Archives For epistemology

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: Søren Harnow Klausen, University of Southern Denmark, harnow@sdu.dk

Klausen, Søren Harnow. “New Practices, Open Questions: A Reply to Bertolotti.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 35-38.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Jk

Please refer to:

Image credit: Jen Leonard, via flickr

In his perceptive comment on my “No Cause for Epistemic Alarm” (Klausen 2017; henceforth NCEA), Tomasso Bertolotti argues that new forms of organizing and conducting science, like radically collaborative research (henceforth RC), deserve to be examined closely and critically. I agree wholeheartedly. But I do not think that there is, at least as things stand, any reason for alarm. I fail to see anything inherently problematic in the way RC is currently conducted; and as for its possible problematic consequences, we have no significant indications. It is not that I am highly optimistic about the prospects of RC. It is just that we have neither theoretical nor empirical reasons for being particularly suspicious at the outset. It is also true, however, that even in the absence of such reasons, social epistemologists and philosophers of science had better keep a close watch over new developments in scientific practice.

Epistemic Alarm

In NCEA I argued that there is, more specifically, no reason for epistemic alarm. Bertolotti suggests that I may have been too quick to draw this conclusion. He rightly points out that the pragmatic, social or political effects of RC may in turn have significant epistemic effects. I have myself stressed that epistemic and other normative factors interact so closely that it makes a purely (or narrowly focused) epistemic evaluation of real-world affairs almost impossible (Klausen 2009a; 2009b; 2015). Especially on an externalist epistemology, which I favour, a large range of factors can be potentially relevant for the epistemic evaluation of a certain process or arrangement. In principle, there is no end to them, as even an inquirer’s nutritional condition could influence the reliability (or other significant epistemic properties) of a belief-forming process. So if the advance of RC significantly changes processes of credit allocation, the scientific reward system, recruitment processes, or the public perception of science, this is likely going to have epistemic effects as well.

The claims I make in NCEA are quite compatible with this, however. They are, first, that there is no reason to assume that existing epistemological frameworks cannot cope with RC (which is therefore not a cause of epistemological alarm, to put it more precisely)—and, secondly, that it is an open question what the result of a detailed epistemological assessment would eventually be.

Precisely because epistemological a priori considerations are hardly able to discriminate between different forms of organization of epistemic labour, and the empirical evidence is scarce, to say the least, I think we should withhold definite judgment (but surely allow ourselves to speculate). We should also, as social epistemologists or philosophers of science, put more effort into initiating and designing relevant empirical studies. Comparing the merits and drawbacks of different scientific practices is complicated and difficult, and no decisive result should be expected in the short run. On the other hand, every bit of ever so limited, but more or less solid empirical evidence will be a leap forward as compared to the present state. Treating the historical record as such evidence would be wrong, as we know very little about how alternative practices would have fared. Criticizing RC or other new scientific practices merely on the grounds that they break with a venerable tradition that has proven immensely successful in the past is really not very convincing.

Bertolotti makes an interesting analogy between science and gossip. I think it is very fitting; in some respects even more so than Bertolotti himself seems to think, in other respects perhaps less so. Inasmuch as he and Magnani are right that abductive inference is central to gossip (Bertolotti and Magnani 2014), that is one significant point of similarity. More generally, scientific communication does appear very gossip-like; and since gossip, as understood by Bertolotti, is a potentially efficient source of knowledge, this does not by itself do anything to discredit science.

The difference between gossip and (traditional) science lies, according to Bertolotti, in their different accountability structures (whereas he contends that RC is more gossip-like and so in a way could be seen as a regression back into pre-scientific practices). I think there are more obvious differences, having to do not so much with accountability as with the reliability of the input sources (e.g. controlled observation and experiment and the use of rule-guided inference versus casual observation), the degree of expertise of the group members, the reliable declaration and easy identification of such expertise, the degree of formalized organization (as I pointed out in NCEA, radically collaborative science is in fact more firmly organized and in a way more transparent than old-fashioned collaboration between individual scientists), etc., etc.

