Archives For Justin Cruickshank

Author Information: Richard Vernon, Western University, ravernon@uwo.ca

Vernon, Richard. “Evanescent and Embedded Agents.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 4-10.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3L5

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Justin Cruickshank’s opening essay, and the further work arising from it by him and others, makes a strong case for the value of label-wariness. Overcoming a binary constructed by the way in which Popper and Rorty have routinely been classified, Cruickshank finds in those two theorists a problem-solving orientation that sets a path for constructive thinking about democracy. Overall, I have the impression that Popper comes out slightly better than Rorty does from bringing them together, in that Rorty still takes justification to be the test of truth-content—hence, justification being (in his view) lacking, his postmodern scepticism—while Popper more radically adopts a nonfalsification test. Rorty, from a Popperian point of view, is a sceptic because he sets the bar of veracity too high: a very common move. But it is not Cruickshank’s purpose to award prizes for comparative merit, nor is it mine in this brief commentary. Rather, I want to draw attention to something of a contrast between Popper and Rorty, not at all in order to undermine Cruickshank’s project, but because the contrast between them seems to me to point towards an important issue in “democratic problem-solving”.

The contrast is one that emerges if we move down from the epistemological level, at which Cruickshank’s essay is generally pitched, to take account of Rorty’s fine-grained politics. Doing so is legitimate, I believe, because—famously—Rorty himself drew a line between the (postmodern) epistemology that attracted him and the kind of political assumptions that he adopted. Postmodern epistemologies, he believed, should stay in the English departments. Political action should be guided by nothing more epistemologically complex or interesting than the reduction of suffering. On this, he wrote (1989, 63), J.S. Mill had said the last word (though to accept that, it should be noted in passing, we would have to equate “harm” with suffering, a move that will of course exasperate careful Mill scholars). In Achieving Our Country (1998a) Rorty gives us a list of suffering-reduction achievements that, he believes, should be remembered and celebrated, and on which progressive movements, he says, should build. I do not know of a similarly detailed list in Popper, whose political views are more abstractly stated, generally as an extrapolation from his philosophy of science (especially in Open Society). This introduces something of an asymmetry into the comparison, but I do not see how to avoid it, except by staying at the epistemological level which, for the reason just given, may be to scant a distinction that Rorty evidently thought to be crucial.

On Popper’s Political Thought

Let me begin with the briefest possible characterization of Popper’s political thought. It too, as it happens, is in one respect J.S. Mill-like, and one might note in passing that the two theorists’ shared admiration for Mill’s On Liberty could provide an interesting starting-point for addressing what they have in common, and where they differ. Mill wrote, “The beliefs that we have the most warrant for have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded”, continuing “This is the amount of certainty attainable by a fallible being.” That anticipates Popper’s later view that what is distinctive about the procedure of science is that claims are to be formulated in a way that maximizes their vulnerability to refutation, their surviving refutation being the only ground that we have on which to lend credence to claims made. This puts epistemology on a radically foundation-free basis that, Popper claimed, makes many ancient controversies obsolete. Likewise, the process of “discovery” is downplayed in (veridical, as distinct from historical) significance, for how one gets there is of no importance if what matters is what happens when one does get there—what obstacles one then confronts, and whether one then surmounts them or not. (More on this below.) Pursuing this line of thought, Popper goes so far as to describe science as a “subjectless” enterprise (1970, 57) in which all that matters is the force of the better evidence. When a scientific claim is refuted, then, Popper declares (perhaps over-) dramatically, “The believer perishes together with his false beliefs” (1972, 122). The believer has only the status of a vehicle.

It is not difficult to see important parallels with a certain kind of (idealized) politics, though once again we must note that Popper’s politics is more abstractly sketched than Rorty’s, and make allowance for that. It would be the politics of a liberal-democratic state, liberal in the sense that every conjecture, however arrived at, is given space, and democratic in the sense that every conjecture must face opposition and possible refutation in a public forum. That this picture obviously idealizes the actual practices of Western states, in Popper’s time and in ours, no doubt provokes the “Cold War warrior” label. But there is no reason to suppose that theorists who idealize aren’t aware of the ways in which reality falls short, and of the need to correct that. Nor should it be assumed that because Popper aligned himself with one side it was the choice of side that motivated his argument, not the reverse.

In any event, it isn’t the Cold-War-warrior issue that I want to raise in order to pursue a contrast with Rorty (who by the way would have been happy to have been called a Cold War warrior!). Rather, it is the “subjectless” character that Popper attributes to science and, by his own extrapolation, to liberal politics. If it has a political exemplar, it would be some version of deliberative democracy, in which, likewise, the competition of ideas tends to displace the conflict among persons. Theorists of deliberative democracy distinguish their view from the familiar pluralist or market view of politics as the clash of interests or preferences.

According to deliberative democrats, we come to the forum not with interests or preferences that demand satisfaction, but with a willingness to expose our initial views to public critique and to change them if that is where the argument goes (Gutmann and Thompson, 1996). It might be a bit over-dramatic, again, to call such a view of politics “subjectless”—because, after all, the contested proposals do have to be put forward and defended by human subjects, no doubt with conviction—but that term applies in the sense that the political process is conceived of, basically, and to the extent that it is valuable, as a collision among ideas rather than as a conflict among persons (or groups of people). What matters is not the fact that I (or we) hold one belief and that you hold another, and that the beliefs get some standing from the fact that you and I respectively hold them, but that from a regulative point of view one of us holds a belief that may turn out to be less vulnerable to refutation.

It is here that a major fault-line appears between Popper’s politics—or at least the direction in which Popper’s politics would ideally seem to go—and the approach that Rorty adopts in his political thought. For in a “subjectless” politics agents could in principle be evanescent, while in Rorty’s favoured politics agents are institutionalized and act out of a strong sense of their own continuing identity and, often, their own interest too.

Rorty and Collective Agency

What is missing in the era of identity politics, Rorty believed, is the contribution of strong collective agency inspired by the sense of having an ongoing presence in public life. The paradigm case is, of course, the labor union, the mainstay, for perhaps a century, of progressive politics. Rorty emphasizes that unions were also, often, bastions of various kinds of exclusiveness: here he applauds the work of what he calls the “cultural left” in bringing to light once-obscured forms of oppression. But without the institutionalized support of millions of working people the egalitarian project of the left is perhaps fatally weakened. In good part, of course, this is because in the labor movement the egalitarian project was firmly linked to the advancement of workers’ socioeconomic interest: and it may be in that regard that Popper’s science-politics analogy most clearly loses its grip.

From a motivational point of view, the sense of justified self-interest is very different from the admirably ego-free model of disinterest that Popper admired. And the failure of an attempt to advance one’s interest is rarely taken as a reason to quit as opposed to a reason to renew the effort if one can. “Politics is about interests” (Shapiro 1999) is a provocative over-generalization, but to the extent that Rorty emphasizes the place of interest adopts it he moves the discussion onto a terrain that an epistemically-conceived politics may neglect. Immediately after the Trump election, many commentators saw uncanny prescience in Rorty’s prediction that by abandoning the defence of the economically deprived, the Democratic party ran the risk of losing them to a demagogue who would exploit their resentments. Left out of the distributive paradigm, as it came to be termed, they then had to suffer being left out of the recognition paradigm too, and took their revenge on “recognition’s” supposed beneficiaries.

But it is not the element of “interest” alone that distinguishes Rorty’s view. He also wrote about the role of universities, for example, making large claims for their political importance (1998a, 50). He did not much stress the role of churches, but surely he should have, given the role of (for example) black churches in the civil rights movement, or, in the previous century, the role of English churches in the abolition of the slave trade (Appiah 2010). But whether we are thinking about economic or intellectual or spiritual motivation, the general point is that Rorty’s political world is peopled by decidedly non-evanescent actors. It is essential to effective politics, he believes, that there should be groups with long-term commitments and a sense of their continuing identity and purpose so that defeats can be absorbed and the struggle can continue.

Among the many powerful objections to neoliberalism by Cruickshank and others in Democratic Problem-Solving, this theme of Rorty’s points to a special reason for concern. It is characteristic of neoliberalism not only to close off macropolitical alternatives but also to infect institutions with a market ethos, so that their distinctive internal character is flattened, and they cease to be available as potential agents of political dissent, of the sort that Rorty regarded as essential to critical politics.

Institutions, such as trades unions, to use Rorty’s most recurrent example, come into being because groups of people have life-experiences in common, and once in being they create further life-experiences that their members share, and value. Here I want to go back to Popper’s epistemically powerful distinction between discovery and justification. Despite its scientific importance, it fits uncomfortably in politics because the process of discovering one’s political orientation is not easily left behind, embedded as it is in one’s life circumstances; and perhaps it should not be left behind, even. If it is as an agricultural labourer or a hand-loom weaver in 19th-century Britain, or a suffragette, or a member of a black evangelical church in the southern US in the civil rights era, or a journalist facing oppression in Erdogan’s Turkey, it is exactly one’s experience of coming to dissent from the status quo that needs to be made known to others. It is that experience that gives both content and moral weight to the claims arising from it. It is not after all an objection to your becoming an anti-poverty activist that you have yourself experienced poverty—as though your personal narrative of discovery somehow undermined the value of your political commitments.

The worry here may be, of course, that once we let in agent-relative considerations in this way then we open the door to relativism—thus undermining the validity of critique. That worry seems overdrawn. Let us take the case of poverty — the example is John Horton’s (2010). Suppose I am acutely aware of the effects of dire poverty because of my childhood experience; let’s say I can’t forget what it was like to go to school hungry. So, when I look at the society around me the consequences of poverty are salient to me in a way that other issues, let’s say environmental issues, or animal welfare issues, are not. That doesn’t mean I live in a different moral world from the environmentalist or the animal welfare advocate. Nor does it mean that in order to share political space with them I have to share their personal narratives of discovery or adapt my priorities to theirs. We can communicate and sympathize with others whose outlooks embody what we may term different moral gradients, or different basic views about what most compellingly demands to be surmounted.

Circumventing Democracy

There is a converse worry, which is that if we delegitimize agent-relative reasons then we will end up treating democracy as an obstacle to be somehow circumvented or directed. If only agent-neutral reasons count, and we can discover them, why bother counting heads? That question of course has an ancient and distinguished precursor in Plato, who regarded democracy as a distraction from truth-seeking, akin to a drunken pleasure cruise. I do not see how one can dissent from Plato’s caricature unless we find a place in democracy for the public value of giving weight to personal experience.

It’s a hard job to explain why it is of public value that citizens should believe that their personal or group narratives should shape policies that all citizens are compelled to accept, whether they accept these narratives or not. There is an information-sharing model, which seems to be the best interpretation of Aristotle’s case for including a democratic element in the constitution. There is a common experience model, that led Bentham to believe that broadly-based majorities would share sufficiently common interests to deny support to self-interested elites. Neither seems satisfactory across the board. Perhaps the best one can do is to say that the case can’t be grounded in anything other than one based on civic respect. Epistemology, in the last resort, may have less to do with it.

But a conclusion of that kind may be seriously question-begging, given the ambiguities of “respect.” Those ambiguities come to light in, especially, the politics of intercultural relations, where, it has been pointed out, “respect” may mean simply taking you as you are, and refraining from any sort of evaluation from my point of view, or, alternatively, it may mean responding attentively to what you have to say and giving my candid opinion so that we can advance, through mutual critique, to something that we can share — I don’t take you seriously unless I criticize you (Jones 1990). I take it that the latter interpretation is closer to Popperian politics—we should engage in argument in a common endeavour to discover who is right, in the sense of being demonstrably less vulnerable to the evidence that we turn up together. But if important political actors are, as Rorty believed, institutionally embedded, then they are putting not just their proposals but their identity on the line, and surely we can understand that they may demand or expect respect in the former interpretation: take us for who are. We are not willing to “perish” even if we lose, because we matter.

But why should we give in to that demand or expectation? Because the model of epistemic competition, attractive though it is in terms of furthering the normative aims of democracy, contains no institutional means of closure. A democratic means of closure is a majority vote. But a majority vote doesn’t represent the epistemic outcome of the debate that precedes it. It represents the majority’s view of the epistemic outcome of the debate that preceded it, and for the minority that continues to dissent that view has no more epistemic weight than their own. What can make it weighty is a procedural consideration that needs a justification of another kind.

Winners and Losers in the Debate?

I began by saying that I wasn’t going to award prizes, but I’m sure I’ve given the impression that I think Rorty wins and Popper loses. If so that is unfortunate because I really have no stake in either of them winning or losing. I think their juxtaposition is enormously valuable, though, in focussing our attention on a fundamental problem in the theory of democracy. We don’t believe in democracy for no reason at all. We believe in it because, as noted above, it has implicit normative ends—it advances freedom and equality in some combination and interpretation of those contested terms. But what it does, as a process as distinct from a normative ideal, is reflect the balance of considerations as they strike nonideal people, whether responding to those considerations happens to advance freedom and equality or not. And that is itself a (respect-based) normative constraint, not just a fact of life.

Where this dilemma may become especially clear is, I think, in the context in which the largest version of Rorty’s theory of embeddedness emerges: he speaks of achieving our country. What we are to do must express some interpretation of what our country antecedently stands for, not some unembedded cosmopolitan principle. Whereas Popper wrote long before political theorists began to take an interest in issues of global justice, Rorty can hardly have been unaware of the efforts by political theorists to confront what we believe we owe to one another, as conationals, with the interests of outsiders. Indeed, he suggested that, although we feel loyalty to those with whom we are embedded, we can come to an idea of “a larger loyalty”—that is, a global one—and thus come to acknowledge obligations to people outside our own society (1998b). And surely we can. But why should we? Here, I believe, the argumentative pendulum swings back in Popper’s favour, though likely in a way that Popper himself may not have anticipated.

