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Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick,

Steve Fuller holds the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. He is the author of more than twenty books, the next of which is Post-Truth: Knowledge as a Power Game (Anthem).


Note: This article originally appeared in the EASST Review 36(1) April 2017 and is republished below with the permission of the editors.

Image credit: Hans Luthart, via flickr

STS talks the talk without ever quite walking the walk. Case in point: post-truth, the offspring that the field has been always trying to disown, not least in the latest editorial of Social Studies of Science (Sismondo 2017). Yet STS can be fairly credited with having both routinized in its own research practice and set loose on the general public—if not outright invented—at least four common post-truth tropes:

1. Science is what results once a scientific paper is published, not what made it possible for the paper to be published, since the actual conduct of research is always open to multiple countervailing interpretations.

2. What passes for the ‘truth’ in science is an institutionalised contingency, which if scientists are doing their job will be eventually overturned and replaced, not least because that may be the only way they can get ahead in their fields.

3. Consensus is not a natural state in science but one that requires manufacture and maintenance, the work of which is easily underestimated because most of it occurs offstage in the peer review process.

4. Key normative categories of science such as ‘competence’ and ‘expertise’ are moveable feasts, the terms of which are determined by the power dynamics that obtain between specific alignments of interested parties.

What is perhaps most puzzling from a strictly epistemological standpoint is that STS recoils from these tropes whenever such politically undesirable elements as climate change deniers or creationists appropriate them effectively for their own purposes. Normally, that would be considered ‘independent corroboration’ of the tropes’ validity, as these undesirables demonstrate that one need not be a politically correct STS practitioner to wield the tropes effectively. It is almost as if STS practitioners have forgotten the difference between the contexts of discovery and justification in the philosophy of science. The undesirables are actually helping STS by showing the robustness of its core insights as people who otherwise overlap little with the normative orientation of most STS practitioners turn them to what they regard as good effect (Fuller 2016).

Of course, STSers are free to contest any individual or group that they find politically undesirable—but on political, not methodological grounds. We should not be quick to fault undesirables for ‘misusing’ our insights, let alone apologize for, self-censor or otherwise restrict our own application of these insights, which lay at the heart of Latour’s (2004) notorious mea culpa. On the contrary, we should defer to Oscar Wilde and admit that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. STS has enabled the undesirables to raise their game, and if STSers are too timid to function as partisans in their own right, they could try to help the desirables raise their game in response.

Take the ongoing debates surrounding the teaching of evolution in the US. The fact that intelligent design theorists are not as easily defeated on scientific grounds as young earth creationists means that when their Darwinist opponents leverage their epistemic authority on the former as if they were the latter, the politics of the situation becomes naked. Unlike previous creationist cases, the judgement in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board (in which I served as an expert witness for the defence) dispensed with the niceties of the philosophy of science and resorted to the brute sociological fact that most evolutionists do not consider intelligent design theory science. That was enough for the Darwinists to win the battle, but will it win them the war? Those who have followed the ‘evolution’ of creationism into intelligent design might conclude that Darwinists act in bad faith by not taking seriously that intelligent design theorists are trying to play by the Darwinists’ rules. Indeed, more than ten years after Kitzmiller, there is little evidence that Americans are any friendlier to Darwin than they were before the trial. And with Trump in the White House…?

Thus, I find it strange that in his editorial on post-truth, Sismondo extols the virtues of someone who seems completely at odds with the STS sensibility, namely, Naomi Oreskes, the Harvard science historian turned scientific establishment publicist. A signature trope of her work is the pronounced asymmetry between the natural emergence of a scientific consensus and the artificial attempts to create scientific controversy (e.g. Oreskes and Conway 2011). It is precisely this ‘no science before its time’ sensibility that STS has been spending the last half-century trying to oppose. Even if Oreskes’ political preferences tick all the right boxes from the standpoint of most STSers, she has methodologically cheated by presuming that the ‘truth’ of some matter of public concern most likely lies with what most scientific experts think at a given time. Indeed, Sismondo’s passive aggressive agonizing comes from his having to reconcile his intuitive agreement with Oreskes and the contrary thrust of most STS research.