On Radically Collaborative Science

Bertolotti seems to assume that radically collaborative science is markedly different from traditional science with regard to accountability and centralized control. In NCEA I question this assumption, arguing that so-called traditional, small-scale science has been indirectly massively collaborative, but in an even less transparent or regulated way. As I see it, one of the noteworthy similarities between science and gossip is precisely their accountability structure. Bertolotti quotes Peirce’s description of scientists’ “unreserved discussion with one another … each being fully informed about the work of his neighbour, and availing himself of that neighbour’s results” (Peirce 1958, 7.51; quoted in Bertolotti (2017, 17).  But this is an extreme idealization. Scientists are very rarely fully informed about the work of their neighbours, and they seldom engage in fully unreserved discussions, for that matter (Bertolotti assumes, with Ayim (1994) that discussing unreservedly is also an essential feature of gossip. While it may be correct that gossip is often shared with less reservation than what is typical of official scientific communication, I am not sure if this is quite right).

As an example of the kind of loose accountability structure I have in mind (and take to be typical of even old-fashioned, single-author science), notice that I quoted Bertolotti and Magnani’s view about the central role of abductive inference in gossip earlier in this paper, with apparent endorsement. You—or some other academic colleague—may have picked that up and might even go on to use it as a premise in some future piece of scientific reasoning. But frankly the reasons for Bertolotti and Magnani’s claim are not completely transparent to me, at least not at the time of writing. I actually read their paper quite closely some years ago, and remember their proposal as well argued, while I am not sure that I became completely convinced, and have forgotten some of the details, anyhow. This did not prevent me from referring to it in passing. And in my experience, you cannot always expect a researcher to have read a text closely and penetratingly in order for her to refer to it and even use some of its claims as premises for her own work.

Of course, one might say that this is not how it should be. But for one thing, I fear that actual conformity with the strict ideals of traditional science would stifle scientific progress to such a degree that we had better live with the errors, imprecisions, rashness and sloppiness that comes from not enforcing those ideals too rigorously. More importantly, the ideals are very far from met in practice. And it is a mistake—in fact a rather common and problematic mistake, I think—to evaluate a practice on the basis of ideals to which it merely aspires.

Of course, one could also say that traditional science does, at any rate, have a clear accountability structure, which distinguishes it from both gossip and RC. Inasmuch as there is a single author, or small group of authors, it is clear who is to be held accountable for the results and methods presented, regardless on how much the author actually knows about the work she is presenting. But this is a mere formal status. It does not ensure that the author is in any epistemically privileged position. It may oblige her to put her cards on the table if we demand her to do so; and we might reasonably expect her to vouch for her claims. Yet by doing so she may merely disclose the degree to which she has relied, blindly or semi-blindly, on the testimony of others.

Bertolotti and I agree that there is no reason to be particularly alarmed (as I understand this notion) by the advance of RC, but good reason to keep a close eye on it. But while an analysis in terms of accountability structures etc. may be of academic interest, an assessment of its actual merits and drawbacks (aimed at determining the appropriate societal response) must focus the epistemic work it actually does (as well as its moral and political consequences). Merely pointing out how RC deviates from an ideal that was never fully met by real-life science, anyway, does not warrant any substantially negative verdict. As I argue in NCEA, even if the claim could be sustained that RC leads to a loss of knowledge, this would merely show that knowledge is less important than we have assumed—as long as the overall consequences, including the epistemic ones, turn out to be sufficiently positive.

I very much share some of Bertolotti’s specific worries, for example that the Matthew Effect hampers the diversification of science (but see Strevens 2006 for an appropriately nuanced discussion). I suspect that there are significant drawbacks of big science, for example that it leads to a disproportionate allocation of funding to certain hyped fields or avenues of research. But I do not see these problems as having anything to do with the radically collaborative nature of big science (as I notice in NCEA, big science may in some respects be too streamlined and conformist; part of the problem seems to be not epistemic anarchy, but rather epistemic overregulation). And so we can—and should—speculate, but also accept that we know very little for sure. There are lots of wide open questions regarding new scientific practices, which call for calm and realistic assessments and empirically informed studies in social epistemology.

