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Author Information: Manuel Padilla-Cruz, Universidad de Sevilla, mpadillacruz@us.es.

Padilla-Cruz, Manuel. “On the Pragmatic and Conversational Features of Venting: A Reply to Thorson and Baker.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 21-30.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-46B

Image by Rolf Dietrich Brecher via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Juli Thorson and Christine Baker have recently set the spotlight on a verbal activity which, in their view, may yield rather positive outcomes in oppressive or discriminating environments: venting. This is claimed to play a significant role in fighting epistemic damage.

Although their discussion is restricted to cases in which women vent to other women who are acquainted with unfair epistemic practices in the asymmetrical and hierarchical social groups to which they belong, in “Venting as epistemic work” the authors contend that successful venting can make people aware of oppressive social structures, their place in them and possible solutions for the epistemic damage that those structures cause.

As a result, venting enables individuals to regain trust in their epistemic practices, author knowledge, and accept their own epistemic personhood (Thorson and Baker 2019: 8).

Damage, Personhood, and Venting

Thorson and Baker’s (2019) argumentation relies on two crucial elements. On the one hand, the notion of epistemic damage, which, in an analogous way to Tessman’s (2001) concept of moral damage, is defined as a harm curtailing an individual’s epistemic personhood. This is in turn described as the individual’s “[…] ontological standing as a knower”, “[…] the ability to author knowledge for [oneself]” (Thorson and Baker 2019: 2), or, in Borgwald’s words, “[…] the ability to think autonomously, reflect on and evaluate one’s emotion, beliefs, desires, and to trust those judgments rather than deferring to others” (2012: 73).

Epistemic damage hampers the development of a person’s knowledge-generating practices and her self-trust in her ability to implement them (Thorson and Baker 2019: 2).[1] It is inflicted when someone cannot assert her epistemic personhood because she fears that what she says will not be taken seriously. Consequently, the victim suffers testimonial smothering (Dotson 2011) and gets her self-trust diminished and her epistemic personhood undermined.

On the other hand, the authors’ argumentation is based on a differentiation of venting from both complaining and ranting. These three verbal actions are depicted as contingent on the presence of an audience, expressing “strong feelings” and conveying “agitation about some state of affairs or person” (Thorson and Baker 2019: 3), but neither complaining nor ranting are believed to involve expectations for a change in the state of affairs that gave rise to them.

Complaints, the authors say, may be left unaddressed or the solution proposed for their cause may turn out unsatisfactory and leave it unfixed, while ranting is “a kind of performance for someone” (Thorson and Baker 2019: pp.) where the ranter, far from engaging in conversation, simply exposes her views and expresses anger through a verbal outburst without concern for an ensuing reaction. Venting, in contrast, is portrayed as a testifying dialogical action that is typically performed, Thorson and Baker (2019: 4-5) think, in face-to-face interaction and where the venter does have firm expectations for subsequent remedial action against a state of affairs: denied uptake, sexist comments, silencing or undermining of cognitive authority, to name but some.

By expressing anger at (an)other individual(s) who wronged her or frustrated confusion at their actions, the venter seeks to make her audience aware of an epistemic injustice –either testimonial or hermeneutical– which negatively affects her epistemic personhood and to assert her own credibility.

Thorson and Baker (2019: 7) also distinguish two types of venting, even if these are not clear-cut and range along a continuum:

  1. Heavy-load venting, which is a lengthy, time-consuming and dramatic activity following a serious threat to epistemic personhood increasing self-distrust. It aims for recognition of credibility and reaffirmation of epistemic personhood.
  2. Maintenance venting, which is a “honing practice” requiring less epistemic work and following situations where there are “lack of uptake, dismissal, or micro-aggressions” (Thorson and Baker 2019: 7). Its goal is reinforcement or maintenance of epistemic personhood.

Despite their valuable insights, a series of issues connected with the features defining venting and characterising its two types deserve more detailed consideration in order to gain a fuller understanding of the reasons why venting can actually have the positive effects that the authors attribute to it.

Firstly, its ontology as a verbal action or speech act (Austin 1962; Searle 1969) needs ascertaining in depth with a view to properly delimiting it and adequately differentiating it from other related actions. Secondly, in addition to length and goal, a further criterion should be provided so as to more accurately characterise heavy-load and maintenance venting. Addressing the first issue will help unravel what venting really is and how it is accomplished, while dealing with the second one is fundamental for capturing the subtleties individuating the two types of venting.

What follows addresses these issues from two disciplines of linguistics: pragmatics to a great extent and conversation analysis to a lesser extent. The former, which is greatly indebted to the philosophy of language, looks into, among others, how individuals express meaning and perform a variety of actions verbally, as well as how they interpret utterances and understand meaning.

More precisely, the issues in question will be accounted for on the grounds of some postulates of Speech Act Theory (Austin 1962; Searle 1969) and contributions on complaints made from this framework. Conversation analysis, in turn, examines how individuals structure their verbal contributions with a view to transmitting meaning and how conversational structure determines interpretation. Although Thorson and Baker (2019) admit that an analysis of venting from a linguistic perspective would be fruitful, unfortunately, they did not undertake it.

1) Venting as a Speech Act

Thorson and Baker (2019) take venting, complaining and ranting to be three distinct speech acts that have in common the expression of anger. To some extent, this is right, as there is much confusion in the literature and researchers consider venting and ranting the same speech act “[…] and use the terms synonymously” (Signorelli 2017: 16). However, venting and ranting could rather be regarded as sub-types or variations of a broader, more general or overarching category of speech act: complaining.

Venting and ranting satisfy in the same way as complaining four of the twelve criteria proposed by Searle (1975) in order to distinguish specific verbal actions: namely, those pertaining to the illocutionary point of the act, the direction of fit between the speaker’s words and the external world, the expressed psychological state and the propositional content of the utterance(s) whereby a verbal action is attempted. In other words, complaining, venting and ranting share similar features stemming from the speaker’s intentionality, the relationship between what she says and the external world, her psychological state while speaking and the core meaning or import of what she says. Complaining would then be an umbrella category subsuming both venting and ranting, which would differ from it along other dimensions.

1.1) Pragmatic and Conversational Features of Complaints

Pragmatists working within the fruitful speech act-theoretic tradition (Austin 1962; Searle 1969, 1975) have made illuminating contributions on complaints, which they have classified as expressive acts wherewith the speaker, or complainer or complainant, expresses a variety of negative feelings or emotions. This is a relevant aspect unveiling illocutionary point or intentionality. Such feelings or emotions include anger, irritation, wrath, frustration, disappointment, dissatisfaction, discontent, discomfort, anxiety, despair, etc.

This is another key point, but it shows this time the expressed psychological state (Edmondson and House 1981; Laforest 2002; Edwards 2005). In fact, the expression of such feelings and emotions –a further important issue linked now to the communicated propositional content (“I am angry at/disappointed by p”)– differentiates complaints from other expressive acts like complimenting, where the expressed psychological states are positive: admiration, approval, appraisal, etc. (Wolfson and Manes 1980; Manes and Wolfson 1981).

The feelings and emotions voiced by the complainer concern some state of affairs –another person’s behaviour, appearance, traits, mood, etc., an event and, evidently, some injustice, too– which is regarded not to meet (personal) expectations or standards, or to violate sociocultural norms. The state of affairs originating the complaint is referred to as the complainable and is assessed or appraised from the complainer’s point of view, so complaints often involve a high degree of subjectivity (Edmondson and House 1981; Boxer 1993a, 1993b; Trosborg 1995). As expressive acts, complaints lack direction of fit: neither do they reflect the outer world, nor is this affected by or adapted to what the complainer says.

However, complaints could also be considered to some extent informative or representative acts, inasmuch as the complainer may make the hearer –or complainee– aware of the unsatisfactory state of affairs, which might have gone completely unnoticed or be utterly unknown to him. If so, complaints would be hybrid acts combining the expression of psychological states and the dispensing of information. Accordingly, they could have a words-to-world direction of fit because what the complainer says matches the world, at least from her perspective.

Complaints can be subdivided in various manners. A first twofold division can be made depending on whether the complainable pertains to the complainee or not. Thus, direct complaints concern a state of affairs for which the complainee is held responsible, while indirect complaints deal with one whose responsibility lies in a third party, who may be present at the conversational exchange or absent (Edmondson and House 1981; Boxer 1993a, 1993b; Trosborg 1995).

Another twofold distinction may be made depending on whether the complainer simply voices her feelings or has further intentions. Hence, complaints are retrospective acts when she just expresses her psychological states about some recent or past state of affairs without further intentions, or prospective when she also seeks to influence the complainee and bias his (future) course of action (Márquez Reiter 2005).

In discoursive, conversational terms, complaints can be made through just a single sentence that is produced as an utterance counting as the core act, or through more than one sentence and utterance, either in the same conversational turn or in different ones. Additional utterances make up pre-sequences or post-sequences, depending on their position relative to the core act, or moves, a label frequently used in the literature on conversation analysis.

Since they often lend support to the complaint by offering further details about the complainable, giving reasons for the complainer’s feelings and/or informing about her expections, those moves work as supportive moves. A core complaint and the possible supportive moves accompanying it are often arranged in adjacency pairs along with the utterances reacting to them, whereby the complainee agrees, shows his own psychological states, elaborates on the complaint or responds to it (Cutting 2002; Sidnell 2010; Padilla Cruz 2015; Clift 2016).

1.2) Characterising Venting

Following this characterisation, venting can be said to be a type of complaining on the basis of the following features: its topic or aboutness, its target, the participation of (an)other individual(s), dialogicality, length, the newness or known nature of its subject matter, and the predominance of the expressive and representative functions or the fulfilment of an additional influential or conative function. Of these, the first three features are fundamental, while the fourth and the fifth ones may be regarded as consequences of the third feature. Whereas the sixth one facilitates differentiation between types of venting, the seventh enables recognition of intentions other than simply voicing feelings about recent or past states of affairs.

Although solely produced by one individual –the complainer or venter– venting would be an indirect form of complaining that “[…] reveals underlying perspectives [on] a given topic, situation, or individual(s)” (Signorelli 2017: 2) and engages (an)other individual(s) who must share the assessment of, perspective on and feelings about the complainable, as well as be in a position to react in a particular manner or intend to do so in the (immediate) future.

Their sharing such viewpoints and feelings may prompt participation in the discoursive or conversational episode through tokens of agreement or commiseration, enquiries aimed at getting additional information about the complainable, further verbalisation of negative feelings through additional censuring, critique or irritated comments, and expression of commitment to future remedial action (Boxer 1993a).

Therefore, venting could be depicted as a dialogic phenomenon that is achieved discoursively and requires conversation, to which (an)other participant(s) contribute(s). As Signorelli puts it, “[…] venting is deliberately and necessarily communal” (2017: 17) and can therefore be described as a type of “participatory genre” (2017: 16) with a specific purpose, recognisable moves and characteristic rhetorical strategies (2017: 1).

Its dependency on the contribution of some other epistemic agent(s) makes venting be a cooperative action that is co-constructed by means of the joint endeavours of the venter and her audience. Its dialogic nature causes conversation to unfold through more than just one turn or adjacency pair, so venting episodes may be (considerably) longer variations of complaints, which may be performed by means of just one utterance or a brief sequence of utterances that is normally followed by reactions or responses.

Hence, venting would require more effort, time and verbal material enabling the venter to elaborate on her viewpoints, clearly express her feelings, refine, revise or deepen into the subject matter, and/or announce or hint her expectations. Through it the venter seeks to secure her audience’s future collaboration, which renders venting a long form of prospective complaining. In turn, the audience may show understanding, indicate their positioning as regards what is talked about and/or reveal their future intentions.

1.3) Venting and Related Actions

Venting cannot be judged to differ from complaining on the grounds of the likelihood for a solution to a problem to exist or to be plausible, as Thorson and Baker (2019) conjecture. If a solution to a problem actually exists, that is something external, extralinguistic. Whether the solution is worked out or sought for, and ends up being administered or not, are perlocutionary effects (Austin 1962) that escape the venter’s control. Indeed, although perlocutionary effects may be intended or expected, and, hence, insinuated and pursued through what is said and how it is said, whether a particular solution to a problem is actually given or not is something that totally falls under the audience’s control. Venting nevertheless displays pragmatic and conversational properties that single it out as a special manifestation of complaining.

On the other hand, venting is also distinct from ranting in that, regardless of whether ranting is a direct or indirect form of complaint, it initially excludes the participation of the audience. Ranting, therefore, is chiefly a monologic speech action characterised by its length and detail, too, but deprived of joint cooperation. It mainly is an “[…] individualistic production of identity” (Vrooman 2002: 63, quoted in Signorelli 2017) that is “[…] rooted in self-styling” (Signorelli 2017: 12) and whose mission is “[…] to establish and defend a position of social distance” (Signorelli 2017: 13).

If something distinguishes ranting, that may be the intensity, vividness and high level of irritation or agitation wherewith the complainable is presented, which results in a verbal outburst, as Thorson and Baker (2019) rightly put it. Relying on Searle’s (1975) parametres to classify speech acts, the strength with which ranting is performed certainly differentiates it from venting and also sorts it out as a peculiar manifestation of complaining. Ranting, then, differs from venting on the grounds of its narrative nature and emotional intensity (Manning 2008: 103-105; Lange 2014: 59, quoted in Signorelli 2017).

2) The Two Types of Venting

As pointed out, Thorson and Baker (2019) differentiate between heavy-load and maintenance venting. In their view, the former arises when nothing or very little is known about a disappointing, frustrating, irritating or unfair issue. The venter’s action, then, seems to be mainly aimed at informing her audience and giving details about the issue in question, as well as at making them aware of her feelings.

In turn, maintenance venting appears to correspond to the sort of trouble talk (Jefferson 1984, 1988) in which people engage every now and then when they are already acquainted with some negative issue. This distinction, therefore, may be refined by taking into account the informational load of each action, or, to put it differently, its informativeness, i.e. the newness or known nature of the complainable (Padilla Cruz 2006).

In informational terms, heavy-load venting may be more informative because either what is talked about is utterly unknown to the audience or both the venter and her audience are familiarised with it, but have not dealt with it beforehand. Both the informative –or representational– and the expressive function play a major role in this sort of venting: along with conveying her feelings the venter also dispenses information, the possession of which by the audience she considers is in her interest.

The informativeness of maintenance venting, in contrast, would be lesser, as the venter and her audience are already acquainted with a troublesome or disrupting state of affairs because they have previously discussed it in previous encounters. Although this type of venting still fulfils an informative or representational function, this is subservient to the expressive function and to an additional one: affirming or strengthening common viewpoints and feelings (Padilla Cruz 2004a, 2004b, 2005). This is essential for aligning the audience with herself or positioning them along with her as regards the complainable.

The low level of informativeness of maintenance venting and the affirmation or reinforcement of common viewpoints that it achieves render this sort of venting a phatic action in the sense of anthropologist Bronisław K. Malinowski (1923). It is of little informational relevance, if this is understood to amount to the newness or unknown nature of information, and, therefore, of scarce importance to the audience’s worldview. Even if maintenance venting does not significantly improve or alter their knowledge about the vented issue, like phatic discourse, it does nevertheless fulfil a crucial function: creating or stressing social affinity, rapport, bonds of union, solidarity and camaraderie between the venter and her audience (Padilla Cruz 2004a, 2004b, 2005).

These effects stem from venting’s implication that the interlocutors brought together have similar viewpoints and feelings about a problematic or unfair state of affairs. Maintenance venting, so to say, insinuates or highlights that the interlocutors may be equally affected by what is talked about, expect a similar reaction or react to it in a similar manner. It fosters a feeling of in-group membership through a topic with which the interlocutors are equally acquainted, which similarly impacts them and towards which they also hold akin attitudes (Padilla Cruz 2006).

Conclusion

Venting satisfies criteria that enable its classification as a manifestation of complaining behaviour. Owing to its target –a third party– topic –some recent or past state of affairs– and fulfilment of expressive, representative and conative functions, it amounts to an indirect prospective form of complaint. Its conversational features make it exceed average complaints made through just one conversational turn or adjacency pair, so venting requires more time and effort. However, if there are characteristics significantly distinguishing venting, these are dialogicality and engagement of the audience.

