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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Dragging the West Into the World

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

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

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

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

Challenging How We Understand Culture Itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matters of Substance and Function

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

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

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

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

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

Justifying a New World Order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can There Be More Than One Zero Point?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common Themes Across Continents

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

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

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

Early Outreach? Or Appropriation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Information: Joshua Earle, Virginia Tech, jearle@vt.edu.

Earle, Joshua. “Deleting the Instrument Clause: Technology as Praxis.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 59-62.

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

Image by Tambako the Jaguar via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Damien Williams, in his review of Dr. Ashley Shew’s new book Animal Constructions and Technical Knowledge (2017), foregrounds in his title what is probably the most important thesis in Shew’s work. Namely that in our definition of technology, we focus too much on the human, and in doing so we miss a lot of things that should be considered technological use and knowledge. Williams calls this “Deleting the Human Clause” (Williams, 2018).

I agree with Shew (and Williams), for all the reasons they state (and potentially some more as well), but I think we ought to go further. I believe we should also delete the instrument clause.

Beginning With Definitions

There are two sets of definitions that I want to work with here. One is the set of definitions argued over by philosophers (and referenced by both Shew and Williams). The other is a more generic, “common-sense” definition that sits, mostly unexamined, in the back of our minds. Both generally invoke both the human clause (obviously with the exception of Shew) and the instrument clause.

Taking the “common-sense” definition first, we, generally speaking, think of technology as the things that humans make and use. The computer on which I write this article, and on which you, ostensibly, read it, is a technology. So is the book, or the airplane, or the hammer. In fact, the more advanced the object is, the more technological it is. So while the hammer might be a technology, it generally gets relegated to a mere “tool” while the computer or the airplane seems to be more than “just” a tool, and becomes more purely technological.

Peeling apart the layers therein would be interesting, but is beyond the scope of this article, but you get the idea. Our technologies are what give us functionalities we might not have otherwise. The more functionalities it gives us, the more technological it is.

The academic definitions of technology are a bit more abstract. Joe Pitt calls technology “humanity at work,” foregrounding the production of artefacts and the iteration of old into new (2000, pg 11). Georges Canguilhem called technology “the extension of human faculties” (2009, pg 94). Philip Brey, referencing Canguilhem (but also Marshall McLuhan, Ernst Kapp, and David Rothenberg) takes this definition up as well, but extending it to include not just action, but intent, and refining some various ways of considering extension and what counts as a technical artefact (sometimes, like Soylent Green, it’s people) (Brey, 2000).

Both the common sense and the academic definitions of technology use the human clause, which Shew troubles. But even if we alter instances of “human” to “human or non-human agents” there is still something that chafes. What if we think about things that do work for us in the world, but are not reliant on artefacts or tools, are those things still technology?

While each definition focuses on objects, none talks about what form or function those objects need to perform in order to count as technologies. Brey, hewing close to Heidegger, even talks about how using people as objects, as means to an end, would put them within the definition of technology (Ibid, pg. 12). But this also puts people in problematic power arrangements and elides the agency of the people being used toward an end. It also begs the question, can we use ourselves to an end? Does that make us our own technology?

This may be the ultimate danger that Heidegger warned us about, but I think it’s a category mistake. Instead of objectifying agents into technical objects, if, instead we look at the exercise of agency itself as what is key to the definition of technology, things shift. Technology no longer becomes about the objects, but about the actions, and how those actions affect the world. Technology becomes praxis.

Technology as Action

Let’s think through some liminal cases that first inspired this line of thought: Language and Agriculture. It’s certainly arguable that either of these things fits any definition of technology other than mine (praxis). Don Ihde would definitely disagree with me, as he explicitly states that one needs a tool or an instrument to be technology, though he hews close to my definition in other ways (Ihde, 2012; 2018). If Pitt’s definition, “humanity at work” is true, then agriculture is, indeed a technology . . . even without the various artifactual apparati that normally surround it.

Agriculture can be done entirely by hand, without any tools whatsoever, is iterative and produces a tangible output: food, in greater quantity/efficiency than would normally exist. By Brey’s and Canguihem’s definition, it should fit as well, as agriculture extends our intent (for greater amounts of food more locally available) into action and the production of something not otherwise existing in nature. Agriculture is basically (and I’m being too cute by half with this, I know) the intensification of nature. It is, in essence, moving things rather than creating or building them.

Language is a slightly harder case, but one I want to explicitly include in my definition, but I would also say fits Pitt’s and Brey’s definitions, IF we delete or ignore the instrument clause. While language does not produce any tangible artefacts directly (one might say the book or the written word, but most languages have never been written at all), it is the single most fundamental way in which we extend our intent into the world.

It is work, it moves people and things, it is constantly iterative. It is often the very first thing that is used when attempting to affect the world, and the only way by which more than one agent is able to cooperate on any task (I am using the broadest possible definition of language, here). Language could be argued to be the technology by which culture itself is made possible.

There is another way in which focusing on the artefact or the tool or the instrument is problematic. Allow me to illustrate with the favorite philosophical example: the hammer. A question: is a hammer built, but never used, technology[1]? If it is, then all of the definitions above no longer hold. An unused hammer is not “at work” as in Pitt’s definition, nor does it iterate, as Pitt’s definition requires. An unused hammer extends nothing vs. Canguilhem and Brey, unless we count the potential for use, the potential for extension.

But if we do, what potential uses count and which do not? A stick used by an ape (or a person, I suppose) to tease out some tasty termites from their dirt-mound home is, I would argue (and so does Shew), a technological use of a tool. But is the stick, before it is picked up by the ape, or after it is discarded, still a technology or a tool? It always already had the potential to be used, and can be again after it is discarded. But such a definition requires that any and everything as technology, which renders the definition meaningless. So, the potential for use cannot be enough to be technology.

Perhaps instead the unused hammer is just a tool? But again, the stick example renders the definition of “tool” in this way meaningless. Again, only while in use can we consider a hammer a tool. Certainly the hammer, even unused, is an artefact. The being of an artefact is not reliant on use, merely on being fashioned by an external agent. Thus if we can imagine actions without artefacts that count as technology, and artefacts that do not count as technology, then including artefacts in one’s definition of technology seems logically unsound.

Theory of Technology

I believe we should separate our terms: tool, instrument, artefact, and technology. Too often these get conflated. Central, to me, is the idea that technology is an active thing, it is a production. Via Pitt, technology requires/consists in work. Via Canguilhem and Brey it is extension. Both of these are verbs: “work” and “extend.” Techné, the root of the word technology, is about craft, making and doing; it is about action and intent.

It is about, bringing-forth or poiesis (a-la Heidegger, 2003; Haraway, 2016). To this end, I propose, that we define “technology” as praxis, as the mechanisms or techniques used to address problems. “Tools” are artefacts in use, toward the realizing of technological ends. “Instruments” are specific arrangements of artefacts and tools used to bring about particular effects, particularly inscriptions which signify or make meaning of the artefacts’ work (a-la Latour, 1987; Barad, 2007).

One critique I can foresee is that it would seem that almost any action taken could thus be considered technology. Eating, by itself, could be considered a mechanism by which the problem of hunger is addressed. I answer this by maintaining that there be at least one step between the problem and solution. There needs to be the putting together of theory (not just desire, but a plan) and action.

So, while I do not consider eating, in and of itself, (a) technology; producing a meal — via gathering, cooking, hunting, or otherwise — would be. This opens up some things as non-human uses of technology that even Shew didn’t consider like a wolf pack’s coordinated hunting, or dolphins’ various clever ways to get rewards from their handlers.

So, does treating technology as praxis help? Does extracting the confounding definitions of artefact, tool, and instrument from the definition of technology help? Does this definition include too many things, and thus lose meaning and usefulness? I posit this definition as a provocation, and I look forward to any discussion the readers of SERRC might have.

Contact details: jearle@vt.edu

References

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Duke University Press.

Brey, P. (2000). Theories of Technology as Extension of Human Faculties. Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Technology. Research in Philosophy and Technology, 19, 1–20.

Canguilhem, G. (2009). Knowledge of Life. Fordham University Press.

Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.

Heidegger, M. (2003). The Question Concerning Technology. In D. Kaplan (Ed.), Readings in the Philosophy of Technology. Rowan & Littlefield.

Ihde, D. (2012). Technics and praxis: A philosophy of technology (Vol. 24). Springer Science & Business Media.

Ihde, D., & Malafouris, L. (2018). Homo faber Revisited: Postphenomenology and Material Engagement Theory. Philosophy & Technology, 1–20.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Harvard university press.

Pitt, J. C. (2000). Thinking about technology. Seven Bridges Press,.

Shew, A. (2017). Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge. Lexington Books.

Williams, D. (2018). “Deleting the Human Clause: A Review of Ashley Shew’s Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2: 42-44.

[1] This is the philosophical version of “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”

Author Information: Anke Graness, University of Vienna, anke.graness@univie.ac.at.

Graness, Anke. “African Philosophy and History.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 45-54.

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

 

A view from Abwond, in South Sudan.
Image by SIM USA via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Edwin Etieyibo’s recent collection of papers is the result of the conference ‘African philosophy: Past, Present and Future’ held at the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa) in 2015. The presentations and lively discussions during that conference, especially those concerning the future methodology of philosophy in Africa and the steps to be taken towards integrating African philosophy in university curricula, were organised into four sections of the book: (I) African Philosophy and History; (II) Method in African Philosophy); (III) Substance of African Philosophy); (IV) African Philosophy and its Future. All four parts raise important questions and deserve a detailed discussion. However, I will focus my review on the first chapter, ‘African Philosophy and History’.

How Important Is the History of Philosophy?

The importance of the history of philosophy is vigorously contested. In particular, it was challenged by logical positivism and the analytic school during the twentieth century, both of which maintained that historiography had a weak epistemic basis. However, despite all attempts to minimise the role of the history of philosophy in current research and teaching, it continues to play a crucial role in present-day philosophy. An examination of what Africa has done towards writing a history of philosophy is of utmost relevance, especially to the formation of educational policy.

The first article is Edwin Etieyibo’s ‘African Philosophy in History, Context, and Contemporary Times’. Here, the first sentence of the essay is problematic. The author claims: ‘African philosophy does have a long history, albeit mostly undocumented, unwritten, and oral.’ (13) The author seems to assume that orality is a fundamental characteristic of African cultures and societies, and perhaps even that one cannot speak of philosophy in the absence of a written tradition.

Both assumptions have to be strongly refuted. There is a long tradition of written philosophy on the African continent, extending from the time of the ancient Egyptians and including Ethiopian philosophy, the Arabic-Islamic philosophical tradition in Africa south of the Sahara, the Ajami tradition, and the written tradition in the Swahili culture. Souleymane Bachir Diagne sharply criticises the equation of Africa with oral traditions. He calls it a gaze that confines Africa to its oral tradition and de-historicises the whole continent. He argues that the debate:

is often carried out in complete ignorance of the established history of intellectual centres in Africa, where texts containing an undeniable philosophical dimension were studied and commented on, in writing, and where the names of Plato and Aristotle, for example, were well known long before the European presence. (Diagne 2016, 57)

A number of philosophers, including Henry Odera Oruka and Sophie Oluwole, have provided positive proof of the existence of philosophy in oral traditions. And as Diagne argues:

to understand orality is to understand that it too involves intertextuality, which is to say the art of producing a text (it makes no difference if this text is oral) in relation to another one, which the new text evokes in different ways: by citing it, making allusion to it, imitating it, miming it, subverting it, treating it at times with derision. In this way orality returns on itself, becoming a critical reworking of its own stories, and along with them the knowledge and values that they can carry and transmit: it produces new stories that put the old ones, often established as canonical, into question. (Diagne 2016, 54)

It is troubling that prejudices about the history of philosophy in Africa are still widespread. Precisely for this reason, a more detailed study of the history of pre-twentieth-century African philosophy is urgently needed.

Discovering Long-Maligned African Thought

While the next sections of Etieyibo’s article deal with the rejection of African philosophy and in particular with the racist theses of some European philosophers such as Hume, Kant and Hegel, the fourth section of his contribution is devoted to the question of who can be regarded as an African philosopher. I will deal with this question in more detail in a moment.

Towards the end of his essay the author names six areas in which African philosophy lags behind international discourse, among them African metaphysics, African epistemology, African logic, and African philosophy of mind. Etieyibo leaves open what the qualifier ‘African’ means in this context. Concerning the institutional frame of academic philosophy, Etieyibo rightly laments that there is an insufficient number of publications on African philosophy and limited access to them; that there are too few specialist conferences and meetings regarding it; that the discipline suffers from a lack of financial support; and that there is too little exchange between scholars in the field. He maintains that the institutional framework of philosophy production in Africa must be significantly improved.

Two scholars who made major contributions to the reconstruction of the history of philosophy in Africa, particularly African philosophy’s development since the beginning of the twentieth century, also contributed to this section of the book: the American philosopher Barry Hallen (A Short History of African Philosophy, 2002, second edition 2009) and the Kenyan philosopher Dismas A. Masolo (African Philosophy in Search of Identity, 1994).

Barry Hallen starts his article with a number of important questions which have to be answered in order to demarcate the scope of research of a history of African philosophy:

Does African philosophy include all philosophy done by Africans regardless of content?

Does African philosophy include the work of non-Africans who focus on African content?

Can Africans who focus only on researching and teaching ‘Western’ philosophy be considered ‘African philosophers’?

In other words, who should be included in and excluded from the narrative of a history of African philosophy? Hallen’s questions concern the geographical and socio-cultural origin of the scholars and concepts which should be included in a history of philosophy in Africa, or to put it differently, how to localise thought and scholarship. Hallen does not answer these questions but rather focuses his explorations on the general significance of cultural or geographical labels like ‘Indian’, ‘Chinese’ or ‘African’ for philosophy and examines the relationship between the universal and the culturally particular in philosophy.

What Is an African Philosopher?

However, in his article Etieyibo tries to define ‘African philosopher’ using analytic and logical methods. Etieyibo asks whether blackness or being African obliges one to do African philosophy and, moreover, who may count as an African philosopher. To answer these questions, he differentiates between a ‘narrow view’ and a ‘broad view’ of who may be deemed an African philosopher.

According to the ‘narrow view’, ‘one is an African philosopher if one engages with works in African philosophy and works towards developing it.’ (19-20) Unfortunately, Etieyibo leaves open ‘what sorts of work count as African philosophy’ (20). He argues that this issue is not decisive; however, if we do not know what work counts as African philosophy, we will not be able to apply the ‘narrow view’ criterion (‘engages with works in African philosophy’) to identify someone as an African philosopher. Thus, we are thrown back on the old question, ‘What is African philosophy?’.

In the ‘broad view’ the basis of identification as an African philosopher is the ‘person’s origin and what the person does … That is, one is an African philosopher if one is an African and works in philosophy’ (20). Furthermore, Etieyibo argues that ‘just because one … is African does not mean that she does or ought to do African philosophy’. (22) Of course, it is absolutely correct to remind us that philosophers from Africa do not have any duty to do African philosophy– if doing African philosophy means one is constrained to dealing with theories and methodologies which emerged on the African continent or with issues that concern the African Lebenswelt alone.

Like philosophers anywhere in the world, philosophers in and from Africa are free to choose their areas of research without losing their identity as an African. If I do not lose my identity as a European when I deal with philosophical traditions from Africa, the same applies to philosophers from Africa. However, Etieyibo’s remarks do not bring us any closer to answering the questions raised by Hallen, which target issues of classification.

