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: John Lamola, Fort Hare University, jlamola@mweb.co.za.

Lamola, John. “Africa in Van Norden’s Philosophical Manifesto and King’s Multicultural Canon.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 30-35.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-45v

Campus at University of Cape Town, overlooked by Table Mountain.
Image by Ian Barbour via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Although written from an American setting, and pointedly directed at challenging the pedagogic modalities and epistemological assumptions of the organisation of the philosophy curriculum in the United States, Bryan W. Van Norden’s Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto (2017) has an acute and timely resonance with the current fractious debate on the decolonisation of the philosophy curriculum in South Africa.

It is indeed a scandal that African philosophy, in Africa, is still what Van Norden (p.2) formulates as an LCTP (less commonly taught philosophies). Equally, as one stuck in the racialistic trenches of this debate (Lamola 2018, Benatar 2018), it was comforting to hear a non-radical voice of Jay L. Garfield assert in the book’s Foreword that ‘ignoring non-Western Philosophy in our research, curriculum, and hiring decisions is deeply racist’ (xix).

In addition, Van Norden’s critique of the Eurocentrism of the philosophy canon and syllabi not only validates a founding motif of post-colonial African philosophy; it foregrounds into the American academe a protestation, stated in Barry Hallen’s words in his A Short History of African Philosophy, against the ‘West that ethnocentrically flaunts that culture’s philosophical priorities as things that should be universal’ (Hallen 2009,50).

A Model for Philosophers’ Practice: Peter J. King

The foregoing sentiments have impelled me to endeavour a contribution to this book symposium from the vantage position of African philosophical experience. In doing so, I propose to draw attention to a project which, in our view, experimented and proved that what Van Norden is advocating can be done.

This was the publication in 2004 by Peter J. King, lecturer at Pembroke College, Oxford of One Hundred Philosophers: The Life and Work of the World’s Greatest Thinkers. In line with Van Norden’s disquisition, King (2004) creatively broke the boundaries of the traditional canonical criteria of Western Philosophy, and installed into a singular chronological compendium thinkers from Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas as philosophers whose works set the frontiers of philosophic erudition.

I published polemic essay that extolled the instructive intervention of this book, ‘Peter J. King and the Transformation of the Philosophical Canon: An Africanist Appreciation’ (Lamola 2015) in Phronimon, a journal of the South African Society for Greek Philosophy and Humanities.[1]

In the Phronimon article I argued that the conceptual framework of ‘epistemic pluriversalism’ as advanced by Argentine semiotician Walter Mignolo (2009, 1-23) is a cogent theoretical basis against which King’s work could best be appreciated. I propose, similarly, that Van Norden’s transformation program could be grounded on such a corrective paradigm against the globalistic universalism of the West. Pluriversalism, whereby all knowledge systems as emerging from diverse geo-cultural regions of the world are accorded equal recognition and respect, is a critical transformative imperative for contemporary academic philosophy.

Here, for reasons of brevity, our restricted mission is to carve a space for African philosophy in Van Norden’s regrettably excessively pro-Chinese philosophy blueprint of a transformative multicultural curriculum.

Africans in the Global Philosophy Canon

As Van Norden would, I was perturbed to find one of the editors of the Dictionary of Philosophy (1983), Antony Flew, justify his criteria for the choice of entries in the dictionary with these words,

Very little attention is given to anything that is philosophical only in the more popular interpretation. This, and not European parochialism, is why the classics of Chinese philosophy get such short shrift. The Analects of Confucius and the Book of Mencius are both splendid of their kind. But neither sage shows much sign of interest in the sort of questions thrashed out in Theaetetus. (Flew and Speakes 1983, xi)

In this justification of the preferential adoption of the epistemology of Plato’s Socrates as the criterion for the canon on epistemology, in essence, Flew claimed that the Western modus cogens is more advanced than the Chinese one and is of a superior quality in deciphering, judging, and resolving the dilemmas of human life.

It is regrettable that Flew (1923-2010) did not live long enough to see Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World: the end of the western world and the birth of a new global order (2012), and Jared Diamond’s The World until Yesterday: what can we learn from traditional societies (2012).

This ‘comparative anthropology’ that condescendingly judges the world’s cultures against the putative superiority of Anglo-European traditions is much harsher in its judgement of African systems of thought. There is no reference to African philosophy or any of its themes in the Dictionary of Philosophy. Flew, above, sounded like Immanuel Kant who wrote in Observations on the feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764) that:

If we cast a fleeting glance over the other parts of the world, we find the Arab the noblest man in the Orient . . . he is hospitable, generous and truthful . . . if the Arabs, so to speak are the Spaniards of the Orient, similarly the Persians are the French of Asia. They are good poets, courteous and of fairly fine taste . . . The Japanese could in a way be regarded as Englishmen of this part of the world, but hardly in any other quality than their resoluteness . . . The Negroes of Africa, on the other hand, have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling. (in Eze 1997, 54-55)

In succession to Kant, G.W.F. Hegel’s notorious Afrophobic history of philosophy is not even worth recounting. It is aptly contextualised in Peter K. J. Park’s Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy; racism in the formation of the philosophical canon, 1780-1830, as cited by Van Norden (19). In a recent review of an African philosophy text in SERRC, refuting this claimed absence of Africa in the history of philosophy by making reference to the monumental research of Chiekh Anta Diop ( [1954] 1974) and Martin Bernal (1987), Anke Grannes alerts that:

There is a long tradition of written philosophy on the African continent, extending from the time of the ancient Egyptians and including Ethiopian philosophy, the Arabic-Islamic philosophical tradition in Africa south of the Sahara, the Ajami tradition, and the written tradition in the Swahili culture (Grannes 2018, 45).

Choosing Ignorance of Africa

In the year 2012 two books were published in London with a proclaimed ambition at presenting definitive compendia of those identified as the thinkers who the whole of contemporary humanity must regard as the producers of the most profound ideas that continue to shape our lives and world.

The first of these canon-forming publications was Stephen Trombley’s Fifty Thinkers Who Shaped the Modern World (2012). The second was Phillip Stokes’ Philosophy: One Hundred Essential Thinkers (2012) which according to its jacket promotion, ‘introduces one hundred of the world’s greatest philosophers’.

Trombley’s fifty thinkers who shaped the modern world are led by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and have the Bulgarian-French feminist philosopher, Julia Kristeva (1941-), on the fiftieth spot. According to Trombley’s selection, not a single mind outside of Europe and the United States of America merits a place in the top fifty that has shaped the modern world. He could even blithely aver that:

The Greek philosopher was a wealthy, upper-class man whose leisure time was purchased with slave labour…We can compare the situation of philosophy in ancient Greek with our time, in which—despite the fact that more philosophers may be women or people of colour or from modest social origins—it remains a profession dominated by white men (Trombley 2012 11).

On the other hand, Stoke’s one hundred of the world’s greatest philosophers who have produced ‘the ideas that have shaped our world’, predictably, starts off with Thales of Miletus, and ends with American logician, Willard Van Orman Quine (1908-2000).

Without a declaration anywhere that the book’s proscribed scope is on the Western Philosophical tradition and academy, thus maintaining a pretence of encyclopaedic universality, in Anno Domini 2012 Stokes could not find any Chinese, Indian or African philosopher worthy of recognition for a contribution to the ideas that have shaped or are continuing to shape our world.

Even Kwame Nkrumah, a trained and published philosopher who incarnated his ideas into the Presidency of the first African nation to achieve independence from colonial rule, thus setting a trend and inspiration for the seismic independence movements that dominated the discourse of international politics for decades, is not recognised.

A year earlier, in an implicit demonstration of a growing consciousness against the interpretation of philosophy as Reason conscious of itself and evolving through European institutions, Jay L. Garfield and William Edelglass’ truly multicultural and global Oxford Handbook of World Philosophy (2011)[2] had been published. But Trombley and Stokes were to testify to the enduring force of the interpretatio hegeliana, that views Europe as the exclusive fountain and Eden of human reason to which Africa does not exist.

King’s Pluriversal Historiography

King’s multicultural rendition of the protagonists in the history of philosophy negates this Eurocentrism as an active theoretical intervention, and in our assessment precociously fulfilled and demonstrated the efficacy of Van Norden’s manifesto.

His selection of his ‘one hundred philosophers’ is presented in a sequence that is only governed by their year of birth. In this way the tradition of presenting the history of philosophy as some kind of progressively successive schools, the interpretatio hegeliana, is obviated. Simultaneously, through this structure, the particularity of cultural categorisation is trumped by the universality of time.

This birth date sequencing delivers a pantheon that starts off with Thales of Miletus, seamlessly gliding through K’Ung fu-zi (Confucius) and Lao Zi, both Chinese philosophers, before it gets to Plato. This introduction of ancient sages is rounded off with the profile of the work and life of an African woman philosopher, Hypatia of Alexandria (c.415-370 BCE). King’s compendium boasts uncharacteristic profiling of women thinkers, and draws attention to the injustice women have historically suffered and continue to endure in academic philosophy.

In selecting a constellation of noteworthy thinkers during the period 500CE-1599CE, which in Western historiography is styled the Medieval Period, King endeavours to set these thinkers against a broader appreciation of global historical developments. They are for instance set against the background of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad PUN (570CE), and the appearance of the first printed book from China in 868CE.

Ancius M.S Boethius of Rome (480-524) the martyred pioneering translator of ancient Greek philosophical works into Latin, and Adi Samkra of Kerala (781-820), the founder of the adviata school of Hindu philosophy are introduced as equal pioneering thinkers at the start of this period. In a historical rendition that attempts to present a just procession of religious thought, the narration of the philosophical heritage of the Irish Church philosopher, John Scotus Eriguena (810-977) is placed after that of the Muslim philosopher Abu-Yusuf Yaqub Ibn Ishuq of Baghdad (801-873).

Skipping to the modern period, in the interest of the demand for brevity in our demonstration of the cultural and epistemological plurality of King’s philosophical canon, we note the exceptional gesture he makes in contributing to the uncovering of Anthony William Amo (1703-1784), the Ghanaian who graduated in philosophy at the University of Wittenberg in 1734, and proceeded to earn an appointment as Philosophy professor at the University of Jena in 1740.

Amo, who advanced scholarship on Descartes, is perked between George Berkeley and Baron de Montesquieu as notable philosophers of the Early Modern Period of Western philosophy. King’s presentation, which due to its chronological approach has to list Amo before David Hume (1711-1776) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), unwittingly exposes the bigotry of the latter two celebrated luminaries of the Western philosophical canon in their assiduously recorded views that there is no empirical evidence of any genius among ‘the Negro’ (see Eze 1997, 29-30).

While the government clerk David Hume was battling with his 1739 A Treatise of Human Nature that ‘fell dead from the press’ (King 2004, 108), Professor Amo had just successfully published in 1738 Treatise on the Art of Philosophising Soberly and Accurately (King 2004, 103).

