Archives For criticism

Author Information: Robert Piercey, Campion College at the University of Regina,

Piercey, Robert. “Faraway, So Close: Further Thoughts on Kanonbildung.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 33-38.

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

Please refer to:

In the courtyard of Humboldt University, where Georg Hegel taught at the apex of his institutional career.
Image by Joan via Flickr / Creative Commons


I’d like to thank Maxim Demin and Alexei Kouprianov for their probing study of Kanonbildung in 19th century Germany. As I understand it, the study has two goals. The first is substantive: to gather and present facts about how a particular philosophical canon emerged in 19th century Germany. The other is methodological: “to develop formalised methods of studying Kanonbildung as a process,” methods which “may turn out to be useful beyond the original scope of our project, in a wide range of possible studies in intellectual history and mechanics of cultural memory formation” (113).

It’s this second goal that I find particularly interesting. So in what follows, I won’t quarrel with the substantive conclusions Demin and Kouprianov draw about the formation of the 19th century German philosophical canon—in part because their conclusions strike me as plausible, and in part because I lack the expertise to challenge their findings. Instead, I’d like to reflect broadly on the methods they use to study Kanonbildung, especially the notion of distant reading which they borrow from Franco Moretti (113). More specifically, I’d like to raise some questions about whether, how, and to what extent their strategy of distant reading must be supplemented by a form of close reading: namely, a form that treats histories of philosophy as literary artifacts whose contents are to be studied by many of the same techniques brought to bear on fictional narratives.

I raise these questions as a philosopher interested in the philosophy of history and in the intersections between philosophy and literature. To be clear, I don’t reject the methods developed by Demin and Kouprianov. On the contrary, I suspect that distant reading has an important role to play in the history of philosophy in general, and in the study of canon formation in particular. But I’d like to suggest that this method becomes more useful when it is supplemented by others—as well as to raise some questions about what this supplementing might look like.

Canon: An Institution of Thought

Let me start by highlighting what I take to be the key points of Demin’s and Kouprianov’s  analysis. They describe themselves as contributing to an institutional history of philosophy: that is, a history that downplays the “conceptual reconstruction” of past views in favour of a “study of practices” (113). The practices that interest them most are the “implicit rules and patterns” (113, emphasis added) that shape philosophers’ understandings of what their activity is and how it should proceed—practices typically not noticed by philosophers themselves. And the epoch that interests them is the 19th century, since it was during this period “that the history of philosophy began its transformation from a generalised body of knowledge into an academic discipline” (112).

A crucial part of this transformation is the development of philosophical canons. Demin and Kouprianov say relatively little about what they think canons are. Very roughly, I take them to be groups of thinkers who are seen as representing the highest and most important achievements of philosophy as a practice, thinkers with whom one should be familiar if one wishes to understand or contribute to philosophy at all.

Furthermore, a canon consists of not just a list of thinkers, but some sort of ranking, some sense—perhaps not fully explicit—of each thinker’s relative importance. In the canon Demin and Kouprianov study, for instance, philosophers are variously described as “primary,” “secondary,” or “tertiary” (116). Understood in this way, canons perform several important functions. They perform sociological functions of “indoctrination and identity formation” (113). By the end of the 19th century in Germany, a familiarity with Kant, Hegel, and others had come to shape philosophers’ understandings of their enterprise to such an extent that it was probably a necessary condition of being considered a philosopher at all.

Canons presumably perform other functions as well—for instance, inspiring philosophers by providing “mountains peaks to look up towards,” in Richard Rorty’s phrase.[1] Canons can change dramatically over time. So if one wants to understand a particular period in the history of philosophy well, it is important to know not just which figures it considered canonical, but how and when its particular canon was formed. That is what Demin and Kouprianov set out to discover about 19th century Germany.

What Is Distant Reading?

As mentioned above, the methods they use to do so go by the name of distant reading. This term was coined by Franco Moretti to designate a particular way of studying literary texts. It is to be opposed to close reading, which privileges the contents of particular texts and engages in “the analysis of ideas and the reconstruction of conceptual schemata” (113). Distant reading focuses instead on the practices “standing behind” these texts, using “formal analytic methods” to uncover “objective characteristics of large amounts of digitised texts” (113).

