Archives For History of Philosophy

Author Information: Matthew R. X. Dentith, Institute for Research in the Humanities, University of Bucharest, m.dentith@episto.org.

Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Between Forteana and Skepticism: A Review of Bernard Wills’ Believing Weird Things.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 48-52.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-43y

Image by David Grant via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Sometimes, when it is hard to review a book, it is tempting to turn in some kind of personal reflection, one demonstrates why the reviewer felt disconnected from the text they were reviewing. This review of Bernard N. Wills Believing Weird Things – which I received three months ago, and have spent quite a bit of time thinking about in the interim – is just such a review-cum-reflection, because I am not sure what this book is about, nor who its intended audience is.

According to the blurb on the back Believing Weird Things is a response to Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things (Henry Holt and Company, 1997). Shermer’s book is one I know all too well, having read and reread it when I started work on my PhD. At the time the book was less than ten years old, and Shermer and his cohort of Skeptics (spelt with a ‘K’ to denote that particular brand of sceptical thought popular among (largely) non-philosophers in the U.S.) were considered to be the first and final word on the rationality (more properly, the supposed irrationality) of belief in conspiracy theories.

Given I was working on a dissertation on the topic, getting to grips with the arguments against belief in such theories seemed crucial, especially given my long and sustained interest in the what you might call the contra-philosophy of Skepticism, the work of Charles Fort.

Times for the Fortean

Fort (who Wills mentions in passing) was a cantankerous collector and publisher of strange and inconvenient phenomena. His Book of the Damned (Boni and Liveright, 1919) is an early 20th Century litany of things which seemed to fall outside the systemic study of the world. From rains of frogs, to cities floating in the sky, Fort presented the strange and the wonderful, often without comment. When he did dare to theorise about the phenomena he cataloged, he often contradicted his previous theories in favour of new ones. Scholars of Fort think his lack of a system was quite deliberate: Fort’s damned data was meant to be immune to scientific study.

Fort was hardly a known figure in his day, but his work has gained fans and adherents, who call themselves Forteans and engage in the study of Forteana. Forteans collect and share damned data, from haunted physics laboratories, to falls of angel hair. Often they theorise about what might cause these phenomena, but they also often don’t dispute other interpretations of the same ‘damned data.’

John Keel, one of the U.S.’s most famous Forteans (and who, if he did not invent the term ‘Men in Black’ at least popularised their existence), had a multitude of theories about the origin of UFOs and monsters in the backwoods of the U.S., which he liberally sprinkled throughout his works. If you challenged Keel on what you thought was an inconsistency of thought he would brush it off (or get angry at the suggestion he was meant to consistent in the first place).

I was a fan of Forteana without being a Fortean: I fail the Fortean test of tolerating competing hypotheses, preferring to stipulate terms whilst encouraging others to join my side of the debate. But I love reading Forteana (it is a great source of examples for the social epistemologist), and thinking about alternative interpretations. So, whilst I do not think UAP (unexpected aerial phenomena – the new term for UFO) are creatures from another dimension, I do like thinking about the assumptions which drive such theories.

Note here that I say ‘theories’ quite deliberately: any student of Forteana will quickly become aware that modern Forteans (contra Fort himself) are typically very systematic about their beliefs. It is just that often the Fortean is happy to be a systemic pluralist, happily accepting competing or complimentary systems as equally possible.

Weird and Weirder

Which brings me back to Believing Weird Things. The first section concerns beliefs people like Shermer might find weird but Wills argues are reasonable in the context under which they developed. Wills’ interest here is wide, taking in astrology, fairies, and why he is not a Rastafarian. Along the way he contextualises those supposedly weird beliefs and shows how, at certain times or in certain places, they were the product of a systemic study of the world.

Wills points out that a fault of Skepticism is a lack of appreciation for history: often what we now consider rational was once flimflam (plate tectonics), and what was systemic and rational (astrology) is today’s quackery. As Wills writes:

The Ancients do not seem to me to be thinking badly so much as thinking in an alien context and under different assumptions that are too basic to admit evaluation in the ordinary empirical sense (which is not to say they admit of no evaluation whatsoever). Further, there are many things in Aristotle and the Hebrew Bible which strike me as true even though the question of ‘testing’ them scientifically and ‘skeptically’ is pretty much meaningless. In short, the weird beliefs I study are at minimum intelligible, sometimes plausible and occasionally true. [4]

Indeed, the very idea which underpins Shermer’s account, ‘magical thinking,’ seems to fail the skeptical test: why, like Shermer, would you think it is some hardwired function rather than culturally situated? But more importantly, how is magical thinking any different from any other kind of thinking?