King’s treatment of twentieth century evolution of philosophy subverts traditional reading of a linkage of the philosophies of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein by inserting between them an account of the works of Servepali Radhakrishnan (1888-1975), the most celebrated exponent of Indian philosophy who was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1939, and of Sir Muhammad Iqbal Khan (1877-1938), the iconic philosopher of Islam and graduate of Russell’s alma mater, Cambridge. In a rare irony, the ‘heterodoxical’ Khan was knighted by King George V in 1922, whilst Russell was persecuted and ostracised in England for his ‘unorthodox’ beliefs.

King (2004) interrupts his presentation of the twentieth century notable philosophical minds with an editorial chapter titled, ‘Overview: African philosophy’. This is one of ten such topical editorial insertions interspersed between his encyclopaedic profiling of his selected philosophers. This overview lays the ground for his recognition of Kwasi Wiredu (1931- ) as one of the world’s one hundred greatest thinkers.

Notwithstanding this recognition of only Wiredu and the introduction of Amo, he accords African philosophy a rare appearance on the stage of global intellectual traditions. It is significant that this ‘Overview: African philosophy’ (King 2004, 172) is simply a neat summation of Henry Odera Oruka’s famous 1981 paper ‘Four Trends in Current African Philosophy’ (in Coetzee & Roux 2002, 120-136). King, in line with Van Norden’s broader and more contemporaneous pleadings, seems to have taken seriously Oruka’s contention that:

Philosophy as a discipline that employs analytical, reflective, and rationative methodology is therefore not seen as a monopoly of Europe or any one race but as an activity for which every race or people has a potentiality (in Coetzee & Roux 2002, 120).

Contact details: jlamola@mweb.co.za

References 

Benatar, David. ‘Obscurity, falsehood, and innuendo: A response to M. John Lamola,’ South African Journal of Philosophy, 37, no.1 (2018): 66-68.

Bernal, Martin. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985, Volume 1. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Diamond, Jared.  The World Until Yesterday: What Can we Learn From Traditional Societies. London: Penguin Books, 2012.

Diop, Cheikh. A.  The African Origin of Civilisation: Myth or Reality,  trans. Mercer Cook. New York: Lawrence Hill &Co, 1974.

Eze, Emmanuel, C. (ed.). Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1997.

Flew, Antony, Jeremy Speake (eds). A Dictionary of Philosophy. Second edition. London: Macmillan Press, 1983

Garfield, Jay L, William Edelglass. Oxford Handbook of World Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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

Hallen, Barry. A Short History of African Philosophy , Second edition. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2009.

King, Peter J. One Hundred Philosophers: The Life and Work of the World’s Greatest Thinkers. London: Quarto Publishing, 2004.

Lamola, M. John. ‘Peter J. King and the transformation of the Philosophical canon: an Africanist appreciation’.  Phronimon, 16, no.1 (2015): 63-77.

Lamola, M. John.  ‘On a Contextual South African Philosophy Curriculum: Towards an option for the excluded’. In: Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Decolonisation, Africanisation and the Philosophy Curriculum. London: Routledge 2018, pp.183-189.

Mignolo, Walter. ‘Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and Decolonial Freedom.’ Theory, Culture and Society, 26, no.7 (2009): 1-23.

Stokes, Phillip. Philosophy: One Hundred Essential Thinkers. London: Arcturus Publishing. 2012.

Trombley, Stephen. Fifty Thinkers who shaped the Modern World. London: Atlantis Books, 2012.

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

[1] Parts of this submission are revised paragraphs from this Phronimon article.

[2] See Garfield and Edelglass 2011,461-533 ‘Philosophy in Africa and the Diaspora edited by Albert Mosley and Stephen C. Fergusson II.’

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, rsassowe@uccs.edu.

Sassower, Raphael. “On Political Culpability: The Unconscious?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 26-29.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-45p

Image by Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper, U.S. Army via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In the post-truth age where Trump’s presidency looms large because of its irresponsible conduct, domestically and abroad, it’s refreshing to have another helping in the epistemic buffet of well-meaning philosophical texts. What can academics do? How can they help, if at all?

Anna Elisabetta Galeotti, in her Political Self-Deception (2018), is convinced that her (analytic) philosophical approach to political self-deception (SD) is crucial for three reasons. First, because of the importance of conceptual clarity about the topic, second, because of how one can attribute responsibility to those engaged in SD, and third, in order to identify circumstances that are conducive to SD. (6-7)

For her, “SD is the distortion of reality against the available evidence and according to one’s wishes.” (1) The distortion, according to Galeotti, is motivated by wishful thinking, the kind that licenses someone to ignore facts or distort them in a fashion suitable to one’s (political) needs and interests. The question of “one’s wishes,” may they be conscious or not, remains open.

What Is Deception?

Galeotti surveys the different views of deception that “range from the realist position, holding that deception, secrecy, and manipulation are intrinsic to politics, to the ‘dirty hands’ position, justifying certain political lies under well-defined circumstances, to the deontological stance denouncing political deception as a serious pathology of democratic systems.” (2)

But she follows none of these views; instead, her contribution to the philosophical and psychological debates over deception, lies, self-deception, and mistakes is to argue that “political deception might partly be induced unintentionally by SD” and that it is also sometimes “the by-product of government officials’ (honest) mistakes.” (2) The consequences, though, of SD can be monumental since “the deception of the public goes hand in hand with faulty decision,” (3) and those eventually affect the country.

Her three examples are President Kennedy and Cuba (Ch. 4), President Johnson and Vietnam (Ch. 5), and President Bush and Iraq (Ch. 6). In all cases, the devastating consequences of “political deception” (and for Galeotti it is based on SD) were obviously due to “faulty” decision making processes. Why else would presidents end up in untenable political binds? Who would deliberately make mistakes whose political and human price is high?

Why Self-Deception?

So, why SD? What is it about self-deception, especially the unintended kind presented here, that differentiates it from garden variety deceptions and mistakes? Galeotti’s  preference for SD is explained in this way: SD “enables the analyst to account for (a) why the decision was bad, given that is was grounded on self-deceptive, hence false beliefs; (b) why the beliefs were not just false but self-serving, as in the result of the motivated processing of data; and (c) why the people were deceived, as the by-product of the leaders’ SD.” (4)

But how would one know that a “bad” decision is “grounded on self-decepti[on] rather than on false information given by intelligence agents, for example, who were misled by local informants who in turn were misinformed by others, deliberately or innocently? With this question in mind, “false belief” can be based on false information, false interpretation of true information, wishful thinking, unconscious self-destructive streak, or SD.

In short, one’s SD can be either externally or internally induced, and in each case, there are multiple explanations that could be deployed. Why stick with SD? What is the attraction it holds for analytical purposes?

Different answers are given to these questions at different times. In one case, Galeotti suggests the following:

“Only self-deceptive beliefs are, however, false by definition, being counterevidential [sic], prompted by an emotional reaction to data that contradicts one’s desires. If this is the specific nature of SD . . . then self-deceptive beliefs are distinctly dangerous, for no false belief can ground a wise decision.” (5)

In this answer, Galeotti claims that an “emotional reaction” to “one’s desires” is what characterizes SD and makes it “dangerous.” It is unclear why this is more dangerous a ground for false beliefs than a deliberate deceptive scheme that is self-serving; likewise, how does one truly know one’s true desires? Perhaps the logician is at a loss to counter emotive reaction with cold deduction, or perhaps there is a presumption here that logical and empirical arguments are by definition open to critiques but emotions are immune to such strategies, and therefore analytic philosophy is superior to other methods of analysis.

Defending Your Own Beliefs

If the first argument for seeing SD as an emotional “reaction” that conflicts with “one’s desires” is a form of self-defense, the second argument is more focused on the threat of the evidence one wishes to ignore or subvert. In Galeotti’s words: SD is:

“the unintended outcome of intentional steps of the agent. . . according to my invisible hand model, SD is the emotionally loaded response of a subject confronting threatening evidence relative to some crucial wish that P. . . Unable to counteract the threat, the subject . . . become prey to cognitive biases. . . unintentionally com[ing] to believe that P which is false.” (79; 234ff)

To be clear, the “invisible hand” model invoked here is related to the infamous one associated with Adam Smith and his unregulated markets where order is maintained, fairness upheld, and freedom of choice guaranteed. Just like Smith, Galeotti appeals to individual agents, in her case the political leaders, as if SD happens to them, as if their conduct leads to “unintended outcome.”

But the whole point of SD is to ward off the threat of unwelcomed evidence so that some intention is always afoot. Since agents undertake “intentional steps,” is it unreasonable for them to anticipate the consequences of their conduct? Are they still unconscious of their “cognitive biases” and their management of their reactions?

Galeotti confronts this question head on when she says: “This work is confined to analyzing the working of SD in crucial instances of governmental decision making and to drawing the normative implications related both to responsibility ascription and to devising prophylactic measures.” (14) So, the moral dimension, the question of responsibility does come into play here, unlike the neoliberal argument that pretends to follow Smith’s model of invisible hand but ends with no one being responsible for any exogenous liabilities to the environment, for example.

Moreover, Galeotti’s most intriguing claim is that her approach is intertwined with a strategic hope for “prophylactic measures” to ensure dangerous consequences are not repeated. She believes this could be achieved by paying close attention to “(a) the typical circumstances in which SD may take place; (b) the ability of external observers to identify other people’s SD, a strategy of precommitment [sic] can be devised. Precommitment is a precautionary strategy, aimed at creating constraints to prevent people from falling prey to SD.” (5)

But this strategy, as promising as it sounds, has a weakness: if people could be prevented from “falling prey to SD,” then SD is preventable or at least it seems to be less of an emotional threat than earlier suggested. In other words, either humans cannot help themselves from falling prey to SD or they can; if they cannot, then highlighting SD’s danger is important; if they can, then the ubiquity of SD is no threat at all as simply pointing out their SD would make them realize how to overcome it.

A Limited Hypothesis

Perhaps one clue to Galeotti’s own self-doubt (or perhaps it is a form of self-deception as well) is in the following statement: “my interpretation is a purely speculative hypothesis, as I will never be in the position to prove that SD was the case.” (82) If this is the case, why bother with SD at all? For Galeotti, the advantage of using SD as the “analytic tool” with which to view political conduct and policy decisions is twofold: allowing “proper attribution of responsibility to self-deceivers” and “the possibility of preventive measures against SD” (234)

In her concluding chapter, she offers a caveat, even a self-critique that undermines the very use of SD as an analytic tool (no self-doubt or self-deception here, after all): “Usually, the circumstances of political decision making, when momentous foreign policy choices are at issue, are blurred and confused both epistemically and motivationally.

Sorting out simple miscalculations from genuine uncertainty, and dishonesty and duplicity from SD is often a difficult task, for, as I have shown when analyzing the cases, all these elements are present and entangled.” (240) So, SD is one of many relevant variables, but being both emotional and in one’s subconscious, it remains opaque at best, and unidentifiable at worst.

