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Author Information: Manuel Padilla Cruz, Universidad de Sevilla,

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “One Thing is Testimonial Injustice and Another Is Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 9-19.

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Image by Jon Southcoasting via Flickr / Creative Commons


Derek E. Anderson’s (2017) identification and characterisation of conceptual competence injustice has recently met some resistance from Podosky and Tuckwell (2017). They have denied the existence of this new type of epistemic injustice on the grounds that the wronging it denotes may be subsumed by testimonial injustice: “instances of conceptual competence injustice can be accurately characterised as instances of testimonial injustices” (Podosky and Tuckwell 2017: 26). Additionally, they have questioned the reasons that led Anderson (2017) to distinguish this epistemic injustice from testimonial, hermeneutical and contributory injustices (Podosky and Tuckwell 2017: 26-30).

Criticising the methodology followed by Podosky and Tuckwell (2017) in their attempt to prove that conceptual competence injustice falls within testimonial injustice, Anderson (2018) has underlined that conceptual competence injustice is a structural injustice and a form of competence injustice –i.e. an unfair misappraisal of skills– which should be retained as a distinct type of epistemic injustice because of its theoretical significance and usefulness. Causal etiology is not a necessary condition on conceptual competence injustice, he explains, and conceptual competence injustice, as opposed to testimonial injustice, need not be perpetrated by social groups that are negatively biased against a particular identity.

The unjust judgements giving rise to it do not necessarily have to be connected with testimony, even though some of them may originate in lexical problems and mistakes in the linguistic expressions a speaker resorts to when dispensing it. Accordingly, testimonial injustice and conceptual competence injustice may be said to be different kinds of injustice and have diverse effects: “It is not necessary that a person’s testimony be disbelieved, ignored, or pre-empted in an episode of CC [conceptual competence] injustice. CC injustice involves only an unjust judgment about a person’s ability to think well using certain concepts” (Anderson 2018: 31).

Welcoming the notion of conceptual competence injustice, I suggested in a previous contribution (Padilla Cruz 2017a) that it could be borrowed by the field of linguistic pragmatics in order to conceptualise an undesired perlocutionary effect of verbal interaction: misappraisals of a speaker’s actual conceptual and lexical abilities as a result of lack or misuse of vocabulary. Relying on Sperber and Wilson’s (1986/1995) description of intentional-input processing as a relevance-driven activity and of comprehension as a process of mutual parallel adjustment, where the mind carries out a series of incredibly fast simultaneous tasks that depend on decoding, inference, mindreading and emotion-reading, I also showed that those misappraisals result from deductions. A speaker’s alleged unsatisfactory performance makes manifest assumptions regarding her[1] problems with words, which are fed as weakly implicated premises to inferential processes and related to other detrimental assumptions that are made salient by prejudice.

In so doing, I did not purport to show, as Podosky and Tuckwell wrongly think, “how epistemic injustice manifests in the field of relevance theory” (2017: 23) or that “conceptual competence injustice is particularly useful in a relevance theoretical model of linguistic pragmatics” (2017: 30). Rather, my intention was to propose introducing the notion of conceptual competence injustice into general linguistic pragmatics as a mere way of labelling a type of prejudicial implicature, as they themselves rightly put it (Podosky and Tuckwell 2017: 30). The derivation of that sort of implicature, however, can be accounted for –and this is where relevance theory comes into the picture– on the basis of the cognitive processes that Sperber and Wilson’s (1986/1995) framework describes and of its conceptual apparatus.

In another contribution (Padilla Cruz 2017b), I clarified that, as a cognitive pragmatic framework, relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995) is concerned with the processing and comprehension of the verbal and non-verbal intentional stimuli produced in human communication. It very satisfactorily explains how hearers forge interpretative hypotheses and why they select only one of them as the plausibly intended interpretation. Relevance theorists are also interested in the generation of a variety of effects –e.g. poetic (Pilkington 2000), humorous (Yus Ramos 2016), etc.– and successfully account for them.

Therefore, the notion of conceptual competence injustice can only be useful to relevance-theoretic pragmatics as a label to refer to one of the (pernicious) effects that may originate as a consequence of the constant search for optimal relevance of intentional stimuli. I will not return to these issues here, as I consider them duly addressed in my previous contribution (Padilla Cruz 2017b).

My aim in this reply is to lend support to Anderson’s (2017) differentiation of conceptual competence injustice as a distinct type of epistemic injustice. I seek to argue that, ontologically and phenomenologically, conceptual competence injustice must be retained in the field of social epistemology as a helpful category of injustice because it refers to a wronging whose origin and scope, so to say, differ from those of testimonial injustice. Testimonial injustice stems from (mis)judgements pertaining to the output of an action or epistemic practice wherein epistemic agents may participate or be engaged. The action in question is giving testimony and its output is the very testimony given. The scope of testimonial injustice, therefore, is the product, the result of that action or epistemic practice.

In other words, testimonial injustice targets the ability to generate an acceptable product as a consequence of finding it not to satisfy certain expectations or requirements, or to be defective in some dimensions. In contrast, conceptual competence injustice denotes an unfairness that is committed not because of the output of what is done with words –i.e. informing and the dispensed information– but because of the very linguistic tools wherewith an individual performs that action –i.e. the very words that she makes use of– and supposed underlying knowledge. To put it differently, the scope of conceptual competence injustice is the lexical items wherewith testimony is dispensed, which lead prejudiced individuals to doubt the conceptual and lexical capacities of unprivileged individuals.

