Archives For Uncategorized

Author Information: Stephen Turner, University of South Florida,

Turner, Stephen. “Circles or Regresses? The Problem of Genuine Expertise.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 4 (2019): 24-27.

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

Image by Revise_D via Flickr / Creative Commons


This article responds to Jamie Carlin Watson (2019) “What Experts Could Not Be.” Social Epistemology 33(1): 74-87. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1551437

Jamie Carlin Watson’s article raises some crucial questions about expertise, and about its relation to truth and competence, questions on which discussions of expertise have usually foundered, or at least run up against and tried to avoid. One can summarize the problem as the question of whether expertise, or a given claim to expertise, is genuine or valid.

The problem, as Watson shows, is tougher than it appears. The easiest way out is to epistemologize it, by linking expertise to true beliefs. This off-loads the problem of expertise into a problem of truth, which presumably is easier to resolve. The problem with this approach is that expertise does not in fact, and cannot in principle, work in this way. When we rely on experts, it is because we don’t know for ourselves what is true. Nor can we impose tests of reliability on them, at least not easily or directly.

Determining whether they possess a set of true (or at least credible) beliefs would require us to possess the relevant true beliefs ourselves. It would require also meta-knowledge about the content of their beliefs—not merely sharing them, but having knowledge of their truth. Judging something to be true, in expertise contexts, is a matter requiring expertise.

Indeed, this is almost the definition of expertise: we can “understand” what the expert is telling us, but what makes for genuine expertise is the ability to make epistemic judgments about the truth of what the expert says, without relying on their status—their reputation, as experts. The model of testimony doesn’t help here. Assessing their reliability as testifiers would require even more knowledge, knowledge of their past testimony, knowledge of what standard of reliability to apply, for example, on the analogy of eye-witnessing, knowledge of how good eye-witnessing in general is.

Can a History of Performance Justify Expertise?

On the surface, it looks like it would be simpler to just assess expert performances. Did the surgeon’s patients live or die? Did the football coach win or lose? But this runs into the same regress problems. Who is able to judge such things? Did the surgeon take on difficult cases, and have a lower success rate than the surgeon who took only easy cases. This is a real-world issue that figures in actual health regulation discussions, not merely an academic hypothetical.

And the same goes for coaches. Did they exceed expectations or fall below them, given the team they were coaching and its talent? This kind of judgment seems to require a great deal of meta-expertise. And one can ask where the expectations came from? So this expertise is subject to the same sorts of regress problems.

And there is yet another problem with these judgments—circularity or uninformativeness. I can illustrate this by a response my own mother—a physician in a surgical specialty—once gave me to my question “how can I tell if a surgeon is any good?” Her answer—“you need to look at their technique.”

Of course, the prospective patient never has an opportunity to do this, but in any case would have no idea what a good surgical technique looked like, even if they could look. So this is completely uninformative. But it is also circular. One never gets out of the circle of expertise in this case, and this is characteristic: evaluation of expert judgment, even if it is formalized peer judgment, is more expert judgment.

No Reputation Need Be Genuine

The reputational theory of expertise, if we can call it that, does not rely on truth, at least the truth of the expert’s beliefs. It says instead that to be an expert is to be reputed to be an expert. Expert authority is analogous to political legitimacy in the sociological rather than normative sense; this kind of legitimacy, if it produces obedience, is “real.”

The analogous view of expertise, similarly, ignores the normative question of whether expertise is real in the sense of being valid. This kind of assessment does not rely on expert judgment. It needs only the ordinary judgment of people who need only to have in their possession ordinary facts about reputation.

This seems pretty empty. Can’t people have fake reputations, based on erroneous beliefs about their competence or honesty? But there is more to it. The paper explicitly says it is avoiding a discussion of reputational views of expertise, and rejects them, but it seems to me that this rejection is subject to the same kind of argument the paper makes with respect to performance: it is caused.

One might ask what causes reputation—it is not something separate from either performance or credible beliefs. Indeed, how do you get reputation without performance, in some sense? What is the reputation for? How does one get it? One might say that the “reputational theory” is neutral between means of acquiring a reputation—it could be performance, recognition of the possession of true beliefs, or both, with the caveat that “true” is audience relative. And this seems to mean that reputation doesn’t answer the question of genuineness. But to get a reputation you need to do something real, and that also seems to be the point of the argument against the separation of belief and performance.

This does help. One need not be an expert to raise and judge the answers to ordinary questions about how someone got their reputation. One can be wrong, of course. But there is a plethora of ordinary fact available to the person who wants to know, for example, how a surgeon got their reputation or came to be accredited with their expertise.

Relying on this kind of fact, even if it is fallible, avoids the problem of the circularity of basing assessments of expertise on other assessments of expertise. It can include such assessments, for example, evidence of peer judgment by other experts. But it looks on this kind of evidence not as an expert by as a consumer of the processes that generate the judgment, and asks whether they are fair, or produce good results for other consumers.

