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Author Information: Eric Kerr, National University of Singapore, erictkerr@gmail.com

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: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3VV

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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: erictkerr@gmail.com

References

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 https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm

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

[1] Goldhill, O. “ Marco Rubio Admits he was Wrong… About Philosophy.” Quartz, 30 March 2018. Retrieved from https://qz.com/1241203/marco-rubio-admits-he-was-wrong-about-philosophy/amp/.

[2] Philosophy. Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.etymonline.com/word/philosophy.

[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 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/11/opinion/if-philosophy-wont-diversify-lets-call-it-what-it-really-is.html.

[4] See, e.g., N. Power. “A Blow to Philosophy, and Minorities.” The Guardian, 29 April 2010. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/apr/29/philosophy-minorities-middleqsex-university-logic. Weinberg, J. “Serious Cuts and Stark Choices at Aberdeen.” Daily Nous, 27 March 2015. Retrieved from http://dailynous.com/2015/03/27/serious-cuts-and-stark-choices-at-aberdeen/.

[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: Adam Riggio, SERRC Digital Editor, serrc.digital@gmail.com

Riggio, Adam. “Action in Harmony with a Global World.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 20-26.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Vp

Image by cornie via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Bryan Van Norden has become about as notorious as an academic philosopher can be while remaining a virtuous person. His notoriety came with a column in the New York Times that took the still-ethnocentric approach of many North American and European university philosophy departments to task. The condescending and insulting dismissal of great works of thought from cultures and civilizations beyond Europe and European-descended North America should scandalize us. That it does not is to the detriment of academic philosophy’s culture.

Anyone who cares about the future of philosophy as a tradition should read Taking Back Philosophy and take its lessons to heart, if one does not agree already with its purpose. The discipline of philosophy, as practiced in North American and European universities, must incorporate all the philosophical traditions of humanity into its curriculum and its subject matter. It is simple realism.

A Globalized World With No Absolute Hierarchies

I am not going to argue for this decision, because I consider it obvious that this must be done. Taking Back Philosophy is a quick read, an introduction to a political task that philosophers, no matter their institutional homes, must support if the tradition is going to survive beyond the walls of universities increasingly co-opted by destructive economic, management, and human resources policies.

Philosophy as a creative tradition cannot survive in an education economy built on the back of student debt, where institutions’ priorities are set by a management class yoked to capital investors and corporate partners, which prioritizes the proliferation of countless administrative-only positions while highly educated teachers and researchers compete ruthlessly for poverty wages.

With this larger context in mind, Van Norden’s call for the enlargement of departments’ curriculums to cover all traditions is one essential pillar of the vision to liberate philosophy from the institutions that are destroying it as a viable creative process. In total, those four pillars are 1) universal accessibility, economically and physically; 2) community guidance of a university’s priorities; 3) restoring power over the institution to creative and research professionals; and 4) globalizing the scope of education’s content.

Taking Back Philosophy is a substantial brick through the window of the struggle to rebuild our higher education institutions along these democratic and liberating lines. Van Norden regularly publishes work of comparative philosophy that examines many problems of ethics and ontology using texts, arguments, and concepts from Western, Chinese, and Indian philosophy. But if you come to Taking Back Philosophy expecting more than a brick through those windows, you’ll be disappointed. One chapter walks through a number of problems as examples, but the sustained conceptual engagement of a creative philosophical work is absent. Only the call to action remains.

What a slyly provocative call it is – the book’s last sentence, “Let’s discuss it . . .”

Unifying a Tradition of Traditions

I find it difficult to write a conventional review of Taking Back Philosophy, because so much of Van Norden’s polemic is common sense to me. Of course, philosophy departments must be open to primary material from all the traditions of the human world, not just the Western. I am incapable of understanding why anyone would argue against this, given how globalized human civilization is today. For the context of this discussion, I will consider a historical and a technological aspect of contemporary globalization. Respectively, these are the fall of the European military empires, and the incredible intensity with which contemporary communications and travel technology integrates people all over Earth.

We no longer live in a world dominated by European military colonial empires, so re-emerging centres of culture and economics must be taken on their own terms. The Orientalist presumption, which Edward Said spent a career mapping, that there is no serious difference among Japanese, Malay, Chinese, Hindu, Turkic, Turkish, Persian, Arab, Levantine, or Maghreb cultures is not only wrong, but outright stupid. Orientalism as an academic discipline thrived for the centuries it did only because European weaponry intentionally and persistently kept those cultures from asserting themselves.

Indigenous peoples – throughout the Americas, Australia, the Pacific, and Africa – who have been the targets of cultural and eradicative genocides for centuries now claim and agitate for their human rights, as well as inclusion in the broader human community and species. I believe most people of conscience are appalled and depressed that these claims are controversial at all, and even seen by some as a sign of civilizational decline.

The impact of contemporary technology I consider an even more important factor than the end of imperialist colonialism in the imperative to globalize the philosophical tradition. Despite the popular rhetoric of contemporary globalization, the human world has been globalized for millennia. Virtually since urban life first developed, long-distance international trade and communication began as well.

Here are some examples. Some of the first major cities of ancient Babylon achieved their greatest economic prosperity through trade with cities on the south of the Arabian Peninsula, and as far east along the Indian Ocean coast as Balochistan. From 4000 to 1000 years ago, Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Persian, Arab, Chinese, Mongol, Indian, Bantu, Malian, Inca, and Anishinaabeg peoples, among others, built trade networks and institutions stretching across continents.

Contemporary globalization is different in the speed and quantity of commerce, and diversity of goods. It is now possible to reach the opposite side of the planet in a day’s travel, a journey so ordinary that tens of millions of people take these flights each year. Real-time communication is now possible between anywhere on Earth with broadband internet connections thanks to satellite networks and undersea fibre-optic cables. In 2015, the total material value of all goods and commercial services traded internationally was US$21-trillion. That’s a drop from the previous year’s all-time (literally) high of US$24-trillion.[1]

Travel, communication, and productivity has never been so massive or intense in all of human history. The major control hubs of the global economy are no longer centralized in a small set of colonial powers, but a variety of economic centres throughout the world, depending on industry. From Beijing, Moscow, Mumbai, Lagos, and Berlin to Tokyo, and Washington, the oil fields of Kansas, the Dakotas, Alberta, and Iraq, and the coltan, titanium, and tantalum mines of Congo, Kazakhstan, and China.

All these proliferating lists express a simple truth – all cultures of the world now legitimately claim recognition as equals, as human communities sharing our Earth as we hollow it out. Philosophical traditions from all over the world are components of those claims to equal recognition.

The Tradition of Process Thought

So that is the situation forcing a recalcitrant and reactionary academy to widen its curricular horizons – Do so, or face irrelevancy in a global civilization with multiple centres all standing as civic equals in the human community. This is where Van Norden himself leaves us. Thankfully, he understands that a polemic ending with a precise program immediately becomes empty dogma, a conclusion which taints the plausibility of an argument. His point is simple – that the academic discipline must expand its arms. He leaves the more complex questions of how the philosophical tradition itself can develop as a genuinely global community.

Process philosophy is a relatively new philosophical tradition, which can adopt the classics of Daoist philosophy as broad frameworks and guides. By process philosophy, I mean the research community that has grown around Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari as primary innovators of their model of thought – a process philosophy that converges with an ecological post-humanism. The following are some essential aspects of this new school of process thinking, each principle in accord with the core concepts of the foundational texts of Daoism, Dao De Jing and Zhuang Zi.

Ecological post-humanist process philosophy is a thorough materialism, but it is an anti-reductive materialism. All that exists is bodies of matter and fields of force, whose potentials include everything for which Western philosophers have often felt obligated to postulate a separate substance over and above matter, whether calling it mind, spirit, or soul.

As process philosophy, the emphasis in any ontological analysis is on movement, change, and relationships instead of the more traditional Western focus on identity and sufficiency. If I can refer to examples from the beginning of Western philosophy in Greece, process thought is an underground movement with the voice of Heraclitus critiquing a mainstream with the voice of Parmenides. Becoming, not being, is the primary focus of ontological analysis.

Process thinking therefore is primarily concerned with potential and capacity. Knowledge, in process philosophy, as a result becomes inextricably bound with action. This unites a philosophical school identified as “Continental” in common-sense categories of academic disciplines with the concerns of pragmatist philosophy. Analytic philosophy took up many concepts from early 20th century pragmatism in the decades following the death of John Dewey. These inheritors, however, remained unable to overcome the paradoxes stymieing traditional pragmatist approaches, particularly how to reconcile truth as correspondence with knowledge having a purpose in action and achievement.

A solution to this problem of knowledge and action was developed in the works of Barry Allen during the 2000s. Allen built an account of perception that was rooted in contemporary research in animal behaviour, human neurology, and the theoretical interpretations of evolution in the works of Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin.

His first analysis, focussed as it was on the dynamics of how human knowledge spurs technological and civilizational development, remains humanistic. Arguing from discoveries of how profoundly the plastic human brain is shaped in childhood by environmental interaction, Allen concludes that successful or productive worldly action itself constitutes the correspondence of our knowledge and the world. Knowledge does not consist of a private reserve of information that mirrors worldly states of affairs, but the physical and mental interaction of a person with surrounding processes and bodies to constitute those states of affairs. The plasticity of the human brain and our powers of social coordination are responsible for the peculiarly human mode of civilizational technology, but the same power to constitute states of affairs through activity is common to all processes and bodies.[2]

“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. Whatever is soft, fluid, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard.” – Lao Zi
The Burney Falls in Shasta County, Northern California. Image by melfoody via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Action in Phase With All Processes: Wu Wei

Movement of interaction constitutes the world. This is the core principle of pragmatist process philosophy, and as such brings this school of thought into accord with the Daoist tradition. Ontological analysis in the Dao De Jing is entirely focussed on vectors of becoming – understanding the world in terms of its changes, movements, and flows, as each of these processes integrate in the complexity of states of affairs.

Not only is the Dao De Jing a foundational text in what is primarily a process tradition of philosophy, but it is also primarily pragmatist. Its author Lao Zi frames ontological arguments in practical concerns, as when he writes, “The most supple things in the world ride roughshod over the most rigid” (Dao De Jing §43). This is a practical and ethical argument against a Parmenidean conception of identity requiring stability as a necessary condition.

What cannot change cannot continue to exist, as the turbulence of existence will overcome and erase what can exist only by never adapting to the pressures of overwhelming external forces. What can only exist by being what it now is, will eventually cease to be. That which exists in metamorphosis and transformation has a remarkable resilience, because it is able to gain power from the world’s changes. This Daoist principle, articulated in such abstract terms, is in Deleuze and Guattari’s work the interplay of the varieties of territorializations.

