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: Jensen Alex, Valerie Joly Chock, Kyle Mallard, and Jonathan Matheson, University of North Florida, jonathan.matheson@gmail.com

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: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3J3

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.

Author Information: David C. Winyard Sr., Mount Vernon Nazarene University, winyard.david@gmail.com

Winyard, David C. “Polanyi Appeal: A Review of Esther Meek’s Contact With Reality.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 17-19.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3GX

Image credit: Cascade Books

Contact With Reality: Michael Polanyi’s Realism and Why It Matters
Esther Lightcap Meek
Cascade Books, 2017
309 pp.

Geneva College epistemologist Esther Lightcap Meek is best known for Covenant Epistemology, her innovative synthesis of the work of Michael Polanyi with thoughts from John Frame, Michael Williams, John Macmurray, Marjorie Grene, and others.[1] Covenant Epistemology’s key feature is the characterization of all knowledge as personal, there being ineffable communication—even communion—between knower and known, with both embedded in an ever-unfolding and expanding reality. Such relational knowing is consistent with Meek’s Christianity because “On the Christian theological vision, all reality is either God, or God’s personal effects.”[2]

Meek’s latest book, Contact With Reality, provides background and new vistas for Covenant Epistemology by closely examining Michael Polanyi’s work to reveal his unique form of realism. Part 1, Chapters 1–11, is a lightly edited publication of Meek’s 1983 Ph.D. dissertation. Its primary purpose is to show that Polanyi held realist views, a goal reached by analyzing Polanyi’s well-known thoughts on tacit knowledge, plus the subsidiary-focal structure of knowledge and his hallmarks of discovery, especially how discoveries point toward “indeterminate future manifestations.” Meek’s dissertation concludes with an appeal to phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty to “ground” Polanyi’s realism.[3]

Part 2, Chapters 12–14, briefly reflects upon Polanyian realism and what it might add to today’s discussions of reality, especially as it relates to scientific discovery. Meek begins with a brief analysis of Retrieving Realism, published in 2015 by Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor.[4]  Like Meek, Dreyfus and Taylor also look to Merleau-Ponty to justify their realism, but they never mention Polanyi. This omission opens the door for Meek to forcefully inject Polanyi’s thoughts into the discussion. In the process, she leaves behind her tentative dissertation conclusions. On the basis of three decades of Polanyi studies, Meek boldly argues for the legitimacy and superiority of Polanyi’s realism; it “proves to be its own justification” and “perhaps the only realism worthy of the designation.”[5]

In both parts, Meek expresses surprise and dismay that Polanyi’s genius is not appreciated by modern epistemology, which she regards as overly focused on after-the-fact justification of scientific claims. In turn, it neglects the messy thought processes that produce new knowledge. Meek believes that the philosophy of science, by seeking some sort of positive one-to-one correspondence, overlooks the one-to-many possibilities that drive practicing scientists forward.[6] This oversight perpetuates longstanding disconnects between philosophy and practical science. Against this philosophical rut, Meek argues that Polanyi, as a first-rate natural scientist, can bridge the gap. She recognizes that, for one reason or another, he is poorly understood and largely ignored, but she remains hopeful that Polanyi’s realism, epistemology, and ontology will be embraced.

In the climactic final chapter of Contact With Reality, Meek goes beyond simply making the case for Polanyi’s relevance to argue for realism.[7] Her launching point is the question, “have we children on modernity done a grave disservice to reality itself through our skepticism—including the very posing of the question of realism?”[8] Meek answers this question by citing David C. Schindler’s studies of theologian Hans Urs van Balthasar, who emphasized the transcendental values of truth, goodness, and beauty above all. Enraptured by the real, Meek embraces Schindler’s conclusion that “reason must be ecstatic” and “self-transcending.”[9] Meek’s excited advocacy for Covenant Epistemology is evident, as she appeals for a transcendent “radical attentiveness” to what reality would communicate to us, if we were not predisposed toward disbelief.

Contact With Reality is an important contribution to Meek’s trademark Covenant Epistemology. By publishing and extending her 1985 dissertation, her quest for realism is clarified, especially concerning key Covenant Epistemology concepts that her earlier works introduced. I am left wondering, where will Meek go from here?

My thought is that Meek would do well to connect her conceptions of personal knowledge with the social processes that account for it. If knowledge is indeed personal, then it is inherently social and not subject to mechanical logic. Social factors affect how knowledge claims—including those of Polanyi and Meek—are received. Social reality can be messy, with a large measure of irrealism in the mix. Meek’s references to Thomas Kuhn and the sociology of scientific knowledge suggest that she is aware of the herky-jerky nature of intellectual progress. Perhaps her promotion of Polanyian realism and Covenant Epistemology could benefit from a deeper appreciation of the social factors affecting their acceptance?

Further, Meek’s focus on epistemology minimizes the differences between the underlying ontological commitments of Polanyi and Meek on the one hand, and those of “mainstream” epistemologists on the other. It seems that Christian presuppositions account for the mystical or spiritual elements of Polanyi’s realism and Covenant Epistemology, but Meek often leaves theological matters in the background. Only in her conclusion does theology (i.e., Schindler and Balthasar) approach center stage. This is unfortunate, for since Weber mourned modernity’s “iron cage” social science has earnestly sought ways to “re-enchant” our scientific world. Meek’s Christian approach may be more acceptable than she might anticipate.

Clearly, if Covenant Epistemology is the best way forward, much more work is required to reconnect God with His “personal effects.” Others have begun this work, and it would be very interesting to bring Meek’s thought into dialogue with the likes of Bruno Latour and Steve Fuller. It also seems that Covenant Epistemology’s all-knowledge-is-personal paradigm could shed light on the emerging relationships between human beings and advanced artificial intelligence. Above all, as I reflect on Meek’s Contact With Reality I look forward with anticipation to its “indeterminate future manifestations.”

[1] Meek, Esther Lightcap. Loving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011.

[2] Ibid., 439.

[3] Meek, Contact With Reality, “Chapter 11: Grounding Polanyi’s Realism: Merleau-Ponty,” 205–235.

[4] Dreyfus, Hubert, and Taylor, Charles. Retrieving Realism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

[5] Meek, Contact With Reality, 259.

[6] Ibid., 270.

[7] Ibid., “Chapter 14: Recovering Realism,” 278–297.

[8] Ibid., 278.

[9] Ibid., 281.

Author Information: Stephen Kemp, University of Edinburgh, S.kemp@ed.ac.uk

Kemp, Stephen. “On Popper, Problems and Problem-Solving: A Review of Cruickshank and Sassower’s Democratic Problem-Solving.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 27-34.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3DO

Please refer to:

Image credit: Rowman & Littlefield

Democratic Problem-Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology (2017), edited by Justin Cruickshank and Raphael Sassower, offers a thought-provoking take on a range of issues of dialogue, democracy and reasoning in the social sciences and beyond. Jana Bacevic (2017) has usefully summed up the orientation of the book in her review, and raises important questions about the relationship between epistemic democracy and liberal democracy that I do not, unfortunately, have any worthwhile answers to.

