Author Information: Michel Croce, University of Edinburgh, michel.croce@ed.ac.uk.

Croce, Michel. “Objective Expertise and Functionalist Constraints.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 5 (2019): 25-35.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. This essay is published in two separate posts, the first of which is available at this link. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-49a

Pictured here, an artist’s rendering of Christian Quast and his uncle who can do plumbing. Some liberties in representation have been taken.
Image by Natalie Bowers via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

. . . . In a word, Quast cannot have his cake and eat it too.

On the Fundamental Ingredients of Expertise

The balanced account suffers from a second problem pertaining to the aforementioned ingredients of expertise, namely primary competence, secondary competence, and intellectual virtues (see also Hardwig 1994, 92). According to ExpertF-C-M, expertise requires an undefeated disposition to fulfill a particular service function adequately at the moment of assessment.

In turn, all three ingredients feature in the undefeated-disposition requirement, in that lacking any of them defeats the attribution of expertise. In this section, I demonstrate that this account is too strong, as it poses unduly restrictive requirements for one to be an expert. In particular, I worry about secondary competence and what Quast calls “intellectually virtuous character” as necessary components of expertise.

Let us consider secondary, or explanatory, competence first: the ability to give an account of one’s performances. We have already seen that on the balanced account, failing to display secondary competence defeats expertise because, as the wine-consultant case shows, we expect from experts that they can give us explanations regarding their services.

However, the plausibility of this understanding of expertise entirely rests on the specifics of the example Quast introduces. In the proposed case, a subject challenges the wine consultant’s evaluation because of its inconsistency with the subject’s expectations and the testimony of the former owner of the cellar. Notice, though, that the disposition to account for one’s performances—in particular, to laypeople—requires an entirely different set of abilities than the ones necessary to fulfill one’s service function successfully. The former set includes such intellectual virtues as a sensitivity to a layperson’s epistemic resources, communicative clarity, intellectual generosity, and possibly other abilities.[1]

A civil engineer could well possess primary competence in demolishing or rebuilding a bridge and the ability to discuss it with other experts yet lack the competence to provide effective explanations of their techniques, strategies, and related risks to a lay audience. Something similar happens in sports. A lot of amazing athletes can do extremely complicated things that are generally out of reach for most human beings, yet they may not be able properly to account for what they do.

They can show you these actions hundreds of times, but if you ask them to tell you how they do that, you might feel extremely disappointed or confused by their explanations. This is why not all the greatest sport heroes are good coaches and not all the best civil engineers can effectively account for what they do to a lay audience. For as I will stress in the final section, primary competence and secondary competence are, in a sense, different kinds of expertise.

A Private or People’s Expertise

The required combination of these competences for a proper understanding of expertise on Quast’s view is somewhat surprising if we bear in mind that he wants to confer objective expertise to “private experts,” who can offer us quite specific services such as fixing some leaky drain pipes. In Quast’s private-expert case, it seems odd to require that Christian’s father-in-law be able to give an account of how he is going to fix the pipe in order to fulfill the function of a private expert.

For, on the one hand, the relevant contrast class includes two individuals, namely Christian and his wife, who—as we are told—are both inexperienced in these kinds of handicraft matters. On the other, Christian’s father-in-law might even lack the necessary abilities properly to explain how he will repair the pipes.

These considerations make it hard to see why giving an appropriate account of the provided service should be necessary for Christian’s father-in-law to be an expert on a functionalist view that aims at being in a position to grant private experts objective expertise.

Consider now the other ingredient of expertise on Quast’s view, namely one’s intellectual character in the sense of their willingness to manifest primary and secondary competence when appropriate. The above considerations about the intellectual abilities required for one to deliver proper explanations of one’s service should provide sufficient reason to consider possession of an intellectually virtuous character as a relevant component of the competences required for one to be an expert rather than as mere willingness to manifest such competences.[2] Thus, in the remainder of this critical notice I shall simply tackle the willingness component and, in particular, the willingness to manifest secondary competence when appropriate.

Suppose a physicist, call him Ivory Tower, is completely reluctant to share anything related to his work with people, especially laypersons. Ivory’s social interactions are limited to what’s required for him to keep his position at his institution. Ivory works in optics, and, in particular, he is developing reliable ways to see through walls by using special cameras. More specifically, he is working on a project that would allow rescue teams to individuate people when the terrain is dangerous and would allow cars to avoid accidents by identifying obstacles or vehicles from around the corner.

Quast’s view commits us to conclude that Ivory lacks expertise in optics or whatever more specific subfield he is working in because he fails to display the required willingness to give an account of his performances when appropriate. This verdict is unsatisfying in general, as it strikes us as evident that Ivory’s extremely sophisticated work in optics should suffice to grant him the status of an expert.

Furthermore, the verdict is unsatisfying even from the perspective of a functionalist account of expertise, as Quast’s purports to be. For despite lacking willingness to explain his work to others, Ivory is surely serving laypeople’s needs. He does so by attempting to solve problems in optics and providing the community with new resources rather than by making himself accountable for his work to a lay audience, but this merely amounts to another relevant way an expert can serve their community, as I will argue in the next section. Thus, since there seem to be no good reasons to deny Ivory the expertise he has acquired through years of intense work, we can conclude that the willingness to manifest secondary competence is not a necessary condition for one to possess expertise.

Two allegedly key ingredients in Quast’s account of expertise, namely secondary competence and the willingness to manifest that competence when appropriate, are less fundamental than one might have initially thought. In fact, they should not be considered necessary requirements for one to be an expert in some domain. In the final section, I shall explore some implications of the considerations offered so far, with the aim of contributing to reaching a better understanding of the notion of, and the role of, an expert in the context of the society we currently live in.

Expertise Today: Toward an Objective Approach

Many reputable scholars characterize the age we live in as a post-truth era (Fuller 2018) in which the very idea of expertise is dead (Nichols 2017), as it has been replaced by a free market in information and self-attributed competences that takes place in the blogosphere (Coady 2012), the internet (Lynch 2016), and more recently social media, where fake news easily proliferates (Vosoughi et al. 2018). As Nichols thoroughly describes (see §7), we’re surrounded by a gigantic amount of news and by experts who are more and more specialized in any domain, and yet we know less than before and distrust expertise.

If there is one thing epistemologists can surely do—in fact, must do—to counteract the advance of post-truth thinking in our society, it is attempting to reach a better understanding of the notion of expertise. Such a service would not solve all the problems, yet it would at least contribute to indicating where genuine competence lies and who has it and therefore to marking a neater distinction between experts and charlatans. This is why I am largely sympathetic to Quast’s efforts, as it is clear that we need experts now more than ever.

It is for the same reasons, though, that I believe Quast’s balanced account of expertise is on the wrong track. In this final section, I make two points to suggest how we should redirect our search for a better account of expertise. First, I explain why we need a more objective account of expertise. Second, I suggest an alternative way to look at the service experts are supposed to fulfill in our communities.

The first consideration is called for by the peculiar situation we’re currently in. As I showed in §1, the functionalist spirit of the balanced account of expertise ends up undermining the very notion of objective expertise that Goldman has in mind when he argues that “being an expert is not simply a matter of veritistic superiority to most of the community. Some non-comparative threshold of veritistic attainment must be reached” (2001, 91).

Since Goldman admits that it might be difficult to determine where the bar has to be set, one might suspect the balanced account has a clear advantage over a purely objective approach to expertise, as on Quast’s view being suitably disposed and willing to serve the need of a relevant contrast class is all it takes for one to achieve the status of an expert.

This is a mistake though because it is far from obvious that a novice or group of novices can reliably ascribe expertise to someone who is supposed to be more competent than they are in a domain. In other words, the more context sensitive and subject sensitive is the process of expertise attribution, the higher is the risk of misplacing trust in non-experts. This is an unwelcome consequence of the balanced account—a consequence that makes the account lose its alleged positional advantage over objective approaches to expertise.

Against the Balanced Account

My proposed epistemic consideration against the balanced account of expertise can be supported by a further reason for favoring an objective account of expertise—namely, the fact that this latter account provides a community with robust criteria for assessing who is to be trusted to deliver a service in any field. This translates into a practical advantage for the entire community, which can create ways to signal who and where experts are[3] and therefore help lay members navigate the current ocean of self-attributed competences and epistemic egalitarian ideals. Needless to say, this consideration does not suffice as a remedy against the detrimental effects of post-truth thinking; yet it should at least offer motivation for directing our efforts toward an objective approach to expertise rather than a “balanced” one.

