Archives For Books and Book Reviews

Book Review contributions are single-authored or multiple-authored reviews of recent books in the area of social epistemology.

Author Information: Steve Breyman, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute,

Breyman, Steve. “The Superior Lie: A Review of The Deceptive Activist.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 36-38.

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Image credit: Irene Publishing

Brian Martin’s work is unique among scholars in Science and Technology Studies. He is not bashful about the sort of world he prefers, and steers his inquiries directly into hotly contested public controversies. From scientific struggles over the cause of HIV/AIDS to the theoretical best form of democracy, Martin weighed in. Sure, many of us wear our hearts on our sleeves; his scholarship—spread over sixteen books and hundreds of articles—has a practical, applied bent exceedingly rare among academics in any field.

The Deceptive Activist—Martin’s latest—is scrupulously documented, and an excellent example of his signature easy style. The book is highly readable, and flows smoothly. Sensibly constructed, Martin’s arguments and evidence are complex and sophisticated; there are no easy answers to be found here.

Civically Relevant Dissembling

This is not Brian Martin’s first foray into political lying (the subject of a 2014 article; access his work here). His aim this time around: “to highlight the tensions around activism, openness and honesty” (3). The stuff of the book is a veritable primer on all manner of civically relevant dissembling. Chapters 2 and 3 provide a typology of lies, from the everyday to the official. He discusses the difference between openness and honesty, and includes lies of omission. Withholding the truth may in some cases be as damaging as a bald-faced lie. I was once bound by a strictly enforced “honor code” and it carved out space for ‘socially acceptable’ lies. Martin naturally includes those “little white lies” too.

The stakes matter. Official deception is worse than individual deception because officials have more power. This includes lying by police (expressly permitted by criminal courts in United States). While generally preferring openness and honesty, it’s OK to lie to save human lives. Martin includes a timely discussion of “sock puppets” (people pretending they’re someone else on line) given a young Swede’s infiltration of fascist groups in Europe and the US.

While Martin does not directly address “fake news,” he provides an interesting and useful typology of propaganda. Martin dissects the varieties of government propaganda, explaining how politicians employ public relations specialists to twist and manipulate information conveyed to voters. The book includes a road map for uncovering official deception—devised to reduce outrage—using the notorious Nazi T4 euthanasia program as example. We learn to be cautious about public scandals given that some are manufactured by the political enemies of the politician in question. This may be a variety of “fake news” after all. Along the way, we learn never to trust authorities when they claim not to be influenced by social movements working hard to pressure them.

We’re introduced to various sorts of self-deception, including the collective sort Martin assigns to scientists who still push the public perception of their profession as value-free, objective and dispassionate. Martin understands that his thorough cataloging of the universe of lies could easily lead some to become cynical and reject everything that comes out of the mouths of corporate chieftains and politicians. To guard against over-skepticism, he provides a manual for lie detection in Chapter 4.

It’s virtually impossible for most of us to use visual cues to detect lies (US Secret Service agents appear reasonably good at it); Martin has us instead look at a speaker’s record, and a number of other clues summarized in Table 4.1 (64). It’s a helpful list that I wish American journalists had to hand during the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq when official mendacity ran amok.

Donald Trump’s brazen disregard for truth requires no guide to expose. One need only unearth an earlier tweet or previous statement that directly contradicts the current claim, an easy task. Americans may yet again have cause to use Martin’s clues in the future should we ever return to the normal regime of lies tougher to detect. The dawning of the post-truth era in a growing number of country’s politics does not excuse us from seriously grappling with the issues raised in the book.

Martin would have us view truth-telling as one virtue among others, and he shows how it sometimes clashes with the others. But there are times when telling the truth gets one in trouble as Martin shows with several examples where Gandhi’s truth-telling was exploited first by the British, then the Japanese (97-100). Martin conjures several scenarios where lying is superior to the truth and counsels against an absolutist position. He believes a relativist position morally superior to absolutism as it can prevent violence and other harms. His case studies (Chapter 6) end up making a good case for situational ethics and contingent morality.

Honesty and Lies

Activists ought to discuss honesty within their groups thinks Martin. Interestingly, he compares the features for effective nonviolent action he identified in an earlier work to lying, and suggests that one may lie “nonviolently.” His examples range from the satire and provocation of The Yes Men, to the classic case of sheltering a refugee from the Nazis.

I’ve not confronted most of these same tensions around (dis)honesty in my own activism, and I don’t think many of us have. Why bother lying? The truth—defined as the overwhelming majority of the genuine, as opposed to “alternative,” facts—is on our side. This imbalance explains why we devote our time, energy and resources to civic engagement. It also explains why activists are big fans of sunshine laws and freedom of information statutes.

Martin asks whether direct action advocates should share their plans with the police, wondering whether failing to do so constitutes a lie of omission. He realizes at the same time that to do so might compromise the action in advance. The dilemma is generally not difficult to resolve. The activists have a specific goal in mind (to urge climate action, or stop a natural gas pipeline) and do not believe any means is justified to reach their end. And as with other forms of civil disobedience, participants are prepared to face the legal consequences of their action. Activists thus face the wrath of the state in either scenario, whether they divulge their plans or not. Should there be a “lie” here, it hurt no one and those who were party to it are held responsible for it.

Martin is concerned that corporations and the state are not alone in their efforts to manage and interpret information to serve their own purposes. Exaggeration and hype are certainly issues for progressive organizations. I receive communications from social movement organizations on a daily basis that could be said to be one-sided or overblown. Activists too engage in spin doctoring. They are, after all, advocates for a cause. This does not, of course, grant them a license to lie, and they likely should sometimes tone down their “messaging.” But these normal exaggerations are about tone or still uncertain consequences (of, for example, climate change) not about the science, the “truth,” underlying the initial worry. Nevertheless, in certain relatively rare circumstances—some of special concern to Martin who has written and acted broadly and deeply on whistleblowing—veritas is at stake.

Should whistleblowers see themselves as akin to those engaged in nonviolent direct action, where the latter courageously face the fallout from their actions? Such a stance would result in dire personal and professional consequences, despite the protections in place in several countries. Whistleblowers prefer their complaints be handled through formal channels, but will go to the news media should that fail or not be a realistic option (as in the case of Chelsea Manning). Martin joins many of the rest of us in seeing the Daniel Ellsbergs and Edward Snowdens not as deceptive activists but rather as heroes for taking such grave personal risks.

The book closes with a lessons learned chapter. Martin summarizes his lessons regarding honesty and openness. He’s never preachy, looks at all sides, and is cautious in his advice. His sound advice, however, overlooked an inescapable fact all activists must face: the truth matters in public life but who wins and who loses is determined not by right but by might.


Martin, Brian. The Deceptive Activist. Sparsnas, Sweden: Irene Publishing, 2017.

Nelson, Gregory. “Putting The Deceptive Activist into Conversation: A Review and a Response to Rappert.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 33-35.

Rappert, Brian. “Brian Martin’s The Deceptive Activist: A Review.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 52-55.

Author Information: Gregory Nelson, Northern Arizona University,

Nelson, Gregory. “Putting The Deceptive Activist into Conversation: A Review and a Response to Rappert.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 33-35.

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Image credit: Irene Publishing

The Deceptive Activist
Brian Martin
Irene Publishing (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)
168 pp.

Brian Martin’s The Deceptive Activist begins a critical and timely commentary on the role and use of lying and deception in the realm of politics. According to Martin, lying and deception are as mutually constitutive of social interactions as technologies of truth-telling. Lying and truth-telling are two sides of the same coin of communication. Instead of depreciating lying and deception as things to avoid on Kantian moral grounds Martin makes the case that lying and deceit are quotidian and fundamental and natural to human communication.

Martin wants readers to strategically think about the role of lying and deception using context dependent analysis of how deception can be beneficial in certain circumstances. Martin “…aims in this book to highlight the tensions around activism, openness and honesty.”[1] The central argument of the book is that lying and deception are critical and routinely deployed tools that activists use to pursue social change. Instead of debating the moral status of deception in a zero-sum game he asks readers to think of role of deception by strategically analyzing the use of the means of lying and deceit vis à vis an end goal of effecting political change through non-violence and harm reduction.

A Proper Forum

In Brian Rappert’s review of Brain Martin’s The Deceptive Activist Rappert raises the critical question of the proper forum for having a discussion on a book about deception and the use of deception in society. Rappert’s call for a forum for this discussion cannot be overstated. The use of deception is a slippery slope as its use requires an evaluation of the means deployed and the ends desired. History is rife with examples of noble attempts to pursue noble ends using means that in the end become revealed as ethically compromised and corrupting of the whole project. Rappert’s review of The Deceptive Activist lays the ground for the emergence of a discussion. Certainly a book review cannot begin to address all of the careful, meticulous, and robust debate and discussion needed to begin to formulate an emergent discussion on lying and deception in more neutral and strategic ways, however, we can begin to use Martin’s work as an opportunity to acknowledge the pervasive role of deception even in the circles of activists who promote justice, peace, compassion, and empathy.

It would be beneficial to develop an edited volume on lying and deception in society. Science and Technology Studies offers us the ability to conceptualize lying and deception as social and political technologies deployed in the wielding of power. The nuance that Martin’s account brings is the readiness to discuss these technologies as useful tools in activist endeavors to pursue their ideals of change and justice. Martin gives readers frequent examples of how powerful actors use deception to control narratives of their activities in order to positively influence the perception of their image. For Martin the crucial work “…should be to work out when deception is necessary or valuable.”[2] He proposes a criteria of evaluation to evaluate when deception should be deployed based on “harm, fairness, participation, and prefiguration.”[3] His criteria is applicable to activist decisions of when to keep a secret, leak information, plan an action, communicate confidentially, infiltrate the opposition, deploying masks at a protest, or circulating disinformation about a political opponent.

However, in a world in which deception is normalized, his criteria runs the risk of ignoring how deceit, when mobilized by powerful actors, can threaten the less powerful. Developing a means to evaluate deploying deception should be organized by small groups of activists without a way to condemn the use of deceit by the powerful to harm the less powerful leaves the reader wanting more. Martin’s criteria were developed specifically to evaluate when deception might be justified by activist groups who have asymmetrical power relations to the wielders of state and corporate power. The tension that emerges from Martin’s book is between the use of deception by small groups in contrast to large and highly centralized powerful state authorities. Martin explains, “By being at the apex of a bureaucratic organization or prestige system, authorities have more power and a greater ability to prevent any adverse reactions due to deceptions that serve their interests.”[4]

Deception and Defactualization

Martin attempts to negotiate around this problem of recognizing deception as an important tool in activist struggles while also condemning history’s greatest abuses of deception by defining an assessment criteria to evaluate the context and nuance of when deception should be used in according to an ethic of minimal harm. Martin suggests “… assessments are dependent on the context. Still, there are considerable differences in the possible harms involved.” The way out of the ethical tensions that arise when those seeking to do good use the means of deception is to turn to assessing “situations according to the features of effective nonviolent action.”[5] I am not convinced that this enough to effectively deal with the dilemmas that arise when the power of deception is harnessed even in search of what are seemingly good and just ends. After all do we want to live in a world in which the ends justify the means, or the means become the ends in themselves? I can think of plenty examples in which this type of thinking bleeds.

Martin’s work calls us to reconsider the critiques of deception developed by Hannah Arendt in the Crisis of the Republic. Ardent writes, “In the realm of politics, where secrecy and deliberate deception have always played a significant role, self-deception is the danger par excellence; the self-deceived deceiver loses all contact with not only his audience, but also the real world, which still will catch up with him, because he can remove his mind from it but not his body.”[6] The dangerous step in the use of the means and power of deception in the pursuit of just ends lies in the corruption of those ends through defactualization.

Defactualization is a term used by Arendt in which the self-deceived loses the ability to distinguish between fact and fiction. The defactualization of the world, created by the self-deceiver, engulfs them because no longer can the self-deceiver see reality as it stands. The self-deceiver accommodates the facts to suit his or her assumptions: the process of defactualization. The actor becomes blind through his lies and can no longer distinguish truth and false. Martin does not leave a critique of self-deception by the way side, but his brief treatment of it at the end of his work forces us to find the space in which we can have a more robust and developed conversation per Rappert’s concern.

In the post-truth world, The Deceptive Activist is an immensely powerful work that helps to propel us to critically and strategically examine deception, in our own practices, in the era of the grand master of deception: Trump. Daily we are bombarded by various deceptions through the President’s Twitter. Exposing the number of Trump’s lies from inauguration crowd size to healthcare to climate change to taxes is a tiresome and arduous task. When one lie is exposed another is already communicated. The extensive amount of lies leveraged on a daily basis deflates the power of activists to expose and reveal the lies.