References

Ayim, Maryann. “Knowledge Through the Grapevine: Gossip as Inquiry.” In Good Gossip, edited by Robert F. Goodman and Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, 85-99. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas 1994.

Bertolotti, Tomasso. “Science-Like Gossip, or Gossip-Like Science?” Social Epistemology Review and  Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 15-19.

Bertolotti, Tomasso and Lorenzo Magnani. “An Epistemological Analysis of Gossip and Gossip-Based Knowledge.” Synthese 191, no. 17 (2014): 4037-4067.

Klausen, Søren Harnow. ”Applied Epistemology: Prospects and Problems.” Res Cogitans 6, no. 1 (2009): 220-258.

Klausen, Søren Harnow. “Two Notions of Epistemic Normativity.” Theoria 75 (2009): 161-178.

Klausen, Søren Harnow. “Group Knowledge: A Real-World Approach.” Synthese 192, no. 3 (2015): 813-839.

Klausen, Søren Harnow. “No Cause for Epistemic Alarm. Radically Collaborative  Science,  Knowledge and Authorship.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 3 (2017): 38-61.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce Vol. 7, edited Arthur W. Burks. Cambridge: MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Strevens, Michael. “The Role of the Matthew Effect in Science.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 37, no. 2 (2006): 159–170

Author Information: Jensen Alex, Valerie Joly Chock, Kyle Mallard, and Jonathan Matheson, University of North Florida, jonathan.matheson@gmail.com

Alex, Jensen, Valerie Joly Chock, Kyle Mallard, and Jonathan Matheson. “A Review of Linda Zagzebski’s Epistemic Authority.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 29-34.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3J3

Image credit: Oxford Univerity Press

Epistemic Authority: A Theory of Trust, Authority, and Autonomy in Belief
Linda Zagzebski
Oxford Univerity Press (reprint 2015)
296 pp.

Like with her celebrated Virtues of the Mind, Linda Zagzebski again examines the application of concepts familiar in a different normative domain to the epistemic domain. In this case, the connection is with social and political philosophy and with the concepts of authority and autonomy in particular. The book covers a broad range of contemporary epistemological topics, attempting to gain insights from those is social and political philosophy. In what follows we will briefly summarize the book and raise several points of criticism.

Analyzing the Chapters

Zagzebski makes her own position of the book clear from the outset—that subjects should indeed take beliefs on the authority of others, and in fact must do so to act rationally. However, before this argument is given, she insists that the reader understand why there is such a “strong proclivity” to denying this argument (6). In Chapter 1, Zagzebski follows the historical progression of thought that led to this cultural pattern, arguing that it has led to our modern societies to have a strong emphasis on autonomy and egalitarianism, ultimately diminishing the value of authority outside of oneself.

In chapter 2, Zagzebski develops her account of trust. She defines “trust” as a combination of epistemic, affective, and behavioral components that lead us to believe that our epistemic faculties will get us to the truth, feel trusting towards them in that respect, and treat them respectively (37-8). She argues that this trust is rational upon reflection, relying on her understanding of what it means to be rational, “to do a better job of what we do in any case—what our faculties do naturally” (30). According to her, we naturally try to resolve dissonance, where dissonance equates to internal conflict between a person’s mental states. She concludes that epistemic self-trust is the most rational response to dissonance, including the one produced upon discovery of epistemic circularity: the problem that one has no way of telling whether one’s epistemic faculties are reliably accurate without depending on those same faculties.

Zagzebski moves toward the substance of her argument in her third chapter. She argues that considering how one’s faculties are bound up with both the desire for truth and the belief that they can access the truth, commits one to trusting the faculties of others. This leads into Zagzebski’s principle of “epistemic universalism,” which asserts that another person having some belief itself is a prima facie reason to believe it, given that the other person’s epistemic faculties are in order and that they are epistemically conscientious.

Zagzeski expands the circle of trust to include emotions in Chapter 4. She argues that we have the need to trust in our emotional dispositions, in particular the emotion of admiration, that will then give us another foundational reason for epistemic trust in others (75). In regards to our natural emotion dispositions she says that “we need basic trust in the tendency of our emotion dispositions to produce fitting emotions for the same reason we need basic trust in the tendency of our epistemic faculties to produce true beliefs” (83). It is from this emotion of admiration that we can then conscientiously trust in other epistemic exemplars.

