Author Information: Rik Peels, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam,

Peels, Rik. “Exploring the Boundaries of Ignorance: Its Nature and Accidental Features.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 10-18.

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

From the Metropolitan United Church in downtown Toronto.
Image by Loozrboy via Flickr / Creative Commons


This article responds to El Kassar, Nadja (2018). “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance.” Social Epistemology. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1518498.

As does Bondy, Patrick. “Knowledge and Ignorance, Theoretical and Practical.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 9-14.

Nadja El Kassar is right that different fields in philosophy use rather different conceptions of ignorance. I also agree with her that there seem to be three major conceptions of ignorance: (i) ignorance as propositional ignorance, which she calls the ‘propositional conception of ignorance’, (ii) ignorance as actively upheld false outlooks, which she names the ‘agential conception of ignorance’, and (iii) ignorance as an epistemic practice, which she dubs the ‘structural conception of ignorance’.

It is remarkable that nobody else has addressed the question before of how these three conceptions relate to each other. I consider it a great virtue of her lucid essay that she not only considers this question in detail, but also provides an account that is meant to do justice to all these different conceptions of ignorance. Let us call her account the El Kassar Synthesis. It reads as follows:

Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs – either she has no belief about p or a false belief – and her epistemic attitudes (doxastic attitudes, epistemic virtues, epistemic vices).[1]

My reply to her insightful paper is structured as follows. First, I argue that her synthesis needs revision on various important points (§2). After that, I show that, despite her ambition to capture the main varieties of ignorance in her account, there are important kinds of ignorance that the El Kassar Synthesis leaves out (§4).

I then consider the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance and suggest that we should distinguish between the nature of ignorance and its accidental features. I also argue that these two other conceptions of ignorance are best understood as accounts of important accidental features of ignorance (§5). I sketch and reply to four objections that one might level against my account of the nature and accidental features of ignorance (§6).

I conclude that ignorance should be understood as the absence of propositional knowledge or the absence of true belief, the absence of objectual knowledge, or the absence of procedural knowledge. I also conclude that epistemic vices, hermeneutical frameworks, intentional avoidance of evidence, and other important phenomena that the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance draw our attention to, are best understood as important accidental features of ignorance, not as properties that are essential to ignorance.


Before I explore the tenability of the El Kassar Synthesis in more detail, I would like to make a few preliminary points about it that call for some fine-tuning on her part. Remember that on the El Kassar Synthesis, ignorance should be understood as follows:

El Kassar Synthesis version 1: Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs – either she has no belief about p or a false belief – and her epistemic attitudes (doxastic attitudes, epistemic virtues, epistemic vices).[2]

It seems to me that this synthesis needs revision on at least three points.

First, a false belief is an epistemic attitude and even a doxastic attitude. Moreover, if – as is widely thought among philosophers – there are exactly three doxastic attitudes, namely belief, disbelief, and suspension of judgment, then any case of ignorance that manifests itself in a doxastic attitude is one in which one lacks a belief about p or one has a false belief about p.

After all, if one holds a false belief and that is manifest in one’s doxastic attitude, it is because one holds a false belief (that is the manifestation). If one holds no belief and that is manifest in one’s doxastic attitudes, it is because one suspends judgment (that is the manifestation). Of course, it is also possible that one is deeply ignorant (e.g, one cannot even consider the proposition), but then it is simply not even manifest in one’s doxastic attitudes.

The reference to doxastic attitudes in the second conjunct is, therefore, redundant. The revised El Kassar Synthesis reads as follows:

El Kassar Synthesis version 2: Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs – either she has no belief about p or a false belief – and her epistemic attitudes (epistemic virtues, epistemic vices).

What is left in the second conjunct after the first revision is epistemic virtues and vices. There is a problem with this, though. Ignorance need not be manifested in any epistemic virtues or vices. True, it happens often enough. But it is not necessary; it does not belong to the essence of being ignorant.

If one is ignorant of the fact that Antarctica is the greatest desert on earth (which is actually a fact), then that may simply be a fairly cognitively isolated, single fact of which one is ignorant. Nothing follows about such substantial cognitive phenomena as intellectual virtues and vices (which are, after all, dispositions) like open-mindedness or dogmatism. A version that takes this point into account reads as follows:

El Kassar Synthesis version 3: Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs: either she has no belief about p or a false belief.

A third and final worry I would like to raise here is that on the El Kassar Synthesis, ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs—and, as we saw, on versions 1 and 2, in her intellectual character traits (epistemic virtues, epistemic vices). I find this worrisome, because it is widely accepted that virtues and vices are dispositions themselves, and many philosophers have argued this also holds for beliefs.[3]

If so, on the El Kassar Synthesis, ignorance is a disposition that manifests itself in a number of dispositions (beliefs, lack of beliefs, virtues, vices). What sort of thing is ignorance if it is a disposition to manifest certain dispositions? It seems if one is disposed to manifest certain dispositions, one simply has those dispositions and will, therefore, manifest them in the relevant circumstances.

Moreover, virtue or the manifestation of virtue does not seem to be an instance or exemplification of ignorance; at most, this seems to be the case for vices. Open-mindedness, thoroughness, and intellectual perseverance are clearly not manifestations of ignorance.[4] If anything, they are the opposite: manifestations of knowledge, insight, and understanding. An account that takes these points also into account would therefore look as follows:

El Kassar Synthesis version 4: Ignorance is an epistemic agent’s having no belief or a false belief about p.

It seems to me that version 4 is significantly more plausible than version 1. I realize, though, that it is also a significant revision of the original El Kassar Synthesis. My criticisms in what follows will, therefore, also be directed against version 1 of El Kassar’s synthesis.

Propositional, Objectual, and Procedural Ignorance

On the first conception of ignorance that El Kassar explores, the propositional one, ignorance is ignorance of the truth of a proposition. On the Standard View of ignorance, defended by Pierre Le Morvan and others,[5] ignorance is lack of propositional knowledge, whereas on the New View, championed by me and others,[6] ignorance is lack of true belief.

I would like to add that it may more suitable to call these ‘conceptions of propositional ignorance’ rather than ‘positional conceptions of ignorance’. After all, they are explicitly concerned with and limit themselves to situations in which one is ignorant of the truth of one or more propositions; they do not say that all ignorance is ignorance of a proposition.

More importantly, though, we should note that ever since Bertrand Russell, it has been quite common in epistemology to distinguish not only propositional knowledge (or knowledge-that), but also knowledge by acquaintance or objectual knowledge (knowledge-of) and procedural or technical knowledge (knowledge-how).[7]

Examples of knowledge by acquaintance are my knowledge of my fiancée’s lovely personality, my knowledge of the taste of the Scotch whisky Talisker Storm, my knowledge of Southern France, and my knowledge of the smell of fresh raspberries. Examples of technical or procedural knowledge are my knowledge of how to navigate through Amsterdam by bike, my knowledge of how to catch a North Sea cod, my knowledge of how to get the attention of a group of 150 students (the latter, incidentally, suggests that know-how comes in degrees…).

Since ignorance is often taken to be lack of knowledge, it is only natural to consider whether there can also be objectual and technical ignorance. Nikolaj Nottelmann, in a recent piece, has convincingly argued that there are such varieties of ignorance.[8]

The rub is that the El Kassar Synthesis, on all of its four versions, does not capture these two other varieties of ignorance. If one is ignorant of how to ride a bike, it is not so much that one lacks beliefs about p or that one has false beliefs about p (even if it is clear exactly which proposition p is). Also, not knowing how to ride a bike does not seem to come with certain intellectual virtues or vices.

The same is true for objectual ignorance: if I am not familiar with the smell of fresh raspberries, that does not imply any false beliefs or absence of beliefs, nor does it come with intellectual virtues or vices. Objectual and procedural ignorance seem to be sui generis kinds of ignorance.

The following definition does capture these three varieties of ignorance—one that, for obvious reasons, I will call the ‘threefold synthesis’:

Threefold Synthesis: Ignorance is an epistemic agent’s lack of propositional knowledge or lack of true belief, lack of objectual knowledge, or lack of procedural knowledge.[9]

Of course, each of the four versions of the El Kassar Synthesis could be revised so as to accommodate this. As we shall see below, though, we have good reason to formulate the Threefold Synthesis independently from the El Kassar Synthesis.

The Agential and Structural Conceptions of Ignorance

According to El Kassar, there is a second conception of ignorance, not captured in the conception of propositional ignorance but captured in the conception of agential ignorance, namely ignorance as an actively upheld false outlook. This conception has, understandably, been particularly influential in the epistemology of race. Charles Mills, whose contributions to this field have been seminal, defines such ignorance as the absence of beliefs, false belief, or a set of false beliefs, brought about by various factors, such as people’s whiteness in the case of white people, that leads to a variety of behavior, such as avoiding evidence.[10] El Kassar suggests that José Medina, who has also contributed much to this field, defends a conception along these lines as well.[11]

The way Charles Mills phrases things suggests a natural interpretation of such ignorance, though. It is this: ignorance is the lack of belief, false beliefs, or various false beliefs (all captured by the conception of propositional ignorance), brought about or caused by a variety of factors. What these factors are will differ from case to case: people’s whiteness, people’s social power and status, people’s being Western, people’s being male, and people’s being heterosexual.

But this means that the agential conception is not a conception of the nature of ignorance. It grants the nature of ignorance as conceived of by the conception of propositional ignorance spelled out above and then, for obvious reasons, goes on to focus on those cases in which such ignorance has particular causes, namely the kinds of factors I just mentioned.[12]

Remarkably, much of what El Kassar herself says supports this interpretation. For example, she says: “Medina picks out a kind of ignorance, active ignorance, that is fed by epistemic vices – in particular, arrogance, laziness and closed-mindedness.” (p. 3; italics are mine) This seems entirely right to me: the epistemology of race focuses on ignorance with specific, contingent features that are crucially relevant for the debate in that field: (i) it is actively upheld, (ii) it is often, but not always, disbelieving ignorance, (iii) it is fed by epistemic vices, etc.

This is of course all perfectly compatible with the Standard or New Views on Ignorance. Most people’s ignorance of the fact that Antarctica is the largest desert on earth is a clear case of ignorance, but one that is not at all relevant to the epistemology of race.

Unsurprisingly then, even though it clearly is a case of ignorance, it does not meet any of the other, contingent criteria that are so pivotal in critical race theory: (i) it is not actively upheld, (ii) it is deep ignorance rather than disbelieving ignorance (most people have never considered this statement about Antarctica), (iii) it is normally not in any way fed by epistemic vices, such as closed-mindedness, laziness, intellectual arrogance, or dogmatism.

That this is a more plausible way of understanding the nature of ignorance and its accidental features can be seen by considering what is widely regarded as the opposite of ignorance: knowledge. According to most philosophers, to know a particular proposition p is to believe a true proposition p on the basis of some kind of justification in a non-lucky (in some sense of the word) way. That is what it is to know something, that is the nature of knowledge.

But in various cases, knowledge can have all sorts of accidental properties: it can be sought and found or one can stumble upon it, it may be the result of the exercise of intellectual virtue or it may be pretty much automatic (such as in the case of my knowledge that I exist), it may be morally good to know that thing or it may be morally bad (as in the case of a privacy violation), it may be based primarily on the exercise of one’s own cognitive capacities or primarily on those of other people (in some cases of testimony), and so on. If this is the case, then it is only natural to think that the same applies to the opposite of knowledge, namely ignorance, and that we should, therefore, clearly distinguish between its nature and its accidental (sometimes crucially important) features:

The nature of ignorance

Ignorance is the lack of propositional knowledge / the lack of true belief, or the lack of objectual knowledge, or the lack of procedural knowledge.[13]

Accidental, context-dependent features of ignorance

Willful or unintentional;

Individual or collective;

Small-scale (individual propositions) or large-scale (whole themes, topics, areas of life);

Brought about by external factors, such as the government, institutions, or socially accepted frameworks, or internal factors, such as one’s own intellectual vices, background assumptions, or hermeneutic paradigms;

And so on.

According to El Kassar, an advantage of her position is that it tells us how one is ignorant (p. 7). However, an account of, say, knowledge, also need not tell us how a particular person in specific circumstances knows something.[14] Perceptual knowledge is crucially important in our lives, and so is knowledge based on memory, moral knowledge (if there is such a thing), and so on.

It is surely no defect in all the many accounts of knowledge, such as externalism, internalism, reliabilism, internalist externalism, proper functionalism, deontologism, or even knowledge-first epistemology, that they do not tell us how a particular person in specific circumstances knows something. They were never meant to do that.

Clearly, mutatis mutandis, the same point applies to the structural conception of ignorance that plays an important role in agnotology. Agnotology is the field that studies how various institutional structures and mechanisms can intentionally keep people ignorant or make them ignorant or create different kinds of doubt. The ignorance about the effects of smoking brought about and intentionally maintained by the tobacco industry is a well-known example.

Again, the natural interpretation is to say that people are ignorant because they lack propositional knowledge or true belief, they lack objectual knowledge, or they lack procedural knowledge. And they do so because – and this is what agnotology focuses on – it is intentionally brought about or maintained by various institutions, agencies, governments, mechanisms, and so on. Understandably, the field is more interested in studying those accidental features of ignorance than in studying its nature.

Objections and Replies

Before we draw a conclusion, let us consider El Kassar’s objections to a position along the lines I have suggested.[15] First, she suggests that we lose a lot if we reject the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance. We lose such things as: ignorance as a bad practice, the role of epistemic agency, the fact that much ignorance is strategic, and so on. I reply that, fortunately, we do not: those are highly important, but contingent features of ignorance: some cases of ignorance have them, others do not. This leaves plenty of room to study such contingent features of ignorance in critical race theory and agnotology.[16]

Second, she suggests that this account would exclude highly important kinds of ignorance, such as ignorance deliberately constructed by companies. I reply that it does not: it just says that its being deliberately constructed by, say, pharmaceutical companies, is an accidental or contingent feature and that it is not part of the nature of ignorance.

Third, Roget’s Thesaurus, for example, lists knowledge as only one of the antonyms of ignorance. Other options are cognizance, understanding, competence, cultivation, education, experience, intelligence, literacy, talent, and wisdom. I reply that we can make sense of this on my alternative, threefold synthesis: competence, cultivation, education, intelligence, and so on, all come with knowledge and true belief and remove certain kinds of ignorance. Thus, it makes perfect sense that these are mentioned as antonyms of ignorance.

Finally, one may wonder whether my alternative conception enables us to distinguish between Hannah and Kate, as described by El Kassar. Hannah is deeply and willingly ignorant about the high emissions of both carbon and sulfur dioxides of cruise ships (I recently found out that a single cruise trip has roughly the same amount of emission as seven million cars in an average year combined). Kate is much more open-minded, but has simply never considered the issue in any detail.

She is in a state of suspending ignorance regarding the emission of cruise ships. I reply that they are both ignorant, at least propositionally ignorant, but that their ignorance has different, contingent features: Hannah’s ignorance is deep ignorance, Kate’s ignorance is suspending ignorance, Hannah’s ignorance is willing or intentional, Kate’s ignorance is not. These are among the contingent features of ignorance; both are ignorant and, therefore, meet the criteria that I laid out for the nature of ignorance.

The Nature and Accidental Features of Ignorance

I conclude that ignorance is the lack of propositional knowledge or true belief, the lack of objectual knowledge, or the lack of procedural knowledge. That is the nature of ignorance: each case meets this threefold disjunctive criterion. I also conclude that ignorance has a wide variety of accidental or contingent features. Various fields have drawn attention to these accidental or contingent features because they matter crucially in certain debates in those fields. It is not surprising then that the focus in mainstream epistemology is on the nature of ignorance, whereas the focus in agnotology, epistemology of race, feminist epistemology, and various other debates is on those context-dependent features of ignorance.

This is not at all to say that the nature of ignorance is more important than its accidental features. Contingent, context-dependent features of something may be significantly more important. For example, it may well be the case that we have the parents that we have essentially; that we would be someone else if we had different biological parents. If so, that is part of our nature or essence.

And yet, certain contingent and accidental features may matter more to us, such as whether or not our partner loves us. Let us not confuse the nature of something with the accidental features of it that we value or disvalue. If we get this distinction straight, there is no principled reason not to accept the threefold synthesis that I have suggested in this paper as a plausible alternative to El Kassar’s synthesis.[17]

Contact details:


Driver, Julia. (1989). “The Virtues of Ignorance,” The Journal of Philosophy 86.7, 373-384.

El Kassar, Nadja. (2018). “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance”, Social Epistemology, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1518498.

Le Morvan, Pierre. (2011). “On Ignorance: A Reply to Peels”, Philosophia 39.2, 335-344.

Medina, José. (2013). The Epistemology of Resistance (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Mills, Charles. (2015). “Global White Ignorance”, in M. Gross and L. McGoey (eds.), Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies (London: Routledge), 217-227.

Nottelmann, Nikolaj. (2015). “Ignorance”, in Robert Audi (ed.), Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Peels, Rik. (2010). “What Is Ignorance?”, Philosophia 38, 57-67.

Peels, Rik. (2014). “What Kind of Ignorance Excuses? Two Neglected Issues”, The Philosophical Quarterly 64 (256), 478–496.

Peels, Rik, ed. 2017. Perspectives on Ignorance from Moral and Social Philosophy (New York: Routledge).

Peels, Rik. (2019). “Asserting Ignorance”, in Sanford C. Goldberg (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Assertion (Oxford: Oxford University Press), forthcoming.