The second consideration brings the distinction between primary and secondary competence back on stage. In a realist, or objective, approach, the attribution of expertise cannot depend on the specific function one is required to fulfill relative to some contrast class in a particular context. Some handy craftsperson who has learned how to repair the very same leaky drain pipe at one’s home over the years does not count as an expert, because their competence is too limited and unreliable in similar situations in which a proficient plumber is expected to succeed.

Yet, an objective account is in a position to distinguish at least two broad kinds of expertise, namely the expertise of those who can reliably provide some sort of service in a domain and those who can explain what’s going on in a domain to others, especially laypeople. Call the former domain-oriented expertise and the latter novice-oriented expertise.

The set of domain-oriented experts includes reliable plumbers, scuba divers, wine tasters, lawyers, doctors, musicians, and scholars, among others. Their expertise consists of an ability to serve the needs of a community in their respective domains—that is, what Quast calls primary competence. In particular, the function of domain-oriented experts encompasses two main roles:

(i) that of expert practitioners, who address specific needs of the community members—for example, repairing leaky drain pipes, maintaining or restoring health, and performing jazz music; and

(ii) that of expert innovators, whose job is to improve the community’s capacity to serve the needs of their members by developing new resources, advancing the techniques, or carrying out groundbreaking research in a domain—for example, creating more-robust drain pipes, developing new therapies against cancer, or composing jazz music.

As should be evident, both functions demand that the subject have intellectual or practical dispositions to reliably deliver the required services. However, these roles are quite different, and not all expert practitioners are also expert innovators, and vice versa. Thus, any individual who fulfills either role possesses domain-oriented expertise.

In contrast, the set of novice-oriented experts includes those individuals who have secondary competence, namely the capacity to help laypeople understand the services domain-oriented experts provide to the community. This set typically includes teachers and science popularizers, but all domain-oriented experts who possess a sufficient amount of secondary competence may have novice-oriented expertise too.

However, possessing domain-oriented expertise does not ensure that one also has novice-oriented expertise, as the wine-consultant and civil-engineer cases discussed in §2 demonstrate. For this service activates a different set of dispositions—namely, novice-oriented abilities, which are not strictly necessary for one to possess domain-oriented expertise.

Conclusion

The proposed categorization of the two main services experts fulfill in a community allows us to take into due consideration the functionalist element of expertise without giving up on an objective perspective that grants conceptual primacy to the dispositional component of expertise. We all wish to be surrounded by subjects who can offer clear explanations of how they are going to satisfy our needs, but we’d better also have an account that explains why some experts greatly serve the domain-oriented needs of our community without being able to serve the novice-oriented ones.

This is not only important for us to improve the explanatory power of our definition of expertise, but also for a community to evaluate how to deploy its resources to ensure that both kinds of experts are in a suitable position to fulfill their respective service function.

This reply to Quast’s insightful paper aimed at shedding light on some limits of his account and sketching a strategy to accept Quast’s suggestions about the necessary balance between a dispositional dimension and a functionalist dimension of expertise within an objective approach. Far from offering a comprehensive alternative account, I hope this reply can encourage others to address the important issues Quast has raised in his paper and can contribute to improving our understanding of the notion of expertise.

Contact details: michel.croce@ed.ac.uk

References

Coady, David. 2012. What to Believe Now: Applying Epistemology to Contemporary Issues. Malden (MA): Wiley-Blackwell.

Croce, Michel. 2019. “On What It Takes to Be An Expert.” The Philosophical Quarterly 69(274): 1-21.

Fuller, Steve. Post-Truth: Knowledge as A Power Game. London: Anthem Press.

Goldman, Alvin. 2001. “Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 63: 85-110.

Lynch, Michael. 2016. The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in The Age of Big Data. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Nichols, Tom. 2017. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. New York: Oxford University Press.

Quast, Christian. 2018. “Towards A Balanced Account of Expertise.” Social Epistemology 32(6): 397-419.

Vosoughi, Soroush; Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral. (2018). “The Spread of True and False News Online.” Science 359 (6380): 1146-1151.

[1] These virtues are part of what I have elsewhere called novice-oriented abilities (see Croce 2019, 13).

[2] For the sake of completeness, it should also be noted that other intellectual virtues may be required for one to possess primary competence in a domain, especially in those fields in which competence involves some propositional knowledge and understanding. In particular, I have in mind virtues such as thoroughness, intellectual perseverance, creativity, open-mindedness, intellectual curiosity, and autonomy (see Croce 2019, 18).

[3] As Goldman points out, this is the role of academic certifications, professional accreditations, work experiences, and so on (2001, 97).

Author Information: Michel Croce, University of Edinburgh, michel.croce@ed.ac.uk.

Croce, Michel. “Objective Expertise and Functionalist Constraints.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 5 (2019): 25-35.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. This essay is published in two separate posts, the second of which is available at this link. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-496

Image by Bill Kerr via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Christian Quast has recently embarked on the project of systematizing the debate about the notion of expertise, an extremely fascinating and important issue addressed by scholars of many disciplines yet still in need of an interdisciplinary take. He sheds light on a number of relevant features of this notion and defends what he calls a “balanced” account of expertise, namely one that defines this concept in light of an expert’s dispositions, manifestations of their dispositions, and social role or function.

In doing so, Quast argues against three versions of reductionism about expertise: ReductionismF, which reduces expertise to the function an expert fulfills in a community; ReductionismM, which confuses expertise with the manifestation of an expert’s competence; and ReductionismD, in which expertise boils down to possessing suitable dispositions in a specific domain—that is, practical abilities or epistemic properties such as knowledge, true beliefs, or understanding.

As an attempt at bringing together interdisciplinary discussions of a specific topic, Quast’s project is ambitious and provides a genuine contribution to the ongoing discussions around the topic of expertise in philosophy, psychology, and the social sciences. Inevitably, Quast’s rich analysis and original proposal raise a number of worries that deserve to be further inspected.

In this critical reply, I offer some considerations that put pressure on Quast’s balanced account and hopefully help anyone interested in this debate take a step forward toward explaining what it takes for one to be an expert. The reply is structured as follows. First, I argue that his allegedly balanced view is liable to a potentially compromising tension between its function component and the ingredients of objective expertise (§1).

Then, I show that Quast’s threefold characterization of an objective expert is too strong, as it imposes conditions that several individuals whom we would consider experts are unable to fulfill (§2). Finally, I provide reasons in favor of endorsing an objective account of expertise in light of some specific features of our society, and show how this account can take into due consideration the different services experts ordinarily perform (§3).

Against a Balanced Account of Expertise

The first consideration I want to offer in response to Quast is that, to put it simply, he cannot have his cake and eat it too. Quast devotes a good amount of his paper to convincing us that the aforementioned reductionist accounts of expertise are flawed and that a more plausible story of what it takes for one to be an expert has to rely upon “an entangled interrelationship” between an expert’s dispositions and the contextual service function they perform in a community (2019, 412). In this section, I purport to show that such an entangled relationship of dispositions and functions on his balanced approach is largely problematic.

Let us recall Quast’s comprehensive definition of an expert, which is offered right at the end of his article:

(ExpertF-C-M) Someone e is an objective expert in contrast to some client c within a certain domain d only if e is undefeatedly disposed to fulfill a particular service function in d for c adequately at the moment of assessment (412).

At first glance, Quast’s move is attractive. In the end, we usually think of experts as subjects who are more competent than most people in a domain,[1] but, at the same time, we grant one the status of an expert (i) based on their social role and (ii) against a relevant contrast class of individuals who are unable to provide a similar service. In contrast, both ReductionismF and ReductionismD are liable to counterexamples.

The former is wrongly committed to granting the status of an expert translator to a subject who manages a translation-services company by delegating any job to unknown freelancers and lacks any translating skills (402). The latter is wrongly committed to grant the status of a wine expert to an individual who can correctly estimate the value of a wine cellar without having the ability or the willingness to provide an explanation of their evaluation (407).

