Archives For Critical Replies

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

Author Information: Claus-Christian Carbon, University of Bamberg,

Carbon, Claus-Christian. “A Conspiracy Theory is Not a Theory About a Conspiracy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 22-25.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

See also:

  • Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Expertise and Conspiracy Theories.” Social Epistemology 32, no. 3 (2018), 196-208.

The power, creation, imagery, and proliferation of conspiracy theories are fascinating avenues to explore in the construction of public knowledge and the manipulation of the public for nefarious purposes. Their role in constituting our pop cultural imaginary and as central images in political propaganda are fertile ground for research.
Image by Neil Moralee via Flickr / Creative Commons


The simplest and most natural definition of a conspiracy theory is a theory about a conspiracy. Although this definition seems appealing due to its simplicity and straightforwardness, the problem is that most narratives about conspiracies do not fulfill the necessary requirements of being a theory. In everyday speech, mere descriptions, explanations, or even beliefs are often termed as “theories”—such repeated usage of this technical term is not useful in the context of scientific activities.

Here, a theory does not aim to explain one specific event in time, e.g. the moon landing of 1969 or the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, but aims at explaining a phenomenon on a very general level; e.g. that things with mass as such gravitate toward one another—independently of the specific natures of such entities. Such an epistemological status is rarely achieved by conspiracy theories, especially the ones about specific events in time. Even more general claims that so-called chemtrails (i.e. long-lasting condensation trails) are initiated by omnipotent organizations across the planet, across time zones and altitudes, is at most a hypothesis – a rather narrow one – that specifically addresses one phenomenon but lacks the capability to make predictions about other phenomena.

Narratives that Shape Our Minds

So-called conspiracy theories have had a great impact on human history, on the social interaction between groups, the attitude towards minorities, and the trust in state institutions. There is very good reason to include “conspiracy theories” into the canon of influential narratives and so it is just logical to direct a lot of scientific effort into explaining and understand how they operate, how people believe in them and how humans pile up knowledge on the basis of these narratives.

A short view on publications registered by Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science documents 605 records with “conspiracy theories” as the topic (effective date 7 May 2018). These contributions were mostly covered by psychological (n=91) and political (n=70) science articles, with a steep increase in recent years from about 2013 on, probably due to a special issue (“Research Topic”) in the journal Frontiers of Psychology organized in the years 2012 and 2013 by Viren Swami and Christopher Charles French.

As we have repeatedly argued (e.g., Raab, Carbon, & Muth, 2017), conspiracy theories are a very common phenomenon. Most people believe in at least some of them (Goertzel, 1994), which already indicates that believers in them do not belong to a minority group, but that it is more or less the conditio humana to include such narratives in the everyday belief system.

So first of all, we can state that most of such beliefs are neither pathological nor rare (see Raab, Ortlieb, Guthmann, Auer, & Carbon, 2013), but are largely caused by “good”[1] narratives triggered by context factors (Sapountzis & Condor, 2013) such as a distrusted society. The wide acceptance of many conspiracy theories can further explained by adaptation effects that bias the standard beliefs (Raab, Auer, Ortlieb, & Carbon, 2013). This view is not undisputed, as many authors identify specific pathological personality traits such as paranoia (Grzesiak-Feldman & Ejsmont, 2008; Pipes, 1997) which cause, enable or at least proliferate the belief in conspiracy theories.

In fact, in science we mostly encounter the pathological and pejorative view on conspiracy theories and their believers. This negative connotation, and hence the prejudice toward conspiracy theories, makes it hard to solidly test the stated facts, ideas or relationships proposed by such explanatory structures (Rankin, 2017). As especially conspiracy theories of so-called “type I” – where authorities (“the system”) are blamed of conspiracies (Wagner-Egger & Bangerter, 2007)—, such a prejudice can potentially jeopardize the democratic system (Bale, 2007).

Some of the conspiracies which are described in conspiracy theories that are taking place at top state levels could indeed be threatening people’s freedom, democracy and even people’s lives, especially if they turned out to be “true” (e.g. the case of the whistleblower and previously alleged conspiracist Edward Snowden, see Van Puyvelde, Coulthart, & Hossain, 2017).

Understanding What a Theory Genuinely Is

In the present paper, I will focus on another, yet highly important, point which is hardly addressed at all: Is the term “conspiracy theories” an adequate term at all? In fact, the suggestion of a conspiracy theory being a “theory about a conspiracy” (Dentith, 2014, p.30) is indeed the simplest and seemingly most straightforward definition of “conspiracy theory”. Although appealing and allegedly logical, the term conspiracy theory as such is ill-defined. Actually a “conspiracy theory” refers to a narrative which attributes an event to a group of conspirators. As such it is clear that it is justified to associate such a narrative with the term “conspiracy”, but does a conspiracy theory has the epistemological status of a theory?

The simplest definition of a “theory” is that it represents a bundle of hypotheses which can explain a wide range of phenomena. Theories have to integrate the contained hypotheses is a concise, coherent, and systematic way. They have to go beyond the mere piling up of several statements or unlinked hypotheses. The application of theories allows events or entities which are not explicitly described in the sum of the hypotheses to be generalized and hence to be predicted.

For instance, one of the most influential physical theories, the theory of special relativity (German original description “Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper”), contains two hypotheses (Einstein, 1905) on whose basis in addition to already existing theories, we can predict important issues which are not explicitly stated in the theory. Most are well aware that mass and energy are equivalent. Whether we are analyzing the energy of a tossed ball or a static car, we can use the very same theory. Whether the ball is red or whether it is a blue ball thrown by Napoleon Bonaparte does not matter—we just need to refer to the mass of the ball, in fact we are only interested in the mass as such; the ball does not play a role anymore. Other theories show similar predictive power: for instance, they can predict (more or less precisely) events in the future, the location of various types of material in a magnetic field or the trajectory of objects of different speed due to gravitational power.

Most conspiracy theories, however, refer to one single historical event. Looking through the “most enduring conspiracy theories” compiled in 2009 by TIME magazine on the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, it is instantly clear that they have explanatory power for just the specific events on which they are based, e.g. the “JFK assassination” in 1963, the “9/11 cover-up” in 2001, the “moon landings were faked” idea from 1969 or the “Paul is dead” storyline about Paul McCartney’s alleged secret death in 1966. In fact, such theories are just singular explanations, mostly ignoring counter-facts, alternative explanations and already given replies (Votsis, 2004).

But what, then, is the epistemological status of such narratives? Clearly, they aim to explain – and sometimes the explanations are indeed compelling, even coherent. What they mostly cannot demonstrate, though, is the ability to predict other events in other contexts. If these narratives belong to this class of explanatory stories, we should be less liberal in calling them “theories”. Unfortunately, it was Karl Popper himself who coined the term “conspiracy theory” in the 1940s (Popper, 1949)—the same Popper who was advocating very strict criteria for scientific theories and in so became one of the most influential philosophers of science (Suppe, 1977). This imprecise terminology diluted the genuine meaning of (scientific) theories.

Stay Rigorous

From a language pragmatics perspective, it seems odd to abandon the term conspiracy theory as it is a widely introduced and frequently used term in everyday language around the globe. Substitutions like conspiracy narratives, conspiracy stories or conspiracy explanations would fit much better, but acceptance of such terms might be quite low. Nevertheless, we should at least bear in mind that most narratives of this kind cannot qualify as theories and so cannot lead to a wider research program; although their contents and implications are often far-reaching, potentially important for society and hence, in some cases, also worthy of checking.

Contact details:


Bale, J. M. (2007). Political paranoia v. political realism: on distinguishing between bogus conspiracy theories and genuine conspiratorial politics. Patterns of Prejudice, 41(1), 45-60. doi:10.1080/00313220601118751

Dentith, M. R. X. (2014). The philosophy of conspiracy theories. New York: Palgrave.

Einstein, A. (1905). Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper [On the electrodynamics of moving bodies]. Annalen der Physik und Chemie, 17, 891-921.

Goertzel, T. (1994). Belief in conspiracy theories. Political Psychology, 15(4), 731-742.

Grzesiak-Feldman, M., & Ejsmont, A. (2008). Paranoia and conspiracy thinking of Jews, Arabs, Germans and russians in a Polish sample. Psychological Reports, 102(3), 884.

Pipes, D. (1997). Conspiracy: How the paranoid style flourishes and where it comes from. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Popper, K. R. (1949). Prediction and prophecy and their significance for social theory. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress of Philosophy, Amsterdam.

Raab, M. H., Auer, N., Ortlieb, S. A., & Carbon, C. C. (2013). The Sarrazin effect: The presence of absurd statements in conspiracy theories makes canonical information less plausible. Frontiers in Personality Science and Individual Differences, 4(453), 1-8.

Raab, M. H., Carbon, C. C., & Muth, C. (2017). Am Anfang war die Verschwörungstheorie [In the beginning, there was the conspiracy theory]. Berlin: Springer.

Raab, M. H., Ortlieb, S. A., Guthmann, K., Auer, N., & Carbon, C. C. (2013). Thirty shades of truth: conspiracy theories as stories of individuation, not of pathological delusion. Frontiers in Personality Science and Individual Differences, 4(406).

Rankin, J. E. (2017). The conspiracy theory meme as a tool of cultural hegemony: A critical discourse analysis. (PhD), Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, CA.

Sapountzis, A., & Condor, S. (2013). Conspiracy accounts as intergroup theories: Challenging dominant understandings of social power and political legitimacy. Political Psychology. doi:10.1111/pops.12015

Suppe, F. (Ed.) (1977). The structure of scientific theories (2nd ed.). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Van Puyvelde, D., Coulthart, S., & Hossain, M. S. (2017). Beyond the buzzword: Big data and national security decision-making. International Affairs, 93(6), 1397-1416. doi:10.1093/ia/iix184

Votsis, I. (2004). The epistemological status of scientific theories: An investigation of the structural realist account. (PhD), London School of Economics and Political Science, London. Retrieved from Z:\PAPER\Votsis2004.pdf

Wagner-Egger, P., & Bangerter, A. (2007). The truth lies elsewhere: Correlates of belief in conspiracy theories. Revue Internationale De Psychologie Sociale-International Review of Social Psychology, 20(4), 31-61.

[1] It is important to stress that a “good narrative” in this context means “an appealing story” in which people are interested; by no means does the author want to allow confusion by suggesting the meaning as being “positive”, “proper”, “adequate” or “true”.

Author Information: Francisco Collazo-Reyes, Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del IPN,
Hugo García Compeán, Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del IPN
Miguel Ángel Pérez-Angón, Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del IPN
Jane Margaret-Russell, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

Collazo Reyes, Francisco; Hugo García Compeán, Miguel Ángel Pérez-Angón, Jane Margaret-Russell,. “The Nature of the Eponym.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 12-15.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

See also:

Image by Mark Hogan via Flickr / Creative Commons


We agree in general with the comments made by G. Vélez-Cuartas (2018), on our paper published recently in Social Epistemology (Collazo-Reyes, et al, 2018). He accepts the use of our methodology in the analysis of the eponym of Jerzy Plebanski and at the same time, suggests applying this methodology to search for the formation of invisible colleges or scientific networks associated with the emergence of epistemic communities.

This was not a direct goal of our work but we included some related aspects in the revised version of our manuscript that may seem somewhat distant from the ambit of the eponym: namely, intertextuality, obliteration by incorporation, scientometrics networks, invisible colleges, epistemic communities, Jerzy Plebanski and “plebanski”. All these topics are keywords to access our paper in the indexes of scientific literature. These aspects distinguish our methodology from other approaches used in almost a thousand papers that addressed the issue of eponyms, according to a recent search for this topic in Web of Science database.

Within this framework, we appreciate the author’s suggestion to extend our analysis to other subject areas since “eponym as a scientometric tool sounds good as a promising methodology”. In particular, “to induce an analysis on other areas of sociology of science and social epistemology” in order “to reach a symbolic status in a semantic community that is organized in a network of meaning” and could show “a geographical penetration of scientific institutions and global dynamics of scientific systems” (Vélez-Cuartas, 2018).

Traditionally, published work on eponymy has studied the contribution or influence of certain authors in their respective scientific disciplines through biographies, tributes, eulogies or life histories and narratives. Some of these have been published as a series of studies like “Marathon of eponyms” (Scully et al., 2012) or “The man behind the eponym” (Steffen, 2004). The post-structuralism movement mentioned in our paper (Collazo-Reyes, et al, 2018) has criticized this approach.

In scientific texts, the use of the term “plebanski”, as an eponym of the proper name of Jerzy Plebanski, corroborates the recognition given by various authors to the work developed by the Polish scientist. Acknowledgement is apparent in cognitive texts on different aspects of plebanski’s contributions and in this context; the “plebanski” term is cited as a cognitive entity macro-referenced in the framework of scientific communication (Pang, 2010).

We would like to mention two points related to future applications of our findings on the use of eponym in the Latin American scientific literature:

1) The process involved in the construction of an eponym inherently generates a macro-referential scheme that is not considered in the cognitive structure of the databases of the bibliographical indices. The operational strength of the intertextuality associated with the referential process helps to generate socio-cognitive relations and space-time flows of scientific information.

This scheme requires characterization through a relatively exhaustive search in the different variants of the bibliographical indices: references, abstracts, citations, key words, views, twitters, blogs, Facebook, etc. (WoS, Scopus, arXiv, INSPIRE, ADS/NASA, Google citation, altmetric platforms). Most of these have arisen within the domain of the traditional bibliographical databases. Therefore, there is a clear possibility to generate an eponym index to characterize the intertextual structures not associated with the known bibliographical indices.

2) We coincide with the author on the need to take a new approach to carrying out an exhaustive search of eponyms as related to the Latin American scientific community. We are interested in characterizing the geography of collaboration at different levels: local, national, regional, and international (Livingstone, 2003; Naylor, 2005). This approach has been followed in the study of the geographical origin of eponyms in relation to the dominant system of scientific communication (Shapin, 1998; Livingstone, 1995, 2003; Geographies of Science, 2010).

We made a first attempt in this direction in our study of the “plebanski” eponym in the area of mathematical physics. In this paper, we made use of the methodology involved in “geographies of science” (Livingstone, 2010; Geographies of Science, 2010; Knowledge and Space, 2016) with theoretical tools that enhance the projections made in the framework of the sociology of science, bibliometrics and science communication.

In particular, the “spatial turn” movement (Finnegan, 2008; Gunn, 2001; Frenken, 2009; Fa-ti, 2012) offers a new dimension in the development of information systems, maps and networks using an innovative methodology such as “spatial scientometrics” (Frenken et al., 2009; Flores-Vargas, et al, 2018).

The new proposal considers, in each application of an eponym, the original source of authors, institutions, journals and subject matters. Each source includes the position in the geographical distribution of scientific knowledge associated with a given discipline. This information is then referred to as “geo-reference” and the eponyms as “macro-georeferenced” entities.

In this scheme, the generation of eponyms involves the combination of the different sources for authors, institutions, journals and subject areas. The resulting network may develop new aspects of the distribution mechanism of the asymmetrical power associated with the geographies of knowledge (Geographies of Knowledge and Power, 2010).

Contact details:


Collazo-Reyes, F., H. García-Compeán, M. A. Pérez-Angón, and J. M. Russell. 2018.  “Scientific Eponyms in Latin America: The Case of Jerzy Plebanski in the Area of Mathematical Physics.” Social Epistemology 32 (1): 63-74.

Fa-ti, F. 2012. “The global turn in the history of science.” East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal 6 (2): 249-258.

Finnegan, D. A. 2008. “The spatial turn: Geographical approaches in the history of science.” Journal of the History of Biology, 41 (2): 369-388.

Flores-Vargas, X., S. H. Vitar-Sandoval, J. I. Gutiérrez-Maya, P. Collazo-Rodríguez, and F. Collazo-Reyes. 2018. “Determinants of the emergence of modern scientific knowledge in mineralogy (Mexico, 1975-1849): a geohistoriometric approach.” Scientometrics,

Frenken, K. 2009. Geography of scientific knowledge: A proximity approach. Eindhoven Centre for Innovation Studies (ECIS), working paper 10.01. wp1001.pdf. Accessed 4 June 2016.

Frenken, K., S. Hardeman, and J. Hoekman. 2009. “Spatial scientometrics: Toward a cumulative research program.” Journal of Informetrics 3 (3): 222–232.

Geographies of Science. 2010. Peter Meusburger, David N. Livingstone, Heike Jöns, Editors. London, New York; Springer Dordrecht Heidelberg, ISBN 978-90-481-8610-5 DOI 10.1007/978-90-481-8611-2.

Geographies of Knowledge and Power. 2010. Peter Meusburger, David N. Livingstone, Heike Jöns, Editors. London, New York; Springer Dordrecht Heidelberg. 347 p.  DOI 10.1007/978-90-481-8611-2.

Gunn, S. 2001. “The spatial turn: Changing history of space and place”. In: S. Gunn & R. J. Morris (Eds.), Identities in space: On tested terrains in the Western city science 1850. Aldershot: Asghate.

Knowledge and space. 2016. Peter Meusburger, David N. Livingstone, Heike Jöns, Editors. London, New York; Springer Dordrecht Heidelberg, ISBN 978-90-481-8610-5 DOI 10.1007/978-90-481-8611-2.

Livingstone, D. N. 2003. “Putting Science in Its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge.” Chicago.

Livingstone, D. N. 1995. “The spaces of knowledge: Contributions towards a historical.” Geography of Science 13 (1): 5–34.

Livingstone, D. N. (2010). “Landscapes of Knowledge” In: Geographies of Science, edited by Peter Meusburger, David N. Livingstone, Heike Jöns, Editors. London, New York; Springer Dordrecht Heidelberg,

Naylor, S. 2005. “Introduction: Historical geographies of science—Places, contexts, cartographies.” British Journal for the History of Science, 38: 1–12.

Pang, Kam-yiu S. 2010. “Eponymy and life-narratives: The effect of foregrounding on proper names.” Journal of Pragmatics 42 (5): 1321-1349.

Scully, C., J. Langdon, and J. Evans. 2012. “Marathon of eponyms: 26 Zinsser-Engman-Cole syndrome (Dyskeratosis congenita).” Oral Diseases 18 (5): 522-523.

Shapin, S. 1998. “Placing the view from nowhere: Historical and sociological problems in the location of science.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series 23: 5–12.

Steffen, C. 2004. “The man behind the eponym – Lauren v. Ackerman and verrucous carcinoma of Ackerman.” American Journal of Dermatopathology 26 (4): 334-341. /10.1007/s11192-018-2646-5.

Veles-Cuartas, G. 2018. “Invisible Colleges 2.0: Eponymy as a Scientometric Tool.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7 (3) 5-8.

Author Information: Jeff Kochan, University of Konstanz,

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

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

See also:

As the original photographer put it, “Shelves full of Heidegger.”
Image by Justin Yost via Flickr

Raphael Sassower has the rhetorician’s gift for creating pithy and compelling images to ornament his arguments. In this instance, he has me presiding over a forced marriage between Heidegger and sociologists of scientific knowledge. I’m relieved that he didn’t put a shotgun in my hands. At the end of his review, Sassower asks: ‘would the couple ever have consented to this on their own? And if the answer is no, who are we to force this on them?’ Momentarily granting the legitimacy of Sassower’s image, the answer to his first question is: no.

Freedom of Interpretation

Neither Heidegger nor SSK practitioners thought they were formulating an incomplete account of science, thereafter desperately awaiting its consummation through a union with they knew not what. Luckily, these scholars also made their works public, so we’re free to play with them as we like (within legal limits). In answer to Sassower’s second question, since published texts are not the sort of thing that can either give or withhold consent, it’s nonsense to say that anything can be forced on them in the way he implies. Here, Sassower’s image falls apart.

