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Author Information: Jeff Kochan, University of Konstanz,

Kochan, Jeff. “Suppressed Subjectivity and Truncated Tradition: A Reply to Pablo Schyfter.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 15-21.

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

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

In his review of my book – Science as Social Existence: Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge – Raphael Sassower objects that I do not address issues of market capitalism, democracy, and the ‘industrial-academic-military complex’ (Sassower 2018, 31). To this, I responded: ‘These are not what my book is about’ (Kochan 2018, 40).

In a more recent review, Pablo Schyfter tries to turn this response around, and use it against me. Turnabout is fair play, I agree. Rebuffing my friendly, constructive criticism of the Edinburgh School’s celebrated and also often maligned ‘Strong Programme’ in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK), Schyfter argues that I have failed to address what the Edinburgh School is actually about (Schyfter 2018, 9).

Suppressing the Subject

More specifically, Schyfter argues that I expect things from the Edinburgh School that they never intended to provide. For example, he takes what I call the ‘glass bulb’ model of subjectivity, characterises it as a ‘form of realism,’ and then argues that I have, in criticising the School’s lingering adherence to this model, failed to address their ‘actual intents’ (Schyfter 2018, 8, 9). According to Schyfter, the Edinburgh School did not have among its intentions the sorts of things I represent in the glass-bulb model – these are not, he says, what the School is about.

This claim is clear enough. Yet, at the end of his review, Schyfter then muddies the waters. Rather than rejecting the efficacy of the glass-bulb model, as he had earlier, he now tries ‘expanding’ on it, suggesting that the Strong Programme is better seen as a ‘working light bulb’: ‘It may employ a glass-bulb, but cannot be reduced to it’ (Schyfter 2018, 14).

So is the glass-bulb model a legitimate resource for understanding the Edinburgh School, or is it not? Schyfter’s confused analysis leaves things uncertain. In any case, I agree with him that the Edinburgh School’s complete range of concerns cannot be reduced to those specific concerns I try to capture in the glass-bulb model.

The glass-bulb model is a model of subjectivity, and subjectivity is a central topic of Science as Social Existence. It is remarkable, then, that the word ‘subject’ and its cognates never appear in Schyfter’s review (apart from in one quote from me). One may furthermore wonder why Schyfter characterises the glass-bulb model as a ‘form of realism.’ No doubt, these two topics – subjectivity and realism – are importantly connected, but they are not the same. Schyfter has mixed them up, and, in doing so, he has suppressed subjectivity as a topic of discussion.

Different Kinds of Realism

Schyfter argues that I am ‘unfair’ in criticising the Edinburgh School for failing to properly address the issue of realism, because, he claims, ‘[t]heir work was not about ontology’ (Schyfter 2018, 9). As evidence for my unfairness, he quotes my reference to ‘the problem of how one can know that the external world exists’ (Schyfter 2018, 9; cf. Kochan 2017, 37). But the problem of how we can know something is not an ontological problem, it is an epistemological one, a problem of knowledge. Schyfter has mixed things up again.

Two paragraphs later, Schyfter then admits that the Edinburgh School ‘did not entirely ignore ontology’ (Schyfter 2018, 9). I agree. In fact, as I demonstrate in Chapter One, the Edinburgh School was keen to ontologically ground the belief that the ‘external world’ exists. Why? Because they see this as a fundamental premise of science, including their own social science.

I criticise this commitment to external-world realism, because it generates the epistemological problem of how one can know that the external world exists. And this epistemological problem, in turn, is vulnerable to sceptical attack. If the world is ‘external,’ the question will arise: external to what? The answer is: to the subject who seeks to know it.

The glass-bulb model reflects this ontological schema. The subject is sealed inside the bulb; the world is external to the bulb. The epistemological problem then arises of how the subject penetrates the glass barrier, makes contact with – knows – the world. This problem is invariably vulnerable to sceptical attack. One can avoid the problem, and the attack, by fully jettisoning the glass-bulb model. Crucially, this is not a rejection of realism per se, but only of a particular form of realism, namely, external-world realism.

Schyfter argues that the Edinburgh School accepts a basic premise, ‘held implicitly by people as they live their lives, that the world with which they interact exists’ (Schyfter 2018, 9). I agree; I accept it too. Yet he continues: ‘Kochan chastises this form of realism because it does not “establish the existence of the external world”’ (Schyfter 2018, 9).

That is not quite right. I agree that people, as they live their lives, accept that the world exists. But this is not external-world realism, and it is the latter view that I oppose. I ‘chastise’ the Edinburgh School for attempting to defend the latter view, when all they need to defend is the former. The everyday realist belief that the world exists is not vulnerable to sceptical attack, because it does not presuppose the glass-bulb model of subjectivity.

On this point, then, my criticism of the Edinburgh School is both friendly and constructive. It assuages their worries about sceptical attack – which I carefully document in Chapter One – without requiring them to give up their realism. But the transaction entails that they abandon their lingering commitment to the glass-bulb model, including their belief in an ‘external’ world, and instead adopt a phenomenological model of the subject as being-in-the-world.

Failed Diversionary Tactics

It is important to note that the Edinburgh School does not reject scepticism outright. As long as the sceptic attacks absolutist knowledge of the external world, they are happy to go along. But once the sceptic argues that knowledge of the external world, as such, is impossible, they demur, for this threatens their realism. Instead, they combine realism with relativism. Yet, as I argue, as long as they also combine their relativism with the glass-bulb model, that is, as long as theirs is an external-world realism, they will remain vulnerable to sceptical attack.

Hence, I wrote that, in the context of their response to the external-world sceptic, the Edinburgh School’s distinction between absolute and relative knowledge ‘is somewhat beside the point’ (Kochan 2017, 48). In response, Schyfter criticises me for neglecting the importance of the Edinburgh School’s relativism (Schyfter 2018, 10). But I have done no such thing. In fact, I wholly endorse their relativism. I do suggest, however, that it be completely divorced from the troublesome vestiges of the glass-bulb model of subjectivity.

