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Author Information: Manuel Padilla-Cruz, Universidad de Sevilla, mpadillacruz@us.es.

Padilla-Cruz, Manuel. “On the Pragmatic and Conversational Features of Venting: A Reply to Thorson and Baker.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 21-30.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-46B

Image by Rolf Dietrich Brecher via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Juli Thorson and Christine Baker have recently set the spotlight on a verbal activity which, in their view, may yield rather positive outcomes in oppressive or discriminating environments: venting. This is claimed to play a significant role in fighting epistemic damage.

Although their discussion is restricted to cases in which women vent to other women who are acquainted with unfair epistemic practices in the asymmetrical and hierarchical social groups to which they belong, in “Venting as epistemic work” the authors contend that successful venting can make people aware of oppressive social structures, their place in them and possible solutions for the epistemic damage that those structures cause.

As a result, venting enables individuals to regain trust in their epistemic practices, author knowledge, and accept their own epistemic personhood (Thorson and Baker 2019: 8).

Damage, Personhood, and Venting

Thorson and Baker’s (2019) argumentation relies on two crucial elements. On the one hand, the notion of epistemic damage, which, in an analogous way to Tessman’s (2001) concept of moral damage, is defined as a harm curtailing an individual’s epistemic personhood. This is in turn described as the individual’s “[…] ontological standing as a knower”, “[…] the ability to author knowledge for [oneself]” (Thorson and Baker 2019: 2), or, in Borgwald’s words, “[…] the ability to think autonomously, reflect on and evaluate one’s emotion, beliefs, desires, and to trust those judgments rather than deferring to others” (2012: 73).

Epistemic damage hampers the development of a person’s knowledge-generating practices and her self-trust in her ability to implement them (Thorson and Baker 2019: 2).[1] It is inflicted when someone cannot assert her epistemic personhood because she fears that what she says will not be taken seriously. Consequently, the victim suffers testimonial smothering (Dotson 2011) and gets her self-trust diminished and her epistemic personhood undermined.

On the other hand, the authors’ argumentation is based on a differentiation of venting from both complaining and ranting. These three verbal actions are depicted as contingent on the presence of an audience, expressing “strong feelings” and conveying “agitation about some state of affairs or person” (Thorson and Baker 2019: 3), but neither complaining nor ranting are believed to involve expectations for a change in the state of affairs that gave rise to them.

Complaints, the authors say, may be left unaddressed or the solution proposed for their cause may turn out unsatisfactory and leave it unfixed, while ranting is “a kind of performance for someone” (Thorson and Baker 2019: pp.) where the ranter, far from engaging in conversation, simply exposes her views and expresses anger through a verbal outburst without concern for an ensuing reaction. Venting, in contrast, is portrayed as a testifying dialogical action that is typically performed, Thorson and Baker (2019: 4-5) think, in face-to-face interaction and where the venter does have firm expectations for subsequent remedial action against a state of affairs: denied uptake, sexist comments, silencing or undermining of cognitive authority, to name but some.

By expressing anger at (an)other individual(s) who wronged her or frustrated confusion at their actions, the venter seeks to make her audience aware of an epistemic injustice –either testimonial or hermeneutical– which negatively affects her epistemic personhood and to assert her own credibility.

Thorson and Baker (2019: 7) also distinguish two types of venting, even if these are not clear-cut and range along a continuum:

  1. Heavy-load venting, which is a lengthy, time-consuming and dramatic activity following a serious threat to epistemic personhood increasing self-distrust. It aims for recognition of credibility and reaffirmation of epistemic personhood.
  2. Maintenance venting, which is a “honing practice” requiring less epistemic work and following situations where there are “lack of uptake, dismissal, or micro-aggressions” (Thorson and Baker 2019: 7). Its goal is reinforcement or maintenance of epistemic personhood.

Despite their valuable insights, a series of issues connected with the features defining venting and characterising its two types deserve more detailed consideration in order to gain a fuller understanding of the reasons why venting can actually have the positive effects that the authors attribute to it.

Firstly, its ontology as a verbal action or speech act (Austin 1962; Searle 1969) needs ascertaining in depth with a view to properly delimiting it and adequately differentiating it from other related actions. Secondly, in addition to length and goal, a further criterion should be provided so as to more accurately characterise heavy-load and maintenance venting. Addressing the first issue will help unravel what venting really is and how it is accomplished, while dealing with the second one is fundamental for capturing the subtleties individuating the two types of venting.

What follows addresses these issues from two disciplines of linguistics: pragmatics to a great extent and conversation analysis to a lesser extent. The former, which is greatly indebted to the philosophy of language, looks into, among others, how individuals express meaning and perform a variety of actions verbally, as well as how they interpret utterances and understand meaning.

More precisely, the issues in question will be accounted for on the grounds of some postulates of Speech Act Theory (Austin 1962; Searle 1969) and contributions on complaints made from this framework. Conversation analysis, in turn, examines how individuals structure their verbal contributions with a view to transmitting meaning and how conversational structure determines interpretation. Although Thorson and Baker (2019) admit that an analysis of venting from a linguistic perspective would be fruitful, unfortunately, they did not undertake it.

1) Venting as a Speech Act

Thorson and Baker (2019) take venting, complaining and ranting to be three distinct speech acts that have in common the expression of anger. To some extent, this is right, as there is much confusion in the literature and researchers consider venting and ranting the same speech act “[…] and use the terms synonymously” (Signorelli 2017: 16). However, venting and ranting could rather be regarded as sub-types or variations of a broader, more general or overarching category of speech act: complaining.

Venting and ranting satisfy in the same way as complaining four of the twelve criteria proposed by Searle (1975) in order to distinguish specific verbal actions: namely, those pertaining to the illocutionary point of the act, the direction of fit between the speaker’s words and the external world, the expressed psychological state and the propositional content of the utterance(s) whereby a verbal action is attempted. In other words, complaining, venting and ranting share similar features stemming from the speaker’s intentionality, the relationship between what she says and the external world, her psychological state while speaking and the core meaning or import of what she says. Complaining would then be an umbrella category subsuming both venting and ranting, which would differ from it along other dimensions.

1.1) Pragmatic and Conversational Features of Complaints

Pragmatists working within the fruitful speech act-theoretic tradition (Austin 1962; Searle 1969, 1975) have made illuminating contributions on complaints, which they have classified as expressive acts wherewith the speaker, or complainer or complainant, expresses a variety of negative feelings or emotions. This is a relevant aspect unveiling illocutionary point or intentionality. Such feelings or emotions include anger, irritation, wrath, frustration, disappointment, dissatisfaction, discontent, discomfort, anxiety, despair, etc.

This is another key point, but it shows this time the expressed psychological state (Edmondson and House 1981; Laforest 2002; Edwards 2005). In fact, the expression of such feelings and emotions –a further important issue linked now to the communicated propositional content (“I am angry at/disappointed by p”)– differentiates complaints from other expressive acts like complimenting, where the expressed psychological states are positive: admiration, approval, appraisal, etc. (Wolfson and Manes 1980; Manes and Wolfson 1981).

The feelings and emotions voiced by the complainer concern some state of affairs –another person’s behaviour, appearance, traits, mood, etc., an event and, evidently, some injustice, too– which is regarded not to meet (personal) expectations or standards, or to violate sociocultural norms. The state of affairs originating the complaint is referred to as the complainable and is assessed or appraised from the complainer’s point of view, so complaints often involve a high degree of subjectivity (Edmondson and House 1981; Boxer 1993a, 1993b; Trosborg 1995). As expressive acts, complaints lack direction of fit: neither do they reflect the outer world, nor is this affected by or adapted to what the complainer says.

However, complaints could also be considered to some extent informative or representative acts, inasmuch as the complainer may make the hearer –or complainee– aware of the unsatisfactory state of affairs, which might have gone completely unnoticed or be utterly unknown to him. If so, complaints would be hybrid acts combining the expression of psychological states and the dispensing of information. Accordingly, they could have a words-to-world direction of fit because what the complainer says matches the world, at least from her perspective.

Complaints can be subdivided in various manners. A first twofold division can be made depending on whether the complainable pertains to the complainee or not. Thus, direct complaints concern a state of affairs for which the complainee is held responsible, while indirect complaints deal with one whose responsibility lies in a third party, who may be present at the conversational exchange or absent (Edmondson and House 1981; Boxer 1993a, 1993b; Trosborg 1995).

Another twofold distinction may be made depending on whether the complainer simply voices her feelings or has further intentions. Hence, complaints are retrospective acts when she just expresses her psychological states about some recent or past state of affairs without further intentions, or prospective when she also seeks to influence the complainee and bias his (future) course of action (Márquez Reiter 2005).

In discoursive, conversational terms, complaints can be made through just a single sentence that is produced as an utterance counting as the core act, or through more than one sentence and utterance, either in the same conversational turn or in different ones. Additional utterances make up pre-sequences or post-sequences, depending on their position relative to the core act, or moves, a label frequently used in the literature on conversation analysis.

Since they often lend support to the complaint by offering further details about the complainable, giving reasons for the complainer’s feelings and/or informing about her expections, those moves work as supportive moves. A core complaint and the possible supportive moves accompanying it are often arranged in adjacency pairs along with the utterances reacting to them, whereby the complainee agrees, shows his own psychological states, elaborates on the complaint or responds to it (Cutting 2002; Sidnell 2010; Padilla Cruz 2015; Clift 2016).

1.2) Characterising Venting

Following this characterisation, venting can be said to be a type of complaining on the basis of the following features: its topic or aboutness, its target, the participation of (an)other individual(s), dialogicality, length, the newness or known nature of its subject matter, and the predominance of the expressive and representative functions or the fulfilment of an additional influential or conative function. Of these, the first three features are fundamental, while the fourth and the fifth ones may be regarded as consequences of the third feature. Whereas the sixth one facilitates differentiation between types of venting, the seventh enables recognition of intentions other than simply voicing feelings about recent or past states of affairs.

Although solely produced by one individual –the complainer or venter– venting would be an indirect form of complaining that “[…] reveals underlying perspectives [on] a given topic, situation, or individual(s)” (Signorelli 2017: 2) and engages (an)other individual(s) who must share the assessment of, perspective on and feelings about the complainable, as well as be in a position to react in a particular manner or intend to do so in the (immediate) future.

Their sharing such viewpoints and feelings may prompt participation in the discoursive or conversational episode through tokens of agreement or commiseration, enquiries aimed at getting additional information about the complainable, further verbalisation of negative feelings through additional censuring, critique or irritated comments, and expression of commitment to future remedial action (Boxer 1993a).

Therefore, venting could be depicted as a dialogic phenomenon that is achieved discoursively and requires conversation, to which (an)other participant(s) contribute(s). As Signorelli puts it, “[…] venting is deliberately and necessarily communal” (2017: 17) and can therefore be described as a type of “participatory genre” (2017: 16) with a specific purpose, recognisable moves and characteristic rhetorical strategies (2017: 1).

Its dependency on the contribution of some other epistemic agent(s) makes venting be a cooperative action that is co-constructed by means of the joint endeavours of the venter and her audience. Its dialogic nature causes conversation to unfold through more than just one turn or adjacency pair, so venting episodes may be (considerably) longer variations of complaints, which may be performed by means of just one utterance or a brief sequence of utterances that is normally followed by reactions or responses.

Hence, venting would require more effort, time and verbal material enabling the venter to elaborate on her viewpoints, clearly express her feelings, refine, revise or deepen into the subject matter, and/or announce or hint her expectations. Through it the venter seeks to secure her audience’s future collaboration, which renders venting a long form of prospective complaining. In turn, the audience may show understanding, indicate their positioning as regards what is talked about and/or reveal their future intentions.

1.3) Venting and Related Actions

Venting cannot be judged to differ from complaining on the grounds of the likelihood for a solution to a problem to exist or to be plausible, as Thorson and Baker (2019) conjecture. If a solution to a problem actually exists, that is something external, extralinguistic. Whether the solution is worked out or sought for, and ends up being administered or not, are perlocutionary effects (Austin 1962) that escape the venter’s control. Indeed, although perlocutionary effects may be intended or expected, and, hence, insinuated and pursued through what is said and how it is said, whether a particular solution to a problem is actually given or not is something that totally falls under the audience’s control. Venting nevertheless displays pragmatic and conversational properties that single it out as a special manifestation of complaining.

On the other hand, venting is also distinct from ranting in that, regardless of whether ranting is a direct or indirect form of complaint, it initially excludes the participation of the audience. Ranting, therefore, is chiefly a monologic speech action characterised by its length and detail, too, but deprived of joint cooperation. It mainly is an “[…] individualistic production of identity” (Vrooman 2002: 63, quoted in Signorelli 2017) that is “[…] rooted in self-styling” (Signorelli 2017: 12) and whose mission is “[…] to establish and defend a position of social distance” (Signorelli 2017: 13).

If something distinguishes ranting, that may be the intensity, vividness and high level of irritation or agitation wherewith the complainable is presented, which results in a verbal outburst, as Thorson and Baker (2019) rightly put it. Relying on Searle’s (1975) parametres to classify speech acts, the strength with which ranting is performed certainly differentiates it from venting and also sorts it out as a peculiar manifestation of complaining. Ranting, then, differs from venting on the grounds of its narrative nature and emotional intensity (Manning 2008: 103-105; Lange 2014: 59, quoted in Signorelli 2017).

2) The Two Types of Venting

As pointed out, Thorson and Baker (2019) differentiate between heavy-load and maintenance venting. In their view, the former arises when nothing or very little is known about a disappointing, frustrating, irritating or unfair issue. The venter’s action, then, seems to be mainly aimed at informing her audience and giving details about the issue in question, as well as at making them aware of her feelings.

In turn, maintenance venting appears to correspond to the sort of trouble talk (Jefferson 1984, 1988) in which people engage every now and then when they are already acquainted with some negative issue. This distinction, therefore, may be refined by taking into account the informational load of each action, or, to put it differently, its informativeness, i.e. the newness or known nature of the complainable (Padilla Cruz 2006).

In informational terms, heavy-load venting may be more informative because either what is talked about is utterly unknown to the audience or both the venter and her audience are familiarised with it, but have not dealt with it beforehand. Both the informative –or representational– and the expressive function play a major role in this sort of venting: along with conveying her feelings the venter also dispenses information, the possession of which by the audience she considers is in her interest.

The informativeness of maintenance venting, in contrast, would be lesser, as the venter and her audience are already acquainted with a troublesome or disrupting state of affairs because they have previously discussed it in previous encounters. Although this type of venting still fulfils an informative or representational function, this is subservient to the expressive function and to an additional one: affirming or strengthening common viewpoints and feelings (Padilla Cruz 2004a, 2004b, 2005). This is essential for aligning the audience with herself or positioning them along with her as regards the complainable.

The low level of informativeness of maintenance venting and the affirmation or reinforcement of common viewpoints that it achieves render this sort of venting a phatic action in the sense of anthropologist Bronisław K. Malinowski (1923). It is of little informational relevance, if this is understood to amount to the newness or unknown nature of information, and, therefore, of scarce importance to the audience’s worldview. Even if maintenance venting does not significantly improve or alter their knowledge about the vented issue, like phatic discourse, it does nevertheless fulfil a crucial function: creating or stressing social affinity, rapport, bonds of union, solidarity and camaraderie between the venter and her audience (Padilla Cruz 2004a, 2004b, 2005).

These effects stem from venting’s implication that the interlocutors brought together have similar viewpoints and feelings about a problematic or unfair state of affairs. Maintenance venting, so to say, insinuates or highlights that the interlocutors may be equally affected by what is talked about, expect a similar reaction or react to it in a similar manner. It fosters a feeling of in-group membership through a topic with which the interlocutors are equally acquainted, which similarly impacts them and towards which they also hold akin attitudes (Padilla Cruz 2006).

Conclusion

Venting satisfies criteria that enable its classification as a manifestation of complaining behaviour. Owing to its target –a third party– topic –some recent or past state of affairs– and fulfilment of expressive, representative and conative functions, it amounts to an indirect prospective form of complaint. Its conversational features make it exceed average complaints made through just one conversational turn or adjacency pair, so venting requires more time and effort. However, if there are characteristics significantly distinguishing venting, these are dialogicality and engagement of the audience.