In chapter 5, Zagzebski argues that authority in the epistemic realm is justified. Based on Joseph Raz’s account of political authority, she defines authority as a “normative power that generates reasons for others to do or believe something preemptively” (102). Here a preemptive reason is one that replaces other reasons the subject has and is not simply added to them. Zagzebski proposes an epistemic analogue of Raz’s Preemption Thesis, which states that the fact that an authority has a belief p is a preemptive reason for me to believe p (107). She also formulates epistemic analogues for Raz’s Normal Justification Thesis in order to justify taking a belief on epistemic authority. Zagzebski proposes that the authority of another person’s belief is justified for me when I conscientiously judge that I am more likely to form a true belief and avoid a false belief, or that I am more likely to form a belief that survives my conscientious self-reflection, if I believe what the authority believes than if I try to figure out what to believe myself (110-1).

In the sixth chapter, Zagzebski focuses on the concept of testimony as it relates to epistemic authority, advocating for a trust-model of testimony. On her account, testimony is a contractual “telling” which occurs between a teller and hearer, in which both sides have responsibilities. The teller implicitly requests the hearer’s trust and assumes the associated responsibility. The hearer also has expectations of the teller, especially when a future action is carried out according to the content of the teller’s testimony. Because of this contractual nature, the standard of conscientiousness is higher in testimony than in the general formation of a belief. The authority of testimony is justified both by the fact that believing the testimony will more likely get the truth than self-reliance, as well as the fact that beliefs obtained through testimony are more likely to survive self-reflection than those formed through self-reliance.

Zagzebski turns her attention to epistemic communities in Chapter 7. She argues that epistemic authority in communities can be justified by one’s conscientious judgment that one is more likely to believe the truth, or to get a belief that will survive one’s self-reflection if one believes what “We” (the community) believe rather than if one tries to figure out what to believe by oneself in a way that is independent of “Us.” Here communities are seen as an extended self. Zagzebski would argue that communally acquired beliefs are more likely to survive communal reflection, which follows from her “extended self” argument. Thus, as long as one accepts one’s community as an extended self, one can in this way acquire reasons to believe on the authority of one’s community.

In chapter 8, Zagzebski examines moral epistemic authority and its limitations. Zagzebski sees no reason to deny that there are epistemic exemplars in the moral domain, considering the rejection of moral truth and egalitarianism as possible reasons for rejecting moral authority. She argues that testimony is not an adequate model for most moral learning because of two limitations: (1) testimony lacks motivational force and (2) it does not offer understanding. According to her, the way in which one can get a moral belief from another person has to do with the emotion that grounds such moral judgment. She claims that testimony is able to convey conceptual judgment and relevant similarities to persons or situations that elicit emotional response, but this is not sufficient to produce the emotional response itself (172). It follows then, she argues, that “I do not take a belief on authority; I take an emotion on authority, and the emotion is the ground for my moral belief” (174). The argument gets extended in the following chapter to religious authorities. Applying her earlier argument to this context, she defends the claim that individuals often conscientiously judge that if they believe in accordance with their religious community they will do better, and so often individuals are justified in deferring to their religious community.

In Chapter 10, Zagzebski turns to the contemporary debate concerning peer disagreement. As she diagnoses the debate, it is primarily a conflict between the competing values of egalitarianism and self-reliance. Zagzebski sees steadfast views of disagreement overvaluing self-reliance and stronger conciliatory views overvaluing egalitarianism, and finds both mistaken. Her own take on the debate is to construe peer disagreement as a conflict within self-trust, where one finds dissonance amongst the things that she trusts (her opinion, her peer’s opinion, etc.). Given this, and her preceding argument, Zagzebski’s recommendation is to resolve the dissonance in a way that favors what one trusts the most when thinking conscientiously about the matter. There is thus no universal response to disagreement. How any given disagreement is to be handled will depend upon the particular details of the case, in particular, which psychic states the subject trusts the most. For instance, one’s trust in a particular belief may be stronger than one’s trust in what appears to be evidence to the contrary, in which case it would be rational to resolve the dissonance while maintaining one’s belief.

