Archives For Descartes

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, s.w.fuller@warwick.ac.uk.

Fuller, Steve. “‘China’ As the West’s Other in World Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 1-11.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-42x

A man practices Taijiquan at the Kongzi Temple in Nanjing.
Image by Slices of Light via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This essay was previously published in the Journal of World Philosophy, their Summer 2018 issue.

Bryan Van Norden’s Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto draws on his expertise in Chinese philosophy to launch a comprehensive and often scathing critique of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy. I focus on the sense in which “China” figures as a “non-Western culture” in Van Norden’s argument. Here I identify an equivocation between what I call a “functional” and a “substantive” account of culture.

I argue that Van Norden, like perhaps most others who have discussed Chinese philosophy, presupposes a “functional” conception, whereby the relevant sense in which “China” matters is exactly as “non-Western,” which ends up incorporating some exogenous influences such as Indian Buddhism but not any of the Western philosophies that made major inroads in the twentieth century. I explore the implications of the functional/substantive distinction for the understanding of cross-cultural philosophy generally.

Dragging the West Into the World

I first ran across Bryan Van Norden’s understanding of philosophy from a very provocative piece entitled “Why the Western Philosophical Canon Is Xenophobic and Racist,”[1]  which trailed the book now under review. I was especially eager to review it because I had recently participated in a symposium in the Journal of World Philosophies that discussed Chinese philosophy—Van Norden’s own area of expertise—as a basis for launching a general understanding of world philosophy.[2]

However, as it turns out, most of the book is preoccupied with various denigrations of philosophy in contemporary America, from both inside and outside the discipline. The only thing I will say about this aspect of the book is that, even granting the legitimacy of Van Norden’s complaints, I don’t think that arguments around some “ontological” conception of what philosophy “really is” will resolve the matter because these can always be dismissed as self-serving and question-begging.

What could make a difference is showing that a broader philosophical palette would actually make philosophy graduates more employable in an increasingly globalized world. Those like Van Norden who oppose the “Anglo-analytic hegemony” in contemporary philosophy need to argue explicitly that it results in philosophy punching below its weight in terms of potential impact. That philosophy departments of the most analytic sort continue to survive and even flourish, and that their students continue to be employed, should be presented as setting a very low standard of achievement.

After all, philosophy departments tend to recruit students with better than average qualifications, while the costs for maintaining those departments remain relatively low. In contrast, another recent book that raises similar concerns to Van Norden’s, Socrates Tenured (Frodeman and Briggle 2016),[3] is more successful in pointing to extramural strategies for philosophy to pursue a more ambitious vision of general societal relevance.

Challenging How We Understand Culture Itself

But at its best, Taking Back Philosophy forces us to ask: what exactly does “culture” mean in “multicultural” or “cross-cultural” philosophy? For Van Norden, the culture he calls “China” is the exemplar of a non-Western philosophical culture. It refers primarily—if not exclusively—to those strands of Chinese thought associated with its ancient traditions. To be sure, this arguably covers everything that Chinese scholars and intellectuals wrote about prior to the late nineteenth century, when Western ideas started to be regularly discussed. It would then seem to suggest that “China” refers to the totality of its indigenous thought and culture.

But this is not quite right, since Van Norden certainly includes the various intellectually productive engagements that Buddhism as an alien (Indian) philosophy has had with the native Confucian and especially Daoist world-views. Yet he does not seem to want to include the twentieth-century encounters between Confucianism and, say, European liberalism and American pragmatism in the Republican period or Marxism in the Communist period. Here he differs from Leigh Jenco (2010),[4] who draws on the Republican Chinese encounter with various Western philosophies to ground a more general cross-cultural understanding of philosophy.

It would appear that Van Norden is operating with a functional rather than substantive conception of “China” as a philosophical culture. In other words, he is less concerned with all the philosophy that has happened within China than with simply the philosophy in China that makes it “non-Western.” Now some may conclude that this makes Van Norden as ethnocentric as the philosophers he criticizes.

I am happy to let readers judge for themselves on that score. However, functional conceptions of culture are quite pervasive, especially in the worlds of politics and business, whereby culture is treated as a strategic resource to provide a geographic region with what the classical political economist David Ricardo famously called “comparative advantage” in trade.

But equally, Benedict Anderson’s (1983) influential account of nationalism as the construction of “imagined communities” in the context of extricating local collective identities from otherwise homogenizing imperial tendencies would fall in this category. Basically your culture is what you do that nobody else does—or at least does not do as well as you. However, your culture is not the totality of all that you do, perhaps not even what you do most of the time.

To be sure, this is not the classical anthropological conception of culture, which is “substantive” in the sense of providing a systematic inventory of what people living in a given region actually think and do, regardless of any overlap with what others outside the culture think and do. Indeed, anthropologists in the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries expected that most of the items in the inventory would come from the outside, the so-called doctrine of “diffusionism.”