Venting certainly depends on the presence and participation of the audience. It must be jointly or cooperatively accomplished through dialogue, so it must be seen and portrayed as a communal action that is discoursively achieved. The audience’s participation is crucial for both the acknowledgement of a troublesome state of affairs and the achievement of the ultimate goal(s) sought for by the venter: fighting or eradicating the state of affairs in question. While dialogicality and participation of the audience facilitate differentiation between venting and another type of complaint, namely, ranting, the level of informativeness of what is vented helps more accurately distinguish between heavy-load and maintenance venting.

It is along these pragmatic and conversational features that venting may be more precisely described from a linguistic perspective. Although this description may certainly enrich our understanding of why it may have the effects that Thorson and Baker (2019) ascribe to it, other issues still need considering. They are left aside for future work.

Contact details: mpadillacruz@us.es

References

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[1] The feminine third person singular personal pronoun will be used throughout this paper in order to refer to an individual adopting the role of speaker in conversational exchanges, while the masculine counterpart will be used to allude to the individual adopting that of hearer.

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

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

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

Image by Bryan Ledgard via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

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

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

How The Question Is Contested Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the Concept of Essence Useful Anymore?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throwing the Ladder Away

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

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

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

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

Contact details: rsassowe@uccs.edu

References

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

Author Information: Valerie Joly Chock & Jonathan Matheson, University of North Florida, n01051115@ospreys.unf.edu & j.matheson@unf.edu.

Matheson, Jonathan, and Valerie Joly Chock. “Science Communication and Epistemic Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 1-9.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-44H

Image by sekihan via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Epistemic injustice occurs when someone is wronged in their capacity as a knower.[1] More and more attention is being paid to the epistemic injustices that exist in our scientific practices. In a recent paper, Fabien Medvecky argues that science communication is fundamentally epistemically unjust. In what follows we briefly explain his argument before raising several challenges to it.

Overview

In “Fairness in Knowing: Science Communication and Epistemic Injustice”, Fabien Medvecky argues that science communication is fundamentally epistemically unjust. First, let’s get clear on the target. According to Medvecky, science communication is in the business of distributing knowledge – scientific knowledge.

As Medvecky uses the term, ‘science communication’ is an “umbrella term for the research into and the practice of increasing public understanding of and public engagement with science.” (1394) Science communication is thus both a field and a practice, and consists of:

institutionalized science communication; institutionalized in government policies on the public understanding of and public engagement with the sciences; in the growing numbers of academic journals and departments committed to further the enterprise through research and teaching; in requirements set by funding bodies; and in the growing numbers of associations clustering under the umbrella of science communication across the globe. (1395)

Science communication involves the distribution of scientific knowledge from experts to non-experts, so science communication is in the distribution game. As such, Medvecky claims that issues of fair and just distribution arise. According to Medvecky, these issues concern both what knowledge is dispersed, as well as who it is dispersed to.

In examining the fairness of science communication, Medvecky connects his discussion to the literature on epistemic injustice (Anderson, Fricker, Medina). While exploring epistemic injustices in science is not novel, Medvecky’s focus on science communication is. To argue that science communication is epistemically unjust, Medvecky relies on Medina’s (2011) claim that credibility excesses can result in epistemic injustice. Here is José Medina,

[b]y assigning a level of credibility that is not proportionate to the epistemic credentials shown by the speaker, the excessive attribution does a disservice to everybody involved: to the speaker by letting him get away with things; and to everybody else by leaving out of the interaction a crucial aspect of the process of knowledge acquisition: namely, opposing critical resistance and not giving credibility or epistemic authority that has not been earned. (18-19)

Since credibility is comparative, credibility excesses given to members of some group can create epistemic injustice, testimonial injustice in particular, toward members of other groups. Medvecky makes the connection to science communication as follows:

While there are many well-argued reasons for communicating, popularizing, and engaging with science, these are not necessarily reasons for communicating, popularizing, and engaging only with science. Focusing and funding only the communication of science as reliable knowledge represents science as a unique and privileged field; as the only reliable field whose knowledge requires such specialized treatment.

This uniqueness creates a credibility excess for science as a field. And since science communication creates credibility excess by implying that concerted efforts to communicate non-science disciplines as fields of reliable knowledge is not needed, then science communication, as a practice and as a discipline, is epistemically unjust. (1400)

While the principle target here is the field of science communication, any credibility excesses enjoyed by the field will trickle down to the practitioners within it. If science is being given a credibility excess, then those engaged in scientific practice and communication are also receiving such a comparative advantage over non-scientists.

So, according to Medvecky, science communication is epistemically unjust to knowers – knowers in non-scientific fields. Since these non-scientific knowers are given a comparative credibility deficit (in contrast to scientific knowers), they are wronged in their capacity as knowers.

The Argument

Medvecky’s argument can be formally put as follows:

  1. Science is not a unique and privileged field.
  2. If (1), then science communication creates a credibility excess for science.
  3. Science communication creates a credibility excess for science.
  4. If (3), then science communication is epistemically unjust.
  5. Science communication is epistemically unjust.

Premise (1) is motivated by claiming that there are fields other than science that are equally important to communicate, popularize, and to have non-specialists engage. Medvecky claims that not only does non-scientific knowledge exists, such knowledge can be just as reliable as scientific knowledge, just as important to our lives, and just as in need of translation into layman’s terms. So, while scientific knowledge is surely important, it is not alone in this claim.

Premise (2) is motivated by claiming that science communication falsely represents science as a unique and privileged field since the concerns of science communication lie solely within the domain of science. By only communicating scientific knowledge, and failing to note that there are other worthy domains of knowledge, science communication falsely presents itself as a privileged field.

As Medvecky puts it, “Focusing and funding only the communication of science as reliable knowledge represents science as a unique and privileged field; as the only reliable field whose knowledge requires such specialised treatment.” (1400) So, science communication falsely represents science as special. Falsely representing a field as special in contrast to other fields creates a comparative credibility excess for that field and the members of it.

So, science communication implies that other fields are not as worthy of such engagement by falsely treating science as a unique and privileged field. This gives science and scientists a comparative credibility excess to these other disciplines and their practitioners.

(3) follows validly from (1) and (2). If (1) and (2) are true, science communication creates a credibility excess for science.

Premise (4) is motivated by Medina’s (2011) work on epistemic injustice. Epistemic injustice occurs when someone is harmed in their capacity as a knower. While Fricker limited epistemic injustice (and testimonial justice in particular) to cases where someone was given a credibility deficit, Medina has forcefully argued that credibility excesses are equally problematic since credibility assessments are often comparative.

Given the comparative nature of credibility assessments, parties can be epistemically harmed even if they are not given a credibility deficit. If other parties are given credibility excesses, a similar epistemic harm can be brought about due to comparative assessments of credibility. So, if science communication gives science a credibility excess, science communication will be epistemically unjust.

(5) follows validly from (3) and (4). If (3) and (4) are true, science communication is epistemically unjust.

The Problems

While Medvecky’s argument is provocative, we believe that it is also problematic. In what follows we motivate a series of objections to his argument. Our focus here will be on the premises that most directly relate to epistemic injustice. So, for our purposes, we are willing to grant premise (1). Even granting (1), there are significant problems with both (2) and (4). Highlighting these issues will be our focus.

We begin with our principle concerns regarding (2). These concerns are best seen by first granting that (1) is true – granting that science is not a unique and privileged field. Even granting that (1) is true, science communication would not create a credibility excess. First, it is important to try and locate the source of the alleged credibility excess. Science communicators do deserve a higher degree of credibility in distributing scientific knowledge than non-scientists. When it comes to scientific matters, we should trust the scientists more. So, the claim cannot be that non-scientists should be afforded the same amount of credibility on scientific matters as scientists.

The problem might be thought to be that scientists enjoy a credibility excess in virtue of their scientific credibility somehow carrying over to non-scientific fields where they are less credible. While Medvecky does briefly consider such an issue, this too is not his primary concern in this paper.[2] Medvecky’s fundamental concern is that science communication represents scientific questions and knowledge as more valuable than questions and knowledge in other domains. According to Medvecky, science communication does this by only distributing scientific knowledge when this is not unique and privileged (premise (1)).

But do you represent a domain as more important or valuable just because you don’t talk about other domains? Perhaps an individual who only discussed science in every context would imply that scientific information is the only information worth communicating, but such a situation is quite different than the one we are considering.

For one thing, science communication occurs within a given context, not across all contexts. Further, since that context is expressly about communicating science, it is hard to see how one could reasonably infer that knowledge in other domains is less valuable. Let’s consider an analogy.

Philosophy professors tend to only talk about philosophy during class (or at least let’s suppose). Should students in a philosophy class conclude that other domains of knowledge are less valuable since the philosophy professor hasn’t talked about developments in economics, history, biology, and so forth during class? Given that the professor is only talking about philosophy in one given context, and this context is expressly about communicating philosophy, such inferences would be unreasonable.

A Problem of Overreach

We can further see that there is an issue with (2) because it both overgeneralizes and is overly demanding. Let’s consider these in turn. If (2) is true, then the problem of creating credibility excesses is not unique to science communication. When it comes to knowledge distribution, science communication is far from the only practice/field to have a narrow and limited focus regarding which knowledge it distributes.

So, if there are multiple fields worthy of such engagement (granting (1)), any practice/field that is not concerned with distributing all such knowledge will be guilty of generating a similar credibility excess (or at least trying to). For instance, the American Philosophical Association (APA) is concerned with distributing philosophical knowledge and knowledge related to the discipline of philosophy. They exclusively fund endeavors related to philosophy and public initiatives with a philosophical focus. If doing so is sufficient for creating a credibility excess, given that other fields are equally worthy of such attention, then the APA is creating a credibility excess for the discipline of philosophy. This doesn’t seem right.

Alternatively, consider a local newspaper. This paper is focused on distributing knowledge about local issues. Suppose that it also is involved in the community, both sponsoring local events and initiatives that make the local news more engaging. Supposing that there is nothing unique or privileged about this town, Medvecky’s argument for (2) would have us believe that the paper is creating a credibility excess for the issues of this town. This too is the wrong result.

This overgeneralization problem can also be seen by considering a practical analogy. Suppose that a bakery only sells and distributes baked goods. If there is nothing unique and privileged about baked goods – if there are other equally important goods out there (the parallel of premise (1)) – then Medvecky’s reasoning would have it that the bakery is guilty of a kind of injustice by virtue of not being in the business of distributing those other (equally valuable) goods.

The problem is that omissions in distribution don’t have the implications that Medvecky supposes. The fact that an individual or group is not in the business of distributing some kind of good does not imply that those goods are less valuable.

There are numerous legitimate reasons why one may employ limitations regarding which goods one chooses to distribute, and these limitations do not imply that the other goods are somehow less valuable. Returning to the good of knowledge, focusing on distributing some knowledge (while not distributing other knowledge), does not imply that the other knowledge is less valuable.

This overgeneralization problem leads to an overdemanding problem with (2). The overdemanding problem concerns what all would be required of distributors (whether of knowledge or more tangible goods) in order to avoid committing injustice. If omissions in distribution had the implications that Medvecky supposes, then distributors, in order to avoid injustice, would have to refrain from limiting the goods they distribute.

If (2) is true, then science communication must fairly and equally distribute all knowledge in order to avoid injustice. And, as the problem of creating credibility excesses is not unique to science communication, this would apply to all other fields that involve knowledge distribution as well. The problem here is that avoiding injustice requires far too much of distributors.

An Analogy to Understand Avoiding Injustice

Let’s consider the practical analogy again to see how avoiding injustice is overdemanding. To avoid injustice, the bakery must sell and distribute much more than just baked goods. It must sell and distribute all the other goods that are as equally important as the baked ones it offers. The bakery would, then, have to become a supermarket or perhaps even a superstore in order to avoid injustice.

Requiring the bakery to offer a lot more than baked goods is not only overly demanding but also unfair. The bakery does not count with the other goods it is required to offer in order to avoid injustice. It may not even have the means needed to get these goods, which may itself be part of its reason for limiting the goods it offers.

As it is overdemanding and unfair to require the bakery to sell and distribute all goods in order to avoid injustice, it is overdemanding and unfair to require knowledge distributors to distribute all knowledge. Just as the bakery does not have non-baked goods to offer, those involved in science communication likely do not have the relevant knowledge in the other fields.

Thus, if they are required to distribute that knowledge also, they are required to do a lot of homework. They would have to learn about everything in order to justly distribute all knowledge. This is an unreasonable expectation. Even if they were able to do so, they would not be able to distribute all knowledge in a timely manner. Requiring this much of distributors would slow-down the distribution of knowledge.

Furthermore, just as the bakery may not have the means needed to distribute all the other goods, distributors may not have the time or other means to distribute all the knowledge that they are required to distribute in order to avoid injustice. It is reasonable to utilize an epistemic division of labor (including in knowledge distribution), much like there are divisions of labor more generally.

Credibility Excess

A final issue with Medvecky’s argument concerns premise (4). Premise (4) claims that the credibility excess in question results in epistemic injustice. While it is true that a credibility excess can result in epistemic injustice, it need not. So, we need reasons to believe that this particular kind of credibility excess results in epistemic injustice. One reason to think that it does not has to do with the meaning of the term ‘epistemic injustice’ itself.

As it was introduced to the literature by Fricker, and as it has been used since, ‘epistemic injustice’ does not simply refer to any harms to a knower but rather to a particular kind of harm that involves identity prejudice—i.e. prejudice related to one’s social identity. Fricker claims that, “the speaker sustains a testimonial injustice if and only if she receives a credibility deficit owing to identity prejudice in the hearer.” (28)

At the core of both Fricker’s and Medina’s account of epistemic injustice is the relation between unfair credibility assessments and prejudices that distort the hearer’s perception of the speaker’s credibility. Prejudices about particular groups is what unfairly affects (positively or negatively) the epistemic authority and credibility hearers grant to the members of such groups.

Mere epistemic errors in credibility assessments, however, do not create epistemic injustice. While a credibility excess may result in an epistemic harm, whether this is a case of epistemic injustice depends upon the reason why that credibility excess is given. Fricker and Medina both argue that in order for an epistemic harm to be an instance of epistemic injustice, it must be systematic. That is, the epistemic harm must be connected to an identity prejudice that renders the subject at the receiving end of the harm susceptible to other types of injustices besides testimonial.

Fricker argues that epistemic injustice is product of prejudices that “track” the subject through different dimensions of social activity (e.g. economic, professional, political, religious, etc.). She calls these, “tracker prejudices” (27). When tracker prejudices lead to epistemic injustice, this injustice is systematic because it is systematically connected to other kinds of injustice.

Thus, a prejudice is systematic when it persistently affects the subject’s credibility in various social directions. Medina accepts this and argues that credibility excess results in epistemic injustice when it is caused by a pattern of wrongful differential treatment that stems in part due to mismatches between reality and the social imaginary, which he defines as the collectively shared pool of information that provides the social perceptions against which people assess each other’s credibility (Medina 2011).

He claims that a prejudiced social imaginary is what establishes and sustains epistemic injustices. As such, prejudices are crucial in determining whether credibility excesses result in epistemic injustice. If the credibility excess stems from a systematically prejudiced social imaginary, then this is the case. If systematic prejudices are absent, then, even if there is credibility excess, there is no epistemic injustice.

Systemic Prejudice

For there to be epistemic injustice, then, the credibility excess must carry over across contexts and must be produced and sustained by systematic identity prejudices. This does not happen in Medvecky’s account given that the kind of credibility excess that he is concerned with is limited to the context in which science communication occurs.

Thus, even if there were credibility excess, and this credibility excess lead to epistemic harms, such harms would not amount to epistemic injustice given that the credibility excess does not extend across contexts. Further, the kind of credibility excess that Medvecky is concerned with is not linked to systematic identity prejudices.

In his argument, Medvecky does not consider prejudices. Rather than credibility excesses being granted due to a prejudiced social imaginary, Medvecky argues that the credibility excess attributed to science communicators stems from omission. According to him, science communication as a practice and as a discipline is epistemically unjust because it creates credibility excess by implying (through omission) that science is the only reliable field worthy of engagement.

On Medvecky’s account, the reason for the attribution of credibility excess is not prejudice but rather the limited focus of science communication. Thus, he argues that merely by not distributing knowledge from fields other than science, science communication creates a credibility excess for science that is worthy of the label of ‘epistemic injustice’. Medvecky acknowledges that Fricker would not agree that this credibility assessment results in injustice given that it is based on credibility excess rather than credibility deficits, which is itself why he bases his argument on Medina’s account of epistemic injustice.

