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Author Information: Jeff Kochan, University of Konstanz, jwkochan@gmail.com.

Kochan, Jeff. “Decolonising Science in Canada: A Work in Progress.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 42-47.

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-43i

A Mi’kmaw man and woman in ceremonial clothing.
Image by Shawn Harquail via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This essay is in reply to:

Wills, Bernard (2018). ‘Weak Scientism: The Prosecution Rests.’ Social Epistemology Review & Reply Collective 7(10): 31-36.

In a recent debate about scientism in the SERRC pages, Bernard Wills challenges the alleged ‘ideological innocence’ of scientism by introducing a poignant example from his own teaching experience on the Grenfell Campus of Memorial University, in Corner Brook, Newfoundland (Wills 2018: 33).

Note that Newfoundland, among its many attractions, claims a UNESCO World Heritage site called L’Anse aux Meadows. Dating back about 1000 years, L’Anse aux Meadows is widely agreed to hold archaeological evidence for the earliest encounters between Europeans and North American Indigenous peoples.

Southwest Newfoundland is a part of Mi’kma’ki, the traditional territory of the Mi’kmaq. This territory also includes Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and parts of New Brunswick, Québec, and Maine. Among North America’s Indigenous peoples, the Mi’kmaq can readily claim to have experienced some of the earliest contact with European culture.

Creeping Colonialism in Science

Let us now turn to Wills’s example. A significant number of students on the Grenfell Campus are Mi’kmaq. These students have sensitised Wills to the fact that science has been used by the Canadian state as an instrument for colonial oppression. By cloaking colonialism in the claim that science is a neutral, universal standard by which to judge the validity of all knowledge claims, state scientism systematically undermines the epistemic authority of ancient Mi’kmaq rights and practices.

Wills argues, ‘[t]he fact that Indigenous knowledge traditions are grounded in local knowledge, in traditional lore and in story means that on questions of importance to them Indigenous peoples cannot speak. It means they have to listen to others who “know better” because the propositions they utter have the form of science.’ Hence, Wills concludes that, in the Canadian context, the privileging of science over Indigenous knowledge ‘is viciously exploitative and intended to keep indigenous peoples in a place of dependency and inferiority’ (Wills 2018: 33-4).

There is ample historical and ethnographic evidence available to support Wills’s claims. John Sandlos, for example, has shown how the Canadian state, from the late 19th century to around 1970, used wildlife science as a ‘coercive’ and ‘totalizing influence’ in order to assert administrative control over Indigenous lives and lands in Northern Canada (Sandlos 2007: 241, 242).

Paul Nadasdy, in turn, has argued that more recent attempts by the Canadian state to establish wildlife co-management relationships with Indigenous groups are but ‘subtle extensions of empire, replacing local Aboriginal ways of talking, thinking and acting with those specifically sanctioned by the state’ (Nadasdy 2005: 228). The suspicions of Wills’s Mi’kmaw students are thus well justified by decades of Canadian state colonial practice.

Yet Indigenous peoples in Canada have also pointed out that, while this may be most of the story, it is not the whole story. For example, Wills cites Deborah Simmons in support of his argument that the Canadian state uses science to silence Indigenous voices (Wills 2018: 33n4). Simmons certainly does condemn the colonial use of science in the article Wills cites, but she also writes: ‘I’ve seen moments when there is truly a hunger for new knowledge shared by indigenous people and scientists, and cross-cultural barriers are overcome to discuss research questions and interpret results from the two distinct processes of knowledge production’ (Simmons 2010).

Precious Signs of Hope Amid Conflict

In the haystack of Canada’s ongoing colonial legacy, it can often be very difficult to detect such slivers of co-operation between scientists and Indigenous peoples. For example, after three decades of periodic field work among the James Bay Cree, Harvey Feit still found it difficult to accept Cree claims that they had once enjoyed a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship with the Canadian state in respect of wildlife management in their traditional hunting territories. But when Feit finally went into the archives, he discovered that it was true (Feit 2005: 269; see also the discussion in Kochan 2015: 9-10).

In a workshop titled Research the Indigenous Way, part of the 2009 Northern Governance and Policy Research Conference, held in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, participants affirmed that ‘Indigenous people have always been engaged in research processes as part of their ethical “responsibility to keep the land alive”’ (McGregor et al. 2010: 102). At the same time, participants also recognised Indigenous peoples’ ‘deep suspicion’ of research as a vehicle for colonial exploitation (McGregor et al. 2010: 118).

Yet, within this conflicted existential space, workshop participants still insisted that there had been, in the last 40 years, many instances of successful collaborative research between Indigenous and non-Indigenous practitioners in the Canadian North. According to one participant, Alestine Andre, these collaborations, although now often overlooked, ‘empowered and instilled a sense of well-being, mental, physical, emotional, spiritual good health in their Elders, youth and community people’ (McGregor et al. 2010: 108).

At the close of the workshop, participants recommended that research not be rejected, but instead indigenised, that is, put into the hands of Indigenous practitioners ‘who bear unique skills for working in the negotiated space that bridges into and from scientific and bureaucratic ways of knowing’ (McGregor et al. 2010: 119). Indigenised research should both assert and strengthen Indigenous rights and self-government.

Furthermore, within this indigenised research context, ‘there is a role for supportive and knowledgeable non-Indigenous researchers, but […] these would be considered “resource people” whose imported research interests and methods are supplementary to the core questions and approach’ (McGregor et al. 2010: 119).

Becoming a non-Indigenous ‘resource person’ in the context of decolonising science can be challenging work, and may offer little professional reward. As American archaeologist, George Nicholas, observes, it ‘requires more stamina and thicker skin than most of us, including myself, are generally comfortable with – and it can even be harmful, whether one is applying for permission to work on tribal lands or seeking academic tenure’ (Nicholas 2004: 32).

Indigenous scholar Michael Marker, at the University of British Columbia, has likewise suggested that such research collaborations require patience: in short, ‘don’t rush!’ (cited by Wylie 2018). Carly Dokis and Benjamin Kelly, both of whom study Indigenous water-management practices in Northern Ontario, also emphasise the importance of listening, of ‘letting go of your own timetable and relinquishing control of your project’ (Dokis & Kelly 2014: 2). Together with community-based researchers, Dokis and Kelly are exploring new research methodologies, above all the use of ‘storycircles’ (https://faculty.nipissingu.ca/carlyd/research/).

Such research methods are also being developed elsewhere in Canada. The 2009 Research the Indigenous Way workshop, mentioned above, was structured as a ‘sharing circle,’ a format that, according to the workshop facilitators, ‘reflect[ed] the research paradigm being talked about’ (McGregor et al. 2010: 101). Similarly, the 13th North American Caribou Workshop a year later, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, included an ‘Aboriginal talking circle,’ in which experiences and ideas about caribou research were shared over the course of one and a half days. The ‘relaxed pace’ of the talking circle ‘allowed for a gradual process of relationship-building among the broad spectrum of Aboriginal nations, while providing a scoping of key issues in caribou research and stewardship’ (Simmons et al. 2012: 18).

Overcoming a Rational Suspicion

One observation shared by many participants in the caribou talking circle was the absence of Indigenous youth in scientific discussions. According to the facilitators, an important lesson learned from the workshop was that youth need to be part of present and future caribou research in order for Indigenous knowledge to survive (Simmons et al. 2012: 19).

This problem spans the country and all scientific fields. As Indigenous science specialist Leroy Little Bear notes, the Canadian Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1991-1996) ‘found consistent criticism among Aboriginal people in the lack of curricula in schools that were complimentary to Aboriginal peoples’ (Little Bear 2009: 17).

This returns us to Wills’s Mi’kmaw students at the Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook. A crucial element in decolonising scientific research in Canada is the encouragement of Indigenous youth interest in scientific ways of knowing nature. Wills’s observation that Mi’kmaw students harbour a keen suspicion of science as an instrument of colonial oppression points up a major obstacle to this community process. Under present circumstances, Indigenous students are more likely to drop out of, rather than to tune into, the science curricula being taught at their schools and universities.

Mi’kmaw educators and scholars are acutely aware of this problem, and they have worked assiduously to overcome it. In the 1990s, a grass-roots initiative between members of the Mi’kmaw Eskasoni First Nation and a handful of scientists at nearby Cape Breton University (CBU), in Nova Scotia, began to develop and promote a new ‘Integrative Science’ programme for CBU’s syllabus. Their goal was to reverse the almost complete absence of Indigenous students in CBU’s science-based courses by including Mi’kmaw and other Indigenous knowledges alongside mainstream science within the CBU curriculum (Bartlett et al. 2012: 333; see also Hatcher et al. 2009).

