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Book Review contributions are single-authored or multiple-authored reviews of recent books in the area of social epistemology.

Author Information: Alcibiades Malapi-Nelson, Humber College, alci.malapi@outlook.com.

Malapi-Nelson, Alcibiades. “Revisions on a Study of Steve Fuller.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 5 (2019): 16-24.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-48S

Image by antifixus21 via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

The following essay is a substantive revision of Alcibiades Malapi-Nelson’s earlier review of Knowing Humanity in the Social World. You can read that older version at this link.

Francis Remedios and Val Dusek have written a thorough and exhaustive account of Steve Fuller’s work, ranging (mostly) from 2003 to 2017. Fuller’s earlier work was addressed in Remedios’ previous book, Legitimizing Scientific Knowledge (2003) – to which this one is the logical continuation. Back then Remedios introduced the reader to Fuller’s inaugurated field of research, “social epistemology”, encompassing the philosopher’s work from the late 1980’s until the turn of the century.

Given that Steve Fuller is one of the most prolific authors alive, having published (so far) 30 books and hundreds of articles, Remedios & Dusek’s book (as Remedios’ previous book), fill a practical need: It is hard to keep up with Fuller’s elevated rate of production. Indeed, both the seasoned reader and the neophyte to Fuller’s fairly overwhelming amount of writing, will need a panoramic and organic view of his breathtaking scope of research. Remedios & Dusek successfully accomplish the task of providing it.

Part of the beauty of Remedios & Dusek’s book is that the authors masterfully distributed Fuller’s somewhat eclectic intellectual pursuits in various chapters, so that, qua textbook, one can focus on those aspects that one finds relevant to our particular interests. I believe that Remedios & Dusek had precisely this intention: doing a service to the readers via facilitating access to Fuller’s thought in a selective manner.

The Bildung of a Person and Its Concepts

Remedios & Dusek’s book starts with a Foreword by Fuller himself, followed by an Introduction (Ch. 1) by the authors. The bulk of the monograph is comprised by several chapters addressing Fuller’s ideas on Science and Technology Studies (Ch. 2), Social Epistemology (Ch. 3), the University & Interdisciplinarity (Ch. 4), Intelligent Design (Ch. 5), Cosmism & Gnosticism (Ch. 6), and the Proactionary principle (Ch. 7).

There is some connective overlap between chapters. In each one of them, Remedios & Dusek provide an articulated landscape of Fuller’s ideas, the occasional criticism, and a final summary. The book ends up with an appropriately short Conclusion (Ch. 8) and a PostScript (Ch. 9) – an interview’s transcription.

It is worth pointing out that the work is chronologically (and conveniently) in sync with Fuller’s own progressive intellectual development, and thus, the first part roughly focuses on his earlier work, whereas the second part on his later writings.[1]

The first chapter after the Introduction (Chapter 2, “Fuller on Science and Technology Studies” (STS), already provides a cue for a theme that would transfix the arc of Fuller’s thoughts spanning the last decade. As I see it, Steve Fuller is arguably going to extents that some may deem controversial (e.g., his endorsement of some type of Intelligent Design, his backing up of transhumanism, his gradual “coming out” as a Catholic) due to one main reason: A deep preoccupation with the future of humanity vis-à-vis pervasively disrupting emerging technologies.

Accordingly, Fuller wants to fuel a discussion that may eventually salvage whatever we find out that being human consists of – even if this “human” will resemble little the “humans” as we know them now. At this point, the “cue” is not self-evident: Fuller does not like Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network theory.

In Fuller’s view, Latour’s framework triggers both an epistemological and an ethical problem: it diffuses human agency and by extension, responsibility – respectively. Equating human agency with the causal power attributed to the “parliament of things” ultimately reverberates in an erosion of human dignity. Here the cue becomes clearer: It is precisely this human dignity that Fuller will later defend in his attack of Darwinism.

This chapter also articulates Fuller’s views on the neo-Kantian transformation of the unity of “philosophy and science” to a disentangled “philosophy of science”, triggering the role – disliked by him – of the philosopher as “underlabourer” of science. Linked to this chain of events is the critical view of STS’ subsequent degeneration into a merely descriptive pursuit (abandoning its primogenital normative calling).

Finally, the chapter also addresses Fuller’s famous criticism of Thomas Kuhn and support of Karl Popper; his (for some surprising) friendliness with logical positivism; and the perhaps equally famous comparison of the various rings of power within science with the religious disputes of Post-Reformation Christianity.

Humanity Beyond the Human

Chapter 3, “Fuller’s Social Epistemology and Epistemic Agency”, provides a further clue to Fuller’s agenda. Remedios & Dusek coined a sentence that may constitute one of the most succinct, although fundamental, pillars in Steve Fuller’s grand framework: “For Fuller, humanity would continue if homo sapiens end”.[2]

This statement ingeniously captures Fuller’s position that “humanity” (a “project” started during the Medieval Ages and developed during Modernity), is something that homo sapiens earn – or not. Biology might provide a compatible receptacle for this humanity to obtain, but it is by no means an automatic occurrence. One strives to get it – and many in fact fail to reach it.

In the context of this theme, Fuller steers away from an “object-oriented” (social) epistemology to an “agent-oriented” one: Instead of endlessly ruminating about possible theories of knowledge (which would render an accurate picture of the object – social or not), one starts to take into account the possibilities that open up after considering transforming the knowing agent itself. This transition foretells Fuller’s later view: a proactionary approach[3] to experimentation where the agent commits to the alteration of reality – as opposed to a precautionary stance, where the knower passively waits for reality’s feedback before further proceeding.

In chapter 4, “The University and Interdisciplinarity”, Remedios & Dusek treat Fuller’s views on the situation of institutions of higher education currently confronting the relentless compartmentalization of knowledge. Fuller praises Wilhelm von Humboldt’s reinvention of the notion of the university in the 19th century, where the individual would acquire a holistic formation (bildung), and which would produce in return tangible benefits to society out of the growth of knowledge in general and science in particular.

This model, which catapulted Germany to the forefront of research, and which was emulated by several Western nations, has been gradually eroded by neoliberalism. Neoliberal stances, spurred by an attention to clients’ requests, progressively severed the heretofore integral coexistence of research and teaching, creating instead pockets of specialization – along with their own idiosyncratic jargon.

This fragmentation, in turn, has generated an overall ignorance among scientists and intellectuals regarding the “big picture”, which ultimately results in a stagnation of knowledge production. Fuller advocates for a return to the Humboldtian ideal, but this time incorporating technology as in integral part of the overall academic formation in the humanities.

As a proposed solution, and espousing a risk-taking (proactionary) approach, Fuller would assign “Academic Caesars”[4] as heads of universities – namely, people who get into academic management not out of being “failed academicians”, nor because they are poked from corporative realms with cero knowledge about the educational system, but because they successfully merge both outstanding management skills with deep knowledge of universities’ academic structures (likely holding advanced degrees in the two areas).

The Academic Caesar would be in charge of breaking down the barriers built up between disciplines. This task would be primordial, since the current communication breakdowns between disciplines in fact represent an existential threat against the educational institutions themselves, given that hiring corporations gradually find less value added in this hyper-specialized knowledge – tinkering instead with the possibility of cutting the middle man, recruiting people with high IQ’s and “forming” them themselves.

An integrated knowledge constituted by both humanities and technology (which Fuller differentiates from “digital humanities” – the passive translation of humanities into accessible electronic means) would bring an added value in terms of creativity and critical thinking that not only would be deemed attractive to demanding employers of the future, but it would immunize the citizen against a Draconian forthcoming competition against Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the workplace.

Roles for Religion and God

Chapter 5, “Fuller’s Intelligent Design” (ID), deals with the philosopher’s controversial views regarding this position, particularly after the infamous Dover Trial. Remedios & Dusek have done a very good job at tracing the roots and influences behind Fuller’s ideas on the issue. They go all the way back to Epicurus and Hume, including the strong connection between these two and Charles Darwin, particularly in what concerns the role of “chance” in evolution. Those interested in this illuminating philosophical archeology will be well served after reading this chapter, instead of (or as a complement to) Steve Fuller’s two books on the topic.[5]

It would perhaps be best to start pointing out that the infamous ID controversy within Fuller’s work[6]  might have been blown out of proportion. Fuller has expressed, both orally and in writing, that the notion of ID he is sympathetic to is one that refers to the “intelligibility” of phenomena in the universe – the possibility of us understanding a certain finding, discovery or natural mechanism.

The acknowledgment that a particular portion of reality was parsed in such way that it can sync with our cognitive capacities, raises the question regarding whether or not there is some sort of intelligence behind it. The very mark of this intelligence would be our intelligibility of the phenomenon.

This way of presenting the ID position is closer to what some call the “teleological argument” – to which Isaac Newton subscribed: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”[7] This is a far cry from, if not the opposite of, the infamous quasi-scientific, right-wing, Sola Scriptura-inspired, Protestant creationism to which ID is unfortunately often associated.

Newton, the natural philosopher who embodied the Scientific Revolution (and thus, by extension, the beginning of Modern Science) shared this view. Three hundred years later, we find ID as underpinning a theoretical framework friendly with deep alterations of nature.

What Intelligent or Intelligible Design Does or Doesn’t Do

Remedios & Dusek, however, maintain that ID has no positive scientific agenda, that all its claims about life and its origins are negations (instead of putting forward testable hypotheses).[8] Perhaps that is to be expected – and a brief consideration of its ID’s character could provide a hint as to why such is the case. On the one hand, ID does not attribute “intelligence” to any entity in particular. It can refer to a divine being, an extra-terrestrial creature or a human being.

They just have to possess, to use Cartesian nomenclature, a sort of res cogitans – which for Descartes included angels. On the other hand, “design” belongs more to the realm of technology (i.e. engineering) than to that of science. Recreating the object of study has been a mark of epistemic success from Giambattista Vico on. It is no coincidence that some nanotechnologists see him as a sort of patron saint.[9]

And this is why ID is found as part of a core “metaphysical research program” behind the so-called Emerging Technologies (or the NBIC Convergence: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information technology and Cognitive science),[10] the innovative culture of Silicon Valley and the views of several tech billionaire gurus.

In fact, this operating framework behind innovation may constitute one of the best arguments against those who claim that ID’s illustrious heritage does not justify its recognition as an epistemic meta-force in science.[11] If “Intelligent Design”, now at the hands of humans, aiming at the modification of nature towards our betterment, is what is behind technology innovators who actually make things work, how much does the complaints of older philosophers really matter?

Chapter 6, “Fuller, Cosmism and Gnosticism” lays out the relationship of the philosopher with these two themes. Steve Fuller recognizes in Russian cosmism an important predecessor to transhumanism – along with the writings of the mystical Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin.

Fuller is lately catering to a re-emergence of interest among Slavs regarding these connections, giving talks and seminars in Russia. Cosmism, a heterodox offspring of Russian Orthodoxy, aims at a reconstruction of the (lost) paradise by means of reactivation of a type of “monads” spread-out throughout the universe – particles that disperse after a person dies.

Scientific progress would be essential in order to travel throughout the cosmos retrieving these primordial “atoms” of people of the past, so that they could be one day resurrected. Russia would indeed have a cosmic ordering mission. This worldview is a particular rendition of the consequences of Christ’s Resurrection, which was denounced by the Orthodox Church as heretical.

Nevertheless, it deeply influenced several Slavic thinkers, who unlike many Western philosophers, did have a hard time reconciling their (Orthodox) Christianity with reason and science. This syncretism was a welcomed way for them to “secularize” the mystical-prone Christian Orthodoxy and infuse it with scientific inquiry. As a consequence, rocket science received a major thrust for development. After all, machines had to be built in order to retrieve these human particles so that scientifically induced global resurrection occurs.

One of the more important global pioneers in rocket engines, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (who later received approval by Joseph Stalin to further develop space travel research), was profoundly influenced by it. In fact, increasingly more scholars assert that despite the official atheism of the Soviet Union, cosmism was a major driving force behind the Soviet advances, which culminated in the successful launch of the Sputnik.

Engaging Proactionary Thinking

Chapter 7, “Proactionary and Precautionary Principles and Welfare State 2.0”, is the last chapter before the Conclusion. Here Remedios & Dusek deal with Fuller’s endorsement of Max More’s Proactionary Principle and the consequent modified version of a Welfare State.

The proactionary approach, in contradistinction with the precautionary principle (which underpins much of science policy in Europe), advocates for a risk-taking approach, justified partly in the very nature of Modern science (experimentation without excessive red tape) and partly in what is at stake: the survival of our species. Fuller further articulates the proactionary principle, having written a whole book on the subject[12] – while More wrote an article.

Steve Fuller’s general endorsement of transhumanism is not uncritical. A representative issue that does not sit easy in Fuller’s mind is the question of those humans that choose to remain “unimproved” in a future where individual amelioration becomes normalized – perhaps even “reasonably” imposed (not unlike today’s children’s vaccination).

Indeed, Fuller forcefully brought up this issue during his 2016 Budapest debate with Zoltan Istvan.[13] The future situation of those persons who choose staying unenhanced, in a “human 1.0” state, brings me to my last point. A framework of “reasonable accommodation” to these minorities (which might actually constitute high numbers, just as some conceptions qualify women as a minority) will have to be worked out. After all, some hardcore luddites, such as the Amish, are still around.