Rorty’s belief that political movements must align with and draw upon some version of patriotism is of course open to critique from an overtly cosmopolitan point of view (e.g. Nussbaum 1996, 4). But it is also at odds with his own recognition of powerful institutional identities within the patria. Suppose I am a member of a Canadian labour organization, or a Canadian feminist advocacy group, or a Canadian evangelical church, or a Canadian indigenous rights movement, it hardly follows either that I must prioritize my Canadian identity over any of those sub-identities, or that in advocacy for my cause I must favour rhetoric drawn from specifically Canadian narratives. “Achieving our nation” might be somewhere on my list but there is no reason to place it at the top. My allies and points of reference may well be transnational ones (Erskine 2008), and so Rorty’s embrace of patriotism puts something of a straitjacket on the pluralism that he also endorses. Here the vision of an open society, that is, one that is not precommitted to some collective goal or value, is more conducive to the democratic idea. In that respect, Popper’s view more successfully challenges the givenness of agent’s assumed identities.

References

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, New York: Norton, 2010.

Cruickshank, Justin and Raphael Sassower. Democratic Problem Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

Erskine, Toni. Embedded Cosmopolitanism: Duties to Strangers and Enemies in a World of ‘Dislocated Communities’, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Gutmann, Amy and Dennis Thompson. Democracy and Disagreement, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Horton, John. “Reasonable Disagreement.” In Multiculturalism and Moral Conflict, edited by Maria Dimova-Cookson and Peter M.R, Stirk, 58-74. London: Routledge, 2010.

Jones, Peter. “Respecting Beliefs and Rebuking Rushdie,” British Journal of Political Science 20 (1990): 415-37.

Nussbaum, Martha. “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism.” In For Love of Country, edited by Joshua Cohen, 3-20. Boston: Beacon, 1996.

Popper, Karl. “Normal Science and Its Dangers,” In Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, edited by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, 51-58. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Popper, Karl.Objective Knowledge, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Rorty, Richard. Achieving Our Country, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998a.

Rorty, Richard. “Justice as a Larger Loyalty.” In Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation, edited by Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins, 45-58. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998b.

Shapiro, Ian. “Enough of Deliberation: Politics is about Interests and Power.” In Deliberative Politics: Essays on Democracy and Disagreement, edited by Stephen Macedo, 28-38. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Author Information: Philip Benesch, Lebanon Valley College, benesch@lvc.edu

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

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3JX

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Justin Cruickshank and Raphael Sassower’s Democratic Problem-Solving, Dialogues in Social Epistemology (Rowman & Littlefield, London, 2017) touches upon the continuing relevance of Popperian approaches to progressive social reform and political action. Yet, though it touches upon Popperian approaches, the sweep of these dialogues is both refreshingly broader and irritatingly cloudier. I have some criticisms of the distinct contributions made by Cruickshank and by Sassower.

Cruickshank, Rorty, and Dialogue

The exchanges that compose this book begin with Cruickshank’s bold exploration of uncharted commonalities in the work of Karl Popper and Richard Rorty. He finds common ground in their anti-essentialism, commitment to piecemeal social change, and anti-authoritarianism. Yet this last is somewhat subverted by Rorty’s admiration of Heidegger, despite his unrepudiated pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic stance, as Sassower reminds Cruickshank, first gently (30), then less subtly (47-49).

Rorty complimented Popper for doing “a good job” in noting the philosophical precursors of modern totalitarianism, but Rorty chose not to criticize great philosophers, such as Heidegger, when only part of their work supported such morally and politically despicable outcomes (Rorty 1988, 33; Fuller 2004, chapter 16). I do not see where Cruickshank acknowledges or comments upon this element in Rorty’s philosophical work or the challenge it must offer to Cruickshank’s quest for Popper-Rorty synergies of help to a revitalized anti-statist Left.

Steve Fuller has argued that “a sign of our non-Popperian times is that the most natural way to interpret the idea of ‘social epistemology’ is in terms of a consensus-seeking approach to inquiry, not, as Popper himself did, a set of mutually critical agents” (Fuller 2001, 343). I believe that Cruickshank would dismiss this as a binary by which he will not be bound, and would accuse Popperians of legislating the scope of inquiry and policing the boundaries of dialogue (42).

Cruickshank then sets forth his own division between “speedy” and “slow” dialogues and hands out speeding tickets to those who infringe his legislative schema. In this way, we are cautioned not to criticize certain positions as dogmatic or irrational, and those positions are returned to the dialogue (from which they were not excluded), and granted delaying privileges (which they have always retained). Cruickshank would not call this a consensus-seeking approach, he has avoided that term; he prefers we call it critical slow dialogue.

In his second contribution (chapter 3) to the present dialogue in social epistemology, Cruickshank proposes that while Popper correctly rejected “justificationist speedy dialogue” he incorrectly embraced the “critical speedy dialogue” of permanent revolution in science. Popper was incorrect because “[p]eople may be emotionally, ethically and politically committed to their ideas” (36). Yet, contrary to Cruickshank’s portrait, Popper, outside the confines of his seminar, appears to have more typically pursued slow dialogue, favoring slow reading and slow writing, he took pains to revise his papers, hoping for clarity and concision, so that they might be understood in plain English (not his first tongue). He recognized that neither reason nor science were self-sufficient but were entangled with the commitments Cruickshank identifies.

According to Cruickshank:

Admitting that criticism may take a long time to effect ideational change opens up the possibility of slippage ‘backwards’ and for Popper that would put science and democracy at risk. In place of slow piecemeal ideational change there had to be a utopia of hyper-rational and instrumental machine-like agents changing their ideas very quickly (42).

Yet, the core of both Popper’s epistemology and his political philosophy is a fallibilist attitude of reasonableness—that “I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort we may get nearer to the truth” (Popper 1945/1966, v.2., 225, sentence italicized in the original; he emphasized that this should be regarded as his moral credo, Popper 1994, xii). The collaborative effort of which Popper speaks will most often involve the “slow piecemeal ideational change” that Cruickshank incorrectly claims Popper rejected. Typically, each of us hold ideas that are partly wrong and partly right. Of course, there may on other occasions be fairly rapid ideational change, as when one’s entire “horizon of expectations” is shattered by an event and requires replacement (see Popper’s 1948 paper on bucket and searchlight epistemologies, now appended to Popper 1972/1979; see my comments, Benesch 2012, 101, 109 and notes).  And yes, of course, there is always the possibility “of slippage ‘backwards’”—nothing is inevitable and, short of death, nothing is established with finality; political and intellectual gains won in one era may be lost in another.

All one can do is craft institutions, traditions, and methods that may provide minimal safeguards, but the future very much depends on the loosely-associated individuals and their decisions. It seems to me that Popper’s attitude of reasonableness strictly prescribes neither a speedy nor a slow dialogue, but it does require a good-faith argument between individuals seeking to identify their errors and “get nearer to the truth” (never, of course, likely to attain certainty or absolute truth).

In his first contribution, Cruickshank credits Lakatos, not Popper, with both the distinction of auxiliary hypotheses from core hypotheses and with the conception of research programs (15). In his third contribution Cruickshank tells us that “[T]he history of science does not conform to… Popper’s methodological prescription…” (85). We should think (slowly) about that statement: history does not conform to one’s prescriptions. One’s prescriptions are presumably for future action not past action; surely one should learn from the mistakes or inefficiencies of the past in order to avoid repeating them; one’s prescriptions may draw certain favorable examples from the past, but one would not expect a philosopher to prescribe conformity with the past per se.

The reading of Popper by Cruickshank is remarkably distorted but it has become standard fare for those who credit Lakatos rather than Popper with the concept of research programs in science. From the 1950s Popper referred to these as metaphysical research programs—they were the motivators of particular scientific inquiries but these programs were not themselves scientifically-tested nor were any empirically-testable as a whole. Metaphysical programs may well persist, and change to these may be typically, although not invariably, slow. “They are… much harder to criticize than [scientific] theories—and much easier to retain uncritically” (Popper 1982b, 32).

Contrary to Cruickshank’s claims (43-44), Popper’s approach to dialogue between metaphysical positions is hardly “speedy” although it is critical. In the Open Society, declaring that in the “conflict between idealism and materialism my sympathies are with Marx” (Popper 1945/1966, v2, 110), Popper explicitly endorsed Marx’s practical-critical humanism as a dualistic revision of materialism. Twenty-five years later, while advancing pluralism as a viable alternative to either idealism or materialism, Popper noted that “if forced to choose between any subjectivist or personalist view of human knowledge and the materialist or physicalist view I have just tried to sketch, I should choose the latter; but this is emphatically not the alternative.” (Popper 1972/1979, 296). Popper’s 1948 essay, “Towards a Rational Theory of Tradition” (now in Conjectures and Refutations), his response to Michael Oakeshott, may offer further understanding of his approach to ideational change, as may his discussion of culture clash in The Open Society and Its Enemies, and in The Myth of the Framework.

Popper strove to avoid giving unnecessary offense to religious or other identities. He did not infantilize or coddle his interlocutors. He prescribed that we distinguish each theorist from his/her theories, so that one’s ideas might be criticized and discarded if found to be more erroneous or less enlightening than a rival idea with which it is being compared. As a result of the externalization of our ideas, our ideas might be treated as “objective” or exosomatic knowledge, with identified errors critically reviewed and set aside from current discussion.

Popper, in his Darwinian phase, referred to this as “error elimination.” He proposed that, in a critical discussion, rather than we being martyrs to our ideas, our hypotheses should die in our stead.  Popper’s poetic formulation makes an important point but we should not take poetry literally: hypotheses have no death. No ideas are ever eliminated from the Popperian “world 3” archive of exosomatic knowledge—so long as at least some of the artifacts in which they are encoded remain.

I prefer Sassower’s alternative descriptor, “displaced”— certain ideas are displaced from our current inter-subjective critical discussion but remain retrievable from the exosomatic archive. As Sassower eloquently argues, “This means that the entire history of ideas remains alive, however dormant or forgotten here and there, until vestiges of it are rediscovered or found useful for explaining a new constellation of ideas or principles” (243)— my only quibble with Sassower’s point is that ideas are no more alive than they are dead; we should avoid biologicizing our ideas). All of these points are consistent with Popper’s earlier formulation (which was limited to science) that there can be no conclusive falsifications. In The Logic of Scientific Discovery, he had clearly stated his view that “no conclusive disproof of a theory can ever be produced” (Popper 1959/1980, section 9, 50—this statement was in the 1934 original; in 1959 he added text and a footnote emphasizing the point; see also appendix X.17, 440) [“experiments are never conclusive; and they must in turn be testable by further experiments”] and section 30, 109-111).

“Critical speedy dialogue, contra Popper, is not possible, and the alternative to critical slow dialogue is justificationist speedy dialogue” (108) repeats Cruickshank in chapter 9, his fourth contribution to this dialogue. The assertion is rapidly followed by Cruickshank’s claim that Popper moved from an optimistic approach to politics (his attitude up to at least the late-1960s)—in which political experts might be held accountable by ordinary, un-deferential and active critical citizens—to a more pessimistic and technocratic approach, in which citizen participation is limited to post-hoc evaluation of policy and political performance at regularly scheduled elections. Cruickshank is wrong to claim that Popper’s opposition to either majoritarian or Rousseauian conceptions of democratic politics were features only of his later “pessimistic” phase (110). Popper consistently viewed democracy as a system for checking power, and for removing rulers disfavored by the majority (quite different from majority rule). Cruickshank appears to share Popper’s aversion to push-button plebiscitary democracy but bemoans what he sees in the later Popper: a tendency to entrust, between elections, decision-making to a technocratic, ideologically-neutral political elite (more on this last point at the end of the next section).

Cruickshank may be able to offer an interesting and innovative interpretation of the chronology of Popper’s politics if he could show that the later political pessimism resulted from disillusionment with critical dialogue and a consequent resort to justificationist speedy dialogue. Indeed, Cruickshank approaches this view, noting a paternalism in the late Popperian conception where “the political elite would become the authoritative source of ethical justification, with their technocratic status allowing them to enact moral regulation of lay agents and the construction of a pseudo-consumer sovereignty” (112). If Cruickshank were to flesh out this aspect of his theory, it may offer a fertile contribution to Popper scholarship.

Frankly, I prefer the Popper of the politically-optimistic critical (variable-speed) dialogue, the intellectual revolutionary who retained faith in the Enlightenment project of universal human emancipation. Abandoning Marx’s historicism while preserving his practical-critical activism, Popper understood that men make their own history, albeit constrained by material conditions and error-impregnated traditions. There may be no laws of historical development other than those humanity sets itself, and a foreseen outcome to history might become inexorable or inevitable only if unconstrained by material circumstance or sufficient counter-vailing will. The future is open, it depends very largely upon ourselves, upon decisions we make within the bounds of our technology. It depends on our publicly declared aims and purposes, and on the rules, standards, and agreements we establish to regulate and coordinate our various activities.

Sassower, Demarcation, and Rationalism

Popper’s work is avowedly a contribution to normative philosophy, more broadly it is a contribution to efforts to improve humanity’s “plastic controls”—that is to say, our mutual self-regulation according to our standards and aims. He was a critic of bad or harmful metaphysics but Popper was not an enemy of metaphysics, least of all a disparager of that which may be irreducible to or inexplicable by physics (as Sassower notes, 243). While recognizing that praxis was both a spur and a bridle to our speculation (Popper 1957/1960, 56; Popper 1972/79, 311, 263), Popper praised the many metaphysical programs that have informed, guided and ennobled human activity. His methodological prescriptions for science may be analogous to those he offers for politics but they are never identical. Ethics regulates both activities, but there is no scientific basis for ethics and we had better eschew an ethics governed by political considerations.

