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Comments are responses to existing SERRC contributions, including articles and book reviews.

Author Information: Frank Scalambrino franklscalambrino@gmail.com

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

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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group_account

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, S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk

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

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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fox_in_snow

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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, Robert.Frodeman@unt.edu

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

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dickins_christmas

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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, m.dentith@episto.org

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

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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conspiracy_3

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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, alci.malapi@outlook.com

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

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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precaution

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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, Adam.Briggle@unt.edu

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

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:

the_blues

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@unca.edu

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

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winter_fog

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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.

References

Benor, Ehud Z. “Meaning and Reference in Maimonides’ Negative Theology.” Harvard Theological Review 88, no. 3 (1995): 339-360.

Boos, William. “A Self-Referential ‘Cogito’.” Philosophical Studies 44, no. 2 (1983): 269-290.

Carrier, L. S. “Skepticism Made Certain.” The Journal of Philosophy 71, no 5 (1974): 140-150.

Foshay, Raphael. “‘Tarrying with the Negative’: Bataille and Derrida’s Reading of Negation in Hegel’s Phenomenology.” The Heythrop Journal 43, no. 3 (2002): 295-310.

Ginet, Carl. “What Must be Added to Knowing to Obtain Knowing That One Knows?” Synthese 21 no. 2 (1970): 163-186.

Gueroult, Martial. Descartes Selon L’ordre des Raisons, 2 vols. (Descartes’ Philosophy Interpreted according to the Order of Reasons). Paris: Aubier, 1953.

Hintikka, Jaakko. “Cogito, Ergo Sum: Inference or Performance?” In Descartes – A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Willis Doney, 108-139. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 1967.

Kaplan, Mordecai M. Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life. Jewish Publication Society, 2010.

Leask, Ian. “Husserl, Givenness, and the Priority of the Self.” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 11, no. 2 (2003): 141-156.

Marion, Jean-Luc. God Without Being: Hors-Texte. University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Marion, Jean-Luc. Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness. Stanford University Press, 2002.

Stone, Jim. “Cogito Ergo Sum.” The Journal of Philosophy 90, no. 9 (1993): 462-468.

Williams, Bernard. Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Williamson, Timothy. Knowledge and Its Limits. Oxford University Press, 2000.

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

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

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. For this post, Clarissa was kind enough share, and write a new abstract for, “ArtScientist/ScienceArtist: Finding a Creative-Intellectual Room of One’s Own” from her rebooted blog Lateral Worlds.

art-science

Image credit: Carlos Andrés Reyes, via flickr

In thinking about a direction for 2017, this blog post concerns some of the practical directions I hope to take with my work as a social epistemologist. That comes in the form of navigating the possibilities and difficulties of creating a potential for consilience between the arts and the sciences, not so much from the idea of a unity as that tends to sub-serve socially and economically more dominant epistemology over the other, but in terms of the method and process of creating new knowledge. Such negotiation can be referred to as “artscience” or “science-art”, one that operates less from and obligation to cross between the arts and the sciences than a necessity of moving away from thinking in terms of binarism or pluralism. What this could mean in practice is something the post explores.

Now that I am going from full-time vacation to half-time in the week leading up to Christmas, the start of the second week of vacation cum transition period is also a good time to do a sort of personal review of a book, David Edwards’s ArtScience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation, and explain what it means for me as I am now configuring my research programme for the next year, to combine the interests and work started in the past I had not have a chance to pursue further due to various constraints with the work I do now. Most importantly, I have to figure out how to work with what I do have, or that which I can access.