Peels, Rik, and Martijn Blaauw, eds. (2016). The Epistemic Dimensions of Ignorance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Russell, Bertrand. (1980). The Problems of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Schwitzgebel, Eric. (2002). “A Phenomenal, Dispositional Account of Belief”, Noûs 36.2, 249-275.

[1] El Kassar 2018, 7.

[2] El Kassar 2018, 7.

[3] E.g. Schwitzgebel 2002.

[4] Julia driver (1989) has argued that certain moral virtues, such as modesty, imply some kind of ignorance. However, moral virtues are different from epistemic virtues and the suggestion that something implies ignorance is different from the idea that something manifests ignorance.

[5] See Le Morvan 2011. See also various essays in Peels and Blaauw 2016; Peels 2017.

[6] See Peels 2010; 2014; 2019. See also various essays in Peels and Blaauw 2016; Peels 2017.

[7] See Russell 1980, 3.

[8] See Nottelmann 2015.

[9] If the Standard View on Ignorance is correct, then one could simply replace this with: Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in lack of (propositional, objectual, or procedural) knowledge.

[10] See Mills 2015, 217.

[11] See Medina 2013.

[12] El Kassar in her paper mentions Anne Meylan’s suggestion on this point. Anne Meylan has suggested – and confirmed to me in personal correspondence – that we ought to distinguish between the state of being ignorant (which is nicely captured by the Standard View or the New View) and the action or failure to act that induced that state of ignorance (that the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance refer to), such as absence of inquiry or a sloppy way of dealing with evidence. I fully agree with Anne Meylan’s distinction on this point and, as I argue in more detail below, taking this distinction into account can lead to a significantly improved account of ignorance.

[13] The disjunction is meant to be inclusive.

[15] See pp. 4-5 of her paper.

[16] As Anne Meylan has pointed out to me in correspondence, it is generally true that doxastic states are not as such morally bad; whether or not they are depends on their contingent, extrinsic features.

[17] For their helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper, I would like to thank Thirza Lagewaard, Anne Meylan, and Nadja El Kassar.

Author Information: Valerie Joly Chock & Jonathan Matheson, University of North Florida, &

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

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

Image by sekihan via Flickr / Creative Commons


Epistemic injustice occurs when someone is wronged in their capacity as a knower.[1] More and more attention is being paid to the epistemic injustices that exist in our scientific practices. In a recent paper, Fabien Medvecky argues that science communication is fundamentally epistemically unjust. In what follows we briefly explain his argument before raising several challenges to it.


In “Fairness in Knowing: Science Communication and Epistemic Injustice”, Fabien Medvecky argues that science communication is fundamentally epistemically unjust. First, let’s get clear on the target. According to Medvecky, science communication is in the business of distributing knowledge – scientific knowledge.

As Medvecky uses the term, ‘science communication’ is an “umbrella term for the research into and the practice of increasing public understanding of and public engagement with science.” (1394) Science communication is thus both a field and a practice, and consists of:

institutionalized science communication; institutionalized in government policies on the public understanding of and public engagement with the sciences; in the growing numbers of academic journals and departments committed to further the enterprise through research and teaching; in requirements set by funding bodies; and in the growing numbers of associations clustering under the umbrella of science communication across the globe. (1395)

Science communication involves the distribution of scientific knowledge from experts to non-experts, so science communication is in the distribution game. As such, Medvecky claims that issues of fair and just distribution arise. According to Medvecky, these issues concern both what knowledge is dispersed, as well as who it is dispersed to.

In examining the fairness of science communication, Medvecky connects his discussion to the literature on epistemic injustice (Anderson, Fricker, Medina). While exploring epistemic injustices in science is not novel, Medvecky’s focus on science communication is. To argue that science communication is epistemically unjust, Medvecky relies on Medina’s (2011) claim that credibility excesses can result in epistemic injustice. Here is José Medina,

[b]y assigning a level of credibility that is not proportionate to the epistemic credentials shown by the speaker, the excessive attribution does a disservice to everybody involved: to the speaker by letting him get away with things; and to everybody else by leaving out of the interaction a crucial aspect of the process of knowledge acquisition: namely, opposing critical resistance and not giving credibility or epistemic authority that has not been earned. (18-19)

Since credibility is comparative, credibility excesses given to members of some group can create epistemic injustice, testimonial injustice in particular, toward members of other groups. Medvecky makes the connection to science communication as follows:

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

This uniqueness creates a credibility excess for science as a field. And since science communication creates credibility excess by implying that concerted efforts to communicate non-science disciplines as fields of reliable knowledge is not needed, then science communication, as a practice and as a discipline, is epistemically unjust. (1400)

While the principle target here is the field of science communication, any credibility excesses enjoyed by the field will trickle down to the practitioners within it. If science is being given a credibility excess, then those engaged in scientific practice and communication are also receiving such a comparative advantage over non-scientists.

So, according to Medvecky, science communication is epistemically unjust to knowers – knowers in non-scientific fields. Since these non-scientific knowers are given a comparative credibility deficit (in contrast to scientific knowers), they are wronged in their capacity as knowers.

The Argument

Medvecky’s argument can be formally put as follows:

  1. Science is not a unique and privileged field.
  2. If (1), then science communication creates a credibility excess for science.
  3. Science communication creates a credibility excess for science.
  4. If (3), then science communication is epistemically unjust.
  5. Science communication is epistemically unjust.

Premise (1) is motivated by claiming that there are fields other than science that are equally important to communicate, popularize, and to have non-specialists engage. Medvecky claims that not only does non-scientific knowledge exists, such knowledge can be just as reliable as scientific knowledge, just as important to our lives, and just as in need of translation into layman’s terms. So, while scientific knowledge is surely important, it is not alone in this claim.

Premise (2) is motivated by claiming that science communication falsely represents science as a unique and privileged field since the concerns of science communication lie solely within the domain of science. By only communicating scientific knowledge, and failing to note that there are other worthy domains of knowledge, science communication falsely presents itself as a privileged field.

As Medvecky puts it, “Focusing and funding only the communication of science as reliable knowledge represents science as a unique and privileged field; as the only reliable field whose knowledge requires such specialised treatment.” (1400) So, science communication falsely represents science as special. Falsely representing a field as special in contrast to other fields creates a comparative credibility excess for that field and the members of it.

So, science communication implies that other fields are not as worthy of such engagement by falsely treating science as a unique and privileged field. This gives science and scientists a comparative credibility excess to these other disciplines and their practitioners.

(3) follows validly from (1) and (2). If (1) and (2) are true, science communication creates a credibility excess for science.

Premise (4) is motivated by Medina’s (2011) work on epistemic injustice. Epistemic injustice occurs when someone is harmed in their capacity as a knower. While Fricker limited epistemic injustice (and testimonial justice in particular) to cases where someone was given a credibility deficit, Medina has forcefully argued that credibility excesses are equally problematic since credibility assessments are often comparative.

Given the comparative nature of credibility assessments, parties can be epistemically harmed even if they are not given a credibility deficit. If other parties are given credibility excesses, a similar epistemic harm can be brought about due to comparative assessments of credibility. So, if science communication gives science a credibility excess, science communication will be epistemically unjust.

(5) follows validly from (3) and (4). If (3) and (4) are true, science communication is epistemically unjust.

The Problems

While Medvecky’s argument is provocative, we believe that it is also problematic. In what follows we motivate a series of objections to his argument. Our focus here will be on the premises that most directly relate to epistemic injustice. So, for our purposes, we are willing to grant premise (1). Even granting (1), there are significant problems with both (2) and (4). Highlighting these issues will be our focus.

We begin with our principle concerns regarding (2). These concerns are best seen by first granting that (1) is true – granting that science is not a unique and privileged field. Even granting that (1) is true, science communication would not create a credibility excess. First, it is important to try and locate the source of the alleged credibility excess. Science communicators do deserve a higher degree of credibility in distributing scientific knowledge than non-scientists. When it comes to scientific matters, we should trust the scientists more. So, the claim cannot be that non-scientists should be afforded the same amount of credibility on scientific matters as scientists.

The problem might be thought to be that scientists enjoy a credibility excess in virtue of their scientific credibility somehow carrying over to non-scientific fields where they are less credible. While Medvecky does briefly consider such an issue, this too is not his primary concern in this paper.[2] Medvecky’s fundamental concern is that science communication represents scientific questions and knowledge as more valuable than questions and knowledge in other domains. According to Medvecky, science communication does this by only distributing scientific knowledge when this is not unique and privileged (premise (1)).

But do you represent a domain as more important or valuable just because you don’t talk about other domains? Perhaps an individual who only discussed science in every context would imply that scientific information is the only information worth communicating, but such a situation is quite different than the one we are considering.

For one thing, science communication occurs within a given context, not across all contexts. Further, since that context is expressly about communicating science, it is hard to see how one could reasonably infer that knowledge in other domains is less valuable. Let’s consider an analogy.

Philosophy professors tend to only talk about philosophy during class (or at least let’s suppose). Should students in a philosophy class conclude that other domains of knowledge are less valuable since the philosophy professor hasn’t talked about developments in economics, history, biology, and so forth during class? Given that the professor is only talking about philosophy in one given context, and this context is expressly about communicating philosophy, such inferences would be unreasonable.

A Problem of Overreach

We can further see that there is an issue with (2) because it both overgeneralizes and is overly demanding. Let’s consider these in turn. If (2) is true, then the problem of creating credibility excesses is not unique to science communication. When it comes to knowledge distribution, science communication is far from the only practice/field to have a narrow and limited focus regarding which knowledge it distributes.

So, if there are multiple fields worthy of such engagement (granting (1)), any practice/field that is not concerned with distributing all such knowledge will be guilty of generating a similar credibility excess (or at least trying to). For instance, the American Philosophical Association (APA) is concerned with distributing philosophical knowledge and knowledge related to the discipline of philosophy. They exclusively fund endeavors related to philosophy and public initiatives with a philosophical focus. If doing so is sufficient for creating a credibility excess, given that other fields are equally worthy of such attention, then the APA is creating a credibility excess for the discipline of philosophy. This doesn’t seem right.

Alternatively, consider a local newspaper. This paper is focused on distributing knowledge about local issues. Suppose that it also is involved in the community, both sponsoring local events and initiatives that make the local news more engaging. Supposing that there is nothing unique or privileged about this town, Medvecky’s argument for (2) would have us believe that the paper is creating a credibility excess for the issues of this town. This too is the wrong result.

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

The problem is that omissions in distribution don’t have the implications that Medvecky supposes. The fact that an individual or group is not in the business of distributing some kind of good does not imply that those goods are less valuable.

There are numerous legitimate reasons why one may employ limitations regarding which goods one chooses to distribute, and these limitations do not imply that the other goods are somehow less valuable. Returning to the good of knowledge, focusing on distributing some knowledge (while not distributing other knowledge), does not imply that the other knowledge is less valuable.

This overgeneralization problem leads to an overdemanding problem with (2). The overdemanding problem concerns what all would be required of distributors (whether of knowledge or more tangible goods) in order to avoid committing injustice. If omissions in distribution had the implications that Medvecky supposes, then distributors, in order to avoid injustice, would have to refrain from limiting the goods they distribute.

If (2) is true, then science communication must fairly and equally distribute all knowledge in order to avoid injustice. And, as the problem of creating credibility excesses is not unique to science communication, this would apply to all other fields that involve knowledge distribution as well. The problem here is that avoiding injustice requires far too much of distributors.

An Analogy to Understand Avoiding Injustice

Let’s consider the practical analogy again to see how avoiding injustice is overdemanding. To avoid injustice, the bakery must sell and distribute much more than just baked goods. It must sell and distribute all the other goods that are as equally important as the baked ones it offers. The bakery would, then, have to become a supermarket or perhaps even a superstore in order to avoid injustice.

Requiring the bakery to offer a lot more than baked goods is not only overly demanding but also unfair. The bakery does not count with the other goods it is required to offer in order to avoid injustice. It may not even have the means needed to get these goods, which may itself be part of its reason for limiting the goods it offers.

As it is overdemanding and unfair to require the bakery to sell and distribute all goods in order to avoid injustice, it is overdemanding and unfair to require knowledge distributors to distribute all knowledge. Just as the bakery does not have non-baked goods to offer, those involved in science communication likely do not have the relevant knowledge in the other fields.

Thus, if they are required to distribute that knowledge also, they are required to do a lot of homework. They would have to learn about everything in order to justly distribute all knowledge. This is an unreasonable expectation. Even if they were able to do so, they would not be able to distribute all knowledge in a timely manner. Requiring this much of distributors would slow-down the distribution of knowledge.

Furthermore, just as the bakery may not have the means needed to distribute all the other goods, distributors may not have the time or other means to distribute all the knowledge that they are required to distribute in order to avoid injustice. It is reasonable to utilize an epistemic division of labor (including in knowledge distribution), much like there are divisions of labor more generally.

Credibility Excess

A final issue with Medvecky’s argument concerns premise (4). Premise (4) claims that the credibility excess in question results in epistemic injustice. While it is true that a credibility excess can result in epistemic injustice, it need not. So, we need reasons to believe that this particular kind of credibility excess results in epistemic injustice. One reason to think that it does not has to do with the meaning of the term ‘epistemic injustice’ itself.

As it was introduced to the literature by Fricker, and as it has been used since, ‘epistemic injustice’ does not simply refer to any harms to a knower but rather to a particular kind of harm that involves identity prejudice—i.e. prejudice related to one’s social identity. Fricker claims that, “the speaker sustains a testimonial injustice if and only if she receives a credibility deficit owing to identity prejudice in the hearer.” (28)

At the core of both Fricker’s and Medina’s account of epistemic injustice is the relation between unfair credibility assessments and prejudices that distort the hearer’s perception of the speaker’s credibility. Prejudices about particular groups is what unfairly affects (positively or negatively) the epistemic authority and credibility hearers grant to the members of such groups.

Mere epistemic errors in credibility assessments, however, do not create epistemic injustice. While a credibility excess may result in an epistemic harm, whether this is a case of epistemic injustice depends upon the reason why that credibility excess is given. Fricker and Medina both argue that in order for an epistemic harm to be an instance of epistemic injustice, it must be systematic. That is, the epistemic harm must be connected to an identity prejudice that renders the subject at the receiving end of the harm susceptible to other types of injustices besides testimonial.

Fricker argues that epistemic injustice is product of prejudices that “track” the subject through different dimensions of social activity (e.g. economic, professional, political, religious, etc.). She calls these, “tracker prejudices” (27). When tracker prejudices lead to epistemic injustice, this injustice is systematic because it is systematically connected to other kinds of injustice.

Thus, a prejudice is systematic when it persistently affects the subject’s credibility in various social directions. Medina accepts this and argues that credibility excess results in epistemic injustice when it is caused by a pattern of wrongful differential treatment that stems in part due to mismatches between reality and the social imaginary, which he defines as the collectively shared pool of information that provides the social perceptions against which people assess each other’s credibility (Medina 2011).

He claims that a prejudiced social imaginary is what establishes and sustains epistemic injustices. As such, prejudices are crucial in determining whether credibility excesses result in epistemic injustice. If the credibility excess stems from a systematically prejudiced social imaginary, then this is the case. If systematic prejudices are absent, then, even if there is credibility excess, there is no epistemic injustice.

Systemic Prejudice

For there to be epistemic injustice, then, the credibility excess must carry over across contexts and must be produced and sustained by systematic identity prejudices. This does not happen in Medvecky’s account given that the kind of credibility excess that he is concerned with is limited to the context in which science communication occurs.

Thus, even if there were credibility excess, and this credibility excess lead to epistemic harms, such harms would not amount to epistemic injustice given that the credibility excess does not extend across contexts. Further, the kind of credibility excess that Medvecky is concerned with is not linked to systematic identity prejudices.

In his argument, Medvecky does not consider prejudices. Rather than credibility excesses being granted due to a prejudiced social imaginary, Medvecky argues that the credibility excess attributed to science communicators stems from omission. According to him, science communication as a practice and as a discipline is epistemically unjust because it creates credibility excess by implying (through omission) that science is the only reliable field worthy of engagement.

On Medvecky’s account, the reason for the attribution of credibility excess is not prejudice but rather the limited focus of science communication. Thus, he argues that merely by not distributing knowledge from fields other than science, science communication creates a credibility excess for science that is worthy of the label of ‘epistemic injustice’. Medvecky acknowledges that Fricker would not agree that this credibility assessment results in injustice given that it is based on credibility excess rather than credibility deficits, which is itself why he bases his argument on Medina’s account of epistemic injustice.

However, given that Medvecky ignores the kind of systematic prejudice that is necessary for epistemic injustice under Medina’s account, it seems like Medina would not agree, either, that these cases are of the kind that result in epistemic injustice.[3] Even if omissions in the distribution of knowledge had the implications that Medvecky supposes, and it were the case that science communication indeed created a credibility excess for science in this way, this kind of credibility excesses would still not be sufficient for epistemic injustice as it is understood in the literature.

Thus, it is not the case that science communication is, as Medvecky argues, fundamentally epistemically unjust because the reasons why the credibility excess is attributed have nothing to do with prejudice and do not occur across contexts. While it is true that there may be epistemic harms that have nothing to do with prejudice, such harms would not amount to epistemic injustice, at least as it is traditionally understood.