However, given that Medvecky ignores the kind of systematic prejudice that is necessary for epistemic injustice under Medina’s account, it seems like Medina would not agree, either, that these cases are of the kind that result in epistemic injustice.[3] Even if omissions in the distribution of knowledge had the implications that Medvecky supposes, and it were the case that science communication indeed created a credibility excess for science in this way, this kind of credibility excesses would still not be sufficient for epistemic injustice as it is understood in the literature.

Thus, it is not the case that science communication is, as Medvecky argues, fundamentally epistemically unjust because the reasons why the credibility excess is attributed have nothing to do with prejudice and do not occur across contexts. While it is true that there may be epistemic harms that have nothing to do with prejudice, such harms would not amount to epistemic injustice, at least as it is traditionally understood.

Conclusion

In “Fairness in Knowing: Science Communication and Epistemic Injustice”, Fabien Medvecky argues that epistemic injustice lies at the very foundation of science communication. While we agree that there are numerous ways that scientific practices are epistemically unjust, the fact that science communication involves only communicating science does not have the consequences that Medvecky maintains.

We have seen several reasons to deny that failing to distribute other kinds of knowledge implies that they are less valuable than the knowledge one does distribute, as well as reasons to believe that the term ‘epistemic injustice’ wouldn’t apply to such harms even if they did occur. So, while thought provoking and bold, Medvecky’s argument should be resisted.

Contact details: j.matheson@unf.edu, n01051115@ospreys.unf.edu

References

Dotson, K. (2011) Tracking epistemic violence, tracking patterns of silencing. Hypatia 26(2): 236–257.

Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Medina, J. (2011). The relevance of credibility excess in a proportional view of epistemic injustice: Differential epistemic authority and the social imaginary. Social Epistemology, 25(1), 15–35.

Medvecky, F. (2018). Fairness in Knowing: Science Communication and Epistemic Justice. Sci Eng Ethics 24: 1393-1408.

[1] This is Fricker’s description, See Fricker (2007, p. 1).

[2] Medvecky considers Richard Dawkins being given more credibility than he deserves on matters of religion due to his credibility as a scientist.

[3] A potential response to this point could be to consider scientism as a kind of prejudice akin to sexism or racism. Perhaps an argument can be made where an individual has the identity of ‘science communicator’ and receives credibility excess in virtue of an identity prejudice that favors science communicators. Even still, to be epistemic injustice this excess must track the individual across contexts, as the identities related to sexism and racism do. For it to be, a successful argument must be given for there being a ‘pro science communicator’ prejudice that is similar in effect to ‘pro male’ and ‘pro white’ prejudices. If this is what Medvecky has in mind, then we need to hear much more about why we should buy the analogy here.

Author Information: Robin McKenna, University of Liverpool, r.j.mckenna@liverpool.ac.uk.

McKenna, Robin. “McBride on Knowledge and Justification.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 9 (2018): 53-59.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-417

Image by Ronan Shahnav via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

I would like to thank the editors of the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective for giving me the opportunity to review Mark McBride’s rich and rewarding book. To begin, I will give a—fairly high-level—overview of its contents. I will then raise some concerns and make some (mildly) critical comments.

Overview

The book is split into two parts. Part 1 concerns the issue of basic knowledge (and justification), whereas the second concerns (putative necessary) conditions on knowledge (specifically, conclusive reasons, sensitivity and safety conditions). We can start with Part 1. As McBride defines it, basic knowledge is “knowledge (or justification) which is immediate, in the sense that one’s justification for the known proposition doesn’t rest on any justification for believing other propositions” (p. 1).

Two central issues in Part 1 are (i) what, exactly, is wrong with Moore’s “proof” of the external world (Chapter 1) (ii) what, exactly, is wrong with inferences that yield “easy knowledge” (Chapters 2-3). Take these arguments, which for ease of reference I’ll call MOORE and EASY-K respectively:

MOORE:

(Visual appearance as of having hands).
1-M. I have hands.
2-M. If I have hands, an external world exists.
3-M. An external world exists.

EASY-K:

(Visual appearance as of a red table).
1-EK. The table is red.
2-EK. If the table is red, then it is not white with red lights shining on it.
3-EK. The table is not white with red lights shining on it.

It seems like a visual appearance as of having hands can give one knowledge of 1-M, and 2-M seems to be knowable a priori. But it seems wrong to hold that one can thereby come to know 3-M. (And mutatis mutandis for EASY-K and 3-EK).

I want to single out three of McBride’s claims about MOORE and EASY-K. First, it is commonly taken that “dogmatist” responses to MOORE (such as Pryor 2000) are at a disadvantage with respect to “conservative” responses (such as Wright 2004). The dogmatist holds that having a visual appearance as of hands provides immediate warrant for 1-M, whereas the conservative holds that one can have warrant for 1-M only if one has a prior entitlement to accept 3-M. Thus the dogmatist seems forced to accept that warrant can “transmit” from the premises of MOORE to the conclusion, whereas the conservative can deny that warrant transmission occurs.

In Chapter 1 McBride turns this on its head. First, he argues that, while a conservative such as Crispin Wright can maintain that the premises of MOORE don’t transmit “non-evidential” warrant to the conclusion, he must allow that “evidential” warrant does transmit from the premises to the conclusion. Second, he argues that Wright cannot avail himself of what McBride (following Davies 2004) takes to be a promising diagnosis of the real problem with MOORE. According to Martin Davies, MOORE is inadequate because it is of no use in the epistemic project of settling the question whether the external world exists. But, for Wright, there can be no such project, because the proposition that the external world exists is the “cornerstone” on which all epistemic projects are built.

Second, in Chapter 3 McBride seeks to show that the dogmatist can supplement Davies’ account of the problem with Moore’s proof in order to diagnose the problem with EASY-K. According to McBride, EASY-K is problematic not just in that it is of no use in settling the question whether the table is not white with red lights shining on it, but also in that there are all sorts of ways in which one could settle this question (e.g. by investigating the lighting sources surrounding the table thoroughly).

Thus, EASY-K is problematic in a way that MOORE isn’t: while one could avail oneself of a better argument for the conclusion of EASY-K, it is harder to see what sort of argument could improve on MOORE.

Third, while Part 1 is generally sympathetic to the dogmatist position, Chapter 5 argues that the dogmatist faces a more serious problem. The reader interested in the details of the argument should consult Chapter 5. Here, I just try to explain the gist. Say you endorse a closure principle on knowledge like this:

CLOSURE: Necessarily, if S knows p, competently deduces q from p, and thereby comes to believe q, while retaining knowledge of p throughout, then S knows q (p. 159).

It follows that, if one comes to know 1-EK (the table is red) by having an appearance as of a red table, then competently deduces 3-EK (the table is not white with red lights shining on it) from 1-EK while retaining knowledge of 1-EK, then one knows 3-EK. But—counter-intuitively—having an appearance as of a red table can lower the credence one ought to have in 3-EK (see pp. 119-20 for the reason why).

It therefore seems inarguable that, if you are in a position to know 3-EK after having the appearance, you must have been in a position to know the 3-EK prior to the appearance. So it seems like the conservative position must be right after all. In order for your appearance as of a red table to furnish knowledge that there is a red table you must have been in a position to know that the table was not white with red lights shining on it prior to having the appearance as of a red table.

The second part of McBride’s book concerns putative (necessary) conditions on knowledge, in particular conclusive reasons (Chapter 6), sensitivity (Chapter 7) and safety (Chapter 8). McBride dedicates a chapter to each condition; the book finishes with a (brief) application of safety to legal knowledge (Chapter 9). While most epistemologists tend to argue that either sensitivity or (exclusive) safety are a (necessary) condition on knowledge, McBride provides a (qualified) defense of both.

In the case of sensitivity, this is in part because, if sensitivity were a condition on knowledge, then—as Nozick (1981) famously held—CLOSURE would be false, and so the argument against dogmatism (about knowledge) in Chapter 5 would be disarmed. Because of the centrality of sensitivity to the argument in Part 1, and because the chapters on conclusive reasons and sensitivity revolve around similar issues, I focus on sensitivity in what follows.

Here is an initial statement of sensitivity:

SENSITIVITY: S knows p only if S sensitively believes p, where S sensitively believes p just in case, were p false, S would not believe p (p. 160).

Chapter 7 (on sensitivity) is largely concerned with rebutting an objection from John Hawthorne (2004) to the effect that the sensitivity theorist must also reject these two principles:

EQUIVALENCE: If you know a priori that p and q are equivalent and you know p, then you are in a position to know q.

DISTRIBUTION: If one knows p and q, then one is in a position to know p and to know q.

Suppose I have an appearance as of a zebra. So I know:

(1) That is a zebra.

By EQUIVALENCE I can know:

(2) That is a zebra and that is not a cleverly disguised mule.

So by DISTRIBUTION I can know:

(3) That is not a cleverly disguised mule.

But, by SENSITIVITY, while I can know (1), I can’t know (3) because, if I were looking at a cleverly disguised mule, I would still believe I was looking at a zebra. Hawthorne concludes that the sensitivity theorist must deny a range of plausible principles, not just CLOSURE.

McBride’s basic response is that, while SENSITIVITY is problematic as stated, it can be modified in such a way that the sensitivity-theorist can deny EQUIVALENCE but keep DISTRIBUTION. More importantly, this rejection of EQUIVALENCE can be motivated on the grounds that initially motivate SENSITIVITY. Put roughly, the idea is that simple conjunctions like (4) already cause problems for SENSITIVITY:

(4) I have a headache and I have all my limbs.

Imagine you form the belief in (4) purely from your evidence of having a headache (and don’t worry about how this might be possible). While you clearly don’t know (4), your belief does satisfy SENSITIVITY, because, if (4) were false, you wouldn’t still believe it (if you didn’t have a headache, you wouldn’t believe you did, and so you wouldn’t believe (4)).

The underlying problem is that SENSITIVITY tells you to go the nearest possible world in which the relevant belief is false and asks what you believe there, but a conjunctive belief is false so long as one of the conjuncts is false, and it might be that one of the conjuncts is false in a nearby possible world, whereas the other is false in a more distant possible world. So the sensitivity theorist needs to restrict SENSITIVITY to atomic propositions and add a new condition for conjunctive propositions:

SENSITIVITY*: If p is a conjunctive proposition, S knows p only if S believes each of the conjuncts of p sensitively (p. 167).

If we make this modification, the sensitivity theorist now has an independent reason to reject EQUIVALENCE, but is free to accept DISTRIBUTION.

Critical Discussion

While this only touches on the wealth of topics discussed in McBride’s book, I will now move on to the critical discussion. I will start by registering two general issues about the book. I will then develop two criticisms in a little more length, one for each part of the book.

First, while the book makes compelling reading for those already versed in the literatures on transmission failure, easy knowledge and modal conditions on knowledge, the central problematics are rarely motivated at any length. Moreover, while McBride does draw numerous (substantive) connections between the chapters, the book lacks a unifying thesis. All this to say: This is maybe more of a book for the expert than the novice. But the expert will find a wealth of interesting material to chew over.

Second, readers of the Collective might find the individualism of McBride’s approach striking. McBride is almost exclusively concerned with the epistemic statuses of individuals’ beliefs, where those beliefs are formed through simple processes like perception and logical inference. The one part of the book that does gesture in a more social direction (McBride’s discussion of epistemic projects, and the dialectical contexts in which they are carried out) is suggestive, but isn’t developed in much detail.

Turning now to more substantive criticisms, in Part 1 McBride leans heavily on Davies’ solution to the problem with MOORE. I want to make two comments here. First, it is natural to interpret Davies’ solution as an inchoate form of contextualism (DeRose 1995; Lewis 1996): whether MOORE (and EASY-K?) transmits warrant to its conclusion depends on the context in which one runs the inference, in particular, the project in which one is engaged.

This raises a host of questions. For example: does McBride hold that, if we keep the context (project) fixed, no transmission failure occurs? That is: if we’re working with the (easier) project of deciding what to believe, does an instance of MOORE transmit warrant from premises to conclusion? If so, then if we’re working with the (harder) project of settling the question, does an instance of MOORE fail to transmit warrant? (This would fit with the more general contextualist line in response to the skeptical problem, so this is only a request for clarification).

Second, and more importantly, we need to distinguish between the project of fully settling the question whether p and the project of partially settling the question whether p. Let’s grant McBride (and Davies) that someone who runs through an instance of MOORE has not fully settled the question whether there is an external world. But why think that—at least by the dogmatist’s lights—they haven’t partially settled the question? If dogmatism is true, then having the appearance as of a hand provides immediate warrant for believing that one has a hand, and so, via MOORE, for believing that there is an external world.

McBride (like many others) finds this conclusion unpalatable, and he invokes the distinction between the project of deciding what to believe and the project of settling the question in order to avoid it. But this distinction is overly simplistic. We can settle questions for different purposes, and with different degrees of stability (cf. “the matter is settled for all practical purposes”). The dogmatist seems forced to allow that MOORE is perfectly good for settling the question of whether there is an external world for a range of projects, not just one.

(I have a parallel worry about the solution to the problem of easy knowledge. Let’s grant McBride that one problem with EASY-K is that there are far better ways of trying to establish that the table is not white but bathed in red light. But why think that—at least by the dogmatist’s lights—it isn’t a way of trying to establish this? To point out that there are better ways of establishing a conclusion is not yet to show that this particular way is no way at all of establishing the conclusion).

Finally, in his response to Hawthorne’s objection to the sensitivity theorist McBride is at pains to show that his modification of SENSITIVITY isn’t ad hoc. To my mind, he does an excellent job of showing that the sensitivity theorist should reject EQUIVALENCE for reasons entirely independent of Hawthorne’s objection.

This suggests (at least to me) that the problem is not one of ad hocness, but rather that sensitivity theorists are forced to endorse a wide range of what Keith DeRose (1995) calls “abominable conjunctions” (cf. “I know that I have hands, but I don’t know that I’m not a handless brain in a vat”). DeRose’s own response to this problem is to embed something like SENSITIVITY in a contextualist theory of knowledge attributions. DeRose proposes the following “rule”:

Rule of Sensitivity: When it’s asserted that S knows (or doesn’t know) p, then, if necessary, enlarge the sphere of epistemically relevant worlds so that it at includes the closest worlds in which p is false (cf 1995, 37).

His idea is that, when the question of whether S knows p becomes a topic of conversation, we expand the range of worlds in which S’s belief must be sensitive. Imagine I assert “I know that I have hands”. In order for this assertion to be true, it must be the case that, if I didn’t have hands, I wouldn’t believe that I did.

But now imagine I assert “I know that I’m not a handless brain in a vat”. In order for this new assertion to be true, it must be the case that, if I were a handless brain in a vat, I wouldn’t believe that I wasn’t. Plausibly, this will not be the case, so I can’t truly assert “I know that I’m not a handless brain in a vat”. But no abominable conjunction results, because I can no longer truly assert “I know that I have hands” either.

My suggestion is that, if McBride were to adopt DeRose’s contextualist machinery, he would not only have a way of responding to the problem of abominable conjunctions, but also an interesting modification to DeRose’s “rule of sensitivity”.

For note that DeRose’s rule seems subject to the same problem McBride sees with SENSITIVITY: when I assert “I have a headache and I have all my limbs” we only need to expand the range of worlds to include worlds in which I don’t have a headache, and so my assertion will remain true in the updated context created by my assertion. Further, adopting this suggestion would furnish another link between Part 1 and Part 2: solving the problem of basic knowledge and formulating a satisfactory sensitivity condition both require adopting a contextualist theory of knowledge attributions.

Contact details: r.j.mckenna@liverpool.ac.uk

References

Davies, Martin. 2004. ‘Epistemic Entitlement, Warrant Transmission and Easy Knowledge’. Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 78 (1): 213–245.

DeRose, Keith. 1995. ‘Solving the Skeptical Problem’. Philosophical Review 104 (1): 1–52.

Hawthorne, John. 2004. Knowledge and Lotteries. Oxford University Press.

Lewis, David. 1996. ‘Elusive Knowledge’. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 74 (4): 549–67.

Nozick, Robert. 1981. Philosophical Explanations. Harvard University Press.

Pryor, James. 2000. ‘The Skeptic and the Dogmatist’. Noûs 34 (4): 517–549.

Wright, Crispin. 2004. ‘Warrant for Nothing (and Foundations for Free)?’ Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 78 (1): 167–212.