In the post-truth era the spectacle of exposing lies and deceptions has become so routine it loses meaning and becomes part of the static of public discourse on contemporary events. There is no more shock value in the exposure of lies. Lying is normalized to the point of meaninglessness. While Martin’s work demonstrates crucial analysis into the how lying and deception are fundamental to everyday interactions, the acceptance of this reality should be constantly questioned and critically analyzed. The Deceptive Activist carefully paints a spectrum of how lying is used in everyday human relationships to reflect on the need for activists to practice critical self-analysis of the methods of deception they often deploy in their agendas to pursue change in society. Martin concludes by discussing what so concerned Hannah Arendt over 50 years ago: self-deception. This even more dangerous form of deception should be questioned. In the Trumpian age we must find the space to have discussions on deception, lying, and defactualization while resisting the temptation to self-deceive.


Arendt, Hannah. Crises of the Republic; Lying in Politics, Civil Disobedience on Violence, Thoughts on Politics, and Revolution. 1st ed. ed.  New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.

Martin, Brian. The Deceptive Activist. Sparsnas, Sweden: Irene Publishing, 2017.

Rappert, Brian. “Brian Martin’s The Deceptive Activist: A Review.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 52-55.

[1] Brian Martin, The Deceptive Activist (Sparsnas, Sweden: Irene Publishing, 2017), 3.

[2] Ibid., 156.

[3] Ibid., 153.

[4] Ibid., 25.

[5] Ibid., 144.

[6] Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic; Lying in Politics, Civil Disobedience on Violence, Thoughts on Politics, and Revolution, 1st ed. ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), 36.

Author Information: Amiel Bernal, Virginia Tech,

Bernal, Amiel. “The Epistemic Injustice Anthology: A Review of The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 1-8.

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Image credit: Routledge

The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice
Edited by Ian James Kidd, José Medina, and Gaile Pohlhaus Jr.
Routledge, 2017
438 pp.

I am undertaking a review of The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice with some trepidation. In reviewing an edited volume with over forty authors, I will inevitably commit some omissions and oversights, but the utility of this book justifies even a fool-hardy attempt. The length of this review suggests the troubles associated with adequately covering such an important anthology.

The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice, edited by Ian James Kidd, José Medina and Gaile Pohlhaus Jr., is a comprehensive anthology on the current theories of epistemic injustice with important implications for future research. The diverse methods and topics of this text make it an excellent introduction for graduate seminars, as well as a common resource for researchers in the field. It includes contributions from most authors active in the field, with enough diversity in contributors to represent the substantive and methodological differences among them. The text is prospective as it provides new methods and topics for future research. It is retrospective as it clearly canvasses and articulates major concepts and theories to date. Given the breadth and length of the book, I will provide only a cursory overview of most chapters, noting general themes.

The scope of the book addresses key issues of epistemic injustice, divided among its five parts. Part 1, “Core Concepts”, provides answers to questions such as what epistemic injustice is and what its constitutive concepts are. These include testimonial injustice, hermeneutical injustice, and various methodological lenses. Fundamental issues of responsibility, ideology and trust fill-out the section.

Part 2, “Liberatory Epistemologies and Axes of Oppression Answers”, addresses the ways in which epistemic injustice can be resisted and how epistemic injustice is sustained, sometimes despite good intentions.

Part 3, “Schools of Thought and Subfields within Epistemology”, canvasses an array of theories and methodologies which have informed or could be instrumental for understanding epistemic injustice. Diverse theoretical frameworks such as feminist epistemology, queer theory, and disability theory, are promising for future work in the field.

Part 4, “Sociopolitical, Ethical and Psychological Dimensions of Knowing”, relates epistemic injustice to agency, freedom, and social institutions.

Part 5, “Case Studies”, addresses sites of epistemic injustice, suggesting direction for future applied research and a keen sense of current applied research foci.<

On Part 1

In Chapter 1, “Varieties of Epistemic Injustice”, Gaile Pohlhaus Jr. outlines four lenses with which to interpret epistemic injustices. Considering relations of epistemic dominance and oppression, Pohlhaus invokes variations of social contract thinking, agential conditioning by social circumstance, degrees of change in epistemic systems, and epistemic labor and knowledge production.

Chapter 2, “Varieties of Testimonial Injustice”, by Jeremy Wanderer clarifies and develops the concept of testimonial injustice. While testimonial injustice was first conceived of as prejudicial interpersonal credibility deficits (Fricker 2007, 28), Wanderer extends the analysis to general types of testimonial injustice which includes transactional and structural forms. Wanderer also posits testimonial betrayal, which is the violation of epistemic trust established between persons.

Chapter 3, “Varieties of Hermeneutical Injustice”, by José Medina distills hermeneutical injustice to cases in which “the intelligibility of communicators is unfairly constrained or undermined when their meaning-making capacities encounter unfair obstacles” (41). Generalizing from hermeneutical injustice as conceptual lacunas which manifests from structural deficits in hermeneutical resources, Medina notes contexts in which culpable hermeneutical injustices arise.

Chapter 4, “Evolving Concepts of Epistemic Injustice”, allows Miranda Fricker to refine her conception of the scope of epistemic injustice. Fricker emphasizes epistemic phenomenology, directing attention at the role of intention in culpability. This emphasis on normative epistemic psychology supports a unique field of inquiry in epistemic injustice.

In Chapter 5, “Epistemic Injustice as Distributive Injustice”, Coady elaborates on his concept that distributive considerations are integral to understanding epistemic injustice. For example, credibility distributions are integral to understanding testimonial justice and injustice. Without an account of how much credibility a person deserves, calls for testimonial justice are moot.

Chapter 6, “Trust, Distrust and Epistemic Injustice”, by Katherine Hawley focuses on the foundational role of trust relations for epistemic justice. Hawley considers various conceptions of trust arguing that trust relations are often the basis of epistemic injustice and justice.

In Chapter 7, “Forms of Knowing and Epistemic Resources”, Alexis Shotwell maintains that fixation on propositional knowledge is itself an epistemic injustice and that thought experiments are unable to capture the epistemic dimensions of practice. Distinguishing between knowing how and knowing that, Shotwell attends to the ways in which know-how are intimately connected with our identities.

Chapter 9, “Ideology”, by Charles Mills connects Marxist notions of ideology and false consciousness to projects on epistemic injustice by extending the analysis beyond class to race, and in doing so provides an account of the nature of ideology. Mills notes the materialist basis of ideology founded in the interest of dominant classes and the epistemologies of ignorance that may explain many intelligibility deficits and hermeneutic lacunas.

On Part 2

In Part 2, the primary achievement is the use of theories of difference to inform the theory of epistemic injustice. In some cases, authors show how theories of difference have already influenced the development of epistemic injustice as a field. In Chapter 11, “Feminist Epistemology: The Subject of Knowledge”, Nancy Tuana traces the influence of standpoint theory for understanding the how epistemic privilege and marginalization is generated from political repression (e.g., Harding 2004). Expanding to critical race theory, Tuana invokes Mills (1997) to explain the resilience of ignorance, as it is a strategic epistemic asset of privilege.

In Chapter 10, “Intersectionality and Epistemic Injustice”, Patricia Hill Collins analyses the relevance of hybrid social identities to understanding epistemic injustice. She writes that intersectional identities “operate not as unitary mutually exclusive entities, but as reciprocally constructing phenomena that in turn shape complex social inequalities” (115). If epistemic justice scholarship is concerned with realizing social justice and reducing social inequality through change, then scholars would do well to recognize the interconnected forms of oppression enacted on the intersectionally diverse.

In Chapter 12, “Epistemic Injustice and the Philosophy of Race”, Luvell Anderson analyzes contemporary public debate on the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. By distinguishing between an exclusive and inclusive reading of BLM, in which an inclusive reading entails that “black lives also matter” while an exclusive reading implies “only black lives matter,” Anderson shows that the exclusive interpretation of BLM perpetuates hermeneutical injustice. The exclusive reading obscures the intention to bring proportionate attention to the lives of black Americans experiencing disproportionate state-sanctioned police violence.

Chapter 15 “Allies Behaving Badly: Gaslighting as Epistemic Injustice”, exemplifies the axes of oppression theme of part 2. Rachel McKinnon argues how ostensive allies engage in epistemic injustice via gaslighting when allies suggest that trans* people are misinterpreting perceived micro-aggressions. This amounts to more than mere testimonial injustice, as it is a betrayal of a trust relationship.

In Chapter 16, “Knowing Disability, Differently”, Shelley Tremain demonstrates the myriad ways in which literature on epistemic injustice has been insensitive to disability. This is evident in the use of ableist metaphors (e.g. epistemic blindness). Tremain illustrates this through a meta-analysis of the use of the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird in writing on epistemic injustice.

On Part 3

Part 3 offers retrospective and prospective approaches for work on epistemic injustice.

In Chapter 17, “Foucault and Epistemic Injustice”, Amy Allen argues that Foucault’s focus on the constitutive and power-laden elements of epistemic practice can be productively leveraged to study epistemic injustice, contrary to popular opinion.

Chapter 18, “Epistemic Injustice and Phenomenology” by Lisa Guenther, argues both that phenomenological methods are useful for understanding epistemic injustice and are already implicitly built into Fricker’s account of epistemic injustice.

In Chapter 19, “On the Harms of Epistemic Injustice: Pragmatism and Transactional epistemology”, Shannon Sullivan addresses the debate initiated by Hookway (2010) and Fricker (2010) regarding whether epistemic injustice includes distributive considerations. Sullivan calls for a transactional account of knowledge, rather than a representational account, suggesting a normative basis for evaluating epistemic injustice based on human flourishing (210).

On Part 4

Part 4 connects epistemic injustice with novel normative theories, prevailing social science, and various political concepts. This part demonstrates integral connections between epistemic injustice, social science research, normative theory, political theory, and political philosophy.

In Chapter 22, “Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat and Epistemic Injustice”, Jennifer Saul clarifies the logical relationships between testimonial injustice, implicit bias and stereotype. While implicit bias may lead to testimonial injustice, they are not the same. Likewise, stereotype threat and implicit bias may lead to hermeneutical marginalization and thus hermeneutical injustice.

In Chapter 23, “What’s Wrong with Epistemic Injustice: Harm, Vice, Objectification and Misrecognition”, Matthew Congdon engages in the normative foundations debate, positing recognition theory as novel normative basis for epistemic injustice. He argues that it explains epistemic injustice. Failures to recognize epistemic agents as such can be analyzed in terms of failures to demonstrate epistemic respect, epistemic love, and epistemic esteem.

In Chapter 24, “Epistemic and Political Agency”, Lorenzo C. Simpson articulates the view that second-order social interpretations are “logically prior to the first-order social agency that depends upon it for its focus” (259). As such, Lorenzo provides an impetus to focus on structural and political issues of hermeneutical space while demarcating the bounds of culpability.

In Chapter 25, “Epistemic and Political Freedom”, Susan Babbit uses the case of Cuban intellectuals such as José Martí wrote on epistemic injustice well before similar debates occurred in North America. Political repression explains this epistemic injustice, as the colonial status of Cuba led to a circulation and credibility deficits, suffered by Cuban intellectuals. Thus, Babbitt shows how political freedom is a precondition for epistemic justice while drawing attention to underappreciated scholars of epistemic injustice.

On Part 5

Part 5 applies and extends theories of epistemic injustice to the law, digital environments, science, education, health care, religion, philosophy itself, and indigenous peoples in relation to anthropology and cultural heritage. Given the breadth of coverage, I will focus on applications which have not received attention elsewhere. As such, special attention will be given to the previously unaddressed fields as represented by Chapters 28, 29, 34 and 35.

In Chapter 28 “Epistemic injustice and the Law”, Michael Sullivan argues that truth is not the sole goal of trial procedures, noting 5th amendment pleas, and non-testifying privileges retained by spouses of defendants. To promote truth and reduce epistemic injustice during trials, he offers four suggestions. First, procedures to mitigate bias and promote truth; second, judges and juries representative of local demographics; third, judges and juries should be made aware of their implicit biases and confirmation bias. Fourth, juries and judges should be made aware of their hermeneutical system and epistemic norms.

Chapter 29 “Epistemic Injustice: The Case of Digital environments” by Gloria Origgi and Serena Ciranni, canvas the unique and epistemically problematic implications of mass digitization. The authors note that predictive algorithms and online records are often considered more reliable than persons. This view poses problems for epistemic agency and self-trust. Epistemic objectification occurs as statistical doubles are generated based on our digital behaviors which are then used to predict and model our behavior. This leads to a depreciation of intentionality, as tech giants increasingly direct our attention and behavior while alienating persons from their data. As the editors suggest at the outset, this era of informational and communicative abundance makes matters of epistemic injustice especially pressing (Kidd, Medina and Pohlhaus 1). Origgi and Ciranni’s turn to digital environments is a welcome shift as big data increasingly influences our lives and epistemic activities.