In contrast, neither the manager nor the wine consultant satisfies the requirements of expertise on the balanced account. The former is not an expert, because he lacks the dispositions required to provide translating services—that is, knowledge of at least two languages, translating skills, and the like. The latter is not an expert, because her competence to assess the value of wine cellars gets defeated by her inability or unwillingness to give an account of her services at the moment of assessment (407).[2]

Dispositions and Functions in Tension

However, a closer inspection of Quast’s proposed view of expertise reveals a tension between the disposition component and the function component. Consider the disposition component first and, in particular, his analysis of objective expertise.

He conceives of objective expertise as encompassing the following three elements: (i) primary competence, which relates to an expert’s reliability in delivering the services they are supposed to provide; (ii) secondary competence, which relates to an expert’s ability to explain their services to a client, thereby establishing and fostering mutual trust; and (iii) intellectually virtuous character, which ensures that an expert is willing to manifest both the above competences when appropriate.

For the time being, let’s set aside a reasonable concern one might have about Quast’s unduly narrow characterization of the role intellectual-character virtues play in his account of objective expertise.[3]

The balanced account is quite demanding, as according to it someone is an objective expert insofar as they are competent in a given domain, able to provide their clients with tailored explanations of their services, and willing to do so in the appropriate circumstances. Going back to the wine-consultant case, it should be evident that the reason why the consultant might fail to be an expert is that she lacks secondary competence, intellectual virtues, or both, as her inability or unwillingness to share any considerations about her estimate of the wine cellar with the client demonstrates.

As anticipated, on the balanced account these considerations about objective expertise need to be balanced, or implemented, with further remarks on the service function of experts. Here Quast takes quite a concessive route and offers the case of a “private expert”: in the example, Christian Quast’s wife asks him to find someone who can fix or replace a leaky drain pipe; he approaches the issue by relying on his father-in-law, whose craft hobby enables him to solve the problem (410).

Quast is ready to admit that his father-in-law is more of an expert than himself and his wife, yet he goes so far as to concede that the man satisfies the requirements of a function-based account of expertise.

The function component plays a key role in this account, in that the service his father-in-law fulfills determines

(i) a relevant contrast class of individuals who lack the disposition to perform a specific function—that is, the class composed of Christian and his wife;

(ii) a proper characterization of the domain of expertise, namely that of replacing leaky drain pipes;

(iii) the degree of reliability required for Christian’s father-in-law to fulfill the function—that is, Christian’s own standards for replacement of leaky drain pipes;

(iv) a range of similar situations in which the man is supposed to be able to deliver his services; and

(v) minimum conditions for him to fulfill the individual requirements of objective expertise, which in this case require relative competence to repair the leaky drain pipe at the Quasts’ place.

Thus, on Quast’s balanced account, possession of expertise depends on contextual factors, such as the specifics of the contrast class of laypeople and the situation in which expertise is ascribed, as well as on practical factors, such as the needs of the relevant clients and the urgency of the required service. These elements determine whether a hobbyist-craftsperson is an expert in repairing leaky drain pipes or a wine consultant is an expert in value assessment of wine cellars.

Problems of Balance in Expertise

Unfortunately, the “balanced” account emerging from these components is less tenable than one might have initially thought. The first problem is that it is hard to make sense of the notion of objective expertise on such a functionalist account. For possession of objective expertise in a domain becomes hostage to two inherently relative elements, namely (i) the service someone is disposed and willing to fulfill for (ii) a community—or contrast class, to stick with Quast’s vocabulary.

On standard comparative accounts of expertise, (ii) obviously plays a major role, as possession of expertise merely amounts to being more of an expert in a (broader or narrower) domain than some group of people and therefore expertise reduces to an entirely comparative notion.

In such a perspective, both Christian’s father-in-law and a plumbing engineer are experts in repairing leaky drain pipes although the latter’s competence is much broader than the former’s. For each of them is more of an expert than the respective contrast class, which includes Christian and his wife in the former case versus, say, most people in the engineer’s town, district, or state in the latter case. Clearly, though, this diagnosis comes at the cost of giving up on the inquiry into the objective requirements of expertise.

Despite including (ii) in his account of expertise, Quast purports to endorse a view that makes room for objective expertise. Thus, he has to prevent this relative condition from delivering the standard comparative diagnosis in situations such as the leaky-drain-pipes one.

He does so through the service-function element—that is, (i)—by arguing that one is an objective expert insofar as they are undefeatedly disposed to serve a relevant need of the respective community or contrast class. Thus, on the balanced account we can still attribute objective expertise to both Christian’s father-in-law and a plumbing engineer as long as they can fix leaky drain pipes in the respective community or contrast class.

I am unpersuaded by this move for two reasons. The first is that introducing a relative element such as (i) does not neutralize the anti-objective effect of (ii); rather, it is likely to intensify such an effect by adding a further relative variable to the account. The second is that the only way for Quast to grant expertise to his father-in-law and a plumbing engineer is to impose odd restrictions on domains of expertise.

Specifically, he has to concede that his father-in-law is an expert because he serves the community composed of Christian and his wife by doing something like “repairing leaky drain pipes at the Quasts’ place” or “repairing leaky drain pipes of some kind.” In contrast, the plumbing engineer is an expert because he serves a wider community by, say, “repairing leaky drain pipes of any kind.”

This move would thus generate an unnecessary proliferation of domains of expertise depending on the specific needs of any relevant contrast class. For example, my auntie Renata, who helps most inhabitants of a rural village in Liguria react to (i.e., “like”) and comment on the content appearing in their Facebook news feed, would possess objective expertise in something like “adding likes and comments on posts on Facebook” relative to the contrast class composed of the citizens of Bevena, although her competence regarding social networks ends pretty much there.

These considerations show that the balanced account narrows the notion of expertise to the point that we lose our grip on what is objective about an expert’s competence. To avoid this result and save both the functionalist spirit of his view and its context sensitivity, Quast should abandon the idea of making room for objective expertise and endorse an entirely comparative account. This is why, in a word, Quast cannot have his cake and eat it too.

Contact details: michel.croce@ed.ac.uk

References

Coady, David. 2012. What to Believe Now: Applying Epistemology to Contemporary Issues. Malden (MA): Wiley-Blackwell.

Croce, Michel. 2019. “On What It Takes to Be An Expert.” The Philosophical Quarterly 69(274): 1-21.

Fuller, Steve. Post-Truth: Knowledge as A Power Game. London: Anthem Press.

Goldman, Alvin. 2001. “Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 63: 85-110.

Lynch, Michael. 2016. The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in The Age of Big Data. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Nichols, Tom. 2017. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. New York: Oxford University Press.

Quast, Christian. 2018. “Towards A Balanced Account of Expertise.” Social Epistemology 32(6): 397-419.

Vosoughi, Soroush; Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral. (2018). “The Spread of True and False News Online.” Science 359 (6380): 1146-1151.

[1] It may be helpful to note that this competence may boil down to different properties and dispositions depending on the specifics of the domain under consideration. For instance, the competence of an expert carpenter might involve a good deal of experience, practical skills, and know-how, whereas the competence of an expert in contemporary history might be mostly based on great instruction, analytical skills, and theoretical understanding of the extant literature and recent historical events.

[2] In the analysis of his wine-expert case, Quast points out that we might ascribe a default expertise to the wine consultant yet withdraw our attribution of expertise if she refuses to provide suitable explanations of her evaluation (407–8).

[3] As I have argued elsewhere (see Croce 2019, §§4–5), we have reasons to think the character virtues of an expert make them not only willing but also able to fulfill their service function within a community.

Author Information: Alcibiades Malapi-Nelson, Humber College, alci.malapi@outlook.com.

Malapi-Nelson, Alcibiades. “Revisions on a Study of Steve Fuller.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 5 (2019): 16-24.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-48S

Image by antifixus21 via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

The following essay is a substantive revision of Alcibiades Malapi-Nelson’s earlier review of Knowing Humanity in the Social World. You can read that older version at this link.

Francis Remedios and Val Dusek have written a thorough and exhaustive account of Steve Fuller’s work, ranging (mostly) from 2003 to 2017. Fuller’s earlier work was addressed in Remedios’ previous book, Legitimizing Scientific Knowledge (2003) – to which this one is the logical continuation. Back then Remedios introduced the reader to Fuller’s inaugurated field of research, “social epistemology”, encompassing the philosopher’s work from the late 1980’s until the turn of the century.

