Archives For disciplinary philosophy

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

Riggio, Adam. “The Very Being of a Conceptual Scheme: Disciplinary and Conceptual Critiques.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 53-59.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-446

Image by Grant Tarrant via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Jeff Kochan’s book on what the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) can learn from Heideggerian existential philosophy is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure, and for the same reason. My own review consists of two parts. First, I will describe the fascinating frustration of Kochan’s project, then explore some of the limitations that a straightforward adaptation of Heidegger’s ideas to the conceptual plane of SSK encounters.

Kochan’s work fascinates because he puts two complex sub-disciplines of the humanities – Heidegger studies and SSK – in a constructive dialogue. Kochan isolates seemingly intractable conceptual problems at the heart of SSK’s foundational texts, then carefully analyzes concepts and epistemic frameworks from the writings of Martin Heidegger to find solutions to those problems. This open-minded approach to problem solving remains sadly rare in academic culture. Whether or not you think Kochan’s analyses and solutions are accurate or best, I think we can all agree that such a trans-disciplinary philosophical project is worthwhile and valuable.

Yet Kochan’s work also frustrates because of how vulnerable this makes him to academic attacks. This is ultimately a problem of style on Kochan’s part. He is explicit in making the ideas of Martin Heidegger himself central to his critical analysis of SSK; this leaves him vulnerable to criticisms like those of my colleague Raphael Sassower earlier in SERRC’s symposium. Essentially, the criticism amounted to “Why bother?”.

Presuming the Boundarylessness of Disciplines

Any attempt to apply the concepts and discoveries of one tradition to the problems of another faces a problem that is difficult for any writer to overcome. What one tradition takes to be a reasonable assumption, another tradition may take to be a foundational matter of inquiry.

In Kochan’s case, he takes the founders of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge to have saddled their tradition with a dangerous omission. They take for granted that the material world of everyday life does exist as we experience it, and that therefore the relationship of the subject to the world need not be a matter of inquiry.

Yet the foundational thinkers of SSK, David Bloor and Harry Collins, did not consider such an ontological inquiry worth pursuing. It would have kept them from exploring the questions, subject matters, and concepts that were their priorities.

Kochan’s book is written under the premise that SSK’s indifference to seeking a guarantee for the material reality of the world is a problematic omission. But a premise itself can be called into question, a call that on its own would remove its status as a premise. Premises are, after all, the unquestioned beginnings of any inquiry; they are the conditions of an inquiry’s validity.

To question a premise is likewise to question the validity of any inquiry flowing from that premise. So when I question whether the inquiries constituting the core of SSK as a discipline of social and epistemological theory require demonstrating the existence of reality somehow external to the subjective, I have made a decision about what the inquiries of SSK are for.

Such a decision is fundamentally practical. In creating what we now consider the research discipline of SSK, Bloor, Collins, and their fellow travellers developed goals and processes of thinking for their fundamental inquiries. They set the boundaries of what questions and concepts mattered to the pursuit of those goals and processes. And while they may not have explicitly said so, setting those conceptual boundaries simultaneously implies that what does not matter to those goals and processes is irrelevant to the discipline itself.

So if you pursue those other questions, you may be doing something interesting and valuable. But there is no guarantee that your premises, concepts, inquiries, and discoveries will be directly relevant to someone else’s discipline. To return this general point to the more direct focus of my book review, there is no guarantee that the premises, concepts, inquiries, and discoveries of a thinker working in one of the Heideggerian sub-disciplines will be directly relevant to someone working in SSK.

The boundaries of all research disciplines work this way. Over my decade of work as a professional-level philosopher, this has typically been the most controversial and provocative point I make in any discussion that puts disciplines and traditions into dialogue. It disrupts a premise that thinkers across many disciplines of philosophy and those related to them: that we are all searching for the one truth.

Limits For Universality

Many thinkers share the premise that the ultimate aim of philosophical work is the discovery and creation of universal truth. Ironically, I do not consider that Heidegger himself shares such a premise. I hope that Kochan will be okay with how I repurpose some of Heidegger’s own concepts to argue that his own attempt to blend Heideggerian and SSK concepts and inquiries becomes something of a philosophical dead end.

Start with these two of Heidegger’s concepts: enframing, and poiesis. Both of these arise in Heidegger’s inquiries on the nature of science and technology, but we should not restrict their relevance to the disciplines of philosophy who alone focus on science and technology.

Remember that Heidegger understands the institutions and cultures of science, as well as attitudes around the use of technology, to be expressions of a much broader framework of thinking. That framework includes all ways in which human action and thinking engages with existence, contributes to the ongoing constitution of being.

Heidegger’s purpose for philosophical thinking is understanding the continuing process of movement and coming to be still, or development and decay (Of Generation and Corruption?). What framework or schema we develop for this most profound task of understanding guides how our own thoughts and actions influence how and what the universe becomes.

Enframing, therefore, is such a conceptual framework of understanding existence, which guides us in our action and thinking to contribute to shaping existence. The framework that Heidegger calls enframing, is a way of thinking that understands all of existence as a potential resource for our own use. You do not understand how to experience or make sense of what exists and what you encounter as having their own way of existence from which you can learn. Understanding existence in a framework of enframing, you wrench and distort all that you encounter to your own purposes.

Thought’s Radical Openness

Poiesis is Heidegger’s alternative to the destructive, self-centred nature of conceptual schema of enframing. A conceptual framework built according to the principles of poiesis approaches all encounters as opportunities for the creative development of thought.

Whenever you encounter a way of thinking or living different from your own, you investigate and explore it, seeking to understand that mode of existence on its own terms. You examine its powers, capacities, how it forms relationships through encounters of its own, and the dynamics of how those relationships change itself and others.

That Heidegger considers conceptual frameworks of poiesis the alternative to the depressingly destructive schema of enframing, reveals how the philosophy which Kochan advocates as a productive partner for SSK, actually argues against Kochan’s own most fundamental premises. This is because poiesis fundamentally denies the universality of any one framework of thinking, action, and existence.

The conception of philosophy as seeking a single universal truth would explicitly oppose how you would engage different research disciplines as poiesis. Like Heidegger’s enframing, yoking all inquiries and ways of thinking into a single trajectory wrenches all those modes of thinking out of their own character of becoming and adapts them to the goal of another.

More dangerous even than this, bending all thinking to the pursuit of a single goal which you yourself already holds presumes that your and only your framework of thinking is the proper trajectory. In presuming that SSK is obligated to include an account of how we know our experiences of social and scientific worlds are genuine interactions with a shared materiality, Kochan guides his own philosophical mission in Science as Social Existence using a conceptual framework of enframing.

For Heidegger, This Openness Nonetheless Remains Closed

Conceptual frameworks that are fundamentally of poiesis appear to be a profound antidote to humanity’s current crisis of technology, science, and ecology. People who think this way would consider all differences they encounter as learning opportunities, and come to respect the origins of those encounters as opportunities to make your own thinking more versatile and open.

Heidegger, however, takes this line of thinking in a regressive direction. As Heidegger understands poiesis, the best way to think in accordance with existence itself is to accept, explore, and adapt your thinking to all the varieties of existence that you encounter. You deny that any single way of existence or understanding is fundamentally universal, and instead create many schemes of understanding what exists to suit the singular character of each encounter.

This approach to the encounter with the different and the alien is still being developed today at the forefront of politically progressive activist philosophers. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, for example, is a philosopher doing the best ongoing work with such an attitude, in my own knowledge. However, I am not sure if Kochan, Heidegger scholars, or contemporary SSK researchers would be aware of her work, as she exists outside both their disciplines.

She is characterized academically as working in Indigenous Studies, a label that, despite the good intentions of its inclusion in the contemporary Canadian university system, also tends to marginalize such work for more mainstream professors. So a genuine potential for one set of disciplines to learn from another is stalled by the presumption of too much difference from so-called ‘real’ philosophy. Betasamosake Simpson would often be dismissed in more conservative disciplines as being ‘merely’ post-colonial, or ‘merely’ ethnic studies.

Instead of following the openness of a conceptual framework that supposedly encourages a more open mind, Heidegger conceives of poiesis as a passive and meditative way of existence. This is because he understands a person’s encounters in existence as essentially an event that happens to the person, in which that person is acted upon, instead of engaging in mutual action. Openness to the singular logics and processes unique to an encountered other, for Heidegger, means a willingness to accept as necessary the happenstance of where we contingently fall into existence.

What Do We Do With Our Disciplines?

More profound problems lurk in the nature of our existence’s happenstance, which guides our best framework for understanding existence, poiesis. The Heideggerian concept of poiesis guides arguments of his infamous Black Notebooks. This was the political expression of Heidegger’s approach to philosophy as passively adapting your thinking and existence to the circumstances of your contingent existence as a person.

The existence of the migrant, no matter whether colonizer or refugee, is an act of violence against existence, because moving imposes your own logic and desires on alien existence. You disrupt your tradition out of a demand for something different. It disconnects you from the long inheritance of a relationship with the more durable existence of your land and your culture.

These stable beings constitute the place where you contingently fall. To fall contingently into existence is birth, so the land and culture of your birth constitute the ‘There’ in the complete assemblage of a person’s ‘Being.’ So the Black Notebooks continue Heidegger’s explication of his concept of Dasein, an inquiry central to all his work. They are no exception.

The language that expresses these concepts in the Black Notebooks is horrifying in its contempt for cultures whose global mobility or dispersion breaks them from continuity with a single territory of land at a pace faster than many millennia. It confounds my own everyday political orientations. In its most straightforward terms, it is a pro-Indigenous and anti-colonial, but also anti-Semitic in equal intensity.

One way to interpret Kochan’s program in Science as Social Existence is as an advocate to merge the disciplines of SSK and Heidegger Studies, blending their central premises and conceptual frameworks to create a hybrid discipline. But if we think disciplinarily, we may be forced to account for the many other problems in a body of work that have nothing to do with the problems we want to investigate. The example of how the Black Notebooks express the political implications of Heidegger’s concept of enframing, poiesis, and Dasein is only the most recent of many equally massive issues.

No Disciplines, Instead Concepts

Jeff Kochan’s Science and Social Existence is subtitled Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. In both this title and throughout the book, he attempts a very valuable experiment to make a philosophical hybrid of two sets of concepts, inquiries, and methods of thinking. On one hand, we have the social epistemological frameworks and principles in the discipline, Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. And on one hand, we have the conceptions of grounded subjectivity found in the works of Martin Heidegger, and elaborated in the discipline based on interpreting those works.

