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Author Information, Adam Briggle and Robert Frodeman, University of North Texas,,

Briggle, Adam; and Robert Frodeman. “Thinking À La Carte.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 8-11.

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

A cropped photo of “Follow Me,” a portrait by Wang Qingsong.
Image by Michael Davis-Burchat via Flickr / Creative Commons


In 2016, we published an article in the New York Times column The Stone, titled “When Philosophy Lost its Way.” We followed this up with a book, Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st Century Philosophy. In similar fashion, Bryan Van Norden has published a book that expands on an argument originally placed in The Stone. Both our book and Van Norden’s Taking Back Philosophy criticize professional philosophy. We both call for greater diversity in the face of homogeneity.

For us, the troubling orthodoxy is disciplinarity – the way philosophers conceive of themselves as experts just like any other academic branch of knowledge. We called for a wider engagement by philosophers, where their place of business isn’t only the classroom and the study, but also projects in the field, working in a day-by-day fashion with scientists, engineers, policy-makers, and community groups. For Van Norden, what’s problematic is the orthodoxy of the Anglo-European canon. He prescribes diversifying the curriculum through the greater inclusion of less commonly taught philosophies (LCTP).

“People Had Been Dreaming, and First and Foremost – Old Kant”

Kant is our common bete noir. We see in Kant a tipping point where philosophy written for someone other than specialists became recast as ‘bungling,’ which was obviously the sort of thing any self-respecting specialist should avoid. By the end of the nineteenth century, Socratic philosophy (fundamentally interrogative in nature) morphed into our present philosophical institutions (whose focus on expertise bear a distressing similarity to sophistry).

For Van Norden, Kant serves as the key villain in the Western drama of philosophical ethnocentrism. Kant’s unabashed prejudices have burdened philosophy with a legacy of “structural racism.” Western philosophy, Van Norden claims, practices an Orientalism where certain peoples and traditions are written off as simply non-philosophical.

Both of our critiques, then, are institutional as well as epistemic. We are both addressing deeply engrained assumptions about what counts as ‘real’ philosophy and how those assumptions get built into practices of teaching, evaluation, hiring, promotion, and more. In short, we are sympathetic to Van Norden’s basic project. After all, who could argue against the inclusion of different and diverse perspectives in philosophical teaching and research?

As Van Norden shows, there is much to be gained by, for example, putting Hobbes in conversation with Confucius or adding Cheng Yi to discussions about weakness of the will.

We do, however, have a couple of criticisms, which we offer in a spirit of solidarity given our shared efforts to reform the institutions of philosophy. The first criticism is about the magnitude of the problem and the second is about its definition.

The Scope of the Problem

How big is the problem of philosophical ethnocentrism really? In some sense, this is a matter of attitudes and institutional climates that are very hard to measure. But in other ways it is an empirical question. Van Norden’s argument would be strengthened if he expanded his survey of the profession. He offers many anecdotes of philosophers with prejudices, but he only offers a few systematic empirical remarks about what kinds of LCTP are and are not being taught at different institutions.

And the way he does this is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, he tends to focus only on ‘top’ (via Leiter’s definition) philosophy departments or PhD-granting departments. This can give a skewed picture, which is something we wonder about, given that we have two faculty in our relatively small department focused on Southeast Asian philosophy and religion. To give one other data point, discovered in our recent travels: one of the four philosophy faculty at UW-La Crosse focuses on Chinese philosophy. These snapshots make us wonder about the adequacy of his survey.

Second, there’s the way he measures the problem. He first isolates different kinds of LCTP (Chinese, Indian, Native American, and African) and then notes how rarely each features on the roster of philosophy departments. But it could be that when LCTP are aggregated the problem dissipates.[1] As he notes, not every department can do every kind of philosophy, so diversity is to be accomplished collectively and not within each discreet academic unit. So, why use isolated academic units to measure the problem?

And this says nothing of the possibility that philosophers regularly sprinkle LCTP into their curricula in ways that wouldn’t show up on such a cursory survey. We certainly would not list ourselves as specialists in any LCTP, but we both draw from a variety of traditions and cultures in the classroom. We suspect this kind of practice is widespread.

So What Is Philosophy?

But set aside the question about the magnitude of the problem to consider again its definition. Van Norden defines philosophy as dialogue about important problems in the absence of an agreed-upon method for their resolution. He claims this dialogue has happened in many cultures but that philosophy departments tend to only busy themselves with one culture. And they do so for no good reason, just rank prejudice.

Yet there might be a good reason to focus (not exclusively, but mainly) on one cultural tradition. Not because one is the best or only tradition. Rather, because philosophy is inextricably woven into cultures. Van Norden gives a passing mention that “doctrines and practices of argumentation are situated in their particular cultures” (p. 30). But he quickly sets this aside to remind us that philosophy in the West (or anywhere) is not monolithic. He takes from this a sense of philosophy that is really only very loosely or shallowly rooted to any particular tradition. Since there is no one single conception of Western philosophy, he seems to say, then we can extract this or that conception and set it alongside this or that conception extracted from any LCTP.

Van Norden pictures the problems in philosophy as discreet units that can be excised from their historical contexts and analyzed in isolation. This constitutes the analytical approach to philosophy or what we call thinking a la carte, where issues can be dished up as separate items rather than as components of a larger meal.

We subscribe to a different conception of philosophy. On our view, philosophy does not primarily consist of a series of problems (e.g., free will; intrinsic value) which one can take a variety of positions on. Philosophy consists of a tradition and a narrative across time.  The thoughts of Hegel or Heidegger can best be understood as a rumination on an ongoing conversation involving Nietzsche, Christianity, Duns Scotus, Aristotle, Plato, etc.

In short, we picture philosophy in narrative and historical terms as embedded in cultural contexts. And given that there is only so much time and so many credit hours in the degree plan, a philosophical education is understandably limited to one tradition (though, again, not exclusively – there should be room for cross-cultural comparisons).

It is best, we are suggesting, to learn one story with some depth and care rather than take a desultory and superficial tour across a hodgepodge of traditions. This kind of episodic and fractured mental life is given more than enough room in our media landscape today, where everything is served up a la carte, with few if any binding ties to things around it. Let philosophy stand as a counterweight to the aimlessness of popular culture.

A Western World

We are comfortable with a general focus on Western philosophy. It is the culture we live within, and the culture that has for-better-and-worse taken over the world. After all, when President Trump meets with President Xi Jinping, they wear suits and ties – the traditional Western garb, not traditional Chinese clothing. This symbolizes the fact that ours is a world most strongly influenced by Western traditions, especially science, technology, and politics. Immersing one’s self in the history of Western philosophy will help illuminate that world – its historical development and its underlying presuppositions about the human condition.

None of this is to either endorse or condemn “the West.” Nor to deny that greater exposure to LCTP traditions wouldn’t be a good thing. It is only to suggest that students who understand the history of Western philosophy will be well-equipped to critically engage with contemporary society on a deep level. We grant with Van Norden that there is no such thing as “the” Western conception of philosophy.

Of course that tradition is full of disagreement. But it is a tradition and we all live in a world of its making. In other words, we fear that Van Norden’s proposal taken at full strength will contribute to the a la carte thinking that leaves people ill-prepared to address the challenges that 21st century society presents us with.

Contact details:,


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

[1] His original Stone article (with Jay Garfield) makes a stronger empirical claim that seems to be absent from the book for some reason.

Author Information: Eric Kerr, National University of Singapore,

Kerr, Eric. “A Hermeneutic of Non-Western Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 4 (2018): 1-6.

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

Please refer to:

Image by Güldem Üstün via Flickr / Creative Commons


Professional philosophy, not for the first time, finds itself in crisis. When public intellectuals like Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss, Sam Harris, Bill Nye, and Neil deGrasse Tyson (to list some Anglophonic examples) proclaim their support for science, it is through a disavowal of philosophy. When politicians reach for an example within the academy worthy of derision, they often find it in the footnotes to Plato. Bryan Van Norden centres one chapter of Taking Back Philosophy around the anti-intellectual and ungrammatical comment by US politician Marco Rubio that “We need more welders and less philosophers.” Although Rubio later repented, commenting approvingly of Stoicism, the school of thought that has recently been appropriated by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, the message stuck.[1]

Two Contexts

As the Stoics would say, we’ve been here before. Richard Feynman, perhaps apocryphally, bowdlerized Barnett Newman’s quip that “aesthetics is to artists what ornithology is to birds,” proclaiming that, “philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” A surly philosopher might respond that the views on philosophy of a scientist with no philosophical training is about as useful to philosophy as a bird’s view on ornithology. Or, more charitably, to point out that ornithology is actually quite useful, even if the birds themselves are not interested in it and that birds, sometimes, do benefit from our better understanding of their condition.

