Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University,

Wills, Bernard. “Our Weimar Moment, Part Two.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 27-31.

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On a wall in Montreal, Quebec, on 5 June 2017. Its address was 5317 Waverly.
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I am not the person to solve these dilemmas however. I am a philosopher not an activist and my only job is to help clarify our thinking about the mess we find ourselves in. In that spirit I offer the following observations. They take the form of a reflection on Karl Marx whose writing seem to take on new life in the era in which we live. Marx has been gravely disserved by the elevation of his writings into a kind of holy writ.

Though I have deep reservations about certain aspects of his thinking (which I will discuss below) it is surprising to me how accurate a diagnosis he offers of our current crisis. I will not comment here on the strange tension between brutal dialectical realism and hazy utopianism that is the ambiguous legacy of the Marxist tradition. Nor will I be reviving such difficult and contentious notions as the theory of surplus value or Marx’s arcane analysis of Victorian economics.[1]

If Marx is still relevant as a prophet for the 21st century it is not for these things but for his central insight that Capitalism as a system is unsustainable: of its very nature it absolutizes the profit motive and the relentless pursuit of profit at all costs must bring the system itself crashing down. It is clear to me, for instance, that untrammeled markets will destroy the social and ecological capital on which they rest and on this point at least Marxism seems to me correct.

Only a system where the means of production are radically democratized is capable of wielding the instruments of modern technology in a way that is sustainable and broadly fair. Marx got many things tragically wrong but at the beginning of the 21st century we may wonder if he has gotten this one thing right. Not ten years ago this would have seemed a ridiculous question: the consensus surely was that the second half of the 20th century had left Marx’s thought far behind.

However, is it true that current conditions (as so many have claimed) falsify not only the details of Marx’s account but its spirit? The reason for saying so has hitherto been powerful: beginning with the post-depression era and continuing after the Second World War liberal democratic states have been governed by a consensus. Markets have been given freedom to operate on the assumption that in certain key areas Government will intervene to even out the cruelties and inequities of the market place, for example with labor laws, social security systems etc. The true answer to Marx has always been that democratic states have the power and will to balance the demands of the market with basic social goods to a degree sufficient to prevent revolution.[2]

Of course, corporations and their apologists have never really accepted this consensus and, as the post war interventionist state has been fundamentally secular in outlook neither have the people we now call social conservatives. If Marx is right the post war consensus that has hitherto governed us is inherently unstable: corporations who face the imperative of ever improving their bottom line can, indeed must, do so by incrementally chipping away at every aspect of the state that embodies a higher good than the pursuit of individual profit. Since the whole raison d’etre of the liberal state has been to make the world safe for capitalism and the indefinite growth it promises the political class must more and more cede to these demands.

However, man does not live by bread alone: to ensure electoral success corporate interests must align themselves with nationalists, racists, religious zealots and other disaffected groups as these are the one great mass of people outside the corporate sector who regard the post-war state as inherently corrupt. Thus, one sees the strange alliance between evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics and the kleptocrats of the corporate elite: both fundamentally hate the progressive state and wish it dismantled, if for diametrically opposed reasons.

On a wall in Paris, France, on 10 June 2017, near Bellevue.
Image by Gullem Vellut via Flickr / Creative Commons


Anyone who reads the Communist Manifesto will see that Marx understood this dialectic perfectly well: the liberal state will always be threatened by an alliance of Capital with ethnic, national and religious exclusivism, in a word, fascism. As the liberal state is, in its essence, aligned with capital anyway it will inevitably lose this fight, making concession after concession until it is fundamentally toothless and an object of general contempt.

Ironically, given Marx’s notion that the state must ultimately wither away, the Liberal state will weaken itself to a point where it simply becomes expendable. The resultant unfettered pursuit of profit will produce such environmental devastation, such immiseration of what was once the middle class and such a cheapening of core values in spheres such as education and health-care that it will not be sustainable: the question of an alternative economic model will then present itself whether we wish it or not.[3] It is not for philosophers to predict the future or to dictate to practical people what they need to do. I only make the general point that the question of laissez faire economics is one of the handful of human notions on which the data appears to be in.

Yet it is clear too that without markets (of some kind) there is no way to adjust production to the real needs and demands of individuals (markets, after all, long predate capitalism). The grim catastrophe that was international communism was both the triumph and downfall of the technocratic dream: a universal society devoted to the conquest of nature and of chance. I do not simply refer here to ecological disasters such as the destruction of the Aral Sea or nuclear testing in Kazakhstan. I refer to the entire notion of a state that absorbs society in order to subject it to authoritarian technocratic control.

I think the lesson is clear that no party or political movement no matter how well intentioned can absorb the government. No government can absorb society in its economic, cultural or scientific aspects. This is illustrated, for instance, by the utter failure of centrally planned economies to meet the needs of actual human beings.[4] Contingency and difference, whether in the form of an economic market or a ‘marketplace of ideas’ or a culture of criticism and resistance within the state (in the form of a free press, political opposition and so on) are essential to a free society. As Robert Heilbroner points out a free market at very least provides a place where dissidents and non-conformists can earn a living. (69)

I prescind here from the question of whether Marx (who is still as I have noted a major social theorist) is to blame for the fate of Marxism in the 20th century: certainly Marx says some potentially disturbing things about a temporary ‘dictatorship’ of the proletariat where the workers, or more disturbingly, people who have appointed themselves as representative of the workers, take on the power of the Hobbesian sovereign.[5] State absolutism seems set as the precondition for abolishing the state.

It is no doubt possible to find a reading of Marx that insulates him from all that has subsequently been done in his name: such a procedure, though, runs the risk of turning his doctrine into a mere idealism, something that should have been a moving force in history but, alas, wasn’t due to Lenin, Plekhanov, the backwardness of the Russian people or what have you. Does Marxism allow any judgment but that of history? Does it not seem to fail its own most fundamental test?

I note however that many of the people who currently flaunt the symbols and language of international socialism are (barring the odd lunatic who still pines for forced collectivization) social democrats at heart or anarchists rather than orthodox Marxist/Leninists. Certainly their concerns over environmentalism and the rights of indigenous peoples belong more to the progressivism of this century than of the last.[6] Crucial notions for Marx are the technological conquest of scarcity and the full automation of labor and this certainly now looks naive from an ecological viewpoint. It looks increasingly like a Faustian delusion to believe that nature sets no limits on the possibility of abundance and prosperity. To truly eliminate scarcity, we must redefine our wants and needs, boring as that sounds, rather than overwhelm demand with supply.

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Barzun, Jacques. Darwin, Marx, Wagner (Doubleday Books, New York, 1958)

Baudrillard, Jean, The Mirror of Production trans. Mark Poster (Telos Press, St. Louis, 1975)

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Blum, George P. The Rise of Fascism in Europe (Greenwood Press, Westport, 1998)

Danticat, Edwige “Sweet Micky and the Sad DeJa Vu of Haiti’s Presidential Elections” (New Yorker, Dec.3, 2015)

Eagleton, Terry. Marx (Orion Publishing Group Ltd., London 1997)

Edmonds, Ennis B. Rastafari, A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012)

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Hegel, GWF. The Phenomenology of Mind (Harper Torchbook, New York, 1967)

Heilbroner, Robert. Twenty First Century Capitalism (Anansi Press, Concord, 1992)

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Russell Hochschild, Arlie: “The Ecstatic Edge of Politics: Sociology and Donald Trump (

Pulver, Matthew. “Bill and Hillary’s Hyper-Capitalist Disaster: How the Clintons Can Apologize for a Decade of Deadly Policies”

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[1] Of course fundamental challenges exist to Marixist economics and the anthropology underlying it. Of particular note here is Jean Baudrilliard, whose Mirror of Production castigates Marx for failing to question the principles of ‘political economy’ as defined in the 18th Century and making a fetish of Bourgeois notions of ‘labor’ under the all- encompassing sign of ‘production’. Thus, Marxism, far from being a radical critique of Capitalism simply reproduces its underlying logic. I cannot weigh in on this critique here but simply note its importance. I will say, however, that confronting Marxist notions of labor and productivity with, say, the ontologies of indigenous peoples shows just how dependent they are on the theoretical foundations of bourgeois Liberalism. Indeed, the Lockean stance towards nature, expropriation as property through productive labor, does not disappear from Marx but is simply socialized. The capitalist expropriation of the surplus value of labor disappears to make the social expropriation of land, “waste lands” as the Manifesto puts it, proceed apace. (54) Progressive advocates for the rights of indigenous peoples will have to rethink fundamental aspects of the Socialist tradition if they are serious about accommodating the indigenous viewpoint on land and ecological responsibility.  

[2] Or complete ecological collapse. Whatever the consequences to the planet corporations have made it clear that they wish to exploit fossil fuels until they are gone: one can only conclude that they prefer death to the intolerable burden of ecological responsibility. So far no national government or coalition of national governments has been able to tell them no. Of course a government that cannot tell private interests no is no government at all. So far, the liberal state has been failing one of its most significant tests and to that extent playing in the general rhetoric that states are useless anyway and might as well be replaced by private corporations or anarchist communes.

[3] We do not suffer from a lack of such models but from an excess. Trying to pick one’s way through the proposals of participatory economists, anarchists, mutualists, syndicalists, anarcho-feminists and so on is rather like trying to decide which of a hundred sects of Protestantism represents the true religion. I offer no opinion on whether social forms like these may play a role in a post capitalist order. For all this author knows they might have many useful things to contribute. They do seem, however, to embody one principle which is surely erroneous: that the community will never have to exercise sovereignty over the will of individuals. As will be pointed out below the most anarcho-syndicalist of communes will still have to function in some minimal sense as a state. I point this out because the utopian notion that the human being can, in her immediate natural will, embody the will of the community is a dangerous delusion which lays the groundwork for 20th century totalitarianism. One way of reading the current essay is as a critique of the utopian impulse as it afflicts both Capitalist and other societies. The problem with all these suggestions is that, for now at least, they are merely ideal and do not reflect forces immanent in the world, a thing Marx himself deprecated.  

[4] Ironies abound here. Robert Heilbroner notes: “As citizens of the former Soviet Union are discovering to their consternation, a market system means the end of the long queues for bread that were a curse of life under a system of centralized command, but it also means the introduction of a queue which did not exist formerly- namely, standing in line at employment offices and looking for work.” (73-74) The curse of a command system is the inability to provide goods in sufficient quantity as and when people actually need them. If bread runs low the command system cannot pivot and continues producing other items (like the notorious black lamps) for which there is no demand at all. The curse of Capitalism is its inability to supply a sufficient amount of meaningful and non-exploitive work for its citizens: one accepts ‘structural unemployment’ and alienated labor rather as the Soviet citizen made due without toothpaste.    

[5] Communist Manifesto pp.53-54. Of course, barring Cincinnatus of early Roman times, no ‘dictatorship’ has ever been temporary by choice. A realist like Marx ought surely to have known that power does not renounce itself. Of this section of the Manifesto Jacques Barzun comments: “Nowhere does Marx’s imaginative weakness and inconsequence appear more clearly than in this mishmash of bloody revolution with reformism.” (Darwin, Marx, Wagner, 188) This may be harsh but there is a grain of truth to it nonetheless. Barzun deftly points up the naiveté underlying Marx’s apparent worldliness: “One therefore wonders by what secret mechanism he expected that in this case (i.e. the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie) men goaded to destruction and sadism would settle down into artisans of peace and order.” (187) In any violent revolution you will have men with guns and men with guns do not readily give them up. Most likely they will then become a militant clique who appoint themselves as representatives of the proletariat assuming its dictatorial function. This clique will already be criminalized by a long standing habit of identifying ethics with political expediency. A revolutionary general (in a depressingly familiar pattern) then becomes the next autocrat after killing or jailing his rivals. A new autocracy is the result and as Eagleton points out: “…a Socialism which fails to inherit from the middle class a rich legacy of liberal freedoms and civic institutions will simply reinforce that autocracy.” (43) Perhaps it is this dynamic of armed insurrections, rather than supposed ‘material conditions’ in Russia or elsewhere that vitiated 20th Century Communism. We might then judge the insurrectionist approach to be largely a failure.

[6] Assimilation of indigenous peoples (so called ‘futureless societies’) was as firm a part of Soviet doctrine as of Canadian or American Liberalism. Indeed, what could it possibly mean to be an indigenous person in the universal technocracy envisaged by Marx and his followers? A person who claimed and expressed indigeneity would be, from this perspective, clinging to outmoded forms of life (i.e. forms of life that do not reflect current modes of production) and would, for that reason, be counter-revolutionary (see German Ideology, 44 for Marx’s dismissive account of indigenous societies). At any rate nothing could be further from the scientific character of Marxism than the mania for ad hominem attacks and personal invective typical of certain contemporary radicals. Whether a capitalist is a loving father or steps on puppies is perfectly irrelevant. Marx is concerned with how institutions affect the perceptions and attitudes of the people who inhabit them. Capitalism is not oppressive because individual capitalists are bad people. A capitalist system run by kindly old grandfathers would not be a whit less oppressive. To be fair though, this contradiction is in Marx himself who never reconciled the vituperative rhetoric of Marxism with its actual substance.

Author Information: Adam Riggio, SERRC Digital Editor,

Riggio, Adam. “Action in Harmony with a Global World.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 20-26.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

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Bryan Van Norden has become about as notorious as an academic philosopher can be while remaining a virtuous person. His notoriety came with a column in the New York Times that took the still-ethnocentric approach of many North American and European university philosophy departments to task. The condescending and insulting dismissal of great works of thought from cultures and civilizations beyond Europe and European-descended North America should scandalize us. That it does not is to the detriment of academic philosophy’s culture.

Anyone who cares about the future of philosophy as a tradition should read Taking Back Philosophy and take its lessons to heart, if one does not agree already with its purpose. The discipline of philosophy, as practiced in North American and European universities, must incorporate all the philosophical traditions of humanity into its curriculum and its subject matter. It is simple realism.

A Globalized World With No Absolute Hierarchies

I am not going to argue for this decision, because I consider it obvious that this must be done. Taking Back Philosophy is a quick read, an introduction to a political task that philosophers, no matter their institutional homes, must support if the tradition is going to survive beyond the walls of universities increasingly co-opted by destructive economic, management, and human resources policies.

Philosophy as a creative tradition cannot survive in an education economy built on the back of student debt, where institutions’ priorities are set by a management class yoked to capital investors and corporate partners, which prioritizes the proliferation of countless administrative-only positions while highly educated teachers and researchers compete ruthlessly for poverty wages.

With this larger context in mind, Van Norden’s call for the enlargement of departments’ curriculums to cover all traditions is one essential pillar of the vision to liberate philosophy from the institutions that are destroying it as a viable creative process. In total, those four pillars are 1) universal accessibility, economically and physically; 2) community guidance of a university’s priorities; 3) restoring power over the institution to creative and research professionals; and 4) globalizing the scope of education’s content.

Taking Back Philosophy is a substantial brick through the window of the struggle to rebuild our higher education institutions along these democratic and liberating lines. Van Norden regularly publishes work of comparative philosophy that examines many problems of ethics and ontology using texts, arguments, and concepts from Western, Chinese, and Indian philosophy. But if you come to Taking Back Philosophy expecting more than a brick through those windows, you’ll be disappointed. One chapter walks through a number of problems as examples, but the sustained conceptual engagement of a creative philosophical work is absent. Only the call to action remains.

What a slyly provocative call it is – the book’s last sentence, “Let’s discuss it . . .”

Unifying a Tradition of Traditions

I find it difficult to write a conventional review of Taking Back Philosophy, because so much of Van Norden’s polemic is common sense to me. Of course, philosophy departments must be open to primary material from all the traditions of the human world, not just the Western. I am incapable of understanding why anyone would argue against this, given how globalized human civilization is today. For the context of this discussion, I will consider a historical and a technological aspect of contemporary globalization. Respectively, these are the fall of the European military empires, and the incredible intensity with which contemporary communications and travel technology integrates people all over Earth.

We no longer live in a world dominated by European military colonial empires, so re-emerging centres of culture and economics must be taken on their own terms. The Orientalist presumption, which Edward Said spent a career mapping, that there is no serious difference among Japanese, Malay, Chinese, Hindu, Turkic, Turkish, Persian, Arab, Levantine, or Maghreb cultures is not only wrong, but outright stupid. Orientalism as an academic discipline thrived for the centuries it did only because European weaponry intentionally and persistently kept those cultures from asserting themselves.

Indigenous peoples – throughout the Americas, Australia, the Pacific, and Africa – who have been the targets of cultural and eradicative genocides for centuries now claim and agitate for their human rights, as well as inclusion in the broader human community and species. I believe most people of conscience are appalled and depressed that these claims are controversial at all, and even seen by some as a sign of civilizational decline.

The impact of contemporary technology I consider an even more important factor than the end of imperialist colonialism in the imperative to globalize the philosophical tradition. Despite the popular rhetoric of contemporary globalization, the human world has been globalized for millennia. Virtually since urban life first developed, long-distance international trade and communication began as well.

Here are some examples. Some of the first major cities of ancient Babylon achieved their greatest economic prosperity through trade with cities on the south of the Arabian Peninsula, and as far east along the Indian Ocean coast as Balochistan. From 4000 to 1000 years ago, Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Persian, Arab, Chinese, Mongol, Indian, Bantu, Malian, Inca, and Anishinaabeg peoples, among others, built trade networks and institutions stretching across continents.

Contemporary globalization is different in the speed and quantity of commerce, and diversity of goods. It is now possible to reach the opposite side of the planet in a day’s travel, a journey so ordinary that tens of millions of people take these flights each year. Real-time communication is now possible between anywhere on Earth with broadband internet connections thanks to satellite networks and undersea fibre-optic cables. In 2015, the total material value of all goods and commercial services traded internationally was US$21-trillion. That’s a drop from the previous year’s all-time (literally) high of US$24-trillion.[1]

Travel, communication, and productivity has never been so massive or intense in all of human history. The major control hubs of the global economy are no longer centralized in a small set of colonial powers, but a variety of economic centres throughout the world, depending on industry. From Beijing, Moscow, Mumbai, Lagos, and Berlin to Tokyo, and Washington, the oil fields of Kansas, the Dakotas, Alberta, and Iraq, and the coltan, titanium, and tantalum mines of Congo, Kazakhstan, and China.

All these proliferating lists express a simple truth – all cultures of the world now legitimately claim recognition as equals, as human communities sharing our Earth as we hollow it out. Philosophical traditions from all over the world are components of those claims to equal recognition.