In case you are confused about SD and one’s ability to isolate it as an explanatory model with which to approach post-hoc bad political choices with grave consequences, this statement might help clarify the usefulness of SD: “if SD is to play its role as a fundamental explanation, as I contend, it cannot be conceived of as deceiving oneself, but it must be understood as an unintended outcome of mental steps elsewhere directed.” (240)

So, logically speaking, SD (self-deception) is not “deceiving oneself.” So, what is it? What are “mental steps elsewhere directed”? Of course, it is quite true, as Galeotti says that “if lessons are to be learned from past failures, the question of SD must in any case be raised. . . Political SD is a collective product” which is even more difficult to analyze (given its “opacity”) and so how would responsibility be attributed? (244-5)

Perhaps what is missing from this careful analysis is a cold calculation of who is responsible for what and under what circumstances, regardless of SD or any other kind of subconscious desires. Would a psychoanalyst help usher such an analysis?

Contact details: rsassowe@uccs.edu

References

Galeotti, Anna Elisabetta. Political Self-Deception. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Author Information: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College, serrc.digital@gmail.com.

Riggio, Adam. “Immovable Presumptions as Philosophical Limit.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 19-25.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-45d

Image by Russell Davies via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

The essay collection Relations: Ontology and the Philosophy of Religion is fascinating and curious. As a contribution to ongoing issues in contemporary ontology, philosophy of religion, and the history of philosophy. There are many things to praise about its different essays and all of the authors. All of them are valuable additions to their discourses.

However, I’m reviewing the book from a peculiar position. My own philosophical work includes a great deal of thinking on the ontology of relations, so I began the book thinking that I’d have much in common with the authors. Yet I found myself at times alienated from the discussion.

Sometimes, it will be an issue of method. For example, some essays discussed the ontology of relations in linguistic terms. A central example here would be something like ‘John is far away from Justin,’ analyzed as if there were some simple property or object in common between John and Justin called ‘far away.’

I know this approach because it’s the same as that of the linguistic turn in analytic philosophy’s first generation. But my tradition of ontology focuses on material assemblages of forces and substances. Simple descriptions of relations like ‘far away’ or ‘larger than’ do not stand for actually simple relations, but complicated physical assemblages.

I experienced similar moments throughout the book, where contributors and I would seem to share a common subject, but without much common ground. It’s difficult to know whether the different discourse communities of our academic sub-disciplines are so separate because of institutional pressures, or because we all discuss truly different concerns. So the following reflections will engage with the book meta-philosophically, to discover ways that essays in one fairly restricted subject matter can produce insights and questions that matter to us all.

On What Ground Should We Trust Our Presumptions?

I may not be a specialist in the precise areas of all the experts that the book’s editors, Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini, assembled to contribute to this volume. But I am still a philosopher, and so can identify mistakes, errors, or other problems someone makes in their inferences. Specifically for the following case, I can identify, among many of the essays collected in a volume, any common presumptions, and examine whether we should take for granted what a particular writer does.

The best example of this in the Relations volume is Mario Micheletti’s “Radical Alterity and the God-World Relationship.” One of the major points of his argument is to lay out what limits are present among different explanations for the existence of the universe. He argues that an atheist’s range of such explanations is more limited than those that a believer in God can hold. This is because an atheist cannot accept the contingency of the universe, since its contingency would make its nature depend on an external clause. Micheletti writes:

“The atheist can  . . . claim that while the universe has an explanation of its existence, the explanation lies not in an external ground, but in the necessity of its own nature. This is however, an extremely bold suggestion which, Craig notes, atheists have not been eager to embrace. For we have a strong intuition of the universe’s contingency, and we generally trust our modal intuitions.”

Yet there is no reason why we should trust our modal intuitions, our at-first-glance presumptions about the contingency and necessity of existence as a whole, as well as particular events and states of affairs. Micheletti presumes that the universe, without the external contingency of God’s will, would unfold with an immanent total necessity. But there is no reason why the immanent nature of the universe need be necessary; the only necessity immanent to the universe may be its own radical contingency.

After all, what makes sense to Micheletti to presume about the nature of the universe does not make sense to me. Since these are intuitions, there is no ground to establish whether he or I are correct. As intuitions, they provide the starting points for our arguments, but are rarely themselves interrogated. When they are interrogated, as in the philosophical surveys and focus groups of experimentalists like Jonathan Weinberg, intuitions are revealed as variable, ungrounded, unprovable, contingent.

So there is no genuine ground for us to trust our modal intuitions, our intuitions about what is contingent and necessary, or what the source of contingency and necessity would be. Yes, we may “generally trust our modal intuitions,” but there is no guarantee that they will turn out to be just as reliable as our intuition in everyday perception that the sun spins around Earth.

From this line of criticism, take the following question. Why do you believe in the truth of your intuitions, when an intuition is merely a presumption you have never thought to question?

Paths Divided Laid Down in the Travelling

Vera Tripodi’s “Beyond the Transcendence: The Feminist Critique of the Concept of God” is admirable in its ambition. She aims, ultimately, to synthesize a feminist conception of God from sources that would seem, at least to me, utterly ill-suited to the demands of our time.

She writes that her project draws upon “the classic ontology of being – that is, the tradition that conventionally begins with Thomas Aquinas – and the ontology of becoming that finds in Alfred North Whitehead its essential reference point.”

Blending the ontologies of Aquinas and Whitehead together is an admirable project of synthesis. Yet Tripodi writes as if Whitehead’s is the only ontology of becoming available to us in any great detail. Whitehead’s work on the ontology of becoming is historically remarkable. He used his background in mathematics and logic to develop a concept of process, central to any ontology of becoming.

He developed a detailed, technically sophisticated system for this process ontology that ultimately understood the development of organic powers of perception, human powers of knowledge, foundational principles of morality, and even the nature of God. Impressive, and an excellent reason for Tripodi’s choice of Whitehead’s work to blend with that of Aquinas for her creative synthesis.

What irks me as a reader is that Tripodi doesn’t treat Whitehead as the best possible choice because she gives a reasonable set of justifications; instead, she treats Whitehead as the best possible choice because he is the only possible choice. That is simply not true.

Henri Bergson had developed an ontology of becoming while Whitehead was still working on Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell, which had become far more popular among academics and the general public during his own lifetime. This achievement of fame for his work is far from anything Whitehead could have claimed.

A two-headed conflict with Albert Einstein over the interpretation of relativity theory and over the management of French-German reconciliation through League of Nations organizations did serious harm to Bergson’s reputation by the 1930s. But in the same period, Bertrand Russell’s confused rejection of Process and Reality did similar harm to the reputation of his former teacher Whitehead.

So while I am proud to count Tripodi among those bringing Whitehead’s ideas to the mainstream. Yet to treat him as the only source of approaches to ontologies of process or becoming ignores an equally fruitful revival of Bergson-inspired ideas. The work of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and others who followed their influence such as Luce Irigaray and Antonio Negri has built a vibrant new tradition of ontological and political philosophy in France and Italy.

The ontology of becoming – whether influenced primarily by Whitehead or Bergson – is a bold and creative direction to move in philosophy. Yet I am left wondering why the Bergson-influenced tradition of ontology of becoming is absent from Tripodi’s essay and the entire Relations collection. It appears simply to be a matter of her not having seen any of it. How deeply does what we take for granted affect the ideas and traditions we expose ourselves to? Or question?

The Most Bizarre Ontology to Make Perfect Sense

Speaking of how presumptions guide our place in traditions, “Russell and the Question of Relations” by Federico Perelda looks explicitly at an ontology utterly counter-intuitive to my own presumptions about the nature of reality. So much was this the case, that as a student I took several courses on the subject matter and only realized its central presumption on the eve of graduating with my doctorate.

I’m talking about Bertrand Russell’s propositional realism: the ontology that logical and linguistic propositions and terms are the primary constituents of the world; facts of existence therefore only exist insofar as they instantiate those propositions and terms. My own presumption or obvious (to me) starting place for ontology is that the world is primarily the material arrangements and processes of actual bodies, forces, and fields, all interacting through contingent causality. Logic, mathematics, and language are the tools of thinking and communication that we use to build frameworks of thought to understand all this stuff.

Perelda frames his essay as bolstering Russell’s argument against Ludwig Wittgenstein’s foundational axiom, “The world is everything that is the case.” Russell and Perelda both stand firmly for an ontology of propositional realism, whereas I am just as adamant a fellow-traveller of Wittgenstein on this point.

Nonetheless, Perelda was brilliant, insightful, and informative about the sources of Russell’s ontological foundation of propositional realism: it was the one inheritance from his scorned professor Francis Herbert Bradley. Perelda traces Russell’s intellectual evolution as an acolyte of Bradley, who rejected his professor’s metaphysics of absolute idealism. Orthodox accounts of this split, which are typically taught in North American university courses on early analytic philosophy, take the split to have been over idealist ontology itself.

Perelda’s insightful historical and philosophical analysis argues that the real reason for Russell’s split from Bradley was over the ontology of relation, a much more complex and subtle question than the brute simplicity of the choice over idealism and materialism.

Bradley considered all relations internal, and so illusions of our limited perceptual powers. Russell considered relations as fundamentally external, and so real. But Bradley held that, because relations are fundamentally internal, considering them to be real is a terrible mistake, trusting your senses where they are unreliable. The split that created analytic philosophy was not metaphysical or ontological, but epistemic: whether we should trust our senses to reveal the true nature of relations as they exist in the world and in logic.

Russell never disagreed with Bradley over propositional idealism, and in fact always shared that ontological principle. Throughout his life, Russell was a propositional idealist who believed that material reality was ontologically anterior to logic, simply the medium through which propositions instantiated themselves. The order of logical propositions is, for Russell and for Perelda himself, the fundamental constituent of existence because it is necessary.

Remaining unspoken is any argument for why a necessary structure, like that of the propositions and terms of mathematical logic, must be the fundamental ordering principle of the universe. Causality’s contingent character need not disqualify it from a foundational role in an ontological system, unless you explicitly argue for why contingency is necessarily a dealbreaker. That is how philosophical system building works.

So we are left in an impasse of uncertain direction for philosophical work. How does it become so difficult to think of the world as contingent?

Does Existence Need Limits?

Relations is also a contribution to philosophy of religion, its focus being the ontology of the divine, or the nature of God’s existence. Jaco Gericke’s essay probes this question directly, its aim being to identify and begin developing a more precise metaphysical conception of God. Coming from a Western tradition of religious metaphysical thinking, Gericke follows the language of the Old Testament.

His goal is to understand the meaning of God as a term of the Old Testament’s language, knowing the complete set of propositions that describe God.[1] However, there is a problem with Gericke’s philosophical method: it is equally theological as it is metaphysical and ontological, because it restricts its logical analysis to the Christian tradition. Such a conception of God, logically rigorous though it may be, remains limited, a hypocritical universal.

First, I should explain the nature of this hypocrisy. Gericke hopes to develop a concept of God that grounds the universality we presume of God in the universal scope of logic. But that logical interpretation rests on the analysis of the Old Testament, a single (if massive and hugely influential) text. It is a Christian text, and therefore partisan. But it is the Christian uptake of what was originally a Jewish text, the Torah. So it also overwrites the tradition, including the theology and philosophy, that produced it.