Venting certainly depends on the presence and participation of the audience. It must be jointly or cooperatively accomplished through dialogue, so it must be seen and portrayed as a communal action that is discoursively achieved. The audience’s participation is crucial for both the acknowledgement of a troublesome state of affairs and the achievement of the ultimate goal(s) sought for by the venter: fighting or eradicating the state of affairs in question. While dialogicality and participation of the audience facilitate differentiation between venting and another type of complaint, namely, ranting, the level of informativeness of what is vented helps more accurately distinguish between heavy-load and maintenance venting.

It is along these pragmatic and conversational features that venting may be more precisely described from a linguistic perspective. Although this description may certainly enrich our understanding of why it may have the effects that Thorson and Baker (2019) ascribe to it, other issues still need considering. They are left aside for future work.

Contact details: mpadillacruz@us.es

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[1] The feminine third person singular personal pronoun will be used throughout this paper in order to refer to an individual adopting the role of speaker in conversational exchanges, while the masculine counterpart will be used to allude to the individual adopting that of hearer.

Author Information: Fabien Medvecky, University of Otago, fabien.medvecky@otago.ac.nz.

Medvecky, Fabien. “Institutionalised Science Communication and Epistemic Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 15-20.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-46m

A graffiti mural that was, and may even still be, on Maybachufer Strasse in Kreuzberg, Berlin.
Image by Igal Malis via Flicker / Creative Commons

 

This article responds to Matheson, Jonathan, and Valerie Joly Chock. “Science Communication and Epistemic Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 1-9.

In a recent paper, I argued that science communication, the “umbrella term for the research into and the practice of increasing public understanding of and public engagement with science”, is epistemically unjust (Medvecky, 2017). Matheson and Chock disagree. Or at least, they disagree with enough of the argument to conclude that “while thought provoking and bold, Medvecky’s argument should be resisted” (Matheson & Chock, 2019). This has provided me with an opportunity to revisit some of my claims, and more importantly, to make explicit those claims that I had failed to make clear and present in the original paper. That’s what this note will do.

Matheson and Chock’s concern with the original argument is two-fold. Firstly, they argue that the original argument sinned by overreaching, and secondly, that while there might be credibility excess, such excess should not be viewed as constituting injustice. I’ll begin by outlining my original argument before tackling each of their complaints.

The Original Argument For the Epistemic Injustice of Science Communication

Taking Matheson and Chock’s formal presentation of the original argument, it runs as follows:

1. Science is not a unique and privileged field (this isn’t quite right. See below for clarification)

2. If (1), then science communication creates a credibility excess for science.

3. Science communication creates a credibility excess for science.

4. If (3), then science communication is epistemically unjust.

5. Science communication is epistemically unjust.

The original argument claimed that science was privileged in the way that its communication is institutionalised through policy and practices in a way not granted to other fields, and that fundamentally,

While there are many well-argued reasons for communicating, popularizing, and engaging with science, these are not necessarily reasons for communicating, popularizing, and engaging only with science. Focusing and funding only the communication of science as reliable knowledge represents science as a unique and privileged field; as the only reliable field whose knowledge requires such specialized treatment. This uniqueness creates a credibility excess for science as a field. (italic added)

Two clarificatory points are important here. Firstly, while Matheson and Chock run with premise 1, they do express some reservation. And so would I if this were the way I’d spelled it out. But I never suggested that there is nothing unique about science. There undoubtedly is, usually expressed in terms of producing especially reliable knowledge (Nowotny, 2003; Rudolph, 2014).

My original argument was that this isn’t necessarily enough to warrant special treatment when it comes to communication. As I stated then, “What we need is a reason for why reliable knowledge ought to be communicated. Why would some highly reliable information about the reproductive habits of a squid be more important to communicate to the public than (possibly less reliable) information about the structure of interest rates or the cultural habits of Sufis?” (Italic added)

In the original paper, I explicitly claimed, “We might be able to show that science is unique, but that uniqueness does not relate to communicative needs. Conversely, we can provide reasons for communicating science, but these are not unique to science.” (Medvecky, 2017)

Secondly, as noted by Matheson and Chock, the concern in the original argument revolves around “institutionalized science communication; institutionalized in government policies on the public understanding of and public engagement with the sciences; in the growing numbers of academic journals and departments committed to further the enterprise through research and teaching; in requirements set by funding bodies; and in the growing numbers of associations clustering under the umbrella of science communication across the globe.”

What maybe wasn’t made explicit was the role and importance of this institutionalization which is directed by government strategies and associated funding policies. Such policies are designed specifically and uniquely to increase public communication of and public engagement with science (MBIE, 2014).

They may mention that science should be read broadly, such as the UK’s A vision for Science and Society (DIUS, 2008) which states “By science we mean all-encompassing knowledge based on scholarship and research undertaken in the physical, biological, engineering, medical, natural and social disciplines, including the arts and humanities”. Yet the policy also claims that “These activities will deliver a coherent approach to increasing STEM skills, with a focus on improved understanding of the link between labour market needs and business demands for STEM skills and the ability of the education system to deliver flexibly into the 21st century.”

STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is explicitly not a broad view of science; it’s specifically restricted to the bio-physical science and associated fields. If science was truly meant broadly, there’d be no need to specify STEM. These policies, including their funding and support, are uniquely aimed at science as found in STEM, and it is this form of institutionalized and institutionally sponsored science communication that is the target of my argument.

With these two points in mind, let me turn to Matheson and Chock’s objections.

The Problem of Overreaching and the Marketplace of Ideas

Matheson and Chock rightly spell out my view when stating that the “fundamental concern is that science communication represents scientific questions and knowledge as more valuable than questions and knowledge in other domains.” What they mistake is what I take issue with. Matheson and Chock claim, “When it comes to scientific matters, we should trust the scientists more. So, the claim cannot be that non-scientists should be afforded the same amount of credibility on scientific matters as scientists”. Of course, who wouldn’t agree with that!

For Matheson and Chock, given their assumption that science communication is equivalent to scientists communicating their science, it follows that it is only reasonable to give special attention to the subject or field one is involved in. As they say,

Suppose that a bakery only sells and distributes baked goods. If there is nothing unique and privileged about baked goods – if there are other equally important goods out there (the parallel of premise (1)) – then Medvecky’s reasoning would have it that the bakery is guilty of a kind of injustice by virtue of not being in the business of distributing those other (equally valuable) goods.

But they’re mistakenly equating science communication with communication by scientists about their science. This suggests both a misunderstanding of my argument and a skewed view of what science communication is.

To tackle the latter first, while some science communication efforts come from scientists, science communication is much broader. Science communication is equally carried out by (non-scientist) journalists, (non-scientist) PR and communication officers, (non-scientist) policy makers, etc. Indeed, some of the most popular science communicators aren’t scientists at all, such as Bill Bryson. So the concern is not with the bakery privileging baked goods, it’s with baked goods being privileged simpliciter.

As discussed in both my original argument and in Matheson and Chock’s reply, my concern revolves around science communication institutionalized through policies and such like. And that’s where the issue is; there is institutionalised science communication, including policy with significant funding such that there can be specific communication, and that such policies exist only for the sciences. Indeed, there are no “humanities communications” governmental policies or funding strategies, for example. Science communication, unlike Matheson and Chock’s idealised bakery, doesn’t operate in anything like a free market.

Let’s take the bakery analogy and its position it in a marketplace a little further (indeed, thinking of science communication and where it sits in the market place of knowledge fits well). My argument is not that a bakery is being unjust by selling only baked goods.

My argument is that if bakeries were the only stores to receive government subsidies and tax breaks, and were, through governments and institutional intervention, granted a significantly better position in the street, then yes, this is unfair. Other goods will fail to have the same level of traction as baked goods and would be unable to compete on a just footing. This is not to say that the bakeries need to sell other goods, but rather, by benefiting from the unique subsidies, baked goods gain a marketplace advantage over goods in other domains, in the same way that scientific knowledge benefits from a credibility excess (ie epistemic marketplace advantage) over knowledge in other domains.

Credibility Excess and Systemic Injustices

The second main objection raised by Matheson and Chock turns on whether any credibility excess science might acquire in this way should be considered an injustice. They rightly point out that “mere epistemic errors in credibility assessments, however, do not create epistemic injustice. While a credibility excess may result in an epistemic harm, whether this is a case of epistemic injustice depends upon the reason why that credibility excess is given.”

Specifically, Matheson and Chock argue that for credibility excess to lead to injustice, this must be systemic and carry across contexts. And according to them, science communication is guilty of no such trespass (or, at the very least, my original argument fails to make the case for such).

Again, I think this comes down to how science communication is viewed. Thinking of science communication in institutionalised ways, as I intended, is indeed systemic. What Matheson and Chock have made clear is that in my original argument, I didn’t articulate clearly enough just how deeply the institutionalisation of science communication is, and how fundamentally linked with assumptions of the epistemic dominance of science this institutionalisation is. I’ll take this opportunity to provide some example of this.

Most obviously, there are nationally funded policies that aim “to develop a culture where the sciences are recognised as relevant to everyday life and where the government, business, and academic and public institutions work together with the sciences to provide a coherent approach to communicating science and its benefits”; policies backed by multi-million dollar investments from governments (DIISRTE, 2009).

Importantly, there are no equivalent for other fields. Yes, there are funds for other fields (funds for research, funds for art, etc), but not funds specifically for communicating these or disseminating their findings. And, there are other markers of the systemic advantages science holds over other fields.

On a very practical, pecuniary level, funding for research is rarely on a playing field. In New Zealand, for example, the government’s Research Degree Completion Funding allocates funds to departments upon students’ successfully completing their thesis. This scheme grants twice as much to the sciences as it does to the social sciences, humanities, and law (Commission, 2016).

In practice, this means a biology department supervising a PhD thesis on citizen science in conservation would, on thesis completion, receive twice the fund that a sociology department supervising the very same thesis would receive. And this simply because one field delivers knowledge under the tag of science, while the other under the banner of the humanities.

At a political level the dominance of scientific knowledge is also evident. While most countries have a Science Advisor to the President or Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, there are no equivalent “Chief Humanities Advisor”. And the list of discrepancies goes on, with institutionalised science communication a key player. Of course, for each of these examples of where science and scientific knowledge benefits over other fields, some argument could be made for why this or that case does indeed require that science be treated differently.

But this is exactly why the credibility excess science benefits from is epistemically unjust; because it’s not simply ‘a case here to be explained’ and ‘a case there to be explained’. It’s systemic and carries across context. And science communication, by being the only institutionalised communication of a specific knowledge field, maintains, amplifies, and reinforces this epistemic injustice.

Conclusion

When I argued that science communication was epistemically unjust, my claim was directed at institutionalised science communication, with all its trimmings. I’m grateful to Matheson and Chock for inviting to re-read my original paper and see where I may have failed to be clear, and to think more deeply about what motivated my thinking.

I want to close on one last point Matheson and Chock brought up. They claimed that it would be unreasonable to expect science communicators to communicate other fields. This was partially in response to my original paper where I did suggest that we should move beyond science communication to something like ‘knowledge communication’ (though I’m not sure exactly what that term should be, and I’m not convince ‘knowledge communication’ is ideal either).

Here, I agree with Matheson and Chock that it would be silly to expect those with expertise in science to be obliged to communicate more broadly about fields beyond their expertise (though some of them do). The obvious answer might be to have multiple branches of communication institutionalised and equally supported by government funding, by advisors, etc: science communication; humanities communication; arts communication; etc. And I did consider this in the original paper.

But the stumbling block is scarce resources, both financially and epistemically. Financially, there is a limit to how much governments would be willing to fund for such activates, so having multiple branches of communication would become a deeply political ‘pot-splitting’ issue, and there, the level of injustice might be even more explicit. Epistemically, there is only so much knowledge that we, humans, can process. Simply multiplying the communication of knowledge for the sake of justice (or whatever it is that ‘science communication’ aims to communicate) may not, in the end, be particularly useful without some concerted and coordinate view as to what the purpose of all this communication was.

In light of this, there is an important question for us in social epistemology: as a society funding and participating in knowledge-distribution, which knowledge should we focus our ‘public-making’ and communication efforts on, and why? Institutionalised science communication initiatives assume that scientific knowledge should hold a special, privileged place in public communication. Perhaps this is right, but not simply on the grounds that “science is more reliable”. There needs to be a better reason. Without one, it’s simply unjust.

Contact details: fabien.medvecky@otago.ac.nz

References

Commission, T. T. E. (2016). Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) User Manual. Wellington, New Zealand: Tertiary Education Commission.

DIISRTE. (2009). Inspiring Australia: A national strategy for engagement with the sciences.  Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.

DIUS. (2008). A vision for Science and Society: A consultation on developing a new strategy for the UK: Department for Innovation, Universities, and Skills London.

Matheson, J., & Chock, V. J. (2019). Science Communication and Epistemic Injustice. SERRC, 8(1).

MBIE. (2014). A Nation of Curious Minds: A national strategic plan for science in society.  Wellington: New Zealand Government.

Medvecky, F. (2017). Fairness in Knowing: Science Communication and Epistemic Justice. Science and engineering ethics. doi: 10.1007/s11948-017-9977-0

Nowotny, H. (2003). Democratising expertise and socially robust knowledge. Science and Public Policy, 30(3), 151-156. doi: 10.3152/147154303781780461

Rudolph, J. L. (2014). Why Understanding Science Matters:The IES Research Guidelines as a Case in Point. Educational Researcher, 43(1), 15-18. doi: 10.3102/0013189×13520292

Author Information: Brian Martin, University of Wollongong, bmartin@uow.edu.au.

Martin, Brian. “Technology and Evil.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 1-14.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-466

A Russian Mil Mi-28 attack helicopter.
Image by Dmitri Terekhov via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Humans cause immense damage to each other and to the environment. Steven James Bartlett argues that humans have an inbuilt pathology that leads to violence and ecosystem destruction that can be called evil, in a clinical rather than a religious sense. Given that technologies are human constructions, it follows that technologies can embody the same pathologies as humans. An important implication of Bartlett’s ideas is that studies of technology should be normative in opposing destructive technologies.

Introduction

Humans, individually and collectively, do a lot of terrible things to each other and to the environment. Some obvious examples are murder, torture, war, genocide and massive environmental destruction. From the perspective of an ecologist from another solar system, humans are the world’s major pestilence, spreading everywhere, enslaving and experimenting on a few species for their own ends, causing extinctions of numerous other species and destroying the environment that supports them all.

These thoughts suggest that humans, as a species, have been causing some serious problems. Of course there are many individuals and groups trying to make the world a better place, for example campaigning against war and environmental degradation, and fostering harmony and sustainability. But is it possible that by focusing on what needs to be done and on the positives in human nature, the seriousness of the dark side of human behaviour is being neglected?

Here, I address these issues by looking at studies of human evil, with a focus on a book by Steven Bartlett. With this foundation, it is possible to look at technology with a new awareness of its deep problems. This will not provide easy solutions but may give a better appreciation of the task ahead.

Background

For decades, I have been studying war, ways to challenge war, and alternatives to military systems (e.g. Martin, 1984). My special interest has been in nonviolent action as a means for addressing social problems. Along the way, this led me to read about genocide and other forms of violence. Some writing in the area refers to evil, addressed from a secular, scientific and non-moralistic perspective.

Roy Baumeister (1997), a prominent psychologist, wrote a book titled Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, that I found highly insightful. Studying the psychology of perpetrators, ranging from murderers and terrorists to killers in genocide, Baumeister concluded that most commonly they feel justified in their actions and see themselves as victims. Often they think what they’ve done is not that important. Baumeister’s sophisticated analysis aims to counter the popular perception of evil-doers as malevolent or uncaring.

Baumeister is one of a number of psychologists willing to talk about good and evil. If the word evil feels uncomfortable, then substitute “violence and cruelty,” as in the subtitle of Baumeister’s book, and the meaning is much the same. It’s also possible to approach evil from the viewpoint of brain function, as in Simon Baron-Cohen’s (2011) The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. There are also studies that combine psychiatric and religious perspectives, such as M. Scott Peck’s (1988) People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil.

Another part of my background is technology studies, including being involved in the nuclear power debate, studying technological vulnerability, communication technology, and technology and euthanasia, among other topics. I married my interests in nonviolence and in technology by studying how technology could be designed and used for nonviolent struggle (Martin, 2001).

It was with this background that I encountered Steven James Bartlett’s (2005) massive book The Pathology of Man: A Study of Human Evil. Many of the issues it addresses, for example genocide and war, were familiar to me, but his perspective offered new and disturbing insights. The Pathology of Man is more in-depth and far-reaching than other studies I had encountered, and is worth bringing to wider attention.

