Archives For knowledge and justification

Author Information: Jonathan Matheson & Valerie Joly Chock, University of North Florida,

Matheson, Jonathan; Valerie Joly Chock. “Knowledge and Entailment: A Review of Jessica Brown’s Fallibilism: Evidence and Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 55-58.

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

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Jessica Brown’s Fallibilism is an exemplary piece of analytic philosophy. In it, Brown engages a number of significant debates in contemporary epistemology with the aim of making a case for fallibilism about knowledge. The book is divided into two halves. In the first half (ch. 1-4), Brown raises a number of challenges to infallibilism. In the second half (ch. 5-8), Brown responds to challenges to fallibilism. Brown’s overall argument is that since fallibilism is more intuitively plausible than infallibilism, and since it fares no worse in terms of responding to the main objections, we should endorse fallibilism.

What Is Fallibilism?

In the introductory chapter, Brown distinguishes between fallibilism and infallibilism. According to her, infallibilism is the claim that one knows that p only if one’s evidence entails p, whereas fallibilism denies this. Brown settles on this definition after having examined some motivation and objections to other plausible definitions of infallibilism. With these definitions in hand, the chapter turns to examine some motivation for fallibilism and infallibilism.

Brown then argues that infallibilists face a trilemma: skepticism, shifty views of knowledge, or generous accounts of knowledge. Put differently, infallibilists must either reject that we know a great deal of what we think we know (since our evidence rarely seems to entail what we take ourselves to know), embrace a view about knowledge where the standards for knowledge, or knowledge ascriptions, vary with context, or include states of the world as part of our evidence. Brown notes that her focus is on non-skeptical infallibilist accounts, and explains why she restricts her attention in the remainder of the book to infallibilist views with generous conception of evidence.

In chapter 2, Brown lays the groundwork for her argument against infallibilism by demonstrating some commitments of non-skeptical infallibilists. In order to avoid skepticism, infallibilists must show that we have evidence that entails what we know. In order to do so, they must commit to certain claims regarding the nature of evidence and evidential support.

Brown argues that non-factive accounts of evidence are not suitable for defending infallibilism, and that infallibilists must embrace an externalist, factive account of evidence on which knowing that p is sufficient for p to be part of one’s evidence. That is, infallibilists need to endorse Factivity (p is evidence only if p is true) and the Sufficiency of knowledge for evidence (if one knows that p, then p is part of one’s evidence).

However, Brown argues, this is insufficient for infallibilists to avoid skepticism in cases of knowledge by testimony, inference to the best explanation, and enumerative induction. In addition, infallibilists are committed to the claim that if one knows p, then p is part of one’s evidence for p (the Sufficiency of knowledge for self-support thesis).

Sufficiency of Knowledge to Support Itself

Chapter 3 examines the Sufficiency of knowledge for self-support in more detail. Brown begins by examining how the infallibilist may motivate this thesis by appealing to a probabilistic account of evidential support. If probability raisers are evidence, then there is some reason to think that every proposition is evidence for itself.

The main problem for the thesis surrounds the infelicity of citing p as evidence for p. In the bulk of the chapter, Brown examines how the infallibilist may account for this infelicity by appealing to pragmatic explanations, conversational norms, or an error theory. Finding each of these explanations insufficient to explain the infelicity here, Brown concludes that the infallibilist’s commitment to the Sufficiency of knowledge for self-support thesis is indeed problematic.

Brown takes on the infallibilists’ conception of evidence in Chapter 4. As mentioned above, the infallibilist is committed to a factive account of evidence, where knowledge suffices for evidence. The central problem here is that such an account has it that intuitively equally justified agents (one in a good case and one in a bad case) are not in fact equally justified.

Brown then examines the ‘excuse maneuver’, which claims that the subject in the bad case is unjustified yet blameless in their belief, and the original intuition confuses these assessments. The excuse maneuver relies on the claim that knowledge is the norm of belief. Brown argues that the knowledge norm fails to provide comparative evaluations of epistemic positions where subjects are intuitively more or less justified, and fails to give an adequate account of propositional justification when the target proposition is not believed. In addition, Brown argues that extant accounts of what would provide the subject in the bad case with an excuse are all insufficient.

In Chapter 5 the book turns to defending fallibilism. The first challenge to fallibilism that Brown examines concerns closure. Fallibilism presents a threat to multi-premise closure since one could meet the threshold for knowledge regarding each individual premise, yet fail to meet it regarding the conclusion. Brown argues that giving up on closure is no cost to fallibilists since closure ought to be rejected on independent grounds having to do with defeat.

A subject can know the premises and deduce the conclusion from them, yet have a defeater (undercutting or rebutting) that prevents the subject from knowing the conclusion. Brown then defends such defeat counterexamples to closure from a number of recent objections to the very notion of defeat.

Chapter 6 focuses on undermining defeat and recent challenges that come to it from ‘level-splitting’ views. According to level-splitting views, rational akrasia is possible—i.e., it is possible to be rational in simultaneously believing both p and that your evidence does not support p. Brown argues that level-splitting views face problems when applied to theoretical and practical reasoning. She then examines and rejects attempts to respond to these objections to level-splitting views.

Brown considers objections to fallibilism from practical reasoning and the infelicity of concessive knowledge attributions in Chapter 7. She argues that these challenges are not limited to fallibilism but that they also present a problem for infallibilism. In particular, Brown examines how (fallibilist or infallibilist) non-skeptical views have difficulty accommodating the knowledge norm for practical reasoning (KNPR) in high-stakes cases.

She considers two possible responses: to reject KNPR or to maintain KNPR by means of explain-away maneuvers. Brown claims that one’s response is related to the notion of probability one takes as relevant to practical reasoning. According to her, fallibilists and infallibilists tend to respond differently to the challenge from practical reasoning because they adopt different views of probability.

However, Brown argues, both responses to the challenge are in principle available to each because it is compatible with their positions to adopt the alternative view of probability. Thus, Brown concludes that practical reasoning and concessive knowledge attributions do not provide reasons to prefer infallibilism over fallibilism, or vice versa.

Keen Focus, Insightful Eyes

Fallibilism is an exemplary piece of analytic philosophy. Brown is characteristically clear and accessible throughout. This book will be very much enjoyed by anyone interested in epistemology. Brown makes significant contributions to contemporary debates, making this a must read for anyone engaged in these epistemological issues. It is difficult to find much to resist in this book.

The arguments do not overstep and the central thesis is both narrow and modest. It’s worth emphasizing here that Brown does not argue that fallibilism is preferable to infallibilism tout court, but only that it is preferable to a very particular kind of infallibilism: non-skeptical, non-shifty infallibilism.  So, while the arguments are quite strong, the target is more narrow.

One of the central arguments against fallibilism that Brown considers concerns closure. While she distinguishes multi-premise closure from single-premise closure, the problems for fallibilism concern only the former, which she formulates as follows:

Necessarily, if S knows p1-n, competently deduces, and thereby comes to believe q, while retaining her knowledge of p1-n throughout, then S knows q. (101)

The fallibilist threshold condition is that knowledge that p requires that the probability of p on one’s evidence be greater than some threshold less than 1. This threshold condition generates counterexamples to multiple-premise closure in which S fails to know a proposition entailed by other propositions she knows. Where S’s evidence for each premise gives them a probability that meets the threshold, S knows each of the premises.

If together these premises entail q, then S knows premises p1-n that jointly entail conclusion q. The problem is that S knowing the premises in this way is compatible with the probability of the conclusion on S’s evidence not meeting the threshold. Thus, this presents possibility for counterexamples to closure and a problem for fallibilism.

As the argument goes, fallibilists must deny closure and this is a significant cost. Brown’s reply is to soften the consequence of denying closure by arguing that it is implausible due to alternative (and independent) reasons concerning defeat. Brown’s idea is that closure gives no reason to reject fallibilism, or favor infallibilism, given that defeat rules out closure in a way that is independent of the fallibilism-infallibilism debate.

After laying out her response, Brown moves on to consider and reply to objections concerning the legitimacy of defeat itself. She ultimately focuses on defending defeat against such objections and ignores other responses that may be available to fallibilists when dealing with this problem. Brown, though, is perhaps a little too quick to give up on closure.

Consider the following alternative framing of closure:

If S knows [p and p entails q] and believes q as the result of a competent deduction from that knowledge, then S knows q.

So understood, when there are multiple premises, closure only applies when the subject knows the conjunction of the premises and that the premises entail the conclusion. Framing closure in this way avoids the threshold problem (since the conjunction must be known). If S knows the conjunction and believes q (as the result of competent deduction), then S’s belief that q cannot be false. This is the case because the truth of p entailing q, coupled with the truth of p itself, guarantees that q is true. This framing of closure, then, eliminates the considered counterexamples.

Framing closure in this way not only avoids the threshold problem, but plausibly avoids the defeat problem as well. Regarding undercutting defeat, it is at least much harder to see how S can know that p entails q while possessing such a defeater. Regarding rebutting defeat, it is implausible that S would retain knowledge of the conjunction if S possesses a rebutting defeater.

However, none of this is a real problem for Brown’s argument. It simply seems that she has ignored some possible lines of response open to the fallibilist that allows the fallibilist to keep some principle in the neighborhood of closure, which is an intuitive advantage.

Contact details:


Brown, Jessica. Fallibilism: Evidence and Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Author Information: Adam Morton, University of British Columbia,

Morton, Adam. “Could It Be a Conditional?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 28-30.

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

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Chris Tweedt proposes that there is no independent concept of contrastive knowledge. He allows that we can meaningfully and in fact helpfully say that a person knows that p rather than q. But this is shorthand for something that can be said in a more traditional way as that the person knows that if p or q then p. I have two worries about this line. First, I do not know how to understand the conditional here. And second, I suspect that the suggested interpretation takes away the motive for using a contrastive idiom in the first place.

What Kind of Conditional?

So, could “Sophia knows that it is a goldfinch rather than a canary” mean “Sophia knows that if it is a goldfinch or a canary then it is a goldfinch”? What could “if” mean for this to be plausible? The simplest possibility is that it is a material conditional. But this cannot be right.

Sophia, who knows very little about small birds, sees an eagle land on a nearby high branch. From its size and distinctive shape she can tell immediately that it is a large raptor and not a little seed-eater such as a goldfinch or canary. That means she will know that “(Goldfinch v Canary) É Goldfinch” is true, because she knows that the antecedent is false. For the same reason she will know that “(Goldfinch v Canary) É Canary” is true. But surely she knows neither that it is a goldfinch rather than a canary nor that it is a  canary rather than a goldfinch, and more than surely not both.

Perhaps then it is a subjunctive (counterfactual) conditional: if it had been a goldfinch or a canary then it would have been a canary. I suppose there conceivably are circumstances where a high-tech procedure could transform a bird embryo into one of a different species. It might be that the most possible such procedure can transform bird embryos into canaries but never into goldfinches. Suppose this is so.

Now suppose that Sophia’s cousin Sonia is an expert ornithologist and knows at a glance what species the blue tit a metre away is. But she also knows about the embryo-transforming procedure so she knows that if it had been a goldfinch or a canary then it would have been a canary. So she knows that it is a goldfinch rather than a canary? Of course not.

The remaining possibility is that it is an indicative conditional. For many philosophers these are just material conditionals, so that won’t do. But for others they are a distinct kind. One way of paraphrasing the resulting interpretation is as “if it turns out to be a goldfinch or a canary, it will turn out to be a goldfinch”. This is still not suitable. Suppose Sonia knows immediately that it is a blue tit but is dealing with an ignorant person who doubts her judgement. She admits that there are other things it could on closer examination — which in fact is not necessary — turn out to be.

And then goldfinch would be more likely to result than canary. So she accepts this particular indicative conditional (if goldfinch or canary then goldfinch.). But she too does not know that it is a goldfinch rather than a canary, because she knows it is a blue tit. (For the differences between kinds of conditionals see Jonathan Bennett A Philosophical a Guide to Conditionals. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003.)

Understanding the Contrastive Idiom

These may be problems about formulating the claim rather than about the underlying intention. However I do not think that any version of the idea that all uses of “knows that p rather than q” can be represented as choosing the least wrong from a list of alternatives will work. For one use of the contrastive idiom is to describe limitations in a person’s ability to distinguish possibilities.

Consider four people with varying degrees of red/green colour blindness but with otherwise normal human colour-distinguishing capacities. (Sorry, it has to be four. For the distinctions see

Alyosha has normal r/g vision;

Boris partial capacity (say 70% of normal);

Yekaterina limited capacity (say 40% of normal);

Zenaida no r/g discrimination at all.

They are each presented with one of those familiar colour charts, one in which the most salient figure 3 in vivid green is completed to 8 in dull orange against a background of orangy murkiness. Alyosha knows that it is a 3, so that it is 3 rather than 7 and that it is 3 rather than 8. As a result he knows both that if it is 3 or 8 it is 3 and that if it is 3 or 7 it is 3. Boris can see that it is either 3 or 8; he is not sure which but thinks it is 3.

So he knows that it is 3-or-8 rather than 7 but not that it is 3 rather than a 7 (since for all he knows it might be 8 rather than 3). He also knows that if it is 3-or-8 or 7 then it is 7, and that if it is 3 or 7 then it is 3 (since the antecedent of the conditional rules out 8). Yekaterina thinks that it is 3 or 8, but she has no idea which. She knows that if it is 3 or 7 then it is 3, and that if it is 8 or 7 then it is 8, but nothing more from these possibilities.

Finally Zenaida. She hasn’t a clue about anything needing r/g discrimination and has none of this knowledge. I am assuming that all factors except for r/g discrimination are favourable to knowledge for all four people.

All of these descriptions are natural applications of the “knows rather than” construction in English. They show a fine-grained transition from full contrast to none and in particular that the “if p or q then p” versions appear and disappear at different stages in the transition than the “p rather than q” versions do. That is the point of the contrastive construction, to allow us to make these distinctions.

Contact details:


Bennett, Jonathan. A Philosophical a Guide to Conditionals. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003.

Tweedt, Chris. “ Solving the Problem of Nearly Convergent Knowledge.” Social Epistemology 32, 219-227: (2018).

Author Information: Peter Baumann, Swarthmore College,

Baumann, Peter. “Nearly Solving the Problem of Nearly Convergent Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 16-21.

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

Image by Forest and Kim Starr via Flickr / Creative Commons


Contrastivism (see, e.g., Schaffer 2004) is the view that knowledge is not a binary relation between a subject and a proposition but a ternary relation between a subject S, a proposition p (the proposition attributed as known and thus entailed by the knowledge attribution; we can call it the “target proposition”) and an incompatible (cf. Rourke 2013, sec.2) and false contrast proposition q (a “contrast”).[1]

The form of a knowledge attribution is thus not S knows that p but S knows that p rather than q. According to contrastivism, it’s elliptical, at least, to say that Chris knows that that bird is a goldfinch. Rather, we should say something like the following: Chris knows that that bird is a goldfinch rather than a raven. Chris might not know that that bird is a goldfinch rather than a canary. There can, of course be more than one contrasting proposition; in this case we can consider the disjunction of all the contrasting propositions to constitute the contrast proposition.

A Problem and Tweedt’s Proposed Solution

Chris Tweedt’s thought-provoking “Solving the Problem of Nearly Convergent Knowledge” discusses one kind of argument against the binary view and in favor of contrastivism. The argument (see Schaffer 2007) is based on the claim that knowing that p consists in knowing the answer to a question of the form Is p rather than q the case? (“Is this bird a goldfinch rather than a raven?”; “Is it a goldfinch rather than a canary?”). Put differently, knowing that p consists in knowing the correct answer to a multiple choice question (“What bird is this? A: A goldfinch; B: A raven”; What bird is this? A: A goldfinch; B: A canary”).

The binary account faces a problem because it has to claim that if one knows the answer to one such question (“Is it a goldfinch rather than a raven?”) then one also knows the answer to the other question (“Is it a goldfinch rather than a canary?”). However, one might only be able to answer one question but not the other. This is the problem of convergent knowledge. This, argues Schaffer, speaks in favor of contrastivism.