The Tradition of Process Thought

So that is the situation forcing a recalcitrant and reactionary academy to widen its curricular horizons – Do so, or face irrelevancy in a global civilization with multiple centres all standing as civic equals in the human community. This is where Van Norden himself leaves us. Thankfully, he understands that a polemic ending with a precise program immediately becomes empty dogma, a conclusion which taints the plausibility of an argument. His point is simple – that the academic discipline must expand its arms. He leaves the more complex questions of how the philosophical tradition itself can develop as a genuinely global community.

Process philosophy is a relatively new philosophical tradition, which can adopt the classics of Daoist philosophy as broad frameworks and guides. By process philosophy, I mean the research community that has grown around Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari as primary innovators of their model of thought – a process philosophy that converges with an ecological post-humanism. The following are some essential aspects of this new school of process thinking, each principle in accord with the core concepts of the foundational texts of Daoism, Dao De Jing and Zhuang Zi.

Ecological post-humanist process philosophy is a thorough materialism, but it is an anti-reductive materialism. All that exists is bodies of matter and fields of force, whose potentials include everything for which Western philosophers have often felt obligated to postulate a separate substance over and above matter, whether calling it mind, spirit, or soul.

As process philosophy, the emphasis in any ontological analysis is on movement, change, and relationships instead of the more traditional Western focus on identity and sufficiency. If I can refer to examples from the beginning of Western philosophy in Greece, process thought is an underground movement with the voice of Heraclitus critiquing a mainstream with the voice of Parmenides. Becoming, not being, is the primary focus of ontological analysis.

Process thinking therefore is primarily concerned with potential and capacity. Knowledge, in process philosophy, as a result becomes inextricably bound with action. This unites a philosophical school identified as “Continental” in common-sense categories of academic disciplines with the concerns of pragmatist philosophy. Analytic philosophy took up many concepts from early 20th century pragmatism in the decades following the death of John Dewey. These inheritors, however, remained unable to overcome the paradoxes stymieing traditional pragmatist approaches, particularly how to reconcile truth as correspondence with knowledge having a purpose in action and achievement.

A solution to this problem of knowledge and action was developed in the works of Barry Allen during the 2000s. Allen built an account of perception that was rooted in contemporary research in animal behaviour, human neurology, and the theoretical interpretations of evolution in the works of Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin.

His first analysis, focussed as it was on the dynamics of how human knowledge spurs technological and civilizational development, remains humanistic. Arguing from discoveries of how profoundly the plastic human brain is shaped in childhood by environmental interaction, Allen concludes that successful or productive worldly action itself constitutes the correspondence of our knowledge and the world. Knowledge does not consist of a private reserve of information that mirrors worldly states of affairs, but the physical and mental interaction of a person with surrounding processes and bodies to constitute those states of affairs. The plasticity of the human brain and our powers of social coordination are responsible for the peculiarly human mode of civilizational technology, but the same power to constitute states of affairs through activity is common to all processes and bodies.[2]

“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. Whatever is soft, fluid, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard.” – Lao Zi
The Burney Falls in Shasta County, Northern California. Image by melfoody via Flickr / Creative Commons


Action in Phase With All Processes: Wu Wei

Movement of interaction constitutes the world. This is the core principle of pragmatist process philosophy, and as such brings this school of thought into accord with the Daoist tradition. Ontological analysis in the Dao De Jing is entirely focussed on vectors of becoming – understanding the world in terms of its changes, movements, and flows, as each of these processes integrate in the complexity of states of affairs.

Not only is the Dao De Jing a foundational text in what is primarily a process tradition of philosophy, but it is also primarily pragmatist. Its author Lao Zi frames ontological arguments in practical concerns, as when he writes, “The most supple things in the world ride roughshod over the most rigid” (Dao De Jing §43). This is a practical and ethical argument against a Parmenidean conception of identity requiring stability as a necessary condition.

What cannot change cannot continue to exist, as the turbulence of existence will overcome and erase what can exist only by never adapting to the pressures of overwhelming external forces. What can only exist by being what it now is, will eventually cease to be. That which exists in metamorphosis and transformation has a remarkable resilience, because it is able to gain power from the world’s changes. This Daoist principle, articulated in such abstract terms, is in Deleuze and Guattari’s work the interplay of the varieties of territorializations.

Knowledge in the Chinese tradition, as a concept, is determined by an ideal of achieving harmonious interaction with an actor’s environment. Knowing facts of states of affairs – including their relationships and tendencies to spontaneous and proliferating change – is an important element of comprehensive knowledge. Nonetheless, Lao Zi describes such catalogue-friendly factual knowledge as, “Those who know are not full of knowledge. Those full of knowledge do not know” (Dao De Jing 81). Knowing the facts alone is profoundly inadequate to knowing how those facts constrict and open potentials for action. Perfectly harmonious action is the model of the Daoist concept of Wu Wei – knowledge of the causal connections among all the bodies and processes constituting the world’s territories understood profoundly enough that self-conscious thought about them becomes unnecessary.[3]

Factual knowledge is only a condition of achieving the purpose of knowledge: perfectly adapting your actions to the changes of the world. All organisms’ actions change their environments, creating physically distinctive territories: places that, were it not for my action, would be different. In contrast to the dualistic Western concept of nature, the world in Daoist thought is a complex field of overlapping territories whose tensions and conflicts shape the character of places. Fulfilled knowledge in this ontological context is knowledge that directly conditions your own actions and the character of your territory to harmonize most productively with the actions and territories that are always flowing around your own.

Politics of the Harmonious Life

The Western tradition, especially in its current sub-disciplinary divisions of concepts and discourses, has treated problems of knowledge as a domain separate from ethics, morality, politics, and fundamental ontology. Social epistemology is one field of the transdisciplinary humanities that unites knowledge with political concerns, but its approaches remain controversial in much of the conservative mainstream academy. The Chinese tradition has fundamentally united knowledge, moral philosophy, and all fields of politics especially political economy since the popular eruption of Daoist thought in the Warring States period 2300 years ago. Philosophical writing throughout eastern Asia since then has operated in this field of thought.

As such, Dao-influenced philosophy has much to offer contemporary progressive political thought, especially the new communitarianism of contemporary social movements with their roots in Indigenous decolonization, advocacy for racial, sexual, and gender liberation, and 21st century socialist advocacy against radical economic inequality. In terms of philosophical tools and concepts for understanding and action, these movements have dense forebears, but a recent tradition.

The movement for economic equality and a just globalization draws on Antonio Gramsci’s introduction of radical historical contingency to the marxist tradition. While its phenomenological and testimonial principles and concepts are extremely powerful and viscerally rooted in the lived experience of subordinated – what Deleuze and Guattari called minoritarian – people as groups and individuals, the explicit resources of contemporary feminism is likewise a century-old storehouse of discourse. Indigenous liberation traditions draw from a variety of philosophical traditions lasting millennia, but the ongoing systematic and systematizing revival is almost entirely a 21st century practice.

Antonio Negri, Rosi Braidotti, and Isabelle Stengers’ masterworks unite an analysis of humanity’s destructive technological and ecological transformation of Earth and ourselves to develop a solution to those problems rooted in communitarian moralities and politics of seeking harmony while optimizing personal and social freedom. Daoism offers literally thousands of years of work in the most abstract metaphysics on the nature of freedom in harmony and flexibility in adaptation to contingency. Such conceptual resources are of immense value to these and related philosophical currents that are only just beginning to form explicitly in notable size in the Western tradition.

Van Norden has written a book that is, for philosophy as a university discipline, is a wake-up call to this obstinate branch of Western academy. The world around you is changing, and if you hold so fast to the contingent borders of your tradition, your territory will be overwritten, trampled, torn to bits. Live and act harmoniously with the changes that are coming. Change yourself.

It isn’t so hard to read some Lao Zi for a start.

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Allen, Barry. Knowledge and Civilization. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2004.

Allen, Barry. Striking Beauty: A Philosophical Look at the Asian Martial Arts. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

Allen, Barry. Vanishing Into Things: Knowledge in Chinese Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Betasamosake Simpson, Leanne. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, Or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2012.

Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.

Deleuze, Gilles. Bergsonism. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Zone Books, 1988.

Chew, Sing C. World Ecological Degradation: Accumulation, Urbanization, and Deforestation, 3000 B.C. – A.D. 2000. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 2001.

Negri, Antonio, and Michael Hardt. Assembly. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Parikka, Jussi. A Geology of Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Riggio, Adam. Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.

Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics I. Translated by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2010.

Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics II. Translated by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2011.

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

World Trade Organization. World Trade Statistical Review 2016. Retrieved from

[1] That US$3-trillion drop in trade was largely the proliferating effect of the sudden price drop of human civilization’s most essential good, crude oil, to just less than half of its 2014 value.

[2] A student of Allen’s arrived at this conclusion in combining his scientific pragmatism with the French process ontology of Deleuze and Guattari in the context of ecological problems and eco-philosophical thinking.

[3] This concept of knowledge as perfectly harmonious but non-self-conscious action also conforms to Henri Bergson’s concept of intuition, the highest (so far) form of knowledge that unites the perfect harmony in action of brute animal instinct with the self-reflective and systematizing power of human understanding. This is a productive way for another creative contemporary philosophical path – the union of vitalist and materialist ideas in the work of thinkers like Jane Bennett – to connect with Asian philosophical traditions for centuries of philosophical resources on which to draw. But that’s a matter for another essay.

Author Information: Manuel Padilla Cruz, Universidad de Sevilla,

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “One Thing is Testimonial Injustice and Another Is Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 9-19.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

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Image by Jon Southcoasting via Flickr / Creative Commons


Derek E. Anderson’s (2017) identification and characterisation of conceptual competence injustice has recently met some resistance from Podosky and Tuckwell (2017). They have denied the existence of this new type of epistemic injustice on the grounds that the wronging it denotes may be subsumed by testimonial injustice: “instances of conceptual competence injustice can be accurately characterised as instances of testimonial injustices” (Podosky and Tuckwell 2017: 26). Additionally, they have questioned the reasons that led Anderson (2017) to distinguish this epistemic injustice from testimonial, hermeneutical and contributory injustices (Podosky and Tuckwell 2017: 26-30).

Criticising the methodology followed by Podosky and Tuckwell (2017) in their attempt to prove that conceptual competence injustice falls within testimonial injustice, Anderson (2018) has underlined that conceptual competence injustice is a structural injustice and a form of competence injustice –i.e. an unfair misappraisal of skills– which should be retained as a distinct type of epistemic injustice because of its theoretical significance and usefulness. Causal etiology is not a necessary condition on conceptual competence injustice, he explains, and conceptual competence injustice, as opposed to testimonial injustice, need not be perpetrated by social groups that are negatively biased against a particular identity.

The unjust judgements giving rise to it do not necessarily have to be connected with testimony, even though some of them may originate in lexical problems and mistakes in the linguistic expressions a speaker resorts to when dispensing it. Accordingly, testimonial injustice and conceptual competence injustice may be said to be different kinds of injustice and have diverse effects: “It is not necessary that a person’s testimony be disbelieved, ignored, or pre-empted in an episode of CC [conceptual competence] injustice. CC injustice involves only an unjust judgment about a person’s ability to think well using certain concepts” (Anderson 2018: 31).

Welcoming the notion of conceptual competence injustice, I suggested in a previous contribution (Padilla Cruz 2017a) that it could be borrowed by the field of linguistic pragmatics in order to conceptualise an undesired perlocutionary effect of verbal interaction: misappraisals of a speaker’s actual conceptual and lexical abilities as a result of lack or misuse of vocabulary. Relying on Sperber and Wilson’s (1986/1995) description of intentional-input processing as a relevance-driven activity and of comprehension as a process of mutual parallel adjustment, where the mind carries out a series of incredibly fast simultaneous tasks that depend on decoding, inference, mindreading and emotion-reading, I also showed that those misappraisals result from deductions. A speaker’s alleged unsatisfactory performance makes manifest assumptions regarding her[1] problems with words, which are fed as weakly implicated premises to inferential processes and related to other detrimental assumptions that are made salient by prejudice.

In so doing, I did not purport to show, as Podosky and Tuckwell wrongly think, “how epistemic injustice manifests in the field of relevance theory” (2017: 23) or that “conceptual competence injustice is particularly useful in a relevance theoretical model of linguistic pragmatics” (2017: 30). Rather, my intention was to propose introducing the notion of conceptual competence injustice into general linguistic pragmatics as a mere way of labelling a type of prejudicial implicature, as they themselves rightly put it (Podosky and Tuckwell 2017: 30). The derivation of that sort of implicature, however, can be accounted for –and this is where relevance theory comes into the picture– on the basis of the cognitive processes that Sperber and Wilson’s (1986/1995) framework describes and of its conceptual apparatus.

In another contribution (Padilla Cruz 2017b), I clarified that, as a cognitive pragmatic framework, relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995) is concerned with the processing and comprehension of the verbal and non-verbal intentional stimuli produced in human communication. It very satisfactorily explains how hearers forge interpretative hypotheses and why they select only one of them as the plausibly intended interpretation. Relevance theorists are also interested in the generation of a variety of effects –e.g. poetic (Pilkington 2000), humorous (Yus Ramos 2016), etc.– and successfully account for them.

Therefore, the notion of conceptual competence injustice can only be useful to relevance-theoretic pragmatics as a label to refer to one of the (pernicious) effects that may originate as a consequence of the constant search for optimal relevance of intentional stimuli. I will not return to these issues here, as I consider them duly addressed in my previous contribution (Padilla Cruz 2017b).

My aim in this reply is to lend support to Anderson’s (2017) differentiation of conceptual competence injustice as a distinct type of epistemic injustice. I seek to argue that, ontologically and phenomenologically, conceptual competence injustice must be retained in the field of social epistemology as a helpful category of injustice because it refers to a wronging whose origin and scope, so to say, differ from those of testimonial injustice. Testimonial injustice stems from (mis)judgements pertaining to the output of an action or epistemic practice wherein epistemic agents may participate or be engaged. The action in question is giving testimony and its output is the very testimony given. The scope of testimonial injustice, therefore, is the product, the result of that action or epistemic practice.

In other words, testimonial injustice targets the ability to generate an acceptable product as a consequence of finding it not to satisfy certain expectations or requirements, or to be defective in some dimensions. In contrast, conceptual competence injustice denotes an unfairness that is committed not because of the output of what is done with words –i.e. informing and the dispensed information– but because of the very linguistic tools wherewith an individual performs that action –i.e. the very words that she makes use of– and supposed underlying knowledge. To put it differently, the scope of conceptual competence injustice is the lexical items wherewith testimony is dispensed, which lead prejudiced individuals to doubt the conceptual and lexical capacities of unprivileged individuals.

In order to show that the scopes of testimonial and conceptual competence injustices vary, I will be drawing from the seminal and most influential work on communication by philosopher Herbert P. Grice (1957, 1975).[2] This will also encourage me to suggest that the notion of testimonial injustice (Fricker 2003, 2007) could even be refined and elaborated on. I will argue that this injustice may also be perpetrated when a disadvantaged individual is perceived not to meet requirements pertaining to testimony other than truthfulness.

Content Characteristics or Requirements of (Good) Testimony

As an epistemic practice, dispensing testimony, or information, could be characterised, along Grice’s (1959, 1975) lines, as a cooperative activity. Testimony is given because an individual may be interested in imparting it for a variety of reasons –e.g. influencing others, appearing knowledgeable, contradicting previous ideas, etc.– and/or because it may benefit (an)other individual(s), who might (have) solicit(ed) it for another variety of reasons –e.g. learning about something, strengthening ideas, changing his worldview, etc. As an activity that brings together various individuals in joint action, providing testimony is subject to certain constraints or requirements for testimony to be properly or adequately dispensed. Let us call those constraints or requirements, using philosopher John L. Austin’s (1962) terminology, felicity conditions.

Some of those felicity conditions pertain to the individuals or interlocutors engaged in the epistemic practice. The dispenser of testimony –i.e. the speaker or informer– must obviously possess certain (true) information to dispense, have the ability to impart it and pursue some goal when giving it. In turn, the receiver of testimony should, but need not, be interested in it and make this manifest by explicit mention or elicitation of the testimony.

Other felicity conditions concern the testimony to be provided. For instance, it must be well supported, reliable and trustworthy. This is the sort of testimony that benevolent and competent informers dispense (Wilson 1999; Sperber et al. 2010), and the one on which the notion of testimonial injustice focuses (Fricker 2003, 2007). Making use again of Grice’s (1957, 1975) ideas, let us say that, for testimony to be appropriately imparted, it must satisfy a requirement of truthfulness or quality. Indeed, the maxim of quality of his Cooperative Principle prompts individuals to give information that is true and to refrain from saying falsehoods or things for which they lack adequate evidence.

But not only must testimony be truthful; for it to be properly dispensed, the information must also be both sufficient and relevant. Imagine, for instance, that someone was requested to tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood. For the narration to be complete, it should not only include details about who such a character was, where she lived, the fact that she had a grandmother who lived at some distance in the countryside, her grandmother’s conditions or their relationship, but also about what had happened to Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother one day before receiving her visit and what happened to Little Red Riding Hood upon finding the wolf lying on the bed, disguised as the grandmother.

If the narrator mentioned the former details but omitted the latter, her narration, regardless of the fact that what she said about the characters’ identity and residence was undeniably true, would not be fully satisfactory, as it would not contain enough, necessary or expected information. Her testimony about Little Red Riding Hood would not be considered sufficient; something –maybe a key fragment– was missing for the whole story to be known, correctly understood and appraised.

Imagine now that all the details about the characters, their residence and relationship were present in the narration, but, upon introducing the wolf, the narrator started to ramble and talked about the animal spices wolves belong to, their most remarkable features, the fact that these animals are in danger of extinction in certain regions of Europe or that they were considered to have magical powers in a particular mythology. Although what the narrator said about the three characters is unquestioningly true and the story itself is told in its entirety, it would not have been told in the best way possible, as it includes excessive, unnecessary and unrelated information.

Again, along Gricean (1957, 1975) lines, it may be said that testimony must meet certain requirements or satisfy certain expectations about its quantity and relation. Actually, while his maxim of quantity incites individuals to give the expected amount of information depending on the purpose of a communicative exchange and prevents them from retaining or omitting expected or indispensable information, his maxim of relation causes them to supply information that is relevant or connected with the purpose of the exchange. Even if the provided information is true, failure to satisfy those requirements would render it inadequately given.

To the best of my knowledge, the notion of testimonial injustice as originally formulated by Fricker (2003, 2007) overlooks these requirements of quantity and relation, which solely pertain to the content of what is said. Accordingly, this injustice could also be argued to be amenable to be inflicted whenever an informer imparts unreliable or not well-evidenced information, and also when she fails to add necessary information or mentions irrelevant details or issues. If she did so, her ability to appropriately dispense information could be questioned and she could subsequently be downgraded as an informer.

