Collective Vision

The Collective Vision page ( consists of contributions by the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective (SERRC). The page consists of two parts.

In Part I of the Collective Vision page, SERRC members address issues and topics related to a comprehensive idea of social epistemology.

In Part II of the Collective Vision page, SERRC members focus on issues and topics related to personal change and social epistemology.


Image credit: Chris Cheung (Ping Foo), via flickr

Part I
In Part I of the Collective Vision page, SERRC members address issues and topics related to a comprehensive idea of social epistemology. On our rendering, social epistemology stands as an intellectual community, if not a discipline, not only for redressing fundamental philosophical problems pertaining to knowledge, science, truth, belief, normativity and judgment, but also for imagining and creating a shared future by forwarding ideas regarding humanity, technology, embodiment, morality and governance. We hope the posts to this forum demonstrate a vital, growing social practice that takes at issue nothing less than the possibilities and consequences for collective knowing and acting.

Part I Contents

22 December 2015

Why Do Critical Science Studies? A Prologomena (PDF) Clarissa Ai Ling Lee, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia,

What does a critical study of science, otherwise known as critical science studies, mean, exactly? This is still an answer begging question I had wrestled with for three years, since my dissertation-writing days, in trying to position the work I am doing: a comparative, and humanistically inflected, interrogation of scientific epistemics, as well as its methods and values.

At the same time, one may asks as to whether the humanities, apart from philosophy or perhaps even the technical histories of science, could have any valuable contribution to the construction of scientific knowledge. Perhaps in the world of workaday science, the answer is: none whatsoever; in this case, even philosophy would be too esoteric and insignificant. But, what if the science viewed here is not about experimental setups, instrumental calibrations, or computation of select phenomena. What if it is about how the most foundational epistemics in science can be read against society, and in the process of that interaction, certain transformations, particularly of ontological perceptions, could affect our theorization of the science? Humanities most valuable contribution is at the level of critique, or creative vision, rather than in the maintenance of the mundane.

Maybe the impact on workaday science is still negligible, but the framing of that scientific paradigm, and even how we locate our scientific beliefs, could do with some expansion. This becomes much more than the incommensurability of two cultures, a dissolution of artificial distinctions stemming from the need to preserve one’s epistemic turf, something which social epistemology has an interest in challenging (at least, the social epistemology I am invested in). The collective vision page is perhaps a good space to think aloud this question, especially since it would be part of overlapping conversations already addressed, or are in the process of being addressed, by the other authors, in both Part I and Part II.

Having first entered the field of science studies through literature and science (I a science geek in a past life, and a science geek to this day), although I have ventured quite far from the fold. I have also encountered an array of attempts at interdisciplinarity in the humanities and the sciences (or maybe, some might prefer to use the phrase, the arts and sciences), so much so that one may need to maintain a glossary of list just to keep track. Yet, all of these categories remain wedded to the disciplinary boundaries that determine a scholar’s relation to science studies, which does make for interesting mud slinging among dissenting advocates of the field. Whether it is the cultural studies of science, philosophy of science (dominated by analytic philosophy, with the ‘other’ philosophy consigned to the margins), history of science, sociology of science, literature and science, art and science, or any other manifestation of a qualitative (and perhaps, even socio-empirical) analyses of science, the practitioners across these fields are so comfortably entrenched in their little corners to not have to have more than a passing acknowledgement of each other, while proceeding with business as usual. One sees that even in conferences purporting to be address interdisciplinary themes.

Therefore, conventional science studies, which I put in opposition to my proposal of critical science studies, exists as a rubric of multidisciplinary silos that occasionally cross paths, and may engage in some timid collaboration, but with rare exceptions, transformative conceptualization is missing.

In fact, the continuous debates about realism, constructivism, anti-realism, nominalism, are among some of the outcomes of that reluctance to bring trandisciplinary engagement to full-term (what the transdisciplinary can look like, in this case), though there is a serious effort to that end in a recent (Sept-Nov 2015, vol 32, 5-6) issue of Theory, Culture, and Society called Transdisciplinary Problematics, in science and technology studies, producing its own form of collective vision that can be coherent but not homogenous.

However, the critical science studies proposed here is about going back to the foundation of how we think about scientific knowledge that is external to its institutional legitimation. This is not so much a call to return to the idea of science as natural philosophy, but more as a challenge to historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science, and even those in literary, visual, and cultural studies who purport an interest in bringing science into critical engagement with their objects of study, to consider their own personal stake and even level of ‘expertise’ they possess when engaging with scientific epistemology, and how that expertise is obtained and constructed.

The movement from amateur scientist and hobbyist to citizen scientist presents an opportunity for investigating not merely a one-way street of science communication from top down, but also confronts scientists, and those of us in the humanities and social sciences interested in the public presentation of science and technology, with a complicated question concerning what it means to do ‘real’ and ‘proper’ science, and if the crowdsourcing of scientific data is the deployment of an instrumental aspect of science towards loftier ontological goals. The question of authority percolates through the interaction between a citizen scientist and professional scientist, but is the professional scientist the only true authority in providing the benchmark for scientific knowledge production, or can an experienced and well-trained (even if largely self-taught) citizen scientist, who might want to propose an alternative to available methods, be still considered an expert agent?

What critical science studies offers, in the bridge between foundational concerns and socially infused paradigm, is a connection to foresight studies. Foresight studies have always been an interdisciplinary in nature, even if it has taken off more quickly in the fields of business, finance, and management studies. However, foresight studies has garnered increasing interests from technologist in the past five years, or more, and there are attempts to interface the pragmatic problem-solving predisposition of technology (though this is by no means any attempt at reducing the complex contribution and discourse on technology) with the more ambitious, yet cautious, goals of science. Even the citizen scientist has some contribution to foresight, through the availability of maker and hacker spaces, though some of these spaces had always existed as techno subcultures before they were mainstreamed.

Perhaps this is where we can develop the discourse of critical science studies, such as in aligning the practices of prediction and informed speculation in science to the still developing methodological practices of foresight. Perhaps I could be so bold as to venture that my exposition of critical science studies is informed by the Stieglerian (1998) notion of tekhnē, which is not the same as phronesis, the latter of which is a closer cousin to Bernard Stiegler’s formulation of mechanology as the social-materiality of technology. Tekhnē is that fulcrum between the rarefied domain of science and the functionalism of technology, one that makes it less easy for an uncritical conflation of techno and science. The conflation of techno and science appears to be an act of abstruse nominalism of a Platonic variety that provides too easy an escape from the difficult question of ontological differences, including the shades of differences.

The question of what is science and what is technology outside what postcolonial theorists consider as Eurocentric exceptionalism requires science studies scholars to look inwards and outwards when confronted by a mixture of pre-colonial, colonial, and postcolonial legacies that signal multiple points of ruptures, disruptions, and what Fuller himself had characterized as inscrutable silences – except that it is much more than inscrutability but rather, a silence born of disenfranchisment, a disenfranchisement that grows with the incursion of modern globality that masks historical amnesia.

Warwick Anderson discusses this issue from the context of subjugated knowledge in his article (2009) when he describes Sandra Harding’s attempt at global knowledge inclusivity through the deployment of feminist standpoint theory (one which some would consider as being epistemically more sympathetic to postcolonial discourse), and also attempts at regaining an ‘indigenous’ scientific identity through the development of ethnoscience (or its sibling, ethnomathematics) that seeks to redress the epistemic violence inflicted by coloniality upon a native intellectual heritage, or a violence that tears apart a network that had already existed prior to colonization.

Obviously, any form of Whiggish scientific program, or even history, creates tension not merely at an intellectual scale, but at the level of realpolitik, such as what one would find in the science and math education of many postcolonial countries, and the struggle for language hegemony when it comes to the medium of instruction. That said, what can critical science studies contribute, in terms of a critical framework, to addressing the question of science and technology within the context of subjugated knowledge, where scientific programs regularly confuse the scientific with the technological due to the abrupt manner in which these newly independent states became participants in the modernization process, after decades, and even centuries for some, of limited to non-existent self-determination.

Are champions of an ethnocentric approach (one can even question the theory-ladenness of the etymology of ‘ethno’) to science and mathematics, especially in STEM education, therefore running the risk of instrumentalizing knowledge to suit nationalistic or patriotic objectives, rather than to serve social justice, whatever the latter means? The problem of demarcation remains unresolved, or maybe one that will always be enthymematic for as long as the master-slave narrative persists, and discourse on transnational knowledge production tend towards exceptionalism (in terms of the tendency to over-localized knowledge production as a negative reaction to what is perceived as a drive to universalism) rather than empathetic dialog.

I do not see it as a problem for critical science studies to begin at the level of textual confrontation, with the meaning of textuality here broadly construed to represent the medium or systems upon which concepts, knowledge, and belief-systems of any communities can be embedded. Further, even if we were to narrow the meaning of textuality to represent actual publications, notebooks, reports, hard-drives, and spaces of scientific observation (within the current conventions of scientific practice), it merely means that we are examining scientific interactions, or what we demarcate as scientific interactions, within a prescribed spatio-temporal bound.

What is needed is to develop critical science studies as a field infused with a transdisciplinary identity that transcends the idioms of philosophy, sociology, or history of science, while being aware of its epistemic debt to these fields. Perhaps critical science studies, in trying to serve also the goals of social justice, endeavors to give shelter to intersectional practices within scientific knowledge and technological deployment, given that critical analysis and interpretation of scientific practices and epistemology are inescapably entangled with the social and political despite conventional philosophy of science’s insistence that such entanglements are epistemically impossible.

Going back in time to Fuller’s 1988 Social Epistemology, I draw on his grounded discussion of realism across the different conventions of philosophy, history, and sociology of science to bring onboard the conceptualization, and demonstration, of the role of data, and what data represents, in the potential for novelty and discovery in the sciences, although my current interest are in selected fields of modern physics. The main question: how many forms of realism can data represent, is data always already pluralistic in nature, and how does one separate the ontological from the socio-epistemological representations (and is such a separation absolutely necessary)? Perhaps a datalogical approach to science studies,[1] which is not the same as an empirical approach to the sociology of knowledge thrives on tangible evidence-based epistemology, can shed some light on the question since such an approach will always be facing a contestation between logical-positivism and social turns.

The datalogical turn can be construed as an attempt at a more direct access to ontology. Data can be ideologically or non-ideologically specific, constituting the networks of potential information and knowledge that are already out there, waiting to be excavated and systematized. Datalogics could potentially generate some semblance of consensus between realism and constructivism through a holistic rather than piece-meal advocacy of sociology of knowledge. And datalogics can align social epistemology with the ontic, and provide another methodology for transdisciplinary intervention.

Nevertheless, the practice of datalogics, through a hybrid of logics and the social, has potential in bringing together preoccupations that are seemingly divergent, by stripping away superficial differences and focusing on foundational questions, including the tools that are available, or not, for working out those questions. It is through this datalogical turn that critical science studies is required to confront its relationship to technology, to technicity. Perhaps what critical science studies can offer is a less eclectic presentation of Stenger’s knowledge cosmopolis, but a grounded platform for the meeting of intellectual ‘hearts,’ with datalogics offering a methodological way forward.


Anderson, Warwick. “From Subjugated Knowledge to Conjugated Subjects: Science and Globalisation, or Postcolonial Studies of Science? Postcolonial Studies 12, no. 4 (2009): 389–400.

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

Stiegler Bernard. Technics and Time, 1: the Fault of Epimetheus. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

There was actually a presentation by a group of sociologists at CUNY on this topic that I am not drawing from, but which offers some useful arguments for considering the social position of data. See

18 December 2015

Freeing Knowledge: The Renegade Generation of Philosophical Writers in the New Age of Corporate Universities (PDF)
Adam Riggio, Independent Writer and Consultant,

A s one of the earliest members of the Reply Collective, I’m immensely proud of all we’ve accomplished in just the last five years. More than that, I think our greatest achievements, and our most difficult work, still lies ahead of us.

The roots of this difficult task are in the institutional context in which many Reply Collective contributors work for their paychecks: the university system. I am not one of these people, and I think many other Collective members will face the tough choice and attendant hardships that I did over the last few years. It’s the choice between increasingly stressful instability and underemployment in universities, or the uncertainty of taking your skills and experience to other sectors.

People have always made these kinds of career changes. But the pace appears to be picking up speed as the university system changes. Stable employment in any sector is not a guarantee, but for younger entrants to the university faculty labour market, it’s become a fantasy. Running away in the TARDIS is more likely.

The combination of administrative bloat, faculty austerity, and labour over-production means that most university teachers today have merely adjunct status. They’re precariously employed on contracts that last no longer than the length of their courses, and are paid at a rate well below the poverty line. Yet they are expected to work full time, and contribute to research in addition.

Even researchers at prestigious universities are losing their research capacities and even their jobs as government funding for pure research dries up and the post-secondary sector relies increasingly on private industry partnerships that are hostile to critical work or research that cannot be immediately monetized. As well, corporate partners change a university’s teaching mission from critical education to customer service, privileging student satisfaction instead of challenging accepted beliefs.

In such a terrifying climate, organizations like the Reply Collective are more important than ever. They must be the new home of creative research and writing now that universities are making themselves incapable of progress.

When I was a doctoral student in a philosophy department, colleagues and professors had a particular way of discussing teachers and grad students who started working in the business or non-profit world instead of the university sector. These people had “left philosophy.”

Their presumption is that no longer working as a university teacher meant that you were no longer involved in philosophy, or any of the research disciplines where you had trained and worked in the university sector.

The Reply Collective offers an alternative research and writing community to the lonely and dejected isolation of the “independent scholar.” I, for one, no longer even consider myself a scholar. Scholarship is a vocation that can only be sustained in university infrastructures, a largely library-bound career as an interpreter of great texts for an audience of other professional scholars. I no longer write philosophy to publish it in the prestigious professional journals with paywalls and subscription rates so high that even some university can’t afford them.

Instead, I write to be read. Although my writing career still has a long way to go, I write to be read by a popular audience. This doesn’t mean somehow “dumbing down” content that should properly be technically dense and conform to the standard outlines of the professional journals that are never circulated for the public to read.

It means being free to experiment with genre and style to find new ways to engage professional knowledge disciplines with the broader public and public concerns. I admit it’s a bit easier to do this from philosophy, because so much of that discipline’s best work is more purely theoretical and interpretive than many of the social sciences.

Here are some of the experiments I’m trying, both at the Reply Collective, on my own website, and in other creative projects. These are just examples of possible progressive directions. Don’t treat this as instructions, but to inspire directions of your own.

New (and sometimes weird) approaches to book reviews. The Reply Collective offers opportunities for multiple-author reviews, and experiments with form come from dividing the writing labour in different ways. My solo reviews have sometimes gotten more experimental, with mixed results. But that’s what experimentation is for.

Applying conceptual creativity and exploration more typically associated with boundary-pushing philosophical works to blogging and journalism. Recently, I’ve applied my recent training in professional communications and media studies with my long-established skills at philosophical analysis to journalism on the politics of my country, Canada. And for more than two years now, I’ve published a daily blog chronicling all my research activities for long-term projects.

I’ve recently begun work as a freelance communications consultant for small businesses and charities in my city, Toronto. One major advantage that I bring to my clients is my ability to synthesize and probe ideas and real-world developments for implications that remain invisible to people whose only training is in business. Operating without the lifelong presumptions of the business world lets me see through the buzzwords and trends that too many of my colleagues (and competitors, happily for me) chase without forethought.

Thanks to my professional connections through the Reply Collective, I’ve published a polished version of my dissertation as Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. Though it’s currently part of a scholarly line, I’m preparing for a softcover release when I can begin to promote it more widely to audiences of individual readers interested in a stimulating and trippy book that simultaneously works as a philosophical analysis of environmentalist morality and ecological science, as well as a handbook for activism-by-example

I’ve also published fiction that expresses and probes the philosophical ideas of Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, as well as developing independent film projects that, while largely realist, apply the Nietzsche-inspired ideas of that book to their narratives and characterizations.

At our best, humanity handles crisis through creativity and regeneration. The university as an institution once offered a secure home where research specialists could produce and disseminate knowledge to progress and improve the human situation materially, technologically, maybe even morally and spiritually. But the modern university’s corporate business model has irreparably corrupted its capacity for social progress. It is all too easy to think of this demographic of surplus professional university research and teaching labour as a Lost Generation, whose lack of institutional support will see their talent wasted.

I refuse such pessimism because it is pessimism and resignation. Instead of a Lost Generation, we can be a Renegade Generation, creating new flexible and decentralized institutions to create and spread critical knowledge that will not be vulnerable to the temptations of corruption and compromise with values of greed and callousness in the name of hyper-efficiency that defines too much of our modern world in business and education.

We will free thought by thinking freely. It begins with each of us.

26 October 2015

The Problem of Translation and Knowledge Transfer (PDF)
Miljana Milojevic, University of Belgrade,

Some years ago I got a package of pain relieving patches from my American relative. They were produced in China and then sold in the United States. On the packaging there were instructions for use, but they were not printed directly on the box. Instead, you could find instructions printed on a sticker covering some information underneath. The instructions were not informative, just advising to put a patch on a painful spot.

Being curious and somewhat destructive by nature I started to peel off the sticker just to find another set of instructions hidden beneath it. Although written in English, they were incomprehensible to me. The instructions referred to basic elements, such as water and fire, balance of yin and yang, and advising the user to calculate the position of the patch in accordance with the state of these elements in his body, or something very similar (please bear in mind that this happened years ago and I had not understood a thing).

This was puzzling, interesting, and thought provoking. I started thinking about the differences of Eastern and Western medicine, about the usefulness of patches if used in accordance with the westernised instructions, about different categories and concepts used in these two cultures, but furthermore, this occurrence made me think about the translation practice, and I tried to judge which one of these translations was actually better, or more successful, if we can think about the “sticker instructions” as a case of translation at all. If we were to judge them by accuracy, it looks that the hidden one is the one to pick, but if we judge by usefulness then the chosen one, the one on the sticker, is the winner. On the other hand, are any of them really successful? Have any of them conveyed the right information to the reader? In the end what do we do in this, or similar cases, as translators? What we are witnessing here is the process of decision making in the practice of translation. It was decided that there is just too many assumptions in the original text that are not familiar to the intended reader, that they should be eliminated altogether, and that the theoretical frame known to the reader should be used instead. This process of decision-making, which occurs in translation practice, leads us directly to the question of how we understand knowledge, and how knowledge is transferred across cultures.

The problem of translation in the given case arose from the fact that two texts spoke to different audiences belonging to different cultures, having different knowledge backgrounds, and the information they conveyed assumed different medical theories common in these two cultures. Even if it seems that the particular terms could have been accurately translated, as it was attempted in the original translation, the meaning of sentences depended on the broader context not known by both audiences. But it is misleading to think that there is an accurate translation, even of the particular terms, like the one provided beneath the sticker, and then that there is an extra theory belonging to a particular culture which explains it, rather the theory is already presupposed in the language itself. “Water” and “fire” have different meanings in these two languages, and proper understanding escapes us the minute we try to use them in the other language. So, the problem of translation arises from the fact that languages themselves differ, just like cultures do, in the end languages are a kind of cultural artifacts. They conceptualise natural phenomena in disparate ways, they create their own categories, and code various different information using particular grammars that exclude one to one correspondence of meanings. And the process of translation brings these differences to the fore.

Of course, the given example is an extreme one, and rarely we come across such vast differences in cross-cultural meanings, and decisions that the original text should be abandoned and replaced with the one with the same aim but separate meaning. But, on the other hand it points out clearly that mapping of terms by their meanings model of translation cannot be universally applicable. In literature this phenomenon is known as the paradox of translation. If we take as an assumption that the translation rests on the principle of equivalence, equivalence of meaning expressed in two or more languages, and that nothing should be lost in the translation if done properly, it seems that any project of translation is an impossible feat, because there are unequivalent or untranslatable parts of one language into another. Transitivity and symmetry of meaning between languages easily breaks when we start to translate, and the original meaning can quickly get lost. This is why translation is always also an interpretation led by other criteria than equivalence, and our goal is to examine its implicit goals.

The problem of translation, or its paradox, brings many questions that are worthy of theoretical pursuit. How and do languages alter our cognitive abilities? What are meanings and how are they constituted? Can languages be reduced to a language which is not theory laden? Can we ever properly understand things said in another language? What is the role of charity and rationality in translation, or the role of community and culture in language use?— and many more. There are also various attempts to answer these questions in cognitive science, philosophy, anthropology, and linguistics, and additional projects trying to resolve these issues. Language was reconceived as a part of extended cognitive processes involving material linguistic symbols as their constituents, holistic theories of meaning were elaborated, positivists attempted to reconstruct a universal language of science, we were introduced to Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity, and so forth. But what is of our immediate interest now is how these insights bear on social dimensions of knowledge, and how decision making in translation practice influences cross-cultural transfer of knowledge.

There are at least two broad areas to be explored: 1) In what ways do particular languages influence knowledge formation, or is there language specific knowledge?; and 2) How do we make decisions about what to translate and what to ignore? Both areas branch in many directions as soon as we start to tackle them. If we accept that there is no overall cross-linguistic meaning equivalence, and that “residue” which is “untranslatable” carries epistemic value, then we have to define knowledge in not strictly propositional way. This claim certainly deserves more than a brief remark, but here we can only treat it in a laconic fashion.

Propositions are often envisioned as mind and language independent entities, which can be expressed in different languages. This presupposes that if think about propositions as, for instance, Russelian propositions, there are entities that are independent of particular language categorisation. This pushes us further to postulate something like Russell did, that we can properly refer only to what we are acquainted with, in other words, to endorse some kind of foundationalism about knowledge and some idea about the reduction of natural language into a language of what is immediately present to us, which again presupposes a theory about what is basic or fundamental. But our project is not a project of reduction and re-translation, we want to see what happens in actual cases of translations and actual knowledge transfers, where we deal with natural languages which postulate complex entities and specific frames of reference, and where we do not have anything like language independent propositions.

Real, every day cases of translations do not translate texts into ideal languages, but to other natural languages. We want to think of knowledge, information, and the ways that we think about reality as language dependent, and deeply influenced by it. When we encounter terms like “bella figura” in Italian (meaning something like making a good impression), or “promaja” in Serbian (the infamous draft that causes headaches, colds, and can even kill a person), there are no clear contenders even for descriptions of these entities in English language that would retain the equivalence of meaning. But, furthermore, languages often regularly grammatically code different pieces of information, which occur in almost every of its sentence, and use different frames of reference, like the ones for spatial relations or for color spaces. Turkish codes evidentiality using suffixes; namely, the form of the verb in Turkish suggests if information communicated is attained directly or indirectly, Estonian has fourteen noun cases most of them being a form of locative, and then there are languages that have different space frames of reference. It is interesting to ponder how these language constraints influenced construction of theories and what is considered as knowledge. Would Leibniz have ever thought of the thesis of space relativity, or of the principle of the identity of indiscernibles if he had used a language with an absolute frame of reference.

Absolute frame of reference is postulated in languages like Mayan Tzeltal, where location of an object is determined in a system with fixed directions, like North, South, East and West, and the location expressed as a location relative to a perceiver, through terms like “left” and “right” might be inexpressible. To speakers of such languages differences between differently oriented objects are obvious and they are perceived as different objects instantly. Can we translate Leibniz’s ideas into Tzeltal and could they be ever endorsed; can we share such information cross-culturally, or we are stuck with our own perspective unable to enjoy insights expressed in those languages that are dissimilar from ours.

What we find as a new piece of knowledge, or as a worthy piece of information, may be heavily influenced by the language we use. This brings us to the question of decision making, which can become a question which part of community decides, or has been deciding, on what is going to be translated and with what criteria in mind, and at last, how do we decide in the process of translating what parts of information are meaningful and valuable to us.

These are the starting points of the project exploring how did the problem of translation, cross-cultural linguistic differences, and normal practice of translation influenced transfer of knowledge throughout history, with an aim to elucidate implicit assumptions used in this process and possibilities of shared cross-cultural knowledge.

28 September 2015

A Post-Humanist Paradox? (PDF)
Guy Axtell, Radford University,

asimoThe recent film Ex Machina draws attention to a seemingly paradoxical conjunction of claims that numerous trans and post-humanist authors endorse. One of the main characters, Nathan, the creator of sentient cyborgs, echoes Ray Kurzweil and others when he asserts both that,

1) Autonomous AI will eventually displace humans, and

2) If we can, then we inevitably will attempt to create autonomous AI.

From 2) often follows advocacy—in this case acceptance, whether grudging or exuberant, that since we can’t control the imperative to build that which we are capable of building, we shouldn’t try. In the film, Nathan predicts that “One day the AIs are gonna look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa … an upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.” But when another character, Caleb, asks Nathan why he would still build his AI, given this prediction, the director Alex Garland interestingly has Nathan just respond, “That’s a weird question—wouldn’t you if you could?”

The ‘weird question’ that Nathan fails to answer is perhaps just the one we most need to be asking ourselves. While the post-humanist leans on an ought-implies-can principle, we know, even if Nathan does not, that the well-known Is/Ought problem also works the other way: It prevents any direct valid inference from descriptions of human nature, or predictions of future events, to an endorsement of a value-charged attitude towards those events, or to a prescription for permissive or restrictive technology policy. The latter one would think demands reasoned arguments rather than hand-waving in the direction of a pre-conceived or ‘made-to-fit’ description of human nature.

In the film, the tension between our two claims 1) and 2) are vividly portrayed through Nathan’s death at the hands of his creations (sorry—spoilers!). It occurs in a somewhat Freudian combination of the ‘father’ or God-like creator who must die or be overcome in order for them to ‘come of age,’ or the Promethean act of creation, and stealing the secrets of life to give to another species, but receiving for it a fateful punishment. But even without viewing the film, those who have read Kurzweil of other post-humanists will hopefully find interesting and disturbing this combination of “only rational” prediction of our human demise as a result of building AI, with a kind of technological determinism (if we can build it, we must build it) as its apparent rationale.

There is a lot of heavy metaphysics (and some have thought religious sentiment) in Kurzweil’s foretold post-humanist age of ‘spiritual’ machines. But I would emphasize that to a large extent the same worries follow the risks with “autonomous” robots (drones, social bots, etc.) that will need so called robot ethics programing. The worries about technological determinists assumptions in post and transhumanist thought are arguably just as serious if future autonomous military drones are a risk to incite serious political conflict. These worries are not ones that need to be taken seriously only if we think that AI will ever evolve consciousness of self: There are plenty of ways, it seems me, for a ‘robot apocalypse’ could potentially occur even in the absence of the sentience that the strong AI community predicts.

The purpose of this post is simply to stir some discussion on a topic that may be of interest to proponents and critics of trans and posthumanism alike. Perhaps it could lead to distinguishing what supporters of Humanity 2.0 hold, from what supporters of other views assert. To facilitate, let me now present two syllogisms with premises that readers might like to challenge or to comment on.

Chain Syllogism

1) If we construct AI cyborgs of characteristic a, then it is only rational to surmise that these cyborgs will lead to the human demise.

2) If it is only rational to surmise that these cyborgs will lead to the human demise, then we are being highly imprudent.

3) Therefore, if we construct AI cyborgs of characteristic a, then we are being highly imprudent.

[Let characteristic a vary with whatever characteristics post-humanists or others predict about future AI.]

Modus Tollens Syllogism

(1*) If people should believe that technological impulse will make building autonomous social (civilian or military) robots inevitable, then we can assume that a strong version of technological determinism is our best account of the relationship between technology and society.

(2*) But we cannot assume that a strong version of technological determinism is our best account of the relationship between technology and society.

(3*) Therefore, it is not the case that people should believe that technological impulse will make building autonomous social (civilian or military) robots inevitable.

Perhaps both arguments are woefully unsound, or perhaps they could be rendered sound with suggestions to the language used. But I hope to spur dialogue over tensions between different views on the relationship between technology and society, including especially that to which Humanity 2.0 supporters subscribe. Here we can mention just three:

Technological Determinism – Hard version
Society is shaped or determined by technological change

Social Constructivism – Hard version
Technology is shaped or determined by social values

“Soft” Determinism or “Weak” Constructivism
Technology both influences/shapes and is influenced/shaped by society

14 September 2015

Knowledge of Climates and Climates of Knowledge (PDF)
Amanda Machin, Zeppelin University,

The changing climate has attracted attention from numerous fields and disciplines. Part of its intrigue lies in the impossibility of boxing it into one area of knowledge and treating it with conventional methods. The entangled complex of issues that comprises climate change has disrupted and to some extent transfigured traditional linear conceptions of the connection between science and society. Queries regarding what expertise consists of, how it is communicated and the ways in which it might be incorporated into democratic processes have found no easy answers. What these questions have done is to undermine the simplistic assumption that scientists can straightforwardly impart instructions regarding not only what should be done, but also regarding what can be done to mitigate and alleviate massive environmental upheaval.

Nevertheless, the difficulties thrown up by this unique issue have commonly settled back into the question: ‘what does knowledge tell us about climate change?’ My assertion in this short contribution is that this question needs reversing, to become: ‘what does climate change tell us about knowledge?’ For as much as science crucially endeavors to reveal the existence and extent of environmental change through the application of various methods and models, the issue of climate change can reveal just as much about the existence and extent of human knowledge: its configurations, its contestability and its boundaries. If, ‘social epistemologists’ are as Patrick Reider characterizes: ‘a group of thinkers whose primary focus is the relation between knowledge and society’ (Reider 2014), then climate change serves as a useful focal point.

Does climate change tell us that we simply need more knowledge that is higher quality and better communicated? Does climate science demand the proliferation of data upon which knowledge can be gleaned? Such ideas ignore the ‘wickedness’ of this issue (Hulme 2009). Its complexity precludes any straightforward ‘reading off’ of the results. Then does climate change rather reveal the utter impossibility of knowledge? Is humanity doomed to a choice between skepticism and ignorance? For sure, climate change has repeatedly revealed the uncertainty subsisting in the predictions of the future for a complex system, in which multiple elements – atmospheric particles, ice sheets, jet streams, human individuals, socio-political collectivities – interact in patterns that have no past precedence. And yet, it does not mean that we know nothing at all.

It might well be difficult to accurately predict, for example, the potential rise in sea levels. Highlighting this lack of certainty, which will likely remain however much data is produced, exposes the boundaries of knowledge. And yet this does not mean the research is invalid or unhelpful; attending to the possibility of rising sea levels draws attention to the damage this would inflict. It highlights the dependence of societies upon their environmental conditions and the extent of their ability to master or adjust to them. It exposes the uneven distribution of both damage and the capacity to respond to damage. Climate science, as is the case with any science that deals with complex systems and wicked problems, may not be able to accurately forecast the future but it can influence our political priorities and social values.

It is equally important to notice that this relation works the other way too. Political priorities and social values affect and frame the type of knowledge that is generated by scientists. This is clear from the extent to which climate change has moved from a marginal concern to a mainstream interest. For Reider: ‘Knowledge is largely directed by the questions we, not merely as individuals, ask, but far more importantly, the questions a given society is willing to invest its resources to discover’ (2014). And, further, what a given society counts as a ‘discovery’ will affect the direction that knowledge takes.[1] Scientific facts, as Paul Feyerabend explains, do not exist independently of their social context and ‘there exist also facts which cannot be unearthed except with the help of alternatives to the theory to be tested, and which become unavailable as soon as such alternatives are excluded’ (1999, 92). Climate change, then, reveals that what we know is socially contingent and politically conditioned.

Wittgenstein offers a useful account here. He explains that we can make and rely upon claims of knowledge because they are based upon some sort of foundation or ‘bedrock’. There is some common ground that is placed beyond doubt. Doubt itself relies upon certainty (1975, 115): ‘Doesn’t one need grounds for doubt?’ (1975, 122). Nevertheless, this bedrock is not fully fixed: ‘I did not get my picture of the world by satisfying myself of its correctness; nor do I have it because I am satisfied of its correctness. No: it is the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false.’ (1975, 94). The inherited background upon which we build our knowledge, and against which its rationality can be accessed, can be called the current social climate. Such a climate can be transformed. It is always possible to question knowledge and what is taken for granted; it is always possible to break or bend the rules: ‘our rules leave loop-holes open’ (1975, 139).

Thus, the meaning or weight of an expert opinion depends upon the particular social climate in which it is conveyed. Who is even counted as an ‘expert’ is socially and contingently determined. This is not to claim that scientific evidence is not valid and valuable, only that the particular meaning of such scientific evidence is conditioned by its social context: ‘All testing, all confirmation and disconfirmation of a hypothesis takes place already within a system’ (1975, 105). Opening up such a system can force unjustifiable assumptions and traditions out of their shadowy subsistence, and enliven bodies and disciplines of knowledge. This is why the generation of new knowledge and the advancement of scientific research is not at all in competition with democratic processes but is rather complemented by them. Feyerabend advocates the critically examination dominant theories and the application of new ones that may not even use the same terminology: ‘Unanimity of opinion may be fitting for a church… variety of opinion is a feature necessary for objective knowledge’ (1999, 97). The democratic ethos of openness, as expressed by William Connolly (2005) serves both science and politics. For such an ethos allows the contestation of the status quo, the challenge to the social conventions that constitute the bedrock of society, the enrichment of both the prevailing climate of knowledge and the knowledge of climate.

The aim and presupposition of consensus and certainty on the issue of climate change is therefore highly problematic. Rather, what this issue reveals is the importance of opening up the possibilities for the reinvention of policy and the renewal of knowledge. We should attend to what we know about climate.


Connolly, William E. Pluralism. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005.

Feyerabend, Paul. “How to be a Good Empiricist: A Plea for Tolerance in Matters Epistemological” in Knowledge Science and Relativism: Philosophical Papers 3, edited by John Preston. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Hulme, Mike. Why We Disagree About Climate Change. Cambridge University Press. 2009.

Reider, Patrick J. “Knowledge as a Public Commodity” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, No. 6 (2014): 53-55.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. On Certainty. Wiley-Blackwell, 1975.

[1] Thanks to Alexander Ruser for this point.

31 August 2015

Philosophy as Therapy and Philosophical Anthropology (PDF)
Leah Carr, University of Queensland,

After struggling with several attempts to write a vision statement, I decided a confessional tack might help me to communicate a bit better what my thoughts are about social epistemology. I am a philosopher (an apprentice one at that) rather than a social scientist. But, more than that, I’m really the kind of philosopher more focused on a personal ethics than I am on how society functions. My research topic is on philosophical therapy, sometimes called “philosophy as a way of life” (Pierre Hadot’s framing), an ethics of self-cultivation or eudaimonistic ethics (maybe you can throw virtue ethics in there too).

My entry point into all this was work by Keith-Ansell Pearson and Michael Ure on Nietzsche’s engagement with Hellenistic thought during his middle-period (Human All Too Human, Dawn, The Gay Science), engagement with the practical ethics of the Stoics, Epicureans and Skeptics (Ure 2009; Ansell-Pearson 2011). I’m now trying to work through similar themes in the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, focusing on questions such as: What kind of therapy does Spinoza offer? How does Spinoza’s therapy differ from say, the Stoics, in light of his own understanding of nature? The confessional part here is that I find myself working on this topic, less so out of pure curiosity, and more because I think I’m trying find a cure for some perceived deficit in my ability to cope with just the more mundane aspects of life, like getting out of the house on time, paying my bills, and so on. I’m trying to self-medicate with philosophy, if you will.

One important idea that I’ve just barely begun to scratch the surface on is that all notions of philosophical therapy presuppose some kind of philosophical anthropology. The whole notion of akrasia and overcoming it towards some kind of eudaimonia (well-being) implies that there has to be some kind of on-going practical exercise that develops the kinds of habits that make you a more capable person. These practical exercises are what Foucault refers to as “technologies of the self” and what Pierre Hadot refers to as “spiritual exercises” (Foucault 1990; Hadot 1995). This makes the human being something messier than the more common libertarian assumptions of agency I find implicit in a lot of philosophy where everything seems to follow straight-forwardly in the kind of sequence where belief->judgement->decision->action->consequence just seems to be obvious to some writers and where some kind of pre-given sense of self-control has already been assumed.

For an impulsive person like myself, I’ve had to come to terms with the reality that I’m more often than not guided by emotions than rational calculation and that the external world (and my own mind) can potentially derail me at any moment. So I’m lead to question, I think more than others, a model of human agency where a free mind imposes itself on the body as its instrument. So what that seems to suggest to me is that a proper understanding of agency requires starts with an honest working out of a philosophical anthropology that can explain these failures of self-control.

The Stoics

One place to look at how this plays out is in Stoic therapy. The Stoics thought that a good life was one in which the practitioner of Stoicsm apatheia, a state of being “without passion”. The three pillars of Stoic education—logic, metaphysics, ethics— are all directed towards the achievement of an eventual transformation of one’s character such that one would respond rationally to a situation rather than emotionally. But to understand why the Stoics viewed apatheia as a desirable state of being, you have to dig a bit deeper and excavate their philosophical anthropology and view of nature.

First, the Stoics refer understand the human mind to be a unity, contrary to Plato and Galen who maintained a tripartite conception of the soul. Stoic mind—the hegemonikon—is composed of a set of cognitive judgments, which means that, for the Stoics the passions are reducible to judgements with a propositional form.

Second, the Stoics regard the passions as irrational because of their view that the cosmos is providentially ordered by a rational logos. Passions are irrational because they follow from judgements we make from the standpoint of animal parts with in nature.

Third, because the human is essentially animal rationabile, the full expression of our human potential is to bring all the judgement of our mind in accordance with the rationality of the cosmos, that is, all judgements are indifferent (and even affirming of) the unfolding of natural “rational” necessity, that is fate. Passions have no place in a rational human being because they express judgements that are invested in an account that is contrary to fate (Sellars 2006)

But the issue with Stoic therapy is that, while it acknowledges that the life condition of the Stoic sage is something difficult to achieve, it nonetheless relies on the possibility that from the outset we have at least some kind of power outside of our animal nature that allows us to assent or dissent to the unfolding of fate. That one small assumption then suggests that Stoic therapy, while difficult, is within the power of the individual to eventually achieve over time. We tend to call this self-help nowadays.

It also seems problematic that such assent can occur without some emotional motivation and in general the Stoics devalue passions as resources in our motivation and a source of well-being. The sources of modern libertarian individualism in the history of philosophy can be traced back to the kind of opposition of reason and passion found in the ancient world, a view that has downplayed the importance of relationships and community in human life, and a view that has also functioned to marginalize the place of women in philosophy (Lloyd 2002). But more important here is that the Stoics appear to fail by their own standards; that is, there is some part of human nature that exists outside of the cosmos as a whole, a power that is capable of intervening and modifying our animal dispositions.

A Cartesian Approach

With Descartes, you find a similar view to that of the Stoics. Descartes is often attributed the kind of libertarian individualism that informs neo-liberal economics and ideology, which is a little unfair to Descartes but potentially how he has been received. If one consults Passions of the Soul, one will find a view where the body becomes the locus of habit formation. Descartes views the body as a complex machine, one that communicates sensory information to the brain via animal spirits running through the nerves. Without the intervention of mind, the body is an automaton, reacting instinctively and habitually to environmental stimulus. The passions of the soul are the impressions received by the nervous activity of the body communicated via the pineal gland. Since mind and body are separate “causally independent” substances (which Descartes was eventually called out on by Elizabeth of Bohemia), the mind has the same degree of freedom to assent to these passions that the body/brain does not have. As well as having this degree of freedom over its received impressions, Descartes also believed that mind had the power to influence the habitual tendencies of the brain, eventually retraining these responses over time like a dog-owner retrains their canine friend (Lloyd and Gatens 1999). As with the Stoics, but perhaps more so, we find Descartes relying on a notion of a mind outside of nature capable of imposing its will on the natural order of things from without.

On Spinoza

Spinoza can in some ways be thought of in some ways a critic of the idea that human beings have some pre-given power of a relatively free mind capable of imposing itself on the body and its emotions. Rather than just understanding Spinoza’s rejection of “free will” as following from his deterministic metaphysics, I believe it makes more sense to interpret his view here in light of his philosophical therapy in Ethics IV, V. Spinoza’s view here is that we not purely automatons caught in an illusion of free will, but rather, that this illusion makes overestimate what is in our own power and blinds us to a whole other network of supporting causes that need to be in place in order for us to bring about any kind of effect.

We are not completely determined, however, because we embody a quantum of God’s active power of determination, a power that is distributed immanently throughout the manifestations of nature. As well as this, Spinoza’s naturalism revalues the place of passions in human agency, treating them as conditions of our self-preservation and striving, working to aid rather than prevent our human flourishing (Armstrong 2013). Overcoming the illusions of free will, our tendency to overestimate our own power, requires first of all understanding the laws that govern our pre-reflective imaginations. Spinoza’s view of human psychology has drawn the attention of contemporary brain science for understanding the workings of cognition to be driven by emotion rather than opposed to emotion (Damasio 2004).

Spinoza’s philosophical anthropology calls into question the self-help paradigm, posing the question of whether “therapeutic outcome” is one achievable by one’s solitary effort. In agreement with West’s discussion of how alcoholics enlist the support of community (Alcoholics Anonymous) to change themselves (West 2014), Spinoza believes that best thing that we can do to increase our power as human beings is to form communities that work to increase the mutual advantage of its members. By developing social attachments with each other, we are able to form new affects that can restrain the sad passions that disable us, and foster joyful passions that enable us, in pursuit of our own personal ends (Lefebvre 2006; Armstrong 2009). In short, we enlist the help and support of others to help ourselves. But in order to be even to get to the point where we are capable of thinking well-enough to undertake an effort towards better understanding our own cognition, a whole range of social relations need to be in place for such a project to be even possible. Susan James has written on the subject of Spinoza and social epistemology, asserting that the whole project of personal knowledge depends upon access to education and an induction into a community of inquiry (James 2011).

For this reason, Spinoza offers a promising starting point for working out a philosophical anthropology, one that is both at in accord with a psychological conception of the human and a sociological one. Moreover, how we are we supposed to read the Stoic dictum “live according to nature” today, when our conception of nature is so thoroughly different to that of the ancients? Ironically, by insisting on a more naturalistic re-embedding of the human in nature in a nature that rejects divine providence, the notion that we have to live according to our own human nature remains the only option we are left with. By attempting to take a non-anthropocentric view of ourselves, one which science enables, we may gain a more accurate and powerful understanding of who we actually are and how we might work that to our advantage. As Nietzsche writes: “Error has transformed animals into men; is truth perhaps capable of changing man back into an animal”. The point here need not be regressively anti-humanist but rather, I take it to suggest that we have to get real about human nature before we can properly explore our possibilities

Philosophical Anthropology

What I believe the task of philosophical anthropology will involve (at least the naturalist kind I’m interested in), will be the development of a more integrated understanding of what the various psychological and social sciences. But knowing does not automatically equate to doing and it will probably be the case that if we are to derive any benefit from our understanding, we will need to embrace that we are at a pre-reflective level less than rational. For that reason, we might need prosthetic aids embedded in our environment, social institutions, rituals, myths, aesthetics, to activate our potential in empowering ways.

I find the kinds of ideas to found in cognitive science summed up in books like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow and Robert N. McCauley’s Why Religion is Naturalism and Science is Not present a view of the mind in which the primordial mind of our pre-historic past stubbornly resists our attempts to think rationally and objectively at all times. (Kahneman 2011, McCauley 2011) McCauley’s view, in particular, works as a cognitive science argument for why science must be a social enterprise insofar as the best way to keep our cognitive bias in check is to be held accountable to a community of peers, since we are less capable of subjecting that accountability to ourselves.

The kind of view of mind on offer here is one that can serve well as an explanation as to why we need a social epistemology, but it may also serve as a useful philosophical tool for assessing the credibility of more macro-level social theories. Of course, the macro- may behave according to its own rules and no doubt it will also impinge upon and shape the personal. But looking for a philosophical anthropology through the lens of a therapy may give us clues about how the social shapes us since it looks at the conditions of possibility for shaping ourselves.


Ansell-Pearson, Keith. “Beyond Compassion: On Nietzsche’s Moral Therapy in Dawn.” Continental Philosophy Review 44, no. 2 (2011): 179-204.

Armstrong, Aurelia. “Autonomy and the Relational Individual: Spinoza and Feminism.” In Collective Imaginings: Spinoza, Past and Present, edited by Moira Gatens, 43-64. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009.

Armstrong, Aurelia. “The Passions, Power, and Practical Philosophy.” Journal of Nietzsche Studies 44, no. 1 (2013): 6-24.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 3: The Care of the Self. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon, 1986.

Gatens, Moira, and Genevieve Lloyd. Collective Imaginings: Spinoza, Past and Present. London: Routledge, 1999.

Hadot, Pierre. Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, edited by Arnold Davidson. Melbourne: Blackwell, 1995.

James, Susan. “I—Creating Rational Understanding: Spinoza as a Social Epistemologist.” Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 85, no. 1 (2011): 181-199.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Macmillan, 2011.

Lefebvre, Alexandre. “We Do Not Yet Know What the Law Can Do.” Contemporary Political Theory 5, no. 1 (2006): 52-67.

Lloyd, Genevieve. The Man of Reason: ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ in Western Philosophy. London: Routledge, 2002.

McCauley, Robert N. Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Sellars, John. Stoicism (Ancient Philosophies). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Ure, Michael. “Nietzsche’s Free Spirit Trilogy and Stoic Therapy.” The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 38, no. 1 (2009): 60-84.

West, Mark. “Doxastic Involuntarism, Attentional Voluntarism, and Social Epistemology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 5 (2014): 37-51.