However, according to some accounts, philosophers within this ivory aviary frequently make themselves unemployed. “Philosophy” historically has referred simply to any body of knowledge or the whole of it.[2] As our understanding of a particular domain grows, and we develop empirical means to study it further, it gets lopped off the philosophical tree and becomes, say, psychology or computer science. While we may quibble with the accuracy of this potted history, it does capture the perspective of many that the discipline of philosophy is especially endangered and perhaps particularly deserving of conservation.

Despite this, perhaps those most guilty of charging philosophy with lacking utility have been philosophers themselves either through the pragmatic admonishings of Karl Marx (1888) or Richard Rorty (Kerr and Carter 2016) or through the internecine narcissism of small differences between rival philosophers and schools of thought.

This is, in part, the context out of which Jay Garfield and Bryan van Norden wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times’ Stone column, promoting the inclusion of non-Western philosophy in US departments.[3] Today, the university is under threat on multiple fronts (Crow and Dabars 2015; Heller 2016) and while humanities faculties often take the brunt of the attack, philosophers can feel themselves particularly isolated when departments are threatened with closure or shrunk.[4]

Garfield and van Norden’s central contention was that philosophy departments in the US should include more non-Western philosophy both on the faculty and in the curriculum and that if they cannot do this, then they should be renamed departments of Anglo-European philosophy and perhaps be relocated within area studies. The huge interest and discussion around that article prompted van Norden to write this manifesto.

The thought that philosophy departments should be renamed departments of European or Western philosophy is not a new one. Today, many universities in China and elsewhere in Asia have departments or research groups for “Western philosophy” where Chinese philosophy and its subdisciplines dominate. In his influential text, Asia as Method, Kuan-Hsing Chen argued that, if area studies is to mean anything, it should apply equally to scholars in Asia producing “Asian studies” as to scholars in Europe:

If “we” have been doing Asian studies, Europeans, North Americans, Latin Americans, and Africans have also been doing studies in relation to their own living spaces. That is, Martin Heidegger was actually doing European studies, as were Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jürgen Habermas. European experiences were their system of reference. Once we recognize how extremely limited the current conditions of knowledge are, we learn to be humble about our knowledge claims. The universalist assertions of theory are premature, for theory too must be deimperialized.” (Chen, p. 3)

Taking Back Philosophy is peppered with historical examples showing that Chinese philosophy, van Norden’s area of expertise, meets whatever standards one may set for “real philosophy”. Having these examples compiled and clearly stated is of great use to anyone putting forth a similar case and for this alone the book is a worthy addition to one’s library. These examples, piled up liberally one on top of the other, are hard to disagree with and the contrary opinion has a sordid history.

The litany of philosophers disparaging non-Western philosophy does not need to be detailed here – we all have stories and van Norden includes his own in the book. The baldest statement of this type is due to Immanuel Kant who claimed that “[p]hilosophy is not to be found in the whole Orient,” but one can find equally strong claims made among colonial administrators, early anthropologists, historians, educators, missionaries, and civil servants.[5] Without wishing to recount that history the most egregious that resonates in my mind was spoken by the British Ambassador to Thailand from 1965-1967, Sir Anthony Rumbold:

[Thailand has] no literature, no painting and hideous interior decoration. Nobody can deny that gambling and golf are the chief pleasures of the rich, and that licentiousness is the main pleasure of them all.

Taking Back Social Epistemology

Van Norden’s book wrestles, and finds its resonant anger, with these two histories: One in which professional philosophy is isolated, and isolates itself, from the rest of academy and the wider “marketplace of ideas” and one in which sub-altern and non-Western histories and perspectives are marginalized within philosophy. Since this is a journal of social epistemology, I’d like to return to a similar debate from the late 1990s and early 2000s, spearheaded by James Maffie, under the banner of ethno-epistemology.

Maffie’s bêtes noires were not primarily institutional so much as conceptual – he thought that epistemological inquiry was hampered by an ignorance of the gamut of epistemological thinking that has taken place outside of the Western world (2001, 2009). Maffie’s concern was primarily with Aztec (Mexicana) philosophy and with indigenous philosophies of the Americas (see also Burkhart 2003) although similar comparative epistemologies have been done by others (e.g. Dasti 2012; Hallen and Sodipo 1986; Hamminga 2005).

Broadly, the charge was that epistemology is and has been enthnocentric. It has hidden its own cultural biases within supposedly general claims. Given that knowledge is social, the claim that it is universal across cultures would be in need of weighty justification (Stich 1990). That Dharmottara and Roderick Chisholm derived seemingly similar conclusions from seemingly-similar thought experiments is not quite enough (Kerr 2015, forthcoming). Translation is the elephant in the room being described by several different people.[6] Language changes, of course, as does its meanings.

In ancient China, Tao had only the non-metaphorical sense of a road or pathway. It took up the first of its many abstract meanings in the Analects of Confucius. Similarly, in ancient Greece, logos had many non-metaphorical meanings, before Heraclitus gave it a philosophical one (Guthrie, 1961-1982: 1:124-126, 420-434) For epistemology, just take the word ‘know’ as an example. Contemporary philosophy departments in the English-speaking world, or at least epistemologists therein, focus on the English word ‘know’ and draw conclusions from that source. To think that such conclusions would generalize beyond the English-speaking world, sounds parochial.

Reading Taking Back Philosophy alongside Maffie’s work is instructive. The borders of philosophy are as subject to history, and boundary work by other scholars, as any other discipline and we should also be aware of the implications of Taking Back Philosophy’s conclusions beyond “professional” philosophy which may extend the proper body of knowledge to so-called “folk epistemologies”. The term “professional philosophy” restricts the object of our attention to a very recent portion of history and to a particular class and identity (Taking Back Philosophy also argues forcefully for the diversification of philosophers as well as philosophies). How do we make sure that the dissident voices, so crucial to the history of philosophy throughout the world, are accorded a proper hearing in this call for pluralism?

Mending Wall

At times, Taking Back Philosophy is strikingly polemical. Van Norden compares philosophers who “click their tongues” about “real philosophy” to Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan. All, he says, are in the business of building walls, in constructing tribalism and us-versus-them mentalities. Indeed, the title itself is reminiscent of Brexit’s mantra, “Taking Back Control.” It’s unlikely that van Norden and the Brexit proponents would have much in common politically, so it may be a coincidence of powerful sloganeering. Van Norden is a thoroughgoing pluralist: he wants to “walk side by side with Aristotle through the sacred grounds of the Lyceum … [and to] … ‘follow the path of questioning and learning’ with Zhu Xi.” (p. 159)

Where choices do have to be made for financial reasons, they would have to be made anyway since no department has space for every subdiscipline of philosophy and, analogously, we might say that no mind has space for every text that should be read.[7] Social epistemology has itself been the target of this kind of boundary work. Alvin Goldman, for example, dismisses much of it as not “real epistemology”. (2010)

As can probably be gleaned from the descriptions above, Taking Back Philosophy is also heavily invested in American politics and generally follows a US-centric slant. Within its short frame, Taking Back Philosophy draws in political debates that are live in today’s United States on diversity, identity, graduate pay, and the politicization and neoliberalization of the American model of the university. Many of these issues, no doubt, are functions of globalization but another book, which took back philosophy, from outside of the US would be a useful complement.

The final chapter contains an uplifting case for broad-mindedness in academic philosophy. Van Norden describes philosophy as being one of the few humanities disciplines that employ a “hermeneutic of faith” meaning that old texts are read in the hope that one might discover something true as opposed to a “hermeneutic of suspicion” oft-followed in other humanities and social science disciplines which emphasizes the “motives for the composition of a text that are unrelated to its truth or plausibility.” (p139) “[Philosophy is] open to the possibility that other people, including people in very different times and cultures, might know more about these things than we do, or at least they might have views that can enrich our own in some way.” (p139) The problem, he contends, is that the people “in very different times and cultures” are narrowly drawn in today’s departments.

Although Taking Back Philosophy ends with the injunction – Let’s discuss it… – one suspects that after the ellipses should be a tired “again” since van Norden, and others, have been arguing the case for some time. Philosophers in Europe were, at different times, more or less fascinated with their non-Western contemporaries, often tracking geopolitical shifts. What is going to make the difference this time? Perhaps the discussion could begin again by taking up his hermeneutic distinction and asking: can we preserve faith while being duly suspicious?

