Archives For History of Philosophy

Author Information, Adam Briggle and Robert Frodeman, University of North Texas, robert.frodeman@unt.edu, adam.briggle@unt.edu.

Briggle, Adam; and Robert Frodeman. “Thinking À La Carte.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 8-11.

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

A cropped photo of “Follow Me,” a portrait by Wang Qingsong.
Image by Michael Davis-Burchat via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In 2016, we published an article in the New York Times column The Stone, titled “When Philosophy Lost its Way.” We followed this up with a book, Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st Century Philosophy. In similar fashion, Bryan Van Norden has published a book that expands on an argument originally placed in The Stone. Both our book and Van Norden’s Taking Back Philosophy criticize professional philosophy. We both call for greater diversity in the face of homogeneity.

For us, the troubling orthodoxy is disciplinarity – the way philosophers conceive of themselves as experts just like any other academic branch of knowledge. We called for a wider engagement by philosophers, where their place of business isn’t only the classroom and the study, but also projects in the field, working in a day-by-day fashion with scientists, engineers, policy-makers, and community groups. For Van Norden, what’s problematic is the orthodoxy of the Anglo-European canon. He prescribes diversifying the curriculum through the greater inclusion of less commonly taught philosophies (LCTP).

“People Had Been Dreaming, and First and Foremost – Old Kant”

Kant is our common bete noir. We see in Kant a tipping point where philosophy written for someone other than specialists became recast as ‘bungling,’ which was obviously the sort of thing any self-respecting specialist should avoid. By the end of the nineteenth century, Socratic philosophy (fundamentally interrogative in nature) morphed into our present philosophical institutions (whose focus on expertise bear a distressing similarity to sophistry).

For Van Norden, Kant serves as the key villain in the Western drama of philosophical ethnocentrism. Kant’s unabashed prejudices have burdened philosophy with a legacy of “structural racism.” Western philosophy, Van Norden claims, practices an Orientalism where certain peoples and traditions are written off as simply non-philosophical.

Both of our critiques, then, are institutional as well as epistemic. We are both addressing deeply engrained assumptions about what counts as ‘real’ philosophy and how those assumptions get built into practices of teaching, evaluation, hiring, promotion, and more. In short, we are sympathetic to Van Norden’s basic project. After all, who could argue against the inclusion of different and diverse perspectives in philosophical teaching and research?

As Van Norden shows, there is much to be gained by, for example, putting Hobbes in conversation with Confucius or adding Cheng Yi to discussions about weakness of the will.

We do, however, have a couple of criticisms, which we offer in a spirit of solidarity given our shared efforts to reform the institutions of philosophy. The first criticism is about the magnitude of the problem and the second is about its definition.

The Scope of the Problem

How big is the problem of philosophical ethnocentrism really? In some sense, this is a matter of attitudes and institutional climates that are very hard to measure. But in other ways it is an empirical question. Van Norden’s argument would be strengthened if he expanded his survey of the profession. He offers many anecdotes of philosophers with prejudices, but he only offers a few systematic empirical remarks about what kinds of LCTP are and are not being taught at different institutions.

And the way he does this is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, he tends to focus only on ‘top’ (via Leiter’s definition) philosophy departments or PhD-granting departments. This can give a skewed picture, which is something we wonder about, given that we have two faculty in our relatively small department focused on Southeast Asian philosophy and religion. To give one other data point, discovered in our recent travels: one of the four philosophy faculty at UW-La Crosse focuses on Chinese philosophy. These snapshots make us wonder about the adequacy of his survey.

Second, there’s the way he measures the problem. He first isolates different kinds of LCTP (Chinese, Indian, Native American, and African) and then notes how rarely each features on the roster of philosophy departments. But it could be that when LCTP are aggregated the problem dissipates.[1] As he notes, not every department can do every kind of philosophy, so diversity is to be accomplished collectively and not within each discreet academic unit. So, why use isolated academic units to measure the problem?

And this says nothing of the possibility that philosophers regularly sprinkle LCTP into their curricula in ways that wouldn’t show up on such a cursory survey. We certainly would not list ourselves as specialists in any LCTP, but we both draw from a variety of traditions and cultures in the classroom. We suspect this kind of practice is widespread.

So What Is Philosophy?

But set aside the question about the magnitude of the problem to consider again its definition. Van Norden defines philosophy as dialogue about important problems in the absence of an agreed-upon method for their resolution. He claims this dialogue has happened in many cultures but that philosophy departments tend to only busy themselves with one culture. And they do so for no good reason, just rank prejudice.

Yet there might be a good reason to focus (not exclusively, but mainly) on one cultural tradition. Not because one is the best or only tradition. Rather, because philosophy is inextricably woven into cultures. Van Norden gives a passing mention that “doctrines and practices of argumentation are situated in their particular cultures” (p. 30). But he quickly sets this aside to remind us that philosophy in the West (or anywhere) is not monolithic. He takes from this a sense of philosophy that is really only very loosely or shallowly rooted to any particular tradition. Since there is no one single conception of Western philosophy, he seems to say, then we can extract this or that conception and set it alongside this or that conception extracted from any LCTP.

Van Norden pictures the problems in philosophy as discreet units that can be excised from their historical contexts and analyzed in isolation. This constitutes the analytical approach to philosophy or what we call thinking a la carte, where issues can be dished up as separate items rather than as components of a larger meal.

We subscribe to a different conception of philosophy. On our view, philosophy does not primarily consist of a series of problems (e.g., free will; intrinsic value) which one can take a variety of positions on. Philosophy consists of a tradition and a narrative across time.  The thoughts of Hegel or Heidegger can best be understood as a rumination on an ongoing conversation involving Nietzsche, Christianity, Duns Scotus, Aristotle, Plato, etc.

In short, we picture philosophy in narrative and historical terms as embedded in cultural contexts. And given that there is only so much time and so many credit hours in the degree plan, a philosophical education is understandably limited to one tradition (though, again, not exclusively – there should be room for cross-cultural comparisons).

It is best, we are suggesting, to learn one story with some depth and care rather than take a desultory and superficial tour across a hodgepodge of traditions. This kind of episodic and fractured mental life is given more than enough room in our media landscape today, where everything is served up a la carte, with few if any binding ties to things around it. Let philosophy stand as a counterweight to the aimlessness of popular culture.

A Western World

We are comfortable with a general focus on Western philosophy. It is the culture we live within, and the culture that has for-better-and-worse taken over the world. After all, when President Trump meets with President Xi Jinping, they wear suits and ties – the traditional Western garb, not traditional Chinese clothing. This symbolizes the fact that ours is a world most strongly influenced by Western traditions, especially science, technology, and politics. Immersing one’s self in the history of Western philosophy will help illuminate that world – its historical development and its underlying presuppositions about the human condition.

None of this is to either endorse or condemn “the West.” Nor to deny that greater exposure to LCTP traditions wouldn’t be a good thing. It is only to suggest that students who understand the history of Western philosophy will be well-equipped to critically engage with contemporary society on a deep level. We grant with Van Norden that there is no such thing as “the” Western conception of philosophy.

Of course that tradition is full of disagreement. But it is a tradition and we all live in a world of its making. In other words, we fear that Van Norden’s proposal taken at full strength will contribute to the a la carte thinking that leaves people ill-prepared to address the challenges that 21st century society presents us with.

Contact details: robert.frodeman@unt.edu, adam.briggle@unt.edu

References

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

[1] His original Stone article (with Jay Garfield) makes a stronger empirical claim that seems to be absent from the book for some reason.

Author Information: Robert Piercey, Campion College at the University of Regina, robert.piercey@uregina.ca

Piercey, Robert. “Faraway, So Close: Further Thoughts on Kanonbildung.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 33-38.

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

Please refer to:

In the courtyard of Humboldt University, where Georg Hegel taught at the apex of his institutional career.
Image by Joan via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

I’d like to thank Maxim Demin and Alexei Kouprianov for their probing study of Kanonbildung in 19th century Germany. As I understand it, the study has two goals. The first is substantive: to gather and present facts about how a particular philosophical canon emerged in 19th century Germany. The other is methodological: “to develop formalised methods of studying Kanonbildung as a process,” methods which “may turn out to be useful beyond the original scope of our project, in a wide range of possible studies in intellectual history and mechanics of cultural memory formation” (113).

It’s this second goal that I find particularly interesting. So in what follows, I won’t quarrel with the substantive conclusions Demin and Kouprianov draw about the formation of the 19th century German philosophical canon—in part because their conclusions strike me as plausible, and in part because I lack the expertise to challenge their findings. Instead, I’d like to reflect broadly on the methods they use to study Kanonbildung, especially the notion of distant reading which they borrow from Franco Moretti (113). More specifically, I’d like to raise some questions about whether, how, and to what extent their strategy of distant reading must be supplemented by a form of close reading: namely, a form that treats histories of philosophy as literary artifacts whose contents are to be studied by many of the same techniques brought to bear on fictional narratives.

I raise these questions as a philosopher interested in the philosophy of history and in the intersections between philosophy and literature. To be clear, I don’t reject the methods developed by Demin and Kouprianov. On the contrary, I suspect that distant reading has an important role to play in the history of philosophy in general, and in the study of canon formation in particular. But I’d like to suggest that this method becomes more useful when it is supplemented by others—as well as to raise some questions about what this supplementing might look like.