This example speaks to the larger issue addressed by post-truth, namely, distrust in expertise, to which STS has undoubtedly contributed by circumscribing the prerogatives of expertise. Sismondo fails to see that even politically mild-mannered STSers like Harry Collins and Sheila Jasanoff do this in their work. Collins is mainly interested in expertise as a form of knowledge that other experts recognize as that form of knowledge, while Jasanoff is clear that the price that experts pay for providing trusted input to policy is that they do not engage in imperial overreach. Neither position approximates the much more authoritative role that Oreskes would like to see scientific expertise play in policy making. From an STS standpoint, those who share Oreskes’ normative orientation to expertise should consider how to improve science’s public relations, including proposals for how scientists might be socially and materially bound to the outcomes of policy decisions taken on the basis of their advice.

When I say that STS has forced both established and less than established scientists to ‘raise their game’, I am alluding to what may turn out to be STS’s most lasting contribution to the general intellectual landscape, namely, to think about science as literally a game—perhaps the biggest game in town. Consider football, where matches typically take place between teams with divergent resources and track records. Of course, the team with the better resources and track record is favoured to win, but sometimes it loses and that lone event can destabilise the team’s confidence, resulting in further losses and even defections. Each match is considered a free space where for ninety minutes the two teams are presumed to be equal, notwithstanding their vastly different histories. Francis Bacon’s ideal of the ‘crucial experiment’, so eagerly adopted by Karl Popper, relates to this sensibility as definitive of the scientific attitude. And STS’s ‘social constructivism’ simply generalizes this attitude from the lab to the world. Were STS to embrace its own sensibility much more wholeheartedly, it would finally walk the walk.


Fuller, Steve. ‘Embrace the Inner Fox: Post-Truth as the STS Symmetry Principle Universalized.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective December, 2016:

Latour, Bruno. ‘Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.’ Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (2004) : 225–248.

Oreskes, Naomi and Erik M. Conway Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury, 2011.

Sismondo, Sergio. ‘Post-Truth?’ Social Studies of Science 47, no. 1 (2017): 3-6.

Call for Papers: “Charting trans and posthumanist imaginaries in future-making”
(see Panel 53:

Science in Public Conference, University of Sheffield 10th-12th July, 2017
Emilie Whitaker, University of Salford,

The call for papers closes April 18, 2017.

Posthumanism and transhumanism are two emerging cultural movements that use recent developments in science and technology to challenge, in rather different ways, conventional conceptions of the human condition. Originally seen as more aligned with science fiction than science fact, they now straddle the divide, helped along with increasing media attention and capital investment. Whilst posthumanism continues to be theoretically explored within the social sciences and humanities, transhumanism remains an outlier to the academy. This is despite developments in science and technology which decouple traditional understandings of human/non- human action, agency, labour and capital. In this respect, both trans and posthumanism come very well adapted to our ‘post-truth’ times. We welcome submissions on this general theme, including the following topics:

  • Post- vs trans- humanist projections of the future of humanity, both utopic and dystopic
  • The appeal to post- and trans- humanist ideas and images in the general culture
  • Scientific bases – or not – for post- and trans- humanist knowledge claims
  •  The influence – or not – of post- and trans- humanist views on public policy
  • The place of capitalism in post- and trans- humanist imaginaries
  • The place of post- and trans- humanism in the academy: Do they bridge the ‘˜two cultures’?
  • How trans and post humanism conceive of the place of democracy in guiding the future
  • Exploration of how science communication invokes, borrows or rejects trans and posthumanist tropes.

We welcome ‘alternative’ contributions – for example, short pieces of prose or extracts of speculative near-future fiction – as well as empirically-based findings papers. We are also particularly keen to support early career researchers.