Contact details:


Alatas, S.H. 2010. The Myth of the Lazy Native: A Study of the Image of the Malays, Filipinos and Javanese from the 16th to the 20th Century and its Function in the Ideology of Colonial Capitalism. Routledge.

Burkhart, B.Y. 2003. What Coyote and Thales can Teach Us: An Outline of American Indian Epistemology. In A. Waters (Ed.) American Indian Thought. Wiley-Blackwell: 15-26.

Chen, Kuan-Hsing. 2010. Asia as Method. Duke University Press.

Collins, R. 2000. The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Harvard University Press.

Crow, M.M. and W.B. Dabars. 2015. Designing the New American University. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Dasti, M.R. 2012. Parasitism and Disjunctivism in Nyaya Epistemology. Philosophy East and West 62(1): 1-15.

Fanon, F.  1952 [2008]. Black Skin, White Masks, trans. R. Philcox. New York: Grove Press.

Goldman, A. 2010. Why Social Epistemology is Real Epistemology. In A. Haddock, A. Millar and D. Pritchard (Eds.), Social Epistemology. Oxford University Press: 1-29.

E.B. Goldstein. 2010. Encyclopedia of Perception. SAGE.

Guthrie, W.K.C. 1961 [1982]. A History of Greek Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hallen, B. and J.O. Sodipo. 1986. Knowledge, Belief, and Witchcraft. London: Ethnographica.

Hamminga, B. 2005. Epistemology from the African Point of View. Poznan Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities 88(1): 57-84.

Heller, H. 2016. The Capitalist University: The Transformations of Higher Education in the United States, 1945-2016. Pluto Press.

Kerr, E. 2015. Epistemological Experiments in Cross-Cultural Contexts. Asia Research Institute Working Paper Series 223: 1-27.

Kerr, E. forthcoming. Cross-Cultural Epistemology. In P. Graham, M. Fricker, D. Henderson, and N. Pedersen (Eds.) Routledge Handbook of Social Epistemology.

Kerr, E. and J.A. Carter. 2016. Richard Rorty and Epistemic Normativity. Social Epistemology 30(1): 3-24.

Maffie, J. 2001. Alternative Epistemologies and the Value of Truth. Social Epistemology 14: 247-257.

Maffie, J. 2009. “‘In the End, We have the Gatling Gun, And they have not:’ Future Prospects for Indigenous Knowledges,” Futures: The Journal of Policy, Planning, and Futures Studies, 41: 53-65.

Marx, K. 1888. Theses on Feuerbach. Appendix to Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. Retrieved from

Said, E. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage.

[1] Goldhill, O. “ Marco Rubio Admits he was Wrong… About Philosophy.” Quartz, 30 March 2018. Retrieved from

[2] Philosophy. Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved from

[3] Garfield, J.L. and B.W. Van Norden. “If Philosophy Won’t Diversity, Let’s Call it What it Really Is.” New York Times, 11 May 2016. Retrieved from

[4] See, e.g., N. Power. “A Blow to Philosophy, and Minorities.” The Guardian, 29 April 2010. Retrieved from Weinberg, J. “Serious Cuts and Stark Choices at Aberdeen.” Daily Nous, 27 March 2015. Retrieved from

[5] See e.g., Edward Said’s Orientalism (1979), Fritz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and, more recently, Syed Alatas’ The Myth of the Lazy Native (2010).

[6] The reader will recall the parable wherein three blind men describe an elephant through their partial experience (the coarseness and hairiness of the tail or the snakelike trunk) but none of whom describes it accurately (e.g. In Goldstein 2010, p. 492).

[7] Several people have had the honour of being called the last to have read everything including Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who ironically wrote the first printed book to be universally banned by the Catholic Church, and Desiderius Erasmus, after whom a European student exchange programme, facilitating cross-cultural learning is founded. Curiously, Thomas Babington Macauley is said to have been the best-read man of his time and he appears in Jay Garfield’s foreword to TAKING BACK PHILOSOPHY to voice a particularly distasteful and ignorant remark (p. xiv). We can conclude that the privilege of having read widely, or having a wide syllabus, is not enough in itself for greater understanding.

Author Information: Ayesha Hardison, University of Kansas,

Hardison, Ayesha. “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Literary Fragments.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 56-63.

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

Please refer to:

Image by Trojan_Llama via Flickr / Creative Commons


To acknowledge Jane Crow, the term Pauli Murray contrived to unmask black women’s intersecting race and gender oppression, is not the same as understanding how black women’s subjection works—or why it persists. In “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” Kristie Dotson defines Jane Crow as a system of practices subjugating black women materially and epistemologically. That is, Jane Crow restricts black women’s inalienable rights to citizenship and limits their equitable access to resources.

Moreover, Jane Crow forecloses comprehension of the disenfranchisement it engenders. Dotson explains, “The complex bind of Jane Crow subordination is constituted by occupying simultaneous hyper-visibility, i.e. membership in social categories policed and suppressed for the maintenance of some form of supremacy, and invisibility, i.e. the limited nature of using those social categories to understand the specific nature of the subordination in question.”[1] Jane Crow, Dotson argues, singles out black women and girls for repression and control and summarily casts them as ciphers, nonentities “hidden in plain sight” despite statistics documenting their plight.[2] As a result of their concurrent hypervisibility and invisibility, black women are perceived as “unknowable” to the social, political, and cultural brokers upholding white supremacy and patriarchy. They are systematically targeted, branded as pathological, pared down to stereotype, regarded as disreputable, and ultimately deemed untenable.

I agree with Dotson: Jane Crow is a material and epistemological problematic manifest in black women’s longstanding repudiation in US hegemonic culture, a phenomenon theorized in black feminist thought since its beginnings. Black women have been relegated historically to the margins of black freedom struggles and women’s movements, and they continue to struggle for legibility in our post-civil rights moment particularly, as Dotson highlights, in the context of familiar narratives about the “endangered black male.”[3]

Yet, constitutive to black women’s epistemological quandary under Jane Crow, i.e. the way racism and sexism impacts their ability to produce knowledge, is the conceit that black women’s narratives about their multivalent oppression register similarly in hegemonic and counterhegemonic spaces. For example, a 2017 New York Times article uses the term Jane Crow to describe the practices of Children’s Services to punish poverty-stricken black and Hispanic women’s parenting by removing their children from their homes. The piece quotes a lawyer at length to indict the epistemic nature of the system’s biases:

There’s this judgment that these mothers don’t have the ability to make decisions about their kids, and in that, society both infantilizes them and holds them to superhuman standards. In another community, your kid’s found outside looking for you because you’re in the bathtub, it’s ‘Oh, my God’—a story to tell later. … In a poor community, it’s called endangering the welfare of your child.[4]

The state’s criminalizing narrative, based on discriminatory racial, gender, and economic geographies, exemplifies the distorted perspectives on black women’s structural disadvantages. Black women continue to be “unknowable” in dominant culture due to its investment in white supremacy and patriarchy. However, black women are not unknowable to themselves, especially if we consider their writing as epistemological endeavors instructive for their readers as well as their conceptualization of self.

An analysis of African American women writers’ engagement with Jane Crow is outside the scope of Dotson’s epistemological story in “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” but their texts illuminate the philosophical conundrum she identifies. From its conception, the African American women’s literary tradition has explored the realities of black women’s social condition under Jane Crow as well as considered, in its various fiction and nonfiction forms, the ways Jane Crow has shaped black women’s production of knowledge.

Pauli Murray’s own memoir Song in a Weary Throat (1987), which narrates the legal scholar’s civil rights activism throughout the twentieth century, makes concrete the material and epistemological injustices black women endure. Whereas Dotson theorizes Jane Crow by outlining the social factors facilitating black women’s “unknowability,” in literary studies, we might say black women’s “unknowability” is actually a matter of audience and, more importantly, a problem of reception. Structural realities (and inequities) demand black women’s invisibility, but black women’s philosophical and literary efforts make them visible—first and foremost—to themselves and each other.

“Theorizing Unknowability”

Dotson describes the conditions fostering black women’s invisibility as “a trifold structure of disappearing” that relies on “disregard, disbelief, and disavowal.”[5] First, black women occupy negative socio-epistemic space in hegemonic culture, which fixes them as unknowable. Public opinion largely classifies black women as irrelevant, and their social vulnerability permits rigid stereotypes that further their invisibility rather than inspire challenges to it. Dotson explains, “a catalyst for invisibility can be seen as, in part, epistemic failings with respect to what we use to make sense of our worlds that serves to obscure certain populations.”[6]

Second, black women experience reduced epistemic confidence, which means they are not afforded plausibility, seen as credible, or viewed as worthy subjects to be “believed in.”[7] In conjunction with the epistemic failings that encourage a disregard of black women, a common-held disbelief in black women delimits their capacity to contribute to the social production of knowledge.

