Archives For Critical Replies

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

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:

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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.


Baker, Erik 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.

Collins, Harry, Robert Evans, Martin Weinel. “STS as Science or Politics?” Social Studies of Science.  47, no. 4 (2017): 580–586.

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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Fuller, Steve. “Is STS All Talk and No Walk?” EASST Review 36 no. 1 (2017):

Gellner, Ernest. Words and Things. London: Routledge, 1959.

Halevy, Elie. The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. London: Faber and Faber, 1928.

Jackson, Ben. “At the Origins of Neo-Liberalism: The Free Economy and the Strong State, 1930-47.” Historical Journal 53, no. 1 (2010): 129-51.

Latour, Bruno. “Where are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artefacts.” In Shaping Technology/Building Society, edited by Wiebe E. Bijker and John Law, 225-258. Cambridge MA: MIT Press. 1992

Latour, Bruno. ‘Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern’. Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (2004): 225–248.

Phillips, Amanda. “Playing the Game in a Post-Truth Era.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 54-56.

Rothschild, Emma. Economic Sentiments. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Serres, Michel. and Bruno Latour. Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Schaffer, Simon and Steven Shapin. Leviathan and the Air-Pump. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Sismondo, Sergio. “Not a Very Slippery Slope: A Reply to Fuller.” EASST Review 36, no. 2 (2017):

[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.

Author Information: Søren Harnow Klausen, University of Southern Denmark,

Klausen, Søren Harnow. “New Practices, Open Questions: A Reply to Bertolotti.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 35-38.

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Image credit: Jen Leonard, via flickr

In his perceptive comment on my “No Cause for Epistemic Alarm” (Klausen 2017; henceforth NCEA), Tomasso Bertolotti argues that new forms of organizing and conducting science, like radically collaborative research (henceforth RC), deserve to be examined closely and critically. I agree wholeheartedly. But I do not think that there is, at least as things stand, any reason for alarm. I fail to see anything inherently problematic in the way RC is currently conducted; and as for its possible problematic consequences, we have no significant indications. It is not that I am highly optimistic about the prospects of RC. It is just that we have neither theoretical nor empirical reasons for being particularly suspicious at the outset. It is also true, however, that even in the absence of such reasons, social epistemologists and philosophers of science had better keep a close watch over new developments in scientific practice.

Epistemic Alarm

In NCEA I argued that there is, more specifically, no reason for epistemic alarm. Bertolotti suggests that I may have been too quick to draw this conclusion. He rightly points out that the pragmatic, social or political effects of RC may in turn have significant epistemic effects. I have myself stressed that epistemic and other normative factors interact so closely that it makes a purely (or narrowly focused) epistemic evaluation of real-world affairs almost impossible (Klausen 2009a; 2009b; 2015). Especially on an externalist epistemology, which I favour, a large range of factors can be potentially relevant for the epistemic evaluation of a certain process or arrangement. In principle, there is no end to them, as even an inquirer’s nutritional condition could influence the reliability (or other significant epistemic properties) of a belief-forming process. So if the advance of RC significantly changes processes of credit allocation, the scientific reward system, recruitment processes, or the public perception of science, this is likely going to have epistemic effects as well.

The claims I make in NCEA are quite compatible with this, however. They are, first, that there is no reason to assume that existing epistemological frameworks cannot cope with RC (which is therefore not a cause of epistemological alarm, to put it more precisely)—and, secondly, that it is an open question what the result of a detailed epistemological assessment would eventually be.

Precisely because epistemological a priori considerations are hardly able to discriminate between different forms of organization of epistemic labour, and the empirical evidence is scarce, to say the least, I think we should withhold definite judgment (but surely allow ourselves to speculate). We should also, as social epistemologists or philosophers of science, put more effort into initiating and designing relevant empirical studies. Comparing the merits and drawbacks of different scientific practices is complicated and difficult, and no decisive result should be expected in the short run. On the other hand, every bit of ever so limited, but more or less solid empirical evidence will be a leap forward as compared to the present state. Treating the historical record as such evidence would be wrong, as we know very little about how alternative practices would have fared. Criticizing RC or other new scientific practices merely on the grounds that they break with a venerable tradition that has proven immensely successful in the past is really not very convincing.

Bertolotti makes an interesting analogy between science and gossip. I think it is very fitting; in some respects even more so than Bertolotti himself seems to think, in other respects perhaps less so. Inasmuch as he and Magnani are right that abductive inference is central to gossip (Bertolotti and Magnani 2014), that is one significant point of similarity. More generally, scientific communication does appear very gossip-like; and since gossip, as understood by Bertolotti, is a potentially efficient source of knowledge, this does not by itself do anything to discredit science.

The difference between gossip and (traditional) science lies, according to Bertolotti, in their different accountability structures (whereas he contends that RC is more gossip-like and so in a way could be seen as a regression back into pre-scientific practices). I think there are more obvious differences, having to do not so much with accountability as with the reliability of the input sources (e.g. controlled observation and experiment and the use of rule-guided inference versus casual observation), the degree of expertise of the group members, the reliable declaration and easy identification of such expertise, the degree of formalized organization (as I pointed out in NCEA, radically collaborative science is in fact more firmly organized and in a way more transparent than old-fashioned collaboration between individual scientists), etc., etc.

On Radically Collaborative Science

Bertolotti seems to assume that radically collaborative science is markedly different from traditional science with regard to accountability and centralized control. In NCEA I question this assumption, arguing that so-called traditional, small-scale science has been indirectly massively collaborative, but in an even less transparent or regulated way. As I see it, one of the noteworthy similarities between science and gossip is precisely their accountability structure. Bertolotti quotes Peirce’s description of scientists’ “unreserved discussion with one another … each being fully informed about the work of his neighbour, and availing himself of that neighbour’s results” (Peirce 1958, 7.51; quoted in Bertolotti (2017, 17).  But this is an extreme idealization. Scientists are very rarely fully informed about the work of their neighbours, and they seldom engage in fully unreserved discussions, for that matter (Bertolotti assumes, with Ayim (1994) that discussing unreservedly is also an essential feature of gossip. While it may be correct that gossip is often shared with less reservation than what is typical of official scientific communication, I am not sure if this is quite right).

As an example of the kind of loose accountability structure I have in mind (and take to be typical of even old-fashioned, single-author science), notice that I quoted Bertolotti and Magnani’s view about the central role of abductive inference in gossip earlier in this paper, with apparent endorsement. You—or some other academic colleague—may have picked that up and might even go on to use it as a premise in some future piece of scientific reasoning. But frankly the reasons for Bertolotti and Magnani’s claim are not completely transparent to me, at least not at the time of writing. I actually read their paper quite closely some years ago, and remember their proposal as well argued, while I am not sure that I became completely convinced, and have forgotten some of the details, anyhow. This did not prevent me from referring to it in passing. And in my experience, you cannot always expect a researcher to have read a text closely and penetratingly in order for her to refer to it and even use some of its claims as premises for her own work.

Of course, one might say that this is not how it should be. But for one thing, I fear that actual conformity with the strict ideals of traditional science would stifle scientific progress to such a degree that we had better live with the errors, imprecisions, rashness and sloppiness that comes from not enforcing those ideals too rigorously. More importantly, the ideals are very far from met in practice. And it is a mistake—in fact a rather common and problematic mistake, I think—to evaluate a practice on the basis of ideals to which it merely aspires.

Of course, one could also say that traditional science does, at any rate, have a clear accountability structure, which distinguishes it from both gossip and RC. Inasmuch as there is a single author, or small group of authors, it is clear who is to be held accountable for the results and methods presented, regardless on how much the author actually knows about the work she is presenting. But this is a mere formal status. It does not ensure that the author is in any epistemically privileged position. It may oblige her to put her cards on the table if we demand her to do so; and we might reasonably expect her to vouch for her claims. Yet by doing so she may merely disclose the degree to which she has relied, blindly or semi-blindly, on the testimony of others.

Bertolotti and I agree that there is no reason to be particularly alarmed (as I understand this notion) by the advance of RC, but good reason to keep a close eye on it. But while an analysis in terms of accountability structures etc. may be of academic interest, an assessment of its actual merits and drawbacks (aimed at determining the appropriate societal response) must focus the epistemic work it actually does (as well as its moral and political consequences). Merely pointing out how RC deviates from an ideal that was never fully met by real-life science, anyway, does not warrant any substantially negative verdict. As I argue in NCEA, even if the claim could be sustained that RC leads to a loss of knowledge, this would merely show that knowledge is less important than we have assumed—as long as the overall consequences, including the epistemic ones, turn out to be sufficiently positive.

I very much share some of Bertolotti’s specific worries, for example that the Matthew Effect hampers the diversification of science (but see Strevens 2006 for an appropriately nuanced discussion). I suspect that there are significant drawbacks of big science, for example that it leads to a disproportionate allocation of funding to certain hyped fields or avenues of research. But I do not see these problems as having anything to do with the radically collaborative nature of big science (as I notice in NCEA, big science may in some respects be too streamlined and conformist; part of the problem seems to be not epistemic anarchy, but rather epistemic overregulation). And so we can—and should—speculate, but also accept that we know very little for sure. There are lots of wide open questions regarding new scientific practices, which call for calm and realistic assessments and empirically informed studies in social epistemology.


Ayim, Maryann. “Knowledge Through the Grapevine: Gossip as Inquiry.” In Good Gossip, edited by Robert F. Goodman and Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, 85-99. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas 1994.

Bertolotti, Tomasso. “Science-Like Gossip, or Gossip-Like Science?” Social Epistemology Review and  Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 15-19.

Bertolotti, Tomasso and Lorenzo Magnani. “An Epistemological Analysis of Gossip and Gossip-Based Knowledge.” Synthese 191, no. 17 (2014): 4037-4067.

Klausen, Søren Harnow. ”Applied Epistemology: Prospects and Problems.” Res Cogitans 6, no. 1 (2009): 220-258.

Klausen, Søren Harnow. “Two Notions of Epistemic Normativity.” Theoria 75 (2009): 161-178.

Klausen, Søren Harnow. “Group Knowledge: A Real-World Approach.” Synthese 192, no. 3 (2015): 813-839.

Klausen, Søren Harnow. “No Cause for Epistemic Alarm. Radically Collaborative  Science,  Knowledge and Authorship.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 3 (2017): 38-61.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce Vol. 7, edited Arthur W. Burks. Cambridge: MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Strevens, Michael. “The Role of the Matthew Effect in Science.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 37, no. 2 (2006): 159–170

Author Information: Gregory J. Lobo, Universidad de Los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia,

Lobo, Gregory J. “Reason, Morality and Recognition: On Searle’s Theory of Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 22-28.

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

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J. Angelo Corlett (2016) has written an essentially negative assessment of John Searle’s (2010) theory of human rights. He faults Searle principally because “Searle construes human rights in purely institutional terms”, but also because, according to Corlett, “Searle does nothing to address, refute or render dubious the dominant ethical notion of human rights as being essentially non-insitutional (moral)” (2016, 461).[1] Finally, Corlett counters this understanding of Searle’s analysis of human rights by suggesting that “human rights contain a morally normative element, one which is non-institutional and is not and cannot be fully captured by Searle’s analysis” (2016, 461-62).

In this dialogue with Corlett’s piece I will draw on the same text on which he most relies to characterize, and criticize, Searle’s position: Chapter 8, “Human Rights”, from Searle’s 2010 book Making the Social World. I will be arguing that Corlett’s representation of Searle’s thinking on human rights is not accurate, and that, in fact, Searle’s position on human rights is actually very similar and perhaps even identical to the one Corlett appears to prefer. In other words, I will be hoping to demonstrate that Searle does not construe human rights in purely institutional terms; 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”; and that, indeed, Searle argues that human rights demand an ethically normative foundation, on which his analysis built.

The Moral (and Institutional) Ontology of Human Rights

According to Corlett, “Searle’s conception of human rights is purely institutional, e.g. he believes that such rights are products only of social construction” (2016, 454, my emphasis). At a later point he refers to “Searle’s wholly institutional conception of human rights” (2016, 458, my emphasis). Now, it is true that Searle conceives of human rights as being the product of social construction, insofar as human beings articulate them using speech acts, using in particular what he calls the status function declaration. But it is not true that Searle thinks that human rights are purely or wholly institutional. In fact, Searle explicitly rejects the pure institutionalist vision of human rights. He unambiguously aligns himself with the position Corlett is defending when he compares real pure institutionalists, people like “Bentham and MacIntyre, who think of themselves as stating obvious commonsense facts when they say there are no such things as universal human rights, and most of the rest of us, who think there are indeed universal human rights” (2010, 182-3, my emphasis). Against, for example, Bentham’s “claim that any genuine right has to be backed by law” Searle argues that there are “lots of informal rights that one has that are not legally sanctioned” (2010, 192) or institutionalized.

When, then, Corlett insists that, pace (his reading of) Searle, human rights “exist quite apart from (whether or not they are recognized by) law and society” (2016, 456), it turns out that he is not arguing against Searle’s actual position. For Searle does not argue that human rights only exist when recognized by law and society; he clearly states that one of the things he wants to defend and explain in his chapter on human rights is the “claim that human rights continue to exist even when they are not recognized” (2010, 181). This seems to be Searle agreeing with Corlett. And he gives a simple example of what he means: the right of a spouse to be consulted on major decisions that will affect him or her, “is a perfectly valid right, even though there is no law that guarantees it” (2010, 192), Searle argues. He also believes that humans have a right to silence, which he believes exists, even though there is little institutional recognition of it (2010, 195). Thus, Searle’s position is not as Corlett represents it. Corlett, again, states that Searle’s positions entail that “human rights cannot be both institutional and moral (i.e. non-institutional)” (2016, 455), but as we have just seen, Searle allows for rights both institutionalized and not.

Still, according to Corlett, a real problem with Searle’s “notion of human rights is that it does not even address the reasons that leading philosophers of human rights have provided in favor of a non-institutional analysis of human rights”, where by non-institutional “is meant that such rights have essential moral properties” (2016, 454). But here is what Searle actually says in this regard: “I do not think you can have an intelligent discussion about human rights without discussing certain biological characteristics of human beings, and […]  what is valuable in human life” (2010, 192).

I read Searle to be saying here that pre-institutional factors—human nature, if you will—have to be taken into account when thinking about human rights, which suggests he is not the pure institutionalist nor the naïve social constructionist that Corlett maintains he is. But Searle is also insisting here on the need to talk about what is valuable in human life when thinking about human rights; that is, he is talking about a basic morality, only with regard to which human rights can be enunciated. Corlett’s criticism would seem to be misdirected, since the target of it seems to be in agreement with him. Indeed, the italics in the following sentence are Searle’s own:

the justification for human rights cannot be ethically neutral. It involves more than just a biological conception of what sorts of beings we are; it also involves a conception of what is valuable, actually or potentially, about our very existence (2010, 190).

Here, I think, Searle is making the very argument for moral reasoning in thinking about human rights that Corlett faults him for not even pondering.

Rights and Reason

Corlett then explores the possibility that “human rights might not be […] mere human creations […] but rather human discoveries by the light of reason” (2016, 455). We are to understand that he thinks that Searle thinks that they are “mere human creations”, the more or less arbitrary product of sophistry and whim rather than reason as such. As if arguing against Searle, Corlett makes the point that “[h]uman rights may be both institutional recognitions (social constructs) as well as discoverable by way of reason to be what are moral rights above and beyond what societies say they are” (2016, 455). But again, Searle does not disagree with this assertion: he is not in disagreement with Corlett on the role of reason in elucidating human rights.

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” (2011, 740). I see no substantive difference between this 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”? 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? If the answer to both these questions is affirmative, then Corlett is disagreeing with someone who actually agrees with him.

In keeping with the idea that Searle is a pure institutionalist and anarchic social constructionist, Corlett also reads Searle as saying that “human rights are epistemically subjective” (2016, 454); however, what Searle says about this is not that human rights are epistemically subjective, but that “arguments” about human nature and morality, while essential to a discussion of human rights, “are not demonstrative, in the sense that any rational person is bound to accept them on pain of irrationality” (2010, 192). Such arguments—but not the rights themselves—thus are condemned “to have an element of epistemic subjectivity” (2010, 192). But given the fact of epistemic subjectivity, Searle insists (and contrary to the view that Corlett seems to impute to him), “it does not follow that they are arbitrary or beyond the scope of argument” (2010, 192). While Corlett goes so far as to invoke the specter of a white supremacist society justified by “Searlean madness” (2016, 456), which can only be stopped by a conception of human rights as reasoned moral rights, I think I have quoted enough from Searle to prove that his theory does not lack an understanding of human rights as essentially reasoned moral rights, quite in agreement with Corlett.