I bought this book on a whim, four years ago, from the enormous Powell’s warehouse in Portland, OR, and only finished reading it yesterday. It is a quarto-size book of about 190++ pages, and quite an accessible read despite being a scholarly book, although this depends on the reader’s inclination and how much time he/she wants to take with it. Edwards actually breaks up the explication of the subject in a rather topically coherent manner, across seven chapters. He breaks up the story that he tells about the artscientists/science-artists across the chapters to highlight relevant aspects of their stories to the theme of each of the chapter they appear in. Edwards uses the term artscientists in the book, though I would like to split that up for reasons I will explain in the next paragraph. The aert scientist is a term to denote those whose work do not quite fit into the box of their disciplines, yet whose explorations outside that box are integral to inventing novel, though not entirely unprecedented from a global intellectual history perspective, ways of not only thinking about their fields, but also about how to make their contributions matter beyond the confines of their fields.

As Edwards is particularly interested in those whose work straddle the artistic and the scientific, he does not spend much time in talking about those whose work are largely confined to singles cultural fields (be they only within the humanities, the social sciences, or the sciences/engineering), probably because they would not fulfill the goal of bridging the “two cultures” first explicitly underlined by C.P. Snow, nor would they be accurately considered as art-scientists or science-artists. Nevertheless, one could consider the book itself as an engagement into transdisciplinary epistemology and practice by nature of its advocacy for the production of ways of knowing that are still emergent. I will not actually talk about the cases Edwards use in the book as this is not that kind of review, but rather, how the arguments of the book work for me intellectually, and for my intellectual projects. But I highly recommend that book to anyone interested in the discussion of transdisciplinary artscience practices as the explication of the topic in this book is quite inspiring, even if not perfect. Moreover, unlike works that would take very particular views, Edwards appears open to considering the multiple ways in which such practices manifest not merely within obvious sites, or sites that are familiar ground to him, but outside of those comfort zones.

The artscientist is someone who does not feel that using merely the tools dictated by the authorities of their discipline help them in answering the questions they pose, or even allow them to bring their own disciplinary professional engagement to a level that is satisfying and fulfilling – the sense that life is lived to the full. While Edwards uses the term artscientist to discuss those who make art a part of their  scientific method inasmuch as they make science a practice of their art, I would like to talk about the science-artist to denote a scientist who uses art as a research method, or even one who sees themselves as natural scientist (or one who has the temperament of a scientist), or even an engineer and technologist, but does not turn to the usual method for approaching the science – instead, they have natural affinity with the process of artistic creation (or artistic approach) to working with the science of their choice – taking on the tools of an artist and not calling themselves scientists even if they might possess some of the same specialty knowledge (or almost equivalent level of knowledge); and in some cases, even advanced training in the sciences, but choose not to identify professionally as a scientist, nor work in another field of humanities and the social scientist that do not challenge the dominant doctrines from their scientific training. Some might even choose to work with their science outside the constraints of the laboratory, a specific fieldwork as usually defined by their science, or the computer and blackboard without complete disconnection from such tools or sites.

The art can come in many forms – it could be textual-visual, tactile, kinetic, audio, and any other form and method of artistic expression. Some of the examples Edwards uses represent those who could potentially be identify as such, though for the most part, his artscientists are still wedded to some form of disciplinarity, even if they assimilate processes and ideas that fall outside of the disciplines they work from. As he admits, almost all of his case studies receive support, at varying levels, from institutions even if that support was not directly for the process of their engagement, but rather, the successful outcome stemming from the process. The way an science-artist works follows the indefinable/lateral processes that Edwards talk about, but their work might not necessarily be accepted by other scientists, or even those who profess themselves as guardians of the scientific method (which could therefore include philosophers of science, historians of science, and sociologists of science). In other words, the work of this group of people might be largely invisible, or perhaps only be known by other identifiers that obfuscate the science-artist nature of the work or process. One thing that Edwards mentioned in the final chapter of the book is revealing of the true nature of the art-scientist/science-artist – their work cannot be replicated or repeated easily by others because they are not using methods that could be readily identified or even transmitted, not even by another artscientist/science-artist. In other words, the method is not methodical, the system is systematic but not reducible to distinguishable parts.