Canon: An Institution of Thought

Let me start by highlighting what I take to be the key points of Demin’s and Kouprianov’s  analysis. They describe themselves as contributing to an institutional history of philosophy: that is, a history that downplays the “conceptual reconstruction” of past views in favour of a “study of practices” (113). The practices that interest them most are the “implicit rules and patterns” (113, emphasis added) that shape philosophers’ understandings of what their activity is and how it should proceed—practices typically not noticed by philosophers themselves. And the epoch that interests them is the 19th century, since it was during this period “that the history of philosophy began its transformation from a generalised body of knowledge into an academic discipline” (112).

A crucial part of this transformation is the development of philosophical canons. Demin and Kouprianov say relatively little about what they think canons are. Very roughly, I take them to be groups of thinkers who are seen as representing the highest and most important achievements of philosophy as a practice, thinkers with whom one should be familiar if one wishes to understand or contribute to philosophy at all.

Furthermore, a canon consists of not just a list of thinkers, but some sort of ranking, some sense—perhaps not fully explicit—of each thinker’s relative importance. In the canon Demin and Kouprianov study, for instance, philosophers are variously described as “primary,” “secondary,” or “tertiary” (116). Understood in this way, canons perform several important functions. They perform sociological functions of “indoctrination and identity formation” (113). By the end of the 19th century in Germany, a familiarity with Kant, Hegel, and others had come to shape philosophers’ understandings of their enterprise to such an extent that it was probably a necessary condition of being considered a philosopher at all.

Canons presumably perform other functions as well—for instance, inspiring philosophers by providing “mountains peaks to look up towards,” in Richard Rorty’s phrase.[1] Canons can change dramatically over time. So if one wants to understand a particular period in the history of philosophy well, it is important to know not just which figures it considered canonical, but how and when its particular canon was formed. That is what Demin and Kouprianov set out to discover about 19th century Germany.

What Is Distant Reading?

As mentioned above, the methods they use to do so go by the name of distant reading. This term was coined by Franco Moretti to designate a particular way of studying literary texts. It is to be opposed to close reading, which privileges the contents of particular texts and engages in “the analysis of ideas and the reconstruction of conceptual schemata” (113). Distant reading focuses instead on the practices “standing behind” these texts, using “formal analytic methods” to uncover “objective characteristics of large amounts of digitised texts” (113).

I take it that the authors see distant reading not as intrinsically superior to all other approaches, but as a way of correcting an imbalance. Their suggestion seems to be that the study of the history of philosophy heretofore has been so dominated by close reading that it has overlooked “implicit rules and patterns” (113). Distant reading nudges the pendulum in the other direction by encouraging historians to pay “closer attention” (113, emphasis added) to previously overlooked practices.

With this goal in mind, Demin and Kouprianov examine a large number of 19th century German works in the history of philosophy, constructing a data set that reveals how often particular philosophers were mentioned and at what length they were discussed. Examining “845 [table of contents] entries for 151 philosophers’ names,” they compile data about the “number of pages devoted to each philosopher” in these works, the “share of the 19th century section devoted to him,” and the “start and end pages of the paragraph and those of the 19th century section” (114).

The result is a very precise snapshot of how much discussion was devoted to certain philosophers at various points in the 19th century—one that allows us to trace the ways in which interest in these figures increased, peaked, and in some cases declined as the century unfolded. It lets us see precisely how and when certain figures came to be seen as more canonical than others.

This approach bears several sorts of fruit. One—in keeping with the authors’ second, methodological goal—is that it spurs the invention of new concepts helpful for making sense of the data. The undertheorized concept of a “philosophical bestseller” (115), for instance, announces itself as important, and can be defined quite precisely as a work published three times or more. Likewise, their approach allows Demin and Kouprianov to develop precise markers of the perceived greatness of philosophers, in terms of “the frequency that a particular name appears across tables of contents” (117). A primary thinker, for instance, can be defined as one “mentioned in more than 80% of treatises” (117).

Other gains are substantive. We learn that the reputations of Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel were cemented between 1831 and 1855, as the rate at which they were mentioned outpaced that of other thinkers. And we learn that a common view of Schopenhauer—that he was underappreciated in his lifetime and scorned by the philosophical establishment—is false, “with his views being included in three textbooks by 1855” (118). These are important discoveries, and they demonstrate the value of the authors’ strategy of distant reading.

The new museum at Humbolt University.
Image by Bartek Kuzia via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Shifting Fortunes of Fame

Of course, as Demin and Kouprianov acknowledge, “presence in the canonic history does not tell us much about the part a philosopher played within it” (119). In order to bring this dimension into view, they use several additional techniques. The one I find most intriguing is their examination of where certain philosophers appear in various histories of philosophy, and more specifically, their study of how often various philosophers appear at the end of a history.

The authors focus on three philosophers—Herbart, Schleiermacher, and Fries—who are often discussed in conjunction with Hegel. Then they see how often the figures in question are discussed before Hegel, and how often they are discussed after. “This relative position,” they explain, “is an indirect but a most meaningful criterion which allows to assess the degree of perceived recency and relevancy of a given philosopher. The closer a philosopher stays to the end of the list, the more ‘recent’ and ‘relevant’ to the current debate he is” (123).

This view seems plausible, and in the authors’ hands, it sheds important new light on how these four thinkers were viewed at various points in the 19th century. But we should note that it makes a crucial assumption. In order to move from the premise that a history discusses a given philosopher last to the conclusion that it sees him as most relevant to current debates, we must assume that it tells a particular kind of story: roughly speaking, a progressive story.

We must assume that the historian has organized her data in a very particular way, with the episodes of her story becoming more and more germane to contemporary readers’ concerns as they get closer and closer to them in time. No doubt many, if not most, histories of philosophy actually are stories of this kind. But is a philosopher’s position in a given history a good general clue to her perceived relevance? Is it such a reliable indicator of perceived importance that it should be built into a method intended for use “in a wide range of possible studies in intellectual history” (113)?

Philosophy as a Tradition

I linger over this matter because it raises an important issue in the history of philosophy: the issue of genre. Histories of philosophy, I take it, are narratives, and every narrative belongs to some genre or other.[2] Narratives in different genres may describe the same events in the same order, but assign them different meanings by shaping these events into different sorts of plots. The philosopher who has contributed most to our understanding of this process is Hayden White. In his seminal essay “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” White asks us to consider several different ways in which a single series of events might be emplotted. We can imagine a pure chronicle in which the series is “simply recorded in which the events originally occurred” (93); it might be represented in the following way:

  • a, b, c, d, e, …, n[3]

But this series “can be emplotted in a number of different ways and thereby endowed with different meanings without violating the imperatives of the chronological arrangement at all” (92). The following series are all equally possible:

  • A, b, c, d, e, …, n
  • a, B, c, d, e, …, n
  • a, b, C, d, e, …, n
  • a, b, c, D, e, …, n[4]

In each of these series, one event is symbolized with a capital letter to indicate that it is being assigned “explanatory force,”[5] or some other special significance, with respect to the others. Privileging one event rather than another yields stories in different genres. Series (2) would be a “deterministic” history which endows a “putatively original event (a) with the status of a decisive factor (A) in the structuration of the whole series of events following after it.”[6] Were we to privilege the last event in the series, we would have a story in the genre of “eschatological or apocalyptical histories” such as “St. Augustine’s City of God” and “Hegel’s Philosophy of History.”[7]

Many other permutations, and thus many other genres, are possible. In some genres, it is plausible to suppose that the last figure discussed is seen by the author as most relevant to current concerns. But in other genres, this assumption cannot be made. In a history of decline or forgetting, the last figure discussed might well be seen by the author as the least relevant to these concerns. Consider a Heideggerian history of philosophy, in which the last figure discussed is Nietzsche, but the figure most relevant to the contemporary situation is one or another pre-Socratic thinker.

The point is that knowing that a philosopher appears last in a given history—even in a large number of histories—does not tell us much about how the author understood his significance for current concerns. To draw conclusions about significance, we must know the genre (or genres) of the history (or histories) in question. And that is something we can discover only through careful attention to a history’s “literary” features—precisely the features identified through traditional close readings. So while the data Demin and Kouprianov uncover, and the methods they use to do so, are indispensable, I suspect they do not give a full picture of Kanonbildung on their own. They will be most useful when pursued in tandem with certain types of close reading.

Merging Historical Paths

I have no reason to think that Demin and Kouprianov would deny any of this. But I would like to know more about whether, and how, they think it complicates their project. What is the relation between distant reading and close reading? Do these types of analysis simply complement each other, or are they also in tension? I’ve already speculated that the authors see distant reading as a way of correcting an imbalance—that “formal analytic methods” directed at the “objective characteristics… of digitised texts” (113) are called for today because a longstanding bias toward close reading has left historians oblivious to implicit rules and patterns.

If that is the case, is there a danger that performing close reading in conjunction with distant reading will overshadow the distinctive value of the latter? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I suspect that it will be important to answer them if the methods of this study are to be extended to other areas.

I hasten to add that I am not “for” close reading or “against” distant reading. Distant reading, as the authors describe it, is clearly an important tool. But I would like to know more about how it relates to the other tools at the disposal of historians of philosophy. Whatever their view of this matter, I’d like to thank Demin and Kouprianov again for making a promising new contribution to our conceptual toolbox.