Granted, one could potentially charge me with a ‘forced’ interpretation of some of the texts I discuss. But one should then show this, not just say it. Anyway, much interesting work has been produced through the careful misinterpretation of past scholarship. If, based on evidence and argument, I were found guilty of this, I should not complain.

Using an unfortunate heteronormative gender assignment, Sassower has me arguing that ‘Heidegger […] presents an ideal groom who can offer his SSK bride the theoretical insights of overcoming the Cartesian-Kantian false binary of subject-object (11).’ Page 11 of my book, where evidence for this characterisation ostensibly lies, says only that ‘Heidegger deconstructs the Kantian subject-object distinction.’ Later, on page 40, one finds the sentence: ‘It must be emphasised […] that Heidegger does not dismiss the orthodox subject-object distinction as a false account of the subject’s relation to the world.’ The point is that the orthodox subject-object distinction, despite its many intellectual merits, brings with it some intractable problems. One is the problem of the external world. Those who subscribe to the distinction, and who also claim to be realists, remain vulnerable to sceptical attack regarding the existence of the external world.

The Importance of Heidegger’s Deconstruction

In Chapter One, I argue that SSK practitioners, though certainly aware of and actively contending with this problem, have nevertheless remained vulnerable to it. I propose to remove this vulnerability by combining SSK with Heidegger’s deconstruction of the subject-object distinction, which treats it as a ‘founded mode’ dependent on our phenomenologically more basic experience of being in the world.

Why might this be important? Because, as I demonstrate in Chapters Two and Three, SSK’s competitors in the broader field of science studies have exploited these vulnerabilities in order to discredit SSK and successfully erect their own, different, methodologies. My goal is to show that, with some help from Heidegger, these attacks can be deflected, thereby leaving SSK’s methodology intact and ready for action.

Sassower’s review overlooks my discussion of this internal dispute in the sociology of science. As a result, in what appears to be an objection directed at me, he argues that the role of the social subject in scientific knowledge production is already well-established, his point presumably being that my book adds nothing new. According to Sassower, ‘as philosophers of science have understood for a century […], the observer is an active participant in the observation.’

But that’s not all: ‘Add to this the social dimension of the community of observers-participants and the social dynamics to which they are institutionally subjected, and you have the contemporary landscape that has transformed the study of Science into the study of Scientific Community and eventually into the study of the Scientific Enterprise.’ This is a tidy and commonplace history of science studies, one from which the role of SSK has been quietly erased.

What do I mean by this? On page 1 of my book, I write that SSK – also known as the ‘strong programme’ in the sociology of scientific knowledge – arose in critical response to what was retrospectively dubbed the ‘weak programme’ in the sociology of science: ‘The weak programme focussed mainly on institutional studies of the scientific community.’ This sounds like Sassower’s description of scientists as being ‘institutionally subjected’ to social dynamics, as well as his description of science studies as the study of ‘Scientific Community’ and the ‘Scientific Enterprise.’ Here, the core epistemic products of scientific practice – theories and facts – as well as the means by which they are produced – techniques and methods – are excluded from sociological analysis.

This is an exclusion that ‘strong programme’ practitioners sought to overcome. For their efforts, they were ferociously attacked by historians, philosophers, and sociologists alike. Why? Sassower’s popular, potted history cannot answer this question, because it fails to recognise science studies as a field of historical contestation. From the century-old insight of philosophers of science that observation is theory-laden, the current state of social studies of science naturally flows – says Sassower. It’s always nicer when the bodies have been neatly buried.

A Book’s Immanent Domain

Sassower has another objection. To wit: ‘what about the dynamics of market capitalism and democratic political formations? What about the industrial-academic-military complex?’ My answer: what about them? These are not what my book is about. Sassower seems to object that I wrote the book I did, rather than some other book. To this charge I happily admit my guilt. But it goes on. Having granted that science is social, Sassower asks: ‘does this recognition alone suffice to understand that neoliberalism has a definite view of what the scientific enterprise is supposed to accomplish?’ My answer: no it doesn’t – and what of it? My book isn’t about that either.

I’m not a political theorist, nor do I desire to become one. Nevertheless, Chapter Seven of my book does address some issues that may interest those engaged in political theory. As Sassower notes, in Chapter Seven I ‘nod’ to those, discussed in earlier chapters, whom I now retrospectively name ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ critics of SSK. (The ‘nod’ to liberals was a prolonged one, spanning most of Chapters Two and Three.)

My claim was that both kinds of critic are united in their rejection of subjectivity as a legitimate theme for micro-sociological study. The conservatives reject the subject as being, at best, just one more object among objects. The liberals reject the subject as being irremediably infected with the Kantian subject-object distinction. Because they reject this distinction tout court, they also reject the subject. With this, the sociological study of subjectivity is prohibited.

What interests these critics instead are fields of practice. Within these fields, the subject is constituted. But the fundamental unit of analysis is the field – or system – not the subject. Subjectivity is, on this theory, a derivative phenomenon, at best, a secondary resource for sociological analysis.

From my perspective, because subjectivity is fundamental to human existence, it cannot be eliminated in this way. In reality, the liberal account submerges subjectivity in fields of practice, where it effectively disappears from the analyst’s view. I call this position ‘liberal’ because it seems to rely on a tacit model of the subject as being unconstrained by social and historical limits.

If the existential subject is not properly acknowledged to exist, then how can its limits be acknowledged, much less studied and understood? And if the subject really does, in fact, exist, but one can’t ascribe limits to it, then doesn’t this reflect a liberal notion of negative freedom? Taking a phrase from Baudelaire, I liken this model of the subject to ‘a prince who everywhere enjoys his incognito’ (379). By offering an alternative to this model, by combining Heidegger with SSK, I hope, through my book, to equip those scholars who are keen to challenge and expose this incognito.

Contact details:


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

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

Author Information: Robert Piercey, Campion College at the University of Regina,

Piercey, Robert. “Faraway, So Close: Further Thoughts on Kanonbildung.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 33-38.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

In the courtyard of Humboldt University, where Georg Hegel taught at the apex of his institutional career.
Image by Joan via Flickr / Creative Commons


I’d like to thank Maxim Demin and Alexei Kouprianov for their probing study of Kanonbildung in 19th century Germany. As I understand it, the study has two goals. The first is substantive: to gather and present facts about how a particular philosophical canon emerged in 19th century Germany. The other is methodological: “to develop formalised methods of studying Kanonbildung as a process,” methods which “may turn out to be useful beyond the original scope of our project, in a wide range of possible studies in intellectual history and mechanics of cultural memory formation” (113).

It’s this second goal that I find particularly interesting. So in what follows, I won’t quarrel with the substantive conclusions Demin and Kouprianov draw about the formation of the 19th century German philosophical canon—in part because their conclusions strike me as plausible, and in part because I lack the expertise to challenge their findings. Instead, I’d like to reflect broadly on the methods they use to study Kanonbildung, especially the notion of distant reading which they borrow from Franco Moretti (113). More specifically, I’d like to raise some questions about whether, how, and to what extent their strategy of distant reading must be supplemented by a form of close reading: namely, a form that treats histories of philosophy as literary artifacts whose contents are to be studied by many of the same techniques brought to bear on fictional narratives.

I raise these questions as a philosopher interested in the philosophy of history and in the intersections between philosophy and literature. To be clear, I don’t reject the methods developed by Demin and Kouprianov. On the contrary, I suspect that distant reading has an important role to play in the history of philosophy in general, and in the study of canon formation in particular. But I’d like to suggest that this method becomes more useful when it is supplemented by others—as well as to raise some questions about what this supplementing might look like.

Canon: An Institution of Thought

Let me start by highlighting what I take to be the key points of Demin’s and Kouprianov’s  analysis. They describe themselves as contributing to an institutional history of philosophy: that is, a history that downplays the “conceptual reconstruction” of past views in favour of a “study of practices” (113). The practices that interest them most are the “implicit rules and patterns” (113, emphasis added) that shape philosophers’ understandings of what their activity is and how it should proceed—practices typically not noticed by philosophers themselves. And the epoch that interests them is the 19th century, since it was during this period “that the history of philosophy began its transformation from a generalised body of knowledge into an academic discipline” (112).

A crucial part of this transformation is the development of philosophical canons. Demin and Kouprianov say relatively little about what they think canons are. Very roughly, I take them to be groups of thinkers who are seen as representing the highest and most important achievements of philosophy as a practice, thinkers with whom one should be familiar if one wishes to understand or contribute to philosophy at all.

Furthermore, a canon consists of not just a list of thinkers, but some sort of ranking, some sense—perhaps not fully explicit—of each thinker’s relative importance. In the canon Demin and Kouprianov study, for instance, philosophers are variously described as “primary,” “secondary,” or “tertiary” (116). Understood in this way, canons perform several important functions. They perform sociological functions of “indoctrination and identity formation” (113). By the end of the 19th century in Germany, a familiarity with Kant, Hegel, and others had come to shape philosophers’ understandings of their enterprise to such an extent that it was probably a necessary condition of being considered a philosopher at all.

Canons presumably perform other functions as well—for instance, inspiring philosophers by providing “mountains peaks to look up towards,” in Richard Rorty’s phrase.[1] Canons can change dramatically over time. So if one wants to understand a particular period in the history of philosophy well, it is important to know not just which figures it considered canonical, but how and when its particular canon was formed. That is what Demin and Kouprianov set out to discover about 19th century Germany.

What Is Distant Reading?

As mentioned above, the methods they use to do so go by the name of distant reading. This term was coined by Franco Moretti to designate a particular way of studying literary texts. It is to be opposed to close reading, which privileges the contents of particular texts and engages in “the analysis of ideas and the reconstruction of conceptual schemata” (113). Distant reading focuses instead on the practices “standing behind” these texts, using “formal analytic methods” to uncover “objective characteristics of large amounts of digitised texts” (113).

I take it that the authors see distant reading not as intrinsically superior to all other approaches, but as a way of correcting an imbalance. Their suggestion seems to be that the study of the history of philosophy heretofore has been so dominated by close reading that it has overlooked “implicit rules and patterns” (113). Distant reading nudges the pendulum in the other direction by encouraging historians to pay “closer attention” (113, emphasis added) to previously overlooked practices.

With this goal in mind, Demin and Kouprianov examine a large number of 19th century German works in the history of philosophy, constructing a data set that reveals how often particular philosophers were mentioned and at what length they were discussed. Examining “845 [table of contents] entries for 151 philosophers’ names,” they compile data about the “number of pages devoted to each philosopher” in these works, the “share of the 19th century section devoted to him,” and the “start and end pages of the paragraph and those of the 19th century section” (114).

The result is a very precise snapshot of how much discussion was devoted to certain philosophers at various points in the 19th century—one that allows us to trace the ways in which interest in these figures increased, peaked, and in some cases declined as the century unfolded. It lets us see precisely how and when certain figures came to be seen as more canonical than others.

This approach bears several sorts of fruit. One—in keeping with the authors’ second, methodological goal—is that it spurs the invention of new concepts helpful for making sense of the data. The undertheorized concept of a “philosophical bestseller” (115), for instance, announces itself as important, and can be defined quite precisely as a work published three times or more. Likewise, their approach allows Demin and Kouprianov to develop precise markers of the perceived greatness of philosophers, in terms of “the frequency that a particular name appears across tables of contents” (117). A primary thinker, for instance, can be defined as one “mentioned in more than 80% of treatises” (117).

Other gains are substantive. We learn that the reputations of Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel were cemented between 1831 and 1855, as the rate at which they were mentioned outpaced that of other thinkers. And we learn that a common view of Schopenhauer—that he was underappreciated in his lifetime and scorned by the philosophical establishment—is false, “with his views being included in three textbooks by 1855” (118). These are important discoveries, and they demonstrate the value of the authors’ strategy of distant reading.

The new museum at Humbolt University.
Image by Bartek Kuzia via Flickr / Creative Commons


Shifting Fortunes of Fame

Of course, as Demin and Kouprianov acknowledge, “presence in the canonic history does not tell us much about the part a philosopher played within it” (119). In order to bring this dimension into view, they use several additional techniques. The one I find most intriguing is their examination of where certain philosophers appear in various histories of philosophy, and more specifically, their study of how often various philosophers appear at the end of a history.

The authors focus on three philosophers—Herbart, Schleiermacher, and Fries—who are often discussed in conjunction with Hegel. Then they see how often the figures in question are discussed before Hegel, and how often they are discussed after. “This relative position,” they explain, “is an indirect but a most meaningful criterion which allows to assess the degree of perceived recency and relevancy of a given philosopher. The closer a philosopher stays to the end of the list, the more ‘recent’ and ‘relevant’ to the current debate he is” (123).

This view seems plausible, and in the authors’ hands, it sheds important new light on how these four thinkers were viewed at various points in the 19th century. But we should note that it makes a crucial assumption. In order to move from the premise that a history discusses a given philosopher last to the conclusion that it sees him as most relevant to current debates, we must assume that it tells a particular kind of story: roughly speaking, a progressive story.

We must assume that the historian has organized her data in a very particular way, with the episodes of her story becoming more and more germane to contemporary readers’ concerns as they get closer and closer to them in time. No doubt many, if not most, histories of philosophy actually are stories of this kind. But is a philosopher’s position in a given history a good general clue to her perceived relevance? Is it such a reliable indicator of perceived importance that it should be built into a method intended for use “in a wide range of possible studies in intellectual history” (113)?

Philosophy as a Tradition

I linger over this matter because it raises an important issue in the history of philosophy: the issue of genre. Histories of philosophy, I take it, are narratives, and every narrative belongs to some genre or other.[2] Narratives in different genres may describe the same events in the same order, but assign them different meanings by shaping these events into different sorts of plots. The philosopher who has contributed most to our understanding of this process is Hayden White. In his seminal essay “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” White asks us to consider several different ways in which a single series of events might be emplotted. We can imagine a pure chronicle in which the series is “simply recorded in which the events originally occurred” (93); it might be represented in the following way:

  • a, b, c, d, e, …, n[3]

But this series “can be emplotted in a number of different ways and thereby endowed with different meanings without violating the imperatives of the chronological arrangement at all” (92). The following series are all equally possible:

  • A, b, c, d, e, …, n
  • a, B, c, d, e, …, n
  • a, b, C, d, e, …, n
  • a, b, c, D, e, …, n[4]

In each of these series, one event is symbolized with a capital letter to indicate that it is being assigned “explanatory force,”[5] or some other special significance, with respect to the others. Privileging one event rather than another yields stories in different genres. Series (2) would be a “deterministic” history which endows a “putatively original event (a) with the status of a decisive factor (A) in the structuration of the whole series of events following after it.”[6] Were we to privilege the last event in the series, we would have a story in the genre of “eschatological or apocalyptical histories” such as “St. Augustine’s City of God” and “Hegel’s Philosophy of History.”[7]

Many other permutations, and thus many other genres, are possible. In some genres, it is plausible to suppose that the last figure discussed is seen by the author as most relevant to current concerns. But in other genres, this assumption cannot be made. In a history of decline or forgetting, the last figure discussed might well be seen by the author as the least relevant to these concerns. Consider a Heideggerian history of philosophy, in which the last figure discussed is Nietzsche, but the figure most relevant to the contemporary situation is one or another pre-Socratic thinker.

The point is that knowing that a philosopher appears last in a given history—even in a large number of histories—does not tell us much about how the author understood his significance for current concerns. To draw conclusions about significance, we must know the genre (or genres) of the history (or histories) in question. And that is something we can discover only through careful attention to a history’s “literary” features—precisely the features identified through traditional close readings. So while the data Demin and Kouprianov uncover, and the methods they use to do so, are indispensable, I suspect they do not give a full picture of Kanonbildung on their own. They will be most useful when pursued in tandem with certain types of close reading.

Merging Historical Paths

I have no reason to think that Demin and Kouprianov would deny any of this. But I would like to know more about whether, and how, they think it complicates their project. What is the relation between distant reading and close reading? Do these types of analysis simply complement each other, or are they also in tension? I’ve already speculated that the authors see distant reading as a way of correcting an imbalance—that “formal analytic methods” directed at the “objective characteristics… of digitised texts” (113) are called for today because a longstanding bias toward close reading has left historians oblivious to implicit rules and patterns.

If that is the case, is there a danger that performing close reading in conjunction with distant reading will overshadow the distinctive value of the latter? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I suspect that it will be important to answer them if the methods of this study are to be extended to other areas.

I hasten to add that I am not “for” close reading or “against” distant reading. Distant reading, as the authors describe it, is clearly an important tool. But I would like to know more about how it relates to the other tools at the disposal of historians of philosophy. Whatever their view of this matter, I’d like to thank Demin and Kouprianov again for making a promising new contribution to our conceptual toolbox.

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Demin, Maxim, and Alexei Kouprianov, “Studying Kanonbildung: An Exercise in a Distant Reading of Contemporary Self-descriptions of the 19th Century German Philosophy.” Social Epistemology, 32, no. 2: 112-127.

Kuukkanen, Jouni-Matti. Postnarrativist Philosophy of Historiography. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Rorty, Richard “The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres,” in Philosophy in History, ed. Richard Rorty, Jerome Schneewind, and Quentin Skinner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

White, Hayden. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

[1] Richard Rorty, “The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres,” in Philosophy in History, ed. Richard Rorty, Jerome Schneewind, and Quentin Skinner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 23.

[2] Not everyone agrees that all histories are narratives, but space does not permit me to broach this issue here. For an important recent discussion of it, see Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen, Postnarrativist Philosophy of Historiography (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), especially Chapter 5.

[3] Hayden White, “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 92.

[4] White, 92.

[5] White, 92.

[6] White, 93.

[7] White, 93.

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador,

Wills, Bernard. “Why Mizrahi Needs to Replace Weak Scientism With an Even Weaker Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 18-24.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

See also:

Image by Matt via Flickr / Creative Commons


Moti Mizrahi has been defending something he calls ‘weak scientism’ against Christopher Brown in a series of exchanges in the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. His animus seems to be against philosophy in particular though he asserts that other disciplines in the humanities do not produce knowledge either. He also shows remarkable candor in admitting that it all comes down to money: money spent on philosophy would be better spent on the sciences because scientific knowledge is better qualitatively (i.e. because it makes true predictions) and quantitatively (scientists pump out more stuff than philosophers). (11)

Measuring Success

As he tells us: “Scientific knowledge can be said to be qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as such knowledge is explanatorily, instrumentally and predictively more successful than non-scientific knowledge.” (Mizrahi; 7). Furthermore: “Scientific knowledge can be said to be quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as scientific disciplines produce more impactful knowledge- in the form of scholarly publications-than non-scientific disciplines (as measured by research output and research impact)” (7)

The relevance of this latter claim seems to me unclear: surely by a quantitative measure, Shakespeare scholars have all of us beat.[1] A German professor once told me that in the first half of the 20th Century there were 40,000 monographs on Franz Kafka alone! I will not, however, spend time scratching my head over what seems a tangential point. The quantity of work produced in the sciences would be of little significance were it not valuable by some other measure. No one would think commercials great works of art on the grounds that there are so many of them.

Then again some concerned by the problem of over-specialization might view the sheer quantity of scientific research as a problem not an advantage.  I will focus, then, on the qualitative question and particularly on the claim that science produces knowledge and all the other things we tend to call knowledge are in fact not knowledge at all but something else. I will then consider Mr. Mizrahi’s peculiar version of this claim ‘weak scientism’ which is that while there may be knowledge of some sort outside of the sciences (it is hard, he thinks, to show otherwise) this knowledge is of a qualitatively lesser kind.

He says this is so “in certain relevant aspects”. (10) I’m not sure what he means by this hedge. What makes an aspect relevant in this context? I will proceed though on the assumption that whatever these relevant aspects are they make for an over-all context independent superiority of science over non-science.[2]

Of course, were I a practitioner of the hermeneutic of suspicion I would point out the glaring conflict of interest in Mr. Mizrahi making these claims from the fastness of a technical institute. If someone pops up claiming that only half the university really earns its keep it is a little bit suspect (if not surprising exactly) when that half of the university happens to the very one in which he resides. I might also point out the colonialist and sexist implications of his account, which is so contrived to conveniently exclude all sorts of ‘others’ from the circle of knowledge. Is Mr. Mizrahi producing an argument or a mere rationalization of his privilege?

