify. Of course, the card was not their only evidence that they agreed with the policy. They also had internal evidence; recall of previous discussions about the policy or related issues, of previous experiences related to the policy, of principles to which they take themselves to be committed, and so on. Because they have these other sources of evidence, the manipulation was not effective in all cases. In some cases, individuals had strong evidence that they disagreed with the policy, sufficient to override the external evidence. But in some cases the ground-level representations underdetermined belief ascription (despite their taking themselves to be strongly committed to their view) and the external cue was decisive.

The large literature on processing fluency provides yet more evidence against the naïve view. Processing fluency refers to the subjective ease of information processing. Psychologists typically understand processing fluency as an experiential property: a claim is processed fluently when processing is subjectively easy (Oppenheimer 2008). It may be that fluency is better understood as the absence of an experiential property: that is, a claim is processed fluently just in case there is no experience of disfluency. Disfluency is a metacognitive signal that a claim is questionable and prompts more intensive processing of the claim (Alter, Oppenheimer, Epley & Eyre 2007; Thompson; Prowse Turner & Pennycook 2011). When the claim is processed fluently, on the other hand, we tend to accept it (Reber & Schwarz 1999; Schwartz, Newman & Leach, in press). When a claim is processed fluently, it is intuitive, and the strong default is to accept intuitive claims as true: we self-ascribe belief in claims that are intuitive for us.

(Dis)fluency may be induced by a variety of factors. The content of the claim plays a significant role in the production of disfluency: if the claim is inconsistent with other things that the agent believes and which she is likely to recall at the time (with claim content as a cue for recall), then she is likely to experience disfluency. Thus, the content of ground-level representations and their entailments help to shape fluency. But inconsistency is just one factor influencing fluency, because processing may be more or less difficult for many reasons, some of them independent of claim content. For instance, even the font in which a claim is presented influences processing ease: those presented in legible, high-contrast, fonts are more likely to be accepted than those presented in less legible fonts, even when the content of the claim is inconsistent with the person’s background knowledge (Song & Schwarz 2008).

The effects of disfluency on belief ascription may be significant. Consider the influence of retrieval effort on claim acceptance. Schwartz et al. (1991) asked participants to recall either 6 or 12 times on which they had acted assertively. Participants who recalled 12 occasions rated themselves as less assertive than those who recalled 6 instances; presumably the difficulty of recalling 12 occasions was implicitly taken as evidence that such occasions were few and far between, and trumped the greater amount of evidence of assertive behavior available. How these cues are interpreted is modulated by background beliefs. For instance, telling experimental participants that effortfulness of thought is an indicator of its complexity, and therefore of the intelligence of the person who experiences it, may temporarily reverse the disposition to take the experience of effortfulness as a cue to the falsity of a claim (Briñol, Petty & Tormala 2006).

A final example: evidence that a view is held by people with whom they identify may powerfully influence the extent to which participants agree with it. The effect may be sufficiently powerful to overwhelm strong ground-level representations. Maoz et al. (2002) found that attitudes to a peace proposal among their Israeli sample were strongly influenced by information about who had formulated it. Israeli Arabs were more likely to support the proposal if it was presented as stemming from Palestinian negotiators than from the Israeli sides, while Israeli Jews were more likely to support it if it was presented as stemming from the Israeli side. Cohen (2003) found that attitudes to welfare policies were more strongly influenced by whether they were presented as supported by House Democrats or House Republicans than by policy content, with Democrats (for example) supportive of quite harsh policies when they were presented as stemming from the side they identified with.

These data are probably explained by a similar mechanism to the choice blindness data. Whereas in the latter people ascribe a belief to themselves on the basis of evidence that they had chosen it, in these experiments they ascribe a belief to themselves on the basis of evidence that people (that they take to be) like them accept it. The effect is powerful enough to override content-based disfluency that may have arisen from consideration of the details of the policies under consideration. It may be that a mechanism of this kind helps to explain why his supporters are not bothered by some of Donald Trump’s views we might have expected them to find troublesome. Until recently, Russia was regarded as extremely hostile to the United States by most conservative Americans, but Trump’s wish for a friendly relationship has softened their views on the issue.

All this evidence (which is only a subset of the total evidence that might be cited) powerfully indicates that belief ascription does not work the naïve view suggests. That, in turn, indicates that representations are not (always) stored neatly, such that they can be compartmentalized from one another: they are not stored reliably and enduringly into kinds. Ground-level representations often underdetermine the beliefs we come to hold. Even when they might reasonably be expected to strongly imply a belief (that my tuition fees should not rise; that our welfare policies should be supportive and not harsh, and so on), contextual cues may swamp them. Even previous endorsement of a claim may not insulate it from revision. Using the classic essay writing paradigm, Bem & McConnell (1970) showed that explicitly asking participants about the topic a week beforehand, and recording their responses in a manner that linked responses to individuals, did not prevent belief revision. Participants denied that their beliefs had changed at all.

All this evidence (and a great deal more) indicates that mental states are not exhaustively and exclusively categorized into kinds, such that we can reliably self-attribute them via self-scanning. While there is no doubt that we self-ascribe beliefs in ways that are pervasively and powerfully shaped by the properties of our ground-level representations, these representations are often leave a great deal of leeway for self-ascription. Ground level representations may come to play all kinds of different roles in our cognition and behavior, regardless of how they were acquired.

That, in turn, suggests that the consumption of fiction may lead to the formation of representations that subsequently come to be accepted by the person whose representation they are, even when they did not take the source to be factual. That prediction is, in fact, a retrodiction: there is already good evidence that people come to believe claims made in texts they recognize as fictions.

Breaking Through the Fourth Wall

Let ‘fiction’ refer to two categories of sources of false information. One category is made up of information sources that are either explicitly presented as false (novels, The Onion and so on) and sources that are taken by consumers to be false. The latter conjunct is subject-relative, since one person may read The National Inquirer believing it is accurate while another may read it for entertainment value despite believing it to be false. The second category is information consumed as true, but which is subsequently corrected. Both kinds of fiction have effects on agents’ mental states that cannot be accounted for on the naïve view.

