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

Author Information: Derek Anderson, Boston University,

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

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

On Relevance Theory

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

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

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

Conceptual Competence Injustice

Padilla Cruz’s proposal to model conceptual competence injustice within relevance theory must be tempered with the proper understanding of that phenomenon as a structural injustice. Conceptual competence injustice is a form of epistemic oppression (Dotson 2014). It occurs when false judgments of incompetence function as part of a broader, reliable pattern of marginalization that systematically undermines the epistemic agency of members of an oppressed social identity. It cannot be accurately characterized merely as the result of a certain type of pragmatic inference without specifying facts about the social identities of the speakers and hearers involved, together with facts about the structure of their social circumstances. Since relevance theory is formulated in neutral language with respect to social identities and takes no account of local matrices of domination (Collins 2002), the theory does not intrinsically have the resources to identify instances of conceptual competence injustice.

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

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

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

Unconscious Interests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plotting Generativity

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

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

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

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

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

Ways to Look at the Data

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Figure 1: Anscombe’s Quartet

Author Information: Ian James Kidd, Durham University,

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

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

Understanding Pluralism

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

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

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

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

Epistemic Virtues and Vices

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Information: Massimo Pigliucci, City College of New York,

Pigliucci, Massimo. “Feyerabend and the Cranks: A Response to Shaw.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2016): 1-6.

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Jamie Shaw (2017) has vigorously engaged both my (mild) criticism of Ian Kidd’s take on Feyerabend’s famous defense of astrology (Pigliucci 2016), and Kidd’s own (mild) concessions in light of such criticism. Here I want to push back a little against Shaw’s approach, with two goals in mind: (i) to identify the limits of Feyerabend’s “hard core pluralism”; and (ii) to elaborate on and defend my take on the feasibility of the science-pseudoscience demarcation project. I will proceed by following the steps in Shaw’s argument, highlighting those that in my opinion are the most important bits, and addressing them to the best of my abilities.

Citing Farrell, Shaw writes: “pluralism is the hard-core of the Feyerabendian philosophical program and it came to permeate all aspects of his thought” (2017, 75). That is surely correct. But a constant danger for pluralism of any sort is that it risks becoming a fairly lazy intellectual position, where anything goes because one is not willing to do the hard work of narrowing down its scope. This is, for instance, what is clearly in evidence in the recently (obviously, posthumously) published book by Feyerabend himself, Philosophy of Nature (2016). The book is a perfect display, writ large, of what the author’s take on astrology was in a more narrow instance: erudite scholarship, sharp criticism of others’ positions, and grand claims about methodological anarchism. The whole thing followed, unfortunately, by very little in the way of positive delivery.

Why Feyerabend is Wrong About Radical Pluralism

To be specific, Shaw rightly says that

two principles comprise Feyerabend’s pluralism: the principles of proliferation and tenacity … the principle of proliferation [says that] we should “[i]nvent, and elaborate theories which are inconsistent with the accepted point of view,  even if the latter should happen to be highly confirmed and generally accepted.” … Proliferation must be complemented by the principle of tenacity which states that we should “select from a number of theories the one that promises to lead to the most fruitful results, and stick to this theory even if the actual difficulties it encounters are considerable (2017, 75).

Neither of these two principles would find much resistance from either scientists or philosophers of science, in part because they are so vague that it is hard to see what, exactly, one would resist. Moreover, there are plenty of instances in the history of science in which precisely what Feyerabend advocates did, in fact, happen. The Copernican revolution (Kuhn 1957), for example, during which Copernicus elaborated a theory that was certainly highly inconsistent with the accepted point of view, with Galileo and others tenaciously keeping it alive for decades, in spite of its obvious difficulties, which were resolved only with Kepler’s adoption of the non-circularity of planetary orbits.

A second example, from biology, is the period of so-called “eclipse” of the Darwinian theory (Bowler 1992), between the end of the 19th and the early parts of the 20th centuries, when criticism of Darwinism from paleontology first, and the new science of genetics later, brought about a proliferation of radically alternative theories, from orthogenesis to saltationism. These theories were tenaciously defended for decades, despite increasing issues confronting them, and which eventually led to their rejection in favor of the so-called Modern Synthesis in evolutionary biology (Huxley 1942/2009).

Many other examples could be plucked from the history of science, and it seems to me that Feyerabend was engaging in much complaining about nothing, since pluralism has always been a hallmark of scientific theorizing. That, after all, is how science makes progress in the first place. What does not seem reasonable, however, is for Feyerabend to think that astrology, or demonology, or homeopathy, are alternative “theories” that ought to be included in the modern pluralist portfolio. Sure, there is always the logical possibility that fringe notions may turn out to contain a kernel of truth, but Feyerabend does not provide us with an iota of reason for why we should keep clearly discredited ones such as those just mentioned around as potentially viable alternatives to investigate, particularly when there is only so much time, money, and resources that go into the scientific enterprise in the first place.

“If we were to abandon theories the moment they came into difficulties,” Shaw continues (2017, 76), “we would have abandoned many of the most successful theories throughout the history of science.” Notice the conditional: turns out, historically, that scientists often did no such thing. Not even Popper (1934/1959) at his most strictly falsificationist ever advocated such a stance.

Feyerabend’s mature view of tenacity is exceptionally radical in two ways. Firstly, it has no conditions for acceptance; any theory can be held tenaciously. … Even theories that have blatant internal contradictions or seem to conflict with facts can be, and often are, developed into useful research programs … The principle of tenacity does not, of course, commit us to indefinitely pursuing every line of research we inquire about but simply that it is always perfectly rational to continue developing ideas despite their extant problems (2017, 77).

I take it Shaw (and Feyerabend) and I subscribe to different concepts of what counts as “perfectly rational.” If there are no conditions for acceptance (or rejection) of a theory, then how, exactly, does the principle of tenacity not commit us to indefinitely pursuing every line of research? Who, and on what grounds, makes the decision to stop being tenacious? It seems that Shaw and Feyerabend simply want their cake and eat it too. As for the statement that theories affected by blatant internal or factual contradictions are “often” developed into useful research programs, it is curious that Shaw does not provide us with a single example. Feyerabend is awfully vague about this point as well.

Shaw then goes on to state that “[a]lternatives will be more efficient the more radically they differ from the point of view to be investigated. … what is ‘non-scientific’ one day is ‘scientific’ the next and the transition between the two requires being placed within scientific debates.” But hold on. Why, exactly, should such a counterintuitive relation between radicality and efficiency hold? What historical evidence has been marshaled for that being the case? Indeed, what criterion of efficiency is being deployed here? And yes, sometimes what may appear non scientific may turn out to be so later on (e.g., the idea of continental drift in geology: Frankel 1979). But I never proposed that the science / quasi-science / pseudo-science territory is demarcated a-temporally. Rather, it is a territory marked by fluid boundaries that evolve because they reflect the understanding of the world on then part of the scientific community at any given moment. That said, my colleague Maarten Boudry and I (2013) have observed that there don’t seem to be cases where a notion has been seriously entertained by the scientific community, then relegated to the pseudoscience bin, and later on somehow re-emerged to find new life and success. We refer to this, informally, as the “pseudoscience black hole”: once in, you never get out. It is true for astrology just as much as for demonology and homeopathy, and we have yet to find exceptions.

Once More on Demarcation

Shaw then proceeds to consider my proposal for the science-pseudoscience demarcation problem. Correctly noting that I do not think classical attempts based on small sets of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions could possibly work, he acknowledges that my proposal is that of considering both science and pseudoscience as Wittgensteinian family resemblance concepts, with no sharp boundaries and no set of criteria that are instantiated in all cases. To which I would add the above reminder that I am also explicit about the fact that the science-pseudoscience territory is temporally fluid, to a point (Pigliucci 2013).

In that paper, I propose two axes (not really “criteria”) that may help us map said territory: one that has to do with the internal coherence and theoretical sophistication of a given theory, the second that captures the empirical content of the theory. So for instance, the Standard Model in physics scores high on both counts, as does modern evolutionary theory. Accordingly, they are (currently) considered very solid sciences. At the opposite extreme, astrology and intelligent design creationism are both empirically and theoretically poor, so they are classed as obvious instances of pseudosciences (again, for now). The interesting stuff lies in the middle, e.g., fields that are high on theoretical but low on empirical content (economics) or vice versa (psychology). The borderlands also include fields of inquiry that are usually considered pseudoscientific, such as parapsychology, but are still sufficiently interesting—either theoretically or empirically—to warrant further study.

Shaw acknowledges all this and yet says that”theories that contain low degrees of empirical support (or even conflict with known facts) or are theoretically confused are perfectly pursuit-worthy on Feyerabend’s account,” and that “Pigliucci’s criteria fail to provide reasonable grounds to prevent the consideration of ‘pseudosciences’” (2017, 79). Well, but my criteria are not those of Feyerabend, so the fact that we disagree may be taken as an indictment of my views just as much as of his, it all depends on which position one finds more plausible. And the latter part of the quote misunderstands what my criteria were developed to do: not to prescriptively separate science from pseudoscience, but rather to provide a compass of sorts to navigate the territory and its complex, temporally fluid, boundaries.

Demarcation criteria affect people with different intellectual backgrounds. They affect funding distribution policies, taxation policies, those who benefit or are harmed by the creation (or lack thereof) of particular pieces of scientific knowledge, and so on. This is far beyond the domain of scientists or philosophers of science who provide, at best, one perspective on demarcation. … If scientists are forced to conform to certain views because their education does not provide viable alternatives, if peer review is so conservative that it causes long-term conformity, and so on, then those intuitions aren’t worth taking seriously (2017, 79).

The first bit seems to me to confuse epistemic assessment, which is definitely within the purview of the scientist, with other, surely important, aspects of social discourse. I have never claimed that scientists should be in charge of taxation policies, or more broadly of decisions concerning the broader societal impact of scientific research. Indeed, I most certainly oppose such a stance. Take the issue of climate change, for instance (Bennett 2016). It seems eminently sensible, in that case, to leave the science to the scientists—because they are the ones who are qualified to carrying it on, just like dentists are qualified to take care of teeth—while the much broader and more complex question of how to deal with climate change requires that we call to the high table a number of other actors, including but not limited to economists, various types of technologists, sociologists and even ethicists.

As for the series of conditionals in the second bit quoted from Shaw above, there are far too many unsubstantiated ones. Is it the case that scientists are “forced” to conform because of their education? Is it true that peer review is “too conservative”? On what grounds, according to what criteria? A lot of heavy duty legwork needs to be done to establish those points, work that is obviously beyond the scope of Shaw’s commentary, but that Feyerabend himself simply never did. He was content to throw the bomb in the crowd and watch the ensuing chaos from the outside.

So, was Feyerabend Right in “Defending” Astrology?

The last part of Shaw’s commentary returns to the question that began this whole series of interesting, and I hope useful, exchanges: was Feyerabend right in mounting his peculiar defense of astrology?