How then are we to make sense of Raphael Sassower and Seif Jensen’s chapter (chapter 8) on Popper and the demarcation of science from metaphysics?  For this discussion they critically expropriate Popper’s reflection on the tercentenary of Britain’s revolution of 1688. Sassower and Jensen write:

Popper consistently demonstrates this attitude towards our reception and proliferation of scientific knowledge claims in his 1988 apologia of a democratic two-party system; his ‘Day of Judgement’ essentially amounts to a falsifiable test. Democracy ought to be testable, in theory as well as in practice. Solving this problem (of the conditions under which democracy works most effectively) for Popper means changing the ‘old problem’ of ‘who should rule?’—which is unscientific because it cannot be falsified—to one that approximates the criterion of falsifiability as closely as possible within the political-scientific sphere. We concede that Popper does set an absolute standard by declaring ‘that … a rule of law that enables us to get rid of a government. No majority, however large, ought to be qualified to abandon this rule of law’ (Popper 1988). Setting aside this absolutist thinking which we attribute to the trauma of war, Popper merely points out that a two-party model has yet to be falsified under certain conditions, while the others, according to Popper, have (96-97).

Popper did no such thing. Note that in the above passage the references to falsification are not part of the Popper statements directly quoted by Sassower and Jensen; rather these references are interpolated as if summarizing unquoted elements in Popper’s 1988 essay. But Popper does not make ANY reference to the concept of falsification (nor to science) in the 1988 essay (compare with Popper 1988/2012). The General Election “day of judgement” is not, could not be, and is not by Popper intended as an opportunity for empirical disconfirmation of a scientifically tested hypothesis. Sassower and Jensen want Popper to say this, have the preconception that Popper would say this if asked, and therefore creatively interpolate with wish-fulfilling abandon.

There is much more where this came from. The chapter on the demarcation problem is marked by a postmodernist warping. The Popper that emerges from this mangling is a post-Adorno, post-Lakatos caricature of a half-positivist, semi-sophisticated-falsificationist, with a fuddy-duddy or naïve-conservative affection for western democracy. Sassower and Jensen tell us that

For Popper’s cohorts, science could offer what the nation-state failed to offer: freedom and equality, knowledge and certainty… The new utopia would be a utopia surrogate; it would be Popperian … this revised scientific project offered demarcation criteria only as a first step toward a more nuanced method of conjectures and refutations that culminates at most with putative truths (92).

Are Sassower and Jensen saying that Popper’s “science” aspired to offer the “certainty” the nation-state failed to offer or that his “nuanced method” sought to attain “putative truths”—rather than pursue the identification of error in our theories so that we may better describe and explain reality (perhaps here “putative truths” is used as a synonym for such tentative theories)? Outrageously ignoring (temporarily) Popper’s commitments to critical rationalism, humanitarianism, and the open society, Sassower and Jensen mutate Popper into Bacon “free to engage problem solving and criticism from a neutral perspective…” (94). In the midst of curtseying to Foucault and Lyotard, Sassower and Jensen take from Agassi’s mouth what they ought to have heard as sung from Popper’s tonsils—that to hold the view that science is ‘in flux’ “is also to argue that society is in flux, so much so that it deserves to be reassessed continuously” (101). Indeed, that is what the “openness” of the open society refers to.

Without sidetracking to Sassower’s interest in public intellectuals, we may proceed directly to his last substantive contribution to the present book. In chapter 19, quoting Popper’s view that “No decision about aims can be established by purely rational or scientific means”, Sassower then comments,

This line is presented more or less as statement of fact without it being open to critical discussion or dispute. Is there a way to argue rationally about aims? Don’t policy makers do this all the time when they offer alternative aims…We routinely use ‘scientific means’ to calculate the options we wish to set as aims for our community… It’s true that ‘its aims, at least, must be given before the social scientist can begin …’ But aren’t we here following Popper’s own methodological nominalist approach … (233-234).

Yes: Popper did not deny a role to reason or science in aiding the critical evaluation of policy, programs or institutions. Reason clearly may have a major role in critical assessment of our aims and standards. But what Popper also clearly argued was that we could not establish our aims by purely rational or scientific means—he italicized the word “purely” in the hope that it would catch the eye of even a speedy reader.  Popper noted that our reason and science are necessarily entangled with our emotional, ethical and political commitments—the very ones to which Cruickshank referred earlier (36).

Popper held that utopianism and technocratic planning are typically inseparable from an aesthetic commitment to tidiness, to more efficiently organizing the crazy patchwork quilt of our social fabric (Popper 1945/1966, v1, chapter 9). And he described his rationalism as lacking self-sufficiency; it rested on the flimsiest of foundations, an irrational faith in the attitude of reasonableness (Popper 1945/1966, v2, chapter 24, sections 1-3, especially 231, cf. 258). Hence, for Popper, there could be no purely rational or scientific reform of society.

Sassower hopes to reconcile utopianism and a redefined post-rationalist “reasonableness” as the core of his own non-relativistic brand of Popperian postmodernism. It is good to be creative, especially in an otherwise stagnant field, but one would hope to avoid too many distortions of the earlier theory one claims to be refuting or revising and augmenting. In particular, one might note that Popper was not opposed to small-scale, localized utopian experiments (a point perhaps implicitly and belatedly acknowledged by Sassower on 237).

Popper’s objection was to holistic utopian engineering—the project to remake society as a whole, according to the intelligent design of some god-like human oligarchy (e.g. Plato’s philosophers, who were as god-like as it was possible for a human to be [here Popper reads the Republic rather too literally]; or the transformations to be wrought by Lenin’s party of “professional revolutionaries” and by subsequent central planners). Small scale social experimentation (preferably by consenting participants) might be subject to democratic and social scientific criticism, and may yield important insights to citizens keen to scale-up their projects. Of course, we may yet create a god-like artificial intelligence that will coordinate a world-wide communism with more efficiency and liberty than might be achieved through market mechanisms and the public policies of fissiparous polities. Otherwise we may well find holistic central planners to be resistant to criticism by ordinary citizens. If some citizens are inconvenienced by the implementation of utopian policy—and the larger the scale of the bureaucratically-engineered change, the larger the number of citizens likely inconvenienced—the more the central planners are likely to immunize themselves from criticism and to treat critics as improperly motivated or merely ill-informed.

We may observe that Sassower appears to attack Popper from two rather different angles. In chapter 19 he accuses Popper of precluding science and reason from contributing to the setting of ultimate aims but elsewhere he (e.g. chapter 8, as quoted above) and other contributors to the dialogue suspect Popper of preferring technocracy. Of course, these are not mutually-exclusive positions, as a value-neutral technocracy may simply follow preset values or assume that what is systemic to society is natural or otherwise outside the scope of their decision. Popper spent quite a bit of The Open Society and Its Enemies critiquing political leadership by ideologically-neutral experts (e.g., Plato’s philosophers or Mannheim’s intellectuals) and he also disavowed ethical naturalism.

Finally, we may note that Isaac Reed, (chapter 6) also raises important questions regarding Popper’s attitude to scientific work that is antithetical or harmful to an open society. It may be the case that Popper remained a child of the Enlightenment: he believed that the unflinching search for truth will aid universal emancipation.  Yet, Popper also recognized limits to political (and presumably intellectual) toleration, for example: the need for an open society to suppress pro-slavery movements and to fight racism. Broadly, the integrity of a scientist is measured by pre-agreed, institutionalized values. A scientist qua scientist does not set those values, nonetheless that scientist as citizen will do so. The scientists cannot leave their consciences at the laboratory door.

At the height of the Vietnam War Popper demanded a broader granting of conscientious objector status, spoke of the moral responsibilities of scientists (for example, those who might have demanded that the 1945 atomic bombs be used, if used at all, only on uninhabited locations or isolated military targets) and celebrated the post-Nuremberg principle that the “conscience of every human being is the ultimate court of appeal with respect to the question whether a command is…to be resisted.” (Popper 1994, 126). Popper concluded his 1968 essay: “Since the natural scientist has become inextricably involved in the application of science, he too, should consider it one of his special responsibilities to foresee as far as possible the unintended consequences of his work and to draw attention, from the very beginning, to those which we should strive to avoid” (Popper 1994, 129). The old lore about value-free Popperian science might surely now be set to rest.

Historical Method, Realism, and an Agenda for a Post-Popperian Political Philosophy

Reed and Cruickshank have noted the encumbrances imposed on Popperian problem-solving by The Poverty of Historicism. One might have wished that Popper had left that work as a neglected 1944-45 series of articles published in a not widely circulated economics journal. It was his first work written in English (its drafting precedes his 1940 article on dialectics) and it is stodgy and mechanistic in style, with little of the sparkle that shines through The Open Society and Its Enemies. Yet in 1957, hot on the heels of the repressed revolution in Hungary, the CPSU XXth Party Congress, and the ensuing wide-spread disillusionment among Western communists, Popper permitted the minimally-revised republication of the articles as a book printed in English. I conjecture that he wanted to talk with the Left at this critical moment and the Poverty seemed all ready for the purpose. The result was an intense six-year controversy that drew in critics as varied as Herbert Marcuse, Alasdair MacIntyre, and E.H. Carr, helped trigger Popper’s 1961 confrontation with Theodor Adorno, brought forth commentators who interpreted the Poverty as offering a “covering law” H-D model (e.g., in a 1961 conference paper and later publications, Alan Donagan popularized this model as the “Popper-Hempel theory”), and no doubt increased the misperception of Popper by those who were forming the New Left.

The Poverty of Historicism indeed contains some howlers about sociological laws and how these may be similar to laws in natural science and very different from so-called historical laws. But as a good fallibilist, Popper learned from the criticism, so that we find a (not entirely helpful) 1961 revival of his interest in situational logic (a concept he had left largely dormant for the previous 15 years) and a renunciation of sorts, of the use of “laws” in social science (almost no reference to these in Popper’s writings after 1963). His 1963 lecture on “Models, instruments and Truth” is a particularly interesting reformulation of Popper’s position. There he recognized that

[T]he Newtonian method of explaining and predicting singular events by universal laws and initial conditions is hardly ever applicable in the theoretical social sciences…[and] … in the social sciences, tests of a situational analysis can sometimes be provided by historical research” (Popper 1994, 165-166, 170).

The distinction between the social-theoretical and historical sciences, so sharply drawn in the Poverty, seems to be blurred by Popper’s work in the 1960s. Indeed, Popper’s essays on evolutionary epistemology and “objective knowledge” reveal his renewed appreciation for dialectics and his interest in contributing to hermeneutics (see Popper 1972/1979, 162, 167, cf. 296). Yet this came too late for him to have influence on the emergent generations of the Left. He lacked Lakatos’ knack for savvy marketing. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions was easily assimilated by a Left that heard echoes of Marxian modes of production in a Kuhnian revolutionary succession of paradigms but that failed to see the resemblance between Marx’s praxeology and the Popperian conceptions of the growth of knowledge and autonomous sociology. Further alienated from the post-Tubingen Western Marxists and the wider academy they influenced, Popper later appears to have accepted the label they had repeatedly applied to him: when asked by Mark Notturno, circa 1992, why he had been spurned by so many academic philosophers, the ninety-year old Popper is reported to have replied “because I am on the right” (Notturno 2000, 166).

Recognition of universal flux led Popper to reject both essentialistic approaches to social science and historicist conceptions of predetermined social development. In the volume under review, Reed, Cruickshank, Chis, and Sassower note the connection between methodological nominalism and political liberalism (pro-free-speech and pro-democracy) in Popper’s philosophy. Yet Popper consistently held a realist, non-instrumentalist and non-relativist philosophical position, normally construed as opposed to nominalism. From the late 1950s, Popper, no doubt in part tongue-in-cheek, described his position as that of a modified essentialist—with the emphasis on the modified. True to his earlier “methodological nominalism,” the label of “methodological nominalist” did not have great value to Popper, what counted was clarity in communication (if only he had been as flexible in his use of the “historicist” label).

According to Popper, we use our terms to attempt to describe a reality that we never fully grasp—our terms, and especially our theories, are “nets cast to catch what we call the ‘world’: to rationalize, to explain, and to master it. We endeavour to make the mesh ever finer and finer” (Popper 1959/1980, 59). The best theories remain “rational nets of our own making, and should not be mistaken for a complete representation of the real world in all its aspects; not even if they are highly successful; not even if they appear to yield excellent approximations to reality” (Popper 1982a, 42-43). The point is to better approximate reality, to set aside theories that appear to be more clearly errant. As a realist and fallibilist, Popper was drawn to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, not for its depiction of philosopher-emancipators nor for its presentation of an attainable and complete enlightenment, but for its portrait of the human condition, of humanity stumbling and groping its way to a piecemeal recognition of illusion and error (Popper 1963/1989, 28, cf. Popper 1994, 52-53, also compare Popper 1972/1979, 344f).

I observe that Popper’s late ontology—a reformulated realism in which “the third world” of exosomatic human knowledge “is autonomous in what may be called its ontological status” (Popper 1972/1979, 161)—was preceded by Popper’s stumbles in the reception context of the republished Poverty of Historicism and by his reimagination both of methodological nominalism and of the prospects of an open society. (In the 1950s, Popper introduced the concept of the abstract society: a supposed deformation of the open society [Popper 1945/1966, v1, 174-175]. Popper’s initial political proposal of misery-minimization and socially-protective interventionism had relied upon concrete encounters between proximately-situated and compassionately-connected citizens. I believe that the prospect of an increasingly abstract society presented a significant problem for Popper’s political philosophy.) Popper’s late ontology did not come out of the blue, as some of his more perplexed commentators have suspected, but out of a discernable problem situation; it was a courageous effort to meet the multiple theoretical challenges with which he had been faced.

I propose that, with some interpretative license, we may develop from Popper’s late ontology a research program in post-Popperian political philosophy. While I do not have the space here to outline my agenda in full, I will conclude with brief notes on the first four of the arguments I have developed in this wider project:

Notes on Argument 1

Popper’s late ontology complements his earlier treatment of the theoretical limitations of Marxism. In The Viennese Socrates, I argued that Popper should be seen as the critical continuer of Eduard Bernstein’s revisionist Marxism. Like Bernstein, Popper exposed the gulf that opened between the scientific pretensions of post-Marx Marxism and the increasing dogmatism of the scientific socialists. He followed almost directly (but largely without acknowledgement) Bernstein’s critique of the prophetic chapter, chapter 25, in Marx’s Capital (Benesch 2012, 46-47), a critique Bernstein had originally advanced in his 1899 book, Evolutionary Socialism. Bernstein was also a precursor to Popper’s criticism of both Marxian historicism and the Marxian attitude to democracy. Yet, prior to the 1960s, Popper had not improved upon a Marx-derived dualism (of course, Marx did not see it as a dualism), a practical-critical humanism.