In the final chapter of Epistemic Authority, the author primarily seeks to elucidate her notion of autonomy, ultimately to defend the claim that autonomy is not compromised by her model of epistemic authority. Autonomy is the primary property and function of Zagzebski’s “executive self,” which seeks to eliminate psychic dissonance through self-reflection. Zagzebski claims that conscientious judgment and self-reflection are the most reliable ways of avoiding epistemic dissonance —that being conscientious is the best one can do. She maintains that we should trust in the connection between rationality (as manifest in the act of conscientious self-reflection) and actually being right, because self-reflection is the only way we can assess if our beliefs have survived (which in turn is the only way we can get the truth).

Assessing Epistemic Authority

We turn now to a critical assessment of the book.

One general concern is with Zagzebski’s account of rationality and epistemic justification, which is central to her overall argument. She claims that, “rationality is a property we have when we do what we do naturally, only we do a better job of it” (30), and of central importance here is our natural desire to achieve a harmonious self. (31) Dissonance amongst our psychic states (beliefs, desires, emotions, etc.) is thus to be avoided, and a conscientious judgment about what states will harmoniously survive our self-reflection is what justifies those states. A problem for this account is that it is not sufficiently truth connected.

Zagzebski attempts to adequately connect her account to truth through the achievement of psychic harmony. She claims that, “the ultimate test of whether my faculties have succeeded in fitting their objects is that they fit each other.” (230) Such a coherentist account, however, is fraught with well-known problems. There are many ways of having harmonious states that are nothing close to truth conducive. The problem comes from the fact that harmony can be achieved in more than one way. In fact, any state can be protected so long as one is able to make accommodations elsewhere. Zagzebski recognizes this fact, and claims that some ways of resolving dissonance are better than others, but these preferential ways are simply those that one conscientiously judges to not create future dissonance. Such an account simply doubles down on trusting harmony and can be seen to give the wrong verdicts.

For instance, consider a father whose son is away at war. Suppose that the father then is given a substantial body of information that his son has been killed. However, the father simply cannot come to believe that his son has died. It is psychologically impossible for him, and he recognizes this fact. In terms of planning his psychic future then the belief that his son is alive will clearly be part of the picture. He can be certain that this state will survive his reflection (even his conscientious reflection) since he recognizes it to be psychologically immovable. Thus, his only paths to harmony are to distrust and abandon all states in conflict with that belief. It is apparent, however, that such a course of action is not to be recommended, and the remaining belief that his son is well is not justified for him. Sometimes, doing one’s best is not good enough. This holds in epistemology as well. While the father ought not be faulted for his belief, it is not justified for him.

A related issue concerns the role of reasons on Zagzebski’s account. From the outset, Zagzebski’s account centers around trust. The motivation for this seems to be that there is no non-circular defense of the reliability of one’s faculties. However, it is not clear what Zagzebski makes of such epistemic circularity. It might be thought that it is implied to be defective, but if so, it would be nice to hear more about the problem since many epistemologists have defended some kind of circularity. Adding to the confusion, however, is Zagzebski’s claim that she, and others, have “strong circular reasons to trust her epistemic faculties” (93). If such circular justification is possible, then the motivation for the role of trust is diminished. In addition, a large portion of the book is dedicated to arguments that individuals have various kinds of prima facie reasons (i.e. to believe what others believe, to trust others as I trust myself, to trust those who are conscientious).

While the arguments for these principles are quite plausible, there are several reasons to be unsatisfied. First, missing from the account is anything about the strength of these reasons or what kind of considerations would defeat these reasons. Without this further information, it is unclear what to make of these reasons and how they affect our overall outlook. Second, it is difficult to see what role these reasons can play in Zagzebski’s overall account of rationality and justification. Since, for her, rationality and justification are a matter of one’s conscientious judgments, the role of reasons seems to drop out entirely.