However, as Mr. Mizrahi seems unlikely to be overly impressed by such an analysis I will stick to something simpler.[3] Does science alone produce knowledge or do other epistemic forms produce knowledge as well? This is the question of whether ‘strong scientism’ is correct. Secondly, if strong scientism is not correct does weak scientism offer a more defensible alternative or does it suffer from the same drawbacks? Accordingly, I will refute strong scientism and then show that weak scientism is vulnerable to precisely the same objections.

Politicized Words and Politicizing Ideas

There are dangers to antagonizing philosophers. We may not be pulling in the big grants, true , but we can do a great deal of damage regardless  for when the ‘scientistic class’ is not accusing philosophy of being useless and ineffectual it is accusing it of corrupting the entire world with its po-mo nonsense.[4] This is because one of the functions of philosophy is the skeptical or critical one. When scientists go on about verification and falsification or claim the principle of induction can be justified by induction philosophers perform the Socratic function of puncturing their hubris. Thus, one of the functions of philosophy is deflationary.

A philosopher of science who makes himself unpopular with scientists by raising questions the scientist is unequipped to answer and has no time for anyway is only doing her job. I think this is a case in point. Since Descartes at least we been fascinated by the idea of the great epistemic purge. There is so much ‘stuff’ out there claiming to be knowledge that we need to light a great bonfire and burn all of it. This bonfire might be Cartesian doubt. It might be ‘scientific method’. Either way all the ‘pretend’ knowledge is burned off leaving the useful core. This may well be a worthwhile endeavour and in the time of Descartes it surely was.

However, I suspect this tradition has created a misleading impression. The real problem is not that we have too little knowledge but too much: as a phenomenologist might say it is a saturated phenomenon. Knowledge is all around us so that like bats our eyes are blinded by the sun. This is why I find the idea that only scientists produce knowledge the very definition of an ivory tower notion that has no basis in experience. To show this let me make a list of the kinds of non-scientific knowledge people have.

As we shall see, the problem is not making this list long but keeping it short. I offer this list to create an overwhelming presumption that strong scientism at very least is not true (I shall then argue that weak scientism is in no better a case).  This procedure may not be decisive in itself but I do think it puts the ball in the court of the ‘strong scientist’ who must show that all the things I (and most everybody else) call knowledge are in fact something else.

What is more, the ‘strong scientist’ must do this without violating the criterion of strong scientism itself: he cannot avail himself of any but scientific arguments. Moreover, he must show that science itself meets the criterion of knowledge he sets out which is not an easy task given such well known difficulties as the problem of induction. At any rate, prima facie, there seems overwhelming empirical evidence that strong scientism is incorrect: a claim so extraordinary should have an unusually strong justification, to paraphrase Hume. Let’s see if the ‘strong scientist’ can produce one.

Making a Problem of “Results”

To begin, I should point out is that there are bodies of knowledge that produce ‘results’ not through scientific method but through analysis and application to cases. Two prominent examples would be Law and Music Theory, practitioners of which use an established body of theory to solve problems like whether Trinity Western should have a law school or how Scriabin invented the ‘Prometheus chord’. What sense of ‘know’ can we appeal to in order to show that my daughter, who is a music theory student, does not ‘know’ that the Prometheus chord was derived from the over-tone series?

Secondly, there is knowledge about the past that historians uncover through the interpretation of primary documents and other evidence. In what sense do we not ‘know’ that the Weimar Republic fell? This claim is even more remarkable given there are sciences that deal with the past, like Paleontology, which ‘interpret’ signs such as fossils or tools in a manner much more like historians (there is hermeneutic judgment in science which functions no differently than hermeneutic judgment elsewhere).

Thirdly, there is first person knowledge which is direct. “Did that hurt?” asks the doctor because without accepting first-person reportage he cannot proceed with treatment. This is a kind of knowledge without which we could not even do science so that if Strong scientism wants to deny this is knowledge science itself will be the primary victim. Again science can go nowhere without direct factual knowledge (the strip turned green when I put it in water) that is not produced by science but which science itself rests upon.

What about know how? Craftsmen and engineers know all kinds of things by accumulated experience. They know how a shoe is made or what makes for good beer. They also built the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids. What are we to make of disciplines like mathematics, geometry or logic? What about ethical or aesthetic or critical judgments? In what sense does a translator not ‘know’ Japanese? Does anyone really think literature scholars don’t ‘know’ anything about the texts they discuss even on a factual level? What scientific justification does the claim “Marlowe did not write King Lear’ have or even require?  And while we are at it may well be that philosophers do not know much but they do know things like ‘logical positivism fails its own criterion of meaning’ or ‘Berkeley cannot be refuted by kicking a stone’. [5]

It could well be that in regarding all the above as instances of knowledge I am missing something fundamental. If so I wish someone would point it out to me. Let’s take a hypothetical knower, Jill: Jill knows she is feeling cold, knows how to repair watches, knows why the Weimar Republic fell, knows how to speak Portuguese, knows there are 114 Surahs in the Quran, knows how Beethoven transformed the sonata form, has extensive topographical knowledge of places she has travelled, prefers the plays of Shakespeare to those of Thomas Preston, can identify Barbara as valid syllogism, considers racial prejudice indefensible, understands how attorney client privilege applies to the Stormy Daniels affair, can tell an stone age arrowhead from a rock, can comment on the philology of Hebrew, can understand Euclid’s proofs, is engaged in correcting the received text of Finnegans Wake , can explain the Quine/Duhem thesis and its relevance to the question of falsification, has written a commentary on Kant’s third critique and on top of all this is performing experiments in chemistry.

Strong scientism may be correct that only the last endeavour constitutes Jill’s ‘knowledge’ but on what grounds can it defeat what to me looks like the overwhelming presumption that Jill is not just a Chemist who wastes her time at hobbies but a genuine polymath who knows many things in many fields along with all the ordinary knowledge all humans possess?

Problems of Both the Strong and the Weak

The ‘strong scientist’ has surprisingly few options here. Will he point out that science makes true predictions? So have craftsmen for millennia. Further, many of these forms of knowledge do not need to make true predictions: I don’t need to test the hypothesis that there 114 Surahs in the Quran because I know already having checked.[6] Is science more certain of its conclusions? According to the post-Popper consensus at least, scientific statements are always tentative and revisable and in any case first person knowledge so surpasses it in certainty that some of it is arguably infallible. Is science more instrumentally successful?

Craftsmen and hunters kept the species alive for millennia before science even existed in difficult circumstances under which no science would have been possible. What is more some craft knowledge remains instrumentally superior to science to this day: no baseball player chooses a physicist over a batting coach.[7] At any rate success is relative to one’s aims and lawyers successfully produce legal arguments just as philologists successfully solve problems of Homeric grammar.

Now as Aristotle would say science does have the advantage over craft of being explanatory but is explanation unique to science? No; because hermeneutic practices in history, literature, classics and so on also produce explanations of the meaning of things like documents and if the ‘strong scientist’ wants to say that these explanations are tentative and changing (abductions as it were not inductions) then the same is true of a great deal of science. In short, none of the features that supposedly make for the superiority of science are unique to science and some are not even especially exemplified by it. It seems then that there is no criterion by which scientific claims can be shown to be knowledge in a unique and exclusive sense. Until such a criterion is identified it seems to me that my initial presupposition about Jill being a polymath rather than a chemist with distractions stands.   

Perhaps it is the awareness of such difficulties that leads Mizrahi to his stance of ‘Weak Scientism’. It is not a stance he himself entirely sticks to.  Some of his statements imply the strong version of scientism as when he tells us the knowledge is “the scholarly work or research produced in scientific fields of study, such as the natural sciences, as opposed to non-scientific fields, such as the humanities.” (22)[8] Still, when pushed, he seems content with the position that all the things I mentioned above might count as knowledge in a weaker sense but that scientific knowledge is still better and, presumably, more worthy of grants.

Unfortunately, the exact same objections which tell against strong scientism tell against weak scientism too. It is interesting that at this point Mizrahi employs a kind of knowledge I did not discuss above: to defend weak scientism he appeals to the authority of textbooks! (17) These textbooks tell him that science is instrumentally successful, explanatory and makes true predictions. He then tells us that while other disciplines may also betray these traits they do not do so to the same extent so that any money spent on them would be better spent on science on the maxim of prudence (another knowledge form I did not discuss) that one should seek the most bang for one’s buck.

Mizrahi gains little by this move for the question immediately arises better how and at what? Better in what context? By what standard of value? Just take the example of quantity so favored by Mizrahi. Does science produce more knowledge that anything else? Hardly. As Augustine pointed out I can produce a potential infinity of knowledge simply by reflecting recursively on the fact of my own existence. (City of God; XI, 26) Indeed, I can do this by reflecting recursively on my knowledge of ANY fact. Similar recursive processes can extend our knowledge indefinitely in the field of mathematics.

Does science have (taken in bulk) more instrumental success than other knowledge forms? How would you even count given that craft knowledge has a roughly 3 million-year head start? This does not even count the successful record of problem solving in law, politics, or art.[9] Is science more successful at explanation? Hardly, if science could solve problems in literature or history then these fields would not even exist. Science only explains the things it is good at explaining which is no more and no less than one can say of any other discipline. This is why many proponents of scientism tacitly assume that the explanations produced in other disciplines only concern frilly, trivial things that science needn’t bother about anyway.[10]

Does science make more true predictions? Again how would you even count given that for millions of years, human beings survived by making hundreds of true predictions daily? What is more, the inductive procedures of science seem relatively useless in the many endeavours that do not involve true prediction but some other method of justification like deduction or direct observation.

Thus, weak scientism seems in no better a case than strong scientism for the same reasons: there is no clearly applicable, context-independent, criterion that shows the superiority the ‘weak scientist’ claims: certainty, instrumental success, utilitarian value, predictive power and explanation all exist elsewhere in ways that are often not directly commensurable with the way they exist in science. As I told someone once (who asserted the superiority of the French language over all others) French is indeed the best language for speaking French in.[11] Science is the best way to do science.

Why Make Science an Ism at All?

Thus, if Mr. Mizrahi wants a thesis to defend it may well be possible to show that science is at least somewhat better on average at certain things than other approaches. He may call that ‘even weaker’ scientism. This would be to admit after all, that science is superior only in ‘certain relevant aspects’ leaving it to be inferred that it is not superior in others and that the ‘superiority’ that science demonstrates in one context, like particle physics, may vanish in another, like film criticism. If that is what ‘scientism’ amounts to then we are all proponents of it and it is hard to escape the impression that a mountain of argument has given birth to a mouse.

What is more, he informs us: “Brown admits that both scientific and philosophical theories are instruments of explanation. To provide good explanations, then, both scientific and philosophical theories must be testable.” (17) I suppose then it remains open to say that, after all, Joyce scholars ‘test’ their assertions about Ulysses against the text of Ulysses and are to that extent scientists. Perhaps, craftsmen, music theorists, historians and (gasp!) even philosophers, all in their various ways, do likewise: testing their assertions in the ways peculiar to their disciplines. Perhaps, then, all these endeavors are just iterations of science in which case Mirhazi’s mouse has shrunk to something the size of a pygmy shrew.

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Aristotle, Metaphysics. Trans. R. McKeon (Random House, Aristotle, 1941)

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics. Trans. R. McKeon (Random House, Aristotle, 1941)

Augustine, The City of God. Trans. H. Bettenson. (Penguin Classics, London, 1984)

Mizrahi, Moti. “More in Defense of Weak Scientism: Another Reply to Brown.”  Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no 4 (2018) 7-25.   

Theocharis and Psimpoulos “Where Science Has Gone Wrong” Nature (1987) 595-597

[1] Does Mirhazi mean to say that if a particular sub-discipline of English produces more articles in a given year than a small subfield of science then that discipline of English is superior to that subfield of science? I’m sure he does not mean to say this but it seems to follow from his words.

[2] The qualitative superiority of science must be based on the value of its goals firstly (like curing disease or discovering alien life) and, secondly, its superiority in achieving those goals over all other methods. The discussion surely assumes that the things done by science must be worth doing more than their opposites. The question has of necessity an axiological component in spite of Mizrahi’s claim to the contrary (9). This means the values of science must be commensurable with the values of non-science if we are to say one is better overall than the other. Not only must science be instrumentally superior at answering scientific questions it must answer the questions of other disciplines better than those disciplines. Otherwise one is simply making the innocuous claim that science answers scientific questions better than geometry or rhetoric can. Mizrahi marshals only one example here: he tells us that the social sciences produce more knowledge about friendship than philosophy does. (19) Of course this assumes that philosophers and social scientists are asking the same or at least commensurable questions about friendship but even if I grant this there are still a vast multitude of instances where this is manifestly not the case, where non-scientists can produce better explanations on non-trivial questions than scientists can. I shall note some of these below.

[3] Mr. Mizrahi might consider, though, whether ideological self-critique might, after all, be a useful way of acquiring self-knowledge (which may not be so contemptible an attainment after all).

[4] This is the ‘Schrodinger’ phenomenon where an antagonist makes two contradictory accusations at once. ( For what seems to be the fons et origo of this narrative see Theocharis and Psimpoulos “Where Science Has Gone Wrong” Nature (1987).

[5] The underlying question here is one of Platonism vs. Aristotelianism. Strong Scientism argues that there is one paradigmatic form of ‘knowledge in itself’. I argue the Aristotelian position that just as ‘being’ is said in many senses (Metaphysics;9, 992b 15) so there are many analogical forms of knowledge. What all the things I have listed have in common is that each in its own peculiar way supports beliefs by appeals to evidence or other forms of justification. Everyday discourse may be wrong to use the word knowledge for these other forms of justified belief but I think the onus is on the ‘strong scientist’ to show this. Another thing I should point out is that I do not confine the word knowledge to beliefs that are indefeasible: a knower might say “to the best of knowledge” and still be a knower. I say this to head off the problem of skepticism which asks whether the criterion of indefeasible knowledge (whatever it is said to be) is ever actually fulfilled. There are valid responses to this problem but consideration of them would take us far afield.

[6] It is silly to imagine me hypothesizing the various numbers of Surahs the Quran could contain before testing my hypothesis by opening the book. Of course, if Mizrahi wishes, I can always put ordinary factual knowledge in the form of a testable proposition. Open War and Peace and you will find it contains an account of the battle of Borodino. Why is a true prediction of this kind any different than a true prediction in science?

[7] Here in fact we get to the nub of the problem. The ultimate problem with scientism weak or strong is that in the real world different knowledge forms interact with each other constantly. Science advances with the help of craftsmen as with the invention of the telescope. Craftsmen make use of science as when a running coach consults a physician. Archeologists and paleontologists employ abduction or hermeneutic reasoning. Art historians call on chemists while biologists call on the local knowledge of indigenous peoples. In a sense there is no such thing as ‘science’ pure and simple as other knowledge forms are inherent to its own structure (even deductive reasoning, the proper province of logicians, is essential to standard accounts of scientific method). This is one reason why, in fact, there is no one superior knowledge form but rather systematic interdependence of ALL knowledge forms.

[8] This is not the only instance of Mizrahi, apparently, trying to use a persuasive definition to win what looks like a mere verbal victory. Of course you can define knowledge as “what the sciences do”, assign another word to “what the humanities do” and go home waving the flag of triumph. But why should any of the rest of take note of such an arbitrary procedure?

[9] Again the problem is that the instrumental success of science rests on the instrumental success of a multitude of other things like the knowledge of bus schedules that gets us to the lab or the social knowledge that allows us to navigate modern institutions. No science tells us how to write a winning grant proposal or informs us that for as longs as Dr. Smith is chief editor of Widgetology the truth about widgets is whatever he says it is. Thus even if we confined the question to the last 50 years it is clear that science cannot claim instrumental superiority over the myriad other anonymous, unmarked processes that make science possible in the first place.

[10] My son, when he was a toddler, ran about the playground proclaiming himself ‘the greatest’. When he failed at any task or challenge he would casually turn to his mother and say “well, the greatest doesn’t do that”! This seems to be the position of many proponents of scientism. If scientists cannot produce good explanations in a field like literature or classics, then it must be that those fields are not really knowledge.

[11] Aristotle made this point ages ago. No inquiry into ethics he tells can have the rigour of geometry any more than the geometer need employ the art of rhetoric. (Nichomachean Ethics; 3, 20,25) Ethics employs phronesis or prudential judgment not logical deduction. Each discipline is answerable to its own internal standards which do not apply outside that discipline. There is, then, no overall ‘super-science’ (like the Platonic dialectic) that embodies a universal method for dealing with all subjects. Aristotle’s world is pluralist, discontinuous and analogical. For this reason, scientists have tended to be Platonists and modern science might be viewed as the revenge of the Platonic/Pythagorean tradition against its wayward pupil. Contemporary philosophy of science, if this author understands it correctly, seems to have restored Aristotelian praxis to the centre of the scientific enterprise. Students of Wittgenstein will no doubt appreciate the point that knowledge comes in as many varieties as games do and there is no more a single account of the first than there is of the second.

Author Information: Alfred Moore, University of York, UK,

Moore, Alfred. “Transparency and the Dynamics of Trust and Distrust.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 4 (2018), 26-32.

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A climate monitoring camp at Blackheath in London, UK, on the evening of 28 August 2009.
Image by fotdmike via Flickr / Creative Commons


In 1961 the Journal of the American Medical Association published a survey suggesting that 90% of doctors who diagnosed cancer in their patients would choose not to tell them (Oken 1961). The doctors in the study gave a variety of reasons, including (unsubstantiated) fears that patients might commit suicide, and feelings of futility about the prospects of treatment. Among other things, this case stands as a reminder that, while it is a commonplace that lay people often don’t trust experts, at least as important is that experts often don’t trust lay people.

Paternalist Distrust

I was put in mind of this stunning example of communicative paternalism while reading Stephen John’s recent paper, “Epistemic trust and the ethics of science communication: against transparency, openness, sincerity and honesty.” John makes a case against a presumption of openness in science communication that – although his argument is more subtle – reads at times like a rational reconstruction of a doctor-patient relationship from the 1950s. What is disquieting is that he makes a case that is, at first glance, quite persuasive.

When lay people choose to trust what experts tell them, John argues, they are (or their behaviour can usefully be modelled as though they are) making two implicit judgments. The first, and least controversial, is that ‘if some claim meets scientific epistemic standards for proper acceptance, then [they] should accept that claim’ (John 2018, 77). He calls this the ‘epistemological premise’.

Secondly, however, the lay person needs to be convinced that the ‘[i]nstitutional structures are such that the best explanation for the factual content of some claim (made by a scientist, or group, or subject to some consensus) is that this claim meets scientific “epistemic standards” for proper acceptance’ (John 2018, 77). He calls this the ‘sociological premise.’ He suggests, rightly, I think, that this is the premise in dispute in many contemporary cases of distrust in science. Climate change sceptics (if that is the right word) typically do not doubt that we should accept claims that meet scientific epistemic standards; rather, they doubt that the ‘socio-epistemic institutions’ that produce scientific claims about climate change are in fact working as they should (John 2018, 77).

Consider the example of the so-called ‘climate-gate’ controversy, in which a cache of emails between a number of prominent climate scientists were made public on the eve of a major international climate summit in 2009. The emails below (quoted in Moore 2017, 141) were full of claims that might – to the unitiated – look like evidence of sharp practice. For example:

“I should warn you that some data we have we are not supposed [to] pass on to others. We can pass on the gridded data—which we do. Even if WMO [World Meteorological Organization] agrees, I will still not pass on the data. We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it.”