In “Fairness in Knowing: Science Communication and Epistemic Injustice”, Fabien Medvecky argues that epistemic injustice lies at the very foundation of science communication. While we agree that there are numerous ways that scientific practices are epistemically unjust, the fact that science communication involves only communicating science does not have the consequences that Medvecky maintains.

We have seen several reasons to deny that failing to distribute other kinds of knowledge implies that they are less valuable than the knowledge one does distribute, as well as reasons to believe that the term ‘epistemic injustice’ wouldn’t apply to such harms even if they did occur. So, while thought provoking and bold, Medvecky’s argument should be resisted.

Contact details:,


Dotson, K. (2011) Tracking epistemic violence, tracking patterns of silencing. Hypatia 26(2): 236–257.

Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Medina, J. (2011). The relevance of credibility excess in a proportional view of epistemic injustice: Differential epistemic authority and the social imaginary. Social Epistemology, 25(1), 15–35.

Medvecky, F. (2018). Fairness in Knowing: Science Communication and Epistemic Justice. Sci Eng Ethics 24: 1393-1408.

[1] This is Fricker’s description, See Fricker (2007, p. 1).

[2] Medvecky considers Richard Dawkins being given more credibility than he deserves on matters of religion due to his credibility as a scientist.

[3] A potential response to this point could be to consider scientism as a kind of prejudice akin to sexism or racism. Perhaps an argument can be made where an individual has the identity of ‘science communicator’ and receives credibility excess in virtue of an identity prejudice that favors science communicators. Even still, to be epistemic injustice this excess must track the individual across contexts, as the identities related to sexism and racism do. For it to be, a successful argument must be given for there being a ‘pro science communicator’ prejudice that is similar in effect to ‘pro male’ and ‘pro white’ prejudices. If this is what Medvecky has in mind, then we need to hear much more about why we should buy the analogy here.

Author Information: Eric Kerr, National University of Singapore,

Kerr, Eric. “The Social Epistemology of Book Reviews.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 48-52.

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

Image by Joel Gallagher via Flickr / Creative Commons


Because 2019 marks the end of my first full year as Book Reviews editor at SERRC, I want to take this opportunity to reflect on what we’ve done in terms of promoting conversation and criticism around new books in social epistemology and to reflect on how we can apply insights from social epistemology to our book reviews at SERRC.

The Place of Reviews

Nominally, social epistemology has a close connection to the book review.  As many readers of this journal will know, the term “social epistemology” was initially coined in the 1960s by the librarian and information scientist, Jesse Shera, to mean “the study of knowledge in society.” (Shera 1970, p. 86) Shera developed his work with colleague Margaret Egan and in the steps of fellow librarian Douglas Waples, concerned with the ways in which society reads: broadly, how it accesses, interprets, categorizes, indexes, and disseminates the written word and the role that librarianship, bibliography, and new methods of documentation could play (Zandonade 2004).

A library is a very particular filter of knowledge production. The Web may be seen as another, or as a collection of many. An academic journal yet another. These filters organize knowledge in society in their own way and we can, and do, evaluate this and make judgments of when it works well and when it does not work so well. Today, our access to information occurs within a wider ecosystem of filters that have flourished in the contemporary period, in tandem with the technological infrastructure to radically multiply and variegate filters.

For educators, reviews (from our students or are colleagues) are sometimes the primary means by which our performance and success are judged. Customer reviews – typically performed by the “uncredentialled curator” – are available on almost any website with something to sell and new companies have formed whose purpose is to provide customer reviews alone. Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and so on, use human and non-human filters to sift through vast trenches of information. I don’t need to belabour the point – it’s familiar to all of us.

Alongside the idea of the filter, has emerged a renewed prominence of curators, influenced by its powerful position in the art world. This curation comes with its own culture, its own beliefs, and its own language. This language functions to exclude alternatives and police boundaries. And while an art curator’s job may have once been to select what art was worth your attention, now, in an attention economy, a curator’s job may be just as much to provide the means to deal with information overload.

To complicate things still further, we now perform much more personal curation – keeping tabs, messages, snippets, and screenshots as well as cultivating all kinds of algorithms that learn from our past behaviour and deliver to us more of what we saw before.

Thomas Frank calls this expansion of curation, not just into reviewing almost anything we consume, but into the very language we use and the ways we think, curatolatry. He discusses how, responding to the newly-coined “fake news” (Faulkner 2018; Fuller 2016; Levy 2017), Barack Obama said:

We are going to have to rebuild within this wild-wild-west-of-information flow some sort of curating function that people agree to.

While Obama, in Frank’s view in common with other liberals, tends towards curation, Donald Trump is associated with the “refusal of curation. Trump does not reform or organize the chaos of the world…”

Frank warns at the end of his article:

“What they don’t agree upon, meanwhile, is simply ignored. It is outside the conversation. It is excluded. A world without fake news might really be awesome. So might a shop where every bottle of wine is excellent. So might an electoral system in which everyone heeds the urging of the professional consensus. But in any such system, reader, people like you and me can be assured with almost perfect confidence that our voices will be curated out.”

A Social Epistemological Interpretation of the Book Review

Would, should, SERRC perform a kind of curating function “that people agree to” to filter new books in social epistemology? I don’t think it does perform this function and I’m not sure that it should.

It is often alleged that book reviews tend towards mediocrity and nepotism, falling out of the publishing industry and, in academia, entrenched structures and metrics of hierarchy, prestige, and social status. To add to the miserable plight of the book review, they are not treated as prestigious publications or emphasized as lines on CVs (if listed at all).

They do not rank as highly as research articles or chapters in books or, indeed, books themselves. They do not generally rank at all on any metric that is used by academic institutions or funding bodies. Book reviews tend, therefore, to fall into the category of ‘service’ – gifts one is obliged to offer largely out of a sense of duty, responsibility, and morality.

This is lamentable. The first thing we are asked to do as students is review books. For many of us, the first thing we do when writing, or preparing to write, a paper, is to review books – to perform a literature review. Book reviews are not, primarily, a service to the author but to a wider audience. (If they were the former, one could easily email it to the author and avoid the hassle of formal publication.)

They do not simply repeat knowledge contained in the book but provide new knowledge as evidenced, I believe, by all of the book reviews we published in the last two years. Sometimes this is taken to be appraisal by an expert but I think that social epistemology can give us reason to take a second glance at this intuitive idea (Social Epistemology 32(6) – special issue on Expertise and Expert Knowledge; Watson 2018).

We should be critical of the encroachment of curation and the perceived need to curate. In wider culture, the most well-known critics were not themselves trained in the field they reviewed. This is often held against them by artists and writers but if we do not see their purpose as being about expert appraisal, that criticism loses some of its force.

One reason for this may be that reviews tell us as much about the reviewer as the reviewee. Reviews, as Oscar Wilde observed, are autobiographical. Ambrose Bierce echoed this sentiment in his Devil’s Dictionary. The entry for “review” reads simply:

To set your wisdom (holding not a doubt of it,
Although in truth there’s neither bone nor skin to it)
At work upon a book, and so read out of it
The qualities that you have first read into it.

This view seems to suit us at SERRC. We are, as in our name, a collective and much more than curate we read and write about what happens to take our interest at that time. We think, often, out loud. If that interest spreads throughout the community, it is likely to be picked up and turned into a symposium or extended dialogue. Or perhaps not. Others are welcome to join our community if they are interested in contributing to these conversations.

18 Months, more or less

Nevertheless, and undeniably, book review editors have a role to play in organizing knowledge in society. My approach to editing book reviews since I took over has not been to gatekeep. “Is this interesting?” – usual caveats aside about the word ‘interesting’ – has been the benchmark rather than “Is this proper social epistemology?”

I took over as Book Review Editor part-way through 2017. In this short period, we have published 64 reviews (and replies to reviews, and replies to reviews of reviews). Many of these have taken the form of book review “symposiums” where several authors take on one book, often featuring replies from the book’s author. Soliciting a range of views allows us to present a book from the perspective of scholars with different expertise and focus.

It encourages more in-depth and richer discussions of a book, and its surrounding intellectual milieu, and extends the conversation sometimes over a period of months. I believe that, in a small way, this facilitates a new ordering of knowledge around new books and, so, contributes to a new social epistemology.

It’s hard to focus on specific books given this long list but I can hint at some trends that we have been pushing, and will continue to push, in the new year. One concerns diversity and internationalization. When two of my National University of Singapore colleagues, Jay Garfield and Bryan van Norden, published an opinion piece in the New York Times’ Stone that argued for a greater role for “less commonly taught philosophies” (such as, but not limited to, Chinese or Indian philosophy) in the US curriculum, it caused a stir in the profession, and more widely.

A great deal has been written about the subsequent book Van Norden published on the theme, Taking Back Philosophy, but I would argue that our symposium, featuring seven scholars, including me, has added quite a bit to that conversation. A personal highlight for me was Steve Fuller’s visit to the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore to speak on the subject. The full lecture can be heard here. Another important intervention in internationalizing our catalogue has been the symposium on African philosophy and I intend to continue this global perspective in 2019.

One innovation of SERRC is that we encourage authors to respond. I often write to authors to give them what the media call a right of reply. I believe this is quite unusual in the academic reviewsphere. It’s a method that is fraught with pitfalls and potential catastrophe but, I think, valuable for the ideas that frequently come out of it. Traditionally, a review is left hanging. The last laugh. Allowing authors a chance to respond can correct perceived inaccuracies but, more importantly, lead to new shared understandings.

As we enter 2019 under the deluge of our own personal tsundoku let’s embrace a multitude of reviews and reviews of reviews.

Best wishes for the new year. As always, if you wish to review a book, or propose a symposium, for SERRC you may write to me at the address below.

Contact details:


Briggle, Adam; and Robert Frodeman. “Thinking À La Carte.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 8-11.

Dusek, Val. “Antidotes to Provincialism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 5-11.

Fuller, Steve. “Embrace the Inner Fox: Post-Truth as the STS Symmetry Principle Universalized.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, Steve Fuller (December 25, 2016):

Fuller, Steve. “‘China’ As the West’s Other in World Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 1-11.

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

Jain, Pankaj. “Taking Philosophy Back: A Call From the Great Wall of China.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 9 (2018): 60-64.

Janz, Bruce. “The Problem of Method in African Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 1-7.

Kerr, Eric. “A Hermeneutic of Non-Western Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 4 (2018): 1-6.

Lauer, Helen. “Scientific Consensus and the Discursive Dilemma.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 9 (2018): 33-44.

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

Faulkner, P. 2018. “Fake Barns, Fake News.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 16-21.

Martini, C. and M. Baghramian. 2018. Special issue on Expertise and Expert Knowledge, Social Epistemology 36(6).

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

Shera, J.H. Sociological Foundations of Librarianship. New York: Asia Publishing House, 1970.

Watson, J.C. 2018. “What Experts Could Not Be,” Social Epistemology, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1551437

Zandonade, T. 2004. “Social Epistemology from Jesse Shera to Steve Fuller, Library Trends 52(4): 810-832.

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick,

Fuller, Steve. “Staying Human in the 21st Century Is Harder Than You Might Think.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 39-42.

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

The Main Street Bridge in Columbus, Ohio, the largest major city near Ashland University.
Image by Bill Koontz via Flickr / Creative Commons


Let me start by saying that it’s a great honour to address you today.[1] It turns out that nearly forty years ago, I was the ‘salutatorian’ of the Class of 1979 at Columbia College in New York. That means I was the number two guy in terms of overall grade point average across all subjects. And that guy gives the introductory speech, whereas the number one guy gives the closing speech, the so-called ‘valedictory’ address, which literally means saying goodbye.

It seems that once again I am the ‘warm up act’ for a graduation ceremony in that once I finish speaking, you’ll actually get your degrees! And that’s exactly was how it worked in the old days.

I am someone who thinks that if I have anything interesting to say, it will be to those who are more oriented to the future than to the past – or even the present. In any case, this is how I would wish you to interpret me.

There are many challenges to our sense of humanity today. I want to start with a long term challenge that you will increasingly face in the coming years. That has to do with privileging ‘humanity’ understood as a kind of upright ape who has consolidated its place on Earth by monopolizing control over the planet’s resources. This is what geologists are beginning to call the ‘Anthropocene’, and it probably began with the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century – and it marks the first time a single species has dictated the terms of engagement on Earth.

This has led to considerable metaphysical soul-searching about the human condition. And put bluntly, much of this soul-searching has resulted in self-loathing for humanity as a species. We are to blame for the unprecedented levels of mass extinctions and climate change over the past two or more centuries.

All the while, our species has come to range over the entire planet in a manner that reminds some of these scientifically informed misanthropes of cockroaches. However, the difference between us and cockroaches is that cockroaches don’t seem to exhibit the strong sense of inequality among its members that we have historically insisted among ourselves.

So given our evolutionary track record, in what sense are humans are worth promoting, let alone all of us – as Thomas Jefferson said, as ‘created equal’? Of course, it’s been long recognized that there is an enormous spread in the capacity of human beings. Modern biological science has given this informal observation an empirical basis.

Originally it was presented as a demonstration of natural inequality, and the phrase ‘scientific racism’ remains a legacy of that line of thought. However, nowadays biologists prefer to speak of the diversity of life-forms, which together constitute ecologies, the Earth itself being the ultimate ecosystem.

But against this general current of thought, egalitarianism has been advanced by the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – simply on the grounds that we are all children of the same God in some broadly ‘privileged’ sense.

In the modern era, this fundamental intuition was given focus by the classical idea of republicanism, namely, that a society should be constituted only by those who regard each other as equals. And what makes and keeps people equal are the standards by which they are judged – and this is determined by the people themselves. And that was what was meant by the res publica – the ‘public thing’, in Latin.

It’s worth recalling that prior to the US Constitution, republics had been small enclaves of the few who regarded each other as equals. Think about Athens, Rome, Venice and the Netherlands in their republican phases. Basically, they were places for rich migrants.

So What Happens If The Migrants Aren’t Rich?

In law, there are two general ways in which people can become citizens. One is called jus soli, and refers to the land in which you yourself were born, and the other is called jus sanguinis, and refers to the birth of your parents. If you look at a map of the world today, you’ll see that jus soli dominates the Western hemisphere and jus sanguinis dominates the Eastern hemisphere. And that’s because the Western hemisphere – this hemisphere of North and South America – has been seen as a natural place for migrants.

However, candidates for citizenship in a republic typically have to demonstrate their fitness to be treated as equal with regard to the res publica. And then once accepted, they would be obliged to participate in public life. Providing evidence of wealth was historically crucial because it showed both management skills and a desire to pool one’s resources with an alien society. The duty to vote in elections – in which each vote counts as one — is simply a remnant of what had been a much stronger civic expectation to engage in society.

Many philosophers have believed that republicanism cannot be scaled up because they thought it was unreasonable to expect that people with quite diverse backgrounds and interests could treat each other as ‘equals’ in some politically sustainable sense. It’s quite clear that even the American Founding Fathers had their doubts, since they counted slaves as only 3/5 of a person for purposes of Congressional representation.

Notice that I haven’t yet mentioned ‘democracy’. That’s because democracy has historically meant ‘majority rule’, on whatever terms it’s established. For example, 51% could license the execution of the remaining 49% in a democracy. Indeed, people may start equal in a democracy but that equality could soon evaporate after the first collective decision is taken. Think Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies, two classic mid-20th century English novels.

Here one can begin to appreciate the abiding importance of the Abrahamic religions in upholding a metaphysical conception of human equality that cuts against what had been traditionally seen as the eventual descent of democracy into ‘mob rule’.

That metaphysical idea – the fundamental equality of all humans — was first made incarnate in the practice of debt forgiveness among the Jews on each sabbatical year. To cut a long story short, since I don’t want to bore you with religious history, the fundamental equality of people was ritualistically demonstrated by the redistribution of wealth from the ‘winners’ to the ‘losers’ in society, which in turn provided an opportunity for everyone to be ‘born again’: The rich as somewhat poorer and the poor as somewhat richer. Thus, society is periodically remade as a level playing field.

Until the losers are regarded as always the equals of the winners of society, democracy is not an especially egalitarian political movement. This helps to explain why such great defenders of liberalism as John Stuart Mill regarded democracy with considerable suspicion. He believed that given the chance, the great unwashed might permanently silence the enlightened few, who throughout history have often been on the losing side of many of society’s great arguments – especially on matters concerning the future.

In What Sense, Then, Are All People ‘Created Equal’?

I would like to propose that our equality is ultimately about possessing a wide degree of freedom. And I mean a freedom that gives you the right to be wrong and the right to fail. This is only possible if you’re allowed to express yourself in the first place — and be allowed a second chance. This is to do with the range of opportunities available to you.

It’s easy to see that someone with a track record of managing their own wealth successfully would already be in the business of allowing themselves second chances – say, when an investment sours – and so would be fit for republican citizenship. However, the ancient Jewish practice of debt atonement was the original policy to allow everyone to acquire that enviable status. It was always in the back of minds of those who designed the welfare state.

Every human is entitled to be free in how they dispose of their lives, regardless of their likelihood of success. Freedom is the capacity to take risks, and universities are for the development of that capacity. There is nothing natural about how people come to want what they want. It is all a matter of training, and the only question is where and how it happens. And you have come to Ashland for that.

If you graduate from Ashland with a clearer sense of purpose than when you entered, then this university will have done its job and you will be able to go forward as an exemplary human being. I say this as a matter of principle – regardless of what you take your purpose to be, and even if your sense of clarity arises from revolting what you have encountered here.

