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Author Information: Robin McKenna, University of Liverpool,

McKenna, Robin. “McBride on Knowledge and Justification.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 9 (2018): 53-59.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Image by Ronan Shahnav via Flickr / Creative Commons


I would like to thank the editors of the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective for giving me the opportunity to review Mark McBride’s rich and rewarding book. To begin, I will give a—fairly high-level—overview of its contents. I will then raise some concerns and make some (mildly) critical comments.


The book is split into two parts. Part 1 concerns the issue of basic knowledge (and justification), whereas the second concerns (putative necessary) conditions on knowledge (specifically, conclusive reasons, sensitivity and safety conditions). We can start with Part 1. As McBride defines it, basic knowledge is “knowledge (or justification) which is immediate, in the sense that one’s justification for the known proposition doesn’t rest on any justification for believing other propositions” (p. 1).

Two central issues in Part 1 are (i) what, exactly, is wrong with Moore’s “proof” of the external world (Chapter 1) (ii) what, exactly, is wrong with inferences that yield “easy knowledge” (Chapters 2-3). Take these arguments, which for ease of reference I’ll call MOORE and EASY-K respectively:


(Visual appearance as of having hands).
1-M. I have hands.
2-M. If I have hands, an external world exists.
3-M. An external world exists.


(Visual appearance as of a red table).
1-EK. The table is red.
2-EK. If the table is red, then it is not white with red lights shining on it.
3-EK. The table is not white with red lights shining on it.

It seems like a visual appearance as of having hands can give one knowledge of 1-M, and 2-M seems to be knowable a priori. But it seems wrong to hold that one can thereby come to know 3-M. (And mutatis mutandis for EASY-K and 3-EK).

I want to single out three of McBride’s claims about MOORE and EASY-K. First, it is commonly taken that “dogmatist” responses to MOORE (such as Pryor 2000) are at a disadvantage with respect to “conservative” responses (such as Wright 2004). The dogmatist holds that having a visual appearance as of hands provides immediate warrant for 1-M, whereas the conservative holds that one can have warrant for 1-M only if one has a prior entitlement to accept 3-M. Thus the dogmatist seems forced to accept that warrant can “transmit” from the premises of MOORE to the conclusion, whereas the conservative can deny that warrant transmission occurs.

In Chapter 1 McBride turns this on its head. First, he argues that, while a conservative such as Crispin Wright can maintain that the premises of MOORE don’t transmit “non-evidential” warrant to the conclusion, he must allow that “evidential” warrant does transmit from the premises to the conclusion. Second, he argues that Wright cannot avail himself of what McBride (following Davies 2004) takes to be a promising diagnosis of the real problem with MOORE. According to Martin Davies, MOORE is inadequate because it is of no use in the epistemic project of settling the question whether the external world exists. But, for Wright, there can be no such project, because the proposition that the external world exists is the “cornerstone” on which all epistemic projects are built.

Second, in Chapter 3 McBride seeks to show that the dogmatist can supplement Davies’ account of the problem with Moore’s proof in order to diagnose the problem with EASY-K. According to McBride, EASY-K is problematic not just in that it is of no use in settling the question whether the table is not white with red lights shining on it, but also in that there are all sorts of ways in which one could settle this question (e.g. by investigating the lighting sources surrounding the table thoroughly).

Thus, EASY-K is problematic in a way that MOORE isn’t: while one could avail oneself of a better argument for the conclusion of EASY-K, it is harder to see what sort of argument could improve on MOORE.

Third, while Part 1 is generally sympathetic to the dogmatist position, Chapter 5 argues that the dogmatist faces a more serious problem. The reader interested in the details of the argument should consult Chapter 5. Here, I just try to explain the gist. Say you endorse a closure principle on knowledge like this:

CLOSURE: Necessarily, if S knows p, competently deduces q from p, and thereby comes to believe q, while retaining knowledge of p throughout, then S knows q (p. 159).

It follows that, if one comes to know 1-EK (the table is red) by having an appearance as of a red table, then competently deduces 3-EK (the table is not white with red lights shining on it) from 1-EK while retaining knowledge of 1-EK, then one knows 3-EK. But—counter-intuitively—having an appearance as of a red table can lower the credence one ought to have in 3-EK (see pp. 119-20 for the reason why).

It therefore seems inarguable that, if you are in a position to know 3-EK after having the appearance, you must have been in a position to know the 3-EK prior to the appearance. So it seems like the conservative position must be right after all. In order for your appearance as of a red table to furnish knowledge that there is a red table you must have been in a position to know that the table was not white with red lights shining on it prior to having the appearance as of a red table.

The second part of McBride’s book concerns putative (necessary) conditions on knowledge, in particular conclusive reasons (Chapter 6), sensitivity (Chapter 7) and safety (Chapter 8). McBride dedicates a chapter to each condition; the book finishes with a (brief) application of safety to legal knowledge (Chapter 9). While most epistemologists tend to argue that either sensitivity or (exclusive) safety are a (necessary) condition on knowledge, McBride provides a (qualified) defense of both.

In the case of sensitivity, this is in part because, if sensitivity were a condition on knowledge, then—as Nozick (1981) famously held—CLOSURE would be false, and so the argument against dogmatism (about knowledge) in Chapter 5 would be disarmed. Because of the centrality of sensitivity to the argument in Part 1, and because the chapters on conclusive reasons and sensitivity revolve around similar issues, I focus on sensitivity in what follows.

Here is an initial statement of sensitivity:

SENSITIVITY: S knows p only if S sensitively believes p, where S sensitively believes p just in case, were p false, S would not believe p (p. 160).

Chapter 7 (on sensitivity) is largely concerned with rebutting an objection from John Hawthorne (2004) to the effect that the sensitivity theorist must also reject these two principles:

EQUIVALENCE: If you know a priori that p and q are equivalent and you know p, then you are in a position to know q.

DISTRIBUTION: If one knows p and q, then one is in a position to know p and to know q.

Suppose I have an appearance as of a zebra. So I know:

(1) That is a zebra.

By EQUIVALENCE I can know:

(2) That is a zebra and that is not a cleverly disguised mule.

So by DISTRIBUTION I can know:

(3) That is not a cleverly disguised mule.

But, by SENSITIVITY, while I can know (1), I can’t know (3) because, if I were looking at a cleverly disguised mule, I would still believe I was looking at a zebra. Hawthorne concludes that the sensitivity theorist must deny a range of plausible principles, not just CLOSURE.

McBride’s basic response is that, while SENSITIVITY is problematic as stated, it can be modified in such a way that the sensitivity-theorist can deny EQUIVALENCE but keep DISTRIBUTION. More importantly, this rejection of EQUIVALENCE can be motivated on the grounds that initially motivate SENSITIVITY. Put roughly, the idea is that simple conjunctions like (4) already cause problems for SENSITIVITY:

(4) I have a headache and I have all my limbs.

Imagine you form the belief in (4) purely from your evidence of having a headache (and don’t worry about how this might be possible). While you clearly don’t know (4), your belief does satisfy SENSITIVITY, because, if (4) were false, you wouldn’t still believe it (if you didn’t have a headache, you wouldn’t believe you did, and so you wouldn’t believe (4)).

The underlying problem is that SENSITIVITY tells you to go the nearest possible world in which the relevant belief is false and asks what you believe there, but a conjunctive belief is false so long as one of the conjuncts is false, and it might be that one of the conjuncts is false in a nearby possible world, whereas the other is false in a more distant possible world. So the sensitivity theorist needs to restrict SENSITIVITY to atomic propositions and add a new condition for conjunctive propositions:

SENSITIVITY*: If p is a conjunctive proposition, S knows p only if S believes each of the conjuncts of p sensitively (p. 167).

If we make this modification, the sensitivity theorist now has an independent reason to reject EQUIVALENCE, but is free to accept DISTRIBUTION.

Critical Discussion

While this only touches on the wealth of topics discussed in McBride’s book, I will now move on to the critical discussion. I will start by registering two general issues about the book. I will then develop two criticisms in a little more length, one for each part of the book.

First, while the book makes compelling reading for those already versed in the literatures on transmission failure, easy knowledge and modal conditions on knowledge, the central problematics are rarely motivated at any length. Moreover, while McBride does draw numerous (substantive) connections between the chapters, the book lacks a unifying thesis. All this to say: This is maybe more of a book for the expert than the novice. But the expert will find a wealth of interesting material to chew over.

Second, readers of the Collective might find the individualism of McBride’s approach striking. McBride is almost exclusively concerned with the epistemic statuses of individuals’ beliefs, where those beliefs are formed through simple processes like perception and logical inference. The one part of the book that does gesture in a more social direction (McBride’s discussion of epistemic projects, and the dialectical contexts in which they are carried out) is suggestive, but isn’t developed in much detail.