Some defenders of the binary view (see Jespersen 2008; Kallestrup 2009) have proposed the following way out: One does not know the same proposition when one knows the answers to different contrastive (multiple choice) questions which share a “target” (a target proposition). Rather, the corresponding knowledge has the form S knows that (p and not q). Our subject might know that that bird is a goldfinch and not a raven while it might not know that it is a goldfinch and not a canary.

Schaffer (2009) has a response to this: Even though there is no convergence of knowledge here there is “near convergence” which is still bad enough. Using the principle of closure of knowledge under known entailment[2] one can easily acquire knowledge of the second proposition on the basis of knowledge of the first. If Chris knows that that bird is a goldfinch and not a raven, then Chris also knows or can easily come to know, according to the binary view, that that bird is a goldfinch.

Since Chris also knows that whatever is a goldfinch is not a canary, he also knows or can easily come to know that that bird is not a canary. So, he knows or can easily come to know that that bird is a goldfinch and not a canary. Given that this is implausible, the problem of convergent knowledge is reincarnated as the problem of “nearly convergent knowledge”.

Tweedt’s ingenuous reply in favor of the binary account (see also van Woudenberg 2008) proposes to analyze the known answer to a contrastive (multiple choice) question as having conditional form:

(0) If p or q, then p.[3]

Question: Is that bird a goldfinch rather than a raven? Answer: If it is a goldfinch or a raven, then it is a goldfinch!

Tweedt claims that this solves the problem of convergent knowledge because the answer to the question “Is that bird a goldfinch rather than a raven?”, namely

(1) If that bird is a goldfinch or a raven, then it’s a goldfinch,

is not “a few quick closure steps away” (see Tweedt 2018, 220) from the answer to the question “Is that bird a goldfinch rather than a canary?”, namely

(2) If that bird is a goldfinch or a canary, then it’s a goldfinch.

A Problem with Tweedt’s Proposal

Tweedt does not add an explicit argument to his claim that (2) isn’t just a few easy closure steps away from (1). Here is an argument that (2) is indeed just a few easy closure steps away from (1). If that’s correct, then Tweedt’s proposal fails to solve the problem of nearly convergent knowledge.

Let “g”, “r” and “c” stand in for “That bird is a goldfinch”, “That bird is a raven”, and “That bird is a canary” respectively. We can then, following Tweedt, assume (about some subject S) that

(3) S knows that if g or r, then g.

The proposition g is the target proposition here, not r (in the latter case our subject would know that if g or r, then r, instead). Since targets and contrasts are mutually incompatible, we may also assume that

(4a) S knows that if g, then not r;

(4b) S knows that if g, then not c.

Finally, we may assume that

(5) S knows that g or r.

To be sure, one can ask contrastive questions where both propositions are false: Is Einstein rather than Fido the dog the inventor of the telephone? One might want to answer that Einstein rather than Fido invented the telephone (whether one also believes falsely or doesn’t believe that Einstein invented the telephone).

However, this is a deviant case not relevant here because we are interested in cases where one of the contrasting propositions is true and particularly in knowledge that p (where p is the target). If that knowledge is construed in a binary way, then it involves knowledge of one of the contrasting propositions (p) that it is true; if it is construed as knowledge that p rather than q, then it still obeys the factivity principle for knowledge and thus entails that p. So, we can assume here that

g or r

is true.[4] We may also assume that in standard cases the subject can know this. Hence:

(5) S knows that g or r.[5]

A closure principle like (Closure) together with (3) and (5) entails

(6) S knows that g.[6]

(Closure) together with (4b) and (6) entails

(7) S knows that not c.

So, there are only a few quick and easy “closure steps” to the implausible (7).[7] And we can add that disjunction introduction will allow the subject to come to know (on the basis of (6)) that g or c

(8) S knows that g or c.

(We could also argue for (8) along the lines of the argument above for (5)). Conjunction introduction together with (6) and (8) will allow the subject to know that (g or c) and g:

(9) S knows that (g or c) and g.

Since whenever a conjunction is true, a corresponding conditional is true, the subject can also come to know that

If g or c, then g.

In other words:

(10) S knows that if g or c, then g.[8]

There are then also quick and easy closure steps leading from Tweedt’s (1) to (2). So, the problem of nearly convergent knowledge remains unsolved.

Defending Tweedt?

There is more than one strategy for Tweedt to defend his proposal of a solution to the problem of nearly convergent knowledge. One would be to modify the closure principle in such a way that certain steps are not allowed any more. For instance, one could try to argue (4b) and (6) don’t lead to (7) because a valid closure principle doesn’t allow knowledge-producing inferences from easy-to-know propositions to hard-to-know propositions.

This kind of idea is well-known from discussions about skepticism: I might know that I have hands, and I might also know that if I have hands, then I am not merely hallucinating that I have hands, but I don’t know that I am not merely hallucinating that I have hands. Fred Dretske and Robert Nozick as well as some others have argued for such a view (see Dretske 2005 and Nozick 1981, ch.3). However, I am not sure whether Tweedt wants to choose this strategy. And it doesn’t seem easy to find a modification of the closure principle that is not ad hoc and has independent reasons in its favor.

Another strategy would be to identify other analyses of the answer to a contrastive (multiple choice) question. Perhaps one can improve on Tweedt’s response in a way similar to the one in which he attempts to improve on Kallestrup’s (and Jespersen’s) response to the original problem of convergent knowledge. I have to leave open here whether there is an analysis that does the trick, and what it could be (see, e.g., Steglich-Petersen 2015).

Could one take Tweedt’s conditional (0) not as a material conditional but rather as a subjunctive conditional? I am afraid that this would constitute a change of topic. Knowledge is factive and what would be the case (P) if something else (Q) were the case does not tell us anything about whether P or Q is the case, even if the corresponding subjunctive conditional is indeed true.

It might be more promising to explore the potential of a complaint about question begging: Isn’t Schaffer’s diagnosis that one can know (1) without knowing (2) already presupposing the truth of contrastivism? Why should one believe that there is a problem with knowing (2) but not with knowing (1) if not because one has already accepted contrastivism about knowledge?

One final side remark on an alleged advantage of binary accounts like Tweedt’s. He argues (see Tweedt 2018, 223) that contrastivism doesn’t take the skeptical problem seriously (enough) and rather deflates it; one might even want to say that contrastivism changes the topic. According to contrastivism I can know the Moorean proposition that I have hands rather than stumps even if I do not know the anti-skeptical proposition that I have hands rather than am merely hallucinating hands. Closure does not support any claim that if I know the one, then I know the other, too. Tweedt thinks this is a disadvantage of contrastivism. However, contrastivists like Schaffer would see this as an advantage. It seems to me that both ways of looking at the anti-skeptical potential of contrastivism have something going for them. In this context, it might be better to leave the question open whether skepticism can be deflated or not. (Similar points will apply to Tweedt’s remarks concerning the debate about expert disagreement; see Tweedt 2018, 223)


Ingenuous as Tweedt’s proposal is, it does not, I think, solve the problem of nearly convergent knowledge. However, this does not mean that a ternary account of knowledge has to be preferred to a binary account. I think that there are serious problems for contrastivism that make the binary account the better options. But this is something for another occasion.

Contact details:


Dretske, Fred I. 2005, The Case against Closure, Matthias Steup and Ernest Sosa (eds.) Contemporary Debates in Epistemology, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 13-26.

Jespersen, Bjørn 2008, Knowing that p rather than q, Sorites 20, 125-134.

Kallestrup, Jesper 2009, Knowledge-wh and the Problem of Convergent Knowledge, in: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 78, 468-476.

Nozick, Robert 1981, Philosophical Explanations, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rourke, Jason 2013, A Counterexample to the Contrastive Account of Knowledge, Philosophical Studies 162, 637-643.

Schaffer, Jonathan 2004, From Contextualism to Contrastivism, Philosophical Studies 119, 73-103.

Schaffer, Jonathan 2007, Knowing the Answer, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 75, 383-403.

Steglich-Petersen, Asbjørn 2015, Knowing the Answer to a Loaded Question, in: Theoria 81, 97-125.

Tweedt, Chris 2018, Solving the Problem of Nearly Convergent Knowledge, Social Epistemology 32, 219-227.

van Woudenberg, René 2008, The Knowledge Relation: Binary or Ternary?, Social Epistemology 22, 281-288.

[1] We can allow for a different kind of contrastive knowledge relation where the contrast can also be true. Suppose I know of Jo, the president of the cheese club and also my dentist, that Jo is my dentist. Since I have no clue who might be the president of the cheese club, it could be appropriate to express all this by saying that I know that Jo is my dentist rather than the president of the cheese club. However, against this speaks that the latter is best understood as saying that I know that Jo is my dentist rather than that I know that Jo is the president of the cheese club. But even if there was such an alternative kind of contrastivity of knowledge, we can leave it aside here.

[2] Here is a basic version: (Closure) If S knows that p, and if S knows that p entails q, then S knows that q. Whistles and bells should be added but nothing depends on these here; we can use (Closure) or other simple variants of it here.

[3] Tweedt adds that not all knowledge or all answers to questions are conditional in form (see Tweedt 2018, 222).

[4] See also Tweedt 2018, 224, fn.11 and 225, fn.14. Given (4a) and therefore also given that if g, then not r, we can also rule out that both propositions are true. Could r be true and g be false? Sure, but then r would be the target proposition, not g. This would not constitute a different case.

[5] Even if one insists that knowledge of the answer to a contrastive question is compatible with the lack of truth of any of the contrasting propositions, one still has to accept that there are other cases where there is a true target. And for such cases one still needs a convincing solution of the problem of nearly convergent knowledge.

[6] A different route to (6) uses (5) and (8) below together with the claim that all contrasting propositions are mutually incompatible. However, one might have doubts about the latter assumption and allow for propositions in the contrast set to be mutually compatible (as long as they are incompatible with the target proposition). I want to leave this issue open here and will thus not put weight on this alternative route to (6). – Here is still another route to (6). If it is true (following (3)) that if g or r, then g, (thus ruling out the case in which g is false and r is true) and if it is also true (following (4a)) that if g, then not r (thus ruling out the case in which both g and r are true), and if, finally, r is the disjunction of all the propositions contrasting with g (thus ruling out the case in which both g and r are false), then we are left with only one case: the case in which g is true and r is false. Since this is a case where g is true, S can come to know g on the basis of the considerations just given. However, in many cases the contrast set does not contain all propositions except the target proposition. In all these cases, we need to use another route to (6).

[7] If one replaces c by some proposition about the obtaining of a skeptical scenario (like An evil demon makes me hallucinate goldfinches), then one gets to even more drastic cases and implications.

[8] Again, if one replaces c by some proposition about the obtaining of a skeptical scenario (like An evil demon makes me hallucinate goldfinches), then one gets to even more drastic conclusions like the following one: S knows that if he is looking at a goldfinch or is suffering from a demon-induced hallucination of a goldfinch, then he is looking at a goldfinch. Hence, given the above, S can also come to know he is looking at a goldfinch and not suffering from a demon-induced hallucination of a goldfinch.

Author Information: Robin McKenna, University of Liverpool,

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

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

Image by Ronan Shahnav via Flickr / Creative Commons


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is an initial statement of sensitivity:

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

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

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

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

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

(1) That is a zebra.

By EQUIVALENCE I can know:

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

So by DISTRIBUTION I can know:

(3) That is not a cleverly disguised mule.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critical Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contact details:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Information: Paul Faulkner, University of Sheffield,

Faulkner, Paul. “Fake Barns, Fake News.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 16-21.

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

Image by Kathryn via Flickr / Creative Commons


The Twitter feed of Donald Trump regularly employs the hashtag #FakeNews, and refers to mainstream news outlets — The New York Times, CNN etc. — as #FakeNews media. Here is an example from May 28, 2017.

Whenever you see the words ‘sources say’ in the fake news media, and they don’t mention names …

… it is very possible that those sources don’t exist but are made up by the fake news writers. #FakeNews is the enemy!

It is my opinion that many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media.[1]

Lies and Falsehoods

Now it is undoubted that both fake news items and fake news media exist. A famous example of the former is the BBC Panorama broadcast about spaghetti growers on April Fool’s Day, 1957.[2] A more recent, and notorious example of the latter is the website set up by Cameron Harris to capitalise on Donald Trump’s support during the election campaign (See Shane 2017).

This website published exclusively fake news items; items such as “Hillary Clinton Blames Racism for Cincinnati Gorilla’s Death”, “NYPD Looking to Press Charges Against Bill Clinton for Underage Sex Ring”, and “Protestors Beat Homeless Veteran to Death in Philadelphia”. And it found commercial success with the headline: “BREAKING: ‘Tens of thousands’ of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse”. This story was eventually shared with six million people and gained widespread traction, which persisted even after it was shown to be fake.

Fake news items and fake news media exist. However, this paper is not interested in this fact so much as the fact that President Trumps regularly calls real news items fake, and calls the established news media the fake news media. These aspersions are intended to discredit news items and media. And they have had some remarkable success in doing so: Trump’s support has shown a good resistance to the negative press Trump has received in the mainstream media (Johson 2017).

Moreover, there is some epistemological logic to this: these aspersions insinuate a skeptical argument, and, irrespective of its philosophical merits, this skeptical argument is easy to latch onto and hard to dispel. An unexpected consequence of agreeing with Trump’s aspersions is that these aspersions can themselves be epistemologically rationalized. This paper seeks to develop these claims.

An Illustration from the Heartlands

To start, consider what is required for knowledge. While there is substantial disagreement about the nature of knowledge — finding sufficient conditions is difficult — there is substantial agreement on what is required for knowledge. In order to know: (1) you have to have got it right; (2) it cannot be that you are likely to have got it wrong; and (3) you cannot think that you are likely to have got it wrong. Consider these three necessary conditions on knowledge.

You have to have got it right. This is the most straightforward requirement: knowledge is factive; ‘S knows that p’ entails ‘p’. You cannot know falsehoods, only mistakenly think that you know them. So if you see what looks to you to be a barn on the hill and believe that there is a barn on the hill, you fail to know that there is a barn on the hill if what you are looking at is in fact a barn façade — a fake barn.

It cannot be that you are likely to have got it wrong. This idea is variously expressed in the claims that there is a reliability (Goldman 1979), sensitivity (Nozick 1981), safety (Sosa 2007), or anti-luck (Zagzebski 1994) condition on knowing. That there is such a condition has been acknowledged by epistemologists of an internalist persuasion, (Alston 1985, Peacocke 1986). And it is illustrated by the subject’s failure to know in the fake barn case (Goldman 1976). This case runs as follows.

Image by Sonja via Flickr / Creative commons


Henry is driving through the countryside, sees a barn on the hill, and forms the belief that there is a barn on the hill. Ordinarily, seeing that there is a barn on the hill would enable Henry to know that there is a barn on the hill. But the countryside Henry is driving through is peculiar in that there is a proliferation of barn façades — fake barns — and Henry, from the perspective of the highway, cannot tell a genuine barn from a fake barn.

It follows that he would equally form the belief that there is a barn on the hill if he were looking at a fake barn. So his belief that there is a barn on the hill is as likely to be wrong as right. And since it is likely that he has got it wrong, he doesn’t know that there is a barn on the hill. (And he doesn’t know this even though he is looking at a barn on the hill!)

You cannot think that you are likely to have got it wrong. This condition can equally be illustrated by the fake barns case. Suppose Henry learns, say from a guidebook to this part of the countryside, that fake barns are common in this area. In this case, he would no longer believe, on seeing a barn on the hill, that there was a barn on the hill. Rather, he would retreat to the more cautious belief that there was something that looked like a barn on the hill, which might be a barn or might be a barn façade. Or at least this is the epistemically correct response to this revelation.

And were Henry to persist in his belief that there is a barn on the hill, there would be something epistemically wrong with this belief; it would be unreasonable, or unjustified. Such a belief, it is then commonly held, could not amount to knowledge, (Sosa 2007). Notice: the truth of Henry’s worry about the existence of fake barns doesn’t matter here. Even if the guidebook is a tissue of falsehoods and there are no fake barns, once Henry believes that fake barns abound, it ceases to be reasonable to believe that a seen barn on the hill is in fact a barn on the hill.