Finally, black women are susceptible to heightened epistemic backgrounding, by which they are demoted to bit players in their own stories or employed as material for juxtaposition instead of subjects of inquiry. Such disavowal, Dotson expounds, displaces black women “as the backdrop of some other subject(s) of contemplation.”[8] Together these three negating environs underwrite black women’s invisibility, which effectively mystifies their Jane Crow oppression by the state and delegitimizes their discernment of their social status.

Dotson’s methodology invites a literary approach to her philosophical interrogation of Jane Crow’s epistemological assault. For example, she cites Toni Blackman’s poetry to exemplify black women’s negotiation of their presence so often mistaken for absence. However, when engaging Pauli Murray’s conceptualization of Jane Crow, Dotson focuses on Murray’s academic and public scholarship. She is careful to note that her work is not an intellectual history of Murray but a “theoretical archeology” of Jane Crow. “It is a story sketched between conceptual fragments in Black women’s social theory,” she writes.[9]

To compose an epistemological story, Dotson stitches together theoretical fragments from Murray’s 1947 article “Why Negro Girls Stay Single” and 1965 essay “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII.” She also mines a quote from Murray’s 1970 essay “The Liberation of Black Women,” in which Murray clarifies, “Jane Crow refers to the entire range of assumptions, attitudes, stereotypes, customs, and arrangements that have robbed women of a positive self-concept and prevented them from participating fully in society as equals with men.”[10]

Dotson highlights this fragment’s epistemological relevance by concentrating on the causes of Jane Crow oppression. She contends black women’s “unfavorable placement with respect to prevailing” assumptions, stereotypes, and customs sanctions the material effects and epistemic circumscriptions of Jane Crow.[11] In effect, her grappling with and suture of Murray’s philosophical fragments challenges the hierarchal epistemologies that have characterized black women as unknowable and unknowing.

I appreciate Dotson’s attentive epistemological reading, and I am struck also by the fragment’s reference to Jane Crow’s influence on black women’s “positive self-concept.” This, too, is epistemologically relevant, and I would go further to suggest that it is within fragments of Murray’s creative and nonfiction writing that an inchoate discourse about black women’s positive self-concept, which is often overlooked and undervalued, emerges.

Image by AntonSLarsson via Flickr / Creative Commons


“Creatively Theorizing The Black Female Autobiographical Self”

Murray was an accomplished writer as well as a distinguished legal scholar. In addition to academic articles and law compendiums, she produced a collection of poetry, a biography of her grandparents, and her posthumously-published memoir Song in a Weary Throat. The latter takes its title from Murray’s published poem “Dark Testament” (1943), which sketches African American history from African society, captivity, and slavery to impending freedom over the poem’s twelve sections. Its speaker relays, “Hope is a song in a weary throat.”[12] Noticeably, “hope” is not included in the title of Murray’s autobiography, but its affect resonates in her extraordinary life story as a black activist, feminist, lawyer, priest, and poet.[13]

The speaker of “Dark Testament” goes on to entreat, “Give me a song of hope and love/And a brown girl’s heart to hear it” (italics original). This fragment, just a few lines later, suggests that a song of hope does not achieve its full transformative power without a brown girl’s heart and ear—or to put it another way, without an empathetic black female audience. In the introduction to Murray’s poetry collection, Morris Milgram reveals the activist/poet thought of “Dark Testament,” a prodigious narrative, as “only a fragment and forerunner of the epic of black America yet to be written.”[14]

Nonetheless, the fragment frames Murray’s memoir as a song of hope. It also signals the importance of a black female reader to whom and for whom her production of knowledge would be regarded, believed, and avowed despite the presumptions of “unknowability” black women’s Jane Crow oppression provokes.[15]

In her essay “Being the Subject and the Object,” Barbara Christian recalls her experience reading African American women’s fiction, namely Paule Marshall’s novel Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), for the first time. She writes that the “woman-voice” of the black female protagonist’s mother “constantly interrupted my mind-voice. Her anguish-rage warned me of trials I might have to face.”[16] Marshall’s coming of age tale resonated with Christian, as the latter internalized the lessons she gleaned from the protagonist’s racial and gender struggles.

The novel allowed Christian to confront the epistemic offense intrinsic to black women’s Jane Crow subjection. “In it,” she writes, “I as subject encountered myself as object.”[17] By reading black women’s writing, Christian distinguishes herself as a reader, a subject, from that which is read, an object. Her confrontation with herself as an object codified her abiding invisibility in American literature and culture even as it marked her obvious presence. Christian surmises Brown Girl, Brownstones “was crucial to a deeper understanding of my own life,” and she later learns from a conversation with Marshall that it was written “to unravel [the black female writer’s] own knots.” Central to the acts of reading and writing, then, is black women’s knowing.[18]

Christian’s reflection minds African American women’s fiction, but its premise is helpful for thinking about black women’s epistemic endeavors in nonfiction.[19] A cursory review of black women’s literary criticism in autobiographical studies reveals fragments theorizing their unknowability as well as their efforts to counteract it. In Black Women Writing Autobiography, Joanne Braxton expresses, “We have been knowers, but we have not been known.”[20] She elucidates that autobiography is a way for African American women to “meet,” or know, their mothers “on the conscious plane,” as exemplified by her study of the works of Harriet Jacobs, Ida B. Wells, Nina Simone, and Maya Angelou among others. “Defying every attempt to enslave or diminish them or their self-expression in any way,” Braxton writes, “black women autobiographers liberate themselves from stereotyped views of black womanhood, and define their own experiences.”[21]

Similarly, Margo Perkins contends that the autobiographies of Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and Elaine Brown construct “an alternative history that challenges hegemonic ways of knowing.”[22] Finally in Words of Witness, Angela Ards asserts that personal narrative and political discourse intersect within an autobiography to create a “deliberative space where readers” can “imagine the new vocabularies and strategies that the moment demands.”[23] These fragments of knowing identify black women’s autobiography as a vehicle for positive self-concept and social epistemology.

In Song in a Weary Throat, Murray relays the moment she decided to write her memoir late in the narrative. While contemplating a faculty appointment at Brandeis in 1968, she explains, “Suddenly I realized that what I really wanted to do was to write an autobiographical book on Jim Crow and Jane Crow—racism and sexism as they had impinged upon my life.”[24] Murray elected to do both, to teach and write during the summer. Her purpose for penning the book, to write about sexism during the height of twentieth-century black freedom struggles, echoes her resolve to confront systemic oppression depicted throughout her memoir.

Earlier in the text Murray discloses her decision to attend Howard Law School “with the single-minded intention of destroying Jim Crow.”[25] However, it is during her time there that she began to theorize Jane Crow, “the twin evil of discriminatory sex bias,” as she was the only female student in her class at the all-black institution which had no women faculty and only one female staff member.[26] “[T]he racial factor was removed in the intimate environment of a Negro law school dominated by men,” she writes, “and the factor of gender was fully exposed.”

Murray describes experiencing the material affects of Jane Crow as well as its epistemological repercussions in this period of her life. She is excluded from the legal fraternity and its extended networks due to her gender. Although she characterizes her male classmates as “friendly,” she qualifies that they “seemed to take it for granted that I had nothing to contribute. For much of that first year I was condemned to silence unless the male students exhausted their arguments or were completely stumped by a professor’s question.”[27] Murray is barred customarily from adding to the class’s production of knowledge. Consequently, she writes that her realization “women were often the objects of ridicule disguised as a joke” by her classmates and professors “aroused an incipient feminism in me long before I knew the meaning of the term ‘feminism.’”[28]

Song in a Weary Throat details Murray’s experiences with racial and gender subordination, but it also outlines the processes of knowledge production that motivated her to identify and signify her Jane Crow oppression.[29] She theorizes the practice in law school, and she applies the term in her 1947 essay “Why Negro Girls Stay Single.” Yet, it is in the fragments of her autobiography that Murray demythologizes black female epistemologies. Song in a Weary Throat is an enlightening testament to black women’s production of knowledge.


