Archives For naturalist epistemology

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: Adam Riggio, SERRC Digital Editor,

Riggio, Adam. “Action in Harmony with a Global World.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 20-26.

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

Image by cornie via Flickr / Creative Commons


Bryan Van Norden has become about as notorious as an academic philosopher can be while remaining a virtuous person. His notoriety came with a column in the New York Times that took the still-ethnocentric approach of many North American and European university philosophy departments to task. The condescending and insulting dismissal of great works of thought from cultures and civilizations beyond Europe and European-descended North America should scandalize us. That it does not is to the detriment of academic philosophy’s culture.

Anyone who cares about the future of philosophy as a tradition should read Taking Back Philosophy and take its lessons to heart, if one does not agree already with its purpose. The discipline of philosophy, as practiced in North American and European universities, must incorporate all the philosophical traditions of humanity into its curriculum and its subject matter. It is simple realism.

A Globalized World With No Absolute Hierarchies

I am not going to argue for this decision, because I consider it obvious that this must be done. Taking Back Philosophy is a quick read, an introduction to a political task that philosophers, no matter their institutional homes, must support if the tradition is going to survive beyond the walls of universities increasingly co-opted by destructive economic, management, and human resources policies.

Philosophy as a creative tradition cannot survive in an education economy built on the back of student debt, where institutions’ priorities are set by a management class yoked to capital investors and corporate partners, which prioritizes the proliferation of countless administrative-only positions while highly educated teachers and researchers compete ruthlessly for poverty wages.

With this larger context in mind, Van Norden’s call for the enlargement of departments’ curriculums to cover all traditions is one essential pillar of the vision to liberate philosophy from the institutions that are destroying it as a viable creative process. In total, those four pillars are 1) universal accessibility, economically and physically; 2) community guidance of a university’s priorities; 3) restoring power over the institution to creative and research professionals; and 4) globalizing the scope of education’s content.

Taking Back Philosophy is a substantial brick through the window of the struggle to rebuild our higher education institutions along these democratic and liberating lines. Van Norden regularly publishes work of comparative philosophy that examines many problems of ethics and ontology using texts, arguments, and concepts from Western, Chinese, and Indian philosophy. But if you come to Taking Back Philosophy expecting more than a brick through those windows, you’ll be disappointed. One chapter walks through a number of problems as examples, but the sustained conceptual engagement of a creative philosophical work is absent. Only the call to action remains.

What a slyly provocative call it is – the book’s last sentence, “Let’s discuss it . . .”

Unifying a Tradition of Traditions

I find it difficult to write a conventional review of Taking Back Philosophy, because so much of Van Norden’s polemic is common sense to me. Of course, philosophy departments must be open to primary material from all the traditions of the human world, not just the Western. I am incapable of understanding why anyone would argue against this, given how globalized human civilization is today. For the context of this discussion, I will consider a historical and a technological aspect of contemporary globalization. Respectively, these are the fall of the European military empires, and the incredible intensity with which contemporary communications and travel technology integrates people all over Earth.

We no longer live in a world dominated by European military colonial empires, so re-emerging centres of culture and economics must be taken on their own terms. The Orientalist presumption, which Edward Said spent a career mapping, that there is no serious difference among Japanese, Malay, Chinese, Hindu, Turkic, Turkish, Persian, Arab, Levantine, or Maghreb cultures is not only wrong, but outright stupid. Orientalism as an academic discipline thrived for the centuries it did only because European weaponry intentionally and persistently kept those cultures from asserting themselves.

Indigenous peoples – throughout the Americas, Australia, the Pacific, and Africa – who have been the targets of cultural and eradicative genocides for centuries now claim and agitate for their human rights, as well as inclusion in the broader human community and species. I believe most people of conscience are appalled and depressed that these claims are controversial at all, and even seen by some as a sign of civilizational decline.

The impact of contemporary technology I consider an even more important factor than the end of imperialist colonialism in the imperative to globalize the philosophical tradition. Despite the popular rhetoric of contemporary globalization, the human world has been globalized for millennia. Virtually since urban life first developed, long-distance international trade and communication began as well.