A great deal of the information we acquire about the world beyond our direct experience we acquire from fiction. In many cases, such acquisition is unproblematic. Someone may know, for instance, that New York has a subway system solely on the basis of having watched films set in the city. Since fictions usually alter real world settings only when doing so is germane to their plots, the inference from film to real world is very often reliable. We may also acquire beliefs about human psychology from fictions in a way that is unproblematic (Friend 2006). However, we come to acquire beliefs from sources we take to be fictional in a way that we wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, endorse on reflection.

The relevant experiments have typically proceeded as follows. In the experimental conditions, participants read a version of a fictional story in which assertions are made about the world outside the story. The stories differ in the truth of these statements, so that some participants get a version in which a character states, for example, that mental illness is contagious while others get a version in which they state that mental illness is not contagious (control subjects, meanwhile, read a story in which no claims about the target propositions are made). After a filler task, participants are given a general knowledge quiz, in which they are asked about the target propositions (e.g., is mental illness contagious?) The participants who read a version containing the false assertion are significantly more likely to assert it than those who read a version containing the true assertion or who read the control version (this description is based on Prentice, Gerrig & Bailis 1997; Wheeler, Green & Brock 1999 report a replication). Other studies produced the same results using a slightly different methodology; rather than having the true or false propositions asserted, they are mentioned as peripheral narrative details (e.g. Marsh & Fazio 2006). Again, participants are significantly more likely to accept claims presented in the fiction as true in the real world.

More troublingly still, we may be more inclined to accept claims made in a fiction than identical claims made in a passage presented as factual (Prentice & Gerrig 1999; Strange 2002). Moreover, factors known to reduce acceptance of claims presented as factual do not significantly reduce reliance on claims presented as fictional. Need for cognition, the personality trait of being disposed to engage in effortful thought, is protective against false information in other contexts, but not in the fictional context (Strange 2002). Even when participants are warned that the stories may contain false information (Marsh & Fazio 2006) or when stories are presented slowly to allow for intensive processing (Fazio & Marsh 2008), acceptance of false claims does not decrease.

We are much less likely to acquire false information from fantastic fiction (Rapp et al. 2014), probably because its claims are not easily integrated with our existing model of the world. But when fictions are consistent with what we know of the world, false beliefs are often acquired (of course fake news is designed to be compatible with what we know about the real world: It concerns real people, often acting in line with their real motivations and in ways that are generally possible). Worse, when false beliefs are acquired people may forget their source: information acquired from fiction is sometimes subsequently misattributed to reliable sources (Marsh, Cantor & Brashier 2016), or held to be common knowledge. This may occur even when the claim is in fact inconsistent with common knowledge (Rapp 2016).

We are therefore at risk of acquiring false beliefs from fiction; when those fictions are fake news, the beliefs we acquire may be pernicious. However acquired, these beliefs may prove resistant to correction. In fact, corrections rarely if ever eliminate reliance on misinformation. Sometimes agents rely on the misinformation subsequent to correction because they reject the correction. Sometimes they accept the correction and yet continue to act on the corrected belief. I begin with the former kind of case.

The phenomenon of belief perseverance has long between known to psychologists. Classical demonstrations of belief perseverance involve giving people feedback on well they are doing at a task, leading them to form a belief about their abilities. They are subsequently informed that the feedback was scripted and did not track their actual performance. This information undercuts their evidence for their belief but does not lead to its rejection: participants continue to think that they are better than average at the task when they have been assigned to the positive feedback condition (Ross, Lepper & Hubbard 1975). Wegner, Coulton, & Wenzlaff (1985) demonstrated that telling people beforehand that the feedback would be unrelated to their actual performance—i.e., fictitious—did not prevent it from leading to beliefs that reflected it contents.

Research using different paradigms has demonstrated that even when people remember a retraction, they may continue to cite the retracted claim in explaining events (Fein, McCloskey, & Tomlinson 1997; Ecker, Lewandowsky, Swire, & Chang 2011). In fact, corrections sometimes backfire, leaving agents more committed to false claims than before. The most famous demonstration of the backfire effect is Nyhan and Reifer (2010; see Schwartz et al. 2007 for an earlier demonstration of how the attempt to debunk may increase belief in the false claim). They gave participants mock news articles, which contained (genuine) comments from President Bush implying that Iraq had an active weapons of mass destruction program at the time of the US invasion. In one condition, the article contained an authoritative correction, from the (also genuine) congressional inquiry into Iraqi WMDs held subsequent to the invasion. Participants were then asked to indicate their level of agreement with the claims that Iraq had stockpiles of WMDs and an active WMD development program at the time of the invasion. For conservative participants, the correction backfired: they expressed higher levels of disagreement with the claim than conservative peers whose false belief was not corrected. Since Nyhan and Reifler’s initial demonstration of the backfire effect, these results have been replicated multiple times (see Peter & Koch 2016 for review).[4]

Even when a correction succeeds in changing people’s professed beliefs, they may exhibit a behavioural backfire. Nyhan, Reifler, Richey & Freed (2014) found that correcting the myth that vaccines cause autism was effective at the level of belief, but actually decreased intention to have one’s children vaccinated among parents who were initially least favourable to vaccines. Nyhan and Reifler (2015) documented the same phenomenon with regard to influenza vaccines. Continued reliance on information despite explicit acknowledgement that it is false is likely to be strongest with regard to emotionally arousing claims, especially those that are negatively valenced (e.g., arousing fear or disgust). There is extensive evidence that children’s behavior is influenced by pretence. In the well-known box paradigm, children are asked to imagine that there is a fearsome creature in one box and a puppy in another. Young children are quick to acknowledge that the creatures are imaginary, but prefer to approach the latter box than the former (Harris et al. 1991; Johnson and Harris 1994). They may exhibit similar behavior even when the box is transparent and they can see it is empty (Bourchier and Davis 2000; see Weisberg 2013 for discussion of the limitations of this research). Emotionally arousing claims are also those that are most likely to be transmitted (Peters, Kashima & Clark 2009). Of course, fake news is often emotionally arousing in just these ways. Such news can be expected to proliferate and to affect behavior.