This review focuses instead on issues the book very helpfully raises about the modes of reasoning in natural science, social science and in society more generally. In particular I want to focus on the core notions of ‘problem’ and ‘problem-solving’ that are discussed in this volume, and will do so from a perspective that, as with some of the contributors, is sympathetic to the approach of Popper.[1] I will be reconstructing aspects of the discussion between Cruickshank, Sassower and Isaac Ariel Reed, and then suggesting one way it could be taken forward in relation to the concept of normativity.

Setting Problems

Let me start, then, with the question of ‘problems’ in the natural sciences and beyond. My initial observation would be that in Democratic Problem-Solving there is discussion of at least three ‘settings’ within which problems could be located—one is within the natural sciences, the second is within the ‘research problems’ of the social sciences, and the third is in society more generally. The general thrust of Cruickshank’s analysis is that the idea of problems and problem solving is applicable in all of these domains. In this respect he is following, and developing, the ideas of Popper and also those of John Holmwood, who has defended the importance of the concept of problem-solving for both natural and social scientific analysis (see e.g. Holmwood, 1996).

Of course the term ‘problem’ could be taken in different ways, and it will be useful to consider how Cruickshank uses it in his fascinating chapter ‘Anti-Authority: Comparing Popper and Rorty on the Dialogic Development of Beliefs and Practices’ which sets the agenda for the book. To explore this, let us start with Cruickshank’s account of Popper’s problem-solving epistemology:

For Popper (1963, 1972, 1999), if it is accepted that knowledge is fallible, then it follows that one should always seek out better interpretations and explanations of reality. To do this, existing solutions to problems in ethics, science, politics, and so on, need to be subject to criticism, with new solutions to the problems found then being subjected to criticism and eventually replaced by new solutions, in a never-ending critical dialogue (6).

What comes through in this quote, as I interpret it, is a focus on problematizing as much as on problems. That is to say, the encouragement here is to be oriented to critique and to perpetual overturning—to making things problematic. And this is consistent with Cruickshank’s orientation throughout the book which focuses very much on questions of critique and how one can avoid wrongly foreclosing criticism.[2] It should certainly be noted that Cruickshank does refer to a more specific usage of Popper’s, referring to the latter’s concern with “practical problems in our environment” such that when we resolve problems we have adapted successfully—temporarily—to this environment (6). However, this usage is rarely discussed beyond the core opening chapter, with the general treatment of problem being a sense of ‘something that has been problematized by certain actors’ (to put it in my own words).

What about the idea of a ‘solution’, or ‘problem-solution’? In Popperian terms, a solution could be seen as a successful ‘adaptation’ but, as mentioned, this idea does not receive extensive treatment by Cruickshank (or indeed other authors) in the book. The same is true of the idea that problem-solving has a connection to the pragmatist concern with ‘usefulness’ (7). The implication of that link seems to be that we will have more useful knowledge once a problem is solved, but this is not really taken further. Rather, the idea that is probably most extensively used in the book is the notion that problem-solving has the potential for ‘alleviating harm’ (xiii).

This provides a broad orientation to the debate insofar as much of the ensuing discussion is about the harms of neo-liberalism and how they might be responded to. However, it is doubtful that this could be used to account for what problem-solving in the natural sciences is about, and should probably be seen as one particularly important kind of problem-solving. It could be said, then, that what a problem-solution involves is left fairly vague in the book. In one sense this chimes in with the orientation of the discussion towards criticism and problematizing. Given the overall focus on open-endedness the very idea of a solution could be considered to be potentially suspect. A solution might be taken to imply a resting place, a stopping place, whereas the orientation that Cruickshank is promoting is precisely the opposite, a form of permanent restlessness.

Although problems and problem-solving are treated in this fairly broad, open-ended way by Cruickshank, Reed nevertheless expresses doubts about the value of these concepts in his well-argued chapter ‘Science, Democracy and the Sociology of Power’. Reed formulates particular concerns about whether it is justified to take the idea of ‘problem solving’ from the natural sciences and apply it elsewhere. In relation to social scientific knowledge, Reed questions whether the problem-solving framework associated with Popper’s thought will be able to cope with certain features of society such as the ‘looping kinds’ discussed by Ian Hacking or the ‘concept dependence’ discussed by Roy Bhaskar.

In relation to social problems, Reed has even greater concerns. For one thing, he points out that there is a large literature on the construction of ‘social problems’ which identifies the importance of selectiveness and framing in defining what is taken to be a problem in society. For another thing, Reed points out that the sort of scientistic orientation one may associate with Popper’s problem-solving can actually contribute to normatively doubtful social outcomes. That is to say, the invocation of the scientific status of expert judgements, e.g. where a psychiatrist’s expertise is used to characterise a type of individual as problematic in legal deliberations, involves a problematic exercise of authority.

Cruickshank’s response to Reed (‘Criticism vs Dogmatism’) is based on the idea that Popper’s thought can be divided into the dogmatic and the critical. For Cruickshank, the dogmatic Popper was inclined to fetishize aspects of science as exemplifying critical rationality and was not prepared to submit these to critical appraisal themselves. By contrast, the critical Popper would allow criticism free rein, including that directed at science and its existing methods. Cruickshank argues that the critical Popper can usefully address the issues raised regarding the distinctiveness of the social world and the framing of problems. We shall now examine each of these in turn.

In relation to the distinctive features of the social world, Cruickshank contends that whereas the dogmatic Popper might insist that a scientific analysis of the social world must involve the use of hypothetico-deductive reasoning, the critical Popper would allow that methodological tools and arguments are also up for criticism and revision. This would mean that for the critical Popper it could be perfectly appropriate to question the value of hypthetico-deductive reasoning in relation to the social sciences and replace this with other alternatives as appropriate, such as a focus on the qualitative investigation of meaning.

I would like to briefly mention here an alternative response that could be made to Reed’s critique, based in the work of John Holmwood and Alexander Stewart (1991). Their Explanation and Social Theory (1991) is a rich book which discusses many facets of sociological thought, but one of the key arguments is that the idea of a fundamental difference between natural and social science is based on a problematic understanding of the role of meaning and practical activity in each activity. Once this understanding is rejected, there are much greater continuities than notions like ‘concept-dependence’ or the ‘double-hermeneutic’ might suggest. For Holmwood and Stewart, problem-solving can be undertaken perfectly consistently across the social and natural sciences. I do not have space to say more about it here, but the approach of Explanation and Social Theory is certainly worthy of attention.

Normative Framing

Let’s move on, then, to Cruickshank’s response to the issue of social problems and their framing. Cruickshank’s key move is to clarify that his approach to problem-solving is entirely consistent with the idea that problems are normatively framed. Indeed, Popper himself, in his critical mode, admitted this. Cruickshank states that:

…any proper recognition of the role of intersubjective norms entails the need to study how intersubjective norms have, and will, shape what are perceived as problems and what are perceived as solutions (86).

This emphasis on the importance of framing and normativity in relation to problems and solutions also seems to be accepted by Sassower who, in a later chapter, discusses their importance:

The reason to focus on frames of reference has already been fully articulated by sociologists, behavioural economists and psychologists: the way a problem is framed predetermines the range of possibilities for its solution (197).