Testimony from the 2009 trial of Cambodian war criminal Duch. Image by Khmer Rouge Tribunal (ECCC) via Flickr / Creative Commons


Manner Characteristics or Requirements of (Good) Testimony

Testimony may be claimed to be adequately given when it is true, sufficient and relevant, but there are additional requirements that testimony should meet for it to be adequately imparted. Namely, the information must be presented in an orderly, clear and unambiguous way. How would you react if, when being told the story of Little Red Riding Hood, your interlocutor gave you all the necessary, relevant and true details –and nothing more– but she changed the order of the events, did not make it clear whom the wolf attacked firstly or what Little Red Riding Hood put in her basket, or resorted to unusual, difficult or imprecise lexical terms? Probably, you would say that the story was told, but many issues would not be crystal clear to you, so you would have difficulties in having a clear picture of how, when and why the events in the story happened.

Testimony may also be considered to be well dispensed when it is given in a good manner by correctly ordering events and avoiding both obscurity and ambiguity of expression. Order, clarity and ambiguity are parameters that do not have to do with what is said –i.e. the content– but with how what is said is said –i.e. its linguistic form. Accordingly, testimony may be asserted to be correctly imparted when it meets certain standards or expectations that only concern the manner in which it is given.[3] Some of those standards or expectations are connected with the properties of the linguistic choices that the speaker makes when wording or phrasing testimony, and others are determined by cultural factors.

For example, for a narration to count as a fairy tale, it would have to begin with the traditional and recurrent formula “Once upon a time” and then proceed by setting a background that enables identification of characters and situates the events. Similarly, for an essay to be regarded as a good, publishable research paper, it must contain, in terms of structure, an abstract, an introductory section where the state of the art of the issue to be discussed is summarised, the goals of the paper are stated, the thesis is alluded to and, maybe, the structure of the paper is explained.

Then, the essay must unfold in a clear and logically connected way, through division of the contents in various sections, each of which must deal with what is referred to in its heading, etc. In terms of expression, the paper must contain technical or specialised terminology and be sufficiently understandable. Many of these expectations are motivated by specific conventions about discourse or text genres.

Inability or failure to present information in the appropriate manner or to comply with operative conventions may also incite individuals to challenge an informer’s capacity to dispense it. Although the informer may be credited with being knowledgeable about a series of issues, she may be assessed as a bad informer because her performance is not satisfactory in terms of the linguistic means she resorts to in order to address them or her abidance by governing conventions. However, since such an assessment is motivated not by the quality, quantity or relation of the content of testimony, but by the tools with and the way in which the informer produces her product, its scope or target is obviously different.

Different Scopes, Distinct Types of Epistemic Injustice

The current notion of testimonial injustice only takes into account one of the three features of (well dispensed) testimony alluded to above: namely, quality or truthfulness. A more fine-grained conceptualisation of it should also consider two other properties: quantity and relation, as long as informers’ capacity to provide testimony may be doubted if they failed to give expected information and/or said irrelevant things or added unnecessary details. Indeed, quality, quantity and relation are dimensions that are connected with the content of the very information dispensed –i.e. what is said– or the product of the epistemic practice of informing. Testimonial injustice, therefore, should be characterised as the epistemic injustice amenable to be inflicted whenever testimony is found deficient or unsatisfactory on the grounds of these three dimensions pertaining to its content.

What happens, then, with the other requirement of good testimony, namely, manner? Again, to the best of my knowledge, Fricker’s (2003, 2007) description of testimonial injustice does not refer to its likely perpetration when an individual is judged not to impart testimony in an allegedly right manner. And, certainly, this characteristic of good testimony may affect considerations about how suitably it is given.

Dispensing information in a messy, obscure and/or ambiguous way could be enough for degrading an individual as informer. She could sufficiently talk about true and relevant things, yes, but she could say them in an inappropriate way, thus hindering or impeding understanding. Should, then, the manner in which testimony is provided be used as grounds to wrong an informer or to question a person’s capacities as such? Although the manner in which testimony is imparted may certainly influence assessments thereof, there is a substantial difference.

Failure to meet requirements of quality, quantity and relation, and failure to meet requirements of manner are certainly not the same phenomenon. The former has to do with the content of what is said, with the product or result of an activity; the latter, in contrast, as the name indicates, has to do with the way in which what is said is actually said, with the tools deployed to accomplish the activity. Testimony may be incorrectly dispensed because of its falsity, insufficiency or irrelevance, but it may also be inappropriately imparted because of how it is given –this is undeniable, I would say.

The difference between quality, quantity and relation, on the one hand, and manner, on the other hand, is a difference of product and content of that product, on the one hand, and tools to create it, on the other hand. Accordingly, testimonial injustice and conceptual competence injustice should be kept apart as two distinct types of epistemic injustice because the respective scopes of the judgements where each injustice originates differ. While in the former the issue is the content of testimony, in the latter what is at stake is the means to dispense it, which unveil or suggest conceptual deficits or lack of mastery of certain concepts.

Testimony is dispensed by means of linguistic elements that somehow capture –or metarepresent, in the specialised cognitive-pragmatic terminology (Wilson 1999; Sperber 2000)– the thoughts that a speaker entertains, or the information that she possesses, and is interested in making known to an audience. Such elements are words, which are meaningful units made of strings of recognisable sounds –i.e. allophones, or contextual realisations of phonemes, in the terminology of phonetics and phonology– which make up stems and various types of morphemesprefixes, infixes and suffixes– conveying lexical and grammatical information. More importantly, words are arranged in more complex meaningful units –namely, phrases– and these, in turn, give rise to larger, and still more meaningful, units –namely, clauses and sentences. Manner is connected with the lexical units chosen and their syntactic arrangements when communicating and, for the sake of this paper, when providing testimony.

Speakers need to constantly monitor their production and their interlocutors’ reactions, which often cause them to revise what they have just said, reformulate what they are saying or are about to say, expand or elaborate on it, etc. As complex an activity as speaking is, it is not exempt of problems. At a lexical level, the speaker may fail to use the adequate words because she misses them or has trouble to find them at a particular time for a variety of factors –e.g. tiredness, absentmindedness, etc. (Mustajoki 2012). The chosen words may also diverge from those normally used by other language users in order to refer to particular concepts. This happens when speakers have mapped those concepts onto different lexical items or when they have mapped those concepts not onto single words, but onto more complex units like phrases or even whole sentences (Sperber and Wilson 1997).

The selected terms may alternatively be too general, so the audience somehow has to inferentially adjust or fine-tune their denotation because of its broadness. Consider, for example, placeholders like “that thing”, “the stuff”, etc. used to refer to something for which there is a more specific term, or hypernyms like ‘animal’ instead of the more precise term ‘duck-billed platypus’. Or, the other way round, the selected terms may be too specific, so the audience somehow has to inferentially loosen their denotation because of its restrictiveness (Carston 2002; Wilson and Carston 2007).

Above – Doggie. Image by lscott2dog via Flickr / Creative Commons


Think, for instance, of hyponyms like ‘doggie’ when used to refer not only to dogs, but also to other four-legged animals because of perceptual similarity –they have four legs– and conceptual contiguity –they are all animals– or ‘kitten’ when used to refer to other felines for the same reasons;[4] or imagine that terms like ‘wheel’ or ‘cookie’ were metaphorically applied to entities belonging to different, unrelated conceptual domains –e.g. the Moon– because of perceptual similarity –i.e. roundness.[5]

At a syntactic level, the linguistic structures that the speaker generates may turn out ambiguous and misleading, even though they may be perfectly clear and understandable to her. Consider, for instance, sentences like “I saw your brother with glasses”, where the ambiguity resides in the polysemy of the word ‘glasses’ (“pair of lenses” or “drinking containers”?) and the distinct readings of the fragment “your brother with glasses” (who wears/holds/carries the glasses, the hearer’s brother or the speaker?), or “Flying planes may be dangerous”, where the ambiguity stems from the competing values of the –ing form (what is dangerous, the action of piloting planes or the planes that are flying?).

At a discourse or pragmatic level, finally, speakers may be unaware of conventions governing the usage and meaning of specific structures –i.e. pragmalinguistic structures (Leech 1983)– such as “Can/Could you + verb”, whose pragmatic import is requestive and not a question about the hearer’s physical abilities, or unfamiliar with sociocultural norms and rules –i.e. sociopragmatic norms (Leech 1983)– which establish what is expectable or permitted, so to say, in certain contexts, or when, where, how and with whom certain actions may or should be accomplished or avoided.

Would we, then, say that testimony is to be doubted or discredited because of mistakes or infelicities at a lexical, syntactic or pragmatic level? Not necessarily. The information per se may be true, reliable, accurate, relevant and sufficient, but the problem resides precisely in how it is presented. Testimony would have been given, no doubt, but it would not have been imparted in the most efficient way, as the most appropriate tools are not used.

When lexical selection appears poor or inadequate; words are incorrectly and ambiguously arranged into phrases, clauses or sentences; (expected) conventionalised formulae are not conveniently deployed, or norms constraining how, when, where or whom to say things are not respected or are ignored, what is at stake is not an informer’s knowledge of the issues testimony may be about, but her knowledge of the very rudiments and conventions to satisfactorily articulate testimony and to successfully dispense it. The objects of this knowledge are the elements making up the linguistic system used to communicate –i.e. vocabulary– their possible combinations –i.e. syntax– and their usage in order to achieve specific goals –i.e. pragmatics– so such knowledge is evidently different from knowledge of the substance of testimony –i.e. its ‘aboutness’.

Real or seeming lexical problems may evidence conceptual gaps, concept-word mismatches or (highly) idiosyncratic concept-word mappings, but they may lead privileged individuals to question disadvantaged individuals’ richness of vocabulary and, ultimately, the concepts connected with it and denoted by words. If this happens, what those individuals attack is one of the sets of tools to generate an acceptable product, but not the content or essence of such a product.

Conceptual competence injustice, therefore, must be seen as targeting the tools with which testimony is created, not its content, so its scope differs from that of testimonial injustice. The scope of testimonial injustice is the truthfulness of a series of events in a narration is, as well as the amount of details that are given about those events and the relevance of those details. The scope of conceptual competence, in contrast, is knowledge and correct usage of vocabulary, and possession of the corresponding concepts.

Conceptual competence injustice focuses on a specific type of knowledge making up the broader knowledge of a language and facilitating performance in various practices, which includes informing others or dispensing testimony. Such specific knowledge is a sub-competence on which the more general, overarching competence enabling communicative performance is contingent. For this reason, conceptual competence injustice is a competence injustice, or an unfairness about a type of knowledge and specific abilities –conceptual and lexical abilities, in this case. And just as unprivileged individuals may be wronged because of their lack or misuse of words and may be attributed conceptual lacunae, occasional or constant syntactic problems and pragmatic infelicities may induce powerful individuals to misjudge those individuals as regards the respective types of knowledge enabling their performance in these areas of language.


Phenomenologically, testimonial injustice and conceptual competence injustice are perpetrated as a consequence of perceptions and appraisals whose respective scopes differ. In testimonial injustice, it is information that is deemed to be unsatisfactory because of its alleged veracity, quantity and relevance, so the informer is not considered a good knower of the issues pertaining to that testimony. In conceptual competence injustice, in contrast, it is the tools by means of which information is dispensed that are regarded as inappropriate, and such inappropriateness induces individuals to doubt possession and knowledge of the adequate lexical items and of their corresponding, supporting conceptual knowledge.

While testimonial injustice is inflicted as a result of what is said, conceptual competence injustice is perpetrated as a consequence of the manner whereby what is said is actually said. Consequently, at a theoretical level, testimonial injustice and conceptual competence injustice should definitely be kept apart in the field of social epistemology. The latter, moreover, should be retained as a valid and useful notion, as long as it denotes an unfairness amenable to be sustained on the grounds of the linguistic tools employed to dispense testimony and not on the grounds of the characteristics of the product generated.

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Anderson, Derek E. “Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology. A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 37, no. 2 (2017): 210-223.

Anderson, Derek E. “Yes, There Is Such a Thing as Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 26-35.

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Carston, Robyn. Thoughts and Utterances. The Pragmatics of Explicit Communication. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

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Clark, Eve V. The Lexicon in Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Escandell Vidal, M. Victoria. “Norms and Principles. Putting Social and Cognitive Pragmatics Together.” In Current Trends in the Pragmatics of Spanish, edited by Rosina Márquez-Reiter and M. Elena Placencia, 347-371. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2004.

Fricker, Miranda. “Epistemic Injustice and a Role for Virtue in the Politics of Knowing.” Metaphilosophy 34, no. 1-2 (2003): 154-173.

Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice. Power & the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Grice, Herbert P. “Meaning.” Philosophical Review 66 (1957): 377-388.

Grice, Herbert P. “Logic and Conversation.” In Syntax and Semantics vol. 3: Speech Acts, edited by Peter Cole and Jerry Morgan, 41-59. New York: Academic Press, 1975.

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Mustajoki, Arto. “A Speaker-oriented Multidimensional Approach to Risks and Causes of Miscommunication.” Language and Dialogue 2, no. 2 (2012): 216-243.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “On the Usefulness of the Notion of ‘Conceptual Competence Injustice’ to Linguistic Pragmatics.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 4 (2017a): 12-19.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Conceptual Competence Injustice and Relevance Theory, A Reply to Derek Anderson.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017b): 39-50.

Pilkington, Adrian. Poetic Effects. A Relevance Theory Perspective. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2000.

Podosky, Paul-Mikhail, and William Tuckwell. 2017. “There’s No Such Thing as Conceptual Competence Injustice: A Response to Anderson and Cruz.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11: 23-32.

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Wilson, Deirdre, and Robyn Carston. “A Unitary Approach to Lexical Pragmatics: Relevance, Inference and Ad Hoc Concepts.” In Pragmatics, edited by Noel Burton-Roberts, 230-259. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007.

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[1] Reference to the speaker will be made by means of the feminine third person singular personal pronoun.

[2] The fact that the following discussion heavily relies on Grice’s (1957, 1975) Cooperative Principle and its maxims should not imply that such ‘principle’ is an adequate formalisation of how the human cognitive systems work while processing information. It should rather be seen as some sort of overarching (cultural) norm or rule subsuming more specific norms or rules, which are internalised by some social groups whose members unconsciously obey without noticing that they comply with it (Escandell Vidal 2004: 349). For extensive criticism on Grice’s (1957/1975) ideas, see Sperber and Wilson (1986/1995).

[3] Grice’s (1957, 1975) maxim of manner is articulated into four sub-maxims, which cause individuals to be (i) orderly, (ii) brief or concise, and to avoid (iii) ambiguity of expression and (iv) obscurity of expression. In my discussion, however, I have omitted considerations about brevity or conciseness because I think that these are the byproduct of the maxim of quality, with whose effects those of the manner sub-maxim of briefness overlap.

[4] This would be a type of overextension labelled over-inclusion, categorical overextension or classic overextension (Clark 1973, 1993; Rescorla 1980), where a word “[…] is applied to instances of other categories within the same or adjacent conceptual domain” (Wałaszeska 2011: 321).

[5] This would be a case of analogical extension or analogical overextension (Rescorla 1980; Clark 1993).

Author Information: Gabriel Vélez-Cuartas, Universidad de Antioquia,

Vélez-Cuartas, Gabriel. “Invisible Colleges 2.0: Eponymy as a Scientometric Tool.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 5-8.

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The corridors of an invisible college. Image from Justin Kern via Flickr / Creative Commons


Merton’s idea of eponymy as a prize for scientists, perhaps the most great of incentives, relatively addressed for a few ones, is revisited in the text from Collazo et al. An idea exposed nearly as a footnote in Merton’s Sociology of Science let open in this text two ideas that can be amplified as opportunities to go a step further in understanding scientific dynamics: (1) The idea of a literary figure as catalyzer of cognitive evolution of scientific communities; (2) the claims for geographical priority to show relevance in the hierarchy of science structures.

Faculty of the Invisible Colleges

(1) Derek de Solla Price (1963) and Diane Crane (1972) developed in the sixties and seventies of the last century the idea of invisible colleges. Those invisible colleges merged the idea of scientific growth due to chained interactions that made possible diffusion of innovations in cycles of exponential and linear growth. This statistic idea of growth has been related to the idea of paradigmatic revolutions in Kuhn’s ideas. These interactions determined the idea of a cognitive dynamic expressed in networks of papers linked by common references in Crane and De Solla Price. In other words, knowledge growth is possible because there are forms of interactions that make possible the construction of communities.

This idea has not evolved in time and appears in different works as: institutionalized communities combining co-authorship networks and citation indexes (Kretschermer 1994), social networks of supervisors, students and co-workers (Verspagen and Werker 2003; Brunn and O’Lear 1999; cultural circles (Chubin 1985); collaboration networks and preferential attachment (Verspagen and Werker 2004; Zuccala 2006).

More recently, the cognitive dynamic related to the other side of the definition of invisible colleges have been some advances focused on detecting cognitive communities. For instance, studies of bibliographic coupling based on similarity algorithms (Leydesdorff 2008; Colliander and Ahlgren 2012; Steinert and Hoppe 2017; Ciotti et al. 2016); hybrid techniques mixing different similarity measures, modularity procedures, and text- and citation-based analysis (Glänzel and Thijs 2017); and the explicit merge made by Van Raan (2014), he proposes a bibliometric analysis mixing co-word analysis, co-citation, and bibliographic coupling to describe invisible colleges dynamics.

Those advances in analysis claim for a transformation of the concept of invisible colleges. The determination of cognitive dynamics by interactions is on the shell. Indeed, different levels of hierarchies and determinations in multilayer networks are arising. This means that collaboration networks can be seen as local interactions embedded in a more global set of relationships shaped by all kind of scientific communications chained in networks of references (Luhmann, 1996).

Eponymy in scientific communication gives a sign of these dynamics. We agree that in the first level of interactions eponymy can describe prestige dynamics, accumulation of social or scientific capital as Bourdieu can describe in his theory of fields. Nevertheless, in a global context of the scientific system, Eponymy acts as a code that catalyzes communication functions in the scientific production. Different programs emerge from the mention of Jerzy Plebanski in the literature (the eponym analyzed within the text from Collazo et al), nevertheless is a common sign for all this communities. The eponymy gives a kind of confidence, content to be trusted and the scientific small masses confirm that by the grace of redundancy. Prestige becomes a communication function, more important than a guide for address the interaction.