The Old Testament is the uptake of Torah into the Christian tradition, Torah interpreted always and inevitably in relation to the Gospel. It erases the Jewish theological ontology of divinity, overwriting the Christian. There are profound differences between these two theologies, which complicate terribly any straightforward application of logical and linguistic analysis to the words themselves of any holy book.[2]

One important ontological critique of Gericke’s method comes from the Jewish tradition that is obscured by the presumption that Torah is the Old Testament. Gericke seeks to understand the extension of the term God, but the conception of Torah’s text according to Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig makes such a general extension disappear.

In Buber and Rosenzweig’s approach to Torah, there is no single logical term instantiated in each mention of God. Each mention of God is itself a unique, context-appropriate logical term, incommensurable with every other such mention. Each manifestation of God is a unique divinity, and that from which it emanates has no nature adequate to logic.

Torah understands God as a divinity understandable only as a concretely situated manifestation. The Old Testament understands God in the context of the Incarnation, where God demonstrated oneness with humanity by becoming Jesus and the Christ. Christianity therefore rests on a metaphysics of thorough ontological monism, in which God is a thing just as a mountain, person, fungus, river, star, boat, or blade of grass is. Since God is a thing, it is the extension of a term, and this term is no different than any other term.

The work of Duns Scotus best explores this ontological monism that is a fundamental metaphysical presumption of theologians and philosophers in Christian traditions who explore the nature of God. But the project of exploring the nature of God seems terribly limited when constrained by the presumptions of a single tradition. Why do such presumptions become unquestionable?

When the Refusal to Choose Is Itself a Dogma

Jeffrey Long brings a possible antidote to this prison of presumptions. His essay is “Anekantevada: The Jain Ontology of Complexity and Relationality, and Its Implications for the Philosophy of Religions.” He analyzes an approach to the metaphysics and ontology of divinity in the Jain religion that promises to avoid problems of absolutism like those I discussed above.

Jainism, in short, holds that the divine is essentially multifaceted. Its pluralism could likely be a partial reflection of Jainism’s place as a minority religion throughout its existence; at no point in the history of Jainism has it ever been the dominant religion in a territory. Conveniently, its ontology of divinity depicts all religions as valid accounts of divinity.

Jain thinking is a perspectivism about the nature of divinity. Hindu and Buddhist communities, taking relevant examples for Jainism’s historical place in India, each have their own perspectives on the overall nature of the divine. So the concept of God in each religion (or in each concept of God within many theological traditions) understands a few aspects of the divine.

The parable about the blind men and the elephant might be useful here. That parable also shows the theological hypocrisy Long identifies in Jain ontology. From the Jain perspective, theirs is the only religious tradition that accurately and completely understands God, because other religions mistake their perspectival limitations for absolute truths. Jainism itself thereby becomes an absolutism, the unquestionable presumption that its pluralism is the only true conception of divinity because it includes all the variety that God can be.

Even this attempt to find an escape from absolutism closes itself off, because the temptation to consider your own perspective to be the most correct, or the only fully correct, never disappears. All our judgments would seem to rest on presumptions which are simultaneously unassailable and fragile.

Fragile because they are unassailable. Every argument and conceptual exploration must rest on presumptions that are themselves taken for granted. But to question those presumptions exposes their inevitable limitations. Knowledge requires firm foundations, but examining those foundations exposes that they need foundations of their own.

Knowledge therefore rests on dogma inevitably, a refusal to question. For any system of thinking to stand, questioning must cease somewhere, but the decision to cease is never a conclusion, always a decision. Do our unquestioned and unquestionable presumptions leave us no antidote for absolutism, and its inevitable dangers of dogmatism and fanaticism?

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

Gericke, Jaco. “The Folk-Metaphysics of Relations in Old Testament Extensions of Generic Divinity.” In Relations: Ontology and Philosophy of Religion. Pp. 267-282. Edited by Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini. Verona: Mimesis International, 2018.

Long, Jeffrey. “Anekantavada: The Jain Ontology of Complexity and Relationality and Its Implications for the Philosophy of Religions.” In Relations: Ontology and Philosophy of Religion. Pp. 235-50. Edited by Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini. Verona: Mimesis International, 2018.

Micheletti, Mario. “Radical Divine Alterity and the God-World Relationship.” In Relations: Ontology and Philosophy of Religion. Pp. 157-170. Edited by Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini. Verona: Mimesis International, 2018.

Perelda, Federico. “Russell and the Question of Relations.” In Relations: Ontology and Philosophy of Religion. Pp. 41-58. Edited by Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini. Verona: Mimesis International, 2018.

Riggio, Adam. “Lessons for the Relationship of Philosophy and Science from the Legacy of Henri Bergson.” Social Epistemology (2015): 1-14. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2014.971916.

Rosenzweig, Franz. The Star of Redemption. Translated by William W. Hallo. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985.

Tripodi, Vera. “Beyond the Transcendence: The Feminist Critique of the Concept of God.” In Relations: Ontology and Philosophy of Religion. Pp. 171-180. Edited by Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini. Verona: Mimesis International, 2018.

[1] Using logic to know the names of God? – Editor’s Note

[2] Leave aside as well the problems of the plurality of holy books themselves, many of which overlap with ritual (as in the Nishnaabeg moral theology of their oral and practical tradition), or materialist ontology (as in the ontological arguments of the Daoist tradition). How to reconcile in a single concept of divinity those of Rome, Chi’Nbiish (Lake Ontario), and Beijing through logical analysis of text alone? – Writer’s Note

Author Information: Eric Kerr, National University of Singapore, erictkerr@gmail.com.

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

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-45j

Image by Joel Gallagher via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

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

The Place of Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frank warns at the end of his article:

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

A Social Epistemological Interpretation of the Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18 Months, more or less

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contact details: erictkerr@gmail.com

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Information: Jeff Kochan, University of Konstanz, jwkochan@gmail.com.

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

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-44M

Image by tackyshack via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

Why Bother Being Epochal?

I coulda been a contender!

I coulda been somebody…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Who Will Bother to Read Science as Social Existence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why All this Bother about Disciplinarity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, Bother! – The Conceptual System Returns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Regrettable Absence and Two Allegedly Missed Alternatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postcolonial STS: A Path Forward or a Dead End?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contact details: jwkochan@gmail.com

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kochan, Jeff (2018a). ‘On the Sociology of Subjectivity: A Reply to Raphael Sassower.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(5): 39-41. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Xm

Kochan, Jeff (2018b). ‘Supressed Subjectivity and Truncated Tradition: A Reply to Pablo Schyfter.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(12): 15-21. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-44s

Kochan, Jeff (2018c). ‘Decolonising Science in Canada: A Work in Progress.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(11): 42-47. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-43i

Kochan, Jeff (2017). Science as Social Existence: Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (Cambridge UK: Open Book Publishers). http://dx.doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0129

Kochan, Jeff (2015a). ‘Putting a Spin on Circulating Reference, or How to Rediscover the Scientific Subject.’ Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 49: 103-107. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsa.2014.10.004

Kochan, Jeff (2015b). ‘Objective Styles in Northern Field Science.’ Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 52: 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsa.2015.04.001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Author Information: Frank Scalambrino, Duquesne University, franklscalambrino@gmail.com.

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

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-44B

Image by Jinx! via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

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

1) His characterization of “nihilism.”

a) This is specifically about Nietzsche.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Gertz’s Characterization of “Nihilism”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What About the Meaning of Nihilism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technology’s Disconnect From Nietzsche Himself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) His “human-nihilism relations”

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

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

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

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

Contact details: franklscalambrino@gmail.com

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Information: Jeff Kochan, University of Konstanz, jwkochan@gmail.com.

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

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-44s

Image by Brandon Warren via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

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

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

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

Suppressing the Subject

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

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

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

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

Different Kinds of Realism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Failed Diversionary Tactics

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

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

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

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

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

Existential Grounds for Scientific Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giving Heidegger Empirical Feet

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

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

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

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

Saving an Edinburgh School Method

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘Tradition’ of SSK – Open or Closed?

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgement

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

Contact details: jwkochan@gmail.com

References

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

Kochan, Jeff (2018). ‘On the Sociology of Subjectivity: A Reply to Raphael Sassower.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(5): 39-41. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Xm

Kochan, Jeff (2017). Science as Social Existence: Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers). http://dx.doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0129

Kochan, Jeff (2015). ‘Putting a Spin on Circulating Reference, or How to Rediscover the Scientific Subject.’ Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 49:103-107. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsa.2014.10.004

Kochan, Jeff (2010). ‘Contrastive Explanation and the “Strong Programme” in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge.’ Social Studies of Science 40(1): 127-44. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306312709104780

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

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

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

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

Author Information: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College, serrc.digital@gmail.com.

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

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-446

Image by Grant Tarrant via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Jeff Kochan’s book on what the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) can learn from Heideggerian existential philosophy is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure, and for the same reason. My own review consists of two parts. First, I will describe the fascinating frustration of Kochan’s project, then explore some of the limitations that a straightforward adaptation of Heidegger’s ideas to the conceptual plane of SSK encounters.

Kochan’s work fascinates because he puts two complex sub-disciplines of the humanities – Heidegger studies and SSK – in a constructive dialogue. Kochan isolates seemingly intractable conceptual problems at the heart of SSK’s foundational texts, then carefully analyzes concepts and epistemic frameworks from the writings of Martin Heidegger to find solutions to those problems. This open-minded approach to problem solving remains sadly rare in academic culture. Whether or not you think Kochan’s analyses and solutions are accurate or best, I think we can all agree that such a trans-disciplinary philosophical project is worthwhile and valuable.

Yet Kochan’s work also frustrates because of how vulnerable this makes him to academic attacks. This is ultimately a problem of style on Kochan’s part. He is explicit in making the ideas of Martin Heidegger himself central to his critical analysis of SSK; this leaves him vulnerable to criticisms like those of my colleague Raphael Sassower earlier in SERRC’s symposium. Essentially, the criticism amounted to “Why bother?”.

Presuming the Boundarylessness of Disciplines

Any attempt to apply the concepts and discoveries of one tradition to the problems of another faces a problem that is difficult for any writer to overcome. What one tradition takes to be a reasonable assumption, another tradition may take to be a foundational matter of inquiry.

In Kochan’s case, he takes the founders of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge to have saddled their tradition with a dangerous omission. They take for granted that the material world of everyday life does exist as we experience it, and that therefore the relationship of the subject to the world need not be a matter of inquiry.

Yet the foundational thinkers of SSK, David Bloor and Harry Collins, did not consider such an ontological inquiry worth pursuing. It would have kept them from exploring the questions, subject matters, and concepts that were their priorities.

Kochan’s book is written under the premise that SSK’s indifference to seeking a guarantee for the material reality of the world is a problematic omission. But a premise itself can be called into question, a call that on its own would remove its status as a premise. Premises are, after all, the unquestioned beginnings of any inquiry; they are the conditions of an inquiry’s validity.

To question a premise is likewise to question the validity of any inquiry flowing from that premise. So when I question whether the inquiries constituting the core of SSK as a discipline of social and epistemological theory require demonstrating the existence of reality somehow external to the subjective, I have made a decision about what the inquiries of SSK are for.

