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Author Information: Luca Tateo, Aalborg University & Federal University of Bahia, luca@hum.aau.dk.

Tateo, Luca. “Ethics, Cogenetic Logic, and the Foundation of Meaning.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 1-8.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-44i

Mural entitled “Paseo de Humanidad” on the Mexican side of the US border wall in the city of Heroica Nogales, in Sonora. Art by Alberto Morackis, Alfred Quiróz and Guadalupe Serrano.
Image by Jonathan McIntosh, via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This essay is in reply to: Miika Vähämaa (2018) Challenges to Groups as Epistemic Communities: Liminality of Common Sense and Increasing Variability of Word Meanings, Social Epistemology, 32:3, 164-174, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1458352

In his interesting essay, Vähämaa (2018) discusses two issues that I find particularly relevant. The first one concerns the foundation of meaning in language, which in the era of connectivism (Siemens, 2005) and post-truth (Keyes, 2004) becomes problematic. The second issue is the appreciation of epistemic virtues in a collective context: how the group can enhance the epistemic skill of the individual?

I will try to explain why these problems are relevant and why it is worth developing Vähämaa’s (2018) reflection in the specific direction of group and person as complementary epistemic and ethic agents (Fricker, 2007). First, I will discuss the foundations of meaning in different theories of language. Then, I will discuss the problems related to the stability and liminality of meaning in the society of “popularity”. Finally I will propose the idea that the range of contemporary epistemic virtues should be integrated by an ethical grounding of meaning and a co-genetic foundation of meaning.

The Foundation of Meaning in Language

The theories about the origins of human language can be grouped in four main categories, based on the elements characterizing the ontogenesis and glottogenesis.

Sociogenesis Hypothesis (SH): it is the idea that language is a conventional product, that historically originates from coordinated social activities and it is ontogenetically internalized through individual participation to social interactions. The characteristic authors in SH are Wundt, Wittgenstein and Vygotsky (2012).

Praxogenesis Hypothesis (PH): it is the idea that language historically originates from praxis and coordinated actions. Ontogenetically, the language emerges from senso-motory coordination (e.g. gaze coordination). It is for instance the position of Mead, the idea of linguistic primes in Smedslund (Vähämaa, 2018) and the language as action theory of Austin (1975).

Phylogenesis Hypothesis (PhH): it is the idea that humans have been provided by evolution with an innate “language device”, emerging from the evolutionary preference for forming social groups of hunters and collective long-duration spring care (Bouchard, 2013). Ontogenetically, language predisposition is wired in the brain and develops in the maturation in social groups. This position is represented by evolutionary psychology and by innatism such as Chomsky’s linguistics.

Structure Hypothesis (StH): it is the idea that human language is a more or less logic system, in which the elements are determined by reciprocal systemic relationships, partly conventional and partly ontic (Thao, 2012). This hypothesis is not really concerned with ontogenesis, rather with formal features of symbolic systems of distinctions. It is for instance the classical idea of Saussure and of the structuralists like Derrida.

According to Vähämaa (2018), every theory of meaning has to deal today with the problem of a terrific change in the way common sense knowledge is produced, circulated and modified in collective activities. Meaning needs some stability in order to be of collective utility. Moreover, meaning needs some validation to become stable.

The PhH solves this problem with a simple idea: if humans have survived and evolved, their evolutionary strategy about meaning is successful. In a natural “hostile” environment, our ancestors must have find the way to communicate in such a way that a danger would be understood in the same way by all the group members and under different conditions, including when the danger is not actually present, like in bonfire tales or myths.

The PhH becomes problematic when we consider the post-truth era. What would be the evolutionary advantage to deconstruct the environmental foundations of meaning, even in a virtual environment? For instance, what would be the evolutionary advantage of the common sense belief that global warming is not a reality, considered that this false belief could bring mankind to the extinction?

StH leads to the view of meaning as a configuration of formal conditions. Thus, stability is guaranteed by structural relations of the linguistic system, rather than by the contribution of groups or individuals as epistemic agents. StH cannot account for the rapidity and liminality of meaning that Vähämaa (2018) attributes to common sense nowadays. SH and PH share the idea that meaning emerges from what people do together, and that stability is both the condition and the product of the fact that we establish contexts of meaningful actions, ways of doing things in a habitual way.

The problem is today the fact that our accelerated Western capitalistic societies have multiplied the ways of doing and the number of groups in society, decoupling the habitual from the common sense meaning. New habits, new words, personal actions and meanings are built, disseminated and destroyed in short time. So, if “Our lives, with regard to language and knowledge, are fundamentally bound to social groups” (Vähämaa, 2018, p. 169) what does it happen to language and to knowledge when social groups multiply, segregate and disappear in a short time?

From Common Sense to the Bubble

The grounding of meaning in the group as epistemic agent has received a serious stroke in the era of connectivism and post-truth. The idea of connectivism is that knowledge is distributed among the different agents of a collective network (Siemens, 2005). Knowledge does not reside into the “mind” or into a “memory”, but is rather produced in bits and pieces, that the epistemic agent is required to search, and to assemble through the contribution of the collective effort of the group’s members.

Thus, depending on the configuration of the network, different information will be connected, and different pictures of the world will emerge. The meaning of the words will be different if, for instance, the network of information is aggregated by different groups in combination with, for instance, specific algorithms. The configuration of groups, mediated by social media, as in the case of contemporary politics (Lewandowsky, Ecker & Cook, 2017), leads to the reproduction of “bubbles” of people that share the very same views, and are exposed to the very same opinions, selected by an algorithm that will show only the content compliant with their previous content preferences.

The result is that the group loses a great deal of its epistemic capability, which Vähämaa (2018) suggests as a foundation of meaning. The meaning of words that will be preferred in this kind of epistemic bubble is the result of two operations of selection that are based on popularity. First, the meaning will be aggregated by consensual agents, rather than dialectic ones. Meaning will always convergent rather than controversial.

Second, between alternative meanings, the most “popular” will be chosen, rather than the most reliable. The epistemic bubble of connectivism originates from a misunderstanding. The idea is that a collectivity has more epistemic force than the individual alone, to the extent that any belief is scrutinized democratically and that if every agent can contribute with its own bit, the knowledge will be more reliable, because it is the result of a constant and massive peer-review. Unfortunately, the events show us a different picture.

Post-truth is actually a massive action of epistemic injustice (Fricker, 2007), to the extent that the reliability of the other as epistemic agent is based on criteria of similarity, rather than on dialectic. One is reliable as long as it is located within my own bubble. Everything outside is “fake news”. The algorithmic selection of information contributes to reinforce the polarization. Thus, no hybridization becomes possible, the common sense (Vähämaa, 2018) is reduced to the common bubble. How can the epistemic community still be a source of meaning in the connectivist era?

Meaning and Common Sense

SH and PH about language point to a very important historical source: the philosopher Giambattista Vico (Danesi, 1993; Tateo, 2015). Vico can be considered the scholar of the common sense and the imagination (Tateo, 2015). Knowledge is built as product of human experience and crystallized into the language of a given civilization. Civilization is the set of interpretations and solutions that different groups have found to respond to the common existential events, such as birth, death, mating, natural phenomena, etc.

According to Vico, all the human beings share a fate of mortal existence and rely on each other to get along. This is the notion of common sense: the profound sense of humanity that we all share and that constitutes the ground for human ethical choices, wisdom and collective living. Humans rely on imagination, before reason, to project themselves into others and into the world, in order to understand them both. Imagination is the first step towards the understanding of the Otherness.

When humans loose contact with this sensus communis, the shared sense of humanity, and start building their meaning on egoism or on pure rationality, civilizations then slip into barbarism. Imagination gives thus access to the intersubjectivity, the capability of feeling the other, while common sense constitutes the wisdom of developing ethical beliefs that will not harm the other. Vico ideas are echoed and made present by the critical theory:

“We have no doubt (…) that freedom in society is inseparable from enlightenment thinking. We believe we have perceived with equal clarity, however, that the very concept of that thinking (…) already contains the germ of the regression which is taking place everywhere today. If enlightenment does not [engage in] reflection on this regressive moment, it seals its own fate (…) In the mysterious willingness of the technologically educated masses to fall under the spell of any despotism, in its self-destructive affinity to nationalist paranoia (…) the weakness of contemporary theoretical understanding is evident.” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002, xvi)

Common sense is the basis for the wisdom, that allows to question the foundational nature of the bubble. It is the basis to understand that every meaning is not only defined in a positive way, but is also defined by its complementary opposite (Tateo, 2016).

When one uses the semantic prime “we” (Vähämaa, 2018), one immediately produces a system of meaning that implies the existence of a “non-we”, one is producing otherness. In return, the meaning of “we” can only be clearly defined through the clarification of who is “non-we”. Meaning is always cogenetic (Tateo, 2015). Without the capability to understand that by saying “we” people construct a cogenetic complex of meaning, the group is reduced to a self confirming, self reinforcing collective, in which the sense of being a valid epistemic agent is actually faked, because it is nothing but an act of epistemic arrogance.

How we can solve the problem of the epistemic bubble and give to the relationship between group and person a real epistemic value? How we can overcome the dangerous overlapping between sense of being functional in the group and false beliefs based on popularity?

Complementarity Between Meaning and Sense

My idea is that we must look in that complex space between the “meaning”, understood as a collectively shared complex of socially constructed significations, and the “sense”, understood as the very personal elaboration of meaning which is based on the person’s uniqueness (Vygotsky, 2012; Wertsck, 2000). Meaning and sense feed into each other, like common sense and imagination. Imagination is the psychic function that enables the person to feel into the other, and thus to establish the ethical and affective ground for the common sense wisdom. It is the empathic movement on which Kant will later on look for a logic foundation.

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” (Kant 1993, p. 36. 4:429)

I would further claim that maybe they feed into each other: the logic foundation is made possible by the synthetic power of empathic imagination. Meaning and sense feed into each other. On the one hand, the collective is the origin of internalized psychic activities (SH), and thus the basis for the sense elaborated about one’s own unique life experience. On the other hand, the personal sense constitutes the basis for the externalization of the meaning into the arena of the collective activities, constantly innovating the meaning of the words.

So, personal sense can be a strong antidote to the prevailing force of the meaning produced for instance in the epistemic bubble. My sense of what is “ought”, “empathic”, “human” and “ethic”, in other words my wisdom, can help me to develop a critical stance towards meanings that are build in a self-feeding uncritical way.

Can the dialectic, complementary and cogenetic relationship between sense and meaning become the ground for a better epistemic performance, and for an appreciation of the liminal meaning produced in contemporary societies? In the last section, I will try to provide arguments in favor of this idea.

Ethical Grounding of Meaning

If connectivistic and post-truth societies produce meanings that are based on popularity check, rather than on epistemic appreciation, we risk to have a situation in which any belief is the contingent result of a collective epistemic agent which replicates its patterns into bubbles. One will just listen to messages that confirm her own preferences and belief and reject the different ones as unreliable. Inside the bubble there is no way to check the meaning, because the meaning is not cogenetic, it is consensual.

For instance, if I read and share a post on social media, claiming that migrants are the main criminal population, despite my initial position toward the news, there is the possibility that within my group I will start to see only posts confirming the initial fact. The fact can be proven wrong, for instance by the press, but the belief will be hard to change, as the meaning of “migrant” in my bubble is likely to continue being that of “criminal”. The collectivity will share an epistemically unjust position, to the extent that it will attribute a lessened epistemic capability to those who are not part of the group itself. How can one avoid that the group is scaffolding the “bad” epistemic skills, rather than empowering the individual (Vähämaa, 2018)?

The solution I propose is to develop an epistemic virtue based on two main principles: the ethical grounding of meaning and the cogenetic logic. The ethical grounding of meaning is directly related to the articulation between common sense and wisdom in the sense of Vico (Tateo, 2015). In a post-truth world in which we cannot appreciate the epistemic foundation of meaning, we must rely on a different epistemic virtue in order to become critical toward messages. Ethical grounding, based on the personal sense of humanity, is not of course epistemic test of reliability, but it is an alarm bell to become legitimately suspicious toward meanings. The second element of the new epistemic virtue is cogenetic logic (Tateo, 2016).

Meaning is grounded in the building of every belief as a complementary system between “A” and “non-A”. This implies that any meaning is constructed through the relationship with its complementary opposite. The truth emerges in a double dialectic movement (Silva Filho, 2014): through Socratic dialogue and through cogenetic logic. In conclusion, let me try to provide a practical example of this epistemic virtue.

The way to start to discriminate potentially fake news or the tendentious interpretations of facts would be essentially based on an ethic foundation. As in Vico’s wisdom of common sense, I would base my epistemic scrutiny on the imaginative work that allows me to access the other and on the cogenetic logic that assumes every meaning is defined by its relationship with the opposite.

Let’s imagine that we are exposed to a post on social media, in which someone states that a caravan of migrants, which is travelling from Honduras across Central America toward the USA border, is actually made of criminals sent by hostile foreign governments to destabilize the country right before elections. The same post claims that it is a conspiracy and that all the press coverage is fake news.

Finally the post presents some “debunking” pictures showing some athletic young Latino men, with their faces covered by scarves, to demonstrate that the caravan is not made by families with children, but is made by “soldiers” in good shape and who don’t look poor and desperate as the “mainstream” media claim. I do not know whether such a post has ever been made, but I just assembled elements of very common discourses circulating in the social media.

The task is no to assess the nature of this message, its meaning and its reliability. I could rely on the group as a ground for assessing statements, to scrutinize their truth and justification. However, due to the “bubble” effect, I may fall into a simple tautological confirmation, due to the configuration of the network of my relations. I would probably find only posts confirming the statements and delegitimizing the opposite positions. In this case, the fact that the group will empower my epistemic confidence is a very dangerous element.

I could limit my search for alternative positions to establish a dialogue. However, I could not be able, alone, to find information that can help me to assess the statement with respect to its degree of bias. How can I exert my skepticism in a context of post-truth? I propose some initial epistemic moves, based on a common sense approach to the meaning-making.

1) I must be skeptical of every message which uses a violent, aggressive, discriminatory language, and that such kind of message is “fake” by default.

2) I must be skeptical of every message that treats as criminals or is against whole social groups, even on the basis of real isolated events, because this interpretation is biased by default.

3) I must be skeptical of every message that attacks or targets persons for their characteristics rather than discussing ideas or behaviors.

Appreciating the hypothetical post about the caravan by the three rules above mentioned, one will immediately see that it violates all of them. Thus, no matter what is the information collected by my epistemic bubble, I have justified reasons to be skeptical towards it. The foundation of the meaning of the message will not be neither in the group nor in the person. It will be based on the ethical position of common sense’s wisdom.

Contact details: luca@hum.aau.dk

References

Austin, J. L. (1975). How to do things with words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bouchard, D. (2013). The nature and origin of language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Danesi, M. (1993). Vico, metaphor, and the origin of language. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford University Press.

Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (2002). Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Kant, I. (1993) [1785]. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Ellington, James W. (3rd ed.). Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett.

Keyes, R. (2004). The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life. New York: St. Martin’s.

Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U. K., & Cook, J. (2017). Beyond misinformation: Understanding and coping with the “post-truth” era. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 6(4), 353-369.

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1) http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Jan_05/article01.htm

Silva Filho, W. J. (2014). Davidson: Dialog, dialectic, interpretation. Utopía y praxis latinoamericana, 7(19).

Tateo, L. (2015). Giambattista Vico and the psychological imagination. Culture & Psychology, 21(2), 145-161.

Tateo, L. (2016). Toward a cogenetic cultural psychology. Culture & Psychology, 22(3), 433-447.

Thao, T. D. (2012). Investigations into the origin of language and consciousness. New York: Springer.

Vähämaa, M. (2018). Challenges to Groups as Epistemic Communities: Liminality of Common Sense and Increasing Variability of Word Meanings, Social Epistemology, 32:3, 164-174, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1458352

Vygotsky, L. S. (2012). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.

Wertsck, J. V. (2000). Vygotsky’s Two Minds on the Nature of Meaning. In C. D. Lee & P. Smagorinsky (eds), Vygotskian perspectives on literacy research: Constructing meaning through collaborative inquiry (pp. 19-30). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Author Information: Jim Butcher, Canterbury Christ Church University, jim.butcher@canterbury.ac.uk.