However, there are two problems with this approach. The first problem is that he misunderstands the reason for his inquiry: sociologists of scientific knowledge need a conceptual account of how we know that the external world exists to be studied.

The way Kochan understands how to solve the external world is brilliantly insightful in how philosophically challenging and creative it is: develop for SSK a concept of subjectivity that pays no mind to any premises of an ontological separation of subject and world at all. He finds such a concept in the works of Martin Heidegger, and explores its epistemological aspects as enframing and poiesis.

Laying our justification problem aside, this other problem helps explain what made it arise in the first place. Kochan’s focus is on the disciplines of SSK and Heidegger interpretation. Yet his inquiry is conceptual, more purely philosophical: adapting a concept of subjectivity that unifies subject and world without needing to make a problem of their separation, to the practice of sociology focussing on the production of scientific knowledge.

His focus is disciplinary rather than conceptual, talking about what Heidegger and his interpreters have said about Heidegger’s own concepts, and the sociologists whose research explicitly continues the general program of the originators of the SSK approach to social science. Such a disciplinary focus unfortunately implies that the related problems of those thinkers themselves complicate our use in thinking of the concepts themselves.

So using in sociological practice any concept that does what Kochan wants Heidegger’s enframing, poiesis, and Dasein to do, ends up dragging along the problematic and dangerous elements and interpretations in Heidegger’s entire corpus and tradition.

Because he was thinking of the discipline of SSK instead of the techniques and concepts alone, he presumes that the actual practitioners of SSK working in university departments need an alternative conception of subjectivity beyond modernist dualism. They themselves do not need such a concept because they are too busy asking different questions.

Fortunately, practice, concepts, and discipline are only contingently linked. Instead of using concepts from different disciplines to improve an established practice, you can develop new concepts to guide the practice of a new discipline.

The fundamental problem with Kochan’s book is that he has misinterpreted its scope, and aimed without the ambition that his thinking actually already requires. He thought he was writing a book about how to bring two seemingly unrelated traditions together, to solve an important problem in one.

Yet Kochan was actually writing a book that had the potential to start an entirely different tradition of sociological theory and practice. Instead of writing about Martin Heidegger and David Bloor, he could have written something with the potential to leave him mentioned in the same breath as such epochal thinkers. He could have become epochal himself.

How about next time, Jeff?

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

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

Heidegger, Martin. Ponderings II-VI: Black Notebooks 1931-1938. Translated by Richard Rojcewicz. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2016.

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

Kochan, Jeff. “On the Sociology of Subjectivity: A Reply to Raphael Sassower.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7 no. 5 (2018): 39-41.

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

Schyfter, Pablo. “Inaccurate Ambitions and Missing Methodologies: Thoughts on Jeff Kochan and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 8-14.

Author Information: Pankaj Jain, University of North Texas, pankaj.jain@unt.edu.

Jain, Pankaj. “Taking Philosophy Back: A Call From the Great Wall of China.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 9 (2018): 60-64.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-41f

Open-air restaurants and cafés on Tian Jin Street in Dalian, China.
Image by Christian Mange via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This article is inspired by my first ever China trip in May 2018 in which I participated in a workshop at the Dalian University of Technology on American and Chinese approaches in environmental ethics and responsible innovation. The article is based on my reflections about Asian philosophical traditions and my critique of the review by Adam Briggle and Robert Frodeman of the book Taking Philosophy Back: A Multicultural Manifesto (Van Norden 2017).

After the philosophy workshop in Dalian, I chose to stay few more days in Beijing before flying back to the USA. Being in China for the first time, I wanted to make full use of my department’s funding that supported my trip. I had enriching experiences at Beijing’s historical landmarks such as the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Beihai Park, Jingshan Park, Lama Temple, Confucius Temple, Bell and Drum Towers, Summer Palace, and Tiananmen Square. One of the world’s oldest surviving civilizations, in my opinion, has tremendous lessons for the world at so many levels.

Unspoken Xenophobia

At the workshop, almost all the papers by Chinese philosophers made references to Euro-American philosophers but American philosophers’ papers strictly remained Euro-American in their focus and approach. I was reminded of the Silk Road era in which hundreds of Chinese scholars traveled to India and learned Indian languages such as Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit to translate hundreds of Buddhist and other texts into Chinese.

Most famously, Faxian and Xuan Zang traveled on foot for more than a thousand miles across China, and Central Asia to reach India. and many others followed in their footsteps and became key bridges between the two most ancient Asian civilizations. In that period, Chinese scholars turned Indian knowledge systems into uniquely Chinese systems by mixing them with Daoism and Confucianism.

Their translation was so perfect that today India has lost some of its ancient knowledge systems but thanks to Chinese preservation efforts, we still have access to that lost knowledge. Chinese ethics of translation did not have the colonizing tendencies that the Western systems sometimes have tended to demonstrate. China seems to be doing the same with Euro-American knowledge systems currently. Chinese philosophers are meticulously learning Euro-American systems and are combining this with their own indigenous systems like they did with Indic systems more than 1000 years ago.

Compared to the Chinese openness for American scholarship, we in the American philosophy departments appear pretty xenophobic. We have a long way to go to truly understand and embrace “alien” philosophical ideas and Chinese scholars are good role models for us. Almost 90% of our philosophy students, even today, do not take any course on Eastern thought.

Aren’t we producing new generations of Eurocentric scholars who continue to remain ignorant about the intellectual history of major Asian civilizations that are becoming increasingly important today? Almost all philosophy departments in Asia or elsewhere study Western thought. When will the reverse happen? Philosophy majors studying Asian thought? Today, China is already one of the biggest economies in the world and yet how long will Euro-American philosophy students be stuck in the 19th century? The students in other departments or majors such as religion, anthropology, and history are much better as they do study several major world cultures.

What Is Philosophy?

Upon reading my message based on my reflections from the Chinese trip, even with his disagreements, my colleague Professor Adam Briggle shared his (and Frodeman’s) review of a recent book Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto because the book makes similar arguments to mine. Inspired by the book’s powerful arguments about Euro-centricity in American philosophy, I took a look at some of the philosophy courses and noticed that almost all of the philosophy courses focus only on Western philosophy.

Interacting with philosophers in China really opened my eyes to this issue and hopefully, we can together begin to rectify the Euro-centric nature of this oldest field in humanities that seems stuck in the colonial times of 19th century (when Euro-America were dominant in every way unlike today’s globalized world). Luckily, many other departments/majors have diversified considerably, e.g., my own field of religious studies has “Great Religions” course that introduces all the religions, not just Western ones before a student chooses his/her specialization, of course. Similarly, anthropology, history, art history, etc. are much more inclusive. It is time to get to the oldest field that continues to resist this reformation.

We know that “philosophy” is a western term based on the terms Philos and Sophia. However, many other departments with their “western” title such as religion, art, and history have become much more inclusive, so just the Western etymological significance of philosophy should no longer be a reason for its west-only focus. The issue is also not about the “identity politics.” The discussion should not devolve into a caricature of the justice issues concerning race, gender, and sexuality: identity politics is not about diversity but freedom, equality, and dignity.

I will now respond to the book-review by Adam Briggle and Robert Frodeman. In their review, both start by noting their similarity and overlaps with the project by Bryan Van Norden. Both projects started with their respective opinion pieces in the New York Times with a call for reforming professional philosophy. However, even as they note these similarities, they seem to be missing a few points. Briggle and Frodeman advocate that philosophers must engage with scientists, engineers, policy-makers, and community groups. Almost, each of these sets of people in the 19th century primarily consisted of people of Euro-American heritage, ethnicity, or nationalities.

However, in the 21st century United States, more than 25% of all scientists and engineers are from Asian and other non-Western heritage.[1] Today, religion and ecology is one of the fast-growing subfields in humanities in which we explore how different religious traditions shape the practitioners’ worldviews towards their environment. I suggest that it is time to also explore similar connections between different cultural and religious backgrounds of policy makers, scientists, and engineers. And for that, philosophy courses need to look beyond Western thought.

Finally, the fourth set of people, i.e., community groups are similarly becoming increasingly diversified in the United States. In summary, Briggle and Frodeman need to revise their own project to reflect today’s diversified, globalized, and pluralistic world, not just the interdisciplinary world that they already recognize in their project.

Reflections and Disagreements

The next issue I discovered in their book review is when they challenge Van Norden’s approach by stating, “He tends to focus only on ‘top’ (via Leiter’s definition) philosophy departments or PhD-granting departments. This can give a skewed picture, which is something we wonder about, given that we have two faculty members in our relatively small department focused on Southeast Asian philosophy and religion.” Almost all the Asian philosophy courses are taken exclusively by religion students, not philosophy students.

Next, they state, “He first isolates different kinds of LCTP (Chinese, Indian, Native American, and African) and then notes how rarely each feature on the roster of philosophy departments. But it could be that when LCTP are aggregated the problem dissipates”. This statement seems to be ignoring the fact that as of now philosophy departments are overwhelmingly dominated by experts only in Western thought. Rarely if ever a faculty is hired to teach non-Western philosophy.

If I compare this situation with the religion counterpart, I have noticed that there are two or sometimes three professors who focus on different eras and/or aspects of Judaism and/or Christianity but almost all religion departments have distinct individuals with expertise in Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and in some cases with indigenous traditions as well. To be sure, I am not suggesting about the ethnicity or background of the person teaching different traditions, but I am simply sharing the observation that there are multiple traditions and religions represented by specialists in the religious studies department, regardless of their own personal background or ethnicity.

Similar is the case with most history departments in North America where two or three professors focus on Euro-American history with other professors focusing on South Asian (Indian), East Asian (Chinese), and other regions of the world. I am humbly requesting a similar model for American philosophy departments. Just as in other departments, philosophy also should not be West-only and also not “West and all the aggregated rest” either.

Further, I disagree with their statement, “We certainly would not list ourselves as specialists in any LCTP (Less Commonly Taught Philosophies), but we both draw from a variety of traditions and cultures in the classroom. We suspect this kind of practice is widespread”. This kind of sprinkling of non-Western traditions is not the way citizens of today’s globalized and pluralistic world can be prepared. This approach will continue to keep American philosophy students oblivious about the worldviews of more than three fourth of world’s population whose heritage is not based on Western thought.