4 February 2015

Social Epistemology and Its Ways of Setting Policy (PDF)
Alexandra Argamakova, Russian Academy of Sciences,


According to my vision, setting policy is both a practical and theoretical task of social epistemology. This way of thinking is akin to Steve Fuller’s (see Finn Collin, Generally speaking, I accept Fuller’s definition of social epistemology as a “normative discipline that addresses philosophical problems of knowledge using the tools of history and the social sciences.” Of particular importance to me is that Fuller actualizes the practical potential of philosophy by turning social epistemology to work on “rational knowledge policy”. [1]Even in contemporary Russia such an idea sounds revolutionary and breaks the predominant way of thinking about philosophy as the sphere of endless speculation and ‘brain fitness’—far removed from the daily needs of life.

As we know, naturalism implies “various relations of epistemology to natural science” (see Tom Rockmore, If we take epistemology to be not only naturalized but also “politicized”, we are obliged to show its various relations to politics and policy making. There are direct and indirect ways to understand this idea.

Part I

Social epistemology is intended to provide “policy” inside science itself; otherwise, talk about its normative character would be meaningless. As a normative discipline, social epistemology influences the process of doing science on methodological, axiological and organizational levels and, in this way, contributes to decision-making about what to accept as well-grounded knowledge and how to optimize the process of knowledge production. However, not only professionally trained epistemologists can fulfill such a job. Scientists and administrators often perform this effort on their own. Still, better outcomes can be produced if done in communication and collaboration with those who specialize in a subject.

In terms of “policy”, classical epistemology aimed at an epistemic dictatorship, consisting in setting strict and universal rules for scientific work—the ‘logic of inquiry’, as positivists would say. Social epistemology emphasizes a democratic pathway, proposing collaborative interdisciplinary program for researchers in various fields of cognitive studies. In contrast to front-office decisions taken from the classics, social epistemologists avoid a priori rules and formulate regulative hints, working on case-by-case basis.

Obviously, social sciences and philosophy have become the main sources of ideas and tools for social epistemologists. But the additional options can be included to this list over time. Since the individual is not much separated from the collective, the humanities are also relevant for our studies, especially if we consider the point “what is science asking us to become?” (Thomas Basbøll, Moreover, social epistemology can interact with natural sciences, and some members of SERRC already exemplify it (for example, Melinda Bonnie Fagan, I am skeptical about the existence of fixed disciplinary boundaries. The body of cognition is too complex and alive for it. Everything intersects everything else at certain points. Consequently, classifications and separations of disciplines are nothing more than imperfect and temporary conveniences.

Any discipline can start a dialogue and relationship with any other field of research. The same thing can be observed in the case of philosophical disciplines. When Rudolf Carnap, following the trend of logical empiricism and analytic philosophy, tried to set a new field of studies and method for philosophy, he was thinking mainly about reducing philosophy to logical analysis (of syntactic or semiotic forms). We know the end of this story, but it is curious to learn what Carnap was saying about it in his later writings:

In earlier periods, I sometimes made attempts to give an explication of the term “philosophy”. The domain of those problems which I proposed to call “philosophical” became step by step more comprehensive, as Morris indicates. Yet actually none of my explications seemed fully satisfactory to me even when I proposed them; and I did not like the explications proposed by others any better. Finally, I gave up the search. I agree with Morris that it is unwise to attempt such an explication because each of them is more or less artificial. It seems better to leave the term “philosophy” without any sharp boundary lines, and merely to propose the inclusion or the exclusion of certain kinds of problems”. [2]

In another instance, Carnap makes an observation that also determined much my way of thinking about this issue. He says “What is philosophy?” is essentially a terminological question. [3] If the conventional nature of disciplinary division is grasped by us, we understand, among other things, two important points: 1) The open character of interactions between social epistemology and other academic disciplines; 2) The specific design of social epistemology that focuses on social (conventional) side of knowledge. In the light of this vision, I tolerate the wide range of attempts to show the places of philosophy and social epistemology in the system of knowledge. The only requirement for such attempts is that they should develop a viable project, communicate with tradition, solve problems and produce decisions.

It is interesting that I acquired such ideas (quite in the spirit of social epistemology) during work on a PhD thesis about Rudolf Carnap and modern formal methods in science studies. “Classical epistemology”, then, appears more complicated than usually supposed—a theme that deserves special attention. For now, I note briefly that we can expect not only relations between different variants of social epistemology (Finn Collin, but also the interaction between different branches inside epistemology; for example, between formal, and social, epistemology ( or evolutionary and social epistemology ( and so on. I am sure this dialogue can be very fruitful.

Part II

My last topic concerns “the chief aim of social epistemology”—“the optimal social organization of knowledge production”. [4] From a practical perspective, I think this formula requires additional details. Usually, it is said that social epistemology is interested in topics of knowledge production and distribution. As for distribution, this process seems only the part of much larger phenomenon that must be the target of attention—the functioning of knowledge in the society. This phenomenon includes things such as the distribution, perception, distortion of knowledge (e.g., manipulation) and other kinds of use (for example, for social group organization as was described by Miika Vähämaa, All these processes have epistemic aspects that can be studied and influenced by social epistemologists and others interested. (Here, I mean people who also study these phenomena or deal with them).

Accordingly, our ability to set the social policy is becoming more extended. In addition to knowledge, science and technology, it is possible to talk about information policy and education policy. We already have in the SERRC examples of thinking in this direction (see María G. Navarro and Elisabeth Simbürger The number of applications is not restricted and before us is a boundless ocean of possibilities. Since science, technology and education are super-factors in the social development and shaping the future, social epistemology can provide the important material for strategic political thinking and planning.

My concern is the idea that the practical potential of social epistemology can be realized solely by a certain way of combining thinking and acting; that is, the call for intellectuals to come down from theoretical heaven to reside on sinful earth. That is the how Steve Fuller does philosophy. He provides an example of such activity. I was always inclined to this model of intellectual “ministering”, too. That is why I am glad to join the SERRC. It lends an opportunity to develop this project of simultaneous philosophical thinking and social acting. At least, the task of developing intellectual equipment for future society is of great importance, but that is not just a matter for social epistemology.


This statement is the brief description of my vision. Many ideas from here are the subject of my current thinking. I am only starting to interact with social epistemology and look forward to working together.


Basbøll, Thomas. “I, Social Epistemologist.”> Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 4 (2014): 14-15.

Carnap, Rudolf. Introduction to Semantics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1942.

Collin, Finn. 2013. “Two Kinds of Social Epistemology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 8 (2013): 79-104.

Fagan, Melinda Bonnie. “Collective Vision of Objects of Inquiry: Some Preliminary Thoughts.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, 2014. Vol. 3, No. 3, 27-29.

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

Navarro, María G. “How to Interpret Collective Aggregated Judgments.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 11 (2013): 27-28.

Rockmore, Tom. “Kasavin on Social Epistemology and Naturalism: A Critical Reply.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 2 (2013): 8-11.

Schilpp, Paul Arthur, ed. The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1963.

Simbürger, Elisabeth. “Social Epistemology As Work: A Quest for Normativity at the University.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 4 (2013): 4-6.

Vähämaa. Miika “Empirical Social Epistemology—The Call for a Socio-Psychological Approach.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, 3, no. 6 (2014): 69-76.

[1] Fuller, Steve. Social Epistemology. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988, 22.

[2] Schilpp, Paul Arthur (ed.). The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1963, 862.

[3] Carnap, Rudolf. Introduction to Semantics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1942, 250.

[4] Fuller, Steve. Social Epistemology. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988, 22.

15 September 2014

From a Statement of Its Vision Toward Thinking into the Desire of a Corporate Daimon (PDF)
Frank Scalambrino, University of Dallas,

“We are taught that corporations have a soul …” —Gilles Deleuze

This paper, my brief contribution to a collective vision statement, is composed of three parts. First, a general statement of how I envision the enunciating of a collective vision statement. Second, a practical recommendation. Third, following the standard established by previous SERRC vision statements, a few comments on social epistemology.

Part I

As a guiding question: What is the relationship between the knowledge produced by the collective labor of a group and the individual members of that group? Frankly put, invoking a comparison with gestalt figures is appropriate here. It is as if the whole of the knowledge produced by the collective labor at any given point in its history may not be unproblematically reduced to a measured amount attributable to each member of the group as the origin of that knowledge. Now, since this is a large topic that can be handled in many ways, the scope will be narrowed here to the following issue. Namely, what to make of the analogy that moves from the knowledge produced by a collective to the vision of that collective?

Some social epistemologists have gone so far as to speak of group epistemic agency. It would be as if knowledge states may be attributable to a group in such a way that the group as epistemic agent may be said to have knowledge which the collective members may not (yet) possess. Again, this may be taken up in multiple ways, of which I will provide two brief examples. First, attributing epistemic agency to the group allows for a comparison between the individual collective members as epistemic agents and the group as an epistemic agent. Some theorists unpack this distinction by suggesting that the group epistemic agent is more primary than the individual agents, insofar as the group is considered. Second, knowledge policy and institutional structures may be seen as determining the lines of influence available to the group epistemic agent from the collective labor of the individuals, and this includes what may be characterized as the policies the individual members set in place to effect constraints on the knowledge states of the group epistemic agent.

Given this brief sketch of how to envision a group epistemic agent and the relations between the group and the members who people it, it is possible to move toward an understanding of to “whom” the gestalt whole of the knowledge produced by a collective may be attributable. This question is not to be taken as inquiring about knowledge consumption. Rather, this question considers the accuracy of using the term “agent” in the label “group epistemic agent.” The approaches to justifying the term agent emphasize the relation of the individuals to the moving forward decision of the group for which any minority grouping of individuals may or may not be in support. In this way, individuals of the collective may be seen to be required to suffer the decision of some agent; however, this agent is no one individual of the group. Further, an approach to justifying the term “epistemic” may emphasize the group agent as the locus of the aggregate knowledge of the collective. Though this aggregate refers to a kind of virtual state out on which future knowledge production and group guiding decisions will depend, that to which the aggregate refers is efficacious.

Finally, the question may be answered regarding the analogy that moves from the knowledge produced by a collective to the vision of that collective. If an individual were able to acquire insight into the virtual state, the individual should be able to discern, given an awareness of the group’s knowledge policy and institutional structures, the directions in which the group epistemic agent is tending. Insofar as this tending may be characterized as the “desire” of the group epistemic agent, the collective’s “vision statement,” as the vision of the group (epistemic agent), will be an expression of the group (epistemic agent)’s desire(s). For an extended discussion of multiple ways in which group epistemic agency has been considered (including an extensive bibliography), see Eric Kerr’s Collective Vision Statement (Kerr 2013).

Part II

After reading through the SERRC Vision Statements toward gaining insight into the desire of our group epistemic agent, so to speak, perhaps there are two interdisciplinary issues that we would like the group agent to eventually resolve. First, there is the question of how to understand or define social epistemology. Second, there are criticisms grounded in the sociology of knowledge practices in which the collective members otherwise participate. These issues overlap, at least, regarding the question of how our collective vision of social epistemology will overcome various (non-SERRC) institutional policies regarding knowledge production such as, for example, peer review practices geared more toward perpetuating a brand than allowing for critical discourse and interdisciplinarity (cf. Peters and Ceci 1980).

Susan Dieleman, in her vision statement, asks: “So what does it mean to study social epistemology?” and “What does it mean to do social epistemology?” (Dieleman 2013, 70). Mel Orozco asks: “What is social epistemology?” and “What contributions can a social epistemologist make?” (Orozco 2012, 16). Moreover, consider the following from Fred D’Agostino’s vision statement titled “How Can We Collectivize a Set of Visions about Social Epistemology?”

This tension—between the conditions of the production of knowledge in the contemporary academy and the facilitating conditions for a social epistemology that attends to new ideas and approaches that are unlikely to be rewarded through already-existing ‘criteria of return’—is one which it will take some courage to address (D’Agostino 2014, 6; cf. Reider 2014).

In addition, then, to articulating a collectively advanced issue on the horizon within the group vision, it is already clear that the SERRC itself is developing toward the resolution of these issues (cf. Collier 2012).

As we begin to determine a kind of hierarchy that may be characterized as differentiating our various influences on the group epistemic agent’s desire, here are some practical suggestions. (1) As we continue to address the first issue of how to understand or define social epistemology, perhaps we might consider engaging Jim Collier’s initial exercise regarding SERRC, as reported in his interview with Mike Thicke of The Bubble Chamber (2013) regarding “reputation-based epistemic practices.” The idea here would be to purposefully construct a special issue or two on the (perhaps) more marginal approaches to social epistemology. This would not only (most likely) lead to disagreement, which may function in a clarifying manner (cf. Matheson 2014; cf. Martini 2014), but also bring more scholars into the space opened up by the collective’s new hierarchical identity. There are, of course, many possible topics that could serve the purpose of such a special issue. However, we might consider Max Scheler’s perspective, e.g. as found in his Problems of a Sociology of Knowledge, and specifically his “phenomenology of community” (Scheler 1980).

The second practical recommendation also relates to both of the issues noted above. The suggestion is to form a small group out of the collective to construct “sample syllabi” for, at least, the following courses: Introduction to Social Epistemology; Epistemology: Social & Individual; The History of (Social) Epistemology; Social Epistemology and Technology Studies, etc. These courses should be taken merely as suggestions. Rather, note the goal of such an exercise. On the one hand, we would have a working template with all its built-in promptings for discussion, for example, why that reading and not X; why that distinction and not this one, etc. On the other hand, once we arrive at some agreement, then we could post such a resource at SERRC. The power of posting those sample syllabi may be greater than we presently imagine. For instance, many adjunct professors often look for sample syllabi when constructing courses. This is precisely why the American Philosophical Association (APA) recently performed this very exercise for courses they hope to promote.

Part III

Steve Fuller, in his seminal text Social Epistemology, identifies the “fundamental question” of social epistemology:

How should the pursuit of knowledge be organized, given that under normal circumstances knowledge is pursued by many human beings, each working on a more or less well-defined body of knowledge and each equipped with roughly the same imperfect cognitive capacities, albeit with varying degrees of access to one another’s activities (Fuller 1991, 3)?

My comments, then, in this final part of the vision statement speak toward some of the juxtapositions which continue to help orient me when I find myself pondering the first of the two issues noted above. Though I thought I fully understood Fuller’s question when I first read it, I eventually began to see it as directed at a higher philosophical position, so to speak, than my initial reading revealed (cf. Bell 2014). The following quotes and commentary briefly reflect a process of working out the fundamental nature of Fuller’s question.

Just below the statement of Fuller’s above question, he notes, “the social epistemologist would like to be able to show how the products of our cognitive pursuits are affected by changing the social relations in which the knowledge producers stand to one another” (Fuller 1991, 3). Notice, then, because the social relations between knowledge producers affect the products of cognitive pursuits, the question of how the pursuit of knowledge should be organized is a question about the middle term, so to speak. That is to say, the question can be taken directly in regard to the horizon of possible pursuits, or one may highlight the relation between the middle term and the major premise. In this way, it is as if the fundamental question of social epistemology points not only at the horizon of possible pursuits but also at the contingency involved in the very determination of the horizon of possible pursuits. I will continue to unpack this notion, but allow me to express my enthusiasm that in this light Fuller’s fundamental question of social epistemology seems—to me—to be brilliant!

In this light, then, take the following excerpt from the abstract of Fuller’s “On regulating what is known: A way into social epistemology.” There Fuller notes, “I argue that the current trend toward ‘naturalizing’ epistemology threatens to destroy the distinctiveness of the sociological approach by presuming that it complements standard psychological and historical approaches” (Fuller 1987, 145). On my reading, rather than see naturalized epistemology as a competitor to social epistemology—as if they were merely two possible pursuits on the horizon—Fuller’s point seems to be that the “naturalizing” destroys the contingent nature of the major premise.

This is why Fred Schmitt, in his “Introduction” to the Synthese issue on social epistemology that included, among others, the above Fuller article and Alvin Goldman’s “Foundations of Social Epistemics,” had the following to say.

Alvin Goldman explores the basic form of a social epistemology as a field that may complement individual epistemology. He argues for a truth-oriented approach against relativism, consensualism, and expertism. By contrast, Steve Fuller argues that social epistemology should supplant individual epistemology, and that it does not fit comfortably with naturalistic, psychological, or even historical approaches to epistemology (Schmitt 1987, 1-2).

Hence, it seems to me it is possible to affirm Fuller’s approach without, for example, saying one dislikes or disavows truth (or being truth-oriented), so long as one recognizes the depth at which Fuller’s fundamental question may be directed. There is truth to be found in regard to the historical horizon of possible pursuits—are we capable of pursuing some path presently or not? However, a sociology of the knowledge determining the horizon of possible pursuits should also be able to “think into” the social dimensions conditioning the currently visible horizon.

As such, notice how the following excerpt from Fuller’s Humanity 2.0: What it Means to be Human Past, Present and Future may be seen as an example of doing social epistemology, as just outlined. I quote him here at length:

[N]either the physics- nor the biology-based sociodicy regards the individual as an autonomous agent. At least, so it seemed for most of the 20th century, when naturalistic theodicies remained rather alien from commonsense understandings of the world – let alone classical theodicies. However, I shall return to this point because as denizens of the 21st century get used to the idea that they are ‘always already’ risking their individual lives in various ways, the consequences of which potentially offer lessons for future generations, it is reasonable to suppose that these very naturalistic sociodicies are coming to be internalized as part of our self-understandings, and in that sense ‘reflexively’ applied. In effect, we have come to accept that there is a ‘statistical’ aspect to our being-in-the-world. In that case, again from the standpoint of reflexivity, social scientists who continue to champion a strong ‘qualitative’ vs. ‘quantitative’ distinction in research methodology may be guilty of perpetuating of a conceptually artificial dichotomy—perhaps no more than a Neo-Kantian atavism—that fails to do justice to social agents who have already arrived at ways of blending the two perspectives (Fuller 2011, 220-221).

Notice how Fuller uncovers the dimensions of social knowledge functioning as conditions for the possibility of the self-understandings of social agents. The pursuit is deeper than an epistemology of the quantitative or qualitative characterizations of social agents. Rather, similar to his discussion of the “Rockefeller Foundation” (Fuller 2014), there is a kind of sociological archaeology at work thay takes knowledge both as its point of departure and as its principle for evaluating the efficacy of its conclusions.

In closing, I will—in accordance with what seems to be something of a standard across these vision statements—note some of the pursuits to be found through social epistemology which continue to interest me. First, I hope to continue to pursue, through social epistemology, issues related to technology studies. Second, I hope to continue to pursue, through social epistemology, issues related to the contingent nature of the knowledge pursuits, and dimensions of social knowledge, conditioning our everyday experiences in regard to reflexive knowledge.


Bell, Nathan M. “The Varieties of Hermeneutics and Engaging with Social Epistemology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 2 (2013): 38-39.

Collier, James H. “Interview with James Collier of the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective.” (2013). Retrieved from:

Collier, James H. “Year one of the SERRC: An interval report.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 1, no. 12 (2012).

D’Agostino, Fred. “How Can We Collectivize a Set of Visions about Social Epistemology?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 8 (2014): 5-9.

Dieleman, Susan. “Social Epistemology as Public Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 12 (2013): 69-71.

Fuller, Steve. Social Epistemology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Fuller, Steve. “Science Without Expertise: Defending My Defense of Intelligent Design (Nearly) a Decade Later.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 10 (2014): 22-29.

Fuller, Steve. Humanity 2.0: What it Means to be Human Past, Present and Future. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Fuller, Steve. “On Regulating What is Known: A way to Social Epistemology.” Synthese 73, no. 1 (1987): 145-183.

Goldman, Alvin I. “Foundations of Social Epistemics.” Synthese 73, no. 1 (1987): 109-144.

Kerr, Eric. “Are You Thinking What We’re Thinking? Group Knowledge Attributions and Collective Visions.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 1 (2013): 5-13.

Martini, Carlo. “The Problem of Disagreement and Social Epistemology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 8 (2014): 22-24.

Matheson, Jonathan. “A Puzzle About Disagreement and Rationality.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 4 (2014): 1-3.

Orozco, Mel. “Visioneering Ourselves as Social Epistemologists.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 7 (2014): 16-18.

Peters Douglas P. and Stephen J. Ceci. “A Manuscript Masquerade.” The Sciences 20, no. 7 (1980):16-19.

Reider, Patrick J. “Knowledge as a Public Commodity.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 6 (2014): 53-55.

Scheler, Max. Problems of a Sociology of Knowledge. M.S. Frings, Trans. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980.

Schmitt, Frederick F. “Introduction.” Synthese 73, no. 1 (1987): 1-2.

21 July 2014

The Problem of Disagreement and Social Epistemology (PDF)
Carlo Martini, Finnish Centre of Excellence in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Tilburg Center for Logic and Philosophy of Science,

In his contribution to this Collective Vision series, Patrick Reider (12 May, 2014) writes: “[Social epistemologists] are a group of individuals whose primary focus is the relation between knowledge and society” (53). In the following I will try to locate the problem of disagreement into the general picture of social epistemology. I will then give my own take on the problem, although for reasons of space I will have to leave much of that explanation to references to my own and others’ work. I will, at the end of this piece, explain how working on the problem of disagreement can help improve a collective vision in social epistemology.

The relation between knowledge and society is also a relation between individuals—as active knowledge seekers and sources of knowledge—to other individuals who are also active knowledge seekers and sources of knowledge. Typical characterizations of knowledge, on both ends of the individualistic epistemology vs. social epistemology distinction, tend to characterize the relation of knowing as the relation between the subject of the verb ‘know’, with a passive object—the “known” or the “knowable”. But we often relate ourselves as “knowers”, not only to a passive object-world, but rather in relation to other active agents and bearers of knowledge. How individuals, as knowers, act in relation to other knowers is, in a nutshell, the problem of how we relate to other epistemic agents while developing our personal world view, while gathering information, and so on. This is the problem of disagreement: what should we do, from an epistemic viewpoint, when we relate to someone, also a knower, whose opinion differs from ours? And how does that relation affect the way we develop our epistemic worldview.

The problem of disagreement becomes all the more pressing if we accept the fact that a large part of our beliefs do not come from direct experience (perception, introspection, etc.), but rather from testimonial sources. In other words, most of our beliefs originate from our agreeing or disagreeing with a certain source of knowledge, typically another knower, like us, but possible also an institution, a research team, etc. Hardwig (1985) has made the case for the domain of science, in which most of our knowledge is derived from other knowers, rather than from contact with the object of knowledge. A fundamental part of a scientist’s work is about deciding whom to believe; about agreeing or disagreeing, rather than experimenting and theorizing. If that is the case, most of our knowledge is “knowledge by agreement” (see Kusch 2002). So what should we do, when we encounter someone, whom we think is roughly as intellectually endowed as we are, but who disagrees with us on a given statement.

In his contribution Jonathan Matheson (March 3, 2014) provides a very thorough description of the terms of the debate on disagreement. He highlights the fact that there is a puzzle between two equally defensible stances on disagreement. The first one is the Conciliatorists’ stance according to which “discovering that an epistemic peer disagrees with you about a proposition provides you with a defeater for your justification for holding the doxastic attitude you have toward that proposition” (1). The second stance is supported by psychological research, which shows that “groups with dissenting members are more successful in their inquiry with respect to the disputed propositions”. It seems as if, on the one hand, we should rationally lower our confidence in a certain belief, once we discover our peers disagree with us, but on the other hand, psychology seems to instruct us of the fact that holding on to our beliefs in the face of disagreement is more valuable, epistemically, because it promotes diversity in a group, and hence, epistemic accuracy.

In my contribution for the Collective Vision series, I have to disagree with Matheson on the claim that the Conciliatorist view holds water, and can thus be taken as one horn of the dilemma. Here I can only provide the short version of the argument, while a full analysis is partly published (Martini 2013), and partly work-in-progress. Imagine the following situation: You are sitting at a restaurant with your friend Karl after dinner. You both calculated the bill independently but you disagree: you think it amounts to 60 euros, whereas Karl thinks the correct sum is 65. Assuming we are only considering factual disagreements, certainly one of you made a mistake, but who is wrong? Being both you and Karl well-educated in arithmetics, the chances that both of you made a mistake are lower than the chances that only one of you did. This is just probabilistic reasoning. Yet, Conciliatorists defend the thesis that you and Karl should both believe in the rationality of the belief that the correct amount lies somewhere between 60 and 65. [1] Clearly Conciliatorist views are of many sorts, and a full analysis cannot be given in the short space of this contribution, but it is in general on open issue whether disagreement really constitutes evidence on which to change one’s beliefs, even when we are disagreeing with epistemic peers. Conciliatorists have not settled the problem, and in fact, as I argued (Martini 2013), at least one of the possibile interpretations of the Conciliatorist view is not a rational answer to the problem of disagreement.

While the definite answer, if any is available, has to wait for more contributions to the problem of disagreement, I side with Rescher (1993) on the point that “when we disagree with another with respect to a certain thesis p, it is usually illuminating to examine the nature of the disagreement and to explore just what it is in this context that we do agree on.” Of course it may be the case that we have investigated all the putative causes for disagreement that we could possibly examine, and yet we haven’t been able to come to a consensus. In that case, disagreement should not be eliminated “by averaging”, as it were, but it should rather be preserved as a justification for investigating more possible causes for that disagreement. To reiterate, consensus is not a matter of averaging across beliefs: as Francis Bacon wrote in his Novum Organum, “A true consensus is one which (after examination of the matter) consists in liberty of judgement converging on the same point” (Bacon I, 77).

I conclude this contribution with some remarks that are related to Steve Fuller’s own contribution to the Collective Vision (10 September, 2013). There, he states that intellectuals are dangerous because “they develop keen powers of discrimination that enable them to spot what economists [..] would call ‘path dependencies’ in academic thought” (18). To use Fuller’s terminology, there is a danger for intellectuals to become endangered if they stop spotting and making public the path dependencies in academic thought, an operation which requires a certain amount of epistemic steadfastness on one’s positions even in the light of a (possibly majoritarian) disagreeing position. The role of intellectuals in relation to disagreement ought to be a steadfast position: not to average in the light of disagreeing parties, but rather to be steadfast on one’s own beliefs until new information, research, inquiry might lead into agreement.

The foregoing remarks must be taken with a grain of salt. Of course, in our day-to-day knowledge-seeking there are not only epistemic needs, but practical ones as well. If we think about knowledge production in terms of processes and constraints (see Fabien Medvecky’s contribution December 9, 2013), it might well be that, from a collective viewpoint, an efficient way of gaining reliable information is to aggregate. The field of judgment aggregation (whose touchstone remains the Condorcet Jury Theorem), contains many examples of cases in which we are epistemically better off averaging our beliefs on a given matter, if, for example, we want to estimate as accurately as possible the weight of an ox by just looking at it (see Galton 1907). There are areas in which the average knower must certainly aim at efficiency. In that sense, even the intellectual will most likely not take an intellectual stance for most of the beliefs he entertains. But preserving the ability to exercise the critical ability to look for the causes of disagreement requires throwing away the idea the we should lower our confidence in some beliefs whenever we find an epistemic peer who disagrees on that belief, unless we have important non-epistemic reasons for doing so. Clearly the criteria for deciding when to exercise our critical ability and when to favor efficiency, or other desiderata, should be part of our social epistemology.


Bacon, Francis. The New Organon. Editors Lisa Jardine, and Michael Silverthorne. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000 [1620].

Fuller, Steve. “Intellectuals as Both Dangerous and Endangered.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 10 (2013): 18-20.

Galton, Francis. Vox Populi. Nature 75 (1907): 450-1.

Hardwig, John. Epistemic Dependence. The Journal of Philosophy 82, no. 7 (1985): 335-349.

Kusch, Martin. Knowledge by Agreement: The Programme of Communitarian Epistemology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002.

Martini, Carlo. “A Puzzle about Belief Updating.” Synthese, 190, no. 15 (2013): 3149-3160.

Matheson, Jonathan. “A Puzzle About Disagreement and Rationality.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 4 (2014) 1-3.

Medvecky, Fabien. “Economics, Science and the Spandrels of San Marco.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 1 (2013): 20-22.

Reider, Patrick J. “Knowledge as a Public Commodity.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 6 (2014): 53-55.

[1] The argument can be made stronger if you assume, for example, that both you and Karl are aware of the fact that all items in the menu cost either 5 euros or multiples of 5 euros.

7 July 2014

How Can We Collectivize a Set of Visions about Social Epistemology? (PDF)
Fred D’Agostino, University of Queensland,


In preparing to make this, rather belated, contribution to the Collective Vision series, I took the chance, which I thoroughly enjoyed, to read all the contributions that had been lodged so far.

I learned a lot and hope that some members of the collective will learn something from this contribution.

Nevertheless, there was a striking feature of the contributions, taken as a collection, that points towards a difficult challenge for any project that aims to embody in its own processes some of the key teachings of social epistemology.

I mean, in particular, that there was, to my eye at least, very little engagement on the part (obviously this is time-asymmetrical) of the later contributors with what earlier contributors had provided.

Of course, there is an upside to this. Or, should I say, there is a potential downside to a series of contributions which do “build on each other” that has been avoided. This is that the agenda for the whole sequence might be artificially set by early contributors, whose ideas, however worthy, only partly define a space of possible points of discussion. We all end up talking about a few points, of interest to early contributors, and leave other points unacknowledged. (There is relevant literature about this in social choice theory and in the theory of innovation and indeed our colleague Maria Navarro refers, in her contribution of 14 October 2013, to “a herding effect” which can “produce sub-optimal … outcomes”.)

So, while we, collectively, have avoided having the agenda (too-narrowly) defined by early-movers, and while that is an especially good thing given the diversity of issues which are genuinely alive in relation to social epistemology, we haven’t, again as far as I can see, taken much advantage of the opportunities for engagement with one another that this collection of visions has afforded, something which is, I think, crucial if we are trying, through our contributions, to exemplify the virtues particularly associated with, indeed vital for, a genuinely social epistemology.

Engaging the Collective

I want to try to show, as an illustration of such engagement, how the collection of visions looks to me, now, preoccupied, as I currently am, with issues about how the disciplines work. (See my paper “Disciplinarity and the Growth of Knowledge” (2012) for a quick and dirty first attempt to sketch some issues.) It’s possible, though I don’t want to force this point too quickly, that some of the difficulties about securing engagement are related to disciplinary and other analogous differences. I will return to that possibility later.

Certainly, there are latent possibilities for engagement, at least on my readings. Here’s an example.

In a relatively recent (12 May) contribution, Patrick Reider refers to people’s tendency “to refrain from investing significant resources into projects with no accepted criterion of return”. Reider takes this to provide a basis for some of the fundamental propositions of (a form of) social epistemology, and quite properly so; criteria of return-on-investment are defined within group or anyway collective settings and distributions of returns according to those criteria are a matter for the community or collective whose criteria they are. Nevertheless, the idea of an accepted criterion of return sits in some tension with the idea of Mel Orozco (9 June) that “the emergence of this new interdisciplinary project [i.e. social epistemology], in any existing version, was not friendly to existing approaches to knowledge” and hence to the criteria of “return” that they imply, a point also made by Stephen Norrie (12 November 2013) in his acute analysis of the way in which critical theory “is completely incompatible with existing academic practice” (and its criteria of return), and by Inanna Hamati-Ataya (27 January) in her point about the inconceivability “[o]utside the SE community” of its “premises … constitutive theoretical traditions and the empirical literature it draws on and produces”. It is also, I think, alluded to by Elisabeth Simbürger (10 March) in her reference to “the labour relations of academic knowledge production”.

On the other hand, as Orozco also points out, the separateness of social epistemology (from more established academic programs) might facilitate “its creative drive and quest for a vision”, an idea related, I think, to Jonathan Matheson’s (3 March) point about the importance, in avoiding “confirmation bias”, in a group dynamics which not [like the one we are attempting here] only suffers, but honors, the participation of dissenting members, or, anyway, members with a diversity of interests and approaches. Certainly, as I tried to tease out in my book Naturalizing Epistemology (Palgrave 2009), there are various social-psychological mechanisms, mentioned as significant for social epistemology by Miika Vähämaa (19 May), that can inhibit creativity, especially when it runs counter to well-established orthodoxies, which social epistemology certainly does both in its more narrowly academic form and in its aspirational leanings towards “critical-theoretical” forms of engagement and influence on social policy.

This, of course, is a BIG tension, and not just in social epistemology.

The University and Social Epistemology

This tension—between the conditions of the production of knowledge in the contemporary academy and the facilitating conditions for a social epistemology that attends to new ideas and approaches that are unlikely to be rewarded through already-existing “criteria of return”—is one which it will take some courage to address. But it will also require, I submit, the development of institutional forms, perhaps sitting at an angle to what Norrie refers to as existing “trajectories of career advancement” that take up the challenge of providing both a sympathetic audience and one that is also capable of critical engagement in support of standards of excellence.

Let me take these points in order.

It is, as the remarks of Reider remind us, psychologically harder to pursue a path that hasn’t already been well-trodden by others … to the extent, perhaps, that it has been “domesticated”, stripped of its founding excitements and risks. For this we need recognition but can’t reliably get it, in many cases, from our immediate colleagues in the offices down the corridor from us. So we need to support each other in our joint and risky venture.

Secondly, however, we need to make up as we go precisely the criteria that will enable us to distinguish between good and better and, indeed, not so good work within this emerging landscape of ideas and methods. If we want social epistemology to become more influential in any of the various ways that might be important, then we will have to develop and enforce our own standards of excellence. They may differ in various particulars from the standards current in some of our original disciplines, but in certain crucial respects they will need to remain recognizable from within those disciplines by those with, anyway, their own forms of courage and risk-taking, their own forms of openness to what is not conventionally pre-approved.

Here, I think, Mark West’s (14 April) contribution holds a lot of promise. What West outlines is an approach to changing ourselves and to risk-taking in aid of changing ourselves, and to mutual sympathy in support of changing ourselves, and nevertheless to demanding standards in relation to self-change that has proven to be successful in the extremely challenging circumstances associated with addiction. Translating West’s account of Alcoholics Anonymous to our own current circumstances, the story might go something like this. Each of us has to acknowledge something about the inadequacies of our previous practice in relation to our deepest aspirations for understanding knowledge and/or for applying knowledge in aid of more effective democratic practices. Each of us has to be willing to take the risk of acknowledging the importance to a possible future practice of our openness to the kinds of ideas and methods reported in this Collective Vision statement and elsewhere in the social epistemology literature. Each of us needs to acknowledge that we need the support of others and are able and willing to lend it to others who are also in need. And each of us needs to honor the imperatives associated with this Collective. As Thomas Basbøll put it (24 March), “[w]e have to become certain kinds of people in order to know certain kinds of things”, or, perhaps, we have to become different kinds of people in order to know things in different kinds of ways, in ways that are transparently collectively mediated.

I said, earlier, that some of the inhibitions or disincentives to the creation of new forms of and approaches to knowledge (and its use) might be related to our disciplinary situations. I want, in conclusion, to return to this point.

In Conclusion

I participated, a while ago, in a septennial review of a School of Tourism (Studies). The external reviewers were distinguished international figures in tourism studies. Nevertheless, they were concerned about the (so far only partial) disciplinarization of tourism studies as such. Each of them had come to tourism as an object of inquiry from an already-established and topically broader field of enquiry—one from geography, one from anthropology, and one from economics. Each of these founding generation tourism studies academics had a background in an already-existing discipline and they were worried that the next generation would all have come from within the “field” of tourism studies, and thus would lack a full understanding of the methodological tools and theoretical and conceptual apparatus that a more established discipline can provide.

Of course, in establishing tourism studies as a “sort-of” discipline, these founders had had difficulties, in the unavoidably multi-disciplinary context of early tourism studies programs, in making themselves understood to one another, in developing criteria for the assessment of their work that could be “trusted” (sorry, Steve Fuller!) by a collective from a variety of different backgrounds, and so on. But they did do this. That’s the take-home message. I think it may have been easier to do this because or to the extent that they were able to achieve a degree of institutional and institutionally-recognized autonomy—e.g. their own conferences, journals, eventually academic departments, and so on. Perhaps this suggests something about the conditions for the possible success of the social epistemology project, as Hamati-Ataya might put it.

Personally, I think that “brand” has something to do with the possible conditions of success. Some of the institutionally and even intellectually more successful attempts at collective and interdisciplinary new approaches to knowledge production have “brands” that work pretty readily to draw attention—e.g. Gender Studies, American Studies, Early Modern Studies. Because they refer to a topic that people from various disciplines might already have an interest in and competence to pursue, they recruit these people, alerting them to the possibility of fruitful collaboration around a shared interest. I am not sure, and I say this with the profoundest respect for much work that already flies under the banner of “social epistemology”, that those two words are working as well as some of these other labels have. Unfortunately, I have nothing better to suggest. I will, however, keep thinking about that.

To summarize. The essential tension for us is to find and gradually institutionalise ways to recruit to, to recognize for, and to create some common standards for judging work in “social epistemology”. We have made a start.


Basbøll, Thomas. “I, Social Epistemologist.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 4 (2014) 14-15.

D’Agostino, Fred. Naturalizing Epistemology: Thomas Kuhn and the ‘Essential Tension’. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

D’Agostino, Fred. “Disciplinarity and the Growth of Knowledge.” Social Epistemology 26, no. 3-4 (2012): 331-350.

Hamati-Ataya, Inanna. “Before Social Epistemology: On the Limited Efficacy of ‘The Scandal’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 3 (2014): 44-48.

Matheson, Jonathan. “A Puzzle About Disagreement and Rationality.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 4 (2014) 1-3.

Navarro, María G. “How to Interpret Collective Aggregated Judgments?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 11 (2013): 27-28.

Orozco, Mel. “Visioneering Ourselves as Social Epistemologists.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 7 (2014): 16-18.

Norrie, Stephen. “Can Critical Theory be Computerised and Collectivised?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 12 (2013): 32-36.

Reider, Patrick J. “Knowledge as a Public Commodity.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 6 (2014): 53-55.

Simbürger, Elisabeth. “Social Epistemology As Work: A Quest for Normativity at the University.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 4 (2014): 4-6.

Vähämaa, Miika. “Empirical Social Epistemology – The Call for a Socio-Psychological Approach.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 6 (2014): 69-76.

West, Mark Douglas. “Doxastic Involuntarism, Attentional Voluntarism, and Social Epistemology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 5 (2014): 37-51.

9 June 2014

Visioneering Ourselves as Social Epistemologists (PDF)
Mel Orozco, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México,

In 2012, the journal Social Epistemology celebrated its 25th anniversary. The occasion brought about both interesting reviews of the short history of social epistemology, and remarks on the future development of its theory, topics, and, agenda (Collin 2014, Gómez 2014, Orozco 2014). Now, a more wide-ranging community pursues social epistemology — a community that gave rise to the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective (SERRC). The diverse contributions to SERRC have opened possibilities for a different understanding of the future of social epistemology. Despite many SERRC members coming from programs related to philosophy of science, science studies, and sociology, the vision expressed on this site reflects who we want to become — taking social epistemology as part of our major interest — even if we are academically engaged with other fields that focus on the same topics of knowledge, society and culture. Social epistemology asks us to address these topics normatively either by generating empirical approaches, or by adding new elements to present debates.

Expressing concerns related to contemporary science and technology, which have directed us to take a stand on social epistemology, seems easier than making statements about how social epistemology could lend better philosophical positions to contemporary debates regarding knowledge production and distribution. Still, the question remains — what contributions can a social epistemologist make? A common expectation suggests that contributions by SERRC might yield not only visions of how we understand science production, but also how we can combine our visions by different means (e.g. media, talks, books, articles) to reach other members of society and integrate them into decisions about the roles we want science to play in our lives. Interesting connections exist that combine social epistemology with the exercise of “visioneering the future” beyond the typical cases that one would see in cutting edge projects (Whitaker 2014).

Something new seems to be happening in the way social epistemology is being read, interpreted and discussed. In dealing with how we can approach this program, the idea of visioneering the future (Cabrera 2013) has proved to be a launch pad from which we can advance what we see currently in our different projects. Visioneering also shows how these projects are connected to the social epistemology literature over the last 25 years and makes it easier to take the first steps in this developing field. Furthermore, in comparison with the initial moments of SERRC, I would dare say that this idea represents an important framework in which we can pose the question of how the pursuit of knowledge should be organized in different locations.

From my perspective, the increasing number of members in SERRC generates additional urgency regarding the questions: What is social epistemology? How does Steve Fuller’s program fit within SERRC? Even if those questions have yet to be addressed directly as part of our vision statements, we can see social epistemology going beyond its initial frontiers from what was, a few years ago, a rather abstract philosophical approach to knowledge in just a few circles, to a more encompassing discussion attracting people from different disciplines. This occurrence does not mean that SERRC has only grown in the sheer number of people with varied backgrounds. The most important result has been, in addition to SERRC contributions, seeing how this subtle experiment, at the base level, is an exercise in exploring the kinds of goals we set forth when doing actually social epistemology. Departing from vague notions of what social epistemology is, or just taking for granted that social epistemology defines correctly the social basis of knowledge (regardless of your position), the most critical question remains: What do we want to do as future social epistemologists?

Often, when writing about social epistemology, we elude this question by focusing on the challenges that interfere with our vision, or by emphasizing the ways social epistemology already presents itself. I think these eluding strategies are normal since we are still in the beginning stages of this field. But they are also difficult because social epistemology, at present, is being developed in programs that are not friendly to it. We take for granted that we are not learning how the field is organized, and where it goes, by taking courses, or by participating in research with other colleagues that have dedicated their efforts particularly to understanding how the pursuit of knowledge needs to be organized so that its social character remains expansive.

This state of affairs makes it difficult to answer what we want to accomplish by getting into social epistemology. The most frustrating part of this question is that as the field takes its deserved place in universities one must deal regularly with people who have heard about social epistemology, and who express interest in the discussions, but who think that the only the version of social epistemology comes only out of the analytic tradition. They fail to see the connections to the general program of Fuller’s social epistemology! However, we need to keep in mind that the emergence of this new interdisciplinary project, in any existing version, was not friendly to existing approaches to knowledge. Fuller’s version, in particular, did not develop exactly in opposition to all the objectives that one finds, for instance, in Science Studies. Rather, the idea of filling the gaps between philosophy and sociology requires that we take a different stand from what we find recently in both disciplines.

When initially presenting his approach to social epistemology, Fuller offered a vision of a social epistemologist as a policymaker who could articulate the fieldwork of a social scientist with that of a philosopher. Apparently, Fuller had in mind a role — in which one could continue learning about different issues necessary to organize the pursuit of knowledge and prove one’s own ideas — as an advisor in institutions that promote social change (Fuller 2002, 251). Later, in The Intellectual (2005), Fuller combined this idea with his four theses on intellectuals. From there, two options opened up and were reinforced elsewhere (Fuller 2009): 1) That those who could address audiences and speak truth to power needed protection, such as tenured position, in which, although there are few incentives to address diverse publics, fits within the activities in academia; 2) That in these neo-liberal times the functions of research and teaching have split installing a dynamic that threatens the future of everyone — that of tenured professors who are condemned to publishing and patenting, that of students whose expectations of getting a diploma are related to their eligibility for future employment, and that of society, at large, ending up captive to visions that, in most of the cases, are indifferent to the needs of its members.

Having worked for almost ten years in academia in Mexico, I think the fact that social epistemology, Fuller’s version in particular, is not yet part of a formal program — which might stop its creative drive and quest for a vision — should be valued as a positive sign. However, we still need to learn how to increase our interactions to make our vision plausible and inspiring to others. Even though Fuller has written for specific audiences, in a recent interview (2014), he underlined that although social epistemology is a philosophical program, it should not be constricted to the domain of philosophy. On the contrary, social epistemology looks forward to reaching academics and non-academics that share a concern for the normative disposition of humanity (Fuller 2014, 152). This position suggests the possibility of practicing social epistemology as engaged with the particular context we are creating and its success depends, in large measure, on what we add to our vision. We are visioneering our own future. The uncertainties arising with visioneering should be easier to overcome in this exercise of asking and answering where we want to take social epistemology.


Cabrera, Laura. “Visioneering and Our Common Future.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 10 (2013): 1-3.

Collin, Finn. “Two Kinds of Social Epistemology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 8 (2013): 79-104.

Fuller, Steve. The Intellectual. UK: Icon, 2005.

Fuller, Steve. The Sociology of Intellectual Life. The Career of the Mind in and Around the Academy. London: SAGE, 2009.

Fuller, Steve. Entrevista a Fuller. Acta Sociológica no. 63 (2014): 143-155.

Gómez, Iván. “El Disenso Inagotable: Debates Sobre La Dimensión Social del Conocimiento en la Epistemología Social.” Acta Sociológica no. 63 (2014): 65-97.

Orozco, Melissa. “Epistemología Social Normativa: Fuller vs. Goldman” Acta Sociológica no. 63 (2014): 41-63.

Whitaker, Emilie. “Beyond Black and Green: The New Dystopian Plains.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 5 (2014): 67-72.

2 June 2014

The ‘Dialectics of Objectivity’? (PDF)
Guy Axtell, Radford University,

“Objectivity” is a theoretical concept with diverse applications in our collective practices of inquiry. It is also a concept attended in recent decades by vigorous debate, including but not restricted to the contributions of scientists and philosophers. In part because the authority of science is supposed to result from its objective methods and procedures, objectivity has been described as an “essentially contested,” and even an “embattled” concept. That objectivity should have become the troubling and controversial concept that it is today was probably inevitable given the ferociousness of certain debates among academics since the breakdown of the positivist paradigm. Attitudes towards the value of the concept of objectivity in its primary, epistemic sense, have differed.