I think it is less important to clarify the continental affiliation of those who practice philosophy in Africa than it is to clarify the definition and demarcation of African philosophy. This clarification has important consequences, for example for the integration of African philosophy into curricula and publication projects, and especially for financial support: What exactly is the ‘African philosophy’ that has to be integrated in curricula? What is to be labelled and promoted as ‘African philosophy’—the work of a philosopher from Africa who is a Wittgenstein specialist? Or does ‘African philosophy’ include only the work of philosophers who deal with African thought traditions, the relevance of those traditions, issues of the African Lebenswelt, such as questions about concepts of justice in the present-day African context, etc.?

The Wittgenstein specialist would certainly have plenty of funding possibilities via research programs in analytic philosophy, philosophy of language, continental philosophy and all kinds of funding foundations; those dealing with marginalised and formerly excluded philosophy traditions in Africa hardly any funding prospects at all. In this respect, a definition of the term ‘African philosophy’ is not only relevant here, but also decisive.

Africa and Universality

Barry Hallen discusses in his essay the relationship between the universality and the particularity of philosophical knowledge with regard to the debates on African philosophy since the 1960s, when African philosophers started to discuss and to attack centuries-old ‘Western’ stereotypes that denied Africans’ ability to think rationally, logically, and critically. During the 1960s African philosophers started to reassert their capability and reclaim their right to describe and to represent the history, present, and future of their continent as well as the African history of ideas, and they refused to be defined and represented according to ‘Western’ anthropological and colonial terms. Hallen describes the debates about the question ‘What is African philosophy?’ between the 1960s and the 1980s as being of immense importance, for here African philosophers:

were putting their own house in order, and they were conscious of their responsibility as scholars to do so. This was Africa talking to Africa about an issue that mattered to Africa. (39)

But still, during these early years of academic philosophy in Africa south of the Sahara, ‘Western’ philosophers considered these debates ‘culture philosophy’ because of the focus on African languages and culture and their philosophical dimensions. For ‘Western’ philosophers, African philosophy seemed to lack the universal dimension characteristic of philosophy.

In the following passage, Hallen refers mainly to the Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu and his counterarguments against such allegations. Wiredu, who conducted a thorough study of his mother tongue Twi and the culture and political institutions of his people, the Akan, insisted that:

African philosophers are doing the same thing as Western philosophers when they extrapolate from the ideas, beliefs, and practices of their cultures to see their relevance to and for more transcendent concerns. African philosophers must therefore insist that the intellectual playing field be levelled and that our cultures be accorded the same initial integrity as any others. In Africa as in other places of the world African philosophy is philosophy, full stop. (41)

This is an important point: why is Heidegger’s theoretical work, which was devoted to the study of the German language and its origins and the Lebenswelt of his time, or Wittgenstein’s analysis taken to be philosophy, but theoretical work on African languages or Lebenswelten classified as cultural studies? Philosophy always starts from particular or contextual circumstances that give rise to further considerations. Wiredu has made this a fundamental principle of his work: he has applied the method of analytic philosophy to the study of a particular language and a particular context in order to make further, general judgments on this basis. The particular language in his case is his mother tongue Twi.

Or as Hallen expresses it:

The whole point of his philosophy is to demonstrate … that a philosophical methodology identified with the “Western” tradition … can be extracted from that tradition and applied to African content with positive consequences …’ (48) and ‘… using African content as a basis for abstracting alternative conceptualizations of truth, of the person, of the community, of development, of modernization that can then be placed in comparison with those more conventionally taken as paradigmatic by academic philosophy. (46-47)

Hallen is concerned that the current generation of young philosophers has not adopted Wiredu’s approach and method. So he asks: ‘Who else is doing philosophy in the African context along the lines of Wiredu?’ (45) Like Wiredu, Hallen argues that it is right and important to apply accepted philosophical methods to African content. He urges that those who argue that new and different forms of approach to philosophy are needed to represent African philosophy independently and fairly should develop and successfully implement such new methods.

One can only agree with Hallen’s criticism of the term ‘World philosophy’: that it is a euphemism for non-‘Western’ thought, for in such volumes on ‘World philosophy’ there is no section devoted to European philosophy (47). This also shows that there is a long way to go before non-European philosophy ceases to be considered exotica.

Africa Beyond Reaction

Dismas Masolo also begins his essay by referring to the difficulties that beset African philosophers in the twentieth century:

much of what we have done in the contemporary history of African philosophy appears to be only corrective work – that is, to respond to bad philosophy that came out of equally bad scholarship on Africa by European social scientists. (54)

Despite all the progress that has been made since then, Masolo criticises the current discourse in African philosophy as follows:

we have not developed out of those responses and corrections what Wiredu calls ‘a tradition of philosophy’ that builds on highlighting a discursive sparring among ourselves about our own specific conceptions, beliefs, or experiences in a manner that would be called philosophical. (56)

With reference to Wiredu, who demands ‘that folks throughout the continent should develop a sustainable or self-sustaining tradition of a philosophical discourse that explores Africans’ beliefs and conceptions of the world’ (57), Masolo underlines that a ‘sustainable tradition of a philosophical discourse’ has to be developed. Masolo does not provide us with a definition of ‘sustainable tradition’, but he points out that ‘sustained discourses among locals give traditions of thought their identities’ (57) and that it is important ‘to confront and interrogate the informing historical or ontological contents (such as specific socio-political or cultural interests) of philosophical or deontological principles when in competition with others.’ (57)

According to Masolo, it is vital to recognise the importance of the time and place in which philosophy emerges; no philosophers can completely free themselves from their locally and temporally conditioned context, which determines their thinking in important ways, e.g. their methodology, content, and research interests. Even so, it is necessary to try to transcend the local and to come to universal judgments. To demonstrate how local knowledge production can be made fruitful for philosophy and a ‘sustainable’, proprietary tradition of philosophy can be built, Masolo uses his own research on the famous intellectual, poet, and essayist Shaaban Bin Robert (1909-1962), who supported the preservation of the Tanzanian verse tradition and wrote Utubora Mkulima, a story about the search for human perfection which offers guidelines for a good life.

Masolo does not consider the difficult and complex situation of present-day African knowledge production an obstacle. This complexity is due to various tensions that emerge from aspects of colonial and neo-colonial heritage, among them the intersection of indigenous and colonial traditions of knowledge production, the relationship between local and global cultures, and the need to participate in international discourse and yet remain free of the domination of Western dictates of discourse. Masolo argues with reference to Hegel that such complex systems of social contradictions are a precondition for the formation of philosophy.

On campus at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Image by oncampus.ru via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Questions of Progress

The last article in this section is Edwin E. Etieyibo and Jonathan O. Chimakonam’s analysis ‘The State of African Philosophy’. Their starting point is the question: What progress has African philosophy made since the end of the great debate about its existence and nature?

Now, it is always difficult to define ‘progress’, but in philosophical debates it is even more difficult to make ‘progress’ manifest, because after all, philosophical research and debates do not lead to billable results or established form of output as do social sciences, economics or natural sciences. How can progress be measured in a discipline like philosophy, which despite continuous effort over thousands of years, has never even been able to reach definite conclusions about such key concepts as justice, truth, or being?

In order to measure ‘progress’ in African philosophy, the two authors propose to elicit numbers regarding scholars and researchers engaged in African philosophy, including the number of undergraduate and graduate students specializing in African philosophy; the number of publications, conferences, and courses about African philosophy; etc. (72) Thus, in the first line, Etieyibo and Chimakonam focus on progress as a matter of quantitative, not qualitative, analysis.

However, the authors also suggest analysing the content and substance of current research and debates in African philosophy. Here, of course, the standard or yardstick is again particularly unclear: how should the ‘substance’ of philosophical work be measured? And how can subjective preferences (with regard to the philosophical methods or schools considered relevant) be excluded from such an evaluation? What is considered to be ‘substantial’ – and what is not? The answer to these questions is never free of interests, preferences, and positions of power. What are the possible guidelines for questions about ‘substance’? The two authors do not give us any criteria.

Due to the scope of such quantitative research, the authors limit their enquiries to an investigation of the number of universities and philosophy departments in sub-Saharan Africa that offer courses in African philosophy. The two authors are well aware of the inadequate basis for their study; many of the departments they tried to contact in Africa did not respond, so no statements can be made about them, which leaves the authors’ database incomplete.

It is notable that there are many lusophone and francophone universities among those Etieyibo and Chimakonam were unable to include in their study due to lack of response to their enquiries. This suggests that the two Anglophone authors, disregarding the language issue, may have contacted those universities only in English. A language-sensitive approach would be necessary in a follow-up attempt. It is astonishing that none of the East African universities which exerted a profound influence on the development and traditions of African philosophy—such as Makerere University in Uganda, Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, and Nairobi University in Kenya—appear in the authors’ study.

Even though their search cannot claim to be complete, the authors think that it is possible to prove emerging tendencies from it. In their analysis of the curricula of philosophy departments of various African universities, they come to the conclusion (which is not new in itself but rather obvious) that philosophical education at African universities continues to be Eurocentric, since there are few or no courses in the curriculum that cover philosophical traditions which originated on the African continent.

Of course, such a numerical listing is interesting–especially against the background of the call for decolonization of curricula and universities. However, it would be more interesting to make a comparison between the present time and the situation in the 1960s and 1970s than between present circumstances and those prevalent less than half a dozen years ago. Such a comparison would certainly show a significant increase in the frequency of these courses and thus ‘progress’ in the quantitative sense. After all, the figures collected in Etieyibo and Chimakonam’s study can provide a basis of comparison should such a study be repeated in a few years.

It would be important in a follow-up study to examine to what extent the integration of African philosophy has progressed on an international level, e.g. in teaching at non-African universities (the US is certainly leading here) as well as at international conferences. African philosophy and African philosophers demonstrated an impressive presence at the most recent World Congress of Philosophy (WCP), which took place in 2018 in Beijing. Here, too, a lot has happened since the first appearance of African philosophy at the WCP in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1978.

Bringing African Thought Throughout the Globe

The authors raise but do not answer a crucial question of didactic methodology concerning the integration of African philosophy in the curriculum of philosophy departments worldwide: is it better to offer standalone courses in African philosophy or to integrate topics and content from African philosophy into existing courses on, for example, ethics, metaphysics, or political philosophy? Is it better to present African philosophy separately or to weave African philosophical perspectives into general philosophy courses? (77) Which of these approaches is more effective in disseminating knowledge about the history of ideas and the current philosophical debates in Africa? Which is more effective in diversifying the conversation in both educational settings and international discourse?

Unfortunately, the authors do not answer this fundamental question. And it is indeed a central and important question, for it entails the following issues: Does presenting special courses in African philosophy perpetuate the assumption that African philosophy is an exotic discipline somehow outside ‘normal’ discourse? Courses labelled ‘European philosophy’ are rarely offered, because the European tradition is presumed to stand as philosophy proper, and as such needs no further geographical qualification. To avoid viewing African discourse as exotica, it might be better to integrate examples from it into overviews and historical lectures.

Furthermore, is it possible to solve philosophical problems solely from the perspective of one philosophical tradition? Perhaps an intercultural approach to teaching and research should be the ‘normal’ way of doing philosophy. If so, it might not make sense to present courses solely on African philosophy; it would be more effective to integrate ‘African’ content into general philosophy courses.

The last part of Etieyibo and Chimakonam’s paper addresses the issue of the ‘substantiality’ of the discourse in African philosophy. What does it mean to do philosophy in a ‘substantial’ way? The authors do not answer this question but offer very sharp criticism of contemporary discourses on African philosophy–large parts of which I, for my part, cannot comprehend at all. For example I do not see contemporary African philosophers as ‘telling worthless stories’ or view them as being isolated people (86). Personally, I see a very serious struggle to create philosophical concepts that are rooted in the African experience. I do agree with Etieyibo and Chimakonam’s observation of a revival of the ethnophilosophical discourse (87).

However, most of the criticism seems to me, especially because of its lack of specificity, to be unfounded accusations. Without reference to certain works or examples, these accusations cannot be investigated and therefore remain unproven; as such, they cannot lead to substantial reflection on ways to avoid certain mistakes. Also the authors’ accusation that Heinz Kimmerle, the German philosopher who was instrumental in introducing African philosophy to the German-speaking world, denied the existence of African philosophy (87), must be decisively rejected.

Lastly, the authors urge that a link between theory and practice in philosophy is very important. Citing Karl Marx, the authors assert that philosophy must become practical (74), and in order for that practice to be relevant, they argue, it must engage with the African Lebenswelt. Only then can African philosophy be part of the solution to the problems Africa faces today.

Conclusion

Edwin Etieyibo rightly states in his article ‘that any serious discussion of African philosophy in terms of its progress must and ought to be cognizant of its history.’ (14) However, not even one article in this part of the book is dedicated either to philosophical traditions in Africa before the twentieth century, or to methodological issues of writing the history of philosophy in Africa. On the contrary, Etieyibo and Chimakonam even claim: ‘Pre-colonial Africa was a period where emotions rather than reason primarily reigned supreme.’ (74)

Not only does such a statement testify to a certain ignorance of the long history of philosophical traditions, written and oral, in Africa, but it also plays into the hands of those who have always accused the Africans of a lack of rationality and always maintained that only the encounter with Europe made education, science, technology, and even philosophy possible on the African continent. However, Etieyibo underlines in his article that ‘saying that philosophy does not exist in Africa and among Africans because they lack rationality is to say that Africans are both biologically and ontologically inferior’ (16)–an argument Etieyibo sharply rejects. His rejection of racist arguments on the one hand and statements like the one above, that emotion rather than reason reigned in Africa, seem inconsistent to me.

A thorough reconstruction of the history of philosophy in Africa should be one of the basic tasks for African philosophers, since a self-determined view of history is the basis for a self-determined concept of the future of a discipline or even of an entire continent. How philosophies of earlier centuries can be researched and integrated into the history of philosophy and what difficulties remain to be solved (for example the question of the significance of orally transmitted philosophy, the question of the place of Arabic-Islamic philosophy in the history of philosophy in Africa, etc.) are not addressed in this part of the book. The really important questions about the history of philosophy remain unexamined. It is quite disappointing that the part entitled ‘African Philosophy and History’ of the book offers no new understanding of the really important questions in the history of philosophy in Africa.

Contact details: anke.graness@univie.ac.at

References

Bachir Diagne, Souleymane. The ink of the scholars: reflections on philosophy in Africa. Dakar: CODESRIA 2016.

Etieyibo, Edwin E. ‘African Philosophy in History, Context, and Contemporary Times’. In: Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan 2018, pp. 13-33.

Etieyibo, Edwin E., and Jonathan O. Chimakonam: ‘The State of African Philosophy’. In: Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan 2018, pp. 71-90.

Hallen, Barry. ‘The Journey of African Philosophy’. In: Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan 2018, pp. 35-52.

Masolo, Dismas A. ‘History of Philosophy as a Problem: Our Case’. In: Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan 2018, pp. 53-69.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Kochan’s Problems of the Strong Programme

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real Love or a Shotgun Marriage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Incompleteness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Possible Predecessors Gone Unacknowledged

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

Author Information: Pablo Schyfter, University of Edinburgh, p.schyfter@ed.ac.uk

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

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

Understanding the practice of science is a complex and contentious field of study. Scientific practitioners, as above, are sometimes also difficult to understand.
Photo by Christian Reed via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Jeff Kochan’s Science as Social Existence (2017) presents an engaging study of two perspectives on science and scientific knowledge: Heidegger’s existential phenomenology and the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK). The book sets down an interesting path to merge the two traditions. Kochan tries to navigate the path’s turns and terrains in original and fruitful ways.