From this point of view, expertise is an agency problem—a problem of asymmetric information (though the term “information” makes it seem as though information for the expert is the same thing as information for the non-expert, which misses the point of expertise)—which the producer of expertise has a large role in resolving.

It can’t be resolved directly, by the reiteration of expert claims. There truth is the issue, and the point is that the consumer as non-expert can’t assess them. This is characteristic of a large class of relationships, where the issue is resolved in different ways (cf. Turner 1990). So the expert needs to establish credibility indirectly, through such things as processes of certification, which do not take expertise to at least get a sense of the value of.

I’ve argued elsewhere that these processes are central to science as a whole (Turner 2002). But I also think that they are the only real answer to the question of validity from an external point of view. Direct judgments of truth are the business of the expert. But this should not distract us from the fact that expertise is a relation between experts and consumers of expertise. Experts are not just knowers. They are people making claims within a social relationship.

The Deeper Problems of Expertise

This key feature of expertise points to a deep problem, which on examination is perhaps not so deep, and primarily a semantic one. There is an overwhelming sense that an expert is someone who possesses something, and that this possession is what marks genuine expertise out from fake expertise, such as merely reputed expertise.

A reputation is a possession, just a possession of the wrong kind, because it fails to guarantee genuineness. And this is what motivates the argument that the existence of expertise does not depend on the existence of non-experts. But there is a difference between having an ability—say that of a four octave coloratura soprano—and justifiable credibility about what the possessor of this ability might say about it. Whether it is actualized or not, expertise is a social relation. The strength of the testimony view of expertise was that it recognized this implicitly.

But “reliability,” the concept it is associated with, doesn’t work because it implies a record of acts or pronouncements on which users rely. So perhaps we need a better word: trustability, or if we loathe linguistic inventions, trustworthiness with respect to epistemic pronouncements. This keeps the idea of possession, and the recognition that it pertains to a social relation, and allows for multiple grounds for trust, and most importantly, grounds that do not depend, circularly, on the relevant expertise.

Contact details:


Turner, Stephen. 1990.  Forms of Patronage. Pp. 185-211 in Theories of Science in Society, edited by Susan Cozzens and Thomas F. Gieryn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Turner, Stephen. 2002. Scientists as Agents. Pp. 362-384 in Science Bought and Sold, edited by Philip Mirowski and Miriam Sent. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jamie Carlin Watson (2019) “What Experts Could Not Be.” Social Epistemology 33(1): 74-87. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1551437

Call for Chapter Proposals:

Epistemic Paternalism Reconsidered: Conceptions, Justifications and Implications
Abstract Submission Deadline: March 15, 2019

This call for chapter proposals invites scholars (Ph.D.’s and Ph.D. candidates) to submit original or revised proposals pertaining to epistemic paternalism, broadly construed, for inclusion in an anthology forthcoming in the “Collective Studies in Knowledge and Society” series published by Rowman and Littlefield.

Findings in psychology are often claimed to suggest intractable human irrationality, biases and problematic heuristics. This empirical work has generated responses throughout political philosophy, ethics, and epistemology as scholars grapple with shifting conceptions of agency and reliability. Implicit or explicit in many of these accounts are forms of epistemic paternalism as theorists advocate ‘nudges’, epistocracy, and coercive paternalism. Despite frequent tacit reference to epistemic paternalism in these literatures, few scholars beyond Alvin Goldman (1991) and Kristoffer Alhstrom-Vij (2013) have defined and defended forms of epistemic paternalism recently.

This book welcomes contributions from all disciplines, though emphasis is placed on normative or conceptual analysis of epistemic paternalism and its implications.
Diverse perspectives are welcome and encouraged to submit papers.

Motivating Questions:

    • What is epistemic paternalism? What is its appropriate domain? What entities ought to decide and on what grounds?
    • Under what conditions, if any, is epistemic paternalism justified? Should we be skeptics, optimists, or meliorists about the human ability to make sound inferences and effectively negotiate collective action problems?
    • Are paternalistic policies justified by ‘improving’ an individual’s self‐regarding actions? Are they only justified by their other‐regarding affects? How do we commensurate these self and other-regarding values?
    • How should we understand transparency in science communication, and it relationship to the broader dynamic of trust and distrust?
    • Insofar as epistemic paternalism implies interference with autonomous agency, are epistemic and ethical goods at odds? If so, are they commensurable? Do some normative goods have lexical priority? What grounds comparisons between epistemic and ethical goods?
    • How does epistemic paternalism inform the internalist/externalist debate in epistemology? Is epistemic paternalism consistent with the cultivation of epistemic virtues? Can epistemic dispositions be robustly reliable if they are developed in controlled settings? Are internalist conditions of justification compromised by harnessing bad reasoning or otherwise manipulating epistemic background conditions for greater ends?
    • Does epistemic paternalism have meta-normative implications for how to best understand the relations between normative fields?
    • Are there intra-institutional obligations of epistemic paternalism?
    • Can persons manipulate the context of inquiry of institutions for the good of those institutions or greater goods? If so, on what grounds?
    • Is epistemic paternalism compatible with epistemic justice? Under what conditions does epistemic paternalism constitute epistemic injustice and when does it promote epistemic justice?
    • Are there unappreciated sources in the history of philosophy (or science) which advocate or critique epistemic paternalism?
    • Under what circumstances, if any, is choice architecture manipulation preferable to direct coercive paternalism?