Thus, Cruickshank’s response to Reed’s challenge is to readily admit that problems and solutions are normatively framed, and Sassower seems to agree with this.[3]

Cruickshank’s responses to Reed allow him to defend the idea that ‘problem-solving’ can be usefully retained across the domains of natural science, social science and wider social life, because it has shed narrowly scientistic connotations, instead being connected with permanent open-ended critique and an up-front (rather than concealed) normative orientation. I find these arguments valuable and persuasive, but it seems to me that the idea of normativity can be analysed further in a way that articulates with, and develops a little further, what a Popperian orientation to problem-solving might entail. This is the approach that I want to follow in the remainder of this review.

A typical sociological concern with normative framing involves an argument that we need to identify cases where this has been concealed and naturalized, with the intention of showing that other framings are possible. And, indeed, this kind of point is explored in Democratic Problem-Solving (e.g. 87). However, a somewhat trickier issue is to then analyse how to decide between one framing and another, once the range of possibilities is before us. One way to treat this—which could be seen as Weberian—is to see the choice of frame as a commitment in some fundamental sense.

On this approach there is no way to assess normative frames, there can be no reasoned argument for one rather than another—rather, one just has to commit to a frame and work on this basis. It’s not obvious to me that any of the participants of this volume accept this view and I would say that there are good reasons for not doing so. After all, if what a person takes to be a problem is a matter of commitment then it’s not at all obvious why anyone else should be moved by it. What is a problem in my framing can be a boon in your framing and there is nowhere further to go in the discussion. This view gets even less appealing if we take it through to the question of problem solutions.  It suggests that even if we share a view of the problem, our normative commitments may operate such that what seems a very good solution to me seems a very bad solution to you with there being no way for reasonable discussion to impact upon the disagreement.

As already mentioned, I don’t see the authors of Democratic Problem-Solving explicitly adopting the ‘commitment’ view of the normative framing of problems and solutions. But is there an alternative expressed? I think Cruickshank does put forward another way of looking at this issue. He states:

The terms used to define problems—which will always be normative with those norms always having traction—will need to be assessed through the democratic co-production of knowledge, taking time, to work with many agents to change values and reframe problems (88-89).

Although there is disagreement between Cruickshank and Sassower in the volume about whether the latter’s views have elements that stifle a democratic orientation, at least in parts of his argument Sassower also seems committed to such a view. He states the following of the Popperian approach:

Perhaps the main lessons from this way of thinking about solving problems are that we should listen as much as we talk, that we should read more than we write and that we should consider global options when choosing local policies (238).

I agree with both writers that the democratic co-production of knowledge is a laudable idea and is valuable to pursue. However, I wonder if it can be usefully supplemented by a further sense of what is involved in debating about problems and problem-solutions. One reason for doing this is to try to think about what engaging with others might involve. After all, even though democratic, open discussion is surely welcome, there is a question of how to engage in this discussion in a way that neither unreasonably imposes on others nor simply submits to their framings. The contributors to this volume clearly all have views about what is problematic and not problematic in contemporary society. Assuming that they are not all speaking for democratic co-produced collectives it could be useful to think about how they formulate what they see as problematic and how that can be related to the views of others.

In a debate with others, how can we think about engaging with different framings without either imposing a perspective or resorting back to the notion that the choice of framings is a matter of commitment? Take for example a topic which is debated in a very interesting way within the volume, neo-liberalism. How can there be a reasonable discussion between a critic of neo-liberalism who sees the problem of people in poverty as one of a failure of the state to intervene sufficiently and an enthusiast for neo-liberalism who sees the problem as the failure of the state to get out of the way and let people look after themselves?

Popperian Problems and Problem-Solving

I want to suggest that there is a broadly Popperian way to expand on the notion of problems and problem-solving which can make a useful contribution to thinking about engagement with those who have different framings to us. To begin with, as Cruickshank points out (13), for Popper and his followers contact with the world is not direct, rather we interact with it through a theory/set of understandings. ‘Framings’ will be a crucial part of these understandings. The question is, then, how to have a reasonable engagement with those who do not start from the same set of understandings/framings as we do.

This is where the concept of problem is useful, in my view. Within the work of Popper and his followers there is a strong emphasis on the way in which no attempt to understand and frame the world is able to produce a fully consistent account of all known relevant evidence. In other words, there is a strong focus on anomalies, on that which does not fit with a particular framing of the world. Although it would be questionable to argue that this is the only meaning that Popper gives to the idea of a ‘problem’, it is, in my view a core meaning, that is central to The Logic of Scientific Discovery (2005 [1934]) and is also taken up by writers like Lakatos (1970) in analysing the natural sciences and Holmwood (1996) in analysing the social sciences. Furthermore, this can also provide us with one way of thinking about what a ‘problem solution’ involves—the reconstruction of a particular framing/set of understandings of the world to remove an anomaly and produce a more coherent[4] take on the subject-matter. Of course, in keeping with Cruickshank’s remarks about continuous criticism, the removal of an anomaly is not a final resting point for the defender of a framing/set of understandings. There will always be new anomalies to reflect on and wrestle with.

In my view, these Popperian ideas of problems as anomalies and solutions as coherence-expanding reconstructions give us one helpful way of thinking about how to have a critical but non-impositional dialogue with those who frame social (and other) problems in different ways (for further discussion see Kemp, 2012). This is to engage with the framings of others and try to identify what is anomalous from within the way the other is presenting it rather than attempting to simply impose a contrary framing. Taking this further, a participant in the dialogue might also argue that the identified anomaly could be resolved if the person whose views they are critiquing reconstructed their framing in a way that was consistent with the first participant’s own views. To give an example of this kind of approach, a critic of neo-liberalism might argue that poverty cannot be avoided simply by the state getting out of the way because there are countries where the state offers very little if any support and yet there is still grinding poverty. In such an argumentative move, these examples are being presented as an anomaly to the neo-liberal viewpoint. The critic could go on to argue that there have been cases where impoverished groups were supported by the state in a way that actually provided them with the capacity to then look after themselves. This would cast doubt on the opponent’s views and suggest another way to look at the issue.

It would be foolish of me to suggest that any politically engaged actor would be quickly won over by such arguments. In that respect, I find Cruickshank’s concept of ‘critical slow dialogues’ a very persuasive one. As Cruickshank usefully observes:

People may be emotionally, ethically and politically committed to their ideas, as well as under political or institutional pressure to support certain sets of ideas (36).

As such, change may well take time. Of course, dialogues are also two way, and an interlocutor is likely to hit back that the critic’s own position contains anomalies, laying down a—reasonable—challenge that these need to be addressed. In this way, engagements of this kind are two-way and provide challenges to both parties.

Although we cannot expect speedy results, this way of thinking about problems and problem solutions may contribute to understanding how to have a critical engagement without this involving either an under-motivated choice between framings or the imposition of an alternative viewpoint. It is worth noting, I think, that in using the ideas of problem/anomaly and problem-solution in this way I am not denying the normativity of the framings of actors. What I am denying, though, is that normativity involves a commitment that is untouchable by reasoning processes. Normatively-shaped claims generate anomalies which can be critiqued.

