Archives For contingency

Author Information: Nadja El Kassar, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, nadja.elkassar@gess.ethz.ch

El Kassar, Nadja. “The Irreducibility of Ignorance: A Reply to Peels.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 31-38.

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

Image by dima barsky via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This article responds to critiques of El Kassar, Nadja (2018). “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance.” Social Epistemology. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1518498.

Including Peels, Rik. “Exploring the Boundaries of Ignorance: Its Nature and Accidental Features.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 10-18.

Thanks to Rik Peels for his thought-provoking comments which give me the opportunity to say more about the arguments and rationale of my article and the integrated conception. 

General Remarks About Two Approaches to Ignorance

Rik Peels’ and Patrick Bondy’s replies allow me to highlight and distinguish two approaches to ignorance, one that focuses on ignorance as a simple doxastic (propositional) phenomenon and another that regards ignorance as a complex epistemological phenomenon that is constituted by a doxastic component and by other epistemic components. The distinction can be illustrated by Peels’ conception and my integrated conception of ignorance proposed in the article. Peels’ conception belongs with the first approach, my conception belongs with the second approach.

As Peels’ reply also evinces, the two approaches come with different assumptions and consequences. For example, the first approach presupposes that accounts of knowledge and ignorance are symmetrical and/or mirror each other and, consequently, it will expect that an account of ignorance has the same features as an account of knowledge.

In contrast, the second approach takes ignorance to be a topic in its own right and therefore it is not concerned by criticism that points out that its account of ignorance makes claims that an account of knowledge does not make or does not fit with an account of knowledge in other ways. I will return to this distinction later. A major concern of the second approach (and my conception shares this concern) is to develop an account of ignorance sui generis, not an account of ignorance in the light of knowledge (or accounts of knowledge).

Why Peels’ Attempt at Reducing the Integrated Conception to His View Fails

Peels argues that the integrated conception of ignorance boils down to the conception of ignorance that he endorses. However, if I understand his considerations and arguments correctly, the observations can either be accommodated by my conception or my conception can give reasons for rejecting Peels’ assumptions. Let me discuss the three central steps in turn.

Doxastic Attitudes in the Second Conjunct

As a first step Peels notes that “the reference to doxastic attitudes in the second conjunct is … redundant” (Peels 2019, 11) since holding a false belief or holding no belief, the manifestations of ignorance, just are doxastic attitudes. But the doxastic attitudes in the second conjunct are not redundant because they capture second-order (and in general higher-order) attitudes towards ignorance, e.g. I am ignorant of the rules of Japanese grammar and I (truly) believe that I do not know these rules.

Socratic ignorance also includes more doxastic attitudes than those at the first level of ignorance. Those doxastic attitudes can also constitute ignorance. Peels’ observation indicates that it might be advisable for me to talk of meta-attitudes rather than doxastic attitudes to avoid confusion about the double appearance of doxastic attitudes.

Epistemic Virtues and Vices and the Nature of Ignorance

Peels’ second step concerns the other two components of the second conjunct. Epistemic virtues and vices “[do] not belong to the essence of being ignorant” (Peels 2019, 11). But I do not see what reasons Peels has for this claim. My arguments for saying that they do belong to the nature of being ignorant from the original article are still valid. One does not capture ignorance by focusing only on the doxastic component.

This is what my example of Kate and Hannah who are ignorant of the fact that cruise ships produce high emissions of carbon and sulfur dioxides but have different epistemic attitudes towards not knowing this fact and thus are ignorant in different ways is meant to show. Their being ignorant is not just determined by the doxastic component but also by their attitudes.

This does not mean that all ignorance comes with closed-mindedness or open-mindedness, it just means that all states of ignorance are constituted by a doxastic component and an attitudinal component (whichever attitudes fills that spot and whether it is implicit or explicit is an open question and depends on the relevant instance of ignorance). I am interested to hear which additional reasons Peels has for cutting epistemic virtues and vices from the second conjunct and delineating the nature of ignorance in the way that he does.