Author Information: Sheldon Richmond, Independent Researcher

Richmond, Sheldon. “Philosophy Out in the Cold.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 4 (2018): 33-40.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references: Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Wi

Images of the benevolence of the United States Armed Forces.
Image by James Vaughn, via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

John McCumber’s book, The Philosophy Scare: The Politics of Reason in the Early Cold War, exists on four levels at the least. First: on the literal level, the book is about the special case of the UCLA philosophy department. How the philosophers, university administrators, and the State of California, hide away from and at the best, avoid, the McCarthy witch-hunt for communists. Also, on the literal level, the book is about how subliminally, the philosophy department unconsciously absorbs and thereby becomes subject to the ideology of the Red Scare.

(In place of the generic term, “ideology”, McCumber prefers the term paradigm borrowed from T.S. Kuhn, a term that is well known, widely used or misused term of choice when talking about internal pressures on general viewpoints. Also, in place of “ideology”, McCumber prefers the term dispositive, borrowed from Michel Foucault, a term lesser known that includes political-social external intellectual shapers).

Second: on the broader and extended literal level, the UCLA philosophy department case during the 50s and into the 60s is manifested by many if not all philosophy departments in the USA. Third: on a deeper level, just below the surface text of the book, there is an insinuation that Philosophy in America has barely moved away from the ideological iceberg of Cold War American anti-communism.

Fourth: on the deepest level, not at all articulated in the text, but presumed in the book is a commonly held axiom of intellectual life in and out of Academia. The axiom is that America hegemonically or mono-manically wields an ideology that molds all thought. The American ideology is enforced by the power conditions of the American Hegemony or American Empire. Moreover, we won’t fully realize the American ideology until the Empire tumbles—perhaps if the War against the Evil Empire (whichever one it happens to be at the moment) is lost.

(Though the End of X theme is not played in this book, the reality presumed in the book is that America is going strong continually recovering from fumbles, but still scoring touch-down after touch-down in spite of whatever fool happens to be the quarterback.)

An Argument of Classical Rational Choice

The core thesis of the text is concisely stated about mid-way through a very deliberately planned and structured book with three parts, two chapters to each part, balanced by an Introduction and an Epilogue. Not counting the customary Prologue, the book has 8 chapters. This is no accident—the text has the shape of a sine curve. The peak of the sine curve delineates the Rules and Premises of the American Intellect. The curve downward points to an alternative Philosophy existing always on the fringes of American Philosophy (and American Philosophy Departments) imported from Europe, Post-Modernism (often disguised in the updated version of old-fashioned American Pragmatism—found in the intellectually trend-setting works of Rorty. According to McCumber:

When Cold War philosophy became the operating philosophy of the United States, this [operating philosophy] was elevated into a new social gospel. Institutions that help individuals become powerful and wealthy (law schools, business schools) or stay that way (medical schools, hospitals) flourished; other public infra-structure, along with the environment was left to rot. Many of the problems faced by the United States in the early twenty-first century are testimony to the power of Cold War philosophy’s theory of mind. (p.112).

The theory of mind that McCumber refers to is in the philosophical extrapolations that McCumber develops (in the two chapters of Part 2, pp. 71 ff.) largely from the dilemmas of rational choice (in democratic-capitalist society). McCumber’s text concentrates on Kenneth Arrow’s dilemmas of rational choice that micro-economics or welfare economics employs to resolve the problems of wealth redistribution (in democratic-capitalist society).

However, McCumber’s text also fingers the von Neumann/Morgenstern mathematical game-theoretic approach to the dilemmas of rational choice (in democratic-capitalist society). The contextual qualifier of the phrase “in democratic-capitalist society” carries in it the unstated presumption that rational choice theory (RCT for short in the text)—explicitly extrapolated from Arrow’s micro-economics and mathematical game-theory—is the only and best intellectual weapon of defense against the intellectual fifth-column of anti-American communism. The best intellectual weapon is the ideology of a great and free American money-making machine composed of individuals buying (especially on credit) and consuming great quantities of goods—at the cheapest cost and produced at the cheapest cost with the cheapest resources by the cheapest and most efficient means of production.

All this making, selling-buying, consuming ever spinning of the economic-technological-industrial-military wheel turns regardless of down-stream costs to future generations, not only economically with the increasing American debt at all levels, but also environmentally with the increasing down-stream damage to all life and the planet—not merely unintended, but with imposed and willful disregard.

Into this pot of rational choice theory, was blended the philosophy found in Philosophy at UCLA, in specific in the work of the German-Jewish Berlin expat, Hans Reichenbach, especially in Reichenbach’s introductory philosophy textbook, The Rise of Scientific Philosophy, 1951. According to McCumber: “In the United States it [Reichenbach’s book] played an enormous role in establishing the various permutations of what would later be called analytical philosophy as the dominant dispositive in most American philosophy departments.” (pp. 56-7)

But what is its—the meld of analytic/scientific philosophy and rational choice theory– “cash-value” (a popular phrase in American vernacular, including the sophisticated academic jargon of both the pragmatist and analytic schools of philosophy)? What is the ultimate content of this meld of “scientific philosophy” or later known as “analytic philosophy” and rational choice theory? How does the meld function as an intellectual weapon of defense against communist ideology (and even today, against all anti-Americanism)? How does the meld act to discretely (or, in the punchy phrasing of McCumber, “stealthily”, form formal/academic philosophy and keep alternative philosophical schools, such as traditional pragmatism, continental philosophy, academic Marxism—as opposed to “vulgar” Marxism–and though not-mentioned in this text, Adorno/Marcuse critical philosophy at the fringes)?

Stealth Influence

Most importantly, in terms of what is taught and published—in the main–how does the meld (of scientific/analytic philosophy and rational choice theory) become adopted by the power structures of academia and even those power-structures in the world outside (as an intellectual superstructure or rationalization) that govern and inhabit politico-economic activity? The content of the meld that has become America’s intellectual defense weapon of choice is concisely articulated again at the very peak of the book’s textual sine curve in the concluding section of Chapter four, in terms of six premises (cited indirectly as under “some famous attacks” by philosophers at the edge of the cold war or post-cold war.)(cf. p. 112).

Summarizing the summary of the 6 premises in terms of 6 phrases, the six dogmas of analytic philosophy are as follows: 1. Unified Reason. 2. Knowledge=Prediction. 3. Prediction=Justified Knowledge vs Discovery/Intuition/Guessing. 4. Reason=Analytic Truth=Formal?Mathematical Logic. 5. Externalities are irrelevant (i.e. History, Culture). 6. Emotion (in argument or intellectual passion) is an Externality.

All the above 6 propositions/dogmas are part of the “stealthiness” of modern American Analytic Philosophy (not just the UCLA of the Cold War) but even today, even though those “dogmas” or in more discrete terminology, “axioms”, of American Cold War Philosophy are under attack by the intellectual descendants of the founders of American Cold War Philosophy (not just at UCLA, but almost everywhere—even outside America). Though today, the intellectual descendants of cold warrior philosophers hack away at the intellectual dogmas of their teachers (or their teachers’s teachers), the practices of stealthiness unconsciously remain in the new analytically dominated platforms for the production and distribution of the intellectual goods of philosophy.

We find out how, in the Epilogue (in the download flow of the sine curve of the text):

With the main enemies [who were the prejudiced and brainwashed general public, and the McCarthyite anti-Red vigilantes in high places] now internal to academia, the elaborate tactics of stealth directed against outsiders . . . hiring one’s own graduate students, publishing in obscure places if at all, and pretending to make hires while actually delaying them—were no longer necessary. Simply ignoring professors outside one’s own field and being ignored by them in return provided sufficient cover. (p.159)

I think it would be only fair at this point of the text, before going onto McCumber’s own intellectual weapon of defense against the now ancient dogmas of analytic philosophy, enunciated in the Epilogue, to allow Reichenbachians a chance to reply (after a few remarks about the context of the reply and a few other replies). In general, to be intellectually fair and honest, the wide condemnation of Philosophy in the America of the 50s also should have its day in the court of Reason in all its varieties. Because there are so many varieties of Reason, it would only be fair to pick up on four courts of hearing—I am not merely referring to the Reason of the pluralism in intellectual life today, but of the overlooked pluralism of intellectual life of the 50s in America.

Undercurrents Against Positivism

I am actually going to pick up on the four schools of anti-logical positivism (or at least those who were friendly and unfriendly critics, and those who just went their own way not bothering to criticize logical positivism but to pursue their own lights regardless of the criticisms of logical positivists.) Furthermore, I will only mention people who were mentioned in this book as part of the mainstream intellectual adherents of the ”operating philosophy” of America.

First, let’s give Wittgenstein a hearing, not the “Whereof you cannot speak, be silent” Wittgenstein, but the so-called later Wittgenstein of his posthumously published works (in the 50s and until very recently). I pick Wittgenstein first because his later philosophy of the 50s is antithetical to the mainstream philosophy of the 50s that became the “operating philosophy” of America. Wittgenstein (and various philosophers who influenced American philosophy but practiced ordinary language philosophy mainly in England, not mentioned in this book) clearly recognized and brought to the light of day the importance of how culture influences thought via language games. The Wittgensteinian dictum of “no private language” and the Wittgensteinian thought experiment of not understanding a lion that could speak, is intended to contextualize the intellectual role of the individual and the thought and language of the individual by focusing on the public nature of language and mind.

McCumber could reply, Wittgensteinians except for Rorty, largely mumbled among themselves, and wrote obscure short articles and books (that were really long articles) and so were stealthily pursuing their own little puzzles hardly known outside their own specializations within philosophy let alone outside philosophy. This goes to prove McCumber’s point: the public quiescence of philosophy allowed the Cold War Ideology to go unchallenged, and Cold War practices of self-censoring what is said in public and who are hired in academia, to go on behind doors closed to outside scrutiny—not only to the scrutiny of the Red Scare mongers, but as well to the scrutiny of independent thinkers wherever they happened to land a job whether in or out of academia.

Second, now let’s give Reichenbach, as a representative and founder of America’s “operating philosophy” in the Cold War, a chance to reply: Naturalism applied to philosophy is no mere extension of science but an answer to the traditional big questions of philosophy—an answer that historically stems from the Pre-Socratics—that were the progenitors of modern rational thought including the sciences of today: cosmology, physics, mathematics, evolutionary biology, psychology, sociology, and economics. Moreover, , though there may be no “logic of discovery”, there is still a social aspect for science—and in the social aspect, there are conventions that evolve with science—and similarly all intellectual disciplines. In other words, there is a social aspect to the methodology of science, in particular to the methodologies for the use of experiment and verification/refutation in science. Whether or not there are higher-level social conventions that govern all intellectual disciplines is open to discussion.

McCumber can reply that he critically discussed Reichenbach’s theory of the social aspect of sciences in the book:

But Reichenbach has a limited view of what this kind of scientific cooperation [society/Republic] amounts to…Scientific collaboration is thus a sort of quantitative amplification, in which many different individuals can pool their intellectual strength because they are all, in principle, doing exactly the same thing. . . . The scientific community, applying reason to observations, is thus not a set of clashing perspectives . . . but a sort of “superperson.” (p.100)

Society reduces to the sum of abstract logical individuals. The product of social interaction in a community of intellectuals equals the thought of the logically constructed idealized individual. Everyone, according to Reichenbach, in an intellectual community, must come up with the same answers as long as the algorithms, of reason are applied to the same data, correctly or uniformly.

Third, though not attacked in the book, Bertrand Russell, deserves a voice. Russell is mentioned in the book as an early pre-Cold War victim of anti-atheist religious fundamentalist pressure groups who lobbied for the firing of Russell from UCLA and from his next stop, CCNY. Russell’s case is a proto-version of the later American public witch-hunting of leftist intellectuals. How Russell could speak up goes as follows: Russell’s pioneering efforts provided the foundations in logico-mathematical reasoning for the development of analytic philosophy.

He was much admired by the logical positivists for starting an intellectual revolution in philosophy that turned philosophy from woolly thinking enmeshed in religion, mysticism, idealism, and a discipline without discipline, into a critical enquiry using the latest intellectual techniques available to scientists and mathematicians. Moreover, Russell used these tools of critical enquiry not only to tackle the fundamental philosophical problems where he also constantly revised his theories, but also to tackle the social, political, and ethical issues of the day for a wide audience. Hence, for Russell (unlike most of his followers including Wittgenstein, A.J. Ayer, and Quine) analytic philosophy was used to blast the idols of the day—especially the increasing production, testing, development and storing of nuclear weapons as a “deterrent”.

McCumber’s reply is easy: the exception proves the rule. In most cases, analytic philosophy turned its critical enquiry upon itself and even a-historically treated classical philosophers as either proto-analytic philosophers (when those older views or arguments were endorsed by the analytic school of philosophy) or as muddled, without looking at historical context. The inward approach of most analytic philosophers reveals that their use of analytic philosophy as a “stealth” weapon—to keep undetected from the outside world in the Cold War—is highlighted by contrast with how Russell was brave enough to expose all his intellectual armoury to attack from the outer world. It is not that analytic philosophy is inherently an insider-game, it is that as an insider-game, analytic philosophy, on the one side, avoided trouble from Cold War evangelists; and analytic philosophy as an insider-game, on the other side, played into the hands of the Red Scare avant-garde by not avoiding confrontation with those keen to find a “commie in every corner.”

Fourth, Hayek and Popper are treated as Cold Warriors as if it were both common knowledge and unquestionable truth—and so deserve a chance to set the record straight according to their own lights. Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper, though mentioned in the book as anti-communist, which they were, are not mentioned as anti-scientism or anti-unified science.

Both were against the doctrine of applying a singular, supposed universal scientific method to all disciplines including history and economics. Both thought that history had no laws: not material, not natural, not economic, not social. Historical events are contingent and unique; therefore, historical events are not repeatable and so have no “laws” or even “regularities” unlike the natural sciences. Economics assumes a social level not reducible to psychology, hence, the only law of economics is the hypothetical zero-law of rational behaviour in idealized situations, that is used to expose what is unexpected, and therefore treat the unexpected as a problem to be explained, though never completely.

McCumber’s reply is apparently an easy one too: Hayek and Popper adopted “methodological individualism” as an explanation of the social. Hence, the social becomes the abstract individual with identical goals and beliefs. Moreover, Hayek and Popper, though against scientism and the unity of scientific method—across disciplines—were avowed followers of the Enlightenment. Popper advocated “critical rationalism”, a fringe school of philosophy that aims to apply rationality universally in all disciplines. Moreover, Popper, especially does not admit that rationality is culturally, temporally, and disciplinarily relative.

(Popper argues against what he calls the “myth of the framework”, contrary to the cultural relativism held by Wittgenstein, Kuhn, Foucault, Post-Modernism, and apparently McCumber as well: culture permeates but does not totalize all thought, perception, and action; otherwise, liminal, transitional, and fringe thinkers could not occur, and their thoughts and activities would be inconceivable. However, this aside about Popper, it is important to note, does not undercut McCumber’s point that intellectual deviance does actually occur. Moreover, according to McCumber, intellectual deviance is and was insufficient to disturb other than as a nuisance effect, the hegemony of America’s “operating philosophy”—analytic philosophy and its subservience to the McCarthy Effect.)

Conclusion

How then, might the reader of this review ask, does the text under review, answer the question: how can we thoroughly expose and thoroughly debunk whatever elements remain in philosophy from the era of the Cold War? The part of the intellectual iceberg of the American ideology (paradigm/dispositive) of the Cold War that remains is the part out of view—the most hazardous part to enquirers at sail in the ocean of thought (in every field of enquiry, and even in our everyday thinking about everyday matters).

John McCumber outlines in a subsection of the Epilogue, “Reason Beyond Rational Choice”, (pp. 164 ff.) a 5 step program, for overcoming the meld of scientific philosophy and Rational Choice Theory that evolved into modern analytic philosophy. Here is a concise version of a manifesto for a program that appears to comprise both a revision and fusion of good old-fashioned American pragmatism (in the footsteps of Rorty) and Americanized post-modernism.

First, engage in dialectics—people passionately arguing together from different cultural/intellectual outlooks. Second, the aim is not to win, but to gain mutual understanding, and even help each other better articulate their own viewpoints. Third, recognize the historical background for each other’s different outlooks—contextualize outlooks rather than universalize outlooks. Fourth, use no rules or for whatever minimal rules are used, treat them as guidelines to be modified and replaced as the situation demands, and as the dialectics evolve. Fifth, attempt to let a harmonization of outlooks develop without overwhelming or drowning out the different voices.