Such a decision is fundamentally practical. In creating what we now consider the research discipline of SSK, Bloor, Collins, and their fellow travellers developed goals and processes of thinking for their fundamental inquiries. They set the boundaries of what questions and concepts mattered to the pursuit of those goals and processes. And while they may not have explicitly said so, setting those conceptual boundaries simultaneously implies that what does not matter to those goals and processes is irrelevant to the discipline itself.

So if you pursue those other questions, you may be doing something interesting and valuable. But there is no guarantee that your premises, concepts, inquiries, and discoveries will be directly relevant to someone else’s discipline. To return this general point to the more direct focus of my book review, there is no guarantee that the premises, concepts, inquiries, and discoveries of a thinker working in one of the Heideggerian sub-disciplines will be directly relevant to someone working in SSK.

The boundaries of all research disciplines work this way. Over my decade of work as a professional-level philosopher, this has typically been the most controversial and provocative point I make in any discussion that puts disciplines and traditions into dialogue. It disrupts a premise that thinkers across many disciplines of philosophy and those related to them: that we are all searching for the one truth.

Limits For Universality

Many thinkers share the premise that the ultimate aim of philosophical work is the discovery and creation of universal truth. Ironically, I do not consider that Heidegger himself shares such a premise. I hope that Kochan will be okay with how I repurpose some of Heidegger’s own concepts to argue that his own attempt to blend Heideggerian and SSK concepts and inquiries becomes something of a philosophical dead end.

Start with these two of Heidegger’s concepts: enframing, and poiesis. Both of these arise in Heidegger’s inquiries on the nature of science and technology, but we should not restrict their relevance to the disciplines of philosophy who alone focus on science and technology.

Remember that Heidegger understands the institutions and cultures of science, as well as attitudes around the use of technology, to be expressions of a much broader framework of thinking. That framework includes all ways in which human action and thinking engages with existence, contributes to the ongoing constitution of being.

Heidegger’s purpose for philosophical thinking is understanding the continuing process of movement and coming to be still, or development and decay (Of Generation and Corruption?). What framework or schema we develop for this most profound task of understanding guides how our own thoughts and actions influence how and what the universe becomes.

Enframing, therefore, is such a conceptual framework of understanding existence, which guides us in our action and thinking to contribute to shaping existence. The framework that Heidegger calls enframing, is a way of thinking that understands all of existence as a potential resource for our own use. You do not understand how to experience or make sense of what exists and what you encounter as having their own way of existence from which you can learn. Understanding existence in a framework of enframing, you wrench and distort all that you encounter to your own purposes.

Thought’s Radical Openness

Poiesis is Heidegger’s alternative to the destructive, self-centred nature of conceptual schema of enframing. A conceptual framework built according to the principles of poiesis approaches all encounters as opportunities for the creative development of thought.

Whenever you encounter a way of thinking or living different from your own, you investigate and explore it, seeking to understand that mode of existence on its own terms. You examine its powers, capacities, how it forms relationships through encounters of its own, and the dynamics of how those relationships change itself and others.

That Heidegger considers conceptual frameworks of poiesis the alternative to the depressingly destructive schema of enframing, reveals how the philosophy which Kochan advocates as a productive partner for SSK, actually argues against Kochan’s own most fundamental premises. This is because poiesis fundamentally denies the universality of any one framework of thinking, action, and existence.

The conception of philosophy as seeking a single universal truth would explicitly oppose how you would engage different research disciplines as poiesis. Like Heidegger’s enframing, yoking all inquiries and ways of thinking into a single trajectory wrenches all those modes of thinking out of their own character of becoming and adapts them to the goal of another.

More dangerous even than this, bending all thinking to the pursuit of a single goal which you yourself already holds presumes that your and only your framework of thinking is the proper trajectory. In presuming that SSK is obligated to include an account of how we know our experiences of social and scientific worlds are genuine interactions with a shared materiality, Kochan guides his own philosophical mission in Science as Social Existence using a conceptual framework of enframing.

For Heidegger, This Openness Nonetheless Remains Closed

Conceptual frameworks that are fundamentally of poiesis appear to be a profound antidote to humanity’s current crisis of technology, science, and ecology. People who think this way would consider all differences they encounter as learning opportunities, and come to respect the origins of those encounters as opportunities to make your own thinking more versatile and open.

Heidegger, however, takes this line of thinking in a regressive direction. As Heidegger understands poiesis, the best way to think in accordance with existence itself is to accept, explore, and adapt your thinking to all the varieties of existence that you encounter. You deny that any single way of existence or understanding is fundamentally universal, and instead create many schemes of understanding what exists to suit the singular character of each encounter.

This approach to the encounter with the different and the alien is still being developed today at the forefront of politically progressive activist philosophers. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, for example, is a philosopher doing the best ongoing work with such an attitude, in my own knowledge. However, I am not sure if Kochan, Heidegger scholars, or contemporary SSK researchers would be aware of her work, as she exists outside both their disciplines.

She is characterized academically as working in Indigenous Studies, a label that, despite the good intentions of its inclusion in the contemporary Canadian university system, also tends to marginalize such work for more mainstream professors. So a genuine potential for one set of disciplines to learn from another is stalled by the presumption of too much difference from so-called ‘real’ philosophy. Betasamosake Simpson would often be dismissed in more conservative disciplines as being ‘merely’ post-colonial, or ‘merely’ ethnic studies.

Instead of following the openness of a conceptual framework that supposedly encourages a more open mind, Heidegger conceives of poiesis as a passive and meditative way of existence. This is because he understands a person’s encounters in existence as essentially an event that happens to the person, in which that person is acted upon, instead of engaging in mutual action. Openness to the singular logics and processes unique to an encountered other, for Heidegger, means a willingness to accept as necessary the happenstance of where we contingently fall into existence.

What Do We Do With Our Disciplines?

More profound problems lurk in the nature of our existence’s happenstance, which guides our best framework for understanding existence, poiesis. The Heideggerian concept of poiesis guides arguments of his infamous Black Notebooks. This was the political expression of Heidegger’s approach to philosophy as passively adapting your thinking and existence to the circumstances of your contingent existence as a person.

The existence of the migrant, no matter whether colonizer or refugee, is an act of violence against existence, because moving imposes your own logic and desires on alien existence. You disrupt your tradition out of a demand for something different. It disconnects you from the long inheritance of a relationship with the more durable existence of your land and your culture.

These stable beings constitute the place where you contingently fall. To fall contingently into existence is birth, so the land and culture of your birth constitute the ‘There’ in the complete assemblage of a person’s ‘Being.’ So the Black Notebooks continue Heidegger’s explication of his concept of Dasein, an inquiry central to all his work. They are no exception.

The language that expresses these concepts in the Black Notebooks is horrifying in its contempt for cultures whose global mobility or dispersion breaks them from continuity with a single territory of land at a pace faster than many millennia. It confounds my own everyday political orientations. In its most straightforward terms, it is a pro-Indigenous and anti-colonial, but also anti-Semitic in equal intensity.

One way to interpret Kochan’s program in Science as Social Existence is as an advocate to merge the disciplines of SSK and Heidegger Studies, blending their central premises and conceptual frameworks to create a hybrid discipline. But if we think disciplinarily, we may be forced to account for the many other problems in a body of work that have nothing to do with the problems we want to investigate. The example of how the Black Notebooks express the political implications of Heidegger’s concept of enframing, poiesis, and Dasein is only the most recent of many equally massive issues.

No Disciplines, Instead Concepts

Jeff Kochan’s Science and Social Existence is subtitled Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. In both this title and throughout the book, he attempts a very valuable experiment to make a philosophical hybrid of two sets of concepts, inquiries, and methods of thinking. On one hand, we have the social epistemological frameworks and principles in the discipline, Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. And on one hand, we have the conceptions of grounded subjectivity found in the works of Martin Heidegger, and elaborated in the discipline based on interpreting those works.

However, there are two problems with this approach. The first problem is that he misunderstands the reason for his inquiry: sociologists of scientific knowledge need a conceptual account of how we know that the external world exists to be studied.

The way Kochan understands how to solve the external world is brilliantly insightful in how philosophically challenging and creative it is: develop for SSK a concept of subjectivity that pays no mind to any premises of an ontological separation of subject and world at all. He finds such a concept in the works of Martin Heidegger, and explores its epistemological aspects as enframing and poiesis.

Laying our justification problem aside, this other problem helps explain what made it arise in the first place. Kochan’s focus is on the disciplines of SSK and Heidegger interpretation. Yet his inquiry is conceptual, more purely philosophical: adapting a concept of subjectivity that unifies subject and world without needing to make a problem of their separation, to the practice of sociology focussing on the production of scientific knowledge.

His focus is disciplinary rather than conceptual, talking about what Heidegger and his interpreters have said about Heidegger’s own concepts, and the sociologists whose research explicitly continues the general program of the originators of the SSK approach to social science. Such a disciplinary focus unfortunately implies that the related problems of those thinkers themselves complicate our use in thinking of the concepts themselves.

So using in sociological practice any concept that does what Kochan wants Heidegger’s enframing, poiesis, and Dasein to do, ends up dragging along the problematic and dangerous elements and interpretations in Heidegger’s entire corpus and tradition.

Because he was thinking of the discipline of SSK instead of the techniques and concepts alone, he presumes that the actual practitioners of SSK working in university departments need an alternative conception of subjectivity beyond modernist dualism. They themselves do not need such a concept because they are too busy asking different questions.

Fortunately, practice, concepts, and discipline are only contingently linked. Instead of using concepts from different disciplines to improve an established practice, you can develop new concepts to guide the practice of a new discipline.

The fundamental problem with Kochan’s book is that he has misinterpreted its scope, and aimed without the ambition that his thinking actually already requires. He thought he was writing a book about how to bring two seemingly unrelated traditions together, to solve an important problem in one.

Yet Kochan was actually writing a book that had the potential to start an entirely different tradition of sociological theory and practice. Instead of writing about Martin Heidegger and David Bloor, he could have written something with the potential to leave him mentioned in the same breath as such epochal thinkers. He could have become epochal himself.

How about next time, Jeff?

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

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

Heidegger, Martin. Ponderings II-VI: Black Notebooks 1931-1938. Translated by Richard Rojcewicz. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2016.

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

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

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

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

Author Information: Matthew R. X. Dentith, Institute for Research in the Humanities, University of Bucharest, m.dentith@episto.org.

Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Between Forteana and Skepticism: A Review of Bernard Wills’ Believing Weird Things.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 48-52.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-43y

Image by David Grant via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Sometimes, when it is hard to review a book, it is tempting to turn in some kind of personal reflection, one demonstrates why the reviewer felt disconnected from the text they were reviewing. This review of Bernard N. Wills Believing Weird Things – which I received three months ago, and have spent quite a bit of time thinking about in the interim – is just such a review-cum-reflection, because I am not sure what this book is about, nor who its intended audience is.

According to the blurb on the back Believing Weird Things is a response to Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things (Henry Holt and Company, 1997). Shermer’s book is one I know all too well, having read and reread it when I started work on my PhD. At the time the book was less than ten years old, and Shermer and his cohort of Skeptics (spelt with a ‘K’ to denote that particular brand of sceptical thought popular among (largely) non-philosophers in the U.S.) were considered to be the first and final word on the rationality (more properly, the supposed irrationality) of belief in conspiracy theories.