Ignorance as a Disposition?

Peels’ third step consists in a number of questions about ignorance as a disposition. He writes:

“[O]n the El Kassar synthesis, ignorance is a disposition that manifests itself in a number of dispositions (beliefs, lack of belief, virtues, vices). What sort of thing is ignorance if it is a disposition to manifest certain dispositions? It seems if one is disposed to manifest certain dispositions, one simply has those dispositions and will, therefore, manifest them in the relevant circumstances.” (Peels 2019, 12, emphasis in original).

These questions seem to indicate to Peels that the dispositional character of ignorance on the integrated conception is unclear and therefore disposition may be removed from the integrated conception. It does not make sense to say that ignorance is a disposition.

But Peels’ questions and conclusion themselves invite a number of questions and, therefore, I do not see how anything problematic follows for my conception. It is not clear to me whether Peels is worried because my conception implies that a disposition is manifested in another disposition that may be manifested or not, or whether he is concerned because my conception implies that one disposition (in the present context: ignorance) may have different stimulus conditions and different manifestations.

In reply to the first worry I can confirm that I think that it is possible that a disposition can be manifested in other dispositions. But I do not see why this is a problem. An example may help undergird my claim. Think e.g. of the disposition to act courageously, it is constituted at minimum by the disposition to take action when necessary and to feel as is appropriate. Aristotle’s description of the courageous person reveals how complicated the virtue is and that it consists in a number of dispositions:

Now the brave man is as dauntless as man may be. Therefore, while he will fear even the things that are not beyond human strength, he will fear them as he ought and as reason directs, and he will face them for the sake of what is noble; for this is the end of excellence. But it is possible to fear these more, or less, and again to fear things that are not terrible as if they were.

Of the faults that are committed one consists in fearing what one should not, another in fearing as we should not, another in fearing when we should not, and so on; and so too with respect to the things that inspire confidence. The man, then, who faces and who fears the right things and with the right aim, in the right way and at the right time, and who feels confidence under the corresponding conditions, is brave; for the brave man feels and acts according to the merits of the case and in whatever way reason directs. (Nicomachean Ethics, 1115b 17-22)

The fact that courage consists in other dispositions also explains why there are many ways to not be virtuously courageous. For the present context all that matters is that a disposition can consist in other dispositions that can be manifested or not.

The second worry might be alleviated by introducing the notion of multi-track dispositions into my argument. A multi-track disposition, a term widely acknowledged in philosophical work on disposition, is individuated by several pairs of stimulus conditions and manifestations (Vetter 2015, 34). Thus, ignorance as a disposition may be spelled out as a multi-track disposition that has different stimulus conditions and different manifestations.

Peels also argues against the view that epistemic virtues themselves are manifestations of ignorance. But I do not hold that epistemic virtues simpliciter are manifestations of ignorance, rather I submit that epistemic virtues (or vices) necessarily appear in manifestations of ignorance, they co-constitute ignorance.

Enveloped in Peels’ argument is another objection, namely, that epistemic virtues cannot appear in manifestations of ignorance, it is only epistemic vices that can be manifestations of ignorance – or as I would say: can appear in manifestations of ignorance. Peels claims that, “open-mindedness, thoroughness, and intellectual perseverance are clearly not manifestations of ignorance. If anything, they are the opposite: manifestations of knowledge, insight and understanding.” (Peels 2019, 12, emphasis in original)

Let me address this concern by explaining how ignorance can be related to epistemic virtues. Being open-mindedly ignorant, and being ignorant in an intellectually persevering way become more plausible forms and instantiations of ignorance if one recognizes the significance of ignorance in scientific research. Think, e.g., of a scientist who wants to find out how Earth was formed does not know how Earth was formed and she may dedicate her whole life to answering that question and will persist in the face of challenges and setbacks.