Knowledge in the Chinese tradition, as a concept, is determined by an ideal of achieving harmonious interaction with an actor’s environment. Knowing facts of states of affairs – including their relationships and tendencies to spontaneous and proliferating change – is an important element of comprehensive knowledge. Nonetheless, Lao Zi describes such catalogue-friendly factual knowledge as, “Those who know are not full of knowledge. Those full of knowledge do not know” (Dao De Jing 81). Knowing the facts alone is profoundly inadequate to knowing how those facts constrict and open potentials for action. Perfectly harmonious action is the model of the Daoist concept of Wu Wei – knowledge of the causal connections among all the bodies and processes constituting the world’s territories understood profoundly enough that self-conscious thought about them becomes unnecessary.[3]

Factual knowledge is only a condition of achieving the purpose of knowledge: perfectly adapting your actions to the changes of the world. All organisms’ actions change their environments, creating physically distinctive territories: places that, were it not for my action, would be different. In contrast to the dualistic Western concept of nature, the world in Daoist thought is a complex field of overlapping territories whose tensions and conflicts shape the character of places. Fulfilled knowledge in this ontological context is knowledge that directly conditions your own actions and the character of your territory to harmonize most productively with the actions and territories that are always flowing around your own.

Politics of the Harmonious Life

The Western tradition, especially in its current sub-disciplinary divisions of concepts and discourses, has treated problems of knowledge as a domain separate from ethics, morality, politics, and fundamental ontology. Social epistemology is one field of the transdisciplinary humanities that unites knowledge with political concerns, but its approaches remain controversial in much of the conservative mainstream academy. The Chinese tradition has fundamentally united knowledge, moral philosophy, and all fields of politics especially political economy since the popular eruption of Daoist thought in the Warring States period 2300 years ago. Philosophical writing throughout eastern Asia since then has operated in this field of thought.

As such, Dao-influenced philosophy has much to offer contemporary progressive political thought, especially the new communitarianism of contemporary social movements with their roots in Indigenous decolonization, advocacy for racial, sexual, and gender liberation, and 21st century socialist advocacy against radical economic inequality. In terms of philosophical tools and concepts for understanding and action, these movements have dense forebears, but a recent tradition.

The movement for economic equality and a just globalization draws on Antonio Gramsci’s introduction of radical historical contingency to the marxist tradition. While its phenomenological and testimonial principles and concepts are extremely powerful and viscerally rooted in the lived experience of subordinated – what Deleuze and Guattari called minoritarian – people as groups and individuals, the explicit resources of contemporary feminism is likewise a century-old storehouse of discourse. Indigenous liberation traditions draw from a variety of philosophical traditions lasting millennia, but the ongoing systematic and systematizing revival is almost entirely a 21st century practice.

Antonio Negri, Rosi Braidotti, and Isabelle Stengers’ masterworks unite an analysis of humanity’s destructive technological and ecological transformation of Earth and ourselves to develop a solution to those problems rooted in communitarian moralities and politics of seeking harmony while optimizing personal and social freedom. Daoism offers literally thousands of years of work in the most abstract metaphysics on the nature of freedom in harmony and flexibility in adaptation to contingency. Such conceptual resources are of immense value to these and related philosophical currents that are only just beginning to form explicitly in notable size in the Western tradition.

Van Norden has written a book that is, for philosophy as a university discipline, is a wake-up call to this obstinate branch of Western academy. The world around you is changing, and if you hold so fast to the contingent borders of your tradition, your territory will be overwritten, trampled, torn to bits. Live and act harmoniously with the changes that are coming. Change yourself.

It isn’t so hard to read some Lao Zi for a start.

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

Allen, Barry. Knowledge and Civilization. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2004.

Allen, Barry. Striking Beauty: A Philosophical Look at the Asian Martial Arts. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

Allen, Barry. Vanishing Into Things: Knowledge in Chinese Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

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

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, Or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2012.

Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.

Deleuze, Gilles. Bergsonism. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Zone Books, 1988.

Chew, Sing C. World Ecological Degradation: Accumulation, Urbanization, and Deforestation, 3000 B.C. – A.D. 2000. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 2001.

Negri, Antonio, and Michael Hardt. Assembly. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Parikka, Jussi. A Geology of Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Riggio, Adam. Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.

Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics I. Translated by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2010.

Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics II. Translated by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2011.

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

World Trade Organization. World Trade Statistical Review 2016. Retrieved from https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/statis_e/wts2016_e/wts2016_e.pdf

[1] That US$3-trillion drop in trade was largely the proliferating effect of the sudden price drop of human civilization’s most essential good, crude oil, to just less than half of its 2014 value.

[2] A student of Allen’s arrived at this conclusion in combining his scientific pragmatism with the French process ontology of Deleuze and Guattari in the context of ecological problems and eco-philosophical thinking.

[3] This concept of knowledge as perfectly harmonious but non-self-conscious action also conforms to Henri Bergson’s concept of intuition, the highest (so far) form of knowledge that unites the perfect harmony in action of brute animal instinct with the self-reflective and systematizing power of human understanding. This is a productive way for another creative contemporary philosophical path – the union of vitalist and materialist ideas in the work of thinkers like Jane Bennett – to connect with Asian philosophical traditions for centuries of philosophical resources on which to draw. But that’s a matter for another essay.

Author Information: Christopher M. Brown, University of Tennessee, Martin, chrisb@utm.edu

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

The complete pdf of the article gives specific page references. Due to the length of Brown’s article, we will be posting it in three parts. The first installment can be found here. Shortlink for part two: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3TJ

Please refer to:

Image by Bruce Irschick via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Problems for Mizrahi’s Argument, Given the Number and Kind of Philosophical Assumptions at Play in the Argument

In his 2017b response, Mizrahi makes some general criticisms of my strategy in criticizing Mizrahi’s Argument as well as offering particular objections to particular arguments I make in my 2017 essay with respect to Mizrahi’s Argument. In response, then, I first say a few things about Mizrahi’s general criticisms. Second, I respond to Mizrahi’s particular objections.

Mizrahi’s first general criticism of my approach is that I simply criticize Mizrahi’s Argument by proposing certain “what ifs?” (2017b, 9). His objection seems to be the following:

  1. “The question of whether scientific knowledge is superior to non-scientific [academic] knowledge is a question that can be answered empirically” (2017b, 10).
  2. “Therefore, in order to pose a serious challenge to my defense of Weak Scientism, Brown must come up with more than mere ‘what ifs’” (2017b, 10).

The argument is clearly an enthymeme. Mizrahi presumably is presupposing:

  1. If the question of whether scientific knowledge is superior to non-scientific [academic] knowledge is a question that one can answer empirically, then, in order to pose a serious challenge to my defense of Weak Scientism, Brown must come up with more than mere “what ifs” [assumption].

But why accept 27? Presumably because we are supposed to privilege empirical (I read Mizrahi’s ‘empirical’ here as ‘experimental/scientific’) evidence over non-empirical evidence. But that’s just assuming the sort of thing that is at issue when debating the truth or falsity of scientism. So Mizrahi’s response here begs the question against those who raise critical questions about Mizrahi’s Argument and Weak Scientism.

In addition, premise 25 is one of the propositions up for debate here. Mizrahi thinks Mizrahi’s Argument is a scientific argument. I disagree, for reasons stated in my 2017 article (more on this below).

A second general criticism Mizrahi raises for my critique of Mizrahi’s Argument concerns my habit of speaking about “controversial philosophical assumptions” at play in Mizrahi’s Argument. First, Mizrahi does not like my use of the word ‘assumptions’ in reference to the (implied) premises of Mizrahi’s Argument (2017b, 12; 14) since, according to Mizrahi, “an assumption is a statement that is taken to be true without justification or support.”

I just have to confess that I don’t think ‘assumption’ necessarily has this connotation. I certainly did not intend to communicate in every case I use the word ‘assumption’ in my 2017 article that Mizrahi had not supplied any justification or support for such propositions (although I do think it is the case that Mizrahi does not offer justification for some of the [implied] premises in Mizrahi’s Argument). For better or for worse (probably worse) I was thinking of ‘assumption’ as a synonym of ‘stipulation’ or ‘presupposition’ or ‘premise.’ But I will try to be more precise in what follows.

Second, Mizrahi takes me to task for calling the (implied) premises of Mizrahi’s Argument controversial, since I don’t say why they are controversial and, as Mizrahi states with respect to his 2017a, “the way I have characterized knowledge is exactly the way others in the scientism debate understand knowledge (see, e.g., Peels 2016, 2462), which means that my characterization of knowledge is not controversial as far as the scientism debate in philosophy is concerned” (2017b, 13; see also 14-15).  In addition, by calling a premise ‘controversial’, Mizrahi takes me to mean that I am saying it is doubtful (2017b, 14-15), which, if true, would raise some puzzles for my own responses to Mizrahi 2017a.

In response, my comment in 2017 that the (implied) premises in Mizrahi’s Argument are controversial was neither intended as commentary on a narrow philosophical discussion—what Mizrahi calls “the scientism debate in philosophy” (2017b, 13; emphasis mine)—nor meant simply to point out that it is possible to doubt those premises (Mizrahi 2017b, 14-15). Rather, what I intended to say (and should have made clearer) is that the (implied) premises of Mizrahi’s Argument are controversial when we contrast them with the views of a number of different philosophical schools of thought.

That is to say, I meant to suggest that a healthy minority of contemporary philosophers will reject those premises, and have reasons for rejecting them, where that healthy minority consists (just to name a few schools of thought that have contemporary adherents) of some Platonists, Aristotelians, neo-Aristotelians, Augustinians, Thomists, Scotists, Suarezians, Ockhamists, Cartesians, Liebnizians, Kantians, neo-Kantians of various sorts, Phenomenologists, Existentialists, Whiteheadians, as well as quite a few non-naturalist analytic philosophers.

Indeed, if we practice “the democracy of the dead,” as G. K. Chesterton suggested is only fair,[1] the majority of philosophers in the past would reject the implied premises in Mizrahi’s Argument; or, if that’s a bit anachronistic, they would reject premises at least analogous to those in Mizrahi’s Argument insofar as they would not reduce philosophical knowledge to what professional philosophers make public; think of, to take just one example, Plato’s criticism of the professional philosophers of his day as false philosophers in the Phaedo[2] and the Republic.[3]

Of course, there are non-philosophers too, including practicing natural scientists (past and present) who (would) also reject Weak Scientism and many of the (implied) premises in Mizrahi’s Argument. One gets the impression from both 2017a and 2017b that Mizrahi does not think Mizrahi’s Argument is at all controversial. It was for these reasons and in the sense specified here that I emphasized in my 2017 response that a number of (implied) premises in Mizrahi’s Argument are, in fact, very controversial.