How the Eponym Stakes an Invisible College’s Claim

(2) In this direction, the eponym appears as a rhetoric strategy in a semantic context of a determined scientific area, a partial system within the scientific form to communicate debates, controversies and research results. The geographical issue disappears in a way for this system. Cognitively, Jerzy Plebanski is a physicist; a geographical claim for the contributions seems distant to the discussion about the formation of invisible colleges or scientific communities.

Nevertheless, there are two underlying dynamics related to the space as category. One is the outlined dynamic of diffusion of knowledge. The eponym made itself stronger as a figure as can be redundant in many places. Diffusion is related here with dispersion. The strength of eponymy is due to the reach of dispersion that have emerged from redundancy of his name in different global spaces. It means penetration too.

The second is that scientific communities are locally situated and they are possible due to an economic and political context. It can be said that a scientific system needs roots on contexts that facilitate a scientific ethos. The modern expansion through colonies around the world left as a legacy the scientific way as a social function installed in almost every culture. But the different levels of institutional development affect the formation of local scientific communities conditioned by: the struggle between economic models based or non-based on scientific and technological knowledge (Arocena & Sutz, 2013); cultural coloniality (Quijano, 2007); the openness of science and the concentration of knowledge in private companies as part of a regime of intellectual property (Vélez Cuartas et al, 2018).

In other words, the claim for the work of Jerzy Plebanski as a Mexican and the appearance of eponym in Latin American lands borne as an exclamation. The acknowledgement of Latin American science is a kind of reaffirmation. In logic of scientific system observed from the Global North it seems a trivial issue, where a dictionary of scientific eponyms can list more than 9,000 renamed scientists. The geographical issue plays in two sides to comprehend this dynamic: from one side, the penetration of a global scientific form of communication, that is expansion of the system. This means growing of cognitive capacities, growth of collective intelligence under the ethos of science. Locally, express conditions of possibility of appearance of scientific communities and their consolidation.

The eponymy appears not as signal of prestige but as indicator of scientific growing as form of organization and specialization. Although Plebanski is a foreign last name, the possibility to stay there, to develop his work within that place, and to reach a symbolic status in a semantic community that is organized in a network of meaning around his work, express self-organization dynamics of science. Then eponym not only gives a function to indicate prestige, shows a geographical penetration of scientific institutions and global dynamics of scientific systems.

The work of Collazo et al shows an important step to induce analysis on other areas of sociology of science and social epistemology. Introduce the rhetoric figures as a cybernetic instrument that make able to observe systemic possibilities of scientific community formation. Eponymy as a Scientometric tool sounds good as a promising methodology.

Contact details:


Arocena, R., & Judith Sutz. (2013). Innovación y democratización del conocimiento como contribución al desarrollo inclusivo. In Sistemas de Innovación para un Desarrollo Inclusivo: la experiencia latinoamericana (pp. 19–34). México, D.F: Foro Consultivo Científico y Tecnológico AC. Retrieved from

Brunn, S. D., & O’Lear, S. R. (1999). Research and communication in the “invisible college” of the Human Dimensions of Global Change, 9, 285–301. doi:10.1016/S0959-3780(99)00023-0

Chubin, D. E. (1985). Beyond invisible colleges: Inspirations and aspirations of post-1972 social studies of science. Scientometrics, 7, 221–254. doi:10.1007/BF02017148

Ciotti, V., Bonaventura, M., Nicosia, V., Panzarasa, P., & Latora, V. (2016). Homophily and missing links in citation networks. EPJ Data Science, 5(1). doi:10.1140/epjds/s13688-016-0068-2

Colliander, C., & Ahlgren, P. (2012). Experimental comparison of first and second-order similarities in a scientometric context. Scientometrics, 90(2), 675–685. doi:10.1007/s11192-011-0491-x

Crane, D. (1972). Invisible colleges: Diffusion of knowledge in scientific communities. Chicago & London: The university of Chicago Press. ISBN: 0-226-11857-6

De Solla Price, D (1963). Little Science, Big Science. Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN: 0-231-04957-9

Glänzel, W., & Thijs, B. (2017). Using hybrid methods and “core documents” for the representation of clusters and topics: the astronomy dataset. Scientometrics, 111(2), 1071–1087. doi:10.1007/s11192-017-2301-6

Kretschmer, H. (1994). Coauthorship networks of invisible-colleges and institutionalized communities. Scientometrics, 30(1), 363–369. doi:10.1007/BF02017234

Leydesdorff, L. (2008). On the normalization, and visualization of author cocitation data: Salton’s cosine versus the jaccard index. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 59 (1), pp. 77-85. doi: 10.1002/asi.20732

Luhmann, Niklas (1996). La ciencia de la sociedad. Rubí: Anthropos. ISBN: 9788476584910

Quijano, A. Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality. Cultural Studies 21 (2-3) (March/May 2007): 168–178.

Steinert, L., & Hoppe, H. U. (2017). A comparative analysis of network-based similarity measures for scientific paper recommendations. In Proceedings – 2016 3rd European Network Intelligence Conference, ENIC 2016 (pp. 17–24). Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc., doi:10.1109/ENIC.2016.011

Van Raan, A. F. J. (2014). Advances in bibliometric analysis: research performance assessment and science mapping. In: W. Blockmans, L. Engwall, D. Weaire (eds.). Bibliometrics: Use and Abuse in the Review of Research Performance. Wenner-Gren International Series Vol. 87. (pp.17-28). London: Portland Press Ltd., ISBN: 9781855781955.

Vélez Cuartas, G (2018). Validación y evaluación en las ciencias sociales y humanas. En: Vélez Cuartas, G; Aristizábal, C; Piazzini, C; Villega, L; Vélez Salazar, G; Masías Nuñez, R (EDS). Investigación en ciencias sociales, humanidades y artes. Debates para su valoración. Medellín: Universidad de Antioquia, Universidad de los Andes,  pp 91-182. ISBN: 978-958-5413-60-3

Verspagen, B. B., & Werker, C. (2003). The Invisible College of The Economics of Innovation and Technological Change. Estudios de Economía Aplicada, diciembre, 393-419. Retrieved from Accessed 25 January 2017.

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Zuccala, A. (2006). Modeling the invisible college. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 57, 152–168. doi:10.1002/asi.20256

Author Information: Glen Miller, Texas A&M University,

Miller, Glen. “Animal Laborans, Homo Faber, or Something Else?.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 1-4.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

    • Stamm, Emma. “Retooling ‘The Human.’” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 36-40.
    • Williams, Damien. “Deleting the Human Clause: A Review of Ashley Shew’s Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 42-44.
Chamalow the cat escapes from his neighbours for some peace and quiet

“As preservationist Aldo Leopold put it, we should see non-human organisms as “fellow-members” in the citizenship of the earth.”
Image by Portier Jean Louis via Flickr / Creative Commons


Ashley Shew’s Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge is an interdisciplinary inquiry that incorporates resources from philosophical investigations into technology and biology, from scientists and others who work on animal behavior and cognition, and popular culture. These resources allow her to take on her central question, “do animal behaviors and constructions count as technological knowledge in the same way that human enterprises do?” (p. 3) She aims to “advance a more inclusive account of technology and tool use, give an argument for ‘technological knowledge’ as including animal tool-making and tool use, and look at actual cases of tool use in non-human animals” (p. 2).

One important outcome of her analysis is a two-dimensional chart on which various artifacts of human and non-human origin can be mapped. One dimension tracks the amount of knowledge “embodied” in the object, an amended version of Davis Baird’s “thing knowledge”; the second dimension measures the “know-how” or the learned skill that the object requires of its user. By mapping out the overlap between human and non-human tools, Shew hopes that this book “unites dialogues about biological and engineering design and provides a more coherent, unified account of made things” (p. 3) and functions “to induce philosophers of technology to consider animal cases and to induce researchers in animal studies to think about animal tool use with the apparatus provided by philosophy of technology” (p. 11). The two-dimensional chart provides visual support for another goal of the book, which is to flatten the hierarchical view that sees humans as categorically different and superior to humans: based on her research, she wishes to “deny vehemently” the prospect that “humanity is somehow divorced from other life” (p. 32).

Shew’s concise yet wide-ranging summary of the tool-using behavior of other animals is enlightening and an important contribution to the philosophy of technology literature. (I do not have the expertise necessary to assess its contribution to animal researchers, but given the rigidity of disciplinary strictures and the limited dissemination of ideas of philosophy of technology even into the broader philosophical circles, much less other sciences, I would surmise it to be of value there as well.) I regularly ask my ethics students to ponder whether Aristotle would have amended De Anima and what he derives from it in Nicomachean Ethics given what we now know about communication between dolphins and primate behavior but have never had the time to pursue this non-philosophical research.

Of course, as Shew points out, we must make an educated guess about what animals such as apes, dolphins, and whales, and New Caledonian crows are thinking about or thinking through when they are making or using tools because we cannot ask them in language they understand, and even if we could, we would not understand their responses. Moreover, scientific analyses that simply report observed actions seem even more susceptible to the kind of risks that Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar identified in Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (1979), where anthropological techniques miss the meaning behind the acts that take place even as the target of their critique is one of the human sciences.

I am also sympathetic to Shew’s goal of persuading more people to place non-human animals on a continuum with humans. The “divorce” between humans and our evolutionary ancestors that she identifies is relatively new, at least in a historical context. Our predecessors had it right: our commonality—evident in the Scholastics interpretation of Aristotle, where human are rational animals and in the middling spot in the hierarchy of Arthur Lovejoy’s famous “Great Chain of Being” (Soper 1995, pp. 21-25)—has been lost in the wake of Enlightenment glorification of science and technology. As preservationist Aldo Leopold put it, we should see non-human organisms as “fellow-members” in the citizenship of the earth (1966, p. 240).

Shew’s extensive review of animal studies research shows that many characteristics of technical activities thought by many to be uniquely human, including intentionality, problem solving, and innovation, are performed by other species, an insight that is not at all obvious to people who spend most of their time surrounded by other humans, often engrossed with their flat screens. This insight has received minimal attention recently in philosophy of technology literature, which, as Shew points out, has focused more on technologies associated with engineering sciences.

Having apprehended this important insight, it seems worth asking the question of whether what occurs in the making and use of modern technology is in fact categorically different than the tool making and construction that humans share with other animals. Put another way, the discontinuity that matters is not between human technologies and their animal counterparts, but rather between modern technology and its primitive human and animal counterparts. (Distinction, of course, need not imply superiority.)

Another way to express this discontinuity is to say that while humans and non-humans share technics and technique, though perhaps to varying degrees, some human technology seems like a different animal altogether. While neither Plato nor Aristotle “felt drawn to join the two words—to speak of a logos of techne,” the cognitive dimension of high-tech objects has been present since the origins of the Greek term, i.e., “techne simply used logos” (Mitcham and Schatzberg 2009, p. 34). As Mitcham and Schatzberg put it, for Aristotle, techne itself is part of a “spectrum of different forms of engagement with reality, moving from sensation through experience to theory” (Mitcham and Schatzberg 2009, p. 33).

The theoretical dimension of technology functions for humans as a way of revealing the world. While it is possible that analogous cognitive processes occur in animals—we cannot be certain because we cannot communicate abstract and complex ideas with them—the evidence does not seem to me to support it, although perhaps I simply need to hear the (perhaps apocryphal) tale of the New Caledonian crow that falls into a well while staring into the heavens.

Moreover, several characteristics of modern technologies elucidate their human distinctiveness. Hans Jonas (1984) notes that modern technology, which is made possible by theory, operates at a more fundamental level, e.g., genetic or nano scales, than primitive technologies; their effects last longer; they have greater power and operate on a greater scale; and, at least in some cases, they operate on objects—such as humans themselves—in a different way than primitive or non-human technologies. Consider genetic engineering, especially to the human germline, and atomic weapons.

While tools and technics for humans and non-humans can satisfy practical concerns and provide a source of play or amusement, they do something more for humans. As Jonas writes, “technology, apart from its objective works, assumes ethical significance by the central place it now occupies in human purpose. Its cumulative creation, the expanding artificial environment, continuously reinforces the particular powers in man that created it, by compelling their unceasing inventive employment in its management and further advance, and by rewarding them with additional success—which only adds to the relentless claim” (Jonas 1984, p. 9). According to Jonas, it is this characteristic that differentiates homo faber from homo sapiens and, similarly, it seems to me, from other animals and their techniques. These characteristics of modern technology, Jonas argues, also make it a suitable topic for ethics.

Yet Jonas and Shew are not as adversarial as the preceding makes it seem. Jonas’s analysis of technology is paired with a philosophical inquiry into evolutionary connections in The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (2001), a project first published in 1966, completed before The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age (1984), originally published in 1979. He argues that a philosophical approach to evolution highlights continuity of organisms, rather than rupture, and that advanced complexity is accompanied by increasing risk. In both of these respects, Jonas is a kindred spirit of Shew’s, who argues for continuity and notes that other organisms may be better adapted to their niches than humans (Shew 2017, p. 18).

Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge left me wanting more. In particular, a longer second chapter, which sought to “disambiguate the relevant terminology—artifacts, tools, technology, and knowledge—in order to set up my argument that some non-human animal tool-related behavior should be seen as existing on a spectrum with technology” (p. 13), could have clarified the implications of her project for engineering design.

An expanded explanation of why the two dimensions that she used to map human and non-human artifacts are sufficient, or at least determinative, would have enabled the reader to more easily decide whether they should be considered on a continuum. Some mention of the ethical implications of her argument, however short, would have been welcome, although this concern is peripheral to her focus. A more expansive explanation of the benefits that animal researchers who employ her ideas would obtain would have also helped, though these may be obvious to practitioners in that field.

Finally, some comparison of her claims and those of Jonas mentioned above; Aristotle, whose work also integrated biological research and philosophy; and, relatedly, Martin Heidegger (2008), whose diagnosis of the flawed trajectory of Western culture begins with Aristotle’s techne that becomes the dominant way to see the world, a flaw that other species do not share, would have added helpful context her argument. Hopefully Shew is working on a sequel!

Shew’s book, which Andrew Feenberg called “revolutionary” for philosophy of technology, is lucid and thought-provoking. It stimulates reflection on our relationships with non-humans and our technologies. It is worth reading.

Contact details:


Aristotle. 2017. De Anima. Translated by C. D. C. Reeve. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett.

Aristole. 2002. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Joe Sachs. Newburyport, Massachusetts: Focus Publishing.

Feenberg, Andrew. 2017. Back cover of Ashley Shew’s Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge.

Heidegger, Martin. 2008. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings. Edited by David Farrell Krell. London: Harper Perennial.

Jonas, Hans. 1984. Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jonas, Hans. 2001. The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

Latour, Bruno, and Steve Woolgar. 1979. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Beverley Hills, California: Sage Publications.

Leopold, Aldo. 1966. “The Land Ethic.” In A Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round River. New York: Ballantine Books.

Mitcham, Carl and Eric Schatzberg. 2009. “Defining Technology and the Engineering Sciences.” In Philosophy of Technology and Engineering Sciences, edited by Anthonie Meijers. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Shew, Ashley. 2017. Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Soper, Kate. 1995. What Is Nature? Culture, Politics, and the non-Human. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell.

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University,

Wills, Bernard. “Our Weimar Moment: Part One.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 70-75.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Art by Tom Blackford of Shoreditch, UK. Image by Duncan C via Flickr / Creative Commons


I, like many worried about the rise of Fascism in America, thought Hilary Clinton would, by however modest a margin, buy us a few years to confront it more effectively. Now that I have been disabused of this hope it is time for sober reflection. Clinton has lost an election now she would otherwise have lost in four years. The populist wing of the Republican Party would simply have found a slicker, more intelligent candidate who is not a walking gaffe machine. 2020 was going to be theirs anyway. The extra time would have been nice but the reckoning has come now instead of later. So be it.

A populist politics of racial and ethnic resentment has triumphed; xenophobic, anti-intellectual and contemptuous of institutions and the rule of law.[1] This politics either points towards or currently embodies a Fascist ideology depending on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist.[2] Here are some reflections I have prepared on this crisis and though academics generally hate to be proven wrong I sincerely hope (for once) that most of what I say is unduly pessimistic.

The west, it seems, is having its ‘Weimar’ moment: its feckless elites are incapable of resisting the rising tide of right wing authoritarianism. This is not an American problem; it is a global problem. This is so firstly because America’s problems are ipso facto the world’s problems. There is no place to hide from chaos in the U.S. unless one disengages from the global economy completely. Secondly, the forces that have propelled Trump to success in the United States are active in Europe as well and no doubt his victory will only encourage the forces of reaction there.

If a renascent Fascism wins electoral success in both the US and Europe will Canada hold out long as the lone island of sanity? Our own Conservative party will no doubt learn its lessons from Le Pen and Wilders if they or their ilk follow Trump to electoral success. Indeed, when in 8 to 10 years the Liberal Government has run its natural course there will be no stopping them. They will succeed in the way extremist parties always succeed: by waiting for a protest vote to sweep them into power. Fascism (proto or otherwise) will then come to Canada too.

It is hard to feel sorry for the Clintons, Blairs and Bushes who have made this possible. They and the neo-liberal doctrines they shilled for are now in the place that Orthodox Communism was in the 1980’s. They have no credibility with the people they govern and cannot move them a millimeter towards the good. Who really wanted another Clinton in the White House? Who wanted more trade deals, more ‘humanitarian’ military interventions, more bailouts and bloated profits for the financial sector? Who wanted more ‘restructuring’ and ‘rationalization’? More wage stagnation and the continued decline of the middle class? The main pillars of the New World Order, trade liberalization, privatization, and perpetual austerity summon as much enthusiasm now as the Soviet Union’s last five- year plan.

Of course these things were never meant to be political or subject to democratic control. That is why they were enshrined in international agreements and enforced by the IMF and World Bank. Politics, indeed history itself, was supposed to be over and done with as people like Fukayama assured us in the 90’s. Clinton, a child of this era, would never have done anything ‘political’ in the sense of disturbing these global economic and security arrangements. She would have simply administered them (one suspects fairly competently) while trying to sell the results to an increasingly alienated public. However, anyone who thinks this kind of bland administrative talent benign should study the ugly history of the Clintons’ dealings with Haiti and Honduras, those whose appointed station in the Global order is to provide cheap, immiserated labor in perpetuity. [3]

This system, of course, will not change under Trump, it will only become more chaotic. The neo-liberals at least offered some measure of order and predictability along with basic constitutional guarantees (unless of course you happen to be young, male and Muslim or a Black victim of police violence). Trump however faces a task even less manageable than Clinton. Capital under Trump will be more aggressive and unfettered than ever. Ordinary people will be poorer and unhealthier than ever. To keep the latter engaged increasingly ugly racial rhetoric will be necessary. At the same time Trump will not have the gift of another Clinton in four years. He will have to keep certain aspects of the post war liberal consensus in place to please independents.