The bottom line is that if you can’t have a sense of purpose unless you have faced serious alternatives – that is to say, ‘opportunity costs’, as the economists like to put it.

You’re not free unless you have had the opportunity to reject alternatives presented to you. And in that respect, the value of your education amounts to increasing your capacity for rejection – you can afford to let go. And that means more than simply saying no because of what you have been taught, but rather saying yes because you can identify with a certain way of being in the world.

We live in a time when those of you before me can self-identify in a wider range of ways than ever before. When I was your age, all we had was class and national mobility at our disposal, but now you also have gender and even race mobility added on to it – at both a social and a biological level, in case one is worried by pedigree.

I am by no means suggesting that you need to think about any of these sorts of migrations, but they are there for the asking, and if you have been trained properly here, you will at least have heard of them and have adopted a reasoned response to them.

Whatever else one can say about humanity in the future, it is bound to be a moveable feast. And you will be among the movers and shakers!

Contact details:

[1] What follows is the commencement address to the Winter 2018 graduating class of Ashland University, Ohio. It was delivered on 15 December.

Author Information: Jeff Kochan, University of Konstanz,

Kochan, Jeff. “Disassembling the System: A Reply to Paolo Palladino and Adam Riggio.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 29-38.

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

Image by tackyshack via Flickr / Creative Commons


Here concludes a symposium on the latest book by Jeff Kochan, Science as Social Existence. You can find each of the articles in the series in this list:

Kochan, Jeff. “Suppressed Subjectivity and Truncated Tradition: A Reply to Pablo Schyfter.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 15-21.

Riggio, Adam. “The Very Being of a Conceptual Scheme: Disciplinary and Conceptual Critiques.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 53-59.

Palladino, Paolo. “Heidegger Today: On Jeff Kochan’s Science and Social Existence.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 41-46.

Schyfter, Pablo. “Inaccurate Ambitions and Missing Methodologies: Thoughts on Jeff Kochan and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 8-14.

Kochan, Jeff. “On the Sociology of Subjectivity.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 39-41.

Sassower, Raphael. “Heidegger and the Sociologists: A Forced Marriage?.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 30-32.

• • •

This essay brings to a formal close SERRC’s review symposium on my book Science as Social Existence: Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (Open Book Publishers, 2017). All told, four reviewers stepped forward: Raphael Sassower (2018); Pablo Schyfter (2018); Paolo Palladino (2018); and Adam Riggio (2018); listed here in the order in which their reviews have appeared. My thanks to them for their thoughtful and often spirited engagement with my book.

I have already responded to Sassower and Schyfter separately (Kochan 2018a & 2018b), so my main task here will be to respond to Palladino and Riggio. My thanks go, as well, to Eric Kerr, who has organised this symposium.

Why Bother Being Epochal?

I coulda been a contender!

I coulda been somebody…

– Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (1954)

This symposium was kicked off last May by Raphael Sassower (2018). Six months out, Adam Riggio has now brought up the rear, rounding out the reviewers’ side by crystallising Sassower’s initial criticism of Science as Social Existence into two words: ‘Why bother?’ (Riggio 2018, 53).

As a question directed at me – ‘Why bother writing Science as Social Existence?’ – the answer is easy: because I felt like it. It was a joy (in a weirdly afflicted way) to write the book, and a joy to see it published. That the SERRC books editor then offered to organise a book symposium was a wonderful surprise, outstripping my expectations.

On the other hand, as a question directed at potential readers – ‘Why bother reading Science as Social Existence?’ – the answer is more difficult to give, because, at the end of the day, it is not mine to give. I am sure that, had I tried to predict and pursue the fashions of the academic marketplace, I would have ended up feeling miserable. By my reckoning, it was better to write from a place of joy, and give a few readers the best of what I have, than to chase popular demand, and deliver something fashionable but personally hollow. Luckily, my wonderful publisher is not in the business of making money.

It is fortuitous that one symposiast, Paolo Palladino, has already answered the second question for me. After summarising his appreciation for several aspects of Science as Social Existence, Palladino concludes: ‘All this seems to me a wholly satisfactory answer to Sassower’s question’ (Palladino 2018, 43).

Predictably, some tough guys will scoff at joy. Either because they already have so much they cannot see the need for more, or because they have so little they cannot abide seeing it in others. Riggio has shared with us his insights about disciplinarity, culled from his ‘decade of work as a professional-level philosopher’ (Riggio 2018, 54). My own experience suggests that academia could use more joy. ‘Why bother?’ is really a bureaucrat’s question, asked by hiring, funding, and promotions committees. Perhaps better questions could be asked.

Presumably Riggio would not begrudge me my joy, but his interests do lie elsewhere. He wants me to be ‘epochal’ (Riggio 2018, 58). According to him, had I not allegedly hobbled myself with disciplinarity, then, ‘[i]nstead of writing about Martin Heidegger and David Bloor, he [being me] could have written something with the potential to leave him [being me] mentioned in the same breath as such epochal thinkers. He could have become epochal himself. […] How about next time, Jeff?’ (Riggio 2018, 58). Wow. That is quite flattering … I guess. But my answer is: ‘no thanks.’ Not this time, and not the next time either.

But no worries. There is a lot of beautiful space between the dizzying heights of epochaldom and a one-way ticket to Palookaville.


Who Will Bother to Read Science as Social Existence?

Yes, who will bother to read my book? It is still too early to tell, with the data sample still quite small. As far as SERRC goes, the sample is exactly four. Let us start with the first reviewer: why did Sassower read Science as Social Existence? I must admit that I am already stumped. Nevertheless, Sassower’s review sparked the symposium that has now followed, and I am warmly grateful to him for that.

The second reviewer is Pablo Schyfter. Why did Schyfter read Science as Social Existence? Here the reasons seem more easily accessible, and Riggio’s reflections on disciplinarity can help us to draw them out.

Riggio finds it frustrating that I organised my book as a constructive dialogue between two academic disciplines: Heidegger Studies; and Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK). He laments ‘how vulnerable this makes him [being me] to academic attacks’ (Riggio 2018, 53). He offers Sassower’ review as a case in point.

But Riggio might just as well have offered Schyfter’s review. As I note in my response to the latter, Schyfter fashions himself as SSK’s disciplinary gate-keeper, and he tries to paint me as an attempted gate-crasher (Kochan 2018b). His self-appointed goal is to protect the purity of SSK against my perceived infiltration from without. But Schyfter fails to realise that I am already well within the gates, because the boundaries of the discipline are much less precise than he would like us to believe.

This is a point Riggio also fails to realise, and so my separate response to Schyfter may also serve as a response to Riggio’s similar criticisms in respect of my presentation of SSK.

The third reviewer is Palladino, and the why-question has already been answered. He read Science as Social Existence because he thought it was interesting: ‘I hope to have conveyed how much I enjoyed thinking about the questions Science as Social Existence poses’ (Palladino 2018, 46). Naturally, I am warmly grateful to Palladino as well.

Reviewer number four is Riggio. Why did he read it? He appears to equivocate.

Why All this Bother about Disciplinarity?

On the one hand, Riggio seems to have read the book because it interested him. He starts by saying that Science as Social Existence offers a ‘constructive dialogue’ between Heidegger and SSK, that ‘[t]his open-minded approach to problem solving remains sadly rare in academic culture,’ and that ‘such a trans-disciplinary philosophical project is worthwhile and valuable’ (Riggio 2018, 53). Later, he calls my combination of Heidegger and SSK ‘a very valuable experiment,’ as well as ‘brilliantly insightful in how philosophically challenging and creative it is’ (Riggio 2018, 57).

Sorry for laying that on so thick, but it is fun to repeat such stuff. Yet, that is then as far as it goes. Instead of developing one or more of these positive points, Riggio spends the rest of his time focussing on what he perceives to be the negative consequences of my choice to work at a disciplinary level. As we have seen, Riggio laments how vulnerable this allegedly makes me to ‘attacks’ from the likes of Sassower and Schyfter. Apparently he hopes to protect me from such perceived aggression.

I appreciate Riggio’s concern, but I think I have done a good enough job on my own of defending myself against Sassower and Schyfter. I would have rather Riggio had developed his positive points, no doubt also delivering some excellent criticism along the way. For example, he could have helped to make my ostensibly ‘open-minded approach to problem solving’ less rare by more substantially engaging with it and encouraging others to adopt the same approach. I could have benefited from his advice, and I reckon others could have too.

In my view, one of the biggest tragedies of the periodic disciplinary dogmatism one encounters in academia is that it often drives creative minds into a kind of extra-disciplinary exile. And I know how lonely it can be out there. Yet, rather than trying to pull me out there with him, I would have preferred it if Riggio had joined me in here where there is no end of action, not to mention loads of intellectual resources. It helps to keep one’s elbows up, for sure, and certainly also to have engaged and well-positioned allies like Palladino, who is, he emphasises, not invested in ‘disciplinary purity’ (Palladino 2018, 41).

Let me make a final, more proximal point before I close this section. One key goal of Science as Social Existence is to defend the Edinburgh School’s ‘Strong Programme’ in SSK by removing the School’s vulnerability to sceptical attack (see also Kochan 2018b). Riffing off Riggio, I can now conjecture that the Edinburgh School’s vulnerability arises, in part, from their open-minded approach to problem solving, more specifically, their mixing together of two disciplines: sociology and philosophy.

Yet, the Edinburgh School experiences friction between their philosophical and sociological interests, in the form of a sceptical attack. My diagnosis: they tried to mix sociology with the wrong kind of philosophy. They might have gone for Heideggerian phenomenology. By easing them in this direction, I relieve them of their vulnerability.

Hence I do for the Edinburgh School what Riggio thinks I should have done for Science as Social Existence. I release them from the disciplinary friction which led to their vulnerability. However, I do this, not by urging them to abandon disciplinarity altogether, but by nudging them onto a different disciplinary ground. Moreover, I could do this only by embracing the very disciplinarity that Riggio suggests I abandon, that is, only by digging down into the methodological and conceptual clockwork of Heidegger and SSK.

Oh, Bother! – The Conceptual System Returns

One thing I try to do in Science as Social Existence, especially in Chapter 7, is to turn methodological attention away from systems and towards subjects. Palladino correctly identifies this as having been motivated by my discontent with ‘perspectives that have increasingly come to dominate science and technology studies’ (Palladino 2018, 45). Indeed, in Chapters 2 and 3, I discuss how these perspectives have often sought to reverse the gains made by earlier SSK practitioners.

My argument is that, by emphasising systems over subjects, contemporary theorists have often suppressed subjectivity as a fundamental explanatory resource. They shift attention from subjects to systems. The emphasis is usually then put on systems of practice, but it could also be on systems of concepts. Either way, the system is primary, the subject secondary.

Palladino agrees with me that the system should not be viewed as more important than the subject (Palladino 2018, 46). Yet, in contrast to me, he sees subject and system as equally primary, as fundamentally co-constitutive. Palladino grounds this difference between us in my alleged equation of subjectivity with Being. He, on the other hand, equates subjectivity with Becoming, with a ‘performative operation’ (Palladino 2018, 45).

I am less inclined to draw such a sharp distinction between Being and Becoming. In my view, Becoming presupposes Being, because Becoming is a change-of-state in Being, in something that already is, that already exists. In Science as Social Existence, I write: ‘Grammatically, the phrase “the meaning of being” is similar in structure to the phrase “the thrill of a lifetime.” […] A lifetime is a historical-existential space wherein thrills can happen. Likewise, being is a historical-existential space wherein meaning can happen,’ that is, a space wherein meaning can come into being, where it can become (Kochan 2017, 54).

The subject, construed as being-in-the-world, is a historical-existential space wherein one finds possibilities for Becoming. Palladino’s ‘performative operation’ presupposes a performer, just as the concept of practice presupposes a practitioner. What or who a subject is – its meaning or significance – is the result of practice, but that a subject is – its existence – is not. A subject may experience itself as an unintelligible tangle of perceptions – as does, perhaps, a newborn baby – slowly acquiring meaning as it stumbles through a world shared with others, actualising or being actualised in accordance with the existential possibilities of its Being (cf. Kochan 2017, 145ff.; see also Kochan 2015a).

A system of practices or of concepts thus presupposes a subjectivity that does the practicing or the conceptualising. Since, following Heidegger, subjectivity is not just being-in-the-world, but also being-with-others, it is a necessarily plural phenomenon. Combined with Heidegger’s account of the subject, SSK thus becomes (necessarily but not sufficiently) the sociological study of scientific subjectivity in relation to the world. The primary explanatory resource is now the community of historically interacting subjects, along with the material resources they enrol in those interactions.

The system-centred theorist reifies this inter-subjectivity, turning it into a system, scheme, or network with an agency of its own. The subject is thus subordinated to the power of the system. Combining insights from SSK pioneers Barry Barnes and David Bloor, I argue, instead, that ‘the system does not carry us along, we carry it along. We are compelled by the system only insofar as we, collectively, compel one another’ (Kochan 2017, 374).

Herein lies the nub of my problem with Riggio’s apparently uncritical use of such terms as ‘discipline’ and ‘conceptual scheme.’ In Science as Social Existence, I introduce Heidegger’s existential conception of science as his alternative to the, in his day, dominant account of science as a conceptual scheme (Kochan 2017, 59). In other words, Heidegger attempts to de-reify – to deconstruct – science construed as a conceptual scheme, arguing instead that science is, at its base, an existential phenomenon produced by interacting subjects in the world.

This is how I view Riggio’s ‘disciplines.’ They are no more than historical communities of individuals interacting with one another in the world. The vulnerability Riggio sees in my disciplinarity is not vulnerability to the impersonal power of a system, but to discrete and concrete individuals who, for whatever reason, feel the need to attack. When one is attacked by an amorphous and impersonal ‘system,’ one may feel overwhelmed and powerless. When one is attacked by one or more fragile fellow humans, the odds look decidedly different.

Those who profit from their social situation will often be invested in the status quo. One effective way for them to protect their investment is to reify their situation, painting it as an impersonal system, in the hands of no one in particular. They thus protect their profits, while obscuring their responsibility. This is why, on the penultimate page of Science as Social Existence, I cite Baudelaire, characterising the system-centred theorist as ‘a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito’ (Kochan 2017, 379).

A Regrettable Absence and Two Allegedly Missed Alternatives

For some readers, the preceding section will have brought to mind Michel Foucault. Palladino regrets that I say (almost) nothing about Foucault (Palladino 2018, 45). I regret it too. While writing Science as Social Existence, I was sharply aware of Foucault’s potential relevance, but I felt that I was already juggling enough. This is not an excuse, but an admission of weakness. The absence is indeed regrettable.

I have, however, criticised Foucault elsewhere (Kochan 2015b). Or have I? What I criticised was what Edward Said labels an ‘overblown’ and ‘extreme’ use of Foucault (Said 2000/1982, 213). My most immediate concern was Ian Hacking, who is arguably allied with the system-centred theorists I take on in Science as Social Existence. Hence, the ‘overblown’ interpretation of Foucault appears to be a tool of my opponents. But perhaps there is another interpretation of Foucault, one that could better serve me? I will leave that for someone else to decide.

My research is now taking me in a different direction. Perspicaciously, Palladino has intuited something of that direction. He takes Sassower’s ‘possibly accidental’ mention of Spinoza, and suggests that a ‘Spinozist monadology’ may offer an alternative approach to some of the topics I address in Science as Social Existence (Palladino 2018, 44). Yet one accident follows another: for it was Leibniz, not Spinoza, who introduced a monadology. This wrinkle is, however, an opportune one, as it gives me an excuse to discuss both Spinoza and Leibniz.

Leibniz attempted to solve the problem of mind-body (or subject-object) interaction by arguing for a ‘pre-established harmony’ between the two. The law-governed actions of mind and body track one another in a way preordained by God (Monadology §78 [Leibniz 1965, 161]). This pre-ordination takes the shape of a rational plan, a ‘sealed blueprint’ (A Vindication of God’s Justice §82 [Leibniz 1965, 133]). Leibniz imagined God as an artisan who stands outside the world, guiding its interior operations according to a rational and universal plan.

Spinoza, in contrast, viewed God as immanent in nature. For him, there is nothing external to nature (Ethics I, P18 [Spinoza 1994, 100]). The problem of mind-body interaction is solved because ‘the thinking substance and the extended [i.e., bodily] substance are one and the same’ (Ethics II, P7 [Spinoza 1994, 119]). Yet, for Spinoza natural events are also rationally and universally ordered: ‘the laws and rules of Nature, according to which all things happen, […] are always and everywhere the same’ (Ethics III, preface [Spinoza 1994, 153]). Here too, then, the world is governed by a rational and universal measure, but one implemented from within rather than from without.

Both Leibniz and Spinoza seem to have viewed nature as a unified whole, a dynamic totality underpinned by a core set of logically consistent principles, a rational plan. They were therefore modern thinkers à la lettre. Insofar as Heidegger sought an alternative to modern rationalism, his two modernist predecessors would seem to offer, not different alternatives, but a retreat back into modernity. Yet this may be too quick.

For Heidegger, the rationalistic impulse to grasp the world as a whole, as a ‘world picture,’ a ‘basic blueprint,’ or a unified set of abstract axioms from which all else can be deduced, was a historically contingent impulse, generated and sustained within a specific cultural tradition. He worried that this impulse, were it to gain global hegemony, could squeeze out other, perhaps humanly vital, existential possibilities present both within and without the broader European legacy.