Here, I offer reflections from the perspective of SSK and more specifically, the Edinburgh School’s Strong Programme in the sociology of scientific knowledge. I contend that Kochan’s work does not represent or engage with SSK satisfactorily, and is hindered in its accomplishments as a result. I begin by considering Kochan’s most important claims and ambitions, before turning to my analysis.

The Nature of the Argument

First, Jeff Kochan claims that Heidegger’s existential phenomenology and SSK can fix each other’s flaws and can together constitute a superior framework for analysing science and its epistemic work and products. Kochan elaborates this first claim by using the next two.

Second, he argues that Heidegger’s work can resolve what he considers to be SSK’s long-running and unresolved problem concerning the relationship between knowledge-makers and the world about which they make knowledge. Kochan claims that the Strong Programme employs a form of realism that draws a divide between the knower and the world. He refers to this realism as a ‘glass-bulb model.’ Kochan goes on to state that ‘alternatives to [the glass-bulb model] have already begun to earn a respected place within the broader field of science studies,’ (2017, 33) though he offers no examples to support the claim. He contends that Heidegger’s assistance is imperative since ‘science studies scholars can no longer take external-world realism for granted’ (ibid.).

Third, Kochan suggests that SSK can resolve Heidegger’s comparatively limited understanding of ‘the social.’ That is, the former can lend its social scientific perspectives and methods to bolster Heidegger’s insufficient explanation of human collectives and their behaviour.  Not only does SSK offer a more detailed understanding, it also contributes tools with which to carry out research.

Finally, in his reply to Raphael Sassower’s review, Kochan dismisses the former’s criticisms about the book’s failure to address social phenomena such as capitalism, neoliberalism, and industrial-academic-military complexes (Sassower 2018) by saying, ‘these are not what my book is about’ (Kochan 2018, 3). Kochan contends that he cannot be faulted for not accomplishing goals that he never set out to accomplish. This response serves as the starting point for my own analysis.

I agree with the basics of Kochan’s reply. Sassower’s criticisms overlook or disregard the author’s intents, and like all authors Kochan is entitled to set his own goals. However, the sympathy that Kochan expects from Sassower is not one that he offers David Bloor, Barry Barnes or the others in SSK whom he criticises.

His principal criticism—the second claim above—relies on a misrepresentation of the Strong Programme’s ambitions and concerns. That is, Kochan does not describe what their work is about accurately. Moreover, what Kochan looks to draw from SSK more broadly—the third claim above—features little in the book. That is, Kochan’s book is not really about one of things that it is supposed to be about.

Here, I will first explain Kochan’s misrepresentation of Strong Programme goals and the resultant errors in his criticism. Next, I will examine Kochan’s lack of concern for crucial aspects of SSK, which reflects both his misrepresentation of the tradition and his choice not to engage with it meaningfully.

Aims and Essentials in SSK

Kochan’s unfair criticisms of the Strong Programme (and SSK more broadly) first involve the tradition’s treatment of ontological issues. Kochan argues that the Strong Programme does not offer a satisfactory analysis of the world’s existence. When he introduces SSK in the book’s first chapter, he does so by focusing on ‘the problem of how one can know that the external world exists’ (2017, 37). And yet, this was never a defining concern for those who developed SSK. Their work was not about ontology. For most of them, it still is not.

Kochan claims that the Strong Programme failed by not delivering a convincing argument for ‘the claim that the subject can, in fact, know that this world, as well as the things within it, actually exists’ (2017, 49). Bloor and Barnes’ realist position accepts a basic presupposition, held implicitly by people as they live their lives, that the world with which they interact exists.  Kochan chastises this form of realism because it does not ‘establish the existence of the external world’ (2017, 49).

But again, this was never the tradition’s intent nor is it a requisite for their actual intents. The Strong Programme did not entirely ignore ontology. Knowledge and Social Imagery, in which Bloor presents the fundamental aims and methods of the Strong Programme, mentions and engages with some ontological topics (1976). Nonetheless, they form a very limited part of the book and the tradition, and so should not take precedence when evaluating SSK. Kochan’s criticism employs a form of misrepresentation similar to the one he dislikes when Sassower applies it to Science as Social Existence.

Moreover, Kochan faults the Strong Programme for doing what it hoped to do. He argues that the main hurdle to correcting Bloor and Barnes’s flawed realism is the scholars’ ‘preoccupation with epistemological, at the expense of ontological, issues’ (2017, 50). Knowledge and Social Imagery begins with an explicit declaration of ambitions, all of which concern epistemology and social studies of knowledge. Kochan either dismisses or ignores those aims in order to convey the importance and strength of his arguments. He does the same for other SSK fundamentals.

On several occasions, Kochan chooses to cast aside concerns or commitments that are vital to the Strong Programme. For instance, when he employs Heidegger’s phenomenology to challenge the Strong Programme’s criticism of external-world sceptics, Kochan writes:

from the standpoint of Heidegger’s own response to the external-world sceptic, the distinction SSK practitioners draw between absolute and relative knowledge is somewhat beside the point. (2017, 48)

And yet, few things are as explicitly vital to the Strong Programme as a clear rejection of absolutism and a wholehearted commitment to relativism. In Knowledge and Social Imagery, Bloor writes that ‘[there] is no denying that the strong programme in the sociology of knowledge rests on a form of relativism.’ (1976, 158) Elsewhere, he summarises the basic relation between absolutism and relativism as follows:

If you are a relativist you cannot be an absolutist, and if you are not a relativist you must be an absolutist. Relativism and absolutism are mutually exclusive positions. (2007, 252)

Bloor’s writings on the study of knowledge, like his analyses of rules and rule-following (1997), invariably draw distinctions between absolutism and relativism and unequivocally commit to the latter. As such, when Kochan treats the distinction as ‘somewhat beside the point,’ he is marginalising an indispensable component of what he sets out to criticise.

Finally, Kochan at times disregards the importance of social collectives to the Strong Programme and SSK more broadly. For instance, when analysing Bloor’s perspective on referencing as an intentional state requiring specific forms of content, Kochan writes:

For the purposes of the present analysis, whether that content is best explained in collectivist or individualist terms is beside the point. (2017, 79)

Crucial to social science is the relationship (and often the distinction) between collective and individual phenomena. The Strong Programme embraces and employs collectivism, and in part distinguishes itself through its understanding of knowledge as a social institution. Thus the distinction between individualism and collectivism is not ‘beside the point,’ and understanding SSK demands a dedicated concern for the social. Unfortunately, Kochan does not recognise its importance.

The Social and Practice

As part of his attempt to draw Heidegger and SSK into partnership, Kochan argues that the former can benefit from SSK’s comprehension of the social and its tools for exploring its phenomena. However, Kochan dedicates a surprisingly small part of his book to discussing social scientific topics. Most notably, his explanation of the social character of scientific work and scientific knowledge is very limited and lacks the detail and nuance that he offers when discussing Heidegger and ontology.

Kochan repeatedly explains the social by referring to ‘tradition.’ He writes that Heidegger and SSK both ‘regard science as a finite, social and historical practice’ (2017, 208) but relies on opaque notions of history and tradition to support the claim. He refers to the ‘history of thinking’ (2017, 6) that determines how a community behaves and knows, and contends that an individual’s understanding of things ‘can be explained by reference to the tradition which structures the way she thinks about those things’ (2017, 221).

The inherited a priori framework that structures thinking gains its authority from the ‘tradition which both enables and is sustained by [the everyday work-world]’ (2017, 224). Finally, Kochan argues that Bloor and Heidegger study normativity—a topic crucial to SSK—by ‘tracing its origin back to tradition’ (2017, 217).

Kochan rests his explanation of the social on ‘history’ and ‘tradition,’ but never offers an explicit, clear definition of either one. Although on occasion he employs terms like ‘socio-cultural,’ Kochan does not dedicate attention to SSK’s concern for social collectives. He mentions the importance of socialisation, but does not support the claim with evidence or analysis. As such, Kochan does not explore or employ the field’s social scientific concepts or methods, both of which he describes as the tradition’s contribution to his hybrid theory.

Kochan’s lack of concern for the social also involves a general disregard for scientific practice. Early in the book, Kochan states that he will demonstrate how SSK and Heidegger offer ‘mutually reinforcing models of the way scientists get things done’ (2017, 8). However, he does not address the lived undertakings involved in scientific work.

The way scientists get things done’ concerns more than their place within an abstract notion of tradition. It also involves what practitioners do, including the most mundane of behaviours. Kochan criticises science studies for arguing that ‘theory can be unproblematically reduced to practice. (2017, 57).

He offers no evidence that science studies believes this, though if it did, Kochan would be correct. Understanding science and its knowledge cannot be reduced entirely to making sense of its practices; science is more than what specific groups of people do. However, understanding science also cannot circumvent what happens in places like laboratories, fields and conferences rooms.

One example of Kochan’s omission of practice is his discussion of Joseph Rouse’s criticisms of Heidegger’s ‘theory-dominant account of the scientific enterprise’ (2017, 86). Heidegger’s analysis of science rests on the notion that specific forms of ‘projection’ underlie our epistemic engagement with entities and events. Science’s start involved a ‘change-over’ to a mathematical form of projection called mathesis and a ‘shift in experience within the range of possible understandings of nature opened up by the mathematical projection’ (2017, 90).

Rouse criticises Heidegger for never offering a satisfactory explanation of how ‘change-overs’ from one projection to another occur. Kochan challenges Rouse much as he criticises science studies: by saying that the latter wants to reduce everything to practice at the total expense of theory. I believe that Kochan fails to engage with the real issue. If Rouse supports a practice-only explanation of science—which Kochan does not demonstrate convincingly—then the former’s position is flawed.

However, Rouse’s failure would not resolve Heidegger’s problem. The latter would still not offer a clear explanation of what occurs in the lived world of scientific work. He would still fail to explain how change-overs happen. It is hardly radical to suggest that science is something that was developed by communities of people doing certain things. If its birth involved a novel form of projection, then it is also hardly radical to wonder how that projection came to be.

Moreover, Heidegger’s mathesis veers Kochan away from the particularities and nuances of scientific work. He writes:

Heidegger’s account of modern science as mathesis began with Heidegger’s insistence that facts, measurement, and experiment, broadly construed, figure as continuous threads running from modern science all the way back through medieval to ancient science. (2017, 281)

Such a claim relies on an excessively broad conceptualisation of facts, measurements, experiments and other lived components of science. It does not reflect the workings of scientific practice, which SSK seeks to investigate. In a sense, commitment to the claim involves a belittling of empirical study. It also involves marginalising one of SSK’s most important contributions to the study of science: its methodologies.

Missing Methodologies

Kochan does not present any analysis of SSK methodologies, nor does he offer his own. To some, methodologies might appear to be secondary components of theoretical traditions. To those in SSK and especially those who developed the Strong Programme, methodologies are all-important.

In the first and second pages of Knowledge and Social Imagery, Bloor introduces his aims in the book and his ambitions for the programme he is about to present. He states that the purpose of his book is to challenge social scientific and philosophical arguments that fail to place science and its knowledge ‘within the scope of a thorough-going sociological scrutiny’ (1976, 4). Bloor then explains that as a result, ‘the discussions which follow will sometimes, though not always, have to be methodological rather than substantive’ (1976, 4).

Put simply, Bloor sets out to demonstrate that science can be studied sociologically and to establish the methods with which to carry out those studies. He introduces four tenets—of causality, impartiality, symmetry and reflexivity—and states that they will ‘define what will be called the strong programme in the sociology of knowledge’ (1976, 7) As such, I believe that Kochan’s lack of concern for methodology is another example of overlooking what SSK seeks to do. Moreover, it is an example of Kochan not incorporating SSK meaningfully into his hybrid theory.

In his introduction, Kochan summarises each chapter’s aim and content. He describes Chapter 6 as an exploration of a historical episode involving Robert Boyle and Francis Line, as well as an evaluation of Bloor’s concept of ‘social imagery’ and Heidegger’s notions of ‘world picture’ and ‘basic blueprint.’ Kochan writes:

Bloor’s work suggests ways in which Heidegger’s concepts of ‘world picture’ and ‘basic blueprint’ might be rephrased and further developed in a more sociological idiom…” (2017, 15)

Here, Kochan seems to describe the potential of Bloor’s scholarship as principally a semantic reformulation of Heidegger’s ideas, or at most a set of concepts that can make Heidegger’s work more accessible to practitioners in SSK and other social studies of science. I believe this is one symptom of a broader and very important trouble. Kochan does not consider the possibility that the Strong Programme and SSK involve more than concepts.

He does not acknowledge vital parts of the traditions with great potentialfor his mission. He chooses to mention empirical SSK studies and their research practices only in passing. For instance, Kochan does not engage seriously with the Bath School and its Empirical Programme of Relativism (EPOR), although its contributions to SSK were no less important than those of the Edinburgh School. (Collins 1981, 1983) EPOR’s many case studies helped put the latter’s methodological tenets into action and thus give greater substance to what Bloor defines as the core of the Strong Programme.

One can also consider the importance of methodology by returning to the issue of the external world. I have argued that the Strong Programme did not embark on an ontological mission. Kochan’s criticism of what he terms a ‘glass-bulb model’ relies on an inaccurate representation of what the tradition set out to do. I also believe that his criticism overlooks or belittles the methodological function of Bloor and Barnes’ realism. Kochan writes:

Barnes does not actually argue for the existence of the external world, but only for the utility of the assertion that such a world exists. (2017, 29)

‘Only for the utility’ implies that methodological uses and effectiveness are inferior parameters with which to judge the quality and appropriateness of ontological commitments. I believe that Barnes’s choice is at least in part methodological. It serves a form of research not concerned with ontological questions and instead intent on studying the lived workings of science and its knowledge-making. If Kochan is allowed to set his own research and writing goals, so are the Edinburghers. Moreover, this is a case of Kochan not embracing all-important lessons from SSK. The tradition offers limited insights into the social if its methodology is not lent fuller attention.

From Glass Bulbs to Light Bulbs

I began by listing three claims which I believe capture Kochan’s key aims in Science as Social Existence. I then introduced one of his most important responses to Raphael Sassower’s review. Two questions bind the four claims together. First, what is a person’s work about? Second, does the work accomplish what it means to do? These help to evaluate Kochan’s treatment of work with which he engages, and to evaluate his success in doing so. In both cases, I believe that Science as Social Existence displays flaws.

As I have demonstrated, Kochan misrepresents what Barnes, Bloor and others in SSK set out to do (he does not acknowledge what their work is about) and he does not employ SSK material to resolve Heidegger’s limited understanding of the social (he does not accomplish an important part of what his book is supposed to be about.)

One can understand the book’s problems by expanding on Kochan’s glass-bulb metaphor. Kochan contends that Barnes and Bloor commit to a division that separates people and the world they seek to understand: a ‘glass bulb model.’ His perspective would benefit from viewing the Strong Programme as a working light bulb. It may employ a glass-bulb, but cannot be reduced to it.

To understand what it is, how it work and what it can offer, one must examine a light bulb’s entire constitution. Only by acknowledging what else is required to generate light and by considering what that light is meant to enable, can one present an accurate and useful analysis of its limitations and potential. It also shows why the glass bulb exists, and why it belongs in the broader system.

Contact details: p.schyfter@ed.ac.uk

References

Bloor, David. 1976. Knowledge and Social Imagery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bloor, David. 1997. Wittgenstein, Rules and Institutions. London: Routledge.