In this context, Remedios & Dusek bring up Fuller’s involvement in the StarArk project: an attempt to construct a future self-sustaining mega spaceship that will make of humans an interplanetary species and which may justify the said enhancements for interstellar travel.[14] Remedios & Dusek characterize Fuller’s endorsement of this project as an elitist attempt to pick and choose only (or mostly) those “enhanced”, for perpetuating the species:

Perhaps the StarArk would only be able to accommodate a Strangelovian elite of proactionary Uebermenschen adventurers, leaving the ecologists, precautionaries, and most other benighted humans to perish.[15]

This occurs in the penultimate paragraph, where the authors probably could not resist finally coming out as precautionaries. It is a good point. However, Fuller also advocates for the defense of minorities in a transhuman world, even giving them opportunities for contributing to the betterment of the whole species. For instance, he supports the idea of sending the elderly to space.[16]

Of course, on the one hand, there is not much they could lose. But on the other, they could live their last years of a human 1.0 lifestyle in space peace, just as we now regard with admiration the well polished and carefully refurbished American cars of the 60’s still circulating in La Havana. In that regard, indeed the opposite of the alleged neo-Nietzschean supermen would be sent to the stars.

The Roles of This Book

Remedios & Dusek have done an excellent job in summarizing, articulating and criticizing the second half of Steve Fuller’s vast corpus – from the early 2000s until last year. I foresee a successful reception by thinkers concerned with the future of humanity and scholars interested in Fuller’s previous work. As a final note, I will share a sentiment that will surely resonate with some – particularly with the younger readers out there.

As noted in the opening remarks, Remedios & Dusek’s book fill a gap in what concerns the possibility of acquiring an articulated overview of Fuller’s thought, given his relentless rate of publication. However, the sheer quantity to keep up with is not the only issue. These days, more than “the written word” may be needed in order to properly capture the ideas of authors of Fuller’s calibre. As I observed elsewhere,[17] reading Fuller is a brilliant read – but it is not an easy read.

It may be fair to say that, as opposed to, say, the relatively easy reading of an author like Steven Pinker, Steve Fuller’s books are not destined to be best-sellers among laymen. Fuller’s well put together paragraphs are both sophisticated and precise, sometimes long, paying witness to an effort for accurately conveying his multi-layered thought processes – reminding one of some German early modern philosophers.

Fortunately, there is now a solid source of clarity that sheds effective light on Fuller’s writing: his available media. There are dozens of video clips (and hundreds of audio files[18]) of his talks, freely available to anyone. It may take a while to watch and listen to them all, but it is doable. I did it. And the clarity that they bring to his writings is tangible.

If Fuller is a sophisticated writer, he certainly is a very clear (and dare I say, entertaining) speaker. His “talking” functions as a cognitive catalyst for the content of his “writing” – in that, he is arguably returning to the Humboldtian ideal of merged research and teaching. Ideally, if one adds to these his daily tweets,[19] now we have at reach the most complete picture of what would be necessary to properly “get” a philosopher like him these days. I have the feeling that, regardless of our settled ways, this “social media” component, increasingly integrated with any serious epistemic pursuit, is here to stay.

Contact details: alci.malapi@outlook.com

References

Brain Bar (2016). Human vs Artificial. Steve Fuller and Zoltan Istvan. Budapest, Hungary. Available at: http://brainbar.com/video/human-vs-artificial.

Fuller, S. (2007). Science Vs. Religion?: Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Fuller, S. (2008). Dissent Over Descent: Intelligent Design’s Challenge to Darwinism. Cambridge, UK: Icon.

Fuller, S. (2014). The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fuller, S. (2015). “Embracing Transhumanism.” Talk given at the Stevens Institute of Technology on 25 Mar 2015. Available (item 107) at: www.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/sociology/staff/sfuller/media/audio.

Fuller, S. (2016). The Academic Caesar: University Leadership is Hard. London, UK: SAGE.

Horgan, J. (2015).  “Steve Fuller and the Value of Intellectual Provocation” Scientific American. March 27, 2015. Available at: www.blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/steve-fuller-and-the-value-of-intellectual-provocation.

Jung, R. (2005). “Postmodern systems theory: A phase in the quest for a general system.” In E. Kiss (Hg.). Postmoderne und/oder Rationalität (pp. 86–93). Kodolányi János Főiskola, Székesfehérvár.

Lynch, W. (2016a). “Cultural Evolution and Social Epistemology: A Darwinian Alternative to Steve Fuller’s Theodicy of Science.” Social Epistemology 31(2): 1-11.

Malapi-Nelson, A. (2013). “Book review: Steve Fuller, Humanity 2.0: What it Means to be Human Past, Present and Future.” International Sociology Review of Books 28(2): 240-247.

Malapi-Nelson, A. (2017). The Nature of the Machine and the Collapse of Cybernetics: A Transhumanist Lesson for Emerging Technologies. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Newton, I. (1687). The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. (B. Cohen, A. Whitman, & J. Budenz, Trans.). Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 1999.

Remedios, F. and Dusek, V. (2018). Knowing Humanity in the Social World: The Path of Steve Fuller’s Social Epistemology. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

[1] With the exception of the PostScript, which is a transcription of an interview with Steve Fuller mostly regarding the first period of his work.

[2] Remedios & Dusek 2018, p. 34

[3] Remedios & Dusek 2018, p. 40

[4] Fuller 2016

[5] Fuller 2007 and Fuller 2008

[6] Fuller 2007 and Fuller 2008

[7] Newton 1687, Book III, General Scholium

[8] Remedios & Dusek 2018, p. 79

[9] Malapi-Nelson 2017, p. 248; Jung 2005

[10] Malapi-Nelson 2017, ch. 10

[11] Lynch 2016a, p.2

[12] Fuller 2014

[13] BrainBar 2016

[14] This idea was, in fact, at the core of the first transhumanist proposals as such, during the first half of the 20th century. Cf. Malapi-Nelson 2017, pp. 227-237.

[15] Remedios & Dusek 2018, p. 119

[16] Fuller 2015, Horgan 2015

[17] Malapi-Nelson 2013

[18] warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/sociology/staff/sfuller/media/audio

[19] Some of which are reproduced by Remedios & Dusek 2018 (e.g. p. 102).

Author Information: Mirko Farina, King’s College London, mirko.farina@kcl.ac.uk.

Farina, Mirko. “Exploring the Concepts of Science in 166 Pages: Reviewing Nigel Sanitt.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 4 (2019): 28-33.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-48g

A wax statue of Isaac Newton, deceased.
Image by Nadia via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In Culture, Curiosity and Communication in Scientific Discovery, scientist Nigel Sanitt develops an empirically-informed, highly interdisciplinary, and richly holistic account of scientific progress and discovery. By drawing upon a vast range of historical and contemporary sources, Sanitt provides important, original insights to understand the nature of scientific reasoning and how it is practised.

The book contains a useful introduction in which Sanitt highlights the focal points of his project and 15 short chapters in which he further develops his positive proposal (the idea that the foundations of science are built on sand and that scientific theories are frameworks we use to model nature). The book also considers how meaning is created in science and argues that science is deeply grounded in questions.

In the first part of this critical notice I briefly summarise the book’s content. I then turn my attention to one of the most important theoretical tensions underlying it: the relationship between science and philosophy. I investigate this tension,  critically assess the claim that philosophy is dead (Hawking, 2010), and in agreement with Sanitt conclude that a synergetic relationship between science and philosophy is not only desirable but also mutually beneficial.

A Fast Walk Through Vast Territory

In chapters 1 and 2, Sanitt sets up the scene and looks at the role of truth in science (pp.2-6). He then goes on to discuss the function (prediction) of scientific theories (pp. 18-22) and their search for invariance (pp. 25-26). Sanitt also aptly reviews recent progresses in philosophy of science (pp.7-14) and convincingly argues that the foundations of science are built on sand. Let me notice here that the philosophical grounding of this latter set of ideas could have been enriched by discussing the work of Poincaré, Duhem, Lakatos and Feyerabend.

In chapters 3 and 4, Sanitt discusses two theories [the integrationist theory of meaning defended by Harris (1981); and the theory of problematology pioneered by Meyer 2014)] that play a pivotal role in the development of his book. In particular, the former (pp. 41-43) provides Sanitt with the conceptual palette for the latter, which he uses to argue that science is an answer-generating dynamic enterprise (p.53).

Chapters 5 and 6 focus on the idea that scientific theories are frameworks, networks with links and nodes (p.70), that we use to model nature. Here Sanitt gives the mathematical background to describe these networks using graph theory (pp.72-79).

Chapter 7 focuses on scientific communication and looks, in particular, at how scientists interact with the media, the public, the politicians, with scientific organisations, and with each other (pp.82-84). While the need for more public engagement is stressed, the picture that emerges is one where scientists are often forced, by lack of research funding, ‘to actively engage with all these actors in outreach, lobbying, publicity, and policy briefing’ (p.85). This highlights the political, economical and socio-cultural dimension of contemporary scientific practice, which – it is argued- may threaten the independence of science.

The central chapters of the book focus on the relation between science and literature (ch. 8), science and religion (ch. 9), science and art (ch. 10), and science and history (ch.11). Particularly interesting is chapter 10 where Sanitt looks at whether beauty (understood as Pythagorean harmony) can play a role in science (pp.105-107) and points out that many scientists were also successful artists (e.g. Feynman), musicians (e.g. Einstein, Plack, Heisenberg), or writers (e.g. Hoyle, Oppenheimer, Snow).

Chapters 12 looks at the relation between science and culture. Here Sanitt demonstrates that science -as an intellectual and practical pursuit- is deeply rooted and inexorably tied in with our culture (p.121). He also cogently argues for the crucial importance of science in our society (p.122).

Chapter 13 focuses on artificial intelligence and on consciousness (p.131).  Sanitt claims that in explaining these phenomena, ‘separating out meaning, thinking, embodiment, perception and decision making from each other does not work’ (p.135). He thus seems to endorse, albeit not stated, a view (Clark 1998) that involves mind, body and environment as direct and equal partners in the making of human cognitive behaviour.

In chapter 14 Sanitt looks at the relation between science and ethics. He reviews philosophical works on moral and ethical behaviour (pp.137-139), discusses examples of misconduct and professional malpractice in science (pp.141-142), and calls for the development of more rigorous enforcement measures to fight them (p.143).

Chapter 15 focuses on the relation between science and education, discusses gender anomalies in science (p.151) and calls for innovations (adoption of ebooks, contextualisation of textbooks) in educational practices (pp.152-153).

In chapter 16 Sanitt summarises what he has achieved in the book (pp.155-160) and concludes by condemning the idea that philosophy and science should be separated. He writes: ‘a lack of critical thinking skills leads to intellectual impoverishment and in the end, to poor science. There are many universities that include philosophy courses in their undergraduate science curriculum – this is to be encouraged’ (p.162).

Having described the contents of the monograph, I now briefly turn to what I believe is the most interesting theoretical tension underlying it; the relation between science and philosophy.

Philosophy and Science: A Sometimes Sublime Dynamic

The relation between science and philosophy is intricate and highly complicated, and is one that I can only start touching upon here. Roughly speaking we can say that until perhaps the 19th century, there was no real distinction between scientists and philosophers, and many of the greatest scientists were also great philosophers. Newton’s masterpiece, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Newton, 1687/1999) is imbued with philosophical assumptions and is a paradigmatic example of this deep relation.

The gap between science and philosophy started to widen at the beginning of the last century when scientific specialisation drove a wedge between the two disciplines (Philipp, 1957). The gap became even more prominent over the last 50 years or so with the advent of the age of hyper-specialisation.

On the one hand, with the development of new technological breakthroughs, many scientists started to amass enormous amounts of empirical data (especially in disciplines like neuroscience, physics, and psychology) often forgetting (sometimes deliberately ignoring) the theoretical interpretation of such data; on the other hand, many philosophers failed to understand such developments and retreated to their ivory towers into the study of human affairs, leaving the study of nature to natural scientists and often deliberately refusing any interaction with them (this process is brilliantly summarised by Snow 1959/2012).

There were remarkable exceptions on both sides, of course. Einstein’s work (1935) demonstrated that there is a genuine interaction between science and philosophy. Heisenberg once said ‘my mind was formed by studying philosophy, Plato and that sort of thing’ (Buckley and Peat, 1996, p.6).

Russell (1914) argued that the difference between philosophy and science is of the degree not of kind.  Dewey (1938/1991) asserted that the roots of philosophy and science are the same. Poincaré (1905) and Duhem (1908/1991) spent their whole lives developing a ‘scientific philosophy’.

There are also numerous examples in the history of science that shows this deep mutual dependence and profound interaction. For example, Kepler and Sommerfeld were both inspired by Pythagorean ideas in developing their models of the harmonies of the solar system and of the atom (de Haro, 2013).

Non-Locality: Philosophy as a Guide for Quantum Physics

Next, however, I focus on the development of quantum mechanics and discuss a key moment in its history that shows how physical progress crucially depended on asking the right philosophical questions. The discussion of this case study demonstrates that the philosophical debate that took place during those years acted as a positive, driving force that pushed the development of science further.

