Archives For intellectual traditions

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

How Important Is the History of Philosophy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discovering Long-Maligned African Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is an African Philosopher?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Africa and Universality

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or as Hallen expresses it:

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

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

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

Africa Beyond Reaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Questions of Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing African Thought Throughout the Globe

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

Author Information: William Davis, California Northstate University, William.Davis@csnu.edu.

Davis, William. “Crisis. Reform. Repeat.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 37-44.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-422

Yale University, in the skyline of New Haven, Connecticut.
Image by Ali Eminov via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

If you have been involved in higher education in recent decades, you have noticed shifts in how courses are conceived and delivered, and what students, teachers, and administrators expect of each other. Also, water feels wet. The latter statement offers as much insight as the first. When authors argue the need for new academic models, indeed that a kind of crisis in United States higher education is occurring, faculty and administrators in higher education are forgiven if we give a yawning reply: not much insight there.

Another Crisis

Those with far more experience in academia than I will, likely, shake their heads and scoff: demands for shifts in educational models and practices seemingly occur every few years. Not long ago, I was part of the SERRC Collective Judgment Forum (2013) debating the notion that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are the future of higher education. The possibilities and challenges portended by online education would disrupt (“disruptive technologies” often represent the goals not the fears of the California culture where I live and work) the landscape of colleges and universities in the United States and the rest of the world.

Higher education would have to adapt to meet the needs of burgeoning numbers of people (at what point does one become a ‘student?’) seeking knowledge. The system of higher education faced a crisis; the thousands of people enrolling in MOOCs indicated that hordes of students might abandon traditional universities and embrace new styles of learning that matched the demands of twenty-first century life.

Can you count the number of professional crises you have lived through? If the humanities and/or social sciences are your home, then you likely remember quite a few (Kalin, 2017; Mandler, 2015; Tworek, 2013). That number, of course, represents calamity on a local level: crises that affect you, that loom over your future employment. For many academics, MOOCs felt like just such a threat.

Historian of technology Thomas Hughes (1994)[i] describes patterns in the development, change, and emergence of technologies as “technological momentum.” Technological momentum bridges two expansive and nuanced theories of technological development: determinism—the claim that technologies are the crucial drivers of culture—and constructivism—the idea that cultures drive technological change. MOOCs might motivate change in higher education, but the demands of relevant social groups (Pinch and Bijker 1984) would alter MOOCs, too.

Professors ought not fear their jobs would disappear or consolidate so precipitously that the profession itself would be transformed in a few years or decade: the mammoth system of higher education in the U.S. has its own inertia. Change would happen over time; teachers, students, and universities would adapt and exert counter-influences. Water feels wet.

MOOCs have not revolutionized models of higher education in the United States. Behind the eagerness for models of learning that will satisfy increasing numbers of people seeking higher education, of which MOOCs are one example, lies a growing concern about how higher education is organized, practiced, and evaluated. To understand the changes that higher education seems to require, we ought first to understand what it currently offers. Cathy Davidson (2017), as well as Michal Crow and William Dabars (2015), offer such histories of college and university systems in the United States. Their works demonstrate that a crisis in higher education does not approach; it has arrived.

Education in an Age of Flux

I teach at a new college in a university that opened its doors only a decade ago. One might expect that a new college offers boundless opportunity to address a crisis: create a program of study and methods of evaluating that program (including the students and faculty) that will meet the needs of the twenty-first century world. Situated as we are in northern California, and with faculty trained at Research 1 (R1) institutions, our college could draw from various models of traditional higher education like the University of California system or even private institutions (as we are) like Stanford.

These institutions set lofty standards, but do they represent the kinds of institutions that we ought to emulate? Research by Davidson (2017), Crow and Dabars would recommend we not follow the well-worn paths that established universities (those in existence for at least a few decades) in the United States have trodden. The authors seem to adopt the perspective that higher education functions like a system of technology (Hughes 1994); the momentum exerted by such systems has determining effects, but the possibility of directing the course of the systems exists nevertheless.