Similarly, for a scientist who wants to improve existing therapies for cancer and sets out to develop nanotechnological devices to support clinicians. She can be open-mindedly ignorant about the details of the new device. In fact, most scientists are probably open-mindedly ignorant; they do want to know more about what it is they do not know in their field and are after more evidence and insights. That is also one reason for conducting experiments etc. Firestein (2012) and several contributions in Gross and McGoey’s Routledge Handbook of Ignorance Studies (2015) discuss this connection in more detail.

Thus, Peels’ third step also does not succeed and as it stands the integrated conception thus does not reduce to Peels’ view. But I’d be interested to hear more about why such a revision of the integrated conception suggests itself.

Correction Concerning “How One Is Ignorant”

Let me address a cause of confusion in the integrated conception. When I call for an account of ignorance to explain “how one is ignorant”, I do not want the account to explain how one has become ignorant, i.e. provide a genetic or causal story of a particular state of ignorance. This assumption leads Peels and Bondy to their objections concerning causal components in my conception of the nature of ignorance.

Instead, what I require, is for an account of ignorance to capture what one’s ignorance is like, what epistemic attitudes the subject has towards the doxastic component of her ignorance. The confusion and the fundamental objections to the integrated conception may be explained by the different approaches of ignorance that I have mentioned at the start of my reply.

No Mirroring Nor Symmetry Required

Peels notes that theories of knowledge do not include a causal story of how the subject became knowledgeable, nor about the quality of the subject’s knowledge, and from this he concludes that the integrated conception of ignorance which he takes to provide such a causal story must be rejected. However, as it stands, his argument is not conclusive.

First, it builds on confusion about the claims of the integrated conception that I have addressed in the previous section (3): the integrated conception does not provide a causal story for how the subject became ignorant, nor does it claim that such a causal story should be part of an account of the nature of ignorance. Rather, it spells out which additional features of ignorance are also constitutive – namely, an epistemic attitude – in addition to the doxastic component accepted by everyone.

Second, it is unclear why theories of knowledge and theories of ignorance have to presuppose a current-time slice approach, as effectively endorsed by Peels. Some theories of knowledge want to distinguish lucky true belief from knowledge and therefore look at the causal history of the subject coming to their true belief and therefore reject current-time slice approaches (e.g. Goldman 2012).

Third, Peels’ objection presupposes that theories of knowledge and theories of ignorance have to contain the same constituents and features or have to be symmetrical or have to mirror each other in some way, but I do not see why these presuppositions hold. Knowledge and ignorance are obviously intimately connected but I am curious to hear further arguments for why their accounts have to be unified or symmetrical or mirrored.

The Distinction Between Necessary and Contingent or Accidental Features of Ignorance

Peels argues that my conception confuses necessary and contingent or accidental features of ignorance but it is not clear what reasons Peels can give to support his diagnosis. My conception specifically distinguishes necessary components of ignorance and contingent/accidental instantiations of a necessary component of ignorance.

Peels’ discussion of my example of Kate and Hannah who both do not know that cruise ships have bad effects for the environment seems to jumble necessary features of ignorance whose instantiation is contingent (e.g. open-mindedness instantiates the epistemic attitude-component in open-minded ignorance) and contingent features of ignorance that trace back the causal history of an instance of ignorance. Peels writes:

Hannah is deeply and willingly ignorant about the high emissions of both carbon and sulfur dioxides of cruise ships (I recently found out that a single cruise trip has roughly the same amount of emission as seven million cars in an average year combined). Kate is much more open-minded, but has simply never considered the issue in any detail. She is in a state of suspending ignorance regarding the emission of cruise ships.

I reply that they are both ignorant, at least propositionally ignorant, but that their ignorance has different, contingent features: Hannah’s ignorance is deep ignorance, Kate’s ignorance is suspending ignorance, Hannah’s ignorance is willing or intentional, Kate’s ignorance is not. These are among the contingent features of ignorance; both are ignorant and, therefore, meet the criteria that I laid out for the nature of ignorance. (Peels 2019, 16-17)

Hannah’s and Kate’s particular epistemic attitudes are (to some extent) contingent but the fact that ignorance consists in a doxastic component and an attitudinal component is not contingent but necessary. In other words: which epistemic attitude is instantiated is accidental, but that there is an epistemic attitude present is not accidental but necessary. That is what the integrated conception holds. I’m interested to hear more about Peels’ argument for the opposing claim in the light of these clarifications.