Thus, they have tended to stress the idiosyncratic mix of elements that go into the formation of any culture over any dominant principle. This helps explain why nowadays every culture seems to be depicted as a “hybrid.” I would include Jenco’s conception of Chinese culture in this “substantive” conception.

However, what distinguished, say, Victorians like Edward Tylor from today’s “hybrid anthropologists” was that the overlap of elements across cultures was used by the former as a basis for cross-cultural comparisons, albeit often to the detriment of the non-Western cultures involved. This fuelled ambitions that anthropology could be made into a “science” sporting general laws of progress, etc.

My point here is not to replay the history of the struggle for anthropology’s soul, which continues to this day, but simply to highlight a common assumption of the contesting parties—namely, that a “culture” is defined exclusively in terms of matters happening inside a given geographical region, in which case things happening outside the region must be somehow represented inside the region in order to count as part of a given culture. In contrast, the “functional” conception defines “culture” in purely relational terms, perhaps even with primary reference to what is presumed to lie outside a given culture.

Matters of Substance and Function

Both the substantive and the functional conception derive from the modern core understanding of culture, as articulated by Johann Gottfried Herder and the German Idealists, which assumed that each culture possesses an “essence” or “spirit.” On the substantive conception, which was Herder’s own, each culture is distinguished by virtue of having come from a given region, as per the etymological root of “culture” in “agriculture.” In that sense, a culture’s “essence” or “spirit” is like a seed that can develop in various ways depending on the soil in which it is planted.

Indeed, Herder’s teacher, Kant had already used the German Keime (“seeds”) in a book of lectures whose title is often credited with having coined “anthropology” (Wilson 2014).[5] This is the sense of culture that morphs into racialist ideologies. While such racialism can be found in Kant, it is worth stressing that his conception of race does not depend on the sense of genetic fixity that would become the hallmark of twentieth-century “scientific racism.” Rather, Kant appeared to treat “race” as a diagnostic category for environments that hold people back, to varying degrees, from realizing humanity’s full potential.

Here Kant was probably influenced by the Biblical dispersal of humanity, first with Adam’s Fall and then the Noachian flood, which implied that the very presence of different races or cultures marks our species’ decline from its common divine source. Put another way, Kant was committed to what Lamarck called the “inheritance of acquired traits,” though Lamarck lacked Kant’s Biblical declinist backdrop. Nevertheless, they agreed that a sustainably radical change to the environment could decisively change the character of its inhabitants. This marks them both as heirs to the Enlightenment.

To be sure, this reading of Kant is unlikely to assuage either today’s racists or, for that matter, anti-racists or multiculturalists, since it doesn’t assume that the preservation of racial or cultural identity possesses intrinsic (positive or negative) value. In this respect, Kant’s musings on race should be regarded as “merely historical,” based on his fallible second-hand knowledge of how peoples in different parts of the world have conducted their lives.

In fact, the only sense of difference that the German Idealists unequivocally valued was self-individuation, which is ultimately tied to the functional conception of culture, whereby my identity is directly tied to my difference from you. It follows that the boundaries of culture—or the self, for that matter—are moveable feasts. In effect, as your identity changes, mine does as well—and vice versa.

Justifying a New World Order

This is the metaphysics underwriting imperialism’s original liberal capitalist self-understanding as a global free-trade zone. In its ideal form, independent nation-states would generate worldwide prosperity by continually reorienting themselves to each other in response to market pressures. Even if the physical boundaries between nation-states do not change, their relationship to each other would, through the spontaneous generation and diffusion of innovations.

The result would be an ever-changing global division of labor. Of course, imperialism in practice fostered a much more rigid—even racialized—division of labor, as Marxists from Lenin onward decried. Those who nevertheless remain hopeful in the post-imperial era that the matter can ultimately be resolved diagnose the problem as one of “uneven development,” a phrase that leaves a sour aftertaste in the mouths of “post-colonialists.”

But more generally, “functionalism” as a movement in twentieth-century anthropology and sociology tended towards a relatively static vision of social order. And perhaps something similar could be said about Van Norden’s stereotyping of “China.” However, he would be hardly alone. In his magisterial The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, a book which Van Norden does not mention, Randall Collins (1998)[6] adopts a similarly functionalist stance. There it leads to a quite striking result, which has interesting social epistemological consequences.

Although Collins incorporates virtually every thinker that Chinese philosophy experts normally talk about, carefully identifying their doctrinal nuances and scholastic lineages, he ends his treatment of China at the historical moment that happens to coincide with what he marks as a sea change in the fortunes of Western philosophy, which occurs in Europe’s early modern period.