Contact details: robert.piercey@uregina.ca

References

Demin, Maxim, and Alexei Kouprianov, “Studying Kanonbildung: An Exercise in a Distant Reading of Contemporary Self-descriptions of the 19th Century German Philosophy.” Social Epistemology, 32, no. 2: 112-127.

Kuukkanen, Jouni-Matti. Postnarrativist Philosophy of Historiography. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Rorty, Richard “The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres,” in Philosophy in History, ed. Richard Rorty, Jerome Schneewind, and Quentin Skinner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

White, Hayden. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

[1] Richard Rorty, “The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres,” in Philosophy in History, ed. Richard Rorty, Jerome Schneewind, and Quentin Skinner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 23.

[2] Not everyone agrees that all histories are narratives, but space does not permit me to broach this issue here. For an important recent discussion of it, see Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen, Postnarrativist Philosophy of Historiography (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), especially Chapter 5.

[3] Hayden White, “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 92.

[4] White, 92.

[5] White, 92.

[6] White, 93.

[7] White, 93.

Author Information: Alcibiades Malapi-Nelson, Seneca College, alci.malapi@outlook.com

Malapi-Nelson, Alcibiades. “Transhumanism and the Catholic Church.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 12-17.

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

You don’t become the world’s oldest continuing institution without knowing how to adapt to the times.
Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr / Creative Commons.

Most accounts on transhumanism coming from Catholic circles show a mild to radical rejection to the idea of a deep alteration, by means of pervasive emergent technologies, of whatever we understand as “human nature”. These criticisms come from both progressive and conservative Catholic flanks. However, as it is increasingly becoming evident, the left/right divide is no longer capturing ethical, political and philosophical stances in an accurate manner.

There are cross-linked concerns which transcend such traditional dichotomy. The Church, insofar as it also is a human institution, is not immune to this ongoing ‘rotating axis’. The perceived Catholic unfriendliness to transhumanism stems from views that do not take into account the very mission that defines the Church’s existence.

Conceptions of Human Dignity

To be sure, there are aspects of transhumanism that may find fundamental rejection when confronted to Church doctrine—particularly in what concerns human dignity. In this context, attempts for accomplishing indefinite life extension will not find fertile ground in Catholic milieus. Needless to say, the more vulgar aspects of the transhumanist movement—such as the fashionable militant atheism sponsored by some, or the attempt to simply replace religion with technology—would not find sympathy either. However, precisely due to an idiosyncratically Catholic attention to human dignity, attempts at the improvement of the human experience shall certainly attract the attention of the Magisterium.

Perhaps more importantly, and not unrelated to a distinctly Catholic understanding of personal self-realization, the Church will have to cope with the needs that a deeply altered human condition will entail. Indeed, the very cause for the Church to exist is self-admittedly underpinned by the fulfillment of a particular service to humans: Sacrament delivery. Hence, the Magisterium has an ontological interest (i.e., pertaining to what counts as human) in better coping with foreseeable transhumanist alterations, as well as a functional one (e.g., to ensure both proper evangelization and the fulfilling of its sacramental prime directive).

The Church is an institution that thinks, plans and strategizes in terms of centuries. A cursory study of its previous positions regarding the nature of humanity reveals that the idea of “the human” never was a monolithic, static notion. Indeed, it is a fluid one that has been sponsored and defended under different guises in previous eras, pressed by sui-generis apostolic needs. As a guiding example, one could pay attention to the identity-roots of that area of the globe which currently holds more than 60% of the Catholic world population: Latin America. It is well documented how the incipient attempts at an articulation of “human rights”, coming from the School of Salamanca in the 16th century (epitomized by Francisco Vitoria, Francisco Suárez—the Jesuit who influenced Leibnitz, Schopenhauer and Heidegger—and indirectly, by Bartolomé de las Casas), had as an important aspect of its agenda the extension of the notion of humanity to the hominid creatures found inhabiting the “West Indies”—the Americas.

The usual account of Heilsgeschichte (Salvation History), canonically starting with the narrative of the People of God and ending up with the Roman Empire, could not be meaningfully conveyed to this newly-found peoples, given that the latter was locked in an absolutely parallel world. In fact, a novel “theology of charity” had to be developed in order to spread the Good News, without referencing a (non-existent) “common history”. Their absolute humanity had to be thus urgently established, so that, unlike the North American Protestant experience, widespread legalized slavery would not ensue—task which was partly accomplished via the promulgation of the 1538 encyclical Sublimis Deus.

Most importantly, once their humanity was philosophically and legally instituted, the issue regarding the necessary services for both their salvation and their self-development immediately emerged (To be sure, not everyone agreed in such extension of humanity). Spain sent an average of three ‘apostolic agents’ – priests – per day to fulfill this service. The controversial nature of the “Age of Discovery” notwithstanding, the Spanish massive mobilization may partly account for the Church being to this day perhaps the most trusted institution in Latin America. Be that as it may, we can see here a paradigmatic case were the Church extended the notion of humanity to entities with profoundly distinct features, so that it could successfully fulfill its mission: Sacrament delivery. Such move arguably guaranteed the worldwide flourishing, five centuries later, of an institution of more than a billion people.

A Material Divinity

Although the Church emphasises an existing unity between mind and body, it is remarkable that in no current authoritative document of the Magisterium (e.g., Canon Law, Catechism, Vatican Council II, etc.) the “human” is inextricably linked with a determinate corporeal feature of the species homo-sapiens. Namely, although both are profoundly united, one does not depend on the other. In fact, the soul/spirit comes directly from God. What defines us as humans have less to do with the body and its features and more to do with the mind, spirit and will.

Once persons begin to radically and ubiquitously change their physical existences, the Church will have to be prepared to extend the notion of humanity to these hybrids. Not only will these entities need salvation, but they will need to flourish in this life as self-realized individuals—something that according to Catholic doctrine is solidly helped by sacrament reception. Moreover, if widespread deep alteration of humanoid ‘biologies’ were to occur, the Church has a mandate of evangelization to them as well. This will likely encourage apostolic agents to become familiarized with these novel ways of corporeal existence in order to better understand them—even embrace them in order further turn them into vehicles of evangelization themselves.

We have a plethora of historical examples in related contexts, from the Jesuit grammatization of the Inka language to Marshall McLuhan’s prophetic expertise in human communications—having influenced the Second Vatican Council’s Inter Mirifica document on the topic. Indeed, “morphological freedom” (the right and ability to alter our physical existence) might become for the Church what philosophy of communication became for McLuhan.

Thus, chances are that the Church will need to embrace a certain instantiation of a transhuman future, given that the institution will have to cope with a radically changed receptacle of the grace-granting devices – the Sacraments. Indeed, this shall be done in order to be consistent with the reason for its very existence as mandated by Christ: guaranteeing the constant flow of these efficacious means which collaborate towards both a fulfilled existence in this life and salvation in the next one. Steve Fuller foresees a possible scenario that may indeed become just such transhuman ‘instantiation’ favoured by the Church:

A re-specification of the “human” to be substrate-neutral (that is to say, a “human” need not be the descendant of another member of Homo sapiens but rather could be a status conferred on any suitably qualified entity, as might be administered by a citizenship test or even a Turing Test).

Judging from its track record, the Church will problematically but ultimately successfully raise up to the challenge. A substrate-neutral re-specification of the human may indeed be the route taken by the Church—perhaps after a justifiably called Concilium.

An homage to a legendary series of portraits by Francis Bacon.
Image by Phineas Jones via Flickr / Creative Commons

Examining the Sacraments

The challenge will be variously instantiated in correlation with the sacraments to be delivered. However, all seven of them share one feature that will be problematized with the implementation of transhumanist technologies: Sacraments perform metaphysically what they do physically. Their efficacy in the spiritual world is mirrored by the material function performed in this one (e.g., the pouring of water in baptism). Since our bodies may change at a fundamental level, maintaining the efficacy of sacraments, which need physical substrata to work, will be the common problem. Let us see how this problem may variously incarnate.

Baptism. As the current notion of humanity stands (“an entity created in the image and likeness of God”) not much would have to change in order to extend it to an altered entity claiming to maintain, or asking to receive, human status. A deep alteration of our bodies constitutes no fundamental reason for not participating of the realm “human” and thus, enter the Catholic Church by means of Baptism: The obliteration of the legacy of Original Sin with which humans are born—either by natural means, cloned or harvested (A similar reasoning could be roughly applied to Confirmation). Holy water can be poured on flesh, metal or a new alloy constituting someone’s forehead. As indicated above, the Church does not mention “flesh” as a sine qua non condition for humanity to obtain.

On the other hand, there is a scenario, more post-human than transhuman in nature, that may emerge as a side effect out of the attempts to ameliorate the human condition: Good Old Fashion Artificial Intelligence. If entities that share none of the features (bodily, historically, cognitively, biologically) we usually associate with humanity begin to claim human status on account of displaying both rationality and autonomy, then the Church may have to go through one of its most profound “aggiornamentos” in two millennia of operation.

Individual tests administered by local bishops on a case-by-case basis (after a fundamental directive coming from the Holy See) would likely have to be put in place – which would aim to assess, for instance, the sincerity of the entity’s prayer. It is a canonical signature of divine presence in an individual the persistent witnessing of an ongoing metanoia (conversion). A consistent life of self-giving and spiritual warfare could be the required accepted signs for this entity being declared a child of God, equal to the rest of us, granting its entrance into the Church with all the entailing perks (i.e. the full array of sacraments).