Recent movements in the theory of knowledge, most especially social and feminist epistemology, have been a source of both criticism of standard accounts of scientific reasoning associated with positivism, and of “reconstructions” accounts of objectivity. But many early critics of the value of the concept have in recent decades agreed with Helen Longino’s stance that the concept should be “reconstructed” to fit contemporary views, rather than rejected. The standard account made the roles that values play in scientific practice especially controversial; if the special status of science justified by the objectivity of its methods, and this is premised on ‘value-free’ or ‘value-neutral’ conceptions of method, that status will be tarnished or undermined if values (or at least values of a kind usually sharply distinguished from and contrasted with epistemic values), are shown to enter into actual scientific practice. Contemporary views still maintain a distinction between epistemic and social values, but, following Longino’s insistence that we must deconstruct the rational/social dichotomy, do not necessarily view the role of social values as threatening epistemological relativism—an assumption that positivists and their radical historicist critics apparently shared. Longino’s feminism “understands the cognitive processes of scientific inquiry not as opposed to the social but as themselves social” (1993, 260), which means taking social values positively, as aiding rather than necessarily or always detracting from objectivity.

In their book Objectivity (2007) historians of science Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s provide historical studies to support their contention that the scientific understanding of objectivity does not remain constant over time. But while developing this moderate historicist account of the concept of objectivity, they also make the philosophical argument the epistemic norms that have informed scientific practice can be historicized without leading to relativism. We are used to saying that theories change, and we allow that scientific methodology also changes for a number of reasons. But that the goals and aims of science should not remain steady, but also change in relationship to theories and methods is more troubling to many philosophers of science. Perhaps this is because we tend to think of truth as an inherently epistemic goal, and epistemic norms as logical connections between evidence and inference. Moderate historicism about epistemic norms such as those embedded in scientific aims and methods, is a thesis I accept, and that is difficult to deny on any view that recognizes the importance of the history of science to philosophy of science.

Daston and Galison’s approach is one that I find interesting, and one that I associated with a “dialectical” account. A “dialectics of objectivity” suggests a negotiative conception of the means and ends of inquiry, one with clear reference to the active, adjectival sense of the objective inquirer. In Rethinking Objectivity (1994) Megill outlines four competing senses of objectivity: the absolute, the disciplinary, the dialectical, and the procedural:

A striking feature of both absolute and disciplinary conceptions of objectivity is their negative relation to subjectivity. Absolute objectivity seeks to exclude subjectivity; disciplinary objectivity seeks to contain it…. Phrases like ‘aperspectival objectivity’ and ‘view from nowhere’ really draw attention to … negativity. In contrast, dialectical objectivity involves a positive attitude toward subjectivity. The defining feature of dialectical objectivity is the claim that subjectivity is indispensable to constitute the objects. Associated with this feature is a preference for ‘doing’ over ‘viewing’… in other words, subjectivity is needed for objectivity; or, as Nietzsche put it, ‘objectivity is required, but is a positive quality’ (8).

The special emphasis of a dialectical approach as how something is constituted asan object for inquiry through interplay between researchers and that which they study. Objectivity, proponents of a dialectical model hold, is not a property of a right method or a steady state, but rather describes a process carried out actively through communicative interaction and comparison. In my paper and draft monograph on objectivity, I pay special attention to how the content and value of the ideal of objectivity differs across scientific disciplines. One thesis I develop is that the question of how to parse the relevance of the distinction between theory virtues and personal traits of researchers —what Pierre Duhem would call bon sens — depends crucially upon differences between disciplines or fields of inquiry, and the relative normality of inquiry operating in contexts of underdetermination. How characteristic it is for a discipline to operate under conditions of deep underdetermination determines much about the balance of theory-virtues and personal virtues as criteria of adequacy in that field. But notice that this does not mirror, but rather cuts across the usual distinction between natural and social, or again ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences, since both historiography and theoretical physics, for example, for all their other differences, are chronically subject to underdetermination-of-theory worries.

Another thesis is the potential synergies between moderate historicism about epistemic norms and virtue-theoretic approaches in epistemology. Authors who develop relations of mutual support between their historicist assumptions and virtue theory all assert that disciplinary objectivity entails a condition of character of some weaker or stronger sort. Historicism and virtue theory are mutually supportive in ways that should make attempts to combine them especially appealing or advantageous. Considerations stemming from underdetermination problems motivate the claim that historicism requires agent-focused rather than merely belief-focused epistemology; embracing this point helps historicists avoid the charge of relativism. Considerations stemming from the genealogy of epistemic virtue concepts motivate the claim that character epistemologies are strengthened by moderate historicism about the epistemic virtues and values at work in communities of inquiry; embracing this point helps character epistemologists avoid the charge of objectivism.


Axtell, Guy. “The Dialectics of Objectivity.” Journal of the Philosophy of History 6, no. 3 (2012): 339-368.

Daston, Lorraine L. and Peter Galison. Objectivity. New York: Zone Books, 2007.

Longino, Helen. “Essential Tensions – Phase Two: Feminist, Philosophical, and Social Studies of Science.” In A Mind of One’s Own: Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity, edited by Lousie Anton and Charlotte Witt, 257-272. Boulder: Westview Press, 1993.

Megill, Allan, ed. Rethinking Objectivity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.

26 May 2014

On Feminist Epistemology: The Fallibility of Gendered Science (PDF)
Diana Rishani, American University Beirut,

That science remains free from bias and epistemological contamination is a claim that must be examined thoroughly — especially in terms of context. Contextualization aims to deconstruct the practice of science with respect to notions of power relations, capitalism, and the default/Other dichotomy among others. Feminist epistemology focuses not only on the place of ‘women’ in science, but also on all the Other unprivileged groups of society. It does so by analyzing the social, political, and ideological contexts comprising science. This analysis critiques the institution of science and brings forth questions on the nature, and achievability, of objectivity. This essay will discuss how science’s claim of objectivity is fallible in the light of feminist epistemology, and will present an alternative notion of objectivity in the light of context and intersectionality.

The Other were rarely neither the agents of science, nor the subjects of it. Instead, they were the invisible consumers of what science produced. Objectivism erased all social values from the process of science and instead imagined building a neutral realm in which empirical data was waiting to be snatched. By making this value-free claim, science asserted its value-loaded framework as a doubtless default. The white, male, able-bodied, and western-centric science establishes a hegemony over knowledge production and, in turn, hegemony over body politics, economics, and international relations.

The conception of value-free, impartial, dispassionate research is supposed to direct the identification of all social values and their elimination from the results of research, yet it has been operationalized to identify and eliminate only those social values and interests that differ among the researchers and critics who are regarded by the scientific community as competent to make such judgments (Harding 2008, 744).

Colonialism allowed a power structure — perpetuated by capitalism — to emerge. That structure was/is an extension of white, male, western ideologies imposed on the world as the ‘truth’ and science, in turn, works within these boundaries.

If science is deemed as a hegemonic power of the androcentric west, and its objectivity is refuted, does that entail an entire rejection of the notion of objectivity as it relates to science? Embracing a skeptical view and denying the existence of a uniform external world enables one to easily accept relativism, which itself holds many dangers. Relativism allows scientists to admit their faulty and centric ways and just carry on with it. Relativism permits opting out of discussions where worlds, struggles, and oppressions are different. Cultural relativists dangerously tread on the boundaries of separation between the respect for human rights and respect for cultural diversity. Therefore, awareness of a different context is not enough given that the western androcentric science operates in the world and affects it respectively — leaving the Other to operate her own science is not a valid alternative since the production of science already exists in an institutionalized power structure. Instead, one should accept the limitations of awareness, just as the fish does not know what water is, and aim towards a more holistic, inclusive, intersectional science based on a probability conscious of the context and power structure in which it exists. This transforms the concept of objectivity from a singularity to a spectrum: a claim can be ‘more objective’ and a more real reflection of reality than another.

Feminist epistemology operates within this spectrum and questions the essentialist claims made in the west. Anthropology began as a colonial science aimed at studying ‘the native’. It facilitated the perpetuation of existing racist claims in the west, and in turn, science occupied that same position. Feminist epistemology tackles the essentialist claims that readily identifies ‘women’ and continues to reinforce the constructed image of one. Science produces value-loaded ‘knowledge’ into a capitalist system, framed in terms of patriarchy. The business of ‘woman-making’ is a highly profitable one in which ‘women’ (or people who identify themselves as such), both the privileged and the Othered, feed the system financially and ideologically. Marxist feminism is a form of epistemology that acknowledges the power structure set up by capitalism and patriarchy and aims to deconstruct the ideological manifestations in terms of that structure.

Feminist standpoint theory, among others, is a form of feminist epistemology.

Feminist standpoint theorists make three principal claims: (1) Knowledge is socially situated. (2) Marginalized groups are socially situated in ways that make it more possible for them to be aware of things and ask questions than it is for the non-marginalized. (3) Research, particularly that focused on power relations, should begin with the lives of the marginalized (Bowell, IEP).

The theory situates science in the structure it was produced in to allow critical analysis of its nature, and in turn understand its effect on the Other’s life. Feminist standpoint theory begins with a descriptive project and ends with a normative one. Its intersectional approach appeals to the pragmatic nature of science. Capitalism uses science to establish new means of exploitation in order to increase profit. The monopoly of science, in the hands of the capitalists, allows the production of new sciences for the aims of profit. As Marxists continue to claim, the machine is not innately exploitative, but rather the capitalist’s application of it. Instead of relieving the workers from intense physical labour, it just establishes a more monotonous and strenuous type of work. As long as science continues to operate in a power structure that demands new tools, science can never claim to be an ‘objective’ state.

Since feminist standpoint theory already exists in an androcentric western structure, it could be described as having a close resemblance to an Othering project — one with a relativist sense. Feminist standpoint theory and its projects “conflict because the notions involved are perfectly coherent with the maintenance of elitist knowledge production and systems” (Harding 751). Acknowledging different agendas and claiming to truly understand the Other — only to then prefer the already established elitist project — is just another form of hegemony. It aims to integrate the Other into the power structure by pretending to address the oppressions and differences found, rather than completely deconstructing the structure. The Other is given a footnote, an imaginary agency which complies to the hegemonic and pre-existing scientific institution. The Other is still the subject of study, the deviation from the hegemonic norm. The production of knowledge carries on with the assumption of objectivity, and the default nature of the elite is never subject to explanation and questioning.

Nonetheless, the feminist standpoint theory project should continue. Although the risk of Othering may be present — especially at the hands of those who hold the positions of power in the hegemony — this intersectional form of knowledge production should not be abandoned. Due to its duality of description and normativity, feminist standpoint theory appeals to the necessity of changing the androcentric western structure. Standpoint theory understands how science, as a pragmatic practice, can be molded to benefit those it has long wronged. The theory situates the agents of knowledge production in their respective context and allows a meta-analysis of this knowledge; it does not treat it as an unquestionable absolute truth. Ideally it allows agency to be granted to the Other in order to produce knowledge, supposedly set to be as equal to that of the hegemony. However, academia is structured in a way that does not allow the Other to enter without institutionalization, without the removal of the Other from the ‘native’ self in order to comply to the structure. Feminist standpoint theory acknowledges such claims by contextualizing the given, and in turn sets to question the state of ‘objectivity’. The theory allows science to move along the spectrum of ‘objectivity’ towards a stronger form of it — the theory is a support of constant questioning. Even though at instances in academia it can be claimed by the hegemony, the theory should not be given up on for the importance of its intersectional approach.

Science can never be a ‘pure and objective’ form of knowledge. If it is, then its value would be questionable by having its pragmatic nature compromised. If it cannot be related to a real context, the experience generating it and its application would be futile. “To insist that no judgments at all of cognitive adequacy can legitimately be made amounts to the same thing as to insist that knowledge can be produced only from “no place at all” (Harding, 750). Feminist standpoint theory aims to further push knowledge production along the spectrum of objectivity via its intersectional approach. It cultivates the agency of the Other and grants an opportunity to question the hegemonic process of knowledge production which so deeply influences everyone’s life.


Bowell, Tracy. “Feminist Standpoint Theory.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Harding, Sandra. “Strong Objectivity and Socially Situated Knowledge.” In The Feminist Philosophy Reader, edited by Alison Bailey and Chris J. Cuomo, 741-756. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2008.

19 May 2014

Empirical Social Epistemology – The Call for a Socio-Psychological Approach (PDF)
Miika Vähämaa, University of Helsinki,

Into the Empirical

T pursue empirical study of social epistemology is an ambitious task. My overall goal in this Collective Vision post is to underline the importance of empirical social epistemology. Such a view is socio-psychological and keeps asking the question: How social groups define and influence knowledge in the empirically observable world? The question is broad and a lot of ground would need to be covered to really pinpoint all the essential social influences on knowledge. To lower the bar a little, let me tell you a brief story from my real life concerning ordinary, yet real, people. The following exchange took place just a little while ago:

“So you’re writing some research on knowledge? You mean knowledge like ‘Hey, dude, where are you?’”

“Not exactly that. But yeah, something like that too. More about how people come to believe something is scientifically reliable. In groups, you know.”

Possibly a proper academic answer would have been to toss back the question in Socratic manner. What do you mean when you talk about knowledge? In real-life situations (friends asking for help with their homework, a coach explaining what needs to be know about the rules of soccer) and even in specialized academic efforts (scholars in physics studying quarks, say) that revolve around knowledge we typically already have some sort of intuitive or at least satisfactory and in-no-need questionable theory of knowledge in general.

Mostly, I think, knowledge is dealt with as life and situations go on and knowledge just as an inherent part of a situation – that is, knowledge is understood as inhering in a situation. For most people, and most situations, this is sufficient. As Herbert Simon would say, we ‘satisfice’ in such situations. But for those with an interest in the conceptual world that surrounds and informs the empirical world and enables us to make sense of the empirical world, these generic and abstract questions remain.

Yet, no matter what approach we take towards epistemic questions we run into social issues surrounding knowledge. Think of Plato and how he understood boundaries of knowledge roughly 400BC: knowledge is justified true belief. This idea has since well-penetrated the Western world (arguably the whole world) so thoroughly that it is undoubtedly meaningful, if only for the vast edifice of thought built upon that idea. Philosophy of knowledge, or epistemology, has advanced in great leaps since Plato, and classic philosophy has spawned highly abstract formulations of formal logic to exemplify what “justified true belief” ought to, or does, mean.

Yet, from a socio-psychological viewpoint, “justify,” “belief” and “true” are bound to social reality, and in particular to social groups in which we justify, believe and endorse and seek truth. For instance, there may be different degrees – as measured by social standards of loyalty – by which we attain to some “truth” or there may differences across groups in approaches to a given “truth.” Thus, to an empirical social epistemologist the world of knowledge is not entirely conceptual (as it is understood to be in philosophical logic) but neither is it entirely empirical. Thus, as Patrick Reider (2014, 53) puts it broadly, we as social epistemologists are “a group of individuals whose primary focus is the relation between knowledge and society.” To keep that focus calls for a dialogue between observable reality and its conceptualization.

I believe that social groups are the crucial media in the relation between knowledge and society. Thus, a socio-psychological approach is warranted in order to tap into empirical social epistemology. It is necessary since logic is too limited a discipline for empiricism, and since social groups have already been excessively examined in socio-psychological literature.

Limits of Logic in Social Epistemology

Because of symbolic language we are naturally bound to logic. For instance, we categorize things as being of this and that kind, we attempt to avoid contradicting ourselves, and, most of all, we need to tell apart nonsense from syntactically-sensible text (Hamill, 1990). Language, thus, with its hidden but inherent logic, gives the framework for knowledge to rise and a medium in which knowledge can be expressed and preserved. Yet, the logic inherent in linguistic structures is more of a tool in the processing of meaning and in the social formation of knowledge than a core property of knowledge itself. These core properties, I argue, are studied by social epistemology as it focuses on knowledge in the social reality of life that touches most human beings. Analytic epistemology, on the other hand, with a bend towards formal logic – extrapolated from natural language — is really an epiphenomenon of social epistemology (Vähämaa and West 2014b, forthcoming).

That said, I have no intention to downplay the achievements of formal logic and its powers. We can easily agree, I believe, that formal propositional logic has its time and place, and it is a swift hand of delivering mathematical deduction when needed. Due to its practical and proven applicability in improving our lives via technical and medical advances, we can see how formal logic has correspondence with the world, and that correspondence enables us to observe and deal with important parts of our natural physical environment. (Fallis 2007, 267-268) It must be added, though, that as a scientific group effort, formal mathematical logic is very social in its own way. Put briefly, there is a large-scale social epistemology surrounding the camp of formal logic, too. For instance, socialization takes place among logicians and in a classroom where logic is taught. Logicians teach and encourage each other to learn to solve formal logical tasks and find trustworthy mentors to do such teaching.

Considering all the social aspects of knowledge and even logic, it appears to be the case that the notion of “logic” is too little to encapsulate the role of knowledge in the social world. Most of our meanings in life lie elsewhere — beyond formal logical boundaries.

No matter where we look, it seems, the social bearings of knowledge cannot be ignored when studying epistemology in the empirical social reality. Meanings most dear to humans are typically social, and as such, propositional logic and philosophical analysis is not the ordinary route to knowledge in our social lives.

In conclusion, then, it appears that we are not that “logical,” after all (Vähämaa 2013a, 4). We don’t use the sort of ‘logic’ that an analytic philosopher would prefer. I would go as far as to claim that in general formal propositional logic has hardly any emotional or common group-based significance on day-to-day basis — although it might be otherwise for a few logicians and scientists. But where formulations of sheer logic may lack emotional and social significance, people we know and care for, however, carry both of these attributes.

The Importance of Social Groups

As I write these lines a vigorous and long-lasting debate among liberals and conservatives has just been utterly provoked by the Darren Aronofsky´s Hollywood picture of the Biblical Noah in the United States (Niskakangas, Helsingin Sanomat 26th of April 2014). Two very different kind of social groups feel very differently about the right way to deal with Biblical stories, as well as the correct way to advertise consumer products ethically. The liberal interpretation of the story of Noah annoys the business elite of religious conservatives a great deal, as argued by their think-tank Faith Driven Consumer. Simultaneously, the fact that conservatives disapprove of the film annoys the liberals. The basis of the argument, perversely, is about the correct interpretation of the Biblical saga. Some 46 million Americans affiliate themselves as religious and conservative — a group hard to ignore — and many of them believe that the Hollywood version of Noah produces a false understanding of the Bible and its stories. Those who align with a more liberal view disagree. They believe, on the other hand, that an artistic reinterpretation of Noah´s story does no harm to any other interpretation and therefore are annoyed by the arguments made by the Faith Driven Consumers.

This is an interesting anecdote, especially if you have seen the movie. But the example of the film Noah brings us to the frontier of groups acting as epistemic communities. While feelings and cognitions circulated in one group are well understood by the in-group, the out-group feels and thinks very differently about the exact same subject matter. No resolution with dialogue is possible because the two groups build up their knowledge with very different fundaments: One group assigns significant epistemic authority to the Bible and particular interpretations of it. The other group assigns equally significant epistemic authority to concepts like “artistic freedom” and “entertainment.” Even vanity steps in as an epistemic factor when considering celebrities, Hollywood and our general and powerful curiosity towards other people. There are no doubt multiples of epistemic variables in addition to these that can be grouped around three core epistemic “needs” or “senses” as people form knowledge in groups via a type of epistemic calculus of groups (Vähämaa 2013a, 14):

1. We want to have a sense of ability to choose what we think and to have a sense of being rational.

2. We want to have a sense of being accepted group members.

3. We want have a sense of personal affective stability or a sense that we are on the track of being or becoming happy.

Is sum, to achieve these “senses” we need groups, and we know we do. I believe the very existence of groups is a priori tied to knowledge in a sense that group-formation entails socially comprehensible signaling and communication – in short: social group-formation requires knowledge of the self, of other people and of their behavior (Vähämaa 2013b, 26-27). The importance of knowing the needs of others and the importance of knowing the needs of ourselves is a fact very hard to deny. Overall, we need groups in order to survive and fulfill our various social and biological needs. Abundant literature and research is readily available on these needs and on the behaviors related to our various needs, both biological and social (for instance see biological reviews Maslow 1943, 1954; Bugental 2000; for social needs review Turner 1982; Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood and Sherif 1961; Tajfel and Turner 1986; Postmes and Branscombe 2010).

Social Epistemology as a Social Skill

To gain an understanding of a “concept” or “ontology,” in more philosophical terms, is to create an epistemology around that concept. If I am to write about knowledge, I intend to define and argue for the nature of that concept and by doing so I create the standards by which my argument (at least to some people) becomes “correct,” “true,” and “comprehensible.” In the process, I come to define “knowledge.” In order for my latent definition of “knowledge” to be understandable, I need to communicate enough “correctness” or “comprehensibility” to set out rules by which I come to deliver “correctedness” and “comprehensibility.” Lack of “correctness” or “comprehensibility” may result in ontological dissonance, as Emilie Whitaker (2014, 72) suggests.

In essence, comprehensible communication is like that and a scientific effort is like that as well – only taken to extreme measures . In general, the pursuit and delivery of “correctedness,” “truth,” and “comprehensibility” are the core properties of science despite the domain of study. And, of course, one often aims for projected universal validity and acceptance with “correctedness” and “truth,” sometimes managing to be more convincing to the demanding scientific audience, sometimes not. It takes significant learning and effort to achieve the social rules embedded in science and its communication. If we think for example mathematics (for a detailed discussion see Vähämaa and Härmälä 2011, 69-71) it becomes clear that it takes time to learn the symbolic structures, the rules and meanings attached to the discipline of mathematics.

Yet, the pathways to the acquisition of skills concerning definition of various topics of knowledge such as “mathematics,” “money,” “politics,” or “science” seem to be divergent from one and the other (Vähämaa 2013c). Most of the learning happens via the swift hand of social interaction and groups, our trusted peers, friends and family or even personally unknown authorities and experts whom mediate “knowledge” to us in books and papers. No matter what the media is different sets of social, not objective, true or otherwise official, rules apply in the domain of social talk and interaction. Abundant socio-psychological literature exists that dissects these epistemic social rules, roles and their meaning (Bugental 2000; Turner 1982; Sherif et al. 1961; Tajfel and Turner 1986; Postmes and Branscombe 2010). Often and interestingly, even without clearly expressing it, scholars in social psychology essentially focus on the epistemic function of the language in social groups.

No Other Way Than the Way of Groups

It appears that groups are not only a medium for knowledge but actually a necessity to the formation of knowledge; humans do not form knowledge outside of social structures. But conversely, groups, in order to exist, must themselves have an epistemic structure. As I write in a response article to Don Fallis and Kay Mathiesen (Vähämaa 2013b, 26):

Very much in the very same way as every written argument must start with a letter, must every group start with an epistemology — at least some sort of lay theory of understandable and nonsense sentences.

Following this train of thought, I go on to argue that in order for any social group to exist there needs to be some sort of group epistemology right at the very genesis of a group.

To fully understand the importance of empirical social epistemology and its socio-psychological bearings we should take seriously the claims made by social psychologists regarding human beings as inescapably social beings that developed to be fundamentally social. From this viewpoint, social epistemology is largely based in elementary social needs and their fulfillments. Yet, social needs require social ends, which in turn involve both cognitive and affective evaluations — they require a social epistemology. So, in order to achieve any social ends or goals one needs to have knowledge and, hence, a social epistemology.

To imagine how such an elementary level of epistemic praxis may evolve, we could think of two human beings meeting each other for the first time in order to achieve some shared meanings, to communicate, and to thereby make sense of one another to achieve some joint end. As biological history has it, people have throughout time formed groups and sought out other people to meet individual needs through collective action. Consequentially, as people group together, they at once have some common “language” or signaling system that sets the basic rules of knowing about each other, the ability to approach the joint goals via symbolic interaction, and to recognize the existence of the group in some social terms such as amiable gestures and social bonding of sorts.

This type of a “cave man” epistemology may be a silly example as such, but it does underline the reciprocity of groups and social epistemologies. One cannot have one without the other. A group has an immediate set of some level of epistemic standards in order to exchange any sensible communication, and as the group evolves, it begins immediately to create further social epistemologies about the world “out there.” If we linger a bit more on the image of two paleolithic men or women, we could assume that various “beliefs” or “feelings” would evolve to be communicated about the natural objects that the cave folk encountered. Even in the eras before language in the contemporary sense, the atomic items of perception – birds, trees, food and dwellings, as well as the presumable “other people” in the perceptible world – would have be given a set of meanings that stem not only from perceptions but from meanings within the social reciprocity the group members have. They would not speak merely of “the big house,” we would posit; they would speak of “the big house where the chief lives,” a nomenclature with a social dimension. They would thus be likely to develop mutual trust and a felt sense of belonging together.

All of that, I presume, would result in an elementary “epistemic calculus of groups” that would enable both of our imaginary cave-dwellers to make observations of the world and, through dialogue with the other group member, to develop social meanings about the world. The Ur-sprache would, in its most primitive form, have to be social, since it would have to be a joint effort; the Ur-sprache would be a social epistemology as well as a shared discourse.

As far-fetched as such an imaginary exercise may sound, it is actually a modified version of another well-known Western folkloric tale of the genesis a social epistemology. The Christian Bible goes to some length to describe how early people encountered animals and plants and the like, and in the process of observing them, the First Man (אָדָם) gave them names – the first bits of social knowledge of the world there ever had been thus far. Importantly these bits of knowledge made a clear social reference to “man” on the one hand and the “beast” to the other. Adam, as the religious legend has it, formed a social epistemology with none other than God himself and communicated with God the names of various things he felt like sounded good to him (or, as Genesis 1:27 has it, them; the use of אָדָם there is plural.)

To secularize the Biblical story, with no intention to downplay its religious meaning and status, I think the concept of “God” could be replaced with the idea of an early epistemic community able to exchange ideas about meaningful things and in that way form knowledge. Perhaps the genuine awe about the abundant nature of the world made the early communities feel like they dwelled in a pure sanctuary (גַּן עֵדֶ) where the privilege to give names and agree upon them was concomitant with act of talking with God himself. Who knows? The important point, regardless of the historical development of early social epistemologies, persists. Groups arise to form meanings, and in the process, they form social epistemologies. No knowledge, thus, exists without groups and no groups exist without shared knowledge — a shared set of reciprocally — understandable communications.

If the above contentions are correct, it should be possible to conduct empirical socio-psychological research that describes, in a straight-forward manner, statistically significant differences between group epistemologies on attitudinal and cognitive variables as dependent variables, using group membership as independent variable. If that hypothesis really is to hold it should be testable via social science methods. Studies in which I have participated so far have corroborated the view of observable empirical function of social epistemologies. In the field of mathematics (Vähämaa and Härmälä 2011, 77), in the formation of attitudes towards science (Vähämaa and West 2014a, 5-18), and in the field of politics alike (Vähämaa and West 2014b, forthcoming) social epistemologies set groups apart and reveal themselves as the epistemic fluid enabling the groups´ social function.


Bugental, Daphne B. “Acquisition of the Algorithms of Social Life: A Domain-Based Approach.” Psychological Bulletin 26 (2000): 187-209.

Fallis, Don. “Collective Epistemic Goals.” Social Epistemology 21, no. 3 (2007): 267–80.

Hamill, James F. Ethno-logic: The Anthropology of Human Reasoning. Urbana, OH: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Maslow, Abraham H. “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Psychological Review 50, no. 4 (1943): 370–96.

Maslow, Abraham H. Motivation and personality. New York, NY: Harper, 1954.

Niskakangas, Tuomas. ”Uusi Yritys Auttaa USA: N Kristittyjä Välttämään Epäsopivia Brändejä.” Helsingin Sanomat 26April 2014.

Postmes, Tom and Nyla R. Branscombe.“Sources of Social Identity.” In Rediscovering Social Identity: Core Sources, edited by Tom Postmes and Nyla Branscombe, 1-12. Psychology Press, 2010.

Reider, Patrick J. “Knowledge as a Public Commodity.”Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 6 (2014): 53-55.

Sherif, Muzafer, O. J. Harvey, B. Jack White, William R. Hood and Carolyn W. Sherif. Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers Cave Experiment (Vol. 10). Norman, OK: University Book Exchange, 1961.

Tajfel, Henri and John C. Turner. “The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behaviour.” In Psychology of Intergroup Relations, edited by Stephen Worchel and William G. Austin, 7–24. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1986.

Turner, John C. “Towards a Cognitive Redefinition of the Social Group.” In Social Identity and Intergroup Relations, edited by Henri Tajfel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Vähämaa, Miika and Kennet Härmälä. “Comparing Perceptions of Mathematics: Norwegian and Finnish University Students’ Definitions of Mathematics.” Nordic Studies in Mathematics Education 16, no. 4 (2011): 100-111.

Vähämaa, Miika. “Groups as Epistemic Communities: Social Forces and Affect as Antecedents to Knowledge.” Social Epistemology 27, no. 1 (2013a): 3-20.

Vähämaa, Miika. “A Group Epistemology is a Group Necessity A Reply to Fallis and Mathiesen.” Social Epistemology 27, no. 1(2013b): 26-31.

Vähämaa, Miika. “Secrets, Errors and Mathematics: Reconsidering the Role of Groups in Social Epistemology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 9(2013c): 36-51.

Vähämaa, Miika and Mark D. West. “The Dilemma of Group Membership in the Internet Age: Public Knowledge as Preferred Misinformation.” Javnost: The Public 21, no. 1. (2014a): 5-18.

Vähämaa, Miika and Mark D. West. ”’They Say One Thing and Mean Another’ – An International Comparison of Group Epistemologies.” Nordicom Review, (2014b) forthcoming.

Whitaker, Emilie. 2014. “Beyond Black and Green: The New Dystopian Plains.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 5 (2014): 67-72.

12 May 2014

Knowledge as a Public Commodity (PDF)
Patrick J. Reider, University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg,


I agree with Thomas Basbøll that ‘social epistemology’ is an approach to philosophy, rather than a specific doctrine.[1] Nonetheless, there ought to be some commonality that warrants the shared label “social epistemologist.” What then binds social epistemologists as a distinct grouping or class of thinkers? Broadly construed, they are a group of individuals whose primary focus is the relation between knowledge and society. I similarly differentiate social epistemologists according to the manner in which they choose to study this relation and the content they believe to be most relevant to it.

I take a two-pronged approach to social epistemology, which I argue stems from mutually entailing concepts: 1) an operational, moral, and political meta-assessment of knowledge and 2) the social influences that enable one to be an epistemic agent. In this entry, I will outline my interest in the former. [2] In my contribution to A Collective Vision for Social Epistemology, I will consider the latter in relation to the former by appealing to some insights from the analytic tradition that have yet to be taken to their logical conclusions.


Knowledge is largely directed by the questions we, not merely as individuals, ask, but far more importantly, the questions a given society is willing to invest its resources to discover. Whether someone is involved in material science or philosophy, one typically needs a monetary supplement, provided by a willing individual or group, to engage in her craft. [3] One also needs a social network upon which the materials of one’s craft are rendered accessible. It matters not if someone requires an education, laboratory, or library, as in each case, significant time, labor, and money are allocated to their productive management and maintenance.

Since things like schools, laboratories, and libraries are ‘managed,’ and they involve significant resources to ensure their maintenance and daily operation, they are necessarily tasked with certain goals, .i.e., one cannot sustain and successfully manage an expensive and complex system without some well-defined goals. Such goals coordinate many participants and direct the consumption of a wide-range of resources (e.g., money, labor, intellectual, etc.). Such wide-ranging investments of resources and participation ensure that there are disparate collections of individuals with distinct interests and backgrounds, who all hope to wrangle some perceived good from their involvement in knowledge production.

If it is the case that the questions being asked and the supporting allotment of resources that enable their resolution are managed (i.e., goal directed), it is also the case that the culture in which these spheres of interest operate are subject to norms that shape one’s perception of an acceptable answer. Put differently, people tend to refrain from investing significant resources into projects with no accepted criterion of return: if I do X, I can expect certain benefits or privileges for others or myself. This requires some generally accepted criterion for epistemic achievement, which shapes one’s (or the groups’) expectation of what is required to obtain rewards for contributing or investing in it.[4]

When knowledge production and acquisition have no clear sense of benefit (material, spiritual, physical, ethical, etc.) or privilege, the degree to which a community is willing to invest in it diminishes. This implies that, without some notion as to what others will require as evidence of epistemic success, one is unlikely to invest time or money in its acquisition and production. On these grounds, one can make a case that knowledge production and acquisition undergo the same social-economic forces as supply and demand of material goods.

If the above is true, the perceived good of knowledge acquisition and production cannot be a pure expression of a solitary individual but, to varying extent, reflects diverse individuals with cooperating values. Even if I am a purely selfish being, my pursuit of knowledge acquisition and production will likely benefit me, as it concerns opportunities or privileges others are willing to confer on me for my participation in the epistemic process. The management of resources that make knowledge acquisition possible (as it concerns the material acts that enable it) is also directed by a similar telos (i.e., the purpose which directs its application), in that knowledge is a commodity with social value, which has a certain role to play in the economy (in both the literal and metaphorical sense) of the society that maintains its proliferation.


The concrete roles individuals and collectives play in shaping the questions asked in a country, along with the allotment of the resources required to enable their resolution, ought to be clarified and studied, because knowledge acquisition and production are public commodities and community based recourses. Here, the persistent struggle between individualists and egalitarians spills over into the various modes of knowledge production. Should private individuals, corporations, representatives of the people, or populist opinions shape and direct the course of knowledge production? These are issues that ought to equally concern the libertarian and socialist, the capitalist and anti-capitalist.

If the above claims are true, Schmitt’s suggestion that one should distinguish ‘sociology of knowledge’ (as an empirical investigation of knowledge) from ‘social epistemology’ (as a conceptual and normative investigation of knowledge) is incorrect (Socializing Epistemology 1994, 1). I believe that sociology of knowledge can inform social epistemology in a manner that is akin to a chemical ‘solution’ (as opposed to ‘mixture’). Though it is true that they can be independently pursued, at their best, they converge.


In this prelude to my contribution to A Collective Vision for Social Epistemology, I sought to quickly sketch the material factors of knowledge acquisition as embodied practices that must be facilitated and organized by the activities of a given community. Such reflection suggests that there can be no ‘pure’ epistemology, in that one cannot pursue and exercise knowledge in complete isolation from all other factors and considerations. This is not to say that epistemic claims are whimsical expressions of a particular culture or that all objects of knowledge are subjective fabrications. Rather, there are strong social influences that affect one’s access to knowledge, the manner in which knowledge is produced, what counts as knowledge (to other members of your community), and how it ought to be pursued.

[1] See

[2] In outlining my views on the social and ethical dimensions of knowledge, one will see the influences of Marx, Popper, and Fuller. I am, however, neither a Fullerian nor a Marxist. Similarly, my interest in Popper concerns his conception of an open society. I do not adhere to the specifics of his political or scientific views. I will therefore simply present my views as they naturally occur to me, without taking credit for their creation or ascribing them to others as their official views.

[3] See Elisabeth Simbürger’ account of social epistemology as being “concrete and material”:

[4] Eric Kerr’s vision statement offers an intriguing overview of the concept of a corporation:

21 April 2014

Beyond Black and Green: The New Dystopian Plains(PDF)

Emilie Whitaker, University of Birmingham,

Visioneer Your Future

Visioneering has imbued these pages of late be it the important role played in fuelling the creative and visionary spirit through the crafting of an image, or the political necessity of such work for breaking binaries and embarking on a creative destruction of sense in order to produce new canvases, ideas and actions befitting the 21st century (see Cabrera and Peake).

As someone with a fervent interest in the creative destruction of the iron cages of binary thought, visioneering’s balancing of the poetical and the scientific fascinates me. Furthermore, a less discussed aspect of latent potency for visioneering lies in its methodological approach, merging the hybridisation of knowledge with polyvocality and a commitment to difference. Its explicit refusal to hyper legitimise one set of knowledge claims over another celebrates a contemporary form Haraway’s situated knowledges which I too find appealing in a world still preoccupied with bestowing status on some (often gendered) knowledge claims over others where researchers are still expected to perform the god trick.

Currently, what I am most curious to explore is how do others, particularly young people, conceive of and understand the future? More specifically, in undertaking the act of visioneering — confronting oneself with a range of future potentialities reconstituted from an interwoven cloth of ideas, experiences and senses, what do people draw upon? What ideas, imagery, texts, talk? How are accounts constructed? What do such accounts tell us about the present as much as the future? These are questions of an ethnographic bent, imbued with a rich phenomenological history ideally suited for exploring those facets of social life that resist naming and delight in uncertainty, much like the telling of the future.

I am not the first to be interested in the tales young people tell about their potential futures and worlds. The left-wing literati in the UK have bestowed upon our current cohort of 11-19 year olds a kind of dystopian soothsayer role. They associate the popularity of the Hunger Games Trilogy and the rise of films like Divergent with a quiet sense of doom stemming from the gloomy societal position many young people find themselves in. Such an argument has potency when confronting the abysmal stats of youth unemployment, soaring tuition fees and the tearing away of the welfarist ladder by those who most benefited from it. They are right to be empathetic and interested in how young people conceive of their futures and to pay heed to what may emerge as quiet Cassandra moments. Yet as well meaning and as potent as such arguments no doubt are, we are still performing ventriloquism, our words, their mouths.  Do young people really ascribe to visions of near-future apocalypses? When you ask a young person to ‘visioneer their future’ what do they describe?

To tentatively explore some of these matters, and to test our reasoning around the mechanics and poetics of visioneering, Steve Fuller and I attended the national Schools Science Conference. We had a situational advantage for the entire day was geared around the theme “New Frontiers in Science and Technology” attended by 240 young people aged 13-16. Whilst Steve delivered the event keynote and relished answering the direct and contentious questions from students (check the keynote — number 75 here), I set up our stall. Armed with two digital voice recorders and a set of visual methods that became “postcards from the future” we set about our eclectic task of asking young people to visioneer their future.


Challenging Binaries

We have accumulated over 6 hours of group data from the event, so all that can be presented here are the very initial themes that punctuated the day. One overly simplistic introduction is to present two group discussions which at first glance appear to fall neatly into the ‘upwinger’/’downwinger’, Black/Green classifications charted by Steve Fuller here.  Both discussions focused on the kinds of existential threats that form the backbone of dystopian futures — one on the impacts of environmental disaster wrought by climate change, the other on the potential impacts of a range of common transhuman proclivities — augmentation, genetic engineering, and AI. But they complicated Steve’s undulating poles. In his original formulation he implies not only an earthly or celestial/trans orientation, but links such orientations to an embrace of or resistance to technologies. Thus, downwingers are cast somewhat disparagingly as resistant to transcendence of many kinds — preferring instead to cling to some Aristotelian essentialised human nature, the mark of which is our biological encasing on earth. In contrast, upwingers receive much more favourable treatment as the bringers of Humanity 2.0, creatively destroying old mores to pull us out of our current ideological stasis.

Yet in the visioneering work undertaken by young people on the day, such concerns about climate change, environmental crisis and poverty were not marked by a technological resistance. There was no talk of a quest for holism which can only be realised in ‘returning to nature’ and rejecting the malevolence that science has wrought. Quite the opposite, for these downwingers were comfortable in harnessing the power of technology to protect the earth, to almost instigate a second natural flourishing, not dissimilar to some of the ambitions espoused by ‘Living Architect’ Rachel Armstrong. They were not afraid to make a political case for living differently; this was a rarity on the day where young people rarely mentioned the role of the state in these future dystopias:

You’ve got the government to do more, I mean, people keep saying it’s going to take a long time but if you don’t start you never finish. If you start now we’ll be done in 15-20 years. We need scientists to get into politics, they have the knowledge, if they go into politics they can spread that knowledge. They need to stop being scared, their insecurity is less important than what’s going on in the world. They need to stop thinking of themselves and think about all the people that would benefit.  People are too selfish to think about the bigger problems.

Those young people who were passionately concerned about climate change described a human-centred rather than geo-centred world; there was no mention of animal sentience and the bestowing of rights to non-human creatures. In the group discussion where downwinging played a central role, the young women making the case for climate-interventionism seemed to be making it on a vitalistic rather than Darwinian premise. Such a vitalism may form a better entry point into the cartography being mapped by these young people, as their lives are complexly mediated by the blurring of the body with technology, the ecological with the manufactured. Their sophistication seemed to contest the Green/Black binary by refusing to oppose nature to culture, environment to society, art to science.

Fortunately (for me at least), the column marchers of the Dark Enlightenment like Nick Land and his foot soldiers were absent in accounts. It appears proto-fascism in intellectual clothing holds little appeal for young people whose visioneering activities seem to place them somewhere between Fuller’s Black and Greens. This was not to say the darker corners of visioneering were not considered. Dystopias and violence of different kinds were present in discussion with a group of young men who would loosely fall into Fuller’s upwinging camp.


SF: So how do you see the future?

Very dark really, things going down. Underdeveloped countries, pollution, resource crises…

SF: You sound pessimistic about the future!

Yeah I think there are a lot of big problems.

Such dystopian visions emerged most readily in references to gaming which emerged as a dominant theme this group. Notable mention went to the cyberpunk-styled game Deus Ex: Human Revolution set in a near-dystopian future. Human Revolution tackles transhumanist themes through the eyes of the protagonist, an employee of a biochemical human augmentation firm, as he considers whether humanity’s reach has exceeded its grasp. It societal setting is cataclysmic, corporations have greater power than states, corruption is rife and rebellion put down with brutal violence.

I play a game set in the future, Deus Ex: Human Revolution. There’s global terrorism and someone releases a virus. People are getting synthetic arms, nano technology all kind of augmentation. It’ll happen, you know. I’ve seen these things in the news already, well something like that. The thing is, if we do get these augmentations then it’s going to be a taboo to be normal. That is a realistic possibility. Also, in the game you need money or access to resources, there’s no ObamaCare you know. So only rich people benefit.

Another game mentioned was the post-apocalyptic game Fall Out:

I think a possible future is like Fall Out because of wars and resource shortages.

SF: Do you really think nuclear war is a possibility?

Definitely. Nuclear war is a possibility for the future; it’ll just be started over different issues than before. Like Russia invaded Georgia and no one cared, militias are growing in Crimea. In the future these little skirmishes become more important as resources shrink.

These young men spoke of the gaming experience as a tool to furnish their visioneering activity alongside their interest in the practice of formal scientific enquiry and their own personal hopes and ambitions. The gaming activity offered up a language and a set of tests – to consider difficult ‘what if’ scenarios. It was as though the practice of gaming enabled a relationship with risk and the ethics of risk to be contemplated and explored. It offered a visceral window into visioneering practice as gaming was described as something experienced and embodied not merely thought or seen. It seems to me that the rise of gaming as a new epistemological field and its ability to permeate multiple discursive realms is deserving of a post in these pages in its own right.

Early Themes

Young people are confronted with the future every day; they are expected to project themselves forward at school, at home, and in conversations with friends. Questions about who they want to be, what they want to do, where they want to live, what kinds of lives they want to craft, are all future-oriented. They have an advantage in practicing a kind of plasticity, an engagement in projecting themselves forward that somehow becomes narrowed as years pass, mortgages grow and ontological security demonstrates itself around flaccid waistlines. Risk — the taking of it, the aversion of it, the reconstruction of it were all discussed yet what shone through was the frustration that our political masters were so tentative, so coy in trying new ideas. In contrast, the engagement of these young people in matters of genetic engineering, fracking, and climate change implies a willingness to take on these complex and potentially catastrophic existential threats. This is not to presume a youthful arrogance about the realities of the geopolitical world in which we exist, nor is it an ignorance of the social conditions within which science and technology may deepen existing social divisions. This postcard illuminates a sensitivity in the accounts told to us and the ways in which young people confront the ethical implications of technology when its power is exercised within a certain economic landscape:


These young people were concerned with the future of the planet, with the human body, with human interaction and the consequences of technology for exacerbating inequality, injustice and oppression. In this respect these accounts mirror the themes of the Hunger Games and Divergent. There is less interest in transcending the human body and our planet and more in modifying it, managing it, seeking to share it more equitably.

In contrast to the ontological dissonance which permeates much discussion in ‘grown-up’ circles where ‘Hermies’ are a laughable group of fantasists, contrasted to pragmatists who know the future will not involve seasteading, jetpacks or the singularity, the accounts we gathered were nuanced. Nothing was taken off the table. The visioneering work of these young people rejects the kind of political generational talk as filibuster arguing instead that, “we need to think differently in order to live differently” and “more scientists need to get into politics.” Their accounts challenge common kinds of epistemological boundary work, the policing of the possible from the impossible, by collapsing the now with the almost-now, the existent with the becoming. In taking their experiences in the social realm of gaming they consider alternative dystopian futures and confront technological advances within an ethical and social framework. Some of the mechanics and poetics of this visioneering activity reminded me of Kelly’s (1979) “double-edged vision”. This concept speaks of the power of hybridising lucid argument with political and personal passion leading to the creation of alternative social blueprints. The day was a lesson in the importance of epistemological humility and in the subtleties of potentialities, subtleties that challenge our neat constructions of Black and Green, Up and Down, Trans- and Post-humanity.


14 April 2014

Doxastic Involuntarism, Attentional Voluntarism, and Social Epistemology (PDF)
Mark Douglas West, University of North Carolina at Asheville,

Introduction [1]

In this working paper, I attempt to deal with some questions that I believe the readers of the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective will find interesting. In a Mertonian sense, linkage issues (Hedstrom and Udehn 2009) connecting lower-range hypothetical and empirical constructs to the larger-scale psychological constructs of our domain are still nascent. Social epistemology, from its inception, represents a daring and synthetic break with the traditional and stifling boundaries of science and philosophy (Fuller and Collier 2003); now that that break has been made, the work of fully conceptualizing our theories (Glaser 2002) and ‘grounding’ our theories in empirical research has begun.

To fully conceptualize our theories would mean, as Merton (1967) suggests, that we fully articulate the linkages between the grand theories at the highest conceptual levels of abstraction and the empirical tests at the lowest levels of abstraction in our mental explanatory schemata. To ‘ground’ a middle-range theory (Boudon 1991) such as what I take the theory of social epistemology to be in practice requires empirical tests of hypotheses derived from that theory, as well.