“You can delete this attachment if you want. Keep this quiet also, but this is the person who is putting in FOI requests for all emails Keith and Tim have written and received re Ch 6 of AR4 We think we’ve found a way around this.”

“The other paper by MM is just garbage. … I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!”

“I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd [sic] from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”

As Phil Jones, then director of the Climate Research Unit, later admitted, the emails “do not read well.”[1] However, neither, on closer inspection,[2] did they show anything particularly out of the ordinary, and certainly nothing like corruption or fraud. Most of the controversy, it seemed, came from lay people misinterpreting the backstage conversation of scientists in light of a misleading image of what good science is supposed to look like.

The Illusions of Folk Philosophy of Science

This is the central problem identified in John’s paper. Many people, he suggests, evaluate the ‘sociological premise’ in light of a ‘folk philosophy of science’ that is worlds away from the reality of scientific practice. For this reason, revealing to a non-expert public how the sausage is made can lead not to understanding, ‘but to greater confusion’ (John 2017, 82). And worse, as he suggests happened in the climate-gate case, it might lead people to reject well-founded scientific claims in the mistaken belief that they did not meet proper epistemic standards within the relevant epistemic community. Transparency might thus lead to unwarranted distrust.

In a perfect world we might educate everybody in the theory and practice of modern science. In the absence of such a world, however, scientists need to play along with the folk belief in order to get lay audiences to adopt those claims that are in their epistemic best interests. Thus, John argues, scientists explaining themselves to lay publics should seek to ‘well-lead’ (the benevolent counterpart to mislead) their audience. That is, they should try to bring the lay person to hold the most epistemically sound beliefs, even if this means masking uncertainties, glossing complications, pretending more precision than you know to be the case, and so on.

Although John presents his argument as something close to heresy, his model of ‘well-leading’ speech describes a common enough practice. Economists, for instance, face a similar temptation to mask uncertainties and gloss complications and counter-arguments when engaging with political leaders and wider publics on issues such as the benefits and disadvantages of free trade policies.

As Dani Rodrik puts it:

As a professional economist, as an academic economist, day in and day out I see in seminars and papers a great variety of views on what the effects of trade agreements are, the ambiguous effects of deep integration. Inside economics, you see that there is not a single view on globalization. But the moment that gets translated into the political domain, economists have this view that you should never provide ammunition to the barbarians. So the barbarians are these people who don’t understand the notion of comparative advantage and the gains from trade, and you don’t want… any of these caveats, any of these uncertainties, to be reflected in the public debate. (Rodrik 2017, at c.30-34 mins).

‘Well-leading’ speech seems to be the default mode for experts talking to lay audiences.

An Intentional Deception

A crucial feature of ‘well-leading’ speech is that it has no chance of working if you tell the audience what you are up to. It is a strategy that cannot be openly avowed without undermining itself, and thus relies on a degree of deception. Furthermore, the well-leading strategy only works if the audience already trusts the experts in question, and is unlikely to help – and is likely to actively harm expert credibility – in context where experts are already under suspicion and scrutiny. John thus admits that this strategy can backfire if the audience is made aware of some of the hidden complications, and worse, as was case of in climate-gate, if it seems the experts actively sought to evade demands for transparency and accountability (John 2017, 82).

This puts experts in a bind: be ‘open and honest’ and risk being misunderstood; or engage in ‘well-leading’ speech and risk being exposed – and then misunderstood! I’m not so sure the dilemma is actually as stark as all that, but John identifies a real and important problem: When an audience misunderstands what the proper conduct of some activity consists in, then revealing information about the conduct of the activity can lead them to misjudge its quality. Furthermore, to the extent that experts have to adjust their conduct to conform to what the audience thinks it should look like, revealing information about the process can undermine the quality of the outcomes.

One economist has thus argued that accountability works best when it is based on information about outcomes, and that information about process ‘can have detrimental effects’ (Prat 2005: 863). By way of example, she compares two ways of monitoring fund managers. One way is to look at the yearly returns. The other way (exemplified, in her case, by pension funds), involves communicating directly with fund managers and demanding that they ‘explain their investment strategy’ (Prat 2005, 870). The latter strategy, she claims, produces worse outcomes than those monitored only by their results, because the agents have an incentive to act in a way that conforms to what the principal regards as appropriate rather than what the agent regards as the most effective action.

Expert Accountability

The point here is that when experts are held accountable – at the level of process – by those without the relevant expertise, their judgment is effectively displaced by that of their audience. To put it another way, if you want the benefit of expert judgment, you have to forgo the urge to look too closely at what they are doing. Onora O’Neill makes a similar point: ‘Plants don’t flourish when we pull them up too often to check how their roots are growing: political, institutional and professional life too may not flourish if we constantly uproot it to demonstrate that everything is transparent and trustworthy’ (O’Neill 2002: 19).

Of course, part of the problem in the climate case is that the outcomes are also subject to expert interpretation. When evaluating a fund manager you can select good people, leave them alone, and check that they hit their targets. But how do you evaluate a claim about likely sea-level rise over the next century? If radical change is needed now to avert such catastrophic effects, then the point is precisely not to wait and see if they are right before we act. This means that both the ‘select and trust’ and the ‘distrust and monitor’ models of accountability are problematic, and we are back with the problem: How can accountability work when you don’t know enough about the activity in question to know if it’s being done right? How are we supposed to hold experts accountable in ways that don’t undermine the very point of relying on experts?

The idea that communicative accountability to lay people can only diminish the quality either of warranted trust (John’s argument) or the quality of outcomes (Prat’s argument) presumes that expert knowledge is a finished product, so to speak. After all, if experts have already done their due diligence and could not get a better answer, then outsiders have nothing epistemically meaningful to add. But if expert knowledge is not a finished product, then demands for accountability from outsiders to the expert community can, in principle, have some epistemic value.

Consider the case of HIV-AIDS research and the role of activists in challenging expert ideas of what constituted ‘good science’ in conduct of clinical trials. In this engagement they ‘were not rejecting medical science,’ but were rather “denouncing some variety of scientific practice … as not conducive to medical progress and the health and welfare of their constituency” (Epstein 1996: 2). It is at least possible that the process of engaging with and responding to criticism can lead to learning on both sides and the production, ultimately, of better science. What matters is not whether the critics begin with an accurate view of the scientific process; rather, what matters is how the process of criticism and response is carried out.

On 25 April 2012, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) celebrated its 25th anniversary with a protest march through Manhattan’s financial district. The march, held in partnership with Occupy Wall Street, included about 2000 people.
Image by Michael Fleshman via Flickr / Creative Commons


We Are Never Alone

This leads me to an important issue that John doesn’t address. One of the most attractive features of his approach is that he moves beyond the limited examples, prevalent in the social epistemology literature, of one lay person evaluating the testimony of one expert, or perhaps two competing experts. He rightly observes that experts speak for collectives and thus that we are implicitly judging the functioning of institutions when we judge expert testimony. But he misses an analogous sociological problem on the side of the lay person. We rarely judge alone. Rather, we use ‘trust proxies’ (MacKenzie and Warren 2012).

I may not know enough to know whether those climate scientists were not doing good science, but others can do that work for me. I might trust my representatives, who have on my behalf conducted open investigations and inquiries. They are not climate scientists, but they have given the matter the kind of sustained attention that I have not. I might trust particular media outlets to do this work. I might trust social movements.

To go back to the AIDS case, ACT-UP functioned for many as a trust proxy of this sort, with the skills and resources to do this sort of monitoring, developing competence but with interests more closely aligned with the wider community affected by the issue. Or I might even trust the judgments of groups of citizens randomly selected and given an opportunity to more deeply engage with the issues for just this purpose (see Gastil, Richards, and Knobloch 2014).

This hardly, on its own, solves the problem of lay judgment of experts. Indeed, it would seem to place it at one remove and introduce a layer of intermediaries. But it is worth attending to these sorts of judgments for at least two reasons. One is because, in a descriptive sense, this is what actually seems to be going on with respect to expert-lay judgment. People aren’t directly judging the claims of climate scientists, and they’re not even judging the functioning of scientific institutions; they’re simply taking cues from their own trusted intermediaries. The second is that the problems and pathologies of expert-lay communication are, in large part, problems with their roots in failures of intermediary institutions and practices.

To put it another way, I suspect that a large part of John’s (legitimate) concern about transparency is at root a concern about unmediated lay judgment of experts. After all, in the climate-gate case, we are dealing with lay people effectively looking over the shoulders of the scientists as they write their emails. One might have similar concerns about video monitoring of meetings: they seem to show you what is going on but in fact are likely to mislead you because you don’t really know what you’re looking at (Licht and Naurin 2015). You lack the context and understanding of the practice that can be provided by observers, who need not themselves be experts, but who need to know enough about the practice to tell the difference between good and bad conduct.

The same idea can apply to transparency of reasoning, involving the demand that actors give a public account of their actions. While the demand that authorities explain how and why they reached their judgments seems to fall victim to the problem of lay misunderstanding, it also offers a way out of it. After all, in John’s own telling of the case, he explains in a convincing way why the first impression (that the ‘sociological premise’ has not been fulfilled) is misleading. The initial scandal initiated a process of scrutiny in which some non-experts (such as the political representatives organising the parliamentary inquiry) engaged in closer scrutiny of the expert practice in question.

Practical lay judgment of experts does not require that lay people become experts (as Lane 2014 and Moore 2017 have argued), but it does require a lot more engagement than the average citizen would either want or have time for. The point here is that most citizens still don’t know enough to properly evaluate the sociological premise and thus properly interpret information they receive about the conduct of scientists. But they can (and do) rely on proxies to do the work of monitoring and scrutinizing experts.

Where does this leave us? John is right to say that what matters is not the generation of trust per se, but warranted trust, or an alignment of trust and trustworthiness. What I think he misses is that distrust is crucial to the possible way in which transparency can (potentially) lead to trustworthiness. Trust and distrust, on this view, are in a dynamic relation: Distrust motivates scrutiny and the creation of institutional safeguards that make trustworthy conduct more likely. Something like this case for transparency was made by Jeremy Bentham (see Bruno 2017).

John rightly points to the danger that popular misunderstanding can lead to a backfire in the transition from ‘scrutiny’ to ‘better behaviour.’ But he responds by asserting a model of ‘well-leading’ speech that seems to assume that lay people already trust experts, and he thus leaves unanswered the crucial questions raised by his central example: What are we to do when we begin from distrust and suspicion? How we might build trustworthiness out of distrust?

Contact details:


Bruno, Jonathan. “Vigilance and Confidence: Jeremy Bentham, Publicity, and the Dialectic of Trust and Distrust.” American Political Science Review, 111, no. 2 (2017) pp. 295-307.

Epstein, S. Impure Science: AIDS, Activism and the Politics of Knowledge. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1996.

Gastil, J., Richards, R. C., & Knobloch, K. R. “Vicarious deliberation: How the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review influenced deliberation in mass elections.” International Journal of Communication, 8 (2014), 62–89.

John, Stephen. “Epistemic trust and the ethics of science communication: against transparency, openness, sincerity and honesty.” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 32, no. 2 (2017) 75-87.

Lane, Melissa. “When the Experts are Uncertain: Scientific Knowledge and the Ethics of Democratic Judgment.” Episteme 11, no. 1 (2014) 97-118.

Licht, Jenny de Fine, and Daniel Naurin. “Open Decision-Making Procedures and Public Legitimacy: An Inventory of Causal Mechanisms”. In Jon Elster (ed), Secrecy and Publicity in Votes and Debates. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2015), 131-151.

MacKenzie, Michael, and Mark E. Warren, “Two Trust-Based Uses of Minipublics.” In John Parkinson and Jane Mansbridge (eds.) Deliberative Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2012), 95-124.

Moore, Alfred. Critical Elitism: Deliberation, Democracy, and the Politics of Expertise. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Oken, Donald. “What to Tell Cancer Patients: A Study of Medical Attitudes.” Journal of the American Medical Association 175, no. 13 (1961) 1120-1128.

O’Neill, Onora. A Question of Trust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Prat, Andrea. The Wrong Kind of Transparency. The American Economic Review 95, no. 3 (2005), 862-877.

[1] In a statement released on 24 November 2009,

[2] One of eight separate investigations was by the House of Commons select committee on Science and Technology (

Author information: Moti Mizrahi, Florida Institute of Technology,

Mizrahi, Moti. “More in Defense of Weak Scientism: Another Reply to Brown.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 4 (2018): 7-25.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image by eltpics via Flickr / Creative Commons


In my (2017a), I defend a view I call Weak Scientism, which is the view that knowledge produced by scientific disciplines is better than knowledge produced by non-scientific disciplines.[1] Scientific knowledge can be said to be quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as scientific disciplines produce more impactful knowledge–in the form of scholarly publications–than non-scientific disciplines (as measured by research output and research impact). Scientific knowledge can be said to be qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as such knowledge is explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively more successful than non-scientific knowledge.

Brown (2017a) raises several objections against my defense of Weak Scientism and I have replied to his objections (Mizrahi 2017b), thereby showing again that Weak Scientism is a defensible view. Since then, Brown (2017b) has reiterated his objections in another reply on SERRC. Almost unchanged from his previous attack on Weak Scientism (Brown 2017a), Brown’s (2017b) objections are the following:

  1. Weak Scientism is not strong enough to count as scientism.
  2. Advocates of Strong Scientism should not endorse Weak Scientism.
  3. Weak Scientism does not show that philosophy is useless.
  4. My defense of Weak Scientism appeals to controversial philosophical assumptions.
  5. My defense of Weak Scientism is a philosophical argument.
  6. There is nothing wrong with persuasive definitions of scientism.

In what follows, I will respond to these objections, thereby showing once more that Weak Scientism is a defensible view. Since I have been asked to keep this as short as possible, however, I will try to focus on what I take to be new in Brown’s (2017b) latest attack on Weak Scientism.

Is Weak Scientism Strong Enough to Count as Scientism?

Brown (2017b) argues for (1) on the grounds that, on Weak Scientism, “philosophical knowledge may be nearly as valuable as scientific knowledge.” Brown (2017b, 4) goes on to characterize a view he labels “Scientism2,” which he admits is the same view as Strong Scientism, and says that “there is a huge logical gap between Strong Scientism (Scientism2) and Weak Scientism.”

As was the case the first time Brown raised this objection, it is not clear how it is supposed to show that Weak Scientism is not “really” a (weaker) version of scientism (Mizrahi 2017b, 10-11). Of course there is a logical gap between Strong Scientism and Weak Scientism; that is why I distinguish between these two epistemological views. If I am right, Strong Scientism is too strong to be a defensible version of scientism, whereas Weak Scientism is a defensible (weaker) version of scientism (Mizrahi 2017a, 353-354).

Of course Weak Scientism “leaves open the possibility that there is philosophical knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 5). If I am right, such philosophical knowledge would be inferior to scientific knowledge both quantitatively (in terms of research output and research impact) and qualitatively (in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success) (Mizrahi 2017a, 358).

Brown (2017b, 5) does try to offer a reason “for thinking it strange that Weak Scientism counts as a species of scientism” in his latest attack on Weak Scientism, which does not appear in his previous attack. He invites us to imagine a theist who believes that “modern science is the greatest new intellectual achievement since the fifteenth century” (emphasis in original). Brown then claims that this theist would be an advocate of Weak Scientism because Brown (2017b, 6) takes “modern science is the greatest new intellectual achievement since the fifteenth century” to be “(roughly) equivalent to Weak Scientism.” For Brown (2017b, 6), however, “it seems odd, to say the least, that [this theist] should count as an advocate (even roughly) of scientism.”

Unfortunately, Brown’s appeal to intuition is rather difficult to evaluate because his hypothetical case is under-described.[2] First, the key phrase, namely, “modern science is the greatest new intellectual achievement since the fifteenth century,” is vague in more ways than one. I have no idea what “greatest” is supposed to mean here. Greatest in what respects? What are the other “intellectual achievements” relative to which science is said to be “the greatest”?

Also, what does “intellectual achievement” mean here? There are multiple accounts and literary traditions in history and philosophy of science, science studies, and the like on what counts as “intellectual achievements” or progress in science (Mizrahi 2013b). Without a clear understanding of what these key phrases mean here, it is difficult to tell how Brown’s intuition about this hypothetical case is supposed to be a reason to think that Weak Scientism is not “really” a (weaker) version of scientism.

Toward the end of his discussion of (1), Brown says something that suggests he actually has an issue with the word ‘scientism’. Brown (2017b, 6) writes, “perhaps Mizrahi should coin a new word for the position with respect to scientific knowledge and non-scientific forms of academic knowledge he wants to talk about” (emphasis in original). It should be clear, of course, that it does not matter what label I use for the view that “Of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the best knowledge” (Mizrahi 2017a, 354; emphasis in original). What matters is the content of the view, not the label.

Whether Brown likes the label or not, Weak Scientism is a (weaker) version of scientism because it is the view that scientific ways of knowing are superior (in certain relevant respects) to non-scientific ways of knowing, whereas Strong Scientism is the view that scientific ways of knowing are the only ways of knowing. As I have pointed out in my previous reply to Brown, whether scientific ways of knowing are superior to non-scientific ways of knowing is essentially what the scientism debate is all about (Mizrahi 2017b, 13).

Before I conclude this discussion of (1), I would like to point out that Brown seems to have misunderstood Weak Scientism. He (2017b, 3) claims that “Weak Scientism is a normative and not a descriptive claim.” This is a mistake. As a thesis (Peels 2017, 11), Weak Scientism is a descriptive claim about scientific knowledge in comparison to non-scientific knowledge. This should be clear provided that we keep in mind what it means to say that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge. As I have argued in my (2017a), to say that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge is to say that there is a lot more scientific knowledge than non-scientific knowledge (as measured by research output) and that the impact of scientific knowledge is greater than that of non-scientific knowledge (as measured by research impact).

To say that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge is to say that scientific knowledge is explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively more successful than non-scientific knowledge. All these claims about the superiority of scientific knowledge to non-scientific knowledge are descriptive, not normative, claims. That is to say, Weak Scientism is the view that, as a matter of fact, knowledge produced by scientific fields of study is quantitatively (in terms of research output and research impact) and qualitatively (in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success) better than knowledge produced by non-scientific fields of study.

Of course, Weak Scientism does have some normative implications. For instance, if scientific knowledge is indeed better than non-scientific knowledge, then, other things being equal, we should give more evidential weight to scientific knowledge than to non-scientific knowledge. For example, suppose that I am considering whether to vaccinate my child or not. On the one hand, I have scientific knowledge in the form of results from clinical trials according to which MMR vaccines are generally safe and effective.

On the other hand, I have knowledge in the form of stories about children who were vaccinated and then began to display symptoms of autism. If Weak Scientism is true, and I want to make a decision based on the best available information, then I should give more evidential weight to the scientific knowledge about MMR vaccines than to the anecdotal knowledge about MMR vaccines simply because the former is scientific (i.e., knowledge obtained by means of the methods of science, such as clinical trials) and the latter is not.

Should Advocates of Strong Scientism Endorse Weak Scientism?

Brown (2017b, 7) argues for (2) on the grounds that “once the advocate of Strong Scientism sees that an advocate of Weak Scientism admits the possibility that there is real knowledge other than what is produced by the natural sciences […] the advocate of Strong Scientism, at least given their philosophical presuppositions, will reject Weak Scientism out of hand.” It is not clear which “philosophical presuppositions” Brown is talking about here. Brown quotes Rosenberg (2011, 20), who claims that physics tells us what reality is like, presumably as an example of a proponent of Strong Scientism who would not endorse Weak Scientism. But it is not clear why Brown thinks that Rosenberg would “reject Weak Scientism out of hand” (Brown 2017d, 7).