Turning now to more substantive criticisms, in Part 1 McBride leans heavily on Davies’ solution to the problem with MOORE. I want to make two comments here. First, it is natural to interpret Davies’ solution as an inchoate form of contextualism (DeRose 1995; Lewis 1996): whether MOORE (and EASY-K?) transmits warrant to its conclusion depends on the context in which one runs the inference, in particular, the project in which one is engaged.

This raises a host of questions. For example: does McBride hold that, if we keep the context (project) fixed, no transmission failure occurs? That is: if we’re working with the (easier) project of deciding what to believe, does an instance of MOORE transmit warrant from premises to conclusion? If so, then if we’re working with the (harder) project of settling the question, does an instance of MOORE fail to transmit warrant? (This would fit with the more general contextualist line in response to the skeptical problem, so this is only a request for clarification).

Second, and more importantly, we need to distinguish between the project of fully settling the question whether p and the project of partially settling the question whether p. Let’s grant McBride (and Davies) that someone who runs through an instance of MOORE has not fully settled the question whether there is an external world. But why think that—at least by the dogmatist’s lights—they haven’t partially settled the question? If dogmatism is true, then having the appearance as of a hand provides immediate warrant for believing that one has a hand, and so, via MOORE, for believing that there is an external world.

McBride (like many others) finds this conclusion unpalatable, and he invokes the distinction between the project of deciding what to believe and the project of settling the question in order to avoid it. But this distinction is overly simplistic. We can settle questions for different purposes, and with different degrees of stability (cf. “the matter is settled for all practical purposes”). The dogmatist seems forced to allow that MOORE is perfectly good for settling the question of whether there is an external world for a range of projects, not just one.

(I have a parallel worry about the solution to the problem of easy knowledge. Let’s grant McBride that one problem with EASY-K is that there are far better ways of trying to establish that the table is not white but bathed in red light. But why think that—at least by the dogmatist’s lights—it isn’t a way of trying to establish this? To point out that there are better ways of establishing a conclusion is not yet to show that this particular way is no way at all of establishing the conclusion).

Finally, in his response to Hawthorne’s objection to the sensitivity theorist McBride is at pains to show that his modification of SENSITIVITY isn’t ad hoc. To my mind, he does an excellent job of showing that the sensitivity theorist should reject EQUIVALENCE for reasons entirely independent of Hawthorne’s objection.

This suggests (at least to me) that the problem is not one of ad hocness, but rather that sensitivity theorists are forced to endorse a wide range of what Keith DeRose (1995) calls “abominable conjunctions” (cf. “I know that I have hands, but I don’t know that I’m not a handless brain in a vat”). DeRose’s own response to this problem is to embed something like SENSITIVITY in a contextualist theory of knowledge attributions. DeRose proposes the following “rule”:

Rule of Sensitivity: When it’s asserted that S knows (or doesn’t know) p, then, if necessary, enlarge the sphere of epistemically relevant worlds so that it at includes the closest worlds in which p is false (cf 1995, 37).

His idea is that, when the question of whether S knows p becomes a topic of conversation, we expand the range of worlds in which S’s belief must be sensitive. Imagine I assert “I know that I have hands”. In order for this assertion to be true, it must be the case that, if I didn’t have hands, I wouldn’t believe that I did.

But now imagine I assert “I know that I’m not a handless brain in a vat”. In order for this new assertion to be true, it must be the case that, if I were a handless brain in a vat, I wouldn’t believe that I wasn’t. Plausibly, this will not be the case, so I can’t truly assert “I know that I’m not a handless brain in a vat”. But no abominable conjunction results, because I can no longer truly assert “I know that I have hands” either.

My suggestion is that, if McBride were to adopt DeRose’s contextualist machinery, he would not only have a way of responding to the problem of abominable conjunctions, but also an interesting modification to DeRose’s “rule of sensitivity”.

For note that DeRose’s rule seems subject to the same problem McBride sees with SENSITIVITY: when I assert “I have a headache and I have all my limbs” we only need to expand the range of worlds to include worlds in which I don’t have a headache, and so my assertion will remain true in the updated context created by my assertion. Further, adopting this suggestion would furnish another link between Part 1 and Part 2: solving the problem of basic knowledge and formulating a satisfactory sensitivity condition both require adopting a contextualist theory of knowledge attributions.

Contact details:


Davies, Martin. 2004. ‘Epistemic Entitlement, Warrant Transmission and Easy Knowledge’. Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 78 (1): 213–245.

DeRose, Keith. 1995. ‘Solving the Skeptical Problem’. Philosophical Review 104 (1): 1–52.

Hawthorne, John. 2004. Knowledge and Lotteries. Oxford University Press.

Lewis, David. 1996. ‘Elusive Knowledge’. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 74 (4): 549–67.

Nozick, Robert. 1981. Philosophical Explanations. Harvard University Press.

Pryor, James. 2000. ‘The Skeptic and the Dogmatist’. Noûs 34 (4): 517–549.

Wright, Crispin. 2004. ‘Warrant for Nothing (and Foundations for Free)?’ Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 78 (1): 167–212.

Author Information: Jim Collier, Virginia Tech,

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

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


Part One, Social Epistemology as Fullerism:

Part Two, Impoverishing Critical Engagement:

Part Three, We’re All Californians Now:

Fuller’s recent work has explored the nature of technological utopia.
Image by der bobbel via Flickr / Creative Commons


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

Of Technological Ontology

Missing in the list delineating Fuller’s “extensive familiarity” (10) with an unbelievable array of academic fields and literatures are the history and the philosophy of technology. (As history, philosophy, and “many other fields” make the list, perhaps I am being nitpicky.) Still, I want to highlight, by way of contrast, what I take as a significant oversight in Remedios and Dusek’s account of Fullerism—a refined conception of technology; hence, a capitulation to technological determinism.

Remedios and Dusek do not mention technological determinism. Genetic determinism (69) and Darwinian determinism (75, 77-78) receive brief attention. A glossary entry for “determinism” (143) focuses on Pierre-Simon Laplace’s work. However, the strict technological determinism on which Fullerism stands goes unmentioned. With great assuredness, Remedios and Dusek repeat Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity mantra, with a Fullerian inflection, that: “converging technologies, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, and computer technology, are transforming and enhancing humanity to humanity 2.0” (33).[1] Kurzweil’s proclamations, and Fuller’s conceptual piggybacking, go absent scrutiny. Unequivocally, a day will come in 2045 when humans—some humans at least—“will be transformed through technology to humanity 2.0, into beings that are Godlike” (94).

The “hard determinism” associated with Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society (1964), and, I argue, with Fuller as relayed by Remedios and Dusek, holds that technology acts as an uncontrollable force independent from social authority. Social organization and action derive from technological effects. Humans have no freedom in choosing the outcome of technological development—technology functions autonomously.

Depending on the relative “hardness” of the technological determinism on offer we can explain social epistemology, for example, as a system of thought existing for little reason other than aiding a technological end (like achieving humanity 2.0). Specifically, Fuller’s social and academic policies exist to assure a transhuman future. A brief example:

How does the university’s interdisciplinarity linked [sic] to transhumanism? Kurzweil claims that human mind and capacities can be uploaded into computers with increase in computing power [sic]. The problem is integration of those capacities and personal identity. Kurzweil’s Singularity University has not been able to address the problem of integration. Fuller proposes transhumanities promoted by university 2.0 for integration by the transhumanist. (51)

As I understand the passage, universities should develop a new interdisciplinary curriculum, (cheekily named the transhumanities) given the forthcoming technological ability to upload human minds to computers. Since the uploading process will occur, we face a problem regarding personal identity (seemingly, how we define or conceive personal identity as uploaded minds). The new curriculum, in a new university system, will speak to issues unresolved by Singularity University—a private think tank and business incubator.[2]

I am unsure how to judge adequately such reasoning, particularly in light of Remedios and Dusek’s definition of agent-oriented epistemology and suspicion of expertise. Ray Kurzweil, in the above passage and throughout the book, gets treated unreservedly as an expert. Moreover, Remedios and Dusek advertise Singularity University as a legitimate institution of higher learning—absent the requisite critical attitude toward the division of intellectual labor (48, 51).[3] Forgiving Remedios and Dusek for the all too human (1.0) sin of inconsistency, we confront the matter of how to get at their discussion of interdisciplinarity and transhumanism.

Utopia in Technology

Remedios and Dusek proceed by evaluating university curricula based on a technologically determined outcome. The problem of individual identity, given that human minds will be uploaded into computers, gets posed as a serious intellectual matter demanding a response from the contemporary academy. Moreover, the proposed transhumanities curriculum gets saddled with deploying outmoded initiatives, like interdisciplinarity, to render new human capacities with customary ideas of personal identity.