“Feyerabend defended the epistemic integrity of some practitioners of astrology because he was practicing the pluralism he preached and decided to defend views that were dismissed or ostracized from the philosophy of science. In other words, Feyerabend was proliferating” (2017, 80). Indeed, but epistemic integrity is a necessary and yet not sufficient condition for being taken seriously as a scientific research program. It is truly astounding that people still think astrology is worth defending, and I’m not talking just about the horoscope variety, as Shaw suggests. While it was certainly the case that some of the signatories of the infamous anti-astrology manifesto that so railed Feyerabend did not due their homework on astrology, plenty of others have. Among them Carl Sagan, who famously did not sign the manifesto, precisely for the reasons Feyerabend thought it was a bad move, but who nonetheless was a harsh critic of much pseudoscience, including astrology.

Shaw writes that “a view one may have may have reason to reject may still be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. … A problematic view ‘may and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth.” (2017, 80) Well, no, definitely not. The accusation of infallibility against critics of pseudoscience is ludicrous. If taken seriously that would mean that every time one has very strong theoretical or empirical reasons to reject a given notion (until, and if, proven wrong) one ipso facto thinks of himself as infallible. Yes, a problematic view may turn out to contain a portion of truth, but “very commonly does”? This is another example of Shaw using a page from Feyerabend’s playbook, making grand statements that are accompanied by absolutely no evidence. Why should philosophers of science take them seriously?

“Because its critics are being arrogant, defending a ‘pro-astrology’ perspective is  necessary to combat this vice,” continues Shaw (2017, 82). But why is it a good idea to fight vice with vice? Why is it not enough to embarrass some of the signatories of the anti-astrology manifesto, showing to the public that they did not know what they were talking about? Why is it that one has to take the next step and defend the possibility that there is still value in astrology, when one patently does not actually believe it, as Feyerabend did not?

Complaining about my objection that Feyerabend’s attitude is positively dangerous, because it facilitates the acceptance by the public of notions that endanger safety, Shaw replies:

Feyerabend never, to my knowledge, discusses climate change, anti-vaccination movements, or AIDS denialism; these (mostly) became issues after Feyerabend’s death. Furthermore, there is no legitimate inference from Feyerabend’s pluralism to defending these topics in a direct way. … Pigliucci cannot ascribe any of these particular consequences as emanating from Feyerabend (2017, 83-84).

Except, of course, that I do no such thing. I’m perfectly aware that those issues became prominent after Feyerabend’s death. But it would be naive to believe that there is no connection to be made here. Indeed, the infamous “science wars” of the ’90s (Gross and Levitt 1994), pitting strongly postmodernist philosophers and sociologists on one hand against scientists and philosophers of science on the other, had a pretty direct connection with Feyerabend’s work, which was, predictably, ailed by the first group and condemned by the second one.

Finally, Shaw takes up what Feyerabend, Kidd, and myself have in common: a strong suspicion for what nowadays is referred to as “scientism,” the exponents of which are those who Shaw labels “the cranks.” Citing Feyerabend, Shaw writes: “The crank usually is content with defending the point of view in its original, undeveloped, metaphysical form, and he is not prepared to test its usefulness in all those cases which seem to favor the opponent, or even admit that there exists a problem” (2017, 85). I have certainly encountered such types, both among scientists and among so-called skeptics. They are not serving the interests of science, critical thinking, or society. So Shaw is correct when he states that “it is clear that there is a commonality between Pigliucci, Kidd, and Feyerabend: their disdain for the cranks!” Indeed. But, contra, Feyerabend, I do not think that the way to do it is to take an anti-rationalist stance about the value of pseudoscience. It is both counterproductive (Feyerabend was famously labeled “the Salvador Dali of academic philosophy, and currently the worst enemy of science” by two physicists in the prestigious journal Nature: Theocharis and Psimopoulos 1987), and simply not the virtuous thing to do.


Bennett, Jeffrey. A Global Warming Primer: Answering your Questions About the Science, the Consequences, and the Solutions. Big Kid Science, 2016.

Bowler, Peter. The Eclipse of Darwinism. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Feyerabend, Paul. Philosophy of Nature. Polity, 2016.

Frankel, Henry. “The Career of Continental Drift Theory: An Application of Imre Lakatos’ Analysis of Scientific Growth to the Rise of Drift Theory.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 10, no. 1 (1979): 21-66.

Gross, Paul and Levitt, Norman. Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Huxley, Julian. Evolution: The Modern Synthesis. MIT Press, 1942/2009.

Kidd, Ian James. “How Should Feyerabend Have Defended Astrology? A Reply to Pigliucci.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 6 (2016): 11-17.

Kuhn, Thomas. The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought. Harvard University Press, 1957.

Pigliucci, Massimo. “The Demarcation Problem: A (Belated) Response to Laudan.” In Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem, edited by Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry, 9-28. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Pigliucci, Massimo. “Was Feyerabend Right in Defending Astrology? A Commentary on Kidd.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 5 (2016): 1-6.

Pigliucci, Massimo, and Maarten Boudry, eds. Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem. University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Popper, Karl. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Hutchinson, 1934/1959.

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

Theocharides, Theocharis and Mihalis Psimopoulos. “Where Science Has Gone Wrong.” Nature 329 (1987): 595-598.

Author Information:Margaret Gilbert, University of California, Irvine,

Gilbert, Margaret. “Scientists Are People Too: Comment on Andersen.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 45-49.

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

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Image credit: Creative Commons

As Line Edslev Andersen implies in her thoughtful article, the fact that scientific advances are sometimes made by relative outsiders to a given scientific specialty calls for an explanation. [1] Counterintuitive as this may seem, are outsiders to some extent in a privileged position?

In the discussion to which Andersen refers, I proposed one way in which being an outsider is advantageous.[2] I argued that, in brief, insiders will be to some degree constrained in their investigations by the collective beliefs of their scientific community, where such beliefs are understood to involve a joint commitment of the members of the community.[3] Outsiders will not be so constrained.

Andersen contrasts my proposal with what she refers to as a simpler proposal from Thomas Kuhn that references an insider’s education, an education that postulates answers to basic questions that “come to exert a deep hold on the scientific mind”.[4] Outsiders will not be so constrained.

Andersen focuses on a particular case study, an outsider’s solution to the Four-Color Problem in mathematics, and argues that an appeal to education appears to explain it. Wolfgang Haken, the outsider in question, did not receive the same education as the relevant insiders. This allowed Haken to make use of less sophisticated methods of proof than insiders would at that time have considered using.

Andersen goes on to consider whether there is evidence of a relevant joint commitment among the insiders in this case. Did they have a collective belief that more sophisticated methods were needed—a collective belief that could have constrained their efforts to solve the Four-Color Problem or affected their reactions to the solution that Haken presented? Her conclusion is that the data that she has carefully examined fail to provide an affirmative answer to this question.

Her article ends with a challenge to the idea that participation in a given collective belief may influence a scientist’s scientific work: the attribution of “powerful, non-epistemic motives” to scientists “must be accompanied by strong evidence”.[5]

In what follows I make some relatively general points in response to Andersen’s discussion.

Collective Beliefs as Endemic in Human Life

First, I want to emphasize that the source of my proposal about the role of collective beliefs in science was a proposal about the role of collective beliefs in human life generally that was developed without reference to science.[6] Let me explain.

In the course of their everyday lives people often make statements of the form “We believe that…” and do not understand by this “We all believe that…” or “We both believe that…”  The same goes, with relevant changes, for “They believe that…” Call such statements as collective belief statements.

I have argued in several places that what people are referring to when they make such statements is a collective belief understood roughly as follows: two or more people collectively believe that p if and only if, by definition, they are jointly committed to emulate by virtue of their several actions and utterances a single believer of the proposition p.[7] In other words, they are severally to speak and act as if they are “of one mind” on the subject.

Though one indication of the presence of a particular collective belief is the making of an appropriate collective belief statement, there are other such indications as well. Among other things, the existence of a particular collective belief will be indicated, where relevant, by rebukes for saying something expressive of a contrary belief, rebukes one would have the standing to issue by virtue of a joint commitment constitutive of the belief in question.[8]

Now there is reason to think that collective beliefs abound in all walks of human life. Take the context of an informal conversation, for instance. One person says “What a lovely day!” and another responds “Yes, indeed!” This appears to enough to fix “It’s a lovely day” as something collectively believed by the two, as will appear if one or another conversationalist attempts baldly to presuppose or assert the contrary.[9]

The example just given involves the smallest possible group. The same applies to larger groups as well. Thus at a meeting of a well-populated literary society someone may propose that a certain novel is extremely fine and everyone else may nod approval of this statement. In standard circumstances this will suffice to establish a collective belief among those present that the novel in question is extremely fine. As I have argued it is possible, though not necessarily common, for the beliefs of the participants in such interactions to run contrary to the relevant collective belief both at the time it is formed.

If collective beliefs are prevalent in human life generally, and if, in particular, they are the predictable outcome of conversations and discussions on whatever topic, we can expect many collective beliefs to be established among scientists in the various specialties as they talk about their work in both small and large groups.

Any collective belief involves a normative constraint—through the constitutive joint commitment. It will therefore be apt to influence the participating scientists’ behavior in the direction of conformity to the joint commitment. To say this is not to suggest any form of irrationality on their part. On the contrary, as they will understand, one ought to conform to any joint commitment to which one is a party, all else being equal. Further aspects of the matter that they would reasonably take into account include their owing compliance to their fellows, who have rights to their compliance, and the fact that if they fail to comply their fellows have the standing to rebuke them–something many would find painful.[10]

That is not to say that every scientist or even most scientists will generally conform to the joint commitments constitutive of collective beliefs to which they are party when confronted with evidence that the involved belief is suspect or false. There will, however, be considerations to hand that militate against their speaking and acting in ways expressive of doubt on the topics in question. One who is swayed by these considerations may tend to censor his thoughts as well, repressing or at least not following up doubts about the truth of the relevant collective beliefs.

Insofar as they are not party to these collective beliefs, outsiders to the relevant scientific community will not be confronted with these considerations. They will to that extent be better placed to make a discovery that runs counter to a given collective belief of the community.

Education as an Important Context for Collective Belief Formation

I turn now to Kuhn’s explanation of the potential contribution of outsiders to a given scientific field, as presented by Andersen. I focus in particular on his reference to education or, more vividly, “the educational initiation that prepares and licenses the student for professional practice” an initiation such that answers to certain basic questions “come to exert a deep hold on the scientific mind”.[11]

In that brief representation of Kuhn’s idea, precisely what is involved in the process of education is not discussed. Nor do I aim to make more than one point about that process here. That point is this: the interactions of students and teachers of science are fruitful fields for the development of relevant collective beliefs. It is plausible to suppose, therefore, that a full description of the educational initiation of scientists and the way it constrains them should reference such beliefs.

Of course, education has a feature that is not common to all situations in which collective beliefs develop. There is a hierarchy of sorts, with the teacher having the upper hand. The existence of this hierarchy, however, is no barrier to the formation of relevant collective beliefs.

Thus suppose that Mark, a teacher, says to a student who appears to be nodding off: “Sally, did you get that? What is it that quarks combine to form?” and Sally confidently replies “Hadrons”, to which Mark responds “Correct.” This interchange is of the right sort to make Sally a party with Mark to a collective belief that quarks combine to form hadrons. This is so whether or not Sally comes personally to believe that quarks so combine. Should Mark turn to the other members of the class who indicate their concurrence with what Sally has said before he responds, the collective belief in question will be ascribable to the class as a whole.