Like other proponents of scientism, Rosenberg should endorse Weak Scientism because, unlike Strong Scientism, Weak Scientism is a defensible view. Insofar as we should endorse the view that has the most evidence in its favor, Weak Scientism has more going for it than Strong Scientism does. For to show that Strong Scientism is true, one would have to show that no field of study other than scientific ones can produce knowledge. Of course, that is not easy to show. To show that Weak Scientism is true, one only needs to show that the knowledge produced in scientific fields of study is better (in certain relevant respects) than the knowledge produced in non-scientific fields.

That is precisely what I show in my (2017a). I argue that the knowledge produced in scientific fields is quantitatively better than the knowledge produced in non-scientific fields because there is a lot more scientific knowledge than non-scientific knowledge (as measured by research output) and the former has a greater impact than the latter (as measured by research impact). I also argue that the knowledge produced in scientific fields is qualitatively better than knowledge produced in non-scientific fields because it is more explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively successful.

Contrary to what Brown (2017b, 7) seems to think, I do not have to show “that there is real knowledge other than scientific knowledge.” To defend Weak Scientism, all I have to show is that scientific knowledge is better (in certain relevant respects) than non-scientific knowledge. If anyone must argue for the claim that there is real knowledge other than scientific knowledge, it is Brown, for he wants to defend the value or usefulness of non-scientific knowledge, specifically, philosophical knowledge.

It is important to emphasize the point about the ways in which scientific knowledge is quantitatively and qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge because it looks like Brown has confused the two. For he thinks that I justify my quantitative analysis of scholarly publications in scientific and non-scientific fields by “citing the precedent of epistemologists who often treat all items of knowledge as qualitatively the same” (Brown 2017b, 22; emphasis added).

Here Brown fails to carefully distinguish between my claim that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge and my claim that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge. For the purposes of a quantitative study of knowledge, information and data scientists can do precisely what epistemologists do and “abstract from various circumstances (by employing variables)” (Brown 2017b, 22) in order to determine which knowledge is quantitatively better.

How Is Weak Scientism Relevant to the Claim that Philosophy Is Useless?

Brown (2017b, 7-8) argues for (3) on the grounds that “Weak Scientism itself implies nothing about the degree to which philosophical knowledge is valuable or useful other than stating scientific knowledge is better than philosophical knowledge” (emphasis in original).

Strictly speaking, Brown is wrong about this because Weak Scientism does imply something about the degree to which scientific knowledge is better than philosophical knowledge. Recall that to say that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge is to say that scientific fields of study publish more research and that scientific research has greater impact than the research published in non-scientific fields of study.

Contrary to what Brown seems to think, we can say to what degree scientific research is superior to non-scientific research in terms of output and impact. That is precisely what bibliometric indicators like h-index and other metrics are for (Rousseau et al. 2018). Such bibliometric indicators allow us to say how many articles are published in a given field, how many of those published articles are cited, and how many times they are cited. For instance, according to Scimago Journal & Country Rank (2018), which contains data from the Scopus database, of the 3,815 Philosophy articles published in the United States in 2016-2017, approximately 14% are cited, and their h-index is approximately 160.

On the other hand, of the 24,378 Psychology articles published in the United States in 2016-2017, approximately 40% are cited, and their h-index is approximately 640. Contrary to what Brown seems to think, then, we can say to what degree research in Psychology is better than research in Philosophy in terms of research output (i.e., number of publications) and research impact (i.e., number of citations). We can use the same bibliometric indicators and metrics to compare research in other scientific and non-scientific fields of study.

As I have already said in my previous reply to Brown, “Weak Scientism does not entail that philosophy is useless” and “I have no interest in defending the charge that philosophy is useless” (Mizrahi 2017b, 11-12). So, I am not sure why Brown brings up (3) again. Since he insists, however, let me explain why philosophers who are concerned about the charge that philosophy is useless should engage with Weak Scientism as well.

Suppose that a foundation or agency is considering whether to give a substantial grant to one of two projects. The first project is that of a philosopher who will sit in her armchair and contemplate the nature of friendship.[3] The second project is that of a team of social scientists who will conduct a longitudinal study of the effects of friendship on human well-being (e.g., Yang et al. 2016).

If Weak Scientism is true, and the foundation or agency wants to fund the project that is likely to yield better results, then it should give the grant to the team of social scientists rather than to the armchair philosopher simply because the former’s project is scientific, whereas the latter’s is not. This is because the scientific project will more likely yield better knowledge than the non-scientific project will. In other words, unlike the project of the armchair philosopher, the scientific project will probably produce more research (i.e., more publications) that will have a greater impact (i.e., more citations) and the knowledge produced will be explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively more successful than any knowledge that the philosopher’s project might produce.

This example should really hit home for Brown, since reading his latest attack on Weak Scientism gives one the impression that he thinks of philosophy as a personal, “self-improvement” kind of enterprise, rather than an academic discipline or field of study. For instance, he seems to be saying that philosophy is not in the business of producing “new knowledge” or making “discoveries” (Brown 2017b, 17).

Rather, Brown (2017b, 18) suggests that philosophy “is more about individual intellectual progress rather than collective intellectual progress.” Individual progress or self-improvement is great, of course, but I am not sure that it helps Brown’s case in defense of philosophy against what he sees as “the menace of scientism.” For this line of thinking simply adds fuel to the fire set by those who want to see philosophy burn. As I point out in my (2017a), scientists who dismiss philosophy do so because they find it academically useless.

For instance, Hawking and Mlodinow (2010, 5) write that ‘philosophy is dead’ because it ‘has not kept up with developments in science, particularly physics’ (emphasis added). Similarly, Weinberg (1994, 168) says that, as a working scientist, he ‘finds no help in professional philosophy’ (emphasis added). (Mizrahi 2017a, 356)

Likewise, Richard Feynman is rumored to have said that “philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds” (Kitcher 1998, 32). It is clear, then, that what these scientists complain about is professional or academic philosophy. Accordingly, they would have no problem with anyone who wants to pursue philosophy for the sake of “individual intellectual progress.” But that is not the issue here. Rather, the issue is academic knowledge or research.

Does My Defense of Weak Scientism Appeal to Controversial Philosophical Assumptions?

Brown (2017b, 9) argues for (4) on the grounds that I assume that “we are supposed to privilege empirical (I read Mizrahi’s ‘empirical’ here as ‘experimental/scientific’) evidence over non-empirical evidence.” But that is question-begging, Brown claims, since he takes me to be assuming something like the following: “If the question of whether scientific knowledge is superior to [academic] non-scientific knowledge is a question that one can answer empirically, then, in order to pose a serious challenge to my [Mizrahi’s] defense of Weak Scientism, Brown must come up with more than mere ‘what ifs’” (Mizrahi 2017b, 10; quoted in Brown 2017b, 8).

This objection seems to involve a confusion about how defeasible reasoning and defeating evidence are supposed to work. Given that “a rebutting defeater is evidence which prevents E from justifying belief in H by supporting not-H in a more direct way” (Kelly 2016), claims about what is actual cannot be defeated by mere possibilities, since claims of the form “Possibly, p” do not prevent a piece of evidence from justifying belief in “Actually, p” by supporting “Actually, not-p” directly.

For example, the claim “Hillary Clinton could have been the 45th President of the United States” does not prevent my perceptual and testimonial evidence from justifying my belief in “Donald Trump is the 45th President of the United States,” since the former does not support “It is not the case that Donald Trump is the 45th President of the United States” in a direct way. In general, claims of the form “Possibly, p” are not rebutting defeaters against claims of the form “Actually, p.” Defeating evidence against claims of the form “Actually, p” must be about what is actual (or at least probable), not what is merely possible, in order to support “Actually, not-p” directly.

For this reason, although “the production of some sorts of non-scientific knowledge work may be harder than the production of scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 19), Brown gives no reasons to think that it is actually or probably harder, which is why this possibility does nothing to undermine the claim that scientific knowledge is actually better than non-scientific knowledge. Just as it is possible that philosophical knowledge is harder to produce than scientific knowledge, it is also possible that scientific knowledge is harder to produce than philosophical knowledge. It is also possible that scientific and non-scientific knowledge are equally hard to produce.

Similarly, the possibility that “a little knowledge about the noblest things is more desirable than a lot of knowledge about less noble things” (Brown 2017b, 19), whatever “noble” is supposed to mean here, does not prevent my bibliometric evidence (in terms of research output and research impact) from justifying the belief that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge. Just as it is possible that philosophical knowledge is “nobler” (whatever that means) than scientific knowledge, it is also possible that scientific knowledge is “nobler” than philosophical knowledge or that they are equally “noble” (Mizrahi 2017b, 9-10).

In fact, even if Brown (2017a, 47) is right that “philosophy is harder than science” and that “knowing something about human persons–particularly qua embodied rational being–is a nobler piece of knowledge than knowing something about any non-rational object” (Brown 2017b, 21), whatever “noble” is supposed to mean here, it would still be the case that scientific fields produce more knowledge (as measured by research output), and more impactful knowledge (as measured by research impact), than non-scientific disciplines.

So, I am not sure why Brown keeps insisting on mentioning these mere possibilities. He also seems to forget that the natural and social sciences study human persons as well. Even if knowledge about human persons is “nobler” (whatever that means), there is a lot of scientific knowledge about human persons coming from scientific fields, such as anthropology, biology, genetics, medical science, neuroscience, physiology, psychology, and sociology, to name just a few.

One of the alleged “controversial philosophical assumptions” that my defense of Weak Scientism rests on, and that Brown (2017a) complains about the most in his previous attack on Weak Scientism, is my characterization of philosophy as the scholarly work that professional philosophers do. In my previous reply, I argue that Brown is not in a position to complain that this is a “controversial philosophical assumption,” since he rejects my characterization of philosophy as the scholarly work that professional philosophers produce, but he does not tell us what counts as philosophical (Mizrahi 2017b, 13). Well, it turns out that Brown does not reject my characterization of philosophy after all. For, after he was challenged to say what counts as philosophical, he came up with the following “sufficient condition for pieces of writing and discourse that count as philosophy” (Brown 2017b, 11):

(P) Those articles published in philosophical journals and what academics with a Ph.D. in philosophy teach in courses at public universities with titles such as Introduction to Philosophy, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Normative Ethics, and Philosophy of Science (Brown 2017b, 11; emphasis added).

Clearly, this is my characterization of philosophy in terms of the scholarly work that professional philosophers produce. Brown simply adds teaching to it. Since he admits that “scientists teach students too” (Brown 2017b, 18), however, it is not clear how adding teaching to my characterization of philosophy is supposed to support his attack on Weak Scientism. In fact, it may actually undermine his attack on Weak Scientism, since there is a lot more teaching going on in STEM fields than in non-STEM fields.

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (2017), in the 2015-16 academic year, post-secondary institutions in the United States conferred only 10,157 Bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies compared to 113,749 Bachelor’s degrees in biological and biomedical sciences, 106,850 Bachelor’s degrees in engineering, and 117,440 in psychology. In general, in the 2015-2016 academic year, 53.3% of the Bachelor’s degrees conferred by post-secondary institutions in the United States were degrees in STEM fields, whereas only 5.5% of conferred Bachelor’s degrees were in the humanities (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Bachelor’s degrees conferred by post-secondary institutions in the US, by field of study, 2015-2016 (Source: NCES)


Clearly, then, there is a lot more teaching going on in science than in philosophy (or even in the humanities in general), since a lot more students take science courses and graduate with degrees in scientific fields of study. So, even if Brown is right that we should include teaching in what counts as philosophy, it is still the case that scientific fields are quantitatively better than non-scientific fields.

Since Brown (2017b, 13) seems to agree that philosophy (at least in part) is the scholarly work that academic philosophers produce, it is peculiar that he complains, without argument, that “an understanding of philosophy and knowledge as operational is […] shallow insofar as philosophy and knowledge can’t fit into the narrow parameters of another empirical study.” Once Brown (2017b, 11) grants that “Those articles published in philosophical journals” count as philosophy, he thereby also grants that these journal articles can be studied empirically using the methods of bibliometrics, information science, or data science.

That is, Brown (2017b, 11) concedes that philosophy consists (at least in part) of “articles published in philosophical journals,” and so these articles can be compared to other articles published in science journals to determine research output, and they can also be compared to articles published in science journals in terms of citation counts to determine research impact. What exactly is “shallow” about that? Brown does not say.

A, perhaps unintended, consequence of Brown’s (P) is that the “great thinkers from the past” (Brown 2017b, 18), those that Brown (2017b, 13) likes to remind us “were not professional philosophers,” did not do philosophy, by Brown’s own lights. For “Socrates, Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Locke, and Hume” (Brown 2017b, 13) did not publish in philosophy journals, were not academics with a Ph.D. in philosophy, and did not teach at public universities courses “with titles such as Introduction to Philosophy, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Normative Ethics, and Philosophy of Science” (Brown 2017b, 11).

Another peculiar thing about Brown’s (P) is the restriction of the philosophical to what is being taught in public universities. What about community colleges and private universities? Is Brown suggesting that philosophy courses taught at private universities do not count as philosophy courses? This is peculiar, especially in light of the fact that, at least according to The Philosophical Gourmet Report (Brogaard and Pynes 2018), the top ranked philosophy programs in the United States are mostly located in private universities, such as New York University and Princeton University.

Is My Defense of Weak Scientism a Scientific or a Philosophical Argument?

Brown argues for (5) on the grounds that my (2017a) is published in a philosophy journal, namely, Social Epistemology, and so it a piece of philosophical knowledge by my lights, since I count as philosophy the research articles that are published in philosophy journals.

Brown would be correct about this if Social Epistemology were a philosophy journal. But it is not. Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy is an interdisciplinary journal. The journal’s “aim and scope” statement makes it clear that Social Epistemology is an interdisciplinary journal:

Social Epistemology provides a forum for philosophical and social scientific enquiry that incorporates the work of scholars from a variety of disciplines who share a concern with the production, assessment and validation of knowledge. The journal covers both empirical research into the origination and transmission of knowledge and normative considerations which arise as such research is implemented, serving as a guide for directing contemporary knowledge enterprises (Social Epistemology 2018).

The fact that Social Epistemology is an interdisciplinary journal, with contributions from “Philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, cultural historians, social studies of science researchers, [and] educators” (Social Epistemology 2018) would not surprise anyone who is familiar with the history of the journal. The founding editor of the journal is Steve Fuller, who was trained in an interdisciplinary field, namely, History and Philosophy of Science (HPS), and is currently the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology in the Department of Sociology at Warwick University. Brown (2017b, 15) would surely agree that sociology is not philosophy, given that, for him, “cataloguing what a certain group of people believes is sociology and not philosophy.” The current executive editor of the journal is James H. Collier, who is a professor of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech, and who was trained in Science and Technology Studies (STS), which is an interdisciplinary field as well.

Brown asserts without argument that the methods of a scientific field of study, such as sociology, are different in kind from those of philosophy: “What I contend is that […] philosophical methods are different in kind from those of the experimental scientists [sciences?]” (Brown 2017b, 24). He then goes on to speculate about what it means to say that an explanation is testable (Brown 2017b, 25). What Brown comes up with is rather unclear to me. For instance, I have no idea what it means to evaluate an explanation by inductive generalization (Brown 2017b, 25).

Instead, Brown should have consulted any one of the logic and reasoning textbooks I keep referring to in my (2017a) and (2017b) to find out that it is generally accepted among philosophers that the good-making properties of explanations, philosophical and otherwise, include testability among other good-making properties (see, e.g., Sinnott-Armstrong and Fogelin 2010, 257). As far as testability is concerned, to test an explanation or hypothesis is to determine “whether predictions that follow from it are true” (Salmon 2013, 255). In other words, “To say that a hypothesis is testable is at least to say that some prediction made on the basis of that hypothesis may confirm or disconfirm it” (Copi et al. 2011, 515).

For this reason, Feser’s analogy according to which “to compare the epistemic values of science and philosophy and fault philosophy for not being good at making testable predications [sic] 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” (Brown 2017b, 25), which Brown likes to refer to (Brown 2017a, 48), is inapt.

It is not an apt analogy because, unlike metal detectors and gardening tools, which serve different purposes, both science and philosophy are in the business of explaining things. Indeed, Brown admits that, like good scientific explanations, “good philosophical theories explain things” (emphasis in original). In other words, Brown admits that both scientific and philosophical theories are instruments of explanation (unlike gardening and metal-detecting instruments). To provide good explanations, then, both scientific and philosophical theories must be testable (Mizrahi 2017b, 19-20).

What Is Wrong with Persuasive Definitions of Scientism?

Brown (2017b, 31) argues for (6) on the grounds that “persuasive definitions are [not] always dialectically pernicious.” He offers an argument whose conclusion is “abortion is murder” as an example of an argument for a persuasive definition of abortion. He then outlines an argument for a persuasive definition of scientism according to which “Weak Scientism is a view that has its advocates putting too high a value on scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32).

The problem, however, is that Brown is confounding arguments for a definition with the definition itself. Having an argument for a persuasive definition does not change the fact that it is a persuasive definition. To illustrate this point, let me give an example that I think Brown will appreciate. Suppose I define theism as an irrational belief in the existence of God. That is, “theism” means “an irrational belief in the existence of God.” I can also provide an argument for this definition:

P1: If it is irrational to have paradoxical beliefs and God is a paradoxical being, then theism is an irrational belief in the existence of God.

P2: It is irrational to have paradoxical beliefs and God is a paradoxical being (e.g., the omnipotence paradox).[4]


C: Theism is an irrational belief in the existence of God.

But surely, theists will complain that my definition of theism is a “dialectically pernicious” persuasive definition. For it stacks the deck against theists. It states that theists are already making a mistake, by definition, simply by believing in the existence of God. Even though I have provided an argument for this persuasive definition of theism, my definition is still a persuasive definition of theism, and my argument is unlikely to convince anyone who doesn’t already think that theism is irrational. Indeed, Brown (2017b, 30) himself admits that much when he says “good luck with that project!” about trying to construct a sound argument for “abortion is murder.” I take this to mean that pro-choice advocates would find his argument for “abortion is murder” dialectically inert precisely because it defines abortion in a manner that transfers “emotive force” (Salmon 2013, 65), which they cannot accept.

Likewise, theists would find the argument above dialectically inert precisely because it defines theism in a manner that transfers “emotive force” (Salmon 2013, 65), which they cannot accept. In other words, Brown seems to agree that there are good dialectical reasons to avoid appealing to persuasive definitions. Therefore, like “abortion is murder,” “theism is an irrational belief in the existence of God,” and “‘Homosexual’ means ‘one who has an unnatural desire for those of the same sex’” (Salmon 2013, 65), “Weak Scientism is a view that has its advocates putting too high a value on scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32) is a “dialectically pernicious” persuasive definition (cf. Williams 2015, 14).

Like persuasive definitions in general, it “masquerades as an honest assignment of meaning to a term while condemning or blessing with approval the subject matter of the definiendum” (Hurley 2015, 101). As I have pointed out in my (2017a), the problem with such definitions is that they “are strategies consisting in presupposing an unaccepted definition, taking a new unknowable description of meaning as if it were commonly shared” (Macagno and Walton 2014, 205).

As for Brown’s argument for the persuasive definition of Weak Scientism, according to which it “is a view that has its advocates putting too high a value on scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32), a key premise in this argument is the claim that there is a piece of philosophical knowledge that is better than scientific knowledge. This is premise 36 in Brown’s argument:

Some philosophers qua philosophers know that (a) true friendship is a necessary condition for human flourishing and (b) the possession of the moral virtues or a life project aimed at developing the moral virtues is a necessary condition for true friendship and (c) (therefore) the possession of the moral virtues or a life project aimed at developing the moral virtues is a necessary condition for human flourishing (see, e.g., the arguments in Plato’s Gorgias) and knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge (see, e.g., St. Augustine’s Confessions, book five, chapters iii and iv) [assumption]

There is a lot to unpack here, but I will focus on what I take to be the points most relevant to the scientism debate. First, Brown assumes 36 without argument, but why think it is true? In particular, why think that (a), (b), and (c) count as philosophical knowledge? Brown says that philosophers know (a), (b), and (c) in virtue of being philosophers, but he does not tell us why that is the case.