Topic Areas:

    Social Epistemology
    Epistemic Injustice
    Value Theory
    Political Philosophy
    Normative Ethics
    Science, Technology, and Society
    History of Philosophy

Submission Format:

Submit a 500-750 word extended abstract for a 3000-5000 thousand word chapter, formatted for anonymous review, by March 15. Accepted chapter authors will be informed by the editors via e-mail no later than May 1, and will then be asked to submit a full draft in house style [Rowman & Littlefield Guidelines will be sent], by August 15, 2019. Editors will provide feedback on drafts within 2 months, and final versions expected 1 month after that. Our submissions page hosts a short bibliography of recent research in the areas of the collection, or you can request it by e-mail. Please submit your extended abstract to

For further enquiries, please consult the editors through
Editors: Amiel Bernal, Ph.D. & Guy Axtell, Ph.D.

Author Information: John Lamola, University of Fort Hare,

Lamola, John. “Will We Ever Have a Genuine African Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 39-45.

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

Image by Nike Knigge via Flickr / Creative Commons


This collection of contributed and commissioned papers, The Palgrave Handbook of African Philosophy, edited by Adeshina Afolayan and Toyin Falola (2017), is a product of an ambitious project aimed at delivering the most comprehensive and contemporaneous portrait of African philosophy as a progressing, relevant and theoretically cogent academic discipline.

An anthology of this nature is a philosophical product in its own right. In a philosophical tradition that is still recovering from the bruising debates around its self-identity and questions of its most appropriate self-differentiating methodology, the choice of the panel of contributors and the thematic range of the content, including the editorial leitmotif being pursued, constitute a philosophical statement by the editors. In this case, the anthology might as well have been subtitled ‘Rethinking African Philosophy in the Age of Globalisation’, which, fortuitously, is the title of the customary Introduction chapter by the editors (1-18).

Besides writers from across the representative regions of Africa in its heterogeneous culturo-linguistic kaleidoscope, Africanists and Africologists from Europe and North America are included in this Handbook on African Philosophy (hereafter ‘The Handbook’). This geographic and ethnic-national diversity, subliminally, proclaims the capacity for cosmopolitan self-expression of African Philosophy in ‘the age of globalisation’.

Decidedly, this undermines and eschews a view, represented by Paulin Hountondji amongst others, that African philosophy proper, is a set of philosophical text exclusively written by Africans (Hountondji 2018), in favour of a kind of a cosmopolitanism held by Anthony Kwame Appiah (2006) and Achille Mbembe (2007).

In the Introduction, the editors compliment Kwasi Wiredu’s A Companion to African Philosophy that was published as part of the Blackwell Companions to Philosophy series in 2004. They point out that Wiredu’s volume (he was assisted by William E. Abraham, Abiola Irele and Ifeanyi Menkiti) is historical in that ‘it constitutes a significant nod to the appearance of African philosophy in the global academe that is decidedly sold to the idea of the universality of Western philosophy’ (p.1). Laced around this gesture of professional magnanimity, is a construct of a developmental trajectory of African philosophical thought.

Accordingly, it is suggested that whereas A Companion to African Philosophy (2004) of Blackwell marked the enthronement of African philosophy as a credible intellectual system within the global academe of Humanities, Palgrave’s Handbook on African Philosophy (2017) is a declaratory demonstration of the maturity of African philosophy.  The volume is thus presented as both an exhibition of the progressive prowess of African philosophy into the prevailing Zeitgeist of globalisation, and, as a handbook, an up-to-date go-to source on African philosophy in the global age.

I propose to isolate for critical reflection issues relating to the epistemic sovereignty of Africa within the global geography of knowledge and knowledge production as provoked by this publication. My issues revolve around a contention on the measurement or criteria for judgement of progress in philosophy as applied to a polemical vision of an evolving and maturing African Philosophy, as presented by the editors.

Will African philosophy be deemed to have progressed when it assumes a global cosmopolitan identity, or when portrayed as such, as the volume emblematically suggests?  I found it more than provocative that co-editor, Afolayan, contributed a chapter entitled ‘African Philosophy, Afropolitanism, and Africa’ (391-403) in which he surreptitiously endorses Achille Mbembe’s African-identity-defusing Afropolitarian campaign (Mbembe 2007).

Hinged around this critical observation of the reconstruction of African thought through the prism of Euro-American globalism, I shall restrict my commentary to the following: (1) the implication to  the vexed philosophical question of ‘Who is an African philosopher?’ related to the criteria employed in the assemblage of the contributing authors; (2) The occasion and location of the production of the book, that is, the global economic-power dynamics that continue to determine the prospects of Africa’s epistemic sovereignty, and; (3), interrogate the application of relevance as a quality of progress the editors used as a criterion and imperative which guided the selection of the articles.