Notes on Argument 2

The central claims of Popper’s late ontology free the Left from a cramped materialism. I suggest that, while unacknowledged by Popper, his late ontology is a workable and nondeterministic version of historical materialism—recognizing the full compendium of historically-accumulated knowledge as a dynamic and autonomous component in an interactive universe. His pluralist reformulation of materialism, while more elaborate than his earlier mind-body dualism, is still remarkably lean and minimally pretentious. “Objective knowledge,” the exosomatic product of flesh and blood embodied human minds, is said to survive only when embedded in matter (books, computer systems, art, architecture, etc.). The engagement of our minds with previously externalized ideas and theories is said to facilitate the partial autonomy of the mind from the physico-chemical processes of our bodies.

Notes on Argument 3

Each of the three legs of Popperian “autonomous sociology”—antipsychologism, situational logic, and methodological individualism—are fortified. The claims of Popper’s antipsychologism are advanced directly by emphasizing the dependence of subjective knowledge on “objective knowledge” produced by other human beings, as well as on the externalized record of one’s own previous intellectual labor.  Popperian situational logic and methodological individualism both benefit from Popper’s introduction of the concepts of “plastic control” and “downward causation.” The conceptualization of plastic control—our mutual coordination and self-regulation according to standards and aims reached “imperceptibly through lengthy deliberation” (Popper 1972/1979, 231-234)—offers a further refinement of a sociology that is individualistic but not atomistic. The concept of downward causation supplements Popper’s understanding of the ways in which group-membership transforms and augments the behavior and consciousness of associated individuals.

Notes on Argument 4

Popper’s late ontology thickens his earlier historical sociology. In the preface to the 1959 first English edition of the Logic of Scientific Discovery he had already endorsed “the (at present unfashionable) historical method.” (Popper 1959/1980, 16). As noted earlier, Popper’s essays on evolutionary epistemology and “objective knowledge” reveal his renewed appreciation for dialectics and his interest in contributing to hermeneutics (Popper 1972/1979, 162, 167, cf. 296). In the 1960s, as he elaborated his late ontology, he proposed that “if we want to understand history, we must understand ideas and their objective logical (or dialectical) relationships” (Popper 1972/1979, 297).

He refined a conception of the evolution of knowledge and allied this to a reiterated tetradic conceptualization of historical progress (problem 1-theory-criticism-problem 2, etc. etc.—see Popper’s “Pluralist Approach to the Philosophy of History” [lecture, 1967], Popper 1994, 140). An analysis of intellectual change would be an analysis of problem solving in the context of historically-specified traditions and institutions, “For what exist, for the historian, are people in physical, social, mental, and ideological problem situations; people producing ideas by which they try to solve these problems, ideas which they try to grasp, to criticize, to develop” (Popper 1972/1979, 300). Attempts to solve any given problem could be understood only by identifying the relationship of that problem to the matrix of traditions and institutions in which it had arisen.

References

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

Cruickshank, Justin and Raphael Sassower, editors. Democratic Problem-Solving, Dialogues in Social Epistemology, London, Rowman & Littlefield, 2017

Fuller, Steve. “Review: Karl Popper: The Formative Years, 1902-1945: Politics and Philosophy in Interwar Vienna by Malachi Haim Hacohen.” The British Journal for the History of Science, 34, no. 3 (2001): 343-345

Fuller, Steve. Kuhn vs. Popper: The Struggle for the Soul of Science, New York, Columbia University Press, 2004

Notturno, Mark. Science and the Open Society: The Future of Karl Popper’s Philosophy, Budapest, Central European University Press, 2000

Popper, Karl. The Open Society and Its Enemies, two volumes, 5thedition (revised), Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1945/1966

Popper, Karl. The Poverty of Historicism, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 2nd edition, 1957/1960

Popper, Karl. The Logic of Scientific Discovery, London, Routledge, 1959/1980

Popper, Karl. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, 5th edition (revised), London, Routledge, 1963/1989

Popper, Karl. Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach, second edition, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1972/1979.

Popper, Karl. The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism, London, Routledge, 1982a

Popper, Karl. Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics, London, Routledge, 1982b.

Popper, Karl. Realism and the Aim of Science, London, Routledge, 1983.

Popper, Karl. “On Democracy” [first published as “Popper on Democracy…” in The Economist, 23rd April 1988, 111-119] In Popper: After the Open Society, edited by Jeremy Shearmur and Piers Norton Turner, 360-369. London and New York, Routledge, 1988/2012.

Popper, Karl. The Myth of the Framework: In Defense of Science and Rationality, London, Routledge, 1994.

Rorty, Richard “Taking Philosophy Seriously.” The New Republic (April 11, 1988): 31-34.

Author Information: Stephen Kemp, University of Edinburgh, S.kemp@ed.ac.uk

Kemp, Stephen. “On Popper, Problems and Problem-Solving: A Review of Cruickshank and Sassower’s Democratic Problem-Solving.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 27-34.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3DO

Please refer to:

Image credit: Rowman & Littlefield

Democratic Problem-Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology (2017), edited by Justin Cruickshank and Raphael Sassower, offers a thought-provoking take on a range of issues of dialogue, democracy and reasoning in the social sciences and beyond. Jana Bacevic (2017) has usefully summed up the orientation of the book in her review, and raises important questions about the relationship between epistemic democracy and liberal democracy that I do not, unfortunately, have any worthwhile answers to.

This review focuses instead on issues the book very helpfully raises about the modes of reasoning in natural science, social science and in society more generally. In particular I want to focus on the core notions of ‘problem’ and ‘problem-solving’ that are discussed in this volume, and will do so from a perspective that, as with some of the contributors, is sympathetic to the approach of Popper.[1] I will be reconstructing aspects of the discussion between Cruickshank, Sassower and Isaac Ariel Reed, and then suggesting one way it could be taken forward in relation to the concept of normativity.

Setting Problems

Let me start, then, with the question of ‘problems’ in the natural sciences and beyond. My initial observation would be that in Democratic Problem-Solving there is discussion of at least three ‘settings’ within which problems could be located—one is within the natural sciences, the second is within the ‘research problems’ of the social sciences, and the third is in society more generally. The general thrust of Cruickshank’s analysis is that the idea of problems and problem solving is applicable in all of these domains. In this respect he is following, and developing, the ideas of Popper and also those of John Holmwood, who has defended the importance of the concept of problem-solving for both natural and social scientific analysis (see e.g. Holmwood, 1996).

Of course the term ‘problem’ could be taken in different ways, and it will be useful to consider how Cruickshank uses it in his fascinating chapter ‘Anti-Authority: Comparing Popper and Rorty on the Dialogic Development of Beliefs and Practices’ which sets the agenda for the book. To explore this, let us start with Cruickshank’s account of Popper’s problem-solving epistemology:

For Popper (1963, 1972, 1999), if it is accepted that knowledge is fallible, then it follows that one should always seek out better interpretations and explanations of reality. To do this, existing solutions to problems in ethics, science, politics, and so on, need to be subject to criticism, with new solutions to the problems found then being subjected to criticism and eventually replaced by new solutions, in a never-ending critical dialogue (6).

What comes through in this quote, as I interpret it, is a focus on problematizing as much as on problems. That is to say, the encouragement here is to be oriented to critique and to perpetual overturning—to making things problematic. And this is consistent with Cruickshank’s orientation throughout the book which focuses very much on questions of critique and how one can avoid wrongly foreclosing criticism.[2] It should certainly be noted that Cruickshank does refer to a more specific usage of Popper’s, referring to the latter’s concern with “practical problems in our environment” such that when we resolve problems we have adapted successfully—temporarily—to this environment (6). However, this usage is rarely discussed beyond the core opening chapter, with the general treatment of problem being a sense of ‘something that has been problematized by certain actors’ (to put it in my own words).

What about the idea of a ‘solution’, or ‘problem-solution’? In Popperian terms, a solution could be seen as a successful ‘adaptation’ but, as mentioned, this idea does not receive extensive treatment by Cruickshank (or indeed other authors) in the book. The same is true of the idea that problem-solving has a connection to the pragmatist concern with ‘usefulness’ (7). The implication of that link seems to be that we will have more useful knowledge once a problem is solved, but this is not really taken further. Rather, the idea that is probably most extensively used in the book is the notion that problem-solving has the potential for ‘alleviating harm’ (xiii).

This provides a broad orientation to the debate insofar as much of the ensuing discussion is about the harms of neo-liberalism and how they might be responded to. However, it is doubtful that this could be used to account for what problem-solving in the natural sciences is about, and should probably be seen as one particularly important kind of problem-solving. It could be said, then, that what a problem-solution involves is left fairly vague in the book. In one sense this chimes in with the orientation of the discussion towards criticism and problematizing. Given the overall focus on open-endedness the very idea of a solution could be considered to be potentially suspect. A solution might be taken to imply a resting place, a stopping place, whereas the orientation that Cruickshank is promoting is precisely the opposite, a form of permanent restlessness.

Although problems and problem-solving are treated in this fairly broad, open-ended way by Cruickshank, Reed nevertheless expresses doubts about the value of these concepts in his well-argued chapter ‘Science, Democracy and the Sociology of Power’. Reed formulates particular concerns about whether it is justified to take the idea of ‘problem solving’ from the natural sciences and apply it elsewhere. In relation to social scientific knowledge, Reed questions whether the problem-solving framework associated with Popper’s thought will be able to cope with certain features of society such as the ‘looping kinds’ discussed by Ian Hacking or the ‘concept dependence’ discussed by Roy Bhaskar.

In relation to social problems, Reed has even greater concerns. For one thing, he points out that there is a large literature on the construction of ‘social problems’ which identifies the importance of selectiveness and framing in defining what is taken to be a problem in society. For another thing, Reed points out that the sort of scientistic orientation one may associate with Popper’s problem-solving can actually contribute to normatively doubtful social outcomes. That is to say, the invocation of the scientific status of expert judgements, e.g. where a psychiatrist’s expertise is used to characterise a type of individual as problematic in legal deliberations, involves a problematic exercise of authority.

Cruickshank’s response to Reed (‘Criticism vs Dogmatism’) is based on the idea that Popper’s thought can be divided into the dogmatic and the critical. For Cruickshank, the dogmatic Popper was inclined to fetishize aspects of science as exemplifying critical rationality and was not prepared to submit these to critical appraisal themselves. By contrast, the critical Popper would allow criticism free rein, including that directed at science and its existing methods. Cruickshank argues that the critical Popper can usefully address the issues raised regarding the distinctiveness of the social world and the framing of problems. We shall now examine each of these in turn.

In relation to the distinctive features of the social world, Cruickshank contends that whereas the dogmatic Popper might insist that a scientific analysis of the social world must involve the use of hypothetico-deductive reasoning, the critical Popper would allow that methodological tools and arguments are also up for criticism and revision. This would mean that for the critical Popper it could be perfectly appropriate to question the value of hypthetico-deductive reasoning in relation to the social sciences and replace this with other alternatives as appropriate, such as a focus on the qualitative investigation of meaning.

I would like to briefly mention here an alternative response that could be made to Reed’s critique, based in the work of John Holmwood and Alexander Stewart (1991). Their Explanation and Social Theory (1991) is a rich book which discusses many facets of sociological thought, but one of the key arguments is that the idea of a fundamental difference between natural and social science is based on a problematic understanding of the role of meaning and practical activity in each activity. Once this understanding is rejected, there are much greater continuities than notions like ‘concept-dependence’ or the ‘double-hermeneutic’ might suggest. For Holmwood and Stewart, problem-solving can be undertaken perfectly consistently across the social and natural sciences. I do not have space to say more about it here, but the approach of Explanation and Social Theory is certainly worthy of attention.

Normative Framing

Let’s move on, then, to Cruickshank’s response to the issue of social problems and their framing. Cruickshank’s key move is to clarify that his approach to problem-solving is entirely consistent with the idea that problems are normatively framed. Indeed, Popper himself, in his critical mode, admitted this. Cruickshank states that:

…any proper recognition of the role of intersubjective norms entails the need to study how intersubjective norms have, and will, shape what are perceived as problems and what are perceived as solutions (86).

This emphasis on the importance of framing and normativity in relation to problems and solutions also seems to be accepted by Sassower who, in a later chapter, discusses their importance:

The reason to focus on frames of reference has already been fully articulated by sociologists, behavioural economists and psychologists: the way a problem is framed predetermines the range of possibilities for its solution (197).

Thus, Cruickshank’s response to Reed’s challenge is to readily admit that problems and solutions are normatively framed, and Sassower seems to agree with this.[3]

Cruickshank’s responses to Reed allow him to defend the idea that ‘problem-solving’ can be usefully retained across the domains of natural science, social science and wider social life, because it has shed narrowly scientistic connotations, instead being connected with permanent open-ended critique and an up-front (rather than concealed) normative orientation. I find these arguments valuable and persuasive, but it seems to me that the idea of normativity can be analysed further in a way that articulates with, and develops a little further, what a Popperian orientation to problem-solving might entail. This is the approach that I want to follow in the remainder of this review.

A typical sociological concern with normative framing involves an argument that we need to identify cases where this has been concealed and naturalized, with the intention of showing that other framings are possible. And, indeed, this kind of point is explored in Democratic Problem-Solving (e.g. 87). However, a somewhat trickier issue is to then analyse how to decide between one framing and another, once the range of possibilities is before us. One way to treat this—which could be seen as Weberian—is to see the choice of frame as a commitment in some fundamental sense.

