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Critical Replies are engagements with articles recently published in Social Epistemology.

Author Information: Joshua Bergamin, University of Durham, UK,

Bergamin, Joshua. “To Know and To Be: Second-Person Knowledge and the Intersubjective Self, A Reply to Talbot.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 43-47.

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Bonnie Talbert’s article opens up some fascinating questions stemming from the nature of our second-person knowledge, which led me on a thought-provoking journey from questioning what it takes to know another person, towards wondering what is a person, in itself? In this reply, I explore Talbert’s claim to getting to know a person is akin to the ‘knowing-how’ of a skill. However, I question her assertion that the propositional ‘knowing-that’ of ‘figuring someone out’ is of secondary importance, noting the important interplay of knowledge-how and knowledge-that in the process of skill-acquisition. I try to resolve this by asking what is it that we are trying to know when we come to know another person, which offers some intriguing (if speculative) hypotheses on the nature of our second-person relationships.

Knowing a Person

As Talbert points out, knowing a person differs from other types of knowledge especially insofar as people are “moving targets” (2). Human beings are in a constant state of change. As well as physically growing and ageing, facts about our personalities and lifestyles are also in continual flux. A disciplined child can become a scatterbrained adult, while a mid-life crisis mellows into a graceful old age. We can go from disliking scotch whisky to collecting it, from being thrilled by big city life to annoyed by it, or from being avowed pacifists to hard-headed realpolitikers. And if such changes aren’t hard enough to keep track of, we are at all stages bundles of contradictions, capable of holding and acting on conflicting views, like a chain-smoking doctor who counsels her patients to quit, or a professor of logic whose day is brightened by a fortune cookie.

Knowing someone, we feel, must be more than knowing if they still like bourbon, or are a smoker, or a hypocrite. Knowing all the facts about what a person might do or say in a situation, Talbert argues, does not help us really get to know them, anymore than knowing facts about their hair colour or their shoe size. It’s arguable that Facebook or Amazon ‘know’ more about your politics, your wardrobe, even who you’ve got a crush on, than all but your closest friends. Yet nobody really thinks that such systems (or those with access to them) could actually know you better than your friends do. All the same, we’re still left with an uncertainty about just what the ‘knowing’ at stake consists of.

Talbert’s answer is that getting to know someone is something like learning a skill. Acquiring a skill, goes the argument, is not simply a matter of learning propositional facts about it, but involves the non-propositional knowledge that one gains through immersion in an activity. For example, to cook a good spaghetti carbonara, it’s not enough to know that the sauce contains only the yolk of the egg, or what the ratio of pancetta to garlic is. Really knowing how to mix the eggs and add them to the pasta requires actually practising making the dish, and in that process acquiring what Harry Collins (2010) calls the ‘tacit knowledge’ that helps us judge when to take the garlic out, or if the pasta is al dente, and other subtleties that can’t be easily be captured in propositions. Cooking a really good carbonara, moreover, requires what Collins & Evans (2007) call the “interactive expertise” that you can’t learn from a recipe book, but only through ‘hanging out’ with the right people; that is, with other practising experts who—through conversations, demonstrations, and sharing the act of cooking and eating together—socialise you into the best practices and family secrets, gradually transmitting the subtleties of an art that goes beyond what words can describe.

In this respect, I think Talbert has hit on something quite insightful. Getting to know another person is the intersubjective experience par excellence, and I suspect that the growing ease and comfort with which we interact with someone as we get to know them is more than analogous to our growing sense of confidence as we become familiar with a task. Yet I think that, in highlighting the significance of tacit knowledge, Talbert is overly dismissive of the role of explicit knowledge-that in coming to know another person, as when she argues (pp. 3-4) that trying to ‘figure someone out’ is counterproductive.

Skill Acquisition

In building her account, Talbert draws on work on skill acquisition, especially that of Hubert Dreyfus, who famously argues (2005; 2007; 2013) that that too much (deliberative, propositional) thinking interferes with performance. Dreyfus’ (2007, 354) paradigm example is the baseball player Chuck Knoblauch, who at the peak of his career was plagued by rookie errors in simple situations where he had ample time to act. Curiously, however, in tighter situations, where he had no time to think, he completed difficult throws with the expertise that got him into the big leagues in the first place. Dreyfus’ conclusion is that Knoblauch was over-thinking on his simple throws—focusing too much on the uncountable minutiae of body movements rather than acting holistically, ‘in the flow.’

While I am sympathetic to Dreyfus’ account (and have defended it elsewhere (Bergamin 2017)), it is important to note that it applies to an expert at the peak of their game. The road to becoming an expert, on the other hand, involves quite a lot of thinking and puzzling over knowledge-that (see Dreyfus & Dreyfus 1986, 2005). Dreyfus (1991, 68-9), drawing on Heidegger’s (1962) so-called ‘theory of equipment,’ gives a special emphasis to the ‘breakdown’ that happens during smooth-coping, and which draws our attention to the elements of our action. Separating an egg’s yolk from its white, to take a simple example, takes a bit of sticky practice to do smoothly. While your grandmother might do it almost automatically and with her attention elsewhere, on your first couple of tries it’s helpful to concentrate and think deliberatively about the steps of the task. Even once you’ve mastered it, and can do it ‘without thinking,’ your attention still gets drawn back to the objects and deliberative thought when things go wrong—say, if the egg doesn’t crack as expected. This interruption breaks the phenomenological ‘flow’ of the task, but also provides fodder for further learning and refining your skill.

If getting to know a person is something like learning a skill, then the kind of ‘breakdowns’ that help us learn skills should also apply to getting to know someone. A couple’s first fight, for example, is often a defining moment in their relationship. In the flurry of a new romance, it’s easy to feel like we’ve found someone who really ‘gets’ us—everything is exciting, smooth, and flowing. But sooner or later, inevitably, something goes wrong—we say or do things that are unexpected, surprising, hurtful. But then (hopefully), after the fighting and the tears, we talk about it; we step back from the situation and share why we felt the way we felt and said the things we said. We make up, and feel closer, with the feeling that we now know each other a little bit better than before.

Talbert argues that trying to ‘figure someone out’ is counterproductive. And past a certain point, it probably is—trying to psychoanalyse a new partner is like trying to write out a recipe you haven’t yet tried. Yet it doesn’t follow from this that ‘figuring out’ has no place, and indeed, I would argue that it is a necessary element of coming to know someonewith the caveat that it is only part of our ‘practice’ of getting to know someone. It’s through a combination of both the interactive, shared activity that Talbert recommends, plus direct questions and reflection, that help us really get to know a person—to know that when he says he doesn’t mind, he actually really does, or when she goes quiet, it’s because she’s shy, not rude.

Learning, Knowing, Practicing

Importantly—just like with a skill—as we become proficient, we stop needing to actively ‘work someone out’ but we learn to read them intuitively. However, as Dreyfus argues, reaching this point requires a combination of reflection plus lots of practice.[1] Furthermore, I suspect that we have to start more-or-less from scratch with each new individual we get to know. To hold that actively ‘figuring someone out’ is better left to the side implies that getting to know someone is a skill that, once mastered, one could apply to different, particular individuals. Yet that—I believe—comes from a confusion over the object of our knowledge, and is where the ‘skills analogy’ starts to break down.

The skills analogy is confusing in that, unlike the kinds of embodied skills that Dreyfus, Collins, and others discuss, knowing another person has no clear success conditions. Talbert, rightly I believe, rejects simply predicting behaviour, since an impartial psychologist or even an algorithm can do that with some degree of reliability. All the same, knowing some facts about someone must be important, since Talbert also—again, I think, rightly—rejects simple ease-of-interaction, since a gifted psychiatrist, host, or salesperson can ‘read’ a person and make them feel ‘at home’ without knowing anything concrete about them. Furthermore, it isn’t even obvious that getting along well with someone is a sign of actually knowing them—many bad relationships are rooted in the fact that two people know one another too well. If knowing someone is like a skill, then, we must ask, what is the object of that skill? What are we doing when we know another human being?

Knowing a person is, of course, very different to cooking pasta, or to any other skill that we might learn. Most skills, like cooking carbonara or riding a bike, are what Setiya (2014, 12-3), in an interesting reading of Aristotle, calls telic—they are directed at an end (telos), such as impressing a date, or getting to work on time. As Heidegger (1962, 118-9) points out, however, we apply ourselves to such ends not as ends in themselves but ‘in order to’ perform something much more meaningful. These more meaningful, atelic activities, Heidegger argued, are ‘for the sake of’ being a certain kind of person—in an important sense, they define who are we are. A good cook, an attentive lover, a punctual worker—each of these discloses an ethical value in a broad sense. They are who we want to be.

Really knowing somebody is an atelic activity—a ‘for the sake of itself.’ One can, of course, get to ‘know’ somebody ‘in order to’ do something else, such as to survey them as an anthropologist, or ‘network’ with them to advance one’s career. But that isn’t really the sense that I think is at stake in Talbert’s discussion. Getting to know somebody—whether intimately or casually, by choice or by happenstance—is something that we continually engage in as an essential part of living a human social life.

If knowing another person is an open-ended, atelic ‘for the sake of itself,’ this leads us towards the fascinating possibility that each relationship is a kind of identity, a way of being in itself. This applies not just to our significant relationships with lovers and close friends, but with casual acquaintances and interactions on the street. Talbert’s conclusion implies the Heideggerian point that our everyday interactions tend not to involve much thinking, but are immersive, intersubjective events. We act (and react) without a lot of deliberative thinking, such that each relationship is different for each of us, and to some extent, out of our control. You and I might be great friends, but while you and Jamie are always laughing together, he and I never manage more than an awkward conversation. It’s as though I’m a different person with you than I am with Jamie—or more precisely, the being-together that you-and-I share is different to the being-with of me-and-Jamie.

This conclusion is, of course, a bit speculative. But it’s an interesting hypothesis that Talbert’s work brings forth for me. If people are ‘moving targets,’ then we are not ‘things’ but ‘processes,’ systems that are in constant flux. To know such a process is not to try nail down the ever-changing facts about it, but involves interacting with it. Yet we who interact are ourselves a similar kind of ‘process,’ and in getting to know somebody we are just as much the known as the knower. Our relationships, therefore, are a kind of identity, that involves us and yet exceeds us—growing and evolving over time.


Bergamin, Joshua. “Being-in-the-Flow: Expert Coping as Beyond Both Thought and Automaticity.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 16, no. 3 (2017): 403-424.

Benner, Patricia. From Novice to Expert: Excellence and Power in Clinical Nursing Practice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1984.

Collins, Harry and Evans, Robert. Rethinking Expertise. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Collins, Harry. Tacit and Explicit Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Dreyfus, Hubert. Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.

Dreyfus, Hubert. “Overcoming the Myth of the Mental: How Philosophers Can Profit from the Phenomenology of Everyday Expertise.” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 79, no. 2 (2005): 47-65.

Dreyfus, Hubert. “The Return of the Myth of the Mental.” Inquiry 50, no. 4 (2007): 352-365.

Dreyfus, Hubert. “The Myth of the Pervasiveness of the Mental” In Mind, Reason, and Being-in-the-World: The McDowell-Dreyfus Debate, edited by Joseph K. Schear, 15-40. Abingdon: Routledge, 2013.

Dreyfus, Hubert and Dreyfus, Stuart. Mind Over Machine. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

Dreyfus, Hubert and Dreyfus, Stuart. “Peripheral Vision: Expertise in Real World Contexts.” Organization Studies, 26 (2005): 779-792.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, London: SCM Press, 1962.

Setiya, Kieran. “The Midlife Crisis.” Philosophers Imprint, 14, no. 31 (2014): 1-18.

Talbert, Bonnie. “Overthinking and Other Minds: The Analysis Paralysis.” Social Epistemology (2017): 1-12. doi: 10.1080/02691728.2017.1346933.

[1] It’s significant that Dreyfus & Dreyfus (2005) find that people who are emotionally-invested in their activities—who rejoice in their successes and are despondent at their failures—are more likely to become expert in a certain activity. In the context of getting to know someone, it follows that—as we would expect—we get closer to people that we really care about. Cf. Benner (1984).

Author Information: Paul-Mikhail Catapang Podosky and William Tuckwell, University of Melbourne,;

Podosky, Paul-Mikhail Catapang and William Tuckwell.[1] “There’s No Such Thing as Conceptual Competence Injustice: A Response to Anderson and Cruz.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 23-32.

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1. Introduction

It’s now been 10 years since the publication of Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (2007). New and novel forms of epistemic injustice continue to be identified and theorized; some more novel than others. The most recent form of epistemic injustice to be identified is what Derek Egan Anderson has termed conceptual competence injustice; “a form of epistemic injustice that occurs when a marginalized epistemic agent makes a conceptual claim and is illegitimately regarded as having failed to grasp one or more of the concepts expressed in her testimony” (2017, 210).

In this paper, we provide reasons to doubt that conceptual competence injustice is in fact a novel form of epistemic injustice. We argue for this on three grounds.

First, we suggest that there isn’t anything more to be learned by thinking about conceptual competence injustice that isn’t captured by testimonial injustice. Of course, we might learn of a specific instance of testimonial injustice, such as injustices involving conceptual competence, however we deny that Anderson has come across anything more substantial than this.

Second, despite his attempt to convince us otherwise, we will show that the grounds on which Anderson attempts to distinguish conceptual competence injustice from hermeneutical injustice and contributory injustice are ultimately unsuccessful.

Third, we query Manuel Padilla Cruz’s (2017) suggestion that conceptual competence injustice is useful in helping us to grasp how epistemic injustice manifests in the field of relevance theory and its application to linguistic pragmatics.

2. Conceptual Competence Injustice

Anderson (2017) makes the case that there is a distinctive kind of epistemic wrongdoing that occurs in assessments about a marginalized person’s conceptual competence; where such judgements can be made either by others, or reflexively. Specifically, Anderson suggests that conceptual competence injustice is a form of epistemic injustice “in which a member of a marginalized group is unjustly regarded as lacking conceptual or linguistic competence as a consequence of structural oppression” (2017, 210). Anderson emphasises that conceptual competence injustice can only occur in societies that “facilitate the systematic oppression of certain groups and the dominance of others” (2017, 210). To get a good grip on Anderson’s suggestion, he invites us to consider the following scenario:

A philosophy graduate student, who is a woman of color, is giving a talk on natural kind terms and she makes the claim that they are “not rigid designators” given her thorough understand of Soames (2002). A white male undergraduate hears this and thinks the speaker has said something false, since he thinks that she does not have a good grip of the concept of natural kind; after all, he is familiar with Kripke’s Naming and Necessity (1980). More than this, however, is that his judgement about the speaker’s conceptual competence is a product of implicit beliefs about women of color and their ability to understand metaphysics and the philosophy of language. Because of this, the white male hearer under-ascribes credibility to the speaker, and judges that he has better conceptual competence than she does (2017, 211).

For Anderson, this is a clear case of conceptual competence injustice. It is a clear event whereby “[a] person who is marginalized on the basis of her social identity makes a conceptual claim and that claim is rejected in part because her audience illegitimately judges her to have less credibility than she in fact has” (2017, 211). We agree with Anderson that something epistemically bad has happened here; the graduate student has been undermined in her capacity as a knower. However, we will argue in the following sections that the wrong that is present in cases like these can be captured by testimonial injustice.

But first we will argue against Anderson’s claim that conceptual competence injustice needn’t involve a judgement that is causally produced by an internal bias or prejudice. This is will be important in section 4.3, when we show that Anderson’s reasons for thinking that conceptual competence injustice is distinct from contributory injustice are ultimately unsuccessful.

3. A Note on the Causal Etiology of Conceptual Competence Injustice

One surprising feature of Anderson’s account of conceptual competence injustice is that he claims that it does not have to involve a judgement that is causally produced by some internal bias or prejudice; “[t]he causal etiology is not essential to the phenomenon” (2017, 211). He re-works the case of the white male undergraduate student to make his point:

Consider a variation of the case in which the white male graduate student has no implicit bias against women of color, but only has an unduly high degree of confidence in his own intellectual authority. His judgement still conforms to the general pattern of epistemic bias against women of color. It still harms the woman in all the same ways that it would have harmed her had the man’s judgement been caused by an implicit internalization of the pervasive epistemic bias against women of color … (2017, 211).

To see why this is surprising, compare it to the following case:

Imagine a person named Taylor who decides to judge the conceptual competence of others on the basis of a coin flip; heads is belief, tails is disbelief. One day Taylor comes across Linda, a black woman who is thoroughly familiar with the ins-and-outs of contemporary Meinongianism and can defend it against alternatives. Linda says to Taylor, “It seems obvious to me that there are things that don’t exist, so in some sense they must be”. Taylor pulls out her coin and it lands tails up; Taylor does not believe that Linda has a good grasp of the concept of existence.

Given Anderson’s requirements, should we say that Taylor has perpetrated conceptual competence injustice against Linda? Intuitively, we should say no; Taylor just has a bad belief forming methodology. However, according to Anderson, given that Linda is subject to a systematic pattern of epistemic marginalization, this is just another instance where she is not believed, and hence conceptual competence injustice has occurred. Anderson’s suggestion has to be that Taylor’s actions still harms Linda in all the same ways that it would have harmed her had Taylor’s judgement been caused by an implicit internalization of the pervasive epistemic bias against women of color (2017, 211).

The reason why Anderson is committed to this conclusion is because he is primarily interested in the “general pattern of epistemic bias against women of color”, independent of any internal bias, conscious or otherwise (2017, 211). But it isn’t clear what Anderson means by ‘general pattern’. In the case that Anderson specifies, a white male undergraduate student has an unduly high degree of belief in his intellectual authority, and because of this, when he hears a conceptual claim by a woman of color, he believes that she does not have a good grasp of the concept(s) that she is deploying. However, if such a student exists—and, irritatingly, they most certainly do—then their disbelief of other’s conceptual competence will not discriminate; by and large, they will think most people are intellectually inferior. The graduate student will, more or less, think that people don’t have a good grasp of philosophical concepts; or at least have a worse grasp than he does. Given this, the pattern of epistemic marginalization that Anderson seems to be suggesting is simply the fact that women of color are, on the whole, disbelieved.

But if this is right then coin-flipping Taylor must also be perpetrating conceptual competence injustice; she disbelieves Linda who is epistemically marginalized. This is a counterintuitive conclusion. Taylor does not seem to be committing anything other than shoddy epistemic behaviour; there doesn’t appear to be anything unjust about what she’s doing. Granted that Taylor isn’t perpetrating conceptual competence injustice, then it’s hard for us to see how the white male undergraduate student, no matter how annoying they are, could be committing such an injustice either. They both just have bad belief forming methods; one is due to an inflated judgement of their own intellectual capabilities, the other is due to forming beliefs on the basis of coin-flips. For each person, there will be times where they will disbelieve someone who is epistemically marginalized, but at these times it seems odd to say that they have committed any kind of epistemic injustice. What we should expect, then, is that the causal etiology of judgement does matter. Otherwise, we’ll have to admit that even in ‘coin-flipping’ cases, the person with dodgy belief-forming methods commit epistemically unjust acts.

4. Conceptual Competence Injustice and the Existing Forms of Epistemic Injustice

Anderson aims to distinguish conceptual competence injustice from existing forms of epistemic injustice, claiming that conceptual competence injustice is not captured by testimonial, hermeneutical, or contributory injustice. In this section we argue that the grounds on which Anderson tries to distinguish conceptual competence injustice from testimonial injustice ultimately fail. We also argue all instances of conceptual competence injustice can be accurately characterized as instances of testimonial injustice. Further to this, we consider each of the strategies that Anderson uses to distinguish conceptual competence injustice from hermeneutical injustice and contributory injustice, and we suggest that such strategies are unsuccessful.

4.1. Testimonial Injustice

For Anderson, conceptual competence injustice occurs in cases where a speaker (or thinker) makes a conceptual claim, the truth of which cannot be empirically settled (2017, 213). This provides grounds for Anderson’s first strategy to distinguish testimonial injustice from conceptual competence injustice (2017, 215). His suggestion is that because Fricker’s central case of testimonial injustice involves an under-ascription of credibility to a marginalized person’s testimony, where the truth of the testimony in question can be empirically settled, then Fricker’s central case is not an instance of conceptual competence injustice. It’s puzzling to us why Anderson employs this strategy. Fricker’s central case of testimonial injustice is not a defining case. Because of this, even if Anderson can show that the central case is not an instance of conceptual competence injustice, it does not entail that conceptual competence injustice is not just an instance of testimonial injustice.

Anderson’s second strategy is to attempt to demonstrate that not all instances of conceptual competence injustice are instances testimonial injustice (2017, 215). Anderson claims that this is because a person can suffer from conceptual competence injustice without speaking, and that because of this it cannot be testimonial injustice. This can occur in two ways. The first is that a marginalized person might come to doubt their own competence with a concept. Because of this, the marginalized person refrains from asserting something that she knows, or comes to doubt herself so much that she loses the belief that she is competent with a concept and hence loses knowledge of particular propositions that she previously had.

Let us think about whether it’s true to say that testimonial injustice cannot manifest itself in this way. Firstly, the harm that comes with this kind of self-doubt and lack of self-trust is present in Fricker’s original discussion of the harms of testimonial injustice. Fricker points out that the experience of persistent testimonial injustice may lead one to lose confidence in one’s beliefs and general intellectual capacities (Fricker 2007, 47). Further to this, Fricker points out that trustful dialogue with others is the mechanism through which one gains confidence in their beliefs, and, by extension, confidence to assert those beliefs (2007, 52); the absence of such means a loss in confidence in beliefs and their assertion.

Setting aside this exegetical consideration, we might make this point differently by considering the following question: can testimonial injustice be reflexive in this way? It seems so. There is no specification that the speaker and the hearer be different epistemic subjects; all that is required is that the speaker under-ascribe credibility to a hearer owing to structural identity prejudice. If one is subject to systems of epistemic marginalization and, say, internalizes a negative stereotype, then it seems possible that they could under-ascribed credibility to themselves in line with the stereotype and therefore come to doubt their knowledge of certain propositions. Hence, it seems perfectly plausible that testimonial injustice is something that can be reflexively perpetrated.

Granted that testimonial injustice can occur reflexively when it comes to one’s judgement of their knowledge or belief of certain propositions, should we say that this can also apply to one’s judgement about their own competence with a concept? It seems perfectly straightforward to make this inference.

The second way in which Anderson thinks that conceptual competence injustice can occur without speaking is that there are scenarios in which a marginalized person is discredited as a source conceptual knowledge without having said a word; the marginalized person is expected not to know, and their competence with concepts is doubted. Their testimony is never solicited.

This consideration does not distinguish conceptual competence injustice from testimonial injustice because Fricker is clear in acknowledging that this as a possible way that testimonial injustice can manifest. She claims that a significant form of testimonial injustice occurs when prejudice “leads to a tendency for some groups simply not to be asked for information in the first place.” Fricker continues,

This kind of testimonial injustice takes place in silence. It occurs when hearer prejudice does its work in advance of a potential informational exchange: it pre-empts any such exchange. Let us call it pre-emptive testimonial injustice. The credibility of such a person on a given subject matter is already sufficiently in prejudicial deficit that their potential testimony is never solicited; so the speaker is silenced by the identity prejudice that undermines her credibility in advance (2007, 130).

It is clear from this quote that Anderson has failed to distinguish conceptual competence injustice from testimonial injustice on the grounds that testimony is never solicited.

Finally, Anderson claims that conceptual competence injustice is distinct from testimonial injustice because it can exist in purely structural ways that do not involve individual perpetrators. There are two things that we might say here. First, Anderson just doesn’t say enough to convince us this is the case. He merely mentions standardised testing as an example of a structural manifestation of conceptual competence injustice. But, why should we believe this? Anderson moves on without further explanation. Second, Fricker allows for the possibility that “purely structural operations of identity power can control whose would-be contributions become public, and whose do not” (2007, 130). This is the form taken by pre-emptive testimonial injustice. Thus, even if Anderson had made this point convincingly it would not distinguish conceptual competence injustice from testimonial injustice.

We take the above considerations to demonstrate that the grounds on which Anderson attempts to distinguish conceptual competence injustice from testimonial injustice are unsuccessful. This gives us reason to believe that all instances of conceptual competence injustice are accurately characterized by testimonial injustice.

4.2. Hermeneutical Injustice

Anderson also suggests that conceptual competence injustice is not hermeneutical injustice (2017, 216). He makes the strong claim that there can never be an instance where conceptual competence injustice is an instance of hermeneutical injustice. To this claim, we agree that conceptual competence injustice cannot manifest as hermeneutical injustice; as we’ve just argued, we think that all instances of conceptual competence injustice are just instances of testimonial injustice. However, in this subsection we will argue that the grounds on which Anderson attempts to distinguish conceptual competence injustice from hermeneutical injustice are unsuccessful.

Anderson’s interpretation of hermeneutical injustice is that it always involves a lacuna in the collective hermeneutical resource such “that every instance of hermeneutical injustice entails that the relevant crucial concept or word does not yet exist” (2017, 216).  That is, marginalized people cannot render intelligible certain experiences owing to deficiencies in their interpretive assets. Whereas “[i]n every instance of competence injustice, the victim begins with some level of mastery with a concept or word and then their level of mastery is doubted. A fortiori, competence injustice involves the possession of all relevant concepts” (2017, 216). Hence, for Anderson, conceptual competence injustice cannot be hermeneutical injustice; he takes them as fully distinct.

Anderson does not provide us with the full story in his explanation of Fricker’s account of hermeneutical injustice. Anderson is right to say that Fricker’s case of Carmita Wood and the introduction of the concept of sexual harassment captures an instance of a complete lack of conceptual understanding that is then remedied. However, this is just what Fricker calls a ‘maximal’ case; again, it is not a defining case. Fricker has other examples that she calls ‘midway’ and ‘minimal’ cases (2007; 2017). This is where a marginalized person has access to a hermeneutical resource and possesses the relevant concepts that can render intelligible their experience, yet cannot communicate such experiences across social space. In other words, midway cases are those where a social group has sophisticated interpretive assets yet such practices “are not shared with at least one out-group with whom communication is needed” (Fricker 2017, 9).