In the conclusion of her essay, Dotson asks, “How does one disrupt epistemic resources that hide their inadequacy behind the shape of its own sense making features? … Would one aim an intervention at the nature of imagination as a means of disrupting knowledge economies?”[30] In response to these questions, she states many black feminists, such as Pauli Murray and Kimberlé Crenshaw, and many black women writers, such as June Jordan, Toni Morrison, and Audre Lorde, “have tried.”  Yet such a feat could only be accomplished with the demise of Jane Crow—a complete end to its material and epistemological abuses.

Although I engage Pauli Murray as a writer here to offer a complementary approach to Dotson’s theorizing of Jane Crow, I do not claim that black women’s writing irons out Jane Crow’s material paradoxes. I do want to suggest black women’s self-articulation provides them a way to mitigate the intellectual confines of Jane Crow. Black women writers do not “resolve our dilemmas,” to return to Christian’s insights about the literary tradition, but they do “name them.”[31]  In a destructive culture of invisibility, for black women to call out Jane Crow and counter with their self-representation has substantive weight.

Contact details:


Ards, Angela A. Words of Witness: Black Women’s Autobiography in the Post-Brown Era. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015.

Bobo, Jacqueline.  Black Women as Cultural Readers. New York: Columbia, 1995.

Braxton, Joanne M. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition within a Tradition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

___. “Autobiography and African American Women’s Literature.” African American Women’s Literature. Eds. Angelyn Mitchell and Danille K. Taylor.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 128-147.

Christian, Barbara. “Being the Subject and the Object: Reading African-American Women’s Novels.” New Black Feminist Criticism, 1985-2000. Eds. Gloria Bowles, M. Giulia Fabi, and Arlene R. Keizer. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007. 120-126.

Clifford, Stephanie and Jessica Silver-Greenberg. “Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow.’” New York Times July 21, 2017. Accessed January 31, 2018

Cooper, Brittney C. Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017.

Dotson, Kristie. “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability.” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 31:5 (2017) 417-430.

Graham, Maryemma. “Introduction.” The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 1-16

Hardison, Ayesha K. Writing through Jane Crow: Race and Gender Politics in African American Literature. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014.

Perkins, Margo V. Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

Petry, Ann. The Street. 1946. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

Milgram, Morris. “Introduction.” Dark Testament and Other Poems. Norwalk, CT: Silvermine, 1970.

Murray, Pauli. “Dark Testament.” 1943. Dark Testament and Other Poems. Norwalk, CT: Silvermine, 1970. 12-27.

___. Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1987.

___. “The Liberation of Black Women.” 1970. Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought. Ed. Beverly Guy Sheftall. New York: The New Press, 1995. 186-197.

[1] Kristie Dotson, “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 31:5 (2017): 417.

[2] Ibid., 420, 425.

[3] Ibid. The degree of black women’s visibility in the current #metoo campaign is also debatable, given the limited discussion of their experiences in Hollywood despite the hashtag’s origin in black female activist Tarana Burke’s grassroots organizing around sexual abuse.

[4] Maisha Joefield, the mother penalized under these circumstances, shares in the article that the temporary removal of her child still makes her nervous: “You’re afraid to parent the way you would normally parent.” The ritualized castigation of poor black mothers with scarce options for childcare speak to the circuitous material and epistemological aspects of their Jane Crow oppression. Stephanie Clifford and Jessica Silver-Greenberg, “Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow,’” New York Times July 21, 2017, Accessed January 31, 2018,

[5] Dotson, “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” 426.

[6] Ibid., 423.

[7] Ibid., 424.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 418.

[10] Pauli Murray, “The Liberation of Black Women,” 1970, Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall (New York: The New Press, 1995), 186.

[11] Dotson, “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” 421.

[12] Pauli Murray, “Dark Testament,” Dark Testament and Other Poems (Norwalk, CT: Silvermine, 1970), 22.

[13] Murray’s public identities are the subtitle to the eponymously titled 1989 edition of her autobiography.

[14] Morris Milgram, “Introduction,” Dark Testament and Other Poems (Norwalk, CT: Silvermine, 1970), n pag.

[15] Jacqueline Bobo differentiates the interpretive community black women create from audiences that passively consume representations perpetuating black women’s ideological domination. Within an interpretive community, “women utilize representations of black women that they deem valuable, in productive and politically useful ways” to challenge their cultural subordination. Jacqueline Bobo, Black Women as Cultural Readers (New York: Columbia, 1995), 22.

[16] Barbara Christian, “Being the Subject and the Object: Reading African-American Women’s Novels,” New Black Feminist Criticism, 1985-2000, edited by Gloria Bowles, M. Giulia Fabi, and Arlene R. Keizer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 121.

[17] Ibid., 122.

[18] African American women’s fiction also theorizes black women’s Jane Crow oppression. For example, Ann Petry’s novel The Street, published in 1946 one year before Murray’s essay “Why Negro Girls Stay Single,” examines Lutie Johnson’s interlocking racial, gender, class, and sexual oppressions as a single mother and domestic worker in Harlem during WWII. Lutie is aware of her invisibility among her white employers, who assume she is promiscuous, and she questions the purpose of being taught how to write, as her voice is undermined throughout the novel. Of course, the existence of Petry’s novel attests to the importance of black women writing and sharing their stories.

[19] The social aims of black women’s fiction and life writing are not mutually exclusive. Maryemma Graham points out “the autobiographical impulse in the African American novel. The continuous need to explain and ‘inscribe the self’ in a world which has historically denied the existence of that self gives both focus and intensity to the act of writing a story about black life.” Maryemma Graham, “Introduction,” The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 5.

[20] Joanne M. Braxton, Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition within a Tradition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 1.

[21] Joanne M. Braxton, “Autobiography and African American Women’s Literature,” African American Women’s Literature, edited by Angelyn Mitchell and Danille K. Taylor (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 128.

[22] Margo V. Perkins, Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000), xii.

[23] Angela A. Ards, Words of Witness: Black Women’s Autobiography in the Post-Brown Era (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015), 16.

[24] Pauli Murray, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1987), 388.

[25] Ibid., 182.

[26] Ibid., 183.

[27] Ibid., 183-184.

[28] Ibid., 183, 184.

[29] Murray’s autobiography foregrounds her battles with racism and sexism in her public life to the exclusion of her efforts to understand her queer and nonnormative sexual and gender identities in her private life. Brittney Cooper’s intellectual history of Murray highlights the ways Jane Crow and the politics of respectability inform black women’s praxis as “knowledge producers” (102). She reveals, “at exactly the same moment that [Murray] named Jane Crow as a form of sexist discrimination that she experienced as a woman, she was frequently being hospitalized for depression related to her struggle with her gender identity” (100). In my own work on Murray, I argue Song in a Weary Throat “resounds with silence” about her struggle with her gender identity due to Jane Crow’s “literary inscriptions” for black women’s self-representation (17, 15). Brittney C. Cooper, Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017); Ayesha K. Hardison, Writing through Jane Crow: Race and Gender Politics in African American Literature (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014).

[30] Dotson, “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” 426.

[31] Christian, “Being the Subject and the Object,” 122.

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, UK,

Fuller, Steve. “Against Virtue and For Modernity: Rebooting the Modern Left.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 51-53.

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Toby Ziegler’s “The Liberals: 3rd Version.” Photo by Matt via Flickr / Creative Commons


My holiday message for the coming year is a call to re-boot the modern left. When I was completing my doctoral studies, just as the Cold War was beginning to wind down, the main threat to the modern left was seen as coming largely from within. ‘Postmodernism’ was the name normally given to that threat, and it fuelled various culture, canon and science wars in the 1980s and 1990s.

Indeed, even I was – and, in some circles, continue to be – seen as just such an ‘enemy of reason’, to recall the name of Richard Dawkins’ television show in which I figured as one of the accused. However, in retrospect, postmodernism was at most a harbinger for a more serious threat, which today comes from both the ‘populist’ supporters of Trump, Brexit et al. and their equally self-righteous academic critics.

Academic commentators on Trump, Brexit and the other populist turns around the world seem unable to avoid passing moral judgement on the voters who brought about these uniformly unexpected outcomes, the vast majority of which the commentators have found unwelcomed. In this context, an unholy alliance of virtue theorists and evolutionary psychologists have thrived as diagnosticians of our predicament. I say ‘unholy’ because Aristotle and Darwin suddenly find themselves on the same side of an argument, now pitched against the minds of ‘ordinary’ people. This anti-democratic place is not one in which any self-respecting modern leftist wishes to be.