Schyfter uses the same tactic in response to this further claim of mine: ‘For the purposes of the present analysis, whether [conceptual] content is best explained in collectivist or individualist terms is beside the point’ (Kochan 2017, 79). For this, I am accused of failing to recognise the importance of the Edinburgh School’s commitment to a collectivist or social conception of knowledge (Schyfter 2018, 11).

The reader should not be deceived into thinking that the phrase ‘the present analysis’ refers to the book as a whole. In fact, it refers to that particular passage of Science as Social Existence wherein I discuss David Bloor’s claim that the subject can make ‘genuine reference to an external reality’ (Kochan 2017, 79; cf. Bloor 2001, 149). Bloor’s statement relies on the glass-bulb model. Whether the subjectivity in the bulb is construed in individualist terms or in collectivist terms, the troubles caused by the model will remain.

Hence, I cannot reasonably be charged with ignoring the importance of social knowledge for the Edinburgh School. Indeed, the previous but one sentence to the sentence on which Schyfter rests his case reads: ‘This sociological theory of the normativity and objectivity of conceptual content is a central pillar of SSK’ (Kochan 2017, 79). It is a central pillar of Science as Social Existence as well.

Existential Grounds for Scientific Experience

Let me shift now to Heidegger. Like previous critics of Heidegger, Schyfter is unhappy with Heidegger’s concept of the ‘mathematical projection of nature.’ Although I offer an extended defense and development of this concept, Schyfter nevertheless insists that it does ‘not offer a clear explanation of what occurs in the lived world of scientific work’ (Schyfter 2018, 11).

For Heidegger, ‘projection’ structures the subject’s understanding at an existential level. It thus serves as a condition of possibility for both practical and theoretical experience. Within the scope of this projection, practical understanding may ‘change over’ to theoretical understanding. This change-over in experience occurs when a subject holds back from immersed, practical involvement with things, and instead comes to experience those things at a distance, as observed objects to which propositional statements may then be referred.

The kind of existential projection specific to modern science, Heidegger called ‘mathematical.’ Within this mathematical projection, scientific understanding may likewise change over from practical immersion in a work-world (e.g., at a lab bench) to a theoretical, propositionally structured conception of that same world (e.g., in a lab report).

What critics like Schyfter fail to recognise is that the mathematical projection explicitly envelopes ‘the lived world of scientific work’ and tries to explain it (necessarily but not sufficiently) in terms of the existential conditions structuring that experience. This is different from – but compatible with – an ethnographic description of scientific life, which need not attend to the subjective structures that enable that life.

When such inattention is elevated to a methodological virtue, however, scientific subjectivity will be excluded from analysis. As we will see in a moment, this exclusion is manifest, on the sociology side, in the rejection of the Edinburgh School’s core principle of underdetermination.

In the mid-1930s, Heidegger expanded on his existential conception of science, introducing the term mathēsis in a discussion of the Scientific Revolution. Mathēsis has two features: metaphysical projection; and work experiences. These are reciprocally related, always occurring together in scientific activity. I view this as a reciprocal relation between the empirical and the metaphysical, between the practical and the theoretical, a reciprocal relation enabled, in necessary part, by the existential conditions of scientific subjectivity.

Schyfter criticises my claim that, for Heidegger, the Scientific Revolution was not about a sudden interest in facts, measurement, or experiment, where no such interest had previously existed. For him, this is ‘excessively broad,’ ‘does not reflect the workings of scientific practice,’ and is ‘belittling of empirical study’ (Schyfter 2018, 12). This might be true if Heidegger had offered a theory-centred account of science. But he did not. Heidegger argued that what was decisive in the Scientific Revolution was, as I put it, ‘not that facts, experiments, calculation and measurement are deployed, but how and to what end they are deployed’ (Kochan 2017, 233).

According to Heidegger, in the 17th c. the reciprocal relation between metaphysical projection and work experience was mathematicised. As the projection became more narrowly specified – i.e., axiomatised – the manner in which things were experienced and worked with also became narrower. In turn, the more accustomed subjects became to experiencing and working with things within this mathematical frame, the more resolutely mathematical the projection became. Mathēsis is a kind of positive feedback loop at the existential level.

Giving Heidegger Empirical Feet

This is all very abstract. That is why I suggested that ‘[a]dditional material from the history of science will allow us to develop and refine Heidegger’s account of modern science in a way which he did not’ (Kochan 2017, 235). This empirical refinement and development takes up almost all of Chapters 5 and 6, wherein I consider: studies of diagnostic method by Renaissance physician-professors at the University of Padua, up until their appointment of Galileo in 1591; the influence of artisanal and mercantile culture on the development of early-modern scientific methods, with a focus on metallurgy; and the dispute between Robert Boyle and Francis Line in the mid-17th c. over the experimentally based explanation of suction.

As Paolo Palladino recognises in his review of Science as Social Existence, this last empirical case study offers a different account of events than was given by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer in their classic 1985 book Leviathan and the Air-Pump, which influentially applied Edinburgh School methods to the history of science (Palladino 2018, 42). I demonstrate that Heidegger’s account is compatible with this sociological account, and that it also offers different concepts leading to a new interpretation.

Finally, at the end of Chapter 6, I demonstrate the compatibility of Heidegger’s account of modern science with Bloor’s concept of ‘social imagery,’ not just further developing and refining Heidegger’s account of modern science, but also helping to more precisely define the scope of application of Bloor’s valuable methodological concept. Perhaps this does not amount to very much in the big picture, but it is surely more than a mere ‘semantic reformulation of Heidegger’s ideas,’ as Schyfter suggests (Schyfter 2018, 13).

Given all of this, I am left a bit baffled by Schyfter’s claims that I ‘belittle’ empirical methods, that I ‘do[] not present any analysis of SSK methodologies,’ and that I am guilty of ‘a general disregard for scientific practice’ (Schyfter 2018, 12, 11).