I take it that the authors see distant reading not as intrinsically superior to all other approaches, but as a way of correcting an imbalance. Their suggestion seems to be that the study of the history of philosophy heretofore has been so dominated by close reading that it has overlooked “implicit rules and patterns” (113). Distant reading nudges the pendulum in the other direction by encouraging historians to pay “closer attention” (113, emphasis added) to previously overlooked practices.

With this goal in mind, Demin and Kouprianov examine a large number of 19th century German works in the history of philosophy, constructing a data set that reveals how often particular philosophers were mentioned and at what length they were discussed. Examining “845 [table of contents] entries for 151 philosophers’ names,” they compile data about the “number of pages devoted to each philosopher” in these works, the “share of the 19th century section devoted to him,” and the “start and end pages of the paragraph and those of the 19th century section” (114).

The result is a very precise snapshot of how much discussion was devoted to certain philosophers at various points in the 19th century—one that allows us to trace the ways in which interest in these figures increased, peaked, and in some cases declined as the century unfolded. It lets us see precisely how and when certain figures came to be seen as more canonical than others.

This approach bears several sorts of fruit. One—in keeping with the authors’ second, methodological goal—is that it spurs the invention of new concepts helpful for making sense of the data. The undertheorized concept of a “philosophical bestseller” (115), for instance, announces itself as important, and can be defined quite precisely as a work published three times or more. Likewise, their approach allows Demin and Kouprianov to develop precise markers of the perceived greatness of philosophers, in terms of “the frequency that a particular name appears across tables of contents” (117). A primary thinker, for instance, can be defined as one “mentioned in more than 80% of treatises” (117).

Other gains are substantive. We learn that the reputations of Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel were cemented between 1831 and 1855, as the rate at which they were mentioned outpaced that of other thinkers. And we learn that a common view of Schopenhauer—that he was underappreciated in his lifetime and scorned by the philosophical establishment—is false, “with his views being included in three textbooks by 1855” (118). These are important discoveries, and they demonstrate the value of the authors’ strategy of distant reading.

The new museum at Humbolt University.
Image by Bartek Kuzia via Flickr / Creative Commons


Shifting Fortunes of Fame

Of course, as Demin and Kouprianov acknowledge, “presence in the canonic history does not tell us much about the part a philosopher played within it” (119). In order to bring this dimension into view, they use several additional techniques. The one I find most intriguing is their examination of where certain philosophers appear in various histories of philosophy, and more specifically, their study of how often various philosophers appear at the end of a history.

The authors focus on three philosophers—Herbart, Schleiermacher, and Fries—who are often discussed in conjunction with Hegel. Then they see how often the figures in question are discussed before Hegel, and how often they are discussed after. “This relative position,” they explain, “is an indirect but a most meaningful criterion which allows to assess the degree of perceived recency and relevancy of a given philosopher. The closer a philosopher stays to the end of the list, the more ‘recent’ and ‘relevant’ to the current debate he is” (123).

This view seems plausible, and in the authors’ hands, it sheds important new light on how these four thinkers were viewed at various points in the 19th century. But we should note that it makes a crucial assumption. In order to move from the premise that a history discusses a given philosopher last to the conclusion that it sees him as most relevant to current debates, we must assume that it tells a particular kind of story: roughly speaking, a progressive story.

We must assume that the historian has organized her data in a very particular way, with the episodes of her story becoming more and more germane to contemporary readers’ concerns as they get closer and closer to them in time. No doubt many, if not most, histories of philosophy actually are stories of this kind. But is a philosopher’s position in a given history a good general clue to her perceived relevance? Is it such a reliable indicator of perceived importance that it should be built into a method intended for use “in a wide range of possible studies in intellectual history” (113)?

Philosophy as a Tradition

I linger over this matter because it raises an important issue in the history of philosophy: the issue of genre. Histories of philosophy, I take it, are narratives, and every narrative belongs to some genre or other.[2] Narratives in different genres may describe the same events in the same order, but assign them different meanings by shaping these events into different sorts of plots. The philosopher who has contributed most to our understanding of this process is Hayden White. In his seminal essay “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” White asks us to consider several different ways in which a single series of events might be emplotted. We can imagine a pure chronicle in which the series is “simply recorded in which the events originally occurred” (93); it might be represented in the following way:

  • a, b, c, d, e, …, n[3]