Author Information: Lyudmila A. Markova, Russian Academy of Science,


Please refer to:

It is difficult to find a place for the concept of truth in social epistemology. Current philosophers disagree on the status “truth” and “objectivity” as the basis of thinking about science. Meanwhile, the very name ‘social epistemology’ speaks to a serious inevitable turn in our attitude toward scientific knowledge.  Once epistemology becomes social, scientific knowledge is oriented not to nature, but to human beings. Epistemology, then, addresses not the laws of nature, but the process of their production by a scientist. In classical epistemology we have, as a result of scientific research, laws regarding the material reality of the world created by us. Experimental results, obtained in classical science, must be objective and true, or they become useless.

In social epistemology, scientific results represent social communication among scientists (and not just among scientists), their ability to produce new knowledge, and their professionalism. In this case, knowledge helps us to create not a material artificial world, but a virtual world which is able to think. For such knowledge, notions like “truth” and “objectivity” do not play a serious role. Other concepts such as “dialog”, “communication”, “interaction”, “difference” and “diversity” come to the fore. In these concepts, we can see a turn in the development of epistemological thinking.

However, social epistemology does not destroy its predecessor. Let us remember this definition of social epistemology which Steve Fuller gives in 1988:

How should the pursuit of knowledge be organized, given that under normal circumstances knowledge is pursued by many human beings, each working on a more or less well-defined body of knowledge and each equipped with roughly the same imperfect cognitive capacities, albeit with varying degree of access to one another’s activities?

It is not difficult to see that Fuller does not consider the aim of social epistemology as obtaining objective knowledge about the external world. He remains concerned about the diversity of social conditions in which scientists work. Changes in these conditions and features of an individual scientist such as professional competence, among others, should be taken into consideration.  Exactly these characteristics of thinking that come to the fore allow us to speak about a turn in the development of thinking. Now, the problems that exist in science and society require, for their solution, a new type of thinking. Still, we can find empirical reality the foundation both for classical (modern) and non-classical (based on social epistemology) logic.

Let us take an example. You bathe every day in the river Volga. You bathe today and you come to bathe tomorrow in the same river Volga. You cannot object that the river is still the Volga. Yet, at the same time, you see numerous changes from one day to the next—ripples appearing in, and new leaves appearing on, the water’s surface, the water temperature turning slightly colder and so on. It is possible to conclude that the river, after all, is not as it was yesterday. As Heraclitus famously observed: “You cannot enter the same river twice.”

Both conclusions are right. However, notions such as truth and objectivity did not lose their logical and historical significance; rather, they became marginal. Proponents of social epistemology should establish communication with classical logic and not try to destroy it.

Author Information: Frank Scalambrino


Editor’s Note: As we near the end of an eventful 2016, the SERRC will publish reflections considering broadly the immediate future of social epistemology as an intellectual and political endeavor.

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Image credit: Walt Jabsco, via flickr

Presently my interest in social epistemology is primarily related to policy development. Though I continue to be interested in the ways technology influences the formation of social identities, I also want to examine corporate agency. On the one hand, this relates to the notion of persona ficta and the idea that, beyond the persons comprising a group, a group itself may be considered a “person.” Take, for example, search committees for tenure-track professor positions. There is a sense in which the committee is supposed to represent the interests of the persona ficta of some group, be it the department, the university, etc. Otherwise, it would simply be the case that the committees were representing their own desires, or merely applying a merit-based template, and though the former characterization may often be true, the latter is clearly not the case. Moreover, because the decision-making is supposed to be in the name of, and based on the authority of, the persona ficta, the members of the search committee are supposedly not personally responsible for the decisions made. The questions raised by such a situation in which a persona ficta may be seen as a kind of mask covering the true social relations within the group determining the group’s decisions, I contextualize in terms of social epistemology.