This last point is important because, as others have argued (including myself) many beliefs people think are problematic are, when looked at in context with other beliefs, either not particularly problematic, or no more problematic than the beliefs we assume are produced rationally. The Psychology of Religion back in the early 20th Century is a good example of this: when psychologists worried about religious belief started looking at the similarities in belief formation between the religious and the non-religious, they started to find the same kind of ‘errors’ in irreligious people as well.

In the same respect, the work in social psychology on belief in conspiracy theories seems to be suffering the same kind of problem today: it’s not clear that conspiracy theorists are any less (or more) rational than the rest of us. Rather, often what marks out the difference in belief are the different assumptions about how the world is, or how it works. Indeed, as Wills writes:

Many weird ideas are only weird from a certain assumed perspective. This is important because this assumed perspective is often one of epistemic and social privilege. We tend to associate weird ideas with weird people we look down upon from some place of superior social status. [10]

The first section of Believing Weird Things is, then, possibly the best defence of a kind of Fortean philosophy one could hope for. Yet that is also an unfair judgement, because thinking of Believing Weird Things as a Fortean text is just my imposition: Fort is mentioned exactly once, and only in a footnote. I am only calling this a tentatively Fortean text because I am not sure who the book’s audience is. Ostensibly – at least according to the blurb – it is meant to be a direct reply to Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things. But if it is, then it is twenty years late: Why People Believe Weird Things was published in 1997.

Not just that, but whilst Believing Weird Things deals with a set of interesting issues Shermer did not cover (yet ought to have), almost everything which makes up the reply to Why People Believe Weird Things is to be found in the Introduction alone. Now, I’d happily set the Introduction as a reading in a Critical Thinking class or elementary Epistemology class. However, I could not see much use in setting the book as a whole.

What’s Normal Anyway?

Which brings us to the second half of Believing Weird Things. Having set out why some weird beliefs are not that weird when thought about in context, Wills sets out his reasons for thinking that beliefs which aren’t – in some sense – considered weird ought to be. The choice of topics here is interesting, covering Islamophobia, white privilege, violence and the proper attitude towards tolerance and toleration in our polities.

But it invites the question (again) of who his intended audience is meant to be? For example, I also think Islamophobia, racism, and violence are deeply weird, and it worries me that some people still think they are sensible responses. But if Wills is setting out to persuade the other half of the debate, the racists, the bigots, and the fans of violence, then I do not think he will have much luck, as his discussions never seem to get much further than “Here are my reckons!”

And some of those reckons really need more arguments in favour of them.

For example, Wills brings out the old canard that religious beliefs and scientific beliefs are one and the same (presented as ‘religious faith’ and ‘scientific faith’). Not just that, but, in chapter 6, he talks about the things ‘discovered’ by religion. These are presented as being en par with discoveries in the sciences. Yet aren’t the things discovered by religion (‘humans beings must suffer before they learn. … existence is suffering’ [48]) really the ‘discoveries’ of, say, philosophers working in a religious system? And aren’t many of these discoveries just stipulations, or religious edicts?

This issue is compounded by Wills specification that the process of discovery for religious faith is hermeneutics: the interpretation of religious texts. But that invites even more questions: if you think the gods are responsible for both the world and certain texts in the world you could imagine hermeneutic inquiry to be somehow equivalent to scientific inquiry, but if you are either doubtful of the gods, or doubtful about the integrity of the gods’ prophets, then there is much room to doubt there is much of a connection at all between ‘faith’ in science and faith in scripture.

Another example: in chapter 8, Wills states:

Flat-Earthers are one thing but Birthers, say, are quite another: some ideas do not come from a good place and are not just absurd but pernicious. [67]

Now, there is an argument to be had about the merits (or lack thereof) of the Flat Earth theory and the thesis Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. Some might even claim that the Flat Earth theory is worse, given that belief might entail thinking a lot of very disparate institutions, located globally, are in on a massive cover-up. The idea Barack Obama is secretly Kenyan has little effect on those of us outside the U.S. electoral system.

None of this is to say there aren’t decent arguments to be had about these topics. It is, instead, to say that often these positions are stipulated. As such, the audience for Believing Weird Things seems to be people who agree with Wills, rather than an attempt by Wills to change hearts and minds.