Despite our knowing that we are consuming fiction, its content may affect our beliefs in ways that cannot be accounted for by the naïve view. Perhaps worse, these contents may continue to influence our beliefs and (somewhat independently) our behavior if and when they are retracted. This evidence indicates that when we acquire ground level representations from fiction, recognizing that the source is fictional and exposure to fact checking may not prevent us from acquiring false beliefs that directly reflect its contents, or from having our behavior influenced by its contents. Even for sophisticated consumers, the consumption of fiction may be risky. This is especially so for fake news, given that it has features that make fictional transfer more likely. In particular, fake news is realistic, inasmuch as it portrays real people, acting in line with their genuine motivations in circumstances that closely resemble the real world and it is emotionally arousing, making it more memorable and more likely to be transmitted and repeated. If it is in addition absorbing, we are especially likely to acquire false beliefs from it.

How Fake News Parasitizes Belief and Behavior

When we consume information, we represent the events described to ourselves. These representations might be usefully thought of as ways a possible world might be. Once these representations are formed, they may persist. In fact, though we may forget such information rapidly, some of these representations are very long-lasting and survive retraction: coming to accept inconsistent information does not lead to older representations being overwritten. These representations persist, continuing to shape the beliefs we ascribe to ourselves, the ways in which we process further information, and our behavior.

As we saw above, we acquire beliefs that directly reflect the content of the fictions we consume. We may therefore expect to acquire beliefs from that subset of fiction that is fake news. One way this may occur is through memory-based mechanisms. Sophisticated readers may be especially wary of any claim that they recall came from a fake news site, but source knowledge and object knowledge are stored separately and may dissociate; readers may fail to recall the source of the claim when its content comes to mind (Pratkanis et al. 1988; Lewandowsky et al. 2012). Worse, they may misattribute the claim to a reliable source or even to common knowledge (Marsh, Cantor & Brashier 2016; Rapp 2016). These effects are particularly likely with regard to details of the fake news story that are apparently peripheral to the story, about which the exercise of vigilance is harder and likely less effective. If the person does come to ascribe the belief to themselves, they will then have further evidence for future self-ascriptions: that very act of self-ascription. The belief will now resist disconfirmation.

We may also acquire beliefs from fiction through fluency effects. Repetition of a claim powerfully affects fluency of processing (Begg, Anas & Farinacci 1992; Weaver et al. 2007). This effect may lead to the agent accepting the original claim, when she has forgotten its source. Even when repetition is explicitly in the service of debunking a claim, it may result in higher levels of acceptance by promoting processing fluency (Schwartz et al. 2007). The influence of repetition may persist for months (Brown & Nix 1996), increasing the probability that the source of a repeated claim may be forgotten. All these effects may lead to even careful consumers coming to accept claims that originate in fake news sites, despite a lack of evidence in their favour. Because the claim will be misattributed to common knowledge or a reliable source, introspection cannot reveal the belief’s origins.

There are steps we can take to decrease the likelihood of our acquisition of false claims from fiction, which may form the basis of techniques for decreasing transfer from fake news too. Online monitoring of information, in order to tag it as false as soon as it is encountered, reduces acquisition of false information (Marsh & Fazio 2006). While these steps likely would improve somewhat effective, there are reasons to think that nevertheless a significant problem would persist even with their adoption. First, in near optimal conditions for the avoidance of error, Marsh and Fazio found that the manipulation reduced, rather than eliminated, the acquisition of false claims from fiction. Second, the measures taken are extremely demanding of time and resources. Marsh and Fazio required their participants to make judgments about every sentence one by one, before the next sentence was displayed. More naturalistic reading is likely to produce the kind of immersion that is known to dispose to the acquisition of false claims from fiction (Green & Brock 2000; Lewandowsky et al. 2012). Third, Marsh and Fazio measured the extent of acquisition of false claims from fiction soon after the fiction was read and the error tagged, thereby greatly reducing the opportunity for dissociations in recall between the claim content and the discounting cue. We should expect a sleeper effect, with an increase of acquisition over time. Finally, Marsh and Fazio’s design can be expected to have little effect on the fluency with which the claims made were processed. As we have seen, repetition increases fluency. But many of the claims made in fake news are encountered multiple times, thereby increasing processing fluency and promoting an illusion of truth.

On the other hand, many sophisticated consumers of fake news come to it with fiercely partisan attitudes toward the claims made. They expect to encounter not merely false claims, but glaringly and perniciously false claims. It is reasonable to expect this attitude to be protective.[5] Moreover, it is should be obvious that we routinely encounter fake news or egregiously false claims without coming to believe them. When we think of such claims (about the Bowling Green attack, for instance), we think of false claims we recognize as false.  Confidence that we can consume fake news without acquiring false beliefs from it should be tempered by recognition of the impossibility of identifying candidate beliefs, since we are unable to identify false claims we take to be true and we are likely to misattribute claims we do acquire. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that we routinely succeed in rejecting the claims we read on such sites. But that doesn’t entail that these claims don’t have pernicious effects on our cognition and subsequent behavior.

There is good reason to believe that even when we succeed in rejecting the claims that we encounter in fake news, those claims will play a role in our subsequent belief acquisition in ways that reflect their content. Even when they are not accepted, claims are available to shape beliefs in a similar (and for some purposes identical) kind of way as those that the person accepts. As noted above, successfully retracted claims are not overwritten and their continuing influence on cognitive processing has been demonstrated. O’Brien, Cook & Guéraud (2010) found that information inconsistent with retracted claims was processed more slowly than other information, indicating that it continues to play an active role in how the text is comprehended, despite the fact that the readers fully accepted the retraction. Representations like these may shape how related information is processed, even (perhaps especially) when it is not explicitly recalled. There are at least three pathways whereby this may occur: one fluency-based, one via the activation of related information, and one through the elicitation of action tendencies.