So, when philosophy folks say, “we cannot cover every kind of philosophy,” they effectively end up dedicating almost 100% of their resources on the knowledge traditions of less than quarter of humankind. No other discipline is as parochial and xenophobic as this oldest humanities discipline, the discipline of religious studies has certainly moved beyond Christian theology and now includes several major world traditions and religions. One final and important criticism they make is this:

We subscribe to a different conception of philosophy. On our view, philosophy does not primarily consist of a series of problems (e.g., free will; intrinsic value) which one can take a variety of positions on. Philosophy consists of a tradition and a narrative across time.  The thoughts of Hegel or Heidegger can best be understood as a rumination on an ongoing conversation involving Nietzsche, Christianity, Duns Scotus, Aristotle, Plato, etc. In short, we picture philosophy in narrative and historical terms as embedded in cultural contexts. And given that there is only so much time and so many credit hours in the degree plan, a philosophical education is understandably limited to one tradition (though, again, not exclusively – there should be room for cross-cultural comparisons).

In this quote above, I agree that philosophy is a diachronic tradition but I would like to also suggest that it is also one of the earliest globalized traditions that included the long history of interactions among several philosophical traditions. For instance, a monumental work as The Shape of Ancient Thought (McEvilley 2002) demonstrates the continuous exchanges between Greek and Indian philosophers?

Similarly, others have demonstrated similar exchanges between Indian and Greek Aesthetics (Gupt 1994), Christianity and Buddhism, European Enlightenment with Muslim and Indian traditions and so on. When much of the history of the Western intellectual tradition has been a history of interactions with Muslims and Asians, why must today’s American students forget all those interactions and live as if three fourth of world’s people do not exist intellectually?

In conclusion, I hope we will be as zealous about internationality of philosophy as they have been about interdisciplinarity. It is time for philosophers to realize that the field today already has become a global village. The study of LCTP is not just about justice, diversity, or identity politics, it is about professional ethical commitment to preparing tomorrow’s students as well-rounded as possible. Philosophy professors need to just look over their shoulders at their Religious Studies, Anthropology, and History colleagues and that will be a good beginning.

Contact details: pankaj.jain@unt.edu

References

Gupt, Bharat. Dramatic Concepts Greek & Indian: A Study of the Poetics and the Nāṭyaśāstra. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld, 1994.

McEvilley, T. The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative studies in Greek and Indian philosophies. New York: Allworth Press, 2002.

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

[1] https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2015/nsf15328/

Author information: Moti Mizrahi, Florida Institute of Technology, mmizrahi@fit.edu

Mizrahi, Moti. “More in Defense of Weak Scientism: Another Reply to Brown.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 4 (2018): 7-25.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3W1

Please refer to:

Image by eltpics via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In my (2017a), I defend a view I call Weak Scientism, which is the view that knowledge produced by scientific disciplines is better than knowledge produced by non-scientific disciplines.[1] Scientific knowledge can be said to be quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as scientific disciplines produce more impactful knowledge–in the form of scholarly publications–than non-scientific disciplines (as measured by research output and research impact). Scientific knowledge can be said to be qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as such knowledge is explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively more successful than non-scientific knowledge.

Brown (2017a) raises several objections against my defense of Weak Scientism and I have replied to his objections (Mizrahi 2017b), thereby showing again that Weak Scientism is a defensible view. Since then, Brown (2017b) has reiterated his objections in another reply on SERRC. Almost unchanged from his previous attack on Weak Scientism (Brown 2017a), Brown’s (2017b) objections are the following:

  1. Weak Scientism is not strong enough to count as scientism.
  2. Advocates of Strong Scientism should not endorse Weak Scientism.
  3. Weak Scientism does not show that philosophy is useless.
  4. My defense of Weak Scientism appeals to controversial philosophical assumptions.
  5. My defense of Weak Scientism is a philosophical argument.
  6. There is nothing wrong with persuasive definitions of scientism.

In what follows, I will respond to these objections, thereby showing once more that Weak Scientism is a defensible view. Since I have been asked to keep this as short as possible, however, I will try to focus on what I take to be new in Brown’s (2017b) latest attack on Weak Scientism.

Is Weak Scientism Strong Enough to Count as Scientism?

Brown (2017b) argues for (1) on the grounds that, on Weak Scientism, “philosophical knowledge may be nearly as valuable as scientific knowledge.” Brown (2017b, 4) goes on to characterize a view he labels “Scientism2,” which he admits is the same view as Strong Scientism, and says that “there is a huge logical gap between Strong Scientism (Scientism2) and Weak Scientism.”

As was the case the first time Brown raised this objection, it is not clear how it is supposed to show that Weak Scientism is not “really” a (weaker) version of scientism (Mizrahi 2017b, 10-11). Of course there is a logical gap between Strong Scientism and Weak Scientism; that is why I distinguish between these two epistemological views. If I am right, Strong Scientism is too strong to be a defensible version of scientism, whereas Weak Scientism is a defensible (weaker) version of scientism (Mizrahi 2017a, 353-354).

Of course Weak Scientism “leaves open the possibility that there is philosophical knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 5). If I am right, such philosophical knowledge would be inferior to scientific knowledge both quantitatively (in terms of research output and research impact) and qualitatively (in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success) (Mizrahi 2017a, 358).

Brown (2017b, 5) does try to offer a reason “for thinking it strange that Weak Scientism counts as a species of scientism” in his latest attack on Weak Scientism, which does not appear in his previous attack. He invites us to imagine a theist who believes that “modern science is the greatest new intellectual achievement since the fifteenth century” (emphasis in original). Brown then claims that this theist would be an advocate of Weak Scientism because Brown (2017b, 6) takes “modern science is the greatest new intellectual achievement since the fifteenth century” to be “(roughly) equivalent to Weak Scientism.” For Brown (2017b, 6), however, “it seems odd, to say the least, that [this theist] should count as an advocate (even roughly) of scientism.”

Unfortunately, Brown’s appeal to intuition is rather difficult to evaluate because his hypothetical case is under-described.[2] First, the key phrase, namely, “modern science is the greatest new intellectual achievement since the fifteenth century,” is vague in more ways than one. I have no idea what “greatest” is supposed to mean here. Greatest in what respects? What are the other “intellectual achievements” relative to which science is said to be “the greatest”?

Also, what does “intellectual achievement” mean here? There are multiple accounts and literary traditions in history and philosophy of science, science studies, and the like on what counts as “intellectual achievements” or progress in science (Mizrahi 2013b). Without a clear understanding of what these key phrases mean here, it is difficult to tell how Brown’s intuition about this hypothetical case is supposed to be a reason to think that Weak Scientism is not “really” a (weaker) version of scientism.

Toward the end of his discussion of (1), Brown says something that suggests he actually has an issue with the word ‘scientism’. Brown (2017b, 6) writes, “perhaps Mizrahi should coin a new word for the position with respect to scientific knowledge and non-scientific forms of academic knowledge he wants to talk about” (emphasis in original). It should be clear, of course, that it does not matter what label I use for the view that “Of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the best knowledge” (Mizrahi 2017a, 354; emphasis in original). What matters is the content of the view, not the label.

Whether Brown likes the label or not, Weak Scientism is a (weaker) version of scientism because it is the view that scientific ways of knowing are superior (in certain relevant respects) to non-scientific ways of knowing, whereas Strong Scientism is the view that scientific ways of knowing are the only ways of knowing. As I have pointed out in my previous reply to Brown, whether scientific ways of knowing are superior to non-scientific ways of knowing is essentially what the scientism debate is all about (Mizrahi 2017b, 13).

Before I conclude this discussion of (1), I would like to point out that Brown seems to have misunderstood Weak Scientism. He (2017b, 3) claims that “Weak Scientism is a normative and not a descriptive claim.” This is a mistake. As a thesis (Peels 2017, 11), Weak Scientism is a descriptive claim about scientific knowledge in comparison to non-scientific knowledge. This should be clear provided that we keep in mind what it means to say that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge. As I have argued in my (2017a), to say that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge is to say that there is a lot more scientific knowledge than non-scientific knowledge (as measured by research output) and that the impact of scientific knowledge is greater than that of non-scientific knowledge (as measured by research impact).

To say that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge is to say that scientific knowledge is explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively more successful than non-scientific knowledge. All these claims about the superiority of scientific knowledge to non-scientific knowledge are descriptive, not normative, claims. That is to say, Weak Scientism is the view that, as a matter of fact, knowledge produced by scientific fields of study is quantitatively (in terms of research output and research impact) and qualitatively (in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success) better than knowledge produced by non-scientific fields of study.

Of course, Weak Scientism does have some normative implications. For instance, if scientific knowledge is indeed better than non-scientific knowledge, then, other things being equal, we should give more evidential weight to scientific knowledge than to non-scientific knowledge. For example, suppose that I am considering whether to vaccinate my child or not. On the one hand, I have scientific knowledge in the form of results from clinical trials according to which MMR vaccines are generally safe and effective.

On the other hand, I have knowledge in the form of stories about children who were vaccinated and then began to display symptoms of autism. If Weak Scientism is true, and I want to make a decision based on the best available information, then I should give more evidential weight to the scientific knowledge about MMR vaccines than to the anecdotal knowledge about MMR vaccines simply because the former is scientific (i.e., knowledge obtained by means of the methods of science, such as clinical trials) and the latter is not.

Should Advocates of Strong Scientism Endorse Weak Scientism?

Brown (2017b, 7) argues for (2) on the grounds that “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 […] the advocate of Strong Scientism, at least given their philosophical presuppositions, will reject Weak Scientism out of hand.” It is not clear which “philosophical presuppositions” Brown is talking about here. Brown quotes Rosenberg (2011, 20), who claims that physics tells us what reality is like, presumably as an example of a proponent of Strong Scientism who would not endorse Weak Scientism. But it is not clear why Brown thinks that Rosenberg would “reject Weak Scientism out of hand” (Brown 2017d, 7).

Like other proponents of scientism, Rosenberg should endorse Weak Scientism because, unlike Strong Scientism, Weak Scientism is a defensible view. Insofar as we should endorse the view that has the most evidence in its favor, Weak Scientism has more going for it than Strong Scientism does. For to show that Strong Scientism is true, one would have to show that no field of study other than scientific ones can produce knowledge. Of course, that is not easy to show. To show that Weak Scientism is true, one only needs to show that the knowledge produced in scientific fields of study is better (in certain relevant respects) than the knowledge produced in non-scientific fields.