In Chapter 34 “Indigenous peoples, Anthropology and the Legacy of Epistemic Injustice”, Rebecca Tsosie analyzes the influence that anthropology has had on the hermeneutics and representation of native peoples in North America. Showing that indigenous epistemic marginalization has deep legal and intellectual roots, Tsosie demonstrates the ways in which indigenous knowledge systems are viewed as epistemically deficient as they are presented as lacking the secular rationalistic values. Testimonial injustice arises as indigenous peoples are not given due credibility because of marginalization and biased epistemic norms. This marginalization and testimonial injustice leads to hermeneutical injustice as native peoples are disenfranchised from the meaning-making process about their own cultures in courts and anthropology departments.

In Chapter 35, “Epistemic Injustice and Cultural Heritage”, Andreas Pantazatos employs Hookway’s (2010) account of participant perspective epistemic injustices to argue that cultural heritage institutions have a unique duty to include members of that heritage in the process of making and conveying cultural knowledge. The cathedral of Durham City, England exemplifies the tendency to exclude relevant contemporary stakeholders, which results in a participant injustice. Epistemic injustice is interpreted as a distributional problem as some stakeholders’ perspectives are not transmitted to others.

Epistemic Injustice and Philosophical Practice

In the final analysis, a few points are especially evident. First, and appropriately for the field of epistemic injustice, this book displays great diversity in methods, styles, and sources. The analytic/continental distinction, which continues to haunt much of contemporary Anglophone philosophy, plays little role in demarcating disciplinary norms. For example, Lorraine Code freely admits that her narrative style may be irksome to some and that epistemology itself lacked the resources to address issues of epistemic responsibility until recently (Chapter 8, 92). Scholars draw from continental figures such as Marx (Mills, Chapter 9), Merleau-Ponty (Guenther, Chapter 18), Foucault (Hall, Chapter 14; Allen, Chapter 17), and Hegel (Congdon, Chapter 23). This demonstrates a break from much of contemporary philosophy as scholars eschew the “rhetoric of beginnings” in which a small group or individual is credited with providing the foundations of a field of inquiry (Pohlhaus 14; Dotson 2012). Rather than cite a specific body of literature due to recent philosophical mores, contributors to this volume draw from an array of source they deem useful.

The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice is a major step for the field of epistemic injustice. This contribution creates a space for and central pillar of epistemic injustice research. This is not merely a result of the scope and content of epistemic injustice, canvassed above. The very methods of the field challenge long-standing disciplinary norms about intellectual antecedents, appropriate methods, and blurring of classic distinctions between political philosophy, ‘proper’ epistemology, and ethics. One major methodological transition is evident in the self-reflexive assessment of philosophy, its limits, and its methods. This meta-philosophical inclination challenges inherited norms about proper philosophical practice.

Patricia Hill Collins challenges the distinction between social justice scholarship and activism, noting a characteristic aversion to activism in philosophy departments. She writes, “[y]et once inside the academy these actors discovered that political action and taking principled positions became objectionable because they seemingly opposed norms of scholarly objectivity” (Chapter 10, 118). Here Collins takes aim at practical norms within academia urging a more intimate connection between theory and praxis. Likewise, Linda Alcoff challenges Eurocentrism in the academy. She argues that the practiced belief that theory is separable from a historical context constitutes a “transcendental delusion” (Chapter 37, 297). Alcoff insists that the philosophical practice of giving nearly exclusive credit and scholarly attention to Western canons itself presupposes that geographical and cultural origin bestow special epistemic authority. Shotwell criticizes central features of philosophy, namely propositional knowledge and thought experiments (Chapter 7, 79). As such, the aversion to the “rhetoric of beginnings” mentioned above allows scholars from across disciplines to take up research in epistemic injustice—a process which has already begun in many applied social science journals. Despite these challenges to philosophical institutional norms, a final marked contrast of this book is its eschewing of combative dialectics.

Edited philosophy volumes are often arranged for the purposes of putting interlocutors in direct conflict. By contrast, the scholars in this volume freely choose among scholars to analyze the phenomena of epistemic injustice, without asserting perceived problems in the work of others. The reader gets the sense that rather than positing competing theories of epistemic injustice, the field is undertaken as a cooperative endeavor in which scholars add and refine each other’s conceptual and practical contributions towards a common end. There are no contributions which attempt to reduce epistemic injustice to some single theory or basic phenomena. Instead, authors posit additional theories and contributions and show how they are fecund for analyzing epistemic injustice. While substantive and methodological disagreements persist, the cogito conquero is notably absent (Dussel 2010).

A final note will be offered regarding one opportunity for future work on epistemic injustice. Fricker (2007) focused on collective hermeneutical space and the social imagination that informs our affective and epistemic systems. Recently, scholars have moved away from the view that there is a one collective hermeneutical space (Mason 2011; Medina 2013). Scholars increasingly acknowledge heterogenous worldviews which leads to contexts for epistemic justice and injustice. For example, in Chapter 36 “Epistemic Injustice and Religious Experience” Ian Kidd argues that deep epistemic injustice arises as incompatible worldviews may forestall “the very possibility of credibility or intelligibility” (393). While these issues are ripe for analysis, the background conditions of epistemic practice and experience are undertheorized. A latent tension throughout the anthology is competing conceptions of these collective epistemic entities and activities. This occurs both at the level of world-views and interactions within and between world-views.

This transition has led to conceptual landscape strewn with locutions regarding worldviews. Throughout the book references to life-world (Mills 103), “the imaginary” (Code, Chapter 8, 94), and discourses (Haslanger 279) are used to refer to a common domain adding to the parlance of social imagination (Fricker 2007). Relatedly, epistemologies of ignorance, ideologies, false consciousness, and adaptive preferences express ways in which epistemic systems can be immoral or maladaptive. Localized hermeneutical practices pick-out epistemic norms within discursive sets, controlling images delimit the norms of social imagination (Medina, Chapter 3, 44; Pohlhaus, Chapter 1, 21). Medina identifies the possibility of attuning oneself to different hermeneutical systems with his concept of “kaleidoscopic sensibility” (Medina 2013, 16).

Nancy Tuana cites Lugone’s “world-traveling” to express the similar idea that agents can adjust their epistemic lenses to appreciate different epistemic communities (Chapter 11, 128-31). While this text moves the dialectic forward in many ways, it also makes under-theorized areas more evident. Many readers probably have some sense of the theoretical relations between these concepts, yet little formal work has been done to connect this panoply of concepts. A reductive account risks epistemic injustice and may be logically impossible, but some analytical accounts to understand the coherence and connections between these concepts is in order. As the contemporary study of epistemic injustice matures, conceptual house-cleaning will facilitate a clear body of hermeneutical resources for further study of epistemic injustice. As such, The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice provides a great deal of content and opportunities in a single volume.


Anderson, Derek Egan. “Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 2 (2017): 210-223.

Carel, Havi, and Ian James Kidd. “Epistemic Injustice in Healthcare: A Philosophical Analysis.” Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 17, no. 4 (2014): 529-540.

Coady, David. “Two Concepts of Epistemic Injustice.” Episteme 7, no. 2 (2010): 101-113.

Dussel, Enrique D., Javier Krauel, and Virginia C. Tuma. “Europe, Modernity, and Eurocentrism.” Nepantla: Views from South 1, no. 3 (2000): 465-478.

Dotson, Kristie. “A Cautionary Tale: On Limiting Epistemic Oppression.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 33, no. 1 (2012): 24-47.

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

Fricker, Miranda. “Replies to Alcoff, Goldberg, and Hookway on Epistemic Injustice.” Episteme 7, no. 2 (2010): 164-178.

Grasswick, Heidi E., ed. Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy of Science: Power in Knowledge. Springer Science & Business Media, 2011.

Hookway, Christopher. “Some Varieties of Epistemic Injustice: Reflections on Fricker.” Episteme 7, no. 2 (2010): 151-163.

Horsthemke, Kai. “Of Ants and Men: Epistemic Injustice, Commitment to Truth, and the Possibility of Outsider Critique in Education.” Ethics and Education 9, no. 1 (2014): 127-140.

Harding, Sandra G., ed. The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies. Psychology Press, 2004.

Kidd, Ian James, and Havi Carel. “Epistemic Injustice and Illness.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 34, no. 2 (2017): 172-190.

Kotzee, Ben. “Educational Justice, Epistemic Justice, and Leveling Down.” Educational Theory 63, no. 4 (2013): 331-350.

Mason, Rebecca. “Two Kinds of Unknowing.” Hypatia 26, no. 2 (2011): 294-307.

Medina, José. The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and the Social Imagination. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Mills, The Racial Contract, Cornell University Press, 1997

Pohlhaus, Gaile. “Relational Knowing and Epistemic Injustice: Toward a Theory of Willful Hermeneutical Ignorance.” Hypatia 27, no. 4 (2012): 715-735.

Wardrope, Alistair. “Medicalization and Epistemic Injustice.” Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 18, no. 3 (2015): 341-352.

Author Information: Linda T. Zagzebski, University of Oklahoma,

Zagzebski, Linda T. “Trust in Others and Self-Trust: Regarding Epistemic Authority.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017):56-59.

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

Please refer to:

Image credit: Oxford Univerity Press

Many thanks to Jensen Alex, Valerie Joly Chock, Kyle Mallard, and Jonathan Matheson (2017) for your extensive review of Epistemic Authority (2015). I have never seen a work by four philosophers working together, and I appreciate the collaboration it must have taken for you to produce it. I learned from it and hope that I can be a help to you and the readers of SERRC.

What is Inside and What is Outside

I would like to begin by summarizing the view of the mind I am using, which I hope will clarify the central place of conscientious self-reflection in my book, and the way that connects with reasons. I am using a modern view of the mind in which the mind has a boundary.[1] There is a difference between what is inside and what is outside. The mind has faculties that naturally aim at making our mental states fit the outside world in characteristic ways. Perceptual faculties, epistemic faculties, and emotional faculties all do that. They may do so successfully or they may not. So perceptions can be veridical or non-veridical; beliefs can be true or false; emotions can fit or not fit their intentional objects. This view of the mind leads to a generalization of the problem of epistemic circularity: we have no way of telling that any conscious state fits an external object without referring to other conscious states whose fittingness we can also question—hence, the need for self-trust. But we do have a way to detect that something is wrong with our connection to the outside world; that we have a mistaken perceptual state, a false belief, an inappropriate or exaggerated emotion, a skewed value, etc, by the experience of dissonance among our states.

For instance, a belief state might clash with a memory or a perceptual state or a belief acquired by testimony, or the cognitive component of an emotional state. Some dissonance is resolved immediately and without reflection, as when I give up my seeming memory of turning off the sprinkler system when I hear the sprinklers come on, but often dissonance cannot be resolved without awareness of the conflicting states and reflection upon them. Since the mind cannot get beyond its own boundary, all we can do is (a) trust that our faculties are generally reliable in the way they connect us to the outside world, and (b) attempt to use them the best way we can to reach their objects. That is what I call “conscientiousness.” I define epistemic conscientiousness as using our faculties in the best way we can to get the truth (48). Ultimately, our only test that any conscious state fits its object is that it survives conscientious reflection upon our total set of conscious states, now and in the future.

The authors raise the objection that my account is not sufficiently truth- centered because there is more than one way to resolve dissonance. That is, of course, true. The issue for a particular person is finding the most conscientious way to resolve the conflict, a question that sometimes has a plain answer and sometimes does not. The authors give the example of a father who cannot bring himself to believe that his son was killed in war even though he has been given a substantial body of evidence of his son’s death. It is possible for the man to restore harmony in his psyche by abandoning any states that conflict with his belief that his son is alive. Why do we think it is not rational for him to do that? Because we are told that his own faculties are giving him overwhelming evidence that his son is dead, and presumably his faculties will continue to do so forever. His son will never return. If he is to continue believing his son is alive, he has to continuously deny what he is told by sources he has always trusted, which means he has to continuously fabricate reasons why the sources are no longer trustworthy and are compounding their mistakes, and why new sources are also mistaken. If some of his reasons are sensory, he may even have to deny the evidence of his senses. That means that he is not epistemically conscientious as I have defined it because he is not trying to make his belief about his son true. Instead, he is trying to maintain the belief come what may. But we are told that it is psychologically impossible for him to recognize that his son has died. If that is true, then it is psychologically impossible for him to be epistemically conscientious, and hence rational. I would not deny that such a thing can happen, but in that case there is nothing more to be said.