On the other hand, I am interested in thinking about corporate agency and its efficacy in social environments. This is not unrelated to the question of the relation between the interests, knowledge, and actions of the corporate members which in some sense condition and sustain different types of (persona ficta) corporate agents. In other words, it is as if the collective interests, knowledge, and actions of members of a group constitute a kind of collective agent back to which changes in the world may be traced. I am interested in what I consider to be the ethical questions, which to some degree should factor into the various organizations of knowledge and power which sustain such corporate agents. To put it more narrowly and concretely would be to say, social epistemology may help us locate the points at which constitutive group members may be accountable for their contributions otherwise masked by some persona ficta. Subsequently, such accountability may be worked into policy development.

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick,


Editor’s Note: As we near the end of an eventful 2016, the SERRC will publish reflections considering broadly the immediate future of social epistemology as an intellectual and political endeavor.

Please refer to:


Image credit: Der Robert, via flickr

The Oxford Dictionary made ‘post-truth’ word of the year for 2016. Here is the definition, including examples of usage:

Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief:

‘in this era of post-truth politics, it’s easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire’

‘some commentators have observed that we are living in a post-truth age’

In STS terms, this definition is clearly ‘asymmetrical’ because it is pejorative, not neutral. It is a post-truth definition of ‘post-truth’. It is how those dominant in the epistemic power game want their opponents to be seen. In my recent symmetrical exposition of ‘post-truth’ for the Guardian, I suggested that the Oxford Dictionary’s definition speaks the lion’s truth, which tries to create as much moral and epistemic distance as possible from whatever facsimile of the truth the fox might be peddling. Thus, the fox—but not the lion—is portrayed as distorting the facts and appealing to emotion. Yet, the lion’s truth appears to the fox as simplistically straightforward and heavy-handed, often delivered in a fit of righteous indignation. Indeed, this classic portrayal of the lion/fox divide may better apply to the history of science than the history of politics.

For better or worse, STS recoiled from the post-truth worldview in 2004, when Bruno Latour famously waved the white flag in the Science Wars, which had been raging for nearly fifteen years—starting with the post-Cold War reassessment of public funding for science. Latour’s terms of surrender were telling. After all, he was the one who extended the symmetry principle from the Edinburgh School’s treatment of all human factors—regardless of whether we now deem them to have been ‘good’ and ‘bad’—to include all non-human factors as well. However, Latour hadn’t anticipated that symmetry applied not only to the range of objects studied but also the range of agents studying them.

Somewhat naively, Latour seemed to think that a universalization of the symmetry principle would make STS the central node in a universal network of those studying ‘technoscience’. Instead, everyone started to apply the symmetry principle for themselves, which led to rather cross-cutting networks and unexpected effects, especially once the principle started to be wielded by creationists, climate sceptics and other candidates for an epistemic ‘basket of deplorables’. And by turning symmetry to their advantages, the deplorables got results, at least insofar as the balance of power has gradually tilted more in their favour—again, for better or worse.

My own view has always been that a post-truth world is the inevitable outcome of greater epistemic democracy. In other words, once the instruments of knowledge production are made generally available—and they have been shown to work—they will end up working for anyone with access to them. This in turn will remove the relatively esoteric and hierarchical basis on which knowledge has traditionally acted as a force for stability and often domination. The locus classicus is the Republic, in which Plato promotes what in the Middle Ages was called a ‘double truth’ doctrine – one for the elites (which allows them to rule) and one for the masses (which allows them to be ruled).

Of course, the cost of making the post-truth character of knowledge so visible is that it also exposes a power dynamics that may become more intense and ultimately destructive of the social order. This was certainly Plato’s take on democracy’s endgame. In the early modern period, this first became apparent with the Wars of Religion that almost immediately broke out in Europe once the Bible was made readily available. (Francis Bacon and others saw in the scientific method a means to contain any such future conflict by establishing a new epistemic mode of domination.) While it is possible to defer democracy by trying to deflect attention from the naked power dynamics, as Latour does, with fancy metaphysical diversions and occasional outbursts in high dudgeon, those are leonine tactics that only serve to repress STS’s foxy roots. In 2017, we should finally embrace our responsibility for the post-truth world and call forth our vulpine spirit to do something unexpectedly creative with it.