Given I was working on a dissertation on the topic, getting to grips with the arguments against belief in such theories seemed crucial, especially given my long and sustained interest in the what you might call the contra-philosophy of Skepticism, the work of Charles Fort.

Times for the Fortean

Fort (who Wills mentions in passing) was a cantankerous collector and publisher of strange and inconvenient phenomena. His Book of the Damned (Boni and Liveright, 1919) is an early 20th Century litany of things which seemed to fall outside the systemic study of the world. From rains of frogs, to cities floating in the sky, Fort presented the strange and the wonderful, often without comment. When he did dare to theorise about the phenomena he cataloged, he often contradicted his previous theories in favour of new ones. Scholars of Fort think his lack of a system was quite deliberate: Fort’s damned data was meant to be immune to scientific study.

Fort was hardly a known figure in his day, but his work has gained fans and adherents, who call themselves Forteans and engage in the study of Forteana. Forteans collect and share damned data, from haunted physics laboratories, to falls of angel hair. Often they theorise about what might cause these phenomena, but they also often don’t dispute other interpretations of the same ‘damned data.’

John Keel, one of the U.S.’s most famous Forteans (and who, if he did not invent the term ‘Men in Black’ at least popularised their existence), had a multitude of theories about the origin of UFOs and monsters in the backwoods of the U.S., which he liberally sprinkled throughout his works. If you challenged Keel on what you thought was an inconsistency of thought he would brush it off (or get angry at the suggestion he was meant to consistent in the first place).

I was a fan of Forteana without being a Fortean: I fail the Fortean test of tolerating competing hypotheses, preferring to stipulate terms whilst encouraging others to join my side of the debate. But I love reading Forteana (it is a great source of examples for the social epistemologist), and thinking about alternative interpretations. So, whilst I do not think UAP (unexpected aerial phenomena – the new term for UFO) are creatures from another dimension, I do like thinking about the assumptions which drive such theories.

Note here that I say ‘theories’ quite deliberately: any student of Forteana will quickly become aware that modern Forteans (contra Fort himself) are typically very systematic about their beliefs. It is just that often the Fortean is happy to be a systemic pluralist, happily accepting competing or complimentary systems as equally possible.

Weird and Weirder

Which brings me back to Believing Weird Things. The first section concerns beliefs people like Shermer might find weird but Wills argues are reasonable in the context under which they developed. Wills’ interest here is wide, taking in astrology, fairies, and why he is not a Rastafarian. Along the way he contextualises those supposedly weird beliefs and shows how, at certain times or in certain places, they were the product of a systemic study of the world.

Wills points out that a fault of Skepticism is a lack of appreciation for history: often what we now consider rational was once flimflam (plate tectonics), and what was systemic and rational (astrology) is today’s quackery. As Wills writes:

The Ancients do not seem to me to be thinking badly so much as thinking in an alien context and under different assumptions that are too basic to admit evaluation in the ordinary empirical sense (which is not to say they admit of no evaluation whatsoever). Further, there are many things in Aristotle and the Hebrew Bible which strike me as true even though the question of ‘testing’ them scientifically and ‘skeptically’ is pretty much meaningless. In short, the weird beliefs I study are at minimum intelligible, sometimes plausible and occasionally true. [4]

Indeed, the very idea which underpins Shermer’s account, ‘magical thinking,’ seems to fail the skeptical test: why, like Shermer, would you think it is some hardwired function rather than culturally situated? But more importantly, how is magical thinking any different from any other kind of thinking?

This last point is important because, as others have argued (including myself) many beliefs people think are problematic are, when looked at in context with other beliefs, either not particularly problematic, or no more problematic than the beliefs we assume are produced rationally. The Psychology of Religion back in the early 20th Century is a good example of this: when psychologists worried about religious belief started looking at the similarities in belief formation between the religious and the non-religious, they started to find the same kind of ‘errors’ in irreligious people as well.

In the same respect, the work in social psychology on belief in conspiracy theories seems to be suffering the same kind of problem today: it’s not clear that conspiracy theorists are any less (or more) rational than the rest of us. Rather, often what marks out the difference in belief are the different assumptions about how the world is, or how it works. Indeed, as Wills writes:

Many weird ideas are only weird from a certain assumed perspective. This is important because this assumed perspective is often one of epistemic and social privilege. We tend to associate weird ideas with weird people we look down upon from some place of superior social status. [10]

The first section of Believing Weird Things is, then, possibly the best defence of a kind of Fortean philosophy one could hope for. Yet that is also an unfair judgement, because thinking of Believing Weird Things as a Fortean text is just my imposition: Fort is mentioned exactly once, and only in a footnote. I am only calling this a tentatively Fortean text because I am not sure who the book’s audience is. Ostensibly – at least according to the blurb – it is meant to be a direct reply to Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things. But if it is, then it is twenty years late: Why People Believe Weird Things was published in 1997.

Not just that, but whilst Believing Weird Things deals with a set of interesting issues Shermer did not cover (yet ought to have), almost everything which makes up the reply to Why People Believe Weird Things is to be found in the Introduction alone. Now, I’d happily set the Introduction as a reading in a Critical Thinking class or elementary Epistemology class. However, I could not see much use in setting the book as a whole.

What’s Normal Anyway?

Which brings us to the second half of Believing Weird Things. Having set out why some weird beliefs are not that weird when thought about in context, Wills sets out his reasons for thinking that beliefs which aren’t – in some sense – considered weird ought to be. The choice of topics here is interesting, covering Islamophobia, white privilege, violence and the proper attitude towards tolerance and toleration in our polities.

But it invites the question (again) of who his intended audience is meant to be? For example, I also think Islamophobia, racism, and violence are deeply weird, and it worries me that some people still think they are sensible responses. But if Wills is setting out to persuade the other half of the debate, the racists, the bigots, and the fans of violence, then I do not think he will have much luck, as his discussions never seem to get much further than “Here are my reckons!”

And some of those reckons really need more arguments in favour of them.

For example, Wills brings out the old canard that religious beliefs and scientific beliefs are one and the same (presented as ‘religious faith’ and ‘scientific faith’). Not just that, but, in chapter 6, he talks about the things ‘discovered’ by religion. These are presented as being en par with discoveries in the sciences. Yet aren’t the things discovered by religion (‘humans beings must suffer before they learn. … existence is suffering’ [48]) really the ‘discoveries’ of, say, philosophers working in a religious system? And aren’t many of these discoveries just stipulations, or religious edicts?

This issue is compounded by Wills specification that the process of discovery for religious faith is hermeneutics: the interpretation of religious texts. But that invites even more questions: if you think the gods are responsible for both the world and certain texts in the world you could imagine hermeneutic inquiry to be somehow equivalent to scientific inquiry, but if you are either doubtful of the gods, or doubtful about the integrity of the gods’ prophets, then there is much room to doubt there is much of a connection at all between ‘faith’ in science and faith in scripture.

Another example: in chapter 8, Wills states:

Flat-Earthers are one thing but Birthers, say, are quite another: some ideas do not come from a good place and are not just absurd but pernicious. [67]

Now, there is an argument to be had about the merits (or lack thereof) of the Flat Earth theory and the thesis Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. Some might even claim that the Flat Earth theory is worse, given that belief might entail thinking a lot of very disparate institutions, located globally, are in on a massive cover-up. The idea Barack Obama is secretly Kenyan has little effect on those of us outside the U.S. electoral system.

None of this is to say there aren’t decent arguments to be had about these topics. It is, instead, to say that often these positions are stipulated. As such, the audience for Believing Weird Things seems to be people who agree with Wills, rather than an attempt by Wills to change hearts and minds.

How to Engage With Weird Beliefs

Which is not to say that the second half of the book lacks merit; it just lacks meat. The chapters on Islamophobia (chapter 8) and racism (chapter 9) are good: the contextualisation of both Islamophobia and the nature of conflicts in the Middle East are well expressed. But they are not particularly novel (especially if you read the work of left-wing commentators). But even if the chapters are agreeable to someone of a left-wing persuasion, all too often the chapters just end: the chapter on violence (chapter 10), for example, has no clear conclusion other than that violence is bad.

Similarly confused is the chapter on tolerance (chapter 11). But the worst offender is the chapter on the death of Conservatism (chapter 14). This could have been an interesting argument about the present state of today’s politics. But the chapter ends abruptly, and with it, the book. There is no conclusion, no tying together of threads. There’s hardly even any mention of Shermer or skepticism in the second half of Believing Weird Things.

Which brings us back to the question: who is this book for? If the book were just the first half it could be seen as both a reply to Shermer and a hesitant stab at a Fortean philosophy. But the second half of the book comes across more as the author’s rumination on some pertinent social issues of the day, and none of that content seems to advance far beyond ‘Here are my thoughts…’

Which, unfortunately, is also the character of this review: in trying to work out who the book is for I find my thoughts as inconclusive as the text itself. None of this is to say that Believing Weird Things is a bad or terrible book. Rather, it is just a collection of the author’s ruminations. So, unless you happen to be a fan of Wills, there is little to this text which substantially advances the debate over belief in anything.

Contact details: m.dentith@episto.org

References

Fort, Charles. The Book of the Damned, Boni and Liveright, 1919

Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things, Henry Holt and Company, 1997

Wills, Bernard N. Believing Weird Things, Minkowski Institute Press, 2018

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, s.w.fuller@warwick.ac.uk.

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

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-42x

A man practices Taijiquan at the Kongzi Temple in Nanjing.
Image by Slices of Light via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This essay was previously published in the Journal of World Philosophy, their Summer 2018 issue.

Bryan Van Norden’s Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto draws on his expertise in Chinese philosophy to launch a comprehensive and often scathing critique of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy. I focus on the sense in which “China” figures as a “non-Western culture” in Van Norden’s argument. Here I identify an equivocation between what I call a “functional” and a “substantive” account of culture.

I argue that Van Norden, like perhaps most others who have discussed Chinese philosophy, presupposes a “functional” conception, whereby the relevant sense in which “China” matters is exactly as “non-Western,” which ends up incorporating some exogenous influences such as Indian Buddhism but not any of the Western philosophies that made major inroads in the twentieth century. I explore the implications of the functional/substantive distinction for the understanding of cross-cultural philosophy generally.

Dragging the West Into the World

I first ran across Bryan Van Norden’s understanding of philosophy from a very provocative piece entitled “Why the Western Philosophical Canon Is Xenophobic and Racist,”[1]  which trailed the book now under review. I was especially eager to review it because I had recently participated in a symposium in the Journal of World Philosophies that discussed Chinese philosophy—Van Norden’s own area of expertise—as a basis for launching a general understanding of world philosophy.[2]

However, as it turns out, most of the book is preoccupied with various denigrations of philosophy in contemporary America, from both inside and outside the discipline. The only thing I will say about this aspect of the book is that, even granting the legitimacy of Van Norden’s complaints, I don’t think that arguments around some “ontological” conception of what philosophy “really is” will resolve the matter because these can always be dismissed as self-serving and question-begging.