But this series “can be emplotted in a number of different ways and thereby endowed with different meanings without violating the imperatives of the chronological arrangement at all” (92). The following series are all equally possible:

  • A, b, c, d, e, …, n
  • a, B, c, d, e, …, n
  • a, b, C, d, e, …, n
  • a, b, c, D, e, …, n[4]

In each of these series, one event is symbolized with a capital letter to indicate that it is being assigned “explanatory force,”[5] or some other special significance, with respect to the others. Privileging one event rather than another yields stories in different genres. Series (2) would be a “deterministic” history which endows a “putatively original event (a) with the status of a decisive factor (A) in the structuration of the whole series of events following after it.”[6] Were we to privilege the last event in the series, we would have a story in the genre of “eschatological or apocalyptical histories” such as “St. Augustine’s City of God” and “Hegel’s Philosophy of History.”[7]

Many other permutations, and thus many other genres, are possible. In some genres, it is plausible to suppose that the last figure discussed is seen by the author as most relevant to current concerns. But in other genres, this assumption cannot be made. In a history of decline or forgetting, the last figure discussed might well be seen by the author as the least relevant to these concerns. Consider a Heideggerian history of philosophy, in which the last figure discussed is Nietzsche, but the figure most relevant to the contemporary situation is one or another pre-Socratic thinker.

The point is that knowing that a philosopher appears last in a given history—even in a large number of histories—does not tell us much about how the author understood his significance for current concerns. To draw conclusions about significance, we must know the genre (or genres) of the history (or histories) in question. And that is something we can discover only through careful attention to a history’s “literary” features—precisely the features identified through traditional close readings. So while the data Demin and Kouprianov uncover, and the methods they use to do so, are indispensable, I suspect they do not give a full picture of Kanonbildung on their own. They will be most useful when pursued in tandem with certain types of close reading.

Merging Historical Paths

I have no reason to think that Demin and Kouprianov would deny any of this. But I would like to know more about whether, and how, they think it complicates their project. What is the relation between distant reading and close reading? Do these types of analysis simply complement each other, or are they also in tension? I’ve already speculated that the authors see distant reading as a way of correcting an imbalance—that “formal analytic methods” directed at the “objective characteristics… of digitised texts” (113) are called for today because a longstanding bias toward close reading has left historians oblivious to implicit rules and patterns.

If that is the case, is there a danger that performing close reading in conjunction with distant reading will overshadow the distinctive value of the latter? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I suspect that it will be important to answer them if the methods of this study are to be extended to other areas.

I hasten to add that I am not “for” close reading or “against” distant reading. Distant reading, as the authors describe it, is clearly an important tool. But I would like to know more about how it relates to the other tools at the disposal of historians of philosophy. Whatever their view of this matter, I’d like to thank Demin and Kouprianov again for making a promising new contribution to our conceptual toolbox.

Contact details:


Demin, Maxim, and Alexei Kouprianov, “Studying Kanonbildung: An Exercise in a Distant Reading of Contemporary Self-descriptions of the 19th Century German Philosophy.” Social Epistemology, 32, no. 2: 112-127.

Kuukkanen, Jouni-Matti. Postnarrativist Philosophy of Historiography. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Rorty, Richard “The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres,” in Philosophy in History, ed. Richard Rorty, Jerome Schneewind, and Quentin Skinner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

White, Hayden. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

[1] Richard Rorty, “The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres,” in Philosophy in History, ed. Richard Rorty, Jerome Schneewind, and Quentin Skinner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 23.

[2] Not everyone agrees that all histories are narratives, but space does not permit me to broach this issue here. For an important recent discussion of it, see Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen, Postnarrativist Philosophy of Historiography (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), especially Chapter 5.

[3] Hayden White, “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 92.

[4] White, 92.

[5] White, 92.

[6] White, 93.

[7] White, 93.

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

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

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

The town of Messkirch, the hometown of Martin Heidegger.
Image by Renaud Camus via Flickr / Creative Commons


Jeff Kochan is upfront about not being able “to make everyone happy” in order to write “a successful book.” For him, choices had to be made, such as promoting “Martin Heidegger’s existential conception of science . . . the sociology of scientific knowledge . . . [and the view that] the accounts of science presented by SSK [sociology of scientific knowledge] and Heidegger are, in fact, largely compatible, even mutually reinforcing.” (1) This means combining the existentialist approach of Heidegger with the sociological view of science as a social endeavour.