The hidden truth of Aude sapere (Kant’s ‘Dare to know’) is Audet adipiscitur (Thucydides’ ‘Whoever dares, wins’).

Author Information: Robert Frodeman, University of North Texas,


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Image credit: valkrye131, via flickr

As we do every holiday season, last night we watched the 1951 version of Dicken’s Christmas Carol. It was deeply comforting, and deeply troubling. It’s great because the director (Desmond-Hurst) treats the subject matter with the gravity and modesty it deserves. This is the version that haunted my childhood: how Marley’s face on the door knocker frightened me, as did his banging of chains. Ditto the hand that juts out from the black figure of the ghost of Christmas Future.

But what frightens me now is what the story portends for our future. The movie declares that it’s a story of redemption, or as it says, of (individual) reclamation. But it is about something more fundamental than that. It assumes the existence of a moral and metaphysical order. The accounts always balance: Marley wears the chains he forged in life, and if Scrooge is to avoid the same fate he must come to his senses. Of course, terrible injustices exist in Dicken’s London, but there is a stability to the world that is intensely consoling. Now, however, it’s this stability and consolation that’s been lost.

I feel that the greatest task of the philosopher—I mean the term in a generic sense, which includes STSers and many others—is to try to identify the deepest, most profound, and most significant problem of his or her time and think it through. Of course, people will differ in their evaluation of what this is. But that’s ok. In fact it’s good, for it increases the chances that someone will get lucky and hit upon the right problem. This is what led me to environmental philosophy, and then to interdisciplinarity, and most recently to what might be called policy studies but which is really about thinking through the problem of the mismatch between the supply and the demand for knowledge.

Now, all these issues remain central. But I am increasingly gripped by the sense that it is our loss of a moral and metaphysical order that is the chief problem of our time—an instability that is being driven by science and technology. It’s a point that Ted Kaczynski spotted early, though I reject his methods. When I read about the latest developments in AI and DIYbiology I feel a world spinning out of control—and feel that it is this feeling, mis-interpreted, that has led us to Trump. It’s spawned a wildness that expresses itself in Trump’s statements and behavior, and of some of those who support him, a feeling that things have been spinning out of control (MAGA); but rather than trying to react in a conservative or Burkean manner to reestablish order, the urge has now become nihilistic, expressing itself as authoritarianism and irrationality—Bannon’s ‘let’s blow up the entire system’ and the GOP’s ‘who cares if Putin threw the election, our guy won’.

So it is that here, teaching in Texas, I find myself saying repeatedly to my classes: you guys say you are christian; you picket abortion clinics; but why aren’t you picketing the biology building, which represents a much greater threat to your world order? In this sense I think Fuller is correct, that our political choices are reorienting themselves from left-right to what might be called black-green—that the real debate before us is between those who seek deification via technoscience, versus those hoary old metaphysicians who declaim the folly of that path and call for the observance of some type of larger order and limit.

It’s a battle that I fear I am on the losing side of. Which goes a long way to explain my love of old movies like A Christmas Carol, where I can (for all the Jim Crow or sexism or other stupidities) for an hour or two find a moral and metaphysical order that offers me solace.

Author Information: Matthew R. X. Dentith, ICUB Fellow, University of Bucharest,


Editor’s Note: As we near the end of an eventful 2016, the SERRC will publish reflections considering broadly the immediate future of social epistemology as an intellectual and political endeavor.

Please refer to:


Image credit: Fabrizio Angius, via flickr

Call me self-interested, but as the festive season approaches, and (some) duties relax, I find I now have the time to consider those pernicious thoughts which are the dull echoes at the back of my mind. ‘What is it about social epistemology’, they rattle (like a certain Dickensian spectre) ‘that keeps you working right up to Christmas eve?’