Being Constitutive and Being Causal

Peels’ argumentation seems to presuppose that something that is constitutive of a state or disposition cannot also be causal, but it is not clear why that should be the case. E.g. Elzinga (2018) argues that epistemic self-confidence is constitutive of intellectual autonomy and at the same time may causally contribute to intellectual autonomy.

And note also that a constitutive relation between dispositions does not have to entail a causal relation in the sense of an efficient cause. Some authors in Action Theory argue that a disposition is not the cause of an action; rather, a decision, motivation, desire (etc.) is the cause of the action (cf. Löwenstein 2017, 85-86). I do not want to take sides on this issue, this is just to point out that Peels’ approach to something being constitutive and being a cause is not straightforward. (See also Section 4 in my upcoming reply to Patrick Bondy.)

Other Forms of Ignorance

Peels notes that my approach does not capture objectual and procedural ignorance as spelled out by Nottelmann (e.g. Nottelmann 2016). He tries to show that the integrated conception does not work for lack of know-how: “not knowing how to ride a bike does not seem to come with certain intellectual virtues or vices” (Peels 2019, 13) nor for lack of objectual ignorance: “if I am not familiar with the smell of fresh raspberries, that does not imply any false beliefs or absence of beliefs, nor does it come with intellectual virtues or vices” (Peels 2019, 13).

I am glad that Peels picks out this gap in the article, as does Bondy. It is an important and stimulating open question how the integrated conception fits with such other forms of ignorance – I am open-mindedly ignorant with respect to its answers. But the article did not set out to give an all-encompassing account of ignorance. Nor is it clear, whether one account will work for all forms of ignorance (viz. propositional ignorance, objectual ignorance, technical/procedural ignorance). Peels’ observation thus highlights an important open question for all theories of ignorance but not a particular objection against my integrated conception.

At the same time, I am skeptical whether Peels’ proposed account, the threefold synthesis, succeeds at capturing objectual and procedural ignorance. I do not see how the threefold synthesis is informative regarding objectual and procedural ignorance since it just states that objectual ignorance is “lack of objectual knowledge” and procedural ignorance is “lack of procedural knowledge”. Peels’ formulates the Threefold Synthesis as follows, with an additional footnote:

Threefold Synthesis: Ignorance is an epistemic agent’s lack of propositional knowledge or lack of true belief, lack of objectual knowledge, or lack of procedural knowledge.9

9If the Standard View on Ignorance is correct, then one could simply replace this with: Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in lack of (propositional, objectual, or procedural) knowledge. (Peels 2019, 13)

I do not see how these statements go toward capturing lack of competence, e.g. not possessing the competence to ski, or lack of objectual knowledge, e.g. not knowing Paris. I guess that philosophers interested in ignorance and in this issue will have to carefully study the phenomena that they want to capture and their interrelations – as Bondy starts to do in his Reply (Bondy 2018, 12-14) – in order to set out to adequately capture what Peels calls lack of objectual knowledge or lack of procedural knowledge.

What Does One Want From an Account of Ignorance?

Peels’ reply evinces that anyone who wants to develop an account of ignorance needs to answer a number of fundamental questions, including: What is it that we want from an account of ignorance? Do we want it a unified account for knowledge and ignorance? Do we want a simple account? Or do we want to adequately capture the phenomenon and be able to explain its significance in epistemic practices of epistemic agents? I want the account to be able to do the latter and have therefore put forward the integrated conception.

Two Clarificatory Remarks

In closing, I would like to add two clarificatory remarks. Peels suggests that the structural conception and agnotology are identical conceptions or approaches (Peels 2019, 15-16). But even though there are signficant connections between the structural conception and agnotology, they are distinct.