Saving an Edinburgh School Method

Let me pursue the point with another example. A key methodological claim of the Edinburgh School is that scientific theory is underdetermined by empirical data. In order to properly explain theory, one must recognise that empirical observation is an interpretative act, necessarily (but not sufficiently) guided by social norms.

I discuss this in Chapter 3, in the context of Bloor’s and Bruno Latour’s debate over another empirical case study from the history of science, the contradictory interpretations given by Robert Millikan and Felix Ehrenhaft of the natural phenomena we now call ‘electrons.’

According to Bloor, because Millikan and Ehrenhaft both observed the same natural phenomena, the divergence between their respective claims – that electrons do and do not exist – must be explained by reference to something more than those phenomena. This ‘something more’ is the divergence in the respective social conditions guiding Millikan and Ehrenhaft’s interpretations of the data (Kochan 2017, 124-5; see also Kochan 2010, 130-33). Electron theory is underdetermined by the raw data of experience. Social phenomena, or ‘social imagery,’ must also play a role in any explanation of how the controversy was settled.

Latour rejects underdetermination as ‘absurd’ (Kochan 2017, 126). This is part of his more general dismissal of the Edinburgh School, based on his exploitation of vulnerabilities in their lingering adherence to the glass-bulb model of subjectivity. I suggest that the Edinburgh School, by fully replacing the glass-bulb model with Heidegger’s model of the subject as being-in-the-world, can deflect Latour’s challenge, thus saving underdetermination as a methodological tool.

This would also allow the Edinburgh School to preserve subjectivity as a methodological resource for sociological explanation. Like Heidegger’s metaphysical projection, the Edinburgh School’s social imagery plays a necessary (but not a sufficient) role in guiding the subject’s interpretation of natural phenomena.

The ‘Tradition’ of SSK – Open or Closed?

Earlier, I mentioned the curious fact that Schyfter never uses the word ‘subject’ or its cognates. It is also curious that he neglects my discussion of the Bloor-Latour debate and never mentions underdetermination. In Chapter 7 of Science as Social Existence, I argue that Latour, in his attack on the Edinburgh School, seeks to suppress subjectivity as a topic for sociological analysis (Kochan 2017, 353-54, and, for methodological implications, 379-80; see also Kochan 2015).

More recently, in my response to Sassower, I noted the ongoing neglect of the history of disciplinary contestation within the field of science studies (Kochan 2018, 40). I believe that the present exchange with Schyfter nicely exemplifies that internal contestation, and I thank him for helping me to more fully demonstrate the point.

Let me tally up. Schyfter is silent on the topic of subjectivity. He is silent on the Bloor-Latour debate. He is silent on the methodological importance of underdetermination. And he tries to divert attention from his silence with specious accusations that, in Science as Social Existence, I belittle empirical research, that I disregard scientific practice, that I fail to recognise the importance of social accounts of knowledge, and that I generally do not take seriously Edinburgh School methodology.

Schyfter is eager to exclude me from what he calls the ‘tradition’ of SSK (Schyfter 2018, 13). He seems to view tradition as a cleanly bounded and internally cohesive set of ideas and doings. By contrast, in Science as Social Existence, I treat tradition as a historically fluid range of intersubjectively sustained existential possibilities, some inevitably vying against others for a place of cultural prominence (Kochan 2017, 156, 204f, 223, 370f). Within this ambiguously bounded and inherently fricative picture, I can count Schyfter as a member of my tradition.


My thanks to David Bloor and Martin Kusch for sharing with me their thoughts on Schyfter’s review. The views expressed here are my own.

Contact details:


Bloor, David (2001). ‘What Is a Social Construct?’ Facta Philosophica 3: 141-56.

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

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

Kochan, Jeff (2015). ‘Putting a Spin on Circulating Reference, or How to Rediscover the Scientific Subject.’ Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 49:103-107.

Kochan, Jeff (2010). ‘Contrastive Explanation and the “Strong Programme” in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge.’ Social Studies of Science 40(1): 127-44.

Palladino, Paolo (2018). ‘Heidegger Today: On Jeff Kochan’s Science and Social Existence.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(8): 41-46.

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

Schyfter, Pablo (2018). ‘Inaccurate Ambitions and Missing Methodologies: Thoughts on Jeff Kochan and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(8): 8-14.

Shapin, Steven and Simon Schaffer (1985). Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

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:

Photo by JBColorado via Flickr / Creative Commons


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.

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

Author Information: Justin Cruickshank, University of Birmingham,

Cruickshank, Justin. “Reflections on Problems, Politics and Knowledge: Replies to the Discussants of Democratic Problem-Solving.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 25-38.

Please refer to:

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers, and includes both parts. Shortlinks: Part One: Part Two:

In this piece, Justin Cruickshank of the University of Birmingham responds to recent critiques published at the Reply Collective of his recent book, Democratic Problem-SolvingBecause of its length, we have split his response into two parts. This is the second.

Problem-Solving Dialogue

Benton holds that Popper’s philosophy of science cannot meaningfully lead to a social and political conception of problem-solving given the latter’s difference from experimental activity in a laboratory. Social policy changes cannot be analogous to a critical problem-solving dialogue in science where a conjecture is refuted and a new theory then sought, because what constitutes a refutation and indeed what constitutes a problem are deeply normative and complex matters. Furthermore, in practice, policy-implementation is more like “utopian social engineering” than “piecemeal social engineering” because policies are imposed to fit with party political ideological commitments, with scant regard for their problematic consequences (Benton 2017, 63). Benton then argues that I am caught in a catch-22 when the reforms a more dialogic democracy could bring about require an institutional context which presumes the existence of a dialogic democracy that does not exist. How can dialogic democracy work when the conditions for it do not exist and if the conditions for it existed there would be no need to call for it?