In 1927, conflicting views on quantum physics started to crystallize. At the 5th Solvay conference in Brussels, Heisenberg declared quantum mechanics to be a ‘closed theory, whose fundamental physical and mathematical assumptions are no longer susceptible of any modification’ (Bacciagaluppi and Valentini, 2009, p. 437). With that assertion, Heisenberg voiced the feelings and the convinctions of many of his colleagues (among them Bohr, Pauli, and Dirac) also present at the conference.

Einstein, however, did not agree with Heisenberg. He believed that the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics – the view that Heisenberg was indirectly defending —had philosophical implications (such as the lack of determinacy in physical quantities and events) that seemed undesirable.

Thus in 1935, with some of his colleagues (Podolsky, and Rosen), Einstein developed a famous thought experiment (known as EPR), which demonstrated the entanglement of two particles located at long distances and implied faster-than-light interactions. Since this explicitly contradicted Einstein’s theory of relativity, quantum mechanics had to be an incomplete theory and the Copenhagen interpretation had to be wrong.

With this thought experiment Einstein wanted to arrive at a theory that fullfilled some ontological desiderata. More precisely, he wanted the theory to accurately describe the real world while incorporating the requirement that physics should be independent of the observer.

While the study of paradoxes has always played an important role in physics, the formulation of the EPR paradox required the development of a neat philosophical stance about the principles and methods that were deemed to be appropriate and valuable for the development of the theory. Thus, this example paradigmatically shows that Einstein’s quest was philosophical in character and therefore that philosophical ideas indeed can play a major role in the development of scientific theories.

Contemporary Alienation

Recently, however, Stephen Hawking declared (2010) the official ‘death’ of philosophy (for similar arguments see also Weinberg, 1992 , for a review of similar arguments see Kerr, 2018). Commenting on the nature of reality, Hawking wrote: ‘traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge’ (Hawking 2010, p. 5).

To be fair to Hawking, his remark seems to be about the current status of philosophy. It does not seem to be a claim about philosophy as a discipline and including all its history (as some critics of Hawking have recently argued). Also, when Hawking made that provocative claim, he probably referred to just metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that aspires to the most general understanding of nature – not to all philosophy.

Now, I don’t want to enter here the discussion of whether all metaphysics should be naturalised (Ladyman et al., 2007). But having given Hawking the fairest possible understanding, I would still like to point out that his view of contemporary philosophy is partial, misleading, and ill-informed.

This is because Hawking, when making that claim, ignored that nowadays there is lots of philosophy born out of metaphysics (philosophy of mind and cognitive science, philosophy of psychology, philosophy of neuroscience) that is deeply grounded in the sciences. He also ignored that there are many areas of research in philosophy (e.g. embodied cognition) that are inspired by scientific findings and that, in turn, guide scientific research. More importantly, he ignored that there are large groups of empirically-informed philosophers (I am one of them, for what that matters), who are increasing leaving their armchairs and ivory towers to work in close contact with scientists.

Here Sanitt, who is himself a scientist but one that is not crusading against philosophy, does (unlike Hawking) a good job in recognising the fundamental importance of philosophical thinking to scientific reasoning. He writes: ‘I believe that science research at the highest level is adversely affected by the lack of philosophical awareness and training for scientists’ (p.59).

Sanitt also recognises that ‘there are limits to the denial of philosophical import to science, which results in paralysis’ (p. 14) and goes on to condemn the process that has led to the fragmentation and alienation of science from philosophy: ‘science has been separated horizontally…from within by too much specialisation…..This separation … is also vertical in the sense that science is seen as a completely different kind of entity from areas dubbed the arts or literature. This kind of separation is just as damaging and just as specious’ (p.14).

The picture that Sanitt draws is therefore one where philosophy directly interacts with science on a number of different levels. In particular, Sanitt believes: i).that the way science is taught and practised should not be immune from philosophical speculations (p.12); ii).that philosophical theorising should play an instrumental role in raising the right questions (pp.52-55) that science aims to answer (pp.64-70); and iii).that philosophy should help scientists interfacing with the wider, non-academic, world (pp. 80-86). Sanitt sees in this collaboration the roots of scientific success and thus argues, pace Hawking, that a synergetic partnership between science and philosophy is highly desirable.

Conclusion

Culture, Curiosity and Communication in Scientific Discovery shines a light through the mist of scientific research. It convincingly makes the case that science is driven by questions that often have a philosophical nature. The book also demonstrates that the foundations of science are built on sand and that the search for truth is always elusive.

The volume is thorough and does not at all shy away from conceptual complexity – quite the opposite.  The impressive sheer wealth and breadth of information presented makes the volume worthwhile. The prose is engaging, the style is captivating, the argument is coherently presented.

Structurally, however, I question the author’s decision of having 16 short chapters, each containing a lot of different subsections (often trying to summarise complex debates in a page or two). Occasionally, this results in having half-backed subsections (e.g. ‘free will’, p.99), which do not fully capture the nuances and the complexities of the issues debated. This sometimes interrupts the flow of the argumentation and prevents the reader from understanding the main point being made.

Nevertheless, this is a much needed (and welcomed) contribution to the field. A must read for scientists and philosophers, and more generally, for all those who are interested in understanding how scientific theories are constructed and verified.

Contact details: mirko.farina@kcl.ac.uk 

References

Bacciagaluppi, Guido, and Antony Valentini. Quantum theory at the crossroads: reconsidering the 1927 Solvay conference. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Buckley, Paul, and F. David Peat. Glimpsing reality: Ideas in physics and the link to biology. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

Clark, Andy. Being there: Putting brain, body, and world together again. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.

de Haro, Sebastian. “Science and Philosophy: A Love-Hate Relationship.” arXiv preprint arXiv:1307.1244 (2013).

Dewey, John. Logic, the theory of inquiry. Carbondale: IL, Southern University Press, 1938/1991.

Duhem, Pierre Maurice Marie. The aim and structure of physical theory. Vol. 13. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1908/1991.

Einstein, Albert, Boris Podolsky, and Nathan Rosen. “Can quantum-mechanical description of physical reality be considered complete?.” Physical review 47, no. 10 (1935): 777.

Hawking, Stephen. The grand design. London, UK: Random House Digital, Inc., 2010.

Kerr, Eric. “A Hermeneutic of Non-Western Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7: 1-6, 2018

Ladyman, James, Don Ross, David Spurrett, and John Collier. Every thing must go: Metaphysics naturalized. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Newton, Isaac. The Principia: mathematical principles of natural philosophy. Berkeley: CA: University of California Press, 1687/1999.

Philipp, Frank. Philosophy of science: The link between science and philosophy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1957

Poincaré, Henri. Science and hypothesis. Science Press, 1905.

Russell, Bertrand. Our Knowledge of the External World as a Field for Scientific Method in Philosophy. Chicago, IL and London, UK: Open Court Publishing, 1914.

Snow, Charles Percy. The two cultures. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1959/2012.

Weinberg, Steven. Dream of a final theory, the scientist’s search for the ultimate laws of nature. New York, NYC: Vintage Books, (1992).

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

Riggio, Adam. “Belief in a Weird World: A Review of Bernard Wills’ Believing Weird Things.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 3 (2019): 1-5.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-470

H. P. Lovecraft’s creation, Cthulhu, is one of the world’s most famous symbols of the weird.
Image by Chase Norton via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Weird is a strange word. The idea of weirdness itself is rather strange, as suits the subject I suppose. Bernard Wills has written the essay anthology Believing Weird Things, in part, to explore what weirdness is. The book itself, however, is rather weird. Or at least, it’s weird to an academic audience.

Let me explain. While I write quite a few book reviews for SERRC, over the last while, the amount of time between my receiving a review copy and actually writing and submitting the review of the book has lengthened from a flexible to a messianic duration. So my reviews often end up being informed by other reviews of the same book, where others have gotten around to it before me.

So this review is also, though in small part, a rebuke to Matthew Dentith’s earlier review of Believing Weird Things published late last year.[1] Although it remains far from perfect, Wills has written a book that is both challenging and accessible to a wide audience. Believing Weird Things is a popular book of philosophical thought, in the tradition of Bertrand Russell’s public philosophical essays. For some audiences of researchers, a book of that character may be too weird to understand at first.

What Is Weird? The Weird? Weirdness?

Whether something is weird is not a matter purely of ontology. There is no weird in itself, since weirdness is a relational property. Something is weird only in comparison to something else, relative to surroundings, wider environments, or the expectations of people regarding those surroundings and environment.

Weirdness is most fundamentally an epistemological concern. When a sudden disturbance appears in the smooth flowing of a natural process, that disturbance is simply disruptive and destructive. We as self-conscious observers may call it weird, but regarding the process and its disruption in themselves, there are matters of fact alone.

Science-fiction and horror literature has probed the nature of weirdness in more nuance than many philosophical arguments. The weird unsettles expectation, which creates an immediate fear and a profound fear. Speaking immediately, a weird encounter is a sign that presumptions about the reliability of the world to sustain your own life are in doubt. That causes fear for your life.

The more profound fear of the weird inspires is that, more than just your life being at risk, the fundamental nature of reality is at risk. It would be extremely dangerous to encounter creatures like the Shoggoths of Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” one of the stories that helped forge the genre of weird fiction, but their nature is weird enough such an encounter would call into doubt everything you believed about reality itself.

To be weird is to have a character or nature that is such an anomaly for your expectations of how and what the world is, as to be unnerving. A natural process cannot be unnerved, only a self-conscious subjectivity. What is, is; what is weird must be understood as weird.

Weirdness, therefore, is in the eye of the beholder. At least that’s what I would say if I were disposed to cheap clichés. Different people with different histories, cultures, moral and aesthetic values will consider different things weird.

The Relative Relativity of Weirdness

Wills himself describes it well in his essay on Rastafarian religious beliefs, one of the best in the volume. Rastafarianism is a Caribbean religious minority, its people marginalized in the faith’s Jamaican birthplace. The religion’s cultural influence far outshines its size because of the global fame and historical influence of Rastafarian musicians in reggae, such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Lee Scratch Perry.

But to someone raised in a generally Christian culture, some Rastafarian beliefs are genuinely strange, even though much of the religion is a clear outgrowth of the Abrahamic tradition. The Rastafarian Jah is the same God as Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Rastafarianism recasts the Jewish concept of the chosen people to refer to all Africans who suffered from colonization and the Atlantic slave trade, their Exodus being the ongoing process of decolonization. Like Islam, the moral principles of the religion incorporate rituals of worship into everyday social life, and it roots those moral principles in the shape of world history.

Rastafarian parallels with Christianity are, as Wills and I agree, rather weird. Rastafarianism has a Messiah figure that operates according to the same metaphysical principles as Christ. Haile Selassie I, Ethiopian Emperor from 1930 to 1974, is the living incarnation of God for Rastafarians.

I use the present tense because Rastafarians hold that Selassie is alive in some form, despite his 1974 assassination in Ethiopia’s communist uprising. In all seriousness, I expect there eventually to be a theological schism in Rastafarianism over how to reconcile their faith with the fact that Selassie was murdered and his body stuffed under the toilets of a palace bathroom, discovered decades later, long after that palace had been converted into government offices.

I can talk about this with an air of humour, as though I’m joking from a position of relative privilege at the expense of Rastafarianism and Rastas. The detachment that allows me to dehumanize Rastafarian culture with this smirking bemusement is rooted in my attitude toward the faith: it is alien, a culture I know only through song lyrics and cultural stereotypes. I find the Rastafarian faith’s messianism weird, but only because I was not raised a Rasta or near any Rastafarian communities.

In Wills’ best essays, he uses these extended philosophical case studies to uncover the epistemic, political, and moral implications of who considers what weird, and why.

Bernard Wills - Believing Weird ThingsA Disjointed Path to Its End

The only real problem I have with the book is that not all of its essays are as good as its best. If I can use terms that more often describe albums, Believing Weird Things is a little front-loaded. The book is divided roughly in half. The first essays explore weird ideas and beliefs as a philosophical historian building a book of fascinating case studies. The second half of the book describes different ways in which weirdness has been weaponized, how difference and strangeness become no longer guides to fascinating places, but targets to be destroyed.

If I can take a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean, consider this. The best essay in the first half of Believing Weird Things is “Why I Am Not a Rastaman.” The best essay in the book’s second half is “Portrait of an Islamophobe.”

Yet I don’t want to linger too long on praise for the actual best essay in the volume, where Wills insightfully and incisively identifies the dynamics of racist discourse that show how Islamophobic ideology merges the dehumanization of colonial racism with the paranoia and massification of classical European anti-Semitism.

That’s all I really need to say other than that “Portrait of an Islamophobe” alone is ethically worth your buying Believing Weird Things at its affordable price, expressly for the purpose of rewarding Wills with one more purchase in his next royalty payment.

So when my biggest critique of a book is that some essays aren’t as good as others in an essay collection, you can be pretty sure that I don’t have a significant problem with what he’s doing. Believing Weird Things ends with two essays that originally appeared in earlier forms at SERRC, two analyses of the nationalist turn in Western conservatism.

Those essays offered quality insights on the true nature of conservatism as a tradition of English political philosophy whose classical works were the landmarks of Thomas Hobbes and Edmund Burke, and how the nationalism that dominates today’s right wing itself betrays many of the principles of those great thinkers.