There are three questions a reader of the book might pose to the author—that are called forth by the very text of the book and inherent in the deepest level of the book. I will state the three questions below that arise from the deep level tacit premise of the book. This tacit premise goes roughly in this way: The individuals in a professional field of an academic institution where independent thinkers are protected by the professional ethics of academic freedom as well as the laws of most democratic countries that guarantee freedom of speech and thought, can be “subjectivized” (in the terminology of McCumber adapted from post-modernist thinkers). “Subjectivization” is the unconscious domination of academic thought that creates a subliminal conformism to a mainstream of one voice in philosophy and becomes absorbed into a monolithic American ideology.

I conclude with the three questions that pop-out of the logic of a situation where an academic mainstream arises and catches those in it unawares; and, where in practice, regardless of theory and regardless of the advocacy of pluralism, members of the non-analytic schools of thought until today are either unemployed, underemployed or marginalized both in academia and in business.

1) How has the God of the Cold War and the iceberg of the American Cold War ideology though exposed, survived the voluminous talks and texts about pluralism, multiculturalism, multi-genderism, diversity…? 2) Or, if the Cold War God is dead, what is the subliminal ideology/paradigm/dispositive that has replaced the Cold War ideology and has in turn captured American life where an evolved analytic, but still analytic roaring mainstream drowns out alternative voices? 3) Is the whole neo-Kuhnian and neo-Foucaultian trend-setting and widely used but vague and metaphorical terminology of paradigm/dispositive, misleading; and so, are there other externalities at work, perhaps those in front of our noses—such as the current economic-techno-social structures that provide a niche for the professionalization of elites that allows those elites to separate themselves from the everyday world; and, create new places of power and control for themselves?

References

McCumber, John. The Philosophy Scare: The Politics of Reason in the Early Cold War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Author Information: Alfred Moore, University of York, UK, alfred.moore@york.ac.uk

Moore, Alfred. “Transparency and the Dynamics of Trust and Distrust.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 4 (2018), 26-32.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3W8

Please refer to:

A climate monitoring camp at Blackheath in London, UK, on the evening of 28 August 2009.
Image by fotdmike via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In 1961 the Journal of the American Medical Association published a survey suggesting that 90% of doctors who diagnosed cancer in their patients would choose not to tell them (Oken 1961). The doctors in the study gave a variety of reasons, including (unsubstantiated) fears that patients might commit suicide, and feelings of futility about the prospects of treatment. Among other things, this case stands as a reminder that, while it is a commonplace that lay people often don’t trust experts, at least as important is that experts often don’t trust lay people.

Paternalist Distrust

I was put in mind of this stunning example of communicative paternalism while reading Stephen John’s recent paper, “Epistemic trust and the ethics of science communication: against transparency, openness, sincerity and honesty.” John makes a case against a presumption of openness in science communication that – although his argument is more subtle – reads at times like a rational reconstruction of a doctor-patient relationship from the 1950s. What is disquieting is that he makes a case that is, at first glance, quite persuasive.

When lay people choose to trust what experts tell them, John argues, they are (or their behaviour can usefully be modelled as though they are) making two implicit judgments. The first, and least controversial, is that ‘if some claim meets scientific epistemic standards for proper acceptance, then [they] should accept that claim’ (John 2018, 77). He calls this the ‘epistemological premise’.

Secondly, however, the lay person needs to be convinced that the ‘[i]nstitutional structures are such that the best explanation for the factual content of some claim (made by a scientist, or group, or subject to some consensus) is that this claim meets scientific “epistemic standards” for proper acceptance’ (John 2018, 77). He calls this the ‘sociological premise.’ He suggests, rightly, I think, that this is the premise in dispute in many contemporary cases of distrust in science. Climate change sceptics (if that is the right word) typically do not doubt that we should accept claims that meet scientific epistemic standards; rather, they doubt that the ‘socio-epistemic institutions’ that produce scientific claims about climate change are in fact working as they should (John 2018, 77).

Consider the example of the so-called ‘climate-gate’ controversy, in which a cache of emails between a number of prominent climate scientists were made public on the eve of a major international climate summit in 2009. The emails below (quoted in Moore 2017, 141) were full of claims that might – to the unitiated – look like evidence of sharp practice. For example:

“I should warn you that some data we have we are not supposed [to] pass on to others. We can pass on the gridded data—which we do. Even if WMO [World Meteorological Organization] agrees, I will still not pass on the data. We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it.”

“You can delete this attachment if you want. Keep this quiet also, but this is the person who is putting in FOI requests for all emails Keith and Tim have written and received re Ch 6 of AR4 We think we’ve found a way around this.”

“The other paper by MM is just garbage. … I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!”

“I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd [sic] from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”

As Phil Jones, then director of the Climate Research Unit, later admitted, the emails “do not read well.”[1] However, neither, on closer inspection,[2] did they show anything particularly out of the ordinary, and certainly nothing like corruption or fraud. Most of the controversy, it seemed, came from lay people misinterpreting the backstage conversation of scientists in light of a misleading image of what good science is supposed to look like.

The Illusions of Folk Philosophy of Science

This is the central problem identified in John’s paper. Many people, he suggests, evaluate the ‘sociological premise’ in light of a ‘folk philosophy of science’ that is worlds away from the reality of scientific practice. For this reason, revealing to a non-expert public how the sausage is made can lead not to understanding, ‘but to greater confusion’ (John 2017, 82). And worse, as he suggests happened in the climate-gate case, it might lead people to reject well-founded scientific claims in the mistaken belief that they did not meet proper epistemic standards within the relevant epistemic community. Transparency might thus lead to unwarranted distrust.

In a perfect world we might educate everybody in the theory and practice of modern science. In the absence of such a world, however, scientists need to play along with the folk belief in order to get lay audiences to adopt those claims that are in their epistemic best interests. Thus, John argues, scientists explaining themselves to lay publics should seek to ‘well-lead’ (the benevolent counterpart to mislead) their audience. That is, they should try to bring the lay person to hold the most epistemically sound beliefs, even if this means masking uncertainties, glossing complications, pretending more precision than you know to be the case, and so on.

Although John presents his argument as something close to heresy, his model of ‘well-leading’ speech describes a common enough practice. Economists, for instance, face a similar temptation to mask uncertainties and gloss complications and counter-arguments when engaging with political leaders and wider publics on issues such as the benefits and disadvantages of free trade policies.

As Dani Rodrik puts it:

As a professional economist, as an academic economist, day in and day out I see in seminars and papers a great variety of views on what the effects of trade agreements are, the ambiguous effects of deep integration. Inside economics, you see that there is not a single view on globalization. But the moment that gets translated into the political domain, economists have this view that you should never provide ammunition to the barbarians. So the barbarians are these people who don’t understand the notion of comparative advantage and the gains from trade, and you don’t want… any of these caveats, any of these uncertainties, to be reflected in the public debate. (Rodrik 2017, at c.30-34 mins).

‘Well-leading’ speech seems to be the default mode for experts talking to lay audiences.

An Intentional Deception

A crucial feature of ‘well-leading’ speech is that it has no chance of working if you tell the audience what you are up to. It is a strategy that cannot be openly avowed without undermining itself, and thus relies on a degree of deception. Furthermore, the well-leading strategy only works if the audience already trusts the experts in question, and is unlikely to help – and is likely to actively harm expert credibility – in context where experts are already under suspicion and scrutiny. John thus admits that this strategy can backfire if the audience is made aware of some of the hidden complications, and worse, as was case of in climate-gate, if it seems the experts actively sought to evade demands for transparency and accountability (John 2017, 82).

This puts experts in a bind: be ‘open and honest’ and risk being misunderstood; or engage in ‘well-leading’ speech and risk being exposed – and then misunderstood! I’m not so sure the dilemma is actually as stark as all that, but John identifies a real and important problem: When an audience misunderstands what the proper conduct of some activity consists in, then revealing information about the conduct of the activity can lead them to misjudge its quality. Furthermore, to the extent that experts have to adjust their conduct to conform to what the audience thinks it should look like, revealing information about the process can undermine the quality of the outcomes.

One economist has thus argued that accountability works best when it is based on information about outcomes, and that information about process ‘can have detrimental effects’ (Prat 2005: 863). By way of example, she compares two ways of monitoring fund managers. One way is to look at the yearly returns. The other way (exemplified, in her case, by pension funds), involves communicating directly with fund managers and demanding that they ‘explain their investment strategy’ (Prat 2005, 870). The latter strategy, she claims, produces worse outcomes than those monitored only by their results, because the agents have an incentive to act in a way that conforms to what the principal regards as appropriate rather than what the agent regards as the most effective action.

Expert Accountability

The point here is that when experts are held accountable – at the level of process – by those without the relevant expertise, their judgment is effectively displaced by that of their audience. To put it another way, if you want the benefit of expert judgment, you have to forgo the urge to look too closely at what they are doing. Onora O’Neill makes a similar point: ‘Plants don’t flourish when we pull them up too often to check how their roots are growing: political, institutional and professional life too may not flourish if we constantly uproot it to demonstrate that everything is transparent and trustworthy’ (O’Neill 2002: 19).

Of course, part of the problem in the climate case is that the outcomes are also subject to expert interpretation. When evaluating a fund manager you can select good people, leave them alone, and check that they hit their targets. But how do you evaluate a claim about likely sea-level rise over the next century? If radical change is needed now to avert such catastrophic effects, then the point is precisely not to wait and see if they are right before we act. This means that both the ‘select and trust’ and the ‘distrust and monitor’ models of accountability are problematic, and we are back with the problem: How can accountability work when you don’t know enough about the activity in question to know if it’s being done right? How are we supposed to hold experts accountable in ways that don’t undermine the very point of relying on experts?

The idea that communicative accountability to lay people can only diminish the quality either of warranted trust (John’s argument) or the quality of outcomes (Prat’s argument) presumes that expert knowledge is a finished product, so to speak. After all, if experts have already done their due diligence and could not get a better answer, then outsiders have nothing epistemically meaningful to add. But if expert knowledge is not a finished product, then demands for accountability from outsiders to the expert community can, in principle, have some epistemic value.

Consider the case of HIV-AIDS research and the role of activists in challenging expert ideas of what constituted ‘good science’ in conduct of clinical trials. In this engagement they ‘were not rejecting medical science,’ but were rather “denouncing some variety of scientific practice … as not conducive to medical progress and the health and welfare of their constituency” (Epstein 1996: 2). It is at least possible that the process of engaging with and responding to criticism can lead to learning on both sides and the production, ultimately, of better science. What matters is not whether the critics begin with an accurate view of the scientific process; rather, what matters is how the process of criticism and response is carried out.

On 25 April 2012, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) celebrated its 25th anniversary with a protest march through Manhattan’s financial district. The march, held in partnership with Occupy Wall Street, included about 2000 people.
Image by Michael Fleshman via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

We Are Never Alone

This leads me to an important issue that John doesn’t address. One of the most attractive features of his approach is that he moves beyond the limited examples, prevalent in the social epistemology literature, of one lay person evaluating the testimony of one expert, or perhaps two competing experts. He rightly observes that experts speak for collectives and thus that we are implicitly judging the functioning of institutions when we judge expert testimony. But he misses an analogous sociological problem on the side of the lay person. We rarely judge alone. Rather, we use ‘trust proxies’ (MacKenzie and Warren 2012).

I may not know enough to know whether those climate scientists were not doing good science, but others can do that work for me. I might trust my representatives, who have on my behalf conducted open investigations and inquiries. They are not climate scientists, but they have given the matter the kind of sustained attention that I have not. I might trust particular media outlets to do this work. I might trust social movements.

To go back to the AIDS case, ACT-UP functioned for many as a trust proxy of this sort, with the skills and resources to do this sort of monitoring, developing competence but with interests more closely aligned with the wider community affected by the issue. Or I might even trust the judgments of groups of citizens randomly selected and given an opportunity to more deeply engage with the issues for just this purpose (see Gastil, Richards, and Knobloch 2014).

This hardly, on its own, solves the problem of lay judgment of experts. Indeed, it would seem to place it at one remove and introduce a layer of intermediaries. But it is worth attending to these sorts of judgments for at least two reasons. One is because, in a descriptive sense, this is what actually seems to be going on with respect to expert-lay judgment. People aren’t directly judging the claims of climate scientists, and they’re not even judging the functioning of scientific institutions; they’re simply taking cues from their own trusted intermediaries. The second is that the problems and pathologies of expert-lay communication are, in large part, problems with their roots in failures of intermediary institutions and practices.

To put it another way, I suspect that a large part of John’s (legitimate) concern about transparency is at root a concern about unmediated lay judgment of experts. After all, in the climate-gate case, we are dealing with lay people effectively looking over the shoulders of the scientists as they write their emails. One might have similar concerns about video monitoring of meetings: they seem to show you what is going on but in fact are likely to mislead you because you don’t really know what you’re looking at (Licht and Naurin 2015). You lack the context and understanding of the practice that can be provided by observers, who need not themselves be experts, but who need to know enough about the practice to tell the difference between good and bad conduct.

The same idea can apply to transparency of reasoning, involving the demand that actors give a public account of their actions. While the demand that authorities explain how and why they reached their judgments seems to fall victim to the problem of lay misunderstanding, it also offers a way out of it. After all, in John’s own telling of the case, he explains in a convincing way why the first impression (that the ‘sociological premise’ has not been fulfilled) is misleading. The initial scandal initiated a process of scrutiny in which some non-experts (such as the political representatives organising the parliamentary inquiry) engaged in closer scrutiny of the expert practice in question.

Practical lay judgment of experts does not require that lay people become experts (as Lane 2014 and Moore 2017 have argued), but it does require a lot more engagement than the average citizen would either want or have time for. The point here is that most citizens still don’t know enough to properly evaluate the sociological premise and thus properly interpret information they receive about the conduct of scientists. But they can (and do) rely on proxies to do the work of monitoring and scrutinizing experts.

Where does this leave us? John is right to say that what matters is not the generation of trust per se, but warranted trust, or an alignment of trust and trustworthiness. What I think he misses is that distrust is crucial to the possible way in which transparency can (potentially) lead to trustworthiness. Trust and distrust, on this view, are in a dynamic relation: Distrust motivates scrutiny and the creation of institutional safeguards that make trustworthy conduct more likely. Something like this case for transparency was made by Jeremy Bentham (see Bruno 2017).

John rightly points to the danger that popular misunderstanding can lead to a backfire in the transition from ‘scrutiny’ to ‘better behaviour.’ But he responds by asserting a model of ‘well-leading’ speech that seems to assume that lay people already trust experts, and he thus leaves unanswered the crucial questions raised by his central example: What are we to do when we begin from distrust and suspicion? How we might build trustworthiness out of distrust?

Contact details: alfred.moore@york.ac.uk

References

Bruno, Jonathan. “Vigilance and Confidence: Jeremy Bentham, Publicity, and the Dialectic of Trust and Distrust.” American Political Science Review, 111, no. 2 (2017) pp. 295-307.

Epstein, S. Impure Science: AIDS, Activism and the Politics of Knowledge. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1996.

Gastil, J., Richards, R. C., & Knobloch, K. R. “Vicarious deliberation: How the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review influenced deliberation in mass elections.” International Journal of Communication, 8 (2014), 62–89.

John, Stephen. “Epistemic trust and the ethics of science communication: against transparency, openness, sincerity and honesty.” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 32, no. 2 (2017) 75-87.

Lane, Melissa. “When the Experts are Uncertain: Scientific Knowledge and the Ethics of Democratic Judgment.” Episteme 11, no. 1 (2014) 97-118.

Licht, Jenny de Fine, and Daniel Naurin. “Open Decision-Making Procedures and Public Legitimacy: An Inventory of Causal Mechanisms”. In Jon Elster (ed), Secrecy and Publicity in Votes and Debates. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2015), 131-151.

MacKenzie, Michael, and Mark E. Warren, “Two Trust-Based Uses of Minipublics.” In John Parkinson and Jane Mansbridge (eds.) Deliberative Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2012), 95-124.

Moore, Alfred. Critical Elitism: Deliberation, Democracy, and the Politics of Expertise. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Oken, Donald. “What to Tell Cancer Patients: A Study of Medical Attitudes.” Journal of the American Medical Association 175, no. 13 (1961) 1120-1128.

O’Neill, Onora. A Question of Trust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Prat, Andrea. The Wrong Kind of Transparency. The American Economic Review 95, no. 3 (2005), 862-877.

[1] In a statement released on 24 November 2009, http://www.uea.ac.uk/mac/comm/media/press/2009/nov/cruupdate

[2] One of eight separate investigations was by the House of Commons select committee on Science and Technology (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmsctech/387/38702.htm).