First, the fluency-based mechanism: An agent who succeeds in recalling that the claim that Hillary Clinton is a criminal stems from a fake news site and therefore does not self-ascribe belief in the claim may nevertheless process claims like Hillary Clinton is concerned only with her own self-interest more fluently, because the semantic content of the first representation makes the second seem more familiar and therefore more plausible. The more familiar we are with a false claim, even one we confidently identify as false, the more available it is to influence processing of semantically related claims and thereby fluency. Independent of fluency, moreover, the activation of semantically or associatively related information plays a characteristic role in cognitive processing. Representations prime other representations, and that biases cognition. It influences what else comes to mind and therefore what claims come to be weighed in deliberation (negative false claims about Clinton may preferentially prime the recall of negative true claims about her—say, that she voted in favor of the war in Iraq—and thereby to influence deliberation about her). Without the false prime, the person may have engaged in more even-handed deliberation. Perhaps priming with fake news might result in her deciding to abstain from voting, rather than support ‘the lesser evil’. Sufficiently prolonged or repeated exposure to fake news about a person might result in the formation of implicit biases against her, in the same way in which, plausibly, implicit biases against women or minorities arise, at least in part, from their negative portrayal in explicitly labelled fictions (Kang 2012).

While it is unclear whether the mechanism is fluency-based or content-based, there is experimental evidence that suggests that claims known from the start to be false play a role in information processing. For instance, Gilbert, Tafarodi, and Malone (1993) had participants read crime reports, which contained some information marked (by font color) as false. In one condition, the false information was extenuating; in the other, it was exacerbating. Participants who were under cognitive load or time pressure when reading the information judged that the criminal should get a longer sentence when the false information was exacerbating and a shorter sentence when the false information was extenuating. At longer delays, it is likely that those who were not under load would be influenced by the information, even if they continued to recognize it as false. Its availability would render related information accessible and more fluently processed, or activate it so that it played its characteristic role in processing, affecting downstream judgments.

Fictions also elicit action tendencies. As we saw above, scenarios that children recognize to be imaginary affect how they behave. They are, for instance, reluctant to approach a box in which they had imagined there was a monster, despite being confident that it was only make-believe (Harris et al. 1991; Johnson and Harris 1994), and even when they can see for themselves that the box is empty (Bourchier and Davis 2000). There is no reason to think that the kinds of effects are limited to children. Many people in fact seek out fiction at least partly in order to experience strong emotions with associated action tendencies. We might go to the cinema to be moved, to be scared, to be exhilarated, all by events we know to be fictional; these emotions dispose us, at least weakly, to respond appropriately. We may cry, flinch away, even avert our gaze, and these action tendencies may persist for some time after the film’s end.[6]

The offline stimulation of mechanisms for simulation and the elicitation of action tendencies is pleasurable and may even be adaptive in highly social beings like us. It is also risky. When we simulate scenarios we know (or should know) to be false, we elicit action tendencies in ourselves that may be pernicious. Fake news might, for instance, retail narratives of minorities committing assaults. We may reject the content of these claims, but nevertheless prime ourselves to respond fearfully to members of the minority group. Repeated exposure may result in the formation of implicit biases, which are themselves ground-level representations. These representations, short or long term, play a distinctive role in cognition too, influencing decision-making.


In this paper, I have argued that fake news poses dangers for even its sophisticated consumers. It may lead to the acquisition of beliefs about the world that directly reflect its content. When this happens, we may misattribute the belief to a reputable source, or to common knowledge. Beliefs, once acquired, resist retraction. We do better to avoid acquiring them in the first place.

I have conceded that we routinely succeed in rejecting claims made by those who purvey fake news. That may suggest that the threat is small. Perhaps the threat of belief acquisition is small; I know of no data that gives an indication of how often we acquire such beliefs or how consequential such beliefs are, and introspection is an unreliable guide to the question. I have also argued, however, that even when we succeed in consuming fake news without coming to acquire beliefs that directly reflect its content (surely the typical case), the ground level representations will play a content-reflecting role in our further cognition, in ways that may be pernicious. Cognitive sophistication may not be protective against fake news. Need for cognition (a trait on which academics score very highly) is not protective against the acquisition of beliefs from fiction (Strange 2002). There is also evidence that higher levels of education and of reflectiveness may correlate with higher levels of credulousness about claims that agents want to believe. For example, higher levels of education among Republicans are associated with higher levels of belief that Obama is a Muslim, not lower (Lewandowsy et al. 2012), and with higher degrees of scepticism toward climate change (Kahan 2015). This may arise from what Taber & Lodge (2006) call the sophistication effect, whereby being more knowledgeable provides more ammunition with which to counter unpalatable claims.

I have not argued that the dangers of fake news outweigh the benefits that may arise from reading it. Perhaps these benefits are sufficient such that its consumption is all things considered justifiable. This paper is a first step toward assessing that claim. There is a great deal more we need to know to assess it. For instance, we have little data concerning the extent to which the partisan attitude of those people who consume fake news in order to discover just how it is false may be protective. Showing that the dangers are unexpectedly large is showing that gathering that data, as well as assessing the benefits of the consumption of fake news, is an unexpectedly urgent task.[7]


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Wood, Thomas and Porter, Ethan. “The Elusive Backfire Effect: Mass Attitudes’ Steadfast Factual Adherence (August 5, 2016).” Available at SSRN:

[1] This definition is intended to fix the reference for discussion, not serve as a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. While there may be interesting philosophical work to do in settling difficult questions about whether a particular organization or a particular item is or is not an instance of fake news, this is not work I aim to undertake here. We can make a great deal of progress on both the theoretical and the practical challenges posed by fake news without settling these issues.