We acknowledge that Fricker’s original statement of hermeneutical injustice was not as clear as it could have been (2007), and only recently has Fricker provided some clarity on how we should interpret her formulation (2017). Fricker’s rearticulation has come in light of the thoroughly important work of Rebecca Mason (2011), Gaile Pohlhaus Jr. (2012), Kristie Dotson (2012), and José Medina (2013), that has made abundantly clear that hermeneutical injustice can occur even when an agent fully possesses the relevant concepts to render intelligible their experiences. Given Fricker’s rearticulation of hermeneutical injustice, Anderson has not shown that conceptual competence injustice is not hermeneutical injustice.

4.3. Contributory Injustice

Anderson also attempts to differentiate conceptual competence injustice from contributory injustice. Contributory injustice occurs when a marginalized person possesses the hermeneutical resources that are required for her to understand and communicate her experiences, but that this attempt at communication is thwarted by the fact that her interlocutor does not possess the requisite hermeneutical resources. In cases of contributory injustice the reason that the hearer possesses inadequate hermeneutical resources is because of their own willful ignorance; they actively uphold their biased hermeneutical resources in their interpretation of the speaker, rather than accepting that the marginalized speaker has a good grasp of their own experiences or making a concerted effort to understand what the marginalized speaker is saying (Dotson 2012).

Anderson claims that conceptual competence injustice is not contributory injustice because there can be cases of conceptual competence injustice that are not cases of contributory injustice. Anderson provides the following case:

Suppose a white person hears a person of color asserts, “In the United States, racism against white people is impossible.” Suppose also that this white person believes falsely that racism is merely prejudice on the basis of race and that therefore white people can be victims of racism. Upon hearing the conceptual claim that racism against white people is impossible, the white person judges the person of colour to be conceptually incompetent—he thinks that she fails to grasp the concept of racism (Anderson 2017,  218).

Anderson claims that this is not contributory injustice because both people possess the same concept. If we take the person of color and the white person to be working with different concepts of racism, then this would mean that the white person expresses a true belief when they utter “It is possible for black people to be racist against white people in the United States”. This would be a bad result because this utterance is clearly false.

In section 3, we argued that causal etiology matters when it comes to conceptual competence injustice. Because of this, the case that Anderson uses to convince us that conceptual competence injustice is not contributory injustice needs to be re-worked; or else no injustice has been perpetrated. Instead of the white person simply believing that the person of color is not competent with the concept of racism, we must say that the white person does not believe this in virtue of identity prejudice against people of color. However, given this, the re-worked case just looks like an instance of testimonial injustice. This is because the speaker under-ascribes credibility owing to identity prejudice; and this is the essence of testimonial injustice. Hence, Anderson is right to say that the case is not an instance of contributory injustice, however this is because it is a case of testimonial injustice.

If Anderson insists that causal etiology doesn’t matter in cases of conceptual competence injustice, then he must also think that causal etiology doesn’t matter in other cases of epistemic injustice either. It would be ad hoc to insist that causal etiology is significant in some forms of epistemic injustice but not others. Hence, if in the example in which the white person takes the person of color to be incompetent in their grasp of the concept of racism, then Anderson should think that this is just an instance of testimonial injustice absent the prejudicial causal etiology that Fricker (and ourselves) take to be a necessary feature of testimonial injustice.

Either causal etiology matters for all forms of epistemic injustice, in which case this is not a case of epistemic injustice, or causal etiology matters in no forms of epistemic injustice, in which case this is just a case of testimonial injustice.

5. Conceptual Competence Injustice is Not that Useful: A Response to Cruz

Perhaps value can be found in the notion of conceptual competence injustice if there is utility to it that cannot be had from the existing categories of epistemic injustice. To this end, Manuel Padilla Cruz (2017) has suggested that conceptual competence injustice is particularly useful in a relevance theoretical model of linguistic pragmatics. Roughly, relevance theory is the idea that evolution has shaped our cognitive architecture so that we are able to collect and integrate information that enables us to make inferences and judgements relevant to us (Wilson and Sperber 2002). Understanding cognition in this way provides a means to model linguistic pragmatics; communicators presuppose that everyone aims to maximise relevance and in virtue of this speakers can convey, and hearers can infer, information not encoded in utterances. According to Cruz, Anderson’s notion of conceptual competence injustice is a useful way to characterise epistemically harmful pragmatic implicatures. These epistemic harms arise when a speaker makes a lexical mistake, such as misusing a word, and a hearer then infers from the mistake that the speaker has failed to grasp some concept, when they in fact do.

While Anderson (2017b) is receptive to Cruz’s suggestion, he claims that conceptual competence injustice “…must be tempered with the proper understanding of that phenomenon as a structural injustice” (2017b, 36).  Anderson claims that we should not think that at any time there is a lexical mistake and subsequent implicature of speaker incompetence there is an occurrence of conceptual competence injustice. This is because the relationship between relevance theory and conceptual competence injustice “cannot be accurately characterized merely as the result of a certain type of pragmatic inference without specifying facts about the social identities of the speakers and hearers involved, together with facts about the structure of their social circumstances” (2017b, 36). We think that Anderson is correct to push Cruz on this point.

In addition to Anderson’s comments on Cruz’s suggestion, we also want to comment on the lack of clarity in where Cruz is locating the epistemic injustice in his discussion.  In making his case, Cruz claims that speakers are not always fully competent in a language, perhaps because they are non-native speakers. Consequently, they may lack or misuse vocabulary. This might lead the hearer to make harmful inferences about the speaker’s competence.  Cruz claims that this constitutes an epistemic injustice since “the speaker would be degraded as a knower of a language in some respects…” (Cruz 2017, 17).

What in particular is the inference that the speaker makes that is unjust? Let’s consider two possibilities. Firstly, suppose that in conversation with a person born and raised in Germany, Holly, as a non-native German speaker, misuses some particular word from which her German interlocutor infers that she is not wholly competent in her use of that word. Whether or not this leads Holly to doubt her abilities to speak German, it seems to us that Holly’s German interlocutor has not put a foot wrong in making this inference. After all, Holly has just made a mistake.

If instead the inference that Cruz has in mind is an inference made by the hearer from a speaker’s one off lexical mistake, to the speaker having some more general intellectual incompetence, then this might reasonably be characterised as an injustice. Consider a re-working of the example above: Holly misuses a German word when in conversation with a native German speaker, who happens to be a man. From Holly’s particular mistake, the man infers that Holly lacks the intellectual capabilities required to become a competent speaker of German because he has a prejudice against the intellectual capacities of women. It is an empirical matter whether or not this kind of inference is ever made.

If it is made, then the epistemic injustice that it constitutes is not conceptual competence injustice as theorised by Anderson. Rather, it is some broader intellectual incompetence attribution. But, even then, this might very well be accounted for by Fricker (2007). The attribution of broad intellectual incompetences to particular social groups looks as though it collapses into what Fricker calls “negative-identity-prejudicial stereotypes” that are operative in the perpetration of testimonial injustice: a widely held disparaging association between a social group and one or more attribute (Fricker 2007, 35).

In his response to Cruz, Anderson discusses the ways in which relevance theory possesses resources that can usefully allow us to model the ways in which the interests of individuals and groups shape patterns of epistemic injustice (see Anderson 2017b, 36-38). This looks promising to us, though it must be said that we are no experts in relevance theory. However, while relevance theory might be useful in modelling patterns of epistemic injustice, it is far from obvious that conceptual incompetence injustice is useful in illuminating epistemic injustices that arise from harmful pragmatic implicatures of the lexical mistakes of speakers.

6. Conclusion

To recount what we have achieved in this paper: we have shown that Anderson’s reasons for thinking that conceptual competence injustice is distinct from other forms of epistemic injustice are ultimately unsuccessful. We have argued that conceptual competence injustice is accurately accounted for by testimonial injustice. Finally, we have argued that the purported usefulness of conceptual competence injustice in linguistic pragmatics is doubtful, especially because any epistemic injustice of the kind specified by Cruz can also be accounted for by testimonial injustice.


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

Anderson, Derek. 2017b. “Relevance Theory and Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. 6, no. 7: 34-39.

Dotson, Kristie. 2012b. “A Cautionary Tale: On Limiting Epistemic Oppression.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. 33 (1): 24-47

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

Fricker, Miranda. 2017. “Epistemic Injustice and the Preservation of Ignorance.” In The Epistemic Dimensions of Ignorance edited by Rik Peels and Martijn Blaauw. Cambridge University Press.

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Mason, Rebecca. 2011. “Two Kinds of Unknowing.” Hypatia. Vol. 26, No. 2: 294-307.

Medina, J. 2012. The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and the Social Imagination. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. 2017. “On the Usefulness of the Notion of Conceptual Competence Injustice to Linguistic Pragmatics.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. 6, no. 4: 12-19.

Pohlhaus Jr., Gaile. 2011. “Relational Knowing and Epistemic Injustice: Toward a Theory of Willful Hermeneutical Ignorance.” Hypatia. Vol. 27, 4: 715-735.

Priest, Graham. Towards Non-Being: The Logic and Metaphysics of Intentionality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richard Routley. 1983. “Exploring Meinong’s Jungle and Beyond.” Journal of Philosophy. 80 (3): 173-179.

Soames, Scott. 2002. Beyond Rigidity: The Unfinished Semantic Agenda of Naming and Necessity. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, Deirdre, and Dan Sperber. 2004. “Relevance Theory.” In The Handbook of Pragmatics, edited by Larry Horn and Gregory Ward, 607-632. Oxford: Blackwell.

[1] This paper was fully collaborative; the order does not represent amount of contribution.

Author Information: Moti Mizrahi, Florida Institute of Technology,

Mizrahi, Moti. “In Defense of Weak Scientism: A Reply to Brown.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 9-22.

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

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In “What’s So Bad about Scientism?” (Mizrahi 2017), I argue that Weak Scientism, the view that “Of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the best knowledge” (Mizrahi 2017, 354; emphasis in original) is a defensible position. That is to say, Weak Scientism “can be successfully defended against objections” (Mizrahi 2017, 354). In his response to Mizrahi (2017), Christopher Brown (2017) provides more objections against Weak Scientism, and thus another opportunity for me to show that Weak Scientism is a defensible position, which is what I will do in this reply. In fact, I think that I have already addressed Brown’s (2017) objections in Mizrahi (2017), so I will simply highlight these arguments here.

In particular, Brown’s (2017) objections consist of raising the following questions as challenges to my defense of Weak Scientism:

1. Is Weak Scientism strong enough to count as scientism?
2. Does Weak Scientism entail that philosophy is useless?
3. Does my defense of Weak Scientism rest on controversial philosophical assumptions?
3. Is my argument in defense of Weak Scientism a philosophical or a scientific argument?
5. Why think that deductive rules of inference cannot be proved valid in a non-circular way?
6. What’s wrong with persuasive definitions of scientism?

In what follows, I will address these challenges in order. I will argue that Brown’s (2017) attempt to cast doubt on my defense of Weak Scientism fails to undermine it; Weak Scientism remains a defensible position and the one that advocates of scientism should hold.

Before I get into the details of Brown’s (2017) objections, I would like to make a general point about his argumentative strategy. Brown’s objections to my defense of Weak Scientism consist of casting doubt on my defense by entertaining alternative possibilities or “what ifs.” For example, in an attempt to undermine the bibliometric data on research output and research impact, which show that “scientific knowledge is better—in terms of research output (i.e. more publications) and research impact (i.e. more citations)—than non-scientific knowledge” (Mizrahi 2017, 358), Brown (2017, 47) invites us to consider the possibility that (following Papineau 2017) “it is simply harder to arrive at philosophical knowledge than scientific knowledge” or that (following Aristotle) “a little knowledge about the noblest things is more desirable than a lot of knowledge about less noble things” (Brown 2017, 48). But why think that it is harder to produce philosophical knowledge than scientific knowledge? Brown does not tell us.

If anything, producing scientific knowledge typically takes more time, effort, money, people, and resources (think of large-scale scientific projects, such as the Human Genome Project and the Large Hadron Collider). This means that scientific knowledge is harder to produce than non-scientific knowledge. And why think that the “Aristotelian epistemological axiom: less certain knowledge […] about a nobler subject […] is, all other things being equal, more valuable than more certain knowledge […] about a less noble subject” (Brown 2017, 50) is true? Brown does not tell us. Nor does he tell us what it even means for one item of knowledge to be more or less “noble” than another. Isn’t knowledge of the origin of life and the universe “noble” enough? Perhaps Aristotle is wrong and Kant is right that knowledge about “the starry heavens above” is just as noble as knowledge about “the moral law within” (Kant 1788/2015, 129).

My general point, then, is that Brown’s (2017) argumentative strategy of casting doubt on my defense of Weak Scientism by entertaining alternative possibilities is not sufficient to undermine my defense. In order to pose a serious challenge to my defense of Weak Scientism, Brown must come up with more than mere “what ifs,” especially since the question of whether scientific knowledge is superior to non-scientific knowledge is a question that can be answered empirically. That is, we can compare the track record of scientific disciplines to that of non-scientific disciplines in order to find out which has been more successful in terms of producing knowledge (Mizrahi 2017, 355-356). As far as the track record of philosophy is concerned, for instance, it is “a track record that is marked by an abundance of alternative theories and serious problems for those theories” (Mizrahi 2016, 205). Brown (2017, 49) will insist that “philosophical methodologies […] differ in kind from the consensus-inviting methodologies of empirical science,” but many philosophers would probably disagree with that, for they see the lack of consensus, and thus progress, in philosophy as a serious problem (see, e.g., Chalmers 2015).[1]

1. Is Weak Scientism strong enough to count as scientism?

For Brown (2017, 42), the answer to the first question is “no” because “one could accept Weak Scientism and not only agree that philosophical knowledge exists (as Mizrahi notes), but also think philosophical knowledge is extremely valuable, indeed, nearly as valuable as scientific knowledge itself.” Even if Brown (2017) is right about this, it is not clear how it is supposed to follow from this that Weak Scientism is not “really” scientism, or that it is not strong enough to count as scientism. After all, one of the problems with the scientism debate is precisely the meaning of the term ‘scientism’ (Mizrahi 2017, 351-353). Without a clear understanding of what scientism is, and Brown (2017) does not provide one, it is not clear on what grounds Brown can say what is “really” scientism and what is not “really” scientism.

Brown (2017, 42) also argues that Weak Scientism is not “really” scientism because “traditional advocates of scientism, such as Alex Rosenberg (see, e.g., 2011),” and “those who think philosophy is useless, such as Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (see, e.g., 2010),” would find Weak Scientism not “quite strong enough to communicate their own (negative) attitudes toward philosophy or philosophical knowledge or non-scientific forms of knowledge more generally.” As I point out in Mizrahi (2017, 353), however,

the focus of this paper [Mizrahi (2017)] is not what self-professed adherents of scientism actually say or have said. Rather, the focus of this paper [Mizrahi (2017)] is what an adherent of scientism should say. In other words, the aim of this paper is to articulate a defensible definition of scientism to replace the straw man that is (SP) [i.e., “Scientism is a matter of putting too high a value on science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture” (Sorell 2013, x)].

And even if Brown (2017, 42) is right about “traditional advocates of scientism” finding Weak Scientism not strong enough for their taste, it is not clear how this is supposed to imply that Weak Scientism is not “really” scientism, or that it is not strong enough to count as scientism. After all, if the (negative) attitudes toward non-scientific knowledge of Rosenberg, Hawking, and others are indefensible or unwarranted, then they should revise their attitudes. Their attitudes do not determine what scientism is, for scientism is an epistemological thesis, not a psychological one (Peels 2017).

For these reasons, Brown (2017) fails to provide good reasons for thinking that the answer to the first question is “no.” Indeed, Peels (2017, 10) finds my Weak Scientism “fairly strong,” for it is the view that scientific knowledge is simply the best; better than all the rest (to borrow from Tina Turner). Whether “traditional advocates of scientism” (Brown 2017, 42) would accept Weak Scientism is beside the point. As far as my defense of Weak Scientism is concerned (Mizrahi 2017), what matters is what they should accept (given the evidence in support of Weak Scientism).

2. Does Weak Scientism entail that philosophy is useless?

Brown (2017) points out that Weak Scientism does not entail that philosophy is useless. He is right about that, of course, but I do not set out to defend the charge that philosophy is useless in Mizrahi (2017). Rather, in Mizrahi (2017), I set out to defend Weak Scientism. In fact, I explicitly say that (Mizrahi 2017, 356):

It is also important to keep in mind that Weak Scientism does not amount to a denial of non-scientific knowledge. On Weak Scientism, there is knowledge other than scientific knowledge; it’s just that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge.

According to Weak Scientism, of all the academic knowledge produced by academic disciplines, including scientific disciplines like astrophysics and non-scientific disciplines like philosophy, scientific knowledge is the best knowledge we have (emphasis in original).

Accordingly, to object to my argument in defense of Weak Scientism by complaining that Weak Scientism does not entail that philosophy is useless is to misunderstand my overall argument in Mizrahi (2017).

So I agree with Brown (2017) that the answer to the second question is “no.” But that’s because I have no interest in defending the charge that philosophy is useless. In Mizrahi (2017), my aim is to show that Weak Scientism is defensible. If I am right, then Weak Scientism is how we should understand scientism as an epistemological thesis, regardless of whether scientism has been understood in this way by parties to the scientism debate in philosophy.

3. Does my defense of Weak Scientism rest on controversial philosophical assumptions?

Brown (2017, 44) thinks that my defense of Weak Scientism rests on a few “controversial philosophical assumptions.” According to Brown (2017), I “assume” that

(a). Work produced by professional philosophers is a proxy for philosophical knowledge.
(b). The scientism debate in philosophy is about academic knowledge produced by academic disciplines.
(c). Academic knowledge produced by academic disciplines can be measured.
(d). Publications are reliable indicators of academic knowledge produced by academic disciplines.
(e). Journal articles are reliable indicators of academic knowledge produced by academic disciplines.
(f). Academic knowledge produced by academic disciplines can be treated equally for the purpose of quantitative comparisons.
(g). One theory can be said to be qualitatively better than another.
(h). One theory can be said to be qualitatively better than another in terms of its explanatory, predictive, and instrumental success.
(i). Academic knowledge produced by academic disciplines can be treated equally for the purpose of qualitative comparisons.

Now, is it accurate to say that (a)-(i) are “controversial philosophical assumptions”? If so, in what sense are (a)-(i) “controversial philosophical assumptions”?

First, to call (a)-(i) “assumptions” is inaccurate and uncharitable, since an assumption is a statement that is taken as true without justification or support. In Mizrahi (2017), however, I do provide some support for (a)-(i). For example, in support of (a), I say the following (Mizrahi 2017, 356):

As Baggini and Stangroom (2005, 6) point out, this ‘question [namely, what exactly makes something philosophy?] is too large to be properly answered [in a book],’ let alone a journal article. Sytsma and Livengood (2016, Ch. 2), for example, discuss six competing accounts of what makes something philosophical. This is why, for the purposes of this paper, I have operationalized ‘philosophy’ as simply ‘what [professional] philosophers do’ (Sparshott 1998, 20). Arguably, as far as answering the question ‘What makes X philosophical?’ goes, that may be the best we can do (Lauer 1989, 16).

In other words, I argue that we should operationalize “X is a work of philosophy” as “X is produced by professional philosopher(s)” because that is the best we can do; all the other accounts of what makes X philosophical are problematic. Contrary to what Brown seems to think, then, I have operationalized “X is a work of philosophy” in the least controversial way (see Sytsma and Livengood 2016, Ch. 2). Now, Brown may find this unsatisfactory and he may disagree with what I say in support of (a)-(i), but that does not change the fact that I do support these statements. To call them “assumptions,” then, is inaccurate and uncharitable.

Second, Brown criticizes what I count as work in philosophy but he does not offer an alternative account for what counts as philosophy. He simply asserts, without argument, that my so-called “assumptions” are philosophical. But he does not tell us what makes something philosophical. Since he objects to my operationalization of what is philosophical in terms of what professional philosophers produce, I suppose he would not want to appeal to it as an account of what makes something philosophical. In that case, it is not clear on what grounds Brown can claim that (a)-(i) are “philosophical.”

In that respect, it is worth noting how strange it looks for someone who wants to defend philosophy from accusations of uselessness to object to (a). After all, if one wants to show that work in philosophy is useful, one should want to be able to show that work done by professional philosophers is useful in some sense. Accordingly, whether he accepts (a) or not, Brown should accept (a) insofar as he wants to defend philosophy from accusations of uselessness, since by showing that the work of professional philosophers is useful, he could thereby show that philosophy is useful.

Third, just as he asserts without argument that (a)-(i) are “philosophical assumptions,” Brown also asserts without much argument that (a)-(i) are “controversial assumptions.” Take, for instance, his discussion of (a). He simply asserts, without argument, that my way of thinking about knowledge is “philosophically controversial” (Brown 2017, 44), but he does not tell us why it is controversial (or why it is philosophical, for that matter). As I point out in Mizrahi (2017, 353), the way I have characterized knowledge is exactly the way others in the scientism debate understand knowledge (see, e.g., Peels 2016, 2462), which means that my characterization of knowledge is not controversial as far as the scientism debate in philosophy is concerned.

Likewise, in his discussion of my alleged “third assumption,” namely, (c), Brown (2017, 45) simply asserts, without argument, that “thinking we can measure quantitatively the amount of knowledge across academic disciplines is itself philosophically controversial” (emphasis in original). He does not tell us what makes this alleged “assumption” philosophical. Nor does he tell us what makes this alleged “assumption” controversial. In fact, that we can measure the research output of academic fields is not “contentious” (Brown 2017, 45) at all. This so-called “assumption” is accepted by many researchers across disciplines, including philosophy (see, e.g., Kreuzman 2001 and Morrow & Sula 2011), and it has led to fruitful work in library and information science, bibliometrics, scientometrics, data science (Andres 2009), and philosophy (see, e.g., Wray & Bornmann 2015 and Ashton & Mizrahi 2017).[2]

Brown (2017) seems to think that any statement that can be subjected to doubt is thereby controversial. For in his discussion of my alleged “controversial assumptions,” he entertains possibilities that would (if true) cast doubt on them. For instance, in his discussion of (d), Brown (2017, 46) suggests that teaching could be “a means of passing on knowledge.” Brown seems to be confusing here “passing on knowledge” or sharing knowledge with producing knowledge. As far as the scientism debate is concerned, and the charge that philosophy is useless, the question is whether the methodologies of the sciences are superior to those of other fields in terms of producing knowledge, not in terms of sharing knowledge. After all, philosophy, or the humanities in general, do not have a monopoly on teaching. Teaching occurs in science departments as well, of course. As Beale (2017, 67) puts it, the scientism debate is about “the idea that science, or the scientific method, is superior to all other modes of inquiry.”

Even if Brown (2017) is right about teaching somehow being a mode of inquiry distinct from science, the mere fact that one can cast doubt on a statement does not mean that the statement is controversial. By this criterion, the claim that Barack Obama is a United States citizen is controversial because some persistently doubt it and refuse to believe that he was born in Hawai’i. Likewise, the claim that there is an external world would also be controversial, on Brown’s criterion of controversy in terms of casting doubt, for what if we are all brains in vats. In other words, there is a difference between being doubtful and being controversial. Simply casting doubt on (a)-(i) is not sufficient for making them controversial.

In fact, Brown’s (2017) criterion for controversy in terms of casting doubt would make all of philosophy controversial, and thus objectionable by his own lights. For he tries to show that “a number of serious philosophical objections remain for the argumentative strategy Mizrahi employs to defend Weak Scientism” (Brown 2017, 50) by casting doubt on the premises of my argument, and then claim that they are controversial. But if being doubtful makes a claim controversial, then almost all of philosophy would be controversial, since almost all philosophical theories can be, and have been, subjected to doubt (Mizrahi 2016). Given the track record of philosophy, and Brown’s criterion of controversy in terms of casting doubt, then, we would have to conclude that most philosophical theories are controversial. This is a result that Brown would not want to accept, I take it.

For these reasons, Brown (2017) fails to provide good reasons for thinking that the answer to the third question is “yes.” What Brown labels as “assumptions” are not really assumptions, since I do support the statements he thinks are “assumptions.” What Brown labels as “philosophical” is not really philosophical, or at least he is not in a position to claim that it is philosophical, since he does not tell us what makes something philosophical (other than being work produced by professional philosophers, which is a characterization of “philosophical” that he rejects). What he labels as “controversial” is not really controversial, or at least Brown does not give us a good reason to think that, since simply finding ways to cast doubt on a statement is not sufficient for making it controversial.

4. Is my argument in defense of Weak Scientism a philosophical or a scientific argument?

To Brown (2017, 51), my “argument [in defense of Weak Scientism] rather looks like a philosophical argument” (emphasis added). As I have mentioned above, however, Brown does not give us an account of what makes something philosophical, and he rejects my operationalization of the philosophical as that which professional philosophers do, so it is not clear on what grounds Brown can assert that my argument is philosophical (other than the fact that it simply “looks like” a philosophical argument to him). As I point out in (Mizrahi 2017, 356), “just as the mere fact that an argument (e.g. William Lane Craig’s Kalam cosmological argument) draws on scientific theories (e.g. the Big Bang theory) does not make that argument a scientific argument, the mere fact that an argument draws on philosophical assumptions does not make that argument a philosophical argument” (emphasis in original).

In another place, rather than claim that my argument “looks like a philosophical argument” (Brown 2017, 51) to him, Brown suggests that my argument is not scientific. As Brown (2017, 51) writes, “in order for Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism to count as science, the background philosophical assumptions he employs need to be largely uncontroversial for the community of thinkers to which his argument is addressed” (emphasis in original). Brown seems to think that an argument is scientific only if an audience of peers finds the premises of that argument uncontroversial.

As I have mentioned above, Brown’s criterion for what makes something controversial (in terms of casting doubt) is too broad, since it makes anything that can be doubted controversial. But let us grant, for the sake of argument, Brown’s criterion of controversy and consider the following common scenario. A scientist presents a paper at a conference. Based on the results of her research, she argues that p. The audience, which consists of her academic peers, raises questions about her methods, findings, and conclusion during the Q&A session. On Brown’s criterion of controversy, the premises of the scientist’s argument are controversial, since they are met with doubt from the audience. And on Brown’s condition for an argument being scientific, the scientist’s argument is not scientific, since her audience does not find the premises of her argument uncontroversial.