Even as he tells stories of these inspirational men and women who consider the process as important, if not more important, than the end goal of the achievement, and acknowledges the difficulties under which they operate, many of his examples are successful men and women from largely privileged and well-resourced backgrounds – if they were not already privileged from the beginning, they attained the position of privilege by the time they were at the prime of their creative lives. Even if there is no specific and well-defined resource or institution that supports their work, these men and women have enough access to certain resources to allow their work to continue on the side.  It is the same whether one operates from the first world, with many resources, or in the third world, where the resources are  less accessible to those not from a sufficiently elite background. That said, I am interested in exploring how one could make the ideas of artscience practice work for someone without institutional support and how one could go about building the required networks and resources to do the work.

Most importantly, I am interested in knowing how one could integrate many of the foundational inquiries of an artscience/science-art work into larger social-epistemological issues involving problems of disability (one of the gripes I have with the book is the lack of a sufficiently diverse example of an artscientist/science-artist who has to grapple with much more than epistemic/intellectual/creative resistance to their cause), lack of material resource (as a neoliberal economy has made less and less knowledge accessible while expecting ‘originality’ that stems from having access),  social prejudices/bigotry, and many other forms of inqeuity that the knowledge/creative worker operates from.  For artscience not to replicate the same hegemonic and stiffling ideologies of the other academic/industrial/’creative’ institutions, it must not operate from a position of political indifference or ignorance. Edwards addresses how a certain level of socio-political awareness drove decision of his examples to engage in the work they do, and the work itself does not necessarily represent a foundational invention at an epistemic level, but rather, a form of socio-epistemic innovation, i.e. when a medical doctor and specialist uses not only her medical knowledge, but her interest in performing arts, visual art, and public communication, to allow for social medicine to engage directly with the scientific aspect of the medicine (though probably not in the way that a rigid ideologue of a logico-deductive version of scientific method would recognise as engagement). However, I am curious if one can make foundational level engagement matter even to those who are not direct beneficiaries to such innovations, but who can derive less direct benefits. As a practising social-epistemologists, I daresay that there is a lot of room for that level of engagement in artscience or science-arti practices, although it depends as much on the person involved as on the work done.

One of the continuous theme throughout the book is that of idea translation, and the acknowledgement that the idea translation can come in many forms that could be far from straightforward, heuristic in nature, non-linear, and prone to failure (depending on one’s ability to find resonance with one’s target audience). Although most of the chapters of the book are focused on examples of individuals who function largely from the academy or from public institutions, Edwards also provides examples of how those in the industry, such as venture capitalist and consultants, engage across the spectrum of art and science in the services they offer. But as Edwards acknowledges the constraints that probably make the engagement they make. Therefore, however exceptional they may seem to the industry they are in, it is possible that their contributions might still be considered mundane when viewed from a global and broader perspective of potential that could emerge from artscience/science-art practices. It is my intent to see if there is a way for breaking out of this impasse, although it might mean having to start with less ambition and doing what is more coherent even as one moves towards increasingly risky ventures.

Another interesting argument Edwards makes in the book, and which I agree with completely, is the lack of going beyond the ideas-scheme when it comes to academy –  a system that does not reward that academic who tries to operationalise their work beyond the publication of their idea schemes that come from their working in isolation or collaboratively (the difficulties and false promises of collaboration is very well-addressed in the book); or to fulfill the expectation of grants they are expected to obtain to fulfill the expectation of their KPIs). Edwards mostly limit his examples to potential collaboration with industry (commercial) and certain artistic organisations – I would like to see how this could be done in collaboration with other forms of social-entrepreneurship. Many  NGOS start up but fail because they lack the spectrum of human resource that are capable of making maintaining the good idea seed through idealism with strong doses of savvy and pragmatism that only those with experiences that come from engaging with a variety of work/situations outside of strict boundaries could offer.  Many NGOS fail, or fall into stasis, because many lack precisely that ability to synergise and synthesise a diverse, and not even always ideologically homogeneous, workforce, while the problem of collaborative effort and sustainability are under-addressed. If one were to start up an NGO that is in the service of producing ideas and workable recommendations for society from a non-traditional angle, how could that look like?