In addition, Mizrahi himself cites contemporary philosophers engaged in “the scientism debate in philosophy” who reject Mizrahi’s reduction of philosophy and philosophical knowledge to what philosophers publish (see, e.g., Sorrell 1994 and Haack 2017). There are other professional philosophers engaged in debates about the plausibility of scientism who reject quite a few of the premises in Mizrahi’s Argument (see, e.g., Brown 2011, the authors of some of the papers in Williams & Robinson 2015, and the work of analytic philosopher, Edward Feser, who has offered criticisms of scientism in: 2008, 83-85; 2010a; 2010b, and 2014, 9-24).

Third, Mizrahi thinks I should not call his assumptions philosophical unless I have first defined ‘philosophy’ (2017b, 13; 14), particularly since I claim that his argument is a philosophical and not a scientific argument (2017b, 9; 15). He states: “what Brown labels as ‘philosophical’ is not really philosophical, or at least he is not in a positon to claim that it is philosophical, since he does not tell us what makes something philosophical (other than being work produced by professional philosophers, which is a characterization of ‘philosophical’ that he rejects)” (2017b, 14).

I do not define the nature of philosophy in my 2017 response to Mizrahi’s 2017a. I supposed, perhaps wrongly, that such an endeavor was altogether outside the scope of the project of offering some critical comments on a philosophy paper. Of course, as Mizrahi no doubt knows, even the greatest of Greek philosophers, e.g., Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, all think about philosophy in very different ways (for Socrates philosophy is a way of life which consists of a search for wisdom; for Plato philosophy is not only a search for wisdom but also involves the possession of wisdom, if only by way of the recollection of an other-worldly (or pre-worldly) set of experiences; Aristotle thinks philosophy is said in many ways (hence metaphysics is ‘first philosophy’), but pace Plato, successful philosophy, Aristotle thinks, needs to make sense of what we know by common sense).

St. Augustine has yet a different way of thinking about the nature of philosophy (philosophy is the search for wisdom, but such a search need not be limited to a mere human investigation, as with the Greeks; it may be that wisdom can be found in a rational reception of a divine revelation). By the time we get to the twentieth century there is also the great divide between analytic and continental approaches to philosophy. As Mizrahi points out, philosophers today disagree with one another about the nature of philosophy (2017a, 356).

So I could give an account of how I understand the philosophical enterprise, but that account itself would be controversial, and beside the point.[4] Perhaps, if only for dialectical purposes, we can give the following as a sufficient condition for pieces of writing and discourse that count as philosophy (N.B. philosophy, not good philosophy):

(P) Those articles published in philosophical journals and what academics with a Ph.D. in philosophy teach in courses at public universities with titles such as Introduction to Philosophy, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Normative Ethics, and Philosophy of Science.

Whereas Mizrahi takes the reduction of philosophy to what professional philosophers publish in academic journals as a premise in Mizrahi’s Argument, I don’t take P to be a necessary condition for something’s counting as philosophy. For philosophical discourses are also recorded, for example, in old books, some of which are not typically taught in philosophy courses today, and (some very good) philosophy, productive of philosophical knowledge, also occurs in conversations between persons who can directly see and hear one another. Indeed, some persons who do not have a Ph.D. in philosophy do (good) philosophy too.

First Controversial Philosophical Premise in Mizrahi’s Argument

Having remarked on Mizrahi’s general criticisms of my objections to Mizrahi’s Argument, I now turn to addressing Mizrahi’s objections to the particular objections or points I make in my critique of Mizrahi’s Argument in 2017. I address these objections not in the order Mizrahi raises them in 2017b, but as these objections track with the objections I raise in my 2017 article, and in the order I raise them (Mizrahi does not comment upon what I call ‘the Second Assumption’ at play in Mizrahi’s Argument in his 2017b, and so I say nothing else about it here).

Recall that the general schema for Mizrahi’s Argument is the following:

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

A first controversial philosophical premise at play in Mizrahi’s Argument is a premise Mizrahi uses to defend premise 8 of Mizrahi’s Argument. The premise states that we should think about both knowledge and philosophy operationally. As I point out in 2017, Mizrahi needs to premise such accounts of knowledge and philosophy, since otherwise “it won’t be possible for him to measure the quantity of knowledge in scientific and non-scientific disciplines, something Mizrahi needs to do in order to make his argument for 8” (2017, 44).

Mizrahi has three criticisms of my comment here. First, Mizrahi claims to have provided sufficient justification for operationalizing the nature of philosophy and (philosophical) knowledge by noting the controversy surrounding the nature of philosophy. In light of such controversy, citing Lauer, Mizrahi says: “Arguably, as far as answering the question ‘What makes X philosophical?’ goes, [operationalizing philosophy as what professional philosophers do] may be the best we can do (Lauer 1989, 16)” (Mizrahi 2017a, 356; Mizrahi 2017b, 12). So, contrary to what I say (or imply), Mizrahi does not simply assume we should operationalize the nature of philosophy or knowledge. Second, Mizrahi thinks it problematic for me to challenge his premise reducing philosophy to what professional philosophers do without offering my own account of the nature of philosophy (2017b, 13). Third, Mizrahi thinks it strange that a philosopher (presumably, like me) who wants to defend the usefulness of philosophy should criticize his pragmatic account of the nature of philosophy.

As to Mizrahi’s first point, he offers justification for operationalizing the nature of philosophy and knowledge only in the sense of “here’s a reason why I am proceeding in the way that I am.” Indeed, as I point out in 2017, unless he operationalizes the nature of philosophy and knowledge, “it won’t be possible for him to measure the quantity of knowledge in scientific and non-scientific disciplines, something Mizrahi needs to do in order to make his argument for 8” (2017, 44).

Of course, Mizrahi is free to stipulate an understanding of philosophy or knowledge that can be measured empirically (it’s a free country). But insofar as one bemoans the current state of the research university as one obsessed with outcomes, and measuring outcomes empirically, Mizrahi will forgive those who think stipulating an understanding of the nature of philosophy and knowledge as operational is not only shallow insofar as philosophy and knowledge can’t fit into the narrow parameters of another empirical study, but furthermore, begs the question against those who think that, as great as experimental science and its methods are, experimental science does not constitute the only disciplined approach to searching for knowledge and understanding.

Mizrahi even goes so far to say (his way of) operationalizing the nature of knowledge and philosophy is the least controversial way of doing so (2017b, 13). It’s hard to understand why he thinks that is the case. Just citing the fact that philosophers disagree with one another about the nature of philosophy, citing one author who thinks this is the best we can do, and then adding an additional account of what philosophy is to the already large list of different accounts of what philosophy is—for after all, to say philosophy is what philosophers do, is itself to do some philosophy, i.e., metaphilosophy—does not warrant thinking (a way of) operationalizing of philosophy and knowledge is the least controversial way of thinking about philosophy and knowledge.

In addition, many philosophers think it is false that philosophy and philosophical knowledge are reducible to what professional philosophers do (it may be good to recall that Socrates, Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Locke, and Hume were not professional philosophers). Also, some philosophers think that not all professional philosophers are true philosophers (again, for precedent, see the arguments in Plato’s Phaedo and Republic). Still other philosophers will insist on a definition of knowledge such as, knowledge is warranted true belief, and also think much of what is argued in philosophy journals—and perhaps science journals too—does not meet the threshold of being warranted, and so of knowledge.

Perhaps Mizrahi means (his way of) operationalizing philosophy and knowledge are the least controversial ways of thinking about philosophy and knowledge among those engaged in “the scientism debate in philosophy” (2017b, 13). That may be so. In my original response—and in this response too—I’m trying to suggest that there are people interested in evaluating scientism that do not share the scientistic account of philosophy and knowledge of those engaged in “the scientism debate in philosophy.”

Having said something above why I did not describe the nature of philosophy in my 2017, I turn to Mizrahi’s puzzlement at my raising the possibility that we should not operationalize the nature of philosophy and knowledge, given my interest in showing that philosophy is useful. After all, if it may be the case that a published journal article in philosophy does not constitute philosophy or an item of philosophical knowledge, what hope can there be to for responding to those academics who think philosophy is dead or useless?

Mizrahi apparently puts me in the class of folk who want to defend philosophy as useful. Mizrahi also seems to assume the only way to show philosophy is useful is by defining philosophy operationally (2017b, 13). Therefore, it doesn’t make sense for me to be skeptical about operationalizing the nature of philosophy and knowledge.

Is philosophy useful? That depends upon what we mean by ‘useful.’ Philosophy won’t help us cure cancer or develop the next form of modern technology (not directly, at any rate).[5] So it is not useful as physics, chemistry, biology, or mathematics are useful. It is presumably in that technological sense of ‘useful’ that Martin Heidegger says, “It is entirely proper and perfectly as it should be: philosophy is of no use” (Einfuhrung in die Metaphysik; qtd. in Pieper 1992, 41).

But by ‘useful,’ we may mean, “able to help a person live a better life.” In my view, philosophy can be very useful in that sense. A philosopher can help persons live a better life—sometimes even herself—by writing journal articles (that is, there certainly are some excellent philosophy journal articles, and some—often far too few—read and profit from these). But more often than not, since most people who may profit from exposure to philosophy or a philosopher don’t read academic journals (and wouldn’t profit much from doing so, if they did), people’s lives are improved in the relevant sense by philosophy or philosophers insofar as they encounter a good philosopher in the classroom and in every day conversations or by reading classical philosophical works from the ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary periods.

By operationalizing the nature of philosophy and knowledge, Mizrahi’s Argument fails to account for those occasions, times, and places where most persons exposed to philosophy can—and sometimes do—profit from the experience by gaining knowledge they did not possess before about what makes for a flourishing human life.

A Third Controversial Philosophical Premise in Mizrahi’s Argument

In my 2017 article, I mention a third controversial philosophical premise at play in Mizrahi’s Argument: the view that the knowledge of each academic discipline—in terms of both its output and impact—can be quantitatively measured. Mizrahi objects that I do not “tell us what makes this alleged ‘assumption’ philosophical” (2017b, 13). He also states that I do not provide evidence that it is controversial. Finally, Mizrahi claims:

that we can measure the research output of academic fields is not “contentious” [Brown 2017, 45] at all. This so-called “assumption” is accepted by many researchers across disciplines, including philosophy [see, e.g., Kreuzman 2001 and Morrow & Sula 2011], and it has led to fruitful work in library and information science, bibliometrics, scientometrics, data science [Andres 2009], and philosophy [see, e.g., Wray & Bornmann 2015 and Ashton & Mizrahi 2017] (Mizrahi 2017b, 13).

As for my claim that the premise one can quantify over knowledge produced in academic disciplines is a philosophical premise, I assumed in my 2017 essay that Mizrahi and I were working from common ground here, since Mizrahi states, “it might be objected that the inductive generalizations outlined above [in defense of premise 8 of Mizrahi’s Argument] are not scientific arguments that produce scientific knowledge because they ultimately rest on philosophical assumptions. One philosophical assumption that they ultimately rest on, for example, is the assumption that academic knowledge produced by academic disciplines can be measured” (2017a, 356; emphasis mine).

