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

Kochan, Jeff. “Decolonising Science in Canada: A Work in Progress.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 42-47.

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

A Mi’kmaw man and woman in ceremonial clothing.
Image by Shawn Harquail via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This essay is in reply to:

Wills, Bernard (2018). ‘Weak Scientism: The Prosecution Rests.’ Social Epistemology Review & Reply Collective 7(10): 31-36.

In a recent debate about scientism in the SERRC pages, Bernard Wills challenges the alleged ‘ideological innocence’ of scientism by introducing a poignant example from his own teaching experience on the Grenfell Campus of Memorial University, in Corner Brook, Newfoundland (Wills 2018: 33).

Note that Newfoundland, among its many attractions, claims a UNESCO World Heritage site called L’Anse aux Meadows. Dating back about 1000 years, L’Anse aux Meadows is widely agreed to hold archaeological evidence for the earliest encounters between Europeans and North American Indigenous peoples.

Southwest Newfoundland is a part of Mi’kma’ki, the traditional territory of the Mi’kmaq. This territory also includes Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and parts of New Brunswick, Québec, and Maine. Among North America’s Indigenous peoples, the Mi’kmaq can readily claim to have experienced some of the earliest contact with European culture.

Creeping Colonialism in Science

Let us now turn to Wills’s example. A significant number of students on the Grenfell Campus are Mi’kmaq. These students have sensitised Wills to the fact that science has been used by the Canadian state as an instrument for colonial oppression. By cloaking colonialism in the claim that science is a neutral, universal standard by which to judge the validity of all knowledge claims, state scientism systematically undermines the epistemic authority of ancient Mi’kmaq rights and practices.

Wills argues, ‘[t]he fact that Indigenous knowledge traditions are grounded in local knowledge, in traditional lore and in story means that on questions of importance to them Indigenous peoples cannot speak. It means they have to listen to others who “know better” because the propositions they utter have the form of science.’ Hence, Wills concludes that, in the Canadian context, the privileging of science over Indigenous knowledge ‘is viciously exploitative and intended to keep indigenous peoples in a place of dependency and inferiority’ (Wills 2018: 33-4).

There is ample historical and ethnographic evidence available to support Wills’s claims. John Sandlos, for example, has shown how the Canadian state, from the late 19th century to around 1970, used wildlife science as a ‘coercive’ and ‘totalizing influence’ in order to assert administrative control over Indigenous lives and lands in Northern Canada (Sandlos 2007: 241, 242).

Paul Nadasdy, in turn, has argued that more recent attempts by the Canadian state to establish wildlife co-management relationships with Indigenous groups are but ‘subtle extensions of empire, replacing local Aboriginal ways of talking, thinking and acting with those specifically sanctioned by the state’ (Nadasdy 2005: 228). The suspicions of Wills’s Mi’kmaw students are thus well justified by decades of Canadian state colonial practice.

Yet Indigenous peoples in Canada have also pointed out that, while this may be most of the story, it is not the whole story. For example, Wills cites Deborah Simmons in support of his argument that the Canadian state uses science to silence Indigenous voices (Wills 2018: 33n4). Simmons certainly does condemn the colonial use of science in the article Wills cites, but she also writes: ‘I’ve seen moments when there is truly a hunger for new knowledge shared by indigenous people and scientists, and cross-cultural barriers are overcome to discuss research questions and interpret results from the two distinct processes of knowledge production’ (Simmons 2010).

Precious Signs of Hope Amid Conflict

In the haystack of Canada’s ongoing colonial legacy, it can often be very difficult to detect such slivers of co-operation between scientists and Indigenous peoples. For example, after three decades of periodic field work among the James Bay Cree, Harvey Feit still found it difficult to accept Cree claims that they had once enjoyed a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship with the Canadian state in respect of wildlife management in their traditional hunting territories. But when Feit finally went into the archives, he discovered that it was true (Feit 2005: 269; see also the discussion in Kochan 2015: 9-10).

In a workshop titled Research the Indigenous Way, part of the 2009 Northern Governance and Policy Research Conference, held in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, participants affirmed that ‘Indigenous people have always been engaged in research processes as part of their ethical “responsibility to keep the land alive”’ (McGregor et al. 2010: 102). At the same time, participants also recognised Indigenous peoples’ ‘deep suspicion’ of research as a vehicle for colonial exploitation (McGregor et al. 2010: 118).

Yet, within this conflicted existential space, workshop participants still insisted that there had been, in the last 40 years, many instances of successful collaborative research between Indigenous and non-Indigenous practitioners in the Canadian North. According to one participant, Alestine Andre, these collaborations, although now often overlooked, ‘empowered and instilled a sense of well-being, mental, physical, emotional, spiritual good health in their Elders, youth and community people’ (McGregor et al. 2010: 108).

At the close of the workshop, participants recommended that research not be rejected, but instead indigenised, that is, put into the hands of Indigenous practitioners ‘who bear unique skills for working in the negotiated space that bridges into and from scientific and bureaucratic ways of knowing’ (McGregor et al. 2010: 119). Indigenised research should both assert and strengthen Indigenous rights and self-government.

Furthermore, within this indigenised research context, ‘there is a role for supportive and knowledgeable non-Indigenous researchers, but […] these would be considered “resource people” whose imported research interests and methods are supplementary to the core questions and approach’ (McGregor et al. 2010: 119).

Becoming a non-Indigenous ‘resource person’ in the context of decolonising science can be challenging work, and may offer little professional reward. As American archaeologist, George Nicholas, observes, it ‘requires more stamina and thicker skin than most of us, including myself, are generally comfortable with – and it can even be harmful, whether one is applying for permission to work on tribal lands or seeking academic tenure’ (Nicholas 2004: 32).

Indigenous scholar Michael Marker, at the University of British Columbia, has likewise suggested that such research collaborations require patience: in short, ‘don’t rush!’ (cited by Wylie 2018). Carly Dokis and Benjamin Kelly, both of whom study Indigenous water-management practices in Northern Ontario, also emphasise the importance of listening, of ‘letting go of your own timetable and relinquishing control of your project’ (Dokis & Kelly 2014: 2). Together with community-based researchers, Dokis and Kelly are exploring new research methodologies, above all the use of ‘storycircles’ (https://faculty.nipissingu.ca/carlyd/research/).

Such research methods are also being developed elsewhere in Canada. The 2009 Research the Indigenous Way workshop, mentioned above, was structured as a ‘sharing circle,’ a format that, according to the workshop facilitators, ‘reflect[ed] the research paradigm being talked about’ (McGregor et al. 2010: 101). Similarly, the 13th North American Caribou Workshop a year later, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, included an ‘Aboriginal talking circle,’ in which experiences and ideas about caribou research were shared over the course of one and a half days. The ‘relaxed pace’ of the talking circle ‘allowed for a gradual process of relationship-building among the broad spectrum of Aboriginal nations, while providing a scoping of key issues in caribou research and stewardship’ (Simmons et al. 2012: 18).

Overcoming a Rational Suspicion

One observation shared by many participants in the caribou talking circle was the absence of Indigenous youth in scientific discussions. According to the facilitators, an important lesson learned from the workshop was that youth need to be part of present and future caribou research in order for Indigenous knowledge to survive (Simmons et al. 2012: 19).

This problem spans the country and all scientific fields. As Indigenous science specialist Leroy Little Bear notes, the Canadian Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1991-1996) ‘found consistent criticism among Aboriginal people in the lack of curricula in schools that were complimentary to Aboriginal peoples’ (Little Bear 2009: 17).