After all, accounts of friendship, with lessons about the significance of friendship, predate philosophy (see, e.g., the friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in The Epic of Gilgamesh). Did it really take Plato and Augustine to tell us about the significance of friendship? In fact, on Brown’s characterization of philosophy, namely, (P), (a), (b), and (c) do not count as philosophical knowledge at all, since Plato and Augustine did not publish in philosophy journals, were not academics with a Ph.D. in philosophy, and did not teach at public universities courses “with titles such as Introduction to Philosophy, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Normative Ethics, and Philosophy of Science” (Brown 2017b, 11).

Second, some philosophers, like Epicurus, need (and think that others need) friends to flourish, whereas others, like Diogenes of Sinope, need no one. For Diogenes, friends will only interrupt his sunbathing (Arrian VII.2). My point is not simply that philosophers disagree about the value of friendship and human flourishing. Of course they disagree.[5]

Rather, my point is that, in order to establish general truths about human beings, such as “Human beings need friends to flourish,” one must employ the methods of science, such as randomization and sampling procedures, blinding protocols, methods of statistical analysis, and the like; otherwise, one would simply commit the fallacies of cherry-picking anecdotal evidence and hasty generalization (Salmon 2013, 149-151). After all, the claim “Some need friends to flourish” does not necessitate, or even make more probable, the truth of “Human beings need friends to flourish.”[6]

Third, why think that “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32)? Better in what sense? Quantitatively? Qualitatively? Brown does not tell us. He simply declares it “self-evident” (Brown 2017b, 32). I take it that Brown would not want to argue that “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing” is better than scientific knowledge in the quantitative (i.e., in terms of research output and research impact) and qualitative (i.e., in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success) respects in which scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge, according to Weak Scientism.

If so, then in what sense exactly “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing” (Brown 2017b, 32) is supposed to be better than scientific knowledge? Brown (2017b, 32) simply assumes that without argument and without telling us in what sense exactly “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32).

Of course, philosophy does not have a monopoly on friendship and human flourishing as research topics. Psychologists and sociologists, among other scientists, work on friendship as well (see, e.g., Hojjat and Moyer 2017). To get an idea of how much research on friendship is done in scientific fields, such as psychology and sociology, and how much is done in philosophy, we can use a database like Web of Science.

Currently (03/29/2018), there are 12,334 records in Web of Science on the topic “friendship.” Only 76 of these records (0.61%) are from the Philosophy research area. Most of the records are from the Psychology (5,331 records) and Sociology (1,111) research areas (43.22% and 9%, respectively). As we can see from Figure 2, most of the research on friendship is done in scientific fields of study, such as psychology, sociology, and other social sciences.

Figure 2. Number of records on the topic “friendship” in Web of Science by research area (Source: Web of Science)


In terms of research impact, too, scientific knowledge about friendship is superior to philosophical knowledge about friendship. According to Web of Science, the average citations per year for Psychology research articles on the topic of friendship is 2826.11 (h-index is 148 and the average citations per item is 28.1), and the average citations per year for Sociology research articles on the topic of friendship is 644.10 (h-index is 86 and the average citations per item is 30.15), whereas the average citations per year for Philosophy research articles on friendship is 15.02 (h-index is 13 and the average citations per item is 8.11).

Quantitatively, then, psychological and sociological knowledge on friendship is better than philosophical knowledge in terms of research output and research impact. Both Psychology and Sociology produce significantly more research on friendship than Philosophy does, and the research they produce has significantly more impact (as measured by citation counts) than philosophical research on the same topic.

Qualitatively, too, psychological and sociological knowledge about friendship is better than philosophical knowledge about friendship. For, instead of rather vague statements about how “true friendship is a necessary condition for human flourishing” (Brown 2017b, 32) that are based on mostly armchair speculation, psychological and sociological research on friendship provides detailed explanations and accurate predictions about the effects of friendship (or lack thereof) on human well-being.

For instance, numerous studies provide evidence for the effects of friendships or lack of friendships on physical well-being (see, e.g., Yang et al. 2016) as well as mental well-being (see, e.g., Cacioppo and Patrick 2008). Further studies provide explanations for the biological and genetic bases of these effects (Cole et al. 2011). This knowledge, in turn, informs interventions designed to help people deal with loneliness and social isolation (see, e.g., Masi et al. 2010).[7]

To sum up, Brown (2017b, 32) has given no reasons to think that “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge.” He does not even tell us what “better” is supposed to mean here. He also ignores the fact that scientific fields of study, such as psychology and sociology, produce plenty of knowledge about human flourishing, both physical and mental well-being. In fact, as we have seen, science produces a lot more knowledge about topics related to human well-being, such as friendship, than philosophy does. For this reason, Brown (2017b, 32) has failed to show that “there is non-scientific form of knowledge better than scientific knowledge.”


At this point, I think it is quite clear that Brown and I are talking past each other on a couple of levels. First, I follow scientists (e.g., Weinberg 1994, 166-190) and philosophers (e.g., Haack 2007, 17-18 and Peels 2016, 2462) on both sides of the scientism debate in treating philosophy as an academic discipline or field of study, whereas Brown (2017b, 18) insists on thinking about philosophy as a personal activity of “individual intellectual progress.” Second, I follow scientists (e.g., Hawking and Mlodinow 2010, 5) and philosophers (e.g., Kidd 2016, 12-13 and Rosenberg 2011, 307) on both sides of the scientism debate in thinking about knowledge as the scholarly work or research produced in scientific fields of study, such as the natural sciences, as opposed to non-scientific fields of study, such as the humanities, whereas Brown insists on thinking about philosophical knowledge as personal knowledge.

To anyone who wishes to defend philosophy’s place in research universities alongside academic disciplines, such as history, linguistics, and physics, armed with this conception of philosophy as a “self-improvement” activity, I would use Brown’s (2017b, 30) words to say, “good luck with that project!” A much more promising strategy, I propose, is for philosophy to embrace scientific ways of knowing and for philosophers to incorporate scientific methods into their research.[8]

Contact details:


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Salmon, M. H. Introduction to Logic and Critical Thinking. Sixth Edition. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2013.

Scimago Journal & Country Rank. “Subject Bubble Chart.” SJR: Scimago Journal & Country Rank. Accessed on April 3, 2018.

Sinnott-Armstrong, W., and R. J. Fogelin. Understanding Arguments: An Introduction to Informal Logic. Eighth Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010.

Social Epistemology. “Aims and Scope.” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy (2018).

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

Williams, R. N. “Introduction.” In Scientism: The New Orthodoxy, edited by R. N. Williams and D. N. Robinson, 1-22. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

Yang, C. Y., C. Boen, K. Gerken, T. Li, K. Schorpp, and K. M. Harris. “Social Relationships and Physiological Determinants of Longevity Across the Human Life Span.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, no. 3 (2016): 578-583.

[1] I thank Adam Riggio for inviting me to respond to Brown’s second attack on Weak Scientism.

[2] On why appeals to intuition are bad arguments, see Mizrahi (2012), (2013a), (2014), (2015a), (2015b), and (2015d).

[3] I use friendship as an example here because Brown (2017b, 31) uses it as an example of philosophical knowledge. I will say more about that in Section 6.

[4] For more on paradoxes involving the divine attributes, see Mizrahi (2013c).

[5] “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create)” (Lewis 1960, 71).

[6] On fallacious inductive reasoning in philosophy, see Mizrahi (2013d), (2015c), (2016), and (2017c).

[7] See also “The Friendship Bench” project:

[8] For recent examples, see Ashton and Mizrahi (2017) and (2018).

Author Information: Manuel Padilla Cruz, Universidad de Sevilla,

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “One Thing is Testimonial Injustice and Another Is Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 9-19.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image by Jon Southcoasting via Flickr / Creative Commons


Derek E. Anderson’s (2017) identification and characterisation of conceptual competence injustice has recently met some resistance from Podosky and Tuckwell (2017). They have denied the existence of this new type of epistemic injustice on the grounds that the wronging it denotes may be subsumed by testimonial injustice: “instances of conceptual competence injustice can be accurately characterised as instances of testimonial injustices” (Podosky and Tuckwell 2017: 26). Additionally, they have questioned the reasons that led Anderson (2017) to distinguish this epistemic injustice from testimonial, hermeneutical and contributory injustices (Podosky and Tuckwell 2017: 26-30).

Criticising the methodology followed by Podosky and Tuckwell (2017) in their attempt to prove that conceptual competence injustice falls within testimonial injustice, Anderson (2018) has underlined that conceptual competence injustice is a structural injustice and a form of competence injustice –i.e. an unfair misappraisal of skills– which should be retained as a distinct type of epistemic injustice because of its theoretical significance and usefulness. Causal etiology is not a necessary condition on conceptual competence injustice, he explains, and conceptual competence injustice, as opposed to testimonial injustice, need not be perpetrated by social groups that are negatively biased against a particular identity.

The unjust judgements giving rise to it do not necessarily have to be connected with testimony, even though some of them may originate in lexical problems and mistakes in the linguistic expressions a speaker resorts to when dispensing it. Accordingly, testimonial injustice and conceptual competence injustice may be said to be different kinds of injustice and have diverse effects: “It is not necessary that a person’s testimony be disbelieved, ignored, or pre-empted in an episode of CC [conceptual competence] injustice. CC injustice involves only an unjust judgment about a person’s ability to think well using certain concepts” (Anderson 2018: 31).

Welcoming the notion of conceptual competence injustice, I suggested in a previous contribution (Padilla Cruz 2017a) that it could be borrowed by the field of linguistic pragmatics in order to conceptualise an undesired perlocutionary effect of verbal interaction: misappraisals of a speaker’s actual conceptual and lexical abilities as a result of lack or misuse of vocabulary. Relying on Sperber and Wilson’s (1986/1995) description of intentional-input processing as a relevance-driven activity and of comprehension as a process of mutual parallel adjustment, where the mind carries out a series of incredibly fast simultaneous tasks that depend on decoding, inference, mindreading and emotion-reading, I also showed that those misappraisals result from deductions. A speaker’s alleged unsatisfactory performance makes manifest assumptions regarding her[1] problems with words, which are fed as weakly implicated premises to inferential processes and related to other detrimental assumptions that are made salient by prejudice.

In so doing, I did not purport to show, as Podosky and Tuckwell wrongly think, “how epistemic injustice manifests in the field of relevance theory” (2017: 23) or that “conceptual competence injustice is particularly useful in a relevance theoretical model of linguistic pragmatics” (2017: 30). Rather, my intention was to propose introducing the notion of conceptual competence injustice into general linguistic pragmatics as a mere way of labelling a type of prejudicial implicature, as they themselves rightly put it (Podosky and Tuckwell 2017: 30). The derivation of that sort of implicature, however, can be accounted for –and this is where relevance theory comes into the picture– on the basis of the cognitive processes that Sperber and Wilson’s (1986/1995) framework describes and of its conceptual apparatus.

In another contribution (Padilla Cruz 2017b), I clarified that, as a cognitive pragmatic framework, relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995) is concerned with the processing and comprehension of the verbal and non-verbal intentional stimuli produced in human communication. It very satisfactorily explains how hearers forge interpretative hypotheses and why they select only one of them as the plausibly intended interpretation. Relevance theorists are also interested in the generation of a variety of effects –e.g. poetic (Pilkington 2000), humorous (Yus Ramos 2016), etc.– and successfully account for them.

Therefore, the notion of conceptual competence injustice can only be useful to relevance-theoretic pragmatics as a label to refer to one of the (pernicious) effects that may originate as a consequence of the constant search for optimal relevance of intentional stimuli. I will not return to these issues here, as I consider them duly addressed in my previous contribution (Padilla Cruz 2017b).

My aim in this reply is to lend support to Anderson’s (2017) differentiation of conceptual competence injustice as a distinct type of epistemic injustice. I seek to argue that, ontologically and phenomenologically, conceptual competence injustice must be retained in the field of social epistemology as a helpful category of injustice because it refers to a wronging whose origin and scope, so to say, differ from those of testimonial injustice. Testimonial injustice stems from (mis)judgements pertaining to the output of an action or epistemic practice wherein epistemic agents may participate or be engaged. The action in question is giving testimony and its output is the very testimony given. The scope of testimonial injustice, therefore, is the product, the result of that action or epistemic practice.

In other words, testimonial injustice targets the ability to generate an acceptable product as a consequence of finding it not to satisfy certain expectations or requirements, or to be defective in some dimensions. In contrast, conceptual competence injustice denotes an unfairness that is committed not because of the output of what is done with words –i.e. informing and the dispensed information– but because of the very linguistic tools wherewith an individual performs that action –i.e. the very words that she makes use of– and supposed underlying knowledge. To put it differently, the scope of conceptual competence injustice is the lexical items wherewith testimony is dispensed, which lead prejudiced individuals to doubt the conceptual and lexical capacities of unprivileged individuals.

In order to show that the scopes of testimonial and conceptual competence injustices vary, I will be drawing from the seminal and most influential work on communication by philosopher Herbert P. Grice (1957, 1975).[2] This will also encourage me to suggest that the notion of testimonial injustice (Fricker 2003, 2007) could even be refined and elaborated on. I will argue that this injustice may also be perpetrated when a disadvantaged individual is perceived not to meet requirements pertaining to testimony other than truthfulness.

Content Characteristics or Requirements of (Good) Testimony

As an epistemic practice, dispensing testimony, or information, could be characterised, along Grice’s (1959, 1975) lines, as a cooperative activity. Testimony is given because an individual may be interested in imparting it for a variety of reasons –e.g. influencing others, appearing knowledgeable, contradicting previous ideas, etc.– and/or because it may benefit (an)other individual(s), who might (have) solicit(ed) it for another variety of reasons –e.g. learning about something, strengthening ideas, changing his worldview, etc. As an activity that brings together various individuals in joint action, providing testimony is subject to certain constraints or requirements for testimony to be properly or adequately dispensed. Let us call those constraints or requirements, using philosopher John L. Austin’s (1962) terminology, felicity conditions.

Some of those felicity conditions pertain to the individuals or interlocutors engaged in the epistemic practice. The dispenser of testimony –i.e. the speaker or informer– must obviously possess certain (true) information to dispense, have the ability to impart it and pursue some goal when giving it. In turn, the receiver of testimony should, but need not, be interested in it and make this manifest by explicit mention or elicitation of the testimony.

Other felicity conditions concern the testimony to be provided. For instance, it must be well supported, reliable and trustworthy. This is the sort of testimony that benevolent and competent informers dispense (Wilson 1999; Sperber et al. 2010), and the one on which the notion of testimonial injustice focuses (Fricker 2003, 2007). Making use again of Grice’s (1957, 1975) ideas, let us say that, for testimony to be appropriately imparted, it must satisfy a requirement of truthfulness or quality. Indeed, the maxim of quality of his Cooperative Principle prompts individuals to give information that is true and to refrain from saying falsehoods or things for which they lack adequate evidence.

But not only must testimony be truthful; for it to be properly dispensed, the information must also be both sufficient and relevant. Imagine, for instance, that someone was requested to tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood. For the narration to be complete, it should not only include details about who such a character was, where she lived, the fact that she had a grandmother who lived at some distance in the countryside, her grandmother’s conditions or their relationship, but also about what had happened to Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother one day before receiving her visit and what happened to Little Red Riding Hood upon finding the wolf lying on the bed, disguised as the grandmother.

If the narrator mentioned the former details but omitted the latter, her narration, regardless of the fact that what she said about the characters’ identity and residence was undeniably true, would not be fully satisfactory, as it would not contain enough, necessary or expected information. Her testimony about Little Red Riding Hood would not be considered sufficient; something –maybe a key fragment– was missing for the whole story to be known, correctly understood and appraised.

Imagine now that all the details about the characters, their residence and relationship were present in the narration, but, upon introducing the wolf, the narrator started to ramble and talked about the animal spices wolves belong to, their most remarkable features, the fact that these animals are in danger of extinction in certain regions of Europe or that they were considered to have magical powers in a particular mythology. Although what the narrator said about the three characters is unquestioningly true and the story itself is told in its entirety, it would not have been told in the best way possible, as it includes excessive, unnecessary and unrelated information.

Again, along Gricean (1957, 1975) lines, it may be said that testimony must meet certain requirements or satisfy certain expectations about its quantity and relation. Actually, while his maxim of quantity incites individuals to give the expected amount of information depending on the purpose of a communicative exchange and prevents them from retaining or omitting expected or indispensable information, his maxim of relation causes them to supply information that is relevant or connected with the purpose of the exchange. Even if the provided information is true, failure to satisfy those requirements would render it inadequately given.

To the best of my knowledge, the notion of testimonial injustice as originally formulated by Fricker (2003, 2007) overlooks these requirements of quantity and relation, which solely pertain to the content of what is said. Accordingly, this injustice could also be argued to be amenable to be inflicted whenever an informer imparts unreliable or not well-evidenced information, and also when she fails to add necessary information or mentions irrelevant details or issues. If she did so, her ability to appropriately dispense information could be questioned and she could subsequently be downgraded as an informer.

Testimony from the 2009 trial of Cambodian war criminal Duch. Image by Khmer Rouge Tribunal (ECCC) via Flickr / Creative Commons


Manner Characteristics or Requirements of (Good) Testimony

Testimony may be claimed to be adequately given when it is true, sufficient and relevant, but there are additional requirements that testimony should meet for it to be adequately imparted. Namely, the information must be presented in an orderly, clear and unambiguous way. How would you react if, when being told the story of Little Red Riding Hood, your interlocutor gave you all the necessary, relevant and true details –and nothing more– but she changed the order of the events, did not make it clear whom the wolf attacked firstly or what Little Red Riding Hood put in her basket, or resorted to unusual, difficult or imprecise lexical terms? Probably, you would say that the story was told, but many issues would not be crystal clear to you, so you would have difficulties in having a clear picture of how, when and why the events in the story happened.

Testimony may also be considered to be well dispensed when it is given in a good manner by correctly ordering events and avoiding both obscurity and ambiguity of expression. Order, clarity and ambiguity are parameters that do not have to do with what is said –i.e. the content– but with how what is said is said –i.e. its linguistic form. Accordingly, testimony may be asserted to be correctly imparted when it meets certain standards or expectations that only concern the manner in which it is given.[3] Some of those standards or expectations are connected with the properties of the linguistic choices that the speaker makes when wording or phrasing testimony, and others are determined by cultural factors.

For example, for a narration to count as a fairy tale, it would have to begin with the traditional and recurrent formula “Once upon a time” and then proceed by setting a background that enables identification of characters and situates the events. Similarly, for an essay to be regarded as a good, publishable research paper, it must contain, in terms of structure, an abstract, an introductory section where the state of the art of the issue to be discussed is summarised, the goals of the paper are stated, the thesis is alluded to and, maybe, the structure of the paper is explained.

Then, the essay must unfold in a clear and logically connected way, through division of the contents in various sections, each of which must deal with what is referred to in its heading, etc. In terms of expression, the paper must contain technical or specialised terminology and be sufficiently understandable. Many of these expectations are motivated by specific conventions about discourse or text genres.

Inability or failure to present information in the appropriate manner or to comply with operative conventions may also incite individuals to challenge an informer’s capacity to dispense it. Although the informer may be credited with being knowledgeable about a series of issues, she may be assessed as a bad informer because her performance is not satisfactory in terms of the linguistic means she resorts to in order to address them or her abidance by governing conventions. However, since such an assessment is motivated not by the quality, quantity or relation of the content of testimony, but by the tools with and the way in which the informer produces her product, its scope or target is obviously different.