Heidegger’s own search for alternatives to modernity was decidedly idiosyncratic. In Chapter 7 of Science as Social Existence, I discuss his attempt to reconceptualise the ‘thing’ as a ‘four-fold.’ Heidegger suggested that the thing be seen as a ‘gathering’ of earth, sky, gods, and mortals (Kochan 2017, 368ff.).

Here is where Leibniz and, especially, Spinoza may still be relevant. Heidegger’s four-fold is an attempt to rethink – in non-modern and non-rationalistic terms – the panpsychism often attributed to Leibniz and Spinoza. This is the doctrine that, to one degree or another, mind is always present in body, that, to some extent or other, subjectivity is always present in the object. Hence, panpsychism may promise an alternative to the modern subject-object split.

Yet, for Heidegger, this promise is only a half-measure, because the frame in which panpsychism unites subject and object is a universal, rationalist one. As I read it, the four-fold attempts to dislodge things from this globalising frame. It is more of a recipe than a blueprint. The precise nature of the four ingredients, as well as the proportions by which they are mixed, may vary from one region to the next. Rather than imposing a uniform blueprint on the world, the four-fold embraces a plurality of potential combinations. A can of Coke may be everywhere the same, but each region will have its own daily bread.

Postcolonial STS: A Path Forward or a Dead End?

Palladino is once again perspicacious in suggesting that the route forward in respect of these issues may lie in anthropology (Palladino 2018, 46). For my part, I have been reading Tim Ingold’s phenomenologically inflected work. Ingold draws on Heidegger’s conceptualisation of the thing as a ‘gathering,’ and combines it with insights from the ethnography of animistic Indigenous groups (Ingold 2013, 215). Rejecting 19th-c. European construals of animism – wherein a thing is animated by a spirit that inhabits it – Ingold instead interprets animism as a ‘poetics of life’ (Ingold 2018, 22).

Animism, as Ingold presents it, seems closer to Heidegger’s non-modern phenomenology of existence than it does to Leibniz’s and Spinoza’s modern panpsychism. Palladino notes a connection between this panpsychism and actor-network theory (ANT), currently a dominant position in science and technology studies (STS) (Palladino 2018, 44). It is worth noting, then, that Ingold explicitly opposes his anthropology of life to ANT, especially as represented in the works of Bruno Latour (e.g., Ingold 2013 & 2011).

Ingold argues that animism – as a poetics of life – ‘betters even science in its comprehension of the fullness of existence’ (Ingold 2018, 22). I am less inclined to draw such a clean line between science and animism, in particular, and science and indigenous knowledge, more generally. Indeed, I have begun to explore how scientific and indigenous knowledges may sometimes be combined in ways that can respect and strengthen both (Kochan 2018c & 2015b).

In Chapter 7 of Science as Social Existence, I introduce Heidegger’s distinction between ‘enframing’ and poiēsis as two distinct ways in which things may be experienced (Kochan 2017, 359ff.). These roughly correspond to a modern and a non-modern mode of experience. They also encompass panpsychism and animism, respectively. I argue in Science as Social Existence that a system-centred understanding of experience is one in which things are ‘framed’ according to a universal blueprint. In contrast, poiēsis embraces pluralism, and thus resists the idea that life can be framed as a system, that it can be fully rationalised and reduced to a core set of concepts or practices.

This returns me to Riggio’s ‘conceptual schemes.’ Picking up Heidegger’s concepts of enframing and poiēsis, Riggio treats them both as conceptual systems or ‘frameworks’ (Riggio 2018, 55). As should be clear from the above, I reject this construal. In my view, enframing is a disposition to experience the world as ‘framed.’ Poiēsis, in contrast, refuses this disposition. Ingold’s animism, as a poetics of life, might be viewed as a mode of poiēsis – an existential openness to a world vibrant with life – rather than as a framework or scheme.

Riggio expresses horror at the way Heidegger’s concept of poiēsis, in his only recently published Black Notebooks, ‘guides’ one towards anti-Semitism (Riggio 2018, 56f). I have not read the Black Notebooks, as I have no stomach for still more of Heidegger’s already well-known anti-Semitic opinions and behaviour. But I do wish that Riggio had provided some specific textual evidence and exegesis, because, based on my own understanding of poiēsis, I find it difficult to see how it should ‘guide’ one towards anti-Semitism.

According to Riggio, the Black Notebooks are ‘pro-Indigenous and anti-colonial, but also anti-Semitic in equal intensity’ (Riggio 2018, 57). Since, in Science as Social Existence, I say nothing about Indigenous knowledge or colonialism, it is fortuitous that Riggio independently introduces these topics in his review, thereby allowing a link-up with Palladino’s suggestion that anthropology may offer a way forward. If I have understood him correctly, Riggio worries that poiēsis is a conceptual framework in which pro-Indigenous and anti-Semitic sentiments are logically inseparable.

Since I do not think that poiēsis is a conceptual framework, I do not feel the force of Riggio’s worry. However, if he were right, then the obvious response would be to reject poiēsis as a tool for Indigenous Studies. This would hardly be a tragedy, since Heidegger has never been an authoritative figure in that field anyway. In any case, the best source for learning about Indigenous peoples is Indigenous people (e.g., Battiste & Henderson 2000; Cajete 2000; Smith 2012; and a book recommended by Riggio, with which I am not yet familiar, Simpson 2017).

But perhaps Riggio worries more deeply that, quite independently of the concept of poiēsis, Indigenous Studies may entail anti-Semitism? If this were true, then the consequences would be profound not just for students of Indigenous culture, but, more importantly, for Indigenous peoples themselves. More particularly, but less importantly, it would be a serious blow to those, like myself, who currently work in the emerging field of postcolonial STS (e.g., Harding 2011).

But we have now moved well beyond the boundaries of Science as Social Existence. It is a testament to the vital intelligence of my fellow symposiasts that the discussion has stretched much further than the book itself, touching also on broader, often more important, issues. Once again, I thank Raphael Sassower, Pablo Schyfter, Paolo Palladino and Adam Riggio for their vigorous engagement with Science as Social Existence. To those readers who have followed our conversation, my heartfelt thanks as well.

Contact details:


Battiste, Marie and James (Sa’ke’j) Youngblood Henderson (2000). Protecting Indigenous Knowledge and Heritage: A Global Challenge (Saskatoon: Purich Publishing).

Cajete, Gregory (2000). Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence (Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers).

Harding, Sandra (2011). The Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies Reader (Durham NC: Duke University Press).

Ingold, Tim (2018). Anthropology: Why It Matters (Cambridge UK: Polity Press).

Ingold, Tim (2013). ‘Anthropology Beyond Humanity’ (Edward Westermarck Memorial Lecture). Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 38(3): 2-23.

Ingold, Tim (2011). ‘When ANT meets SPIDER: Social Theory for Arthropods.’ In Carl Knappett & Lanbros Malafouris (eds.), Material Agency: Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Approach (New York: Springer), pp. 209-215.

Kochan, Jeff (2018a). ‘On the Sociology of Subjectivity: A Reply to Raphael Sassower.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(5): 39-41.

Kochan, Jeff (2018b). ‘Supressed Subjectivity and Truncated Tradition: A Reply to Pablo Schyfter.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(12): 15-21.

Kochan, Jeff (2018c). ‘Decolonising Science in Canada: A Work in Progress.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(11): 42-47.

Kochan, Jeff (2017). Science as Social Existence: Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (Cambridge UK: Open Book Publishers).

Kochan, Jeff (2015a). ‘Putting a Spin on Circulating Reference, or How to Rediscover the Scientific Subject.’ Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 49: 103-107.

Kochan, Jeff (2015b). ‘Objective Styles in Northern Field Science.’ Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 52: 1-12.

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm von (1965). Monadology and Other Philosophical Essays, trans. Paul Schrecker and Anne Martin Schrecker (New York: Macmillan).

Palladino, Paolo (2018). ‘Heidegger Today: On Jeff Kochan’s Science and Social Existence.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(8): 41-46.

Riggio, Adam (2018). ‘The Very Being of a Conceptual Scheme.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(11): 53-59.

Said, Edward (2000/1982). ‘Travelling Theory.’ In M. Bayoumi and A. Rubin (eds.), The Edward Said Reader (New York: Vintage Books), pp. 195-217.

Sassower, Raphael (2018). ‘Heidegger and the Sociologists: A Forced Marriage?’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(5): 30-32.

Schyfter, Pablo (2018). ‘Inaccurate Ambitions and Missing Methodologies: Thoughts on Jeff Kochan and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(8): 8-14.

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

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai (2012). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, second edition (London: Zed Books).

Spinoza, Benedict de (1994). A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works, ed. and trans. Edwin Curley (Princeton: Princeton University Press).


Author Information: Frank Scalambrino, Duquesne University,

Scalambrino, Frank. “Reviewing Nolen Gertz’s Nihilism and Technology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 22-28.

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

Image by Jinx! via Flickr / Creative Commons


There are three (3) parts to this review, each of which brings a philosophical, and/or structural, issue regarding Dr. Gertz’s book into critical focus.

1) His characterization of “nihilism.”

a) This is specifically about Nietzsche.

2) His (lack of) characterization of the anti- and post-humanist positions in philosophy of technology.

a) Importantly, this should also change what he says about Marx.

3) In light of the above two changes, going forward, he should (re)consider the way he frames his “human-nihilism relations”

1) Consider that: If his characterization of nihilism in Nietzsche as “Who cares?” were correct, then Nietzsche would not have been able to say that Christianity is nihilistic (cf. The Anti-Christ §§6-7; cf. The Will to Power §247). The following organizes a range of ways he could correct this, from the most to least pervasive.

1a) He could completely drop the term “nihilism.” Ultimately, I think the term that fits best with his project, as it stands, is “decadence.” (More on this below.) In §43 of The Will to Power, Nietzsche explained that “Nihilism is not a cause, but only the rationale of decadence.”

1b) He could keep the term “nihilism” on the cover, but re-work the text to reflect technology as decadence, and then frame decadence as indicating a kind of nihilism (to justify keeping nihilism on the cover).

1c) He could keep everything as is; however, as will be clear below, his conception of nihilism and human-nihilism relations leaves him open to two counter-arguments which – as I see it – are devastating to his project. The first suggests that from the point of view of Nietzsche’s actual definition of “nihilism,” his theory itself is nihilistic. The second suggests that (from a post-human point of view) the ethical suggestions he makes (based on his revelation of human-nihilism relations) are “empty threats” in that the “de-humanization” of which he warns refers to a non-entity.

Lastly, I strongly suggest anyone interested in “nihilism” in Nietzsche consult both Heidegger (1987) and Deleuze (2006).

1. Gertz’s Characterization of “Nihilism”

Nietzsche’s writings are notoriously difficult to interpret. Of course, this is not the place to provide a “How to Read Nietzsche.” However, Dr. Gertz’s approach to reading Nietzsche is peculiar enough to warrant the following remarks about the difficulties involved. When approaching Nietzsche you should ask three questions: (1) Do you believe Nietzsche’s writings are wholly coherent, partially coherent, or not coherent at all? (2) Do you believe Nietzsche’s writings are wholly consistent, partially consistent, or not consistent at all? (3) Does Nietzsche’s being consistent make a “system” out of his philosophy?

The first question is important because you may believe that Nietzsche was a “madman.” And, the fallacy of ad hominem aside, you may believe his “madness” somehow invalidates what he said – either partially or totally. Further, it is clear that Nietzsche does not endorse a philosophy which considers rationality the most important aspect of being human. Thus, it may be possible to consider Nietzsche’s writings as purposeful or inspired incoherence.

For example, this latter point of view may find support in Nietzsche’s letters, and is exemplified by Blanchot’s comment: “The fundamental characteristic of Nietzsche’s truth is that it can only be misunderstood, can only be the object of an endless misunderstanding.” (1995: 299).

The second question is important because across Nietzsche’s writings he seemingly contradicts himself or changes his philosophical position. There are two main issues, then, regarding consistency. On the one hand, “distinct periods” of philosophy have been associated with various groupings of Nietzsche’s writings, and establishing these periods – along with affirming position changes – can be supported by Nietzsche’s own words (so long as one considers those statements coherent).

Thus, according to the standard division, we have the “Early Writings” from 1872-1876, the “Middle Writings” from 1878-1882, the “Later Writings” from 1883-1887, and the “Final Writings” of 1888. By examining Dr. Gertz’s Bibliography it is clear that he privileges the “Later” and “Unpublished” of Nietzsche’s writings. On the other hand, as William H. Schaberg convincingly argued in his The Nietzsche Canon: A Publication History and Bibliography, despite all of the “inconsistencies,” from beginning to end, Nietzsche’s writings represent the development of what he called the “Dionysian Worldview.” Importantly, Dr. Gertz neither addresses these exegetical issues nor does he even mention Dionysus.

The third question is important because throughout the last century of Nietzsche scholarship there have been various trends regarding the above, first two, questions, and often the “consistency” and “anti-system” issues have been conflated. Thus, scholars in the past have argued that Nietzsche must be inconsistent – if not incoherent – because he is purposefully an “anti-systematic thinker.”

However, as Schaberg’s work, among others, makes clear: To have a consistent theme does not necessitate that one’s work is “systematic.” For example, it is not the case that all philosophers are “systematic” philosophers merely because they consistently write about philosophy. That the “Dionysian Worldview” is ultimately Nietzsche’s consistent theme is not negated by any inconsistencies regarding how to best characterize that worldview.

Thus, I would be interested to know the process through which Dr. Gertz decided on the title of this book. On the one hand, it is clear that he considers this a book that combines Nietzsche and philosophy of technology. On the other hand, Dr. Gertz’s allegiance to (the unfortunately titled) “postphenomenology” and the way he takes up Nietzsche’s ideas make the title of his book problematic. For instance, the title of the first section of Chapter 2 is: “What is Nihilism?”

What About the Meaning of Nihilism?

Dr. Gertz notes that because the meaning of “nihilism” in the writings of Nietzsche is controversial, he will not even attempt to define nihilism in terms of Nietzsche’s writings (p. 13). He then, without referencing any philosopher at all, defines “nihilism” stating: “in everyday usage it is taken to mean something roughly equivalent to the expression ‘Who cares?’” (p. 13). Lastly, in the next section he uses Jean-Paul Sartre to characterize nihilism as “bad faith.” All this is problematic.

First, is this book about “nihilism” or “bad faith”? It seems to be about the latter, which (more on this to come) leads one to wonder whether the title and the supposed (at times forced) use of Nietzsche were not a (nihilistic?) marketing-ploy. Second, though Dr. Gertz doesn’t think it necessary to articulate and defend the meaning of “nihilism” in Nietzsche, just a casual glance at the same section of the “Unpublished Writings” (The Will to Power) that Gertz invokes can be used to argue against his characterization of “nihilism” as “Who cares?”

For example, Nietzsche is far more hardcore than “Who cares?” as evidenced by: “Nihilism does not only contemplate the ‘in vain!’ nor is it merely the belief that everything deserves to perish: one helps to destroy… [emphasis added]” (1968b: 18). “Nihilism” pertains to moral value. It is in this context that Nietzsche is a so-called “immoralist.”

Nietzsche came to see the will as, pun intended, beyond good and evil. It is moralizing that leads to nihilism. Consider the following from Nietzsche:

“Schopenhauer interpreted high intellectuality as liberation from the will; he did not want to see the freedom from moral prejudice which is part of the emancipation of the great spirit… Fundamental instinctive principle of all philosophers and historians and psychologists: everything of value in man, art, history, science, religion, technology [emphasis added], must be proved to be of moral value, morally conditioned, in aim, means and outcome… ‘Does man become better through it?’” (1968b: pp. 205-6).

The will is free, beyond all moral values, and so the desire to domesticate it is nihilistic – if for no reason other than in domesticating it one has lowered the sovereignty of the will into conformity with some set of rules designed for the preservation of the herd (or academic-cartel). Incidentally, I invoked this Nietzschean point in my chapter: “What Control? Life at the limits of power expression” in our book Social Epistemology and Technology. Moreover, none of us “philosophers of the future” have yet expressed this point in a way that surpasses the excellence and eloquence of Baudrillard (cf. The Perfect Crime and The Agony of Power).

In other words, what is in play are power differentials. Thus, oddly, as soon as Dr. Gertz begins moralizing by denouncing technology as “nihilistic,” he reveals himself – not technology – to be nihilistic. For all these reasons, and more, it is not clear why Dr. Gertz insists on the term “nihilism” or precisely how he sees this as Nietzsche’s position.

To be sure, the most recent data from the CDC indicate that chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis are presently at an all-time high; do you think this has nothing to do with the technological mediation of our social relations? Yet, the problem of bringing in Nietzsche’s conception of “nihilism” is that Nietzsche might not see this as a problem at all. On the one hand, we have all heard the story that Nietzsche knew he had syphilis; yet, he supposedly refused to seek treatment, and subsequently died from it.

On the other hand, at times it seems as though the Nietzschean term Dr. Gertz could have used would have been “decadence.” Thus, the problem with technology is that it is motivated by decadence and breeds decadence. Ultimately, the problem is that – despite the nowadays obligatory affirmation of the “non-binary” nature of whatever we happen to be talking about – Dr. Gertz frames his conception in terms of the bifurcation: technophile v. technophobe. Yet, Nietzsche is, of course, a transcendental philosopher, so there are three (not 2) positions. The third position is Amor Fati.