To give a concrete example from the history of science, on Brown’s criteria for “controversial” and “scientific argument,” Darwin’s The Origin of Species contains no scientific arguments, since it was met with criticism, doubt, and even “controversy” in the scientific community following its publication in 1859 (Francis 2007, 61-76). A more recent example is string theory. On Brown’s criteria for “controversial” and “scientific argument,” we would have to say that arguments for string theory are not scientific arguments, despite the fact that the arguments for the theory are put forth by physicists (e.g., Edward Witten), the theory is supposed to explain natural phenomena (e.g., strong nuclear force and interactions), it incorporates other scientific theories (e.g., general relativity), it guides scientific research in physics (Becker et al. 2007), and it is currently being tested experimentally (e.g., at the Optical Search for QED Vacuum Bifringence, Axions and Photon Regeneration experiment at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider).

Accordingly, Brown’s (2017) criterion of controversy and his necessary condition for an argument being scientific have the absurd consequence that arguments presented by scientists at scientific conferences (or published in scientific journals and books) are not scientific arguments unless they are met with unquestioned acceptance by peer audiences. For these reasons, Brown fails to show that my argument in defense of Weak Scientism is a philosophical argument or that it is not a scientific argument.

5. Why think that deductive rules of inference cannot be proved valid in a non-circular way?

One of the objections I defend Weak Scientism from in Mizrahi (2017) is the charge of vicious circularity. The charge of vicious circularity is this (Mizrahi 2017, 355):

(O2) It is viciously circular to support Weak Scientism with scientific evidence (emphasis in original).

In defense of Weak Scientism against (O2), I said that (Mizrahi 2017, 362):

the problem with (O2) is that it is not an objection against Weak Scientism per se but against any inferential way of knowing. This is because even “deductive inference is only defensible by appeal to deductive inference” (Ladyman 2002, 49), as Lewis Carroll’s “What the Tortoise said to Achilles” (1895) makes clear (emphasis in original).

In other words, if (O2) were true, then producing knowledge by inference would be viciously circular, whether in science, philosophy, or any other field.

Now, Brown’s (2017, 52) objection against my defense of Weak Scientism from (O2) consists in raising the possibility that “we come to know the validity of deductive rules of inference such as modus ponens” in “some non-inferential mode.” As I have already pointed out in Mizrahi (2017), however, to say that rules of inference can be known to be valid “by some non-inferential mode of knowing” (Brown 2017, 52), such as intuition, is to give up on the attempt to prove the validity of rules of inference, since a proof just is a deductively valid argument, i.e., an inference in which the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises (Mizrahi 2017, 362-363), whereas an intuition, whatever it is (Mizrahi 2014), is not a deductively valid argument.

Moreover, recall that Brown’s criterion for a statement being controversial is that the statement can be subjected to doubt. By this criterion, then, Brown’s (2017, 52) claim that “we come to know the validity of deductive rules of inference such as modus ponens” in “some non-inferential mode” is doubtful, and thus controversial. This is because there are putative counterexamples to deductive rules of inference, such as modus ponens (Lycan 1994), as well as to argument forms that are taken to be deductively valid, such as hypothetical syllogism (Mizrahi 2013), i.e., examples of arguments that should be valid, if modus ponens and hypothetical syllogism are valid, but that seem invalid, as I point out in Mizrahi (2017).

Accordingly, Brown (2017) fails to show that deductive rules of inference can be proved valid without relying on those very rules of inference (Psillos 1999, 86). For this reason, his objection against my defense of Weak Scientism from (O2) misses the mark.

6. What’s wrong with persuasive definitions of scientism?

In Mizrahi (2017), I argue that (SP) [i.e., “Scientism is a matter of putting too high a value on science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture” (Sorell 2013, x)] is a persuasive definition of scientism. In my discussion of persuasive definitions, I give the example of defining abortion as murder as an example of a persuasive definition (Mizrahi 2017, 352). Brown (2017, 52) uses this example in his attempt to show that persuasive definitions could be the “conclusions of deductive arguments.” Of course, not all deductive arguments are good arguments. A deductive argument can be invalid or unsound. But let’s look at Brown’s argument for the conclusion that “abortion is murder” in order to see if it avoids transferring “emotive force” (Salmon 2013, 65), “condemning […] the subject matter of the definiendum” (Hurley 2015, 101), or “presupposing an unaccepted definition” (Macagno & Walton 2014, 205).

Brown’s (2017, 53) argument for the persuasive definition “abortion is murder” runs as follows:

14. Abortion is the direct killing of a human being.
15. The human fetus is an innocent person.
16. Therefore, abortion is the direct killing of an innocent person [from (14) and (15)].
17. The direct killing of an innocent person is murder.
18. Therefore, abortion is murder [from (16) and (17)].

Now, Brown may have intended this argument to be a deductive argument, but it is not valid. Notice the unwarranted shift from “human being” in (14) to “person” in (15), and then in (16). The former is a biological term for a member of the species Homo sapiens, whereas the latter is a legal term that comes with rights, such as the right to life. This, of course, is one of the key issues in the abortion debate, i.e., whether human fetuses are human persons that have a right to life. To simply assume that as a premise in an argument for the conclusion that “abortion is murder” is to presuppose “an unaccepted definition” (Macagno & Walton 2014, 205). So, unless we assume that “human being” and “person” mean the same thing, which they don’t, (16) does not necessarily follows from (14) and (15), and thus Brown’s argument for “abortion is murder” is invalid due to this equivocation on “human being” and “person.”

Moreover, notice how the emotionally charged term “innocent” is smuggled into (15). In what sense can a fetus be said to be “innocent,” i.e., not guilty of a crime or offense? Perhaps a fetus can be said to be innocent only in the trivial sense that it is incapable of committing crimes, given that it is unborn and still developing. But in that case, by using the emotionally charged term “innocent,” (15) still transfers “emotive force” (Salmon 2013, 65) and condemns “the subject matter of the definiendum” (Hurley 2015, 101). It might be argued that the fetus can be considered innocent (or not) insofar as it can endanger the life of the mother as in the case of life-threatening pregnancies, such as an ectopic pregnancy. But in that case, the fetus could be considered guilty of the crime of reckless endangerment (i.e., acting in ways that put another person at risk of injury or death), and hence not innocent.

Brown’s (2017, 53) argument for the persuasive definition of scientism, according to which “Scientism is the view that commits its advocates to putting too high a value on—or having an exaggerated confidence in—science,” suffers from the same problems as his abortion argument.

19. Scientism is the view that science is the only, or best, kind of knowledge.
20. Therefore, if scientific knowledge is not the only, or best, kind of knowledge, then scientism is a view that commits its advocates to putting too high a value on—or having an exaggerated confidence in—science [from (19)].
21. If p, then scientific knowledge is not the only, or best, kind of knowledge.
22. p.
23. Therefore, scientific knowledge is not the only, or best, kind of knowledge [from (21) and (22), MP].
24. Therefore, scientism is a view that commits its advocates to putting too high a value on—or having an exaggerated confidence in—science [from (20) and (23), MP] (Brown 2017, 53).

In particular, notice the equivocation on “only” and “best,” which makes the argument invalid. Strong Scientism is the view that “Of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the only ‘real knowledge’” (Mizrahi 2017, 353; emphasis in original), whereas Weak Scientism is the view that “Of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the best knowledge” (Mizrahi 2017, 354; emphasis in original). In Mizrahi (2017), I set out to defend the latter, not the former. This means that Brown’s conditional in (20), namely, “if scientific knowledge is not the only, or the best, kind of knowledge, then scientism is a view that commits its advocates to putting too high a value on—or having an exaggerated confidence in—science,” is misleading.

If Strong Scientism were false, i.e., if it were not the case that scientific knowledge is the only real knowledge, then it would follow that non-scientific knowledge is also real knowledge. And from that it would follow that confidence in scientific knowledge alone, to the exclusion of non-scientific knowledge, which is also real (as we are assuming now, for the sake of argument), would be exaggerated. For it would be a mistake to ignore non-scientific knowledge if it were just as real as scientific knowledge.

But if Weak Scientism were false, i.e., if it were not the case that scientific knowledge is the best knowledge, then it would follow that non-scientific knowledge is just as good as scientific knowledge. But from that it would not follow that confidence in scientific knowledge over non-scientific knowledge would be exaggerated. For, if two equally good options are available, it is not a mistake to prefer one to the other. As I have argued in Mizrahi (2017, 352), one would have to show, rather than make it true by definition, that preferring one (scientific knowledge) to the other (non-scientific knowledge) is a mistake.

Of course, Brown (2017, 53) simply assumes, without argument, that there is some item of knowledge, which he labels p in premise (22), that is both non-scientific and better than scientific knowledge. Given that the scientism debate is precisely about whether scientific knowledge is superior to non-scientific knowledge, one cannot simply assume that non-scientific knowledge is better than scientific knowledge without begging the question.

For these reasons, Brown’s attempt to show that a persuasive definition of scientism, such as the one I criticize in Mizrahi (2017, 352), can be the conclusion of a valid deductive argument fails. In addition to equivocating on “only” and “best,” the premises of Brown’s argument for a persuasive definition of scientism still transfer “emotive force” (Salmon 2013, 65) and condemn “the subject matter of the definiendum” (Hurley 2015, 101) by using locutions like “putting too high a value on” and “exaggerated confidence” (cf. Mizrahi 2017, 352). They also presuppose “an unaccepted definition” (Macagno & Walton 2014, 205) by assuming, without argument, that there is some piece of knowledge, p, that is both non-scientific and better than scientific knowledge.


To sum up, I have defended Weak Scientism from Brown’s (2017) objections, and thereby have shown again that Weak Scientism is a defensible position, which is what I have set out to do in Mizrahi (2017). I would like to end this reply to Brown (2017) by pointing out what I take to be a glaring omission in his discussion of my defense of Weak Scientism. Even though Brown (2017, 49) admits that, like good scientific theories, “good philosophical theories explain things” (emphasis in original), he does not tell us what makes an explanation a good explanation. As I point out in Mizrahi (2017, 360), the good-making properties of explanations include unification, coherence, simplicity, and testability. Contrary to what Brown (2017, 48) seems to think, these good-making properties apply to explanations in general, not just to scientific explanations in particular. Indeed, almost any introductory textbook on logic and critical thinking, including those written by philosophers, includes a chapter on Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE) where these properties are discussed. For example, according to Sinnott-Armstrong and Fogelin (2010, 257), “common standards for assessing explanations [include] falsifiability [i.e., testability], conservativeness [i.e., coherence], modesty, simplicity, power [i.e., unification], and depth.”[3]

So, if “good philosophical theories explain things,” as Brown (2017, 49) admits, and if good explanations are those that exhibit the properties of unification, coherence, simplicity, and testability, then it follows that good philosophical explanations must have these properties as well. Contrary to what Brown asserts without argument, then, “To think that a theory T is successful only if—or to the extent that—it enjoys predictive success or testability” is not to beg the question against non-scientific ways of knowing. For, insofar as non-scientific ways of knowing employ IBE, which Brown admits is the case as far as philosophy is concerned, then their explanations must be testable (as well as unified, coherent, and simple) if they are to be good explanations. This is the glaring omission in Brown’s (2017) discussion of my defense of Weak Scientism; he does not address this argument from IBE: “if IBE is ubiquitous in scientific and non-scientific reasoning, and good explanations are those that are comprehensive, coherent, simple, and testable, then it follows that, in both scientific and non-scientific contexts, the best explanations are those that are comprehensive, coherent, simple, and testable explanations” (Mizrahi 2017, 362).[4] As I argue in Mizrahi (2017), and as Sinnott-Armstrong and Fogelin (2010, 259) point out as well, IBE is everywhere.[5] So everyone is in the business of producing good explanations, but science is simply the best; better than all the rest.


I am grateful to James Collier for inviting me to reply to Brown’s “Some Objections to Moti Mizrahi’s ‘What’s so Bad about Scientism?’” (2017).


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Mizrahi, Moti. “What’s So Bad about Scientism?” Social Epistemology 31, no. 4 (2017): 351-367.

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[1] There is a “Disagreement in Philosophy” subcategory on PhilPapers (under Metaphilosophy) that contains 92 papers (as of August 26, 2017).

[2] These remarks apply to the alleged “sixth controversial philosophical assumption,” namely, (f) as well. As I point out in Mizrahi (2017), epistemologists are doing pretty much the same thing when they treat propositional knowledge equally in their analyses of knowledge. That is, “in the same way that epistemologists bracket the content of a proposition when they theorize about propositional knowledge, i.e. knowing that p, and treat all propositional knowledge equally, information scientists who use bibliometric techniques to study scientific knowledge can bracket the propositional content of that knowledge and treat each piece of knowledge (measured in terms of publications, citations, and the like) equally” (Mizrahi 2017, 362).

[3] See also Rudinow & Barry (2008, 266-269), Hendrickson et al. (2008, 76), Govier (2010, 298-302), Velasquez (2012, 71-73), and Douven (2017).

[4] In Mizrahi (2017), I discuss two failed attempts to use IBE in philosophy: an IBE for the Real World Hypothesis (Mizrahi 2017, 358-359) and an IBE for scientific realism (Mizrahi 2017, 360-361). For more on the latter, see also Mizrahi (2012).

[5] See also Harman (1965) and Douven (2017) on the “ubiquity of abduction.”

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick,

Fuller, Steve. “Veritism as Fake Philosophy: Reply to Baker and Oreskes.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 47-51.

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

Image credit: elycefeliz, via flickr

John Stuart Mill and Karl Popper would be surprised to learn from Baker and Oreskes (2017) that freedom is a ‘non-cognitive’ value. Insofar as freedom—both the freedom to assert and the freedom to deny—is a necessary feature of any genuine process of inquiry, one might have thought that it was one of the foundational values of knowledge. But of course, Baker and Oreskes are using ‘cognitive’ in a more technical sense, one introduced by the logical positivists and remains largely intact in contemporary analytic epistemology and philosophy of science. It was also prevalent in post-war history and sociology of science prior to the rise of STS. This conception of the ‘cognitive’ trades on a clear distinction between what lies ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ a conceptual framework—in this case, the conceptual framework of science. But there’s a sting in the tail.

An Epistemic Game

Baker and Oreskes don’t seem to realize that this very conception of the ‘cognitive’ is in the post-truth mould that I defend. After all, for the positivists, ‘truth’ is a second order concept that lacks any determinate meaning except relative to the language in terms of which knowledge claims can be expressed. It was in this spirit that Rudolf Carnap thought that Thomas Kuhn’s ‘paradigm’ had put pragmatic flesh on the positivists’ logical bones (Reisch 1991). (It is worth emphasizing that Carnap passed this judgement before Kuhn’s fans turned him into the torchbearer for ‘post-positivist’ philosophy of science.) At the same time, this orientation led the positivists to promote—and try to construct—a universal language of science into which all knowledge claims could be translated and evaluated.

All of this shows that the positivists weren’t ‘veritists’ because, unlike Baker and Oreskes, they didn’t presuppose the existence of some univocal understanding of truth that all sincere inquirers will ultimately reach. Rather, truth is just a general property of the language that one decides to use—or the game one decides to play. In that case ‘truth’ corresponds to satisfying ‘truth conditions’ as specified by the rules of a given language, just as ‘goal’ corresponds to satisfying the rules of play in a given game.

To be sure, the positivists complicated matters because they also took seriously that science aspires to command universal assent for its knowledge claims, in which case science’s language needs to be set up in a way that enables everyone to transact their knowledge claims inside it; hence, the need to ‘reduce’ such claims to their calculable and measurable components. This effectively put the positivists in partial opposition to all the existing sciences of their day, each with its own parochial framework governed by the rules of its distinctive language game. The need to overcome this tendency explains the project of an ‘International Encyclopedia of Unified Science’.

In short, logical positivism was about designing an epistemic game—which they called ‘science’—that anyone could play and potentially win.

Given some of the things that Baker and Oreskes impute to me, they may be surprised to learn that I actually think that the logical positivists—as well as Mill and Popper—were on the right track. Indeed, I have always believed this. But these views have nothing to do with ‘veritism’, which I continue to put in scare quotes because, in the spirit of our times, it’s a bit of ‘fake philosophy’. It may work to shore up philosophical authority in public but fails to capture the conflicting definitions and criteria that philosophers themselves have offered not only for ‘truth’ but also for such related terms as ‘evidence’ and ‘validation’. All of these key epistemological terms are essentially contested concepts within philosophy. It is not simply that philosophers disagree on what is, say, ‘true’ or ‘false’ but more importantly they disagree on what it means to say that something is ‘true’ or ‘false’. (I summarize the issue here.)

Philosophical Fakeness

Richard Rorty became such a hate figure among analytic philosophers because he called out the ‘veritists’ on their fakeness. Yes, philosophers can tell you what truth is, but just as long as you accept a lot of contentious assumptions—and hope those capable of contending those assumptions aren’t in the room when you’re speaking!  Put another way, Rorty refused to adopt a ‘double truth’ doctrine for philosophy, whereby amongst themselves philosophers adopt a semi-detached attitude towards various conflicting conceptions of truth while at the same time presenting a united front to non-philosophers, lest these masses start to believe some disreputable things.

The philosophical ‘fakeness’ of veritism is exemplified in the following sentence, which appears in Baker and Oreskes’ (2017, 69) latest response:

On the contrary, truth (along with evidence, facts, and other words science studies scholars tend to relegate to scare quotes) is a far more plausible choice for one of a potential plurality of regulative ideals for an enterprise that, after all, does have an obviously cognitive function.

The sentence prima facie commits the category mistake of presuming that ‘truth’ is one more—albeit preferred—possible regulative ideal of science alongside, say, instrumental effectiveness, cultural appropriateness, etc. However, ‘truth’ in the logical positivist sense is a feature of all regulative ideals of science, each of which should be understood as specifying a language game that is governed by its own validation procedures—the rules of the game, if you will—in terms of which one theory is determined (or ‘verified’) to be, say, more effective than another or more appropriate than another.

Notice I said ‘prima facie.’ My guess is that when Baker and Oreskes say ‘truth’ is a regulative ideal of science, they are simply referring to a social arrangement whereby the self-organizing scientific community is the final arbiter on all knowledge claims accepted by society at large. As they point out, the scientific community can get things wrong—but things become wrong only when the scientific community says so, and they become fixed only when the scientific community says so. In short, under the guise of ‘truth’, Baker and Oreskes are advocating what I have called ‘cognitive authoritarianism’ (Fuller 1988, chapter 12).

Before ending with a brief discussion of what I think may be true about ‘veritism’, it is difficult not to notice the moralism associated with Baker and Oreskes’ invocation of ‘truth’. This carries over to such other pseudo-epistemic concepts as ‘trust’ and ‘reliability’, which are seen as marks of the scientific character, whereby ‘scientific’ attaches both to a body of knowledge and the people who produce that knowledge. I say ‘pseudo’ because there is no agreed measure of these qualities.

Regarding Trust

‘Trust’ is a quality whose presence is felt mainly as a double absence, namely, a studied refusal to examine knowledge claims for oneself which is subsequently judged to have had non-negative consequences.  (I have called trust a ‘phlogistemic’ concept for this reason, as it resembles the pseudo-element phlogiston, Fuller 1996). Indeed, in opposition to this general sensibility, I have gone so far as to argue that universities should be in the business of ‘epistemic trust-busting’. Here is my original assertion:

In short, universities function as knowledge trust-busters whose own corporate capacities of “creative destruction” prevent new knowledge from turning into intellectual property (Fuller 2002, 47; italics in original).

By ‘corporate capacities’, I meant the various means at the university’s disposal to ensure that the people in a position to take forward new knowledge are not simply part of the class of those who created it in the first place. More concretely, of course I have in mind ordinary teaching that aims to express even the most sophisticated concepts in terms ordinary students can understand and use. But also I mean to include ‘affirmative action’ policies that are specifically designed to incorporate a broader range of people than might otherwise attend the university. Taken together, these counteract the ‘neo-feudalism’ to which academic knowledge production is prone—‘rent-seeking’, if you will—which Baker and Oreskes appear unable to recognize.

As for ‘reliability’, it is a term whose meaning depends on specifying the conditions—say, in the design of an experiment—under which a pattern of behaviour is expected to occur. Outside of such tightly defined conditions, which is where most ‘scientific controversies’ happen, it is not clear how cases should be classified and counted, and hence what ‘reliable’ means. Indeed, STS has not only drawn attention to this fact but it has gone further—say, in the work of Harry Collins—to question whether even lab-based reliability is possible without some sort of collusion between researchers. In other words, the social accomplishment of ‘reliable knowledge’ is at least partly an expression of solidarity among members of the scientific community—a closing of the ranks, to put it less charitably.

An especially good example of the foregoing is what has been dubbed ‘Climategate’, which involved the releasing of e-mails from the UK’s main climate science research group in response to a journalist’s Freedom of Information request. While no wrongdoing was formally established, the e-mails did reveal the extent to which scientists from across the world effectively conspired to present the data for climate change in ways that obscured interpretive ambiguities, thereby pre-empting possible appropriations by so-called ‘climate change sceptics’. To be sure, from the symmetrical normative stance of classic STS, Climategate simply reveals the micro-processes by which a scientific consensus is normally and literally ‘manufactured’. Nevertheless, I doubt that Baker and Oreskes would turn to Climategate as their paradigm case of a ‘scientific consensus’. But why not?

The reason is that they refuse to acknowledge the labour that is involved in securing collective assent over any significant knowledge claim. As I observed in my original response (2017) to Baker and Oreskes, one might be forgiven for concluding from reading the likes of Merton, Habermas and others who see consensus formation as essential to science that an analogue of the ‘invisible hand’ is at play. On their telling, informed people draw the same conclusions from the same evidence. The actual social interaction of the scientists carries little cognitive weight in its own right. Instead it simply reinforces what any rational individual is capable of inferring for him- or herself in the same situation. At most, other people provide additional data points but they don’t alter the rules of right reasoning. Ironically, considering Baker and Oreskes’ allergic reaction to any talk of science as a market, this image of Homo scientificus to which they attach themselves seems rather like what they don’t like about Homo oeconomicus.

Climbing the Mountain

The contrasting view of consensus formation, which I uphold, is more explicitly ‘rhetorical’. It appeals to a mix of strategic and epistemic considerations in a setting where the actual interaction between the parties sets the parameters that defines the scope of any possible consensus. Although Kuhn also valorized consensus as the glue that holds together normal science puzzle-solving, to his credit he clearly saw its rhetorical and even coercive character, from pedagogy to peer review. For this reason, Kuhn is the one who STSers still usually cite as a precursor on this matter. Unlike Baker and Oreskes, he didn’t resort to the fake philosophy of ‘veritism’ to cover up the fact that truth is ultimately a social achievement.

Finally, I suggested that there may be a way of redeeming ‘veritism’ from its current status of fake philosophy. Just because ‘truth’ is what W.B. Gallie originally called an ‘essentially contested concept’, it doesn’t follow that it is a mere chimera. But how to resolve truth’s palpable diversity of conceptions into a unified vision of reality? The clue to redemption is provided by Charles Sanders Peirce, whose idea of truth as the final scientific consensus informs Baker and Oreskes’ normative orientation. Peirce equated truth with the ultimate theory of everything, which amounts to putting everything in its place, thereby resolving all the internal disagreements of perception and understanding that are a normal feature of any active inquiry. It’s the moment when the blind men in the Hindu adage discover the elephant they’ve been groping and (Popper’s metaphor) the climbers coming from different directions reach the same mountain top.[1]

Peirce’s vision was informed by his understanding of John Duns Scotus, the early fourteenth scholastic who provided a deep metaphysical understanding of Augustine’s Platonic reading of the Biblical Fall of humanity. Our ‘fallen’ state consists in the dismemberment of our divine nature, something that is regularly on display in the variability of humans with regard to the virtues, all of which God displays to their greatest extent. For example, the most knowledgeable humans are not necessarily the most benevolent. The journey back to God is basically one of putting these pieces—the virtues—back together again into a coherent whole.

At the level of organized inquiry, we find a similar fragmentation of effort, as the language game of each science exaggerates certain modes of access to reality at the expense of others. To be sure, Kuhn and STS accept, if not outright valorise, disciplinary specialisation as a mark of the increasing ‘complexification’ of the knowledge system. Not surprisingly, perhaps, they also downplay the significance in the sort of capital ‘T’ sense of ‘truth’ that Baker and Oreskes valorise. One obvious solution would be for defenders of ‘veritism’ to embrace an updated version of the ‘unified science’ project championed by the logical positivists, which aimed to integrate all forms of knowledge in terms of some common currency of intellectual exchange. (My earlier comments against ‘neo-feudal’ tendencies in academia should be seen in this light.) This would be the analogue of the original theological project of humanity reconstituting its divine nature, which Peirce secularised as the consensus theory of truth. Further considerations along these lines may be found here.


Baker, Erik and Naomi Oreskes. ‘Science as a Game, Marketplace or Both: A Reply to Steve Fuller.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 65-69.

Fuller, Steve. Social Epistemology. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Fuller, Steve. ‘Recent Work in Social Epistemology.’ American Philosophical Quarterly 33: 149-66, 1996.

Fuller, Steve. Knowledge Management Foundations. Woburn MA: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2002.

Fuller, Steve. “What are You Playing At? On the Use and Abuse of Games in STS.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 39-49.

Reisch, George A. ‘Did Kuhn Kill Logical Positivism?’ Philosophy of Science 58, no. 2 (1991): 264-277.

[1] One might also add the French word for ‘groping’, tâtonnement, common to Turgot’s and Walras’ understanding of how ‘general equilibrium’ is reached in the economy, as well as Theilard de Chardin’s conception of how God comes to be fully realized in the cosmos.

Author Information: Line Edslev Andersen, Vrije Universiteit Brussel,

Andersen, Line Edslev. “Community Beliefs and Scientific Change: Response to Gilbert.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 37-46.