The examples for the structural conception in my article are from feminist epistemology of ignorance, not from agnotology. I do not want to engage in labelling and including or excluding authors and their works from fields and disciplines, but there are differences between works in epistemology of ignorance and agnotology since agnotology is often taken to belong with history of science. I would not want to simply identify them.

I do not see how Peels’ observations that the examples for agential conceptions of ignorance include causal language and that the conception of ignorance that he finds in critical race theory does not fit with someone being ignorant “of the fact that Antarctica is the largest desert on earth” (Peels 2019, 14) present objections to the integrated conception.

If there are claims about the causes of ignorance in these theories, that does not mean that my conception, which is distinct from these conceptions, makes the same claims. I specifically develop a new conception because of the advantages and disadvantages of the different conceptions that I discuss in the article.[1]

Contact details: nadja.elkassar@gess.ethz.ch

References

Aristoteles. 1995. The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation. Volume Two. Edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

Bondy, Patrick. 2018. “Knowledge and Ignorance, Theoretical and Practical.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7 (12): 9–14.

Elzinga, Benjamin. 2019. “A Relational Account of Intellectual Autonomy.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 49 (1): 22–47. https://doi.org/10.1080/00455091.2018.1533369.

Firestein, Stuart. 2012. Ignorance: How It Drives Science. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Goldman, Alvin I. 2012. Reliabilism and Contemporary Epistemology: Essays. New York, NY.: Oxford Univ. Press.

Gross, Matthias, and Linsey McGoey, eds. 2015. Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies. Routledge International Handbooks. London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Löwenstein, David. 2017. Know-How as Competence: A Rylean Responsibilist Account. Studies in Theoretical Philosophy, vol. 4. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann.

Nottelmann, Nikolaj. 2016. “The Varieties of Ignorance.” In The Epistemic Dimensions of Ignorance, edited by Rik Peels and Martijn Blaauw, 33–56. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9780511820076.003.

Peels, Rik. 2019. “Exploring the Boundaries of Ignorance: Its Nature and Accidental Features.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8 (1): 10–18.

Vetter, Barbara. 2015. Potentiality: From Dispositions to Modality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1] Thanks to David Löwenstein and Lutz Wingert for helpful discussions.

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

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

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

Image by Russell Davies via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

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

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

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

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

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

On What Ground Should We Trust Our Presumptions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paths Divided Laid Down in the Travelling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Most Bizarre Ontology to Make Perfect Sense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Existence Need Limits?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the Refusal to Choose Is Itself a Dogma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riggio, Adam. “The Very Being of a Conceptual Scheme: Disciplinary and Conceptual Critiques.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 53-59.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-446

Image by Grant Tarrant via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Jeff Kochan’s book on what the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) can learn from Heideggerian existential philosophy is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure, and for the same reason. My own review consists of two parts. First, I will describe the fascinating frustration of Kochan’s project, then explore some of the limitations that a straightforward adaptation of Heidegger’s ideas to the conceptual plane of SSK encounters.

Kochan’s work fascinates because he puts two complex sub-disciplines of the humanities – Heidegger studies and SSK – in a constructive dialogue. Kochan isolates seemingly intractable conceptual problems at the heart of SSK’s foundational texts, then carefully analyzes concepts and epistemic frameworks from the writings of Martin Heidegger to find solutions to those problems. This open-minded approach to problem solving remains sadly rare in academic culture. Whether or not you think Kochan’s analyses and solutions are accurate or best, I think we can all agree that such a trans-disciplinary philosophical project is worthwhile and valuable.

Yet Kochan’s work also frustrates because of how vulnerable this makes him to academic attacks. This is ultimately a problem of style on Kochan’s part. He is explicit in making the ideas of Martin Heidegger himself central to his critical analysis of SSK; this leaves him vulnerable to criticisms like those of my colleague Raphael Sassower earlier in SERRC’s symposium. Essentially, the criticism amounted to “Why bother?”.

Presuming the Boundarylessness of Disciplines

Any attempt to apply the concepts and discoveries of one tradition to the problems of another faces a problem that is difficult for any writer to overcome. What one tradition takes to be a reasonable assumption, another tradition may take to be a foundational matter of inquiry.