My work, thus far, has been the analysis of how epistemic agents like ourselves work out how we judge the warrant of particular conspiracy theories. It is interesting work (at least personally), and occasionally it makes one paranoid (as evidenced by increasingly plausible conspiracy theories concerning the recent US presidential elections). Yet one cannot appraise conspiracy theories alone. Indeed, the vast number of them we seem to encounter on a weekly (sometimes daily) basis can sometimes make one think ‘Stuff this for a lark!’ and retreat into the kind of scepticism of conspiracy theories generally I (and other philosophers) have argued is prima facie unprincipled. As such, the issue which motivates me (and, I argue, is a central concern when it comes to the whole social epistemological project) is how we distribute the epistemic load when it comes to assessing complex claims.

After all, if I asked you to appraise and judge all the conspiracy theories you know, you would never have time for coffee, let alone breakfast. Judging the merits (or lack thereof) of specific conspiracy theories is a hard task, given they are oft complex claims, made up of different types of evidence, and relying on the testimony of persons who may, or may not be experts. Yet traditional treatments of how we judge and appraise conspiracy theories usually rely on individual epistemic agents working out on their own what to believe, with some hand-waving towards claims about ‘and taking into account what the experts say…’

Surely, though, the model of how we appraise any complex claim about the world is one where individual epistemic agents rely not just on their own epistemic abilities, but also that of their epistemic peers? Rather, we distribute the cognitive load throughout our epistemic communities. Now, any conspiracy theorist worth their salt will reply ‘But what about the possibility that the epistemic community is conspired, or filled with disinformation agents?’ Awkward as it seems, we cannot easily dismiss such a reply, given that any historically or politically literate person can provide us with examples of conspiracies where certain groups abused appeals to authority, or subverted public institutions. As such, how we distribute the epistemic burden when it comes to appraising and judging conspiracy theories is a (to my mind) a central (and thus interesting) question in social epistemology, because it allows us to interrogate a far more fundamental set of questions—what duties (if any) do individual epistemic agents have when hearing some conspiracy theory, and what should we require (if anything) of other epistemic agents in our communities? We can get to the answer to those questions via a whole range of different cases, but it turns out (for me at least) talk of belief in conspiracy theories seems the most obvious route.

Author Information: Alcibiades Malapi-Nelson,


Editor’s Note: As we near the end of an eventful 2016, the SERRC will publish reflections considering broadly the immediate future of social epistemology as an intellectual and political endeavor.

Please refer to:


Image credit: Dan Brickley, via flickr

I finished a BA(Hon) in Latin America, an MA in French Canada and recently a PhD in English Canada. All in philosophy. The first part of my formation was entirely Continental, the second mostly Analytical and the third (and longest) was in a field “above” the two previous ones: Philosophy of Science.

My current research revolves around the future of humanity due to innovative and disruptive research occurring within Converging Technologies—Nanotechnology, Information Technology, Biotechnology and Cognitive Science (NBIC). Since NBIC’s research agenda openly aims at the profound alteration of the human condition, I explore the implications of these technologies for our understanding of what it will mean to be “human” at the cognitive and biological levels, along with its ethical ramifications. I pursued the doctoral degree in order to locate, articulate and clarify the origins of this hopeful yet disruptive view: classical cybernetics. This investigation starts in Philosophy of Science and Cognitive Science and develops into Metaphysics and Philosophy of Technology. I am publishing a book in 2017 on this topic for Palgrave Macmillan.

The second aspect of my research agenda focuses on the ethical ramifications of the previous theme. Departing from Ethics of Technology and Science Policy, I want to develop an alternative view to the “precautionary” approach usually found as public policy’s default position towards the possible social repercussions of pervasively disruptive technologies. Precautionary stances tend to emphasize the potential dangers of both pioneering scientific and unprecedented technological avenues of research, calling for the slowing down or even halting of investigation until the side effects are better known. In response to this, many researchers do not feel comfortable with the alleged “red tape” that is in contrast absent in other research environments. I anticipate an alternative position deserving further exploration—one that would foster a risk-friendly approach but nevertheless regulated by the state, so as to prevent: a) Already occurring radically libertarian stances prone to be ultimately subsumed by corporations; b) A gradual but steady brain drain towards more “ethics-free” environments. The feasibility of an alternative “proactionary” approach, which is increasingly gaining traction, will be further articulated, evaluated, and if possible, improved.