I put the point this way because Collins scrupulously avoids making any of the sorts of ethnocentric judgements that Van Norden rightly castigates throughout his book, whereby China is seen as un- or pre-philosophical. However, there is a difference in attitude to philosophy that emerges in Europe, less in terms of philosophy’s overall purpose than its modus operandi. Collins calls it rapid discovery science.

Rapid discovery science is the idea that standardization in the expression and validation of knowledge claims—both quantitatively and qualitatively—expedites the ascent to higher levels of abstraction and reflexivity by making it easier to record and reproduce contributions in the ongoing discourse. Collins means here not only the rise of mathematical notation to calculate and measure, but also “technical languages,” the mastery of which became the mark of “expertise” in a sense more associated with domain competence than with “wisdom.” In the latter case, the evolution of “peer review” out of the editorial regimentation of scientific correspondence in the early journals played a decisive role (Bazerman 1987).[7]

Citation conventions, from footnotes to bibliographies, were further efficiency measures. Collins rightly stresses the long-term role of universities in institutionalizing these innovations, but of more immediate import was the greater interconnectivity within Europe that was afforded by the printing press and an improved postal system. The overall result, so I believe, was that collective intellectual memory was consolidated to such an extent that intellectual texts could be treated as capital, something to both build upon and radically redeploy—once one has received the right training to access them. These correspond to the phases that Thomas Kuhn called “normal” and “revolutionary” science, respectively.

To be sure, Collins realizes that China had its own stretches in which competing philosophical schools pursued higher levels of abstraction and reflexivity, sometimes with impressive results. But these were maintained solely by the emotional energy of the participants who often dealt with each other directly. Once external events dispersed that energy, then the successors had to go back to a discursive “ground zero” of referring to original texts and reinventing arguments.

Can There Be More Than One Zero Point?

Of course, the West has not been immune to this dynamic. Indeed, it has even been romanticized. A popular conception of philosophy that continues to flourish at the undergraduate level is that there can be no genuine escape from origins, no genuine sense of progress. It is here that Alfred North Whitehead’s remark that all philosophy is footnotes to Plato gets taken a bit too seriously.

In any case, Collins’ rapid discovery science was specifically designed to escape just this situation, which Christian Europe had interpreted as the result of humanity’s fallen state, a product of Adam’s “Original Sin.” This insight figured centrally in the Augustinian theology that gradually—especially after the existential challenge that Islam posed to Christendom in the thirteenth century—began to color how Christians viewed their relationship to God, the source of all knowing and being. The Protestant Reformation marked a high watermark in this turn of thought, which became the crucible in which rapid discovery science was forged in the seventeenth century. Since the 1930s, this period has been called the “Scientific Revolution” (Harrison 2007).[8]

In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, all appeals to authority potentially became not sources of wisdom but objects of suspicion. They had to undergo severe scrutiny, which at the time were often characterized as “trials of faith.” Francis Bacon, the personal lawyer to England’s King James I, is a pivotal figure because he clearly saw continuity from the Inquisition in Catholic Europe (which he admired, even though it ensnared his intellectual ally Galileo), through the “witch trials” pursued by his fellow Protestants on both sides of the Atlantic, to his own innovation—the “crucial experiment”—which would be subsequently enshrined as the hallmark of the scientific method, most energetically by Karl Popper.

Bacon famously developed his own “hermeneutic of suspicion” as proscriptions against what he called “idols of the mind,” that is, lazy habits of thought that are born of too much reliance on authority, tradition, and surface appearances generally. For Bacon and his fellow early modern Christians, including such Catholics as Rene Descartes, these habits bore the mark of Original Sin because they traded on animal passions—and the whole point of the human project is to rise above our fallen animal natures to recover our divine birthright.

The cultural specificity of this point is often lost, even on Westerners for whom the original theological backdrop seems no longer compelling. What is cross-culturally striking about the radical critique of authority posed by the likes of Bacon and Descartes is that it did not descend into skepticism, even though—especially in the case of Descartes—the skeptical challenge was explicitly confronted. What provided the stopgap was faith, specifically in the idea that once we recognize our fallen nature, redemption becomes possible by finding a clearing on which to build truly secure foundations for knowledge and thereby to redeem the human condition, God willing.

For Descartes, this was “cogito ergo sum.” To be sure, the “God willing” clause, which was based on the doctrine of Divine Grace, became attenuated in the eighteenth century as “Providence” and then historicized as “Progress,” finally disappearing altogether with the rising tide of secularism in the nineteenth century (Löwith 1949; Fuller 2010: chap. 8).[9]

But its legacy was a peculiar turn of mind that continually seeks a clearing to chart a path to the source of all meaning, be it called “God” or “Truth.” This is what makes three otherwise quite temperamentally different philosophers—Husserl, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger—equally followers in Descartes’ footsteps. They all prioritized clearing a space from which to proceed over getting clear about the end state of the process.