Image via Thierry Ehrmann via Flickr / Creative Commons


The result will be a farrago of mismatched policies. There will be great pots of money for homeland security, police and the military. At the same time there will be ‘fiscal responsibility’ promised house Republicans. Abortion may be out but gay marriage will be in. Muslims and Hispanics will be subject to various forms of legal (or extra-legal) harassment but corporations who benefit from them will be given their open borders and cheap migrant workers. Infrastructure will be massively expanded but of course there will be tax cuts for all. A gifted politician might pull this off for a time but of course Trump is in the White House precisely because he is a political innocent.

As a result, Trump is unlikely to please the constituencies whose expectations he has raised. His ramshackle transition team of racists, millenarian weirdos, neo-con creeps and corporate hacks already embodies every aspect of this incoherent program. When the inevitable disappointment sets in will Trump’s base decide that he has been co-opted by the system he was elected to shake up? Will they decide that they simply did not elect someone radical enough? If so, should we prepare for David Duke in 2020?[4]

As some context for understanding this however we might try to define the idea that runs through Trump’s and other far right movements: this idea might be labeled ‘particularism’ which gets at the common core of the far right more than comparisons to Hitler, Franco, Mussolini or whoever (illuminating as these might sometimes be). This idea is based on the failure of two cosmopolitanisms: that of Neo-Liberalism and international Communism. In place of this it offers nationalism and ethno-identity politics as the third way.

Of course, this is nothing new. The wars in the Balkans have already showed us ethnicity is a powerful force in contemporary politics. Far right movements have existed for decades in the United States and Europe even after the defeat of Germany. However, it is now clear that the same forces have moved from the periphery into the heartland. The United States, France, Germany, and Great Britain are the new Balkans in that fundamental questions of the nature of politics are now mooted there rather than in the hinterlands of Europe. So, where Neo-Liberalism saw universality embodied in a vision of as humans as consumers and Marxism saw universality embodied in a vision of humans as producers the new right emphasizes humans as embedded in relationships and identities that are fundamentally local or at most national.

Thus, it rejects any effort to globalize trade and invokes the virtues of protectionism. As it opposes the free flow of capital so it opposes the free flow of people: refugees are now ‘economic migrants’ (read ‘moochers’) at best and terrorists at worst.[5] As in the old European right there are no ‘rights of man’ but rather rights of Englishmen, Frenchmen and Americans. Thus ‘others’ of various kinds can freely be tortured, denied habeas corpus and so on. At the extreme end this rejection of a universal moral language of rights becomes a narcissistic celebration of ‘whiteness’ or ‘European identity’. At its most benign (if one can call it that) it expresses itself in a nostalgia for old national identities perceived to be under threat form ‘globalism’ and ‘multiculturalism’.

On the face of it this all seems grossly unfair: if capital can migrate about the globe seeking the best deal why can’t workers do the same? Moreover, much of the current refugee crisis can be laid at the feet of Western nations and their blundering ‘humanitarian wars’ which have created chaos and displaced multitudes. At any rate such people show no awareness that the reason people emigrate to the West is that our current global power arrangements ensure that the West is the site of economic privilege and that most people who aspire to a higher standard of living have to move to attain it. One might as well battle the tides as try to stop labor from going where money and opportunity reside: again we have accepted this proposition with respect to corporations so why not workers?

I doubt the far right would be impressed by this plea however: after all, they seem to think neither labor nor capital should go anywhere. They would no doubt say Globalism in any form must be dismantled and national identities along with national institutions must be reinforced. Many on the left share this vision at least where buttressing the nation state is concerned. At the same time though they still envisage a post-modern fluidity where identity is concerned oblivious to the fact that globalized economic and political institutions are the lynchpin of any such vision and that to restore the nation state is to restore the ethnic, cultural and perhaps even sexual identities that underwrite it. It is the resurgent right that shows more consistency here as at the core of their vision lie not the rights of persons but the rights of citizens understood, as in antiquity, in an exclusionary sense.[6]

Here we are then, with our political options reduced to three nostalgias. We can invoke the glory days of Reagan and Thatcher though the ecological and social externalities of neo-liberalism are not manageable. We can turn back to the ghastly regimes of international socialism and view them through a haze of false nostalgia. Finally, there are ‘identity politics’ and ‘victim culture’ invented by the left but now fully and freely appropriated by the right.[7] This movement (in its current form) would restore the nation state as an ethnic, cultural and economic monolith and at its extreme looks back to the fascist movements of the 20’s and 30’s. Are we really so out of ideas? Is there no viable future but only increasingly desperate revivals of a failed and discredited past?

Resistance is heartening and it is largely to the political left that we must look for opposition to what is perhaps the most corrupt Oligarchy in the history of the planet. It would be equally heartening to think the left is ready to undertake this task. Alas I am not fully convinced it is. The only left leaning party in North America (outside the fringe parties) is the Canadian New Democratic Party, and it is shackled to the centrism imposed by electoral politics. Nor can it seem to mobilize the urban and rural poor who are among its natural allies. There are more radical elements of the party but many of these are composed of current or former student leftists who are as much a hindrance as a help. Students go to university to find and forge identities and so it is natural that they will tend to form cliques (a tendency magnified ten-fold by social media). They will stake out stark positions and uncompromising attitudes, issue unconditional demands rather than working proposals, and use jargon culled from the social sciences to reinforce in-group identity.

The point of a political club is to be small and confer a sense of status on those who belong. However, the point of a political movement is the exact opposite: its task is to be large and this is incompatible with cocksure dogmatism and a censorious tone that turns off potential allies. Growing a movement entails brokerage, forging alliances with people NOT our immediate allies to organize rallies, sit ins, mass strikes, defections and so on. This is not an activity for a self-righteous minority who, of course, want only to distinguish themselves from less enlightened folk. What works in Graduate school does not necessarily work outside the academy.[8]

This sectarian attitude reaches its peak among the proponents of ‘black bloc’ tactics: encouraging private militias and paramilitary violence is an idea so devastatingly misconceived that it is astonishing to still have to argue the point. It is also an idea beloved of the far right who use the exact same language to justify it. As the sole resistance to the current unsustainable regime the Left more than ever has to put its childhood things away and resist the romanticized and fake glamour of ‘revolutionary’ violence.[9]

Contact details:


“”We Made a Devil’s Bargain”: Fmr. President Clinton Apologizes for Trade Policies that Destroyed Haitian Rice Farming” (

Aeschylus. The Suppliants trans. Phillip Vellacott (Penguin Classics, London 1961.

Barzun, Jacques. Darwin, Marx, Wagner. New York: Doubleday Books, 1958.

Baudrillard, Jean, The Mirror of Production trans. Mark Poster St. Louis: Telos Press, 1975.

Blake, William. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” from The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics, London, 1978.

Blum, George P. The Rise of Fascism in Europe. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Danticat, Edwige “Sweet Micky and the Sad DeJa Vu of Haiti’s Presidential Elections” New Yorker, Dec.3, 2015.

Eagleton, Terry. Marx. London: Orion Publishing Group Ltd., 1997.

Edmonds, Ennis B. Rastafari, A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Frank, Dana “The Thugocracy Next Door” (

Hegel, GWF. The Phenomenology of Mind. New York: Harper Torchbook 1967.

Heilbroner, Robert. Twenty First Century Capitalism. Concord: Anansi Press, 1992.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1986.

Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. The German Ideology. New York: International Publishers, 1970)

Russell Hochschild, Arlie: “The Ecstatic Edge of Politics: Sociology and Donald Trump (

Pulver, Matthew “Bill and Hillary’s Hyper-Capitalist Disaster: how the Clintons can apologize for a Decade of Deadly Policies”

Spielvogel, Jackson J. Hitler and Nazi Germany. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, 2005.

[1] Whether or not individuals who voted for Trump did so for these motives or not they voted for a movement which embodies them. All extremist parties really need to succeed is a base and one other chunk of voters, fellow travelers, who simply want to ‘throw the bums out’.

[2] By Fascist I here refer to a populist movement which sees its will as thwarted by constitutional and legal restraints and embodies that will in a demagogue who promises to overthrow them, usually as part and parcel of some myth of national redemption. I think this applies rather well to the Trump movement. Others may differ but I will not quibble over a word. Trump is a destructive figure whether he can be successfully categorized as a Fascist or not. Thus, how closely his Fascism maps onto other historical Fascisms may be left to specialists to determine. There are, however, grave dangers to the ‘Hitler’ analogy which will be noted below: for this reason, it is well to note that Trump’s ‘Fascism’ is very much his own.

[3] For starters see Edwige Danticat “Sweet Micky and the Sad DeJa Vu of Haiti’s Presidential Elections” (New Yorker, Dec.3, 2015), Dana Frank “The Thugocracy Next Door” Matthew Pulver “Bill and Hillary’s Hyper-Capitalist Disaster: how the Clintons can apologize for a Decade of Deadly Policies” ( In fact the Clintons critics on this matter include the Clintons themselves: “”We Made a Devil’s Bargain”: Fmr. President Clinton Apologizes for Trade Policies that Destroyed Haitian Rice Farming” (

[4] Since I wrote these words it has become clearer that plutocrats and interventionists are the most likely winners of the ideological struggle going on in the Trump regime. What will happen to the populist movement he courted when this becomes too plain to deny is anyone’s guess. More hopefully though the far right, for now at least, has been checked in France and Holland.

[5] Of course in the real world poverty and violence go hand in hand rendering the supposed distinction between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘genuine refugees’ pretty much meaningless.

[6] Perhaps this is less than fair to the ancients: after all the rights of strangers and exiles were the province of Zeus Xenios and were hedged with the complex etiquette of the guest/host relationship (see Aeschylus, The Suppliants). Similar notions of sanctuary in the contemporary world are, alas, the object of contempt on the far right.

[7] If some implied moral privilege is attached to victimhood, then of course everyone will claim to be a victim. There is nothing at all to prevent Christian Fundamentalists or campus conservatives from casting themselves in this role once the narrative has been established. Further, even the perception of a double standard in these matters will only re-inforce their conviction. None of this is to say that there are no victims or that ‘identity politics’ has not improved overall civility in many crucial ways: anyone who remembers the eighties blushes at certain things that were routinely said. Everything, though, is subject to the law of unintended consequences.

[8] Current discussions surrounding ‘white privilege’ illustrate this point. When activists invoke this concept they think, naturally enough for university educated people, that they are conveying the denotation of the phrase: an unearned social advantage adhering to a particular race. As advertisers are aware, however, the general public hears connotation as much or more than denotation and ‘privilege’ alas connotes posh schools and delicate lace tea cozies. As these things are part of the experience of a tiny minority even of white people the phrase is dead on arrival. Rhetoric (in the ancient sense) needs to be attended to as much as social science.

[9] And here, to be frank, I must confront what I call ‘performative’ leftism: the notion that policing simple everyday speech acts somehow is the revolution, or at least an easy way to put one’s commitment to it on constant public display. The North American left is obsessed with words, no doubt as befits a movement whose milieu is the university, but apart from some real (though modest) gains in civility what have we gained from this obsessive focus but a spate of brutal neologisms? Environmental devastation and income inequality are getting worse not better and splitting hairs over vocabulary will not alter that fact. It may be the case (though in fact I doubt it) that linguistic usage embodies in a straightforward way current oppressive social structures (as opposed to Anglo-Saxon ones!) but I see no evidence at all that altering the former will have any significant effect on the latter. I support any linguistic change that makes for more civil or respectful interchange (obviously we are well quit of words like ‘retard’ or ‘faggot’) but focusing on this should never be confused with manning the barricades and becomes contemptible as a self-righteous display.

Author Information: Damien Williams, Virginia Tech,

Williams, Damien. “Cultivating Technomoral Interrelations: A Review of Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 64-69.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Image by Stu Jones via CJ Sorg on Flickr / Creative Commons


Shannon Vallor’s most recent book, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting takes a look at what she calls the “Acute Technosocial Opacity” of the 21st century, a state in which technological, societal, political, and human-definitional changes occur at such a rapid-yet-shallow pace that they block our ability to conceptualize and understand them.[1]

Vallor is one of the most publicly engaged technological ethicists of the past several years, and much of her work’s weight comes from its direct engagement with philosophy—both philosophy of technology and various virtue ethical traditions—and the community of technological development and innovation that is Silicon Valley. It’s from this immersive perspective that Vallor begins her work in Virtues.

Vallor contends that we need a new way of understanding the projects of human flourishing and seeking the good life, and understanding which can help us reexamine how we make and participate through and with the technoscientific innovations of our time. The project of this book, then, is to provide the tools to create this new understanding, tools which Vallor believes can be found in an examination and synthesis of the world’s three leading Virtue Ethical Traditions: Aristotelian ethics, Confucian Ethics, and Buddhism.

Vallor breaks the work into three parts, and takes as her subject what she considers to be the four major world-changing technologies of the 21st century.  The book’s three parts are, “Foundations for a Technomoral Virtue Ethic,” “Cultivating the Self: Classical Virtue Traditions as Contemporary Guide,” and “Meeting the Future with Technomoral Wisdom, OR How To Live Well with Emerging Technologies.” The four world changing technologies, considered at length in Part III, are Social Media, Surveillance, Robotics/Artificial Intelligence, and Biomedical enhancement technologies.[2]

As Vallor moves through each of the three sections and four topics, she maintains a constant habit of returning to the questions of exactly how each one will either help us cultivate a new technomoral virtue ethic, or how said ethic would need to be cultivated, in order to address it. As both a stylistic and pedagogical choice, this works well, providing touchstones of reinforcement that mirror the process of intentional cultivation she discusses throughout the book.

Flourishing and Technology

In Part I, “Foundations,” Vallor covers both the definitions of her terms and the argument for her project. Chapter 1, “Virtue Ethics, Technology, and Human Flourishing,” begins with the notion of virtue as a continuum that gets cultivated, rather than a fixed end point of achievement. She notes that while there are many virtue traditions with their own ideas about what it means to flourish, there is a difference between recognizing multiple definitions of flourishing and a purely relativist claim that all definitions of flourishing are equal.[3] Vallor engages these different understandings of flourishing, throughout the text, but she also looks at other ethical traditions, to explore how they would handle the problem of technosocial opacity.

Without resorting to strawmen, Vallor examines The Kantian Categorical Imperative and Utilitarianism, in turn. She demonstrates that Kant’s ethics would result in us trying to create codes of behavior that are either always right, or always wrong (“Never Murder;” “Always Tell the Truth”), and Utilitarian consequentialism would allow us to make excuses for horrible choices in the name of “the Greater Good.” Which is to say nothing of how nebulous, variable, and incommensurate all of our understandings of “utility” and “good” will be with each other. Vallor says that rigid rules-based nature of each of these systems simply can’t account for the variety of experiences and challenges humans are likely to face in life.

Not only that, but deontological and consequentialist ethics have always been this inflexible, and this inflexibility will only be more of a problem in the face of the challenges posed by the speed and potency of the four abovementioned technologies.[4] Vallor states that the technologies of today are more likely to facilitate a “technological convergence,” in which they “merge synergistically” and become more powerful and impactful than the sum of their parts. She says that these complex, synergistic systems of technology cannot be responded to and grappled with via rigid rules.[5]

Vallor then folds in discussion of several of her predecessors in the philosophy of technology—thinkers like Hans Jonas and Albert Borgmann—giving a history of the conceptual frameworks by which philosophers have tried to deal with technological drift and lurch. From here, she decides that each of these theorists has helped to get us part of the way, but their theories all need some alterations in order to fully succeed.[6]

In Chapter 2, “The Case for a Global Technomoral Virtue Ethic,” Vallor explores the basic tenets of Aristotelian, Confucian, and Buddhist ethics, laying the groundwork for the new system she hopes to build. She explores each of their different perspectives on what constitutes The Good Life in moderate detail, clearly noting that there are some aspects of these systems that are incommensurate with “virtue” and “good” as we understand them, today.[7] Aristotle, for instance, believed that some people were naturally suited to be slaves, and that women were morally and intellectually inferior to men, and the Buddha taught that women would always have a harder time attaining the enlightenment of Nirvana.

Rather than simply attempting to repackage old ones for today’s challenges, these ancient virtue traditions can teach us something about the shared commitments of virtue ethics, more generally. Vallor says that what we learn from them will fuel the project of building a wholly new virtue tradition. To discuss their shared underpinnings, she talks about “thick” and “thin” moral concepts.[8] A thin moral concept is defined here as only the “skeleton of an idea” of morality, while a thick concept provides the rich details that make each tradition unique. If we look at the thin concepts, Vallor says, we can see the bone structure of these traditions is made of 4 shared commitments:

  • To the Highest Human Good (whatever that may be);
  • That moral virtues understood to be cultivated states of character;
  • To a practical path of moral self-cultivation; and
  • That we can have a conception of what humans are generally like.[9]

Vallor uses these commitments to build a plausible definition of “flourishing,” looking at things like intentional practice within a global community toward moral goods internal to that practice, a set of criteria from Alasdair MacIntyre which she adopts and expands on, [10] These goals are never fully realized, but always worked toward, and always with a community. All of this is meant to be supported by and to help foster goods like global community, intercultural understanding, and collective human wisdom.

We need a global technomoral virtue ethics because while the challenges we face require ancient virtues such as courage and charity and community, they’re now required to handle ethical deliberations at a scope the world has never seen.

But Vallor says that a virtue tradition, new or old, need not be universal in order to do real, lasting work; it only needs to be engaged in by enough people to move the global needle. And while there may be differences in rendering these ideas from one person or culture to the next, if we do the work of intentional cultivation of a pluralist ethics, then we can work from diverse standpoints, toward one goal.[11]

To do this, we will need to intentionally craft both ourselves and our communities and societies. This is because not everyone considers the same goods as good, and even our agreed-upon values play out in vastly different ways when they’re sought by billions of different people in complex, fluid situations.[12] Only with intention can we exclude systems which group things like intentional harm and acceleration of global conflict under the umbrella of “technomoral virtues.”