How to Engage With Weird Beliefs

Which is not to say that the second half of the book lacks merit; it just lacks meat. The chapters on Islamophobia (chapter 8) and racism (chapter 9) are good: the contextualisation of both Islamophobia and the nature of conflicts in the Middle East are well expressed. But they are not particularly novel (especially if you read the work of left-wing commentators). But even if the chapters are agreeable to someone of a left-wing persuasion, all too often the chapters just end: the chapter on violence (chapter 10), for example, has no clear conclusion other than that violence is bad.

Similarly confused is the chapter on tolerance (chapter 11). But the worst offender is the chapter on the death of Conservatism (chapter 14). This could have been an interesting argument about the present state of today’s politics. But the chapter ends abruptly, and with it, the book. There is no conclusion, no tying together of threads. There’s hardly even any mention of Shermer or skepticism in the second half of Believing Weird Things.

Which brings us back to the question: who is this book for? If the book were just the first half it could be seen as both a reply to Shermer and a hesitant stab at a Fortean philosophy. But the second half of the book comes across more as the author’s rumination on some pertinent social issues of the day, and none of that content seems to advance far beyond ‘Here are my thoughts…’

Which, unfortunately, is also the character of this review: in trying to work out who the book is for I find my thoughts as inconclusive as the text itself. None of this is to say that Believing Weird Things is a bad or terrible book. Rather, it is just a collection of the author’s ruminations. So, unless you happen to be a fan of Wills, there is little to this text which substantially advances the debate over belief in anything.

Contact details: m.dentith@episto.org

References

Fort, Charles. The Book of the Damned, Boni and Liveright, 1919

Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things, Henry Holt and Company, 1997

Wills, Bernard N. Believing Weird Things, Minkowski Institute Press, 2018

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Dragging the West Into the World

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

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

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

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

Challenging How We Understand Culture Itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matters of Substance and Function

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

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

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

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

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

Justifying a New World Order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can There Be More Than One Zero Point?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common Themes Across Continents

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

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

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

Early Outreach? Or Appropriation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

How Important Is the History of Philosophy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discovering Long-Maligned African Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is an African Philosopher?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Africa and Universality

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or as Hallen expresses it:

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

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

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

Africa Beyond Reaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Questions of Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing African Thought Throughout the Globe

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Unspoken Xenophobia

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

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

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

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

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

What Is Philosophy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections and Disagreements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contact details: pankaj.jain@unt.edu

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Kochan’s Problems of the Strong Programme

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real Love or a Shotgun Marriage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Incompleteness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Possible Predecessors Gone Unacknowledged

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Fullerism’s Narrow Scope

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

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

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

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

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

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

Double Movement: Expansion in Contraction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where All Is Fuller

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knowledge Becomes a Means to Transcend

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

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

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

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

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

Contact details: jim.collier@vt.edu

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Information: Bruce Janz, University of Central Florida, bruce.janz@ucf.edu

Janz, Bruce. “The Problem of Method in African Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 1-7.

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

Image by Global Partnership for Education via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Edwin Etieyibo’s recent collection of papers raises the question of the nature and use of method in African philosophy. Method is difficult to thematize as a concept in this context; the four chapters in the section on method in this book address different aspects of the concept. They come to no unified conclusion (nor would we expect that), but they do open the door to several aspects of this complex concept.

Why is it complex? Method, in the context of philosophy, is often difficult to pin down. Classically in the West, of course, it referred to the tools of reasoning, usually logic. But using the term “method” suggests a means to an end. The point of method is not at all clear. Is it to reach truth? Is it to properly represent experience, or thought, or worldviews? Is it to create concepts? Is it to ground theory?

What Is Method and What Is It For?

In most other disciplines, method is separable from theory – one can have a theory about childhood development in psychology, or the nature of crime in sociology, and use a range of methods to support that theory. Similar method can be used in different theoretical contexts – specific methods in a discipline such as sociology (e.g., surveys, database research, interviews) or more general methodological approaches (e.g., quantitative, qualitative) are theory-agnostic, although they might be tailored by theory. In philosophy, thought, theory and method are generally not so easily separated.  If our method centers on clear reasoning, this seems universal.

Of course, there are philosophical approaches that have a more clear application of reason. Phenomenology, for instance, especially that of Husserl, employs a method of reduction and bracketing in order to isolate metaphysical assumptions and allow for a focus on experience. Descartes wrote his Discourse on Method which modelled philosophy on scientific inquiry, while Gadamer’s Truth and Method seeks to place philosophy a step beyond method. And, Socrates’ dialectical method used dialogue to approach a true vision of the forms.