The Nature of Reasons

This leads to my view on the nature of reasons. Why do we say that the father has many reasons to believe his son is dead, in fact, so many that if he is rational, he will give up the belief that his son still lives? We say that because we know what conscientious people do when given detailed and repeated testimony by sources whose trustworthiness has survived all of their past conscientious reflection and with no contrary evidence. To say he has reasons to believe his son is dead is just to say that a conscientiously self-reflective person would treat what he hears, reads, sees as indicators of the truth of his son’s death. So I say that a reason just is what a conscientiously self-reflective person sees as indicating the truth of some belief.

Self-trust is more basic than reasons because we do not have any reason to think that what we call reasons do in fact indicate the truth without self-trust. (Chap 2, sec.5). Self-trust is a condition for what we call a reason to be in fact an indicator of truth. That means that contrary to what the authors maintain, a conscientious judgment can never go against the balance of one’s reasons since one’s reasons for p just are what one conscientiously judges indicate the truth of p. There can, however, be cases in which it is not clear which way the balance of reasons go, and I discuss some of those cases in Chapter 10 on disagreement. Particularly difficult to judge are the cases in which some of the reasons are emotions.

The fact that emotions can be reasons brings up the distinction between 1st person and 3rd person reasons, which I introduce in Chapter 3, and discuss again in chapters 5, 6, and 10. (The authors do not mention this distinction). What I call 1st person or deliberative reasons are states of mind that indicate to me that some belief is true. 3rd person, or theoretical reasons, are not states of mind, but are propositions that are logically or probabilistically connected to the truth of some proposition. (What we call evidence is typically in this category). 3rd person reasons can be laid out on the table for anybody to consider. I say that 1st person and 3rd person reasons do not aggregate. They cannot be put together to give a verdict on the balance of reasons in a particular case independent of the way they are treated by the person who is conscientiously reflecting. The distinction between the two kinds of reasons is important for more than one purpose in the book. I use the distinction to show that 1st person reasons broaden the range of reasons considerably, including states of emotion, belief, perception, intuition, and memory.

A conscientiously self-reflective person can treat any of these states as indicators of the truth of some proposition. We think that we access 3rd person reasons because of our trust in ourselves when we are conscientious. And we do access 3rd person reasons provided that we are in fact trustworthy. This distinction is important in cases of reasonable disagreement because two parties to a disagreement share some of their 3rd person reasons, but they will never share their 1st person reasons. The fact that each party has certain 1st person reasons is a 3rd person reason, but that fact will never have the same function in deliberation as 1st person reasons, and we would not want it to do so.

The authors raise some questions about the way we treat our reasons when they are pre-empted by the belief or testimony of an authority. What happens to the reasons that are pre-empted? Using pre-emption in Raz’s sense, I say that they do not disappear and they are not ignored. They continue to be reasons for many beliefs.  Pre-emption applies to the limited scope of the authority’s authority. When I judge that A is more likely to get the truth whether p than I am, then A’s testimony whether p replaces my independent reasons for and against p. But my reasons for and against p are still beliefs, and they operate as reasons for many beliefs outside the scope of cases in which I judge that A is an authority. Pre-emption also does not assume that I control whether or not I pre-empt. It is rational to pre-empt when I reasonably judge that A satisfies the justification thesis. If I am unable to pre-empt, then I am unable to be rational. In general, I think that we have quite a bit of control over the cases in which we pre-empt, but the theory does not require it. As I said about the case of the father whose son died in a war, I do not assume that we can always be rational.[2]

On Our Biases

The authors also bring up the interesting problem of biases in ourselves or in our communities. A prejudiced person often does not notice her prejudices even when she is reflecting as carefully as she can, and her trust in her community can make the situation worse since the community can easily support her prejudices and might even be the source of them. This is an important insight, and I think it can bolster several points I make in the book. For one thing, cases of bias or prejudice make it all the more important that we have trust in others whose experience widens and deepens our own and helps us to identify unrecognized false beliefs and distorted feelings, and it makes particularly vivid the connection between emotion and belief and the way critical reflection on our emotions can change beliefs for the better.

My argument in Chapter 3 that epistemic self-trust commits us to epistemic trust in others, and the parallel argument in Chapter 4 that emotional self-trust commits us to emotional trust in others would be improved by attention to these cases. The problem of prejudice in communities can also support my argument in Chapter 10, section 4 that what I call communal epistemic egoism is false. I argue that communities are rationally required to think of other communities the same way individuals are rationally required to think of other individuals. Just as self-trust commits me to trust in others, communal self-trust commits a community to trust in other communities. Since biases are most commonly revealed by responses outside the community, it is a serious problem if communities succumb to communal egoism.

In the last section of Chapter 10 I propose some principles of rationality that are intended to show some consequences of the falsehood of communal egoism. One is the Rational Recognition Principle: If a community’s belief is rational, its rationality is recognizable, in principle, by rational persons in other communities. Once we admit that rationality is a quality we have as human beings, not as members of a particular community, we are forced to recognize that the way we are seen from the outside is prima facie trustworthy, and although we may conscientiously reject it, we need reasons to do so. It is our own conscientiousness that requires us to reflect on ourselves with external eyes. A very wide range of trust in others is entailed by self-trust. That is one of the main theses of the book.


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

Zagzebski, Linda T. Epistemic Authority: A Theory of Trust, Authority, and Autonomy in Belief. Oxford University Press, 2015.

[1] It is not mandatory to think of the mind this way, although it is the most common view in the modern period. I am working on the difference between this approach and the more open view of the mind that dominated before the modern era in my project, The Two Greatest Ideas, Soochow Lectures, 2018.

[2] Christoph Jaeger offers extended objections to my view of pre-emption and I reply in Episteme, April 2016. That issue also includes an interesting paper by Elizabeth Fricker on my book and my reply. See European Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Dec. 2014, which contains twelve papers on Epistemic Authority and my replies, including several that give special attention to pre-emption.

Author Information: Brian Rappert, University of Exeter,

Rappert, Brian. “Brian Martin’s The Deceptive Activist: A Review.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 52-55.

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

Image credit: Irene Publishing

The Deceptive Activist
Brian Martin
Irene Publishing (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)
168 pp.

Saying things we don’t really mean. Omitting relevant considerations. Leaking. Making the best impression. Spinning. Just adding that little tail to the story that gets the laugh. Feigning. In The Deceptive Activist, Brian Martin extends an invitation to open to the myriad of ways in which dishonesty figures within day-to-day interactions and political life. The reasons for deception are presented as manifold as its manifestations. Higher purposes. Convenience. Loyalties. Face saving. Ideologies that mark what Noam Chomsky called ‘the bounds of thinkable thought’.

Being completely frank and with no reason to do otherwise, my judgement of The Deceptive Activist is that … well … more on this later.

The kind of invitation extended by this book is one that is as sobering as it is destabilising. Its core claims are two-fold: (1) deception is commonplace and (2) this applies to you too (admit it…). As such, ‘rather than sweeping the tensions under the carpet’, Martin argues, ‘it may be better to start talking about deception and about when it can serve worthwhile purposes’.[1]

Through use of case studies and other examples, The Deceptive Activist reasons through the pros and cons of not presenting it like it is, with particular reference to political activism. As elsewhere in his work, Martin’s goal is not trying to definitely specify appropriate conduct. Instead, he takes it as one of skilling up readers to think through possible courses of action. Towards this end, he recounts different frameworks for helping to determine when deception might be warranted. The framework accorded with most traction is one Martin previously developed for assessing nonviolent action. Dissimulation of various kinds might be appropriate depending on whether it is standard, limited in harm, voluntary, fair, what it prefigures (do means and ends align?), whether it opens up participation, and whether it is skilfully done.

For my part, I can recall few books that explicitly encouraged readers to think about when dishonesty may be the best policy. In this the argument is bold. It is not that talk of dissimulation is rare though, even with scholarly traditions. It has a long history in the canons of Western thought. Socrates’ enthusiasm for a ‘noble lie’ in The Republic is one well-known instance. Yet, as with so many other examples in political thought, this message of dishonesty was one aimed at elites of the day, not those seeking to challenge them.[2] To note this is to signal the way the pervasiveness of deception also comes accompanied by a sense of its boundaries. It has an endpoint or an end-person to which it is pursued. It is not hard to see why. Deception unbound provides no place for anyone to stand. For this reason, talk of being deceptive often entails appeals to truth.

As The Deceptive Activist elaborates, appeals to truth can entail deception too. Take the domain of scholarship. As Martin contends with reference to biomedical research, ‘even domains where truth-telling is vital can be plagued by passions, biases and the presence of vested interests. Whenever an area develops a reputation for honesty, it is predictable that interlopers will try to benefit from a false impression that they too are honest.’[3]

Taken together though, the pervasiveness of deception, its subtleness, and the potential for it to be present where it should be least prompt a question back to The Deceptive Activist: namely, is Martin trying to, well, beguile readers himself? To put it more bluntly, perhaps too bluntly, does The Deceptive Activist entail deception?

Consider some possible grounds. There are many claims to truth presented, often substantiated through citations to scholarship. Given the argument in The Deceptive Activist, though, these are prime candidates for where we might look for finessing. Charged controversies such as the torture at Abu Ghraib, the intentions of the public relations of firms, and the rationales for the machinations of US statecraft are recounted, and recounted in a language that makes definitive claims to have grasped how authorities attempted to dupe. Have the specific glossings of the topics given, it might be asked, perhaps scarified complexity for the sake of advancing the overall argument of The Deceptive Activist? Have any relevant considerations that might have given a different spin to these matters been excluded? Deliberately or otherwise? Or have considerations been left out that would impact on how definitely scholarship can resolve what counts as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? The text of The Deceptive Activist itself suggests some grounds for caution about whether it is providing facts that fit the argument. While at times unpicking factual claims for what is going on behind them, at other times factual claims are taken as a solid bedrock for knowing. While at times questioning how motives are attributed to large organisations, at other times motivations are attributed.

Given the argument in The Deceptive Activist, rather than concentrating on whether deception is taking place in some more or less subtle ways, it would seem more important to ask whether any such dissimulation would be appropriate. How though to evaluate the potential for deception? Four options are:

Martin is not deceiving in the crafting of The Deceptive Activist, and…

… this is problematic because it stands as a refutation to the thesis of the necessity and even desirability of deception.
… this is not problematic because it illustrates the high standards possible for human conduct (even if calling into question a central premise of the book).

Martin is deceiving in the crafting of The Deceptive Activist, and…

… this is not problematic so long as he did so in-line with a framework such as the one for assessing nonviolent action.
… this is problematic because (a) truth-telling is vital in scholarship or (b) he is missing a trick in really getting to grips with the potential for deception.

Writing out of these options prompts a pause. It seems that having a serious debate about the appropriateness of the options would painfully grate against many of the mores projected as central to scholarly and political life – like an open hand scraping along a brick wall. Now, perhaps more so than in recent times, assertions of (self-)deception figure prominently in the arsenals of rhetorical put downs. Fake this, alternative that. Which side are you on? While The Deceptive Activist does not engage with the latest international parlance for fakery, and probably with good reason, many will likely interpret its arguments against this political context. It is time of clashing binaries of right of wrong, not fine lines.

Which institutions then might support a discussion about the place of deception, and too the place of deception in the analysis of deception? This is a weighty matter that cannot be addressed within the limited scope of a review essay. Turning the issues on their head though, we can ask instead whether a book review would be a good place to locate such a serious debate. Reviews such as this one don’t operate in a pristine space free from conventions. Instead, reviews help to define communities (a sense of ‘we’) and communities come to learn how to interpret reviews. Within the expectations of a review, a statement that notionally reads as stinging criticism or high praise might be taken as otherwise by seasoned community members.[4] Audiences may, in fact, bring a good deal of scepticism to what they read in book reviews because they judge them as a form of endorsement genre, or if not this then a place of petty one-upmanship, or a space where reviewers forward their pet ideas instead of dealing with the serious matters they are meant to be minding.[5] Perhaps it may be time too to start talking about dissimulation in reviews genres and when it can serve worthwhile purposes.

Where and how can we have a frank discussion about a book on deception, let alone about deception itself?[6]


Hanegraaff, Wouter J. Esotericism and the Academy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Lamberton, Robert. “The απόρρητος θεωρία and the Roles of Secrecy in the History of Platonism.” In Secrecy and Concealment, edited by Hans G. Kippenberg and Guy G. Stroumsa, 139-152. New York: E.J Brill, 1995.

[1] Page 4.

[2] Actually the story was more complicated. Since in his dialogues Socrates admonished the capacity of the written word to discover truth, scholars since have questioned why Plato reduced the dialogues by codifying them into writing. One theory is that Plato may have only written down certain teachings, teachings of lesser value. Whether a ‘Unwritten Doctrine’ of teaching existed and who it was shared with have been topics for conversation since the time, see Lamberton (1995) and Hanegraaff (2012).