I propose some of those ideas here. I argue that beliefs are a special sort of feeling about the truth-value of statements. Once that conclusion is drawn, beliefs can be seen to have little to do with what is really of import in epistemology — the formation of shared meanings. I then argue that doxastic involuntarism suggests that we must examine something else — attentional voluntarism — if we are to understand how agents change behaviors, and that once we examine attentional voluntarism, we are thrust into the social realm, and into social epistemology. Throughout, I will be discussing Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization whose use of symbolic language and social support has been demonstrated to create a social epistemology for its members which has an empirical effect upon their behavior. By so doing, I hope to suggest a sort of praxis by which we might ‘ground’ social epistemology, which I regard as a grand theory in the Mertonian sense.


What are beliefs? That question, while simple enough to formulate, is quite difficult to answer. And a good deal hinges upon its answer. The dominant faiths in the world in the 21st century — Christianity and Islam, which together claim 54.7 percent of the world’s population as adherents Hackett (2012) — demand that their followers ‘believe’ their tenets willingly, and, pursuant to that belief, confess them to others. The awareness that much of the philosophical world has turned its back on doxastic voluntarism as an untenable position, while Christianity in particular holds such voluntaristic concepts of faith as a centerpiece of what it means to be a adherent of their religion, has resulted in significant tension within the theological hierarchy of that religion (Hartman 2011).

We might see the contrast between the epistemic views of a small, highly-educated group of individuals – philosophers and theologians – and those of a much larger group of less-educated group of individuals — the laity — as evidence of epistemic communities (Cross 2013). These communities exist in different locations, with the doxastic involuntarists centered in urban areas around institutions of higher learning and the doxastic voluntarists scattered around the globe. Further, there are substantive socioeconomic divergences between the two groups; the group of doxastic involuntarists has high economic, educational, and social status, while, relatively speaking, the doxastic voluntarists are likely to have lower socioeconomic status.

Taken as a whole, such data supports two arguments. First, social formations are crucial to the epistemic venture, and can be employed in a Comtean manner in the reconstitution of the epistemic domain a la Fuller (1987); second, these social formations have socioeconomic differences which can be used as data in empirical models which seek to predict epistemological differences a la Vähämaa and West (2014).

Voluntarism and Involuntarism

The question of whether beliefs may or may not be justified is in itself troubling enough – see, for example, Oakley (1976) for the argument that it may be impossible to justify beliefs at all. More important, however, is the fact the idea that we can choose what to think and believe, which in at least some significant sense lies at the heart of the modern notion of the autonomous rational agent capable of self-determination (Schneewind 1991). This conceptualization of the self is important both to democratic notions and to psychological notions; the debates surrounding rationalism and voluntarism at the very dawn of the Protestant revolution (Schneewind 1996) have to do with de servo arbitrio, as Luther had it. As Schneewind and others (Erdelack 2011) have suggested, such questions served as the fuel for later debates about the most important questions of ethics and volition in the modern age.

The debates for doxastic voluntarism and involuntarism proceed by analogy (Nottelmann, 2006). A question posed by Alston (1989, 122) is operative: « I shall merely contend that we are not so constituted as to be able to take up propositional attitudes at will. My argument for this, if it can be called that, simply consists in asking you to consider whether you have any such powers. »

Imagine that I asked you to imagine that I was General George Custer, and offered you $10,000 USD so to do. You might squint, puzzle upon the thesis, and then assert that you had succeeded. You would then address me as ‘George,’ ask me how things were going in my preparations for Little Big Horn, comment upon my lush golden hair, and so on. But could you truly say that you could alter your beliefs? You could alter your behaviors to be sure, but your beliefs would remain unaltered. I would surmise, and rightly so, that your actions with regard to addressing me as ‘George’ were instrumental, based on the hope of persuading me that your beliefs had in fact changed so that the $10,000 USD would become yours. A more extreme argument from Booth (2007) — can you, for a very large sum of money you desperately need, imagine me to be a grasshopper — has a similarly persuasive outcome.

These arguments, for the majority of the philosophical ‘in-groups’ described earlier, have proven persuasive against doxastic voluntarism. But those supporting doxastic voluntarism have a counter-argument. How, then, is it that people change? Witness the success of Alcoholics Anonymous in the remission of alcoholism (Krentzman et al. 2011); that organization holds that remission from alcoholism begins with a first step:

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.

Such an admission seems to indicate “taking up a propositional attitude at will;” as the old joke concerning psychotherapy has it, “the light bulb has to want to change.” Alcoholics Anonymous is a particularly useful example in that the organization represents not only an organization dedicated to a volitional change of a belief (its members go from thinking that the consumption of alcohol is a pleasant and worthwhile action, to something to be avoided at all costs). Alcoholics Anonymous has been empirically studied and shown to have significant efficacy as a modality for treatment for alcohol addiction (Roman 1988).

Despite such counter-arguments, doxastic involuntarism has largely held sway in the philosophical realm with Heil (1983), Kornblith (1982) and Price (1954) presenting standard arguments. Another argument for doxastic voluntarism, one that suggests self-deception and magical thinking are ways in which individuals volitionally trump evidence, is dealt with by Cote-Bouchard (2012, 14-15):

Évidemment, cela ne revient pas à dire que nos croyances peuvent uniquement être causées par des considérations ayant trait à la vérité de P ou « évidentielles ». Il ne fait aucun doute que bon nombre de nos croyances sont influencées par des facteurs « non-évidentiels ». Il est notamment possible et même courant de prendre ses désirs pour des réalités et de former une croyance par la « pensée magique » (wishful thinking), c’est-à-dire de former une croyance uniquement parce que cela satisfait un désir profond. Seulement, ce n’est jamais quelque chose que nous faisons en connaissance de cause. Des facteurs non-évidentiels comme les désirs peuvent uniquement influencer efficacement la croyance de S dans la mesure où S n’a pas conscience que sa croyance est le fruit de l’influence de tels facteurs. En effet, aussitôt que S se rend compte qu’il croit que P uniquement parce qu’il désire le croire et qu’il n’a aucune indication que P est vraie, S perd alors toute confiance en la vérité de P et perd ipso facto sa croyance que P.

In essence, Booth (2007) advances a similar argument; self-deception is psychologically impossible. How, exactly, would an agent contrive to deceive him or herself successfully regarding a concept, such that they would come to believe some proposition S that was false? How, exactly, would an agent forget the act of self-deceit if it were truly volitional?

Nevertheless, support remains (Holyer 1983; Govier 1976; O’Hear 1972) for doxastic voluntarism. The arguments for voluntarism, as suggested above, arises from a persistent felt sense that humans have free will; if we are free to change, then we must surely be free to believe at least some things, at least some things about agency, in order for that change to occur.

The Dilemma

Hence, as we mentally examine the analogies presented by doxastic involuntarists and voluntarists, we are faced with a conundrum. We clearly cannot force ourselves to believe anything we like; yet people change. Further, we know how they change; they announce that they want to change; then they cast about for how they might change, and eventually they land upon some behavioral mechanism that works, and they change.

Our ‘felt sense’ of the world, then, is that we don’t choose what we believe, or, really, think. We look at evidence, and from there, “arrive’ at conclusions. We may “feel’ that we have chosen those conclusions, but the evidence has, so to speak, ‘forced our hands.’ We could not reasonably see that having two things, and getting two more, results in us having four things, and conclude from that that two plus two equals five; the evidence compels us to conclude that two plus two equals four. The ‘felt sense’ we have is a matter of no import; to do otherwise, as Plato (1976) has Socrates suggest in the Protagoras, is perverse.

On the other hand, Attentional Voluntarism agents do change their behaviors in a purposeful manner, and that leads us to have the feeling that we have control over our lives. We decide, at some point, that we weigh too much, or that smoking tobacco harms our health, and we modify our behavior. We know that we have volition, and hence free will; but our “felt sense’ in this case collides with our ’felt sense’ in the case of the beliefs which impelled us to take up the cause of change in the first place. Most books on the subject, whether intended for scholarly (Goldstein and Kanfer 1991) or popular (Wheelis 1973) audiences, sensibly skirt the issue of exactly how people come to believe that they need to change and instead focus on what should or does happen from that point onward.

The question remains, however. How do we change our behavior, if we are unable to volitionally change our beliefs? As Fishbein and Ajzen (1975) suggest, beliefs give rise to behaviors, and hence doxastic involuntarism suggests determinism. Yet we are dispositionally committed to freedom of the will. How do we resolve this conundrum?

Attentional Voluntarism

We may think ourselves out of the above dilemma by way of attentional voluntarism. Clarke (1986) offers an important clue about how people actually engineer change. The individual who attends Alcoholics Anonymous, say, has indeed come to believe that ‘they were powerless over alcohol’ by dint of perceptions which came their way without (or against) their will. But notice that their next steps are social. They affiliate themselves with an Alcoholics Anonymous group, and they stop going to local bars. They find a sponsor within the movement. They attend meetings, in which they receive social support of various sorts.

Further, they learn a new set of symbols and meanings related to alcohol, in which the concept of ‘poison’ predominates — alcohol poisons relationships and the body (Antze 1987), alcohol as (metaphorical) storm or fire, destroying property and health (Jensen, 2000). The old reinforcements of the pleasures of drink and of conviviality at bars is gone, replaced by the camaraderie of Alcoholics Anonymous. Via the new affective metaphors taught in the group, entrained through a shift in attention arising through the voluntary creation of new social links, the individual is able to begin the process of remission from alcohol addiction.

As Clarke (1986, 43) says:

[B]y ignoring the adverse evidence, searching for positive evidence, and concentrating on a particular reinforcing proposition, one has influenced one’s belief acquisition processes. One has put oneself in a position not to receive evidence that would force one to believe something one does not want to believe. To this extent, and in this respect, “attention voluntarism” is a true doctrine.

The nascent alcoholic has sensory inputs that tell him or her that drinking is pleasant, and so they drink. Later, they have become addicts, and they have sensory inputs that lead them to develop feeling states that move them to new behaviors concerning alcohol — in this case, the turn to new social structures, within which they adopt a new epistemology. This new epistemology entails a new way of understanding their world and the things in it, as detailed in The Blue Book and other literature from Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcohol itself takes on the role of a boundary object (Knorr-Cetina 1999; Trompette and Vinck 2009), an object that maintains a common identity across communities but serves to highlight the interpretive differences between those communities. Such groups, to use a phrase from Vähämaa (2013, 3), are epistemic communities.

The willingness of individuals to maintain group membership and to use heuristic methods of thought in understanding both their social and physical worlds invites us to consider the social epistemic dimension of group membership … I argue that our shared understanding of the nature of things qualifies as an important type of social knowledge, regardless of the truth value of that knowledge.

As Roche (1989) argues, the goal of personal action is the maximization of personal well-being; Vähämaa extends that Aristotelian line of reasoning to include the agent in an epistemological context. In the case of the alcohol addict, the goal of group membership is freedom from alcohol addiction, not a true understanding of the etiology of the nature of their addiction. The symbolic content of the message of Alcoholics Anonymous (‘alcohol as poison,’ in several different registers) may or may not be ‘true’ in some veritistic sense (Goldman, 1999); its value to the agent is in its efficacy in reducing suffering. “Truth,” as well as “sobriety,” for the member of Alcoholics Anonymous, is redefined as honesty (Kurtz 2013, xii), and the epistemological dimension of the organization can be shown through its redefinition of critical terms in its venture to reshape behavior.

What is Belief?

Alcoholics Anonymous speaks of ‘belief’ primarily in terms of Step 2 of the Twelve Steps which members are asked to undergo:

Step 2 – Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

While belief in a ‘higher power’ is widely understood in Alcoholics Anonymous to be essential to success in symptom relief, Murray et al. (2003) found that belief in an internal locus of control with regard to alcohol avoidance predicted a greater level of success with cessation than did belief in an external locus of control. In the context of Alcoholics Anonymous, then, ‘belief’ as it is commonly construed has little meaning in the sense of faith.

Such a finding highlights the difficulty of talking about belief. This problematic has been explored in a number of contexts (Lindquist and Coleman 2008; Netland 1986; Gardenfors 1990; de Lavalette and Zwart, 2011). Simply put, “belief” and “to believe” are in general terms that are used loosely, even in philosophical discourse. As Smith (1994, 21) argues, however, there is at least a general concurrence that there is some connection between “belief” and “desire” — where there is a belief, there is at least a desire that the statement involved in the belief be, or seek to be, true; belief, at the very least, involves a statement, which one asserts to be to the best of one’s knowledge, true.

But even this minimal definition is problematic.

Let’s consider a statement such as the one Winch (1996, 8) proposes, which derives from Wittgenstein’s verbal formulation of Moore’s Paradox in the Philosophical Investigations:

[A] sentence of the form “p and I do not believe that p” sounds like nonsense-indeed very much like a self-contradiction-while, on the other hand, it also sounds as if it asserts what may actually be the case. If Bob Dole were to say: “I shall be the next President and I don’t believe that I shall be the next President” that would sound like nonsense. And yet it may actually be the case both that Dole will be the next President and that he does not believe it.

As Winch suggests, Wittgenstein goes on to suggest that all assertions have a human as their author, and all (rational) statements are assertions of truth (Wittgenstein 1974, Tractatus 5.5422) : « The correct explanation of the form of the proposition “A judges p” must show that it is impossible to judge a nonsense. » Note that Wittgenstein uses ‘judges’ and ‘thinks’ and ‘asserts’ interchangeably; and, as Winch argues is the position of Wittgenstein, all assertions are implicitly predicated with “I believe that …”

Thus, I argue, as Wittgenstein seems to suggest, that belief is an attitude toward a proposition. Propositions are sentences Gardenfors (1990) whose informational content seems to be about a state of affairs in the nX^pwqa, the totality of things, but which is in fact referring to the state of mind of the individual making the utterance.

Further, as Liska (1984, 62) argues, following (Fishbein and Ajzen, 1975; Ajzen and Fishbein, 1980), an attitude is thus an affective evaluation of a proposition.

It [the Fishbein and Ajzen model] conceptually distinguishes the three components of the traditional attitude concept (affect, cognition and conation) and specifies a recursive-chain causal structure underlying them. It assumes that behavior is directly caused by behavioral intentions (conation), which are caused by attitudes (affective evaluations), which in turn reflect beliefs about the consequences of behavior weighted by the subjective evaluation of the consequences. (Fishbein/Ajzen use the term ‘attitude’ to refer to the affective evaluative dimension.)

Thus a belief is a feeling (an affective evaluation) toward a cognition (a proposition, expressed as a sentence). The utterer may tell the truth, may lie, may be incorrect, or some combination of the above; but a belief is a feeling. And, as Mele (1989, pp. 281-282) suggests, it is entirely possible to have akrasic (from axpaoia, “lack of command”) feelings:

James, a college student, suffers from a severe fear of public speaking. Whenever he considers making a comment in class, his heart beats rapidly and he becomes very agitated and anxious. James has given the problem some thought: he has judged that anxiety is an inappropriate response to the situation; that in the absence of the feeling he would enjoy participating in class discussion and would find student life more pleasant and rewarding; and that, all things considered, it would be best not to be anxious about speaking in class. Suppose now, that during a class discussion, James has an urge to make a comment, and forms a conscious judgment to the effect that there is good and sufficient reason for his not feeling anxious. Unfortunately, he also experiences the customary anxiety.

In such a situation, the student has applied an appropriate cognitive remedy, but he is still anxious; his feeling-state is hence akrasic. The involuntary state of those feelings is manifest; just as individuals have akrasia concerning beliefs, they have akrasia concerning feelings.

At no point in the Fishbein and Ajzen model (perceptions to attitudes to behavioural intentions to behaviors, under the sway of perceived subjective norms) do we see the apparent necessity of the influence of volition. What does become manifest is the sufficiency of evaluative states to form behaviors; evaluative states have a good deal of consistency over time (Ledgerwood et al. 2010). Individuals can have a general disposition to dispositional evaluative states (Hepler and Albarracfn 2013), and individuals with fewer numbers of affective evaluations (feelings) on a given topic are more likely to form their behaviors on the basis of social cues or pressures than are those with higher numbers of affective evaluations (Ledgerwood and Callahan, 2012).

The last empirical finding is important for the social epistemologist. If affective evaluations are the source of behavioral intentions, and in turn, behaviors, as Fishbein and Ajzen (1975) argue and later empirical research suggests, then it should not be the case that fewer feelings lead to different sorts of behavior in the case of those with less direct experience of some phenomenon (who then turn to the social realm). What must be the case is that they turn to other feelings, and those other feelings are feelings which arise as a result of direct or indirect (mediated) social experiences.

Epistemology and Group Membership

Do individuals, then, turn to groups in order to alter their epistemologies?

In the case of Alcoholics Anonymous, almost certainly not. People do not think in those terms; no one ever says they ‘have a faulty epistemology, and need a better one.’ People, rather, turn to groups like Alcoholics Anonymous in order to be free from addiction — and changes in manners of thought are the modality by which they find relief. “Stinkin’ thinkin’”, the term Alcoholics Anonymous uses for the thought patterns associated with alcoholism, but not necessarily with drinking (Gorski and Miller 1982) is cured by ‘truth,’ which Alcoholics Anonymous construes as honesty. ‘Honesty,’ in turn, is verisimilitude in interpersonal relations, and adherence to a set of meanings assigned to concepts by the group; it is demonstrated by a set of behaviors that lead to sobriety. The group is the provider of a social epistemology, whose adoption leads to the behaviors that lead to a desired state — the cessation of a given type of suffering.

Alcoholics Anonymous is a very specific sort of group, and, of course, not all groups are so goal-directed. But, as Vähämaa (2013) suggests, individuals join groups for instrumental reasons which all, ultimately, involve the desire for well-being, or eudaimonia. Groups provide social knowledge and cues to behavior, and that group knowledge is at least in part the linkage to the eudaimonia which groups provide. The turn to a group involves a desire to change behavior; the desire to change epistemologies, or ways of knowing, need never appear. The alcoholic wants to stop drinking, not to learn a new mode of knowing; yet they come to have both.

The same is true for the individual who joins a political party. One might, in the U.S. context, join the Republican Party hoping to gain useful acquaintances for business purposes, or to make friends, or to become more informed about local politics. What might well happen is that one might become persuaded that, say, science matters less than politics in the determination of how best to handle global warming (Demeritt 2001; Vähämaa 2013). The same would hold true for almost any social group; groups have group epistemologies and group membership eventually entails the adoption of a group epistemology.


The social is the domain in which humans operate. We turn to groups because we are social beings; being outside of groups has empirically-demonstrable health consequences (Hawkley et al. 2003; Cacioppo et al. 2006), and, in turn, membership in voluntaristic groups have profound effects upon socialization (Harris 1995), the political process (Langton 1967) and a whole host of other crucial domains, in the adult as well as the child (Mortimer and Simmons 1978). Such socialization makes society possible, and forms the matrix in which ‘the social’ exists.

Plato (1976, 345d-e) has Socrates argue in the Protagoras that akrasia is impossible, he suggests that one can only act in accord with what one knows, and that agents acted in accord with what they thought to be the good.

[S]imonides was not so ignorant as to say that he praised those who did no evil voluntarily, as though there were some who did evil voluntarily. For no wise man, as I believe, will allow that any human being errs voluntarily, or voluntarily does evil and dishonorable actions; but they are very well aware that all who do evil and dishonorable things do them against their will.

Our knowledge, though, must always be limited, and so we turn to “folk epistemologies” (Mercer 2008; Mercier 2010), home-made tests of credibility or likability (Kellner 1993) and, at a less-obvious level, various mechanisms of selective perception (Johnston and Dark, s. d.) and selective retention, both in the psychological and the Campbellian sense (Simonton 2010).

At every turn, however, these heuristics are cognitively expensive, and the movement to the social has numerous benefits beyond the avoidance of akrasia. The ancients understood that humans were embedded in the social, and that with limited knowledge, we each sought to act in accord with what the groups we were embedded within had led us to understand was correct. It is only in a modern age, in which a theory of the self as ‘Victor and Invictus’ (Weinstock 1957), the sovereign master of itself under all circumstances, has emerged. Such an autonomous rational agent, homo oeconomicus, controls its thoughts, its actions and its beliefs; it owes nothing to agents outside its own mind. Such reductionist strategies can be seen as impoverishing to the arts and interpersonal relations (Glynn 2005), privilege the current economic and political system (Read 2009), and as removing the social dimension from consideration in many domains tout court.

I would argue that such a definition of the human has also limited our understanding of the nature of knowledge itself; and it is through a return to the social that we can work our way out of some of the problematics which trouble us in the realm of epistemology.


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[1]The author would like to thank Miika Vähämaa and Max Carroll West for their helpful discussions on the topics in this paper.

7 April 2014

The Aesthetic Fate of the Body: Where Transhumanism Places the Body in the Art Medium & the Ethics Governing This Relationship (PDF)
Diana Rishani, American University Beirut,

Transhumanism and Bioart

Bioart and its subsets are working with genetics, cloning and hybridization, and its practitioners are ‘co-creators’ alongside the gods, stirring up moral issues, and portraying the role of lab-technician, scalpel in hand” (Vita-More 2012). Bioart has relocated the human body from the source of action unto the canvas; from the creator to the object of creation. The body now stands on its own independent from the specific act of being reserved only for humans and the bodies of humans. The philosophy of transhumanisn can be found within this form of art: transcendence from the physicality that roots humans to mortality and thus limiting progress and the act of self-transformation. Julian Huxley, Aldous Huxley’s brother, first coined the term (1927):

The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself — not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way — but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.

Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch holds similarities with that of Transhumanism, except the latter takes transcendence a step further to truly place the every aspect of the act of being under the control of the Übermensch. The Übermensch is now a cyborg who has denounced the afterlife by denouncing mortality. All aspects of life, including the physical, are ready to be reaffirmed by the Transhumanist Übermensch. Nietzsche devalued the spiritual afterlife in order to reaffirm the physical life and the actions that give identity to our being; instead the Transhumanist Nietzsche would be forced to also denounce the flesh for a more transcendental form of being on the physical earth. Therefore, Transhumanism devalues the flesh of the human and regards it as barrier to a process of self-fulfilment and self-transformation. “Transhumanization proposes an intervention of biology in modifying corporeality, extending the biological lifespan, and preserving the brain by transfer onto non-biological platforms” (Vita-More 2013, 20).

However, the philosophy of Transhumanism inverts its degradation of the human body when in context of aesthetics and bioart. Instead, it is the body that is the medium of meaning in the art piece. According to Transhumanism, the body would no longer be a necessity and instead it is chosen to hold aesthetic value and meaning; bringing value to body by means of intentionality. Though, if the value is the extent of how bioart can “engage the idea of life extension” (Vita-More 2012, 204), that is, to go in accordance to Transhumanism philosophy, then the value is diminished once Transhumanism achieved. Nonetheless, this does not limit different intentionality of meaning to also give value to the body independent of the main Transhumanistic agenda. So, if Transhumanism is achieved the body would be as equivalent to clay in the realms of art and aesthetics. But, bioart exists within a socio-cultural context and therefore the value of the body is that of the thoughts it induces.


Art has always been under the influence of its socio-cultural surrounds and bioart is no different. “Bio Art has not unfolded and developed in accordance with prescribed master codes of a determinant post-avant-garde manifesto; instead, it has been subject to a process of social drift and diverse influences from its aesthetic environment” (Hauser 2005). The scientific development, especially which presents the idea of a human transcendence beyond the mortality of the body, has triggered an artistic response. This pseudo-scientific endeavour of bioart is meant to envision the future of mankind and the way life would be. Science fiction movies and novels have always imagined the possible future world; either a utopia or a dystopia. Art creates a possible version of the future in accordance to the technological advances found in the present environment, yet taking it a step forward. However, bioart has a limitation of presentation. Unlike film, illustrations, and novels, bioart requires the artist to dwell into laboratories and the science of the living organism under artistic manipulation in order to create the vision in mind. Therefore, in a way, the bioartists are questioning and testing the extent of the malleability of science in manipulating aspects of life using present techniques, and at times innovating ones of their own. They are invoking thought concerning the imminent future of the body; they might condemn and fear the path of which science is taking or instead embrace it and the take the offer of being a god.


Other than demanding thoughts from their audiences about the future, many bioartists use their art in an attempt to build a controversy about issues happening now.  Performance artist Jacqueline Traide placed herself in the position of a test lab animal and underwent ten hours of ‘testing’ in front of a live audience of shoppers. She aimed to reveal the behind-closed-doors experiences of these animals to the public in an attempt to support stopping testing cosmetics on animals (Zimmerman 2012). Another example is Abramovic’s “Rhythm 0”:

In “Rhythm 0,” her first long durational work, Abramovic offered herself as an object of experimentation for the audience, thereby including their actions in the performance itself.

Abramovic remained completely passive for six hours in front of a table containing 72 objects. Some, such as sugar, honey, and a rose contained the potential for pleasure. Others such as knives, whips, scissors, and a gun (with a single bullet) contained the potential for torment. The nature of the performance was completely in the audience’s hands (Marina Abramovic Institute 1974).

Abramovic’s performance at some point turned violent when the audience members used sharp and harmful objects against her body.  This performance reconceptualised the nature of modern human beings in the context of society. The idea that this art audience was capable of harm to a defenceless body contradicted the established notion of modern man. As well, bioartists have gone further to completely recreate organisms and modify them as they please, as Eduardo Kac’s genetically modified rabbit, Alba (2000). They are dwelling into the genetics either to create monstrosities as a sign of imminent condemnation, or instead, to offer a transhumanistic possibility of the future.


Of the Human Body

Bioartists have the capabilities to play the god of other living organisms, as well as themselves. Some have not excluded the possibility that their own body could become a canvas for their expression. When considering one’s own body in the medium of art, a John Stuart Mill-ian approach should be taken: “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual”. In a way, bioart of the self can be analogous with the act of suicide. Some may argue that suicide is not a purely individualistic act since it influences people around that individual and the society that contains her. However, if we take into consideration the effect of every individualistic act on the surroundings, then the concept of liberty and freedom is deeply hindered. Therefore, an artist, who supposedly is a “free and rational agent” in Kantian terms, should be able to express the utopic/dystopic or even nihilistic notions.

There is another ethical dilemma when the body is no longer that of the artist herself; instead it is that of another human. This issue can be separated into situations: one dealing with the post-mortem body, and the other dealing with the living body. The case of post-mortem is much less complicated than that of the living being. If given prior consent, then the artists is given full access over the body- to deconstruct, disfigure, twist, and finally impregnate it with an idea. The dead flesh is no longer the person; a fact accepted by both the artist and the pre-mortem owner of the body. Yet, even though the pile of flesh is no longer a person, it does not stop the artist from attributing a personhood to that piece of physicality. In the end it is a concept, and the body is the vehicle that delivers it across. Even though bioart deals with the living, one can still argue that there would still exist some alternate form of life within the corpse, as cells, bacteria etc. Science utilizes corpses as well, but only does so in the hope of accessing new knowledge. In a society that values scientific knowledge over aesthetics, the bioartist’s work on unidentified corpses seems much more problematic than that of the scientist’s. The bioartist’s, as an artist, has no pragmatic purpose to art, instead the art is a medium of the propagation of aesthetics and perhaps a vision. However, secondary knowledge is generated in the process of making bioart. Such knowledge is needed in order to successfully modify the body in the ways the artist has imagined, yet the generation of this knowledge is not always a given. Honoré Fragonard “invented a strange technique to preserve corpses. He made anatomical preparations – animal and … human – called écorchés. These were then staged with a genuine artistic will” (Donjean 2011). The techniques served the purpose of the art, and their creation was not aimed to produce a body of scientific knowledge, all of which grants more criticism to the use of science and resources for no obvious and practical results.

The discussion turns critical when the bodies are no longer at halt by death; it is the living flesh that seems to invoke serious concerns especially since the body belongs to another individual. We are under the assumption that bioartists exist within the modern Western societies of today, and thus the individuals residing in these societies are considered to be citizens with granted rights. Therefore, donating your living body to the creative process of art has many ethical and legal limitations.

Bioart lays down the human body and allows the artist full access in manipulating the physical to mimic the notions and ideas of the artistic creation sought after. It is true that the individual at first must be free in deciding to undergo an obscure artistic process, however limitations must be set. If this donation process occurs in a territory ruled by some form of governmental authority, then there should be a legal contract protecting the ‘future’ individual in that process. This contract is especially relevant in cases when the individual, whom the art is acted upon, decides to stop. Therefore, this legal document protects the individual from undesirable actions. However, there is also a scenario in which there is a trespassing of rights, yet under the individual’s consent. Here the artist is only faced with a legal limitation, one that holds people accountable when rights are trespassed. But, referring back to John Stuart Mill’s concept of personal liberty, no governmental interference should be allowed in cases of consent. Yet, this does not prevent the individual from seeking an exit strategy in the form of a legal contract in which details can be specified accordingly. Of course, the artistic process is hindered when priority is given to the rights of the individual.

Whereas in territories where no obvious definition is given to human beings, in terms of rights, the only limitation is that of the artist’s morality. In such a case, either the individual or the aesthetics must be sacrificed, and since no authority exists to secure the rights of the individual, a significant possibility would exist of having the aesthetics picked over the individual. Therefore, since there is no possible way to guarantee the safety of an individual outside of governmental territories, the individual must tread lightly when entering beyond the boundaries of safety set up by societies.

A further ethical dilemma rises when bioart deals with the issue of personhood. Since Transhumanism is not yet reached and the human is still encapsulated within a body of flesh, there is no definite distinction between the person and the body; it is still part of the human identity. Therefore when a bioartist manipulates the body and treats it as a canvas for aesthetic creation, objectification is in process. This contradicts the notion of human equality which is supposedly accepted, yet not respected, by most people and their states. However, the value of personhood is easily compromised for the aesthetic and artistic outcomes, even for a monetary one. Objectification is not taken as seriously as, for example, the violations of rights and the abuse of the body. It even occurs daily in mass media for the purpose of selling products. When dealing with bioart, the metaphysical argument of objectification does not hold much impact as that of the possibility of physical harm and deformation.

Of the Living Body

Bioart and its techniques raise questions concerning the vague distinction between humans and the ‘Other’ organisms.

The separation in definitions between “us” (or “I”) and what is the “other” is not as evident as we would generally like to think. We are not advocating homogeneity, or exclusion of differences, but rather suggesting that our  well established cultural dichotomies between self/other are shifting and the emphasis on differences are now being relocated in the continuum of life (Zurr and Catts 2003).

The bioartists utilize all forms of living organisms freely in order to construct their desired art, all in accordance to a hierarchy in which humans have placed themselves at the top.

The hierarchy exists due to different ideologies separating life forms in accordance to specific properties seem to continually emerge. Lists and characteristics have been trying to pin down the definition of life, yet there always seems to be a misfit which challenges the entire boundaries of what life is supposed to be.

In trying to define life, we have drawn a line at an arbitrary level of complexity and declared that everything above that border is alive and everything below it is not. In truth, this division does not exist outside the mind. There is no threshold at which a collection of atoms suddenly becomes alive, no categorical distinction between the living and inanimate, no Frankensteinian spark. We have failed to define life because there was never anything to define in the first place (Jabr 2013).

Therefore, having no definition to withhold the presumed hierarchy on its shoulders, man is forced unto a flat plane of equality along with all other creatures. Bioart has been criticized for firmly holding on to that hierarchal position; a position which allows the artist to use organisms found ‘lower’ in the hierarchy at their disposal. But more trouble arises when the organisms used in the art is closer to the human borderline, due to a stronger identification with the ability to suffer the closer the creature is on the constructed scale of superiority. However, Peter Singer (2002, 35) states that:  “If a being suffers there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering — insofar as rough comparison can be made – of any other being.” Bioartists are accused of speciesism for presuming power to manipulate other organisms without taking into account their suffering and perhaps, freedom and will. However, the boundary which separates the sentient beings from those incapable of suffering seems to be vague, as Singer (2002, 35) continues: “So the limit of sentience (using the term as convenient if not strictly accurate shorthand for the capacity to suffer and/or experience enjoyment) is the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others. To mark this boundary by some other characteristic like intelligence or rationality would be to mark it in an arbitrary manner.” Therefore, bioartists are treading lightly when manipulating organisms ‘low’ in the hierarchy, since the label of ‘sentience’ cannot be quickly stripped away as far as science knows.

Of Playing God

The argument that bioartists are attempting to take on the role of God should not be taken into much consideration. This argument goes in accordance with the one that states nature should not be tempered with, especially by those who are led by their creativity into creation. However, we should reassess the value given to ‘Nature’ in comparison to the ‘Unnatural’. The nature of a thing is the end-product of the process it underwent, and evolution is an example of that. As well, human beings themselves are ‘natural’ since they are an example of creation of the universe, and it should follow that what humans create should also be ‘natural’- the resources, the medium, and even the neurological connections making up the human brain and thus the ideas are from the same source of everything else. Transhumanism even demands the act of transcending any human-made barrier, and therefore bioart should easily dismiss criticism of such kind.


There are many fears and ethical issues that hover around the topic of bioart, but nonetheless it has come into being and triggered multiple reactionary acts. Bioart could push Transhumanism a step further by manipulating the living in the goal of achieving a trans-life. It is continuing to gather ethical criticism, yet it is expanding the discussions on the future of many fields. It offers a way through which visionary ideas directed towards life, society, and the future can be creatively assessed and re-invented — it, however, does not play safe.


Hauser, Jens. “Bio Art: Taxonomy of an Etymological Monster.” UCLA Design Media Arts. Last modified October 18, 2005,

Donjean, Jacques. “Fragonard, Revolutionary Anatomy.Association Science and Télévision. Last modified 2011.

Huxley, Julian. Religion Without Revelation. London: Ernest Benn, 1927.

Jabr, Ferris. “Why Life Does Not Really Exist.” Scientific American, December 2, 2013.

Marina Abramovic Institute. “Who Is Marina Abramovia?” Last modified April 3, 2014.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1956.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Also Sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen. Leipzig: Insel‐Verlag, 1908.

Singer, Peter. Writings on an Ethical Life. London: Fourth Estate, 2002.

Vita-More, Natasha. “Brave Bioart 2: Shedding the Bio, Amassing the Nano, and Cultivating Emortal (Posthuman) Life.” H+, February 2, 2012.

Vita-More, Natasha. “Life Expansion: Toward an Artistic, Design-Based Theory of the Transhuman / Posthuman.” Doctoral Thesis, University of Plymouth, April 2012.

Vita-More, Natasha. “Aesthetics: Bringing the Arts & Design into the Discussion of Transhumanism.” In The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology, and Philosophy of the Human Future, edited by Max More and Natascha Vita-More, 18-27. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2013.

Zimmerman, Neetza. “Artist Undergoes ‘Torture’ In Front of London Shoppers For Anti-Animal-Testing Stunt.” Gawker, April 26, 2012.

Zurr, Ionat and Oron Catts. “The Ethical Claims of Bioart: Killing the Other or Self-Cannibalism?” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art: Art & Ethics 4, no. 2 (2003) and 5, no. 1 (2004): 167-188.

24 March 2014

I, Social Epistemologist, (PDF)
Thomas Basbøll, Philosophical Investigations,
(“I, Social Epistemologist” also appears on Thomas Basbøll’s blog Research as a Second Language.)

When I call myself a social epistemologist I mean that I am a particular kind of philosopher. It’s not the name of a doctrine, mind you, like constructivism or realism, but an activity, like phenomenology. It’s a way of doing philosophy. Some social epistemologists might prefer to call themselves “sociologists” or “anthropologists” or just “intellectuals”. But for me it’s a specifically philosophical business.

As I practice it, social epistemology was invented by Steve Fuller. (He didn’t coin the phrase, but he made something very distinctive of it.) These past two weeks I’ve been talking about two of his most important precursors, Thomas Kuhn and Michel Foucault, and I’ve said that they indicate two further precursors, namely, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger. This morning I want suggest three still older precursors.

It all begins with Kant. Here we find the classical formulation of the problem: what are “the conditions of the possibility of the experience of objects”, i.e., what makes human knowledge possible? In the mid-nineteenth century, two very different theologians took these questions up in very different ways: Bernard Bolzano and Søren Kierkegaard. Both were reacting to the overwhelming amount of knowledge that their age was producing. Bolzano proposed a system of rules by which all possible treatises could be written. Kierkegaard took a different approach: “what the world, confused simply by too much knowledge, needs is a Socrates.”

Now, Socrates’ philosophy famously reduces to the Delphic maxim “know thyself”. The founders of the so-called “strong program” in the sociology of scientific knowledge, Barry Barnes and David Bloor, used to talk about “existential” conditions of knowledge, meaning basically “social” conditions. I normally interpret this sense of “existential” to suggest that there is a profound connection between what we know and who we are. We have to become certain kinds of people in order to know certain kinds of things; and our knowledge of things necessarily transforms who we are. When Kant defined “enlightenment” with the slogan “dare to know”, he was saying we must have the courage to become whatever it is we have to be to know all the things science is telling us.

Foucault, in a sense, was telling us to consider the matter more carefully. Perhaps it is not simply cowardly to insist on not knowing things that would turn us into people we don’t want to be. This, to my mind, is the core of the project of social epistemology. Already in his first book, Social Epistemology, from 1988, Steve explained the project as the two-fold task of helping to design institutions that made certain forms of knowledge possible, i.e., institutions that shaped certain kinds of scientists, on the one hand, and helping policy-makers understand what kinds of knowledge we should expect to emerge from real or proposed institutional interventions, on the other.

For my part, I have been focusing on the identity of the scientific author, helping people take control of what Foucault called their “author function”, if you will. This is where the project, having proceeded from Kant to Kierkegaard (and then Heidegger, Foucault and Fuller) loops back around (through Kuhn and Wittgenstein) to Bolzano. What are the rules by which, if not whole treatises, then at least journal articles, may be written, so as to support the growth of knowledge? And this, then, takes us back to Kant: how does writing offer us a moment of apperception? And finally back to Socrates: how does writing an article help us to know ourselves? How does it shape us? The important thing, however, is to keep in mind that “the self” is always a social entity. The question is not so much who I am as who we are. What is science asking us to become?

10 March 2014

Social Epistemology As Work: A Quest for Normativity at the University, (PDF)
Elisabeth Simbürger, Universidad de Valparaíso, Chile,

For me, social epistemology is concrete and material. We can touch it, we can walk on it, we talk about it, and we produce it through acts of labour. Yet, as I will argue in this piece, labour has gone a bit missing in social epistemology and should move to the forefront.

As Steve Fuller set out in Social Epistemology in 1988, a key question concerns how the pursuit of knowledge should be organised. The underlying thesis is that the production of knowledge is a normative endeavour. Politics, collectively, is everywhere. This perspective has been disputed as Science and Technology Studies (STS), of the kind associated with Bruno Latour, opts for a non-normative approach to knowledge production. In a 2002 debate at the University of Hong Kong, Latour and Fuller addressed, in part, issues concerning descriptive and normative approaches in STS (Barron 2003).

Social Epistemology’s Gaze at Itself

Even within social epistemology, the call for normativity regarding knowledge production does not always translate into tangible, political realities. As my work centers on the university and the social sciences as sites of knowledge production in a neoliberal world, I would like to shed a bit more light on the question of social epistemology’s dedication to politics on the ground by focusing on the university as a workplace and as a site of neo-liberalism. Are social epistemologists really political? Do we engage with the materiality of what knowledge production is about?

To gaze at ourselves, let’s turn to Alvin Gouldner’s work on reflexivity in the social sciences. In The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology, Gouldner analyses the intertwining of social theory and practice with the political surroundings at the time in the 1960s and 1970s. Gouldner suggests, like C. Wright Mills, that being a sociologist is a life-encompassing activity that cannot be discarded at the doors of a university. In so doing, Gouldner presents his social epistemology membership card. The process of becoming aware of ourselves, in the totality of our relations to our research and the outside world, is at the core of Gouldner’s reflexive sociology program. What makes his work so distinctive is that it is an epistemological position with practical and political implications. For Gouldner, critique can never be a static undertaking and needs to be continually revisited — as he showed in his work about the growing convergence between functionalism and Marxism. Being a Marxist himself, Gouldner accused Marxist sociologists of being in a static relationship with their theory, of not living up to their strong theoretical claims of critique and not questioning the foundations of their thought. In fact, Gouldner saw open-mindedness to hostile information as a strategy that prevented us from getting lost in dogmatic thought. Gouldner can be seen as a true social epistemologist.

Undoubtedly, social epistemology has high regard for open-mindedness to hostile information. However, I am less sure about its real commitment in conceptual terms —  speaking of social epistemology as a collective — to politics within the university on a global scale and against the prevalent conditions of knowledge production within higher education. Academic capitalism is everywhere (Münch 2011). At the heart of the transformation of the university is a transformation of its labour relations and, as a   consequence, a transformation of the kinds of knowledge that we produce (Roggero 2011).

My general concern is not that social epistemology’s normativity with regard to these quests was absent. Yet, a tendency exists in the social sciences and humanities —  and this tendency also applies to this collective — to not name things or to disguise their materiality by choosing alternative labels. Labeling has a performative effect. The labeling of things becomes part of the materiality of an object. ‘Social practices’ and ‘producing the social’ have become current buzzwords (Ariztía, 2012, Camic et al. 2011). As I argued elsewhere (2014), as important as the latest ‘turn to practice’ is to study the production of the social sciences, it seems to systematically leave aside one dimension that is crucial in the shaping of practices both in the social sciences and in the sciences — the labour relations of academic knowledge production.

Of course, there are exceptions. To take an example from the SERRC, our colleague Stephen Norrie enriched the debate on academic work by providing us with creative approaches (2011) on how to form an academic collective in spite of institutional pressure to publish individually in top-tier journals, constraints that are especially prevalent for early career academics in precarious working conditions.

What we do in this collective is, in some way, an act of resistance. One might argue that taking the time to write a short piece here and, so, having less time to write for a top-tier journal could be considered, given current pressures for research output, a postmodern act of solidarity — albeit in disguised ways. However, naming and labeling — talking about academic work — is the first step. Perhaps every now and again it is necessary to think and act beyond the neoliberal university.


Ariztía Tomás, editor. Produciendo Lo Social: Usos de las Ciencias Sociales en el Chile Reciente. Santiago de Chile: Ediciones Universidad Diego Portales, 2012.

Barron, Colin. “A Strong Distinction Between Humans and Non-Humans is no Longer Required for Research Purposes: A Debate between Bruno Latour and Steve Fuller.” History of the Human Sciences 16, no. 2 (2003): 77-99.

Camic, Charles, Gross, Neil, Lamont, Michèle, editors. Social Knowledge in the Making. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2011.

Gouldner, Alvin Ward. The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. London: Heinemann, 1970.

Münch, Richard. Akademischer Kapitalismus. Über die Politische Ökonomie der Hochschulreform. Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2011.

Norrie, Stephen. “Three Social Contracts for an Academic Collective.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 1, no. 1 (2011): 14-24.

Roggero, Gigi. The Production of Living Knowledge. The Crisis of the University and the Transformation of Labor in Europe and North America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011.

Simbürger, Elisabeth. “The Labor of Knowledge in the Making of the Social Sciences.” International Sociology Reviews 29, no. 2 (2014): 89–97.

3 March 2014

A Puzzle About Disagreement and Rationality (PDF)
Jonathan Matheson, University of North Florida,

In the literature on the epistemology of peer disagreement, Conciliationists claim that discovering that an epistemic peer disagrees with you about a proposition provides you with a defeater for your justification for holding the doxastic attitude you have toward that proposition (see Christensen 2007, Elga 2007 and Feldman 2006). After all, you have gained a powerful reason to believe that you have made a mistake (either by misevaluating the shared evidence or by having acquired misleading evidence). Applied more generally, Conciliationism claims that we should be agnostic about claims that are significantly controversial amongst the relevant experts (see Carey and Matheson 2013).  After all, significant disagreement amongst the experts indicates that either our evidence on the topic is not very good or that we aren’t very good at evaluating it.  In either case, agnosticism toward the disputed proposition seems called for. So, according to Conciliationism, rationality calls for a removal of dissenting opinions — in the end, the disagreement should lead to skepticism toward the disputed proposition for all the involved parties.

However, psychological data regarding group inquiry indicates that groups with dissenting members are more successful in their inquiry with respect to the disputed propositions.  Such groups do better at avoiding confirmation bias and belief bias (see Mercier 2012, Nickerson 1996 and Dawson et al. 2002) plausibly by better offering a system of checks and balances in their inquiry. In brief, the research points to the conclusion those groups with dissenting members do better at arriving at accurate beliefs on those disputed topics at the culmination of inquiry.  So, according to the psychological data, rationality calls for preserving dissent — disagreement should be embraced as a great tool for getting at true beliefs.

Upon first glance, it looks as though the psychological data is in direct conflict with a plausible epistemological account of the epistemic significance of disagreement.  We want to have true beliefs and to avoid false beliefs, but Conciliationism tells us to do this by being agnostic in the face of disagreement (such that the disagreement disappears) while the psychological data tells us to embrace the disagreement (if not to even artificially foster it!).

While Conciliationism and the psychological data do pull us in different directions, I don’t believe that this indicates that they are in conflict.  The term ‘rational’ (and its cognates) is far from univocal.  In this case, we can see that the Conciliationist and the psychologists are after different senses of ‘rational’. While both may be seen as offering answers to the question, “What should I believe?” the Conciliationist is addressing a version of this question that is solely concerned with the proper response to the subject’s evidence at the time in question. In contrast, the psychologists have a version of this question that is focused on means/ends rationality and what will do us best in the long run.  In this way, we may think of the Conciliationists as addressing a synchronic version of our question “What should I believe?” while the psychological research is more concerned with a diachronic version of the question.