The collective beliefs formed in the course of a scientific education will include not only beliefs about the way things are, but beliefs about the appropriate methods of inquiry such as the one adduced by Andersen in her article: that the Four-Color Problem cannot be solved by certain elementary methods.[12]

Collective Beliefs Encourage Corresponding Personal Beliefs

Kuhn maintains that the education scientists receive leads to deeply held personal beliefs. It is a good question how to explain this. I am happy to allow that some processes describable without reference to collective beliefs are likely to be implicated. For instance, if Ben’s teacher Nadia confidently asserts that certain elementary methods are of no use in solving the Four-Color Problem, Ben may be inclined to take what she says to be true in part because of her confident manner. That said, should there be a corresponding collective belief among mathematicians in the field of which Ben becomes aware this is likely to make a difference to him in several ways, including the following.

First, it is apt to firm up his confidence in the point at issue, since he may reasonably suppose that the mathematicians in question arrived at their belief after subjecting it to their combined scrutiny, and have not yet seen fit to revise it. Second, it will enhance his sense of freedom to express the point in conversation with members of the relevant mathematical community without fear of rebuke, derision, or worse—ostracism being one possibility. Thus he will be under no pressure from the community to rethink the point or change his personal position. This will more easily allow the belief in question to become deeply entrenched in his mind.

In sum, just as collective beliefs are apt to discourage the formation or persistence of contrary personal beliefs, they are apt to encourage the corresponding personal beliefs. Collective scientific beliefs, then, can be expected to play a role in a full explanation of the depth of the personal scientific beliefs of those who have had a scientific education.

Concluding Summary

Given the ease and prevalence of collective belief formation in the course of conversations and discussions of whatever kind, we can expect the formation of such beliefs to be an integral part of the education of scientists and the scientific life generally.

Once established, any collective belief is apt to discourage talking, acting, and, ultimately, thinking in ways that run contrary to the belief in question, and to encourage talking, acting, and thinking in ways that accommodate that belief. When the belief in question is false, outsiders to a given scientific discipline will—to that extent—be in a privileged position.

Precisely what happened in the case of any given outsider’s contribution is of course, a matter for the kind of fine-grained inquiry undertaken by Andersen—though the evidence available may not be conclusive in one or another respect.

In closing I should like to thank Andersen for her careful representation of my account of collective belief and for considering the relevance of collective beliefs to Haken’s solution to the Four-Color Problem.

[1] Line Edslev Andersen, “Outsiders enabling scientific change: learning from the sociohistory of a mathematical proof”, Social Epistemology (2017), 97.  For present purposes I follow Andersen and allow that mathematics is a science.

[2] Margaret Gilbert, “Collective belief and scientific change” in Sociality and Responsibility: New Essays in Plural Subject Theory (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006). Note that I say that I propose one way in which outsiders may have an advantage. I do not deny that there may be several such ways.

[3] I characterize the content of this joint commitment in the next section.

[4] Andersen, “Outsiders”, 185, quoting Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996 [1962]), 4-5.

[5] Andersen, “Outsiders”, 190.

[6] Andersen,“Outsiders”, 185, indicates this but it is worth developing a little in the present context.

[7] See Andersen “Outsiders”, 185. For my initial presentation and arguments for this account see Margaret Gilbert, On Social Facts (London: Routledge, 1989), ch. 5, and for its development over time see Margaret Gilbert, Living Together: Rationality, Sociality, and Obligation (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996), Introduction. For an extended discussion of joint commitment see e.g. Margaret Gilbert, A Theory of Political Obligation: Membership, Commitment, and the Bonds of Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), ch. 7; also Margaret Gilbert, Joint Commitment: How We Make the Social World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), Introduction and ch. 2.

[8] I argue that joint commitment may well be the only ground of the standing to rebuke and related standings in Margaret Gilbert, Rights and Demands: A Foundational Inquiry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

[9] For further discussion of conversation and collective belief see Gilbert, Social Facts, 294-298, and Margaret Gilbert and Maura Priest, “Conversation and collective belief” in Perspectives on Pragmatics and Philosophy, edited by A. Capone, F. Lo Piparo, and M. Carapezza (Dordrecht: Springer, 2013).

[10] There is extended discussion of the implications of any joint commitment in e.g. Gilbert, A Theory, ch. 7.

[11] See Anderson, “Outsiders”, 185. The points made in this section apply, I take it, when education is construed broadly as in Andersen, ibid., to include “both formal and informal types of education and training” including the mentoring of junior faculty by senior colleagues.

[12] A further point relevant to the discussion in this section is made in Alban Bouvier, “Collective Belief, Acceptance, and Commitment in Science” in Iyyun, vol 56, 91-118, at p.111, discussing collective belief in my sense: “publishing textbooks means the institutionalisation of shared convictions—and sometimes, if not always, joint commitments”.

Author Information: Ilya Kasavin, Russian Academy of Science,

Kasavin, Ilya. “Why so Romantic and A Priori? A Reply to Bakhurst and Sismondo.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 20-22.

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Image credit: Yakub Annanurov

It is my pleasure and privilege to respond to the critical comments on my paper provided by David Bakhurst and Sergio Sismondo (2017). These comments represent a clever combination of significant knowledge of both STS and Russian philosophy—a rare occurrence. Bakhurst and Sismondo help me realize that my style of discourse relies, perhaps, too much on tacit knowledge and shared opinions that should be articulated in order to serve if not as an additional argument then, at least, as an apology.

Toward a New Agenda

I am aware that the idea of searching for a new agenda in the philosophy of science and STS, which appeals to the Russian tradition (even putting aside Russian religious philosophy as I do), is an ambitious task and might look too brave. Yet, mainstream philosophy does pursue such ambitious agendas—one might consider John Stuart Mill, the Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Willard Quine, Thomas Kuhn—and well-elaborated concepts interpreted, reinterpreted, and developed by contemporary scholars. French historical epistemology and German Neo-Kantianism are much less popular. Surprisingly, the same is true in the case of William Whewell who launched the program of historically-oriented philosophy of science over one hundred years before Kuhn. Still, Whewell remains largely forgotten in the shadow of Mill, his liberal rival.

A similar lack of attention to the Russian tradition in the philosophy of science also makes it difficult to provide clear guidelines for extracting a kind of unified picture of science, or knowledge, out of the works of Russian thinkers. Hence, my efforts to compose a more or less unified pool of Russian scholars for my purpose might look implausible. And this moves Bakhurst and Sismondo to assert that “Russian cosmism, for example, is a million miles from Ilyenkov’s Marxism” (21). My counter-argument for this case is as follows. Pantheism builds the common historical roots for Russian cosmism as well as for Hegel who inspired the version of Marxism elaborated by Ilyenkov. This is a crucial point for the “objective ideal forms” (Ilyenkov) and “noosphere” (Vernadsky) that seem to be very close to one another. Also, cosmism and Marxism might be portrayed by someone like Popper, from the perspective of his gradual social engineering, for their faith in long-term social forecasting, which serves a basis of every global project. It would be naïve to justify a theoretical unity of Russian philosophical tradition using a thorough historical/philosophical analysis. Still, the Russian thinkers I mention share a holistic view of human knowledge that might be well dubbed “integral knowledge”.

Bakhurst and Sismondo are quite right pointing out the origin of “integral knowledge” concept in Ivan Kireevsky’s works. Nevertheless, I appeal to this concept in the later interpretations by Shpet—where it is released from any religious meaning. Following this interpretation, I propose an expanded concept of knowledge and the corresponding expansion of epistemological subject matter. According to the latter, every conscious phenomenon (perceptions, notions, beliefs, values, norms, ideals etc.) and, moreover, every cultural and social artifact have epistemic content. This notion leads beyond the limits of classical epistemology which continues to define knowledge as justified true belief (in spite of Gettier problems). I am sure that one needs an expanded concept of knowledge to deal with global projects (large technosocial units) within STS. Thus, appealing to “integral knowledge” is a normative rather than a descriptive stance; it is primarily a requirement of the current development within the “social philosophy of science” than an extraction from the history of (Russian or whatever) thought.

On Case Studies

I share the critical evaluation of what Bakhurst and Sismondo call “whiggish accounts” (21) of science (the “armchair image” of science also applies), which is typical in some aspects of analytical epistemology. The best representatives of Russian philosophical tradition were proponents of a historical/sociological vision of science and also dealt with case studies (Boris Hessen). So, I have no doubt in case studies as a significant means of philosophy of science seeking an empirical foundation. Moreover, there should be no bias between philosophy, on the one side, and history and sociology of science, on the other side; such a boundary looks obsolete. Nevertheless, many case studies (perhaps it is better to call them “empirical studies”) have very little theoretical/philosophical outcome, or their outcome is trivial. (I won’t mention here any names in order to avoid an unnecessary quarrel.) And I am sure these cases can stimulate a vivid interdisciplinary interaction, especially if philosophers get involved in their interpretation. Still, there are brilliant examples of a different kind, case studies that provide real theoretical progress and serve as the gold standard for STS research (works by Harry Collins, Steven Shapin, Karin Knorr-Cetina and Peter Galison among others) that justifies the constructivist and anti-cumulativist view of science. Perhaps the expanding community of STS empirical researchers should be more alive in practice to case studies that follow such standards.

As to my Karakum Canal research, which I did exactly as a standard case-study, there was no place in the general article in Social Epistemology for the detailed historical and sociological evidence. I might refer here only to my paper[1], where one finds some more empirical evidence based on rare Russian sources in the Karakum Canal history and in-depth interviews with specialists in hydrogeology and hydraulic engineering. Actually, such a huge artifact like Karakum Canal altogether can hardly be a subject matter of a case study, though most of my empirical evidence deals only with the first four years of its history. Moreover, Bakhurst and Sismondo might be correct in pointing out certain “romantic” and “a priori” elements in my attitude. These elements will be more understandable in terms of the current discussions between Russian economists, who contrast a social-engineering approach (Alexej Kudrin who supports financiers following Georgii Schedrovitsky’s ideas) with a global project approach (Ruslan Grinberg who acts in favor of “industrialists”) in search for a state strategy for economic growth. In this framework, the Karakum Canal history acquires a more normative, than descriptive, meaning in the Russian context going beyond STS towards the social philosophy of science and technology. But this is the other side of the coin.


Bakhurst, David and Sergio Sismondo. “Commentary on Ilya Kasavin’s ‘Towards a Social Philosophy of Science: Russian Prospects’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 4 (2017): 20-23.

Kasavin, Ilya. “Towards a Social Philosophy of Science: Russian Prospects.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 1 (2017): 1-15.

Kasavin, Ilya. “Mega-Projects and Global Projects: Science Between Utopia and Technocracy.” Voprosy filosofii 9, (2015): 40-56 (in Russian).

[1] “Mega-Projects and Global Projects: Science Between Utopia and Technocracy.” Voprosy filosofii 9, (2015): 40-56 (in Russian).

Author Information: David Bakhurst and Sergio Sismondo, Queen’s University at Kingston,;

Bakhurst, David and Sergio Sismondo. “Commentary on Ilya Kasavin’s ‘Towards a Social Philosophy of Science: Russian Prospects’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 4 (2017): 20-23.