Bloor, David. 2007. “Epistemic Grace: Antirelativism as Theology in Disguise.” Common Knowledge 13 (2-3): 250-280. doi: 10.1215/0961754X-2007-007

Bloor, David. 2016. “Relativism Versus Absolutism: In Defense of a Dichotomy.” Common Knowledge 22 (3): 288-499. doi: 10.1215/0961754X-3622372

Collins, Harry. 1981. “Stages in the Empirical Programme of Relativism.” Social Studies of Science 11 (1): 3-10. doi: 10.1177/030631278101100101

Collins, Harry. 1983. “An Empirical Relativist Programme in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge.” In Science Observed: Perspectives on the Social Study of Science, edited by Karin Knorr-Cetina and Michael Mulkay, 115–140. London: Sage.

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

Kochan, Jeff. 2018. “On the Sociology of Subjectivity: A Reply to Raphael Sassower.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7 (5): 39-41.

Sassower, Raphael. 2018. “Heidegger and the Sociologists: A Forced Marriage?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7 (5): 30-32.

Author Information: Jeff Kochan, University of Konstanz, jwkochan@gmail.com

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

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

See also:

As the original photographer put it, “Shelves full of Heidegger.”
Image by Justin Yost via Flickr

Raphael Sassower has the rhetorician’s gift for creating pithy and compelling images to ornament his arguments. In this instance, he has me presiding over a forced marriage between Heidegger and sociologists of scientific knowledge. I’m relieved that he didn’t put a shotgun in my hands. At the end of his review, Sassower asks: ‘would the couple ever have consented to this on their own? And if the answer is no, who are we to force this on them?’ Momentarily granting the legitimacy of Sassower’s image, the answer to his first question is: no.

Freedom of Interpretation

Neither Heidegger nor SSK practitioners thought they were formulating an incomplete account of science, thereafter desperately awaiting its consummation through a union with they knew not what. Luckily, these scholars also made their works public, so we’re free to play with them as we like (within legal limits). In answer to Sassower’s second question, since published texts are not the sort of thing that can either give or withhold consent, it’s nonsense to say that anything can be forced on them in the way he implies. Here, Sassower’s image falls apart.

Granted, one could potentially charge me with a ‘forced’ interpretation of some of the texts I discuss. But one should then show this, not just say it. Anyway, much interesting work has been produced through the careful misinterpretation of past scholarship. If, based on evidence and argument, I were found guilty of this, I should not complain.

Using an unfortunate heteronormative gender assignment, Sassower has me arguing that ‘Heidegger […] presents an ideal groom who can offer his SSK bride the theoretical insights of overcoming the Cartesian-Kantian false binary of subject-object (11).’ Page 11 of my book, where evidence for this characterisation ostensibly lies, says only that ‘Heidegger deconstructs the Kantian subject-object distinction.’ Later, on page 40, one finds the sentence: ‘It must be emphasised […] that Heidegger does not dismiss the orthodox subject-object distinction as a false account of the subject’s relation to the world.’ The point is that the orthodox subject-object distinction, despite its many intellectual merits, brings with it some intractable problems. One is the problem of the external world. Those who subscribe to the distinction, and who also claim to be realists, remain vulnerable to sceptical attack regarding the existence of the external world.

The Importance of Heidegger’s Deconstruction

In Chapter One, I argue that SSK practitioners, though certainly aware of and actively contending with this problem, have nevertheless remained vulnerable to it. I propose to remove this vulnerability by combining SSK with Heidegger’s deconstruction of the subject-object distinction, which treats it as a ‘founded mode’ dependent on our phenomenologically more basic experience of being in the world.

Why might this be important? Because, as I demonstrate in Chapters Two and Three, SSK’s competitors in the broader field of science studies have exploited these vulnerabilities in order to discredit SSK and successfully erect their own, different, methodologies. My goal is to show that, with some help from Heidegger, these attacks can be deflected, thereby leaving SSK’s methodology intact and ready for action.

Sassower’s review overlooks my discussion of this internal dispute in the sociology of science. As a result, in what appears to be an objection directed at me, he argues that the role of the social subject in scientific knowledge production is already well-established, his point presumably being that my book adds nothing new. According to Sassower, ‘as philosophers of science have understood for a century […], the observer is an active participant in the observation.’

But that’s not all: ‘Add to this the social dimension of the community of observers-participants and the social dynamics to which they are institutionally subjected, and you have the contemporary landscape that has transformed the study of Science into the study of Scientific Community and eventually into the study of the Scientific Enterprise.’ This is a tidy and commonplace history of science studies, one from which the role of SSK has been quietly erased.

What do I mean by this? On page 1 of my book, I write that SSK – also known as the ‘strong programme’ in the sociology of scientific knowledge – arose in critical response to what was retrospectively dubbed the ‘weak programme’ in the sociology of science: ‘The weak programme focussed mainly on institutional studies of the scientific community.’ This sounds like Sassower’s description of scientists as being ‘institutionally subjected’ to social dynamics, as well as his description of science studies as the study of ‘Scientific Community’ and the ‘Scientific Enterprise.’ Here, the core epistemic products of scientific practice – theories and facts – as well as the means by which they are produced – techniques and methods – are excluded from sociological analysis.

This is an exclusion that ‘strong programme’ practitioners sought to overcome. For their efforts, they were ferociously attacked by historians, philosophers, and sociologists alike. Why? Sassower’s popular, potted history cannot answer this question, because it fails to recognise science studies as a field of historical contestation. From the century-old insight of philosophers of science that observation is theory-laden, the current state of social studies of science naturally flows – says Sassower. It’s always nicer when the bodies have been neatly buried.

A Book’s Immanent Domain

Sassower has another objection. To wit: ‘what about the dynamics of market capitalism and democratic political formations? What about the industrial-academic-military complex?’ My answer: what about them? These are not what my book is about. Sassower seems to object that I wrote the book I did, rather than some other book. To this charge I happily admit my guilt. But it goes on. Having granted that science is social, Sassower asks: ‘does this recognition alone suffice to understand that neoliberalism has a definite view of what the scientific enterprise is supposed to accomplish?’ My answer: no it doesn’t – and what of it? My book isn’t about that either.

I’m not a political theorist, nor do I desire to become one. Nevertheless, Chapter Seven of my book does address some issues that may interest those engaged in political theory. As Sassower notes, in Chapter Seven I ‘nod’ to those, discussed in earlier chapters, whom I now retrospectively name ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ critics of SSK. (The ‘nod’ to liberals was a prolonged one, spanning most of Chapters Two and Three.)

My claim was that both kinds of critic are united in their rejection of subjectivity as a legitimate theme for micro-sociological study. The conservatives reject the subject as being, at best, just one more object among objects. The liberals reject the subject as being irremediably infected with the Kantian subject-object distinction. Because they reject this distinction tout court, they also reject the subject. With this, the sociological study of subjectivity is prohibited.

What interests these critics instead are fields of practice. Within these fields, the subject is constituted. But the fundamental unit of analysis is the field – or system – not the subject. Subjectivity is, on this theory, a derivative phenomenon, at best, a secondary resource for sociological analysis.

From my perspective, because subjectivity is fundamental to human existence, it cannot be eliminated in this way. In reality, the liberal account submerges subjectivity in fields of practice, where it effectively disappears from the analyst’s view. I call this position ‘liberal’ because it seems to rely on a tacit model of the subject as being unconstrained by social and historical limits.

If the existential subject is not properly acknowledged to exist, then how can its limits be acknowledged, much less studied and understood? And if the subject really does, in fact, exist, but one can’t ascribe limits to it, then doesn’t this reflect a liberal notion of negative freedom? Taking a phrase from Baudelaire, I liken this model of the subject to ‘a prince who everywhere enjoys his incognito’ (379). By offering an alternative to this model, by combining Heidegger with SSK, I hope, through my book, to equip those scholars who are keen to challenge and expose this incognito.

Contact details: jwkochan@gmail.com

References

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

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

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, rsasswe@uccs.edu

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

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3X8

The town of Messkirch, the hometown of Martin Heidegger.
Image by Renaud Camus via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Jeff Kochan is upfront about not being able “to make everyone happy” in order to write “a successful book.” For him, choices had to be made, such as promoting “Martin Heidegger’s existential conception of science . . . the sociology of scientific knowledge . . . [and the view that] the accounts of science presented by SSK [sociology of scientific knowledge] and Heidegger are, in fact, largely compatible, even mutually reinforcing.” (1) This means combining the existentialist approach of Heidegger with the sociological view of science as a social endeavour.

Such a marriage is bound to be successful, according to the author, because together they can exercise greater vitality than either would on its own.  If each party were to incorporate the other’s approach and insights, they would realize how much they needed each other all along. This is not an arranged or forced marriage, according to Kochan the matchmaker, but an ideal one he has envisioned from the moment he laid his eyes on each of them independently.

The Importance of Practice

Enumerating the critics of each party, Kochan hastens to suggest that “both SSK and Heidegger have much more to offer a practice-based approach to science than has been allowed by their critics.” (6) The Heideggerian deconstruction of science, in this view, is historically informed and embodies a “form of human existence.” (7) Focusing on the early works of Heidegger Kochan presents an ideal groom who can offer his SSK bride the theoretical insights of overcoming the Cartesian-Kantian false binary of subject-object (11) while benefitting from her rendering his “theoretical position” more “concrete, interesting, and useful through combination with empirical studies and theoretical insights already extant in the SSK literature.” (8)

In this context, there seems to be a greater urgency to make Heidegger relevant to contemporary sociological studies of scientific practices than an expressed need by SSK to be grounded existentially in the Heideggerian philosophy (or for that matter, in any particular philosophical tradition). One can perceive this postmodern juxtaposition (drawing on seemingly unrelated sources in order to discover something novel and more interesting when combined) as an attempt to fill intellectual vacuums.

This marriage is advisable, even prudent, to ward off criticism levelled at either party independently: Heidegger for his abstract existential subjectivism and SSK for unwarranted objectivity. For example, we are promised, with Heidegger’s “phenomenology of the subject as ‘being-in-the-world’ . . . SSK practitioners will no longer be vulnerable to the threat of external-world scepticism.” (9-10) Together, so the argument proceeds, they will not simply adopt each other’s insights and practices but will transform themselves each into the other, shedding their misguided singularity and historical positions for the sake of this idealized research program of the future.

Without flogging this marriage metaphor to death, one may ask if the two parties are indeed as keen to absorb the insights of their counterpart. In other words, do SSK practitioners need the Heideggerian vocabulary to make their work more integrated? Their adherents and successors have proven time and again that they can find ways to adjust their studies to remain relevant. By contrast, the Heideggerians remain fairly insulated from the studies of science, reviving “The Question Concerning Technology” (1954) whenever asked about technoscience. Is Kochan too optimistic to think that citing Heidegger’s earliest works will make him more rather than less relevant in the 21st century?

But What Can We Learn?

Kochan seems to think that reviving the Heideggerian project is worthwhile: what if we took the best from one tradition and combined it with the best of another? What if we transcended the subject-object binary and fully appreciated that “knowledge of the object [science] necessarily implicates the knowing subject [practitioner]”? (351) Under such conditions (as philosophers of science have understood for a century), the observer is an active participant in the observation, so much so (as some interpreters of quantum physics admit) that the very act of observing impacts the objects being perceived.

Add to this the social dimension of the community of observers-participants and the social dynamics to which they are institutionally subjected, and you have the contemporary landscape that has transformed the study of Science into the study of the Scientific Community and eventually into the study of the Scientific Enterprise.

But there is another objection to be made here: Even if we agree with Kochan that “the subject is no longer seen as a social substance gaining access to an external world, but an entity whose basic modes of existence include being-in-the-world and being-with-others,” (351) what about the dynamics of market capitalism and democratic political formations? What about the industrial-academic-military complex? To hope for the “subject” to be more “in-the-world” and “with-others” is already quite common among sociologists of science and social epistemologists, but does this recognition alone suffice to understand that neoliberalism has a definite view of what the scientific enterprise is supposed to accomplish?

Though Kochan nods at “conservative” and “liberal” critics, he fails to concede that theirs remain theoretical critiques divorced from the neoliberal realities that permeate every sociological study of science and that dictate the institutional conditions under which the very conception of technoscience is set.

Kochan’s appreciation of the Heideggerian oeuvre is laudable, even admirable in its Quixotic enthusiasm for Heidegger’s four-layered approach (“being-in-the-world,” “being-with-others,” “understanding,” and “affectivity”, 356), but does this amount to more than “things affect us, therefore they exist”? (357) Just like the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am,” this formulation brings the world back to us as a defining factor in how we perceive ourselves instead of integrating us into the world.

Perhaps a Spinozist approach would bridge the binary Kochan (with Heidegger’s help) wishes to overcome. Kochan wants us to agree with him that “we are compelled by the system [of science and of society?] only insofar as we, collectively, compel one another.” (374) Here, then, we are shifting ground towards SSK practices and focusing on the sociality of human existence and the ways the world and our activities within it ought to be understood. There is something quite appealing in bringing German and Scottish thinkers together, but it seems that merging them is both unrealistic and perhaps too contrived. For those, like Kochan, who dream of a Hegelian aufhebung of sorts, this is an outstanding book.

For the Marxist and sociological skeptics who worry about neoliberal trappings, this book will remain an erudite and scholarly attempt to force a merger. As we look at this as yet another arranged marriage, we should ask ourselves: would the couple ever have consented to this on their own? And if the answer is no, who are we to force this on them?

Contact details: rsassowe@uccs.edu

References

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

Author Information: Bonnie Talbert, Harvard University, USA, btalbert@fas.harvard.edu

Talbert, Bonnie. “Paralysis by Analysis Revisited.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 6-9.

Please refer to:

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

Illustration by Lemuel Thomas from the 1936 Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Calendar.
Image by clotho39 via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In his reply to my article “Overthinking and Other Minds: the Analysis Paralysis” (2017), Joshua Bergamin (2017) offers some fascinating thoughts about the nature of our knowledge of other people.

Bergamin is right in summarizing my claim that knowing another person involves fundamentally a know-how, and that knowing all the facts there is to know about a person is not enough to constitute knowing her. But, he argues, conscious deliberate thinking is useful in getting to know someone just as it is useful in learning any type of skill.

Questions of Ability

The example he cites is that of separating an egg’s yoke from its white—expert cooks can do it almost automatically while the novice in the kitchen needs to pay careful, conscious attention to her movements in order to get it right. This example is useful for several reasons. It highlights the fact that learning a skill requires effortful attention while engaging in an activity. It is one thing to think or read about how to separate an egg’s white from its yoke; it is quite another thing to practice it, even if it is slow going and clumsy at first. The point is that practice rather than reflection is what one has to do in order to learn how to smoothly complete the activity, even if the first attempts require effortful attention.[1]

On this point Bergamin and I are in agreement. My insistence that conscious deliberate reflection is rarely a good way to get to know someone is mostly targeted at the kinds of reflection one does “in one’s own head”. My claim is not that we never consciously think about other people, but that consciously thinking about them without their input is not a good way to get to know them.  This leads to another, perhaps more important point, which is that the case of the egg cracking is dissimilar from getting to know another person in some fundamental ways.

Unlike an egg, knowing how to interact with a person requires a back and forth exchange of postures, gestures, words, and other such signals. It is not possible for me to figure out how to interact with you and simply to execute those actions; I have to allow for a dynamic exchange of actions originating from each of us. With the egg, or any inanimate object, I am the only agent causing the sequence of events. With another person, there are two agents, and I cannot simply decide how to make the interaction work like I want it to; I have to have your cooperation. This makes knowing another person a different kind of enterprise than knowing other kinds of things.[2]

I maintain that most of the time, interactions with others are such that we do not need to consciously be thinking about what is going on. In fact, the behavioral, largely nonverbal signals that are sent nearly instantaneously to participants in a conversation occur so quickly that there is rarely time to reflect on them. Nevertheless, Bergamin’s point is that in learning an activity, and thus by extension, in getting to know another person as we learn to interact with her, we may be more conscious of our actions than we are once we know someone well and the interactions “flow” naturally.