Such a marriage is bound to be successful, according to the author, because together they can exercise greater vitality than either would on its own.  If each party were to incorporate the other’s approach and insights, they would realize how much they needed each other all along. This is not an arranged or forced marriage, according to Kochan the matchmaker, but an ideal one he has envisioned from the moment he laid his eyes on each of them independently.

The Importance of Practice

Enumerating the critics of each party, Kochan hastens to suggest that “both SSK and Heidegger have much more to offer a practice-based approach to science than has been allowed by their critics.” (6) The Heideggerian deconstruction of science, in this view, is historically informed and embodies a “form of human existence.” (7) Focusing on the early works of Heidegger Kochan presents an ideal groom who can offer his SSK bride the theoretical insights of overcoming the Cartesian-Kantian false binary of subject-object (11) while benefitting from her rendering his “theoretical position” more “concrete, interesting, and useful through combination with empirical studies and theoretical insights already extant in the SSK literature.” (8)

In this context, there seems to be a greater urgency to make Heidegger relevant to contemporary sociological studies of scientific practices than an expressed need by SSK to be grounded existentially in the Heideggerian philosophy (or for that matter, in any particular philosophical tradition). One can perceive this postmodern juxtaposition (drawing on seemingly unrelated sources in order to discover something novel and more interesting when combined) as an attempt to fill intellectual vacuums.

This marriage is advisable, even prudent, to ward off criticism levelled at either party independently: Heidegger for his abstract existential subjectivism and SSK for unwarranted objectivity. For example, we are promised, with Heidegger’s “phenomenology of the subject as ‘being-in-the-world’ . . . SSK practitioners will no longer be vulnerable to the threat of external-world scepticism.” (9-10) Together, so the argument proceeds, they will not simply adopt each other’s insights and practices but will transform themselves each into the other, shedding their misguided singularity and historical positions for the sake of this idealized research program of the future.

Without flogging this marriage metaphor to death, one may ask if the two parties are indeed as keen to absorb the insights of their counterpart. In other words, do SSK practitioners need the Heideggerian vocabulary to make their work more integrated? Their adherents and successors have proven time and again that they can find ways to adjust their studies to remain relevant. By contrast, the Heideggerians remain fairly insulated from the studies of science, reviving “The Question Concerning Technology” (1954) whenever asked about technoscience. Is Kochan too optimistic to think that citing Heidegger’s earliest works will make him more rather than less relevant in the 21st century?

But What Can We Learn?

Kochan seems to think that reviving the Heideggerian project is worthwhile: what if we took the best from one tradition and combined it with the best of another? What if we transcended the subject-object binary and fully appreciated that “knowledge of the object [science] necessarily implicates the knowing subject [practitioner]”? (351) Under such conditions (as philosophers of science have understood for a century), the observer is an active participant in the observation, so much so (as some interpreters of quantum physics admit) that the very act of observing impacts the objects being perceived.

Add to this the social dimension of the community of observers-participants and the social dynamics to which they are institutionally subjected, and you have the contemporary landscape that has transformed the study of Science into the study of the Scientific Community and eventually into the study of the Scientific Enterprise.

But there is another objection to be made here: Even if we agree with Kochan that “the subject is no longer seen as a social substance gaining access to an external world, but an entity whose basic modes of existence include being-in-the-world and being-with-others,” (351) what about the dynamics of market capitalism and democratic political formations? What about the industrial-academic-military complex? To hope for the “subject” to be more “in-the-world” and “with-others” is already quite common among sociologists of science and social epistemologists, but does this recognition alone suffice to understand that neoliberalism has a definite view of what the scientific enterprise is supposed to accomplish?

Though Kochan nods at “conservative” and “liberal” critics, he fails to concede that theirs remain theoretical critiques divorced from the neoliberal realities that permeate every sociological study of science and that dictate the institutional conditions under which the very conception of technoscience is set.

Kochan’s appreciation of the Heideggerian oeuvre is laudable, even admirable in its Quixotic enthusiasm for Heidegger’s four-layered approach (“being-in-the-world,” “being-with-others,” “understanding,” and “affectivity”, 356), but does this amount to more than “things affect us, therefore they exist”? (357) Just like the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am,” this formulation brings the world back to us as a defining factor in how we perceive ourselves instead of integrating us into the world.