These versions of method, and others we could include, assume that reason is capable but for one reason or another obscured. All these versions of method aim to clear away that which stands in the way of reason operating properly. Not all versions of philosophy start from this assumption (for instance, some Christian philosophy starts from the assumption that reason is at its core systematically corrupted, and so no amount of clearing will allow it to operate properly; hence, method focusses on the transcendental underpinnings for thought), but most do.

This is relevant to African philosophy because when method comes up, it has often been against the backdrop of reason’s inability to exercise itself due to external barriers. Some discussions of method have started from the assumption that African philosophy has to demonstrate that it is truly African and truly philosophical, and that that means finding a unique method. So, sage philosophy attempts to do just that, for example. Method has also been a process of clearing colonial structures, “decolonizing the mind” as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o put it, so that a truly African philosophy can commence.

Decolonization: Forward! to Return!

There is another sense of method, and we see this in Simon Mathias Makwinja’s contribution (Makwinja 2018). He surveys some prominent anthologies and introductory readers in African philosophy, and finds most of them wanting. The issue of method here has less to do with the proper use of reason and more to do with how questions are chosen. African philosophy must “give direction to specific substantive problems” (99), something which he thinks has rarely been done.

Makwinja is concerned that focusing on establishing African philosophy’s place within the larger world of philosophy “continues to eat so much into meager resources that could have been used for examining substantive issues” (107). He is right about this, but it is worth asking why this nevertheless continues.

Philosophy in general has a tendency to return to its roots, however it conceives of those, and the justification of African philosophy’s place just seems like a mis-directed version of that. So, the question would be, what would it mean to do substantive philosophy while following this impulse of returning to roots?

What are those roots – are they excavated in a quasi-anthropological manner by attending to the patterns of culture, or do they exist elsewhere? And, is there a distinction between formal roots such as Aristotle’s first principles or Husserl’s experience and substantive roots such as African culture, or do these in the end amount to the same thing?

Thinking With Harmonious Monism

Lucky Uchenna Ogbonnaya, in his contribution, addresses his questions about method to Jonathan Chimakonam and the “logic criterion” of African philosophy. The question is, does logic come before ontology or not? Ogbonnaya’s central question (114) concerns whether a discourse or text is African philosophy or not. Note that this is a demarcation issue first – the decision about order is to answer the question of the nature of philosophy.

Method, for Ogbonnaya, is the determination of what counts as African philosophy, not the way of doing African philosophy. Also, he generalizes about Western and African philosophy – “African philosophy is not like Western philosophy, which is built on a reductionist or absolutist ontology. It is a philosophy that is built on African ontology, which Ijiomah christens “harmonious monism.”” (125)

Leaving to the side the question of whether this is an accurate portrayal of either tradition, it suggests how method is meant to work for Ogbonnaya. It is both a process of demarcation, and a way of establishing identity. “Method”, here, is probably best understood as the order of priority for thinking in African philosophy. Ogbonnaya argues against Chimakonam’s idea that logic must come first, and in so doing, maintains that there is a cultural basis for thought. Ontology, for him, is held at a cultural level rather than an individual one, and is in fact seen as a cultural artifact outside of Africa as well (he also refers to Eastern philosophies as engaging with their ontology as well).

The assumption that ontology grounds cultural philosophies means that these ontologies stand beyond the reach of method. It does not mean that one cannot work from some other ontology; presumably one can work from other ontologies (“a text/work is African philosophy if it is done from the purview of African ontology”, 127), but the ontologies, in this view, seem to be beyond philosophical reflection. This view would be similar to some religious philosophies as mentioned earlier, in which philosophy is subordinated to something else such as theology or religious belief.

Having to Look European

Jonathan Chimakonam’s contribution to the section on method takes on philosophical universalism by advocating conversational philosophy. This is a collective project that he and others at the University of Calabar in Nigeria and elsewhere have been advocating for some time, which has its roots in, among other places, phenomenological and hermeneutical method. Philosophical universalism has, in his account, held African philosophy back by always implicitly requiring that it look to European models of thought.

The alternative is not particularism, which has its own set of problems, but conversational philosophy. He conceives conversation as a quasi-dialectical process which includes both critique and creation as part of its movement. The thinking that this affords is rooted in revisions of questions and answers, as each is exposed to new conditions and new information.

The entire structure is schematized, although it is unclear whether the schematization is descriptive or prescriptive, in other words, whether it is a representation of how successful philosophy happens or whether it is a map for how African philosophy might successfully avoid universalism and particularism to create something new. In either case, there would likely be a host of exceptions or variations within the schema.