Given that Steve Fuller is one of the most prolific authors alive, having published (so far) 30 books and hundreds of articles, Remedios & Dusek’s book (as Remedios’ previous book), fill a practical need: It is hard to keep up with Fuller’s elevated rate of production. Indeed, both the seasoned reader and the neophyte to Fuller’s fairly overwhelming amount of writing, will need a panoramic and organic view of his breathtaking scope of research. Remedios & Dusek successfully accomplish the task of providing it.

Part of the beauty of Remedios & Dusek’s book is that the authors masterfully distributed Fuller’s somewhat eclectic intellectual pursuits in various chapters, so that, qua textbook, one can focus on those aspects that one finds relevant to our particular interests. I believe that Remedios & Dusek had precisely this intention: doing a service to the readers via facilitating access to Fuller’s thought in a selective manner.

The Bildung of a Person and Its Concepts

Remedios & Dusek’s book starts with a Foreword by Fuller himself, followed by an Introduction (Ch. 1) by the authors. The bulk of the monograph is comprised by several chapters addressing Fuller’s ideas on Science and Technology Studies (Ch. 2), Social Epistemology (Ch. 3), the University & Interdisciplinarity (Ch. 4), Intelligent Design (Ch. 5), Cosmism & Gnosticism (Ch. 6), and the Proactionary principle (Ch. 7).

There is some connective overlap between chapters. In each one of them, Remedios & Dusek provide an articulated landscape of Fuller’s ideas, the occasional criticism, and a final summary. The book ends up with an appropriately short Conclusion (Ch. 8) and a PostScript (Ch. 9) – an interview’s transcription.

It is worth pointing out that the work is chronologically (and conveniently) in sync with Fuller’s own progressive intellectual development, and thus, the first part roughly focuses on his earlier work, whereas the second part on his later writings.[1]

The first chapter after the Introduction (Chapter 2, “Fuller on Science and Technology Studies” (STS), already provides a cue for a theme that would transfix the arc of Fuller’s thoughts spanning the last decade. As I see it, Steve Fuller is arguably going to extents that some may deem controversial (e.g., his endorsement of some type of Intelligent Design, his backing up of transhumanism, his gradual “coming out” as a Catholic) due to one main reason: A deep preoccupation with the future of humanity vis-à-vis pervasively disrupting emerging technologies.

Accordingly, Fuller wants to fuel a discussion that may eventually salvage whatever we find out that being human consists of – even if this “human” will resemble little the “humans” as we know them now. At this point, the “cue” is not self-evident: Fuller does not like Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network theory.

In Fuller’s view, Latour’s framework triggers both an epistemological and an ethical problem: it diffuses human agency and by extension, responsibility – respectively. Equating human agency with the causal power attributed to the “parliament of things” ultimately reverberates in an erosion of human dignity. Here the cue becomes clearer: It is precisely this human dignity that Fuller will later defend in his attack of Darwinism.

This chapter also articulates Fuller’s views on the neo-Kantian transformation of the unity of “philosophy and science” to a disentangled “philosophy of science”, triggering the role – disliked by him – of the philosopher as “underlabourer” of science. Linked to this chain of events is the critical view of STS’ subsequent degeneration into a merely descriptive pursuit (abandoning its primogenital normative calling).

Finally, the chapter also addresses Fuller’s famous criticism of Thomas Kuhn and support of Karl Popper; his (for some surprising) friendliness with logical positivism; and the perhaps equally famous comparison of the various rings of power within science with the religious disputes of Post-Reformation Christianity.

Humanity Beyond the Human

Chapter 3, “Fuller’s Social Epistemology and Epistemic Agency”, provides a further clue to Fuller’s agenda. Remedios & Dusek coined a sentence that may constitute one of the most succinct, although fundamental, pillars in Steve Fuller’s grand framework: “For Fuller, humanity would continue if homo sapiens end”.[2]

This statement ingeniously captures Fuller’s position that “humanity” (a “project” started during the Medieval Ages and developed during Modernity), is something that homo sapiens earn – or not. Biology might provide a compatible receptacle for this humanity to obtain, but it is by no means an automatic occurrence. One strives to get it – and many in fact fail to reach it.

In the context of this theme, Fuller steers away from an “object-oriented” (social) epistemology to an “agent-oriented” one: Instead of endlessly ruminating about possible theories of knowledge (which would render an accurate picture of the object – social or not), one starts to take into account the possibilities that open up after considering transforming the knowing agent itself. This transition foretells Fuller’s later view: a proactionary approach[3] to experimentation where the agent commits to the alteration of reality – as opposed to a precautionary stance, where the knower passively waits for reality’s feedback before further proceeding.

In chapter 4, “The University and Interdisciplinarity”, Remedios & Dusek treat Fuller’s views on the situation of institutions of higher education currently confronting the relentless compartmentalization of knowledge. Fuller praises Wilhelm von Humboldt’s reinvention of the notion of the university in the 19th century, where the individual would acquire a holistic formation (bildung), and which would produce in return tangible benefits to society out of the growth of knowledge in general and science in particular.

This model, which catapulted Germany to the forefront of research, and which was emulated by several Western nations, has been gradually eroded by neoliberalism. Neoliberal stances, spurred by an attention to clients’ requests, progressively severed the heretofore integral coexistence of research and teaching, creating instead pockets of specialization – along with their own idiosyncratic jargon.

This fragmentation, in turn, has generated an overall ignorance among scientists and intellectuals regarding the “big picture”, which ultimately results in a stagnation of knowledge production. Fuller advocates for a return to the Humboldtian ideal, but this time incorporating technology as in integral part of the overall academic formation in the humanities.

As a proposed solution, and espousing a risk-taking (proactionary) approach, Fuller would assign “Academic Caesars”[4] as heads of universities – namely, people who get into academic management not out of being “failed academicians”, nor because they are poked from corporative realms with cero knowledge about the educational system, but because they successfully merge both outstanding management skills with deep knowledge of universities’ academic structures (likely holding advanced degrees in the two areas).

The Academic Caesar would be in charge of breaking down the barriers built up between disciplines. This task would be primordial, since the current communication breakdowns between disciplines in fact represent an existential threat against the educational institutions themselves, given that hiring corporations gradually find less value added in this hyper-specialized knowledge – tinkering instead with the possibility of cutting the middle man, recruiting people with high IQ’s and “forming” them themselves.

An integrated knowledge constituted by both humanities and technology (which Fuller differentiates from “digital humanities” – the passive translation of humanities into accessible electronic means) would bring an added value in terms of creativity and critical thinking that not only would be deemed attractive to demanding employers of the future, but it would immunize the citizen against a Draconian forthcoming competition against Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the workplace.

Roles for Religion and God

Chapter 5, “Fuller’s Intelligent Design” (ID), deals with the philosopher’s controversial views regarding this position, particularly after the infamous Dover Trial. Remedios & Dusek have done a very good job at tracing the roots and influences behind Fuller’s ideas on the issue. They go all the way back to Epicurus and Hume, including the strong connection between these two and Charles Darwin, particularly in what concerns the role of “chance” in evolution. Those interested in this illuminating philosophical archeology will be well served after reading this chapter, instead of (or as a complement to) Steve Fuller’s two books on the topic.[5]

It would perhaps be best to start pointing out that the infamous ID controversy within Fuller’s work[6]  might have been blown out of proportion. Fuller has expressed, both orally and in writing, that the notion of ID he is sympathetic to is one that refers to the “intelligibility” of phenomena in the universe – the possibility of us understanding a certain finding, discovery or natural mechanism.

The acknowledgment that a particular portion of reality was parsed in such way that it can sync with our cognitive capacities, raises the question regarding whether or not there is some sort of intelligence behind it. The very mark of this intelligence would be our intelligibility of the phenomenon.

This way of presenting the ID position is closer to what some call the “teleological argument” – to which Isaac Newton subscribed: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”[7] This is a far cry from, if not the opposite of, the infamous quasi-scientific, right-wing, Sola Scriptura-inspired, Protestant creationism to which ID is unfortunately often associated.