As a prelude to this aforementioned disputation it is, of course, necessary that I give a summary overview of the structure of the volume and its contents.

Evaluations, Appraisals, and Re-Imaginations

The Handbook is a breath-taking assemblage of fifty original scientific contributions and commissioned papers from forty-three scholars of African post-colonial thought. The contributed chapters are arranged into five thematic parts.

The first part of the collection decidedly avoids the tendency of ‘introducing and justifying African philosophy’. Far from this vindicationist, and exogenous pre-occupation, the opening six essays are bound together by a thematic title of being ‘reappraisals’. Here African philosophy has attained a status of self-reassessment and self-critique. To underscore and crystalise the strategic purpose of this section, there is Safro Kwame’s ‘Rethinking the history of African Philosophy’ (97-104).

Even the classical thoughts of Kwame Nkrumah and Frantz Fanon, lack of reference to whom would render any anthology on African social thought incomplete, are subjected to a timely interrogation. This is performed by Teodoris Kiros’ ‘A Philosophical Re-reading of Fanon, Nkrumah, and Cabral in the Age of globalism and Postmodernity’ (49-60).

Being hinged around the motif of globalisation, the anthology proceeds, in the second part of its collection, to position African philosophy in an interrogative dialogue with major worldviews from Africa, her diaspora and beyond. These range from A.G.A. Bello’s ‘Islamic Philosophy and the challenge of African Philosophy’ (223-231) to the tackling of the semantic issue relating the naming of African philosophical enterprise as conducted in and outside of Africa. Lucius Outlaw undertakes this in the contorted ‘“Black” Philosophy, “African” Philosophy, “Africana” Philosophy: Transnational Deconstructive and Reconstructive Renovations in “Philosophy”’ (245-268).

A refreshing surprise in this section is a contribution by Latin American philosophy of decoloniality, Walter Mignolo. In his ‘The Advent of Black Thinkers and the Limits of Continental Philosophy’ (287-302) dealing with ‘the mirage of universalism behind European localism’ (293), he reminds how historically, the ‘global was confused with the universal’ and in turn, how the universal is essentially Eurocentricism. He warns that ‘to assume that philosophy is universal is an aberration’ (287).

Mignolo’s rare focus on Africa is taken up by Messy Kebede in the third Part of the volume dealing with a plethora of ‘Issues and Discourses’ which are by now perennial challenges confronting African intellectuals. In the chapter, ‘Re-imagining the Philosophy of Decolonisation’ (447-460) we find Kebede seized with recasting ‘the controversy’ on conflicting philosophical approaches to African decolonization (447).

According to him, ‘the essential source of the controversy emanates from the attempt of negritude philosophers to counter the colonial discourse and rehabilitate the African self through racialisation’. Against this, he proposes Henri Bergson’s (454-455) paradoxical embrace and transcendence of the culturo-racial centrality of African identity.

This chapter turns out to be the only one in the collection that attempts a systematic engagement with the ontological challenges that globalisation presents to Africans. Kebede insightfully compresses Appiah’s famed notion of cosmopolitanism into a concept of ‘glocalization’, an approach that accommodates both global and local realities, and ‘wants neither the preservation of African identity nor its dissolution’ (456).

The mission of discharging the volume’s objective of situating African critical thought onto the pressing crises of the times and demonstrating that the African philosophical tradition has attained tools to tackle these issues is demonstrated in the fourth Part of the book. This is particularly borne out in the chapters ‘African Philosophy and World Terror’ by Leonard Praeg (659-670), Helen Lauer’s ‘African Philosophy and the Challenge of Science’ (605-620) and Edwin Etieyibo’s ‘Ubuntu and the Environment’ (638-659).

There can, of course, be no handbook on African Philosophy without a confrontation of the state of the Philosophy curriculum in Africa. ‘African Philosophy and the curriculum’ is the subject head of the seven papers clustered under this Part 5. Contributors in this field on the transformation of the Philosophy syllabus attempt to move the discussion into the rubric of pedagogic relevance and the future of African philosophy.

Emblematic of this focus is Thaddeus Metz’s ‘African Philosophy as a Multidisciplinary Discourse’ (795-812) wherein he surveys the ‘successful’ infusing of the African philosophical tradition into other disciplines, such as ‘law/politics . . .psychology/medicine . . . and ecology’(795).

Whilst it establishes the intellectual stature of African philosophy, the anthology lacks a formal article that problematizes globalisation as it affects Africa. A discussion of Afropolitanism by Afolayan merely touches the swelling sore of African social otology within a hype that denies identitarian difference.  Equally, whilst the subject of science and technology is registered as a challenge, a chapter on the raw economic question of global financialisation of capital and the structural constraints African face in this global economy is conspicuously missing.

Globalization, Cosmopolitanism as Progress

The polemic editorial framework of Afolayan and Falola is that ‘progress in African philosophy would only be significant to the extent that it serves to intellectually instigate progress on the continent’ (12). This, specifically, is progress as the rate of the impact that philosophy has on the surmounting of ‘the African predicament’ of being African in a global community and a technologically advancing world (13).