That is precisely what I show in my (2017a). I argue that the knowledge produced in scientific fields is quantitatively better than the knowledge produced in non-scientific fields because there is a lot more scientific knowledge than non-scientific knowledge (as measured by research output) and the former has a greater impact than the latter (as measured by research impact). I also argue that the knowledge produced in scientific fields is qualitatively better than knowledge produced in non-scientific fields because it is more explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively successful.

Contrary to what Brown (2017b, 7) seems to think, I do not have to show “that there is real knowledge other than scientific knowledge.” To defend Weak Scientism, all I have to show is that scientific knowledge is better (in certain relevant respects) than non-scientific knowledge. If anyone must argue for the claim that there is real knowledge other than scientific knowledge, it is Brown, for he wants to defend the value or usefulness of non-scientific knowledge, specifically, philosophical knowledge.

It is important to emphasize the point about the ways in which scientific knowledge is quantitatively and qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge because it looks like Brown has confused the two. For he thinks that I justify my quantitative analysis of scholarly publications in scientific and non-scientific fields by “citing the precedent of epistemologists who often treat all items of knowledge as qualitatively the same” (Brown 2017b, 22; emphasis added).

Here Brown fails to carefully distinguish between my claim that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge and my claim that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge. For the purposes of a quantitative study of knowledge, information and data scientists can do precisely what epistemologists do and “abstract from various circumstances (by employing variables)” (Brown 2017b, 22) in order to determine which knowledge is quantitatively better.

How Is Weak Scientism Relevant to the Claim that Philosophy Is Useless?

Brown (2017b, 7-8) argues for (3) on the grounds that “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” (emphasis in original).

Strictly speaking, Brown is wrong about this because Weak Scientism does imply something about the degree to which scientific knowledge is better than philosophical knowledge. Recall that to say that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge is to say that scientific fields of study publish more research and that scientific research has greater impact than the research published in non-scientific fields of study.

Contrary to what Brown seems to think, we can say to what degree scientific research is superior to non-scientific research in terms of output and impact. That is precisely what bibliometric indicators like h-index and other metrics are for (Rousseau et al. 2018). Such bibliometric indicators allow us to say how many articles are published in a given field, how many of those published articles are cited, and how many times they are cited. For instance, according to Scimago Journal & Country Rank (2018), which contains data from the Scopus database, of the 3,815 Philosophy articles published in the United States in 2016-2017, approximately 14% are cited, and their h-index is approximately 160.

On the other hand, of the 24,378 Psychology articles published in the United States in 2016-2017, approximately 40% are cited, and their h-index is approximately 640. Contrary to what Brown seems to think, then, we can say to what degree research in Psychology is better than research in Philosophy in terms of research output (i.e., number of publications) and research impact (i.e., number of citations). We can use the same bibliometric indicators and metrics to compare research in other scientific and non-scientific fields of study.

As I have already said in my previous reply to Brown, “Weak Scientism does not entail that philosophy is useless” and “I have no interest in defending the charge that philosophy is useless” (Mizrahi 2017b, 11-12). So, I am not sure why Brown brings up (3) again. Since he insists, however, let me explain why philosophers who are concerned about the charge that philosophy is useless should engage with Weak Scientism as well.

Suppose that a foundation or agency is considering whether to give a substantial grant to one of two projects. The first project is that of a philosopher who will sit in her armchair and contemplate the nature of friendship.[3] The second project is that of a team of social scientists who will conduct a longitudinal study of the effects of friendship on human well-being (e.g., Yang et al. 2016).

If Weak Scientism is true, and the foundation or agency wants to fund the project that is likely to yield better results, then it should give the grant to the team of social scientists rather than to the armchair philosopher simply because the former’s project is scientific, whereas the latter’s is not. This is because the scientific project will more likely yield better knowledge than the non-scientific project will. In other words, unlike the project of the armchair philosopher, the scientific project will probably produce more research (i.e., more publications) that will have a greater impact (i.e., more citations) and the knowledge produced will be explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively more successful than any knowledge that the philosopher’s project might produce.

This example should really hit home for Brown, since reading his latest attack on Weak Scientism gives one the impression that he thinks of philosophy as a personal, “self-improvement” kind of enterprise, rather than an academic discipline or field of study. For instance, he seems to be saying that philosophy is not in the business of producing “new knowledge” or making “discoveries” (Brown 2017b, 17).

Rather, Brown (2017b, 18) suggests that philosophy “is more about individual intellectual progress rather than collective intellectual progress.” Individual progress or self-improvement is great, of course, but I am not sure that it helps Brown’s case in defense of philosophy against what he sees as “the menace of scientism.” For this line of thinking simply adds fuel to the fire set by those who want to see philosophy burn. As I point out in my (2017a), scientists who dismiss philosophy do so because they find it academically useless.

For instance, Hawking and Mlodinow (2010, 5) write that ‘philosophy is dead’ because it ‘has not kept up with developments in science, particularly physics’ (emphasis added). Similarly, Weinberg (1994, 168) says that, as a working scientist, he ‘finds no help in professional philosophy’ (emphasis added). (Mizrahi 2017a, 356)

Likewise, Richard Feynman is rumored to have said that “philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds” (Kitcher 1998, 32). It is clear, then, that what these scientists complain about is professional or academic philosophy. Accordingly, they would have no problem with anyone who wants to pursue philosophy for the sake of “individual intellectual progress.” But that is not the issue here. Rather, the issue is academic knowledge or research.

Does My Defense of Weak Scientism Appeal to Controversial Philosophical Assumptions?

Brown (2017b, 9) argues for (4) on the grounds that I assume that “we are supposed to privilege empirical (I read Mizrahi’s ‘empirical’ here as ‘experimental/scientific’) evidence over non-empirical evidence.” But that is question-begging, Brown claims, since he takes me to be assuming something like the following: “If the question of whether scientific knowledge is superior to [academic] non-scientific knowledge is a question that one can answer empirically, then, in order to pose a serious challenge to my [Mizrahi’s] defense of Weak Scientism, Brown must come up with more than mere ‘what ifs’” (Mizrahi 2017b, 10; quoted in Brown 2017b, 8).

This objection seems to involve a confusion about how defeasible reasoning and defeating evidence are supposed to work. Given that “a rebutting defeater is evidence which prevents E from justifying belief in H by supporting not-H in a more direct way” (Kelly 2016), claims about what is actual cannot be defeated by mere possibilities, since claims of the form “Possibly, p” do not prevent a piece of evidence from justifying belief in “Actually, p” by supporting “Actually, not-p” directly.

For example, the claim “Hillary Clinton could have been the 45th President of the United States” does not prevent my perceptual and testimonial evidence from justifying my belief in “Donald Trump is the 45th President of the United States,” since the former does not support “It is not the case that Donald Trump is the 45th President of the United States” in a direct way. In general, claims of the form “Possibly, p” are not rebutting defeaters against claims of the form “Actually, p.” Defeating evidence against claims of the form “Actually, p” must be about what is actual (or at least probable), not what is merely possible, in order to support “Actually, not-p” directly.

For this reason, although “the production of some sorts of non-scientific knowledge work may be harder than the production of scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 19), Brown gives no reasons to think that it is actually or probably harder, which is why this possibility does nothing to undermine the claim that scientific knowledge is actually better than non-scientific knowledge. Just as it is possible that philosophical knowledge is harder to produce than scientific knowledge, it is also possible that scientific knowledge is harder to produce than philosophical knowledge. It is also possible that scientific and non-scientific knowledge are equally hard to produce.

Similarly, the possibility that “a little knowledge about the noblest things is more desirable than a lot of knowledge about less noble things” (Brown 2017b, 19), whatever “noble” is supposed to mean here, does not prevent my bibliometric evidence (in terms of research output and research impact) from justifying the belief that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge. Just as it is possible that philosophical knowledge is “nobler” (whatever that means) than scientific knowledge, it is also possible that scientific knowledge is “nobler” than philosophical knowledge or that they are equally “noble” (Mizrahi 2017b, 9-10).

In fact, even if Brown (2017a, 47) is right that “philosophy is harder than science” and that “knowing something about human persons–particularly qua embodied rational being–is a nobler piece of knowledge than knowing something about any non-rational object” (Brown 2017b, 21), whatever “noble” is supposed to mean here, it would still be the case that scientific fields produce more knowledge (as measured by research output), and more impactful knowledge (as measured by research impact), than non-scientific disciplines.

So, I am not sure why Brown keeps insisting on mentioning these mere possibilities. He also seems to forget that the natural and social sciences study human persons as well. Even if knowledge about human persons is “nobler” (whatever that means), there is a lot of scientific knowledge about human persons coming from scientific fields, such as anthropology, biology, genetics, medical science, neuroscience, physiology, psychology, and sociology, to name just a few.

One of the alleged “controversial philosophical assumptions” that my defense of Weak Scientism rests on, and that Brown (2017a) complains about the most in his previous attack on Weak Scientism, is my characterization of philosophy as the scholarly work that professional philosophers do. In my previous reply, I argue that Brown is not in a position to complain that this is a “controversial philosophical assumption,” since he rejects my characterization of philosophy as the scholarly work that professional philosophers produce, but he does not tell us what counts as philosophical (Mizrahi 2017b, 13). Well, it turns out that Brown does not reject my characterization of philosophy after all. For, after he was challenged to say what counts as philosophical, he came up with the following “sufficient condition for pieces of writing and discourse that count as philosophy” (Brown 2017b, 11):

(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 (Brown 2017b, 11; emphasis added).

Clearly, this is my characterization of philosophy in terms of the scholarly work that professional philosophers produce. Brown simply adds teaching to it. Since he admits that “scientists teach students too” (Brown 2017b, 18), however, it is not clear how adding teaching to my characterization of philosophy is supposed to support his attack on Weak Scientism. In fact, it may actually undermine his attack on Weak Scientism, since there is a lot more teaching going on in STEM fields than in non-STEM fields.

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (2017), in the 2015-16 academic year, post-secondary institutions in the United States conferred only 10,157 Bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies compared to 113,749 Bachelor’s degrees in biological and biomedical sciences, 106,850 Bachelor’s degrees in engineering, and 117,440 in psychology. In general, in the 2015-2016 academic year, 53.3% of the Bachelor’s degrees conferred by post-secondary institutions in the United States were degrees in STEM fields, whereas only 5.5% of conferred Bachelor’s degrees were in the humanities (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Bachelor’s degrees conferred by post-secondary institutions in the US, by field of study, 2015-2016 (Source: NCES)

 

Clearly, then, there is a lot more teaching going on in science than in philosophy (or even in the humanities in general), since a lot more students take science courses and graduate with degrees in scientific fields of study. So, even if Brown is right that we should include teaching in what counts as philosophy, it is still the case that scientific fields are quantitatively better than non-scientific fields.