Truth’s Resilience: A Mansion on a Hill

The fake barns case centres on a case of acquiring knowledge by perception: getting to know that there is a barn on the hill by seeing that there is a barn on the hill. Or, more generally: getting to know that p by seeing that p. The issue of fake news centres on our capacity to acquire knowledge from testimony: getting to know that p by being told that p. Ordinarily, testimony, like perception, is a way of acquiring knowledge about the world: just as seeing that p is ordinarily a way of knowing that p, so too is being told that p. And like perception, this capacity for acquiring knowledge can be disrupted by fakery.

This is because the requirements on knowledge stated above are general requirements — they are not specific to the perceptual case. Applying these requirements to the issue of fake news then reveals the following.

You have to have got it right. From this it follows that there is no knowledge to be got from the fake news item. One cannot get to know that the Swiss spaghetti harvesters had a poor year in 1957, or that Randall Prince stumbled across the ballot boxes. If it is fake news that p, one cannot get to know that p, any more than one can get to know that there is a barn on a hill when the only thing on the hill is a fake. One can get to know other things: that Panorama said that such and such; or that the Christian Times Newspaper said that such and such. But one cannot get to know the content said.

It cannot be that you are likely to have got it wrong. To see what follows from this, suppose that President Trump is correct and the mainstream news media is really the fake news media. On this supposition, most of the news items published by this news media are fake news items. The epistemic position of a consumer of news media is then parallel to Henry’s epistemic position in driving through fake barn country. Even if Henry is looking at a (genuine) barn on the hill, he is not in a position to know that there is a barn on the hill given that he is in fake barn country and, as such, is as likely wrong as right with respect to his belief that there is a barn on the hill.

Similarly, even if the news item that p is genuine and not fake, a news consumer is not in a position to get to know that p insofar as fakes abound and their belief that p is equally likely to be wrong as right. This parallel assumes that the epistemic subject cannot tell real from fake. This supposition is built into the fake barn case: from the road Henry cannot discriminate real from fake barns. And it follows in the fake news case from supposition that President Trump is correct in his aspersions.

That is, if it is really true that The New York Times and CNN are fake news media, as supposed, then this shows the ordinary news consumer is wrong to discriminate between these news media and Christian Newspaper Times, say. And it thereby shows that the ordinary news consumer possesses the same insensitivity to fake news items that Henry possesses to fake barns. So if President Trump is correct, there is no knowledge to be had from the mainstream news media. Of course, he is not correct: these are aspersions not statements of fact. However, even aspersions can be epistemically undermining as can be seen next.

You cannot think that you are likely to have got it wrong. Thus, in the fake barns case, if Henry believes that fake barns proliferate, he cannot know there is a barn on the hill on the basis of seeing one. The truth of Henry’s belief is immaterial to this conclusion. Now let ‘Trump’s supporters’ refer to those who accept Trump’s aspersions of the mainstream news media. Trump’s supporters thereby believe that mainstream news items concerning Trump are fake news items, and believe more generally that these news media are fake news media (at least when it comes to Trump-related news items).

It follows that a Trump supporter cannot acquire knowledge from the mainstream news media when the news is about Trump. And it also follows that Trump supporters are being quite epistemically reasonable in their rejection of mainstream news stories about Trump. (One might counter, ‘at least insofar as their starting point is epistemically reasonable’; but it will turn out below that an epistemological rationalization can be given of this starting point.)

Image by Sonja via Flickr / Creative Commons


Always Already Inescapably Trapped

Moreover, arguably it is not just the reasonableness of accepting mainstream news stories about Trump that is undermined because Trump’s aspersions insinuate the following skeptical argument. Suppose again that Trump’s aspersions of the mainstream news media are correct, and call this the fake news hypothesis. Given the fake news hypothesis it follows that we lack the capacity to discriminate fake news items from real news items. Given the fake news hypothesis combined with this discriminative incapacity, the mainstream news media is not a source of knowledge about Trump; that is, it is not a source of knowledge about Trump even if its news items are known and presented as such.

At this point, skeptical logic kicks in. To illustrate this, consider the skeptical hypothesis that one is a brain-in-a-vat. Were one a brain-in-vat, perception would not be a source of knowledge. So insofar as one thinks that perception is a source of knowledge, one needs a reason to reject the skeptical hypothesis. But any reason one ordinarily has, one lacks under the supposition that the skeptical hypothesis is true. Thus, merely entertaining the skeptical hypothesis as true threatens to dislodge one’s claim to perceptual knowledge.

Similarly, the fake news hypothesis entails that the mainstream news media is not a source of knowledge about Trump. Since this conclusion is epistemically unpalatable, one needs a reason to reject the fake news hypothesis. Specifically, one needs a reason for thinking that one can discriminate real Trump-related news items from fake ones. But the reasons one ordinarily has for this judgement are undermined by the supposition that the fake news hypothesis is true.

Thus, merely entertaining this hypothesis as true threatens to dislodge one’s claim to mainstream news-based knowledge about Trump. Three things follow. First, Trump supporters’ endorsement of the fake news hypothesis does not merely make it reasonable to reject mainstream media claims about Trump—by the fake barns logic—this endorsement further supports a quite general epistemic distrust on the mainstream news media—by this skeptical reasoning. (It is not just that the mainstream news media conveys #FakeNews, it is the #FakeNews Media.)

Second, through presenting the fake news hypothesis, Trump’s aspersions of mainstream media encourage us to entertain a hypothesis that insinuates a skeptical argument with this radical conclusion. And if any conclusion can be drawn from philosophical debate on skepticism, it is that it is hard to refute sceptical reasoning once one is in the grip of it. Third, what is thereby threatened is both our capacity to acquire Trump-related knowledge that would ground political criticism, and our epistemic reliance on the institution that provides a platform for political criticism. Given these epistemic rewards, Trump’s aspersions of the mainstream news media have a clear political motivation.

Aspersions on the Knowledge of the People

However, I’d like to end by considering their epistemic motivation. Aren’t groundless accusations of fakery straightforwardly epistemically unreasonable? Doesn’t the fake news hypothesis have as much to recommend it as the skeptical hypothesis that one is a brain-in-a-vat? That is, to say doesn’t it have very little to recommend it? Putting aside defences of the epistemic rationality of skepticism, the answer is still equivocal. From one perspective: yes, these declarations of fakery have little epistemic support.

This is the perspective of the enquirer. Supposing a given news item addresses the question of whether p, then where the news item declares p, Trump declares not-p. The epistemic credentials of these declarations then come down to which tracks matters of evidence etc., and while each case would need to be considered individually, it would be reasonable to speculate that the cannons of mainstream journalism are the epistemically superior.

However, from another perspective: no, these declarations of fakery are epistemically motivated. This is the perspective of the believer. For suppose that one is a Trump supporter, as Trump clearly is, and so believes the fake news hypothesis. Given this hypothesis, the truth of a mainstream news item about Trump is immaterial to the epistemic standing of a news consumer. Even if the news item is true, the news consumer can no more learn from it than Henry can get to know that there is a barn on the hill by looking at one.

But if the truth of a Trump-related news item is immaterial to the epistemic standing of a news consumer, then it seems that epistemically, when it comes to Trump-related news, the truth simply doesn’t matter. But to the extent that the truth doesn’t matter, there really is no distinction to be drawn between the mainstream media and the fake news media when it comes to Trump-related news items. Thus, there is a sense in which the fake news hypothesis is epistemically self-supporting.

Contact details:


Alston, W. 1985. “Concepts of Justification”. The Monist 68 (1).

Johnson, J. and Weigel, D. 2017. “Trump supporters see a successful president — and are frustrated with critics who don’t”. The Washington Post. 2017. Available from

Goldman, Alvin. 1976. “Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge”. Journal of Philosophy 73:771-791.

Goldman, Alvin 1979. “What Is Justified Belief?”. In Justification and Knowledge, edited by G. S. Pappas. Dordrecht: D.Reidel.

Nozick, R. 1981. Philosophical Explanations. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.

Peacocke, C. 1986. Thoughts: An Essay on Content. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Shane, Scott. “From Headline to Photograph, a Fake News Masterpiece”. The New York Times 2017. Available from

Sosa, Ernest. 2007. A Virtue Epistemology: Apt Belief and Reflective Knowledge, Volume 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Zagzebski, L. 1994. “The Inescapability of Gettier Problems”. The Philosophical Quarterly 44 (174):65-73.

[1] See <;.

[2] See <;.

Author Information: Jeff Kochan, University of Konstanz,

Kochan, Jeff. “On the Sociology of Subjectivity.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 39-41.

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

See also:

As the original photographer put it, “Shelves full of Heidegger.”
Image by Justin Yost via Flickr

Raphael Sassower has the rhetorician’s gift for creating pithy and compelling images to ornament his arguments. In this instance, he has me presiding over a forced marriage between Heidegger and sociologists of scientific knowledge. I’m relieved that he didn’t put a shotgun in my hands. At the end of his review, Sassower asks: ‘would the couple ever have consented to this on their own? And if the answer is no, who are we to force this on them?’ Momentarily granting the legitimacy of Sassower’s image, the answer to his first question is: no.

Freedom of Interpretation

Neither Heidegger nor SSK practitioners thought they were formulating an incomplete account of science, thereafter desperately awaiting its consummation through a union with they knew not what. Luckily, these scholars also made their works public, so we’re free to play with them as we like (within legal limits). In answer to Sassower’s second question, since published texts are not the sort of thing that can either give or withhold consent, it’s nonsense to say that anything can be forced on them in the way he implies. Here, Sassower’s image falls apart.

Granted, one could potentially charge me with a ‘forced’ interpretation of some of the texts I discuss. But one should then show this, not just say it. Anyway, much interesting work has been produced through the careful misinterpretation of past scholarship. If, based on evidence and argument, I were found guilty of this, I should not complain.

Using an unfortunate heteronormative gender assignment, Sassower has me arguing that ‘Heidegger […] presents an ideal groom who can offer his SSK bride the theoretical insights of overcoming the Cartesian-Kantian false binary of subject-object (11).’ Page 11 of my book, where evidence for this characterisation ostensibly lies, says only that ‘Heidegger deconstructs the Kantian subject-object distinction.’ Later, on page 40, one finds the sentence: ‘It must be emphasised […] that Heidegger does not dismiss the orthodox subject-object distinction as a false account of the subject’s relation to the world.’ The point is that the orthodox subject-object distinction, despite its many intellectual merits, brings with it some intractable problems. One is the problem of the external world. Those who subscribe to the distinction, and who also claim to be realists, remain vulnerable to sceptical attack regarding the existence of the external world.

The Importance of Heidegger’s Deconstruction

In Chapter One, I argue that SSK practitioners, though certainly aware of and actively contending with this problem, have nevertheless remained vulnerable to it. I propose to remove this vulnerability by combining SSK with Heidegger’s deconstruction of the subject-object distinction, which treats it as a ‘founded mode’ dependent on our phenomenologically more basic experience of being in the world.

Why might this be important? Because, as I demonstrate in Chapters Two and Three, SSK’s competitors in the broader field of science studies have exploited these vulnerabilities in order to discredit SSK and successfully erect their own, different, methodologies. My goal is to show that, with some help from Heidegger, these attacks can be deflected, thereby leaving SSK’s methodology intact and ready for action.

Sassower’s review overlooks my discussion of this internal dispute in the sociology of science. As a result, in what appears to be an objection directed at me, he argues that the role of the social subject in scientific knowledge production is already well-established, his point presumably being that my book adds nothing new. According to Sassower, ‘as philosophers of science have understood for a century […], the observer is an active participant in the observation.’

But that’s not all: ‘Add to this the social dimension of the community of observers-participants and the social dynamics to which they are institutionally subjected, and you have the contemporary landscape that has transformed the study of Science into the study of Scientific Community and eventually into the study of the Scientific Enterprise.’ This is a tidy and commonplace history of science studies, one from which the role of SSK has been quietly erased.

What do I mean by this? On page 1 of my book, I write that SSK – also known as the ‘strong programme’ in the sociology of scientific knowledge – arose in critical response to what was retrospectively dubbed the ‘weak programme’ in the sociology of science: ‘The weak programme focussed mainly on institutional studies of the scientific community.’ This sounds like Sassower’s description of scientists as being ‘institutionally subjected’ to social dynamics, as well as his description of science studies as the study of ‘Scientific Community’ and the ‘Scientific Enterprise.’ Here, the core epistemic products of scientific practice – theories and facts – as well as the means by which they are produced – techniques and methods – are excluded from sociological analysis.

This is an exclusion that ‘strong programme’ practitioners sought to overcome. For their efforts, they were ferociously attacked by historians, philosophers, and sociologists alike. Why? Sassower’s popular, potted history cannot answer this question, because it fails to recognise science studies as a field of historical contestation. From the century-old insight of philosophers of science that observation is theory-laden, the current state of social studies of science naturally flows – says Sassower. It’s always nicer when the bodies have been neatly buried.

A Book’s Immanent Domain

Sassower has another objection. To wit: ‘what about the dynamics of market capitalism and democratic political formations? What about the industrial-academic-military complex?’ My answer: what about them? These are not what my book is about. Sassower seems to object that I wrote the book I did, rather than some other book. To this charge I happily admit my guilt. But it goes on. Having granted that science is social, Sassower asks: ‘does this recognition alone suffice to understand that neoliberalism has a definite view of what the scientific enterprise is supposed to accomplish?’ My answer: no it doesn’t – and what of it? My book isn’t about that either.

I’m not a political theorist, nor do I desire to become one. Nevertheless, Chapter Seven of my book does address some issues that may interest those engaged in political theory. As Sassower notes, in Chapter Seven I ‘nod’ to those, discussed in earlier chapters, whom I now retrospectively name ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ critics of SSK. (The ‘nod’ to liberals was a prolonged one, spanning most of Chapters Two and Three.)

My claim was that both kinds of critic are united in their rejection of subjectivity as a legitimate theme for micro-sociological study. The conservatives reject the subject as being, at best, just one more object among objects. The liberals reject the subject as being irremediably infected with the Kantian subject-object distinction. Because they reject this distinction tout court, they also reject the subject. With this, the sociological study of subjectivity is prohibited.

What interests these critics instead are fields of practice. Within these fields, the subject is constituted. But the fundamental unit of analysis is the field – or system – not the subject. Subjectivity is, on this theory, a derivative phenomenon, at best, a secondary resource for sociological analysis.

From my perspective, because subjectivity is fundamental to human existence, it cannot be eliminated in this way. In reality, the liberal account submerges subjectivity in fields of practice, where it effectively disappears from the analyst’s view. I call this position ‘liberal’ because it seems to rely on a tacit model of the subject as being unconstrained by social and historical limits.

If the existential subject is not properly acknowledged to exist, then how can its limits be acknowledged, much less studied and understood? And if the subject really does, in fact, exist, but one can’t ascribe limits to it, then doesn’t this reflect a liberal notion of negative freedom? Taking a phrase from Baudelaire, I liken this model of the subject to ‘a prince who everywhere enjoys his incognito’ (379). By offering an alternative to this model, by combining Heidegger with SSK, I hope, through my book, to equip those scholars who are keen to challenge and expose this incognito.

Contact details:


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

Sassower, Raphael. “Heidegger and the Sociologists: A Forced Marriage?.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 30-32.

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador,

Wills, Bernard. “Why Mizrahi Needs to Replace Weak Scientism With an Even Weaker Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 18-24.

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

See also:

Image by Matt via Flickr / Creative Commons


Moti Mizrahi has been defending something he calls ‘weak scientism’ against Christopher Brown in a series of exchanges in the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. His animus seems to be against philosophy in particular though he asserts that other disciplines in the humanities do not produce knowledge either. He also shows remarkable candor in admitting that it all comes down to money: money spent on philosophy would be better spent on the sciences because scientific knowledge is better qualitatively (i.e. because it makes true predictions) and quantitatively (scientists pump out more stuff than philosophers). (11)

Measuring Success

As he tells us: “Scientific knowledge can be said to be qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as such knowledge is explanatorily, instrumentally and predictively more successful than non-scientific knowledge.” (Mizrahi; 7). Furthermore: “Scientific knowledge can be said to be quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as scientific disciplines produce more impactful knowledge- in the form of scholarly publications-than non-scientific disciplines (as measured by research output and research impact)” (7)

The relevance of this latter claim seems to me unclear: surely by a quantitative measure, Shakespeare scholars have all of us beat.[1] A German professor once told me that in the first half of the 20th Century there were 40,000 monographs on Franz Kafka alone! I will not, however, spend time scratching my head over what seems a tangential point. The quantity of work produced in the sciences would be of little significance were it not valuable by some other measure. No one would think commercials great works of art on the grounds that there are so many of them.