It is upheld that it is only in this regard that this philosophy would be ‘disciplinary relevant’ (9). Relevance to, and in the global age, is upheld as the litmus test of the contemporary efficacy of African philosophy.

I concur with the editors that demonstrating an ability at unravelling the complicated economic theoretical formulae and programs that are ever proving so futile in turning the tide against poverty and misdevelopment in Africa, would be the real litmus test of the maturity of African Philosophy.

I believe there is sincerity in Afolayan and Falola’s exhortation that ‘there is a need for African philosophers to get to the street and get their theories dirtied by the African predicament on the continent’ (12). But how can this be achieved when those who are Afrophilosophising are sitting in Florida, Austria and the Europeanised enclaves of South African life?

Has this African discipline made any progress when approximately twelve out of forty-three of the contributors to this important reference guide on contemporary African thought are non-indigenous Africans?  Is this staging of an extra-African cosmopolitarian symposium that poly-flexes and dims the light of African intellection a sign of the progress of African philosophy?

Whilst admiring the theoretical necessity of this publication as a plausible catalyst for a progressive philosophical debate, I remain with a nagging sociocultural curiosity.  I cannot help asking why, besides Godfery Tangwa, the only authors who contributed more than one chapters to ‘The Handbook on African Philosophy’ are, Metz, Praeg, Lauer, and Hosthemke.

In consternation, I ploughed through Tangwa’s two chapters on this matter, ‘African Philosophy: appraisal of a recurrent problematic’ (19-34) which addresses the question of who is an African philosopher, and his ‘Revisiting the Language Question in African Philosophy’ (pp129-140).  I found his dismissive trivialisation of the former question troubling (30). I further pondered on his fractured disputation that we must make do with the compromise that a lack of a certain level and kind of proficiency in English (and any European language) as the language of African academic production under-privileges indigenous African thinkers.

His conclusion that no answers have yet been found to the question: “What is African literature [Philosophy]? Is it literature [Philosophy] about Africa or literature [Philosophy] written by Africans?” (p130) has only compounded this haunting curiosity.

In a recent review of Edwin Etieyibo’s essay ‘African Philosophy: Its history, Context, and Contemporary Times’ in Method, Substance and the Future of African Philosophy (Etieyibo 2016, 13-34) Anke Graness, professor at the University of Vienna, engages in an intense critique of Etieyibo’s attempts at defining ‘what is an African philosopher’ (Graness 2018,47). Dismissing the latter’s vain disquisition about the ‘narrow view’ and ‘broader view’ of an African philosopher, Graness concludes that:

I think it is less important to clarify the continental affiliation of those who practice philosophy in Africa than it is to clarify the definition and demarcation of African philosophy. This clarification has important consequences, for example for the integration of African philosophy into curricula and publication projects, and especially for financial support. (ibid).

The critical existential-epistemic crisis relating to the authenticity of knowledge production, the question of ‘who is the producer?’ is resolved into the economic logic of academic survival. Graness proceeds to elaborate that a philosopher on the African continent who, according to her example, is ‘a Wittgenstein specialist’:

would certainly have plenty of funding possibilities via research programs in analytic philosophy, philosophy of language, continental philosophy and all kinds of funding foundations; those dealing with marginalised and formerly excluded philosophy traditions in Africa hardly any funding prospects at all. In this respect, a definition of the term ‘African philosophy’ is not only relevant here, but also decisive.

Is this all that it comes down to? Is it a fact that until African scholarship and institutions have their own African financial fountains, we will forever have to have themes, books and conferences whose leitmotif will be dictated from the ‘developed North’? Elsewhere, employing a Marxian framework, I alerted of the ramifications of international post-colonial economic and political power relations on the emergence of epistemic hegemonies and the regulation of knowledge consumption, that is, the determination of canonicity in a discipline such as philosophy (see Lamola 2016).

We finally, then, have to ask: Has African philosophy really progressed, or can it ever progress if publication compendia that canonizes stages of its development can only be undertaken by publishing interests that are based in the colonial metropoles? Why the Blackwell and the Palgrave Macmillan collected volumes? Will we ever have a ‘Wakanda[1] Handbook on African Thought’?


Within the context of the ambition of this project, Godfery Tagwa’s two chapters referred to earlier (19-34; 129-140) illustrate the existential aporia in which African philosophy finds itself. These, and the issue of the location of Africa within the matrix of commercial interests in global knowledge production, begs the question of whether, with the suggested cosmopolitanism that is driven by imperial values and languages, will we ever have a genuine African philosophy. A consideration of these issues, which could not be rigorously pursued in this book review, leaves us with a sceptical if not a pessimistic disposition on the possibility of a genuine, let alone, authentic, African philosophy.

My predilection is that until we have an epistm that is crafted and articulated in an African language by persons whose lived-experience is embedded in Africa, and/or what Africa represents to the world, we may never be able to claim having a genuine African philosophy. The representation of African philosophy as a centreless, open-ended, free-to-all enterprise, as in The Palgrave Handbook, militates against this goal.

