Archives For Brexit

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs,

Sassower, Raphael. “Post-Truths and Inconvenient Facts.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 47-60.

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

Can one truly refuse to believe facts?
Image by Oxfam International via Flickr / Creative Commons


If nothing else, Steve Fuller has his ear to the pulse of popular culture and the academics who engage in its twists and turns. Starting with Brexit and continuing into the Trump-era abyss, “post-truth” was dubbed by the OED as its word of the year in 2016. Fuller has mustered his collected publications to recast the debate over post-truth and frame it within STS in general and his own contributions to social epistemology in particular.

This could have been a public mea culpa of sorts: we, the community of sociologists (and some straggling philosophers and anthropologists and perhaps some poststructuralists) may seem to someone who isn’t reading our critiques carefully to be partially responsible for legitimating the dismissal of empirical data, evidence-based statements, and the means by which scientific claims can be deemed not only credible but true. Instead, we are dazzled by a range of topics (historically anchored) that explain how we got to Brexit and Trump—yet Fuller’s analyses of them don’t ring alarm bells. There is almost a hidden glee that indeed the privileged scientific establishment, insular scientific discourse, and some of its experts who pontificate authoritative consensus claims are all bound to be undone by the rebellion of mavericks and iconoclasts that include intelligent design promoters and neoliberal freedom fighters.

In what follows, I do not intend to summarize the book, as it is short and entertaining enough for anyone to read on their own. Instead, I wish to outline three interrelated points that one might argue need not be argued but, apparently, do: 1) certain critiques of science have contributed to the Trumpist mindset; 2) the politics of Trumpism is too dangerous to be sanguine about; 3) the post-truth condition is troublesome and insidious. Though Fuller deals with some of these issues, I hope to add some constructive clarification to them.

Part One: Critiques of Science

As Theodor Adorno reminds us, critique is essential not only for philosophy, but also for democracy. He is aware that the “critic becomes a divisive influence, with a totalitarian phrase, a subversive” (1998/1963, 283) insofar as the status quo is being challenged and sacred political institutions might have to change. The price of critique, then, can be high, and therefore critique should be managed carefully and only cautiously deployed. Should we refrain from critique, then? Not at all, continues Adorno.

But if you think that a broad, useful distinction can be offered among different critiques, think again: “[In] the division between responsible critique, namely, that practiced by those who bear public responsibility, and irresponsible critique, namely, that practiced by those who cannot be held accountable for the consequences, critique is already neutralized.” (Ibid. 285) Adorno’s worry is not only that one forgets that “the truth content of critique alone should be that authority [that decides if it’s responsible],” but that when such a criterion is “unilaterally invoked,” critique itself can lose its power and be at the service “of those who oppose the critical spirit of a democratic society.” (Ibid)

In a political setting, the charge of irresponsible critique shuts the conversation down and ensures political hegemony without disruptions. Modifying Adorno’s distinction between (politically) responsible and irresponsible critiques, responsible scientific critiques are constructive insofar as they attempt to improve methods of inquiry, data collection and analysis, and contribute to the accumulated knowledge of a community; irresponsible scientific critiques are those whose goal is to undermine the very quest for objective knowledge and the means by which such knowledge can be ascertained. Questions about the legitimacy of scientific authority are related to but not of exclusive importance for these critiques.

Have those of us committed to the critique of science missed the mark of the distinction between responsible and irresponsible critiques? Have we become so subversive and perhaps self-righteous that science itself has been threatened? Though Fuller is primarily concerned with the hegemony of the sociology of science studies and the movement he has championed under the banner of “social epistemology” since the 1980s, he does acknowledge the Popperians and their critique of scientific progress and even admires the Popperian contribution to the scientific enterprise.

But he is reluctant to recognize the contributions of Marxists, poststructuralists, and postmodernists who have been critically engaging the power of science since the 19th century. Among them, we find Jean-François Lyotard who, in The Postmodern Condition (1984/1979), follows Marxists and neo-Marxists who have regularly lumped science and scientific discourse with capitalism and power. This critical trajectory has been well rehearsed, so suffice it here to say, SSK, SE, and the Edinburgh “Strong Programme” are part of a long and rich critical tradition (whose origins are Marxist). Adorno’s Frankfurt School is part of this tradition, and as we think about science, which had come to dominate Western culture by the 20th century (in the place of religion, whose power had by then waned as the arbiter of truth), it was its privileged power and interlocking financial benefits that drew the ire of critics.

Were these critics “responsible” in Adorno’s political sense? Can they be held accountable for offering (scientific and not political) critiques that improve the scientific process of adjudication between criteria of empirical validity and logical consistency? Not always. Did they realize that their success could throw the baby out with the bathwater? Not always. While Fuller grants Karl Popper the upper hand (as compared to Thomas Kuhn) when indirectly addressing such questions, we must keep an eye on Fuller’s “baby.” It’s easy to overlook the slippage from the political to the scientific and vice versa: Popper’s claim that we never know the Truth doesn’t mean that his (and our) quest for discovering the Truth as such is given up, it’s only made more difficult as whatever is scientifically apprehended as truth remains putative.

Limits to Skepticism

What is precious about the baby—science in general, and scientific discourse and its community in more particular ways—is that it offered safeguards against frivolous skepticism. Robert Merton (1973/1942) famously outlined the four features of the scientific ethos, principles that characterized the ideal workings of the scientific community: universalism, communism (communalism, as per the Cold War terror), disinterestedness, and organized skepticism. It is the last principle that is relevant here, since it unequivocally demands an institutionalized mindset of putative acceptance of any hypothesis or theory that is articulated by any community member.

One detects the slippery slope that would move one from being on guard when engaged with any proposal to being so skeptical as to never accept any proposal no matter how well documented or empirically supported. Al Gore, in his An Inconvenient Truth (2006), sounded the alarm about climate change. A dozen years later we are still plagued by climate-change deniers who refuse to look at the evidence, suggesting instead that the standards of science themselves—from the collection of data in the North Pole to computer simulations—have not been sufficiently fulfilled (“questions remain”) to accept human responsibility for the increase of the earth’s temperature. Incidentally, here is Fuller’s explanation of his own apparent doubt about climate change:

Consider someone like myself who was born in the midst of the Cold War. In my lifetime, scientific predictions surrounding global climate change has [sic.] veered from a deep frozen to an overheated version of the apocalypse, based on a combination of improved data, models and, not least, a geopolitical paradigm shift that has come to downplay the likelihood of a total nuclear war. Why, then, should I not expect a significant, if not comparable, alteration of collective scientific judgement in the rest of my lifetime? (86)

Expecting changes in the model does not entail a) that no improved model can be offered; b) that methodological changes in themselves are a bad thing (they might be, rather, improvements); or c) that one should not take action at all based on the current model because in the future the model might change.

The Royal Society of London (1660) set the benchmark of scientific credibility low when it accepted as scientific evidence any report by two independent witnesses. As the years went by, testability (“confirmation,” for the Vienna Circle, “falsification,” for Popper) and repeatability were added as requirements for a report to be considered scientific, and by now, various other conditions have been proposed. Skepticism, organized or personal, remains at the very heart of the scientific march towards certainty (or at least high probability), but when used perniciously, it has derailed reasonable attempts to use science as a means by which to protect, for example, public health.

Both Michael Bowker (2003) and Robert Proctor (1995) chronicle cases where asbestos and cigarette lobbyists and lawyers alike were able to sow enough doubt in the name of attenuated scientific data collection to ward off regulators, legislators, and the courts for decades. Instead of finding sufficient empirical evidence to attribute asbestos and nicotine to the failing health condition (and death) of workers and consumers, “organized skepticism” was weaponized to fight the sick and protect the interests of large corporations and their insurers.

Instead of buttressing scientific claims (that have passed the tests—in refereed professional conferences and publications, for example—of most institutional scientific skeptics), organized skepticism has been manipulated to ensure that no claim is ever scientific enough or has the legitimacy of the scientific community. In other words, what should have remained the reasonable cautionary tale of a disinterested and communal activity (that could then be deemed universally credible) has turned into a circus of fire-blowing clowns ready to burn down the tent. The public remains confused, not realizing that just because the stakes have risen over the decades does not mean there are no standards that ever can be met. Despite lobbyists’ and lawyers’ best efforts of derailment, courts have eventually found cigarette companies and asbestos manufacturers guilty of exposing workers and consumers to deathly hazards.

Limits to Belief

If we add to this logic of doubt, which has been responsible for discrediting science and the conditions for proposing credible claims, a bit of U.S. cultural history, we may enjoy a more comprehensive picture of the unintended consequences of certain critiques of science. Citing Kurt Andersen (2017), Robert Darnton suggests that the Enlightenment’s “rational individualism interacted with the older Puritan faith in the individual’s inner knowledge of the ways of Providence, and the result was a peculiarly American conviction about everyone’s unmediated access to reality, whether in the natural world or the spiritual world. If we believe it, it must be true.” (2018, 68)

This way of thinking—unmediated experiences and beliefs, unconfirmed observations, and disregard of others’ experiences and beliefs—continues what Richard Hofstadter (1962) dubbed “anti-intellectualism.” For Americans, this predates the republic and is characterized by a hostility towards the life of the mind (admittedly, at the time, religious texts), critical thinking (self-reflection and the rules of logic), and even literacy. The heart (our emotions) can more honestly lead us to the Promised Land, whether it is heaven on earth in the Americas or the Christian afterlife; any textual interference or reflective pondering is necessarily an impediment, one to be suspicious of and avoided.