Finally, given my own interest in conceptualising novelty, there are many examples of novelty in different forms and practices that serve as the roadmap for researchers and scholars such as myself attempting to understand what it would mean to design and implement a research program that is novel from a social-epistemological perspective. This brings me back to the earlier connection that I have made to transdisciplinarity, and how an artscientist/science-artist is truly a practitioner of transdisciplinary social-epistemology, although the outcome of that practice could range from one that is not coherent but still recognisable, to one that is coherently unrecognisable, or even that which is neither coherent nor recognisable stemming not from vagueness, but rather, from one’s inability to pin them to anything familiar to one’s experience.

In reading that book, I am reminded again of an ambition I had from fifteen years ago, fresh off college, of how I could find overlaps in the arts and sciences and find a fulfilling niche for myself, working at that intersection. I moved away from science, which was my original training, not because I got fed-up or bored with it (I found the curriculum boring and not engaging but that was the problem of the course structure, not with the subject matter itself), because I felt an absence I could not properly articulate then.  That search brought me into the humanities, and for a few years, I was happily immersed in the field, though I never forget my first love, which was science. By the time I came to the PhD, I knew I was not a fully converted humanist but rather, one who needs to exist in a composite world. I pushed that thought aside because I felt I needed to conform to get ahead, but the problem keeps cropping up and I realise I have difficulties identifying myself with any particular discipline, which makes applying for a tenure-track job (or even most postdocs), a challenge. While my colleagues and friends largely wrestle with what jobs are available within the interdiscipline of their discipline, or discipline of a seemingly interdisciplinary position, and apply accordingly, worrying only if they will get to the next level of consideration, my anxieties come in a completely different form, because academically speaking, I am equivalent to a homeless waif.

For a long time, I wrestled with the possibility that I might be too fickle to commit to any particular discipline or profession but now I realise that I am committed, but not to something that could be considered as regular at this time. Even before graduate school, I had thought of becoming an entrepreneur (perhaps a hybrid of social-intellectual entrepreneur) in order to preserve an independence I protect so jealously – much of my knowledge of entrepreneurship stems from the various jobs I have held to support my ‘academic habit’; family, friends and acquaintances who are entrepreneurs, and my own research into the different facets of the entrepreneurial position. While pragmatism and profitability are both important,  they are not the only main determinants to a successful business of any sort. Moreover, if I were to sell something, it has to be something that I would be interested in, as a consumer of that product, and that would be something crucial to the shaping of my professional agenda in 2017. The book reminds me that there are people out there wrestling with this difficulty at varying levels, and the point is as much in the journey as in the endgame.

Author Information: Morteza Hashemi, Warwick University, s.m.hashemi-madani@warwick.ac.uk

Hashemi, Morteza. “From Ibn Khaldun’s Point of View Fidel is Not Dead: Or, What Does the Rise of The Donald Tell Us About the Future?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 12 (2016): 13-16.

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

fidel_che_fishing

Image credit: RV1864, via flickr

What can Ibn Khaldun, the medieval philosopher of history, teach us about the simultaneous death of Fidel and rise of The Donald? The answer is: ‘wait for the return of the Fidel’.

In The Orange Trees of Marrakesh, Stephen Dale writes about the genius social observation of the medieval Muslim philosopher Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), who believed that one of the symptoms of a ‘dynastic senility’ is ironically the invigorating scent of the blossoms of the decorative orange trees (Dale 2015, 248). The popularity of the inedible (hence useless) fruit of those trees shows that the ruling dynasty is completely drowned in luxury. The rulers who pay for such decorative trees are neither brave enough nor trained enough to be ready for unpredictable future crises. The scent of the blossoms does show the beginning of a storm. It shows that the time of the dominant empire is over. The next crisis is likely to bring down the arrogant, thin-skin and luxurious rulers.