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

Please refer to:

Image credit: Коля Саныч, via flickr

Ilya Kasavin’s paper[1] argues for a renewed conception of the philosophy of science. He laments what he sees as the present division of labour, which gives philosophy of science responsibility for the logical and methodological analysis of scientific knowledge, while the history, sociology and psychology of science are conceived as separate domains of enquiry, each with its distinct subject matter. 

Kasavin’s Project

Kasavin proposes a more holistic vision inspired by a range of Russian thinkers—including Hessen, Shpet, Vygotsky, Bakhtin, Ilyenkov, Fedorov and Vernadsky—who all offer profoundly holistic views that seek to transcend familiar oppositions between mind and world, individual and social, nature and culture. The Russian tradition yields “a more realistic image of knowledge as a complex, self-developing, human-dimensional system that can be separated from its context only by abstraction” [p. 6; translation corrected—D.B.]. Thus we cannot put the study of the philosophy, history, sociology and psychology of science into different silos. They need to be properly integrated, and when they are, philosophical insight will both inform and issue from the study of science in its various dimensions.

To illustrate his position, Kasavin invites us to consider “megaprojects”, which, in contrast to the historical and sociological case studies so characteristic of contemporary Science and Technology Studies (STS), are endeavours of such “technical complexity and political-economic significance”, that they cannot be understood without a philosophical vision. He takes as his example the building of the Kara-Kum Canal in the Stalin era, a project that, though its primary purpose was the irrigation of desert lands, had its origin, Kasavin argues, in Peter the Great’s ambition to construct a water transportation route that would unite northern and southern Russia and open up further routes to Persia, India and China. Such massive undertakings cannot be treated as if they are merely scaled up versions of smaller engineering projects. On the contrary, they present distinctive problems of explanation and analysis, and carry within them profound philosophical significance that any attempt to understand them must bring into view.

This is even more true of what Kasavin calls “global projects”, such as Isabella of Castile’s sending Columbus on his voyage of discovery, a project of truly world-historical significance that “intertwines science and everyday life, traditions and innovations, history and geography, the spontaneous inhomogeneity and constructive purposefulness of development, national mentality and the spirit of an epoch” (12). Any hope of understanding such phenomena requires more than a multi-disciplinary collaboration. It demands a “transdisciplinary reorientation” animated by the right philosophical sensibility—creative, open and holistic.

Unity? But What Unity?

How plausible is Kasavin’s optimism that the requisite philosophical sensibility is to be found in the Russian tradition? The difficulty here is that while it is relatively easy to say what the many and various Russian thinkers he presents jointly dislike, it is far harder to articulate a positive vision that they share. As Kasavin brings out, they all dismiss representationalist conceptions of mind and correspondentist theories of truth; reject scientism; distrust views that are sceptical of human creativity, and disdain those that fail to countenance the fundamentally social character of mind. It would be wrong, however, to suppose that anything like a common philosophy emerges from their work. Russian cosmism, for example, is a million miles from Ilyenkov’s Marxism. It is true, of course, that all these thinkers (with the probable exception of Bakhtin) look to philosophy for a unifying vision and represent knowledge as a oneness with reality achievable by individuals only in community with others. But there is little unity in their respective ways of developing such insights.

Kasavin invokes the distinctively Russian notion of “integral knowledge” as a unifying theme, representing it as introduced at the turn of the 20th century by a number of Russian thinkers, including Shpet and Solovyev, and subsequently taken up by Vygotsky and Bakhtin. But the notion of “integral knowledge” actually derives from the 1850s and the work of Ivan Kireevsky, one of the key figures of the Slavophile movement, and while it found various expressions in the ideas of later thinkers, it is hard to liberate it entirely from its original associations with Orthodoxy, the Russian Soul, and the transcendence of reason. These are not ideas usually associated with Vygotsky or Bakhtin, let alone Ilyenkov. We do not doubt that there is much in the Russian tradition that could contribute to the revitalization of philosophical conceptions of science, but there remains a good deal of work to be done to make this explicit.

Case Studies 

Kasavin is concerned that STS is overly focused on case studies that only rarely make philosophical contributions. Of course, it is implicit in the idea of a case study—as opposed to a study of purely antiquarian interest—that it illuminates something larger than itself: it should provide a case of something general, abstract or fundamental. Whether STS’s case studies make philosophical points will depend in part on the boundaries of philosophy, although certainly STS has helped to reshape ideas of such things as scientific argumentation and objectivity, of relations between theory and experiment, and of the application of science, all of which are important to the philosophy of science and technology.

One of the effects of ethnographic and historical case studies in STS has been to show how philosophy has often relied on idealized visions of science and technology that line up poorly with science as it is actually practiced. Philosophers have often based their views on textbook or other whiggish accounts of scientific practice, accounts that tend to draw scientific beliefs toward presently accepted truths. We might see this in terms of a kind of distance between philosophical views and actual practice. STS has replaced whiggish accounts by relentlessly constructivist ones: STS looks to how things are constructed from the ground up. The concrete details of materials, actions and representations matter to scientific and technological constructions.


One of the risks of doing empirical studies is that they may not turn out to be of any larger significance. To guard against that, Kasavin, as we observed above, turns to what he considers an empirical topic of intrinsic significance, a megaproject.

Construction on the Kara-Kum Canal, running from the Amu Dar’ya River across the Kara-Kum Desert, began in 1954 under Stalin and was completed in 1988. As Kasavin describes, the canal was one of the largest engineering projects undertaken by the Soviet Union, is one of the longest waterways of the world, permitted the irrigation of what could become valuable agricultural land, and led to extensive development in Turkmenistan.  Kasavin argues that the real origins of the canal lie in the era of Peter the Great, who in the early years of the eighteenth century saw commercial and political possibilities in the creation of a navigable waterway through the Kara-Kum Desert. The canal would form an important leg in the passage from the heart of Russia to India. Although Peter did not progress beyond preliminary surveying of the possible canal bed and building a few necessary political alliances, Kasavin suggests that the idea remained alive through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an element of a general Russian enthusiasm for hydraulic engineering. Is the implication of the line drawn from Peter the Great’s Kara-Kum Canal to Stalin’s Kara-Kum Canal that megaprojects like these can have lives of their own?

For Kasavin, we should not assume that megaprojects are the products of economic opportunities or political circumstances. The Kara-Kum Canal did not depend on a calculation of costs and benefits, but instead issued from acts of will: first Peter’s, who did not have the power to bring it into being, and then Stalin’s, who did. Here lies a kind of romanticism in Kasavin’s account, which fuels his impatience with merely technocratic approaches to megaprojects (exemplified in his article by the Danish authors who attempt to address the anarchic tendencies of megaprojects by deciding how best to budget, plan and execute them).  What needs to be understood, is that, while born of pure will, the Kara-Kum Canal was built by workers who, in Trifonov’s image, were doing a kind of practical philosophy as they reshaped space and time, a kind of embodied metaphysics. Nature was mastered and transformed to human ends, most immediately the ends of Soviet society. The result is something of almost unbelievable grandeur and gravitas, producing experiences of what David Nye (following Perry Miller) calls the “technological sublime”, in which the individual human agent is dwarfed by the scale of megaprojects as the social giant unleashes its Promethean aspirations to reshape nature to human ends.

Yet to support Kasavin’s picture we surely need to study the details of how the Kara-Kum Canal and other megaprojects are actually realized.  Kasavin offers us a unifying vision, but it yields an a priori narrative, illustrated by literary texts (Platonov, Trifonov) rather than close study of historical detail. STS’s current, and very different, sensibility would suggest a need to drill down into the details of megaprojects to understand how they are made, how they work and don’t work, and how they are understood. What traces and records were left of the project imagined by Peter the Great, how were they interpreted and reinterpreted over the course of hundreds of years, and how, if at all, did they influence Stalin’s project? In what sense are these two projects connected? Planning the canal was begun under Stalin—and it is certainly plausible that the canal arose out of his force of will—but the digging, blasting and pouring of cement did not begin until after Stalin’s death, and continued for more than thirty years before the project was complete. Why did Stalin’s canal not suffer the fate of Peter’s? What important decisions, obstacles and compromises gave the canal its eventual shape?

No doubt it is only the kind of philosophical vision that Kasavin applauds that draws us to the subject matter about which we ask these questions, but it is only by attention to empirical detail that we stand a chance of answering them. But it is precisely the kind of case studies favoured in contemporary STS that have taught us a lot about the profundity and complexity of the empirical study of science and technology. We should not scorn that legacy, as Kasavin sometimes seems to, and embrace instead a diet of speculative narratives and a priori reflections, but find a way to ensure that a due appreciation of philosophical richness of our subject matter informs our efforts to bring out its empirical reality in all its depth and richness. That, we contend, is the guiding principle that must inform any attempt to rethink the nature of case studies or the role of philosophy in contemporary studies of science.

[1] Kasavin, Ilya. “Towards a Social Philosophy of Science: Russian Prospects.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 1 (2017): 1-15.

Author Information: Manuel Padilla Cruz, Universidad de Sevilla,

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

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

Please refer to:

Image credit: ebrkut, via flickr

Quite recently, Anderson (2017) has distinguished a new form of epistemic injustice: conceptual competence injustice. This is characterised as the injustice that people are inflicted when they are not recognised as knowers or experts in some domain because of failure to grasp one or various concepts in what is said. Conceptual competence injustice is defined as “[…] a wrong done to a person specifically in their capacity as a knower of those claims that would traditionally be regarded as conceptual and linguistic truths” (Anderson 2017, 210).

Conceptual competence injustice clearly differs from testimonial injustice, or the unfairness sustained when the testimony dispensed is thought to be unreliable or false (Fricker 2003, 2007). Here, what is at stake is credibility. Conceptual competence injustice also diverges from hermeneutical injustice, or “[…] the injustice of having some significant area of one’s social experience obscured from collective understanding” (Fricker 2006, 99). The issue here is intelligibility, as a person is not understood as deserved or expected (Fricker 2006, 105-107; 2007, 151). Hermeneutical injustices have no perpetrator (Fricker 2006, 102) and stem from a “[…] hermeneutical lacuna […] preventing [individuals] from rendering [their] experience communicatively intelligible” (Fricker 2006, 101). They arise when individuals lack the conceptual tools facilitating expression of experience or reference to specific actions or events, so they cannot “[…] make communicatively intelligible something which is particularly in [their] interest to be able to render intelligible” (Fricker 2006, 103).

Conceptual competence injustice also significantly contrasts with contributory injustice (Dotson 2012), which originates when “[…] a person has the conceptual tools to comprehend [their] experience […] and the linguistic tools to articulate it, but [their] attempts at communicating [their] ideas are thwarted by the fact that [the] audience willfully misunderstand [them]” (Dotson 2012, 32). When someone sustains a contributory injustice, what they say fails “[…] to gain appropriate uptake” (Dotson 2012, 32) inasmuch as their interlocutors intentionally, purposefully and decidedly do not “[…] capture the ideas or experiences being expressed” (Dotson 2012, 32). Consequently, contributory injustices have perpetrators: those who refrain from correctly understanding what the target of the injustice says.