Here, I offer an abbreviated account of Bartlett’s analysis of human evil. Then I spell out ways of applying his ideas to technology and conclude with some possible implications.

Bartlett on Evil

Steven James Bartlett is a philosopher and psychologist who for decades studied problems in human thinking. The Pathology of Man was published in 2005 but received little attention. This may partly be due to the challenge of reading an erudite 200,000-word treatise but also partly due to people being resistant to Bartlett’s message, for the very reasons expounded in his book.

In reviewing the history of disease theories, Bartlett points out that in previous eras a wide range of conditions were considered to be diseases, ranging from “Negro consumption” to anti-Semitism. This observation is part of his assessment of various conceptions of disease, relying on standard views about what counts as disease, while emphasising that judgements made are always relative to a framework that is value-laden.

This is a sample portion of Bartlett’s carefully laid out chain of logic and evidence for making a case that the human species is pathological, namely characteristic of a disease. In making this case, he is not speaking metaphorically but clinically. The fact that the human species has seldom been seen as pathological is due to humans adopting a framework that exempts themselves from this diagnosis, which would be embarrassing to accept, at least for those inclined to think of humans as the apotheosis of evolution.

Next stop: the concept of evil. Bartlett examines a wide range of perspectives, noting that most of them are religious in origin. In contrast, he prefers a more scientific view: “Human evil, in the restricted and specific sense in which I will use it, refers to apparently voluntary destructive behavior and attitudes that result in the general negation of health, happiness, and ultimately of life.” (p. 65) In referring to “general negation,” Bartlett is not thinking of a poor diet or personal nastiness but of bigger matters such as war, genocide and overpopulation.

Bartlett is especially interested in the psychology of evil, and canvasses the ideas of classic thinkers who have addressed this issue, including Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Karl Menninger, Erich Fromm and Scott Peck. This detailed survey has only a limited return: these leading thinkers have little to say about the origins of evil and what psychological needs it may serve.

So Bartlett turns to other angles, including Lewis Fry Richardson’s classic work quantifying evidence of human violence, and research on aggression by ethologists, notably Konrad Lorenz. Some insights come from this examination, including Richardson’s goal of examining human destructiveness without emotionality and Lorenz’s point that humans, unlike most other animals, have no inbuilt barriers to killing members of their own species.

Bartlett on the Psychology of Genocide

To stare the potential for human evil in the face, Bartlett undertakes a thorough assessment of evidence about genocide, seeking to find the psychological underpinning of systematic mass killings of other humans. He notes one important factor, a factor not widely discussed or even admitted: many humans gain pleasure from killing others. Two other relevant psychological processes are projection and splitting. Projection involves denying negative elements of oneself and attributing them to others, for example seeing others as dangerous, thereby providing a reason for attacking them: one’s own aggression is attributed to others.

Splitting involves dividing one’s own grandiose self-conception from the way others are thought of. “By belonging to the herd, the individual gains an inflated sense of power, emotional support, and connection. With the feeling of group-exaggerated power and puffed up personal importance comes a new awareness of one’s own identity, which is projected into the individual’s conception” of the individual’s favoured group (p. 157). As a member of a group, there are several factors that enable genocide: stereotyping, dehumanisation, euphemistic language and psychic numbing.

To provide a more vivid picture of the capacity for human evil, Bartlett examines the Holocaust, noting that it was not the only or most deadly genocide but one, partly due to extensive documentation, that provides plenty of evidence of the psychology of mass killing.

Anti-Semitism was not the preserve of the Nazis, but existed for centuries in numerous parts of the world, and indeed continues today. The long history of persistent anti-Semitism is, according to Bartlett, evidence that humans need to feel prejudice and to persecute others. But at this point there is an uncomfortable finding: most people who are anti-Semitic are psychologically normal, suggesting the possibility that what is normal can be pathological. This key point recurs in Bartlett’s forensic examination.

Prejudice and persecution do not usually bring sadness and remorse to the victimizers, but rather a sense of strengthened identity, pleasure, self-satisfaction, superiority, and power. Prejudice and persecution are Siamese twins: Together they generate a heightened and invigorated belief in the victimizers’ supremacy. The fact that prejudice and persecution benefit bigots and persecutors is often overlooked or denied. (p. 167)

Bartlett examines evidence about the psychology of several groups involved in the Holocaust: Nazi leaders, Nazi doctors, bystanders, refusers and resisters. Nazi leaders and doctors were, for the most part, normal and well-adjusted men (nearly all were men). Most of the leaders were above average intelligence, and some had very high IQs, and many of them were well educated and culturally sophisticated. Cognitively they were superior, but their moral intelligence was low.

Bystanders tend to do nothing due to conformity, lack of empathy and low moral sensibility. Most Germans were bystanders to Nazi atrocities, not participating but doing nothing to oppose them.

Next are refusers, those who declined to be involved in atrocities. Contrary to usual assumptions, in Nazi Germany there were few penalties for refusing to join killings; it was just a matter of asking for a different assignment. Despite this, of those men called up to join killing brigades, very few took advantage of this option. Refusers had to take some initiative, to think for themselves and resist the need to conform.

Finally, there were resisters, those who actively opposed the genocide, but even here Bartlett raises a concern, saying that in many cases resisters were driven more by anger at offenders than empathy with victims. In any case, in terms of psychology, resisters were the odd ones out, being disengaged with the dominant ideas and values in their society and being able to be emotionally alone, without peer group support. Bartlett’s concern here meshes with research on why people join contemporary social movements: most first become involved via personal connections with current members, not because of moral outrage about the issue (Jasper, 1997).

The implication of Bartlett’s analysis of the Holocaust is that there is something wrong with humans who are psychologically normal (see also Bartlett, 2011, 2013). When those who actively resist genocide are unusual psychologically, this points to problems with the way most humans think and feel.

Another one of Bartlett’s conclusions is that most solutions that have been proposed to the problem of genocide — such as moral education, cultivating acceptance and respect, and reducing psychological projection — are vague, simplistic and impractical. They do not measure up to the challenge posed by the observed psychology of genocide.

Bartlett’s assessment of the Holocaust did not surprise me because, for one of my studies of tactics against injustice (Martin, 2007), I read a dozen books and many articles about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which between half a million and a million people were killed in the space of a few months. The physical differences between the Tutsi and Hutu are slight; the Hutu killers targeted both Tutsi and “moderate” Hutu. It is not widely known that Rwanda is the most Christian country in Africa, yet many of the killings occurred in churches where Tutsi had gone for protection. In many cases, people killed neighbours they had lived next to for years, or even family members. The Rwandan genocide had always sounded horrific; reading detailed accounts to obtain examples for my article, I discovered it was far worse than I had imagined (Martin, 2009).

After investigating evidence about genocide and its implications about human psychology, Bartlett turns to terrorism. Many of his assessments accord with critical terrorism studies, for example that there is no standard definition of terrorism, the fear of terrorism is disproportionate to the threat, and terrorism is “framework-relative” in the sense that calling someone a terrorist puts you in opposition to them.

Bartlett’s interest is in the psychology of terrorists. He is sceptical of the widespread assumption that there must be something wrong with them psychologically, and cites evidence that terrorists are psychologically normal. Interestingly, he notes that there are no studies comparing the psychologies of terrorists and soldiers, two groups that each use violence to serve a cause. He also notes a striking absence: in counterterrorism writing, no one has studied the sorts of people who refuse to be involved in cruelty and violence and who are resistant to appeals to in-group prejudice, which is usually called loyalty or patriotism. By assuming there is something wrong with terrorists, counterterrorism specialists are missing the possibility of learning how to deal with the problem.

Bartlett on War Psychology

Relatively few people are involved in genocide or terrorism except by learning about them via media stories. It is another matter when it comes to war, because many people have lived through a time when their country has been at war. In this century, just think of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, where numerous governments have sent troops or provided military assistance.

Bartlett says there is plenty of evidence that war evokes powerful emotions among both soldiers and civilians. For some, it is the time of life when they feel most alive, whereas peacetime can seem boring and meaningless. Although killing other humans is proscribed by most moral systems, war is treated as an exception. There are psychological preconditions for organised killing, including manufacturing differences, dehumanising the enemy, nationalism, group identity and various forms of projection. Bartlett says it is also important to look at psychological factors that prevent people from trying to end wars.

Even though relatively few people are involved in war as combat troops or even as part of the systems that support war-fighting, an even smaller number devote serious effort to trying to end wars. Governments collectively spend hundreds of billions of dollars on their militaries but only a minuscule amount on furthering the causes of peace. This applies as well to research: there is a vastly more military-sponsored or military-inspired research than peace-related research. Bartlett concludes that, “war is a pathology which the great majority of human beings do not want to cure” (p. 211).

Thinking back over the major wars in the past century, in most countries it has been far easier to support war than to oppose it. Enlisting in the military is seen as patriotic whereas refusing military service, or deserting the army, is seen as treasonous. For civilians, defeating the enemy is seen as a cause for rejoicing, whereas advocating an end to war — except via victory — is a minority position.

There have been thousands of war movies: people flock to see killing on the screen, and the bad guys nearly always lose, especially in Hollywood. In contrast, the number of major films about nonviolent struggles is tiny — what else besides the 1982 film Gandhi? — and seldom do they attract a wide audience. Bartlett sums up the implications of war for human psychology:

By legitimating the moral atrocity of mass murder, war, clothed as it is in the psychologically attractive trappings of patriotism, heroism, and the ultimately good cause, is one of the main components of human evil. War, because it causes incalculable harm, because it gives men and women justification to kill and injure one another without remorse, because it suspends conscience and neutralizes compassion, because it takes the form of psychological epidemics in which dehumanization, cruelty, and hatred are given unrestrained freedom, and because it is a source of profound human gratification and meaning—because of these things, war is not only a pathology, but is one of the most evident expressions of human evil. (p. 225)

The Obedient Parasite

Bartlett next turns to obedience studies, discussing the famous research by Stanley Milgram (1974). However, he notes that such studies shouldn’t even be needed: the evidence of human behaviour during war and genocide should be enough to show that most human are obedient to authority, even when the authority is instructing them to harm others.

Another relevant emotion is hatred. Although hating is a widespread phenomenon — most recently evident in the phenomenon of online harassment (Citron, 2014) — Bartlett notes that psychologists and psychiatrists have given this emotion little attention. Hatred serves several functions, including providing a cause, overcoming the fear of death, and, in groups, helping build a sense of community.

Many people recognise that humans are destroying the ecological web that supports their own lives and those of numerous other species. Bartlett goes one step further, exploring the field of parasitology. Examining definitions and features of parasites, he concludes that, according to a broad definition, humans are parasites on the environment and other species, and are destroying the host at a record rate. He sees human parasitism as being reflected in social belief systems including the “cult of motherhood,” infatuation with children, and the belief that other species exist to serve humans, a longstanding attitude enshrined in some religions.

Reading The Pathology of Man, I was tempted to counter Bartlett’s arguments by pointing to the good things that so many humans have done and are doing, such as everyday politeness, altruism, caring for the disadvantaged, and the animal liberation movement. Bartlett could counter by noting it would be unwise to pay no attention to disease symptoms just because your body has many healthy parts. If there is a pathology inherent in the human species, it should not be ignored, but instead addressed face to face.

Remington 1858 Model Navy .36 Cap and Ball Revolver.
Image by Chuck Coker via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Technologies of Political Control

Bartlett’s analysis of human evil, including that violence and cruelty are perpetrated mostly by people who are psychologically normal and that many humans obtain pleasure out of violence against other humans, can be applied to technology. The aim in doing this is not to demonise particular types or uses of technology but to explore technological systems from a different angle in the hope of providing insights that are less salient from other perspectives.

Consider “technologies of political control,” most commonly used by governments against their own people (Ackroyd et al., 1974; Wright, 1998). These technologies include tools of torture and execution including electroshock batons, thumb cuffs, restraint chairs, leg shackles, stun grenades and gallows. They include technologies used against crowds such as convulsants and infrasound weapons (Omega Foundation, 2000). They include specially designed surveillance equipment.

In this discussion, “technology” refers not just to artefacts but also to the social arrangements surrounding these artefacts, including design, manufacture, and contexts of use. To refer to “technologies of political control” is to invoke this wider context: an artefact on its own may seem innocuous but still be implicated in systems of repression. Repression here refers to force used against humans for the purposes of harm, punishment or social control.

Torture has a long history. It must be considered a prime example of human evil. Few species intentionally inflict pain and suffering on other members of their own species. Among humans, torture is now officially renounced by every government in the world, but it still takes place in many countries, for example in China, Egypt and Afghanistan, as documented by Amnesty International. Torture also takes place in many conventional prisons, for example via solitary confinement.

To support torture and repression, there is an associated industry. Scientists design new ways to inflict pain and suffering, using drugs, loud noises, disorienting lights, sensory deprivation and other means. The tools for delivering these methods are constructed in factories and the products marketed around the world, especially to buyers seeking means to control and harm others. Periodically, “security fairs” are held in which companies selling repression technologies tout their products to potential buyers.

The technology of repression does not have a high profile, but it is a significant industry, involving tens of billions of dollars in annual sales. It is a prime cause of human suffering. So what are people doing about it?

Those directly involved seem to have few moral objections. Scientists use their skills to design more sophisticated ways of interrogating, incarcerating and torturing people. Engineers design the manufacturing processes and numerous workers maintain production. Sales agents tout the technologies to purchasers. Governments facilitate this operation, making extraordinary efforts to get around attempts to control the repression trade. So here is an entire industry built around technologies that serve to control and harm defenceless humans, and it seems to be no problem to find people who are willing to participate and indeed to tenaciously defend the continuation of the industry.

In this, most of the world’s population are bystanders. Mass media pay little attention. Indeed, there are fictional dramas that legitimise torture and, more generally, the use of violence against the bad guys. Most people remain ignorant of the trade in repression technologies. For those who learn about it, few make any attempt to do something about it, for example by joining a campaign.

Finally there are a few resisters. There are groups like the Omega Research Foundation that collect information about the repression trade and organisations like Amnesty International and Campaign Against Arms Trade that campaign against it. Journalists have played an important role in exposing the trade (Gregory, 1995).

The production, trade and use of technologies of repression, especially torture technologies, provide a prime example of how technologies can be implicated in human evil. They illustrate quite a few of the features noted by Bartlett. There is no evidence that the scientists, engineers, production workers, sales agents and politician allies of the industry are anything other than psychologically normal. Indeed, it is an industry organised much like any other, except devoted to producing objects used to harm humans.

Nearly all of those involved in the industry are simply operating as cogs in a large enterprise. They have abdicated responsibility for causing harm, a reflection of humans’ tendency to obey authorities. As for members of the public, the psychological process of projection provides a reassuring message: torture is only used as a last result against enemies such as terrorists. “We” are good and “they” are bad, so what is done to them is justified.

Weapons and Tobacco

Along with the technology of repression, weapons of war are prime candidates for being understood as implicated in evil. If war is an expression of the human potential for violence, then weapons are a part of that expression. Indeed, increasing the capacity of weapons to maim, kill and destroy has long been a prime aim of militaries. So-called conventional weapons include everything from bullets and bayonets to bombs and ballistic missiles, and then there are biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

Studying weaponry is a way of learning about the willingness of humans to use their ingenuity to harm other humans. Dum-dum bullets were designed to tumble in flight so as to cause more horrendous injuries on exiting a body. Brightly coloured land mines can be attractive to young children. Some of these weapons have been banned, while others take their place. In any case, it is reasonable to ask, what was going through the minds of those who conceived, designed, manufactured, sold and deployed such weapons?

The answer is straightforward, yet disturbing. Along the chain, individuals may have thought they were serving their country’s cause, helping defeat an enemy, or just doing their job and following orders. Indeed, it can be argued that scientific training and enculturation serve to develop scientists willing to work on assigned tasks without questioning their rationale (Schmidt, 2000).

Nuclear weapons, due to their capacity for mass destruction, have long been seen as especially bad, and there have been significant mass movements against these weapons (Wittner, 1993–2003). However, the opposition has not been all that successful, because there continue to be thousands of nuclear weapons in the arsenals of eight or so militaries, and most people seldom think about it. Nuclear weapons exemplify Bartlett’s contention that most people do not do much to oppose war — even a war that would devastate the earth.