This review has surely gone on long enough, so I will just briefly recap the main thrust of it to conclude. The animating issue of the review was how the notions of ‘problems’ and ‘problem-solving’ were addressed and debated within Democratic Problem-Solving. I was sympathetic to Cruickshank’s view that these notions can usefully be applied in the natural sciences, the social sciences and to wider social issues as long as the role of normativity is admitted. However, I argued that the idea of normativity could usefully be further explored to help think through the character of dialogue and criticism. I made some initial arguments in this direction, including the suggestion that connecting problems with the idea of anomalies provides a ground for critical appraisal of normative framings. This allows us to avoid seeing such framings as either commitments outside the realm of reason or impositions on others. I see the arguments made in this review as sketching out a further way to extend the kind of Popperian orientation that Cruickshank and Sassower defend very nicely in Democratic Problem-Solving.

References

Bacevic, Jana. “Solving the Democratic Problem.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 50-52.

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

Holmwood, John. Founding Sociology? Talcott Parsons and the Idea of General Theory, London, Longman, 1996.

Holmwood, John and Alexander Stewart. Explanation and Social Theory, London: Houndmills, 1991.

Kemp, Stephen. ‘Evaluating Interests in Social Science: Beyond Objectivist Evaluation and the Non-judgemental Stance’, Sociology, 46, no. 4 (2012): 664-679

Kemp, Stephen. ‘Transformational Fallibilism and the Development of Understanding’, Social Epistemology, 31, no. 2 (2017): 192-209.

Lakatos, Imre. ‘Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes.’, In Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, edited by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, 170-196. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Popper, Karl. The Logic of Scientific Discovery, London: Routledge, 2005 [1934].

[1]  Perhaps this sympathy arose, in part, because I grew up in New Zealand ‘of all places’ (Sassower, 28).

[2]  For Cruickshank, criticism can be foreclosed in various ways including the treatment of knowledge as ‘justified’, the invocation of ‘authority’ to support a knowledge-claim, and the presentation of solutions as ‘technocratically’ necessary.

[3]  Insisting that normative framing is made clear is also a way to stop the kind of unproblematized reliance on expertise that Reed discusses drawing on Foucault’s work.

[4] There are some important challenges in spelling out what a more coherent response involves, and I have doubts about the way that Popper and Lakatos deal with this issue. I have a go at an alternative in Kemp (2017).

Author Information: Jana Bacevic, University of Cambridge, jb906@cam.ac.uk

Bacevic, Jana. “Solving the Democratic Problem.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 50-52.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Bl

Please refer to:

Image credit: Rowman & Littlefield

It is a testament to the lasting influence of Karl Popper and Richard Rorty that their work continues to provide inspiration for debates concerning the role and purpose of knowledge, democracy, and intellectuals in society. Alternatively, it is a testament to the recurrence of the problem that continues to lurk under the glossy analytical surface or occasional normative consensus of these debates: the impossibility to reconcile the concepts of liberal and epistemic democracy. Essays collected under the title Democratic Problem-Solving (Cruickshank and Sassower 2017) offer grounds for both assumptions, so this is what my review will focus on.

Boundaries of Rational Discussion

Democratic Problem-Solving is a thorough and comprehensive (if at times seemingly meandering) meditation on the implications of Popper’s and Rorty’s ideas for the social nature of knowledge and truth in contemporary Angloamerican context. This context is characterised by combined forces of neoliberalism and populism, growing social inequalities, and what has for a while now been dubbed, perhaps euphemistically, the crisis of democracy. Cruickshank’s (in other contexts almost certainly heretical) opening that questions the tenability of distinctions between Popper and Rorty, then, serves to remind us that both were devoted to the purpose of defining the criteria for and setting the boundaries of rational discussion, seen as the road to problem-solving. Jürgen Habermas, whose name also resonates throughout this volume, elevated communicative rationality to the foundational principle of Western democracies, as the unifying/normalizing ground from which to ensure the participation of the greatest number of members in the public sphere.

Intellectuals were, in this view, positioned as guardians—epistemic police, of sorts—of this discursive space. Popper’s take on epistemic ‘policing’ (see DPS, 42) was to use the standards of scientific inquiry as exemplars for maintaining a high level, and, more importantly, neutrality of public debates. Rorty saw it as the minimal instrument that ensured civility without questioning, or at least without implicitly dismissing, others’ cultural premises, or even ontological assumptions. The assumption they and authors in this volume have in common is that rational dialogue is, indeed, both possible and necessary: possible because standards of rationality were shared across humanity, and necessary because it was the best way to ensure consensus around the basic functioning principles of democracy. This also ensured the pairing of knowledge and politics: by rendering visible the normative (or political) commitments of knowledge claims, sociology of knowledge (as Reed shows) contributed to affirming the link between the epistemic and the political. As Agassi’s syllogism succinctly demonstrates, this link quickly morphed from signifying correlation (knowledge and power are related) to causation (the more knowledge, the more power), suggesting that epistemic democracy was if not a precursor, then certainly a correlate of liberal democracy.

This is why Democratic Problem-Solving cannot avoid running up against the issue of public intellectuals (qua epistemic police), and, obviously, their relationship to ‘Other minds’ (communities being policed). In the current political context, however, to the well-exercised questions Sassower raises such as—

should public intellectuals retain their Socratic gadfly motto and remain on the sidelines, or must they become more organically engaged (Gramsci 2011) in the political affairs of their local communities? Can some academics translate their intellectual capital into a socio-political one? Must they be outrageous or only witty when they do so? Do they see themselves as leaders or rather as critics of the leaders they find around them (149)?

—we might need to add the following: “And what if none of this matters?”

After all, differences in vocabularies of debate matter only if access to it depends on their convergence to a minimal common denominator. The problem for the guardians of public sphere today is not whom to include in these debates and how, but rather what to do when those ‘others’ refuse, metaphorically speaking, to share the same table. Populist right-wing politicians have at their disposal the wealth of ‘alternative’ outlets (Breitbart, Fox News, and increasingly, it seems, even the BBC), not to mention ‘fake news’ or the ubiquitous social media. The public sphere, in this sense, resembles less a (however cacophonous) town hall meeting than a series of disparate village tribunals. Of course, as Fraser (1990) noted, fragmentation of the public sphere has been inherent since its inception within the Western bourgeois liberal order.

The problem, however, is less what happens when other modes of arguing emerge and demand to be recognized, and more what happens when they aspire for redistribution of political power that threatens to overturn the very principles that gave rise to them in the first place. We are used to these terms denoting progressive politics, but there is little that prevents them from being appropriated for more problematic ideologies: after all, a substantial portion of the current conservative critique of the ‘culture of political correctness’, especially on campuses in the US, rests on the argument that ‘alternative’ political ideologies have been ‘repressed’, sometimes justifying this through appeals to the freedom of speech.

Dialogic Knowledge

In assuming a relatively benevolent reception of scientific knowledge, then, appeals such as Chis and Cruickshank’s to engage with different publics—whether as academics, intellectuals, workers, or activists—remain faithful to Popper’s normative ideal concerning the relationship between reasoning and decision-making: ‘the people’ would see the truth, if only we were allowed to explain it a bit better. Obviously, in arguing for dialogical, co-produced modes of knowledge, we are disavowing the assumption of a privileged position from which to do so; but, all too often, we let in through the back door the implicit assumption of the normative force of our arguments. It rarely, if ever, occurs to us that those we wish to persuade may have nothing to say to us, may be immune or impervious to our logic, or, worse, that we might not want to argue with them.