What could make a difference is showing that a broader philosophical palette would actually make philosophy graduates more employable in an increasingly globalized world. Those like Van Norden who oppose the “Anglo-analytic hegemony” in contemporary philosophy need to argue explicitly that it results in philosophy punching below its weight in terms of potential impact. That philosophy departments of the most analytic sort continue to survive and even flourish, and that their students continue to be employed, should be presented as setting a very low standard of achievement.

After all, philosophy departments tend to recruit students with better than average qualifications, while the costs for maintaining those departments remain relatively low. In contrast, another recent book that raises similar concerns to Van Norden’s, Socrates Tenured (Frodeman and Briggle 2016),[3] is more successful in pointing to extramural strategies for philosophy to pursue a more ambitious vision of general societal relevance.

Challenging How We Understand Culture Itself

But at its best, Taking Back Philosophy forces us to ask: what exactly does “culture” mean in “multicultural” or “cross-cultural” philosophy? For Van Norden, the culture he calls “China” is the exemplar of a non-Western philosophical culture. It refers primarily—if not exclusively—to those strands of Chinese thought associated with its ancient traditions. To be sure, this arguably covers everything that Chinese scholars and intellectuals wrote about prior to the late nineteenth century, when Western ideas started to be regularly discussed. It would then seem to suggest that “China” refers to the totality of its indigenous thought and culture.

But this is not quite right, since Van Norden certainly includes the various intellectually productive engagements that Buddhism as an alien (Indian) philosophy has had with the native Confucian and especially Daoist world-views. Yet he does not seem to want to include the twentieth-century encounters between Confucianism and, say, European liberalism and American pragmatism in the Republican period or Marxism in the Communist period. Here he differs from Leigh Jenco (2010),[4] who draws on the Republican Chinese encounter with various Western philosophies to ground a more general cross-cultural understanding of philosophy.

It would appear that Van Norden is operating with a functional rather than substantive conception of “China” as a philosophical culture. In other words, he is less concerned with all the philosophy that has happened within China than with simply the philosophy in China that makes it “non-Western.” Now some may conclude that this makes Van Norden as ethnocentric as the philosophers he criticizes.

I am happy to let readers judge for themselves on that score. However, functional conceptions of culture are quite pervasive, especially in the worlds of politics and business, whereby culture is treated as a strategic resource to provide a geographic region with what the classical political economist David Ricardo famously called “comparative advantage” in trade.

But equally, Benedict Anderson’s (1983) influential account of nationalism as the construction of “imagined communities” in the context of extricating local collective identities from otherwise homogenizing imperial tendencies would fall in this category. Basically your culture is what you do that nobody else does—or at least does not do as well as you. However, your culture is not the totality of all that you do, perhaps not even what you do most of the time.

To be sure, this is not the classical anthropological conception of culture, which is “substantive” in the sense of providing a systematic inventory of what people living in a given region actually think and do, regardless of any overlap with what others outside the culture think and do. Indeed, anthropologists in the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries expected that most of the items in the inventory would come from the outside, the so-called doctrine of “diffusionism.”

Thus, they have tended to stress the idiosyncratic mix of elements that go into the formation of any culture over any dominant principle. This helps explain why nowadays every culture seems to be depicted as a “hybrid.” I would include Jenco’s conception of Chinese culture in this “substantive” conception.

However, what distinguished, say, Victorians like Edward Tylor from today’s “hybrid anthropologists” was that the overlap of elements across cultures was used by the former as a basis for cross-cultural comparisons, albeit often to the detriment of the non-Western cultures involved. This fuelled ambitions that anthropology could be made into a “science” sporting general laws of progress, etc.

My point here is not to replay the history of the struggle for anthropology’s soul, which continues to this day, but simply to highlight a common assumption of the contesting parties—namely, that a “culture” is defined exclusively in terms of matters happening inside a given geographical region, in which case things happening outside the region must be somehow represented inside the region in order to count as part of a given culture. In contrast, the “functional” conception defines “culture” in purely relational terms, perhaps even with primary reference to what is presumed to lie outside a given culture.

Matters of Substance and Function

Both the substantive and the functional conception derive from the modern core understanding of culture, as articulated by Johann Gottfried Herder and the German Idealists, which assumed that each culture possesses an “essence” or “spirit.” On the substantive conception, which was Herder’s own, each culture is distinguished by virtue of having come from a given region, as per the etymological root of “culture” in “agriculture.” In that sense, a culture’s “essence” or “spirit” is like a seed that can develop in various ways depending on the soil in which it is planted.

Indeed, Herder’s teacher, Kant had already used the German Keime (“seeds”) in a book of lectures whose title is often credited with having coined “anthropology” (Wilson 2014).[5] This is the sense of culture that morphs into racialist ideologies. While such racialism can be found in Kant, it is worth stressing that his conception of race does not depend on the sense of genetic fixity that would become the hallmark of twentieth-century “scientific racism.” Rather, Kant appeared to treat “race” as a diagnostic category for environments that hold people back, to varying degrees, from realizing humanity’s full potential.

Here Kant was probably influenced by the Biblical dispersal of humanity, first with Adam’s Fall and then the Noachian flood, which implied that the very presence of different races or cultures marks our species’ decline from its common divine source. Put another way, Kant was committed to what Lamarck called the “inheritance of acquired traits,” though Lamarck lacked Kant’s Biblical declinist backdrop. Nevertheless, they agreed that a sustainably radical change to the environment could decisively change the character of its inhabitants. This marks them both as heirs to the Enlightenment.

To be sure, this reading of Kant is unlikely to assuage either today’s racists or, for that matter, anti-racists or multiculturalists, since it doesn’t assume that the preservation of racial or cultural identity possesses intrinsic (positive or negative) value. In this respect, Kant’s musings on race should be regarded as “merely historical,” based on his fallible second-hand knowledge of how peoples in different parts of the world have conducted their lives.

In fact, the only sense of difference that the German Idealists unequivocally valued was self-individuation, which is ultimately tied to the functional conception of culture, whereby my identity is directly tied to my difference from you. It follows that the boundaries of culture—or the self, for that matter—are moveable feasts. In effect, as your identity changes, mine does as well—and vice versa.

Justifying a New World Order

This is the metaphysics underwriting imperialism’s original liberal capitalist self-understanding as a global free-trade zone. In its ideal form, independent nation-states would generate worldwide prosperity by continually reorienting themselves to each other in response to market pressures. Even if the physical boundaries between nation-states do not change, their relationship to each other would, through the spontaneous generation and diffusion of innovations.

The result would be an ever-changing global division of labor. Of course, imperialism in practice fostered a much more rigid—even racialized—division of labor, as Marxists from Lenin onward decried. Those who nevertheless remain hopeful in the post-imperial era that the matter can ultimately be resolved diagnose the problem as one of “uneven development,” a phrase that leaves a sour aftertaste in the mouths of “post-colonialists.”

But more generally, “functionalism” as a movement in twentieth-century anthropology and sociology tended towards a relatively static vision of social order. And perhaps something similar could be said about Van Norden’s stereotyping of “China.” However, he would be hardly alone. In his magisterial The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, a book which Van Norden does not mention, Randall Collins (1998)[6] adopts a similarly functionalist stance. There it leads to a quite striking result, which has interesting social epistemological consequences.

Although Collins incorporates virtually every thinker that Chinese philosophy experts normally talk about, carefully identifying their doctrinal nuances and scholastic lineages, he ends his treatment of China at the historical moment that happens to coincide with what he marks as a sea change in the fortunes of Western philosophy, which occurs in Europe’s early modern period.

I put the point this way because Collins scrupulously avoids making any of the sorts of ethnocentric judgements that Van Norden rightly castigates throughout his book, whereby China is seen as un- or pre-philosophical. However, there is a difference in attitude to philosophy that emerges in Europe, less in terms of philosophy’s overall purpose than its modus operandi. Collins calls it rapid discovery science.

Rapid discovery science is the idea that standardization in the expression and validation of knowledge claims—both quantitatively and qualitatively—expedites the ascent to higher levels of abstraction and reflexivity by making it easier to record and reproduce contributions in the ongoing discourse. Collins means here not only the rise of mathematical notation to calculate and measure, but also “technical languages,” the mastery of which became the mark of “expertise” in a sense more associated with domain competence than with “wisdom.” In the latter case, the evolution of “peer review” out of the editorial regimentation of scientific correspondence in the early journals played a decisive role (Bazerman 1987).[7]

Citation conventions, from footnotes to bibliographies, were further efficiency measures. Collins rightly stresses the long-term role of universities in institutionalizing these innovations, but of more immediate import was the greater interconnectivity within Europe that was afforded by the printing press and an improved postal system. The overall result, so I believe, was that collective intellectual memory was consolidated to such an extent that intellectual texts could be treated as capital, something to both build upon and radically redeploy—once one has received the right training to access them. These correspond to the phases that Thomas Kuhn called “normal” and “revolutionary” science, respectively.

To be sure, Collins realizes that China had its own stretches in which competing philosophical schools pursued higher levels of abstraction and reflexivity, sometimes with impressive results. But these were maintained solely by the emotional energy of the participants who often dealt with each other directly. Once external events dispersed that energy, then the successors had to go back to a discursive “ground zero” of referring to original texts and reinventing arguments.

Can There Be More Than One Zero Point?

Of course, the West has not been immune to this dynamic. Indeed, it has even been romanticized. A popular conception of philosophy that continues to flourish at the undergraduate level is that there can be no genuine escape from origins, no genuine sense of progress. It is here that Alfred North Whitehead’s remark that all philosophy is footnotes to Plato gets taken a bit too seriously.

In any case, Collins’ rapid discovery science was specifically designed to escape just this situation, which Christian Europe had interpreted as the result of humanity’s fallen state, a product of Adam’s “Original Sin.” This insight figured centrally in the Augustinian theology that gradually—especially after the existential challenge that Islam posed to Christendom in the thirteenth century—began to color how Christians viewed their relationship to God, the source of all knowing and being. The Protestant Reformation marked a high watermark in this turn of thought, which became the crucible in which rapid discovery science was forged in the seventeenth century. Since the 1930s, this period has been called the “Scientific Revolution” (Harrison 2007).[8]

In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, all appeals to authority potentially became not sources of wisdom but objects of suspicion. They had to undergo severe scrutiny, which at the time were often characterized as “trials of faith.” Francis Bacon, the personal lawyer to England’s King James I, is a pivotal figure because he clearly saw continuity from the Inquisition in Catholic Europe (which he admired, even though it ensnared his intellectual ally Galileo), through the “witch trials” pursued by his fellow Protestants on both sides of the Atlantic, to his own innovation—the “crucial experiment”—which would be subsequently enshrined as the hallmark of the scientific method, most energetically by Karl Popper.

Bacon famously developed his own “hermeneutic of suspicion” as proscriptions against what he called “idols of the mind,” that is, lazy habits of thought that are born of too much reliance on authority, tradition, and surface appearances generally. For Bacon and his fellow early modern Christians, including such Catholics as Rene Descartes, these habits bore the mark of Original Sin because they traded on animal passions—and the whole point of the human project is to rise above our fallen animal natures to recover our divine birthright.