Contact details:


The Palgrave Handbook of African Philosophy. Edited By Adeshina Afolayan, and Toyin Falola. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017.

Appiah, Kwame A. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006

Etieyibo, Edwin. ‘African Philosophy in History, Context, and Contemporary Times’. In: Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. London: Palgrave Macmillan 2018, pp. 13-33.

Graness, Anke. “African Philosophy and History.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 45-54.

Hountondji, Paulin J. “How African is Philosophy in Africa?” Filosofia Theoretica: Journal of African Philosophy, Culture and Religions, Vol. 7, no, 3 (2018): 72-93

Lamola, M. John. “The Political Economy of the Philosophical Canon: an Africanist critique”.  Philosophia Africana. Vol. 17, no, 20 (2016): 89-99

Mbembe, Achille. “Afropolitanism”. In: Simon Njami, ed., Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent. Johannesburg: Jacana 2007, pp. 26-30

Wiredu, Kwasi (ed.). A Companion to African Philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004

[1] The mythical technologically and economically futuristic African country in the movie The Black Panther

Farabi Award 2018 (6)

Morteza Hashemi, currently an Early Career Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s department of Social Anthropology, was among the recipients of the ninth annual Farabi Award at a ceremony on 14 January 2018. The Farsi-language website listing winners is here.

Hashemi won in the category of young social scientists for his book Theism and Atheism in a Post-Secular Age, the first major philosophical / historical work of his career. The Farabi Award’s categories not only includes social science, but also such disciplines as literature, political science, and economics.

Farabi Award 2018 (3)

The keynote speaker for the Farabi International Award this January was Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

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

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

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

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

Please refer to:

Image credit: Hervé, via flickr

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

On Searle’s View of Human Rights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contemporary Philosophy of Rights

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

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

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

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

Elaborating Searle on Human Rights

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

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

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

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

Possible Counter-Examples

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agreement on the Meaning of ‘Human Right’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Considerations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which Questions Does Searle Wish to Answer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Altman, Andrew. “Legal Realism, Critical Legal Studies, and Dworkin.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 16 (1986): 205-235.

Coady, C. A. J. Testimony. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Conklin, William E. The Invisible Origins of Legal Positivism. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001.

Corlett, J. Angelo. Race, Rights, and Justice. Dordrecht: Springer. Law and Philosophy Library, Volume 85, 2009.

Corlett, J. Angelo. Heirs of Oppression. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010.

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

Corlett, J. Angelo. (forthcoming). “Plural Subjects, Personal Autonomy, and Joint Commitment.”

Corlett, J. Angelo and Julia Lyons Strobel. “Raimo Tuomela’s Social Ontology.” Social Epistemology (2017): 1-15. doi: 10.1080/02691728.2017.1346724.

Dworkin, Ronald. “The Law of the Slavecatchers.” Times Literary Supplement 5 December, 1975.

Dworkin, Ronald. Taking Rights Seriously. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Dworkin, Ronald. Law’s Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Dworkin, Ronald. Freedom’s Law. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Feinberg, Joel. Social Philosophy. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

Dworkin, Ronald.  Rights, Justice, and the Bounds of Liberty. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Dworkin, Ronald. Freedom and Fulfillment. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Dworkin, Ronald. Problems at the Roots of Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Gilbert, Margaret. Joint Commitment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Goldman, Alvin I. Knowledge in a Social World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Greenawalt, Kent. Speech, Crime, & the Uses of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Lackey, Jennifer and Ernest Sosa, editors. The Epistemology of Testimony. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Lehrer, Keith. Theory of Knowledge. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000.

List, Christian and Philip Pettit. Group Agency. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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

Nickel, James. Making Sense of Human Rights. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Rabban, David. Free Speech in its Forgotten Years. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Rawls, John. The Law of Peoples. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Searle, John. Making the social World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Tuomela, Raimo. Social Ontology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Wellman, Carl. A Theory of Rights. Totowa: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1985.

Wellman, Carl. The Moral Dimensions of Human Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editor’s Note:

    The following are elements of syllabi for a graduate, and an undergraduate, course taught by Robert Frodeman in spring 2017 at the University of North Texas. These courses offers an interesting juxtaposition of texts aimed at reimagining how to perform academic philosophy as “field philosophy”. Field philosophy seeks to address meaningfully, and demonstrably, contemporary public debates, regarding transhumanism for example, given attention to shifting ideas and frameworks of both the Humboldtian university and the “new American” university.


Philosophy 5250: Topics in Philosophy

Overall Theme

This course continues my project of reframing academic philosophy within the approach and problematics of field philosophy.

In terms of philosophic categories, we will be reading classics in 19th and 20th century continental philosophy: Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. But we will be approaching these texts with an agenda: to look for insights into a contemporary philosophical controversy, the transhumanist debate. This gives us two sets of readings – our three authors, and material from the contemporary debate surrounding transhumanism.

Now, this does not mean that we will restrict our interest in our three authors to what is applicable to the transhumanist debate; our thinking will go wherever our interests take us. But the topic of transhumanism will be primus inter pares.


  • Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Preface
  • Hegel, The Science of Logic, selections
  • Heidegger, Being and Time, Division 1, Macquarrie translation
  • Heidegger, ‘The Question Concerning Technology’
  • Nietzsche, selections from Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil

Related Readings


You will have two assignments, both due at the end of the semester. I strongly encourage you to turn in drafts of your papers.

  • A 2500 word paper on a major theme from one of our three authors.
  • A 2500 word paper using our three authors to illuminate your view of the transhumanist challenge.

Philosophy 4750: Philosophy and Public Policy


This is a course in meta-philosophy. It seeks to develop a philosophy adequate for the 21st century.

Academic philosophy has been captured by a set of categories (ancient, modern, contemporary; ethics, logic, metaphysics, epistemology) that are increasingly dysfunctional for contemporary life. Therefore, this is not merely a course on a specific subject matter (i.e., ‘public policy’) to be added to the rest. Rather, it seeks to question, and philosophize about, the entire knowledge enterprise as it exists today – and to philosophize about the role of philosophy in understanding and perhaps (re)directing the knowledge enterprise.

The course will cover the following themes:

  • The past, present, and future of the university in the Age of Google
  • The end of disciplinarity and the rise of accountability culture
  • The New Republic of Letters and the role of the humanist today
  • The failure of applied philosophy and the development of alternative models

Course Structure

This course is ‘live’: it reflects 20 years of my research on place of philosophy in contemporary society. As such, the course embodies a Humboldtian connection between teaching and research: I am not simply a teacher and a researcher; I’m a teacher-researcher who shares the insights I’m developing with students, testing my thinking in the classroom, and sharing my freshest thoughts. This breaks with the corporate model of education where the professor is an interchangeable cog, teaching the same materials that could be gotten at any university worldwide – while also opening me up to charges of self-indulgence.


  • Michael M. Crow and William B. Dabars, Designing the New American University
  • Crow chapter in HOI
  • Clark, Academic Charisma
  • Fuller, The Academic Caesar
  • Rudy, The Universities of Europe, 1100-1914
  • Fuller, Sociology of Intellectual Life
  • Smith, Philosophers 6 Types
  • Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st Century Philosophy
  • Plato, The Republic, Book 1

Author Information: James Collier, Virginia Tech,


Editor’s Note: The publishers of Social Epistemology—Routledge and Taylor & Francis—have been kind enough to allow me to publish the full-text “Introduction” to issues on the SERRC and on the journal’s website.

At the beginning of August 2016, I received word from Greg Feist that Sofia Liberman had died. I was taken aback having recently corresponded with Professor Liberman about the online publication of her article (coauthored with Roberto López Olmedo). Professor Liberman’s work came to my attention through her association with Greg, Mike Gorman and scholars studying the psychology of science. We offer our sincere condolences to Sofia Liberman’s family, friends and colleagues. With gratitude and great respect for her intellectual legacy, we share Sofia Liberman’s scholarship with you in this issue of Social Epistemology.

Since the advent of publishing six issues a year, we adopted the practice of printing the journal triannually; thus, combining two issues for each print edition. The result makes for a panoply of fascinating topics and arguments. Still, we invite our readers to focus on the first four articles in this edition—articles addressing topics in the psychology of science, edited by Mike Gorman and Greg Feist—as a discrete, but linked, part of the whole. These articles signal the Social Epistemology’s wish to renew ties with the psychology of science community, ties established since at least the publication of William Shadish and Steve Fuller’s edited book The Social Psychology of Science (Guilford Press) in 1993.

Beginning by reflexively tracing the trajectory of his own research Mike Gorman, and Nora Kashani, ethnographically and archivally examine the work of A. Jean Ayres. Ayers, known for inventing Sensory Integration (SI) theory, sought to identify and treat children having difficulty interpreting sensation from the body and incorporating those sensations into academic and motor learning. To gain a more comprehensive account of the development and reception of SI, Gorman and Kashani integrated a cognitive historical analysis—a sub species historiae approach—of Ayers’ research with interactions and interviews with current practitioners—an in vivo approach. Through Gorman and Kashani’s method, we map Ayers’ ability to build a network of independent students and clients leading both to the wide acceptance and later fragmentation of SI.

We want scientific research that positively transforms an area of inquiry. Yet, how do we know when we achieve such changes and, so, may determine in advance the means by which we can achieve further transformations? Barrett Anderson and Greg Feist investigate the funding of what became, after 2002, impactful articles in psychology. While assessing impact relies, in part, on citation counts, Anderson and Feist argue for “generativity” as a new index. Generative work leads to the growth of a new branch on the “tree of knowledge”. Using the tree of knowledge as a metaphorical touchstone, we can trace and measure generative work to gain a fuller sense of which factors, such as funding, policy makers might consider in encouraging transformative research.