According to Corlett’s reading, Searle’s theory of human rights “would seem to imply that social recognition is […] necessary for X to be a human right” (2016, 457). Searle does not argue this. He allows that some people (his foils are people he characterizes as pure institutionalists like Bentham and MacIntyre) can make a convincing argument that this is the case (2010, 183), but Searle himself partakes of the “commonsense assumption that you do not lose your rights in cases where they are denied or not recognized” (2010, 183). Rights exist as rights even if they are not recognized, and indeed, as Searle more pointedly puts it: “you are [not] entitled to the existence of rights, but rather, you are entitled to the recognition of rights that already exist” (2010, 183, my emphasis). The issue is not social recognition of the right, but social recognition of the right of the person in question to enjoy the right.

We can understand more clearly the difference if we follow Corlett’s take on Searle. According to Corlett, contrary to “Searle’s purely institutional conception of a human right [which] makes room for the idea that a human right may change as society’s attitude toward that right may change, the moral conception of a human right holds that such rights do not change” (2016, 457). 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.

The history is clear: at different times and places peasants, workers, criminals, women, victims of imperialism, gay people, trans people, but also the bourgeoisie, the royalty, and so on, have all been deprived of being recognized as humans, that is, as bearers of human rights, of being entitled to their rights. One might put it this way: one can say that human rights have always existed. But all members of the human species have not always been recognized as humans entitled to those rights.

An Example: On Being American, On Being Human

In order to drive home his point about the problems of Searle’s theory—problems which, I have been trying to show, do not actually exist, Corlett turns to the example of Brown v. Board of Education of 1954. According to “Searle’s wholly institutional conception of human rights”, as Corlett again characterizes it, Black Americans “had no valid claims to equal opportunity in education prior to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954” (2016, 458). As we should now be able to appreciate, Searle’s analysis entails nothing like this. Searle in fact would agree that U.S. blacks had valid claims—but he would ask, was their right to have such claims recognized? Not recognized as fully-fledged humans and/or Americans, did the dominant social perspective even recognize them as being able to have valid claims? Many people tried to ignore their claims; many could not conceive of black people even having claims. Searle would make much of this, no doubt. But he would not and does not argue that their claims were invalid or non-existent because institutions did not recognize the claims.

Searle is not a strict institutionalist, but he is fundamentally concerned with the role of symbolic operations in realizing the social world, that is, in causing it to be, to happen, which means that Searle’s focus is fundamentally on recognition. Thus, his 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. That is, they were recognized as beings, citizens, Americans, having the right to have rights.

Nonetheless, certain very influential sectors in the states of Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, and elsewhere of course, did not recognize the Court’s recognition of the right of Black Americans to have rights—and here of course the emphasis (not exclusive by any means) on institutionalism remains incredible important. So the valid claims existed, the rights existed too, even before the Brown decision, and Corlett is mistaken when he says Searle’s theory denies their existence before the decision. But on top of this error, he entirely misses the point that Searle’s theory actually illuminates: what Brown did, or tried to do (and might still be trying to do in an America still plagued by racial inequality), was recognize Black Americans as Americans, entitled to all the already existing rights that other Americans enjoyed.

To be clear: for Corlett, the Brown decision “did not imply that all of a sudden blacks gained a right that they did not previously possess” (2016, 458)—and Searle would agree. But he would not agree with Corlett that the Brown decision meant that a “moral right was finally recognized by law” (2016, 458). Rather, Searle’s position would be that Brown institutionalized (attempted to institutionalize, in the face of opposition from other institutions particularly at the state and local levels) the recognition that Black Americans were in fact fully-fledged Americans and thus entitled to the right to equal opportunity in education (had the right to that right).

And just as being an American is a status, so “we must treat [in analytical terms] being human as a status”, Searle insists (2010, 181). For many people, this will not do. What I mean to say is, while most of us want to say that being human is not a status, not an existential condition, but an essential and self-evident fact, often times, in societies even today, certain people hardly enjoy the status of being human at all—at least from the perspective of certain other people and/or institutions. Thus, a person who kills a cop becomes a cop killer and is thought of as something less than human.

In wars, including civil wars between, as they say, brothers, the enemy becomes something other than and generally less than human. For certain Islamists, and in some Islamic States, Jews and infidels are not human. Some men often do not seem to treat some women as humans, and to be fair, vice versa. The so-called counter-revolutionary dissident is not human, but an enemy of the people. The bourgeois is a parasite, a leech. And so on. The all too simplistic notion that “if you qualify as a human being, you are automatically guaranteed human rights” (Searle, 2010, 181), is, well, all too simplistic. For, indeed, you have to first qualify as a human being.

Searle clarifies this when he explores the case “in which something satisfies the X term [i.e. it is an instance of the species homo sapiens] but is denied the recognition that goes with the Y term [i.e. it is not seen as a symbolic human being, but is seen rather as something other and less than human] and correspondingly denied the functions [the rights] that go with the Y status” (2010, 181). The rights exist, but an instance of the human species might well be denied those rights because he or she or it is not recognized as a member of the human community (the old sense of the outlaw, of being beyond the protection of law is relevant here), and thus is not understood to have a claim on, or a right to, those rights. It may be biologically human, but it is not symbolically human. This is the basic logic behind the reasoning of all those who are accused of violating human rights.

Searle purports to “share the commonsense assumption that you do not lose your rights in cases where they are denied or not recognized” (2010, 183).  But he also says that to be human does not mean that “you are entitled to the existence of the rights”. Contra Bentham and MacIntyre (and Corlett’s representation of Searle’s thinking), the rights exist. What being human means, or counting as human means, or should mean, is that “you are entitled to the recognition of rights that already exist” (2010, 183, my emphasis). To be human means, or should mean, that you have a right to human rights. The argument then, for Searle, is not that rights do not exist if they are not institutionalized, for he seems to be saying: they do exist. They question is: is the claimant recognized as having the right status and thus having the right to have the rights? What this then means is: “the justification of any rights that are assigned to [or claimed by] beings solely in virtue of being human will have to depend on our conception of what a human being is” (2010, 192).

Some people still don’t see political enemies, or women, or minorities, or gay people, or foreigners, or immigrants, or fetuses, or persons in vegetative states, or criminals, as human beings, and thus do not feel that they are entitled to human rights, or at least certain human rights. Perhaps a pithy way to grasp the importance of Searle’s notion that being human is a status (which, if recognized, entails the right to have rights) is to remember that animal rights activists want everyone to understand that animals, in fact, are humans too.


Corlett seems to be at loggerheads with Searle because he, Corlett, asserts or argues for the non-institutional existence of rights grounded in moral reason, and claims that Searle argues against such rights. I hope to have shown that Searle does not do this, and, to the contrary, seems to be on Corlett’s side. For Searle argues too that rights exist, that their existence can be deduced or constructed or discovered by reasonable, rational, ethical, perhaps disinterested (that is to say, impartial, neutral), members of our species—but he insists that their existence, which is not in question, does not entail the practical recognition that every biological member of the species is entitled to the right. Because in addition to the reasonable, rational, ethical people who are given to discovering or constructing, and feeling themselves bound by, human rights, there are many people who are less ethical or perhaps differently ethical, who are quite partial and very far from being disinterested, and who thus are not given to recognizing either certain people—minorities, gays, women, differently abled, Jews, poor people (the list unfortunately is quite endless)—as really human and thus automatic bearers of human rights, or the rights as rights per se.

One must recall that the point of departure for both of Searle’s book length investigations into social construction and institutionalization are what he calls the basic, non-constructed, ontologically given “brute” facts. Despite being a social constructionist, he believes that “we should at every point try to consider the biological basis of what we are discussing” (2010, 192), which leads to his “completely naturalistic conception of human life and society [which] is consistent with a belief in the existence of universal human rights” (2010, 198).

In his conclusion to his chapter on human rights, Searle reaffirms that his view of things is “consistent with a belief in the existence of universal human rights” while insisting that debates on “human rights […] cannot be ethically neutral” and in fact “require […] a certain set of values” (2010, 198). With regard to human rights he says, explicitly: “This does not mean that they are arbitrary, or that anything goes” (2010, 198). He insists that rights exist, and that they be grounded in moral reason, and thus his view is far from being incompatible, much less antithetical to that propounded by Corlett. Additionally, however, he 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 actual bearers, that each and every member of the human species must 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.


Armstrong, Josh. “Vision Science”. Los Angeles Review Review of Books. (2015). Accessed: 1 August 2017.

Becker, Howard. “Book Review: John R. Searle Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.” Science, Technology & Human Values 36, no. 2 (2011): 273-279.

Berger, Peter & Luckmann, Thomas. The Construction of Reality. A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Random House, 1966.

Corlett, J. Angelo. “Searle on Human Rights.” Social Epistemology 30, no. 4 (2016): 440-463.

Searle, John R. The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Free Press, 1995.

Searle, John R. Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Searle, John R. “Replies.” Analysis 71, no. 4 (2011): 733-741.

[1] Apart from any logical criticisms of Searle’s theory, what equally seems to motivate Corlett’s negative assessment of Searle’s theory of human rights is to be found in the third endnote to his article, where he writes that “the aim of this article […] is to expose Searle’s total lack of even recognizing a human rights tradition that speaks loudly against his own analysis” (2016, 472). Corlett is not the first to take issue with Searle’s blasé indifference to the work of others. Becker (2011)  complains of his failure to “show any great engagemente or familiarity with the work social scientists do” (2011, 274), while Armstrong, who declares himself a “sympathetic” reader, nonetheless notes that Searle “fails to engage” with ideas that conflict with his own, and tends to ignore the works of philosophers—especially women—that “bear directly on the themes” he discussess (2017). As Armstrong suggests, Searle often writes as if the only important philosophical voice is that of “Searle and Searle alone”. And indeed, I myself was taken aback by Searle’s total failure to mention even once the Berger and Luckman classic The Social Construction of Reality (1966) in his book The Construction of Social Reality (1995). None of this, however, is central to the present discussion.

Author Information: Adam Riggio, New Democratic Party of Canada,

Riggio, Adam. “Beyond Socrates: The Philosopher as Creative Craftsperson.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 13-21.

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

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Image credit: Diogo Duarte, via flickr

This essay is a response to Robert Frodeman’s insightful “Socratics and Anti-Socratics: The Status of Expertise,” published 22 May on this site. I hope he, the rest of the SERRC community, and our readers will forgive the lateness of my reply.

Frodeman’s essay continues his challenge to the orthodoxy of academic institutions whose detailed manifesto was Socrates Tenured. He calls us to remember the rebellious character of philosophical thought. Philosophy today is a discipline institutionalized in the university system. It is a science requiring several years of training in its techniques of research and analysis. When I say science in this context, I mean it in the sense of a disciplinary (and disciplined) field of knowledge whose producers require expertise if they’re going to build high-quality product. Think of the old-fashioned German term Wissenschaft and you will have an effective image.

At the heart of Frodeman’s argument is the image of Socrates—the persecuted activist who was executed for obnoxiously challenging the moral and political orthodoxies of his society. His recent work explores the tensions and paradoxes between free thinkers and subject matter experts. The most important question in “Socratics and Anti-Socratics” is what kind of expertise marks the philosopher in the academy, and what kind of expertise marks the philosopher as the free thinker.

Frodeman’s answer—with which I agree—is that there appear to be two kinds of expert in the discipline of philosophy. There is the sub-disciplinary subject matter expert who offers a complex body of content to be mastered. This is his Anti-Socratic category. Then there is the free thinker who acts as a gadfly in her community, the expert in destabilizing popular certainties and common sense, who offers training in the deft use of techniques to do so.

The disciplinary thinker systematizes and delivers received wisdom using institutionally sanctioned techniques. The critical free thinker asks incisive questions that identify the material shortcomings and paradoxes of received wisdom when it’s put into practice. The two constitute a single movement in thinking among a community. A disciplinary approach to understanding the world becomes mainstream and institutionalized, and critics show how those mainstream ideas have become inadequate to the world in which they practice. Yet for all its questions, Socratic philosophy leaves the most important inquiry hanging: Now what?

Frodeman’s duality of an opposition between Anti-Socratic institutional experts and Socratic critical experts is fundamentally unfinished. His picture results in a tension and a conflict that appears insoluble. We must show how criticism is institutionalized to become a new mainstream better suited to the current era. An act of innovation in thought must complete this movement, and prepare for it to repeat as the new model of knowledge ossifies and faces its critics in the future.

Who Are a Socrates and a Protagoras Today?

But such innovation is no systematic synthesis out of the SparkNotes version of Hegel. That would be too simple. For instance, there need not be any content of the original calcified disciplinary framework that survives its creative assault—progress may include sweeping away the old way of doing things entirely.

Take the following analogy as an illustration: picture an artistic scene and society that has been entirely corrupted through a gentrifying city, and the collapse of any financial investment except for a few big-name producers. Rhetorically speaking, who in their right mind would ask Damien Hirst what is new, hip, boundary-breaking, and exciting in installation art in 2017?

Same thing for an academic discipline—major players who are at the end of long careers and have built significant institutional support are rarely connected to fresh younger scholars pursuing previously-neglected new directions. For the sake of this argument, lay aside—but please never ignore—the more vile and corrupt forms of decadence into which an institutionally-established academic all too often falls upon their old age.

Frodeman began his short essay with an example of a contemporary debate among the disciplinary community of academic university philosophy and the different lay experts of activist communities. This was Rebecca Tuvel’s essay in Hypatia on the possibility of transracial identity. The reception of “In Defence of Transracialism,” to put it mildly, inspired some controversy. The immediate, most hostile, response was that Tuvel’s article had done a kind of violence to transgender people. The intense criticism was called a “witch hunt” in New York Magazine.[1] In response, some members of Hypatia’s editorial staff issued an apology for having published Tuvel’s article in the first place. Higher-ranking editorial and board staff of Hypatia then denounced the apology, and some editors have resigned from their positions.

Perhaps the most straightforward lesson we can learn from Tuvel’s transracialism controversy is that academic research journals should simplify their editorial structures and have policies that clearly define the boundaries of responsibility and power for each staff member. Frodeman sees a more profound lesson, where this transracialism controversy is an illuminating example of different visions of expertise. Tuvel’s supporters take the stance, generally described, that her qualifications as a researcher specializing in feminist philosophy and the study of race and gender legitimate her right to articulate and defend her stand in the public sphere. Tuvel’s critics, generally speaking, hold that her legitimacy to speak on transgender issues should be rooted in material experiences of transgender life.

How would this fit into the binary Frodeman develops of Socratic and Anti-Socratic thought? Anti-Socratic thinking grounds the legitimacy of expertise in disciplinary knowledge of the academy. Socratic thinking focusses on challenging that disciplinary legitimacy, on grounds that the subject matter expert misses important aspects of reality thanks to its concentration on a limited number of ways of knowing. The expert speaks with self-assured certainty, while the gadfly challenges the expert by identifying important aspects of life that the expert’s disciplinary lens misses. So Tuvel would be an expert, that expertise allowing her article to walk us through a variety of different ways to understand what a genuine transracial identity could be. Her critics would be the gadflies, interrogating the limits of Tuvel’s expertise, showing how her disciplinary approach misses aspects of transgender people’s lived reality that are critical to understanding the material possibilities of trans existence.

Limits of Institutional and Critical Knowledge

I want to spend some more time analyzing the Tuvel controversy and some related issues, because I think this case reveals kinds of expertise that can supplement Frodeman’s vision. First, the institutionally-sanctioned expert describes some investigation into a real phenomenon using her disciplinary tools. So what tools did institutionally-sanctioned expert Rebecca Tuvel use to explore the possibility conditions of transracial identity?

If you read “In Defence of Transracialism,” you will find that Tuvel has masterfully used philosophical methods of conceptual analysis. Her essay fits seamlessly into the tradition of moral, ethical, and political philosophy established with G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica. She examines a number of different ways in which we can conceive of the personal and physical transformations of gender and race, most of which other philosophers in the field of feminist and gender studies have developed or analyzed.