This returns us to Wills’s Mi’kmaw students at the Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook. A crucial element in decolonising scientific research in Canada is the encouragement of Indigenous youth interest in scientific ways of knowing nature. Wills’s observation that Mi’kmaw students harbour a keen suspicion of science as an instrument of colonial oppression points up a major obstacle to this community process. Under present circumstances, Indigenous students are more likely to drop out of, rather than to tune into, the science curricula being taught at their schools and universities.

Mi’kmaw educators and scholars are acutely aware of this problem, and they have worked assiduously to overcome it. In the 1990s, a grass-roots initiative between members of the Mi’kmaw Eskasoni First Nation and a handful of scientists at nearby Cape Breton University (CBU), in Nova Scotia, began to develop and promote a new ‘Integrative Science’ programme for CBU’s syllabus. Their goal was to reverse the almost complete absence of Indigenous students in CBU’s science-based courses by including Mi’kmaw and other Indigenous knowledges alongside mainstream science within the CBU curriculum (Bartlett et al. 2012: 333; see also Hatcher et al. 2009).

In Fall Term 2001, Integrative Science (in Mi’kmaw, Toqwa’tu’kl Kjijitaqnn, or ‘bringing our knowledges together’) became an accredited university degree programme within CBU’s already established 4-year Bachelor of Science Community Studies (BScCS) degree (see: http://www.integrativescience.ca). In 2008, however, the suite of courses around which the programme had been built was disarticulated from both the BScSC and the Integrative Science concentration, and was instead offered within ‘access programming’ for Indigenous students expressing interest in a Bachelor of Arts degree. The content of the courses was also shifted to mainstream science (Bartlett et al. 2012: 333).

Throughout its 7-year existence, the Integrative Science academic programme faced controversy within CBU; it was never assigned a formal home department or budget (Bartlett et al. 2012: 333). Nevertheless, the programme succeeded in meeting its original goal. Over those 7 years, 27 Mi’kmaw students with some programme affiliation graduated with a science or science-related degree, 13 of them with a BScSC concentration in Integrative Science.

In 2012, most of these 13 graduates held key service positions within their home communities (e.g., school principal, research scientist or assistant, job coach, natural resource manager, nurse, teacher). These numbers compare favourably with the fewer than 5 Indigenous students who graduated with a science or science-related degree, unaffiliated with Integrative Science, both before and during the life of the programme (Bartlett et al. 2012: 334). All told, up to 2007, about 100 Mi’kmaw students had participated in first-year Integrative Science courses at CBU (Bartlett et al. 2012: 334).

From its inception, Integrative Science operated under an axe, facing, among other things, chronic ‘inconsistencies and insufficiencies at the administrative, faculty, budgetary and recruitment levels’ (Bartlett 2012: 38). One could lament its demise as yet one more example of the colonialism that Wills has brought to our attention in respect of the Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook. Yet it is important to note that the culprit here was not science, as such, but a technocratic – perhaps scientistic – university bureaucracy. In any case, it seems inadequate to chalk up the travails of Integrative Science to an indiscriminate search for administrative ‘efficiencies’ when the overall nation-state context was and is, in my opinion, a discriminatory one.

When Seeds Are Planted, Change Can Come

But this is not the note on which I would like to conclude. To repeat, up to 2007, about 100 Mi’kmaw students had participated in first-year Integrative Science courses. That is about 100 Mi’kmaw students who are, presumably, less likely to hold the firmly negative attitude towards science that Wills has witnessed among his own Mi’kmaw students in Newfoundland.

As I wrote above, in the haystack of Canada’s ongoing colonial legacy, it can be very difficult to detect those rare slivers of co-operation between scientists and Indigenous peoples on which I have here tried to shine a light. If this light were allowed to go out, a sense of hopelessness could follow, and then an allegedly hard border between scientific and Indigenous knowledges may suddenly spring up and appear inevitable, if also, for some, lamentable.

Let me end with the words of Albert Marshall, who, at least up to 2012, was the designated voice on environmental matters for Mi’kmaw Elders in Unama’ki (Cape Breton), as well as a member of the Moose Clan. Marshall was a key founder and constant shepherd of CBU’s Integrative Science degree programme. One last time: some 100 Mi’kmaw students participated in that programme during its brief life. Paraphrased by his CBU collaborator, Marilyn Iwama, Elder Marshall had this to say:

Every year, the ash tree drops its seeds on the ground. Sometimes those seeds do not germinate for two, three or even four cycles of seasons. If the conditions are not right, the seeds will not germinate. […] [Y]ou have to be content to plant seeds and wait for them to germinate. You have to wait out the period of dormancy. Which we shouldn’t confuse with death. We should trust this process. (Bartlett et al. 2015: 289)

Contact details: jwkochan@gmail.com

References

Bartlett, Cheryl (2012). ‘The Gift of Multiple Perspectives in Scholarship.’ University Affairs / Affaires universitaires 53(2): 38.

Bartlett, Cheryl, Murdena Marshall, Albert Marshall and Marilyn Iwama (2015). ‘Integrative Science and Two-Eyed Seeing: Enriching the Discussion Framework for Healthy Communities.’ In Lars K. Hallstrom, Nicholas Guehlstorf and Margot Parkes (eds), Ecosystems, Society and Health: Pathways through Diversity, Convergence and Integration (Montréal: McGill-Queens University Press), pp. 280-326.

Bartlett, Cheryl, Murdena Marshall and Albert Marshall (2012). ‘Two-Eyed Seeing and Other Lessons Learned within a Co-Learning Journey of Bringing Together Indigenous and Mainstream Knowledges and Ways of Knowing.’ Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 2: 331-340.

Dokis, Carly and Benjamin Kelly (2014). ‘Learning to Listen: Reflections on Fieldwork in First Nation Communities in Canada.’ Canadian Association of Research Ethics Boards Pre and Post (Sept): 2-3.

Feit, Harvey A. (2005). ‘Re-Cognizing Co-Management as Co-Governance: Visions and Histories of Conservation at James Bay.’ Anthropologica 47: 267-288.

Hatcher, Annamarie, Cheryl Bartlett, Albert Marshall and Murdena Marshall (2009). ‘Two-Eyed Seeing in the Classroom Environment: Concepts, Approaches, and Challenges.’ Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education 9(3): 141-153.

Kochan, Jeff (2015). ‘Objective Styles in Northern Field Science.’ Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 52: 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsa.2015.04.001

Little Bear, Leroy (2009). Naturalizing Indigenous Knowledge, Synthesis Paper. University of Saskatchewan, Aboriginal Education Research Centre, Saskatoon, Sask. and First Nations and Adult Higher Education Consortium, Calgary, Alta. https://www.afn.ca/uploads/files/education/21._2009_july_ccl-alkc_leroy_littlebear_naturalizing_indigenous_knowledge-report.pdf  [Accessed 05 November 2018]

McGregor, Deborah, Walter Bayha & Deborah Simmons (2010). ‘“Our Responsibility to Keep the Land Alive”: Voices of Northern Indigenous Researchers.’ Pimatisiwin: A Journal of Aboriginal and Indigenous Community Health 8(1): 101-123.

Nadasdy, Paul (2005). ‘The Anti-Politics of TEK: The Institutionalization of Co-Management Discourse and Practice.’ Anthropologica 47: 215-232.