However, they make for an odd fit with the other essays of the book, all of which explicitly experiment with our concept of the weird to develop a new philosophical insight. These last two essays are fine in themselves, but as they appear in Believing Weird Things, they amount to filler tracks that stand apart from the main themes and style of the book.

Misunderstanding the Will to Weirdness

My last point is a soft rebuttal to Matthew Dentith’s earlier review of Believing Weird Things. I couldn’t help but find Dentith’s critiques a little off the mark, since they were rooted in a conception of the weird that Wills didn’t share. This conception of the weird is rooted in Forteana, the study and archiving of generally weird and strange phenomena, rumours, objects, folklore.

There are two central organizing concepts in the work of Charles Fort, as he first developed his project and how it has continued since. They are anti-systematicity and skepticism of skepticism. Fortean catalogues of weird things and events make no attempt to understand these departures from the norm as expressions of some underlying order. This is anti-systematicity, which parallels skepticism of skepticism, the refusal to doubt that something exists or occurred merely because its existence contradicts or is contrary to established knowledge.

Any system of knowledge based on these principles of anti-systematicity and skepticism of skepticism will regularly produce weirdnesses, because if you hold them, you will accept without much trouble radical departures inductively valid expectations about what is and is not possible. But these principles do not exhaustively define what is weird or what weird is. Fortean epistemology is openness to the weird, but does not itself define that which is weird. Dentith’s analysis of Wills’ work conflates the two.

But Dentith’s error is a learning opportunity for us in who the best audience for Believing Weird Things would be. Dentith’s misinterpretation flowed from his prior experience in academic research. Earlier in his career, the study of Forteana and the works of Michael Shermer, particularly his 1997 Why People Believe Weird Things, was important to his intellectual development.

In the introduction, Wills frames his own Believing Weird Things as a response to Shermer’s arguments from the end of the last century. Dentith critiques Wills for having chosen an apparent interlocutor from more than 20 years ago, seeing this as an attempt to restore Shermer’s ideas to a place in contemporary philosophical debates in the spheres of academic publication. But Wills never justifies such a restoration in his own book. Indeed, Wills never refers to Shermer in as much detail in the rest of the book as he does in the introduction.

Such a use of Shermer appears sloppy, and I do think Wills should have been a little more explicit in explaining the role that Shermer’s work plays in his own thinking. A figure who plays such a major role in an introduction, but disappears throughout the main body of the book makes for poor academic writing.

But Wills’ only mistake here was having given Dentith the opportunity to make his own mistake. Wills does not aim to restore Shermer to some more prestigious position in academic philosophical debates. Engaging with Shermer’s ideas has a more personal meaning for Wills, because a chance encounter with Shermer’s work was the inspiration for a trilogy of books that explore the nature of weirdness, of which Believing Weird Things is the second.

Wills refers to the work of Shermer to invoke him as an inspiration for his in-progress trilogy. Invoking an intellectual ancestor is not a reason that can inspire most academic writing, especially that based in paywalled research journals. Dentith did not understand this aspect of Believing Weird Things because he kept his analysis inside the context of the academician’s writing.

Conclusion: Life Is Weird

Bernard Wills has written a book for a general thinking audience, a contribution to the social and ethical antidotes to rouse the red-pilled from their dogmatic slumbers. Believing Weird Things asks readers to re-evaluate what they consider reasonable and strange, that weirdness is a category without a simple definition or clear boundaries.

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Between Forteana and Skepticism: A Review of Bernard Wills’ Believing Weird Things.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 48-52.

Wills, Bernard. Believing Weird Things. Montréal: Minkowski Institute Press, 2018.

[1] Okay, that makes me sound way, way too late.

Author Information: Eric Kerr, National University of Singapore, eric.kerr@nus.edu.sg.

Kerr, Eric. “On Thinking With Catastrophic Times.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 46-49.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-45Q

Image by Jeff Krause via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Reprinted with permission from the Singapore Review of Books. The original review can be found here.

• • • •

On Thinking With – Scientists, Sciences, and Isabelle Stengers is the transcription of a talk read by Jeremy Fernando at the Centre for Science & Innovation Studies at UC Davis in 2015. The text certainly has the character of a reading: through closely attending to Stengers’ similarly transcribed talk (2012) Fernando traverses far-reaching themes – testimony, the gift, naming, listening – drawing them into a world made strange again through Stengers’ idea of “thinking with” – as opposed to analyzing or evaluating – notions of scientific progress, justice, and responsibility.

All this will make this review rather different from convention. I’ll attempt a response, using the text as an opportunity to pause, regroup, and divert, which, I hope, will allow us to see some of the connections between the two scholars and the value of this book. I read this text as a philosopher within Science and Technology Studies (STS) and through these lenses I’ll aim to draw out some of the ideas elaborated in Fernando’s essay and in Stengers’ In Catastrophic Times.

Elusive Knowledge

Towards the end of the essay, Fernando muses on the elusive nature of knowledge: “[T]he moment the community of scientists knows – or thinks it knows – what Science is, the community itself dissolves” (p.35). He consequently ties epistemological certainty to the stagnation, or even the collapse, of a scientific community.

In this sense, Fernando suggests that the scientific community should be thought of as a myth, but a necessary one. He implies that any scientific community is a “dream community… a dream in the sense of something unknown, something slightly beyond the boundaries, binds, of what is known.” (pp. 35-36) Further, he agrees with Stengers: “I vitally need such a dream, such a story which never happened.” So why? What is this dream that is needed?

Stengers suggests that we are now in a situation where there are “many manners of dying” (2015, p. 9). Any attempt on “our” part to resolve the growing crisis, seems to merely entrench and legislate the same processes that produced the very problems we were trying to overcome. International agreements are framed within the problematic capitalocene rather than challenging it. Problems arrive with the overwhelming sense that our current situation is permanent, political change is inertial or even immovable, and that the only available remedy is more of the poison. Crucially, for Stengers, this sense is deliberately manufactured – an induced ignorance (ibid. p. 118).

Stengers’ concern, which Fernando endorses, is to reframe the manner in which problems are presented. To remove us from the false binary choice presented to us: as precaution or pro-action, as self-denial of consumer products or geoengineering, as deforestation for profit or financialization of forests. For his part, Fernando does not offer more solutions. Instead, he encourages us to sit in the mire of the problem, to revisit it, to rethink it, to re-view it. Not as an act of idle pontification but for what Stengers calls “paying attention” (ibid. p. 100).

Paying Attention to Catastrophic Times

In order to pay attention, Fernando begins with a parental metaphor: Gaia as mother, scientific authority as father. For him, there is an important distinction between power and authority. Whereas power can be found in all relations, authority “is mystical, divine, outside the realm of human consciousness – it is the order of the sovereign. One either has authority or one doesn’t” (p.21).

Consequently, there is something unattainable about any claim to scientific expertise. The idea that authority depends on a mystical or theological grounding chimes with core epistemological commitments in STS, most forcefully advocated by David Bloor who argued that the absolutist about knowledge would require “epistemic grace”.

Alongside Fernando’s words, Burdock details gooey, veiny appendages emerging from pipes and valves, tumours and pustules evoking the diseased body. Science and engineering are productive of vulnerable bodies. Here we might want to return to Stengers’ treatment of the pharmakon, the remedy/poison duality.

For Stengers, following Nietzsche’s gay scientist (whom Fernando also evokes), skepticism and doubt are pharmakon (Nietzsche 1924, p. 159). She details how warnings as to the dangers of potential responses are presented as objections. STS scholars will note that this uncertainty can be activated by both your enemies and your friends, not least when it comes to the challenges of climate change. This is the realization that prompted Bruno Latour to issue what Steve Fuller has called a “mea culpa on behalf of STS” for embracing too much uncertainty (Latour 2004; Fuller 2018, p. 44).

Data and Gaia

Although there is little mention of any specific sciences, scientific instruments, theories or texts, Fernando instead focuses on what is perhaps the primary object of contemporary science – data – especially its relation to memory. It is perhaps not a coincidence that he repeatedly asks us to remember not to forget: e.g. “we should try not to forget that…” (p. 11 and similar on p. 17, 22, 21, and 37). He notes that testimony occurs through memory but that this is, generally speaking, unreliable and incomplete. His conclusion is Cartesian: perhaps the only thing we can know for sure is that we are testifying (p. 16).

Stengers picks up the question of memory in her dismissal of an interventionist Gaia (to paraphrase Nick Cave) denying that Gaia could remember, could be offended or could care who is responsible (2015 p.46 and fn. 2). She criticizes James Lovelock, the author of the Gaia hypothesis, for speaking of Gaia’s “revenge”. While he begins his text with Stengers’ controversial allusion to Gaia, Fernando’s discussion of data also has a curious connection to a living, self-regulating (and consequently also possibly a vulnerable) globe.

Riffing on Stewart Brand’s infamous phrase, “information wants to be free,” Fernando writes, “[D]ata and sharing have always been in relation with each other, data has always already been open source. Which also means that data – sharing, transference – always entail an openness to the possibility of another; along with the potentiality for disruption, infection, viruses, distortion” (p.22). Coincidentally, along with being an internet pioneer, founding one of the oldest virtual (and certainly mythological) communities, Brand is an old friend of Lovelock.

Considering these words in relation to impending ecological disaster, I’m inclined to think that perhaps the central myth that we should try to escape is that we don’t easily forget. Bernard Stiegler has suggested that we are in a period of realignment in our relationship to memory in which external memory supports are the primary means by which we understand our temporality (2011, 2013).

Similarly, we might think that it is no coincidence that when Andy Clark and David Chalmers proposed their hypothesis of extended cognition, the idea that our cognitive and memorial processes extend into artefacts, they reached for the Alzheimer’s sufferer as “Patient Zero” (1998). In truth, we do forget, often. And this is despite, and sometimes even because of, our best efforts to record and archive and remember.

Fernando’s writing is, at root, a call to re-call. It regenerates other texts and seems to live with them such that they both thrive. The “tales” he calls for spiral out into new mutations like Burdock’s tentacular images. But to reduce Fernando’s scope to simply a call for other perspectives would be to sell it short. Read alongside In Catastrophic Times, the call to embrace uncertainty and to reckon with it becomes more urgent.

Fernando reminds us of our own forgetfulness and the unreliability of our testimony about ourselves and our communities. For those of us wrestling with the post-truth world, Fernando’s essay is both a palliative and, potentially, charts a way out of no-alternative thinking.

Contact details: eric.kerr@nus.edu.sg

References

Bloor, D. 2007. Epistemic grace: Antirelativism as theology in disguise. Common knowledge 13: 250-280.

Clark, A. and D. Chalmers. 1998. The extended mind. Analysis 58: 7–19.

Fuller, S. 2018. Post-Truth: Knowledge as a Power Game. Anthem Press.

Latour, B. 2004. Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?  From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern Critical Inquiry 2004 30(2).

Nietzsche, F. 1924. The Joyful Wisdom (trans. T. Common) New York: The MacMillan Company. Accessed 10 June 2018. https://ia600300.us.archive.org/9/items/completenietasch10nietuoft/completenietasch10nietuoft.pdf.

Stengers, I. 2012. “Cosmopolitics: Learning to Think with Sciences, Peoples and Natures.” Public lecture. Situating Science Knowledge Cluster. St. Marys, Halifax, Canada, 5 March 2012. Accessed 10 June 2018. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ASGwo02rh8.

Stengers, I. 2015. In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the coming Barbarism. Open Humanities Press/Meson Press.

Stiegler, B. 2011. Technics and Time, 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise (trans. R. Beardsworth and G. Collins). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Stiegler, B. 2013. For a New Critique of Political Economy (trans. D. Ross). Cambridge: Polity.

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, rsassowe@uccs.edu.

Sassower, Raphael. “Human Nature in the Post-Truth Age.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 36-38.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-45C

Image by Bryan Ledgard via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

We have come a long way since Leslie Stevenson published Seven Theories of Human Nature in 1974. Indeed, Stevenson’s critical contribution enlisted the views of Plato, Christianity, Marx, Freud, Sartre, Skinner, and Lorenz to analyze and historically contextualize what the term could mean.

By 2017, a seventh edition is available, now titled Thirteen Theories of Human Nature, and it contains chapters on Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Plato, Aristotle, the Bible (instead of Christianity), Islam, Kant, Marx, Freud, Sartre, Darwinism, and feminism (with the help of David Haberman, Peter Matthews, and Charlotte Witt). One wonders how many more theories or views can be added to this laundry list; perhaps with an ever-increasing list of contributors to the analysis and understanding of human nature, a new approach might be warranted.

How The Question Is Contested Today

This is where Maria Kronfeldner’s What’s Left of Human Nature? A Post-Essentialist, Pluralist, and Interactive Account of a Contested Concept (2018) enters the scene. This scene, to be sure, is fraught with sexism and misogyny, speciesism and racism, and an unfortunately long history of eugenics around the world. The recent white supremacist eruptions under president Trump’s protection if not outright endorsement are so worrisome that any level-headed (or Kronfeldner’s analytic) guidance is a breath of fresh air, perhaps an essential disinfectant.

Instead of following the rhetorical vitriol of right-wing journalists and broadcasters or the lame argumentations of well-meaning but ill-informed sociobiologists, we are driven down a philosophical path that is scholarly, fair-minded, and comprehensive. If one were to ask a naïve or serious question about human nature, this book is the useful, if at time analytically demanding, source for an answer.