Tuvel’s overall argument in the essay starts with the presumption that transgender identities are legitimate, then runs through several different ways we can understand the ‘trans’ of the transgender such that transracial identity could be legitimate. She concludes, from her analysis, that while several conceptions of transgender’s ‘trans’ cannot apply successfully to transracial’s ‘trans,’ there is at least one that can. Therefore, Tuvel concludes, it is possible to develop your own transracial identity, although the circumstances in which such an identity would be legitimate are much more narrow than those for transgender identity.

That’s all fine in its own context. At the same time, “In Defence of Transracialism” is clear evidence that the tradition and methods of philosophy which Principia Ethica began is out of steam and out of step. These methods cannot offer the insights that moral debates of our era require. There are several reasons why they fall short. One is a matter of audience. The essays published in journals like Hypatia are intended only for other disciplinary experts who have been sanctioned as such by the discipline’s institutions. They have been hired or are on the job market for positions in university humanities departments. The disciplinary community was not where the intense critique of Tuvel came from: it was the community of intersectional political activists. They had very different priorities in political thought and engagement from institutionalized academics, which made them an inappropriate audience for Tuvel’s explicitly conceptual essay.

An important aspect of this audience mismatch comes from a more fundamental way in which the academic mainstream style of moral and political thinking through conceptual analysis falls short of what our times call such thinking to achieve. Frodeman understands the controversy over Tuvel’s article as a matter of different standards of expertise competing over which will provide the popular ground rules for investigations of various possible trans identities. That was an important part of the controversy, but I think the idea which sparked the most fiery debate was over the real-life issue that brought the notion of transracial identity to public consciousness in the first place: the human train wreck named Rachel Dolezal.

When You Are Caught Unexpectedly in Reality

The debate over Tuvel’s essay unfolded as a matter of competing standards of expertise, what gives someone the legitimacy to speak on trans issues in public venues. However, in the eyes of her most strident critics, Tuvel’s primary offence had nothing to do with that, but that she introduced her inquiry as a comparison of actual transgender people with Dolezal. It suggested that Dolezal’s demented idea of transracial identity was of the same type as transgender people’s painful and risky innovations in the material possibilities of human identity. Tuvel’s argument unfolded at a highly abstract level of purely conceptual analysis about the possibility conditions for a transracial identity that considered no real people. She discussed only the ontological and ethical possibility conditions of a legitimate transracial identity.

The problem was that her introduction mentioned Dolezal as having brought the idea of transracial identity so forcefully to public consciousness. In those few first paragraphs, Tuvel used a casual, non-technical vocabulary. Any institution-bound academic humanities researcher would interpret such vocabulary as signalling the cursory scene setting of an introductory paragraph. University academics are encased so thoroughly in a professional world and discourse of experts that they know such words are inconsequential. It is common sense that the vague words of the introduction were precisely introductory, and that the words which really mattered would follow.

Outside the discourse of the university world, where political arguments are literally and frequently matters of real people’s lives and deaths, it is common sense that the most important words of a politically relevant essay are its links to material reality. They are the words that explain why what follows matters to all our lives. In Tuvel’s essay, the only words that linked her analysis to the lives of real people was her brief comment about Rachel Dolezal’s media circus. So the common sense of a political activist would take Tuvel’s essay as an explicit, if dry, comparison of transgender people to Dolezal herself. The institutional knowledge of Anti-Socratics had failed so epically in practical matters.

A Socratic Voice in the Marketplace of Content

It is clear from the most insightful and accurate examinations of Dolezal’s priorities and personality that her own transracial identity possesses nothing of what Tuvel herself could most charitably grant even an inkling of legitimacy. I want to focus on the only piece of philosophical writing I could find that cut through the idiotic ejaculation of witless soundbites that made up the enraging, sorry media spectacle of Dolezal. When I call this essay philosophical, I use the term in a very Socratic sense. Ijeoma Oluo isn’t a university professor. She is a Seattle-based journalist. But her interview with Rachel Dolezal has a Socratic spirit: a determined, intelligent interrogation of a mystifying world, aiming to understand what order there might be to its politics and morality.

I do not want to walk through Oluo’s entire article. You should read it yourself, because even after I discuss its most salient points for my own discussion, her interview itself is rich with ideas. It could be the seed of a novel with the psychological depth of Alice Munro, whose protagonist is as vile and magnetic as the greasiest creations of Mordecai Richler. The advantage (or horror) of the story is that its protagonist is a real person. Tuvel’s entirely abstract approach remains blind to what Oluo’s Socratic interrogation of the real woman Dolezal discovered: the practical impossibility of genuine transracial existence.

Oluo’s interview with Dolezal reveals the latter’s attitude and approach to her transracial life. Dolezal herself has not adopted a transracial identity for anything like the reasons transgender people pursue their identity. A transgender person faces incredible danger because of their identity.

Transgender people are frequent targets of violent hate crime, including murder. They often experience discrimination, both from fellow citizens and from aggressively transphobic elected politicians. Such hateful atmospheres of daily massive and minor persecutions cause terrifying mental health problems. Suicide rates of transgender people are horrifyingly high.

Rachel Dolezal has experienced none of this suffering in her attempt to live as a black woman. Oluo’s interview reveals that she believes herself to have suffered at a similar intensity, that she takes herself to be a victim of persecution. Oluo’s interview with Dolezal is a philosophical conversation about the nature and purpose of the latter’s own transracial identity. Its nature is in a decision that Dolezal made, based on her shoddy understanding of what social construction means. Dolezal understands race to be socially constructed, but she believes that the socially constructed is entirely unreal, a matter of simple human decisions about what to believe in.

Revealing Our Inadequacies

As any professional practitioner of the humanities knows, socially constructed systems of knowledge are as durable and resistant to change as a society itself. Anyone who has read any accessible, affordable, straightforward book about social theory knows that. Rachel Dolezal chose to become black to demonstrate, through her own example, the unreality of race. Oluo’s interview revealed Dolezal’s self-image as a messianic martyr ushering a post-race society into existence. She sees herself as a one-woman harbinger of a utopian humanity. The ego, self-importance, and ignorance on display is dazzling.

Even Tuvel gives a very glib account of social construction in “In Defence of Transracialism,” describing the practical possibility of genuine racial change like so: “Although race change is theoretically possible, whether it is practically possible will depend on a society’s willingness to adjust its rules for racial categorization to better accommodate individual self-identification.” As a scholar of inter-disciplinary feminist traditions, she should know better.

But the rarefied abstraction of her style prevents her from engaging with the physical difficulties of changing socially constructed institutions and cultural mores. Tuvel’s only engagement with the problems social construction’s inertia causes for a transracial identity is when she leans on Sally Haslanger’s conception of race. Haslanger’s notion that race is a matter of how others see you is interesting, but its conception of identity sticks to a community’s interpellation—a technical elaboration on the basic notion that race is a matter of how others see you.

These ideas are simply not adequate to the psychological and ethical complexity of Dolezal’s actual derangement. The thinking of this real woman, not an abstract consideration of the possibility conditions of transracial identity, has driven this political discourse about what the boundaries of racial and ethnic identity can be.

What Would a Creative Philosophical Discourse Look Like?

Oluo’s interview was never written with an eye on the controversy over Tuvel’s article or her arguments. Nonetheless, comparing how both writers approach the issue of transraciality illustrates the ossifying tendency of institutionalized disciplinary thinking and the fire in the belly of a Socratic interrogator. Tuvel’s approach to analyzing the possibility conditions of transracial existence was so tone-deaf because she was concerned only with a technical academic debate in the language of a narrow humanities discipline.

Hers was an argument entirely for the world of scholarship, and Tuvel’s expertise was entirely within that narrow disciplinary scope. She might privately maintain the political relevance of the issues she discussed, but how she discussed them utterly sidestepped the issues’ political relevance. Oluo is an improvement, her work being rooted in the critical interrogation of a real person’s actual values. Her thinking and writing shows the acuity of a philosophically sharp mind employing complex concepts of race, ethnicity, and social construction to the values of a real person, and that person’s attempt to impose her values on a hostile world.

The establishment voice has spoken and been shouted down. The gadfly has revealed the sad truth and could only walk away, exasperated. The camel and the lion have had their say. Can anything be built from this?

The most important groundwork of building a creative philosophical discourse is to admit the inadequacy of all the concepts you know best. The politics of race and nation throughout North America, Europe, southern Asia, and Africa today calls for publicly engaged philosophers and other humanities researchers and writers to engage and develop new ideas to battle racism and violence.

Rachel Dolezal’s twisted reasoning is an unfortunate blend of philosophical incompetence and delusions of grandeur. Ijeoma Oluo is uniquely perceptive in having understood this, and having been able to identify through the shrieking buzz of Dolezal’s extended media circus the precise ways in which her reasoning fails. Rebecca Tuvel fares far better than Dolezal herself, but still relies on the bloodless detachment of scholarly debate to engage with issues of many people’s real lives and deaths. Both Socratic interrogative criticism and Anti-Socratic disciplinary expertise have proven inadequate to the task.

The approach to racial politics that missed the mark most wildly was Dolezal’s own, for two reasons. She failed to understand the material power of socially constructed norms and institutions, and she was motivated by an egotistical desire to make herself a messiah for the revolution of a raceless world. Tuvel at least understood enough about the humanities’ scholarly debates on the nature of race to say something coherent. But her scholarly approach failed to comprehend the real urgency of race politics for our current moment. Worse, she did not even understand how her work would be received outside the scholarly community.

Both her article itself, as well as the reactions of Hypatia’s editors, supplies further evidence that disciplinary academic training does not prepare one for effective activism.

Tuvel’s failure was clearly empirical. She did not understand what is at stake for real people in questions of transgender and transracial identities, or at least wrote as if those stakes did not matter for her question. Oluo’s greatest success in her interview with Dolezal about transracial identity was her application of an incisive philosophical mind to an empirical case, understanding the ideological and political priorities of a real person.

A New Empiricism: Material Thinking

So whatever philosophical approach to political thinking succeeds will be essentially empirical, a unity of conceptual rigour and meticulous, systematic observation. Philosophers must understand human actions with the same analytic attention to detail as they have understood concepts and ideas for the last century. Such analysis must understand human action at the individual level of single people’s decisions and beliefs in their daily lives. But it must also understand the systematic dimensions of action, the complex web of relationships in which human activity is interlinked across the globe.

Techniques for achieving this analysis of action can, at least most obviously for now, be found in the discipline of ethnography. This includes rich skills of observation, understanding how reasons, ideology, and relationships throughout and across social networks, impact the development of personalities and self-conceptions. Philosophical reflection should no longer begin only with concepts, but with the personalities that put concepts into practical action through their individual and community’s ideologies and moralities.

Begin from understanding human thought in the real world of practice, where people are making a living and building their lives. Probe people’s political beliefs, moral ideals, relationships with their communities, countries, and the rest of the world, as well as how a person actually understands who and what she is. Analyze those concepts systematically. That means understanding how those concepts shape a person’s thinking and life priorities, as well as their internal coherence, paradoxes, and contradictions. Analyze how those concepts fit together into a broader philosophy or ideology, their coherence, paradoxes, and contradictions in co-existence as they build a single world-view. Understand what kind of world and personality those concepts will build in a person or community that lives according to their implications.

Begin with the world, work in thought, and let thought guide you to a better understanding of the world. Then communicate with the people whose ideologies, ideas, and philosophies you are analyzing. One of the central reasons for the enraged reaction to Tuvel’s essay was that she wrote it in a format appropriate only for journals of the professional academic humanities.

Even subtle differences in writing style helped doom her popular reception. She wrote her introduction as an unimportant prologue, where many in the popular audience read her introduction as a substantive hook. Adapting philosophical writing style to a popular intellectual audience with composition techniques from popular current affairs and journalism genres can be an aid to clarity and true practical impact. I am, of course, not talking about some institutional impact factor rating, but the real impact that philosophy can have: simultaneously interpreting the world and changing it.

Creative developments in philosophy come in many forms. They are all responses to changes in a society where typical ways of thinking and talking about ideas were shown to be inadequate. Different circumstances brought this inadequacy about each time philosophical creativity became required. We need to acknowledge when the old ways of doing things will not work as they did before, and see what has changed in the world to make our old ways ineffective. We must understand the causes of our own obsolescence, and upgrade our practice and skill-set to keep up with the demands of a world that will not bow to whatever is convenient for our established approaches to knowledge.


“Editors Quit at Feminist Journal that Compared Transgenders to Rachel Dolezal.” The College Fix (2017):

Flaherty, Colleen. “(Another) Shake-up At Hypatia.” Inside Higher Education (2017):

Frodeman, Robert. “Socratics and Anti-Socratics: The Status of Expertise.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 42-44.

Jeffries, Stuart. “German Philosophy Has Finally Gone Viral. Will That Be Its Undoing?” Foreign Policy Magazine (2017):

Oluo, Ijeoma. “The Heart of Whiteness: Ijeoma Oluo Interviews Rachel Dolezal, the White Woman Who Identifies as Black.” The Stranger (2017):

Singal, Jesse. “This Is What a Modern-Day Witch Hunt Looks Like.” New York Magazine (2017):

Tuvel, Rebecca. “In Defence of Transracialism.” Hypatia 32, no. 2 (2017): 263-278.

Zamudio-Suaréz, Fernanda. “Months After ‘Transracialism’ Flap, Controversy Still Rages at Feminist Philosophy Journal” Chronicle of Higher Education (2017):

[1] The use of the term “witch hunt” can easily be interpreted as a politically-charged denunciation of Tuvel critics with the same terms of abuse that progressive activists receive from Trumpist and alt-right conservatives. Voices in the academic community who are generally conservative about the institution have been unsparing in denouncing Tuvel’s critics. Although they may have overreacted, the editors who issued the apology in the light of controversy no more deserve aggression and pile-ons than Tuvel herself. Brian Leiter, a reliable weathervane of belligerent conservatism in the academic humanities, has been especially vile to former Hypatia editor Cressida Hayes, describing her as hypocritical, unprofessional, and appalling.

Author Information: Christopher M. Brown, University of Tennessee at Martin,

Brown, Christopher M. “Some Objections to Moti Mizrahi’s ‘What’s So Bad About Scientism?’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 42-54.

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

Please refer to:

Image credit: Tom Hilton, via flickr

In these critical remarks, I raise a number of objections to the arguments Moti Mizrahi (2017) employs in his attempt to defend (the usefulness of) a position he calls Weak Scientism.

Is Weak Scientism Really Scientism?  

According to Moti Mizrahi, we can distinguish Strong Scientism—“Of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the only ‘real knowledge’ (2017, 353)—from Weak Scientism—“Of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the best knowledge” (2017, 354). Mizrahi goes on to argue Weak Scientism is both the position traditional advocates of scientism should adopt and the position those who want to defend philosophy against charges of uselessness should attack (2017, 354).[1] Many contemporary philosophers, specifically, and academics, generally, accept Weak Scientism (or at least a position that closely resembles it).

If only for the reason that it focuses our attention upon an influential contemporary philosophical perspective, Mizrahi’s paper is a very useful one. That being said, Weak Scientism is not really strong enough to warrant the appellation, ‘scientism.’ For 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. For that matter, one could accept Weak Scientism and think that religious knowledge is nearly as valuable as scientific knowledge.

In fact, if Mizrahi’s Weak Scientism is really only a claim about the relative value of different academic forms of knowledge, as Mizrahi seems to admit in a couple of places (see, e.g., 2017, 354; 356), then one could accept Weak Scientism and think that personal knowledge, moral knowledge, and religious knowledge are more valuable than scientific knowledge. One might suppose, therefore, that neither traditional advocates of scientism, such as Alex Rosenberg (see, e.g., 2011), nor those who think philosophy is useless, such as, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (see, e.g., 2010) and Stephen Weinberg (see, e.g., 1994), will find Mizrahi’s Weak Scientism to be a position that is quite strong enough to communicate their own (negative) attitudes toward philosophy or philosophical knowledge or non-scientific forms of knowledge more generally.

How is Weak Scientism by Itself Relevant Where the Philosophy-is-Useless-Objection is Concerned?