Consider something a bit different: cigarettes. Smoking brings pleasure, or at least relief from craving, to hundreds of millions of people daily, at the expense of a massive death toll (Proctor, 2011). By current projections, hundreds of millions of people will die this century from smoking-related diseases.

Today, tobacco companies are stigmatised and smoking is becoming unfashionable — but only in some countries. Globally, there are ever more smokers and ever more victims of smoking-related illnesses. Cigarettes are part of a technological system of design, production, distribution, sales and use. Though the cigarette itself is less complex than many military weapons, the same questions can be asked of everyone involved in the tobacco industry: how can they continue when the evidence of harm is so overwhelming? How could industry leaders spend decades covering up their own evidence of harm while seeking to discredit scientists and public health officials whose efforts threatened their profits?

The answers draw on the same psychological processes involved in the perpetuation of violence and cruelty in more obvious cases such as genocide, including projection and obedience. The ideology of the capitalist system plays a role too, with the legitimating myths of the beneficial effects of markets and the virtue of satisfying consumer demand.

For examining the role of technology in evil, weapons and cigarettes are easy targets for condemnation. A more challenging case is the wide variety of technologies that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and hence to climate change, with potentially catastrophic effects for future generations and for the biosphere. The technologies involved include motor vehicles (at least those with internal combustion engines), steel and aluminum production, home heating and cooling, and the consumption of consumer goods. The energy system is implicated, at least the part of it predicated on carbon-based fuels, and there are other contributors as well such as fertilisers and clearing of forests.

Most of these technologies were not designed to cause harm, and those involved as producers and consumers may not have thought of their culpability for contributing to future damage to the environment and human life. Nevertheless, some individuals have greater roles and responsibilities. For example, many executives in fossil fuel companies and politicians with the power to reset energy priorities have done everything possible to restrain shifting to a sustainable energy economy.

Conceptualising the Technology of Evil

If technologies are implicated in evil, what is the best way to understand the connection? It could be said that an object designed and used for torture embodies evil. Embodiment seems appropriate if the primary purpose is for harm and the main use is for harm, but seldom is this sort of connection exclusive of other uses. A nuclear weapon, for example, might be used as an artwork, a museum exhibit, or a tool to thwart a giant asteroid hurtling towards earth.

Another option is to say that some technologies are “selectively useful” for harming others: they can potentially be useful for a variety of purposes but, for example, easier to use for torture than for brain surgery or keeping babies warm. To talk of selective usefulness instead of embodiment seems less essentialist, more open to multiple interpretations and uses.

Other terms are “abuse” and “misuse.” Think of a cloth covering a person’s face over which water is poured to give a simulation of drowning, used as a method of torture called waterboarding. It seems peculiar to say that the wet cloth embodies evil given that it is only the particular use that makes it a tool to cause harm to humans. “Abuse” and “misuse” have an ignominious history in the study of technology because they are often based on the assumption that technologies are inherently neutral. Nevertheless, these terms might be resurrected in speaking of the connection between technology and evil when referring to technologies that were not designed to cause harm and are seldom used for that purpose.

Consider next the role of technologies in contributing to climate change. For this, it is useful to note that most technologies have multiple uses and consequences. Oil production, for example, has various immediate environmental and health impacts. Oil, as a product, has multitudinous uses, such as heating houses, manufacturing plastics and fuelling military aircraft. The focus here is on a more general impact via the waste product carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming. In this role, it makes little sense to call oil evil in itself.

Instead, it is simply one player in a vast network of human activities that collectively are spoiling the environment and endangering future life on earth. The facilitators of evil in this case are the social and economic systems that maintain dependence on greenhouse gas sources and the psychological processes that enable groups and individuals to resist a shift to sustainable energy systems or to remain indifferent to the issue.

For climate change, and sustainability issues more generally, technologies are implicated as part of entrenched social institutions, practices and beliefs that have the potential to radically alter or destroy the conditions for human and non-human life. One way to speak of technologies in this circumstance is as partners. Another is to refer to them as actors or actants, along the lines of actor-network theory (Latour, 1987), though this gives insufficient salience to the psychological dimensions involved.

Another approach is to refer to technologies as extensions of humans. Marshall McLuhan (1964) famously described media as “extensions of man.” This description points to the way technologies expand human capabilities. Vehicles expand human capacities for movement, otherwise limited to walking and running. Information and communication technologies expand human senses of sight, hearing and speaking. Most relevantly here, weapons expand human capacities for violence, in particular killing and destruction. From this perspective, humans have developed technologies to extend a whole range of capacities, some of them immediately or indirectly harmful.

In social studies of technology, various frameworks have been used, including political economy, innovation, social shaping, cost-benefit analysis and actor-network theory. Each has advantages and disadvantages, but none of the commonly used frameworks emphasises moral evaluation or focuses on the way some technologies are designed or used for the purpose of harming humans and the environment.

Implications

The Pathology of Man is a deeply pessimistic and potentially disturbing book. Probing into the psychological foundations of violence and cruelty shows a side of human behaviour and thinking that is normally avoided. Most commentators prefer to look for signs of hope, and would finish a book such as this with suggestions for creating a better world. Bartlett, though, does not want to offer facile solutions.

Throughout the book, he notes that most people prefer not to examine the sources of human evil, and so he says that hope is actually part of the problem. By continually being hopeful and looking for happy endings, it becomes too easy to avoid looking at the diseased state of the human mind and the systems it has created.

Setting aside hope, nevertheless there are implications that can be derived from Bartlett’s analysis. Here I offer three possible messages regarding technology.

Firstly, if it makes sense to talk about human evil in a non-metaphorical sense, and to trace the origins of evil to features of human psychology, then technologies, as human creations, are necessarily implicated in evil. The implication is that a normative analysis is imperative. If evil is seen as something to be avoided or opposed, then likewise those technologies most closely embodying evil are likewise to be avoided or opposed. This implies making judgements about technologies. In technologies studies, this already occurs to some extent. However, common frameworks, such as political economy, innovation and actor-network theory, do not highlight moral evaluation.

Medical researchers do not hesitate to openly oppose disease, and in fact the overcoming of disease is an implicit foundation of research. Technology studies could more openly condemn certain technologies.

Secondly, if technology is implicated in evil, and if one of the psychological processes perpetuating evil is a lack of recognition of it and concern about it, there is a case for undertaking research that provides insights and tools for challenging the technology of evil. This has not been a theme in technology studies. Activists against torture technologies and military weaponry would be hard pressed to find useful studies or frameworks in the scholarship about technology.

One approach to the technology of evil is action research (McIntyre 2008; Touraine 1981), which involves combining learning with efforts towards social change. For example, research on the torture technology trade could involve trying various techniques to expose the trade, seeing which ones are most fruitful. This would provide insights about torture technologies not available via conventional research techniques.

Thirdly, education could usefully incorporate learning about the moral evaluation of technologies. Bartlett argues that one of the factors facilitating evil is the low moral development of most people, as revealed in the widespread complicity in or complacency about war preparation and wars, and about numerous other damaging activities.

One approach to challenging evil is to increase people’s moral capacities to recognise and act against evil. Technologies provide a convenient means to do this, because human-created objects abound in everyday life, so it can be an intriguing and informative exercise to figure out how a given object relates to killing, hatred, psychological projection and various other actions and ways of thinking involved in violence, cruelty and the destruction of the foundations of life.

No doubt there are many other ways to learn from the analysis of human evil. The most fundamental step is not to turn away but to face the possibility that there may be something deeply wrong with humans as a species, something that has made the species toxic to itself and other life forms. While it is valuable to focus on what is good about humans, to promote good it is also vital to fully grasp the size and depth of the dark side.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Steven Bartlett, Lyn Carson, Kurtis Hagen, Kelly Moore and Steve Wright for valuable comments on drafts.

Contact details: bmartin@uow.edu.au

References

Ackroyd, Carol, Margolis, Karen, Rosenhead, Jonathan, & Shallice, Tim (1977). The technology of political control. London: Penguin.

Baron-Cohen, Simon (2011). The science of evil: On empathy and the origins of cruelty. New York: Basic Books.

Bartlett, Steven James (2005). The pathology of man: A study of human evil. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Bartlett, Steven James (2011). Normality does not equal mental health: the need to look elsewhere for standards of good psychological health. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Bartlett, Steven James (2013). The dilemma of abnormality. In Thomas G. Plante (Ed.), Abnormal psychology across the ages, volume 3 (pp. 1–20). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Baumeister, Roy F. (1997). Evil: Inside human violence and cruelty. New York: Freeman.

Citron, D.K. (2014). Hate crimes in cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gregory, Martyn (director and producer). (1995). The torture trail [television]. UK: TVF.

Jasper, James M. (1997). The art of moral protest: Culture, biography, and creativity in social movements. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Latour, Bruno (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Martin, Brian (1984). Uprooting war. London: Freedom Press.

Martin, Brian (2001). Technology for nonviolent struggle. London: War Resisters’ International.

Martin, Brian (2007). Justice ignited: The dynamics of backfire. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Martin, Brian (2009). Managing outrage over genocide: case study Rwanda. Global Change, Peace & Security, 21(3), 275–290.

McIntyre, Alice (2008). Participatory action research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: New American Library.

Milgram, Stanley (1974). Obedience to authority. New York: Harper & Row.

Omega Foundation (2000). Crowd control technologies. Luxembourg: European Parliament.

Peck, M. Scott (1988). People of the lie: The hope for healing human evil. London: Rider.

Proctor, Robert N. (2011). Golden holocaust: Origins of the cigarette catastrophe and the case for abolition. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Schmidt, Jeff (2000). Disciplined minds: A critical look at salaried professionals and the soul-battering system that shapes their lives. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Touraine, Alain (1981). The voice and the eye: An analysis of social movements. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wittner, Lawrence S. (1993–2003). The struggle against the bomb, 3 volumes. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Wright, Steve (1998). An appraisal of technologies of political control. Luxembourg: European Parliament.

Author Information: Eric Kerr, National University of Singapore, eric.kerr@nus.edu.sg.

Kerr, Eric. “On Thinking With Catastrophic Times.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 46-49.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-45Q

Image by Jeff Krause via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Reprinted with permission from the Singapore Review of Books. The original review can be found here.

• • • •

On Thinking With – Scientists, Sciences, and Isabelle Stengers is the transcription of a talk read by Jeremy Fernando at the Centre for Science & Innovation Studies at UC Davis in 2015. The text certainly has the character of a reading: through closely attending to Stengers’ similarly transcribed talk (2012) Fernando traverses far-reaching themes – testimony, the gift, naming, listening – drawing them into a world made strange again through Stengers’ idea of “thinking with” – as opposed to analyzing or evaluating – notions of scientific progress, justice, and responsibility.

All this will make this review rather different from convention. I’ll attempt a response, using the text as an opportunity to pause, regroup, and divert, which, I hope, will allow us to see some of the connections between the two scholars and the value of this book. I read this text as a philosopher within Science and Technology Studies (STS) and through these lenses I’ll aim to draw out some of the ideas elaborated in Fernando’s essay and in Stengers’ In Catastrophic Times.

Elusive Knowledge

Towards the end of the essay, Fernando muses on the elusive nature of knowledge: “[T]he moment the community of scientists knows – or thinks it knows – what Science is, the community itself dissolves” (p.35). He consequently ties epistemological certainty to the stagnation, or even the collapse, of a scientific community.

In this sense, Fernando suggests that the scientific community should be thought of as a myth, but a necessary one. He implies that any scientific community is a “dream community… a dream in the sense of something unknown, something slightly beyond the boundaries, binds, of what is known.” (pp. 35-36) Further, he agrees with Stengers: “I vitally need such a dream, such a story which never happened.” So why? What is this dream that is needed?

Stengers suggests that we are now in a situation where there are “many manners of dying” (2015, p. 9). Any attempt on “our” part to resolve the growing crisis, seems to merely entrench and legislate the same processes that produced the very problems we were trying to overcome. International agreements are framed within the problematic capitalocene rather than challenging it. Problems arrive with the overwhelming sense that our current situation is permanent, political change is inertial or even immovable, and that the only available remedy is more of the poison. Crucially, for Stengers, this sense is deliberately manufactured – an induced ignorance (ibid. p. 118).

Stengers’ concern, which Fernando endorses, is to reframe the manner in which problems are presented. To remove us from the false binary choice presented to us: as precaution or pro-action, as self-denial of consumer products or geoengineering, as deforestation for profit or financialization of forests. For his part, Fernando does not offer more solutions. Instead, he encourages us to sit in the mire of the problem, to revisit it, to rethink it, to re-view it. Not as an act of idle pontification but for what Stengers calls “paying attention” (ibid. p. 100).

Paying Attention to Catastrophic Times

In order to pay attention, Fernando begins with a parental metaphor: Gaia as mother, scientific authority as father. For him, there is an important distinction between power and authority. Whereas power can be found in all relations, authority “is mystical, divine, outside the realm of human consciousness – it is the order of the sovereign. One either has authority or one doesn’t” (p.21).

Consequently, there is something unattainable about any claim to scientific expertise. The idea that authority depends on a mystical or theological grounding chimes with core epistemological commitments in STS, most forcefully advocated by David Bloor who argued that the absolutist about knowledge would require “epistemic grace”.

Alongside Fernando’s words, Burdock details gooey, veiny appendages emerging from pipes and valves, tumours and pustules evoking the diseased body. Science and engineering are productive of vulnerable bodies. Here we might want to return to Stengers’ treatment of the pharmakon, the remedy/poison duality.

For Stengers, following Nietzsche’s gay scientist (whom Fernando also evokes), skepticism and doubt are pharmakon (Nietzsche 1924, p. 159). She details how warnings as to the dangers of potential responses are presented as objections. STS scholars will note that this uncertainty can be activated by both your enemies and your friends, not least when it comes to the challenges of climate change. This is the realization that prompted Bruno Latour to issue what Steve Fuller has called a “mea culpa on behalf of STS” for embracing too much uncertainty (Latour 2004; Fuller 2018, p. 44).

Data and Gaia

Although there is little mention of any specific sciences, scientific instruments, theories or texts, Fernando instead focuses on what is perhaps the primary object of contemporary science – data – especially its relation to memory. It is perhaps not a coincidence that he repeatedly asks us to remember not to forget: e.g. “we should try not to forget that…” (p. 11 and similar on p. 17, 22, 21, and 37). He notes that testimony occurs through memory but that this is, generally speaking, unreliable and incomplete. His conclusion is Cartesian: perhaps the only thing we can know for sure is that we are testifying (p. 16).

Stengers picks up the question of memory in her dismissal of an interventionist Gaia (to paraphrase Nick Cave) denying that Gaia could remember, could be offended or could care who is responsible (2015 p.46 and fn. 2). She criticizes James Lovelock, the author of the Gaia hypothesis, for speaking of Gaia’s “revenge”. While he begins his text with Stengers’ controversial allusion to Gaia, Fernando’s discussion of data also has a curious connection to a living, self-regulating (and consequently also possibly a vulnerable) globe.

Riffing on Stewart Brand’s infamous phrase, “information wants to be free,” Fernando writes, “[D]ata and sharing have always been in relation with each other, data has always already been open source. Which also means that data – sharing, transference – always entail an openness to the possibility of another; along with the potentiality for disruption, infection, viruses, distortion” (p.22). Coincidentally, along with being an internet pioneer, founding one of the oldest virtual (and certainly mythological) communities, Brand is an old friend of Lovelock.

Considering these words in relation to impending ecological disaster, I’m inclined to think that perhaps the central myth that we should try to escape is that we don’t easily forget. Bernard Stiegler has suggested that we are in a period of realignment in our relationship to memory in which external memory supports are the primary means by which we understand our temporality (2011, 2013).

Similarly, we might think that it is no coincidence that when Andy Clark and David Chalmers proposed their hypothesis of extended cognition, the idea that our cognitive and memorial processes extend into artefacts, they reached for the Alzheimer’s sufferer as “Patient Zero” (1998). In truth, we do forget, often. And this is despite, and sometimes even because of, our best efforts to record and archive and remember.

Fernando’s writing is, at root, a call to re-call. It regenerates other texts and seems to live with them such that they both thrive. The “tales” he calls for spiral out into new mutations like Burdock’s tentacular images. But to reduce Fernando’s scope to simply a call for other perspectives would be to sell it short. Read alongside In Catastrophic Times, the call to embrace uncertainty and to reckon with it becomes more urgent.