This lethal combination of the life of the heart and righteous individualism brings about general ignorance and what psychologists call “confirmation bias” (the view that we endorse what we already believe to be true regardless of countervailing evidence). The critique of science, along this trajectory, can be but one of many so-called critiques of anything said or proven by anyone whose ideology we do not endorse. But is this even critique?

Adorno would find this a charade, a pretense that poses as a critique but in reality is a simple dismissal without intellectual engagement, a dogmatic refusal to listen and observe. He definitely would be horrified by Stephen Colbert’s oft-quoted quip on “truthiness” as “the conviction that what you feel to be true must be true.” Even those who resurrect Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s phrase, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts,” quietly admit that his admonishment is ignored by media more popular than informed.

On Responsible Critique

But surely there is merit to responsible critiques of science. Weren’t many of these critiques meant to dethrone the unparalleled authority claimed in the name of science, as Fuller admits all along? Wasn’t Lyotard (and Marx before him), for example, correct in pointing out the conflation of power and money in the scientific vortex that could legitimate whatever profit-maximizers desire? In other words, should scientific discourse be put on par with other discourses?  Whose credibility ought to be challenged, and whose truth claims deserve scrutiny? Can we privilege or distinguish science if it is true, as Monya Baker has reported, that “[m]ore than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, and more than half have failed to reproduce their own experiments” (2016, 1)?

Fuller remains silent about these important and responsible questions about the problematics (methodologically and financially) of reproducing scientific experiments. Baker’s report cites Nature‘s survey of 1,576 researchers and reveals “sometimes-contradictory attitudes towards reproducibility. Although 52% of those surveyed agree that there is a significant ‘crisis’ of reproducibility, less than 31% think that failure to reproduce published results means that the result is probably wrong, and most say that they still trust the published literature.” (Ibid.) So, if science relies on reproducibility as a cornerstone of its legitimacy (and superiority over other discourses), and if the results are so dismal, should it not be discredited?

One answer, given by Hans E. Plesser, suggests that there is a confusion between the notions of repeatability (“same team, same experimental setup”), replicability (“different team, same experimental setup”), and reproducibility (“different team, different experimental setup”). If understood in these terms, it stands to reason that one may not get the same results all the time and that this fact alone does not discredit the scientific enterprise as a whole. Nuanced distinctions take us down a scientific rabbit-hole most post-truth advocates refuse to follow. These nuances are lost on a public that demands to know the “bottom line” in brief sound bites: Is science scientific enough, or is it bunk? When can we trust it?

Trump excels at this kind of rhetorical device: repeat a falsehood often enough and people will believe it; and because individual critical faculties are not a prerequisite for citizenship, post-truth means no truth, or whatever the president says is true. Adorno’s distinction of the responsible from the irresponsible political critics comes into play here; but he innocently failed to anticipate the Trumpian move to conflate the political and scientific and pretend as if there is no distinction—methodologically and institutionally—between political and scientific discourses.

With this cultural backdrop, many critiques of science have undermined its authority and thereby lent credence to any dismissal of science (legitimately by insiders and perhaps illegitimately at times by outsiders). Sociologists and postmodernists alike forgot to put warning signs on their academic and intellectual texts: Beware of hasty generalizations! Watch out for wolves in sheep clothes! Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!

One would think such advisories unnecessary. Yet without such safeguards, internal disputes and critical investigations appear to have unintentionally discredited the entire scientific enterprise in the eyes of post-truth promoters, the Trumpists whose neoliberal spectacles filter in dollar signs and filter out pollution on the horizon. The discrediting of science has become a welcome distraction that opens the way to radical free-market mentality, spanning from the exploitation of free speech to resource extraction to the debasement of political institutions, from courts of law to unfettered globalization. In this sense, internal (responsible) critiques of the scientific community and its internal politics, for example, unfortunately license external (irresponsible) critiques of science, the kind that obscure the original intent of responsible critiques. Post-truth claims at the behest of corporate interests sanction a free for all where the concentrated power of the few silences the concerns of the many.

Indigenous-allied protestors block the entrance to an oil facility related to the Kinder-Morgan oil pipeline in Alberta.
Image by Peg Hunter via Flickr / Creative Commons


Part Two: The Politics of Post-Truth

Fuller begins his book about the post-truth condition that permeates the British and American landscapes with a look at our ancient Greek predecessors. According to him, “Philosophers claim to be seekers of the truth but the matter is not quite so straightforward. Another way to see philosophers is as the ultimate experts in a post-truth world” (19). This means that those historically entrusted to be the guardians of truth in fact “see ‘truth’ for what it is: the name of a brand ever in need of a product which everyone is compelled to buy. This helps to explain why philosophers are most confident appealing to ‘The Truth’ when they are trying to persuade non-philosophers, be they in courtrooms or classrooms.” (Ibid.)

Instead of being the seekers of the truth, thinkers who care not about what but how we think, philosophers are ridiculed by Fuller (himself a philosopher turned sociologist turned popularizer and public relations expert) as marketing hacks in a public relations company that promotes brands. Their serious dedication to finding the criteria by which truth is ascertained is used against them: “[I]t is not simply that philosophers disagree on which propositions are ‘true’ or ‘false’ but more importantly they disagree on what it means to say that something is ‘true’ or ‘false’.” (Ibid.)

Some would argue that the criteria by which propositions are judged to be true or false are worthy of debate, rather than the cavalier dismissal of Trumpists. With criteria in place (even if only by convention), at least we know what we are arguing about, as these criteria (even if contested) offer a starting point for critical scrutiny. And this, I maintain, is a task worth performing, especially in the age of pluralism when multiple perspectives constitute our public stage.

In addition to debasing philosophers, it seems that Fuller reserves a special place in purgatory for Socrates (and Plato) for labeling the rhetorical expertise of the sophists—“the local post-truth merchants in fourth century BC Athens”—negatively. (21) It becomes obvious that Fuller is “on their side” and that the presumed debate over truth and its practices is in fact nothing but “whether its access should be free or restricted.” (Ibid.) In this neoliberal reading, it is all about money: are sophists evil because they charge for their expertise? Is Socrates a martyr and saint because he refused payment for his teaching?

Fuller admits, “Indeed, I would have us see both Plato and the Sophists as post-truth merchants, concerned more with the mix of chance and skill in the construction of truth than with the truth as such.” (Ibid.) One wonders not only if Plato receives fair treatment (reminiscent of Popper’s denigration of Plato as supporting totalitarian regimes, while sparing Socrates as a promoter of democracy), but whether calling all parties to a dispute “post-truth merchants” obliterates relevant differences. In other words, have we indeed lost the desire to find the truth, even if it can never be the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Political Indifference to Truth

One wonders how far this goes: political discourse without any claim to truth conditions would become nothing but a marketing campaign where money and power dictate the acceptance of the message. Perhaps the intended message here is that contemporary cynicism towards political discourse has its roots in ancient Greece. Regardless, one should worry that such cynicism indirectly sanctions fascism.

Can the poor and marginalized in our society afford this kind of cynicism? For them, unlike their privileged counterparts in the political arena, claims about discrimination and exploitation, about unfair treatment and barriers to voting are true and evidence based; they are not rhetorical flourishes by clever interlocutors.

Yet Fuller would have none of this. For him, political disputes are games:

[B]oth the Sophists and Plato saw politics as a game, which is to say, a field of play involving some measure of both chance and skill. However, the Sophists saw politics primarily as a game of chance whereas Plato saw it as a game of skill. Thus, the sophistically trained client deploys skill in [the] aid of maximizing chance occurrences, which may then be converted into opportunities, while the philosopher-king uses much the same skills to minimize or counteract the workings of chance. (23)

Fuller could be channeling here twentieth-century game theory and its application in the political arena, or the notion offered by Lyotard when describing the minimal contribution we can make to scientific knowledge (where we cannot change the rules of the game but perhaps find a novel “move” to make). Indeed, if politics is deemed a game of chance, then anything goes, and it really should not matter if an incompetent candidate like Trump ends up winning the American presidency.

But is it really a question of skill and chance? Or, as some political philosophers would argue, is it not a question of the best means by which to bring to fruition the best results for the general wellbeing of a community? The point of suggesting the figure of a philosopher-king, to be sure, was not his rhetorical skills in this conjunction, but instead the deep commitment to rule justly, to think critically about policies, and to treat constituents with respect and fairness. Plato’s Republic, however criticized, was supposed to be about justice, not about expediency; it is an exploration of the rule of law and wisdom, not a manual about manipulation. If the recent presidential election in the US taught us anything, it’s that we should be wary of political gamesmanship and focus on experience and knowledge, vision and wisdom.