I supposed Mizrahi to agree with the highlighted portion of the citation above, but it may be that Mizrahi was simply writing in the voice of an objector to his own view (of course, even then, we often agree with some of the premises in an objector’s argument). I also (wrongly) took it to be obvious that the premise in question is a philosophical premise. What else would it be? A piece of common sense? A statement confirmed by experimental science?[6] Something divinely revealed from heaven?

Mizrahi also claims I don’t provide evidence that the claim that we can quantify over how much knowledge is produced in the academy is controversial. What sort of evidence is Mizrahi looking for? That some philosophical paper says so? Surely Mizrahi does not think we can settle a scholarly—let alone a philosophical—dispute by simply making an appeal to an authority. Does Mizrahi think we need sociological evidence to settle our dispute? Is that the best way to provide evidence for a claim? If the answer to either of these last two questions is ‘yes’, then Mizrahi’s Argument for Weak Scientism is begging the question at issue.

But, in any case, I do offer philosophical evidence that the philosophical claim that academic knowledge can be quantitatively measured is controversial in my 2017 article:

in order to measure the amount of scientific and non-scientific, academic knowledge—as Mizrahi needs to do in order to make his argument for premise 8 [of Mizrahi’s Argument]—he needs to define knowledge teleologically—as the goal or aim of an academic discipline—or operationally—as what academics produce. But thinking about the nature of (academic) knowledge in that pragmatic way is philosophically controversial. Therefore, thinking we can measure quantitatively the amount of knowledge across academic disciplines is itself philosophically controversial, since the latter assumption only makes sense on a pragmatic account of knowledge, which is itself a controversial philosophical assumption (2017, 45).

As I noted above, by ‘controversial’ here, I mean there is (at least) a large minority of philosophers, whether we simply count professional philosophers alive today, or also include dead philosophers, who (would) reject the claims that we can collectively quantify over what counts as knowledge, knowledge is teleological, only academics produce philosophical knowledge, and philosophical knowledge is what philosophers publish in academic journals.

Finally, note that Mizrahi’s evidence that (a) reducing what academics know to what can be quantitatively measured is not controversial is that (b) there are academics from across the disciplines, including philosophy, who accept the premise that we can quantify over knowledge produced by academics and (c) the premise that we can quantify over knowledge produced by academic disciplines has led to fruitful work in a number of disciplines, including information science.

But (a)’s itself being controversial (i.e., that a large minority reject it), even false, is consistent with the truth of both (b) and (c). By analogy, it is no doubt also true that (d) academics from across the disciplines, even some philosophers, think quantitative assessment of college teaching is a good idea and (e) much data has been collected from quantitative assessments of college teaching which will be very useful for those seeking doctorates in education. But surely Mizrahi knows that (d) is controversial among academics, even if (e) is true. Mizrahi’s argument that (a) is true on the basis of (b) and (c) is a non-sequitur.

A Fourth Controversial Philosophical Premise

In my 2017 article, I claim that a fourth controversial philosophical premise is doing important work for Mizrahi’s Argument. This premise states: the quantity of knowledge of each academic discipline—in terms of both output and impact—can be accurately measured by looking at the publications of participants within that discipline. I argue that reducing the production of academic knowledge to what academics publish shows a decided bias in favor of the philosophy of education dominating the contemporary research university, in contrast to the traditional liberal arts model that places a high value on reading and teaching classic texts in philosophy, mathematics, history (including the history of science), and literature. Showing such favor is significant for two reasons.

First, it is question-begging insofar as the philosophy of education in modern research universities, prizing as it does the sort of knowledge that the methods of the experimental sciences are specially designed to produce, i.e., new knowledge and discoveries, is itself rooted in a kind of cultural scientism, one that is supported by big business, university administrators, many journalists, most politicians, and, of course, the research scientists and academics complicit in this scientistic way of thinking about the university.[7] Second, since academics produce knowledge in ways other than publishing, e.g., by way of reading, teaching, mentoring, giving lectures, and engaging others in conversation, the premise that the quantity of knowledge of each academic discipline can be accurately measured by output and impact of publications does not “present us with a representative sample of knowledge produced within all academic disciplines” (Brown 2017, 46). That means that Mizrahi’s inference to the conclusion scientists produce more knowledge that non-scientific academics from the premise, scientists produce more publications than non-scientific academics and scientists produce publications that are cited more often that those published by non-scientist academics is logically invalid.

Mizrahi responds to my comments in this context by stating that I am confusing “passing on knowledge” or “sharing knowledge” with “producing knowledge” (2017b, 14). This distinction is significant, thinks Mizrahi, since “as far as the scientism debate is concerned, and the charge that philosophy is useless, the question is whether the methodologies of the sciences are superior to those of other fields in terms of producing knowledge, not in terms of sharing knowledge” (2017b, 14). Finally, Mizrahi also notes that those in the humanities do not corner the market on activities such as teaching, for scientists pass on knowledge by way of teaching too.

Mizrahi seems to assume that sharing knowledge is not a form of producing knowledge. But I would have thought that, if a person S does not know p at time t and S comes to know p at t+1, then that counts as an instance of the production of knowledge, even if some person other than S knows p at t or some time before t or S comes to know p by way of being taught by a person who already knows p. But say, if only for the sake of argument, that Mizrahi is correct to think sharing knowledge does not entail the producing of knowledge. The fact that either Mizrahi does not count passing on or sharing knowledge as a kind of producing of knowledge or Mizrahi’s Argument does not measure the sharing or passing on of knowledge would seem to mean that Mizrahi’s Argument simply measures the production of new knowledge or discoveries, where new knowledge or a discovery can be defined as follows:

(N) New knowledge or discovery =df some human persons come to know p at time t, where no human person or persons knew p before t.

Mizrahi’s focus on knowledge as new knowledge or discovery in Mizrahi’s Argument reinforces a real limitation of (that argument for) Weak Scientism insofar as it equates knowledge with new knowledge. But it also confirms what I said in my 2017 article: Mizrahi’s Argument is question-begging since it has as a premise that knowledge is to be understood as equivalent to the sort of knowledge which the methods of the experimental sciences are specially designed to produce, i.e., new knowledge and discoveries.

Surely philosophers sometimes make new discoveries, or collectively (believe they) make progress, but philosophy (in the view of some philosophers) is more about individual intellectual progress rather than collective intellectual progress (of course, we may think it is also has the power to bring about social progress, but some of us have our real doubts about that). As Josef Pieper says:

‘Progress’ in the philosophical realm is assuredly a problematic category—insofar as it means an ever growing collective accumulation of knowledge, growing in the same measure as time passes. There exists, under this aspect, an analogy to poetry. Has Goethe ‘progressed’ farther than Homer?—one cannot ask such a question. Philosophical progress undeniably occurs, yet not so much in the succession of generations as rather in the personal and dynamic existence of the philosopher himself (1992, 92).

To the charge that scientists teach students too, I, of course, concur. But if passing on knowledge by way of teaching, mentoring, giving lectures, and personal conversations count as ways of producing knowledge, then Mizrahi’s defense of premise 8 of Mizrahi’s Argument does not, as I say in my 2017 article, “present us with a representative sample of knowledge produced within all academic disciplines” (2017, 46). And if passing on knowledge by way of teaching or reading does not count as a way of producing knowledge, then, given what many of us take to be the real intellectual significance of passing on knowledge through teaching and reading, the position Mizrahi is actually defending in 2017a and 2017b is even weaker:

(Very, Very, Very, Very Weak Scientism): When it comes to the knowledge that is produced by academic journals, i.e., the N knowledge or discoveries published in academic journals, knowledge that comes from scientific academic journals is the best.

A Fifth Controversial Philosophical Premise

Although Mizrahi says nothing about it in his 2017b response to my 2017 essay, I think it is important to emphasize again that, in arguing that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge in terms of quantity of knowledge, Mizrahi makes use of a fifth controversial philosophical premise in Mizrahi’s Argument: the quantity of knowledge—in terms of output and impact—of each academic discipline can be successfully measured by looking simply at the journal articles published (output) and cited (impact) within that discipline. For to count only journal articles when quantifying over impact of the knowledge of a discipline is, again, to adopt a scientific, discovery-oriented, approach to thinking about the nature of knowledge.

For how often do the works of Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Dostoevsky, just for starters, continue to have research impact on the work of historians, social scientists, theologians, and literature professors, not to mention, philosophers? So Mizrahi’s Argument either begs the question against non-scientist academics for another reason—it neglects to count citations of great thinkers from the past—or, by focusing only on the citation of journal articles, we are given yet another reason to think the sample Mizrahi uses to make his inductive generalization in defense of premise 8 of Mizrahi’s Argument is simply not a representative one.

The Sixth and Ninth Controversial Philosophical Premises

Here I address the following controversial philosophical premises, both of which function as key background assumptions in Mizrahi’s Argument:

(K1) For any two pieces of knowledge, p and q, where p and q are produced by an academic discipline or disciplines, p is to be treated as qualitatively equal to q where measuring the quantity of knowledge produced within academic disciplines is concerned.

(K2) For any two pieces of knowledge, p and q, where p and q are produced by an academic discipline or disciplines, p is to be treated as qualitatively equal to q in the sense of the nobility or importance or perfection of p and q where measuring the quality of p and q, where quality in this latter sense measures the extent to which the theories employed in an academic discipline or discipline productive ofand q enjoy some degree of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success.

Premise 8 of Mizrahi’s Argument says that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific academic knowledge because scientists publish more journal articles than non-scientists and the journal articles published by scientists are cited more often—and so have a greater “research impact”—than do the journal articles published by non-scientists (2017a, 355-58). In my 2017 essay I note that, in concluding to premise 8 on the basis of his inductive generalizations, Mizrahi is assuming (something such as) K1.

Furthermore, we may reasonably think K1 is false since the production of some sorts of non-scientific knowledge work may be harder than the production of scientific knowledge (and if a piece of work W is harder to publish than a piece of work W1, then, all other things being equal, W is qualitatively better than W1). For example, I mentioned the recent essay by philosopher David Papineau: “Is Philosophy Simply Harder than Science?” (2017). I also offered up as a reason for questioning whether K1 is correct Aristotle’s famous epistemological-axiological thesis that a little knowledge about the noblest things is more desirable than a lot of knowledge about less noble things.[8]

Premise 9 of Mizrahi’s Argument says that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific academic knowledge insofar as scientific theories are more successful than non-scientific theories (including philosophical theories) where the success of a theory is understood in terms of its explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success. In my 2017 response, I suggest that Mizrahi has (something such as) K2 implicitly premised as a background philosophical assumption in his argument for premise 9, and a premise such as K2 is a philosophically controversial one. At the very least, Mizrahi’s implicitly premising K2 in Mizrahi’s Argument therefore limits the audience for which Mizrahi’s Argument will be at all rhetorically convincing. For as I stated in my 2017 response:

Assume . . .  the following Aristotelian epistemological axiom: less certain knowledge (or less explanatorily successful knowledge or less instrumentally successful knowledge or less testable knowledge) about a nobler subject, e.g., God or human persons, is, all other things being equal, more valuable than more certain knowledge (or more explanatorily successful knowledge or more instrumentally successful knowledge or more testable knowledge) about a less noble subject, e.g., stars or starfish. . . . [And] consider, then, a piece of philosophical knowledge P and a piece of scientific knowledge S, where P constitutes knowledge of a nobler subject than S. If S enjoys greater explanatory power and more instrumental success and greater testability when compared to P, it won’t follow that S is qualitatively better than P (2017, 50).