University 2.0, then, imagines inquiry into human divinity within a retrograde conceptual framework. This reactive posture results from the ease in accepting what must be. A tributary that leads back to this blithe acceptance of the future comes in the techno-utopianism of the Californian ideology.

The Californian ideology (Barbrook and Cameron 1996) took shape as digital networking technologies developed in Silicon Valley spread throughout the country and the world. Put baldly, the Californian ideology held that digital technologies would be our political liberators; thus, individuals would control their destinies. The emphasis on romantic individualism, and the quest for unifying knowledge, shares great affinity with the tenor of agent-oriented epistemology.

The Californian ideology fuses together numerous elements—entrepreneurialism, libertarianism, individualism, techno-utopianism, technological determinism—into a more or less coherent belief system. The eclecticism of the ideology—the dynamic, dialectical blend of left and right politics, well-heeled supporters, triumphalism, and cultishness—conjures a siren’s call for philosophical relevance hunting, intervention, and mimicry.

I find an interesting parallel in the impulse toward disembodiment by Kurzweil and Fuller, and expressed in John Perry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” (1996). Barlow waxes lyrically: “Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion. We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge.”

The demigod Prometheus makes appearances throughout Knowing Humanity in the Social World. Remedios and Dusek have Fuller play the rebel trickster and creator. Fuller’s own transhumanist project creates arguments, policies, and philosophical succor that advocate humanity’s desire to ascend to godhood (7, 67). In addition, Fuller’s Promethean task possesses affinities with Russian cosmism (97-99), a project exploring human enhancement, longevity (cryonics), and space travel.[4] Fuller’s efforts result in more or less direct, and grandiose, charges of Gnosticism. Gnosticism, a tangled doctrine, can refer to the Christian heresy of seeking secret knowledge that, in direct association with the divine, allows one to escape the fetters of our lesser material world.

Gnostic Minds

Befitting a trickster, Fuller both accepts and rejects the charge of Gnosticism (102), the adjudication of which seems particularly irrelevant in the determinist framework of transhumanism. A related and distressing sense of pretense pervades Remedios and Dusek’s summary of Gnosticism, and scholastic presentation of such charges against Fuller. Remedios and Dusek do more than hint that such disputations involving Fuller have world historic consequences.

Imitating many futurists, Fuller repeats that “we are entering a new historical phase” (xi) in which our understanding of being human, of being an embodied human particularly, shifts how we perceive protections, benefits, and harms to our existence. This common futurist refrain, wedded to a commonsense observation, becomes transmogrified by the mention of gnosis (and the use of scare quotes):

The more we relativize the material conditions under which a “human” existence can occur, the more we shall also have to relativize our sense of what counts as benefits and harms to that existence. In this respect, Gnosticism is gradually being incorporated into our natural attitude toward the secular world. (xi)

Maybe. More likely, and less heroically, humans regularly reconsider who they are and determine what helps or hurts them absent mystical knowledge in consultation with the divine. As with many of Fuller’s broader claims, and iterations of such claims presented by Remedios and Dusek, I am uncertain how to judge the contention about the rise of Gnosticism as part of being in the world. Such a claim comes across as unsupported, certainly, and self-serving given the argument at hand.

The discussion of Gnosticism raises broader issues of how to understand the place, scope and meaningfulness of the contestations and provocations in which Fuller participates. Remedios and Dusek relay a sense that Fuller’s activities shape important social debates—Kitzmiller being a central example.[5] Still, one might have difficulty locating the playing field where Gnosticism influences general attitudes to matters either profane or sacred. How, too, ought we entertain Fuller’s statements that “Darwinism erodes the motivations of science itself” or “Darwin may not be a true scientist” (71)?

At best, these statements seem merely provocative; at worst, alarmingly incoherent. At first, Remedios and Dusek adjudicate these claims by reminding the reader of Fuller’s “sweeping historical and philosophical account” and “more sophisticated and historically informed version” (71) of creationism. Even when Fuller’s wrong, he’s right.

In this case, we need only accept the ever-widening parameters of Fuller’s historical and philosophical learning, and suspend judgment given the unresolved lessons of his ceaseless dialectic. Remedios and Dusek repeatedly make an appeal to authority (argumentum ad verecundiam) and, in turn, set social epistemology on a decidedly anti-intellectual footing. In part, such footing and uncritical attitude seems necessary to entertain Fuller’s “own promethean project of transhumanism” (99).

Transhuman Dialectic

Fuller’s Promethean efforts aside, transhumanism strives to maintain the social order in the service of power and money. A guiding assumption in the desire to transcend human evolution and embodiment involves who wins, come some form of end time (or “event”), and gets to take their profits with them. Douglas Rushkoff (2018) puts the matter this way:

It’s a reduction of human evolution to a video game that someone wins by finding the escape hatch and then letting a few of his BFFs come along for the ride. Will it be Musk, Bezos, Thiel…Zuckerberg? These billionaires are the presumptive winners of the digital economy — the same survival-of-the-fittest business landscape that’s fueling most of this speculation to begin with.[6] (

Fuller’s staging of endless dialectic—his ceaseless provocations (and attendant insincerity), his flamboyant exercises in rehabilitating distasteful and dangerous ideas—drives him to distraction. We need look no further than his misjudgment of transhumanism’s sociality. The contemporary origins of the desire to transcend humanity do not reside with longing to know the mind of god. Those origins reside with Silicon Valley neoliberalism and the rather more profane wish to keep power in heaven as it is on earth.

Fuller’s transhumanism resides with the same type of technological determinism as other transhumanist dialects and Kuzweil’s Singularity. A convergence, in some form, of computers, genetics, nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence leads inevitably to artificial superintelligence. Transhumanism depends on this convergence. Moore’s Law, and Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, will out.

This hard determinism renders practically meaningless—aside from fussiness, a slavish devotion to academic productivity, or perverse curiosity—the need for proactionary principles, preparations for human enhancement or alternative forms of existence, or the vindication of divine goodness. Since superintelligence lies on the horizon, what purpose can relitigating the history of eugenics, or enabling human experimentation, serve? [7] Epistemic agents can put aside their agency. Kurzweil asserts that skepticism and caution now threaten “society’s interests” (Pein 2017, 246). Remedios and Dusek portray Fuller as having the same disturbing attitude.

At the end of Knowing Humanity in the Social World, comes a flicker of challenge:

Fuller is totally uncritical about the similarly of utopian technologists’ and corporate leaders’ positions on artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and space travel. He assumes computers can replace human investigators and allow the uploading of human thought and personality. However, he never discusses and replies to the technical and philosophical literature that claims there are limits to what is claimed can be achieved toward strong artificial intelligence, or with genetic engineering. (124)

A more well-drawn, critical epistemic agent would begin with normative ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions regarding Fuller’s blind spot and our present understanding of social epistemology.  Inattention to technological utopianism and determinism does not strike me as a sufficient explanation—although the gravity of fashioning such grand futurism remains strong—for Fuller’s approach. Of course, the “blind spot” to which I point may be nothing of the sort. We should, then, move out of the way and pacify ourselves by constructing neo-Kantian worlds, while our technological and corporate betters make space for the select to occupy.

The idea of unification, of the ability of the epistemic agent to unify knowledge in terms of their “worldview and purposes,” threads throughout Remedios and Dusek’s book. Based on the book, I cannot resolve social epistemology pre- and post- the year 2000. Agent-oriented epistemology assumes yet another form of determinism. Remedios and Dusek look more than two centuries into our past to locate a philosophical language to speak to our future. Additionally, Remedios and Dusek render social epistemology passive and reliant on the Californian political order. If epistemic unification appears only at the dawn of a technologically determined future, we are automatons—no longer human.


Allow me to return to the question that Remedios and Dusek propose as central to Fuller’s metaphysically-oriented, post-2000, work: “What type of being should the knower be” (2)? Another direct (and undoubtedly simplistic) answer—enhanced. Knowers should be technologically enhanced types of beings. The kinds of enhancements on which Remedios and Dusek focus come with the convergence of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and computer technology and, so, humanity 2.0.

Humanity 2.0’s sustaining premise begins with yet another verse in the well-worn siren song of the new change, of accelerating change, of inevitable change. It is the call of Silicon Valley hucksters like Ray Kurzweil.[8] One cannot deny that technological change occurs. Still, a more sophisticated theory of technological change, and the reciprocal relation between technology and agency, seems in order. Remedios and Dusek and Fuller’s hard technological determinism cries out for reductionism. If a technological convergence occurs and super-intelligent computers arise what purpose, then, in preparing by using humanity 1.0 tools and concepts?