Mizrahi says: “I propose . . . Weak Scientism is the definition of scientism those philosophers who seek to defend philosophy against accusations of uselessness . . . should attack if they want to do philosophy a real service” (2017, 354). But why think that? For it is hard to see how the philosophy-is-useless charge gets off the ground just given Weak Scientism. For example, in order to get the uselessness charge from Weak Scientism we might argue as follows:

1. If scientific knowledge is better than philosophical knowledge, then philosophy is useless.
2. Scientific knowledge is better than philosophical knowledge.
3. Therefore, philosophy is useless [from (1) and (2), MP].

Even if one grants (2), why accept (1)? For, clearly, the consequent of (1) does not follow from its antecedent. Indeed, it wouldn’t follow even if the value of philosophical knowledge were quite a bit lower than scientific knowledge.

To make good on the philosophy-is-useless claim from a scientistic stance we need something much stronger than Weak Scientism, for example:

4. Only cognitions that rise to the perfection of knowledge are useful.
5. If scientific knowledge is the only kind of knowledge, then philosophy is useless [from (4)].
6. Scientific knowledge is the only kind of knowledge.
3. Therefore, philosophy is useless [from (5) and (6), MP].

But we don’t have anything like the argument above in Mizrahi’s paper. Therefore, Mizrahi’s attempt to mediate the discussion between defenders of philosophy, on the one hand, and defenders of the philosophy-is-useless claim, on the other, by way of Weak Scientism is a non-starter.

Problems for Mizrahi’s Argument for Weak Scientism, Given the Number and Kind of Philosophical Assumptions at Play in the Argument

Mizrahi argues that Weak Scientism is defensible, namely, it can be defended against objections (2017, 354). One objection to Weak Scientism he fields is

(O1) It is epistemically impossible to offer scientific evidence for Weak Scientism.

Mizrahi does not say why (O1) should be thought to be an objection to Weak Scientism other than noting the objection is inspired by the self-reference problem for the verifiability criterion of meaning (2017, 355). At any rate, Mizrahi thinks (O1) is false and defends the falsity of (O1) by offering what he takes to be a scientific argument for Weak Scientism. Here follows a schema of that argument:

7. One kind of knowledge is better than another quantitatively or qualitatively.
8. Scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) in terms of the number of journal articles published and the number of journal articles cited.
9. Scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) insofar as scientific theories are more successful than non-scientific theories (including philosophical theories) where the success of a theory is understood in terms of its explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success.
10. Therefore, scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific forms of knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) both quantitatively and qualitatively [from (8) and (9)].
11. Therefore, scientific forms of knowledge are better than non-scientific forms of knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) [from (7) and (10)].

In his defenses of (8) and (9), Mizrahi makes quite a few controversial philosophical assumptions. This section lists some of these controversial philosophical assumptions, discusses the significance of their functioning as background assumptions for Mizrahi’s argument for (8) and (9), and, at the end of the section, develops four general problems for Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism, given the central role these controversial philosophical assumptions play within that argument.

First Assumption

The first controversial philosophical assumption at play in Mizrahi’s defense of (8) is his decision to think about knowledge teleologically or operationally. He states that for the purposes of his argument: “‘knowledge’ is meant to refer to the aim or goal of inquiry or the final product of inquiry” (2017, 353). In another place, citing the work of Francis Sparshott, Mizrahi states, “[f]or the purposes of this paper, I have operationalized ‘philosophy’ as simply ‘what [professional] philosophers do’ (Sparshott 1998, 20)” (2012, 356). Mizrahi’s reasons for thinking about academic knowledge pragmatically are themselves pragmatic: not only are the natures of philosophy and science matters of great debate (2017, 356), but, if Mizrahi does not think about knowledge teleologically or operationally, it won’t be possible for him to measure the quantity of knowledge in scientific and non-scientific disciplines, something Mizrahi needs to do in order to make his argument for (8).

Second Assumption

Mizrahi’s pragmatic approach to thinking about knowledge is itself, of course, philosophically controversial. But, in addition, Mizrahi’s defining knowledge as a goal of inquiry is a way of thinking about knowledge that seems to entail many forms of non-academic cognitions can’t count as forms of knowledge. Indeed, much human knowledge is obtained without any sort of explicit inquiry on our part, as Mizrahi himself concedes, e.g., the knowledge of the heavens that comes by way of lazily gazing up at the night sky (2017, 354). So, we have a second controversial philosophical assumption as a background assumption for Mizrahi’s argumentation: knowledge is the goal of inquiry.

In order to justify his focusing on academic forms of knowledge for the purposes of his defense of Weak Scientism, Mizrahi notes that scientists such as Hawking, Mlodinow, and Weinberg have academic philosophy in particular in mind when they criticize philosophy, and Mizrahi thinks that philosophers who criticize scientism are comparing academic philosophy with science when they do so (2017, 356). In arguing for this latter claim, Mizrahi cites Sorell (2013, x) as a representative example. Mizrahi writes:

. . . when he defines scientism as ‘a matter of putting too high a value on science’ Sorell (2013) compares science to ‘other branches of learning or culture’ (emphasis added). Accordingly, it is clear that the debate between scientists who are critical of philosophy and philosophers who charge critics of philosophy with ‘scientism’ is about academic knowledge produced by academic disciplines, as opposed to more basic sources of knowledge, such as perception, introspection, and the like (2017, 356).

There are a couple of things to note about this passage. First, Mizrahi apparently feels justified in equating Sorell’s expression, branches of learning and culture with academic knowledge. That’s puzzling. Does Mizrahi really think (Sorell thinks) that all learning and culture is confined to what happens within the walls of the academy? Second, we might ask about basic—or non-basic—sources of knowledge such as knowledge of persons, moral knowledge, and religious knowledge. Does Weak Scientism say scientific knowledge is better than those forms of knowledge? At any rate, Mizrahi seems to imply in a couple of places (see, e.g., Mizrahi 2017, 354; 356) he is really defending a position weaker than Weak Scientism in his paper, one we might call, Very Weak Scientism:

(Very Weak Scientism) When it comes to the kinds of knowledge produced within the academy, scientific knowledge is the best.

Third Assumption

A third controversial philosophical assumption at play in Mizrahi’s argument for (8) is the view that the quantity of knowledge of each academic discipline—in terms of both its output and impact—can be measured. Mizrahi recognizes that the position that knowledge can be quantitatively measured is a philosophical assumption, but he does not see this as a problem, since an argument’s making philosophical assumptions is not a sufficient condition for it counting as a philosophical rather than a scientific argument (2017, 356). Grant Mizrahi’s claim that an argument’s making philosophical assumptions is not a sufficient condition for it counting as a philosophical rather than a scientific argument. But the point here is that the view that academic knowledge can be quantifiably measured is a philosophically contentious one, to say the least.

To see why that is so, consider again that in order to measure the amount of scientific and non-scientific, academic knowledge—as Mizrahi needs to do in order to make his argument for premise (8)—he needs to define knowledge teleologically—as the goal or aim of an academic discipline—or operationally—as what academics produce. But thinking about the nature of (academic) knowledge in that pragmatic way is philosophically controversial. Therefore, thinking we can measure quantitatively the amount of knowledge across academic disciplines is itself philosophically controversial, since the latter assumption only makes sense on a pragmatic account of knowledge, which is itself a controversial philosophical assumption.

Fourth Assumption

The fourth controversial philosophical assumption Mizrahi makes use of in his argument for (8) is the assumption that the quantity of knowledge of each academic discipline—in terms of both output and impact—can be accurately measured by looking at the publications of participants within that discipline. Let us assume, if only for the sake of argument, that the quantity of academic knowledge produced by academic disciplines can be accurately measured. Compared to the quantity of knowledge produced by academic publications, some academics believe that just as much, if not more, knowledge is acquired or disseminated within a discipline by way of the good teaching that goes on within that discipline.

To measure the quantity of knowledge within a discipline merely by examining the academic publications within that discipline shows a decided bias in favor of the philosophy of education currently dominating contemporary universities, one which places the highest value on making new discoveries[2] (whether about starfish or about some text from the past), a philosophy of education which is itself rooted in an empirical scientific way of thinking. So, not only is this fourth philosophical assumption contentious, it is also a question-begging assumption: for we would expect the output and impact of scientific knowledge to fare better than non-scientific academic knowledge in an environment where knowledge is primarily understood in terms of publishing new discoveries.

To put the point another way, sampling just the publications produced within academic disciplines will not present us with a representative sample of knowledge produced within all academic disciplines. According to a traditional liberal arts understanding of education, teaching as a means of passing on knowledge from one generation to another is just as important, if not more so, than the making of new discoveries, and that context, we might think, is more fecund for the output (teaching) and impact (learning) of knowledge in liberal arts such as literature and philosophy. To put the point here still another way, it looks as though Mizrahi is actually defending the following thesis in his paper:

(Very, Very Weak Scientism) When it comes to the knowledge that is produced by academic publications, scientific publications are the best.

Fifth Assumption

In arguing that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge in terms of quantity of knowledge, Mizrahi makes a fifth controversial philosophical assumption: the quantity of knowledge—in terms of output and impact—of each academic discipline can be successfully measured by looking simply at the journal articles published (output) and cited (impact) within that discipline.

There is no doubt that the journal publications within a field give one a good sense of what subjects are receiving attention within that discipline at a particular time. And this includes new discoveries and new arguments within a discipline. But to reduce academic knowledge to the number of journal articles produced and cited within these disciplines neglects to take into account important differences between disciplines concerning the relevance of the history of those academic disciplines for knowledge produced in those disciplines now. For example, the history of science is less relevant for the practice of science today than is the history of philosophy for the practice of contemporary philosophy.

Although historians sometimes study philosophical texts from the past merely as historical artifacts, many contemporary philosophers treat important philosophical texts from the past as extremely—even indispensably—relevant for the practice of philosophy today. To count only journal articles when quantifying over impact of the knowledge of a discipline is, again, to adopt a scientific, discovery-oriented, approach to thinking about the nature of knowledge. For how often do the works of Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Dostoevsky, just for starters, continue to have research impact on the work of historians, social scientists, theologians, literature professors, not to mention, philosophers? So Mizrahi’s argument either begs the question against non-scientist academics for another reason—it neglects to count citations of great thinkers from the past—or, by focusing only on the citation of journal articles, the sample Mizrahi uses to make his inductive generalization is simply not a representative one. Or, perhaps Mizrahi is actually defending a weaker thesis yet in his paper:

(Very, Very, Very Weak Scientism): When it comes to the knowledge that is produced by academic journals, knowledge that comes from scientific academic journals is the best.

Sixth Assumption

There is a sixth controversial philosophical assumption that Mizrahi makes in arguing for (8), namely, each piece of knowledge acquired in a discipline should be treated equally where measuring its quantity is concerned. As we’ve seen, Mizrahi thinks scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge because scientists publish more journal articles than non-scientists and the journal articles published by scientists are cited more often—and so have a greater “research impact”—than do the journal articles published by non-scientists (2017, 355-58).

Consider an explanation alternative to the one Mizrahi offers for why there are fewer non-scientific academic papers produced and cited than is the case with scientific papers, and consider just the discipline of philosophy. We might think scientific journal articles get cited more often than do philosophy journal articles simply because, at any given time, there is more consensus among scientists than among philosophers. And, as David Papineau (2017) has recently suggested, perhaps the higher amount of disagreement among philosophers compared to scientists is due to the fact that philosophy is harder than science. If Papineau is correct, then perhaps there is also less output of philosophical knowledge when compared to science, not because science is in some sense better than philosophy, but because it is simply harder to arrive at philosophical knowledge than scientific knowledge.[3]

Consider also Aristotle’s famous claim that a little knowledge about the noblest things is more desirable than a lot of knowledge about less noble things.[4] Mizrahi’s argument assumes Aristotle is wrong. That too is a controversial philosophical assumption. For it is an honest question to ask how we should compare, in terms of relative value, a smaller amount of knowledge about a more important topic—say philosophical topics such as, the nature of God, the nature of the human person, or the best form of government—to a greater amount of knowledge about a less important topic—say topics studied within scientific disciplines, such as stars and starfish.

Seventh Assumption

In his attempt to defend the thesis that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge, Mizrahi assumes that a theory A is qualitatively better than a theory B if A is more successful than B (2017, 358). He thus thinks about a theory’s qualitative value in pragmatic terms. So we have a seventh controversial philosophical assumption in the background of Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism.

Eighth Assumption

An eighth controversial philosophical assumption Mizrahi employs—also in his argument for (9)—is the notion that a theory A is more successful than a theory B if A is more explanatorily successful than B, more instrumentally successful than B, and more predictively successful than B. Mizrahi defends this philosophical account of the successfulness of a theory by way of citing the work of some contemporary philosophers of science concerning the criteria for a successful scientific theory, which philosophers of science speak of a theory’s success in terms of its explanatory power, its instrumental success, and its predictive success (2017, 358). Apparently, Mizrahi thinks these criteria for a successful scientific theory can be rightfully applied as the measure of success for a theory, simpliciter.

But why think a good philosophical theory should enjoy predictive success, i.e., the power to “make novel predictions that are borne out by observation or experimentation” (Mizrahi 2017, 358) or meet ‘the criterion of testability,’ i.e., “As a general rule of thumb, choose the explanation that yields independently testable predictions” (2017, 360)? To think that a theory T is successful only if—or to the extent that—it enjoys predictive success or testability is to beg the question against non-scientific ways of knowing, ways of knowing that do not, by their very nature, employ controlled experiments and empirical tests as an aspect of their methodologies. As Edward Feser has noted (2014, 23), to compare the epistemic values of science and philosophy and fault philosophy for not being good at making predictions is like comparing metal detectors and gardening tools and concluding gardening tools are not as good as metal detectors because gardening tools do not allow us to successfully detect for metal.

Are good philosophical theories instrumentally successful, i.e., “theories [that] allow us to intervene in nature and causally manipulate entities, events, and processes” (Mizrahi 2017, 358)? It depends on what one means by ‘theories that allow us to intervene in nature and causally manipulate entities, events, and processes.’ If, by that expression, one means “thinking that leads to curing diseases or building bridges and other pieces of technology,” then philosophical theories will, we might think, not compare favorably with scientific ones.[5] But, again, philosophy by definition isn’t in that sort of business.

So to say science is qualitatively better than philosophy because science leads to technological innovations is like saying instrumental jazz is qualitatively better than Gregorian chant because jazz makes use of musical instruments. On the other hand, if by ‘intervene in nature,’ etc. one means “doing that which conduces to human happiness,” then it certainly will not be obvious that scientific theories are qualitatively better than philosophical ones, unless Mizrahi also assumes that human beings are better off with modern technology than without it. If so, we will need to add another controversial philosophical assumption to the (growing) list of controversial philosophical assumptions at play in Mizrahi’s argument in defense of Weak Scientism.

On the other hand, Mizrahi is correct that good philosophical theories explain things. But Mizrahi is skeptical about whether philosophical theses such as external world realism or scientific realism explain more than do competing anti-realist theories, so he concludes that philosophical theories do not compare favorably with good scientific theories in terms of their explanatory power. Whether Mizrahi is correct in that judgment depends upon just what a philosophical theory needs to explain, e.g., does it, all things being equal, need to make sense of common-sense intuitions about reality? In addition, we might wonder whether philosophical theories that count as responses to skeptical theories really represent the explanatory power of the best philosophical theories. For it is notoriously difficult to overcome skepticism on the skeptic’s own terms. But what about the explanatory success of Aristotle’s hylemorphic dualism as a theory of substantial change, or a natural-law/virtue-ethical theory as a theory for why human flourishing requires noble human conduct, or theism as an explanation for the rationality of believing in the reliability of cognitive faculties that have arisen by way of an evolutionary process, to pick just a few examples of philosophical theories that have great explanatory power?

Of course, none of the theories just mentioned are believed by even a majority of contemporary philosophers. But that not all—or that even a majority of—contemporary philosophers agree about the relative explanatory value of a philosophical theory A is no good argument that A does not actually explain what it sets out to explain—and better than do other theories. To think that a philosophical theory A is successful only if all, or a majority of, philosophers accept A is, we might think, to misconstrue the nature of the philosophical enterprise and the kinds of questions philosophy treats. It is again to beg the question against distinctively philosophical methodologies, which differ in kind from the consensus-inviting methodologies of empirical science.