Out-Gaming Expertise Itself

Fuller would have none of this, either. It seems that there is virtue in being a “post-truther,” someone who can easily switch between knowledge games, unlike the “truther” whose aim is to “strengthen the distinction by making it harder to switch between knowledge games.” (34) In the post-truth realm, then, knowledge claims are lumped into games that can be played at will, that can be substituted when convenient, without a hint of the danger such capricious game-switching might engender.

It’s one thing to challenge a scientific hypothesis about astronomy because the evidence is still unclear (as Stephen Hawking has done in regard to Black Holes) and quite another to compare it to astrology (and give equal hearings to horoscope and Tarot card readers as to physicists). Though we are far from the Demarcation Problem (between science and pseudo-science) of the last century, this does not mean that there is no difference at all between different discourses and their empirical bases (or that the problem itself isn’t worthy of reconsideration in the age of Fuller and Trump).

On the contrary, it’s because we assume difference between discourses (gray as they may be) that we can move on to figure out on what basis our claims can and should rest. The danger, as we see in the political logic of the Trump administration, is that friends become foes (European Union) and foes are admired (North Korea and Russia). Game-switching in this context can lead to a nuclear war.

In Fuller’s hands, though, something else is at work. Speaking of contemporary political circumstances in the UK and the US, he says: “After all, the people who tend to be demonized as ‘post-truth’ – from Brexiteers to Trumpists – have largely managed to outflank the experts at their own game, even if they have yet to succeed in dominating the entire field of play.” (39) Fuller’s celebratory tone here may either bring a slight warning in the use of “yet” before the success “in dominating the entire field of play” or a prediction that indeed this is what is about to happen soon enough.

The neoliberal bottom-line surfaces in this assessment: he who wins must be right, the rich must be smart, and more perniciously, the appeal to truth is beside the point. More specifically, Fuller continues:

My own way of dividing the ‘truthers’ and the ‘post-truthers’ is in terms of whether one plays by the rules of the current knowledge game or one tries to change the rules of the game to one’s advantage. Unlike the truthers, who play by the current rules, the post-truthers want to change the rules. They believe that what passes for truth is relative to the knowledge game one is playing, which means that depending on the game being played, certain parties are advantaged over others. Post-truth in this sense is a recognisably social constructivist position, and many of the arguments deployed to advance ‘alternative facts’ and ‘alternative science’ nowadays betray those origins. They are talking about worlds that could have been and still could be—the stuff of modal power. (Ibid.)

By now one should be terrified. This is a strong endorsement of lying as a matter of course, as a way to distract from the details (and empirical bases) of one “knowledge game”—because it may not be to one’s ideological liking–in favor of another that might be deemed more suitable (for financial or other purposes).

The political stakes here are too high to ignore, especially because there are good reasons why “certain parties are advantaged over others” (say, climate scientists “relative to” climate deniers who have no scientific background or expertise). One wonders what it means to talk about “alternative facts” and “alternative science” in this context: is it a means of obfuscation? Is it yet another license granted by the “social constructivist position” not to acknowledge the legal liability of cigarette companies for the addictive power of nicotine? Or the pollution of water sources in Flint, Michigan?

What Is the Mark of an Open Society?

If we corral the broader political logic at hand to the governance of the scientific community, as Fuller wishes us to do, then we hear the following:

In the past, under the inspiration of Karl Popper, I have argued that fundamental to the governance of science as an ‘open society’ is the right to be wrong (Fuller 2000a: chap. 1). This is an extension of the classical republican ideal that one is truly free to speak their mind only if they can speak with impunity. In the Athenian and the Roman republics, this was made possible by the speakers–that is, the citizens–possessing independent means which allowed them to continue with their private lives even if they are voted down in a public meeting. The underlying intuition of this social arrangement, which is the epistemological basis of Mill’s On Liberty, is that people who are free to speak their minds as individuals are most likely to reach the truth collectively. The entangled histories of politics, economics and knowledge reveal the difficulties in trying to implement this ideal. Nevertheless, in a post-truth world, this general line of thought is not merely endorsed but intensified. (109)

To be clear, Fuller not only asks for the “right to be wrong,” but also for the legitimacy of the claim that “people who are free to speak their minds as individuals are most likely to reach the truth collectively.” The first plea is reasonable enough, as humans are fallible (yes, Popper here), and the history of ideas has proven that killing heretics is counterproductive (and immoral). If the Brexit/Trump post-truth age would only usher a greater encouragement for speculation or conjectures (Popper again), then Fuller’s book would be well-placed in the pantheon of intellectual pluralism; but if this endorsement obliterates the silly from the informed conjecture, then we are in trouble and the ensuing cacophony will turn us all deaf.

The second claim is at best supported by the likes of James Surowiecki (2004) who has argued that no matter how uninformed a crowd of people is, collectively it can guess the correct weight of a cow on stage (his TED talk). As folk wisdom, this is charming; as public policy, this is dangerous. Would you like a random group of people deciding how to store nuclear waste, and where? Would you subject yourself to the judgment of just any collection of people to decide on taking out your appendix or performing triple-bypass surgery?

When we turn to Trump, his supporters certainly like that he speaks his mind, just as Fuller says individuals should be granted the right to speak their minds (even if in error). But speaking one’s mind can also be a proxy for saying whatever, without filters, without critical thinking, or without thinking at all (let alone consulting experts whose very existence seems to upset Fuller). Since when did “speaking your mind” turn into scientific discourse? It’s one thing to encourage dissent and offer reasoned doubt and explore second opinions (as health care professionals and insurers expect), but it’s quite another to share your feelings and demand that they count as scientific authority.

Finally, even if we endorse the view that we “collectively” reach the truth, should we not ask: by what criteria? according to what procedure? under what guidelines? Herd mentality, as Nietzsche already warned us, is problematic at best and immoral at worst. Trump rallies harken back to the fascist ones we recall from Europe prior to and during WWII. Few today would entrust the collective judgment of those enthusiasts of the Thirties to carry the day.

Unlike Fuller’s sanguine posture, I shudder at the possibility that “in a post-truth world, this general line of thought is not merely endorsed but intensified.” This is neither because I worship experts and scorn folk knowledge nor because I have low regard for individuals and their (potentially informative) opinions. Just as we warn our students that simply having an opinion is not enough, that they need to substantiate it, offer data or logical evidence for it, and even know its origins and who promoted it before they made it their own, so I worry about uninformed (even if well-meaning) individuals (and presidents) whose gut will dictate public policy.

This way of unreasonably empowering individuals is dangerous for their own well-being (no paternalism here, just common sense) as well as for the community at large (too many untrained cooks will definitely spoil the broth). For those who doubt my concern, Trump offers ample evidence: trade wars with allies and foes that cost domestic jobs (when promising to bring jobs home), nuclear-war threats that resemble a game of chicken (as if no president before him ever faced such an option), and completely putting into disarray public policy procedures from immigration regulations to the relaxation of emission controls (that ignores the history of these policies and their failures).

Drought and suffering in Arbajahan, Kenya in 2006.
Photo by Brendan Cox and Oxfam International via Flickr / Creative Commons


Part Three: Post-Truth Revisited

There is something appealing, even seductive, in the provocation to doubt the truth as rendered by the (scientific) establishment, even as we worry about sowing the seeds of falsehood in the political domain. The history of science is the story of authoritative theories debunked, cherished ideas proven wrong, and claims of certainty falsified. Why not, then, jump on the “post-truth” wagon? Would we not unleash the collective imagination to improve our knowledge and the future of humanity?

One of the lessons of postmodernism (at least as told by Lyotard) is that “post-“ does not mean “after,” but rather, “concurrently,” as another way of thinking all along: just because something is labeled “post-“, as in the case of postsecularism, it doesn’t mean that one way of thinking or practicing has replaced another; it has only displaced it, and both alternatives are still there in broad daylight. Under the rubric of postsecularism, for example, we find religious practices thriving (80% of Americans believe in God, according to a 2018 Pew Research survey), while the number of unaffiliated, atheists, and agnostics is on the rise. Religionists and secularists live side by side, as they always have, more or less agonistically.

In the case of “post-truth,” it seems that one must choose between one orientation or another, or at least for Fuller, who claims to prefer the “post-truth world” to the allegedly hierarchical and submissive world of “truth,” where the dominant establishment shoves its truths down the throats of ignorant and repressed individuals. If post-truth meant, like postsecularism, the realization that truth and provisional or putative truth coexist and are continuously being re-examined, then no conflict would be at play. If Trump’s claims were juxtaposed to those of experts in their respective domains, we would have a lively, and hopefully intelligent, debate. False claims would be debunked, reasonable doubts could be raised, and legitimate concerns might be addressed. But Trump doesn’t consult anyone except his (post-truth) gut, and that is troublesome.