Here are some examples. Some of the first major cities of ancient Babylon achieved their greatest economic prosperity through trade with cities on the south of the Arabian Peninsula, and as far east along the Indian Ocean coast as Balochistan. From 4000 to 1000 years ago, Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Persian, Arab, Chinese, Mongol, Indian, Bantu, Malian, Inca, and Anishinaabeg peoples, among others, built trade networks and institutions stretching across continents.

Contemporary globalization is different in the speed and quantity of commerce, and diversity of goods. It is now possible to reach the opposite side of the planet in a day’s travel, a journey so ordinary that tens of millions of people take these flights each year. Real-time communication is now possible between anywhere on Earth with broadband internet connections thanks to satellite networks and undersea fibre-optic cables. In 2015, the total material value of all goods and commercial services traded internationally was US$21-trillion. That’s a drop from the previous year’s all-time (literally) high of US$24-trillion.[1]

Travel, communication, and productivity has never been so massive or intense in all of human history. The major control hubs of the global economy are no longer centralized in a small set of colonial powers, but a variety of economic centres throughout the world, depending on industry. From Beijing, Moscow, Mumbai, Lagos, and Berlin to Tokyo, and Washington, the oil fields of Kansas, the Dakotas, Alberta, and Iraq, and the coltan, titanium, and tantalum mines of Congo, Kazakhstan, and China.

All these proliferating lists express a simple truth – all cultures of the world now legitimately claim recognition as equals, as human communities sharing our Earth as we hollow it out. Philosophical traditions from all over the world are components of those claims to equal recognition.

The Tradition of Process Thought

So that is the situation forcing a recalcitrant and reactionary academy to widen its curricular horizons – Do so, or face irrelevancy in a global civilization with multiple centres all standing as civic equals in the human community. This is where Van Norden himself leaves us. Thankfully, he understands that a polemic ending with a precise program immediately becomes empty dogma, a conclusion which taints the plausibility of an argument. His point is simple – that the academic discipline must expand its arms. He leaves the more complex questions of how the philosophical tradition itself can develop as a genuinely global community.

Process philosophy is a relatively new philosophical tradition, which can adopt the classics of Daoist philosophy as broad frameworks and guides. By process philosophy, I mean the research community that has grown around Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari as primary innovators of their model of thought – a process philosophy that converges with an ecological post-humanism. The following are some essential aspects of this new school of process thinking, each principle in accord with the core concepts of the foundational texts of Daoism, Dao De Jing and Zhuang Zi.

Ecological post-humanist process philosophy is a thorough materialism, but it is an anti-reductive materialism. All that exists is bodies of matter and fields of force, whose potentials include everything for which Western philosophers have often felt obligated to postulate a separate substance over and above matter, whether calling it mind, spirit, or soul.

As process philosophy, the emphasis in any ontological analysis is on movement, change, and relationships instead of the more traditional Western focus on identity and sufficiency. If I can refer to examples from the beginning of Western philosophy in Greece, process thought is an underground movement with the voice of Heraclitus critiquing a mainstream with the voice of Parmenides. Becoming, not being, is the primary focus of ontological analysis.

Process thinking therefore is primarily concerned with potential and capacity. Knowledge, in process philosophy, as a result becomes inextricably bound with action. This unites a philosophical school identified as “Continental” in common-sense categories of academic disciplines with the concerns of pragmatist philosophy. Analytic philosophy took up many concepts from early 20th century pragmatism in the decades following the death of John Dewey. These inheritors, however, remained unable to overcome the paradoxes stymieing traditional pragmatist approaches, particularly how to reconcile truth as correspondence with knowledge having a purpose in action and achievement.

A solution to this problem of knowledge and action was developed in the works of Barry Allen during the 2000s. Allen built an account of perception that was rooted in contemporary research in animal behaviour, human neurology, and the theoretical interpretations of evolution in the works of Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin.