There is a caveat that is less problematic for Catholic doctrine than for modern society: Sex assignation. Just as the ‘natural machinery’ already comes with one, the artificial one could have it as well. Male or female could happen also in silico. Failure to do so would carry the issue to realms not dissimilar with current disputes of “sex reassignation” and its proper recognition by society: It might be a problem, but it would not be a new problem. The same reasoning would apply to “post-gender” approaches to transhumanism.

Confession. Given that the sacrament of Reconciliation has to be obligatorily performed, literally, vis à vis, what if environmental catastrophes reduce our physical mobility so that we can no longer face a priest? Will telepresence be accepted by the Church? Will the Church establish strict protocols of encryption? After all it is an actual confession that we are talking about: Only a priest can hear it—and only the Pope, on special cases, can hear it from him.

Breaking the confessional seal entails excommunicatio ipso facto. Moreover, regarding a scenario which will likely occur within our lifetimes, what about those permanently sent into space? How will they receive this sacrament? Finally, even if the Church permanently bans the possibility of going to confession within a virtual environment, what would happen if people eventually inhabit physical avatars? Would that count as being physically next to a priest?

Communion. The most important of all sacraments, the Eucharist, will not the void of issues either. The Latin Rite of the Catholic Church (the portion of Catholics who are properly ‘Roman’) mandates that only unleavened bread shall be used as the physical substratum, so that it later transubstantiates into the body of Christ. The Church is particularly strict in this, as evinced in cases were alternative breads have been used (e.g., when stranded for years on a deserted island), not recognizing those events as properly Eucharistic: the sacrament never took place in such occasions.

Nevertheless, we will have to confront situations were the actual bread could not be sent to remote locations of future human dwelling (e.g., Mars), nor a priest will be present to perform the said metaphysical swapping. Facing this, would nanotechnology provide the solution? Would something coming out of a 3D printer or a future “molecular assembler” qualify as the actual unleavened bread?

Marriage. This sacrament will likely confront two main challenges; one fundamentally novel in nature and the second one an extension of already occurring issues. Regarding the latter, let us take in consideration a particular thread in certain transhumanist circles: The pursuit of indefinite life extension. It is understood that once people either become healthier longer (or stop aging), the creation of new life via offspring may become an after-thought. Canon Law clearly stipulates that those who consciously made a decision not to procreate can not enter this sacrament. In that sense, a children-less society would be constituted by sacramentally unmarried people. Once again, this issue is a variation of already occurring scenarios—which could be extended, for that matter, to sex-reassigned people.

The former challenge mentioned would be unprecedented. Would the Church marry a human and a machine? Bear in mind that this question is fundamentally different from the already occurring question regarding the Church refusing to marry humans and non-human animals. The difference is based upon the lack of autonomy and rationality shown by the latter. However, machines could one day show both (admittedly Kantian) human-defining features. The Church may find in principle no obstacle to marry a human “1.0” and a human “2.0” (or even a human and an artificial human—AI), provided that the humanity of the new lifeforms, following the guidelines established by the requirements for Baptism, is well established.

Holy Orders. As with Marriage, this sacrament will likely face a twist both on an already occurring scenario and a fairly new one. On the one hand, the physical requirement of a bishop actually posing his hands on someone’s head to ordain him a priest, has carried problematic cases for the Church (e.g., during missions where bishops were not available). With rare exceptions, this requirement has always been observed. A possible counter case is the ordination of Stylite monks between the 3rd and 6th century. These hermits made vows to not come down from their solitary pillar until death.

Reportedly, sometimes bishops ordained them via an “action at a distance” of sorts—but still from merely a few meters away. The Church will have to establish whether ordaining someone via telepresence (or inhabiting an avatar) would count as sacramentally valid. On the other hand, the current requirement for a candidate for priesthood to have all his limbs—particularly his hands—up until the moment of ordination might face softening situations. At the moment where a prosthetic limb not only seamlessly becomes an extension of the individual, but a better functional extension of him, the Church may reconsider this pre-ordination requirement.

Extreme Unction. The Last Rites will likely confront two challenges in a transhuman world. One would not constitute properly a problem for its deliverance, but rather a questioning of the point of its existence. The other will entail a possible redefinition of what is considered to be ‘dead’. In what refers to the consequences of indefinite life extension, this sacrament may be considered by Catholics what Protestants consider of the sacraments (and hence of the Church): Of no use. Perhaps the sacrament would stay put for those who choose to end their lives “naturally” (in itself a problem for transhumanists: What to do with those who do not want to get “enhanced”?) Or perhaps the Church will simply ban this particular transhumanist choice of life for Catholics, period—as much as it now forbids euthanasia and abortion. The science fiction series Altered Carbon portrays a future where such is the case.

On the other hand, the prospect of mind uploading may push to redefine the notion of what it means to leave this body, given that such experience may not necessarily entail death. If having consciousness inside a super-computer is defined as being alive—which as seen above may be in principle accepted by the Church—then the delivery of the sacrament would have to be performed without physicality, perhaps via a link between the software-giver and the software-receiver. This could even open up possibilities for sacrament-delivery to remote locations.

The Future of Humanity’s Oldest Institution

As we can see, the Church may not have to just tolerate, but actually embrace, the transhumanist impulses slowly but steadily pushed by science and technology into the underpinnings of the human ethos. This attitude shall emerge motivated by two main sources: On the one hand, a fundamental option towards the development of human dignity—which by default would associate the Church more to a transhumanist philosophy than to a post-human one.

On the other, a fundamental concern for the continuing fulfilling of its own mission and reason of existence—the delivery of sacraments to a radically altered human recipient. As a possible counterpoint, it has been surmised that Pope Francis’ is one of the strongest current advocates for a precautionary stance—a position being traditionally associated with post-human leanings. The Pontiff’s Laudato Si encyclical on the environment certainly seems to point to this direction. That may be part of a—so far seemingly successful—strategy put in place by the Church for decades to come, whose reasons escape the scope of this piece. However, as shown above, the Church, given its own history, philosophy, and prime mandate, has all the right reasons to embrace a transhuman future—curated the Catholic way, that is.

Contact details: alci.malapi@outlook.com

References

Fuller, Steve. “Ninety Degree Revolution.” Aeon Magazine. 20 October 2013. Retrieved from https://aeon.co/essays/left-and-right-are-over-the-future-is-up-and-down.

Fuller, Steve. “Which Way Is Up for the Human Condition?” ABC Religion and Ethics. 26 August 2015. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/08/26/4300331.htm.

Fuller, Steve. “Beyond Good and Evil: The Challenges of Trans- and Post-Humanism.” ABC Religion and Ethics. 20 December 2016. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2016/12/20/4595400.htm.

Author Information: Val Dusek, University of New Hampshire, val.dusek@unh.edu.

Dusek, Val. “Antidotes to Provincialism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 5-11.

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

Please refer to:

Out on the streets of downtown Shanghai this March.
Image by keppt via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Bryan Van Norden’s book rightly castigates the exclusion or minimizing of non-Western philosophy in mainstream US philosophy curricula. I was shocked by the willful ignorance and arrogance of those such as able philosopher of biology, Massimo Pigliucci, whom, before reading the quote about Eastern thought, I highly respected. Van Norden is on target throughout with his criticism of Western professional philosopher’s dismissive provincialism. I only worry that his polemic, though accurately describing the situation, will not at all convert the unconverted. Calling the western philosophers who exclude non-Western philosophy “Trumpian philosophers” is both accurate and funny, but unlikely to make them more sympathetic to multi-cultural philosophy.

A Difficult History

Westerners until the last third of the twentieth century denied that there was any significant traditional Chinese science. Part of this was based on racial prejudice, but part of it was that by the nineteenth century, after the Opium War and the foreign concessions were made, Chinese science had degenerated, and superstitious aspects of such things as geomancy and astrology, rather than the earlier discoveries of geography and astronomy dominated.  Prior to the late 1950s for professional Western historians of science, and, until decades later (or even never) the public, scoffed at the idea of sophisticated traditional Chinese science. Chinese insight into astronomy, biology, and other fields was rejected by most people, including respectable historians of science.

The British biochemical embryologist and Marxist Joseph Needham over the second half of the twentieth century in the volumes of Science and Civilization in China gradually revealed the riches of Chinese knowledge of nature. There, is of course the issue of whether traditional Chinese knowledge of nature, and that of other non-Western peoples, often with the exception of Middle Eastern science, can be should be called science. If science is defined as necessarily including controlled experiments and mathematical laws, then Chinese knowledge of nature cannot be called science. Needham himself accepted this definition of science and made the issue of why China never developed science central to his monumental history.

However, Needham discovered innumerable discoveries of the Chinese of phenomena denied in Western science for centuries. Chinese astronomers recorded phenomena such as new stars (Novae) appearing, stellar evolution (change of color of stars), and sunspots in astronomy, None of these were recorded by ancient and medieval Western astronomers. Famously, modern astronomers have made use of millennium old Chinese recordings of novae to trace past astronomical history.

In China, the compass was known and detailed magnetic declination maps were made centuries before the West even knew of the compass. Geobotanical prospecting, using the correlation of plants with minerals in the soil, the idea that mountains move like waves, and on and on. Since field biology, observational astronomy, and historical geology in modern Western science usually do not involve experiments, and many contemporary philosophers of biology deny that there are biological laws, the “experiment and mathematical laws” definition of science may be too narrow.