Mizrahi raises a number of objections to the sections of my 2017 essay where I mention implicit premises at work in Mizrahi’s Argument such as K1 and K2. First, I don’t explain why, following Papineau, philosophy may be harder than science (2017b, 9). Second, he offers some reasons to think Papineau is wrong: “producing scientific knowledge typically takes more time, effort, money, people, and resources . . . [therefore], scientific knowledge is harder to produce than non-scientific knowledge” (2017b, 9). Third, he notes I don’t argue for Aristotle’s epistemological-axiological thesis, let alone explain what it means for one item of knowledge to be nobler than another.

Fourth, in response to my notion that philosophy and science use different methodologies insofar as the methods of the former do not invite consensus whereas the methods of the latter do, Mizrahi notes that “many philosophers would probably disagree with that, for they see the lack of consensus, and thus progress in philosophy as a serious problem” (2017b, 10). Fifth, Mizrahi thinks there is precedent for his employing a premise such as K1 in his defense of premise 8 in Mizrahi’s Argument insofar as analytic epistemologists often use variables in talking about the nature of knowledge, e.g., propositions such as ‘if person S knows p, then p is true,’ and therefore treat all instances of knowledge as qualitatively equal (2017b, 13, n. 2).

In mentioning Papineau’s article in my 2017 essay, I offer an alternative interpretation of the data that Mizrahi employs in order to defend premise 8 of Mizrahi’s Argument, an interpretation that he should—and does not—rule out in his 2017a paper, namely, that scientists produce more knowledge than non-scientists not because scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge but rather because non-scientific knowledge (such as philosophical knowledge) is harder to produce than scientific knowledge. Indeed, Mizrahi himself feels the need to rule out this possibility in his 2017b reply to my 2017 article’s raising this very point (see 2017b, 9).

Mizrahi’s inference about the greater difficulty of scientific work compared to non-scientific academic work such as philosophy goes through only if we think about the production of philosophical knowledge in the operational manner in which Mizrahi does. According to that model of philosophical knowledge, philosophical knowledge is produced whenever someone publishes a journal article. But, traditionally, philosophical knowledge is not that easy to come by. Granted, scientific knowledge too is hard to produce. As Mizrahi well notes, it takes lots of “time, effort, money, people, and resources” to produce scientific knowledge.

But we live in a time that holds science in high regard (some think, too high a regard), not just because of the success of science to produce new knowledge, but because science constantly provides us with obvious material benefits and new forms of technology and entertainment.[9] So it stands to reason that more time, effort, money, and resources are poured into scientific endeavors and more young people are attracted to careers in science than in other academic disciplines. When one adds to all of this that scientists within their fields enjoy a great consensus regarding their methods and aims, which invites greater cooperation among researchers with those fields, it is not surprising that scientists produce more knowledge than those in non-scientific academic disciplines.

But all of that is compatible with philosophy being harder than science. For, as we’ve seen, there is very little collective consensus among philosophers about the nature of philosophy and its appropriate methods. Indeed, many academics—indeed, even some philosophers—think knowledge about philosophical topics is not possible at all. It’s not beyond the pale to suggest that skepticism about the possibility of philosophical knowledge is partly a result of the modern trend towards a scientistic account of knowledge. In addition, some philosophers think philosophical knowledge is harder to acquire than scientific knowledge, if only because of the nature of those topics and questions that are properly philosophical (see Papineau 2017 and Van Inwagen 2015, 14-15).

As for the meaning of Aristotle’s epistemological-axiological claim, I take it that Aristotle thinks p is a nobler piece of knowledge than q if, all others being equal, the object of p is nobler than the object of q. For example, say we think (with Aristotle) that it is better to be a rational being than a non-rational being. It would follow that rational animals (such as human persons) are nobler than non-rational animals. Therefore, applying Aristotle’s epistemological-axiological claim, all other things being equal, knowing something about human persons—particularly qua embodied rational being—is a nobler piece of knowledge than knowing something about any non-rational object.

Now, as Mizrahi points out, not all philosophers agree with Aristotle. But my original point in mentioning Aristotle’s epistemological-axiological thesis was to highlight an implicit controversial philosophical premise in the background of Mizrahi’s Argument. The Aristotelian epistemological-axiological thesis is perhaps rejected by many, but not all, contemporary philosophers. The implicit assumption that Aristotle is wrong that (knowledge of) some object is nobler than (knowledge of) another object is a philosophical assumption (just as any arguments that Aristotle is wrong will be philosophical arguments). Indeed, it may be that any reason a philosopher will give for rejecting Aristotle’s epistemological-axiological thesis will also show that they are already committed to some form of scientistic position.

I say the practice of philosophy doesn’t invite consensus, whereas one of the advantages of an experimental method is that it does. That is a clear difference between philosophy and the experimental sciences, and since at least the time of Kant, given the advantage of a community of scholars being able to agree on most (of course, not all) first principles where some intellectual endeavor is concerned, some philosophers have suggested philosophy does not compare favorably with the experimental sciences.

So it is no surprise that, as Mizrahi notes, “many [contemporary] philosophers . . . see the lack of consensus, and thus progress in philosophy as a serious problem” (2017b, 10). But it doesn’t follow from that sociological fact, as Mizrahi seems to suggest it does (2017, 10), that those same philosophers disagree that philosophical methods don’t invite consensus. A philosopher could lament the fact that the methods of philosophy don’t invite consensus (in contrast to the methods of the experimental sciences) but agree that that is the sober truth about the nature of philosophy (some professional philosophers don’t like philosophy or have science envy; I’ve met a few). In addition, the fact that some philosophers disagree with the view that philosophical methods do not invite consensus shouldn’t be surprising. Philosophical questions are by nature controversial.[10]

Finally, Mizrahi defends his premising (something such as) K1 by citing the precedent of epistemologists who often treat all items of knowledge as qualitatively the same, for example,  when they make claims such as, ‘if S knows p, then p is true.’ But the two cases are not, in fact, parallel. For, unlike the epistemologist thinking about the nature of knowledge, Mizrahi is arguing about and comparing the value of various items of knowledge. For Mizrahi to assume KI in an argument that tries to show scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge is to beg a question against those who reasonably think philosophy is harder than science or the things that philosophers qua philosophers know are nobler than the things that scientists qua scientists know, whereas epistemologists arguably are not begging a question when engaged in the practice of abstracting from various circumstances (by employing variables) in order to determine what all instances of knowledge have in common.

The Seventh and Eighth Controversial Philosophical Premises

In his attempt to defend the thesis that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge, Mizrahi assumes that a theory A is qualitatively better than a theory B if A is more successful than B (2017a, 358). He thus thinks about a theory’s qualitative value in pragmatic terms. But not all philosophers think about the qualitative goodness of a theory in pragmatic terms, particularly in a philosophical context, if only because, of two theories A and B, A could be true and B false, where B is more successful than A, and a philosopher may prize truth over successful outcomes.[11] This constitutes a seventh controversial philosophical premise in Mizrahi’s Argument.

In addition, as I point out in my 2017 response, there is an eighth controversial philosophical premise in the background of Mizrahi’s Argument, namely, that a theory A is more successful than a theory B if A is more explanatorily successful than B, and more instrumentally successful than B, and more predictively successful than B. Even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that this is a helpful account of a good scientific explanation, interestingly, Mizrahi thinks these criteria for a successful scientific theory can be rightfully applied as the measure of success for a theory, simpliciter.

I argued in my 2017 response that to think philosophical theories have to be, for example, instrumentally successful (in the way experimental scientific theories are, namely, (a) are such that they can be put to work to solve immediate material problems such as the best way to treat a disease or (b) are such that they directly lead to technological innovations) and predicatively successful in an argument for the conclusion that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge is “to beg the question against non-scientific ways of knowing, ways of knowing that do not, by their very nature, employ controlled experiments and empirical tests as an aspect of their methodologies” (2017, 48).

In responding to my comments, Mizrahi makes three points. First, I criticize his account of explanation without offering my own account of explanation (2017b, 19). Second, passing over my comments that good philosophical theories need not be instrumentally successful (in the relevant sense) or predicatively successful, Mizrahi argues that I can’t say, as I do, that good philosophical theories explain things but do not enjoy the good-making qualities of all good explanations. As Mizrahi states, “the good-making properties of [good] explanations include unification, coherence, simplicity, and testability. Contrary to what Brown (2017, 48) seems to think, these good-making properties apply to explanations in general, not just to scientific explanations in particular” (2017b, 19) and

Contrary to what Brown asserts without argument, then, ‘To think that a theory T is successful only if—or to the extent that—it enjoys predicative success or testability’ is not to beg the question against non-scientific ways of knowing. For, insofar as non-scientific ways of knowing employ IBE [i.e., inference to the best explanation], which Brown admits is the case as far as philosophy is concerned, then their explanations must be testable (as well as unified, coherent, and simple) if they are to be good explanations (Mizrahi 2017b, 2); emphases in the original).

Mizrahi offers as evidence for the claim that all good explanations are testable and enjoy predicative power the ubiquity of such a claim in introductory textbooks on logic and critical thinking, and he offers as a representative example a chapter from a textbook by two philosophers, Sinnott-Armstrong & Fogelin 2010.

I plead guilty to not offering an account of good explanation in my 2017 article (for the same sort of reason I gave above for not defining philosophy). What I contend is that just as philosophical methods are different in kind from those of the experimental scientists, so too is a good philosophical explanation different in kind from what counts as a good explanation in an empirical science. That is not to say that philosophical and scientific explanations have nothing significant in common, just as it is not to say that the practice of philosophy has nothing in common with experimental scientific practice, despite their radical differences.

For both philosophy—at least on many accounts of its nature—and experimental science are human disciplines: their premises, conclusions, theories, and proposed explanations must submit to the bar of what human reason alone can establish.[12] Indeed, many philosophers who do not share Mizrahi’s scientistic cast of mind could happily agree that good philosophical explanations are coherent and, all other things being equal, that one philosophical explanation E is better than another E1 if E is more unified or simpler or has more explanatory power or depth or modesty than E1.