In order to show that the scopes of testimonial and conceptual competence injustices vary, I will be drawing from the seminal and most influential work on communication by philosopher Herbert P. Grice (1957, 1975).[2] This will also encourage me to suggest that the notion of testimonial injustice (Fricker 2003, 2007) could even be refined and elaborated on. I will argue that this injustice may also be perpetrated when a disadvantaged individual is perceived not to meet requirements pertaining to testimony other than truthfulness.

Content Characteristics or Requirements of (Good) Testimony

As an epistemic practice, dispensing testimony, or information, could be characterised, along Grice’s (1959, 1975) lines, as a cooperative activity. Testimony is given because an individual may be interested in imparting it for a variety of reasons –e.g. influencing others, appearing knowledgeable, contradicting previous ideas, etc.– and/or because it may benefit (an)other individual(s), who might (have) solicit(ed) it for another variety of reasons –e.g. learning about something, strengthening ideas, changing his worldview, etc. As an activity that brings together various individuals in joint action, providing testimony is subject to certain constraints or requirements for testimony to be properly or adequately dispensed. Let us call those constraints or requirements, using philosopher John L. Austin’s (1962) terminology, felicity conditions.

Some of those felicity conditions pertain to the individuals or interlocutors engaged in the epistemic practice. The dispenser of testimony –i.e. the speaker or informer– must obviously possess certain (true) information to dispense, have the ability to impart it and pursue some goal when giving it. In turn, the receiver of testimony should, but need not, be interested in it and make this manifest by explicit mention or elicitation of the testimony.

Other felicity conditions concern the testimony to be provided. For instance, it must be well supported, reliable and trustworthy. This is the sort of testimony that benevolent and competent informers dispense (Wilson 1999; Sperber et al. 2010), and the one on which the notion of testimonial injustice focuses (Fricker 2003, 2007). Making use again of Grice’s (1957, 1975) ideas, let us say that, for testimony to be appropriately imparted, it must satisfy a requirement of truthfulness or quality. Indeed, the maxim of quality of his Cooperative Principle prompts individuals to give information that is true and to refrain from saying falsehoods or things for which they lack adequate evidence.

But not only must testimony be truthful; for it to be properly dispensed, the information must also be both sufficient and relevant. Imagine, for instance, that someone was requested to tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood. For the narration to be complete, it should not only include details about who such a character was, where she lived, the fact that she had a grandmother who lived at some distance in the countryside, her grandmother’s conditions or their relationship, but also about what had happened to Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother one day before receiving her visit and what happened to Little Red Riding Hood upon finding the wolf lying on the bed, disguised as the grandmother.

If the narrator mentioned the former details but omitted the latter, her narration, regardless of the fact that what she said about the characters’ identity and residence was undeniably true, would not be fully satisfactory, as it would not contain enough, necessary or expected information. Her testimony about Little Red Riding Hood would not be considered sufficient; something –maybe a key fragment– was missing for the whole story to be known, correctly understood and appraised.

Imagine now that all the details about the characters, their residence and relationship were present in the narration, but, upon introducing the wolf, the narrator started to ramble and talked about the animal spices wolves belong to, their most remarkable features, the fact that these animals are in danger of extinction in certain regions of Europe or that they were considered to have magical powers in a particular mythology. Although what the narrator said about the three characters is unquestioningly true and the story itself is told in its entirety, it would not have been told in the best way possible, as it includes excessive, unnecessary and unrelated information.

Again, along Gricean (1957, 1975) lines, it may be said that testimony must meet certain requirements or satisfy certain expectations about its quantity and relation. Actually, while his maxim of quantity incites individuals to give the expected amount of information depending on the purpose of a communicative exchange and prevents them from retaining or omitting expected or indispensable information, his maxim of relation causes them to supply information that is relevant or connected with the purpose of the exchange. Even if the provided information is true, failure to satisfy those requirements would render it inadequately given.

To the best of my knowledge, the notion of testimonial injustice as originally formulated by Fricker (2003, 2007) overlooks these requirements of quantity and relation, which solely pertain to the content of what is said. Accordingly, this injustice could also be argued to be amenable to be inflicted whenever an informer imparts unreliable or not well-evidenced information, and also when she fails to add necessary information or mentions irrelevant details or issues. If she did so, her ability to appropriately dispense information could be questioned and she could subsequently be downgraded as an informer.

Testimony from the 2009 trial of Cambodian war criminal Duch. Image by Khmer Rouge Tribunal (ECCC) via Flickr / Creative Commons


Manner Characteristics or Requirements of (Good) Testimony

Testimony may be claimed to be adequately given when it is true, sufficient and relevant, but there are additional requirements that testimony should meet for it to be adequately imparted. Namely, the information must be presented in an orderly, clear and unambiguous way. How would you react if, when being told the story of Little Red Riding Hood, your interlocutor gave you all the necessary, relevant and true details –and nothing more– but she changed the order of the events, did not make it clear whom the wolf attacked firstly or what Little Red Riding Hood put in her basket, or resorted to unusual, difficult or imprecise lexical terms? Probably, you would say that the story was told, but many issues would not be crystal clear to you, so you would have difficulties in having a clear picture of how, when and why the events in the story happened.

Testimony may also be considered to be well dispensed when it is given in a good manner by correctly ordering events and avoiding both obscurity and ambiguity of expression. Order, clarity and ambiguity are parameters that do not have to do with what is said –i.e. the content– but with how what is said is said –i.e. its linguistic form. Accordingly, testimony may be asserted to be correctly imparted when it meets certain standards or expectations that only concern the manner in which it is given.[3] Some of those standards or expectations are connected with the properties of the linguistic choices that the speaker makes when wording or phrasing testimony, and others are determined by cultural factors.