A Problematic Science and Technology Studies

Fuller admits that “STS can be fairly credited with having both routinized in its own research practice and set loose on the general public–if not outright invented—at least four common post-truth tropes”:

  1. Science is what results once a scientific paper is published, not what made it possible for the paper to be published, since the actual conduct of research is always open to multiple countervailing interpretations.
  2. What passes for the ‘truth’ in science is an institutionalised contingency, which if scientists are doing their job will be eventually overturned and replaced, not least because that may be the only way they can get ahead in their fields.
  3. Consensus is not a natural state in science but one that requires manufacture and maintenance, the work of which is easily underestimated because most of it occurs offstage in the peer review process.
  4. Key normative categories of science such as ‘competence’ and ‘expertise’ are moveable feasts, the terms of which are determined by the power dynamics that obtain between specific alignments of interested parties. (43)

In that sense, then, Fuller agrees that the positive lessons STS wished for the practice of the scientific community may have inadvertently found their way into a post-truth world that may abuse or exploit them in unintended ways. That is, something like “consensus” is challenged by STS because of how the scientific community pretends to get there knowing as it does that no such thing can ever be reached and when reached it may have been reached for the wrong reasons (leadership pressure, pharmaceutical funding of conferences and journals). But this can also go too far.

Just because consensus is difficult to reach (it doesn’t mean unanimity) and is susceptible to corruption or bias doesn’t mean that anything goes. Some experimental results are more acceptable than others and some data are more informative than others, and the struggle for agreement may take its political toll on the scientific community, but this need not result in silly ideas about cigarettes being good for our health or that obesity should be encouraged from early childhood.

It seems important to focus on Fuller’s conclusion because it encapsulates my concern with his version of post-truth, a condition he endorses not only in the epistemological plight of humanity but as an elixir with which to cure humanity’s ills:

While some have decried recent post-truth campaigns that resulted in victory for Brexit and Trump as ‘anti-intellectual’ populism, they are better seen as the growth pains of a maturing democratic intelligence, to which the experts will need to adjust over time. Emphasis in this book has been given to the prospect that the lines of intellectual descent that have characterised disciplinary knowledge formation in the academy might come to be seen as the last stand of a political economy based on rent-seeking. (130)

Here, we are not only afforded a moralizing sermon about (and it must be said, from) the academic privileged position, from whose heights all other positions are dismissed as anti-intellectual populism, but we are also entreated to consider the rantings of the know-nothings of the post-truth world as the “growing pains of a maturing democratic intelligence.” Only an apologist would characterize the Trump administration as mature, democratic, or intelligent. Where’s the evidence? What would possibly warrant such generosity?

It’s one thing to challenge “disciplinary knowledge formation” within the academy, and there are no doubt cases deserving reconsideration as to the conditions under which experts should be paid and by whom (“rent-seeking”); but how can these questions about higher education and the troubled relations between the university system and the state (and with the military-industrial complex) give cover to the Trump administration? Here is Fuller’s justification:

One need not pronounce on the specific fates of, say, Brexit or Trump to see that the post-truth condition is here to stay. The post-truth disrespect for established authority is ultimately offset by its conceptual openness to previously ignored people and their ideas. They are encouraged to come to the fore and prove themselves on this expanded field of play. (Ibid)

This, too, is a logical stretch: is disrespect for the authority of the establishment the same as, or does it logically lead to, the “conceptual” openness to previously “ignored people and their ideas”? This is not a claim on behalf of the disenfranchised. Perhaps their ideas were simply bad or outright racist or misogynist (as we see with Trump). Perhaps they were ignored because there was hope that they would change for the better, become more enlightened, not act on their white supremacist prejudices. Should we have “encouraged” explicit anti-Semitism while we were at it?

Limits to Tolerance

We tolerate ignorance because we believe in education and hope to overcome some of it; we tolerate falsehood in the name of eventual correction. But we should never tolerate offensive ideas and beliefs that are harmful to others. Once again, it is one thing to argue about black holes, and quite another to argue about whether black lives matter. It seems reasonable, as Fuller concludes, to say that “In a post-truth utopia, both truth and error are democratised.” It is also reasonable to say that “You will neither be allowed to rest on your laurels nor rest in peace. You will always be forced to have another chance.”

But the conclusion that “Perhaps this is why some people still prefer to play the game of truth, no matter who sets the rules” (130) does not follow. Those who “play the game of truth” are always vigilant about falsehoods and post-truth claims, and to say that they are simply dupes of those in power is both incorrect and dismissive. On the contrary: Socrates was searching for the truth and fought with the sophists, as Popper fought with the logical positivists and the Kuhnians, and as scientists today are searching for the truth and continue to fight superstitions and debunked pseudoscience about vaccination causing autism in young kids.

If post-truth is like postsecularism, scientific and political discourses can inform each other. When power-plays by ignoramus leaders like Trump are obvious, they could shed light on less obvious cases of big pharma leaders or those in charge of the EPA today. In these contexts, inconvenient facts and truths should prevail and the gamesmanship of post-truthers should be exposed for what motivates it.

Contact details:

* Special thanks to Dr. Denise Davis of Brown University, whose contribution to my critical thinking about this topic has been profound.


Theodor W. Adorno (1998/1963), Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords. Translated by Henry W. Pickford. New York: Columbia University Press

Kurt Andersen (2017), Fantasyland: How America Went Hotwire: A 500-Year History. New York: Random House

Monya Baker, “1,500 scientists lift the lid on reproducibility,” Nature Vol. 533, Issue 7604, 5/26/16 (corrected 7/28/16)

Michael Bowker (2003), Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos. New York: Rodale.

Robert Darnton, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” New York Review of Books Vo. LXV, No. 11 6/28/18, pp. 68-72.

Al Gore (2006), An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What Can Be Done About It. New York: Rodale.

Richard Hofstadter (1962), Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Vintage Books.

Jean- François Lyotard (1984), The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Robert K. Merton (1973/1942), “The Normative Structure of Science,” The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 267-278.

Hans E. Plesser, “Reproducibility vs. Replicability: A Brief History of Confused Terminology,” Frontiers in Neuroinformatics, 2017; 11: 76; online: 1/18/18.

Robert N. Proctor (1995), Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don’t Know About Cancer. New York: Basic Books.

James Surowiecki (2004), The Wisdom of Crowds. New York: Anchor Books.

Author Information: Justin Cruickshank, University of Birmingham,

Cruickshank, Justin. “Reflections on Problems, Politics and Knowledge: Replies to the Discussants of Democratic Problem-Solving.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 25-38.

Please refer to:

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers, and includes both parts. Shortlinks: Part One: Part Two:

In this piece, Justin Cruickshank of the University of Birmingham responds to recent critiques published at the Reply Collective of his recent book, Democratic Problem-SolvingBecause of its length, we have split his response into two parts. This is the second.

Problem-Solving Dialogue

Benton holds that Popper’s philosophy of science cannot meaningfully lead to a social and political conception of problem-solving given the latter’s difference from experimental activity in a laboratory. Social policy changes cannot be analogous to a critical problem-solving dialogue in science where a conjecture is refuted and a new theory then sought, because what constitutes a refutation and indeed what constitutes a problem are deeply normative and complex matters. Furthermore, in practice, policy-implementation is more like “utopian social engineering” than “piecemeal social engineering” because policies are imposed to fit with party political ideological commitments, with scant regard for their problematic consequences (Benton 2017, 63). Benton then argues that I am caught in a catch-22 when the reforms a more dialogic democracy could bring about require an institutional context which presumes the existence of a dialogic democracy that does not exist. How can dialogic democracy work when the conditions for it do not exist and if the conditions for it existed there would be no need to call for it?

To this, I argue here that there has to be a divergence in politics between mainstream politics and radical politics. Horizontal dialogue between groups of lay agents could entail pressure to limit harm from the state by, for example, mobilising against “austerity”-driven welfare cuts that are killing people, but ultimately people will need to remove the state and capitalism. The conditions for people to this can develop from existing problems concerning poverty and exploitation. Consciousness can be raised by different groups in dialogue with each other realising the problems they face stem from systemic issues and are not discrete anomalies in an otherwise functional and legitimate social order.

This does not map directly onto a falsificationist experimental method. It does though correspond to a dialogue that rejects authoritative sources, including public intellectuals seeking the types of reforms Sassower envisages, and which uses criticism to replace the prevailing justifications of the existing order. Such justifications would appeal to human nature, “pragmatism” (there can be no change) and neoliberal-individualist “justice” for the “hard working individual”, which defines human nature to fit the market which is actually constructed to fit corporate interests, with wealth distribution to the richest 1% being masked from lay knowledge.

Bacevic argues that while she is more sympathetic to the anarchism Chis and I espouse, she would prioritise liberal democracy over epistemic democracy, because of a concern with right-wing populism (2017, 52). Prioritising a plurality of voices is fine unless fascists then use it to spread hate and gain power. The debate has to be policed to fit within a liberal-democratic institutional and normative framework. Bacevic’s concern is well-placed and she is aware that obviously the epistemic-dialogic freedoms according under liberal democracy, despite being less extensive than those proposed for an epistemic democracy, can still facilitate the development of aggressively nationalistic and right-wing views.