Nicholas, George (2004). ‘What Do I Really Want from a Relationship with Native Americans?’ The SAA Archaeological Record (May): 29-33.

Sandlos, John (2007). Hunters at the Margin: Native People and Wildlife Conservation in the Northwest Territories (Vancouver: UBC Press).

Simmons, Deborah (2010). ‘Residual Stalinism.’ Upping the Anti #11. http://uppingtheanti.org/journal/article/11-residual-stalinism [Accessed 01 November 2018]

Simmons, Deborah, Walter Bayha, Danny Beaulieu, Daniel Gladu & Micheline Manseau (2012). ‘Aboriginal Talking Circle: Aboriginal Perspectives on Caribou Conservation (13th North American Caribou Workshop).’ Rangifer, Special Issue #20: 17-19.

Wills, Bernard (2018). ‘Weak Scientism: The Prosecution Rests.’ Social Epistemology Review & Reply Collective 7(10): 31-36.

Wylie, Alison (2018). ‘Witnessing and Translating: The Indigenous/Science Project.’ Keynote address at the workshop Philosophy, Archaeology and Community Perspectives: Finding New Ground, University of Konstanz, 22 October 2018.

 

Author Information: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College, serrc.digital@gmail.com.

Riggio, Adam. “Asking the Best Questions About Epistemology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 31-35.

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

Image by Juan Antonio Segal via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

My response to Jim Butcher’s piece carries a little extra authority because, as Digital Editor, I approved its publication in the first place. I say this not to disavow the authority of my role, but to acknowledge it.

For a web platform’s editor to have okayed and published a piece that he is about to critique explicitly, is an inherently problematic position. It was already an inherently problematic position to publish an essay that so directly critiques the priorities of post-colonial research in a platform that has become more explicitly allied with post-colonial research since I took over as editor.

Context: The Problem of Platforming

My own position as an editor who both approves and critiques is also difficult, thanks to an intriguingly awkward coincidence. I live in Toronto, where a well-heeled, prestigious intellectual debate series just hosted a high-profile conversation between David Frum and Steve Bannon over the future of Western politics.

Frum, the former speechwriter and policy developer for George W. Bush, was and remains a vocal advocate for spreading democracy by the barrel of a rocket launcher, as he was when he wrote the famous “Axis of Evil” speech for Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address. He took the liberal, progressive side, contrary to Bannon’s advocacy of open nationalism.

Protestors outside the venue during the event, who faced disproportionate violence from police and security guards, were primarily motivated by a principle with which I largely agree: No Platform.

No Platform is the refusal to cede your venue to people advocating particularly violent or exclusionary ideologies. The principle considers that there are two reasons for refusing a platform for people to air these views. One is that ceding a platform lends dignity, respect, and prestige to morally repugnant ideas. The other is that it shifts the popular limit of politically and morally acceptable discourse so that what was widely considered extremist 15 years ago (using democracy promotion as an excuse to invade a country of millions on fraudulent pretenses, as Frum did) as perhaps a touch conservative but not that bad.

The No Platform principle, however, is all-too-often depicted as an expression of cowardice, fragility, or weakness of the personalities and principles of those who refuse platforms. This disingenuous image suggests, when its proponents do not state explicitly, that progressive moral and political values are weak because they cannot stand up to the challenge of debating an opposing viewpoint.

It is, however, nationalism and similar ideologies based on authoritarian domination that erodes democratic institutions and enforces violent caste / race hierarchies, that are the genuinely weak ones. Such ideologies do not gain adherents through genuine reason. They instead play on resentment and disingenuous insults about opponents, including resentments of the historically marginalized, to seduce people with feelings of natural superiority and displays of power to control and suppress people who are different than they are.

The Scope of a Claim to Be Universal

I open my response to Butcher’s article with this prologue, so that you can understand why a common reaction to his piece is to wonder why he was given a platform to begin with. The common progressive reaction to critiques of post-colonial theory such as Butcher’s is to deny them the legitimacy of a platform.

I was okay with the publishing of Butcher’s piece because, despite and because of its flaws, it remains a valuable misunderstanding of post-colonial thinking. Butcher’s essay displays a common initial reaction of many Westerners to post-colonial challenges to the scientific and educational institutions and traditions that emerged from Europe’s Enlightenment period.

He is in good company, such as Rebecca Goldstein and Steven Pinker. He is also in bad company, such as Jordan Peterson, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Richard Dawkins.

Butcher’s fundamental philosophical error is mistaking a challenge to the Enlightenment tradition’s own specific claim of universality for a challenge to the very possibility of universality in knowledge. Here is an example from my own philosophical influences that I hope will contribute positively to explain this point.

That James Madison himself was a slave owner does not invalidate the philosophical strengths and concepts of his Federalist Papers. That he wrote the most philosophically insightful Federalist Papers likewise does not invalidate the moral and political violence of his having owned slaves or conceived the infamous and grotesque “three-fifths compromise” that precisely quantified the institutional sub-humanity of American slaves for census and taxation purposes.

European powers’ military-economic imperialism in the Atlantic slave trade and their colonization of the Americas fuelled European industrialization. European industrialization fuelled the growth of European scientific enterprise. The Enlightenment project began when this colonization process was already a century underway.

Popular morality that dehumanized Africans as slavish and Indigenous as savage was largely shared by the main intellectual and political leaders of the Enlightenment. The claims to universality of those who began the Enlightenment tradition were already corrupted by the ethical / political presumption that such universality required conformity to the specifically European (or Western) approach to universal knowledge.

Contemporary post-colonial research focuses primarily on demonstrating the falsehood of this necessity, the presumption that achieving the universal exclusively requires adopting the European-designed model whose crucible was the Enlightenment tradition.

When Knowledge Weds Itself to Terror

This presumption of exclusiveness is false. Even given the concept in post-colonial theory of different knowledge traditions constituting “multiple worlds” or “plural worlds,” the presumption of exclusiveness is false. Throughout his essay, Butcher presumes that taking differences in knowledge traditions to constitute multiple worlds of knowledge functions to exclude those worlds from each other.

The problem with Enlightenment traditions of science is not that they believed that universality in knowledge was possible. It was that they mistook the European approaches to knowledge as necessarily and exclusively universal. The European culture of science that descended from the Enlightenment was so economically and ideologically wedded to colonizing imperialism that the presumptions of what constituted properly universal forms of knowledge themselves justified the imperial enterprise.

The presumption of exclusiveness is the imperialist framework of thinking that post-colonial knowledge practices work to overcome. All the diversity of knowledge production methods in every non-Western culture was excluded from recognition as a legitimate method of knowledge production throughout the popular culture of Western societies. The British Empire was one of the worst offenders in its scale of influence around Earth, the intensity of its exclusionary rhetoric, and its ingenuity in building legal and military institutions to destroy and exclude all forms of knowledge that differed from the model of the Western Enlightenment.

In my own country of Canada, the Indian Act laws governing physical movement and removing political rights from Indigenous people created a residential concentration camp network in our Native Reserve system. This refusal of citizenship rights operated in concert with the national residential schools system, which forcibly separated Indigenous children from their families and communities, imprisoning them in boarding schools where teachers forced them through violence to forget their languages, cultural stories, and identities.

The United Nations recently declared, correctly, Canadian institutions of Indigenous governance to be machinery of a centuries-long act of genocide.