An example of the chauvinist rejection of Chinese science, and of Needham’s monumental work is that of a respected Princeton historian, Charles Coulston Gillispie. In his review of the first volumes of Needham he warned readers not to believe the contents because Needham was sympathetic to the Communists. Ironically, in the review, Gillispie tended to dismiss applied science and praised the purely theoretical science supposedly unique to the West, accusing Needham of “abject betrayal of the autonomy of science.”

Also ironically, or even comically, in the margin of Gillispie’s reply, doubling down on the denunciation of Communism and defense of pure, non-materialist science was an advertisement recruiting guided nuclear missile scientists for Lockheed! One hopes, but doubts, that Gillispie was embarrassed by his review, as he made similar comments in his Edge of Objectivity, also suggesting that the Arabs and the Chinese could not be trusted with nuclear weapons as “we” can, with our superior moral values.

The Heights of Chinese Philosophy

Even decades after Needham’s magisterial sequence of volumes had been appearing, Cromer in an anti-multicultural book claims not only that China had no science, but that the Chinese had no interest in or knowledge of the world beyond China (neglecting the vast trade on the Silk Road during the ancient and medieval periods, amazingly varied Chinese imports during the Tang Dynasty, the voyages of exploration of Zheng He, the Three Jeweled Eunuch (perhaps a contradiction in terms), and the most complete map of the world before the 1490s (from Korea, but probably from Chinese knowledge and available in China).

Hopefully there will be a process of recognition of non-Western philosophy by American analytic philosophers of the sort that began fifty years earlier for Chinese knowledge of nature among historians. So far this has hardly happened.

One possibility for the integration of Asian philosophy into mainstream philosophy curricula is the integration of non-Western philosophy into the standard history of philosophy courses. One easy possibility of integration is including non-Western philosophy in the standard Ancient Philosophy and Medieval Philosophy curriculum. While teaching Ancient as well as Chinese philosophy in the last two decades I have (perhaps too often) drawn parallels between and contrasts of Greek and Chinese philosophy. However, very few students take both courses. Until this coming year Eastern philosophy was offered yearly, but not as a required part of the history sequence, and few students were in both courses, I worried whether these in-class comparisons fell mostly on deaf ears.

I have thought about the possibility of courses on ancient, medieval, and early modern philosophy including non-Western philosophy of the period. There are a couple of introductory philosophy anthologies, such as Daniel Bonevac’s, apparently now out of print, that include much non-Western philosophy. (Ironically, Bonevac is literally a “Trumpian philosopher,” in the sense of having supported Donald Trump.) Robert C. Solomon included discussion of some Chinese philosophy in his survey but shows total ignorance of modern research on Daoism, doubting that Laozi was an older contemporary of Confucius but rather at least one or two centuries later. Some ways a course that covered both Greek and Chinese philosophy could make comparisons between the two are suggested below. Of course, the usual, casual, comparison of the two involves an invidious contrast perhaps less strong than that of Pigliucci.

A Genuinely Modest Proposal

My proposal involves not introductory surveys but histories of philosophy from the Presocratics to the German romantics and early twentieth century philosophers.

Parallels between the Warring States philosophers and the Pre-Socratics have been noted by among others Benjamin Schwartz in The World of Thought in Ancient China. The Pre-Socratics’ statements have numerous parallels to those of Chinese philosophers of the same period. Qi has some parallels to the air of Anaximenes, in particular in terms of condensation as the source of objects. The Dao of Laozi, as source of all things, yet being indefinable and ineffable has resemblances to the Apeiron of Anaximander.

Of course, many of the paradoxes (that an arrow does not move, the paradox of metrical extension, that a length can be divided indefinitely, that an assemblage of infinitely small points can add up to a finite length) are almost identical with those of Zeno. Of course, the emphasis on Being in Western philosophy from Parmenides through Aristotle to Aquinas and other medieval contrasts most strongly with the emphasis on non-being in Laozi and its presence with less emphasis in Zhuangzi. West’s Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient has many evocative suggestions of influences of the East on the Presocratics. There is extensive work on the parallels and contrasts of the ethics of Mencius and that of Aristotle. The concept and role of the concept Qi has strong similarities to the Stoic notion of pneuma, as described, for instance in Sambursky’s Physics of the Stoics.

A.C. Graham in Disputers of the Dao argues that as the formal logical approaches of the early Wittgenstein, Russell, and logical positivism in the first half of the twentieth century gave way to the later Wittgenstein, and French deconstruction developed, these parts of Western philosophy more closely approximated to the approaches of traditional Chinese philosophy.

Shigehisa Kuriyama has provocatively and insightfully written on the comparison of traditional Chinese medicine and Greek Hippocratic medicine on the body. There have been many articles speculating on the relation of Greek skepticism being influenced by Eastern thought via Alexander’s invasion of India. Diogenes Laertius’s claims that Pyrrho (of later Pyrrhonian skepticism) went to India with Alexander where was influenced by the gymnosophists (“naked sophists”) he met there. C. Beckwith has argued that Phyrronism is a product of Buddhism. Jay Garfield, though thinking the influence question is a red herring, has written extensively and insightfully on the logical isomorphisms between Greek and Tibetan skeptical theses.

Buddhist logic of contradiction can be compared with and at least partially explicated by some twentieth century logics that incorporate contradictions as not illogical. These include presupposition logic as Buddhist. (Though a former colleague told me three people who worked on this died horrible deaths, one by cancer, another by auto accident, so I should avoid studying this area). Other twentieth century symbolic logic systems that allow contradictions as not fatal are Nicholas Rescher’s and Robert Brandom’s paraconsistent logic on applied to Eastern philosophy by Graham Priest, dialethic logic. One can also compare Pai-chang’s Zen monastic rules to the simultaneously developed ones of St. Benedict.

Several, both Western and Asian philosophers, have compared Chan Buddhist mysticism with that of Wittgenstein. Reinhardt May in Heidegger’s Hidden Sources has investigated influences of Heidegger’s readings of Helmut Wilhelm’s translations of Yi Qing and Dao De Jing. Eric Nelson, in his fascinating recent book has traced not only the recently more well-known use made by Heidegger, but also extensive use by Martin Buber, Hans Dreisch, and a number of less famous German philosophers of the early twentieth century.

Perhaps more controversial is the comparison made between the European medieval scholastics’ fusion of Christian ethics with Aristotelian cosmology and the medieval Chinese, so-called neo-Confucian scholastic fusion of Confucian ethics and politics with Daoist cosmology. One can compare the concept of li in the “neo-Daoist of dark learning” Wang Bi and more extensively in the neo-Confucians, most notably Xuzi, as Leibniz had suggested. Beyond parallels there have been provocative arguments that Buddhist means of argument, via the so-called Silk Road in Central Asia, issued in part of European scholastic technique. Certainly, a topic in early modern philosophy is Leibniz’s praise of the Yijing as binary arithmetic, and his claims about the similarity of Xuzi’s metaphysics and his own Monadology, with brief note of Nicholas Malebranche’s less insightful dialogue between a Chinese and a Christian philosopher.

The skyline of Shanghai, today one of the world’s leading cities.
Image by Alex and David Berger via Flickr / Creative Commons.

 

In western political philosophy the appeals to the superiority of Chinese society to that of Europe, or at least the existence of a well ordered and moral society without the Biblical God, by figures such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, Quesnay, Leibniz, Christian Wolff, and others, both using “China as a Model for Europe” as Maverick’s book is entitled, or as a means of satirizing European supposed morals and justice. The Chinese legalists, who were doing behavioral political science and Malthusian population theory of history over two millennia before Western political theorists did so, could be noted in a course in social philosophy that includes behavior political science.

Leibniz’s praise of the Yi as well as his extensive claims of similarity of Xuzi’s Li and Chi to his own form, substance, and monads. Also, Leibniz’s efforts of support for the Jesuit attempt to incorporate Confucian ceremonies into Catholic mass, and the Rites Controversy, detailed by David Mungello and others, deserve coverage in Early Modern courses.

There is a fascinating work by the child psychologist Alison Gopnik on possible connections that may have been made by Hume during his most creative period at La Fleche, where Descartes had studied long before, with missionaries who were familiar with Asian thought, particularly one who had lived in Siam.

In German romantic philosophy we find relatively little sophisticated treatment of Chinese philosophy (Witness Goethe’s fragmentary treatment of China.) However, there was a great reception of Indian philosophy among the German romantics. Schlegel, Schelling, and others absorbed ideas from Hinduism, not to mention Schopenhauer’s use of Buddhism. (Sedlar gives an elementary survey). In late nineteenth century philosophy there is the growing sympathy of Ernst Mach for Buddhism, as well as Nietzsche’s disputed attitudes toward Asian philosophy. Interestingly, Nietzsche copiously annotated his copy of Mach’s Analysis of Sensations, and offered to dedicate his Genealogy of Morals to Mach.

In twentieth century philosophy there have been numerous works of varying quality noting similarities between Wittgenstein’s approach to metaphysical questions and Chan Buddhism. There also are a number or works comparing Alfred North Whitehead to Buddhism.

Despite the severe criticisms that have been made of some best-selling popular treatments of the topic, I think there are significant parallels between some of the interpretations of quantum mechanics and some traditional Asian philosophies. I once had a testy exchange in print with the physicist and writer Jeremy Bernstein on this topic. His Trumpian reply was “Yogic, Schmogic.” A few decades later he wrote appreciatively of the Dali Llama’s attempt to relate Buddhism to quantum philosophy.