For if social studies of science taught us anything, it is that scientific knowledge is, among other things, a culture. An epistemic democracy of the Rortian type would mean that it’s a culture like any other, and thus not automatically entitled to a privileged status among other epistemic cultures, particularly not if its political correlates are weakened—or missing (cf. Hart 2016). Populist politics certainly has no use for critical slow dialogue, but it is increasingly questionable whether it has use for dialogue at all (at the time of writing of this piece, in the period leading up to the 2017 UK General Election, the Prime Minister is refusing to debate the Leader of the Opposition). Sassower’s suggestion that neoliberalism exhibits a penchant for justification may hold a promise, but, as Cruickshank and Chis (among others) show on the example of UK higher education, ‘evidence’ can be adjusted to suit a number of policies, and political actors are all too happy to do that.

Does this mean that we should, as Steve Fuller suggested in another SERRC article (http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3nx) see in ‘post-truth’ the STS symmetry principle? I am skeptical. After all, judgments of validity are the privilege of those who can still exert a degree of control over access to the debate. In this context, I believe that questions of epistemic democracy, such as who has the right to make authoritative knowledge claims, in what context, and how, need to, at least temporarily, come second in relation to questions of liberal democracy. This is not to be teary-eyed about liberal democracy: if anything, my political positions lie closer to Cruickshank and Chis’ anarchism. But it is the only system that can—hopefully—be preserved without a massive cost in human lives, and perhaps repurposed so as to make them more bearable.

In this sense, I wish the essays in the volume confronted head-on questions such as whether we should defend epistemic democracy (and what versions of it) if its principles are mutually exclusive with liberal democracy, or, conversely, would we uphold liberal democracy if it threatened to suppress epistemic democracy. For the question of standards of public discourse is going to keep coming up, but it may decreasingly have the character of an academic debate, and increasingly concern the possibility to have one at all. This may turn out to be, so to speak, a problem that precedes all other problems. Essays in this volume have opened up important venues for thinking about it, and I look forward to seeing them discussed in the future.

References

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

Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” Social Text 25/26 (1990): 56-80.

Fuller, Steve. “Embrace the Inner Fox: Post-Truth as the STS Symmetry Principle Universalized.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, December 25, 2016. http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3nx

Hart, Randle J. “Is a Rortian Sociology Desirable? Will It Help Us Use Words Like ‘Cruelty’?” Humanity and Society, 40, no. 3 (2016): 229-241.

Author Information: Stephen Howard, Kingston University London

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3pi

Editor’s Note:

socrates_tenured_cover

Image credit: Rowman & Littlefield International

Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st-Century Philosophy
Robert Frodeman, Adam Briggle
Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016
182 pp.

Funding is being cut from humanities departments. Tenure-track jobs in philosophy are drying up. Governments and funding bodies are increasingly demanding that the research they fund delivers clear and measurable ‘impact’. Our globalised, technoscientific culture is throwing up a host of urgent ethical, political, even existential questions. Any answers we have come from technocrats or Silicon Valley technologists, futurists and entrepreneurs. In this context, the mainstream of philosophy is failing to address its own impending crisis or enter these major discussions. Philosophers are indulging in insular debates on narrow topics, writing only for their peers: the result of a natural-scientific academic model that encourages intense specialisation.

This, crudely put, is the bleak context that Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle present at the outset of their lively and provocative new book. In response, Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st-Century Philosophy offers an argument for a reconceived conception of philosophy for the twenty-first century. The thesis can be summarised as follows: philosophy must escape its primarily departmental setting and its primarily disciplinary nature to become ‘field philosophy’. The argument emerges through the book’s curious layered structure. The general thesis is stated upfront, with layers of support and detail added by the subsequent chapters. This structure risks being repetitive, but the quality of the writing prevents the reiteration of the core thesis from becoming tedious, and the central notion of ‘field philosophy’ shimmers into shape by the penultimate chapter of the book.

Part One diagnoses the current crisis in philosophy as double-edged. On the one hand, the discipline finds itself in an institutional setting—the neoliberal university—that is increasingly hostile to the prevailing model of philosophy. In a world of shrinking budgets and ever greater demands for return on investment and direct societal impact, professional philosophy’s self-conception as the pursuit of disinterested, pure thought for its own sake seems increasingly passé. On the other hand, the mainstream of philosophy is failing to engage with the major questions of our times. The debate over our technological modernity takes place in magazines and blogs, in what the authors call our ‘latter-day Republic of Letters’. Insofar as academics are consulted for help with answers to contemporary societal challenges, it is scientists and economists who tend to be called upon.

Part Two evaluates three attempts to remedy this predicament. These are the ‘applied philosophy’ that first appeared in the 1980s, environmental ethics and bioethics. Only the latter provides a salutary example for Frodeman and Briggle’s field philosophy, which is finally outlined in Part Three.

What, then, is field philosophy? It would see philosophers ‘escaping the department’. They would move between the university and non-academic sites: NGOs, laboratories, community groups, businesses, think tanks, policy units, and so on. Philosophers may be institutionally based in other departments: medicine, law, the sciences; or they might yo-yo between a philosophy department and wider society. This physical movement would be mirrored by an intellectual one: instead of consisting of closed debates among specialists, the content of the field philosopher’s work would to a great extent be given by the needs of the non-academic field to which they are seconded. Frodeman and Briggle envisage the field philosopher in a dialectical movement, in both mind and body: between urgent, given problems and considered, rational reflection; and between the ‘fray’ of non-academic sites and the ‘armchair’ of the university. As the title shows, this represents a return to a Socratic ideal of the philosopher, embedded in the polis and attuned to the needs of their time.

Frodeman and Briggle acknowledge that this might be seen as a capitulation to neoliberal demands for immediate economic utility. True, many of their statements about the ‘hand-waving’ response of professional philosophy to the demands for increased accountability are not as far from neoliberal critiques of the ‘useless’ humanities as they might be. There is a much-cherished idea that the very conduct of non-utilitarian, specialised humanities research itself represents a performative resistance to a neoliberal agenda. But the authors’ main point is that philosophy should be more pluralistic. Alongside ‘pure’ philosophical work – which might continue in the wealthiest universities, most independent of external pressures – Frodeman and Briggle wish to see alternative models of the figure of the philosopher, which can include the non-disciplinary field philosopher.

Yet a potentially important issue not broached by the authors is: what gives the philosopher the right to pronounce on societal, non-academic issues? Without explicit justification, philosophers appear to risk suggesting that it is simply because we think we’re smart. Admittedly, Frodeman and Briggle insist that the field philosopher’s engagement should be ‘interstitial, horizontal, and reciprocal’, and they give an example of a modest, semi-successful philosophical mediation between community groups and utility companies in a debate over an environmental energy plan.