In Kochan’s case, he takes the founders of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge to have saddled their tradition with a dangerous omission. They take for granted that the material world of everyday life does exist as we experience it, and that therefore the relationship of the subject to the world need not be a matter of inquiry.

Yet the foundational thinkers of SSK, David Bloor and Harry Collins, did not consider such an ontological inquiry worth pursuing. It would have kept them from exploring the questions, subject matters, and concepts that were their priorities.

Kochan’s book is written under the premise that SSK’s indifference to seeking a guarantee for the material reality of the world is a problematic omission. But a premise itself can be called into question, a call that on its own would remove its status as a premise. Premises are, after all, the unquestioned beginnings of any inquiry; they are the conditions of an inquiry’s validity.

To question a premise is likewise to question the validity of any inquiry flowing from that premise. So when I question whether the inquiries constituting the core of SSK as a discipline of social and epistemological theory require demonstrating the existence of reality somehow external to the subjective, I have made a decision about what the inquiries of SSK are for.

Such a decision is fundamentally practical. In creating what we now consider the research discipline of SSK, Bloor, Collins, and their fellow travellers developed goals and processes of thinking for their fundamental inquiries. They set the boundaries of what questions and concepts mattered to the pursuit of those goals and processes. And while they may not have explicitly said so, setting those conceptual boundaries simultaneously implies that what does not matter to those goals and processes is irrelevant to the discipline itself.

So if you pursue those other questions, you may be doing something interesting and valuable. But there is no guarantee that your premises, concepts, inquiries, and discoveries will be directly relevant to someone else’s discipline. To return this general point to the more direct focus of my book review, there is no guarantee that the premises, concepts, inquiries, and discoveries of a thinker working in one of the Heideggerian sub-disciplines will be directly relevant to someone working in SSK.

The boundaries of all research disciplines work this way. Over my decade of work as a professional-level philosopher, this has typically been the most controversial and provocative point I make in any discussion that puts disciplines and traditions into dialogue. It disrupts a premise that thinkers across many disciplines of philosophy and those related to them: that we are all searching for the one truth.

Limits For Universality

Many thinkers share the premise that the ultimate aim of philosophical work is the discovery and creation of universal truth. Ironically, I do not consider that Heidegger himself shares such a premise. I hope that Kochan will be okay with how I repurpose some of Heidegger’s own concepts to argue that his own attempt to blend Heideggerian and SSK concepts and inquiries becomes something of a philosophical dead end.

Start with these two of Heidegger’s concepts: enframing, and poiesis. Both of these arise in Heidegger’s inquiries on the nature of science and technology, but we should not restrict their relevance to the disciplines of philosophy who alone focus on science and technology.

Remember that Heidegger understands the institutions and cultures of science, as well as attitudes around the use of technology, to be expressions of a much broader framework of thinking. That framework includes all ways in which human action and thinking engages with existence, contributes to the ongoing constitution of being.

Heidegger’s purpose for philosophical thinking is understanding the continuing process of movement and coming to be still, or development and decay (Of Generation and Corruption?). What framework or schema we develop for this most profound task of understanding guides how our own thoughts and actions influence how and what the universe becomes.

Enframing, therefore, is such a conceptual framework of understanding existence, which guides us in our action and thinking to contribute to shaping existence. The framework that Heidegger calls enframing, is a way of thinking that understands all of existence as a potential resource for our own use. You do not understand how to experience or make sense of what exists and what you encounter as having their own way of existence from which you can learn. Understanding existence in a framework of enframing, you wrench and distort all that you encounter to your own purposes.

Thought’s Radical Openness

Poiesis is Heidegger’s alternative to the destructive, self-centred nature of conceptual schema of enframing. A conceptual framework built according to the principles of poiesis approaches all encounters as opportunities for the creative development of thought.

Whenever you encounter a way of thinking or living different from your own, you investigate and explore it, seeking to understand that mode of existence on its own terms. You examine its powers, capacities, how it forms relationships through encounters of its own, and the dynamics of how those relationships change itself and others.