Cultivating Techno-Ethics

Part II does the work of laying out the process of technomoral cultivation. Vallor’s goal is to examine what we can learn by focusing on the similarities and crucial differences of other virtue traditions. Starting in chapter 3, Vallor once again places Aristotle, Kongzi (Confucius), and the Buddha in conceptual conversation, asking what we can come to understand from each. From there, she moves on to detailing the actual process of cultivating the technomoral self, listing seven key intentional practices that will aid in this:

  • Moral Habituation
  • Relational Understanding
  • Reflective Self-Examination
  • Intentional Self-Direction of Moral Development
  • Perceptual Attention to Moral Salience
  • Prudential Judgment
  • Appropriate Extension of Moral Concern[13]

Vallor moves through each of these in turn, taking the time to show how each step resonates with the historical virtue traditions she’s used as orientation markers, thus far, while also highlighting key areas of their divergence from those past theories.

Vallor says that the most important thing to remember is that each step is a part of a continual process of training and becoming; none of them is some sort of final achievement by which we will “become moral,” and some are that less than others. Moral Habituation is the first step on this list, because it is the quality at the foundation of all of the others: constant cultivation of the kind of person you want to be. And, we have to remember that while all seven steps must be undertaken continually, they also have to be undertaken communally. Only by working with others can we build systems and societies necessary to sustain these values in the world.

In Chapter 6, “Technomoral Wisdom for an Uncertain Future,” Vallor provides “a taxonomy of technomoral virtues.”[14] The twelve concepts she lists—honesty, self-control, humility, justice, courage, empathy, care, civility, flexibility, perspective, magnanimity, and technomoral wisdom—are not intended to be an exhaustive list of all possible technomoral virtues.

Rather, these twelve things together form system by which to understand the most crucial qualities for dealing with our 21st century lives. They’re all listed with “associated virtues,” which help provide a boarder and deeper sense of the kinds of conceptual connections we can achieve via relational engagement with all virtues.[15] Each member of the list should support and be supported by not only the other members, but also any as-yet-unknown or -undiscovered virtues.

Here, Vallor continues a pattern she’s established throughout the text of grounding potentially unfamiliar concepts in a frame of real-life technological predicaments from the 20th or 21st century. Scandals such as Facebook privacy controversies, the flash crash of 2010, or even the moral stances (or lack thereof) of CEO’s and engineers are discussed with a mind toward highlighting the final virtue: Technomoral Wisdom.[16] Technomoral Wisdom is a means of being able to unify the other virtues, and to understand the ways in which our challenges interweave with and reflect each other. In this way we can both cultivate virtuous responses within ourselves and our existing communities, and also begin to more intentionally create new individual, cultural, and global systems.

Applications and Transformations

In Part III, Vallor puts to the test everything that we’ve discussed so far, placing all of the principles, practices, and virtues in direct, extensive conversation with the four major technologies that frame the book. Exploring how new social media, surveillance cultures, robots and AI, and biomedical enhancement technologies are set to shape our world in radically new ways, and how we can develop new habits of engagement with them. Each technology is explored in its own chapter so as to better explore which virtues best suit which topic, which good might be expressed by or in spite of each field, and which cultivation practices will be required within each. In this way, Vallor highlights the real dangers of failing to skillfully adapt to the requirements of each of these unprecedented challenges.

While Vallor considers most every aspect of this project in great detail, there are points throughout the text where she seems to fall prey to some of the same technological pessimism, utopianism, or determinism for which she rightly calls out other thinkers, in earlier chapters. There is still a sense that these technologies are, of their nature, terrifying, and that all we can do is rein them in.

Additionally, her crucial point seems to be that through intentional cultivation of the self and our society, or that through our personally grappling with these tasks, we can move the world, a stance which leaves out, for instance, notions of potential socioeconomic or political resistance to these moves. There are those with a vested interest in not having a more mindful and intentional technomoral ethos, because that would undercut how they make their money. However, it may be that this is Vallor’s intent.

The audience and goal for this book seems to be ethicists who will be persuaded to become philosophers of technology, who will then take up this book’s understandings and go speak to policy makers and entrepreneurs, who will then make changes in how they deal with the public. If this is the case, then there will already be a shared conceptual background between Vallor and many of the other scholars whom she intends to make help her to do the hard work of changing how people think about their values. But those philosophers will need a great deal more power, oversight authority, and influence to effectively advocate for and implement what Vallor suggests, here, and we’ll need sociopolitical mechanisms for making those valuative changes, as well.

While the implications of climate catastrophes, dystopian police states, just-dumb-enough AI, and rampant gene hacking seem real, obvious, and avoidable to many of us, many others take them as merely naysaying distractions from the good of technosocial progress and the ever-innovating free market.[17] With that in mind, we need tools with which to begin the process of helping people understand why they ought to care about technomoral virtue, even when they have such large, driving incentives not to.

Without that, we are simply presenting people who would sell everything about us for another dollar with the tools by which to make a more cultivated, compassionate, and interrelational world, and hoping that enough of them understand the virtue of those tools, before it is too late. Technology and the Virtues is a fantastic schematic for a set of these tools.

Contact details:


Vallor, Shannon. Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a World Worth Wanting New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

[1] Shannon Vallor, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a World Worth Wanting (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016) ,6.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Ibid., 19—21.

[4] Ibid., 22—26.

[5] Ibid. 28.

[6] Ibid., 28—32.

[7] Ibid., 35.

[8] Ibid., 43.

[9] Ibid., 44.

[10] Ibid., 45—47.

[11] Ibid., 54—55.

[12] Ibid., 51.

[13] Ibid., 64.

[14] Ibid., 119.

[15] Ibid., 120.

[16] Ibid., 122—154.

[17] Ibid., 249—254.

Author Information: Ayesha Hardison, University of Kansas,

Hardison, Ayesha. “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Literary Fragments.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 56-63.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image by Trojan_Llama via Flickr / Creative Commons


To acknowledge Jane Crow, the term Pauli Murray contrived to unmask black women’s intersecting race and gender oppression, is not the same as understanding how black women’s subjection works—or why it persists. In “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” Kristie Dotson defines Jane Crow as a system of practices subjugating black women materially and epistemologically. That is, Jane Crow restricts black women’s inalienable rights to citizenship and limits their equitable access to resources.

Moreover, Jane Crow forecloses comprehension of the disenfranchisement it engenders. Dotson explains, “The complex bind of Jane Crow subordination is constituted by occupying simultaneous hyper-visibility, i.e. membership in social categories policed and suppressed for the maintenance of some form of supremacy, and invisibility, i.e. the limited nature of using those social categories to understand the specific nature of the subordination in question.”[1] Jane Crow, Dotson argues, singles out black women and girls for repression and control and summarily casts them as ciphers, nonentities “hidden in plain sight” despite statistics documenting their plight.[2] As a result of their concurrent hypervisibility and invisibility, black women are perceived as “unknowable” to the social, political, and cultural brokers upholding white supremacy and patriarchy. They are systematically targeted, branded as pathological, pared down to stereotype, regarded as disreputable, and ultimately deemed untenable.

I agree with Dotson: Jane Crow is a material and epistemological problematic manifest in black women’s longstanding repudiation in US hegemonic culture, a phenomenon theorized in black feminist thought since its beginnings. Black women have been relegated historically to the margins of black freedom struggles and women’s movements, and they continue to struggle for legibility in our post-civil rights moment particularly, as Dotson highlights, in the context of familiar narratives about the “endangered black male.”[3]

Yet, constitutive to black women’s epistemological quandary under Jane Crow, i.e. the way racism and sexism impacts their ability to produce knowledge, is the conceit that black women’s narratives about their multivalent oppression register similarly in hegemonic and counterhegemonic spaces. For example, a 2017 New York Times article uses the term Jane Crow to describe the practices of Children’s Services to punish poverty-stricken black and Hispanic women’s parenting by removing their children from their homes. The piece quotes a lawyer at length to indict the epistemic nature of the system’s biases:

There’s this judgment that these mothers don’t have the ability to make decisions about their kids, and in that, society both infantilizes them and holds them to superhuman standards. In another community, your kid’s found outside looking for you because you’re in the bathtub, it’s ‘Oh, my God’—a story to tell later. … In a poor community, it’s called endangering the welfare of your child.[4]

The state’s criminalizing narrative, based on discriminatory racial, gender, and economic geographies, exemplifies the distorted perspectives on black women’s structural disadvantages. Black women continue to be “unknowable” in dominant culture due to its investment in white supremacy and patriarchy. However, black women are not unknowable to themselves, especially if we consider their writing as epistemological endeavors instructive for their readers as well as their conceptualization of self.

An analysis of African American women writers’ engagement with Jane Crow is outside the scope of Dotson’s epistemological story in “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” but their texts illuminate the philosophical conundrum she identifies. From its conception, the African American women’s literary tradition has explored the realities of black women’s social condition under Jane Crow as well as considered, in its various fiction and nonfiction forms, the ways Jane Crow has shaped black women’s production of knowledge.

Pauli Murray’s own memoir Song in a Weary Throat (1987), which narrates the legal scholar’s civil rights activism throughout the twentieth century, makes concrete the material and epistemological injustices black women endure. Whereas Dotson theorizes Jane Crow by outlining the social factors facilitating black women’s “unknowability,” in literary studies, we might say black women’s “unknowability” is actually a matter of audience and, more importantly, a problem of reception. Structural realities (and inequities) demand black women’s invisibility, but black women’s philosophical and literary efforts make them visible—first and foremost—to themselves and each other.

“Theorizing Unknowability”

Dotson describes the conditions fostering black women’s invisibility as “a trifold structure of disappearing” that relies on “disregard, disbelief, and disavowal.”[5] First, black women occupy negative socio-epistemic space in hegemonic culture, which fixes them as unknowable. Public opinion largely classifies black women as irrelevant, and their social vulnerability permits rigid stereotypes that further their invisibility rather than inspire challenges to it. Dotson explains, “a catalyst for invisibility can be seen as, in part, epistemic failings with respect to what we use to make sense of our worlds that serves to obscure certain populations.”[6]

Second, black women experience reduced epistemic confidence, which means they are not afforded plausibility, seen as credible, or viewed as worthy subjects to be “believed in.”[7] In conjunction with the epistemic failings that encourage a disregard of black women, a common-held disbelief in black women delimits their capacity to contribute to the social production of knowledge.

Finally, black women are susceptible to heightened epistemic backgrounding, by which they are demoted to bit players in their own stories or employed as material for juxtaposition instead of subjects of inquiry. Such disavowal, Dotson expounds, displaces black women “as the backdrop of some other subject(s) of contemplation.”[8] Together these three negating environs underwrite black women’s invisibility, which effectively mystifies their Jane Crow oppression by the state and delegitimizes their discernment of their social status.

Dotson’s methodology invites a literary approach to her philosophical interrogation of Jane Crow’s epistemological assault. For example, she cites Toni Blackman’s poetry to exemplify black women’s negotiation of their presence so often mistaken for absence. However, when engaging Pauli Murray’s conceptualization of Jane Crow, Dotson focuses on Murray’s academic and public scholarship. She is careful to note that her work is not an intellectual history of Murray but a “theoretical archeology” of Jane Crow. “It is a story sketched between conceptual fragments in Black women’s social theory,” she writes.[9]

To compose an epistemological story, Dotson stitches together theoretical fragments from Murray’s 1947 article “Why Negro Girls Stay Single” and 1965 essay “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII.” She also mines a quote from Murray’s 1970 essay “The Liberation of Black Women,” in which Murray clarifies, “Jane Crow refers to the entire range of assumptions, attitudes, stereotypes, customs, and arrangements that have robbed women of a positive self-concept and prevented them from participating fully in society as equals with men.”[10]

Dotson highlights this fragment’s epistemological relevance by concentrating on the causes of Jane Crow oppression. She contends black women’s “unfavorable placement with respect to prevailing” assumptions, stereotypes, and customs sanctions the material effects and epistemic circumscriptions of Jane Crow.[11] In effect, her grappling with and suture of Murray’s philosophical fragments challenges the hierarchal epistemologies that have characterized black women as unknowable and unknowing.

I appreciate Dotson’s attentive epistemological reading, and I am struck also by the fragment’s reference to Jane Crow’s influence on black women’s “positive self-concept.” This, too, is epistemologically relevant, and I would go further to suggest that it is within fragments of Murray’s creative and nonfiction writing that an inchoate discourse about black women’s positive self-concept, which is often overlooked and undervalued, emerges.

Image by AntonSLarsson via Flickr / Creative Commons


“Creatively Theorizing The Black Female Autobiographical Self”

Murray was an accomplished writer as well as a distinguished legal scholar. In addition to academic articles and law compendiums, she produced a collection of poetry, a biography of her grandparents, and her posthumously-published memoir Song in a Weary Throat. The latter takes its title from Murray’s published poem “Dark Testament” (1943), which sketches African American history from African society, captivity, and slavery to impending freedom over the poem’s twelve sections. Its speaker relays, “Hope is a song in a weary throat.”[12] Noticeably, “hope” is not included in the title of Murray’s autobiography, but its affect resonates in her extraordinary life story as a black activist, feminist, lawyer, priest, and poet.[13]

The speaker of “Dark Testament” goes on to entreat, “Give me a song of hope and love/And a brown girl’s heart to hear it” (italics original). This fragment, just a few lines later, suggests that a song of hope does not achieve its full transformative power without a brown girl’s heart and ear—or to put it another way, without an empathetic black female audience. In the introduction to Murray’s poetry collection, Morris Milgram reveals the activist/poet thought of “Dark Testament,” a prodigious narrative, as “only a fragment and forerunner of the epic of black America yet to be written.”[14]

Nonetheless, the fragment frames Murray’s memoir as a song of hope. It also signals the importance of a black female reader to whom and for whom her production of knowledge would be regarded, believed, and avowed despite the presumptions of “unknowability” black women’s Jane Crow oppression provokes.[15]

In her essay “Being the Subject and the Object,” Barbara Christian recalls her experience reading African American women’s fiction, namely Paule Marshall’s novel Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), for the first time. She writes that the “woman-voice” of the black female protagonist’s mother “constantly interrupted my mind-voice. Her anguish-rage warned me of trials I might have to face.”[16] Marshall’s coming of age tale resonated with Christian, as the latter internalized the lessons she gleaned from the protagonist’s racial and gender struggles.

The novel allowed Christian to confront the epistemic offense intrinsic to black women’s Jane Crow subjection. “In it,” she writes, “I as subject encountered myself as object.”[17] By reading black women’s writing, Christian distinguishes herself as a reader, a subject, from that which is read, an object. Her confrontation with herself as an object codified her abiding invisibility in American literature and culture even as it marked her obvious presence. Christian surmises Brown Girl, Brownstones “was crucial to a deeper understanding of my own life,” and she later learns from a conversation with Marshall that it was written “to unravel [the black female writer’s] own knots.” Central to the acts of reading and writing, then, is black women’s knowing.[18]

Christian’s reflection minds African American women’s fiction, but its premise is helpful for thinking about black women’s epistemic endeavors in nonfiction.[19] A cursory review of black women’s literary criticism in autobiographical studies reveals fragments theorizing their unknowability as well as their efforts to counteract it. In Black Women Writing Autobiography, Joanne Braxton expresses, “We have been knowers, but we have not been known.”[20] She elucidates that autobiography is a way for African American women to “meet,” or know, their mothers “on the conscious plane,” as exemplified by her study of the works of Harriet Jacobs, Ida B. Wells, Nina Simone, and Maya Angelou among others. “Defying every attempt to enslave or diminish them or their self-expression in any way,” Braxton writes, “black women autobiographers liberate themselves from stereotyped views of black womanhood, and define their own experiences.”[21]

Similarly, Margo Perkins contends that the autobiographies of Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and Elaine Brown construct “an alternative history that challenges hegemonic ways of knowing.”[22] Finally in Words of Witness, Angela Ards asserts that personal narrative and political discourse intersect within an autobiography to create a “deliberative space where readers” can “imagine the new vocabularies and strategies that the moment demands.”[23] These fragments of knowing identify black women’s autobiography as a vehicle for positive self-concept and social epistemology.

In Song in a Weary Throat, Murray relays the moment she decided to write her memoir late in the narrative. While contemplating a faculty appointment at Brandeis in 1968, she explains, “Suddenly I realized that what I really wanted to do was to write an autobiographical book on Jim Crow and Jane Crow—racism and sexism as they had impinged upon my life.”[24] Murray elected to do both, to teach and write during the summer. Her purpose for penning the book, to write about sexism during the height of twentieth-century black freedom struggles, echoes her resolve to confront systemic oppression depicted throughout her memoir.

Earlier in the text Murray discloses her decision to attend Howard Law School “with the single-minded intention of destroying Jim Crow.”[25] However, it is during her time there that she began to theorize Jane Crow, “the twin evil of discriminatory sex bias,” as she was the only female student in her class at the all-black institution which had no women faculty and only one female staff member.[26] “[T]he racial factor was removed in the intimate environment of a Negro law school dominated by men,” she writes, “and the factor of gender was fully exposed.”

Murray describes experiencing the material affects of Jane Crow as well as its epistemological repercussions in this period of her life. She is excluded from the legal fraternity and its extended networks due to her gender. Although she characterizes her male classmates as “friendly,” she qualifies that they “seemed to take it for granted that I had nothing to contribute. For much of that first year I was condemned to silence unless the male students exhausted their arguments or were completely stumped by a professor’s question.”[27] Murray is barred customarily from adding to the class’s production of knowledge. Consequently, she writes that her realization “women were often the objects of ridicule disguised as a joke” by her classmates and professors “aroused an incipient feminism in me long before I knew the meaning of the term ‘feminism.’”[28]

Song in a Weary Throat details Murray’s experiences with racial and gender subordination, but it also outlines the processes of knowledge production that motivated her to identify and signify her Jane Crow oppression.[29] She theorizes the practice in law school, and she applies the term in her 1947 essay “Why Negro Girls Stay Single.” Yet, it is in the fragments of her autobiography that Murray demythologizes black female epistemologies. Song in a Weary Throat is an enlightening testament to black women’s production of knowledge.


In the conclusion of her essay, Dotson asks, “How does one disrupt epistemic resources that hide their inadequacy behind the shape of its own sense making features? … Would one aim an intervention at the nature of imagination as a means of disrupting knowledge economies?”[30] In response to these questions, she states many black feminists, such as Pauli Murray and Kimberlé Crenshaw, and many black women writers, such as June Jordan, Toni Morrison, and Audre Lorde, “have tried.”  Yet such a feat could only be accomplished with the demise of Jane Crow—a complete end to its material and epistemological abuses.

Although I engage Pauli Murray as a writer here to offer a complementary approach to Dotson’s theorizing of Jane Crow, I do not claim that black women’s writing irons out Jane Crow’s material paradoxes. I do want to suggest black women’s self-articulation provides them a way to mitigate the intellectual confines of Jane Crow. Black women writers do not “resolve our dilemmas,” to return to Christian’s insights about the literary tradition, but they do “name them.”[31]  In a destructive culture of invisibility, for black women to call out Jane Crow and counter with their self-representation has substantive weight.