In Fall Term 2001, Integrative Science (in Mi’kmaw, Toqwa’tu’kl Kjijitaqnn, or ‘bringing our knowledges together’) became an accredited university degree programme within CBU’s already established 4-year Bachelor of Science Community Studies (BScCS) degree (see: http://www.integrativescience.ca). In 2008, however, the suite of courses around which the programme had been built was disarticulated from both the BScSC and the Integrative Science concentration, and was instead offered within ‘access programming’ for Indigenous students expressing interest in a Bachelor of Arts degree. The content of the courses was also shifted to mainstream science (Bartlett et al. 2012: 333).

Throughout its 7-year existence, the Integrative Science academic programme faced controversy within CBU; it was never assigned a formal home department or budget (Bartlett et al. 2012: 333). Nevertheless, the programme succeeded in meeting its original goal. Over those 7 years, 27 Mi’kmaw students with some programme affiliation graduated with a science or science-related degree, 13 of them with a BScSC concentration in Integrative Science.

In 2012, most of these 13 graduates held key service positions within their home communities (e.g., school principal, research scientist or assistant, job coach, natural resource manager, nurse, teacher). These numbers compare favourably with the fewer than 5 Indigenous students who graduated with a science or science-related degree, unaffiliated with Integrative Science, both before and during the life of the programme (Bartlett et al. 2012: 334). All told, up to 2007, about 100 Mi’kmaw students had participated in first-year Integrative Science courses at CBU (Bartlett et al. 2012: 334).

From its inception, Integrative Science operated under an axe, facing, among other things, chronic ‘inconsistencies and insufficiencies at the administrative, faculty, budgetary and recruitment levels’ (Bartlett 2012: 38). One could lament its demise as yet one more example of the colonialism that Wills has brought to our attention in respect of the Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook. Yet it is important to note that the culprit here was not science, as such, but a technocratic – perhaps scientistic – university bureaucracy. In any case, it seems inadequate to chalk up the travails of Integrative Science to an indiscriminate search for administrative ‘efficiencies’ when the overall nation-state context was and is, in my opinion, a discriminatory one.

When Seeds Are Planted, Change Can Come

But this is not the note on which I would like to conclude. To repeat, up to 2007, about 100 Mi’kmaw students had participated in first-year Integrative Science courses. That is about 100 Mi’kmaw students who are, presumably, less likely to hold the firmly negative attitude towards science that Wills has witnessed among his own Mi’kmaw students in Newfoundland.

As I wrote above, in the haystack of Canada’s ongoing colonial legacy, it can be very difficult to detect those rare slivers of co-operation between scientists and Indigenous peoples on which I have here tried to shine a light. If this light were allowed to go out, a sense of hopelessness could follow, and then an allegedly hard border between scientific and Indigenous knowledges may suddenly spring up and appear inevitable, if also, for some, lamentable.

Let me end with the words of Albert Marshall, who, at least up to 2012, was the designated voice on environmental matters for Mi’kmaw Elders in Unama’ki (Cape Breton), as well as a member of the Moose Clan. Marshall was a key founder and constant shepherd of CBU’s Integrative Science degree programme. One last time: some 100 Mi’kmaw students participated in that programme during its brief life. Paraphrased by his CBU collaborator, Marilyn Iwama, Elder Marshall had this to say:

Every year, the ash tree drops its seeds on the ground. Sometimes those seeds do not germinate for two, three or even four cycles of seasons. If the conditions are not right, the seeds will not germinate. […] [Y]ou have to be content to plant seeds and wait for them to germinate. You have to wait out the period of dormancy. Which we shouldn’t confuse with death. We should trust this process. (Bartlett et al. 2015: 289)

Contact details: jwkochan@gmail.com

References

Bartlett, Cheryl (2012). ‘The Gift of Multiple Perspectives in Scholarship.’ University Affairs / Affaires universitaires 53(2): 38.

Bartlett, Cheryl, Murdena Marshall, Albert Marshall and Marilyn Iwama (2015). ‘Integrative Science and Two-Eyed Seeing: Enriching the Discussion Framework for Healthy Communities.’ In Lars K. Hallstrom, Nicholas Guehlstorf and Margot Parkes (eds), Ecosystems, Society and Health: Pathways through Diversity, Convergence and Integration (Montréal: McGill-Queens University Press), pp. 280-326.

Bartlett, Cheryl, Murdena Marshall and Albert Marshall (2012). ‘Two-Eyed Seeing and Other Lessons Learned within a Co-Learning Journey of Bringing Together Indigenous and Mainstream Knowledges and Ways of Knowing.’ Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 2: 331-340.

Dokis, Carly and Benjamin Kelly (2014). ‘Learning to Listen: Reflections on Fieldwork in First Nation Communities in Canada.’ Canadian Association of Research Ethics Boards Pre and Post (Sept): 2-3.

Feit, Harvey A. (2005). ‘Re-Cognizing Co-Management as Co-Governance: Visions and Histories of Conservation at James Bay.’ Anthropologica 47: 267-288.

Hatcher, Annamarie, Cheryl Bartlett, Albert Marshall and Murdena Marshall (2009). ‘Two-Eyed Seeing in the Classroom Environment: Concepts, Approaches, and Challenges.’ Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education 9(3): 141-153.

Kochan, Jeff (2015). ‘Objective Styles in Northern Field Science.’ Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 52: 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsa.2015.04.001

Little Bear, Leroy (2009). Naturalizing Indigenous Knowledge, Synthesis Paper. University of Saskatchewan, Aboriginal Education Research Centre, Saskatoon, Sask. and First Nations and Adult Higher Education Consortium, Calgary, Alta. https://www.afn.ca/uploads/files/education/21._2009_july_ccl-alkc_leroy_littlebear_naturalizing_indigenous_knowledge-report.pdf  [Accessed 05 November 2018]

McGregor, Deborah, Walter Bayha & Deborah Simmons (2010). ‘“Our Responsibility to Keep the Land Alive”: Voices of Northern Indigenous Researchers.’ Pimatisiwin: A Journal of Aboriginal and Indigenous Community Health 8(1): 101-123.

Nadasdy, Paul (2005). ‘The Anti-Politics of TEK: The Institutionalization of Co-Management Discourse and Practice.’ Anthropologica 47: 215-232.

Nicholas, George (2004). ‘What Do I Really Want from a Relationship with Native Americans?’ The SAA Archaeological Record (May): 29-33.

Sandlos, John (2007). Hunters at the Margin: Native People and Wildlife Conservation in the Northwest Territories (Vancouver: UBC Press).

Simmons, Deborah (2010). ‘Residual Stalinism.’ Upping the Anti #11. http://uppingtheanti.org/journal/article/11-residual-stalinism [Accessed 01 November 2018]

Simmons, Deborah, Walter Bayha, Danny Beaulieu, Daniel Gladu & Micheline Manseau (2012). ‘Aboriginal Talking Circle: Aboriginal Perspectives on Caribou Conservation (13th North American Caribou Workshop).’ Rangifer, Special Issue #20: 17-19.

Wills, Bernard (2018). ‘Weak Scientism: The Prosecution Rests.’ Social Epistemology Review & Reply Collective 7(10): 31-36.

Wylie, Alison (2018). ‘Witnessing and Translating: The Indigenous/Science Project.’ Keynote address at the workshop Philosophy, Archaeology and Community Perspectives: Finding New Ground, University of Konstanz, 22 October 2018.

 

Author Information: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College, serrc.digital@gmail.com.

Riggio, Adam. “Asking the Best Questions About Epistemology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 31-35.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-42Y

Image by Juan Antonio Segal via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

My response to Jim Butcher’s piece carries a little extra authority because, as Digital Editor, I approved its publication in the first place. I say this not to disavow the authority of my role, but to acknowledge it.

For a web platform’s editor to have okayed and published a piece that he is about to critique explicitly, is an inherently problematic position. It was already an inherently problematic position to publish an essay that so directly critiques the priorities of post-colonial research in a platform that has become more explicitly allied with post-colonial research since I took over as editor.

Context: The Problem of Platforming

My own position as an editor who both approves and critiques is also difficult, thanks to an intriguingly awkward coincidence. I live in Toronto, where a well-heeled, prestigious intellectual debate series just hosted a high-profile conversation between David Frum and Steve Bannon over the future of Western politics.