Thus, the branches of modern Western philosophy concerned with knowledge—epistemology and the philosophy of science—have been focused more on methodology than axiology, that is, the means rather than the ends of knowledge. While this sense of detachment resonates with, say, the Buddhist disciplined abandonment of our default settings to become open to a higher level of state of being, the intellectual infrastructure provided by rapid discovery science allows for an archive to be generated that can be extended and reflected upon indefinitely by successive inquirers.

Common Themes Across Continents

A good way to see this point is that in principle the Buddhist and, for that matter, the Socratic quest for ultimate being could be achieved in one’s own lifetime with sufficient dedication, which includes taking seriously the inevitability of one’s own physical death. In contrast, the modern Western quest for knowledge—as exemplified by science—is understood as a potentially endless intergenerational journey in which today’s scientists effectively lead vicarious lives for the sake of how their successors will regard them.

Indeed, this is perhaps the core ethic promoted in Max Weber’s famous “Science as a Vocation” lecture (Fuller 2015: chap. 3).[10] Death as such enters, not to remind scientists that they must eventually end their inquiries but that whatever they will have achieved by the end of their lives will help pave the way for others to follow.

Heidegger appears as such a “deep” philosopher in the West because he questioned the metaphysical sustainability of the intellectual infrastructure of rapid discovery science, which the Weberian way of death presupposes. Here we need to recall that Heidegger’s popular reception was originally mediated by the postwar Existentialist movement, which was fixated on the paradoxes of the human condition thrown up by Hiroshima, whereby the most advanced science managed to end the biggest war in history by producing a weapon with the greatest chance of destroying humanity altogether in the future. Not surprisingly, Heidegger has proved a convenient vehicle for Westerners to discover Buddhism.

Early Outreach? Or Appropriation?

Finally, it is telling that the Western philosopher whom Van Norden credits with holding China in high esteem, Leibniz, himself had a functional understanding of China. To be sure, Leibniz was duly impressed by China’s long track record of imperial rule at the political, economic, and cultural levels, all of which were the envy of Europe. But Leibniz honed in on one feature of Chinese culture—what he took to be its “ideographic” script—which he believed could provide the intellectual infrastructure for a global project of organizing and codifying all knowledge so as to expedite its progress.

This was where he thought China had a decisive “comparative advantage” over the West. Clearly Leibniz was a devotee of rapid discovery science, and his project—shared by many contemporaries across Europe—would be pursued again to much greater effect two hundred years later by Paul Otlet, the founder of modern library and information science, and Otto Neurath, a founding member of the logical positivist movement.

While the Chinese regarded their written characters as simply a medium for people in a far-flung empire to communicate easily with each other, Leibniz saw in them the potential for collaboration on a universal scale, given that each character amounted to a picture of an abstraction, the metaphorical rendered literal, a message that was not simply conveyed but embedded in the medium. It seemed to satisfy the classical idea of nous, or “intellectual intuition,” as a kind of perception, which survives in the phrase, “seeing with the mind’s eye.”

However, the Chinese refused to take Leibniz’s bait, which led him to begin a train of thought that culminated in the so-called Needham Thesis, which turns on why Earth’s most advanced civilization, China, failed to have a “Scientific Revolution” (Needham 1969; Fuller 1997: chap. 5).[11] Whereas Leibniz was quick to relate Chinese unreceptiveness to his proposal to their polite but firm rejection of the solicitations of Christian missionaries, Joseph Needham, a committed Marxist, pointed to the formal elements of the distinctive cosmology promoted by the Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity, that China lacked—but stopping short of labelling the Chinese “heathens.”

An interesting feature of Leibniz’s modus operandi is that he saw cross-cultural encounters as continuous with commerce (Perkins 2004).[12]  No doubt his conception was influenced by living at a time when the only way a European could get a message to China was through traders and missionaries, who typically travelled together. But he also clearly imagined the resulting exchange as a negotiation in which each side could persuade the other to shift their default positions to potential mutual benefit.

This mentality would come to be crucial to the dynamic mentality of capitalist political economy, on which Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage was based. However, the Chinese responded to their European counterparts with hospitality but only selective engagement with their various intellectual and material wares, implying their unwillingness to be fluid with what I earlier called “self-individuation.”

Consequently, Europeans only came to properly understand Chinese characters in the mid-nineteenth century, by which time it was treated as a cultural idiosyncrasy, not a platform for pursuing universal knowledge. That world-historic moment for productive engagement had passed—for reasons that Marxist political economy adequately explains—and all subsequent attempts at a “universal language of thought” have been based on Indo-European languages and Western mathematical notation.