Fernando reminds us of our own forgetfulness and the unreliability of our testimony about ourselves and our communities. For those of us wrestling with the post-truth world, Fernando’s essay is both a palliative and, potentially, charts a way out of no-alternative thinking.

Contact details: eric.kerr@nus.edu.sg

References

Bloor, D. 2007. Epistemic grace: Antirelativism as theology in disguise. Common knowledge 13: 250-280.

Clark, A. and D. Chalmers. 1998. The extended mind. Analysis 58: 7–19.

Fuller, S. 2018. Post-Truth: Knowledge as a Power Game. Anthem Press.

Latour, B. 2004. Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?  From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern Critical Inquiry 2004 30(2).

Nietzsche, F. 1924. The Joyful Wisdom (trans. T. Common) New York: The MacMillan Company. Accessed 10 June 2018. https://ia600300.us.archive.org/9/items/completenietasch10nietuoft/completenietasch10nietuoft.pdf.

Stengers, I. 2012. “Cosmopolitics: Learning to Think with Sciences, Peoples and Natures.” Public lecture. Situating Science Knowledge Cluster. St. Marys, Halifax, Canada, 5 March 2012. Accessed 10 June 2018. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ASGwo02rh8.

Stengers, I. 2015. In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the coming Barbarism. Open Humanities Press/Meson Press.

Stiegler, B. 2011. Technics and Time, 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise (trans. R. Beardsworth and G. Collins). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Stiegler, B. 2013. For a New Critique of Political Economy (trans. D. Ross). Cambridge: Polity.

Call for Chapter Proposals:

Epistemic Paternalism Reconsidered: Conceptions, Justifications and Implications
Abstract Submission Deadline: March 15, 2019

This call for chapter proposals invites scholars (Ph.D.’s and Ph.D. candidates) to submit original or revised proposals pertaining to epistemic paternalism, broadly construed, for inclusion in an anthology forthcoming in the “Collective Studies in Knowledge and Society” series published by Rowman and Littlefield.

Findings in psychology are often claimed to suggest intractable human irrationality, biases and problematic heuristics. This empirical work has generated responses throughout political philosophy, ethics, and epistemology as scholars grapple with shifting conceptions of agency and reliability. Implicit or explicit in many of these accounts are forms of epistemic paternalism as theorists advocate ‘nudges’, epistocracy, and coercive paternalism. Despite frequent tacit reference to epistemic paternalism in these literatures, few scholars beyond Alvin Goldman (1991) and Kristoffer Alhstrom-Vij (2013) have defined and defended forms of epistemic paternalism recently.

This book welcomes contributions from all disciplines, though emphasis is placed on normative or conceptual analysis of epistemic paternalism and its implications.
Diverse perspectives are welcome and encouraged to submit papers.

Motivating Questions:

    • What is epistemic paternalism? What is its appropriate domain? What entities ought to decide and on what grounds?
    • Under what conditions, if any, is epistemic paternalism justified? Should we be skeptics, optimists, or meliorists about the human ability to make sound inferences and effectively negotiate collective action problems?
    • Are paternalistic policies justified by ‘improving’ an individual’s self‐regarding actions? Are they only justified by their other‐regarding affects? How do we commensurate these self and other-regarding values?
    • How should we understand transparency in science communication, and it relationship to the broader dynamic of trust and distrust?
    • Insofar as epistemic paternalism implies interference with autonomous agency, are epistemic and ethical goods at odds? If so, are they commensurable? Do some normative goods have lexical priority? What grounds comparisons between epistemic and ethical goods?
    • How does epistemic paternalism inform the internalist/externalist debate in epistemology? Is epistemic paternalism consistent with the cultivation of epistemic virtues? Can epistemic dispositions be robustly reliable if they are developed in controlled settings? Are internalist conditions of justification compromised by harnessing bad reasoning or otherwise manipulating epistemic background conditions for greater ends?
    • Does epistemic paternalism have meta-normative implications for how to best understand the relations between normative fields?
    • Are there intra-institutional obligations of epistemic paternalism?
    • Can persons manipulate the context of inquiry of institutions for the good of those institutions or greater goods? If so, on what grounds?
    • Is epistemic paternalism compatible with epistemic justice? Under what conditions does epistemic paternalism constitute epistemic injustice and when does it promote epistemic justice?
    • Are there unappreciated sources in the history of philosophy (or science) which advocate or critique epistemic paternalism?
    • Under what circumstances, if any, is choice architecture manipulation preferable to direct coercive paternalism?

Topic Areas:

    Epistemology
    Social Epistemology
    Epistemic Injustice
    Value Theory
    Political Philosophy
    Normative Ethics
    Science, Technology, and Society
    History of Philosophy

Submission Format:

Submit a 500-750 word extended abstract for a 3000-5000 thousand word chapter, formatted for anonymous review, by March 15. Accepted chapter authors will be informed by the editors via e-mail no later than May 1, and will then be asked to submit a full draft in house style [Rowman & Littlefield Guidelines will be sent], by August 15, 2019. Editors will provide feedback on drafts within 2 months, and final versions expected 1 month after that. Our submissions page hosts a short bibliography of recent research in the areas of the collection, or you can request it by e-mail. Please submit your extended abstract to epistemic.paternalism@gmail.com.

For further enquiries, please consult the editors through epistemic.paternalism@gmail.com
Editors: Amiel Bernal, Ph.D. & Guy Axtell, Ph.D.

Author Information: John Lamola, University of Fort Hare, jlamola@mweb.co.za.

Lamola, John. “Will We Ever Have a Genuine African Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 39-45.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-45K

Image by Nike Knigge via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This collection of contributed and commissioned papers, The Palgrave Handbook of African Philosophy, edited by Adeshina Afolayan and Toyin Falola (2017), is a product of an ambitious project aimed at delivering the most comprehensive and contemporaneous portrait of African philosophy as a progressing, relevant and theoretically cogent academic discipline.

An anthology of this nature is a philosophical product in its own right. In a philosophical tradition that is still recovering from the bruising debates around its self-identity and questions of its most appropriate self-differentiating methodology, the choice of the panel of contributors and the thematic range of the content, including the editorial leitmotif being pursued, constitute a philosophical statement by the editors. In this case, the anthology might as well have been subtitled ‘Rethinking African Philosophy in the Age of Globalisation’, which, fortuitously, is the title of the customary Introduction chapter by the editors (1-18).

Besides writers from across the representative regions of Africa in its heterogeneous culturo-linguistic kaleidoscope, Africanists and Africologists from Europe and North America are included in this Handbook on African Philosophy (hereafter ‘The Handbook’). This geographic and ethnic-national diversity, subliminally, proclaims the capacity for cosmopolitan self-expression of African Philosophy in ‘the age of globalisation’.

Decidedly, this undermines and eschews a view, represented by Paulin Hountondji amongst others, that African philosophy proper, is a set of philosophical text exclusively written by Africans (Hountondji 2018), in favour of a kind of a cosmopolitanism held by Anthony Kwame Appiah (2006) and Achille Mbembe (2007).

In the Introduction, the editors compliment Kwasi Wiredu’s A Companion to African Philosophy that was published as part of the Blackwell Companions to Philosophy series in 2004. They point out that Wiredu’s volume (he was assisted by William E. Abraham, Abiola Irele and Ifeanyi Menkiti) is historical in that ‘it constitutes a significant nod to the appearance of African philosophy in the global academe that is decidedly sold to the idea of the universality of Western philosophy’ (p.1). Laced around this gesture of professional magnanimity, is a construct of a developmental trajectory of African philosophical thought.

Accordingly, it is suggested that whereas A Companion to African Philosophy (2004) of Blackwell marked the enthronement of African philosophy as a credible intellectual system within the global academe of Humanities, Palgrave’s Handbook on African Philosophy (2017) is a declaratory demonstration of the maturity of African philosophy.  The volume is thus presented as both an exhibition of the progressive prowess of African philosophy into the prevailing Zeitgeist of globalisation, and, as a handbook, an up-to-date go-to source on African philosophy in the global age.

I propose to isolate for critical reflection issues relating to the epistemic sovereignty of Africa within the global geography of knowledge and knowledge production as provoked by this publication. My issues revolve around a contention on the measurement or criteria for judgement of progress in philosophy as applied to a polemical vision of an evolving and maturing African Philosophy, as presented by the editors.

Will African philosophy be deemed to have progressed when it assumes a global cosmopolitan identity, or when portrayed as such, as the volume emblematically suggests?  I found it more than provocative that co-editor, Afolayan, contributed a chapter entitled ‘African Philosophy, Afropolitanism, and Africa’ (391-403) in which he surreptitiously endorses Achille Mbembe’s African-identity-defusing Afropolitarian campaign (Mbembe 2007).

Hinged around this critical observation of the reconstruction of African thought through the prism of Euro-American globalism, I shall restrict my commentary to the following: (1) the implication to  the vexed philosophical question of ‘Who is an African philosopher?’ related to the criteria employed in the assemblage of the contributing authors; (2) The occasion and location of the production of the book, that is, the global economic-power dynamics that continue to determine the prospects of Africa’s epistemic sovereignty, and; (3), interrogate the application of relevance as a quality of progress the editors used as a criterion and imperative which guided the selection of the articles.

As a prelude to this aforementioned disputation it is, of course, necessary that I give a summary overview of the structure of the volume and its contents.

Evaluations, Appraisals, and Re-Imaginations

The Handbook is a breath-taking assemblage of fifty original scientific contributions and commissioned papers from forty-three scholars of African post-colonial thought. The contributed chapters are arranged into five thematic parts.

The first part of the collection decidedly avoids the tendency of ‘introducing and justifying African philosophy’. Far from this vindicationist, and exogenous pre-occupation, the opening six essays are bound together by a thematic title of being ‘reappraisals’. Here African philosophy has attained a status of self-reassessment and self-critique. To underscore and crystalise the strategic purpose of this section, there is Safro Kwame’s ‘Rethinking the history of African Philosophy’ (97-104).

Even the classical thoughts of Kwame Nkrumah and Frantz Fanon, lack of reference to whom would render any anthology on African social thought incomplete, are subjected to a timely interrogation. This is performed by Teodoris Kiros’ ‘A Philosophical Re-reading of Fanon, Nkrumah, and Cabral in the Age of globalism and Postmodernity’ (49-60).

Being hinged around the motif of globalisation, the anthology proceeds, in the second part of its collection, to position African philosophy in an interrogative dialogue with major worldviews from Africa, her diaspora and beyond. These range from A.G.A. Bello’s ‘Islamic Philosophy and the challenge of African Philosophy’ (223-231) to the tackling of the semantic issue relating the naming of African philosophical enterprise as conducted in and outside of Africa. Lucius Outlaw undertakes this in the contorted ‘“Black” Philosophy, “African” Philosophy, “Africana” Philosophy: Transnational Deconstructive and Reconstructive Renovations in “Philosophy”’ (245-268).

A refreshing surprise in this section is a contribution by Latin American philosophy of decoloniality, Walter Mignolo. In his ‘The Advent of Black Thinkers and the Limits of Continental Philosophy’ (287-302) dealing with ‘the mirage of universalism behind European localism’ (293), he reminds how historically, the ‘global was confused with the universal’ and in turn, how the universal is essentially Eurocentricism. He warns that ‘to assume that philosophy is universal is an aberration’ (287).

Mignolo’s rare focus on Africa is taken up by Messy Kebede in the third Part of the volume dealing with a plethora of ‘Issues and Discourses’ which are by now perennial challenges confronting African intellectuals. In the chapter, ‘Re-imagining the Philosophy of Decolonisation’ (447-460) we find Kebede seized with recasting ‘the controversy’ on conflicting philosophical approaches to African decolonization (447).

According to him, ‘the essential source of the controversy emanates from the attempt of negritude philosophers to counter the colonial discourse and rehabilitate the African self through racialisation’. Against this, he proposes Henri Bergson’s (454-455) paradoxical embrace and transcendence of the culturo-racial centrality of African identity.

This chapter turns out to be the only one in the collection that attempts a systematic engagement with the ontological challenges that globalisation presents to Africans. Kebede insightfully compresses Appiah’s famed notion of cosmopolitanism into a concept of ‘glocalization’, an approach that accommodates both global and local realities, and ‘wants neither the preservation of African identity nor its dissolution’ (456).

The mission of discharging the volume’s objective of situating African critical thought onto the pressing crises of the times and demonstrating that the African philosophical tradition has attained tools to tackle these issues is demonstrated in the fourth Part of the book. This is particularly borne out in the chapters ‘African Philosophy and World Terror’ by Leonard Praeg (659-670), Helen Lauer’s ‘African Philosophy and the Challenge of Science’ (605-620) and Edwin Etieyibo’s ‘Ubuntu and the Environment’ (638-659).

There can, of course, be no handbook on African Philosophy without a confrontation of the state of the Philosophy curriculum in Africa. ‘African Philosophy and the curriculum’ is the subject head of the seven papers clustered under this Part 5. Contributors in this field on the transformation of the Philosophy syllabus attempt to move the discussion into the rubric of pedagogic relevance and the future of African philosophy.

Emblematic of this focus is Thaddeus Metz’s ‘African Philosophy as a Multidisciplinary Discourse’ (795-812) wherein he surveys the ‘successful’ infusing of the African philosophical tradition into other disciplines, such as ‘law/politics . . .psychology/medicine . . . and ecology’(795).

Whilst it establishes the intellectual stature of African philosophy, the anthology lacks a formal article that problematizes globalisation as it affects Africa. A discussion of Afropolitanism by Afolayan merely touches the swelling sore of African social otology within a hype that denies identitarian difference.  Equally, whilst the subject of science and technology is registered as a challenge, a chapter on the raw economic question of global financialisation of capital and the structural constraints African face in this global economy is conspicuously missing.

Globalization, Cosmopolitanism as Progress

The polemic editorial framework of Afolayan and Falola is that ‘progress in African philosophy would only be significant to the extent that it serves to intellectually instigate progress on the continent’ (12). This, specifically, is progress as the rate of the impact that philosophy has on the surmounting of ‘the African predicament’ of being African in a global community and a technologically advancing world (13).

It is upheld that it is only in this regard that this philosophy would be ‘disciplinary relevant’ (9). Relevance to, and in the global age, is upheld as the litmus test of the contemporary efficacy of African philosophy.

I concur with the editors that demonstrating an ability at unravelling the complicated economic theoretical formulae and programs that are ever proving so futile in turning the tide against poverty and misdevelopment in Africa, would be the real litmus test of the maturity of African Philosophy.

I believe there is sincerity in Afolayan and Falola’s exhortation that ‘there is a need for African philosophers to get to the street and get their theories dirtied by the African predicament on the continent’ (12). But how can this be achieved when those who are Afrophilosophising are sitting in Florida, Austria and the Europeanised enclaves of South African life?

Has this African discipline made any progress when approximately twelve out of forty-three of the contributors to this important reference guide on contemporary African thought are non-indigenous Africans?  Is this staging of an extra-African cosmopolitarian symposium that poly-flexes and dims the light of African intellection a sign of the progress of African philosophy?

Whilst admiring the theoretical necessity of this publication as a plausible catalyst for a progressive philosophical debate, I remain with a nagging sociocultural curiosity.  I cannot help asking why, besides Godfery Tangwa, the only authors who contributed more than one chapters to ‘The Handbook on African Philosophy’ are, Metz, Praeg, Lauer, and Hosthemke.

In consternation, I ploughed through Tangwa’s two chapters on this matter, ‘African Philosophy: appraisal of a recurrent problematic’ (19-34) which addresses the question of who is an African philosopher, and his ‘Revisiting the Language Question in African Philosophy’ (pp129-140).  I found his dismissive trivialisation of the former question troubling (30). I further pondered on his fractured disputation that we must make do with the compromise that a lack of a certain level and kind of proficiency in English (and any European language) as the language of African academic production under-privileges indigenous African thinkers.

His conclusion that no answers have yet been found to the question: “What is African literature [Philosophy]? Is it literature [Philosophy] about Africa or literature [Philosophy] written by Africans?” (p130) has only compounded this haunting curiosity.