To this, I argue here that there has to be a divergence in politics between mainstream politics and radical politics. Horizontal dialogue between groups of lay agents could entail pressure to limit harm from the state by, for example, mobilising against “austerity”-driven welfare cuts that are killing people, but ultimately people will need to remove the state and capitalism. The conditions for people to this can develop from existing problems concerning poverty and exploitation. Consciousness can be raised by different groups in dialogue with each other realising the problems they face stem from systemic issues and are not discrete anomalies in an otherwise functional and legitimate social order.

This does not map directly onto a falsificationist experimental method. It does though correspond to a dialogue that rejects authoritative sources, including public intellectuals seeking the types of reforms Sassower envisages, and which uses criticism to replace the prevailing justifications of the existing order. Such justifications would appeal to human nature, “pragmatism” (there can be no change) and neoliberal-individualist “justice” for the “hard working individual”, which defines human nature to fit the market which is actually constructed to fit corporate interests, with wealth distribution to the richest 1% being masked from lay knowledge.

Bacevic argues that while she is more sympathetic to the anarchism Chis and I espouse, she would prioritise liberal democracy over epistemic democracy, because of a concern with right-wing populism (2017, 52). Prioritising a plurality of voices is fine unless fascists then use it to spread hate and gain power. The debate has to be policed to fit within a liberal-democratic institutional and normative framework. Bacevic’s concern is well-placed and she is aware that obviously the epistemic-dialogic freedoms according under liberal democracy, despite being less extensive than those proposed for an epistemic democracy, can still facilitate the development of aggressively nationalistic and right-wing views.

Shadows of Max Weber

To suggest a way of dealing with this I will turn to Kemp’s response to the book. Kemp notes how I address Reed’s concern about problem-solving being an attempt to engage in a technocratic endeavour by arguing that for Popper all knowledge is mediated by social conventions and so admitting that problem-solving in social and politics matters is conceptually mediated does not take us far from Popper’s conception of science. Indeed, while some see Popper as a technocrat and positivist others, like Newton-Smith (1981) and Stove (2007 [1998]), see Popper as an “irrationalist”, because he argued that scientific decisions are influenced by social conventions: we decide to accept evidence A as a falsification for theory B because of convention C, rather than because raw reality falsifies theory B.

Kemp (2017, 27-28) also correctly notes a change in what problem-solving can mean when I move from the original article to the rest of the book. Originally I used the term in an interchangeable way with “adaptation”, which could imply that a problem had a definitive and objective solution waiting to be found, but then change to use problem-solving in such as way as to also imply it is as much about ‘problematizing’ as problems, which allows for a more open-ended approach. To see problem-solving in terms of conceptually mediated problematizing means the debate can always focus on the terms of reference used to define and try to solve problems, and the reasons why some definitions are chosen over others.

Kemp, following Max Weber, then raises the issue that a commitment to a particular definition or framing of a problem which stems from a normative commitment may entail a potentially debate-stopping dogmatism that is beyond reason. For Weber, values where wholly subjective and so beyond rational dialogue, with definitions of problems therefore benign beyond rational dialogue. Kemp argues that such a view need not be adhered to (because people can be open to rational debate about values) but notes it does raise an important question concerning how to find a balance between imposing framings on others (Rortian humiliation) or just submitting to others’ framings (2017, 31). This resonates with Bacevic’s concern about epistemic dialogue entailing the suppression of voices if the far right were able to gain traction in an unpoliced dialogic sphere. To deal with this balancing act, Kemp suggests basing a “non-impositional dialogue” on the search for anomalies, with “solutions” to problems being “coherence-expanding reconstructions” (2017, 32).

One way this could be engaged with, I would argue, is to undermine the claims by neoliberals about increasing individual freedom and neoconservatives about bolstering national power and security by showing how neoliberalism serves corporations and now neoconservatism has a contempt for ordinary people and serves elite interests through war and economic colonialism. In pursuing this, one could explore the funding of the Henry Jackson Society and publicise how members of this, including Michael Gove (a Tory MP) and Gisela Stuart (a former Labour MP), sway politics in a way that is driven by a commitment to a ‘think thank’ most people have not heard of, and which is committed to pursuing elite interests.

To return to Bacevic’s concern, I would say that policing dialogue to accept liberal democracy may be more of a problem than she realises because the terms of reference offered by some elite groups may be designed to smuggle in radically right-wing policies and ideas, without people being aware of this. Brexit, for example, was presented as offering a way to protect the NHS by putting £350 million a week from the EU into the NHS, but not only was this denied immediately after the referendum, but many Brexit supporting politicians want a ‘hard Brexit’, to reduce public services and create a deregulated low (corporate) tax haven for transnational capital. An elitist policy was pursued by populist means.

When it comes to the problem of right wing populism being unregulated with a more unpoliced epistemic democratic approach, the response could be that the supporters of the right could be engaged in slow dialogue to illustrate the anomalies and inconsistencies in their positions and differences in interests between the elite and the lay audience meant to support them. Obviously, that would not be easy but it is not an impossible task. The alternative may be that the neoliberal and neoconservative right shift the terms of reference, or political “common sense”, with increasingly right-wing – including nationalistic and xenophobic – ideas dominating the political mainstream within a liberal democratic framework.

On a related note, I wrote a piece for the SERRC (Cruickshank 2017) which argued that elites were trying to naturalise hierarchy and get people to see others as “things”, with critical pedagogy offering one way to tackle this.