Author Information: Adam Riggio, SERRC Digital Editor, serrc.digital@gmail.com

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

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Vp

Image by cornie via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Bryan Van Norden has become about as notorious as an academic philosopher can be while remaining a virtuous person. His notoriety came with a column in the New York Times that took the still-ethnocentric approach of many North American and European university philosophy departments to task. The condescending and insulting dismissal of great works of thought from cultures and civilizations beyond Europe and European-descended North America should scandalize us. That it does not is to the detriment of academic philosophy’s culture.

Anyone who cares about the future of philosophy as a tradition should read Taking Back Philosophy and take its lessons to heart, if one does not agree already with its purpose. The discipline of philosophy, as practiced in North American and European universities, must incorporate all the philosophical traditions of humanity into its curriculum and its subject matter. It is simple realism.

A Globalized World With No Absolute Hierarchies

I am not going to argue for this decision, because I consider it obvious that this must be done. Taking Back Philosophy is a quick read, an introduction to a political task that philosophers, no matter their institutional homes, must support if the tradition is going to survive beyond the walls of universities increasingly co-opted by destructive economic, management, and human resources policies.

Philosophy as a creative tradition cannot survive in an education economy built on the back of student debt, where institutions’ priorities are set by a management class yoked to capital investors and corporate partners, which prioritizes the proliferation of countless administrative-only positions while highly educated teachers and researchers compete ruthlessly for poverty wages.

With this larger context in mind, Van Norden’s call for the enlargement of departments’ curriculums to cover all traditions is one essential pillar of the vision to liberate philosophy from the institutions that are destroying it as a viable creative process. In total, those four pillars are 1) universal accessibility, economically and physically; 2) community guidance of a university’s priorities; 3) restoring power over the institution to creative and research professionals; and 4) globalizing the scope of education’s content.

Taking Back Philosophy is a substantial brick through the window of the struggle to rebuild our higher education institutions along these democratic and liberating lines. Van Norden regularly publishes work of comparative philosophy that examines many problems of ethics and ontology using texts, arguments, and concepts from Western, Chinese, and Indian philosophy. But if you come to Taking Back Philosophy expecting more than a brick through those windows, you’ll be disappointed. One chapter walks through a number of problems as examples, but the sustained conceptual engagement of a creative philosophical work is absent. Only the call to action remains.

What a slyly provocative call it is – the book’s last sentence, “Let’s discuss it . . .”

Unifying a Tradition of Traditions

I find it difficult to write a conventional review of Taking Back Philosophy, because so much of Van Norden’s polemic is common sense to me. Of course, philosophy departments must be open to primary material from all the traditions of the human world, not just the Western. I am incapable of understanding why anyone would argue against this, given how globalized human civilization is today. For the context of this discussion, I will consider a historical and a technological aspect of contemporary globalization. Respectively, these are the fall of the European military empires, and the incredible intensity with which contemporary communications and travel technology integrates people all over Earth.

We no longer live in a world dominated by European military colonial empires, so re-emerging centres of culture and economics must be taken on their own terms. The Orientalist presumption, which Edward Said spent a career mapping, that there is no serious difference among Japanese, Malay, Chinese, Hindu, Turkic, Turkish, Persian, Arab, Levantine, or Maghreb cultures is not only wrong, but outright stupid. Orientalism as an academic discipline thrived for the centuries it did only because European weaponry intentionally and persistently kept those cultures from asserting themselves.

Indigenous peoples – throughout the Americas, Australia, the Pacific, and Africa – who have been the targets of cultural and eradicative genocides for centuries now claim and agitate for their human rights, as well as inclusion in the broader human community and species. I believe most people of conscience are appalled and depressed that these claims are controversial at all, and even seen by some as a sign of civilizational decline.

The impact of contemporary technology I consider an even more important factor than the end of imperialist colonialism in the imperative to globalize the philosophical tradition. Despite the popular rhetoric of contemporary globalization, the human world has been globalized for millennia. Virtually since urban life first developed, long-distance international trade and communication began as well.

Here are some examples. Some of the first major cities of ancient Babylon achieved their greatest economic prosperity through trade with cities on the south of the Arabian Peninsula, and as far east along the Indian Ocean coast as Balochistan. From 4000 to 1000 years ago, Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Persian, Arab, Chinese, Mongol, Indian, Bantu, Malian, Inca, and Anishinaabeg peoples, among others, built trade networks and institutions stretching across continents.

Contemporary globalization is different in the speed and quantity of commerce, and diversity of goods. It is now possible to reach the opposite side of the planet in a day’s travel, a journey so ordinary that tens of millions of people take these flights each year. Real-time communication is now possible between anywhere on Earth with broadband internet connections thanks to satellite networks and undersea fibre-optic cables. In 2015, the total material value of all goods and commercial services traded internationally was US$21-trillion. That’s a drop from the previous year’s all-time (literally) high of US$24-trillion.[1]

Travel, communication, and productivity has never been so massive or intense in all of human history. The major control hubs of the global economy are no longer centralized in a small set of colonial powers, but a variety of economic centres throughout the world, depending on industry. From Beijing, Moscow, Mumbai, Lagos, and Berlin to Tokyo, and Washington, the oil fields of Kansas, the Dakotas, Alberta, and Iraq, and the coltan, titanium, and tantalum mines of Congo, Kazakhstan, and China.

All these proliferating lists express a simple truth – all cultures of the world now legitimately claim recognition as equals, as human communities sharing our Earth as we hollow it out. Philosophical traditions from all over the world are components of those claims to equal recognition.

The Tradition of Process Thought

So that is the situation forcing a recalcitrant and reactionary academy to widen its curricular horizons – Do so, or face irrelevancy in a global civilization with multiple centres all standing as civic equals in the human community. This is where Van Norden himself leaves us. Thankfully, he understands that a polemic ending with a precise program immediately becomes empty dogma, a conclusion which taints the plausibility of an argument. His point is simple – that the academic discipline must expand its arms. He leaves the more complex questions of how the philosophical tradition itself can develop as a genuinely global community.

Process philosophy is a relatively new philosophical tradition, which can adopt the classics of Daoist philosophy as broad frameworks and guides. By process philosophy, I mean the research community that has grown around Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari as primary innovators of their model of thought – a process philosophy that converges with an ecological post-humanism. The following are some essential aspects of this new school of process thinking, each principle in accord with the core concepts of the foundational texts of Daoism, Dao De Jing and Zhuang Zi.

Ecological post-humanist process philosophy is a thorough materialism, but it is an anti-reductive materialism. All that exists is bodies of matter and fields of force, whose potentials include everything for which Western philosophers have often felt obligated to postulate a separate substance over and above matter, whether calling it mind, spirit, or soul.

As process philosophy, the emphasis in any ontological analysis is on movement, change, and relationships instead of the more traditional Western focus on identity and sufficiency. If I can refer to examples from the beginning of Western philosophy in Greece, process thought is an underground movement with the voice of Heraclitus critiquing a mainstream with the voice of Parmenides. Becoming, not being, is the primary focus of ontological analysis.

Process thinking therefore is primarily concerned with potential and capacity. Knowledge, in process philosophy, as a result becomes inextricably bound with action. This unites a philosophical school identified as “Continental” in common-sense categories of academic disciplines with the concerns of pragmatist philosophy. Analytic philosophy took up many concepts from early 20th century pragmatism in the decades following the death of John Dewey. These inheritors, however, remained unable to overcome the paradoxes stymieing traditional pragmatist approaches, particularly how to reconcile truth as correspondence with knowledge having a purpose in action and achievement.

A solution to this problem of knowledge and action was developed in the works of Barry Allen during the 2000s. Allen built an account of perception that was rooted in contemporary research in animal behaviour, human neurology, and the theoretical interpretations of evolution in the works of Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin.

His first analysis, focussed as it was on the dynamics of how human knowledge spurs technological and civilizational development, remains humanistic. Arguing from discoveries of how profoundly the plastic human brain is shaped in childhood by environmental interaction, Allen concludes that successful or productive worldly action itself constitutes the correspondence of our knowledge and the world. Knowledge does not consist of a private reserve of information that mirrors worldly states of affairs, but the physical and mental interaction of a person with surrounding processes and bodies to constitute those states of affairs. The plasticity of the human brain and our powers of social coordination are responsible for the peculiarly human mode of civilizational technology, but the same power to constitute states of affairs through activity is common to all processes and bodies.[2]

“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. Whatever is soft, fluid, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard.” – Lao Zi
The Burney Falls in Shasta County, Northern California. Image by melfoody via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Action in Phase With All Processes: Wu Wei

Movement of interaction constitutes the world. This is the core principle of pragmatist process philosophy, and as such brings this school of thought into accord with the Daoist tradition. Ontological analysis in the Dao De Jing is entirely focussed on vectors of becoming – understanding the world in terms of its changes, movements, and flows, as each of these processes integrate in the complexity of states of affairs.

Not only is the Dao De Jing a foundational text in what is primarily a process tradition of philosophy, but it is also primarily pragmatist. Its author Lao Zi frames ontological arguments in practical concerns, as when he writes, “The most supple things in the world ride roughshod over the most rigid” (Dao De Jing §43). This is a practical and ethical argument against a Parmenidean conception of identity requiring stability as a necessary condition.

What cannot change cannot continue to exist, as the turbulence of existence will overcome and erase what can exist only by never adapting to the pressures of overwhelming external forces. What can only exist by being what it now is, will eventually cease to be. That which exists in metamorphosis and transformation has a remarkable resilience, because it is able to gain power from the world’s changes. This Daoist principle, articulated in such abstract terms, is in Deleuze and Guattari’s work the interplay of the varieties of territorializations.

Knowledge in the Chinese tradition, as a concept, is determined by an ideal of achieving harmonious interaction with an actor’s environment. Knowing facts of states of affairs – including their relationships and tendencies to spontaneous and proliferating change – is an important element of comprehensive knowledge. Nonetheless, Lao Zi describes such catalogue-friendly factual knowledge as, “Those who know are not full of knowledge. Those full of knowledge do not know” (Dao De Jing 81). Knowing the facts alone is profoundly inadequate to knowing how those facts constrict and open potentials for action. Perfectly harmonious action is the model of the Daoist concept of Wu Wei – knowledge of the causal connections among all the bodies and processes constituting the world’s territories understood profoundly enough that self-conscious thought about them becomes unnecessary.[3]

Factual knowledge is only a condition of achieving the purpose of knowledge: perfectly adapting your actions to the changes of the world. All organisms’ actions change their environments, creating physically distinctive territories: places that, were it not for my action, would be different. In contrast to the dualistic Western concept of nature, the world in Daoist thought is a complex field of overlapping territories whose tensions and conflicts shape the character of places. Fulfilled knowledge in this ontological context is knowledge that directly conditions your own actions and the character of your territory to harmonize most productively with the actions and territories that are always flowing around your own.

Politics of the Harmonious Life

The Western tradition, especially in its current sub-disciplinary divisions of concepts and discourses, has treated problems of knowledge as a domain separate from ethics, morality, politics, and fundamental ontology. Social epistemology is one field of the transdisciplinary humanities that unites knowledge with political concerns, but its approaches remain controversial in much of the conservative mainstream academy. The Chinese tradition has fundamentally united knowledge, moral philosophy, and all fields of politics especially political economy since the popular eruption of Daoist thought in the Warring States period 2300 years ago. Philosophical writing throughout eastern Asia since then has operated in this field of thought.

As such, Dao-influenced philosophy has much to offer contemporary progressive political thought, especially the new communitarianism of contemporary social movements with their roots in Indigenous decolonization, advocacy for racial, sexual, and gender liberation, and 21st century socialist advocacy against radical economic inequality. In terms of philosophical tools and concepts for understanding and action, these movements have dense forebears, but a recent tradition.

The movement for economic equality and a just globalization draws on Antonio Gramsci’s introduction of radical historical contingency to the marxist tradition. While its phenomenological and testimonial principles and concepts are extremely powerful and viscerally rooted in the lived experience of subordinated – what Deleuze and Guattari called minoritarian – people as groups and individuals, the explicit resources of contemporary feminism is likewise a century-old storehouse of discourse. Indigenous liberation traditions draw from a variety of philosophical traditions lasting millennia, but the ongoing systematic and systematizing revival is almost entirely a 21st century practice.

Antonio Negri, Rosi Braidotti, and Isabelle Stengers’ masterworks unite an analysis of humanity’s destructive technological and ecological transformation of Earth and ourselves to develop a solution to those problems rooted in communitarian moralities and politics of seeking harmony while optimizing personal and social freedom. Daoism offers literally thousands of years of work in the most abstract metaphysics on the nature of freedom in harmony and flexibility in adaptation to contingency. Such conceptual resources are of immense value to these and related philosophical currents that are only just beginning to form explicitly in notable size in the Western tradition.

Van Norden has written a book that is, for philosophy as a university discipline, is a wake-up call to this obstinate branch of Western academy. The world around you is changing, and if you hold so fast to the contingent borders of your tradition, your territory will be overwritten, trampled, torn to bits. Live and act harmoniously with the changes that are coming. Change yourself.

It isn’t so hard to read some Lao Zi for a start.

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

Allen, Barry. Knowledge and Civilization. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2004.

Allen, Barry. Striking Beauty: A Philosophical Look at the Asian Martial Arts. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

Allen, Barry. Vanishing Into Things: Knowledge in Chinese Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Betasamosake Simpson, Leanne. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, Or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2012.

Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.

Deleuze, Gilles. Bergsonism. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Zone Books, 1988.

Chew, Sing C. World Ecological Degradation: Accumulation, Urbanization, and Deforestation, 3000 B.C. – A.D. 2000. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 2001.

Negri, Antonio, and Michael Hardt. Assembly. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Parikka, Jussi. A Geology of Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Riggio, Adam. Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.

Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics I. Translated by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2010.

Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics II. Translated by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2011.

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

World Trade Organization. World Trade Statistical Review 2016. Retrieved from https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/statis_e/wts2016_e/wts2016_e.pdf

[1] That US$3-trillion drop in trade was largely the proliferating effect of the sudden price drop of human civilization’s most essential good, crude oil, to just less than half of its 2014 value.

[2] A student of Allen’s arrived at this conclusion in combining his scientific pragmatism with the French process ontology of Deleuze and Guattari in the context of ecological problems and eco-philosophical thinking.

[3] This concept of knowledge as perfectly harmonious but non-self-conscious action also conforms to Henri Bergson’s concept of intuition, the highest (so far) form of knowledge that unites the perfect harmony in action of brute animal instinct with the self-reflective and systematizing power of human understanding. This is a productive way for another creative contemporary philosophical path – the union of vitalist and materialist ideas in the work of thinkers like Jane Bennett – to connect with Asian philosophical traditions for centuries of philosophical resources on which to draw. But that’s a matter for another essay.

Author Information: Bonnie Talbert, Harvard University, USA, btalbert@fas.harvard.edu

Talbert, Bonnie. “Paralysis by Analysis Revisited.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 6-9.

Please refer to:

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Sh

Illustration by Lemuel Thomas from the 1936 Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Calendar.
Image by clotho39 via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In his reply to my article “Overthinking and Other Minds: the Analysis Paralysis” (2017), Joshua Bergamin (2017) offers some fascinating thoughts about the nature of our knowledge of other people.

Bergamin is right in summarizing my claim that knowing another person involves fundamentally a know-how, and that knowing all the facts there is to know about a person is not enough to constitute knowing her. But, he argues, conscious deliberate thinking is useful in getting to know someone just as it is useful in learning any type of skill.

Questions of Ability

The example he cites is that of separating an egg’s yoke from its white—expert cooks can do it almost automatically while the novice in the kitchen needs to pay careful, conscious attention to her movements in order to get it right. This example is useful for several reasons. It highlights the fact that learning a skill requires effortful attention while engaging in an activity. It is one thing to think or read about how to separate an egg’s white from its yoke; it is quite another thing to practice it, even if it is slow going and clumsy at first. The point is that practice rather than reflection is what one has to do in order to learn how to smoothly complete the activity, even if the first attempts require effortful attention.[1]

On this point Bergamin and I are in agreement. My insistence that conscious deliberate reflection is rarely a good way to get to know someone is mostly targeted at the kinds of reflection one does “in one’s own head”. My claim is not that we never consciously think about other people, but that consciously thinking about them without their input is not a good way to get to know them.  This leads to another, perhaps more important point, which is that the case of the egg cracking is dissimilar from getting to know another person in some fundamental ways.