In a recent review of Edwin Etieyibo’s essay ‘African Philosophy: Its history, Context, and Contemporary Times’ in Method, Substance and the Future of African Philosophy (Etieyibo 2016, 13-34) Anke Graness, professor at the University of Vienna, engages in an intense critique of Etieyibo’s attempts at defining ‘what is an African philosopher’ (Graness 2018,47). Dismissing the latter’s vain disquisition about the ‘narrow view’ and ‘broader view’ of an African philosopher, Graness concludes that:

I think it is less important to clarify the continental affiliation of those who practice philosophy in Africa than it is to clarify the definition and demarcation of African philosophy. This clarification has important consequences, for example for the integration of African philosophy into curricula and publication projects, and especially for financial support. (ibid).

The critical existential-epistemic crisis relating to the authenticity of knowledge production, the question of ‘who is the producer?’ is resolved into the economic logic of academic survival. Graness proceeds to elaborate that a philosopher on the African continent who, according to her example, is ‘a Wittgenstein specialist’:

would certainly have plenty of funding possibilities via research programs in analytic philosophy, philosophy of language, continental philosophy and all kinds of funding foundations; those dealing with marginalised and formerly excluded philosophy traditions in Africa hardly any funding prospects at all. In this respect, a definition of the term ‘African philosophy’ is not only relevant here, but also decisive.

Is this all that it comes down to? Is it a fact that until African scholarship and institutions have their own African financial fountains, we will forever have to have themes, books and conferences whose leitmotif will be dictated from the ‘developed North’? Elsewhere, employing a Marxian framework, I alerted of the ramifications of international post-colonial economic and political power relations on the emergence of epistemic hegemonies and the regulation of knowledge consumption, that is, the determination of canonicity in a discipline such as philosophy (see Lamola 2016).

We finally, then, have to ask: Has African philosophy really progressed, or can it ever progress if publication compendia that canonizes stages of its development can only be undertaken by publishing interests that are based in the colonial metropoles? Why the Blackwell and the Palgrave Macmillan collected volumes? Will we ever have a ‘Wakanda[1] Handbook on African Thought’?

Conclusion

Within the context of the ambition of this project, Godfery Tagwa’s two chapters referred to earlier (19-34; 129-140) illustrate the existential aporia in which African philosophy finds itself. These, and the issue of the location of Africa within the matrix of commercial interests in global knowledge production, begs the question of whether, with the suggested cosmopolitanism that is driven by imperial values and languages, will we ever have a genuine African philosophy. A consideration of these issues, which could not be rigorously pursued in this book review, leaves us with a sceptical if not a pessimistic disposition on the possibility of a genuine, let alone, authentic, African philosophy.

My predilection is that until we have an epistm that is crafted and articulated in an African language by persons whose lived-experience is embedded in Africa, and/or what Africa represents to the world, we may never be able to claim having a genuine African philosophy. The representation of African philosophy as a centreless, open-ended, free-to-all enterprise, as in The Palgrave Handbook, militates against this goal.

Contact details: jlamola@mweb.co.za

References

The Palgrave Handbook of African Philosophy. Edited By Adeshina Afolayan, and Toyin Falola. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017.

Appiah, Kwame A. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006

Etieyibo, Edwin. ‘African Philosophy in History, Context, and Contemporary Times’. In: Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. London: Palgrave Macmillan 2018, pp. 13-33.

Graness, Anke. “African Philosophy and History.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 45-54.

Hountondji, Paulin J. “How African is Philosophy in Africa?” Filosofia Theoretica: Journal of African Philosophy, Culture and Religions, Vol. 7, no, 3 (2018): 72-93

Lamola, M. John. “The Political Economy of the Philosophical Canon: an Africanist critique”.  Philosophia Africana. Vol. 17, no, 20 (2016): 89-99

Mbembe, Achille. “Afropolitanism”. In: Simon Njami, ed., Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent. Johannesburg: Jacana 2007, pp. 26-30

Wiredu, Kwasi (ed.). A Companion to African Philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004

[1] The mythical technologically and economically futuristic African country in the movie The Black Panther

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, rsassowe@uccs.edu.

Sassower, Raphael. “Human Nature in the Post-Truth Age.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 36-38.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-45C

Image by Bryan Ledgard via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

We have come a long way since Leslie Stevenson published Seven Theories of Human Nature in 1974. Indeed, Stevenson’s critical contribution enlisted the views of Plato, Christianity, Marx, Freud, Sartre, Skinner, and Lorenz to analyze and historically contextualize what the term could mean.

By 2017, a seventh edition is available, now titled Thirteen Theories of Human Nature, and it contains chapters on Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Plato, Aristotle, the Bible (instead of Christianity), Islam, Kant, Marx, Freud, Sartre, Darwinism, and feminism (with the help of David Haberman, Peter Matthews, and Charlotte Witt). One wonders how many more theories or views can be added to this laundry list; perhaps with an ever-increasing list of contributors to the analysis and understanding of human nature, a new approach might be warranted.

How The Question Is Contested Today

This is where Maria Kronfeldner’s What’s Left of Human Nature? A Post-Essentialist, Pluralist, and Interactive Account of a Contested Concept (2018) enters the scene. This scene, to be sure, is fraught with sexism and misogyny, speciesism and racism, and an unfortunately long history of eugenics around the world. The recent white supremacist eruptions under president Trump’s protection if not outright endorsement are so worrisome that any level-headed (or Kronfeldner’s analytic) guidance is a breath of fresh air, perhaps an essential disinfectant.

Instead of following the rhetorical vitriol of right-wing journalists and broadcasters or the lame argumentations of well-meaning but ill-informed sociobiologists, we are driven down a philosophical path that is scholarly, fair-minded, and comprehensive. If one were to ask a naïve or serious question about human nature, this book is the useful, if at time analytically demanding, source for an answer.

If one were to encounter the prevailing ignorance of politicians and television or radio pundits, this book is the proper toolkit from which to draw sharp tools with which to dismantle unfounded claims and misguided pronouncements. In short, in Trump’s post-truth age this book is indispensable.

But who really cares about human nature? Why should we even bother to dissect the intricacies of this admittedly “contested concept” rather than dispense with it altogether? Years ago, I confronted Robert Rubin (former Goldman Sachs executive and later Treasury Secretary in the Clinton Administration) in a lecture he gave after retirement about financial policies and markets. I asked him directly about his view of human nature and his response was brief: fear and greed.

I tried to push him on this “view” and realized, once he refused to engage, that this wasn’t a view but an assumption, a deep presupposition that informed his policy making, that influenced everything he thought was useful and even morally justifiable (for a private investment bank or the country as a whole). All too often we scratch our heads in wonder about a certain policy that makes no sense or that is inconsistent with other policies (or principles) only to realize that a certain pre-commitment (in this sense, a prejudice) accompanies the proposed policy.

Would making explicit presuppositions about human nature clarify the policy or at least its rationale? I think it would, and therefore I find Kronfeldner’s book fascinating, well-argued, and hopefully helpful outside insulated academic circles. Not only can it enlighten the boors, but it could also make critical contributions to debates over all things trans (transhumanism, transgenderism).

Is the Concept of Essence Useful Anymore?

In arguing for a post-essentialist, pluralist, and interactive account of human nature, Kronfeldner argues for eliminating the “concept of an essence,” broadening its conceptual reach with corresponding “three different kinds” of human nature, and that “nature and culture interact at the developmental, epigenetic, and evolutionary levels” as well as the ongoing “explanatory looping effects” of human nature. (xv)

Distinguishing between explaining human nature and human nature, the author has chosen to focus on the latter “which is an analytic and reflective issue about what ‘having a nature’ and ‘something being due to nature’ mean.” (xvi) Instead of summarizing the intricacies of all the arguments offered in the book, suffice here to highlight, from the very beginning of the book, one of the author’s cautionary remarks: “Many consider the concept of human nature to be obsolete because they cannot envision such an interactive account of the fixity aspect. It is one of the major contributions of this book to try to overcome this obstacle.” (xvii)

And indeed, this book does overcome the simple binary of either there are fixed traits of humanity to which we must pay scientific tribute or there are fluid feedback loops of influence between nature and nurture to which we must pay social and moral attention. Though the former side of the binary is wedded to notions of “specificity, typicality, fixity, and normalcy” for all the right ethical reasons of protecting human rights and equal treatment, the price paid for such (linguistic and epistemic) attachment may be too high.

The price, to which Kronfeldner returns in every chapter of the book, is “dehumanization”—the abuse of the term (and concept) human nature in order to exclude rather than include members of the human species.

In her “eliminativist perspective” with respect to the concept of human nature, Kronfeldner makes five claims which she defends brilliantly and carefully throughout the book. The first relates to how little the “sciences” would lose from not using the term anymore; the second is that getting rid of essentialism alone will not do away with dehumanization; the third suggests that though dehumanization may not be eliminated, post-essentialism will be helpful to “minimize” it; the fourth claim is that “the question about elimination versus revision of the terminology used is actually a matter of values (rather than facts)”; and the fifth claim relates to the “precautionary principle” advocated here. (231)

The upshot of this process of elimination in the name of reducing dehumanization is admittedly as much political as epistemic, social and cultural as moral. As Kronfeldner says: “Even if one gets rid of all possible essentialist baggage attached to human nature talk, and even if one gets rid of all human nature talk whatsoever, there is no way to make sure that the concept of being or becoming human gets rid of dehumanization. Stripping off essentialism and the language inherited from it won’t suffice for that.” (236) So, what will suffice?

Throwing the Ladder Away

At this juncture, Kronfeldner refers to Wittgenstein: “The term human nature might well be a Wittgensteinian ladder: a ladder that we needed to arrive where we are (in our dialectic project) but that we can now throw away.” (240) This means, in short, that “we should stop using the term human nature whenever possible.” (242) Easier said than done?

The point that Kronfeldner makes repeatedly is that simply revising the term or using a different one will not suffice; replacing one term with another or redefining the term more carefully will not do. This is not only because of the terminological “baggage” to which she alludes, but perhaps, more importantly, because this concept or term has been a crutch scientists and policy makers cannot do without. Some sense of human nature informs their thinking and their research, their writing and policy recommendations (as my example above illustrates).

In a word, is it possible to avoid asking: what are they thinking about when they think of human conduct? What underlying presuppositions do they bring to their respective (subconscious?) ways of thinking? As much as we may want to refrain from talking about human nature as an outdated term or a pernicious concept that has been weaponized all too often in a colonial or racist modality, it seems to never be far away from our mind.

In the Trumpist age of white supremacy and the fascist trajectories of European nationalism, can we afford to ignore talk about human nature? Worst, can we ignore the deliberate lack of talk of human nature, seeing, as we do, its dehumanizing effects? With these questions in mind, I highly recommend spending some time with this book, ponderous as it may seem at times, and crystal clear as it is at others. It should be considered for background information by social scientists, philosophers, and politicians.

Contact details: rsassowe@uccs.edu

References

Kronfeldner, Maria. What’s Left of Human Nature? A Post-Essentialist, Pluralist, and Interactive Account of a Contested Concept. Boston: MIT Press, 2018.

Author Information: John Lamola, Fort Hare University, jlamola@mweb.co.za.

Lamola, John. “Africa in Van Norden’s Philosophical Manifesto and King’s Multicultural Canon.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 30-35.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-45v

Campus at University of Cape Town, overlooked by Table Mountain.
Image by Ian Barbour via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Although written from an American setting, and pointedly directed at challenging the pedagogic modalities and epistemological assumptions of the organisation of the philosophy curriculum in the United States, Bryan W. Van Norden’s Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto (2017) has an acute and timely resonance with the current fractious debate on the decolonisation of the philosophy curriculum in South Africa.

It is indeed a scandal that African philosophy, in Africa, is still what Van Norden (p.2) formulates as an LCTP (less commonly taught philosophies). Equally, as one stuck in the racialistic trenches of this debate (Lamola 2018, Benatar 2018), it was comforting to hear a non-radical voice of Jay L. Garfield assert in the book’s Foreword that ‘ignoring non-Western Philosophy in our research, curriculum, and hiring decisions is deeply racist’ (xix).

In addition, Van Norden’s critique of the Eurocentrism of the philosophy canon and syllabi not only validates a founding motif of post-colonial African philosophy; it foregrounds into the American academe a protestation, stated in Barry Hallen’s words in his A Short History of African Philosophy, against the ‘West that ethnocentrically flaunts that culture’s philosophical priorities as things that should be universal’ (Hallen 2009,50).

A Model for Philosophers’ Practice: Peter J. King

The foregoing sentiments have impelled me to endeavour a contribution to this book symposium from the vantage position of African philosophical experience. In doing so, I propose to draw attention to a project which, in our view, experimented and proved that what Van Norden is advocating can be done.

This was the publication in 2004 by Peter J. King, lecturer at Pembroke College, Oxford of One Hundred Philosophers: The Life and Work of the World’s Greatest Thinkers. In line with Van Norden’s disquisition, King (2004) creatively broke the boundaries of the traditional canonical criteria of Western Philosophy, and installed into a singular chronological compendium thinkers from Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas as philosophers whose works set the frontiers of philosophic erudition.

I published polemic essay that extolled the instructive intervention of this book, ‘Peter J. King and the Transformation of the Philosophical Canon: An Africanist Appreciation’ (Lamola 2015) in Phronimon, a journal of the South African Society for Greek Philosophy and Humanities.[1]

In the Phronimon article I argued that the conceptual framework of ‘epistemic pluriversalism’ as advanced by Argentine semiotician Walter Mignolo (2009, 1-23) is a cogent theoretical basis against which King’s work could best be appreciated. I propose, similarly, that Van Norden’s transformation program could be grounded on such a corrective paradigm against the globalistic universalism of the West. Pluriversalism, whereby all knowledge systems as emerging from diverse geo-cultural regions of the world are accorded equal recognition and respect, is a critical transformative imperative for contemporary academic philosophy.

Here, for reasons of brevity, our restricted mission is to carve a space for African philosophy in Van Norden’s regrettably excessively pro-Chinese philosophy blueprint of a transformative multicultural curriculum.

Africans in the Global Philosophy Canon

As Van Norden would, I was perturbed to find one of the editors of the Dictionary of Philosophy (1983), Antony Flew, justify his criteria for the choice of entries in the dictionary with these words,

Very little attention is given to anything that is philosophical only in the more popular interpretation. This, and not European parochialism, is why the classics of Chinese philosophy get such short shrift. The Analects of Confucius and the Book of Mencius are both splendid of their kind. But neither sage shows much sign of interest in the sort of questions thrashed out in Theaetetus. (Flew and Speakes 1983, xi)

In this justification of the preferential adoption of the epistemology of Plato’s Socrates as the criterion for the canon on epistemology, in essence, Flew claimed that the Western modus cogens is more advanced than the Chinese one and is of a superior quality in deciphering, judging, and resolving the dilemmas of human life.

It is regrettable that Flew (1923-2010) did not live long enough to see Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World: the end of the western world and the birth of a new global order (2012), and Jared Diamond’s The World until Yesterday: what can we learn from traditional societies (2012).

This ‘comparative anthropology’ that condescendingly judges the world’s cultures against the putative superiority of Anglo-European traditions is much harsher in its judgement of African systems of thought. There is no reference to African philosophy or any of its themes in the Dictionary of Philosophy. Flew, above, sounded like Immanuel Kant who wrote in Observations on the feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764) that:

If we cast a fleeting glance over the other parts of the world, we find the Arab the noblest man in the Orient . . . he is hospitable, generous and truthful . . . if the Arabs, so to speak are the Spaniards of the Orient, similarly the Persians are the French of Asia. They are good poets, courteous and of fairly fine taste . . . The Japanese could in a way be regarded as Englishmen of this part of the world, but hardly in any other quality than their resoluteness . . . The Negroes of Africa, on the other hand, have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling. (in Eze 1997, 54-55)

In succession to Kant, G.W.F. Hegel’s notorious Afrophobic history of philosophy is not even worth recounting. It is aptly contextualised in Peter K. J. Park’s Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy; racism in the formation of the philosophical canon, 1780-1830, as cited by Van Norden (19). In a recent review of an African philosophy text in SERRC, refuting this claimed absence of Africa in the history of philosophy by making reference to the monumental research of Chiekh Anta Diop ( [1954] 1974) and Martin Bernal (1987), Anke Grannes alerts that:

There is a long tradition of written philosophy on the African continent, extending from the time of the ancient Egyptians and including Ethiopian philosophy, the Arabic-Islamic philosophical tradition in Africa south of the Sahara, the Ajami tradition, and the written tradition in the Swahili culture (Grannes 2018, 45).