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

Please refer to:

Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, via flickr

Margaret Gilbert (2017) has provided an engaging response to my paper on her account of joint commitment and scientific change (Andersen 2017). Based on Donald MacKenzie’s (1999) sociohistory of a famous mathematical proof, my paper offered an argument against her account of why a scientist’s outsider status can be effective in enabling scientific change (Gilbert 2000). On her account, scientists have collective beliefs in the sense of joint commitments to particular beliefs. The term ‘collective belief’ is used in this sense in the present paper.[1] When a group of scientists are jointly committed to some belief, they are obligated not to call it into question. According to Gilbert, this makes joint commitments work as a brake on scientific change and gives outsiders an important role in science. Since outsiders to a given scientific community are party to no or relatively few joint commitments of that community, they are less constrained by them. For this reason, outsiders play a central role in bringing about scientific change.

I argued that Gilbert’s account is inherently difficult to test because it requires data that are hard to interpret. At the same time, I pointed out that we have available a simpler explanation of why a scientist’s outsider status can be effective in enabling scientific change: During their education and training, scientists learn to see things in certain ways. If solving some problem requires one to look at things in a different way, scientists with a different educational background will have an advantage.[2] I have become aware that Melinda Fagan (2011, 255-256) also compares these two explanations.[3]

Gilbert’s response to my paper has two main parts. In the first part (Gilbert 2017, 46-48), she argues for the role of collective beliefs in science by considering the role of collective beliefs in everyday life and in the context of education. I discuss her argument in the next section. In the other part (48-49), she suggests that collective beliefs of scientific communities can help explain why some personal beliefs become deeply entrenched in the minds of scientists. I agree with this. Deborah Tollefsen has made the related suggestion that one could respond to my argument by claiming that the degree to which some personal beliefs are entrenched in the minds of scientists cannot be explained without collective beliefs of scientific communities. This is an interesting suggestion. Here, however, I take a simpler approach to the question of whether scientific communities have collective beliefs.[4]

As mentioned, the remainder of this paper begins with a discussion of Gilbert’s argument (section 1). I then address the question of whether (section 2) and to what extent (section 3) scientific communities in particular (as opposed to, for example, research teams) have collective beliefs. On this basis, I assess the potential of collective beliefs to work as a brake on scientific change (section 4).

Collective Beliefs in Science

On Gilbert’s account, a collective belief is a joint commitment to believe some proposition p (e.g., Gilbert 1987). A joint commitment to believe p is the commitment of a group as one body to believe p; i.e., it is the commitment of a group to emulate, by virtue of the actions of all, a single believer of p. Group members are thus “to speak and act as if they are of ‘one mind’ on the subject” (Gilbert 2017, 46). According to Gilbert, this implies that the joint commitment to believe p is persistent in the sense that it can only be rescinded with the concurrence of all the parties (Gilbert 2014, 118). Each of them has an obligation towards the others to act in accordance with the joint commitment to believe p and not, for example, express contrary beliefs. If someone violates the joint commitment, the others gain the standing to rebuke her and may even ostracize her (Gilbert 2000, 40). By virtue of these features, collective beliefs can act as powerful behavioral constraints and work as a brake on scientific change on Gilbert’s account. Speaking about scientists’ collective beliefs, she thus writes that they can have as far-reaching consequences as “inhibiting one from pursuing spontaneous doubt about the group view, inclining one to ignore evidence that suggests the falsity of that view, and so on” (Gilbert 2000, 44-45).

While collective beliefs can be very persistent, they are quite easily formed. A joint commitment to believe p can be formed without all or most or even any of the group members personally believing p. What matters is that they have expressed their personal willingness to let p stand as a belief of the group—if only tacitly—and this is common knowledge between them. On Gilbert’s (2017, 46-48) account, this happens all the time in everyday life and in the context of education. One of the examples she gives in her response to my paper is that of two people having an informal conversation. One of them says “What a lovely day!” and the other responds “Yes, indeed!” This establishes the belief that it is a lovely day as a collective belief the two have. Gilbert reasons that, if this is all it takes for a collective belief to form, they must play a role in science as well: “If collective beliefs are prevalent in human life generally, and if, in particular, they are the predictable outcome of conversations and discussions on whatever topic, we can expect many collective beliefs to be established among scientists in the various specialties as they talk about their work in small and large groups” (Gilbert 2017, 47).

I agree with Gilbert that, if collective beliefs play this type of role in everyday life, they must play a role in science. I am also convinced by her claim that joint commitments are generally ubiquitous. However, when Gilbert describes how easily collective beliefs are formed in everyday life and in the context of education, she gives examples of smaller groups forming collective beliefs, such as the group of people attending a meeting of a large literary society or a student and a teacher having an interchange. By contrast, when she, I, and others discuss the potential of collective beliefs to work as a brake on scientific change, we are referring to collective beliefs of whole communities. This is relevant, since there seems to be a difference between how easily collective beliefs of smaller groups in science (such as research teams) and scientific communities are established.[5] In fact, I argue below that it is at least rare for scientific communities to form collective beliefs. This is where I disagree with Gilbert.

As the previous work on the potential of collective beliefs to work as a brake on scientific change, the present paper focuses on collective beliefs of whole communities. I thus leave open the possibility that collective beliefs of smaller groups in science can work as a brake of scientific change. However, Hanne Andersen and I have examined the instability of joint commitments of smaller groups and argue that they can rather easily be dissolved (Andersen and Andersen 2017).[6] This limits the potential of collective beliefs of smaller groups in science to work as brakes on scientific change.

The Existence of Community Beliefs

Having explained Gilbert’s account of collective belief, I will now examine the question of whether communities in science have collective beliefs. A consensus established at a consensus development conference is a good candidate for being a collective belief of a scientific community. Paul Thagard (1998a, b, 1999) attended the 1994 consensus conference on methods of diagnosing and treating ulcers as part of his work on the bacterial theory of ulcers.[7] In a later paper, Thagard (2010, 280) addresses Gilbert’s account of collective belief, stating that collective beliefs of scientific communities strike him as “rather rare,” but that he believes consensus conferences establish such collective beliefs. Consensus conferences are themselves rare and in most disciplines non-existent, but in medical research, Thagard explains, “the need for a consensus is much more acute, since hypotheses such as the bacterial theory of ulcers have direct consequences for the treatment of patients” (1998b, 335).

The consensus conference Thagard attended was conducted by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. He describes the purpose of their consensus conferences to be “to produce consensus statements on important and controversial statements in medicine” that are useful to the public and health professionals (1998b, 335).[8] A consensus statement is prepared by a panel of experts after deliberation. Most likely the members of the panel do not all personally agree with everything in the statement given the controversial nature of the subject, but the statement expresses the view that they have agreed to let stand as the view of the panel.[9] In this paper, I assume that when members of a group agree to let a view stand as the view of the group, a joint commitment is involved, so the view of the panel involves a joint commitment. It is, in other words, a collective belief.

The question I am interested in here is whether a consensus statement sometimes expresses not only the collective belief of the consensus development panel, but the collective belief of a whole community of scientists. Let us consider the consensus conference Thagard attended. The consensus development panel was chosen to represent a community—an appropriately delineated medical research community—in the following sense. Its members were chosen by the planning committee whose chair is required to be an authority, “a knowledgeable and prestigious medical figure,” and to be neutral in the sense of ‘not identified with strong advocacy of the conference topic or with relevant research’ (Thagard 1998b, 336). The fourteen people on the consensus development panel were chosen for various kinds of expertise and for their neutrality in the stated sense. Finally, the statement of the panel was based on presentations at the public consensus conference by 22 researchers representing different points of view; contributions from conference attendees during open discussion periods; and closed deliberations within the panel. Sometimes, although apparently not in this case, a draft statement is published online for public comment (e.g., NN 2013, 1).

The first page of the statement tells us that it “provides a ‘snapshot in time’ of the state of knowledge on the conference topic,” implying that these are early times and work remains to be done (NN 1994). This proviso limits the potential of the collective belief expressed in the statement to work as a brake on scientific change, for it must limit the ability of the collective belief to incline scientists to ignore evidence that suggests the falsity of the belief. But the proviso does not lessen the potential of the collective belief for being the collective belief of a whole community. It seems to me plausible to say that the members of the community in question in 1994 expressed their willingness (most of them tacitly) to let a belief stand as the belief of the community at that point in time.[10] This is due to the relative neutrality of the panel, the diversity of the speakers, and the fact that members of the community are given the opportunity to have their voice heard.

A similar point can be made about certain group views that are established in a similar way, but are about something else. I have in mind certain codes for responsible conduct of research. For example, the European Mathematical Society (EMS) introduced a Code of Practice in 2012 (NN 2013, 12). This code may be said to express the view of the EMS in a way similar to how the 1994 consensus statement may be said to express the view of a community of medical researchers. The Code of Practice was prepared by the Ethics Committee of the EMS and approved by the EMS council, which in total consists of about 100 member-elected “delegates from all of the national societies which are members of the EMS” and “delegates representing the individual members of the Society” ( The code will apparently be considered for revision every three years in light of comments received by the chair of the ethics committee from members of the EMS.

While I have addressed the question of whether communities of scientists have collective beliefs, Wray (2007) addresses the broader question of whether they have beliefs in a non-summative sense. When a group believes p in a summative sense it just amounts to all or most of the group members personally believing p. Wray argues that scientific communities, as opposed to research teams, are not capable of having beliefs in a non-summative sense. He uses Emile Durkheim’s distinction between societies characterized by organic solidarity and societies characterized by mechanical solidarity (Wray 2007, 341-342). Wray writes that a group or community is characterized by organic solidarity when its members “depend upon the proper functioning of the other members” (Wray 2007, 342), as the parts of an organism depend on each other, and are organized so as to advance a goal. Groups that are not bound together by organic solidarity, are bound together by similar thoughts and attitudes; by mechanical solidarity. Wray argues that a group must be cohesive in the sense of being characterized by organic solidarity to be capable of having beliefs in a non-summative sense and that scientific specialty communities and the scientific community as a whole are not cohesive in this sense.

If consensus conferences produce group beliefs that can properly be described as beliefs of whole communities, they are strictly speaking inconsistent with Wray’s account. These beliefs would then be produced by community acts characterized by organic solidarity, but such acts seem to be exceptional and do not speak against the claim that communities in science are generally characterized by mechanical solidarity. On Gilbert’s account, the non-summative group beliefs Wray discusses imply joint commitments. Wray’s account is neutral on this question. His is an argument that communities in science do not form non-summative beliefs in general. It thus implies that they do not form joint commitments to beliefs.[11] In the next section, I give an additional argument for this particular conclusion.

The Frequency of Community Beliefs

In their everyday practice, scientists often express a view of a research team they are part of, for example in publications, in conference presentations, or in conversation with other scientists. They less frequently express a view of one of the communities they belong to, regardless of how we conceive ‘community view’ here. It seems to be rather rare that the typical scientist is prompted to say, “We as a scientific community believe…” That the motivation to express group views is relatively low at the community level may suggest that the motivation to actively establish group views at the community level is relatively low as well. However, the following argument does not depend on it.

The argument focuses on collective scientific beliefs of communities, since these are the ones that work as brakes on scientific change on Gilbert’s account. In the next section, I return to the topic of community beliefs about responsible conduct of research. So let us consider a Gilbertian scientific community belief p that has just been formed. p would have to be somehow broadly relevant in the community; the community members must, after all, be aware of a joint commitment to believe p for there to be one such. Furthermore, in order to agree to let a belief stand as the belief of the group, the group members must have some motivation to do so. They must do so as a means to realizing a goal (see Wray 2001). Sometimes the members of a community will be motivated to let a belief stand as the belief of the community although they personally have very different beliefs on the matter. For example, in the above case of the consensus conference, there was a need to present a community belief to the public and health professionals. But this is rare.

If the proposition p is broadly relevant in the community and the community belief that p is “unforced” in the sense that it has not been formed quickly under external pressure from the public or others, experts will have discussed and tested whether p until there is broad agreement among them. If the experts broadly agree that p is well established by the evidence, the other community members are likely to believe p because the experts do. Hence, at the time of being established, the collective belief p will reflect what a large majority of the community members personally believe, except in rare cases similar to the consensus conference example considered above. This fits well with Gilbert’s (2000) account of collective beliefs and scientific change. The negative potential of collective beliefs, as she describes it, is not associated with their being established in spite of recalcitrant evidence, but by their being maintained in spite of recalcitrant evidence discovered later.

This raises the question of how members can be motivated to jointly commit to a belief they already broadly share. There is already a community belief that p (albeit in a summative sense) that can be presented as such to the public and others. But there may be a reason internal to the community for making the joint commitment. Kristina Rolin (2008) raises the general question of how the members of a community are motivated to jointly commit to beliefs. She argues that community members are motivated to jointly commit to background assumptions because individuals can then use these assumptions and remain epistemically responsible even when they do not have the expertise to defend them if they are challenged. They can do so because the joint commitments obligate the relevant experts in the community to defend the assumptions if they are appropriately challenged. As implied by the above, I am unconvinced by Rolin’s premise that all the members of a community would be prepared to jointly commit to the same mere assumption, especially given the obligations and constraints this implies on Gilbert’s account. It is unclear how they would determine which background assumptions to commit to.

That it is unclear if and how community members would be motivated to jointly commit to believe p is a serious challenge to the claim that scientific communities form unforced collective beliefs. I believe the challenge may well be insurmountable. But even if we assume that community members are motivated to (and do) form unforced collective beliefs, we have a problem if we want to establish that such community beliefs work as a brake on scientific change. Recall that p is broadly relevant in the community in addition to being widely believed by the community members to be well established by the evidence. Hence, p expresses the sort of view that would make its way into textbooks for students or young researchers entering the subdiscipline[12] or be used widely in further research. If the unforced collective beliefs of scientific communities have the characteristics of being broadly relevant and widely believed, at least for a while, it will be hard to test whether they work as a brake on scientific change. For much relies on such a belief, so it will be unpleasant for community members if recalcitrant evidence turns up regardless of whether they are jointly committed to the belief. Recalcitrant evidence is thus likely to be met with some skepticism or resistance whether a joint commitment is in place or not. Hence, if joint commitments make it harder than it would already be to abandon such views, it will be hard to detect.

Fagan (2011) defends a similar conclusion. She criticizes certain explanatory arguments that scientific groups have collective beliefs: It is not the case, she argues, that collective beliefs can explain certain phenomena in science—the inertia of science and the stability of groups in science—that cannot be explained just as well by other means.[13]

Community Beliefs: Brakes on Scientific Change?

If my argument is correct, joint commitments of communities in science are rare and without much potential for working as brakes on scientific change. Collective beliefs developed at consensus conferences appear to sometimes be collective beliefs of whole communities. But, as explained above, their potential for working as a brake on science is limited by the fact that they are very rare and that at least some consensus statements come with the proviso that this is our view at this point in time. Codes for responsible conduct of research may also be good candidates for collective beliefs of communities. But if a community has a collective belief on what are responsible research practices, this limits the potential of any collective scientific belief of that community to work as a brake on scientific change. If evidence recalcitrant to the collective scientific belief turns up, the members of the community are forced to violate one of two joint commitments. By ignoring the recalcitrant evidence, they violate their collective belief about responsible research practices, by doing the opposite, they violate their collective scientific belief. In such cases, we have no argument why collective beliefs work as a brake of scientific change by making scientists ignore recalcitrant evidence, unless we can argue that the collective scientific beliefs of a given community are somehow harder to violate than the other joint commitments of the community. Hanne Andersen and I (2017) argue that there are cases in which participants can, due to changes in circumstances, violate a joint commitment without risking rebuke and that this is a major source of instability of collective beliefs and joint commitments in general. We would expect tension between collective beliefs due to changes in circumstances to be another major source of instability of collective beliefs.

If we instead assume that collective beliefs of communities are as ubiquitous as Gilbert claims, norms in general are also collective beliefs (Gilbert 1999). But then norms in the scientific community and scientific subcommunities, such as the norm of sharing counterevidence with one’s colleagues, are also collective beliefs. If members of a scientific community discover evidence that goes against one of their collective scientific beliefs, they are thus forced to violate either the collective scientific belief or a collective belief about responsible conduct of research. The relevant collective belief(s) about responsible conduct of research may be held by the community in question, the scientific community as a whole, or both. Hence, unless it can be argued that the collective scientific beliefs of a given community are harder to violate than other collective beliefs the community members are party to, it is not clear that collective scientific beliefs, even if ubiquitous, will work as a brake on scientific change.

I would like to end by thanking Gilbert for her inspiring work, which I continue to explore.

Acknowledgements: The author thanks K. Brad Wray for helpful feedback on an earlier draft.


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Dragos, Chris. “Justified Group Belief in Science.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 9 (2016b): 6–12.

Fagan, Melinda Bonnie. “Is There Collective Scientific Knowledge? Arguments from Explanation.” The Philosophical Quarterly 61, no. 243 (2011): 247–269.

Gilbert, Margaret. “Modelling Collective Belief.” Synthese 73, no. 1 (1987): 185–204.

Gilbert, Margaret. “Social Rules: Some Problems for Hart’s Account, and an Alternative Proposal.” Law and Philosophy 18, no. 2 (1999): 141–171.

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Thagard, Paul. “Ulcers and Bacteria II: Instruments, Experiments, and Social Interactions.” Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 29, no. 2 (1998b): 317–342.

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[1] This is not necessarily a fully appropriate term. There has been some debate on whether groups can be jointly committed to beliefs or whether they can merely be jointly committed to accept claims, a debate started by K. Brad Wray (2001). This paper is neutral on this question.

[2] For convenience, I speak of this as the Kuhnian explanation in the paper, but the paper is not intended as a comparison of Gilbert’s account with Kuhn’s account. I do not mean to argue that we should choose Kuhn’s whole theory of scientific change over Gilbert’s theory of scientific change. This is not clearly stated in the paper. I thank Deborah Tollefsen for pointing this out to me. I do think the question, addressed in Weatherall and Gilbert 2016, of how the work of Gilbert relates to that of Kuhn is an important one.

[3] In her paper, they are compared as alternative explanations of the effects of the dogma of reproductive biology that there is no cell renewal in the ovary.

[4] This question was also examined by Rolin 2008. Wray (2007) started a discussion of the general ability of scientific communities to hold views (Rolin 2008; Cheon 2014; Dragos 2016a, b; Tossut 2016; Wray 2016).

[5] For case studies that support the view that smaller groups in science form collective beliefs, see Bouvier 2004; Staley 2007; and Andersen 2010. For a promising approach to test whether joint commitments exist, see Tollefsen and Dale 2012, which gives an account of how empirical research in cognitive science is important to understanding the nature of shared intention.

[6] Gilbert herself has been focusing on the persistence of joint commitments and written very little about the sense in which they lack persistence, but acknowledges that this is an important topic (Gilbert 2014, 32).

[7] Gilbert’s (2000, 47) first paper on the role of collective beliefs in science was prompted by this work.

[8] This work has recently been taken over by others (

[9] One of the phenomena Gilbert tries to make sense of with her account of joint commitment are cases where people have inconsistent beliefs on some matter and nonetheless let a view stand as the view of the group. Kent Staley (2007) shows that the members of a research team can do (and do) this in epistemically rational ways (see also Wray 2017, 118–119). His argument applies equally well to other groups of scientists.

[10] By contrast, Bird 2010, 10, and de Ridder 2014, 41, state that there is no mechanism of Gilbertian community view formation in science.

[11] Hence, I disagree with Hyundeuk Cheon (2014) who argues that Gilbert and Wray speak about two different types of collective belief. On my interpretation, Gilbert and Wray are examining different questions about non-summative belief rather than different types of collective belief: Wray examines what kinds of groups have beliefs in a non-summative sense, while Gilbert examines how groups have beliefs in a non-summative sense (and argues that they do so by virtue of joint commitments).

[12] I mentioned above that scientists rather infrequently express community views, in whatever sense, but they do so in textbooks.

[13] Fagan argues that the existence of collective beliefs of communities is thus hard to test from their consequences. In the previous section, I made a case for the existence of collective beliefs of scientific communities by looking at how consensus is established at consensus conferences. But this is also hard in the case of “non-forced” collective beliefs of communities. It is not clear where we have to look to observe the process by which they are established. They are likely not established at a single event. It is also harder to see whether a group belief is a collective belief when it, judging from the personal beliefs of the group members at the time of its establishment, could just as well be a mere summative belief.

Author Information: J. Angelo Corlett, San Diego State University,

Corlett, J. Angelo. “More on Searle on Human Rights[1].” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 15-36.

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

Editor’s Note: A significant revision to this piece was posted on 26 September 2017.

Please refer to:

Image credit: Hervé, via flickr

In Corlett (2016), I articulated some concerns with Professor John Searle’s view of human rights. I hesitate to refer to his view on human rights as a theory in that the informational content of what Searle provides concerning human rights seems to fall short of a theory, that is, if the desiderata of a theory of human rights include its being compared to and contrasted with several leading philosophical works on human rights and an attempt is made to explain why one’s own account is more plausible than the competing views concerning at least the nature, value and function of human rights and it is obvious that the contributions to the discussion (in this case, on human rights) are significantly original in content. Searle’s view on human rights also fails to include an account of what exactly distinguishes human rights from various other rights.

On Searle’s View of Human Rights

Searle’s account also fails to provide analyses of the justification and role(s) of such rights in an overall political/legal/social philosophy. Indeed, these matters are inter-related as the justification of one’s own view would appear to engage the concepts and arguments of others if for no other reason than to not endorse that which has already been proven either problematic or implausible.[2] This is not intended as a deprecation of Searle’s view, but rather as a distinction to be made between part of what might count as a theory of human rights and what does not count as such. For Searle’s view on human rights could turn out to be a plausible beginning to a theory of human rights even though his view does not amount to a theory of human rights in the sense noted.

The previous paragraph’s discussion about why I do not refer to Searle’s thinking on human rights in Searle (2010) as a theory of human rights does not address the philosophical-ethical plausibility of his view of human rights. However, had Searle managed to seriously consider the work of various distinguished contemporary philosophers of human rights and rights more generally (e.g., Dworkin 1978; Feinberg 1973; Feinberg 1980; Feinberg 1992; Nickel 1987; Rawls 1999; Wellman 1985; Wellman 2011), perhaps he would have gained several insights into what might have led him to thereby revise his view of human rights. This article constitutes an attempt to engage interested readers on Searle’s view of human rights and why certain features of it are problematic.[3]

Along the way, I shall elaborate some points I made in Corlett (2016) for the sake of both further clarity and the possibility of making meaningful philosophical progress with regard to the nature and value of social knowledge and human rights. I concur with my closing conditional remarks in Corlett (2016, 461-462) that “…if human rights contain a morally normative element, one which is non-institutional and is not and cannot be fully captured by Searle’s analysis, then Searle’s analysis of human rights is problematic as noted.” My claim does not imply that Searle’s view on human rights cannot, upon elaboration which is genuinely consistent with what he states about human rights in particular and his social ontology more generally, be made plausible. Indeed, this appears to be in part what Professor Lobo (2017) attempts to accomplish. In the end, however, his attempt does not succeed in part because some of what he attributes to Searle appears to find no textual support in Searle (2010)[4] and also attributes to Searle ideas which appear to convert what Searle states about human rights into something which resembles but is not the same as what I describe as the human rights tradition.[5]

Even some of what Lobo attributes to Searle regarding human rights is not compatible with the human rights tradition in a fundamental respect. Of course, this does not mean that the human rights tradition is correct and Searle is incorrect about human rights. But it substantiates my original concern that there lies an important incongruity between Searle’s view of human rights and what I refer to as the dominant tradition of human rights. In such cases, someone such as Searle assumes the risk of arguing in favor of something that is not the same thing as the manner in which that thing is construed by many or most philosophers and others who use the term. And unless someone such as Searle is careful to define “human right” in such a manner so as to compare and contrast it with what, for instance, I am articulating as a human right according to said tradition, confusion is likely to result.

Implied in my examination of Searle on human rights is the possibility that Searle articulates a view about Y, wherein the human rights tradition articulates, rightly or wrongly, a view about X wherein in each case the Y or X term is construed as a human right. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it might prove embarrassing if, for instance, either Searle or someone else thinks Searle is discussing the same conception of human rights held by the human rights tradition. For the sake of clarity, it is important to distinguish different attempts to articulate “human right” so that readers can decide for themselves which one is more plausible, and why.

But even if one grants the internal logical and conceptual consistency of Searle’s view of human rights, one might reasonably question the extent to which Searle’s view on human rights matches reality. For coherence is at best a necessary condition of knowledge. It is hardly sufficient, as even some leading coherentists admit. (Lehrer 2000, Chapters 6-7) In this article, I attempt to elaborate on what that tradition means when it mentions or uses “human right.” In so doing, I hope to shed more light on how it appears that Searle’s notion of a human right is dissimilar to that of the tradition’s.

My hope is that the nature of Searle’s view will be seen for what it is (by all means, of course, accurately as respect for any plausible principle of charity requires as much) in the light of the established views and theories of human rights devised by leading rights theorists within the dominant human rights tradition. If this is accomplished, I am confident that readers who are reasonably well-versed in human rights theory and the nature and value of rights more generally will be able to better grasp what Searle is up to in his chapter on human rights. Often times when a position is contrasted with competing views on a topic clarity emerges pertaining to not only the subject matter at hand, but with regard to what each competing view is attempting to argue.

My guess is that Searle’s view of human rights as social and institutional rights depends on an unstated (by Searle) meta-ethic, one which requires independent defense. Of course, the same holds for any account of human rights and the meta-ethic which supports it. Perhaps Searle might have been able to argue plausibly that, amongst the soundest and most highly respected competing approaches to human rights, his is the most superior, and for whatever reasons. Moreover, this might have included his providing a defense of the meta-ethical foundations for his view of human rights. For in the end, any account of human rights would ultimately need to be justified on the basis of a plausible meta-ethic. This seems to hold true whether the account of human rights is a skeptical one which relies on the plausibility of some version of, say, moral anti-realism, or whether it is a positive view of human rights which might rely on, say, a realist meta-ethic.

But alas, Searle chose not to do this, and this is why, contrary to some (e.g., Lobo 2017, 22), it is (if not “central”) at least relevant to the discussion in that Searle conspicuously refuses to engage recent and distinguished philosophical work on human rights and in an era of human history wherein such rights are discussed with regularity throughout much of the world. Had Searle deemed it sufficiently worthwhile for him to study and engage leading contemporary philosophers of rights he might have avoided some of the following confusions and troubles with his own thinking on human rights.