Ninth Assumption

A ninth controversial philosophical assumption at work in Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism is the assumption that each piece of knowledge acquired in a discipline should be treated equally where measuring its quality is concerned. Assume, if only for the sake of argument, that we should use the same criteria to evaluate the relative success of a scientific theory and a non-scientific theory. And assume also the following Aristotelian epistemological axiom: less certain knowledge (or less explanatorily successful knowledge or less instrumentally successful knowledge or less testable knowledge) about a nobler subject, e.g., God or human persons, is, all other things being equal, more valuable than more certain knowledge (or more explanatorily successful knowledge or more instrumentally successful knowledge or more testable knowledge) about a less noble subject, e.g., stars or starfish.

Consider, then, a piece of philosophical knowledge P and a piece of scientific knowledge S, where P constitutes knowledge of a nobler subject than S. If S enjoys greater explanatory power and more instrumental success and greater testability when compared to P, it won’t follow that S is qualitatively better than P. In other words, contrary to what Mizrahi wants to assume, we might think philosophers and some other non-scientific academicians treat subjects of greater existential/axiological import than the subjects treated by scientists. Admitting as much, of course, does not mean thinking scientific knowledge has no value. Just as the advocate of Weak Scientism might think philosophical knowledge has great value, so the critic of Weak Scientism might think scientific knowledge has great value.

Four General Points

Having noted (at least) nine controversial philosophical assumptions Mizrahi makes in arguing for Weak Scientism, one can make four general points.

First, it seems reasonable to reject some—even all—of the controversial philosophical assumptions that function as background assumptions in Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism. Indeed, we’ve examined some reasons for rejecting some of these assumptions. Therefore, a number of serious philosophical objections remain for the argumentative strategy Mizrahi employs to defend Weak Scientism.

Second, as we’ve seen, many, if not all, of the nine contestable philosophical assumptions Mizrahi employs in his argument for Weak Scientism one would accept only if one already accepted Weak Scientism or Strong Scientism or some position closely allied with one of those positions. One might be excused for thinking, then, that Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism is question-begging.

Third, Mizrahi is at pains to maintain that his argument for Weak Scientism is a scientific and not a philosophical argument, and this because a significant part of his argument for Weak Scientism not only draws on scientific evidence, but employs “the structure of inductive generalization from samples, which are inferences commonly made by practicing scientists” (2017, 356). Grant that inductive generalization from samples is a central feature of Mizrahi’s argument, since he argues from samples of scientific and non-scientific work (number of journal articles published and number of times those articles are cited in a given time period) in order to generalize about the quantity and quality of scientific knowledge and non-scientific knowledge, respectively. Even so, Mizrahi can’t reasonably maintain his argument is thereby a scientific one, given the number of controversial philosophical assumptions employed as background assumptions in his argument. Mizrahi’s argument rather looks like a philosophical argument that defends one of its key premises—premise (8) in my formulation of his argument—by way of drawing upon some contemporary work in information science.[6]

The point here is not that Mizrahi’s argument in defense of Weak Scientism makes philosophical assumptions. We might admit that all science proceeds on the basis of some philosophical assumptions among its background assumptions. But the background assumptions of scientific arguments are largely non-controversial for the community to which those arguments are addressed, namely, the community of practicing scientists. We might think, therefore, that 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. Of course, the community of thinkers to which Mizrahi is addressing his argument for Weak Scientism includes not only scientists, but also philosophers, literature professors, indeed, all kinds of thinkers. Now, all nine of the philosophical assumptions at play in Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism highlighted here are highly controversial within the community of thinkers to which his argument is addressed. Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism is therefore not a scientific one.

Fourth, Mizrahi offers Weak Scientism as the position traditional advocates of scientism should adopt (2017, 354; 364). Why should they adopt it according to Mizrahi? They should adopt it “if they want to have a defensible definition of scientism” (2017, 354). And by “defensible definition,” Mizrahi means, one that “can be successfully defended against objections” (2017, 354). As we’ve seen, Mizrahi’s defense against objection O1 is his argument for Weak Scientism. Now, as Mizrahi notes, traditional advocates of scientism believe philosophy is useless or of little epistemic value (2017, 351-54; 356).

Once traditional advocates of scientism therefore become aware of the number of controversial philosophical claims that function as background assumptions in Mizrahi’s argument, they will (absent a serious intellectual conversion) consider Mizrahi’s argument to be an argument that is useless or of little epistemic value. Therefore, as far as the traditional advocate of scientism is concerned, Mizrahi has not successfully defended against objection O1, and so, he has given traditional advocates of scientism neither a good reason to think Weak Scientism is a defensible definition of scientism nor a good reason why they should adopt that view. If Mizrahi’s argument is going to be at all convincing for the traditional advocates of scientism, they need to be convinced first that philosophy is useful and has high epistemic value, which is not something Mizrahi attempts to do in his paper.

An Objection to Mizrahi’s Defense Against the Circularity Charge

In defending Weak Scientism, Mizrahi also attempts to defeat the following objection to Weak Scientism:

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

Mizrahi’s attempted defeater of (O2) relies on the following claim:

12. Deductive inference is only defensible by way of deductive inference (2017, 362).

But why think (12) is true? Consider propositions such as ‘1+1=2’ and ‘a whole is greater than one of its (improper) parts.’ We can’t defend the truth of these sorts of propositions by way of deductive inference or prove they are true. But we don’t need to. Rather, we know such propositions are true by way of some non-inferential mode of knowing. It seems reasonable to say we come to know the validity of deductive rules of inference such as modus ponens in a similar sort of manner (see, e.g., Feldman 2003, 3-4).

Mizrahi goes on to claim,

13. “. . . if it is viciously circular to support claims about science using scientific evidence, then it is viciously circular to prove the soundness of inference rules using logic” (2017, 363).

According to Mizrahi, the consequent of (13) is false and so he also denies its antecedent. But perhaps we should rather affirm the truth of both the antecedent and the consequent of (13). Since there are ways other than deductive inference to know the rules of deductive inference—by some sort of non-inferential mode of knowing—there is no inconsistency in affirming both a scientific argument for Weak Scientism is a circular argument and we have knowledge of the rules of deductive inference.

An Objection to Mizrahi’s Claim that Philosophers Should Not Use Persuasive Definitions of Scientism.

Mizrahi argues that one who uses a definition of scientism that suggests those who endorse the scientistic stance have an improper attitude towards science (call such definitions persuasive definitions of scientism for the sake of simplicity here) “begs the question” (2017, 351; 352) against the scientistic stance, or otherwise errs by not “show[ing] precisely what is wrong with scientism” (352). Mizrahi draws an analogy between offering persuasive definitions of scientism and defining abortion as murder (352). Interestingly, this analogy actually allows for a more charitable interpretation of what authors might be doing when they offer persuasive definitions (or descriptions) of scientism, namely, such persuasive definitions or descriptions of scientism are actually conclusions of deductive arguments. To see this, consider first the following argument for the claim, abortion is murder:

14. Abortion is the direct killing of a human fetus.
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)].

In the argument above, (18) is a persuasive definition or description of abortion insofar as it communicates disapproval of abortion. Say Jane uses the argument above to communicate to John why she thinks abortion is murder. Whatever else John might think of Jane’s argument, John would be wrong to say Jane begs the question here in thinking abortion is murder or Jane has not shown precisely what (she thinks) is wrong with abortion.

Consider the possibility, then, that someone who offers a persuasive definition or description of scientism has also given an argument for defining scientism in that fashion. For example, consider an argument that has the following form:

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].

Now, if Jane offers an argument for (24) that has the logical form of the argument above, then when she describes scientism in such a way that communicates disapproval of scientism, in doing so she neither begs the question against the scientistic stance, nor fails to show precisely what (she thinks) is wrong with scientism. One strongly suspects that authors such as Susan Haack (2007) and Tom Sorell (1991; 2013) can be read charitably, but also plausibly, as doing something similar when they sometimes offer persuasive definitions of scientism.[7]


Aquinas, Saint Thomas. Summa Contra Gentiles. Book One. Trans. Anton C. Pegis. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991.

Aquinas, Saint Thomas. Summa Theologiae. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Allen, TX: Christian Classics, 1981.

Aristotle. On the Parts of Animals. Trans. William Ogle. In The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941.

Brown, Christopher. “Some Logical Problems for Scientism.” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 85 (2011): 189-200.

Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.

Feldman, Richard. Epistemology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2003.

Feser, Edward. Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction. editiones scholasticae, 2014.

Haack, Susan. Defending Science—Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Hawking, Stephen and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. New York: Bantam Books, 2010.

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

Papineau, David. “Is Philosophy Simply Harder than Science?” The Times Literary Supplement On-line. June 1, 2017. Accessed July 11, 2017.

Rosenberg, Alex. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2011.

Sorell, Tom. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. First edition. London: Routledge, 1991.

Sorell, Tom. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. Kindle edition. London: Routledge, 2013.

Sparshott, Francis. The Future of Aesthetics: The 1996 Ryle Lectures. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Weinberg, Stephen. Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist’s Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature. New York: Random House, 1994.

[1] Mizrahi is not the first to consider the possibility of a position such as Weak Scientism as a candidate for scientism; see, e.g., Sorell (1991, 1) and Brown (2011, 196-7).

[2] Or, as often is the case, new ‘discoveries.’

[3] In addition, the greater output of science surely also has something to do with the fact that today there are more working scientists than there are working philosophers, which is itself rooted more in cultural conditions that have something to do with an implicit acceptance of scientism by the majority of business owners, university administrators, professors, journalists, and politicians than it does the relative objective value of philosophy and science.

[4] See, e.g., On the Parts of Animals, Book I, chapter 5 [644b32-645a1]. See also St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles, book one, ch. 5, 5 and Summa theologiae Ia. q. 1, a. 5, ad1.

[5] Although it seems one can plausibly argue that modern science has the history of Western philosophy as a necessary or de facto cause of its existence, and so the instrumental successes of modern science also belong to Western philosophy by transference.

[6] At least in this respect, if not in others, Mizrahi’s argument for Weak Scientism resembles William Lane Craig’s Kalam cosmological argument for the existence of God such that most of that argument’s premises are contestable philosophical assumptions, but one premise, i.e., that the universe has a beginning, Craig defends (not only by philosophical argument but) by way of drawing on scientific arguments (see, e.g., Craig 2008, 111-156).

[7] I’m grateful to Merry Brown for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

Author Information: Boris I. Pruzhinin, Russian Academy of Science,; Tatiana G. Shchedrina, Russian Academy of Science

Pruzhinin, Boris I., Tatiana G. Shchedrina. “On the Specifics of Russian Philosophy: A Reply to Mikhail Sergeev.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 37-41.

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

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Image credit: jaime.silva, via flickr

Mikhail Sergeev presents a view on Russian philosophy that, until recently, dominated both Russian and international historical-philosophical literature.[1] On this view, one interprets Russian philosophy as religious-orthodox in its essence. Accordingly, everything else comprising Russian philosophy gets presented as the result of western European influence and, therefore, is not original to it. However, since the 1990’s, the character and the direction of philosophical investigation in Russia has changed. Beginning in 2010, different views on the cultural-historical sense of the Russian philosophical tradition have arisen and reduced the role of religious orthodoxy. Still, this approach unrightfully narrows the circle of personalities, ideas, and topics that actually formed the Russian philosophical tradition and, as a result, limits an understanding of Russian culture as an intellectual and existential source of this tradition.

Beyond this narrow scope are dozens of original thinkers and the entire directions of thought—Russian philosophy of psychology (Georgiy Ivanovich Chelpanov, Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky, Sergey Leonidovich Rubinstein, etc.),[2] unique logical investigations (Mikhail Ivanovich Karinsky, Nikolay Aleksandrovich Vasiliev, Vladimir Nikolaevich Ivanovsky),[3] the ideas of phenomenology, hermeneutics, semiotics (Gustav Gustavovich Shpet, Roman Osipovich Yakobson)[4],[5] and others. Even the ideas of religious philosophers are impoverished (for example, the semiotic ideas of Father Pavel Florensky).[6] Further, these developments do not include directions such as Russian neo-Kantianism.[7]

“Impoverishing” Thought

To clarify of our thesis regarding the “impoverishing” of Russian philosophical thought, we offer an analogy to the Western-European philosophical tradition. Christianity, of course, played an important role in its formation, but its intellectual content, its personalities, and its basic themes are not limited to Christian influence, just as the European culture that sustained philosophy for two thousand and fifty hundred years is not limited to Christian ideas. In European philosophy, one studies thinkers as different as Kant and Nietzsche, Pascal and Descartes, Spinoza and Kierkegaard alongside one another. European thinkers do not try to reduce French philosophy to Catholic doctrine, or the German intellectual tradition to Protestant canons.

There is an idea of philosophy as a cultural phenomenon, the specifics of which are in a particular relation to the world—a reflexive and self-reflexive one—and the icons of its expression vary in different nations. Meanwhile, international specialists in the history of Russian philosophy often reduce Russian philosophy and, by extension, Russian culture to Orthodoxy. A powerful influence in developing of this point of view were the publications of histories of Russian philosophy prepared by philosophers—emigrants of the orthodox orientation in different years (Vasiliy Vasilievich Zenkovsky, Nikolay Onufrievich Lossky, Sergey Aleksandrovich Levitsky and others). However, in analysing the positive aspects of their works, it was not often mentioned that emigration resulted in these philosophers knowing only one social sphere of “Russian” reality—the Orthodox church (all other forms of sociality such as state, language and culture were alien). Consequently, philosophers stressed in their work the role of Orthodox religion in the formation of Russian intellectual culture. Detecting the Orthodox specifics of the Russian intellectual tradition, therefore, can be counted as a form of philosophical self-identification (as mentioned above regarding historians of Russian philosophy).[8] The spread of these self-identifications in broad humanistic and historical-philosophical circles provides clear evidence of these “orthodox” influenced schemes of Russian thought and cultural development in Western world.

Today, it is obvious that the excessive emphasis on the confessional component stimulates interest in Russian philosophy and culture; yet, to rather exotic, mysterious and mystical phenomena. In addition, the accentuation of Orthodox religion deepens the gap between Russian pre-revolution philosophy and philosophical approaches of the Soviet period—the continuity becomes lost, the interconnection of these two periods of Russian intellectual cultural development vanishes (a connection not recognized by many at first glance).[9] Thus, the confessional focus of the Russian intellectual tradition greatly impoverishes the intellectual content of Russian culture and its philosophy.

Issues of Translation

Mikhail Sergeev points out, in particular, that there exists a tradition of translating the term tsel’noe into English as integral. We are familiar with the reasons for this translation. But we are not satisfied with the translation itself. The fact of the matter is that the basis of both the English word integrity and its Russian calque integrativny are lay Latin words—integrum (complete, tseloe), integration (integration, vosstanovlenie, vospolnenie)—that in Russian mean unity (ob’edinenie), interpenetration (vzaimoproniknovenie). In its origin the condition of integral knowledge is disconnected—after it is restored, completed—that presupposes the integration of various elements (or parts) into one. However, whole—tsel’noe—knowledge in the Russian philosophical tradition is not restored from different parts but originally whole, complete, undividable, indecomposable on various separate elements, self-evident—i.e. requesting the grasp and understanding of the sense in communication, in the sphere of talk. Only such knowledge has a concrete nature, has dignity (to use a term of Pamfil Danilovich Yurkevich). The concreteness and focus on communication today can be considered a characteristic feature of Russian philosophy. In our translation, we relied on the change in the content of term tsel’noe that occurred in Russian philosophy in the 20th century. We find it important to outline the differences of the apparent philosophical sense that began to form in the religious-philosophical works of Ivan Vasilievich Kireevsky, Vladimir Sergeevich Solovyov and Pamfil Danilovich Yurkevich which adds further concrete logical, phenomenological and hermeneutical connotations in the works of Mikhail Ivanovich Karinsky, and Gustav Gustavovich Shpet.

If we lose these perspectives it means, for example, that we overlook the basis of Gustav Shpet’s phenomenological ideas (the originality of which was valued by Husserl). We also lose Shpet’s emphasis on hermeneutics’ epistemological role. On this issue, Shpet wrote with reference to the Russian tradition of “positive (polozhitel’naya) philosophy” [10] that remains unmentioned by Sergeev as his attention is focused on the idea of integral knowledge based on faith. Meanwhile, Shpet wrote to Husserl that he searched for the basis of phenomenology in Plato’s works.[11] In the process of writing History as a Problem of Logic,[12] Shpet was interested in how the problem of the cognition of historical reality was postulated before Kant, who tore reason from sensuality.