Knowing Your Audience

I do not think this is necessarily at odds with my account. Learning how to pace one’s speech to a young child when one is used to speaking to adults might take some effortful attention, and the only way to get to the point where one can have a good conversation (if there is such a thing) with a youngster is to begin by paying attention to the speed at which one talks. I still think that once one no longer has to think about it, she will be better able to glean information from the child and will not have her attention divided between trying to pay attention to both what the child is doing and how she sounds herself.

It is easier to get to know someone if you are not focused on what you have to do to hold up your end of the conversation. But more than whether we are consciously or unconsciously attending to our actions in an interaction, my point is that reflection is one-sided while interaction is not, and it is interaction that is crucial for knowing another person. In interaction, whether our thought processes are unconscious or conscious, their epistemic function is such that they allow us to coordinate our behavior with another person’s. This is the crucial distinction from conscious deliberation that occurs in a non-interactive context.

Bergamin claims that “breakdowns” in flow are more than just disruptive; rather, they provide opportunities to learn how to better execute actions, both in learning a skill and in getting to know another person. And it is true that in relationships, a fight or disagreement can often shed light on the underlying dynamics that are causing tension. But unlike the way you can learn from a few misses how to crack an egg properly, you cannot easily decide how to fix your actions in a relationship without allowing for input from the other party.

Certain breakdowns in communication, or interruptions of the “flow” of a conversation can help us know another person better insofar as they alert us to situations in which things are not going smoothly. But further thinking does not always get us out of the problem–further interacting does. You cannot sort it out in your head without input from the other person.

My central claim is that knowing another person requires interaction and that the interactive context is constitutively different from contexts that require one-sided deliberation rather than back and forth dynamic flows of behavioral signals and other information. However, I also point out that propositional knowledge of various sorts is necessary for knowing another person.

Bergamin is correct to point out that in my original essay I do not elaborate on what if anything propositional, conscious deliberative thinking can add to knowing another person. But elsewhere (2014) I have argued that part of what it means to know someone is to know various things about her and that when we know someone, we can articulate various propositions that capture features of her character.

In the essay under discussion, I focus on the claim that propositional knowledge is not sufficient for knowing another person and that we must start with the kind of knowledge that comes from direct interaction if we are to claim that we know another person. We do also gain useful and crucial propositional knowledge from our interactions as well as from other sources that are also part of our knowledge of others, but without the knowledge that comes only from interaction we would ordinarily claim to know things about a person, rather than to know her.

Bergamin is also right in asserting that my account implies that our interactions with others do not typically involve much thinking in the traditional sense. They are, as he speculates, “immersive, intersubjective events…such that each relationship is different for each of us and to some extent out of our control.”  This is partly true. While I might share a very different relationship to Jamie than you do, chances are that we can both recognize certain features of Jamie as being part of who he is. I was struck by this point at a recent memorial service when people with very different relationships spoke about their loved one, impersonating his accent, his frequently used turns of phrase, his general stubbornness, generosity, larger than life personality and other features that everyone at the service could recognize no matter whether the relationship was strictly professional, familial, casual, lasting decades, etc.

I have tentatively spelled out an account (2014) that suggests that with people we know, there are some things that only the people in the relationship share, such as knowledge of where they had lunch last week and what was discussed. But there is also knowledge that is shared beyond that particular relationship that helps situate that relationship vis-à-vis other, overlapping relationships, i.e., while I share a unique relationship with my mother, and so does my sister-in-law, we can both recognize some features of her that are the same for both of us. Further, my sister–in-law knows that I am often a better judge of what my mother wants for her birthday, since I have known my mother longer and can easily tell that she does not mean it when she says she does not want any gifts this year.

Bergamin’s concluding thoughts about the Heideggerian nature of my project are especially insightful, and I too am still working on the speculative implications of my account, which posits that (in Bergamin’s words), “If people are ‘moving targets,’ then we are not ‘things’ but ‘processes,’ systems that are in constant flux. To know such a process is not to try to nail down the ever-changing facts about it, but involves interacting with it. Yet we who interact are ourselves a similar kind of ‘process,’ and in getting to know somebody we are just as much the known as the knower. Our relationships, therefore, are a kind of identity, that involves us and yet exceeds us — growing and evolving over time.” My hope is that this is a project on which we and many other scholars will continue to make progress.

Contact details: btalbert@fas.harvard.edu

References

Bergamin, Joshua. “To Know and To Be: Second-Person Knowledge and the Intersubjective Self, A Reply to Talbert.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 43-47.

Cleary, Christopher. “Olympians Use Imagery as Mental Training.” New York Times,  February 22, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/sports/olympics/olympians-use-imagery-as-mental-training.html

Talbert, Bonnie. “Knowing Other People: A Second-person Framework.” Ratio 28, no. 2 (2014): 190–206.

Talbert, Bonnie. “Overthinking and Other Minds: The Analysis Paralysis.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 6 (2017): 1-12.

[1] There is some research that shows that conscious thoughtful reflection, indeed “visualization” can help a person perform an activity better. Visualization has been used to help promote success in sports, business, personal habits, and the like. Process visualization, which is sometimes used with varying degrees of success in athletes, is interesting for my purposes because it does seem to help in performing an activity, or to help with the know-how involved in some athletic endeavors. I do not know why this is the case, and I am a bit skeptical of some of the claims used in this line of reasoning. But I do not think we could use process visualization to help with our interactions with others and get the same kind of results, for the actions of another person are much more unpredictable than the final hill of the marathon or the dismount of a balance beam routine. It is also useful to note that some sports are easier than others to visualize, namely those that are most predictable. For more on this last point and on how imagery can be used to enhance athletic performance, see Christopher Cleary’s “Olympians Use Imagery as Mental Training” (2014).

[2] This leads to another point that is not emphasized in my original essay but perhaps should have been. Insofar as I liken getting to know another person to the “flow” one can experience in certain sports, I do not sufficiently point out that “flow” in some sports, namely those that involve multiple people, involves something much more similar to the “know-how” involved in getting to know another person than in sports where there is only one person involved. Interestingly, “team sports” and other multi person events are not generally cited as activities whose success can be significantly improved by visualization.

Author Information: Rebecca Lowery, University of Texas at Dallas, rsl160530@utdallas.edu

Lowery, Rebecca. “Our Filtered Lives: The Tension Between Citizenship and Instru-mentality.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 2 (2017): 21-34.

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

Please refer to:

unquiet

Image credit: Daniela Munoz-Santos, via flickr

The central problem to be examined here is that the loss of the private self is a threat to the theory of citizenship, which rests upon the idea that a citizen is a person with both a private life and a public life, a distinction inherent in many traditional theories of citizenship. Without the restoration of a potent private sphere in the individual life, citizenship becomes thin and shallow, an unnecessary and antiquated theory, useful only as a convenient tool for organizing the masses.

The private life of the individual in today’s society is now intricately linked with technology. Thus it is impossible to explore the loss of the private self without also looking at the role of technology in the life of the citizen, specifically the sense in which a citizen’s relation to their own existence is technologically-mediated. To such an end, I will have recourse to Martin Heidegger as a thinker who explicates how technology transforms our relation with existence, or to use his term “being.”

Technology gives us an opportunity to relate to the environment, others, and ourselves differently. Rather than experience being as present to us, we have the opportunity for a mediated experience with being because of the power of technology. In itself, technology is a tool; it is a means to an end, not an end in itself, a mediator between person and reality. By allowing technology to mediate our experiences, we are succumbing to what Heidegger will call “ge-stell,”[1] or enframing, with the result that we see everything as instrumental (a sunset is no longer a sunset, but something to be captured by technology in the form of a photograph for the sake of posting). Today, relating to the world instru-mentally is more pervasive and more difficult to resist because of social media, a new phenomenon particular to postmodernity.

In order to see how technology influences citizenship, I am dependent on Hannah Arendt’s characterization of the social, private, public and political realms. One consequence of social media is that the sharing of one’s private life (be it sentiments, activities, or opinions) is acceptable and expected in the public sphere; indeed, it seems that more and more, the public sphere is constituted by private stories. Further, because technology operates through enframing, both the private and public spheres have become spaces of utility. This may be opposed to how Arendt will characterize these spheres or to how Heidegger juxtaposes enframing with the more primordial poiesis as a mode of relation. It would seem, then, that the private sphere is receding into the public. To regain a thriving theory of citizenship, one in which participation as a citizen is an honor both for the state and for the private self, means a move away from the functionalism that encapsulates us today.

And finally, the enframing that results in the loss of the public and private boundary is harmful not only to the theory of citizenship, but to our own beings as well. If we can return to a state of relating to the revealing of nature as non-mediated, and privilege the poetic over the technological, then our own beings will return to a more natural state that nurtures and values the private life. If such a change is made, then the new, substantial private life will be prepared to contribute to an equally substantial public sphere.

Instru-mentality, Technological Mediation and Enframing

Heidegger, in “The Question Concerning Technology”, provides the philosophical underpinnings that illuminate the core of the postmodern problem with regards to technology.[2] Taking some of his contributions, the links between the technology of social media, the public and private spheres, and citizenship become clearer.

According to Heidegger, as humans, our natural and primary way of relating to being is through poiesis, which is a “bringing into appearance” or a “bringing-forth”[3] of the essence of a thing, where essence is understood in terms of presencing. For example, an oak tree brings forth its essence, gives its presence to us by revealing itself to us as what it is. Yet, another way to relate to beings is through technology, and when beings are revealed to us through technological mediation, they are revealed in terms of instru-mentality. When beings are revealed in terms of instru-mentality, they are revealed as instruments to be used for some end. When beings are revealed in terms of presencing their essence, they are revealed as ends in themselves, that is, not for some other—instrumental—purpose.

The concept that Heidegger introduces in order to relate modern technology with being is that of “ge-stell,” perhaps best translated as “enframing.” Just as poiesis is a revealing of essence, so too is technology a way of revealing. Heidegger suggests that technology reveals beings as “standing reserve,” meaning that “everywhere, everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately at hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering.”[4] Consider the oak tree. What are the thoughts that cross the mind in the presence of the tree? If the thought is something along the lines of “I could use that tree to build a table” or “I should take picture of that and publicly share it on social media so that my friends will know, for sure, that I appreciate nature” then the tree is being experienced as standing reserve. Rather than appreciating the tree for itself, it is subjected to order based on how useful it is, and what it can be used for.

For Heidegger, enframing “challenges [man] forth, to reveal the real, in the mode of ordering, as standing reserve.”[5] Enframing itself is a summons, and the summons expresses itself every time we relate to reality with technology in mind. That which “challenges forth” is the summons, but it is not an external factor. Rather, the summons is purely internal, somewhat similar in experience to what we refer to as the “call of conscience,” an instinct, a desire, or a need to behave and act in a certain way. Just as an instinct is first present in the thought, and then brought either to action or non-action, so too does enframing involve two steps: the summons is heard to relate to an experience through the medium of technology; the response is either to act on the summons, or to turn away from the summons.

In fact, to act on the summons does not require the physical apparatus of technology. For example, my experience of my life becomes enframed when I think, “I am going to update my Facebook status.” When I hear the internal summons to share my current situation or disposition via social media it shows that I already have a relation to my existence as if it were standing reserve. Becoming habituated to the summons is like exchanging my own mentality for the instru-mentality of technological mediation. I relate to my existence as if it were something to be “posted,” and as a means to whatever ends may come from such “posting.” In other words, as my existence is revealed to me, being filtered through technological mediation, social media orders my understanding to see itself in terms of instru-mentality (cf. Scalambrino, 2015). In this way, acting on the summons completes the presencing of existence in terms of enframing and, done repeatedly, becomes habitual.

One way social media, such as Facebook, establishes control, that is orders our existence into standing reserve, is through the “inter-face” mechanisms users must learn to successfully navigate the technology (cf. Scalambrino, 2014). A subtle example of this, through enframing, is in terms of the media’s attractive terminology. Status updates are an opportunity for “sharing” with friends and family. Under the guise of human relations, Facebook becomes the mediator. Enframing is always present whenever the technological tools of social media are present. If I am enjoying the company of friends, and yet I have my iPhone always at hand ready to take pictures, respond to the people not really there (cf. Engelland, 2015), etc. then I have opened myself up to answer the summons immediately, and to express the summons—to allow technological mediation order me—by actually taking the picture, and actually texting someone back. The idea of a social situation that is not mediated by technology is a rare find now. Even if I am physically present with a friend, my phone is still mediating my experience. In fact, the pervasiveness of social media and smartphones coincides with enframing as usual and customary in regard to social interactions.

The habit of living life ordered through technological mediation, and therefore as standing reserve, is what we are up against. With the habituality and the instru-mentality sustained through technological mediation, especially social media, the issue of standing reserve appears even more pressing. Enframing does not mean that a person looks at life as though through a picture frame fit with technological lenses. Rather, enframing is a summons that calls to us, internally, to relate to the world and to each other in terms of standing reserve, or, as instruments, that is, objects to be used in some fashion (cf. Scalambrino, 2015). When the relation of presencing (or “essencing”) occurs through enframing rather than poiesis, then we relate to the being of another person in terms of their utility. Social media allows us to create a representation of ourselves for others to encounter.

Through a cyber dimension, we become distanced from others, but the great guise is that we think we are becoming closer to them. In our private lives, we live with a fear of always imposing on others because we are so used to the non- imposition that is associated with media communication (cf. de Mul, 2015). We sacrifice presence for absence in that we are merely present in terms of instru-mentality, when our relations are technologically-mediated.

Enframed identities compete for us to be them, like Ernst Jünger’s insights regarding the identity of “worker” or the Hollywood-fashioned identity of “celebrity,” and as if possessed by the efficiency of instru-mentality, we work to be our own paparazzi. Of course, there are a multitude of examples that can be drawn from social media that illustrate just how easy it is to live a filtered life, where relation to being becomes mediated. Postmodern technology looks like the publication of the private; it is “the manipulation of man by his own planning.”[6] For example, the “personalize your LinkedIn profile page” with an image that describes you, your interests, etc. Physically present personalities are readily substituted for the chance to control what aspects of your personality you want projected for others to see.

Yet, Facebook is perhaps the most primary example of people giving to the public updates on their private lives, updates which can then be liked, shared, and commented on. The original meaning of words such as “sharing” and “liking” receive a second definition based on the instru-mentality of social media. In other cases, people submit themselves to technology, and thus lose themselves. The technology is too powerful. One of the popular hash tags in social media is the #besomebody. The idea behind the trend is that you are told you are being somebody to yourself, but really it’s directed outward, trying to tell others that you are somebody. Thus, you allow your own being to be hijacked into pure judgment, the judgment of others, and their enframed judgment at that.

The role of enframing has been present for as long as technology has been present. Today, social media is one particular instance of technology, but it is one that makes enframing more and more difficult to escape because we are constantly and physically around the tools that make social media possible: the computer at home and at work, the phone in the pocket or hand, the tablet always within reach. One of the reasons social media deserves consideration is because for the first time in history technology is in the hands of the everyman. We no longer just have the technology of big machines. Now it is big machines in addition to the technology of the masses, the technology of social media.