Frum, the former speechwriter and policy developer for George W. Bush, was and remains a vocal advocate for spreading democracy by the barrel of a rocket launcher, as he was when he wrote the famous “Axis of Evil” speech for Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address. He took the liberal, progressive side, contrary to Bannon’s advocacy of open nationalism.

Protestors outside the venue during the event, who faced disproportionate violence from police and security guards, were primarily motivated by a principle with which I largely agree: No Platform.

No Platform is the refusal to cede your venue to people advocating particularly violent or exclusionary ideologies. The principle considers that there are two reasons for refusing a platform for people to air these views. One is that ceding a platform lends dignity, respect, and prestige to morally repugnant ideas. The other is that it shifts the popular limit of politically and morally acceptable discourse so that what was widely considered extremist 15 years ago (using democracy promotion as an excuse to invade a country of millions on fraudulent pretenses, as Frum did) as perhaps a touch conservative but not that bad.

The No Platform principle, however, is all-too-often depicted as an expression of cowardice, fragility, or weakness of the personalities and principles of those who refuse platforms. This disingenuous image suggests, when its proponents do not state explicitly, that progressive moral and political values are weak because they cannot stand up to the challenge of debating an opposing viewpoint.

It is, however, nationalism and similar ideologies based on authoritarian domination that erodes democratic institutions and enforces violent caste / race hierarchies, that are the genuinely weak ones. Such ideologies do not gain adherents through genuine reason. They instead play on resentment and disingenuous insults about opponents, including resentments of the historically marginalized, to seduce people with feelings of natural superiority and displays of power to control and suppress people who are different than they are.

The Scope of a Claim to Be Universal

I open my response to Butcher’s article with this prologue, so that you can understand why a common reaction to his piece is to wonder why he was given a platform to begin with. The common progressive reaction to critiques of post-colonial theory such as Butcher’s is to deny them the legitimacy of a platform.

I was okay with the publishing of Butcher’s piece because, despite and because of its flaws, it remains a valuable misunderstanding of post-colonial thinking. Butcher’s essay displays a common initial reaction of many Westerners to post-colonial challenges to the scientific and educational institutions and traditions that emerged from Europe’s Enlightenment period.

He is in good company, such as Rebecca Goldstein and Steven Pinker. He is also in bad company, such as Jordan Peterson, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Richard Dawkins.

Butcher’s fundamental philosophical error is mistaking a challenge to the Enlightenment tradition’s own specific claim of universality for a challenge to the very possibility of universality in knowledge. Here is an example from my own philosophical influences that I hope will contribute positively to explain this point.

That James Madison himself was a slave owner does not invalidate the philosophical strengths and concepts of his Federalist Papers. That he wrote the most philosophically insightful Federalist Papers likewise does not invalidate the moral and political violence of his having owned slaves or conceived the infamous and grotesque “three-fifths compromise” that precisely quantified the institutional sub-humanity of American slaves for census and taxation purposes.

European powers’ military-economic imperialism in the Atlantic slave trade and their colonization of the Americas fuelled European industrialization. European industrialization fuelled the growth of European scientific enterprise. The Enlightenment project began when this colonization process was already a century underway.

Popular morality that dehumanized Africans as slavish and Indigenous as savage was largely shared by the main intellectual and political leaders of the Enlightenment. The claims to universality of those who began the Enlightenment tradition were already corrupted by the ethical / political presumption that such universality required conformity to the specifically European (or Western) approach to universal knowledge.

Contemporary post-colonial research focuses primarily on demonstrating the falsehood of this necessity, the presumption that achieving the universal exclusively requires adopting the European-designed model whose crucible was the Enlightenment tradition.

When Knowledge Weds Itself to Terror

This presumption of exclusiveness is false. Even given the concept in post-colonial theory of different knowledge traditions constituting “multiple worlds” or “plural worlds,” the presumption of exclusiveness is false. Throughout his essay, Butcher presumes that taking differences in knowledge traditions to constitute multiple worlds of knowledge functions to exclude those worlds from each other.

The problem with Enlightenment traditions of science is not that they believed that universality in knowledge was possible. It was that they mistook the European approaches to knowledge as necessarily and exclusively universal. The European culture of science that descended from the Enlightenment was so economically and ideologically wedded to colonizing imperialism that the presumptions of what constituted properly universal forms of knowledge themselves justified the imperial enterprise.

The presumption of exclusiveness is the imperialist framework of thinking that post-colonial knowledge practices work to overcome. All the diversity of knowledge production methods in every non-Western culture was excluded from recognition as a legitimate method of knowledge production throughout the popular culture of Western societies. The British Empire was one of the worst offenders in its scale of influence around Earth, the intensity of its exclusionary rhetoric, and its ingenuity in building legal and military institutions to destroy and exclude all forms of knowledge that differed from the model of the Western Enlightenment.

In my own country of Canada, the Indian Act laws governing physical movement and removing political rights from Indigenous people created a residential concentration camp network in our Native Reserve system. This refusal of citizenship rights operated in concert with the national residential schools system, which forcibly separated Indigenous children from their families and communities, imprisoning them in boarding schools where teachers forced them through violence to forget their languages, cultural stories, and identities.

The United Nations recently declared, correctly, Canadian institutions of Indigenous governance to be machinery of a centuries-long act of genocide.

All of this was justified as the benevolence of English government educating Indigenous people to become proper citizens capable of learning at all. This is the intensity and seriousness to which European and broader Western institutions excluded ways of life from public legitimacy as knowledge producing cultures.

Misunderstanding “Decolonize”

In presuming that post-colonial thinkers themselves exclude all knowledge produced in scientific traditions and disciplines linked with imperialism-justifying ideologies, Butcher himself accuses post-colonial theory of colonialism.

Post-colonial thinkers who understand the fundamental point of post-colonial thinking do not consider their mission to exclude Western culture’s knowledge production traditions and methods from legitimacy as European empires did to others. Such exclusion is itself one of the central methods and principles of the imperialism that post-colonial thinking aims to identify.

Given the pervasiveness of exclusionary or delegitimizing attitudes toward Indigenous knowledge traditions in many academic disciplines for so long, it is naïve of anyone to think that any decolonizing process would be simple. Every practice in a scientific discipline should be scrutinized ruthlessly.

No territory should be exempt from the search for which practices presume their own exclusive correctness. This includes conceptual development, empirical research and interpretation methods, the popular images of the discipline, and how the university departments where all this work takes place carry out their daily work, hiring, tenure and promotion decision processes.

Butcher can say that the Enlightenment concept of universality, conceived abstractly, includes a plurality of sources, traditions, and methods of knowledge. All that he may say will not repair actual, concrete practices.

A memory of a man, frozen in stone, can no longer take issue with how others use his words.
Image by Ade Russell via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Epilogue: Unseemly Rhetoric

Butcher unfortunately leans on several rhetorical devices to make his point that have been widely discredited, due to their frequently occurring in racist right-wing trolling culture. Here is the most stark example.

He refers to Martin Luther King’s universally famous “I Have a Dream” segment from his speech at the March on Washington, to deride post-colonial theorists as themselves opposing genuine equality.

This has been a common tactic among the racist trolls of the United States at least since the 2012 murder trial of George Zimmerman. King’s words were often used to invalidate anti-racist advocates as themselves being anti-equality, as the quote was the rhetorical centrepiece of an argument that they wished to refuse Zimmerman a fair trial.

It did not matter to the trolls that the trial’s critics wanted us to explore, understand, and reject the ideologies that enabled Zimmerman to perceive Trayvon Martin as a dangerous threat to his neighbourhood, instead of a teenager being a jackass. King was quoted as a rhetorical means to use a superficial conception of equality to make more complex conceptions of equality appear hypocritical.

For Butcher to end his essay with such an appeal is, at best, terribly naive. Readers can easily imagine what it would be at worst. At worst, you need only consider what Steve Bannon and people like him propagate throughout popular culture today. But I am sure that Butcher would not consider himself so malicious in his intent.

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

Butcher, Jim. “Questioning the Epistemology of Decolonise: The Case of Geography.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 12-24.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Ottawa: Government of Canada, 2015.

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, s.w.fuller@warwick.ac.uk.

Fuller, Steve. “‘China’ As the West’s Other in World Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 1-11.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-42x

A man practices Taijiquan at the Kongzi Temple in Nanjing.
Image by Slices of Light via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This essay was previously published in the Journal of World Philosophy, their Summer 2018 issue.