Why would this convergence, and our subsequent disembodied state, not also dictate, or anticipate, even revised ethical categories (ethics 2.0, 109), government programs (welfare state 2.0, 110), and academic institutions (university 2.0, 122)? Such “2.0 thinking,” captive to determinism, would be quaint if not for very real horrors of endorsing eugenics and human experimentation. The unshakeable assuredness of the technological determinism at the heart Fuller’s work denies the consequences, if not the risk itself, for the risks epistemic agents “must” take.

In 1988, Steve Fuller asked a different question: How should we organize and pursue knowledge collectively? [9] This question assumes that human beings have cognitive limitations, limitations that might be ameliorated by humans acting in helpful concert to change society and ourselves. As a starting point, befitting the 1980’s, Fuller sought answers in “knowledge bearing texts” and an expansive notion of textual technologies and processes. This line of inquiry remains vital. But neither the question, nor social epistemology, belongs solely to Steve Fuller.

Let me return to an additional question. “Is Fuller the super-agent?” (131). In the opening of this essay, I took Remedios’s question as calling back to hyperbole about Fuller in the book’s opening. Fuller does not answer the question directly, but Knowing Humanity in the Social World does—yes, Steve Fuller is the super-agent. While Remedios and Dusek do not yet attribute godlike qualities to Fuller, agent-oriented epistemology is surely created in his image—an image formed, if not anticipated, by academic charisma and bureaucratic rationality.

As the dominant voice and vita in the branch of social epistemology of Remedios and Dusek’s concern, Fuller will likely continue to set the agenda. Still, we might harken back to the more grounded perspective of Jesse Shera (1970) who helped coin the term social epistemology. Shera defines social epistemology as:

The study of knowledge in society. It should provide a framework for the investigation of the entire complex problem of the nature of the intellectual process in society; the study of the ways in which society as a whole achieves a perceptive relation to its total environment. It should lift the study of the intellectual life from that of scrutiny of the individual to an enquiry into the means by which a society, nation, of culture achieve an understanding of stimuli which act upon it … a new synthesis of the interaction between knowledge and social activity, or, if you prefer, social dynamics. (86)

Shera asks a great deal of social epistemology. It is good work for us now. We need not await future gods.

An Editorial Note

Palgrave Macmillian do the text no favors. We too easily live with our complicity—publishing houses, editors, universities, and scholars alike—to think of scholarship only as output—the more, the faster, the better. This material and social environment influences our notions of social epistemology and epistemic agency in significant ways addressed indirectly in this essay. For Remedios and Dusek, the rush to press means that infelicitous phrasing and cosmetic errors run throughout the text. The interview between Remedios and Fuller needs another editorial pass. Finally, the book did not integrate the voices of its co-authors.

Contact details:


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Barlow, John Perry. “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” 1996.

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

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Talbot, Margaret. “Darwin in the Dock.” The New Yorker December 5, 2005. 66-77.

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[1] “Ray Kurzweil, Google’s Director of Engineering, is a well-known futurist with a high-hitting track record for accurate predictions. Of his 147 predictions since the 1990s, Kurzweil claims an 86 percent accuracy rate. At the SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas, Kurzweil made yet another prediction: the technological singularity will happen sometime in the next 30 years” ( I must admit to a prevailing doubt (what are the criteria?) regarding Kurzweil’s “86 percent accuracy rate.” I further admit that the specificity of number itself—86—seems like the kind of exact detail to which liars resort.

[2] Corey Pein (2017, 260-261) notes: “It was eerie how closely the transhuman vision promoted by Singularity University resembled the eugenicist vision that had emerged from Stanford a century before. The basic arguments had scarcely changed. In The Singularity Is Near, SU chancellor Kurzweil decried the ‘fundamentalist humanism’ that informs restriction on the genetic engineering of human fetuses.”

[3] Pein (2017, 200-201) observes: “… I saw a vast parking lot ringed by concrete barriers and fencing topped with barbed wire. This was part of the federal complex that housed the NASA Ames Research Center and a strange little outfit called Singularity University, which was not really a university but more like a dweeby doomsday congregation sponsored by some of the biggest names in finance and tech, including Google. The Singularity—a theoretical point in the future when computational power will absorb all life, energy, and matter into a single, all-powerful universal consciousness—is the closest thing Silicon Valley has to an official religion, and it is embraced wholeheartedly by many leaders of the tech industry.”

[4] Remedios and Dusek claim: “Cosmist ideas, advocates, and projects have continued in contemporary Russia” (98), but do little to allay the reader’s skepticism that Cosmism has little current standing and influence.

[5] In December 2006, Michael Lynch offered this post-mortem on Fuller’s participation in Kitzmiller: “It remains to be seen how much controversy Fuller’s testimony will generate among his academic colleagues. The defendants lost their case, and gathering from the judge’s ruling, they lost resoundingly … Fuller’s testimony apparently left the plaintiff’s arguments unscathed; indeed, Judge John E. Jones III almost turned Fuller into a witness for the plaintiffs by repeatedly quoting statements from his testimony that seemed to support the adversary case … Some of the more notable press accounts of the trial also treated Fuller’s testimony as a farcical sideshow to the main event [Lynch references Talbot, see above footnote 20] … Though some of us in science studies may hope that this episode will be forgotten before it motivates our detractors to renew the hostility and ridicule directed our way during the ‘science wars’ of the 1990s … in my view it raises serious issues that are worthy of sustained attention” (820).

[6] Fuller’s bet appears to be Peter Thiel.

[7] Remedios and Dusek explain: “The provocative Fuller defends eugenics and thinks it should not be rejected though stigmatized because of its application by the Nazis” (emphasis mine, 116-117). While adding later in the paragraph “… if the [Nazi] experiments really do contribute to scientific knowledge, the ethical and utilitarian issues remain” (117), Remedios and Dusek ignore the ethical issues to which they gesture. Tellingly, Remedios and Dusek toggle back to a mitigating stance in describing “Cruel experiments that did have eventual medical payoff were those concerning the testing of artificial blood plasmas on prisoners of war during WWII …” (117).

[8] “Ray Kurzweil is a genius. One of the greatest hucksters of the age …” (PZ Myers as quoted in Pein 2017, 245). From Kurzweil (1993): “One of the advantages of being in the futurism business is that by the time your readers are able to find fault with your forecasts, it is too late for them to ask for their money back.”

[9]  I abridged Fuller’s (1988, 3) fundamental question: “How should the pursuit of knowledge be organized, given that under normal circumstances knowledge is pursued by many human beings, each working on a more or less well-defined body of knowledge and each equipped with roughly the same imperfect cognitive capacities, albeit with varying degree of access to one another’s activities?”

Author Information: Justin Cruickshank, University of Birmingham,

Cruickshank, Justin. “Reflections on Problems, Politics and Knowledge: Replies to the Discussants of Democratic Problem-Solving.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 25-38.

Please refer to:

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers, and includes both parts. Shortlinks: Part One: Part Two:

In this piece, Justin Cruickshank of the University of Birmingham responds to recent critiques published at the Reply Collective of his recent book, Democratic Problem-SolvingBecause of its length, we have split his response into two parts. This is the second.

Problem-Solving Dialogue

Benton holds that Popper’s philosophy of science cannot meaningfully lead to a social and political conception of problem-solving given the latter’s difference from experimental activity in a laboratory. Social policy changes cannot be analogous to a critical problem-solving dialogue in science where a conjecture is refuted and a new theory then sought, because what constitutes a refutation and indeed what constitutes a problem are deeply normative and complex matters. Furthermore, in practice, policy-implementation is more like “utopian social engineering” than “piecemeal social engineering” because policies are imposed to fit with party political ideological commitments, with scant regard for their problematic consequences (Benton 2017, 63). Benton then argues that I am caught in a catch-22 when the reforms a more dialogic democracy could bring about require an institutional context which presumes the existence of a dialogic democracy that does not exist. How can dialogic democracy work when the conditions for it do not exist and if the conditions for it existed there would be no need to call for it?

To this, I argue here that there has to be a divergence in politics between mainstream politics and radical politics. Horizontal dialogue between groups of lay agents could entail pressure to limit harm from the state by, for example, mobilising against “austerity”-driven welfare cuts that are killing people, but ultimately people will need to remove the state and capitalism. The conditions for people to this can develop from existing problems concerning poverty and exploitation. Consciousness can be raised by different groups in dialogue with each other realising the problems they face stem from systemic issues and are not discrete anomalies in an otherwise functional and legitimate social order.