Perhaps a Spinozist approach would bridge the binary Kochan (with Heidegger’s help) wishes to overcome. Kochan wants us to agree with him that “we are compelled by the system [of science and of society?] only insofar as we, collectively, compel one another.” (374) Here, then, we are shifting ground towards SSK practices and focusing on the sociality of human existence and the ways the world and our activities within it ought to be understood. There is something quite appealing in bringing German and Scottish thinkers together, but it seems that merging them is both unrealistic and perhaps too contrived. For those, like Kochan, who dream of a Hegelian aufhebung of sorts, this is an outstanding book.

For the Marxist and sociological skeptics who worry about neoliberal trappings, this book will remain an erudite and scholarly attempt to force a merger. As we look at this as yet another arranged marriage, we should ask ourselves: would the couple ever have consented to this on their own? And if the answer is no, who are we to force this on them?

Contact details:


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

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).

Contact details:


Aquinas, Saint Thomas. Summa Theologiae. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Allen, TX: Christian Classics, 1981.

Aquinas, Saint Thomas. Summa Contra Gentiles. Book One. Trans. Anton C. Pegis. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991.

Aristotle. Posterior Analytics. Trans. G.R.G. Mure. In The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941.

Aristotle. On the Parts of Animals. Trans. William Ogle. In The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941.

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. W.D. Ross. In The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941.

Augustine, Saint. Confessions. Trans. Frank Sheed. 1942; reprint, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2006.

Brown, Christopher. “Some Logical Problems for Scientism.” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 85 (2011): 189-200.

Brown, Christopher. “Some Objections to Moti Mizrahi’s ‘What’s So Bad about Scientism?’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 42-54.

Bourget, David and David J. Chalmers. “What do philosophers believe?” Philosophical Studies 170, 3 (2014): 465-500.

Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy. 1908; reprint, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995.

Feldman, Richard. Epistemology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2003.

Feser, Edward. The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008.

Feser, Edward. “Blinded by Scientism.” Public Discourse. March 9, 2010a. Accessed January 15, 2018.

Feser, Edward. “Recovering Sight after Scientism.” Public Discourse. March 12, 2010b. Accessed January 15, 2018.

Feser, Edward. Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction. editiones scholasticae, 2014.

Haack, Susan. Defending Science—Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Haack, Susan. “The Real Question: Can Philosophy Be Saved? Free Inquiry (October/November 2017): 40-43.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. God, Philosophy, and Universities. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

Mizrahi, Moti. “What’s So Bad About Scientism?” Social Epistemology 31, no. 4 (2017a): 351-367.

Mizrahi, Moti. “In Defense of Weak Scientism: A Reply to Brown.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017b): 9-22.

Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. “scientism,” accessed January 10, 2018,

Papineau, David. “Is Philosophy Simply Harder than Science?” The Times Literary Supplement On-line. June 1, 2017. Accessed July 11, 2017.

Pieper, Josef. In Defense of Philosophy. Trans. Lothar Krauth. 1966; reprint, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992.

Plato. Phaedo. In Five Dialogues. Trans. Grube and Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002.

Plato. Gorgias. Trans. Donald J. Zeyl. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987.

Plato. Republic. Trans. C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2004.

Postman, Neil. Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

Robinson, Daniel N. “Science, Scientism, and Explanation.” In Scientism: the New Orthodoxy. Williams and Robinson, eds. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015, 23-40.

Rosenberg, Alex. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2011.

Sorrell, Tom. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. First edition. London: Routledge, 1994.

Sorell, Tom. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. Kindle edition. London: Routledge, 2013.

Van Inwagen, Peter. Metaphysics. 4th edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2015.

Williams, Richard. N. and Daniel N. Robinson, eds. Scientism: the New Orthodoxy. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

[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: Alan Irwin, Copenhagen Business School,

Irwin, Alan. “Agreeing to Differ? A Response to Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 11-14.

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

Please refer to:

Image credit: Broo_am (Andy B), via flickr

What is the purpose of criticism? Is it to challenge and provoke, to establish new kinds of dialogue and mutual learning, to silence or to give voice? And what happens when we do not agree? Is disagreement an impediment or a driver to change? Is it a way of testing out arguments and building a mutually-enlightening dialectic? Or is open disagreement a fundamental problem which makes further discussion impossible?