Others would add (controversially, of course) that, all other things being equal, philosophical theory E is better than E1 if E makes better sense of, or is more consistent with, common-sense assumptions about reality and human life,[13] e.g., if theory E implies human persons are never morally responsible for their actions whereas E1 does not, then, all other things being equal, E1 is a better philosophical theory than theory E. In addition, we may think, taking another cue from Aristotle, that a philosophical theory E is better than a theory E1, all other things being equal, if E raises fewer philosophical puzzles than E1.

Mizrahi also premises that good philosophical explanations have to be testable (2017a, 360; 2017b, 19-20). But what does he mean? Consider the following possibilities:

(T1) A theory or explanation T is testable if and only if T can be evaluated by controlled experiments and other methods characteristic of the experimental sciences, e.g., inductive generalization.

(T2) A theory or explanation is testable if and only if T can be evaluated by (a) controlled experiments and other methods characteristic of the experimental sciences, e.g., inductive generalization or (b) on the basis of deductive arguments or (c) the method of disambiguating premises, or (d) the method of refutation by counter-example or (e) inference to the best explanation or (e) thought experiments (or (f) any number of other philosophical methods or (g) methods we use in everyday life).

In my 2017 response, I took Mizrahi to mean (something such as) T1 by ‘a good explanation is testable’. For example, Mizrahi states: “as a general rule of thumb, choose the explanation that yields independently testable predictions” (2017a, 360; emphases mine). If Mizrahi accepts T1 and thinks all good explanations must be testable, then, as I stated in my 2017 response, “philosophical theories will . . . not compare favorably with scientific ones” (2017, 49).

But as philosopher Ed Feser well points out, to compare the epistemic values of science and philosophy and fault philosophy for not being good at making testable predications is like comparing metal detectors and gardening tools and concluding gardening tools are not as good as metal detectors because gardening tools do not allow us to successfully detect for metal (2014, 23).

In other words, if T1 is what Mizrahi means by ‘testable’ and Mizrahi thinks all good explanations are testable, then Mizrahi’s Argument does, as I contend in my 2017 response, “beg the question against non-scientific ways of knowing, ways of knowing that do not, by their very nature, employ controlled experiments and empirical tests as an aspect of their methodologies” (2017, 48; see also Robinson 2015).

But perhaps Mizrahi means by ‘an explanation’s being testable’ something such as T2. But in that case, good philosophical work, whether classical or contemporary, will compare favorably with the good work done by experimental scientists (of course, whether one thinks this last statement is true will depend upon one’s philosophical perspective).

Some Concluding General Remarks About Mizrahi’s Argument

Given the number of (implied) controversial philosophical premises that function as background assumptions in Mizrahi’s Argument, that argument should not convince those who do not already hold to (a view close to) Weak Scientism. As we’ve seen, Mizrahi premises, for example, that philosophy should be operationally defined as what philosophers do, that knowledge within all academic disciplines should be operationally defined as what academics publish in academic journals, K1, K2, and all good explanations are explanatorily, instrumentally, and predicatively successful.

Of course, the number of controversial philosophical premises at play in Mizrahi’s Argument isn’t in and of itself a philosophical problem for Mizrahi’s Argument, since the same could be said for just about any philosophical argument. But one gets the distinct impression that Mizrahi thinks Mizrahi’s Argument should have very wide appeal among philosophers. If Mizrahi wants to convince those of us who don’t already share his views, he needs to do some more work defending the implied premises of Mizrahi’s Argument, or else come up with a different argument for Weak Scientism.

Indeed, many of the implied controversial philosophical premises I’ve identified in Mizrahi’s Argument are, as we’ve seen, not only doing some heavy philosophical lifting in that argument, but such premises imply that (something such as) Weak Scientism is true, e.g., the quantity of knowledge of each academic discipline—in terms of both output and impact—can be accurately measured by looking at the publications of participants within that discipline, K1, K2, a theory A is more successful than a theory B if A is more explanatorily successful than B, and more instrumentally successful than B, and more predictively successful than B, and an explanation is a good explanation only if it is testable in the sense of T1. Mizrahi’s Argument thus begs too many questions to count as a good argument for Weak Scientism.

Mizrahi is also at pains to maintain that his argument for Weak Scientism is a scientific and not a philosophical argument, and this because a significant part of his argument for Weak Scientism not only draws on scientific evidence, but employs “the structure of inductive generalization from samples, which are inferences commonly made by practicing scientists” (2017a, 356). I admit that a scientific argument from information science is “a central feature of Mizrahi’s Argument” (Brown 2017, 50) insofar as he uses scientific evidence from information science to support premise 8 of Mizrahi’s Argument. But, as I also note in my 2017 essay, “Mizrahi can’t reasonably maintain his argument is thereby a scientific one, given the number of controversial philosophical assumptions employed as background assumptions in his argument” (2017, 51).

My objection that Mizrahi’s Argument is a piece of philosophy and not a scientific argument is one that Mizrahi highlights in his response (2017b, 9). He raises two objections to my claim that Mizrahi’s Argument is a philosophical and not a scientific argument. First, he thinks I have no grounds for claiming Mizrahi’s Argument is a philosophical argument since I don’t give an account of philosophy, and I reject his operationalized account of philosophy (2017b, 15). Second, Mizrahi states that

Brown seems to think than an argument is scientific only if an audience of peers finds the premises of that argument uncontroversial. . . . Accordingly, Brown’s (2017) criterion of controversy [according to Mizrahi, I think this is dubitability] and his necessary condition for an argument being scientific have the absurd consequence that arguments presented by scientists at scientific conferences (or published in scientific journals and books) are not scientific arguments unless they are met with unquestioned acceptance by peer audiences (2017b, 16).

I have already addressed Mizrahi’s comment about the nature of philosophy above. In response to his second objection, Mizrahi wrongly equates my expression, “controversial background philosophical assumptions,” with his expression, “controversial premises in a scientific argument.” Recognizing this false equivalency is important for evaluating my original objection, and this for a number of reasons.

First, what Mizrahi calls the “premises of a scientist’s argument” (2017b, 15) are, typically, I take it, not philosophical premises or assumptions. For is Mizrahi claiming that scientists, at the presentation of a scientific paper, are asking questions about propositions such as K1 or K2?

Second, Mizrahi and I both admit that philosophical background assumptions are sometimes in play in a scientific argument. Some of these claims, e.g., that there exists an external world, some philosophers will reject. What I claimed in my 2017 essay is that a scientific argument—in contrast to a philosophical argument—employs background philosophical assumptions that “are largely non-controversial for the community to which those arguments are addressed, namely, the community of practicing scientists” (2017, 15). For example, an argument that presupposed the truth of theism (or atheism), would not be, properly speaking, a scientific argument, but, at best, a philosophical argument that draws on some scientific evidence to defend certain of its premises.

So, contrary to what Mizrahi says, my argument that Mizrahi’s Argument is not a scientific argument neither implies that Darwin’s Origin of the Species is not science, nor does it imply a scientist’s paper is not science if audience members challenge that paper’s premises, methods, findings, or conclusion. Rather, my comment stands unscathed: because of the number of philosophical background premises that are controversial among the members of the audience to which Mizrahi’s Argument is directed—presumably all academics—Mizrahi’s Argument is not a scientific argument but rather, a philosophical argument that draws on some data from information science to defend one of its crucial premises, namely premise 8.

But, as I pointed out above, even Mizrahi’s argument for premise 8 in Mizrahi’s Argument is a philosophical argument, drawing as that argument does on the controversial philosophical background premises such as philosophy should be operationally defined as what philosophers do, knowledge within all academic disciplines should be operationally defined as what academics publish in academic journals, and K1.

Finally, there is another reason why Mizrahi himself, given his own philosophical principles, should think Mizrahi’s Argument is a piece of philosophy. As we’ve seen, Mizrahi thinks that philosophy and philosophical knowledge should be defined operationally, i.e., philosophy is what philosophers do, e.g., publish articles in philosophy journals, and philosophical knowledge is what philosophers produce, i.e., publications in philosophy journals (see Mizrahi 2017a, 353). But Mizrahi’s 2017a paper is published in a philosophy journal. Therefore, by Mizrahi’s own way of understanding philosophy and science, Mizrahi’s Argument is not a scientific argument, but a philosophical argument (contrary to what Mizrahi says in both 2017a and 2017b).

Contact details: chrisb@utm.edu

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feser, Edward. “Blinded by Scientism.” Public Discourse. March 9, 2010a. Accessed January 15, 2018. http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2010/03/1174/.

Feser, Edward. “Recovering Sight after Scientism.” Public Discourse. March 12, 2010b. Accessed January 15, 2018. http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2010/03/1184/.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. “scientism,” accessed January 10, 2018, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/172696?redirectedFrom=scientism.

Papineau, David. “Is Philosophy Simply Harder than Science?” The Times Literary Supplement On-line. June 1, 2017. Accessed July 11, 2017. https://goo.gl/JiSci7.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about” (Orthodoxy [chapter four] 1995, 53).

[2] See Phaedo, 61c-d and 64b-69e.

[3] See Republic 473c-480a.

[4] Here follows a description of something like one traditional way of thinking about the intellectual discipline of philosophy, one that I often give in my introduction to philosophy classes. It describes philosophy by comparing and contrasting it with the experimental sciences, on the one hand, and revealed theology, on the other hand: philosophy is that intellectual discipline which investigates the nature of ultimate reality, knowledge, and value (i.e., subjects the investigation of which raise questions that can’t be settled simply by running controlled experiments and taking quantitative measurements) by way of methods such as deductive argumentation, conceptual analysis, and reflection upon one’s own experiences and the experiences of others (where the experiences of others include, but are not limited to, the experiences of experimental scientists doing experimental science and the experiences of those who practice other intellectual disciplines), by way of the natural light of human reason alone (where this last clause is concerned, philosophy is usefully compared and contrasted with revealed theology: revealed theology and philosophy investigate many of the same questions, e.g., are there any sorts of actions that ought to never be performed, no matter what?, but whereas philosophy draws upon the natural light of human reason alone to answer its characteristic questions [in this way philosophy is like the experimental sciences], and not on any supposed divine revelations, revealed theology makes use of the natural light of reason and [what revealed theologians believe by faith is] some divine revelation).

[5] Although, as I pointed out in my 2017 essay, it seems one can plausibly argue that modern science has the history of Western philosophy as a necessary or de facto cause of its existence, and so the instrumental successes of modern science also belong to Western philosophy indirectly.

[6] For academics don’t agree on which claims count as knowledge claims, e.g., some will say we can know propositions such as murder is always wrong, others don’t think we can know ethical claims are true. Are we, then, to simply measure those claims published at the university that all—or the great majority of academics believe count as knowledge claims? But in that case, we are no longer measuring what counts as knowledge, but rather what a certain group of people, at a certain time, believes counts as knowledge. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say cataloguing what a certain group of people believe is sociology and not philosophy.