Butcher, Jim. “Questioning the Epistemology of Decolonise: The Case of Geography.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 12-24.

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

Maori dancers about to perform at the 2017 Turangawaewae Regatta in New Zealand.
Image by Hone Tho via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This paper was prompted by the prominence of new arguments in favour of ‘decolonising geography. This was taken by the 2017 Royal Geographical Society–Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IGB) annual conference as its theme, with many preparatory papers in Area and Transactions and sessions organised around this. In both, to ‘decolonise’ was presented as an imperative for geography as a field of study, and for all geographers within it, to address urgently (Daigle and Sundberg, 2017; Jazeel, 2017).

In the USA, the annual American Association of Geographers (AAG) conference in New Orleans of 2018 also featured a number of well attended sessions that took the same perspective. The number of journal articles published advocating decolonialism has also increased sharply in the last two years.

The spirit in which this paper is written is supportive of new debates in the academy, and supportive of the equality goals of decolonise. However it takes issue with important assumptions that, it is argued, will not advance the cause of marginalised or of geography as a discipline.

The paper is in three related parts, each written in the spirit of raising debate. First it considers the principal knowledge claim of decolonise: that a distinctly Western epistemology presents itself as a universal way of knowing, and that this is complicit in colonialism of the past and coloniality of the present through its undermining of a pluriverse of ontologies and consequent diversity of epistemologies (Sundberg, 2014; Grosfoguel, 2007; Mignolo, 2007). The paper also illustrates further how this principle of decolonialism is articulated in some key geographical debates. It then highlights a number of contradictions in and questions with this epistemological claim.

Second, decolonialism’s critique of universalist epistemology is effectively, and often explicitly, a critique of the Enlightenment, as Enlightenment humanism established knowledge as a product of universal rationality rather that varied cultures or deities (Pagden, 2015; Malik, 2014). The paper argues that decolonialism marks a retreat from what was positive about the Enlightenment tradition: the capacity of (geographical) knowledge to transcend time and place, and hence act as universal knowledge.

In conclusion I briefly broach the value of decolonising geography in terms of its claim to be challenging injustice. I suggest that a truly humanist and universalist approach to knowledge has more to offer geographers seeking ways to tackle inequality and differential access to the process of producing knowledge than has the epistemic relativism of decolonize.

The Epistemological Claim of Decolonise

One of the claims made prominently at the conference and elsewhere by advocates of decolonisation is that geographical knowledge can be ‘Western’ (Radcliffe, 2017), ‘Eurocentric’ (Jazeel, 2017) ‘colonial’ (Baldwin, 2017; Noxolo, 2017) or ‘imperial’ (Tolia-Kelly, 2017; Connell, 2007 & 2017). This is not just a question of a close link between geographical knowledge and Western interests per se – it is well established that geographical understanding has developed through and been utilised for partial, often brutal, interests. For example, one of the principal figures in the history of UK geography, Halford Mackinder, regarded geography as central to Britain’s colonial mission (Livingstone, 1992).

At issue here is an epistemological one: Do the ideas, theories and techniques that today’s geographers have inherited constitute a universal geographical tradition of human knowledge to be passed on, built upon and critiqued, or; are the ideas, theories and techniques themselves ‘saturated in colonialism’ (Radcliffe, 2017: 329) and hence part of a particular system of knowledge in urgent need of decolonisation.

In his advocacy of decolonialism, Grosfoguel (2007: 212) argues that it is wrong to say that ‘there is one sole epistemic tradition from which to achieve truth and universality’. Rather, he and other decolonial theorists argue for a pluriverse – a variety of ways of knowing corresponding to different historical experience and culture (Sundberg, 2014; Mignolo, 2013).

Decolonialism holds that systems of knowledge existing in colonised societies were effectively undermined by the false universal claims of the West, claims that were in turn inextricably bound up with colonialism itself. Hence in this formulation the persistence of the ‘sole epistemic tradition’ of ‘the West’ well after formal decolonisation has taken place ensures the continuation of a discriminatory culture of ‘coloniality’ (Grosfoguel, ibid.).

As a result it is not deemed sufficient to oppose colonialism or its legacy within the parameters of contemporary (geographical) thought, as that thought is itself the product of a Western epistemology complicit in colonialism and the denial of other ways of knowing. Jazeel quotes Audre Lorde to accentuate this: ‘the masters tools will never demolish the masters house’ (2017: 335).

This leads decolonial theory to argue that there needs to be a delinking from Western colonial epistemology (Mignolo, 2007). Here they part company with many post-colonial, liberal and Left arguments against colonialism and racism and for national independence and equal rights. These latter perspectives are viewed as unable to demolish the ‘masters house’, as they are using the ‘master’s tools’.

For Grosfoguel, rights – the basis around which almost all liberation struggles have been fought for the last 250 years – are ‘ … articulated to the simultaneous production and reproduction of an international division of labour of core / periphery that overlaps with the global racial / ethnic hierarchy of Europeans / non-Europeans’ (2007: 214). Rights discourse, as with ‘Western’ knowledge, is regarded as part of a Cartesian ‘Western global design’ (ibid.).

The relationship to the Enlightenment, then, is key. Enlightenment ideas are associated with modernity: the mastery of nature by people, as well as notions of rights and the social contract that influenced the development of the modern state. But for decolonial thinkers, modernity itself is inextricably tied to colonialism (Grosfoguel, 2007; Mignolo, 2007). Hence the challenge for decolonisation is to oppose not just colonialism and inequality, but also the Enlightenment universalism that shapes academic disciplines and fields including geography (ibid.).

Decolonial theory proposes in its stead the pluriverse of ways of knowing (Sundberg, 2014). For example (Blaser, 2012: 7) writes of a ‘pluriverse with multiple and distinct ontologies or worlds’ that ‘bring themselves into being and sustain themselves even as they interact, interfere and mingle with each other’ under asymmetrical circumstances (my italics). Effectively this answers philosopher Ernest Gellner’s rhetorical question: ‘Is there but one world or are there many’ (Gellner,1987: 83) with the clear answer ‘many’.

It is important at this point to distinguish between a plurality of ideas, influences and cultures, as opposed to a pluriverse of ontologies; different worlds. The former is uncontentious – openness to ideas from other societies has to be progressive, and this is evident throughout history, if not self evident.

Cities and ports have played an important role in the mixing of cultures and ideas, and often have proved to be the drivers of scientific and social advance. Scientists have learned much from traditional practices, and have been able to systematise and apply that knowledge in other contexts. Equally, reviewing curricula to consider the case for the inclusion of different concepts, theories and techniques is a worthwhile exercise.

A pluriverse of ways of knowing has much greater implications, as it posits diverse systems of knowledge as opposed to a diversity of viewpoints per se.

The Debate in Geography

The RGS-IGB 2017 Annual Conference call for sessions set out the aim of decolonising geographical knowledges as being to ‘to query implicitly universal claims to knowledges associated with the west, and further interrogate how such knowledges continue to marginalise and discount places, people, knowledges across the world’ (RGS-IGB, 2017).

Recent papers advocating decolonise argue in similar vein. Radcliffe argues that: ‘Decolonial writers argue that the modern episteme is always and intrinsically saturated with coloniality’ (2017: 329), hence the need to be alert to ‘multiple, diverse epistemic and ethical projects’ and to ‘delink’ from ‘Euro-American frameworks’ (ibid. 330). She goes on to argue that decoloniality should cover all aspects of geographical education: ‘racism and colonial modern epistemic privileging are often found in students selection and progress; course design, curriculum content; pedagogies; staff recruitment; resource allocation; and research priorities and debates’ (ibid. 331).

This challenge to the development of knowledge as a universal human endeavour, across history and culture, is often regarded not only as an issue for geographers, but is posed as a moral and political imperative (Elliot-Cooper, 2017; Jazeel, 2017 ). For Elliott-Cooper:

Geographers sit at a historical crossroads in academia, and there is no middle, benevolent way forward. We can either attempt to ignore, and implicitly reproduce the imperial logics that have influenced the shape of British geography since its inception, or actively rethink and dismantle imperialism’s afterlife by unlearning the unjust global hierarchies of knowledge production on which much of the Empires legitimacy was based. (2017:334)

To see contemporary geography as an expression of ‘imperialism’s afterlife’ serves to dramatically reinforce a sense of geographical knowledge – knowledge itself, not its origin or application – as ‘colonial’ or ‘imperial’. This approach often involves eschewing one’s own, or ‘Western’, knowledge in favour of that of marginalised people. Two academics, reflecting on their teaching, state: ‘Our efforts do not even begin to live up to decolonial land based pedagogies being implemented across indigenous communities‘ (Daigle and Sundberg, 2017: 339).

This deference to ‘land based pedagogies’, speaks to an eschewal modern geographical knowledge and method in favour of a plurality of knowledges, but with authority granted on the basis of indigeneity. Noxolo makes a similar case, arguing that ‘[t]here are material conditions of experience out of which both postcolonial and, crucially decolonial, writings emerge’ (2017: 342). Emphasis is placed on intellectual authority of the lived experience of the marginalised.

We may well want to read something due to the experience of the writer, or to consider how a society gathers information, precisely in order to begin to understand perspectives and conditions of others who’s lives may be very different to our own. But these writings enter into a world of ideas, theories and techniques in which individual geographers can judge their usefulness, veracity and explanatory power. The extent to which they are judged favourably as knowledge may well depend upon how far they transcend the conditions in which they were produced rather than their capacity to represent varied experience.

This is not at all to denigrate accounts based more directly upon lived experience and the diverse techniques and ideas that arise out of that, but simply to recognise the importance of generalisation, systematisation and abstraction in the production of knowledge that can have a universal veracity and capacity to help people in any context to understand and act upon the world we collectively inhabit.

Contradictions: Geography’s History and Darwin

There is a strong case against the epistemic relativism of decolonialism. Geographical thought is premised upon no more and no less that the impulse to understand the world around us in order to act upon it, whether we seek to conserve, harness or transform. Geographical knowledge qua knowledge is not tied to place, person or context in the way decolonise assumes – it is better understood not as the product of a pluriverse of ways of knowing the world, but a diverse universe of experience.

From ancient Greece onwards, and indeed prior to that, human societies have developed the capacity to act upon the world in pursuit of their ends, and to reflect upon their role in doing that. Geography – ‘earth writing’ – a term first used in 3,000 BC by scholars in Alexandria, is part of that humanistic tradition. From Herodotus mapping the Nile and considering its flow in 450 BC, up to today’s sophisticated Geographical Information Systems, knowledge confers the capacity to act.

How elites act is shaped by their societies and what they considered to be their political and economic goals. But the knowledge and techniques developed provide the basis for subsequent developments in knowledge, often in quite different societies. Knowledge and technique cross boundaries – the greater the capacity to travel and trade, the greater too the exchange of ideas on map making, agriculture, navigation and much else.

The 15th century explorer Prince Henry the Navigator acted in the interests of the Portuguese crown and instigated the slave trade, but was also a midwife to modern science. He was intrigued by the myth of Prester John, yet he also helped to see off the myths of seamonsters. His discoveries fueled a questioning of the notion that knowledge came from the external authority of a god, and a growing scientific spirit began to decentre mysticism and religion, a process that was later consolidated in the Enlightenment (Livingstone, 1992). Geographical knowledge – including that you were not going to sail off the end of the world, and that sea monsters are not real – stands as knowledge useful for any society or any individual, irrespective of Portugal’s leading role in the slave trade at this time.

So whilst of course it is important to consider and study the people, the society and interests involved in the production of knowledge, is also important to see knowledge’s universal potential. This is something downplayed by the calls to decolonise – knowledge and even technique seem at times to be tainted by the times in which they were developed and by the individuals who did the developing.

Deciding what is the best of this, always a worthy pursuit, may involve re-evaluating contributions from a variety of sources. Involvement in these sources, in the production of knowledge, may be shaped by national or racial oppression, poverty and access to resources, but it has little to do with epistemic oppression (Fricker, 1999).

Take for example, Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1998, original 1859). Darwin’s research involved all of the features regarded as ‘imperial’ by Connell (2007) and by other advocates of decolonialism: an association with the military (The Beagle was a military ship) and the use of others’ societies for data gathering without their consent or involvement. The voyage was funded by the British state who were engaged in colonial domination. Geography and scientific voyages were closely linked with imperial ambition (Livingstone, 1992).

Yet Darwin’s theory marked a major breakthrough in the understanding of evolution regardless of this context. As an explorer sponsored by the British imperialist state, and having benefitted from a good education, Darwin as an individual was clearly better placed to make this breakthrough that native inhabitants of Britain’s colonies or the Galapagos Islands – he had ‘privilege’ and he was ‘white’, two terms often used by decolonial activists to qualify or deny the authority of truth claims. Yet the Origin of the Species stands regardless of context as a ground breaking step forward in human understanding.

Darwinism has another link to colonialism. Social Darwinism was to provide the pseudo- scientific justification for the racism that in turn legitimised the imperialist Scramble for Africa and attendant racial extermination (Malik, 1997). Yet the veracity of Darwin’s theory is not diminished by the horrors justified through its bastardisation as Social Darwinism. Contrary to the view key to decolonialism, geographical knowledge can be sound and an advance on previous thinking regardless of the uses and misuses to which it is put. That is in no way to legitimise those uses, but simply to recognise that ideas that have a universal veracity emerge from particular, contradictory and often (especially from the perspective of today) reactionary contexts.

Geographical knowledge can be (mis)understood and (mis)used to further particular politics. Darwin’s ideas received a cool reception amongst those in the American South who believed that God had created wholly separate races with a differential capacity for intellect and reason. In New Zealand the same ideas were welcomed as a basis for an assumed superior group of colonisers taking over from an assumed less evolved, inferior group. This was in the context of struggle between Mauri and land hungry colonialists.

For Marx, Darwinism provided a metaphor for class struggle. For economic liberals social Darwinism buttressed the notion of laisser-faire free trade. Anarchist geographer Kropotkin advocated small scale cooperative societies – survival of those who cooperate, as they are best fitted for survival (Livingstone, 1992). So as well as being produced in contexts of power and inequality, knowledge is also mobilised in such contexts.

However Darwin’s theory as the highest expression of human understanding of its time in its field stands regardless of these interpretations and mobilisations, to be accepted or criticised according to reason and scientific evidence alone. Geographical and scientific theory clearly does have the potential to constitute universal knowledge, and its capacity to do so is not limited by the context within which it emerged, or the interests of those who developed it. We cannot decolonise knowledge that is not, itself, colonial.

Decolonialism’s Critique of Enlightenment Universalism

It is clear that the epistemology of decolonialism is based, often explicitly, upon a critique of the Enlightenment and its orientation towards knowledge and truth. Emejulu states this clearly in a piece titled Another University is Possible (2017). She accepts that the Enlightenment viewed all men as endowed with rationality and logic, and with inalienable rights, that human authority was replacing the church – all the positive, humanist claims that defenders of the Enlightenment would cite.

However, she questions who is included in ‘Man’ – who counts as human in Enlightenment humanism? How universal is Enlightenment universalism? Who can be part of European modernity? She argues that the restriction of the category of those who are to be free was intrinsic to Enlightenment thought – i.e. it was a Western Enlightenment, not only geographically, but in essence. Knowledge, ideas themselves, can be ‘Eurocentric,’ ‘Western’ or even (increasingly) ‘white’ in the eyes of advocates of decoloniality.

Emejulu quotes Mills from his book The Racial Contract (1999):

The contemporary interpretation of the Enlightenment obscures its exclusion of women, ‘savages’, slaves and indigenous peoples through the prevailing racial science as inherently irrational beings. Savages – or the colonial other: the Native or Aboriginal peoples, the African, the Indian, the slave – were constructed as subhuman, incapable of logical reasoning and thus not subject to the equality or liberty enjoyed by ‘men’. It is here, in the hierarchies of modernity that we can understand the central role of racism in shaping the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is brought into being by Europe’s colonial entanglements and is wholly dependent on its particular patriarchal relations – which Europe, in turn, imposed on its colonial subjects.

So these authors argue that the Enlightenment did not establish, nor establish the potential for, universal freedoms and rights or knowledge either, but that it stemmed from particular interests and experiences, and played the role of enforcing the domination of those interests. Humanistic notions of the pursuit of knowledge are considered partial, as a false universalist flag raised in the service of Western colonialism.