In addition to helping better understand the complexity and diversity of epistemic injustice, the notion of conceptual competence injustice may be most helpful to pragmatics, a field in linguistics which may certainly benefit from it. This notion may contribute to conceptualising an undesired or unexpected perlocutionary effect (Austin 1962) of communicative behaviour arising as a consequence of the accidental relevance of a conclusion drawn in the search for the optimal relevance of verbal stimuli processed, among which lies communicative behaviour (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson 1999; Wilson and Sperber 2004). In what follows I purport to show the usefulness of this novel kind of epistemic injustice and thus argue in favour of incorporating a notion originated in the field of social epistemology into a linguistic discipline. In so doing, I will rely on some claims and postulates of relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995), a cognitive pragmatic framework delving into communication and, more precisely, comprehension, which may conveniently account for the origin of some conclusions derivable from human behaviour.

Communicative Competence

Speaking a language requires abstract knowledge of the language in question, which feeds a series of interrelated, specialised abilities indispensable for performance. Those abilities, or sub-competences, make up communicative competence and have been labelled differently in extant models (Hymes 1972; Canale 1983; Bachman 1990; Celce-Murcia et al. 1995). Among such sub-competences are:

Linguistic competence, or knowing the grammar rules and lexical repertoire of a language, which are the very rudiments of a language.

Sociocultural competence, which involves awareness of social and institutional structures; the social attributes of participants in conversations (age, gender, power, distance, etc.), and the register, style or level of politeness expected, required or allowed in certain situations. These greatly determine what people say and how they say it.

Actional competence, or mastery of a range of (conventionalised) semantico-syntactic structures to mean, but more importantly, to do specific things with words.

Linguistic competence, and more specifically, possession of and ability to use precise and adequate lexical items, are primordial in communication. Words like nouns (‘house’, ‘cat’), adjectives (‘big’, ‘empty’), verbs (‘run’, ‘bite’) and adverbs (‘fast’, ‘slowly’) encode concepts, or mental objects that become part of the mental representations entertained during comprehension (house, cat, big, red, run, bite, fast, slowly).[1] Those words are the means to name and allude to people, animals, objects, actions, events, etc. (Wilson and Sperber 1993), even if the concepts they encode may be inferentially adjusted through operations like broadening or narrowing (Wilson and Carston 2007; Carston 2012). Other words like ‘but’, ‘so’ or ‘because’, in contrast, encode procedures, or mental instructions steering the inferences the mind performs when processing linguistic input (Blakemore 1987; Wilson and Sperber 1993). While words in the former category are conceptual, those in the latter are procedural and “[…] put the user of the language into a state” in which they perform a domain-specific inference at a sub-personal level (Wilson 2016, 11). To put it differently, procedural expressions “[…] point the hearer in a [particular] direction” (Wharton 2009, 61).

Lexical (In)competence

Employing appropriate words turns out crucial for hearers to infer speakers’ actual informative intention—i.e. the set of assumptions that speakers intend to make manifest,[2] or the intended message (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004). Speakers are usually presupposed to be benevolent—i.e. they will seek to provide true and relevant information–[3] and competent—i.e. they are believed to command their native language and its rules of usage (Sperber 1994). True communicative competence involves guiding hearers to intended meaning through appropriate morphological, lexical, syntactic or pragmatic choices. This requires, among others, checking that words and communicative strategies are adequate and do not demand excessive cognitive effort, and that what is said will result in a satisfactory amount of cognitive effects (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995).

Unfortunately, speakers are not always fully competent in a language—think of non-native speakers or learners of a second language– or do not behave competently because of diverse permanent pathologies—e.g. autism, Asperger syndrome, etc.– or temporary mental or physiological states like tiredness, absentmindedness, disease, anger, euphoria, nervousness, etc. (Mustajoki 2012; Padilla Cruz 2017). Among other mistakes, these factors may cause speakers to misuse vocabulary. On some occasions, lexical mistakes do not have very serious consequences, but result in rather funny anecdotes. This was the case of a French person who sought to enquire in a broken Spanish where he could catch a taxi. A mistake when pronouncing a consonant sound in the verb ‘coger’ (‘catch/take’) turned it into ‘comer’ (‘eat’), so they asked “¿Dónde puedo comer un taxi?” (“Where can I eat a taxi?”).

Some speakers may also be less competent than others in specific linguistic areas like vocabulary, syntax or pragmatics. As regards vocabulary, individuals may have conceptual deficits or conceptualisation problems originating in mismatches between concepts and words (Dua 1990; Sperber and Wilson 1997; Bazzanella and Damiano 1999). These give rise to misstatements, which may lead hearers to utterly misunderstand speakers if no meaning negotiation ensues (Banks et al. 1991). Among misunderstandings stemming from lack or misuse of vocabulary are failure to correctly understand the meaning of the words employed—i.e. the predicative function– or failure to grasp what is talked about—i.e. the referential function (Weigand 1999).

When conceptual expressions are inadequately used or the speaker lacks them, a pragmatic failure may arise, as the hearer does not understand what the speaker actually means or the hearer has difficulties to do so (Thomas 1983). Indeed, failures in expressive acts prevent hearers from making the expected or appropriate inferences (Bosco et al. 2006).[4] For instance, if someone asked you to grab them a spoon, when what they actually meant was a stool, you would reach for the spoon and not the stool and conclude that they want to eat or cook, but not to sit down or rest for a while.

When speakers do not succeed at finding adequate vocabulary, they may resort to paraphrases, synonyms, antonyms, pointing, etc. in order to somehow explain what they mean. They may also employ vague terms or placeholders, and trust hearers to inferentially adjust them in order to arrive at what they mean. Doing so is part and parcel of speakers’ strategic competence, another component of communicative competence thanks to which communicative problems are avoided or overcome, and mutual understanding is restored (Canale 1983; Celce-Murcia et al. 1995). Nevertheless, lack or misuse of vocabulary, in addition to hindering smooth communication and hampering on correct understanding, may have negative perlocutionary effects: they may bias perceptions of speakers as knowers and users of a language. In other words, infelicitous linguistic performance may impact the impressions that hearers forge about speakers.

Consequences of Lexical Problems

As linguistic input is perceived, it is processed by the mind, which subconsciously performs a wide variety of simultaneous inferences at an incredibly fast pace. Some of those inferences are necessary to assign reference to proper names, pronouns or indexicals—i.e. words like ‘here’, ‘there’ or ‘now’—others enable restriction of the denotation of some of the concepts encoded in the words in utterances; others facilitate recovery of elided material or disambiguation of some word strings; others result in the construction of descriptions of the speaker’s attitude to the proposition expressed or the speech act performed, and others are necessary to arrive at implicit contents or implicatures (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995). These inferences depend on access to an immense variety of contextual information, which is perceptible in the physical environment or mentally stored. Virtually, there is no limit to the amount and sort of information that the mind accesses, but the mind is normally guided, as a result of evolution, by expectations of optimal relevance: it follows the path of least possible effort and maximum cognitive reward (Wilson 1999; Wilson and Sperber 2004).

Verbal actions like requesting, offering, inviting, thanking, etc., make manifest a variety of assumptions. Consider a request for a glass of water such as “May I have some water?” It may make manifest assumptions referring to the requester’s thirst and willingness to get some water, as well as to the existence of a water tap and glasses in the place where she and the hearer happen to be, and the hearer’s ability to give her some water. The speaker may have intended to make manifest to the hearer those assumptions, so they are strongly communicated (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995). The hearer will use them as implicated premises in order to reach the implicated conclusion that the requester wants some water and he can give it to her. As a result, the hearer may decide either to comply with the request, which is the expected or preferred perlocutionary effect of the request, or not to comply with it, which is its unexpected or dispreferred perlocutionary effect.

Linguistic performance may also make manifest, to a greater or lesser extent, assumptions which the mind may exploit as premises amenable to yield a wide array of conclusions. Such conclusions are weak implicatures and are drawn as a result of the constant search for optimal relevance. Many of them are not intended by communicators, but hearers derive them at their own risk. Moreover, hearers may not even be fully aware of them or their content, so they are like impressions (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004). For instance, stuttering, some tones of voice or gestures may make manifest assumptions referring to nervousness or anxiety, and lead to conclude that the stutterer is uncertain about something or afraid of someone. Asking for a glass of water through an conventionally indirect request such as “Could I have some water, please?” may make manifest assumptions about the requester’s attitude and prompt the hearer to deduce that she is seeking to be polite.

Unskilled lexical performance may likewise induce people to conclude that a speaker is less competent than expected, or than average, in terms of vocabulary. If during an Old English class a student used the nominal phrases “that symbol” or “that letter” instead of the term ‘thorn’ to refer to ‘ϸ’, the teacher could conclude that the student has missed several classes or is not very knowledgeable of the Old English alphabet. If, while watching a Holy Week procession in Seville, someone referred to one of the vases or amphoras on a float through the Spanish word ‘jarrón’ instead of using the specialised term ‘jarra’ or ‘ánfora’, a local well versed in this religious festival would very likely think that the speaker is alien to it, has no idea of the various ornaments and decorations in floats, or does not know how to properly refer to them.

Lexical Problems and Epistemic Injustice

What is at stake here is an area of an individual’s communicative competence: lexical competence. While lack of vocabulary may reveal a conceptual lacuna or lack of the conceptual tools to make experience intelligible or to correctly allude to specific items, misuse of words may unveil erroneous mappings of concepts onto words, which similarly prevent a speaker from correctly naming elements in reality according to the addressees or a community of practice’s standards (Speber and Wilson 1997). Upon lack or misuse of vocabulary, the audience, depending on benevolence and condescendence, the sort of information manifest to them and the inferences they make, may arrive at prejudicial or detrimental conclusions, which might not be in the interest of the speaker owing to their partiality or inaccuracy. Those conclusions may add to the audience’s knowledge about the speaker and become the basis of an epistemic injustice (Fricker 2003, 2006, 2007). It would be ‘epistemic’ because it has to do with knowledge about the person who lacks or misuses words; it is an ‘injustice’ because the audience, on the grounds of perception of just a part of a person’s behaviour, might not construe adequate or fair knowledge about her.

In the realm of communication and verbal interaction, epistemic injustices may arise when people perceive that speakers appear less competent than expected or than average in some domain. Epistemic injustices may be unexpected or undesired perlocutionary effects and may negatively bias the testimony subsequently dispensed about an unskilled speaker, thus affecting her reputation. The question that now arises is what type(s) of epistemic injustice lack and misuse of vocabulary may give rise to.

Definitely, none of them may result in testimonial injustices because what is at stake is not the speaker’s ability to give information or the truthfulness of the information imparted. Lack of specific vocabulary would not a bring about a contributory injustice either, since the speaker lacks the words to correctly talk about specific issues, and contributory injustices arise when, despite possession of appropriate conceptual tools, a person is not understood on purpose. Misuse of vocabulary, in turn, would not trigger a contributory injustice because words do not match the appropriate concepts and the hearer does not willfully refrain from understanding the speaker. Could lack and misuse of vocabulary then result in hermeneutical injustices?