His first analysis, focussed as it was on the dynamics of how human knowledge spurs technological and civilizational development, remains humanistic. Arguing from discoveries of how profoundly the plastic human brain is shaped in childhood by environmental interaction, Allen concludes that successful or productive worldly action itself constitutes the correspondence of our knowledge and the world. Knowledge does not consist of a private reserve of information that mirrors worldly states of affairs, but the physical and mental interaction of a person with surrounding processes and bodies to constitute those states of affairs. The plasticity of the human brain and our powers of social coordination are responsible for the peculiarly human mode of civilizational technology, but the same power to constitute states of affairs through activity is common to all processes and bodies.[2]

“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. Whatever is soft, fluid, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard.” – Lao Zi
The Burney Falls in Shasta County, Northern California. Image by melfoody via Flickr / Creative Commons


Action in Phase With All Processes: Wu Wei

Movement of interaction constitutes the world. This is the core principle of pragmatist process philosophy, and as such brings this school of thought into accord with the Daoist tradition. Ontological analysis in the Dao De Jing is entirely focussed on vectors of becoming – understanding the world in terms of its changes, movements, and flows, as each of these processes integrate in the complexity of states of affairs.

Not only is the Dao De Jing a foundational text in what is primarily a process tradition of philosophy, but it is also primarily pragmatist. Its author Lao Zi frames ontological arguments in practical concerns, as when he writes, “The most supple things in the world ride roughshod over the most rigid” (Dao De Jing §43). This is a practical and ethical argument against a Parmenidean conception of identity requiring stability as a necessary condition.

What cannot change cannot continue to exist, as the turbulence of existence will overcome and erase what can exist only by never adapting to the pressures of overwhelming external forces. What can only exist by being what it now is, will eventually cease to be. That which exists in metamorphosis and transformation has a remarkable resilience, because it is able to gain power from the world’s changes. This Daoist principle, articulated in such abstract terms, is in Deleuze and Guattari’s work the interplay of the varieties of territorializations.

Knowledge in the Chinese tradition, as a concept, is determined by an ideal of achieving harmonious interaction with an actor’s environment. Knowing facts of states of affairs – including their relationships and tendencies to spontaneous and proliferating change – is an important element of comprehensive knowledge. Nonetheless, Lao Zi describes such catalogue-friendly factual knowledge as, “Those who know are not full of knowledge. Those full of knowledge do not know” (Dao De Jing 81). Knowing the facts alone is profoundly inadequate to knowing how those facts constrict and open potentials for action. Perfectly harmonious action is the model of the Daoist concept of Wu Wei – knowledge of the causal connections among all the bodies and processes constituting the world’s territories understood profoundly enough that self-conscious thought about them becomes unnecessary.[3]

Factual knowledge is only a condition of achieving the purpose of knowledge: perfectly adapting your actions to the changes of the world. All organisms’ actions change their environments, creating physically distinctive territories: places that, were it not for my action, would be different. In contrast to the dualistic Western concept of nature, the world in Daoist thought is a complex field of overlapping territories whose tensions and conflicts shape the character of places. Fulfilled knowledge in this ontological context is knowledge that directly conditions your own actions and the character of your territory to harmonize most productively with the actions and territories that are always flowing around your own.

Politics of the Harmonious Life

The Western tradition, especially in its current sub-disciplinary divisions of concepts and discourses, has treated problems of knowledge as a domain separate from ethics, morality, politics, and fundamental ontology. Social epistemology is one field of the transdisciplinary humanities that unites knowledge with political concerns, but its approaches remain controversial in much of the conservative mainstream academy. The Chinese tradition has fundamentally united knowledge, moral philosophy, and all fields of politics especially political economy since the popular eruption of Daoist thought in the Warring States period 2300 years ago. Philosophical writing throughout eastern Asia since then has operated in this field of thought.

As such, Dao-influenced philosophy has much to offer contemporary progressive political thought, especially the new communitarianism of contemporary social movements with their roots in Indigenous decolonization, advocacy for racial, sexual, and gender liberation, and 21st century socialist advocacy against radical economic inequality. In terms of philosophical tools and concepts for understanding and action, these movements have dense forebears, but a recent tradition.