Matthew Arnold’s 19th century liberal humanist vision of knowledge (in schools) referring to ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits’ (Arnold, 1869: viii) is rejected in favour of a view of knowledge itself as relative to incommensurate diverse human experience. This perspectival view of knowledge is central to the advocacy of decolonialism.

Sundberg (2014: 38), citing Blaser (2009), claims that the concept of the universal is itself ‘inherently colonial’, and can only exist through ‘performances’ that ‘tend to suppress and / or contain the enactment of other possible worlds’. This is a striking rejection of universality. Whilst logically universal claims can undermine different ways to think about the world, assuming that this in inherent in universal thinking questions geographical thought from any source that aspires to transcend diverse experience and be judged as part of a global geographical conversation across time and space.

Whilst this point is made by Sundberg to deny the wider veracity of Western thinking, logically it would apply to others too – it suggests Southern scholars, too, should not aspire to speak too far outside of their assumed ontological and epistemological identities in search of universal truths.

Saigon Opera House in Ho Chi Minh City.
Image by David McKelvey via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In Defence of the Enlightenment Legacy

The view as set out by Emejulu (2017) and implicit or explicit through much of literature is both one sided and also a misreading of the Enlightenment. Many Enlightenment thinkers articulated ideas that were new and revolutionary in that they posited two things: the centrality of humanity in making the world in which we live (through reason and through scientific understanding replacing religious and mystical views of one’s place and possibilities), and; the possibility and moral desirability of universal freedoms from subjection by others – natural, universal rights applicable to all. Both the study of the world, and the idea that people within the world were equal and free, were central to the Enlightenment (Pagden, 2015; Malik, 2014).

However, these ideas emerged within and through a world of interests, prejudices and limitations. So there is a dialectical relationship: the new ideas that point to the possibility and desirability of human equality and freedom, and the world as it was which, as Emejulu rightly says, was far from free or equal and far from becoming so.

Consider the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 – a document shaped by the new ideas of the Enlightenment, and associated with freedom and rights subsequently. Some of its signatories and drafters, including Thomas Jefferson, were slaveholders or had a stake in the slave trade. Yet the Declaration served as an emblem for opponents of slavery and inequality for the next 200 years.

The most famous clause in the Declaration states: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ (US Congress, 1776). At the time principled abolitionists played on the contradiction between the grand ideas and the practice of men like Jefferson. Some even argued that the clause relating to the ‘right of revolution’ (which was there to justify fighting for independence from the British) could apply to slaves who were not being treated equally.

Martin Luther King referenced the Declaration in his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech at the Washington for Jobs and Freedom Demonstration of August 28, 1963: ‘When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ (King, 1991: 217). King’s speech, holding society to account by its own highest, universal moral standards, was in a long and noble tradition.

In the same vein the French Revolution’s Declaration on the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1791) also states: ‘All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.’ The dialectical tension between by the ideas that informed the French Revolution and the reality of the society is well illustrated by CLR James in The Black Jacobins (2001, original 1938). James writes of the Haitian revolution, a revolution in revolutionary France’s colony, in which slaves and their leaders took the ideas of the revolutionaries at their word. They directly confronted the limits of the revolution by insisting that its demand for liberty, fraternity and equality be made truly universal and applied to themselves, the slaves in the colonies.

The force of these Enlightenment influenced universalist conceptions of humanity, central to both Declarations, feature throughout the history of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. For example, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnamese Declaration of Independence in 1945 cites both the famous ‘all men are created equal’ clause from the American Declaration, and its equivalent in the French Declaration, to accuse both of these imperialist countries of denying these ‘undeniable truths’ (Ho Chi Minh, 1945). In the Vietnamese Declaration it was assumed that the denial of Enlightenment ideals, not their assertion, characterised colonialism and imperialism. This is reversed in decolonial theory.

Equally, colonialism involved the denial of the fruits of modern geographical knowledge and technique, not an imposition of ‘colonial’ ideas. Just as geographic technique and knowledge developed in the imperialist West no doubt played a dark role in the war in Vietnam – not least cartography in charting bombing missions – so those same tools (or more advanced versions) in mapping, agriculture and much else are utilised today to enable a sovereign Vietnam look to a better future.

Enlightenment ideas, expressed in the American Declaration of Independence and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, were drafted by people complicit in slavery and formed a rational and moral basis for equality. The former does not contradict the latter. In similar vein geographical knowledge was harnessed to oppress, and provided the basis for post- colonial governments to progress. The Declarations were both of their time and transcendent of their time, as is good geographical knowledge. It is in the latter sense that we judge their worth as knowledge to help us understand and act upon the world today.

There is much else to be said about the Enlightenment of course. There were great diversity and contradictions within it. What Enlightenment scholar Jonathan Israel (2009) terms the Radical Enlightenment consisted of thinkers who pushed at the contradiction between the potential in Enlightenment thought and some of the backward beliefs prevalent amongst their contemporaries. They went well beyond the limiting assumption of humanity characteristic of their time: that some were capable of citizenship rights, and others were not.

Thomas Paine argued against slavery on the grounds that it infringed the universal (natural) right to human freedom. He did not restrict his category of ‘Man’ to western Man. He criticised colonialism too. He argued that Africans were productive, peaceful citizens in their own countries, until the English enslaved them (Paine, 1774). Diderot, Raynal, d’Holbach and others contributed to a 1770 volume titled Histoire Philosophique des Deux Indes (The Philosophical History of the Two Indies). The book asserts that ‘natural liberty is the right which nature has given to everyone to dispose of himself according to his will’. It prophesied and defended the revolutionary overthrow of slavery: ‘The negroes only want a chief, sufficiently courageous to lead them to vengeance and slaughter… Where is the new Spartacus?’ (cited in Malik, 2017).

So Emejulu’s account, and the assumption of decolonialism, are wrong. The issue is not that the Enlightenment is racist and partial, and the intellectual traditions that draw upon its legacy comprise ‘imperial’ or ‘colonial’ knowledge. Rather, the Enlightenment put reason and rationality, scientific method and the potential for liberty and equality at the centre of intellectual and political life. It provided a basis for common, human pursuit of knowledge.

The growth of scientific method associated with the Enlightenment, as an orientation towards knowledge, was not linked to any particular culture or deity, but to universal reason (Malik, 2014). The implication of this is that theories should be judged for their capacity to explain and predict, concepts for their capacity to illuminate and techniques for their efficacy. That they should be judged with consideration for (or even deference towards) the identity, political or social, of their originator, or with regard to context or contemporary use – all key to decolonialism – undermines the pursuit of truth as a universal, human project.

Knowledge, theories and techniques are better seen as having the capacity to transcend place and power. The veracity of a theory, the usefulness of a concept or the efficacy of a technique are remarkably unaffected by their origin and their context. Audre Lorde’s idiom, ‘The masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house’, invoked by Jazeel (2017: 335) to argue that the traditions of knowledge and rights associated with the West cannot be the basis for the liberation of the non-West, is simply untrue in this context. The anti-colonial and anti-racist movements of the past achieved a massive amount through struggles that explicitly drew upon iconic assertions of the ‘Western’ Enlightenment. There is clearly some way to go.

Concluding Thoughts: Decolonialism and Liberation

To decolonise has been presented as a moral imperative connected to liberation (Jazeel, 2017; Elliot-Cooper, 2017). I think it is better regarded as one approach, premised upon particular political views and assumptions such as critical race theory and the intersectional politics of identity. In its advocacy of an ontological pluriverse and of diverse systems of knowledge, there is one knowledge claim that cannot be allowed – the claim that knowledge, from any source, ultimately, can aspire to be universal. In addition, presenting decolonialism as a moral and political imperative leaves little room for alternatives which become, a priori, immoral.

By contrast, Brenda Wingfield, Vice President of the Academy of Science of South Africa, argues that: ‘What’s really important is that South African teachers, lecturers and professors must develop curricula that build on the best knowledge skills, values, beliefs and habits from around the world’ (2017) (my italics). She fears that the rhetoric of decolonialism will effectively delink South Africa from science’s cutting edge. She points out that this in turn reduces the opportunity for young black South African scholars to be involved with the most advanced knowledge whatever its source, and also the opportunity to adapt and utilise that knowledge to address local issues and conditions. In other words, decolonialism could damage the potential for material liberation from poverty, and for promoting a more equal involvement in the global production of knowledge about our shared world.

In the spirit of the Radical Enlightenment, I would argue that the best of geographical knowledge and technique be made available for the benefit of all, on the terms of the beneficiaries. In judging ’the best’, origin and context, whilst important and enlightening areas of study in themselves, are secondary.

Academics and universities could certainly more effectively challenge the marginalisation of parts of the world in academic life and the production of geographical knowledge. Suggestions would include: Truly reciprocal academic exchanges, funded by Western universities who can better afford it, where budding academics from the South can choose freely from the curriculum around their own priorities; greater joint projects to understand and find solutions to problems as they are defined by Southern governments; increased funding for twinning with under resourced universities in the South, with a “no strings attached” undertaking to share knowledge, training and resources as they are demanded from academics based in the South.

In other words, we should prioritise a relationship between knowledge and resources from the best universities in the world (wherever they are located), and the sovereignty of the South.

None of this necessitates the decolonisation of geographical knowledge. Rather, it requires us to think afresh at how the promissory note of the Enlightenment – the ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality (and I would add of the potential to understand the word in order to change it) – can be cashed.

Contact details: jim.butcher@canterbury.ac.uk

References

Arnold, Matthew. (1869). Culture and anarchy: An essay in political and social criticism. Oxford: Project Gutenberg.

Baldwin, A. (2017) Decolonising geographical knowledges: the incommensurable, the university and democracy. Area, 49, 3, 329-331. DOI:10.1111/area.12374

Blaser, M. (2012). Ontology and indigeneity: on the political ontology of heterogenous assemblages. Cultural Geographies, 21, 1, 7 DOI:10.1177/1474474012462534.

Connell, R. (2007). Southern theory: Social science and the global dynamics of knowledge. London: Polity.

Connell, R. (2017) RaewynConnell.net. Decolonising the curriculum. Retrieved from: http://www.raewynconnell.net/2016/10/decolonising-curriculum.html .

Daigle, M and Sundberg, J. (2017). From where we stand: unsettling geographical knowledge in the classroom. Transactions, 42 , 338-341. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12195

Darwin, C. (1998, original 1859). The origin of species (Classics of world literature). London: Wordsworth.

Elliott-Cooper, A. (2017). ‘Free, decolonised education’: a lesson from the south African student struggle. Area, 49, 3, 332-334. DOI: 10.1111/area.12375

Emejulu, A. (2017). Another university is possible. Verso books blog. January 12 Retrieved from: https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3044-another-university-is-possible .

Esson, J, Noxolo, P. Baxter, R. Daley, P. and Byron, M. (2017). The 2017 RGS-IGB chair’s theme: decolonising geographical knowledges, or reproducing coloniality? Area, 49,3, 384-388. DOI: 10.1111/area.12371

Fricker, M. (1999) Epistemic oppression and epistemic privilege, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 29: sup1, 191-210. DOI: 10.1080/00455091.1999.10716836

Gellner, E. (1987). Relativism and the social sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grosfoguel, R. (2007). The epistemic decolonial turn. Cultural Studies, 21:2-3, 211-223. DOI:10.1080/09502380601162514

Ho Chi Minh. (1945) Declaration of independence, democratic republic of Vietnam. Retrieved from: https://www.unc.edu/courses/2009fall/hist/140/006/Documents/VietnameseDocs.pdf .

Israel, J. (2009) A revolution of the mind: Radical enlightenment and the Intellectual origins of modern democracy. Princeton University Press.

James, CLR (2001, original 1938) The black Jacobins. Toussaint L’ouverture and the San Domingo revolution. London: Penguin

Jazeel. (2017). Mainstreaming geography’s decolonial imperative. Transactions, 42, 334-337. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12200

King, Martin Luther. (1991). A testament of hope: The essential writings of Martin Luther King. New York: Harper Collins.

Livingstone, David. N. (1992). The geographical tradition: Episodes in the history of a contested enterprise. London: Wiley

Malik, K. (1996). The meaning of race: Race, history and culture in Western society. London: Palgrave.

Malik, K. (2014). The quest for a moral compass: a global history of ethics. London: Atlantic.

Malik, K. (2017) Are SOAS students right to ‘decolonise’ their minds from western philosophers? The Observer. Sunday 19 Feb Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/feb/19/soas-philosopy-decolonise-our-minds-enlightenment-white-european-kenan-malik .

Mignolo, W. (2007). Delinking. Cultural Studies, 21,2-3, 449-514. DOI: 10.1080/09502380601162647

Mignolo, W. (2013). On pluriversality. Retrieved from http://waltermignolo.com/on-pluriversality/

Mills, C.W. (1999). The racial contract. Cornell University Press.

Noxolo, P. (2017). Decolonial theory in a time of the recolonization of UK research. Transactions, 42, 342-344. DOI:10.1111/tran.12202

Pagden, A. (2015). The Enlightenment: And why it still matters. Oxford: OUP Press

Paine, T. (1774). Essay on slavery, 1774. In Foot. M and Kramnick I. (eds) (1987). Thomas Paine Reader: London:Penguin: 52-56

Radcliffe , Sarah A. (2017). Decolonising geographical knowledges. Transactions, 42, 329-333. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12195

RGS-IGB (2017). Annual Conference, conference theme. Retrieved from: http://www.pgf.rgs.org/rgs-ibg-annual-international-conference-2017/ .

Sundberg, J. (2014). Decolonising posthumanist geographies. Cultural Geographies, 2, 1, 33-47. DOI:10.1177/1474474013486067

Tolia-Kelly, Divya-P. (2017). A day in the life of a geographer: ‘lone’, black, female. Area, 49, 3, 324-328. DOI:10.1111/area.12373

US Congress (1776). The American Declaration of Independence. Retrieved from: http://www.ushistory.org/Declaration/document/ .

Wingfield, B. (2017) What “decolonised education” should and shouldn’t mean. The Conversation. February 14. Retrieved from: http://theconversation.com/what-decolonised-education-should-and-shouldnt-mean-72597 .

Author Information: Jim Collier, Virginia Tech, jim.collier@vt.edu.

Collier, James H. “Social Epistemology for the One and the Many: An Essay Review.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 15-40.

Jim Collier’s article “Social Epistemology for the One and the Many” will be published in four parts. The pdf of the article includes all four parts as a single essay, and gives specific page references. Shortlinks:

Introduction: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3ZN

Part One, Social Epistemology as Fullerism: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3ZY

Is it appropriate to call a public intellectual, a university-employed academic, a rock star?
Image by Ernesto de Quesada via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Remedios and Dusek present social epistemology wholly as Fullerism; that is, current social epistemology amounts to glorifying Fuller’s supposed acumen and prolificacy.

Fullerism’s Narrow Scope

Fullerism oversimplifies the processes and aims of social epistemology. If Knowing Humanity in the Social World just extolled Fuller and explicated and his corpus, Remedios and Dusek would have written a book within an established genre in academic publishing—a very crowded genre, to be sure, of titles about august individual thinkers. However, in Remedios and Dusek’s presentation, Fullerism becomes conflated with social epistemology. Ultimately, Fullerism requires one to wait briefly and then react to Fuller’s next publication or scholarly incursion.

Fullerism’s origin story takes root in Fuller’s extraordinary education at “… two of the best programs in the world in philosophy and history of science” (we get class ranking for good measure), which led to work “… socially and historically richer by far than that of most philosophers and far more philosophically sophisticated than that of other sociologists” (10, emphasis mine). One will not miss the point amid the clunky phrasing that Fuller’s “breadth of reading in the humanities and social sciences is extraordinarily broad” (10).

Remedios and Dusek catalogue Fuller’s great learning by listing multiple subjects and fields about which he either possesses knowledge or “extensive familiarity.” Too, Fuller’s “range is far wider than most philosophers of science, including medieval scholastic philosophy” (emphasis mine). Readers should not ignore Fuller’s philosophical mastery and uncanny ability to get the root of a particular matter (11).[1]

Fuller deploys “great originality” (10) against the “many philosophers, historians, and sociologists of scientific knowledge [who] are simply failed scientists” (10). Remedios and Dusek’s unsubtle dig at the founders and early practitioners of STS tries to lend heft to Fuller’s broadsides against the field. Fullerism remains a game that Fuller wins by outsmarting any and all interlocutors. After all, Fuller “even if hyperbolic … has a point” (19).