Then again some concerned by the problem of over-specialization might view the sheer quantity of scientific research as a problem not an advantage.  I will focus, then, on the qualitative question and particularly on the claim that science produces knowledge and all the other things we tend to call knowledge are in fact not knowledge at all but something else. I will then consider Mr. Mizrahi’s peculiar version of this claim ‘weak scientism’ which is that while there may be knowledge of some sort outside of the sciences (it is hard, he thinks, to show otherwise) this knowledge is of a qualitatively lesser kind.

He says this is so “in certain relevant aspects”. (10) I’m not sure what he means by this hedge. What makes an aspect relevant in this context? I will proceed though on the assumption that whatever these relevant aspects are they make for an over-all context independent superiority of science over non-science.[2]

Of course, were I a practitioner of the hermeneutic of suspicion I would point out the glaring conflict of interest in Mr. Mizrahi making these claims from the fastness of a technical institute. If someone pops up claiming that only half the university really earns its keep it is a little bit suspect (if not surprising exactly) when that half of the university happens to the very one in which he resides. I might also point out the colonialist and sexist implications of his account, which is so contrived to conveniently exclude all sorts of ‘others’ from the circle of knowledge. Is Mr. Mizrahi producing an argument or a mere rationalization of his privilege?

However, as Mr. Mizrahi seems unlikely to be overly impressed by such an analysis I will stick to something simpler.[3] Does science alone produce knowledge or do other epistemic forms produce knowledge as well? This is the question of whether ‘strong scientism’ is correct. Secondly, if strong scientism is not correct does weak scientism offer a more defensible alternative or does it suffer from the same drawbacks? Accordingly, I will refute strong scientism and then show that weak scientism is vulnerable to precisely the same objections.

Politicized Words and Politicizing Ideas

There are dangers to antagonizing philosophers. We may not be pulling in the big grants, true , but we can do a great deal of damage regardless  for when the ‘scientistic class’ is not accusing philosophy of being useless and ineffectual it is accusing it of corrupting the entire world with its po-mo nonsense.[4] This is because one of the functions of philosophy is the skeptical or critical one. When scientists go on about verification and falsification or claim the principle of induction can be justified by induction philosophers perform the Socratic function of puncturing their hubris. Thus, one of the functions of philosophy is deflationary.

A philosopher of science who makes himself unpopular with scientists by raising questions the scientist is unequipped to answer and has no time for anyway is only doing her job. I think this is a case in point. Since Descartes at least we been fascinated by the idea of the great epistemic purge. There is so much ‘stuff’ out there claiming to be knowledge that we need to light a great bonfire and burn all of it. This bonfire might be Cartesian doubt. It might be ‘scientific method’. Either way all the ‘pretend’ knowledge is burned off leaving the useful core. This may well be a worthwhile endeavour and in the time of Descartes it surely was.

However, I suspect this tradition has created a misleading impression. The real problem is not that we have too little knowledge but too much: as a phenomenologist might say it is a saturated phenomenon. Knowledge is all around us so that like bats our eyes are blinded by the sun. This is why I find the idea that only scientists produce knowledge the very definition of an ivory tower notion that has no basis in experience. To show this let me make a list of the kinds of non-scientific knowledge people have.

As we shall see, the problem is not making this list long but keeping it short. I offer this list to create an overwhelming presumption that strong scientism at very least is not true (I shall then argue that weak scientism is in no better a case).  This procedure may not be decisive in itself but I do think it puts the ball in the court of the ‘strong scientist’ who must show that all the things I (and most everybody else) call knowledge are in fact something else.

What is more, the ‘strong scientist’ must do this without violating the criterion of strong scientism itself: he cannot avail himself of any but scientific arguments. Moreover, he must show that science itself meets the criterion of knowledge he sets out which is not an easy task given such well known difficulties as the problem of induction. At any rate, prima facie, there seems overwhelming empirical evidence that strong scientism is incorrect: a claim so extraordinary should have an unusually strong justification, to paraphrase Hume. Let’s see if the ‘strong scientist’ can produce one.

Making a Problem of “Results”

To begin, I should point out is that there are bodies of knowledge that produce ‘results’ not through scientific method but through analysis and application to cases. Two prominent examples would be Law and Music Theory, practitioners of which use an established body of theory to solve problems like whether Trinity Western should have a law school or how Scriabin invented the ‘Prometheus chord’. What sense of ‘know’ can we appeal to in order to show that my daughter, who is a music theory student, does not ‘know’ that the Prometheus chord was derived from the over-tone series?

Secondly, there is knowledge about the past that historians uncover through the interpretation of primary documents and other evidence. In what sense do we not ‘know’ that the Weimar Republic fell? This claim is even more remarkable given there are sciences that deal with the past, like Paleontology, which ‘interpret’ signs such as fossils or tools in a manner much more like historians (there is hermeneutic judgment in science which functions no differently than hermeneutic judgment elsewhere).

Thirdly, there is first person knowledge which is direct. “Did that hurt?” asks the doctor because without accepting first-person reportage he cannot proceed with treatment. This is a kind of knowledge without which we could not even do science so that if Strong scientism wants to deny this is knowledge science itself will be the primary victim. Again science can go nowhere without direct factual knowledge (the strip turned green when I put it in water) that is not produced by science but which science itself rests upon.

What about know how? Craftsmen and engineers know all kinds of things by accumulated experience. They know how a shoe is made or what makes for good beer. They also built the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids. What are we to make of disciplines like mathematics, geometry or logic? What about ethical or aesthetic or critical judgments? In what sense does a translator not ‘know’ Japanese? Does anyone really think literature scholars don’t ‘know’ anything about the texts they discuss even on a factual level? What scientific justification does the claim “Marlowe did not write King Lear’ have or even require?  And while we are at it may well be that philosophers do not know much but they do know things like ‘logical positivism fails its own criterion of meaning’ or ‘Berkeley cannot be refuted by kicking a stone’. [5]

It could well be that in regarding all the above as instances of knowledge I am missing something fundamental. If so I wish someone would point it out to me. Let’s take a hypothetical knower, Jill: Jill knows she is feeling cold, knows how to repair watches, knows why the Weimar Republic fell, knows how to speak Portuguese, knows there are 114 Surahs in the Quran, knows how Beethoven transformed the sonata form, has extensive topographical knowledge of places she has travelled, prefers the plays of Shakespeare to those of Thomas Preston, can identify Barbara as valid syllogism, considers racial prejudice indefensible, understands how attorney client privilege applies to the Stormy Daniels affair, can tell an stone age arrowhead from a rock, can comment on the philology of Hebrew, can understand Euclid’s proofs, is engaged in correcting the received text of Finnegans Wake , can explain the Quine/Duhem thesis and its relevance to the question of falsification, has written a commentary on Kant’s third critique and on top of all this is performing experiments in chemistry.

Strong scientism may be correct that only the last endeavour constitutes Jill’s ‘knowledge’ but on what grounds can it defeat what to me looks like the overwhelming presumption that Jill is not just a Chemist who wastes her time at hobbies but a genuine polymath who knows many things in many fields along with all the ordinary knowledge all humans possess?

Problems of Both the Strong and the Weak

The ‘strong scientist’ has surprisingly few options here. Will he point out that science makes true predictions? So have craftsmen for millennia. Further, many of these forms of knowledge do not need to make true predictions: I don’t need to test the hypothesis that there 114 Surahs in the Quran because I know already having checked.[6] Is science more certain of its conclusions? According to the post-Popper consensus at least, scientific statements are always tentative and revisable and in any case first person knowledge so surpasses it in certainty that some of it is arguably infallible. Is science more instrumentally successful?

Craftsmen and hunters kept the species alive for millennia before science even existed in difficult circumstances under which no science would have been possible. What is more some craft knowledge remains instrumentally superior to science to this day: no baseball player chooses a physicist over a batting coach.[7] At any rate success is relative to one’s aims and lawyers successfully produce legal arguments just as philologists successfully solve problems of Homeric grammar.

Now as Aristotle would say science does have the advantage over craft of being explanatory but is explanation unique to science? No; because hermeneutic practices in history, literature, classics and so on also produce explanations of the meaning of things like documents and if the ‘strong scientist’ wants to say that these explanations are tentative and changing (abductions as it were not inductions) then the same is true of a great deal of science. In short, none of the features that supposedly make for the superiority of science are unique to science and some are not even especially exemplified by it. It seems then that there is no criterion by which scientific claims can be shown to be knowledge in a unique and exclusive sense. Until such a criterion is identified it seems to me that my initial presupposition about Jill being a polymath rather than a chemist with distractions stands.   

Perhaps it is the awareness of such difficulties that leads Mizrahi to his stance of ‘Weak Scientism’. It is not a stance he himself entirely sticks to.  Some of his statements imply the strong version of scientism as when he tells us the knowledge is “the scholarly work or research produced in scientific fields of study, such as the natural sciences, as opposed to non-scientific fields, such as the humanities.” (22)[8] Still, when pushed, he seems content with the position that all the things I mentioned above might count as knowledge in a weaker sense but that scientific knowledge is still better and, presumably, more worthy of grants.

Unfortunately, the exact same objections which tell against strong scientism tell against weak scientism too. It is interesting that at this point Mizrahi employs a kind of knowledge I did not discuss above: to defend weak scientism he appeals to the authority of textbooks! (17) These textbooks tell him that science is instrumentally successful, explanatory and makes true predictions. He then tells us that while other disciplines may also betray these traits they do not do so to the same extent so that any money spent on them would be better spent on science on the maxim of prudence (another knowledge form I did not discuss) that one should seek the most bang for one’s buck.

Mizrahi gains little by this move for the question immediately arises better how and at what? Better in what context? By what standard of value? Just take the example of quantity so favored by Mizrahi. Does science produce more knowledge that anything else? Hardly. As Augustine pointed out I can produce a potential infinity of knowledge simply by reflecting recursively on the fact of my own existence. (City of God; XI, 26) Indeed, I can do this by reflecting recursively on my knowledge of ANY fact. Similar recursive processes can extend our knowledge indefinitely in the field of mathematics.

Does science have (taken in bulk) more instrumental success than other knowledge forms? How would you even count given that craft knowledge has a roughly 3 million-year head start? This does not even count the successful record of problem solving in law, politics, or art.[9] Is science more successful at explanation? Hardly, if science could solve problems in literature or history then these fields would not even exist. Science only explains the things it is good at explaining which is no more and no less than one can say of any other discipline. This is why many proponents of scientism tacitly assume that the explanations produced in other disciplines only concern frilly, trivial things that science needn’t bother about anyway.[10]

Does science make more true predictions? Again how would you even count given that for millions of years, human beings survived by making hundreds of true predictions daily? What is more, the inductive procedures of science seem relatively useless in the many endeavours that do not involve true prediction but some other method of justification like deduction or direct observation.

Thus, weak scientism seems in no better a case than strong scientism for the same reasons: there is no clearly applicable, context-independent, criterion that shows the superiority the ‘weak scientist’ claims: certainty, instrumental success, utilitarian value, predictive power and explanation all exist elsewhere in ways that are often not directly commensurable with the way they exist in science. As I told someone once (who asserted the superiority of the French language over all others) French is indeed the best language for speaking French in.[11] Science is the best way to do science.

Why Make Science an Ism at All?

Thus, if Mr. Mizrahi wants a thesis to defend it may well be possible to show that science is at least somewhat better on average at certain things than other approaches. He may call that ‘even weaker’ scientism. This would be to admit after all, that science is superior only in ‘certain relevant aspects’ leaving it to be inferred that it is not superior in others and that the ‘superiority’ that science demonstrates in one context, like particle physics, may vanish in another, like film criticism. If that is what ‘scientism’ amounts to then we are all proponents of it and it is hard to escape the impression that a mountain of argument has given birth to a mouse.

What is more, he informs us: “Brown admits that both scientific and philosophical theories are instruments of explanation. To provide good explanations, then, both scientific and philosophical theories must be testable.” (17) I suppose then it remains open to say that, after all, Joyce scholars ‘test’ their assertions about Ulysses against the text of Ulysses and are to that extent scientists. Perhaps, craftsmen, music theorists, historians and (gasp!) even philosophers, all in their various ways, do likewise: testing their assertions in the ways peculiar to their disciplines. Perhaps, then, all these endeavors are just iterations of science in which case Mirhazi’s mouse has shrunk to something the size of a pygmy shrew.

Contact details:


Aristotle, Metaphysics. Trans. R. McKeon (Random House, Aristotle, 1941)

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics. Trans. R. McKeon (Random House, Aristotle, 1941)

Augustine, The City of God. Trans. H. Bettenson. (Penguin Classics, London, 1984)

Mizrahi, Moti. “More in Defense of Weak Scientism: Another Reply to Brown.”  Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no 4 (2018) 7-25.   

Theocharis and Psimpoulos “Where Science Has Gone Wrong” Nature (1987) 595-597

[1] Does Mirhazi mean to say that if a particular sub-discipline of English produces more articles in a given year than a small subfield of science then that discipline of English is superior to that subfield of science? I’m sure he does not mean to say this but it seems to follow from his words.

[2] The qualitative superiority of science must be based on the value of its goals firstly (like curing disease or discovering alien life) and, secondly, its superiority in achieving those goals over all other methods. The discussion surely assumes that the things done by science must be worth doing more than their opposites. The question has of necessity an axiological component in spite of Mizrahi’s claim to the contrary (9). This means the values of science must be commensurable with the values of non-science if we are to say one is better overall than the other. Not only must science be instrumentally superior at answering scientific questions it must answer the questions of other disciplines better than those disciplines. Otherwise one is simply making the innocuous claim that science answers scientific questions better than geometry or rhetoric can. Mizrahi marshals only one example here: he tells us that the social sciences produce more knowledge about friendship than philosophy does. (19) Of course this assumes that philosophers and social scientists are asking the same or at least commensurable questions about friendship but even if I grant this there are still a vast multitude of instances where this is manifestly not the case, where non-scientists can produce better explanations on non-trivial questions than scientists can. I shall note some of these below.

[3] Mr. Mizrahi might consider, though, whether ideological self-critique might, after all, be a useful way of acquiring self-knowledge (which may not be so contemptible an attainment after all).

[4] This is the ‘Schrodinger’ phenomenon where an antagonist makes two contradictory accusations at once. ( For what seems to be the fons et origo of this narrative see Theocharis and Psimpoulos “Where Science Has Gone Wrong” Nature (1987).

[5] The underlying question here is one of Platonism vs. Aristotelianism. Strong Scientism argues that there is one paradigmatic form of ‘knowledge in itself’. I argue the Aristotelian position that just as ‘being’ is said in many senses (Metaphysics;9, 992b 15) so there are many analogical forms of knowledge. What all the things I have listed have in common is that each in its own peculiar way supports beliefs by appeals to evidence or other forms of justification. Everyday discourse may be wrong to use the word knowledge for these other forms of justified belief but I think the onus is on the ‘strong scientist’ to show this. Another thing I should point out is that I do not confine the word knowledge to beliefs that are indefeasible: a knower might say “to the best of knowledge” and still be a knower. I say this to head off the problem of skepticism which asks whether the criterion of indefeasible knowledge (whatever it is said to be) is ever actually fulfilled. There are valid responses to this problem but consideration of them would take us far afield.

[6] It is silly to imagine me hypothesizing the various numbers of Surahs the Quran could contain before testing my hypothesis by opening the book. Of course, if Mizrahi wishes, I can always put ordinary factual knowledge in the form of a testable proposition. Open War and Peace and you will find it contains an account of the battle of Borodino. Why is a true prediction of this kind any different than a true prediction in science?

