Archives For Mark D. West

Author Information: Mark D. West, University of North Carolina, Asheville,

West, Mark D. “The Holidays and What is Given.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 12 (2016): 17-19.

Editor’s Note: As we near the end of an eventful 2016, the SERRC will publish reflections considering broadly the immediate future of social epistemology as an intellectual and political endeavor.

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We have reached the holidays, and for some of us, these are happy times. The media, at least, treat these days as if the merriment and cheer are givens; decorations festoon stores and public places, and music about Christmas cheer permeates any space; where two or more are gathered; there “Jingle Bell Rock” is in their midst.

In the Jewish tradition, winter season means a hanukkiah will make its yearly appearance, with the story of how one’s family came to own it. A normal menorah has seven branches, each with a candle holder; a hanukkiah has an eighth helper candle, which is out of line with the others. The hanukkiah is used only on Hanukkah, with its light serving no function other than to recall the miracle of Hanukkah.

Every hanukkiah brings with it a story, and every hanukkiah is itself a gift of memory. Our hanukkiah was carried by my cousin through the streets of Jerusalem, down the crowded streets, and across the United States, finally coming to rest in our home, a gift after many years of travel. Other families tell stories of hanukkiah smuggled from foreign countries under the glare of repressive regimes, carried in suitcases through customs at Ellis Island, bought for pennies in shtetls in lands long fled. The hanukkiah is a given of the holiday, and is, often, itself, a given. Like a menorah, it gives light; but the light is for only one purpose—a ‘given’ purpose.

Gift and Given

Considering that the root of both ‘gift’ and ‘given’ is the Proto-Indo-European root *ghabh-, “to give or receive”, I don’t think it is too far afield, in this season of giving and receiving, to consider not only gifts but givens, which, after all, to be givens must have been given by someone or something. As such, we might ask ourselves as social epistemologists what are the givens of our field, and what does it mean, in Jean-Luc Marion’s pregnant formulation, to exist in the realm of the “étant donné,” the “being given?”

What I mean by that is that we (the rational ‘cogita’ who operate as the members of the SERRC) take ourselves as ‘givens,’ as ‘données.’ From our own existence, we bootstrap the existence of groups (if I can exist, then I must, as a good agent of the Enlightenment, grant such agency to others, who as aggregates, are groups). Once we assume our own existence as a ‘given,’ we can take as our ‘given’ the group; and our ‘gift’ to the world of the philosophical is the notion of group epistemology. Particularly in this age of the Internet, and of electronic publications and forums, the disembodied res cogitans of Descartes is closer to our felt sense of what we are, as a group, than we might wish.

The cogito, and various discussions of it such as Hintikka’s (1962, reprinted in 1967), are familiar to all. But, as Williams (2014) suggests, the Cartesian argument (“cogito, ergo sum”) is posed in a more complex manner than the familiar formulation has it; Descartes imagines first the existence of a deity, then (implicitly) a self thinking of that deity and the qualities of that deity including benevolence; then he imagines that some malicious entity might cause him to perceive the world and its qualities in some way that does not accurately reflect the real. But, reasons Descartes, he himself is thinking, and from that he bootstraps that he exists; hence “cogito, ergo sum” is the endpoint, not the beginning, of a thought process; and that thought process is more akin to an intuition than to a proof, one which Stone (1993) argues is best understood as an enthymeme. Boos (1983) argues that the cogito’s ‘thoughtless thinking’ must be about something; and that the Cartesian formulation ends up as a metalogical formulation something like “If I doubt that I am, I am,” with the “I am” serving as the “point ferme” of Gueroult (1953) and the Archimedian fixed point of the cogito’s Gödelian diagonal lemma.

As Boos suggests, the implication of this is clear; this sounds suspiciously like a variant of the Hintikka’s Positive Introspection Axiom (the KK-thesis), which argues that agents know that they know what they know. The debate concerning this thesis is substantial (see, for example, Williamson 2000; Ginet 1970; Carrier 1974). But our theorizing must begin somewhere; we must accept some sort of metatheoretic notion if we are to devise theories at all. In our case, if we are to speak of groups, there must be individuals, and the first individual of all is “I.” That is our given, if we are to avoid the endless cycle of “no more this than that” of the Pyrrhonian skeptics.

Assumptions and Limitations

This is not to say that a domain of study can not function with a fully negative conceptualization of its object of study. Jean-Luc Marion, in his book God Without Being (1995), considers the limiting case of an apophatic theology; if we can, as Maimonides (Benor 1995) argued, make only negative assertions as to the attributions of a divine entity, are we not at some point forced to suggest that even being is an attribute which the divine entity does not possess?

As Marion (2002) suggests, the givenness of the existence of a divine entity is not the predicate of theology, but the existence of those searching for the divine entity is; as Kaplan (2010) argued, it is possible to have Judaism without a deity, but not without Jews. In a philosophical vein, how does one privilege Husserl’s Gegebenheit (Leask 2003) without merely assuming it as a given? How do we understand Being without taking it as given, and without somehow making that ‘given’ into a ‘Given,’ with a somehow transcendental ‘Giver?’

We, as social epistemologists, are in an interesting position with such questions. We, at some level, are can-kickers par excellence; in our struggle to explain knowledge structures as arising from groups, we are indeed situated in a local struggle, with its own give and take. But sometimes, perhaps, we should look up from our regional debates, and consider the larger issues afield; the “not yet” of Hegel’s “tarrying with the negative” (Foshay 2002) of these limits of the Given, and of the gifts we receive, and give, as a result of this struggle.