Contemporary Philosophy of Rights

Alternatively, Searle might have succeeded in either demonstrating why the competing human rights views fare worse than his own and/or explaining why his view of human rights is superior to its competitors. Or, Searle might have been able to explain precisely what he states about human rights that is both important, plausible and original to human rights theory. After all, some think that Searle “…makes a contribution to the philosophy of human rights whose importance, I think, is hard to exaggerate, when he points out that what is crucial is that their potential bearers be recognized as a fully-fledged member of the human community and thus as entitled to the rights that accrue, automatically and inalienably, to each and every member of said community” (Lobo 2017, 28).

Yet the content of “that their potential bearers be recognized as a fully-fledged member of the human community and thus as entitled to the rights that accrue, automatically and inalienably, to each and every member of said community” is either assumed, asserted, or argued by many doing rights theory during the past few decades. Indeed, this claim implicitly attributed to Searle as one of Searle’s alleged contributions to human rights theory might turn out to be what several positive human rights theorists (as opposed to the human rights skeptics) have in common with one another!

Part of the very idea of a right, especially a human claim right, is that the right-bearer is recognized as a proper subject to make a valid claim to said right, that she is in a position, morally speaking, to do so. And according to many human rights theorists, one must be a human being in order to be in a position to make valid rights claims. So as long as theorists argue for the importance of human rights, they explicitly or implicitly accept the point about how humans ought to be considered to be important bearers of rights protections in that they are members of the community of humans because, among other things, this fact about them places them in a position to possess human rights.[6] However, as we shall see, even this apparently innocuous claim or assumption will be shown to be problematic, below, insofar as the claim is taken at its face value, lacking important qualifications. For if it is seen as a claim about human rights as absolute and non-conflictable, it falls prey to some considerations of justice.

It is difficult to understand how Searle is responsible for contributing to human rights theory a claim such as “what is crucial is that their potential bearers be recognized as a fully-fledged member of the human community and thus as entitled to the rights that accrue, automatically and inalienably, to each and every member of said community” when it is hard to imagine, having studied many philosophers of rights, a positive human rights theorist who does not or would not accept such a claim. Furthermore, to think of such a claim as Searle’s “contribution to the philosophy of human rights” is to disregard what for decades has been a fundamental point of contention between several human rights theorists and the governments and peoples many in favor of human rights seek to convince about the “rights of man” and how such rights (human rights) ought to be respected and protected for the sake of all persons. How can Searle have made this alleged contribution to the philosophy of human rights when the point in question seems unoriginal with Searle?

Elaborating Searle on Human Rights

It is important to draw a distinction between an institutional right and a social one. For one can have an institutional (say, a legal) right without it being socially recognized, approved or accepted (that is, recognized, approved or accepted by, say, the majority of societal members). If X is a social right, X exists to the extent that society recognizes X as such. Thus with regard to social rights, possession and recognition are connected because such rights are socially constructed, that is, such rights do not exist except by way of societal agreement and recognition. For society must recognize such rights in order for it to agree that they exist and under whichever conditions. But with human rights as moral or ethical rights, the possession of said rights is not necessarily connected to the recognition thereof as one can possess said rights without their being recognized by anyone whomsoever (even by the rightholder herself!).

Human rights construed as ethical or moral ones in this traditional sense do not exist because society says they do. Rather, they exist because valid ethical or moral rules or principles confer on X that X has a human right, whatever a human right turns out to be. As I state in Corlett (2016), the United States Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling and its social and political aftermath demonstrates the divide between the Court’s opinion, on the one hand, and most of U.S. society at that time, on the other. In that case, the right was in 1954 recognized institutionally (by the Court) but not, at that time, by the majority of U.S. society.[7] For it took many school districts throughout the U.S. decades after 1954 to comply “with all deliberate speed” with the Brown decision. Indeed, many would argue that even today said right is not adequately or fully recognized socially within the U.S. In any case, a right (including a human right) might be recognized institutionally while not being recognized socially.

Moreover, a human right or a right in general can be recognized socially but not institutionally. Searle’s example of this category of right is articulated in the context of his disagreement with the likes of Jeremy Bentham with regard to Bentham’s assertion that rights are those which are recognized institutionally (by a legal authority). Searle’s proposed counter-example to Bentham’s claim is that of a marital partner who has, Searle asserts, an “informal” (non-institutional, “not legally sanctioned”) “…right to be consulted beforehand about any life-changing decisions on the part of the other spouse.” (Searle 2010, 192) However, Searle fails to provide a reason to ground this assertion. Yet Searle’s proposed example is hardly self-evident. Nor is the point clear. Does Searle mean that each and every spouse possesses this right, and absolutely? Or, does he mean that only some such spouses do?

Absent qualification, his language seems to suggest that he believes that each spouse possesses such a right, and absolutely. If this is Searle’s meaning, and if no plausible reason can be provided for such an idea, then Searle has not given us an example of a socially recognized right that is not recognized by law (unless all Searle means is that some in society can agree that such is a right within their own marriages, regardless of whether it is really a right). This can hardly make Searle’s view of human rights congruent with what I refer to as the “dominant human rights tradition” wherein human rights are construed, rightly or wrongly, as moral rights grounded by way of reason in valid moral rules or principles. By “valid” is meant objectively valid, all relevant things considered.

Possible Counter-Examples

In fact, there is at least one counter-example to Searle’s proposal [of an (unqualified) “informal” “…right to be consulted beforehand about any life-changing decisions on the part of the other spouse”] underlying his alleged counter-example to Bentham’s point. Consider a woman who is abused by her legal spouse and wishes to exert her legal and moral (ethical) right to self-determination quite independently of her abusive spouse’s interests or claims to the contrary. Would it not be reasonable to think that there are such cases where she has no duty to consult her spouse? If so, then Searle’s assertion, as stated and absent qualification, is problematic and there seems to be, for all Searle states in Searle (2010), no (general) informal and non-institutional right to be consulted by one’s spouse in the manner in which he seems to imagine. This is especially the case if the strong correlativity thesis about rights and duties is plausible according to which, say, a spouse has a right to be consulted which correlates strongly with the other spouse’s duty to consult.[8] This does not mean that each spouse has no claim or interest along the lines stated by Searle. But if a right (including a human right) constitutes a valid moral claim or interest which one has over and against others, then the counter-example to Searle’s claim here undermines his proposal that said “right” is a right after all.

The spouse in Searle’s example has a claim or interest in being consulted. However, it is unclear that she always has a valid such claim or interest which would correlate with the other spouse’s duty to consult, especially in the kind of case I have provided, that is, if personal autonomy, self-determination, self-respect and the separateness of persons are moral values that trump Searle’s alleged spousal right to be consulted in the scenario he imagines.

Perhaps a better example of a right one has which is not recognized by law but socially recognized is one in which the majority of society or even a majority of a particular collective (I have in mind here especially a collective or the decision-making conglomerate type[9]) within society recognizes but is not recognized by that society’s legal system. Perhaps what might be referred to as rights which are not recognized by “recently-established laws” (Corlett 2009, Chapter 2) which do not yet constitute “long-established laws” qualify here wherein the legal system of a society takes some time to fully or mostly endorse a particular right that society in general or a particular group within society already endorses.

Perhaps given the complicated and sometimes inconsistent history of the Court decisions concerning the U.S. First Amendment right to freedom of expression (Rabban 1999; Corlett 2009, 22), a right to which Searle refers and attempts to make much of in his work on human rights (Searle 2010, 187-191),[10] qualifies as one which for at least some period of time in its history was endorsed either by the majority of U.S. societal members or by certain groups within it but was simultaneously delimited in crucial ways by the Court during the “free speech fights” in the early 20th century. It is plausible, more recently for instance, to think that even when the Court ruled against certain expressions (Cf. Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation 438 US 726 1978),[11] the American Civil Liberties Union and certain other civil libertarian groups and several individual U.S. citizens disagreed with the Court’s 5-4 ruling and sided with the dissenting opinion of the Court. Yet it is plausible to think that the right to freedom of expression was illegitimately delimited by the Court in said decision. But if true, this would hardly mean that there was not a legal and/or moral right to freedom of expression in precisely this case as the dissenting justices might have been correct that certain aspects of the law actually supported their position on this matter and not the opinion of the majority justices.[12] Thus sense can be made of a socially recognized human right (wherein it is also a legally justified one) which is not legally recognized because it is not validated by the rules of that legal system which empower a court to make a decision (but wherein that decision turns out to be an unconstitutional one, all relevant things considered).

A legal positivist might disagree with such a claim in that for her a legal right just is what the law says is a right. But legal positivism requires independent justification for such a concern to gain adequate philosophical traction, and that would lead us into a fascinating discussion in the philosophy of law literature which I think for present purposes is, unfortunately, a bit too far afield given my more narrow interests in Searle’s view of human rights and my interest here in demonstrating the plausibility of Searle’s point that there might be socially recognized rights that are not recognized by the institution of law. Furthermore, even in light of the Court’s ruling in FCC v. Pacifica, the Court may have gotten it legally wrong in that a closer and more comprehensive consideration of the law (especially First Amendment law) may well have meant that the Court should have, based perhaps also on supportive plausible moral rules or principles, decided the case in favor of Pacifica and not the FCC.

If this is true, then it would suggest that the law and rights are not always what the institution of law says they are in a particular decision or case as the law (or those acting on its behalf) can sometimes make incorrect (institutionally unjustified, all relevant things considered) decisions which are based neither in the most plausible moral rules or principles or in the law itself, most plausibly considered.[13] After all, it is argued, the law is often if not always a matter of principled interpretation[14] (Corlett 2009, Chapters 1-2; Dworkin 1985; Dworkin 1986; Feinberg 2003, Chapter 1).

Thus while Searle is correct that not all rights such as “informal” ones are institutionally legal ones recognized by law, he seems to have provided a problematic example of such a right, that is, to the extent that personal self-determination [perhaps grounded in the Rawlsian conceptions of personal autonomy, self-respect and the separateness of persons (Rawls 1971) and in the Feinbergian notions of self-respect, respect for others, and human dignity which seeks to diminish servility (Feinberg 1980, 155; Feinberg 1992, 202, 226-227 as noted in Corlett 2016, 458)] is sufficiently important to ground a spouse’s right to decide for herself what to do with her life without consulting her spouse under certain conditions. Of course, much discussion of moral, social, political and legal philosophy revolves around such matters and serves as a reminder of how complicated are the tasks of attempting to ultimately ground human rights and rights in general as such rights are conceptualized by most human rights theorists.

By now the reader can discern that the allegation that I misrepresent Searle’s view of rights (Lobo 2017, 22) is problematic, as is the assertion that “Searle’s position on human rights is actually very similar and perhaps even identical to the one Corlett appears to prefer.” (Lobo 2017, 22) But it is also false or at least misleading to claim that “Searle in fact argues for an ethical, non-institutional understanding of human rights—one quite in line with what Corlett calls the ‘dominant ethical notion of human rights’.” (Lobo 2017, 22) And it is false that “Searle argues that human rights demand an ethically normative foundation, on which his analysis [is] built.” (Lobo 2017, 22) In what follows, these matters are clarified.

In Corlett (2016), I make the claim that, for all Searle states about human rights in Searle (2010), there is no normatively ethical (“moral”) component to Searle’s view on human rights and this fundamental fact distances Searle’s view of human rights from the dominant (contemporary) tradition on human rights which construes human rights as fundamentally ethical or moral in the normative sense. Whatever else human rights are, according to said tradition, they are non-institutionally moral or ethical, backed by valid moral or ethical principles or rules in, say, the Feinbergian sense. Rightly or wrongly, this is how human rights are normally construed by said tradition. This approach to human rights as moral rights in this sense is not endorsed by Searle. Rather, Searle briefly discusses the Bentham-MacIntyre notion of legal rights (Searle 2010, 175-176), the theistic conception of “natural” rights (Searle 2010, 183), and his own social construction view of “human rights.”

My claim is not that Searle’s view of human rights cannot possibly be made congruent with the human rights tradition in question, though, as I note above, I come close to stating this in my final remarks when I state one of my main points conditionally. (Corlett 2016, 461-462) Rather, my general point about this matter is that, for all Searle actually writes in Searle (2010), Searle’s own view as presented in Searle (2010) seems to be incongruent with said tradition. Again, this fact in itself does not make Searle’s view implausible as it might turn out that said human rights tradition is itself implausible and Searle’s view on human rights might turn out to be plausible, all relevant things considered. However, to the extent that Searle’s view of human rights is not in accordance with said tradition on the nature and value of human rights and to the extent that the latter is plausible, Searle’s view is problematic in that it lacks a crucial component which said traditional view of human rights possesses: a normatively ethical or moral component in the sense noted above.

This component is not the same as one which allows for the social construction of certain rights, human ones, out of human morals. That would be better termed the social construction of “morality rights,” ones which for all we know can be constructed from the likes of invalid moral rules or principles and which deserve no respect—even if they might be rationally devised. For just as the Thomistic claim that “an [ethically[15]] unjust law is no law at all” rings plausible when properly interpreted with regard to the nature of law, so does the claim that “an ethically or morally invalid rights claim or interest is no right at all” rings true according to this tradition with regard to rights. This is a crucial component found in what I am referring to as the dominant human rights tradition and what is lacking in Searle’s view of human rights.

Once again, that such a component is lacking in Searle’s view of human rights does not in itself prove that his view is implausible. But Searle needs to demonstrate why his view of human rights is philosophically superior to the most plausible competitors on offer. And it is problematic for Searle to not engage in such crucial analytic philosophical enterprise. After all, good analytic philosophy is not a matter of solipsistically asserting one’s own opinion on matters. It requires carefully juxtaposing one’s view with competing and leading views on a subject, and arguing as best one can why one’s own position is better than its competitors. Thus it is false to assert that “Searle in fact argues for an ethical, non-institutional understanding of human rights—one quite in line with what Corlett calls the ‘dominant ethical notion of human rights’ ” (Lobo 2017, 22).

If by “argues” is meant what I have just clarified as my meaning of one of the main aims of analytic philosophical reasoning, then Searle has done precious little to argue for his position in light of the several crucial questions and problems in human rights theory. And it is false that “Searle argues that human rights demand an ethically normative foundation, on which his analysis [is] built” (Lobo 2017, 22) if by this is meant what I have in mind when I use the locution “ethical or moral normativity” or its equivalents.

Agreement on the Meaning of ‘Human Right’?

A further difficulty with Searle’s view of human rights is that even the careful reader has little or no idea if by “human right” Searle means what the leading human rights philosophers mean by said category. As noted above, this courts the possibility of philosophical confusion in that it might well lead to Searle’s arguing for a conception of human rights which is importantly different from the one discussed in the dominant tradition of human rights discourse in philosophy that equivocation can result either on behalf of Searle or his readers.

In effect, this is part of what Corlett (2016) implies in its investigation of Searle’s view of human rights. In exposing the differences between Searle’s conception of human rights and that of what I refer to as the dominant tradition, I am implicitly wondering—even if one grants Searle everything in what he asserts about human rights—if Searle has perhaps demonstrated simply that human rights in some social sense exist. In other words, for all the reader of Searle knows, Searle is articulating human rights as social rights, or Searle has devoted his work to the sociality of human rights especially in terms of their social recognition. But this is not the same as demonstrating that human rights exist insofar as the dominant tradition construes the nature of human rights. Searle’s view lacks crucial components of what the tradition thinks lies at the heart of human rights, what I shall refer to as the “moral or ethical dimension of human rights.” If Searle, recognizing this fact, seeks to argue that his view of human rights is philosophically superior to that of the human rights tradition’s, so be it. But it is dubious to think that Searle has articulated the same (or anything like the same) conception of a human right as that of the tradition in that it courts confusion.

Furthermore, even if we accept the claim that “Searle explicitly rejects the pure institutionalist vision of human rights” (Lobo 2017, 22), it does not follow that Searle “unambiguously aligns himself with the position Corlett is defending when he compares real pure institutionalists….” (Lobo 2017, 22). First, I do not defend any such view of human rights as I share some of Searle’s own concerns about it as they are stated concerning positive rights claims in Searle (2010, 193-194), concerns that have been articulated by various other rights theorists and in Corlett (2009, Chapters 4-5) and Corlett (2010, Chapters 2-4). Rather, I am articulating (but not defending) a general traditional and (for better or for worse) dominant view of them and stating that Searle’s view of human rights runs afoul of that approach. If that view is plausible, then Searle’s view is wanting in a significant manner, as noted above.

Secondly, perhaps Searle, as Lobo wants us to think, believes that his own position on human rights is aligned with said tradition of human rights as I present it. But as I have clarified both in Corlett (2016) and herein, there is a significant disconnect between the two views. Rejecting a purely or largely institutional view of human rights (one lacking an essential normatively ethical or moral component as I articulate it above) hardly makes one a member of the traditionalist camp on human rights. Searle himself has implicitly rejected a purely institutional view of human rights when he attempts, unsuccessfully as pointed out above, to provide an example of an informal non-institutional (non-legal) right in the institution of marriage between spouses. So rejecting human rights institutionalism in the purist sense is insufficient to qualify one as a human rights advocate in the traditional sense as I have articulated it in Corlett (2016) and herein.

Contrary to what is asserted, then, it is not the case that I am “not arguing against Searle’s actual position.” (Lobo 2017, 23) For even granting Searle’s claim that “human rights continue to exist even when they are not recognized” (Searle 2010, 181; Lobo 2017, 23), it does not follow from this that Searle concurs with either Corlett (Corlett’s view of human rights was not even presented in Corlett 2016) or the dominant human rights tradition about the nature and value of human rights. For what makes a human right valid is key here, as noted above. For Searle, it is society (either society at large or a subset of it) which validates such rights as they are socially constructed (again, either by society at large or by a subset of it). For the traditional human rights approach, it is valid moral/ethical principles or rules which confer validity on a human rights claim or interest and thereby confer the right in question to a particular individual or group. And this is a crucial difference.

It is difficult for me to see how Searle concurs with such a view given what he has written in Searle (2010) on human rights. It is not just that one is a human being that makes them possessors of human rights, as Searle seems to argue. (Searle 2010, 182f.) It is also that valid moral/ethical rules or principles confer on one said right and support, all relevant things considered, the claim and/or interest in question—regardless of whether or not any human being (or society) concurs with or recognizes said principles. Thus to construe a human right as a moral right in this sense means that a human right exists even without any societal recognition of said right whatsoever. This makes the social recognition of a human right as a fundamentally moral one neither necessary nor sufficient for the possession of said right.

One implication here is that such rights are understood or discovered by the light of reason. And it is the light of reason that is also said to underlie Searle’s conception of a human right. But other than that, the two conceptions of a human right have little else in common as pertains to human rights possession and the nature of a human right. To the extent that the above is plausible, then it is problematic to allege that “Corlett’s criticism [that Searle’s view of human rights is purely institutional] is misdirected” (Lobo 2017, 23). However, with all fairness to the reader, it is easier to understand this point in light of my current elaborations on such matters discussed in Corlett (2016).

In addition, while it might appear that I was hasty in arguing that Searle’s view of human rights is purely institutional, it is also the case that Searle’s example of a non-institutional right in marriage was found to be problematic and replaced with a better example of my own. So it is unclear whether I was incorrect in stating my point in question concerning whether or not Searle’s view of human rights is purely institutional. For all Searle (2010) states about human rights being non-institutional, he seems to get it wrong by way of his example of such a right. Perhaps if Searle concurred with my example of a non-institutional right in marriage based on each spouse’s right to self-determination and whatever moral or ethical values support it, then I would be willing to modify my point that Searle’s view of human rights is purely institutional, assuming of course that spouses do not constitute a social institution of sorts.[16] For I cannot reasonably retract said claim on the basis of Searle’s problematic example. I already concur with the claim that ethical (moral) rights can exist apart from the law’s recognition of them, but for reasons dissimilar to Searle’s attempt to ground an informal right apart from institutions.

Moreover, my task is in part to reconstruct what Searle actually states pertinent to human rights and related concepts. I believe that I have done so herein and in Corlett (2016). But it is important to note that, as we shall see, Lobo (2017) engages in some rational reconstruction of Searle’s view of human rights as Searle states it. It is not that Lobo, in his unsuccessful attempt to undercut my reading of Searle on human rights, fails to quote Searle and address some of what Searle actually states. Sometimes he does so when presenting Searle’s view. But as we shall see, in other contexts Lobo appears to engage in rational reconstruction of Searle on human rights as he attempts to elaborate on what Searle states about human rights while not quoting Searle to carefully demonstrate that Searle genuinely and unambiguously concurs with what Lobo attributes to him.

Rational reconstruction, as I understand it, is the activity of engaging but also going beyond what is written by an author to, say, answer alleged problems with the informational content of what is argued in a particular text. Analytic philosophers tend to engage in rational reconstruction more than they engage in historical reconstruction of texts, except in many cases in contemporary history of philosophy where contemporary analytic philosophers often attempt to engage in both. To be sure, there is nothing wrong per se with rational reconstruction, so long as one is careful to alert readers, and herself, that one is engaging in this project. Otherwise, one runs a serious risk of confusion in the form of making problematic allegations and misattributions.

Before noting some instances of problematic rational reconstruction, I shall expose some uncharitable readings of segments of Corlett (2016). One is found in Lobo (2017, 24) wherein my point about Searle’s view of human rights as “mere human creations” (Corlett 2016, 455) is taken to mean “more or less arbitrary product of sophistry and whim rather than reason as such.” However, a charitable interpretation of “mere human creations” would not pertain to either arbitrariness or sophistry, but to the fact that Searle offers a social constructivist view of human rights (which of course is my point). Nowhere do I state or even logically imply that Searle thinks that human rights are a matter of arbitrariness or sophistry. Another instance of uncharitable interpretation of what is found in Corlett (2016) is in Lobo (2017, 24) wherein I am aligned with the “idea that Searle is a pure institutionalist and anarchic social constructivist…”

As in the previous case of uncharitable interpretation, this misattribution to me is groundless. Just as the fact that something is a social construct does not make it arbitrary or sophistry, that something is institutional and a matter of social construction hardly makes it anarchical. Indeed, some anarchists tend to abhor social institutions! Moreover, there is logical slippage between my locution “would seem to imply” with regard to Searle’s view of human rights and “Searle does not argue this” (Lobo 2017, 24) as I do not state that Searle argues such. There is a difference between arguing a point and seeming to imply one. In order for my point to be rendered problematic, it must be demonstrated that in this case Searle does not seem to imply what I state he seems to imply. My point is not rendered problematic by showing that Searle does not argue what I stated that he merely seems to imply. Insofar as the trustworthiness of testimony is deemed vital to social epistemology and the possible acquisition of social knowledge, one seems justified in thinking that there is good reason to doubt the accuracy of Lobo’s interpretation, not only of Corlett (2016), but of Searle (2010). It is to these matters that I now my attention.

The previously noted violations of any plausible principle of charity in interpretation are followed by instances wherein rational reconstruction is mistaken for what Searle actually endorses in his published work on human rights. (Searle 2010) Consider the following statements making various attributions to Searle about human rights in response to my charge that Searle essentially socializes human rights relative to a particular society’s recognition of same:

But Searle too is seeking to enunciate more or less eternal human rights. His problem, to which he flatly admits, is that on the basis of his moral and theoretical reason, he can only firmly articulate two: the right to life and the right to freedom of expression. But although it seems evident to me that different times and places produce different understandings of what rights exist (of course, it is quite possible that advances in moral reason will finally elucidate a definitive set of rights sometime in the future), what is crucial for Searle is society’s’ attitude towards the potential bearers of those rights (Lobo 2017, 25).

It is clear that Searle endorses the two alleged human rights mentioned in this quotation: the right to life and the right to freedom of expression. But several problems arise here. First, no quotation in Searle is provided for the reasoning in the quoted words, as it is a case of rational reconstruction of Searle’s words. The reasoning goes beyond what Searle actually states. But again, one of my general claims is that for all Searle states about human rights, there are various problems with his view. It is not, as I state above, that Searle’s view of human rights cannot be rationally reconstructed to evade such difficulties. Additionally, the description of human rights as “eternal” is problematic. What does it mean to say that a right is eternal? I do not recall in the philosophy of rights literature where rights are referred to as “eternal,” though perhaps some religious theorists might tend to at times refer to certain human rights in such a manner. Some explanation is required to make some sense of this strange notion as, absent careful qualification, it seems out of place in philosophical discourse.

Perhaps what is meant by human rights being “eternal” is that, consonant with the human rights tradition in question, they exist and have always existed and will always exist despite human recognition of them. But I recall nowhere in Searle (2010) where Searle’s view of human rights comes close to this view of human rights as “eternal.” Nor does the notion of eternality seem to fit neatly within Searle’s social ontology of social construction. If I am correct about this point, then it appears that the above passage from Lobo (2017, 25) is a case of rational reconstruction and it behooves Lobo to demonstrate unambiguously in Searle (2010) where a conception of human rights as eternal is endorsed by Searle.

Furthermore, Searle’s discussion of the two alleged human rights noted above is itself problematic. Searle indeed endorses the two rights as human ones. (Searle 2010, 185) But he hardly defends or justifies such rights. If by his endorsement of such rights as human ones Searle means that they are absolute and non-conflictable rights, then Searle would be endorsing an implausible (or at least a rather controversial) claim insofar as it would imply the duty of others to respect such rights with regard to all humans. For there are humans both throughout history and today who have neither a moral (in the requisite sense) right to life nor to freedom of expression, namely, those who deserve capital punishment based on their strong liability responsibility for, say, the illicit deaths and maimings and torturing of others.

Unless Searle adopts and successfully defends an abolishionist approach to capital punishment, and unless he wishes to disrespect or ignore considerations of moral responsibility, desert and proportionate punishment, he would seem to want to endorse a view of human rights which does not appear to imply (absent careful qualification) that everyone has a right to life in the requisites sense (above) because they are human beings. For not everyone has such a right, morally speaking, according to many who take sufficiently seriously considerations of responsibility, proportionality, and desert. By extension, the alleged (“eternal”? or universal?) human right to freedom of expression fails insofar as the alleged (“eternal”? or universal?) human right to life fails. For if one (subsequent to adequate due process, of course) genuinely deserves execution because of their strong liability responsibility for the illicit murders, maimings, torturing, etc. of others, then one hardly has a right to freedom of expression in that they deserve to have their life ended.