[2] It is difficult to find an explicit defence of this claim. I suspect, in fact, it is taken for granted to such an extent that it does not occur to most writers that it needs a defence. In addressing the dangers of fake news, however, they focus exclusively or near exclusively on the extent to which people are duped by it (see, for instance, Silverman & Singer-Vine 2016; McIntye 2015). Lynch (2016) expands the focus of concern slightly, from being taken in by fake news to becoming doubtful over its truth. On the other hand, the solution they propose for the problem is better fact checking and increased media literacy (Orlando 2017; Holcombe 2017).

[3] We acquire many beliefs about the world from reading fiction, but only some of those beliefs directly reflect the content of the claims made in the fiction. For example, from reading Tristram Shandy I might learn that 18th century novels are sometimes rather long, that they could be surprisingly bawdy and (putative) facts about Wellington’s battles. Only the last belief is a belief about the world outside the fiction that directly reflects the contents of the claims made in the fiction. The first reflects the formal properties of the novel; the second reflects its content but not directly (the book neither claims, nor implies, that 18th century novels could be bawdy).

[4] It is possible that the backfire effect is very much less common than many psychologists fear. Wood and Porter (2016) conducted 4 experiments with a large number of participants, and failed to produce a backfire effect for any item other than the Iraq WMDs correction. It is unclear, however, whether these experiments provide strong evidence against the backfire effect. First, Wood and Porter presented the claim to be corrected and the correction together, and probed for corrections immediately afterwards. The backfire effect seems to be strongest after a delay of at least several days (Peter and Koch 2016). The evidence may also be compatible with there being a strong backfire effect for corrections given at around the same time judgments are made. The reason is this: Wood and Porter deliberately aimed mainly at correcting a false impression that might arise from the (genuine) words of the politicians they aimed to correct, not at correcting the literal meaning of their claims. For example, they quote Hillary Clinton as saying “Between 88 and 92 people a day are killed by guns in America. It’s the leading cause of death for young black men, the second leading cause for young Hispanic men, the fourth leading cause for young white men. This epidemic of gun violence knows no boundaries, knows no limits, of any kind.” The correction given was: “In fact, according to the FBI, the number of gun homicides has fallen since the mid 1990s, declining by about 50% between 1994 and 2013.” Subjects were asked to agree or disagree on a five-point scale with “The number of gun homicides is currently at an all-time high”. Answering “disagree” to this question—that is, giving the answer that Wood and Porter take to be supported by the “correction”—is compatible with thinking that everything Clinton said was true (because her claims and the correction are logically compatible). Accepting the “correction” does not require one to disagree with someone with whom partisans might identify. It may be that the backfire effect concerning judgments made without the opportunity for memory dissociations is limited, or strongest, with regard to, directly conflicting statements. Bolstering this interpretation of the results reported by Wood and Porter is the fact that they replicated the backfire effect for the original WMDs in Iraq case, and subsequently eliminated the backfire effect by giving respondents an option which allowed them to accept the correction without contradicting the literal meaning of President Bush’s words. Finally, it should be noted that Wood and Porter’s corrections did not eliminate reliance on false information. The corrections they provided still left the most partisan quite firmly convinced—though somewhat less than they would otherwise have been—that the false implication was in fact true. Thus, they did not demonstrate the “steadfast factual adherence” of the title of their paper.

[5] I owe this point to Jason D’Cruz.
. It should be noted that there is to my knowledge no data on whether a partisan attitude of the kind described is protective; given that the discoveries made by cognitive science are sometimes counterintuitive, we cannot be very confident that the reasonable presumption that it is protective is true.

[6] Plausibly, these phenomena arise because fictions parasitize—or exapt—mechanisms designed for behavioural control. That is, the creation and consumption of fictional narrative utilizes machinery that evolved for assessing counterfactuals in the service of decision-making. Cognitive scientists refer to our capacity to reconstruct the past and construct the future as mental time travel (see Suddendorf & Corbalis 2008 for review of supporting evidence). This machinery is adaptive, because it allows us to utilize stored knowledge to prepare for future contingencies (Suddendorf, Addis & Corbalis 2011). It is this machinery, used offline, which is used for the simulation of counterfactuals and the construction of fictions for entertainment purposes. Because this machinery is designed to prepare us to respond adaptively, it is closely linked to action tendencies.

[7]  I am grateful to an audience at the Groupe de Recherche Interuniversitaire sur la Normativité, Montreal for helpful comments. Jason D’Cruz provided extensive and extremely helpful comments on a draft of the paper.

Author Information: David C. Winyard Sr., Mount Vernon Nazarene University,

Winyard, David C. “Polanyi Appeal: A Review of Esther Meek’s Contact With Reality.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 17-19.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Image credit: Cascade Books

Contact With Reality: Michael Polanyi’s Realism and Why It Matters
Esther Lightcap Meek
Cascade Books, 2017
309 pp.

Geneva College epistemologist Esther Lightcap Meek is best known for Covenant Epistemology, her innovative synthesis of the work of Michael Polanyi with thoughts from John Frame, Michael Williams, John Macmurray, Marjorie Grene, and others.[1] Covenant Epistemology’s key feature is the characterization of all knowledge as personal, there being ineffable communication—even communion—between knower and known, with both embedded in an ever-unfolding and expanding reality. Such relational knowing is consistent with Meek’s Christianity because “On the Christian theological vision, all reality is either God, or God’s personal effects.”[2]

Meek’s latest book, Contact With Reality, provides background and new vistas for Covenant Epistemology by closely examining Michael Polanyi’s work to reveal his unique form of realism. Part 1, Chapters 1–11, is a lightly edited publication of Meek’s 1983 Ph.D. dissertation. Its primary purpose is to show that Polanyi held realist views, a goal reached by analyzing Polanyi’s well-known thoughts on tacit knowledge, plus the subsidiary-focal structure of knowledge and his hallmarks of discovery, especially how discoveries point toward “indeterminate future manifestations.” Meek’s dissertation concludes with an appeal to phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty to “ground” Polanyi’s realism.[3]