To be sure, virtue theorists and evolutionary psychologists come to the matter from rather different premises – the one metaphysical if not religious and the other naturalistic if not atheistic. Nevertheless, they both regard humanity’s prospects as fundamentally constrained by our mental makeup. This makeup reflects our collective past and may even be rooted in our animal nature. Under the circumstances, so they believe, the best we can hope is to become self-conscious of our biases and limitations in processing information so that we don’t fall prey to the base political appeals that have resulted in the current wave of populism.

These diagnosticians conspicuously offer little of the positive vision or ambition that characterised ‘progressive’ politics of both liberal and socialist persuasions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But truth be told, these learned pessimists already have form. They are best seen as the culmination of a current of thought that has been percolating since the end of the Cold War effectively brought to a halt Marxism as a world-historic project of human emancipation.

In this context, the relatively upbeat message advanced by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man that captivated much of the 1990s was premature. Fukuyama was cautiously celebrating the triumph of liberalism over socialism in the progressivist sweepstakes. But others were plotting a different course, one in which the very terms on which the Cold War had been fought would be superseded altogether. Gone would be the days when liberals and socialists vied over who could design a political economy that would benefit the most people worldwide. In its place would be a much more precarious sense of the world order, in which overweening ambition itself turned out to be humanity’s Achilles Heel, if not Original Sin.

Here the trail of books published by Alasdair MacIntyre and his philosophical and theological admirers in the wake of After Virtue ploughed a parallel field to such avowedly secular and scientifically minded works as Peter Singer’s A Darwinian Left and Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. These two intellectual streams, both pointing to our species’ inveterate shortcomings, gained increasing plausibility in light of 9/11’s blindsiding on the post-Cold War neo-liberal consensus.

9/11 tore up the Cold War playbook once and for all, side-lining both the liberals and the socialists who had depended on it. Gone was the state-based politics, the strategy of mutual containment, the agreed fields of play epitomized in such phrases as ‘arms race’ and ‘space race’. In short, gone was the game-theoretic rationality of managed global conflict. Thus began the ongoing war on ‘Islamic terror’. Against this backdrop, the Iraq War proved to be colossally ill-judged, though no surprise given that its mastermind was one of the Cold War’s keenest understudies, Donald Rumsfeld.

For the virtue theorists and evolutionary psychologists, the Cold War represented as far as human rationality could go in pushing back and channelling our default irrationality, albeit in the hope of lifting humanity to a ‘higher’ level of being. Indeed, once the USSR lost the Cold War to the US on largely financial grounds, the victorious Americans had to contend with the ‘blowback’ from third parties who suffered ‘collateral damage’ at many different levels during the Cold War. After all, the Cold War, for all its success in averting nuclear confrontation, nevertheless turned the world into a playing field for elite powers. ‘First world’, ‘second world’ and ‘third world’ were basically the names of the various teams in contention on the Cold War’s global playing field.

So today we see an ideological struggle whose main players are those resentful (i.e. the ‘populists’) and those regretful (i.e. the ‘anti-populists’) of the entire Cold War dynamic. The only thing that these antagonists appear to agree on is the folly of ‘progressivist’ politics, the calling card of both modern liberalism and socialism. Indeed, both the populists and their critics are fairly characterised as somehow wanting to turn back the clock to a time when we were in closer contact with the proverbial ‘ground of being’, which of course the two sides define in rather different terms. But make no mistake of the underlying metaphysical premise: We are ultimately where we came from.

Notwithstanding the errors of thought and deed committed in their names, liberalism and socialism rightly denied this premise, which placed both of them in the vanguard – and eventually made them world-historic rivals – in modernist politics. Modernity raised humanity’s self-regard and expectations to levels that motivated people to build a literal Heaven on Earth, in which technology would replace theology as the master science of our being. David Noble cast a characteristically informed but jaundiced eye at this proposition in his 1997 book, The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. Interestingly, John Passmore had covered much the same terrain just as eruditely but with greater equanimity in his 1970 book, The Perfectibility of Man. That the one was written after and the other during the Cold War is probably no accident.

I am mainly interested in resurrecting the modernist project in its spirit, not its letter. Many of modernity’s original terms of engagement are clearly no longer tenable. But I do believe that Silicon Valley is comparable to Manchester two centuries ago, namely, a crucible of a radical liberal sensibility – call it ‘Liberalism 2.0’ or simply ‘Alt-Liberalism’ – that tries to use the ascendant technological wave to leverage a new conception of the human being.

However one judges Marx’s critique of liberalism’s scientific expression (aka classical political economy), the bottom line is that his arguments for socialism would never have got off the ground had liberalism not laid the groundwork for him. As we enter 2018 and seek guidance for launching a new progressivism, we would do well to keep this historical precedent in mind.

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Author Information: Adam Riggio, Anderson College,

Riggio, Adam. “The Complexity of Rights, Claims, and Social Reality.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 17-24.

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Please refer to:

Image from Surian Soosay, Flickr / Creative Commons


I have not often thrown myself into the ring of a long-running chain of replies that began in Social Epistemology. My own research specialties fit into the conceptual boundaries of social epistemology – the social and cultural aspects of knowledge production are central to my work – but not always in its disciplinary boundaries. As such, the specific literature from which a debate flows will not be familiar enough to me that I could add something genuinely valuable to a conversation.

That said, on seeing the exchange between J. Angelo Corlett and Gregory Lobo reignite, I realized that I could contribute a worthwhile comment. At least, I hope it will be worthwhile. My reply will have two steps. First, I wish to indicate the limits of the field of Corlett and Lobo’s debate. What social phenomena would their ontologies best describe?

In the recent exchange earlier this year, their most obvious difference was the most important for philosophers: over the proper domain to put these ideas into practice. After that comes the most critically-minded element of my reply, asking whether the concepts that Corlett and Lobo have discussed in their exchange can be put to practical use on their own. If not, what additional concepts or ideas would their social ontologies need to be put to work, as all political and moral philosophies must ultimately do.

What Is Society Made Of?

A social ontology is a philosophical account of what are the component constituents of social and political institutions and objects. Examples of institutions are governments, international treaties, and courts. Examples of objects are moral and ethical principles, and most importantly for the current essay, human rights. Working with these examples as the central models for our understanding of what social ontology is and is for, one can see the explanatory purposes of any particular social ontology. Such purpose is, regarding institutions, understanding how they appear and what powers they manifest in everyday human life. Regarding objects, such purpose is understanding what they actually are, how they exist in a fundamental form.

It is relatively easy to understand the existence of our institutions because we can visit courts and parliaments, watch summits and international meetings on television, read the texts of treaties. The ontological challenge regarding institutions is understanding their power over people. What enables the recognition of a law court, for example, as an authority over those people falling under what its rules define as its jurisdiction. Whether an institution like a court is something to which you owe your fealty or your defiance, a social ontology would identify what aspects or components of that court would prompt strong attitudes, what would make indifference to it impossible.

The matter of objects is more challenging for a simple empirical reason. Institutions are themselves obviously material – I can walk into the Supreme Court of my country Canada, tour the facilities, read its judgments, meet the judges. However, while I can read human rights laws and declarations, listen to speeches and discussions about human rights, and study philosophical and theoretical texts about human rights, I cannot perceive the right itself. As an object of social ontology, a human right does not itself inhere in any particular matter. It can be discussed and understood, but never perceived.

None of these challenges are at all challenging from any perspective except for the one I would call reductive materialist. To be a materialist is to believe that all of reality is ultimately constituted from particles and fields of force, or perhaps only fields of force. Very generally speaking, this is what you could call me. Where a materialist differs specifically from a reductive materialist is that a person who deserves the latter description puts strict limits on the creative power of emergent processes, what systems can develop from dynamic relations among components, and how different those new systems can be from their components. A materialist need never be so harsh as to doubt, suspect, or oppose the power or existence of emergent processes, though some are.

The Emergence of Human Society, Morality, Rights, and Life

When developing an ontology of the social, the amount of creation by emergence you are willing to accept or tolerate is directly related to how many difficulties your philosophical investigation will encounter, and how intense those difficulties are. If emergence processes give you no serious concern other than to observe and understand how they work, then your investigation will discover and construct an ontology of the social with little stress or consternation. For those who, for whatever reasons, are doubtful or suspicious of emergence, their conceptual struggles will receive no sympathy or pity from me. It does not suit to make life or philosophy more difficult than it needs to be, because it will keep you from finding the truths you want to discover.

A better question to ask when developing the fundamental principles of a social ontology is what physical processes produce social objects and institutions as emergent properties. On the face of it, this would appear to be a very different question than the matter at the centre of Corlett and Lobo’s exchange. Their essays revolve around how to identify and what could be that which facilitates the recognition of others’ human rights.