All of this was justified as the benevolence of English government educating Indigenous people to become proper citizens capable of learning at all. This is the intensity and seriousness to which European and broader Western institutions excluded ways of life from public legitimacy as knowledge producing cultures.

Misunderstanding “Decolonize”

In presuming that post-colonial thinkers themselves exclude all knowledge produced in scientific traditions and disciplines linked with imperialism-justifying ideologies, Butcher himself accuses post-colonial theory of colonialism.

Post-colonial thinkers who understand the fundamental point of post-colonial thinking do not consider their mission to exclude Western culture’s knowledge production traditions and methods from legitimacy as European empires did to others. Such exclusion is itself one of the central methods and principles of the imperialism that post-colonial thinking aims to identify.

Given the pervasiveness of exclusionary or delegitimizing attitudes toward Indigenous knowledge traditions in many academic disciplines for so long, it is naïve of anyone to think that any decolonizing process would be simple. Every practice in a scientific discipline should be scrutinized ruthlessly.

No territory should be exempt from the search for which practices presume their own exclusive correctness. This includes conceptual development, empirical research and interpretation methods, the popular images of the discipline, and how the university departments where all this work takes place carry out their daily work, hiring, tenure and promotion decision processes.

Butcher can say that the Enlightenment concept of universality, conceived abstractly, includes a plurality of sources, traditions, and methods of knowledge. All that he may say will not repair actual, concrete practices.

A memory of a man, frozen in stone, can no longer take issue with how others use his words.
Image by Ade Russell via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Epilogue: Unseemly Rhetoric

Butcher unfortunately leans on several rhetorical devices to make his point that have been widely discredited, due to their frequently occurring in racist right-wing trolling culture. Here is the most stark example.

He refers to Martin Luther King’s universally famous “I Have a Dream” segment from his speech at the March on Washington, to deride post-colonial theorists as themselves opposing genuine equality.

This has been a common tactic among the racist trolls of the United States at least since the 2012 murder trial of George Zimmerman. King’s words were often used to invalidate anti-racist advocates as themselves being anti-equality, as the quote was the rhetorical centrepiece of an argument that they wished to refuse Zimmerman a fair trial.

It did not matter to the trolls that the trial’s critics wanted us to explore, understand, and reject the ideologies that enabled Zimmerman to perceive Trayvon Martin as a dangerous threat to his neighbourhood, instead of a teenager being a jackass. King was quoted as a rhetorical means to use a superficial conception of equality to make more complex conceptions of equality appear hypocritical.

For Butcher to end his essay with such an appeal is, at best, terribly naive. Readers can easily imagine what it would be at worst. At worst, you need only consider what Steve Bannon and people like him propagate throughout popular culture today. But I am sure that Butcher would not consider himself so malicious in his intent.

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

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

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Ottawa: Government of Canada, 2015.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Epistemological Claim of Decolonise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Debate in Geography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contradictions: Geography’s History and Darwin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decolonialism’s Critique of Enlightenment Universalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In Defence of the Enlightenment Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Thoughts: Decolonialism and Liberation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sassower, Raphael. “Post-Truths and Inconvenient Facts.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 47-60.

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

Can one truly refuse to believe facts?
Image by Oxfam International via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

If nothing else, Steve Fuller has his ear to the pulse of popular culture and the academics who engage in its twists and turns. Starting with Brexit and continuing into the Trump-era abyss, “post-truth” was dubbed by the OED as its word of the year in 2016. Fuller has mustered his collected publications to recast the debate over post-truth and frame it within STS in general and his own contributions to social epistemology in particular.

This could have been a public mea culpa of sorts: we, the community of sociologists (and some straggling philosophers and anthropologists and perhaps some poststructuralists) may seem to someone who isn’t reading our critiques carefully to be partially responsible for legitimating the dismissal of empirical data, evidence-based statements, and the means by which scientific claims can be deemed not only credible but true. Instead, we are dazzled by a range of topics (historically anchored) that explain how we got to Brexit and Trump—yet Fuller’s analyses of them don’t ring alarm bells. There is almost a hidden glee that indeed the privileged scientific establishment, insular scientific discourse, and some of its experts who pontificate authoritative consensus claims are all bound to be undone by the rebellion of mavericks and iconoclasts that include intelligent design promoters and neoliberal freedom fighters.

In what follows, I do not intend to summarize the book, as it is short and entertaining enough for anyone to read on their own. Instead, I wish to outline three interrelated points that one might argue need not be argued but, apparently, do: 1) certain critiques of science have contributed to the Trumpist mindset; 2) the politics of Trumpism is too dangerous to be sanguine about; 3) the post-truth condition is troublesome and insidious. Though Fuller deals with some of these issues, I hope to add some constructive clarification to them.

Part One: Critiques of Science

As Theodor Adorno reminds us, critique is essential not only for philosophy, but also for democracy. He is aware that the “critic becomes a divisive influence, with a totalitarian phrase, a subversive” (1998/1963, 283) insofar as the status quo is being challenged and sacred political institutions might have to change. The price of critique, then, can be high, and therefore critique should be managed carefully and only cautiously deployed. Should we refrain from critique, then? Not at all, continues Adorno.

But if you think that a broad, useful distinction can be offered among different critiques, think again: “[In] the division between responsible critique, namely, that practiced by those who bear public responsibility, and irresponsible critique, namely, that practiced by those who cannot be held accountable for the consequences, critique is already neutralized.” (Ibid. 285) Adorno’s worry is not only that one forgets that “the truth content of critique alone should be that authority [that decides if it’s responsible],” but that when such a criterion is “unilaterally invoked,” critique itself can lose its power and be at the service “of those who oppose the critical spirit of a democratic society.” (Ibid)

In a political setting, the charge of irresponsible critique shuts the conversation down and ensures political hegemony without disruptions. Modifying Adorno’s distinction between (politically) responsible and irresponsible critiques, responsible scientific critiques are constructive insofar as they attempt to improve methods of inquiry, data collection and analysis, and contribute to the accumulated knowledge of a community; irresponsible scientific critiques are those whose goal is to undermine the very quest for objective knowledge and the means by which such knowledge can be ascertained. Questions about the legitimacy of scientific authority are related to but not of exclusive importance for these critiques.

Have those of us committed to the critique of science missed the mark of the distinction between responsible and irresponsible critiques? Have we become so subversive and perhaps self-righteous that science itself has been threatened? Though Fuller is primarily concerned with the hegemony of the sociology of science studies and the movement he has championed under the banner of “social epistemology” since the 1980s, he does acknowledge the Popperians and their critique of scientific progress and even admires the Popperian contribution to the scientific enterprise.

But he is reluctant to recognize the contributions of Marxists, poststructuralists, and postmodernists who have been critically engaging the power of science since the 19th century. Among them, we find Jean-François Lyotard who, in The Postmodern Condition (1984/1979), follows Marxists and neo-Marxists who have regularly lumped science and scientific discourse with capitalism and power. This critical trajectory has been well rehearsed, so suffice it here to say, SSK, SE, and the Edinburgh “Strong Programme” are part of a long and rich critical tradition (whose origins are Marxist). Adorno’s Frankfurt School is part of this tradition, and as we think about science, which had come to dominate Western culture by the 20th century (in the place of religion, whose power had by then waned as the arbiter of truth), it was its privileged power and interlocking financial benefits that drew the ire of critics.