Remedios and Dusek, and Remedios in his earlier book (2003), give notice that reader will encounter “Steve Fuller’s Social Epistemology.” For the precious few scholars informed on such matters the phrase gestures, in part, to an internecine scrum regarding the field’s proper origin and pursuit. Remedios and Dusek fortunately avoid the temptation to repot social epistemology’s history. Doing so would only rehearse a tired historiography that has hardened into a meme. Still, by not redressing this narrative, Remedios and Dusek reinforce the fiction that social epistemology is Fullerism.

Remedios and Dusek strike a deferential critical posture that also serves as a model for readers as they observe and assess Fuller’s performances. The reader should temper their judgments and entertain, say, a casual embrace of eugenics (116-117), or the past and future benefits of human experimentation (123), because Steve Fuller is a singular, prophetic thinker. Fuller sees the future—although the future, to be sure, looks suspiciously like Silicon Valley neoliberalism promulgated by entrepreneurs since the mid-1990’s.

Double Movement: Expansion in Contraction

In Knowing Humanity in the Social World, Fuller gets to impose his ideological will not only because of his unique personal powers, but because of how Remedios and Dusek treat the “social” in social epistemology. The book proceeds in a manner found in much of academic philosophy (and, so, in a way antithetical to a social epistemology). Broadly, academic philosophers tend to present arguments against a frictionless background to focus on definitional clarity, logical structure, internal consistency and the like. On certain practical grounds, one can understand attending less to cultural factors than, say, fallacies in a philosophical account.

However, as a consequence, Remedios and Dusek render the world as a passive constraint to the active knower. On the odd occasion, then, when the world pushes back, as in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, it is the judge that “largely misconstrued [a] major part of Fuller’s presentation” (72).

Remedios and Dusek forward a myopic view of social epistemology all the while extolling the grandiosity of Fuller’s corpus.[2] Owing, in part, to Fuller’s hyper-productivity, a tension arises immediately in Knowing Humanity in the Social World. While extolling his virtuosity (particularly in Chapter 1), the book fails to address adequately the majority of Fuller’s work.[3] Focusing on publications since the year 2000 and primarily on one, Humanity 2.0 (2011), of approximately two dozen total books, Remedios and Dusek pay little critical attention to Fuller’s collective body of work.[4]

A few articles play minor supporting roles. Moreover, Remedios and Dusek deal only with print media. As of this writing, 180 audio, and dozens of video, presentations reside online.[5] Certainly, one can sympathize with the monumental effort in dealing with such inordinate output; yet, Remedios and Dusek set out such a task in the title of their book.

Remedios and Dusek trade a great deal on the virtue of knowledge making, and makers, and the power of association. (The maker-versus-taker ethos underwrites the epistemic agent’s risk taking.) Fuller’s prolificacy demonstrates superior knowledge making, if not knowledge, and thus confers greater agency on himself and agents acting in kind.

A social epistemologist pre-2000 would have considered how and why knowledge-makers deploy resources in support of a singular epistemic source. That social epistemologist would also have questioned if epistemic power should accrue to agents, and their claims, by virtue of associating with other powerful agents. The unaccounted-for influence of powerful epistemic agents, and their surrogates, looms in the book’s background.

More importantly, Remedios and Dusek’s practically ignore Fuller’s critical reception. Even when the authors take up reception, they misapprehend the state of affairs. For example, Remedios and Dusek assert: “Despite the existence of several schools of STS, the Paris School led by Bruno Latour is the main competitor of Fuller’s social epistemology” (11). The rest of the passage gives a cursory explanation of Latour’s views, and Fuller’s opposition, but shares no evidence of responses by members of the Paris school, or actor-network theorists and practitioners, to social epistemology. Perhaps social epistemologists (read Fuller) view Latour as a “main competitor.” [6]

However, STS practitioners think little, or nothing, about social epistemology. One will not locate current social epistemology as a going concern in leading (or otherwise) STS journals, textbooks, or classrooms. I find no contrary evidence in Knowing Humanity in the Social World. Presenting social epistemology as Fullerism, Remedios and Dusek promote a narrative in which academic caricatures fight for supremacy on a dialectical battlefront. Ironically, the narrative evades how human knowledge amounts to a collective achievement (a central tenet of social epistemology itself).

Instead of taking up compelling questions that emerge from the contexts of reception, Remedios and Dusek conceive the social world much as the circumscribed space of a poorly taught philosophy course. In this class, a student tries explaining a commonplace or self-evident idea and, through the instructor’s haphazard application of the Socratic method, discovers greater uncertainty, more questions, and, more often than not, defaults to the instructor’s authority. Thus, in Fullerism, the student discovers the superiority of Fuller.

Where All Is Fuller

Pursuing Fullerism, we share our unrefined intuitions regarding human experimentation (113), or inspirations for doing science (67), or technological enhancement (94). Likely, we express our intuitions as absolutist declarations. Supplied with more information on, say, the efficacy of the Dachau hypothermia experiments, we are asked to revisit and refine our intuitions. To keep the lesson alive, the epistemic agent (Fuller being the model agent) can stir in other pieces of information, shift perspective, relay different social, historical and cultural frameworks, refer to controversies, supply voluminous references to the philosophical canon, or appeal to various philosophical schools of thought.

At each turn, we might further refine our ideas, retrench, grow bored—but in recognizing Fullerism’s true didactic aim we should rightly be impressed and supplicant. The performance of our epistemic agent should replace our certitude about obvious nonsense with gnawing doubt. Darwin was certainly a scientist, right (73)? Maybe eugenics (116-117) gets a bum rap—especially if we see human experiments “… in the cause of human progress and transcendence” (117). Sure … the overblown fear of humans “playing God” with technology just needs a little enlightened philosophical recalibration (87).

This philosophical dialectic depends on the active forms of agency attributed to Fuller. How epistemic agents learn, for example, remains captive to Fullerism’s dialectic. The “deep learning” of computers receives some attention (123-124), but the dialectical process appears an end in itself. Remedios and Dusek defer to displays of learning by Fuller and seem less interested in exploring how epistemic agents learn to make knowledge to act in the world.

Remedios and Dusek set out the distinctiveness of Fuller’s learning in the book’s opening:

Other than Steve Fuller’s work, there is no other discussion in current literature of sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), science and technology studies (STS), sociology of science, philosophy of science, epistemology of science, and analytic social epistemology on the impact of scientific knowledge on humanity. (emphasis mine, 1)

The claim’s bold start, dissipated by an ending cluster of vague prepositional phrases, compels the reader to consider Remedios and Dusek’s credulity. How could half a dozen fields of academic inquiry investigating science (to varying degrees) successfully avoid a single discussion of the impact of scientific knowledge on people?

Knowledge Becomes a Means to Transcend

We find, reading further, the matter at hand is not scientific knowledge per se; rather, knowing how to perform the accounting necessary for best achieving a preordained human future. Remedios and Dusek, like Fuller, abide in the unquestioning faith that “nanotechnology, robotics, and biotechnology” (1) will develop and converge and, inevitably, humans will transcend their biology.[7] For the next thirty years until the Singularity, we can train ourselves to tamp down our agnosticism.

Lest we forget, we can rely on Fuller’s “very well informed and richly informed historical account with delineation of varieties of theodicy” (my emphasis, 72) that include discussions of Leibniz, Malebranche and Gassendi. For Remedios and Dusek, historical analysis frequently translates into Fuller’s citational range; thus, a good argument depends on the ability to bring numerous references, preferably unexpectedly related, to bear on an issue.

For example, Fuller wins a debate with A. C. Grayling (in 2008) on intelligent design because “the historical part of Fuller’s argument is very accurate concerning early modern science. Figures such as Boyle, Newton, Leibniz, and many other figures of seventeenth-century science saw their religion as tied with their science” (my emphasis, 72). A trivially true even if “very accurate” point.

In the same paragraph, Remedios and Dusek go on to list additional clever and apt observations made by Fuller. As the adjectival emphasis suggests, Remedios and Dusek direct the reader to allow the perspicacity of Fuller’s insights suffice as an effective argument. As Remedios and Dusek lightly resist Fuller’s loose historical claims (particularly in Chapter 5), they give counter-arguments, from themselves and other scholars, short shrift. Fuller’s proactive encyclopedism assures us that we both reside in, and can actively reconstruct, the western intellectual tradition. In truth, Fullerism entails that we willingly suspend disbelief during Fuller’s ideational performance.

The social world of the book’s title remains largely unburdened by cultural complexities, and populated sparsely with one-dimensional interlocutors. Fullerism, then, is both plenum and void—space completely filled with the matter of Fuller’s creation, and void of external influences and meaning in collective effort.

Contact details: jim.collier@vt.edu

References

Barbrook, Richard and Andy Cameron. “The Californian Ideology.” Science as Culture 6, no. 1 (1996): 44-72.

Barlow, John Perry. “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” 1996. https://bit.ly/1KavIVC.

Barron, Colin. “A Strong Distinction Between Humans and Non-humans Is No Longer Required for Research Purposes: A Debate Between Bruno Latour and Steve Fuller.” History of the Human Sciences 16, no. 2 (2003): 77–99.

Clark, William. Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University. University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. Alfred A. Knopf, 1964.

Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press, 2005.

Fuller, Steve. Social Epistemology. Bloomington and Indianapolis, University of Indiana Press, 1988.

Fuller, Steve. Philosophy, Rhetoric, and the End of Knowledge: The Coming of Science and Technology Studies. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.

Fuller, Steve. Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Fuller, Steve. “The Normative Turn: Counterfactuals and a Philosophical Historiography of Science.” Isis 99, no. 3 (September 2008): 576-584.

Fuller, Steve. “A Response to Michael Crow.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 25 November 2015. https://goo.gl/WwxFmW.

Fuller, Steve and Luke Robert Mason. “Virtual Futures Podcast #3: Transhumanism and Risk, with Professor Steve Fuller.”  Virtual Futures 16 August 2017. https://bit.ly/2mE8vCs.

Grafton, Anthony. “The Nutty Professors: The History of Academic Charisma.” The New Yorker October 26, 2006. https://bit.ly/2mxOs8Q.

Hinchman, Edward S. “Review of “Patrick J. Reider (ed.), Social Epistemology and Epistemic Agency: Decentralizing Epistemic Agency.” Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2 July 2018. https://ntrda.me/2NzvPgt.

Horgan, John. “Steve Fuller and the Value of Intellectual Provocation.” Scientific American, Cross-Check 27 March 2015.  https://bit.ly/2f1UI5l.

Horner, Christine. “Humanity 2.0: The Unstoppability of Singularity.” Huffpost 8 June 2017. https://bit.ly/2zTXdn6.

Joosse, Paul.“Becoming a God: Max Weber and the Social Construction of Charisma.” Journal of Classical Sociology 14, no. 3 (2014): 266–283.

Kurzweil, Ray. “The Virtual Book Revisited.”  The Library Journal 1 February 1, 1993. https://bit.ly/2AySoQx.

Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Penguin Books, 2005.

Lynch, Michael. “From Ruse to Farce.” Social Studies of Science 36, vol 6 (2006): 819–826.

Lynch, William T. “Social Epistemology Transformed: Steve Fuller’s Account of Knowledge as a Divine Spark for Human Domination.” Symposion 3, vol. 2 (2016): 191-205.

McShane, Sveta and Jason Dorrier. “Ray Kurzweil Predicts Three Technologies Will Define Our Future.” Singularity Hub 19 April 2016. https://bit.ly/2MaQRl4.

Pein, Corey. Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley. Henry Holt and Co. Kindle Edition, 2017.

Remedios, Francis. Legitimizing Scientific Knowledge: An Introduction to Steve Fuller’s Social Epistemology. Lexington Books, 2003.

Remedios, Francis X. and Val Dusek. Knowing Humanity in the Social World: The Path of Steve Fuller’s Social Epistemology. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2018.

Rushkoff, Douglas. “Survival of the Richest: The wealthy are plotting to leave us behind.” Medium 5 July 2018. https://bit.ly/2MRgeIw.

Shera, J.H. Sociological Foundations of Librarianship. New York: Asia Publishing House, 1970.

Simonite, Tom. “Moore’s Law Is Dead. Now What?” MIT Technology Review 13 May 13, 2016. https://bit.ly/1VVn5CK.

Talbot, Margaret. “Darwin in the Dock.” The New Yorker December 5, 2005. 66-77. https://bit.ly/2LV0IPa.

Uebel, Thomas. Review of “Francis Remedios, Legitimizing Scientific Knowledge: An Introduction to Steve Fuller’s Social Epistemology. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 3 March 2005. https://ntrda.me/2uT2u92

Weber, Max. Economy and Society, 2 vols. Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley, CA; London; Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1922 (1978).

[1] In the book, getting to the root of the matter frequently amounts to the revelation that it isn’t what you think it is or thought it was.

[2] As of 13 May 2018, Fuller’s vita (https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/sociology/staff/sfuller/vita1.docx ) comes in at 76 pages.

[3] Remedios can point to his first book Legitimizing Scientific Knowledge as wrestling with the first half of Fuller’s career. Thomas Uebel’s review, for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (https://ntrda.me/2uT2u92) notes a similar problem in not addressing the reception of Fuller’s work—the “paucity” of responses to counter arguments: “Calling notions contested does not absolve us from the task of providing defenses of the alternatives put forward.”

[4] Fuller’s “trilogy of transhumanism” all published by Palgrave Macmillan: Humanity 2.0: What It Means to Be Human Past, Present and Future (2011), Preparing for Life in Humanity 2.0 (2012), and The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism (co-authored with Veronika Lipinska, 2014).

[5] While writing this essay, I received notice of yet another book authored by Fuller Post-Truth: Knowledge As A Power Game (Anthem Press).

[6] Remedios and Dusek put Latour and Fuller into conversation predominantly in Chapter 2. As framed, Fuller “speaks at” views held by Latour (uncharitably summarized by Remedios and Dusek), but no direct exchange, or dialectic, occurs. Emblematic of this state of affairs is a “debate” between Latour and Fuller in 2002 (published in 2003), regarding what defines ‘human’ and ‘non-human’, that concludes with this editorial note: “[The debate] was least successful, perhaps, in making the issues clear to the audience, especially to those who were not familiar with the work of Bruno Latour and Steve Fuller” (98).

[7] Slightly different iterations of the trinity that will converge to give us the Singularity include Ray Kurzweil’s “nanotechnology, robotics, and biotechnology” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Kurzweil), and “genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics” (https://bit.ly/2LZ42ZB).

Author Information: Jim Collier, Virginia Tech, jim.collier@vt.edu.

Collier, James H. “Social Epistemology for the One and the Many: An Essay Review.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 15-40.

Jim Collier’s article “Social Epistemology for the One and the Many” will be published in four parts. The pdf of the article includes all four parts as a single essay, and gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3ZN

 

Happy birthday, Steve!

Steve Fuller has built a remarkable career in the academy, bringing brilliant and singular insight to help understand turbulent times. But we should always ask ourselves whether we let our own thought be eclipsed by the powers of our heroes. 
Image by Babette Babich, courtesy of Steve Fuller

 

Early in Knowing Humanity in the Social World (2018), Remedios and Dusek treat the reader to a breathless summary of Steve Fuller’s exceptionalism (10-11). Fuller “by far” outpaces his interlocutors’ learning and knowledge while engaging with “wit and panache” in an “endlessly ironical dialectic” (10). Bookending Fuller’s eminence in a postscript, a 2014 interview, Remedios asks him directly in third person, “Is Fuller the super-agent” (131)? According to Remedios and Dusek, super-agents possess “godlike capabilities through extension of human capabilities with science and technology” (131). Fuller demurs.

Undeterred, Remedios re-asks the question: “So what about Steve Fuller as super-agent” (132)? Fuller then refers obliquely to a “knowledge policy maker person” (132).[1] Despite Fuller’s reticence, Remedios’s questions recall the book’s hyperbolic opening and highlights the desired rhetorical effect. The authors instruct their readers to see that embodied in Steve Fuller, and in following the path of his social epistemology—his word (as it were)—we find a regulative ideal of the unity of knowledge, if not godhood.