Social Cohesion

Writing in North Africa at the end of the Middle Ages, Ibn Khaldun was considering the invasion of the Bedouins and nomadic people as the next crisis. The Bedouins, thanks to their life-long and effective training, were ready for serious battles. They could be a handful of people, but they were highly motivated, acting in harmony with the rest of the members of the group. The term that Ibn Khaldun used to describe their mutual attachment is ‘Assabiyah’ which means ‘social cohesion’ or ‘group feeling’ (Alatas 2014, 26). They were taking a bullet for each other. The worst vices of human being for the Bedouins were betraying a friend or a comrade. Hence, they were organised, trained and also work in group. Indeed, these features made them undefeatable.

This is Ibn Khaldun’s image of history; a cyclical process of defeat of the sedentary society by the nomadic people, the civilization by the Bedouins, and the cowards by the braves. But after their victory, the Bedouins of today will be the luxurious, thin-skin, pleasure-seeking, cowards of tomorrow. He predicts that the triumphant Bedouins will become weaker and weaker by each generation. Lastly, the fourth generation of the rulers will be completely alien to the strict exercise regime of the founding fathers of their dynasty. The fourth-generation rulers will be the ‘city-boys’ who do not know anything about handling crises. In the meantime, somewhere deep in the desert a new generation of young Bedouins are getting ready for their harsh everyday life. Hence, they might be the next crisis for the inhabitants of the city.

Many have tried to update Ibn Khaldun’s historical theory for our time. You can find an interesting attempt in Applying Ibn Khaldun by Farid Alatas (2014). But for now, I want to suggest that Ibn Khaldun’s theory gives us an analytic tool to learn a lesson about the future. What does the death of Fidel Castro and the simultaneous victory of Donald Trump tell us about the future?

On Khaldun’s Theory

There are three main elements in Ibn Khaldun’s theory. (1) The environment, (2) the training system and (3) the final products of the dialectical relationship of the environment and the training system. These products are, in fact, two opposing human characters. In the North Africa of his time, the environment of the Bedouins was the desert. But in Fidel’s case that was the mountains of Sierra Maestra in Cuba. For three years, Fidel, Che Guevara and their small group of revolutionaries were hiding and fighting in the mountains. While almost all the powerful rulers of Cuba of the time as well as the US politicians were against them. Fidel’s group were unsure about their future. It was very likely that they will be imprisoned, tortured or murdered. Still they had the high degree of ‘Assabiya’ as well as motivation. This helped them to survive three years of guerrilla fight in the mountains.

At 1953 when Fidel’s small group of revolutionaries were battling for survival in the mountains, Donald Trump was a six-year-old boy living in his parents’ multimillion-dollar worth property in New York. To his credit, Trump attended New York Military Academy (NYMA) at age thirteen, though a few years later during the Vietnam War he obtained four student deferments. This issue was addressed during the 2016 presidential race when he attacked previous Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who is a Vietnam War veteran. ‘The Donald’ mostly lives in the phenomenal towers that belongs to him. His current house is a Manhattan skyscraper named after him. Cannot you already smell the scent of the orange blossoms in the Trump tower—the trees without any edible fruit?

In terms of the training system, Fidel and The Donald have two completely opposing experiences. Although, interestingly, both of them came from a wealthy family background. Fidel’s father was a relatively rich farmer. Nonetheless, Fidel consciously chose a revolutionary and anti-establishment approach. He was imprisoned, escaped, and afterwards never gave up the battle. Che Guevara praised Fidel in many of his notes about their epic struggle for survival in Sierra Maestra. For example he wrote: “Fidel marched at the head of a tiny guerrilla unit, and saw what no one dared to see; during those days of defeat he saw victory, and his wonderful faith in the power of the people sustained and inspired everyone” (https://goo.gl/RKbvL7).