The ‘predominance of suffering over pleasure’ or the opposite (hedonism): these two doctrines are already signposts to nihilism… that is how a kind of man speaks who no longer dares to posit a will, a purpose, a meaning: for any healthier kind of man the value of life is certainly not measured by the standard of these trifles [pleasure and pain]. And suffering might predominate, and in spite of that a powerful will might exist, a Yes to life, a need for this predominance. (Nietzsche, 1968b: p. 23).

In terms of philosophy of technology, if it is our fate to exist in a world torn asunder by technological mediation, well, then, love it (in this wise, even the “Death of God” can be celebrated). And, here would be the place to mention “postmodern irony,” which Dr. Gertz does not consider. In sum, Dr. Gertz’s use of the term “nihilism” is, to say the least, problematic.

Technology’s Disconnect From Nietzsche Himself

Nietzsche infamously never used a typewriter. It was invented during his lifetime, and, as the story goes, he supposedly tried to use the technology but couldn’t get the hang of it, so he went back to writing by hand. This story points to an insight that it seems Dr. Gertz’s book doesn’t consider. For Nietzsche human existence is the point of departure, not technology.

So, the very idea that technological mediation will lead to a better existence (even if “better” only means “more efficient,” as it could in the case of the typewriter), should, according to Nietzsche’s actual logic of “nihilism,” see the desire to use a typewriter as either a symptom of decadence or an expression of strength; however, these options do not manifest in the logic of Gertz’s Nietzsche analysis.

Rather, Dr. Gertz moralizes the use of technology: “Working out which of these perspectives is correct is thus vital for ensuring that technologies are providing us leisure as a form of liberation rather than providing us leisure as a form of dehumanization.” (p. 4). Does the “Who cares?” logic of Gertz’s “nihilism” necessarily lead to an interpretation of Nietzsche as a kind of “Luddite”?

Before moving on to the next part of this review, a few last remarks about how Dr. Gertz uses Nietzsche’s writings are called for. There are nine (9) chapters in Nihilism and Technology. Dr. Gertz primarily uses the first two chapters to speak to the terminology he will use throughout the book. He uses the third chapter to align himself with the academic-cartel, and the remaining chapters are supposed to illustrate his explication of what he calls Nietzsche’s five “human-nihilism relations.” All of these so-called “human-nihilism relations” revolve around discussions which take place only in the “Third Essay” of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals – except one foray into The Gay Science.

Two points should be made here. First, Dr. Gertz calls these “nihilism relations,” but they are really just examples of “Slave Mentality.” This should come as no surprise to those familiar with Nietzsche because of where in his writings Dr. Gertz is focused. Moreover, there is not enough space here to fully explain why, but it is problematic to simply replace the term “Slave Mentality” with “nihilism relation.”

Second, among these “nihilism relations” there are two glaring misappropriations of Nietzsche’s writings regarding “pity” and “divinity.” That is, when Dr. Gertz equates “pity sex” (i.e. having “sexual intercourse,” of one kind or another, with someone ostensibly because you “pity” them) with Nietzsche’s famous discussion of pity in On the Genealogy of Morals, it both overlooks Nietzsche’s comments regarding “Master” pity and trivializes the notion of “pity” in Nietzsche.

For, as already noted above, if in your day to day practice of life you remain oriented to the belief that you need an excuse for whatever you do, then you are moralizing. (Remember when we used to think that Nietzsche was “dangerous”?) If you are moralizing, then you’re a nihilist. You’re a nihilist because you believe there is a world that is better than the one that exists. You believe in a world that is nothing. “Conclusion: The faith in the categories of reason is the cause of nihilism. We have measured the value of the world according to categories that refer to a purely fictitious world.” (Nietzsche, 1968b: p. 13).

Lastly, Dr. Gertz notes: “Google stands as proof that humans do not need gods, that humans are capable of fulfilling the role once reserved for the gods.” (p. 199). However, in making that statement he neither accurately speaks of the gods, in general, nor of Nietzsche’s understanding of – for example – Dionysus.

2) The Anti- and Post-Humanist Positions in Philosophy of Technology

In a footnote Dr. Gertz thanks an “anonymous reviewer” for telling him to clarify his position regarding humanism, transhumanism, and posthumanism; however, despite what sounds like his acknowledgement, he does not provide such a clarification. The idea is supposed to be that transhumanism is a kind of humanism, and anti- and post-humanism are philosophies which deny that “human” refers to a “natural category.” It is for this reason that many scholars talk of “two Marxisms.” That is to say, there is the earlier Marxism which takes “human” as a natural category and aims at liberation, and there is the later Marxism which takes “human” to be category constructed by Capital.

It is from this latter idea that the “care for the self” is criticized as something to be sold to “the worker” and to eventually transform the worker’s work into the work of consumption – this secures perpetual demand, as “the worker” is transformed into the “consumer.” Moreover, this is absolutely of central importance in the philosophy of technology. For, from a point of view that is truly post-human, Dr. Gertz’s moralizing-warning that technology may lead to “a form of dehumanization.” (p. 4) is an empty threat.

On the one hand, this fidelity to “human” as a natural category comes from Don Ihde’s “postphenomenology.” For Gertz’s idea of “human-nihilism relations” was developed from Idhe’s “human-technology relations.” (p. 45). Gertz notes, “Ihde turns Heidegger’s analysis of hammering into an exemplar of how to carry out analyses of human-technology relations, analyses which lead Ihde to expand the field of human-technology relations beyond Heidegger’s examples” (p. 49).

However, there are two significant problems here, both of which point back, again, to the lack of clarification regarding post-humanism. First, Heidegger speaks of Dasein and of Being, not of “human.” Similarly, Nietzsche could say, “The will to overcome an affect is ultimately only the will of another affect, or of several other affects.” (Nietzsche, 1989a: §117), or “There is no ‘being’ behind doing … the ‘doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything.” (Nietzsche, 1989b: p. 45).

Second, the section of Being & Time from which “postphenomenology” develops its relations of “co-constitution” is “The Worldhood of the World,” not “Being-in-the-World.” In other words, Dasein is not an aspect of “ready-to-hand” hammering, the ready-to-hand is an aspect of Dasein. Thus, “human” may be seen as a “worldly” “present-at-hand” projection of an “in order to.” Again, this is also why Gertz doesn’t characterize Marxism (p. 5) as “two Marxisms,” namely he does not consider the anti- or post-humanist readings of Marx.

Hence, the importance of clarifying the incommensurability between humanism and post-humanism: Gertz’s characterization of technology as nihilistic due to its de-humanizing may turn out to be itself nihilistic in terms of its moralizing (noted in Part I, above) and in terms of its taking the fictional-rational category “human” as more primordial than the (according to Nietzsche) non-discursive sovereign will.

3) His “human-nihilism relations”

Students of the philosophy of technology will find the Chapter 3 discussion of Ihde’s work helpful; going forward, we should inquire regarding Ihde’s four categories – in the context of post-humanism and cybernetics – if they are exhaustive. Moreover, how might each of these categories look from a point of view which takes the fundamental alteration of (human) be-ing by technology to be desirable?

This is a difficult question to navigate because it shifts the context for understanding Gertz’s philic/phobic dichotomy away from “care for the self” and toward a context of “evolutionary selection.” Might public self-awareness, in such a context, influence the evolutionary selection?

So long as one is explicitly taking a stand for humanism, then one could argue that the matrix of human-technology relations are symptoms of decadence. Interestingly, such a stance may make Nihilism and Technology, first and foremost, an ethics book and not a philosophy of technology book. Yet, especially, though perhaps not exclusively, presenting only the humanistic point of view leaves one open to the counter-argument that the “intellectual” and “philosophical” relations to “technology” that allow for such an analysis into these various discursive identities betrays a kind of decadence. It would not be much of a stretch to come to the conclusion that Nietzsche would consider “academics” decadent.

Further, it would also be helpful for philosophy of technology students to consider – from a humanistic point of view – the use of technology to extend human life in light of “human-decadence relations.” Of course, whether or not these relations, in general, lead to nihilism is a separate question. However, the people who profit from the decadence on which these technologies stand will rhetorically-bulwark the implementation of their technological procedures in terms of “saving lives.” Here, Nietzsche was again prophetic, as he explicitly considered a philosophy of “survive at all costs” to be a sign of degeneracy and decay.

Contact details:


Blanchot, Maurice. (1995). The Work of Fire. C. Mandell (Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles. (2006). Nietzsche and Philosophy. H. Tomlinson (Trans.). New York: Columbia University.

Heidegger, Martin. (1987). D.F. Krell (Ed.). Nietzsche, Vol. IV: Nihilism. F.A. Capuzzi (Trans.). New York: Harper & Row.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1989a). Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. W. Kaufmann (Trans.). New York: Vintage.

_____. (1989b). On the Genealogy of Morals /Ecce Homo. W. Kaufmann (Trans.). New York: Vintage Books.

_____. (1968a). Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ. R.J. Hollingdale (Trans.). Middlesex, England: Penguin Books.

_____. (1968b). The Will to Power. W. Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (Trans.). New York: Vintage Books.

Schaberg, William H. (1995). The Nietzsche Canon: A Publication History and Bibliography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Author Information: Jeff Kochan, University of Konstanz,

Kochan, Jeff. “Suppressed Subjectivity and Truncated Tradition: A Reply to Pablo Schyfter.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 15-21.

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

Image by Brandon Warren via Flickr / Creative Commons


This article responds to: Schyfter, Pablo. “Inaccurate Ambitions and Missing Methodologies: Thoughts on Jeff Kochan and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 8-14.

In his review of my book – Science as Social Existence: Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge – Raphael Sassower objects that I do not address issues of market capitalism, democracy, and the ‘industrial-academic-military complex’ (Sassower 2018, 31). To this, I responded: ‘These are not what my book is about’ (Kochan 2018, 40).

In a more recent review, Pablo Schyfter tries to turn this response around, and use it against me. Turnabout is fair play, I agree. Rebuffing my friendly, constructive criticism of the Edinburgh School’s celebrated and also often maligned ‘Strong Programme’ in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK), Schyfter argues that I have failed to address what the Edinburgh School is actually about (Schyfter 2018, 9).

Suppressing the Subject

More specifically, Schyfter argues that I expect things from the Edinburgh School that they never intended to provide. For example, he takes what I call the ‘glass bulb’ model of subjectivity, characterises it as a ‘form of realism,’ and then argues that I have, in criticising the School’s lingering adherence to this model, failed to address their ‘actual intents’ (Schyfter 2018, 8, 9). According to Schyfter, the Edinburgh School did not have among its intentions the sorts of things I represent in the glass-bulb model – these are not, he says, what the School is about.

This claim is clear enough. Yet, at the end of his review, Schyfter then muddies the waters. Rather than rejecting the efficacy of the glass-bulb model, as he had earlier, he now tries ‘expanding’ on it, suggesting that the Strong Programme is better seen as a ‘working light bulb’: ‘It may employ a glass-bulb, but cannot be reduced to it’ (Schyfter 2018, 14).

So is the glass-bulb model a legitimate resource for understanding the Edinburgh School, or is it not? Schyfter’s confused analysis leaves things uncertain. In any case, I agree with him that the Edinburgh School’s complete range of concerns cannot be reduced to those specific concerns I try to capture in the glass-bulb model.

The glass-bulb model is a model of subjectivity, and subjectivity is a central topic of Science as Social Existence. It is remarkable, then, that the word ‘subject’ and its cognates never appear in Schyfter’s review (apart from in one quote from me). One may furthermore wonder why Schyfter characterises the glass-bulb model as a ‘form of realism.’ No doubt, these two topics – subjectivity and realism – are importantly connected, but they are not the same. Schyfter has mixed them up, and, in doing so, he has suppressed subjectivity as a topic of discussion.

Different Kinds of Realism

Schyfter argues that I am ‘unfair’ in criticising the Edinburgh School for failing to properly address the issue of realism, because, he claims, ‘[t]heir work was not about ontology’ (Schyfter 2018, 9). As evidence for my unfairness, he quotes my reference to ‘the problem of how one can know that the external world exists’ (Schyfter 2018, 9; cf. Kochan 2017, 37). But the problem of how we can know something is not an ontological problem, it is an epistemological one, a problem of knowledge. Schyfter has mixed things up again.

Two paragraphs later, Schyfter then admits that the Edinburgh School ‘did not entirely ignore ontology’ (Schyfter 2018, 9). I agree. In fact, as I demonstrate in Chapter One, the Edinburgh School was keen to ontologically ground the belief that the ‘external world’ exists. Why? Because they see this as a fundamental premise of science, including their own social science.

I criticise this commitment to external-world realism, because it generates the epistemological problem of how one can know that the external world exists. And this epistemological problem, in turn, is vulnerable to sceptical attack. If the world is ‘external,’ the question will arise: external to what? The answer is: to the subject who seeks to know it.

The glass-bulb model reflects this ontological schema. The subject is sealed inside the bulb; the world is external to the bulb. The epistemological problem then arises of how the subject penetrates the glass barrier, makes contact with – knows – the world. This problem is invariably vulnerable to sceptical attack. One can avoid the problem, and the attack, by fully jettisoning the glass-bulb model. Crucially, this is not a rejection of realism per se, but only of a particular form of realism, namely, external-world realism.

Schyfter argues that the Edinburgh School accepts a basic premise, ‘held implicitly by people as they live their lives, that the world with which they interact exists’ (Schyfter 2018, 9). I agree; I accept it too. Yet he continues: ‘Kochan chastises this form of realism because it does not “establish the existence of the external world”’ (Schyfter 2018, 9).

That is not quite right. I agree that people, as they live their lives, accept that the world exists. But this is not external-world realism, and it is the latter view that I oppose. I ‘chastise’ the Edinburgh School for attempting to defend the latter view, when all they need to defend is the former. The everyday realist belief that the world exists is not vulnerable to sceptical attack, because it does not presuppose the glass-bulb model of subjectivity.

On this point, then, my criticism of the Edinburgh School is both friendly and constructive. It assuages their worries about sceptical attack – which I carefully document in Chapter One – without requiring them to give up their realism. But the transaction entails that they abandon their lingering commitment to the glass-bulb model, including their belief in an ‘external’ world, and instead adopt a phenomenological model of the subject as being-in-the-world.

Failed Diversionary Tactics

It is important to note that the Edinburgh School does not reject scepticism outright. As long as the sceptic attacks absolutist knowledge of the external world, they are happy to go along. But once the sceptic argues that knowledge of the external world, as such, is impossible, they demur, for this threatens their realism. Instead, they combine realism with relativism. Yet, as I argue, as long as they also combine their relativism with the glass-bulb model, that is, as long as theirs is an external-world realism, they will remain vulnerable to sceptical attack.

Hence, I wrote that, in the context of their response to the external-world sceptic, the Edinburgh School’s distinction between absolute and relative knowledge ‘is somewhat beside the point’ (Kochan 2017, 48). In response, Schyfter criticises me for neglecting the importance of the Edinburgh School’s relativism (Schyfter 2018, 10). But I have done no such thing. In fact, I wholly endorse their relativism. I do suggest, however, that it be completely divorced from the troublesome vestiges of the glass-bulb model of subjectivity.

Schyfter uses the same tactic in response to this further claim of mine: ‘For the purposes of the present analysis, whether [conceptual] content is best explained in collectivist or individualist terms is beside the point’ (Kochan 2017, 79). For this, I am accused of failing to recognise the importance of the Edinburgh School’s commitment to a collectivist or social conception of knowledge (Schyfter 2018, 11).

The reader should not be deceived into thinking that the phrase ‘the present analysis’ refers to the book as a whole. In fact, it refers to that particular passage of Science as Social Existence wherein I discuss David Bloor’s claim that the subject can make ‘genuine reference to an external reality’ (Kochan 2017, 79; cf. Bloor 2001, 149). Bloor’s statement relies on the glass-bulb model. Whether the subjectivity in the bulb is construed in individualist terms or in collectivist terms, the troubles caused by the model will remain.

Hence, I cannot reasonably be charged with ignoring the importance of social knowledge for the Edinburgh School. Indeed, the previous but one sentence to the sentence on which Schyfter rests his case reads: ‘This sociological theory of the normativity and objectivity of conceptual content is a central pillar of SSK’ (Kochan 2017, 79). It is a central pillar of Science as Social Existence as well.

Existential Grounds for Scientific Experience

Let me shift now to Heidegger. Like previous critics of Heidegger, Schyfter is unhappy with Heidegger’s concept of the ‘mathematical projection of nature.’ Although I offer an extended defense and development of this concept, Schyfter nevertheless insists that it does ‘not offer a clear explanation of what occurs in the lived world of scientific work’ (Schyfter 2018, 11).

For Heidegger, ‘projection’ structures the subject’s understanding at an existential level. It thus serves as a condition of possibility for both practical and theoretical experience. Within the scope of this projection, practical understanding may ‘change over’ to theoretical understanding. This change-over in experience occurs when a subject holds back from immersed, practical involvement with things, and instead comes to experience those things at a distance, as observed objects to which propositional statements may then be referred.

The kind of existential projection specific to modern science, Heidegger called ‘mathematical.’ Within this mathematical projection, scientific understanding may likewise change over from practical immersion in a work-world (e.g., at a lab bench) to a theoretical, propositionally structured conception of that same world (e.g., in a lab report).

What critics like Schyfter fail to recognise is that the mathematical projection explicitly envelopes ‘the lived world of scientific work’ and tries to explain it (necessarily but not sufficiently) in terms of the existential conditions structuring that experience. This is different from – but compatible with – an ethnographic description of scientific life, which need not attend to the subjective structures that enable that life.