China is not part of this story at all, and continues to suffer from that fact, notwithstanding its steady ascendancy on the world stage over the past century. How this particular matter is remedied should focus minds interested in a productive future for cross-cultural philosophy and multiculturalism more generally. But depending on what we take the exact problem to be, the burden of credit and blame across cultures will be apportioned accordingly.

Based on the narrative that I have told here, I am inclined to conclude that the Chinese underestimated just how seriously Europeans like Leibniz took their own ideas. This in turn raises some rather deep questions about the role that a shift in the balance of plausibility away from “seeing with one’s own eyes” and towards “seeing with the mind’s eye” has played in the West’s ascendancy.

Conclusion

I began this piece by distinguishing a “substantive” and a “functional” approach to culture because even theorists as culturally sensitive as Van Norden and Collins adopt a “functional” rather than a “substantive” approach. They defend and elaborate China as a philosophical culture in purely relational terms, based on its “non-Western” character.

This leads them to include, say, Chinese Buddhism but not Chinese Republicanism or Chinese Communism—even though the first is no less exogenous than the second two to “China,” understood as the land mass on which Chinese culture has been built over several millennia. Of course, this is not to take away from Van Norden’s or Collins’ achievements in reminding us of the continued relevance of Chinese philosophical culture.

Yet theirs remains a strategically limited conception designed mainly to advance an argument about Western philosophy. Here Collins follows the path laid down by Leibniz and Needham, whereas Van Norden takes that argument and flips it against the West—or, rather, contemporary Western philosophy. The result in both cases is that “China” is instrumentalized for essentially Western purposes.

I have no problem whatsoever with this approach (which is my own), as long as one is fully aware of its conceptual implications, which I’m not sure that Van Norden is. For example, he may think that his understanding of Chinese philosophical culture is “purer” than, say, Leigh Jenco’s, which focuses on a period with significant Western influence. However, this is “purity” only in the sense of an “ideal type” of the sort the German Idealists would have recognized as a functionally differentiated category within an overarching system.

In Van Norden’s case, that system is governed by the West/non-West binary. Thus, there are various ways to be “Western” and various ways to be “non-Western” for Van Norden. Van Norden is not sufficiently explicit about this logic. The alternative conceptual strategy would be to adopt a “substantive” approach to China that takes seriously everything that happens within its physical borders, regardless of origin. The result would be the more diffuse, laundry list approach to culture that was championed by the classical anthropologists, for which “hybrid” is now the politically correct term.

To be sure, this approach is not without its own difficulties, ranging from a desire to return to origins (“racialism”) to forced comparisons between innovator and adopter cultures. But whichever way one goes on this matter, “China” remains a contested concept in the context of world philosophy.

Contact details: s.w.fuller@warwick.ac.uk

References

Bazerman, Charles. Shaping Written Knowledge. Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.

Collins, Randall. The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Frodeman, Robert; Adam Briggle. Socrates Tenured. Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).

Fuller, Steve. Science: Concepts in the Social Sciences. Milton Keynes UK: Open University Press, 1997.

Fuller, Steve. Science: The Art of Living. Durham UK: Acumen, 2010.

Fuller, Steve. Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History. London: Routledge, 2015.

Harrison, Peter. The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Jenco, Leigh. Making the Political: Founding and Action in the Political Theory of Zhang Shizhao. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Jenco, Leigh; Steve Fuller, David Haekwon Kim, Thaddeus Metz, and Miljana Milojevic, “Symposium: Are Certain Knowledge Frameworks More Congenial to the Aims of Cross-Cultural Philosophy?” Journal of World Philosophies 2, no. 2 (2017): 82-145.

Löwith, Karl. Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of Philosophy of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949.

Needham, Joseph. The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969.

Perkins, Franklin. Leibniz and China: A Commerce of Light. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

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

Wilson, Catherine. “Kant on Civilization, Culture and Moralization,” in Kant’s Lectures on Anthropology: A Critical Guide. Edited by A. Cohen. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014: 191-210.

[1] Bryan Van Norden, “Western Philosophy is Racist,” (https://aeon.co/essays/why-the-western-philosophical-canon-is-xenophobic-and-racist; last accessed on May 10, 2018).

[2] See: Leigh Jenco, Steve Fuller, David Haekwon Kim, Thaddeus Metz, and Miljana Milojevic, “Symposium: Are Certain Knowledge Frameworks More Congenial to the Aims of Cross-Cultural Philosophy?” Journal of World Philosophies 2, no. 2 (2017): 82-145 (https://scholarworks.iu.edu/iupjournals/index.php/jwp/article/view/1261/128; last accessed on May 10, 2018).

[3] Robert Frodeman, and Adam Briggle, Socrates Tenured (Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).

[4] Leigh Jenco, Making the Political: Founding and Action in the Political Theory of Zhang Shizhao (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[5] Catherine Wilson, “Kant on Civilization, Culture and Moralization,” in Kant’s Lectures on Anthropology: A Critical Guide, ed. A. Cohen (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 191-210.