An Open Future for Education in Philosophy

I realize that there is always the danger of superficial comparisons between very different systems of thought, but I believe that much of the work I mention is not guilty of this. I also, realize, as a non-specialist, I have mentioned mainly works of comparison from the sixties through the eighties, and many more fine-grained scholarly articles have been produced in the last two decades.

I look forward to the integration of non-western philosophy into the core of the standard history of philosophy sequence, not just by supplementing the two or four-year sequence of history of philosophy courses with non-Western philosophy courses, but by including non-Western philosophy in the content of the history of philosophy of each period.

Contact details: val.dusek@unh.edu

References

Baatz, Ursula, “Ernst Mach: The Scientist as Buddhist?” in Ernst Mach: A Deeper Look, ed. J. T. Blackmoore, Springer, 2012.

Beckwith, Christopher I., Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia, Princeton, 2015.

Bernstein, Jeremy, Val Dusek, and Ed Gerrish, “A Cosmic Flow,” “The Reader Replies” with reply by Jeremy Bernstein, American Scholar, Autumn 1979, p. 572.

Bernstein, Jeremy, “Quantum Buddhists,” in Quantum Leaps, Harvard, 2009, pp. 27-52.

Bonevac, Daniel, and Stephen Phillips, eds. Introduction to World Philosophy: A Multicultural Reader, Oxford, 2009.

Cromer, Alan, Common Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science, Oxford, 1995.

Gillispie, Charles Coulston, “Prospects,” American Scientist 45 no. 2 (March, 1957), 169-176, and reply no. 4 (September 1957) 266A-272A.

Gillispie, Charles Coulston, The Edge of Objectivity, Princeton, 1959.

Gopnik, Allison, “Could David Hume Have Known about Buddhism?: Charles François Dolu, the Royal College of La Flèche, and the Global Jesuit Intellectual Network,” Hume Studies, vol. 35, nos. 1 & 2, 2009, pp. 5-28.

Graham, A. C. Disputers of the Dao, Open Court, 1979.

Hartshorne, Charles, et al, “Symposium on Mahayana Buddhism and Whitehead,” Philosophy East and West, vol. 25, no. 4, 1975, pp. 393-488.

Kuyiyama, Shigehisa, The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine, Zone Books, 2002.

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm, Writings on China, trans. Daniel J. Cook and Henry Rosemont, Jr. Open Court, 1994.

Malebranche, Dialogue between a Christian Philosopher and a Chinese Philosopher, American Universities Press, 1980.

Maverick, Lewis A., China, A Model for Europe, Paul Anderson, 1949.

Mungello, David E. The Great Encounter of China and the West 1500-1800, 3d edn., Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009.

Needham, Joseph, Science and Civilization in China, Cambridge University Press, 1954 -.

Nelson, Eric S., Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in Early Twentieth Century German Thought, Bloomsbury, 2017.

Priest, Graham, Beyond the Limits of Thought, Oxford, 2002.

Priest, Graham, One: Being an Investigation into the Unity of Reality and of its Parts, including the Singular Object which is Nothingness, Oxford, 2016.

Reinhardt May, Heidegger’s Hidden Sources: East Asian Influences on His Work, transl. Graham Parkes, Routledge, 1996.

Sambursky, Samuel, The Physics of the Stoics, Princeton University Press, 1959.

Schwartz, Benjamin I., The World of Thought in Ancient China, Harvard, 1989.

Sedlar, Jean, India in the Mind of Germany: Schelling, Schopenhauer, and Their Times, University Press of America, 1982.

Van Norden, Bryan, Preface by Jay L. Garfield, Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto, Columbia University Press, 2017.

West, M. L., Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient, Oxford University Press, 1971.

Author Information: Sheldon Richmond, Independent Researcher

Richmond, Sheldon. “Philosophy Out in the Cold.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 4 (2018): 33-40.

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

Images of the benevolence of the United States Armed Forces.
Image by James Vaughn, via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

John McCumber’s book, The Philosophy Scare: The Politics of Reason in the Early Cold War, exists on four levels at the least. First: on the literal level, the book is about the special case of the UCLA philosophy department. How the philosophers, university administrators, and the State of California, hide away from and at the best, avoid, the McCarthy witch-hunt for communists. Also, on the literal level, the book is about how subliminally, the philosophy department unconsciously absorbs and thereby becomes subject to the ideology of the Red Scare.

(In place of the generic term, “ideology”, McCumber prefers the term paradigm borrowed from T.S. Kuhn, a term that is well known, widely used or misused term of choice when talking about internal pressures on general viewpoints. Also, in place of “ideology”, McCumber prefers the term dispositive, borrowed from Michel Foucault, a term lesser known that includes political-social external intellectual shapers).

Second: on the broader and extended literal level, the UCLA philosophy department case during the 50s and into the 60s is manifested by many if not all philosophy departments in the USA. Third: on a deeper level, just below the surface text of the book, there is an insinuation that Philosophy in America has barely moved away from the ideological iceberg of Cold War American anti-communism.

Fourth: on the deepest level, not at all articulated in the text, but presumed in the book is a commonly held axiom of intellectual life in and out of Academia. The axiom is that America hegemonically or mono-manically wields an ideology that molds all thought. The American ideology is enforced by the power conditions of the American Hegemony or American Empire. Moreover, we won’t fully realize the American ideology until the Empire tumbles—perhaps if the War against the Evil Empire (whichever one it happens to be at the moment) is lost.

(Though the End of X theme is not played in this book, the reality presumed in the book is that America is going strong continually recovering from fumbles, but still scoring touch-down after touch-down in spite of whatever fool happens to be the quarterback.)

An Argument of Classical Rational Choice

The core thesis of the text is concisely stated about mid-way through a very deliberately planned and structured book with three parts, two chapters to each part, balanced by an Introduction and an Epilogue. Not counting the customary Prologue, the book has 8 chapters. This is no accident—the text has the shape of a sine curve. The peak of the sine curve delineates the Rules and Premises of the American Intellect. The curve downward points to an alternative Philosophy existing always on the fringes of American Philosophy (and American Philosophy Departments) imported from Europe, Post-Modernism (often disguised in the updated version of old-fashioned American Pragmatism—found in the intellectually trend-setting works of Rorty. According to McCumber:

When Cold War philosophy became the operating philosophy of the United States, this [operating philosophy] was elevated into a new social gospel. Institutions that help individuals become powerful and wealthy (law schools, business schools) or stay that way (medical schools, hospitals) flourished; other public infra-structure, along with the environment was left to rot. Many of the problems faced by the United States in the early twenty-first century are testimony to the power of Cold War philosophy’s theory of mind. (p.112).

The theory of mind that McCumber refers to is in the philosophical extrapolations that McCumber develops (in the two chapters of Part 2, pp. 71 ff.) largely from the dilemmas of rational choice (in democratic-capitalist society). McCumber’s text concentrates on Kenneth Arrow’s dilemmas of rational choice that micro-economics or welfare economics employs to resolve the problems of wealth redistribution (in democratic-capitalist society).

However, McCumber’s text also fingers the von Neumann/Morgenstern mathematical game-theoretic approach to the dilemmas of rational choice (in democratic-capitalist society). The contextual qualifier of the phrase “in democratic-capitalist society” carries in it the unstated presumption that rational choice theory (RCT for short in the text)—explicitly extrapolated from Arrow’s micro-economics and mathematical game-theory—is the only and best intellectual weapon of defense against the intellectual fifth-column of anti-American communism. The best intellectual weapon is the ideology of a great and free American money-making machine composed of individuals buying (especially on credit) and consuming great quantities of goods—at the cheapest cost and produced at the cheapest cost with the cheapest resources by the cheapest and most efficient means of production.

All this making, selling-buying, consuming ever spinning of the economic-technological-industrial-military wheel turns regardless of down-stream costs to future generations, not only economically with the increasing American debt at all levels, but also environmentally with the increasing down-stream damage to all life and the planet—not merely unintended, but with imposed and willful disregard.

Into this pot of rational choice theory, was blended the philosophy found in Philosophy at UCLA, in specific in the work of the German-Jewish Berlin expat, Hans Reichenbach, especially in Reichenbach’s introductory philosophy textbook, The Rise of Scientific Philosophy, 1951. According to McCumber: “In the United States it [Reichenbach’s book] played an enormous role in establishing the various permutations of what would later be called analytical philosophy as the dominant dispositive in most American philosophy departments.” (pp. 56-7)

But what is its—the meld of analytic/scientific philosophy and rational choice theory– “cash-value” (a popular phrase in American vernacular, including the sophisticated academic jargon of both the pragmatist and analytic schools of philosophy)? What is the ultimate content of this meld of “scientific philosophy” or later known as “analytic philosophy” and rational choice theory? How does the meld function as an intellectual weapon of defense against communist ideology (and even today, against all anti-Americanism)? How does the meld act to discretely (or, in the punchy phrasing of McCumber, “stealthily”, form formal/academic philosophy and keep alternative philosophical schools, such as traditional pragmatism, continental philosophy, academic Marxism—as opposed to “vulgar” Marxism–and though not-mentioned in this text, Adorno/Marcuse critical philosophy at the fringes)?