The theory of knowledge which followed Kant’s raised the question of how to “stitch” together what Kant pulled apart (in the works of the neo-Kantians, for example, and of religious philosophers). Some philosophers who took this road followed reason, some followed sensuality, and some pursued mysticism. Shpet (as well as structuralism and semasiology) demonstrated that dividing reason and sensuality is not productive, and suggested that Kant made a mistake. Knowledge is indeed a primarily whole and the source of cognition are words since—even in the case when we represent the outer world with our sense organs or if we logically construct, and after substantiate, the imagined world—we can justify ourselves only when we verbally inform other people about our actions.

For Shpet, knowledge is born from the act of communication. Thereafter, the problematics of cognition shift from the problem of reason and sensuality corresponding to the problematics of expressing what is known. In order not to miss this principal change in epistemological problematics that is found in the Russian philosophical tradition we, speaking of whole knowledge, do not use the term “integrative knowledge” (because this term is associated and assigned with a certain epistemological tradition). We refer the reader to Shpet’s idea of “intelligible intuition” that allows people, including scientists, to understand each other. Exactly this aspect of wholeness puts Shpet in the tradition of Russian philosophy because, as a foundation of communication, it unites the concreteness and universality of knowledge. As a consequence, Shpet addresses Yurkevich who rigidly follows epistemological traditions of Plato and Kant. After Yurkevich relates his ideas on God, Shpet corrects him. In epistemology, we must speak not about God but about humans. This is the main point that we articulated in considering the Russian epistemological tradition. In the framework of this tradition, knowledge emerges as having a certain and special sign-symbolic structure the investigation of which requires a special theory of knowledge—a hermeneutical one.

Russian Philosophy’s Emergence

We could give quotes of Russian philosophers who support our thoughts about the existence of a specific Russian epistemological tradition. Also, we could offer numerous arguments by contemporary Russian investigators on this topic. For example, we could detail Chubarov’s position who wrote about Kireevsky, Solovyov and Homyakov as precursors of phenomenology in Russia in the Anthology of Phenomenological Thought on Russia.[13] But, to sum up the results of our discussion with Sergeev, let us point out the following.

A modern look at the content, cultural sense, and place of Russian philosophy at the end of the 19th, and the beginning if the 20th, centuries connects with the emergence of a new dimension in the research work of historians of Russian philosophy—of the orientation on actualizing the Russian philosophical legacy as a whole cultural phenomenon, and on its correlation with modern philosophical problematics. The formation of this view on the specifics of Russian philosophy was realized by the project “Russian Philosophy of the First Half of the 20th Century.” During the period between 2012 and 2017, 26 volumes about Russian philosophers were published. These publications focus on the modern character of Russian philosophers’ ideas, fitting them within the framework of actual philosophical problematics. More than 100 Russian and international researchers of Russian philosophy collaborated on the project.

It is to the project’s findings that we addressed our article—“The Ideas of Cultural–Historical Epistemology in Russian Philosophy of the Twentieth Century”—in Social Epistemology. The article did not pretend to be historically-philosophically complete; its main aim was to lend this unique view on Russian philosophy to one aspect of epistemology. Given the article’s length and purpose we neither explored the new, now forming, view on Russian philosophy, nor the overall historical-philosophical investigation of terminological apparatus (and conceptual language) of the Russian philosophical tradition.

We are grateful to Social Epistemology and Mikhail Sergeev who provided us the opportunity to touch on these topics in the response to his critical considerations.

[1] Sergeev, Mikhail. “‘Integral Knowledge’ and Enlightenment Rationalism: A Reply to Pruzhinin and Shchedrina.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 4 (2017): 1-3.

[2] Lektorsky V.A. (ed.) Philosophy of Psychology. Moscow: Politicheskaya Encyclopedia (ROSSPEN), 2016 (series “Russian Philosophy of the first half of the XXth century” edited by Pruzhinin B.I.). (In Russian).

[3] Bazhanov V.A. (ed.) “Logical-Epistemological Direction in Russian Philosophy” (first half of the XXth century): M.I. Karinsky, V.N. Ivanovsky, N.A. Vasilyev. Moscow: Rossiiskaya Politicheskaya Encyclopedia (ROSSPEN), 2012 (series “Russian Philosophy of the first half of the XXth century” edited by Pruzhinin B.I.). (In Russian).

[4] Shchedrina T.G. “I Write as Though I Was an Echo of the Other”: Outlines of the Intellectual Biography of Gustav Shpet. Moscow: Progress-Traditziya, 2004. (In Russian). Shchedrina T.G. “Gustav Gustavovich Shpet.” Moscow: Politicheskaya Encyclopedia (ROSSPEN), 2014 (series “Russian Philosophy of the first half of the XXth century” edited by Pruzhinin B.I.). (In Russian).

[5] Avtonomova N.S., Baran H., Shchedrina T.G. (ed.) “Roman Osipovich Yakobson.” Moscow: Politicheskaya Encyclopedia (ROSSPEN), 2017 (series “Russian Philosophy of the first half of the XXth century” edited by Pruzhinin B.I.). (In Russian).

[6] Parshin A.N., Sedykh O.M. “Pavel Aleksandrovich Florensky.” Moscow: Rossiiskaya Politicheskaya Encyclopedia (ROSSPEN), 2013 (series “Russian Philosophy of the first half of the XXth century” edited by Pruzhinin B.I.). (In Russian).

[7] Bryushinkin V.N., Popova V.S. (ed.) “Neo-Kantianism in Russia: Aleksandr Ivanovich Vvedenskiy, Ivan Ivanovich Lapshin.” Moscow: Rossiiskaya Politicheskaya Encyclopedia (ROSSPEN), 2013 (series “Russian Philosophy of the first half of the XXth century” edited by Pruzhinin B.I.). (In Russian).

[8] Pruzhinin B.I., Shchedrina T.G. (ed.) Epistemological Style in Russian Intellectual Culture of the XIX-XX Centuries. From Personality to Tradition. Moscow: Rossiiskaya Politicheskaya Encyklopedia (ROSSPEN), 2013: 447. (In Russian). Shchedrina T.G. “The Archive of an Epoch: Thematic Unity of Russian Philosophy.” M.: Rossiiskaya Politicheskaya Encyclopedia (ROSSPEN), 2008. (In Russian).

[9] Pruzhinin B.I., Shchedrina T.G. “Russian Philosophy as a Culture-Historical Phenomenon: The Problem of Integrity.” The Herald of Vyatka State University for the Humanities no. 2 (2015): 17–24. (In Russian).

[10] Shchedrina T.G. “The Archive of an Epoch: Thematic Unity of Russian Philosophy.” M.: Rossiiskaya Politicheskaya Rncyclopedia (ROSSPEN), 2008, 43–44. (In Russian).

[11] Shpet Gustav, Edmund Husserl. G. Shpet’s Response Letters. Translated by V. Kurennoy, Igor Mikhailov, Igor Chubarov, notes and attachment by Vitaliy Kurennoy. Logos, no 7. (1996): 123-133. (In Russian).

[12] Shpet G.G. History as a Problem of Logic. Critical and Methodological Investigations. Part 1: Materials (1916) / Editor in-chief and complier Shchedrina T.G. M., St. Petersburg: Universitetskaya Kniga, 2014 (In Russian).

[13] Chubarov I.M. (ed.) Anthology of Phenomenological Philosophy in Russia. Vol. I. M.: Russian Phenomenological Society, Logos, 1998. (In Russian).

Author Information: Ian James Kidd, University of Nottingham,

Kidd, Ian James. “Capital Epistemic Vices.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 11-16.

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The vices of the mind are the subject of vice epistemology, characterised by Quassim Cassam (2016) as the study of the nature, identity, and epistemological significance of those attitudes, character traits, and ways of thinking that obstruct enquiry. These vices range from the familiar, like arrogance and dogmatism, to the more esoteric, like epistemic insensibility and epistemic insouciance. At the moment, the small but growing body of work in vice epistemology is devoted to three broad sorts of issues:

First, to foundational issues, concerning the nature of epistemic vices—are they confined to character traits, or might they include attitudes and ways of thinking, as Cassam (2016) and Alessandra Tanesini (2016) argue?

Second, to studies of specific vices, most obviously the vices of epistemic injustice, but also closed-mindedness, hubris, servility, timidity, to name just a few. Specific studies also include taxonomic projects, ways of organising these vices, for instance by clustering them around the virtues they oppose.

Third, there is work in applied vice epistemology, studies of how the vices manifest in specific contexts, practices, and communities—of how, for instance, certain conditions under which scientific enquiry is conducted may nourish the exercise of vices like timidity.

By organising current work in vice epistemology in this way, it’s clear that this discipline is tracking the dialectics of virtue epistemology. In this journal, Cassam (2015) proposed stealthy vices as an important concept for understanding epistemic vices. Using his argument, I propose another—capital vices.

The Vice Tradition and Capital Vices

An important issue for vice epistemology is taxonomy. By what sorts of features or properties can we reasonably group epistemically vicious character traits, attitudes, and ways of thinking? It’s an important task to identify and describe the various vices of the mind, but vice epistemologists should do more than produce undifferentiated lists of thosee sundry vices. After being identifying, they need to organised in illuminating and instructive ways, as Jason Baehr (cf. 2011, 21f) did for the epistemic virtues, grouping by him according to the specific ‘demands’ of enquiry to which they respond.

An intriguing taxonomic strategy, offered by Cassam, is to argue that certain epistemic vices are stealthy, in the sense that, ‘by their nature, they evade detection from those who have them’ (2015, 20). Stealthy vices are not, of course, impossible to detect—just harder to, since they incorporate features that tend to conceal them successfully from those who have them; as such, they are self-concealing.

Cassam’s examples of stealthy vices include carelessness, a disposition to fail to perform epistemic tasks, including those constitutive of ‘conscious critical reflection’, including critical reflection on one’s own epistemic psychology. A careless person will tend to impede enquiry, for by not caring enough about epistemic goods, they fail to perform consistently and adequately the various tasks one needs to contribute to it. But that includes self-enquiry, which includes attending to actual or potential deficiencies in one’s epistemic capacities, dispositions, and performance. If so, that vice is likely to persist, at least until some other events force one to reflect critically, or until someone points it out for us (see Cassam 2015, 21-24ff). Moreover, it is easy to imagine other candidate stealthy vices, self-concealing by their nature (a further example, to which I later return, is closed-mindedness—one option an agent might be closed to is the possibility of their being epistemically vicious.)

Cassam’s concept of self-concealing, ‘stealthy’ vices offers a compelling way to reflect on and taxonomies the vices of the mind. Certain vices will be stealthy, while others will be more overt, even to the point of being self-disclosing. But here I want to suggest another way, distinct but complementary, taken from the history of philosophical and theological reflection on the vices. This is the idea of capital vices, an idea that has, historically, been mainly confined to moral and spiritual character traits, but is able to play a role in vice epistemology—or so I want to propose.

The best introduction to the concept of a capital vice is Rebecca DeYoung’s excellent 2009 book, Glittering Vices, a history of the vices tradition in the West. For the first thousand years of that tradition, reflection on the vices was motivated by practical and pastoral purposes. Concern with vices was motivated by concerns with ethical and spiritual self-examination and formation, initially following Aristotle, but developing rapidly in the early Christian period. Indeed, the first list of the vices was compiled by the 4th century desert father, Evagrius of Pontus (346-399AD), who described the seven ‘thoughts’ or ‘demons’ that afflict desert hermits. Many of his entrants persist today as standard vices—gluttony, avarice, pride—alongside others now either lost or substantially transformed, such as acedia, a spiritually-inflected weariness or lethargy, that later developed into the vices of sloth or laziness.

Such early compilations of the vices quickly developed, after Evagrius, into a more systematic project of revising and, crucially, ordering the vices. John Cassian (260-430AD)—a disciple of Evagrius—made a crucial move, by widening the scope of vice theory from solitary desert monks to communal spiritual life. Vice was made an active concern for humans in general, laity as well as clerisy, social as well as solitary. A crucial subsequent development was Pope Gregory’s (540-604 AD) editing of the list of vices down to seven—a number of biblical significance—which, importantly, made pride their root. (A historically late consequence of this, for vice epistemology, is receipt of a rich vocabulary for talking about humility and its opponent vices.)

An emerging problem in the vice tradition was that of reasons why certain vices made the list, while others did not. The worry became acute since, as DeYoung (2009:33) remarks, the seven that came to be entrenched are neither the only vices, nor indeed ‘the worst possible or the most frequent vices’. The formalised inclusion of an articulated set of vices into a list of the vices—let alone the capital vices—must be justified, not least given the possibility of alternative lists. The main response of the vice tradition, explains DeYoung, was development of the new concept of capital vicescapit in Latin meaning, of course, ‘head’, as in a ‘source’, ‘origin’, or, in her more poetic term, ‘fountainhead’. Such vices are therefore self-proliferating.

Using this new concept, one can argue that the capital vices have a special status as ‘source vices’, distinguished by their capacity to ‘proliferate other vices’, which she calls ‘offspring vices’ (DeYoung 2009, 33f). To use a tree metaphor favoured by vice theorists at the time, certain vices are the ‘trunk’, from which other vices ‘branch off’. It is for this reason that capital vices are, in Gabriele Taylor’s (2006, 124) phrase, ‘corruptive of the self’. Although she does not define the term, I’ve argued elsewhere for a vice-centric conception of epistemic corruption, where x is corrupting if it creates conditions conducive to the development and exercise of epistemic vices (Kidd 2015, 70f). If there are capital vices, then they are corrupting, for they increase one’s vulnerability to other vices, by creating internal psychological conditions for their development. A capital vice, once in place, provides conditions in which a sub-set of offshoot vices can begin to develop.

Identifying the capital vices is important, on this view, for educative and ameliorative purposes. In the early Christian tradition, vice was a problem because it obstructs our capacities for moral self-knowledge and spiritual progress—a spiritual variant on what Cassam dubs the ‘obstructivist’ account of vices. DeYoung (2009, 34) explains that, in the vice tradition, ‘the goal is to get to the problem’s source, and root it out, thereby eliminating a whole host of related vices’. If one cuts off the offspring vices at their roots, they will, hopefully, wither and die. A further advantage of thinking in terms of capital vices, continues DeYoung (2009, 34), is that it ‘encourages people to see certain sins as likely indicators of deeper moral problems and to see their connection to that great original sin, pride’.

The hope was that efforts at the purgation of vices would be more efficient if one’s energies were focused at the fundamental source—the deep ‘roots’—of the corruption. An advantage of this was that strategies for combating the vices can take forms other than urging cultivation of the virtues; the early Christians favoured spiritual exercises, fasting, psalmody, and so on. This matters, since a major problem with stealthy vices is that they can only be combated if they can be detected, but their detection often seems contingent on the exercise of a variety of epistemic virtues—like open-mindedness, alertness, and so on (cf. Cassam 2016, 21-22).

After this brief sketch of the origins of the concept of a capital vice in the vice tradition, let me ask how it can be applied to vice epistemology.

Capital Epistemic Vices

Can the concept of capital vices be usefully applied to our efforts to understand and combat epistemic vices? Since this is a big question, break it down into the following:

1. What makes an epistemic vice a capital vice?
2. Which are the capital epistemic vices?
3. How, if at all, are capital vices related to their offshoot vices?

Sharp-eyed readers will recognise that these questions are modelled on those that Cassam (2015, 20) asks of stealthiness and stealthy vices. Answering these questions will require detailed investigations of putatively capital vices and the putative offshoots vices associated with them—work that I encourage vice epistemologists to pursue. It also requires systematic reflection on issues specific to capital vices. Is the ‘capitality’ relation conceptual, causal, or psychological? Could an agent develop a capital vice without giving also developing offshoot vices—or are those ‘offshoots’ inevitable? Are there other ways to explain the dangers or harmfulness of capital vices than invoking their self-proliferating potentiality? If there are capital vices, how many are there, and how do they relate to one another? Might there be capital epistemic virtues, and, if so, what is their relation to the capital epistemic vices?