Further Considerations

In general, human rights need to be articulated and plausibly defended in light of deeper moral, social, political and legal considerations so that they do not run afoul of them. This point applies to Searle as well as to others philosophizing about human rights, and rights more generally. Indeed, this point might even serve as a plausible desideratum of a theory of human rights as one would want and expect that, all relevant things considered, a conception of human rights ought to comport well with broader and underlying considerations along such lines.

It is also stated that “In a response to commentators on his 2010 book, Searle (2011) avers that a right can be considered legitimate ‘only if it can rationally be justified by a correct conception of human nature, a set of values about human beings, and can rationally impose an obligation on all human beings to respect it’ ” (Lobo 2017, 24). This is the closest published statement by Searle of which I am aware that on the surface appears to align his view of human rights with the conception of human rights as moral ones which I attribute to the contemporary dominant human rights tradition. However, the statement does not quite succeed in doing so. For according to the conception of human rights which I articulate but do not endorse in Corlett (2016) and herein, being rationally justified by a correct conception of human nature is not a jointly sufficient condition of a human right, though it might be relevant to the issue of human rights possession (i.e., of who qualifies in having a human right).

Moreover, that a rights claim can be rationally justified by “a” set of human values is not sufficient for something to be a human right. According to the human rights tradition, such a set of values must itself be morally valid (conferred by valid moral rules or principles) in the sense noted above. Thus, it must be both rational and reasonable, as Rawls might put it. That something is rationally justified can be a subjective or relative matter. But that it is also reasonable suggests that it is also plausible aside from its being rational in the sense of its being internally consistent (internally coherent). The epistemic concept of coherence comes to mind here. As noted above, that something is internally consistent is insufficient for its being justified. It must also be consistent with reality, externally speaking. It must match the real world of facts.[17] A similar point can be made of Searle’s claim that a right “can rationally impose an obligation on all human beings to respect it.” It must also do so reasonably, according to the dominant contemporary human rights tradition.[18] Yet for all Searle states therein, there is no requirement to the effect that a human right is a right that is conferred by valid moral or ethical rules or principles. So it is rather difficult to understand the assertion that “I see no substantive difference between this [Searle’s] analysis of the basic reasoned, moral ontology of human rights and that given by Corlett. Are not Corlett’s ‘moral rights’ more or less exactly the same as Searle’s rights, which must be based on ‘a correct conception of human nature’ and ‘a set of values about human beings’” (Lobo 2017, 24)?

Aside from the problematic locution “more or less exactly the same as” and the fact that I do not necessarily endorse the conception of human rights of the dominant tradition (so it is not “Corlett’s [conception of] ‘moral rights’”), I hope that I have sufficiently clarified the difference(s) between Searle’s notion of a human right and that which has been articulated by the dominant tradition of human rights. I know of no other way in which to articulate the difference(s). Perhaps more time and energy ought to be expended in attempting to justify Searle’s conception of human rights than in attempting to align it with the dominant human rights tradition. For it is obvious that Searle’s view of human rights is not in accord with said tradition. However, as I have stated repeatedly, this in itself does not suggest that the Searlean notion of human rights is implausible.

It seems, rather, that Searle is attempting to articulate his own such notion of human rights, and its plausibility, not unlike the plausibility of competing views of human rights, is contingent on how well it stands the test of reason. And if one of my (above) points is plausible, then it appears that Lobo, perhaps in an implicit acceptance of the traditional view of human rights as moral rights in the above-described requisite sense, is attempting through rational reconstruction of Searle’s view of human rights to make it consistent with the tradition’s view to the effect that “human rights have always existed. But all members of the human species have not always been recognized as humans entitled to those rights.” (Lobo 2017, 25).

While this point, not quoted from Searle himself, seems consistent with the contemporary human rights tradition as I have described it, it is still not the same as that tradition’s addition of the important idea that human rights are valid moral claims and/or interests humans possess regardless of both whether or not there is social recognition of some humans qua humans and whether or not such rights are recognized as such. So one question here is whether or not Searle holds the view attributed to him by Lobo (2017), and another is whether or not such a view comports sufficiently well with the human rights tradition in question and yet another is which view of human rights is more plausible, and why.

Moreover, there are other issues with regard to Searle’s view of human rights. In Corlett (2016, 458), I write that

For all Searle states about human rights, U.S. blacks, for instance, had no valid claims to equal opportunity in education prior to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. For such a right did not exist, on Searle’s view, until and unless it is socially constructed or institutionalized (i.e. made legal). Yet this implicitly runs counter to the idea that such blacks already had the (moral) rights (valid moral claim) in question and that it was being denied them by law and society, a view grounded in the moral principle that blacks are fully human and deserve (ought to have) equally opportunities in education, among many other opportunities that others would have by moral right. Yet this latter idea was not supported by most whites in the U.S. until several of them were morally persuaded to concur with the spirit of the validity of the Brown decision. Among other things, the Brown decision represented a moral shift in the U.S. conception of legal rights to equality of opportunity in education. But it did not imply that all of a sudden blacks gained a right that they did not previously possess—except of course in a legal sense. Rather, it was a moral right that was finally recognized by law, one to which many would refer as a “human right.”

It is alleged that “Searle’s analysis entails nothing like this.” (Lobo 2016, 25) Yet the explanation of why Searle’s view of human rights does not entail what it seems to me it implies, and no quotations from Searle are produced to explain why “Searle’s analysis entails nothing like” what I state that it seems to imply—only interpretation by way of rational reconstruction of Searle’s view. Thus, claims that “Searle is not a strict institutionalist” (Lobo 2017, 25) and “Searle’s focus is fundamentally on recognition”[19] of the bearers of human rights, while possibly true, are difficult if not impossible to find in Searle (2010).

Which Questions Does Searle Wish to Answer?

Perhaps there is some confusion and possibly uncharitable reading of my above quoted point regarding the Brown decision. It is written of Searle’s “theory” of human rights and in implicitly alleged contrast to my take on the Brown decision that Searle’s “theory points to what is so momentous about Brown—not that the Supreme Court recognized the valid claim to equal education, but that, based on rationality, reason, morality, and so on, it recognized that Black Americans actually had rights—in this case the right to equality of opportunity in education” (Lobo 2017, 25).

However, the allegation that “Searle’s analysis entails nothing like” the manner in which I describe it in terms of what I take to be some of its implications is dubious in that, as it turns out, what is implicitly interpreted as my meaning is uncharitable, if not confused. My above-quoted point is clear about the issue of the Brown decision and how it involves the legal recognition of the right to equality of education for all persons in the U.S. But this implies that it was also about the recognition of the full humanity of all non-whites, inclusive of all blacks. For it is in the context of potential or actual rights-bearers that the recognition of the right to equality of opportunity in education is made. Thus the idea that my point about the Brown decision implicitly or otherwise ignores the “momentous” idea thatblacks actually had rights” makes no sense in light of both the background of U.S. law which already recognized some rights that blacks had, and the fact that it makes no sense for Corlett (2016) to construe the Brown decision as one about the Court’s recognition of the right to equality of education absent the Court’s additional recognition of the fact that blacks and other non-whites qualify as right-bearers in the relevant sense relative to the right in question. When this matter is considered, it is unclear that my point about what Searle’s view of human rights seems to imply is far from accurate in light of Searle’s own writings on human rights (namely, Searle 2010).

Furthermore, if it is true that Searle’s view of human rights and their recognition is that “what is so momentous about Brown—not that the Supreme Court recognized the valid claim to equal education, but that, based on rationality, reason, morality, and so on, it recognized that Black Americans actually had rights—in this case the right to equality of opportunity in education” (Lobo 2017, 25), then another problem arises as mentioned above. For the description of Searle’s view as one which makes human rights based on “morality” is one which distances Searle’s view significantly from what I am describing as the human rights tradition. For that tradition would want to distinguish between what valid moral or ethical principles or rules would confer as a moral right and what morality (or even moralities) would recognize as a right.

Thus, the point raised in order to attempt to clarify Searle’s view on human rights recognition serves to further deepen concern about an allegation that Searle’s view is not strictly institutionalist. To be sure, I have already provided an example of what Searle refers to as an “informal” right, one that is not necessarily supposed to involve the institutionalization of said right.  But whether or not that example is successful, it is unclear that Searle’s view of rights and their recognition comports well with the idea that it is not that human rights are conferred on humans (in part) because of what socially accepted “morality” or moralities say, but rather that the valid principles of ethics or morality confer such rights.

Moreover, another attempt is made to insist that Searle’s view of human rights is not what I think it seems to imply with regard to the Brown decision: “So the valid claims existed, the rights existed too, even before the Brown decision, and Corlett is mistaken when he says Searle theory denies their existence before the decision.” (Lobo 2017, 26) Again, I do not categorize Searle’s words on human rights as a theory (see the opening paragraph of this essay). But more importantly, no quotation from Searle (2010) is provided for the acceptance of the claim that “the valid claims existed, the rights existed too, even before the Brown decision…”

One is left to wonder whether what has occurred in the reading of my critique of Searle on human rights is that some have perhaps at a subconscious level found the critique so plausible that they have, in thinking that Searle could not have possibly made such unthinkable errors in his conceptualization of human rights, constructed (pun intended) reconstructions of “Searle’s theory” in order to make his view more compatible with what seems to them a more generally and intuitively plausible position on human rights, one which, seemingly accidentally, is somewhat congruent with some portion of the traditional view of human rights. Whether or not this has actually occurred is hard to discern and beyond additional interest on my part. But it is relevant to the point about rational reconstruction and careful explications of an author’s view.

For both critics and defenders of an author’s work owe it to themselves, the author, and others to carefully quote an author in constructing her position. I have not only attempted to do this, but the first several pages, the bulk of Corlett (2016), present Searle’s view of human rights so fairly that they painstakingly summarize in some detail Searle’s social ontology from his two books on the topic in order to provide a suitable conceptual context for a discussion of his view of human rights. For one to provide replies to my concerns is what a philosopher is expected to do. But in order to avoid unnecessary confusion one must be careful to distinguish (when relevant) between construction and rational reconstruction of an author’s position, especially if allegations are made concerning misrepresentation of an author’s view. Corlett (2016) concerns a careful, oft-quoting (of Searle) construction of his view. It is not intended to be a rational reconstruction of it. That much is obvious by a study of it.

Moreover, Searle’s basic point about status recognition with regard to the Brown decision is articulated. (Lobo 2017, 26) He writes: “The all too simplistic notion that ‘if you qualify as a human being, you are automatically guaranteed human rights’ (Searle 2010, 81), is, well, all too simplistic. For, indeed, you have to first qualify as a human being.” In reply to these points, it is important to bear in mind that, though it might be simplistic to think that “if you qualify as a human being, you are automatically guaranteed human rights” if for no other reason than history and contemporary times reveal that not all humans are guaranteed rights of any kind, it is unclear that “you have to first qualify as a human being” in order to have or be recognized as having a human right if what is meant by this unclear claim is that all of those who possess human rights must be human beings.

For as it turns out, many human rights theorists and activists hold that, for instance, various non-human animals have at least one of the very rights Searle himself categorizes as a human right: the right to life. Yet these animals are not human ones. So, if it is true that said animals have a right to life, and if it is true that the right to life is a human right and uniquely possessed by humans, then it is unclear that one must be a human in order to possess or be recognized as possessing that right which is said to be a human one. For one to insist that by definition only humans can have a right to life begs the question, many would argue, about what counts as a human right.

The right to life, according to many, is often possessed by humans who are unable to be conscious of their possession of it, yet many would argue that it would be unreasonable to deny them human rights possession status. And many would argue that the right to life extends to many non-human animals even though they might not be conscious (as most humans might be conscious) of their possessing such a right. The point here is that even if it is assumed that the right to life is a human right, it is not according to several people a right possessed exclusively by humans, rendering dubious the claim that “you have to first qualify as a human being” in order to either possess or be recognized as possessing a human right. At the very least, such a claim requires careful clarification. Are human rights possessed exclusively by humans, as the assertion in question appears to imply? Or are some human rights such as the right to life shared with non-humans, and if so, might it be important to clarify that being human is perhaps a sufficient but not a necessary condition for the possession of a human right? If the latter, then this clarification should be made and its implications should be recognized in terms of a robust social/political philosophy insofar as such rights are basic to a plausible social/political philosophy.

Much of this discussion of Searle’s view of human rights raises the question of precisely which questions he is attempting to answer. If Searle is answering the question of how human rights might be socially recognized, then he has offered an interesting account of such a phenomenon whether or not it is original. However, if he is attempting to provide answers to questions about the nature and value of human rights, then his account raises the kinds of problems enumerated herein and in Corlett (2016). Again, a serious study of the philosophy of human rights in particular and of rights more generally might have enabled Searle to clarify such matters and juxtapose his “theory” with those of others. But one is left with the unfortunate situation where, when taken at his word, Searle articulates his ideas in ways which are, as I have explained, isolated and divergent from the mainstream discourse on human rights. While this is not in itself a bad thing, it runs the risk of confusing important issues and concepts.

Finally, it is stated that Searle “insists that rights exist, and that they are grounded in moral reason, and thus his view is far from being incompatible, much less antithetical to that propounded by Corlett.” (Lobo 2017, 28) But as noted above, no quotation from Searle is provided which justifies the attribution to him of human rights being grounded in “moral reason.” But even if that information from Searle is provided, “moral reason” is vague when considered in the context of Searle’s view of human rights and his social ontology more generally. Would it mean, for Searle, the same as it means for the tradition of human rights that I have articulated? I am not aware of any concept from Searle’s social ontology that would justify such an ascription to Searle. Recall that “moral reason” can be construed, say, either relativistically to refer to social reasoning about morality rights, for instance, or in the manner in which so many human rights theorists understand it, as I describe above.

And pointing out that Searle states that “with regard to human rights he says, explicitly: ‘This does not mean that they are arbitrary, or that anything goes’[20] (2010, 198)” (Lobo 2017, 28) is a far cry from (and not logically entailed by) the statement that human rights are ethical or moral rights that are conferred on someone or a people by valid moral or ethical rules or principles. Searle’s statement here can be understood reasonably to mean that whatever society decides is a human right and who ought to possess it is a matter of moral reason by that society. However, this is not the same as stating that the nature and value of human rights is beyond whatever society recognizes as such; indeed, it is a matter of whatever valid moral or ethical rules or principles determine as such, and that this is, at least in principle, discoverable by way of human reason.

Whether or not Searle’s view of human rights can be reconstructed into the most plausible account is an open question. I am cautiously optimistic that it might be if Searle’s view is importantly amended at least along the lines most central to this investigation. But that project might eventuate in the abandoning of some aspects of Searle’s view of human rights which he himself deems most crucial to his social ontology. Or, it might turn out that either Searle or some of his disciples devotes sufficient time and energy to the study of the philosophy of rights and human rights such that it can be shown with significant precision that Searle’s view is the best one on offer, all relevant things considered.


In the end, Searle (2010) provides an interesting articulation of some social rights and how they come to be recognized by social institutions. However, his notion of human rights lacks critical ethical/moral components in the ways enumerated both in Corlett (2016) and herein. While Searle (2010) provides an interesting description of the social construction and recognition of social rights, it is unclear whether or not it is an accurate account of the social construction of human rights in that it is unclear that human rights are even social constructions as opposed to their being rights that are, quite apart from being socially constructed, conferred on persons by valid rules or principles of ethics or “true” morality as noted herein and in Corlett (2016).

And while it is the goal of human rights supporters to have a global recognition of human rights, it is not obvious that the possession of human rights is contingent on their being socially recognized. This may be true even though respect for human rights requires social recognition of them. In any case, there is far more to human rights, if they exist and if so, whatever they turn out to be in content, than what is found in Searle (2010). Perhaps the most plausible idea in Searle (2010) about human rights is how they can be socially recognized. Whether or not this is a notion original to Searle is one thing. It is quite another, however, to think that what Searle offers is anything close to a theory of human rights and one that is congruent with the dominant contemporary human rights tradition as I have described it.

This discussion of Searle’s view of human rights is relevant to social epistemology in at least the following ways. His view of human rights is an outgrowth of his social ontology. As far as I can discern, what Searle (2010) states about what he thinks are human rights is consistent with his social ontology. And insofar as social ontology and social epistemology are inter-related, not unlike metaphysics and epistemology, questions about Searle’s notion of human rights raise questions about how humans rights become real (assuming they are real). And this in turn raises questions about how we might come to know that they are real.

Finally, insofar as many social epistemologists deem testimony as an important element of social knowledge (Coady 1992; Goldman 1999; Lackey and Sosa 2006), I have relied on the testimony of many philosophers in the tradition of human rights and rights in general to compare and contrast that understanding of human rights with that of Searle’s. In the end, each position, whether one of these or another, must bear its own argumentative burden of proof against, for instance, the slings and arrows of anti-realists or skeptics about rights—especially human ones.


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[1] I wish to thank Professor Jim Collier, Editor of Social Epistemology, for granting me this opportunity to further address some recent concerns raised about my critique of Searle’s view of human rights and Professor George Rainbolt for incisive discussion of the nature of rights.

[2] Further desiderata of a theory of human rights might be gleaned from what Carl Wellman construes as important components of a general theory of rights in Wellman (1985, 4).

[3] That is, problematic from at least the standpoint of what I am describing as the dominant human rights tradition.

[4] I take Searle (2010) to be Searle’s most mature and systematic thinking on human rights and his social ontology which serves as the basis of his view of human rights.

[5] Not unlike the tradition of just war theory, the contemporary human rights tradition is not all of one piece. There are differences between such theorists concerning various nuances of said traditions. However, I shall continue to refer to the “traditional” or “dominant” tradition of human rights insofar as many of those who would consider themselves in favor of human rights would have little difficulty accepting what I generally attribute to it. I write “many” in that, if the later Ludwig Wittgenstein is correct, what defines categories (such as “human rights tradition”) is not an essential property they share in common with one another as members of said tradition, but rather a set of overlapping and criss-crossing sincerely held propositions between members of the relevant category. I shall focus on some such propositions which I believe many positive human rights theorists seem to accept.

[6] In the interest of time as this is already a lengthy essay, I point out that the claim which is attributed to Searle as his “contribution” to human rights theory is already recognized in Corlett (2009, Chapter 5), though the general point in question is found in various other sources on the philosophy of human rights.

[7] Indeed, one of the reasons why then U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren encouraged a unanimous vote of the justices in this case was precisely because he knew that most of the citizenry of the U.S. was against school desegregation and that the Court needed to send a message to that citizenry about equality of educational opportunity. Brown v. Board of Education was preceded by other cases which challenged racial segregation in U.S. schools. One notable case was the Mendez v. Westminster School District case (1947) which represented a significant step forward to end segregation of mostly Mexican-American school children in California. Nonetheless, these cases demonstrate how various moral rights of non-whites in U.S. society were not recognized institutionally (legally), though through a series of legal cases the rights were recognized institutionally. As decades past, most of U.S. society gradually, it seems, accepted said right to equality of education regardless of color, etc. So the Brown decision is one wherein a moral right gradually became recognized by law and then by most of U.S. society.

[8] As pointed out in Corlett (2016, 460-461), Searle seems to endorse the strong correlativity thesis about rights and duties when he writes that “…all rights imply obligations” (Searle 2010, 177) (I assume here that Searle does not make a distinction between obligations and duties as has been made in some of the ethics literature during the past few decades.) On the other hand, Searle tempers his apparent endorsement of the strong correlativity thesis with his claim that “not all cases of rights” correlate with duties. (Searle 2010, 170)

[9] By this I mean something akin to “plural subjects” (Gilbert 2014; Corlett forthcoming), “we-mode groups” (Tuomela 2013; Corlett and Strobel 2017), or otherwise agental groups (List and Pettit 2011).

[10] Also see, for example, Dworkin (1996, 199f.); Feinberg (1992, Chapter 5); Greenawalt (1989) for philosophical accounts of the right to freedom of expression.

[11] In FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, the disputes were what constituted indecency and whether or not “indecent” expressions should be permitted over public airwaves wherein minors can access them.

[12] What I have in mind here is similar to Ronald Dworkin’s point about Justice Joseph Story with regard to Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842) concerning captured runaway slaves and the Fugitive Slave Laws: Dworkin (1975).

[13] There is a rich literature in philosophy of law including discussions of legal positivism with regard to legal interpretation. One source with which one might begin one’s investigations therein might include Conklin (2001).

[14] By contrast, for many critical legal theorists (and many critical race theorists), legal decisions are often, if not always, results of decisions made on the basis of political power often divorced from decisions about the “right” things to do by the courts. (Altman 1986; Corlett 2009, 47-55, 60f.)

[15] I insert “ethically” here in that Thomas Aquinas was a natural law theorist who wrote of legal justification in terms of its underlying ethical base.

[16] One might bear in mind, however, that in the U.S. marriage is commonly referred to as an institution. I understand this to mean that marriage is both a social and legal institution, being both socially and legally recognized.

[17] I assume here and elsewhere a realist metaphysic as well as some plausible version of moral realism.

[18] In Lobo (2017: 24), “reasonable” is inserted as a parenthetical clarification of Searle’s “rational:” “When Searle asserts a belief that a justified human right can constitute a rational (reasonable) obligation on all human beings is he not echoing (but really, is not Corlett echoing Searle?) Corlett’s insistence that there are moral (human) rights above and beyond what particular societies recognize?” But comparing Lobo’s quotation of Searle and Lobo’s paraphrasing of it, Searle does not include “reasonable” in his statement. Hence my point about the difference between what is rational and what is reasonable with regard to human rights and the difference between Searle’s view of human rights and that endorsed by the human rights tradition as I understand it. That X is a human right based on its reasonableness (whatever that turns out to mean) is one thing. That X is merely rational is quite another. Almost any view about humans and such can be made to be rational in the sense of internal consistency. But not many views are both rational and reasonable, all relevant things considered. Searle endorses the rationality criterion of human rights. But it is by way of (albeit charitable) rational reconstruction that one is asked to read into Searle’s statement the criterion of reasonableness. It is of philosophical interest to know if Searle himself would unambiguously endorse such an interpretation of his view as it might be a step in the “right” philosophical direction (pun intended). In light of such considerations and other ones throughout this article, it is neither that Searle echoes Corlett’s articulation of the dominant human rights tradition nor that Corlett’s articulation of the dominant human rights tradition echoes Searle on human rights.

[19] If this point is true of Searle’s view of human rights, then it might point to a deeper problem in Searle’s view, namely, one which I have identified: Searle’s myopic focus on one of the social aspects of human rights (their social construction and recognition) to the exclusion of various factors about human rights according to the human rights tradition.

[20] If this quotation from Searle is intended to serve as a corrective to my take on Searle’s view, it is yet another unfortunate uncharitable misattribution to me about Searle’s work. For nothing in either Corlett (2016) or herein implies that I think that, for Searle, human rights are either arbitrary or that “anything goes.” Again, Corlett (2016) is more precise and circumspect than any such crass statements about the informational content of Searle (2010).

Author Information: Alan Irwin, Copenhagen Business School,

Irwin, Alan. “Agreeing to Differ? A Response to Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 11-14.

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

Please refer to:

Image credit: Broo_am (Andy B), via flickr

What is the purpose of criticism? Is it to challenge and provoke, to establish new kinds of dialogue and mutual learning, to silence or to give voice? And what happens when we do not agree? Is disagreement an impediment or a driver to change? Is it a way of testing out arguments and building a mutually-enlightening dialectic? Or is open disagreement a fundamental problem which makes further discussion impossible?

I should quickly say that I do not write in these terms because I feel criticized or especially disagreed with by Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden’s very fine and reflective paper—nor do I have devastating criticisms and disagreements to offer them.  But I am struck by the parallels between writing a critical response to academic colleagues and the handling of criticism and disagreement within public participatory exercises. To move to the main theme of these comments, should agreement be the purpose of academic/public debate or does this imply a stepping away from difficult issues, a failure of nerve or even a form of manipulation?  Should one focus on what we share or on what divides us?

The Value of Disagreement

With inevitable irony, I think one important area of agreement between myself and these two authors is that we all value disagreement and have a suspicion of public participatory processes which seek to push this aside or to conceal the existence of contradictory views. As I read Jeroen Van Bouwel and Michiel Van Oudheusden, there is a basic problem with many participatory formats which seek agreement (or what they call ‘consensus’) and serve to delegitimize conflict and disagreement. In a careful analysis, they present different models of democracy but also critically (that word again) reflect upon the ‘consensual-deliberative model of public participation in technoscience’.

From their perspective, ‘consensus is enacted as an epistemic and political ideal that, implicitly or explicitly, renders undesirable the prospect of protracted conflict and the unfeasibility of conflict resolution. Nonconsensual conceptions and possibilities of change, conflict and democracy are thereby mostly left out of the equation.’ (Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden 2017, 3) Instead, they are drawn to more agonistic ways of thinking. They also challenge the current ‘meta-consensus’ around public engagement ie the consensus over the ways such exercises are theorized and invoked—or perhaps the ‘consensus over consensus’ (my awkward formulation not theirs).

There is much more to say about Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden’s thoughtful discussion than I can summarize here, including the presentation of two cases, a reflection on different models of democracy and an important inter-connection of STS and political theory. I strongly invite the reader to read their paper on these and other points. Certainly, I think the authors succeed in bringing new perspectives to what has often been a rather stale discussion of ‘public engagement—democracy or disappointment?’ within the academic literature (on this see Irwin et al 2012).

In critical response, I will—in the most constructive interpretation of ‘criticism’—focus on the relationship Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden present between disagreement and consensus-seeking within participatory exercises. To bring in one further aspect of their discussion, how should we think about the role of ‘closure’ in this context and also their proposed notion of ‘disclosure’? In line with the positive valuation of disagreement and conflict, ‘disclosure’ is seen as opening up a fresh perspective on participation: ‘disclosure does not imply a begrudging acceptance of the impossibility of actors to reach a shared solution for a social problem; rather, conflict between them is valued positively as the guarantor of political struggle.’ (Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden 2017, 10) Their argument, as I see it, is not necessarily in favour of disclosure over closure, but rather that we need to augment our ways of thinking and acknowledge the possibility of protracted conflict as well as agreement.