A spinoff of the previous two research paths, already briefly hinted at in my book, will be the exploration of the metaphysical and religious surreptitious commitments behind these canonically secular investigations.

Post-Truth Blues? Adam Briggle

SERRC —  December 22, 2016 — 6 Comments

Author Information: Adam Briggle, University of North Texas,


Editor’s Note: As we near the end of an eventful 2016, the SERRC will publish reflections considering broadly the immediate future of social epistemology as an intellectual and political endeavor.

Please refer to:


Image credit: Tim, via flickr

I think that 2017 might find social epistemologists busy reckoning with the fallout from the word of the year in 2016: post-truth. The definition for post-truth is: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The Oxford English Dictionary online gives this example: “in this era of post-truth politics, it’s easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire.”

Bruno Latour might snidely conclude that “we have always been post-truth,” because there never was such a thing as objectivity and cherry-picking data is a game as old as data. Steve Fuller wrote something similar in a recent column. Daniel Sarewitz might as well just say “No duh! We have long suffered from an ‘excess of objectivity’!”

Finally, the world has bought what we have been selling! Oh…hmmm …

Now, maybe it is just my weak stomach, but I am feeling queasy with sellers’ remorse. If all expertise is just institutionalized power, then forget the fourth branch of government—CIA, DOE, EPA, Economic Council of Advisors, Department of Education—all of it is suspect and subject to revision. It strikes me as eerily similar to the conditions in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany that prompted Robert K. Merton to articulate the normative structure of science. Or maybe it is better thought of as “the problem of extension:” Perhaps someone other than a nuclear physicist can run the DOE, given that it is tangled up in all sorts of non-technical aspects of society, but Rick Perry?

I wonder if some of us might whistle a guilty tune under our breath, turn around and start re-assembling some of the structures we had earlier pulled apart.

Deconstructing such wooly myths like ‘objective facts’ I wonder if the social epistemology crowd might feel a bit of sellers’ remorse on this score.

Author Information: Mark D. West, University of North Carolina, Asheville,

West, Mark D. “The Holidays and What is Given.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 12 (2016): 17-19.

Editor’s Note: As we near the end of an eventful 2016, the SERRC will publish reflections considering broadly the immediate future of social epistemology as an intellectual and political endeavor.

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

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Image credit: geir tønnessen, via flickr

We have reached the holidays, and for some of us, these are happy times. The media, at least, treat these days as if the merriment and cheer are givens; decorations festoon stores and public places, and music about Christmas cheer permeates any space; where two or more are gathered; there “Jingle Bell Rock” is in their midst.

In the Jewish tradition, winter season means a hanukkiah will make its yearly appearance, with the story of how one’s family came to own it. A normal menorah has seven branches, each with a candle holder; a hanukkiah has an eighth helper candle, which is out of line with the others. The hanukkiah is used only on Hanukkah, with its light serving no function other than to recall the miracle of Hanukkah.

Every hanukkiah brings with it a story, and every hanukkiah is itself a gift of memory. Our hanukkiah was carried by my cousin through the streets of Jerusalem, down the crowded streets, and across the United States, finally coming to rest in our home, a gift after many years of travel. Other families tell stories of hanukkiah smuggled from foreign countries under the glare of repressive regimes, carried in suitcases through customs at Ellis Island, bought for pennies in shtetls in lands long fled. The hanukkiah is a given of the holiday, and is, often, itself, a given. Like a menorah, it gives light; but the light is for only one purpose—a ‘given’ purpose.