Choosing Ignorance of Africa

In the year 2012 two books were published in London with a proclaimed ambition at presenting definitive compendia of those identified as the thinkers who the whole of contemporary humanity must regard as the producers of the most profound ideas that continue to shape our lives and world.

The first of these canon-forming publications was Stephen Trombley’s Fifty Thinkers Who Shaped the Modern World (2012). The second was Phillip Stokes’ Philosophy: One Hundred Essential Thinkers (2012) which according to its jacket promotion, ‘introduces one hundred of the world’s greatest philosophers’.

Trombley’s fifty thinkers who shaped the modern world are led by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and have the Bulgarian-French feminist philosopher, Julia Kristeva (1941-), on the fiftieth spot. According to Trombley’s selection, not a single mind outside of Europe and the United States of America merits a place in the top fifty that has shaped the modern world. He could even blithely aver that:

The Greek philosopher was a wealthy, upper-class man whose leisure time was purchased with slave labour…We can compare the situation of philosophy in ancient Greek with our time, in which—despite the fact that more philosophers may be women or people of colour or from modest social origins—it remains a profession dominated by white men (Trombley 2012 11).

On the other hand, Stoke’s one hundred of the world’s greatest philosophers who have produced ‘the ideas that have shaped our world’, predictably, starts off with Thales of Miletus, and ends with American logician, Willard Van Orman Quine (1908-2000).

Without a declaration anywhere that the book’s proscribed scope is on the Western Philosophical tradition and academy, thus maintaining a pretence of encyclopaedic universality, in Anno Domini 2012 Stokes could not find any Chinese, Indian or African philosopher worthy of recognition for a contribution to the ideas that have shaped or are continuing to shape our world.

Even Kwame Nkrumah, a trained and published philosopher who incarnated his ideas into the Presidency of the first African nation to achieve independence from colonial rule, thus setting a trend and inspiration for the seismic independence movements that dominated the discourse of international politics for decades, is not recognised.

A year earlier, in an implicit demonstration of a growing consciousness against the interpretation of philosophy as Reason conscious of itself and evolving through European institutions, Jay L. Garfield and William Edelglass’ truly multicultural and global Oxford Handbook of World Philosophy (2011)[2] had been published. But Trombley and Stokes were to testify to the enduring force of the interpretatio hegeliana, that views Europe as the exclusive fountain and Eden of human reason to which Africa does not exist.

King’s Pluriversal Historiography

King’s multicultural rendition of the protagonists in the history of philosophy negates this Eurocentrism as an active theoretical intervention, and in our assessment precociously fulfilled and demonstrated the efficacy of Van Norden’s manifesto.

His selection of his ‘one hundred philosophers’ is presented in a sequence that is only governed by their year of birth. In this way the tradition of presenting the history of philosophy as some kind of progressively successive schools, the interpretatio hegeliana, is obviated. Simultaneously, through this structure, the particularity of cultural categorisation is trumped by the universality of time.

This birth date sequencing delivers a pantheon that starts off with Thales of Miletus, seamlessly gliding through K’Ung fu-zi (Confucius) and Lao Zi, both Chinese philosophers, before it gets to Plato. This introduction of ancient sages is rounded off with the profile of the work and life of an African woman philosopher, Hypatia of Alexandria (c.415-370 BCE). King’s compendium boasts uncharacteristic profiling of women thinkers, and draws attention to the injustice women have historically suffered and continue to endure in academic philosophy.

In selecting a constellation of noteworthy thinkers during the period 500CE-1599CE, which in Western historiography is styled the Medieval Period, King endeavours to set these thinkers against a broader appreciation of global historical developments. They are for instance set against the background of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad PUN (570CE), and the appearance of the first printed book from China in 868CE.

Ancius M.S Boethius of Rome (480-524) the martyred pioneering translator of ancient Greek philosophical works into Latin, and Adi Samkra of Kerala (781-820), the founder of the adviata school of Hindu philosophy are introduced as equal pioneering thinkers at the start of this period. In a historical rendition that attempts to present a just procession of religious thought, the narration of the philosophical heritage of the Irish Church philosopher, John Scotus Eriguena (810-977) is placed after that of the Muslim philosopher Abu-Yusuf Yaqub Ibn Ishuq of Baghdad (801-873).

Skipping to the modern period, in the interest of the demand for brevity in our demonstration of the cultural and epistemological plurality of King’s philosophical canon, we note the exceptional gesture he makes in contributing to the uncovering of Anthony William Amo (1703-1784), the Ghanaian who graduated in philosophy at the University of Wittenberg in 1734, and proceeded to earn an appointment as Philosophy professor at the University of Jena in 1740.

Amo, who advanced scholarship on Descartes, is perked between George Berkeley and Baron de Montesquieu as notable philosophers of the Early Modern Period of Western philosophy. King’s presentation, which due to its chronological approach has to list Amo before David Hume (1711-1776) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), unwittingly exposes the bigotry of the latter two celebrated luminaries of the Western philosophical canon in their assiduously recorded views that there is no empirical evidence of any genius among ‘the Negro’ (see Eze 1997, 29-30).

While the government clerk David Hume was battling with his 1739 A Treatise of Human Nature that ‘fell dead from the press’ (King 2004, 108), Professor Amo had just successfully published in 1738 Treatise on the Art of Philosophising Soberly and Accurately (King 2004, 103).

King’s treatment of twentieth century evolution of philosophy subverts traditional reading of a linkage of the philosophies of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein by inserting between them an account of the works of Servepali Radhakrishnan (1888-1975), the most celebrated exponent of Indian philosophy who was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1939, and of Sir Muhammad Iqbal Khan (1877-1938), the iconic philosopher of Islam and graduate of Russell’s alma mater, Cambridge. In a rare irony, the ‘heterodoxical’ Khan was knighted by King George V in 1922, whilst Russell was persecuted and ostracised in England for his ‘unorthodox’ beliefs.

King (2004) interrupts his presentation of the twentieth century notable philosophical minds with an editorial chapter titled, ‘Overview: African philosophy’. This is one of ten such topical editorial insertions interspersed between his encyclopaedic profiling of his selected philosophers. This overview lays the ground for his recognition of Kwasi Wiredu (1931- ) as one of the world’s one hundred greatest thinkers.

Notwithstanding this recognition of only Wiredu and the introduction of Amo, he accords African philosophy a rare appearance on the stage of global intellectual traditions. It is significant that this ‘Overview: African philosophy’ (King 2004, 172) is simply a neat summation of Henry Odera Oruka’s famous 1981 paper ‘Four Trends in Current African Philosophy’ (in Coetzee & Roux 2002, 120-136). King, in line with Van Norden’s broader and more contemporaneous pleadings, seems to have taken seriously Oruka’s contention that:

Philosophy as a discipline that employs analytical, reflective, and rationative methodology is therefore not seen as a monopoly of Europe or any one race but as an activity for which every race or people has a potentiality (in Coetzee & Roux 2002, 120).

Contact details: jlamola@mweb.co.za

References 

Benatar, David. ‘Obscurity, falsehood, and innuendo: A response to M. John Lamola,’ South African Journal of Philosophy, 37, no.1 (2018): 66-68.

Bernal, Martin. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985, Volume 1. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Diamond, Jared.  The World Until Yesterday: What Can we Learn From Traditional Societies. London: Penguin Books, 2012.

Diop, Cheikh. A.  The African Origin of Civilisation: Myth or Reality,  trans. Mercer Cook. New York: Lawrence Hill &Co, 1974.

Eze, Emmanuel, C. (ed.). Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1997.

Flew, Antony, Jeremy Speake (eds). A Dictionary of Philosophy. Second edition. London: Macmillan Press, 1983

Garfield, Jay L, William Edelglass. Oxford Handbook of World Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Graness, Anke. ‘African Philosophy and History.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 45-54.

Hallen, Barry. A Short History of African Philosophy , Second edition. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2009.

King, Peter J. One Hundred Philosophers: The Life and Work of the World’s Greatest Thinkers. London: Quarto Publishing, 2004.

Lamola, M. John. ‘Peter J. King and the transformation of the Philosophical canon: an Africanist appreciation’.  Phronimon, 16, no.1 (2015): 63-77.

Lamola, M. John.  ‘On a Contextual South African Philosophy Curriculum: Towards an option for the excluded’. In: Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Decolonisation, Africanisation and the Philosophy Curriculum. London: Routledge 2018, pp.183-189.

Mignolo, Walter. ‘Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and Decolonial Freedom.’ Theory, Culture and Society, 26, no.7 (2009): 1-23.

Stokes, Phillip. Philosophy: One Hundred Essential Thinkers. London: Arcturus Publishing. 2012.

Trombley, Stephen. Fifty Thinkers who shaped the Modern World. London: Atlantis Books, 2012.

Van Norden, Bryan W. Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

[1] Parts of this submission are revised paragraphs from this Phronimon article.

[2] See Garfield and Edelglass 2011,461-533 ‘Philosophy in Africa and the Diaspora edited by Albert Mosley and Stephen C. Fergusson II.’

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, rsassowe@uccs.edu.

Sassower, Raphael. “On Political Culpability: The Unconscious?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 26-29.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-45p

Image by Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper, U.S. Army via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In the post-truth age where Trump’s presidency looms large because of its irresponsible conduct, domestically and abroad, it’s refreshing to have another helping in the epistemic buffet of well-meaning philosophical texts. What can academics do? How can they help, if at all?

Anna Elisabetta Galeotti, in her Political Self-Deception (2018), is convinced that her (analytic) philosophical approach to political self-deception (SD) is crucial for three reasons. First, because of the importance of conceptual clarity about the topic, second, because of how one can attribute responsibility to those engaged in SD, and third, in order to identify circumstances that are conducive to SD. (6-7)

For her, “SD is the distortion of reality against the available evidence and according to one’s wishes.” (1) The distortion, according to Galeotti, is motivated by wishful thinking, the kind that licenses someone to ignore facts or distort them in a fashion suitable to one’s (political) needs and interests. The question of “one’s wishes,” may they be conscious or not, remains open.

What Is Deception?

Galeotti surveys the different views of deception that “range from the realist position, holding that deception, secrecy, and manipulation are intrinsic to politics, to the ‘dirty hands’ position, justifying certain political lies under well-defined circumstances, to the deontological stance denouncing political deception as a serious pathology of democratic systems.” (2)

But she follows none of these views; instead, her contribution to the philosophical and psychological debates over deception, lies, self-deception, and mistakes is to argue that “political deception might partly be induced unintentionally by SD” and that it is also sometimes “the by-product of government officials’ (honest) mistakes.” (2) The consequences, though, of SD can be monumental since “the deception of the public goes hand in hand with faulty decision,” (3) and those eventually affect the country.

Her three examples are President Kennedy and Cuba (Ch. 4), President Johnson and Vietnam (Ch. 5), and President Bush and Iraq (Ch. 6). In all cases, the devastating consequences of “political deception” (and for Galeotti it is based on SD) were obviously due to “faulty” decision making processes. Why else would presidents end up in untenable political binds? Who would deliberately make mistakes whose political and human price is high?

Why Self-Deception?

So, why SD? What is it about self-deception, especially the unintended kind presented here, that differentiates it from garden variety deceptions and mistakes? Galeotti’s  preference for SD is explained in this way: SD “enables the analyst to account for (a) why the decision was bad, given that is was grounded on self-deceptive, hence false beliefs; (b) why the beliefs were not just false but self-serving, as in the result of the motivated processing of data; and (c) why the people were deceived, as the by-product of the leaders’ SD.” (4)

But how would one know that a “bad” decision is “grounded on self-decepti[on] rather than on false information given by intelligence agents, for example, who were misled by local informants who in turn were misinformed by others, deliberately or innocently? With this question in mind, “false belief” can be based on false information, false interpretation of true information, wishful thinking, unconscious self-destructive streak, or SD.

In short, one’s SD can be either externally or internally induced, and in each case, there are multiple explanations that could be deployed. Why stick with SD? What is the attraction it holds for analytical purposes?

Different answers are given to these questions at different times. In one case, Galeotti suggests the following:

“Only self-deceptive beliefs are, however, false by definition, being counterevidential [sic], prompted by an emotional reaction to data that contradicts one’s desires. If this is the specific nature of SD . . . then self-deceptive beliefs are distinctly dangerous, for no false belief can ground a wise decision.” (5)

In this answer, Galeotti claims that an “emotional reaction” to “one’s desires” is what characterizes SD and makes it “dangerous.” It is unclear why this is more dangerous a ground for false beliefs than a deliberate deceptive scheme that is self-serving; likewise, how does one truly know one’s true desires? Perhaps the logician is at a loss to counter emotive reaction with cold deduction, or perhaps there is a presumption here that logical and empirical arguments are by definition open to critiques but emotions are immune to such strategies, and therefore analytic philosophy is superior to other methods of analysis.

Defending Your Own Beliefs

If the first argument for seeing SD as an emotional “reaction” that conflicts with “one’s desires” is a form of self-defense, the second argument is more focused on the threat of the evidence one wishes to ignore or subvert. In Galeotti’s words: SD is:

“the unintended outcome of intentional steps of the agent. . . according to my invisible hand model, SD is the emotionally loaded response of a subject confronting threatening evidence relative to some crucial wish that P. . . Unable to counteract the threat, the subject . . . become prey to cognitive biases. . . unintentionally com[ing] to believe that P which is false.” (79; 234ff)

To be clear, the “invisible hand” model invoked here is related to the infamous one associated with Adam Smith and his unregulated markets where order is maintained, fairness upheld, and freedom of choice guaranteed. Just like Smith, Galeotti appeals to individual agents, in her case the political leaders, as if SD happens to them, as if their conduct leads to “unintended outcome.”

But the whole point of SD is to ward off the threat of unwelcomed evidence so that some intention is always afoot. Since agents undertake “intentional steps,” is it unreasonable for them to anticipate the consequences of their conduct? Are they still unconscious of their “cognitive biases” and their management of their reactions?

Galeotti confronts this question head on when she says: “This work is confined to analyzing the working of SD in crucial instances of governmental decision making and to drawing the normative implications related both to responsibility ascription and to devising prophylactic measures.” (14) So, the moral dimension, the question of responsibility does come into play here, unlike the neoliberal argument that pretends to follow Smith’s model of invisible hand but ends with no one being responsible for any exogenous liabilities to the environment, for example.

Moreover, Galeotti’s most intriguing claim is that her approach is intertwined with a strategic hope for “prophylactic measures” to ensure dangerous consequences are not repeated. She believes this could be achieved by paying close attention to “(a) the typical circumstances in which SD may take place; (b) the ability of external observers to identify other people’s SD, a strategy of precommitment [sic] can be devised. Precommitment is a precautionary strategy, aimed at creating constraints to prevent people from falling prey to SD.” (5)

But this strategy, as promising as it sounds, has a weakness: if people could be prevented from “falling prey to SD,” then SD is preventable or at least it seems to be less of an emotional threat than earlier suggested. In other words, either humans cannot help themselves from falling prey to SD or they can; if they cannot, then highlighting SD’s danger is important; if they can, then the ubiquity of SD is no threat at all as simply pointing out their SD would make them realize how to overcome it.

A Limited Hypothesis

Perhaps one clue to Galeotti’s own self-doubt (or perhaps it is a form of self-deception as well) is in the following statement: “my interpretation is a purely speculative hypothesis, as I will never be in the position to prove that SD was the case.” (82) If this is the case, why bother with SD at all? For Galeotti, the advantage of using SD as the “analytic tool” with which to view political conduct and policy decisions is twofold: allowing “proper attribution of responsibility to self-deceivers” and “the possibility of preventive measures against SD” (234)

In her concluding chapter, she offers a caveat, even a self-critique that undermines the very use of SD as an analytic tool (no self-doubt or self-deception here, after all): “Usually, the circumstances of political decision making, when momentous foreign policy choices are at issue, are blurred and confused both epistemically and motivationally.

Sorting out simple miscalculations from genuine uncertainty, and dishonesty and duplicity from SD is often a difficult task, for, as I have shown when analyzing the cases, all these elements are present and entangled.” (240) So, SD is one of many relevant variables, but being both emotional and in one’s subconscious, it remains opaque at best, and unidentifiable at worst.