Image by ydant via Flickr / Creative Commons


Conceptions of Deliberative Democracy

Vernon drew a useful contrast between epistemically conceived politics and an interest-based politics (2017, 5-6). Popper developed a “subjectless” epistemology for science, whereby the focus is on ideas being publicly tested, rather than the authority of the idea-holder. The political application of this broadly fits within the ambit of deliberative democracy, where the focus is on competition between ideas and not between interest-driven persons (2017, 5). Rorty, by contrast with Popper, did focus on interests, Vernon argues. Although Rorty recognised some role for cultural and identity politics to increase our sense of “we”’, it ended in the fetishism of theory, when change comes from large scale collective organisation serving an set of interests, such as trades unions (2017, 6). While Vernon thinks Rorty is stronger than Popper in recognising the role of interests in motivating agency and progressive change, he does criticise Rorty for trying to posit what I would term a meta-interest, in the form of patriotism, preferring Popper’s open society, to any notion of a closed “we”.

For while Rorty wants to expand our sense of we, patriotism, even a liberal minded patriotism, defines interests in a zero-sum way ultimately, with “our” interests being different from “theirs”. In the age of Brexit, the Trojan Horse hoax and Trump, I would argue that Rorty’s pragmatic bounding of an inclusive we along the national boundary is dangerous and potentially reactionary. Rorty’s sense of we could exacerbate the problem of a dialogue policed to conform to liberal democratic tenets actually being subverted by elite interests pursuing very right-wing politics with a liberal-democratic veneer. Nationalism is a potent and fictitious sense of identity and one that is very effective in serving elite interests via populist rhetoric.

Vernon also notes that Rorty is stronger on the argument about the need to recognise others as worthy of respect. This means recognising others as “like-us” by increasing our sense of solidarity and doing what we can to decrease socially acceptable sadisms. In a subject-less epistemic democracy there can be no basis for such respect and the only focus is on the best argument defeated and displacing the inferior argument. Assuming there were universally agreed criteria for such assessments to be affected, the problem would still remain that arguments stem from persons and persons as persons deserve respect. A vote may decide an outcome but behind that outcome lie people with views different from the outcome and they will not turn into cognitive and emotional tabula rasa with a vote wiping away previous convictions.

Vernon is correct to argue that we need some notion of interests shaping politics, to recognise that even if some see politics as the “free market of ideas”, such as Popper with his conception of science as perfected liberal democracy and Sassower with his account of public intellectuals as “gadflies” serving a public hungry for better ideas, interests shape the formation of policies and the formation of arguments. One does not have to be a determinist to hold that interests will play a role in argument, deliberation and acceptance of policies and ideas. This was implicit in my arguments about people using horizontal dialogue to reject the elite – the elite pursue their interests which run counter to those of the majority.

Vernon is also correct to argue against the subjectless approach to democratic dialogue. This is why I argued for slow dialogue in place of Popper’s speedy dialogue. To be ethical for Popper is to improve oneself as fast as possible to run away from any hint of dogmatism, but this is a very individualistic and detached ethical position, which is odd coming from someone who advocates a subjectless epistemology – “epistemology without a knowing subject” (Popper, 1972).

In knowledge we are shaped by conventions such that falsifications are mediated by conventions, but ethics unlike knowledge remains a radically individualist endeavour. In contrast to speedy dialogue, slow dialogue allows for the engagement with those who have very different views and, as my position did not see voting as the closure of a dialogue, this can allow for slow but significant change over time. In other words, slow dialogue presumes a level of respect to motivate it in the first place, and political dialogue is not terminated when policy decisions are made, because it concerns lay agents who see their interests are not directly aligned with the state. In talking with others about problems, policies could be discussed, but no policy would be a definitive solution to a technocratic problem.

Before considering Benesch’s criticism of my arguments about the speed of dialogues I will note that while Vernon states that he is not aware of any list of suffering-reduction achievements noted by Popper, unlike Rorty who does furnish such a list, Popper does actually give us a list of suffering-reduction points to address. These are in the essay The History of our Time in Conjectures and Refutations (1963). Popper’s list of points cites: poverty, unemployment, sickness and pain, penal cruelty, religious and racial discrimination, rigid class differences, slavery, war and lack of educational opportunities (1963, 370).

Engaging Collaboration

Benesch takes issue with my criticism of Popper for replacing justificationist speedy dialogues with critical speedy dialogues. He argues that: Popper carefully considered texts before replying; that critical dialogue in science and politics was a slow process of piecemeal change; and that Lakatos’ claims to correct Popper were erroneous because Popper spoke of metaphysical research programmes, which would be slow to change and which pre-empted Lakatos’s argument about research programmes and naïve and sophisticated falsificationism (2017, 50-51).

In response to this I argue the following. The issue for Popper was not so much the “preparation time” but the nature of argument and dialogue itself: how much time one spent preparing an argument was, like the origin of an argument, not relevant for Popper, given what Vernon called the “subjectless” epistemology, which saw ideas, detached from people, in competition with each other. A quick defeat of an idea in an ideational permanent revolution would speed us along with epistemic and ethical progress. The latter is of course problematic, given that ethics pertains to a subject unlike ideas. The impersonal clashing of ideas would improve the subject who let this happen without using dogmatism to corrupt this competition between sui generis abstractions.

On the second point Benesch argues that “[t]he collaborative effort of which Popper speaks will most often entail the ‘slow piecemeal ideational change’ that Cruickshank incorrectly claims Popper rejected’ (2017, 51). When discussing with Kuhn, Popper (1970) argued that we are prisoners of the conceptual framework but we can break out of this at any time, albeit into a “bigger and roomier one”. Kuhn was correct to hold that we always see the world via a conceptual scheme but incorrect to hold that this took a long time to change because we could “break out of this at any time” for Popper. In other words, progress turned on critical speedy dialogue with any recognition of ideas having traction taking us towards dogmatism and relativism. However, when Popper discusses political debate he may seem implicitly to endorse a slow conception of dialogue. Popper argues that:

It is often asserted that discussion is only possible between people who have a common language and accept common basic assumptions. I think that is a mistake. All that is needed is a readiness to learn from one’s partner in the discussion, which includes a genuine which to understand what he [sic] intends to say. If this readiness is there, the discussion will be the more fruitful the more the partners’ backgrounds differ. Thus the value of a discussion depends largely upon the variety of the competing views. Had there been no Tower of Babel, we should invent it. The liberal does not dream of a perfect consensus of opinion; he [sic] only hopes for the mutual fertilization of opinions and the consequent growth of ideas. Even where we solve a problem to universal satisfaction, we create, in solve it, many new problems over which we are bound to disagree. This is not to be regretted (1963, 352).