Through a Gleaming City Walks What Was Once a Man

Knowing Humanity in the Social World, in a compact 7 chapters with a conclusion, postscript interview, and glossary, wrestles determinedly with Steve Fuller’s most thorny ideas and debates. The book examines insightfully the development of Fuller’s scholarly activity since the year 2000. The authors contend that Fuller’s project shifts from epistemology and collective knowledge policy-making, to metaphysics and agent-oriented knowing. The emphasis on agents—epistemic agents need not be human individuals (25)—speaks to a form of idealism advanced in Fuller’s distinct conceptualization of transhumanism.

Concentrating on Fuller’s more recent work, especially during and after the publication of Humanity 2.0 (2011), Remedios and Dusek aim to weave a unified narrative. It is a formidable undertaking. Fuller’s atypical range of interests, inveterate work style, and academic activism, complicate the matter. Unfortunately, by lionizing Fuller or, rather, in abstracting and projecting his seeming attributes onto social epistemology writ large, Remedios and Dusek offset much of the wider impact of their book.[2]  In the vain attempt to maintain a unified narrative, and keep a through line to social epistemology, the authors resort to Fullerism.

Fullerism, I argue, projects idealized versions of Fuller himself, his scholarship, and his reasoning, onto a contrived series of social roles, events, and debates. For Remedios and Dusek, Fuller models the actions of an “agent-oriented” epistemologist who regularly triumphs, in a more or less qualified fashion, at academic brinkmanship. The singular positioning of Fuller tells the story of social epistemology as a decidedly asocial process—as though the field arose and proceeds largely on the basis of individual initiative and brilliance.[3] In essence, Remedios and Dusek envision social epistemology through “great man,” or “super-agent,” theory or, using Fuller’s slightly less exaggerated pejorative term, by “genius mongering” (1993).

Fuller wrote the book’s Foreword. In it, he claims “significant continuity” (vii) in his work if one reads appropriately. In overdetermining Fuller’s rational authority owing to a working belief in academic charisma (Weber 1922 [1978], Clark 2005), as I suggest later, Remedios and Dusek succeed in nullifying the continuity they, and Fuller, intend to promote. Social epistemology, on Fuller’s initial formulation (1988), took up the organization and pursuit of knowledge by human beings with “imperfect cognitive capacities” (3) and incomplete access to one another’s activities.

This characterization, and resulting aim, seemingly applies to all humans—unless we posit new, upgraded humans and their inevitable cognitive perfection. Perfection being just a matter time, how do post-2000 social epistemologists address these issues? They promote the illusion of proactive agents until the future arrives. Time now to retire the epistemic policy maker that inhabited the pages of Social Epistemology.

Remedios and Dusek impose a transhumanist narrative, bolstered by an unalloyed technological determinism, onto Fuller’s lauded intellectual biography. Fuller’s learnedness and interventionist role-play in various controversies gives lessons for aspirants to follow on the path of social epistemology. The path leads unremittingly to humanity 2.0—the “unstoppable Singularity” (Horner 2017). When the Singularity arrives (in 2045) as foretold by Ray Kurzweil, and assured to us by his Silicon Valley brethren, we perfect our imperfect cognitive capacities and have complete access—by uploading our consciousness to a computer cloud-like function (or some such)—to all our epistemic activities.

We might ascend to our perfection and unification sooner if we adopt Fuller’s metaphysical turn and regime of self-experimentation and risk-taking supported by proactionary social policies. Still, even if we aspire to be less than active, or proactive, epistemic agents—or humans (even so!)—an unshakable belief in technological determinism covers all bets made by futurists.[4]

Critique of a Shadow

In the three parts of this essay review I articulate the tensions, if not contradictions, and consequences for the conduct of social epistemology, if we accept Remedios and Dusek’s account. I believe these consequences go well beyond their book and affect the general conduct, and our reflexive understanding, of the field of social epistemology that stems more or less directly from Steve Fuller’s work.[5]

The sui generis nature of the work and the distinct normative landscape it inhabits, calls for a critical approach that Remedios and Dusek cannot articulate fully in the truncated framework of Knowing Humanity in the Social World. Remedios and Dusek’s shortcuts precipitate conflating Fuller with Fullerism and Fullerism with social epistemology. I maintain the following:

First, Remedios and Dusek present social epistemology wholly as Fullerism; that is, current social epistemology amounts to glorifying Fuller’s supposed acumen and prolificacy.

Second, Remedios and Dusek depict the epistemic agent as a social actor by staging roles and casting Fuller in them—“knower of the future” (3), public intellectual (5), intellectual provocateur (121), or designated, or aspiring, super-agent (131-132). Social epistemology inhabits a tediously didactic world in which social intercourse imparts triumphal object lessons owing to Fuller’s academic charisma.

Third, Remedios and Dusek submit to a powerful form of technological determinism as expressed in the Californian ideology (Barbrook and Cameron 1996), packaged by Ray Kurzweil (2005), and elaborated in Fuller’s “trilogy on transhumanism” (vii). Such determinism leaves unexamined the questionable, if not absurd, claims made on behalf of transhumanism, generally, and in Fuller’s “own promethean project of transhumanism” (99).

In the conclusion, I express consternation about social epistemology’s current state and future course. Among the broader field’s participants, we can expect a continuation of crosstalk and general indifference.[6] Analytic philosophers studying social epistemology, given their relative institutional security and faithful puzzle-solving, will persevere. I continue to believe we might fruitfully reimagine social epistemology through our necessarily collaborative textual practices. Yet always ahead, a glimmering personal future replete with academic favor, beckons and awaits.

Contact details: jim.collier@vt.edu

References

Barbrook, Richard and Andy Cameron. “The Californian Ideology.” Science as Culture 6, no. 1 (1996): 44-72.

Barlow, John Perry. “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” 1996. https://bit.ly/1KavIVC.

Barron, Colin. “A Strong Distinction Between Humans and Non-humans Is No Longer Required for Research Purposes: A Debate Between Bruno Latour and Steve Fuller.” History of the Human Sciences 16, no. 2 (2003): 77–99.

Clark, William. Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University. University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. Alfred A. Knopf, 1964.

Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press, 2005.

Fuller, Steve. Social Epistemology. Bloomington and Indianapolis, University of Indiana Press, 1988.

Fuller, Steve. Philosophy, Rhetoric, and the End of Knowledge: The Coming of Science and Technology Studies. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.

Fuller, Steve. Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Fuller, Steve. “The Normative Turn: Counterfactuals and a Philosophical Historiography of Science.” Isis 99, no. 3 (September 2008): 576-584.

Fuller, Steve. “A Response to Michael Crow.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 25 November 2015. https://goo.gl/WwxFmW.

Fuller, Steve and Luke Robert Mason. “Virtual Futures Podcast #3: Transhumanism and Risk, with Professor Steve Fuller.”  Virtual Futures 16 August 2017. https://bit.ly/2mE8vCs.

Grafton, Anthony. “The Nutty Professors: The History of Academic Charisma.” The New Yorker October 26, 2006. https://bit.ly/2mxOs8Q.

Hinchman, Edward S. “Review of “Patrick J. Reider (ed.), Social Epistemology and Epistemic Agency: Decentralizing Epistemic Agency.” Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2 July 2018. https://ntrda.me/2NzvPgt.

Horgan, John. “Steve Fuller and the Value of Intellectual Provocation.” Scientific American, Cross-Check 27 March 2015.  https://bit.ly/2f1UI5l.

Horner, Christine. “Humanity 2.0: The Unstoppability of Singularity.” Huffpost 8 June 2017. https://bit.ly/2zTXdn6.

Joosse, Paul.“Becoming a God: Max Weber and the Social Construction of Charisma.” Journal of Classical Sociology 14, no. 3 (2014): 266–283.

Kurzweil, Ray. “The Virtual Book Revisited.”  The Library Journal 1 February 1, 1993. https://bit.ly/2AySoQx.

Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Penguin Books, 2005.

Lynch, Michael. “From Ruse to Farce.” Social Studies of Science 36, vol 6 (2006): 819–826.

Lynch, William T. “Social Epistemology Transformed: Steve Fuller’s Account of Knowledge as a Divine Spark for Human Domination.” Symposion 3, vol. 2 (2016): 191-205.

McShane, Sveta and Jason Dorrier. “Ray Kurzweil Predicts Three Technologies Will Define Our Future.” Singularity Hub 19 April 2016. https://bit.ly/2MaQRl4.

Pein, Corey. Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley. Henry Holt and Co. Kindle Edition, 2017.

Remedios, Francis. Legitimizing Scientific Knowledge: An Introduction to Steve Fuller’s Social Epistemology. Lexington Books, 2003.

Remedios, Francis X. and Val Dusek. Knowing Humanity in the Social World: The Path of Steve Fuller’s Social Epistemology. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2018.

Rushkoff, Douglas. “Survival of the Richest: The wealthy are plotting to leave us behind.” Medium 5 July 2018. https://bit.ly/2MRgeIw.

Shera, J.H. Sociological Foundations of Librarianship. New York: Asia Publishing House, 1970.

Simonite, Tom. “Moore’s Law Is Dead. Now What?” MIT Technology Review 13 May 13, 2016. https://bit.ly/1VVn5CK.

Talbot, Margaret. “Darwin in the Dock.” The New Yorker December 5, 2005. 66-77. https://bit.ly/2LV0IPa.

Uebel, Thomas. Review of “Francis Remedios, Legitimizing Scientific Knowledge: An Introduction to Steve Fuller’s Social Epistemology. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 3 March 2005. https://ntrda.me/2uT2u92

Weber, Max. Economy and Society, 2 vols. Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley, CA; London; Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1922 (1978).

[1] Such a person gives the impression of being a properly trained university administrator who can advise and lead on matters regarding knowledge transfer and distribution. As Fuller suggests in The Academic Caesar (2016), proper training refers to knowing and practicing the ways of social epistemology—particularly if one is a university administrator. Perhaps a “proto- Academic Caesar” lives in Michael Crow of Arizona State University. See “A Response to Michael Crow,” Steve Fuller (https://goo.gl/WwxFmW, 2015).

[2] In the Acknowledgements, Remedios and Dusek graciously mention a small conference in May 2017 in which the participants discussed the book in its infancy (xiii). During a spirited exchange, I expressed concerns that the project seemed like a hagiography of Fuller. I also worried that Remedios and Dusek left unaccounted in the project their own efforts, and the vital efforts of conference participants and the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, in building and advancing social epistemology.

[3] Fuller published Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times in 2000 (paperback edition in 2001). While Remedios and Dusek give the book passing treatment, one might return to Thomas Kuhn on the occasion of this review not only as “philosophical history,” but also as a prescient allegory regarding the far-reaching unintended, even harmful, consequences resulting from an overwrought staging of a singular scholar and their work.

[4] Echoing Kurzweil, Remedios and Dusek invoke the trinity of “biotechnology, nanotechnology, and computer technology” as accelerating inevitably to the Singularity. For a counter-narrative, read Tom Simonite, “Moore’s Law Is Dead. Now What?” MIT Technology Review, May 13, 2016. https://goo.gl/EBUkDg.

[5] In his 2003 book, Remedios identifies the social epistemology related to Fuller’s work as “political social epistemology” (99). However, the phrase does not appear in the current book. I am unclear about the conceptual relation between “political social epistemology” and “Fuller’s social epistemology” aside from the apparently settled issue of who possesses it.

[6] Edward Hinchman’s recent review (2018) of Patrick Reider’s Social Epistemology and Epistemic Agency illustrates this crosstalk and the predictable retreat to comfortable conceptual environs (https://ntrda.me/2NzvPgt).

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, bwills@grenfell.mun.ca.

Wills, Bernard. “On the Limits of Any Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 34-39.

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

See also:

Image by Vancouver Island University via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Mizrahi is, alas, still confused though that perhaps is my fault. I did not attribute to him the view that non-scientific disciplines do not produce knowledge.[1] I am sorry if a cursory glance at my article created that impression but what I thought I had said was that this was the position known as strong scientism. Indeed, looking over my paper it seems that I made it quite clear that this position was ‘strong scientism’ and that Mizrahi defended something called ‘weak scientism’. According to this latter view the humane disciplines do indeed produce knowledge only of a qualitatively and quantitatively inferior kind. If this is not what weak scientism says I confess I don’t know what it says.

Thus, the opening salvo of his response, where he answers at some length a charge I did not make, has sailed clean over its intended target. (Mizrahi, 41-42) In my paper I distinguished weak scientism from strong scientism precisely on these grounds and then argued that the weaknesses of the former still dogged the latter: Mizrahi does not address this in his response. Here is a place where Mizrahi could have learned from humanities scholars and their practices of close reading and attended to the rhetorical and argumentative structure of my essay.

I began by critiquing ‘strong scientism’ which I said was not Mizrahi’s view and I did this by way of setting up my actual argument which was that Mizrahi’s proposed replacement ‘weak scientism’ suffered from the same basic flaws. I ask Mizrahi to read my response again and ask himself honestly if I accused him of being a proponent of ‘strong scientism’ rather than of ‘weak scientism’. To help him let me include the following citation from my piece:

I will focus, then, on the qualitative question and particularly on the claim that science produces knowledge and all the other things we tend to call knowledge are in fact not knowledge at all but something else. I will then consider Mr. Mizrahi’s peculiar version of this claim ‘weak scientism’ which is that while there may be knowledge of some sort outside of the sciences (it is hard, he thinks, to show otherwise) this knowledge is of a qualitatively lesser kind. (Wills, 18)

Asking Why Quantity of Production Matters

Mizrahi is still on about quantity. (Mizrahi, 42) I really have no idea why he is obsessed with this point. However, as he regards it as essential to ‘weak scientism’ I will quote what I said in a footnote to my essay: “Does Mizrahi mean to say that if a particular sub-discipline of English produces more articles in a given year than a small subfield of science then that discipline of English is superior to that subfield of science? I’m sure he does not mean to say this but it seems to follow from his words.” This point is surely not lost on him.

I have no firm opinion at all as to whether the totality of the sciences have produced more ‘stuff’ than the totality of the humanities between 1997 and 2017 and the reason is that I simply don’t care. I don’t accept quantity as a valid measure here unless it is backed up by qualitative considerations and if Mizrahi can’t make the case on qualitative grounds then quantity is simply irrelevant for the reason I gave: there are more commercials than there are artistic masterpieces. However, if Mizrahi still wants to fuss over quantitative metrics he faces the problem I raised.

While science in a global sense may indeed produce more sheer bulk of material than English, say, if there are subfields of science that do not produce more knowledge than subfields of English by this measure these must be inferior. Plus, what if it were true that Shakespeare scholars produced more papers than physicists? Would that cause Mizrahi to lower his estimate of physics? He would be an odd man if he did.

At any rate, there are all kinds of extrinsic reasons why scientific papers are so numerous that include the interests of corporations, governments, militaries and so on. The fact that there is so much science does not by itself indicate that there is anything intrinsically better about science and if science is intrinsically better that fact stands no matter how much of it there happens to be.

On the Power of Recursivity

To my argument that recursive processes can produce an infinite amount of knowledge he replies with an ineffectual jibe: “good luck publishing that!” (46) Well I am happy to inform him that I have indeed published ‘that’. I have published a number of papers on ancient and early modern philosophy that touch on the question of reflexivity and its attendant paradoxes as Mizrahi can find out by googling my name. Since he is so concerned about purely extrinsic measures of scholarly worth he will have to admit that there are in fact journals happy to ‘publish that’ and to that extent my point stands by his own chosen metric.

At any rate, in a further answer to this charge we get the following sophism: Besides, just as “recursive processes can extend our knowledge indefinitely in the field of mathematics,” they can also extend our knowledge in other fields as well, including scientific fields. That is, one “can produce a potential infinity of knowledge simply by reflecting recursively on the” (Wills 2018, 23) (sic) Standard Model in physics or any other scientific theory and/or finding. For this reason, Wills’ objection does nothing at all to undermine Weak Scientism.” (46)

Of course we can extend our knowledge indefinitely by reflecting on the standard model in physics just as Augustine says. But this has nothing whatsoever to do with whether a proposition is scientific or not. It can be done with any proposition at all. Nor is recursive doubling a scientific procedure in the terms described by Mizrahi. This is why quantitative claims about the superiority of science can never succeed unless, as I have said many times, they are backed up with qualitative considerations which would render a quantitative argument unnecessary.