That Heidegger considers conceptual frameworks of poiesis the alternative to the depressingly destructive schema of enframing, reveals how the philosophy which Kochan advocates as a productive partner for SSK, actually argues against Kochan’s own most fundamental premises. This is because poiesis fundamentally denies the universality of any one framework of thinking, action, and existence.

The conception of philosophy as seeking a single universal truth would explicitly oppose how you would engage different research disciplines as poiesis. Like Heidegger’s enframing, yoking all inquiries and ways of thinking into a single trajectory wrenches all those modes of thinking out of their own character of becoming and adapts them to the goal of another.

More dangerous even than this, bending all thinking to the pursuit of a single goal which you yourself already holds presumes that your and only your framework of thinking is the proper trajectory. In presuming that SSK is obligated to include an account of how we know our experiences of social and scientific worlds are genuine interactions with a shared materiality, Kochan guides his own philosophical mission in Science as Social Existence using a conceptual framework of enframing.

For Heidegger, This Openness Nonetheless Remains Closed

Conceptual frameworks that are fundamentally of poiesis appear to be a profound antidote to humanity’s current crisis of technology, science, and ecology. People who think this way would consider all differences they encounter as learning opportunities, and come to respect the origins of those encounters as opportunities to make your own thinking more versatile and open.

Heidegger, however, takes this line of thinking in a regressive direction. As Heidegger understands poiesis, the best way to think in accordance with existence itself is to accept, explore, and adapt your thinking to all the varieties of existence that you encounter. You deny that any single way of existence or understanding is fundamentally universal, and instead create many schemes of understanding what exists to suit the singular character of each encounter.

This approach to the encounter with the different and the alien is still being developed today at the forefront of politically progressive activist philosophers. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, for example, is a philosopher doing the best ongoing work with such an attitude, in my own knowledge. However, I am not sure if Kochan, Heidegger scholars, or contemporary SSK researchers would be aware of her work, as she exists outside both their disciplines.

She is characterized academically as working in Indigenous Studies, a label that, despite the good intentions of its inclusion in the contemporary Canadian university system, also tends to marginalize such work for more mainstream professors. So a genuine potential for one set of disciplines to learn from another is stalled by the presumption of too much difference from so-called ‘real’ philosophy. Betasamosake Simpson would often be dismissed in more conservative disciplines as being ‘merely’ post-colonial, or ‘merely’ ethnic studies.

Instead of following the openness of a conceptual framework that supposedly encourages a more open mind, Heidegger conceives of poiesis as a passive and meditative way of existence. This is because he understands a person’s encounters in existence as essentially an event that happens to the person, in which that person is acted upon, instead of engaging in mutual action. Openness to the singular logics and processes unique to an encountered other, for Heidegger, means a willingness to accept as necessary the happenstance of where we contingently fall into existence.

What Do We Do With Our Disciplines?

More profound problems lurk in the nature of our existence’s happenstance, which guides our best framework for understanding existence, poiesis. The Heideggerian concept of poiesis guides arguments of his infamous Black Notebooks. This was the political expression of Heidegger’s approach to philosophy as passively adapting your thinking and existence to the circumstances of your contingent existence as a person.

The existence of the migrant, no matter whether colonizer or refugee, is an act of violence against existence, because moving imposes your own logic and desires on alien existence. You disrupt your tradition out of a demand for something different. It disconnects you from the long inheritance of a relationship with the more durable existence of your land and your culture.

These stable beings constitute the place where you contingently fall. To fall contingently into existence is birth, so the land and culture of your birth constitute the ‘There’ in the complete assemblage of a person’s ‘Being.’ So the Black Notebooks continue Heidegger’s explication of his concept of Dasein, an inquiry central to all his work. They are no exception.

The language that expresses these concepts in the Black Notebooks is horrifying in its contempt for cultures whose global mobility or dispersion breaks them from continuity with a single territory of land at a pace faster than many millennia. It confounds my own everyday political orientations. In its most straightforward terms, it is a pro-Indigenous and anti-colonial, but also anti-Semitic in equal intensity.