This may entail a critical slow dialogue because it would take time to understand those with different views and understanding would have to be worked at – one would need to work to get towards what Gadamer (2013 [1975]) called a “fusion of horizons”. If this is accepted then I think it points to a tension in Popper’s work between an ethical reaction to dogmatism which linked ethics to speed and a later position which focused more on dialogue being about understanding others’ terms of reference in a condition where there was no universal normative language. This may also lead to a tension between the subjectless epistemology mentioned by Vernon and a more embodied epistemology.

As regards the comment about Lakatos, I would say that Popper’s metaphysical research programmes were removed from scientific experiment unlike the core of the research programme for Lakatos. For Popper, metaphysical research programmes could provide inspiration for testable hypotheses, but were, from a strictly scientific point of view, irrelevant, because the origin of testable ideas was irrelevant; whereas for Lakatos, the core of a research programme would eventually be falsified. Metaphysical research programmes were, in effect, thus removed from critical dialogue, whereas a research programme for Lakatos was subject to slow change through critical dialogue changing the auxiliary hypotheses until the core needed changing eventually.

Benesch also criticises me for incorrectly attributing to what I called “the optimistic Popper” a belief in majoritarianism or “popular sovereignty” as Popper called it, where the majority qua majority are justified politically and ethically (2017, 53). Perhaps I could have been clearer when I discussed this in the book (pp. 109-110), but I did not regard the optimistic Popper as holding to a majoritarian view. I argued that the optimistic Popper, like Dewey, would see democracy as an “ethical way of life” where there was always an on-going dialogue, which was not closed off by any formal process such as voting. The argument about the Towel of Babel indicates such an outlook.

By contrast, the pessimistic Popper wanted to restrict democratic engagement the infrequent formal act of voting and prohibit coalition governments and proportional representation. Falsification was to be applied to politics by a decisive vote on a party’s claim to have succeeded in implementing useful policies. Politics for this Popper was to be a monologic affair.

Benesch makes a number of highly critical points about the chapter by Sassower and Jensen. I will not presume to speak on their behalf.

Shearmur, and Bacevic, both note that the notion of a unified public sphere has been criticised, with Nancy Fraser, for example taking Habermas to task on this. I agree with these points. The public sphere is not a sphere of abstract individuals seeking purely cognitive epistemic engagement, but is rather a sphere where different groups have different interests.

Shearmur also makes the important point that Popper’s friendship with Hayek did not translate into political agreement, given Popper’s “social democratic” leanings. Shearmur proceeds to criticise Popper’s concept of piecemeal social engineering by arguing that there is more role for the authority of specialist knowledge than Popper permits (2017, 11-12). Given the usual critical reading of Popper as an elitist technocratic (see the chapter by Reed in the book, and Benton’s review), it is strange to see an argument for what is in effect a shift from a more engaged democratic position to a more elitist one. Shearmur mentions the ghost of Plato (2017, 12), but given his critical appreciation of Hayek it may well be the ghost of Walter Lippmann that is at work here, with lay agents being seen a priori as too fickle and ignorant to engage in meaningful political debate. That is surely an essentialist dogmatism we can use Popper to reject.

Contact details:


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Author Information: Justin Cruickshank, University of Birmingham,

Cruickshank, Justin. “Reflections on Problems, Politics and Knowledge: Replies to the Discussants of Democratic Problem-Solving.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 25-38.

Please refer to:

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers, and includes both parts. Shortlinks: Part One: Part Two:

In this piece, Justin Cruickshank of the University of Birmingham responds to recent critiques published at the Reply Collective of his recent book, Democratic Problem-Solving. Because of its length, we have split his article in two parts. This is the first.

From Bhaskar’s Neo-Marxist Critical Realism to Popper’s Problem-Solving

In contrast with Benesch, who argued in The Viennese Socrates that Popper’s work supported a progressive politics, Benton seems to adhere to a popular reading of Popper as a Cold War ideologue who championed a technocratic approach to maintaining the status quo in contrast to any progressive democratic politics. Although Benton does not refer to Popper as a positivist, what comes across as his reading of Popper as a dogmatic liberal espousing a technocratic politics broadly fits the reading of Popper as a positivist, if one uses the contemporary definition of positivism which sees it as more encompassing than logical positivism.

For Benton, Popper, if he did not fetishise science, did at least have a naïve conception of it as an objective fact-grinding tool that could also be applied to politics, with there being no recognition of the systemic problems within liberal capitalism. Structural criticism would be prohibited and in its place reforms to make the social order function more efficiently would be sought. Popper, as Reed (2017) as well as Benton, feared, would see change in terms of an engineer tinkering with a machine whose purpose was not to be questioned and whose problems could not be recognised. Benton thus finds it odd that Sassower (in some chapters) sought a radical reformist politics based on Popper and that I (/ Chis and I) argued for an anarchist politics based on Popper.

It will be useful to make four points here. The first is that Hacohen’s (2000) book ‘Karl Popper: The Formative Years 1902-1945. Politics And Philosophy In Interwar Vienna’ undermines the case that Popper was a dogmatic Cold War liberal, at least in his early and mid-writing career (later I think he clearly did become more socially conservative). Hacohen’s case is that the Popper who wrote The Poverty of Historicism presented it post hoc as a critique of ‘totalitarianism’, in the form of Stalinist Communism and fascism, but it was written as an engagement with interwar socialist debates and it rejected the liberal belief in a defining human essence, in the form of a competitive human nature. Indeed, the Open Society also rejected the liberal capitalist idea that capitalism is ‘justified’ by being in accord with human nature.