Since Brown (2017b, 13) seems to agree that philosophy (at least in part) is the scholarly work that academic philosophers produce, it is peculiar that he complains, without argument, that “an understanding of philosophy and knowledge as operational is […] shallow insofar as philosophy and knowledge can’t fit into the narrow parameters of another empirical study.” Once Brown (2017b, 11) grants that “Those articles published in philosophical journals” count as philosophy, he thereby also grants that these journal articles can be studied empirically using the methods of bibliometrics, information science, or data science.

That is, Brown (2017b, 11) concedes that philosophy consists (at least in part) of “articles published in philosophical journals,” and so these articles can be compared to other articles published in science journals to determine research output, and they can also be compared to articles published in science journals in terms of citation counts to determine research impact. What exactly is “shallow” about that? Brown does not say.

A, perhaps unintended, consequence of Brown’s (P) is that the “great thinkers from the past” (Brown 2017b, 18), those that Brown (2017b, 13) likes to remind us “were not professional philosophers,” did not do philosophy, by Brown’s own lights. For “Socrates, Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Locke, and Hume” (Brown 2017b, 13) did not publish in philosophy journals, were not academics with a Ph.D. in philosophy, and did not teach at public universities courses “with titles such as Introduction to Philosophy, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Normative Ethics, and Philosophy of Science” (Brown 2017b, 11).

Another peculiar thing about Brown’s (P) is the restriction of the philosophical to what is being taught in public universities. What about community colleges and private universities? Is Brown suggesting that philosophy courses taught at private universities do not count as philosophy courses? This is peculiar, especially in light of the fact that, at least according to The Philosophical Gourmet Report (Brogaard and Pynes 2018), the top ranked philosophy programs in the United States are mostly located in private universities, such as New York University and Princeton University.

Is My Defense of Weak Scientism a Scientific or a Philosophical Argument?

Brown argues for (5) on the grounds that my (2017a) is published in a philosophy journal, namely, Social Epistemology, and so it a piece of philosophical knowledge by my lights, since I count as philosophy the research articles that are published in philosophy journals.

Brown would be correct about this if Social Epistemology were a philosophy journal. But it is not. Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy is an interdisciplinary journal. The journal’s “aim and scope” statement makes it clear that Social Epistemology is an interdisciplinary journal:

Social Epistemology provides a forum for philosophical and social scientific enquiry that incorporates the work of scholars from a variety of disciplines who share a concern with the production, assessment and validation of knowledge. The journal covers both empirical research into the origination and transmission of knowledge and normative considerations which arise as such research is implemented, serving as a guide for directing contemporary knowledge enterprises (Social Epistemology 2018).

The fact that Social Epistemology is an interdisciplinary journal, with contributions from “Philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, cultural historians, social studies of science researchers, [and] educators” (Social Epistemology 2018) would not surprise anyone who is familiar with the history of the journal. The founding editor of the journal is Steve Fuller, who was trained in an interdisciplinary field, namely, History and Philosophy of Science (HPS), and is currently the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology in the Department of Sociology at Warwick University. Brown (2017b, 15) would surely agree that sociology is not philosophy, given that, for him, “cataloguing what a certain group of people believes is sociology and not philosophy.” The current executive editor of the journal is James H. Collier, who is a professor of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech, and who was trained in Science and Technology Studies (STS), which is an interdisciplinary field as well.

Brown asserts without argument that the methods of a scientific field of study, such as sociology, are different in kind from those of philosophy: “What I contend is that […] philosophical methods are different in kind from those of the experimental scientists [sciences?]” (Brown 2017b, 24). He then goes on to speculate about what it means to say that an explanation is testable (Brown 2017b, 25). What Brown comes up with is rather unclear to me. For instance, I have no idea what it means to evaluate an explanation by inductive generalization (Brown 2017b, 25).

Instead, Brown should have consulted any one of the logic and reasoning textbooks I keep referring to in my (2017a) and (2017b) to find out that it is generally accepted among philosophers that the good-making properties of explanations, philosophical and otherwise, include testability among other good-making properties (see, e.g., Sinnott-Armstrong and Fogelin 2010, 257). As far as testability is concerned, to test an explanation or hypothesis is to determine “whether predictions that follow from it are true” (Salmon 2013, 255). In other words, “To say that a hypothesis is testable is at least to say that some prediction made on the basis of that hypothesis may confirm or disconfirm it” (Copi et al. 2011, 515).

For this reason, Feser’s analogy according to which “to compare the epistemic values of science and philosophy and fault philosophy for not being good at making testable predications [sic] 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” (Brown 2017b, 25), which Brown likes to refer to (Brown 2017a, 48), is inapt.

It is not an apt analogy because, unlike metal detectors and gardening tools, which serve different purposes, both science and philosophy are in the business of explaining things. Indeed, Brown admits that, like good scientific explanations, “good philosophical theories explain things” (emphasis in original). In other words, Brown admits that both scientific and philosophical theories are instruments of explanation (unlike gardening and metal-detecting instruments). To provide good explanations, then, both scientific and philosophical theories must be testable (Mizrahi 2017b, 19-20).

What Is Wrong with Persuasive Definitions of Scientism?

Brown (2017b, 31) argues for (6) on the grounds that “persuasive definitions are [not] always dialectically pernicious.” He offers an argument whose conclusion is “abortion is murder” as an example of an argument for a persuasive definition of abortion. He then outlines an argument for a persuasive definition of scientism according to which “Weak Scientism is a view that has its advocates putting too high a value on scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32).

The problem, however, is that Brown is confounding arguments for a definition with the definition itself. Having an argument for a persuasive definition does not change the fact that it is a persuasive definition. To illustrate this point, let me give an example that I think Brown will appreciate. Suppose I define theism as an irrational belief in the existence of God. That is, “theism” means “an irrational belief in the existence of God.” I can also provide an argument for this definition:

P1: If it is irrational to have paradoxical beliefs and God is a paradoxical being, then theism is an irrational belief in the existence of God.

P2: It is irrational to have paradoxical beliefs and God is a paradoxical being (e.g., the omnipotence paradox).[4]

Therefore,

C: Theism is an irrational belief in the existence of God.

But surely, theists will complain that my definition of theism is a “dialectically pernicious” persuasive definition. For it stacks the deck against theists. It states that theists are already making a mistake, by definition, simply by believing in the existence of God. Even though I have provided an argument for this persuasive definition of theism, my definition is still a persuasive definition of theism, and my argument is unlikely to convince anyone who doesn’t already think that theism is irrational. Indeed, Brown (2017b, 30) himself admits that much when he says “good luck with that project!” about trying to construct a sound argument for “abortion is murder.” I take this to mean that pro-choice advocates would find his argument for “abortion is murder” dialectically inert precisely because it defines abortion in a manner that transfers “emotive force” (Salmon 2013, 65), which they cannot accept.

Likewise, theists would find the argument above dialectically inert precisely because it defines theism in a manner that transfers “emotive force” (Salmon 2013, 65), which they cannot accept. In other words, Brown seems to agree that there are good dialectical reasons to avoid appealing to persuasive definitions. Therefore, like “abortion is murder,” “theism is an irrational belief in the existence of God,” and “‘Homosexual’ means ‘one who has an unnatural desire for those of the same sex’” (Salmon 2013, 65), “Weak Scientism is a view that has its advocates putting too high a value on scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32) is a “dialectically pernicious” persuasive definition (cf. Williams 2015, 14).

Like persuasive definitions in general, it “masquerades as an honest assignment of meaning to a term while condemning or blessing with approval the subject matter of the definiendum” (Hurley 2015, 101). As I have pointed out in my (2017a), the problem with such definitions is that they “are strategies consisting in presupposing an unaccepted definition, taking a new unknowable description of meaning as if it were commonly shared” (Macagno and Walton 2014, 205).

As for Brown’s argument for the persuasive definition of Weak Scientism, according to which it “is a view that has its advocates putting too high a value on scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32), a key premise in this argument is the claim that there is a piece of philosophical knowledge that is better than scientific knowledge. This is premise 36 in Brown’s argument:

Some philosophers qua philosophers know that (a) true friendship is a necessary condition for human flourishing and (b) the possession of the moral virtues or a life project aimed at developing the moral virtues is a necessary condition for true friendship and (c) (therefore) the possession of the moral virtues or a life project aimed at developing the moral virtues is a necessary condition for human flourishing (see, e.g., the arguments in Plato’s Gorgias) and knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge (see, e.g., St. Augustine’s Confessions, book five, chapters iii and iv) [assumption]

There is a lot to unpack here, but I will focus on what I take to be the points most relevant to the scientism debate. First, Brown assumes 36 without argument, but why think it is true? In particular, why think that (a), (b), and (c) count as philosophical knowledge? Brown says that philosophers know (a), (b), and (c) in virtue of being philosophers, but he does not tell us why that is the case.

After all, accounts of friendship, with lessons about the significance of friendship, predate philosophy (see, e.g., the friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in The Epic of Gilgamesh). Did it really take Plato and Augustine to tell us about the significance of friendship? In fact, on Brown’s characterization of philosophy, namely, (P), (a), (b), and (c) do not count as philosophical knowledge at all, since Plato and Augustine did not publish in philosophy journals, were not academics with a Ph.D. in philosophy, and did not teach at public universities courses “with titles such as Introduction to Philosophy, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Normative Ethics, and Philosophy of Science” (Brown 2017b, 11).

Second, some philosophers, like Epicurus, need (and think that others need) friends to flourish, whereas others, like Diogenes of Sinope, need no one. For Diogenes, friends will only interrupt his sunbathing (Arrian VII.2). My point is not simply that philosophers disagree about the value of friendship and human flourishing. Of course they disagree.[5]

Rather, my point is that, in order to establish general truths about human beings, such as “Human beings need friends to flourish,” one must employ the methods of science, such as randomization and sampling procedures, blinding protocols, methods of statistical analysis, and the like; otherwise, one would simply commit the fallacies of cherry-picking anecdotal evidence and hasty generalization (Salmon 2013, 149-151). After all, the claim “Some need friends to flourish” does not necessitate, or even make more probable, the truth of “Human beings need friends to flourish.”[6]

Third, why think that “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32)? Better in what sense? Quantitatively? Qualitatively? Brown does not tell us. He simply declares it “self-evident” (Brown 2017b, 32). I take it that Brown would not want to argue that “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing” is better than scientific knowledge in the quantitative (i.e., in terms of research output and research impact) and qualitative (i.e., in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success) respects in which scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge, according to Weak Scientism.