Moreover, Che could see that Fidel is not just a normal Bedouin but the incarnation of a revolutionary spirit. Again he wrote: “What sustained them [the Cuban revolutionaries] was a common ideal: Cuba. And they were driven by a faith that could move mountains: that of Fidel” (https://goo.gl/RKbvL7). Fidel’s ideology was a mixture of nationalism and Marxism, but still not reducible to any of them. Later on, at 1960s a journalist asked the leader of the Soviet Union if Fidel is a communist. Khrushchev answered that he does not know if Fidel is a communist or not. “What I know is that I am a Fidelist”, he added. True Bedouin don’t just talk the talk: They walk the walk. They are not interested in being what Kant calls ‘artisans of reason’ with an intellectually interesting ideology. The Bedouin rather embodies the idea.

Comparing Fidel to The Donald on this aspect is also interesting. It is almost impossible to say what are The Donald’s principles. He has been a member of both of the major American political parties in the past three decades. If you search in his speeches, you can find almost everything. He is pro-choice and pro-life, against war and pro war, and racist and anti-racist. There is a simple reason. No principles guide his behaviour, other than selfishness, pleasure-seeking and the lure of worldly success. Trump’s hedonism joined to a radical individualism, from a Khaldunian point of view, is the greatest indication of the fourth generation of rulers without any moral compass. The fourth generation of rulers do not believe in any necessary universally valid principle because holding one true moral, political and religious principle is not an essential part of their environment. Because such a principle is the cornerstone of a training system which is a machine for producing strong fighters and rulers, one cannot find such a character in the city.

Becoming Weaker

The measure of success in the city is the individual. In the complex life of sedentary civilizations, that success might be in artistic or economic achievements—though such a success is unavoidably one dimensional. In other words, in the city one cannot be professional in everything. That is because the life of the city is too complex for that. One dimensional people are also dependent on each other. This reminds us what Emile Durkheim called the ‘organic solidarity’ (Durkheim 2014). Whether you prefer the ‘organic solidarity’ of the urbanites or the ‘mechanical solidarity’ of the Bedouins, Ibn Khaldun has bad news for the city dwellers: At the highest level of advancement of a civilization, people become weaker and weaker to the point that they cannot make the right decisions at the right time to handle the forthcoming crises. So, they become more and more fragile and insecure.

If Ibn Khaldun were still alive, he would see that fragility and insecurity vividly in the American media representation of the US and the other countries. I have been a reader of The Economist magazine in the past five years. The magazine’s level of detachment from the real world of facts strikes me as astonishing. Just look at the cover photos of the magazine in the past two years. You will see the depiction of the US as the mighty, powerful and great country as always. While any sort of bad news in other countries means their destruction, failure, and the long-expected demise.  You can see several depictions of the Chinese dragon falling into the sea, Russia’s failed propaganda, Iran and Cuba’s failure of the revolutionary projects. In The Economist’s fantasy world, everybody is doomed to fail, while ‘we’ win. It is a good example because The Economist is a relatively elitist magazine, not a tabloid. This illusion is the twenty-first century counterpart to the invigorating scent of the blossoms of decorative trees. No wonder that the American journalists could not even imagine the victory of Trump in the 2016th presidential election.

Finally, Fidel and The Donald are the products of two different environments and two opposing training systems. Fidel survived around 600 assassination attempts. It has been claimed that many of those assassination plans were designed by the CIA to fail but the greater goal was to make Fidel psychologically fragile. However, he physically survived all of

them and psychologically stayed strong. Even he famously was joking about it: “if surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal”. Now compare this with the president-elect of the US. Trump has reportedly complained about his ‘unflattering double chin photos’ during a media meeting a few days after his victory in the election (https://goo.gl/PSoedW). Known as a thin-skinned person, he also publicly shows his anger about a TV comic portrayal of himself (https://goo.gl/zGDnzh). Yes, indeed Trump is the symbol of the end of an empire.