This does not map directly onto a falsificationist experimental method. It does though correspond to a dialogue that rejects authoritative sources, including public intellectuals seeking the types of reforms Sassower envisages, and which uses criticism to replace the prevailing justifications of the existing order. Such justifications would appeal to human nature, “pragmatism” (there can be no change) and neoliberal-individualist “justice” for the “hard working individual”, which defines human nature to fit the market which is actually constructed to fit corporate interests, with wealth distribution to the richest 1% being masked from lay knowledge.

Bacevic argues that while she is more sympathetic to the anarchism Chis and I espouse, she would prioritise liberal democracy over epistemic democracy, because of a concern with right-wing populism (2017, 52). Prioritising a plurality of voices is fine unless fascists then use it to spread hate and gain power. The debate has to be policed to fit within a liberal-democratic institutional and normative framework. Bacevic’s concern is well-placed and she is aware that obviously the epistemic-dialogic freedoms according under liberal democracy, despite being less extensive than those proposed for an epistemic democracy, can still facilitate the development of aggressively nationalistic and right-wing views.

Shadows of Max Weber

To suggest a way of dealing with this I will turn to Kemp’s response to the book. Kemp notes how I address Reed’s concern about problem-solving being an attempt to engage in a technocratic endeavour by arguing that for Popper all knowledge is mediated by social conventions and so admitting that problem-solving in social and politics matters is conceptually mediated does not take us far from Popper’s conception of science. Indeed, while some see Popper as a technocrat and positivist others, like Newton-Smith (1981) and Stove (2007 [1998]), see Popper as an “irrationalist”, because he argued that scientific decisions are influenced by social conventions: we decide to accept evidence A as a falsification for theory B because of convention C, rather than because raw reality falsifies theory B.

Kemp (2017, 27-28) also correctly notes a change in what problem-solving can mean when I move from the original article to the rest of the book. Originally I used the term in an interchangeable way with “adaptation”, which could imply that a problem had a definitive and objective solution waiting to be found, but then change to use problem-solving in such as way as to also imply it is as much about ‘problematizing’ as problems, which allows for a more open-ended approach. To see problem-solving in terms of conceptually mediated problematizing means the debate can always focus on the terms of reference used to define and try to solve problems, and the reasons why some definitions are chosen over others.

Kemp, following Max Weber, then raises the issue that a commitment to a particular definition or framing of a problem which stems from a normative commitment may entail a potentially debate-stopping dogmatism that is beyond reason. For Weber, values where wholly subjective and so beyond rational dialogue, with definitions of problems therefore benign beyond rational dialogue. Kemp argues that such a view need not be adhered to (because people can be open to rational debate about values) but notes it does raise an important question concerning how to find a balance between imposing framings on others (Rortian humiliation) or just submitting to others’ framings (2017, 31). This resonates with Bacevic’s concern about epistemic dialogue entailing the suppression of voices if the far right were able to gain traction in an unpoliced dialogic sphere. To deal with this balancing act, Kemp suggests basing a “non-impositional dialogue” on the search for anomalies, with “solutions” to problems being “coherence-expanding reconstructions” (2017, 32).

One way this could be engaged with, I would argue, is to undermine the claims by neoliberals about increasing individual freedom and neoconservatives about bolstering national power and security by showing how neoliberalism serves corporations and now neoconservatism has a contempt for ordinary people and serves elite interests through war and economic colonialism. In pursuing this, one could explore the funding of the Henry Jackson Society and publicise how members of this, including Michael Gove (a Tory MP) and Gisela Stuart (a former Labour MP), sway politics in a way that is driven by a commitment to a ‘think thank’ most people have not heard of, and which is committed to pursuing elite interests.

To return to Bacevic’s concern, I would say that policing dialogue to accept liberal democracy may be more of a problem than she realises because the terms of reference offered by some elite groups may be designed to smuggle in radically right-wing policies and ideas, without people being aware of this. Brexit, for example, was presented as offering a way to protect the NHS by putting £350 million a week from the EU into the NHS, but not only was this denied immediately after the referendum, but many Brexit supporting politicians want a ‘hard Brexit’, to reduce public services and create a deregulated low (corporate) tax haven for transnational capital. An elitist policy was pursued by populist means.

When it comes to the problem of right wing populism being unregulated with a more unpoliced epistemic democratic approach, the response could be that the supporters of the right could be engaged in slow dialogue to illustrate the anomalies and inconsistencies in their positions and differences in interests between the elite and the lay audience meant to support them. Obviously, that would not be easy but it is not an impossible task. The alternative may be that the neoliberal and neoconservative right shift the terms of reference, or political “common sense”, with increasingly right-wing – including nationalistic and xenophobic – ideas dominating the political mainstream within a liberal democratic framework.

On a related note, I wrote a piece for the SERRC (Cruickshank 2017) which argued that elites were trying to naturalise hierarchy and get people to see others as “things”, with critical pedagogy offering one way to tackle this.

Image by ydant via Flickr / Creative Commons


Conceptions of Deliberative Democracy

Vernon drew a useful contrast between epistemically conceived politics and an interest-based politics (2017, 5-6). Popper developed a “subjectless” epistemology for science, whereby the focus is on ideas being publicly tested, rather than the authority of the idea-holder. The political application of this broadly fits within the ambit of deliberative democracy, where the focus is on competition between ideas and not between interest-driven persons (2017, 5). Rorty, by contrast with Popper, did focus on interests, Vernon argues. Although Rorty recognised some role for cultural and identity politics to increase our sense of “we”’, it ended in the fetishism of theory, when change comes from large scale collective organisation serving an set of interests, such as trades unions (2017, 6). While Vernon thinks Rorty is stronger than Popper in recognising the role of interests in motivating agency and progressive change, he does criticise Rorty for trying to posit what I would term a meta-interest, in the form of patriotism, preferring Popper’s open society, to any notion of a closed “we”.

For while Rorty wants to expand our sense of we, patriotism, even a liberal minded patriotism, defines interests in a zero-sum way ultimately, with “our” interests being different from “theirs”. In the age of Brexit, the Trojan Horse hoax and Trump, I would argue that Rorty’s pragmatic bounding of an inclusive we along the national boundary is dangerous and potentially reactionary. Rorty’s sense of we could exacerbate the problem of a dialogue policed to conform to liberal democratic tenets actually being subverted by elite interests pursuing very right-wing politics with a liberal-democratic veneer. Nationalism is a potent and fictitious sense of identity and one that is very effective in serving elite interests via populist rhetoric.

Vernon also notes that Rorty is stronger on the argument about the need to recognise others as worthy of respect. This means recognising others as “like-us” by increasing our sense of solidarity and doing what we can to decrease socially acceptable sadisms. In a subject-less epistemic democracy there can be no basis for such respect and the only focus is on the best argument defeated and displacing the inferior argument. Assuming there were universally agreed criteria for such assessments to be affected, the problem would still remain that arguments stem from persons and persons as persons deserve respect. A vote may decide an outcome but behind that outcome lie people with views different from the outcome and they will not turn into cognitive and emotional tabula rasa with a vote wiping away previous convictions.

Vernon is correct to argue that we need some notion of interests shaping politics, to recognise that even if some see politics as the “free market of ideas”, such as Popper with his conception of science as perfected liberal democracy and Sassower with his account of public intellectuals as “gadflies” serving a public hungry for better ideas, interests shape the formation of policies and the formation of arguments. One does not have to be a determinist to hold that interests will play a role in argument, deliberation and acceptance of policies and ideas. This was implicit in my arguments about people using horizontal dialogue to reject the elite – the elite pursue their interests which run counter to those of the majority.

Vernon is also correct to argue against the subjectless approach to democratic dialogue. This is why I argued for slow dialogue in place of Popper’s speedy dialogue. To be ethical for Popper is to improve oneself as fast as possible to run away from any hint of dogmatism, but this is a very individualistic and detached ethical position, which is odd coming from someone who advocates a subjectless epistemology – “epistemology without a knowing subject” (Popper, 1972).

In knowledge we are shaped by conventions such that falsifications are mediated by conventions, but ethics unlike knowledge remains a radically individualist endeavour. In contrast to speedy dialogue, slow dialogue allows for the engagement with those who have very different views and, as my position did not see voting as the closure of a dialogue, this can allow for slow but significant change over time. In other words, slow dialogue presumes a level of respect to motivate it in the first place, and political dialogue is not terminated when policy decisions are made, because it concerns lay agents who see their interests are not directly aligned with the state. In talking with others about problems, policies could be discussed, but no policy would be a definitive solution to a technocratic problem.