One’s reasons may influence their conscientious judgments, but they needn’t, and when one’s conscientious judgments go against their reasons, on Zagzebski’s view they ought to go with their judgment. For instance, in applying her account to the epistemic significance of disagreement, Zagzebski’s proposal is to resolve the dissonance resulting from discovered disagreement in accordance with what one conscientiously accords the most trust. However, on her account, significant errors regarding what one conscientiously trusts have no role to play in terms of what the subject is justified in believing. Many will see this as a significant cost since misplaced trust is not without epistemic consequences. A final concern with Zagzebski’s account of reasons concerns her preemption thesis.

Zagzebksi claims that, “the fact that the authority has a belief p is a reason for me to believe p that replaces my other reasons relevant to believing p and is not simply added to them” (107). This thesis raises some questions (i.e. where do those reasons go and can they ever return?) as well as some problems. One problem concerns ability. It is unclear how one would be able to comply with this principle and replace their current reasons. A deeper problem, however, concerns the consequences of compliance. If one looses their own reasons on an issue, they could lose information critical to both the future evaluation of the putative authority and the relevant claim. This seems to allow for a dangerous way for a putative authority to maintain its authority because the other reasons in the domain have been replaced and are no longer relevant.

Zagzebski also fails to consider cases in which an epistemic authority abuses his/her authoritative status. For instance, a noticeable gap in the book is the lack of attention paid to the problem of epistemic injustice. Perhaps even more worrisome is that Zagzebski’s account appears to actually exacerbate the problem of epistemic injustice. Prejudices can be, and often are, unintended. That is to say that a prejudiced person is likely unable to recognize his/her own prejudices. Further, biases are sticky—they don’t change easily.

Given all of this, it appears that the best way to avoid future dissonance is by adjusting the states that conflict with the biases. While such and accommodation of biases might be the most effective route to harmony, it is surely not the rational course of action. When biases survive reflection, the subject’s conscientious judgment is informed by prejudices that are both unfair and unfounded. Thus, Zagzebski’s account can be both epistemically and morally defective. Epistemically, because the hearer would miss out on a truth that, according to Zagzebski, he/she is naturally interested in acquiring (33), and morally, because an epistemic injustice could be inflicted on a person/community as a result. The apparent rational survival of biases affects our ability to accurately trust others and recognize epistemic authorities.

This problem only seems to get worse when applied to epistemic communities. Consider intergroup bias and groupthink—a community is very likely to acquire and entrench beliefs that confirm the community’s group identity, while simultaneously believing that it is thinking conscientiously. The epistemic opacity which was concerning at the individual level is only aggravated at the community level.

For Zagzebski, the community itself was formed out of chains of individual conscientious judgments, meaning that both individual and group distortions are compounded upon one another in any given community. If the gender bias survives a community’s reflection, then, under Zagzebski’s account, the community could be justified in trusting the belief that a female scientist is distrustful even when there is evidence against such belief and/or against the bias itself. This would lead to community reinforcement and distancing from others given that the community would trust the way in which they acquire beliefs (which includes trusting the bias even when they fail to recognize it) and distrust those communities that acquire beliefs in a way they don’t trust (without the bias). This appears to be highly problematic.

Zagzebski’s Epistemic Authority will no doubt play a role in shaping a number of the contemporary epistemological debates. Her connections drawn to political philosophy provide a novel way of viewing a number of epistemological problems. While we find a number of problems with Zagzebki’s final account, Epistemic Authority will be of value for anyone interested in engaging in these debates.

Author Information: Sandra Harding, University of California Los Angeles, sharding@gseis.ucla.edu

Harding, Sandra. “An Organic Logic of Research: A Response to Posey and Navarro.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 7 (2016): 22-25.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-35V

Please refer to:

harding_objectivity_diversity

Image credit: University of Chicago Press

The review by Kamila Posey and María G. Navarro of Objectivity and Diversity: Another Logic of Scientific Research is so generous to me and to this book. They clearly grasp arguments that have simply puzzled others (at best!). It is rare to get such a fine review of a book that, as they note, is challenging mainstream ways of thinking about the production of knowledge and ways of justifying it.