On this approach there is no way to assess normative frames, there can be no reasoned argument for one rather than another—rather, one just has to commit to a frame and work on this basis. It’s not obvious to me that any of the participants of this volume accept this view and I would say that there are good reasons for not doing so. After all, if what a person takes to be a problem is a matter of commitment then it’s not at all obvious why anyone else should be moved by it. What is a problem in my framing can be a boon in your framing and there is nowhere further to go in the discussion. This view gets even less appealing if we take it through to the question of problem solutions.  It suggests that even if we share a view of the problem, our normative commitments may operate such that what seems a very good solution to me seems a very bad solution to you with there being no way for reasonable discussion to impact upon the disagreement.

As already mentioned, I don’t see the authors of Democratic Problem-Solving explicitly adopting the ‘commitment’ view of the normative framing of problems and solutions. But is there an alternative expressed? I think Cruickshank does put forward another way of looking at this issue. He states:

The terms used to define problems—which will always be normative with those norms always having traction—will need to be assessed through the democratic co-production of knowledge, taking time, to work with many agents to change values and reframe problems (88-89).

Although there is disagreement between Cruickshank and Sassower in the volume about whether the latter’s views have elements that stifle a democratic orientation, at least in parts of his argument Sassower also seems committed to such a view. He states the following of the Popperian approach:

Perhaps the main lessons from this way of thinking about solving problems are that we should listen as much as we talk, that we should read more than we write and that we should consider global options when choosing local policies (238).

I agree with both writers that the democratic co-production of knowledge is a laudable idea and is valuable to pursue. However, I wonder if it can be usefully supplemented by a further sense of what is involved in debating about problems and problem-solutions. One reason for doing this is to try to think about what engaging with others might involve. After all, even though democratic, open discussion is surely welcome, there is a question of how to engage in this discussion in a way that neither unreasonably imposes on others nor simply submits to their framings. The contributors to this volume clearly all have views about what is problematic and not problematic in contemporary society. Assuming that they are not all speaking for democratic co-produced collectives it could be useful to think about how they formulate what they see as problematic and how that can be related to the views of others.

In a debate with others, how can we think about engaging with different framings without either imposing a perspective or resorting back to the notion that the choice of framings is a matter of commitment? Take for example a topic which is debated in a very interesting way within the volume, neo-liberalism. How can there be a reasonable discussion between a critic of neo-liberalism who sees the problem of people in poverty as one of a failure of the state to intervene sufficiently and an enthusiast for neo-liberalism who sees the problem as the failure of the state to get out of the way and let people look after themselves?

Popperian Problems and Problem-Solving

I want to suggest that there is a broadly Popperian way to expand on the notion of problems and problem-solving which can make a useful contribution to thinking about engagement with those who have different framings to us. To begin with, as Cruickshank points out (13), for Popper and his followers contact with the world is not direct, rather we interact with it through a theory/set of understandings. ‘Framings’ will be a crucial part of these understandings. The question is, then, how to have a reasonable engagement with those who do not start from the same set of understandings/framings as we do.

This is where the concept of problem is useful, in my view. Within the work of Popper and his followers there is a strong emphasis on the way in which no attempt to understand and frame the world is able to produce a fully consistent account of all known relevant evidence. In other words, there is a strong focus on anomalies, on that which does not fit with a particular framing of the world. Although it would be questionable to argue that this is the only meaning that Popper gives to the idea of a ‘problem’, it is, in my view a core meaning, that is central to The Logic of Scientific Discovery (2005 [1934]) and is also taken up by writers like Lakatos (1970) in analysing the natural sciences and Holmwood (1996) in analysing the social sciences. Furthermore, this can also provide us with one way of thinking about what a ‘problem solution’ involves—the reconstruction of a particular framing/set of understandings of the world to remove an anomaly and produce a more coherent[4] take on the subject-matter. Of course, in keeping with Cruickshank’s remarks about continuous criticism, the removal of an anomaly is not a final resting point for the defender of a framing/set of understandings. There will always be new anomalies to reflect on and wrestle with.

In my view, these Popperian ideas of problems as anomalies and solutions as coherence-expanding reconstructions give us one helpful way of thinking about how to have a critical but non-impositional dialogue with those who frame social (and other) problems in different ways (for further discussion see Kemp, 2012). This is to engage with the framings of others and try to identify what is anomalous from within the way the other is presenting it rather than attempting to simply impose a contrary framing. Taking this further, a participant in the dialogue might also argue that the identified anomaly could be resolved if the person whose views they are critiquing reconstructed their framing in a way that was consistent with the first participant’s own views. To give an example of this kind of approach, a critic of neo-liberalism might argue that poverty cannot be avoided simply by the state getting out of the way because there are countries where the state offers very little if any support and yet there is still grinding poverty. In such an argumentative move, these examples are being presented as an anomaly to the neo-liberal viewpoint. The critic could go on to argue that there have been cases where impoverished groups were supported by the state in a way that actually provided them with the capacity to then look after themselves. This would cast doubt on the opponent’s views and suggest another way to look at the issue.

It would be foolish of me to suggest that any politically engaged actor would be quickly won over by such arguments. In that respect, I find Cruickshank’s concept of ‘critical slow dialogues’ a very persuasive one. As Cruickshank usefully observes:

People may be emotionally, ethically and politically committed to their ideas, as well as under political or institutional pressure to support certain sets of ideas (36).

As such, change may well take time. Of course, dialogues are also two way, and an interlocutor is likely to hit back that the critic’s own position contains anomalies, laying down a—reasonable—challenge that these need to be addressed. In this way, engagements of this kind are two-way and provide challenges to both parties.

Although we cannot expect speedy results, this way of thinking about problems and problem solutions may contribute to understanding how to have a critical engagement without this involving either an under-motivated choice between framings or the imposition of an alternative viewpoint. It is worth noting, I think, that in using the ideas of problem/anomaly and problem-solution in this way I am not denying the normativity of the framings of actors. What I am denying, though, is that normativity involves a commitment that is untouchable by reasoning processes. Normatively-shaped claims generate anomalies which can be critiqued.

This review has surely gone on long enough, so I will just briefly recap the main thrust of it to conclude. The animating issue of the review was how the notions of ‘problems’ and ‘problem-solving’ were addressed and debated within Democratic Problem-Solving. I was sympathetic to Cruickshank’s view that these notions can usefully be applied in the natural sciences, the social sciences and to wider social issues as long as the role of normativity is admitted. However, I argued that the idea of normativity could usefully be further explored to help think through the character of dialogue and criticism. I made some initial arguments in this direction, including the suggestion that connecting problems with the idea of anomalies provides a ground for critical appraisal of normative framings. This allows us to avoid seeing such framings as either commitments outside the realm of reason or impositions on others. I see the arguments made in this review as sketching out a further way to extend the kind of Popperian orientation that Cruickshank and Sassower defend very nicely in Democratic Problem-Solving.

References

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

Cruickshank, Justin and Raphael Sassower, eds. Democratic Problem-Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

Holmwood, John. Founding Sociology? Talcott Parsons and the Idea of General Theory, London, Longman, 1996.

Holmwood, John and Alexander Stewart. Explanation and Social Theory, London: Houndmills, 1991.

Kemp, Stephen. ‘Evaluating Interests in Social Science: Beyond Objectivist Evaluation and the Non-judgemental Stance’, Sociology, 46, no. 4 (2012): 664-679

Kemp, Stephen. ‘Transformational Fallibilism and the Development of Understanding’, Social Epistemology, 31, no. 2 (2017): 192-209.

Lakatos, Imre. ‘Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes.’, In Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, edited by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, 170-196. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Popper, Karl. The Logic of Scientific Discovery, London: Routledge, 2005 [1934].

[1]  Perhaps this sympathy arose, in part, because I grew up in New Zealand ‘of all places’ (Sassower, 28).

[2]  For Cruickshank, criticism can be foreclosed in various ways including the treatment of knowledge as ‘justified’, the invocation of ‘authority’ to support a knowledge-claim, and the presentation of solutions as ‘technocratically’ necessary.

[3]  Insisting that normative framing is made clear is also a way to stop the kind of unproblematized reliance on expertise that Reed discusses drawing on Foucault’s work.

[4] There are some important challenges in spelling out what a more coherent response involves, and I have doubts about the way that Popper and Lakatos deal with this issue. I have a go at an alternative in Kemp (2017).

Author Information: Jana Bacevic, University of Cambridge, jb906@cam.ac.uk

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

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Bl

Please refer to:

Image credit: Rowman & Littlefield

It is a testament to the lasting influence of Karl Popper and Richard Rorty that their work continues to provide inspiration for debates concerning the role and purpose of knowledge, democracy, and intellectuals in society. Alternatively, it is a testament to the recurrence of the problem that continues to lurk under the glossy analytical surface or occasional normative consensus of these debates: the impossibility to reconcile the concepts of liberal and epistemic democracy. Essays collected under the title Democratic Problem-Solving (Cruickshank and Sassower 2017) offer grounds for both assumptions, so this is what my review will focus on.

Boundaries of Rational Discussion

Democratic Problem-Solving is a thorough and comprehensive (if at times seemingly meandering) meditation on the implications of Popper’s and Rorty’s ideas for the social nature of knowledge and truth in contemporary Angloamerican context. This context is characterised by combined forces of neoliberalism and populism, growing social inequalities, and what has for a while now been dubbed, perhaps euphemistically, the crisis of democracy. Cruickshank’s (in other contexts almost certainly heretical) opening that questions the tenability of distinctions between Popper and Rorty, then, serves to remind us that both were devoted to the purpose of defining the criteria for and setting the boundaries of rational discussion, seen as the road to problem-solving. Jürgen Habermas, whose name also resonates throughout this volume, elevated communicative rationality to the foundational principle of Western democracies, as the unifying/normalizing ground from which to ensure the participation of the greatest number of members in the public sphere.

Intellectuals were, in this view, positioned as guardians—epistemic police, of sorts—of this discursive space. Popper’s take on epistemic ‘policing’ (see DPS, 42) was to use the standards of scientific inquiry as exemplars for maintaining a high level, and, more importantly, neutrality of public debates. Rorty saw it as the minimal instrument that ensured civility without questioning, or at least without implicitly dismissing, others’ cultural premises, or even ontological assumptions. The assumption they and authors in this volume have in common is that rational dialogue is, indeed, both possible and necessary: possible because standards of rationality were shared across humanity, and necessary because it was the best way to ensure consensus around the basic functioning principles of democracy. This also ensured the pairing of knowledge and politics: by rendering visible the normative (or political) commitments of knowledge claims, sociology of knowledge (as Reed shows) contributed to affirming the link between the epistemic and the political. As Agassi’s syllogism succinctly demonstrates, this link quickly morphed from signifying correlation (knowledge and power are related) to causation (the more knowledge, the more power), suggesting that epistemic democracy was if not a precursor, then certainly a correlate of liberal democracy.

This is why Democratic Problem-Solving cannot avoid running up against the issue of public intellectuals (qua epistemic police), and, obviously, their relationship to ‘Other minds’ (communities being policed). In the current political context, however, to the well-exercised questions Sassower raises such as—

should public intellectuals retain their Socratic gadfly motto and remain on the sidelines, or must they become more organically engaged (Gramsci 2011) in the political affairs of their local communities? Can some academics translate their intellectual capital into a socio-political one? Must they be outrageous or only witty when they do so? Do they see themselves as leaders or rather as critics of the leaders they find around them (149)?

—we might need to add the following: “And what if none of this matters?”

After all, differences in vocabularies of debate matter only if access to it depends on their convergence to a minimal common denominator. The problem for the guardians of public sphere today is not whom to include in these debates and how, but rather what to do when those ‘others’ refuse, metaphorically speaking, to share the same table. Populist right-wing politicians have at their disposal the wealth of ‘alternative’ outlets (Breitbart, Fox News, and increasingly, it seems, even the BBC), not to mention ‘fake news’ or the ubiquitous social media. The public sphere, in this sense, resembles less a (however cacophonous) town hall meeting than a series of disparate village tribunals. Of course, as Fraser (1990) noted, fragmentation of the public sphere has been inherent since its inception within the Western bourgeois liberal order.

The problem, however, is less what happens when other modes of arguing emerge and demand to be recognized, and more what happens when they aspire for redistribution of political power that threatens to overturn the very principles that gave rise to them in the first place. We are used to these terms denoting progressive politics, but there is little that prevents them from being appropriated for more problematic ideologies: after all, a substantial portion of the current conservative critique of the ‘culture of political correctness’, especially on campuses in the US, rests on the argument that ‘alternative’ political ideologies have been ‘repressed’, sometimes justifying this through appeals to the freedom of speech.

Dialogic Knowledge

In assuming a relatively benevolent reception of scientific knowledge, then, appeals such as Chis and Cruickshank’s to engage with different publics—whether as academics, intellectuals, workers, or activists—remain faithful to Popper’s normative ideal concerning the relationship between reasoning and decision-making: ‘the people’ would see the truth, if only we were allowed to explain it a bit better. Obviously, in arguing for dialogical, co-produced modes of knowledge, we are disavowing the assumption of a privileged position from which to do so; but, all too often, we let in through the back door the implicit assumption of the normative force of our arguments. It rarely, if ever, occurs to us that those we wish to persuade may have nothing to say to us, may be immune or impervious to our logic, or, worse, that we might not want to argue with them.

For if social studies of science taught us anything, it is that scientific knowledge is, among other things, a culture. An epistemic democracy of the Rortian type would mean that it’s a culture like any other, and thus not automatically entitled to a privileged status among other epistemic cultures, particularly not if its political correlates are weakened—or missing (cf. Hart 2016). Populist politics certainly has no use for critical slow dialogue, but it is increasingly questionable whether it has use for dialogue at all (at the time of writing of this piece, in the period leading up to the 2017 UK General Election, the Prime Minister is refusing to debate the Leader of the Opposition). Sassower’s suggestion that neoliberalism exhibits a penchant for justification may hold a promise, but, as Cruickshank and Chis (among others) show on the example of UK higher education, ‘evidence’ can be adjusted to suit a number of policies, and political actors are all too happy to do that.