Were these critics “responsible” in Adorno’s political sense? Can they be held accountable for offering (scientific and not political) critiques that improve the scientific process of adjudication between criteria of empirical validity and logical consistency? Not always. Did they realize that their success could throw the baby out with the bathwater? Not always. While Fuller grants Karl Popper the upper hand (as compared to Thomas Kuhn) when indirectly addressing such questions, we must keep an eye on Fuller’s “baby.” It’s easy to overlook the slippage from the political to the scientific and vice versa: Popper’s claim that we never know the Truth doesn’t mean that his (and our) quest for discovering the Truth as such is given up, it’s only made more difficult as whatever is scientifically apprehended as truth remains putative.

Limits to Skepticism

What is precious about the baby—science in general, and scientific discourse and its community in more particular ways—is that it offered safeguards against frivolous skepticism. Robert Merton (1973/1942) famously outlined the four features of the scientific ethos, principles that characterized the ideal workings of the scientific community: universalism, communism (communalism, as per the Cold War terror), disinterestedness, and organized skepticism. It is the last principle that is relevant here, since it unequivocally demands an institutionalized mindset of putative acceptance of any hypothesis or theory that is articulated by any community member.

One detects the slippery slope that would move one from being on guard when engaged with any proposal to being so skeptical as to never accept any proposal no matter how well documented or empirically supported. Al Gore, in his An Inconvenient Truth (2006), sounded the alarm about climate change. A dozen years later we are still plagued by climate-change deniers who refuse to look at the evidence, suggesting instead that the standards of science themselves—from the collection of data in the North Pole to computer simulations—have not been sufficiently fulfilled (“questions remain”) to accept human responsibility for the increase of the earth’s temperature. Incidentally, here is Fuller’s explanation of his own apparent doubt about climate change:

Consider someone like myself who was born in the midst of the Cold War. In my lifetime, scientific predictions surrounding global climate change has [sic.] veered from a deep frozen to an overheated version of the apocalypse, based on a combination of improved data, models and, not least, a geopolitical paradigm shift that has come to downplay the likelihood of a total nuclear war. Why, then, should I not expect a significant, if not comparable, alteration of collective scientific judgement in the rest of my lifetime? (86)

Expecting changes in the model does not entail a) that no improved model can be offered; b) that methodological changes in themselves are a bad thing (they might be, rather, improvements); or c) that one should not take action at all based on the current model because in the future the model might change.

The Royal Society of London (1660) set the benchmark of scientific credibility low when it accepted as scientific evidence any report by two independent witnesses. As the years went by, testability (“confirmation,” for the Vienna Circle, “falsification,” for Popper) and repeatability were added as requirements for a report to be considered scientific, and by now, various other conditions have been proposed. Skepticism, organized or personal, remains at the very heart of the scientific march towards certainty (or at least high probability), but when used perniciously, it has derailed reasonable attempts to use science as a means by which to protect, for example, public health.

Both Michael Bowker (2003) and Robert Proctor (1995) chronicle cases where asbestos and cigarette lobbyists and lawyers alike were able to sow enough doubt in the name of attenuated scientific data collection to ward off regulators, legislators, and the courts for decades. Instead of finding sufficient empirical evidence to attribute asbestos and nicotine to the failing health condition (and death) of workers and consumers, “organized skepticism” was weaponized to fight the sick and protect the interests of large corporations and their insurers.

Instead of buttressing scientific claims (that have passed the tests—in refereed professional conferences and publications, for example—of most institutional scientific skeptics), organized skepticism has been manipulated to ensure that no claim is ever scientific enough or has the legitimacy of the scientific community. In other words, what should have remained the reasonable cautionary tale of a disinterested and communal activity (that could then be deemed universally credible) has turned into a circus of fire-blowing clowns ready to burn down the tent. The public remains confused, not realizing that just because the stakes have risen over the decades does not mean there are no standards that ever can be met. Despite lobbyists’ and lawyers’ best efforts of derailment, courts have eventually found cigarette companies and asbestos manufacturers guilty of exposing workers and consumers to deathly hazards.

Limits to Belief

If we add to this logic of doubt, which has been responsible for discrediting science and the conditions for proposing credible claims, a bit of U.S. cultural history, we may enjoy a more comprehensive picture of the unintended consequences of certain critiques of science. Citing Kurt Andersen (2017), Robert Darnton suggests that the Enlightenment’s “rational individualism interacted with the older Puritan faith in the individual’s inner knowledge of the ways of Providence, and the result was a peculiarly American conviction about everyone’s unmediated access to reality, whether in the natural world or the spiritual world. If we believe it, it must be true.” (2018, 68)

This way of thinking—unmediated experiences and beliefs, unconfirmed observations, and disregard of others’ experiences and beliefs—continues what Richard Hofstadter (1962) dubbed “anti-intellectualism.” For Americans, this predates the republic and is characterized by a hostility towards the life of the mind (admittedly, at the time, religious texts), critical thinking (self-reflection and the rules of logic), and even literacy. The heart (our emotions) can more honestly lead us to the Promised Land, whether it is heaven on earth in the Americas or the Christian afterlife; any textual interference or reflective pondering is necessarily an impediment, one to be suspicious of and avoided.

This lethal combination of the life of the heart and righteous individualism brings about general ignorance and what psychologists call “confirmation bias” (the view that we endorse what we already believe to be true regardless of countervailing evidence). The critique of science, along this trajectory, can be but one of many so-called critiques of anything said or proven by anyone whose ideology we do not endorse. But is this even critique?

Adorno would find this a charade, a pretense that poses as a critique but in reality is a simple dismissal without intellectual engagement, a dogmatic refusal to listen and observe. He definitely would be horrified by Stephen Colbert’s oft-quoted quip on “truthiness” as “the conviction that what you feel to be true must be true.” Even those who resurrect Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s phrase, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts,” quietly admit that his admonishment is ignored by media more popular than informed.

On Responsible Critique

But surely there is merit to responsible critiques of science. Weren’t many of these critiques meant to dethrone the unparalleled authority claimed in the name of science, as Fuller admits all along? Wasn’t Lyotard (and Marx before him), for example, correct in pointing out the conflation of power and money in the scientific vortex that could legitimate whatever profit-maximizers desire? In other words, should scientific discourse be put on par with other discourses?  Whose credibility ought to be challenged, and whose truth claims deserve scrutiny? Can we privilege or distinguish science if it is true, as Monya Baker has reported, that “[m]ore than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, and more than half have failed to reproduce their own experiments” (2016, 1)?

Fuller remains silent about these important and responsible questions about the problematics (methodologically and financially) of reproducing scientific experiments. Baker’s report cites Nature‘s survey of 1,576 researchers and reveals “sometimes-contradictory attitudes towards reproducibility. Although 52% of those surveyed agree that there is a significant ‘crisis’ of reproducibility, less than 31% think that failure to reproduce published results means that the result is probably wrong, and most say that they still trust the published literature.” (Ibid.) So, if science relies on reproducibility as a cornerstone of its legitimacy (and superiority over other discourses), and if the results are so dismal, should it not be discredited?

One answer, given by Hans E. Plesser, suggests that there is a confusion between the notions of repeatability (“same team, same experimental setup”), replicability (“different team, same experimental setup”), and reproducibility (“different team, different experimental setup”). If understood in these terms, it stands to reason that one may not get the same results all the time and that this fact alone does not discredit the scientific enterprise as a whole. Nuanced distinctions take us down a scientific rabbit-hole most post-truth advocates refuse to follow. These nuances are lost on a public that demands to know the “bottom line” in brief sound bites: Is science scientific enough, or is it bunk? When can we trust it?