Stealth Influence

Most importantly, in terms of what is taught and published—in the main–how does the meld (of scientific/analytic philosophy and rational choice theory) become adopted by the power structures of academia and even those power-structures in the world outside (as an intellectual superstructure or rationalization) that govern and inhabit politico-economic activity? The content of the meld that has become America’s intellectual defense weapon of choice is concisely articulated again at the very peak of the book’s textual sine curve in the concluding section of Chapter four, in terms of six premises (cited indirectly as under “some famous attacks” by philosophers at the edge of the cold war or post-cold war.)(cf. p. 112).

Summarizing the summary of the 6 premises in terms of 6 phrases, the six dogmas of analytic philosophy are as follows: 1. Unified Reason. 2. Knowledge=Prediction. 3. Prediction=Justified Knowledge vs Discovery/Intuition/Guessing. 4. Reason=Analytic Truth=Formal?Mathematical Logic. 5. Externalities are irrelevant (i.e. History, Culture). 6. Emotion (in argument or intellectual passion) is an Externality.

All the above 6 propositions/dogmas are part of the “stealthiness” of modern American Analytic Philosophy (not just the UCLA of the Cold War) but even today, even though those “dogmas” or in more discrete terminology, “axioms”, of American Cold War Philosophy are under attack by the intellectual descendants of the founders of American Cold War Philosophy (not just at UCLA, but almost everywhere—even outside America). Though today, the intellectual descendants of cold warrior philosophers hack away at the intellectual dogmas of their teachers (or their teachers’s teachers), the practices of stealthiness unconsciously remain in the new analytically dominated platforms for the production and distribution of the intellectual goods of philosophy.

We find out how, in the Epilogue (in the download flow of the sine curve of the text):

With the main enemies [who were the prejudiced and brainwashed general public, and the McCarthyite anti-Red vigilantes in high places] now internal to academia, the elaborate tactics of stealth directed against outsiders . . . hiring one’s own graduate students, publishing in obscure places if at all, and pretending to make hires while actually delaying them—were no longer necessary. Simply ignoring professors outside one’s own field and being ignored by them in return provided sufficient cover. (p.159)

I think it would be only fair at this point of the text, before going onto McCumber’s own intellectual weapon of defense against the now ancient dogmas of analytic philosophy, enunciated in the Epilogue, to allow Reichenbachians a chance to reply (after a few remarks about the context of the reply and a few other replies). In general, to be intellectually fair and honest, the wide condemnation of Philosophy in the America of the 50s also should have its day in the court of Reason in all its varieties. Because there are so many varieties of Reason, it would only be fair to pick up on four courts of hearing—I am not merely referring to the Reason of the pluralism in intellectual life today, but of the overlooked pluralism of intellectual life of the 50s in America.

Undercurrents Against Positivism

I am actually going to pick up on the four schools of anti-logical positivism (or at least those who were friendly and unfriendly critics, and those who just went their own way not bothering to criticize logical positivism but to pursue their own lights regardless of the criticisms of logical positivists.) Furthermore, I will only mention people who were mentioned in this book as part of the mainstream intellectual adherents of the ”operating philosophy” of America.

First, let’s give Wittgenstein a hearing, not the “Whereof you cannot speak, be silent” Wittgenstein, but the so-called later Wittgenstein of his posthumously published works (in the 50s and until very recently). I pick Wittgenstein first because his later philosophy of the 50s is antithetical to the mainstream philosophy of the 50s that became the “operating philosophy” of America. Wittgenstein (and various philosophers who influenced American philosophy but practiced ordinary language philosophy mainly in England, not mentioned in this book) clearly recognized and brought to the light of day the importance of how culture influences thought via language games. The Wittgensteinian dictum of “no private language” and the Wittgensteinian thought experiment of not understanding a lion that could speak, is intended to contextualize the intellectual role of the individual and the thought and language of the individual by focusing on the public nature of language and mind.

McCumber could reply, Wittgensteinians except for Rorty, largely mumbled among themselves, and wrote obscure short articles and books (that were really long articles) and so were stealthily pursuing their own little puzzles hardly known outside their own specializations within philosophy let alone outside philosophy. This goes to prove McCumber’s point: the public quiescence of philosophy allowed the Cold War Ideology to go unchallenged, and Cold War practices of self-censoring what is said in public and who are hired in academia, to go on behind doors closed to outside scrutiny—not only to the scrutiny of the Red Scare mongers, but as well to the scrutiny of independent thinkers wherever they happened to land a job whether in or out of academia.

Second, now let’s give Reichenbach, as a representative and founder of America’s “operating philosophy” in the Cold War, a chance to reply: Naturalism applied to philosophy is no mere extension of science but an answer to the traditional big questions of philosophy—an answer that historically stems from the Pre-Socratics—that were the progenitors of modern rational thought including the sciences of today: cosmology, physics, mathematics, evolutionary biology, psychology, sociology, and economics. Moreover, , though there may be no “logic of discovery”, there is still a social aspect for science—and in the social aspect, there are conventions that evolve with science—and similarly all intellectual disciplines. In other words, there is a social aspect to the methodology of science, in particular to the methodologies for the use of experiment and verification/refutation in science. Whether or not there are higher-level social conventions that govern all intellectual disciplines is open to discussion.

McCumber can reply that he critically discussed Reichenbach’s theory of the social aspect of sciences in the book:

But Reichenbach has a limited view of what this kind of scientific cooperation [society/Republic] amounts to…Scientific collaboration is thus a sort of quantitative amplification, in which many different individuals can pool their intellectual strength because they are all, in principle, doing exactly the same thing. . . . The scientific community, applying reason to observations, is thus not a set of clashing perspectives . . . but a sort of “superperson.” (p.100)

Society reduces to the sum of abstract logical individuals. The product of social interaction in a community of intellectuals equals the thought of the logically constructed idealized individual. Everyone, according to Reichenbach, in an intellectual community, must come up with the same answers as long as the algorithms, of reason are applied to the same data, correctly or uniformly.

Third, though not attacked in the book, Bertrand Russell, deserves a voice. Russell is mentioned in the book as an early pre-Cold War victim of anti-atheist religious fundamentalist pressure groups who lobbied for the firing of Russell from UCLA and from his next stop, CCNY. Russell’s case is a proto-version of the later American public witch-hunting of leftist intellectuals. How Russell could speak up goes as follows: Russell’s pioneering efforts provided the foundations in logico-mathematical reasoning for the development of analytic philosophy.

He was much admired by the logical positivists for starting an intellectual revolution in philosophy that turned philosophy from woolly thinking enmeshed in religion, mysticism, idealism, and a discipline without discipline, into a critical enquiry using the latest intellectual techniques available to scientists and mathematicians. Moreover, Russell used these tools of critical enquiry not only to tackle the fundamental philosophical problems where he also constantly revised his theories, but also to tackle the social, political, and ethical issues of the day for a wide audience. Hence, for Russell (unlike most of his followers including Wittgenstein, A.J. Ayer, and Quine) analytic philosophy was used to blast the idols of the day—especially the increasing production, testing, development and storing of nuclear weapons as a “deterrent”.

McCumber’s reply is easy: the exception proves the rule. In most cases, analytic philosophy turned its critical enquiry upon itself and even a-historically treated classical philosophers as either proto-analytic philosophers (when those older views or arguments were endorsed by the analytic school of philosophy) or as muddled, without looking at historical context. The inward approach of most analytic philosophers reveals that their use of analytic philosophy as a “stealth” weapon—to keep undetected from the outside world in the Cold War—is highlighted by contrast with how Russell was brave enough to expose all his intellectual armoury to attack from the outer world. It is not that analytic philosophy is inherently an insider-game, it is that as an insider-game, analytic philosophy, on the one side, avoided trouble from Cold War evangelists; and analytic philosophy as an insider-game, on the other side, played into the hands of the Red Scare avant-garde by not avoiding confrontation with those keen to find a “commie in every corner.”

Fourth, Hayek and Popper are treated as Cold Warriors as if it were both common knowledge and unquestionable truth—and so deserve a chance to set the record straight according to their own lights. Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper, though mentioned in the book as anti-communist, which they were, are not mentioned as anti-scientism or anti-unified science.

Both were against the doctrine of applying a singular, supposed universal scientific method to all disciplines including history and economics. Both thought that history had no laws: not material, not natural, not economic, not social. Historical events are contingent and unique; therefore, historical events are not repeatable and so have no “laws” or even “regularities” unlike the natural sciences. Economics assumes a social level not reducible to psychology, hence, the only law of economics is the hypothetical zero-law of rational behaviour in idealized situations, that is used to expose what is unexpected, and therefore treat the unexpected as a problem to be explained, though never completely.

McCumber’s reply is apparently an easy one too: Hayek and Popper adopted “methodological individualism” as an explanation of the social. Hence, the social becomes the abstract individual with identical goals and beliefs. Moreover, Hayek and Popper, though against scientism and the unity of scientific method—across disciplines—were avowed followers of the Enlightenment. Popper advocated “critical rationalism”, a fringe school of philosophy that aims to apply rationality universally in all disciplines. Moreover, Popper, especially does not admit that rationality is culturally, temporally, and disciplinarily relative.