[6] Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

[7] Charles Bazerman, Shaping Written Knowledge (Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987).

[8] Peter Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[9] Karl Löwith, Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of Philosophy of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949); Steve Fuller, Science: The Art of Living (Durham UK: Acumen, 2010).

[10] Steve Fuller, Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History (London: Routledge, 2015).

[11] Joseph Needham, The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969); Steve Fuller, Science: Concepts in the Social Sciences (Milton Keynes UK: Open University Press, 1997).

[12] Franklin Perkins, Leibniz and China: A Commerce of Light (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Author Information: Paolo Palladino, Lancaster University, p.palladino@lancaster.ac.uk

Palladino, Paolo. “Heidegger Today: On Jeff Kochan’s Science and Social Existence.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 41-46.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-40b

Art by Philip Beasley
Image by Sean Salmon via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

I have been invited to participate in the present symposium on Jeff Kochan’s Science as Social Existence: Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. I would like to preface my response by expressing my gratitude to the editors of Social Epistemology for the opportunity to comment on this provocative intervention and by noting the following about my response’s intellectual provenance.

I have long worked at the intersection of historical, philosophical and sociological modes of inquiry into the making of scientific accounts and technological interventions in the material world, but at an increasing distance from the field of science and technology studies, widely defined. As a result, I am neither invested in disciplinary purity, nor party in the longstanding arguments over the sociology of scientific knowledge and its presuppositions about the relationship between the social and natural orders.

I must also admit, however, to being increasingly attracted to the ontological questions which the wider field of science and technology studies has posed in recent years. All this is important to how I come to think about both Science as Social Existence and the argument between Kochan and Raphael Sassower over the merits of Science as Social Existence.

Kochan’s Problems of the Strong Programme

As the full title of Science as Social Existence evinces, Kochan’s principal matter of concern is the sociology of scientific knowledge. He regards this as the field of study that is dedicated to explaining the production of knowledge about the material world in sociological terms, as these terms are understood among proponents of the so-called “strong programme”. As Kochan’s response to Sassower conveys pointedly, he is concerned with two problems in particular.

The first of these is that the sociology of scientific knowledge is hostage to a distinction between the inquiring subject and the objective world such that it is difficult to understand exactly how this subject is ever able to say anything meaningful about the objective world. The second, closely related problem is that the sociology of scientific knowledge cannot then respond to the recurrent charge that it holds to an unsustainable relationship between the social and natural orders.

Kochan proposes that Martin Heidegger’s existential phenomenology provides the wherewithal to answer these two problems. This, he suggests, is to the benefit of science and technology studies, the wider, interdisciplinary field of study, which the sociology of scientific knowledge could justifiably be said to have inaugurated but has also grown increasingly detached from the latter. Incidentally, while Kochan himself refers to this wider field as “science studies”, “science and technology studies” seems preferable because it not only enjoys greater currency, but also conveys more accurately the focus on practices and materiality from which stems the divergence between the enterprises Kochan seeks to distinguish.

Anyway, as becomes evident in the course of reading Science as Social Existence, Kochan’s proposal calls first for the correction of Joseph Rouse’s and Bruno Latour’s arguably mistaken reading of Heidegger, particularly in regard to Heidegger’s pivotal distinction between essence and existence, and to Heidegger’s further insistence upon the historicity of Being. This is followed by the obligatory illustration of what is to be gained from such a philosophical excursus.

Kochan thus goes on to revisit what has become a classic of science and technology studies, namely the arguments between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes over the former’s signal invention, the air-pump. Kochan shows here how Heidegger’s thought enables a more symmetric account of the relationship between the social and natural order at issue in the arguments between Boyle and Hobbes, so disarming Latour’s otherwise incisive objection that the sociology of scientific knowledge is a neo-Kantian enterprise that affords matter no agency in the making of the world we inhabit. From this point of view, Science as Social Existence would not only seem to answer important conceptual problems, but also offer a helpful explication and clarification of the notoriously difficult Heideggerian corpus.

It should also be noted, however, that this corpus has actually played a marginal role in the development of science and technology studies and that leading figures in the field have nonetheless occasionally felt compelled to interrogate texts such as Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology. Such incongruity about the place of Heidegger within the evolution of science and technology studies is perhaps important to understanding Sassower’s caustic line of questioning about what exactly is to be gained from the turn to Heidegger, which Science as Social Existence seeks to advance.

Real Love or a Shotgun Marriage?

Bluntly, Sassower asks why anyone should be interested in marrying Heideggerian existential phenomenology and the sociology of scientific knowledge, ultimately characterising this misbegotten conjunction as a “shotgun marriage’. My immediate answer is that Science as Social Existence offers more than just a detailed and very interesting, if unconventional, examination of the conceptual problems besetting the sociology of scientific knowledge.