Bryan Van Norden’s Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto draws on his expertise in Chinese philosophy to launch a comprehensive and often scathing critique of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy. I focus on the sense in which “China” figures as a “non-Western culture” in Van Norden’s argument. Here I identify an equivocation between what I call a “functional” and a “substantive” account of culture.

I argue that Van Norden, like perhaps most others who have discussed Chinese philosophy, presupposes a “functional” conception, whereby the relevant sense in which “China” matters is exactly as “non-Western,” which ends up incorporating some exogenous influences such as Indian Buddhism but not any of the Western philosophies that made major inroads in the twentieth century. I explore the implications of the functional/substantive distinction for the understanding of cross-cultural philosophy generally.

Dragging the West Into the World

I first ran across Bryan Van Norden’s understanding of philosophy from a very provocative piece entitled “Why the Western Philosophical Canon Is Xenophobic and Racist,”[1]  which trailed the book now under review. I was especially eager to review it because I had recently participated in a symposium in the Journal of World Philosophies that discussed Chinese philosophy—Van Norden’s own area of expertise—as a basis for launching a general understanding of world philosophy.[2]

However, as it turns out, most of the book is preoccupied with various denigrations of philosophy in contemporary America, from both inside and outside the discipline. The only thing I will say about this aspect of the book is that, even granting the legitimacy of Van Norden’s complaints, I don’t think that arguments around some “ontological” conception of what philosophy “really is” will resolve the matter because these can always be dismissed as self-serving and question-begging.

What could make a difference is showing that a broader philosophical palette would actually make philosophy graduates more employable in an increasingly globalized world. Those like Van Norden who oppose the “Anglo-analytic hegemony” in contemporary philosophy need to argue explicitly that it results in philosophy punching below its weight in terms of potential impact. That philosophy departments of the most analytic sort continue to survive and even flourish, and that their students continue to be employed, should be presented as setting a very low standard of achievement.

After all, philosophy departments tend to recruit students with better than average qualifications, while the costs for maintaining those departments remain relatively low. In contrast, another recent book that raises similar concerns to Van Norden’s, Socrates Tenured (Frodeman and Briggle 2016),[3] is more successful in pointing to extramural strategies for philosophy to pursue a more ambitious vision of general societal relevance.

Challenging How We Understand Culture Itself

But at its best, Taking Back Philosophy forces us to ask: what exactly does “culture” mean in “multicultural” or “cross-cultural” philosophy? For Van Norden, the culture he calls “China” is the exemplar of a non-Western philosophical culture. It refers primarily—if not exclusively—to those strands of Chinese thought associated with its ancient traditions. To be sure, this arguably covers everything that Chinese scholars and intellectuals wrote about prior to the late nineteenth century, when Western ideas started to be regularly discussed. It would then seem to suggest that “China” refers to the totality of its indigenous thought and culture.

But this is not quite right, since Van Norden certainly includes the various intellectually productive engagements that Buddhism as an alien (Indian) philosophy has had with the native Confucian and especially Daoist world-views. Yet he does not seem to want to include the twentieth-century encounters between Confucianism and, say, European liberalism and American pragmatism in the Republican period or Marxism in the Communist period. Here he differs from Leigh Jenco (2010),[4] who draws on the Republican Chinese encounter with various Western philosophies to ground a more general cross-cultural understanding of philosophy.

It would appear that Van Norden is operating with a functional rather than substantive conception of “China” as a philosophical culture. In other words, he is less concerned with all the philosophy that has happened within China than with simply the philosophy in China that makes it “non-Western.” Now some may conclude that this makes Van Norden as ethnocentric as the philosophers he criticizes.

I am happy to let readers judge for themselves on that score. However, functional conceptions of culture are quite pervasive, especially in the worlds of politics and business, whereby culture is treated as a strategic resource to provide a geographic region with what the classical political economist David Ricardo famously called “comparative advantage” in trade.

But equally, Benedict Anderson’s (1983) influential account of nationalism as the construction of “imagined communities” in the context of extricating local collective identities from otherwise homogenizing imperial tendencies would fall in this category. Basically your culture is what you do that nobody else does—or at least does not do as well as you. However, your culture is not the totality of all that you do, perhaps not even what you do most of the time.

To be sure, this is not the classical anthropological conception of culture, which is “substantive” in the sense of providing a systematic inventory of what people living in a given region actually think and do, regardless of any overlap with what others outside the culture think and do. Indeed, anthropologists in the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries expected that most of the items in the inventory would come from the outside, the so-called doctrine of “diffusionism.”

Thus, they have tended to stress the idiosyncratic mix of elements that go into the formation of any culture over any dominant principle. This helps explain why nowadays every culture seems to be depicted as a “hybrid.” I would include Jenco’s conception of Chinese culture in this “substantive” conception.

However, what distinguished, say, Victorians like Edward Tylor from today’s “hybrid anthropologists” was that the overlap of elements across cultures was used by the former as a basis for cross-cultural comparisons, albeit often to the detriment of the non-Western cultures involved. This fuelled ambitions that anthropology could be made into a “science” sporting general laws of progress, etc.

My point here is not to replay the history of the struggle for anthropology’s soul, which continues to this day, but simply to highlight a common assumption of the contesting parties—namely, that a “culture” is defined exclusively in terms of matters happening inside a given geographical region, in which case things happening outside the region must be somehow represented inside the region in order to count as part of a given culture. In contrast, the “functional” conception defines “culture” in purely relational terms, perhaps even with primary reference to what is presumed to lie outside a given culture.

Matters of Substance and Function

Both the substantive and the functional conception derive from the modern core understanding of culture, as articulated by Johann Gottfried Herder and the German Idealists, which assumed that each culture possesses an “essence” or “spirit.” On the substantive conception, which was Herder’s own, each culture is distinguished by virtue of having come from a given region, as per the etymological root of “culture” in “agriculture.” In that sense, a culture’s “essence” or “spirit” is like a seed that can develop in various ways depending on the soil in which it is planted.

Indeed, Herder’s teacher, Kant had already used the German Keime (“seeds”) in a book of lectures whose title is often credited with having coined “anthropology” (Wilson 2014).[5] This is the sense of culture that morphs into racialist ideologies. While such racialism can be found in Kant, it is worth stressing that his conception of race does not depend on the sense of genetic fixity that would become the hallmark of twentieth-century “scientific racism.” Rather, Kant appeared to treat “race” as a diagnostic category for environments that hold people back, to varying degrees, from realizing humanity’s full potential.

Here Kant was probably influenced by the Biblical dispersal of humanity, first with Adam’s Fall and then the Noachian flood, which implied that the very presence of different races or cultures marks our species’ decline from its common divine source. Put another way, Kant was committed to what Lamarck called the “inheritance of acquired traits,” though Lamarck lacked Kant’s Biblical declinist backdrop. Nevertheless, they agreed that a sustainably radical change to the environment could decisively change the character of its inhabitants. This marks them both as heirs to the Enlightenment.

To be sure, this reading of Kant is unlikely to assuage either today’s racists or, for that matter, anti-racists or multiculturalists, since it doesn’t assume that the preservation of racial or cultural identity possesses intrinsic (positive or negative) value. In this respect, Kant’s musings on race should be regarded as “merely historical,” based on his fallible second-hand knowledge of how peoples in different parts of the world have conducted their lives.

In fact, the only sense of difference that the German Idealists unequivocally valued was self-individuation, which is ultimately tied to the functional conception of culture, whereby my identity is directly tied to my difference from you. It follows that the boundaries of culture—or the self, for that matter—are moveable feasts. In effect, as your identity changes, mine does as well—and vice versa.

Justifying a New World Order

This is the metaphysics underwriting imperialism’s original liberal capitalist self-understanding as a global free-trade zone. In its ideal form, independent nation-states would generate worldwide prosperity by continually reorienting themselves to each other in response to market pressures. Even if the physical boundaries between nation-states do not change, their relationship to each other would, through the spontaneous generation and diffusion of innovations.

The result would be an ever-changing global division of labor. Of course, imperialism in practice fostered a much more rigid—even racialized—division of labor, as Marxists from Lenin onward decried. Those who nevertheless remain hopeful in the post-imperial era that the matter can ultimately be resolved diagnose the problem as one of “uneven development,” a phrase that leaves a sour aftertaste in the mouths of “post-colonialists.”