Instead of exploring these questions, let me make a modest start on the most basic issue, that of whether there are capital epistemic vices. I offer an example of a plausible candidate capital vice—closed-mindedness.

In a recent paper, Heather Battaly (2017) offers a sophisticated account of the vice of closed-mindedness. At its core, it is an unwillingness or inability to engage seriously with—to be ‘closed to’—relevant intellectual options. Consistent with her pluralism about vice, closed-mindedness is objectionable since it has bad effects and reflects bad motives and values on the part of the agent (see Battaly 2014). Crucially, such vicious failures to engage with intellectual options can take different forms, since there are different options to which one could be closed, and different ways in which closure can manifest. One might fail to engage seriously with relevant methods, topics, ways of thinking by scorning them or perhaps deny the intelligibility of alternatives to beliefs or views that one already holds. On the basis of this second possibility, Battaly proposes that the vice of dogmatism should be understood as a ‘sub-set of closed-mindedness’, a particular form that it can take. Dogmatism is one way—among others—that an agent can be closed to intellectual options.

Although my sketch glosses the details of Battaly’s rich account, it offers clear reasons for regarding closed-mindedness as a capital epistemic vice. Certainly it has many of the features that upgrade a vice to capital status. At the most basic, it secures the status of closed-mindedness as a vice, whether by reference to its typical effects, motives, or values. If something isn’t a vice, then it can’t be a capital vice. An essential difference, though, is that closed-mindedness is plausibly identified to be at the root of other vices—dogmatism, for instance. If so, closed-mindedness is acts as the source of dogmatism, which takes its place as what Battaly calls a ‘sub-vice’ or as what DeYoung calls an ‘offshoot vice’. Built into the idea of capital vices is a principle that to possess an offshoot vice is always to possess, even if only in a subspecific form, a capital vice. On Battaly’s account, though one can be closed-minded without being dogmatic, one cannot be dogmatic without being closed-mindedness. For to be closed-minded about alternatives to one’s beliefs or views just is to be closed-minded, within and about the doxastic domain.

These two features of closed-mindedness do not, in themselves, secure for us the claim that it is a capital vice. Granted, it’s a vice that can admit of sub-vices, but some further features are needed. If the early theorists in the vice tradition are right, we would also need to show that closed-mindedness admits of other sub-vices—no less than sixteen in the case of sloth, for one early Christian vice theorist (see DeYoung 2009, 34). Whether it does or not, I can’t say, though my intuition is that closed-mindedness is the root or source of several other sub-vices. If so, then we can become more confident about its provisional status as a capital epistemic vice.

Upgrading that intuition will require further investigation of the array of vices proximal to closed-mindedness, and studies of other candidates. A prime candidate is epistemic laziness, roughly defined as a culpable failure to acquire or exercise the epistemic capacities required for enquiry (Kidd, unpublished manuscript). Arguably, such laziness lies at the root of a whole range of vices characterised by failures to do epistemic work—think of vices like inaccuracy or rigidity, both of which are, ultimately, fails to do the work needed to ensure accuracy or revision of one’s beliefs. If laziness is a capital vice, then its various sub-vices may be distinguished by their different effects, values, or motives. A person may not care enough about the status of their beliefs to put in the epistemic work, such that laziness trumps diligence.

The case of epistemic laziness is a speculation, pending further work, and I’m more confident about closed-mindedness. But hopefully these ideas offer to vice epistemologists a useful concept, one that played important and useful role in earlier stages of the vice tradition. Capital epistemic vices may help us think about an obvious set of issues, like the ontology and structure of the vices of the mind. If so, we can retrieve from the rich, neglected vice tradition a concept that may be crucial to the vice epistemological project. Indeed, we might come to include the category of self-proliferating capital vices alongside self-concealing stealthy vices. Hopefully this can show the value of building into vice epistemology an historical dimension that it has, so far, tended to lack.


I offer my thanks to Heather Battaly and Quassim Cassam for helpful comments on this piece.


Baehr, Jason. The Inquiring Mind: On Intellectual Virtues and Virtue Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Battaly, Heather. “Varieties of Epistemic Vice.” In The Ethics of Belief edited by Jon Matheson and Rico Vitz, 51-76. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Battaly, Heather. “Closed-Mindedness and Intellectual Vice.” Keynote address delivered at the Harms and Wrongs in Epistemic Practice conference, University of Sheffield, 4 July, 2017.

Cassam, Quassim. “Stealthy Vices.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 10 (2015): 19-25.

Cassam, Quassim. “Vice Epistemology” The Monist 99, no. 3 (2016): 159-180.

DeYoung, Rebecca Konyndyk. Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009.

Kidd, Ian James. “Educating for Intellectual Humility.” In Intellectual Virtues and Education: Essays in Applied Virtue Epistemology, edited by Jason Baehr, 54-70. London: Routledge, 2015.

Kidd, Ian James. “The Vices of Epistemic Laziness.” unpublished manuscript.

Tanesini, Alessandra “‘Calm Down, Dear’: Intellectual Arrogance, Silencing, and Ignorance.” Aristotelian Society: Supplementary Volume 90, no. 1 (2016): 71-92.

Taylor, Gabriele. Deadly Vices. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Author Information: Derek Anderson, Boston University,

Anderson, Derek. “Relevance Theory and Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 35-39.

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Manuel Padilla Cruz (2017) has proposed that the notion of conceptual competence injustice that I offer (2017) can be usefully deployed within the field of linguistic pragmatics, specifically within relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995), to characterize certain unintended and harmful pragmatic implicatures arising from lexical mistakes. Lexical mistakes involve a speaker producing an utterance that omits or misuses some crucial piece of vocabulary. Padilla Cruz suggests that these mistakes predictably lead listeners to infer that the speaker lacks lexical competence with one or more terms. Conceptual competence injustice occurs when a member of a marginalized group is judged to have less conceptual competence than she in fact has and suffers from unjustly diminished credibility when making conceptual or linguistic claims. A judgment that a speaker lacks lexical competence could result in conceptual competence injustice under certain circumstances. This paper explores Padilla Cruz’s proposal by investigating the relationship between relevance theory and conceptual competence injustice.

On Relevance Theory

Relevance theory provides a model of cognition and its relationship with linguistic pragmatic phenomena. According to relevance theory, human cognition evolved to maximize relevance. Our innate cognitive architecture is organized so that computational resources are efficiently allocated to gather information that connects with available background information to produce conclusions that matter to the agent (Wilson and Sperber 2002). Let us say that a proposition matters to an agent when knowing its truth would facilitate the agent’s achieving some epistemic, moral, or practical goal. (An account of relevance as goal-sensitive is closely aligned with the model of relevance theory developed by Gorayska and Lindsay 1993.)

This understanding of cognition as maximizing relevance lays the foundation for a model of linguistic pragmatics. Under normal conditions speakers and their audiences presuppose that everyone is seeking to maximize relevance. Speakers can use this fact to pragmatically convey information that is not semantically encoded in their utterances; meanwhile, audiences infer things that are pragmatically implied by what speakers say. Sometimes the speaker intends the audience’s inferences and sometimes they do not.

When a speaker makes a lexical mistake, this piece of information may give rise to a number of unintended implicatures. Most salient for the present discussion, her audience may infer that she fails to grasp some concept. This inference might constitute conceptual competence injustice if the hearer judges the speaker to have a lesser degree of competence with some concept than she in fact does, or that she has a lesser understanding of some analytic or conceptual truth than she in fact has. Another possibility is that the hearer wrongfully judges the speaker to lack lexical competence but does not take her to lack conceptual competence. This might occur when a speaker appears to have difficulty speaking a second language. The audience detects a lexical mistake but assumes that the speaker grasps the concepts she is trying to express, i.e. that the speaker could display proper conceptual understanding in her primary language. This second case may be an example of what we could call ‘lexical competence injustice’ if the speaker is wrongfully judged to be lexically incompetent. That would be a case of lexical competence injustice without conceptual competence injustice.

Conceptual Competence Injustice

Padilla Cruz’s proposal to model conceptual competence injustice within relevance theory must be tempered with the proper understanding of that phenomenon as a structural injustice. Conceptual competence injustice is a form of epistemic oppression (Dotson 2014). It occurs when false judgments of incompetence function as part of a broader, reliable pattern of marginalization that systematically undermines the epistemic agency of members of an oppressed social identity. It 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. Since relevance theory is formulated in neutral language with respect to social identities and takes no account of local matrices of domination (Collins 2002), the theory does not intrinsically have the resources to identify instances of conceptual competence injustice.

However, relevance theory could help to illuminate patterns of conceptual competence injustice if it is embedded within a broader sociological framework. Together with a specification of relevant social identities, relationships, histories, and prevailing institutions, relevance theory can be used to model and predict instances of conceptual competence injustice arising from lexical mistakes. It can also model other ways in which pragmatic inferences are likely to occasion conceptual competence injustice. This might serve as a template for thinking about how relevance theory or other approaches to linguistic pragmatics can model local mechanisms through which epistemic oppressions are maintained and implemented within a given society.

Whether a type of pragmatic inference will contribute to a broader pattern of epistemic oppression depends largely on the distribution of background assumptions maintained by epistemic agents throughout a society. If there is a pervasive prejudice against the intellectual credibility of a particular social group regarding a certain domain of discourse, then speakers from that group will predictably trigger episodes of conceptual competence injustice when they make lexical mistakes in that domain. For example, in a community that harbors prejudice against the intellectual capability of women to understand abstract epistemology, a woman who makes a lexical mistake in that domain is more likely to be judged conceptually incompetent than a man who makes the same mistake. Mistakes made by dominant epistemic agents are more likely to be attributed to some other factor—a lack of sleep, a random lapse in concentration, a momentary confusion—rather than prompting a pragmatic inference to conceptual incompetence. Members of dominant groups generally have this kind of edge in perceived competence over marginalized epistemic agents.

Relevance theory also allows us to model ways in which individual and group interests can shape patterns of conceptual competence injustice. Since our cognitive architecture is wired to maximize relevance, and since relevance is determined by an individual’s goals and interests, it follows that an individual who has an interest in perceiving some marginalized group as less intellectually sophisticated will be more attuned to information that could pragmatically implicate conceptual ineptitudes, including lexical mistakes. A man who passionately maintains the misogynistic view that women cannot comprehend politics would be quick to process any potential evidence indicating that some woman lacks conceptual competence in that domain. He would thus be more alert to lexical mistakes in conversations about politics with women. Relevance theory makes explicit the way that conscious, premeditated interest in intellectual authority can produce judgments that lead to conceptual competence injustice.

Unconscious Interests

The interests that guide our cognition can also be less than fully conscious. Think of the white person who unconsciously holds white supremacist convictions about his own intellectual capability. This person might consciously believe that people of color are just as intellectually capable as whites, yet he is vaguely uncomfortable with the thought of himself being intellectually inferior to a person of color. Consequently, he unconsciously manifests vigilance for signs that prove his own intellectual superiority when he interacts with people of color. This makes him hyper aware of lexical mistakes during such interactions. He is likely to contribute to the pattern of epistemic oppression, insofar as he is likely to underestimate the conceptual acumen of people of color, by reliably committing conceptual competence injustices.

The prevalence of unconscious interests of the kind just outlined must necessarily be a subject of controversy. However, relevance theory has the important virtue of allowing us to model sources of injustice grounded in dominant interests even in the absence of conscious and unconscious commitments to dominant power structures. Consider a different white person who harbors neither conscious nor unconscious commitments to white supremacy. Many white supremacist propositions are still in this person’s interest, in the sense that the truth of such propositions would promote his goals, for example: the proposition that he is the most qualified candidate for a position and that the person of color who got the job only did so because of affirmative action. Even if the white man does not believe this proposition, information that supports it would be highly relevant to him. He will therefore exhibit heightened sensitivity to signs that pragmatically imply that the person of color who got the job is less qualified, less capable, less intelligent, etc. Hence he would be more sensitive to any lexical mistakes this person makes. Other white people in the company who are similarly ‘threatened’ by affirmative action will have similarly heightened sensitivity, even if all of them are explicitly pro affirmative action and have no unconscious bias or prejudice. This pervasive sensitivity will increase the probability that conceptual competence injustices are inflicted on the one who got the job.

More broadly, dominant interests in white supremacy will influence pragmatic inferences concerning the intellectual authority of people of color. These interests may be unwanted by those who have them. Progressive white people may wish that they did not have a stake in white supremacy, yet white supremacy is still in their interest because it promotes their economic, political, and social well-being (albeit at the unjust expense of people of color). Similar considerations reveal that men have an unshakable interest in patriarchy, the rich have an unshakeable interest in capitalism, the heterosexual have an unshakable interest in hetero-normativity, and so on. The goals of the privileged are facilitated by those systems that lend them their privilege, regardless of how they feel about or think of those systems. By postulating that our epistemic and practical goals fundamentally shape our cognitive processes, relevance theory has great potential for modeling the force of unwanted, yet unshakable, self-interested stakes in oppressive systems.

Conceptual Competence Injustice without Lexical Mistake

Not all pragmatic inferences to conceptual incompetence proceed on the basis of lexical mistakes. Perfectly cogent utterances can lead audiences to commit conceptual competence injustices. Relevance theory can model these pragmatic inferences as well. Consider a case in which a speaker who is a marginalized epistemic agent makes no mistake or glaring omission regarding the terminology she employs in some discourse, but her audience disagrees with what she says. Suppose, according to the background assumptions of her audience, the truth of the speaker’s utterance cannot be adjudicated on the basis of empirical evidence. The audience, believing her utterance to be false, infers that a conceptual error has been made. This purported conceptual error pragmatically implies that the speaker lacks conceptual competence in the domain.

For example imagine a person of color says, “Malcolm X was not racist when he called white people ‘white devils’ and condemned their participation in the historical oppression of black people.” Suppose her audience, a white man, disagrees. He thinks that Malcolm X was racist for using the term “white devils.” He takes the speaker’s utterance to be false, but (perhaps implicitly) recognizes that the claim cannot be adjudicated on the basis of evidence. No observable facts are in dispute. Rather, the question of truth must somehow turn on the definition of “racist.” Recognizing this fact, the man is likely to infer that the speaker does not correctly understand the meaning of “racist” if she is speaking sincerely. This pragmatic inference constitutes conceptual competence injustice; it is not a harmless or blameless mistake but relies on and reinforces a pattern of epistemic oppression that ignores and undermines the intellectual authority of people of color concerning their understanding of racism.

The pragmatic inference in question depends on the audience’s background beliefs about relative credibility regarding conceptual claims about racism. The hearer takes himself to be more credible than the speaker concerning conceptual claims about racism; that is why he infers that the speaker is wrong and he is right about the definition of “racism.” If he took himself to be equally credible, his disagreement with the speaker would prompt him to open a dialogue about the definition of “racism,” as often happens when epistemic peers disagree over some concept. This too would probably constitute conceptual competence injustice, since it is unlikely that a white man who disagreed with a woman of color about whether Malcolm X was a racist is her epistemic peer concerning the concept of racism. A white person who was adequately conscious of the relevant social and historical facts involved in the exchange would be disposed to defer to the speaker’s use of “racist,” to stand corrected in his use of that term, rather than being disposed to question her use or disposed to infer that she is conceptually incompetent.

The harmful mistake made in this exchange can also be rendered within relevance theory as a failure to have the proper interests. If the white man were primarily interested in learning about racism rather than in maintaining and defending his own beliefs about racism, he would not be disposed to pragmatically infer that the woman was conceptually incompetent. He would be disposed to infer that he was incompetent! The role that interests play in shaping discourse around social justice is very important for a theory of epistemic oppression. What interlocutors pragmatically infer crucially depends on their purposes for engaging in conversation. Relevance theory is especially virtuous in its capacity to model this aspect of conversations about race and other dimensions of social justice.

Relevance theory allows us to understand some of the mechanisms through which conceptual competence injustices proliferate. I have elaborated on Padilla Cruz’s suggestion to develop relevance theory by incorporating the notion of conceptual competence injustice. Certainly there are more uses to which relevance theory can be put in modeling conceptual competence injustice than I have touched on here. These would be worth exploring at greater length. It is also clear that relevance theory and other approaches to linguistic pragmatics have much to contribute to our understanding epistemic oppression more broadly conceived.


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

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge, 2002.