Nevertheless, such a justification of the philosopher’s input seems to me necessary, and I have two suggestions. Firstly, we might point to the resources that philosophical history offers those who have studied it. This is not just the common, narrow defence of secondary school philosophy as providing tools for logical analysis. Rather, we might point to the synthetic approach to previous systems and ideas that characterises thinkers from Aquinas to Kant to Deleuze. A further resource is the sensitivity to rhetoric and context-sensitive argument, which we see in philosophers like Leibniz or Arendt.

Secondly, we might indicate recent examples of philosophical public intellectuals, who do indeed conceive of their work as an engagement with given societal problems. I am thinking not of purveyors of inoffensive, philosophically-tinged panaceas, such as Alain de Botton, but instead the likes of Foucault or the Frankfurt school. Both of these points serve to underline the fact that it is particularly contemporary Anglo-American analytic philosophy that is the target of Frodeman and Briggle’s critique. While the authors acknowledge that the predominant Anglo-American, disciplinary version of continental philosophy has also become inward-facing and exegetical, we might emphasise that the engaged ‘field philosopher’ is perhaps not such a new figure but was rather active in pre-war, wartime and post-war France and Germany, and has not yet died in the French-speaking world (and tiny pockets of other countries), at least.

Nonetheless, Socrates Tenured offers a bold diagnosis of philosophy’s malaise and a proposed means to escape it: whatever your view of the proposals, they are worth exploring and debating—even, perhaps, outside of the academy.

Author Information: Clarissa Ai Ling Lee, National University of Malaysia, call@ukm.edu.my

Lee, Clarissa Ai Ling. “Review of Making Medical Knowledge by Miriam Solomon.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 1 (2017): 1-8.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3oA

solomon_mmk

Image credit: Oxford University Press

Making Medical Knowledge
Miriam Solomon
Oxford University Press, 2015
224 pp.

Miriam Solomon’s Making Medical Knowledge is an important contribution to the oeuvre of philosophy of practice in medicine for interrogating medical practices while highlighting many of the ethical and scientific gray areas in the social-epistemological character of medical intervention. The findings of basic science are resituated into a messy chain of causal mechanisms represented by various phases of clinical trials. The production of evidence could be parlayed into the negotiation of guidelines for governing medical situations where consensus over intervention is lacking, and also for the development of a personalized approach in favor of the ‘cookbook’ approach in medical treatments. She highlights some contradictions and miscomprehensions regarding the interpretation of quantitative and qualitative medical evidence, while arguing for need to make a clear distinction between the practice of basic science and medicine.

“Disrespecting” Disciplinary Boundaries

Solomon keeps her philosophical intervention closely situated to the not-always-predictable and non-linear movements of medical discoveries, and their potential for heralding new treatments, as they go from the lab to clinical trials to the stage of treatment interventions; her critical descriptions continuously remind of the importance of not overemphasizing theoretical rigor at the expense of practical applications, while reminding us of the need to encourage strong science for successful interventions to happen. She refuses to play to the dichotomy of art and science in medicine, not because she rejects medicine as bearing both characteristics, but because she chooses to operate from a perspective that both are equally crucial but not the limits by which medicine operates. She also seems to subscribe to the opinion that a reduction of medical knowledge to a dualist representation is merely a submission to a traditional logical-positivist empiricist philosophy of science, and to eschew such dualism is to transcend the binary of “soft” versus “hard”, “precise” versus “mess”, and “reductionistic” versus “holistic”.

Beyond claiming that she intends to go beyond the art and science divide in her analysis of medical epistemology, which is also part of her mission to “disrespect” disciplinary boundaries, she declares in the first chapter that she will be providing a pluralistic account of methodologies that bring together the “naturalistic, normative, applied, pluralist, social epistemology” in an integrated manner, especially through a selection of case studies such as that involving cystic fibrosis, treatment of heart diseases, and use of mammography for women between ages 40 and 49 as part of early screening for breast cancer that she uses to highlight a methodologically plural approach in the penultimate (ninth) chapter of the book that considers the integration of the methodologies discussed throughout the book.  She is upfront about the STS and HPS traditions that inform her work, even though as a philosopher and lacking formal training in social scientific methods, she acknowledges where her alliance is with philosophy, and to a lesser degree, history of medicine.

That said, the methodologies discussed in the book are the consensus conferences for group deliberation among a group of experts (although non-expert stakeholders are also sometimes involved); evidence-based medicine (which some equate with “cookbook medicine” (meaning medicine that prescribes a general intervention for every patient facing the same ailment) and the problem of bias (or assumption of lack of bias) in randomized control trials, the hierarchies of evidence, scientific inadequacy, and unreliability; translational medicine that involves the translation of basic biomedical research to application to patients; and medical humanities exploration in the form of narrative medicine for exploring professional empathy and the phenomenological aspect of the relation between physicians and their patients.

On Consensus Conferences

The methodology she spends the most time exploring is that of the consensus conferences followed by that of evidence medicine, with only single chapters, each, dedicated to translational and narrative medicine. Her reason is that medical consensus conferences are under-considered. However, the details she provides are useful for presenting the mechanics underlying a movement as heavy in the politics as it is in juggling multiple epistemic commitments and priorities, and which, to my mind, contains narratives that should be of interest even to those in the medical humanities. Solomon claims that there has not been much interest by historians and sociologists of medicine to investigate this area, which is puzzling, given that the question of authority and expertise, together with the political history involved in the development of the conference consensus program globally, should be of interest to them.

Solomon limits her case studies to the development of the program and movement in the UK, North America (particularly the US), and Scandinavia Europe, although every country that practices modern medicine obviously will have their own form of consensus conferences; therefore the philosophical generalizations that are derived from the study of these cases could be apply, with some caveats and modifications, to other local settings.

The case studies that inform her story provide a case of binary tensions that she does not want embodied by her analyses of the situations, but which she acknowledges to be an unavoidable consequence of competing epistemic and social priorities involved in generating consensus, in addition to meeting the expectations of the medical community and non-medical stakeholders that include administrators, policy-makers, insurance companies (or whoever that pays the medical bills), technologists, and perhaps even some members of the public (which include patient advocates and patients). Each of these stakeholders will have their own opinion over what is considered epistemically authoritative, credible, and objective, even if the point of consensus seeking is to break away from over reliance on arbitrary designation of authority. Using the example of the US-based NIH Consensus Development Conferences, she argues that the justification for the conferences is the production of credibility in translating research findings to the general health care providers and members of the public. Solomon considers knowledge dissemination and changing how practices of the medical professionals transmit trust as much as it does results, such as trust in the researchers, the review processes, and incentives that will change practices for the better.

The rhetoric of consensus, according to Solomon, aims to dissuade other interested groups from manufacturing doubt on decisions made through the generation of authoritative sources of knowledge. However, the NIH Consensus Development Conference Program has since been retired, and evidence-based medicine apparently had taken over, although Solomon regrets that this potentially leads to the over-reliance of evidence-based medicine methods of more formalized knowledge assessment techniques rather than group knowledge assessment, which means giving evidence-based medicine a dominant position. At the same time, she acknowledges that there is a blackbox to the process of achieving consensus to hide the more ‘doubtful’ practices from public view, thereby maintaining a credible appearance. However, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) runs a modified version of the NIH program, which it claims will produce an “arguably” attainable and useful form of objectivity by not trying to eliminate intellectual bias, but rather, seeks for balance of expertise.  She also cites other US bodies, which are variations to the NIH model, such as the Medicare Coverage Advisory Committee (MedCAC) and the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). The difference with the USPSTF model is that attention is also given to interface (socio-economic level) consensus to get as many different organizations and experts as they are able, to commit.