Gianni Vattimo, in “Postmodernity, Technology, Ontology,” comments on how “Heidegger … remained stuck in a vision of technology dominated by the image of the motor and of mechanical energy.”[7] Nevertheless, though Heidegger wrote about technology in his own historical situation and relates enframing with modern technology (machines powered by motors directed at the control of nature) his ideas are still highly relevant in today’s culture (and perhaps more so than ever before considering that technology permeates all sectors of society).

Thus, there is also a historical motivation behind this paper. To fully appreciate the state we are in today, it is helpful to look at how technology, in our postmodern condition, is one of the reasons why the issues here deserve (perhaps urgent) consideration. The historical evaluation will not be a lengthy one: it is not necessary to trace technology beyond the historical transition from modernity to postmodernity to gain an understanding of why and how technology today has become a (seemingly) essential part of everyday life, and a factor of everyday-ness that is not without consequences.

While Heidegger’s account of how technology alters our relationship with being can be traced back to the origin of technology, in more recent history the shift from modernity to postmodernity provides an explanation for how and why the concept of enframing deserves particular attention today, in our postmodern world. Richard Merelman’s article “Technological Cultures and the Liberal Democracy in the United States”[8] highlights the shift from modern technology to postmodern technology in order to suggest a reason for the change in how citizens view American government and liberal democracy. His distinction between the directions of technology (which serves as the groundwork for his entire essay) is important here, because it reinforces the urgency of the social media and enframing issue.

Merelman points to the modern era, when technology was directed outwards towards the control of nature. However, the entire culture of technology during that era was translucent; the average citizen was able to understand how technology operated. However, with the transition to postmodern technology, the emphasis of invention became directed on the human person, rather than nature. New technologies geared towards human development and health allowed the former focus on nature to be redirected.

In the modern era, as Merelman writes “the self acted, technology responded, and nature yielded to the civilized control of society.”[9] Thus Bacon was justified and Descartes was fulfilled. In his New Organon, Bacon’s third axiom reads, “Human knowledge and human power come to the same thing, because ignorance of cause frustrates effect. For Nature is conquered only by obedience; and that which in thought is a cause, is like a rule in practice.”[10] Bacon was the first to introduce the idea of controlling nature, and thus he introduced this era of modernity. In extension of this transition, Descartes succinctly writes in his Discourse on Method that we must “render ourselves, as it were, masters and possessors of nature. This is desirable not only for the invention of an infinity of devices that would enable one to enjoy trouble-free the fruits of the earth and all the goods found there, but also principally for the maintenance of health …”[11] As Descartes points out, such mastery of nature is made possible by physics. The important point about modern technology is that it was directed outwards.

Furthermore, because the technology was directed outwards, the effects, as Merelman writes, were immediately observable and calculable. We do not see the same possibility for calculating in postmodern technology, because enframing is an internal summons. What is internal to the person is much more complicated than the control of nature. The results of enframing are much moresubtle, less clear, less comprehensible, and ultimately less scientific.

Modern technology lasted through World War II, and indeed it continues today. Much of our technology is meant to master nature. However, it has receded. The transition to postmodernism began in post-World War II American culture, and was in full force by the 1960s. Why did modernism end? Perhaps our control of nature, as Merelman suggests, goes too far. Why else would the rise of environmentalism occur simultaneously with the shift to postmodernism? We controlled too much of nature, and we drew back. This is one interpretation. But perhaps it is more likely that environmentalism is also the control of nature; it’s just cleverly disguised. By focusing less attention on the control of nature, it became possible for technology to be redirected towards the human person. The technology is still external to us, but its effects are now seen in the workings of the person, not just in nature. Soon, we may realize that this too must be reined it. The other cause for transition to postmodern technology is more natural and obvious: technology and science strives on. Man is not content with domination of nature; it must also dominate the two extremes sandwiching our earth: the solar system on one hand and the human person on the other.

Thus, with the transition to postmodern technology, the emphasis of invention became directed on the human person, rather than nature. New technologies geared towards human development and health allowed the former focus on nature to be redirected. Now, in the postmodern condition, one of the main purposes of technology is to understand the self. In some ways this was successful, for example the research regarding the human genome and mental illness. These are two examples that aid in understanding the self (though in no way is this meant to suggest that human persons can be reduced to their mental faculties and their inherited genetic traits.) But what does technological enframing look like today? We will see that rather than aiding in understanding the self we are compromising and sacrificing the self. This is done under the great guise of technology. Postmodern technology promises self-fulfillment, life improvement, self-betterment…but it is, for the most part, a deceit and the repercussions extend into many areas of life, including that of citizenship.

I am focused on the so called communication technology of social media as representative of postmodern technology, I do not think it can separated from the technology directed towards understanding man’s biology, in other words, medical technology. All of these separations still fall within the technology of information; it is merely expressed differently based on specific areas. For example, medical technology allows the illusion of facial reconstruction; communication technology allows for the illusion of the media persona, a not-there identity, entirely fabricated (not only by the fabricator, but also by others who can say what they want about others within this technology). It is interesting that, with regards to medical technology, Descartes was in a way foreshadowing the evolution of postmodernism when he speaks of the “maintenance of health” as one of the benefits of mastering nature.

So far, we have seen that technology, as a source of revealing, reveals to us being as standing reserve. Also examined was the historical perspective: that the transition from modernity to postmodernity, culminating in the social media that permeates our world today, brings the concept of enframing to the forefront due to the extreme accessibility and habitual use of social media. Now, with the previous progress in mind, we will begin to turn our attention to the effects of enframing in the realm of citizenship, which will necessarily mean the effects on our own beings as well. To the extent that enframing is a part of our every day life, I will argue that enframing is contributing greatly to the loss of the sense of the private self, without which the theory of citizenship cannot remain meaningful to the citizen.

From Enframing to the Efficiency of Postmodern Technology

For Arendt, society, and thus the social realm, is where “private interests assume public significance”[12] which takes the form “of mutual dependence for the sake of life and nothing else…and where the activities connected with sheer survival are permitted to appear in public.”[13] What is necessary for survival? Eating, shelter, and the education of the young become some of the constituents of the social realm. It seems that social media should not be called social media. There is nothing about social media that makes it necessary for survival.

The private on the other hand is a “sphere of intimacy”[14] where the happenings of the private life need not extend into the social realm. It is closed off from the eyes of others, except those personally involved in the sphere. Furthermore, it ought to revolve around real presencing. However, Arendt points out that in the modern era “modern privacy in its most relevant function, to shelter the intimate, was discovered as the opposite not of the political sphere but of the social, to which it is therefore more closely and authentically related.”[15]

For Arendt, it is clear that the private sphere is closely linked with the social (and not the public) sphere. Does this then mean that the social and the private have nothing to do with citizenship since they are thus severed from the political realm? By no means. We shall see that Arendt is drawing a chain, and connects the social sphere with the public sphere. For Arendt, the public and private do not co-exist snugly side-by-side. Rather, the social realm falls between them and knits them together, while at the same time allowing the two spheres to remain distinct. Some private issues (such as education) appear in the social realm, and then the social realm contributes to the public sphere.

Arendt has a specific definition of the private sphere. Shiraz Dossa summarizes Arendt’s conception of the private as such: “that privacy is the natural condition of men is a truism for Arendt: the needs and wants of the human body and the natural functions to which the body is subject are inherently private.”[16] Further, Arendt contrasts the category of the private with that of the public. The public realm is fascinating because it can be either social or political.[17] Traditionally, the public was aligned with the political. However, the larger the community, the more social the public will be. We are therefore losing our sense of the political and the private to the social and the public.

Arendt constitutes the public realm in two ways. The first is “that everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity.”[18] However, Arendt’s public is not infiltrated with social media as it is today; thus our public realm has becomes a filtered reality. In another sense, for Arendt the public “signifies the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it.”[19] How awesome is it that we have private ownership in this world! And it is equally awesome that there is a public sphere that balances the private. However, it is not necessary for social media to publicize that the world is common to all; the commonness should be enough in itself and has no need to be enframed.

The other point that Arendt is making is that the public realm is receding. During her time, the state of the public realm was no longer permanent. The permanency of the public sphere is highly important in Arendt’s philosophy because it means that what we create today is not only for our generation; the public today ought to take the future into consideration as well since “It is the publicity of the public realm which can absorb and make shine through the centuries whatever men may want to save from the natural ruin of time.”[20] The idea is to live in a world, and to create a world, that is strong enough to withstand time.

To overcome time suggests a worthiness of the pursuits engaged in creating something in the public sphere because then the works succeed the condemnation of mortal decay. They participate and gain access to an eternal realm (though an eternal realm still confined in the physical world). Perhaps Arendt is right: how much of our public world will withstand time? But in another sense, the opposite is happening: all is falling into the public. The private is being subsumed under the public, and the public now has its identity as social, and not political. If all that is left is the public sphere, then without the opposition of another sphere there can be no loss of the public: it’s permanency is parallel to a dictator, ruling with no contestants. Rather than the public being like a dictator, it should rather retain a healthy tension with the private sphere, each of the two acting as a balance for the other.

Presented above are Arendt’s definitions of the social, private, public and political realms, and how each relates to the others. The most significant one for present purposes is the distinction between the public and the private. It is clear that Arendt elevates the public realm, and I elevate the private realm. She speaks of rising from the private to the public. But I would not say the move from public to private is an ascent. I would rather say that they are on a horizontally-related, rather than vertically.

From Postmodern Technology to Boundary Blurring Between the Public and the Private

The enframing that occurs with social media is mediating our relation to real presences and thus necessarily it is directly affecting our private and public lives. When our private lives bleed into the public sphere via social media, the public sphere itself becomes a mirror image of mediated personalities. For Arendt, the public sphere means “something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves.” Granted, social media is seen and heard via technological devices, however the relation to what appears via technology is once removed from reality: it is a copy, and it is also an illusion.

As social media makes a stronger and more permanent presence in the world, the private realm becomes less and less significant because what used to be strictly present in the private realm can now easily be projected into the public realm. While social media exacerbates enframing, the issue at hand is nothing new. Arendt notes how in modernity “functionalization makes it impossible to perceive any serious gulf between the two realms.”[21] Thus it is function, enframing, and usefulness that blur the boundary between the public and private.

In addition to Arendt, Vattimo argues “what concerns us in the postmodern age is a transformation of (the notion of) Being as such—and technology, properly conceived, is the key to that transformation.”[22] Indeed, our notion of being is transformed, or at least filtered, by technology because of enframing. Vattimo characterizes enframing as “the totality of the modern rationalization of the world on the basis of science and technology.”[23] Thus, it is impossible to conceive of being as extending beyond enframing. As we have already seen, the rationalization that Vattimo speaks of is the utilitarian nature of enframing, an aspect that coincides with the pragmatism originating in the 20th century.

The very utility that is necessarily attached to pragmatism continues to presence itself today through enframing, made easy by social media. Vattimo clearly states: “I don’t believe that Pragmatist and Neopragmatist arguments are strong enough to support a choice for democracy, nonviolence, and tolerance.” Therefore, he supports an ontological rather than a pragmatic point of view, which, as a philosophical position, prefers “a democratic, tolerant, liberal society to an authoritarian and totalitarian one.”[24] To have a life not dominated by the enframing of technology is more conducive to democratic ideals. While the private and public spheres are necessary in any political system, democracy is our own current situation, which adds a definite relevance to the experience of enframing as opposed to other ways of relating to reality.

Before moving on to discussing how the lack of a boundary between the public and private influences the individual life of the citizen, there is a final point to be made about the republic, one that speaks to the very lifeblood of citizenship as a theory. Wilson Carey McWilliams, drawing on Tocqueville, states “freedom is not the mastery of persons and things; it is being what we are, subject to truth’s authority. No teaching is more necessary if the technological republic is to rediscover its soul.”[25] What we are sure to lose in our current trajectory is the soul of our nation. In an illusionary manner, social media is about mastery and the sense of feeling like we are in control. It is the delusion that we can control a relationship in a text message. It is becoming evident that time is a huge factor with social media: how quickly in time can an image go viral? How quick is the response to messages?

As we can control this factor of time while participating in social media, we allow ourselves to fall prey to the illusion of power. In social media, there is no subjection of the self, there is only self-proclamation. When the citizens of our republic have no soul, the soul of the republic suffers. The soul of the republic is only as great as the people who make up the republic. Nietzsche, drawing on Aristotle, asks if greatness of soul is possible.[26] If it is, social media is not helping in the nurturing of greatness since a soul that relates to being as not exceeding standing reserve loses all sense of mystery. When the souls of a nation are suffering, infected with a continually enframed view of being, then the very soul of a nation suffers as well, as it’s lifeblood is slowly shut off.

Some encourage the publication of the private as a signal of the advancement of mankind in the social realm. If the social realm were the highest, then such would be the case. But there are reasons why I hold the private to be of great significance: people begin their role as citizens in the private realm. The remedy of this problem is necessary if we are to remain as citizens, if citizenship is itself going to survive. All can be traced back to what is going on in the private realm. It determines our identities, which we then carry into the public realm.

A healthy citizen is a citizen who is able to distinguish the private from the public, and retain a balance between the two. To lose this, is to lose the capacity to be a citizen, and thus we face the collapse of the theory of citizenship. This theory only has existence in so far as we as individuals uphold it through our own existences as public and private beings. Thus as we continue to sacrifice our private selves, we are slowly chipping away at the theory of citizenship. Arendt approaches the same problem, but subordinates the private to the public. For her, a well-lived public sphere trickles down to the private sphere and improves it. Her ordering is necessary if the public sphere is where man truly fulfills his nature (the guiding principle of Civic Republicanism). The conclusion is the same for both of us: an identity as a citizen that involves both the public and the private spheres. We merely diverge on the privileging of spheres.

Furthermore, the boundary between the public and private self is a condition for citizenship in that a strong identity of the private self serves as preparation for a well-constituted public sphere. The enframing by technology today that is weakening the boundary between the private and the public thus has implications for the theory of citizenship. If a citizen lacks a foundation in their private life, then that citizen may as well be a foreigner to the system of citizenship that they are attempting to participate in. Just as a foreigner will lack the disposition to give credibility and care to the style of citizenship that is either not their own or that they have no intention of participating in, so too is the citizen who attempts to participate in the public sphere while lacking a hidden and private life. Since the public sphere is made of citizens, the only way to have a thriving citizenship is for a sense of strong personal identity with the state where the citizenry reside. The personal identity is established in the private sphere, where the soul learns to relate to reality, and then brings itself to help constitute the reality of the public. A citizen with no private life is like an apple with no core: it is all façade, with nothing substantial to contribute to permanency and foundation.

Finally, the private realm ought to remain unpublicized for the sake of retaining a unified self, and for the sake of self-reverence and mystery. Once publicized, reverence and mystery become obsolete. Paul A. Cantor and Cardinal Ratzinger offer ideas on what it means for the human person to exist without reverence and without mystery, two aspects of the human race that technology helps make disappear. When we then lose our sense of private identity we are losing a part of ourselves. Though we are incomplete beings, we accentuate and magnify our incompleteness through technology. It is entirely voluntary, and entirely unnecessary.

Paul A. Cantor writes: “when man chooses to revere nothing higher than himself, he will indeed find it difficult to control the power of his own technology.”[27] Social media is followed with an attentive reverence, but since social media is a platform for the self, reverencing social media is essentially reverencing one’s media self, and nothing higher. When the media acts as such a vice grip, it is difficult to remember to revere anything else. Reverence does not have to pertain to religion or belief systems. It can mean to honor the internal difference of the human person, out of humility recognizing that no representation ever captures the greatness of man. Why would we choose to honor media personas that strive so hard for coherence over the contemplation of actuality?