The movement for economic equality and a just globalization draws on Antonio Gramsci’s introduction of radical historical contingency to the marxist tradition. While its phenomenological and testimonial principles and concepts are extremely powerful and viscerally rooted in the lived experience of subordinated – what Deleuze and Guattari called minoritarian – people as groups and individuals, the explicit resources of contemporary feminism is likewise a century-old storehouse of discourse. Indigenous liberation traditions draw from a variety of philosophical traditions lasting millennia, but the ongoing systematic and systematizing revival is almost entirely a 21st century practice.

Antonio Negri, Rosi Braidotti, and Isabelle Stengers’ masterworks unite an analysis of humanity’s destructive technological and ecological transformation of Earth and ourselves to develop a solution to those problems rooted in communitarian moralities and politics of seeking harmony while optimizing personal and social freedom. Daoism offers literally thousands of years of work in the most abstract metaphysics on the nature of freedom in harmony and flexibility in adaptation to contingency. Such conceptual resources are of immense value to these and related philosophical currents that are only just beginning to form explicitly in notable size in the Western tradition.

Van Norden has written a book that is, for philosophy as a university discipline, is a wake-up call to this obstinate branch of Western academy. The world around you is changing, and if you hold so fast to the contingent borders of your tradition, your territory will be overwritten, trampled, torn to bits. Live and act harmoniously with the changes that are coming. Change yourself.

It isn’t so hard to read some Lao Zi for a start.

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Allen, Barry. Knowledge and Civilization. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2004.

Allen, Barry. Striking Beauty: A Philosophical Look at the Asian Martial Arts. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

Allen, Barry. Vanishing Into Things: Knowledge in Chinese Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Betasamosake Simpson, Leanne. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, Or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2012.

Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.

Deleuze, Gilles. Bergsonism. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Zone Books, 1988.

Chew, Sing C. World Ecological Degradation: Accumulation, Urbanization, and Deforestation, 3000 B.C. – A.D. 2000. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 2001.

Negri, Antonio, and Michael Hardt. Assembly. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Parikka, Jussi. A Geology of Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Riggio, Adam. Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.

Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics I. Translated by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2010.

Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics II. Translated by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2011.

Van Norden, Bryan. Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

World Trade Organization. World Trade Statistical Review 2016. Retrieved from

[1] That US$3-trillion drop in trade was largely the proliferating effect of the sudden price drop of human civilization’s most essential good, crude oil, to just less than half of its 2014 value.

[2] A student of Allen’s arrived at this conclusion in combining his scientific pragmatism with the French process ontology of Deleuze and Guattari in the context of ecological problems and eco-philosophical thinking.

[3] This concept of knowledge as perfectly harmonious but non-self-conscious action also conforms to Henri Bergson’s concept of intuition, the highest (so far) form of knowledge that unites the perfect harmony in action of brute animal instinct with the self-reflective and systematizing power of human understanding. This is a productive way for another creative contemporary philosophical path – the union of vitalist and materialist ideas in the work of thinkers like Jane Bennett – to connect with Asian philosophical traditions for centuries of philosophical resources on which to draw. But that’s a matter for another essay.

Author Information: Richard Fumerton, University of Iowa,

Fumerton, Richard. “Fundamental vs. Derivative; Useful vs. Useless: A Response to Bland.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 4 (2016): 56-59.

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Image credit: Kevin Dooley, via flickr

I agree with much of what Steven Bland argues in “Circularity, Scepticism and Epistemic Relativism.”[1] In particular, I agree that on a certain way of understanding the non-circularity condition (NC), which the skeptic insists on, knowledge and justified belief cannot be satisfied. NC requires that a satisfying response to a skeptical challenge must find a way of justifying an epistemic framework that does not presuppose the framework it is intended to justify. On its strongest reading, NC would be a version of Stroud’s requirement for a non-question begging response to the skeptic.[2] In its crudest form, the challenge is to find a way of arguing for the legitimacy of all of our ways of forming beliefs, and to do so without using any of the ways we have of legitimately forming belief. As Plantinga once said—God couldn’t do that. It remains to be seen, however, how disappointed we should be at this result.  Continue Reading…