The cultural specificity of this point is often lost, even on Westerners for whom the original theological backdrop seems no longer compelling. What is cross-culturally striking about the radical critique of authority posed by the likes of Bacon and Descartes is that it did not descend into skepticism, even though—especially in the case of Descartes—the skeptical challenge was explicitly confronted. What provided the stopgap was faith, specifically in the idea that once we recognize our fallen nature, redemption becomes possible by finding a clearing on which to build truly secure foundations for knowledge and thereby to redeem the human condition, God willing.

For Descartes, this was “cogito ergo sum.” To be sure, the “God willing” clause, which was based on the doctrine of Divine Grace, became attenuated in the eighteenth century as “Providence” and then historicized as “Progress,” finally disappearing altogether with the rising tide of secularism in the nineteenth century (Löwith 1949; Fuller 2010: chap. 8).[9]

But its legacy was a peculiar turn of mind that continually seeks a clearing to chart a path to the source of all meaning, be it called “God” or “Truth.” This is what makes three otherwise quite temperamentally different philosophers—Husserl, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger—equally followers in Descartes’ footsteps. They all prioritized clearing a space from which to proceed over getting clear about the end state of the process.

Thus, the branches of modern Western philosophy concerned with knowledge—epistemology and the philosophy of science—have been focused more on methodology than axiology, that is, the means rather than the ends of knowledge. While this sense of detachment resonates with, say, the Buddhist disciplined abandonment of our default settings to become open to a higher level of state of being, the intellectual infrastructure provided by rapid discovery science allows for an archive to be generated that can be extended and reflected upon indefinitely by successive inquirers.

Common Themes Across Continents

A good way to see this point is that in principle the Buddhist and, for that matter, the Socratic quest for ultimate being could be achieved in one’s own lifetime with sufficient dedication, which includes taking seriously the inevitability of one’s own physical death. In contrast, the modern Western quest for knowledge—as exemplified by science—is understood as a potentially endless intergenerational journey in which today’s scientists effectively lead vicarious lives for the sake of how their successors will regard them.

Indeed, this is perhaps the core ethic promoted in Max Weber’s famous “Science as a Vocation” lecture (Fuller 2015: chap. 3).[10] Death as such enters, not to remind scientists that they must eventually end their inquiries but that whatever they will have achieved by the end of their lives will help pave the way for others to follow.

Heidegger appears as such a “deep” philosopher in the West because he questioned the metaphysical sustainability of the intellectual infrastructure of rapid discovery science, which the Weberian way of death presupposes. Here we need to recall that Heidegger’s popular reception was originally mediated by the postwar Existentialist movement, which was fixated on the paradoxes of the human condition thrown up by Hiroshima, whereby the most advanced science managed to end the biggest war in history by producing a weapon with the greatest chance of destroying humanity altogether in the future. Not surprisingly, Heidegger has proved a convenient vehicle for Westerners to discover Buddhism.

Early Outreach? Or Appropriation?

Finally, it is telling that the Western philosopher whom Van Norden credits with holding China in high esteem, Leibniz, himself had a functional understanding of China. To be sure, Leibniz was duly impressed by China’s long track record of imperial rule at the political, economic, and cultural levels, all of which were the envy of Europe. But Leibniz honed in on one feature of Chinese culture—what he took to be its “ideographic” script—which he believed could provide the intellectual infrastructure for a global project of organizing and codifying all knowledge so as to expedite its progress.

This was where he thought China had a decisive “comparative advantage” over the West. Clearly Leibniz was a devotee of rapid discovery science, and his project—shared by many contemporaries across Europe—would be pursued again to much greater effect two hundred years later by Paul Otlet, the founder of modern library and information science, and Otto Neurath, a founding member of the logical positivist movement.

While the Chinese regarded their written characters as simply a medium for people in a far-flung empire to communicate easily with each other, Leibniz saw in them the potential for collaboration on a universal scale, given that each character amounted to a picture of an abstraction, the metaphorical rendered literal, a message that was not simply conveyed but embedded in the medium. It seemed to satisfy the classical idea of nous, or “intellectual intuition,” as a kind of perception, which survives in the phrase, “seeing with the mind’s eye.”

However, the Chinese refused to take Leibniz’s bait, which led him to begin a train of thought that culminated in the so-called Needham Thesis, which turns on why Earth’s most advanced civilization, China, failed to have a “Scientific Revolution” (Needham 1969; Fuller 1997: chap. 5).[11] Whereas Leibniz was quick to relate Chinese unreceptiveness to his proposal to their polite but firm rejection of the solicitations of Christian missionaries, Joseph Needham, a committed Marxist, pointed to the formal elements of the distinctive cosmology promoted by the Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity, that China lacked—but stopping short of labelling the Chinese “heathens.”

An interesting feature of Leibniz’s modus operandi is that he saw cross-cultural encounters as continuous with commerce (Perkins 2004).[12]  No doubt his conception was influenced by living at a time when the only way a European could get a message to China was through traders and missionaries, who typically travelled together. But he also clearly imagined the resulting exchange as a negotiation in which each side could persuade the other to shift their default positions to potential mutual benefit.

This mentality would come to be crucial to the dynamic mentality of capitalist political economy, on which Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage was based. However, the Chinese responded to their European counterparts with hospitality but only selective engagement with their various intellectual and material wares, implying their unwillingness to be fluid with what I earlier called “self-individuation.”

Consequently, Europeans only came to properly understand Chinese characters in the mid-nineteenth century, by which time it was treated as a cultural idiosyncrasy, not a platform for pursuing universal knowledge. That world-historic moment for productive engagement had passed—for reasons that Marxist political economy adequately explains—and all subsequent attempts at a “universal language of thought” have been based on Indo-European languages and Western mathematical notation.

China is not part of this story at all, and continues to suffer from that fact, notwithstanding its steady ascendancy on the world stage over the past century. How this particular matter is remedied should focus minds interested in a productive future for cross-cultural philosophy and multiculturalism more generally. But depending on what we take the exact problem to be, the burden of credit and blame across cultures will be apportioned accordingly.

Based on the narrative that I have told here, I am inclined to conclude that the Chinese underestimated just how seriously Europeans like Leibniz took their own ideas. This in turn raises some rather deep questions about the role that a shift in the balance of plausibility away from “seeing with one’s own eyes” and towards “seeing with the mind’s eye” has played in the West’s ascendancy.

Conclusion

I began this piece by distinguishing a “substantive” and a “functional” approach to culture because even theorists as culturally sensitive as Van Norden and Collins adopt a “functional” rather than a “substantive” approach. They defend and elaborate China as a philosophical culture in purely relational terms, based on its “non-Western” character.

This leads them to include, say, Chinese Buddhism but not Chinese Republicanism or Chinese Communism—even though the first is no less exogenous than the second two to “China,” understood as the land mass on which Chinese culture has been built over several millennia. Of course, this is not to take away from Van Norden’s or Collins’ achievements in reminding us of the continued relevance of Chinese philosophical culture.

Yet theirs remains a strategically limited conception designed mainly to advance an argument about Western philosophy. Here Collins follows the path laid down by Leibniz and Needham, whereas Van Norden takes that argument and flips it against the West—or, rather, contemporary Western philosophy. The result in both cases is that “China” is instrumentalized for essentially Western purposes.

I have no problem whatsoever with this approach (which is my own), as long as one is fully aware of its conceptual implications, which I’m not sure that Van Norden is. For example, he may think that his understanding of Chinese philosophical culture is “purer” than, say, Leigh Jenco’s, which focuses on a period with significant Western influence. However, this is “purity” only in the sense of an “ideal type” of the sort the German Idealists would have recognized as a functionally differentiated category within an overarching system.

In Van Norden’s case, that system is governed by the West/non-West binary. Thus, there are various ways to be “Western” and various ways to be “non-Western” for Van Norden. Van Norden is not sufficiently explicit about this logic. The alternative conceptual strategy would be to adopt a “substantive” approach to China that takes seriously everything that happens within its physical borders, regardless of origin. The result would be the more diffuse, laundry list approach to culture that was championed by the classical anthropologists, for which “hybrid” is now the politically correct term.

To be sure, this approach is not without its own difficulties, ranging from a desire to return to origins (“racialism”) to forced comparisons between innovator and adopter cultures. But whichever way one goes on this matter, “China” remains a contested concept in the context of world philosophy.

Contact details: s.w.fuller@warwick.ac.uk

References

Bazerman, Charles. Shaping Written Knowledge. Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.

Collins, Randall. The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Frodeman, Robert; Adam Briggle. Socrates Tenured. Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).

Fuller, Steve. Science: Concepts in the Social Sciences. Milton Keynes UK: Open University Press, 1997.

Fuller, Steve. Science: The Art of Living. Durham UK: Acumen, 2010.

Fuller, Steve. Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History. London: Routledge, 2015.

Harrison, Peter. The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Jenco, Leigh. Making the Political: Founding and Action in the Political Theory of Zhang Shizhao. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Jenco, Leigh; Steve Fuller, David Haekwon Kim, Thaddeus Metz, and Miljana Milojevic, “Symposium: Are Certain Knowledge Frameworks More Congenial to the Aims of Cross-Cultural Philosophy?” Journal of World Philosophies 2, no. 2 (2017): 82-145.

Löwith, Karl. Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of Philosophy of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949.

Needham, Joseph. The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969.

Perkins, Franklin. Leibniz and China: A Commerce of Light. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

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

Wilson, Catherine. “Kant on Civilization, Culture and Moralization,” in Kant’s Lectures on Anthropology: A Critical Guide. Edited by A. Cohen. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014: 191-210.

[1] Bryan Van Norden, “Western Philosophy is Racist,” (https://aeon.co/essays/why-the-western-philosophical-canon-is-xenophobic-and-racist; last accessed on May 10, 2018).

[2] See: Leigh Jenco, Steve Fuller, David Haekwon Kim, Thaddeus Metz, and Miljana Milojevic, “Symposium: Are Certain Knowledge Frameworks More Congenial to the Aims of Cross-Cultural Philosophy?” Journal of World Philosophies 2, no. 2 (2017): 82-145 (https://scholarworks.iu.edu/iupjournals/index.php/jwp/article/view/1261/128; last accessed on May 10, 2018).

[3] Robert Frodeman, and Adam Briggle, Socrates Tenured (Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).

[4] Leigh Jenco, Making the Political: Founding and Action in the Political Theory of Zhang Shizhao (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[5] Catherine Wilson, “Kant on Civilization, Culture and Moralization,” in Kant’s Lectures on Anthropology: A Critical Guide, ed. A. Cohen (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 191-210.

[6] Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

[7] Charles Bazerman, Shaping Written Knowledge (Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987).

[8] Peter Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[9] Karl Löwith, Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of Philosophy of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949); Steve Fuller, Science: The Art of Living (Durham UK: Acumen, 2010).

[10] Steve Fuller, Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History (London: Routledge, 2015).

[11] Joseph Needham, The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969); Steve Fuller, Science: Concepts in the Social Sciences (Milton Keynes UK: Open University Press, 1997).

[12] Franklin Perkins, Leibniz and China: A Commerce of Light (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004).