As regards lack of vocabulary, there is a conceptual lacuna that prevents the speaker from being understood as they would have expected or desired, so it could be considered to give rise to a special type of hermeneutical injustice. However, this would be problematic for two reasons: (i) there is a perpetrator of the injustice, and proper hermeneutical injustices do not have one, and (ii) the injustice stems from negative conclusions about the speaker’s performance as a consequence of poor lexical abilities. Therefore, lack and misuse of vocabulary could be better argued to give rise to an epistemic injustice about the speaker’s competence, so this is why such injustice may be better characterised as a conceptual competence injustice.

A conceptual competence injustice not only negatively affects the speaker’s lexical competence, but also her credibility (Anderson 2017). Since information and people are judged reliable or credible if they suggest sound knowledge about a particular domain, being perceived as lacking appropriate words or misusing them may decrease a speaker’s credibility because they exhibit lack of knowledge. When someone suffers a hermeneutical injustice, that person is denied epistemic trustworthiness and degraded as a knower (Fricker 2007). When a speaker is inflicted a conceptual competence injustice, they would not be completely denied communicative competence, as they are capable of producing expressive acts, even if defectively. What is at stake is simply a component of communicative competence: lexical repertoire. Competence is a gradual and comparative property: people may be more or less competent in some domains, at particular moments or in specific circumstances, or more or less competent than other people (Medina 2011). If a speaker sustains a conceptual competence injustice, they could be degraded as a knower of only some domain corresponding to a particular semantic field, but never as a fully competent speaker of a language.

The speaker in question would only be degraded as a knower of a language in some respects and could be denied what may be labelled lexical reliability or accuracy: the ability to select and use appropriate words in order to name objects, animals, events, etc. and refer to them. This should feature as a component of communicative competence. When someone is inflicted a conceptual competence injustice, they are perceived as less competent as regards vocabulary, and a person who is incompetent in terms of vocabulary, and ultimately in conceptual terms, cannot be veridical because they lack certain words or fail to use them correctly. Accordingly, that person may receive what Dotson (2011) calls testimonial quieting, a phenomenon occurring when an audience do not recognise someone as a knower and refuse to pay attention or accept what they say about a specific domain of knowledge.


Production of words and utterances may have varied perlocutionary effects, some of which are unexpected or undesired. Lack or misuse of vocabulary may give rise to detrimental conclusions about speakers, which may lead an audience to wrong her. The notion of hermeneutical injustice proves problematic in order to define and characterise such wronging, and so does that of contributory injustice. Another notion alluding to competence is called for, and that is Anderson’s (2017) notion of conceptual competence injustice. It may certainly be most helpful to linguistic pragmatics as a way to conceptualise some of the manifold consequences of communicative behaviour.


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Blakemore, Diane. Semantic Constraints on Relevance. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987.

Bosco, Francesca M., Monica Bucciarelli, and Bruno G. Bara. “Recognition and Repair of Communicative Failures: A Developmental Perspective.” Journal of Pragmatics 38 (2006): 1398-1429.

Canale, Michael. “From Communicative Competence to Communicative Language Pedagogy.” In Language and Communication, edited by Jack C. Richards and Richard W. Schmidt, 2-28. London: Longman, 1983.

Carston, Robyn. “Word Meaning and Concept Expressed.” The Linguistic Review 29, no. 4 (2012): 607-623.

Celce-Murcia, Marianne, Zoltán Dörnyei, and Sarah Thurrell. “Communicative Competence: A Pedagogically Motivated Model with Content Modifications.” Issues in Applied Linguistics 5 (1995): 5-35.

Dotson, Kristie. “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing.” Hypatia 26, no. 2 (2011): 236-257.

Dotson, Kristie. “A Cautionary Tale: On Limiting Epistemic Oppression.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 33, no. 1 (2012): 24-47.

Dua, Hans R. “The Phenomenology of Miscommunication.” In Beyond Goffman, edited by Stephen H. Riggins, 113-139. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1990.

Fricker, Miranda. “Epistemic Injustice and a Role for Virtue in the Politics of Knowing.” Metaphilosophy 34, no. 1-2 (2003): 154-173.

Fricker, Miranda. “Powerlessness and Social Interpretation.” Episteme 3, no. 1-2 (2006): 96-108.

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

Hymes, Dell H. “On Communicative Competence.” In Sociolinguistics. Selected Readings, edited by John B. Pride and Janet Holmes, 269-293. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1972.

Keysar, Boaz, and Anne S. Henly. “Speakers’ Overestimation of Their Effectiveness.” Psychological Science 13, no. 3 (2002): 207-212.

Medina, José. “The Relevance of Credibility Excess in a Proportional View of Epistemic Injustice: Differential Epistemic Authority and the Social Imaginary.” Social Epistemology 25, no. 1 (2011): 15-35.

Mustajoki, Arto. “A Speaker-oriented Multidimensional Approach to Risks and Causes of Miscommunication.” Language and Dialogue 2, no. 2 (2012): 216-243.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Interlocutors-related and Hearer-specific Causes of Misunderstanding: Processing Strategy, Confirmation Bias and Weak Vigilance.” Research in Language 15, no. 1 (2017): 11-36.

Shintel, Hadas, and Boaz Keysar. “Less is More: A Minimalist Account of Joint Action in Communication.” Topics in Cognitive Science 1 (2009): 260-273.

Sperber, Dan. “Understanding Verbal Understanding.” In What Is Intelligence? edited by Jean Khalfa, 179-198. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

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

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

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. “The Mapping between the Mental and the Public Lexicon.” UCL Working Papers in Linguistics 9 (1997): 107-125.

Thomas, Jenny. “Cross-cultural Pragmatic Failure.” Applied Linguistics 4, no. 2 (1983): 91-112.

Weigand, Edda. “Misunderstanding: The Standard Case.” Journal of Pragmatics 31 (1999): 763-785.

Wharton, Tim. Pragmatics and Non-verbal Communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Wilson, Deirdre. “Metarepresentation in Linguistic Communication.” UCL Working Papers in Linguistics 11 (1999): 127-161.

Wilson, Deirdre. “Reassessing the Conceptual-Procedural Distinction.” Lingua 175-176 (2016): 5-19.

Wilson, Deirdre, and Robyn Carston. “A Unitary Approach to Lexical Pragmatics: Relevance, Inference and Ad Hoc Concepts.” In Pragmatics, edited by Noel Burton-Roberts, 230-259. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007.

Wilson, Deirdre, and Dan Sperber. “Linguistic Form and Relevance.” Lingua 90, no. 1-2 (1993): 1-25.

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

[1] Following a relevance-theoretic convention, the mental concepts encoded by some words are notated in small caps.

[2] In relevance-theoretic pragmatics, the notion of manifestness refers to the capability of some fact or state of affairs to be mentally represented by an individual (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995).

[3] Relevance is a property of stimuli, which increases as the amount of cognitive effectsstrengthening or contradiction of previous information, or contextual implications– increases and decreases as the amount of cognitive effort invested in processing increases.

[4] Note that to speakers, what they mean may be clear enough, as they tend to be egocentric and might not take into account their interlocutors’ mental states (Keysar and Henly 2002; Shintel and Keysar 2009).

Author Information: Matthew R. X. Dentith, University of Bucharest[1],

Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Conspiracy Theories and Their Investigator(s).” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 4 (2017): 4-11.

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

    Given the extent of the exchange to which Dentith’s reply belongs, please refer to the section after the endnotes for related articles. [a]

Image credit: Bousure, via flickr

Is there a conspiracy by certain philosophers to turn the Social Epistemology Review & Reply Collective into a clearing house for articles on conspiracy theories and conspiracy theory theories? That I cannot answer (for a variety of reasons), but what I can say is that a recent reply piece by Patrick Stokes, ‘Reluctance and Suspicion: Reply to Basham and Dentith’[2] has induced me to put pen to paper once again.

Stokes’ piece is a reply to two earlier pieces, one by myself, and another by fellow philosopher of conspiracy theories, Lee Basham.[3] Stokes’ commentary on Basham’s piece will not concern me here (I suspect the agents working for the aforementioned putative conspiracy about this journal will do that job for me). Rather, I want to focus on what I think Stokes gets right about his reply to me (the worry about how we deal with conspiracy theories in public discourse), and what I think he gets wrong (how I think an investigation into conspiracy theories would work). I do not think Stokes gets my view wrong through any mistake on his part. Rather, due to a poor choice of words on my part, I failed to adequately describe my view, and this naturally lead Stokes to assume I imagined a more individualistic, less socially epistemic investigator (or set of investigators) into these things we call ‘conspiracy theories.’

The Investigator(s)

In ‘Reluctance and Suspicion,’ Stokes takes me to task for speciating out what I label as ‘conspiracy narratives’—arational, rhetorical bad habits associated with particular conspiratorial tropes—from conspiracy theorising generally. He points out that these conspiracy narratives seem awfully hard to distinguish from actual cases of conspiracy theorising. Stokes is too polite to claim I am engaging in the No True Scotsman Fallacy[4]. He saves his criticism for the crux of my reply[5] to his first reply[6] (we are hurtling towards a conspiracy theory theory inception), where I argue we can hand wave the problem away by appealing to an investigator locked up in a room, ‘dispassionately coming up with conspiracy theories, and then getting her lackeys to see if they have any merit’ (my words, not his).[7]

Stokes characterises my putative investigator as someone:

[S]omehow oblivious to conspiracy theorizing as a social practice—perhaps she, in a nod to Frank Jackson’s “Mary,” has been raised in an environment where she has never been exposed to any existing conspiracy theories or conspiracy tropes. Her conspiracy theories are, let’s stipulate, self-standing and sui generis alternatives to “official” explanations of given events.[8]

Now, as I noted in the piece Stokes is replying to, knowing about these narratives/social practices is part-and-parcel of being an investigator with regard to conspiracy theories. I admit that this is not immediately obvious, but when I wrote about:

[S]peciating out talk of conspiracy theories with respect to conspiracy theorising and the invocation of conspiracy narratives is principled case of the particularist insisting that we need to work with the evidence (Dentith 2016, 31).

I was talking about how particularists-qua-investigators should go about their investigative work. That is to say, like the detective investigating the murder of a spouse, there is certain background information we expect the detective to be aware of, such as the likelihood of the surviving partner being the most plausible perpetrator, etc. But my point could have been clearer, and for that I apologise.

However, my chief mistake was to talk about an investigator, and her lackeys. That is to say, I posited a quite individualistic notion of the investigator when the model I am proposing for the investigation of these things called ‘conspiracy theories’ is more akin to a community of inquiry.

Communities of Inquiry

A community of inquiry (a term I take from the works of John Dewey[9] and C. S. Pierce[10]) is a community-led inquiry into problematic situations, where members of said community co-operate in a democratic and participatory fashion. It is a way of talking how best to distribute the epistemic burden when it comes to the discussion and analysis of complex claims (and thus, by extension, these things called ‘conspiracy theories’). Such a community operates on the assumption that while there may be no one expert (or set of experts) with respect to the complex claims contained in many conspiracy theories, we can compensate for the lack of conspiracy theory expertise by sharing the epistemic burden across a suitably constituted community.[11] Potential members of a community of inquiry will include interested members of the public, journalists (both professional and citizen), the police, the judiciary, politicians, and the like.