Before considering Benesch’s criticism of my arguments about the speed of dialogues I will note that while Vernon states that he is not aware of any list of suffering-reduction achievements noted by Popper, unlike Rorty who does furnish such a list, Popper does actually give us a list of suffering-reduction points to address. These are in the essay The History of our Time in Conjectures and Refutations (1963). Popper’s list of points cites: poverty, unemployment, sickness and pain, penal cruelty, religious and racial discrimination, rigid class differences, slavery, war and lack of educational opportunities (1963, 370).

Engaging Collaboration

Benesch takes issue with my criticism of Popper for replacing justificationist speedy dialogues with critical speedy dialogues. He argues that: Popper carefully considered texts before replying; that critical dialogue in science and politics was a slow process of piecemeal change; and that Lakatos’ claims to correct Popper were erroneous because Popper spoke of metaphysical research programmes, which would be slow to change and which pre-empted Lakatos’s argument about research programmes and naïve and sophisticated falsificationism (2017, 50-51).

In response to this I argue the following. The issue for Popper was not so much the “preparation time” but the nature of argument and dialogue itself: how much time one spent preparing an argument was, like the origin of an argument, not relevant for Popper, given what Vernon called the “subjectless” epistemology, which saw ideas, detached from people, in competition with each other. A quick defeat of an idea in an ideational permanent revolution would speed us along with epistemic and ethical progress. The latter is of course problematic, given that ethics pertains to a subject unlike ideas. The impersonal clashing of ideas would improve the subject who let this happen without using dogmatism to corrupt this competition between sui generis abstractions.

On the second point Benesch argues that “[t]he collaborative effort of which Popper speaks will most often entail the ‘slow piecemeal ideational change’ that Cruickshank incorrectly claims Popper rejected’ (2017, 51). When discussing with Kuhn, Popper (1970) argued that we are prisoners of the conceptual framework but we can break out of this at any time, albeit into a “bigger and roomier one”. Kuhn was correct to hold that we always see the world via a conceptual scheme but incorrect to hold that this took a long time to change because we could “break out of this at any time” for Popper. In other words, progress turned on critical speedy dialogue with any recognition of ideas having traction taking us towards dogmatism and relativism. However, when Popper discusses political debate he may seem implicitly to endorse a slow conception of dialogue. Popper argues that:

It is often asserted that discussion is only possible between people who have a common language and accept common basic assumptions. I think that is a mistake. All that is needed is a readiness to learn from one’s partner in the discussion, which includes a genuine which to understand what he [sic] intends to say. If this readiness is there, the discussion will be the more fruitful the more the partners’ backgrounds differ. Thus the value of a discussion depends largely upon the variety of the competing views. Had there been no Tower of Babel, we should invent it. The liberal does not dream of a perfect consensus of opinion; he [sic] only hopes for the mutual fertilization of opinions and the consequent growth of ideas. Even where we solve a problem to universal satisfaction, we create, in solve it, many new problems over which we are bound to disagree. This is not to be regretted (1963, 352).

This may entail a critical slow dialogue because it would take time to understand those with different views and understanding would have to be worked at – one would need to work to get towards what Gadamer (2013 [1975]) called a “fusion of horizons”. If this is accepted then I think it points to a tension in Popper’s work between an ethical reaction to dogmatism which linked ethics to speed and a later position which focused more on dialogue being about understanding others’ terms of reference in a condition where there was no universal normative language. This may also lead to a tension between the subjectless epistemology mentioned by Vernon and a more embodied epistemology.

As regards the comment about Lakatos, I would say that Popper’s metaphysical research programmes were removed from scientific experiment unlike the core of the research programme for Lakatos. For Popper, metaphysical research programmes could provide inspiration for testable hypotheses, but were, from a strictly scientific point of view, irrelevant, because the origin of testable ideas was irrelevant; whereas for Lakatos, the core of a research programme would eventually be falsified. Metaphysical research programmes were, in effect, thus removed from critical dialogue, whereas a research programme for Lakatos was subject to slow change through critical dialogue changing the auxiliary hypotheses until the core needed changing eventually.

Benesch also criticises me for incorrectly attributing to what I called “the optimistic Popper” a belief in majoritarianism or “popular sovereignty” as Popper called it, where the majority qua majority are justified politically and ethically (2017, 53). Perhaps I could have been clearer when I discussed this in the book (pp. 109-110), but I did not regard the optimistic Popper as holding to a majoritarian view. I argued that the optimistic Popper, like Dewey, would see democracy as an “ethical way of life” where there was always an on-going dialogue, which was not closed off by any formal process such as voting. The argument about the Towel of Babel indicates such an outlook.

By contrast, the pessimistic Popper wanted to restrict democratic engagement the infrequent formal act of voting and prohibit coalition governments and proportional representation. Falsification was to be applied to politics by a decisive vote on a party’s claim to have succeeded in implementing useful policies. Politics for this Popper was to be a monologic affair.

Benesch makes a number of highly critical points about the chapter by Sassower and Jensen. I will not presume to speak on their behalf.

Shearmur, and Bacevic, both note that the notion of a unified public sphere has been criticised, with Nancy Fraser, for example taking Habermas to task on this. I agree with these points. The public sphere is not a sphere of abstract individuals seeking purely cognitive epistemic engagement, but is rather a sphere where different groups have different interests.

Shearmur also makes the important point that Popper’s friendship with Hayek did not translate into political agreement, given Popper’s “social democratic” leanings. Shearmur proceeds to criticise Popper’s concept of piecemeal social engineering by arguing that there is more role for the authority of specialist knowledge than Popper permits (2017, 11-12). Given the usual critical reading of Popper as an elitist technocratic (see the chapter by Reed in the book, and Benton’s review), it is strange to see an argument for what is in effect a shift from a more engaged democratic position to a more elitist one. Shearmur mentions the ghost of Plato (2017, 12), but given his critical appreciation of Hayek it may well be the ghost of Walter Lippmann that is at work here, with lay agents being seen a priori as too fickle and ignorant to engage in meaningful political debate. That is surely an essentialist dogmatism we can use Popper to reject.

Contact details:


Archer, Margaret. Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Bacevic, Jana. “Solving the Democratic Problem”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 50-52.

Benesch, Philip. The Viennese Socrates: Karl Popper and the Reconstruction of Progressive Politics. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2012.

Benesch, Philip. “What’s Left of Popper?”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 50-61.

Benton, Ted. “Realism and Social Science: Some Comments on Roy Bhaskar’s ‘The Possibility of Naturalism’”, Radical Philosophy 27 (1981): 13-21.

Benton, Ted. “Some Comments on Cruickshank’s and Sassower’s Democratic Problem-Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no 10 (2017): 60-65.

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Author Information: Justin Cruickshank, University of Birmingham,

Cruickshank, Justin. “Reflections on Problems, Politics and Knowledge: Replies to the Discussants of Democratic Problem-Solving.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 25-38.

Please refer to:

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers, and includes both parts. Shortlinks: Part One: Part Two:

In this piece, Justin Cruickshank of the University of Birmingham responds to recent critiques published at the Reply Collective of his recent book, Democratic Problem-Solving. Because of its length, we have split his article in two parts. This is the first.

From Bhaskar’s Neo-Marxist Critical Realism to Popper’s Problem-Solving

In contrast with Benesch, who argued in The Viennese Socrates that Popper’s work supported a progressive politics, Benton seems to adhere to a popular reading of Popper as a Cold War ideologue who championed a technocratic approach to maintaining the status quo in contrast to any progressive democratic politics. Although Benton does not refer to Popper as a positivist, what comes across as his reading of Popper as a dogmatic liberal espousing a technocratic politics broadly fits the reading of Popper as a positivist, if one uses the contemporary definition of positivism which sees it as more encompassing than logical positivism.

For Benton, Popper, if he did not fetishise science, did at least have a naïve conception of it as an objective fact-grinding tool that could also be applied to politics, with there being no recognition of the systemic problems within liberal capitalism. Structural criticism would be prohibited and in its place reforms to make the social order function more efficiently would be sought. Popper, as Reed (2017) as well as Benton, feared, would see change in terms of an engineer tinkering with a machine whose purpose was not to be questioned and whose problems could not be recognised. Benton thus finds it odd that Sassower (in some chapters) sought a radical reformist politics based on Popper and that I (/ Chis and I) argued for an anarchist politics based on Popper.

It will be useful to make four points here. The first is that Hacohen’s (2000) book ‘Karl Popper: The Formative Years 1902-1945. Politics And Philosophy In Interwar Vienna’ undermines the case that Popper was a dogmatic Cold War liberal, at least in his early and mid-writing career (later I think he clearly did become more socially conservative). Hacohen’s case is that the Popper who wrote The Poverty of Historicism presented it post hoc as a critique of ‘totalitarianism’, in the form of Stalinist Communism and fascism, but it was written as an engagement with interwar socialist debates and it rejected the liberal belief in a defining human essence, in the form of a competitive human nature. Indeed, the Open Society also rejected the liberal capitalist idea that capitalism is ‘justified’ by being in accord with human nature.