Part 2, Chapters 12–14, briefly reflects upon Polanyian realism and what it might add to today’s discussions of reality, especially as it relates to scientific discovery. Meek begins with a brief analysis of Retrieving Realism, published in 2015 by Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor.[4]  Like Meek, Dreyfus and Taylor also look to Merleau-Ponty to justify their realism, but they never mention Polanyi. This omission opens the door for Meek to forcefully inject Polanyi’s thoughts into the discussion. In the process, she leaves behind her tentative dissertation conclusions. On the basis of three decades of Polanyi studies, Meek boldly argues for the legitimacy and superiority of Polanyi’s realism; it “proves to be its own justification” and “perhaps the only realism worthy of the designation.”[5]

In both parts, Meek expresses surprise and dismay that Polanyi’s genius is not appreciated by modern epistemology, which she regards as overly focused on after-the-fact justification of scientific claims. In turn, it neglects the messy thought processes that produce new knowledge. Meek believes that the philosophy of science, by seeking some sort of positive one-to-one correspondence, overlooks the one-to-many possibilities that drive practicing scientists forward.[6] This oversight perpetuates longstanding disconnects between philosophy and practical science. Against this philosophical rut, Meek argues that Polanyi, as a first-rate natural scientist, can bridge the gap. She recognizes that, for one reason or another, he is poorly understood and largely ignored, but she remains hopeful that Polanyi’s realism, epistemology, and ontology will be embraced.

In the climactic final chapter of Contact With Reality, Meek goes beyond simply making the case for Polanyi’s relevance to argue for realism.[7] Her launching point is the question, “have we children on modernity done a grave disservice to reality itself through our skepticism—including the very posing of the question of realism?”[8] Meek answers this question by citing David C. Schindler’s studies of theologian Hans Urs van Balthasar, who emphasized the transcendental values of truth, goodness, and beauty above all. Enraptured by the real, Meek embraces Schindler’s conclusion that “reason must be ecstatic” and “self-transcending.”[9] Meek’s excited advocacy for Covenant Epistemology is evident, as she appeals for a transcendent “radical attentiveness” to what reality would communicate to us, if we were not predisposed toward disbelief.

Contact With Reality is an important contribution to Meek’s trademark Covenant Epistemology. By publishing and extending her 1985 dissertation, her quest for realism is clarified, especially concerning key Covenant Epistemology concepts that her earlier works introduced. I am left wondering, where will Meek go from here?

My thought is that Meek would do well to connect her conceptions of personal knowledge with the social processes that account for it. If knowledge is indeed personal, then it is inherently social and not subject to mechanical logic. Social factors affect how knowledge claims—including those of Polanyi and Meek—are received. Social reality can be messy, with a large measure of irrealism in the mix. Meek’s references to Thomas Kuhn and the sociology of scientific knowledge suggest that she is aware of the herky-jerky nature of intellectual progress. Perhaps her promotion of Polanyian realism and Covenant Epistemology could benefit from a deeper appreciation of the social factors affecting their acceptance?

Further, Meek’s focus on epistemology minimizes the differences between the underlying ontological commitments of Polanyi and Meek on the one hand, and those of “mainstream” epistemologists on the other. It seems that Christian presuppositions account for the mystical or spiritual elements of Polanyi’s realism and Covenant Epistemology, but Meek often leaves theological matters in the background. Only in her conclusion does theology (i.e., Schindler and Balthasar) approach center stage. This is unfortunate, for since Weber mourned modernity’s “iron cage” social science has earnestly sought ways to “re-enchant” our scientific world. Meek’s Christian approach may be more acceptable than she might anticipate.

Clearly, if Covenant Epistemology is the best way forward, much more work is required to reconnect God with His “personal effects.” Others have begun this work, and it would be very interesting to bring Meek’s thought into dialogue with the likes of Bruno Latour and Steve Fuller. It also seems that Covenant Epistemology’s all-knowledge-is-personal paradigm could shed light on the emerging relationships between human beings and advanced artificial intelligence. Above all, as I reflect on Meek’s Contact With Reality I look forward with anticipation to its “indeterminate future manifestations.”

[1] Meek, Esther Lightcap. Loving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011.

[2] Ibid., 439.

[3] Meek, Contact With Reality, “Chapter 11: Grounding Polanyi’s Realism: Merleau-Ponty,” 205–235.

[4] Dreyfus, Hubert, and Taylor, Charles. Retrieving Realism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

[5] Meek, Contact With Reality, 259.

[6] Ibid., 270.

[7] Ibid., “Chapter 14: Recovering Realism,” 278–297.

[8] Ibid., 278.

[9] Ibid., 281.

Author Information: Ian James Kidd, University of Nottingham,

Kidd, Ian James. “Capital Epistemic Vices.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 11-16.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image credit: jim wolfe, via flickr

The vices of the mind are the subject of vice epistemology, characterised by Quassim Cassam (2016) as the study of the nature, identity, and epistemological significance of those attitudes, character traits, and ways of thinking that obstruct enquiry. These vices range from the familiar, like arrogance and dogmatism, to the more esoteric, like epistemic insensibility and epistemic insouciance. At the moment, the small but growing body of work in vice epistemology is devoted to three broad sorts of issues:

First, to foundational issues, concerning the nature of epistemic vices—are they confined to character traits, or might they include attitudes and ways of thinking, as Cassam (2016) and Alessandra Tanesini (2016) argue?

Second, to studies of specific vices, most obviously the vices of epistemic injustice, but also closed-mindedness, hubris, servility, timidity, to name just a few. Specific studies also include taxonomic projects, ways of organising these vices, for instance by clustering them around the virtues they oppose.

Third, there is work in applied vice epistemology, studies of how the vices manifest in specific contexts, practices, and communities—of how, for instance, certain conditions under which scientific enquiry is conducted may nourish the exercise of vices like timidity.