Does this mean that we should, as Steve Fuller suggested in another SERRC article (http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3nx) see in ‘post-truth’ the STS symmetry principle? I am skeptical. After all, judgments of validity are the privilege of those who can still exert a degree of control over access to the debate. In this context, I believe that questions of epistemic democracy, such as who has the right to make authoritative knowledge claims, in what context, and how, need to, at least temporarily, come second in relation to questions of liberal democracy. This is not to be teary-eyed about liberal democracy: if anything, my political positions lie closer to Cruickshank and Chis’ anarchism. But it is the only system that can—hopefully—be preserved without a massive cost in human lives, and perhaps repurposed so as to make them more bearable.

In this sense, I wish the essays in the volume confronted head-on questions such as whether we should defend epistemic democracy (and what versions of it) if its principles are mutually exclusive with liberal democracy, or, conversely, would we uphold liberal democracy if it threatened to suppress epistemic democracy. For the question of standards of public discourse is going to keep coming up, but it may decreasingly have the character of an academic debate, and increasingly concern the possibility to have one at all. This may turn out to be, so to speak, a problem that precedes all other problems. Essays in this volume have opened up important venues for thinking about it, and I look forward to seeing them discussed in the future.

References

Cruickshank, Justin and Raphael Sassower. Democratic Problem Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” Social Text 25/26 (1990): 56-80.

Fuller, Steve. “Embrace the Inner Fox: Post-Truth as the STS Symmetry Principle Universalized.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, December 25, 2016. http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3nx

Hart, Randle J. “Is a Rortian Sociology Desirable? Will It Help Us Use Words Like ‘Cruelty’?” Humanity and Society, 40, no. 3 (2016): 229-241.

Author Information: Justin Cruickshank, University of Birmingham, j.cruickshank@bham.ac.uk

Cruickshank, Justin. “Meritocracy and Reification.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 4-19.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3zi

Please refer to:

Image credit: russell davies, via flickr

 

My article ‘Anti-Authority: Comparing Popper and Rorty on the Dialogic Development of Beliefs and Practice’ rejected the notion that Popper was a dogmatic liberal technocrat who fetishized the epistemic authority of science and the epistemic and ethical authority of free markets. Instead, it stressed how Popper sought to develop the recognition of fallibilism into a philosophy of dialogue where criticism replaced appeals to any form of dialogue-stopping source of epistemic and ethical authority. The debate that followed in the SERRC, and the book based on this (Democratic Problem-Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology), ranged over a number of issues. These included: the way prevailing traditions or paradigms heavily mediate the reception of ideas; whether public intellectuals were needed to improve public dialogue; the neoliberal turn in higher education; and the way neoconservatism is used to construct public imaginaries that present certain groups as ‘enemies within’.

Throughout these discussions Ioana and I / I argued against elitist and hierarchical positions that sought to delimit what was discussed or who had the right to impose the terms of reference for discussion, based on an appeal to some form of epistemic-institutional source of knowledge. Horizontalist dialogue between different group tackling problems caused by neoliberalism and prejudice was advocated in place of vertical instruction where an expert or political elite set the terms of reference or monologically dispensed ideas for others, presumed to be passive and ignorant, to accept. Our main interlocutor, Raphael Sassower, put more emphasis on appeals to epistemic-institutional sources of authority, with it being argued, for instance, that public intellectuals were of use in shaping how lay agents engaged with the state.

One issue implicitly raised by this was that of whether a meritocracy, if realised, would make liberal capitalism legitimate, by removing the prejudice and structural disadvantage that many groups face. I argue that attempts to use this concept to legitimise liberal capitalism end up reifying all agents, no matter what their place in the status-class hierarchy. This reification undermines the development of a more dialogic democracy where people seek to work with others to gain control over the state and elites. In place of both well-meaning and more cynical—neoliberal—appeals to meritocracy rewarding educational-intellectual performance with a well-paid job, it is argued that the focus needs to be on critical pedagogy which can develop a more dialogic education and democracy. Such an approach would avoid reification and the legitimisation of existing hierarchies by rejecting their claims to epistemic and ethical authority.

Education, Economics and Punishment

Protestors responding to Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations about the extent of surveillance carried out by the NSA (National Security Agency) held placards saying that Orwell’s ‘1984’ was a warning and not an instruction manual. Decades earlier the socialist, social reformer and Labour MP Michael Young witnessed a change in language akin to seeing the phrase ‘double plus good’ come into popular use to appraise government policies.

Young supported many successful educational reforms. These included the reduction in ‘grammar schools’, which are state schools that select pupils, and the removal in most counties of the ‘11-plus’, which was the intelligence test used to select a small number of pupils for grammar schools. While children at grammar schools studied A levels and were expected to go to university, the rest were expected to leave school at 16 for unskilled jobs or, if they were lucky, apprenticeships. For critics of the 11-plus and grammar schools, the test’s objectivity was at best moot and its consequence was to reinforce not just an economic hierarchy but an affective-symbolic status hierarchy too. The majority who did not go to grammar school and university were constructed as ‘failures’ who deserved to be in subordinate positions to those constructed as ‘naturally’ superior.

Given the very small number of working class pupils who passed the 11-plus the consequence of this was to legitimise the existing class hierarchy by presenting the middle class and upper class as naturally superior. Interestingly, following the drive to create a mass higher education system in the UK, it has become evident that pupils from ‘public schools’ (that is, fee paying schools) often fare worse at university than working class pupils with the same or similar A level grades, because the latter got the grades with fewer resources spent on them. Such working class pupils would have attended ‘comprehensive’ (non-selective) state schools (Preston 2014).

Young also helped establish the Open University (OU), which allowed mature students to study for a degree. Many of students of the OU, who successfully graduated, had failed their 11-plus, and the OU attracted academics regarded as famous intellectuals, such as Stuart Hall, to design courses and deliver some of lectures, which were broadcast on BBC2 (a state-owned TV channel dedicated to ‘high cultural’ and education programming). Unfortunately though, recent studies have confirmed that class bias exists in job selection.

Graduate job applicants are judged in terms of their accent and mannerism, with ‘posh’ behaviours being taken as a proxy for intelligence or at least a signal that the applicant will be easier to work with than someone lacking the same ‘cultural capital’ (Weaver 2015). Furthermore, rich parents are able to fund their student-offspring’s unpaid internships in corporations and government in expensive cities, creating networking opportunities and a way to build experience for the CV, with this ‘social capital’ being impossible for students who do not come from rich backgrounds (Britton, Dearden, Shephard and Vignoles 2016). People may respond to this by calling for an increased ‘meritocracy’ but Young, who coined the term ‘meritocracy’, was opposed to the idea of legitimising a new hierarchy.

As a warning about a society that wished to eschew egalitarianism, he wrote ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2033’ (1994 [1958]). This was a satirical vision of a dystopian future where class hierarchy based on a small number of extremely rich individuals having power because of inherited wealth and privilege had been replaced by a hierarchy based on ‘merit’ defined as intellectual ability plus effort. Young coined the term ‘meritocracy’ to define the latter type of society. While this is now considered an honorific term, Young used his neologism in a pejorative way. Obviously Young saw the existing class hierarchy based on privilege as illegitimate, but for him replacing it with a meritocracy was unacceptable because such a society would end up with a rigid and absolute hierarchy between those seen as the deserving powerful and rich and those seen as the undeserving mass with no power and money. A meritocracy would be ruthless and inhuman for segregating people and defining many as biologically inadequate and of lower worth in every sense than others.

In his book the narrator describes how with no intelligent leaders the lower classes will remain at worst sullen or rebellious in a directionless way which the police ‘with their new weapons’ will be able to repress efficiently. Those not in the elite are spoken of in a dehumanised way as chattel which reflects the way the old class privileged elite saw the working and middle classes, having been socialised at private school and Oxbridge into the view that the upper class were entitled to rule. At the end of the book the publisher inserts a footnote to say the narrator has been killed at Peterloo. Young then saw the defining concept of his dystopian vision become used by all mainstream politicians and commentators to assess policies and the normative aspirations that were meant to inform them. He was particularly incensed by the way New Labour under Tony Blair endorsed the principle of meritocracy.

In 2001 Young wrote an article for the Guardian entitled ‘Down with Meritocracy’ where he lambasted those who had been selected through meritocratic education, as he saw it, arguing that they were ‘insufferably smug’ and so self-assured that ‘there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves’ (Young 2001). He hoped for New Labour to use progressive taxation to tackle the greed and power of the new meritocratic elite but realised that would mark a big change away from New Labour’s pro-capitalist values.

Against Young, I hold that while progressive policies narrowed the income gap in the post-war years, class privilege and widening income inequality has defined UK capitalism since the rise of neoliberalism in the late 1970s. In graduate recruitment the top jobs are allocated not on grades—or ‘merit’—alone but on class background and internship experience that can only be attained from a rich background, and the amount of wealth accrued by those in the top 1% is increasing, while others have a reducing share of national wealth (Harvey 2005). Indeed, middle class jobs are now becoming precarious with a lot of people in both the middle and working class being forced to become self-employed and pay for their own training, have no sick pay and holiday pay, and be entirely responsible for their pension, etc. This is presented as liberating employees but is a sign of the current weakness of deunionised labour to resist the imposition of insecurity following a recession (Friedman 2014).

After Young’s death, the university fee was tripled to £9000 (in 2012) and the government’s accountants estimate that around half of these loans will not be repaid in full (McGettigan 2013). The changes to higher education did not end there and the current Conservative government hoped to ‘liberalise’ the ‘market’ in higher education, in England, by encouraging the extensive start-up of for-profit providers, through deregulation, despite the problems this created in the US, which the Harkin Report catalogued. Resistance from the House of Lords and a desire to push the legislation through Parliament before it is prorogued for the hastily called General Election in May—widely seen as a vote on the Conservative vision of Brexit—led to compromise, with new providers still needing to be validated by existing providers.

The Conservatives also set up a new audit regime to measure teaching ‘excellence’, called the ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ (TEF). This will measure teaching quality in part by using employment data and data from the National Student Survey (NSS), completed by all third-year undergraduates, despite the NSS being specifically not designed to be used in a comparative way, with NSS data not furnishing meaningful deviations from the mean (Cheng and Marsh 2010; HEFCE 2001). A high TEF score would then be used to permit universities to raise the tuition fee in line with inflation (for discussion of these proposed changes see: Cruickshank 2016, 2017; Holmwood 2015a, 2015b).

The Lords argued that the fee increases had to be decoupled from TEF scoring. In a compromise, the fee can rise with inflation every year, for institutions who will take part in the TEF, with no link to a TEF score, until 2020, at which point full-inflation rises will be connected to TEF scoring. One possible consequence of linking scores to fee increases is that grade inflation will continue and that recruitment will be biased towards students from more privileged backgrounds, in Russell Group universities and middle ranking universities, with such students being seen as more likely to be employment ‘successes’, thanks to class privilege.

Such moves mark an intensified attempt definitively to redefine students as customers. For the Conservatives, and those in Labour who supported the Browne Review that led to the tripling of the fee, and the Liberal Democrats who were in coalition with the Conservatives, education and especially higher education, are to be defined in terms of customers making ‘investments’ in their ‘human capital’, to gain market advantage over other students competing for jobs. Education was not to be see in terms of being good in itself and good for fostering the development of critical and informed public.

For many politicians, students were not to see education as a ‘public good’ (with a well-informed critical public benefitting democracy) but a ‘positional good’ in market competition (Holmwood 2011). Brown (2015) argues that under neoliberalism a market rationality becomes ubiquitous with domains outside market competition being defined as analogous to competitive market relations. Here though education is redefined as being an actual commodity for instrumental use in competitive market relations between customers of human capital seeking advantage over each other. All of this is quite overt in the government’s Green Paper and White Paper on changing higher education. In these documents, it is made clear that customers are expected—and ‘enabled’, by the changes proposed—to make the correct investment in their human capital.

Customers will have TEF data and government controlled price signals to go on when it comes to judging the usefulness of a human capital investment and they will be further enabled by having a greater range of providers to choose from, with for-profits offering lower priced vocational training degrees, assumed to be more attractive to potential customers in ‘hard to reach’ disadvantaged communities. The government documents also make it clear that the customer is to be of use to the economy and to not be a burden by being underemployed and failing to pay back all their student loan (for discussions of these issues see: Collini 2012, 2017; Cruickshank 2016; the debates between Cruickshank and Chis, and Sassower, in Cruickshank and Sassower 2017; Holmwood 2011; Holmwood, Hickey, Cohen and Wallis 2016).

Obviously, there is a tension with such arguments. On the one hand, the market is seen to be a way to realise a meritocracy, with customers investing in the right human capital to succeed in a zero-sum competition with fellow customers. On the other hand, the market is not so much just a means to realise meritocracy for the benefit of competitive individuals, but is instead an end in itself that individuals need to support with correct investment choices. The consequence of this is that if individuals are unemployed or underemployed, it is due to a personal failure to make the right investment choice. Moreover, if the individual is unemployed or underemployed it is not just deemed a matter of personal failure but a matter of their supposed fecklessness harming all by undermining economic productivity. Failure to make the right human capital investment is deemed a moral failure by the customer who eschewed the information provided by the audit regime to pursue a whim, with this costing the economy as a whole.

As part of this narrative, the Conservatives clearly state that the economy needs more ‘STEM’ (science, technology, engineering and maths) graduates, and thus less humanities or social science graduates. To be an unemployed or underemployed sociology or philosophy graduate is thus, with the Conservatives’ view, to be a feckless consumer. Despite the emphasis on objectivity in STEM subjects, it is ironic to note that the Conservative’s case about a lack of STEM graduates undermining economic performances rests on a problematic use of tiny literature and ignores the fact that the subject with the highest unemployment rate is computer science (Cruickshank 2016). It is also worth noting that many MPs and leading figures in journalism and broadcasting studied PPE (philosophy, politics and economics) at Oxford having attending expensive elite public schools.