If one were to encounter the prevailing ignorance of politicians and television or radio pundits, this book is the proper toolkit from which to draw sharp tools with which to dismantle unfounded claims and misguided pronouncements. In short, in Trump’s post-truth age this book is indispensable.

But who really cares about human nature? Why should we even bother to dissect the intricacies of this admittedly “contested concept” rather than dispense with it altogether? Years ago, I confronted Robert Rubin (former Goldman Sachs executive and later Treasury Secretary in the Clinton Administration) in a lecture he gave after retirement about financial policies and markets. I asked him directly about his view of human nature and his response was brief: fear and greed.

I tried to push him on this “view” and realized, once he refused to engage, that this wasn’t a view but an assumption, a deep presupposition that informed his policy making, that influenced everything he thought was useful and even morally justifiable (for a private investment bank or the country as a whole). All too often we scratch our heads in wonder about a certain policy that makes no sense or that is inconsistent with other policies (or principles) only to realize that a certain pre-commitment (in this sense, a prejudice) accompanies the proposed policy.

Would making explicit presuppositions about human nature clarify the policy or at least its rationale? I think it would, and therefore I find Kronfeldner’s book fascinating, well-argued, and hopefully helpful outside insulated academic circles. Not only can it enlighten the boors, but it could also make critical contributions to debates over all things trans (transhumanism, transgenderism).

Is the Concept of Essence Useful Anymore?

In arguing for a post-essentialist, pluralist, and interactive account of human nature, Kronfeldner argues for eliminating the “concept of an essence,” broadening its conceptual reach with corresponding “three different kinds” of human nature, and that “nature and culture interact at the developmental, epigenetic, and evolutionary levels” as well as the ongoing “explanatory looping effects” of human nature. (xv)

Distinguishing between explaining human nature and human nature, the author has chosen to focus on the latter “which is an analytic and reflective issue about what ‘having a nature’ and ‘something being due to nature’ mean.” (xvi) Instead of summarizing the intricacies of all the arguments offered in the book, suffice here to highlight, from the very beginning of the book, one of the author’s cautionary remarks: “Many consider the concept of human nature to be obsolete because they cannot envision such an interactive account of the fixity aspect. It is one of the major contributions of this book to try to overcome this obstacle.” (xvii)

And indeed, this book does overcome the simple binary of either there are fixed traits of humanity to which we must pay scientific tribute or there are fluid feedback loops of influence between nature and nurture to which we must pay social and moral attention. Though the former side of the binary is wedded to notions of “specificity, typicality, fixity, and normalcy” for all the right ethical reasons of protecting human rights and equal treatment, the price paid for such (linguistic and epistemic) attachment may be too high.

The price, to which Kronfeldner returns in every chapter of the book, is “dehumanization”—the abuse of the term (and concept) human nature in order to exclude rather than include members of the human species.

In her “eliminativist perspective” with respect to the concept of human nature, Kronfeldner makes five claims which she defends brilliantly and carefully throughout the book. The first relates to how little the “sciences” would lose from not using the term anymore; the second is that getting rid of essentialism alone will not do away with dehumanization; the third suggests that though dehumanization may not be eliminated, post-essentialism will be helpful to “minimize” it; the fourth claim is that “the question about elimination versus revision of the terminology used is actually a matter of values (rather than facts)”; and the fifth claim relates to the “precautionary principle” advocated here. (231)

The upshot of this process of elimination in the name of reducing dehumanization is admittedly as much political as epistemic, social and cultural as moral. As Kronfeldner says: “Even if one gets rid of all possible essentialist baggage attached to human nature talk, and even if one gets rid of all human nature talk whatsoever, there is no way to make sure that the concept of being or becoming human gets rid of dehumanization. Stripping off essentialism and the language inherited from it won’t suffice for that.” (236) So, what will suffice?

Throwing the Ladder Away

At this juncture, Kronfeldner refers to Wittgenstein: “The term human nature might well be a Wittgensteinian ladder: a ladder that we needed to arrive where we are (in our dialectic project) but that we can now throw away.” (240) This means, in short, that “we should stop using the term human nature whenever possible.” (242) Easier said than done?

The point that Kronfeldner makes repeatedly is that simply revising the term or using a different one will not suffice; replacing one term with another or redefining the term more carefully will not do. This is not only because of the terminological “baggage” to which she alludes, but perhaps, more importantly, because this concept or term has been a crutch scientists and policy makers cannot do without. Some sense of human nature informs their thinking and their research, their writing and policy recommendations (as my example above illustrates).

In a word, is it possible to avoid asking: what are they thinking about when they think of human conduct? What underlying presuppositions do they bring to their respective (subconscious?) ways of thinking? As much as we may want to refrain from talking about human nature as an outdated term or a pernicious concept that has been weaponized all too often in a colonial or racist modality, it seems to never be far away from our mind.

In the Trumpist age of white supremacy and the fascist trajectories of European nationalism, can we afford to ignore talk about human nature? Worst, can we ignore the deliberate lack of talk of human nature, seeing, as we do, its dehumanizing effects? With these questions in mind, I highly recommend spending some time with this book, ponderous as it may seem at times, and crystal clear as it is at others. It should be considered for background information by social scientists, philosophers, and politicians.

Contact details: rsassowe@uccs.edu

References

Kronfeldner, Maria. What’s Left of Human Nature? A Post-Essentialist, Pluralist, and Interactive Account of a Contested Concept. Boston: MIT Press, 2018.

Author Information: John Lamola, Fort Hare University, jlamola@mweb.co.za.

Lamola, John. “Africa in Van Norden’s Philosophical Manifesto and King’s Multicultural Canon.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 30-35.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-45v

Campus at University of Cape Town, overlooked by Table Mountain.
Image by Ian Barbour via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Although written from an American setting, and pointedly directed at challenging the pedagogic modalities and epistemological assumptions of the organisation of the philosophy curriculum in the United States, Bryan W. Van Norden’s Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto (2017) has an acute and timely resonance with the current fractious debate on the decolonisation of the philosophy curriculum in South Africa.

It is indeed a scandal that African philosophy, in Africa, is still what Van Norden (p.2) formulates as an LCTP (less commonly taught philosophies). Equally, as one stuck in the racialistic trenches of this debate (Lamola 2018, Benatar 2018), it was comforting to hear a non-radical voice of Jay L. Garfield assert in the book’s Foreword that ‘ignoring non-Western Philosophy in our research, curriculum, and hiring decisions is deeply racist’ (xix).

In addition, Van Norden’s critique of the Eurocentrism of the philosophy canon and syllabi not only validates a founding motif of post-colonial African philosophy; it foregrounds into the American academe a protestation, stated in Barry Hallen’s words in his A Short History of African Philosophy, against the ‘West that ethnocentrically flaunts that culture’s philosophical priorities as things that should be universal’ (Hallen 2009,50).

A Model for Philosophers’ Practice: Peter J. King

The foregoing sentiments have impelled me to endeavour a contribution to this book symposium from the vantage position of African philosophical experience. In doing so, I propose to draw attention to a project which, in our view, experimented and proved that what Van Norden is advocating can be done.

This was the publication in 2004 by Peter J. King, lecturer at Pembroke College, Oxford of One Hundred Philosophers: The Life and Work of the World’s Greatest Thinkers. In line with Van Norden’s disquisition, King (2004) creatively broke the boundaries of the traditional canonical criteria of Western Philosophy, and installed into a singular chronological compendium thinkers from Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas as philosophers whose works set the frontiers of philosophic erudition.

I published polemic essay that extolled the instructive intervention of this book, ‘Peter J. King and the Transformation of the Philosophical Canon: An Africanist Appreciation’ (Lamola 2015) in Phronimon, a journal of the South African Society for Greek Philosophy and Humanities.[1]

In the Phronimon article I argued that the conceptual framework of ‘epistemic pluriversalism’ as advanced by Argentine semiotician Walter Mignolo (2009, 1-23) is a cogent theoretical basis against which King’s work could best be appreciated. I propose, similarly, that Van Norden’s transformation program could be grounded on such a corrective paradigm against the globalistic universalism of the West. Pluriversalism, whereby all knowledge systems as emerging from diverse geo-cultural regions of the world are accorded equal recognition and respect, is a critical transformative imperative for contemporary academic philosophy.

Here, for reasons of brevity, our restricted mission is to carve a space for African philosophy in Van Norden’s regrettably excessively pro-Chinese philosophy blueprint of a transformative multicultural curriculum.

Africans in the Global Philosophy Canon

As Van Norden would, I was perturbed to find one of the editors of the Dictionary of Philosophy (1983), Antony Flew, justify his criteria for the choice of entries in the dictionary with these words,

Very little attention is given to anything that is philosophical only in the more popular interpretation. This, and not European parochialism, is why the classics of Chinese philosophy get such short shrift. The Analects of Confucius and the Book of Mencius are both splendid of their kind. But neither sage shows much sign of interest in the sort of questions thrashed out in Theaetetus. (Flew and Speakes 1983, xi)

In this justification of the preferential adoption of the epistemology of Plato’s Socrates as the criterion for the canon on epistemology, in essence, Flew claimed that the Western modus cogens is more advanced than the Chinese one and is of a superior quality in deciphering, judging, and resolving the dilemmas of human life.

It is regrettable that Flew (1923-2010) did not live long enough to see Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World: the end of the western world and the birth of a new global order (2012), and Jared Diamond’s The World until Yesterday: what can we learn from traditional societies (2012).

This ‘comparative anthropology’ that condescendingly judges the world’s cultures against the putative superiority of Anglo-European traditions is much harsher in its judgement of African systems of thought. There is no reference to African philosophy or any of its themes in the Dictionary of Philosophy. Flew, above, sounded like Immanuel Kant who wrote in Observations on the feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764) that:

If we cast a fleeting glance over the other parts of the world, we find the Arab the noblest man in the Orient . . . he is hospitable, generous and truthful . . . if the Arabs, so to speak are the Spaniards of the Orient, similarly the Persians are the French of Asia. They are good poets, courteous and of fairly fine taste . . . The Japanese could in a way be regarded as Englishmen of this part of the world, but hardly in any other quality than their resoluteness . . . The Negroes of Africa, on the other hand, have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling. (in Eze 1997, 54-55)

In succession to Kant, G.W.F. Hegel’s notorious Afrophobic history of philosophy is not even worth recounting. It is aptly contextualised in Peter K. J. Park’s Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy; racism in the formation of the philosophical canon, 1780-1830, as cited by Van Norden (19). In a recent review of an African philosophy text in SERRC, refuting this claimed absence of Africa in the history of philosophy by making reference to the monumental research of Chiekh Anta Diop ( [1954] 1974) and Martin Bernal (1987), Anke Grannes alerts that:

There is a long tradition of written philosophy on the African continent, extending from the time of the ancient Egyptians and including Ethiopian philosophy, the Arabic-Islamic philosophical tradition in Africa south of the Sahara, the Ajami tradition, and the written tradition in the Swahili culture (Grannes 2018, 45).

Choosing Ignorance of Africa

In the year 2012 two books were published in London with a proclaimed ambition at presenting definitive compendia of those identified as the thinkers who the whole of contemporary humanity must regard as the producers of the most profound ideas that continue to shape our lives and world.

The first of these canon-forming publications was Stephen Trombley’s Fifty Thinkers Who Shaped the Modern World (2012). The second was Phillip Stokes’ Philosophy: One Hundred Essential Thinkers (2012) which according to its jacket promotion, ‘introduces one hundred of the world’s greatest philosophers’.

Trombley’s fifty thinkers who shaped the modern world are led by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and have the Bulgarian-French feminist philosopher, Julia Kristeva (1941-), on the fiftieth spot. According to Trombley’s selection, not a single mind outside of Europe and the United States of America merits a place in the top fifty that has shaped the modern world. He could even blithely aver that:

The Greek philosopher was a wealthy, upper-class man whose leisure time was purchased with slave labour…We can compare the situation of philosophy in ancient Greek with our time, in which—despite the fact that more philosophers may be women or people of colour or from modest social origins—it remains a profession dominated by white men (Trombley 2012 11).

On the other hand, Stoke’s one hundred of the world’s greatest philosophers who have produced ‘the ideas that have shaped our world’, predictably, starts off with Thales of Miletus, and ends with American logician, Willard Van Orman Quine (1908-2000).

Without a declaration anywhere that the book’s proscribed scope is on the Western Philosophical tradition and academy, thus maintaining a pretence of encyclopaedic universality, in Anno Domini 2012 Stokes could not find any Chinese, Indian or African philosopher worthy of recognition for a contribution to the ideas that have shaped or are continuing to shape our world.

Even Kwame Nkrumah, a trained and published philosopher who incarnated his ideas into the Presidency of the first African nation to achieve independence from colonial rule, thus setting a trend and inspiration for the seismic independence movements that dominated the discourse of international politics for decades, is not recognised.

A year earlier, in an implicit demonstration of a growing consciousness against the interpretation of philosophy as Reason conscious of itself and evolving through European institutions, Jay L. Garfield and William Edelglass’ truly multicultural and global Oxford Handbook of World Philosophy (2011)[2] had been published. But Trombley and Stokes were to testify to the enduring force of the interpretatio hegeliana, that views Europe as the exclusive fountain and Eden of human reason to which Africa does not exist.