By organising current work in vice epistemology in this way, it’s clear that this discipline is tracking the dialectics of virtue epistemology. In this journal, Cassam (2015) proposed stealthy vices as an important concept for understanding epistemic vices. Using his argument, I propose another—capital vices.

The Vice Tradition and Capital Vices

An important issue for vice epistemology is taxonomy. By what sorts of features or properties can we reasonably group epistemically vicious character traits, attitudes, and ways of thinking? It’s an important task to identify and describe the various vices of the mind, but vice epistemologists should do more than produce undifferentiated lists of thosee sundry vices. After being identifying, they need to organised in illuminating and instructive ways, as Jason Baehr (cf. 2011, 21f) did for the epistemic virtues, grouping by him according to the specific ‘demands’ of enquiry to which they respond.

An intriguing taxonomic strategy, offered by Cassam, is to argue that certain epistemic vices are stealthy, in the sense that, ‘by their nature, they evade detection from those who have them’ (2015, 20). Stealthy vices are not, of course, impossible to detect—just harder to, since they incorporate features that tend to conceal them successfully from those who have them; as such, they are self-concealing.

Cassam’s examples of stealthy vices include carelessness, a disposition to fail to perform epistemic tasks, including those constitutive of ‘conscious critical reflection’, including critical reflection on one’s own epistemic psychology. A careless person will tend to impede enquiry, for by not caring enough about epistemic goods, they fail to perform consistently and adequately the various tasks one needs to contribute to it. But that includes self-enquiry, which includes attending to actual or potential deficiencies in one’s epistemic capacities, dispositions, and performance. If so, that vice is likely to persist, at least until some other events force one to reflect critically, or until someone points it out for us (see Cassam 2015, 21-24ff). Moreover, it is easy to imagine other candidate stealthy vices, self-concealing by their nature (a further example, to which I later return, is closed-mindedness—one option an agent might be closed to is the possibility of their being epistemically vicious.)

Cassam’s concept of self-concealing, ‘stealthy’ vices offers a compelling way to reflect on and taxonomies the vices of the mind. Certain vices will be stealthy, while others will be more overt, even to the point of being self-disclosing. But here I want to suggest another way, distinct but complementary, taken from the history of philosophical and theological reflection on the vices. This is the idea of capital vices, an idea that has, historically, been mainly confined to moral and spiritual character traits, but is able to play a role in vice epistemology—or so I want to propose.

The best introduction to the concept of a capital vice is Rebecca DeYoung’s excellent 2009 book, Glittering Vices, a history of the vices tradition in the West. For the first thousand years of that tradition, reflection on the vices was motivated by practical and pastoral purposes. Concern with vices was motivated by concerns with ethical and spiritual self-examination and formation, initially following Aristotle, but developing rapidly in the early Christian period. Indeed, the first list of the vices was compiled by the 4th century desert father, Evagrius of Pontus (346-399AD), who described the seven ‘thoughts’ or ‘demons’ that afflict desert hermits. Many of his entrants persist today as standard vices—gluttony, avarice, pride—alongside others now either lost or substantially transformed, such as acedia, a spiritually-inflected weariness or lethargy, that later developed into the vices of sloth or laziness.

Such early compilations of the vices quickly developed, after Evagrius, into a more systematic project of revising and, crucially, ordering the vices. John Cassian (260-430AD)—a disciple of Evagrius—made a crucial move, by widening the scope of vice theory from solitary desert monks to communal spiritual life. Vice was made an active concern for humans in general, laity as well as clerisy, social as well as solitary. A crucial subsequent development was Pope Gregory’s (540-604 AD) editing of the list of vices down to seven—a number of biblical significance—which, importantly, made pride their root. (A historically late consequence of this, for vice epistemology, is receipt of a rich vocabulary for talking about humility and its opponent vices.)

An emerging problem in the vice tradition was that of reasons why certain vices made the list, while others did not. The worry became acute since, as DeYoung (2009:33) remarks, the seven that came to be entrenched are neither the only vices, nor indeed ‘the worst possible or the most frequent vices’. The formalised inclusion of an articulated set of vices into a list of the vices—let alone the capital vices—must be justified, not least given the possibility of alternative lists. The main response of the vice tradition, explains DeYoung, was development of the new concept of capital vicescapit in Latin meaning, of course, ‘head’, as in a ‘source’, ‘origin’, or, in her more poetic term, ‘fountainhead’. Such vices are therefore self-proliferating.

Using this new concept, one can argue that the capital vices have a special status as ‘source vices’, distinguished by their capacity to ‘proliferate other vices’, which she calls ‘offspring vices’ (DeYoung 2009, 33f). To use a tree metaphor favoured by vice theorists at the time, certain vices are the ‘trunk’, from which other vices ‘branch off’. It is for this reason that capital vices are, in Gabriele Taylor’s (2006, 124) phrase, ‘corruptive of the self’. Although she does not define the term, I’ve argued elsewhere for a vice-centric conception of epistemic corruption, where x is corrupting if it creates conditions conducive to the development and exercise of epistemic vices (Kidd 2015, 70f). If there are capital vices, then they are corrupting, for they increase one’s vulnerability to other vices, by creating internal psychological conditions for their development. A capital vice, once in place, provides conditions in which a sub-set of offshoot vices can begin to develop.

Identifying the capital vices is important, on this view, for educative and ameliorative purposes. In the early Christian tradition, vice was a problem because it obstructs our capacities for moral self-knowledge and spiritual progress—a spiritual variant on what Cassam dubs the ‘obstructivist’ account of vices. DeYoung (2009, 34) explains that, in the vice tradition, ‘the goal is to get to the problem’s source, and root it out, thereby eliminating a whole host of related vices’. If one cuts off the offspring vices at their roots, they will, hopefully, wither and die. A further advantage of thinking in terms of capital vices, continues DeYoung (2009, 34), is that it ‘encourages people to see certain sins as likely indicators of deeper moral problems and to see their connection to that great original sin, pride’.