If so, then in what sense exactly “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing” (Brown 2017b, 32) is supposed to be better than scientific knowledge? Brown (2017b, 32) simply assumes that without argument and without telling us in what sense exactly “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32).

Of course, philosophy does not have a monopoly on friendship and human flourishing as research topics. Psychologists and sociologists, among other scientists, work on friendship as well (see, e.g., Hojjat and Moyer 2017). To get an idea of how much research on friendship is done in scientific fields, such as psychology and sociology, and how much is done in philosophy, we can use a database like Web of Science.

Currently (03/29/2018), there are 12,334 records in Web of Science on the topic “friendship.” Only 76 of these records (0.61%) are from the Philosophy research area. Most of the records are from the Psychology (5,331 records) and Sociology (1,111) research areas (43.22% and 9%, respectively). As we can see from Figure 2, most of the research on friendship is done in scientific fields of study, such as psychology, sociology, and other social sciences.

Figure 2. Number of records on the topic “friendship” in Web of Science by research area (Source: Web of Science)

 

In terms of research impact, too, scientific knowledge about friendship is superior to philosophical knowledge about friendship. According to Web of Science, the average citations per year for Psychology research articles on the topic of friendship is 2826.11 (h-index is 148 and the average citations per item is 28.1), and the average citations per year for Sociology research articles on the topic of friendship is 644.10 (h-index is 86 and the average citations per item is 30.15), whereas the average citations per year for Philosophy research articles on friendship is 15.02 (h-index is 13 and the average citations per item is 8.11).

Quantitatively, then, psychological and sociological knowledge on friendship is better than philosophical knowledge in terms of research output and research impact. Both Psychology and Sociology produce significantly more research on friendship than Philosophy does, and the research they produce has significantly more impact (as measured by citation counts) than philosophical research on the same topic.

Qualitatively, too, psychological and sociological knowledge about friendship is better than philosophical knowledge about friendship. For, instead of rather vague statements about how “true friendship is a necessary condition for human flourishing” (Brown 2017b, 32) that are based on mostly armchair speculation, psychological and sociological research on friendship provides detailed explanations and accurate predictions about the effects of friendship (or lack thereof) on human well-being.

For instance, numerous studies provide evidence for the effects of friendships or lack of friendships on physical well-being (see, e.g., Yang et al. 2016) as well as mental well-being (see, e.g., Cacioppo and Patrick 2008). Further studies provide explanations for the biological and genetic bases of these effects (Cole et al. 2011). This knowledge, in turn, informs interventions designed to help people deal with loneliness and social isolation (see, e.g., Masi et al. 2010).[7]

To sum up, Brown (2017b, 32) has given no reasons to think that “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge.” He does not even tell us what “better” is supposed to mean here. He also ignores the fact that scientific fields of study, such as psychology and sociology, produce plenty of knowledge about human flourishing, both physical and mental well-being. In fact, as we have seen, science produces a lot more knowledge about topics related to human well-being, such as friendship, than philosophy does. For this reason, Brown (2017b, 32) has failed to show that “there is non-scientific form of knowledge better than scientific knowledge.”

Conclusion

At this point, I think it is quite clear that Brown and I are talking past each other on a couple of levels. First, I follow scientists (e.g., Weinberg 1994, 166-190) and philosophers (e.g., Haack 2007, 17-18 and Peels 2016, 2462) on both sides of the scientism debate in treating philosophy as an academic discipline or field of study, whereas Brown (2017b, 18) insists on thinking about philosophy as a personal activity of “individual intellectual progress.” Second, I follow scientists (e.g., Hawking and Mlodinow 2010, 5) and philosophers (e.g., Kidd 2016, 12-13 and Rosenberg 2011, 307) on both sides of the scientism debate in thinking about knowledge as the scholarly work or research produced in scientific fields of study, such as the natural sciences, as opposed to non-scientific fields of study, such as the humanities, whereas Brown insists on thinking about philosophical knowledge as personal knowledge.

To anyone who wishes to defend philosophy’s place in research universities alongside academic disciplines, such as history, linguistics, and physics, armed with this conception of philosophy as a “self-improvement” activity, I would use Brown’s (2017b, 30) words to say, “good luck with that project!” A much more promising strategy, I propose, is for philosophy to embrace scientific ways of knowing and for philosophers to incorporate scientific methods into their research.[8]

Contact details: mmizrahi@fit.edu

References

Arrian. “The Final Phase.” In Alexander the Great: Selections from Arrian, Diodorus, Plutarch, and Quintus Curtius, edited by J. Romm, translated by P. Mensch and J. Romm, 149-172. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2005.

Ashton, Z., and M. Mizrahi. “Intuition Talk is Not Methodologically Cheap: Empirically Testing the “Received Wisdom” about Armchair Philosophy.” Erkenntnis (2017): DOI 10.1007/s10670-017-9904-4.

Ashton, Z., and M. Mizrahi. “Show Me the Argument: Empirically Testing the Armchair Philosophy Picture.” Metaphilosophy 49, no. 1-2 (2018): 58-70.

Cacioppo, J. T., and W. Patrick. Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2008.

Cole, S. W., L. C. Hawkley, J. M. G. Arevaldo, and J. T. Cacioppo. “Transcript Origin Analysis Identifies Antigen-Presenting Cells as Primary Targets of Socially Regulated Gene Expression in Leukocytes.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 7 (2011): 3080-3085.

Copi, I. M., C. Cohen, and K. McMahon. Introduction to Logic. Fourteenth Edition. New York: Prentice Hall, 2011.

Brogaard, B., and C. A. Pynes (eds.). “Overall Rankings.” The Philosophical Gourmet Report. Wiley Blackwell, 2018. Available at http://34.239.13.205/index.php/overall-rankings/.

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

Brown, C. M. “Defending Some Objections to Moti Mizrahi’s Arguments Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2017b): 1-35.

Haack, S. Defending Science–within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism. New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Hawking, S., and L. Mlodinow. The Grand Design. New York: Bantam Books, 2010.

Hojjat, M., and A. Moyer (eds.). The Psychology of Friendship. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Hurley, P. J. A Concise Introduction to Logic. Twelfth Edition. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015.

Kelly, T. “Evidence.” In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/evidence/.

Kidd, I. J. “How Should Feyerabend Have Defended Astrology? A Reply to Pigliucci.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5 (2016): 11–17.

Kitcher, P. “A Plea for Science Studies.” In A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science, edited by N. Koertge, 32–55. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1960.

Macagno, F., and D. Walton. Emotive Language in Argumentation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Masi, C. M., H. Chen, and L. C. Hawkley. “A Meta-Analysis of Interventions to Reduce Loneliness.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 15, no. 3 (2011): 219-266.

Mizrahi, M. “Intuition Mongering.” The Reasoner 6, no. 11 (2012): 169-170.

Mizrahi, M. “More Intuition Mongering.” The Reasoner 7, no. 1 (2013a): 5-6.

Mizrahi, M. “What is Scientific Progress? Lessons from Scientific Practice.” Journal for General Philosophy of Science 44, no. 2 (2013b): 375-390.

Mizrahi, M. “New Puzzles about Divine Attributes.” European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 5, no. 2 (2013c): 147-157.

Mizrahi, M. “The Pessimistic Induction: A Bad Argument Gone Too Far.” Synthese 190, no. 15 (2013d): 3209-3226.

Mizrahi, M. “Does the Method of Cases Rest on a Mistake?” Review of Philosophy and Psychology 5, no. 2 (2014): 183-197.

Mizrahi, M. “On Appeals to Intuition: A Reply to Muñoz-Suárez.” The Reasoner 9, no. 2 (2015a): 12-13.

Mizrahi, M. “Don’t Believe the Hype: Why Should Philosophical Theories Yield to Intuitions?” Teorema: International Journal of Philosophy 34, no. 3 (2015b): 141-158.

Mizrahi, M. “Historical Inductions: New Cherries, Same Old Cherry-Picking.” International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 29, no. 2 (2015c): 129-148.

Mizrahi, M. “Three Arguments against the Expertise Defense.” Metaphilosophy 46, no. 1 (2015d): 52-64.

Mizrahi, M. “The History of Science as a Graveyard of Theories: A Philosophers’ Myth?” International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 30, no. 3 (2016): 263-278.

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

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

Mizrahi, M. “Introduction.” In The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation? Edited by M. Mizrahi, 1-22. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017c.

National Center for Education Statistics. “Bachelor’s degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions, by field of study: Selected years, 1970-71 through 2015-16.” Digest of Education Statistics (2017). https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_322.10.asp?current=yes.

Peels, R. “The Empirical Case Against Introspection.” Philosophical Studies 17, no. 9 (2016): 2461-2485.

Peels, R. “Ten Reasons to Embrace Scientism.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 63 (2017): 11-21.

Rosenberg, A. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011.

Rousseau, R., L. Egghe, and R. Guns. Becoming Metric-Wise: A Bibliometric Guide for Researchers. Cambridge, MA: Elsevier, 2018.

Salmon, M. H. Introduction to Logic and Critical Thinking. Sixth Edition. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2013.

Scimago Journal & Country Rank. “Subject Bubble Chart.” SJR: Scimago Journal & Country Rank. Accessed on April 3, 2018. http://www.scimagojr.com/mapgen.php?maptype=bc&country=US&y=citd.

Sinnott-Armstrong, W., and R. J. Fogelin. Understanding Arguments: An Introduction to Informal Logic. Eighth Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010.

Social Epistemology. “Aims and Scope.” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy (2018). https://www.tandfonline.com/action/journalInformation?show=aimsScope&journalCode=tsep20.

Weinberg, S. Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist’s Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature. New York: Random House, 1994.

Williams, R. N. “Introduction.” In Scientism: The New Orthodoxy, edited by R. N. Williams and D. N. Robinson, 1-22. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

Yang, C. Y., C. Boen, K. Gerken, T. Li, K. Schorpp, and K. M. Harris. “Social Relationships and Physiological Determinants of Longevity Across the Human Life Span.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, no. 3 (2016): 578-583.