One way to interpret Kochan’s program in Science as Social Existence is as an advocate to merge the disciplines of SSK and Heidegger Studies, blending their central premises and conceptual frameworks to create a hybrid discipline. But if we think disciplinarily, we may be forced to account for the many other problems in a body of work that have nothing to do with the problems we want to investigate. The example of how the Black Notebooks express the political implications of Heidegger’s concept of enframing, poiesis, and Dasein is only the most recent of many equally massive issues.

No Disciplines, Instead Concepts

Jeff Kochan’s Science and Social Existence is subtitled Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. In both this title and throughout the book, he attempts a very valuable experiment to make a philosophical hybrid of two sets of concepts, inquiries, and methods of thinking. On one hand, we have the social epistemological frameworks and principles in the discipline, Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. And on one hand, we have the conceptions of grounded subjectivity found in the works of Martin Heidegger, and elaborated in the discipline based on interpreting those works.

However, there are two problems with this approach. The first problem is that he misunderstands the reason for his inquiry: sociologists of scientific knowledge need a conceptual account of how we know that the external world exists to be studied.

The way Kochan understands how to solve the external world is brilliantly insightful in how philosophically challenging and creative it is: develop for SSK a concept of subjectivity that pays no mind to any premises of an ontological separation of subject and world at all. He finds such a concept in the works of Martin Heidegger, and explores its epistemological aspects as enframing and poiesis.

Laying our justification problem aside, this other problem helps explain what made it arise in the first place. Kochan’s focus is on the disciplines of SSK and Heidegger interpretation. Yet his inquiry is conceptual, more purely philosophical: adapting a concept of subjectivity that unifies subject and world without needing to make a problem of their separation, to the practice of sociology focussing on the production of scientific knowledge.

His focus is disciplinary rather than conceptual, talking about what Heidegger and his interpreters have said about Heidegger’s own concepts, and the sociologists whose research explicitly continues the general program of the originators of the SSK approach to social science. Such a disciplinary focus unfortunately implies that the related problems of those thinkers themselves complicate our use in thinking of the concepts themselves.

So using in sociological practice any concept that does what Kochan wants Heidegger’s enframing, poiesis, and Dasein to do, ends up dragging along the problematic and dangerous elements and interpretations in Heidegger’s entire corpus and tradition.

Because he was thinking of the discipline of SSK instead of the techniques and concepts alone, he presumes that the actual practitioners of SSK working in university departments need an alternative conception of subjectivity beyond modernist dualism. They themselves do not need such a concept because they are too busy asking different questions.

Fortunately, practice, concepts, and discipline are only contingently linked. Instead of using concepts from different disciplines to improve an established practice, you can develop new concepts to guide the practice of a new discipline.

The fundamental problem with Kochan’s book is that he has misinterpreted its scope, and aimed without the ambition that his thinking actually already requires. He thought he was writing a book about how to bring two seemingly unrelated traditions together, to solve an important problem in one.

Yet Kochan was actually writing a book that had the potential to start an entirely different tradition of sociological theory and practice. Instead of writing about Martin Heidegger and David Bloor, he could have written something with the potential to leave him mentioned in the same breath as such epochal thinkers. He could have become epochal himself.

How about next time, Jeff?

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

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

Heidegger, Martin. Ponderings II-VI: Black Notebooks 1931-1938. Translated by Richard Rojcewicz. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2016.

Kochan, Jeff. Science as Social Existence: Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2017.

Kochan, Jeff. “On the Sociology of Subjectivity: A Reply to Raphael Sassower.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7 no. 5 (2018): 39-41.

Sassower, Raphael. “Heidegger and the Sociologists: A Forced Marriage?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7 no. 5 (2018): 30-32.

Schyfter, Pablo. “Inaccurate Ambitions and Missing Methodologies: Thoughts on Jeff Kochan and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 8-14.

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.