[7] Here in fact we get to the nub of the problem. The ultimate problem with scientism weak or strong is that in the real world different knowledge forms interact with each other constantly. Science advances with the help of craftsmen as with the invention of the telescope. Craftsmen make use of science as when a running coach consults a physician. Archeologists and paleontologists employ abduction or hermeneutic reasoning. Art historians call on chemists while biologists call on the local knowledge of indigenous peoples. In a sense there is no such thing as ‘science’ pure and simple as other knowledge forms are inherent to its own structure (even deductive reasoning, the proper province of logicians, is essential to standard accounts of scientific method). This is one reason why, in fact, there is no one superior knowledge form but rather systematic interdependence of ALL knowledge forms.

[8] This is not the only instance of Mizrahi, apparently, trying to use a persuasive definition to win what looks like a mere verbal victory. Of course you can define knowledge as “what the sciences do”, assign another word to “what the humanities do” and go home waving the flag of triumph. But why should any of the rest of take note of such an arbitrary procedure?

[9] Again the problem is that the instrumental success of science rests on the instrumental success of a multitude of other things like the knowledge of bus schedules that gets us to the lab or the social knowledge that allows us to navigate modern institutions. No science tells us how to write a winning grant proposal or informs us that for as longs as Dr. Smith is chief editor of Widgetology the truth about widgets is whatever he says it is. Thus even if we confined the question to the last 50 years it is clear that science cannot claim instrumental superiority over the myriad other anonymous, unmarked processes that make science possible in the first place.

[10] My son, when he was a toddler, ran about the playground proclaiming himself ‘the greatest’. When he failed at any task or challenge he would casually turn to his mother and say “well, the greatest doesn’t do that”! This seems to be the position of many proponents of scientism. If scientists cannot produce good explanations in a field like literature or classics, then it must be that those fields are not really knowledge.

[11] Aristotle made this point ages ago. No inquiry into ethics he tells can have the rigour of geometry any more than the geometer need employ the art of rhetoric. (Nichomachean Ethics; 3, 20,25) Ethics employs phronesis or prudential judgment not logical deduction. Each discipline is answerable to its own internal standards which do not apply outside that discipline. There is, then, no overall ‘super-science’ (like the Platonic dialectic) that embodies a universal method for dealing with all subjects. Aristotle’s world is pluralist, discontinuous and analogical. For this reason, scientists have tended to be Platonists and modern science might be viewed as the revenge of the Platonic/Pythagorean tradition against its wayward pupil. Contemporary philosophy of science, if this author understands it correctly, seems to have restored Aristotelian praxis to the centre of the scientific enterprise. Students of Wittgenstein will no doubt appreciate the point that knowledge comes in as many varieties as games do and there is no more a single account of the first than there is of the second.

Author Information: Sheldon Richmond, Independent Researcher

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

An Argument of Classical Rational Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stealth Influence

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

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

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

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

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

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

Undercurrents Against Positivism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Author information: Moti Mizrahi, Florida Institute of Technology,

Mizrahi, Moti. “More in Defense of Weak Scientism: Another Reply to Brown.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 4 (2018): 7-25.

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

Please refer to:

Image by eltpics via Flickr / Creative Commons


In my (2017a), I defend a view I call Weak Scientism, which is the view that knowledge produced by scientific disciplines is better than knowledge produced by non-scientific disciplines.[1] Scientific knowledge can be said to be quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as scientific disciplines produce more impactful knowledge–in the form of scholarly publications–than non-scientific disciplines (as measured by research output and research impact). Scientific knowledge can be said to be qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as such knowledge is explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively more successful than non-scientific knowledge.

Brown (2017a) raises several objections against my defense of Weak Scientism and I have replied to his objections (Mizrahi 2017b), thereby showing again that Weak Scientism is a defensible view. Since then, Brown (2017b) has reiterated his objections in another reply on SERRC. Almost unchanged from his previous attack on Weak Scientism (Brown 2017a), Brown’s (2017b) objections are the following:

  1. Weak Scientism is not strong enough to count as scientism.
  2. Advocates of Strong Scientism should not endorse Weak Scientism.
  3. Weak Scientism does not show that philosophy is useless.
  4. My defense of Weak Scientism appeals to controversial philosophical assumptions.
  5. My defense of Weak Scientism is a philosophical argument.
  6. There is nothing wrong with persuasive definitions of scientism.

In what follows, I will respond to these objections, thereby showing once more that Weak Scientism is a defensible view. Since I have been asked to keep this as short as possible, however, I will try to focus on what I take to be new in Brown’s (2017b) latest attack on Weak Scientism.

Is Weak Scientism Strong Enough to Count as Scientism?

Brown (2017b) argues for (1) on the grounds that, on Weak Scientism, “philosophical knowledge may be nearly as valuable as scientific knowledge.” Brown (2017b, 4) goes on to characterize a view he labels “Scientism2,” which he admits is the same view as Strong Scientism, and says that “there is a huge logical gap between Strong Scientism (Scientism2) and Weak Scientism.”

As was the case the first time Brown raised this objection, it is not clear how it is supposed to show that Weak Scientism is not “really” a (weaker) version of scientism (Mizrahi 2017b, 10-11). Of course there is a logical gap between Strong Scientism and Weak Scientism; that is why I distinguish between these two epistemological views. If I am right, Strong Scientism is too strong to be a defensible version of scientism, whereas Weak Scientism is a defensible (weaker) version of scientism (Mizrahi 2017a, 353-354).

Of course Weak Scientism “leaves open the possibility that there is philosophical knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 5). If I am right, such philosophical knowledge would be inferior to scientific knowledge both quantitatively (in terms of research output and research impact) and qualitatively (in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success) (Mizrahi 2017a, 358).

Brown (2017b, 5) does try to offer a reason “for thinking it strange that Weak Scientism counts as a species of scientism” in his latest attack on Weak Scientism, which does not appear in his previous attack. He invites us to imagine a theist who believes that “modern science is the greatest new intellectual achievement since the fifteenth century” (emphasis in original). Brown then claims that this theist would be an advocate of Weak Scientism because Brown (2017b, 6) takes “modern science is the greatest new intellectual achievement since the fifteenth century” to be “(roughly) equivalent to Weak Scientism.” For Brown (2017b, 6), however, “it seems odd, to say the least, that [this theist] should count as an advocate (even roughly) of scientism.”

Unfortunately, Brown’s appeal to intuition is rather difficult to evaluate because his hypothetical case is under-described.[2] First, the key phrase, namely, “modern science is the greatest new intellectual achievement since the fifteenth century,” is vague in more ways than one. I have no idea what “greatest” is supposed to mean here. Greatest in what respects? What are the other “intellectual achievements” relative to which science is said to be “the greatest”?

Also, what does “intellectual achievement” mean here? There are multiple accounts and literary traditions in history and philosophy of science, science studies, and the like on what counts as “intellectual achievements” or progress in science (Mizrahi 2013b). Without a clear understanding of what these key phrases mean here, it is difficult to tell how Brown’s intuition about this hypothetical case is supposed to be a reason to think that Weak Scientism is not “really” a (weaker) version of scientism.

Toward the end of his discussion of (1), Brown says something that suggests he actually has an issue with the word ‘scientism’. Brown (2017b, 6) writes, “perhaps Mizrahi should coin a new word for the position with respect to scientific knowledge and non-scientific forms of academic knowledge he wants to talk about” (emphasis in original). It should be clear, of course, that it does not matter what label I use for the view that “Of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the best knowledge” (Mizrahi 2017a, 354; emphasis in original). What matters is the content of the view, not the label.

Whether Brown likes the label or not, Weak Scientism is a (weaker) version of scientism because it is the view that scientific ways of knowing are superior (in certain relevant respects) to non-scientific ways of knowing, whereas Strong Scientism is the view that scientific ways of knowing are the only ways of knowing. As I have pointed out in my previous reply to Brown, whether scientific ways of knowing are superior to non-scientific ways of knowing is essentially what the scientism debate is all about (Mizrahi 2017b, 13).

Before I conclude this discussion of (1), I would like to point out that Brown seems to have misunderstood Weak Scientism. He (2017b, 3) claims that “Weak Scientism is a normative and not a descriptive claim.” This is a mistake. As a thesis (Peels 2017, 11), Weak Scientism is a descriptive claim about scientific knowledge in comparison to non-scientific knowledge. This should be clear provided that we keep in mind what it means to say that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge. As I have argued in my (2017a), to say that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge is to say that there is a lot more scientific knowledge than non-scientific knowledge (as measured by research output) and that the impact of scientific knowledge is greater than that of non-scientific knowledge (as measured by research impact).

To say that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge is to say that scientific knowledge is explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively more successful than non-scientific knowledge. All these claims about the superiority of scientific knowledge to non-scientific knowledge are descriptive, not normative, claims. That is to say, Weak Scientism is the view that, as a matter of fact, knowledge produced by scientific fields of study is quantitatively (in terms of research output and research impact) and qualitatively (in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success) better than knowledge produced by non-scientific fields of study.

Of course, Weak Scientism does have some normative implications. For instance, if scientific knowledge is indeed better than non-scientific knowledge, then, other things being equal, we should give more evidential weight to scientific knowledge than to non-scientific knowledge. For example, suppose that I am considering whether to vaccinate my child or not. On the one hand, I have scientific knowledge in the form of results from clinical trials according to which MMR vaccines are generally safe and effective.

On the other hand, I have knowledge in the form of stories about children who were vaccinated and then began to display symptoms of autism. If Weak Scientism is true, and I want to make a decision based on the best available information, then I should give more evidential weight to the scientific knowledge about MMR vaccines than to the anecdotal knowledge about MMR vaccines simply because the former is scientific (i.e., knowledge obtained by means of the methods of science, such as clinical trials) and the latter is not.

Should Advocates of Strong Scientism Endorse Weak Scientism?

Brown (2017b, 7) argues for (2) on the grounds that “once the advocate of Strong Scientism sees that an advocate of Weak Scientism admits the possibility that there is real knowledge other than what is produced by the natural sciences […] the advocate of Strong Scientism, at least given their philosophical presuppositions, will reject Weak Scientism out of hand.” It is not clear which “philosophical presuppositions” Brown is talking about here. Brown quotes Rosenberg (2011, 20), who claims that physics tells us what reality is like, presumably as an example of a proponent of Strong Scientism who would not endorse Weak Scientism. But it is not clear why Brown thinks that Rosenberg would “reject Weak Scientism out of hand” (Brown 2017d, 7).

Like other proponents of scientism, Rosenberg should endorse Weak Scientism because, unlike Strong Scientism, Weak Scientism is a defensible view. Insofar as we should endorse the view that has the most evidence in its favor, Weak Scientism has more going for it than Strong Scientism does. For to show that Strong Scientism is true, one would have to show that no field of study other than scientific ones can produce knowledge. Of course, that is not easy to show. To show that Weak Scientism is true, one only needs to show that the knowledge produced in scientific fields of study is better (in certain relevant respects) than the knowledge produced in non-scientific fields.

That is precisely what I show in my (2017a). I argue that the knowledge produced in scientific fields is quantitatively better than the knowledge produced in non-scientific fields because there is a lot more scientific knowledge than non-scientific knowledge (as measured by research output) and the former has a greater impact than the latter (as measured by research impact). I also argue that the knowledge produced in scientific fields is qualitatively better than knowledge produced in non-scientific fields because it is more explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively successful.

Contrary to what Brown (2017b, 7) seems to think, I do not have to show “that there is real knowledge other than scientific knowledge.” To defend Weak Scientism, all I have to show is that scientific knowledge is better (in certain relevant respects) than non-scientific knowledge. If anyone must argue for the claim that there is real knowledge other than scientific knowledge, it is Brown, for he wants to defend the value or usefulness of non-scientific knowledge, specifically, philosophical knowledge.

It is important to emphasize the point about the ways in which scientific knowledge is quantitatively and qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge because it looks like Brown has confused the two. For he thinks that I justify my quantitative analysis of scholarly publications in scientific and non-scientific fields by “citing the precedent of epistemologists who often treat all items of knowledge as qualitatively the same” (Brown 2017b, 22; emphasis added).

Here Brown fails to carefully distinguish between my claim that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge and my claim that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge. For the purposes of a quantitative study of knowledge, information and data scientists can do precisely what epistemologists do and “abstract from various circumstances (by employing variables)” (Brown 2017b, 22) in order to determine which knowledge is quantitatively better.

How Is Weak Scientism Relevant to the Claim that Philosophy Is Useless?

Brown (2017b, 7-8) argues for (3) on the grounds that “Weak Scientism itself implies nothing about the degree to which philosophical knowledge is valuable or useful other than stating scientific knowledge is better than philosophical knowledge” (emphasis in original).

Strictly speaking, Brown is wrong about this because Weak Scientism does imply something about the degree to which scientific knowledge is better than philosophical knowledge. Recall that to say that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge is to say that scientific fields of study publish more research and that scientific research has greater impact than the research published in non-scientific fields of study.

Contrary to what Brown seems to think, we can say to what degree scientific research is superior to non-scientific research in terms of output and impact. That is precisely what bibliometric indicators like h-index and other metrics are for (Rousseau et al. 2018). Such bibliometric indicators allow us to say how many articles are published in a given field, how many of those published articles are cited, and how many times they are cited. For instance, according to Scimago Journal & Country Rank (2018), which contains data from the Scopus database, of the 3,815 Philosophy articles published in the United States in 2016-2017, approximately 14% are cited, and their h-index is approximately 160.

On the other hand, of the 24,378 Psychology articles published in the United States in 2016-2017, approximately 40% are cited, and their h-index is approximately 640. Contrary to what Brown seems to think, then, we can say to what degree research in Psychology is better than research in Philosophy in terms of research output (i.e., number of publications) and research impact (i.e., number of citations). We can use the same bibliometric indicators and metrics to compare research in other scientific and non-scientific fields of study.

As I have already said in my previous reply to Brown, “Weak Scientism does not entail that philosophy is useless” and “I have no interest in defending the charge that philosophy is useless” (Mizrahi 2017b, 11-12). So, I am not sure why Brown brings up (3) again. Since he insists, however, let me explain why philosophers who are concerned about the charge that philosophy is useless should engage with Weak Scientism as well.

Suppose that a foundation or agency is considering whether to give a substantial grant to one of two projects. The first project is that of a philosopher who will sit in her armchair and contemplate the nature of friendship.[3] The second project is that of a team of social scientists who will conduct a longitudinal study of the effects of friendship on human well-being (e.g., Yang et al. 2016).

If Weak Scientism is true, and the foundation or agency wants to fund the project that is likely to yield better results, then it should give the grant to the team of social scientists rather than to the armchair philosopher simply because the former’s project is scientific, whereas the latter’s is not. This is because the scientific project will more likely yield better knowledge than the non-scientific project will. In other words, unlike the project of the armchair philosopher, the scientific project will probably produce more research (i.e., more publications) that will have a greater impact (i.e., more citations) and the knowledge produced will be explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively more successful than any knowledge that the philosopher’s project might produce.

This example should really hit home for Brown, since reading his latest attack on Weak Scientism gives one the impression that he thinks of philosophy as a personal, “self-improvement” kind of enterprise, rather than an academic discipline or field of study. For instance, he seems to be saying that philosophy is not in the business of producing “new knowledge” or making “discoveries” (Brown 2017b, 17).

Rather, Brown (2017b, 18) suggests that philosophy “is more about individual intellectual progress rather than collective intellectual progress.” Individual progress or self-improvement is great, of course, but I am not sure that it helps Brown’s case in defense of philosophy against what he sees as “the menace of scientism.” For this line of thinking simply adds fuel to the fire set by those who want to see philosophy burn. As I point out in my (2017a), scientists who dismiss philosophy do so because they find it academically useless.

For instance, Hawking and Mlodinow (2010, 5) write that ‘philosophy is dead’ because it ‘has not kept up with developments in science, particularly physics’ (emphasis added). Similarly, Weinberg (1994, 168) says that, as a working scientist, he ‘finds no help in professional philosophy’ (emphasis added). (Mizrahi 2017a, 356)

Likewise, Richard Feynman is rumored to have said that “philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds” (Kitcher 1998, 32). It is clear, then, that what these scientists complain about is professional or academic philosophy. Accordingly, they would have no problem with anyone who wants to pursue philosophy for the sake of “individual intellectual progress.” But that is not the issue here. Rather, the issue is academic knowledge or research.