An increasingly punitive approach, which from an economic point of view is dysfunctional, is now being pursued against individuals deemed to have failed in their moral duty to serve the economy. Contrary to the liberal fear of dogmatism stemming from normative commitments to ends, the Conservatives (and many in Labour too), hold that the end justifies the means, and so the end of protecting the economy—which is an end in itself—is taken to justify means that undermine the economy. If the Party want 2 + 2 = 5 it will obtain.

William Davies, in a recent article in the New Left Review, explored how the latest phase of neoliberalism engages in increasingly severe punishments for being unemployed. For Davies (2016), what he terms ‘neoliberalism 3.0’ (following earlier phases of establishing and then normalising neoliberalism), is defined by its vengeance against those deemed to have failed. Policies such as ‘sanctioning’ welfare claimants (that is, removing benefit payments for a period of weeks or months) for trivial problems, such as arriving 5 minutes late to an interview with a welfare bureaucrat, even if the lateness was not their fault, do nothing to increase economic productivity but are relentlessly pursued. Such policies prevent people from entering the labour market, because the removal of benefits creates severe stress and requires time to access foodbanks and appeals processes, in place of job hunting and being well enough to attend job-interviews. Nonetheless, sanctions are continually being imposed as extremely punitive punishments to make life far worse for those already experiencing hardship. As Davies puts it:

In contrast to the offence against socialism [in the 1980s], the ‘enemies’ targeted now are largely disempowered and internal to the neoliberal system itself. In some instances, such as those crippled by poverty, debt and collapsing social-safety nets, they have already been largely destroyed as an autonomous political force. Yet somehow this increases the urge to punish them further (2016, 132).

Conservative rhetoric sought to demonise those receiving benefits, defining them as the ‘shirkers’ who get housing and money given to them by the welfare state as a reward for fecklessness, which punished the ‘hard working strivers’ who ‘got up early to see the curtains still closed in the house of the shirker claimants’ who they supported with their taxes. Working people were encouraged to feel nothing but resentment and hate towards the unemployed by the Conservatives.

Let’s explore two tensions in contemporary neoliberalism. First, there is the tension between technocracy and affect. On the one hand, neoliberals seek to reduce normative political questions about reforms to ‘value-neutral’ / technocratic questions about regulating objective market forces. Critics are quick to point out that neoliberalism is itself a normative position, with a value driven commitment to corporate capitalism being facilitated by state policies and spending, contrary to the anti-interventionist / free market rhetoric (see for instance: Davies 2014; Van Horn and Mirowski 2009). One example of this is the rise of private prisons in the US. Here in the UK, the state has been tendering out NHS services to corporations and the Conservatives hoped to reconstruct the market in higher education to facilitate for-profits. All of which means that neoliberalism is another form of interventionism (Cruickshank 2016). Furthermore, any notion of market forces ever being objective sui generis forces is erroneous given that they always already presume a legal and political framework, and certain sets of social expectations about contractual relations and the importance of work to define selfhood in modernity, etc. On the other hand, the claim about the need for politics to be reduced to the technocratic administration of objective market forces sits alongside the state constructing imaginaries that are meant to generate emotional and even visceral appeal.

Individuals are encouraged not only to resent and hate those classed as moral failures who failed to serve the economy, but to recognise their moral responsibility to serve the economy and be happy. Individuals need to be happy so as to be ever more efficient at work. Happiness is meant to increase despite the increase in job insecurity with the rise in temporary contracts and the use of self-employed contractors replacing salaried staff (for discussion see for instance: the debates in Cruickshank and Sassower 2017; Davies 2014, 2015, 2016). An affective hierarchy is sought whereby ‘winners’ for the moment despise ‘losers’ and feel happy to fulfil their moral duty as winners to serve the economy, while also feeling ever more insecurity which cannot be allowed to turn into anxiety and depression, for that may result in a winner becoming a despised loser. People are to be broken up into discrete bits, with insecurity boxed off from happiness.

Second, the political statements and policies from the Conservatives are contradictory, with the economy being a meritocratic means to serve individuals, an end in itself, and an end that is to be protected by attacking ‘failures’ in a way that undermines the economy. From a technocratic point of view, the punitive policies are problematic and contradict the notion of objectively managing ‘market forces’. However, neoliberalism is not just normative, rather than value-neutral, but affective too. This means that markets are not expressions of ‘human nature’ but are engineered with the view that they ought to serve corporate interests and that people need to be affectively engineered to fit such markets. Such affective engineering means gearing up their emotions to make them want to be happy-efficient means for corporate profit making (as more productive employees), and making them reduce worth to financial worth, with losers seen as less-human / non-human / ‘worthless’ objects of hate.

Orwell was right to hold that controlling language helps control thought. More than this though, demonising language and punitive policies can combine to control thought. Control here can be manufactured by not only seeking to preclude criticism of the state’s treatment of people, by setting the terms of reference in an argot of morally correct winners and people who choose moral-economic failure, but also by removing any affective motivation to see those demonised as people in need of ethical-political defence from punitive policies. Preventing some people from entering the labour market may undermine the espoused focus on pure market efficiency but it will not damage corporate profit making, which always has a ready supply of labour, and does allow for more effective corporate plutocracy through affective divide and rule.

The normative end of serving the corporate economy is served by creating affective hierarchies to preclude unity and make people fearfully seek happiness. One way of thinking about this is to see it in terms of a cost—benefit analysis, where the small cost of undermining the employment potential of those seeking work is outweighed by the benefit of undermining protest by presenting the losers in the game rigged for corporate victory as objects of hate beyond dialogue and recognition as fellow democratic subjects.

People would seem to have to live in a state of severe double-think, embracing the moral injunction to be happy to serve the economy whilst hating those moral and economic failures who failed to serve the economy, in a condition of increasing precarity in the labour market. Such a condition has to entail quite a high degree of cognitive dissonance. All of this is rendered feasible by a process of reification. People defined by politicians and the right-wing press as voiceless moral failures who failed to serve the economy become demonised objects, with their existence as subjects that have complex histories in difficult times being occluded, while government policies reduce welfare and serve corporate profit-making. The process of reification does not stop there.

Other workers come to be perceived as threatening objects, in a ceaseless competition. And, thanks to social media, now complemented by the drive to require happiness to be efficient at work, other employees / colleagues and even friends are seen as threatening objects reduced to their expressions of happiness: lives are reduced to discrete representations of happiness via uploaded photos on ‘Facebook’ and their ‘likes’, and the presentation of the happy-efficient self, using technology to self-quantify exercise to maximise happiness and efficiency, etc. Ultimately those deemed to be winners become reified too for they are not ends in themselves but defined as of worth solely as a means for the economy to prosper.

As a cog in a machine they have value and just as a broken cog is worthless junk because it has no value in itself, so too people that cease to be deemed of use to the economy are deemed worthless. This reification can enable the fragmented self to continue in a less than secure environment and to accept Conservative policy as an affective whole even if it has practical contradictions, for the reified self would take the statements and policies of the Conservatives at face value, rather than seek out contradictions. The only way to avoid being demonised is to be validated as a happy and efficient employee, defining oneself purely as a means, and not questioning the source of validation. The state becomes an ethical authority, rolling back the self and making the private self contingent on public politics and the corporate interests behind this. In all of this the economy too becomes reified, with the human relations and exploitation involved being occluded, as the economy becomes an ethical object, which the state serves, gaining its ethical authority from serving this object of veneration.

While liberals reject the charge from Marxists and anarchists that the state serves the economy, neoliberalism, especially in its 3.0 punitive form, does come to present the state as deriving its legitimacy from ethically serving the economy, although in this form, the actual economic relations between corporations and politics is obscured. Accepting the ethical authority of the state means the reified winner can self-perceive not as a subject with affective bonds and socio-economic similarities to other subjects, but as an object cut off from other threatening objects or objects to despise, with happiness and worth gained from its conformity to the demands of the economy.

Naturalising Hierarchy

Recently (10th April 2017) BBC Radio 4 broadcast a documentary called ‘The Rise and the Fall of the Meritocracy’ which sought to assess the contemporary relevance of Michael Young’s book. The programme was written and hosted by Toby Young—Michael Young’s son—who writes for the ‘Spectator’ (which he also co-edits), the ‘Telegraph’ and the ‘Daily Mail’, all of which are right-wing publications. Before exploring Toby Young’s argument, it is useful to situate his approach to meritocracy by sketching out how liberalism has sought to justify the existence of chronic poverty alongside capitalism creating enormous wealth for a few.

For liberals, liberalism is legitimate because it affords equality of opportunity. The existence of chronic poverty and unemployment throughout the history of liberal capitalism therefore raises a difficult issue for liberals. For if prejudice precludes people getting jobs, or if the economy systematically fails to produce sufficient job opportunities, then the legitimacy of liberalism is heavily compromised or negated. Nineteenth century liberals dealt with this by holding that there was a biologically defective underclass given to sloth, crime, addiction and sexual irresponsibility, and unable to face the discipline of work. While philanthropy was to be extended to the ‘respectable working class’ who would work hard, the ‘unrespectable working class’ (the underclass), were to be denied charity and also even subject to sterilisation (indeed, sterilisation policies continued well into the twentieth century). Why a legitimate system for distributing wealth meant that the ‘respectable working class’ needed charity in addition to work was an issue left unaddressed.

For later neoliberal politicians and commentators, from the 1970s and 1980s onwards, the answer to the question as to why chronic poverty existed was that a deviant underclass subculture had been created by the welfare state, which socialised children into welfare dependency. Here a supposed lack of discipline in the home, caused by a lack of a working father and children being raised by a mother on welfare, was taken to lead to educational and then employment failure, the pursuit of immediate gratification with drugs, alcohol and sex, and crime to pay for the drugs and alcohol. Concepts of the underclass are used to reinforce patriarchy as well as the class structure. In the UK, the Conservatives argued that the state and especially the welfare state, had to be ‘rolled back’ to undermine the development of a ‘something for nothing culture’ whereby people wanted welfare in place or working.

Charles Murray is the main ideologue for the neoliberal policy of removing the welfare state. Murray argued in Losing Ground (1984) that people in the US used to work their way up from very low paid jobs to jobs with better incomes until well-meaning policies made it more economically worthwhile to claim benefits in place of work. Murray used a thought-experiment to discuss this and his claims about the real value of welfare increasing are disputed (Wilson 1990). For Murray, those choosing welfare over work were just as rational as other individuals, because they were just responding to external economic stimuli. Although Murray does not explicitly discuss rational choice theory (RCT), his position is a form of RCT and as critics of RCT hold, it is determinist, which would remove any normative component from the theory, contrary to his intentions. People are seen, in effect, as automata that react to positive and negative reinforcement stimuli, with the former being those that enable the most efficient way to realise ‘utility’, or material self-interest.

Murray’s definition of the initial choice for welfare over work as being as rational as other individuals’ behaviours was though disingenuous because Murray wanted to put the blame on reformers for not understanding how humans were motivated, so as to then argue that reformers had created an underclass that was welfare-dependent, criminal and intrinsically less able that other people. Do-gooder reformers failed to understand human nature, for Murray. One group he despised were called normal so as to strengthen his critique of another group he despised. In his highly controversial book ‘The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life’ (1994), co-authored with Herrnstein, the argument was made that innate intelligence rather than parental social class or environmental factors were the best predictor for economic success or failure. Murray and Herrnstein also argued that ‘racial’ differences were to be accounted for in terms of differences in intelligence with the authors also trying to avoid controversy by putting in the caveat that environmental factors may play a role as well. Murray also came to the UK and wrote in ‘The Emerging British Underclass’ (1990) about a deviant sub-culture in the UK socialising children into welfare dependency and crime, in place of any tacit reference to RCT.

Unsurprisingly sociologists have rejected the concept of the underclass in general and Murray’s arguments in particular. For most sociologists, the concept of an underclass is an ideological and not a social scientific concept, because there is no empirical basis to hold that the cause of poverty is a deviant sub-culture caused by welfare dependency. This concept homogenises people into a category that has been developed specifically to demonise them. Against the view that chronic unemployment and poverty are a result of welfare dependency, it is often argued that the deindustrialisation that started in the 1980s which created major structural unemployment is the main cause of contemporary chromic poverty (see MacDonald and Marsh 2005 for a good discussion of these issues).

Toby Young began his programme by presenting the votes for Trump and Brexit as populist revolt against elites. Michael Sandel was then interviewed, and he spoke of the ‘meritocratic hubris’, whereby the rich and powerful smugly present themselves as deserving winners and the rest, implicitly at least, as losers. For Young, the recent populist revolt was to be seen as similar to that envisioned by his father, with the masses reacting to the meritocratic hubris of the economic elite. Presenting the vote for Brexit in such a way is problematic though because seeing these events as a populist reaction to elites by those resenting their implicit or explicit classification as losers, misses the point that many who voted for Brexit were not struggling financially but were older, more affluent voters in the south of England—traditional ‘Tory voters’ in Conservative safe seats (Hennig and Dorling 2016).

Such voters were responding to hierarchies but were not seeking to challenge the existing hierarchy but reinforce it, by ‘taking back control’ of UK borders by keeping immigrants and migrants out. Prior to the referendum for Brexit, the Conservatives had done much to inscribe a neoconservative imaginary that presented Muslims as an internal threat and immigrants, migrants and refugees as an external threat. The Conservatives had been aided in this by the right-wing tabloids, especially the Daily Mail, which Toby Young writes for. It is odd that someone discussing rule by a cognitive elite defines a populist reaction against elites in terms of more wealthy voters influenced by a paper he writes for supporting a policy many in the Conservative party championed.