So how does the constructively-minded critic react to all this? My response—apart from the previous appreciative summary—is to point to three issues which I think deserve to be discussed in greater depth. It may be that my comments are more normatively-inclined than Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden’s rather balanced paper. Instead, my thoughts are best read as reflections stimulated by their text rather than disagreements with it. All are intended to move the field of ‘public engagement: studies and practice’ further forward.

On Consensus

First of all, I think the authors do well to portray consensus not simply in the common ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sense of a rather weak state of agreement but also as a faith in the common good and a commitment to building a shared culture. In fact, it is one of my own publications (with Maja Horst) that is drawn upon here so it is hard for me to differ (Horst and Irwin 2010). However, and in contrast to the approach taken in Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden’s paper, the Danish ideal of consensus (at least from our perspective) does involve the acceptance both of fundamental disagreement and of the inability to achieve resolution on every issue (see Horst 2010). It asks what are for me some key questions: ‘how do we proceed when we are not in agreement?’; ‘how do we live together with conflict?’; and, not least in current troubled times, ‘how can we face disagreement directly and without fear of negative consequences?’.  This is of course an ideal and not necessarily what one sees at a daily level within the Danish state—although notice the relative stability in that country of multi-party governments whose internal disagreements are at least as important as what they have in common. My point is that an orientation to consensus-seeking does not have to mean a ‘begrudging acceptance’ of disagreement. It can be that it starts with this acceptance and builds from there.

The authors’ approach to these issues is to put forward new conceptions and ideals that contrast with ‘consensus discourse’. My own argument is, firstly, to acknowledge that ‘consensus’ can take several different forms but, secondly, to suggest that we may have much more to learn from previous experience of ‘consensual’ conflict handling than the authors’ approach implies. For me, concepts like dissensus, disclosure, conflictual consensus and agonism are valuable—but they should be seen as part of the consensual ideal rather than a contrast to it. Of course, here I also reveal my own commitment both to vigorous (dis)agreement and to finding collective ways of handling conflict—and even being made stronger by it.

On Institutional and Political Contexts

This takes me to my second point of discussion. If we accept the argument that official approaches to public engagement around the world often back away from disagreement and conflict, then it is also necessary for us as ‘critical’ scholars to consider the institutional and political contexts within which such assumptions are generated and performed. Why this persistent pattern? Is it caused by a culture of ‘scientism’ whereby complex socio-technical issues are reduced to a reductionist matrix of risk? Is it due to a deeper institutional urge for control, and resistance to the troublesome uncertainties often emphasized within public discussion? Is it because issues such as nanotechnologies and new approaches to healthcare have the potential to become ‘wicked problems’ for government institutions in particular: crossing departmental jurisdictions, spinning in several directions at once, easy to open up but hard to close down? Or is it because there are economic pressures at work which make it difficult even to imagine that the answer to any proposed innovation will be ‘no thanks’?

Having observed civil servants struggling both to ‘make space’ for participation activities in the face of sceptical ministers and suspicious stakeholders, and to move forward with what are often ‘hot’ issues in a distinctly ‘cold’ environment, it seems to me vital that we understand the institutional and cultural forces at work. We should also ask why, after so much criticism from all sides, initiatives in public participation actually persist. Without examining the relevant organizational and political contexts, it seems to me that we are doomed to a not very subtle revision of the old deficit model: why don’t policy makers understand? What if they understand more than we acknowledge, but simply find that our concepts and models miss the point as they see it?

On Opening and Closing

My third observation is the most general of all. And I have to say that it is influenced by a mood of pessimism concerning the current state of world politics (I am hoping this will pass—both the politics and my mood). I too share the enthusiasm for opening problems up rather than closing them prematurely down (Stirling 2008), for challenging the manner in which issues are framed for debate, and for bringing criticism and disagreement forward more visibly, directly and vigorously. Our critical training as social scientists and humanities scholars encourages this and (although I can’t speak for everyone here) our own political sensibilities have often been sharpened by critique of the orthodoxy, the closed agreement and the establishment stitch-up.

But does this lead us to under-value the art of closure, the process of finding ways to make agreements, understandings and policies stick even when the disagreements persist and the uncertainties show no sign of dissipating? To take an obvious example, does the world need more ‘disclosure’ right now around climate change or is it actually more interesting (and challenging) to imagine the kinds of closure which might be fruitfully established—and the acknowledgements of dispute and difference upon which these should be built? In the era of Brexit, starkly-polarized US politics and global warming, certain consensual ideals seem more important and powerful than ever.

Should we focus on what we share or what divides us? The answer for me can only be ‘both’. I am grateful to Jeroen Van Bouwel and Michiel Van Oudheusden for providing us with the foundation for doing exactly that.


Horst, Maja. “Collective Closure? Public Debate as the Solution to Controversies about Science and Technology.” Acta Sociologica 53, no. 3 (2010): 195-211.

Horst, Maja and Alan Irwin. “Nations at Ease with Radical Knowledge: on Consensus, Consensusing and False Consensusness.” Social Studies of Science 40, no. 1 (2010): 105-126.

Irwin, Alan, Torben Elgaard Jensen, and Kevin Edson Jones. “The Good, The Bad and The Perfect: Criticizing Engagement Practice.” Social Studies of Science 43, no. 1 (2012): 118-135.

Stirling, Andrew. “‘Opening Up’ and ‘Closing Down’: Power, Participation, and Pluralism in the Social Appraisal of Technology.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 33, no. 2 (2008): 262-294.

Van Bouwel, Jeroen and Michiel Van Oudheusden. “Participation Beyond Consensus? Technology Assessments, Consensus Conferences and Democratic Modulation.” Social Epistemology (2017): 1-17. doi:10.1080/02691728.2017.1352624.

Author Information: Javier Zavala Rayas, Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas, México,

Rayas, Javier Zavala. “Reply to Liberman and López Olmedo’s ‘Psychological Meaning of “Coauthorship” among Scientists’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 70-72.

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

Please refer to:

Image credit: Novartis AG, via flickr

To examine scientists, and science itself, from a social sciences perspective helps us reach partial agreements. Although one may agree neither with the methodology used, nor the outcome, such research invites discussion and diverse positions that enrich the dialogue and, ideally, open avenues for future research. Research on coauthorship—the object of Liberman and López Olmedo’s (2017) work with scientists from different areas—helps develop a perspective not only on its meaning, but also links other aspects of the study of scientists from diverse areas such as psychology and sociology.

Scientific communication lends a fundamental and useful process from which to analyze science. Scientific communication possesses many different aspects, processes and cycles—it may start casually, starting with conversations face-to-face, exchanging ideas and points of view through email—that may establish a permanent interaction leading to a scientific article published by coauthors. Through their interactions the participants’ lives, in one way or another, are impacted. Given these interactions, and given that both the concepts of ‘collaboration’ and ‘coauthorship’ are used in different ways in scientific communication, Lieberman and López Olmedo’s research is especially relevant.

Science leads to social progress, yet it seems difficult to speculate how much farther it can advance. Despite these advancements, we find certain words less frequently used by scientists at the beginning of their investigations. Advancing science requires consensus in a particular scientific field. Lieberman and López Olmedo used the method of natural semantic networks in order to describe the results from the psychological meaning of a word, words or terms, used as stimulus—in this case asking what ‘co-author’ means in four scientific knowledge areas.

Lieberman and López Olmedo note that ‘teamwork’ and ‘collaboration’ appear as the first two words that define ‘coauthor’ in three of the four groups (except chemistry) of researchers studied. On one hand, it is important to see the contribution the professional role of ‘scientist’ plays in defining these concepts. On the other hand, it is evident there are social and personal features in defining words. For example, in three disciplines appears, among the 15 reported words, ‘friendship’ (except in the biological sciences). It would be interesting to know if the word appears in chemistry even if it is not part of the first 15 words—perhaps that data should be requested from López Olmedo. There are few articles that describe friendship as a defining factor in the formation of groups, or research teams, and their day-to-day activities; besides, chemists consider ‘comprehension’ as a defining term. However, it is unknown if the term relates to the comprehension of people, or to knowledge in a research area particular to chemistry.

‘Active participation’ is another term describing a coauthor. The term appears in physics, mathematics, and in the biological sciences, but not in chemistry. Perhaps this outcome reflects specific characteristics of the interactions in these knowledge areas. Further analyzing the results, the term ‘common interests’ appears in third place among physicists and mathematicians and in the penultimate place within biological sciences, but it does not appear with the chemists. A certain uniformity exists in mathematics and physics. We find the word ‘discussion’ in fourth place within physicists, sixth place within mathematicians and biological sciences, but it was not found among the chemists.

‘Trust’ and ‘honesty’ are defining words found only among chemists. We often link them to characteristics established from the ethics and morals that are a part of scientific progress. The defining word ‘work’ appears in the four disciplines—as an activity to complete in order for an investigation to progress. The defining word ‘commitment’ is found in biological sciences and chemistry. However, we should not dismiss ‘commitment’ as something not part of physicists or mathematicians. But because ‘commitment’ does not appear as a defining word, it invites future research into the concept of commitment (perhaps using Lieberman and López Olmedo’s work as a model).

‘Human resources training’ appears as a defining term with physicists and mathematicians, possibly as result to a low demand from students for those disciplines (at least in Mexico).  It is considered important to promote an increase in researchers in physics and mathematics to continue contributing scientific knowledge and advancements.

A relevant aspect of the “inner cycle” of scientific communication is the description of informal processes. Such communication can happen in the hallway, such as a chance encounter, and is part of the skills developed for each researcher to interact with peers that allows future collaborations or research developments. We also have the “outer cycle” of scientific communication —the result of a process completed by the coauthors in the form of a scientific article. Notably, coauthorship can get difficult when assigning the order of the coauthors (except for the first author) given the relevance or importance of contributions to the final product. In many cases, this discussion leads to conflict. Such conflict can be an object of study extended out from the dynamics of scientific coauthorship.

Lieberman and López Olmedo’s findings open the possibility for further studies. For example, to know what ‘coauthor’ means in an area of specialization, such as high energy physics, given the likely differences in the nature of specialist work (as opposed to physics as a whole), the differences among research teams, and group dynamics. In the chemists’ research group, for example, some discrepancies were found regarding how the defining words used by Lieberman and López Olmedo were understood. These discrepancies invite us to do more research about chemists—into defining words in particular—perhaps starting with organic and inorganic chemists (as two general classifications) to find out more about their conception of the scientific work. Hopefully, we will get pleasant surprises

The idea of publish or perish becomes a dynamic in the exchange of theoretic positions about topics of investigation, and the exposure and advancement of scientific knowledge. This idea became present in Liberman and Lopez Olmedo’s examination into the defining word ‘productivity’. Such work, in Mexico, could result in public policies on science. For example, in looking at collaboration as a tool of ‘high production’ and ‘rewards’—sometimes not knowing the content of published articles, productivity and other publications—such words are common in all areas of research. We want to assume that the primary interest is to contribute knowledge in respective disciplines, support scientific growth and its impact on ordinary social life.

The absence of notes and references in my reply comes as I wanted to reflect my work sessions and discussions with my mentor, Dr. Sofia Liberman. These sessions lead to a beautiful friendship. Thank you, Sofi, for your lessons of life. I would like to offer a public posthumous acknowledgment of Dr. Sofia Liberman’s work as both a great scientist, and as an originator of studies about science and scientists.

Author Information: Erik Baker and Naomi Oreskes, Harvard University,,

Baker, Erik and Naomi Oreskes. “Science as a Game, Marketplace or Both: A Reply to Steve Fuller.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 65-69.

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

Image credit: United Nations Photo, via flickr

Steve Fuller’s response to our criticism of the “game” analogy in science studies comes at an opportune time.[1] One of us has recently published an exhaustive review of decades of ExxonMobil’s climate change communications, finding that while the vast majority of the oil company’s internal documents acknowledged the reality of anthropogenic climate change, only a vanishing minority of its public-facing statements expressed the same position, instead sowing doubt about the same scientific consensus its own in-house scientists overwhelmingly accepted.[2] This case study provides a helpful illustration of why we continue to defend our initial position, despite criticism from Fuller in two principal areas: truth and consensus, and political economy.

Truth and Consensus

Fuller describes our veritism (our insistence on talking about truth outside of scare quotes) as “gratuitous.” This complaint is hardly novel, and was expressed perhaps most influentially by Richard Rorty.[3] The basic idea, in all of its veneers, is that talk of truth furnishes philosophers and social scholars of science with no additional explanatory powers. “Truth” is instead a pointless metaphysical tack-on to an otherwise robust descriptive enterprise.

ExxonMobil’s sordid climate history provides a compelling counterexample to this assertion. Any answer to the question of why ExxonMobil continued to accept internally the same scientific claims it was disputing publicly (and that it had an obvious incentive to dispute) that does not invoke truth—or at least related notions as evidence and empirical adequacy—will be convoluted and tendentious. The best explanation of this fact is simply that the scientific consensus on climate change is largely correct, which is to say true.[4] It was in ExxonMobil’s interest both to understand the truth and to deny it publicly. If, as Fuller maintains, truth-seeking is wholly extraneous to the scientific enterprise, it is almost impossible to understand why ExxonMobil’s own scientists would perform research and publish papers antithetical to the company’s political and financial interests.

Veritism also helps to explain two broader features of scientific consensus that Fuller emphasizes. First, its formation in a social process. Fuller thinks that he has caught us in a contradiction when he observes us talking about “building” consensus. Hardly. On the contrary, it is difficult to understand the (social) process of consensus-building in science without a sense of truth-seeking as a constitutive feature. If scientists did not orient themselves in relation to a commonly accessible physical and social world about which the truth can, at least to some degree, be known, why would they put so much effort into persuading their colleagues and trying to achieve consensus? Why would they even consider such a thing possible? Indeed, what would the project of science be?

Non-cognitive goals do not bear the same explanatory weight. As the history of climate change denial illustrates, taking consensus and consensus-formation seriously is not a prerequisite for scientists to attain fame and fortune (and even credibility, in some circles). For an example of the kinds of practices that result when communities do not regard truth-seeking as feasible in a given realm, one only has to consider the common American proscription of politics and religion as conversation topics at “mixed company” dinner parties.

Veritism also helps to explain why scientific consensus occasionally comes undone. Fuller clearly believes that “the life expectancy of the theories around which scientists congregate at any given time” is quite low. (Here we wonder about the nature of this assertion: Does Fuller, perhaps, think it is true? If so, why is truth-seeking constitutive of certain social-scientific disciplines like STS, but not the natural sciences? One marvels at the conviction of some scholars in science studies that claims to speaking “truth to power” are illegitimate unless they are the ones making them.) We think that the evidence is more equivocal.[5]

Yet even granting Fuller’s claims—and acknowledging that non-cognitive social forces can obstruct consensus formation or cause a consensus to come undone—it is hard to fathom why new evidence should ever cause consensus to shift—and even harder to criticize an existing consensus—while banishing all talk of evidence, accuracy, correctness, and the notion that a conclusion can be shown to be true? Why would Earth scientists in the 1960s have bothered to re-open debate about continental drift? Fuller points out that evolutionary biologists have recently started to rethink some elements of the consensus around the twentieth-century modern synthesis, with some even calling for a new “extended evolutionary synthesis.” He clearly regards this development as salutary. But reference to evidence, facts, and truth—but often explicitly not intelligent design, it’s worth emphasizing—is at the core of the claims these scientists have made in promulgating and winning over some support for their theories.[6] If Fuller is right about science in general, he must, on pain of contradiction, find these same scientists whose work he welcomes to be under the grip of a profound and disturbing delusion.

The force of these two considerations together is why we do not and have never (contrary to what Fuller implies) held up consensus as a definitional criterion of truth, but rather as one of many possible heuristics to guide rational assessment (especially among non-experts) of the state of the science on a particular issue.[7] Other such heuristics include the existence of multiple methodological or disciplinary lines of evidence for the same conclusion. Or interested parties internally accepting the same scientific claims they publicly claim to doubt.

We think that developing grounds for such external assessment is crucial precisely because, as historians, we are acutely aware of the perishability of truth claims. How should we understand scientific knowledge as a basis for action and decision-making in light of this perishability? If parents only put their own children at risk by eschewing vaccination; if there were credible scientific evidence that vaccinations did cause autism; or if climate change were reversible, we might argue that deciding about these matters should be left to individuals. But none of these if conditions obtain. Intellectual positions that refuse to discriminate among these claims—or to discriminate only on social but not on cognitive grounds—put people at risk of real harm.

Do scientists have all the answers? Of course not. Should we have blind faith in science? Obviously not. Is the presence of expert consensus proof of truth? No again. But when scientists have come to agreement on a complicated matter like AIDS or evolution or climate change, it does indicate that they think that they have obtained some measure of truth about the issue, even if incomplete and subject to future revision. No climate scientist would claim that we know everything we could or should or might want to know about the climate system, but she would claim that we know enough to understand that if we don’t prevent further increases in atmospheric greenhouse gases, a lot of land will be lost and people will suffer. Consensus is a useful category of analysis because it tells us that scientific experts think that they have settled a matter, and that has to count for something. We are not arguing for a return to a naïve correspondence theory of truth—that would hardly be defensible given the past fifty years of work in philosophy of science—must less a naïve assumption that scientific experts are always right. But we are arguing for the need for a more vigorous re-inclusion of the cognitive dimensions of science in STS—including some notions of evidence, empirical adequacy, epistemic acceptability,[8] and truth without scare quotes.

Political Economy

The exigency of these considerations becomes even clearer in light of the concerns about economic and political power that we raised in our previous article. It is gratifying to see Fuller affirm the connection between the “game” view of science and neoliberal political economy for which we argued there. We hope that our colleagues who are sympathetic to Fuller’s epistemology but not his politics will attempt to identify where they think he has gone wrong in perceiving a relationship between the two.

Nonetheless, the case of ExxonMobil and climate change exemplifies the issue we take with Fuller’s assessment of the liberatory potential of the “free market thinkers” he extolls. Fuller rejects the idea of justice-motivated market interventions (such as a carbon tax, as we emphasized in our previous article) as obscuring the “real price” and its mysterious “educative function,” and he thinks that our defense of the scientific consensus on climate change places us in thrall to the “status quo.” But it is Fuller’s supposedly alternative “normative agenda” that supports the status quo, offering in practice a defense of a multi-billion dollar corporation, whose long-time CEO is now a cabinet member loyally serving one of the most reactionary presidents in United States history. This is precisely the bizarre situation that we described in our previous article: “STS, which often sees itself as championing the subaltern, has now in many cases become the intellectual defender of those who would crush the aspirations of ordinary people.”

Fuller characterizes our position as “neo-feudal,” (whatever that might mean) but it strains credulity to think that his position, capable of mustering little more than an apathetic shrug in the face of—for instance—the manipulation of science by oil money is really the one that stands up best to anti-democratic accretions of power. As we emphasized earlier, such inequalities—in income and wealth, and the political inequalities that subsequently ensue—are characteristic of capitalist economies,[9] and so it is perhaps unsurprising that the most loyal defenders of capitalism have not denied that fact but rather embraced and justified it. From Ludwig von Mises’ 1927 judgment that fascism was at one point a necessary evil to combat communism,[10] to the material and intellectual support of Wilhelm Röpke (the most influential of the “ordoliberals” that Fuller especially praises) for the South African apartheid regime,[11] to Robert Nozick’s influential right-libertarian condemnation of wealth redistribution and democracy alike in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974),[12] to twenty-first-century attacks on democracy from Austrian economists at institutions like the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Alabama,[13] the “freedom” that the neoliberals—and now Fuller—prize so dearly has typically meant the freedom of the few to oppress the many, or at least to place their needs and concerns above all others.

At least Fuller, with his modified ordoliberalism, seems to agree with us that some “normative agenda” must indeed be brought to bear in both economics and science. But two things are worth noting. First, what is such a normative agenda if not one of the “transcendent conceptions of truth and value” that Austrian wisdom is supposed to debunk? After all, the Bloorian analogy to which we initially drew attention was not just about “social constructivism” in general but specifically about Wittgenstein. And we read earlier in Fuller’s response his assessment of the Wittgensteinian “ordinary language” thinkers: they are “advertised as democratising but in practice they are parochialising.” Indeed. But with his later full-throated embrace of Bloor-cum-Mises, it looks awfully like he is trying to have his Wittgenstein and mock it too.

Second, it is odd to think that if a normative agenda is to be brought to bear on science, it ought to be of an utterly non-cognitive order, like neoliberal “freedom.” On the contrary, truth (along with evidence, facts, and other words science studies scholars tend to relegate to scare quotes) is a far more plausible choice for one of a potential plurality of regulative ideals for an enterprise that, after all, does have an obviously cognitive function. Ironically, Fuller’s insistence that freedom matters for science but truth does not reeks of the rigorous discrimination between the normative and the empirical that much of the best work in science studies has undermined. Both are necessary: besides the issue of de facto alignment with status quo power, once more we see in Fuller’s response how the adoption of the “game” view vitiates the critiques of its proponents even on their own terms. Fuller, despite his obvious sympathies, still refuses to say unequivocally that mainstream scientists should surrender to the superior arguments of their intelligent design opponents. He instead rests assured that the invisible hand of a well-constructed scientific marketplace will eventually accomplish the shift in opinion he wishes to see.

We invite Fuller to join us in abandoning the game or marketplace view of science and talking openly about truth. He will find it possible to criticize the “Darwinists” much more vociferously that way. But, of course, he would then run the risk of actually being wrong, instead of merely incoherent.

[1] Erik Baker and Naomi Oreskes. “It’s No Game: Post-Truth and the Obligations of Science Studies.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 1-10; Steve Fuller, “What are You Playing At? On the Use and Abuse of Games in STS.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 39-49.

[2] Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes, “Assessing ExxonMobil’s climate change communications (1977–2014),” Environmental Research Letters 12, no. 8 (2017).

[3] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[4] Or that it conforms to the real (objective) world, to once again employ Helen Longino’s account of truth in her The Fate of Knowledge (Princeton University Press, 2001).

[5] Naomi Oreskes, “Trust in Science?” Tanner Lecture on Human Values, Princeton University, November 30, 2016; Faye Flam, “Why Scientific Consensus Is Worth Taking Seriously,” Bloomberg, May 22, 2017.

[6] See for instance Massimo Pigliucci, Evolution: The Extended Synthesis (MIT Press, 2010).

[7] Naomi Oreskes, “Trust in Science?” Tanner Lecture on Human Values, Princeton University, November 30, 2016; Naomi Oreskes, “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change: How Do We Know We’re Not Wrong?” in Joseph F. C. DiMento and Pamela Doughman, eds., Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren (MIT Press, 2007), pp. 65-99. This is where we depart from some scholars associated with pragmatism and Habermas. Readers will note that, once more contrary to Fuller’s implication, these scholars comprise only one of the many diverse and sometimes internally disputatious traditions we cited as inspiration in our earlier article.

[8] As suggested by Longino, Fate of Knowledge, 2001.

[9] The now-canonical study on this question is Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard/Belknap, 2013).

[10] Since the passage is controversial, we provide it in full and let the reader judge for themselves: “It cannot be denied that fascism and all similar efforts at dictatorship are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has, for the moment, rescued European civilization. The merit that fascism has thereby acquired for itself will go on living in history eternally. But the political program that has brought salvation in this moment is not of the sort whose sustained maintenance could promise success. Fascism was a makeshift of the moment; to consider it anything more would be a disastrous mistake.” Ludwig von Mises, Liberalismus, 1927 (translation E.B.).

[11] Quinn Slobodian, “The World Economy and the Color Line: Wilhelm Röpke, Apartheid, and the White Atlantic,” GHI Bulletin Supplement 10 (2014).

[12] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Basic Books, 1974), especially chapters 8 and 9. Nozick himself retreated somewhat on both positions later in his life (in his The Examined Life, Simon and Schuster, 1990, ch. 25), but current Mont Pelerin Society president Peter Boettke still preaches ASU as exemplary of the Austrian tradition (

[13] See for instance Bryan Caplan, Myth of the Rational Voter (Princeton University Press, 2007); Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Democracy: The God That Failed (Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2001); for a secondary-source account see Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains (Viking, 2017).

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick,

Fuller, Steve. “What are You Playing At? On the Use and Abuse of Games in STS.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 39-49.

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

Please refer to:

Image credit: PGuiri, via flickr

What follows is an omnibus reply to various pieces that have been recently written in response to Fuller (2017), where I endorsed the post-truth idea of science as a game—an idea that I take to have been a core tenet of science and technology studies (STS) from its inception. The article is organized along conceptual lines, taking on Phillips (2017), Sismondo (2017) and Baker and Oreskes (2017) in roughly that order, which in turn corresponds to the degree of sympathy (from more to less) that the authors have with my thesis.

What It Means to Take Games Seriously

Amanda Phillips (2017) has written a piece that attempts to engage with the issues I raised when I encouraged STS to own the post-truth condition, which I take to imply that science in some deep sense is a ‘game’. What she writes is interesting but a bit odd, since in the end she basically proposes STS’s current modus operandi as if it were a new idea.  But we’ve already seen Phillips’ future, and it doesn’t work. But she’s far from alone, as we shall see.

On the game metaphor itself, some things need to be said. First of all, I take it that Phillips largely agrees with me that the game metaphor is appropriate to science as it is actually conducted. Her disagreement is mainly with my apparent recommendation that STS follow suit. She raises the introduction of the mortar kick into US football, which stays within the rules but threatens player safety. This leads her to conclude that the mortar kick debases/jeopardizes the spirit of the game. I may well agree with her on this point, which she wishes to present as akin to a normative stance appropriate to STS.  However, I cannot tell for sure, just given the evidence she provides. I’d also like to see whether she would have disallowed past innovations that changed the play of the game—and, if so, which ones. In other words, I need a clearer sense of what she takes to be the ‘spirit of the game’, which involves inter alia judgements about tolerable risks over a period of time.