Michael Crow and William Dabars (2015) propose a design for reshaping U.S. universities that does not require the total abandonment of current models. The impetus for the needed transformation, they claim, is that the foundations of higher education in the U.S. have decayed; universities cannot meet the demands of the era.

The priorities that once drove research institutions have been assiduously copied, like so much assessment based on memorization and regurgitation that teachers of undergraduates might recognize, that their legibility and efficacy have faded. Crow and Dabars target elite, private institutions like Dartmouth and Harvard as exemplars of higher education that cannot, under their current alignment, meet the needs of twenty-first century students. Concerned as they are with egalitarianism, the authors note that public institutions of higher education born from the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 fare no better at providing for the needs of the nation’s people (National Research Council 1995).

Crow and Dabars’s New American University model (2015, pp. 6-8) emphasizes access, discovery, inclusiveness, and functionality. Education ought to be available to all (access and inclusiveness) that seek knowledge and understanding of the world (discovery) in order to operate within, change, and/or improve it (functionality). The Morrill Acts, on a charitable reading, represent the United States of America’s assertion that the country and its people would mutually benefit from public education available to large swaths of the population.

Crow and Dabars, as well as Davidson (2017), base their interventions on an ostensibly similar claim: more people need better access to resources that will foster intellectual development and permit them to lead more productive lives. The nation benefits when individuals have stimulating engagement with ideas through competent instruction.  Individuals benefit because they may pursue their own goals that, in turn, will ideally benefit the nation.

Arizona State University epitomizes the New American University model. ASU enrolls over 70,000 students—many in online programs—and prides itself on the numbers of students it accepts rather than rejects (compare such a stance with Ivy League schools in the U.S.A.). Crow, President of ASU since 2002, has fostered an interdisciplinary approach to higher education at the university. Numerous institutes and centers (well over 50) have been created to focus student learning on issues/topics of present and future concern. For instance, the Decision Center for a Desert City asks students to imagine a future Phoenix, Arizona, with no, or incredibly limited, access to fresh water.

To engage with a topic that impacts manifold aspects of cities and citizens, solutions will require perspectives from work in disciplines ranging from engineering and the physical sciences to the social sciences and the humanities. The traditional colleges of, e.g., Engineering, Law, Arts and Sciences, etc., still exist at ASU. However, the institutes and centers appear as semi-autonomous empires with faculty from multiple disciplines, and often with interdisciplinary training themselves, leading students to investigate causes of and solutions to existing and emerging problems.

ASU aims to educate broad sections of the population, not just those with imposing standardized tests scores and impressive high school GPAs, to tackle obstacles facing our country and our world. Science and Technology Studies, an interdisciplinary program with scholars that Crow and Dabars frequently cite in their text, attracted my interest because its practitioners embrace ‘messy’ problems that require input from, just to name a few, historians, philosophers, political scientists, and sociologists. While a graduate student in STS, I struggled to explain my program of study to others without referencing existing disciplines like philosophy, history, etc. Though I studied in an interdisciplinary program, I still conceptualized education in disciplinary silos.

As ASU graduates more students, and attracts more interdisciplinary scholars as teachers, we ought to observe how their experiment in education impacts the issues and problems their centers and institutes investigate as well as the students themselves. If students learn from interdisciplinary educators, alongside other students that have not be trained exclusively in the theories and practices of, say, the physical sciences or humanities and social sciences, then they might not see difficult challenges like mental illness in the homeless population of major U.S. cities as concerns to be addressed mainly by psychology, pharmacology, and/or sociology.

Cathy Davidson’s The New Education offers specific illustrations of pedagogical practices that mesh well with Crow and Dabars’s message. Both texts urge universities to include larger numbers of students in research and design, particularly students that do not envision themselves in fields like engineering and the physical sciences. Elite, small universities like Duke, where Davidson previously taught, will struggle to scale up to educate the masses of students that seek higher education, even if they desired to do so.