[1] I thank Adam Riggio for inviting me to respond to Brown’s second attack on Weak Scientism.

[2] On why appeals to intuition are bad arguments, see Mizrahi (2012), (2013a), (2014), (2015a), (2015b), and (2015d).

[3] I use friendship as an example here because Brown (2017b, 31) uses it as an example of philosophical knowledge. I will say more about that in Section 6.

[4] For more on paradoxes involving the divine attributes, see Mizrahi (2013c).

[5] “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create)” (Lewis 1960, 71).

[6] On fallacious inductive reasoning in philosophy, see Mizrahi (2013d), (2015c), (2016), and (2017c).

[7] See also “The Friendship Bench” project: https://www.friendshipbenchzimbabwe.org/.

[8] For recent examples, see Ashton and Mizrahi (2017) and (2018).

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

Please refer to:

Image by Güldem Üstün via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

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

Two Contexts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking Back Social Epistemology

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

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

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

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

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

Mending Wall

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

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

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

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

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

Contact details: 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

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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: Kenneth R. Westphal, Boðaziçi Üniversitesi, Ýstanbul, westphal.k.r@gmail.com

Westphal, Kenneth R. “Higher Education & Academic Administration: Current Crises Long Since Foretold.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 41-47.

The official SERRC publication pdf of the article gives specific page references for formal bibliographical reference. However, the author himself has provided a pdf using a layout specifically designed for the presentation of this manifesto for the future of research publication and academic exchange of ideas. We encourage you to download Dr. Westphal’s own file above. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Tb

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The current crises in education are indeed acute, though they have been long in the making, with clear analysis and evidence of their development and pending problems over the past 150 years! – evident in this concise chronological bibliography:

Mill, John Stuart, 1867. ‘Inaugural Address Delievered to the University of St. Andrews’, 1 Feb. 1867; rpt. in: J.M. Robson, gen. ed., The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, 33 vols. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963–91), 21:217–257.

Ahrens, Heinrich, 1870. Naturrecht oder Philosophie des Rechts und des Staates, 2 vols. (Wien, C. Gerold’s Sohn), „Vorrede zur sechten Auflage“, S. v–x.

Cauer, Paul, 1890. Staat und Erziehung. Schulpolitische Bedenken. Kiel & Leipzig, Lipsius & Fischer.

Cauer, Paul, 1906. Sieben Jahre im Kampf um die Schulreform. Gesammelte Aufstötze. Berlin, Weidmann.

Hinneberg, Paul, ed., 1906. Allgemeine Grundlage der Kultur der Gegenwart. Leipzig, Tuebner. Cattell, J. McKeen, 1913. University Control. New York, The Science Press.

Veblen, Thorstein, 1918. The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men. New York, B.W. Huebsch.

José Ortega y Gasset, 1930. Misión de la Universidad. Madrid, Revista de Occidente; rpt. in: idem., OC 4:313–353; tr. H.L. Nostrand, Mission of the University (Oxford: Routledge, 1946).

Eisenhower, Milton S., et al., 1959. The Efficiency of Freedom: Report of the Committee on Government and Higher Education. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Snow, C.P., 1964. The Two Cultures, 2nd rev. ed. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Rourke, Francis E., and Glenn E. Brooks, 1966. The Managerial Revolution in Higher Education. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Byrnes, James C., and A. Dale Tussing, 1971. ‘The Financial Crisis in Higher Education: Past, Present, and Future’. Educational Policy Research Center, Syracuse University Research Corp.; Washington, D.C., Office of Education (DHEW); (ED 061 896; HE 002 970).

Green, Thomas, 1980. Predicting the Behavior of the Educational System. Syracuse, NY, Syracuse University Press.

Schwanitz, Dietrich, 1999. Bildung. Alles, was man wissen muss. Frankfurt am Main, Eichhorn. Kempter, Klaus, and Peter Meusburger, eds., 2006. Bildung und Wissensgesellschaft (Heidelberger Jahrbücher 49). Berlin, Springer.

The British Academy, 2008. Punching our Weight: The Humanities and Social Sciences in Public Policy Making. London, The British Academy; http://www.britac.ac.uk.

Head, Simon, ‘The Grim Threat to British Universities’. The New York Review of Books, 13. Jan. 2011; https://www.readability.com/articles/n9pjbxmz.

Thomas, Keith, ‘Universities under Attack’. The London Review of Books, Online only • 28 Nov. 2011; (The author is a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and former President of the British Academy); http://www.lrb.co.uk/2011/11/28/keith-thomas/universities-under-attack.

Hansen, Hal, 2011. ‘Rethinking Certification Theory and the Educational Development of the United States and Germany’. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 29:31–55.

Benjamin Ginsberg, 2011. The Fall of the Faculty. Oxford University Press.

Don Watson, ‘A New Dusk’. The Monthly (Australia), August 2012, pp. 10–14; http://www.the monthly.com.au/comment-new-dusk-don-watson-5859.

Commission on the Humanities & Social Sciences, 2013. The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation. Cambridge, Mass., American Academy of Arts and Sciences; http://www.amacad.org.

Randy Schekman, ‘How journals like Nature, Cell and Science are damaging science’. The Guardian Mon 9. Dec 2013;[1] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/09/how-journalsnature-science-cell-damage-science.

Motroshilova, Nelly, 2013. [Real Factors of Scientific Activity and Citation Count; Russian.] ‘ÐÅÀËÜÍÛÅ ÔÀÊÒÎÐÛ ÍÀÓ×ÍÎ-ÈÑÑËÅÄÎÂÀÒÅËÜÑÊÎÃÎ ÒÐÓÄÀ È ÈÇÌÅ-ÐÅÍÈß ÖÈÒÈÐÎÂÀÍÈß’. Ïðîáëåìû îöåíêè ýôôåêòèâíîñòè â êîíêðåòíûõ îáëàñòÿõ íàóêè, 453–475. ÓÄÊ 001.38 + 519.24; ÁÁÊ 78.34.[2]

Ferrini, Cinzia, 2015. ‘Research “Values” in the Humanities: Funding Policies, Evaluation, and Cultural Resources. Some Introductory Remarks’. Humanities 4:42–67; DOI: 10.3390/ h4010042.[3]

O’Neill, Onora, 2015. ‘Integrity and Quality in Universities: Accountability, Excellence and Success’. Humanities 4:109–117; DOI: 10.3390/h4010109.

Scott, Peter, 2015. ‘Clashing Concepts and Methods: Assessing Excellence in the Humanities and Social Sciences’. Humanities 4:118–130; DOI: 10.3390/h4010118.

Halffman, Willem, and Hans Radder, 2015. ‘The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University’. Minerva 53.2:165–187 (PMC4468800);[4] DOI: 10.1007/s11024-015-9270-9.

Albach, Philip G., Georgiana Mihut and Jamil Salmi, 2016. ‘Sage Advice: International Advisory Councils at Tertiary Education Institutions’. CIHE Perspectives 1; Boston, Mass., Boston College Center for International Higher Education; World Bank Group; http://www.bc.edu/cihe.

Curren, Randall, 2016. ‘Green’s Predicting Thirty-Five Years On’. In: N. Levinson, ed., Philosophy of Education 2016 (Urbana, Ill.: PES, 2017), 000–000.

The CENTRAL AIMS OF EDUCATION, especially higher education, I explicate and defend in:

Westphal, Kenneth R., 2012. ‘Norm Acquisition, Rational Judgment & Moral Particularism’. Theory & Research in Education 10.1:3–25; DOI: 10.1177/1477878512437477.

———, 2016. ‘Back to the 3 R’s: Rights, Responsibilities & Reasoning’. SATS – Northern European Journal of Philosophy 17.1:21–60; DOI: 10.1515/sats-2016-0008.

On CITIZENSHIP EDUCATION for survival, see:

Randall Curren and Ellen Metzger, 2017. Living Well Now and in the Future: Why Sustainability Matters. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press.

Randall Curren and Charles Dorn, forthcoming. Patriotic Education in a Global Age. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Though the latter title begins nationally, addressing proper patriotism, their thinking, analysis and recommendations are international and cosmopolitan; they write for a very global age in which we are all involved, however (un)wittingly, however (un)willingly, however (un)wisely.

On the necessity of liberal arts education also for technical disciplines, see:

Carnegie Mellon University, College of Engineering, General Education Requirements for [Graduating] Classes 2016 and Later: https://engineering.cmu.edu/education/undergraduate-programs/curriculum/general-education/index.html

On ‘BIBLIOMETRICS’ and journal ‘impact factor’, see:

Brembs, Björn, Katherine Button and Marcus Munafò, 2013. ‘Deep impact: unintended consequences of journal rank’. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 7.291:1–12; DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00291.

Moustafa, Khaled, 2015. ‘The Disaster of the Impact Factor’. Science and Engineering Ethics 21: 139–142; DOI: 10.1007/s11948-014-9517-0.

PloS Medicine Editorial, 2006. ‘The impact factor game. It is time to find a better way to assess the scientific literature’. PLoS Medicine 3.6, e291.

Ramin, Sadeghi, and Alireza Sarraf Shirazi, 2012. ‘Comparison between Impact factor, SCImago journal rank indicator and Eigenfactor score of nuclear medicine journals’. Nuclear Medicine Review 15.2:132–136; DOI: 10.5603/NMR.2011.00022.

There simply is no substitute for informed, considered judgment. All the attempts to circumvent, replace or subvert proper judgments and proper judgment raise the question: who benefits from all the speed-up, distraction and over-load, and how do they benefit? And conversely: who loses out from all the speed-up, distraction and over-load, and how so?

P.S.: AHRENS (1870, v–x) Mahnung, uns umfaßend mit der Gesamtheit der Gesellschaft sowie der internationalen bzw. inter-kulturellen Verhältnissen, und nicht nur mit den besonderen Aufgaben unserer Gesellschaftsfraktion bzw. -gruppe, zu beschäftigen, wird nicht durch blose Ablehnung seiner vielleicht religiösen Auffaßung unserer „gesammten göttlich-menschlichen Lebens- und Culturordnung“ (a.a.O, S. ix) entgangen. Seine Mahnunng gilt gar ohne Milderung schon hinsichtlich unseres Hangs, den Eigen- bzw. Fraktionsinteressen Vorrang übers Gemeinwohl beizulegen, ohne sich zu besinnen, daß das Gemeinwohl auch die eigene Teilhabe daran miteinbeschließt. Die übliche Betonung der eng-konzipierten Zweckrationalität verdammt uns zur gegenseitigen, sei’s auch unabsichtlichen Beieinträchtigung, am Mindestens durch Tragik der Allmende.