My only hesitation is that Posey and Navarro are too generous. A number of the positions that they attribute to me are ones that appeared first in writings of other authors.[1] And I am not just being gracious here. Some of these authors are advocating for the knowledge production needs of social justice movements around the globe—postcolonial, indigenous, and feminist. Others are critically revisiting the role that political interests played in the history of the Vienna Circle and subsequent emergence of logical positivism (logical empiricism).  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Kyung-Man Kim, Sogang University, kmkim@sogang.ac.kr

Kim, Kyung-Man. “Why is Epistemology Still Relevant to the Sociology of Science? Comments on Kale-Lostuvali’s ‘Two Sociologies of Science in Search of Truth’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 12 (2015): 29-33.

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

Please refer to:

scientia_2012

Image credit: Babouch’, via flickr

Elif Kale-Lostuvali’s paper, “Two Sociologies of Science in Search of Truth: Bourdieu Versus Latour” reads like a chapter in the sociology of science textbook for graduate students. Although she summarizes and contrasts—well, not always in a satisfactory manner—Bourdieu’s and Latour’s view on the relationship among scientific objectivity, autonomy of the scientific field and scientific truth, she fails to provide us with a persuasive critique of Bourdieu and Latour, to say nothing of a promising alternative to their views.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Massimo Campanini, University of Trento, massimo.campanini@unitn.it

Campanini, Massimo. “Science and Epistemology in Medieval Islam.” [1] Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 12 (2015): 20-28.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2v9

Please refer to:

  • Articles related to the broader discussion on Islam and science, hosted by the SERRC, are listed below the article. [a]

astrolabe

Image credit: mangpages, via flickr

“Islamic” science or “Arab” science? [2] This is a relevant question. Arabic language, the vehicle of the Islamic revelation, was as well the vehicle of great scientific knowledge although not every “Arabic” scientist was Muslim, nor was every Muslim scientist an Arab. In the very first years after the expansion of Islam, numerous Christian and Jewish investigators, and even “pagan” ones (such as the famous astronomer-philosopher Thabit Ibn Qurra from Harran, Mesopotamia, d. 901, who worshipped the stars) communicated in Arabic. The Bakhtishu’, a family of physicians from the Persian school of Gondeshapur, who served the Omayyad and ‘Abbasid Caliphs, where Nestorians. The great translators of Greek or Syriac works into Arabic were Nestorian or Jacobite such as Hunayn Ibn Ishaq (Latinized in Ioannitius), who worked at the House of Wisdom or Bayt al-Hikmah, founded in Baghdad by Caliph al-Ma’mun (813-833). Mashallah, the greatest astronomer of the courts of al-Mansur and Harun ar-Rashid (786-809), was Jewish.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Adam Riggio, McMaster University, adamriggio@gmail.com; Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-21Q

Editor’s Note:

Adam Riggio

We’ve talked about the epistemic implications of humanity’s divinity, how our scientific inquiries were conceived as bringing us closer to God, in touch with our divine nature. As I get into these other chapters, I find that the focus of your book is shifting to the epistemic implications of humanity’s profanity, how our distance from perfection is incurable. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Adam Riggio, McMaster University, adamriggio@gmail.com; Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-21c

Editor’s Note:

Nature Itself Is God’s Book

Adam Riggio

I would call the major theme of this chapter the redemption of theodicy. Why I say redemption will become clear as I go on.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Adam Riggio, McMaster University, adamriggio@gmail.com; Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-20P

Editor’s Note:

Adam Riggio

Chapter one continues to pack ideas together with incredible density. But I see two threads here, integrated with each other, and playing off each other in philosophically productive ways. I’ll start with the framework idea of your historical analysis that first struck me reading the introduction, the theological roots of modern secular epistemological issues.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Adam Riggio, McMaster University, adamriggio@gmail.com; Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-20l

Editor’s Note:

Adam Riggio

First, I want to say how much I enjoy reading your introductions, simply for their dizzying feeling. You synthesize so many ideas throughout the history of philosophy that you weave together a whole new narrative of that history in only about 20 pages. I feel as though more academic writers would consider such a new take on the discipline’s history to constitute the subject matter of a whole book. It certainly could be. But, of course, the best philosophy is always about more than the history by itself.  Continue Reading…