Describing my putative investigators in the singular ‘she’ was a mistake born out of not quite having nailed down aspects of the terminology of my current research project, ‘Investigating conspiracy theories.’ A social epistemologist at heart, I have always thought that how we analyse any complex claim is a community affair, one of sorting out who shoulders the epistemic burdens, and who gets to be a ‘free rider,’ appealing to the views of others. So, Stokes was mislead only because of my poor choice of words.

Stokes asks what would motivate these investigators, given they are supposedly isolated from conspiracy theorising as a social practice? I think they would—in an ideal setting—be spurred by the idea that if a conspiracy theory turned out to be warranted, then surely we would be obliged to do something about it? Obviously that sense of obligation is linked somehow to scale and/or purpose; a conspiracy to organise a surprise party is something you might well encourage, rather than work against (unless you hate surprise parties). A political conspiracy to rort an election, however, is something most of us think we ought to work against.[12]

Dispassionate Investigations

Now, Stokes might find issue with this fuller picture of a community-led investigation in conspiracy theories because of my stipulation about the investigator(s) ‘dispassionate’ nature. He notes that:

[W]e do not apply our evidential reasoning in a vacuum, but do so from within historically conditioned and epistemically finite situations, in a world already freighted with moral and political meanings.[13]

I admit, talking about the ‘dispassionate’ nature of the investigator(s) was another poor choice of words on my part.[14] What I was trying to get across with the label ‘dispassionate’ is that an investigator can be informed by cultural mores, etc., but that does not mean that she is immediately or necessarily subject to them. Which is to say that members of the community of inquiry will surely know about certain conspiracy narratives (or the social practices associated with some cases of conspiracy theorising) without necessarily having to in any way endorse or engage with them.

Indeed, the diversity of members within a community of inquiry should help with this, in that even if some members embrace the trope, others in the community will question it. Said communities may also end up being international or globalist in constitution, so views which might not be socially or politically unacceptable in one context might be allowed to be expressed in some other. Finally, the diversity of the community (properly—there’s that word again—constituted) should mean even if some members act insincerely, that insincerity should be uncovered or outed (that is, a well-formed community of inquiry should be resistant to conspiracy if it emerges in a society which is largely open[15]).

But the real issue here—which separates Stokes’s work from mine and that of Basham—is the worry about the kind of accusations implicit in some conspiracy theories, and the way in which they (sometimes) can entail particular harms.

Accusations Without Merit

Using the example of recurrent anti-Semitic conspiracy theories (or narratives, as I termed them) as his example, Stoke writes:

[W]e not morally or rationally obliged to entertain every theory, we are morally obliged to reject some theories even at the risk of occasionally being wrong.[16]

I appreciate Stoke’s point here; conspiracy theories or narratives which suggest that, say, the Jewish people are behind the world’s various calamities are, indeed, of the kind we have grounds to not treat seriously. Or, at least, most of us do. The reason why most of us have grounds to not treat these claims seriously is both the harm such theories cause, and the fact that—on investigation—these theories routinely turn out to be baseless.[17] The relationship between these two claims—harms and baselessness—are tightly intertwined. Our communities of inquiry, we should hope, will know this. They will not theorise in a vacuum. If they investigate some alleged Jewish banking cartel plot, they do it with the knowledge of systemic racism, a familiarity with tropes, and an eye on new, and compelling evidence.

However, it is important to note that we already allow some pretty extreme accusations to be made in the public sphere. Many government chambers allow politicians to make accusations on the public record without being subject to libel or defamation. The police can arrest and charge people on what is—to many an epistemologist or ethicist—troublingly vague evidence, and various security services make claims about people on the basis of secret evidence (which may or may not exist). Now, we might object to all of these examples, but we have systems in place which allow accusations to be made, and for them to be challenged.[18]

It is also worthwhile to note that a community of inquiry which investigates some particular conspiracy theory need not do it publicly; the members might work behind closed doors, only going public once an investigation has been concluded. Secret investigations into conspiracy theories, I realise, seem almost prima facie problematic, but unless we think of these investigations as being necessarily public in nature, there is no reason why concerned citizens cannot start their investigation behind closed doors. Indeed, think of the case of a community of inquiry into the Moscow Trials of the 1930s; if you were a Muscovite, would you want your work to be public?[19]

Stokes also makes the following claim about the moral cost of my dispassionate investigator(s) speculations:

Dentith’s dispassionate speculator may not be doing very much practical harm, but she is nonetheless engaging in a practice with a moral cost. My walking into a room and idly wondering if you’re planning to kill me may not cause you much upset—mostly because I wouldn’t mention doing so, as that would make things pretty awkward—but I’ve still entertained the idea you might be a murderer, and thereby done you a passing wrong.[20]

I am sympathetic to this point. A similar argument stands for why we rightfully cast opprobrium on racist speech. After all, someone might claim that is logically possible members of a particular ethnicity (or the opposite sex, etc.) have lower IQs than members of some other group. However, most of us realise that treating such a claim seriously is likely to cause more harm than good; the very act of engaging in the anthropological (or sociological, etc.) research involved creates the idea such notions are respectable, and thus deserving of serious scrutiny. All such an investigation will do—even in the case of a null result—is give proponents of such a theory grounds to say ‘Look, those boffins at Yale thought it was worth checking out…’ Whilst in theory any idea is worth investigating, or treating seriously, in practice there are certain ideas which deserve scrutiny only if we have good grounds to investigate them. Indeed, sometimes we have good socially-constituted reasons to think certain questions need not be raised, or, if raised, not answered.[21]

Yet consider the following hypothetical: a woman walks into a room and finds herself alone with a man. Does she cause a passing wrong by entertaining the notion she might not be safe in that situation? I don’t think so, but even if she does, it seems both justifiable and outweighed by the need for caution. Or think of the detective who, on investigating the murder of a spouse immediately suspects the surviving partner as a matter of course. Is this also a passing wrong, given that she knows a crime has been committed, and that the most likely culprit in such cases is the surviving spouse?

Investigators think like this all the time, and I do not think this is a problem per se. Yes, such thinking entails beliefs which—if expressed in a certain way, or in particular contexts—can cause harm. Apropos of nothing, if I walk into a room and tell you that I think you are planning to kill, that likely will damage our friendship. My idly thinking it, however, does not strike me as problematic. However, I guess it all depends on what ‘idly’ means here; if it is a passing thought, then I cannot see how it causes harm at all. If it persists throughout the conversation I am having with you, causing me to act nervously or become reticent around you, maybe that does mean I’ve wronged you in some sense.

Now, admittedly, this kind of response entails a problem: if we accept that investigators (or, our putative community of inquiry) think like this all the time, and some investigations can be undertaken in secret, then surely there is nothing wrong about some community going off, behind closed doors, and looking into the question about IQs being lower in that particular ethnicity? Surely Stoke’s argument that such putative accusations/speculations are problematic points to the central intuition as to why some of us might think they entail passing wrongs?

Stokes notes that ‘default background trust that is a condition for social life.’[22] I do not disagree; for the most part, ordinary epistemic agents should operate with a degree of trust in others. Otherwise it is hard to establish even the basics of human life, let alone much knowledge, given how social constituted most of our knowledge is. Yet the whole point of this talk of conspiracy theories is to push the idea that some one, or some body needs to take these claims seriously, and investigate them in order to preserve that ‘default background trust.’ Such trust is—at least, I would argue, in the case of politics—not a prima facie given; it is earned, and the reason why people trust their governments comes out of some belief that the threats to said trust are investigated, or going to be investigated. It may mean that investigators must do work that other (more ordinary) epistemic agents are not obliged to do. Some of that work might even be dirty. But—and I hope this speaks to Stokes’ concern here—our investigators, or community of inquiry, will not only be cognisant of conspiracy narratives, but that some of their putative work might entail passing wrongs. Thus they will only be motivated to investigate when there are new, compelling reasons to do so.

Primed for Failure?

Let me end by pre-empting the most obvious criticism to the community of inquiry approach I am advocating. Surely this is how we already investigate conspiracy theories? Isn’t this project a dismal failure from the start? Whilst we can point to interested communities of inquiry which uncovered the conspiracies behind the Moscow Show Trials (lead by John Dewey, whose terminology I am borrowing), Watergate, and the like, the sceptic of this approach will gesture towards on-going calls to re-investigate 9/11, the assassination of JFK, and the claims the MMR vaccine is responsible for the uptick in autism diagnoses. In these cases, nothing seems to have been settled, and we have rival communities of inquiry claiming the other side are stupid, irrational, or engaged in a cover-up.

What is happening here? Is the problem one of these communities of inquiry being badly constituted (which then raises question: how might we better form them?), or is there some other, lingering issue getting in the way of their investigations. I would hazard that it is a little of both. Given the pejorative labelling of these things called ‘conspiracy theories’, investigations into them tend to fall into two camps: those who think the conspiracy has occurred, and those who want to show that the conspiracy theorists are a bunch of wackos. That is, arguably, most of our communities of inquiry (at least when it comes to investigations into conspiracy theories) start from an assumption that the members already know the conclusion, and thus are looking for evidence to prove it to the unbeliever.

Part—and I’d like to stress that this is only part—of this problem is the spectre of Generalism: the pathologising approach to the treatment of belief in conspiracy theories Basham, Stokes, and myself have been discussing in these pages. The ‘she said/he said’ approach to dealing with conspiracy theories in public discourse often bifurcates along the lines of ‘these theories are prima facie irrational!’ and ‘you’re ignoring the elephant in the room!’. The only salve to this worry would be to ensure that any community of inquiry include members who have diverse attitudes to these things called ‘conspiracy theories.’ This is not just a salve to the conspiracy theorist; after all, the sceptic of conspiracy theories will also be concerned about communities of inquiry made up of people who already assume the existence of the very conspiracies they are investigating.

We might think of this as being a ‘Devil’s Advocate’ condition: for the investigation of any conspiracy theory to pass muster, there must be some members of the community who will challenge the need or urgency to investigate some given claim, and some members who will argue that pursuing, or treating seriously this conspiracy theory is a potentially dangerous activity. Given that a community’s findings will be more akin to a judicial decision than a jury decision (dissenters should always be able to explain their minority view), even if the sceptic is not convinced by the community’s findings, their presence in the investigation will surely be of value.

This is no different as to how we debate the issues in Philosophy, or Physics, or Sociology, and so it should be the same when it comes to these things called ‘conspiracy theories.’ That is, if our investigative communities of inquiry are properly constituted. But that is a discussion for another time.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Ori Freiman, and Patrick Stokes for feedback on an earlier draft of this paper.


Basham, Lee. “Between Two Generalisms: A Reply to Stokes.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 12 (2016): 4–14.

Dentith, Matthew R. X. “In Defence of Particularism: A Reply to Stokes.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 11 (2016): 27–33.

Dewey, John. Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. New York: Holt, 1938.

Pierce, C. S. “The Fixation of Belief.” In Charles Sanders Peirce: Selected Writings, edited by Philip Wiener, 91–112. New York: Dover Publications, 1958..

Stokes, Patrick. “Between Generalism and Particularism About Conspiracy Theory: A Response to Basham and Dentith.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5 (10 (2016): 34–39.

Stokes, Patrick. “Reluctance and Suspicion: Reply to Basham and Dentith.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 2 (2017): 48–58.

[1] Matthew R. X. Dentith was supported by a fellowship at the Research Institute of the University of Bucharest (ICUB).