The second is that in the book I made a point about the reception context and how a received reading of Popper became established due to the social and political context, which failed to recognise all the potential in his work. This led me to distinguish a critical and more optimistic Popper from a more pessimistic Popper. Benton does not engage with the arguments about the possibilities offered by the critical Popper and uses the received reading of Popper to reject him and be incredulous at his use by myself (and possibly others too) to support a radical political position. The position I (/ Chis and I) develop goes well beyond what Popper’s intentions were but the case was not to excavate the essence of the real author but to see what potential there was in some of his work to develop ideas in a particular way.

Part of this meant drawing on Popper’s rejection of appeals to authority in knowledge and Benton charges me with treating Popper as an authority. That is odd given that the approach to Popper is critical and that positions are not cut to fit a constructed Popper ‘essence’. Thus, after recognising how readings can gain traction, and how dialogue has to engage with affective and normative commitments, I criticise Popper for conceptualising dialogue in a speedy way and draw upon Gadamer to suggest the need to see dialogue as a slow process. There was not the space to develop the work on Gadamer but only to suggest it.

The reason for this, which brings me to the third point, and which I think Benton may lose sight of, is that the book was not written as a normal monograph planned to move through steps to reach a conclusion, but was an open-ended dialogue which developed initially in the SERRC. The chapters were then re-written to add more sources and more detailed argument (with the Brexit chapter being written especially for the book because that happened after the SERRC exchanges), which may give the impression of a more ‘traditional’ book, but it was still following the lines of the original SERRC debate. I wrote the article on Popper and Rorty because I was interested in challenging conventional readings of their work and then the SERRC debate lead to the argument for open dialogue being extended to a range of political matters. Popper’s argument against authority in knowledge always remained important, as did the focus on disrupting a narrow and often incorrect received wisdom about Popper, but had it been written as a traditional book, it other sources would have complemented Popper.

Fourth, the argument sought to develop a framework for open dialogue, which could include a wide variety of positions, including, for me, Marxist positions. The case was not to use a Cold War liberal technocrat to ban Marxism and espouse anarchism. Rather, it was to use Popper’s work on authority and criticism to develop a position on open dialogue that could include many voices. The anarchist position (influenced by Peter Kropotkin and Colin Ward) would be that traditions of mutual aid are important (with traditions thus not necessarily being regressive blocks on progress – a point Gadamer can be used to develop). These traditions ought not to be hermetic but rather they ought to motivate large scale collective pressure for major progressive change and this would come from, to use one of Rorty’s favourite terms, a ‘horizontal’ dialogue, between different communities of people facing different and similar problems.

Examples of problems here, mentioned in the book, would be the housing crisis in the UK, the insecurity caused by the gig economy creating a middle-class precariat as well as a working class precariat, and the ethno-nationalist racism legitimised by the Brexit campaign and the Trojan Horse hoax. If one appeals to sources of authoritative knowledge then there can be no horizontal dialogue because one group would seek to legislate on what others’ ought to think and no intellectually progressive dialogue because events and data would be cut to fit a pre-existing epistemic, ontological, methodological, etc., commitment. The problem with Popper was though that he ended up fetishizing change and seeing ethics as a process of constantly negating one’s beliefs, which would actually entail philosophical scepticism and political apathy.

Thoughts on Critical Realism

As may be clear from Benton’s reply, he is a realist, so part of his discussion at least is motivated by a concern to defend realism and specifically, the neo-Marxist “critical realism” developed by Roy Bhaskar. I will now outline critical realism and say why I moved from this to Popper, using Popper to reject critical realism as a form of debate-stopping methodological essentialism, in articles in Philosophy of the Social Sciences.

Bhaskar (1997 [1975], 1998 [1979]) argued for an anti-positivist naturalism, meaning he argued for the unity of the natural and social sciences, in terms of methodology, in a way that differed from positivist naturalism. Bhaskar argued that positivism committed the “epistemic fallacy” of reducing ontological questions about being into epistemological questions about how we know being. To overcome this we needed, he argued, to see science as developing knowledge in accord with ontological assumptions that in some way correspond to reality.

Whereas positivism, for him, was based on implicitly assuming that reality was a “closed system” constituted by invariant empirical regularities, given its commitment to an empiricist theory of knowledge which stressed the role of direct observation, science was successful because it recognised that there are no such invariant regularities and presumed instead that reality is a “stratified open system”. This means assuming that causal laws that are unobservable in themselves interact in contingent ways to produce the changing empirical effects we can see. When it came to the social sciences, the problem was that there were no shared ontological assumptions about what social reality is. Therefore, Bhaskar had to legislate on what this may be and did this by rejecting structuralist determinism and methodological individualism which he held could not account for the social context conditioning agency, to link structure and agency. Social reality was constituted by structural emergent properties that conditioned but did not determine agency.

Bhaskar (1998) noted that social structures were different from natural structures insofar as the former could be changed by human agency but went on to draw upon the ‘structuration theory’ developed by Giddens (1995 [1984]) which ended up “solving”’ the structure-agency problem by redefining it as a problem of agency. For Giddens, and by extension, Bhaskar, structures were “virtual” because they only existed in agents’ heads as ‘memory traces’ until agents chose to act upon them – or “instantiate” them. Margaret Archer (1995) then sought to rescue Bhaskar from himself by rejecting Giddens and saying that Bhaskar’s argument could be saved by saying that structures were emergent properties that were dependent on agency in the past tense. That is, structures emerged from agents’ actions in the past and then become emergent properties that could condition agency and which were thus irreducible to agency.

For Archer, individualism was an ontological position influenced by empiricism (because we can only see individuals) and this raises the awkward problem that Bhaskar would seem to be influenced by a philosophy he sought to reject. Archer tries to avoid this by defining the problem in terms of Giddens’ theory not being a form of individualism but a position that committed what she called “central conflation”, meaning the mutual conflation of structure into agency and agency into structure. This does not seem a tenable or meaningful definition of the problem though, given that structures have no existence separate from agents, and so it more accurate to say Bhaskar’s use of Giddens committed him to a form of individualism, as Benton (1981) actually argued.