The Next Bedouins

It is noteworthy that the US was built itself by the Bedouins. In another coincidence, the year of the presidential election was the year of release of a highly successful Broadway musical about Alexander Hamilton; one of the Founding Fathers. He was a mixed race nobody from a poor family who moved to America and eventually became the founder of the US financial system.

Still, we cannot predict who the Bedouins of the next dynasty are. But if we look at it from a Khaldunian point of view, Trump’s victory means that somewhere in an unknown small city, a distant desert or an unimportant mountain there is a Fidel who was just born, or an Alexander Hamilton who is learning to walk. We cannot predict who the new Bedouin of our time is but that person will put their country on the map. Just as Fidel did. Castro showed us where Cuba is located. He transformed a small country to a great challenge for a global superpower. Not only could Castro’s Cuba overthrow a US backed dictator but also change the rest of the world. Cuba was one of the few countries that helped Mandela in his triumph over the apartheid regime (https://goo.gl/hclNUC). The Cuba of Fidel was a significant international political actor. Havana after him was not merely another Las Vegas with decorative trees for the American tourists. Hence, the new Cuba might be Rwanda, Malta or one of those tiny island countries with a funny name.

References

Alatas, Syed Farid. Applying Ibn Khaldun: The Recovery of a Lost Tradition in Sociology. London: Routledge, 2014.

Dale, Stephen Frederic. The Orange Trees of Marrakesh: Ibn Khaldun and the Science of Man. Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2105.

Durkheim, Emile. The Division of Labour in Society. New York: Free Press, 2104.

 

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3j9

Editor’s Note:

where_democracy

Image credit: Lorraine Murphy, via flickr

Three facts are striking about the US presidential election:

1. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, though she lost the Electoral College, which decides the presidency.

2. Voter turnout was much lower than initially expected, and this meant that especially Black voters—who overwhelmingly backed Clinton—came out in smaller numbers.

3. The pollsters got it wrong, and they especially got it wrong in places where the people who live there are most unlike themselves. And those people overwhelmingly voted for Trump. They’ve been called ‘silent voters’ in this election. Richard Nixon, following a rather similarly surprising victory in 1968, famously called them the ‘silent majority’.

This doesn’t look to me like populism but a loss of faith in democracy. And here perhaps the most brilliant move of the Trump campaign was to declare that the vote was rigged before most of the votes had even been cast. This effectively discouraged the people who had most relied on the ballot box as their means to salvation from casting their vote. It also added to the cynical ‘politics as usual’ attitude that Trump had sown by portraying Clinton as standing for everything that’s wrong with the federal government. However, the people who supported Trump weren’t necessarily great believers in democracy, given their high tolerance for Trump’s anti-democratic statements (even if eventually modified or reversed). What Trump’s supporters liked about their man was his resolve—and his seeming ability—to get things done, by whatever means it takes.

The moral of the 2016 election then is that democracy itself—especially in the complex representational form that it takes in the United States—is the big loser. Like Brexit, the Trump phenomenon was made possible by a rage that doesn’t add up to a positive plan of action. But much more explicitly than Brexit, which actually was brought about by an opening up of democratic processes (through the use of referendum), the 2016 US presidential election was a vote against the democratic system itself—both in terms of who voted and who didn’t vote.

The pollsters got all this wrong perhaps because they mistakenly presumed that the voters shared their own and the political class’s belief that their problems can in principle be solved at the ballot box. It will be interesting to see just how much Trump is tempted to fiddle with the US Constitution. Watch out especially for his Supreme Court nominees, who are capable of doing the most long-term damage to the system. In any case, it should give pause to those of us who still believe in democratic processes about whether much is to be gained by staging mass protests saying ‘Trump is not my president!’ and promising endless resistance to whatever Trump does. It seems to me that this will only reinforce the view of Trump supporters that democracy is a broken system and requires still more radical remedies. But it is not at all clear how true believers in democracy go from there.