[7] See, e.g., Alasdair MacIntyre 2009, esp. 15-18 and 173-180.

[8] See, e.g., On the Parts of Animals, Book I, chapter 5 [644b32-645a1]. See also St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles, book one, ch. 5, 5 and Summa theologiae Ia. q. 1, a. 5, ad1.

[9] Of course, modern science and technology produce negative effects too, e.g., pollution, and, according to some, increased dissolution of traditional social bonds. But, because the positive effects of modern science and technology are often immediate and the negative effects often arise only after some time has passed, it is hard for us to take into account, let alone see, the negative consequences of modern science and technology. For some helpful discussion of the history of the culturally transformative effects of modern science and technology, both positive and negative, see Postman 1993.

[10] See, e.g., Bourget & Chalmers 2014. As that study shows, when a good number of contemporary philosophers were polled about a number of major philosophical questions, every question asked turns out to be collectively controversial. Although the paper certainly identifies certain tendencies among contemporary philosophers, e.g., 72.8% identified as atheists, and only 14.6% identified as theists, that latter number is still a healthy minority view so that its seems right to say that whether atheism or theism is true is collectively controversial for contemporary philosophers. For some good discussion of philosophical questions as, by nature, controversial, see also Van Inwagen 2015, 11-19.

[11] A small point: in responding to my comment here, Mizrahi misrepresents what I say. He renders what I call in my 2017 article “the seventh assumption” as “One theory can be said to be qualitatively better than another” (2017b, 12). That’s not what I say; rather I suggest Mizrahi’s Argument premises a theory A is qualitatively better than theory B if A is more successful than theory B.

[12] In this way, philosophy and the experimental sciences differ from one historically important way of understanding the discipline of revealed theology. For example, as St. Thomas Aquinas understands the discipline of revealed theology (see, e.g., Summa theologiae Ia. q. 1.), revealed theology is that scientia that treats especially of propositions it is reasonable to believe are divinely revealed, propositions that can’t be known by the natural light of human reason alone. In addition, the wise teacher of revealed theology can (a) show it is reasonable to believe by faith that these propositions are divinely revealed and (b) use the human disciplines, especially philosophy, to show how propositions that are reasonably believed by faith are not meaningless and do not contradict propositions we know to be true by way of the human disciplines, e.g., philosophy and the sciences.

[13] See, e.g., Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, book vii, ch. 1 (1145b2-7).

Author Information: Christopher M. Brown, University of Tennessee, Martin, chrisb@utm.edu

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

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Due to the length of Brown’s article, we will be posting it in three parts. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3TE

Please refer to:

Image by Bryan Jones via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Responding to Mizrahi’s Objections

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

Is Weak Scientism Really Scientism?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contact details: chrisb@utm.edu

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feser, Edward. “Blinded by Scientism.” Public Discourse. March 9, 2010a. Accessed January 15, 2018. http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2010/03/1174/.

Feser, Edward. “Recovering Sight after Scientism.” Public Discourse. March 12, 2010b. Accessed January 15, 2018. http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2010/03/1184/.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. “scientism,” accessed January 10, 2018, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/172696?redirectedFrom=scientism.

Papineau, David. “Is Philosophy Simply Harder than Science?” The Times Literary Supplement On-line. June 1, 2017. Accessed July 11, 2017. https://goo.gl/JiSci7.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author information: Kjartan Koch Mikalsen, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, kjartan.mikalsen@ntnu.no.

Mikalsen, Kjartan Koch. “An Ideal Case for Accountability Mechanisms, the Unity of Epistemic and Democratic Concerns, and Skepticism About Moral Expertise.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 1-5.

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3S2

Please refer to:

Image from Birdman Photos, via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

How do we square democracy with pervasive dependency on experts and expert arrangements? This is the basic question of Cathrine Holst and Anders Molander’s article “Public deliberation and the fact of expertise: making experts accountable.” Holst and Molander approach the question as a challenge internal to a democratic political order. Their concern is not whether expert rule might be an alternative to democratic government.

Rather than ask if the existence of expertise raises an “epistocratic challenge” to democracy, they “ask how science could be integrated into politics in a way that is consistent with democratic requirements as well as epistemic standards” (236).[1] Given commitment to a normative conception of deliberative democracy, what qualifies as a legitimate expert arrangement?

Against the backdrop of epistemic asymmetry between experts and laypersons, Holst and Molander present this question as a problem of accountability. When experts play a political role, we need to ensure that they really are experts and that they practice their expert role properly. I believe this is a compelling challenge, not least in view of expert disagreement and contestation. In a context where we lack sufficient knowledge and training to assess directly the reasoning behind contested advice, we face a non-trivial problem of deciding which expert to trust. I also agree that the problem calls for institutional measures.

However, I do not think such measures simply answer to a non-ideal problem related to untrustworthy experts. The need for institutionalized accountability mechanisms runs deeper. Nor am I convinced by the idea that introducing such measures involves balancing “the potential rewards from expertise against potential deliberative costs” (236). Finally, I find it problematic to place moral expertise side-by-side with scientific expertise in the way Holst and Molander do.

Accountability Mechanisms: More than Non-ideal Remedies

To meet the challenge of epistemic asymmetry combined with expert disagreement, Holst and Molander propose three sets of institutional mechanisms for scrutinizing the work of expert bodies (242-43). First, in order to secure compliance with basic epistemic norms, they propose laws and guidelines that specify investigation procedures in some detail, procedures for reviewing expert performance and for excluding experts with a bad record of accomplishment, as well as sanctions against sloppy work.

Second, in order to review expert judgements, they propose checks in the form of fora comprising peers, experts in other fields, bureaucrats and stakeholders, legislators, or the public sphere. Third, in order to assure that expert groups work under good conditions for inquiry and judgment, they propose organizing the work of such groups in a way that fosters cognitive diversity.

According to Holst and Molander, these measures have a remedial function. Their purpose is to counter the misbehavior of non-ideal experts, that is, experts whose behavior and judgements are biased or influenced by private interests. The measures concern unreasonable disagreement rooted in experts’ over-confidence or partiality, as opposed to reasonable disagreement rooted in “burdens of judgement” (Rawls 1993, 54). By targeting objectionable conduct and reasoning, they reduce the risk of fallacies and the “intrusion of non-epistemic interests and preferences” (242). In this way, they increase the trustworthiness of experts.

As I see it, this is to attribute a too limited role to the proposed accountability mechanisms. While they might certainly work in the way Holst and Molander suggest, it is doubtful whether they would be superfluous if all experts were ideal experts without biases or conflicting interests.

Even ideal experts are fallible and have partial perspectives on reality. The ideal expert is not omniscient, but a finite being who perceives the world from a certain perspective, depending on a range of contingent factors, such as training in a particular scientific field, basic theoretical assumptions, methodological ideals, subjective expectations, and so on. The ideal expert is aware that she is fallible and that her own point of view is just one among many others. We might therefore expect that she does not easily become a victim of overconfidence or confirmation bias. Yet, given the unavoidable limits of an individual’s knowledge and intellectual capacity, no expert can know what the world looks like from all other perspectives and no expert can be safe from misjudgments.

Accordingly, subjecting expert judgements to review and organizing diverse expert groups is important no matter how ideal the expert. There seems to be no other way to test the soundness of expert opinions than to check them against the judgements of other experts, other forms of expertise, or the public at large. Similarly, organizing diverse expert groups seems like a sensible way of bringing out all relevant facts about an issue even in the case of ideal experts. We do not have to suspect anyone of bias or pursuance of self-serving interests in order to justify these kinds of institutional measures.

Image by Birdman Photos via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

No Trade-off Between Democratic and Epistemic Concerns

An important aspect of Holst and Molander’s discussion of how to make experts accountable is the idea that we need to balance the epistemic value of expert arrangements against democratic concerns about inclusive deliberation. While they point out that the mechanisms for holding experts to account can democratize expertise in ways that leads to epistemic enrichment, they also warn that inclusion of lay testimony or knowledge “can result in undue and disproportional consideration of arguments that are irrelevant, obviously invalid or fleshed out more precisely in expert contributions” (244).

There is of course always the danger that things go wrong, and that the wrong voices win through. Yet, the question is whether this risk forces us to make trade-offs between epistemic soundness and democratic participation. Holst and Molander quote Stephen Turner (2003, 5) on the supposed dilemma that “something has to give: either the idea of government by generally intelligible discussion, or the idea that there is genuine knowledge that is known to few, but not generally intelligible” (236). To my mind, this formulation rests on an ideal picture of public deliberation that is not only excessively demanding, but also normatively problematic.

It is a mistake to assume that political deliberation cannot include “esoteric” expert knowledge if it is to be inclusive and open to everyone. If democracy is rule by public discussion, then every citizen should have an equal chance to contribute to political deliberation and will-formation, but this is not to say that all aspects of every contribution should be comprehensible to everyone. Integration of expert opinions based on knowledge fully accessible only to a few does not clash with democratic ideals of equal respect and inclusion of all voices.

Because of specialization and differentiation, all experts are laypersons with respect to many areas where others are experts. Disregarding individual variation of minor importance, we are all equals in ignorance, lacking sufficient knowledge and training to assess the relevant evidence in most fields.[2] Besides, and more fundamentally, deferring to expert advice in a political context does not imply some form of political status hierarchy between persons.

To acknowledge expert judgments as authoritative in an epistemic sense is simply to acknowledge that there is evidence supporting certain views, and that this evidence is accessible to everyone who has time and skill to investigate the matter. For this reason, it is unclear how the observation that political expert arrangements do not always harmonize with democratic ideals warrants talk of a need for trade-offs or a balancing of diverging concerns. In principle, there seems to be no reason why there has to be divergence between epistemic and democratic concerns.

To put the point even sharper, I would like to suggest that allowing alleged democratic concerns to trump sound expert advice is democratic in name only. With Jacob Weinrib (2016, 57-65), I consider democratic law making as essential to a just legal system because all non-democratic forms of legislation are defective arrangements that arbitrarily exclude someone from contributing to the enactment of the laws that regulate their interaction with others. Yet, an inclusive legislative procedure that disregards the best available reasons is hardly a case of democratic self-legislation.

It is more like raving blind drunk. Legislators that ignore state-of-the-art knowledge are not only deeply irrational, but also disrespectful of those bound by the laws that they enact. Need I mention the climate crisis? Understanding democracy as a process of discursive rationalization (Habermas 1996), the question is not what trade-offs we have to make, but how inclusive legislative procedures can be made sufficiently truth sensitive (Christiano 2012). We can only approximate a defensible democratic order by making democratic and epistemic concerns pull in the same direction.