More interesting than the schema are the themes he identifies as ways of moving forward. They all bear traces of the method already described.

There are five:

  • re-tracement (a move away from attempting to represent collective African thought and toward asking new questions that can open up new vistas of thought);
  • re-engagement (finding new forms of encounter with otherness);
  • re-leasement (allowing reason to find its many voices);
  • unfoldment (the result of the previous three, a move towards the new rather than simply re-affirming what we already believe);
  • coverance (attending to areas that have not received sufficient attention in African philosophy).

Like the more generalized method, these grow out of the conviction that there are untapped intellectual resources in Africa which, with new questions and new habits of engagement can yield more complex and more applicable models of thought.

No Dogma Is Innocuous, Leave Them All

The final contribution to the method section is by Oritsegbubemi Anthony Oyowe. He focusses on a specific methodological claim, which he calls “Hume’s Law” – there should be no ought from is (“NOFI”), or more directly, we should not infer prescriptive claims from solely descriptive ones. Thaddeus Metz argues that Kwame Gyekye commits this error when he tries to derive a political theory from the metaphysics of selfhood in Africa. Oyowe’s methodological argument is that there are often bridging premises which are unstated, but which legitimate the move from is to ought.

Oyowe’s argument is closely reasoned, although given the scope of Metz’s work it does not do justice to his full ethical theory (and, one would not of course expect it to). But what is interesting here is the question of what implications there would be for method if Oyowe’s reclamation of NOFI is successful. While his specific target is Metz’s position, the general goal of Oyowe’s argument is clearly to be able to deploy descriptions of African culture and society in making a case for how Africans ought to live.

In other words, Oyowe is resisting Metz’s NOFI dictum, in part because of flaws he sees in Metz’s defense of this principle, but more importantly because having this principle available means that theorists who have used it, such as Wiredu and Gyekye among others could continue to use it. Why might this manner? Because a great deal of communitarian thought in African political philosophy and African ethics is founded on what are essentially sociological observations about African past and present.

And this raises the question relevant to method – while Oyowe is not arguing against NOFI only on behalf of Africa (he does, after all, marshall resources from other non-African writers in analytic philosophy), would the ability to reject “no ought from is” enable African philosophers to establish politics or ethics in a manner that they would otherwise not be able to do? Or, is this a kind of particularism, a way of differentiating African thought from other thought by grounding it in the specific nature of African societies?

And, if NOFI is rejected, that is, if it is possible to derive normative statements from existing or historical cultural practice, does this not simply move the question back one step, to asking about whether the descriptions of African societies themselves have been made with a philosophical agenda in mind, and whether exceptions to the rule have been overlooked or ignored in order to establish something that looks like a unified African description of social reality (the “is” part) which can then be used to produce the “ought” part, which would be specific ethical or normative principles?

An Almost-Imperialist Method

What is interesting about this group of chapters is the different approaches they have to method in African philosophy. Since there is no agreed outcome in philosophy akin to what we might find in other disciplines (something like producing theories about the processes of life in biology, or explanations of social formations and processes in sociology, and so forth), there is no agreement on the nature of method. There is, therefore, also no way of assessing the success or failure of method. What is also evident is that method in African philosophy looks over its shoulder to the alienating methods imposed upon it by colonial philosophy in the past.

Method as we see it here is a way of clearing impediments to understanding, and those impediments are largely understood in terms of past regimes of knowledge and earlier practices within African philosophy. It is also, despite the now commonly expressed sentiment that we must move past the project of defining African philosophy and start doing it, still a project of demarcation, that is, showing who’s in and who’s out, or what is in and what is out. Of course, some, notably Makwinja and Chimakonam, clearly try to distance themselves from that project of demarcation.

There is also a thread connecting these papers related to creativity. While there is an element of demarcation, which reflexively looks back on existing candidates for African philosophy, there is also a sense in all the authors of what might be possible if the foundational components of African philosophy are clarified and the barriers to the uses of reason in Africa are removed. The specifics of the results of creativity in African philosophy is, understandably, unclear in all the authors.

And yet, the fact that it is unclear is evidence that the term “method” as used in African philosophy (and perhaps elsewhere in philosophy) is not about reaching any particular goal. One can imagine philosophical method which is tied to a goal – some versions of Christian philosophy, for instance, or philosophies which have specific forms of emancipation as their goal.