For example, for a narration to count as a fairy tale, it would have to begin with the traditional and recurrent formula “Once upon a time” and then proceed by setting a background that enables identification of characters and situates the events. Similarly, for an essay to be regarded as a good, publishable research paper, it must contain, in terms of structure, an abstract, an introductory section where the state of the art of the issue to be discussed is summarised, the goals of the paper are stated, the thesis is alluded to and, maybe, the structure of the paper is explained.

Then, the essay must unfold in a clear and logically connected way, through division of the contents in various sections, each of which must deal with what is referred to in its heading, etc. In terms of expression, the paper must contain technical or specialised terminology and be sufficiently understandable. Many of these expectations are motivated by specific conventions about discourse or text genres.

Inability or failure to present information in the appropriate manner or to comply with operative conventions may also incite individuals to challenge an informer’s capacity to dispense it. Although the informer may be credited with being knowledgeable about a series of issues, she may be assessed as a bad informer because her performance is not satisfactory in terms of the linguistic means she resorts to in order to address them or her abidance by governing conventions. However, since such an assessment is motivated not by the quality, quantity or relation of the content of testimony, but by the tools with and the way in which the informer produces her product, its scope or target is obviously different.

Different Scopes, Distinct Types of Epistemic Injustice

The current notion of testimonial injustice only takes into account one of the three features of (well dispensed) testimony alluded to above: namely, quality or truthfulness. A more fine-grained conceptualisation of it should also consider two other properties: quantity and relation, as long as informers’ capacity to provide testimony may be doubted if they failed to give expected information and/or said irrelevant things or added unnecessary details. Indeed, quality, quantity and relation are dimensions that are connected with the content of the very information dispensed –i.e. what is said– or the product of the epistemic practice of informing. Testimonial injustice, therefore, should be characterised as the epistemic injustice amenable to be inflicted whenever testimony is found deficient or unsatisfactory on the grounds of these three dimensions pertaining to its content.

What happens, then, with the other requirement of good testimony, namely, manner? Again, to the best of my knowledge, Fricker’s (2003, 2007) description of testimonial injustice does not refer to its likely perpetration when an individual is judged not to impart testimony in an allegedly right manner. And, certainly, this characteristic of good testimony may affect considerations about how suitably it is given.

Dispensing information in a messy, obscure and/or ambiguous way could be enough for degrading an individual as informer. She could sufficiently talk about true and relevant things, yes, but she could say them in an inappropriate way, thus hindering or impeding understanding. Should, then, the manner in which testimony is provided be used as grounds to wrong an informer or to question a person’s capacities as such? Although the manner in which testimony is imparted may certainly influence assessments thereof, there is a substantial difference.

Failure to meet requirements of quality, quantity and relation, and failure to meet requirements of manner are certainly not the same phenomenon. The former has to do with the content of what is said, with the product or result of an activity; the latter, in contrast, as the name indicates, has to do with the way in which what is said is actually said, with the tools deployed to accomplish the activity. Testimony may be incorrectly dispensed because of its falsity, insufficiency or irrelevance, but it may also be inappropriately imparted because of how it is given –this is undeniable, I would say.

The difference between quality, quantity and relation, on the one hand, and manner, on the other hand, is a difference of product and content of that product, on the one hand, and tools to create it, on the other hand. Accordingly, testimonial injustice and conceptual competence injustice should be kept apart as two distinct types of epistemic injustice because the respective scopes of the judgements where each injustice originates differ. While in the former the issue is the content of testimony, in the latter what is at stake is the means to dispense it, which unveil or suggest conceptual deficits or lack of mastery of certain concepts.

Testimony is dispensed by means of linguistic elements that somehow capture –or metarepresent, in the specialised cognitive-pragmatic terminology (Wilson 1999; Sperber 2000)– the thoughts that a speaker entertains, or the information that she possesses, and is interested in making known to an audience. Such elements are words, which are meaningful units made of strings of recognisable sounds –i.e. allophones, or contextual realisations of phonemes, in the terminology of phonetics and phonology– which make up stems and various types of morphemesprefixes, infixes and suffixes– conveying lexical and grammatical information. More importantly, words are arranged in more complex meaningful units –namely, phrases– and these, in turn, give rise to larger, and still more meaningful, units –namely, clauses and sentences. Manner is connected with the lexical units chosen and their syntactic arrangements when communicating and, for the sake of this paper, when providing testimony.

Speakers need to constantly monitor their production and their interlocutors’ reactions, which often cause them to revise what they have just said, reformulate what they are saying or are about to say, expand or elaborate on it, etc. As complex an activity as speaking is, it is not exempt of problems. At a lexical level, the speaker may fail to use the adequate words because she misses them or has trouble to find them at a particular time for a variety of factors –e.g. tiredness, absentmindedness, etc. (Mustajoki 2012). The chosen words may also diverge from those normally used by other language users in order to refer to particular concepts. This happens when speakers have mapped those concepts onto different lexical items or when they have mapped those concepts not onto single words, but onto more complex units like phrases or even whole sentences (Sperber and Wilson 1997).

The selected terms may alternatively be too general, so the audience somehow has to inferentially adjust or fine-tune their denotation because of its broadness. Consider, for example, placeholders like “that thing”, “the stuff”, etc. used to refer to something for which there is a more specific term, or hypernyms like ‘animal’ instead of the more precise term ‘duck-billed platypus’. Or, the other way round, the selected terms may be too specific, so the audience somehow has to inferentially loosen their denotation because of its restrictiveness (Carston 2002; Wilson and Carston 2007).