Moral vs Scientific and Technical Expertise

Before introducing the accountability problem, Holst and Molander consider two ideal objections against giving experts an important political role: ‘(1) that one cannot know decisively who the knowers or experts are’ and ‘(2) that all political decisions have moral dimensions and that there is no moral expertise’ (237). They reject both objections. With respect to (1), they convincingly argue that there are indirect ways of identifying experts without oneself being an expert. With respect to (2), they pursue two strategies.

First, they argue that even if facts and values are intertwined in policy-making, descriptive and normative aspects of an issue are still distinguishable. Second, they argue that unless strong moral non-cognitivism is correct, it is possible to speak of moral expertise in the form of ‘competence to state and clarify moral questions and to provide justified answers’ (241). To my mind, the first of these two strategies is promising, whereas the second seems to play down important differences between distinct forms of expertise.

There are of course various types of democratic expert arrangements. Sometimes experts are embedded in public bodies making collectively binding decisions. At other occasions, experts serve an advisory function. Holst and Molander tend to use “expertise” and “expert” as unspecified, generic terms, and they refer to both categories side-by-side (235, 237). However, by framing their argument as an argument concerning epistemic asymmetry and the novice/expert-problem, they indicate that they have in mind moral experts in advisory capacities and as someone in possession of insights known to a few, yet of importance for political decision-making.

I agree that some people are better informed about moral theory and more skilled in moral argumentation than others are, but such expertise still seems different in kind from technical expertise or expertise within empirical sciences. Although moral experts, like other experts, provide action-guiding advice, their public role is not analogous to the public role of technical or scientific experts.

For the public, the value of scientific and technical expertise lies in information about empirical restraints and the (lack of) effectiveness of alternative solutions to problems. If someone is an expert in good standing within a certain field, then it is reasonable to regard her claims related to this field as authoritative, and to consider them when making political decisions. As argued in the previous section, it would be disrespectful and contrary to basic democratic norms to ignore or bracket such claims, even if one does not fully grasp the evidence and reasoning supporting them.

Things look quite different when it comes to moral expertise. While there can be good reasons for paying attention to what specialists in moral theory and practical reasoning have to say, we rarely, if ever, accept their claims about justified norms, values and ends as authoritative or valid without considering the reasoning supporting the claims, and rightly so. Unlike Holst and Molander, I do not think we should accept the arguments of moral experts as defined here simply based on indirect evidence that they are trustworthy (cf. 241).

For one thing, the value of moral expertise seems to lie in the practical reasoning itself just as much as in the moral ideals underpinned by reasons. An important part of what the moral expert has to offer is thoroughly worked out arguments worth considering before making a decision on an issue. However, an argument is not something we can take at face value, because an argument is of value to us only insofar as we think it through ourselves. Moreover, the appeal to moral cognitivism is of limited value for elevating someone to the status of moral expert. Even if we might reach agreement on basic principles to govern society, there will still be reasonable disagreement as to how we should translate the principles into general rules and how we should apply the rules to particular cases.

Accordingly, we should not expect acceptance of the conclusions of moral experts in the same way we should expect acceptance of the conclusions of scientific and technical expertise. To the contrary, we should scrutinize such conclusions critically and try to make up our own mind. This is, after all, more in line with the enlightenment motto at the core of modern democracy, understood as government by discussion: “Have courage to make use of your own understanding!” (Kant 1996 [1784], 17).

Contact details: kjartan.mikalsen@ntnu.no

References

Christiano, Thomas. “Rational Deliberation among Experts and Citizens.” In Deliberative Systems: Deliberative Democracy at the Large Scale, ed. John Parkinson and Jane Mansbridge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Habermas, Jürgen. Between Facts and Norms.

Holst, Cathrine, and Anders Molander. “Public deliberation and the fact of expertise: making experts accountable.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 3 (2017): 235-250.

Kant, Immanuel. Practical Philosophy, ed. Mary Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Kant, Immanuel. Anthropology, History, and Edcucation, ed. Günther Zöller and Robert B. Louden. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Turner, Stephen. Liberal Democracy 3.0: Civil Society in an Age of Experts. London: Sage Publications Ltd, 2003.

Weinrib, Jacob. Dimensions of Dignity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[1] All bracketed numbers without reference to author in the main text refer to Holst and Molander (2017).

[2] This also seems to be Kant’s point when he writes that human predispositions for the use of reason “develop completely only in the species, but not in the individual” (2007 [1784], 109).

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

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

The pdf of the article refers to specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Rk

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.

Willful

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.

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

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: Katri Huutoniemi, Academy of Finland, katri.huutoniemi@aka.fi

Huutoniemi, Katri. “On the Value of Interdisciplinary Integration: A Response to Michael O’Rourke.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 2 (2016): 88-92.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2DA

Please refer to:

organic_integration

Image credit: aN Bogotá, via flickr

I was delighted to see the direct and informed reply from Michael O’Rourke to my paper in Social Epistemology. As usually is the case when receiving response, it made me see more clearly what my idea is about. I wish to thank O’Rourke for teasing out more about for what and to whom does interdisciplinarity provide accountability in my proposal.

Questioning Disciplinarity and Interdisciplinarity

In this response, I will shortly address five questions posed by O’Rourke:

(1) Why is it disciplines that are being held accountable in my proposal, rather than researchers;

(2) What about the discipline is being evaluated in interdisciplinary contexts, and to what end;

(3) Who is served by the epistemic accountability across disciplinary boundaries;

(4) What is the role of integration in supporting accountability to the multiple disciplines that have a stake in an interdisciplinary project; and

(5) How are the concepts of disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity interpreted and distinguished in my paper, which, at the same time, emphasizes the interdependencies that occur between disciplines in all forms of research?  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Fred D’Agostino, University if Queensland, Australia, f.dagostino@uq.edu.au

D’Agostino, Fred. 2013. “Reply to Armin Krishnan.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (2): 24-25

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-FC

Please refer to: Krishnan, Armin. 2013. “Response to Fred D’Agostino’s ‘Disciplinarity and the Growth of Knowledge’”. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (2): 19-23.

Thanks to Dr Krishnan for the very thoughtful comments on my paper “Disciplinarity and the Growth of Knowledge”. I will share some anecdotes by way of reply.

When I was considering writing on the topic of “incommensurability”, an issue which arises in two, related formed, I thought: “I’d better have a look at the databases and see what’s been published”. What I found, approaching the matter as a philosopher, was, for example, an Annual Review of Sociology article on incommensurability, as seen from a sociological perspective, some management studies literature, and some literature from multi-criterion decision theory. All of this was immensely influential in the approach that, in due course, after lots of cogitation, I adopted in my book Incommensurability and Commensuration (Ashgate 2003). I built a non-essentialist story about how what is incommensurable can be commensurated and how what could be commensurated, if we wanted, can be “declared” incommensurable around these readings from outside my own home discipline. (In which, to complicate the story, I have never been formally trained.) So I guess that I agree with Dr Krishnan that “the dynamics and tension between disciplines … enables much of the innovation that occurs within disciplines” (20). Insofar as what I had to say about incommensurability was innovative from a philosophical point of view, it was so because I’d engaged with other disciplines.

That’s one part of this first anecdote. The other part is that my work on incommensurability has never entered the specifically philosophical discourse on that topic to any significant degree. Now, of course, it may be that it’s no good, or even that it’s misconceived and its being ignored is really a kindness and I should complain (not that I am complaining). But it’s also possible that, precisely because of the multidisciplinary underpinnings of the work, it’s simply hard to process by philosophers, especially since my discussion simply bypasses as not of central significance many of the preoccupations of contemporary philosophy when it comes to incommensurability.

My second anecdote arises from my experience as an academic manager and, specifically, as a member of a review panel which did the septennial review of a School of Tourism. The other panel members were themselves founding generation tourism studies academics from Britain, the Continent and North America, and of considerable distinction. One of their major concerns, not specific to the particular School we were reviewing, was that there was a pipeline of students who had done undergraduate, then post-graduate, then doctoral studies all in Tourism and hence, unlike this “founding generation”, had had limited exposure to the disciplines that they’d been engaged with as ways of entry into tourism studies: one was an economist, one a geographer, one an anthropologist “by training”. They all worried that the new generation of tourism academics were not going to have the sort of disciplinary training that would enable them to do high-quality research. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Armin Krishnan, University of Texas at El Paso, akrishnan@utep.edu

Krishnan, Armin. 2013. “Response to Fred D’Agostino’s ‘Disciplinarity and the Growth of Knowledge’”. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (2): 19-23.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-Ft

Please refer to: D’Agostino, Fred. 2012. “Disciplinarity and the Growth of Knowledge.” Social Epistemology 26 (3-4): 331-350.

The concept of interdisciplinarity has become so increasingly popular with researchers, universities, and institutional funders of research that there has been even the notion that disciplinarity might be already dead. Interestingly, the ideal of interdisciplinarity and the growth of interdisciplinary fields have not made the traditional disciplines obsolete and it does not seem as if the organization of science and knowledge in disciplines would go away anytime soon. What are the reasons for the survival and indeed continued success of the established disciplines? Fred D’Agostino has thrown some light on the social mechanisms that make disciplinarity work and succeed in their objectives of advancing knowledge. In his insightful recent article in Social Epistemology, Fred D’Agostino (2012) has argued that disciplinarity facilitates the growth of knowledge by exploiting the tension between disciplinary tradition and “innovative elements of disciplinary enquiry” (331).

There would be two types of research activity, one based is on the idea of exploration with the aim of new discovery and innovation and the other is based on the idea of exploitation of an already existing paradigm or body of knowledge with the aim of adding details and filling the gaps left by the disciplinary innovators. D’Agostino essentially claims that the dynamic interplay of “exploration and exploitation” (346) within a disciplinary community held together by a “shallow consensus” (346) on values, including the value of being part of a greater community with shared interests and stakes, allows science and knowledge to advance in an “orderly (332) manner. In other words, disciplinarity would not be a constraint or obstacle to the advancement of knowledge, as sometimes claimed, by limiting scientific enquiry through consistent rules for what constitutes good research.

To the contrary, it appears that disciplines are actually the enablers of scientific innovation, which is made possible by their ability to tolerate incoherence. The disciplines would offer only a common rationality and an agreement on the research agenda, but they would not prescribe the desirable results or impose strict rules for getting a result. This flexibility inherent in disciplinarity would allow innovators to take disciplines in new directions and the disciplines themselves to manage the risk of innovation. If novel ideas and approaches take the discipline in a profitable direction, then the discipline can renew itself or expand. Otherwise the system simply assigns individual responsibility for the failure of interpreting the shared standards of the discipline correctly. This dynamics of traditionalism and innovation would make it possible to balance the need for scientific innovation against the need for coherence that creates and maintains the discipline-based community. Continue Reading…