This is not to say, of course, that a particular view of the world, or an outcome of emancipation, are not significant projects for philosophy, but that there exists a tension in philosophical method between having a sense of the kind of creation desired and constructing a method which follows reason where it leads. History is littered with philosophical statements on what the good life might look like, or what utopia might be, and in retrospect such visions turn out to have their own forms of domination, their own blind spots, which have no adequate response in the terms their philosophical method and assumptions have set out.

If these papers were all part of a conference panel, and I was asked to provide a response, I would be interested to see how each writer would respond to what I think is one of the best books on method written in African philosophy. Emmanuel Eze’s final book, On Reason: Rationality in a World of Cultural Conflict and Racism (Eze 2008), suggests a structure for reason which does not root it directly in culture, but rather recognizes a range of different forms of reason which are assembled into rationality differently in different places (see Janz 2008 for a fuller account of this). His focus is less on finding a method of philosophizing in Africa and more on finding a method of thinking able to account for both its universality and particularity.

Contributions to Philosophy

It would be interesting to see each of the contributors here interact with Eze’s argument. Eze seems less concerned about the problem of demarcation in African philosophy than he is about describing the ways in which people in particular places leverage universal aspects of human reason for localized effects. Like the contributors in the book, he is interested in a version of African philosophy which is creative, but I suspect his description of creativity would be different. And, his version of reason is less about clearing the impediments to the true functioning of reason, and more about how different forms of reason might work.

Eze does not explicitly say that he is writing a treatise on method in African philosophy, and in fact he avoids thinking about method at all in terms of looking for something unique in Africa. For him, the goal of method in the context of Africa is not to find a unique approach to Africa, or even to find a new way of clearing the impediments to reason. Nor is it to find something analogous to method in other disciplines, that is, a set of disciplined steps designed to support theories or explanations of phenomena in a particular domain. To that extent, he would agree with the contributors to this book – method in philosophy does not easily lend itself to definition in any rigid sense.

But he would likely have some questions for these contributors. For Makwinja, he might ask whether the question of method really is just a distraction from producing philosophy that is relevant to Africa? Is method only about clearing away the barriers to reasoning in Africa and establishing Africa’s place within the world of philosophy, or does it have a further relevance once those tasks are either completed or not worth engaging anymore?

For Ogbonnaya, he might ask whether the contrast between ontology and logic is really the only one that faces us. Are there not other forms of reasoning available, and the question of which comes first in the ontology/logic binary is overly simplified? For Chimakonam, he might ask how other disciplines and their traditions of reason might fit into the picture he is drawing about conversational philosophy. As Eze indicates, there are a range of forms of reason which assemble into rationality.

Is the conversational method a centrifugal one, expanding the range of reason in the context of Africa, or a centripetal one, tightening and honing rational discourse within the context of philosophy, to the exclusion of discourses in other disciplines? In other words, does conversation as a method broaden the scope of philosophy or narrow it? And for Oyowe, he might ask whether, given his rejection of the “no ought from is” dictum, if it is still possible to, as Eze puts it, “protect what I regard as the relative independence of philosophical reflection from contextual morality and political settlements.” (Eze 2008: 235).

In other words, the arrow on this dictum might go both ways – if “is” constitutes a sufficient basis for “ought”, is it possible that “ought” will influence or even produce what we think of as “is”, which would lead to a kind of relativism at best, or a capture of philosophy for political ends at worst?

Of course, we cannot truly know what Eze would ask, and I am not trying to speak on his behalf. What I am doing is taking the lead he gives us in On Reason to think about the nature of method beyond the contributions to Etieyibo’s volume. These chapters, along with Eze and other writings, are defining a disciplined and extended discussion about the difficult question of method in African philosophy, and I look forward to future conversations around these questions.

Contact details: bruce.janz@ucf.edu

References

Jonathan O. Chimakonam, “The ‘Demise’ of Philosophical Universalism and the Rise of Conversational Thinking in Contemporary African Philosophy” in Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018: 135-159.

Emmanuel Eze, On Reason: Rationality in a World of Cultural Conflict and Racism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.

Bruce Janz, “Reason and Rationality in Eze’s On ReasonSouth African Journal of Philosophy 27:4 (2008): 296-309.

Simon Mathias Makwinja, “Questions of Method and Substance and the Growth of African Philosophy” in Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018: 93-112.

Lucky Uchenna Ogbonnaya, “Between Ontology and Logic Criteria of African Philosophy” in Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018: 113-133.

Oritsegbubemi Anthony Oyowe, “Is, Ought, and All: In Defense of a Method” in Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018: 161-184.

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.