Unlike an egg, knowing how to interact with a person requires a back and forth exchange of postures, gestures, words, and other such signals. It is not possible for me to figure out how to interact with you and simply to execute those actions; I have to allow for a dynamic exchange of actions originating from each of us. With the egg, or any inanimate object, I am the only agent causing the sequence of events. With another person, there are two agents, and I cannot simply decide how to make the interaction work like I want it to; I have to have your cooperation. This makes knowing another person a different kind of enterprise than knowing other kinds of things.[2]

I maintain that most of the time, interactions with others are such that we do not need to consciously be thinking about what is going on. In fact, the behavioral, largely nonverbal signals that are sent nearly instantaneously to participants in a conversation occur so quickly that there is rarely time to reflect on them. Nevertheless, Bergamin’s point is that in learning an activity, and thus by extension, in getting to know another person as we learn to interact with her, we may be more conscious of our actions than we are once we know someone well and the interactions “flow” naturally.

Knowing Your Audience

I do not think this is necessarily at odds with my account. Learning how to pace one’s speech to a young child when one is used to speaking to adults might take some effortful attention, and the only way to get to the point where one can have a good conversation (if there is such a thing) with a youngster is to begin by paying attention to the speed at which one talks. I still think that once one no longer has to think about it, she will be better able to glean information from the child and will not have her attention divided between trying to pay attention to both what the child is doing and how she sounds herself.

It is easier to get to know someone if you are not focused on what you have to do to hold up your end of the conversation. But more than whether we are consciously or unconsciously attending to our actions in an interaction, my point is that reflection is one-sided while interaction is not, and it is interaction that is crucial for knowing another person. In interaction, whether our thought processes are unconscious or conscious, their epistemic function is such that they allow us to coordinate our behavior with another person’s. This is the crucial distinction from conscious deliberation that occurs in a non-interactive context.

Bergamin claims that “breakdowns” in flow are more than just disruptive; rather, they provide opportunities to learn how to better execute actions, both in learning a skill and in getting to know another person. And it is true that in relationships, a fight or disagreement can often shed light on the underlying dynamics that are causing tension. But unlike the way you can learn from a few misses how to crack an egg properly, you cannot easily decide how to fix your actions in a relationship without allowing for input from the other party.

Certain breakdowns in communication, or interruptions of the “flow” of a conversation can help us know another person better insofar as they alert us to situations in which things are not going smoothly. But further thinking does not always get us out of the problem–further interacting does. You cannot sort it out in your head without input from the other person.

My central claim is that knowing another person requires interaction and that the interactive context is constitutively different from contexts that require one-sided deliberation rather than back and forth dynamic flows of behavioral signals and other information. However, I also point out that propositional knowledge of various sorts is necessary for knowing another person.

Bergamin is correct to point out that in my original essay I do not elaborate on what if anything propositional, conscious deliberative thinking can add to knowing another person. But elsewhere (2014) I have argued that part of what it means to know someone is to know various things about her and that when we know someone, we can articulate various propositions that capture features of her character.

In the essay under discussion, I focus on the claim that propositional knowledge is not sufficient for knowing another person and that we must start with the kind of knowledge that comes from direct interaction if we are to claim that we know another person. We do also gain useful and crucial propositional knowledge from our interactions as well as from other sources that are also part of our knowledge of others, but without the knowledge that comes only from interaction we would ordinarily claim to know things about a person, rather than to know her.

Bergamin is also right in asserting that my account implies that our interactions with others do not typically involve much thinking in the traditional sense. They are, as he speculates, “immersive, intersubjective events…such that each relationship is different for each of us and to some extent out of our control.”  This is partly true. While I might share a very different relationship to Jamie than you do, chances are that we can both recognize certain features of Jamie as being part of who he is. I was struck by this point at a recent memorial service when people with very different relationships spoke about their loved one, impersonating his accent, his frequently used turns of phrase, his general stubbornness, generosity, larger than life personality and other features that everyone at the service could recognize no matter whether the relationship was strictly professional, familial, casual, lasting decades, etc.

I have tentatively spelled out an account (2014) that suggests that with people we know, there are some things that only the people in the relationship share, such as knowledge of where they had lunch last week and what was discussed. But there is also knowledge that is shared beyond that particular relationship that helps situate that relationship vis-à-vis other, overlapping relationships, i.e., while I share a unique relationship with my mother, and so does my sister-in-law, we can both recognize some features of her that are the same for both of us. Further, my sister–in-law knows that I am often a better judge of what my mother wants for her birthday, since I have known my mother longer and can easily tell that she does not mean it when she says she does not want any gifts this year.

Bergamin’s concluding thoughts about the Heideggerian nature of my project are especially insightful, and I too am still working on the speculative implications of my account, which posits that (in Bergamin’s words), “If people are ‘moving targets,’ then we are not ‘things’ but ‘processes,’ systems that are in constant flux. To know such a process is not to try to nail down the ever-changing facts about it, but involves interacting with it. Yet we who interact are ourselves a similar kind of ‘process,’ and in getting to know somebody we are just as much the known as the knower. Our relationships, therefore, are a kind of identity, that involves us and yet exceeds us — growing and evolving over time.” My hope is that this is a project on which we and many other scholars will continue to make progress.

Contact details: btalbert@fas.harvard.edu

References

Bergamin, Joshua. “To Know and To Be: Second-Person Knowledge and the Intersubjective Self, A Reply to Talbert.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 43-47.

Cleary, Christopher. “Olympians Use Imagery as Mental Training.” New York Times,  February 22, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/sports/olympics/olympians-use-imagery-as-mental-training.html

Talbert, Bonnie. “Knowing Other People: A Second-person Framework.” Ratio 28, no. 2 (2014): 190–206.

Talbert, Bonnie. “Overthinking and Other Minds: The Analysis Paralysis.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 6 (2017): 1-12.

[1] There is some research that shows that conscious thoughtful reflection, indeed “visualization” can help a person perform an activity better. Visualization has been used to help promote success in sports, business, personal habits, and the like. Process visualization, which is sometimes used with varying degrees of success in athletes, is interesting for my purposes because it does seem to help in performing an activity, or to help with the know-how involved in some athletic endeavors. I do not know why this is the case, and I am a bit skeptical of some of the claims used in this line of reasoning. But I do not think we could use process visualization to help with our interactions with others and get the same kind of results, for the actions of another person are much more unpredictable than the final hill of the marathon or the dismount of a balance beam routine. It is also useful to note that some sports are easier than others to visualize, namely those that are most predictable. For more on this last point and on how imagery can be used to enhance athletic performance, see Christopher Cleary’s “Olympians Use Imagery as Mental Training” (2014).

[2] This leads to another point that is not emphasized in my original essay but perhaps should have been. Insofar as I liken getting to know another person to the “flow” one can experience in certain sports, I do not sufficiently point out that “flow” in some sports, namely those that involve multiple people, involves something much more similar to the “know-how” involved in getting to know another person than in sports where there is only one person involved. Interestingly, “team sports” and other multi person events are not generally cited as activities whose success can be significantly improved by visualization.

Author Information: Manuel Padilla Cruz, University of Seville, mpadillacruz@us.es

Cruz, Manuel Padilla. “Conceptual Competence Injustice and Relevance Theory, A Reply to Derek Anderson.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 39-50.

Please refer to:

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3RS

Contestants from the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Image from Scripps National Spelling Bee, via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Derek Anderson (2017a) has recently differentiated conceptual competence injustice and characterised it as the wrong done when, on the grounds of the vocabulary used in interaction, a person is believed not to have a sophisticated or rich conceptual repertoire. His most interesting, insightful and illuminating work induced me to propose incorporating this notion to the field of linguistic pragmatics as a way of conceptualising an undesired and unexpected perlocutionary effect: attribution of lower level of communicative or linguistic competence. These may be drawn from a perception of seemingly poor performance stemming from lack of the words necessary to refer to specific elements of reality or misuse of the adequate ones (Padilla Cruz 2017a).

Relying on the cognitive pragmatic framework of relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004), I also argued that such perlocutionary effect would be an unfortunate by-product of the constant tendency to search for the optimal relevance of intentional stimuli like single utterances or longer stretches of discourse. More specifically, while aiming for maximum cognitive gain in exchange for a reasonable amount of cognitive effort, the human mind may activate or access assumptions about a language user’s linguistic or communicative performance, and feed them as implicated premises into inferential computations.

Although those assumptions might not really have been intended by the language user, they are made manifest by her[1] behaviour and may be exploited in inference, even if at the hearer’s sole responsibility and risk. Those assumptions are weak implicated premises and their interaction with other mentally stored information yields weakly implicated conclusions (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004). Since their content pertains to the speaker’s behaviour, they are behavioural implicatures (Jary 2013); since they negatively impact on an individual’s reputation as a language user, they turn out to be detrimental implicatures (Jary 1998).

My proposal about the benefits of the notion of conceptual competence injustice to linguistic pragmatics was immediately replied by Anderson (2017b). He considers that the intention underlying my comment on his work was “[…] to model conceptual competence injustice within relevance theory” and points out that my proposal “[…] must be tempered with the proper understanding of that phenomenon as a structural injustice” (Anderson 2017b: 36; emphasis in the original). Furthermore, he also claims that relevance theory “[…] does not intrinsically have the resources to identify instances of conceptual competence injustice” (Anderson 2017b: 36).

In what follows, I purport to clarify two issues. Firstly, my suggestion to incorporate conceptual competence injustice into linguistic pragmatics necessarily relies on a much broader, more general and loosened understanding of this notion. Even if such an understanding deprives it of some of its essential, defining conditions –namely, existence of different social identities and of matrices of domination– it may somehow capture the ontology of the unexpected effects that communicative performance may result in: an unfair appraisal of capacities.

Secondly, my intention when commenting on Anderson’s (2017a) work was not actually to model conceptual competence injustice within relevance theory, but to show that this pragmatic framework is well equipped and most appropriate in order to account for the cognitive processes and the reasons underlying the unfortunate negative effects that may be alluded to with the notion I am advocating for. Therefore, I will argue that relevance theory does in fact have the resources to explain why some injustices stemming from communicative performance may originate. To conclude, I will elaborate on the factors why wrong ascriptions of conceptual and lexical competence may be made.

What Is Conceptual Competence Injustice

As a sub-type of epistemic injustice (Fricker 2007), conceptual competence injustice arises in scenarios where there are privileged epistemic agents who (i) are prejudiced against members of specific social groups, identities or minorities, and (ii) exert power as a way of oppression. Such agents make “[…] false judgments of incompetence [which] function as part of a broader, reliable pattern of marginalization that systematically undermines the epistemic agency of members of an oppressed social identity” (Anderson 2017b: 36). Therefore, conceptual competence injustice is a way of denigrating individuals as knowers of specific domains of reality and ultimately disempowering, discriminating and excluding them, so it “[…] is a form of epistemic oppression […]” (Anderson 2017b: 36).

Lack or misuse of vocabulary may result in wronging if hearers conclude that certain concepts denoting specific elements of reality –objects, animals, actions, events, etc.– are not available to particular speakers or that they have erroneously mapped those concepts onto lexical items. When this happens, speakers’ conceptualising and lexical capacities could be deemed to be below alleged or actual standards. Since lexical competence is one of the pillars of communicative competence (Hymes 1972; Canale 1983; Bachman 1991; Celce-Murcia et al. 1995), that judgement could contribute to downgrading speakers in an alleged scale of communicative competence and, consequently, to regarding them as partially or fully incompetent.

According to Medina (2011), competence is a comparative and contrastive property. On the one hand, skilfulness in some domain may be compared to that in (an)other domain(s), so a person may be very skilled in areas like languages, drawing, football, etc., but not in others like mathematics, oil painting, basketball, etc. On the other hand, knowledge of and abilities in some matters may be greater or lesser than those of other individuals. Competence, moreover, may be characterised as gradual and context-dependent. Degree of competence –i.e. its depth and width, so to say– normally increases because of age, maturity, personal circumstances and experience, or factors such as instruction and subsequent learning, needs, interests, motivation, etc. In turn, the way in which competence surfaces may be affected by a variety of intertwined factors, which include (Mustajoki 2012; Padilla Cruz 2017b).

Factors Affecting Competence in Communication

Internal factors –i.e. person-related– among which feature:

Relatively stable factors, such as (i) other knowledge and abilities, regardless of their actual relatedness to a particular competence, and (ii) cognitive styles –i.e. patterns of accessing and using knowledge items, among which are concepts and words used to name them.

Relatively unstable factors, such as (i) psychological states like nervousness, concentration, absent-mindedness, emotional override, or simply experiencing feelings like happiness, sadness, depression, etc.; (ii) physiological conditions like tiredness, drowsiness, drunkenness, etc., or (iii) performance of actions necessary for physiological functions like swallowing, sipping, sneezing, etc. These may facilitate or hinder access to and usage of knowledge items including concepts and words.

External –i.e. situation-related– factors, which encompass (i) the spatio-temporal circumstances where encounters take place, and (ii) the social relations with other participants in an encounter. For instance, haste, urgency or (un)familiarity with a setting may ease or impede access to and usage of knowledge items, as may experiencing social distance and/or more or less power with respect to another individual (Brown and Levinson 1987).

While ‘social distance’ refers to (un)acquaintance with other people and (dis)similarity with them as a result of perceptions of membership to a social group, ‘power’ does not simply allude to the possibility of imposing upon others and conditioning their behaviour as a consequence of differing positions in a particular hierarchy within a specific social institution. ‘Power’ also refers to the likelihood to impose upon other people owing to perceived or supposed expertise in a field –i.e. expert power, like that exerted by, for instance, a professor over students– or to admiration of diverse personal attributes –i.e. referent power, like that exerted by, for example, a pop idol over fans (Spencer-Oatey 1996).

There Must Be Some Misunderstanding

Conceptualising capacities, conceptual inventories and lexical competence also partake of the four features listed above: gradualness, comparativeness, contrastiveness and context-dependence. Needless to say, all three of them obviously increase as a consequence of growth and exposure to or participation in a plethora of situations and events, among which education or training are fundamental. Conceptualising capacities and lexical competence may be more or less developed or accurate than other abilities, among which are the other sub-competences upon which communicative competence depends –i.e. phonetics, morphology, syntax and pragmatics (Hymes 1972; Canale 1983; Bachman 1991; Celce-Murcia et al. 1995).

Additionally, conceptual inventories enabling lexical performance may be rather complex in some domains but not in others –e.g. a person may store many concepts and possess a rich vocabulary pertaining to, for instance, linguistics, but lack or have rudimentary ones about sports. Finally, lexical competence may appear to be higher or lower than that of other individuals under specific spatio-temporal and social circumstances, or because of the influence of the aforesaid psychological and physiological factors, or actions performed while speaking.

Apparent knowledge and usage of general or domain-specific vocabulary may be assessed and compared to those of other people, but performance may be hindered or fail to meet expectations because of the aforementioned factors. If it was considered deficient, inferior or lower than that of other individuals, such consideration should only concern knowledge and usage of vocabulary concerning a specific domain, and be only relative to a particular moment, maybe under specific circumstances.

Unfortunately, people often extrapolate and (over)generalise, so they may take (seeming) lexical gaps at a particular time in a speaker’s life or one-off, occasional or momentary lexical infelicities to suggest or unveil more global and overarching conceptualising handicaps or lexical deficits. This does not only lead people to doubt the richness and broadness of that speaker’s conceptual inventory and lexical repertoire, but also to question her conceptualising abilities and what may be labelled her conceptual accuracy –i.e. the capacity to create concepts that adequately capture nuances in elements of reality and facilitate correct reference to those elements– as well as her lexical efficiency or lexical reliability –i.e. the ability to use vocabulary appropriately.

As long as doubts are cast about the amount and accuracy of the concepts available to a speaker and her ability to verbalise them, there arises an unwarranted and unfair wronging which would count as an injustice about that speaker’s conceptualising skills, amount of concepts and expressive abilities. The loosened notion of conceptual competence injustice whose incorporation into the field of linguistic pragmatics I advocated does not necessarily presuppose a previous discrimination or prejudice negatively biasing hegemonic, privileged or empowered individuals against minorities or identities.