King’s Pluriversal Historiography

King’s multicultural rendition of the protagonists in the history of philosophy negates this Eurocentrism as an active theoretical intervention, and in our assessment precociously fulfilled and demonstrated the efficacy of Van Norden’s manifesto.

His selection of his ‘one hundred philosophers’ is presented in a sequence that is only governed by their year of birth. In this way the tradition of presenting the history of philosophy as some kind of progressively successive schools, the interpretatio hegeliana, is obviated. Simultaneously, through this structure, the particularity of cultural categorisation is trumped by the universality of time.

This birth date sequencing delivers a pantheon that starts off with Thales of Miletus, seamlessly gliding through K’Ung fu-zi (Confucius) and Lao Zi, both Chinese philosophers, before it gets to Plato. This introduction of ancient sages is rounded off with the profile of the work and life of an African woman philosopher, Hypatia of Alexandria (c.415-370 BCE). King’s compendium boasts uncharacteristic profiling of women thinkers, and draws attention to the injustice women have historically suffered and continue to endure in academic philosophy.

In selecting a constellation of noteworthy thinkers during the period 500CE-1599CE, which in Western historiography is styled the Medieval Period, King endeavours to set these thinkers against a broader appreciation of global historical developments. They are for instance set against the background of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad PUN (570CE), and the appearance of the first printed book from China in 868CE.

Ancius M.S Boethius of Rome (480-524) the martyred pioneering translator of ancient Greek philosophical works into Latin, and Adi Samkra of Kerala (781-820), the founder of the adviata school of Hindu philosophy are introduced as equal pioneering thinkers at the start of this period. In a historical rendition that attempts to present a just procession of religious thought, the narration of the philosophical heritage of the Irish Church philosopher, John Scotus Eriguena (810-977) is placed after that of the Muslim philosopher Abu-Yusuf Yaqub Ibn Ishuq of Baghdad (801-873).

Skipping to the modern period, in the interest of the demand for brevity in our demonstration of the cultural and epistemological plurality of King’s philosophical canon, we note the exceptional gesture he makes in contributing to the uncovering of Anthony William Amo (1703-1784), the Ghanaian who graduated in philosophy at the University of Wittenberg in 1734, and proceeded to earn an appointment as Philosophy professor at the University of Jena in 1740.

Amo, who advanced scholarship on Descartes, is perked between George Berkeley and Baron de Montesquieu as notable philosophers of the Early Modern Period of Western philosophy. King’s presentation, which due to its chronological approach has to list Amo before David Hume (1711-1776) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), unwittingly exposes the bigotry of the latter two celebrated luminaries of the Western philosophical canon in their assiduously recorded views that there is no empirical evidence of any genius among ‘the Negro’ (see Eze 1997, 29-30).

While the government clerk David Hume was battling with his 1739 A Treatise of Human Nature that ‘fell dead from the press’ (King 2004, 108), Professor Amo had just successfully published in 1738 Treatise on the Art of Philosophising Soberly and Accurately (King 2004, 103).

King’s treatment of twentieth century evolution of philosophy subverts traditional reading of a linkage of the philosophies of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein by inserting between them an account of the works of Servepali Radhakrishnan (1888-1975), the most celebrated exponent of Indian philosophy who was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1939, and of Sir Muhammad Iqbal Khan (1877-1938), the iconic philosopher of Islam and graduate of Russell’s alma mater, Cambridge. In a rare irony, the ‘heterodoxical’ Khan was knighted by King George V in 1922, whilst Russell was persecuted and ostracised in England for his ‘unorthodox’ beliefs.

King (2004) interrupts his presentation of the twentieth century notable philosophical minds with an editorial chapter titled, ‘Overview: African philosophy’. This is one of ten such topical editorial insertions interspersed between his encyclopaedic profiling of his selected philosophers. This overview lays the ground for his recognition of Kwasi Wiredu (1931- ) as one of the world’s one hundred greatest thinkers.

Notwithstanding this recognition of only Wiredu and the introduction of Amo, he accords African philosophy a rare appearance on the stage of global intellectual traditions. It is significant that this ‘Overview: African philosophy’ (King 2004, 172) is simply a neat summation of Henry Odera Oruka’s famous 1981 paper ‘Four Trends in Current African Philosophy’ (in Coetzee & Roux 2002, 120-136). King, in line with Van Norden’s broader and more contemporaneous pleadings, seems to have taken seriously Oruka’s contention that:

Philosophy as a discipline that employs analytical, reflective, and rationative methodology is therefore not seen as a monopoly of Europe or any one race but as an activity for which every race or people has a potentiality (in Coetzee & Roux 2002, 120).

Contact details: jlamola@mweb.co.za

References 

Benatar, David. ‘Obscurity, falsehood, and innuendo: A response to M. John Lamola,’ South African Journal of Philosophy, 37, no.1 (2018): 66-68.

Bernal, Martin. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985, Volume 1. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Diamond, Jared.  The World Until Yesterday: What Can we Learn From Traditional Societies. London: Penguin Books, 2012.

Diop, Cheikh. A.  The African Origin of Civilisation: Myth or Reality,  trans. Mercer Cook. New York: Lawrence Hill &Co, 1974.

Eze, Emmanuel, C. (ed.). Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1997.

Flew, Antony, Jeremy Speake (eds). A Dictionary of Philosophy. Second edition. London: Macmillan Press, 1983

Garfield, Jay L, William Edelglass. Oxford Handbook of World Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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

Hallen, Barry. A Short History of African Philosophy , Second edition. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2009.

King, Peter J. One Hundred Philosophers: The Life and Work of the World’s Greatest Thinkers. London: Quarto Publishing, 2004.

Lamola, M. John. ‘Peter J. King and the transformation of the Philosophical canon: an Africanist appreciation’.  Phronimon, 16, no.1 (2015): 63-77.

Lamola, M. John.  ‘On a Contextual South African Philosophy Curriculum: Towards an option for the excluded’. In: Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Decolonisation, Africanisation and the Philosophy Curriculum. London: Routledge 2018, pp.183-189.

Mignolo, Walter. ‘Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and Decolonial Freedom.’ Theory, Culture and Society, 26, no.7 (2009): 1-23.

Stokes, Phillip. Philosophy: One Hundred Essential Thinkers. London: Arcturus Publishing. 2012.

Trombley, Stephen. Fifty Thinkers who shaped the Modern World. London: Atlantis Books, 2012.

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

[1] Parts of this submission are revised paragraphs from this Phronimon article.

[2] See Garfield and Edelglass 2011,461-533 ‘Philosophy in Africa and the Diaspora edited by Albert Mosley and Stephen C. Fergusson II.’

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, rsassowe@uccs.edu.

Sassower, Raphael. “On Political Culpability: The Unconscious?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 26-29.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-45p

Image by Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper, U.S. Army via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In the post-truth age where Trump’s presidency looms large because of its irresponsible conduct, domestically and abroad, it’s refreshing to have another helping in the epistemic buffet of well-meaning philosophical texts. What can academics do? How can they help, if at all?

Anna Elisabetta Galeotti, in her Political Self-Deception (2018), is convinced that her (analytic) philosophical approach to political self-deception (SD) is crucial for three reasons. First, because of the importance of conceptual clarity about the topic, second, because of how one can attribute responsibility to those engaged in SD, and third, in order to identify circumstances that are conducive to SD. (6-7)

For her, “SD is the distortion of reality against the available evidence and according to one’s wishes.” (1) The distortion, according to Galeotti, is motivated by wishful thinking, the kind that licenses someone to ignore facts or distort them in a fashion suitable to one’s (political) needs and interests. The question of “one’s wishes,” may they be conscious or not, remains open.

What Is Deception?

Galeotti surveys the different views of deception that “range from the realist position, holding that deception, secrecy, and manipulation are intrinsic to politics, to the ‘dirty hands’ position, justifying certain political lies under well-defined circumstances, to the deontological stance denouncing political deception as a serious pathology of democratic systems.” (2)

But she follows none of these views; instead, her contribution to the philosophical and psychological debates over deception, lies, self-deception, and mistakes is to argue that “political deception might partly be induced unintentionally by SD” and that it is also sometimes “the by-product of government officials’ (honest) mistakes.” (2) The consequences, though, of SD can be monumental since “the deception of the public goes hand in hand with faulty decision,” (3) and those eventually affect the country.

Her three examples are President Kennedy and Cuba (Ch. 4), President Johnson and Vietnam (Ch. 5), and President Bush and Iraq (Ch. 6). In all cases, the devastating consequences of “political deception” (and for Galeotti it is based on SD) were obviously due to “faulty” decision making processes. Why else would presidents end up in untenable political binds? Who would deliberately make mistakes whose political and human price is high?

Why Self-Deception?

So, why SD? What is it about self-deception, especially the unintended kind presented here, that differentiates it from garden variety deceptions and mistakes? Galeotti’s  preference for SD is explained in this way: SD “enables the analyst to account for (a) why the decision was bad, given that is was grounded on self-deceptive, hence false beliefs; (b) why the beliefs were not just false but self-serving, as in the result of the motivated processing of data; and (c) why the people were deceived, as the by-product of the leaders’ SD.” (4)

But how would one know that a “bad” decision is “grounded on self-decepti[on] rather than on false information given by intelligence agents, for example, who were misled by local informants who in turn were misinformed by others, deliberately or innocently? With this question in mind, “false belief” can be based on false information, false interpretation of true information, wishful thinking, unconscious self-destructive streak, or SD.

In short, one’s SD can be either externally or internally induced, and in each case, there are multiple explanations that could be deployed. Why stick with SD? What is the attraction it holds for analytical purposes?

Different answers are given to these questions at different times. In one case, Galeotti suggests the following:

“Only self-deceptive beliefs are, however, false by definition, being counterevidential [sic], prompted by an emotional reaction to data that contradicts one’s desires. If this is the specific nature of SD . . . then self-deceptive beliefs are distinctly dangerous, for no false belief can ground a wise decision.” (5)

In this answer, Galeotti claims that an “emotional reaction” to “one’s desires” is what characterizes SD and makes it “dangerous.” It is unclear why this is more dangerous a ground for false beliefs than a deliberate deceptive scheme that is self-serving; likewise, how does one truly know one’s true desires? Perhaps the logician is at a loss to counter emotive reaction with cold deduction, or perhaps there is a presumption here that logical and empirical arguments are by definition open to critiques but emotions are immune to such strategies, and therefore analytic philosophy is superior to other methods of analysis.

Defending Your Own Beliefs

If the first argument for seeing SD as an emotional “reaction” that conflicts with “one’s desires” is a form of self-defense, the second argument is more focused on the threat of the evidence one wishes to ignore or subvert. In Galeotti’s words: SD is:

“the unintended outcome of intentional steps of the agent. . . according to my invisible hand model, SD is the emotionally loaded response of a subject confronting threatening evidence relative to some crucial wish that P. . . Unable to counteract the threat, the subject . . . become prey to cognitive biases. . . unintentionally com[ing] to believe that P which is false.” (79; 234ff)

To be clear, the “invisible hand” model invoked here is related to the infamous one associated with Adam Smith and his unregulated markets where order is maintained, fairness upheld, and freedom of choice guaranteed. Just like Smith, Galeotti appeals to individual agents, in her case the political leaders, as if SD happens to them, as if their conduct leads to “unintended outcome.”

But the whole point of SD is to ward off the threat of unwelcomed evidence so that some intention is always afoot. Since agents undertake “intentional steps,” is it unreasonable for them to anticipate the consequences of their conduct? Are they still unconscious of their “cognitive biases” and their management of their reactions?

Galeotti confronts this question head on when she says: “This work is confined to analyzing the working of SD in crucial instances of governmental decision making and to drawing the normative implications related both to responsibility ascription and to devising prophylactic measures.” (14) So, the moral dimension, the question of responsibility does come into play here, unlike the neoliberal argument that pretends to follow Smith’s model of invisible hand but ends with no one being responsible for any exogenous liabilities to the environment, for example.

Moreover, Galeotti’s most intriguing claim is that her approach is intertwined with a strategic hope for “prophylactic measures” to ensure dangerous consequences are not repeated. She believes this could be achieved by paying close attention to “(a) the typical circumstances in which SD may take place; (b) the ability of external observers to identify other people’s SD, a strategy of precommitment [sic] can be devised. Precommitment is a precautionary strategy, aimed at creating constraints to prevent people from falling prey to SD.” (5)

But this strategy, as promising as it sounds, has a weakness: if people could be prevented from “falling prey to SD,” then SD is preventable or at least it seems to be less of an emotional threat than earlier suggested. In other words, either humans cannot help themselves from falling prey to SD or they can; if they cannot, then highlighting SD’s danger is important; if they can, then the ubiquity of SD is no threat at all as simply pointing out their SD would make them realize how to overcome it.

A Limited Hypothesis

Perhaps one clue to Galeotti’s own self-doubt (or perhaps it is a form of self-deception as well) is in the following statement: “my interpretation is a purely speculative hypothesis, as I will never be in the position to prove that SD was the case.” (82) If this is the case, why bother with SD at all? For Galeotti, the advantage of using SD as the “analytic tool” with which to view political conduct and policy decisions is twofold: allowing “proper attribution of responsibility to self-deceivers” and “the possibility of preventive measures against SD” (234)

In her concluding chapter, she offers a caveat, even a self-critique that undermines the very use of SD as an analytic tool (no self-doubt or self-deception here, after all): “Usually, the circumstances of political decision making, when momentous foreign policy choices are at issue, are blurred and confused both epistemically and motivationally.