But more generally, “functionalism” as a movement in twentieth-century anthropology and sociology tended towards a relatively static vision of social order. And perhaps something similar could be said about Van Norden’s stereotyping of “China.” However, he would be hardly alone. In his magisterial The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, a book which Van Norden does not mention, Randall Collins (1998)[6] adopts a similarly functionalist stance. There it leads to a quite striking result, which has interesting social epistemological consequences.

Although Collins incorporates virtually every thinker that Chinese philosophy experts normally talk about, carefully identifying their doctrinal nuances and scholastic lineages, he ends his treatment of China at the historical moment that happens to coincide with what he marks as a sea change in the fortunes of Western philosophy, which occurs in Europe’s early modern period.

I put the point this way because Collins scrupulously avoids making any of the sorts of ethnocentric judgements that Van Norden rightly castigates throughout his book, whereby China is seen as un- or pre-philosophical. However, there is a difference in attitude to philosophy that emerges in Europe, less in terms of philosophy’s overall purpose than its modus operandi. Collins calls it rapid discovery science.

Rapid discovery science is the idea that standardization in the expression and validation of knowledge claims—both quantitatively and qualitatively—expedites the ascent to higher levels of abstraction and reflexivity by making it easier to record and reproduce contributions in the ongoing discourse. Collins means here not only the rise of mathematical notation to calculate and measure, but also “technical languages,” the mastery of which became the mark of “expertise” in a sense more associated with domain competence than with “wisdom.” In the latter case, the evolution of “peer review” out of the editorial regimentation of scientific correspondence in the early journals played a decisive role (Bazerman 1987).[7]

Citation conventions, from footnotes to bibliographies, were further efficiency measures. Collins rightly stresses the long-term role of universities in institutionalizing these innovations, but of more immediate import was the greater interconnectivity within Europe that was afforded by the printing press and an improved postal system. The overall result, so I believe, was that collective intellectual memory was consolidated to such an extent that intellectual texts could be treated as capital, something to both build upon and radically redeploy—once one has received the right training to access them. These correspond to the phases that Thomas Kuhn called “normal” and “revolutionary” science, respectively.

To be sure, Collins realizes that China had its own stretches in which competing philosophical schools pursued higher levels of abstraction and reflexivity, sometimes with impressive results. But these were maintained solely by the emotional energy of the participants who often dealt with each other directly. Once external events dispersed that energy, then the successors had to go back to a discursive “ground zero” of referring to original texts and reinventing arguments.

Can There Be More Than One Zero Point?

Of course, the West has not been immune to this dynamic. Indeed, it has even been romanticized. A popular conception of philosophy that continues to flourish at the undergraduate level is that there can be no genuine escape from origins, no genuine sense of progress. It is here that Alfred North Whitehead’s remark that all philosophy is footnotes to Plato gets taken a bit too seriously.

In any case, Collins’ rapid discovery science was specifically designed to escape just this situation, which Christian Europe had interpreted as the result of humanity’s fallen state, a product of Adam’s “Original Sin.” This insight figured centrally in the Augustinian theology that gradually—especially after the existential challenge that Islam posed to Christendom in the thirteenth century—began to color how Christians viewed their relationship to God, the source of all knowing and being. The Protestant Reformation marked a high watermark in this turn of thought, which became the crucible in which rapid discovery science was forged in the seventeenth century. Since the 1930s, this period has been called the “Scientific Revolution” (Harrison 2007).[8]

In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, all appeals to authority potentially became not sources of wisdom but objects of suspicion. They had to undergo severe scrutiny, which at the time were often characterized as “trials of faith.” Francis Bacon, the personal lawyer to England’s King James I, is a pivotal figure because he clearly saw continuity from the Inquisition in Catholic Europe (which he admired, even though it ensnared his intellectual ally Galileo), through the “witch trials” pursued by his fellow Protestants on both sides of the Atlantic, to his own innovation—the “crucial experiment”—which would be subsequently enshrined as the hallmark of the scientific method, most energetically by Karl Popper.

Bacon famously developed his own “hermeneutic of suspicion” as proscriptions against what he called “idols of the mind,” that is, lazy habits of thought that are born of too much reliance on authority, tradition, and surface appearances generally. For Bacon and his fellow early modern Christians, including such Catholics as Rene Descartes, these habits bore the mark of Original Sin because they traded on animal passions—and the whole point of the human project is to rise above our fallen animal natures to recover our divine birthright.

The cultural specificity of this point is often lost, even on Westerners for whom the original theological backdrop seems no longer compelling. What is cross-culturally striking about the radical critique of authority posed by the likes of Bacon and Descartes is that it did not descend into skepticism, even though—especially in the case of Descartes—the skeptical challenge was explicitly confronted. What provided the stopgap was faith, specifically in the idea that once we recognize our fallen nature, redemption becomes possible by finding a clearing on which to build truly secure foundations for knowledge and thereby to redeem the human condition, God willing.

For Descartes, this was “cogito ergo sum.” To be sure, the “God willing” clause, which was based on the doctrine of Divine Grace, became attenuated in the eighteenth century as “Providence” and then historicized as “Progress,” finally disappearing altogether with the rising tide of secularism in the nineteenth century (Löwith 1949; Fuller 2010: chap. 8).[9]

But its legacy was a peculiar turn of mind that continually seeks a clearing to chart a path to the source of all meaning, be it called “God” or “Truth.” This is what makes three otherwise quite temperamentally different philosophers—Husserl, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger—equally followers in Descartes’ footsteps. They all prioritized clearing a space from which to proceed over getting clear about the end state of the process.

Thus, the branches of modern Western philosophy concerned with knowledge—epistemology and the philosophy of science—have been focused more on methodology than axiology, that is, the means rather than the ends of knowledge. While this sense of detachment resonates with, say, the Buddhist disciplined abandonment of our default settings to become open to a higher level of state of being, the intellectual infrastructure provided by rapid discovery science allows for an archive to be generated that can be extended and reflected upon indefinitely by successive inquirers.

Common Themes Across Continents

A good way to see this point is that in principle the Buddhist and, for that matter, the Socratic quest for ultimate being could be achieved in one’s own lifetime with sufficient dedication, which includes taking seriously the inevitability of one’s own physical death. In contrast, the modern Western quest for knowledge—as exemplified by science—is understood as a potentially endless intergenerational journey in which today’s scientists effectively lead vicarious lives for the sake of how their successors will regard them.

Indeed, this is perhaps the core ethic promoted in Max Weber’s famous “Science as a Vocation” lecture (Fuller 2015: chap. 3).[10] Death as such enters, not to remind scientists that they must eventually end their inquiries but that whatever they will have achieved by the end of their lives will help pave the way for others to follow.

Heidegger appears as such a “deep” philosopher in the West because he questioned the metaphysical sustainability of the intellectual infrastructure of rapid discovery science, which the Weberian way of death presupposes. Here we need to recall that Heidegger’s popular reception was originally mediated by the postwar Existentialist movement, which was fixated on the paradoxes of the human condition thrown up by Hiroshima, whereby the most advanced science managed to end the biggest war in history by producing a weapon with the greatest chance of destroying humanity altogether in the future. Not surprisingly, Heidegger has proved a convenient vehicle for Westerners to discover Buddhism.

Early Outreach? Or Appropriation?

Finally, it is telling that the Western philosopher whom Van Norden credits with holding China in high esteem, Leibniz, himself had a functional understanding of China. To be sure, Leibniz was duly impressed by China’s long track record of imperial rule at the political, economic, and cultural levels, all of which were the envy of Europe. But Leibniz honed in on one feature of Chinese culture—what he took to be its “ideographic” script—which he believed could provide the intellectual infrastructure for a global project of organizing and codifying all knowledge so as to expedite its progress.

This was where he thought China had a decisive “comparative advantage” over the West. Clearly Leibniz was a devotee of rapid discovery science, and his project—shared by many contemporaries across Europe—would be pursued again to much greater effect two hundred years later by Paul Otlet, the founder of modern library and information science, and Otto Neurath, a founding member of the logical positivist movement.

While the Chinese regarded their written characters as simply a medium for people in a far-flung empire to communicate easily with each other, Leibniz saw in them the potential for collaboration on a universal scale, given that each character amounted to a picture of an abstraction, the metaphorical rendered literal, a message that was not simply conveyed but embedded in the medium. It seemed to satisfy the classical idea of nous, or “intellectual intuition,” as a kind of perception, which survives in the phrase, “seeing with the mind’s eye.”