Dotson, Kristie. “Conceptualizing Epistemic Oppression.” Social Epistemology 28, no. 2 (2014): 115-138.

Gorayska, Barbara, and Roger Lindsay. “The Roots of Relevance.” Journal of Pragmatics 19, no. 4 (1993): 301-323.

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

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. Relevance: Communication and Cognition. 2nd  edition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

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

Author Information: Ryan D. Tweney, Bowling Green State University,

Tweney, Ryan D. “Commentary on Anderson and Feist’s ‘Transformative Science’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 23-26.

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

Please refer to:

Image credit: Phylogeny Figures, via flickr

Traditionally, historic transformations in science were seen as the products of “great men”; Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, or, in the modern era, Einstein and Marie Curie. It was “genius” that propelled science to new levels of achievement and understanding. Such views have fallen out of favor as the collective efforts that go into scientific advances have come to be recognized, a change in perspective often attributed to Thomas Kuhn.

“Transformative Science” is a new phrase, now used even by funding agencies as one of the criteria for worthy projects. Barrett Anderson and Gregory Feist (2017), however, note how fuzzy the term has been and offer something like a definition. Transformative science, they suggest, is science that leads to a new branch on the “tree of knowledge.”

This is not a true definition, of course, since it is based upon a metaphor, one which is itself only fuzzily defined. Anderson and Feist note that the tree metaphor has been formalized in biology via cladistics. The present paper seeks to extend something similar to the domain of research evaluation. As with cladistics, if formal tools can be developed to measure aspects relevant to the growth of knowledge in science, then it may be that we will advance toward an understanding of transformative science. They thus propose a method for measuring the influence of a given, highly-cited, paper in a way potentially leading to the goal of identifying truly transformative results.

Plotting Generativity

Anderson and Feist’s exploratory study focused upon a single year of publication (2002) from a single field (psychology), selecting randomly some 887 articles that were among the top 10% of most highly cited articles. They then looked at the articles that had cited these 887, identifying those that were themselves among the most cited. They then developed a “generativity score” for each of the original articles. In effect, among the 887 articles, they singled out those that had generated the highest numbers of highly cited articles. Each of the 887 were then examined and coded for funding source.

Descriptively, both generativity and times cited were heavily skewed (Figures 6, 140, and 8, 141), leading the authors to carry out a log transformation of each (Figures 7 and 9, 141), in an attempt to normalize the distributions. They claim that this was successful for the generativity scores, but not for the number of times cited. But note that the plots are severely misleading. Since there are 887 articles in the sample, and the number of points on each graph is far smaller, it must be the case that multiple articles are hidden within each of the plotted points. Is it the case that the vast majority of the articles are somewhere in the middle of each distribution? At the lower end? At the upper end? If so, the claim that generativity was successfully normalized is suspect. This is even apparent from the graph (Figure 7, 141) which, while roughly bell-shaped (as far as the outer “envelope” of points is concerned), clearly must have a large majority of points that share the same value. Since the mean and median of “G log 10” (see Table 4, 140) are reported as roughly equal at around 1.0, these shared points must be at the lower end of the scale (below an untransformed generativity score of 10). A better plot, with the individual points “jittered” to separate them might then make the claim of approximate normality more convincing (Cleveland 1985).

Similar considerations applied to the times cited plots suggest a different distribution, though still far from normal, whether in raw scores or log transformed scores. Is it a Poisson distribution? Clearly not, since, in a Poisson, the mean and variance should be roughly equal. This is far from the case, whether raw scores or transformed scores are used.

The nature of the distribution matters here because Pearson r was used to determine the relationship between generativity and times cited. But Pearson’s statistic is only appropriate for determining the linear relationship between two bivariate normal variables. Anderson and Feist report the correlations as r = 0.87 for G and TC and 0.69 for G log10 and TC log 10.  This strikes me as meaningless, especially if there are large numbers of low generativity points masked by the lack of jittering (as suggested above). From the similarly unjittered scatterplots (Figures 10 and 11, 142), which are superficially, more-or-less bivariate linear, the points at the lower end look to be unrelated. This suggests that a small number of points at the upper end are pulling the regression line upwards, a possibility that recalls “Anscombe’s Quartet” (Tufte 2001, 14), a set of four relationships that each show a Pearson correlation of +0.82, but which are wildly different (see Figure 1 below).

Similar problems with non-normal distributions may affect analysis of the relationship between funding source, generativity, and times cited. In any case, these relationships are incredibly small—among the reported eta-squared values, the largest is only 0.014. Whether or not the result is significant is not the issue; a relationship between variables that accounts for only 1.4% of the variance is too small to be of practical significance. The best conclusion to draw from these data is that there is no relationship between funding source (or its absence) and either generativity or times cited.

Ways to Look at the Data

Anderson and Feist have, of course, given us an exploratory study, so statistical and graphic nitpicking is not the main point. Instead, the real value of the study has to lie in the directions it points and the issues it raises. What they refer to as the “structure” of citations is an important aspect of scientific literature and, indeed, one that has been overlooked. Their operational implementation of generativity is potentially important, and it suggests a number of new ways to look at their data. In particular (and in the spirit of seeking to move toward a true recognition of transformative science), more attention needs to paid to the extreme outliers in their data. Thus, both generativity and times cited show two (or more?) points at extremely large values in Figures 6 (140) and 8 (141). Are these the same two papers (assuming there are only two), as suggested by the scatterplot in Figure 10 (142)? And what are they and where did they appear? What can be said about their content, the content of the citing articles, and about the purposes for which they were cited? If they are methodological contributions, instead of articles that report a new phenomenon, we might draw different lessons from their structural extremity.

Many other questions could be raised using the existing data set. Is there a relationship between generativity and the lag in citations? That is, are highly generative articles more likely to show citations increasing over time, as one would expect if the influence of a generative article is to generate more research (which takes time and sometimes funding), rather than simply nods to something interesting. Or, similarly, what does the “decay” curve of citations look like? One might find large differences, even among relatively low generativity articles in their “half life,” thinking perhaps that truly generative articles have a longer half-life than even highly cited, otherwise seemingly generative, articles. There is a great deal more to be learned here.

Since this is an exploratory study, it would also make sense to use exploratory data analysis (Tukey 1970) to search for structural patterns in the data set. For example, one could plot the relation between generativity and times cited by dividing the generativity data by deciles and looking at the distribution of times cited for each decile; if the middle ranges of generativity had approximately bell-shaped distributions of times cited, then Pearson correlation coefficients might be appropriate for quantifying the middle range of the relationship.

Finally, since the goal is to obtain information about the structure of citations (rather than simply their number), aggregate statistics like means, correlation coefficients, and the like seem to rather miss the point. For example, is it the case that highly generative articles have chains of subsequent citations that branch off when new articles citing them become themselves highly cited? If so, and if non-generative articles (which by definition have simple “fan-like” patterns without branching), one would have a direct look at the structure of the network of citations.

At the end of the article, Anderson and Feist make a number of suggestions for further research, all of which suggest gathering more data. These are welcome suggestions and should indeed be pursued, even, as they acknowledge, truly transformative science must ultimately await the judgment of history. In the meantime, I hope that this intriguing contribution can be further strengthened, expanded, and subjected to further exploratory analysis.


Barrett R. Anderson and Gregory J. Feist. “Transformative Science: A New Index and the Impact of Non-Funding, Private Funding, and Public Funding.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 2 (2017): 130-151.

Cleveland, William S. The Elements of Graphing Data. Monterey, CA: Wadsworth, 1985.

Tufte, Edward R. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (2nd ed.). Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, 2001.

Tukey, John W. Exploratory Data Analysis. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1970.

Figure 1: Anscombe’s Quartet

Author Information: Ian James Kidd, Durham University,

Kidd, Ian James. “Cranks, Pluralists, and Epistemic Vices.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 7-9.

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

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Image credit: Holly Hayes, via flickr

A debate that began about how best to understand Feyerabend’s motivations for his ‘defenses’ of astrology has, thanks to Massimo Pigliucci (2017) and Jamie Shaw (2017), developed into a larger reflection on pluralism. Along the way, our exchange explored the authority of science, demarcation problems, and, in its most recent stages, the status and rationality of science. In his contribution to this exchange, Shaw give an overview of the main principles of Feyerabend’s pluralism, namely, the commitments to proliferation and tenacity. Together, they function methodologically to urge scientists to develop theories that are inconsistent with established points of view, and then to defend those alternatives, even in the face of criticisms and obstacles (see Oberheim 2006).

Understanding Pluralism

The general style of argument for pluralism, developed by Feyerabend during the 1960s, merits two comments. The first is that, as Feyerabend himself constantly affirmed, the pluralistic nature of scientific enquiry is perfectly obvious to anyone with acquaintance with its history or practice. In his writings, the methodologists to admire are not philosophers of science, isolated in their studies from the laboratory workbench; rather, they are those reflective scientists, like Einstein, Mach, and the other heroes, whose epistemic authority on matters of methodology is rooted in their practical experience. So, when Pigliucci remarks that Feyerabend was complaining about nothing, since pluralism has always been a hallmark of scientific theorizing, he’s quite right—for one deep complaint of Against Method was a lack of pluralism in philosophical models of science, not in science itself.

The second comment on Feyerabend’s arguments for pluralism is that, in his hands, they were unsystematically developed—as one should expect, of someone hostile to theoretical pretensions. What one finds throughout his work, instead, are experiments with different types of argument for pluralism, adapted to changing concerns and interests. A job for later scholars, most obviously Eric Oberheim (2006) and Hasok Chang (2012, chapter 5), was therefore to give a more systematic treatment of ‘Feyerabendian’ arguments for pluralism—ones informed by, but not articulated in, the writings of, everyone’s favorite epistemological anarchist. Chang, for instance, divides pro-pluralist arguments in terms of those with ‘benefits of tolerance’ and ‘benefits of interaction’, locating instances of both mixed up in Feyerabend’s writings.

At this point, though, we run into the worries that motivate Pigliucci; namely, that these forms of sensible pluralisms are apt to degenerate, at least in Feyerabend’s hands, into grossly permissive forms of the ‘anything goes!’ variety. Closely attending to the history of science can, it’s true, give us enough cautionary tales to keep open a space for alternative theories—no one doubts that. But what’s not reasonable, argues Pigliucci, ‘is for Feyerabend to think that astrology, or demonology, or homeopathy, are alternative “theories” that ought to be included in the modern pluralist portfolio’ (2017, 2). An appeal for pluralism should not degenerate into an abuse of pluralism, and the million-dollar question is how to mark the point of that shift in a principled way. Unfortunately, Feyerabend does not offer a crisp answer to that question. But, I think, there is no need for one in the case of astrology.

In my original article (Kidd 2016a), I argued that the defenses of astrology were not motivated by a sense of astrology’s epistemic value—so, on my reading, there’s no call for inclusion of astrology and the rest in our ‘pluralist portfolio’. There was no question of including astrology within the modern scientific imagination as a first-order epistemic resource, able to inform contemporary enquiries. That being so, there’s no need to demarcate inclusion worries. Indeed, what one sees in Feyerabend’s essay, ‘The Strange Case of Astrology’, is not really a defense of astrology at all, but rather of the epistemic virtues that are integral to the character of scientists qua epistemic authorities. Astrology was discussed since it was attacked, by a group of scientists, who failed to provide easily-available arguments against it, and who instead relied on dogmatic assertion, arrogant rhetoric, and appeals to authority. It was this bad epistemic behavior that really motivated Feyerabend, rather than any sense on his part that astrology belongs in our pluralist portfolio. I suggested that Feyerabend’s purposes in defending astrology can be profitably understood as an appeal to epistemic virtues and vices—that was he was really concerned with are the virtues of the mind scientists ought to evince, and the danger to their authority if they evince the related vices of the mind (see Battaly 2014, Cassam 2016).

Epistemic Virtues and Vices

I want to suggest that, at this point in our debate, another role for epistemic vices comes into view. Pigliucci rightly remarks that ‘a constant danger for pluralism of any sort is that it risks becoming a fairly lazy intellectual position, where anything goes because one is not willing to do the hard work of narrowing down its scope’ (2017, 1). Two points should be made here. The first is that pluralism can admit of epistemically vicious forms, licensing failures to do the sorts of epistemic work that effective enquiry requires—if ‘anything goes’, one can suspend the hard work of investigating and evaluating those things, and shrug off the responsibility to remove those that aren’t. Although pluralism may enjoy benefits of tolerance and interaction, as Chang calls them, it can also pose costs—disorientation, confusion, and incapacitation, say. It is not always virtuous to be pluralistic, a point that Feyerabend often neglects.

A second point is that Feyerabend, at least as I read him, tends to only see pluralism as virtuous. Throughout his writings, the underlying sense is that being pluralistic is edifying, an expression of—and means to exercise—admirable qualities, like humility, imaginativeness, and open-mindedness. An epistemic anarchist, after all, enjoys an openness unavailable to the poor Kuhnian normal scientist, stifled by their self-imposed dogmatism—a virtue-epistemic aspect of Feyerabend’s famous essay, ‘Consolations for the Specialist’ (1970), that has gone unnoticed. Indeed, note that Feyerabend’s two pluralist principles can both function as virtues of enquirers, as well as norms of enquiry: tenacity can be an epistemic virtue, a disposition close to the virtue of epistemic perseverance (Battaly forthcoming), and proliferation might not itself be an epistemic virtue, but surely requires the exercise of several, including creativity and diligence. Indeed, Feyerabend constantly praises qualities like creativity, imaginativeness, and tolerance while also castigating vices like arrogance and dogmatism.

I want to suggest that we take seriously the idea that certain epistemic stances can be epistemically virtuous or vicious. Clearly, the stance of those scientists who attacked astrology was epistemically vicious, specifically, arrogant and dogmatic, as I argued in my original paper. I think that certain pluralistic stances can be vicious, too, such as the overly permissive sorts that Pigliucci criticizes. But other pluralist stances can be virtuous, encouraging tolerance and imaginativeness and other admirable qualities, perhaps as in Chang’s account. The claim is not that a stance can have epistemic virtues or vices in the full-blooded ways that human agents do, only that stances can have the essential components of those virtues and vices. I have given a methodology for appraising stances in virtue-and-vice-epistemic terms elsewhere and offered a set of examples (Kidd 2016b, Kidd forthcoming a). In one of these, I argue that many forms of scientism, construed as a stance, is epistemically vicious (Kidd forthcoming b). Investigating the the various stances emerging in this debate in vice-epistemic terms would be a worthy project. Perhaps what is really wrong with doctrinaire scientism, flaccid pluralism, and uncritical zeal for pseudoscientific sentiment is that all of these are, deep down, epistemically vicious.


Battaly, Heather. “Intellectual Perseverance.” Journal of Moral Philosophy, forthcoming.

Battaly, Heather. “Varieties of Epistemic Vice.” In The Ethics of Belief, edited by Jon Matheson and Rico Vitz, 51-76. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Cassam, Quassim. “Vice Epistemology.” The Monist 99, no. 3 (2016): 159-180.

Chang, Hasok. Is Water H2O? Evidence, Pluralism, Realism. Dordrecht, Springer, 2012.

Feyerabend, Paul. “Consolations for the Specialist.” In Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, edited by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, 197-231. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Kidd, Ian James. “Why Did Feyerabend Defend Astrology? Integrity, Virtue, and the Authority of Science.” Social Epistemology 30, no. 4 (2016a): 464-482.

Kidd, Ian James. “Charging Others with Epistemic Vice.” The Monist 99, no. 3 (2016b): 181-197.

Kidd, Ian James. “Epistemic Vices in Public Debate: The Case of New Atheism.” In New Atheism: Critical Perspectives and Contemporary Debates, edited by Christopher Cotter and Philip Quadrio. Dordrecht, Springer, forthcoming a.

Kidd, Ian James. “Is Scientism Epistemically Vicious?” In Scientism: Problems and Prospects, edited by Jeroen de Ridder, Rik Peels, and René van Woudenberg. Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming b.

Oberheim, Eric. Feyerabend’s Philosophy. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2006.

Pigliucci, Massimo. “Feyerabend and the Cranks: A Response to Shaw.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no.7 (2017): 1-6.

Shaw, Jamie. “Feyerabend and the Cranks: On Demarcation, Epistemic Virtues, and Astrology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 3 (2017): 74-88.