The hope was that efforts at the purgation of vices would be more efficient if one’s energies were focused at the fundamental source—the deep ‘roots’—of the corruption. An advantage of this was that strategies for combating the vices can take forms other than urging cultivation of the virtues; the early Christians favoured spiritual exercises, fasting, psalmody, and so on. This matters, since a major problem with stealthy vices is that they can only be combated if they can be detected, but their detection often seems contingent on the exercise of a variety of epistemic virtues—like open-mindedness, alertness, and so on (cf. Cassam 2016, 21-22).

After this brief sketch of the origins of the concept of a capital vice in the vice tradition, let me ask how it can be applied to vice epistemology.

Capital Epistemic Vices

Can the concept of capital vices be usefully applied to our efforts to understand and combat epistemic vices? Since this is a big question, break it down into the following:

1. What makes an epistemic vice a capital vice?
2. Which are the capital epistemic vices?
3. How, if at all, are capital vices related to their offshoot vices?

Sharp-eyed readers will recognise that these questions are modelled on those that Cassam (2015, 20) asks of stealthiness and stealthy vices. Answering these questions will require detailed investigations of putatively capital vices and the putative offshoots vices associated with them—work that I encourage vice epistemologists to pursue. It also requires systematic reflection on issues specific to capital vices. Is the ‘capitality’ relation conceptual, causal, or psychological? Could an agent develop a capital vice without giving also developing offshoot vices—or are those ‘offshoots’ inevitable? Are there other ways to explain the dangers or harmfulness of capital vices than invoking their self-proliferating potentiality? If there are capital vices, how many are there, and how do they relate to one another? Might there be capital epistemic virtues, and, if so, what is their relation to the capital epistemic vices?

Instead of exploring these questions, let me make a modest start on the most basic issue, that of whether there are capital epistemic vices. I offer an example of a plausible candidate capital vice—closed-mindedness.

In a recent paper, Heather Battaly (2017) offers a sophisticated account of the vice of closed-mindedness. At its core, it is an unwillingness or inability to engage seriously with—to be ‘closed to’—relevant intellectual options. Consistent with her pluralism about vice, closed-mindedness is objectionable since it has bad effects and reflects bad motives and values on the part of the agent (see Battaly 2014). Crucially, such vicious failures to engage with intellectual options can take different forms, since there are different options to which one could be closed, and different ways in which closure can manifest. One might fail to engage seriously with relevant methods, topics, ways of thinking by scorning them or perhaps deny the intelligibility of alternatives to beliefs or views that one already holds. On the basis of this second possibility, Battaly proposes that the vice of dogmatism should be understood as a ‘sub-set of closed-mindedness’, a particular form that it can take. Dogmatism is one way—among others—that an agent can be closed to intellectual options.

Although my sketch glosses the details of Battaly’s rich account, it offers clear reasons for regarding closed-mindedness as a capital epistemic vice. Certainly it has many of the features that upgrade a vice to capital status. At the most basic, it secures the status of closed-mindedness as a vice, whether by reference to its typical effects, motives, or values. If something isn’t a vice, then it can’t be a capital vice. An essential difference, though, is that closed-mindedness is plausibly identified to be at the root of other vices—dogmatism, for instance. If so, closed-mindedness is acts as the source of dogmatism, which takes its place as what Battaly calls a ‘sub-vice’ or as what DeYoung calls an ‘offshoot vice’. Built into the idea of capital vices is a principle that to possess an offshoot vice is always to possess, even if only in a subspecific form, a capital vice. On Battaly’s account, though one can be closed-minded without being dogmatic, one cannot be dogmatic without being closed-mindedness. For to be closed-minded about alternatives to one’s beliefs or views just is to be closed-minded, within and about the doxastic domain.

These two features of closed-mindedness do not, in themselves, secure for us the claim that it is a capital vice. Granted, it’s a vice that can admit of sub-vices, but some further features are needed. If the early theorists in the vice tradition are right, we would also need to show that closed-mindedness admits of other sub-vices—no less than sixteen in the case of sloth, for one early Christian vice theorist (see DeYoung 2009, 34). Whether it does or not, I can’t say, though my intuition is that closed-mindedness is the root or source of several other sub-vices. If so, then we can become more confident about its provisional status as a capital epistemic vice.

Upgrading that intuition will require further investigation of the array of vices proximal to closed-mindedness, and studies of other candidates. A prime candidate is epistemic laziness, roughly defined as a culpable failure to acquire or exercise the epistemic capacities required for enquiry (Kidd, unpublished manuscript). Arguably, such laziness lies at the root of a whole range of vices characterised by failures to do epistemic work—think of vices like inaccuracy or rigidity, both of which are, ultimately, fails to do the work needed to ensure accuracy or revision of one’s beliefs. If laziness is a capital vice, then its various sub-vices may be distinguished by their different effects, values, or motives. A person may not care enough about the status of their beliefs to put in the epistemic work, such that laziness trumps diligence.

The case of epistemic laziness is a speculation, pending further work, and I’m more confident about closed-mindedness. But hopefully these ideas offer to vice epistemologists a useful concept, one that played important and useful role in earlier stages of the vice tradition. Capital epistemic vices may help us think about an obvious set of issues, like the ontology and structure of the vices of the mind. If so, we can retrieve from the rich, neglected vice tradition a concept that may be crucial to the vice epistemological project. Indeed, we might come to include the category of self-proliferating capital vices alongside self-concealing stealthy vices. Hopefully this can show the value of building into vice epistemology an historical dimension that it has, so far, tended to lack.


I offer my thanks to Heather Battaly and Quassim Cassam for helpful comments on this piece.


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Battaly, Heather. “Varieties of Epistemic Vice.” In The Ethics of Belief edited by Jon Matheson and Rico Vitz, 51-76. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Battaly, Heather. “Closed-Mindedness and Intellectual Vice.” Keynote address delivered at the Harms and Wrongs in Epistemic Practice conference, University of Sheffield, 4 July, 2017.

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