However, the Chinese refused to take Leibniz’s bait, which led him to begin a train of thought that culminated in the so-called Needham Thesis, which turns on why Earth’s most advanced civilization, China, failed to have a “Scientific Revolution” (Needham 1969; Fuller 1997: chap. 5).[11] Whereas Leibniz was quick to relate Chinese unreceptiveness to his proposal to their polite but firm rejection of the solicitations of Christian missionaries, Joseph Needham, a committed Marxist, pointed to the formal elements of the distinctive cosmology promoted by the Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity, that China lacked—but stopping short of labelling the Chinese “heathens.”

An interesting feature of Leibniz’s modus operandi is that he saw cross-cultural encounters as continuous with commerce (Perkins 2004).[12]  No doubt his conception was influenced by living at a time when the only way a European could get a message to China was through traders and missionaries, who typically travelled together. But he also clearly imagined the resulting exchange as a negotiation in which each side could persuade the other to shift their default positions to potential mutual benefit.

This mentality would come to be crucial to the dynamic mentality of capitalist political economy, on which Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage was based. However, the Chinese responded to their European counterparts with hospitality but only selective engagement with their various intellectual and material wares, implying their unwillingness to be fluid with what I earlier called “self-individuation.”

Consequently, Europeans only came to properly understand Chinese characters in the mid-nineteenth century, by which time it was treated as a cultural idiosyncrasy, not a platform for pursuing universal knowledge. That world-historic moment for productive engagement had passed—for reasons that Marxist political economy adequately explains—and all subsequent attempts at a “universal language of thought” have been based on Indo-European languages and Western mathematical notation.

China is not part of this story at all, and continues to suffer from that fact, notwithstanding its steady ascendancy on the world stage over the past century. How this particular matter is remedied should focus minds interested in a productive future for cross-cultural philosophy and multiculturalism more generally. But depending on what we take the exact problem to be, the burden of credit and blame across cultures will be apportioned accordingly.

Based on the narrative that I have told here, I am inclined to conclude that the Chinese underestimated just how seriously Europeans like Leibniz took their own ideas. This in turn raises some rather deep questions about the role that a shift in the balance of plausibility away from “seeing with one’s own eyes” and towards “seeing with the mind’s eye” has played in the West’s ascendancy.

Conclusion

I began this piece by distinguishing a “substantive” and a “functional” approach to culture because even theorists as culturally sensitive as Van Norden and Collins adopt a “functional” rather than a “substantive” approach. They defend and elaborate China as a philosophical culture in purely relational terms, based on its “non-Western” character.

This leads them to include, say, Chinese Buddhism but not Chinese Republicanism or Chinese Communism—even though the first is no less exogenous than the second two to “China,” understood as the land mass on which Chinese culture has been built over several millennia. Of course, this is not to take away from Van Norden’s or Collins’ achievements in reminding us of the continued relevance of Chinese philosophical culture.

Yet theirs remains a strategically limited conception designed mainly to advance an argument about Western philosophy. Here Collins follows the path laid down by Leibniz and Needham, whereas Van Norden takes that argument and flips it against the West—or, rather, contemporary Western philosophy. The result in both cases is that “China” is instrumentalized for essentially Western purposes.

I have no problem whatsoever with this approach (which is my own), as long as one is fully aware of its conceptual implications, which I’m not sure that Van Norden is. For example, he may think that his understanding of Chinese philosophical culture is “purer” than, say, Leigh Jenco’s, which focuses on a period with significant Western influence. However, this is “purity” only in the sense of an “ideal type” of the sort the German Idealists would have recognized as a functionally differentiated category within an overarching system.

In Van Norden’s case, that system is governed by the West/non-West binary. Thus, there are various ways to be “Western” and various ways to be “non-Western” for Van Norden. Van Norden is not sufficiently explicit about this logic. The alternative conceptual strategy would be to adopt a “substantive” approach to China that takes seriously everything that happens within its physical borders, regardless of origin. The result would be the more diffuse, laundry list approach to culture that was championed by the classical anthropologists, for which “hybrid” is now the politically correct term.

To be sure, this approach is not without its own difficulties, ranging from a desire to return to origins (“racialism”) to forced comparisons between innovator and adopter cultures. But whichever way one goes on this matter, “China” remains a contested concept in the context of world philosophy.

Contact details: s.w.fuller@warwick.ac.uk

References

Bazerman, Charles. Shaping Written Knowledge. Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.

Collins, Randall. The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Frodeman, Robert; Adam Briggle. Socrates Tenured. Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).

Fuller, Steve. Science: Concepts in the Social Sciences. Milton Keynes UK: Open University Press, 1997.

Fuller, Steve. Science: The Art of Living. Durham UK: Acumen, 2010.

Fuller, Steve. Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History. London: Routledge, 2015.

Harrison, Peter. The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Jenco, Leigh. Making the Political: Founding and Action in the Political Theory of Zhang Shizhao. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Jenco, Leigh; Steve Fuller, David Haekwon Kim, Thaddeus Metz, and Miljana Milojevic, “Symposium: Are Certain Knowledge Frameworks More Congenial to the Aims of Cross-Cultural Philosophy?” Journal of World Philosophies 2, no. 2 (2017): 82-145.

Löwith, Karl. Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of Philosophy of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949.

Needham, Joseph. The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969.

Perkins, Franklin. Leibniz and China: A Commerce of Light. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Van Norden, Bryan. Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

Wilson, Catherine. “Kant on Civilization, Culture and Moralization,” in Kant’s Lectures on Anthropology: A Critical Guide. Edited by A. Cohen. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014: 191-210.

[1] Bryan Van Norden, “Western Philosophy is Racist,” (https://aeon.co/essays/why-the-western-philosophical-canon-is-xenophobic-and-racist; last accessed on May 10, 2018).

[2] See: Leigh Jenco, Steve Fuller, David Haekwon Kim, Thaddeus Metz, and Miljana Milojevic, “Symposium: Are Certain Knowledge Frameworks More Congenial to the Aims of Cross-Cultural Philosophy?” Journal of World Philosophies 2, no. 2 (2017): 82-145 (https://scholarworks.iu.edu/iupjournals/index.php/jwp/article/view/1261/128; last accessed on May 10, 2018).

[3] Robert Frodeman, and Adam Briggle, Socrates Tenured (Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).

[4] Leigh Jenco, Making the Political: Founding and Action in the Political Theory of Zhang Shizhao (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[5] Catherine Wilson, “Kant on Civilization, Culture and Moralization,” in Kant’s Lectures on Anthropology: A Critical Guide, ed. A. Cohen (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 191-210.

[6] Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

[7] Charles Bazerman, Shaping Written Knowledge (Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987).

[8] Peter Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[9] Karl Löwith, Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of Philosophy of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949); Steve Fuller, Science: The Art of Living (Durham UK: Acumen, 2010).

[10] Steve Fuller, Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History (London: Routledge, 2015).

[11] Joseph Needham, The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969); Steve Fuller, Science: Concepts in the Social Sciences (Milton Keynes UK: Open University Press, 1997).

[12] Franklin Perkins, Leibniz and China: A Commerce of Light (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Author Information: Kenneth R. Westphal, Boðaziçi Üniversitesi, Ýstanbul, westphal.k.r@gmail.com

Westphal, Kenneth R. “Higher Education & Academic Administration: Current Crises Long Since Foretold.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 41-47.

The official SERRC publication pdf of the article gives specific page references for formal bibliographical reference. However, the author himself has provided a pdf using a layout specifically designed for the presentation of this manifesto for the future of research publication and academic exchange of ideas. We encourage you to download Dr. Westphal’s own file above. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Tb

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The current crises in education are indeed acute, though they have been long in the making, with clear analysis and evidence of their development and pending problems over the past 150 years! – evident in this concise chronological bibliography:

Mill, John Stuart, 1867. ‘Inaugural Address Delievered to the University of St. Andrews’, 1 Feb. 1867; rpt. in: J.M. Robson, gen. ed., The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, 33 vols. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963–91), 21:217–257.

Ahrens, Heinrich, 1870. Naturrecht oder Philosophie des Rechts und des Staates, 2 vols. (Wien, C. Gerold’s Sohn), „Vorrede zur sechten Auflage“, S. v–x.

Cauer, Paul, 1890. Staat und Erziehung. Schulpolitische Bedenken. Kiel & Leipzig, Lipsius & Fischer.

Cauer, Paul, 1906. Sieben Jahre im Kampf um die Schulreform. Gesammelte Aufstötze. Berlin, Weidmann.