Another way to phrase that question is to ask what it takes for someone to qualify as human, and so deserving of rights. The object of their inquiries is the same as that explored by Hannah Arendt and Seyla Benhabib in their pioneering works in human rights theory, what constitutes a person’s right to claim rights. Human rights theory is a discourse grounded in the moral and political domain of philosophical thinking. So building a social ontology of human rights requires identifying a process through which moral discourses and imperatives emerge from the physical.

Where you look for these processes depends on your ontological comfort level with emergence. If you give yourself a philosophical imperative to minimize the productive power of emergence in your ontology, you will look for the shortest conceivable path from the physical, assemblages of particles and fields of force, to human rights themselves. An institutional view on the ontology of human rights, speaking very broadly, takes them to be constituted through laws and organizations that codify and uphold law. Examples include international treaties like UDHR or UNDRIP, the International Criminal Court, and the different domestic legislatures, state constitutions, and police forces that codify and enforce human rights through their laws.

Yet this need not be sufficient, since human rights in themselves do not appear in these institutions. They are the objects of discussion in all these laws, treaties, arguments, and rules, but they are present only in the intentions of the actors involved, legislators, lawyers, police, judges, and so on.

The Power of Intentionality

This is why group and individual intentions can function well as a foundation for a social ontology of human rights. Human rights, along with all the other objects and institutions of social existence, would emerge from a common substrate of individual and group intentions and intentionality. Such is the legacy of John Searle’s social ontology of intentionality.

Lobo was correct to identify that Searle made an important observation about the importance of intentional stances in constituting a society where respect for any particular set of human rights (or even just its possibility condition, the right to claim rights and have those claims discussed fairly) is a universal, or at least a widespread belief. As Lobo put it in one of his recent articles at the Reply Collective, human rights only become effective in a society’s political morality when individuals and groups within that society form the intentions to recognize rights and rights claims.

The epistemology of such a notion is particularly interesting, coming from Searle, given his home sub-discipline of philosophy where rational argument is so highly prized in professional discourse. It is to Searle’s credit that he has arrived at the conclusion that rational argument alone is not enough to compel recognition of a human rights claim. This is the point Lobo eloquently makes with his description of the story of Mr. Saifullah, a Rohingya refugee from ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, living as an illegal alien in Pakistan.

A human rights claimant like Saifullah does not make demands on the people and legal institutions to recognize his rights claims as legitimate. He must supplicate himself to the authorities of various state and legal institutions around the world for them to recognize his rights. A rational argument in favour of his having rights will not be enough to justify his receiving them, no matter the logical validity of his argument or the truth of his argument’s premises.

You Need to Recognize

Recognition is a matter of intention. I, or preferably for Saifullah someone whose institutional office has the material power to help him, must have an intentional attitude toward him that recognizes his right to claim rights. At the moment of his interview, no one with such material power such as Myanmar’s government or Pakistan’s immigration authority had such an attitude. No one in a position to give him citizenship rights or even material aid recognized Saifullah as a legal immigrant or a refugee.

The intentional stance that those with material power over Saifullah take toward him is as an illegal alien; given such intentions, his claims are not recognized. If his claims for rights are not recognized, then neither is his humanity. He is ejected not only from the communities of Pakistanis or Burmese, but the community of humanity itself. I remain skeptical that an ontology of society that centres on group intentionality alone can understand the nature of this recognition and its refusal, for reasons that will become clear through the rest of this essay.

Despite Lobo’s intentions to defend Searle’s account of intentionality as the bedrock of the recognition of human rights, the account still comes up empty. Just as there is nothing about a rational argument that compels our accord, there is nothing about a rights claim, no matter how wretched the condition of the claimant, that compels an intentional stance of recognition. The case of Saifullah and the millions upon millions others like him in global human civilization and history demonstrates that a social ontology of individual and group intentionality alone is insufficient to ground human rights as a true universal.

Saifullah’s intentional attitude of claiming his rights cannot compel Pakistani government officials, Myanmar President Htin Kyaw, or State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi to change their intentional attitudes towards him to recognize his claims as legitimate. No matter the pleas of victims, their group intentionality of claiming human rights cannot compel their enemies to change their own group intentionality of destroying them.

The screams and pleas of his victims in the fields of Srebrenica did not change Ratko Mladic’s intentional attitudes toward them, just as his conviction on genocide charges did not change the group intentionality of the communities who continue to venerate Mladic, Radovan Karadzic, Slobodan Milosevic, and the wider Serbian nationalist movement. The same goes for all genocidaires and mass murderers throughout human history.

The Limits of Intentionality as an Ontological Foundation

This entire discussion, stretching back to mid-2016 on the Reply Collective, of the relationship between a social ontology of group intentionality and human rights, began with a discussion in review of Raimo Tuomela’s book Social Ontology. At first, Tuomela and Searle are quite successful in building a social ontology to understand the powers of group intentionality to shape larger social and institutional structures. However, I consider Tuomela’s project ultimately superior to Searle’s approach for a reason that could best be described as Tuomela’s humility. Tuomela frames his inquiry as an investigation of how group intentionality fits into a more complex ontology of the social. Social existence, as Tuomela describes it, is a complex phenomenon that includes group intentionality as one important constituent.

Searle’s social ontology is simultaneously more reductive and less humble than Tuomela’s, despite the American’s relative fame and prestige. One cannot understand human rights ontologically without understanding how the dynamics of group intentionality can encourage or discourage the recognition of a particular person’s or community’s claim to some human right or rights. But group and individual intentionality is not sufficient for a complete understanding of the existence of all social structures, including institutions like governments and laws, as well as social objects like rights and community beliefs about morality. Tuomela recognizes this insufficiency from the start of his book, and limits the scope of his inquiry accordingly.

Searle, however, takes group intentionality to be entirely sufficient for the bedrock of an ontology of the social, kneecapping his investigation from the first step. The roots of this error, as well as his inability to recognize this error in his reasoning, lie in the core principles by which Searle has guided his career and work as a philosopher for decades. The sociologist Neil Gross published a scathing and insightful critique of Searle’s late-career turn to social and political theory, which explains these profound errors in very digestible and clear terms.

Gross’ critique of Searle begins with a simple observation. When Searle’s first major book on social theory, The Construction of Social Reality, appeared, one of the first and most common critical comments it received from the sociological community was that his theories were very similar to those of Émile Durkheim. Essentially, the sociological community received Searle’s work as achieving the same insights as Durkheim did, but with a theoretical vocabulary better suited to the approaches of North American analytic philosophy, Searle’s own intellectual milieu.

Catching Up to History

Durkheim was one of the major founding theorists and researchers of the modern discipline of sociology, but this critique was not complimentary to Searle or his theory. Durkheim is historically important to contemporary social theory, but theoretically and philosophically, he has been utterly surpassed. Durkheim and Searle articulate an entirely reductive materialist approach to the ontology of the social, rooting social processes in individual, group, and community psychology.

Durkheim’s priorities in doing so were shaped by his historical context. He had an imperative to convince a skeptical intellectual establishment that sociology could be a science at all, so had to shape his theories to the extremely reductive ontological presuppositions of the scientific community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Searle, however, admitted that he did not bother to research any of this history in any great detail when he was first developing his ontology of the social. Searle’s response to his first critics in this regard was that colleagues more familiar with the history of social theory pointed him to Durkheim as a possible forerunner of his ideas, but he explored little of this older work, having found Durkheim’s writing style difficult and obscure.

Gross explains that the features of Durkheim’s style which a contemporary American researcher would find difficult are rooted in the historical context of the time. So familiarity with his intellectual community’s nature and priorities would help someone understand his concepts, and why he wrote as he did. Searle instead dismissed Durkheim as too obscure, and possibly obscurantist, so ignored him as he developed his own theory.

However, if Searle has progressed his theory’s sophistication beyond that of Durkheim, this does not mean that his work is especially relevant to contemporary social thinking. Understanding that attitudes of mutual recognition is the foundation of inclusion in human community and the validity of human rights claims merely means that Searle has caught up to the insights of Max Weber and Karl Marx. If you want to be especially mean-spirited, you could say that Searle has only just caught up to Hegel. An enormous, complex, and vibrant tradition of theoretical development and empirical research that has continued for more than a century and is still living goes largely unremarked in Searle’s recent social and political theory. So the last task of this essay is understand why.