On the Intentionality of the Ism

Mizrahi makes the standard response to the concerns I raised about sexism and colonialism. He denies he is a racist and indeed, Fox News style, turns the charge back on me. (44-45) He should understand, however, that my concern here is not personal but systemic racism. The version of scientific ideology he proposes has a history and that history is not innocent. It is a definition of knowledge and as such it has a social and political dimension. Part of this has been the exclusion of various others such as women or indigenous peoples from the socially sanctioned circle of knowers. This is the ‘privilege’ I refer to in my paper.

Mizrahi, as a participant in a certain tradition or practice of knowledge that claims and can often assert hegemony over other discourses, benefits from that privilege. That is not rocket science. Nor is the fact that, rightly or wrongly, Mizrahi is making hegemonic claims for science from which he himself stands to benefit. It is nothing to the point for Mizrahi to proclaim his innocence of any such intention or to use the ‘you are the real racist for calling me a racist’ ploy. As anyone familiar with the discourse about racism and colonialism can tell him, intention is not the salient feature of this sort of analysis but overall effect.

Also he has not distinguished an ideological critique from an ad hominem attack. I am not attacking him as a person but simply pointing that the position he takes on scientism has social, political and monetary implications that make his defense of weak-scientism ideologically loaded. And let me emphasize again that this has nothing whatsoever to do with Mizrahi’s intentions or personal feelings: I am happy to consider him a perfect gentleman. Perhaps a consideration of Marx would help him see this point a bit better and I can assure Mizrahi that Marx’s impact rating is stellar.

So Who Is Correct?

Of course, as Mizrahi says, all this is forgivable if his overall thesis is correct. (45) Apparently, I truly did not understand that “Even if it is true that “craft knowledge has roughly 3 million-year head start,” it is irrelevant to whether Weak Scientism is true or false. This is because Weak Scientism is a thesis about academic knowledge or research produced by academic fields of study (Mizrahi 2017a, 356; Mizrahi 2017b, 11; Mizrahi 2018a, 12). (46) I admit this point did escape me.[2]

This means that if I find knowledge produced outside the academy with qualities comparable to scientific knowledge that is irrelevant to the argument. Well, by all means then, let me limit my consideration to the academy since Mizrahi has defined that as his sole battleground. I gave many examples of knowledge in my paper that come from an academic context. Let us consider these with respect to Mizrahi’s chosen criteria for “good explanations, namely, unification, coherence, simplicity, and testability (Mizrahi 2017a, 360-362; Mizrahi 2017b, 19-20; Mizrahi 2018a, 17).” (47) (46)

Mizrahi seems to think this applies to a statement I made about Joyce scholars. (47) Let me take them as my ‘academic’ example. I take it as a given that a masterful exposition of Portrait of the Artist as Young Man will show the unity, coherence and simplicity of the work’s design to the extent that these are artistically desired features. What about testability? How does a Joyce scholar test what he says? As I said he tests it against the text. He does this in two ways.

First on the level of direct observation he establishes what Stephen Daedalus, say, does on page 46. This is, as far as I can see, a perfectly reputable kind of knowledge and if we can answer the question about page 46 directly we do not need to resort to any more complex explanatory processes. The fact that such a procedure is perfectly adequate to establish the truth means that scientific procedures of a more complex kind are unnecessary. The use of scientific method, while it may mean better knowledge in many cases, does not mean better knowledge here so Mizrahi’s complaint on this score is beside the point. (47)

Statue of James Joyce in Dublin, Ireland
Image by Loic Pinseel via Flickr / Creative Commons

What Can Improve Knowledge?

Of course, the Joyce scholar will also have an interpretation of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This is where he answers broader questions about the work’s meaning, structure, unity and so on. This also entails the test of looking at the text not at any particular point but as a whole. What in this hermeneutic process would be improved by ‘scientific method’ as Mizrahi describes it? Where does the Joyce scholar need to draw testable consequences from a novel hypothesis and test it with an experiment? What would that even mean in this context?

His test is close reading as this is practiced in the discipline of English literature and he has peers who judge if he has done this well or badly. What is amiss with this process that it could be improved by procedures that have nothing to do with determining the meaning and significance of books? How on this question could science even begin to show its supposed ‘superiority’? It seems to me the only option for Mizrahi here is to deny that the Joyce scholar knows anything (beyond bare factual information) and this means, alas, that his position once again collapses into strong scientism.

I think, however, that I see where Mizrahi’s confusion lies. He seems to think I am saying the following: Joyce scholars look at a book to determine a fact just as scientists look at the world to determine a fact ergo Joyce scholars are scientists. (47) Let me reassure him I am not so jejune. Of course, field notes and other forms of direct observation are part of the arsenal of science. Plus, scientific statements are, at the end of the day, brought into relationship with observation either directly or indirectly. Still, Joyce scholars do not just look at page numbers or what characters are wearing in Chapter 2. They formulate interpretations of Joyce.

In this way too scientists not only observe things but formulate and test hypotheses, construct theories and so on. In some ways these may be comparable processes but they are not identical. Hermeneutics is not just an application of hyothetico-deductive method to a book. Conclusions about Joyce are not products of experimental testing and I can conceive of no way in which they could be strengthened by them except in a purely ancillary sense (ie. we might learn something indirect about Ulysses by exhuming Joyce’s bones).

Thus, Mizrahi’s argument that scientific explanations have more ‘good-making properties’ overall (47) is, whether true or not, irrelevant to the myriad of cases in which scientific explanations are either A. unnecessary or B. inapplicable. Once again we teeter on the brink of strong scientism (which Mizrahi rejects) for we are now forced to say that if a scientific explanation of a phenomenon is not to be had then there can be no other form of explanation.

There Are Radical Differences in How Knowledge Is Produced

Let me go back to my daughter who was not out in a field or cave somewhere but in a university classroom when she presented her analysis of Scriabin’s Prometheus chord. This, I hope, satisfies Mizrahi’s demand that I confine myself to an ‘academic’ context. Both her instructor and her classmates agreed that her analysis was sound. Why? Because it was the clearest, simplest explanation that answered the question of how Scriabin created this chord. It was an abduction that the community of knowers of which she was a part found adequate and that was the end of the story.

The reason, let me emphasize again since Mizrahi has such trouble with the point, is that this was all the question required. Kristin did not deduce a “…consequence that follows from a hypothesis plus auxiliary hypothesis” (47) to be made subject of a testable prediction. Why? Because that is not how knowledge is produced in her domain and such a procedure would add no value to her conclusion which concerned not facts about the natural world but Scriabin’s thought processes and aesthetic intentions.

Again it seems that either Mizrahi must concede this point OR adopt the strong scientist position that Kristin only seems to know something about Scriabin while actually there is nothing to be known about Scriabin outside the experimental sciences. So, to make his case he must still explain why science can produce better results in music theory, which IS an academic subject, than explanatory procedures currently used in that domain. Otherwise the superiority of science is only contextual which is a trivial thesis denied by no one.

Thus, Mizrahi is still bedeviled by the same problem. How is science supposed to show its superiority in domains where its explanatory procedures are simply not necessary and would add no value to existing explanations? I do not think Mizrahi has established the point that:”…if distinct fields of study have the same aim (i.e., to explain), then their products (i.e., explanations) can be evaluated with respect to similar criteria, such as unification, coherence, simplicity, and testability (Mizrahi 2017a, 360-362; Mizrahi 2017b, 19-20; Mizrahi 2018a, 17). Mizrahi says ‘similar’ but his argument actually depends on these criteria being ‘identical’ such that we can judge all explanations by one pre-set standard: in this case hypothetico-deductive method.

But this is nonsense. All disciplines use abduction, true, but they do not all arrive at the ‘best explanation’ by the same procedures. Their procedures are analogical not univocal. Failure to see this distinction seems to be at the root of Mizrahi’s errors. Differing explanatory processes can be compared but not identified as can be seen if we imagine a classicist taking his copy of the Iliad down to the chemistry lab to be analyzed for its meaning. The Chemistry lab here is the classicist’s brain! To use a less flippant example though there are sciences such as paleontology that make liberal use of narrative reconstruction (i.e. how those hominid bones got in that tiny cave) which is a form of abduction that does not correspond simply to the standard H/D model. Still, the story the paleontologist reconstructs, if it is a good one, has unity, simplicity and coherence regardless of the fact that it has not achieved this by a robotic application of H/D but rather by another, less formalized, form of inference.

Thus, I think Mizrahi’s reforming zeal (48) has got the better of him. He does not help his case by issuing the Borg-like boast that ‘resistance is futile’. If I recall my Trek lore correctly, the boast that ‘resistance is futile’ ended in ignominious defeat. One final point. One should never proofread one’s own papers, I did indeed misspell Mizrahi for which I heartily apologize.

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

Mizrahi, Moti. “Weak Scientism Defended Once More.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 41-50.

Wills, Bernard. “Why Mizrahi Needs to Replace Weak Scientism With an Even Weaker Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 18-24.

[1] Though, as I point out in my response (Wills, 22), he clearly vacillates on this point.

[2] It is an odd kind of scientism that holds science is superior within the academy while leaving open the question of whether non-scientific knowledge outside the academy may be superior to science. However, if that is Mizrahi’s position I will not quibble.

Author Information: Stephen John, Cambridge University, sdj22@cam.ac.uk

John, Stephen. “Transparency, Well-Ordered Science, and Paternalism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 30-33.

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

See also:

Image by Sergio Santos and http://nursingschoolsnearme.com, via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Should a physician tell you that you have cancer, even if she thinks this would cause you needless distress? Of course she should! How, though, should she convey that news? Imagine three, stylised options. Dr Knowsbest is certain you should have your cancer operated on, so tells you the news in a way which vividly highlights the horrors of cancer, but downplays the risk of an operation.

Dr Neutral, by contrast, simply lists all of the facts about your cancer, your prognosis, your possible treatment options, their likely benefits and risks and so on. Finally, Dr Sensitive reports only those aspects of your condition and those risks of surgery which she judges that you, given your values and interests, would want to know about.

Many Methods to Reveal

We can, I hope, all agree that Dr Knowsbest’s communicative strategies and choices are ethically problematic, because she acts in a paternalistic manner. By contrast, Dr Neutral does not act paternalistically. In this regard, at least, Dr Neutral’s strategies are ethically preferable to Dr Knowsbest’s strategies. What about the choice between Knowsbest and Sensititve? In one sense, Dr Sensitive acts paternalistically, because she controls and structures the flow of information with the aim of improving your well-being.

However, there is an important difference between Dr Sensitive and Dr Knowsbest; the former aims solely to improve your epistemic well-being, such that you can better make a choice which aligns with your own values, whereas the latter aims to influence or override your judgment. Knowsbest’s “moral paternalism” is wrong for reasons which are absent in the case of Sensitive’s “epistemic paternalism” (Ahlstrom-Vij, 2013).

Therefore, plausibly, both the Neutral and Sensitive strategies are ethically preferable to Knowsbest; What, though, of the choice between these two communicative strategies? First, I am not certain that it is even possible to report all the facts in a neutral way (for more, see below.) Second, even if it is possible, Dr Sensitive’s strategy seems preferable; her strategy, if successful, positively promotes – as opposed to merely failing to interfere with – your ability to make autonomous choices.

At least at an abstract, ideal level, then, we have good reason to want informants who do more than merely list facts, but who are sensitive to their audiences’ epistemic situation and abilities and their evaluative commitments; we want experts who “well-lead” us. In my recent paper in Social Epistemology, I argued that that certain widely-endorsed norms for science communication are, at best, irrelevant, and, at worst, dangerous (John 2018). We should be against transparency, openness, sincerity and honesty.

It’s a Bit Provocative

One way of understanding that paper is as following from the abstract ideal of sensitive communication, combined with various broadly sociological facts (for example, about how audiences identify experts). I understand why my article put Moore in mind of a paradigm case of paternalism. However, reflection on the hypothetical example suggests we should also be against “anti-paternalism” as a norm for science communication; not because Knowsbest’s strategy is fine, but, rather, because the term “paternalism” tends to bundle together a wide range of practices, not all of which are ethically problematic, and some of which promote – rather than hinder – audiences’ autonomy.

Beyond the accusation of paternalism, Moore’s rich and provocative response focuses on my scepticism about transparency. While I argued that a “folk philosophy of science” can lead audiences to distrust experts who are, in fact, trustworthy, he uses the example of HIV-AIDS activism to point to the epistemic benefits of holding scientists to account, suggesting that “it is at least possible that the process of engaging with and responding to criticism can lead to learning on both sides and the production, ultimately, of better science”. I agree entirely that such a dynamic is possible; indeed, his example shows it does happen!

However, conceding this possibility does not show that we must endorse a norm of transparency, because, ultimately, the costs may still be greater than the benefits. Much here depends on the mechanisms by which transparency and engagement are enacted. Moore suggests one model for such engagement, via the work of “trust proxies”, such as ACT-UP. As he acknowledges, however, although proxies may be better-placed than lay-people to identify when science is flawed, we now create a new problem for the non-expert: to adapt a distinction from Goldman’s work, we must decide which “putative proxies” are “true proxies” (Goldman, 2001).

Plausibly, this problem is even harder than Goldman’s problem of distinguishing the “true experts” among the “putative experts”; because in the latter case, we have some sense of the credentials and so on which signal experthood. Again, I am tempted to say, then, that it is unclear that transparency, openness or engagement will necessarily lead to better, rather than worse, socio-epistemic outcomes.

Knowledge From Observation and Practice

Does that mean my arguments against transparency are in the clear? No. First, many of the issues here turn on the empirical details; maybe careful institutional design can allow us to identify trustworthy trust-proxies, whose work promotes good science. Second, and more importantly, the abstract model of sensitive communication is an ideal. In practice, it is easy to fail to meet this ideal, in ways which undermine, rather than respect or promote, hearers’ autonomy.

For example, rather than tailor her communication to what her audiences do care about, Dr Sensitive might tailor what she says to what she thinks they ought to care about; as a result, she might leave out information which is relevant to their choices given their values, while including information which is irrelevant. An influential strain in recent philosophy of science suggests that non-epistemic value judgments do and must run deep in practices of justification; as such, even a bald report of what a study showed may, implicitly, encode or endorse value judgments which are not shared by the audience (Douglas, 2000).

Reporting claims when, and only when, they meet a certain confidence level may, for example, implicitly rely on assumptions about the relative disvalue of false positives and false negatives; in turn, it may be difficult to justify such assumptions without appeal to non-epistemic values (John, 2015). As such, even Dr Neutral may be unable to avoid communicating in ways which are truly sensitive to her audience’s values. In short, it may be hard to handover our epistemic autonomy to experts without also handing over our moral autonomy.

This problem means that, for research to be trustworthy, requires more than that the researchers’ claims are true, but that they are claims which are, at least, neutral and, at best, aligned with, audiences’ values. Plausibly, regardless greater engagement and transparency may help ensure such value alignment. One might understand the example of ACT-UP along these lines: activist engagement ensured that scientists did “good science” not only in a narrow, epistemic sense of “good” – more or more accurate data and hypotheses were generated – but in a broader sense of being “well-ordered”, producing knowledge that better reflected the concerns and interests of the broader community (Kitcher, 2003).

Whether engagement improves epistemic outcomes narrowly construed is a contingent matter, heavily dependent on the details of the case. By contrast, engagement may be necessary for science to be “well-ordered”. In turn, transparency may be necessary for such engagement. At least, that is the possibility I would push were I to criticise my own conclusions in line with Moore’s concerns.

A Final Sting

Unfortunately, there is a sting in the tail. Developing effective frameworks for engagement and contestation may require us to accept that scientific research is not, and cannot be, fully “value free”. To the extent that such an assumption is a commitment of our “folk philosophy of science”, then developing the kind of rigorous engagement which Moore wants may do as much to undermine, as promote, our trust in true experts. Moore is surely right that the dynamics of trust and distrust are even more complex than my paper suggested; unfortunately, they might be even more complex again than he suggests.

Contact details: sdj22@cam.ac.uk

References

Ahlstrom-Vij, K. (2013). Epistemic paternalism: a defence. Springer

Douglas, H. (2000). Inductive risk and values in science. Philosophy of science, 67(4), 559-579.

Goldman, A (2001) “Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 63(1), 85–110.