[3] Page 58.

[4] So if you aren’t getting the joke, you aren’t getting the joke.

[5] Would it help to decode my writing or just confuse the situation further if I noted Brian Martin has been a stalwart colleague for over twenty years?

[6] My thanks to Claes-Fredrik Helgesson for the wording of this ending and comments on this review. And Brian Martin too.

Author Information: Richard Vernon, Western University,

Vernon, Richard. “Evanescent and Embedded Agents.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 4-10.

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

Please refer to:

Image credit: Rowman & Littlefield

Justin Cruickshank’s opening essay, and the further work arising from it by him and others, makes a strong case for the value of label-wariness. Overcoming a binary constructed by the way in which Popper and Rorty have routinely been classified, Cruickshank finds in those two theorists a problem-solving orientation that sets a path for constructive thinking about democracy. Overall, I have the impression that Popper comes out slightly better than Rorty does from bringing them together, in that Rorty still takes justification to be the test of truth-content—hence, justification being (in his view) lacking, his postmodern scepticism—while Popper more radically adopts a nonfalsification test. Rorty, from a Popperian point of view, is a sceptic because he sets the bar of veracity too high: a very common move. But it is not Cruickshank’s purpose to award prizes for comparative merit, nor is it mine in this brief commentary. Rather, I want to draw attention to something of a contrast between Popper and Rorty, not at all in order to undermine Cruickshank’s project, but because the contrast between them seems to me to point towards an important issue in “democratic problem-solving”.

The contrast is one that emerges if we move down from the epistemological level, at which Cruickshank’s essay is generally pitched, to take account of Rorty’s fine-grained politics. Doing so is legitimate, I believe, because—famously—Rorty himself drew a line between the (postmodern) epistemology that attracted him and the kind of political assumptions that he adopted. Postmodern epistemologies, he believed, should stay in the English departments. Political action should be guided by nothing more epistemologically complex or interesting than the reduction of suffering. On this, he wrote (1989, 63), J.S. Mill had said the last word (though to accept that, it should be noted in passing, we would have to equate “harm” with suffering, a move that will of course exasperate careful Mill scholars). In Achieving Our Country (1998a) Rorty gives us a list of suffering-reduction achievements that, he believes, should be remembered and celebrated, and on which progressive movements, he says, should build. I do not know of a similarly detailed list in Popper, whose political views are more abstractly stated, generally as an extrapolation from his philosophy of science (especially in Open Society). This introduces something of an asymmetry into the comparison, but I do not see how to avoid it, except by staying at the epistemological level which, for the reason just given, may be to scant a distinction that Rorty evidently thought to be crucial.

On Popper’s Political Thought

Let me begin with the briefest possible characterization of Popper’s political thought. It too, as it happens, is in one respect J.S. Mill-like, and one might note in passing that the two theorists’ shared admiration for Mill’s On Liberty could provide an interesting starting-point for addressing what they have in common, and where they differ. Mill wrote, “The beliefs that we have the most warrant for have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded”, continuing “This is the amount of certainty attainable by a fallible being.” That anticipates Popper’s later view that what is distinctive about the procedure of science is that claims are to be formulated in a way that maximizes their vulnerability to refutation, their surviving refutation being the only ground that we have on which to lend credence to claims made. This puts epistemology on a radically foundation-free basis that, Popper claimed, makes many ancient controversies obsolete. Likewise, the process of “discovery” is downplayed in (veridical, as distinct from historical) significance, for how one gets there is of no importance if what matters is what happens when one does get there—what obstacles one then confronts, and whether one then surmounts them or not. (More on this below.) Pursuing this line of thought, Popper goes so far as to describe science as a “subjectless” enterprise (1970, 57) in which all that matters is the force of the better evidence. When a scientific claim is refuted, then, Popper declares (perhaps over-) dramatically, “The believer perishes together with his false beliefs” (1972, 122). The believer has only the status of a vehicle.

It is not difficult to see important parallels with a certain kind of (idealized) politics, though once again we must note that Popper’s politics is more abstractly sketched than Rorty’s, and make allowance for that. It would be the politics of a liberal-democratic state, liberal in the sense that every conjecture, however arrived at, is given space, and democratic in the sense that every conjecture must face opposition and possible refutation in a public forum. That this picture obviously idealizes the actual practices of Western states, in Popper’s time and in ours, no doubt provokes the “Cold War warrior” label. But there is no reason to suppose that theorists who idealize aren’t aware of the ways in which reality falls short, and of the need to correct that. Nor should it be assumed that because Popper aligned himself with one side it was the choice of side that motivated his argument, not the reverse.

In any event, it isn’t the Cold-War-warrior issue that I want to raise in order to pursue a contrast with Rorty (who by the way would have been happy to have been called a Cold War warrior!). Rather, it is the “subjectless” character that Popper attributes to science and, by his own extrapolation, to liberal politics. If it has a political exemplar, it would be some version of deliberative democracy, in which, likewise, the competition of ideas tends to displace the conflict among persons. Theorists of deliberative democracy distinguish their view from the familiar pluralist or market view of politics as the clash of interests or preferences.

According to deliberative democrats, we come to the forum not with interests or preferences that demand satisfaction, but with a willingness to expose our initial views to public critique and to change them if that is where the argument goes (Gutmann and Thompson, 1996). It might be a bit over-dramatic, again, to call such a view of politics “subjectless”—because, after all, the contested proposals do have to be put forward and defended by human subjects, no doubt with conviction—but that term applies in the sense that the political process is conceived of, basically, and to the extent that it is valuable, as a collision among ideas rather than as a conflict among persons (or groups of people). What matters is not the fact that I (or we) hold one belief and that you hold another, and that the beliefs get some standing from the fact that you and I respectively hold them, but that from a regulative point of view one of us holds a belief that may turn out to be less vulnerable to refutation.

It is here that a major fault-line appears between Popper’s politics—or at least the direction in which Popper’s politics would ideally seem to go—and the approach that Rorty adopts in his political thought. For in a “subjectless” politics agents could in principle be evanescent, while in Rorty’s favoured politics agents are institutionalized and act out of a strong sense of their own continuing identity and, often, their own interest too.

Rorty and Collective Agency

What is missing in the era of identity politics, Rorty believed, is the contribution of strong collective agency inspired by the sense of having an ongoing presence in public life. The paradigm case is, of course, the labor union, the mainstay, for perhaps a century, of progressive politics. Rorty emphasizes that unions were also, often, bastions of various kinds of exclusiveness: here he applauds the work of what he calls the “cultural left” in bringing to light once-obscured forms of oppression. But without the institutionalized support of millions of working people the egalitarian project of the left is perhaps fatally weakened. In good part, of course, this is because in the labor movement the egalitarian project was firmly linked to the advancement of workers’ socioeconomic interest: and it may be in that regard that Popper’s science-politics analogy most clearly loses its grip.

From a motivational point of view, the sense of justified self-interest is very different from the admirably ego-free model of disinterest that Popper admired. And the failure of an attempt to advance one’s interest is rarely taken as a reason to quit as opposed to a reason to renew the effort if one can. “Politics is about interests” (Shapiro 1999) is a provocative over-generalization, but to the extent that Rorty emphasizes the place of interest adopts it he moves the discussion onto a terrain that an epistemically-conceived politics may neglect. Immediately after the Trump election, many commentators saw uncanny prescience in Rorty’s prediction that by abandoning the defence of the economically deprived, the Democratic party ran the risk of losing them to a demagogue who would exploit their resentments. Left out of the distributive paradigm, as it came to be termed, they then had to suffer being left out of the recognition paradigm too, and took their revenge on “recognition’s” supposed beneficiaries.

But it is not the element of “interest” alone that distinguishes Rorty’s view. He also wrote about the role of universities, for example, making large claims for their political importance (1998a, 50). He did not much stress the role of churches, but surely he should have, given the role of (for example) black churches in the civil rights movement, or, in the previous century, the role of English churches in the abolition of the slave trade (Appiah 2010). But whether we are thinking about economic or intellectual or spiritual motivation, the general point is that Rorty’s political world is peopled by decidedly non-evanescent actors. It is essential to effective politics, he believes, that there should be groups with long-term commitments and a sense of their continuing identity and purpose so that defeats can be absorbed and the struggle can continue.

Among the many powerful objections to neoliberalism by Cruickshank and others in Democratic Problem-Solving, this theme of Rorty’s points to a special reason for concern. It is characteristic of neoliberalism not only to close off macropolitical alternatives but also to infect institutions with a market ethos, so that their distinctive internal character is flattened, and they cease to be available as potential agents of political dissent, of the sort that Rorty regarded as essential to critical politics.

Institutions, such as trades unions, to use Rorty’s most recurrent example, come into being because groups of people have life-experiences in common, and once in being they create further life-experiences that their members share, and value. Here I want to go back to Popper’s epistemically powerful distinction between discovery and justification. Despite its scientific importance, it fits uncomfortably in politics because the process of discovering one’s political orientation is not easily left behind, embedded as it is in one’s life circumstances; and perhaps it should not be left behind, even. If it is as an agricultural labourer or a hand-loom weaver in 19th-century Britain, or a suffragette, or a member of a black evangelical church in the southern US in the civil rights era, or a journalist facing oppression in Erdogan’s Turkey, it is exactly one’s experience of coming to dissent from the status quo that needs to be made known to others. It is that experience that gives both content and moral weight to the claims arising from it. It is not after all an objection to your becoming an anti-poverty activist that you have yourself experienced poverty—as though your personal narrative of discovery somehow undermined the value of your political commitments.

The worry here may be, of course, that once we let in agent-relative considerations in this way then we open the door to relativism—thus undermining the validity of critique. That worry seems overdrawn. Let us take the case of poverty — the example is John Horton’s (2010). Suppose I am acutely aware of the effects of dire poverty because of my childhood experience; let’s say I can’t forget what it was like to go to school hungry. So, when I look at the society around me the consequences of poverty are salient to me in a way that other issues, let’s say environmental issues, or animal welfare issues, are not. That doesn’t mean I live in a different moral world from the environmentalist or the animal welfare advocate. Nor does it mean that in order to share political space with them I have to share their personal narratives of discovery or adapt my priorities to theirs. We can communicate and sympathize with others whose outlooks embody what we may term different moral gradients, or different basic views about what most compellingly demands to be surmounted.

Circumventing Democracy

There is a converse worry, which is that if we delegitimize agent-relative reasons then we will end up treating democracy as an obstacle to be somehow circumvented or directed. If only agent-neutral reasons count, and we can discover them, why bother counting heads? That question of course has an ancient and distinguished precursor in Plato, who regarded democracy as a distraction from truth-seeking, akin to a drunken pleasure cruise. I do not see how one can dissent from Plato’s caricature unless we find a place in democracy for the public value of giving weight to personal experience.

It’s a hard job to explain why it is of public value that citizens should believe that their personal or group narratives should shape policies that all citizens are compelled to accept, whether they accept these narratives or not. There is an information-sharing model, which seems to be the best interpretation of Aristotle’s case for including a democratic element in the constitution. There is a common experience model, that led Bentham to believe that broadly-based majorities would share sufficiently common interests to deny support to self-interested elites. Neither seems satisfactory across the board. Perhaps the best one can do is to say that the case can’t be grounded in anything other than one based on civic respect. Epistemology, in the last resort, may have less to do with it.

But a conclusion of that kind may be seriously question-begging, given the ambiguities of “respect.” Those ambiguities come to light in, especially, the politics of intercultural relations, where, it has been pointed out, “respect” may mean simply taking you as you are, and refraining from any sort of evaluation from my point of view, or, alternatively, it may mean responding attentively to what you have to say and giving my candid opinion so that we can advance, through mutual critique, to something that we can share — I don’t take you seriously unless I criticize you (Jones 1990). I take it that the latter interpretation is closer to Popperian politics—we should engage in argument in a common endeavour to discover who is right, in the sense of being demonstrably less vulnerable to the evidence that we turn up together. But if important political actors are, as Rorty believed, institutionally embedded, then they are putting not just their proposals but their identity on the line, and surely we can understand that they may demand or expect respect in the former interpretation: take us for who are. We are not willing to “perish” even if we lose, because we matter.

But why should we give in to that demand or expectation? Because the model of epistemic competition, attractive though it is in terms of furthering the normative aims of democracy, contains no institutional means of closure. A democratic means of closure is a majority vote. But a majority vote doesn’t represent the epistemic outcome of the debate that precedes it. It represents the majority’s view of the epistemic outcome of the debate that preceded it, and for the minority that continues to dissent that view has no more epistemic weight than their own. What can make it weighty is a procedural consideration that needs a justification of another kind.

Winners and Losers in the Debate?