Trump excels at this kind of rhetorical device: repeat a falsehood often enough and people will believe it; and because individual critical faculties are not a prerequisite for citizenship, post-truth means no truth, or whatever the president says is true. Adorno’s distinction of the responsible from the irresponsible political critics comes into play here; but he innocently failed to anticipate the Trumpian move to conflate the political and scientific and pretend as if there is no distinction—methodologically and institutionally—between political and scientific discourses.

With this cultural backdrop, many critiques of science have undermined its authority and thereby lent credence to any dismissal of science (legitimately by insiders and perhaps illegitimately at times by outsiders). Sociologists and postmodernists alike forgot to put warning signs on their academic and intellectual texts: Beware of hasty generalizations! Watch out for wolves in sheep clothes! Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!

One would think such advisories unnecessary. Yet without such safeguards, internal disputes and critical investigations appear to have unintentionally discredited the entire scientific enterprise in the eyes of post-truth promoters, the Trumpists whose neoliberal spectacles filter in dollar signs and filter out pollution on the horizon. The discrediting of science has become a welcome distraction that opens the way to radical free-market mentality, spanning from the exploitation of free speech to resource extraction to the debasement of political institutions, from courts of law to unfettered globalization. In this sense, internal (responsible) critiques of the scientific community and its internal politics, for example, unfortunately license external (irresponsible) critiques of science, the kind that obscure the original intent of responsible critiques. Post-truth claims at the behest of corporate interests sanction a free for all where the concentrated power of the few silences the concerns of the many.

Indigenous-allied protestors block the entrance to an oil facility related to the Kinder-Morgan oil pipeline in Alberta.
Image by Peg Hunter via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Part Two: The Politics of Post-Truth

Fuller begins his book about the post-truth condition that permeates the British and American landscapes with a look at our ancient Greek predecessors. According to him, “Philosophers claim to be seekers of the truth but the matter is not quite so straightforward. Another way to see philosophers is as the ultimate experts in a post-truth world” (19). This means that those historically entrusted to be the guardians of truth in fact “see ‘truth’ for what it is: the name of a brand ever in need of a product which everyone is compelled to buy. This helps to explain why philosophers are most confident appealing to ‘The Truth’ when they are trying to persuade non-philosophers, be they in courtrooms or classrooms.” (Ibid.)

Instead of being the seekers of the truth, thinkers who care not about what but how we think, philosophers are ridiculed by Fuller (himself a philosopher turned sociologist turned popularizer and public relations expert) as marketing hacks in a public relations company that promotes brands. Their serious dedication to finding the criteria by which truth is ascertained is used against them: “[I]t is not simply that philosophers disagree on which propositions are ‘true’ or ‘false’ but more importantly they disagree on what it means to say that something is ‘true’ or ‘false’.” (Ibid.)

Some would argue that the criteria by which propositions are judged to be true or false are worthy of debate, rather than the cavalier dismissal of Trumpists. With criteria in place (even if only by convention), at least we know what we are arguing about, as these criteria (even if contested) offer a starting point for critical scrutiny. And this, I maintain, is a task worth performing, especially in the age of pluralism when multiple perspectives constitute our public stage.

In addition to debasing philosophers, it seems that Fuller reserves a special place in purgatory for Socrates (and Plato) for labeling the rhetorical expertise of the sophists—“the local post-truth merchants in fourth century BC Athens”—negatively. (21) It becomes obvious that Fuller is “on their side” and that the presumed debate over truth and its practices is in fact nothing but “whether its access should be free or restricted.” (Ibid.) In this neoliberal reading, it is all about money: are sophists evil because they charge for their expertise? Is Socrates a martyr and saint because he refused payment for his teaching?

Fuller admits, “Indeed, I would have us see both Plato and the Sophists as post-truth merchants, concerned more with the mix of chance and skill in the construction of truth than with the truth as such.” (Ibid.) One wonders not only if Plato receives fair treatment (reminiscent of Popper’s denigration of Plato as supporting totalitarian regimes, while sparing Socrates as a promoter of democracy), but whether calling all parties to a dispute “post-truth merchants” obliterates relevant differences. In other words, have we indeed lost the desire to find the truth, even if it can never be the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Political Indifference to Truth

One wonders how far this goes: political discourse without any claim to truth conditions would become nothing but a marketing campaign where money and power dictate the acceptance of the message. Perhaps the intended message here is that contemporary cynicism towards political discourse has its roots in ancient Greece. Regardless, one should worry that such cynicism indirectly sanctions fascism.

Can the poor and marginalized in our society afford this kind of cynicism? For them, unlike their privileged counterparts in the political arena, claims about discrimination and exploitation, about unfair treatment and barriers to voting are true and evidence based; they are not rhetorical flourishes by clever interlocutors.

Yet Fuller would have none of this. For him, political disputes are games:

[B]oth the Sophists and Plato saw politics as a game, which is to say, a field of play involving some measure of both chance and skill. However, the Sophists saw politics primarily as a game of chance whereas Plato saw it as a game of skill. Thus, the sophistically trained client deploys skill in [the] aid of maximizing chance occurrences, which may then be converted into opportunities, while the philosopher-king uses much the same skills to minimize or counteract the workings of chance. (23)

Fuller could be channeling here twentieth-century game theory and its application in the political arena, or the notion offered by Lyotard when describing the minimal contribution we can make to scientific knowledge (where we cannot change the rules of the game but perhaps find a novel “move” to make). Indeed, if politics is deemed a game of chance, then anything goes, and it really should not matter if an incompetent candidate like Trump ends up winning the American presidency.

But is it really a question of skill and chance? Or, as some political philosophers would argue, is it not a question of the best means by which to bring to fruition the best results for the general wellbeing of a community? The point of suggesting the figure of a philosopher-king, to be sure, was not his rhetorical skills in this conjunction, but instead the deep commitment to rule justly, to think critically about policies, and to treat constituents with respect and fairness. Plato’s Republic, however criticized, was supposed to be about justice, not about expediency; it is an exploration of the rule of law and wisdom, not a manual about manipulation. If the recent presidential election in the US taught us anything, it’s that we should be wary of political gamesmanship and focus on experience and knowledge, vision and wisdom.

Out-Gaming Expertise Itself

Fuller would have none of this, either. It seems that there is virtue in being a “post-truther,” someone who can easily switch between knowledge games, unlike the “truther” whose aim is to “strengthen the distinction by making it harder to switch between knowledge games.” (34) In the post-truth realm, then, knowledge claims are lumped into games that can be played at will, that can be substituted when convenient, without a hint of the danger such capricious game-switching might engender.

It’s one thing to challenge a scientific hypothesis about astronomy because the evidence is still unclear (as Stephen Hawking has done in regard to Black Holes) and quite another to compare it to astrology (and give equal hearings to horoscope and Tarot card readers as to physicists). Though we are far from the Demarcation Problem (between science and pseudo-science) of the last century, this does not mean that there is no difference at all between different discourses and their empirical bases (or that the problem itself isn’t worthy of reconsideration in the age of Fuller and Trump).

On the contrary, it’s because we assume difference between discourses (gray as they may be) that we can move on to figure out on what basis our claims can and should rest. The danger, as we see in the political logic of the Trump administration, is that friends become foes (European Union) and foes are admired (North Korea and Russia). Game-switching in this context can lead to a nuclear war.