When such inattention is elevated to a methodological virtue, however, scientific subjectivity will be excluded from analysis. As we will see in a moment, this exclusion is manifest, on the sociology side, in the rejection of the Edinburgh School’s core principle of underdetermination.

In the mid-1930s, Heidegger expanded on his existential conception of science, introducing the term mathēsis in a discussion of the Scientific Revolution. Mathēsis has two features: metaphysical projection; and work experiences. These are reciprocally related, always occurring together in scientific activity. I view this as a reciprocal relation between the empirical and the metaphysical, between the practical and the theoretical, a reciprocal relation enabled, in necessary part, by the existential conditions of scientific subjectivity.

Schyfter criticises my claim that, for Heidegger, the Scientific Revolution was not about a sudden interest in facts, measurement, or experiment, where no such interest had previously existed. For him, this is ‘excessively broad,’ ‘does not reflect the workings of scientific practice,’ and is ‘belittling of empirical study’ (Schyfter 2018, 12). This might be true if Heidegger had offered a theory-centred account of science. But he did not. Heidegger argued that what was decisive in the Scientific Revolution was, as I put it, ‘not that facts, experiments, calculation and measurement are deployed, but how and to what end they are deployed’ (Kochan 2017, 233).

According to Heidegger, in the 17th c. the reciprocal relation between metaphysical projection and work experience was mathematicised. As the projection became more narrowly specified – i.e., axiomatised – the manner in which things were experienced and worked with also became narrower. In turn, the more accustomed subjects became to experiencing and working with things within this mathematical frame, the more resolutely mathematical the projection became. Mathēsis is a kind of positive feedback loop at the existential level.

Giving Heidegger Empirical Feet

This is all very abstract. That is why I suggested that ‘[a]dditional material from the history of science will allow us to develop and refine Heidegger’s account of modern science in a way which he did not’ (Kochan 2017, 235). This empirical refinement and development takes up almost all of Chapters 5 and 6, wherein I consider: studies of diagnostic method by Renaissance physician-professors at the University of Padua, up until their appointment of Galileo in 1591; the influence of artisanal and mercantile culture on the development of early-modern scientific methods, with a focus on metallurgy; and the dispute between Robert Boyle and Francis Line in the mid-17th c. over the experimentally based explanation of suction.

As Paolo Palladino recognises in his review of Science as Social Existence, this last empirical case study offers a different account of events than was given by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer in their classic 1985 book Leviathan and the Air-Pump, which influentially applied Edinburgh School methods to the history of science (Palladino 2018, 42). I demonstrate that Heidegger’s account is compatible with this sociological account, and that it also offers different concepts leading to a new interpretation.

Finally, at the end of Chapter 6, I demonstrate the compatibility of Heidegger’s account of modern science with Bloor’s concept of ‘social imagery,’ not just further developing and refining Heidegger’s account of modern science, but also helping to more precisely define the scope of application of Bloor’s valuable methodological concept. Perhaps this does not amount to very much in the big picture, but it is surely more than a mere ‘semantic reformulation of Heidegger’s ideas,’ as Schyfter suggests (Schyfter 2018, 13).

Given all of this, I am left a bit baffled by Schyfter’s claims that I ‘belittle’ empirical methods, that I ‘do[] not present any analysis of SSK methodologies,’ and that I am guilty of ‘a general disregard for scientific practice’ (Schyfter 2018, 12, 11).

Saving an Edinburgh School Method

Let me pursue the point with another example. A key methodological claim of the Edinburgh School is that scientific theory is underdetermined by empirical data. In order to properly explain theory, one must recognise that empirical observation is an interpretative act, necessarily (but not sufficiently) guided by social norms.

I discuss this in Chapter 3, in the context of Bloor’s and Bruno Latour’s debate over another empirical case study from the history of science, the contradictory interpretations given by Robert Millikan and Felix Ehrenhaft of the natural phenomena we now call ‘electrons.’

According to Bloor, because Millikan and Ehrenhaft both observed the same natural phenomena, the divergence between their respective claims – that electrons do and do not exist – must be explained by reference to something more than those phenomena. This ‘something more’ is the divergence in the respective social conditions guiding Millikan and Ehrenhaft’s interpretations of the data (Kochan 2017, 124-5; see also Kochan 2010, 130-33). Electron theory is underdetermined by the raw data of experience. Social phenomena, or ‘social imagery,’ must also play a role in any explanation of how the controversy was settled.

Latour rejects underdetermination as ‘absurd’ (Kochan 2017, 126). This is part of his more general dismissal of the Edinburgh School, based on his exploitation of vulnerabilities in their lingering adherence to the glass-bulb model of subjectivity. I suggest that the Edinburgh School, by fully replacing the glass-bulb model with Heidegger’s model of the subject as being-in-the-world, can deflect Latour’s challenge, thus saving underdetermination as a methodological tool.

This would also allow the Edinburgh School to preserve subjectivity as a methodological resource for sociological explanation. Like Heidegger’s metaphysical projection, the Edinburgh School’s social imagery plays a necessary (but not a sufficient) role in guiding the subject’s interpretation of natural phenomena.

The ‘Tradition’ of SSK – Open or Closed?

Earlier, I mentioned the curious fact that Schyfter never uses the word ‘subject’ or its cognates. It is also curious that he neglects my discussion of the Bloor-Latour debate and never mentions underdetermination. In Chapter 7 of Science as Social Existence, I argue that Latour, in his attack on the Edinburgh School, seeks to suppress subjectivity as a topic for sociological analysis (Kochan 2017, 353-54, and, for methodological implications, 379-80; see also Kochan 2015).

More recently, in my response to Sassower, I noted the ongoing neglect of the history of disciplinary contestation within the field of science studies (Kochan 2018, 40). I believe that the present exchange with Schyfter nicely exemplifies that internal contestation, and I thank him for helping me to more fully demonstrate the point.

Let me tally up. Schyfter is silent on the topic of subjectivity. He is silent on the Bloor-Latour debate. He is silent on the methodological importance of underdetermination. And he tries to divert attention from his silence with specious accusations that, in Science as Social Existence, I belittle empirical research, that I disregard scientific practice, that I fail to recognise the importance of social accounts of knowledge, and that I generally do not take seriously Edinburgh School methodology.

Schyfter is eager to exclude me from what he calls the ‘tradition’ of SSK (Schyfter 2018, 13). He seems to view tradition as a cleanly bounded and internally cohesive set of ideas and doings. By contrast, in Science as Social Existence, I treat tradition as a historically fluid range of intersubjectively sustained existential possibilities, some inevitably vying against others for a place of cultural prominence (Kochan 2017, 156, 204f, 223, 370f). Within this ambiguously bounded and inherently fricative picture, I can count Schyfter as a member of my tradition.


My thanks to David Bloor and Martin Kusch for sharing with me their thoughts on Schyfter’s review. The views expressed here are my own.

Contact details:


Bloor, David (2001). ‘What Is a Social Construct?’ Facta Philosophica 3: 141-56.

Kochan, Jeff (2018). ‘On the Sociology of Subjectivity: A Reply to Raphael Sassower.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(5): 39-41.

Kochan, Jeff (2017). Science as Social Existence: Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers).

Kochan, Jeff (2015). ‘Putting a Spin on Circulating Reference, or How to Rediscover the Scientific Subject.’ Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 49:103-107.

Kochan, Jeff (2010). ‘Contrastive Explanation and the “Strong Programme” in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge.’ Social Studies of Science 40(1): 127-44.

Palladino, Paolo (2018). ‘Heidegger Today: On Jeff Kochan’s Science and Social Existence.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(8): 41-46.

Sassower, Raphael (2018). ‘Heidegger and the Sociologists: A Forced Marriage?’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(5): 30-32.

Schyfter, Pablo (2018). ‘Inaccurate Ambitions and Missing Methodologies: Thoughts on Jeff Kochan and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(8): 8-14.

Shapin, Steven and Simon Schaffer (1985). Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Author Information: Patrick Bondy, Wichita State University,

Bondy, Patrick. “Knowledge and Ignorance, Theoretical and Practical.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 9-14.

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

Image by The Naked Ape via Flickr / Creative Commons


In “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance,” Nadja El Kassar brings disparate conceptions of ignorance from recent epistemology into contact with each other, and she proposes an integrated conception of ignorance which aims to capture the important aspects of each of these conceptions. This paper is both useful and stimulating for anyone interested in the subjects of knowledge and ignorance, especially those who might be ignorant of work on ignorance conducted in other branches of epistemology.

El Kassar’s View of Ignorance

El Kassar identifies three broad approaches to ignorance in the epistemology literature which lead up to her proposed integrated conception:

(1) Propositional conception of ignorance

This is the standard approach in epistemology. On this approach, ignorance consists of a subject’s lacking either knowledge of or belief in a true proposition.

(2) Agential conception of ignorance

Agential ignorance goes beyond mere propositional ignorance, in “explicitly includ[ing] the epistemic agent as contributing to and maintaining ignorance” (p.3). Epistemic vices such as arrogance, laziness, and closed-mindedness contribute to this sort of ignorance. On this approach, the particular way in which ignorance is brought about or maintained is viewed as partly constitutive of the ignorance itself.

(3) Structural conception of ignorance

Like the agential conception, this conception of ignorance views the causes of ignorance as partly constitutive of ignorance. Unlike the agential conception, however, the structural conception takes into account belief-forming practices and social structures that go beyond the individual cognizer.

(4) Integrated conception of ignorance

El Kassar argues that each of these other conceptions of ignorance gets at something important, and that they are not reducible to each other. So she proposes her integrated conception, which aims to bring the key features of these approaches together: “Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs – either she has no belief about p or a false belief – and her epistemic attitudes (doxastic attitudes, epistemic virtues, epistemic vices)” (p.7).

In the remainder of this commentary, I will do three things. First, I will briefly argue in defense of the Standard View, on the ground that we can say everything we want to say about ignorance, taking the propositional conception of ignorance as fundamental. Second, I will suggest that proponents of the Standard View of ignorance do not need to choose between viewing ignorance as a lack of knowledge and ignorance as lack of true belief. Just as there are strong and weak senses of “knowledge,” there can be corresponding weak and strong senses of “ignorance.”

Third, I will propose that we should recognize another kind of ignorance, which we might call practical ignorance, which consists of not knowing how to do things. There is a clear way in which practical ignorance is distinct from propositional ignorance, given that knowledge-how and knowledge-that appear to be different kinds of knowledge that are irreducible to each other. But there is also a sense in which practical ignorance can be partly constitutive of propositional ignorance, which is similar to how El Kassar sees agential ignorance as partly constitutive of ignorance in general. Indeed, I will suggest, El Kassar’s integrated view of ignorance might easily be extended to cover practical ignorance as well.

Propositional Ignorance as Fundamental

I want to defend the view that propositional ignorance is the most fundamental kind of ignorance. Viewing ignorance this way is intuitively plausible, and it allows us to say everything we need to say about ignorance.

The claim that propositional ignorance is most fundamental is ambiguous. On the one hand, it might mean that agential and structural ignorance are entirely reducible to it, in the sense that the crucial aspects of agential and structural ignorance as described above, such as the cognitive dispositions of individual subject or the knowledge-producing institutions extant in a society, are themselves all forms of propositional ignorance or that they derive from propositional ignorance.

El Kassar notes that that kind of reductivism is implausible, and it is not the view I mean to defend here. Instead, I mean to defend the proposal that “The propositional conception is most fundamental because the second and the third conceptions are not really conceptions of ignorance but rather accounts of different causes of ignorance” (p. 4).

On this view, the only condition that constitutes ignorance is lack of knowledge or true belief, and so all ignorance is propositional ignorance. But propositional ignorance might be brought about in various ways, and it is useful to distinguish the various ways in which it can be brought about or sustained, especially when some of those ways make a person’s or a group’s ignorance particularly dangerous or resilient.

This approach does not aim to denigrate the projects pursued by proponents of agential and structural conceptions of ignorance. It does not even aim to prevent us from talking about different kinds of ignorance as differentiated by their agential or structural causes.

Just as we can categorize propositional knowledge into different kinds based on the subject matter of what is known and the methods by which knowledge in different areas is acquired, all the while acknowledging that these are still all kinds of propositional knowledge, so too we can distinguish kinds of propositional ignorance based on the subject matter and the ways in which ignorance is caused or maintained, while still recognizing these as kinds of propositional ignorance.

El Kassar objects (p. 4) that this proposal misunderstands the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance, for they aim to broaden our view of ignorance, to incorporate more than just propositional ignorance. They view certain kinds of agential or structural causes of ignorance as part of what constitutes ignorance itself. Propositional conceptions of ignorance cannot capture these aspects of ignorance; these aspects of ignorance are not propositional in nature, after all.

But it seems that propositionalists can make two replies here. First, if virtue epistemologists such as Greco (2009) are right, then knowledge itself depends on subjects possessing and exercising certain cognitive abilities. In that case, there are agential aspects to propositional knowledge—and in some cases, to propositional ignorance. So some aspects of agential ignorance can be built into propositional ignorance.

And second, it’s not clear that we need to broaden the conception of ignorance to include things beyond propositional ignorance. Granting that there are aspects of agential and structural conceptions of ignorance that are left out of the account of what ignorance is when we take propositional ignorance as fundamental, it does not follow that we cannot take those aspects of agential and structural ignorance into account at all.

Some kinds of causes of ignorance are worth dwelling on in our theories of knowledge and ignorance. We just don’t need to think of the causes of ignorance as themselves forms of ignorance, or as part of what constitutes ignorance.

So it seems to me that we can still say everything we want to say about what are here called propositional, agential, and structural ignorance, even if we only ultimately count propositional ignorance as ignorance proper, and we count the features of agential and structural ignorance as important causes of ignorance proper but not themselves constitutive of ignorance.

Propositional Ignorance: Lack of Knowledge or True Belief?

El Kassar notes that if we take the propositional conception as fundamental, then we will need to decide whether to take ignorance to consist of a lack of true belief or a lack of knowledge. But perhaps we can have it both ways. As Goldman and Olsson (2010) note, ordinarily, from the fact that S lacks knowledge that p, one may infer that S is ignorant of p. Knowledge and ignorance appear to exhaust the logical space, for a given subject S and true proposition p.

Furthermore, in ordinary English there are strong and weak senses of “knowledge,” with the weak sense meaning simply true belief, and the strong sense meaning Gettier-proof justified true belief. In the weak sense of “knowledge,” ignorance is a lack of knowledge and a lack of true belief, because knowledge and true belief are one and the same, on this conception of knowledge.

In the strong sense of knowledge, on the other hand, a lack of knowledge results from lacking true belief, or from lacking justification, or from being Gettiered. But, Goldman and Olsson argue, lacking justification or being Gettiered do not make a person ignorant of whether p is true. As long as p is true and S believes p, it is incorrect to say that S is ignorant of p.

So Goldman and Olsson plump for the view of ignorance as lack of true belief. But another option is to take their initial point about ignorance as a lack of knowledge at face value. Given that ignorance is a lack of knowledge, and given that there are strong and weak senses of “knowledge,” one would expect that there also are strong and weak senses of “ignorance.” A lack of knowledge in the weak sense would be ignorance in the strong sense, and a lack of knowledge in the strong sense would be ignorance in the weak sense. Because knowledge in the strong sense consists of more than knowledge in the weak sense, a lack of knowledge in the strong sense takes less than does a lack of knowledge in the weak sense.

Practical Ignorance

The proposal here is that ignorance at bottom consists of a lack of knowledge. So far, in line with the Standard View, we have only been considering propositional knowledge: ignorance consists of the existence of a true proposition p, and S’s lacking knowledge that p.

But on the assumption that knowledge-how is not reducible to knowledge-that, it seems useful to have a conception of ignorance which will apply to the lack of knowledge-how.[1] For example, it seems natural enough to say that I am ignorant of how to kick a field goal, or how to speak Mandarin, or how to build a sturdy chair. And if knowledge-how is not just a species of knowledge-that, then my ignorance of these things consists of more than a simple lack of true beliefs about how these things are done: they consist at least in part of my lacking the ability to do them. We can call this kind of ignorance practical ignorance.

Importantly, practical ignorance is not reducible to the agential kind of ignorance discussed above. Although the agential conception takes cognitive abilities and dispositions to be partly constitutive of ignorance, practical ignorance would be much broader, encompassing practical inabilities as well as cognitive inabilities. Further, the agential conception of ignorance draws our attention to ignorance that can sometimes be actively maintained by very sophisticated intellectual abilities, in which case such ignorance does not manifest practical ignorance.

For example, one might have the ability to reinterpret data to support a preferred outlook. That is not a truth-conducive ability, but it is an ability to form desired beliefs, and it is an ability at which people can become quite proficient. In cases where a subject exercises such an ability, she might successfully maintain a distorted or mistaken outlook because of the exercise of practical abilities, not because of practical ignorance.

Like propositional ignorance, practical ignorance can be partly caused or sustained by agential and structural features of a person or a society. For example, practical ignorance can be actively maintained by an individual’s interference in her own development, or by other people’s interference in her development. Social structures geared toward the oppression of segments of the population, or which simply encourage members of certain social groups to participate in some activities and not to participate in others, can also contribute to sustaining people’s practical inabilities.

And, like agential ignorance, practical ignorance can be responsible for maintaining propositional ignorance in individuals or in groups, about individual propositions or about whole domains of knowledge.