Public Deliberation

She gives as a counter to the NIH consensus program, the ‘Danish model’ that takes on a public deliberative approach compared to the group expert judgment of the NIH model. She also looks at countries where health care is universal and centralized, such as in Canada and Europe; the differences in the system also change how the consensus conferences operate in these countries. The Canadian Task Force for Preventive Health Care has a permanent panel, rather than different panels for different topics, mainly because the evaluation is centered on primary care rather than the NIH model of evaluating specialty care.

The European consensus model focuses more on developing interface rather than technical consensus, therefore focusing more on the social, ethical, and financial consequences of reaching a medical decision, even though they also preserve certain features of the NIH model such as a neutral (rather than ‘balances of biases’) panel, half-day of expert presentation and questions, with the production of a public statement the following day. Solomon points to the difficulties of producing mutually agree-upon guidelines, since different panels could arrive upon different guidelines within the same country and with regard to the same medical technology; moreover, the expert composition of the panel (whether they be disciplinarily homogenous or interdisciplinary) skews support for forms of interventions and therefore, the guidelines for the interventions.

Solomon follows through this controversy with a more detailed philosophical discussion in chapter four, on the topic of consensus practices, including the difference between achieving consensus in science and medicine. As far as Solomon is concerned, consensus in science is merely aimed at achieving a semblance of united front on an issue that members of the scientific community agree on even if they might have different reasoning and interpretive processes for arriving at the same conclusion, such as in the case of climate change and their representation at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; consensus negotiation should not be utilized for negating controversy from developing due to conflicting views.  However, I am not persuaded by Solomon’s claim that the Strong Programme, as advanced by the Edinburgh Science Studies unit, subscribes to a simplistic acceptance of negotiation to get to truths; if one were to read chapter seven of David Bloor’s Knowledge and Social Imagery, the argument appears to be that what is being negotiated is not the syllogistic rule of formal reasoning, but rather the application of that syllogistic rule; the negotiation takes place when the informal process of reasoning is applied to problematic cases that do not fit the mold at content level, even if the logical form appears to prevail. Bloor uses examples in mathematics, particularly arithmetic, to demonstrate his arguments. Therefore, the form of scientific (or mathematical) consensus Solomon attributes to the Strong Programme is not so much a case of scientific consensus in the literal sense of attaining agreement through discussions, but rather, to find ways for explaining seemingly illogical contradictions.

Group Deliberation and Judgment

Solomon ventures into discussions concerning different philosophical views surrounding group judgment, such as the usual assumptions regarding how group deliberations could be sufficiently robust and rigorous to withstand individual bias and error while including different points of views through relevant data and considerations. Group deliberation is seen as a way for uncovering presuppositions, and transmitting further evidence from some members of the group to the rest of the group, from the perspectives of internalist and externalist views. The core belief of internalist approach is that justification of belief is internal to each individual owner and available for reflection whereas the externalist approach allows one to have knowledge without being able to explain how one is justified or in possession of that knowledge. Her core thesis in this chapter concerns the potential for group think as a fallible point during group deliberation, on the premise that cognitive and motivational bias will always be present regardless of attempts at eliminating them.

The problem of group-think persists due to factors such as the tyranny of majority (that led to the ignoring of dissenting views) and omission of relevant information.  However the manner group think operates, Solomon is right in suggesting that factors such as peer pressure, pressure from authorities, pressure to reach consensus, time pressure, and obviously, the presence of particularly domineering members of the group (who are also the more privileged members of the group) can skew how decision-making is made, given that the fallibility of the parts (individual members) that constitute the whole (group) would hold under such conditions. Moreover, the desire for standardization through consensus also brings on the problem of the loss of autonomy for individual professionals who may not even have a say in the process. Even if the consensus method is not eschewed, Solomon suggests that the process involved is still work in progress for which no final judgment could be attained.

Evidence-based medicine has much more literature that contributes to an exploration of its discourse, especially as it is a continuation of the empirical medicine discourse, such as in the context of clinical application. When different trials of the same intervention produce different results, an overall evidence assessment is made through the consensus conferences. Without rehearsing the evaluation of the practice of evidence-based medicine that Solomon provides, I venture that her most interesting contribution to the discourse is in taking out the usual assignment of mechanistic evidence (stemming from mechanistic reasoning), which she discusses in detail in chapter five, from within the evidence hierarchy because high-quality mechanistic reasoning is deemed to be logical and deductive (though she does not quite say why other than that mechanistic reasoning presupposes that one has complete knowledge for enabling that form of reasoning) rather than mechanistic reasoning. However, even if complete knowledge is available, it does not presupposes that the intervention proposed for applying knowledge of that mechanism will work; hence, mechanistic reasoning provides weak evidence while remaining useful as an instrument of discovery.

Regarding Cystic Fibrosis

Solomon uses the case of cystic fibrosis to illuminate her argument concerning application of mechanistic/causal knowledge and experimental heuristics come together. She argues that the case of treatment for cystic fibrosis is an example of evidence-base medicine through the deployment of a multidisciplinary medical team, with therapies that are discovered at distal or proximate ends of a causal chain such as in the case of the CFTR (cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator) gene; she claims that a treatment might not have been created specifically to address cystic fibrosis but rather conditions similar to the problem; nevertheless, regardless of the original intention of the treatments, they could still be put to test to see which are effective for dealing with cystic fibrosis. However, even with evidence of effectiveness (by the standards of evidence-based medicine), the question of why certain therapies work while others do not is not answered.

The trials deployed are a mix of randomized double-masked, observational, as well as other methods. In addition, even the identification of genetic mechanisms underlying cystic fibrosis are successful in the early stages of genetic testing, the improved information produces more uncertainty because more variables are now at play. Although she acknowledges a more complex consideration is needed, I would suggest that the nested problem of mechanisms could be laid out through a cybernetic systems approach, a system which has been deployed in other forms of psycho-social therapies, such as family therapy and counseling.

Chapter six sees Solomon returning to the problem of biases and of confounding factors (being factors that affect experimental and control groups in a sufficiently major way as to skew results); I agree with her argument that the hierarchy of absences of biases does not translate into a corresponding hierarchy pertaining to the reliability of evidence because any presence or potential for bias indicates a possibility for errors. Moreover, even a double-masked randomized controlled trial could fall apart when large differences are being measured, since this allow trial subjects to guess which intervention arm they have been assigned to.

Solomon argues that external validity could serve as a check to ameliorating the problem of bias and weak evidence even in double-masked randomized trials through the deployment of background knowledge and judgment based on context of those targeted for intervention and the ensuring of common traits between trial participants and the rest of the larger population. Further, there is difficulty in generalizing the findings from trials due to biological and cultural variations and complexities (which inform much of the discourse in the anthropology of medicine). In addition, the trial may be designed to demonstrate a particular effect, and therefore, is controlled to the point of excluding the possibility for illuminating another important, even if seemingly irrelevant, condition. An important point for Solomon is that evidence-based medicine does not constitute an algorithmic or infallible scientific methodology; and her recommendation for dealing with this epistemic fallibility is to apply social interventions such as the setting up of trial registries with the aim of preventing manipulation of data, publication bias, bias resulting from time to publication, and conflict of interest, among issues that could potentially arise.