The second is that in the book I made a point about the reception context and how a received reading of Popper became established due to the social and political context, which failed to recognise all the potential in his work. This led me to distinguish a critical and more optimistic Popper from a more pessimistic Popper. Benton does not engage with the arguments about the possibilities offered by the critical Popper and uses the received reading of Popper to reject him and be incredulous at his use by myself (and possibly others too) to support a radical political position. The position I (/ Chis and I) develop goes well beyond what Popper’s intentions were but the case was not to excavate the essence of the real author but to see what potential there was in some of his work to develop ideas in a particular way.

Part of this meant drawing on Popper’s rejection of appeals to authority in knowledge and Benton charges me with treating Popper as an authority. That is odd given that the approach to Popper is critical and that positions are not cut to fit a constructed Popper ‘essence’. Thus, after recognising how readings can gain traction, and how dialogue has to engage with affective and normative commitments, I criticise Popper for conceptualising dialogue in a speedy way and draw upon Gadamer to suggest the need to see dialogue as a slow process. There was not the space to develop the work on Gadamer but only to suggest it.

The reason for this, which brings me to the third point, and which I think Benton may lose sight of, is that the book was not written as a normal monograph planned to move through steps to reach a conclusion, but was an open-ended dialogue which developed initially in the SERRC. The chapters were then re-written to add more sources and more detailed argument (with the Brexit chapter being written especially for the book because that happened after the SERRC exchanges), which may give the impression of a more ‘traditional’ book, but it was still following the lines of the original SERRC debate. I wrote the article on Popper and Rorty because I was interested in challenging conventional readings of their work and then the SERRC debate lead to the argument for open dialogue being extended to a range of political matters. Popper’s argument against authority in knowledge always remained important, as did the focus on disrupting a narrow and often incorrect received wisdom about Popper, but had it been written as a traditional book, it other sources would have complemented Popper.

Fourth, the argument sought to develop a framework for open dialogue, which could include a wide variety of positions, including, for me, Marxist positions. The case was not to use a Cold War liberal technocrat to ban Marxism and espouse anarchism. Rather, it was to use Popper’s work on authority and criticism to develop a position on open dialogue that could include many voices. The anarchist position (influenced by Peter Kropotkin and Colin Ward) would be that traditions of mutual aid are important (with traditions thus not necessarily being regressive blocks on progress – a point Gadamer can be used to develop). These traditions ought not to be hermetic but rather they ought to motivate large scale collective pressure for major progressive change and this would come from, to use one of Rorty’s favourite terms, a ‘horizontal’ dialogue, between different communities of people facing different and similar problems.

Examples of problems here, mentioned in the book, would be the housing crisis in the UK, the insecurity caused by the gig economy creating a middle-class precariat as well as a working class precariat, and the ethno-nationalist racism legitimised by the Brexit campaign and the Trojan Horse hoax. If one appeals to sources of authoritative knowledge then there can be no horizontal dialogue because one group would seek to legislate on what others’ ought to think and no intellectually progressive dialogue because events and data would be cut to fit a pre-existing epistemic, ontological, methodological, etc., commitment. The problem with Popper was though that he ended up fetishizing change and seeing ethics as a process of constantly negating one’s beliefs, which would actually entail philosophical scepticism and political apathy.

Thoughts on Critical Realism

As may be clear from Benton’s reply, he is a realist, so part of his discussion at least is motivated by a concern to defend realism and specifically, the neo-Marxist “critical realism” developed by Roy Bhaskar. I will now outline critical realism and say why I moved from this to Popper, using Popper to reject critical realism as a form of debate-stopping methodological essentialism, in articles in Philosophy of the Social Sciences.

Bhaskar (1997 [1975], 1998 [1979]) argued for an anti-positivist naturalism, meaning he argued for the unity of the natural and social sciences, in terms of methodology, in a way that differed from positivist naturalism. Bhaskar argued that positivism committed the “epistemic fallacy” of reducing ontological questions about being into epistemological questions about how we know being. To overcome this we needed, he argued, to see science as developing knowledge in accord with ontological assumptions that in some way correspond to reality.

Whereas positivism, for him, was based on implicitly assuming that reality was a “closed system” constituted by invariant empirical regularities, given its commitment to an empiricist theory of knowledge which stressed the role of direct observation, science was successful because it recognised that there are no such invariant regularities and presumed instead that reality is a “stratified open system”. This means assuming that causal laws that are unobservable in themselves interact in contingent ways to produce the changing empirical effects we can see. When it came to the social sciences, the problem was that there were no shared ontological assumptions about what social reality is. Therefore, Bhaskar had to legislate on what this may be and did this by rejecting structuralist determinism and methodological individualism which he held could not account for the social context conditioning agency, to link structure and agency. Social reality was constituted by structural emergent properties that conditioned but did not determine agency.

Bhaskar (1998) noted that social structures were different from natural structures insofar as the former could be changed by human agency but went on to draw upon the ‘structuration theory’ developed by Giddens (1995 [1984]) which ended up “solving”’ the structure-agency problem by redefining it as a problem of agency. For Giddens, and by extension, Bhaskar, structures were “virtual” because they only existed in agents’ heads as ‘memory traces’ until agents chose to act upon them – or “instantiate” them. Margaret Archer (1995) then sought to rescue Bhaskar from himself by rejecting Giddens and saying that Bhaskar’s argument could be saved by saying that structures were emergent properties that were dependent on agency in the past tense. That is, structures emerged from agents’ actions in the past and then become emergent properties that could condition agency and which were thus irreducible to agency.

For Archer, individualism was an ontological position influenced by empiricism (because we can only see individuals) and this raises the awkward problem that Bhaskar would seem to be influenced by a philosophy he sought to reject. Archer tries to avoid this by defining the problem in terms of Giddens’ theory not being a form of individualism but a position that committed what she called “central conflation”, meaning the mutual conflation of structure into agency and agency into structure. This does not seem a tenable or meaningful definition of the problem though, given that structures have no existence separate from agents, and so it more accurate to say Bhaskar’s use of Giddens committed him to a form of individualism, as Benton (1981) actually argued.

Critical realism has proved increasingly popular in social science, with social scientists keen to avoid positivism (often defined very broadly to include any quantitative research), interpretivistic and post-structuralist relativism, and individualism in the form of rational choice theory, using critical realism to explain events in terms of structure and agency. Critical realism became an orthodoxy for those unsatisfied with the extant orthodoxies.

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To Be Fallible

The problem I had with critical realism was that it was not critical but a type of dogmatic formalism (Cruickshank 2007, 2010). Despite holding that knowledge was fallible, the ontology was removed from critical revision based on empirical research and empirical research was cut to fit the concepts of structure and agency. The concepts of structure and agency were read into the data and then the data was taken to support the ontology used to explain it. Critical realism, I argued, thus begged the question. I found Popper useful here because while I did not agree with his treatment of Marxism, his critique of “methodological essentialism” and the search for justification via authoritative sources of knowledge was relevant here. The ontological commitment was treated as an authoritative source with the essence of social reality (namely structure and agency) being taken as justified with all observed events then being regarded as “verifications” of the prior ontological / essentialist commitment.

Although Bhaskar hoped his work would offer a scientific Marxism based on realism, able to link structure and agency, unlike Althusser’s claim that structuralist Marxism was scientific and unlike the positivist conception of science, his work received significant criticism from Marxists (see for instance Gunn 1988 and Magill 1994). A major concern was the undialectical nature of Bhaskar’s ontology, which separated the categories of structure and agency from each other and from substantive-empirical processes, to create a meta-theory developed in abstraction from the processes it sought to explain. Rather than develop categories from the complexity of reality, seeing their interpenetration, two generic abstractions were developed and then imposed on reality, in an undialectical – or even undialogic – way.

To be sure, Popper sought to police dialogue, erroneously in my view, but his argument that the recognition of fallibilism had to entail the use of criticism to change views dialogically, with there being no appeal to authoritative sources of knowledge (such as the authority of the senses with empiricism or methodological essentialist commitments with critical realism), was of key importance. When social science fetishizes the origins of knowledge to justify a claim or delegitimise it with ideology-critique or post-structuralist critique of discourse, it becomes a form of clericalism that detaches knowledge from substantive problems. Critical realism exemplified this far more than Popper, despite his (unPopperian) attempts to police dialogue, as, ironically, the Marxist critique of Bhaskar illustrated.