The reverence that Cantor is talking about is similar to Cardinal Ratzinger, in An Introduction to Christianity, asking,

But if man, in his origin and at his very roots, is only an object to himself, if he is ‘produced’ and comes off the production line with selected features and accessories, what on earth is man then supposed to think of man? How should he act toward him? What will be man’s attitude toward man when he can no longer find anything of the divine mystery in the other, but only his own know-how?[28]

Our publication of the private dehumanizes us, reduces us, and secludes us. I argue that it is not part of the fabric of reality. We see in the face of the other, not their inherent mystery, but a shell of their opinions. Our participation further reduces our own mystery that we hold to ourselves. If we are to truly have a public sphere that lasts more than a generation, then a “production line” creation is far too weak and fallible, since it is so easily changed and manipulated to match the going trends and styles of the day. The weakness of such a system is then expounded when it applies not just to the manufacturing of things, but to the manufacturing of people as well. Not only is the result a loss of beauty in the creation of the public sphere, but also man is demoted to robotic-like expectations, devoid of all “divine mystery.”

Ratzinger’s characterization and implications of the manufactured person is the same as Heidegger’s exploration of standing reserve, since standing reserve fully embraces utility, and leaves no room for mystery. As previously illustrated, enframing harms the private life and destroys hiddenness. Thus, the experience of reality (including the human person) as standing reserve that occurs through enframing is detrimental to the mystery of the person. Though the mystery of the person is explored in the public sphere, it finds its root and primary expression in the private sphere. But, what is the point of divinity, or eternity, when there is no birth of such things in the private sphere, and no sustenance for them in the public sphere?

A Public, Shallow Life

Arendt provides a succinct summation of the problem: “A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow.”[29] Our life is constituted by physical presences, both in the public and the private spheres. However, added to the real flesh of the physical world is the prominence of media presences (which are immaterial) that allow the individual to have a constant presence in the public sphere. When the media presences become the main way in which we relate our lives to the world around us, then we are looking at a great private loss. Along with the loss of the private self comes the loss of a profound and real theory of citizenship. Thus, if the overarching idea to be preserved is citizenship, then we must search for a way to preserve the hidden life, the private life. It is possible that such a reversal will change our embodiment in the fibers of apathy that currently constitutes the general perception of citizenship.

If enframing occurs because we respond to the summons that results in standing reserve, then a change in perception, an internal change, will radically derail enframing. An internal change towards external reality means escaping from enframing and (perhaps) returning to what Heidegger will call more “primordial,” a relation to the world that was possible prior to the power of technology that allowed for enframing in the first place. Ideally, it means seeking the inherent value present in the world, rather than living by standing reserve alone. It means returning to reverence, to soul, and to mystery, as opposed to total revealing in utility and a life that does not extend beyond what is manufactured and functional. Though utility cannot (and need not) be totally eradicated, utility also need not be privileged above other paths of relation.

Once enframing is held in check, the private realm will not sink so quickly into the public, and the two realms will once again become distinct. The internal opposition to enframing will put a hold on the constant filtration of reality, and thus allow for a wellspring of endurance, a new revealing of truth not based in usefulness, and a return to the hiddenness of the private sphere. The re-established privacy then re-draws the boundary between the public and the private, such that a newly well-established private sphere provides for a stronger sense of self, a better preparation for entering the public sphere. The strength of self not hindered in the public sphere infuses the soul of citizenship, and thus saves citizenship.

References

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Bacon, Francis. The New Organon. Eds. Lisa Jardine and Michael Silverthorne. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Bambach, Charles. “Heidegger on The Question Concerning Technology and Gelassenheit.” In Social Epistemology and Technology: Toward Public Self-Awareness Regarding Technological Mediation, edited by Frank Scalambrino, 115-127. London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2015.

Brenner, Leslie. “Goodbye, avatar.” Dallas Morning News: October 30, 2014.

Cantor, Paul A. “Romanticism and Technology: Satanic Verses and Satanic Mills.” In Technology in the Western Political Tradition, edited by Arthur M. Melzer, Jerry Weinberger, and M. Richard Zinman, 214-28. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1993.

de Mul, Elize. “Existential Privacy and the Technological Situation of Boundary Regulation.” In Social Epistemology and Technology: Toward Public Self-Awareness Regarding Technological Mediation, edited by Frank Scalambrino, 69-79. London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2015.

Descartes, Rene. Discourse on Method. 3rd ed. Trans. Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing Company, 1998.

Dossa, Shiraz. The Public Realm and the Public Self: The Political Theory of Hannah Arendt.  Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1989.

Eliot, T.S. “Burnt Norton.” In The Complete Poems and Plays, 117-22. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1971.

Engelland, Chad. “Absent to Those Present: The Conflict between Connectivity and Communion.” In Social Epistemology and Technology: Toward Public Self-Awareness Regarding Technological Mediation, edited by Frank Scalambrino, 167-177. London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2015.

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.

McWilliams, Wilson Carey. “Science and Freedom: America as the Technological  Republic.” In Technology in the Western Political Tradition, edited by Arthur M. Melzer, Jerry Weinberger, and M. Richard Zinman, 214-228. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Merelman, Richard M. “Technological Cultures and Liberal Democracy in the United States.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 25, no. 2 (Spring 2000): 167-94.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. Introduction to Christianity. Trans. J.R. Foster and Michael J.  Miller. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000.

Scalambrino, Frank. “Social Media and the Cybernetic Mediation of Interpersonal Relations.” In Philosophy of Technology: A Reader, edited by Frank Scalambrino, 123-133. San Diego, CA: Cognella, 2014.

Scalambrino, Frank. “What Control? Life at the Limits of Power Expression.” In Social Epistemology and Technology: Toward Public Self-Awareness Regarding Technological Mediation, edited by Frank Scalambrino, 101-111. London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2015.

Vattimo, Gianni. “Postmodernity, Technology, Ontology.” In Technology in the Western Political Tradition, edited by Arthur M. Melzer, Jerry Weinberger, and M. Richard Zinman, 214-28. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1993.

[1] Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, 19.

[2] Cf. Bambach, “Heidegger on The Question Concerning Technology and Gelassenheit.”

[3] Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, 10.

[4] Ibid., 17.

[5] Ibid., 20.

[6] Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 66.

[7] Vattimo, “Postmodernity, Technology, Ontology,” 223.

[8] Merelman, “Technological Cultures and Liberal Democracy in the United States.”

[9] Merelman, “Technological Cultures and Liberal Democracy in the United States,” 168.

[10] Bacon, The New Organon, 33.

[11] Descartes, Discourse on Method, 35.

[12] Arendt, The Human Condition, 35.

[13] Ibid., 46.

[14] Ibid., 38.

[15] Ibid., 38.

[16] Dossa, The Public Realm and the Public Self: The Political Theory of Hannah Arendt, 59.

[17] Arendt, The Human Condition, 43.

[18] Ibid., 50.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Arendt, The Human Condition, 55.

[21] Ibid., 33.

[22] Vattimo, “Postmodernity, Technology, Ontology,” 214.

[23] Ibid., 222.

[24] Ibid., 226.

[25] McWilliams, “Science and Freedom: America as the Technological Republic,” 108.

[26] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 139.

[27] Cantor, “Romanticism and Technology: Satanic Verses and Satanic Mills,” 127.

[28] Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 18.

[29] Arendt, The Human Condition, 71.

Author Information: Zachary Willcutt, Boston College, willcuttz@bc.edu

Willcutt, Zachary. “The Enframing of the Self as a Problem: Heidegger and Marcel on Modern Technology’s Relation to the Person.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 2 (2017): 11-20.

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

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Discourse today often includes phrases such as “my neurons made me do it,” or “my brain does this or that.” Popular opinion increasingly maintains that the mind is identical to the brain. That is, social consciousness views the person as nothing more than a collection of chemicals and cells, resulting in the phenomenon, or perhaps the epiphenomenon, of consciousness, which has nothing incorporeal or interior about it. It is, following the pattern of the things in the world, supposed to be another physical thing. The contemporary collective consciousness knows that the human being is just another wholly material object, subjected to the same laws of causal determination as plants, atoms, and stars.

Following Heidegger, such social knowledge is shown to be the product of the present scientific and technological understanding of the self, subsuming consciousness, thought, emotions, passions, and choices as objects of empirical, scientific study, which uses various instruments to purportedly show that the person is her brain, converting the self into what Marcel calls a problem; however, this conflicts with the traditional perspective that the human is an immaterial soul. To defend the latter position, this article will deconstruct the claims of modern neuroscience to prevent the de-humanization of individuals that as the result of these claims now occurs.[1]

Enframing the Person as Brain

This understanding of the human person is consequent upon modern science, in particular neuroscience and psychology, which depend wholly on modern technology. There is thus a mutual relation between technology and science, leading to a process of the en-framing of the person as the brain. Martin Heidegger in The Question Concerning Technology sets forth the particulars of this process. He notes that there is a social awareness that modern technology “is based on modern physics as an exact science” (QCT, 14). In general, individuals are aware that their computers, cars, electricity, and other modern items, depend on scientific activity. Technology requires as its condition the development of scientific knowledge, in particular physics, without which microwaves and electricity would not be possible. However, just as technology depends on science, science depends on technology, since “modern physics, as experimental, is dependent upon technical apparatus and upon progress in the building of apparatus” (QCT, 14). The work of scientists in general is rooted in technology, which provides cyclotrons, electron tunneling microscopes, and spaceships that further scientific cognition.

Thus, the relation between science and technology is reciprocal; neither can exist without the other. Such reciprocity is becoming more clearly understood (QCT, 14). Modern technology and modern science mandate one another, one aiding the other, while each stands on the ground set forth by the other. In the context of mind-brain identity debates, this involves public awareness through social cognition of viewing the mind and person as nothing more than the brain, which is commonly held to be scientific knowledge, as dependent on modern technology such as brain scans. Without technology, contemporary neuroscience and cognitive science could never have developed. These fields require technology, which serves as their condition and has thus led to the furthering of mind-brain identity theories as social cognition.

The public predominance of such theories was described by Heidegger, in what he calls Gestell, usually translated into English as enframing, “the challenging claim which gathers man thither to order the self-revealing as standing-reserve” (QCT, 19). Standing-reserve occurs when “[e]verywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately at hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering” (QCT, 17). The things of the world, and humans subsumed as part of the world, are arranged solely with respect to their use insofar as they may be employed for continued utilization. Entities and, more importantly, persons are reduced to their mere possibility of being used for some end. That persons have become standing-reserve is demonstrated by “the current talk about human resources” (QCT, 18). Individuals are integrated as parts into the whole of the technological systems dominating life, where individuals have value only insofar as they can be incorporated into the technological whole. Thus, enframing indicates the gathering and ordering of persons and things so that they are revealed as available for use.

In this context, Kisiel interprets enframing as ‘synthetic compositioning,’ indicating “artificiality to the system of positions and posits” (Kisiel 2014, 138). This translation for Gestell fully encompasses the meaning that Heidegger is trying to indicate, that the world and persons are brought together to be used for further instrumentality. That is, Gestell signifies the functionalization of persons and things into the disposability of the standing-reserve, which is ordering for the end of more ordering, with no end beyond that of such ordering. All that is, is reduced to its functionality. To synthetically compose the person as an instrument, he must be understood in terms of his instrumentality, his submission and application to technology, for he has become “a commodity to be stored, shipped, handled, delivered, and disposed of” (Bambach 2015, 10). In this state, humans “become the functionaries of technological positioning, we put ourselves in position to be stockpiled and surveyed” (Ibid). Technological-functionalization de-humanizes the person, whose individuality disappears within the system.

In this way, the person is a mere component of a machine, a machine that in the framework of mind-brain identity debates turns the self into a brain. Humans are synthetically composited as brains, destroying their uniqueness as persons, as they have become only material. The self is eclipsed by the impersonality of matter (cf. Scalambrino, 2015). Having no characteristics particular to a person, the brain belongs to no one, and vanishes into the nothingness of pure matter. For every brain is equally exchangeable as any other brain. As it has been established, technology requires modern science; thus, humans become objects of science in social consciousness, that they too might be ordered according to the orders of the ordering. This ordering, itself in its essence technological, necessitates that the person is considered as nothing more than his brain. For if he was not just a brain, he would have some aspect that escaped instrumentality; having been reduced to the order of instrumentality, he must therefore only be thought of in his physicality. Human beings are problematized as objects of natural scientific study, the socially common view among many scientists and much of western society today.

However, that the mind is identical to, or emerging from, the brain, despite the apparent scientific support for this conclusion, should be confronted with great scrutiny. For historically, most philosophers, religions, and cultures, have maintained a soul or spirit as the ground of personality, rather than mere matter. That such a view was so widely held dictates that it should be considered seriously.

On Reducing the Human Person

Augustine’s remarks in the narrative of Confessions that his mother Monica brought him “to birth, both in her flesh, so that [he] was born into this temporal light, and in her heart, so that [he] might be born into eternal light” (C 9.8.17). Here, Augustine has distinguished between the flesh and the heart, exteriority and interiority, that is, matter and spirit, respectively. For Monica gave birth to him in body, but also by her prayers for his soul gave birth to him in her heart as well. Her heart is in no way physical, being contrasted with the flesh; it is spiritual, which indicates it is not composed of anything material. The affective center of emotions of the human person is of the soul, indicating that the fundamental being of the self cannot be located in the material order.

During the Medieval period, Bonaventure with respect to the journey toward God that “[w]e must also enter into our soul, which is God’s image, everlasting, spiritual, and within us” (Journey of the Soul into God, 60). The soul, the self, is clearly considered as spiritual and interior, preventing it from being observed as if it were a material object. Humans are spiritual rather than physical beings. To be spiritual means that one thinks, desires, loves, cares, intends, and feels emotions and affects such as anger or joy.

Though not involving himself explicitly in the Critique of Pure Reason in debates on the nature of the person, Kant makes clear that the self is not physical. For “although all our cognition commences with experience, yet it does not on that account all arise from experience” (CPR B1). Experience is merely the stimulus for knowledge, rather than the ground; Kant observes that aspects of cognition do not find their source in the experience of the empirical world. Thus, there must be a transcendental, a priori root of knowledge, which indicates the person is not restricted to a mere body.

Now turning to the Mystery of Being, Marcel argues that modernity has reduced the human person to a problem as opposed to a mystery. A problem is that which “I find complete before me, but which I can therefore lay siege to and reduce … A genuine problem is subject to an appropriate technique by the exercise of which it is defined” (MB, 211). Problems are objective, and can be answered by a definite, adequate formula that will yield the requisite result. The human mind is capable of grasping problems as a whole, so that all aspects become visible, enabling the problem to be analyzed into its components. This is the process of the natural sciences. But when what is not genuinely a problem is considered as such, the result is a broken world. The latter consists in the reduction of personal identity to a “few sheets of an official dossier,” which is how “I am forced to grasp myself” (MB, 29).

Persons are compelled to understand themselves as mere instruments in the system set forth by the utilization of technology, where technocrats use science to justify their policies. As such, the human must be reduced to the brain, for if he has a mind, he would be thus not wholly subservient to the synthetic compositioning. To subject a person to technology mandates that he consider himself nothing more than a collection of neurons. Social consciousness leads individuals to submit to the control of those who produce scientific knowledge that furthers ordering society through technology under the reign of science. However, “there is within the human…something that protests against the sort of rape or violation of which he is the victim; and this torn, protesting state of the human creature is enough to justify us in asserting that the world in which we live is a broken world” (MB, 33).