In case you are confused about SD and one’s ability to isolate it as an explanatory model with which to approach post-hoc bad political choices with grave consequences, this statement might help clarify the usefulness of SD: “if SD is to play its role as a fundamental explanation, as I contend, it cannot be conceived of as deceiving oneself, but it must be understood as an unintended outcome of mental steps elsewhere directed.” (240)

So, logically speaking, SD (self-deception) is not “deceiving oneself.” So, what is it? What are “mental steps elsewhere directed”? Of course, it is quite true, as Galeotti says that “if lessons are to be learned from past failures, the question of SD must in any case be raised. . . Political SD is a collective product” which is even more difficult to analyze (given its “opacity”) and so how would responsibility be attributed? (244-5)

Perhaps what is missing from this careful analysis is a cold calculation of who is responsible for what and under what circumstances, regardless of SD or any other kind of subconscious desires. Would a psychoanalyst help usher such an analysis?

Contact details: rsassowe@uccs.edu

References

Galeotti, Anna Elisabetta. Political Self-Deception. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Author Information: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College, serrc.digital@gmail.com.

Riggio, Adam. “Immovable Presumptions as Philosophical Limit.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 19-25.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-45d

Image by Russell Davies via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

The essay collection Relations: Ontology and the Philosophy of Religion is fascinating and curious. As a contribution to ongoing issues in contemporary ontology, philosophy of religion, and the history of philosophy. There are many things to praise about its different essays and all of the authors. All of them are valuable additions to their discourses.

However, I’m reviewing the book from a peculiar position. My own philosophical work includes a great deal of thinking on the ontology of relations, so I began the book thinking that I’d have much in common with the authors. Yet I found myself at times alienated from the discussion.

Sometimes, it will be an issue of method. For example, some essays discussed the ontology of relations in linguistic terms. A central example here would be something like ‘John is far away from Justin,’ analyzed as if there were some simple property or object in common between John and Justin called ‘far away.’

I know this approach because it’s the same as that of the linguistic turn in analytic philosophy’s first generation. But my tradition of ontology focuses on material assemblages of forces and substances. Simple descriptions of relations like ‘far away’ or ‘larger than’ do not stand for actually simple relations, but complicated physical assemblages.

I experienced similar moments throughout the book, where contributors and I would seem to share a common subject, but without much common ground. It’s difficult to know whether the different discourse communities of our academic sub-disciplines are so separate because of institutional pressures, or because we all discuss truly different concerns. So the following reflections will engage with the book meta-philosophically, to discover ways that essays in one fairly restricted subject matter can produce insights and questions that matter to us all.

On What Ground Should We Trust Our Presumptions?

I may not be a specialist in the precise areas of all the experts that the book’s editors, Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini, assembled to contribute to this volume. But I am still a philosopher, and so can identify mistakes, errors, or other problems someone makes in their inferences. Specifically for the following case, I can identify, among many of the essays collected in a volume, any common presumptions, and examine whether we should take for granted what a particular writer does.

The best example of this in the Relations volume is Mario Micheletti’s “Radical Alterity and the God-World Relationship.” One of the major points of his argument is to lay out what limits are present among different explanations for the existence of the universe. He argues that an atheist’s range of such explanations is more limited than those that a believer in God can hold. This is because an atheist cannot accept the contingency of the universe, since its contingency would make its nature depend on an external clause. Micheletti writes:

“The atheist can  . . . claim that while the universe has an explanation of its existence, the explanation lies not in an external ground, but in the necessity of its own nature. This is however, an extremely bold suggestion which, Craig notes, atheists have not been eager to embrace. For we have a strong intuition of the universe’s contingency, and we generally trust our modal intuitions.”

Yet there is no reason why we should trust our modal intuitions, our at-first-glance presumptions about the contingency and necessity of existence as a whole, as well as particular events and states of affairs. Micheletti presumes that the universe, without the external contingency of God’s will, would unfold with an immanent total necessity. But there is no reason why the immanent nature of the universe need be necessary; the only necessity immanent to the universe may be its own radical contingency.

After all, what makes sense to Micheletti to presume about the nature of the universe does not make sense to me. Since these are intuitions, there is no ground to establish whether he or I are correct. As intuitions, they provide the starting points for our arguments, but are rarely themselves interrogated. When they are interrogated, as in the philosophical surveys and focus groups of experimentalists like Jonathan Weinberg, intuitions are revealed as variable, ungrounded, unprovable, contingent.

So there is no genuine ground for us to trust our modal intuitions, our intuitions about what is contingent and necessary, or what the source of contingency and necessity would be. Yes, we may “generally trust our modal intuitions,” but there is no guarantee that they will turn out to be just as reliable as our intuition in everyday perception that the sun spins around Earth.

From this line of criticism, take the following question. Why do you believe in the truth of your intuitions, when an intuition is merely a presumption you have never thought to question?

Paths Divided Laid Down in the Travelling

Vera Tripodi’s “Beyond the Transcendence: The Feminist Critique of the Concept of God” is admirable in its ambition. She aims, ultimately, to synthesize a feminist conception of God from sources that would seem, at least to me, utterly ill-suited to the demands of our time.

She writes that her project draws upon “the classic ontology of being – that is, the tradition that conventionally begins with Thomas Aquinas – and the ontology of becoming that finds in Alfred North Whitehead its essential reference point.”

Blending the ontologies of Aquinas and Whitehead together is an admirable project of synthesis. Yet Tripodi writes as if Whitehead’s is the only ontology of becoming available to us in any great detail. Whitehead’s work on the ontology of becoming is historically remarkable. He used his background in mathematics and logic to develop a concept of process, central to any ontology of becoming.

He developed a detailed, technically sophisticated system for this process ontology that ultimately understood the development of organic powers of perception, human powers of knowledge, foundational principles of morality, and even the nature of God. Impressive, and an excellent reason for Tripodi’s choice of Whitehead’s work to blend with that of Aquinas for her creative synthesis.

What irks me as a reader is that Tripodi doesn’t treat Whitehead as the best possible choice because she gives a reasonable set of justifications; instead, she treats Whitehead as the best possible choice because he is the only possible choice. That is simply not true.

Henri Bergson had developed an ontology of becoming while Whitehead was still working on Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell, which had become far more popular among academics and the general public during his own lifetime. This achievement of fame for his work is far from anything Whitehead could have claimed.

A two-headed conflict with Albert Einstein over the interpretation of relativity theory and over the management of French-German reconciliation through League of Nations organizations did serious harm to Bergson’s reputation by the 1930s. But in the same period, Bertrand Russell’s confused rejection of Process and Reality did similar harm to the reputation of his former teacher Whitehead.

So while I am proud to count Tripodi among those bringing Whitehead’s ideas to the mainstream. Yet to treat him as the only source of approaches to ontologies of process or becoming ignores an equally fruitful revival of Bergson-inspired ideas. The work of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and others who followed their influence such as Luce Irigaray and Antonio Negri has built a vibrant new tradition of ontological and political philosophy in France and Italy.

The ontology of becoming – whether influenced primarily by Whitehead or Bergson – is a bold and creative direction to move in philosophy. Yet I am left wondering why the Bergson-influenced tradition of ontology of becoming is absent from Tripodi’s essay and the entire Relations collection. It appears simply to be a matter of her not having seen any of it. How deeply does what we take for granted affect the ideas and traditions we expose ourselves to? Or question?

The Most Bizarre Ontology to Make Perfect Sense

Speaking of how presumptions guide our place in traditions, “Russell and the Question of Relations” by Federico Perelda looks explicitly at an ontology utterly counter-intuitive to my own presumptions about the nature of reality. So much was this the case, that as a student I took several courses on the subject matter and only realized its central presumption on the eve of graduating with my doctorate.

I’m talking about Bertrand Russell’s propositional realism: the ontology that logical and linguistic propositions and terms are the primary constituents of the world; facts of existence therefore only exist insofar as they instantiate those propositions and terms. My own presumption or obvious (to me) starting place for ontology is that the world is primarily the material arrangements and processes of actual bodies, forces, and fields, all interacting through contingent causality. Logic, mathematics, and language are the tools of thinking and communication that we use to build frameworks of thought to understand all this stuff.

Perelda frames his essay as bolstering Russell’s argument against Ludwig Wittgenstein’s foundational axiom, “The world is everything that is the case.” Russell and Perelda both stand firmly for an ontology of propositional realism, whereas I am just as adamant a fellow-traveller of Wittgenstein on this point.

Nonetheless, Perelda was brilliant, insightful, and informative about the sources of Russell’s ontological foundation of propositional realism: it was the one inheritance from his scorned professor Francis Herbert Bradley. Perelda traces Russell’s intellectual evolution as an acolyte of Bradley, who rejected his professor’s metaphysics of absolute idealism. Orthodox accounts of this split, which are typically taught in North American university courses on early analytic philosophy, take the split to have been over idealist ontology itself.

Perelda’s insightful historical and philosophical analysis argues that the real reason for Russell’s split from Bradley was over the ontology of relation, a much more complex and subtle question than the brute simplicity of the choice over idealism and materialism.

Bradley considered all relations internal, and so illusions of our limited perceptual powers. Russell considered relations as fundamentally external, and so real. But Bradley held that, because relations are fundamentally internal, considering them to be real is a terrible mistake, trusting your senses where they are unreliable. The split that created analytic philosophy was not metaphysical or ontological, but epistemic: whether we should trust our senses to reveal the true nature of relations as they exist in the world and in logic.

Russell never disagreed with Bradley over propositional idealism, and in fact always shared that ontological principle. Throughout his life, Russell was a propositional idealist who believed that material reality was ontologically anterior to logic, simply the medium through which propositions instantiated themselves. The order of logical propositions is, for Russell and for Perelda himself, the fundamental constituent of existence because it is necessary.

Remaining unspoken is any argument for why a necessary structure, like that of the propositions and terms of mathematical logic, must be the fundamental ordering principle of the universe. Causality’s contingent character need not disqualify it from a foundational role in an ontological system, unless you explicitly argue for why contingency is necessarily a dealbreaker. That is how philosophical system building works.

So we are left in an impasse of uncertain direction for philosophical work. How does it become so difficult to think of the world as contingent?

Does Existence Need Limits?

Relations is also a contribution to philosophy of religion, its focus being the ontology of the divine, or the nature of God’s existence. Jaco Gericke’s essay probes this question directly, its aim being to identify and begin developing a more precise metaphysical conception of God. Coming from a Western tradition of religious metaphysical thinking, Gericke follows the language of the Old Testament.

His goal is to understand the meaning of God as a term of the Old Testament’s language, knowing the complete set of propositions that describe God.[1] However, there is a problem with Gericke’s philosophical method: it is equally theological as it is metaphysical and ontological, because it restricts its logical analysis to the Christian tradition. Such a conception of God, logically rigorous though it may be, remains limited, a hypocritical universal.

First, I should explain the nature of this hypocrisy. Gericke hopes to develop a concept of God that grounds the universality we presume of God in the universal scope of logic. But that logical interpretation rests on the analysis of the Old Testament, a single (if massive and hugely influential) text. It is a Christian text, and therefore partisan. But it is the Christian uptake of what was originally a Jewish text, the Torah. So it also overwrites the tradition, including the theology and philosophy, that produced it.

The Old Testament is the uptake of Torah into the Christian tradition, Torah interpreted always and inevitably in relation to the Gospel. It erases the Jewish theological ontology of divinity, overwriting the Christian. There are profound differences between these two theologies, which complicate terribly any straightforward application of logical and linguistic analysis to the words themselves of any holy book.[2]

One important ontological critique of Gericke’s method comes from the Jewish tradition that is obscured by the presumption that Torah is the Old Testament. Gericke seeks to understand the extension of the term God, but the conception of Torah’s text according to Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig makes such a general extension disappear.

In Buber and Rosenzweig’s approach to Torah, there is no single logical term instantiated in each mention of God. Each mention of God is itself a unique, context-appropriate logical term, incommensurable with every other such mention. Each manifestation of God is a unique divinity, and that from which it emanates has no nature adequate to logic.

Torah understands God as a divinity understandable only as a concretely situated manifestation. The Old Testament understands God in the context of the Incarnation, where God demonstrated oneness with humanity by becoming Jesus and the Christ. Christianity therefore rests on a metaphysics of thorough ontological monism, in which God is a thing just as a mountain, person, fungus, river, star, boat, or blade of grass is. Since God is a thing, it is the extension of a term, and this term is no different than any other term.

The work of Duns Scotus best explores this ontological monism that is a fundamental metaphysical presumption of theologians and philosophers in Christian traditions who explore the nature of God. But the project of exploring the nature of God seems terribly limited when constrained by the presumptions of a single tradition. Why do such presumptions become unquestionable?

When the Refusal to Choose Is Itself a Dogma

Jeffrey Long brings a possible antidote to this prison of presumptions. His essay is “Anekantevada: The Jain Ontology of Complexity and Relationality, and Its Implications for the Philosophy of Religions.” He analyzes an approach to the metaphysics and ontology of divinity in the Jain religion that promises to avoid problems of absolutism like those I discussed above.

Jainism, in short, holds that the divine is essentially multifaceted. Its pluralism could likely be a partial reflection of Jainism’s place as a minority religion throughout its existence; at no point in the history of Jainism has it ever been the dominant religion in a territory. Conveniently, its ontology of divinity depicts all religions as valid accounts of divinity.

Jain thinking is a perspectivism about the nature of divinity. Hindu and Buddhist communities, taking relevant examples for Jainism’s historical place in India, each have their own perspectives on the overall nature of the divine. So the concept of God in each religion (or in each concept of God within many theological traditions) understands a few aspects of the divine.

The parable about the blind men and the elephant might be useful here. That parable also shows the theological hypocrisy Long identifies in Jain ontology. From the Jain perspective, theirs is the only religious tradition that accurately and completely understands God, because other religions mistake their perspectival limitations for absolute truths. Jainism itself thereby becomes an absolutism, the unquestionable presumption that its pluralism is the only true conception of divinity because it includes all the variety that God can be.

Even this attempt to find an escape from absolutism closes itself off, because the temptation to consider your own perspective to be the most correct, or the only fully correct, never disappears. All our judgments would seem to rest on presumptions which are simultaneously unassailable and fragile.

Fragile because they are unassailable. Every argument and conceptual exploration must rest on presumptions that are themselves taken for granted. But to question those presumptions exposes their inevitable limitations. Knowledge requires firm foundations, but examining those foundations exposes that they need foundations of their own.

Knowledge therefore rests on dogma inevitably, a refusal to question. For any system of thinking to stand, questioning must cease somewhere, but the decision to cease is never a conclusion, always a decision. Do our unquestioned and unquestionable presumptions leave us no antidote for absolutism, and its inevitable dangers of dogmatism and fanaticism?

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

Gericke, Jaco. “The Folk-Metaphysics of Relations in Old Testament Extensions of Generic Divinity.” In Relations: Ontology and Philosophy of Religion. Pp. 267-282. Edited by Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini. Verona: Mimesis International, 2018.

Long, Jeffrey. “Anekantavada: The Jain Ontology of Complexity and Relationality and Its Implications for the Philosophy of Religions.” In Relations: Ontology and Philosophy of Religion. Pp. 235-50. Edited by Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini. Verona: Mimesis International, 2018.

Micheletti, Mario. “Radical Divine Alterity and the God-World Relationship.” In Relations: Ontology and Philosophy of Religion. Pp. 157-170. Edited by Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini. Verona: Mimesis International, 2018.

Perelda, Federico. “Russell and the Question of Relations.” In Relations: Ontology and Philosophy of Religion. Pp. 41-58. Edited by Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini. Verona: Mimesis International, 2018.

Riggio, Adam. “Lessons for the Relationship of Philosophy and Science from the Legacy of Henri Bergson.” Social Epistemology (2015): 1-14. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2014.971916.

Rosenzweig, Franz. The Star of Redemption. Translated by William W. Hallo. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985.

Tripodi, Vera. “Beyond the Transcendence: The Feminist Critique of the Concept of God.” In Relations: Ontology and Philosophy of Religion. Pp. 171-180. Edited by Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini. Verona: Mimesis International, 2018.

[1] Using logic to know the names of God? – Editor’s Note

[2] Leave aside as well the problems of the plurality of holy books themselves, many of which overlap with ritual (as in the Nishnaabeg moral theology of their oral and practical tradition), or materialist ontology (as in the ontological arguments of the Daoist tradition). How to reconcile in a single concept of divinity those of Rome, Chi’Nbiish (Lake Ontario), and Beijing through logical analysis of text alone? – Writer’s Note