Different Scopes, Distinct Types of Epistemic Injustice

The current notion of testimonial injustice only takes into account one of the three features of (well dispensed) testimony alluded to above: namely, quality or truthfulness. A more fine-grained conceptualisation of it should also consider two other properties: quantity and relation, as long as informers’ capacity to provide testimony may be doubted if they failed to give expected information and/or said irrelevant things or added unnecessary details. Indeed, quality, quantity and relation are dimensions that are connected with the content of the very information dispensed –i.e. what is said– or the product of the epistemic practice of informing. Testimonial injustice, therefore, should be characterised as the epistemic injustice amenable to be inflicted whenever testimony is found deficient or unsatisfactory on the grounds of these three dimensions pertaining to its content.

What happens, then, with the other requirement of good testimony, namely, manner? Again, to the best of my knowledge, Fricker’s (2003, 2007) description of testimonial injustice does not refer to its likely perpetration when an individual is judged not to impart testimony in an allegedly right manner. And, certainly, this characteristic of good testimony may affect considerations about how suitably it is given.

Dispensing information in a messy, obscure and/or ambiguous way could be enough for degrading an individual as informer. She could sufficiently talk about true and relevant things, yes, but she could say them in an inappropriate way, thus hindering or impeding understanding. Should, then, the manner in which testimony is provided be used as grounds to wrong an informer or to question a person’s capacities as such? Although the manner in which testimony is imparted may certainly influence assessments thereof, there is a substantial difference.

Failure to meet requirements of quality, quantity and relation, and failure to meet requirements of manner are certainly not the same phenomenon. The former has to do with the content of what is said, with the product or result of an activity; the latter, in contrast, as the name indicates, has to do with the way in which what is said is actually said, with the tools deployed to accomplish the activity. Testimony may be incorrectly dispensed because of its falsity, insufficiency or irrelevance, but it may also be inappropriately imparted because of how it is given –this is undeniable, I would say.

The difference between quality, quantity and relation, on the one hand, and manner, on the other hand, is a difference of product and content of that product, on the one hand, and tools to create it, on the other hand. Accordingly, testimonial injustice and conceptual competence injustice should be kept apart as two distinct types of epistemic injustice because the respective scopes of the judgements where each injustice originates differ. While in the former the issue is the content of testimony, in the latter what is at stake is the means to dispense it, which unveil or suggest conceptual deficits or lack of mastery of certain concepts.

Testimony is dispensed by means of linguistic elements that somehow capture –or metarepresent, in the specialised cognitive-pragmatic terminology (Wilson 1999; Sperber 2000)– the thoughts that a speaker entertains, or the information that she possesses, and is interested in making known to an audience. Such elements are words, which are meaningful units made of strings of recognisable sounds –i.e. allophones, or contextual realisations of phonemes, in the terminology of phonetics and phonology– which make up stems and various types of morphemesprefixes, infixes and suffixes– conveying lexical and grammatical information. More importantly, words are arranged in more complex meaningful units –namely, phrases– and these, in turn, give rise to larger, and still more meaningful, units –namely, clauses and sentences. Manner is connected with the lexical units chosen and their syntactic arrangements when communicating and, for the sake of this paper, when providing testimony.

Speakers need to constantly monitor their production and their interlocutors’ reactions, which often cause them to revise what they have just said, reformulate what they are saying or are about to say, expand or elaborate on it, etc. As complex an activity as speaking is, it is not exempt of problems. At a lexical level, the speaker may fail to use the adequate words because she misses them or has trouble to find them at a particular time for a variety of factors –e.g. tiredness, absentmindedness, etc. (Mustajoki 2012). The chosen words may also diverge from those normally used by other language users in order to refer to particular concepts. This happens when speakers have mapped those concepts onto different lexical items or when they have mapped those concepts not onto single words, but onto more complex units like phrases or even whole sentences (Sperber and Wilson 1997).

The selected terms may alternatively be too general, so the audience somehow has to inferentially adjust or fine-tune their denotation because of its broadness. Consider, for example, placeholders like “that thing”, “the stuff”, etc. used to refer to something for which there is a more specific term, or hypernyms like ‘animal’ instead of the more precise term ‘duck-billed platypus’. Or, the other way round, the selected terms may be too specific, so the audience somehow has to inferentially loosen their denotation because of its restrictiveness (Carston 2002; Wilson and Carston 2007).

Above – Doggie. Image by lscott2dog via Flickr / Creative Commons


Think, for instance, of hyponyms like ‘doggie’ when used to refer not only to dogs, but also to other four-legged animals because of perceptual similarity –they have four legs– and conceptual contiguity –they are all animals– or ‘kitten’ when used to refer to other felines for the same reasons;[4] or imagine that terms like ‘wheel’ or ‘cookie’ were metaphorically applied to entities belonging to different, unrelated conceptual domains –e.g. the Moon– because of perceptual similarity –i.e. roundness.[5]

At a syntactic level, the linguistic structures that the speaker generates may turn out ambiguous and misleading, even though they may be perfectly clear and understandable to her. Consider, for instance, sentences like “I saw your brother with glasses”, where the ambiguity resides in the polysemy of the word ‘glasses’ (“pair of lenses” or “drinking containers”?) and the distinct readings of the fragment “your brother with glasses” (who wears/holds/carries the glasses, the hearer’s brother or the speaker?), or “Flying planes may be dangerous”, where the ambiguity stems from the competing values of the –ing form (what is dangerous, the action of piloting planes or the planes that are flying?).

At a discourse or pragmatic level, finally, speakers may be unaware of conventions governing the usage and meaning of specific structures –i.e. pragmalinguistic structures (Leech 1983)– such as “Can/Could you + verb”, whose pragmatic import is requestive and not a question about the hearer’s physical abilities, or unfamiliar with sociocultural norms and rules –i.e. sociopragmatic norms (Leech 1983)– which establish what is expectable or permitted, so to say, in certain contexts, or when, where, how and with whom certain actions may or should be accomplished or avoided.

Would we, then, say that testimony is to be doubted or discredited because of mistakes or infelicities at a lexical, syntactic or pragmatic level? Not necessarily. The information per se may be true, reliable, accurate, relevant and sufficient, but the problem resides precisely in how it is presented. Testimony would have been given, no doubt, but it would not have been imparted in the most efficient way, as the most appropriate tools are not used.

When lexical selection appears poor or inadequate; words are incorrectly and ambiguously arranged into phrases, clauses or sentences; (expected) conventionalised formulae are not conveniently deployed, or norms constraining how, when, where or whom to say things are not respected or are ignored, what is at stake is not an informer’s knowledge of the issues testimony may be about, but her knowledge of the very rudiments and conventions to satisfactorily articulate testimony and to successfully dispense it. The objects of this knowledge are the elements making up the linguistic system used to communicate –i.e. vocabulary– their possible combinations –i.e. syntax– and their usage in order to achieve specific goals –i.e. pragmatics– so such knowledge is evidently different from knowledge of the substance of testimony –i.e. its ‘aboutness’.

Real or seeming lexical problems may evidence conceptual gaps, concept-word mismatches or (highly) idiosyncratic concept-word mappings, but they may lead privileged individuals to question disadvantaged individuals’ richness of vocabulary and, ultimately, the concepts connected with it and denoted by words. If this happens, what those individuals attack is one of the sets of tools to generate an acceptable product, but not the content or essence of such a product.

Conceptual competence injustice, therefore, must be seen as targeting the tools with which testimony is created, not its content, so its scope differs from that of testimonial injustice. The scope of testimonial injustice is the truthfulness of a series of events in a narration is, as well as the amount of details that are given about those events and the relevance of those details. The scope of conceptual competence, in contrast, is knowledge and correct usage of vocabulary, and possession of the corresponding concepts.

Conceptual competence injustice focuses on a specific type of knowledge making up the broader knowledge of a language and facilitating performance in various practices, which includes informing others or dispensing testimony. Such specific knowledge is a sub-competence on which the more general, overarching competence enabling communicative performance is contingent. For this reason, conceptual competence injustice is a competence injustice, or an unfairness about a type of knowledge and specific abilities –conceptual and lexical abilities, in this case. And just as unprivileged individuals may be wronged because of their lack or misuse of words and may be attributed conceptual lacunae, occasional or constant syntactic problems and pragmatic infelicities may induce powerful individuals to misjudge those individuals as regards the respective types of knowledge enabling their performance in these areas of language.


Phenomenologically, testimonial injustice and conceptual competence injustice are perpetrated as a consequence of perceptions and appraisals whose respective scopes differ. In testimonial injustice, it is information that is deemed to be unsatisfactory because of its alleged veracity, quantity and relevance, so the informer is not considered a good knower of the issues pertaining to that testimony. In conceptual competence injustice, in contrast, it is the tools by means of which information is dispensed that are regarded as inappropriate, and such inappropriateness induces individuals to doubt possession and knowledge of the adequate lexical items and of their corresponding, supporting conceptual knowledge.

While testimonial injustice is inflicted as a result of what is said, conceptual competence injustice is perpetrated as a consequence of the manner whereby what is said is actually said. Consequently, at a theoretical level, testimonial injustice and conceptual competence injustice should definitely be kept apart in the field of social epistemology. The latter, moreover, should be retained as a valid and useful notion, as long as it denotes an unfairness amenable to be sustained on the grounds of the linguistic tools employed to dispense testimony and not on the grounds of the characteristics of the product generated.

Contact details:


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[1] Reference to the speaker will be made by means of the feminine third person singular personal pronoun.

[2] The fact that the following discussion heavily relies on Grice’s (1957, 1975) Cooperative Principle and its maxims should not imply that such ‘principle’ is an adequate formalisation of how the human cognitive systems work while processing information. It should rather be seen as some sort of overarching (cultural) norm or rule subsuming more specific norms or rules, which are internalised by some social groups whose members unconsciously obey without noticing that they comply with it (Escandell Vidal 2004: 349). For extensive criticism on Grice’s (1957/1975) ideas, see Sperber and Wilson (1986/1995).

[3] Grice’s (1957, 1975) maxim of manner is articulated into four sub-maxims, which cause individuals to be (i) orderly, (ii) brief or concise, and to avoid (iii) ambiguity of expression and (iv) obscurity of expression. In my discussion, however, I have omitted considerations about brevity or conciseness because I think that these are the byproduct of the maxim of quality, with whose effects those of the manner sub-maxim of briefness overlap.

[4] This would be a type of overextension labelled over-inclusion, categorical overextension or classic overextension (Clark 1973, 1993; Rescorla 1980), where a word “[…] is applied to instances of other categories within the same or adjacent conceptual domain” (Wałaszeska 2011: 321).

[5] This would be a case of analogical extension or analogical overextension (Rescorla 1980; Clark 1993).

Author Information: Gabriel Vélez-Cuartas, Universidad de Antioquia,

Vélez-Cuartas, Gabriel. “Invisible Colleges 2.0: Eponymy as a Scientometric Tool.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 5-8.

Please refer to:

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

The corridors of an invisible college. Image from Justin Kern via Flickr / Creative Commons


Merton’s idea of eponymy as a prize for scientists, perhaps the most great of incentives, relatively addressed for a few ones, is revisited in the text from Collazo et al. An idea exposed nearly as a footnote in Merton’s Sociology of Science let open in this text two ideas that can be amplified as opportunities to go a step further in understanding scientific dynamics: (1) The idea of a literary figure as catalyzer of cognitive evolution of scientific communities; (2) the claims for geographical priority to show relevance in the hierarchy of science structures.

Faculty of the Invisible Colleges

(1) Derek de Solla Price (1963) and Diane Crane (1972) developed in the sixties and seventies of the last century the idea of invisible colleges. Those invisible colleges merged the idea of scientific growth due to chained interactions that made possible diffusion of innovations in cycles of exponential and linear growth. This statistic idea of growth has been related to the idea of paradigmatic revolutions in Kuhn’s ideas. These interactions determined the idea of a cognitive dynamic expressed in networks of papers linked by common references in Crane and De Solla Price. In other words, knowledge growth is possible because there are forms of interactions that make possible the construction of communities.

This idea has not evolved in time and appears in different works as: institutionalized communities combining co-authorship networks and citation indexes (Kretschermer 1994), social networks of supervisors, students and co-workers (Verspagen and Werker 2003; Brunn and O’Lear 1999; cultural circles (Chubin 1985); collaboration networks and preferential attachment (Verspagen and Werker 2004; Zuccala 2006).

More recently, the cognitive dynamic related to the other side of the definition of invisible colleges have been some advances focused on detecting cognitive communities. For instance, studies of bibliographic coupling based on similarity algorithms (Leydesdorff 2008; Colliander and Ahlgren 2012; Steinert and Hoppe 2017; Ciotti et al. 2016); hybrid techniques mixing different similarity measures, modularity procedures, and text- and citation-based analysis (Glänzel and Thijs 2017); and the explicit merge made by Van Raan (2014), he proposes a bibliometric analysis mixing co-word analysis, co-citation, and bibliographic coupling to describe invisible colleges dynamics.

Those advances in analysis claim for a transformation of the concept of invisible colleges. The determination of cognitive dynamics by interactions is on the shell. Indeed, different levels of hierarchies and determinations in multilayer networks are arising. This means that collaboration networks can be seen as local interactions embedded in a more global set of relationships shaped by all kind of scientific communications chained in networks of references (Luhmann, 1996).

Eponymy in scientific communication gives a sign of these dynamics. We agree that in the first level of interactions eponymy can describe prestige dynamics, accumulation of social or scientific capital as Bourdieu can describe in his theory of fields. Nevertheless, in a global context of the scientific system, Eponymy acts as a code that catalyzes communication functions in the scientific production. Different programs emerge from the mention of Jerzy Plebanski in the literature (the eponym analyzed within the text from Collazo et al), nevertheless is a common sign for all this communities. The eponymy gives a kind of confidence, content to be trusted and the scientific small masses confirm that by the grace of redundancy. Prestige becomes a communication function, more important than a guide for address the interaction.

How the Eponym Stakes an Invisible College’s Claim

(2) In this direction, the eponym appears as a rhetoric strategy in a semantic context of a determined scientific area, a partial system within the scientific form to communicate debates, controversies and research results. The geographical issue disappears in a way for this system. Cognitively, Jerzy Plebanski is a physicist; a geographical claim for the contributions seems distant to the discussion about the formation of invisible colleges or scientific communities.

Nevertheless, there are two underlying dynamics related to the space as category. One is the outlined dynamic of diffusion of knowledge. The eponym made itself stronger as a figure as can be redundant in many places. Diffusion is related here with dispersion. The strength of eponymy is due to the reach of dispersion that have emerged from redundancy of his name in different global spaces. It means penetration too.

The second is that scientific communities are locally situated and they are possible due to an economic and political context. It can be said that a scientific system needs roots on contexts that facilitate a scientific ethos. The modern expansion through colonies around the world left as a legacy the scientific way as a social function installed in almost every culture. But the different levels of institutional development affect the formation of local scientific communities conditioned by: the struggle between economic models based or non-based on scientific and technological knowledge (Arocena & Sutz, 2013); cultural coloniality (Quijano, 2007); the openness of science and the concentration of knowledge in private companies as part of a regime of intellectual property (Vélez Cuartas et al, 2018).

In other words, the claim for the work of Jerzy Plebanski as a Mexican and the appearance of eponym in Latin American lands borne as an exclamation. The acknowledgement of Latin American science is a kind of reaffirmation. In logic of scientific system observed from the Global North it seems a trivial issue, where a dictionary of scientific eponyms can list more than 9,000 renamed scientists. The geographical issue plays in two sides to comprehend this dynamic: from one side, the penetration of a global scientific form of communication, that is expansion of the system. This means growing of cognitive capacities, growth of collective intelligence under the ethos of science. Locally, express conditions of possibility of appearance of scientific communities and their consolidation.

The eponymy appears not as signal of prestige but as indicator of scientific growing as form of organization and specialization. Although Plebanski is a foreign last name, the possibility to stay there, to develop his work within that place, and to reach a symbolic status in a semantic community that is organized in a network of meaning around his work, express self-organization dynamics of science. Then eponym not only gives a function to indicate prestige, shows a geographical penetration of scientific institutions and global dynamics of scientific systems.

The work of Collazo et al shows an important step to induce analysis on other areas of sociology of science and social epistemology. Introduce the rhetoric figures as a cybernetic instrument that make able to observe systemic possibilities of scientific community formation. Eponymy as a Scientometric tool sounds good as a promising methodology.

Contact details:


Arocena, R., & Judith Sutz. (2013). Innovación y democratización del conocimiento como contribución al desarrollo inclusivo. In Sistemas de Innovación para un Desarrollo Inclusivo: la experiencia latinoamericana (pp. 19–34). México, D.F: Foro Consultivo Científico y Tecnológico AC. Retrieved from

Brunn, S. D., & O’Lear, S. R. (1999). Research and communication in the “invisible college” of the Human Dimensions of Global Change, 9, 285–301. doi:10.1016/S0959-3780(99)00023-0

Chubin, D. E. (1985). Beyond invisible colleges: Inspirations and aspirations of post-1972 social studies of science. Scientometrics, 7, 221–254. doi:10.1007/BF02017148

Ciotti, V., Bonaventura, M., Nicosia, V., Panzarasa, P., & Latora, V. (2016). Homophily and missing links in citation networks. EPJ Data Science, 5(1). doi:10.1140/epjds/s13688-016-0068-2

Colliander, C., & Ahlgren, P. (2012). Experimental comparison of first and second-order similarities in a scientometric context. Scientometrics, 90(2), 675–685. doi:10.1007/s11192-011-0491-x

Crane, D. (1972). Invisible colleges: Diffusion of knowledge in scientific communities. Chicago & London: The university of Chicago Press. ISBN: 0-226-11857-6

De Solla Price, D (1963). Little Science, Big Science. Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN: 0-231-04957-9

Glänzel, W., & Thijs, B. (2017). Using hybrid methods and “core documents” for the representation of clusters and topics: the astronomy dataset. Scientometrics, 111(2), 1071–1087. doi:10.1007/s11192-017-2301-6

Kretschmer, H. (1994). Coauthorship networks of invisible-colleges and institutionalized communities. Scientometrics, 30(1), 363–369. doi:10.1007/BF02017234

Leydesdorff, L. (2008). On the normalization, and visualization of author cocitation data: Salton’s cosine versus the jaccard index. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 59 (1), pp. 77-85. doi: 10.1002/asi.20732

Luhmann, Niklas (1996). La ciencia de la sociedad. Rubí: Anthropos. ISBN: 9788476584910

Quijano, A. Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality. Cultural Studies 21 (2-3) (March/May 2007): 168–178.

Steinert, L., & Hoppe, H. U. (2017). A comparative analysis of network-based similarity measures for scientific paper recommendations. In Proceedings – 2016 3rd European Network Intelligence Conference, ENIC 2016 (pp. 17–24). Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc., doi:10.1109/ENIC.2016.011

Van Raan, A. F. J. (2014). Advances in bibliometric analysis: research performance assessment and science mapping. In: W. Blockmans, L. Engwall, D. Weaire (eds.). Bibliometrics: Use and Abuse in the Review of Research Performance. Wenner-Gren International Series Vol. 87. (pp.17-28). London: Portland Press Ltd., ISBN: 9781855781955.

Vélez Cuartas, G (2018). Validación y evaluación en las ciencias sociales y humanas. En: Vélez Cuartas, G; Aristizábal, C; Piazzini, C; Villega, L; Vélez Salazar, G; Masías Nuñez, R (EDS). Investigación en ciencias sociales, humanidades y artes. Debates para su valoración. Medellín: Universidad de Antioquia, Universidad de los Andes,  pp 91-182. ISBN: 978-958-5413-60-3

Verspagen, B. B., & Werker, C. (2003). The Invisible College of The Economics of Innovation and Technological Change. Estudios de Economía Aplicada, diciembre, 393-419. Retrieved from Accessed 25 January 2017.