Contact details:


Ards, Angela A. Words of Witness: Black Women’s Autobiography in the Post-Brown Era. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015.

Bobo, Jacqueline.  Black Women as Cultural Readers. New York: Columbia, 1995.

Braxton, Joanne M. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition within a Tradition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

___. “Autobiography and African American Women’s Literature.” African American Women’s Literature. Eds. Angelyn Mitchell and Danille K. Taylor.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 128-147.

Christian, Barbara. “Being the Subject and the Object: Reading African-American Women’s Novels.” New Black Feminist Criticism, 1985-2000. Eds. Gloria Bowles, M. Giulia Fabi, and Arlene R. Keizer. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007. 120-126.

Clifford, Stephanie and Jessica Silver-Greenberg. “Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow.’” New York Times July 21, 2017. Accessed January 31, 2018

Cooper, Brittney C. Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017.

Dotson, Kristie. “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability.” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 31:5 (2017) 417-430.

Graham, Maryemma. “Introduction.” The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 1-16

Hardison, Ayesha K. Writing through Jane Crow: Race and Gender Politics in African American Literature. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014.

Perkins, Margo V. Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

Petry, Ann. The Street. 1946. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

Milgram, Morris. “Introduction.” Dark Testament and Other Poems. Norwalk, CT: Silvermine, 1970.

Murray, Pauli. “Dark Testament.” 1943. Dark Testament and Other Poems. Norwalk, CT: Silvermine, 1970. 12-27.

___. Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1987.

___. “The Liberation of Black Women.” 1970. Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought. Ed. Beverly Guy Sheftall. New York: The New Press, 1995. 186-197.

[1] Kristie Dotson, “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 31:5 (2017): 417.

[2] Ibid., 420, 425.

[3] Ibid. The degree of black women’s visibility in the current #metoo campaign is also debatable, given the limited discussion of their experiences in Hollywood despite the hashtag’s origin in black female activist Tarana Burke’s grassroots organizing around sexual abuse.

[4] Maisha Joefield, the mother penalized under these circumstances, shares in the article that the temporary removal of her child still makes her nervous: “You’re afraid to parent the way you would normally parent.” The ritualized castigation of poor black mothers with scarce options for childcare speak to the circuitous material and epistemological aspects of their Jane Crow oppression. Stephanie Clifford and Jessica Silver-Greenberg, “Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow,’” New York Times July 21, 2017, Accessed January 31, 2018,

[5] Dotson, “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” 426.

[6] Ibid., 423.

[7] Ibid., 424.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 418.

[10] Pauli Murray, “The Liberation of Black Women,” 1970, Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall (New York: The New Press, 1995), 186.

[11] Dotson, “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” 421.

[12] Pauli Murray, “Dark Testament,” Dark Testament and Other Poems (Norwalk, CT: Silvermine, 1970), 22.

[13] Murray’s public identities are the subtitle to the eponymously titled 1989 edition of her autobiography.

[14] Morris Milgram, “Introduction,” Dark Testament and Other Poems (Norwalk, CT: Silvermine, 1970), n pag.

[15] Jacqueline Bobo differentiates the interpretive community black women create from audiences that passively consume representations perpetuating black women’s ideological domination. Within an interpretive community, “women utilize representations of black women that they deem valuable, in productive and politically useful ways” to challenge their cultural subordination. Jacqueline Bobo, Black Women as Cultural Readers (New York: Columbia, 1995), 22.

[16] Barbara Christian, “Being the Subject and the Object: Reading African-American Women’s Novels,” New Black Feminist Criticism, 1985-2000, edited by Gloria Bowles, M. Giulia Fabi, and Arlene R. Keizer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 121.

[17] Ibid., 122.

[18] African American women’s fiction also theorizes black women’s Jane Crow oppression. For example, Ann Petry’s novel The Street, published in 1946 one year before Murray’s essay “Why Negro Girls Stay Single,” examines Lutie Johnson’s interlocking racial, gender, class, and sexual oppressions as a single mother and domestic worker in Harlem during WWII. Lutie is aware of her invisibility among her white employers, who assume she is promiscuous, and she questions the purpose of being taught how to write, as her voice is undermined throughout the novel. Of course, the existence of Petry’s novel attests to the importance of black women writing and sharing their stories.

[19] The social aims of black women’s fiction and life writing are not mutually exclusive. Maryemma Graham points out “the autobiographical impulse in the African American novel. The continuous need to explain and ‘inscribe the self’ in a world which has historically denied the existence of that self gives both focus and intensity to the act of writing a story about black life.” Maryemma Graham, “Introduction,” The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 5.

[20] Joanne M. Braxton, Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition within a Tradition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 1.

[21] Joanne M. Braxton, “Autobiography and African American Women’s Literature,” African American Women’s Literature, edited by Angelyn Mitchell and Danille K. Taylor (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 128.

[22] Margo V. Perkins, Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000), xii.

[23] Angela A. Ards, Words of Witness: Black Women’s Autobiography in the Post-Brown Era (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015), 16.

[24] Pauli Murray, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1987), 388.

[25] Ibid., 182.

[26] Ibid., 183.

[27] Ibid., 183-184.

[28] Ibid., 183, 184.

[29] Murray’s autobiography foregrounds her battles with racism and sexism in her public life to the exclusion of her efforts to understand her queer and nonnormative sexual and gender identities in her private life. Brittney Cooper’s intellectual history of Murray highlights the ways Jane Crow and the politics of respectability inform black women’s praxis as “knowledge producers” (102). She reveals, “at exactly the same moment that [Murray] named Jane Crow as a form of sexist discrimination that she experienced as a woman, she was frequently being hospitalized for depression related to her struggle with her gender identity” (100). In my own work on Murray, I argue Song in a Weary Throat “resounds with silence” about her struggle with her gender identity due to Jane Crow’s “literary inscriptions” for black women’s self-representation (17, 15). Brittney C. Cooper, Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017); Ayesha K. Hardison, Writing through Jane Crow: Race and Gender Politics in African American Literature (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014).

[30] Dotson, “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” 426.

[31] Christian, “Being the Subject and the Object,” 122.

Author Information: Paul R. Smart, University of Southampton,

Smart, Paul R. “(Fake?) News Alert: Intellectual Virtues Required for Online Knowledge!.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 45-55.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

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Richard Heersmink’s (2018) article, A virtue epistemology of the Internet: Search engines, intellectual virtues, and education, provides an important and timely analysis of the Internet from the standpoint of virtue epistemology.[1] According to Richard, the Internet is an important epistemic resource, but it is one that comes with a range of epistemic hazards. Such hazards, he suggests, motivate a consideration of the ways in which individuals should interact with the Internet.

In particular, Richard appeals to a specific branch of virtue epistemology, known as virtue responsibilism, arguing that certain kinds of cognitive trait (e.g., curiosity and open-mindedness) are useful in helping us press maximal epistemic benefit from the Internet. Given the utility of such traits, coupled with the epistemic importance of the Internet, Richard suggests that educational policy should be adapted so as to equip would-be knowers with the cognitive wherewithal to cope with the epistemic challenges thrown up by the online environment.

There is, no doubt, something right about all this. Few would disagree with the claim that a certain level of discernment and discrimination is important when it comes to the evaluation of online content. Whether such ‘virtues’ are best understood from the perspective of virtue responsibilism or virtue reliabilism is, I think, a moot point, for I suspect that in the case of both virtue responsibilism and virtue reliabilism what matters is the way in which belief-forming informational circuits are subject to active configuration by processes that may be broadly construed as metacognitive in nature (Smart, in pressa). That, however, is a minor quibble, and it is one that is of little consequence to the issues raised in Richard’s paper.

For the most part, then, I find myself in agreement with many of the assumptions that motivate the target article. I agree that the Internet is an important epistemic resource that is unprecedented in terms of its scale, scope, and accessibility. I also agree that, at the present time, the Internet is far from an epistemically safe environment, and this raises issues regarding the epistemic standing of individual Internet users. In particular, it looks unlikely that the indiscriminate selection and endorsement of online information will do much to bolster one’s epistemic credentials.

We thus encounter something of a dilemma: As an epistemic resource, the Internet stands poised to elevate our epistemic standing, but as an open and public space the Internet provides ample opportunities for our doxastic systems to be led astray. The result is that we are obliged to divide the online informational cornucopia into a treasure trove of genuine facts and a ragbag collection of ‘false facts’ and ‘fake news.’ The information superhighway, it seems, promises to expand our epistemic power and potential, but the road ahead is one that is fraught with a dizzying array of epistemic perils, problems, and pitfalls. What ought we to do in response to such a situation?

It is at this point that I suspect my own views start to diverge with those of the target article. Richard’s response to the dilemma is to focus attention on the individual agent and consider the ways in which an agent’s cognitive character can be adapted to meet the challenges of the Internet. My own approach is somewhat different. It is borne out of three kinds of doubt: doubts about the feasibility (although not the value) of virtue-oriented educational policies, doubts about the basic validity of virtue theoretic conceptions of knowledge, and doubts about whether the aforementioned dilemma is best resolved by attempting to change the agent as opposed to the environment in which the agent is embedded. As always, space is limited and life is short, so I will restrict my discussion to issues that I deem to be of greatest interest to the epistemological community.

Reliable Technology

Inasmuch as intellectual virtues are required for online knowledge—i.e., knowledge that we possess as a result of our interactions and engagements with the Internet—they are surely only part of a much  broader (and richer) story that includes details about the environment in which our cognitive systems operate. In judging the role of intellectual virtue in shielding us from the epistemic hazards of the online environment, it therefore seems important to have some understanding of the actual technologies we interact with.

This is important because it helps us understand the kinds of intellectual virtue that might be required, as well as the efficacy of specific intellectual virtues in helping us believe the truth (and thus working as virtues in the first place). Internet technologies are, of course, many and varied, and it will not be possible to assess their general relevance to epistemological debates in the present commentary. For the sake of brevity, I will therefore restrict my attention to one particular technology: blockchain.

Blockchain is perhaps best known for its role in supporting the digital cryptocurrency, Bitcoin. It provides us with a means of storing data in a secure fashion, using a combination of data encryption and data linking techniques. For present purposes, we can think of a blockchain as a connected set of data records (or data blocks), each of which contains some body of encrypted data. In the case of Bitcoin, of course, the data blocks contain data of a particular kind, namely, data pertaining to financial transactions. But this is not the only kind of data that can be stored in a blockchain. In fact, blockchains can be used to store information about pretty much anything. This includes online voting records, news reports, sensor readings, personal health records, and so on.

Once data is recorded inside a blockchain, it is very difficult to modify. In essence, the data stored within a blockchain is immutable, in the sense that it cannot be changed without ‘breaking the chain’ of data blocks, and thereby invalidating the data contained within the blockchain. This property makes blockchains of considerable epistemic significance, because it speaks to some of the issues (e.g., concerns about data tampering and malign forms of information manipulation) that are likely to animate epistemological debates in this area.

This does not mean, of course, that the information stored within a blockchain is guaranteed to be factually correct, in the sense of being true and thus yielding improvements in epistemic standing. Nevertheless, there are, I think, reasons to regard blockchain as an important technology relative to efforts to make the online environment a somewhat safer place for would-be knowers. Consider, for example, the title of the present article. Suppose that we wanted to record the fact that a person known as Paul Smart—that’s me—wrote an article with the title:

(Fake?) News Alert: Intellectual Virtues Required for Online Knowledge!

We can incorporate this particular piece of information into a blockchain using something called a cryptographic hash function, which yields a unique identifier for the block and all of its contents. In the case of the aforementioned title, the cryptographic hash (as returned by the SHA256 algorithm[2]) is:


Now suppose that someone wants to alter the title, perhaps to garner support for an alternative argumentative position. In particular, let’s suppose they want to claim that the title of the article is:

Fake News Alert: Intellectual Virtues Required for Online Knowledge!

From an orthographic perspective, of course, not much has changed. But the subtlety of the alteration is not something that can be used to cause confusion about the actual wording of the original title—the title that I intended for the present article. (Neither can it be used to cast doubt about the provenance of the paper—the fact that the author of the paper was a person called Paul Smart.) To see this, note that the hash generated for the ‘fake’ title looks nothing like the original:


It is this property that, at least in part, makes blockchains useful for recording information that might otherwise be prone to epistemically malign forms of information manipulation. Imagine, for the sake of argument, that climatological data, as recorded by globally distributed sensors, was stored in a blockchain. The immutability of such data makes it extremely difficult for anyone to manipulate the data in such a way as to confirm or deny the reality of year-on-year changes in global temperature. Neither is it easy to alter information pertaining to the provenance of existing data records, i.e., information about when, where, and how such data was generated.

None of this should delude us into thinking that blockchain technology is a panacea for Internet-related epistemic problems—it isn’t! Neither does blockchain obviate the need for agents to exercise at least some degree of intellectual virtue when it comes to the selection and evaluation of competing data streams. Nevertheless, there is, I think, something that is of crucial epistemological interest and relevance here—something that makes blockchain and other cybersecurity technologies deserving of further epistemological attention. In particular, such technologies may be seen as enhancing the epistemic safety of the online environment, and thus perhaps reducing the need for intellectual virtue.

In this sense, the epistemological analysis of Internet technologies may be best approached from some variant of modal epistemology—e.g., epistemological approaches that emphasize the modal stability of true beliefs across close possible worlds (Pritchard, 2009, chap. 2). But even if we choose to countenance an approach that appeals to issues of intellectual virtue, there is still, I suggest, a need to broaden the analytic net to include technologies that (for the time being at least) lie beyond the bounds of the individual cognitive agent.

Safety in Numbers

“From an epistemic perspective,” Richard writes, “the most salient dimension of the Internet is that it is an information space” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 5). Somewhat surprisingly, I disagree. Although it is obviously true that the Internet is an information space, it is not clear that this is its most salient feature, at least from an epistemological standpoint. In particular, there is, I suggest, a sense in which the Internet is more than just an information space. As is clear from the explosive growth in all things social—social media, social networks, social bots, and so on—the Internet functions as a social technology, yielding all manner of opportunities for people to create, share and process information in a collaborative fashion. The result, I suggest, is that we should not simply think of the Internet as an information space (although it is surely that), we should also view it as a social space.

Viewing the Internet as a social space is important because it changes the way we think about the epistemic impact of the Internet, relative to the discovery, production, representation, acquisition, processing and utilization of knowledge. Smart (in pressb), for example, suggests that some online systems function as knowledge machines, which are systems in which some form of knowledge-relevant processing is realized by a socio-technical mechanism, i.e., a mechanism whose component elements are drawn from either the social (human) or the technological realm.

An interesting feature of many of these systems is the way in which the reliability (or truth-conducive) nature of the realized process is rooted in the socio-technical nature of the underlying (realizing) mechanism. When it comes to human computation or citizen science systems, for example, user contributions are typically solicited from multiple independent users as a means of improving the reliability of specific epistemic outputs (Smart, in pressb; Smart and Shadbolt, in press; Watson and Floridi, 2018). Such insights highlight the socially-distributed character of at least some forms of online knowledge production, thereby moving us beyond the realms of individual, agent-centric analyses.

On a not altogether unrelated note, it is important to appreciate the way in which social participation can itself be used to safeguard online systems from various forms of malign intervention. One example is provided by the Google PageRank algorithm. In this case, any attempt to ‘artificially’ elevate the ranking assigned to specific contributions (e.g., a user’s website) is offset by the globally-distributed nature of the linking effort, coupled with the fact that links to a specific resource are themselves weighted by the ranking of the resource from which the link originates. This makes it difficult for any single agent to subvert the operation of the PageRank algorithm.

Even ostensibly non-social technologies can be seen to rely on the distributed and decentralized nature of the Internet. In the case of blockchain, for example, multiple elements of a peer-to-peer network participate in the computational processes that make blockchain work. In this way, the integrity of the larger system is founded on the collaborative efforts of an array of otherwise independent computational elements. And it is this that (perhaps) allows us to think of blockchain’s epistemically-desirable features as being rooted in something of a ‘social’ substrate.

All of this, I suggest, speaks in favor of an approach that moves beyond a preoccupation with the properties of individual Internet users. In particular, there seems to be considerable merit in approaching the Internet from a more socially-oriented epistemological perspective. It is easy to see the social aspects of the Internet as lying at the root of a panoply of epistemic concerns, especially when it comes to the opportunities for misinformation, deception, and manipulation. But in light of the above discussion, perhaps an alternative, more positive, take on the Internet (qua social space) starts to come into sharper focus. This is a view that highlights the way in which certain kinds of online system can work to transform a ‘vice’ into a ‘virtue,’ exploiting the social properties of the Internet for the purposes of dealing with reliability-related concerns.

Image by Dariorug via Flickr / Creative Commons


Filter Bubblicious

Search engines form one of the focal points of Richard’s analysis, and, as with previous work in this area, Richard finds at least some aspects of their operation to be highly problematic. A particular issue surfaces in respect of personalized search. Here, Richard’s analysis echoes the sentiments expressed by other epistemologists who regard personalized search algorithms as of dubious epistemic value.

In fact, I suspect the consensus that has emerged in this area fails to tell the whole story about the epistemic consequences of personalized search. Indeed, from a virtue epistemological position, I worry that epistemologists are in danger of failing to heed their own advice—prematurely converging on a particular view without proper consideration of competing positions. In my new-found role as the virtue epistemologist’s guardian angel (or should that be devil’s advocate?), I will attempt to highlight a couple of reasons why I think more empirical research is required before we can say anything useful about the epistemological impact of personalized search algorithms.

My first worry is that our understanding about the extent to which search results and subsequent user behavior is affected by personalization is surprisingly poor. Consider, for example, the results of one study, which attempted to quantify the effect of personalization on search results (Hannak et al., 2013). Using an empirical approach, Hannak et al. (2013) report a demonstrable personalization effect, with 11.7% of search results exhibiting differences due to personalization. Interestingly, however, the effect of personalization appeared to be greater for search results with lower rankings; highly ranked results (i.e., those appearing at the top of a list of search results) appeared to be much less affected by personalization.

This result is interesting given the observation that college students “prefer to click on links in higher positions even when the abstracts are less relevant to the task at hand” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 6). From one perspective, of course, this tendency looks like a vice that jeopardizes the epistemic standing of the individual user. And yet, from another perspective, it looks like the preference for higher ranked search results is poised to negate (or at least reduce) the negative epistemological effects of personalized search. What we seem to have here, in essence, is a situation in which one kind of ‘intellectual vice’ (i.e., a tendency to select highly-ranked search results) is playing something of a more positive (virtuous?) role in mitigating the negative epistemological sequelae of a seemingly vicious technology (i.e., personalized search).