Again, we can speak of reification, for while those politicians supporting the vote for Brexit, and the tabloid press, presented people from outside the UK as threatening objects, the ‘left-liberal’ media reacted by presenting immigrants and migrants as objects of use for the economy, or as refugee objects of pity. The terms of reference on all sides of the debate set up a dualism between a national subject within the national borders and external objects beyond those borders, with the main debates then being whether those objects were a threat or not, or of use or not. And of course, as a narrative device in the programme, those deemed losers in a competitive, meritocratic, society were reduced to being threatening objects. Economic losers became demonised as a potentially threatening enemy within, following Conservative rhetoric in the 1980s about the victims of deindustrialisation in the north of England being enemies within (for discussion of this see Bruff 2014; Cruickshank and Sassower 2017; Hall 1983). The question posed by the programme became how can we justify the unequal outcomes of a meritocracy and deal the threat of violence from the losers, defined as an homogenous mass of people lacking ability and intelligence? All of which was an unacknowledged return to Thatcher’s ‘authoritarian populism’ that demonised the northern industrial unionised working class who needed to be defeated to move to a post-industrial deunionised low pay service sector neoliberalism (Hall 1983). Against these, Thatcher sought to mobilise support from those, including those in the southern working class, who identified as ‘middle class’, aided in this by the selling off of social housing to tenants, and selling of the nationalised industries with people encouraged to buy shares. Divide and rule with the winners despising the losers was the name of the game as Thatcher began the process of creating a welfare state for the rich, through tax policy and undermining benefits.

After using Sandel to pose the problem of populist revolt, Young then interviewed Peter Saunders (a controversial right wing sociologist who had argued that private property ownership was ‘natural’), Charles Murray, Rebecca Allen (an economics academic currently running an education think-tank called ‘Education Datalab’), Oliver James (a psychologist) and Robert Plomin (a geneticist and expert on intelligence). With the token exception of James, all of these people supported the idea that socio-economic success was about half due to nature, meaning inherited intelligence from intelligent and rich parents, and half due to nurture, with the latter being connected to the former, due to successful parents creating the most conducive environment for the children to succeed. After interviewing Allen, Saunders and Murray, none of whom are scientists, Young interviewed James, who criticised the lack of scientific evidence to show that intelligence was inherited, before returning to Allen, and then moving on to Plomin in an attempt to use scientific authority epistemically to underwrite and guarantee the claims of Saunders, Murray and Allen.

The case was made that a meritocracy had allowed for class mobility, but now most of the intelligent people were in the higher positions in society, and so the lack of social mobility more recently was not due to failures in equality of opportunity, but a lack of intrinsic ability in those remaining in the working class and lower middle class. Young then considered whether technology could be used by parents to enhance their offspring’s intelligence to make them more successful than their parents, with the (threatening objects) of ordinary people demanding the state provide this for them for free. Whether the future would be stable or not was left open, thus inviting the conclusion from those who supported his ideas that the state needed to be a strong law and order state, to tackle threats from a potential genetically inferior ‘enemy within’.

While Toby Young sees himself as a laissez-faire liberal, his position on meritocracy and class mobility is really post-liberal, in the sense that the core liberal principle of equality of opportunity becomes redundant, given that the hierarchy of wealth ends up reflecting a hierarchy in nature (the most innately intelligent at top) and a hierarchy in nurture based on nature (with the cognitive elite creating the best environment for the child to develop).

One question raised by this, is do the more intelligent deserve more money? For Sayer (2005), the answer is no because they benefit by realising their ability in meaningful work. For Allen, the answer was yes. She was clear, contrary to Conservative rhetoric about ‘strivers’, that successful people had not ‘worked harder’ than others (a claim hard to support anyway, given the pressures on many working people), but that their natural ability made them entitled to rewards. A meritocracy could thus exist without meaningful class mobility where those at the ‘top’ deserved economic fortunes and power not for being ‘strivers’ but for being naturally superior, with the question then becoming, how to deal with the losers defined by their lack. Yet all of this rested on a non sequitur, which is surprising given Allen’s claim to be cognitively superior to the majority of people. If it were the case that some were significantly more intelligent than others, with this being passed to their children, then there is no logical motivation to conclude that such people morally and legally deserve large houses, private education, expensive cars, pensions to make retirement more comfortable than most, etc., while others starve after being sanctioned because a bus broke down. To say ‘I have above average intelligence’ does not logically entail the conclusion ‘therefore I deserve more material rewards’.

One could try to argue that the more intelligent need a motivation to apply their intelligence but this trades on a theory of human nature as acquisitive, which is speculative and contingent on the rise of capitalism. It also overlooks the problem that given the choice of meaningful work or meaningless routine work for 40-50 years on the same pay many, I suspect, would opt for the former. We also need to question the use of science here. Popper (1959, 1963) argued that science is fallible and induction entails logical problems, so seeking to establish a claim to scientific certainty by talking of current scientific studies supporting a view (a position which James contests), is in itself erroneous.

Popper rejected all appeals to epistemic authority holding that there were no institutional sources of authority and no inner sources of authority such as the ‘authority of the senses’ for empiricism. Theories could be corroborated but never justified or verified, and all theories needed to be open to critical dialogue, so that they could be changed. If a self-defining elite defined a theory which they based their claim to superiority on as certain, and defined others as cognitively inferior and thus not worth entering dialogue with, science, politics and ethics would all go into major decline for Popper. We would have a post-liberal closed society.

A naturalised hierarchy would justify a plutocratic meritocracy with no class mobility and define the majority as useless and threatening objects, in place of an affective hierarchy where a plutocracy operates with people being told to define themselves as happy winners, unless they are unemployed. The former could well prompt discord but it would be probable, I imagine, that another affective hierarchy would be mobilised, which focused on nationalism rather than class. People could be told to accept their natural superiors and hate the threatening objects from different countries. One of the tabloids Toby Young writes for put a lot of effort into demonising migrants and continually demanding a xenophobic nationalism from its readers.

Critical Pedagogy contra Meritocracy

Calls for more of a meritocracy to make society ‘fairer’ are popular in politics and the press but misguided for two reasons. First, the concept of meritocracy is used to legitimise liberalism, when the reality is one of the rich getting richer with the notion of equality of opportunity being out of kilter with reality in capitalism (Harvey 2005). Second, appeals to meritocracy are used to either support an affective hierarchy, or to support a naturalised hierarchy. With the former, people are reified to see themselves as happy successful objects. On the one hand, their worth is to be derived by them and others from their ability to serve the economy as an end in itself. On the other hand, the economy is presented as a means to serve individuals, with meritocratic competition rewarding the most able. Those with merit are to see themselves as winners and to despise losers as losers and as people letting the economy down. The tension is obscured by the state, presenting itself as drawing its ethical authority from serving the national economy, which focuses on individual reward for winners, with national economic gain being a by-product of this, and collective punishment for losers, with stigmatising language and punitive and sadistic policies. Winners though lose their individuality to become objects of use to the national economy, with this requiring them to obey the injunction to be happy to be of greater use to the national economy, and losers lose their individuality to become despised objects of hate, to be punished irrespective of their individual complex histories. With the turn to a naturalised hierarchy, nationalism would be intensified, with the likely construction of a xenophobic nationalism.

This is not to support an early Frankfurt School pessimism, as espoused by Adorno and Horkheimer, for the process of reification is not totalising. People are protesting because of hardship and unfairness to others, in the UK and in the US against Trump, for instance. What I will argue here is that critical pedagogy offers a way out of the meritocratic morass. Freire’s (1993) work on critical pedagogy applies to all forms of education, from schools, colleges and universities to political education. Freire saw education as intrinsically political, not just in terms of the content, but in terms of the structure too. He famously rejected what he termed the ‘banking approach’ to education, which was where an authority figure deposited discrete pieces of information in passive learners. The consequence of such an approach was to reinscribe existing hierarchies based on claims to authority. Freire argues that:

the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or her own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students [… and] the teacher is the Subject of the learning process while the students are the mere objects. […] The capability of banking education to minimize or annul the students’ creative power and to stimulate their credulity serves the interests of the oppressors, who care neither to have the world revealed nor to see it transformed (1993, 54).

The banking approach thus entails reification with learners being defined as—and self-defining as—passive objects. These objects are only of value when accepting and serving subjects, who have agency and authority. This didactic hierarchy then serves to legitimise the existing social and political hierarchies, because it trains people to define themselves as passive objects whose only worth is defined in relation to serving authority. As Freire puts it:

More and more the oppressors are using science and technology as unquestionably powerful instruments for their purpose: the maintenance of the oppressive order through manipulation and repression. The oppressed, as objects, as ‘things’, have no purposes except those their oppressors prescribe for them (1993, 42).

The outcome of the banking approach to education is that people’s minds become ‘colonised’ by the oppressors.

Here we can say that attempts to realise meritocracy, where some people from the working class are allowed to move into middle class positions, will entail the banking conception with private and state education being based on pupils accepting the authority of the teacher because of their institutional position. The rise in audit culture as a government controlled proxy for market signals with neoliberal interventionism, where the state constructs and controls the market (Cruickshank 2016; Mirowski 2011; Van Horn and Mirowski 2009), exacerbated this problem. For this means that teachers had to teach to the test, ensuring pupils remember and regurgitate factoids that are then forgotten. Education does not encourage a love of learning and a way to develop oneself but turns pupils into industrial objects processing words to get a number on a piece of paper. Seeking a meritocracy in such circumstance would just entail colonised objects moving on to assume positions in the middle classes where they remain colonised and where they act to help colonise those below them, issuing orders for people perceived as objects below them.

Citing Fromm, Freire argues that the oppressor consciousness can only understand itself through possession and it needs to possess other people as objects to not ‘lose contact with the world’ (1993, 40). In this, those colonised and rewarded as conforming objects, through ‘meritocracy’, which selects a small number of working class children for middle class jobs, can see others as objects that confirm their status as superior, without realising the whole process dehumanises them. They will feel rewarded as objects unaware of their own reification by feeling affirmed through, if not the possession of others, then at least the control of others as objects.

Against this, Freire argues that people cannot liberate themselves or be liberated by a new leader seeking authority over them, but can be liberated through working with others, to gain subjecthood through a sense of collective agency. Such agency would have to be dialogic, with people learning together and no-one acting as a new coloniser. The banking approach has to be avoided by radicals for its use makes them oppressors.

While schools are characterised by the banking approach to education there is still some scope, despite neoliberal audit culture, for critical dialogic engagement in universities, especially when students and academics work with political groups outside the university, and of course, there is scope for dialogic engagement between groups of lay agents experiencing socio-economic problems. With this approach to learning all people are treated as subjects and not objects so the problem of reification is removed. The structure of education—and pseudo-dialogue—which reduces people to objects by making them passive things acted upon by an elite claiming authority, is rejected for its intrinsically oppressive nature. A horizontal approach to learning, where dialogic subjects learn from and with other dialogic subjects can begin a move to challenge neoliberalism, the power of corporations and the state serving them.

Defining education and employment in terms of meritocratic selection serves to hide the way liberal capitalism entails the rich getting richer and having control over institutional politics. It also, as importantly, undermines radically critical dialogue by not only ‘blaming the victim’ as regards poverty, but defining all as objects, which can preclude the possibility of recognising others as dialogic subjects. The recent call for a naturalised post-liberal hierarchy suggests that the concentration of resources and opportunities in the hands of a few may make such meritocratic legitimising difficult to sustain, with this opening up a possible turn to authoritarianism. Appeals for a meritocracy and the reification entailed by this need replacing by an approach that can foster dialogue between subjects, which requires the rejection of dialogue-stopping appeals to sources of authority that ultimately entail reification.

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Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, rsassowe@uccs.edu; Seif Jensen, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, sjensen4@uccs.edu

Sassower, Raphael and Seif Jensen. “The Problem of Demarcation Isn’t Going Away: On the Legitimation of the Social Sciences in Light of Popper, Cruickshank, and Reed.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 2 (2016): 69-84.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2CT

Editors Note:

    Given the rich and extensive history of this exchange related articles, replies and responses are provided below the references section.[1]

first_light

Image credit: blinking idiot, via flickr

The period between the two World Wars unsettled intellectuals as if they suffered an intellectual trauma. Their belief in reason and rationality, human dignity and tolerance, was shattered; instead, they found themselves in a world permeated by fear and irrationality, where romantic nostalgia vanished, and where Soviet communism deteriorated into totalitarian Statism unseen before. The human spirit—as envisioned by the Enlightenment Movement of the 18th century—was at a loss if not completely lost to the vagaries of an inhumane, cruel, and ugly political realities. European nation-states displayed an increasing thirst for hero-warship and charismatic leaders quenched by Benito Mussolini in Italy, Adolf Hitler in Germany, and Generalissimo Franco in Spain.  Continue Reading…

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

Sassower, Raphael. “Norms and Faith: Comments on the Business of People.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 9 (2015): 1-10.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2fY

Editors Note:

    Given the rich and extensive history of this exchange related articles, replies and responses are provided below the references section. [1]

karl_popper

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

As much as Karl Popper’s legacy is strewn with misconceptions about his neoconservative biases and his narrow scientific prejudices in regards to the social science—from his dismissal of Marxism as pseudo-science, psychoanalysis as beyond the pale, and the general explanatory/predictive models of all the social sciences as self-fulfilling prophecies—there is something interesting in his intellectual corpus that deserves rethinking. This is where Justin Cruickshank is in full agreement with my views regarding the value to be distilled, decades later, from Popper’s approach. The Popperian approach has fascinated me for years because of several features that may be reasonably overlooked by his disciples and critics. After listing some of them, I wish to illustrate their significance in the 21st century.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Justin Cruickshank, University of Birmingham, UK, j.cruickshank@bham.ac.uk

Cruickshank, Justin. “Neoliberalism, the ‘Scientific Enterprise’ and the ‘Business of People’: Comments on the Sociology and Politics of Knowledge Production.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 8 (2015): 53-65.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2f0

Editors Note:

    Given the rich and extensive history of this exchange related articles, replies and responses are provided below the references section.[1]

glasgow_cloisters

Image credit: Michael D Beckwith, via flickr

In his latest reply (2015a), and in his recent ‘Compromising the Ideals of Science’ (2015b), Raphael Sassower draws together concerns with the natural sciences and political economy. For Sassower (2015a, 2015b) the conception of the natural sciences has changed over time as cultural assumptions, influenced in part by the sociological ‘demystification’ of science, have changed alongside developments in the political economy of science, with much research now being funded by non-scientific bodies (the state and corporations), who seek to regulate or manipulate the outcomes of research.  Continue Reading…