Verspagen, B. B., & Werker, C. (2004). Keith Pavitt and the Invisible College of the Economics of Technology and Innovation. Research Policy, 33, 1419–1431. doi:10.1016/j.respol.2004.07.010

Zuccala, A. (2006). Modeling the invisible college. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 57, 152–168. doi:10.1002/asi.20256

Author Information: Ayesha Hardison, University of Kansas,

Hardison, Ayesha. “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Literary Fragments.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 56-63.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image by Trojan_Llama via Flickr / Creative Commons


To acknowledge Jane Crow, the term Pauli Murray contrived to unmask black women’s intersecting race and gender oppression, is not the same as understanding how black women’s subjection works—or why it persists. In “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” Kristie Dotson defines Jane Crow as a system of practices subjugating black women materially and epistemologically. That is, Jane Crow restricts black women’s inalienable rights to citizenship and limits their equitable access to resources.

Moreover, Jane Crow forecloses comprehension of the disenfranchisement it engenders. Dotson explains, “The complex bind of Jane Crow subordination is constituted by occupying simultaneous hyper-visibility, i.e. membership in social categories policed and suppressed for the maintenance of some form of supremacy, and invisibility, i.e. the limited nature of using those social categories to understand the specific nature of the subordination in question.”[1] Jane Crow, Dotson argues, singles out black women and girls for repression and control and summarily casts them as ciphers, nonentities “hidden in plain sight” despite statistics documenting their plight.[2] As a result of their concurrent hypervisibility and invisibility, black women are perceived as “unknowable” to the social, political, and cultural brokers upholding white supremacy and patriarchy. They are systematically targeted, branded as pathological, pared down to stereotype, regarded as disreputable, and ultimately deemed untenable.

I agree with Dotson: Jane Crow is a material and epistemological problematic manifest in black women’s longstanding repudiation in US hegemonic culture, a phenomenon theorized in black feminist thought since its beginnings. Black women have been relegated historically to the margins of black freedom struggles and women’s movements, and they continue to struggle for legibility in our post-civil rights moment particularly, as Dotson highlights, in the context of familiar narratives about the “endangered black male.”[3]

Yet, constitutive to black women’s epistemological quandary under Jane Crow, i.e. the way racism and sexism impacts their ability to produce knowledge, is the conceit that black women’s narratives about their multivalent oppression register similarly in hegemonic and counterhegemonic spaces. For example, a 2017 New York Times article uses the term Jane Crow to describe the practices of Children’s Services to punish poverty-stricken black and Hispanic women’s parenting by removing their children from their homes. The piece quotes a lawyer at length to indict the epistemic nature of the system’s biases:

There’s this judgment that these mothers don’t have the ability to make decisions about their kids, and in that, society both infantilizes them and holds them to superhuman standards. In another community, your kid’s found outside looking for you because you’re in the bathtub, it’s ‘Oh, my God’—a story to tell later. … In a poor community, it’s called endangering the welfare of your child.[4]

The state’s criminalizing narrative, based on discriminatory racial, gender, and economic geographies, exemplifies the distorted perspectives on black women’s structural disadvantages. Black women continue to be “unknowable” in dominant culture due to its investment in white supremacy and patriarchy. However, black women are not unknowable to themselves, especially if we consider their writing as epistemological endeavors instructive for their readers as well as their conceptualization of self.

An analysis of African American women writers’ engagement with Jane Crow is outside the scope of Dotson’s epistemological story in “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” but their texts illuminate the philosophical conundrum she identifies. From its conception, the African American women’s literary tradition has explored the realities of black women’s social condition under Jane Crow as well as considered, in its various fiction and nonfiction forms, the ways Jane Crow has shaped black women’s production of knowledge.

Pauli Murray’s own memoir Song in a Weary Throat (1987), which narrates the legal scholar’s civil rights activism throughout the twentieth century, makes concrete the material and epistemological injustices black women endure. Whereas Dotson theorizes Jane Crow by outlining the social factors facilitating black women’s “unknowability,” in literary studies, we might say black women’s “unknowability” is actually a matter of audience and, more importantly, a problem of reception. Structural realities (and inequities) demand black women’s invisibility, but black women’s philosophical and literary efforts make them visible—first and foremost—to themselves and each other.

“Theorizing Unknowability”

Dotson describes the conditions fostering black women’s invisibility as “a trifold structure of disappearing” that relies on “disregard, disbelief, and disavowal.”[5] First, black women occupy negative socio-epistemic space in hegemonic culture, which fixes them as unknowable. Public opinion largely classifies black women as irrelevant, and their social vulnerability permits rigid stereotypes that further their invisibility rather than inspire challenges to it. Dotson explains, “a catalyst for invisibility can be seen as, in part, epistemic failings with respect to what we use to make sense of our worlds that serves to obscure certain populations.”[6]

Second, black women experience reduced epistemic confidence, which means they are not afforded plausibility, seen as credible, or viewed as worthy subjects to be “believed in.”[7] In conjunction with the epistemic failings that encourage a disregard of black women, a common-held disbelief in black women delimits their capacity to contribute to the social production of knowledge.

Finally, black women are susceptible to heightened epistemic backgrounding, by which they are demoted to bit players in their own stories or employed as material for juxtaposition instead of subjects of inquiry. Such disavowal, Dotson expounds, displaces black women “as the backdrop of some other subject(s) of contemplation.”[8] Together these three negating environs underwrite black women’s invisibility, which effectively mystifies their Jane Crow oppression by the state and delegitimizes their discernment of their social status.

Dotson’s methodology invites a literary approach to her philosophical interrogation of Jane Crow’s epistemological assault. For example, she cites Toni Blackman’s poetry to exemplify black women’s negotiation of their presence so often mistaken for absence. However, when engaging Pauli Murray’s conceptualization of Jane Crow, Dotson focuses on Murray’s academic and public scholarship. She is careful to note that her work is not an intellectual history of Murray but a “theoretical archeology” of Jane Crow. “It is a story sketched between conceptual fragments in Black women’s social theory,” she writes.[9]

To compose an epistemological story, Dotson stitches together theoretical fragments from Murray’s 1947 article “Why Negro Girls Stay Single” and 1965 essay “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII.” She also mines a quote from Murray’s 1970 essay “The Liberation of Black Women,” in which Murray clarifies, “Jane Crow refers to the entire range of assumptions, attitudes, stereotypes, customs, and arrangements that have robbed women of a positive self-concept and prevented them from participating fully in society as equals with men.”[10]

Dotson highlights this fragment’s epistemological relevance by concentrating on the causes of Jane Crow oppression. She contends black women’s “unfavorable placement with respect to prevailing” assumptions, stereotypes, and customs sanctions the material effects and epistemic circumscriptions of Jane Crow.[11] In effect, her grappling with and suture of Murray’s philosophical fragments challenges the hierarchal epistemologies that have characterized black women as unknowable and unknowing.

I appreciate Dotson’s attentive epistemological reading, and I am struck also by the fragment’s reference to Jane Crow’s influence on black women’s “positive self-concept.” This, too, is epistemologically relevant, and I would go further to suggest that it is within fragments of Murray’s creative and nonfiction writing that an inchoate discourse about black women’s positive self-concept, which is often overlooked and undervalued, emerges.

Image by AntonSLarsson via Flickr / Creative Commons


“Creatively Theorizing The Black Female Autobiographical Self”

Murray was an accomplished writer as well as a distinguished legal scholar. In addition to academic articles and law compendiums, she produced a collection of poetry, a biography of her grandparents, and her posthumously-published memoir Song in a Weary Throat. The latter takes its title from Murray’s published poem “Dark Testament” (1943), which sketches African American history from African society, captivity, and slavery to impending freedom over the poem’s twelve sections. Its speaker relays, “Hope is a song in a weary throat.”[12] Noticeably, “hope” is not included in the title of Murray’s autobiography, but its affect resonates in her extraordinary life story as a black activist, feminist, lawyer, priest, and poet.[13]

The speaker of “Dark Testament” goes on to entreat, “Give me a song of hope and love/And a brown girl’s heart to hear it” (italics original). This fragment, just a few lines later, suggests that a song of hope does not achieve its full transformative power without a brown girl’s heart and ear—or to put it another way, without an empathetic black female audience. In the introduction to Murray’s poetry collection, Morris Milgram reveals the activist/poet thought of “Dark Testament,” a prodigious narrative, as “only a fragment and forerunner of the epic of black America yet to be written.”[14]

Nonetheless, the fragment frames Murray’s memoir as a song of hope. It also signals the importance of a black female reader to whom and for whom her production of knowledge would be regarded, believed, and avowed despite the presumptions of “unknowability” black women’s Jane Crow oppression provokes.[15]

In her essay “Being the Subject and the Object,” Barbara Christian recalls her experience reading African American women’s fiction, namely Paule Marshall’s novel Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), for the first time. She writes that the “woman-voice” of the black female protagonist’s mother “constantly interrupted my mind-voice. Her anguish-rage warned me of trials I might have to face.”[16] Marshall’s coming of age tale resonated with Christian, as the latter internalized the lessons she gleaned from the protagonist’s racial and gender struggles.

The novel allowed Christian to confront the epistemic offense intrinsic to black women’s Jane Crow subjection. “In it,” she writes, “I as subject encountered myself as object.”[17] By reading black women’s writing, Christian distinguishes herself as a reader, a subject, from that which is read, an object. Her confrontation with herself as an object codified her abiding invisibility in American literature and culture even as it marked her obvious presence. Christian surmises Brown Girl, Brownstones “was crucial to a deeper understanding of my own life,” and she later learns from a conversation with Marshall that it was written “to unravel [the black female writer’s] own knots.” Central to the acts of reading and writing, then, is black women’s knowing.[18]

Christian’s reflection minds African American women’s fiction, but its premise is helpful for thinking about black women’s epistemic endeavors in nonfiction.[19] A cursory review of black women’s literary criticism in autobiographical studies reveals fragments theorizing their unknowability as well as their efforts to counteract it. In Black Women Writing Autobiography, Joanne Braxton expresses, “We have been knowers, but we have not been known.”[20] She elucidates that autobiography is a way for African American women to “meet,” or know, their mothers “on the conscious plane,” as exemplified by her study of the works of Harriet Jacobs, Ida B. Wells, Nina Simone, and Maya Angelou among others. “Defying every attempt to enslave or diminish them or their self-expression in any way,” Braxton writes, “black women autobiographers liberate themselves from stereotyped views of black womanhood, and define their own experiences.”[21]

Similarly, Margo Perkins contends that the autobiographies of Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and Elaine Brown construct “an alternative history that challenges hegemonic ways of knowing.”[22] Finally in Words of Witness, Angela Ards asserts that personal narrative and political discourse intersect within an autobiography to create a “deliberative space where readers” can “imagine the new vocabularies and strategies that the moment demands.”[23] These fragments of knowing identify black women’s autobiography as a vehicle for positive self-concept and social epistemology.

In Song in a Weary Throat, Murray relays the moment she decided to write her memoir late in the narrative. While contemplating a faculty appointment at Brandeis in 1968, she explains, “Suddenly I realized that what I really wanted to do was to write an autobiographical book on Jim Crow and Jane Crow—racism and sexism as they had impinged upon my life.”[24] Murray elected to do both, to teach and write during the summer. Her purpose for penning the book, to write about sexism during the height of twentieth-century black freedom struggles, echoes her resolve to confront systemic oppression depicted throughout her memoir.

Earlier in the text Murray discloses her decision to attend Howard Law School “with the single-minded intention of destroying Jim Crow.”[25] However, it is during her time there that she began to theorize Jane Crow, “the twin evil of discriminatory sex bias,” as she was the only female student in her class at the all-black institution which had no women faculty and only one female staff member.[26] “[T]he racial factor was removed in the intimate environment of a Negro law school dominated by men,” she writes, “and the factor of gender was fully exposed.”

Murray describes experiencing the material affects of Jane Crow as well as its epistemological repercussions in this period of her life. She is excluded from the legal fraternity and its extended networks due to her gender. Although she characterizes her male classmates as “friendly,” she qualifies that they “seemed to take it for granted that I had nothing to contribute. For much of that first year I was condemned to silence unless the male students exhausted their arguments or were completely stumped by a professor’s question.”[27] Murray is barred customarily from adding to the class’s production of knowledge. Consequently, she writes that her realization “women were often the objects of ridicule disguised as a joke” by her classmates and professors “aroused an incipient feminism in me long before I knew the meaning of the term ‘feminism.’”[28]

Song in a Weary Throat details Murray’s experiences with racial and gender subordination, but it also outlines the processes of knowledge production that motivated her to identify and signify her Jane Crow oppression.[29] She theorizes the practice in law school, and she applies the term in her 1947 essay “Why Negro Girls Stay Single.” Yet, it is in the fragments of her autobiography that Murray demythologizes black female epistemologies. Song in a Weary Throat is an enlightening testament to black women’s production of knowledge.


In the conclusion of her essay, Dotson asks, “How does one disrupt epistemic resources that hide their inadequacy behind the shape of its own sense making features? … Would one aim an intervention at the nature of imagination as a means of disrupting knowledge economies?”[30] In response to these questions, she states many black feminists, such as Pauli Murray and Kimberlé Crenshaw, and many black women writers, such as June Jordan, Toni Morrison, and Audre Lorde, “have tried.”  Yet such a feat could only be accomplished with the demise of Jane Crow—a complete end to its material and epistemological abuses.

Although I engage Pauli Murray as a writer here to offer a complementary approach to Dotson’s theorizing of Jane Crow, I do not claim that black women’s writing irons out Jane Crow’s material paradoxes. I do want to suggest black women’s self-articulation provides them a way to mitigate the intellectual confines of Jane Crow. Black women writers do not “resolve our dilemmas,” to return to Christian’s insights about the literary tradition, but they do “name them.”[31]  In a destructive culture of invisibility, for black women to call out Jane Crow and counter with their self-representation has substantive weight.

Contact details:


Ards, Angela A. Words of Witness: Black Women’s Autobiography in the Post-Brown Era. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015.

Bobo, Jacqueline.  Black Women as Cultural Readers. New York: Columbia, 1995.

Braxton, Joanne M. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition within a Tradition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

___. “Autobiography and African American Women’s Literature.” African American Women’s Literature. Eds. Angelyn Mitchell and Danille K. Taylor.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 128-147.

Christian, Barbara. “Being the Subject and the Object: Reading African-American Women’s Novels.” New Black Feminist Criticism, 1985-2000. Eds. Gloria Bowles, M. Giulia Fabi, and Arlene R. Keizer. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007. 120-126.

Clifford, Stephanie and Jessica Silver-Greenberg. “Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow.’” New York Times July 21, 2017. Accessed January 31, 2018

Cooper, Brittney C. Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017.

Dotson, Kristie. “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability.” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 31:5 (2017) 417-430.

Graham, Maryemma. “Introduction.” The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 1-16

Hardison, Ayesha K. Writing through Jane Crow: Race and Gender Politics in African American Literature. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014.

Perkins, Margo V. Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

Petry, Ann. The Street. 1946. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

Milgram, Morris. “Introduction.” Dark Testament and Other Poems. Norwalk, CT: Silvermine, 1970.

Murray, Pauli. “Dark Testament.” 1943. Dark Testament and Other Poems. Norwalk, CT: Silvermine, 1970. 12-27.

___. Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1987.

___. “The Liberation of Black Women.” 1970. Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought. Ed. Beverly Guy Sheftall. New York: The New Press, 1995. 186-197.

[1] Kristie Dotson, “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 31:5 (2017): 417.

[2] Ibid., 420, 425.

[3] Ibid. The degree of black women’s visibility in the current #metoo campaign is also debatable, given the limited discussion of their experiences in Hollywood despite the hashtag’s origin in black female activist Tarana Burke’s grassroots organizing around sexual abuse.

[4] Maisha Joefield, the mother penalized under these circumstances, shares in the article that the temporary removal of her child still makes her nervous: “You’re afraid to parent the way you would normally parent.” The ritualized castigation of poor black mothers with scarce options for childcare speak to the circuitous material and epistemological aspects of their Jane Crow oppression. Stephanie Clifford and Jessica Silver-Greenberg, “Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow,’” New York Times July 21, 2017, Accessed January 31, 2018,

[5] Dotson, “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” 426.

[6] Ibid., 423.

[7] Ibid., 424.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 418.

[10] Pauli Murray, “The Liberation of Black Women,” 1970, Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall (New York: The New Press, 1995), 186.

[11] Dotson, “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” 421.

[12] Pauli Murray, “Dark Testament,” Dark Testament and Other Poems (Norwalk, CT: Silvermine, 1970), 22.

[13] Murray’s public identities are the subtitle to the eponymously titled 1989 edition of her autobiography.

[14] Morris Milgram, “Introduction,” Dark Testament and Other Poems (Norwalk, CT: Silvermine, 1970), n pag.

[15] Jacqueline Bobo differentiates the interpretive community black women create from audiences that passively consume representations perpetuating black women’s ideological domination. Within an interpretive community, “women utilize representations of black women that they deem valuable, in productive and politically useful ways” to challenge their cultural subordination. Jacqueline Bobo, Black Women as Cultural Readers (New York: Columbia, 1995), 22.

[16] Barbara Christian, “Being the Subject and the Object: Reading African-American Women’s Novels,” New Black Feminist Criticism, 1985-2000, edited by Gloria Bowles, M. Giulia Fabi, and Arlene R. Keizer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 121.

[17] Ibid., 122.

[18] African American women’s fiction also theorizes black women’s Jane Crow oppression. For example, Ann Petry’s novel The Street, published in 1946 one year before Murray’s essay “Why Negro Girls Stay Single,” examines Lutie Johnson’s interlocking racial, gender, class, and sexual oppressions as a single mother and domestic worker in Harlem during WWII. Lutie is aware of her invisibility among her white employers, who assume she is promiscuous, and she questions the purpose of being taught how to write, as her voice is undermined throughout the novel. Of course, the existence of Petry’s novel attests to the importance of black women writing and sharing their stories.

[19] The social aims of black women’s fiction and life writing are not mutually exclusive. Maryemma Graham points out “the autobiographical impulse in the African American novel. The continuous need to explain and ‘inscribe the self’ in a world which has historically denied the existence of that self gives both focus and intensity to the act of writing a story about black life.” Maryemma Graham, “Introduction,” The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 5.

[20] Joanne M. Braxton, Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition within a Tradition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 1.

[21] Joanne M. Braxton, “Autobiography and African American Women’s Literature,” African American Women’s Literature, edited by Angelyn Mitchell and Danille K. Taylor (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 128.

[22] Margo V. Perkins, Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000), xii.

[23] Angela A. Ards, Words of Witness: Black Women’s Autobiography in the Post-Brown Era (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015), 16.

[24] Pauli Murray, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1987), 388.

[25] Ibid., 182.

[26] Ibid., 183.

[27] Ibid., 183-184.

[28] Ibid., 183, 184.

[29] Murray’s autobiography foregrounds her battles with racism and sexism in her public life to the exclusion of her efforts to understand her queer and nonnormative sexual and gender identities in her private life. Brittney Cooper’s intellectual history of Murray highlights the ways Jane Crow and the politics of respectability inform black women’s praxis as “knowledge producers” (102). She reveals, “at exactly the same moment that [Murray] named Jane Crow as a form of sexist discrimination that she experienced as a woman, she was frequently being hospitalized for depression related to her struggle with her gender identity” (100). In my own work on Murray, I argue Song in a Weary Throat “resounds with silence” about her struggle with her gender identity due to Jane Crow’s “literary inscriptions” for black women’s self-representation (17, 15). Brittney C. Cooper, Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017); Ayesha K. Hardison, Writing through Jane Crow: Race and Gender Politics in African American Literature (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014).

[30] Dotson, “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” 426.

[31] Christian, “Being the Subject and the Object,” 122.