Wrong is done, and an epistemic injustice is therefore inflicted, because another person’s conceptual inventory, lexical repertoire and expressive skills are underestimated or negatively evaluated because of (i) perception of a communicative behaviour that is felt not to meet expectations or to be below alleged standards, (ii) tenacious adherence to those expectations or standards, and (iii) unawareness of the likely influence of various factors on performance. This wronging may nonetheless lead to subsequently downgrading that person as regards her communicative competence, discrediting her conceptual accuracy and lexical efficiency/reliability, and denigrating her as a speaker of a language, and, therefore, as an epistemic agent. Relying on all this, further discrimination on other grounds may ensue or an already existing one may be strengthened and perpetuated.

Relevance Theory and Conceptual Competence Injustice

Initially put forth in 1986, and slightly refined almost ten years later, relevance theory is a pragmatic framework that aims to explain (i) why hearers select particular interpretations out of the various possible ones that utterances may have –all of which are compatible with the linguistically encoded and communicated information– (ii) how hearers process utterances, and (iii) how and why utterances and discourse give rise to a plethora of effects (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995). Accordingly, it concentrates on the cognitive side of communication: comprehension and the mental processes intervening in it.

Relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995) reacted against the so-called code model of communication, which was deeply entrenched in western linguistics. According to this model, communication merely consists of encoding thoughts or messages into utterances, and decoding these in order to arrive at speaker meaning. Since speakers cannot encode everything they intend to communicate and absolute explicitness is practically unattainable, relevance theory portrays communication as an ostensive-inferential process where speakers draw the audience’s attention by means of intentional stimuli. On some occasions these amount to direct evidence –i.e. showing– of what speakers mean, so their processing requires inference; on other occasions, intentional stimuli amount to indirect –i.e. encoded– evidence of speaker meaning, so their processing relies on decoding.

However, in most cases the stimuli produced in communication combine direct with indirect evidence, so their processing depends on both inference and decoding (Sperber and Wilson 2015). Intentional stimuli make manifest speakers’ informative intention –i.e. the intention that the audience create a mental representation of the intended message, or, in other words, a plausible interpretative hypothesis– and their communicative intention –i.e. the intention that the audience recognise that speakers do have a particular informative intention. The role of hearers, then, is to arrive at speaker meaning by means of both decoding and inference (but see below).

Relevance theory also reacted against philosopher Herbert P. Grice’s (1975) view of communication as a joint endeavour where interlocutors identify a common purpose and may abide by, disobey or flout a series of maxims pertaining to communicative behaviour –those of quantity, quality, relation and manner– which articulate the so-called cooperative principle. Although Sperber and Wilson (1986/1995) seriously question the existence of such principle, they nevertheless rest squarely on a notion already present in Grice’s work, but which he unfortunately left undefined: relevance. This becomes the corner stone in their framework. Relevance is claimed to be a property of intentional stimuli and characterised on the basis of two factors:

Cognitive effects, or the gains resulting from the processing of utterances: (i) strengthening of old information, (ii) contradiction and rejection of old information, and (iii) derivation of new information.

Cognitive or processing effort, which is the effort of memory to select or construct a suitable mental context for processing utterances and to carry out a series of simultaneous tasks that involve the operation of a number of mental mechanisms or modules: (i) the language module, which decodes and parses utterances; (ii) the inferential module, which relates information encoded and made manifest by utterances to already stored information; (iii) the emotion-reading module, which identifies emotional states; (iv) the mindreading module, which attributes mental states, and (v) vigilance mechanisms, which assess the reliability of informers and the believability of information (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004; Sperber et al. 2010).

Relevance is a scalar property that is directly proportionate to the amount of cognitive effects that an interpretation gives rise to, but inversely proportionate to the expenditure of cognitive effort required. Interpretations are relevant if they yield cognitive effects in return for the cognitive effort invested. Optimal relevance emerges when the effect-effort balance is satisfactory. If an interpretation is found to be optimally relevant, it is chosen by the hearer and thought to be the intended interpretation. Hence, optimal relevance is the property determining the selection of interpretations.

The Power of Relevance Theory

Sperber and Wilson’s (1986/1995) ideas and claims originated a whole branch in cognitive pragmatics that is now known as relevance-theoretic pragmatics. After years of intense, illuminating and fruitful work, relevance theorists have offered a plausible model for comprehension. In it, interpretative hypotheses –i.e. likely interpretations– are said to be formulated during a process of mutual parallel adjustment of the explicit and implicit content of utterances, where the said modules and mechanisms perform a series of simultaneous, incredibly fast tasks at a subconscious level (Carston 2002; Wilson and Sperber 2004).

Decoding only yields a minimally parsed chunk of concepts that is not yet fully propositional, so it cannot be truth-evaluable: the logical form. This form needs pragmatic or contextual enrichment by means of additional tasks wherein the inferential module relies on contextual information and is sometimes constrained by the procedural meaning –i.e. processing instructions– encoded by some linguistic elements.

Those tasks include (i) disambiguation of syntactic constituents; (ii) assignment of reference to words like personal pronouns, proper names, deictics, etc.; (iii) adjustment of the conceptual content encoded by words like nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs, and (iv) recovery of unarticulated constituents. Completion of these tasks results in the lower-level explicature of an utterance, which is a truth-evaluable propositional form amounting to the explicit content of an utterance. Construction of lower-level explicatures depends on decoding and inference, so that the more decoding involved, the more explicit or strong these explicatures are and, conversely, the more inference needed, the less explicit and weaker these explicatures are (Wilson and Sperber 2004).

A lower-level explicature may further be embedded into a conceptual schema that captures the speaker’s attitude(s) towards the proposition expressed, her emotion(s) or feeling(s) when saying what she says, or the action that she intends or expects the hearer to perform by saying what she says. This schema is the higher-level explicature and is also part of the explicit content of an utterance.

It is sometimes built through decoding some of the elements in an utterance –e.g. attitudinal adverbs like ‘happily’ or ‘unfortunately’ (Ifantidou 1992) or performative verbs like ‘order’, ‘apologise’ or ‘thank’ (Austin 1962)– and other times through inference, emotion-reading and mindreading –as in the case of, for instance, interjections, intonation or paralanguage (Wilson and Wharton 2006; Wharton 2009, 2016) or indirect speech acts (Searle 1969; Grice 1975). As in the case of lower-level explicatures, higher-level ones may also be strong or weak depending on the amount of decoding, emotion-reading and mindreading involved in their construction.

The explicit content of utterances may additionally be related to information stored in the mind or perceptible from the environment. Those information items act as implicated premises in inferential processes. If the hearer has enough evidence that the speaker intended or expected him to resort to and use those premises in inference, they are strong, but, if he does so at his own risk and responsibility, they are weak. Interaction of the explicit content with implicated premises yields implicated conclusions. Altogether, implicated premises and implicated conclusions make up the implicit content of an utterance. Arriving at the implicit content completes mutual parallel adjustment, which is a process constantly driven by expectations of relevance, in which the more plausible, less effort-demanding and more effect-yielding possibilities are normally chosen.

The Limits of Relevance Theory

As a model centred on comprehension and interpretation of ostensive stimuli, relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995) does not need to be able to identify instances of conceptual competence injustice, as Anderson (2017b) remarks, nor even instances of the negative consequences of communicative behaviour that may be alluded to by means of the broader, loosened notion of conceptual competence injustice I argued for. Rather, as a cognitive framework, its role is to explain why and how these originate. And, certainly, its notional apparatus and the cognitive machinery intervening in comprehension which it describes can satisfactorily account for (i) the ontology of unwarranted judgements of lexical and conceptual (in)competence, (ii) their origin and (iii) some of the reasons why they are made.

Accordingly, those judgements (i) are implicated conclusions which (ii) are derived during mutual parallel adjustment as a result of (iii) accessing some manifest assumptions and using these as implicated premises in inference. Obviously, the implicated premises that yield the negative conclusions about (in)competence might not have been intended by the speaker, who would not be interested in the hearer accessing and using them. However, her communicative performance makes manifest assumptions alluding to her lexical lacunae and mistakes and these lead the hearer to draw undesired conclusions.

Relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995) is powerful enough to offer a cognitive explanation of the said three issues. And this alone was what I aimed to show in my comment to Anderson’s (2017a) work. Two different issues, nevertheless, are (i) the reasons why certain prejudicial assumptions become manifest to an audience and (ii) why those assumptions end up being distributed across the members of certain wide social groups.

As Anderson (2017b) underlines, conceptual competence injustices must necessarily be contextualised in situations where privileged and empowered social groups are negatively-biased or prejudiced against other identities and create patterns of marginalisation. Prejudice may be argued to bring to the fore a variety of negative assumptions about the members of the identities against whom it is held. Using Giora’s (1997) terminology, prejudice makes certain detrimental assumptions very salient or increases the saliency of those assumptions.

Consequently, they are amenable to being promptly accessed and effortlessly used as implicated premises in deductions, from which negative conclusions are straightforwardly and effortlessly derived. Those premises and conclusions spread throughout the members of the prejudiced and hegemonic group because, according to Sperber’s (1996) epidemiological model of culture, they are repeatedly transmitted or made public. This is possible thanks to two types of factors (Sperber 1996: 84):

Psychological factors, such as their relative easiness of storage, the existence of other knowledge with which they can interact in order to generate cognitive effects –e.g. additional negative conclusions pertaining to the members of the marginalised identity– or existence of compelling reasons to make the individuals in the group willing to transmit them –e.g. desire to disempower and/or marginalise the members of an unprivileged group, to exclude them from certain domains of human activity, to secure a privileged position, etc.

Ecological factors, such as the repetition of the circumstances under which those premises and conclusions result in certain actions –e.g. denigration, disempowerment, maginalisation, exclusion, etc.– availability of storage mechanisms other than the mind –e.g. written documents– or the existence of institutions that transmit and perpetuate those premises and conclusions, thus ensuring their continuity and availability.

Since the members of the dominating biased group find those premises and conclusions useful to their purposes and interests, they constantly reproduce them and, so to say, pass them on to the other members of the group or even on to individuals who do not belong to it. Using Sperber’s (1996) metaphor, repeated production and internalisation of those representations resembles the contagion of illnesses. As a result, those representations end up being part of the pool of cultural representations shared by the members of the group in question or other individuals.

The Imperative to Get Competence Correct

In social groups with an interest in denigrating and marginalising an identity, certain assumptions regarding the lexical inventories and conceptualising abilities of the epistemic agents with that identity may be very salient, or purposefully made very salient, with a view to ensuring that they are inferentially exploited as implicated premises that easily yield negative conclusions. In the case of average speakers’ lexical gaps and mistakes, assumptions concerning their performance and infelicities may also become very salient, be fed into inferential processes and result in prejudicial conclusions about their lexical and conceptual (in)competence.

Although utterance comprehension and information processing end upon completion of mutual parallel adjustment, for the informational load of utterances and the conclusions derivable from them to be added to an individual’s universe of beliefs, information must pass the filters of a series of mental mechanisms that target both informers and information itself, and check their believability and reliability. These mechanisms scrutinise various sources determining trust allocation, such as signs indicating certainty and trustworthiness –e.g. gestures, hesitation, nervousness, rephrasing, stuttering, eye contact, gaze direction, etc.– the appropriateness, coherence and relevance of the dispensed information; (previous) assumptions about speakers’ expertise or authoritativeness in some domain; the socially distributed reputation of informers, and emotions, prejudices and biases (Origgi 2013: 227-233).

As a result, these mechanisms trigger a cautious and sceptic attitude known as epistemic vigilance, which in some cases enables individuals to avoid blind gullibility and deception (Sperber et al. 2010). In addition, these mechanisms monitor the correctness and adequateness of the interpretative steps taken and the inferential routes followed while processing utterances and information, and check for possible flaws at any of the tasks in mutual parallel adjustment –e.g. wrong assignment of reference, supply of erroneous implicated premises, etc.– which would prevent individuals from arriving at actually intended interpretations. Consequently, another cautious and sceptical attitude is triggered towards interpretations, which may be labelled hermeneutical vigilance (Padilla Cruz 2016).

If individuals do not perceive risks of malevolence or deception, or do not sense that they might have made interpretative mistakes, vigilance mechanisms are weakly or moderately activated (Michaelian 2013: 46; Sperber 2013: 64). However, their level of activation may be raised so that individuals exercise external and/or internal vigilance. While the former facilitates higher awareness of external factors determining trust allocation –e.g. cultural norms, contextual information, biases, prejudices, etc.– the latter facilitates distancing from conclusions drawn at a particular moment, backtracking with a view to tracing their origin –i.e. the interpretative steps taken, the assumptions fed into inference and assessment of their potential consequences (Origgi 2013: 224-227).

Exercising weak or moderate vigilance of the conclusions drawn upon perception of lexical lacunae or mistakes may account for their unfairness and the subsequent wronging of individuals as regards their actual conceptual and lexical competence. Unawareness of the internal and external factors that may momentarily have hindered competence and ensuing performance, may cause perceivers of lexical gaps and errors to unquestioningly trust assumptions that their interlocutors’ allegedly poor performance makes manifest, rely on them, supply them as implicated premises, derive conclusions that do not do any justice to their actual level of conceptual and lexical competence, and eventually trust their appropriateness, adequacy or accuracy.

A higher alertness to the potential influence of those factors on performance would block access to the detrimental assumptions made manifest by their interlocutors’ performance or make perceivers of lexical infelicities reconsider the convenience of using those assumptions in deductions. If this was actually the case, perceivers would be deploying the processing strategy labelled cautious optimism, which enables them to question the suitability of certain deductions and to make alternative ones (Sperber 1994).

Conclusion

Relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004) does not need to be able to identify cases of conceptual competence injustice, but its notional apparatus and the machinery that it describes can satisfactorily account for the cognitive processes whereby conceptual competence injustices originate. In essence, prejudice and interests in denigrating members of specific identities or minorities favour the saliency of certain assumptions about their incompetence, which, for a variety of psychological and ecological reasons, may already be part of the cultural knowledge of the members of prejudiced empowered groups. Those assumptions are subsequently supplied as implicated premises to deductions, which yield conclusions that undermine the reputation of the members of the identities or minorities in question. Ultimately, such conclusions may in turn be added to the cultural knowledge of the members of the biased hegemonic group.

The same process would apply to those cases wherein hearers unfairly wrong their interlocutors on the grounds of performance below alleged or expected standards, and are not vigilant enough of the factors that could have impeded it. That wronging may be alluded to by means of a somewhat loosened, broadened notion of ‘conceptual competence injustice’ which deprives it of one of its quintessential conditions: the existence of prejudice and interests in marginalising other individuals. Inasmuch as apparently poor performance may give rise to unfortunate unfair judgements of speakers’ overall level of competence, those judgements could count as injustices. In a nutshell, this was the reason why I advocated for the incorporation of a ‘decaffeinated’ version of Anderson’s (2017a) notion into the field of linguistic pragmatics.

Contact details: mpadillacruz@us.es

References

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[1] Following a relevance-theoretic convention, reference to the speaker will be made through the feminine third person singular personal pronoun, while reference to the hearer will be made through its masculine counterpart.

Author Information: Ilya Kasavin, Russian Academy of Sciences, itkasavin@gmail.com

Kasavin, Ilya. “Cases of Interdisciplinarity: Between Habitus and Reflexion.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 3 (2015): 15-30.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-1VE

reflexion_trees

Image credit: Mélanie Plante, via flickr

Abstract [1] [2] [3]

Several cases of broadly viewed interdisciplinary research are considered. Discussed are the disciplinary status of natural philosophy in the middle ages; the dispute about witchcraft in the Renaissance; the disciplinary formation of chemistry in the interaction between peripatetics, jatrochemists, spagirists and atomists; and the conceptual shifts in Maxwell’s electrodynamics. These debates are analyzed using two major notions—habitus and reflexion—that differ from those of Bourdieu. Habitus is taken as a methodological attitude based on natural and historically rooted adherence to a theory, or world picture, based on the shared research practice. Reflexion represents a critical and proactionary stance towards a revision of an established theoretical framework, which is irreducible to the logic of rational criticism. Various cases of habitus-reflexion controversy provide a valuable source for a typological picture of interdisciplinary research. And this, in turn, helps clarify the nature of interdisciplinarity in general, given the topicality of this cognitive pattern in the contemporary science.

Interdisciplinary interaction in modern science has become a usual phenomenon deserving more serious philosophical and scientific understanding. Why is an epistemological analysis of interdisciplinary research significant? The rationale for this attention stems from the nonclassical approaches in epistemology and philosophy of science that emphasize the communicative nature of the cognitive process and, moreover, the essential determination of the content of knowledge by various types and forms of communication.  Continue Reading…