I should quickly say that I do not write in these terms because I feel criticized or especially disagreed with by Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden’s very fine and reflective paper—nor do I have devastating criticisms and disagreements to offer them.  But I am struck by the parallels between writing a critical response to academic colleagues and the handling of criticism and disagreement within public participatory exercises. To move to the main theme of these comments, should agreement be the purpose of academic/public debate or does this imply a stepping away from difficult issues, a failure of nerve or even a form of manipulation?  Should one focus on what we share or on what divides us?

The Value of Disagreement

With inevitable irony, I think one important area of agreement between myself and these two authors is that we all value disagreement and have a suspicion of public participatory processes which seek to push this aside or to conceal the existence of contradictory views. As I read Jeroen Van Bouwel and Michiel Van Oudheusden, there is a basic problem with many participatory formats which seek agreement (or what they call ‘consensus’) and serve to delegitimize conflict and disagreement. In a careful analysis, they present different models of democracy but also critically (that word again) reflect upon the ‘consensual-deliberative model of public participation in technoscience’.

From their perspective, ‘consensus is enacted as an epistemic and political ideal that, implicitly or explicitly, renders undesirable the prospect of protracted conflict and the unfeasibility of conflict resolution. Nonconsensual conceptions and possibilities of change, conflict and democracy are thereby mostly left out of the equation.’ (Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden 2017, 3) Instead, they are drawn to more agonistic ways of thinking. They also challenge the current ‘meta-consensus’ around public engagement ie the consensus over the ways such exercises are theorized and invoked—or perhaps the ‘consensus over consensus’ (my awkward formulation not theirs).

There is much more to say about Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden’s thoughtful discussion than I can summarize here, including the presentation of two cases, a reflection on different models of democracy and an important inter-connection of STS and political theory. I strongly invite the reader to read their paper on these and other points. Certainly, I think the authors succeed in bringing new perspectives to what has often been a rather stale discussion of ‘public engagement—democracy or disappointment?’ within the academic literature (on this see Irwin et al 2012).

In critical response, I will—in the most constructive interpretation of ‘criticism’—focus on the relationship Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden present between disagreement and consensus-seeking within participatory exercises. To bring in one further aspect of their discussion, how should we think about the role of ‘closure’ in this context and also their proposed notion of ‘disclosure’? In line with the positive valuation of disagreement and conflict, ‘disclosure’ is seen as opening up a fresh perspective on participation: ‘disclosure does not imply a begrudging acceptance of the impossibility of actors to reach a shared solution for a social problem; rather, conflict between them is valued positively as the guarantor of political struggle.’ (Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden 2017, 10) Their argument, as I see it, is not necessarily in favour of disclosure over closure, but rather that we need to augment our ways of thinking and acknowledge the possibility of protracted conflict as well as agreement.

So how does the constructively-minded critic react to all this? My response—apart from the previous appreciative summary—is to point to three issues which I think deserve to be discussed in greater depth. It may be that my comments are more normatively-inclined than Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden’s rather balanced paper. Instead, my thoughts are best read as reflections stimulated by their text rather than disagreements with it. All are intended to move the field of ‘public engagement: studies and practice’ further forward.

On Consensus

First of all, I think the authors do well to portray consensus not simply in the common ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sense of a rather weak state of agreement but also as a faith in the common good and a commitment to building a shared culture. In fact, it is one of my own publications (with Maja Horst) that is drawn upon here so it is hard for me to differ (Horst and Irwin 2010). However, and in contrast to the approach taken in Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden’s paper, the Danish ideal of consensus (at least from our perspective) does involve the acceptance both of fundamental disagreement and of the inability to achieve resolution on every issue (see Horst 2010). It asks what are for me some key questions: ‘how do we proceed when we are not in agreement?’; ‘how do we live together with conflict?’; and, not least in current troubled times, ‘how can we face disagreement directly and without fear of negative consequences?’.  This is of course an ideal and not necessarily what one sees at a daily level within the Danish state—although notice the relative stability in that country of multi-party governments whose internal disagreements are at least as important as what they have in common. My point is that an orientation to consensus-seeking does not have to mean a ‘begrudging acceptance’ of disagreement. It can be that it starts with this acceptance and builds from there.