Popper sought to police dialogue using problematic dualisms and Benton I think does the same. He offers us just realism and irrealism (2017, 61), with latter being problematic because it lacked “a robust recognition of the autonomy and independent causal powers of other people, institutions, material objects, organic beings and so on” and because it erroneously, for him, took any reference to reality to entail anti-democratic and authoritarian views. Benton does not clearly distinguish between Bhaskar’s critical realism and metaphysical realism. Popper argued for metaphysical realism but Bhaskar shied away from it.

Metaphysical realism is just the claim that reality exists independently of us. It seems a common-sense position but it entails a sceptical rejoinder because reality is defined as that which always exceeds our knowledge of it. Benton holds that my position, in accepting this criticism of metaphysical realism, is irrationalist as well as irrealist because someone else can confirm the existence of objects once someone else leaves a room (2017, 61). Here Benton is following what Popper called the Winston Churchill argument for realism (1972, 42-44) but, as Popper, who was himself a metaphysical realism argued, this “does not prove realism” (1972, 43-44. Emphasis on original).

The problem with the Churchill-Benton argument for realism is that as reality is defined, for metaphysical realists, as that which is independent of us, there can be no appeal to shared experiential knowledge to prove the existence of a reality that is separate from our (shared or lone) ideas of it. Moreover, Benton is guilty here of what critical realists regard as the epistemic fallacy, because he is defining reality in terms of others’ accounts of their knowledge of it (and knowledge arrived at from experience). Now critical realism is defined by Bhaskar as a form of “conceptual science” because instead of speculating on the nature of ultimate reality it arrives at its ontological assumptions for natural science at least, by deriving them from the implicit assumptions within the “transitive domain” of scientific knowledge. In other words, ontological questions about what reality is are answered by turning to a body of knowledge about reality.

The realist ontology of natural reality thus commits what critical realists regard as the epistemic fallacy. By contrast the ontological claims about social reality are taken to be justified because they overcome structuralist determinism and the inability of agency to account for the context conditioning agency, with the avoidance of these problems then being taken to be the sufficient as well as necessary condition for justification. Such justification obviously rests on a non sequitur. Once the ontological categories are taken to be justified commitments they are then read into empirical events with the latter being taken as verifications of the commitments, which then commits the fallacy of begging the question.

In addition to the problem of begging the question and being an undialectical form of Marxism, critical realism led to formulaic “applications”. Just as must research influenced by post-structuralism “found” all events to be expressions of discourse (with research verifying the prior commitment to the ontology of discourse determinism), so empirical research influenced by critical realism ended up redescribing events in terms of the categories of structure and agency. A rebranding of events using the favoured words (structure and agency) of the new stale orthodoxy was taken to be an explanation.

A Heritage From Gramsci

Benton argued that I had a tendency to caricature the views of my opponents, and then defended Sassower’s arguments on public intellectuals by defending Gramsci, who Sassower cites briefly (2017, 64). I would agree that for Gramsci organic working-class intellectuals are engaged in substantive issues and that they are a wide group because it includes all those engaged in class struggle in their daily lives potentially. I would though raise the question about the term “intellectual” being redundant if it is applied to everyone. One can talk of people having an insight into their conditions and seeking change, but invoking the notion of intellectuals means invoking the notion of an intellectually privileged group. But the argument is not really a semantic one. If Benton wants, following Gramsci, to call everyone an intellectual, then I am happy to talk of a democratic dialogue between academic-intellectuals and lay-intellectuals, rather than academics and lay agents.

The important issue is that a dialogic relationship has to eschew the conception that progress needs an epistemically privileged class, because that ultimately is monologic. And here both Popper and Rorty are correct to note the problems that arise when self-defining intellectual elites seek to legislate for others. It is interesting that Benton avoids engaging with the problems they raise concerning those deemed to be intellectuals, for there are real problems concerning intellectual fashions, dogmatism, elitism and secular-clerical mentality, not to mention the problems with those deemed to be intellects often coming from privileged groups. bell hooks (1981) argued black female intellectuals tended to be marginalised by black male activists and white feminists, meaning that the elitism of the concept is complemented in practice with an elitism of selection concerning who is recognised as an intellectual with a voice permitted to speak in the public sphere.

However, using Gramscian terminology, it is the case that Sassower actually defended the use of “traditional” and not organic intellectuals. Sassower did have an expansive definition to include rappers etc. but did end up narrowing it down to academics with the task of academics as public intellectuals being that of acting as “responsible gadflies”. Academic public intellectuals should be paid for by the US government and US media outlets ought to host them because they would shift the focus, in their printspace and airtime, from celebrity gossip and mud-slinging between politicians to a more intellectual debate about social and political matters. Academic public intellectuals would be better placed to define problems and offer solutions by thinking in a deeper way by being freed from commercial pressure and normative commitments. The pursuit of the truth would guide them and they would float above sectional interests to arrive at the best / objective definition of problems and the best proposal for their solutions.

But as Gramsci argued, no-one, including those positioned as “intellectuals”, can float about social and normative interests. Furthermore, Sassower implicitly treats the state as a neutral body open to the “best argument”, which is reminiscent of the classical pluralist model of the state, and the technocratic notion that problems are objective entities separated from normative commitments and the influence of class etc. This replicated the notion that while there can be a philosophy of knowledge there can only be a sociology of error, for it sees all social and normative influences as corrupting on the pursuit of truth.

Now, in considering why Benton defended Sassower by defending Gramsci, we can note that Benton recorded Sassower’s definition of himself as a Marxist, despite Sassower also calling Marxists ‘rabid’ (and engaging in other polemic against “radicals”). The real issue here though is that while Sassower did envisage, briefly, a post-capitalist society, it was not a post-liberal society and nor was it a society that was based on a redistribution of wealth or a society that abolished class. It was not a socialist or communist society that he had in mind. Sassower drew on Rifkin (2014) to argue that technology may result in the cost of commodities becoming negligible and that with increased use of ICT younger people may prefer access to items over ownership of items.

Image by Fabio Falanga via Flickr / Creative Commons


Sassower also held at one point that neoliberalism was not necessarily negative and that it needed to be assessed on its performance. In other words, the Marxism motivated no commitment to socialism or communism, or changing prior property distribution, but was an (undialectical) form of technological determinism which focused on consumption and not production contra Marxism. His “Marxism” also existed alongside the technocratic view that neoliberalism can be assessed as a potentially positive form of capitalism, in a fashion analogous to a (positivist value-free) experiment. Later Sassower argued against neoliberalism and this commitment to heterogenous positions may be intelligible in terms of a technocratic approach, whereby the search is for the best “objective” solution entails a move from a neutral approach to neoliberalism to a critical approach, and from considering neoliberalism, which claims to liberate the citizen as consumer (not producer-worker) to considering a consumer-focused post-capitalism to liberate the post-capitalist citizen-consumer.

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Continued Here.


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Author Information: Scott F. Aikin, Vanderbilt University, scott.f.aikin@Vanderbilt.Edu; Thomas Dabay, Vanderbilt University, thomas.dabay@Vanderbilt.Edu

Aikin, Scott F and Thomas Dabay. “A Further Note on Individualism and Contrastivism: Reply to Sawyer.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 10 (2014): 1-4.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Sawyer’s expanded argument from knowledge contrastivism to conceptual anti-individualism is now much clearer. As we understand her, the key dialectical move is to distinguish between the positive and negative contrast classes, and apply this distinction to cases of contrastive self-knowledge.

All of this comes together in the section titled “On Anti-Individualism,” specifically the third and fourth paragraphs of that section (2014b, 4) . According to Sawyer, the preconditions for the possibility of contrastive self-knowledge are

(i) that the knower, S, possess a concept, C, that occurs in the proposition she knows;
(ii) that there be a set of positively contrasting concepts to C; and
(iii) that there be a set of negatively contrasting concepts to C.

Sawyer contends that this final precondition, the existence of a negative contrast class, is impossible on an individualist account of concepts. With this, Sawyer believes she has established the conditional that if self-knowledge is contrastive in nature, then conceptual anti-individualism must be true.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Scott F. Aikin, Vanderbilt University, and Thomas Dabay, Vanderbilt University,

Aikin, Scott F and Thomas Dabay. “Contrastivism and Individualism: A Reply to Sawyer.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 6 (2014): 87-90.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:


In “Contrastive Self-Knowledge” (2014), Sarah Sawyer argues that self-knowledge is properly understood to be contrastive in nature. She then argues that this contrastive feature of self-knowledge yields evidence against individualism about concepts. The focus of this first, exegetical portion of our response to Sawyer’s article will be to position Sawyer’s article within the larger literature on epistemological contrastivism. In the second portion below, our focus will become more critical as we evaluate Sawyer’s argument for anti-individualism.  Continue Reading…