Above – Doggie. Image by lscott2dog via Flickr / Creative Commons


Think, for instance, of hyponyms like ‘doggie’ when used to refer not only to dogs, but also to other four-legged animals because of perceptual similarity –they have four legs– and conceptual contiguity –they are all animals– or ‘kitten’ when used to refer to other felines for the same reasons;[4] or imagine that terms like ‘wheel’ or ‘cookie’ were metaphorically applied to entities belonging to different, unrelated conceptual domains –e.g. the Moon– because of perceptual similarity –i.e. roundness.[5]

At a syntactic level, the linguistic structures that the speaker generates may turn out ambiguous and misleading, even though they may be perfectly clear and understandable to her. Consider, for instance, sentences like “I saw your brother with glasses”, where the ambiguity resides in the polysemy of the word ‘glasses’ (“pair of lenses” or “drinking containers”?) and the distinct readings of the fragment “your brother with glasses” (who wears/holds/carries the glasses, the hearer’s brother or the speaker?), or “Flying planes may be dangerous”, where the ambiguity stems from the competing values of the –ing form (what is dangerous, the action of piloting planes or the planes that are flying?).

At a discourse or pragmatic level, finally, speakers may be unaware of conventions governing the usage and meaning of specific structures –i.e. pragmalinguistic structures (Leech 1983)– such as “Can/Could you + verb”, whose pragmatic import is requestive and not a question about the hearer’s physical abilities, or unfamiliar with sociocultural norms and rules –i.e. sociopragmatic norms (Leech 1983)– which establish what is expectable or permitted, so to say, in certain contexts, or when, where, how and with whom certain actions may or should be accomplished or avoided.

Would we, then, say that testimony is to be doubted or discredited because of mistakes or infelicities at a lexical, syntactic or pragmatic level? Not necessarily. The information per se may be true, reliable, accurate, relevant and sufficient, but the problem resides precisely in how it is presented. Testimony would have been given, no doubt, but it would not have been imparted in the most efficient way, as the most appropriate tools are not used.

When lexical selection appears poor or inadequate; words are incorrectly and ambiguously arranged into phrases, clauses or sentences; (expected) conventionalised formulae are not conveniently deployed, or norms constraining how, when, where or whom to say things are not respected or are ignored, what is at stake is not an informer’s knowledge of the issues testimony may be about, but her knowledge of the very rudiments and conventions to satisfactorily articulate testimony and to successfully dispense it. The objects of this knowledge are the elements making up the linguistic system used to communicate –i.e. vocabulary– their possible combinations –i.e. syntax– and their usage in order to achieve specific goals –i.e. pragmatics– so such knowledge is evidently different from knowledge of the substance of testimony –i.e. its ‘aboutness’.

Real or seeming lexical problems may evidence conceptual gaps, concept-word mismatches or (highly) idiosyncratic concept-word mappings, but they may lead privileged individuals to question disadvantaged individuals’ richness of vocabulary and, ultimately, the concepts connected with it and denoted by words. If this happens, what those individuals attack is one of the sets of tools to generate an acceptable product, but not the content or essence of such a product.

Conceptual competence injustice, therefore, must be seen as targeting the tools with which testimony is created, not its content, so its scope differs from that of testimonial injustice. The scope of testimonial injustice is the truthfulness of a series of events in a narration is, as well as the amount of details that are given about those events and the relevance of those details. The scope of conceptual competence, in contrast, is knowledge and correct usage of vocabulary, and possession of the corresponding concepts.

Conceptual competence injustice focuses on a specific type of knowledge making up the broader knowledge of a language and facilitating performance in various practices, which includes informing others or dispensing testimony. Such specific knowledge is a sub-competence on which the more general, overarching competence enabling communicative performance is contingent. For this reason, conceptual competence injustice is a competence injustice, or an unfairness about a type of knowledge and specific abilities –conceptual and lexical abilities, in this case. And just as unprivileged individuals may be wronged because of their lack or misuse of words and may be attributed conceptual lacunae, occasional or constant syntactic problems and pragmatic infelicities may induce powerful individuals to misjudge those individuals as regards the respective types of knowledge enabling their performance in these areas of language.


Phenomenologically, testimonial injustice and conceptual competence injustice are perpetrated as a consequence of perceptions and appraisals whose respective scopes differ. In testimonial injustice, it is information that is deemed to be unsatisfactory because of its alleged veracity, quantity and relevance, so the informer is not considered a good knower of the issues pertaining to that testimony. In conceptual competence injustice, in contrast, it is the tools by means of which information is dispensed that are regarded as inappropriate, and such inappropriateness induces individuals to doubt possession and knowledge of the adequate lexical items and of their corresponding, supporting conceptual knowledge.

While testimonial injustice is inflicted as a result of what is said, conceptual competence injustice is perpetrated as a consequence of the manner whereby what is said is actually said. Consequently, at a theoretical level, testimonial injustice and conceptual competence injustice should definitely be kept apart in the field of social epistemology. The latter, moreover, should be retained as a valid and useful notion, as long as it denotes an unfairness amenable to be sustained on the grounds of the linguistic tools employed to dispense testimony and not on the grounds of the characteristics of the product generated.

Contact details:


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Anderson, Derek E. “Yes, There Is Such a Thing as Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 26-35.

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

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[1] Reference to the speaker will be made by means of the feminine third person singular personal pronoun.