John, S. (2015). Inductive risk and the contexts of communication. Synthese, 192(1), 79-96.

John, S. (2018). Epistemic trust and the ethics of science communication: against transparency, openness, sincerity and honesty. Social Epistemology, 32(2), 75-87.

Kitcher, P. (2003). Science, truth, and democracy. Oxford University Press.

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

Mizrahi, Moti. “Weak Scientism Defended Once More.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 41-50.

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

See also:

One of Galileo’s original compasses, on display at the Museo Galileo, a feature of the Instituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza in Florence, Italy.
Image by Anders Sandberg via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Bernard Wills (2018) joins Christopher Brown (2017, 2018) in criticizing my defense of Weak Scientism (Mizrahi 2017a, 2017b, 2018a). Unfortunately, it seems that Wills did not read my latest defense of Weak Scientism carefully, nor does he cite any of the other papers in my exchange with Brown. For he attributes to me the view that “other disciplines in the humanities [in addition to philosophy] do not produce knowledge” (Wills 2018, 18).

Of course, this is not my view and I affirm no such thing, contrary to what Wills seems to think. I find it hard to explain how Wills could have made this mistake, given that he goes on to quote me as follows: “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” (Mizrahi 2018a, 7; quoted in Wills 2018, 18).

Clearly, the claim ‘Scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge’ entails that there is non-scientific knowledge. If the view I defend entails that there is non-scientific knowledge, then it cannot also be my view that “science produces knowledge and all the other things we tend to call knowledge are in fact not knowledge at all but something else” (Wills 2018, 18).

Even if he somehow missed this simple logical point, reading the other papers in my exchange with Brown should have made it clear to Wills that I do not deny the production of knowledge by non-scientific disciplines. In fact, I explicitly state that “science produces scientific knowledge, mathematics produces mathematical knowledge, philosophy produces philosophical knowledge, and so on” (Mizrahi 2017a, 353). Even in my latest reply to Brown, which is the only paper from my entire exchange with Brown that Wills cites, I explicitly state that, if Weak Scientism is true, then “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 2018a, 8).

If philosophical knowledge is quantitatively and qualitatively inferior to scientific knowledge, then it follows that there is philosophical knowledge. For this reason, only a rather careless reader could attribute to me the view that “other disciplines in the humanities [in addition to philosophy] do not produce knowledge” (Wills 2018, 18).

There Must Be Some Misunderstanding

Right from the start, then, Wills gets Weak Scientism wrong, even though he later writes that, according to Weak Scientism, “there may be knowledge of some sort outside of the sciences” (Wills 2018, 18). He says that he will ignore the quantitative claim of Weak Scientism and focus “on the qualitative question and particularly on the claim that science produces knowledge and all the other things we tend to call knowledge are in fact not knowledge at all but something else” (Wills 2018, 18). Wills can focus on whatever he wants, of course, but that is not Weak Scientism.

Weak Scientism is not the view that only science produces real knowledge; that is Strong Scientism (Mizrahi 2017a, 353). Rather, Weak Scientism is the view that, “Of all the knowledge we have [i.e., there is knowledge other than scientific knowledge], scientific knowledge is the best knowledge” (Mizrahi 2017a, 354). In other words, scientific knowledge “is simply the best; better than all the rest” (Mizrahi 2017b, 20). Wills’ criticism, then, misses the mark completely. That is, it cannot be a criticism against Weak Scientism, since Weak Scientism is not the view that “science produces knowledge and all the other things we tend to call knowledge are in fact not knowledge at all but something else” (Wills 2018, 18).

Although he deems the quantitative superiority of scientific knowledge over non-scientific knowledge “a tangential point,” and says that he will not spend time on it, Wills (2018, 18) remarks that “A German professor once told [him] that in the first half of the 20th Century there were 40,000 monographs on Franz Kafka alone!” Presumably, Wills’ point is that research output in literature exceeds that of scientific disciplines. Instead of relying on gut feelings and hearsay, Wills should have done the required research in order to determine whether scholarly output in literature really does exceed the research output of scientific disciplines.

If we look at the Scopus database, using the data and visualization tools provided by Scimago Journal & Country Rank, we can see that research output in a natural science like physics and a social science like psychology far exceeds research output in humanistic disciplines like literature and philosophy. On average, psychology has produced 15,000 more publications per year than either literature or philosophy between the years 1999 and 2017. Likewise, on average, physics has produced 54,000 more publications per year than either literature or philosophy between the years 1999 and 2017 (Figure 1). 

Figure 1. Research output in Literature, Philosophy, Physics, and Psychology from 1999 to 2017 (Source: Scimago Journal & Country Rank)

Contrary to what Wills seems to think or what his unnamed German professor may have told him, then, it is not the case that literary scholars produce more work on Shakespeare or Kafka alone than physicists or psychologists produce. The data from the Scopus database show that, on average, it takes literature and philosophy almost two decades to produce what psychology produces in two years or what physics produces in a single year (Mizrahi 2017a, 357-359).

In fact, using JSTOR Data for Research, we can check Wills’ number, as reported to him by an unnamed German professor, to find out that there are 13,666 publications (i.e., journal articles, books, reports, and pamphlets) on Franz Kafka from 1859 to 2018 in the JSTOR database. Clearly, that is not even close to “40,000 monographs on Franz Kafka alone” in the first half of the 20th Century (Wills 2018, 18). By comparison, as of May 22, 2018, the JSTOR database contains more publications on the Standard Model in physics and the theory of conditioning in behavioral psychology than on Franz Kafka or William Shakespeare (Table 1).

Table 1. Search results for ‘Standard Model’, ‘Conditioning’, ‘William Shakespeare’, and ‘Franz Kafka’ in the JSTOR database as a percentage of the total number of publications, n = 12,633,298 (Source: JSTOR Data for Research)

  Number of Publications Percentage of JSTOR corpus
Standard Model 971,968 7.69%
Conditioning 121,219 0.95%
William Shakespeare 93,700 0.74%
Franz Kafka 13,667 0.1%

Similar results can be obtained from Google Books Ngram Viewer when we compare published work on Shakespeare, which Wills thinks exceeds all published work in other disciplines, for he says that “Shakespeare scholars have all of us beat” (Wills 2018, 18), with published work on a contemporary of Shakespeare (1564-1616) from another field of study, namely, Galileo (1564-1642). As we can see from Figure 2, from 1700 to 2000, ‘Galileo’ consistently appears in more books than ‘William Shakespeare’ does.

Figure 2. Google Books results for ‘William Shakespeare’ and ‘Galileo’ from 1700 to 2000 (Source: Google Books Ngram Viewer)

Racking Up the Fallacies

Wills continues to argue fallaciously when he resorts to what appears to be a fallacious ad hominem attack against me. He asks (rhetorically?), “Is Mr. Mizrahi producing an argument or a mere rationalization of his privilege?” (Wills 2018, 19) It is not clear to me what sort of “privilege” Wills wants to claim that I have, or why he accuses me of colonialism and sexism, since he provides no arguments for these outrageous charges. Moreover, I do not see how this is at all relevant to Weak Scientism. Even if I am somehow “privileged” (whatever Wills means by that), Weak Scientism is either true or false regardless.

After all, I take it that Wills would not doubt his physician’s diagnoses just because he or she is “privileged” for working at a hospital. Whether his physician is “privileged” for working at a hospital has nothing to do with the accuracy of his or her diagnoses. For these reasons, Wills’ ad hominem is fallacious (as opposed to a legitimate ad hominem as a rebuttal to an argument from authority, see Mizrahi 2010). I think that SERRC readers will be better served if we focus on the ideas under discussion, specifically, Weak Scientism, not the people who discuss them.

Speaking of privilege and sexism, however, it might be worth noting that, throughout his paper, Wills refers to me as ‘Mr. Mizrahi’ (rather than ‘Dr. Mizrahi’ or simply ‘Mizrahi’, as is the norm in academic publications), and that he has misspelled my name on more than one occasion (Wills 2018, 18, 22, 24). Studies suggest that addressing female doctors with ‘Ms.’ or ‘Mrs.’ rather than ‘Dr.’ might reveal gender bias (see, e.g., Files et al. 2017). Perhaps forms of address reveal not only gender bias but also ethnic or racial bias when people with non-white or “foreign” names are addressed as Mr. (or Ms.) rather than Dr. (Erlenbusch 2018).

Aside from unsubstantiated claims about the amount of research produced by literary scholars, fallacious appeals to the alleged authority of unnamed German professors, and fallacious ad hominem attacks, does Wills offer any good arguments against Weak Scientism? He spends most of his paper (pages 19-22) trying to show that there is knowledge other than scientific knowledge, such as knowledge produced in the fields of “Law and Music Theory” (Wills 2018, 20). This, however, does nothing at all to undermine Weak Scientism. For, as mentioned above, Weak Scientism is the view that scientific knowledge is superior to non-scientific knowledge, which means that there is non-scientific knowledge; it’s just not as good as scientific knowledge (Mizrahi 2017a, 356).

The Core of His Concept

Wills finally gets to Weak Scientism on the penultimate page of his paper. His main objection against Weak Scientism seems to be that it is not clear to him how scientific knowledge is supposed to be better than non-scientific knowledge. For instance, he asks, “Better in what context? By what standard of value?” (Wills 2018, 23) Earlier he also says that he is not sure what are the “certain relevant respect” in which scientific knowledge is superior to non-scientific knowledge (Wills 2018, 18).

Unfortunately, this shows that Wills either has not read the other papers in my exchange with Brown or at least has not read them carefully. For, starting with my first defense of Weak Scientism (2017a), I explain in great detail the ways in which scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge. Briefly, scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge in terms of research output (i.e., more publications) and research impact (i.e., more citations). Scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success (Mizrahi 2017a, 364; Mizrahi 2017b, 11).

Wills tries to challenge the claim that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge by exclaiming, “Does science produce more knowledge that [sic] anything else? Hardly” (Wills 2018, 23). He appeals to Augustine’s idea that one “can produce a potential infinity of knowledge simply by reflecting recursively on the fact of [one’s] own existence” (Wills 2018, 23). In response, I would like to borrow a phrase from Brown (2018, 30): “good luck getting that published!”

Seriously, though, the point is that Weak Scientism is a thesis about academic knowledge or research. In terms of research output, scientific disciplines outperform non-scientific disciplines (see Figure 1 and Table 1 above; Mizrahi 2017a, 357-359; Mizrahi 2018a, 20-21). Besides, just as “recursive processes can extend our knowledge indefinitely in the field of mathematics,” they can also extend our knowledge in other fields as well, including scientific fields. That is, one “can produce a potential infinity of knowledge simply by reflecting recursively on the” (Wills 2018, 23) Standard Model in physics or any other scientific theory and/or finding. For this reason, Wills’ objection does nothing at all to undermine Weak Scientism.

Wills (2018, 23) tries to problematize the notions of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success in an attempt to undermine the claim that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success. But it seems that he misunderstands these notions as they apply to the scientism debate.

As far as instrumental success is concerned, Wills (2018, 23) asks, “Does science have (taken in bulk) more instrumental success than other knowledge forms? How would you even count given that craft knowledge has roughly 3 million-year head start?” Even if it is true that “craft knowledge has roughly 3 million-year head start,” it is irrelevant to whether Weak Scientism is true or false. This is because Weak Scientism is a thesis about academic knowledge or research produced by academic fields of study (Mizrahi 2017a, 356; Mizrahi 2017b, 11; Mizrahi 2018a, 12).

Solving the Problem and Explaining the Issue

As far as explanatory success is concerned, Wills (2018, 23) writes, “Is science more successful at explanation? Hardly, if science could solve problems in literature or history then these fields would not even exist.” There are a couple of problems with this objection. First, explaining and problem solving are not the same thing (Mizrahi and Buckwalter 2014). Second, what makes scientific explanations good explanations are the good-making properties that are supposed to make all explanations (both scientific and non-scientific) good explanations, namely, unification, coherence, simplicity, and testability (Mizrahi 2017a, 360-362; Mizrahi 2017b, 19-20; Mizrahi 2018a, 17).

I have already made this point several times in my replies to Brown, which Wills does not cite, namely, that Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE) is used in both scientific and non-scientific contexts (Mizrahi 2017a, 362). That is, “IBE is everywhere” (Mizrahi 2017b, 20). It’s just that scientific IBEs are better than non-scientific IBEs because they exhibit more of (and to a greater extent) the aforementioned properties that make any explanation a good explanation (Mizrahi 2018b).

As far as predictive success is concerned, Wills (2018, 23) asks, “Does science make more true predictions? Again how would you even count given that for millions of years, human beings survived by making hundreds of true predictions daily?” There are a few problems with this objection as well. First, even if it is true that “for millions of years, human beings survived by making hundreds of true predictions daily,” it is irrelevant to whether Weak Scientism is true or false, since Weak Scientism is a thesis about academic knowledge or research produced by academic fields of study (Mizrahi 2017a, 356; Mizrahi 2017b, 11; Mizrahi 2018a, 12).

Second, contrary to what Wills (2018, 24) seems to think, testing predictions in science is not simply a matter of making assertions and then checking to see if they are true. For one thing, a prediction is not simply an assertion, but rather a consequence that follows from a hypothesis plus auxiliary hypotheses (Mizrahi 2015). For another, a prediction needs to be novel such that we would not expect it to be the case except from the vantage point of the theory that we are testing (Mizrahi 2012).

As I have advised Brown (Mizrahi 2018, 17), I would also advise Wills to consult logic and reasoning textbooks, not because they provide support for the claim that “science is instrumentally successful, explanatory and makes true predictions,” as Wills (2018, 23) erroneously thinks, but because they discuss hypothesis testing in science. For Wills’ (2018, 24) remark about Joyce scholars suggests a failure to understand how hypotheses are tested in science.

Third, like Brown (2017, 49), Wills (2018, 23) admits that, just like science, philosophy is in the explanation business. For Wills (2018, 23) says that, “certainty, instrumental success, utilitarian value, predictive power and explanation all exist elsewhere in ways that are often not directly commensurable with the way they exist in science” (emphasis added). But if distinct fields of study have the same aim (i.e., to explain), then their products (i.e., explanations) can be evaluated with respect to similar criteria, such as unification, coherence, simplicity, and testability (Mizrahi 2017a, 360-362; Mizrahi 2017b, 19-20; Mizrahi 2018a, 17).

In other words, there is no incommensurability here, as Wills seems to think, insofar as both science and philosophy produce explanations and those explanations must exhibit the same good-making properties that make all explanations good explanations (Mizrahi 2018a, 17; 2018b).

“You Passed the Test!”

If Wills (2018, 24) wants to suggest that philosophers should be “testing their assertions in the ways peculiar to their disciplines,” then I would agree. However, “testing” does not simply mean making assertions and then checking to see if they are true, as Wills seems to think. After all, how would one check to see if assertions about theoretical entities are true? To test a hypothesis properly, one must derive a consequence from it (plus auxiliary assumptions) that would be observed only if the hypothesis (plus the auxiliary assumptions) is true.

Observations and/or experimentation would then indicate to one whether the consequence obtains or not (Mizrahi 2012). Of course, some philosophers have been doing just that for some time now (Knobe 2017). For instance, some experimental philosophers test hypotheses about the alleged intuitiveness of philosophical ideas and responses to thought experiments (see, e.g., Kissinger-Knox et al. 2018). I welcome such empirical work in philosophy.

Contrary to what Wills (2018, 19) seems to think, then, my aim is not to antagonize philosophers. Rather, my aim is to reform philosophy. In particular, as I have suggested in my recent reply to Brown (Mizrahi 2018a, 22), I think that philosophy would benefit from adopting not only the experimental methods of the cognitive and social sciences, as experimental philosophers have done, but also the methods of data science, such as data mining and corpus analysis (see, e.g., Ashton and Mizrahi 2018a and 2018b).

Indeed, the XPhi Replicability Project recently published a report on replication studies of 40 experimental studies according to which experimental studies “successfully replicated about 70% of the time” (Cova et al. 2018). With such a success rate, one could argue that the empirical revolution in philosophy is well under way (see also Knobe 2015). Resistance is futile!