Hinneberg, Paul, ed., 1906. Allgemeine Grundlage der Kultur der Gegenwart. Leipzig, Tuebner. Cattell, J. McKeen, 1913. University Control. New York, The Science Press.

Veblen, Thorstein, 1918. The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men. New York, B.W. Huebsch.

José Ortega y Gasset, 1930. Misión de la Universidad. Madrid, Revista de Occidente; rpt. in: idem., OC 4:313–353; tr. H.L. Nostrand, Mission of the University (Oxford: Routledge, 1946).

Eisenhower, Milton S., et al., 1959. The Efficiency of Freedom: Report of the Committee on Government and Higher Education. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Snow, C.P., 1964. The Two Cultures, 2nd rev. ed. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Rourke, Francis E., and Glenn E. Brooks, 1966. The Managerial Revolution in Higher Education. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Byrnes, James C., and A. Dale Tussing, 1971. ‘The Financial Crisis in Higher Education: Past, Present, and Future’. Educational Policy Research Center, Syracuse University Research Corp.; Washington, D.C., Office of Education (DHEW); (ED 061 896; HE 002 970).

Green, Thomas, 1980. Predicting the Behavior of the Educational System. Syracuse, NY, Syracuse University Press.

Schwanitz, Dietrich, 1999. Bildung. Alles, was man wissen muss. Frankfurt am Main, Eichhorn. Kempter, Klaus, and Peter Meusburger, eds., 2006. Bildung und Wissensgesellschaft (Heidelberger Jahrbücher 49). Berlin, Springer.

The British Academy, 2008. Punching our Weight: The Humanities and Social Sciences in Public Policy Making. London, The British Academy; http://www.britac.ac.uk.

Head, Simon, ‘The Grim Threat to British Universities’. The New York Review of Books, 13. Jan. 2011; https://www.readability.com/articles/n9pjbxmz.

Thomas, Keith, ‘Universities under Attack’. The London Review of Books, Online only • 28 Nov. 2011; (The author is a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and former President of the British Academy); http://www.lrb.co.uk/2011/11/28/keith-thomas/universities-under-attack.

Hansen, Hal, 2011. ‘Rethinking Certification Theory and the Educational Development of the United States and Germany’. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 29:31–55.

Benjamin Ginsberg, 2011. The Fall of the Faculty. Oxford University Press.

Don Watson, ‘A New Dusk’. The Monthly (Australia), August 2012, pp. 10–14; http://www.the monthly.com.au/comment-new-dusk-don-watson-5859.

Commission on the Humanities & Social Sciences, 2013. The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation. Cambridge, Mass., American Academy of Arts and Sciences; http://www.amacad.org.

Randy Schekman, ‘How journals like Nature, Cell and Science are damaging science’. The Guardian Mon 9. Dec 2013;[1] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/09/how-journalsnature-science-cell-damage-science.

Motroshilova, Nelly, 2013. [Real Factors of Scientific Activity and Citation Count; Russian.] ‘ÐÅÀËÜÍÛÅ ÔÀÊÒÎÐÛ ÍÀÓ×ÍÎ-ÈÑÑËÅÄÎÂÀÒÅËÜÑÊÎÃÎ ÒÐÓÄÀ È ÈÇÌÅ-ÐÅÍÈß ÖÈÒÈÐÎÂÀÍÈß’. Ïðîáëåìû îöåíêè ýôôåêòèâíîñòè â êîíêðåòíûõ îáëàñòÿõ íàóêè, 453–475. ÓÄÊ 001.38 + 519.24; ÁÁÊ 78.34.[2]

Ferrini, Cinzia, 2015. ‘Research “Values” in the Humanities: Funding Policies, Evaluation, and Cultural Resources. Some Introductory Remarks’. Humanities 4:42–67; DOI: 10.3390/ h4010042.[3]

O’Neill, Onora, 2015. ‘Integrity and Quality in Universities: Accountability, Excellence and Success’. Humanities 4:109–117; DOI: 10.3390/h4010109.

Scott, Peter, 2015. ‘Clashing Concepts and Methods: Assessing Excellence in the Humanities and Social Sciences’. Humanities 4:118–130; DOI: 10.3390/h4010118.

Halffman, Willem, and Hans Radder, 2015. ‘The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University’. Minerva 53.2:165–187 (PMC4468800);[4] DOI: 10.1007/s11024-015-9270-9.

Albach, Philip G., Georgiana Mihut and Jamil Salmi, 2016. ‘Sage Advice: International Advisory Councils at Tertiary Education Institutions’. CIHE Perspectives 1; Boston, Mass., Boston College Center for International Higher Education; World Bank Group; http://www.bc.edu/cihe.

Curren, Randall, 2016. ‘Green’s Predicting Thirty-Five Years On’. In: N. Levinson, ed., Philosophy of Education 2016 (Urbana, Ill.: PES, 2017), 000–000.

The CENTRAL AIMS OF EDUCATION, especially higher education, I explicate and defend in:

Westphal, Kenneth R., 2012. ‘Norm Acquisition, Rational Judgment & Moral Particularism’. Theory & Research in Education 10.1:3–25; DOI: 10.1177/1477878512437477.

———, 2016. ‘Back to the 3 R’s: Rights, Responsibilities & Reasoning’. SATS – Northern European Journal of Philosophy 17.1:21–60; DOI: 10.1515/sats-2016-0008.

On CITIZENSHIP EDUCATION for survival, see:

Randall Curren and Ellen Metzger, 2017. Living Well Now and in the Future: Why Sustainability Matters. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press.

Randall Curren and Charles Dorn, forthcoming. Patriotic Education in a Global Age. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Though the latter title begins nationally, addressing proper patriotism, their thinking, analysis and recommendations are international and cosmopolitan; they write for a very global age in which we are all involved, however (un)wittingly, however (un)willingly, however (un)wisely.

On the necessity of liberal arts education also for technical disciplines, see:

Carnegie Mellon University, College of Engineering, General Education Requirements for [Graduating] Classes 2016 and Later: https://engineering.cmu.edu/education/undergraduate-programs/curriculum/general-education/index.html

On ‘BIBLIOMETRICS’ and journal ‘impact factor’, see:

Brembs, Björn, Katherine Button and Marcus Munafò, 2013. ‘Deep impact: unintended consequences of journal rank’. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 7.291:1–12; DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00291.

Moustafa, Khaled, 2015. ‘The Disaster of the Impact Factor’. Science and Engineering Ethics 21: 139–142; DOI: 10.1007/s11948-014-9517-0.

PloS Medicine Editorial, 2006. ‘The impact factor game. It is time to find a better way to assess the scientific literature’. PLoS Medicine 3.6, e291.

Ramin, Sadeghi, and Alireza Sarraf Shirazi, 2012. ‘Comparison between Impact factor, SCImago journal rank indicator and Eigenfactor score of nuclear medicine journals’. Nuclear Medicine Review 15.2:132–136; DOI: 10.5603/NMR.2011.00022.

There simply is no substitute for informed, considered judgment. All the attempts to circumvent, replace or subvert proper judgments and proper judgment raise the question: who benefits from all the speed-up, distraction and over-load, and how do they benefit? And conversely: who loses out from all the speed-up, distraction and over-load, and how so?

P.S.: AHRENS (1870, v–x) Mahnung, uns umfaßend mit der Gesamtheit der Gesellschaft sowie der internationalen bzw. inter-kulturellen Verhältnissen, und nicht nur mit den besonderen Aufgaben unserer Gesellschaftsfraktion bzw. -gruppe, zu beschäftigen, wird nicht durch blose Ablehnung seiner vielleicht religiösen Auffaßung unserer „gesammten göttlich-menschlichen Lebens- und Culturordnung“ (a.a.O, S. ix) entgangen. Seine Mahnunng gilt gar ohne Milderung schon hinsichtlich unseres Hangs, den Eigen- bzw. Fraktionsinteressen Vorrang übers Gemeinwohl beizulegen, ohne sich zu besinnen, daß das Gemeinwohl auch die eigene Teilhabe daran miteinbeschließt. Die übliche Betonung der eng-konzipierten Zweckrationalität verdammt uns zur gegenseitigen, sei’s auch unabsichtlichen Beieinträchtigung, am Mindestens durch Tragik der Allmende.