To be sure, judicial decisions normally have this character. Sometimes judges issue ‘landmark decisions’ which may invalidate previous judges’ rulings but, in any case, set a precedent on the basis of which future decisions should be made. Bringing it back to the case at hand, Phillips might say that football has been violating its spirit for a long time and that not only should the mortar kick be prohibited but so too some other earlier innovations. (In US Constitutional law, this would be like the history of judicial interpretation of citizen rights following the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, at least starting with Brown v. Board Education.) Of course, Phillips might instead give a more limited ruling that simply claims that the mortar kick is a step too far in the evolution of the game, which so far has stayed within its spirit. Or, she might simply judge the mortar kick to be within the spirit of the game, full stop. The arguments used to justify any of these decisions would be an exercise in elucidating what the ‘spirit of the game’ means.

I do not wish to be persnickety but to raise a point about what it means to think about science as a game. It means, at the very least, that science is prima facie an autonomous activity in the sense of having clear boundaries. Just as one knows when one is playing or not playing football, one knows when one is or is not doing science.  Of course, the impact

that has on the rest of society is an open question. For example, once dedicated schools and degree programmes were developed to train people in ‘science’ (and here I mean the term in its academically broadest sense, Wissenschaft), especially once they acquired the backing and funding of nation-states, science became the source of ultimate epistemic authority in virtually all policy arenas. This was something that really only began to happen in earnest in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Similarly, one could imagine a future history of football, perhaps inspired by the modern Olympics, in which larger political units acquire an interest in developing the game as a way of resolving their own standing problems that might otherwise be handled with violence, sometimes on a mass scale. In effect, the Olympics would be a regularly scheduled, sublimated version of a world war. In that possible world, football—as one of the represented sports—would come to perform the functions for which armed conflict is now used. Here sports might take inspiration from the various science ‘races’ in which the Cold War was conducted—notably the race to the Moon—was a highly successful version of this strategy in real life, as it did manage to avert a global nuclear war. Its intellectual residue is something that we still call ‘game theory’.

But Phillips’ own argument doesn’t plumb the depths of the game metaphor in this way. Instead she has recourse to something she calls, inspired by Latour (2004), a ‘collective multiplicity of critical thought’. She also claims that STS hasn’t followed Latour on this point. As a matter of fact, STS has followed Latour almost religiously on this point, which has resulted in a diffusion of critical impact. The field basically amplifies consensus where it exists, showing how it has been maintained, and amplifies dissent where it exists, similarly showing how it has been maintained. In short, STS is simply the empirical shadow of the fields it studies. That’s really all that Latour ever meant by ‘following the actors’.

People forget that this is a man who follows Michel Serres in seeing the parasite as a role model for life (Serres and Latour 1995; cf. Fuller 2000: chap. 7). If STS seems ‘critical’, that’s only an unintended consequence of the many policy issues involving science and technology which remain genuinely unresolved. STS adds nothing to settle the normative standing of these matters. It simply elaborates them and in the process perhaps reminds people of what they might otherwise wish to forget or sideline. It is not a worthless activity but to accord it ‘critical’ in any meaningful sense would be to do it too much justice, as Latour (2004) himself realizes.

Have STSers Always Been Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys?

Notwithstanding the French accent and the Inspector Clouseau demeanour, Latour’s modus operandi is reminiscent of ordinary language philosophy, that intellectual residue of British imperialism, which in the mid-twentieth century led many intelligent people to claim that the sophisticated English practiced in Oxbridge common rooms cut the world at the joints. Although Ernest Gellner (1959) provided the consummate take-down of the movement—to much fanfare in the media at the time—ordinary language philosophy persisted well into the 1980s, along the way influencing the style of ethnomethodology that filtered into STS. (Cue the corpus of Michael Lynch.)

Ontology was effectively reduced to a reification of the things that the people in the room were talking about and the relations predicated of them. And where the likes of JL Austin and PF Strawson spoke of ‘grammatical usage’, Latour and his followers refer to ‘semiotic network’, largely to avoid the anthropomorphism from which the ordinary language philosophers had suffered—alongside their ethnocentrism. Nevertheless, both the ordinary language folks and Latour think they’re doing an empirically informed metaphysics, even though they’re really just eavesdropping on themselves and the people in whose company they’ve been recently kept. Latour (1992) is the classic expression of STS self-eavesdropping, as our man Bruno meditates on the doorstop, the seatbelt, the key and other mundane technologies with which he can never quite come to terms, which results in his life becoming one big ethnomethodological ‘breaching experiment’.

All of this is a striking retreat from STS’s original commitment to the Edinburgh School’s ‘symmetry principle’, which was presented as an intervention in epistemology rather than ontology. In this guise STS was seen as threatening rather than merely complementing the established normative order because the symmetry principle, notwithstanding its vaunted neutrality, amounted to a kind of judgemental relativism, whereby ‘winning’ in science was downgraded to a contingent achievement, which could have been—and might still be—reversed under different circumstances. This was the spirit in which Shapin and Schaffer (1985) appeared to be such a radical book: It had left the impression that the truth is no more than the binding outcome of a trial of people and things: that is, a ‘game’ in its full and demystified sense.

While I have always found this position problematic as an end in itself, it is nonetheless a great opening move to acquire an alternative normative horizon from that offered by the scientific establishment, since it basically amounts to an ‘equal time’ doctrine in an arena where opponents are too easily mischaracterised and marginalised, if not outright silenced by being ‘consigned to the dustbin of history’. Indeed, as Kuhn had recognized, the harder the science, the clearer the distinction between the discipline and its history.

However, this normative animus began to disappear from STS once Latour’s actor-network theory became the dominant school around the time of the Science Wars in the mid-1990s. It didn’t take long before STS had become supine to the establishment, exemplified by Latour (2004)’s uncritical acceptance of the phrase ‘artificially maintained controversies’, which no doubt meets with the approval of Eric Baker and Naomi Oreskes (Baker and Oreskes 2017). For my own part, when I first read Latour (2004), I was reminded of Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase from the same period, albeit in the context of France’s refusal to support the Iraq War: ‘cheese-eating surrender monkey’.

Nevertheless, Latour’s surrender has stood STS in good stead, rendering it a reliable reflector of all that it observes. But make no mistake: Despite the radical sounding rhetoric of ‘missing masses’ and ‘parliament of things’, STS in the Latourian moment follows closely in the footsteps of ordinary language philosophy, which enthusiastically subscribed to the Wittgensteinian slogan of ‘leaving the world alone’. The difference is that whereas the likes of Austin and Strawson argued that our normal ways of speaking contain many more insights into metaphysics than philosophers had previously recognized, Latour et al. show that taking seriously what appears before our eyes makes the social world much more complicated than sociologists had previously acknowledged. But the lesson is the same in both cases: Carry on treating the world as you find it as ultimate reality—simply be more sensitive to its nuances.

It is worth observing that ordinary language philosophy and actor-network theory, notwithstanding their own idiosyncrasies and pretensions, share a disdain for a kind of philosophy or sociology, respectively, that adopts a ‘second order’ perspective on its subject matter. In other words, they were opposed to what Strawson called ‘revisionary metaphysics’, an omnibus phrase that was designed to cover both German idealism and logical positivism, the two movements that did the most to re-establish the epistemic authority of academics in the modern era. Similarly, Latour’s hostility to a science of sociology in the spirit of Emile Durkheim is captured in the name he chose for his chair at Sciences Po, Gabriel Tarde, the magistrate who moved into academia and challenged Durkheim’s ontologically closed sense of sociology every step of the way. In both cases, the moves are advertised as democratising but in practice they’re parochialising, since those hidden nuances and missing masses are supposedly provided by acts of direct acquaintance.

Cue Sismondo (2017), who as editor of the journal Social Studies of Science operates in a ‘Latour Lite’ mode: that is, all of the method but none of the metaphysics. First, he understands ‘post-truth’ in the narrowest possible context, namely, as proposed by those who gave the phenomenon its name—and negative spin—to make it 2016 Oxford English Dictionary word of the year. Of course, that’s in keeping with the Latourian dictum of ‘Follow the agents’. But it is also to accept the agents’ categories uncritically, even if it means turning a blind eye to STS’s own role in promoting the epistemic culture responsible for ‘post-truth’, regardless of the normative value that one ultimately places on the word.

Interestingly, Sismondo is attacked on largely the same grounds by someone with whom I normally disagree, namely, Harry Collins (Collins, Evans, Weinel 2017). Collins and I agree that STS naturally lends itself to a post-truth epistemology, a fact that the field avoids at its peril. However, I believe that STS should own post-truth as a feature of the world that our field has helped to bring about—to be sure, not ex nihilo but by creatively deploying social and epistemological constructivism in an increasingly democratised context. In contrast, while Collins concedes that STS methods can be used even by our political enemies, he calls on STS to follow his own example by using its methods to demonstrate that ‘expert knowledge’ makes an empirical difference to the improvement of judgement in a variety of arenas. As for the politically objectionable uses of STS methods, here Collins and I agree that they are worth opposing but an adequate politics requires a different kind of work from STS research.

In response to all this, Sismondo retreats to STS’s official self-understanding as a field immersed the detailed practices of all that it studies—as opposed to those post-truth charlatans who simply spin words to create confusion. But the distinction is facile and perhaps disingenuous. The clearest manifestation that STS attends to the details of technoscientific practice is the complexity—or, less charitably put, complication—of its own language.  The social world comes to be populated by so many entities, properties and relations simply because STS research is largely in business of naming and classifying things, with an empiricist’s bias towards treating things that appear different to be really different. It is this discursive strategy that results in the richer ontology that one typically finds in STS articles, which in turn is supposed to leave the reader with the sense that the STS researcher has a deeper and more careful understanding of what s/he has studied. But in the end, it is just a discursive strategy, not a mathematical proof. There is a serious debate to be had about whether the field’s dedication to detail—‘ontological inventory work’—is truly illuminating or obfuscating. However, it does serve to establish a kind of ‘expertise’ for STS.

Why Science Has Never Had Need for Consensus—But Got It Anyway

My double question to anyone who wishes to claim a ‘scientific consensus’ on anything is on whose authority and on what basis such a statement is made. Even that great defender of science, Karl Popper, regarded scientific facts as no more than conventions, agreed mainly to mark temporary settlements in an ongoing journey. Seen with a rhetorician’s eye, a ‘scientific consensus’ is demanded only when scientific authorities feel that they are under threat in a way that cannot be dismissed by the usual peer review processes. ‘Science’ after all advertises itself as the freest inquiry possible, which suggests a tolerance for many cross-cutting and even contradictory research directions, all compatible with the current evidence and always under review in light of further evidence. And to a large extent, science does demonstrate this spontaneous embrace of pluralism, albeit with the exact options on the table subject to change. To be sure, some options are pursued more vigorously than others at any given moment. Scientometrics can be used to chart the trends, which may make the ‘science watcher’ seem like a stock market analyst. But this is more ‘wisdom of crowds’ stuff than a ‘scientific consensus’, which is meant to sound more authoritative and certainly less transient.

Indeed, invocations of a ‘scientific consensus’ become most insistent on matters which have two characteristics, which are perhaps necessarily intertwined but, in any case, take science outside of its juridical comfort zone of peer review: (1) they are inherently interdisciplinary; (2) they are policy-relevant. Think climate change, evolution, anything to do with health. A ‘scientific consensus’ is invoked on just these matters because they escape the ‘normal science’ terms in which peer review operates. To a defender of the orthodoxy, the dissenters appear to be ‘changing the rules of science’ simply in order to make their case seem more plausible. However, from the standpoint of the dissenter, the orthodoxy is artificially restricting inquiry in cases where reality doesn’t fit its disciplinary template, and so perhaps a change in the rules of science is not so out of order.

Here it is worth observing that defenders of the ‘scientific consensus’ tend to operate on the assumption that to give the dissenters any credence would be tantamount to unleashing mass irrationality in society. Fortified by the fledgling (if not pseudo-) science of ‘memetics’, they believe that an anti-scientific latency lurks in the social unconscious. It is a susceptibility typically fuelled by religious sentiments, which the dissenters threaten to awaken, thereby reversing all that modernity has achieved.

I can’t deny that there are hints of such intent in the ranks of dissenters. One notorious example is the Discovery Institute’s ‘Wedge document’, which projected the erosion of ‘methodological naturalism’ as the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ to return the US to its Christian origins. Nevertheless, the paranoia of the orthodoxy underestimates the ability of modernity—including modern science—to absorb and incorporate the dissenters, and come out stronger for it. The very fact that intelligent design theory has translated creationism into the currency of science by leaving out the Bible entirely from its argumentation strategy should be seen as evidence for this point. And now Darwinists need to try harder to defeat it, which we see in their increasingly sophisticated refutations, which often end up with Darwinists effectively conceding points and simply admitting that they have their own way of making their opponents’ points, without having to invoke an ‘intelligent designer’.

In short, my main objection to the concept of a ‘scientific consensus’ is that it is epistemologically oversold. It is clearly meant to carry more normative force than whatever happens to be the cutting edge of scientific fashion this week. Yet, what is the life expectancy of the theories around which scientists congregate at any given time?  For example, if the latest theory says that the planet is due for climate meltdown within fifty years, what happens if the climate theories themselves tend to go into meltdown after about fifteen years? To be sure, ‘meltdown’ is perhaps too strong a word. The data are likely to remain intact and even be enriched, but their overall significance may be subject to radical change. Moreover, this fact may go largely unnoticed by the general public, as long as the scientists who agreed to the last consensus are also the ones who agree to the next consensus. In that case, they can keep straight their collective story of how and why the change occurred—an orderly transition in the manner of dynastic succession.

What holds this story together—and is the main symptom of epistemic overselling of scientific consensus—is a completely gratuitous appeal to the ‘truth’ or ‘truth-seeking’ (aka ‘veritism’) as somehow underwriting this consensus. Baker and Oreskes’ (2017) argument is propelled by this trope. Yet, interestingly early on even they refer to ‘attempts to build public consensus about facts or values’ (my emphasis). This turn of phrase comports well with the normal constructivist sense of what consensus is. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with trying to align public opinion with certain facts and values, even on the grand scale suggested by the idea of a ‘scientific consensus’. This is the stuff of politics as usual. However, whatever consensus is thereby forged—by whatever means and across whatever range of opinion—has no ‘natural’ legitimacy. Moreover, it neither corresponds to some pre-existent ideal of truth nor is composed of some invariant ‘truth stuff’ (cf. Fuller 1988: chap. 6). It is a social construction, full stop. If the consensus is maintained over time and space, it will not be due to its having been blessed and/or guided by ‘Truth’; rather it will be the result of the usual social processes and associated forms of resource mobilization—that is, a variety of external factors which at crucial moments impinge on the play of any game.

The idea that consensus enjoys some epistemologically more luminous status in science than in other parts of society (where it might be simply dismissed as ‘groupthink’) is an artefact of the routine rewriting of history that scientists do to rally their troops. As Kuhn long ago observed, scientists exaggerate the degree of doctrinal agreement to give forward momentum to an activity that is ultimately held together simply by common patterns of disciplinary acculturation and day-to-day work practices. Nevertheless, Kuhn’s work helped to generate the myth of consensus. Indeed, in my Cambridge days studying with Mary Hesse (circa 1980), the idea that an ultimate consensus on the right representation of reality might serve as a transcendental condition for the possibility of scientific inquiry was highly touted, courtesy of the then fashionable philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who flattered his Anglophone fans by citing Charles Sanders Peirce as his source for the idea. Yet even back then I was of a different mindset.

Under the influence of Foucault, Derrida and social constructivism (which were circulating in more underground fashion), as well as what I had already learned about the history of science (mainly as a student of Loren Graham at Columbia), I deemed the idea of a scientific consensus to reflect a secular ‘god of the gaps’ style of wishful thinking. Indeed I devoted a chapter of my Ph.D. on the ‘elusiveness’ of consensus in science, which was the only part of the thesis that I incorporated in Social Epistemology (Fuller 1988: chap. 9). It is thus very disappointing to see Baker and Oreskes continuing to peddle Habermas’ brand of consensus mythology, even though for many of us it had fallen still born from the presses more than three decades ago.

A Gaming Science Is a Free Science

Baker and Oreskes (2017) are correct to pick up on the analogy drawn by David Bloor between social constructivism’s scepticism with regard to transcendent conceptions of truth and value and the scepticism that the Austrian school of economics (and most economists generally) show to the idea of a ‘just price’, understood as some normative ideal that real prices should be aiming toward. Indeed, there is more than an analogy here. Alfred Schutz, teacher of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann of The Social Construction of Reality fame, was himself a member of the Mises Circle in Vienna, having been trained by him the law faculty. Market transactions provided the original template for the idea of ‘social construction’, a point that is already clear in Adam Smith.

However, in criticizing Bloor’s analogy, Baker and Oreskes miss a trick: When the Austrians and other economists talk about the normative standing of real prices, their understanding of the market is somewhat idealized; hence, one needs a phrase like ‘free market’ to capture it. This point is worth bearing in mind because it amounts to a competing normative agenda to the one that Baker and Oreskes are promoting. With the slow ascendancy of neo-liberalism over the second half of the twentieth century, that normative agenda became clear—namely, to make markets free so that real prices can prevail.

Here one needs to imagine that in such a ‘free market’ there is a direct correspondence between increasing the number of suppliers in the market and the greater degree of freedom afforded to buyers, as that not only drives the price down but also forces buyers to refine their choice. This is the educative function performed by markets, an integral social innovation in terms of the Enlightenment mission advanced by Smith, Condorcet and others in the eighteenth century (Rothschild 2002). Markets were thus promoted as efficient mechanisms that encourage learning, with the ‘hand’ of the ‘invisible hand’ best understood as that of an instructor. In this context, ‘real prices’ are simply the actual empirical outcomes of markets under ‘free’ conditions. Contra Baker and Oreskes, they don’t correspond to some a priori transcendental realm of ‘just prices’.

However, markets are not ‘free’ in the requisite sense as long as the state strategically blocks certain spontaneous transactions, say, by placing tariffs on suppliers other than the officially licensed ones or by allowing a subset of market agents to organize in ways that enable them to charge tariffs to outsiders who want access. In other words, the free market is not simply about lower taxes and fewer regulations. It is also about removing subsidies and preventing cartels. It is worth recalling that Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations as an attack on ‘mercantilism’, an economic system not unlike the ‘socialist’ ones that neo-liberalism has tried to overturn with its appeal to the ‘free market’. In fact, one of the early neo-liberals (aka ‘ordo-liberals’), Alexander Rüstow, coined the phrase ‘liberal interventionism’ in the 1930s for the strong role that he saw for the state in freeing the marketplace, say, by breaking up state-protected monopolies (Jackson 2009).

Capitalists defend private ownership only as part of the commodification of capital, which in turn, allows trade to occur. Capitalists are not committed to an especially land-oriented approach to private property, as in feudalism, which through, say, inheritance laws restricts the flow of capital in order to stabilise the social order. To be sure, capitalism requires that traders know who owns what at any given time, which in turn supports clear ownership signals. However, capitalism flourishes only if the traders are inclined to part with what they already own to acquire something else. After all, wealth cannot grow if capital doesn’t circulate. The state thus serves capitalism by removing the barriers that lead people to accept too easily their current status as an adaptive response to situations that they regard as unchangeable. Thus, liberalism, the movement most closely aligned with the emerging capitalist sensibility, was originally called ‘radical’—from the Latin for ‘root’—as it promised to organize society according to humanity’s fundamental nature, the full expression of which was impeded by existing regimes, which failed to allow everyone what by the twentieth century would be called ‘equal opportunity’ in life (Halevy 1928).

I offer this more rounded picture of the normative agenda of free market thinkers because Baker and Oreskes engage in a rhetorical sleight of hand associated with the capitalists’ original foes, the mercantilists. It involves presuming that the public interest is best served by state authorised producers (of whatever). Indeed, when one speaks of the early modern period in Europe as the ‘Age of Absolutism’, this elision of the state and the public is an important part of what is meant. True to its Latin roots, the ‘state’ is the anchor of stability, the stationary frame of reference through which everything else is defined. Here one immediately thinks of Newton, but metaphysically more relevant was Hobbes whose absolutist conception of the state aimed to incarnate the Abrahamic deity in human form, the literal body of which is the body politic.

Setting aside the theology, mercantilism in practice aimed to reinvent and rationalize the feudal order for the emerging modern age, one in which ‘industry’ was increasingly understood as not a means to an end but an end in itself—specifically, not simply a means to extract the fruits of nature but an expression of human flourishing. Thus, political boundaries on maps started to be read as the skins of superorganisms, which by the nineteenth century came to be known as ‘nation-states’. In that case, the ruler’s job was not simply to keep the peace over what had been largely self-managed tracts of land, but rather to ‘organize’ them so that they functioned as a single productive unit, what we now call the ‘economy’, whose first theorization was as ‘physiocracy’. The original mercantilist policy involved royal licenses that assigned exclusive rights to a ‘domain’ understood in a sense that was not restricted to tracts of land, but extended to wealth production streams in general. To be sure, over time these rights were attenuated into privileges and subsidies, which allowed for some competition but typically on an unequal basis.

In contrast, capitalism’s ‘liberal’ sensibility was about repurposing the state’s power to prevent the rise of new ‘path dependencies’ in the form of, say, a monopoly in trade based on an original royal license renewed in perpetuity, which would only serve to reduce the opportunities of successive generations. It was an explicitly anti-feudal policy. The final frontier to this policy sensibility is academia, which has long been acknowledged to be structured in terms of what Robert Merton called the principle of ‘cumulative advantage’, the sources of which are manifold and, to a large extent, mutually reinforcing. To list just a few: (1) state licenses issued to knowledge producers, starting with the Charter of the Royal Society of London, which provided a perpetually protected space for a self-organizing community to do as they will within originally agreed constraints; (2) Kuhn-style paradigm-driven normal science, which yields to a successor paradigm only out of internal collapse, not external competition; (3) the anchoring effect of early academic training on subsequent career advancement, ranging from jobs to grants; (4) the evaluation of academic work in terms of a peer review system whose remit extends beyond catching errors to judging relevance to preferred research agendas; (5) the division of knowledge into ‘fields’ and ‘domains’, which supports a florid cartographic discourse of ‘boundary work’ and ‘boundary maintenance’.

The list could go on, but the point is clear to anyone with eyes to see: Even in these neo-liberal times, academia continues to present its opposition to neo-liberalism in the sort of neo-feudal terms that would have pleased a mercantilist. Lineage is everything, whatever the source of ancestral entitlement. Merton’s own attitude towards academia’s multiple manifestations of ‘cumulative advantage’ seemed to be one of ambivalence, though as a sociologist he probably wasn’t sufficiently critical of the pseudo-liberal spin put on cumulative advantage as the expression of the knowledge system’s ‘invisible hand’ at work—which seems to be Baker and Oreskes’ default position as defenders of the scientific status quo. However, their own Harvard colleague, Alex Csiszar (2017) has recently shown that Merton recognized that the introduction of the scientometrics in the 1960s—in the form of the Science Citation Index—made academia susceptible to a tendency that he had already identified in bureaucracies, ‘goal displacement’, whereby once a qualitative goal is operationalized in terms of a quantitative indicator, there is an incentive to work toward the indicator, regardless of its actual significance for achieving the original goal. Thus, the cumulative effect of high citation counts become surrogates for ‘truth’ or some other indicator-transcendent goal. In this real sense, what is at best the wisdom of the scientific crowd is routinely mistaken for an epistemically luminous scientific consensus.

As I pointed out in Fuller (2017), which initiated this recent discussion of ‘science as game’, a great virtue of the game idea is its focus on the reversibility of fortunes, as each match matters, not only to the objective standing of the rival teams but also to their subjective sense of momentum. Yet, from their remarks about intelligent design theory, Baker and Oreskes appear to believe that the science game ends sooner than it really does: After one or even a series of losses, a team should simply pack it in and declare defeat. Here it is worth recalling that the existence of atoms and the relational character of space-time—two theses associated with Einstein’s revolution in physics—were controversial if not deemed defunct for most of the nineteenth century, notwithstanding the problems that were acknowledged to exist in fully redeeming the promises of the Newtonian paradigm. Indeed, for much of his career, Ernst Mach was seen as a crank who focussed too much on the lost futures of past science, yet after the revolutions in relativity and quantum mechanics his reputation flipped and he became known for his prescience. Thus, the Vienna Circle that spawned the logical positivists was named in Mach’s honour.

Similarly intelligent design may well be one of those ‘controversial if not defunct’ views that will be integral to the next revolution in biology, since even biologists whom Baker and Oreskes probably respect admit that there are serious explanatory gaps in the Neo-Darwinian synthesis.[1] That intelligent design advocates have improved the scientific character of their arguments from their creationist origins—which I am happy to admit—is not something for the movement’s opponents to begrudge. Rather it shows that they learn from their mistakes, as any good team does when faced with a string of losses. Thus, one should expect an improvement in their performance. Admittedly these matters become complicated in the US context, since the Constitution’s separation of church and state has been interpreted in recent times to imply the prohibition of any teaching material that is motivated by specifically religious interests, as if the Founding Fathers were keen on institutionalising the genetic fallacy! Nevertheless, this blinkered interpretation has enabled the likes of Baker and Oreskes to continue arguing with earlier versions of ‘intelligent design creationism’, very much like generals whose expertise lies in having fought the previous war. But luckily, an increasingly informed public is not so easily fooled by such epistemically rearguard actions.


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Csiszar, Alex. “From the Bureaucratic Virtuoso to Scientific Misconduct: Robert K. Merton, Robert and Eugene Garfield, and Goal Displacement in Science.” Paper delivered to annual meeting of the History of Science Society. Toronto: 9-12 November 2017.

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[1] Surprisingly for people who claim to be historians of science, Baker and Oreskes appear to have fallen for the canard that only Creationists mention Darwin’s name when referring to contemporary evolutionary theory. In fact, it is common practice among historians and philosophers of science to invoke Darwin to refer to his specifically purposeless conception of evolution, which remains the default metaphysical position of contemporary biologists—albeit one maintained with increasing conceptual and empirical difficulty. Here it is worth observing that such leading lights of the Discovery Institute as Stephen Meyer and Paul Nelson were trained in the history and philosophy of science, as was I.