Contact details: mmizrahi@fit.edu

References

Ashton, Z., and Mizrahi, M. “Intuition Talk is Not Methodologically Cheap: Empirically Testing the ‘Received Wisdom’ About Armchair Philosophy.” Erkenntnis 83, no. 3 (2018a): 595-612.

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

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

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

Cova, Florian, Brent Strickland, Angela G Abatista, Aurélien Allard, James Andow, Mario Attie, James Beebe, et al. “Estimating the Reproducibility of Experimental Philosophy.” PsyArXiv, April 21, 2018. doi:10.17605/OSF.IO/SXDAH.

Erlenbusch, V. “Being a Foreigner in Philosophy: A Taxonomy.” Hypatia 33, no. 2 (2018): 307-324.

Files, J. A., Mayer, A. P., Ko, M. G., Friedrich, P., Jenkins, M., Bryan, M. J., Vegunta, S., Wittich, C. M., Lyle, M. A., Melikian, R., Duston, T., Chang, Y. H., Hayes, S. M. “Speaker Introductions at Internal Medicine Grand Rounds: Forms of Address Reveal Gender Bias.” Journal of Women’s Health 26, no. 5 (2017): 413-419.

Google. “Ngram Viewer.” Google Books Ngram Viewer. Accessed on May 21, 2018. https://books.google.com/ngrams.

JSTOR. “Create a Dataset.” JSTOR Data for Research. Accessed on May 22, 2018. https://www.jstor.org/dfr/.

Kissinger-Knox, A., Aragon, P., and Mizrahi, M. “Does Non-Moral Ignorance Exculpate? Situational Awareness and Attributions of Blame and Forgiveness.” Acta Analytica 33, no. 2 (2018): 161-179.

Knobe, J. “Experimental Philosophy.” Philosophy Compass 2, no. 1 (2007): 81-92.

Knobe, J. “Philosophers are Doing Something Different Now: Quantitative Data.” Cognition 135 (2015): 36-38.

Mizrahi, M. “Take My Advice–I Am Not Following It: Ad Hominem Arguments as Legitimate Rebuttals to Appeals to Authority.” Informal Logic 30, no. 4 (2010): 435-456.

Mizrahi, M. “Why the Ultimate Argument for Scientific Realism Ultimately Fails.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 43, no. 1 (2012): 132-138.

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

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

Mizrahi, M. “The ‘Positive Argument’ for Constructive Empiricism and Inference to the Best Explanation.” Journal for General Philosophy of Science (2018b): https://doi.org/10.1007/s10838-018-9414-3.

Mizrahi, M. and Buckwalter, W. “The Role of Justification in the Ordinary Concept of Scientific Progress.” Journal for General Philosophy of Science 45, no. 1 (2014): 151-166.

Scimago Journal & Country Rank. “Subject Bubble Chart.” SJR: Scimago Journal & Country Rank. Accessed on May 20, 2018. http://www.scimagojr.com/mapgen.php?maptype=bc&country=US&y=citd.

Wills, B. “Why Mizrahi Needs to Replace Weak Scientism With an Even Weaker Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 18-24.

Author Information: Paul Faulkner, University of Sheffield, paul.faulkner@sheffield.ac.uk

Faulkner, Paul. “Fake Barns, Fake News.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 16-21.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Y4

Image by Kathryn via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

The Twitter feed of Donald Trump regularly employs the hashtag #FakeNews, and refers to mainstream news outlets — The New York Times, CNN etc. — as #FakeNews media. Here is an example from May 28, 2017.

Whenever you see the words ‘sources say’ in the fake news media, and they don’t mention names …

… it is very possible that those sources don’t exist but are made up by the fake news writers. #FakeNews is the enemy!

It is my opinion that many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media.[1]

Lies and Falsehoods

Now it is undoubted that both fake news items and fake news media exist. A famous example of the former is the BBC Panorama broadcast about spaghetti growers on April Fool’s Day, 1957.[2] A more recent, and notorious example of the latter is the website ChristianTimesNewspaper.com set up by Cameron Harris to capitalise on Donald Trump’s support during the election campaign (See Shane 2017).

This website published exclusively fake news items; items such as “Hillary Clinton Blames Racism for Cincinnati Gorilla’s Death”, “NYPD Looking to Press Charges Against Bill Clinton for Underage Sex Ring”, and “Protestors Beat Homeless Veteran to Death in Philadelphia”. And it found commercial success with the headline: “BREAKING: ‘Tens of thousands’ of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse”. This story was eventually shared with six million people and gained widespread traction, which persisted even after it was shown to be fake.

Fake news items and fake news media exist. However, this paper is not interested in this fact so much as the fact that President Trumps regularly calls real news items fake, and calls the established news media the fake news media. These aspersions are intended to discredit news items and media. And they have had some remarkable success in doing so: Trump’s support has shown a good resistance to the negative press Trump has received in the mainstream media (Johson 2017).

Moreover, there is some epistemological logic to this: these aspersions insinuate a skeptical argument, and, irrespective of its philosophical merits, this skeptical argument is easy to latch onto and hard to dispel. An unexpected consequence of agreeing with Trump’s aspersions is that these aspersions can themselves be epistemologically rationalized. This paper seeks to develop these claims.

An Illustration from the Heartlands

To start, consider what is required for knowledge. While there is substantial disagreement about the nature of knowledge — finding sufficient conditions is difficult — there is substantial agreement on what is required for knowledge. In order to know: (1) you have to have got it right; (2) it cannot be that you are likely to have got it wrong; and (3) you cannot think that you are likely to have got it wrong. Consider these three necessary conditions on knowledge.

You have to have got it right. This is the most straightforward requirement: knowledge is factive; ‘S knows that p’ entails ‘p’. You cannot know falsehoods, only mistakenly think that you know them. So if you see what looks to you to be a barn on the hill and believe that there is a barn on the hill, you fail to know that there is a barn on the hill if what you are looking at is in fact a barn façade — a fake barn.

It cannot be that you are likely to have got it wrong. This idea is variously expressed in the claims that there is a reliability (Goldman 1979), sensitivity (Nozick 1981), safety (Sosa 2007), or anti-luck (Zagzebski 1994) condition on knowing. That there is such a condition has been acknowledged by epistemologists of an internalist persuasion, (Alston 1985, Peacocke 1986). And it is illustrated by the subject’s failure to know in the fake barn case (Goldman 1976). This case runs as follows.

Image by Sonja via Flickr / Creative commons

 

Henry is driving through the countryside, sees a barn on the hill, and forms the belief that there is a barn on the hill. Ordinarily, seeing that there is a barn on the hill would enable Henry to know that there is a barn on the hill. But the countryside Henry is driving through is peculiar in that there is a proliferation of barn façades — fake barns — and Henry, from the perspective of the highway, cannot tell a genuine barn from a fake barn.

It follows that he would equally form the belief that there is a barn on the hill if he were looking at a fake barn. So his belief that there is a barn on the hill is as likely to be wrong as right. And since it is likely that he has got it wrong, he doesn’t know that there is a barn on the hill. (And he doesn’t know this even though he is looking at a barn on the hill!)

You cannot think that you are likely to have got it wrong. This condition can equally be illustrated by the fake barns case. Suppose Henry learns, say from a guidebook to this part of the countryside, that fake barns are common in this area. In this case, he would no longer believe, on seeing a barn on the hill, that there was a barn on the hill. Rather, he would retreat to the more cautious belief that there was something that looked like a barn on the hill, which might be a barn or might be a barn façade. Or at least this is the epistemically correct response to this revelation.

And were Henry to persist in his belief that there is a barn on the hill, there would be something epistemically wrong with this belief; it would be unreasonable, or unjustified. Such a belief, it is then commonly held, could not amount to knowledge, (Sosa 2007). Notice: the truth of Henry’s worry about the existence of fake barns doesn’t matter here. Even if the guidebook is a tissue of falsehoods and there are no fake barns, once Henry believes that fake barns abound, it ceases to be reasonable to believe that a seen barn on the hill is in fact a barn on the hill.

Truth’s Resilience: A Mansion on a Hill

The fake barns case centres on a case of acquiring knowledge by perception: getting to know that there is a barn on the hill by seeing that there is a barn on the hill. Or, more generally: getting to know that p by seeing that p. The issue of fake news centres on our capacity to acquire knowledge from testimony: getting to know that p by being told that p. Ordinarily, testimony, like perception, is a way of acquiring knowledge about the world: just as seeing that p is ordinarily a way of knowing that p, so too is being told that p. And like perception, this capacity for acquiring knowledge can be disrupted by fakery.

This is because the requirements on knowledge stated above are general requirements — they are not specific to the perceptual case. Applying these requirements to the issue of fake news then reveals the following.

You have to have got it right. From this it follows that there is no knowledge to be got from the fake news item. One cannot get to know that the Swiss spaghetti harvesters had a poor year in 1957, or that Randall Prince stumbled across the ballot boxes. If it is fake news that p, one cannot get to know that p, any more than one can get to know that there is a barn on a hill when the only thing on the hill is a fake. One can get to know other things: that Panorama said that such and such; or that the Christian Times Newspaper said that such and such. But one cannot get to know the content said.

It cannot be that you are likely to have got it wrong. To see what follows from this, suppose that President Trump is correct and the mainstream news media is really the fake news media. On this supposition, most of the news items published by this news media are fake news items. The epistemic position of a consumer of news media is then parallel to Henry’s epistemic position in driving through fake barn country. Even if Henry is looking at a (genuine) barn on the hill, he is not in a position to know that there is a barn on the hill given that he is in fake barn country and, as such, is as likely wrong as right with respect to his belief that there is a barn on the hill.

Similarly, even if the news item that p is genuine and not fake, a news consumer is not in a position to get to know that p insofar as fakes abound and their belief that p is equally likely to be wrong as right. This parallel assumes that the epistemic subject cannot tell real from fake. This supposition is built into the fake barn case: from the road Henry cannot discriminate real from fake barns. And it follows in the fake news case from supposition that President Trump is correct in his aspersions.

That is, if it is really true that The New York Times and CNN are fake news media, as supposed, then this shows the ordinary news consumer is wrong to discriminate between these news media and Christian Newspaper Times, say. And it thereby shows that the ordinary news consumer possesses the same insensitivity to fake news items that Henry possesses to fake barns. So if President Trump is correct, there is no knowledge to be had from the mainstream news media. Of course, he is not correct: these are aspersions not statements of fact. However, even aspersions can be epistemically undermining as can be seen next.

You cannot think that you are likely to have got it wrong. Thus, in the fake barns case, if Henry believes that fake barns proliferate, he cannot know there is a barn on the hill on the basis of seeing one. The truth of Henry’s belief is immaterial to this conclusion. Now let ‘Trump’s supporters’ refer to those who accept Trump’s aspersions of the mainstream news media. Trump’s supporters thereby believe that mainstream news items concerning Trump are fake news items, and believe more generally that these news media are fake news media (at least when it comes to Trump-related news items).

It follows that a Trump supporter cannot acquire knowledge from the mainstream news media when the news is about Trump. And it also follows that Trump supporters are being quite epistemically reasonable in their rejection of mainstream news stories about Trump. (One might counter, ‘at least insofar as their starting point is epistemically reasonable’; but it will turn out below that an epistemological rationalization can be given of this starting point.)

Image by Sonja via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Always Already Inescapably Trapped

Moreover, arguably it is not just the reasonableness of accepting mainstream news stories about Trump that is undermined because Trump’s aspersions insinuate the following skeptical argument. Suppose again that Trump’s aspersions of the mainstream news media are correct, and call this the fake news hypothesis. Given the fake news hypothesis it follows that we lack the capacity to discriminate fake news items from real news items. Given the fake news hypothesis combined with this discriminative incapacity, the mainstream news media is not a source of knowledge about Trump; that is, it is not a source of knowledge about Trump even if its news items are known and presented as such.

At this point, skeptical logic kicks in. To illustrate this, consider the skeptical hypothesis that one is a brain-in-a-vat. Were one a brain-in-vat, perception would not be a source of knowledge. So insofar as one thinks that perception is a source of knowledge, one needs a reason to reject the skeptical hypothesis. But any reason one ordinarily has, one lacks under the supposition that the skeptical hypothesis is true. Thus, merely entertaining the skeptical hypothesis as true threatens to dislodge one’s claim to perceptual knowledge.

Similarly, the fake news hypothesis entails that the mainstream news media is not a source of knowledge about Trump. Since this conclusion is epistemically unpalatable, one needs a reason to reject the fake news hypothesis. Specifically, one needs a reason for thinking that one can discriminate real Trump-related news items from fake ones. But the reasons one ordinarily has for this judgement are undermined by the supposition that the fake news hypothesis is true.

Thus, merely entertaining this hypothesis as true threatens to dislodge one’s claim to mainstream news-based knowledge about Trump. Three things follow. First, Trump supporters’ endorsement of the fake news hypothesis does not merely make it reasonable to reject mainstream media claims about Trump—by the fake barns logic—this endorsement further supports a quite general epistemic distrust on the mainstream news media—by this skeptical reasoning. (It is not just that the mainstream news media conveys #FakeNews, it is the #FakeNews Media.)

Second, through presenting the fake news hypothesis, Trump’s aspersions of mainstream media encourage us to entertain a hypothesis that insinuates a skeptical argument with this radical conclusion. And if any conclusion can be drawn from philosophical debate on skepticism, it is that it is hard to refute sceptical reasoning once one is in the grip of it. Third, what is thereby threatened is both our capacity to acquire Trump-related knowledge that would ground political criticism, and our epistemic reliance on the institution that provides a platform for political criticism. Given these epistemic rewards, Trump’s aspersions of the mainstream news media have a clear political motivation.

Aspersions on the Knowledge of the People

However, I’d like to end by considering their epistemic motivation. Aren’t groundless accusations of fakery straightforwardly epistemically unreasonable? Doesn’t the fake news hypothesis have as much to recommend it as the skeptical hypothesis that one is a brain-in-a-vat? That is, to say doesn’t it have very little to recommend it? Putting aside defences of the epistemic rationality of skepticism, the answer is still equivocal. From one perspective: yes, these declarations of fakery have little epistemic support.

This is the perspective of the enquirer. Supposing a given news item addresses the question of whether p, then where the news item declares p, Trump declares not-p. The epistemic credentials of these declarations then come down to which tracks matters of evidence etc., and while each case would need to be considered individually, it would be reasonable to speculate that the cannons of mainstream journalism are the epistemically superior.

However, from another perspective: no, these declarations of fakery are epistemically motivated. This is the perspective of the believer. For suppose that one is a Trump supporter, as Trump clearly is, and so believes the fake news hypothesis. Given this hypothesis, the truth of a mainstream news item about Trump is immaterial to the epistemic standing of a news consumer. Even if the news item is true, the news consumer can no more learn from it than Henry can get to know that there is a barn on the hill by looking at one.

But if the truth of a Trump-related news item is immaterial to the epistemic standing of a news consumer, then it seems that epistemically, when it comes to Trump-related news, the truth simply doesn’t matter. But to the extent that the truth doesn’t matter, there really is no distinction to be drawn between the mainstream media and the fake news media when it comes to Trump-related news items. Thus, there is a sense in which the fake news hypothesis is epistemically self-supporting.

Contact details: paul.faulkner@sheffield.ac.uk

References

Alston, W. 1985. “Concepts of Justification”. The Monist 68 (1).

Johnson, J. and Weigel, D. 2017. “Trump supporters see a successful president — and are frustrated with critics who don’t”. The Washington Post. 2017. Available from http://wapo.st/2lkwi96.

Goldman, Alvin. 1976. “Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge”. Journal of Philosophy 73:771-791.

Goldman, Alvin 1979. “What Is Justified Belief?”. In Justification and Knowledge, edited by G. S. Pappas. Dordrecht: D.Reidel.

Nozick, R. 1981. Philosophical Explanations. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.

Peacocke, C. 1986. Thoughts: An Essay on Content. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Shane, Scott. “From Headline to Photograph, a Fake News Masterpiece”. The New York Times 2017. Available from https://nyti.ms/2jyOcpR.

Sosa, Ernest. 2007. A Virtue Epistemology: Apt Belief and Reflective Knowledge, Volume 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Zagzebski, L. 1994. “The Inescapability of Gettier Problems”. The Philosophical Quarterly 44 (174):65-73.

[1] See <https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump&gt;.

[2] See <http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/april/1/newsid_2819000/2819261.stm&gt;.