In Fuller’s hands, though, something else is at work. Speaking of contemporary political circumstances in the UK and the US, he says: “After all, the people who tend to be demonized as ‘post-truth’ – from Brexiteers to Trumpists – have largely managed to outflank the experts at their own game, even if they have yet to succeed in dominating the entire field of play.” (39) Fuller’s celebratory tone here may either bring a slight warning in the use of “yet” before the success “in dominating the entire field of play” or a prediction that indeed this is what is about to happen soon enough.

The neoliberal bottom-line surfaces in this assessment: he who wins must be right, the rich must be smart, and more perniciously, the appeal to truth is beside the point. More specifically, Fuller continues:

My own way of dividing the ‘truthers’ and the ‘post-truthers’ is in terms of whether one plays by the rules of the current knowledge game or one tries to change the rules of the game to one’s advantage. Unlike the truthers, who play by the current rules, the post-truthers want to change the rules. They believe that what passes for truth is relative to the knowledge game one is playing, which means that depending on the game being played, certain parties are advantaged over others. Post-truth in this sense is a recognisably social constructivist position, and many of the arguments deployed to advance ‘alternative facts’ and ‘alternative science’ nowadays betray those origins. They are talking about worlds that could have been and still could be—the stuff of modal power. (Ibid.)

By now one should be terrified. This is a strong endorsement of lying as a matter of course, as a way to distract from the details (and empirical bases) of one “knowledge game”—because it may not be to one’s ideological liking–in favor of another that might be deemed more suitable (for financial or other purposes).

The political stakes here are too high to ignore, especially because there are good reasons why “certain parties are advantaged over others” (say, climate scientists “relative to” climate deniers who have no scientific background or expertise). One wonders what it means to talk about “alternative facts” and “alternative science” in this context: is it a means of obfuscation? Is it yet another license granted by the “social constructivist position” not to acknowledge the legal liability of cigarette companies for the addictive power of nicotine? Or the pollution of water sources in Flint, Michigan?

What Is the Mark of an Open Society?

If we corral the broader political logic at hand to the governance of the scientific community, as Fuller wishes us to do, then we hear the following:

In the past, under the inspiration of Karl Popper, I have argued that fundamental to the governance of science as an ‘open society’ is the right to be wrong (Fuller 2000a: chap. 1). This is an extension of the classical republican ideal that one is truly free to speak their mind only if they can speak with impunity. In the Athenian and the Roman republics, this was made possible by the speakers–that is, the citizens–possessing independent means which allowed them to continue with their private lives even if they are voted down in a public meeting. The underlying intuition of this social arrangement, which is the epistemological basis of Mill’s On Liberty, is that people who are free to speak their minds as individuals are most likely to reach the truth collectively. The entangled histories of politics, economics and knowledge reveal the difficulties in trying to implement this ideal. Nevertheless, in a post-truth world, this general line of thought is not merely endorsed but intensified. (109)

To be clear, Fuller not only asks for the “right to be wrong,” but also for the legitimacy of the claim that “people who are free to speak their minds as individuals are most likely to reach the truth collectively.” The first plea is reasonable enough, as humans are fallible (yes, Popper here), and the history of ideas has proven that killing heretics is counterproductive (and immoral). If the Brexit/Trump post-truth age would only usher a greater encouragement for speculation or conjectures (Popper again), then Fuller’s book would be well-placed in the pantheon of intellectual pluralism; but if this endorsement obliterates the silly from the informed conjecture, then we are in trouble and the ensuing cacophony will turn us all deaf.

The second claim is at best supported by the likes of James Surowiecki (2004) who has argued that no matter how uninformed a crowd of people is, collectively it can guess the correct weight of a cow on stage (his TED talk). As folk wisdom, this is charming; as public policy, this is dangerous. Would you like a random group of people deciding how to store nuclear waste, and where? Would you subject yourself to the judgment of just any collection of people to decide on taking out your appendix or performing triple-bypass surgery?

When we turn to Trump, his supporters certainly like that he speaks his mind, just as Fuller says individuals should be granted the right to speak their minds (even if in error). But speaking one’s mind can also be a proxy for saying whatever, without filters, without critical thinking, or without thinking at all (let alone consulting experts whose very existence seems to upset Fuller). Since when did “speaking your mind” turn into scientific discourse? It’s one thing to encourage dissent and offer reasoned doubt and explore second opinions (as health care professionals and insurers expect), but it’s quite another to share your feelings and demand that they count as scientific authority.

Finally, even if we endorse the view that we “collectively” reach the truth, should we not ask: by what criteria? according to what procedure? under what guidelines? Herd mentality, as Nietzsche already warned us, is problematic at best and immoral at worst. Trump rallies harken back to the fascist ones we recall from Europe prior to and during WWII. Few today would entrust the collective judgment of those enthusiasts of the Thirties to carry the day.

Unlike Fuller’s sanguine posture, I shudder at the possibility that “in a post-truth world, this general line of thought is not merely endorsed but intensified.” This is neither because I worship experts and scorn folk knowledge nor because I have low regard for individuals and their (potentially informative) opinions. Just as we warn our students that simply having an opinion is not enough, that they need to substantiate it, offer data or logical evidence for it, and even know its origins and who promoted it before they made it their own, so I worry about uninformed (even if well-meaning) individuals (and presidents) whose gut will dictate public policy.

This way of unreasonably empowering individuals is dangerous for their own well-being (no paternalism here, just common sense) as well as for the community at large (too many untrained cooks will definitely spoil the broth). For those who doubt my concern, Trump offers ample evidence: trade wars with allies and foes that cost domestic jobs (when promising to bring jobs home), nuclear-war threats that resemble a game of chicken (as if no president before him ever faced such an option), and completely putting into disarray public policy procedures from immigration regulations to the relaxation of emission controls (that ignores the history of these policies and their failures).

Drought and suffering in Arbajahan, Kenya in 2006.
Photo by Brendan Cox and Oxfam International via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Part Three: Post-Truth Revisited

There is something appealing, even seductive, in the provocation to doubt the truth as rendered by the (scientific) establishment, even as we worry about sowing the seeds of falsehood in the political domain. The history of science is the story of authoritative theories debunked, cherished ideas proven wrong, and claims of certainty falsified. Why not, then, jump on the “post-truth” wagon? Would we not unleash the collective imagination to improve our knowledge and the future of humanity?

One of the lessons of postmodernism (at least as told by Lyotard) is that “post-“ does not mean “after,” but rather, “concurrently,” as another way of thinking all along: just because something is labeled “post-“, as in the case of postsecularism, it doesn’t mean that one way of thinking or practicing has replaced another; it has only displaced it, and both alternatives are still there in broad daylight. Under the rubric of postsecularism, for example, we find religious practices thriving (80% of Americans believe in God, according to a 2018 Pew Research survey), while the number of unaffiliated, atheists, and agnostics is on the rise. Religionists and secularists live side by side, as they always have, more or less agonistically.

In the case of “post-truth,” it seems that one must choose between one orientation or another, or at least for Fuller, who claims to prefer the “post-truth world” to the allegedly hierarchical and submissive world of “truth,” where the dominant establishment shoves its truths down the throats of ignorant and repressed individuals. If post-truth meant, like postsecularism, the realization that truth and provisional or putative truth coexist and are continuously being re-examined, then no conflict would be at play. If Trump’s claims were juxtaposed to those of experts in their respective domains, we would have a lively, and hopefully intelligent, debate. False claims would be debunked, reasonable doubts could be raised, and legitimate concerns might be addressed. But Trump doesn’t consult anyone except his (post-truth) gut, and that is troublesome.