Consider the following case given by Earl Conee:

Suppose that there is a scientist, Sue, who is knowingly afflicted with an illness that is virtually always fatal.  However, suppose that Sue also knows that the belief that she will recover would slightly improve her chances. If she manages to adopt this belief and it does help to affect her recovery and thereby contributes to a subsequent acquisition of knowledge, then the belief has the instrumental epistemic merit of making this contribution to knowledge. The prospect of this further knowledge can make it rational for her to adopt the belief in spite of its conflict with what her evidence indicates about the likelihood of her recovery (1987, 316).

While Sue’s belief may have all kinds of prudential merit, what Conee points out is that her belief can have epistemic merit as well. While Sue’s belief that she will recover is not supported by her evidence at the time, having that particular belief nevertheless best promotes her ability to gain other true and rational beliefs. So, to the question, “What should Sue believe?” we can see that there are divergent answers to the synchronic and diachronic versions of this question. The answer to the synchronic version is that she should believe that she will likely not recover. The answer to the diachronic version is that she should believe that she will make a recovery. However, since these answers are to distinct versions of the more general question, they are in no way in conflict.  There is no pressure from the answer to the diachronic question to change our answer to the synchronic question (and vice versa).

All of this leaves open which version of this question we ought to be more concerned with. Since the different versions of the question offer different prescriptions with respect to what we ought to believe, the issue of which version we ought to be more concerned with is both relevant and pressing. I am not offering a solution to that problem here, but only noting that while there is this further issue, the psychological data regarding the rationality of dissenting groups should not be seen as a threat to Conciliationism about the epistemic significance of disagreement. While Conciliationism and the psychological research give different answers to the question “What should I believe?” I am contending that they are answers to distinct versions of this general question. While both may be seen as answering the general question, “What should I believe?” the Conciliationsists are interested in a synchronic version of that question while the psychologists are interested in a diachronic version.


Carey, Brandon and Jonathan Matheson. “How Skeptical is the Equal Weight View?” In Disagreement and Skepticism, edited by Diego Machuca, 131-49. Abingdon: Routledge, 2013.

Conee, Earl “Evident, but Rationally Unacceptable.”  The Australian Journal of Philosophy 65, no. 3 (1987): 316-326.

Christensen, David “Epistemology of Disagreement: The Good News.” Philosophical Review 116 (2007): 187-218.

Dawson, Erica, Thomas Gilovich and Dennis T. Regan. “Motivated Reasoning and Performance on the Wason Selection Task.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28, no. 10 (2002): 1379-1387.

Elga, Adam “Reflection and Disagreement.” Nous 41, no. 3 (2007): 478–502.

Feldman, Richard. “Reasonable Religious Disagreements.” In Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, edited by Louise M. Antony, 194-214. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Matheson, Jonathan. “Conciliatory Views of Disagreement and Higher-Order Evidence.”  Episteme: A Journal of Social Philosophy 6, no. 3 (2009): 269-279.

Mercier, Hugo. “Reasoning Serves Argumentation in Children.” Cognitive Development 26, no. 3 (2011): 177-191.

Nickerson, Raymond S. “Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises.” Review of General Psychology 2, no. 2 (1996): 175-220.

[1] I have added the name, and have made several small changes to the case.

24 February 2014

A Social Epistemology for Scientific Excellence (PDF)
David Budtz Pedersen, University of Copenhagen,

In many ways scientific excellence is a managerial concept used for enhancing performativity and exercising soft power in contemporary knowledge management. Excellence is the criteria used by research councils and foundations to assess grant applications and highlight the most productive and innovative researchers — often based on the assumption that it helps naming and shaming the ones not so productive. But scientific excellence has become such an integral part of contemporary knowledge management and science policy that social epistemologists should start directing their attention to the practices and definitions of research excellence.

Stimulating excellence in science and research has become a key asset for maintaining a leading position in a highly competitive knowledge economy. In recent years, the notion of excellence and its interconnectivity with the capacity to perform research at the highest international level have become exceptionally influential. New instruments for competitive funding as well as new funding bodies (like the European Research Council) have been established in order to stimulate risk-taking and re-thinking of common wisdom. Research excellence initiatives have become a major driver for achieving breakthroughs in basic research, scientific and technological development, as well as in product and service innovation (Krull et al. 2013).

There is widespread consensus among policymakers of the importance to support scientific excellence through special funding, including the provision of large-scale, long-term funding and well-equipped research infrastructures crossing established institutional and disciplinary borders. A recent OECD survey of global research excellence initiatives found 56 different funding schemes across 18 countries. Among the different schemes, five rationales for stimulating scientific excellence could be identified: (i) Improve national competitiveness in science; (ii) create an environment for improved quality of research; (iii) increase the international visibility of national research centers and universities; (iv) recruit talent and early-career scholars; and (v) support resource-intensive research and capacity-building, including interdisciplinary research and collaboration (OECD 2014).

Despite this interest worldwide in promoting scientific excellence through special instruments and funding strategies, a number of critical issues need further clarification and attention. International competition is eroding the national capacity of research institutions to deliver excellence in all disciplinary breadth. There is no substantial commitment to ensure favourable and steady career paths for the young researchers and to facilitate long-term support structures for early-career researchers that allow genuine mobility without risking personal insecurity.

Fostering competition and structural change can create friction and unintended consequences. Competitive research funding means that some fields (i.e. the humanities and social sciences) may be disproportionately disadvantaged while others may experience an overflow of support and investment (Budtz Pedersen and Hendricks 2013). There is a danger of concentrating resources excessively on too few institutions or research topics without securing complementarity with broader institutional policies and epistemic diversity. Obstacles that may undermine drivers for excellence include international bandwagon effects (“bubbles”); simplistic benchmarking exercises that may counteract renewal and creativity; too short-term perspectives on return on investments; and the potential enforcement of hierarchical structures that may stifle innovation and the proliferation of disruptive ideas.

In short, social epistemologists should be concerned with understanding and deconstructing research excellence initiatives while at the same time contributing to a more coherent framework for promoting basic scientific knowledge. The renewed focus on research excellence, as well as the extensive funding available for excellence initiatives worldwide, promises a shift away from short-term strategic research. Instead a more modest, context-sensitive and long-term epistemology of science policy is evolving taking its point of departure in the actual research practices of frontier scientists.

This reflection is based on the recent meeting of The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). At the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago 14-17 February 2014, David Budtz Pedersen organised the session “Global Excellence” (read more:


Budtz Pedersen, D. and Vincent F. Hendricks. “Science Bubbles.” Philosophy and Technology 2013. DOI: 10.1007/s13347-013-0142-7.

Krull, Wilhelm, et al. Evaluation of The Danish National Research Foundation. Copenhagen: Danish Ministry of Science, Innovation and Higher Education, 2013.

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Promoting Research Excellence: New Approaches to Funding. OECD Publishing: Working Party on Research Institutions and Human Resources, forthcoming 2014. DOI:10.1787/9789264207462-en.

17 February 2014

Dreaming the Future: What it Means to be Human (PDF)
Emma Craddock, University of Nottingham,

The power of imagination is infinite.
-John Muir

In ‘The Value of Imagining the Trans/Posthuman,’ Victoria explores the relationship between imagination and knowledge, positing that ‘imagination is the starting point for all there will be to know’ (13). Using this assertion as my starting point I intend to explore the role of imagination further, drawing on ideas concerning dreams, stories, and the future. I hope to consider these within the overarching theme of what it means to be human.

Whilst imagination can indeed be seen as the springboard for knowledge, I would argue that it is not just about what will be known but, importantly, what could be known. I believe that this is an important distinction to make as it emphasises the boundless nature of imagination and the sense of possibilities that this brings. Furthermore, it is this ability to dream, to wonder about the future, and perhaps most importantly, to hope for a better future that underlies the human condition. Whilst imagination has the potential, and the appeal, of being limitless and fantastical, it nevertheless contains the seeds of tangible realities. Crucially, imagination equips us with the tools to ask ‘what is possible?’ Indeed, the dream stretches the realms of possibility; it plays with the boundaries of what is real and epitomizes fantasy. But it is also the basis for speculation and invention. As Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista Army states: ‘In our dreams we have seen another world… And this new, true world was not a dream from the past; it was not something that came from our ancestors. It came to us from the future; it was the next step that we had to take’.

Victoria’s visualisation of the trans/post-human invited and encouraged the audience to imagine the possible futures of ‘the human’. There are two key aspects that stand out for me here. Firstly, the idea of enhancing and perfecting ‘the human’ is a project of development; it assumes that history is a linear and forward marching process that builds upon that which has come before. Furthermore, it is not only a forward march but an upward one too, aiming to improve and progress humanity. For me, this reflects another distinctly human feature, namely that we make sense of our experiences and the world around us through narrative. The story is a powerful tool that draws on the imagination, as Polletta argues ‘people do things with stories. They entertain and persuade, build social bonds and break them, make sense of their worlds and, in the process, create those worlds’ (2006, 14). Creativity is central to interpreting, constructing, and re-telling our experiences of reality. Indeed, as Duncombe remarks ‘[i]t is not that reality doesn’t exist- it is more that by itself it doesn’t really matter. Reality is always refracted through the imagination, and it is through our imagination that we live our lives’ (2007, 18). Stories matter. But why do they appeal? Is it because of their tendency to structure events into a beginning, middle and an end? Or is it the way that stories present and reinforce normative conclusions? Is it that they provide the space and freedom to imagine potential futures? Or is it because they play on our flair for the dramatic? Of course it is likely to be all of these things and many more besides (see for example Polletta 2006). However, I wish to elaborate on the dramatic element of storytelling here as, in my opinion, it ties into this undercurrent of what it means to be human.

For Duncombe, ‘[s]pectacle is our way of making sense of the world. Truth and power belong to those who tell the better story.” (2007, 8). As Debord (1992) proclaims, we live in a ‘society of the spectacle’. Here, the public sphere is conceived as the public stage. It is ‘a symbolic forum in which actors have increasing freedom to create and to project performances of their reasons, dramas tailored to audiences’ (Alexander 2011, 49). In fact, Alexander explores this relationship between art and life, portraying the relationship between society and theatre in the shape of a figure of eight. In this way, societal issues are addressed by plays and questions concerning society are raised by dramas (2011, 48). Victoria’s piece could be read as art imitating (a potential future) life. In any case, her imaginings raise questions about future realities.

Secondly, by organising discussion around the painting itself, Victoria draws our attention to the visual and its prominence in contemporary society. Indeed, in a culture of digital media and 24 hour news-feeds, punchy images and digestible sound-bites become the focus. The scene is painted of a fast-paced, consumer society where the present is pressing and immediacy is prioritised. We exist in a world, or a time, where ‘[w]e no longer have ‘lives’ but a ‘life’, in the present’ (Presdee 2000, 26). It is about individualism and it is about now. While I agree that in the context of a visual culture it is important to ‘speak to people’s fantasies and desires through a language of images and associations’ (Duncombe 2007, 8), I dispute the notion that in a world characterised by consumption and immediate gratification- we lose sight of the future. In fact, I believe that at the core of what it means to be human is our future-orientation and in particular, the ways in which we cast ourselves as part of a progressive story arc. Moreover, we do not merely view ourselves as playing a supportive role but as the star of the show. Indeed, at the centre of Victoria’s exhibition was a portrait of herself imagined in a trans/post-human future.

Finally, at the heart of the human condition is emotion. As Eve Ensler (2011) defiantly exclaims, ‘I am an emotional creature’. To have compassion is to be ‘humane’, alternatively we describe those who lack empathy and emotion as ‘monsters’; we strip them of their human status. And yet, as Jasper and Polletta muse ‘somehow, academic observers have managed to ignore the swirl of passions all around them’ (2001, 1). The problem is that the emotional has traditionally been depicted as the antithesis of the rational. And it is reason which ‘takes center stage. It is reason, after all, that distinguishes us as human.’ (Duncombe 2007, 11). That which speaks to the emotions (or the heart and body, which have typically symbolised the emotional as opposed to the mind), is dangerous. Like imagination, emotion is uncontainable. It is messy and threatens to overspill into areas of life such as the political which (according to Enlightenment ideals) should be a matter of the discerning mind and concerned with reason. Yet, Duncombe makes the pertinent point that modern day politics need to harness the power of the spectacle and appeal to people’s emotions. In fact he contends that ‘[t]he refusal to accept that people are complex beings, with contradictory ideals of reality and fantasy (a refusal that often results in the ignorance, avoidance, or repression of the latter), is a hangover from the old Enlightenment ideal of authenticity, the dream of a seamless self’ (2007, 76). Whilst I would be wary of throwing the Enlightenment baby out with the authenticity bathwater, I recognise and am sympathetic towards Duncombe’s desire to appreciate and explore the complex contradictions of humanity. And although, like most dreams, Duncombe’s enquiry of fantasy is not comprehensive or without flaws, at its heart is an inspiring idea. Just as Victoria proclaims ‘[s]o why not imagine or envision?’ (14), I would add why not dream about the future? After all, the possibilities are boundless.


Alexander, Jeffrey C. Performance and Power. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011.

Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle and Other Films. London: Rebel Press, 1992.

Duncombe, Stephen. Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. New York: The New Press, 2007.

Ensler, Eve. I Am An Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World. New York: Random House, 2011.

Goodwin, Jeff, James M. Jasper, and Francesca Polletta. Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social Movements. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Peake, Victoria. “The Value of Imagining the Trans/Posthuman.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 11 (2013): 13-15.

Polletta, Francesca. It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Presdee, Mike. Cultural Criminology and the Carnival of Crime. London: Routledge, 2000.

10 February 2014

Metaphor and Social Epistemology (PDF)
Martin Evenden, National Taichung University of Education,

The phenomenon of metaphor is relevant to social epistemology in a number of ways. It is pervasive and crucial in the direction, development and understanding of scientific theories (e.g. cognitive psychology largely understands the brain/mind as a computer), has been used by scientists in conjunction with the media to exacerbate a climate of fear (e.g. bird flu as a natural bio-terrorist) in order to increase resource allocations from policy makers (Nerlich and Halliday 2007) and as tools of persuasion (e.g. the genome as a map or medical crystal ball) when scientists want to promote the value and social meaning of their science to the public (Nelkin 2001). Moreover, Lakoff and Johnson (1980a) have argued that we ‘live by metaphors’ in the respect they conceptually ‘define our everyday realities’ in terms of how we both think and act. Thus, it is much more than a figurative device or something merely associated with myths as I hope to explain below.

In essence, metaphor involves thinking about something in terms of something else. For instance, when we think of the brain/mind as a computer as in the example above, the brain is understood as a computer in a physical sense and the mind in terms of a computer programme. In addition, certain extensions follow from this. Hence, memory is conceived as a database, knowledge as the contents of that database, thinking as the manipulation of symbols and understanding as computation (cf. Lakoff and Johnson 1999: 257).  Furthermore, this particular metaphor has even influenced cognitive science to the extent that some cognitive phenomena have no separate terminology for them other than expressions such as ‘information processing’ (Boyd 1993).

What transpires here is that we use something that we have direct or concrete experience of in order to give structure to something that is more abstract and does not have clearly defined boundaries, thereby making it easier to understand.  As such, metaphor is among the most basic mechanisms we have for understanding our experience.  Nonetheless, in addition to providing insight, they also constrain given that in the process of foregrounding certain elements of reality, their internal structure necessarily conceals others.  Yob (2003, 133) has noted this is a problem inherent in all metaphors: ‘Since in a sense metaphors are an artifice, a tool, for opening up possible conceptual territories for explanation, their connections and dynamics in constructing knowledge have inherent limitations.  Primarily, a metaphor is not the thing being referred to but a symbol of it.  If it were the same as the thing it was referring to it would not be needed.’ The upshot of this is that a variety of metaphors is necessary to capture the different sides or modes of behavior of any given phenomenon or object. The more complex and abstract something is, the more metaphors will be required to contend with it.

Hence, while thinking about the brain/mind in terms of computers has been productive and fruitful, it has limitations that some involved in cognitive science would do well to be aware of.  For instance, the computer frame does not easily fit into it elements such as emotions, bodily experience and social relations that clearly affect cognition (Semino 2008, 136). The problem is not using metaphor to try and understand something — this is clearly necessary for any abstract theorizing – it is simply that the mind is not a computer; therefore, thinking about it only in this way will constrain our understanding of it and inhibit new ideas and developments that might emerge if we also conceptualized the mind in other ways.  Eliasmith (2003, 495) provides a good overview here of the development of the theory of the nature of light that is useful to compare with how metaphors function in contemporary cognitive science and other scientific domains:

In the nineteenth century, light was understood in terms of two metaphors: light as a wave, and light as a particle.  Thomas Young was the best known proponent of the first view, and Isaac Newton was the best known proponent of the second.  Each used their favored analogy to suggest new experiments, and develop new predictions….As we know in the case of light, however, both analogies are false.  Hence, the famed “wave-particle duality” of light: sometimes it behaves like a particle; and sometimes it behaves like a wave.  Neither analogy by itself captures all the phenomena displayed by light, but both are extremely useful in characterizing some of those phenomena.

If no single metaphor is going to give us all the answers due to the aspects of reality it hides, it makes sense to use different metaphors that can offer different insights towards understanding the same concept. Lakoff and Johnson (1980b) claim that scientists generally hold an aversion towards using alternative metaphors because of a well intentioned insistence on consistency and suggest that while consistency may indeed be desirable, there are times when scientific understanding would be better served by making use of alternative metaphors. One possibility here that may add to our understanding of the mind is a rhizome (Duffy and Cunningham 1996).  This metaphor conceives the mind as a labyrinthine root structure that suggests an open, dynamic and constantly changing constellation of interconnected pathways where there are no fixed points or positions, just connections (relationships). Understanding the mind as a living network without clearly defined boundaries that can make connections and integrate with other ‘networks’ clearly opens possibilities more useful than a ‘container’ based metaphor when trying to conceive of thought processes embedded within socio-cultural contexts.

It is also important to recognize however, that this cognitive process of ‘framing’ something in order to understand it is not always neutral or benign.  For in actively ‘shaping’ how we perceive something via a ‘lens’ like effect, the resulting metaphoric image also carries a pragmatic dimension with implicit moral and social connotations that can be manipulated as an ideological tool. When issues of science and public policy are bound up with one another, misappropriation of such images can be dangerous.  To take another example connected to the world of computers, DNA being framed as a ‘code’ that functions as a ‘programme’ or ‘instructions’ implies the notion that character traits and behaviour are fixed and determinate — an idea that intermittently resurfaces and has been used by right-wing proponents to try and convince that welfare and education is wasted on those who have ‘bad’ genes (e.g. Herrnstein and Murray 1994).  If people’s essence is held to be in their genes, why spend money on trying to change something that cannot be changed?  On the other hand, the code metaphor paradoxically also suggests the reverse — genetic ‘engineering’ moots the very idea of change through facilitating various ‘improvements’ and other health benefits. How successful this can be, whether it should be legalised and, if so, how it should be regulated remains to be seen.

In any case, the main point being emphasised in this post is that while metaphors are an indispensable aid for purposes of illumination that function in meaningful ways, particularly with non-observables, they can come to be perceived as non-metaphorical and are also capable of and sometimes used for simplifying complex information in misleading and harmful ways.  Hence, awareness of their modes of operation is important so as not to fall victim to their power of persuasion and to enable us to challenge ones that do not meet our needs by either substituting or supplementing them with alternative ones.


Boyd, Richard. “Metaphor and Theory Change: What is ‘Metaphor’ a Metaphor for?” In Metaphor and Thought, edited by Andrew Ortony, 19-41. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Duff, Thomas .M. and Cunningham, Donald. J. “Constructivism: Implications for the Design and Delivery of Instruction.” In Handbook of Research for Educational Communications and Technology, edited by David H. Jonassen, 170-98. New York: Simon Schuster Macmillan, 1996.

Eliasmith, Chris. “Moving Beyond Metaphors: Understanding the Mind for What It Is.” Journal of Philosophy 100, no. 10 (2003): 493-520.

Herrnstein, Richard. J. and Murray, Charles. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press, 1994.

Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980a.

Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark. “The metaphorical structure of the human conceptual system.” Cognitive Science 4 (1980b), 195-208.

Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Nelkin, Dorothy. “Molecular Metaphors: The Gene in Popular Discourse.” Nature Review Genetics 2, no. 7 (2001), 555-559.

Nerlich, Brigitte and Halliday, Christopher. “Avian Flu: The Creation of Expectations in the Interplay Between Science and the Media.” Sociology of Health and Illness 29, no. 1 (2007), 46-65.

Semino, Elena. Metaphor in Discourse. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Yob, Iris. M. “Thinking Constructively With Metaphors.” Studies in Philosophy and Education 22, no. 2 (2003), 127-38.

3 February 2014

Collective Vision of Objects of Inquiry: Some Preliminary Thoughts (PDF)
Melinda Bonnie Fagan, Rice University,

I am a philosopher of science, but before that I studied biology: as an undergraduate, then as a graduate student, and finally (with one foot out the door) as a post-doc. I worked in eight laboratories or field-sites before I ever attended a philosophy class or read a philosophy text. I loved biology — more accurately, I loved the living world, of which humans are so small and recent a part. Today I study biological practices and their representational results; the living world appears my day-to-day practice only through a scrim of words. No more scraping barnacles off the rocks, or folding butterflies into wax paper to be tagged and released, or cutting mouse tails to harvest antibody-rich blood. Now I write papers, books — and this piece, which is different.

There are two reasons for the little indulgence above. One is indicate my own stance; always advisable in inter- or multidisciplinary contexts. The other is to introduce the idea that I want in this essay to weave together with the notion of ‘collective vision.’ This idea is that one’s day-to-day practice shapes one’s epistemic framework; i.e., the background assumptions and standards that inform one’s judgments about knowledge, evidence, explanation, and the like. This statement has the air of a truism — which is a good thing in a starting point for philosophical reflection. Readers will of course be familiar with the related idea that one’s social context shapes (or comprises) what I have termed one’s ‘epistemic framework.’ The point I want to tease out is somewhat different.

If one’s day-to-day practice is inquiry, then there is an epistemic relation between inquirer and that which is inquired into; i.e., between the subject and object of inquiry. A simple way to think about this relation is in terms of a method, understood as a set of explicit rules for inquiry. On this simple view, an inquirer’s day-to-day practice follows a method that produces knowledge about the object of inquiry. Much of social epistemology is concerned with challenging the various assumptions implicit in this simple formulation. These include: (1) a single inquirer, (2) a single method, (3) a univocal characterization of day-to-day practice, (4) perfect correspondence between method and epistemic framework, and (5) ‘optimal fit’ of method to object of inquiry. In science today (apart from very circumscribed cases), the first three assumptions do not hold. Scientific inquiry is largely performed by communities, which vary widely in aims, methods and standards. Scientific practice exhibits many different aspects, reflected in the diverse conceptual approaches of scholars studying science: economic, logical, ethical, historical, psychological, etc.

Here I want to focus on the latter two assumptions. Both describe idealized epistemic situations in overtly value-laden language. Understood as idealized models of inquiry, the assumptions of perfect correspondence and optimal fit are harmless and potentially useful. But they do not straightforwardly apply to actual inquiry. More realistic counterparts are (4’) epistemic frameworks include but are not limited to methods of inquiry, and (5’) linkage between method and object of inquiry is an achievement, judged in light of inquirers’ epistemic goals. These modified assumptions allow for adjustment of the epistemic relation between subjects and objects of inquiry, in light of extra-methodological features of an epistemic framework.

The notion of ‘collective vision’ can be positioned within this set-up in a variety of ways. The most obvious is to focus on subjects of inquiry, exploring the meaning, significance and possible impact of collective subjects of inquiry in diverse modes of organization. I will try to grasp the other end of the stick: objects of inquiry. What I want to examine are possible consequences of conceiving objects of inquiry as involved in collaboration. This is not a merely reflective exercise. Such a ‘collaborative conception’ of objects under investigation is implicit, I think, in many recent studies of complex systems, including developing organisms, electronic infrastructure, economic policy, ecological environments, and the brain. These and other complex phenomena are increasingly modeled as networks of interacting components.

There is a longstanding tendency, in philosophy as well as many scientific fields, to think of all interaction as causal interaction. The philosophical literature on causal relations is enormous; for my purpose here, it is enough to note some general features that are widely agreed upon. Causality is a directed relation between pairs of entities, events or variables, such that one is active, independent, or prior, the other passive, dependent, or secondary. Causal relations are fundamentally asymmetric, and involve the application of power. Cause-effect asymmetry is at the core of our conceptions of causality. Conceiving components of complex systems as causally related thus frames these objects of inquiry in terms of unequal power relations and a dominance hierarchy. But interactions among components of complex systems need not be understood as causal. An alternative is collaboration, conceived generically as a symmetric, mutual relation among two or more entities, which through their participation in this relation form a more inclusive overall system. On this view, genes and proteins, signaling cells, small molecules, species, and other diverse components of complex systems work together so as to constitute complex systems with distinct properties and behaviors. This approach organizes objects of inquiry into part-whole hierarchies, but without presuming power asymmetry. Instead of sorting components into causes and effects, controllers and controlled, this variety of collective vision represents components as mutually interrelated collaborators.

This ‘collaborative view’ of objects of inquiry is gaining traction in many areas of biology, notably those that have moved beyond hypotheses about single ‘master molecules’ controlling cellular and organismal processes. Another feature of these fields is emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration. Scientific inquiry is increasingly practiced by multi-disciplinary teams, including theoretical and experimental researchers from a variety of fields, as well as medical practitioners, engineers, ethicists, and so on. In situations where interdisciplinary collaboration is sought and objects of inquiry conceived as collaborators, it may be fruitful to adjust the epistemic relation between subjects and objects of inquiry such that collaborative relations among the former reflect those of the latter. Although such correspondence is not logically required, inquiries in which day-to-day practices are conceived in a single collaborative framework have greater coherence than those with divergent approaches to subjects and objects. And such coherence may pay off in greater efficiency or effectiveness. Of course this is just a speculative possibility. But if my suggestion is correct, a collaborative view on objects of inquiry could enhance collaboration among inquiring subjects.

My current research develops this idea in the context of mechanistic explanation — a major topic of debate in philosophy of science today. Here I have attempted to articulate some of the key ideas in a way independent of those debates, in terms that may strike a chord with other SERRC participants. The view suggested here is speculative, but may find a place within a broader account of ‘feedback’ between collective practices of inquiry and models of inquiry’s objects.

27 January 2014

Before Social Epistemology: On the Limited Efficacy of ‘The Scandal’ (PDF)
Inanna Hamati-Ataya, Aberystwyth University,

I come to Social Epistemology (SE) from the disciplines commonly known as Political Science and International Relations (IR), having originally been trained in the natural sciences. Given the division of labour within the modern Academy, and the way knowledge and science are traditionally addressed (if at all) within social science and humanities curricula and research, the road to SE was unsurprisingly long, if unnecessarily painful. Having now firmly ‘landed’, SE certainly feels like an intellectual home — not merely the place where I can find answers to my questions and develop my research interests, but where such questions and interests are actually conceivable and legitimate.

But my academic home is different. In the daily routine of researching and teaching about world politics and social/international theory, the disjunction between the consensus among social epistemologists — the very consensus that makes this Collective capable of formulating and pursuing a ‘collective vision’ — and the parameters of the conversations going on in my field about theory and its relation to empirical work, is sometimes difficult to manage. Outside of the SE community, the premises of SE are not only contested, but also often inconceivable; its constitutive theoretical traditions and the empirical literature it draws on and produces are either completely invisible or, worse, misunderstood. This makes successful communication and exchange dependent on a constant process of (self-)clarification that needs to take into account not merely one’s interlocutors’ frame of understanding, but also the cognitive, institutional, and social ‘stakes’ associated with everyone’s (including one’s own) intellectual convictions.

I am aware that a certain personal ‘style’, ‘technique’ or ‘strategy’ of argumentation and persuasion is required to efficiently get past some psychological, intellectual, or dispositional resistances to the mindset and project of SE. But at a deeper level, there clearly are structural factors that seem to constantly defeat the possibility and progress of sociological and empirically-based normative thinking about thought, knowledge, and science. And given the essentially reflexive nature of SE, it seems to me that the task of assessing its own conditions of (im)possibility within the Academy and intellectual life more generally should be an ongoing one, rather than just a necessary critical first step for establishing its foundations against the classical, dominant view — which has indeed already been successfully done! At least I feel this is something that needs to be pursued within the different disciplines, especially because I believe that SE should ideally serve as a foundation for my own field, rather than merely an independent endeavour growing alongside it. So my first contribution to the Collective’s posts is somehow a move ‘backwards’ and ‘below’ the SE consensus. And since this move entails going back to the ‘basics’ — which are not necessarily viewed as basic at all outside of SE – I will focus here more on the sociology of knowledge/science component of SE than its normative dimension.

On the Relationship of Philosophy and Sociology

I should start by saying that it is still not clear to me how the relationship and differences between philosophy and sociology need to be negotiated when it comes to the analysis and evaluation of social life, especially given the different and evolving understandings of these disciplines’ respective distinctiveness and mission (e.g., how their boundaries, methodologies, and mutual influence are differently defined and enacted within the Anglo-American and Continental traditions). What is clearer to me at this point is that while there is evidence of fruitful engagement between ‘philosophers’ and ‘sociologists’, the limits of such an engagement always end up coinciding with the borders of ‘Anglo-American’ and analytical philosophy, which still constitutes a referential framework for epistemological discussions and debates in the social sciences, and permeates all ‘political theory’ as it is construed outside of Continental traditions. That the idealist, a priori, and logical-deductive mode of thinking that characterizes this type of philosophy makes it impermeable to the very notion, and overall project, of a sociology of knowledge (and more broadly, to a sociology of thought, ideas, and cognition) is something that was noted early on by sociologists, whether they were interested in ‘ideology’ and ‘knowledge’, or simply trying to establish the foundations of ‘positive thought’. But its resilience (and stubbornness) remains puzzling to me, given the development of sociological studies of knowledge over at least the last century.

As an ‘interested participant’ in the social sciences, I see the dominant idealist view as a serious obstacle to the development of the sociology of knowledge — and by extension, social epistemology — as a foundation for an alternative (reflexive and empowering) way of thinking about and practicing the social sciences, and becoming a socially useful scholar. And I confess that idealism makes me lose most of my interpretivist and constructionist sensibilities, and triggers my deep-rooted (French-) positivist reflexes. So whenever a colleague raises an eyebrow or laughs at my mentioning such strange things as ‘historical epistemology’, ‘the sociology of logic’, or the social conditions of possibility of a given philosophical ‘-ism’, I can only see this as another manifestation of the fact that neither knowledge, nor thought, have yet been seriously and systematically addressed as ‘social phenomena’ endowed with real ontological status that could — let alone should, as per Durkheim’s rule — be ‘treated as things’.

While I understand that philosophers might not feel compelled to treat anything as a social phenomenon, theorists who work within the social sciences, and who either actively contribute to the philosophy of social science as it pertains to their field, or draw on it for their research, can be expected to take social science seriously, and seriously enough to extend sociological thinking to their own conceptual and methodological tools. And yet the dominance of the classical philosophical view within the social sciences creates a disjunction between social scientists/theorists’ acceptance of knowledge as a social phenomenon in ontological terms, and their implicit or explicit rejection of its social status at the epistemological level of inquiry.

One obvious indicator of this disjunction is the extent to which theoretical or empirical studies about the relation of knowledge to social interests, social order, and power actually impact the epistemological discussions of those fields — such as my own —where such studies have gained some measure of authority. For example, even when Feminist (especially Standpoint), Constructivist, Marxist, Post-structuralist, Critical (Frankfurt-School-style), or Post-colonial approaches are considered relevant and informative with respect to how given social structures and processes enable given cognitive configurations and systems, there is always a limit to how such relevance is brought to bear on meta-theoretical and epistemic discussions. So one can very well accept, say, Foucault’s analysis and conclusions on the constitution of psychiatry as a cognitive field, and use this analysis to illuminate other social aspects of ‘power-knowledge’ at work, but the logical step of extending such analysis to the philosophy of science and epistemology (and one’s own discipline) is difficult to initiate and pursue. The sociological hardly and rarely ‘trickles up’, as if these cognitive fields were outside of social reality and history. And without this necessary step, it is not clear to me what a ‘critical’ or ‘reflexive’ scholarship would mean at all.

Meta-Theory and Normativity

For some mysterious reason, the assumption remains that discussions of meta-theory should themselves be theory-driven or theoretical (and hence self-contained and self-sustained) rather than empirically-grounded, as if idealist regress in analysis were a conceptual or methodological necessity (it certainly appears to be a logical necessity for epistemologists, and so idealism begets idealism, and the analytical reinforces the analytical). The typical reaction on the classical side (as noted by Steve Fuller early on) is still very much what I encounter in my daily interactions: the sociology of knowledge/science cannot tell us anything useful about epistemic or epistemological questions; it doesn’t provide us with a ‘demarcation’ criterion between knowledge/science and opinion/non-science, nor does/can it tell us what knowledge/science ‘are’, etc… I see this posture permeating all meta-theoretical and philosophical discussions in my field. Not only epistemological discussions wherein the Bachelardian alternative, for example, is completely ignored (even by post-structuralists, who are presumably more likely to want to explore the origins of their thought), but almost any discussion pertaining to the realm of ideas and values.

When theorists, for instance, gather to discuss what a theory is, and how to produce ‘better’ theories, they take their cues from the classical debates and categories of the philosophy of science (and end up reaching the same dead-ends), most of which start from some a priori notion, principle, relation, or standard of validity, measure, and inference. It is never clear whether and how these models have informed the actual development of real and ‘good’ social theories, or why one would not rather turn to the actual history of sociological explanations in order to critically induce the criteria or conditions that make a social theory a ‘good’ or useful one (which is what a Bachelardian posture would entail if it were applied systematically to all the constituents of scientific practice).

Such questions are implicitly rejected on the basis that what is cannot inform what ought to be. Indeed it seems to me that when classical philosophers/epistemologists, and those who follow their lead, ask what knowledge ‘is’, they really are asking a different, i.e., normative, question. This same idealism, whereby reality (both natural and social) is de facto considered irrelevant in answering questions about the ‘nature’ of things and processes, permeates the way that political and normative theories are understood, taught, and used in the Anglo-American tradition — for example, Rawls’ theory of justice, or that peculiar field called ‘applied ethics’, where a view of ‘the good’ and ‘the just’ is constructed independently of any engagement with the history and sociology of norms, and then forced onto political reality to make it fit the model. I suspect that if epistemologists or political and normative philosophers in that tradition were asked what DNA ‘is’, they wouldn’t rely on their mode of reasoning to answer such a question. But somehow, when it comes to knowledge, science, theory, objectivity, values, and norms, the relation between truth and reality, thought and practice, is reversed.

I find this attitude especially problematic in political studies, where ‘power’ and ‘the political’ are considered as core objects — and sometimes even as a defining subject-matter. So a non-social and hence de-politicized understanding of thought, knowledge, and science at the epistemological level of inquiry is here not only logically incoherent, but practically (and praxically) problematic and dangerous. It is interesting that a discipline that has dealt for so long with such notions as ‘ideology’ and the ‘knowledge-power nexus’ has managed to retain so much idealism and a priori thinking when it comes to epistemic and ethical questions. Some macro-studies on the socio-institutional development of political thought in the West provide important elements to answer this question. And I’m hoping that my research on the history and sociology of the sub-field of International Relations in the UK will help me connect these broad macro-processes to the micro-level of scholars’ worldviews, value-systems, and dispositions, through a more praxeological and ethnographic approach.

Sociological Thinking and Critical Pedagogy

In the meantime, I am intuitively and perpetually drawn to foundational texts in sociology and the sociology of knowledge, and to the fact that their authors’ posture and clarifications on the one hand, and the objections and outrage their intellectual moves triggered on the other, still resonate with the contemporary situation. So when going back to Comte, Marx, Durkheim, Bachelard, as well as Weber, Scheler, and Mannheim (despite his ‘failure of nerve’), and reading their texts not merely as cognitive ‘representations’ but also as social ‘interventions’, our age does not feel so different from theirs. I sense that the sociology of knowledge is still a ‘scandal’ — even when it is only partially understood, and hence only intuitively perceived as a threat or disturbance to dominant ways of thinking and doing. But more generally, it seems to me that sociology itself is still scandalous, and its potentially socially subversive nature still very strong.

I find pedagogical practice to be especially informative as to the extent to which sociological thinking has really impacted contemporary thought, as opposed to the mere utilitarian social impact of the social sciences and their methodologies. Even when students develop affinities with constructivist or post-structuralist approaches to social reality, their cognitive reflexes remain somehow ‘below’ sociological thinking. I suspect that the way post-structuralism and postmodernism have developed into intellectual and university fashions outside of their socio-intellectual context of emergence is partly responsible for this. Perhaps a more important factor is the extent to which sociology informs secondary education, especially in comparison to philosophy, and therefore whether sociology’s ‘unmasking’ effect is able to efficiently operate at the formative level where total-ideology-based ‘commonsense’ is institutionally reinforced. Whatever the case may be, I am often perplexed by how students who can handle de/constructionist or genealogical thinking at quite a sophisticated level are puzzled by such a basic notion that such things as suicide, aesthetic preferences, love, or mathematics can be studied/considered as social phenomena. Indeed I often feel torn between the desire to offer students the most up-to-date research on issues pertaining to knowledge and power, and the feeling that what they need first and foremost is Comte’s Lectures and Durkheim’s Rules.

A more troubling dimension, however, is how resistance to sociological thinking seems to be related organically and in utilitarian ways to liberalism and its associated individualism and universalism. I am cautious about claiming a necessary link between sociology and ‘the left’, even if the birth of (European) sociology is undoubtedly connected to socialism and a more or less organic view of society (as opposed to American sociology, and early British social theorizing). But the dominant liberal ideology has certainly shaped everyday thinking about social and moral acts and facts, and what our ‘commonsense’ relation to social reality has become. And it certainly seems to support, and be reinforced by, analytical-idealist thought, as they both share the ability to sustain a mysterious linkage between the unattainable private realm of the individual (and her intimate thought, values, and personal preferences) and the transcendental realm of the universal (thought, values, and norms in ‘the absolute’) — both of which are characteristically defined as a-social, and hence as beyond the purview of sociological thought and inquiry.

With these concerns in mind, I see social epistemology as foundational for my field of study, in the sense that its overall project of connecting the sociological appraisal of knowledge and science, with a normative reflection on the social distribution and management of knowledge, provides the framework for both a critical, reflexive political sociology and a responsible, accountable scholarly praxis, including critical pedagogy. I therefore look forward to engaging the members of the Collective, and drawing on their insights for the promotion of the ‘collective vision’ despite the structural and intellectual challenges the modern Academy’s division of labour has imposed on us and our students.

20 January 2014

The Varieties of Hermeneutics and Engaging with Social Epistemology (PDF)
Nathan M. Bell, University of North Texas,

What I find most interesting about social epistemology (given my own research background) is the intersection of hermeneutics with social epistemology. Hermeneutics, and rather various aspects of it, have come up in different articles and responses involving social epistemology. The aspect of the varieties of hermeneutics is of particular interest to me. Hermeneutics, while always referring to interpretation, has a fairly wide range of meaning. Looking at philosophical traditions following Heidegger, hermeneutics generally tends to be fairly critical of (supposedly) objective scientific knowledge, but varies in how thinkers look at knowledge based on interpretation, history, and tradition.

One major vein of hermeneutics is what Nicholas Smith refers to as “weak hermeneutics,” with weak referring to the absence of strong knowledge claims (1997, 19-25). This approach can be found in the work of Frederich Nietzsche, John Caputo, Gianni Vattimo, and a fair number of ‘post-modern’ thinkers. Such thinkers tend to focus on the limits of knowledge, the limits to objectivity, and the overall subjectivity of interpretation (to be clear, this does not mean that these thinkers all admit to pure relativism). Another trend is what Smith calls “strong hermeneutics,” seen mainly in Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur. Gadamer and Ricoeur, while still critical of the Enlightenment model of knowledge, seek more so to give creditability to the kind of knowledge that we can have from interpretation. So while the one trend of hermeneutics focuses on the limits of knowledge, the other focuses on the genuine possibility of knowledge within a hermeneutic framework. Not all hermeneutics fits into either of these trends, yet this does represent a major division within hermeneutics.

What I wish to examine more in the future, then, is how a closer look at these varieties of hermeneutics interacts with the idea and questions of social epistemology. For example, in dealing with the social dimensions of knowledge and information, to what extent can we say that some forms of social knowledge formation are potentially more valid than others? This answer might vary quite a bit depending on whose view of hermeneutics you are using. This is most especially true when any kind of normative considerations come into play (as Pedro Saez William’s own Collective Visions post brings up). While some varieties of hermeneutics would give us a pretty much equal playing field in terms of social knowledge formation, other varieties would allow that some kinds of social knowledge might be better than others (admitting the criteria for that is not always very clear). Both sides of that debate create problems if we want to give validity to knowledge as a social phenomenon and yet also want to establish normative claims.

My own research focuses heavily on environmental hermeneutics, which as a field can be defined as “the extension of principles of interpretation to environments of any kind,” as well as “the interpretation of actual encounters of or within environments” (Utsler et al. 2013, 3). In other words, it uses hermeneutic theories to look at how peoples’ encounters with and views of the environment are largely rooted in interpretation. The problem that arises from this is that even under ‘strong’ hermeneutics we still have to deal with conflicting environmental interpretations of which many are potentially valid but also environmentally destructive. This is exactly where an intersection with social epistemology might be incredibly fruitful. Truth (or interpretation) about the environment does not always align with scientific consensus (and in some cases is rather oppositional to it).

Truths and values about the natural world and human impact on the planet do seem to arise socially, but also as a variety of different views, with correspondingly different practical-normative environmental claims. When we compare a range of socially formed truths about the environment, by what criteria (if any) can we elevate some of these truths, processes, or communities above others? In what ways can the considerations of social epistemology help in these considerations? What do the varieties of hermeneutics and the varieties of social epistemology all have to say about this? These are the major questions that I am considering as someone interested in both hermeneutics and social epistemology, and which I hope to work through by exploring further the relation between the two.


Smith, Nicholas H. Strong Hermeneutics: Contingency and Moral Identity. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Utsler, David, Forrest Clingerman, Martin Drenthen, and Brian Treanor. “Environmental Hermeneutics.” In Interpreting Nature: The Emerging Field of Environmental Hermeneutics, edited by Forrest Clingerman, Brian Treanor, Martin Drenthen, and David Utsler, 1-15. New York: Fordham University Press, 2014.

13 January 2014

A More Robust Software Ecology? (PDF)
Trevor Croker, Virginia Tech,

For my first collective vision post, I will do as many have done in the past and talk about some of the main scholarly pursuits that interest me in social epistemology. Specifically, I want to refer to a previous conversation within Social Epistemology and the Collective regarding software epistemologies.” In his article, “The Social Epistemologies of Software,” David Berry persuades us to take the seriously software epistemes as “a useful means of uncovering the agency of software and code for producing these new knowledges.” Software, it is argued, is increasingly a mediator between us and the physical world (Berry 2012, 381). In response to Berry’s article, Nathan Johnson and Damien Smith Pfister suggest that perhaps it would be more useful to reverse the analogy. Instead of an “ecological approach to computation,” we should focus on “computational ecologies,” as a means of getting to the root of these new social knowledges. Johnson and Pfister, uncomfortable with the binaries Berry proposes, ask us to look at “local micropractices” and the “intentionalites of code.”

Largely, I agree with all the authors’ points, however, I want to respond briefly to the way that we deploy “ecology” when talking about large communication networks. As we start to adapt ecological metaphors to the practice of computing, I am tempted to broaden the lens we use to tackle these issues. From my own viewpoint, an ecological metaphor can fall flat if we do not include the broader environment that surrounds one aspect of computing. At the same time, I think we can potentially lose a great deal of tacit and practical knowledge if we get lost looking at too broad of a picture. With that said, I have two primary thoughts regarding how we can best understand the development of software, first at an infrastructural level and secondly on a personal one.

David Berry’s decision to look at web bugs, beacons and trackers I think is a very productive move towards an ecological understanding of software. By focusing on these set of technologies, I think we start to pull together wide networks of actors involved in the production of software. However, I would push the focus even further. It is impossible to talk about bugs, beacons, or trackers without at least referring to the broader infrastructure that supports the development and propagation of these software programs. There should be, to some extent, a mention of the hardware, people and places that run these programs. If we are going to take the metaphor of ecology seriously, wouldn’t it be useful to bring the physical ecology of the network into the fold? While I fully understand the increasing mediated experience that digital networks produce, I also understand that much of the maintenance of the Internet, for instance, occurs through face-to-face interactions between network engineers and other computer professionals. This topic is explored by the journalist Andrew Blum in his book Tubes.

Of course, actually trying to weave these disparate pieces together is a challenge that I regularly run into. Software ecologies, it seems to me, are difficult to pin down when we try to look at them holistically. Johnson and Pfister’s suggestion to look at micropractices is likely the most rigorous way of studying these ecologies, but I wonder whether there is a way to tackle some of the broader ways we talk about “software.” Even in the case of bugs, beacons, and trackers, these are systems that rely on placing code into multiple systems across geography. These technologies do not function like traditional software (running locally). Perhaps software is not the right word?