Further, the kinds of students these institutions attract do not represent the majority of people seeking to further their education beyond the high school level. All colleges and universities need not admit every applicant to align with the models presented by Davidson, Crow and Dabars, but they must commit to interdisciplinary approaches. As a scholar with degrees in Science and Technology Studies, I am an eager acolyte: I buy into the interdisciplinary model of education, and I am part of a college that seeks to implement some version of that model.

Questioning the Wisdom of Tradition

We assume that our institutions have been optimally structured and inherently calibrated not only to facilitate the production and diffusion of knowledge but also to seek knowledge with purpose and link useful knowledge with action for the common good. (Crow and Dabars 2015, 179)

The institutions that Crow, Dabars, and Davidson critique as emblematic of traditional models of higher education have histories that range from decades to centuries. As faculty at a college of health sciences established the same year Crow and Dabars published their work, I am both excited by their proposals and frustrated by the attempts to implement them.

My college currently focuses on preparing students for careers in the health sciences, particularly medicine and pharmacy. Most of our faculty are early-career professionals; we come to the college with memories of how departments were organized at our previous institutions.

Because of my background in an interdisciplinary graduate program at Virginia Tech, and my interest in the program’s history (originally organized as the Center for the Study of Science in Society), I had the chance to interview professors that worked to develop the structures that would “facilitate the production and diffusion of knowledge” (Crow and Dabars 2015, 179). Like those early professors at Virginia Tech, our current faculty at California Northstate University College of Health Sciences come from distinct disciplines and have limited experience with the challenges of designing and implementing interdisciplinary coursework. We endeavor to foster collaboration across disciplines, but we learn as we go.

Crow and Dabars’s chapter “Designing Knowledge Enterprises” reminds one of what a new institution lacks: momentum. At meetings spread out over nearly a year, our faculty discussed and debated the nuances of a promotion and retention policy that acknowledges the contributions of all faculty while satisfying administrative demands that faculty titles, like assistant, associate, and full professor, reflect the practices of other institutions. What markers indicate that a scholar has achieved the level of, say, associate professor?

Originally trained in disciplines like biology, chemistry, physics, or English (coming from the interdisciplinary program of Science and Technology Studies, I am a bit of an outlier) our faculty have been disciplined to think in terms of our own areas of study. We have been trained to advance knowledge in increasingly particular specialties. The criteria to determine a faculty member’s level largely matches what other institutions have developed. Although the faculty endeavored to create a holistic rubric for faculty evaluation, we confronted an administration more familiar with analytic rubrics. How can a university committee compare the work done by professors of genetics and composition?[ii]

Without institutional memory to guide us, the policies and directives at my college of health sciences develop through collective deliberation on the needs of our students, staff, faculty, college, and community. We do not invent policy. We examine publicly available policies created at and for other institutions of higher learning to help guide our own decisions and proposals. Though we can glean much from elite private institutions, as described by Crow and Dabars, and from celebrated public institutions like the University of California or California State University systems that Davidson draws upon at times in her text, my colleagues know that we are not like those other institutions and systems of higher education.

Our college’s diminutive size (faculty, staff, and students) lends itself to agility: when a policy is flawed, we can quickly recognize a problem and adjust it (not to say we rectify it, but we move in the direction of doing so, e.g., a promotion policy with criteria appropriate for faculty, and administrators, from any department). If we identify student, staff, faculty, or administrator needs that have gone unaddressed, we modify or add policies.

The size of our college certainly limits what we can do: we lack the faculty and student numbers to engage in as many projects as we like. We do not have access to the financial reservoirs of large or long-standing institutions to purchase all the equipment one finds at a University of California campus, so we must be creative and make use of what materials we do possess or can purchase.

What our college lacks, somewhat counterintuitively, sets us up to carry forth with what Davidson (2017) describes in her chapter “The Future of Learning:”

The lecture is broken, so we must think of better ways to incorporate active learning into the classroom . . . . The traditional professional and apprentice models don’t teach students how to be experts, and so we must look to peer learning and peer mentoring, rich cocurricular experiences, and research to put the student, not the professor or the institution, at the center. (248-9)

Davidson does not contend that lecture has no place in a classroom. She champion flipped classrooms (Armbruster, Patel, Johnson, and Weiss 2009) and learning spaces that emphasize active student engagement (Elby 2001; Johnson and Johnson 1999) with ideas and concepts—e.g., forming and critiquing arguments (Kuhn 2010).