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Herrad von LANDSBERG, ‘Septem artes liberales’, Hortus deliciarum (1180). http://www.plosin.com/work/Hortus.html

 

Philosophy, the Queen, sits in the center of the circle. The three heads extending from her crown represent Ethics, Logic and Physics, the three parts of the teaching of philosophy. The streamer held by Philosophy reads: All wisdom comes from God; only the wise can achieve what they desire. Below Philosophy, seated at desks, are Socrates and Plato. The texts which surround them state that they taught first ethics, then physics, then rhetoric; that they were wise teachers; and that they inquired into nature of all things.

From Philosophy emerge seven streams, three on the right and four on the left. According to the text these are the seven liberal arts, inspired by the Holy Spirit: grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. The ring containing the inner circle reads: I, Godlike Philosophy, control all things with wisdom; I lay out seven arts which are subordinate to me. Arrayed around the circle are the liberal arts. Three correspond to the rivers which emerge from Philosophy on the right and are concerned with language and letters: grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic. Together they comprise the trivium. The four others form the quadrivium, arts which are concerned with the various kinds of harmony: music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.

Each of the seven arts holds something symbolic, and each is accompanied by a text displayed on the arch above it. Grammar (12:00) holds a book and a whip. The text reads: Through me all can learn what are the words, the syllables, and the letters.

Rhetoric (2:00) holds a tablet and stylus. The text reads: Thanks to me, proud speaker, your speeches will be able to take strength.

Dialectic (4:00) points with a one hand and holds a barking dog’s head in the other. The text reads: My arguments are followed with speed, just like the dog’s barking.

Music (5:00) holds a harp, and other instruments are nearby. The text reads: I teach my art using a variety of instruments.

Arithmetic (7:00) holds a cord with threaded beads, like a rudimentary abacus. The text reads: I base myself on the numbers and show the proportions between them.

Geometry (9:00) holds a staff and compass. The text reads: It is with exactness that I survey the ground.

Astronomy (11:00) points heavenward and holds in hand a magnifying lens or mirror. The text reads: I hold the names of the celestial bodies and predict the future. The large ring around the whole scene contains four aphorisms:

What it discovers is remembered;

Philosophy investigates the secrets of the elements and all things;

Philosophy teaches arts by seven branches;

It puts it in writing, in order to convey it to the students.

Below the circle are four men seated at desks, poets or magicians, outside the pale and beyond the influence of Philosophy. According to the text they are guided and taught by impure spirits and they produce is only tales or fables, frivolous poetry, or magic spells. Notice the black birds speaking to them (the antithesis of the white dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit).

Some Observations on the Current State of Research Evaluation in Philosophy

K.R. WESTPHAL (2015)

Although many institutions, whether universities or government ministries, have now in effect mandated publication in ‘listed’ academic journals, such listings by (e.g.) Thompson-Reuters is o n ly a subscription service, nothing more, altogether regardless of academic standards or scholarly calibre. Significant publications are those which pass stringent peer review by relevant experts. Unfortunately, the trappings of such procedures – including ‘international’ editorial offices – are all too easy to imitate or dissemble. Furthermore, due to declining standards in graduate training in philosophy (across the Occident), peer reviewing even at reputable journals and presses is deteriorating significantly.

I know that there are ‘listed’ journals publishing ‘research’ papers I would not accept from an undergraduate student. I know that there are ‘international’ journals which publish materials not deserving the slightest notice. I know there are excellent journals and presses – in particular: by the very best German publishers – which are not ‘listed’ because those publishers simply do not need those listings, nor their expense. I know that there are highly regarded presses which publish very many good, even excellent items, but also publish spates of mediocre books to make money, and have been doing so for decades. These assertions I can document in detail, if ever details be of interest.

The increasingly common procedure to ‘rank’ individual research publications by the purported ‘rank’ of their venue – their press or journal – is in principle and in practice fallacious. There simply is no valid inference from any empirically established ‘curve’ to the putative value of any single (equally putative) ‘data point’. Additionally, no press or journal consistently publishes research falling only within one well-defined calibre; there are excellent pieces of research published in unassuming venues, and there is too much mediocre publication by purportedly leading venues.

I also know that constrictions in funding have led to ‘streamlining’ graduate training within the field of philosophy (and surmise that this is not at all unique to philosophy), so that less time is spent in graduate studies. Additionally, over-specialisation within the field of philosophy has accelerated the production of mutually irrelevant bits of ‘research’, each restricted to its own narrow orthodoxy, coupled with a severe decline in methodological sophistication and indeed basic research skills and procedures. The declining calibre of graduate training has, inevitably, had an enormous adverse effect on the calibre of ‘professional’ refereeing for publication, both by journals and by presses.

Now that we have the technical resources for purely electronic publication, at an enormous savings and economy of distribution in comparison to print media, many publishers are doing their utmost to keep their print media profitable, or to make exorbitant profits from much less expensive electronic publication. Both tendencies are countered, to an extent, by newly established, typically open-access electronic journals. These developments are very welcome and important, and many of these new e-journals are by international standards high-calibre operations. Nevertheless, it will take time for ‘reputation’ to accrue to genuinely deserving e-journals, and (one hopes) to shake out the mediocre or dishonest pretenders.

One final point which merits emphasis is that the notion of ‘monoglot’ scholarship only arose ca. 1950, primarily amongst Anglophones, and was sanctions by law in only one region (the former Soviet Union). Thirty years ago, scholars working on Ancient Greek philosophy were fluent in the main modern European languages and kept abreast of research published in Greek, German, French and English. Now my German colleagues note that often a German monograph appears on a neglected topic in Ancient Greek philosophy, only to suffer neglect by an English book on the same topic published a decade later. The pitfalls of ‘Eurenglish’ (e.g. in Brussels) I shall not detail; we simply must return to teaching, facilitating and expecting mastery of multiple languages.

For these and many other reasons, these are very difficult times for scholarship and for the academy. Accordingly, I am all the more committed to maintaining academic excellence. In this connection and in these regards, I wish to underscore that there simply is NO substitute for the expert assessment of individual pieces of research, whether articles, monographs or collections.

Contact details: westphal.k.r@gmail.com

[1] Randy Schekman is Professor of biochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley; he, James Rothman and Thomas Südhof were jointly awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine.

[2] Editor’s Note – Ironically and appropriately, given the topic of this article, our Digital Editor is unable to render Cyrillic text on any of the computers in the SERRC office in Toronto. These technical difficulties constitute another reason to read Dr. Westphal’s original pdf copy.

[3] Ferrini (2015), O’Neill (2015) and Scott (2015) appear in a special issue, titled per Ferrini’s editorial introduction; Humanities is sponsored by the Academia Europaea, now published with open access by MDPI (Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, Basel); previously published by Cambridge University Press.

[4] Published by the US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health: National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).

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: Robert Frodeman, University of North Texas, Robert.Frodeman@unt.edu

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3j1

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Image credit: nchenga, via flickr

On Disciplinary Philosophy

The relationship between the philosopher and the community has always been fraught. 20th century academic philosophy dealt with this difficulty by going disciplinary, restricting its conversations to itself.

Now, it is incorrect to say that disciplinary philosophy was not (or is not) concerned with the matters of the larger world; but the model for its having an effect has been limited to the tacit embrace of the concept of indirect effects. Impact was to be achieved through passive dissemination—teaching 20 year olds in abstract or idealized accounts of issues, the trolley problem rather than case studies or direct involvement. Similarly, research publications would slowly work themselves into the zeitgeist through a natural osmotic process rather than through practical attempts of implementation. There were of course exceptions to this; but the individuals directly and actively involved remained one-offs. Their efforts were not institutionalized in terms of undergraduate courses in philosophy or public policy or graduate programs that trained students to work with the public or private sectors.

The 2016 presidential election highlights the inadequacy of this approach. Rather, Trump announces the inevitability of public philosophy.

Questioning All Assumptions

How so? Put the point in Heidegger’s language. Heidegger caused a stir in the 1950s when he said that scientists do not think. His point, however, was reasonable if not self-evident: science—at least, normal science—begins from a set of accepted presumptions. Philosophy—at least on Heidegger’s account—is the questioning of all assumptions. This is why Heidegger put such a premium on questioning—in one work, devoting a 55 page chapter to the question of how to ask questions. (This may also be a way to define the difference between analytic and continental philosophy: the latter has an obsession with first order questions).

Similarly, with some minor exceptions (ie, the 13th and 17th amendments) American politics has not been a thinking person’s game. Like Heidegger I mean no insult, but to point out that we have been playing by a common set of rules for the last 227 years. The election of Trump represents the breaking of those rules. Don’t simply focus on his challenges to the 1st (i.e. threatening to use the power of the presidency to silence his opponents, e.g. The Washington Post) and 6th (the right to due process, ie to ‘lock her up’) Amendments. The challenge is more basic than that: Trump is a classic Platonic demagogue. His unprecedented mendacity and rhetorical bombast represents a more general destruction of democratic norms.

STS: A Successor?

Note that this implicates more than Trump himself. For all its faults this election cycle (namely, that it breathed life into the Trump phenomena from the beginning), the media did end up making Trump’s decades-long trail of lies and corruption abundantly clear. That is, the American electorate was fully warned—and elected him nonetheless. Trump, then, represents a challenge to Enlightenment assumptions of the reasonableness of man. Notably, the very cohort that went to the mat for him—white men without college degrees—is precisely the one that Trump has long dismissed as a bunch of losers, the plumbers and merchants who he serially stiffed for their services.

Trump leaves us, then, with a set of questions that are inescapably philosophic in nature: is it possible to re-establish democratic norms for an age of ubiquitous knowledge? Can democracy function in a time dominated by social media? Or should we recognize, as the Chinese have, that authoritarianism is a necessity, given the complexity of contemporary society?

These are, classically, philosophic questions. But it may be that the academic discipline of philosophy is constitutionally incapable of answering them any longer in anything more than a scholastic fashion. Moreover, these questions have a distinctive spin today, for science and technology is playing a distinctive if not determining role in the reshaping of our political landscape. STS, then, may be the successor to academic philosophy in the raising of these questions—if it can avoid philosophy’s fate of disciplinary capture.