A Problematic Science and Technology Studies

Fuller admits that “STS can be fairly credited with having both routinized in its own research practice and set loose on the general public–if not outright invented—at least four common post-truth tropes”:

  1. Science is what results once a scientific paper is published, not what made it possible for the paper to be published, since the actual conduct of research is always open to multiple countervailing interpretations.
  2. What passes for the ‘truth’ in science is an institutionalised contingency, which if scientists are doing their job will be eventually overturned and replaced, not least because that may be the only way they can get ahead in their fields.
  3. Consensus is not a natural state in science but one that requires manufacture and maintenance, the work of which is easily underestimated because most of it occurs offstage in the peer review process.
  4. Key normative categories of science such as ‘competence’ and ‘expertise’ are moveable feasts, the terms of which are determined by the power dynamics that obtain between specific alignments of interested parties. (43)

In that sense, then, Fuller agrees that the positive lessons STS wished for the practice of the scientific community may have inadvertently found their way into a post-truth world that may abuse or exploit them in unintended ways. That is, something like “consensus” is challenged by STS because of how the scientific community pretends to get there knowing as it does that no such thing can ever be reached and when reached it may have been reached for the wrong reasons (leadership pressure, pharmaceutical funding of conferences and journals). But this can also go too far.

Just because consensus is difficult to reach (it doesn’t mean unanimity) and is susceptible to corruption or bias doesn’t mean that anything goes. Some experimental results are more acceptable than others and some data are more informative than others, and the struggle for agreement may take its political toll on the scientific community, but this need not result in silly ideas about cigarettes being good for our health or that obesity should be encouraged from early childhood.

It seems important to focus on Fuller’s conclusion because it encapsulates my concern with his version of post-truth, a condition he endorses not only in the epistemological plight of humanity but as an elixir with which to cure humanity’s ills:

While some have decried recent post-truth campaigns that resulted in victory for Brexit and Trump as ‘anti-intellectual’ populism, they are better seen as the growth pains of a maturing democratic intelligence, to which the experts will need to adjust over time. Emphasis in this book has been given to the prospect that the lines of intellectual descent that have characterised disciplinary knowledge formation in the academy might come to be seen as the last stand of a political economy based on rent-seeking. (130)

Here, we are not only afforded a moralizing sermon about (and it must be said, from) the academic privileged position, from whose heights all other positions are dismissed as anti-intellectual populism, but we are also entreated to consider the rantings of the know-nothings of the post-truth world as the “growing pains of a maturing democratic intelligence.” Only an apologist would characterize the Trump administration as mature, democratic, or intelligent. Where’s the evidence? What would possibly warrant such generosity?

It’s one thing to challenge “disciplinary knowledge formation” within the academy, and there are no doubt cases deserving reconsideration as to the conditions under which experts should be paid and by whom (“rent-seeking”); but how can these questions about higher education and the troubled relations between the university system and the state (and with the military-industrial complex) give cover to the Trump administration? Here is Fuller’s justification:

One need not pronounce on the specific fates of, say, Brexit or Trump to see that the post-truth condition is here to stay. The post-truth disrespect for established authority is ultimately offset by its conceptual openness to previously ignored people and their ideas. They are encouraged to come to the fore and prove themselves on this expanded field of play. (Ibid)

This, too, is a logical stretch: is disrespect for the authority of the establishment the same as, or does it logically lead to, the “conceptual” openness to previously “ignored people and their ideas”? This is not a claim on behalf of the disenfranchised. Perhaps their ideas were simply bad or outright racist or misogynist (as we see with Trump). Perhaps they were ignored because there was hope that they would change for the better, become more enlightened, not act on their white supremacist prejudices. Should we have “encouraged” explicit anti-Semitism while we were at it?

Limits to Tolerance

We tolerate ignorance because we believe in education and hope to overcome some of it; we tolerate falsehood in the name of eventual correction. But we should never tolerate offensive ideas and beliefs that are harmful to others. Once again, it is one thing to argue about black holes, and quite another to argue about whether black lives matter. It seems reasonable, as Fuller concludes, to say that “In a post-truth utopia, both truth and error are democratised.” It is also reasonable to say that “You will neither be allowed to rest on your laurels nor rest in peace. You will always be forced to have another chance.”

But the conclusion that “Perhaps this is why some people still prefer to play the game of truth, no matter who sets the rules” (130) does not follow. Those who “play the game of truth” are always vigilant about falsehoods and post-truth claims, and to say that they are simply dupes of those in power is both incorrect and dismissive. On the contrary: Socrates was searching for the truth and fought with the sophists, as Popper fought with the logical positivists and the Kuhnians, and as scientists today are searching for the truth and continue to fight superstitions and debunked pseudoscience about vaccination causing autism in young kids.

If post-truth is like postsecularism, scientific and political discourses can inform each other. When power-plays by ignoramus leaders like Trump are obvious, they could shed light on less obvious cases of big pharma leaders or those in charge of the EPA today. In these contexts, inconvenient facts and truths should prevail and the gamesmanship of post-truthers should be exposed for what motivates it.

Contact details: rsassowe@uccs.edu

* Special thanks to Dr. Denise Davis of Brown University, whose contribution to my critical thinking about this topic has been profound.

References

Theodor W. Adorno (1998/1963), Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords. Translated by Henry W. Pickford. New York: Columbia University Press

Kurt Andersen (2017), Fantasyland: How America Went Hotwire: A 500-Year History. New York: Random House

Monya Baker, “1,500 scientists lift the lid on reproducibility,” Nature Vol. 533, Issue 7604, 5/26/16 (corrected 7/28/16)

Michael Bowker (2003), Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos. New York: Rodale.

Robert Darnton, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” New York Review of Books Vo. LXV, No. 11 6/28/18, pp. 68-72.

Al Gore (2006), An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What Can Be Done About It. New York: Rodale.

Richard Hofstadter (1962), Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Vintage Books.

Jean- François Lyotard (1984), The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Robert K. Merton (1973/1942), “The Normative Structure of Science,” The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 267-278.

Hans E. Plesser, “Reproducibility vs. Replicability: A Brief History of Confused Terminology,” Frontiers in Neuroinformatics, 2017; 11: 76; online: 1/18/18.

Robert N. Proctor (1995), Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don’t Know About Cancer. New York: Basic Books.

James Surowiecki (2004), The Wisdom of Crowds. New York: Anchor Books.

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

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

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

Please refer to:

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

 

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

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

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

Canon: An Institution of Thought

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

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

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

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

What Is Distant Reading?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Shifting Fortunes of Fame

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

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

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

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

Philosophy as a Tradition

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

  • a, b, c, d, e, …, n[3]

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

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

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

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

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

Merging Historical Paths

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

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

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

Contact details: robert.piercey@uregina.ca

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] White, 92.

[5] White, 92.

[6] White, 93.

[7] White, 93.

Author Information: Sheldon Richmond, Independent Researcher

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

An Argument of Classical Rational Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stealth Influence

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

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

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

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

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

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

Undercurrents Against Positivism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

Please refer to:

Image by Güldem Üstün via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

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

Two Contexts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking Back Social Epistemology

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

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

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

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

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

Mending Wall

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

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

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

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

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

Contact details: erictkerr@gmail.com

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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