[2] The fact that the following discussion heavily relies on Grice’s (1957, 1975) Cooperative Principle and its maxims should not imply that such ‘principle’ is an adequate formalisation of how the human cognitive systems work while processing information. It should rather be seen as some sort of overarching (cultural) norm or rule subsuming more specific norms or rules, which are internalised by some social groups whose members unconsciously obey without noticing that they comply with it (Escandell Vidal 2004: 349). For extensive criticism on Grice’s (1957/1975) ideas, see Sperber and Wilson (1986/1995).

[3] Grice’s (1957, 1975) maxim of manner is articulated into four sub-maxims, which cause individuals to be (i) orderly, (ii) brief or concise, and to avoid (iii) ambiguity of expression and (iv) obscurity of expression. In my discussion, however, I have omitted considerations about brevity or conciseness because I think that these are the byproduct of the maxim of quality, with whose effects those of the manner sub-maxim of briefness overlap.

[4] This would be a type of overextension labelled over-inclusion, categorical overextension or classic overextension (Clark 1973, 1993; Rescorla 1980), where a word “[…] is applied to instances of other categories within the same or adjacent conceptual domain” (Wałaszeska 2011: 321).

[5] This would be a case of analogical extension or analogical overextension (Rescorla 1980; Clark 1993).

Author Information: Christopher M. Brown, University of Tennessee, Martin,

Brown, Christopher M. “Defending Some Objections to Moti Mizrahi’s Arguments for Weak Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 1-35.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Due to the length of Brown’s article, we will be posting it in three parts. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image by Bryan Jones via Flickr / Creative Commons


In 2017a,[1] Moti Mizrahi distinguishes a position he calls Weak Scientism—of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the best—from what he calls Strong Scientism—the only real kind of knowledge is scientific knowledge. Whereas Strong Scientism may have serious problems, Mizrahi argues Weak Scientism is a defensible position. In my 2017 response, I raise some objections to the arguments Mizrahi employs to defend Weak Scientism. Mizrahi replies to my objections in 2017b. This essay has two parts. In the first part, I briefly summarize both Mizrahi’s arguments in defense of Weak Scientism in 2017a and the problems for Mizrahi’s arguments I identify in my 2017 essay. In the second part, I offer replies to Mizrahi’s objections in 2017b.

Mizrahi’s Arguments for Weak Scientism and Some Objections to those Arguments

In 2017a, Mizrahi does at least three things. First, he distinguishes persuasive and non-persuasive definitions of scientism and argues for adopting the latter rather than the former. Second, Mizrahi distinguishes Strong Scientism from the position he defends, Weak Scientism. Third, Mizrahi defends Weak Scientism in two ways. The first way Mizrahi defends Weak Scientism is by attempting to defeat the following two objections to that position:

(O1) It is epistemically impossible to offer scientific evidence for Weak Scientism.

(O2) It is viciously circular to support Weak Scientism with scientific evidence.

Where Mizrahi’s attempt to defeat O1 is concerned, he offers what he takes to be a scientific argument for Weak Scientism. Here follows a schema of the argument:

7. One kind of knowledge is better than another quantitatively or qualitatively.[2]
8. Scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) in terms of the number of journal articles published and the number of journal articles cited.
9. Scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) insofar as scientific theories are more successful than non-scientific theories (including philosophical theories) where the success of a theory is understood in terms of its explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success.
10. Therefore, scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific forms of knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) both quantitatively and qualitatively [from 8 and 9].
11. Therefore, scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific forms of knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) [from 7 and 10].

For the sake of ease of reference, let us call the argument above, Mizrahi’s Argument. A second way Mizrahi defends Weak Scientism in his 2017a paper is directly by way of Mizrahi’s Argument. For if Mizrahi’s Argument is sound, it not only shows O1 is false, but it shows Weak Scientism is true.

In my 2017 essay, I raise a number of objections to what Mizrahi argues in 2017a. First, I argue Weak Scientism is not really a form of scientism. Second, I argue Mizrahi does not give an advocate of Strong Scientism good reasons to adopt Weak Scientism. Third, I contend that, contrary to what Mizrahi supposes (2017a, 354), Weak Scientism is not relevant by itself for mediating the debate between defenders of philosophy and those who think philosophy is useless. Fourth, I argue that Mizrahi’s Argument presupposes philosophical positions that many academics reject, so that Mizrahi’s Argument is not as powerful as he seems to think. Fifth, I argue that some of the background philosophical premises in Mizrahi’s Argument are question-begging.

Sixth, I contend that Mizrahi’s primary argument for Weak Scientism—Mizrahi’s Argument—is a philosophical argument and not a scientific argument, and so he does not defeat objection O1. Seventh, I argue that Mizrahi does not defeat objection O2, since there is a way to think about the defensibility of deductive inference that does not involve making inferences. Finally, I offer two counter examples to Mizrahi’s contention that the use of a persuasive definition of a term necessarily involves both begging the question against those who reject such a definition and a failure to provide reasons for thinking that definition is true.

Responding to Mizrahi’s Objections

I now respond to objections Mizrahi raises in 2017b to my 2017 essay. In each section of this part I highlight an objection I raised for Mizrahi 2017a in my 2017 response, I explain Mizrahi’s response to that objection in 2017b, and I offer a response to Mizrahi’s response. In many cases Mizrahi has misconstrued one of my objections, and so I here clarify those objections. In other cases, Mizrahi misses the point of one of my objections, and so I try to make those objections clearer. Still in other cases, Mizrahi makes some good points about objections I raise in 2017, although not points fatal to those objections, and so I revise my objections accordingly. Finally, in some cases Mizrahi asks for more information and so I give it, at least where such information is relevant for evaluating Mizrahi’s defenses of Weak Scientism.