My second point is more individual and it is something that I think we all could participate in. Berry, Johnson, and Pfister all point out that these software technologies are not simply given to users. Instead, through the use of these technologies, we become agents that modify the code itself. To a certain extent this sharing of knowledge has been present in many previous forms of technology. Still, digital technologies are ripe for the reproduction and sharing of knowledge through multiple user interactions. If we start to consider our own “software ecology,” we might start to think of ourselves as participants in the development of these shared software knowledges. This, I think, is what many individuals in the open-source, creative commons, and “modding” communities have already articulated. While I do not think that autoethnographic accounts of our own technology use will get us towards a broader understanding of software ecologies, I think it might be a way of cracking open the nut.


Berry, David M. 2012. “The Social Epistemologies of Software.” Social Epistemology 26 (3-4) 379-398.

Blum, Andrew. 2012. Tubes. Harper Collins: New York.

Johnson, Nathan R. and Damien Smith Pfister. 2013. “Ecologizing’ Berry’s Computational Ecology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. 2 (4) 7-9.

6 January 2014

Poor People of the World Unite! Poverty and the Future of Research in Heuristics (PDF)
María G. Navarro, Spanish Council for Scientific Research,

Some months ago, Laura Cabrera wrote ‘Visioneering and Our Common Future’ a post that many artists and intellectuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries would have supported as a manifesto that could inspire social movements and establish new ways of understanding political action. Cabrera was warning us: if academics do not intervene in more actively shaping the future, then the future will respond to a very limited set of visions.

Beneath this argument is the belief that academics can, in the first place, give shape to their visions of the future in a special way (for example, because they have the capacity to organise discourses and disseminate them via powerful symbolic technologies such as universities, languages, etc.). And, in the second place, this argument suggests that academics make sure that those visions will not only compete with the rest of alternative visions in a sort of global symbolic market, but also that they make sure that those visions contribute in a cooperative way to the existence of a specific type of discourse called ‘controversy’.

Hence, the competence between visions of the future neither guarantees per se the emergence of controversies, nor the axiological pluralism necessary so that different visions can really compete in order to offer the best of them. The old Republic of Letters is still the best global market where our visions of the future can compete, cooperate, exhibit their commonality, guarantee together an elemental level of epistemic pluralism or simply explore the laws (if any) that regulate the genre of controversy.

What would happen if we considered Cabrera’s invitation to “start shaping the future by visioneering ourselves, and not only visioning” as a necessary condition in any theoretical formulation about future life, or society, so that this formulation can be entitled to compete in that sophisticated space for debate called controversy? What would happen is that this condition would imply the elimination from the competition of those visions promoted by subjects, groups and/or collectives that did not satisfy the requisite of being ‘visioneers’ (people that shape future societies and radically transform the human condition doing research and engineering to advance any particular vision, promoting these ideas to the public).

The maxim proposed by Cabrera (visioneer yourself) might have normative impications from an epistemic point of view. Maybe it is risky to eliminate from academic debate those visions of the future (e.g., concerning public education, public health service, or humanity in general) that do not obbey to this hypothetical discursive condition (i.e., that your vision of the future entails in any sense, and degree, visioneering yourself). However, intellectuals make errors and there must exist institutional and social procedures not only to counteract the effect of the risks they must take, but also (what is more important) promote responsibly and actively assuming the task of taking intellectual risks. After all, is it not reasonable to demand theoretical risks that explore our limits in a technological, social and/or political sense in order to consider them as theoretical risks?

In The Intellectual (2005), Steve Fuller insists that the intellectual is a person that, because he or she cares more about finding the truth in general (or about what he or she wants to know), can incur errors making statements that he or she might, later, retract. This aspect of intellectual activity is extremely valuable from an ethical and epistemic point of view. Such activity frequently motivates important controversies and additionally shows that affirming something as correct, or even true, does not liberate us from the responsibility of finding new truths (especially if they are not ours).

I would like to draw attention on a collective of people that could contribute to the existing debate on the sense and the future of humanity — if it could be previously conceived in visioneering terms, and not visioning. This collective is one of poor people. Authors like Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo (2011) maintain that in reference to hunger — one of the world’s most serious problems due to the scale of its dehumanising effect — the poor have not been considered as a valid and effective source of information for defining the problems and analysing the solutions of global inequality. This fact is due to an understanding of poverty as a natural consequence of the so-called ‘culture of poverty’ that dooms individuals to behave irrationally.

The presumption of irrationality among the poor might be motivated by a view of human psychology and cognition according to which heuristics and cognitive biases distort and obstruct rational decision-making (Kahneman and Tversky). Opposing this view, often called ‘prospect theory’, the well-known alternative of the ABC Research Group presents heuristics as simple cognitive rules precisely because they exploit complex evolved capacities that lead individuals to constantly adapt and revise their decisions, depending on the changing circumstances which produce their choices (Goldstein and Gigerenzer 1996, 2002; Gigerenzer and Sturm 2011).

The design of a pluralist view of the function of heuristics, as a form of reasoning, can become a toolkit with new instruments and utilities for applied economics. Heuristics must be integrated into a wider action plan that lets us explain how resources enable us to reproduce the sort of knowledge being produced by agents.

I propose that the future of research in heuristics has to be understood as the poor people’s toolkit challenge. With this expression I suggest two things. First, that only an authentically bounded rationality (in the sense described by J. Francisco Álvarez and Javier Echeverría 2008) and cross-cultural research in the field of heuristic reasoning can lead to the exploration of this type of human reasoning. Second, that one of the tasks that should be carried out in order to eradicate poverty is that of visioneering ourselves so that the causes and the solutions to this intolerable and lucrative global redistributive injustice can be determined and explored.


Álvarez, J. Francisco and Javier Echeverría. “Bounded Rationality in Social Sciences.” In Epistemology and the Social, edited by Evandro Agazzi, Javier Echeverría and Amparó Gómez Rodríguez, 173-189. Poznan Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, vol. 96. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2008.

Banerjee, Abhijit and Esther Duflo. Poor Economics. A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. New York: PublicAffairs, 2011.

Gigerenzer, Gerd and Daniel G. Goldstein. “Reasoning the Fast and Frugal Way: Models of Bounded Rationality.” Psychological Review 103, no. 4 (1996): 650-669.

Gigerenzer, Gerd and Thomas Sturm. “How (far) Can Rationality be Naturalized?” Synthese 187 (2011): 243-288.

6 January 2014

Some (Initial) Connections between Citizen Science and Social Epistemology (PDF)
Todd Suomela, University of Tennessee,

The default question for those in the midst of a dissertation is simple: what are you studying?  But the answer is rarely simple.  By design the process of writing a dissertation is a combination of complication and simplifying. I’m currently in the middle of interviews with scientists, project managers, and journalists involved in writing about citizen science projects. The goal is to understand how they explain and frame the concept of citizen science to themselves and to the public.

Citizen science is a recent name for a phenomenon that is both new and old.  Non-professional scientists have contributed to scientific advancement for many years through projects such as the Audubon Society’s Christmas bird count and the National Weather Services cooperative observers. Both of these programs have been underway for more than 100 years. Contemporary citizen science takes the idea of using volunteers to help scientists and moves it into the internet age.  The development of the internet over the past 25 years has opened up new opportunities for scientists to recruit volunteers and new avenues for collecting data. Consumer technologies, such as GPS and smart phones, are in the middle of making scientific sensors available to more people than ever before.

But changes in technology are not the only reason why citizen science has become increasingly popular. There are social and institutional factors contributing to the growth of citizen science. STS in particular has contributed to the social recognition that expert scientific knowledge needs to be combined with the experiences of local populations, especially when they are affected by risky technologies (Irwin 1995). At an institutional level the demand for scientists to reach out to the public has led to changes in funding requirements, such as the broader impacts merit review by the National Science Foundation (Silvertown 2005). Recent questions about the reproduction of scientific results are contributing to calls for the publishing of data along with the traditional scientific journal article (Ionadis 2005). DataONE is an NSF funded project that is creating the infrastructure for ecological and environmental scientists to easily find data from other scientists.

My long-term goal over the next few years is to explore how amateur/non-professional volunteers contribute to the advancement of scientific knowledge.  I want to trace the changes in technology, society, and institutions that has led to the growth of citizen science over the past two decades.  I see numerous connections with what has already been discussed here in this social epistemology forum. Is citizen science a type of group knowledge? (Eric Kerr, this blog)  What mediates the communication between science and members of the public interested in working with a citizen science project? (Joan Leach, this blog) How does our understanding of epistemology relate to critical theory? (Stephen Norrie, this blog)

I don’t yet have any answers for these questions but I look forward to learning more from others about the potential connections between social epistemology and citizen science.  At the least my adventures here help to complicate my ideas about citizen science and its relation to philosophy.  And for that I’m already thankful for my time as part of the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective.


Ioannidis, John P. A. “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” PLoS Med 2, no 8 (2005): e124. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124

Irwin, Alan. Citizen Science a Study of People, Expertise, and Sustainable Development. London: Routledge, 1995.

Silvertown, Jonathan. “A New Dawn for Citizen Science.” Trends in Ecology and Evolution  24, no. 9 (2009): 467-471. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2009.03.017

30 December 2013

Wanting to Believe and the Burden of Knowing (PDF)
Phil Olson, Virginia Tech,

Ignorance is not always a bad thing. Running against the grain of traditional epistemology’s insistence upon the value of knowledge and the deficiency of ignorance, growing numbers of scholars have insisted, over the past ten years, that “the study of ignorance is a valuable tool for liberatory epistemologies” (Tuana and Sullivan 2006). Ignorance may refer not only to a lack of knowledge, but also to active and strategic knowledge practices that serve the interests of privileged social groups, at the expense of non-dominant groups. Ignorance wields a veiled power. Several authors have sought to expose this power, and to critique it in the name of those who are oppressed by the powerfully ignorant (see, for example, Olson and Gillman 2013, Sullivan and Tuana 2007, Sullivan 2006, Harding 2006, Ortega 2006). But others have identified in ignorance a less insidious power. As Cythia Townley points out, ignorance also “contributes positively to epistemic responsibility” (2006, 38). Advising us to resist the “global devaluation of ignorance,” Townley defends ignorance as a source of instrumental and non-instrumental epistemic values (ibid.). It is the positive contribution of ignorance to epistemic responsibility that I wish to explore in this posting. In particular, I wish to suggest that more of us embrace the oppositional power of ignorance against unjust distributions of epistemic responsibility, and to ask how we might collectively deploy this oppositional power.

In a greeting sent to this collective on December 24, 2013, Steve Fuller praises us for avoiding “topics like ‘trust’, ‘testimony’ and ‘expertise’,” adding that he dislikes these topics “because they suggest that someone else — not oneself — should be taking responsibility for knowledge claims.” Yet I want to believe that epistemic agents (individually and collectively) may rightly refuse to take direct responsibility for certain knowledge claims, and for certain processes of knowledge production. I want to believe that we may rightly relegate that responsibility to others. That is not to say that the powerfully ignorant may rightly refuse to take responsibility for the epistemic habits by which they (we) oppress the disenfranchised. Indeed, I agree with Townley that “[s]ome ignorance should be remedied; some ignorance is harmful” (2006, 38). Ignorance that perpetuates unjust distributions of epistemic responsibility and entitlement, for example, ought to be undone. But refusing to know, or refusing to accept the burden to know, may effect an oppositional power against unjust distributions of epistemic burdens.

At the same time that more and more philosophers, social psychologists, economists, and cognitive scientists assert the limits of human cognitive potential, citizens are being asked to bear increasing epistemic burdens. Caveat emptor. Caveat cives! We are everywhere advised to be on our guard: against predatory lenders, against drug companies and agribusiness, against physicians and medical researchers, against identity thieves, patent trolls, government surveillance, teachers, co-workers, friends, families—even against ourselves. Advocacy groups counsel us: “Be prepared,” “Be informed,” “Don’t be duped.” I worry that these advices rearticulate — despite their efforts, at times, to combat — the neo-liberal mantra of individual responsibility. Friedrich Hayek built his classical liberal, free market philosophy upon an epistemic principle: that “individual reason is very limited and imperfect,” and that it is folly to believe that “Reason, with a capital R, is always fully and equally available to all humans and that everything which man [sic.] achieves is the direct result of, and therefore subject to, the control of individual reason” (1984, 136). It is with some understandable (I hope) trepidation that I venture, “Hayek was right!” But accepting the epistemic premise does not commit us to agreeing with Hayek and his neoliberal successors’ claim to have discovered in the free market the best surrogate for enlightenment rationality. In fact, we have reason to mistrust the market, which we know houses a profoundly powerful and harmful ignorance.

One of my colleagues has written extensively on the perils of the knowledge production and knowledge distribution involved in genetic screening (Zallen 2008). Perhaps the moral, emotional, and practical costs of possessing certain kinds of genetic information reveal the value of a studious and resolute commitment to ignorance. Consider, too, the potential power in the words “No habla ingles,” when uttered unapologetically in certain contexts. These words can exert tremendous oppositional power. After all, why should one apologize for not knowing English? These words can expose unjust distributions of epistemic responsibility and challenge the unconscious habits of the powerfully ignorant.

I say I want to believe that we may rightly refuse to bear the burden to know. I am not yet prepared to assert what I want to assert. In the meantime, I hope some of us will give some thought, as Fuller rightly suggests, to “the ‘we’ who should be having [this belief]” (Christmas Greeting 2013). Identifying the various “we(s)” implicated in embracing the oppositional power of ignorance is one part of the process of developing a thoroughgoing study of the distribution of epistemic burdens. I am interested in the ways that epistemic burdens are distributed socially (a descriptive task), and in understanding the norms that ought to govern those distributions (a normative task). What sorts of things (individuals, groups, institutions, technologies, etc.) can bear epistemic burdens? What makes a burden epistemic rather than moral or prudential? Under what conditions is it appropriate (and when is it inappropriate) to withhold knowledge, to burden others with epistemic responsibilities, or to reject epistemic burdens? I imagine that a just distribution of epistemic burdens will entail that each of us has a different degree and kind of responsibility with respect to various processes of knowledge production, and with respect to the outcomes of those processes. If this is true, I do not see how we could do without careful studies of trust, testimony, and expertise — even if we do find prevailing analyses of these concepts unsatisfactory.


Fuller, Steve. “Christmas Greetings 2013.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. 24 December 2013. <>

Harding, Sandra. 2006 . “Two Influential Theories of Ignorance and Philosophy’s Interests in Ignorning Them.” Hypatia 21, no. 3 (2006): 20-36.

Hayek, Friedrich. “Individualism: True and False.” In The Essence of Hayek, edited by Chiaki Nishiyama and Kurt R. Leube, 131-159.  Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1984 [1948].

Olson, Philip R and Laura Gillman. “Combating Racialized and Gendered Habits of Ignorance: Toward a Transactional Pedagogy of Friendship.” Feminist Formations 25, no. 1 (2013): 59-83.

Ortega, Mariana. “Being Lovingly, Knowingly Ignorant: White Feminism and Women of Color.” Hypatia 21, no. 3 (2006): 56-74.

Sullivan, Shannon. Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.

Sullivan, Shannon and Nancy Tuana. Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.

Townley, Cynthia. “Toward a Revaluation of Ignorance.” Hypatia 21, no. 3 (2006): 37-55.

Tuana, Nancy. and Shannon Sullivan, eds. “Introduction: Feminist Epistemologies of Ignorance.” Hypatia 21, no. 3 (2006): vii-ix.

Zallen, Doris. To Test or Not to Test: A Guide to Genetic Screening and Risk. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008.

23 December 2013

Knowing Humanity in the Social World (PDF)
Francis Remedios, Independent Scholar,

Exploring the interplay between scientific knowledge and humanity remains important since scientific knowledge remains one of the most powerful forces for improvement of the world and humanity.  Scientific knowledge based on nanosciences, synthetic biology and computer technology is changing humanity. Here, ‘humanity’ designates the quality that makes humans distinct from non-humans. Steve Fuller’s social epistemology addresses the shifting dynamic between scientific knowledge and humanity.

Taking up the uniqueness of Fuller’s social epistemology, my current research adds to the discussion in Legitimizing Scientific Knowledge: An Introduction to Steve Fuller’s Social Epistemology (LSK, 2003). My book focuses on normative issues of how scientific knowledge should be organized and legitimized compared to philosophy of science and SSK. My research covers Fuller’s recent focus on the university, traditionally as the premier site of knowledge production, and its struggle with neoliberal forces. I also cover the changing boundary conditions of the knower due to threatened changes in humanity coming from nanosciences, synthetic biology and computer technology. On this host of issues, Fuller’s concern includes knowledge policy and epistemic justice.

On scientific knowledge, Fuller’s criticizes STS for providing a descriptive account of science and not a normative account. STS, particularly the Edinburgh School, demystified the account of scientific knowledge given by philosophers of science.  While STS is the discipline with which he is most generally associated, Fuller condemns STS’ lack of knowledge policy and relativism. In terms of his defense of humanity, Fuller responds to discussions initiated by Latour, who argues for removing the distinction between humans and non-humans both in matters of research and of policy.

Fuller argues that STS has not developed its own goals and is increasingly client-driven in these neoliberal times. With the impact of neoliberalism, a period when clients can strongly influence how academic knowledge is produced, Fuller defends the university, which is a social technology, as the premier site for knowledge production for the public good. On the basis of epistemic justice, Fuller recommends the classical Humboldtian notion of the university that emphasizes both research and teaching.

My research also focuses on the changing boundaries conditions of the knower. The knower now is not the same as the knower of the future in which humans can be enhanced through biotechnology, genetic engineering and synthetic biology (i.e., humans 2.0). Humanity 2.0 can be considered a milestone in Fuller’s later work since it brings together his discussions in other works on the foundation of the social sciences (The New Sociological Imagination) and the intelligent design debate (Dissent over Descent). As Fuller’s social epistemology concerns the social transformation of knowledge, the exploration of the changing boundary conditions of the knower is critical. With the enhancement of humanity through biotechnology, genetic engineering and synthetic biology, the knower’s identity and social epistemic status can change. With the advancement of computer and digital technology, avatars can be created and, thereby, the identity of the knower extended. The interface between the knower and the world has changed because the knower can be changed through either human enhancement or avatars.

As biotechnology, genetic engineering and synthetic biology change humanity, what does it mean to be human?  What is the distinctiveness of humanity?  As humanity is the locus of the social sciences, this book focuses on the changing boundary conditions of biology (race) and ideology (religion) for humanity. With the welfare state as the location of the battle between biology and ideology on humanity, Fuller defends the distinctiveness of humanity. He diagnoses the problem of humanity to be a bipolar disorder between our animal nature (biology) and our search for transcendence of nature (ideology). Are we closer to animals as advocated by Darwinism, or are we closer to God as advocated by Christianity? In current debates, the positions can be portrayed as between the poles of Peter Singer’s animal liberation or Ray Kurzweil’s spiritual machines.

For Fuller, humanity (which is moral) is the social sciences’ central project and consists of socially organized resistance to the natural selection and natural forces through collective projects such as Christianity, the university and the state. Participation in large-scale projects allows humans to control or even reverse the effects of natural selection. Fuller finds that the classical sociologists — Durkheim, Marx, and Weber — concur with his characterization of the project of humanity. Essential to Fuller’s concept of the project of humanity is the redistribution of wealth through the state. Fuller recognizes Foucault’s notion that the human sciences, as a body of knowledge, was created in the 19th century. By the 20th century, man has died — human sciences, as a body of knowledge, are in question.  Fuller connects humanity to transhumanism — the view that humanity can be enhanced or redesigned through technology. With converging technologies, biotechnology, nanotechnology and computer technology, humanity can be transformed to an enhanced version of humanity — humanity 2.0.


Fuller, Steve. The New Sociological Imagination. London: SAGE, 2006.

Fuller, Steve. Dissent Over Descent: Intelligent Design’s Challenge to Darwinism. Cambridge: Icon, 2008.

Fuller, Steve. Humanity 2.0: What it Means to be Human Past, Present and Future. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Remedios, Francis. Legitimizing Scientific Knowledge: An Introduction to Steve Fuller’s Social Epistemology. Lexington Books, 2003.

16 December 2013

Memetics vs. Human Extension: Round One – A Meme by Any Other Name … (PDF)
Gregory Sandstrom, European Humanities University, Lithuanian Science Council, [1]

More than Memetics

This Collective Vision article will make a brief comparison of the ‘extended phenotype’ theory and the ‘extended mind’ hypothesis, while also drawing on the ‘human extension’ work of Marshall McLuhan. The aim is to probe the notion that human beings can and do ‘extend’ and that ‘human extension’ and the ‘extended mind’ are appropriate language for application in social sciences and humanities (SSH). This marks an alternative to the biologically-biased term ‘memes’ and the ideology of memetics, as well as the outdated ‘universal Darwinism,’ which the originator of memetics, Richard Dawkins, generally advocates.

As Andy Clark and David Chalmers write, “the mind extends into the world” (1998). Similarly, as Richard Menary notes, “The extended mind begins with the question ‘where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?’” (2010,1). Indeed, this is similar to the problem that Dawkins attempted to face with ‘memes’ and their ‘phenotypic effects,’ the latter which he says “are its consequences in the outside world” (1982, 109), a claim that is actually made more forcefully by Daniel Dennett, than by Dawkins.[2] McLuhan is well-known for his ‘extensions of man’ (here called ‘human extension’) approach, which in short says that “all human artefacts are extensions of man[kind]” (1988, 116), thus reifying the extended mind hypothesis for SSH.[3] And most recently, an international network of more than 50 scholars, including Clark, is applying the work on extended mind and extended cognition in a project called ‘extended knowledge’ (Pritchard et al. 2013).[4]

Admittedly, quite a few contemporary voices still use the terms ‘memetics’ (e.g. Heylighen 1992, Blackmore 1999, Aunger 2000, Aunger 2003, Blute 2005, Heylighen and Chielens 2008, Di Carlo 2010) and ‘meme,’[5] the latter which is usually used synonymously with ‘viral media’ to describe that which is digitally extending on a mass scale in various societies and globally. This usage of ‘memes’ does not necessarily imply any particular worldview or a specific universal Darwinist ideology; some people just see the term ‘meme’ as a catchy word with a simple, narrow meaning. Yet the claim in this article is that memes are a scientific misnomer, invented superficially (and perhaps frivolously, as a rhyme) by a biologist/ethologist with social epistemology-apathy that distorts the study of human culture.[6] Memes and memetics simply do not fulfil the scholarly quality or rigour that one expects from SSH thinkers and Dawkins’ crude conceptualisation in the cultural realm vastly understates and does injustice to the complexity and diversity of the human life-world.

The contention here is that languages, technology, artefacts and even ‘viral media’ are more effectively and coherently explained, described and explored in-depth using the extended mind hypothesis (Sheldrake 1988, Clark and Chalmers 1998, Sterelny 2004, Wilson 2004, Logan 2005, 2008, Clark 2008, Adams and Aizawa 2008, Menary 2010, Sterelny 2010, Theiner 2011, Kerr 2013, Palermos and Pritchard 2013, et al.) and human extension (cf. McLuhan 1964, 1967, McLuhans 1988, McLuhan and Constantineau 2010, Sandstrom 2011, 2013a, 2013b), than the extended phenotype and the broader neo-Darwinian evolutionary framework in which it is embedded. The contention that memes ‘jump around’ via Darwinian mechanisms, independent of responsible human choices and actions only provides a natural science-condescending mockery of SSH, instead of making possible fruitful interdisciplinary collaboration. When a cultural artefact is said to ‘go viral’ (i.e. to spread out = extend[7]) it is nowadays often called a ‘meme,’ but this is more a current fashion than a robust or promising explanatory scholarly framework.

Epistemological Biologism[8]

Many people have criticized the idea of ‘memes’ (Bloch 2000, Atran 2001, Midgley 2001, Poulshock 2002, McGrath 2004, Distin 2005, Edmonds 2005, Burman 2012, Thagard 2013) so that is not my primary task here. Instead, I would like to highlight an alternative way of thinking to ‘memetics,’ which perhaps might eventually trickle-up into SSH fields or even be found to connect with their deepest and most precious roots. That alternative is the language of the extended mind hypothesis and human extension, the latter which can be traced to Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), in which he credited R.W. Emerson with the conceptualisation of extension,[9] and that in turn goes back via the res extensa to René Descartes and the beginnings of ‘modern science.’ But first, let me speak briefly about memes and memetics to provide context for social epistemology.

The failure of ‘memes’ as a scholarly project[10] stems largely from the faulty basis on which it was built, as a kind of naturalistic[11] imperialism in the Academy, closely linked with socio-biology and later evolutionary psychology. Richard Dawkins, a biologist making grand claims about cultural and human-social extensions, who coined the term ‘meme’[12] (1976), obviously had not explored the history of mimesis[13] in SSH. Dawkins’ attempt to ‘discover/invent’ a cultural term for viruses that are imitated, copied or ‘replicated’ (cf. replicationism) represents an intentional reduction of culture, humanity and ideas merely to physical forms. This seems to say more about Dawkins’ desire to buttress a universal Darwinist worldview than to articulate a coherent or convincing new science.[14]

As Kate Distin says, “the key distinction between genes and viruses just does not arise in culture … Dawkins has made the mistake of overextending his meme hypothesis in an attempt to embrace what is an inessential detail of biological evolution.” (2005, 77). Dawkins’ ‘memes’ are less than or other than human; they are conceived as alien parasites on human culture and in human minds. The self-styled science of memetics is therefore not actually a human science (or science of human beings) at all. It is instead an ideology of viruses and contagion more suitable for the field of epidemiology,[15] than social epistemology.

This paper sets the table for topics far more complex and dynamic than ‘memetics’ — creativity, knowledge generation and transfer, innovation diffusion (cf. extension theory), decision-making, human development, cognitive distribution, futurology, collective and individual learning, and many others. It asks in SSH: what is/are the appropriate unit(s) of extension? In other words, what are examples of things that human beings ‘extend?’ One example is the website and its slogan: “ideas worth spreading.” For TED, the notion of ‘spreading’ (i.e. ‘extending’) ideas made more sense than saying “memes worth spreading.” This should not be taken as a snub at memes, but rather shows yet another way the term is irrelevant. The main point is that it is both important to discover what kinds of ideas are worth spreading, what makes them worth it, and then of course to inquire how to spread them via media, when and to whom, which is where McLuhan’s electronic-information epoch ideas are most valuable and prescient.

With Dawkins’ publicised aim to turn ‘religion’ into a ‘virus of the mind,’ he went beyond the boundaries of natural sciences, beyond his scholarly competencies, following the path of an ideologue, rather than of a credible public intellectual. Indeed, he has lingered in a low-level natural scientistic decadence for quite a number of years promoting his particular brand of selfish-gene naturalism and anti-theism, becoming a cartoon embodiment of the silliness of ‘memes’ along the way. Nevertheless, it is the view of this paper that there is a fascinating SSH conversation to be held once one accepts that genotypes and phenotypes can only extend so far, and that entities or units other than just genotypes and phenotypes can be said to ‘extend,’ when one elevates above Dawkins’ disenchanting biologism.[16] As Mary Jane West-Eberhard says about genes, could be said about memes: “The gene does not lead, it follows” (in Dobbs 2013).

Elevating from Biologism to Social Epistemology

In order to overcome the memetics fallacy, it is important to address the complexity, diversity, value and meaning of human existence for SSH at a higher level than biology, chemistry or physics. We need to rise to more elevated/elevating realms of knowledge, including human society, culture, economy, language, politics, religion, philosophy, etc. Distin prepares the way for this quite effectively: “I think that this discussion could meaningfully be transposed into one that did not contain the word ‘meme’ at all” (2005, 14). Likewise, Burman shows us how there is more involved than a simple word-rhyme with gene: “The original meme, in other words, was a rhetorical flourish intended to clarify a larger argument” (2012, 77).

The larger argument is that more than just genotypes or phenotypes are/can be involved in the language of extension; minds, bodies, ideas, memories, knowledge and perhaps even the human spirit are also potentially ‘extensible.’ The only reason to conclude otherwise would be if one wished to defend ideological materialism, Darwinism or mechanism,[17] believing that “mindless, motiveless mechanicity” (Dennett 1995, 76) ultimately distinguishes and defines our lives in the Universe. Indeed, this was the predicament that Descartes left us in by establishing the dichotomy that only matter extends (res extensa), while mind is un-extended (res cogitans). Many people have sought ways to overcome Descartes’ dualisms during the past 350+ years.

Now in the electronic-information epoch, with computers and the Internet, we may finally move beyond the Cartesian split to include energy, information and mind in addition to matter, as sources and processes of ‘extension.’ What do we see and hear actually happening around us and in us: mind is extending, thoughts are extending, words, ideas and images, music and videos are extending, performances are extending; persons are extending themselves digitally. We are extending as human beings. This happens in addition to the extensions of humankind in tools, artefacts, structures and institutions.[18]

The important part to emphasise is that human beings/minds do not simply ‘evolve’ into the (external) world according to the old Darwinian or neo-Darwinian cognitive models. There is a necessary willingness (internal) to ‘extend’ ourselves that turns social-cultural intentions into reality through responsible choices and actions. The scholarly field of social epistemology is well-positioned to study these intentions, choices and actions via their (oftentimes empirically verifiable, but not empiricist) effects and consequences.

It is here that the Dawkinsian-universal-Darwinian (DUD) approach displays its teleological vacuum; ‘memes’ are believed to naturally ‘evolve,’ to unroll without mind, without will or control. But in SSH fields, ideas are thought to require minds (and bodies) to extend; they spread out and holistically involve the will, power and purpose of individual persons and groups or networks, both locally and now more often also globally. Human extension is therefore not just a ‘random’ or ‘chance’ (cf. stochastic) process of unpredictable material and technological diffusion, but rather a creatively unique psychosomatic[19] process that involve goals, aims, plans and directions. This awareness responsibly signifies the realm of telos or final causality, which has been dumped overboard in most natural-physical sciences (NPS, which DUD language represents), but which is still essential and unavoidable in SSH, where reflexive human beings belong and thrive.

Moving beyond Descartes, Darwin and Dawkins, a more fruitful conversation can be built on the topics of extended mind and extended knowledge. This requires giving precedence back to reflexive thought in SSH, instead of reducing SSH theories about change-over-time merely to ‘blind variation and selective retention’ (Campbell 1970) or aping positivistic or naturalistic scientific methods. With an alternative now available, we can once again discuss non-Darwinist approaches in SSH that may enable us to redefine the crucially important fundamental unit of selection/extension (e.g. G. Snooks’ post-Darwinian ‘strategic selection’, 2003) instead of selling the ‘humanistic’ realm out to deterministic and mechanistic ideologies.

Having an alternative to universal Darwinism and memetics is therefore a game-changer, which allows new light to be shed on human-social origins and processes. As we follow the evidence where it leads, let us then pause to consider just how much ideology has been allowed to enter 19th and 20th century NPS. Isn’t Dawkins’ concept of ‘meme’ just an ideological ploy made up to argue for his preferred brand of cultural ‘renewal’ (cf. the ‘Brights’ movement) and to liberate a supposedly ‘new’ form of atheism or agnosticism, according to the biases of biologistic talk?[20] Is it possible to successfully wrestle back from sociobiologists and universal Darwinists our legitimate territory to build ideas and spread knowledge that cannot be studied using only the tools and methods available in NPS, which is the strategy that memetics and universal Darwinism use? Either way, it is openly recognised and understood that this is not a small claim: that ‘memes’ and other evolutionistic ideological devices (e.g. natural selectionism) can either now or eventually be legally, properly or convincingly evicted from several regions of the Academy where they have been improperly and superficially welcomed and hosted.

Invitation to Human Extension in Social Epistemology

Human Extension and the extended mind hypothesis overcome memetics by actually aiming and planning to overcome memetics (among other ideologies); making a plan and fulfilling it is something that ‘memes’ alone cannot do, as they are said to lack will or mind. They are supposedly non-persons, non-agents, unintentional, unguided, physically reducible viruses that contaminate, control or simply bother human beings. In short, there is actually no ‘self’ as SSH sees ‘selves,’ for a meme to ‘self-replicate’ according to Dawkins’ magical, made-up theory.

Human extension and the extended mind hypothesis on the other hand go beyond the self-less idea of ‘memes’ by focussing on human beings and our actual extensions of mind and body in society and culture. We make and (sometimes) actualise plans by extending our minds and bodies, our-selves, towards particular goals or ends, not just as the result of all-determining (external, outside) environmental pressures on us.[21] By studying our internal, goal-oriented, intentional (but sometimes also unintentional) human extensions, we can collectively learn about how we, you and I extend ourselves in the environments in which we live, and in doing so how we shape those environments while we are also shaped by them.

The contention is therefore that human extension and the extended mind hypothesis have implications for philosophy, including epistemology, phenomenology, ontology, politics and ethics, and also have relevant overlap with anthropology, psychology, sociology, science and technology studies (STS), economics, and indeed all ‘anthropic’ (Fuller 2005, Sandstrom 2013b) disciplines.[22] The other option is to slip backwards to the 1970’s, using Dawkins’ memetics ideology and claiming that anything that ‘extends’ culturally or socially must automatically (by universal Darwinist fiat) be categorized as a ‘meme,’ which to this reporter and others seems superfluous, rather than nearly an adequate or helpful solution (Edmonds 2005).

One caveat should be given nearing the end of the paper: I do not claim to speak for all people in the extended mind or extended knowledge camp(s) by opposing memetics. At least one advocate of the extended mind hypothesis still supports this ideology, Canadian physicist, former student of and collaborator with McLuhan, Dr. Robert Logan.[23] Likewise, others still accept the so-called ‘evolution of culture’ (e.g. gene-culture co-evolution, technological evolution, etc.) like Australian philosopher Kim Sterelny, which I reject. It may even be the case that naturalism is so ideologically embedded (particularly in ‘western’ philosophy) that it is thought to be the only possible framework in which extended mind and extended knowledge theorists currently envision the conversation. Nevertheless, I do not presume to speak for everyone who promotes human extension, even if the topic of memes and memetics seems to provide a rather clear-cut case to raise common voice against biological imperialism in SSH.

There is nevertheless still much to be done to establish the extended mind hypothesis and human extension as mainstream approaches in SSH, which is why this contribution is called only ‘Round One.’ Responses and feedback, both critical and constructive are welcome to enhance and amplify the discussion. Does the world also agent-like ‘extend’ into our minds and bodies, as we extend as agents with reflexive and responsive personhood into the world? What about the occasionalist divine extension or spiritual extension ideas (which fit surprisingly well with Indigenous knowledge approaches) of Nicholas Malebranche, Anne Conway and Henry More (Blank 2013)? Much more thought is needed on how the environment is actively involved in driving and forming us as societies/nations/groups; how we extend and are extended upon.

Some of the main questions for SSH researchers when integrating human extension and the extended mind hypothesis: how does it or how can it/I/we extend? How are we involved in extending ourselves, our minds, bodies, ideas, thoughts, experiences, memories, to others and with others and how do we receive and encounter the cognitive extensions from other people in our lives? How are we already extending ourselves and how might we possibly extend for the benefit of self, family, neighbour, society, humanity? These types of questions seem to open up much more space for discussion in the realm of social epistemology (and STS, media studies, etc.) than the other option of settling into a reductionist, universal Darwinistic gene’s-eye or meme’s-eye view of the cultural life-world.

This short article has tried to carve out discourse space for the extended mind hypothesis and human extension by pushing back against the ‘rationale’ of Dawkins’ memetics. Much more concentration on the positive-reflexive message of human extension is possible and has already begun. Dawkins has labelled this Collective’s leading inspiration, Steve Fuller, as an ‘enemy of reason,’ apparently because Dawkins rejects the democratisation of scientific authority via the Internet (cf. Fuller’s notion of ‘proto- science’, 2010). It is of course ironic that Dawkins labels Fuller this way, when it is quite obvious both that Fuller is at a much deeper and broader philosophical level than Dawkins and shows his respect and dignity to most religious persons (anthropic worldview, 2005) while Dawkins does not, and also because memes have been deemed just as ‘pseudo-scientific’ by others as has IDT.

If Dawkins and his activist followers persist in trying to advance such a biologically-biased metaphor as ‘memes’ in SSH and cultural studies for their ideological purposes, it would be quite reasonable to broadly consider Dawkins as a decadent, scientistic ‘opponent of wisdom,’ at least in so far as humanity and social epistemology is the main concern.[24] However, if the supposed ‘memes’ that have contaminated his brain with ‘memetics’ and universal Darwinism could one day miraculously jump away from Dawkins, and leave him alone, perhaps there is hope he will eventually (learn to) change his mind[25] … and extend, elevate. But would that demonstrate a victory for memetics or human extension; that to change does not necessarily mean to ‘evolve?’


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[1] This research was made possible by a grant from the Lithuanian Science Council for work on “Humanities and the Limits of Scientific Explanation: the Anthropic Principle in Risk Societies.”

[2] “The original and important point Dawkins makes under the label of ‘the extended phenotype’ is that there is no good reason to suppose that the phenotype stops at the skin (or bark or what-not), and that there are many aspects of life which we can account for straightforwardly if only we suppose that it does not.” (Daniel Dennett, “Afterword, The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene, Oxford University Press, 1999.)

[3] Yes, admittedly, this is putting a lot of trust and value in McLuhan’s ‘wired age’ vision.


[5] A “unit of information residing in a brain … a meme should in principle be visible under a microscope as a definite pattern of synaptic structure … the meme would not be localizable on a microscopic slide, but still I would want to regard it as physically residing in the brain. This is to distinguish it from its phenotypic effects, which are its consequences in the outside world” (Dawkins 1982, 109).

[6] “My enthusiasm for it [memetics] was never, ever as a contribution to the study of human culture” (Dawkins, Interview with Jim Holt, 2004).

[7] Here the terms ‘spread out’ and ‘extend’ are used synonymously, as in the etymology of the Latin terms ‘extendere’ and ‘extensio’ – to stretch out, spread or lengthen.

[8] Ludwig von Bertalanffy defines ‘biologism’ as: “considering mental, sociological and cultural phenomena from a merely biological standpoint.” (“An Outline of General System Theory.” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 1, no. 2, (1950): 134-165)

[9] “The human body is the magazine of inventions, the patent-office, where are the models from which every hint was taken. All the tools and engines on earth are only extensions of its limbs and senses.” (Emerson, “Works and Days”, 1870)

[10] For example, this is demonstrated in the short-lived and now defunct Journal of Memetics (1997-2005). See Edmonds 2005.

[11] The diverse definitions of ‘naturalistic’ make the concept communicatively problematic. There is an ambiguity in suggesting that anyone who is a natural scientist or who connects their ideas in feedback with natural sciences must therefore ideologically be considered a ‘naturalist,’ just as saying that anyone who is a social scientist or who connects their ideas with social sciences must therefore ideologically be considered a ‘socialist.’ As a social scientist, I reserve the right to be both an ideological non-naturalist and also a realist, even while ‘socialism’ is re-conceputalised in post-Cold War lexicon. Thanks to Orestis Palermos for pointing out this semantic difficulty.

[12] “The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation … I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene.’ I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme” (Dawkins 1989, 192).

[13] E.g. Gabriel Tarde’s Les lois de l’imitation (The Laws of Imitation) of 1890 or René Girard’s work, starting with Deceit, Desire and the Novel (1961, English translation 1965).

[14]“the meme was never scientific to begin with” (Burman 2012, 78)

[15] Recently, Dawkins defined a ‘meme’ as: “anything that goes viral.” Interview with Olivia Solon, Wired Magazine, June 20, 2013

[16] Franz M. Wuketits defines ‘biologism’ as: “The extension of biological concepts, models, and theories to other fields, for example, the explanation of social phenomena in humans using biological templates.” (Evolutionary Epistemology and its Implications for Humankind Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990, 218)

[17] “We are neither the slaves of our genes nor rational free agents creating culture, art, science, and technology for our own happiness. Instead we are part of a vast evolutionary process in which memes are the evolving replicators and we are the meme machines” (Susan Blackmore “The Power of Memes.” In Scientific American 283, no. 4 (2000): 54).

[18] “The wheel is an extension of the foot; the book is an extension of the eye; clothing, an extension of the skin; electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system” (McLuhan 1967, 31-40).

[19] “All media are extensions of some human faculty – psychic or physical” (McLuhan 1967, 26).

[20] “The readers for whom I am mainly writing are my professional colleagues, evolutionary biologists, ethologists and sociobiologists, ecologists, and philosophers and humanists interested in evolutionary science” (Richard Dawkins “Preface”, The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene, Oxford University Press, 1999).

[21] Thanks to Eric Kerr for his helpful insight and question about this regarding the extended mind hypothesis.

[22]Clark and Chalmers suggest this in the conclusion to The Extended Mind (1998): “There are obvious consequences for philosophical views of the mind and for the methodology of research in cognitive science, but there will also be effects in the moral and social domains.”

[23] “All cultural artifacts, institutions, belief systems and manifestations are also memes that evolve and, hence, are cultural replicators — cultural replicators evolve and things that evolve are cultural replicators” (Robert Logan, 2008).

[24] “These days, Dawkins makes the news so often for buffoonery that some might wonder how he ever became so celebrated” (David Dobbs, 2013).

[25] “[W]e must acknowledge the possibility that new facts may come to light which will force our successors of the twenty-first century to abandon Darwinism or modify it beyond recognition” (Richard Dawkins A Devil’s Chaplain: Selected Writings. London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 2003, 81).

9 December 2013

Economics, Science and the Spandrels of San Marco (PDF)
Fabien Medvecky, University of Queensland,

How is knowledge produced? In discussing the topic, we can focus our discussions on driving processes ― processes that lead to or drive our production of knowledge ― alternatively, we can focus our discussion on the constraints within which such processes are allowed to take place (some of which may also be processes, but constraining processes rather than driving processes). Let’s take an example. In her recent book about How Economics Shapes Science (Harvard University Press), Paula Stephan discusses the myriads of ways economics affects science and scientific research (2012). While she is concerned with the natural sciences, the book can be read more broadly about economics and the production of knowledge more generally. This latter is what I am interested in.

What particularly piqued my interest was her focus on driving processes; the processes by which funding is allocated, the processes by which monetary gains are had, the processes by which faculty salaries are determined and, in turn, determine the kind of candidates that apply for positions. But, driving processes are only one side of any story; the other side is the constraint within which such processes are allowed to take place. This reminded me of the debate that occurred in evolutionary theory in the 1980 between adaptationists and their opponents. In this short piece, I want to springboard of Stephan’s book to ask the broader question about where the balance should be between processes and constraints when we discuss knowledge production generally (I’ll reserve the term processes for driving processes and the term constraints to mean anything, including processes, that restrict the scope of driving processes). I also want to question whether we sometimes fall foul of the adaptationists’ bias for process in such discussions.

Economics and Knowledge Production

Few would doubt that economic forces play an important role in dictating the course scientific research takes. Some obvious examples are costs and the need for collaboration on expensive projects ― think the Large Hadron Collider ― which individual groups or countries are not capable of funding on their own, or the possibility of financial returns in pushing for specific research programs, such as pharmaceuticals. A large part of Stephan’s book if concerned with just how such economic forces interact with science and the production of research. For example, Stephan devotes a chapter to money where she considers its role “as a reward to doing science”, for example salaries, patents, start-ups and consulting. She weaves a great story about the relationship between various factors at play and the processes by which these interact in the production of research. As an economist, Stephan is largely concerned with incentives and efficiency in what can be thought of as knowledge production. Indeed, she suggests we need to look at our process (especially our incentives structures) and restructure them so as to allocate resources more efficiently. This would require an agreed-upon view of what counts as “efficiency” in knowledge production, but this latter point about consensus is not my concern here. My concern is that by thinking about knowledge production in terms of “efficiency”, we only paint half a picture; we give more weight to the processes for arriving at outcomes over the constraints within which these processes occur, and that may lead us to a poorer understanding of the world in which knowledge is produced.

Process vs Constraint in Evolutionary Theory

The distinction between processes and constraints is best exemplified in the evolutionary theory debate over adaptationism. It is well accepted that there are numerous routes evolution can take. These include the well known natural selection ― the proportional increase of genes that maximize fitness for a given population in a given environment; genetic drift ― something like sampling error, with certain genes being over represented in successive generations; gene hitchhiking ― when genes with no special significance attach themselves to genes that are selected for through other routes; and genetics flow or gene migration ― the result of gene exchange across population and between species. Adaptationism is the view that the main (of not only) process in evolution is natural selection. The critique levelled at adaptationists is that they overstate the importance of natural selection to the expense of others. Natural selection, like much of economic forces described by Stephan, are driving processes in evolution, but the capacity for these processes to determine the outcome is limited by the constraint in which those processes operate.

The Spandrel of San Marco

Gould and Lewontin famously used the analogy of the spandrels of San Marco in Venice (1979). In architecture, spandrels (the space between two arches or between an arch its rectangular frame) are often used to magnificent effect by decorating them using their geometry, giving the viewer the impression that the spandrels were an intention of design. In fact, spandrels are an inescapable architectural by-product which is put to good effect by the artists. Let’s be clear, it is not for the sake of the specific decoration that the architect incorporated spandrels; it is because of the shape of the spandrels that the decoration is designed as it is. The spandrels are the constraints within which decorator operates, and in evolutionary theory, genetic drift, gene hitchhiking, gene flow, etc. are the constraints within which natural selection operates.

Social Epistemology, Knowledge Production and Process vs Constraints

A similar issue can be raised about the discussion over knowledge production. Stephan, for example, spent much time discussing the economic processes by which knowledge is produced, but economic forces are also constraints and there are also constraints within which the driving economic processes can operate. This made me think that the bias for processes over constraints is likely to be more wide spread in discussion of knowledge production more generally. Indeed, by asking “How should the pursuit of knowledge be organized” and “How [should] this social dimension should be conceived and structured”, Fuller and Goldman (respectively) both place process at the very core of social epistemology (Fuller, 1987; Goldman, 1987). Processes are absolutely important, and, as they are active, make for compelling narratives, which may be why we favour them. But constraints are just as important if we want a full picture of the world. If we want our stories about knowledge production to be as complete as possible, and I think we should, then we need to be weary of a likely bias for processes over constraints when discussing said knowledge production.