Newton, the natural philosopher who embodied the Scientific Revolution (and thus, by extension, the beginning of Modern Science) shared this view. Three hundred years later, we find ID as underpinning a theoretical framework friendly with deep alterations of nature.

What Intelligent or Intelligible Design Does or Doesn’t Do

Remedios & Dusek, however, maintain that ID has no positive scientific agenda, that all its claims about life and its origins are negations (instead of putting forward testable hypotheses).[8] Perhaps that is to be expected – and a brief consideration of its ID’s character could provide a hint as to why such is the case. On the one hand, ID does not attribute “intelligence” to any entity in particular. It can refer to a divine being, an extra-terrestrial creature or a human being.

They just have to possess, to use Cartesian nomenclature, a sort of res cogitans – which for Descartes included angels. On the other hand, “design” belongs more to the realm of technology (i.e. engineering) than to that of science. Recreating the object of study has been a mark of epistemic success from Giambattista Vico on. It is no coincidence that some nanotechnologists see him as a sort of patron saint.[9]

And this is why ID is found as part of a core “metaphysical research program” behind the so-called Emerging Technologies (or the NBIC Convergence: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information technology and Cognitive science),[10] the innovative culture of Silicon Valley and the views of several tech billionaire gurus.

In fact, this operating framework behind innovation may constitute one of the best arguments against those who claim that ID’s illustrious heritage does not justify its recognition as an epistemic meta-force in science.[11] If “Intelligent Design”, now at the hands of humans, aiming at the modification of nature towards our betterment, is what is behind technology innovators who actually make things work, how much does the complaints of older philosophers really matter?

Chapter 6, “Fuller, Cosmism and Gnosticism” lays out the relationship of the philosopher with these two themes. Steve Fuller recognizes in Russian cosmism an important predecessor to transhumanism – along with the writings of the mystical Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin.

Fuller is lately catering to a re-emergence of interest among Slavs regarding these connections, giving talks and seminars in Russia. Cosmism, a heterodox offspring of Russian Orthodoxy, aims at a reconstruction of the (lost) paradise by means of reactivation of a type of “monads” spread-out throughout the universe – particles that disperse after a person dies.

Scientific progress would be essential in order to travel throughout the cosmos retrieving these primordial “atoms” of people of the past, so that they could be one day resurrected. Russia would indeed have a cosmic ordering mission. This worldview is a particular rendition of the consequences of Christ’s Resurrection, which was denounced by the Orthodox Church as heretical.

Nevertheless, it deeply influenced several Slavic thinkers, who unlike many Western philosophers, did have a hard time reconciling their (Orthodox) Christianity with reason and science. This syncretism was a welcomed way for them to “secularize” the mystical-prone Christian Orthodoxy and infuse it with scientific inquiry. As a consequence, rocket science received a major thrust for development. After all, machines had to be built in order to retrieve these human particles so that scientifically induced global resurrection occurs.

One of the more important global pioneers in rocket engines, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (who later received approval by Joseph Stalin to further develop space travel research), was profoundly influenced by it. In fact, increasingly more scholars assert that despite the official atheism of the Soviet Union, cosmism was a major driving force behind the Soviet advances, which culminated in the successful launch of the Sputnik.

Engaging Proactionary Thinking

Chapter 7, “Proactionary and Precautionary Principles and Welfare State 2.0”, is the last chapter before the Conclusion. Here Remedios & Dusek deal with Fuller’s endorsement of Max More’s Proactionary Principle and the consequent modified version of a Welfare State.

The proactionary approach, in contradistinction with the precautionary principle (which underpins much of science policy in Europe), advocates for a risk-taking approach, justified partly in the very nature of Modern science (experimentation without excessive red tape) and partly in what is at stake: the survival of our species. Fuller further articulates the proactionary principle, having written a whole book on the subject[12] – while More wrote an article.

Steve Fuller’s general endorsement of transhumanism is not uncritical. A representative issue that does not sit easy in Fuller’s mind is the question of those humans that choose to remain “unimproved” in a future where individual amelioration becomes normalized – perhaps even “reasonably” imposed (not unlike today’s children’s vaccination).

Indeed, Fuller forcefully brought up this issue during his 2016 Budapest debate with Zoltan Istvan.[13] The future situation of those persons who choose staying unenhanced, in a “human 1.0” state, brings me to my last point. A framework of “reasonable accommodation” to these minorities (which might actually constitute high numbers, just as some conceptions qualify women as a minority) will have to be worked out. After all, some hardcore luddites, such as the Amish, are still around.

In this context, Remedios & Dusek bring up Fuller’s involvement in the StarArk project: an attempt to construct a future self-sustaining mega spaceship that will make of humans an interplanetary species and which may justify the said enhancements for interstellar travel.[14] Remedios & Dusek characterize Fuller’s endorsement of this project as an elitist attempt to pick and choose only (or mostly) those “enhanced”, for perpetuating the species:

Perhaps the StarArk would only be able to accommodate a Strangelovian elite of proactionary Uebermenschen adventurers, leaving the ecologists, precautionaries, and most other benighted humans to perish.[15]

This occurs in the penultimate paragraph, where the authors probably could not resist finally coming out as precautionaries. It is a good point. However, Fuller also advocates for the defense of minorities in a transhuman world, even giving them opportunities for contributing to the betterment of the whole species. For instance, he supports the idea of sending the elderly to space.[16]

Of course, on the one hand, there is not much they could lose. But on the other, they could live their last years of a human 1.0 lifestyle in space peace, just as we now regard with admiration the well polished and carefully refurbished American cars of the 60’s still circulating in La Havana. In that regard, indeed the opposite of the alleged neo-Nietzschean supermen would be sent to the stars.

The Roles of This Book

Remedios & Dusek have done an excellent job in summarizing, articulating and criticizing the second half of Steve Fuller’s vast corpus – from the early 2000s until last year. I foresee a successful reception by thinkers concerned with the future of humanity and scholars interested in Fuller’s previous work. As a final note, I will share a sentiment that will surely resonate with some – particularly with the younger readers out there.

As noted in the opening remarks, Remedios & Dusek’s book fill a gap in what concerns the possibility of acquiring an articulated overview of Fuller’s thought, given his relentless rate of publication. However, the sheer quantity to keep up with is not the only issue. These days, more than “the written word” may be needed in order to properly capture the ideas of authors of Fuller’s calibre. As I observed elsewhere,[17] reading Fuller is a brilliant read – but it is not an easy read.

It may be fair to say that, as opposed to, say, the relatively easy reading of an author like Steven Pinker, Steve Fuller’s books are not destined to be best-sellers among laymen. Fuller’s well put together paragraphs are both sophisticated and precise, sometimes long, paying witness to an effort for accurately conveying his multi-layered thought processes – reminding one of some German early modern philosophers.

Fortunately, there is now a solid source of clarity that sheds effective light on Fuller’s writing: his available media. There are dozens of video clips (and hundreds of audio files[18]) of his talks, freely available to anyone. It may take a while to watch and listen to them all, but it is doable. I did it. And the clarity that they bring to his writings is tangible.

If Fuller is a sophisticated writer, he certainly is a very clear (and dare I say, entertaining) speaker. His “talking” functions as a cognitive catalyst for the content of his “writing” – in that, he is arguably returning to the Humboldtian ideal of merged research and teaching. Ideally, if one adds to these his daily tweets,[19] now we have at reach the most complete picture of what would be necessary to properly “get” a philosopher like him these days. I have the feeling that, regardless of our settled ways, this “social media” component, increasingly integrated with any serious epistemic pursuit, is here to stay.

Contact details: alci.malapi@outlook.com

References

Brain Bar (2016). Human vs Artificial. Steve Fuller and Zoltan Istvan. Budapest, Hungary. Available at: http://brainbar.com/video/human-vs-artificial.

Fuller, S. (2007). Science Vs. Religion?: Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Fuller, S. (2008). Dissent Over Descent: Intelligent Design’s Challenge to Darwinism. Cambridge, UK: Icon.

Fuller, S. (2014). The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fuller, S. (2015). “Embracing Transhumanism.” Talk given at the Stevens Institute of Technology on 25 Mar 2015. Available (item 107) at: www.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/sociology/staff/sfuller/media/audio.