* * *

Herrad von LANDSBERG, ‘Septem artes liberales’, Hortus deliciarum (1180). http://www.plosin.com/work/Hortus.html

 

Philosophy, the Queen, sits in the center of the circle. The three heads extending from her crown represent Ethics, Logic and Physics, the three parts of the teaching of philosophy. The streamer held by Philosophy reads: All wisdom comes from God; only the wise can achieve what they desire. Below Philosophy, seated at desks, are Socrates and Plato. The texts which surround them state that they taught first ethics, then physics, then rhetoric; that they were wise teachers; and that they inquired into nature of all things.

From Philosophy emerge seven streams, three on the right and four on the left. According to the text these are the seven liberal arts, inspired by the Holy Spirit: grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. The ring containing the inner circle reads: I, Godlike Philosophy, control all things with wisdom; I lay out seven arts which are subordinate to me. Arrayed around the circle are the liberal arts. Three correspond to the rivers which emerge from Philosophy on the right and are concerned with language and letters: grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic. Together they comprise the trivium. The four others form the quadrivium, arts which are concerned with the various kinds of harmony: music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.

Each of the seven arts holds something symbolic, and each is accompanied by a text displayed on the arch above it. Grammar (12:00) holds a book and a whip. The text reads: Through me all can learn what are the words, the syllables, and the letters.

Rhetoric (2:00) holds a tablet and stylus. The text reads: Thanks to me, proud speaker, your speeches will be able to take strength.

Dialectic (4:00) points with a one hand and holds a barking dog’s head in the other. The text reads: My arguments are followed with speed, just like the dog’s barking.

Music (5:00) holds a harp, and other instruments are nearby. The text reads: I teach my art using a variety of instruments.

Arithmetic (7:00) holds a cord with threaded beads, like a rudimentary abacus. The text reads: I base myself on the numbers and show the proportions between them.

Geometry (9:00) holds a staff and compass. The text reads: It is with exactness that I survey the ground.

Astronomy (11:00) points heavenward and holds in hand a magnifying lens or mirror. The text reads: I hold the names of the celestial bodies and predict the future. The large ring around the whole scene contains four aphorisms:

What it discovers is remembered;

Philosophy investigates the secrets of the elements and all things;

Philosophy teaches arts by seven branches;

It puts it in writing, in order to convey it to the students.

Below the circle are four men seated at desks, poets or magicians, outside the pale and beyond the influence of Philosophy. According to the text they are guided and taught by impure spirits and they produce is only tales or fables, frivolous poetry, or magic spells. Notice the black birds speaking to them (the antithesis of the white dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit).

Some Observations on the Current State of Research Evaluation in Philosophy

K.R. WESTPHAL (2015)

Although many institutions, whether universities or government ministries, have now in effect mandated publication in ‘listed’ academic journals, such listings by (e.g.) Thompson-Reuters is o n ly a subscription service, nothing more, altogether regardless of academic standards or scholarly calibre. Significant publications are those which pass stringent peer review by relevant experts. Unfortunately, the trappings of such procedures – including ‘international’ editorial offices – are all too easy to imitate or dissemble. Furthermore, due to declining standards in graduate training in philosophy (across the Occident), peer reviewing even at reputable journals and presses is deteriorating significantly.

I know that there are ‘listed’ journals publishing ‘research’ papers I would not accept from an undergraduate student. I know that there are ‘international’ journals which publish materials not deserving the slightest notice. I know there are excellent journals and presses – in particular: by the very best German publishers – which are not ‘listed’ because those publishers simply do not need those listings, nor their expense. I know that there are highly regarded presses which publish very many good, even excellent items, but also publish spates of mediocre books to make money, and have been doing so for decades. These assertions I can document in detail, if ever details be of interest.

The increasingly common procedure to ‘rank’ individual research publications by the purported ‘rank’ of their venue – their press or journal – is in principle and in practice fallacious. There simply is no valid inference from any empirically established ‘curve’ to the putative value of any single (equally putative) ‘data point’. Additionally, no press or journal consistently publishes research falling only within one well-defined calibre; there are excellent pieces of research published in unassuming venues, and there is too much mediocre publication by purportedly leading venues.

I also know that constrictions in funding have led to ‘streamlining’ graduate training within the field of philosophy (and surmise that this is not at all unique to philosophy), so that less time is spent in graduate studies. Additionally, over-specialisation within the field of philosophy has accelerated the production of mutually irrelevant bits of ‘research’, each restricted to its own narrow orthodoxy, coupled with a severe decline in methodological sophistication and indeed basic research skills and procedures. The declining calibre of graduate training has, inevitably, had an enormous adverse effect on the calibre of ‘professional’ refereeing for publication, both by journals and by presses.

Now that we have the technical resources for purely electronic publication, at an enormous savings and economy of distribution in comparison to print media, many publishers are doing their utmost to keep their print media profitable, or to make exorbitant profits from much less expensive electronic publication. Both tendencies are countered, to an extent, by newly established, typically open-access electronic journals. These developments are very welcome and important, and many of these new e-journals are by international standards high-calibre operations. Nevertheless, it will take time for ‘reputation’ to accrue to genuinely deserving e-journals, and (one hopes) to shake out the mediocre or dishonest pretenders.

One final point which merits emphasis is that the notion of ‘monoglot’ scholarship only arose ca. 1950, primarily amongst Anglophones, and was sanctions by law in only one region (the former Soviet Union). Thirty years ago, scholars working on Ancient Greek philosophy were fluent in the main modern European languages and kept abreast of research published in Greek, German, French and English. Now my German colleagues note that often a German monograph appears on a neglected topic in Ancient Greek philosophy, only to suffer neglect by an English book on the same topic published a decade later. The pitfalls of ‘Eurenglish’ (e.g. in Brussels) I shall not detail; we simply must return to teaching, facilitating and expecting mastery of multiple languages.

For these and many other reasons, these are very difficult times for scholarship and for the academy. Accordingly, I am all the more committed to maintaining academic excellence. In this connection and in these regards, I wish to underscore that there simply is NO substitute for the expert assessment of individual pieces of research, whether articles, monographs or collections.

Contact details: westphal.k.r@gmail.com

[1] Randy Schekman is Professor of biochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley; he, James Rothman and Thomas Südhof were jointly awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine.

[2] Editor’s Note – Ironically and appropriately, given the topic of this article, our Digital Editor is unable to render Cyrillic text on any of the computers in the SERRC office in Toronto. These technical difficulties constitute another reason to read Dr. Westphal’s original pdf copy.

[3] Ferrini (2015), O’Neill (2015) and Scott (2015) appear in a special issue, titled per Ferrini’s editorial introduction; Humanities is sponsored by the Academia Europaea, now published with open access by MDPI (Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, Basel); previously published by Cambridge University Press.

[4] Published by the US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health: National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).

Author Information: Adam Riggio, New Democratic Party of Canada, adamriggio@gmail.com

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

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Iq

Please refer to:

Image credit: Diogo Duarte, via flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Are a Socrates and a Protagoras Today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limits of Institutional and Critical Knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

When You Are Caught Unexpectedly in Reality

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

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

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

A Socratic Voice in the Marketplace of Content

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

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

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

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

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

Revealing Our Inadequacies

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

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

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

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

What Would a Creative Philosophical Discourse Look Like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Empiricism: Material Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

“Editors Quit at Feminist Journal that Compared Transgenders to Rachel Dolezal.” The College Fix (2017): https://www.thecollegefix.com/post/34874/

Flaherty, Colleen. “(Another) Shake-up At Hypatia.” Inside Higher Education (2017): https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/07/24/divisions-within-hypatias-editorial-board-lead-resignations-top-editors

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

Jeffries, Stuart. “German Philosophy Has Finally Gone Viral. Will That Be Its Undoing?” Foreign Policy Magazine (2017): http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/07/24/german-philosophy-has-finally-gone-viral-will-that-be-its-undoing-precht-habermas/

Oluo, Ijeoma. “The Heart of Whiteness: Ijeoma Oluo Interviews Rachel Dolezal, the White Woman Who Identifies as Black.” The Stranger (2017): http://www.thestranger.com/features/2017/04/19/25082450/the-heart-of-whiteness-ijeoma-oluo-interviews-rachel-dolezal-the-white-woman-who-identifies-as-black

Singal, Jesse. “This Is What a Modern-Day Witch Hunt Looks Like.” New York Magazine (2017): http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/05/transracialism-article-controversy.html

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

Zamudio-Suaréz, Fernanda. “Months After ‘Transracialism’ Flap, Controversy Still Rages at Feminist Philosophy Journal” Chronicle of Higher Education (2017): http://www.chronicle.com/article/Months-After/240722

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