Does My Defense of Weak Scientism Appeal to Controversial Philosophical Assumptions?

Brown (2017b, 9) argues for (4) on the grounds that I assume that “we are supposed to privilege empirical (I read Mizrahi’s ‘empirical’ here as ‘experimental/scientific’) evidence over non-empirical evidence.” But that is question-begging, Brown claims, since he takes me to be assuming something like the following: “If the question of whether scientific knowledge is superior to [academic] non-scientific knowledge is a question that one can answer empirically, then, in order to pose a serious challenge to my [Mizrahi’s] defense of Weak Scientism, Brown must come up with more than mere ‘what ifs’” (Mizrahi 2017b, 10; quoted in Brown 2017b, 8).

This objection seems to involve a confusion about how defeasible reasoning and defeating evidence are supposed to work. Given that “a rebutting defeater is evidence which prevents E from justifying belief in H by supporting not-H in a more direct way” (Kelly 2016), claims about what is actual cannot be defeated by mere possibilities, since claims of the form “Possibly, p” do not prevent a piece of evidence from justifying belief in “Actually, p” by supporting “Actually, not-p” directly.

For example, the claim “Hillary Clinton could have been the 45th President of the United States” does not prevent my perceptual and testimonial evidence from justifying my belief in “Donald Trump is the 45th President of the United States,” since the former does not support “It is not the case that Donald Trump is the 45th President of the United States” in a direct way. In general, claims of the form “Possibly, p” are not rebutting defeaters against claims of the form “Actually, p.” Defeating evidence against claims of the form “Actually, p” must be about what is actual (or at least probable), not what is merely possible, in order to support “Actually, not-p” directly.

For this reason, although “the production of some sorts of non-scientific knowledge work may be harder than the production of scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 19), Brown gives no reasons to think that it is actually or probably harder, which is why this possibility does nothing to undermine the claim that scientific knowledge is actually better than non-scientific knowledge. Just as it is possible that philosophical knowledge is harder to produce than scientific knowledge, it is also possible that scientific knowledge is harder to produce than philosophical knowledge. It is also possible that scientific and non-scientific knowledge are equally hard to produce.

Similarly, the possibility that “a little knowledge about the noblest things is more desirable than a lot of knowledge about less noble things” (Brown 2017b, 19), whatever “noble” is supposed to mean here, does not prevent my bibliometric evidence (in terms of research output and research impact) from justifying the belief that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge. Just as it is possible that philosophical knowledge is “nobler” (whatever that means) than scientific knowledge, it is also possible that scientific knowledge is “nobler” than philosophical knowledge or that they are equally “noble” (Mizrahi 2017b, 9-10).

In fact, even if Brown (2017a, 47) is right that “philosophy is harder than science” and that “knowing something about human persons–particularly qua embodied rational being–is a nobler piece of knowledge than knowing something about any non-rational object” (Brown 2017b, 21), whatever “noble” is supposed to mean here, it would still be the case that scientific fields produce more knowledge (as measured by research output), and more impactful knowledge (as measured by research impact), than non-scientific disciplines.

So, I am not sure why Brown keeps insisting on mentioning these mere possibilities. He also seems to forget that the natural and social sciences study human persons as well. Even if knowledge about human persons is “nobler” (whatever that means), there is a lot of scientific knowledge about human persons coming from scientific fields, such as anthropology, biology, genetics, medical science, neuroscience, physiology, psychology, and sociology, to name just a few.

One of the alleged “controversial philosophical assumptions” that my defense of Weak Scientism rests on, and that Brown (2017a) complains about the most in his previous attack on Weak Scientism, is my characterization of philosophy as the scholarly work that professional philosophers do. In my previous reply, I argue that Brown is not in a position to complain that this is a “controversial philosophical assumption,” since he rejects my characterization of philosophy as the scholarly work that professional philosophers produce, but he does not tell us what counts as philosophical (Mizrahi 2017b, 13). Well, it turns out that Brown does not reject my characterization of philosophy after all. For, after he was challenged to say what counts as philosophical, he came up with the following “sufficient condition for pieces of writing and discourse that count as philosophy” (Brown 2017b, 11):

(P) Those articles published in philosophical journals and what academics with a Ph.D. in philosophy teach in courses at public universities with titles such as Introduction to Philosophy, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Normative Ethics, and Philosophy of Science (Brown 2017b, 11; emphasis added).

Clearly, this is my characterization of philosophy in terms of the scholarly work that professional philosophers produce. Brown simply adds teaching to it. Since he admits that “scientists teach students too” (Brown 2017b, 18), however, it is not clear how adding teaching to my characterization of philosophy is supposed to support his attack on Weak Scientism. In fact, it may actually undermine his attack on Weak Scientism, since there is a lot more teaching going on in STEM fields than in non-STEM fields.

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (2017), in the 2015-16 academic year, post-secondary institutions in the United States conferred only 10,157 Bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies compared to 113,749 Bachelor’s degrees in biological and biomedical sciences, 106,850 Bachelor’s degrees in engineering, and 117,440 in psychology. In general, in the 2015-2016 academic year, 53.3% of the Bachelor’s degrees conferred by post-secondary institutions in the United States were degrees in STEM fields, whereas only 5.5% of conferred Bachelor’s degrees were in the humanities (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Bachelor’s degrees conferred by post-secondary institutions in the US, by field of study, 2015-2016 (Source: NCES)


Clearly, then, there is a lot more teaching going on in science than in philosophy (or even in the humanities in general), since a lot more students take science courses and graduate with degrees in scientific fields of study. So, even if Brown is right that we should include teaching in what counts as philosophy, it is still the case that scientific fields are quantitatively better than non-scientific fields.

Since Brown (2017b, 13) seems to agree that philosophy (at least in part) is the scholarly work that academic philosophers produce, it is peculiar that he complains, without argument, that “an understanding of philosophy and knowledge as operational is […] shallow insofar as philosophy and knowledge can’t fit into the narrow parameters of another empirical study.” Once Brown (2017b, 11) grants that “Those articles published in philosophical journals” count as philosophy, he thereby also grants that these journal articles can be studied empirically using the methods of bibliometrics, information science, or data science.

That is, Brown (2017b, 11) concedes that philosophy consists (at least in part) of “articles published in philosophical journals,” and so these articles can be compared to other articles published in science journals to determine research output, and they can also be compared to articles published in science journals in terms of citation counts to determine research impact. What exactly is “shallow” about that? Brown does not say.

A, perhaps unintended, consequence of Brown’s (P) is that the “great thinkers from the past” (Brown 2017b, 18), those that Brown (2017b, 13) likes to remind us “were not professional philosophers,” did not do philosophy, by Brown’s own lights. For “Socrates, Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Locke, and Hume” (Brown 2017b, 13) did not publish in philosophy journals, were not academics with a Ph.D. in philosophy, and did not teach at public universities courses “with titles such as Introduction to Philosophy, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Normative Ethics, and Philosophy of Science” (Brown 2017b, 11).

Another peculiar thing about Brown’s (P) is the restriction of the philosophical to what is being taught in public universities. What about community colleges and private universities? Is Brown suggesting that philosophy courses taught at private universities do not count as philosophy courses? This is peculiar, especially in light of the fact that, at least according to The Philosophical Gourmet Report (Brogaard and Pynes 2018), the top ranked philosophy programs in the United States are mostly located in private universities, such as New York University and Princeton University.

Is My Defense of Weak Scientism a Scientific or a Philosophical Argument?

Brown argues for (5) on the grounds that my (2017a) is published in a philosophy journal, namely, Social Epistemology, and so it a piece of philosophical knowledge by my lights, since I count as philosophy the research articles that are published in philosophy journals.

Brown would be correct about this if Social Epistemology were a philosophy journal. But it is not. Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy is an interdisciplinary journal. The journal’s “aim and scope” statement makes it clear that Social Epistemology is an interdisciplinary journal:

Social Epistemology provides a forum for philosophical and social scientific enquiry that incorporates the work of scholars from a variety of disciplines who share a concern with the production, assessment and validation of knowledge. The journal covers both empirical research into the origination and transmission of knowledge and normative considerations which arise as such research is implemented, serving as a guide for directing contemporary knowledge enterprises (Social Epistemology 2018).

The fact that Social Epistemology is an interdisciplinary journal, with contributions from “Philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, cultural historians, social studies of science researchers, [and] educators” (Social Epistemology 2018) would not surprise anyone who is familiar with the history of the journal. The founding editor of the journal is Steve Fuller, who was trained in an interdisciplinary field, namely, History and Philosophy of Science (HPS), and is currently the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology in the Department of Sociology at Warwick University. Brown (2017b, 15) would surely agree that sociology is not philosophy, given that, for him, “cataloguing what a certain group of people believes is sociology and not philosophy.” The current executive editor of the journal is James H. Collier, who is a professor of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech, and who was trained in Science and Technology Studies (STS), which is an interdisciplinary field as well.

Brown asserts without argument that the methods of a scientific field of study, such as sociology, are different in kind from those of philosophy: “What I contend is that […] philosophical methods are different in kind from those of the experimental scientists [sciences?]” (Brown 2017b, 24). He then goes on to speculate about what it means to say that an explanation is testable (Brown 2017b, 25). What Brown comes up with is rather unclear to me. For instance, I have no idea what it means to evaluate an explanation by inductive generalization (Brown 2017b, 25).

Instead, Brown should have consulted any one of the logic and reasoning textbooks I keep referring to in my (2017a) and (2017b) to find out that it is generally accepted among philosophers that the good-making properties of explanations, philosophical and otherwise, include testability among other good-making properties (see, e.g., Sinnott-Armstrong and Fogelin 2010, 257). As far as testability is concerned, to test an explanation or hypothesis is to determine “whether predictions that follow from it are true” (Salmon 2013, 255). In other words, “To say that a hypothesis is testable is at least to say that some prediction made on the basis of that hypothesis may confirm or disconfirm it” (Copi et al. 2011, 515).

For this reason, Feser’s analogy according to which “to compare the epistemic values of science and philosophy and fault philosophy for not being good at making testable predications [sic] is like comparing metal detectors and gardening tools and concluding gardening tools are not as good as metal detectors because gardening tools do not allow us to successfully detect for metal” (Brown 2017b, 25), which Brown likes to refer to (Brown 2017a, 48), is inapt.

It is not an apt analogy because, unlike metal detectors and gardening tools, which serve different purposes, both science and philosophy are in the business of explaining things. Indeed, Brown admits that, like good scientific explanations, “good philosophical theories explain things” (emphasis in original). In other words, Brown admits that both scientific and philosophical theories are instruments of explanation (unlike gardening and metal-detecting instruments). To provide good explanations, then, both scientific and philosophical theories must be testable (Mizrahi 2017b, 19-20).

What Is Wrong with Persuasive Definitions of Scientism?

Brown (2017b, 31) argues for (6) on the grounds that “persuasive definitions are [not] always dialectically pernicious.” He offers an argument whose conclusion is “abortion is murder” as an example of an argument for a persuasive definition of abortion. He then outlines an argument for a persuasive definition of scientism according to which “Weak Scientism is a view that has its advocates putting too high a value on scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32).

The problem, however, is that Brown is confounding arguments for a definition with the definition itself. Having an argument for a persuasive definition does not change the fact that it is a persuasive definition. To illustrate this point, let me give an example that I think Brown will appreciate. Suppose I define theism as an irrational belief in the existence of God. That is, “theism” means “an irrational belief in the existence of God.” I can also provide an argument for this definition:

P1: If it is irrational to have paradoxical beliefs and God is a paradoxical being, then theism is an irrational belief in the existence of God.

P2: It is irrational to have paradoxical beliefs and God is a paradoxical being (e.g., the omnipotence paradox).[4]


C: Theism is an irrational belief in the existence of God.

But surely, theists will complain that my definition of theism is a “dialectically pernicious” persuasive definition. For it stacks the deck against theists. It states that theists are already making a mistake, by definition, simply by believing in the existence of God. Even though I have provided an argument for this persuasive definition of theism, my definition is still a persuasive definition of theism, and my argument is unlikely to convince anyone who doesn’t already think that theism is irrational. Indeed, Brown (2017b, 30) himself admits that much when he says “good luck with that project!” about trying to construct a sound argument for “abortion is murder.” I take this to mean that pro-choice advocates would find his argument for “abortion is murder” dialectically inert precisely because it defines abortion in a manner that transfers “emotive force” (Salmon 2013, 65), which they cannot accept.

Likewise, theists would find the argument above dialectically inert precisely because it defines theism in a manner that transfers “emotive force” (Salmon 2013, 65), which they cannot accept. In other words, Brown seems to agree that there are good dialectical reasons to avoid appealing to persuasive definitions. Therefore, like “abortion is murder,” “theism is an irrational belief in the existence of God,” and “‘Homosexual’ means ‘one who has an unnatural desire for those of the same sex’” (Salmon 2013, 65), “Weak Scientism is a view that has its advocates putting too high a value on scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32) is a “dialectically pernicious” persuasive definition (cf. Williams 2015, 14).

Like persuasive definitions in general, it “masquerades as an honest assignment of meaning to a term while condemning or blessing with approval the subject matter of the definiendum” (Hurley 2015, 101). As I have pointed out in my (2017a), the problem with such definitions is that they “are strategies consisting in presupposing an unaccepted definition, taking a new unknowable description of meaning as if it were commonly shared” (Macagno and Walton 2014, 205).

As for Brown’s argument for the persuasive definition of Weak Scientism, according to which it “is a view that has its advocates putting too high a value on scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32), a key premise in this argument is the claim that there is a piece of philosophical knowledge that is better than scientific knowledge. This is premise 36 in Brown’s argument:

Some philosophers qua philosophers know that (a) true friendship is a necessary condition for human flourishing and (b) the possession of the moral virtues or a life project aimed at developing the moral virtues is a necessary condition for true friendship and (c) (therefore) the possession of the moral virtues or a life project aimed at developing the moral virtues is a necessary condition for human flourishing (see, e.g., the arguments in Plato’s Gorgias) and knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge (see, e.g., St. Augustine’s Confessions, book five, chapters iii and iv) [assumption]

There is a lot to unpack here, but I will focus on what I take to be the points most relevant to the scientism debate. First, Brown assumes 36 without argument, but why think it is true? In particular, why think that (a), (b), and (c) count as philosophical knowledge? Brown says that philosophers know (a), (b), and (c) in virtue of being philosophers, but he does not tell us why that is the case.

After all, accounts of friendship, with lessons about the significance of friendship, predate philosophy (see, e.g., the friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in The Epic of Gilgamesh). Did it really take Plato and Augustine to tell us about the significance of friendship? In fact, on Brown’s characterization of philosophy, namely, (P), (a), (b), and (c) do not count as philosophical knowledge at all, since Plato and Augustine did not publish in philosophy journals, were not academics with a Ph.D. in philosophy, and did not teach at public universities courses “with titles such as Introduction to Philosophy, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Normative Ethics, and Philosophy of Science” (Brown 2017b, 11).

Second, some philosophers, like Epicurus, need (and think that others need) friends to flourish, whereas others, like Diogenes of Sinope, need no one. For Diogenes, friends will only interrupt his sunbathing (Arrian VII.2). My point is not simply that philosophers disagree about the value of friendship and human flourishing. Of course they disagree.[5]

Rather, my point is that, in order to establish general truths about human beings, such as “Human beings need friends to flourish,” one must employ the methods of science, such as randomization and sampling procedures, blinding protocols, methods of statistical analysis, and the like; otherwise, one would simply commit the fallacies of cherry-picking anecdotal evidence and hasty generalization (Salmon 2013, 149-151). After all, the claim “Some need friends to flourish” does not necessitate, or even make more probable, the truth of “Human beings need friends to flourish.”[6]

Third, why think that “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32)? Better in what sense? Quantitatively? Qualitatively? Brown does not tell us. He simply declares it “self-evident” (Brown 2017b, 32). I take it that Brown would not want to argue that “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing” is better than scientific knowledge in the quantitative (i.e., in terms of research output and research impact) and qualitative (i.e., in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success) respects in which scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge, according to Weak Scientism.