For example, the inability to speak local languages can keep victims of human trafficking from gaining knowledge of the kinds of resources that might be available to them. The inability to perform relatively simple arithmetical calculations can prevent an individual from knowing whether she is receiving the correct amount of change in a transaction. The inability to conceptualize certain kinds of behaviour as abusive can sustain a lack of understanding of one’s situation.[2] And so on.

So although practical and propositional ignorance are different kinds of ignorance, on the assumption that know-how and knowledge-that are irreducible to each other, they appear to be susceptible to being intertwined in these ways.

The nature of practical ignorance and its relation to propositional ignorance bears further investigation. One potential feature of El Kassar’s integrated conception of ignorance is that, although it has a doxastic component built in, and so it does not account for practical ignorance as I am conceiving of it, it might be straightforwardly extended to cover practical ignorance as well.

For example, theoretical and practical ignorance might be defined and brought together as follows:

Theoretical ignorance: this would remain as El Kassar formulates her integrated conception of ignorance, as “a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs – either she has no belief about p or a false belief – and her epistemic attitudes (doxastic attitudes, epistemic virtues, epistemic vices)” (p.7).

Practical ignorance: a disposition of an agent that manifests itself in her actions – where S fails to φ, or S does not φ well or properly – and her practical attitudes (ethical and pragmatic attitudes, ethical or practical virtues and vices).

Ignorance in general: combines theoretical and practical ignorance. Ignorance in general would then be: a disposition of an agent that manifests itself in an agent’s beliefs or actions – whereby she fails to succeed in achieving the characteristic goal of the activity in question (believing truly, knowing, or successfully carrying out some practical action) – and in her epistemic and practical attitudes (doxastic attitudes, ethical attitudes, epistemic and practical virtues and vices).

Of course, this is only a suggestion about how practical ignorance could be conceptualized. I have argued in defense of the Standard View of (theoretical) ignorance, so this sort of unified integrated conception is not available to me. Nor do I mean to suggest that El Kassar is committed to developing her view of ignorance in this direction.

Still, given a commitment to El Kassar’s integrated view of ignorance, and given that we should also want to give an account of practical ignorance, this seems like a plausible way to deliver a unified treatment of ignorance.

Contact details:


El Kassar, Nadja (2018). “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance.” Social Epistemology. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1518498.

Goldman, Alvin and Olsson, Erik (2009). “Reliabilism and the Value of Knowledge.” In: A. Haddock, A. Millar, and D. Pritchard, eds., Epistemic Value. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 19-41.

Greco, John (2009). “Knowledge and Success from Ability.” Philosophical Studies 142 (1): 17-26.

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

Peels, Rik (2010). “What Is Ignorance?” Philosophia 38: 57–67.

[1] Peels (2010) briefly considers the possibility of practical ignorance, only to set it aside and focus on propositional ignorance.

[2] I have in mind here Fricker’s (2007) treatment of hermeneutical injustice.

Author Information: Luca Tateo, Aalborg University & Federal University of Bahia,

Tateo, Luca. “Ethics, Cogenetic Logic, and the Foundation of Meaning.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 1-8.

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

Mural entitled “Paseo de Humanidad” on the Mexican side of the US border wall in the city of Heroica Nogales, in Sonora. Art by Alberto Morackis, Alfred Quiróz and Guadalupe Serrano.
Image by Jonathan McIntosh, via Flickr / Creative Commons


This essay is in reply to: Miika Vähämaa (2018) Challenges to Groups as Epistemic Communities: Liminality of Common Sense and Increasing Variability of Word Meanings, Social Epistemology, 32:3, 164-174, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1458352

In his interesting essay, Vähämaa (2018) discusses two issues that I find particularly relevant. The first one concerns the foundation of meaning in language, which in the era of connectivism (Siemens, 2005) and post-truth (Keyes, 2004) becomes problematic. The second issue is the appreciation of epistemic virtues in a collective context: how the group can enhance the epistemic skill of the individual?

I will try to explain why these problems are relevant and why it is worth developing Vähämaa’s (2018) reflection in the specific direction of group and person as complementary epistemic and ethic agents (Fricker, 2007). First, I will discuss the foundations of meaning in different theories of language. Then, I will discuss the problems related to the stability and liminality of meaning in the society of “popularity”. Finally I will propose the idea that the range of contemporary epistemic virtues should be integrated by an ethical grounding of meaning and a co-genetic foundation of meaning.

The Foundation of Meaning in Language

The theories about the origins of human language can be grouped in four main categories, based on the elements characterizing the ontogenesis and glottogenesis.

Sociogenesis Hypothesis (SH): it is the idea that language is a conventional product, that historically originates from coordinated social activities and it is ontogenetically internalized through individual participation to social interactions. The characteristic authors in SH are Wundt, Wittgenstein and Vygotsky (2012).

Praxogenesis Hypothesis (PH): it is the idea that language historically originates from praxis and coordinated actions. Ontogenetically, the language emerges from senso-motory coordination (e.g. gaze coordination). It is for instance the position of Mead, the idea of linguistic primes in Smedslund (Vähämaa, 2018) and the language as action theory of Austin (1975).

Phylogenesis Hypothesis (PhH): it is the idea that humans have been provided by evolution with an innate “language device”, emerging from the evolutionary preference for forming social groups of hunters and collective long-duration spring care (Bouchard, 2013). Ontogenetically, language predisposition is wired in the brain and develops in the maturation in social groups. This position is represented by evolutionary psychology and by innatism such as Chomsky’s linguistics.

Structure Hypothesis (StH): it is the idea that human language is a more or less logic system, in which the elements are determined by reciprocal systemic relationships, partly conventional and partly ontic (Thao, 2012). This hypothesis is not really concerned with ontogenesis, rather with formal features of symbolic systems of distinctions. It is for instance the classical idea of Saussure and of the structuralists like Derrida.

According to Vähämaa (2018), every theory of meaning has to deal today with the problem of a terrific change in the way common sense knowledge is produced, circulated and modified in collective activities. Meaning needs some stability in order to be of collective utility. Moreover, meaning needs some validation to become stable.

The PhH solves this problem with a simple idea: if humans have survived and evolved, their evolutionary strategy about meaning is successful. In a natural “hostile” environment, our ancestors must have find the way to communicate in such a way that a danger would be understood in the same way by all the group members and under different conditions, including when the danger is not actually present, like in bonfire tales or myths.

The PhH becomes problematic when we consider the post-truth era. What would be the evolutionary advantage to deconstruct the environmental foundations of meaning, even in a virtual environment? For instance, what would be the evolutionary advantage of the common sense belief that global warming is not a reality, considered that this false belief could bring mankind to the extinction?

StH leads to the view of meaning as a configuration of formal conditions. Thus, stability is guaranteed by structural relations of the linguistic system, rather than by the contribution of groups or individuals as epistemic agents. StH cannot account for the rapidity and liminality of meaning that Vähämaa (2018) attributes to common sense nowadays. SH and PH share the idea that meaning emerges from what people do together, and that stability is both the condition and the product of the fact that we establish contexts of meaningful actions, ways of doing things in a habitual way.

The problem is today the fact that our accelerated Western capitalistic societies have multiplied the ways of doing and the number of groups in society, decoupling the habitual from the common sense meaning. New habits, new words, personal actions and meanings are built, disseminated and destroyed in short time. So, if “Our lives, with regard to language and knowledge, are fundamentally bound to social groups” (Vähämaa, 2018, p. 169) what does it happen to language and to knowledge when social groups multiply, segregate and disappear in a short time?

From Common Sense to the Bubble

The grounding of meaning in the group as epistemic agent has received a serious stroke in the era of connectivism and post-truth. The idea of connectivism is that knowledge is distributed among the different agents of a collective network (Siemens, 2005). Knowledge does not reside into the “mind” or into a “memory”, but is rather produced in bits and pieces, that the epistemic agent is required to search, and to assemble through the contribution of the collective effort of the group’s members.

Thus, depending on the configuration of the network, different information will be connected, and different pictures of the world will emerge. The meaning of the words will be different if, for instance, the network of information is aggregated by different groups in combination with, for instance, specific algorithms. The configuration of groups, mediated by social media, as in the case of contemporary politics (Lewandowsky, Ecker & Cook, 2017), leads to the reproduction of “bubbles” of people that share the very same views, and are exposed to the very same opinions, selected by an algorithm that will show only the content compliant with their previous content preferences.

The result is that the group loses a great deal of its epistemic capability, which Vähämaa (2018) suggests as a foundation of meaning. The meaning of words that will be preferred in this kind of epistemic bubble is the result of two operations of selection that are based on popularity. First, the meaning will be aggregated by consensual agents, rather than dialectic ones. Meaning will always convergent rather than controversial.

Second, between alternative meanings, the most “popular” will be chosen, rather than the most reliable. The epistemic bubble of connectivism originates from a misunderstanding. The idea is that a collectivity has more epistemic force than the individual alone, to the extent that any belief is scrutinized democratically and that if every agent can contribute with its own bit, the knowledge will be more reliable, because it is the result of a constant and massive peer-review. Unfortunately, the events show us a different picture.

Post-truth is actually a massive action of epistemic injustice (Fricker, 2007), to the extent that the reliability of the other as epistemic agent is based on criteria of similarity, rather than on dialectic. One is reliable as long as it is located within my own bubble. Everything outside is “fake news”. The algorithmic selection of information contributes to reinforce the polarization. Thus, no hybridization becomes possible, the common sense (Vähämaa, 2018) is reduced to the common bubble. How can the epistemic community still be a source of meaning in the connectivist era?

Meaning and Common Sense

SH and PH about language point to a very important historical source: the philosopher Giambattista Vico (Danesi, 1993; Tateo, 2015). Vico can be considered the scholar of the common sense and the imagination (Tateo, 2015). Knowledge is built as product of human experience and crystallized into the language of a given civilization. Civilization is the set of interpretations and solutions that different groups have found to respond to the common existential events, such as birth, death, mating, natural phenomena, etc.

According to Vico, all the human beings share a fate of mortal existence and rely on each other to get along. This is the notion of common sense: the profound sense of humanity that we all share and that constitutes the ground for human ethical choices, wisdom and collective living. Humans rely on imagination, before reason, to project themselves into others and into the world, in order to understand them both. Imagination is the first step towards the understanding of the Otherness.

When humans loose contact with this sensus communis, the shared sense of humanity, and start building their meaning on egoism or on pure rationality, civilizations then slip into barbarism. Imagination gives thus access to the intersubjectivity, the capability of feeling the other, while common sense constitutes the wisdom of developing ethical beliefs that will not harm the other. Vico ideas are echoed and made present by the critical theory:

“We have no doubt (…) that freedom in society is inseparable from enlightenment thinking. We believe we have perceived with equal clarity, however, that the very concept of that thinking (…) already contains the germ of the regression which is taking place everywhere today. If enlightenment does not [engage in] reflection on this regressive moment, it seals its own fate (…) In the mysterious willingness of the technologically educated masses to fall under the spell of any despotism, in its self-destructive affinity to nationalist paranoia (…) the weakness of contemporary theoretical understanding is evident.” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002, xvi)

Common sense is the basis for the wisdom, that allows to question the foundational nature of the bubble. It is the basis to understand that every meaning is not only defined in a positive way, but is also defined by its complementary opposite (Tateo, 2016).

When one uses the semantic prime “we” (Vähämaa, 2018), one immediately produces a system of meaning that implies the existence of a “non-we”, one is producing otherness. In return, the meaning of “we” can only be clearly defined through the clarification of who is “non-we”. Meaning is always cogenetic (Tateo, 2015). Without the capability to understand that by saying “we” people construct a cogenetic complex of meaning, the group is reduced to a self confirming, self reinforcing collective, in which the sense of being a valid epistemic agent is actually faked, because it is nothing but an act of epistemic arrogance.

How we can solve the problem of the epistemic bubble and give to the relationship between group and person a real epistemic value? How we can overcome the dangerous overlapping between sense of being functional in the group and false beliefs based on popularity?

Complementarity Between Meaning and Sense

My idea is that we must look in that complex space between the “meaning”, understood as a collectively shared complex of socially constructed significations, and the “sense”, understood as the very personal elaboration of meaning which is based on the person’s uniqueness (Vygotsky, 2012; Wertsck, 2000). Meaning and sense feed into each other, like common sense and imagination. Imagination is the psychic function that enables the person to feel into the other, and thus to establish the ethical and affective ground for the common sense wisdom. It is the empathic movement on which Kant will later on look for a logic foundation.

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” (Kant 1993, p. 36. 4:429)

I would further claim that maybe they feed into each other: the logic foundation is made possible by the synthetic power of empathic imagination. Meaning and sense feed into each other. On the one hand, the collective is the origin of internalized psychic activities (SH), and thus the basis for the sense elaborated about one’s own unique life experience. On the other hand, the personal sense constitutes the basis for the externalization of the meaning into the arena of the collective activities, constantly innovating the meaning of the words.

So, personal sense can be a strong antidote to the prevailing force of the meaning produced for instance in the epistemic bubble. My sense of what is “ought”, “empathic”, “human” and “ethic”, in other words my wisdom, can help me to develop a critical stance towards meanings that are build in a self-feeding uncritical way.

Can the dialectic, complementary and cogenetic relationship between sense and meaning become the ground for a better epistemic performance, and for an appreciation of the liminal meaning produced in contemporary societies? In the last section, I will try to provide arguments in favor of this idea.

Ethical Grounding of Meaning

If connectivistic and post-truth societies produce meanings that are based on popularity check, rather than on epistemic appreciation, we risk to have a situation in which any belief is the contingent result of a collective epistemic agent which replicates its patterns into bubbles. One will just listen to messages that confirm her own preferences and belief and reject the different ones as unreliable. Inside the bubble there is no way to check the meaning, because the meaning is not cogenetic, it is consensual.

For instance, if I read and share a post on social media, claiming that migrants are the main criminal population, despite my initial position toward the news, there is the possibility that within my group I will start to see only posts confirming the initial fact. The fact can be proven wrong, for instance by the press, but the belief will be hard to change, as the meaning of “migrant” in my bubble is likely to continue being that of “criminal”. The collectivity will share an epistemically unjust position, to the extent that it will attribute a lessened epistemic capability to those who are not part of the group itself. How can one avoid that the group is scaffolding the “bad” epistemic skills, rather than empowering the individual (Vähämaa, 2018)?

The solution I propose is to develop an epistemic virtue based on two main principles: the ethical grounding of meaning and the cogenetic logic. The ethical grounding of meaning is directly related to the articulation between common sense and wisdom in the sense of Vico (Tateo, 2015). In a post-truth world in which we cannot appreciate the epistemic foundation of meaning, we must rely on a different epistemic virtue in order to become critical toward messages. Ethical grounding, based on the personal sense of humanity, is not of course epistemic test of reliability, but it is an alarm bell to become legitimately suspicious toward meanings. The second element of the new epistemic virtue is cogenetic logic (Tateo, 2016).

Meaning is grounded in the building of every belief as a complementary system between “A” and “non-A”. This implies that any meaning is constructed through the relationship with its complementary opposite. The truth emerges in a double dialectic movement (Silva Filho, 2014): through Socratic dialogue and through cogenetic logic. In conclusion, let me try to provide a practical example of this epistemic virtue.

The way to start to discriminate potentially fake news or the tendentious interpretations of facts would be essentially based on an ethic foundation. As in Vico’s wisdom of common sense, I would base my epistemic scrutiny on the imaginative work that allows me to access the other and on the cogenetic logic that assumes every meaning is defined by its relationship with the opposite.

Let’s imagine that we are exposed to a post on social media, in which someone states that a caravan of migrants, which is travelling from Honduras across Central America toward the USA border, is actually made of criminals sent by hostile foreign governments to destabilize the country right before elections. The same post claims that it is a conspiracy and that all the press coverage is fake news.

Finally the post presents some “debunking” pictures showing some athletic young Latino men, with their faces covered by scarves, to demonstrate that the caravan is not made by families with children, but is made by “soldiers” in good shape and who don’t look poor and desperate as the “mainstream” media claim. I do not know whether such a post has ever been made, but I just assembled elements of very common discourses circulating in the social media.

The task is no to assess the nature of this message, its meaning and its reliability. I could rely on the group as a ground for assessing statements, to scrutinize their truth and justification. However, due to the “bubble” effect, I may fall into a simple tautological confirmation, due to the configuration of the network of my relations. I would probably find only posts confirming the statements and delegitimizing the opposite positions. In this case, the fact that the group will empower my epistemic confidence is a very dangerous element.

I could limit my search for alternative positions to establish a dialogue. However, I could not be able, alone, to find information that can help me to assess the statement with respect to its degree of bias. How can I exert my skepticism in a context of post-truth? I propose some initial epistemic moves, based on a common sense approach to the meaning-making.

1) I must be skeptical of every message which uses a violent, aggressive, discriminatory language, and that such kind of message is “fake” by default.

2) I must be skeptical of every message that treats as criminals or is against whole social groups, even on the basis of real isolated events, because this interpretation is biased by default.

3) I must be skeptical of every message that attacks or targets persons for their characteristics rather than discussing ideas or behaviors.

Appreciating the hypothetical post about the caravan by the three rules above mentioned, one will immediately see that it violates all of them. Thus, no matter what is the information collected by my epistemic bubble, I have justified reasons to be skeptical towards it. The foundation of the meaning of the message will not be neither in the group nor in the person. It will be based on the ethical position of common sense’s wisdom.

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