I began by saying that I wasn’t going to award prizes, but I’m sure I’ve given the impression that I think Rorty wins and Popper loses. If so that is unfortunate because I really have no stake in either of them winning or losing. I think their juxtaposition is enormously valuable, though, in focussing our attention on a fundamental problem in the theory of democracy. We don’t believe in democracy for no reason at all. We believe in it because, as noted above, it has implicit normative ends—it advances freedom and equality in some combination and interpretation of those contested terms. But what it does, as a process as distinct from a normative ideal, is reflect the balance of considerations as they strike nonideal people, whether responding to those considerations happens to advance freedom and equality or not. And that is itself a (respect-based) normative constraint, not just a fact of life.

Where this dilemma may become especially clear is, I think, in the context in which the largest version of Rorty’s theory of embeddedness emerges: he speaks of achieving our country. What we are to do must express some interpretation of what our country antecedently stands for, not some unembedded cosmopolitan principle. Whereas Popper wrote long before political theorists began to take an interest in issues of global justice, Rorty can hardly have been unaware of the efforts by political theorists to confront what we believe we owe to one another, as conationals, with the interests of outsiders. Indeed, he suggested that, although we feel loyalty to those with whom we are embedded, we can come to an idea of “a larger loyalty”—that is, a global one—and thus come to acknowledge obligations to people outside our own society (1998b). And surely we can. But why should we? Here, I believe, the argumentative pendulum swings back in Popper’s favour, though likely in a way that Popper himself may not have anticipated.

Rorty’s belief that political movements must align with and draw upon some version of patriotism is of course open to critique from an overtly cosmopolitan point of view (e.g. Nussbaum 1996, 4). But it is also at odds with his own recognition of powerful institutional identities within the patria. Suppose I am a member of a Canadian labour organization, or a Canadian feminist advocacy group, or a Canadian evangelical church, or a Canadian indigenous rights movement, it hardly follows either that I must prioritize my Canadian identity over any of those sub-identities, or that in advocacy for my cause I must favour rhetoric drawn from specifically Canadian narratives. “Achieving our nation” might be somewhere on my list but there is no reason to place it at the top. My allies and points of reference may well be transnational ones (Erskine 2008), and so Rorty’s embrace of patriotism puts something of a straitjacket on the pluralism that he also endorses. Here the vision of an open society, that is, one that is not precommitted to some collective goal or value, is more conducive to the democratic idea. In that respect, Popper’s view more successfully challenges the givenness of agent’s assumed identities.


Appiah, Kwame Anthony. The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, New York: Norton, 2010.

Cruickshank, Justin and Raphael Sassower. Democratic Problem Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

Erskine, Toni. Embedded Cosmopolitanism: Duties to Strangers and Enemies in a World of ‘Dislocated Communities’, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Gutmann, Amy and Dennis Thompson. Democracy and Disagreement, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Horton, John. “Reasonable Disagreement.” In Multiculturalism and Moral Conflict, edited by Maria Dimova-Cookson and Peter M.R, Stirk, 58-74. London: Routledge, 2010.

Jones, Peter. “Respecting Beliefs and Rebuking Rushdie,” British Journal of Political Science 20 (1990): 415-37.

Nussbaum, Martha. “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism.” In For Love of Country, edited by Joshua Cohen, 3-20. Boston: Beacon, 1996.

Popper, Karl. “Normal Science and Its Dangers,” In Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, edited by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, 51-58. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Popper, Karl.Objective Knowledge, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Rorty, Richard. Achieving Our Country, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998a.

Rorty, Richard. “Justice as a Larger Loyalty.” In Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation, edited by Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins, 45-58. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998b.

Shapiro, Ian. “Enough of Deliberation: Politics is about Interests and Power.” In Deliberative Politics: Essays on Democracy and Disagreement, edited by Stephen Macedo, 28-38. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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

Winyard, David C. “The Promethean Escape.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 1-3.

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

Image credit: The New Atlantis

Eclipse of Man: Human Extinction and the Meaning of Progress
Charles T. Rubin
New Atlantis Books, 2014
186 pp.

People obsessed with novel big ideas can find a lot to like in the transhumanism movement. It imagines technoscience solutions to all manner of worldly ills, and technical challenges are of little concern to transhumanists. Things that are too difficult now (e.g., immortality) will, the thinking goes, inevitably yield to super-intelligent artificial minds that will emerge after Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity.

Charles T. Rubin’s Eclipse of Man is a big picture analysis and critique of transhumanism’s big ideas. It examines how enlightenment conceptions of progress have given way to visions of a dehumanized future. In clear and artful ways, Rubin exposes the movement’s unwarranted assumptions. He concludes that transhumanism’s long-term consequences are incomprehensible, and as a consequence, they are not worthy of rational pursuit. Anyone interested in transhumanism—critics and advocates alike—may benefit from considering both the logic and art of Rubin’s arguments.

The Moral Vision of Transhumanism

To start, Rubin justifies his broad-brush look of transhumanism, with its assorted religious persuasions: atheist, Mormon, Christian, emergent, and many more. Although they differ, Rubin notes that they “often aim to adopt a ‘big tent’ outlook that seeks to minimize the sectarian differences implicit in the different designations.” By focusing on central themes, he does not get bogged down in factional details but presses on toward his goal: to examine “transhumanism’s moral vision of the future.”

Rubin’s begins his story of dehumanization with the Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794). Condorcet’s enlightenment rationalism focused exclusively on improving the lot of human society. Like Francis Bacon before, and transhumanists today, Condorcet thought human reason could greatly extend lifespans, but he did not believe immortality could be attained. He did hope that “our power over nature will soften the hard edges of the human condition by improving the material conditions of life,” and this would improve “moral conditions.” Generally, Condorcet’s vision of the future is uncontroversial. Who would not want better and longer lives?

Next, Rubin considers Condorcet’s progress in view of Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834) and Charles Darwin (1809–1882). Malthus held that “our future holds great misery and scarcity” because “finite resources limit what human beings can ever hope to accomplish,” but Darwin spins “natural competition as a force for change over time.” According to Rubin, today transhumanists attempt to “reconcile and assimilate these ideas by advocating the end of humanity.” Is Rubin right? Are enlightenment humanism and evolutionary metanarratives leading toward dehumanization?

Transhuman or Inhuman?

Rubin considers the descent into dehumanization to begin with William Winwood Reade (1838–1875), and continues with Nikolai Federovich Federov (1829–1903), Nicolas Camille Flammarion (1842–1925), J.B.S. Haldane (1892–1964), and finally J.D. Bernal (1901–1971). They increasingly diverge from Condorcet’s humanism, and in the end, the goal of progress is redefined: from “better humans” to a paradoxical move “beyond humanity.” Rubin mourns that society is embracing this vision, so “the eclipse of man is underway.”

Through the next three chapters, Rubin considers recent developments. Chapter Two examines the ongoing Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), including a review of its associated science and science fiction. Chapter Three focuses on nanotechnology, comparing Eric Drexler’s nanotechnology visions with Neal Stevenson’s novel The Diamond Age.

In the process, inconsistencies emerge between nanotechnology’s promise and its potential to disrupt human lives and relationships. Chapter Four looks to other transhumanist aspirations and their mysteries. The upshot is that logically transhumanism’s assumptions lead to a dehumanized future. Why? Galactic evolutionary competition requires human beings to evolve into technological artifacts. Can we not hope for something better?

Unfortunately, Rubin’s powerful analysis and critique falls flat in Chapter Five, entitled “The Real Meaning of Progress.” It can be summarized in five words: there are no easy answers. Instead of solutions, Rubin points toward attitudes (e.g., humility) that can help society deepen its understanding of what human life means, and also what can be lost by forging ahead without maintaining continuous attention to such matters.

Spectres of Icarus

Rubin frames his conclusions by interpreting three paintings of Icarus. The first shows him being launched into the sky by his father. In the second, Icarus realizes the consequences of his disobedience and is struck by terror. The last shows Icarus crashing into the sea, even as common folk go about their business nearby. The paintings effectively illustrate Rubin’s argument. Reality exists between optimistic and pessimistic views of the future, and the meaning of life today must shape the future. Ignoring or diminishing human life as we know it today will surely take us in wrong directions.

Rubin teaches political science, but he does not offer politics as the answer to transhumanism’s challenges. He notes that transhumanism is often sold in techno-libertarian terms, but this may be to distinguish it from eugenics. Freedom of choice is promised, but anyone not adopting technological enhancements would be left behind or forcibly eliminated. The force of evolution cannot be resisted.

By not reducing transhumanism to politics, Rubin differs from Steve Fuller. His transhumanism interests began with history and theology, but he has ended up settling for risky political solutions (e.g., the rehabilitation of eugenics) that can only have near-term effects. Surely, Rubin’s long view of the big picture befits transhumanism’s grand narrative. Perhaps his insights will, in Rubin’s terms, help transhumanism overcome its “peculiar farsightedness?”

Author Information: Philip Benesch, Lebanon Valley College,

Benesch, Philip. “What’s Left of Popper?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 50-61.

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

Please refer to:

Image credit: Rowman & Littlefield

Justin Cruickshank and Raphael Sassower’s Democratic Problem-Solving, Dialogues in Social Epistemology (Rowman & Littlefield, London, 2017) touches upon the continuing relevance of Popperian approaches to progressive social reform and political action. Yet, though it touches upon Popperian approaches, the sweep of these dialogues is both refreshingly broader and irritatingly cloudier. I have some criticisms of the distinct contributions made by Cruickshank and by Sassower.

Cruickshank, Rorty, and Dialogue

The exchanges that compose this book begin with Cruickshank’s bold exploration of uncharted commonalities in the work of Karl Popper and Richard Rorty. He finds common ground in their anti-essentialism, commitment to piecemeal social change, and anti-authoritarianism. Yet this last is somewhat subverted by Rorty’s admiration of Heidegger, despite his unrepudiated pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic stance, as Sassower reminds Cruickshank, first gently (30), then less subtly (47-49).

Rorty complimented Popper for doing “a good job” in noting the philosophical precursors of modern totalitarianism, but Rorty chose not to criticize great philosophers, such as Heidegger, when only part of their work supported such morally and politically despicable outcomes (Rorty 1988, 33; Fuller 2004, chapter 16). I do not see where Cruickshank acknowledges or comments upon this element in Rorty’s philosophical work or the challenge it must offer to Cruickshank’s quest for Popper-Rorty synergies of help to a revitalized anti-statist Left.

Steve Fuller has argued that “a sign of our non-Popperian times is that the most natural way to interpret the idea of ‘social epistemology’ is in terms of a consensus-seeking approach to inquiry, not, as Popper himself did, a set of mutually critical agents” (Fuller 2001, 343). I believe that Cruickshank would dismiss this as a binary by which he will not be bound, and would accuse Popperians of legislating the scope of inquiry and policing the boundaries of dialogue (42).

Cruickshank then sets forth his own division between “speedy” and “slow” dialogues and hands out speeding tickets to those who infringe his legislative schema. In this way, we are cautioned not to criticize certain positions as dogmatic or irrational, and those positions are returned to the dialogue (from which they were not excluded), and granted delaying privileges (which they have always retained). Cruickshank would not call this a consensus-seeking approach, he has avoided that term; he prefers we call it critical slow dialogue.

In his second contribution (chapter 3) to the present dialogue in social epistemology, Cruickshank proposes that while Popper correctly rejected “justificationist speedy dialogue” he incorrectly embraced the “critical speedy dialogue” of permanent revolution in science. Popper was incorrect because “[p]eople may be emotionally, ethically and politically committed to their ideas” (36). Yet, contrary to Cruickshank’s portrait, Popper, outside the confines of his seminar, appears to have more typically pursued slow dialogue, favoring slow reading and slow writing, he took pains to revise his papers, hoping for clarity and concision, so that they might be understood in plain English (not his first tongue). He recognized that neither reason nor science were self-sufficient but were entangled with the commitments Cruickshank identifies.

According to Cruickshank:

Admitting that criticism may take a long time to effect ideational change opens up the possibility of slippage ‘backwards’ and for Popper that would put science and democracy at risk. In place of slow piecemeal ideational change there had to be a utopia of hyper-rational and instrumental machine-like agents changing their ideas very quickly (42).

Yet, the core of both Popper’s epistemology and his political philosophy is a fallibilist attitude of reasonableness—that “I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort we may get nearer to the truth” (Popper 1945/1966, v.2., 225, sentence italicized in the original; he emphasized that this should be regarded as his moral credo, Popper 1994, xii). The collaborative effort of which Popper speaks will most often involve the “slow piecemeal ideational change” that Cruickshank incorrectly claims Popper rejected. Typically, each of us hold ideas that are partly wrong and partly right. Of course, there may on other occasions be fairly rapid ideational change, as when one’s entire “horizon of expectations” is shattered by an event and requires replacement (see Popper’s 1948 paper on bucket and searchlight epistemologies, now appended to Popper 1972/1979; see my comments, Benesch 2012, 101, 109 and notes).  And yes, of course, there is always the possibility “of slippage ‘backwards’”—nothing is inevitable and, short of death, nothing is established with finality; political and intellectual gains won in one era may be lost in another.