Sorting out simple miscalculations from genuine uncertainty, and dishonesty and duplicity from SD is often a difficult task, for, as I have shown when analyzing the cases, all these elements are present and entangled.” (240) So, SD is one of many relevant variables, but being both emotional and in one’s subconscious, it remains opaque at best, and unidentifiable at worst.

In case you are confused about SD and one’s ability to isolate it as an explanatory model with which to approach post-hoc bad political choices with grave consequences, this statement might help clarify the usefulness of SD: “if SD is to play its role as a fundamental explanation, as I contend, it cannot be conceived of as deceiving oneself, but it must be understood as an unintended outcome of mental steps elsewhere directed.” (240)

So, logically speaking, SD (self-deception) is not “deceiving oneself.” So, what is it? What are “mental steps elsewhere directed”? Of course, it is quite true, as Galeotti says that “if lessons are to be learned from past failures, the question of SD must in any case be raised. . . Political SD is a collective product” which is even more difficult to analyze (given its “opacity”) and so how would responsibility be attributed? (244-5)

Perhaps what is missing from this careful analysis is a cold calculation of who is responsible for what and under what circumstances, regardless of SD or any other kind of subconscious desires. Would a psychoanalyst help usher such an analysis?

Contact details: rsassowe@uccs.edu

References

Galeotti, Anna Elisabetta. Political Self-Deception. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

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

Riggio, Adam. “Immovable Presumptions as Philosophical Limit.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 19-25.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-45d

Image by Russell Davies via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

The essay collection Relations: Ontology and the Philosophy of Religion is fascinating and curious. As a contribution to ongoing issues in contemporary ontology, philosophy of religion, and the history of philosophy. There are many things to praise about its different essays and all of the authors. All of them are valuable additions to their discourses.

However, I’m reviewing the book from a peculiar position. My own philosophical work includes a great deal of thinking on the ontology of relations, so I began the book thinking that I’d have much in common with the authors. Yet I found myself at times alienated from the discussion.

Sometimes, it will be an issue of method. For example, some essays discussed the ontology of relations in linguistic terms. A central example here would be something like ‘John is far away from Justin,’ analyzed as if there were some simple property or object in common between John and Justin called ‘far away.’

I know this approach because it’s the same as that of the linguistic turn in analytic philosophy’s first generation. But my tradition of ontology focuses on material assemblages of forces and substances. Simple descriptions of relations like ‘far away’ or ‘larger than’ do not stand for actually simple relations, but complicated physical assemblages.

I experienced similar moments throughout the book, where contributors and I would seem to share a common subject, but without much common ground. It’s difficult to know whether the different discourse communities of our academic sub-disciplines are so separate because of institutional pressures, or because we all discuss truly different concerns. So the following reflections will engage with the book meta-philosophically, to discover ways that essays in one fairly restricted subject matter can produce insights and questions that matter to us all.

On What Ground Should We Trust Our Presumptions?

I may not be a specialist in the precise areas of all the experts that the book’s editors, Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini, assembled to contribute to this volume. But I am still a philosopher, and so can identify mistakes, errors, or other problems someone makes in their inferences. Specifically for the following case, I can identify, among many of the essays collected in a volume, any common presumptions, and examine whether we should take for granted what a particular writer does.

The best example of this in the Relations volume is Mario Micheletti’s “Radical Alterity and the God-World Relationship.” One of the major points of his argument is to lay out what limits are present among different explanations for the existence of the universe. He argues that an atheist’s range of such explanations is more limited than those that a believer in God can hold. This is because an atheist cannot accept the contingency of the universe, since its contingency would make its nature depend on an external clause. Micheletti writes:

“The atheist can  . . . claim that while the universe has an explanation of its existence, the explanation lies not in an external ground, but in the necessity of its own nature. This is however, an extremely bold suggestion which, Craig notes, atheists have not been eager to embrace. For we have a strong intuition of the universe’s contingency, and we generally trust our modal intuitions.”

Yet there is no reason why we should trust our modal intuitions, our at-first-glance presumptions about the contingency and necessity of existence as a whole, as well as particular events and states of affairs. Micheletti presumes that the universe, without the external contingency of God’s will, would unfold with an immanent total necessity. But there is no reason why the immanent nature of the universe need be necessary; the only necessity immanent to the universe may be its own radical contingency.

After all, what makes sense to Micheletti to presume about the nature of the universe does not make sense to me. Since these are intuitions, there is no ground to establish whether he or I are correct. As intuitions, they provide the starting points for our arguments, but are rarely themselves interrogated. When they are interrogated, as in the philosophical surveys and focus groups of experimentalists like Jonathan Weinberg, intuitions are revealed as variable, ungrounded, unprovable, contingent.

So there is no genuine ground for us to trust our modal intuitions, our intuitions about what is contingent and necessary, or what the source of contingency and necessity would be. Yes, we may “generally trust our modal intuitions,” but there is no guarantee that they will turn out to be just as reliable as our intuition in everyday perception that the sun spins around Earth.

From this line of criticism, take the following question. Why do you believe in the truth of your intuitions, when an intuition is merely a presumption you have never thought to question?

Paths Divided Laid Down in the Travelling

Vera Tripodi’s “Beyond the Transcendence: The Feminist Critique of the Concept of God” is admirable in its ambition. She aims, ultimately, to synthesize a feminist conception of God from sources that would seem, at least to me, utterly ill-suited to the demands of our time.

She writes that her project draws upon “the classic ontology of being – that is, the tradition that conventionally begins with Thomas Aquinas – and the ontology of becoming that finds in Alfred North Whitehead its essential reference point.”

Blending the ontologies of Aquinas and Whitehead together is an admirable project of synthesis. Yet Tripodi writes as if Whitehead’s is the only ontology of becoming available to us in any great detail. Whitehead’s work on the ontology of becoming is historically remarkable. He used his background in mathematics and logic to develop a concept of process, central to any ontology of becoming.

He developed a detailed, technically sophisticated system for this process ontology that ultimately understood the development of organic powers of perception, human powers of knowledge, foundational principles of morality, and even the nature of God. Impressive, and an excellent reason for Tripodi’s choice of Whitehead’s work to blend with that of Aquinas for her creative synthesis.

What irks me as a reader is that Tripodi doesn’t treat Whitehead as the best possible choice because she gives a reasonable set of justifications; instead, she treats Whitehead as the best possible choice because he is the only possible choice. That is simply not true.

Henri Bergson had developed an ontology of becoming while Whitehead was still working on Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell, which had become far more popular among academics and the general public during his own lifetime. This achievement of fame for his work is far from anything Whitehead could have claimed.

A two-headed conflict with Albert Einstein over the interpretation of relativity theory and over the management of French-German reconciliation through League of Nations organizations did serious harm to Bergson’s reputation by the 1930s. But in the same period, Bertrand Russell’s confused rejection of Process and Reality did similar harm to the reputation of his former teacher Whitehead.

So while I am proud to count Tripodi among those bringing Whitehead’s ideas to the mainstream. Yet to treat him as the only source of approaches to ontologies of process or becoming ignores an equally fruitful revival of Bergson-inspired ideas. The work of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and others who followed their influence such as Luce Irigaray and Antonio Negri has built a vibrant new tradition of ontological and political philosophy in France and Italy.

The ontology of becoming – whether influenced primarily by Whitehead or Bergson – is a bold and creative direction to move in philosophy. Yet I am left wondering why the Bergson-influenced tradition of ontology of becoming is absent from Tripodi’s essay and the entire Relations collection. It appears simply to be a matter of her not having seen any of it. How deeply does what we take for granted affect the ideas and traditions we expose ourselves to? Or question?

The Most Bizarre Ontology to Make Perfect Sense

Speaking of how presumptions guide our place in traditions, “Russell and the Question of Relations” by Federico Perelda looks explicitly at an ontology utterly counter-intuitive to my own presumptions about the nature of reality. So much was this the case, that as a student I took several courses on the subject matter and only realized its central presumption on the eve of graduating with my doctorate.

I’m talking about Bertrand Russell’s propositional realism: the ontology that logical and linguistic propositions and terms are the primary constituents of the world; facts of existence therefore only exist insofar as they instantiate those propositions and terms. My own presumption or obvious (to me) starting place for ontology is that the world is primarily the material arrangements and processes of actual bodies, forces, and fields, all interacting through contingent causality. Logic, mathematics, and language are the tools of thinking and communication that we use to build frameworks of thought to understand all this stuff.

Perelda frames his essay as bolstering Russell’s argument against Ludwig Wittgenstein’s foundational axiom, “The world is everything that is the case.” Russell and Perelda both stand firmly for an ontology of propositional realism, whereas I am just as adamant a fellow-traveller of Wittgenstein on this point.

Nonetheless, Perelda was brilliant, insightful, and informative about the sources of Russell’s ontological foundation of propositional realism: it was the one inheritance from his scorned professor Francis Herbert Bradley. Perelda traces Russell’s intellectual evolution as an acolyte of Bradley, who rejected his professor’s metaphysics of absolute idealism. Orthodox accounts of this split, which are typically taught in North American university courses on early analytic philosophy, take the split to have been over idealist ontology itself.

Perelda’s insightful historical and philosophical analysis argues that the real reason for Russell’s split from Bradley was over the ontology of relation, a much more complex and subtle question than the brute simplicity of the choice over idealism and materialism.

Bradley considered all relations internal, and so illusions of our limited perceptual powers. Russell considered relations as fundamentally external, and so real. But Bradley held that, because relations are fundamentally internal, considering them to be real is a terrible mistake, trusting your senses where they are unreliable. The split that created analytic philosophy was not metaphysical or ontological, but epistemic: whether we should trust our senses to reveal the true nature of relations as they exist in the world and in logic.

Russell never disagreed with Bradley over propositional idealism, and in fact always shared that ontological principle. Throughout his life, Russell was a propositional idealist who believed that material reality was ontologically anterior to logic, simply the medium through which propositions instantiated themselves. The order of logical propositions is, for Russell and for Perelda himself, the fundamental constituent of existence because it is necessary.

Remaining unspoken is any argument for why a necessary structure, like that of the propositions and terms of mathematical logic, must be the fundamental ordering principle of the universe. Causality’s contingent character need not disqualify it from a foundational role in an ontological system, unless you explicitly argue for why contingency is necessarily a dealbreaker. That is how philosophical system building works.

So we are left in an impasse of uncertain direction for philosophical work. How does it become so difficult to think of the world as contingent?

Does Existence Need Limits?

Relations is also a contribution to philosophy of religion, its focus being the ontology of the divine, or the nature of God’s existence. Jaco Gericke’s essay probes this question directly, its aim being to identify and begin developing a more precise metaphysical conception of God. Coming from a Western tradition of religious metaphysical thinking, Gericke follows the language of the Old Testament.

His goal is to understand the meaning of God as a term of the Old Testament’s language, knowing the complete set of propositions that describe God.[1] However, there is a problem with Gericke’s philosophical method: it is equally theological as it is metaphysical and ontological, because it restricts its logical analysis to the Christian tradition. Such a conception of God, logically rigorous though it may be, remains limited, a hypocritical universal.

First, I should explain the nature of this hypocrisy. Gericke hopes to develop a concept of God that grounds the universality we presume of God in the universal scope of logic. But that logical interpretation rests on the analysis of the Old Testament, a single (if massive and hugely influential) text. It is a Christian text, and therefore partisan. But it is the Christian uptake of what was originally a Jewish text, the Torah. So it also overwrites the tradition, including the theology and philosophy, that produced it.

The Old Testament is the uptake of Torah into the Christian tradition, Torah interpreted always and inevitably in relation to the Gospel. It erases the Jewish theological ontology of divinity, overwriting the Christian. There are profound differences between these two theologies, which complicate terribly any straightforward application of logical and linguistic analysis to the words themselves of any holy book.[2]

One important ontological critique of Gericke’s method comes from the Jewish tradition that is obscured by the presumption that Torah is the Old Testament. Gericke seeks to understand the extension of the term God, but the conception of Torah’s text according to Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig makes such a general extension disappear.

In Buber and Rosenzweig’s approach to Torah, there is no single logical term instantiated in each mention of God. Each mention of God is itself a unique, context-appropriate logical term, incommensurable with every other such mention. Each manifestation of God is a unique divinity, and that from which it emanates has no nature adequate to logic.

Torah understands God as a divinity understandable only as a concretely situated manifestation. The Old Testament understands God in the context of the Incarnation, where God demonstrated oneness with humanity by becoming Jesus and the Christ. Christianity therefore rests on a metaphysics of thorough ontological monism, in which God is a thing just as a mountain, person, fungus, river, star, boat, or blade of grass is. Since God is a thing, it is the extension of a term, and this term is no different than any other term.

The work of Duns Scotus best explores this ontological monism that is a fundamental metaphysical presumption of theologians and philosophers in Christian traditions who explore the nature of God. But the project of exploring the nature of God seems terribly limited when constrained by the presumptions of a single tradition. Why do such presumptions become unquestionable?