Fuller, Steve. “On Regulating What is Known: A Way to Social Epistemology.” Synthese 73, no. 1 (1987): 145-183.

Goldman, Alvin. I.  “Foundations of Social Epistemics.” Synthese 73, no. 1 (1987): 109-144.

Gould, Stephen. J. and Richard C. Lewontin. “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B. Biological Sciences 205, no. 1161 (1979): 581-598.

Stephan, Paula. How Economics Shapes Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

2 December 2013

Are You Thinking What We’re Thinking? Group Knowledge Attributions and Collective Visions (PDF)
Eric Kerr, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore,

Most accounts of what social epistemology is and what social epistemologists do will include, in some form, the study of how knowledge is produced or acquired within a group or community: a collective. This could mean, in its weakest form, that individuals depend on the efforts of others for their own knowledge or, in its strongest form, that the group, rather than the individual, is the proper bearer of knowledge.

The title of this series is Collective Visions and so it seems appropriate that we, as social epistemologists, look at what it might mean for a collective to have knowledge and, through that, what it might mean for a collective to have visions. The question of group knowledge has received a lot of attention recently amongst epistemologists. (Giere 2002a, 2002b, 2007; Gilbert 2004; Goldberg 2010; Goldman 2004; Hakli 2007; Lackey 2012; Lahroodi 2007; List 2005; Mathiesen 2006; Pettit 2003; Tollefsen 2002, 2007; Tumollini & Castelfranchi 2006; Tuomela 2004) Sometimes this is motivated by concerns over what kind of organism or organization can know things (Gilbert 1987, 2004; Hutchins 1995, Pettit 2003; Rupert 2005) — a metaphysical problem — and sometimes by observations about ordinary language use (Gilbert 2002; Goldman 2004, 12; Hakli 2007, 249; Quinton 1975/1976, 17; Schmitt 1994, 257-258) — an ordinary language problem. Let’s begin with the latter by considering the following headlines:

BP and Halliburton knew of Gulf oil well cement flaws.[1]

Google’s vision of the future of journalism.[2]

We are familiar with this kind of talk but, on reflection, it sounds a little odd. BP, Halliburton, and Google are corporations. Doesn’t knowing and envisioning only apply to living organisms with minds, brains, eyes, and so on? So who or what are we referring to when we say ‘BP’ knows and ‘Google’ envisions? It seems like there are a few possible answers:

  • We don’t mean that the legal entity, the corporation, the group, the collective knows. It is a metaphorical way of talking about collectives as if they behaved like organisms to explain, describe or predict certain events. Call this the Metaphorical View.
  • We don’t mean that the collective knows. It’s just a useful shorthand for saying that an appointed representative or authority within the corporation knows. Companies have CEOs, directors, and so on who make decisions on behalf of the whole organization and talk about ‘Google’s vision’ is a way of talking about Larry Page or Eric Schmidt’s (or someone else’s) vision. Call this the Spokesperson View.
  • We don’t mean that the collective knows. We mean that the individual members of the collective know. This could be just one individual if they are  important enough or it could be a majority or it could be all or some other quorum. Call this the Aggregation View.
  • We do mean that the collective knows. Knowledge does require mental states such as beliefs but some groups have mental states under certain conditions. Call this the Extended Mind View.
  • We do mean that the collective knows. Under certain conditions it is more appropriate to credit the group rather than the individual or any set of individuals with acquiring knowledge. Call this the Group Credit View.

Let’s look at each of these in turn. We’ll see whether they give social epistemologists who wish to make sense of either the metaphysical problem or the ordinary language problem any hope and whether it can make sense of the idea of ‘collective vision’.

Metaphorical View

At first glance, the simplest explanation is that we are speaking metaphorically. Of course groups don’t know things but talking about them as if they did can be useful for explaining, describing or predicting certain events that the group might cause or be otherwise involved in. We often attribute  mental states to groups but it is useful to note that not just any metaphor will do. No one has ever said, for example, that Google is depressed or that BP experienced great joy following the wedding of two of its employees. At least, if someone did say such a thing it would be clear they were not talking literally. Joshua Knobe and Jesse Prinz (forthcoming) distinguish between phenomenal states and non-phenomenal states. Phenomenal states for some agent, S, include ‘S feels depressed’, ‘S experiences joy’, ‘S feels happy’, ‘S feels pain’, ‘S feels angry’, ‘S feels scared’. Non-phenomenal states include ‘S intends’, ‘S decides’, ‘S tries’, ‘S wants’, ‘S believes’, ‘S hopes’, ‘S loves’, ‘S hates’. We are far more likely to ascribe non-phenomenal states to groups than phenomenal ones. A google search revealed that non-phenomenal states attributed to Microsoft numbered up to 135,000 (for ‘Microsoft wants’) whereas they found mostly no hits at all for phenomenal states attributed to Microsoft.

Here, it is worth voicing an objection to Knobe and Prinz’s study. The way one couches one’s search terms is critical here. If one searches for ‘Microsoft was happy’ rather than ‘Microsoft feels happy’ one gets around 76,200 hits (at time and place of writing), presumably because the former is a much more natural way to convey a similar meaning. Even so, one cannot do this with all of Knobe and Prinz’s examples and it does seem that we are more comfortable attributing some mental states to groups and not others. ‘Microsoft envisions’ was not part of their study although my own search returns around 12,300 results so it seems ‘envisions’ might be closer to the non-phenomenal group than the phenomenal.

What about ‘BP knows’. Is this metaphorical? This answer would solve a lot of our worries, however, Jennifer Lackey argues (Lackey 2012) that the force of this explanation may depend on the context in which the attribution is made. If, for example, I’m having dinner with a friend and tell her that on my way home a cat was walking in front of me and that, ‘It seemed to know where I was going and was leading me to my house,’ my friend may well interpret me as speaking metaphorically: I don’t literally think that the cat knew where I lived or that it had any intention to lead me there. If I was speaking in court however, where, for some reason, there may be issues over whether the cat had visited my house before, then I may be pressed to clarify my statement and I might rephrase it in less ambiguous terms or I might clarify that I really did think the cat knew where I lived. We can’t reasonably say the same thing about uses such as the headlines above.

If such statements were made in court, where issues of legal and moral responsibility would be central, the reasonable interpretation could not be metaphorical. Lackey notes that group knowledge attributions are made ‘systematically and in a widespread fashion even in contexts where there is a heightened concern for speaking precisely.’ (Lackey 2012, 4) There is more to it than mere metaphor.

Spokesperson View

Another option is to say that such attributions are a shorthand for saying that a particular individual within the collective knows the proposition in question. According to this view, when the journalist writes about Google’s vision, he is really talking about Larry Page’s vision (or some other member who has the authority to speak on behalf of the corporation). When we talk about what BP knew prior to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, we are really talking about what Tony Hayward, for example, knew. The Spokesperson View works well for some types of groups — chiefly those where the collective judgments are always those of some antecedently fixed group member (Pauly and van Hees 2005). However, it does not appear to work at all for groups where there is no clear individual who fits this description.

Aggregation View

Aggregation (or summative) views state that when we attribute knowledge or beliefs to groups we are attributing it to its members (Quinton 1975/1976, 17. See also Gilbert 1994, List 2005, List and Pettit 2002, 2004). In other words, we are asserting that the beliefs of some or all of its members are believed by the group as a whole. Again, such a view sounds promising but runs into several problems. Firstly, there are circumstances under which a group may not achieve consistent collective judgments even when all group members hold individually consistent judgments (Pettit 2003). List describes a ‘discursive dilemma’ under which a majority of members of a group endorse a proposition, p, and the premise pq, but do not endorse q. The dilemma is rendered thus,

p pq q

List and Pettit (2002) show that no aggregation procedure can generate consistent collective judgments i) for any logically possible combination of complete and consistent individual judgments on the propositions, ii) where each individual judgment has equal weight in determining collective judgments and iii) the collective judgment on each proposition depends only on the individual judgments on that proposition, and the same pattern of dependence holds for all propositions. There are alternative available to those who wish to preserve aggregation procedures but we won’t pursue them any further here. One strong argument that they may be flawed is that it sometimes seems appropriate to attribute knowledge to groups where none of the individuals believe the proposition in question.[3]

Extended Mind View

We now move onto some of the positive answers to our original question. The first, which we might call the Extended Mind View, is that some groups have beliefs in an analogous way to individual minds. The idea has been pursued extensively in, for example, Gilbert 2004; Goldman 2004; Hutchins 1995; Pettit 2003; Rupert 2005; and Theiner 2009, 2010 and I won’t regurgitate the arguments for and against here. It has a certain intuitive force that can be made plain if one considers the Parity Principle due to Clark and Chalmers (1998, 8):

If, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it done in the head, we would have no hesitation in recognizing as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is (so we claim) part of the cognitive process.

Clark and Chalmers discuss this as it pertains to technical artefacts that can extend certain cognitive processes but it is still compelling when applied to other individuals (Theiner 2009). If, in other words, a process carried out by two or more individuals is analogous in the right way to a process carried out by one individual, there is no obvious reason why one should draw a line around the individual and call that which takes place within its limits ‘cognitive’ whereas anything outside of that line is to be called ‘non-cognitive’. Again, the arguments for and against this position are far more extensive and subtle than can be addressed here (Clark 2010 and Adams and Aizawa 2010 provide summaries from each side of the fence).

Group Credit View

What I am here calling the Group Credit View is beginning to be explored by epistemologists interested in the implications of the Extended Mind thesis for epistemology and, in particular, for credit theories, virtue reliabilism, and the ability intuition (e.g. Carter et al. 2014; Goldberg 2010; Hetherington 2012; Kelp 2013; Kerr and Gelfert 2014; Palermos and Pritchard 2013; Pritchard 2010; Vaesen 2011). The central idea here is that if you think that knowledge is something to do with an ability, achievement or is, in the relevant sense, creditable to an agent then it looks like you are committed to either endorsing group knowledge or distinguishing group and individual knowledge because of ‘biological’ (i.e. non-epistemic) considerations. Given that there are many instances where it does not seem appropriate to credit any individual within a group with knowledge (e.g. her knowledge depends too much on the cognitive work of others) and yet it does seem that someone or perhaps something should be credited with knowledge, then it looks like there are also many instances of group knowledge. Again, due to space restraints I cannot go further into this complex debate, which is in its early stages, but consulting some of the work cited above will be of help to anyone interested.

Do Groups Have Visions?

Some account explaining both the metaphysical concerns outlined above and the ordinary language attribution of knowledge and mental states to groups is required and we are only in the early stages of a burgeoning interdisciplinary research project that seeks to address both issues. Whilst explanations for group knowledge, belief, cognition, and so on, abound, so far none of that research, to my knowledge, has considered how plausible these arguments are in relation to a specific type of mental state: visions.

Visions are a kind of mental imagery sometimes referred to as ‘quasi-perceptual experience’. In essence, a vision is similar to other perceptual experiences, but occurs in the absence of the appropriate external stimuli (Thomas 2013). The Extended Mind thesis (and related theories such as Embodied Cognition) have been considered in relation to perception (Clark 2008a, 169-179, 2008b; Kerr and Gelfert 2014; Ward and Stapleton 2012; Wilson 2004, 2010) but here we are concerned with ‘seeing in the mind’s eye’, ‘visualizing’, ‘envisioning the future’, ‘imagining the feel of’, and so on. If anything, this would be the one kind of perception that is immune to extended mind-type arguments. After all, what marks mental imagery out as distinctive is precisely that it takes place, and can only take place, within the head and that it’s about things in the head not things outside the head.

So here we have a problem. On the one hand, whilst it seems fairly plausible that knowledge, belief-formation, and many other kinds of mental states could be socially extended, it seems implausible that visions could. And yet it is very common to talk of collective visions and it seems not too far-fetched to suppose that one or more individuals can envision the same goal, for example, and many activities are pursued under this assumption. Of course, there are the phenomena of mass hallucinations (if such things exist) and the more verified phenomena of shared psychosis (sometimes called folie à deux) where symptoms of a delusional belief are transmitted from one individual to another. But we are looking for something more substantial and intentional than a hallucination and transferrance of a belief doesn’t quite seem to do the job either.

Perhaps the most promising area for our purposes is psychological and philosophical research on joint intentions. This is the phenomena where one or more individuals both or all intend to perform a particular activity (such as playing chess or figure skating or moving a piano). Here, agents envision goals and set about, jointly, to realise them. According to Michael Bratman, for two individuals to have a shared intention to perform a particular activity, J, each of us must intend that we (continue to) J (Bratman 1992, 1993). Olle Blomberg (2011) considers the, fairly platitudinous, idea that such intentions are subject to an ‘exclusivity constraint’. According to this principle, one cannot intend to perform another agent’s action, even if one might be able to intend that she performs it. For example, whilst I can intend that you leave my company at 8pm, I cannot intend to leave my company. Blomberg argues, in contrast, that there are some cases where one may intend to perform an activity that belongs both to oneself and to another agent.

He does this by first noting that intentions-in-action can be technologically extended. For example, a blind man using a cane extends his ordinary capacities through the technology of the cane. The cane becomes ‘transparent’ in the sense that he is no longer aware that he is using it as a tool in order to find out what the ground is like (Merleau-Ponty 1945, 165-166; Maravita and Iriki 2004). Blomberg argues that a similar ‘phenomenon of transparency’ is present in joint activity. Consider two skilled ice skaters, Alice and Bob, performing a figure dance. Here, it is not that Bob experiences himself as being in a position to determine Alice’s actions. Rather, the experience is a ‘joint interface with the world.’ (Seeman 2009, 508) Just as, in the case of technologically-extended activities, the tool user is no longer aware of the affordances of the tool, in socially-extended activities, the agents are no longer aware of what they can intend the other does but are jointly intended to do it.

Collective Visions

If metaphorical, aggregation, summative, and spokesperson views about group knowledge were not convincing, there is even less reason to suppose that they should be convincing with regards to visions. The same objection applies to the metaphorical view in both cases and aggregation, summative, and spokesperson views will be difficult to apply to perceptions which are not made ‘vocal’. It would certainly be possible for each ‘visionary’ to sign some document endorsing a particular statement of the vision but this would be a ‘mission statement’ and not the vision itself. This rules out three of our five options. If we wish to preserve the idea, we are left with adopting either an extended mind theory or a credit theory of collective visions. In writing a series of ‘Collective Visions’ it doesn’t seem very plausible that we ever reach the level of joint intention attained by the figure skaters, at least not when it comes to specifics. However, neither is it the case that we are entirely disconnected minds and brains with our own self-contained ‘visions’.

By being part of the collective of social epistemologists, we cannot fail to be involved in some joint activity even if we do not know precisely where it is headed, influencing each others’ ideas, and modifying our own beliefs when we think it appropriate. At the same time, we know from psychological studies on conformity and peer pressure that we modify our own perceptions and visions to align with a majority (exemplified in Asch’s experiments in the 1950s) and this is intellectually undesirable.[4] We are left with a tension between wishing to engage in a collective vision and wishing to preserve our own internal visions. Both are admirable goals, but we should be wary of falling too far to one side or the other.


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Thomas, Nigel J.T., “Mental Imagery.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Fall 2013.

Tollefsen, Deborah. “Organizations as True Believers.” Journal of Social Philosophy 33, no. 3 (2002): 395-410.

Tollefsen, Deborah. “Group Testimony.” Social Epistemology 21, no. 3 (2007): 299-311.

Tumollini, Luca and Cristiano Castelfranchi, “The Cognitive and Behavioral Mediation of Institutions: Towards an Account of Institutional Actions.” Cognitive Systems Research 7, no. 2-3 (2006); 307-323.

Tuomela, Raimo. “Group Knowledge Analyzed.” Episteme 1, no. 2 (2004): 109-127.

Ward, Dave and Mog Stapleton. “Es Are Good. Cognition as Enacted, Embodied, Embedded, Affective and Extended.” In Consciousness in Interaction: The Role of the Natural and Social Context in Shaping Consciousness, edited by Fabio Paglieri, 89-104. Advances in Consciousness Research, no. 86: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2012.

Wilson, Robert A. Boundaries of the Mind: The Individual in the Fragile Sciences – Cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Wilson, Robert A. “Extended Vision.” In Perception, Action and Consciousness, edited by Nivedita Gangopadhyay, Michael Madary, Finn Spicer, 277-290. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Vaesen, Krist. “Knowledge Without Credit, Exhibit 4: Extended Cognition.” Synthese 181, no. 3 (2011): 515-529.

[1] Goldenberg, S. and Kollewe, J. 2010. BP and Halliburton Knew of Gulf Oil Well Cement Flaws. The Guardian, 29th October 2010.

[2] Bunz, M. Google’s Vision of the Future of Journalism. The Guardian, 7 October 2009.

[3] In Kerr and Gelfert (2014), we discuss a number of circumstances where groups can have evidence and yet no individual member of the group has the same evidence. For example, in double-blind trials it may not be appropriate to attribute any of the individual scientists with possessing the evidence that, say, the drug is safe (since none of them would be justified in believing this) and yet it does seem appropriate to say that ‘there is evidence that the drug is safe’ and that the most appropriate bearer of this evidence is the group itself (cf. Magnus 2007). It seems plausible that the same could be said for knowledge although it would be in need of argument. In cases where researchers, for example, collect data about different aspects of some phenomenon but who are not aware of each others results, and where this data is compiled and processed to generate new knowledge, it seems that there is knowledge even though noone believes it, although this does not demonstrate, per se, that it is the group that knows. Another option might be so-called ‘third-person epistemology’ or Karl Popper’s objective knowledge where it is more appropriate to say ‘it is known that p,’ than ‘S knows that p’ (Stevenson 1999).

[4] Asch’s participants consistently advanced false claims and if the goal of academic research was conformity then it would be difficult to make progress.

25 November 2013

Social Epistemology as Public Philosophy (PDF)
Susan Dieleman, Dalhousie University,

I recently attended a philosophical conference where there was a session on public philosophy. Of the many valuable insights forwarded at that session, one that struck me and stuck with me was the idea of theorist or philosopher as “rearguard,” a view that can be found in Linda Martín Alcoff’s reading of Enrique Dussel, whose philosophy of liberation, she suggests, “invokes the idea of philosophers as analytical transcribers or rear-guard theorists, not inventors or originators so much as those who give philosophical articulation to the ideas embedded in the praxis and lived experience of the activist oppressed” (Alcoff 2012, 62).[1] Public philosophy, then, on this account, is best understood as the engagement in and contribution to activist groups on the part of philosophers, whose conceptual tools and analytical skills might serve the liberatory ends set out by others. The nature and shape of the community to which philosophers might be welcome or perhaps even invited, and the specific role any public philosopher might therefore take, will be determined not by the her, but by the group she engages with.  That being said, I think worthwhile questions remain as to what sorts of community are more amenable to philosophical engagement, and perhaps there a few models that might be worth considering as possible “best practices.”[2]

If one were to endorse this view of public philosophy, then it seems there are consequences too for one’s view of social epistemology. When one expands one’s sense of the sites where knowledge is produced and exchanged (to borrow an economic vocabulary that has recently become popularized, to the detriment of epistemology, I think) to include not just traditional sites, but sites of resistance as well, then what one sees as the subject and practice of social epistemology is likewise expanded. That is, if one sees “the praxis and lived experience of the activist oppressed” as epistemically productive, then only attending to academic interdisciplinarity, or to knowledge mobilization as it is being promulgated in Canadian universities, overlooks entire swaths of valuable knowledge practices, norms, and indeed, knowledges themselves.

Insofar as the view I’m sketching sees knowledge as always already social, then it and I are clearly on Fuller’s side “against” the analytic social epistemologists who, according to Fuller, see knowledge as an individual possession and affair that only later becomes social.  However, while my (preliminary) reading of Fuller tells me that he arrives at this position via naturalism, I arrive at it via my political commitments, and specifically, a feminist philosophy that I hope is becoming more attuned to those others feminist philosophy has tended to leave outside and behind.  It is a view partly informed by the insights of feminist standpoint theories, and other theories related to and informed by them, which presume that research, science, and knowledge, will be better or worse depending on who constitutes an epistemic community.  This “better” is an epistemic better — not just an ethical or political better, though it’s these “betters” too.

Yet by suggesting that diverse communities are “epistemically better,” I don’t think I’m thereby committed to the analytic version of social epistemology that Fuller aims to distance himself from, and that I agree is problematic.  This is because the contours of the social epistemology I trace here do not align with the contours of veritistic social epistemology as they’re traced by Goldman.[3] In other words, it does not “have the distinctive normative purpose of evaluating or appraising such practices on the veritistic dimension, that is, in terms of their respective knowledge consequences” (Goldman 1999, 7) — at least, not unless “respective knowledge consequences” can be interpreted along pragmatist lines. As a pragmatist who finds the work of Richard Rorty compelling, I (very roughly speaking) reject the idea that truth can or ought to dictate our epistemic practices.  Thus, to say that diverse communities are epistemically better is not to say that diverse communities are more likely to produce truth of the sort Goldman thinks science aims at.  Instead, claiming that diverse communities are epistemically better can borrow from the pragmatist perspective on democracy offered by Elizabeth Anderson in her 2006 paper “The Epistemology of Democracy.” In that paper, she defends a Deweyan version of democracy, one that presents an “experimentalist account of the epistemic powers of democracy [which focuses on] the use of social intelligence to solve problems of practical interest” (Anderson 2006, 14).  The epistemic defense of democracy — which I argue can be translated into a claim about the epistemic benefits of diversity — does not, therefore, need to be understood in simple terms as producing true propositions.  Instead, the epistemic benefits of democracy can be understood in terms of its success in solving problems.

So what does it mean to study social epistemology? What does it mean to do social epistemology? It is to presume that knowledge is created in a community; it is to create knowledge in a community, with a community, and for a community.


Alcoff, Linda Martín. “Enrique Dussel’s Transmodernism.” Transmodernity: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World 1. No. 3 (2012.): 60-68. Accessed November 22, 2013 from

Anderson, Elizabeth. “The Epistemology of Democracy.” Episteme 3, no. 1-2 (2006): 8-22.

Colin, Finn. “Two Kinds of Social Epistemology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 8 (2013): 79-104.  Accessed November 22, 2013 from

Fishkin, James S. When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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

Norrie, Stephen. 2013. “Can Critical Theory be Computerised and Collectivised?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 12 (2013): 32-36. Accessed November 22, 2013 from

Fuller, Steve. 2012. “Social Epistemology: A Quarter-Century Itinerary.” Social Epistemology 26, no. 3-4 (2012): 267-283.

[1] This metaphor is, I hope, friendlier than Agassi’s view that “the philosopher [is] the scientist’s backseat driver” (see Fuller 2012, 272).

[2] I have in mind deliberative democracy of the Fishkin variety (see Fishkin 2009) or perhaps the participatory action research agenda outlined by Stephen Norrie in his contribution to the Collective Vision (see Norrie 2013), though I am much less familiar with this model.

[3] See Colin 2013 for an excellent overview of the differences between these two versions of social epistemology.

18 November 2013

Natural Authority (PDF)
Pedro Saez Williams, Warwick University,

Since this entry is my first formal participation within the SERRC, I thought it would be a good opportunity to present a more in depth explanation of my PhD research. As a starting standpoint I would like to draw from the previous entries of the section at hand, particularly Adam Riggo’s account of the tendency within the discipline of philosophy to reject “naturalist” understandings of knowledge in favour of views that posit “knowledge as absolute” and “reason as pure”. Being first and foremost a lawyer (or at least a student of norms) my interest in social epistemology stems form an interest in social metaphysics, specifically the metaphysics of social norms.

I understand social epistemology, at least the naturalist version developed by Steve Fuller, as revolving around the underlying conflict pointed out by Riggo’s account; namely, what seems to be a unassailable incompatibility between the metaphysical commitments of naturalism and normativity. Commonly labelled the “naturalistic fallacy”, the incompatibility would seem to be more obvious than the way in which is normally treated: in a normative relationship, that which norms would seem to be necessarily above that which is subject to the norm at hand. In other words, the source of authority would seem to be necessarily located at a meta-domain. Normativity understood thusly, as supra-subordination, would seem to be incompatible with naturalism’s commitment to metaphysical monism.

My research, which draws directly from Fuller’s negative account as well a many aspects of his positive position, is an ambitious attempt to propose a new manner of understanding normativity, one compatible and continuous with naturalism. The problem I identify with all previous attempts (including Fuller’s), is the use of what could be described of as the standard “logic of identity” (and its consequent “Being” on account of “characteristics” proper to themselves, in opposition to a “logic of difference” [1], in which everything “Is” in opposition to that which it “Is Not”.

A normative philosophy developed through the use of a logic (or a metaphysics) of identity cannot but insist in the identification of stable, objective and/or universal source of authority that inevitably transcends that which it will norm (including the account from whence it stems). This is then as the normative standpoint to value, judge or prescribe “nature”. For example, in the case in which the source of authority is an objective and cognitively independent “external” environment all sorts of realisms follow; when it is internal, this is characteristics of the “observer”, “cognizer”, etc, one may find different types of normative idealism or transcendental phenomenologies. Finally, one may also find ethical or socio-ethical transcendentalisms, which commonly serve as the sources for all political theories and philosophies as well as Fuller and Joseph Rouse’s political epistemologies.

The only set of research programs that pursue a stance continuous with G. Spencer Brown’s logic of difference is that which is collectively labelled as Radical Constructivism and includes Heinz Von Foester’s (2003) “second order cybernetics”, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s (1980, 1992) “autopoietic biology”, “radical embodied cognition” (Varela et al. 1991, Chemero 2009, Gallaguer 2005) and Ernst Von Glasserfeld’s “constructivist theory of knowing”.

Within all this research cognition and all cognitive phenomena, including “knowledge” is understood to be a product of a cognitive agent’s experience of the difference between itself and the “environment”. For all practical purposes “reality” is understood as the specific relationship between an observer and an environment, in the sense that the both parts of the equation “specify each other”.

Interestingly so, this leads to a view of “knowledge” that is relativistic, but not arbitrary. This is, the situational dependence of cognition both determines and constrains the agent’s cognition. An agent can, therefore, only influence but not determine his cognitive situatedness at will. And so, cognitive agents may experience different realties, different “phenomenologies”, but they do not directly control them: they are all equally constrained by their situation.

Drawing on the above my research attempts to bring forth three innovative theoretical proposals.

1) The first of these is the concept of “horizontal normativity”, which is an extended application of what Von Glasserfeld (1994) calls the principle of hermeneutics, or the notion that the cognitive authority of a determined statement stems from the receiver. In other words, the assumption that cognitive agents are incapable of directly altering their cognitive situatedness at will leads to doxastic involuntarism [2], which means that cognitive agents neither choose their beliefs nor the cognitive authority they award to the plethora of “information” they come across with. This doesn’t mean however, that cognitive agents are not capable of being dishonest, and so even though after reading an article a determined academic might be involuntarily drawn into doubt in regards to his own positions, he is capable of not acknowledging this, and furthermore, arguing in the contrary.

2) The second proposal is that of naturalist knowledge, which is an application of “horizontal normativity”. The main problematic of horizontal normativity when proposed as the principle of hemeneutics is that it leads to widespread relativism that doesn’t provide much ground for a normative social epistemology or political theory. As a result, any and all (honest) cognitive positions are equally valid. This leaves all deontological or social epistemological prescriptions futile. Furthermore “knowledge” is not differentiated from any other cognitive phenomena since it is equated to mere cognitive situatedness. For example, within the bounds of radical constructivism one might argue that an ant’s “knowledge” of his environment allows it to distinguish sustenance from threat, and that a scientist’s “knowledge” of physics and engineering allows him to design a rocket, and it would seem that we are speaking of the same phenomenon.  I argue, however, that we are not, and that in the first case we are speaking of mere cognitive situatedness or “knowledge in latu sensu”, whilst in the second case we are speaking of “cultural knowledge” or “knowledge in strcitu sensu”. This is, in the second case, we are also speaking of cognitive situatedness, but differently than in the first case, the necessary cognitive conditions that allowed for the pragmatic affordances of the situatedness at hand (namely the capacity of action or description that it provides) were not, in any way, genetically determined: the agent in question had to necessarily acquire them through communication with his biological peers. In other words, the second use of the term “knowledge” assumes what is commonly termed as “culture”.

Radical constructivism argues that all cognitive phenomena are the result of change (specifically structural change within an organism). In order to maintain oneself within the boundaries of radical constructivism, one could say then that the distinguishing characteristic of “knowledge” in strictu sensu, is that the change from whence these specific types of cognitive situations resulted was necessarily brought upon through communication. “Knowledge” in this sense is any communication that has the capacity to (involuntarily) alter cognitive situatedness.”

As long as human’s reproduce and the cognitive structure of new generations requires to be altered through communication, all “culture” can be equated with “knowledge”. “Knowledge” however, is dependant on the receiver and therefore if a determined receiver is incapable of “believing” his interpretation of a determined communication (such as there is a dragon in the ceiling), this communication will not constitute knowledge. Similarly, if within a community of scientists a determined concept is considered to be “known” by every member, its communication is redundant, and therefore for that community this would also not count as “knowledge”. Finally, in the same community those cognitive agents whose have the capacity to alter more limits of certainty are the ones whose limits of certainty are the least altered by others. In other words these are the people who “know” more: to “know” means to have the capacity to alter cognitive situatedness in others.

Through the use of horizontal normativity, my definition of “knowledge” (and of authority for that matter) could be considered valid. This is, because since “knowledge” is communication that has the capacity to change cognitive situatedness, I do not need to assume a source of authority that transcends the communication between my reader (you) and myself. If this communication, has, in any way changed the reader’s (your) relationship between certainty and doubt (what I call the “limit of certainty”) he (you) has (have) already provided my account with cognitive authority and all I can do is ask him (you) to acknowledge this.

3) The third proposal is a normative social theory that has the consequences of both a social epistemology and a political theory. These consequences take place from the premises that necessarily obtain from understanding knowledge as proposed.

– The first of these is the concept of natural authority, or the capacity of a determined individual to change limits of certainty.

– The second is that all normative prescriptions that dictate that certain types of communication that may lead to change are invalid, are invalid themselves.

– The premises also lead to an “ideal” organization for society based on its capacity to produce knowledge and innovation (in other words, “progress”): this is a society in which all communication that has the capacity to change limits of certainty is able to do so without interference.

– Finally, the source of this possible interference can also be identified. If one considers that a determined agent has “come up with an idea”, or in others words has acquired natural authority, or the capacity to change limits of certainty, and wishes to benefit socially from this acquired capacity one can then assume that the agent in question will have two incentives:

a) Communicate, since this is the only way he will be able to benefit. Communication would be in the form of “code” or by producing and distributing his “invention”.

b) Maintain the benefits once communication has eliminated his capacity to change limits of certainty in others. As limits in certainty are changed in others his communication begins to acquire redundancy and as soon as others are able to replicate the benefits of his “knowledge” his “natural authority” is lost. He therefore also has the incentive to maintain authority, or power over others once this has occurred, and use the initial advantage provided by his “discovery” to do so.

If organized community (the “state” or its successor) wishes to pursue policy conductive toward “progress” (understood as the proliferation of new ways to solve and transform reality), it will implement policies that seek to promote the unbounded communication of all positions capable of changing limits of certainty, whilst attempting to eliminate all attempts by individuals to maintain their intermediation positions once this is redundant. This can also be seen as a struggle between the market and property in capitalist societies.

Interestingly, all of these proposals that obtain directly form the premises of my definitions of “authority” and “knowledge” are similar and continuous with other attempts at naturalist epistemology, especially Steve Fuller’s.


Alston, William P. “The Deontological Conception of Epistemic Justification.” Philosophical Perspectives, Vol, 2, Epistemology (1988): 257-299.

Chemero, Anthony. Radical Embodied Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.

Foester, Heinz Von. Understanding Understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition. New York: Springer, 2003.

Gallaguer, Shaun. How the Body Shapes the Mind. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Maturana, Humberto R. and Francisco J. Varela.  Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. London: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1980.

Maturana, Humberto R. and Francisco J. Varela. Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1992.

Varela, Francisco J., Evan T. Thompson and Eleanor Rosch. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 1991.

[1] As described by George Spencer Brown (1969) in “Laws of Form”.

[2] The position that “[cognitive agents] lack direct voluntary control over beliefs· and that they “have only a rather weak degree of ‘long range’ voluntary control over (only) some of [their] beliefs” (Alston 1988: 260). As an example, William Alston (1988) request the reader to attempt to voluntarily believe that the USA is still a colony of Great Britain (Ibidem).

11 November 2013

Can Critical Theory be Computerised and Collectivised? (PDF)
Stephen Norrie, Loughborough University,

The thing I’ve found most interesting about being involved in the SERRC is the emphasis on thinking about alternative, more collective forms of knowledge production.[1] For this blog, I’d like to return to the theme, in relation to the goals of ‘critical theory’. Critical theory, I’ll argue, isn’t really compatible with the ‘individualised’ orientation of modern knowledge production, and I’ll finish by suggesting it would be better developed as a collaborative project, as enabled by (fairly standard) computer and internet technologies. I also include some remarks about ‘action research’, and a few musings on Marxism.

Perhaps the elusive centre of gravity of the notion of ‘critical theory’ is the idea that, rather than simply picking out the surface regularities or deep causal mechanisms of social reality, knowledge should (also) serve as a direct link in the formation of a collective will capable of changing it. Knowledge should neither be identified with the published results generated by a community of experts indifferent to their own social functioning (a.k.a. ‘science’), nor with a tool for private, consumeristic ‘edification’ (a.k.a. ‘the humanities’). On the contrary, knowledge production should aim to develop systems of representation helping their readers to come to rational decisions concerning the direction of production and social life — as such serving as a focus point for the formation of an intellectually cultivated democratic will. In such a ‘mode of production’, knowledge would directly express and articulate the interests ordinary people have in their work and lives, rather than being imposed on them as a formal system: it would enable their active control over their ‘lifeworld’ by ‘working up’ their tacit technical and social knowledge, thereby facilitating self-management in the workplace and community. But social science would also be required to help inform such local processes of enlightenment, by means of an understanding of (and identification with) the broader society. It would thereby help to clarify their interconnection in a possible ‘social plan’, subject to less direct forms of democratic control.[2] Such plans would always be revisable, and social science would help to render them evaluable. This conjures the utopian image of a democratic form of socialism, radically distinct from Stalinist practice, but which is also capable of preserving a complex social division of labour and skills.

What makes this image utopian is that ‘critical theory’ has, self-evidently, been academically confined — and that, again self-evidently, it is completely incompatible with existing academic practice.[3] It is certainly clear that the modern system of academic publication, linked to trajectories of career advancement, serves to prevent academic publications from playing a major role in collective will-formation. The basic model of tenure associated with the research university — national variations notwithstanding —made individually authored articles or monographs the chief evidential basis for discrimination between individuals for the purposes of appointment and promotion. This has encouraged academics to approach knowledge production as a personal project and, moreover, as a duel with competitors in which ideas serve as a proxy for the author’s self-advancement, and in which the prize is personal occupation of the focal point of one or more discussions (a.k.a. research stardom). This has encouraged diversification of projects and exaggeration of differences, at the expense of comprehension of the whole. Recent, state-imposed accounting systems intended to increase academic productivity have only increased this tendency, rendering it even more ridiculous and dysfunctional. To be sure, by foregrounding the publications of its research stars as its most characteristic, if not its ‘best’ products, this has enabled some works to attain a wider influence and dissemination. Nevertheless, particularly in a period in which public influence is an object of interested manipulation by various forms of intellectual collectives (political parties, think tanks, interest groups, etc), the individual academic’s (or intellectual’s) chances of significantly impacting on public consciousness are rather weak.[4]

Returning to the idea of critical theory, this might suggest two forms of knowledge production: on the one hand, what may loosely be called ‘participatory action research’, and on the other hand, totalising theories of human history. Neither fits well with existing academic practice.

Participatory action research is a loose term — one of many! — for intersubjective forms of knowledge production which work by getting people talking and thinking together about social interactions they normally conduct unreflectively.[5] The occasion for such collectivisation is organised through the intervention of an external practitioner (a professional ‘action researcher’, sometimes an academic), or may be set in place by a professional within their workplace. Because the process clarifies mutual miscomprehensions and (when successful) builds up a collective normative understanding (or social contract), this often directly leads to increases in efficiency and voluntary efforts to improve social life. However, it fits poorly with academic norms in that any ‘reports’ issuing from the process are, really, its least interesting product, serving merely as narrative accounts for other practitioners which are not readily accorded ‘scientific’ status, nor easily submitted to peer review (they are probably better checked by journalistic methods). This also makes it difficult to train action researchers.

However, the general term ‘participatory action research’, and the attempt to define it in terms of a series of formal procedures or stages of reflection suitable for most situations (with suitable adaptations to local circumstances) disguises the fact that the social meaning of such practices always depends on assumptions about the ends of the particular practice, which may be quite tacit and embodied in the ‘agenda setting’ of the practitioner. The contrast is clearest in industrial action research, where the practitioner is called in by management, the procedure is always oriented to improved efficiency in meeting the productive goals defined by management. The worker is then flattered, by being allowed an element of participation, into collaboration in his own exploitation — a clear case of what Marcuse called ‘repressive desublimation’.[6] Where, on the other hand, the research is conducted under the aegis of radical socialist unionists, as with the once-famous case of the Lucas aerospace workers,[7] this can involve the development of an alternative production plan developed with reference to the idea of ‘socially useful’ rather than the needs of capital (in Marxist terms, use-value rather than exchange-value). Naturally, any such practice conflicts with the academic requirement for ‘value-freedom’ (i.e. acceptance of the status quo). Moreover, the Lucas case seems to indicate the limited utility of academic knowledge for such a process.[8] At the very least, however, it does indicate the importance of the shop stewards’ broader interpretation of social reality, to which academics — perhaps via the discussions of academically educated socialists —would have certainly contributed. This leads us to the second type of knowledge.

It is obvious that in order to add up to a broader social movement, a diverse series of local social initiatives must not only be retroactively unified (‘in their concept’, as a Hegelian might say) but already developed in reference to a roughly shared interpretation of their shared social environment. Indeed, as Marxists and ‘critical theorists’ have generally insisted, no concrete situation is understandable except in relation to its global and historical context, particularly given the development of a globalising and perpetually reinvented capitalist division of labour. However, totalisation must be understood here not only ‘objectively’, as a unifying conception of human history, but also ‘subjectively’, in that such a conception must also attain — and deserve to attain — ‘biblical’ status as a representation of collective understanding, in relation to which actions can be coordinated.[9] This requires a ‘systematic’ orientation designed to make it intellectually and practically ‘handleable’: thus, whatever its actual success, Capital is organised on a systemic model which is supposed to pass from what is immediately obvious about capitalism (production is commodified) to less obvious conclusions. But more than this, if such a ‘ritual’ status is to be compatible with the rationalistic claims of critical theory, it seems necessary that the theory be open to public examination and ongoing revision.[10]

It is arguable that any such totalisation would be not only scientifically superior to the actual products of the social sciences, but that it actually represents the telos of social science as such. However, it seems completely unattainable for normal social scientific practice, that is, as an individual project. To be sure, if society is considered a distinct level of reality from the social interactions that constitute its microstructure,[11] then a totalisation at the level of social reality needn’t imply knowledge of every social situation. Nevertheless, it is enough to reflect that any such totalisation must synthesise theorisation of e.g. the latest forms of finance capital and the constitution of the working class, with estimates of agricultural and engineering potential, to realise that it is quite beyond individual effort. Individuals can, at best, produce fragmentary efforts intended to be contributory to such a knowledge — which is quite quixotic if the project to which it is intended to contribute is, in fact, unrealisable, or if no serious efforts are being made to realise it. Moreover, even if such a theory could be constructed — perhaps through a collaborative effort with the aid of research assistants — it would be only represent the judgement of a small number of academics and, should it prove unsuitable for its intended biblical function, either through adopting a false standpoint, through contingent errors of judgement, through excessive complexity, etc, it would be almost impossible to correct or realign it. Similarly, it would be humanly impossible to keep it up to date with either new historical developments or new critical attacks.

It seems to me, however, that new technologies may make it possible to overcome these problems. If a group of qualified and socially spirited academics (this would have to mean those sufficiently insured from the demands of the publishing and perishing rat race to which early career academics are subjected) could agree on a series of basic commitments, it would seem possible to develop an e-text or system of e-texts which could be developed and published gradually, and revised in response to criticism from a broader community of ‘users’, much as open-source software programs are frequently developed in a series of updates.[12] By throwing their collective authority behind such a project, and by resolving to update, defend it, and perfect it, they would bestow on it a greater cultural significance than any of their individual essays or books.[13] The work would also gain cultural strength from the fact that it could be opened up to continuous criticism — through e.g. a typical internet discussion forum — by a broader community of interested participants. This would actively involve broader social circles in the active theoretical understanding of social reality, whilst allowing the theorists access to the insights of the broad panoply of social knowledges and intelligences and, as such, help to maintain the elusive ‘unity of theory and practice’. As such, it could help to refocalise the Left as a political project ‘beyond the fragments’ of various local and single issue struggles.


Bhaskar, Roy. The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sciences. London: Routledge, 1998.

Carr, Wilfred. and Stephen Kemmis. Becoming Critical: Education, Knowledge and Action Research. London: The Falmer Press, 1986.

Cooley, Mike. Architect or Bee? London: Hogarth, 1987.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Cambridge: Polity, 1989.

Horkheimer, Max. Critical Theory. New York: Continuum, 1999.

Horvat, Branko. The Political Economy of Socialism: A Marxist Social Theory. Oxford: Robertson, 1982.

Jay, Martin. Marxism and Totality. Cambridge: Polity, 1984.

Lukács, Georg. History and Class Consciousness. London: The Merlin Press, 1971.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. London: Routledge, 1991.

Wainwright, Hilary and David Elliott. The Lucas Plan: A New Trade Unionism in the Making? London: Allison & Busby, 1982.

[1] See my earlier thought experiment on this theme:

[2] For some idea as to how this might work, see Horvat, 1982.

[3] Indeed, the very notion of ‘critical theory’—of which I am not particularly a fan, and which I am adopting here only for rhetorical reasons—seems a product of this confinement. Lukács, whose (1971) idealisation of Bolshevik knowledge production is usually seen as the inspiration for the idea of critical theory, did not need Horkheimer’s (1999: 188-252) formalistic distinction between ‘traditional’ and ‘critical’ theory because he was still able to refer to the socially concrete distinction between the sociological practices characteristic of bourgeois academia and Marxist political parties. With the definitive degeneration of the latter (partly due to their own internal contradictions), Horkheimer was left with nothing more than the aspiration for a Lukács-type learning process (a.k.a. ‘critical theory’), divorced from its original but now unacceptable social basis. This hypostatisation of the concept of ‘critical theory’ seems, however, already a step back in the direction of ‘traditional theory’.

[4] Habermas, 1989.

[5] Carr and Kemmis, 1986, associated such forms of knowledge with Habermas’ concept of critical theory, though somehow without mentioning capitalism once. Arguably, Dewey’s pragmatism is a more natural (and more common) philosophical fit for such desocialised theories of learning.

[6] Marcuse, 1991.

[7] Wainwright and Elliott, 1982.

[8] They were ‘smitten into silence by the specificity of our request’: ‘What could a work force with these facilities be making that would be in the interests of the community at large?’ (Cooley, 1987: 118).

[9]The history of the Marxist concern for totalisation is surveyed, but not very well represented, by Jay, 1984.

[10] The ‘biblical’ metaphor, however, proves all too apt in relation to traditional Marxist parties, which have proved incapable of separating the rational content of their systemic understanding of history from its embedding in Marx’s own texts (‘Marxism’, Lenin writes, ‘is the system of Marx’s views and teachings’) which, accordingly, attain a quasi-sacred status. Indeed, with the (partly unfair) repudiation of ‘vulgate’ writers like Engels and Kautsky, Marxism seems to have passed from a more accommodating ‘Catholicism’ to a more ‘Protestant’ and sectarian fundamentalism of the text.

[11] Bhaskar, 1998.

[12] The series of basic commitments would have to include agreement on a method of systematisation, as well as on a number of important substantive issue (e.g. positions on alternative technology, on the disaster of Stalinist ‘socialism’, etc). To be sure, some might consider coming to such an agreement the main problem! However, all that is required is that a small group of collaborators come to a broad agreement—those who disagree can form their own competing collective!

[13] The computer already allows a distinct way of writing from that which produced most of the canonical texts of contemporary discussion, which were either typed or hand-written and then typed up by someone else. In the earlier mode, writing must follow the flow of thought, and thus is less distinguishable from speech, and the articulation of a subjective viewpoint. Computer-writing, on the other hand, has divorced text-production from speech, allowing a greater degree of objectification (and perhaps potentially alienation) vis-à-vis its author. By analogy to the ‘slow cooking’ movement, we might say the computer allows ‘slow writing’, and with it, a greater potential for attention to systemic form. Indeed, if academia is judged by the production of knowledge rather than texts, it seems to me a straightforward case of relations of production retarding forces of production that such ‘perfectionism’ is today seen as a vice which (ironically) ‘retards’ the academic production of junk knowledge.

4 November 2013

Philosophy of Technology Un-Disciplined (PDF)
William Davis, Virginia Tech,

I was not entirely what I should discuss when the call for contributions to a Collective Vision was proposed over the summer. Working on a proposal for my dissertation was consuming much of my time and insulating me from ideas and themes that I could not directly apply to my own project. The closer I came to defining my own research agenda, however, the more I began to realize that the Collective, as a process as well as a community, might provide the opportunity to put my ideas into practice.