You Need to Recognize (Slight Return)

Understanding why Searle dismisses such a massive and complex heritage in 21st century social and human rights theory shows how inadequate conceptions of group intentionality are for a genuinely comprehensive ontology of the social. The theoretical machinery and toolboxes that Searle ignores, as Gross made clear in his remarks on Searle’s general ontology of the social, are those rooted in hermeneutic and structuralist philosophy.

Sociology as a science was able to move beyond the reductive materialism of Durkheim and the destructive influence of behaviourist psychology by folding into its practice and theory core ideas from hermeneutics as well as the structuralist and post-structuralist lines of descent. These theoretical approaches understand the common beliefs of groups and cultures as more than shared intentions. They describe how social institutions, structures, and objects, as well as cultural mores, mythic narratives, and historical consciousness come to exist as emergence from more straightforward group, community, and economic dynamics.

Emergence, whether of specific properties of a system or of wholly new bodies and systems themselves, is a material process, as material as fundamental particles and fields of force, as material as group and individual intentionality through purposive action in the world. Emergent systems, bodies, and properties are real because their constituents are the relations among their components, the dynamic fluctuations of these relationships.

The interaction of complex activities constitute wholly new bodies and processes at macroscopic scales to those component dynamics. Emergence as described is an essential concept in sociology, but also in what the common expression calls hard sciences such as cell biology. In cellular biology, the structures and constituent processes of the cell emerge from metabolic and protein chemistry. Once constituting a cellular system, the system as a whole becomes capable of activities and processes that are impossible for those component processes and elements alone. As well, the systematic processes of the cell affect the activities of their components as individuals.

In sociology, all the complex objects and institutions of culture emerge from individual and group actions and communications. Cultural systems are capable of activities and processes that are impossible for those constituents, such as identity creation processes based on tacit knowledge and habit, influenced by the structures and content of communications media, social institutions, and socialization processes. These cultural processes then influence and affect their components, a complex feedback process that is irreducible to the psychological or intentional attitudes of individual people.

Being emergent and producing such detailed feedback mechanisms to their components, their activities cannot be reduced to those of their components. They begin instead through the relations among components of the system. One may be tempted, in the name of simplifying theory, to reduce these emergent processes and systems to the activities of their components. But such a simple theory is not adequate to the real complexity of a world that includes processes that emerge from dynamic relations.


Searle’s social ontology attempts to build the entire social world from aggregates of individual and group intentions. Such an ontology avoids the differences in kind that arise in systems of dynamic relationships among components. Searle has created an ontology of the social that need rely on no emergent processes, an ontology of the social that pushes aside almost all of modern social theory, social theory that is based on principles of emergence. The component processes and dynamics of those emergence that are peculiarly social were all described in sub-disciplines that developed from or in dialogue with hermeneutic and structuralist theory.

Searle, since his famous confrontation with Jacques Derrida, has dismissed these cultural fields of study and theory as empty charlatanism. The fact often goes unspoken, but to understand why Searle built such a reductionist social ontology in his 21st century work, it should at least be considered a contributing factor. Searle’s influence in much of North American philosophy during the 1970s and 1980s lent his dismissive attitude an undue weight and contributed to marginalizing the core concepts of the cultural studies fields away from disciplines and departments where his prestige was waxing.

Yet the disciplines of knowledge of which Searle encouraged a continent-wide exorcism supplied all the key concepts and theories needed to understand emergent cultural processes. By dismissing such theories, Searle closed off his own philosophical thinking from the concepts that have become the bedrock of the last century of social theory, whether from cultural, political, media and communications, or sociological disciplines. Tuomela’s ontology of group intentions, where this long dialogue began, was sufficiently humble and open-minded that it had always been pitched as being about a particular component of the social.

Searle, refusing after decades to grant any validity to the fields he once dismissed, has crafted a theory of the same phenomena, but which is hobbled by its hubris in attempting a theoretical task for which it is inadequate. If the theory turns out to be inadequate, any practice flowing from such a theory will sadly be so as well.

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Corlett, J. Angelo. “More on Searle on Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 15-36.

Corlett, J. Angelo. “On Searle on Human Rights, Again!” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 5 (2016): 41-46.

Corlett, J. Angelo. “Searle on Human Rights.” Social Epistemology 30, no. 4 (2016): 440-463.

Corlett, J. Angelo, and Julia Lyons Strobel. “Raimo Tuomela’s Social Ontology.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 6 (2017): 557-571.

D’Amico, Robert. “Reply to Corlett’s ‘Searle on Human Rights’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 5 (2016): 30-36.

Gross, Neil. “Comment on Searle.” Anthropological Theory 6, no. 1. (2006): 45-56.

Lobo, Gregory J. “Back to Basics: Straw Men, Status Functions, and Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 6-19.

Lobo, Gregory J. “Reason, Morality and Recognition: On Searle’s Theory of Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 22-28.

Morowitz, Harold J. The Emergence of Everything. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Searle, John. The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Free Press, 1995.

Tuomela, Raimo. Social Ontology: Collective Intentionality and Group Agents. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Tuomela, Raimo. “The Limits of Groups: An Author Replies.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 28-33.

Author Information: Carl Martin Allwood, University of Gothenburg, Sweden,

Allwood, Carl Martin. “What Type of Culture Concept Will Help the Indigenous Psychologies and Why? An Answer to Hwang.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 7 (2014): 44-49.

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

Please refer to:


In this response I conclude that the Indigenous Psychologies (IPs) would be best served by a culture concept that supports attention to the full-fledged understanding of the members of the IP researcher’s society. In contrast, Prof. Hwang’s culture concept emphasizes the importance of the language used by the society’s members and also of the older traditional parts of the members’ understanding. I argue that this type of culture concept is not very well fitted to be useful for the IPs and, moreover, that it may not be very helpful for producing results that will help achieve the goal of a more universal, or at least a more comprehensive psychology. However, Prof. Hwang’s culture concept may have other uses and be helpful for other purposes.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Carl Martin Allwood, University of Gothenburg, Sweden,

Allwood, Carl Martin. 2013. “On the advantages of an empirically oriented culture concept in the indigenous psychologies.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (8): 60-65.

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

Please refer to:


In this reply to Professor Hwang (2013b), I argue for the usefulness for the indigenous psychologies (IPs) of a culture concept that is empirically oriented in the sense that it pays attention to the heterogeneity and distribution of understanding in the IP researcher’s society. The culture concept promoted by Professor Hwang sees cultures as the common understanding in a society and defines cultures as having a deep-structure of core understanding and as only slowly changing over time. I argue that this concept of culture is not useful for the IPs given that their goal is to produce knowledge that is applicable in their own society. A conceptual problem for Prof. Hwang’s culture concept, and similar culture concepts, is that the idea of belonging to a tradition is unclear and vague, as is the idea of specific traditions and cultures, as such, existing over time. I speculate that Professor Hwang’s insistence on researchers’ difficulty of understanding research from other parts of the world may be an effect of his culture concept. Finally, I worry that reasoning conducted under the beacon of the multiple philosophical paradigms approach, advocated by Professor Hwang, may introduce the possibility of more degrees of freedom in the reasoning and makes it difficult for readers to follow the author’s reasoning in a systematic way. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Carl Martin Allwood, University of Gothenburg, Sweden

Allwood, Carl Martin. 2013. “The Role of Culture and Understanding in Research.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (5) 1-11.

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

Please refer to: Hwang, Kwang-Kuo. 2013. “Linking science to culture: Challenge to psychologists.” Social Epistemology 27 (1): 105-122.

The generation of scientific knowledge is a central issue in the social epistemology of knowledge. How then, can the generation of scientific knowledge best be described? In the sociology of knowledge, science tends to be seen as closely linked to society at large and it is usually seen as the central task of the sociology of knowledge to investigate and analyze this relationship (Yearley 2005). Therefore it is of interest to read the article “Linking Science to Culture: Challenge to Psychologists” in Social Epistemology (Hwang 2013) where Professor Hwang claims that scientific knowledge is, or at least should be, constructed in a process whereby researchers create microworlds which he argues are completely separated from what he calls their “lifeworlds”. In this rejoinder I will scrutinize this and other claims and also answer some of the criticisms that he levels against my article on the culture concept used in the Indigenous Psychologies (Allwood 2011a, b; Hwang 2011). The indigenous psychologies (IPs) are psychology research programs that aim for the approach to be scientific but that see mainstream psychology as too Western, and specifically too US, in its cultural foundation. Instead the psychology developed should be rooted in the culture of the society being investigated. Continue Reading…