Sofia Liberman and Roberto López Olmedo question the meaning of coauthorship for scientists. Specifically, given the contentiousness—often found in the sciences—surrounding the assignation of primary authorship of articles and the priority of discovery, what might a better understanding of the social psychology of coauthorship yield? Liberman and López Olmedo find that, for example, fields emphasizing theoretical, in contrast to, experimental practices consider different semantic relations, such as “common interest” or “active participation”, associated with coauthroship. More generally, since scientists do not hold universal values regarding collaboration, differing group dynamics and reward structures affect how one approaches and decides coauthorship. We need more research, Liberman and López Olmedo claim, to further understand scientific collaboration in order, perhaps, to encourage more, and more fruitful, collaborations across fields and disciplines.

Complex, or “wicked”, problems require the resources of multiple disciplines. Moreover, addressing such problems calls for “T-shaped” practitioners—students educated to possess, and professionals possessing, both a singular expertise—the vertical part of the “T”—and the breadth expert knowledge—the horizontal part of the “T”. On examining the origin and development of the concept of the “T-shaped” practitioner, Conley et al. share case studies involving teaching students at James Madison University and the University of Virginia learning to make the connections that underwrite “T-shaped” expertise. Conley et al. analyze the students use of concept maps to illustrate connections, and possible trading zones, among types of knowledge.

Are certain scientists uniquely positioned—given their youth or age, their insider or outsider disciplinary status to bring about scientific change? Do joint commitments to particular beliefs—and, so, an obligation to act in accord with, and not contrarily to, those beliefs—hinder one’s ability to think differently and pose potential alternative solutions? Looking at these issues, Line Andersen describes Kenneth Appel and Wolfgang Haken’s solution to Four Color Problem—“any map can be colored with only four colors so that no two adjacent countries have the same color.” From of this case, and other examples, Andersen suggests that a scientist’s outsider status may enable scientific change.

We generally, and often blithely, assume our knowledge is fallible. What can we learn if we take fallibility rather more seriously? Stephen Kemp argues for “transformational fallibilism.” In order to improve our understanding should we question, and be willing to revise or reconstruct, any aspect in our network of understanding? How should we extend our Popperian attitude, and what we learn accordingly, to knowledge claim and forms of inquiry in other fields? Kemp advocates that we not allow our easy agreement on knowledge’s fallibility to make us passive regarding accepted knowledge claims. Rather, coming to grips with the “impermanence” of knowledge sharpens and maintains our working sense of fallible knowledge.

Derek Anderson introduces the idea of “conceptual competence injustice”. Such an injustice arises when “a member of a marginalized group is unjustly regarded as lacking conceptual or linguistic competence as a consequence of structural oppression”. Anderson details three conditions one might find in a graduate philosophy classroom. For example, a student judges a member of a marginalized group, who makes a conceptual claim, and accords their claim less credibility than it actually has. That judgment leads to a subsequent assessment regarding the marginalized person’s lower degree of competence—than they in fact have—with a relevant word or concept. By depicting conceptual competence injustice, Anderson gives us important matters to consider in deriving a more complete accounting of Miranda Fricker’s forms of epistemic injustice.

William Lynch gauges Steve Fuller’s views in support of intelligent design theory. Lynch challenges Fuller’s psychological assumptions, and corresponding questions as to what motivates human beings to do science in the first place. In creating and pursuing the means and ends of science do humans—seen as the image and likeness of God—seek to render nature intelligible and thereby know the mind of God? If we take God out of the equation—as does Darwin’s theory—how do we understand the pursuit of science in both historical and future terms? Still, as Lynch explains, Fuller desires a broader normative landscape in which human beings might rewardingly follow unachieved, unconventional or forgotten, paths to science that could yield epistemic benefits. Lynch concludes that the pursuit of parascience likely leads both to opportunism and dangerous forms of doubt in traditional science.

Exchanges on many of the articles that appear in this issue of Social Epistemology—and in recent past issues—can be found on the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective: Please join us. We realise knowledge together.

In this Special Issue, our contributors share their perspectives on how technology has changed what it means to be human and to be a member of a human society. These articles speak to issues raised in Frank Scalambrino’s edited book Social Epistemology and Technology: Toward Public Self-Awareness Regarding Technological Mediation.


Special Issue 4: “Social Epistemology and Technology”, edited by Frank Scalambrino

For the SERRC’s other special issues, please refer to:

Justin Cruickshank at the University of Birmingham was kind enough to alert me to Steve Fuller’s talk “Transhumanism and the Future of Capitalism”—held by The Philosophy of Technology Research Group—on 11 January 2017.

Author Information:Thomas Basbøll, Copenhagen Business School,


Editor’s Note:

Image credit: Chris Waits via flickr

Almost ten years ago, I found myself proposing that we stop complaining about the demand to “publish or perish”. Instead, I suggested a “more constructive” approach: we could accept that our administrators have time to take only a superficial interest in our work; then we could set ourselves to the task of addressing our readers. This morning I took the radical further step of proposing we do away with academic publishing. This raises the question of how academics should be evaluated for purposes of hiring and promotion. The role of publishing in these decisions, after all, is the main source of its power.  Continue Reading…