(Popper argues against what he calls the “myth of the framework”, contrary to the cultural relativism held by Wittgenstein, Kuhn, Foucault, Post-Modernism, and apparently McCumber as well: culture permeates but does not totalize all thought, perception, and action; otherwise, liminal, transitional, and fringe thinkers could not occur, and their thoughts and activities would be inconceivable. However, this aside about Popper, it is important to note, does not undercut McCumber’s point that intellectual deviance does actually occur. Moreover, according to McCumber, intellectual deviance is and was insufficient to disturb other than as a nuisance effect, the hegemony of America’s “operating philosophy”—analytic philosophy and its subservience to the McCarthy Effect.)

Conclusion

How then, might the reader of this review ask, does the text under review, answer the question: how can we thoroughly expose and thoroughly debunk whatever elements remain in philosophy from the era of the Cold War? The part of the intellectual iceberg of the American ideology (paradigm/dispositive) of the Cold War that remains is the part out of view—the most hazardous part to enquirers at sail in the ocean of thought (in every field of enquiry, and even in our everyday thinking about everyday matters).

John McCumber outlines in a subsection of the Epilogue, “Reason Beyond Rational Choice”, (pp. 164 ff.) a 5 step program, for overcoming the meld of scientific philosophy and Rational Choice Theory that evolved into modern analytic philosophy. Here is a concise version of a manifesto for a program that appears to comprise both a revision and fusion of good old-fashioned American pragmatism (in the footsteps of Rorty) and Americanized post-modernism.

First, engage in dialectics—people passionately arguing together from different cultural/intellectual outlooks. Second, the aim is not to win, but to gain mutual understanding, and even help each other better articulate their own viewpoints. Third, recognize the historical background for each other’s different outlooks—contextualize outlooks rather than universalize outlooks. Fourth, use no rules or for whatever minimal rules are used, treat them as guidelines to be modified and replaced as the situation demands, and as the dialectics evolve. Fifth, attempt to let a harmonization of outlooks develop without overwhelming or drowning out the different voices.

There are three questions a reader of the book might pose to the author—that are called forth by the very text of the book and inherent in the deepest level of the book. I will state the three questions below that arise from the deep level tacit premise of the book. This tacit premise goes roughly in this way: The individuals in a professional field of an academic institution where independent thinkers are protected by the professional ethics of academic freedom as well as the laws of most democratic countries that guarantee freedom of speech and thought, can be “subjectivized” (in the terminology of McCumber adapted from post-modernist thinkers). “Subjectivization” is the unconscious domination of academic thought that creates a subliminal conformism to a mainstream of one voice in philosophy and becomes absorbed into a monolithic American ideology.

I conclude with the three questions that pop-out of the logic of a situation where an academic mainstream arises and catches those in it unawares; and, where in practice, regardless of theory and regardless of the advocacy of pluralism, members of the non-analytic schools of thought until today are either unemployed, underemployed or marginalized both in academia and in business.

1) How has the God of the Cold War and the iceberg of the American Cold War ideology though exposed, survived the voluminous talks and texts about pluralism, multiculturalism, multi-genderism, diversity…? 2) Or, if the Cold War God is dead, what is the subliminal ideology/paradigm/dispositive that has replaced the Cold War ideology and has in turn captured American life where an evolved analytic, but still analytic roaring mainstream drowns out alternative voices? 3) Is the whole neo-Kuhnian and neo-Foucaultian trend-setting and widely used but vague and metaphorical terminology of paradigm/dispositive, misleading; and so, are there other externalities at work, perhaps those in front of our noses—such as the current economic-techno-social structures that provide a niche for the professionalization of elites that allows those elites to separate themselves from the everyday world; and, create new places of power and control for themselves?

References

McCumber, John. The Philosophy Scare: The Politics of Reason in the Early Cold War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

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

Kerr, Eric. “A Hermeneutic of Non-Western Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 4 (2018): 1-6.

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

Please refer to:

Image by Güldem Üstün via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

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

Two Contexts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking Back Social Epistemology

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

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

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

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

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

Mending Wall

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

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

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

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

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

Contact details: erictkerr@gmail.com

References

Alatas, S.H. 2010. The Myth of the Lazy Native: A Study of the Image of the Malays, Filipinos and Javanese from the 16th to the 20th Century and its Function in the Ideology of Colonial Capitalism. Routledge.

Burkhart, B.Y. 2003. What Coyote and Thales can Teach Us: An Outline of American Indian Epistemology. In A. Waters (Ed.) American Indian Thought. Wiley-Blackwell: 15-26.

Chen, Kuan-Hsing. 2010. Asia as Method. Duke University Press.

Collins, R. 2000. The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Harvard University Press.

Crow, M.M. and W.B. Dabars. 2015. Designing the New American University. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Dasti, M.R. 2012. Parasitism and Disjunctivism in Nyaya Epistemology. Philosophy East and West 62(1): 1-15.

Fanon, F.  1952 [2008]. Black Skin, White Masks, trans. R. Philcox. New York: Grove Press.

Goldman, A. 2010. Why Social Epistemology is Real Epistemology. In A. Haddock, A. Millar and D. Pritchard (Eds.), Social Epistemology. Oxford University Press: 1-29.

E.B. Goldstein. 2010. Encyclopedia of Perception. SAGE.

Guthrie, W.K.C. 1961 [1982]. A History of Greek Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hallen, B. and J.O. Sodipo. 1986. Knowledge, Belief, and Witchcraft. London: Ethnographica.

Hamminga, B. 2005. Epistemology from the African Point of View. Poznan Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities 88(1): 57-84.

Heller, H. 2016. The Capitalist University: The Transformations of Higher Education in the United States, 1945-2016. Pluto Press.

Kerr, E. 2015. Epistemological Experiments in Cross-Cultural Contexts. Asia Research Institute Working Paper Series 223: 1-27.

Kerr, E. forthcoming. Cross-Cultural Epistemology. In P. Graham, M. Fricker, D. Henderson, and N. Pedersen (Eds.) Routledge Handbook of Social Epistemology.

Kerr, E. and J.A. Carter. 2016. Richard Rorty and Epistemic Normativity. Social Epistemology 30(1): 3-24.

Maffie, J. 2001. Alternative Epistemologies and the Value of Truth. Social Epistemology 14: 247-257.

Maffie, J. 2009. “‘In the End, We have the Gatling Gun, And they have not:’ Future Prospects for Indigenous Knowledges,” Futures: The Journal of Policy, Planning, and Futures Studies, 41: 53-65.

Marx, K. 1888. Theses on Feuerbach. Appendix to Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm

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

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

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

[3] Garfield, J.L. and B.W. Van Norden. “If Philosophy Won’t Diversity, Let’s Call it What it Really Is.” New York Times, 11 May 2016. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/11/opinion/if-philosophy-wont-diversify-lets-call-it-what-it-really-is.html.

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

[5] See e.g., Edward Said’s Orientalism (1979), Fritz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and, more recently, Syed Alatas’ The Myth of the Lazy Native (2010).

[6] The reader will recall the parable wherein three blind men describe an elephant through their partial experience (the coarseness and hairiness of the tail or the snakelike trunk) but none of whom describes it accurately (e.g. In Goldstein 2010, p. 492).

[7] Several people have had the honour of being called the last to have read everything including Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who ironically wrote the first printed book to be universally banned by the Catholic Church, and Desiderius Erasmus, after whom a European student exchange programme, facilitating cross-cultural learning is founded. Curiously, Thomas Babington Macauley is said to have been the best-read man of his time and he appears in Jay Garfield’s foreword to TAKING BACK PHILOSOPHY to voice a particularly distasteful and ignorant remark (p. xiv). We can conclude that the privilege of having read widely, or having a wide syllabus, is not enough in itself for greater understanding.

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

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

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

Image by cornie via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

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

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

A Globalized World With No Absolute Hierarchies

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

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

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

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

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

Unifying a Tradition of Traditions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tradition of Process Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Action in Phase With All Processes: Wu Wei

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

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

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

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

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

Politics of the Harmonious Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please refer to:

Image by Bruce Irschick via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Controversial Philosophical Premise in Mizrahi’s Argument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Third Controversial Philosophical Premise in Mizrahi’s Argument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Fourth Controversial Philosophical Premise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Fifth Controversial Philosophical Premise

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

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

The Sixth and Ninth Controversial Philosophical Premises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Seventh and Eighth Controversial Philosophical Premises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Concluding General Remarks About Mizrahi’s Argument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contact details: chrisb@utm.edu

References

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

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

[3] See Republic 473c-480a.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morteza Hashemi

At the end of 2017, Morteza Hashemi published his book Theism and Atheism in a Post-Secular Age with Palgrave MacMillan. That book has been selected for the Farabi International Prize, the highest prize for original research awarded by the Iranian government, in the Prize’s category for social science researchers under 35. The award will be officially presented at a ceremony in Iran later this year.

Theism and Atheism in a Post-Secular Age maps the development of the contemporary forms of Western atheism. It begins with an exploration of Western atheism’s fundamental concepts as they developed through Duns Scotus’ nominalist metaphysics in Medieval Europe, then charts how Darwinism and the later Dawkins generation gave it its aggressive side. As well, Hashemi explores the existentialist philosophies that inspired the more open, democratic atheism which is growing more prominent today. The book began as Hashemi’s doctoral dissertation at University of Warwick.

SERRC is currently organizing a roundtable review of Theism and Atheism in a Post-Secular Age among our members and contributors. If you’re interested in taking part, contact our Book Reviews Coordinator Eric Kerr and Digital Editor Adam Riggio.

Once again, congratulations to Morteza!