Is Weak Scientism Really Scientism?  

In 2017, I argue that Weak Scientism is not really strong enough to count as scientism. For, given Weak Scientism, philosophical knowledge may be nearly as valuable as scientific knowledge. In fact, given that Weak Scientism claims only that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific academic knowledge (see, e.g., Mizrahi 2017a, 354; 356), Weak Scientism is compatible with the claim that non-academic personal knowledge, moral knowledge, and religious knowledge are all better than scientific knowledge. Certainly, Mizrahi’s defenses of Weak Scientism in 2017a and 2017b don’t show that scientific knowledge is better than non-academic forms of knowledge acquisition. Traditional advocates of scientism, therefore, will not endorse Weak Scientism, given their philosophical presuppositions.

Mizrahi raises two objections to my arguments here. First, even if I’m right that one could think about philosophical knowledge as nearly as valuable as scientific knowledge, this does nothing to show Weak Scientism is not strong enough to count as scientism, since “one of the problems with the scientism debate is precisely the meaning of the term ‘scientism’” (Mizrahi 2017a, 351-353; qtd. in Mizrahi 2017b, 10). Second, Mizrahi notes that scientism is an epistemological thesis and not a psychological one and that he sets out to show what traditional advocates of scientism should accept, and not what they would accept (2017b, 11).

Say Strong Scientism is false, if only because it is self-refuting and subject to good counter-examples. The questions remain, why think Weak Scientism, particularly the weak version of that view Mizrahi ends up defending in 2017a, is really a form of scientism? And why think advocates of Strong Scientism should accept Weak Scientism?

Take the first question. As Mizrahi’s list of citations at the beginning of 2017a makes clear, there already exist very entrenched linguistic conventions with respect to the meaning of ‘scientism.’ As Mizrahi notes, one such meaning is the pejorative or “persuasive” sense of ‘scientism’ that Mizrahi does not like, which (again as Mizrahi himself points out) is quite pervasive, e.g., scientism is an “exaggerated confidence in science (Williams 2015, 6)” (Mizrahi 2017a, 351), and “an exaggerated kind of deference towards science (Haack, 2007, 17; 18)” (Mizrahi 2017a, 351). Mizrahi also mentions persuasive descriptions of scientism in the work of Pigliucci and Sorrell. Why does this diverse group of philosophers use the word ‘scientism’ in this way? Perhaps because it is simply one of the meanings the word ‘scientism’ has come to have in the English language.

Consider, for example, the entry for ‘scientism’ in the Oxford English Dictionary. It has two main headings. Under the first heading of ‘scientism’ is a descriptive use of the term: “A mode of thought which considers things from a scientific viewpoint.” This meaning of ‘scientism’ is not relevant for our purposes since Weak Scientism is a normative and not a descriptive claim. Under the second heading of ‘scientism’ we have:

Chiefly depreciative [emphasis in the original]. The belief that only knowledge obtained from scientific research is valid, and that notions or beliefs deriving from other sources, such as religion, should be discounted; extreme or excessive faith in science or scientists [emphasis mine]. Also: the view that the methodology used in the natural and physical sciences can be applied to other disciplines, such as philosophy and the social sciences (2017).

For better or worse, something such as the following so-called persuasive definition of scientism is thus one of the meanings the word ‘scientism’ has come to have in the English language:

(Scientism1): having an exaggerated confidence in science or the methods of science.

Presumably, some philosophers use ‘scientism’ in the sense of Scientism1 because they think some contemporary thinkers have an exaggerated confidence in science, it is convenient to have a word for that point of view, and, since there is already a term in the English language which picks out that sort of view, namely, ‘scientism’, philosophers such as Williams, Haack, Sorrell, and Pigliucci reasonably use ‘scientism’ in the sense of Scientism1.

But what does this have to do with the question whether Weak Scientism is really a species of scientism? As we’ve seen, one of the meanings commonly attached to ‘scientism’ is the idea of having an exaggerated or improper view of the power or scope of science. But as Mizrahi also notes in 2017a, there is a second sort of meaning often attached to ‘scientism’:

(Scientism2): the view that states the methods of the natural sciences are the only (reliable) methods for producing knowledge or the methods of the natural sciences should be employed in all of the sciences or all areas of human life.

Mizrahi cites Richard Williams (Mizrahi 2017a, 351) and Alex Rosenberg (2017a, 352) as examples of philosophers who use ‘scientism’ with the meaning identified in Scientism2. In addition, as we saw above, this is (part of) the second entry for ‘scientism’ in the Oxford English Dictionary. This is good evidence that Scientism2 picks out one meaning that ‘scientism’ currently has in the English language.

The prevalence of Scientism2 as a meaning of ‘scientism’ goes some distance towards explaining the commonality of the use of Scientism1 as a meaning of ‘scientism’, since many philosophers, historians, psychologists, sociologists, and natural scientists think it is false that science is the only method for (reliably) producing knowledge or the methods of the natural sciences should be employed in all of the sciences or all areas of human life.

Of course, here, as in other areas of life, what some people think is a vice others think a virtue. So philosophers such as Alex Rosenberg think ‘scientism’ in the sense of Scientism2 is true, but reject that acceptance of Scientism2 represents “an exaggerated confidence in science,” since, in their view, the view that science is the only reliable path to knowledge is simply the sober truth.