None of this means that the epistemic effects of personalized search are to the overall benefit of individual users; nevertheless, the aforementioned results do call for a more nuanced and empirically informed approach when considering the veritistic value of search engines, as well as other kinds of Internet-related technology.

A second worry relates to the scope of the epistemological analysis upon which judgements about the veritistic value of search engines are based. In this case, it is unclear whether analyses that focus their attention on individual agents are best placed to reveal the full gamut of epistemic costs and benefits associated with a particular technology, especially one that operates in the socio-technical ecology of the Internet. To help us understand this worry in a little more detail, it will be useful to introduce the notion of mandevillian intelligence (Smart, in pressc; Smart, in pressd).

Mandevillian intelligence is a specific form of collective intelligence in which the cognitive shortcomings and epistemic vices of the individual agent are seen to yield cognitive benefits and epistemic virtues at the collective or social level of analysis, e.g., at the level of collective doxastic agents (see Palermos, 2015) or socio-epistemic systems (see Goldman, 2011). According to this idea, personalized search systems may play a productive role in serving the collective cognitive good, providing a means by which individual vices (e.g., a tendency for confirmation bias) are translated into something that more closely resembles an epistemic virtue (e.g., greater cognitive coverage of a complex space of thoughts, ideas, opinions, and so on). Consider, for example, the way in which personalized search may help to focus individual attention on particular bodies of information, thereby restricting access to a larger space of ideas, opinions, and other information.

While such forms of ‘restricted access’ or ‘selective information exposure’ are unlikely to yield much in the way of an epistemic benefit for the individual agent, it is possible that by exploiting (and, indeed, accentuating!) an existing cognitive bias (e.g., confirmation bias), personalized search may work to promote cognitive diversity, helping to prevent precipitant forms of cognitive convergence (see Zollman, 2010) and assisting with the epistemically optimal division of cognitive labor (see Muldoon, 2013). This possibility reveals something of a tension in how we interpret or evaluate the veritistic value of a particular technology or epistemic practice. In particular, it seems that assessments of veritistic value may vary according to whether our epistemological gaze is directed towards individual epistemic agents or the collective ensembles in which those agents are situated.

The Necessity of Virtue

As Richard notes, virtue epistemology is characterized by a shift in emphasis, away from the traditional targets of epistemological analysis (e.g., truth, justification and belief) and towards the cognitive properties of would-be knowers. “Virtue epistemology,” Richard writes, “is less concerned with the nature of truth and more concerned with the cognitive character of agents” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 2). This is, no doubt, a refreshing change, relative to the intellectual orientation of traditional philosophical debates.

Nevertheless, I assume that virtue epistemologists still recognize the value and priority of truth when it comes to issues of epistemic evaluation. Someone who holds false beliefs is not the possessor of knowledge, and this remains the case irrespective of whatever vices and virtues the agent has. In other words, it does not matter how careful, attentive and assiduous an agent is in selecting and evaluating information, if what the agent believes is false, they simply do not know.

What seems to be important in the case of virtue epistemology is the role that intellectual virtue plays in securing the truth of an agent’s beliefs. In particular, the central feature of virtue epistemology (at least to my mind) is that the truth of an agent’s beliefs stem from the exercise of intellectual virtue. It is thus not the case that truth is unimportant (or less important) when it comes to issues of positive epistemic standing; rather, it is the role that intellectual virtue plays in establishing the truth of an agent’s beliefs. An agent is thus a bona fide knower when they believe the truth and the truth in question is attributable to some aspect of their cognitive character, specifically, a cognitive trait (virtue responsibilism) or cognitive faculty (virtue reliabilism).

What then makes something a vice or virtue seems to be tied to the reliability of token instantiations of processes that are consistent with an agent’s cognitive character. Intellectual virtues are thus “cognitive character traits that are truth-conducive and minimalise error” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 3), while intellectual vices are characterized as “cognitive character traits that are not truth-conducive and do not minimalise error” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 3). It is this feature of the intellectual virtues—the fact that they are, in general, reliable (or give rise to reliable belief-relevant processes)—that looks to be important when it comes to issues of epistemic evaluation.

So this is what I find problematic about virtue theoretic approaches to knowledge. (Note that I am not an epistemologist by training, so this will require a generous—and hopefully virtue-inspiring swig—of the ole intellectual courage.) Imagine a state-of-affairs in which the Internet was (contrary to the present state-of-affairs) a perfectly safe environment—one where the factive status of online information was guaranteed as a result of advances in cyber-security techniques and intelligent fact-checking services. Next, let us imagine that we have two individuals, Paul and Sophia, who differ with respect to their cognitive character. Paul is the least virtuous of the two, unreflectively and automatically accepting whatever the Internet tells him. Sophia is more circumspect, wary of being led astray by (the now non-existent) fake news.

Inasmuch as we see the exercise of intellectual virtue as necessary for online knowledge, it looks unlikely that poor old Paul can be said to know very much. This is because the truth of Paul’s beliefs are not the result of anything that warrants the label ‘intellectual virtue.’ Paul, of course, does have a lot of true beliefs, but the truth of these beliefs does not stem from the exercise of his intellectual virtues—if, indeed, he has any. In fact, inasmuch as there is any evidence of virtue in play here, it is probably best attributed to the technologies that work to ensure the safety of the online environment. The factive status of Paul’s beliefs thus has more to do with the reliability of the Internet than it does with the elements of his cognitive character.

But is it correct to say that Paul has no online knowledge in this situation? Personally, I do not have this intuition. In other words, in a perfectly safe environment, I can see no reason why we should restrict knowledge attributions to agents whose beliefs are true specifically as the result of intellectual virtue. My sense is that even the most unreflective of agents could be credited with knowledge in a situation where there was no possibility of them being wrong. And if that is indeed the case, then why insist that it is only the exercise of intellectual virtue that underwrites positive epistemic standing?

After all, it seems perfectly possible, to my mind, that Sophia’s epistemic caution contributes no more to the minimization of error in an epistemically benign (i.e., safe) environment than does Paul’s uncritical acceptance. (In fact, given the relative efficiency of their doxastic systems, it may very well be the case that Sophia ends up with fewer true beliefs than Paul.) It might be claimed that this case is invalidated by a failure to consider the modal stability of an agent’s beliefs relative to close possible worlds, as well as perhaps their sensitivity to counterfactual error possibilities. But given the way in which the case is characterized, I suggest that there are no close possible worlds that should worry us—the cybersecurity and fact checking technologies are, let us assume, sufficiently robust as to ensure the modal distance of those worrisome worlds.

One implication of all this is to raise doubts about the necessity of intellectual virtue, relative to our conceptual understanding of knowledge. If there are cases where intellectual virtue is not required for positive epistemic standing, then intellectual virtue cannot be a necessary condition for knowledge attribution. And if that is the case, then why should intellectual virtue form the basis of an approach that is intended to deal with the epistemic shortcomings of the (contemporary) Internet?

Part of the attraction of virtue epistemology, I suspect, is the way in which a suite of generally reliable processes are inextricably linked to the agent who is the ultimate target of epistemic evaluation. This linkage, which is established via the appeal to cognitive character, helps to ensure the portability of an agent’s truth-tracking capabilities—it helps to ensure, in other words, that wherever the agent goes their reliable truth-tracking capabilities are sure to follow.

However, in an era where our doxastic systems are more-or-less constantly plugged into a reliable and epistemically safe environment, it is not so clear that agential capabilities are relevant to epistemic standing. This, I suggest, raises doubts about the necessity of intellectual virtue in securing positive epistemic status, and it also (although this is perhaps less clear) encourages us to focus our attention on some of the engineering efforts (as opposed to agent-oriented educational programs) that might be required to make the online world an epistemically safer place.


What, then, should we make of the appeal to virtue epistemology in our attempt to deal with the  epistemic hazards of the Internet. My main concern is that the appeal to virtue epistemology (and the emphasis placed on intellectual virtue) risks an unproductive focus on individual human agents at the expense of both the technological and social features of the online world. This certainly does not rule out the relevance of virtue theoretic approaches as part of our attempt to understand the epistemic significance of the Internet, but other approaches (e.g., modal reliabilism, process reliabilism, distributed reliabilism, and systems-oriented social epistemology) also look to be important.

Personally, I remain agnostic with regard to the relevance of different epistemological approaches, although I worry about the extent to which virtue epistemology is best placed to inform policy-related decisions (e.g., those relating to education). In particular, I fear that by focusing our attention on individual agents and issues of intellectual virtue, we risk overlooking some of the socio-epistemic benefits of the Internet, denigrating a particular technology (e.g., personalized search) on account of its failure to enhance individual knowledge, while ignoring the way a technology contributes to more collective forms of epistemic success.

In concluding his thought-provoking paper on virtue epistemology and the Internet, Richard suggests that “there is an important role for educators to teach and assess [intellectual] virtues as part of formal school and university curricula, perhaps as part of critical thinking courses” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 10). I have said relatively little about this particular issue in the present paper. For what it’s worth, however, I can see no reason to object to the general idea of Internet-oriented educational policies. The only caveat, perhaps, concerns the relative emphasis that might be placed on the instillation of intellectual virtue as opposed to the inculcation of technical skills, especially those that enable future generations to make the online world a safer place.

No doubt there is room for both kinds of pedagogical program (assuming they can even be dissociated). At the very least, it seems to me that the effort to resolve a problem (i.e., engineer a safer Internet) is just as important as the effort to merely cope with it (i.e., acquire a virtuous cognitive character). But, in any case, when it comes to education and learning, we should not lose sight of the fact that the Internet is itself something that is used for educational purposes. Perhaps, then, the more important point about education and the Internet is not so much the precise details of what gets taught, so much as the issue of whether the Internet (with all its epistemic foibles) is really the best place to learn.

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Goldman, A. I. (2011). A guide to social epistemology. In A. I. Goldman and D. Whitcomb (Eds.), Social Epistemology: Essential Readings, pp. 11–37. New York, New York, USA: Oxford University Press.

Hannak, A., P. Sapiezynski, A. Molavi Kakhki, B. Krishnamurthy, D. Lazer, A. Mislove, and C. Wilson (2013). Measuring personalization of Web search. In D. Schwabe, V. Almeida, H. Glaser, R. Baeza-Yates, and S. Moon (Eds.), Proceedings of the 22nd International Conference  on World Wide Web, Rio  de Janeiro, Brazil, pp. 527–538. ACM.

Heersmink, R. (2018). A virtue epistemology of the Internet: Search engines, intellectual virtues, and education. Social Epistemology 32 (1), 1–12.

Muldoon, R. (2013). Diversity and the division of cognitive labor. Philosophy Compass 8 (2), 117–125.

Palermos, S. O. (2015). Active externalism, virtue reliabilism and scientific knowledge. Synthese 192 (9), 2955–2986.

Pritchard, D. (2009). Knowledge. Basingstoke, England, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Smart, P. R. (in pressa). Emerging digital technologies: Implications for extended conceptions of cognition and knowledge. In A. J. Carter, A. Clark, J. Kallestrup, O. S. Palermos, and D. Pritchard (Eds.), Extended Epistemology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Smart, P. R. (in pressb). Knowledge machines. The Knowledge Engineering Review.

Smart, P. R. (in pressc). Mandevillian intelligence. Synthese.

Smart, P. R. (in pressd). Mandevillian intelligence: From individual vice to collective virtue. In A. J. Carter, A. Clark, J. Kallestrup, O. S. Palermos, and D. Pritchard (Eds.), Socially Extended Epistemology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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[1] This work is supported under SOCIAM: The Theory and Practice of Social Machines. The SOCIAM Project is funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) under grant number EP/J017728/1 and comprises the Universities of Southampton, Oxford and Edinburgh.

[2] See [accessed: 30th  January 2018].

Author Information: Damien Williams, Virginia Tech,

Williams, Damien. “Deleting the Human Clause: A Review of Ashley Shew’s Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 42-44.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge is Ashley Shew’s debut monograph and in it she argues that we need to reassess and possibly even drastically change the way in which we think about and classify the categories of technology, tool use, and construction behavior. Drawing from the fields of anthropology, animal studies, and philosophy of technology and engineering, Shew demonstrates that there are several assumptions made by researchers in all of these fields—assumptions about intelligence, intentionality, creativity and the capacity for novel behavior.

Many of these assumptions, Shew says, were developed to guard against the hazard of anthropomorphizing the animals under investigation, and to prevent those researchers ascribing human-like qualities to animals that don’t have them. However, this has led to us swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction, engaging in “a kind of speciesist arrogance” which results in our not ascribing otherwise laudable characteristics to animals for the mere fact that they aren’t human.[1]

Shew says that we consciously and unconsciously appended a “human clause” to all of our definitions of technology, tool use, and intelligence, and this clause’s presumption—that it doesn’t really “count” if humans aren’t the ones doing it—is precisely what has to change.

In Animal Constructions, Shew’s tone is both light and intensely focused, weaving together extensive notes, bibliography, and index with humor, personal touches, and even poignancy, all providing a sense of weight and urgency to her project. As she lays out the pieces of her argument, she is extremely careful about highlighting and bracketing out her own biases, throughout the text; an important fact, given that the whole project is about the recognition of assumptions and bias in human behavior. In Chapter 6, when discussing whether birds can be said to understand what they’re doing, Shew says that she

[relies] greatly on quotations…because the study’s authors describe crow tool uses and manufacture using language that is very suggestive about crows’ technological understanding and behaviors—language that, given my particular philosophical research agenda, might sound biased in paraphrase.[2]

In a chapter 6 endnote, Shew continues to touch on this issue of bias and its potential to become prejudice, highlighting the difficulty of cross-species comparison, and noting that “we also compare the intelligence of culturally and economically privileged humans with that of less privileged humans, a practice that leads to oppression, exploitation, slavery, genocide, etc.”[3] In the conclusion, she elaborates on this somewhat, pointing out the ways in which biases about the “right kinds” of bodies and minds have led to embarrassments and atrocities in human history.[4] As we’ll see, this means that the question of how and why we categorize animal construction behaviors as we do has implications which are far more immediate and crucial than research projects.

The content of Animal Constructions is arranged in such a way as to make a strong case for the intelligence, creativity, and ingenuity of animals, throughout, but it also provides several contrast cases in which we see that there are several animal behaviors which might appear to be intentional, but which are the product of instinct or the extended phenotype of the species in question.[5] According to Shew, these latter cases do more than act as exceptions that test the rule; they also provide the basis for reframing the ways in which we compare the behaviors of humans and nonhuman animals.

If we can accept that construction behavior exists on a spectrum or continuum with tool use and other technological behaviors, and we can come to recognize that animals such as spiders and beavers make constructions as a part of the instinctual, DNA-based, phenotypical natures, then we can begin to interrogate whether the same might not be true for the things that humans make and do. If we can understand this, then we can grasp that “the nature of technology is not merely tied to the nature of humanity, but to humanity in our animality” (emphasis present in original).[6]

Using examples from animal studies reaching back several decades, Shew discusses experimental observations of apes, monkeys, cetaceans (dolphins and whales), and birds. Each example set moves further away from the kind of animals we see as “like us,” and details how each group possess traits and behaviors humans tend to think only exist in ourselves.[7] Chimps and monkeys test tool-making techniques and make plans; dolphins and whales pass hunting techniques on to their children and cohort, have names, and social rituals; birds make complex tools for different scenarios, adapt them to novel circumstances, and learn to lie.[8]

To further discuss the similarities between humans and other animals, Shew draws on theories about the relationship between body and mind, such as embodiment and extended mind hypotheses, from philosophy of mind, which say that the kind of mind we are is intimately tied to the kinds of bodies we are. She pairs this with work from disability studies which forwards the conceptual framework of “bodyminds,” saying that they aren’t simply linked; they’re the same.[9] This is the culmination of descriptions of animal behaviors and a prelude a redefinition and reframing of the concepts of “technology” and “knowledge.”

Editor's note - My favourite part of this review roundtable is scanning through pictures of smart animals

Dyson the seal. Image by Valerie via Flickr / Creative Commons


In the book’s conclusion, Shew suggests placing all the products of animal construction behavior on a two-axis scale, where the x-axis is “know-how” (the knowledge it takes to accomplish a task) and the y-axis is “thing knowledge” (the information about the world that gets built into constructed objects).[10] When we do this, she says, we can see that every made thing, be it object or social construct (a passage with important implications) falls somewhere outside of the 0, 0 point.[11] This is Shew’s main thrust throughout Animal Constructions: That humans are animals and our technology is not what sets us apart or makes us special; in fact, it may be the very thing that most deeply ties us to our position within the continuum of nature.

For Shew, we need to be less concerned about the possibility of incorrectly thinking that animals are too much like us, and far more concerned that we’re missing the ways in which we’re still and always animals. Forgetting our animal nature and thinking that there is some elevating, extra special thing about humans—our language, our brains, our technologies, our culture—is arrogant in the extreme.

While Shew says that she doesn’t necessarily want to consider the moral implications of her argument in this particular book, it’s easy to see how her work could be foundational to a project about moral and social implications, especially within fields such as animal studies or STS.[12] And an extension like this would fit perfectly well with the goal she lays out in the introduction, regarding her intended audience: “I hope to induce philosophers of technology to consider animal cases and induce researchers in animal studies to think about animal tool use with the apparatus provided by philosophy of technology.”[13]

In Animal Constructions, Shew has built a toolkit filled with fine arguments and novel arrangements that should easily provide the instruments necessary for anyone looking to think differently about the nature of technology, engineering, construction, and behavior, in the animal world. Shew says that “A full-bodied approach to the epistemology of technology requires that assumptions embedded in our definitions…be made clear,”[14] and Animal Constructions is most certainly a mechanism by which to deeply delve into that process of clarification.

Contact details:


Shew, Ashley. Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017.

[1] Ashley Shew, Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge p. 107

[2] Ibid., p. 73

[3] Ibid., p. 89, n. 7

[4] Ibid., pg. 107—122

[5] Ibid., pg. 107—122

[6] Ibid., p. 19

[7] On page 95, Shew makes brief mention various instances of octopus tool use; more of these examples would really drive the point home.

[8] Shew, pg. 35—51; 53—65; 67—89

[9] Ibid., p. 108

[10] Ibid., pg. 110—119

[11] Ibid., p. 118

[12] Ibid., p. 16

[13] Ibid., p. 11

[14] Ibid., p 105