If so, then in what sense exactly “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing” (Brown 2017b, 32) is supposed to be better than scientific knowledge? Brown (2017b, 32) simply assumes that without argument and without telling us in what sense exactly “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32).

Of course, philosophy does not have a monopoly on friendship and human flourishing as research topics. Psychologists and sociologists, among other scientists, work on friendship as well (see, e.g., Hojjat and Moyer 2017). To get an idea of how much research on friendship is done in scientific fields, such as psychology and sociology, and how much is done in philosophy, we can use a database like Web of Science.

Currently (03/29/2018), there are 12,334 records in Web of Science on the topic “friendship.” Only 76 of these records (0.61%) are from the Philosophy research area. Most of the records are from the Psychology (5,331 records) and Sociology (1,111) research areas (43.22% and 9%, respectively). As we can see from Figure 2, most of the research on friendship is done in scientific fields of study, such as psychology, sociology, and other social sciences.

Figure 2. Number of records on the topic “friendship” in Web of Science by research area (Source: Web of Science)


In terms of research impact, too, scientific knowledge about friendship is superior to philosophical knowledge about friendship. According to Web of Science, the average citations per year for Psychology research articles on the topic of friendship is 2826.11 (h-index is 148 and the average citations per item is 28.1), and the average citations per year for Sociology research articles on the topic of friendship is 644.10 (h-index is 86 and the average citations per item is 30.15), whereas the average citations per year for Philosophy research articles on friendship is 15.02 (h-index is 13 and the average citations per item is 8.11).

Quantitatively, then, psychological and sociological knowledge on friendship is better than philosophical knowledge in terms of research output and research impact. Both Psychology and Sociology produce significantly more research on friendship than Philosophy does, and the research they produce has significantly more impact (as measured by citation counts) than philosophical research on the same topic.

Qualitatively, too, psychological and sociological knowledge about friendship is better than philosophical knowledge about friendship. For, instead of rather vague statements about how “true friendship is a necessary condition for human flourishing” (Brown 2017b, 32) that are based on mostly armchair speculation, psychological and sociological research on friendship provides detailed explanations and accurate predictions about the effects of friendship (or lack thereof) on human well-being.

For instance, numerous studies provide evidence for the effects of friendships or lack of friendships on physical well-being (see, e.g., Yang et al. 2016) as well as mental well-being (see, e.g., Cacioppo and Patrick 2008). Further studies provide explanations for the biological and genetic bases of these effects (Cole et al. 2011). This knowledge, in turn, informs interventions designed to help people deal with loneliness and social isolation (see, e.g., Masi et al. 2010).[7]

To sum up, Brown (2017b, 32) has given no reasons to think that “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge.” He does not even tell us what “better” is supposed to mean here. He also ignores the fact that scientific fields of study, such as psychology and sociology, produce plenty of knowledge about human flourishing, both physical and mental well-being. In fact, as we have seen, science produces a lot more knowledge about topics related to human well-being, such as friendship, than philosophy does. For this reason, Brown (2017b, 32) has failed to show that “there is non-scientific form of knowledge better than scientific knowledge.”


At this point, I think it is quite clear that Brown and I are talking past each other on a couple of levels. First, I follow scientists (e.g., Weinberg 1994, 166-190) and philosophers (e.g., Haack 2007, 17-18 and Peels 2016, 2462) on both sides of the scientism debate in treating philosophy as an academic discipline or field of study, whereas Brown (2017b, 18) insists on thinking about philosophy as a personal activity of “individual intellectual progress.” Second, I follow scientists (e.g., Hawking and Mlodinow 2010, 5) and philosophers (e.g., Kidd 2016, 12-13 and Rosenberg 2011, 307) on both sides of the scientism debate in thinking about knowledge as the scholarly work or research produced in scientific fields of study, such as the natural sciences, as opposed to non-scientific fields of study, such as the humanities, whereas Brown insists on thinking about philosophical knowledge as personal knowledge.

To anyone who wishes to defend philosophy’s place in research universities alongside academic disciplines, such as history, linguistics, and physics, armed with this conception of philosophy as a “self-improvement” activity, I would use Brown’s (2017b, 30) words to say, “good luck with that project!” A much more promising strategy, I propose, is for philosophy to embrace scientific ways of knowing and for philosophers to incorporate scientific methods into their research.[8]

Contact details:


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Ashton, Z., and M. Mizrahi. “Intuition Talk is Not Methodologically Cheap: Empirically Testing the “Received Wisdom” about Armchair Philosophy.” Erkenntnis (2017): DOI 10.1007/s10670-017-9904-4.

Ashton, Z., and M. Mizrahi. “Show Me the Argument: Empirically Testing the Armchair Philosophy Picture.” Metaphilosophy 49, no. 1-2 (2018): 58-70.

Cacioppo, J. T., and W. Patrick. Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2008.

Cole, S. W., L. C. Hawkley, J. M. G. Arevaldo, and J. T. Cacioppo. “Transcript Origin Analysis Identifies Antigen-Presenting Cells as Primary Targets of Socially Regulated Gene Expression in Leukocytes.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 7 (2011): 3080-3085.

Copi, I. M., C. Cohen, and K. McMahon. Introduction to Logic. Fourteenth Edition. New York: Prentice Hall, 2011.

Brogaard, B., and C. A. Pynes (eds.). “Overall Rankings.” The Philosophical Gourmet Report. Wiley Blackwell, 2018. Available at

Brown, C. M. “Some Objections to Moti Mizrahi’s ‘What’s So Bad about Scientism?’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017a): 42-54.

Brown, C. M. “Defending Some Objections to Moti Mizrahi’s Arguments Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2017b): 1-35.

Haack, S. Defending Science–within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism. New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Hawking, S., and L. Mlodinow. The Grand Design. New York: Bantam Books, 2010.

Hojjat, M., and A. Moyer (eds.). The Psychology of Friendship. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Hurley, P. J. A Concise Introduction to Logic. Twelfth Edition. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015.

Kelly, T. “Evidence.” In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition).

Kidd, I. J. “How Should Feyerabend Have Defended Astrology? A Reply to Pigliucci.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5 (2016): 11–17.

Kitcher, P. “A Plea for Science Studies.” In A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science, edited by N. Koertge, 32–55. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1960.

Macagno, F., and D. Walton. Emotive Language in Argumentation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Masi, C. M., H. Chen, and L. C. Hawkley. “A Meta-Analysis of Interventions to Reduce Loneliness.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 15, no. 3 (2011): 219-266.

Mizrahi, M. “Intuition Mongering.” The Reasoner 6, no. 11 (2012): 169-170.

Mizrahi, M. “More Intuition Mongering.” The Reasoner 7, no. 1 (2013a): 5-6.

Mizrahi, M. “What is Scientific Progress? Lessons from Scientific Practice.” Journal for General Philosophy of Science 44, no. 2 (2013b): 375-390.

Mizrahi, M. “New Puzzles about Divine Attributes.” European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 5, no. 2 (2013c): 147-157.

Mizrahi, M. “The Pessimistic Induction: A Bad Argument Gone Too Far.” Synthese 190, no. 15 (2013d): 3209-3226.

Mizrahi, M. “Does the Method of Cases Rest on a Mistake?” Review of Philosophy and Psychology 5, no. 2 (2014): 183-197.

Mizrahi, M. “On Appeals to Intuition: A Reply to Muñoz-Suárez.” The Reasoner 9, no. 2 (2015a): 12-13.

Mizrahi, M. “Don’t Believe the Hype: Why Should Philosophical Theories Yield to Intuitions?” Teorema: International Journal of Philosophy 34, no. 3 (2015b): 141-158.

Mizrahi, M. “Historical Inductions: New Cherries, Same Old Cherry-Picking.” International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 29, no. 2 (2015c): 129-148.

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Mizrahi, M. “What’s So Bad about Scientism?” Social Epistemology 31, no. 4 (2017a): 351-367.

Mizrahi, M. “In Defense of Weak Scientism: A Reply to Brown.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017b): 9-22.

Mizrahi, M. “Introduction.” In The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation? Edited by M. Mizrahi, 1-22. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017c.

National Center for Education Statistics. “Bachelor’s degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions, by field of study: Selected years, 1970-71 through 2015-16.” Digest of Education Statistics (2017).

Peels, R. “The Empirical Case Against Introspection.” Philosophical Studies 17, no. 9 (2016): 2461-2485.

Peels, R. “Ten Reasons to Embrace Scientism.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 63 (2017): 11-21.

Rosenberg, A. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011.

Rousseau, R., L. Egghe, and R. Guns. Becoming Metric-Wise: A Bibliometric Guide for Researchers. Cambridge, MA: Elsevier, 2018.

Salmon, M. H. Introduction to Logic and Critical Thinking. Sixth Edition. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2013.

Scimago Journal & Country Rank. “Subject Bubble Chart.” SJR: Scimago Journal & Country Rank. Accessed on April 3, 2018.

Sinnott-Armstrong, W., and R. J. Fogelin. Understanding Arguments: An Introduction to Informal Logic. Eighth Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010.

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[1] I thank Adam Riggio for inviting me to respond to Brown’s second attack on Weak Scientism.

[2] On why appeals to intuition are bad arguments, see Mizrahi (2012), (2013a), (2014), (2015a), (2015b), and (2015d).

[3] I use friendship as an example here because Brown (2017b, 31) uses it as an example of philosophical knowledge. I will say more about that in Section 6.

[4] For more on paradoxes involving the divine attributes, see Mizrahi (2013c).

[5] “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create)” (Lewis 1960, 71).

[6] On fallacious inductive reasoning in philosophy, see Mizrahi (2013d), (2015c), (2016), and (2017c).

[7] See also “The Friendship Bench” project:

[8] For recent examples, see Ashton and Mizrahi (2017) and (2018).

Author Information: Paul R. Smart, University of Southampton,

Smart, Paul R. “(Fake?) News Alert: Intellectual Virtues Required for Online Knowledge!.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 45-55.

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

Please refer to:

Image by BTC Keychain via Flickr / Creative Commons


Richard Heersmink’s (2018) article, A virtue epistemology of the Internet: Search engines, intellectual virtues, and education, provides an important and timely analysis of the Internet from the standpoint of virtue epistemology.[1] According to Richard, the Internet is an important epistemic resource, but it is one that comes with a range of epistemic hazards. Such hazards, he suggests, motivate a consideration of the ways in which individuals should interact with the Internet.

In particular, Richard appeals to a specific branch of virtue epistemology, known as virtue responsibilism, arguing that certain kinds of cognitive trait (e.g., curiosity and open-mindedness) are useful in helping us press maximal epistemic benefit from the Internet. Given the utility of such traits, coupled with the epistemic importance of the Internet, Richard suggests that educational policy should be adapted so as to equip would-be knowers with the cognitive wherewithal to cope with the epistemic challenges thrown up by the online environment.

There is, no doubt, something right about all this. Few would disagree with the claim that a certain level of discernment and discrimination is important when it comes to the evaluation of online content. Whether such ‘virtues’ are best understood from the perspective of virtue responsibilism or virtue reliabilism is, I think, a moot point, for I suspect that in the case of both virtue responsibilism and virtue reliabilism what matters is the way in which belief-forming informational circuits are subject to active configuration by processes that may be broadly construed as metacognitive in nature (Smart, in pressa). That, however, is a minor quibble, and it is one that is of little consequence to the issues raised in Richard’s paper.

For the most part, then, I find myself in agreement with many of the assumptions that motivate the target article. I agree that the Internet is an important epistemic resource that is unprecedented in terms of its scale, scope, and accessibility. I also agree that, at the present time, the Internet is far from an epistemically safe environment, and this raises issues regarding the epistemic standing of individual Internet users. In particular, it looks unlikely that the indiscriminate selection and endorsement of online information will do much to bolster one’s epistemic credentials.

We thus encounter something of a dilemma: As an epistemic resource, the Internet stands poised to elevate our epistemic standing, but as an open and public space the Internet provides ample opportunities for our doxastic systems to be led astray. The result is that we are obliged to divide the online informational cornucopia into a treasure trove of genuine facts and a ragbag collection of ‘false facts’ and ‘fake news.’ The information superhighway, it seems, promises to expand our epistemic power and potential, but the road ahead is one that is fraught with a dizzying array of epistemic perils, problems, and pitfalls. What ought we to do in response to such a situation?

It is at this point that I suspect my own views start to diverge with those of the target article. Richard’s response to the dilemma is to focus attention on the individual agent and consider the ways in which an agent’s cognitive character can be adapted to meet the challenges of the Internet. My own approach is somewhat different. It is borne out of three kinds of doubt: doubts about the feasibility (although not the value) of virtue-oriented educational policies, doubts about the basic validity of virtue theoretic conceptions of knowledge, and doubts about whether the aforementioned dilemma is best resolved by attempting to change the agent as opposed to the environment in which the agent is embedded. As always, space is limited and life is short, so I will restrict my discussion to issues that I deem to be of greatest interest to the epistemological community.

Reliable Technology

Inasmuch as intellectual virtues are required for online knowledge—i.e., knowledge that we possess as a result of our interactions and engagements with the Internet—they are surely only part of a much  broader (and richer) story that includes details about the environment in which our cognitive systems operate. In judging the role of intellectual virtue in shielding us from the epistemic hazards of the online environment, it therefore seems important to have some understanding of the actual technologies we interact with.

This is important because it helps us understand the kinds of intellectual virtue that might be required, as well as the efficacy of specific intellectual virtues in helping us believe the truth (and thus working as virtues in the first place). Internet technologies are, of course, many and varied, and it will not be possible to assess their general relevance to epistemological debates in the present commentary. For the sake of brevity, I will therefore restrict my attention to one particular technology: blockchain.

Blockchain is perhaps best known for its role in supporting the digital cryptocurrency, Bitcoin. It provides us with a means of storing data in a secure fashion, using a combination of data encryption and data linking techniques. For present purposes, we can think of a blockchain as a connected set of data records (or data blocks), each of which contains some body of encrypted data. In the case of Bitcoin, of course, the data blocks contain data of a particular kind, namely, data pertaining to financial transactions. But this is not the only kind of data that can be stored in a blockchain. In fact, blockchains can be used to store information about pretty much anything. This includes online voting records, news reports, sensor readings, personal health records, and so on.

Once data is recorded inside a blockchain, it is very difficult to modify. In essence, the data stored within a blockchain is immutable, in the sense that it cannot be changed without ‘breaking the chain’ of data blocks, and thereby invalidating the data contained within the blockchain. This property makes blockchains of considerable epistemic significance, because it speaks to some of the issues (e.g., concerns about data tampering and malign forms of information manipulation) that are likely to animate epistemological debates in this area.

This does not mean, of course, that the information stored within a blockchain is guaranteed to be factually correct, in the sense of being true and thus yielding improvements in epistemic standing. Nevertheless, there are, I think, reasons to regard blockchain as an important technology relative to efforts to make the online environment a somewhat safer place for would-be knowers. Consider, for example, the title of the present article. Suppose that we wanted to record the fact that a person known as Paul Smart—that’s me—wrote an article with the title:

(Fake?) News Alert: Intellectual Virtues Required for Online Knowledge!

We can incorporate this particular piece of information into a blockchain using something called a cryptographic hash function, which yields a unique identifier for the block and all of its contents. In the case of the aforementioned title, the cryptographic hash (as returned by the SHA256 algorithm[2]) is:


Now suppose that someone wants to alter the title, perhaps to garner support for an alternative argumentative position. In particular, let’s suppose they want to claim that the title of the article is:

Fake News Alert: Intellectual Virtues Required for Online Knowledge!

From an orthographic perspective, of course, not much has changed. But the subtlety of the alteration is not something that can be used to cause confusion about the actual wording of the original title—the title that I intended for the present article. (Neither can it be used to cast doubt about the provenance of the paper—the fact that the author of the paper was a person called Paul Smart.) To see this, note that the hash generated for the ‘fake’ title looks nothing like the original:


It is this property that, at least in part, makes blockchains useful for recording information that might otherwise be prone to epistemically malign forms of information manipulation. Imagine, for the sake of argument, that climatological data, as recorded by globally distributed sensors, was stored in a blockchain. The immutability of such data makes it extremely difficult for anyone to manipulate the data in such a way as to confirm or deny the reality of year-on-year changes in global temperature. Neither is it easy to alter information pertaining to the provenance of existing data records, i.e., information about when, where, and how such data was generated.