All one can do is craft institutions, traditions, and methods that may provide minimal safeguards, but the future very much depends on the loosely-associated individuals and their decisions. It seems to me that Popper’s attitude of reasonableness strictly prescribes neither a speedy nor a slow dialogue, but it does require a good-faith argument between individuals seeking to identify their errors and “get nearer to the truth” (never, of course, likely to attain certainty or absolute truth).

In his first contribution, Cruickshank credits Lakatos, not Popper, with both the distinction of auxiliary hypotheses from core hypotheses and with the conception of research programs (15). In his third contribution Cruickshank tells us that “[T]he history of science does not conform to… Popper’s methodological prescription…” (85). We should think (slowly) about that statement: history does not conform to one’s prescriptions. One’s prescriptions are presumably for future action not past action; surely one should learn from the mistakes or inefficiencies of the past in order to avoid repeating them; one’s prescriptions may draw certain favorable examples from the past, but one would not expect a philosopher to prescribe conformity with the past per se.

The reading of Popper by Cruickshank is remarkably distorted but it has become standard fare for those who credit Lakatos rather than Popper with the concept of research programs in science. From the 1950s Popper referred to these as metaphysical research programs—they were the motivators of particular scientific inquiries but these programs were not themselves scientifically-tested nor were any empirically-testable as a whole. Metaphysical programs may well persist, and change to these may be typically, although not invariably, slow. “They are… much harder to criticize than [scientific] theories—and much easier to retain uncritically” (Popper 1982b, 32).

Contrary to Cruickshank’s claims (43-44), Popper’s approach to dialogue between metaphysical positions is hardly “speedy” although it is critical. In the Open Society, declaring that in the “conflict between idealism and materialism my sympathies are with Marx” (Popper 1945/1966, v2, 110), Popper explicitly endorsed Marx’s practical-critical humanism as a dualistic revision of materialism. Twenty-five years later, while advancing pluralism as a viable alternative to either idealism or materialism, Popper noted that “if forced to choose between any subjectivist or personalist view of human knowledge and the materialist or physicalist view I have just tried to sketch, I should choose the latter; but this is emphatically not the alternative.” (Popper 1972/1979, 296). Popper’s 1948 essay, “Towards a Rational Theory of Tradition” (now in Conjectures and Refutations), his response to Michael Oakeshott, may offer further understanding of his approach to ideational change, as may his discussion of culture clash in The Open Society and Its Enemies, and in The Myth of the Framework.

Popper strove to avoid giving unnecessary offense to religious or other identities. He did not infantilize or coddle his interlocutors. He prescribed that we distinguish each theorist from his/her theories, so that one’s ideas might be criticized and discarded if found to be more erroneous or less enlightening than a rival idea with which it is being compared. As a result of the externalization of our ideas, our ideas might be treated as “objective” or exosomatic knowledge, with identified errors critically reviewed and set aside from current discussion.

Popper, in his Darwinian phase, referred to this as “error elimination.” He proposed that, in a critical discussion, rather than we being martyrs to our ideas, our hypotheses should die in our stead.  Popper’s poetic formulation makes an important point but we should not take poetry literally: hypotheses have no death. No ideas are ever eliminated from the Popperian “world 3” archive of exosomatic knowledge—so long as at least some of the artifacts in which they are encoded remain.

I prefer Sassower’s alternative descriptor, “displaced”— certain ideas are displaced from our current inter-subjective critical discussion but remain retrievable from the exosomatic archive. As Sassower eloquently argues, “This means that the entire history of ideas remains alive, however dormant or forgotten here and there, until vestiges of it are rediscovered or found useful for explaining a new constellation of ideas or principles” (243)— my only quibble with Sassower’s point is that ideas are no more alive than they are dead; we should avoid biologicizing our ideas). All of these points are consistent with Popper’s earlier formulation (which was limited to science) that there can be no conclusive falsifications. In The Logic of Scientific Discovery, he had clearly stated his view that “no conclusive disproof of a theory can ever be produced” (Popper 1959/1980, section 9, 50—this statement was in the 1934 original; in 1959 he added text and a footnote emphasizing the point; see also appendix X.17, 440) [“experiments are never conclusive; and they must in turn be testable by further experiments”] and section 30, 109-111).

“Critical speedy dialogue, contra Popper, is not possible, and the alternative to critical slow dialogue is justificationist speedy dialogue” (108) repeats Cruickshank in chapter 9, his fourth contribution to this dialogue. The assertion is rapidly followed by Cruickshank’s claim that Popper moved from an optimistic approach to politics (his attitude up to at least the late-1960s)—in which political experts might be held accountable by ordinary, un-deferential and active critical citizens—to a more pessimistic and technocratic approach, in which citizen participation is limited to post-hoc evaluation of policy and political performance at regularly scheduled elections. Cruickshank is wrong to claim that Popper’s opposition to either majoritarian or Rousseauian conceptions of democratic politics were features only of his later “pessimistic” phase (110). Popper consistently viewed democracy as a system for checking power, and for removing rulers disfavored by the majority (quite different from majority rule). Cruickshank appears to share Popper’s aversion to push-button plebiscitary democracy but bemoans what he sees in the later Popper: a tendency to entrust, between elections, decision-making to a technocratic, ideologically-neutral political elite (more on this last point at the end of the next section).

Cruickshank may be able to offer an interesting and innovative interpretation of the chronology of Popper’s politics if he could show that the later political pessimism resulted from disillusionment with critical dialogue and a consequent resort to justificationist speedy dialogue. Indeed, Cruickshank approaches this view, noting a paternalism in the late Popperian conception where “the political elite would become the authoritative source of ethical justification, with their technocratic status allowing them to enact moral regulation of lay agents and the construction of a pseudo-consumer sovereignty” (112). If Cruickshank were to flesh out this aspect of his theory, it may offer a fertile contribution to Popper scholarship.

Frankly, I prefer the Popper of the politically-optimistic critical (variable-speed) dialogue, the intellectual revolutionary who retained faith in the Enlightenment project of universal human emancipation. Abandoning Marx’s historicism while preserving his practical-critical activism, Popper understood that men make their own history, albeit constrained by material conditions and error-impregnated traditions. There may be no laws of historical development other than those humanity sets itself, and a foreseen outcome to history might become inexorable or inevitable only if unconstrained by material circumstance or sufficient counter-vailing will. The future is open, it depends very largely upon ourselves, upon decisions we make within the bounds of our technology. It depends on our publicly declared aims and purposes, and on the rules, standards, and agreements we establish to regulate and coordinate our various activities.

Sassower, Demarcation, and Rationalism

Popper’s work is avowedly a contribution to normative philosophy, more broadly it is a contribution to efforts to improve humanity’s “plastic controls”—that is to say, our mutual self-regulation according to our standards and aims. He was a critic of bad or harmful metaphysics but Popper was not an enemy of metaphysics, least of all a disparager of that which may be irreducible to or inexplicable by physics (as Sassower notes, 243). While recognizing that praxis was both a spur and a bridle to our speculation (Popper 1957/1960, 56; Popper 1972/79, 311, 263), Popper praised the many metaphysical programs that have informed, guided and ennobled human activity. His methodological prescriptions for science may be analogous to those he offers for politics but they are never identical. Ethics regulates both activities, but there is no scientific basis for ethics and we had better eschew an ethics governed by political considerations.

How then are we to make sense of Raphael Sassower and Seif Jensen’s chapter (chapter 8) on Popper and the demarcation of science from metaphysics?  For this discussion they critically expropriate Popper’s reflection on the tercentenary of Britain’s revolution of 1688. Sassower and Jensen write:

Popper consistently demonstrates this attitude towards our reception and proliferation of scientific knowledge claims in his 1988 apologia of a democratic two-party system; his ‘Day of Judgement’ essentially amounts to a falsifiable test. Democracy ought to be testable, in theory as well as in practice. Solving this problem (of the conditions under which democracy works most effectively) for Popper means changing the ‘old problem’ of ‘who should rule?’—which is unscientific because it cannot be falsified—to one that approximates the criterion of falsifiability as closely as possible within the political-scientific sphere. We concede that Popper does set an absolute standard by declaring ‘that … a rule of law that enables us to get rid of a government. No majority, however large, ought to be qualified to abandon this rule of law’ (Popper 1988). Setting aside this absolutist thinking which we attribute to the trauma of war, Popper merely points out that a two-party model has yet to be falsified under certain conditions, while the others, according to Popper, have (96-97).

Popper did no such thing. Note that in the above passage the references to falsification are not part of the Popper statements directly quoted by Sassower and Jensen; rather these references are interpolated as if summarizing unquoted elements in Popper’s 1988 essay. But Popper does not make ANY reference to the concept of falsification (nor to science) in the 1988 essay (compare with Popper 1988/2012). The General Election “day of judgement” is not, could not be, and is not by Popper intended as an opportunity for empirical disconfirmation of a scientifically tested hypothesis. Sassower and Jensen want Popper to say this, have the preconception that Popper would say this if asked, and therefore creatively interpolate with wish-fulfilling abandon.

There is much more where this came from. The chapter on the demarcation problem is marked by a postmodernist warping. The Popper that emerges from this mangling is a post-Adorno, post-Lakatos caricature of a half-positivist, semi-sophisticated-falsificationist, with a fuddy-duddy or naïve-conservative affection for western democracy. Sassower and Jensen tell us that

For Popper’s cohorts, science could offer what the nation-state failed to offer: freedom and equality, knowledge and certainty… The new utopia would be a utopia surrogate; it would be Popperian … this revised scientific project offered demarcation criteria only as a first step toward a more nuanced method of conjectures and refutations that culminates at most with putative truths (92).

Are Sassower and Jensen saying that Popper’s “science” aspired to offer the “certainty” the nation-state failed to offer or that his “nuanced method” sought to attain “putative truths”—rather than pursue the identification of error in our theories so that we may better describe and explain reality (perhaps here “putative truths” is used as a synonym for such tentative theories)? Outrageously ignoring (temporarily) Popper’s commitments to critical rationalism, humanitarianism, and the open society, Sassower and Jensen mutate Popper into Bacon “free to engage problem solving and criticism from a neutral perspective…” (94). In the midst of curtseying to Foucault and Lyotard, Sassower and Jensen take from Agassi’s mouth what they ought to have heard as sung from Popper’s tonsils—that to hold the view that science is ‘in flux’ “is also to argue that society is in flux, so much so that it deserves to be reassessed continuously” (101). Indeed, that is what the “openness” of the open society refers to.

Without sidetracking to Sassower’s interest in public intellectuals, we may proceed directly to his last substantive contribution to the present book. In chapter 19, quoting Popper’s view that “No decision about aims can be established by purely rational or scientific means”, Sassower then comments,

This line is presented more or less as statement of fact without it being open to critical discussion or dispute. Is there a way to argue rationally about aims? Don’t policy makers do this all the time when they offer alternative aims…We routinely use ‘scientific means’ to calculate the options we wish to set as aims for our community… It’s true that ‘its aims, at least, must be given before the social scientist can begin …’ But aren’t we here following Popper’s own methodological nominalist approach … (233-234).

Yes: Popper did not deny a role to reason or science in aiding the critical evaluation of policy, programs or institutions. Reason clearly may have a major role in critical assessment of our aims and standards. But what Popper also clearly argued was that we could not establish our aims by purely rational or scientific means—he italicized the word “purely” in the hope that it would catch the eye of even a speedy reader.  Popper noted that our reason and science are necessarily entangled with our emotional, ethical and political commitments—the very ones to which Cruickshank referred earlier (36).

Popper held that utopianism and technocratic planning are typically inseparable from an aesthetic commitment to tidiness, to more efficiently organizing the crazy patchwork quilt of our social fabric (Popper 1945/1966, v1, chapter 9). And he described his rationalism as lacking self-sufficiency; it rested on the flimsiest of foundations, an irrational faith in the attitude of reasonableness (Popper 1945/1966, v2, chapter 24, sections 1-3, especially 231, cf. 258). Hence, for Popper, there could be no purely rational or scientific reform of society.

Sassower hopes to reconcile utopianism and a redefined post-rationalist “reasonableness” as the core of his own non-relativistic brand of Popperian postmodernism. It is good to be creative, especially in an otherwise stagnant field, but one would hope to avoid too many distortions of the earlier theory one claims to be refuting or revising and augmenting. In particular, one might note that Popper was not opposed to small-scale, localized utopian experiments (a point perhaps implicitly and belatedly acknowledged by Sassower on 237).