Shadows of Max Weber

To suggest a way of dealing with this I will turn to Kemp’s response to the book. Kemp notes how I address Reed’s concern about problem-solving being an attempt to engage in a technocratic endeavour by arguing that for Popper all knowledge is mediated by social conventions and so admitting that problem-solving in social and politics matters is conceptually mediated does not take us far from Popper’s conception of science. Indeed, while some see Popper as a technocrat and positivist others, like Newton-Smith (1981) and Stove (2007 [1998]), see Popper as an “irrationalist”, because he argued that scientific decisions are influenced by social conventions: we decide to accept evidence A as a falsification for theory B because of convention C, rather than because raw reality falsifies theory B.

Kemp (2017, 27-28) also correctly notes a change in what problem-solving can mean when I move from the original article to the rest of the book. Originally I used the term in an interchangeable way with “adaptation”, which could imply that a problem had a definitive and objective solution waiting to be found, but then change to use problem-solving in such as way as to also imply it is as much about ‘problematizing’ as problems, which allows for a more open-ended approach. To see problem-solving in terms of conceptually mediated problematizing means the debate can always focus on the terms of reference used to define and try to solve problems, and the reasons why some definitions are chosen over others.

Kemp, following Max Weber, then raises the issue that a commitment to a particular definition or framing of a problem which stems from a normative commitment may entail a potentially debate-stopping dogmatism that is beyond reason. For Weber, values where wholly subjective and so beyond rational dialogue, with definitions of problems therefore benign beyond rational dialogue. Kemp argues that such a view need not be adhered to (because people can be open to rational debate about values) but notes it does raise an important question concerning how to find a balance between imposing framings on others (Rortian humiliation) or just submitting to others’ framings (2017, 31). This resonates with Bacevic’s concern about epistemic dialogue entailing the suppression of voices if the far right were able to gain traction in an unpoliced dialogic sphere. To deal with this balancing act, Kemp suggests basing a “non-impositional dialogue” on the search for anomalies, with “solutions” to problems being “coherence-expanding reconstructions” (2017, 32).

One way this could be engaged with, I would argue, is to undermine the claims by neoliberals about increasing individual freedom and neoconservatives about bolstering national power and security by showing how neoliberalism serves corporations and now neoconservatism has a contempt for ordinary people and serves elite interests through war and economic colonialism. In pursuing this, one could explore the funding of the Henry Jackson Society and publicise how members of this, including Michael Gove (a Tory MP) and Gisela Stuart (a former Labour MP), sway politics in a way that is driven by a commitment to a ‘think thank’ most people have not heard of, and which is committed to pursuing elite interests.

To return to Bacevic’s concern, I would say that policing dialogue to accept liberal democracy may be more of a problem than she realises because the terms of reference offered by some elite groups may be designed to smuggle in radically right-wing policies and ideas, without people being aware of this. Brexit, for example, was presented as offering a way to protect the NHS by putting £350 million a week from the EU into the NHS, but not only was this denied immediately after the referendum, but many Brexit supporting politicians want a ‘hard Brexit’, to reduce public services and create a deregulated low (corporate) tax haven for transnational capital. An elitist policy was pursued by populist means.

When it comes to the problem of right wing populism being unregulated with a more unpoliced epistemic democratic approach, the response could be that the supporters of the right could be engaged in slow dialogue to illustrate the anomalies and inconsistencies in their positions and differences in interests between the elite and the lay audience meant to support them. Obviously, that would not be easy but it is not an impossible task. The alternative may be that the neoliberal and neoconservative right shift the terms of reference, or political “common sense”, with increasingly right-wing – including nationalistic and xenophobic – ideas dominating the political mainstream within a liberal democratic framework.

On a related note, I wrote a piece for the SERRC (Cruickshank 2017) which argued that elites were trying to naturalise hierarchy and get people to see others as “things”, with critical pedagogy offering one way to tackle this.

Image by ydant via Flickr / Creative Commons


Conceptions of Deliberative Democracy

Vernon drew a useful contrast between epistemically conceived politics and an interest-based politics (2017, 5-6). Popper developed a “subjectless” epistemology for science, whereby the focus is on ideas being publicly tested, rather than the authority of the idea-holder. The political application of this broadly fits within the ambit of deliberative democracy, where the focus is on competition between ideas and not between interest-driven persons (2017, 5). Rorty, by contrast with Popper, did focus on interests, Vernon argues. Although Rorty recognised some role for cultural and identity politics to increase our sense of “we”’, it ended in the fetishism of theory, when change comes from large scale collective organisation serving an set of interests, such as trades unions (2017, 6). While Vernon thinks Rorty is stronger than Popper in recognising the role of interests in motivating agency and progressive change, he does criticise Rorty for trying to posit what I would term a meta-interest, in the form of patriotism, preferring Popper’s open society, to any notion of a closed “we”.

For while Rorty wants to expand our sense of we, patriotism, even a liberal minded patriotism, defines interests in a zero-sum way ultimately, with “our” interests being different from “theirs”. In the age of Brexit, the Trojan Horse hoax and Trump, I would argue that Rorty’s pragmatic bounding of an inclusive we along the national boundary is dangerous and potentially reactionary. Rorty’s sense of we could exacerbate the problem of a dialogue policed to conform to liberal democratic tenets actually being subverted by elite interests pursuing very right-wing politics with a liberal-democratic veneer. Nationalism is a potent and fictitious sense of identity and one that is very effective in serving elite interests via populist rhetoric.

Vernon also notes that Rorty is stronger on the argument about the need to recognise others as worthy of respect. This means recognising others as “like-us” by increasing our sense of solidarity and doing what we can to decrease socially acceptable sadisms. In a subject-less epistemic democracy there can be no basis for such respect and the only focus is on the best argument defeated and displacing the inferior argument. Assuming there were universally agreed criteria for such assessments to be affected, the problem would still remain that arguments stem from persons and persons as persons deserve respect. A vote may decide an outcome but behind that outcome lie people with views different from the outcome and they will not turn into cognitive and emotional tabula rasa with a vote wiping away previous convictions.

Vernon is correct to argue that we need some notion of interests shaping politics, to recognise that even if some see politics as the “free market of ideas”, such as Popper with his conception of science as perfected liberal democracy and Sassower with his account of public intellectuals as “gadflies” serving a public hungry for better ideas, interests shape the formation of policies and the formation of arguments. One does not have to be a determinist to hold that interests will play a role in argument, deliberation and acceptance of policies and ideas. This was implicit in my arguments about people using horizontal dialogue to reject the elite – the elite pursue their interests which run counter to those of the majority.

Vernon is also correct to argue against the subjectless approach to democratic dialogue. This is why I argued for slow dialogue in place of Popper’s speedy dialogue. To be ethical for Popper is to improve oneself as fast as possible to run away from any hint of dogmatism, but this is a very individualistic and detached ethical position, which is odd coming from someone who advocates a subjectless epistemology – “epistemology without a knowing subject” (Popper, 1972).

In knowledge we are shaped by conventions such that falsifications are mediated by conventions, but ethics unlike knowledge remains a radically individualist endeavour. In contrast to speedy dialogue, slow dialogue allows for the engagement with those who have very different views and, as my position did not see voting as the closure of a dialogue, this can allow for slow but significant change over time. In other words, slow dialogue presumes a level of respect to motivate it in the first place, and political dialogue is not terminated when policy decisions are made, because it concerns lay agents who see their interests are not directly aligned with the state. In talking with others about problems, policies could be discussed, but no policy would be a definitive solution to a technocratic problem.

Before considering Benesch’s criticism of my arguments about the speed of dialogues I will note that while Vernon states that he is not aware of any list of suffering-reduction achievements noted by Popper, unlike Rorty who does furnish such a list, Popper does actually give us a list of suffering-reduction points to address. These are in the essay The History of our Time in Conjectures and Refutations (1963). Popper’s list of points cites: poverty, unemployment, sickness and pain, penal cruelty, religious and racial discrimination, rigid class differences, slavery, war and lack of educational opportunities (1963, 370).

Engaging Collaboration

Benesch takes issue with my criticism of Popper for replacing justificationist speedy dialogues with critical speedy dialogues. He argues that: Popper carefully considered texts before replying; that critical dialogue in science and politics was a slow process of piecemeal change; and that Lakatos’ claims to correct Popper were erroneous because Popper spoke of metaphysical research programmes, which would be slow to change and which pre-empted Lakatos’s argument about research programmes and naïve and sophisticated falsificationism (2017, 50-51).

In response to this I argue the following. The issue for Popper was not so much the “preparation time” but the nature of argument and dialogue itself: how much time one spent preparing an argument was, like the origin of an argument, not relevant for Popper, given what Vernon called the “subjectless” epistemology, which saw ideas, detached from people, in competition with each other. A quick defeat of an idea in an ideational permanent revolution would speed us along with epistemic and ethical progress. The latter is of course problematic, given that ethics pertains to a subject unlike ideas. The impersonal clashing of ideas would improve the subject who let this happen without using dogmatism to corrupt this competition between sui generis abstractions.