Claiming that universities “must prepare our students for their epic journey . . . . should give them agency . . . to push back [against the world] and not merely adapt to it” (Davidson 2017, 13) sounds simultaneously like fodder for a press-release and a call to action. It will likely strike educators, a particular audience of Davidson’s text, as obvious, but that should not detract from its intentions. Yes, students need to learn to adapt and be flexible—their chosen professions will almost certainly transform in the coming decades. College students ought to consider the kinds of lives they want to live and the people they want to be, not just the kinds of professions they wish to pursue.

Ought we demonstrate for students that the university symbolizes a locale to cultivate a perspective of “sympathy, empathy, sensitivity, and responsiveness” (Held 2011, p. 479)? Do we see ourselves in a symbiotic world (Margulis and Sagan) or an adversarial world of competition? Davidson, Crow, and Dabars propose a narrative of connectivity, not just of academic disciplines, but of everyday problems and concerns. Professors ought to continue advancing knowledge, even in particular disciplines, but we must not imagine that we do it alone (individually, in teams, in disciplines, or even in institutions).

After Sifting: What to Keep

Crow and Dabars emphasize the interplay between form and function as integral to developing a model for the New American University. We at California Northstate also scrutinize the structure of our colleges. Though our college of health sciences has a life and physical science department, and a department of humanities and social sciences, our full-time faculty number less than twenty. We are on college and university committees together; we are, daily, visible to each other.

With varying levels of success so far, we have developed integrated course-based undergraduate research experiences for our students. In the coming year, we aim to integrate projects in humanities and social sciences courses with those from the physical sciences. Most of our students want to be health practitioners, and we endeavor to demonstrate to them the usefulness of chemistry along with service learning. As we integrate our courses, research, and outreach projects, we aim to provide students with an understanding that the pieces (courses) that make up their education unify through our work and their own.

Team teaching a research methods course with professors of genetics and chemistry in the fall of 2017, I witnessed the rigor and the creativity required for life and physical science research. Students were often confused: the teachers approached the same topics from seemingly disparate perspectives. As my PhD advisor, James Collier, often recounted to me regarding his graduate education in Science and Technology Studies (STS), graduate students were often expected to be the sites of synthesis. Professors came from traditional departments like history, philosophy, and sociology; students in STS needed to absorb the styles and techniques of various disciplines to emerge as interdisciplinarians.

Our students in the research methods class that fall saw a biologist, a chemist, and an STS scholar and likely thought: I want to be none of those things. Why should I learn how to be a health practitioner from professors that do not identify as health practitioners themselves?

When faculty adapt to meet the needs of students pursuing higher education, we often develop the kinds of creole languages elaborated by Peter Galison (1997) to help our students see the connections between traditionally distinct areas of study. Our students, then, should be educated to speak in multiple registers depending on their audience, and we must model that for them. Hailing from disparate disciplines and attempting to teach in ways distinct from how we were taught (e.g., flipped classrooms) and from perspectives still maturing (interdisciplinarity), university faculty have much to learn.

Our institutions, too, need to adapt: traditional distinctions of teaching, scholarship, and service (the hallmarks of many university promotion policies) will demand adjustment if they are to serve as accurate markers of the work we perform. Students, as stakeholders in their own education, should observe faculty as we struggle to become what we wish to see from them. Davidson, Crow, and Dabars argue that current and future crises will not be resolved effectively by approaches that imagine problems as solely technical, social, economic, cultural, or political. For institutions of higher education to serve the needs of their people, nations, and environments (just some of the pieces that must be served), they must acclimate to a world of increasing connectivity. I know: water feels wet.