In what follows, I provide a brief overview of the dissertation I am currently working on at Virginia Tech, but I conclude by making a request to the SERRC community. I hope that by describing my current investigative path, SERRC members will respond to my ideas and generate further questions and trajectories and/or simply provide their comments. As a student, my PhD committee is limited in size. As a member of the SERRC, my potential interlocutors are numerous. (Y además, hablo, leo y escribo en español si algunos de nosotros prefieren comunicar en ese idioma.)

My dissertation asks: what can, and should, a philosophy of technology account for in the creation, mediation and transfer of values to an epistemic community? I argue that in order to understand, and act in relation to, technology, we cannot rely on a sub-discipline of philosophy, pursued by a narrow set of practitioners, to provide adequate epistemic resources. As currently practiced, philosophy of technology must move beyond disciplinary boundaries and be, at its core, synthetic — speaking to multiple audiences and drawing from a variety of disciplines.

Those who transcend disciplinary boundaries and provide synthetic analysis and explication perform what I describe as un-disciplined philosophy of technology. I include writers/speakers/intellectuals like Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, Ray Kurzweil and Jaron Lanier under this label. The un-disciplined philosophy of technology I envision reclaims the tradition of early philosophers of technology like Herbert Marcuse, Jacques Ellul and Lewis Mumford. These writers examined the broad relationships between technologies and the human condition. They proposed actions and ways of being in the world[1] that would move individuals, singly and collectively, toward improved lives.[2]

At such an early stage in the development of my arguments, I have far more questions than answers. One such question involves how to leverage the contributions of a community like the SERRC and incorporate them into my work. I claim that the current practices of academic philosophers of technology must be altered — styles of writing/presenting, as well as interactions with audiences outside of single disciplines, perhaps even those not affiliated with any particular discipline — if their ideas are to transcend a sub-discipline of philosophy and effect change. With that in mind, what does un-disciplined philosophy of technology, informed by social epistemology, look like in practice? What goals does it have, and how do these goals alter our values?

The un-disciplined philosophy of technology practitioner I envision investigates and takes normative positions on issues like expanding digital learning in classrooms and rapid online publication, but she will connect particular cases to broader themes and issues that transcend individual instances and technologies. At stake is what our Collective founder, James Collier, describes as the transportation problem: how does one move from micro studies to macro claims, and vice versa?[3]

When I first joined the SERRC, I had no idea how we would develop a community of writers/thinkers that could speak across continents and cultures, disciplines and specializations. I wondered what ‘writing collectively’ involved and if I would be up to the task. These questions remain for me, so my contribution to this Collective Vision page takes the shape of a proposal. I intend to inform our community of my work by providing regular updates to SERRC regarding the topic of un-disciplined philosophy of technology, including pieces of my dissertation, in the hopes of spurring conversation, critique and debate. I am interested in how the ideas I examine strike others who have backgrounds and areas of emphasis perhaps only tangentially related to my own. As SERRC participants, we write to each other and our audiences exceedingly well. I want to discover what writing with each other entails and how that will affect our communication, communities and values.


Burian, Richard. “The Dilemma of Case Studies Resolved: The Virtues of Using Case Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science.” Perspectives on Science 9, no. 1 (2001): 383-404.

Pitt, Joseph. “The Dilemma of Case studies: Toward a Heraclitian Philosophy of Science.” Perspectives on Science 9, no. 1 (2001): 373-382.

[1] Edmund Husserl’s Logical investigations volumes 1 and 2 (1900, 1901) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of perception (1962) use similar phrases, but my own usage departs from theirs. In my work, this phrase describes an integrative approach, mindful of historical and social factors, that asks audiences to think deeply about human-technology relations as they are and could be in the future.

[2] “Improved lives” is a phrase frequently trotted out by both academics and marketers of particular technologies. Throughout this project I will attempt to elucidate just what an ‘improved life’ entails, although I will be critical of descriptions like making our lives: easier, more democratic or more financially robust. These characteristics of the ‘Good Life’ seem full of promise but empty of specific content. I wish to investigate what thinking deeply about technology in a classical way (similar to Ellul, Marcuse and Mumford), and in a contemporary setting, will get us and how it might inform the ‘Good Life.’

[3] A similar debate occurs in the philosophy of science, although certainly applicable in philosophy of technology as well, between Richard Burian (2001) and Joseph Pitt (2001) regarding the use of case studies. Pitt argues that generalizing from specific cases or examples, no matter how many, does not get around David Hume’s problem of induction, i.e., that past instances tell us anything about future occurrences. Burian counters that case studies, particularly interdisciplinary case studies, allow for independent means of confirmation of broader theories. Though I am not convinced Burian fully resolves the problem Pitt poses, his recommendation of seeking methods of analysis that transcend single disciplines seems relevant here.

28 October 2013

A Comic Moment for Social Epistemology (PDF)
Joan Leach, University of Queensland,

Spun, Framed, Sold and Visioneering?


What can a comic tell us about the distribution of knowledge, especially highly technical knowledge emerging from Big Science projects at the end of the twentieth century? It turns out that a comic can tell us quite a lot.

In thinking about the category of ‘popular science’ in the late twentieth century, there are 2 dominant narratives (with almost endless variation).

1. The first way of thinking is that popular science is the predominant form in which non-scientists get scientific knowledge (with the TV and now the internet as key to consumption patterns) and this is important because popularization can be harnessed to improve levels of knowledge about science and even provide a critical ‘fourth estate’ for science.

2. The second way of thinking is that popular science is the predominant form in which non-scientists get scientific information and this is worrying because this is where scientific knowledge goes through the mangle of popularization and is ‘framed’ ‘spun’ and ‘sold.’

And as Stephen Hilgartner chronicled in his canonical article on popular science, if scientists themselves get burned by the first way of thinking, they can always try the second. [1] Or, more seriously, Hilgartner reflected that these two takes on ‘popularisation’ as knowledge distribution are themselves rhetorical resources for those who will popularize to justify their activities and critique others doing the same.

It is extraordinarily difficult to escape the pull of these two narratives. Both accounts are mired in wishful thinking—the first, in the wishful thinking that popular forms of media will prevail where science and civic education has failed. The second account succumbs to the fantasy of an all-powerful mediation selling the wonders of science to dupe after dupe.

In my research, it has taken a comic to pose some new questions about popular science at the end of the twentieth century. From 1961 to 1979 a science ‘faction’ comic called Frontiers of Science was syndicated to around 200 newspapers in 19 languages around the world. In the 1970s when the comic was in Sunday papers in Australia, it easily had a reach to 3 million people on any given Sunday. What is remarkable about this, in addition to its reach, is the way it was used. Children and teachers would cut strips from the paper to make ersatz science comic ‘textbooks’. This might seem to vindicate theorists of the first account above. Indeed, readers would write into newspapers, as one woman did to the Toronto Star, complaining about how women were represented (or not) in the comic, and by association, in scientific research.

But the strip is also remarkable in the way that it framed the issues in the 1960s which would become the wicked problems of the end of the century — the comic suggested in 1961 that water shortage might be as important as getting someone on the moon. The comic argued that technofixes to pollution, overpopulation, and energy shortage could be found in dustbin rocketry, birth control pills, and everything nuclear. In this way, the comic framed our problems as scientific and sold readers on the technofixes that were spun to look as easy and attractive as possible. So, theorists of the second sort can feel vindicated too.


For the conversation that is emerging on this blog, the important message that this example gives for social epistemologists interested in the power of science fiction to imagine futures, visioneering (as Laura Cabrera discusses in this blog), or even in the role of various mediations in distributing knowledge (see Fuller, this blog) is that the form of mediation matters, especially in its ability to get an audience. The comic fashioned itself as a way for papers to ‘sell more copies’ by harnessing the fact that “everyone is science conscious these days”. That is, the comic self-consciously produced a market for itself and for science.

This is what is missing from quite a few accounts of knowledge distribution and especially science popularization — a description of the enabling conditions of mediation itself. In this example, the enabling conditions are a market where knowledge can be exchanged and a context in which audiences can be produced (pity the reader that thought she was just going to read The Batman and was confronted by a science comic instead!). For me, this is a moment where the view of a social epistemologist can shed light on recent history and use it to reflect on the here and now and what should happen next. It might also make us add a bit more of the empirical into an account of visioneering or imagining futures where the social epistemologist can begin to parse the various rhetorical modes of spin, framing, selling and the ways in which audiences (even for popular science) are not found, but made.

Images of Frontiers of Science reproduced with the permission of the rights holders Miriam Butler and Angela Raymond. The archive of images is available at

[1] Hilgartner, Stephen. 1990. “The dominant view of popularization: Conceptual problems, political uses.” Social Studies of Science 20 (3): 519-539.

14 October 2013

How to Interpret Collective Aggregated Judgments? (PDF)
María G. Navarro, Spanish National Research Council,

Why is it important for us to be able to explain social laws and patterns? Perhaps the most basic answer is that we want to be able to explain social laws because, ultimately, we can change them — Alan Garfinkel, Forms of Explanation (1981, 180)

Our digital society increasingly relies in the power of others’ aggregated judgments to make decisions. Questions as diverse as which film we will watch, what scientific news we will decide to read, which path we will follow to find a place, or what political candidate we will vote for are usually associated to a rating that influences our final decisions.

These aggregated judgments may have a herding effect and are topic-dependent so they affect the way we interpret collective aggregated opinions. In what sense is this aggregated information (which is related to the items’ quality) useful? What kind of collective biases determine our individual perception? These questions are relevant because in some cases the pernicious herding effect may produce suboptimal market outcomes and rich-get-richer dynamics that increase human inequality.

The journal Science recently published the article “Social Influence Bias: A Randomized Experiment.” This article analyses the results of a large-scale randomized experiment on a social news aggregation website (a site where users contribute to new articles and engage into discussions with one another). This experiment was designed by Lev Muchnik, Sinan Aral and Sean J. Taylor in order to investigate if the knowledge of aggregated opinions distorts decision-making.

Apparently, some previous research had confirmed the existence of significant biases in individual behaviour. This information may not be surprising, what is striking is that the experiment by Muchnik, Aral and Taylor showed that the influence generated by aggregated opinions has an asymmetric effect.

The positive opinions do not have the same effect as the negatives: positive social influence is accumulated creating a tendency to the ‘ratings bubbles’, while social negative influence is neutralized by the crowds’ gradual and summative corrections.

The results obtained suggest that social influence substantially biases rating dynamics in systems designed to harness collective intelligence. In the social news aggregation website the positive herding effect was clearly topic-dependent and was deeply influenced by whether the judgment had been made by ‘friends’ or ‘enemies’.

Beyond the intelligent and sophisticated design of the experiment and the complex descriptions of the authors’ work, in my opinion their merit consists in helping us ask ourselves two relevant questions.

The first question is related to what I will call here the reputation heuristic. The authors ask how we can distinguish if the popular products are popular because of the irrational effect of past positive ratings or if the best products become popular because they are of the highest quality. Distinguishing between these two explanations reveals itself as relevant when what is important is to know if social influence produces an irrational herding effect.

The second question has to do with the limitations that the authors observe in their own experiment. I will denominate it here the challenge of living environments. Is it possible to explore individual mechanisms and aggregated opinions in living environments? Is it possible to improve our collective intelligence modifying our ability to interpret collective judgments in order to be able to avoid biased collective judgments?

The living environments referred to by the authors are no others than those in which past, present and future humanity lives. If the irrational herding effect that influences our cognitive biases has also effects on markets’ evolution, political discourse planning or our health it is due to its close relation with aspects related with our current way of life.

For this reason, to those who want to continue thinking about the philosophical, sociological and political aspects of this topic, I would recommend without doubt the fascinating book Humanity 2.0: What it Means to be Human Past, Present and Future (Steve Fuller, 2011).

No doubt, this post could be read also as an aggregated opinion written after reading the article by Muchnik, Aral and Taylor. My suggestion would be to ask ourselves not just how we should interpret but also how we should change our understanding (of the laws and patterns) of social influence bias.

7 October 2013

The Value of Imagining the Trans/Posthuman (PDF)
Victoria Peake, University of Warwick,

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand. — Albert Einstein

I’m not sure that imagination is more important than knowledge, but I do agree that imagination is the starting point for all there will be to know. I am interested in the value of imagining or visualising human enhancement technologies for shaping future scientific and technological innovations. Imagining or envisioning is fundamental for innovation and progress.

During the KIT-ITAS conference that I attended in July of this year, entitled ‘Imagining the (Post-) Human Future: Meaning, Critique and Consequences’, many discussions were had around transhumanism, the ideology that aims towards enhancing and perfecting the human using science and technology, to advance our capabilities. One key theme that arose was this idea of visualising what a transhuman might look like, with examples of visual depictions of Gods and Goddesses in Religion. I remember that someone asked what the point was of imagining or visualising the transhuman because often these figures seemed to be unrealistic, abstract or unattainable. However, I would argue that by visualising what a transhuman, or posthuman might look like, we can begin to orient our attitudes towards the moral, ethical and political issues that arise from the enhancement of the human, since visual representation has the power to evoke emotive responses. After forming an opinion it becomes possible to ask and attempt to answer questions such as what is possible? What is moral and ethical? What should we allow? Are there boundaries that should not be crossed, if so where? How can we institutionalise and implement innovations that we would allow?

For my undergraduate dissertation I exhibited this painting of myself as a human-robot hybrid and collected viewer responses through questionnaires, interviews and natural discussion, without explaining the intentions of the piece or what it was depicting. I found that the exhibition sparked strong emotions from viewers using words with positive and negative connotations in their answers, which defined their opinions of human enhancement. Thus, in this instance visual representation created emotive responses suggesting that imagining and visualising does help to orient our attitudes towards future possibilities.


Moreover, I also argue that imagining or visualising a post/transhuman is not only powerful in invoking an emotive response to orient our attitudes towards such innovations, but also has the potential to produce knowledge. Interestingly, what I also found was that viewers understood and discussed some of the main debates around transhumanism, even in cases where the viewers had no previous knowledge or understanding of the topic. For example the respondents raised questions as to the distinction (or not) between therapy and enhancement, and the fear of disparity and disadvantage that would arise in society if only some could access such enhancements. Thus the visual can be a powerful tool for producing knowledge even in the absence of written explanation. As Eyerman and Ring (1998, 283) argue, ‘artworks can evoke a reflexive, cognitive response from viewing publics, in which powerful emotion and recognition can combine to extraordinary effect.’

So why not imagine or envision? Regardless of whether what we imagine is possible, desirable or too abstract to become a reality, it can orient our feelings towards the broad notion of enhancement, and encourage us to debate and ask the right questions in order to move forward. Furthermore, my dissertation has proven that visual representation of one’s imagination can also produce knowledge. As Einstein said, ‘imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.’


Eyerman, Ron and Mangus Ring. 1998. “Towards a new sociology of art worlds: Bringing meaning back in.” Acta Sociologica 41 (3): 277-283.

30 September 2013

Understanding the Worldly Character of Knowledge and Reason (PDF)
Adam Riggio, McMaster University,

There is a tendency in my discipline of philosophy to think of knowledge as absolute and of reason as pure. I will explain what I mean with a story. A problem in philosophical epistemology caught my ear a couple of years ago, and I have since published a paper on it (“The Plural Nature of Reason,” Cogency 4, no. 2, Summer 2013). This is the problem of rational disagreement. How, goes the reasoning, can two or more people examine the same body of evidence regarding some problem, yet arrive at incompatibly different judgments, and still treat the other as an epistemic peer? In other words, how can they both be equally rational and intelligent while disagreeing?

I have many friends who work in academic disciplines outside philosophy. When I told them the nature of this problem, they were all equally astonished that philosophers could consider this vexing. Sociologists of all stripes, literary theorists, a couple of computer programmers, and a rogue anthropologist were all incredulous that this image of reason could exist. The only reason a disagreement over interpreting evidence would be taken as a sign of actual inferiority in intelligence by one, several, or all parties to a dispute is if you believe that every problem has a single correct answer or description. Against this stance is the attitude widespread in every other discipline of the human sciences that rationality is a multifaceted social phenomenon that can encompass as many diverging perspectives as there are personal and cultural histories of reasoners. Yet philosophy still expresses this tendency.

When I say ‘tendency,’ I do not mean to imply that every practitioner of the discipline in a university thinks this way about philosophical knowledge. Many of the philosophers with whom I have forged the best professional and personal relationships think in ways that are much more accepting of reason’s complexity. But the implications of the worldliness of knowledge face a resistance here that is uncommon elsewhere. The community of philosophers moves with a peculiar inertia.

My desire to break that inertia is why I have been so happy to have found the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective (SERRC). It is a community that permits me avenues of inquiry that I would not normally have in the relative isolation of my home department alone (an isolation that risks growing in the period after PhD graduation but before steady employment). Yet on the surface, my presence here is curious.

I am currently in the final stages of revising my dissertation research into a manuscript for submission to a university press to publish as a book. That project is on environmental philosophy, re-examining several neglected ideas in environmentalist moral theory in the light of lessons from contemporary ecological and biological science, framed within an ethical perspective from the existentialist tradition. Its central question is why, in the light of our widespread destructive behaviour, humanity even deserves to continue existing anymore.

I am preparing two new research projects. Which of these I take up depends on my employment fortunes in the next year. If one direction works out, I will study a problem of the public perception of evolutionary biology: why the popular image of ‘evolutionary theory’ is as a monolithic set of natural laws for the development of species on which no practitioners disagree without invalidating the entire enterprise, instead of the lively discourse that it actually is. If my university career takes another path, my major research project will examine several extreme revolutionary political theories in terms of how they conceive the relation of their present world to the imagined perfect future or the idealized past to be resurrected. Utopian time’s dangers, you could call it. None of these three projects have much to do with social epistemology, per se.

Some explicit themes of my work are clear: examining the intersection of scientific knowledge or concepts derived from scientific inquiries with the social and political effects they can have in the world, and how social and political movements can incorporate or co-opt those sciences. But my methods of working through these problems in thought draw from the lessons of social epistemology, broadly conceived. So much discussion in SERRC focusses on philosophy of science, but the core principle I adopt for my work goes beyond even this scope: that knowledge and reasoning are social processes, with practices contingent on worldly situations and open to change based on novel empirical discoveries about the subject of one’s inquiries and the structure of one’s thinking.

My projects would be inconceivable to me if I believed in traditional conservative philosophy’s conception of reason as absolute: a single kind of internally consistent thinking that is not affected by worldly concerns, an ideal process of thought and argumentation which would only be corrupted by allowing worldly matters to alter it. The worst ideas of Plato remain alive in the tradition of philosophy, to the discipline’s detriment.

Not all philosophers believe this; I view the best of today’s working university philosophers as understanding the worldly character of knowledge and reason. But too many philosophers still conceive of reason as absolute, a conception that holds philosophy as a professional practice back from productive engagement with so many disciplines outside its usual sphere. Philosophy can too often hold itself away from the world, and if the discipline is to progress, we must rejoin it.

24 September 2013

Common Vision in a Non-Community: Exploring the Role of STS in the Changing World (PDF)
Evgeniya Popova, Policy Analysis and Studies of Technology (PAST) Center, National Research Tomsk State University, Russian Federation,
Elena Simakova, University of Exeter Business School, SERRC,

The conference “STS in the Changing World: the co-production of science and technology” brought together scholars from the Russian Federation, the UK, and the Netherlands. Taking place in Tomsk, the idea of the gathering was to create a forum for scoping the range of Science and Technology Studies (STS) research that could be taken up in the Russian forming community of STS researchers. Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) have made a splash in the Russian STS theorising and informed a number of empirical case studies including analysis of utilities, laboratories, obstetrics practice, and scientometrics (Merton-inspired). The more established in the West STS approaches are still rare in Russia: Russian STS had so far been a home grown set of concepts and approaches informed by Soviet, post-Soviet and Western philosophical thought.

The active “STS centres” that have emerged recently are located in four cities and organised around three or four topics attracting students. So far, STS in Russia has not been ambitious enough to develop its own theoretical stances. The trend still continues to assess the Western frameworks that reach Russian sociological circles, such as SCOT and ANT. Efforts are being made to get to grips with language games, philosophical concepts, and semantic analysis of such frameworks, at the same time developing translation capacities. In some sense, it all looks like a mixture of earlier classic approaches in STS, including the Mertonian sociology of science, with some influence from the nascent approaches such as metaphorics and critical Actor-Network Theory.

The several STS researchers around whom especially Masters students gather are at the crossroads these days: on the one hand, topics suggested by younger scholars challenge their views of how the research ought to be done; on the other hand, many topics seem attractive. As such, the nascent core STS scholars may become growth points for Russian STS. From the conference experience, topics suggested by younger researchers turned out to be more intellectually demanding than research pursued by more established scholars. It might even make more sense to organise the next conference for the younger STS developing community.

A number of philosophers offered their analyses of emerging dimensions in technoscience, including Nano-, Bio-, Information, Cognitive, and Social technologies (NBICS), as in Irina Chernikova’s paper, which rather aptly resonated with what Steve Fuller offered in his conference inaugural speech concerning transhumanism. The references to Technology Assessment (TA) in such presentations also touched upon what Arie Rip discussed under the broader umbrella term of “technodreams”. In many ways, the TA dimension of the conference can be further pursued in conjunction with the Moscow TA activities in the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The expertise is a hot topic in the Russian sociology generally, as well as in the developing community of those self-proclaimed STS enthusiasts. It was the theme running across many papers in the conference as well. Attempts were noted to rethink the phenomenon itself without drawing on the existing theoretical frameworks. Paper by Andrei Kozhanov extended the notion of expertise and ways of elucidating the nature of expert knowledge through bracketing the notions of experts and expertise and bringing new sociological approaches to STS in order to develop the concept of “mundane expert knowledge”. Expert knowledge, on the one hand, was analysed in the narrow and broad sense, on the other — within “implicit” and “explicit” contexts where expert knowledge is related to the nature of language games or reflexivity (deliberation, pubic debate), accordingly. The same way of reasoning was seen in the paper by Maria Abramova and Olga Melnikova who shifted the focus from expertise towards experts themselves and critically assessed the ways experts are selected and produced. They asked questions about how the emergence of experts in the public sphere might redefine the whole societal notion of expertise as well as about whose responsibility it is to nominate experts.

Mikhail Sokolov discussed meta-expertise and academic power. His paper questioned the gap between research on academic power and research on sceintific expertise, including analysis of the most widespread forms of institutionalisation of meta-expert judgements comparatively in the U.S., Germany, and Russia in terms rankings and tenure. Roman Abramov’s paper on the dilemmas of expertise analysed the phenomenon of scientific journalism in Russia dating back to the Soviet science journalism, also critically exploring the transition towards online science journalism platforms such as YouTube, TED, and Marina Zagidullina analysed some of the current ways used by the expert community to look for new ideas, innovative methods, and innovation with a question in mind: Is there a chance to overcome the institutional “normal” science? Dmitry Eremenko’s paper also questioned the status of technology assessment between normative ethics and systems approaches in the case of converging technologies.

The section on the sociology of technology was theretically positioned around ANT. Ivan Tchalakov comparatively assessed Russian and Chinese capacities for innovation based on technology transfer from abroad testing the theoretical analysis against the recent developments in space industries in Russia, China, and USA. Innovation politics in the research centres of Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences was dissected by Anatoly Ablazhei, who paid attention to the analysis of the debates about the future of scientific and educational sectors, academic leadership, municipal authority and the business community. Artem Rykun asked whether in order to stand one must keep to the roots, and illustrated his thesis with the examples of underappreciated masterpieces of Czech automotive industries. Alina Kontareva’s paper was looking at data, knowledge, and social mobility developing new formats for science organisation and social mobility. Li Wan’s analysis of nantechnology policies in China offered a framework considering policy as calculation in the production of new entities.

One of the highlights of the conference was the round table dedicated to the global governance of science and technology (Evgeniya Popova and Elena Simakova). The discussion focussed on the challenges presented by the global governance initiatives to more traditional approaches in international relations (IR) and its consequences for Responsibe Research and Innovation (RRI). Questions were asked about purposes and values of technoscience (техносайнс) and the potential of global governance-focussed approaches to offer new frameworks for analyses of expertise and Technology Assessment as well as open, transparent and just socio-technical change. Dmitry Galkin looked at the connections between expert requirements and funding applicants to develop new directions in scientific research and assessed the potential of the global versus local approaches in funding criteria. In parallel, paper by Olga Zvonareva analysed the production of global scientific knowledge considering clinical trials and bioethics discourse in South Africa and Russia.

The conference concluded with a presentation by Anna Trakhtenberg (the Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Ekaterinburg) on e-government. She offered the 7/24/365 framework for institutional legitimation of the state under the condition of the information revolution. She highlighted that the ideology of the electronic government is naturalised, i.e. is taken for granted by the participants in the process of its formation.

The conference was sponsored by the George Soros | Open Society Foundations. Full conference materials can be found at

10 September 2013

Intellectuals as both Dangerous and Endangered (PDF).

Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, SERRC,

Recently I have had several opportunities to revisit my work on intellectuals, perhaps the social category that I hold in highest esteem. I have no doubt that intellectuals benefit society. The only question is the circumstances under which they can do the most good for society. I raise this concern against a long-standing self-representation of intellectuals as both dangerous and endangered. To be sure, many non-intellectuals — including academics who disparage intellectuals — regard the very claim to such high stakes as no more than self-serving hyperbole. Nevertheless, I believe that it contains a sufficiently large grain of truth to merit some unpacking.

Intellectuals are dangerous not because they ‘speak truth to power’ so effectively. Here the historical record is mostly one of noble failure. Rather, intellectuals are dangerous because they inject an unwanted measure of competition that de-stabilises the structure of epistemic authority in society. In particular, intellectuals reveal academics to be inveterate ‘rent-seekers’, as economists call those who turn a profit not by doing anything productive with their property — in this case, their knowledge — but by charging a lot to others who might wish to do something productive with it. (And here we should think about the charges in terms of time as well as money.) Though normally seen as ideological opponents, Ricardo and Marx were united in their contempt for those paradigmatic medieval rent-seekers, feudal lords and professional clerics. We can now include academic experts who all too readily condemn intellectuals simply because they manage to profit from expert knowledge either without having acquired the proper credentials themselves or — perhaps more damningly in expert eyes — without requiring others to do so.

By being routinely subject to the constraints imposed by the multiple media in which they operate, intellectuals develop keen powers of discrimination that enable them to spot what economists – with Gordon Tullock firmly in mind — would call ‘path dependencies’ in academic thought. Intellectuals realize that the specific means by which academics produce and validate knowledge speaks more to how they themselves came to know something than how others should appropriate that knowledge in the future. An intellectual pondering a sound bite or pitching a newspaper column is dealing with matters of appropriation. While there is little reason to think that intellectuals have deliberately tried to ‘demystify’ or ‘deskill’ academic knowledge, often that has been the unintended consequence. When they hit the mark, intellectuals demonstrate that it is possible to elude the rents that academics normally impose as ‘educational requirements’ in order to acquire an empowering form of knowledge.

In this respect, intellectuals are entrepreneurs of epistemic efficiency who see academic expertise as fencing and channelling the otherwise free-ranging human mind. This analogy suggests that academics are instinctively feudal and intellectuals instinctively capitalistic. And to a large extent, that is correct. However, there is a difference between breaking feudal land control simply in order to make the land more productive and to enable everyone to benefit the most from the land. Marxists, but not all self-avowed communists, have believed that the latter is not achievable without the former. In any case, intellectuals who simply make knowledge more easily available without concern for who might benefit or be harmed by it are rightly seen as epistemic entrepreneurs in the capitalist mould.

At the same time, however, intellectuals are reasonably seen as an endangered socio-epistemic species. But the ultimate danger these days has rather little to do with issues such as censorship and other forms of political coercion, which of course continue to blight the lives of particular intellectuals. Much more serious is the second-order threat posed to the intellectual as a distinct socio-epistemic species. The recent overextension of the concept of ‘whistleblower’ is as an Orwellian bellwether. The term was coined by Ralph Nader who, in alluding to the action of a referee in a sports match, drove home the idea that employees should treat their organization as a participatory democracy and hence personally invested in upholding the organization’s norms. In short, employees are not merely players but referees as well.

The first whistleblower to gain public notoriety had been the US Defence Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg who provided the New York Times with reams of confidential documents that revealed the often conflicted reasoning behind the prosecution of the Vietnam War. Its overall effect was to expedite America’s departure from what had already become an unpopular military engagement. Whistleblowers in this sense — and Ellsberg in particular — are proper intellectuals. Ellsberg’s skills in mathematical decision theory had helped to construct US Cold War strategy, but once he realized how his work was being used, he decided that it was time to act against his employer, the US government. (It is to America’s great and lasting credit that Ellsberg was legally vindicated.) However, even though Ellsberg himself has anointed Julian Assange, Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and Edward Snowden as successor ‘whistleblowers’, these people occupy a rather different place in the means of knowledge production, one that threatens the integrity of the intellectual.

Assange, Manning and Snowden never participated in the formation of any of the policies that were revealed by their ‘whistleblowing’, which nowadays simply means computer hacking. Moreover, they justified the massive release of confidential information in terms of vague libertarian statements and disgruntlement with US foreign policy. All of them were happy to let the recipients of this information make up their own minds about more specific responses. While superficially a liberal gesture, in practice it served to focus public concern on the sheer fact of secrecy rather than any major points of foreign policy. Not surprisingly, then, after a few months of diplomatic embarrassment, there is no evidence that this deluge of documents has resulted in an ideological re-alignment of interests across the globe. What may have changed, of course, are the channels of communication used, the modes of encryption, etc, used in diplomatic communications. While these latter-day whistleblowers are certainly inconveniences, they may also unwittingly serve as troubleshooters in the world of politically sensitive, computer-mediated communications. But by this point, we have moved far beyond the realm of intellectuals.

The current vogue for Wikileaks-style whistleblowers speaks volumes to the lack of understanding that contemporary society has for the politics of representative democracy in which intellectuals have historically flourished. The very idea of ‘representation’ in ‘representative democracy’ presumes that citizens will not be consulted in every decision, and that the decisions taken by their representatives may be other – but presumably better – than that of the citizens themselves, given a similar opportunity. (Of course, there is always the next election to boot the representatives out if they do not live up to this ideal.) Crucially, on this view, secrecy only becomes a problem when people are being systematically deceived. This means that politicians need to earn the people’s trust – a task quite different from ensuring that everyone knows the content of all political deliberations. Moreover, the election system in representative democracies means that any misgivings can be voiced on a regular basis, regardless of how well the polity is doing. In this context, intellectuals often function very well in projecting alternative visions for the future that can propel a party into power.

Against this backdrop, today’s computer-based whistleblowers should be seen as merely mimicking the intellectual delivery pattern of the computers they use. They are bionic search engines designed to disseminate indiscriminately. While this role may suit our postmodern condition, with its fetishisation of big data over grand theory and a celebration of ambivalence all round, those intellectuals who still hope for a different future need to become genuine masters of digital media because for now they are largely mastered by it.

2 September 2013

Visioneering and Our Common Future (PDF).
Laura Cabrera, University of Basel, SERRC,

The best way to predict the future is to invent it — Alan Kay

According to some technology enthusiasts, such as Raymond Kurzweil, our technological developments seem to be following an exponential accelerating rate. A common vision of these technology enthusiasts is that the accelerating rate of development of science and technology will enable us to transform the world in more profound and significant ways than any other time in our history, escaping the limits surrounding the human condition. More importantly, some of these people have gone beyond having visions about the future to actively engage in a diverse set of activities to shape the future they envision. This is what Patrick McCray, a historian at the University of California, would call a “visioneer” (2012). If we unpack this neologism, we get on the one hand “visionary” and on the other “engineer”. McCray uses Gerard O’Neill with his space colonies and Eric Drexler with his universal assemblers as clear examples of the hybridized nature of visioneers.

Two current personalities that seem to fit this visioneer nature are Raymond Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis. The former is an inventor, futurist, author and currently director of engineering at Google, while the latter, is an engineer and entrepreneur best known for being the founder and chairman of the X PRIZE foundation. Kurzweil and Diamandis not only share positive technological visions about the future, the visionary aspect which is an essential part of the visioneering motivation, but actively engage in shaping that future that they envision, the engineer aspect.

One example of Kurzweil and Diamandis visionner’s nature is that together they co-founded Singularity University in 2008, a new university concept whose mission is “to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges”. [1] It is a university in which not only the visions supported by them and their followers are taught but it is also a place that fosters the use and development of technologies (such as nanotechnology, biotechnology and artificial intelligence) to shape the future and impact positively the world. This combination of activities promoted by Singularity University is an example of the type of activities carried out by visioneers “to nudge society toward expansive scenarios of the technological future they imagine” (Mackray, 2012:152).

In this regard visioneering is not only about developing a broad and comprehensive vision of the future, which often embraced technological utopianism, in which the technologies they promote are seen as shaping future societies and radically transforming the human condition. Visioneering is also about doing research and engineering [2] to advance that vision, as well as to promote those ideas to the public and policy makers. That is why Kurzweil and Diamandis are examples of visioneers — because they imagine futures shaped by the technologies they helped promote.

Another feature of visioneers is that they often work at the blurry border between scientific fact, technological possibility and optimistic speculation, which is one of the reasons why their claims are contested and challenged. Considering that strictly speaking the often radical visions held by this type of visioneers are not impossible, one can see why some people are not too comfortable about visioneering, as we just cannot know the type of societal changes we would be confronted with and the real impact of their vision if they were to succeed.

But let us return to another key feature of visioneering, namely a belief (at times almost like faith) in that the particular technological future envisioned will help us to solve seemingly intractable social problems (a clear example is Singularity University mission stated above). Visioneers’ faith in a particular technological future makes them reject other possible futures, especially those stressing the limits surrounding the human condition (such as limits of natural resources or biological limitations) as well as the all-too-human nature of its people, who might not necessarily use these technologies only with the aim of improving the human condition or who might end up using it blindly in the name of improving the human condition. In addition if we consider the inevitable disagreement about what the future should be like and how it might be best realized, we can see that the future is a contested arena where diverse interests and values meet. That is one reason for questioning the tension between visioneering the future as one in which radical visions of the future and technology optimism abounds and one with the pragmatic goals of technological development and its positive impact into people’s lives.

Thus, visioneering should not be an activity solely for technological optimistic entrepreneurs, but also an activity in which academics from the humanities and social sciences are also actively engaged; producing visions that are more inclusive of other realities face by humankind as a whole and not necessarily techno utopian future, and at the same time actively engaging in “engineering” the future, an activity that need not be about molecular machines or immortal avatars. Having a broader set of visions will provide a valuable and more ecologically valid space in which other scientists and engineers could mobilize, explore and push the limits of the possible both in technological terms and social terms. More over having visioneers from different backgrounds and who hold a different set of assumptions is crucial for the growth and diversification of today´s ecosystems and for achieving a more meaningful and inclusive debate about the future. The consequences of failing as academics to be more actively engaged in the shaping of our future is that the future will then be driven  by a very narrow set of visions that are unlikely to cover the wide range of possible scenarios about the future. Instead of just theorizing about the dangers and perils of certain visioneering projects, we as academics can also start shaping the future by visioneering ourselves, and not only visioning.


McCray, Patrick. 2012. The visioneers: How a group of elite scientists pursued space colonies, nanotechnologies, and a limitless future. Princeton University Press.


[2] That is, applying technical skills, knowledge, and calculation to press forward the technological future

Part II
In Part II of the Collective Vision page, SERRC members take up the relationship between personal change and social epistemology. These posts address the complexities of developing novel philosophical positions—positions that take genuine risks and, in so doing, lead us to becoming certain kinds of people in order to know certain kinds of things in shifting, and reimagined, social circumstances.

Part II Contents

29 January 2015
Transgressions and the Scientific Knower (PDF)
Fabien Medvecky, University of Otago,

Let’s begin with three uncontroversial assumptions about science. Firstly, science is a knowledge creating activity; science is fundamentally about creating knowledge (explanations, facts, etc) of the empirical world around us. Secondly, science is the socially dominant epistemic framework; the knowledge created by science is regarded as the best, most reliable knowledge we have. Lastly, science aims to be as objective as it can be; science, in its method and culture, attempts to minimize the effect of subjective bias on its explanations and findings. This aim of bias-minimizing is all-important as it is one of the justifications for science’s epistemic dominance.

Science is also a deeply social enterprise, and that sociality creates its own forms of bias (Latour and Woolgar, 1979; Kuhn, 1996). Science has its own social norms and scientists are also subject to the norms of the broader society they belong to. The question I want to consider is: how do social transgressions—acts that cut against the grain of socially acceptable behaviours and practices (from data fabrication, to socially inappropriate behaviour, to acts of criminality)—co-exist with the bias-minimizing aims of science? In this paper, I offer a preliminary typology of transgressions and consider some key questions about the interaction between these transgressions and the aims of science as reliable, bias-minimizing knowledge-creating activity.

Norms and Transgressions

Much of our lives are governed by social norm, from norms about alcohol and drug consumption to norms about sexual practice to norms about professional practice. Norms are “customary rules that govern behaviour in groups and societies” (Bicchieri and Muldoon, 2014). Such customary rules are useful for a number of reasons. At a personal level, norms guide our behaviour, with regard to what is permissible and what is not. Socially, norms help us predict the likely behaviour of others. both in the acts they chose to perform and in their reaction to our acts (Brauer and Chaurand, 2010). Fundamentally, norms are concerned with constraining an individual’s behaviour; a large part of the constraining force of norms comes from sanctions transgressing individuals will suffer as a result of their transgression (Bicchieri and Muldoon, 2014; Linke, 2012). By setting boundaries on behaviour, norms tell us what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. For example, the social norm with sexual behaviour in western countries is that sexual interaction between consenting adults is acceptable (subject to further constrains on fidelity, gender preferences, etc), but also that sexual interaction between an adult and child is not. In science, the norm with regard to creativity in research is that creating theories is acceptable, but creating data is not.

Acts that breach social norms are often referred to as transgressions (Abrams, Randsley de Moura and Travaglino, 2013). These transgressions come in many shapes and sizes. Some transgressions are breaches of social norms with relatively little moral significance (wearing the wrong outfit at a wedding), while others are substantial challenges to our moral norms (rape, murder, etc). Transgressions can be episodic (a one-off faux-pas), or they can be (or be considered) a reflection of a more fundamental personality trait (Manstead and Semin, 1981). Some transgressions may be punishable by law, such as sexual relations with a minor, but not all are (expressions of racism is not usually illegal, but it is often considered a breach of social norms) (Abrams, Travaglino, Randsley de Moura and May, 2014). Whether transgressions are punished by law or not, transgressions do generate a social reaction. This reaction is socially determined not only on a macro-scale—how the transgression is judged because of the nature of the transgression (Brauer & Chaurand, 2010)—but it is also social on a micro-scale—how the transgressor is judged according to the context in which the transgression occurred and the relationship the transgressor has with the other individuals involved (Linke, 2012). So what happens when a scientist transgresses? More specifically, what happens to the scientific findings of a scientist who transgresses, given science’s bias-minimization aims? Clearly, the nature of the transgression will have some bearing on the reaction, so let’s begin by scaffolding a broad-brush typology of transgressions scientists might commit.

A Typology of Transgressions

One obvious form for transgression is the breaching of scientific norms; carrying out ‘bad science’, such as data fabrication, plagiarism and fraud. Such cases are perceived as being both methodologically dubious and unethical (Resnik, 1998). David Wakefield’s fraudulent paper about MMR vaccine is an exemplar case of such transgressions (Dyer, 2008).

A slightly less overt form of transgression is the breaching of scientific etiquette, such as reporting one’s results in press conferences before presenting them to one’s peer at conference or in publication, or showing a seeming disregard for the seriousness and importance of science. For example, James McConnell publishing his “The Worm Runner’s Digest”, a half scientific, half satirical journal (eventually split in two, the satirical half retaining the original title and printed upside-down on the back end of the more traditionally scientific “The Journal of Psychological Biology”) was seen by some as showing disrespect for the institution of science (Collins and Pinch, 1993).

A third form of transgression is breaches of broader social norms, from adultery to murder to expressions of racism. James Watson, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for his work on the structure of DNA, sold his Nobel medal in 2014 as a result of being pushed to the side both socially and professionally following comments considered racist; namely suggesting that race was a determinant of intelligence (Malloy, 2008).

These are three idealized types of transgressions and real-world transgressions will often (usually? always?) be a combination of two or more of these. Cases of ethical breach, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, where contaminated patients were left untreated in order to be able to follow the disease’s course “in nature” (Crenner, 2011), are clearly transgressions of social norms, but they are also breaches of scientific norms. While transgressions will not always fall neatly into this typology, it is epistemically useful to distinguish between various types of transgressions as this will, or maybe should, have a bearing on how the transgression affects the way the transgressor’s science is received, perceived, and distributed. In this paper, I want to open up a discussion on the tension between the effect of transgressions and the bias-minimizations aims of science, and what this means scientists as knowers.

Transgressions and the Scientific Enterprise of Knowledge Creation

Thinking of transgressions raise an obvious set of empirical questions: how do transgressions affect our perception of the transgressor’s findings; how is a transgressor’s body of knowledge affected by the transgression; and so on. Transgressions also raise an obvious set of normative questions: how should these transgressions affect our perception of the findings; should a transgressor’s body of knowledge be affected by the transgression and so forth. But the questions I’m more interested in are epistemic in nature: how do transgressions relate to our ideas about knowledge creation and communication? And, relatedly, how does the transgressor, as a knower, alters due to the transgression?

When a scientist transgresses, the acceptance, distribution and profile of their knowledge is often negatively affected. In some cases, such as data fabrication, this may seem well warranted. But what of the cases where the transgression is (seemingly) unrelated to the scientists’ field of work. Take a fictional case of a scientist working on astronomy found guilty of a terrible murder, or consider the afore-mentioned case of James Watson (his research on the structure of DNA seems unrelated to his expressed views about the intellectual inferiority of black people, the latter being a breach of social norms) (Malloy, 2008). The scientific ideal of bias-minimization and of being as objective as possible should lead us to ignore (or set aside) transgressions unrelated to the findings. Yet scientists are more then knowing machines; they are part of our social fabric, and their knowing, their capacity, their rights as knowers, are intrinsically linked to this sociality. Indeed, science’s privileged place as the epistemically dominant framework is inherently social. So how do we read these transgressors’ work and how do we interact with them as knowing agents?

Some recent contributions to this collective have discussed the relationship between personal change and our capacity to know (West, 2104; D’Agostino, 2014). Basbøll, for example, suggests that “[w]e have to become certain kinds of people in order to know certain kinds of things” (2014). In these discussions, the concern is with individual’s capacity to pursue knowledge in new and challenging directions, but something more is entailed in the argument in these articles. By tying the capacity to further knowledge with personal change, we are tying the capacity to further knowledge with the character of the knower; we move from ‘knowing as the result of an action’ (or set thereof) to ‘knowing as the result of a character trait’ (being courageous, being risk-taking, and so forth). Thinking of the relationship between character, personal change and knowledge suggests a way forward on how to think of transgressions and the role of science as a knowledge creating activity by inviting reflections on what kind of character is required of scientist as a knower; what kind of person must a scientists be to know the kind of things a scientist aims to know. Conversely, transgressions suggests some further questions on the relationship between personal change and social epistemology; not only do we want to ask “what kind of people do we need to become in order to know certain kinds of things”, but also “what kinds of things can we still know when we stop being certain kinds of persons”. This makes transgressions a rich avenue for exploring the relationship between personal change and social epistemology.


Abrams, Dominic, Georgina Randsley de Moura, Giovanni A. Travaglino. “A Double Standard When Group Members Behave Badly: Transgression Credit to Ingroup Leaders.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105, no. 5 (2013): 799-815.

Abrams, Dominic, Giovanni A. Travaglino, Georgina Randsley de Moura and Philip J. May. “A step too far? Leader racism inhibits transgression credit.” European Journal of Social Psychology, 44, no. 7 (2014): 730-735.

Basbøll, Thomas. “I, Social Epistemologist.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 4, (2014): 14-15.

Bicchieri, Cristina and Ryan Muldoon. “Social Norms.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta (2014). Retrieved 14/1/2015

Brauer, Markus and Nadine Chaurand. “Descriptive Norms, Prescriptive Norms, and Social Control: An Intercultural Comparison of People’s Reactions to Uncivil Behaviors. European Journal of Social Psychology 40, no. 3 (2010): 490-499.

Collins, Harry and Trevor Pinch. The Golem: What You Should Know About Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Crenner, Christopher. “The Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the Scientific Concept of Racial Nervous Resistance.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 67, no. 2 (2011): 244-280.

D’Agostino, Fred. “How Can We Collectivize a Set of Visions about Social Epistemology? Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 8 (2014): 5-9.

Dyer, Owen. “Wakefield Admits Fabricating Events When He Took Children’s Blood Samples.” British Medical Journal 336, no. 7649 (2008): 850-850.

Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (3rd edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Latour, Bruno and Steve Woolgar. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. London: Sage, 1979.

Linke, Lance H. “Social Closeness and Decision Making: Moral, Attributive and Emotional Reactions to Third Party Transgressions.” Current Psychology 31, no. 3 (2013): 291-312.

Malloy, Jason. “James Watson Tells the Inconvenient Truth: Faces the Consequences.” Medical Hypotheses 70, no. 6 (2008): 1081-1091.

Manstead, A. S. R., and G.R. Semin. “Social Transgressions, Social Perspectives, and Social Emotionality.” Motivation and Emotion 5 no. 3 (1981): 249-261.

Resnik, David. The Ethics of Science. Routledge: New York, 1998.

West, Mark. “Doxastic Involuntarism, Attentional Voluntarism, and Social Epistemology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 5 (2014): 37-51.

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