The authors’ approach to these issues is to put forward new conceptions and ideals that contrast with ‘consensus discourse’. My own argument is, firstly, to acknowledge that ‘consensus’ can take several different forms but, secondly, to suggest that we may have much more to learn from previous experience of ‘consensual’ conflict handling than the authors’ approach implies. For me, concepts like dissensus, disclosure, conflictual consensus and agonism are valuable—but they should be seen as part of the consensual ideal rather than a contrast to it. Of course, here I also reveal my own commitment both to vigorous (dis)agreement and to finding collective ways of handling conflict—and even being made stronger by it.

On Institutional and Political Contexts

This takes me to my second point of discussion. If we accept the argument that official approaches to public engagement around the world often back away from disagreement and conflict, then it is also necessary for us as ‘critical’ scholars to consider the institutional and political contexts within which such assumptions are generated and performed. Why this persistent pattern? Is it caused by a culture of ‘scientism’ whereby complex socio-technical issues are reduced to a reductionist matrix of risk? Is it due to a deeper institutional urge for control, and resistance to the troublesome uncertainties often emphasized within public discussion? Is it because issues such as nanotechnologies and new approaches to healthcare have the potential to become ‘wicked problems’ for government institutions in particular: crossing departmental jurisdictions, spinning in several directions at once, easy to open up but hard to close down? Or is it because there are economic pressures at work which make it difficult even to imagine that the answer to any proposed innovation will be ‘no thanks’?

Having observed civil servants struggling both to ‘make space’ for participation activities in the face of sceptical ministers and suspicious stakeholders, and to move forward with what are often ‘hot’ issues in a distinctly ‘cold’ environment, it seems to me vital that we understand the institutional and cultural forces at work. We should also ask why, after so much criticism from all sides, initiatives in public participation actually persist. Without examining the relevant organizational and political contexts, it seems to me that we are doomed to a not very subtle revision of the old deficit model: why don’t policy makers understand? What if they understand more than we acknowledge, but simply find that our concepts and models miss the point as they see it?

On Opening and Closing

My third observation is the most general of all. And I have to say that it is influenced by a mood of pessimism concerning the current state of world politics (I am hoping this will pass—both the politics and my mood). I too share the enthusiasm for opening problems up rather than closing them prematurely down (Stirling 2008), for challenging the manner in which issues are framed for debate, and for bringing criticism and disagreement forward more visibly, directly and vigorously. Our critical training as social scientists and humanities scholars encourages this and (although I can’t speak for everyone here) our own political sensibilities have often been sharpened by critique of the orthodoxy, the closed agreement and the establishment stitch-up.

But does this lead us to under-value the art of closure, the process of finding ways to make agreements, understandings and policies stick even when the disagreements persist and the uncertainties show no sign of dissipating? To take an obvious example, does the world need more ‘disclosure’ right now around climate change or is it actually more interesting (and challenging) to imagine the kinds of closure which might be fruitfully established—and the acknowledgements of dispute and difference upon which these should be built? In the era of Brexit, starkly-polarized US politics and global warming, certain consensual ideals seem more important and powerful than ever.

Should we focus on what we share or what divides us? The answer for me can only be ‘both’. I am grateful to Jeroen Van Bouwel and Michiel Van Oudheusden for providing us with the foundation for doing exactly that.


Horst, Maja. “Collective Closure? Public Debate as the Solution to Controversies about Science and Technology.” Acta Sociologica 53, no. 3 (2010): 195-211.

Horst, Maja and Alan Irwin. “Nations at Ease with Radical Knowledge: on Consensus, Consensusing and False Consensusness.” Social Studies of Science 40, no. 1 (2010): 105-126.

Irwin, Alan, Torben Elgaard Jensen, and Kevin Edson Jones. “The Good, The Bad and The Perfect: Criticizing Engagement Practice.” Social Studies of Science 43, no. 1 (2012): 118-135.

Stirling, Andrew. “‘Opening Up’ and ‘Closing Down’: Power, Participation, and Pluralism in the Social Appraisal of Technology.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 33, no. 2 (2008): 262-294.

Van Bouwel, Jeroen and Michiel Van Oudheusden. “Participation Beyond Consensus? Technology Assessments, Consensus Conferences and Democratic Modulation.” Social Epistemology (2017): 1-17. doi:10.1080/02691728.2017.1352624.