When the Refusal to Choose Is Itself a Dogma

Jeffrey Long brings a possible antidote to this prison of presumptions. His essay is “Anekantevada: The Jain Ontology of Complexity and Relationality, and Its Implications for the Philosophy of Religions.” He analyzes an approach to the metaphysics and ontology of divinity in the Jain religion that promises to avoid problems of absolutism like those I discussed above.

Jainism, in short, holds that the divine is essentially multifaceted. Its pluralism could likely be a partial reflection of Jainism’s place as a minority religion throughout its existence; at no point in the history of Jainism has it ever been the dominant religion in a territory. Conveniently, its ontology of divinity depicts all religions as valid accounts of divinity.

Jain thinking is a perspectivism about the nature of divinity. Hindu and Buddhist communities, taking relevant examples for Jainism’s historical place in India, each have their own perspectives on the overall nature of the divine. So the concept of God in each religion (or in each concept of God within many theological traditions) understands a few aspects of the divine.

The parable about the blind men and the elephant might be useful here. That parable also shows the theological hypocrisy Long identifies in Jain ontology. From the Jain perspective, theirs is the only religious tradition that accurately and completely understands God, because other religions mistake their perspectival limitations for absolute truths. Jainism itself thereby becomes an absolutism, the unquestionable presumption that its pluralism is the only true conception of divinity because it includes all the variety that God can be.

Even this attempt to find an escape from absolutism closes itself off, because the temptation to consider your own perspective to be the most correct, or the only fully correct, never disappears. All our judgments would seem to rest on presumptions which are simultaneously unassailable and fragile.

Fragile because they are unassailable. Every argument and conceptual exploration must rest on presumptions that are themselves taken for granted. But to question those presumptions exposes their inevitable limitations. Knowledge requires firm foundations, but examining those foundations exposes that they need foundations of their own.

Knowledge therefore rests on dogma inevitably, a refusal to question. For any system of thinking to stand, questioning must cease somewhere, but the decision to cease is never a conclusion, always a decision. Do our unquestioned and unquestionable presumptions leave us no antidote for absolutism, and its inevitable dangers of dogmatism and fanaticism?

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

Gericke, Jaco. “The Folk-Metaphysics of Relations in Old Testament Extensions of Generic Divinity.” In Relations: Ontology and Philosophy of Religion. Pp. 267-282. Edited by Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini. Verona: Mimesis International, 2018.

Long, Jeffrey. “Anekantavada: The Jain Ontology of Complexity and Relationality and Its Implications for the Philosophy of Religions.” In Relations: Ontology and Philosophy of Religion. Pp. 235-50. Edited by Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini. Verona: Mimesis International, 2018.

Micheletti, Mario. “Radical Divine Alterity and the God-World Relationship.” In Relations: Ontology and Philosophy of Religion. Pp. 157-170. Edited by Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini. Verona: Mimesis International, 2018.

Perelda, Federico. “Russell and the Question of Relations.” In Relations: Ontology and Philosophy of Religion. Pp. 41-58. Edited by Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini. Verona: Mimesis International, 2018.

Riggio, Adam. “Lessons for the Relationship of Philosophy and Science from the Legacy of Henri Bergson.” Social Epistemology (2015): 1-14. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2014.971916.

Rosenzweig, Franz. The Star of Redemption. Translated by William W. Hallo. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985.

Tripodi, Vera. “Beyond the Transcendence: The Feminist Critique of the Concept of God.” In Relations: Ontology and Philosophy of Religion. Pp. 171-180. Edited by Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini. Verona: Mimesis International, 2018.

[1] Using logic to know the names of God? – Editor’s Note

[2] Leave aside as well the problems of the plurality of holy books themselves, many of which overlap with ritual (as in the Nishnaabeg moral theology of their oral and practical tradition), or materialist ontology (as in the ontological arguments of the Daoist tradition). How to reconcile in a single concept of divinity those of Rome, Chi’Nbiish (Lake Ontario), and Beijing through logical analysis of text alone? – Writer’s Note

Author Information: Eric Kerr, National University of Singapore, erictkerr@gmail.com.

Kerr, Eric. “The Social Epistemology of Book Reviews.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 48-52.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-45j

Image by Joel Gallagher via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Because 2019 marks the end of my first full year as Book Reviews editor at SERRC, I want to take this opportunity to reflect on what we’ve done in terms of promoting conversation and criticism around new books in social epistemology and to reflect on how we can apply insights from social epistemology to our book reviews at SERRC.

The Place of Reviews

Nominally, social epistemology has a close connection to the book review.  As many readers of this journal will know, the term “social epistemology” was initially coined in the 1960s by the librarian and information scientist, Jesse Shera, to mean “the study of knowledge in society.” (Shera 1970, p. 86) Shera developed his work with colleague Margaret Egan and in the steps of fellow librarian Douglas Waples, concerned with the ways in which society reads: broadly, how it accesses, interprets, categorizes, indexes, and disseminates the written word and the role that librarianship, bibliography, and new methods of documentation could play (Zandonade 2004).

A library is a very particular filter of knowledge production. The Web may be seen as another, or as a collection of many. An academic journal yet another. These filters organize knowledge in society in their own way and we can, and do, evaluate this and make judgments of when it works well and when it does not work so well. Today, our access to information occurs within a wider ecosystem of filters that have flourished in the contemporary period, in tandem with the technological infrastructure to radically multiply and variegate filters.

For educators, reviews (from our students or are colleagues) are sometimes the primary means by which our performance and success are judged. Customer reviews – typically performed by the “uncredentialled curator” – are available on almost any website with something to sell and new companies have formed whose purpose is to provide customer reviews alone. Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and so on, use human and non-human filters to sift through vast trenches of information. I don’t need to belabour the point – it’s familiar to all of us.

Alongside the idea of the filter, has emerged a renewed prominence of curators, influenced by its powerful position in the art world. This curation comes with its own culture, its own beliefs, and its own language. This language functions to exclude alternatives and police boundaries. And while an art curator’s job may have once been to select what art was worth your attention, now, in an attention economy, a curator’s job may be just as much to provide the means to deal with information overload.

To complicate things still further, we now perform much more personal curation – keeping tabs, messages, snippets, and screenshots as well as cultivating all kinds of algorithms that learn from our past behaviour and deliver to us more of what we saw before.

Thomas Frank calls this expansion of curation, not just into reviewing almost anything we consume, but into the very language we use and the ways we think, curatolatry. He discusses how, responding to the newly-coined “fake news” (Faulkner 2018; Fuller 2016; Levy 2017), Barack Obama said:

We are going to have to rebuild within this wild-wild-west-of-information flow some sort of curating function that people agree to.

While Obama, in Frank’s view in common with other liberals, tends towards curation, Donald Trump is associated with the “refusal of curation. Trump does not reform or organize the chaos of the world…”

Frank warns at the end of his article:

“What they don’t agree upon, meanwhile, is simply ignored. It is outside the conversation. It is excluded. A world without fake news might really be awesome. So might a shop where every bottle of wine is excellent. So might an electoral system in which everyone heeds the urging of the professional consensus. But in any such system, reader, people like you and me can be assured with almost perfect confidence that our voices will be curated out.”

A Social Epistemological Interpretation of the Book Review

Would, should, SERRC perform a kind of curating function “that people agree to” to filter new books in social epistemology? I don’t think it does perform this function and I’m not sure that it should.

It is often alleged that book reviews tend towards mediocrity and nepotism, falling out of the publishing industry and, in academia, entrenched structures and metrics of hierarchy, prestige, and social status. To add to the miserable plight of the book review, they are not treated as prestigious publications or emphasized as lines on CVs (if listed at all).

They do not rank as highly as research articles or chapters in books or, indeed, books themselves. They do not generally rank at all on any metric that is used by academic institutions or funding bodies. Book reviews tend, therefore, to fall into the category of ‘service’ – gifts one is obliged to offer largely out of a sense of duty, responsibility, and morality.

This is lamentable. The first thing we are asked to do as students is review books. For many of us, the first thing we do when writing, or preparing to write, a paper, is to review books – to perform a literature review. Book reviews are not, primarily, a service to the author but to a wider audience. (If they were the former, one could easily email it to the author and avoid the hassle of formal publication.)

They do not simply repeat knowledge contained in the book but provide new knowledge as evidenced, I believe, by all of the book reviews we published in the last two years. Sometimes this is taken to be appraisal by an expert but I think that social epistemology can give us reason to take a second glance at this intuitive idea (Social Epistemology 32(6) – special issue on Expertise and Expert Knowledge; Watson 2018).

We should be critical of the encroachment of curation and the perceived need to curate. In wider culture, the most well-known critics were not themselves trained in the field they reviewed. This is often held against them by artists and writers but if we do not see their purpose as being about expert appraisal, that criticism loses some of its force.

One reason for this may be that reviews tell us as much about the reviewer as the reviewee. Reviews, as Oscar Wilde observed, are autobiographical. Ambrose Bierce echoed this sentiment in his Devil’s Dictionary. The entry for “review” reads simply:

To set your wisdom (holding not a doubt of it,
Although in truth there’s neither bone nor skin to it)
At work upon a book, and so read out of it
The qualities that you have first read into it.

This view seems to suit us at SERRC. We are, as in our name, a collective and much more than curate we read and write about what happens to take our interest at that time. We think, often, out loud. If that interest spreads throughout the community, it is likely to be picked up and turned into a symposium or extended dialogue. Or perhaps not. Others are welcome to join our community if they are interested in contributing to these conversations.

18 Months, more or less

Nevertheless, and undeniably, book review editors have a role to play in organizing knowledge in society. My approach to editing book reviews since I took over has not been to gatekeep. “Is this interesting?” – usual caveats aside about the word ‘interesting’ – has been the benchmark rather than “Is this proper social epistemology?”

I took over as Book Review Editor part-way through 2017. In this short period, we have published 64 reviews (and replies to reviews, and replies to reviews of reviews). Many of these have taken the form of book review “symposiums” where several authors take on one book, often featuring replies from the book’s author. Soliciting a range of views allows us to present a book from the perspective of scholars with different expertise and focus.

It encourages more in-depth and richer discussions of a book, and its surrounding intellectual milieu, and extends the conversation sometimes over a period of months. I believe that, in a small way, this facilitates a new ordering of knowledge around new books and, so, contributes to a new social epistemology.

It’s hard to focus on specific books given this long list but I can hint at some trends that we have been pushing, and will continue to push, in the new year. One concerns diversity and internationalization. When two of my National University of Singapore colleagues, Jay Garfield and Bryan van Norden, published an opinion piece in the New York Times’ Stone that argued for a greater role for “less commonly taught philosophies” (such as, but not limited to, Chinese or Indian philosophy) in the US curriculum, it caused a stir in the profession, and more widely.

A great deal has been written about the subsequent book Van Norden published on the theme, Taking Back Philosophy, but I would argue that our symposium, featuring seven scholars, including me, has added quite a bit to that conversation. A personal highlight for me was Steve Fuller’s visit to the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore to speak on the subject. The full lecture can be heard here. Another important intervention in internationalizing our catalogue has been the symposium on African philosophy and I intend to continue this global perspective in 2019.

One innovation of SERRC is that we encourage authors to respond. I often write to authors to give them what the media call a right of reply. I believe this is quite unusual in the academic reviewsphere. It’s a method that is fraught with pitfalls and potential catastrophe but, I think, valuable for the ideas that frequently come out of it. Traditionally, a review is left hanging. The last laugh. Allowing authors a chance to respond can correct perceived inaccuracies but, more importantly, lead to new shared understandings.

As we enter 2019 under the deluge of our own personal tsundoku let’s embrace a multitude of reviews and reviews of reviews.

Best wishes for the new year. As always, if you wish to review a book, or propose a symposium, for SERRC you may write to me at the address below.

Contact details: erictkerr@gmail.com

References

Briggle, Adam; and Robert Frodeman. “Thinking À La Carte.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 8-11.

Dusek, Val. “Antidotes to Provincialism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 5-11.

Fuller, Steve. “Embrace the Inner Fox: Post-Truth as the STS Symmetry Principle Universalized.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, Steve Fuller (December 25, 2016): http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3nx.

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

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

Jain, Pankaj. “Taking Philosophy Back: A Call From the Great Wall of China.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 9 (2018): 60-64.

Janz, Bruce. “The Problem of Method in African Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 1-7.

Kerr, Eric. “A Hermeneutic of Non-Western Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 4 (2018): 1-6.

Lauer, Helen. “Scientific Consensus and the Discursive Dilemma.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 9 (2018): 33-44.

Levy, Neil. “The Bad News About Fake News.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 20-36.

Faulkner, P. 2018. “Fake Barns, Fake News.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 16-21.

Martini, C. and M. Baghramian. 2018. Special issue on Expertise and Expert Knowledge, Social Epistemology 36(6).

Riggio, Adam. “Action in Harmony with a Global World.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 20-26.

Shera, J.H. Sociological Foundations of Librarianship. New York: Asia Publishing House, 1970.

Watson, J.C. 2018. “What Experts Could Not Be,” Social Epistemology, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1551437

Zandonade, T. 2004. “Social Epistemology from Jesse Shera to Steve Fuller, Library Trends 52(4): 810-832.