The realm of technology destroys love, emotion, and care. The person is losing himself to his functionalization, in which he is a functionalized self that operates according to the deterministic laws of science; questions about his being are to be answered by examining as if he were merely another object in the world, a tree, planet, or mineral. He dwells, or more accurately fails to dwell, “in a mechanized world, a world deprived of passion” (MB 24). Through rigorous scientific analysis, all that is valuable in the person is detected and employed. The world of humanity is converted into a set of functionalized selves in a techno-scientific system that has as its purpose only its own furtherance; the world is broken, life is extinguished.

By the interposition of a cybernetic or the techno-scientific self-understanding, such as the mind-brain identity thesis into social consciousness, “the will is re-directed toward a virtual dimension” (Scalambrino 2015, 5). Taken radically, moving beyond the dangers of virtual reality, Scalambrino is pointing to the general threat posed by the technologically-conditioned reduction of the person to the brain. When humans believe that they are nothing more than piles of chemicals, their wills are oriented toward the possibilities appropriate to a pile of chemicals. They live for, and deliberate in terms of, a pile of chemicals, rather than for themselves qua persons. For them, to be is to be a brain, with no meaning or purpose greater than that of a toad, snake, or some animal with a brain.

However, as daily experience testifies, as persons, individuals have a feeling of their being-beyond-the-world. The person is not his body, requiring a different approach, that of mystery. In this way, Marcel understands the person as mysterious, being that which “transcends every conceivable technique,” and “is itself like a river, which flows into the Eternal, as into a sea” (MB, 211, 219). A mystery is infinite; it is a vast depth that cannot be sounded. There is no method to a mystery, it cannot be represented or known as such, for it exceeds the capacity of the mind to represent it (MB, 69). An individual can only move about, may only live, in the mystery, a reservoir of inexhaustible richness. Unlike the problem, the mystery draws the person out of himself, and he is himself a mystery, as exemplified by characteristics of his own being. Marcel notes that “the act of thought itself must be acknowledged a mystery; for it is the function of thought to show that any objective representation, abstract schema, or symbolical process, is inadequate” (MB, 69). Thus, humans shatter the boundaries of the physical, even in their thinking, and so cannot be reduced to the brain.[2]

The Libet Experiment

Among the most famous experiments reducing the mind to the brain by free will being interpreted out of existence, the Libet experiment, as interpreted by Benjamin Libet himself, purports to show that human behavior can be accurately predicted by brain events prior to such behavior actually occurring. Specifically, this test asked persons who were watching a dot moving along a circle to flick their wrists when they “freely wanted to do so” (Libet 2002, 553).[3] After doing this, they reported W, “the clock-time associated with the first awareness of the wish [or urge] to move” (Libet 2002, 553). 550 msec before muscle movement an increase in readiness potential (RP) began. For Libet, “an appearance of conscious will 550 msec…before the act seemed intuitively unlikely” (Libet 2002, 553). Two types of tests were performed on the subjects, who in one such type had two sets of results. In one test, subjects were asked to spontaneously move, in which case they would at times report a “general intention…to act within the next second or so,” or have no such planning, while in the other test type, subjects responded to a randomly given stimulus, of which time they were not aware (Libet 2002, 554).

With respect to when the subject freely acted without planning, there was a buildup of RP, which has been termed RP II, and when the subject acted with prior intention, there also was a buildup of RP, identified as RP I. In the trial with the stimulus, there was no buildup of RP. With prior intention, RP I accumulated 1000 msec before muscle movement, while in the absence of pre-planning, RP II built up 550 msec prior to muscle movement, and 350 msec prior to the wish to act, which itself was 200 msec before the act (Libet 2002, 557). As the result of the buildup of RP, in particular RP II, Libet states that the “volitional process is…initiated unconsciously” (Libet 2002, 551).

A superior perspective on of the Libet experiment rather indicates that the brain is subsequent to the mind, such that mental states precede brain states, which is the case for several reasons. Firstly, every instance of build-up of RP in the brain and the wrist movement of the body was correlated in some way with the mental state of the desire to move. Readiness-potential and wrist movement only occurred in relation to the desire to move, indicating an intrinsic relation between conscious willing and physical, both brain and kinesthetic, action. The build-up of RP always was temporally determined by its relation to the desire to move, so that brain states correspond to mental states. Given that hands can only be moved by the person through commands sent from the brain, hands being corporeal, some sort of modification of the brain would be required to move the hand. That this modification exists is not perplexing, and provides nothing against free will.

RP I, the RP observed with respect to previous intention, only had a significant increase with the time of initial planning given by subjects, who were aiming to move around a second before muscle movement. The significant increase in RP occurred at the same time plans were reported to be developing, at 1000 msec, indicating that the muscles were being primed for motion by the intentions of the subject. With respect to RP II, that the increase in RP was 350 msec before the urge to move is not an indicator of the absence of free volition. For, as both a methodological and substantive issue with the Libet experiment is the definition of the conscious urge to move, which carries a variety of significations, especially in the word ‘urge;’ Libet also conflated urge with will or active wish to move. This indicates that a person is contemplating whether she has an urge to move, a process that could lead to a build-up of RP in the brain. She is deliberating whether she has such an urge at this particular instant. For an individual may have an urge to do something, urge understood as the feeling of desire, and yet hesitate to act on that desire. The decision to act on a desire is distinct from the presence of this desire. What the Libet experiment shows most clearly is that humans can feel impulses, upon which they then decide to act. Often, a person eats when his stomach feels empty, an emptiness that can be registered by monitoring the brain. But to say that that person is determined by such emptiness is absurd, as demonstrated by those who are gluttons or go on hunger strikes. Further, the self might not be hungry at all and yet still indulge in food. Such is the result of the delay between RP II and W.

As the result of his lack of philosophical comprehension, Libet could not distinguish between the wish to move and the urge or impulse to move. If urge is understood as ‘wish,’ the appearance of such wish is arbitrary, a decision of the will; the mind contemplates enacting this will, and wishing to accomplish such a deed. The determination of this wish, only after which one would be conscious of the wish to wish this activity, would of course result in some type of brain activity in order to prepare the body. But this brain activity occurs as the result of the spiritual deliberation requisite for determination of will. Thus, the buildup of RP may either indicate that the person is determining his will with respect to the sensation of physical need or impulse, or merely anticipating the becoming of his wish, expecting that he will soon in the future wish this. That is, in order to move at an instant, the body must be primed, causing a buildup of RP, which on this count is not an argument against free will. For apart from the instant of conscious wish itself, a person is, even without pre-planning, still in a certain sense mentally planning his action. For as one must make the arbitrary choice of suddenly flicking his wrist, an action that he knows he will soon perform, his body is able to respond to the consciousness of the impending deliberate mental choice to flick the wrist by being primed in what is observed as readiness potential.

Analyzing Soon and Libet’s Work

Another scientific experiment conducted by Soon et al., tested the ability to predict the decisions of the subject before the decisions were consciously made, by having a person press a button with either their left or right index finger when they felt the urge to do so (Soon et al. 2008, 543). The researchers claimed to have been predicted subject choices 10 seconds prior to such choices; however, that the accuracy of predictions was a mere sixty-percent should also lead to hesitation in leaping to the conclusion that this experiment is evidence against free will. Sixty-percent is a mere ten-percent more than the result of guessing at every other instance whether a person would move. A random game of probability would provide results not significantly different from those of the Soon experiment. Thus, that the experimenters were successful in sixty-percent of cases is only evidence that they are but half-way decent at guessing games.

In nearly half of all instances, Soon was unable to predict physical movement on the basis of the build-up of readiness-potential. In nearly half of all instances, brain states gave no evidence for future movement. In nearly half of all instances, brain states at the scientific, technological, empirical level, examining among the most basic physical functions of the human person, were unable to yield a causal account of behavior. To say that brain states caused the movement, that they caused the mental urge, is wholly unwarranted. Causality is necessary and universal, yet here it is neither, the buildup of readiness-potential not necessary for the conscious wish to move and in no interpretation always universally present prior to mental states. No causal link whatsoever has been demonstrated by Soon.

Both Libet and Soon have made the paradigmatic example of an argument from ignorance; they say that because they can see no other potential cause for the actions performed by their subjects, then the brain is the source for those actions; unknown brain events, they say, are the source for human actions. But they cannot point to these brain events; for none such exist that are the causes of action. As they have committed themselves to materialism, they cannot think in terms of a spiritual cause that alters matter. Yet such spiritual cause, readily experienced as the conscious choice of a mind, is the obvious genesis of action and behavior.

This impossibility in observing even the simplest of motor functions, among the most basic thoughts or commands that a person can issue, implies that more complex choices are impossible to study. Since the command to issue motor controls has a genesis outside of the brain, all other more complex mental activities must similarly find their ground beyond a mere physical organ.

As previously noted, readiness-potential always is related to conscious deliberation, anticipation, and choice; the former is in the brain, while the latter three are mental events. Qua mental events, they are subjective, and never in themselves come under the observation of technological instruments. They are interior, not exterior, contrasting with brain events, which are observable. That brain events follow mental events seems to be shown by the Libet experiment, as no readiness-potential occurs without mental events being reported by the subject. The suggestion, then, is that brain events, such as the build-up of readiness-potential, are causally dependent on mental states, as there is in fact both a necessary and universal connection.

If anything, the Libet experiment indicates, as the result of the difference between mental and brain events, that mental and brain events cannot be correlated, which is simply further evidence for the traditional theory that interiority precedes exteriority; the spiritual precedes the corporeal. More evidence for this is available from one of the most well-documented medical occurrences, the Placebo Effect and its lesser-known twin, the Nocebo Effect. These in particular show that mental states are in no way reducible or causally contingent on brain states, yet that brain states depend on mental states.

The placebo and nocebo effects “are treatment effects, unrelated to the treatment mechanism, which are induced by patients’ expectations of improvement or worsening respectively” (Bartels et al. 2014, 1). That is, the placebo and nocebo effects are fundamentally cognitive, determined by the expectations of individuals. These expectations are mental, not physical, and wholly subjective; yet, despite their subjectivity and existence in the mind rather than the brain, they have an established effect on the outcomes of treatments. Thus, mental states have a direct causal role on the physical world. The mind influences the brain.

For the brain, through which pain is felt, does not know that the person is taking a drug that is not active to reduce an illness, while the mind does know that the individual is using this drug, causing the placebo or nocebo effect, as the result of anticipation of success, or the absence thereof. Were there not a mind independent of the brain, the placebo and nocebo effects could never happen, since intentionality is not characteristic of the brain, yet only the conscious mind. All intentional states are mental, which must therefore be assigned real existence as the result of its causal power. Knowledge and expectation exist in the subject, the mind alone. The brain does not think, and no brain has ever thought.

On the Status of Mental States

All contemporary neuroscience rests on a fundamental assumption, which is that mental states do not exist; they are mere figments of the brain, which, qua matter, is reality. All that is, is corporeal matter, and consciousness is an illusion. Thus, to study the person, the scientist should study the physical world. The subjective states of the individual are ultimately nothing, and should not be trusted in determining the scientific view of the self. Modern science, with its emphasis on the empirical and observable, as a methodological consideration, must use this assumption, for were it to not, it would be compelled to admit that there exists that which is beyond its capacity to know.

Yet this assumption, that all is matter and mental states are an illusion, terminates in a reductio ad absurdum. For beginning with the proposition that mental states are an illusion, let this be applied to mental states regarding external objects, physical objects. For instance, take the physical object Saturn; Saturn is known qua physical object. It is seen, a process that according to neuroscience occurs by various neurons crashing together in the brain. Thus, Saturn only exists on the basis of its existing in the brain, because we only know of Saturn by the seeing in the brain, which by analogy holds true for all physical objects, including brains. The physical does not need to exist outside of the mind; it could very well be a mere construct of the brain.

The fact that Saturn is seen by multiple persons is irrelevant; for this only means that persons opine that they share the seeing of the same Saturn. The possibility still exists that each individual sees a different Saturn, where humans are stimulated with the sensation of the apparently same object. The physical world is known only through mental states; thus, the physical world is an illusion. If neuroscientists want to say that emotions are not real merely because they occur in the brain, they must likewise say that Saturn is not real, as it too exists in only the brain. All that is, whether mental or physical, becomes an illusion, including the brain itself, as brains are only known by technological observation of them. Brains are known by brains. But Saturn does exist apart from the brain; therefore, mental states also have real existence not reducible to the brain.

All subjective mental states must consequently be given actual reality, and must be considered to have the same level of reality as is had by the corporeal world. This necessitates with the force of law that the brain not be hypothesized as the source of mental activity. Any attempt to reduce mental states to brain states results in the absurdity of the whole of existence, including the spatial, becoming an illusion, for matter only exists as a representation to the conscious subject.

Following from these problems associated with the synthetic compositioning of the self as the brain, the person is not reducible, even by modern technology, thereto. Humans should not be taken as objects of technological and scientific study, yet rather in accord with their own unique way of being that respects their unique status as humans. Man must not be reduced to a material brain by instrumentality, but rather acknowledged as the center of the world of his own first-person subjectivity. The reductionism of neuroscience must be overcome to keep humanity human. Marcel in Creative Fidelity reflects this task of rejecting de-humanization, to “strengthen the fierce resolution of those who reject the consummation by themselves or others of man’s denial of man, or…the denial of the more than human by the less than human” (CF, 10).

References

Augustine. Confessions. Trans. John K. Ryan. New York: Image Classics, 2014.

Bambach, Charles. “Heidegger on The Question Concerning Technology and Gelassenheit.” In Social Epistemology and Technology: Toward Public Self-Awareness Regarding Technological Mediation, edited by Frank Scalambrino, 115-126. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015.

Bartels, Danielle et al. “Role of Conditioning and Verbal Suggestion in Placebo and Nocebo Effects on Itch.” Public Library of Science One 9 (2014): 1-9.

Bonaventure. Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey into God, The Tree of Life, The Life of Saint Francis. Translated by Ewert Cousins. New York: Paulist Press, 1978.

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Translated by William Lovitt. London: Harper Perennial, 2013.

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Paul Guyer and Allen Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Kisiel, Theodore. “Heidegger and Our Twenty-first Century Experience of Ge-Stell.” Research Resources Paper 35 (2014): 137-151. http://fordham.bepress.com/phil_research/35

Libet, Benjamin. “Do We Have Free Will?” In The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, edited by Robert Kane, 551-564. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Marcel, Gabriel. Creative Fidelity. Trans. Robert Rosthal. New York: Fordham University Press, 2002.

Marcel, Gabriel. The Mystery of Being, Vol. I: Reflection and Mystery. Translated by G.S. Fraser. South Bend:  St. Augustine’s Press, 1950.

Scalambrino, Frank. “The Vanishing Subject: Becoming who You Cybernetically Are.” In Social Epistemology and Technology: Toward Public Self-Awareness Regarding Technological Mediation, edited by Frank Scalambrino, 197-206. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015.

Soon, Chun et al. “Unconscious Determinants of Free Decisions in the Human Brain.” Nature Neuroscience 11, no. 5 (2008): 543-545.

[1]. This is neuroscience in the reductionist sense that seeks to state that the mind is an illusion; it is true that there are neuroscientists who reject reductionism, and they are not those against whom this essay is articulated, insofar as they recognize the independence of the mind from the brain.

[2]. This first requires the deconstruction of the functionalized and de-humanized self to restore the mystery about the person.

[3]. Libet, “Do We Have Free Will?”