What I am calling Scientism2 Mizrahi calls Strong Scientism, a view he thinks has problems (see Mizrahi 2017a, 353-354). Furthermore, Mizrahi argues that Weak Scientism is the view that advocates of Strong Scientism should adopt and the view philosophers who want to defend philosophy against charges of uselessness should attack (2017a, 354). But, as I point out in 2017, there is a huge logical gap between Strong Scientism (Scientism2) and Weak Scientism. To see this, recall that Mizrahi defines Weak Scientism as follows:

(Weak Scientism): Of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the best knowledge (2017a, 354).

In my 2017 response, I suggest that, as we take into account the philosophical premises at play in Mizrahi’s Argument, it turns out Weak Scientism becomes an even weaker thesis. For example, consider a strong interpretation of Weak Scientism:

(Fairly Strong Weak Scientism): Of all the knowledge we have, including non-academic forms of knowledge such as common sense knowledge, personal knowledge, moral knowledge, and religious knowledge, scientific knowledge is the best knowledge.

There is a big logical gap between Strong Scientism (Scientism2) and Fairly Strong Weak Scientism. For Strong Scientism (Scientism2) states that scientific knowledge is the only kind of real knowledge (or the only kind of reliable knowledge). But, for all Fairly Strong Weak Scientism says, scientific knowledge is just barely better, e.g., just barely more reliable, than religious knowledge or philosophical knowledge. There’s a huge logical gap between Strong Scientism (Scientism2) and Fairly Strong Weak Scientism.

As Mizrahi notes (2017a, 354; 356), and to which his practice in 2017a conforms, he is not interested in defending Fairly Strong Weak Scientism. This means that Mizrahi really has something such as the following in mind by Weak Scientism:

(Very Weak Scientism) When it comes to the kinds of knowledge produced within the academy, scientific knowledge is the best.

But there is a big logical gap between Strong Scientism (Scientism2) and Very Weak Scientism.  In fact, as I point out in my 2017 article, given other philosophical presuppositions Mizrahi makes or positions Mizrahi defends in 2017a, the view Mizrahi actually defends in 2017a gets even (and ever) weaker:

(Very, Very Weak Scientism) When it comes to the knowledge that is produced by academic publications, scientific publications are the best.

(Very, Very, Very Weak Scientism): When it comes to the knowledge that is produced by academic journals, knowledge that comes from scientific academic journals is the best.

Now, acceptance of Very, Very, Very Weak Scientism leaves open the possibility that there is philosophical knowledge produced by way of monographs, lectures, and conversations that is better than any sort of scientific knowledge. And, as I point out in my 2017 article, ultimately, something such as Very, Very, Very, Weak Scientism is the view Mizrahi defends in 2017a. Is Very, Very, Very, Weak Scientism really scientism? Given the conventional uses of ‘scientism’ and the huge logical gap between Weak Scientism—even on the strongest reading of the position—and Scientism2, it doesn’t make sense to think of Mizrahi’s Weak Scientism as a species of scientism.

Consider some other reasons for thinking it strange that Weak Scientism counts as a species of scientism. Imagine a person named Alice, about whom, let us say for the sake of argument, the following statements are true: (a) Alice thinks there is a God; (b) she knows the reasons for not thinking there is a God; (c) she has published influential attempted defeaters of the arguments that there is no God; (d) even though she reasonably thinks there are some good, if not compelling, arguments for the existence of God, she thinks it reasonable to believe in God without argumentative evidence; (e) she has published an influential account, by a prestigious academic press, of how a person S can be rational in believing in God, although S does not have good argumentative evidence that God exists; (f) she has published a much discussed argument that belief in God makes better sense of an evolutionary account of the human mind (understood as a reliable constellation of cognitive powers) than does an atheistic evolutionary one, and (g) she thinks that modern science is the greatest new intellectual achievement since the fifteenth century. If believing modern science is the greatest new intellectual achievement since the fifteenth century is (roughly) equivalent to Weak Scientism, then Alice is (roughly) an advocate of Weak Scientism. But it seems odd, to say the least, that Alice—or someone with Alice’s beliefs—should count an advocate (even roughly) of scientism.

One may also reasonably ask Mizrahi why he thinks the position picked put by Weak Scientism is a species of scientism in the first place. One may be inclined to think Weak Scientism is a species of scientism because, like Strong Scientism, Weak Scientism (as formulated by Mizrahi) puts too high a value on scientific knowledge. But Mizrahi won’t define or describe scientism in that way for the reasons he lays out in 2017a.

Given the conventional uses of ‘scientism,’ the huge logical gap between Weak Scientism and Scientism2, and Mizrahi’s refusal to employ a persuasive definition of scientism, it is not clear why Mizrahi’s Weak Scientism should count as a species of scientism. A friendly suggestion: perhaps Mizrahi should simply coin a new word for the position with respect to scientific knowledge and non-scientific forms of academic knowledge he wants to talk about, rather than simply coining a new (and problematic) meaning for ‘scientism.’

Mizrahi’s Argument Does Not Show Why Advocates of Strong Scientism Should Endorse Weak Scientism  

Given Mizrahi’s interest in offering “a defensible definition of scientism” (2017a, 353), which, among other things, means an alternative to Strong Scientism (2017a, 353-354), we can also consider the question, why think advocates of Strong Scientism should adopt Weak Scientism? Mizrahi does not argue in 2017a, for example, that there are (reliable) forms of knowledge other than science. His argument simply presupposes it. But if Mizrahi wants to convince an advocate of Strong Scientism that she should prefer Weak Scientism, Mizrahi can’t presuppose a view the advocate of Strong Scientism believes to be true (particularly, if it’s not even clear that Weak Scientism is a form of scientism).