Contact details: William.Davis@csnu.edu

References

Armbruster, Peter, Maya Patel, Erika Johnson, and Martha Weiss. 2009. “Active Learning and Student-centered Pedagogy Improve Student Attitudes and Performance in Introductory Biology” Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education 8: 203-13.

Bijker, Wiebe. 1993. “Do Not Dispair: There Is Life after Constructivism.” Science, Technology and Human Values 18: 113-38.

Crow, Michael; and William Dabars. Designing the New University. Johns Hopkinds University Press, 2015.

Davidson, Cathy. The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux. Basic Books, 2017.

Davis, William, Martin Evenden, Gregory Sandstrom and Aliaksandr Puptsau. 2013. “Are MOOCs the Future of Higher Education? A Collective Judgment Forum.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (7) 23-27.

Elby, Andrew. 2001. “Helping Physics Students Learn How to Learn.” American Journal of Physics (Physics Education Research Supplement) 69 (S1): S54-S64.

Galison, Peter. 1997. Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Hughes, Thomas. 1994. “The Evolution of Large Technical Systems.” The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Johnson, David, and Roger T. Johnson. 1999. “Making Cooperative Learning Work.” Theory into Practice 38 (2): 67-73.

Kalin, Mike. “The Crisis in the Humanities: A Self-Inflicted Wound?” Independent School, Winter 2017. https://www.nais.org/magazine/independent-school/winter-2017/the-crisis-in-the-humanities-a-self-inflicted-wou/

Kuhn, Deanna. 2010. “Teaching and Learning Science as Argument.” Science Education 94 (5): 810-24.

Mandler, Peter. “Rise of the Humanities.” Aeon Magazine, December 17, 2015. https://aeon.co/essays/the-humanities-are-booming-only-the-professors-can-t-see-it

National Research Council. Colleges of Agriculture at the Land Grant Universities: A Profile. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1995.

Pinch, Trevor and Wiebe Bijker. 1984. “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other.” Social Studies of Science 14: 399-441.

Smith, Merritt, and Leo Marx. 1994. Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism

Tworek, Heidi. “The Real Reason the Humanities Are ‘in Crisis.’” The Atlantic, December 18, 2013. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/the-real-reason-the-humanities-are-in-crisis/282441/

[i] My descriptions here of technological determinism and social constructivism lack nuance. For specifics regarding determinism, see the 1994 anthology from Leo Marx and Merritt Smith, Does Technology Drive History. For richer explanations of constructivism, see Bijker (1993), “Do not despair: There is life after constructivism,” and Pinch and Bijker (1984) “The social construction of facts and artifacts: Or how the sociology of science and the sociology of technology might benefit each other.”

[ii] Hardly rhetorical, that last question is live on my campus. If you have suggestions, please write me.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Kochan’s Problems of the Strong Programme

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real Love or a Shotgun Marriage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Incompleteness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Possible Predecessors Gone Unacknowledged

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The Nature of the Argument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aims and Essentials in SSK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Social and Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missing Methodologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Glass Bulbs to Light Bulbs

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Information: 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

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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: Samuel Lebens, University of Notre Dame, samuel_lebens@hotmail.com

Lebens, Samuel. 2013. “True Successors and Counterfactual Approval.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (10): 26-31.

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

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David-Hillel Ruben and John Williams have treated us to a fascinating discussion about the nature of true-succession, faithful-succession, intellectual traditions, and traditions of practice. In these comments, I want to focus on two related aspects of their ongoing discussion, in the hope of forging either (a) a new approach to identity-conditions of a tradition over time, or, at least, (b) a new disambiguation of the term ‘tradition’.

Direction

One issue that has divided the two thinkers can be called the ‘direction debate’. Williams (1988, 161) had once argued that one of the criteria for being a true-successor of a past individual (or, we can widen it to being a true-successor of a past group or community) would have to be forward-looking, from the perspective of the predecessor. The criterion in question (which I paraphrase in my own words) was this:

FORWARD-LOOKING CRITERION: An individual (or group) B is a true successor of an individual (or group) A iff A would, all things being equal, have developed more or less the same central ideas (or practices) as those actually developed by B. Continue Reading…