None of this should delude us into thinking that blockchain technology is a panacea for Internet-related epistemic problems—it isn’t! Neither does blockchain obviate the need for agents to exercise at least some degree of intellectual virtue when it comes to the selection and evaluation of competing data streams. Nevertheless, there is, I think, something that is of crucial epistemological interest and relevance here—something that makes blockchain and other cybersecurity technologies deserving of further epistemological attention. In particular, such technologies may be seen as enhancing the epistemic safety of the online environment, and thus perhaps reducing the need for intellectual virtue.

In this sense, the epistemological analysis of Internet technologies may be best approached from some variant of modal epistemology—e.g., epistemological approaches that emphasize the modal stability of true beliefs across close possible worlds (Pritchard, 2009, chap. 2). But even if we choose to countenance an approach that appeals to issues of intellectual virtue, there is still, I suggest, a need to broaden the analytic net to include technologies that (for the time being at least) lie beyond the bounds of the individual cognitive agent.

Safety in Numbers

“From an epistemic perspective,” Richard writes, “the most salient dimension of the Internet is that it is an information space” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 5). Somewhat surprisingly, I disagree. Although it is obviously true that the Internet is an information space, it is not clear that this is its most salient feature, at least from an epistemological standpoint. In particular, there is, I suggest, a sense in which the Internet is more than just an information space. As is clear from the explosive growth in all things social—social media, social networks, social bots, and so on—the Internet functions as a social technology, yielding all manner of opportunities for people to create, share and process information in a collaborative fashion. The result, I suggest, is that we should not simply think of the Internet as an information space (although it is surely that), we should also view it as a social space.

Viewing the Internet as a social space is important because it changes the way we think about the epistemic impact of the Internet, relative to the discovery, production, representation, acquisition, processing and utilization of knowledge. Smart (in pressb), for example, suggests that some online systems function as knowledge machines, which are systems in which some form of knowledge-relevant processing is realized by a socio-technical mechanism, i.e., a mechanism whose component elements are drawn from either the social (human) or the technological realm.

An interesting feature of many of these systems is the way in which the reliability (or truth-conducive) nature of the realized process is rooted in the socio-technical nature of the underlying (realizing) mechanism. When it comes to human computation or citizen science systems, for example, user contributions are typically solicited from multiple independent users as a means of improving the reliability of specific epistemic outputs (Smart, in pressb; Smart and Shadbolt, in press; Watson and Floridi, 2018). Such insights highlight the socially-distributed character of at least some forms of online knowledge production, thereby moving us beyond the realms of individual, agent-centric analyses.

On a not altogether unrelated note, it is important to appreciate the way in which social participation can itself be used to safeguard online systems from various forms of malign intervention. One example is provided by the Google PageRank algorithm. In this case, any attempt to ‘artificially’ elevate the ranking assigned to specific contributions (e.g., a user’s website) is offset by the globally-distributed nature of the linking effort, coupled with the fact that links to a specific resource are themselves weighted by the ranking of the resource from which the link originates. This makes it difficult for any single agent to subvert the operation of the PageRank algorithm.

Even ostensibly non-social technologies can be seen to rely on the distributed and decentralized nature of the Internet. In the case of blockchain, for example, multiple elements of a peer-to-peer network participate in the computational processes that make blockchain work. In this way, the integrity of the larger system is founded on the collaborative efforts of an array of otherwise independent computational elements. And it is this that (perhaps) allows us to think of blockchain’s epistemically-desirable features as being rooted in something of a ‘social’ substrate.

All of this, I suggest, speaks in favor of an approach that moves beyond a preoccupation with the properties of individual Internet users. In particular, there seems to be considerable merit in approaching the Internet from a more socially-oriented epistemological perspective. It is easy to see the social aspects of the Internet as lying at the root of a panoply of epistemic concerns, especially when it comes to the opportunities for misinformation, deception, and manipulation. But in light of the above discussion, perhaps an alternative, more positive, take on the Internet (qua social space) starts to come into sharper focus. This is a view that highlights the way in which certain kinds of online system can work to transform a ‘vice’ into a ‘virtue,’ exploiting the social properties of the Internet for the purposes of dealing with reliability-related concerns.

Image by Dariorug via Flickr / Creative Commons


Filter Bubblicious

Search engines form one of the focal points of Richard’s analysis, and, as with previous work in this area, Richard finds at least some aspects of their operation to be highly problematic. A particular issue surfaces in respect of personalized search. Here, Richard’s analysis echoes the sentiments expressed by other epistemologists who regard personalized search algorithms as of dubious epistemic value.

In fact, I suspect the consensus that has emerged in this area fails to tell the whole story about the epistemic consequences of personalized search. Indeed, from a virtue epistemological position, I worry that epistemologists are in danger of failing to heed their own advice—prematurely converging on a particular view without proper consideration of competing positions. In my new-found role as the virtue epistemologist’s guardian angel (or should that be devil’s advocate?), I will attempt to highlight a couple of reasons why I think more empirical research is required before we can say anything useful about the epistemological impact of personalized search algorithms.

My first worry is that our understanding about the extent to which search results and subsequent user behavior is affected by personalization is surprisingly poor. Consider, for example, the results of one study, which attempted to quantify the effect of personalization on search results (Hannak et al., 2013). Using an empirical approach, Hannak et al. (2013) report a demonstrable personalization effect, with 11.7% of search results exhibiting differences due to personalization. Interestingly, however, the effect of personalization appeared to be greater for search results with lower rankings; highly ranked results (i.e., those appearing at the top of a list of search results) appeared to be much less affected by personalization.

This result is interesting given the observation that college students “prefer to click on links in higher positions even when the abstracts are less relevant to the task at hand” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 6). From one perspective, of course, this tendency looks like a vice that jeopardizes the epistemic standing of the individual user. And yet, from another perspective, it looks like the preference for higher ranked search results is poised to negate (or at least reduce) the negative epistemological effects of personalized search. What we seem to have here, in essence, is a situation in which one kind of ‘intellectual vice’ (i.e., a tendency to select highly-ranked search results) is playing something of a more positive (virtuous?) role in mitigating the negative epistemological sequelae of a seemingly vicious technology (i.e., personalized search).

None of this means that the epistemic effects of personalized search are to the overall benefit of individual users; nevertheless, the aforementioned results do call for a more nuanced and empirically informed approach when considering the veritistic value of search engines, as well as other kinds of Internet-related technology.

A second worry relates to the scope of the epistemological analysis upon which judgements about the veritistic value of search engines are based. In this case, it is unclear whether analyses that focus their attention on individual agents are best placed to reveal the full gamut of epistemic costs and benefits associated with a particular technology, especially one that operates in the socio-technical ecology of the Internet. To help us understand this worry in a little more detail, it will be useful to introduce the notion of mandevillian intelligence (Smart, in pressc; Smart, in pressd).

Mandevillian intelligence is a specific form of collective intelligence in which the cognitive shortcomings and epistemic vices of the individual agent are seen to yield cognitive benefits and epistemic virtues at the collective or social level of analysis, e.g., at the level of collective doxastic agents (see Palermos, 2015) or socio-epistemic systems (see Goldman, 2011). According to this idea, personalized search systems may play a productive role in serving the collective cognitive good, providing a means by which individual vices (e.g., a tendency for confirmation bias) are translated into something that more closely resembles an epistemic virtue (e.g., greater cognitive coverage of a complex space of thoughts, ideas, opinions, and so on). Consider, for example, the way in which personalized search may help to focus individual attention on particular bodies of information, thereby restricting access to a larger space of ideas, opinions, and other information.

While such forms of ‘restricted access’ or ‘selective information exposure’ are unlikely to yield much in the way of an epistemic benefit for the individual agent, it is possible that by exploiting (and, indeed, accentuating!) an existing cognitive bias (e.g., confirmation bias), personalized search may work to promote cognitive diversity, helping to prevent precipitant forms of cognitive convergence (see Zollman, 2010) and assisting with the epistemically optimal division of cognitive labor (see Muldoon, 2013). This possibility reveals something of a tension in how we interpret or evaluate the veritistic value of a particular technology or epistemic practice. In particular, it seems that assessments of veritistic value may vary according to whether our epistemological gaze is directed towards individual epistemic agents or the collective ensembles in which those agents are situated.

The Necessity of Virtue

As Richard notes, virtue epistemology is characterized by a shift in emphasis, away from the traditional targets of epistemological analysis (e.g., truth, justification and belief) and towards the cognitive properties of would-be knowers. “Virtue epistemology,” Richard writes, “is less concerned with the nature of truth and more concerned with the cognitive character of agents” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 2). This is, no doubt, a refreshing change, relative to the intellectual orientation of traditional philosophical debates.

Nevertheless, I assume that virtue epistemologists still recognize the value and priority of truth when it comes to issues of epistemic evaluation. Someone who holds false beliefs is not the possessor of knowledge, and this remains the case irrespective of whatever vices and virtues the agent has. In other words, it does not matter how careful, attentive and assiduous an agent is in selecting and evaluating information, if what the agent believes is false, they simply do not know.

What seems to be important in the case of virtue epistemology is the role that intellectual virtue plays in securing the truth of an agent’s beliefs. In particular, the central feature of virtue epistemology (at least to my mind) is that the truth of an agent’s beliefs stem from the exercise of intellectual virtue. It is thus not the case that truth is unimportant (or less important) when it comes to issues of positive epistemic standing; rather, it is the role that intellectual virtue plays in establishing the truth of an agent’s beliefs. An agent is thus a bona fide knower when they believe the truth and the truth in question is attributable to some aspect of their cognitive character, specifically, a cognitive trait (virtue responsibilism) or cognitive faculty (virtue reliabilism).

What then makes something a vice or virtue seems to be tied to the reliability of token instantiations of processes that are consistent with an agent’s cognitive character. Intellectual virtues are thus “cognitive character traits that are truth-conducive and minimalise error” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 3), while intellectual vices are characterized as “cognitive character traits that are not truth-conducive and do not minimalise error” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 3). It is this feature of the intellectual virtues—the fact that they are, in general, reliable (or give rise to reliable belief-relevant processes)—that looks to be important when it comes to issues of epistemic evaluation.

So this is what I find problematic about virtue theoretic approaches to knowledge. (Note that I am not an epistemologist by training, so this will require a generous—and hopefully virtue-inspiring swig—of the ole intellectual courage.) Imagine a state-of-affairs in which the Internet was (contrary to the present state-of-affairs) a perfectly safe environment—one where the factive status of online information was guaranteed as a result of advances in cyber-security techniques and intelligent fact-checking services. Next, let us imagine that we have two individuals, Paul and Sophia, who differ with respect to their cognitive character. Paul is the least virtuous of the two, unreflectively and automatically accepting whatever the Internet tells him. Sophia is more circumspect, wary of being led astray by (the now non-existent) fake news.

Inasmuch as we see the exercise of intellectual virtue as necessary for online knowledge, it looks unlikely that poor old Paul can be said to know very much. This is because the truth of Paul’s beliefs are not the result of anything that warrants the label ‘intellectual virtue.’ Paul, of course, does have a lot of true beliefs, but the truth of these beliefs does not stem from the exercise of his intellectual virtues—if, indeed, he has any. In fact, inasmuch as there is any evidence of virtue in play here, it is probably best attributed to the technologies that work to ensure the safety of the online environment. The factive status of Paul’s beliefs thus has more to do with the reliability of the Internet than it does with the elements of his cognitive character.

But is it correct to say that Paul has no online knowledge in this situation? Personally, I do not have this intuition. In other words, in a perfectly safe environment, I can see no reason why we should restrict knowledge attributions to agents whose beliefs are true specifically as the result of intellectual virtue. My sense is that even the most unreflective of agents could be credited with knowledge in a situation where there was no possibility of them being wrong. And if that is indeed the case, then why insist that it is only the exercise of intellectual virtue that underwrites positive epistemic standing?

After all, it seems perfectly possible, to my mind, that Sophia’s epistemic caution contributes no more to the minimization of error in an epistemically benign (i.e., safe) environment than does Paul’s uncritical acceptance. (In fact, given the relative efficiency of their doxastic systems, it may very well be the case that Sophia ends up with fewer true beliefs than Paul.) It might be claimed that this case is invalidated by a failure to consider the modal stability of an agent’s beliefs relative to close possible worlds, as well as perhaps their sensitivity to counterfactual error possibilities. But given the way in which the case is characterized, I suggest that there are no close possible worlds that should worry us—the cybersecurity and fact checking technologies are, let us assume, sufficiently robust as to ensure the modal distance of those worrisome worlds.

One implication of all this is to raise doubts about the necessity of intellectual virtue, relative to our conceptual understanding of knowledge. If there are cases where intellectual virtue is not required for positive epistemic standing, then intellectual virtue cannot be a necessary condition for knowledge attribution. And if that is the case, then why should intellectual virtue form the basis of an approach that is intended to deal with the epistemic shortcomings of the (contemporary) Internet?

Part of the attraction of virtue epistemology, I suspect, is the way in which a suite of generally reliable processes are inextricably linked to the agent who is the ultimate target of epistemic evaluation. This linkage, which is established via the appeal to cognitive character, helps to ensure the portability of an agent’s truth-tracking capabilities—it helps to ensure, in other words, that wherever the agent goes their reliable truth-tracking capabilities are sure to follow.

However, in an era where our doxastic systems are more-or-less constantly plugged into a reliable and epistemically safe environment, it is not so clear that agential capabilities are relevant to epistemic standing. This, I suggest, raises doubts about the necessity of intellectual virtue in securing positive epistemic status, and it also (although this is perhaps less clear) encourages us to focus our attention on some of the engineering efforts (as opposed to agent-oriented educational programs) that might be required to make the online world an epistemically safer place.


What, then, should we make of the appeal to virtue epistemology in our attempt to deal with the  epistemic hazards of the Internet. My main concern is that the appeal to virtue epistemology (and the emphasis placed on intellectual virtue) risks an unproductive focus on individual human agents at the expense of both the technological and social features of the online world. This certainly does not rule out the relevance of virtue theoretic approaches as part of our attempt to understand the epistemic significance of the Internet, but other approaches (e.g., modal reliabilism, process reliabilism, distributed reliabilism, and systems-oriented social epistemology) also look to be important.

Personally, I remain agnostic with regard to the relevance of different epistemological approaches, although I worry about the extent to which virtue epistemology is best placed to inform policy-related decisions (e.g., those relating to education). In particular, I fear that by focusing our attention on individual agents and issues of intellectual virtue, we risk overlooking some of the socio-epistemic benefits of the Internet, denigrating a particular technology (e.g., personalized search) on account of its failure to enhance individual knowledge, while ignoring the way a technology contributes to more collective forms of epistemic success.

In concluding his thought-provoking paper on virtue epistemology and the Internet, Richard suggests that “there is an important role for educators to teach and assess [intellectual] virtues as part of formal school and university curricula, perhaps as part of critical thinking courses” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 10). I have said relatively little about this particular issue in the present paper. For what it’s worth, however, I can see no reason to object to the general idea of Internet-oriented educational policies. The only caveat, perhaps, concerns the relative emphasis that might be placed on the instillation of intellectual virtue as opposed to the inculcation of technical skills, especially those that enable future generations to make the online world a safer place.

No doubt there is room for both kinds of pedagogical program (assuming they can even be dissociated). At the very least, it seems to me that the effort to resolve a problem (i.e., engineer a safer Internet) is just as important as the effort to merely cope with it (i.e., acquire a virtuous cognitive character). But, in any case, when it comes to education and learning, we should not lose sight of the fact that the Internet is itself something that is used for educational purposes. Perhaps, then, the more important point about education and the Internet is not so much the precise details of what gets taught, so much as the issue of whether the Internet (with all its epistemic foibles) is really the best place to learn.

Contact details:


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[1] This work is supported under SOCIAM: The Theory and Practice of Social Machines. The SOCIAM Project is funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) under grant number EP/J017728/1 and comprises the Universities of Southampton, Oxford and Edinburgh.

[2] See [accessed: 30th  January 2018].