In addition, as I try to show in my 2017 response, Mizrahi’s Argument relies on other philosophical positions that advocates of Strong Scientism do not accept and Mizrahi does not offer good philosophical arguments for these views. Indeed, more often than not, Mizrahi has simply stipulated a point of view that he needs in order to get Mizrahi’s Argument off the ground, e.g., that we should operationalize what philosophy is or we should operationalize what counts as knowledge in a discipline (for more on these points, see below). If philosophical premises that the advocate of Strong Scientism do not accept are doing the heavy lifting in Mizrahi’s Argument as I claim, premises which are undefended from the perspective of the advocate of Strong Scientism, then it’s not clear why Mizrahi thinks advocates of Strong Scientism should accept Weak Scientism based upon Mizrahi’s Argument.

For even Fairly Strong Weak Scientism is a lot different from the view that advocates of Strong Scientism such as Alex Rosenberg hold. Here’s Rosenberg: “If we’re going to be scientistic, then we have to attain our view of reality from what physics tells us about it. Actually, we’ll have to do more than that: we’ll have to embrace physics as the whole truth about reality” (2011, 20). Indeed, it seems the only reason an advocate of Strong Scientism such as Rosenberg would be even tempted to consider adopting Weak Scientism is because it contains the word ‘scientism.’

But once the advocate of Strong Scientism sees that an advocate of Weak Scientism admits the possibility that there is real knowledge other than what is produced by the natural sciences—indeed, in Mizrahi 2017a and 2017b, Weak Scientism is compatible with the view that common sense knowledge, knowledge of persons, and religious knowledge are each better than scientific knowledge—the advocate of Strong Scientism, at least given their philosophical presuppositions, will reject Weak Scientism out of hand. Given also that Mizrahi has not offered arguments that there is real knowledge other than scientific knowledge, and given that Mizrahi has not offered arguments for a number of views required for Mizrahi’s defense of Weak Scientism (see below), views that advocates of Strong Scientism reject, Mizrahi also does not show why advocates of Strong Scientism should adopt Weak Scientism.

How Is Weak Scientism by Itself Relevant Where the Philosophy-Is-Useless-Objection Is Concerned?

Mizrahi seems to think Weak Scientism is relevant for assessing the philosophy-is-useless claim. He states: “I propose . . . Weak Scientism is the definition of scientism those philosophers who seek to defend philosophy against accusations of uselessness . . . should attack if they want to do philosophy a real service” (2017, 354). But why think a thing like that?

In his response to my 2017 essay, Mizrahi gets his reader off on the wrong foot by reinterpreting my question as “Does Weak Scientism entail that philosophy is useless?” (2017b, 9; 11). Mizrahi says that I “object to [Mizrahi’s] argument in defense of Weak Scientism by complaining that Weak Scientism does not entail philosophy is useless” (2017b, 11) and he goes on to point out that he did not intend to defend the view that philosophy is useless.

But this is to miss the point of the problem (or question) I raise for Mizrahi’s paper in this section, which is, “how is Weak Scientism by itself relevant where the philosophy-is-useless-objection is concerned?” (Brown 2017, 42). For Weak Scientism itself implies nothing about the degree to which philosophical knowledge is valuable or useful other than stating scientific knowledge is better than philosophical knowledge.

Given Mizrahi’s definition of Weak Scientism, (a) one could accept Weak Scientism and think philosophy is extremely useful (there is no contradiction in thinking philosophy is extremely useful but scientific knowledge is better than, for example, more useful than, philosophical knowledge); (b) one could accept Weak Scientism and think philosophy is not at all useful (one may be thinking philosophical knowledge is real but pretty useless and that scientific knowledge is better than philosophical knowledge); (c) one could obviously reject Weak Scientism and think philosophy very useful (depending upon what one means by ‘philosophy is useful’; more on this point below), and (d) one could reject Weak Scientism and think philosophy useless (as some advocates of Strong Scientism surely do).

Accepting (or rejecting) Weak Scientism is compatible both with thinking philosophy is very useful and with thinking philosophy is useless. So it’s hard to see why Mizrahi thinks “Weak Scientism is the definition of scientism those philosophers who seek to defend philosophy against accusations of uselessness . . . should attack if they want to do philosophy a real service” (2107a, 354).

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[1] I’m grateful to James Collier for inviting me to reply to Moti Mizrahi’s “In Defense of Weak Scientism: A Reply to Brown” (2017b) and Merry Brown for providing helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

[2] For the sake of consistency and clarity, I number my propositions in this essay based on the numbering of propositions in my 2017 response.

Author Information: Justin Garson, Hunter College, City University of New York,

Garson, Justin. “Realism, Conventionalism, and Irrealism about Biological Functions: A Reply to Schyfter.”Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 6 (2014): 77-81.

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As a philosopher of biology who works on the topic of biological function, I found Schyfter’s article, “Function by Agreement,” intriguing and challenging. Above all, I was happy to see the topic get some interdisciplinary attention. There are three points I’d like to raise; two are questions and one is a comment. First, I wondered whether Schyfter’s “communitarian” approach to biological function really differs from one well-established tradition in the philosophy of biology spearheaded by Robert Cummins (1975). Second, if it does differ, why and how is that difference particularly beneficial to the sociology of scientific knowledge, as he claims? Finally, I wanted to defend a theory of function that Schyfter criticizes, the “etiological” theory, to which I am quite sympathetic (Garson 2014, particularly Chapter 7, and references therein).  Continue Reading…