Fuller, S. (2016). The Academic Caesar: University Leadership is Hard. London, UK: SAGE.

Horgan, J. (2015).  “Steve Fuller and the Value of Intellectual Provocation” Scientific American. March 27, 2015. Available at: www.blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/steve-fuller-and-the-value-of-intellectual-provocation.

Jung, R. (2005). “Postmodern systems theory: A phase in the quest for a general system.” In E. Kiss (Hg.). Postmoderne und/oder Rationalität (pp. 86–93). Kodolányi János Főiskola, Székesfehérvár.

Lynch, W. (2016a). “Cultural Evolution and Social Epistemology: A Darwinian Alternative to Steve Fuller’s Theodicy of Science.” Social Epistemology 31(2): 1-11.

Malapi-Nelson, A. (2013). “Book review: Steve Fuller, Humanity 2.0: What it Means to be Human Past, Present and Future.” International Sociology Review of Books 28(2): 240-247.

Malapi-Nelson, A. (2017). The Nature of the Machine and the Collapse of Cybernetics: A Transhumanist Lesson for Emerging Technologies. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Newton, I. (1687). The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. (B. Cohen, A. Whitman, & J. Budenz, Trans.). Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 1999.

Remedios, F. and Dusek, V. (2018). Knowing Humanity in the Social World: The Path of Steve Fuller’s Social Epistemology. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

[1] With the exception of the PostScript, which is a transcription of an interview with Steve Fuller mostly regarding the first period of his work.

[2] Remedios & Dusek 2018, p. 34

[3] Remedios & Dusek 2018, p. 40

[4] Fuller 2016

[5] Fuller 2007 and Fuller 2008

[6] Fuller 2007 and Fuller 2008

[7] Newton 1687, Book III, General Scholium

[8] Remedios & Dusek 2018, p. 79

[9] Malapi-Nelson 2017, p. 248; Jung 2005

[10] Malapi-Nelson 2017, ch. 10

[11] Lynch 2016a, p.2

[12] Fuller 2014

[13] BrainBar 2016

[14] This idea was, in fact, at the core of the first transhumanist proposals as such, during the first half of the 20th century. Cf. Malapi-Nelson 2017, pp. 227-237.

[15] Remedios & Dusek 2018, p. 119

[16] Fuller 2015, Horgan 2015

[17] Malapi-Nelson 2013

[18] warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/sociology/staff/sfuller/media/audio

[19] Some of which are reproduced by Remedios & Dusek 2018 (e.g. p. 102).

Author Information: Chukwueloka S. Uduagwu, Conversational School of Philosophy, elokauduagwu@gmail.com.

Uduagwu, Chukwueloka S. “How Do We Construct Ontology Within a Particular Culture? A Conversation with L. Uchenna Ogbonnaya.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 4 (2019): 34-37.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-48l

Image by Stars Foundation via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In this short conversation, I engaged L. Uchenna Ogbonnaya’s article titled ‘Between the Ontology and Logic Criteria of African philosophy’ published in chapter seven of Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. I will spot the key contributions of the paper and engage them critically with the objective of deconstructing and reconstructing the weak point to give way for new vistas of thought. Finally, I put forward ‘questioning cultural experience’ as criterion for African philosophy to rebut Ogbannaya’s Ontology criterion for African philosophy. My method will be conversational.

Introduction

There are several questions that have confronted African philosophy with the end of the Great Debate. These include issues such as: the language question, the question of criterion of African philosophy, etc. A number of scholars have addressed the language question in African philosophy ranging from Chris Uroh (1994), Francis Ogunmodede (1998), Ngugi Wa’Thiong’o (2005),  Alena Rettova (2007), Godfrey Tangwa (2017), Chukwueloka Uduagwu (2017).

They all attempt to resolve the language problem in African philosophy. After that the criterion for African philosophy became another fundamental question for African philosophy. These questions have been addressed by scholars such as Odera Okura (1975), Sophie Oluwole (1989), Paulin Hountondji (1996), Peter Bodunrin (1991), Innocent Onyewuenyi (1991), Uduma Oji Uduma (2014), Jonathan Chimakonam (2015a; 2015b) and L. Uchenna Ogbonnaya (2018).

As an ambassador of Conversational School of Philosophy (CSP), it is my duty to critically but creatively interrogate and reconstruct the existing positions in African philosophy by seasoned and potential African philosophers to build a systemic Africa philosophy as an academic discipline. I will in this article subject Ogbonnaya’s essay to the crucial test of conversational philosophy.

Ogbonnaya’s Submission to the Criterion Question of African Philosophy

One of the issues that are yet to be settled in African philosophy today is the question of criterion or what makes African philosophy ‘African’. Many scholars like Hountondji, Odera Oruka, Bodunrin, Wiredu, Uduma, Chimakonam and so on have address this problem. However, to best of knowledge the last to address this predicament is Ogbonnaya in the book, [Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy Edited by Edwin Etieyibo]. The article that addresses the said question is titled ‘Between the Ontology and Logic Criterion of African Philosophy in chapter seven of the book (133-143).

In the article, Ogbonnaya conversed with the logic criterion put forward by Chimakonam. Ogbonnaya explained that Chiamkonam’s logic criterion holds that every philosophy is informed by it background logic (2018, 119). He further stressed that for Chimakonam, philosophy is therefore, a philosophy because it is the custodian of a given logic which defines it (Ogbonnaya 2018, 119). Thus, what makes African philosophy African and philosophical is the African background logic.

However, Ogbonnaya, rebuts this conclusion that the Africanness of philosophy is defined by African background logic. His reason is that Chimakonam’s conclusion is built on a wrong foundation and premise (2018, 120). Thus, he posits ‘I do not share the sentiment of Chimakonam that African logic is the criterion of African philosophy (Ogbonnaya 2018, 121). Ogbonnaya, argues that it is not logic that defines philosophy, for him philosophy is logic, which Uduma affirms in his inaugural lecture.

Against this backdrop, Ogbonnaya, argues, that if one accepts that philosophy is logic, it becomes a contradiction for one to say that logic is a criterion for philosophy. He stressed that, if one says that logic is the criterion of philosophy, it is the same as saying that philosophy is that which defines logic or philosophy.

For him, this is a fallacy of begging the question (2018, 121). Ogbonnaya, concludes by saying that African philosophy is not determined by African logic; it is the same as African logic. Hence, African logic is African philosophy and not its criterion. His reason is that both logic and philosophy, which are concerned with the study or science of the nature of reality. This implies that logic and philosophy depend on ontology, which is a science of reality.

Considering an African Science of Reality

Thus, Ogbonnaya, posits ontology as a criterion for African philosophy. He argues that, it is ontology that defines both philosophy and logic and not logic as argued by Chimakonam (2018, 122). He explains that ontology is the science of reality, of which logic and philosophy seek to understand and explain its nature. For this reason, he asserts: ‘ontology becomes the yardstick of defining or shaping a philosophy to understand this reality’ (2018, 122).

My question is, how does ontology perform this function in philosophy? What element of ontology performs this magic? Ogbonnaya did not explain. He claims that ontology determines logic and defines its nature. How does ontology achieve this? These are the questions that I think Ogbonnaya needs to clarify.

Furthermore, Ogbonnaya, posits that African logic reflects African thought system, which in turn reflects African ontology. My challenge is, how does person’s thought system link to their ontology? He did not explain but went on to conclude that African logic has its root in African ontology. He argues that, if a particular ontology is distinct from another ontology, its logic will also be distinct from the logic of the other ontology.

For him, ontology varies from culture to culture. The question is: how do we arrive at ontology of a particular people within their culture? Is it all aspects of culture that can yield ontology? How do you justify, the claim that it is a particular aspect of culture that is ontology? These are the questions I think, Ogbonnaya has not addressed.

The problem with Ogbonnaya’s criterion is that, it fails to explain how ontology determines logic and defines its nature. What are the elements of this ontology that performs this magic in philosophy? However, he states that culture yields philosophy, and that this particular aspect of culture is ontology. In other words, ontology is rooted in culture. Hence, ontology is by-product of culture. Thus, ontology is informed by its culture. If that is the case, ontology is realized when we question and interrogate this cultural experience. In line with this Ijiomah argues that a people’s ontology and logic is excavated through questioning cultural experience of the people (2014).