As someone schooled in the traditions of history and philosophy of science who has grown increasingly concerned about the importance of history, I particularly welcome the clarification of the role that history plays in our understanding of scientific knowledge and technological practice. Kochan, following Heidegger to the letter, explains how the inquiring subject and the objective world are to be understood as coming into being simultaneously and how the relationship between the two varies in a manner such that what is and what can be said about the nature of that which is are a matter of historical circumstance.

As a result, history weighs upon us not just discursively, but also materially, and so much so that the world we inhabit must be understood as irreducibly historical. As Kochan puts it while contrasting Kant’s and Heidegger’s understanding of finitude:

For Heidegger … the essence of a thing is not something we receive from it, but something it possesses as a result of the socio-historically conditioned metaphysical projection within which it is let be what it is. On Heidegger’s account, not even an infinitely powerful intellect could grasp the intrinsic, independently existing essence of a thing, because no such essence exists. Hence, the finitude of our receptivity is not the issue; the issue is, instead, the finitude of our projectivity. The range of possible conceptualisations of a thing is conditioned by the historical tradition of the subject attempting to make sense of that thing. Only within the finite scope of possibilities enabled by the subject’s tradition can it experience a thing as intelligible, not to mention develop a clearly defined understanding of what it is (258-9).

Literally, tradition matters. Relatedly, I also welcome how Science as Social Existence helps me to clarify the ambiguities of Heidegger’s comportment toward scientific inquiry, which would have been very useful some time ago, as I tried to forge a bridge between the history of biology and a different set of philosophers to those usually considered within the history and philosophy of science, not just Heidegger, but also Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze.

As I sought to reflect upon the wider implications of Heidegger’s engagement with the biological sciences of his day, Science as Social Existence would have enabled me to fend off the charge that I misunderstood Heidegger’s distinction between ontic and ontological orders, between the existence of something and the meaning attributed to it. Thus, Kochan points out that:

Metaphysical knowledge is, according to Heidegger, a direct consequence of our finitude, our inescapable mortality, rather than of our presumed ability to transcend that finitude, to reach, infinitely, for heaven. Because the finitude of our constructive power makes impossible a transcendent grasp of the thing in-itself — leaving us to be only affected by it in its brute, independent existence — our attention is instead pushed away from the thing-in-itself and towards the constructive categories we must employ in order to make sense of it as a thing present-at-hand within-the-world.

For Heidegger, metaphysics is nothing other than the study of these categories and their relations to one another. Orthodox metaphysics, in contrast, treats these existential categories as ontic, that is, as extant mental things referring to the intrinsic properties of the things we seek to know, rather than as ontological, that is, as the existential structures of being-in-the-world which enable us to know those things (133-4).

The clarification would have helped me to articulate how the ontic and ontological orders are so inextricably related to one another and, today, so entangled with scientific knowledge and technological practice that Heidegger’s reading of Eugen Korschelt’s lectures on ageing and death matters to our understanding of the fissures within Heidegger’s argument. All this seems to me a wholly satisfactory answer to Sassower’s question about the legitimacy of the conjunction Kochan proposes. This said, Heidegger and sociology are not obvious companions and I remain unpersuaded by what Science as Social Existence might have to offer the more sociologically inclined field of science and technology studies. This, I think, is where the cracks within the edifice that is Science as Social Existence begin to show.

An Incompleteness

There is something unsettling about Science as Social Existence and the distinctions it draws between the sociology of scientific knowledge and the wider field of science and technology studies. For one thing, Science as Social Existence offers an impoverished reading of science and technology studies whereby the field’s contribution to the understanding the production of scientific knowledge and related technological practices is equated with Latour’s criticism of the sociology of scientific knowledge, as the latter was articulated in arguments with David Bloor nearly two decades ago.

Science as Social Existence is not nearly as interested in the complexity of the arguments shaping this wider field as it is in the heterogeneity of philosophical positions taken within the sociology of scientific knowledge with respect to the relationship between knowledge and the material world. It bears repeating at this point that Kochan defines the latter enterprise in the narrowest terms, which also seem far more attuned to philosophical, than sociological considerations. Such narrowness should perhaps come as no surprise given the importance that the sociology of scientific knowledge has attached to the correspondence theory of truth, but there also is much more to the history of philosophy than just the Cartesian and Kantian confrontations with Plato and Aristotle, which Heidegger privileges and Kochan revisits to answer the questions Rouse and Latour have asked of the sociology of scientific knowledge.