[2] Stokes 2017.

[3] Basham 2016.

[4] Or, like me, he’s not sure what to call it now, given that the label seems rather racist.

[5] Dentith 2016.

[6] Stokes 2016.

[7] Dentith 2016, 28.

[8] Stokes 2017, 49.

[9] Dewey 1938.

[10] Pierce 1958.

[11] I have a (hopefully) forthcoming paper on this issue, but—in short—I take it while there are no institutionally-accredited experts in conspiracy theories (unlike, say, in the sciences), and that any conspiracy theorist worth their salt will find issue with appeals to expertise or authority when it comes to dismissing some conspiracy theory (because of the worry the institutions which accredit expertise or authority might be conspired) we can partially solve both of these problems by properly allocating the epistemic burden across members in our societies.

[12] Some people might disagree, if they think the party favoured by the conspiracy ought to be in control; a diverse community of inquirers should be able to counteract the pro this-conspiracy aspect of some of its members.

[13] Stokes 2017, 50.

[14] One reason to think ‘dispassionate’ is a poor choice of word here is a curious but troubling aspect of contemporary debate, which is that passion (whether anger, joy, or sadness) is taken to be a mark against someone’s argument in much public discourse. The marginalised person of colour, or the trans person, say, who gets angry about some policy debate, or discussion of institutional prejudice, is taken to not be arguing properly. Instead, they are asked to be dispassionate about the details of a debate which affects them personally, as if separating their lived experience from their discourse is somehow a good thing. It is easy to be dispassionate about events which do not directly effect you, but it is very cruel indeed to ask those who are directed effected to be dispassionate by those very same events.

[15] All bets are off if the society is towards the closed end of the spectrum, of course.

[16] Stokes 2017, 50–51.

[17] Not just that; we have good anthropological and sociological theories as to how these narratives first emerged, which strongly suggest that the appellation ‘conspiracy’ in these cases was insincerely fomented by agents who wanted to blame the Jewish people, in order to make them scapegoats.

[18] Admittedly, the fact we allow these accusations to be made does not tell us anything about the morality of making them. However, the fact there are societal agreements about when such accusations can (and cannot) be made speaks to the idea that we at least tolerate allowing discussion of certain extreme claims in a range of cases.

[19] There is also a question about whether we are concerned with open practices, or merely open and accessible results? That is, could we—in some cases—run our investigation in secret? Then, once we have our findings, publish all the data (and give a full accounting of our investigative method), and thus by ‘revealing’ our secret to the world, circumvent the issues associated with such a secretive investigation?

[20] Stokes 2017, 50.

[21] Some will claim that such grounds should not be of interest to the epistemologist, but I would counter by saying that the social epistemologist is very much aware of the social-constituted nature of knowledge, and how these things play out.

[22] Stokes 2017, 57.

[a] For articles in this exchange, from least recent to most recent, please refer to:

Author Information: Mikhail Sergeev, University of the Arts, Philadelphia, PA

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

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

Please refer to:

Image credit: Evgeniy Isaev, via flickr

In “The Ideas of Cultural–Historical Epistemology in Russian Philosophy of the Twentieth Century” Boris Pruzhinin and Tatiana Shchedrina write about the socio-cultural dimension of Russian epistemological theories.[1] They maintain that since the turn of the twentieth century those theories were characterized by the concepts of “wholeness” and “whole knowledge,” which “consists of the unity of value and cognitive elements” (17). The Russian philosophical project of “positive philosophy” (not to be confused with “positivist philosophy” or “positivism”) consisted in arguing that “[k]knowledge acts as the most important element in cultivating the human soul” and as such has to “meet not only the requirements of our mind, but also the demands of our hearts” (17).

This epistemological perspective has led Russian thinkers to emphasize the cultural-historical circumstances and the existential condition of the human cognizer. As the authors of the article write, “Cognitive content of knowledge always has a concrete meaning for the person, for it is always to be found in particular life context. And in this context knowledge acquires value for a human: not only practical (or everyday) usefulness, but also of an existential significance (or higher value)” (18).

Pruzhinin and Shchedrina believe that this existentially oriented Russian epistemological tradition not only exerted significant impact on the development of semiotics and structuralism in the twentieth century—they trace its influence back to the Russian phenomenologist Gustav Shpet (1879-1937) and linguist Roman Jakobson (1896-1982)—but also retains its philosophical value and potentials in our contemporary post-structuralist world.

Historical Dimension

I would like to make several comments with regard to the thesis of the article—the first one being related to its historical roots. The origin of the idea of “integral cognition” goes farther in history than the turn of the twentieth century. I prefer to translate the Russian expression “tsel’noe znanie” as “integral” rather than “whole” knowledge—as it is rendered in the anthology of Russian philosophy first published in 1965 and still used as a standard textbook on Russian thought in American universities.[2]

The concept of “integral cognition” was introduced into Russian philosophy by one of the founders of the Slavophile movement Ivan V. Kireevsky (1806-1856). A religious and philosophical school in Russian thought, Slavophilism was conceived in the nineteenth century as a response to the challenge of European Enlightenment and its supposedly one-sided notion of abstract reason. The Slavophiles searched for new principles in philosophy—ones that are based on the Orthodox Russian tradition and are capable of providing new impetus to modern thinkers who were torn apart by the separation of human rationality and faith.

As we read in the anthology, “Kireevsky’s chief philosophical contribution to this task was centered in his doctrine of ‘integral cognition’ … which he also called ‘faith’ and sometimes imperceptibly identified with Russian Orthodox belief.”[3] In his philosophical program Kireevsky did not oppose abstract reason or logical thinking per se. Rather he maintained that

… there is a kind of cognition which underlies such logical thought, which is identical with the “whole personality” of the individual … is not a separate faculty [and] includes the realms of feeling, motivation, desire, and intention which put man in contact with reality and with other men prior to any process of abstract thinking. [4]

Introduced by the Slavophiles, the concept of “integral knowledge” was picked up by Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900) whom Pruzhinin and Shchedrina refer to in their article. Soloviev was a philosopher and religious thinker who tried to formulate the middle way between the two extremes of Russian Slavophilism and Westernism. A devout Orthodox Christian himself he attempted to navigate between the Scylla of Orthodox nationalism and the Charybdis of Western secularism.[5]

In the center of Soloviev’s philosophical speculations lied the notion of vseedinstvo, which is usually translated into English as “all-unity” (or sometimes as “total-unity”). In “his doctoral dissertation, the Critique of Abstract Principles (1880) Soloviev described those ‘abstract principles’ as “various aspects of All-Unity, which, by separating from the whole and establishing their autonomy, lost their true character, conflicted with each other, and plunged humanity into a state of disunity and chaos.”[6]

Soloviev’s program of philosophical reintegration was directly influenced by Kireevsky’s concept of “integral cognition” to which (reintegration or the achievement of “all-unity”) it fits nicely as its epistemological hypostasis.[7] Later Kireevsky’s and Soloviev’s ideas were explored by other Russian philosophers in both religious and secular directions.

Modern Implications

The second comment that I would like to make is in reference to modern applications of the concept of “whole” or “integral” knowledge. In their article Pruzhinin and Shchedrina point out that the “specificity of cultural-historical epistemology is related to a special interpretation of knowledge as a cultural phenomenon that has an existential-symbolical meaning for the cognizer.” They further argue—and I repeat this key idea of the article—that “[k]nowledge acts as the most important element in cultivating the human soul (cultural and cults designating, correspondingly, the cultivation, of the soul)” (17).

In Kireevsky’s mind, as well as in Soloviev’s, the existential dimension of such an epistemology had a very specific meaning and presupposed Orthodox Christian moral and religious values as a necessary condition for the spiritual growth of the human soul. When divorced from its original religious background the notion of integral cognition, in my view, loses its essential orientation and turns into an idea that is quite ambiguous.

What would the “growth of the human soul” mean in the context of secular culture? It could mean very many, in fact, quite the opposite things, to different people. Without the initial religious and spiritual compass the concept of “integral cognition” seems to lose its existential precision and may as well be used as justification for any ideology that claims to serve as an instrument of “human growth.”


I would like to commend Pruzhinin and Shchedrina for raising awareness of the American readers and for an in-depth discussion of one of the key concepts in classical Russian philosophy. I believe that this cultural and philosophical exchange of ideas is not only productive but essential for the growth of humanity (pan intended). In the spirit of such a dialogue I would like to offer a short list of the most important books and anthologies of Russian thought that were published in English over the last half-century.[8]

[1] Pruzhinin, Boris and Tatiana Shchedrina. “The Ideas of Cultural–Historical Epistemology in Russian Philosophy of the Twentieth Century.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 1 (16-24): 2017.

[2] Russian Philosophy, eds. James M. Edie, James P. Scanlan, and Mary-Barbara Zeldin with the collaboration of George L. Kline, Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1987, Vol. I, 168.

[3] Ibid, 168.

[4] Ibid, 168-69.

[5] For more on Vladimir Soloviev’s project of modern Orthodoxy see, for example, my article “Liberal Orthodoxy: From Vladimir Solov’ev To Fr. Alexander Men.” Religion in Eastern Europe, vol. XXIII, no. 4 (2003), 43-50.

[6] Andrzej Walicki, A History of Russian Thought: from the Enlightenment to Marxism, tr. Hilda Andrews-Rusiecka, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1979, 379.

[7] For more on Kireevsky’s influence on Soloviev see Walicki, A History of Russian Thought, 375-76. On page 376 Walicki writes, for instance: “The first work in which Soloviev outlined a system of his own was Philosophical Principles of Integral Knowledge (1877). The title itself clearly harks back to the notion of tselnost’, or “wholeness,” which was the kernel of Kireevsky’s philosophical works.”

[8] (1) Lossky, N. O. History of Russian Philosophy. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1951; (2) Zenkovsky, Vasilii V. A History of Russian Philosophy, 2 vols. translated by George L. Kline. New York: Columbia University Press, 1953; (3) Russian Intellectual History. An Anthology, edited by Mark Raeff, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1966; (4) Russian Philosophy, 3 vols. (1965) edited by James M. Edie, et al. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976; (5) Ultimate Questions: An Anthology of Modern Russian Religious Thought, edited by Alexander Schmemann, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965, 2nd. ed., Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977; (6) Andrzej Walicki, A History of Russian Thought: from the Enlightenment to Marxism, translated by Hilda Andrews-Rusiecka, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1979; (7) Frederick C. Copleston, Russian Religious Philosophy: Selected Aspects, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988 and Philosophy in Russia: From Herzen to Lenin and Berdyaev, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986; (8) A Documentary History of Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to Marxism, translated and edited by W.J. Leatherbarrow and D.C. Offord, Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1987; (9) Georges Florovsky. Ways of Russian Theology translated by Robert L. Nichols in Collected Works. Vol. VI, Vaduz: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987; (10) A History of Russian Philosophy. From the Tenth Through the Twentieth Centuries, 2 vols. edited by Valerii Kuvakin. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1994; (11) James Scanlan, Marxism in the USSR. A Critical Survey of Current Soviet Thought, Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1985; Evert van der Zweerde, Soviet Historiography of Philosophy. Istoriko-Filosofskaia Nauka. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1997.