On the second point Benesch argues that “[t]he collaborative effort of which Popper speaks will most often entail the ‘slow piecemeal ideational change’ that Cruickshank incorrectly claims Popper rejected’ (2017, 51). When discussing with Kuhn, Popper (1970) argued that we are prisoners of the conceptual framework but we can break out of this at any time, albeit into a “bigger and roomier one”. Kuhn was correct to hold that we always see the world via a conceptual scheme but incorrect to hold that this took a long time to change because we could “break out of this at any time” for Popper. In other words, progress turned on critical speedy dialogue with any recognition of ideas having traction taking us towards dogmatism and relativism. However, when Popper discusses political debate he may seem implicitly to endorse a slow conception of dialogue. Popper argues that:

It is often asserted that discussion is only possible between people who have a common language and accept common basic assumptions. I think that is a mistake. All that is needed is a readiness to learn from one’s partner in the discussion, which includes a genuine which to understand what he [sic] intends to say. If this readiness is there, the discussion will be the more fruitful the more the partners’ backgrounds differ. Thus the value of a discussion depends largely upon the variety of the competing views. Had there been no Tower of Babel, we should invent it. The liberal does not dream of a perfect consensus of opinion; he [sic] only hopes for the mutual fertilization of opinions and the consequent growth of ideas. Even where we solve a problem to universal satisfaction, we create, in solve it, many new problems over which we are bound to disagree. This is not to be regretted (1963, 352).

This may entail a critical slow dialogue because it would take time to understand those with different views and understanding would have to be worked at – one would need to work to get towards what Gadamer (2013 [1975]) called a “fusion of horizons”. If this is accepted then I think it points to a tension in Popper’s work between an ethical reaction to dogmatism which linked ethics to speed and a later position which focused more on dialogue being about understanding others’ terms of reference in a condition where there was no universal normative language. This may also lead to a tension between the subjectless epistemology mentioned by Vernon and a more embodied epistemology.

As regards the comment about Lakatos, I would say that Popper’s metaphysical research programmes were removed from scientific experiment unlike the core of the research programme for Lakatos. For Popper, metaphysical research programmes could provide inspiration for testable hypotheses, but were, from a strictly scientific point of view, irrelevant, because the origin of testable ideas was irrelevant; whereas for Lakatos, the core of a research programme would eventually be falsified. Metaphysical research programmes were, in effect, thus removed from critical dialogue, whereas a research programme for Lakatos was subject to slow change through critical dialogue changing the auxiliary hypotheses until the core needed changing eventually.

Benesch also criticises me for incorrectly attributing to what I called “the optimistic Popper” a belief in majoritarianism or “popular sovereignty” as Popper called it, where the majority qua majority are justified politically and ethically (2017, 53). Perhaps I could have been clearer when I discussed this in the book (pp. 109-110), but I did not regard the optimistic Popper as holding to a majoritarian view. I argued that the optimistic Popper, like Dewey, would see democracy as an “ethical way of life” where there was always an on-going dialogue, which was not closed off by any formal process such as voting. The argument about the Towel of Babel indicates such an outlook.

By contrast, the pessimistic Popper wanted to restrict democratic engagement the infrequent formal act of voting and prohibit coalition governments and proportional representation. Falsification was to be applied to politics by a decisive vote on a party’s claim to have succeeded in implementing useful policies. Politics for this Popper was to be a monologic affair.

Benesch makes a number of highly critical points about the chapter by Sassower and Jensen. I will not presume to speak on their behalf.

Shearmur, and Bacevic, both note that the notion of a unified public sphere has been criticised, with Nancy Fraser, for example taking Habermas to task on this. I agree with these points. The public sphere is not a sphere of abstract individuals seeking purely cognitive epistemic engagement, but is rather a sphere where different groups have different interests.

Shearmur also makes the important point that Popper’s friendship with Hayek did not translate into political agreement, given Popper’s “social democratic” leanings. Shearmur proceeds to criticise Popper’s concept of piecemeal social engineering by arguing that there is more role for the authority of specialist knowledge than Popper permits (2017, 11-12). Given the usual critical reading of Popper as an elitist technocratic (see the chapter by Reed in the book, and Benton’s review), it is strange to see an argument for what is in effect a shift from a more engaged democratic position to a more elitist one. Shearmur mentions the ghost of Plato (2017, 12), but given his critical appreciation of Hayek it may well be the ghost of Walter Lippmann that is at work here, with lay agents being seen a priori as too fickle and ignorant to engage in meaningful political debate. That is surely an essentialist dogmatism we can use Popper to reject.

Contact details:


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Reed, Isaac, A. “Science, Democracy and the Sociology of Power.” In Democratic Problem-Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology, Justin Cruickshank and Raphael Sassower, 69-79. London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017.

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Shearmur, Jeremy. “Popper, Social Epistemology and Dialogue”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 1-12.

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Author Information: Justin Cruickshank, University of Birmingham,

Cruickshank, Justin. “Reflections on Problems, Politics and Knowledge: Replies to the Discussants of Democratic Problem-Solving.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 25-38.

Please refer to:

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers, and includes both parts. Shortlinks: Part One: Part Two:

In this piece, Justin Cruickshank of the University of Birmingham responds to recent critiques published at the Reply Collective of his recent book, Democratic Problem-Solving. Because of its length, we have split his article in two parts. This is the first.

From Bhaskar’s Neo-Marxist Critical Realism to Popper’s Problem-Solving

In contrast with Benesch, who argued in The Viennese Socrates that Popper’s work supported a progressive politics, Benton seems to adhere to a popular reading of Popper as a Cold War ideologue who championed a technocratic approach to maintaining the status quo in contrast to any progressive democratic politics. Although Benton does not refer to Popper as a positivist, what comes across as his reading of Popper as a dogmatic liberal espousing a technocratic politics broadly fits the reading of Popper as a positivist, if one uses the contemporary definition of positivism which sees it as more encompassing than logical positivism.

For Benton, Popper, if he did not fetishise science, did at least have a naïve conception of it as an objective fact-grinding tool that could also be applied to politics, with there being no recognition of the systemic problems within liberal capitalism. Structural criticism would be prohibited and in its place reforms to make the social order function more efficiently would be sought. Popper, as Reed (2017) as well as Benton, feared, would see change in terms of an engineer tinkering with a machine whose purpose was not to be questioned and whose problems could not be recognised. Benton thus finds it odd that Sassower (in some chapters) sought a radical reformist politics based on Popper and that I (/ Chis and I) argued for an anarchist politics based on Popper.

It will be useful to make four points here. The first is that Hacohen’s (2000) book ‘Karl Popper: The Formative Years 1902-1945. Politics And Philosophy In Interwar Vienna’ undermines the case that Popper was a dogmatic Cold War liberal, at least in his early and mid-writing career (later I think he clearly did become more socially conservative). Hacohen’s case is that the Popper who wrote The Poverty of Historicism presented it post hoc as a critique of ‘totalitarianism’, in the form of Stalinist Communism and fascism, but it was written as an engagement with interwar socialist debates and it rejected the liberal belief in a defining human essence, in the form of a competitive human nature. Indeed, the Open Society also rejected the liberal capitalist idea that capitalism is ‘justified’ by being in accord with human nature.

The second is that in the book I made a point about the reception context and how a received reading of Popper became established due to the social and political context, which failed to recognise all the potential in his work. This led me to distinguish a critical and more optimistic Popper from a more pessimistic Popper. Benton does not engage with the arguments about the possibilities offered by the critical Popper and uses the received reading of Popper to reject him and be incredulous at his use by myself (and possibly others too) to support a radical political position. The position I (/ Chis and I) develop goes well beyond what Popper’s intentions were but the case was not to excavate the essence of the real author but to see what potential there was in some of his work to develop ideas in a particular way.

Part of this meant drawing on Popper’s rejection of appeals to authority in knowledge and Benton charges me with treating Popper as an authority. That is odd given that the approach to Popper is critical and that positions are not cut to fit a constructed Popper ‘essence’. Thus, after recognising how readings can gain traction, and how dialogue has to engage with affective and normative commitments, I criticise Popper for conceptualising dialogue in a speedy way and draw upon Gadamer to suggest the need to see dialogue as a slow process. There was not the space to develop the work on Gadamer but only to suggest it.

The reason for this, which brings me to the third point, and which I think Benton may lose sight of, is that the book was not written as a normal monograph planned to move through steps to reach a conclusion, but was an open-ended dialogue which developed initially in the SERRC. The chapters were then re-written to add more sources and more detailed argument (with the Brexit chapter being written especially for the book because that happened after the SERRC exchanges), which may give the impression of a more ‘traditional’ book, but it was still following the lines of the original SERRC debate. I wrote the article on Popper and Rorty because I was interested in challenging conventional readings of their work and then the SERRC debate lead to the argument for open dialogue being extended to a range of political matters. Popper’s argument against authority in knowledge always remained important, as did the focus on disrupting a narrow and often incorrect received wisdom about Popper, but had it been written as a traditional book, it other sources would have complemented Popper.