Benor, Ehud Z. “Meaning and Reference in Maimonides’ Negative Theology.” Harvard Theological Review 88, no. 3 (1995): 339-360.

Boos, William. “A Self-Referential ‘Cogito’.” Philosophical Studies 44, no. 2 (1983): 269-290.

Carrier, L. S. “Skepticism Made Certain.” The Journal of Philosophy 71, no 5 (1974): 140-150.

Foshay, Raphael. “‘Tarrying with the Negative’: Bataille and Derrida’s Reading of Negation in Hegel’s Phenomenology.” The Heythrop Journal 43, no. 3 (2002): 295-310.

Ginet, Carl. “What Must be Added to Knowing to Obtain Knowing That One Knows?” Synthese 21 no. 2 (1970): 163-186.

Gueroult, Martial. Descartes Selon L’ordre des Raisons, 2 vols. (Descartes’ Philosophy Interpreted according to the Order of Reasons). Paris: Aubier, 1953.

Hintikka, Jaakko. “Cogito, Ergo Sum: Inference or Performance?” In Descartes – A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Willis Doney, 108-139. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 1967.

Kaplan, Mordecai M. Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life. Jewish Publication Society, 2010.

Leask, Ian. “Husserl, Givenness, and the Priority of the Self.” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 11, no. 2 (2003): 141-156.

Marion, Jean-Luc. God Without Being: Hors-Texte. University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Marion, Jean-Luc. Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness. Stanford University Press, 2002.

Stone, Jim. “Cogito Ergo Sum.” The Journal of Philosophy 90, no. 9 (1993): 462-468.

Williams, Bernard. Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Williamson, Timothy. Knowledge and Its Limits. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Author Information: Mark D. West, University of North Carolina at Asheville,

West, Mark D. “Organic Solidarity, Science and Group Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 10 (2016): 1-11.

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Recently, a discussion has arisen in the pages of Social Epistemology and the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective concerning whether groups can have knowledge that individuals cannot. This discussion, it seems to me, has been particularly fruitful in that it has sought to maintain the definition of knowledge as justified true belief, while seeking to determine whether or not groups could have justificatory procedures which individuals could not. As such, the discussion quickly moved towards scientific investigatory groups, particularly those in the “hard” sciences, because of the divisions of labor which arise due to the technological nature of the instrumentation necessitated in such groups. Thus the discussion moved towards a debate about whether or not scientific knowledge could be held by groups, specifically scientific research groups, which I contend here obscured the more fundamental and more important issue about group epistemic knowledge. I present two arguments to support my contention. One, a variant of a Gettier paradox from Reynolds, suggests that even informal groups (groups showing only mechanical solidarity) can have knowledge as groups that the individuals in the group could not. The second argument suggests that discussions of “organic solidarity” à la Durkheim are at once insufficiently precise to enable us to tell “science’’ from “not science,” and descriptions of “scientific knowledge” are essentially value judgments about what sort of knowledge is worthy of respect which have no epistemic justification; if knowledge is “justified true belief,” what value does the descriptor “scientific” provide beyond that?  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Mark D. West, University of North Carolina at Asheville,

West, Mark D. “Considering Purposeful Epistemology: On Starting Over. Review of Epistemic Evaluation: Purposeful Epistemology.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 9 (2016): 19-33.

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Epistemic Evaluation: Purposeful Epistemology
David K. Henderson and John Greco, editors
Oxford University Press, 2015
272 pp.

After the publication of Gettier’s seminal work on confounding cases in which individuals have beliefs which appear to be both true and justified, but which seem to not be knowledge, the epistemic community appears to have generally conceded that the traditional definition of knowledge as “justified true belief” can no longer be considered to hold.[1] Cohen’s presents as a Gettier case the example of the farmer and the cow, in which a farmer sees a newspaper trapped in a bush, and thus believes she sees her favorite cow in a field; the cow is in fact in that field, but hidden behind a tree.[2] Thus the farmer has justified true belief concerning the cow, since the farmer believes the cow is in the field, which is indeed the case; but has she knowledge?  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Mark D. West and Jay Rubin, University of North Carolina, Asheville,

West, Mark D. and Jay Rubin. “Epistemological Questions, Boundary Objects and Hopi Myth.” [1] Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 12 (2015): 1-13.

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We discuss the political nature of myth in Hopi culture. The control of ritual and of the interpretation of myth in Hopi culture is the control of political power, and the conflict between the Hopi Traditional Movement and the Hopi Tribal Council has been an intra-tribal attempt to control prophetic myth as a way to gain tribal leadership through the influence of outsiders. The Hopi Traditional Movement, situated largely at Hotevilla and comprised of outsiders to the standing power structures at Oraibi in the Hopi Tribal Council, was successful in that their version of the emergence myth has become the one familiar to most Hopi outsiders. The Hopi Traditionalist Movement’s connections with members of counter-cultural movements who helped spread their version of Hopi myth, involving a ’Hopi Life Plan,’ has had broad cultural ramifications on perceptions of Native American thought and religion. The question of who has the right to define Native thought and religion, however, is an epistemological question as well as a political question. The choice of which of these factions is legitimate is likewise an epistemological and political question, and one which has not been addressed in the research on the topic. We address the outlines of such a question here.  Continue Reading…