When Philosophy and Ontology Blur With Culture

To sum it up, it is in the questioning of this cultural experience that the ontology of a particular people is discovered. If this is the case, questioning cultural experience becomes the yardstick of defining or shaping a philosophy as well as its ontology. This is quite different from Uduma’s cultural background criterion. To my understanding, what Uduma meant here is that culture serve as a given in society.

Thus, you narrate or describe what is there without questioning or interrogating this culture. What is being described or narrated becomes the philosophy of the people. This is one of the reasons why professional philosophers refer to African philosophy as culture bound philosophy.

If we do not question these cultural experiences, we tend to remain at the level of ethnophilosophy, which professional philosophers like Wright, Bodunrin, etc have criticized. I wish to add that if cultural experience is not interrogated even ontology becomes a difficult task to achieve. It is in interrogating of African cultural experiences that African ontology is realized.

Thus, if African culture forms the background of African ontology, African ontology cannot be the criterion for African philosophy. Rather, it is the questioning of African cultural experience that becomes a criterion for African philosophy. K.C. Anyanwu also notes that cultural experience is what makes philosophy of a given people, African. He argues that philosophy depends on cultural experience and attempts to interpret the experience by means of thought (1984, 83).

However, Anyanwu’s position was more of interpretations of this cultural experience which may lead to hermeneutics which is not really the interrogation of cultural experience as I propose. Someone may ask: how do we interrogate cultural experience without some form of interpretation of such cultural experience?

It is important to note that interrogation is different from interpretation, hence, interpretation gives meaning to the subject matter in question while interrogation or questioning does not give meaning to the subject matter. Rather, it is raises questions on the subject matter. An attempt to interrogate does not lead to interpretation as one might be tempted to believe.

Therefore, my emphasis is on the interrogation of this cultural experience to sieve out the philosophical elements within it. Through this interrogation, the logic, ontology and philosophy of a particular people are constructed. Thus, interrogating cultural experience becomes the yardstick or criterion for African philosophy.

Contact details: elokauduagwu@gmail.com

References

Anyanwu, K.C. “The African World-view and Theory of Knowledge” [African Philosophy: An Introduction to the Main Philosophical Trend in Contemporary Africa], Pp 77-99, 1984. Rome. Officum Libri Catholici. Paperback.

Ijiomah, Chris O. Harmonious Monism: A Philosophical Logic of Explanation for Ontological Issues in Supernaturalism in African thought, Calabar; Jochrisam Publishers, 2014.

Ngugi, Wa’Thiong’o. “The Language of African Literature in Post-Colonialism”, [An Anthology of Cultural Theory and Criticism], Pp 143-168, 2005. Berge: Oxford.

Ogbonnaya, Lucky, U. “Between the Ontology and Logic Criterion of African Philosophy,” [Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy, Ed. Etieyibo Edwin.], pp113-134, 2018.  Cham. Springer Nature. Paperback.

Ogunmodede, Francis. “African Philosophy in African Language,” [West African Journal of Philosophical Studies], Vol 1. Pp 3-26, 1998. Paperback.

Rettova, Alena. [Afrophone Philosophies: Reality and Challenge], 2007. Zdenek Susa Stredokluky

Tangwa, Godfrey. “Revisiting the Language Question in African Philosophy”.[The Palgrave Handbook of African Philosophy. Eds. Adesinya Afolayan and Toyin Falola], pp 129-140, 2017 New York: Springer Nature.

Uduagwu, S. Chukwueloka. “Revisiting the Language Question in African Philosophy: Why Conversationalism is a Viable Alternative.” [Paper Presented at the International Conference on Contemporary Language, Logic, and Metaphysics: African and Western Approaches], held at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, from August 14-16, 2017.

Uduma, O. Uduma. “The Question of the ‘African’ in African Philosophy: in Search of a Criterion for the Africanness of a Philosophy.” [Filosofia Theoretical Journal of African Philosophy, Culture and Religions], Vol 3. No 1. 127-146. Calabar School of Philosophy. Paperback

Uroh, C. “Colonialism and the Language Question.” [A Reply to Godfrey Tangwa: In Quest Philosophical Discussions], Vol. VIII, No. 2, December, p.138, 1994.

Author Information: Mirko Farina, King’s College London, mirko.farina@kcl.ac.uk.

Farina, Mirko. “Exploring the Concepts of Science in 166 Pages: Reviewing Nigel Sanitt.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 4 (2019): 28-33.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-48g

A wax statue of Isaac Newton, deceased.
Image by Nadia via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In Culture, Curiosity and Communication in Scientific Discovery, scientist Nigel Sanitt develops an empirically-informed, highly interdisciplinary, and richly holistic account of scientific progress and discovery. By drawing upon a vast range of historical and contemporary sources, Sanitt provides important, original insights to understand the nature of scientific reasoning and how it is practised.

The book contains a useful introduction in which Sanitt highlights the focal points of his project and 15 short chapters in which he further develops his positive proposal (the idea that the foundations of science are built on sand and that scientific theories are frameworks we use to model nature). The book also considers how meaning is created in science and argues that science is deeply grounded in questions.

In the first part of this critical notice I briefly summarise the book’s content. I then turn my attention to one of the most important theoretical tensions underlying it: the relationship between science and philosophy. I investigate this tension,  critically assess the claim that philosophy is dead (Hawking, 2010), and in agreement with Sanitt conclude that a synergetic relationship between science and philosophy is not only desirable but also mutually beneficial.

A Fast Walk Through Vast Territory

In chapters 1 and 2, Sanitt sets up the scene and looks at the role of truth in science (pp.2-6). He then goes on to discuss the function (prediction) of scientific theories (pp. 18-22) and their search for invariance (pp. 25-26). Sanitt also aptly reviews recent progresses in philosophy of science (pp.7-14) and convincingly argues that the foundations of science are built on sand. Let me notice here that the philosophical grounding of this latter set of ideas could have been enriched by discussing the work of Poincaré, Duhem, Lakatos and Feyerabend.

In chapters 3 and 4, Sanitt discusses two theories [the integrationist theory of meaning defended by Harris (1981); and the theory of problematology pioneered by Meyer 2014)] that play a pivotal role in the development of his book. In particular, the former (pp. 41-43) provides Sanitt with the conceptual palette for the latter, which he uses to argue that science is an answer-generating dynamic enterprise (p.53).

Chapters 5 and 6 focus on the idea that scientific theories are frameworks, networks with links and nodes (p.70), that we use to model nature. Here Sanitt gives the mathematical background to describe these networks using graph theory (pp.72-79).

Chapter 7 focuses on scientific communication and looks, in particular, at how scientists interact with the media, the public, the politicians, with scientific organisations, and with each other (pp.82-84). While the need for more public engagement is stressed, the picture that emerges is one where scientists are often forced, by lack of research funding, ‘to actively engage with all these actors in outreach, lobbying, publicity, and policy briefing’ (p.85). This highlights the political, economical and socio-cultural dimension of contemporary scientific practice, which – it is argued- may threaten the independence of science.

The central chapters of the book focus on the relation between science and literature (ch. 8), science and religion (ch. 9), science and art (ch. 10), and science and history (ch.11). Particularly interesting is chapter 10 where Sanitt looks at whether beauty (understood as Pythagorean harmony) can play a role in science (pp.105-107) and points out that many scientists were also successful artists (e.g. Feynman), musicians (e.g. Einstein, Plack, Heisenberg), or writers (e.g. Hoyle, Oppenheimer, Snow).

Chapters 12 looks at the relation between science and culture. Here Sanitt demonstrates that science -as an intellectual and practical pursuit- is deeply rooted and inexorably tied in with our culture (p.121). He also cogently argues for the crucial importance of science in our society (p.122).

Chapter 13 focuses on artificial intelligence and on consciousness (p.131).  Sanitt claims that in explaining these phenomena, ‘separating out meaning, thinking, embodiment, perception and decision making from each other does not work’ (p.135). He thus seems to endorse, albeit not stated, a view (Clark 1998) that involves mind, body and environment as direct and equal partners in the making of human cognitive behaviour.

In chapter 14 Sanitt looks at the relation between science and ethics. He reviews philosophical works on moral and ethical behaviour (pp.137-139), discusses examples of misconduct and professional malpractice in science (pp.141-142), and calls for the development of more rigorous enforcement measures to fight them (p.143).