Popper’s objection was to holistic utopian engineering—the project to remake society as a whole, according to the intelligent design of some god-like human oligarchy (e.g. Plato’s philosophers, who were as god-like as it was possible for a human to be [here Popper reads the Republic rather too literally]; or the transformations to be wrought by Lenin’s party of “professional revolutionaries” and by subsequent central planners). Small scale social experimentation (preferably by consenting participants) might be subject to democratic and social scientific criticism, and may yield important insights to citizens keen to scale-up their projects. Of course, we may yet create a god-like artificial intelligence that will coordinate a world-wide communism with more efficiency and liberty than might be achieved through market mechanisms and the public policies of fissiparous polities. Otherwise we may well find holistic central planners to be resistant to criticism by ordinary citizens. If some citizens are inconvenienced by the implementation of utopian policy—and the larger the scale of the bureaucratically-engineered change, the larger the number of citizens likely inconvenienced—the more the central planners are likely to immunize themselves from criticism and to treat critics as improperly motivated or merely ill-informed.

We may observe that Sassower appears to attack Popper from two rather different angles. In chapter 19 he accuses Popper of precluding science and reason from contributing to the setting of ultimate aims but elsewhere he (e.g. chapter 8, as quoted above) and other contributors to the dialogue suspect Popper of preferring technocracy. Of course, these are not mutually-exclusive positions, as a value-neutral technocracy may simply follow preset values or assume that what is systemic to society is natural or otherwise outside the scope of their decision. Popper spent quite a bit of The Open Society and Its Enemies critiquing political leadership by ideologically-neutral experts (e.g., Plato’s philosophers or Mannheim’s intellectuals) and he also disavowed ethical naturalism.

Finally, we may note that Isaac Reed, (chapter 6) also raises important questions regarding Popper’s attitude to scientific work that is antithetical or harmful to an open society. It may be the case that Popper remained a child of the Enlightenment: he believed that the unflinching search for truth will aid universal emancipation.  Yet, Popper also recognized limits to political (and presumably intellectual) toleration, for example: the need for an open society to suppress pro-slavery movements and to fight racism. Broadly, the integrity of a scientist is measured by pre-agreed, institutionalized values. A scientist qua scientist does not set those values, nonetheless that scientist as citizen will do so. The scientists cannot leave their consciences at the laboratory door.

At the height of the Vietnam War Popper demanded a broader granting of conscientious objector status, spoke of the moral responsibilities of scientists (for example, those who might have demanded that the 1945 atomic bombs be used, if used at all, only on uninhabited locations or isolated military targets) and celebrated the post-Nuremberg principle that the “conscience of every human being is the ultimate court of appeal with respect to the question whether a command is…to be resisted.” (Popper 1994, 126). Popper concluded his 1968 essay: “Since the natural scientist has become inextricably involved in the application of science, he too, should consider it one of his special responsibilities to foresee as far as possible the unintended consequences of his work and to draw attention, from the very beginning, to those which we should strive to avoid” (Popper 1994, 129). The old lore about value-free Popperian science might surely now be set to rest.

Historical Method, Realism, and an Agenda for a Post-Popperian Political Philosophy

Reed and Cruickshank have noted the encumbrances imposed on Popperian problem-solving by The Poverty of Historicism. One might have wished that Popper had left that work as a neglected 1944-45 series of articles published in a not widely circulated economics journal. It was his first work written in English (its drafting precedes his 1940 article on dialectics) and it is stodgy and mechanistic in style, with little of the sparkle that shines through The Open Society and Its Enemies. Yet in 1957, hot on the heels of the repressed revolution in Hungary, the CPSU XXth Party Congress, and the ensuing wide-spread disillusionment among Western communists, Popper permitted the minimally-revised republication of the articles as a book printed in English. I conjecture that he wanted to talk with the Left at this critical moment and the Poverty seemed all ready for the purpose. The result was an intense six-year controversy that drew in critics as varied as Herbert Marcuse, Alasdair MacIntyre, and E.H. Carr, helped trigger Popper’s 1961 confrontation with Theodor Adorno, brought forth commentators who interpreted the Poverty as offering a “covering law” H-D model (e.g., in a 1961 conference paper and later publications, Alan Donagan popularized this model as the “Popper-Hempel theory”), and no doubt increased the misperception of Popper by those who were forming the New Left.

The Poverty of Historicism indeed contains some howlers about sociological laws and how these may be similar to laws in natural science and very different from so-called historical laws. But as a good fallibilist, Popper learned from the criticism, so that we find a (not entirely helpful) 1961 revival of his interest in situational logic (a concept he had left largely dormant for the previous 15 years) and a renunciation of sorts, of the use of “laws” in social science (almost no reference to these in Popper’s writings after 1963). His 1963 lecture on “Models, instruments and Truth” is a particularly interesting reformulation of Popper’s position. There he recognized that

[T]he Newtonian method of explaining and predicting singular events by universal laws and initial conditions is hardly ever applicable in the theoretical social sciences…[and] … in the social sciences, tests of a situational analysis can sometimes be provided by historical research” (Popper 1994, 165-166, 170).

The distinction between the social-theoretical and historical sciences, so sharply drawn in the Poverty, seems to be blurred by Popper’s work in the 1960s. Indeed, Popper’s essays on evolutionary epistemology and “objective knowledge” reveal his renewed appreciation for dialectics and his interest in contributing to hermeneutics (see Popper 1972/1979, 162, 167, cf. 296). Yet this came too late for him to have influence on the emergent generations of the Left. He lacked Lakatos’ knack for savvy marketing. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions was easily assimilated by a Left that heard echoes of Marxian modes of production in a Kuhnian revolutionary succession of paradigms but that failed to see the resemblance between Marx’s praxeology and the Popperian conceptions of the growth of knowledge and autonomous sociology. Further alienated from the post-Tubingen Western Marxists and the wider academy they influenced, Popper later appears to have accepted the label they had repeatedly applied to him: when asked by Mark Notturno, circa 1992, why he had been spurned by so many academic philosophers, the ninety-year old Popper is reported to have replied “because I am on the right” (Notturno 2000, 166).

Recognition of universal flux led Popper to reject both essentialistic approaches to social science and historicist conceptions of predetermined social development. In the volume under review, Reed, Cruickshank, Chis, and Sassower note the connection between methodological nominalism and political liberalism (pro-free-speech and pro-democracy) in Popper’s philosophy. Yet Popper consistently held a realist, non-instrumentalist and non-relativist philosophical position, normally construed as opposed to nominalism. From the late 1950s, Popper, no doubt in part tongue-in-cheek, described his position as that of a modified essentialist—with the emphasis on the modified. True to his earlier “methodological nominalism,” the label of “methodological nominalist” did not have great value to Popper, what counted was clarity in communication (if only he had been as flexible in his use of the “historicist” label).

According to Popper, we use our terms to attempt to describe a reality that we never fully grasp—our terms, and especially our theories, are “nets cast to catch what we call the ‘world’: to rationalize, to explain, and to master it. We endeavour to make the mesh ever finer and finer” (Popper 1959/1980, 59). The best theories remain “rational nets of our own making, and should not be mistaken for a complete representation of the real world in all its aspects; not even if they are highly successful; not even if they appear to yield excellent approximations to reality” (Popper 1982a, 42-43). The point is to better approximate reality, to set aside theories that appear to be more clearly errant. As a realist and fallibilist, Popper was drawn to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, not for its depiction of philosopher-emancipators nor for its presentation of an attainable and complete enlightenment, but for its portrait of the human condition, of humanity stumbling and groping its way to a piecemeal recognition of illusion and error (Popper 1963/1989, 28, cf. Popper 1994, 52-53, also compare Popper 1972/1979, 344f).

I observe that Popper’s late ontology—a reformulated realism in which “the third world” of exosomatic human knowledge “is autonomous in what may be called its ontological status” (Popper 1972/1979, 161)—was preceded by Popper’s stumbles in the reception context of the republished Poverty of Historicism and by his reimagination both of methodological nominalism and of the prospects of an open society. (In the 1950s, Popper introduced the concept of the abstract society: a supposed deformation of the open society [Popper 1945/1966, v1, 174-175]. Popper’s initial political proposal of misery-minimization and socially-protective interventionism had relied upon concrete encounters between proximately-situated and compassionately-connected citizens. I believe that the prospect of an increasingly abstract society presented a significant problem for Popper’s political philosophy.) Popper’s late ontology did not come out of the blue, as some of his more perplexed commentators have suspected, but out of a discernable problem situation; it was a courageous effort to meet the multiple theoretical challenges with which he had been faced.

I propose that, with some interpretative license, we may develop from Popper’s late ontology a research program in post-Popperian political philosophy. While I do not have the space here to outline my agenda in full, I will conclude with brief notes on the first four of the arguments I have developed in this wider project:

Notes on Argument 1

Popper’s late ontology complements his earlier treatment of the theoretical limitations of Marxism. In The Viennese Socrates, I argued that Popper should be seen as the critical continuer of Eduard Bernstein’s revisionist Marxism. Like Bernstein, Popper exposed the gulf that opened between the scientific pretensions of post-Marx Marxism and the increasing dogmatism of the scientific socialists. He followed almost directly (but largely without acknowledgement) Bernstein’s critique of the prophetic chapter, chapter 25, in Marx’s Capital (Benesch 2012, 46-47), a critique Bernstein had originally advanced in his 1899 book, Evolutionary Socialism. Bernstein was also a precursor to Popper’s criticism of both Marxian historicism and the Marxian attitude to democracy. Yet, prior to the 1960s, Popper had not improved upon a Marx-derived dualism (of course, Marx did not see it as a dualism), a practical-critical humanism.

Notes on Argument 2

The central claims of Popper’s late ontology free the Left from a cramped materialism. I suggest that, while unacknowledged by Popper, his late ontology is a workable and nondeterministic version of historical materialism—recognizing the full compendium of historically-accumulated knowledge as a dynamic and autonomous component in an interactive universe. His pluralist reformulation of materialism, while more elaborate than his earlier mind-body dualism, is still remarkably lean and minimally pretentious. “Objective knowledge,” the exosomatic product of flesh and blood embodied human minds, is said to survive only when embedded in matter (books, computer systems, art, architecture, etc.). The engagement of our minds with previously externalized ideas and theories is said to facilitate the partial autonomy of the mind from the physico-chemical processes of our bodies.

Notes on Argument 3

Each of the three legs of Popperian “autonomous sociology”—antipsychologism, situational logic, and methodological individualism—are fortified. The claims of Popper’s antipsychologism are advanced directly by emphasizing the dependence of subjective knowledge on “objective knowledge” produced by other human beings, as well as on the externalized record of one’s own previous intellectual labor.  Popperian situational logic and methodological individualism both benefit from Popper’s introduction of the concepts of “plastic control” and “downward causation.” The conceptualization of plastic control—our mutual coordination and self-regulation according to standards and aims reached “imperceptibly through lengthy deliberation” (Popper 1972/1979, 231-234)—offers a further refinement of a sociology that is individualistic but not atomistic. The concept of downward causation supplements Popper’s understanding of the ways in which group-membership transforms and augments the behavior and consciousness of associated individuals.

Notes on Argument 4

Popper’s late ontology thickens his earlier historical sociology. In the preface to the 1959 first English edition of the Logic of Scientific Discovery he had already endorsed “the (at present unfashionable) historical method.” (Popper 1959/1980, 16). As noted earlier, Popper’s essays on evolutionary epistemology and “objective knowledge” reveal his renewed appreciation for dialectics and his interest in contributing to hermeneutics (Popper 1972/1979, 162, 167, cf. 296). In the 1960s, as he elaborated his late ontology, he proposed that “if we want to understand history, we must understand ideas and their objective logical (or dialectical) relationships” (Popper 1972/1979, 297).

He refined a conception of the evolution of knowledge and allied this to a reiterated tetradic conceptualization of historical progress (problem 1-theory-criticism-problem 2, etc. etc.—see Popper’s “Pluralist Approach to the Philosophy of History” [lecture, 1967], Popper 1994, 140). An analysis of intellectual change would be an analysis of problem solving in the context of historically-specified traditions and institutions, “For what exist, for the historian, are people in physical, social, mental, and ideological problem situations; people producing ideas by which they try to solve these problems, ideas which they try to grasp, to criticize, to develop” (Popper 1972/1979, 300). Attempts to solve any given problem could be understood only by identifying the relationship of that problem to the matrix of traditions and institutions in which it had arisen.


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

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

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

Image credit: Oxford Univerity Press

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

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

Analyzing the Chapters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assessing Epistemic Authority

We turn now to a critical assessment of the book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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