Fourth, the argument sought to develop a framework for open dialogue, which could include a wide variety of positions, including, for me, Marxist positions. The case was not to use a Cold War liberal technocrat to ban Marxism and espouse anarchism. Rather, it was to use Popper’s work on authority and criticism to develop a position on open dialogue that could include many voices. The anarchist position (influenced by Peter Kropotkin and Colin Ward) would be that traditions of mutual aid are important (with traditions thus not necessarily being regressive blocks on progress – a point Gadamer can be used to develop). These traditions ought not to be hermetic but rather they ought to motivate large scale collective pressure for major progressive change and this would come from, to use one of Rorty’s favourite terms, a ‘horizontal’ dialogue, between different communities of people facing different and similar problems.

Examples of problems here, mentioned in the book, would be the housing crisis in the UK, the insecurity caused by the gig economy creating a middle-class precariat as well as a working class precariat, and the ethno-nationalist racism legitimised by the Brexit campaign and the Trojan Horse hoax. If one appeals to sources of authoritative knowledge then there can be no horizontal dialogue because one group would seek to legislate on what others’ ought to think and no intellectually progressive dialogue because events and data would be cut to fit a pre-existing epistemic, ontological, methodological, etc., commitment. The problem with Popper was though that he ended up fetishizing change and seeing ethics as a process of constantly negating one’s beliefs, which would actually entail philosophical scepticism and political apathy.

Thoughts on Critical Realism

As may be clear from Benton’s reply, he is a realist, so part of his discussion at least is motivated by a concern to defend realism and specifically, the neo-Marxist “critical realism” developed by Roy Bhaskar. I will now outline critical realism and say why I moved from this to Popper, using Popper to reject critical realism as a form of debate-stopping methodological essentialism, in articles in Philosophy of the Social Sciences.

Bhaskar (1997 [1975], 1998 [1979]) argued for an anti-positivist naturalism, meaning he argued for the unity of the natural and social sciences, in terms of methodology, in a way that differed from positivist naturalism. Bhaskar argued that positivism committed the “epistemic fallacy” of reducing ontological questions about being into epistemological questions about how we know being. To overcome this we needed, he argued, to see science as developing knowledge in accord with ontological assumptions that in some way correspond to reality.

Whereas positivism, for him, was based on implicitly assuming that reality was a “closed system” constituted by invariant empirical regularities, given its commitment to an empiricist theory of knowledge which stressed the role of direct observation, science was successful because it recognised that there are no such invariant regularities and presumed instead that reality is a “stratified open system”. This means assuming that causal laws that are unobservable in themselves interact in contingent ways to produce the changing empirical effects we can see. When it came to the social sciences, the problem was that there were no shared ontological assumptions about what social reality is. Therefore, Bhaskar had to legislate on what this may be and did this by rejecting structuralist determinism and methodological individualism which he held could not account for the social context conditioning agency, to link structure and agency. Social reality was constituted by structural emergent properties that conditioned but did not determine agency.

Bhaskar (1998) noted that social structures were different from natural structures insofar as the former could be changed by human agency but went on to draw upon the ‘structuration theory’ developed by Giddens (1995 [1984]) which ended up “solving”’ the structure-agency problem by redefining it as a problem of agency. For Giddens, and by extension, Bhaskar, structures were “virtual” because they only existed in agents’ heads as ‘memory traces’ until agents chose to act upon them – or “instantiate” them. Margaret Archer (1995) then sought to rescue Bhaskar from himself by rejecting Giddens and saying that Bhaskar’s argument could be saved by saying that structures were emergent properties that were dependent on agency in the past tense. That is, structures emerged from agents’ actions in the past and then become emergent properties that could condition agency and which were thus irreducible to agency.

For Archer, individualism was an ontological position influenced by empiricism (because we can only see individuals) and this raises the awkward problem that Bhaskar would seem to be influenced by a philosophy he sought to reject. Archer tries to avoid this by defining the problem in terms of Giddens’ theory not being a form of individualism but a position that committed what she called “central conflation”, meaning the mutual conflation of structure into agency and agency into structure. This does not seem a tenable or meaningful definition of the problem though, given that structures have no existence separate from agents, and so it more accurate to say Bhaskar’s use of Giddens committed him to a form of individualism, as Benton (1981) actually argued.

Critical realism has proved increasingly popular in social science, with social scientists keen to avoid positivism (often defined very broadly to include any quantitative research), interpretivistic and post-structuralist relativism, and individualism in the form of rational choice theory, using critical realism to explain events in terms of structure and agency. Critical realism became an orthodoxy for those unsatisfied with the extant orthodoxies.

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To Be Fallible

The problem I had with critical realism was that it was not critical but a type of dogmatic formalism (Cruickshank 2007, 2010). Despite holding that knowledge was fallible, the ontology was removed from critical revision based on empirical research and empirical research was cut to fit the concepts of structure and agency. The concepts of structure and agency were read into the data and then the data was taken to support the ontology used to explain it. Critical realism, I argued, thus begged the question. I found Popper useful here because while I did not agree with his treatment of Marxism, his critique of “methodological essentialism” and the search for justification via authoritative sources of knowledge was relevant here. The ontological commitment was treated as an authoritative source with the essence of social reality (namely structure and agency) being taken as justified with all observed events then being regarded as “verifications” of the prior ontological / essentialist commitment.

Although Bhaskar hoped his work would offer a scientific Marxism based on realism, able to link structure and agency, unlike Althusser’s claim that structuralist Marxism was scientific and unlike the positivist conception of science, his work received significant criticism from Marxists (see for instance Gunn 1988 and Magill 1994). A major concern was the undialectical nature of Bhaskar’s ontology, which separated the categories of structure and agency from each other and from substantive-empirical processes, to create a meta-theory developed in abstraction from the processes it sought to explain. Rather than develop categories from the complexity of reality, seeing their interpenetration, two generic abstractions were developed and then imposed on reality, in an undialectical – or even undialogic – way.

To be sure, Popper sought to police dialogue, erroneously in my view, but his argument that the recognition of fallibilism had to entail the use of criticism to change views dialogically, with there being no appeal to authoritative sources of knowledge (such as the authority of the senses with empiricism or methodological essentialist commitments with critical realism), was of key importance. When social science fetishizes the origins of knowledge to justify a claim or delegitimise it with ideology-critique or post-structuralist critique of discourse, it becomes a form of clericalism that detaches knowledge from substantive problems. Critical realism exemplified this far more than Popper, despite his (unPopperian) attempts to police dialogue, as, ironically, the Marxist critique of Bhaskar illustrated.

Popper sought to police dialogue using problematic dualisms and Benton I think does the same. He offers us just realism and irrealism (2017, 61), with latter being problematic because it lacked “a robust recognition of the autonomy and independent causal powers of other people, institutions, material objects, organic beings and so on” and because it erroneously, for him, took any reference to reality to entail anti-democratic and authoritarian views. Benton does not clearly distinguish between Bhaskar’s critical realism and metaphysical realism. Popper argued for metaphysical realism but Bhaskar shied away from it.

Metaphysical realism is just the claim that reality exists independently of us. It seems a common-sense position but it entails a sceptical rejoinder because reality is defined as that which always exceeds our knowledge of it. Benton holds that my position, in accepting this criticism of metaphysical realism, is irrationalist as well as irrealist because someone else can confirm the existence of objects once someone else leaves a room (2017, 61). Here Benton is following what Popper called the Winston Churchill argument for realism (1972, 42-44) but, as Popper, who was himself a metaphysical realism argued, this “does not prove realism” (1972, 43-44. Emphasis on original).

The problem with the Churchill-Benton argument for realism is that as reality is defined, for metaphysical realists, as that which is independent of us, there can be no appeal to shared experiential knowledge to prove the existence of a reality that is separate from our (shared or lone) ideas of it. Moreover, Benton is guilty here of what critical realists regard as the epistemic fallacy, because he is defining reality in terms of others’ accounts of their knowledge of it (and knowledge arrived at from experience). Now critical realism is defined by Bhaskar as a form of “conceptual science” because instead of speculating on the nature of ultimate reality it arrives at its ontological assumptions for natural science at least, by deriving them from the implicit assumptions within the “transitive domain” of scientific knowledge. In other words, ontological questions about what reality is are answered by turning to a body of knowledge about reality.

The realist ontology of natural reality thus commits what critical realists regard as the epistemic fallacy. By contrast the ontological claims about social reality are taken to be justified because they overcome structuralist determinism and the inability of agency to account for the context conditioning agency, with the avoidance of these problems then being taken to be the sufficient as well as necessary condition for justification. Such justification obviously rests on a non sequitur. Once the ontological categories are taken to be justified commitments they are then read into empirical events with the latter being taken as verifications of the commitments, which then commits the fallacy of begging the question.