Chapter 15 focuses on the relation between science and education, discusses gender anomalies in science (p.151) and calls for innovations (adoption of ebooks, contextualisation of textbooks) in educational practices (pp.152-153).

In chapter 16 Sanitt summarises what he has achieved in the book (pp.155-160) and concludes by condemning the idea that philosophy and science should be separated. He writes: ‘a lack of critical thinking skills leads to intellectual impoverishment and in the end, to poor science. There are many universities that include philosophy courses in their undergraduate science curriculum – this is to be encouraged’ (p.162).

Having described the contents of the monograph, I now briefly turn to what I believe is the most interesting theoretical tension underlying it; the relation between science and philosophy.

Philosophy and Science: A Sometimes Sublime Dynamic

The relation between science and philosophy is intricate and highly complicated, and is one that I can only start touching upon here. Roughly speaking we can say that until perhaps the 19th century, there was no real distinction between scientists and philosophers, and many of the greatest scientists were also great philosophers. Newton’s masterpiece, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Newton, 1687/1999) is imbued with philosophical assumptions and is a paradigmatic example of this deep relation.

The gap between science and philosophy started to widen at the beginning of the last century when scientific specialisation drove a wedge between the two disciplines (Philipp, 1957). The gap became even more prominent over the last 50 years or so with the advent of the age of hyper-specialisation.

On the one hand, with the development of new technological breakthroughs, many scientists started to amass enormous amounts of empirical data (especially in disciplines like neuroscience, physics, and psychology) often forgetting (sometimes deliberately ignoring) the theoretical interpretation of such data; on the other hand, many philosophers failed to understand such developments and retreated to their ivory towers into the study of human affairs, leaving the study of nature to natural scientists and often deliberately refusing any interaction with them (this process is brilliantly summarised by Snow 1959/2012).

There were remarkable exceptions on both sides, of course. Einstein’s work (1935) demonstrated that there is a genuine interaction between science and philosophy. Heisenberg once said ‘my mind was formed by studying philosophy, Plato and that sort of thing’ (Buckley and Peat, 1996, p.6).

Russell (1914) argued that the difference between philosophy and science is of the degree not of kind.  Dewey (1938/1991) asserted that the roots of philosophy and science are the same. Poincaré (1905) and Duhem (1908/1991) spent their whole lives developing a ‘scientific philosophy’.

There are also numerous examples in the history of science that shows this deep mutual dependence and profound interaction. For example, Kepler and Sommerfeld were both inspired by Pythagorean ideas in developing their models of the harmonies of the solar system and of the atom (de Haro, 2013).

Non-Locality: Philosophy as a Guide for Quantum Physics

Next, however, I focus on the development of quantum mechanics and discuss a key moment in its history that shows how physical progress crucially depended on asking the right philosophical questions. The discussion of this case study demonstrates that the philosophical debate that took place during those years acted as a positive, driving force that pushed the development of science further.

In 1927, conflicting views on quantum physics started to crystallize. At the 5th Solvay conference in Brussels, Heisenberg declared quantum mechanics to be a ‘closed theory, whose fundamental physical and mathematical assumptions are no longer susceptible of any modification’ (Bacciagaluppi and Valentini, 2009, p. 437). With that assertion, Heisenberg voiced the feelings and the convinctions of many of his colleagues (among them Bohr, Pauli, and Dirac) also present at the conference.

Einstein, however, did not agree with Heisenberg. He believed that the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics – the view that Heisenberg was indirectly defending —had philosophical implications (such as the lack of determinacy in physical quantities and events) that seemed undesirable.

Thus in 1935, with some of his colleagues (Podolsky, and Rosen), Einstein developed a famous thought experiment (known as EPR), which demonstrated the entanglement of two particles located at long distances and implied faster-than-light interactions. Since this explicitly contradicted Einstein’s theory of relativity, quantum mechanics had to be an incomplete theory and the Copenhagen interpretation had to be wrong.

With this thought experiment Einstein wanted to arrive at a theory that fullfilled some ontological desiderata. More precisely, he wanted the theory to accurately describe the real world while incorporating the requirement that physics should be independent of the observer.

While the study of paradoxes has always played an important role in physics, the formulation of the EPR paradox required the development of a neat philosophical stance about the principles and methods that were deemed to be appropriate and valuable for the development of the theory. Thus, this example paradigmatically shows that Einstein’s quest was philosophical in character and therefore that philosophical ideas indeed can play a major role in the development of scientific theories.

Contemporary Alienation

Recently, however, Stephen Hawking declared (2010) the official ‘death’ of philosophy (for similar arguments see also Weinberg, 1992 , for a review of similar arguments see Kerr, 2018). Commenting on the nature of reality, Hawking wrote: ‘traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge’ (Hawking 2010, p. 5).

To be fair to Hawking, his remark seems to be about the current status of philosophy. It does not seem to be a claim about philosophy as a discipline and including all its history (as some critics of Hawking have recently argued). Also, when Hawking made that provocative claim, he probably referred to just metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that aspires to the most general understanding of nature – not to all philosophy.

Now, I don’t want to enter here the discussion of whether all metaphysics should be naturalised (Ladyman et al., 2007). But having given Hawking the fairest possible understanding, I would still like to point out that his view of contemporary philosophy is partial, misleading, and ill-informed.

This is because Hawking, when making that claim, ignored that nowadays there is lots of philosophy born out of metaphysics (philosophy of mind and cognitive science, philosophy of psychology, philosophy of neuroscience) that is deeply grounded in the sciences. He also ignored that there are many areas of research in philosophy (e.g. embodied cognition) that are inspired by scientific findings and that, in turn, guide scientific research. More importantly, he ignored that there are large groups of empirically-informed philosophers (I am one of them, for what that matters), who are increasing leaving their armchairs and ivory towers to work in close contact with scientists.

Here Sanitt, who is himself a scientist but one that is not crusading against philosophy, does (unlike Hawking) a good job in recognising the fundamental importance of philosophical thinking to scientific reasoning. He writes: ‘I believe that science research at the highest level is adversely affected by the lack of philosophical awareness and training for scientists’ (p.59).

Sanitt also recognises that ‘there are limits to the denial of philosophical import to science, which results in paralysis’ (p. 14) and goes on to condemn the process that has led to the fragmentation and alienation of science from philosophy: ‘science has been separated horizontally…from within by too much specialisation…..This separation … is also vertical in the sense that science is seen as a completely different kind of entity from areas dubbed the arts or literature. This kind of separation is just as damaging and just as specious’ (p.14).

The picture that Sanitt draws is therefore one where philosophy directly interacts with science on a number of different levels. In particular, Sanitt believes: i).that the way science is taught and practised should not be immune from philosophical speculations (p.12); ii).that philosophical theorising should play an instrumental role in raising the right questions (pp.52-55) that science aims to answer (pp.64-70); and iii).that philosophy should help scientists interfacing with the wider, non-academic, world (pp. 80-86). Sanitt sees in this collaboration the roots of scientific success and thus argues, pace Hawking, that a synergetic partnership between science and philosophy is highly desirable.

Conclusion

Culture, Curiosity and Communication in Scientific Discovery shines a light through the mist of scientific research. It convincingly makes the case that science is driven by questions that often have a philosophical nature. The book also demonstrates that the foundations of science are built on sand and that the search for truth is always elusive.

The volume is thorough and does not at all shy away from conceptual complexity – quite the opposite.  The impressive sheer wealth and breadth of information presented makes the volume worthwhile. The prose is engaging, the style is captivating, the argument is coherently presented.

Structurally, however, I question the author’s decision of having 16 short chapters, each containing a lot of different subsections (often trying to summarise complex debates in a page or two). Occasionally, this results in having half-backed subsections (e.g. ‘free will’, p.99), which do not fully capture the nuances and the complexities of the issues debated. This sometimes interrupts the flow of the argumentation and prevents the reader from understanding the main point being made.

Nevertheless, this is a much needed (and welcomed) contribution to the field. A must read for scientists and philosophers, and more generally, for all those who are interested in understanding how scientific theories are constructed and verified.

Contact details: mirko.farina@kcl.ac.uk 

References

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