Sassower’s possibly accidental reference to a “Spinozist approach” is a useful reminder of both alternative philosophical traditions with respect to materiality, relationality and cognitive construction, and how a properly sociological inquiry into the production of scientific knowledge and technological practices might call for greater openness to the heterogeneity of contemporary social theory. This might even include actor-network theory and its own distinctive reformulation of Spinozist monadology. However, Science as Social Existence is not about any of this, and, as Kochan’s response to Sassower reminds us, we need to respond to its argument on its own terms. Let me then say something about Kochan’s configuration of phenomenology and sociological thought, which is just as unsettling as the relationship Kochan posits between the sociology of scientific knowledge and the wider field of science and technology studies.

Ethnomethodology is the most obvious inheritor to the phenomenological tradition which Kochan invokes to address the problems confronting the sociology of scientific knowledge, and it has also played a very important role in the evolution of science and technology studies. Key ethnomethodological interventions are ambivalent about Heideggerian constructions of phenomenology, but Kochan does not appear to have any great interest in either this sociological tradition or, relatedly, what might be the implications of Heidegger’s divergence from Edmund Husserl’s understanding of the phenomenological project for the relationship between subjects and knowledge.

Instead, Kochan prefers to weld together existential phenomenology and interactionist social theory, because, as he puts it, “interactionist social theory puts the individual subject at the methodological centre of explanations of social, and thus also of cognitive, order” (372). This, however, raises troubling questions about Kochan’s reading and mobilisation of Heidegger. Kochan equates the subject and Being, but Heidegger himself felt the need to develop the term beyond its more conventional connotations of “existence” as he came to understand the subject and Being as closely related, but not one and the same. As Kochan himself notes Being “is not a thing, substance, or object” (39). This form of existence is to be understood instead as a performative operation, if not a becoming.

Furthermore, Kochan would seem to underestimate the importance of Heidegger’s understanding of the relationship between social existence and the fullest realisation of this form of existence. While Heidegger undoubtedly regards Being as emerging from within the fabric of intersubjective relations, Heidegger also maintains that authentic Being realises itself by extricating itself from other beings and so confronting the full meaning of its finitude. As a result, one is compelled to ask what exactly is Kochan’s understanding of the subject and its subjectivity, particularly in relation to the location of “knowledge”.

Possible Predecessors Gone Unacknowledged

Strikingly, these are the kinds of questions that Foucault asks about phenomenology, an enterprise which he regards as contributing to the consolidation of the modern subject. Yet, Kochan would appear to dismiss Foucault’s work, even though Foucault has much to say about not just the historicity of the subject, but also about its entanglement with mathēsis, a concept central to Kochan’s analysis of the encounter between Boyle and Hobbes. Despite the richness and symmetry of the account Kochan offers, it seems quite unsatisfactory to simply observe in a footnote that “Heidegger’s usage of mathēsis differs from that of Michel Foucault, who defines it as ‘the science of calculable order’” (234 n20).

Put simply, there is something amiss about all the slippage around questions of subjectivity, as well as the relationship between the historical and ontological ordering of the world, which calls into question the sociological foundations of the account of the sociology of scientific knowledge which Science as Social Existence seeks to articulate.

Clearly, Kochan mistrusts sociological critiques of the subject, and one of the reasons Kochan provides for the aversion is articulated most pithily in the following passage from his response to Sassower, in relation to the sociological perspectives that have increasingly come to dominate science and technology studies. Kochan writes:

What interests these critics … are fields of practice. Within these fields, the subject is constituted. But the fundamental unit of analysis is the field – or system – not the subject. Subjectivity is, on this theory, a derivative phenomenon, at best, a secondary resource for sociological analysis. From my perspective, because subjectivity is fundamental to human existence, it cannot be eliminated in this way.

In other words, if the subject is constructed, then its subjectivity and structures of feeling can provide no insight into our present condition. This, however, is a very familiar conundrum, one that, in another guise, has long confronted science and technology studies: That something is constructed does not necessarily amount to its “elimination”. The dividing issue at the heart of Science as Social Existence would then seem to be less the relationship between scientific knowledge and the material constitution of the world about us, and more whether one is interested in the clarity of transcendental analytics or charting the topological complexities of immanent transformation.

My preference, however, is to place such weighty and probably irresolvable issues in suspension. It seems to me that it might be more productive to reconsider instead how the subject is constituted and wherein lie its distinctive capacities to determine what is and what can be done, here and now. Anthropological perspectives on the questions science and technology studies seek to pose today suggest that this might be how to build most productively upon the Heideggerian understanding of the subject and the objective world as coming into being simultaneously.

Perhaps, however, I am just another of those readers destined to be “unhappy” about Science as Social Existence, but I am not sure that this is quite right because I hope to have conveyed how much I enjoyed thinking about the questions Science as Social Existence poses, and I would just like to hear more about what Kochan thinks of such alternative approaches to reading Heidegger today.

Contact details: p.palladino@lancaster.ac.uk

References

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