Translational Medicine

Translational medicine, considered as a translation of pure science knowledge into effective healthcare application Solomon divides into T1, “applied research from bench to bedside (and back)” and T2 “moving successful new therapies from research to clinical context” (159), contains many historical cases that demonstrated the messiness, the timely arrival of a technology that could facilitated the operationalization of basic research after years of being stymied, and of course, the right team of people that all come together in the transformation from the lab bench up to the clinical stages. Due to some affinity and overlaps that one can find between evidence-based medicine and translational medicine, with evidence-based medicine requires a complementing methodology that could take on the risk, through the process of problem solving, careful observation, and tinkering needed to move the implementation of clinical intervention into the next level, even with success not assured and failure a strong possibility.

For Solomon, translation medicine is that level before evidence-based medicine as it occupies the place in the context of discovery, while the more prestigious evidence-based medicine is located within the context of justification. However, given the underdevelopment of translational medicine at this point, Solomon has not too much to suggest from a philosophical viewpoint. However, she offers possibilities for how the methodology of translational medicine could be strengthened within the causal chain of various therapies to be applied, such as in the case of the CFTR gene. Her most interesting contribution in this regard would be to show how that is put to practice in her chapter on the pluralism of methods in chapter nine.

In her appraisal of narrative medicine in chapter eight, Solomon does not offer as much philosophical insight into the contents of the narrative. Instead, she focuses her evaluation to the causality and effects of the deployment of narrative medicine, which provides a useful reflection on the intent behind the deployment of narrative medicine in the first place: forms of listening that need not be confined to the verbal, the creation of empathy at the experiential level (through an invocation of the aforementioned phenomenological method of eliciting the full spectrum of patient experiences), making the right diagnosis (through a close-reading of the narrative between the physicians and their patient), and making meaning out of the information compiled from the three aforementioned techniques. She also brings up historical precedents to narrative medicine that had other fallibilities, such as biopsychosocial model considered as lacking in intimacy, empathy, democracy, and attention to the dyadic relation between individual physicians and their patients; while deconstructing certain assumptions regarding the efficacy of narrative medicine in entering zones untouched by the biomedical-scientific method.

Obviously, the philosophical insight that comes out of this investigation could go even further when paired with the technique of narrative deconstruction found in literary and other areas of inquiry attending more to the problem of narrative contexts and non-evident subjectivities. Philosophy may identify such possibilities, but its current deployment through philosophy of science and medicine lacks the capacity for deeper penetration. Philosophically, it would appear that narrative medicine has only a limited role to play in medicine by being confined to deployment in primary care and psychiatry; but cultural angle, there is much more that could be offered even to specialized medicine.

The Importance of Dissent

What I find most compelling about the book is its advocacy of pluralism that is not merely a composition of multidisciplinary or multi-modal methodologies, but for how they could be integrated most effectively. Such pluralistic considerations have not have been given as much attention in the literature of medical humanities, or social-cultural studies of medicine. This book, perhaps, could open up more possibilities for such developments, especially for the examination of the development of medical infrastructures and practices outside of the Western world. The penultimate chapter takes a philosophical reconsideration of how certain traits deem crucial in the practice of science might work in reverse in medicine, such as that of dissent. However, I argue that the avoidance of dissent in medical practice will produce its own form of dogmatism, such as when less orthodox approaches of a yet unknown value are put forward, which happens more frequently than acknowledged. While I believe that the arguments she offers are important considerations for medical practitioners and not only to philosophers, the density of the material and the lack of clear prescription to practice would require patience from the practitioner-reader in their contemplation of how they could best profit from the discussions in the book.

References

Bloor, David. Knowledge and Social Imagery: Second. Chicago & London: Chicago University Press, 1991.

Solomon, Miriam. Making Medical Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Author Information: Adam Riggio, New Democratic Party of Canada, adamriggio@gmail.com

Riggio, Adam. “The Violence of Pure Reason: Neoreaction: A Basilisk.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 9 (2016): 34-41.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3d1

neoreaction

Image credit: https://goo.gl/531wbi

Neoreaction: A Basilisk
Philip Sandifer
Eruditorum Press, 2017

I should start this review with a few simple reasons why you should read Neoreaction: A Basilisk.

A) If you want to understand the fundamental philosophies of the destructive, racist, right-wing, Trump-loving culture that has grown from a few slimy 4chan message boards to a significant reactionary political movement.

B) If you are a professional researcher working in any study of the sociology of knowledge, the nature of knowledge, facticity, or truth. Especially if you want your research to affect wider audiences than fellow academics in your field. If you want to study and write about the nature of knowledge not only as an academic, in other words, but as a public intellectual.

C) If you simply enjoy reading complex, insightful, informative books of theory and analysis.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Mark D. West, University of North Carolina at Asheville, westinbrevard@yahoo.com

West, Mark D. “Considering Purposeful Epistemology: On Starting Over. Review of Epistemic Evaluation: Purposeful Epistemology.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 9 (2016): 19-33.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3cs

purposeful_epistemology_cover

Image credit: Oxford University Press

Epistemic Evaluation: Purposeful Epistemology
David K. Henderson and John Greco, editors
Oxford University Press, 2015
272 pp.

After the publication of Gettier’s seminal work on confounding cases in which individuals have beliefs which appear to be both true and justified, but which seem to not be knowledge, the epistemic community appears to have generally conceded that the traditional definition of knowledge as “justified true belief” can no longer be considered to hold.[1] Cohen’s presents as a Gettier case the example of the farmer and the cow, in which a farmer sees a newspaper trapped in a bush, and thus believes she sees her favorite cow in a field; the cow is in fact in that field, but hidden behind a tree.[2] Thus the farmer has justified true belief concerning the cow, since the farmer believes the cow is in the field, which is indeed the case; but has she knowledge?  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Sandra Harding, University of California Los Angeles, sharding@gseis.ucla.edu

Harding, Sandra. “An Organic Logic of Research: A Response to Posey and Navarro.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 7 (2016): 22-25.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-35V

Please refer to:

harding_objectivity_diversity

Image credit: University of Chicago Press

The review by Kamila Posey and María G. Navarro of Objectivity and Diversity: Another Logic of Scientific Research is so generous to me and to this book. They clearly grasp arguments that have simply puzzled others (at best!). It is rare to get such a fine review of a book that, as they note, is challenging mainstream ways of thinking about the production of knowledge and ways of justifying it.

My only hesitation is that Posey and Navarro are too generous. A number of the positions that they attribute to me are ones that appeared first in writings of other authors.[1] And I am not just being gracious here. Some of these authors are advocating for the knowledge production needs of social justice movements around the globe—postcolonial, indigenous, and feminist. Others are critically revisiting the role that political interests played in the history of the Vienna Circle and subsequent emergence of logical positivism (logical empiricism).  Continue Reading…