Gift and Given

Considering that the root of both ‘gift’ and ‘given’ is the Proto-Indo-European root *ghabh-, “to give or receive”, I don’t think it is too far afield, in this season of giving and receiving, to consider not only gifts but givens, which, after all, to be givens must have been given by someone or something. As such, we might ask ourselves as social epistemologists what are the givens of our field, and what does it mean, in Jean-Luc Marion’s pregnant formulation, to exist in the realm of the “étant donné,” the “being given?”

What I mean by that is that we (the rational ‘cogita’ who operate as the members of the SERRC) take ourselves as ‘givens,’ as ‘données.’ From our own existence, we bootstrap the existence of groups (if I can exist, then I must, as a good agent of the Enlightenment, grant such agency to others, who as aggregates, are groups). Once we assume our own existence as a ‘given,’ we can take as our ‘given’ the group; and our ‘gift’ to the world of the philosophical is the notion of group epistemology. Particularly in this age of the Internet, and of electronic publications and forums, the disembodied res cogitans of Descartes is closer to our felt sense of what we are, as a group, than we might wish.

The cogito, and various discussions of it such as Hintikka’s (1962, reprinted in 1967), are familiar to all. But, as Williams (2014) suggests, the Cartesian argument (“cogito, ergo sum”) is posed in a more complex manner than the familiar formulation has it; Descartes imagines first the existence of a deity, then (implicitly) a self thinking of that deity and the qualities of that deity including benevolence; then he imagines that some malicious entity might cause him to perceive the world and its qualities in some way that does not accurately reflect the real. But, reasons Descartes, he himself is thinking, and from that he bootstraps that he exists; hence “cogito, ergo sum” is the endpoint, not the beginning, of a thought process; and that thought process is more akin to an intuition than to a proof, one which Stone (1993) argues is best understood as an enthymeme. Boos (1983) argues that the cogito’s ‘thoughtless thinking’ must be about something; and that the Cartesian formulation ends up as a metalogical formulation something like “If I doubt that I am, I am,” with the “I am” serving as the “point ferme” of Gueroult (1953) and the Archimedian fixed point of the cogito’s Gödelian diagonal lemma.

As Boos suggests, the implication of this is clear; this sounds suspiciously like a variant of the Hintikka’s Positive Introspection Axiom (the KK-thesis), which argues that agents know that they know what they know. The debate concerning this thesis is substantial (see, for example, Williamson 2000; Ginet 1970; Carrier 1974). But our theorizing must begin somewhere; we must accept some sort of metatheoretic notion if we are to devise theories at all. In our case, if we are to speak of groups, there must be individuals, and the first individual of all is “I.” That is our given, if we are to avoid the endless cycle of “no more this than that” of the Pyrrhonian skeptics.

Assumptions and Limitations

This is not to say that a domain of study can not function with a fully negative conceptualization of its object of study. Jean-Luc Marion, in his book God Without Being (1995), considers the limiting case of an apophatic theology; if we can, as Maimonides (Benor 1995) argued, make only negative assertions as to the attributions of a divine entity, are we not at some point forced to suggest that even being is an attribute which the divine entity does not possess?

As Marion (2002) suggests, the givenness of the existence of a divine entity is not the predicate of theology, but the existence of those searching for the divine entity is; as Kaplan (2010) argued, it is possible to have Judaism without a deity, but not without Jews. In a philosophical vein, how does one privilege Husserl’s Gegebenheit (Leask 2003) without merely assuming it as a given? How do we understand Being without taking it as given, and without somehow making that ‘given’ into a ‘Given,’ with a somehow transcendental ‘Giver?’

We, as social epistemologists, are in an interesting position with such questions. We, at some level, are can-kickers par excellence; in our struggle to explain knowledge structures as arising from groups, we are indeed situated in a local struggle, with its own give and take. But sometimes, perhaps, we should look up from our regional debates, and consider the larger issues afield; the “not yet” of Hegel’s “tarrying with the negative” (Foshay 2002) of these limits of the Given, and of the gifts we receive, and give, as a result of this struggle.


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