In addition to the problem of begging the question and being an undialectical form of Marxism, critical realism led to formulaic “applications”. Just as must research influenced by post-structuralism “found” all events to be expressions of discourse (with research verifying the prior commitment to the ontology of discourse determinism), so empirical research influenced by critical realism ended up redescribing events in terms of the categories of structure and agency. A rebranding of events using the favoured words (structure and agency) of the new stale orthodoxy was taken to be an explanation.

A Heritage From Gramsci

Benton argued that I had a tendency to caricature the views of my opponents, and then defended Sassower’s arguments on public intellectuals by defending Gramsci, who Sassower cites briefly (2017, 64). I would agree that for Gramsci organic working-class intellectuals are engaged in substantive issues and that they are a wide group because it includes all those engaged in class struggle in their daily lives potentially. I would though raise the question about the term “intellectual” being redundant if it is applied to everyone. One can talk of people having an insight into their conditions and seeking change, but invoking the notion of intellectuals means invoking the notion of an intellectually privileged group. But the argument is not really a semantic one. If Benton wants, following Gramsci, to call everyone an intellectual, then I am happy to talk of a democratic dialogue between academic-intellectuals and lay-intellectuals, rather than academics and lay agents.

The important issue is that a dialogic relationship has to eschew the conception that progress needs an epistemically privileged class, because that ultimately is monologic. And here both Popper and Rorty are correct to note the problems that arise when self-defining intellectual elites seek to legislate for others. It is interesting that Benton avoids engaging with the problems they raise concerning those deemed to be intellectuals, for there are real problems concerning intellectual fashions, dogmatism, elitism and secular-clerical mentality, not to mention the problems with those deemed to be intellects often coming from privileged groups. bell hooks (1981) argued black female intellectuals tended to be marginalised by black male activists and white feminists, meaning that the elitism of the concept is complemented in practice with an elitism of selection concerning who is recognised as an intellectual with a voice permitted to speak in the public sphere.

However, using Gramscian terminology, it is the case that Sassower actually defended the use of “traditional” and not organic intellectuals. Sassower did have an expansive definition to include rappers etc. but did end up narrowing it down to academics with the task of academics as public intellectuals being that of acting as “responsible gadflies”. Academic public intellectuals should be paid for by the US government and US media outlets ought to host them because they would shift the focus, in their printspace and airtime, from celebrity gossip and mud-slinging between politicians to a more intellectual debate about social and political matters. Academic public intellectuals would be better placed to define problems and offer solutions by thinking in a deeper way by being freed from commercial pressure and normative commitments. The pursuit of the truth would guide them and they would float above sectional interests to arrive at the best / objective definition of problems and the best proposal for their solutions.

But as Gramsci argued, no-one, including those positioned as “intellectuals”, can float about social and normative interests. Furthermore, Sassower implicitly treats the state as a neutral body open to the “best argument”, which is reminiscent of the classical pluralist model of the state, and the technocratic notion that problems are objective entities separated from normative commitments and the influence of class etc. This replicated the notion that while there can be a philosophy of knowledge there can only be a sociology of error, for it sees all social and normative influences as corrupting on the pursuit of truth.

Now, in considering why Benton defended Sassower by defending Gramsci, we can note that Benton recorded Sassower’s definition of himself as a Marxist, despite Sassower also calling Marxists ‘rabid’ (and engaging in other polemic against “radicals”). The real issue here though is that while Sassower did envisage, briefly, a post-capitalist society, it was not a post-liberal society and nor was it a society that was based on a redistribution of wealth or a society that abolished class. It was not a socialist or communist society that he had in mind. Sassower drew on Rifkin (2014) to argue that technology may result in the cost of commodities becoming negligible and that with increased use of ICT younger people may prefer access to items over ownership of items.

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Sassower also held at one point that neoliberalism was not necessarily negative and that it needed to be assessed on its performance. In other words, the Marxism motivated no commitment to socialism or communism, or changing prior property distribution, but was an (undialectical) form of technological determinism which focused on consumption and not production contra Marxism. His “Marxism” also existed alongside the technocratic view that neoliberalism can be assessed as a potentially positive form of capitalism, in a fashion analogous to a (positivist value-free) experiment. Later Sassower argued against neoliberalism and this commitment to heterogenous positions may be intelligible in terms of a technocratic approach, whereby the search is for the best “objective” solution entails a move from a neutral approach to neoliberalism to a critical approach, and from considering neoliberalism, which claims to liberate the citizen as consumer (not producer-worker) to considering a consumer-focused post-capitalism to liberate the post-capitalist citizen-consumer.

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Continued Here.


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Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick,


Editor’s Note: The piece originally appeared in the UK-based Sociological Imagination website.

Author’s Note: This piece is another one of my several articles inspired by Brexit. Here I bring together two issues that Brexit has placed in harsh juxtaposition: Cosmopolitanism as a distinct ideology—whose ‘elitism’ Peter Mandler and Ross Douthat have recently cast in an unfairly negative light—and the future of socialism as a coherent ideology.

Please refer to:

Image credit: John Perivolaris, via flickr

My own view is that socialism needs to be cosmopolitan. However, this is not as easy as it sounds. To be sure, forty years ago I was taught that ‘national socialism’ (i.e. Nazism) was a contradiction in terms, perhaps even a piece of cynical political rhetoric. But that was at the height of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union—and to a lesser extent China—was seen as ‘exporting’ socialism across the world to match the free market capitalism being somewhat more covertly spread by the US intelligence services. Strange as it may sound, this framing of international politics as a global ideological struggle may have been the best PR that cosmopolitanism has ever received. (Take a bow, James Bond.)  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Adam Riggio, Independent Scholar and Writer,

Riggio, Adam. “The Pragmatic Radicalism of the Multitude’s Power: A Critical Eye on Fuller’s Return to Pareto.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 7 (2016): 54-62.

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

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You cannot understand Brexit with a single narrative, which means you cannot understand it with a single essay. Brexit as a social-political phenomenon includes too much for a single narrative and overall theme to comprehend. A list does the job better, even though the event rapidly makes all summaries obsolete.

There is a tendency to think of the event as an instant, a decisive moment where what is not converts to what has happened. Brexit demonstrates that events have duration—they are long and enormously complex. The event of Brexit is unfolding as we speak—this essay is part of it, as are Steve Fuller’s many essays and videos on the subject, to which my essay replies.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Lyudmila Markova, Russian Academy of Science,

Markova, Lyudmila A. “A Reply to Fuller’s Prolegomena.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 7 (2016): 52-53.

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

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I agree with Steve Fuller that an event such as Brexit should be studied from the standpoint of philosophy and sociology. However, Fuller’s own social epistemology is quite suitable for this purpose. It seems strange that he does not use directly his own ideas for understanding current transformations in society. My own thinking comes in light of social epistemology presence in the mainstream of Russian philosophy in the last few decades. Of course, there are differences in my position and Fuller’s, but we share much in common.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick,


Editor’s Note:

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Max Weber famously presented three principles of social ‘stratification’ (‘organization’ would be better): status, class and party. The ongoing saga of Brexit brings to light some interesting features of the last category, which otherwise tends to be neglected or treated as subordinate to the other two.

At the outset, it is worth recalling that Weber conceptualised these three principles as alternative ways in which the law channels power in society. His own presentation stressed the mutually orthogonal character of the three principles, resulting in three distinct dimensions through which power relations can be understood. This way of framing matters enabled Robert Merton to coin the phrase ‘sociological ambivalence’ in the 1970s for conflicts in role-expectations generated by these rather different sources of personal identity.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick,


Editor’s Note:

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Over London - Challenges below

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Among the most striking features of the aftermath of the Brexit vote has been the speed with which the victorious politicians promoting Brexit have rowed back from their more extravagant promises about the extra funds and fewer migrants which would follow from leaving the European Union. For their part, anti-Brexit politicians have been busily mounting legal challenges to show that the referendum is not binding, or at least not the last word on the topic. And indeed, legally speaking, the anti-Brexit politicians may be correct. But had they—specifically, UK Prime Minister David Cameron—presented matters this way at the outset, it is unlikely that the referendum would have received the highest turnout of any election in British history.  Continue Reading…

Author Information:Steve Fuller, University of Warwick,

Fuller, Steve. “Prolegomena to the Deep Sociology of Brexit: The Long Road Back to Pareto.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 7 (2016): 1-5.

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


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The most relevant sociologist for understanding Brexit—the recently successful British referendum to leave the European Union—may be Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), the Italian political economist who Talcott Parsons counted as one of the field’s modern founders. An older contemporary of Durkheim and Weber, Pareto was known in my schooldays as the ‘Marx of the Master Class’. Having (unwittingly) inspired Fascism, he was made a member of the Italian House of Lords by Mussolini towards the end of his life. Pareto’s legacy is perhaps most recognizable in C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite, which was about the breeding of the US ‘military-industrial complex’ during the Cold War in terms of common education, social circles, etc. Of course, this applies even more clearly in the UK, where the much anticipated Tory leadership succession from David Cameron to Boris Johnson was forged on ‘the playing fields of Eton’. As of this writing, both major players are already off the pitch, but the dynamic remains in place.  Continue Reading…