Critical realism has proved increasingly popular in social science, with social scientists keen to avoid positivism (often defined very broadly to include any quantitative research), interpretivistic and post-structuralist relativism, and individualism in the form of rational choice theory, using critical realism to explain events in terms of structure and agency. Critical realism became an orthodoxy for those unsatisfied with the extant orthodoxies.

Image by Let Ideas Compete via Flickr / Creative Commons


To Be Fallible

The problem I had with critical realism was that it was not critical but a type of dogmatic formalism (Cruickshank 2007, 2010). Despite holding that knowledge was fallible, the ontology was removed from critical revision based on empirical research and empirical research was cut to fit the concepts of structure and agency. The concepts of structure and agency were read into the data and then the data was taken to support the ontology used to explain it. Critical realism, I argued, thus begged the question. I found Popper useful here because while I did not agree with his treatment of Marxism, his critique of “methodological essentialism” and the search for justification via authoritative sources of knowledge was relevant here. The ontological commitment was treated as an authoritative source with the essence of social reality (namely structure and agency) being taken as justified with all observed events then being regarded as “verifications” of the prior ontological / essentialist commitment.

Although Bhaskar hoped his work would offer a scientific Marxism based on realism, able to link structure and agency, unlike Althusser’s claim that structuralist Marxism was scientific and unlike the positivist conception of science, his work received significant criticism from Marxists (see for instance Gunn 1988 and Magill 1994). A major concern was the undialectical nature of Bhaskar’s ontology, which separated the categories of structure and agency from each other and from substantive-empirical processes, to create a meta-theory developed in abstraction from the processes it sought to explain. Rather than develop categories from the complexity of reality, seeing their interpenetration, two generic abstractions were developed and then imposed on reality, in an undialectical – or even undialogic – way.

To be sure, Popper sought to police dialogue, erroneously in my view, but his argument that the recognition of fallibilism had to entail the use of criticism to change views dialogically, with there being no appeal to authoritative sources of knowledge (such as the authority of the senses with empiricism or methodological essentialist commitments with critical realism), was of key importance. When social science fetishizes the origins of knowledge to justify a claim or delegitimise it with ideology-critique or post-structuralist critique of discourse, it becomes a form of clericalism that detaches knowledge from substantive problems. Critical realism exemplified this far more than Popper, despite his (unPopperian) attempts to police dialogue, as, ironically, the Marxist critique of Bhaskar illustrated.

Popper sought to police dialogue using problematic dualisms and Benton I think does the same. He offers us just realism and irrealism (2017, 61), with latter being problematic because it lacked “a robust recognition of the autonomy and independent causal powers of other people, institutions, material objects, organic beings and so on” and because it erroneously, for him, took any reference to reality to entail anti-democratic and authoritarian views. Benton does not clearly distinguish between Bhaskar’s critical realism and metaphysical realism. Popper argued for metaphysical realism but Bhaskar shied away from it.

Metaphysical realism is just the claim that reality exists independently of us. It seems a common-sense position but it entails a sceptical rejoinder because reality is defined as that which always exceeds our knowledge of it. Benton holds that my position, in accepting this criticism of metaphysical realism, is irrationalist as well as irrealist because someone else can confirm the existence of objects once someone else leaves a room (2017, 61). Here Benton is following what Popper called the Winston Churchill argument for realism (1972, 42-44) but, as Popper, who was himself a metaphysical realism argued, this “does not prove realism” (1972, 43-44. Emphasis on original).

The problem with the Churchill-Benton argument for realism is that as reality is defined, for metaphysical realists, as that which is independent of us, there can be no appeal to shared experiential knowledge to prove the existence of a reality that is separate from our (shared or lone) ideas of it. Moreover, Benton is guilty here of what critical realists regard as the epistemic fallacy, because he is defining reality in terms of others’ accounts of their knowledge of it (and knowledge arrived at from experience). Now critical realism is defined by Bhaskar as a form of “conceptual science” because instead of speculating on the nature of ultimate reality it arrives at its ontological assumptions for natural science at least, by deriving them from the implicit assumptions within the “transitive domain” of scientific knowledge. In other words, ontological questions about what reality is are answered by turning to a body of knowledge about reality.

The realist ontology of natural reality thus commits what critical realists regard as the epistemic fallacy. By contrast the ontological claims about social reality are taken to be justified because they overcome structuralist determinism and the inability of agency to account for the context conditioning agency, with the avoidance of these problems then being taken to be the sufficient as well as necessary condition for justification. Such justification obviously rests on a non sequitur. Once the ontological categories are taken to be justified commitments they are then read into empirical events with the latter being taken as verifications of the commitments, which then commits the fallacy of begging the question.

In addition to the problem of begging the question and being an undialectical form of Marxism, critical realism led to formulaic “applications”. Just as must research influenced by post-structuralism “found” all events to be expressions of discourse (with research verifying the prior commitment to the ontology of discourse determinism), so empirical research influenced by critical realism ended up redescribing events in terms of the categories of structure and agency. A rebranding of events using the favoured words (structure and agency) of the new stale orthodoxy was taken to be an explanation.

A Heritage From Gramsci

Benton argued that I had a tendency to caricature the views of my opponents, and then defended Sassower’s arguments on public intellectuals by defending Gramsci, who Sassower cites briefly (2017, 64). I would agree that for Gramsci organic working-class intellectuals are engaged in substantive issues and that they are a wide group because it includes all those engaged in class struggle in their daily lives potentially. I would though raise the question about the term “intellectual” being redundant if it is applied to everyone. One can talk of people having an insight into their conditions and seeking change, but invoking the notion of intellectuals means invoking the notion of an intellectually privileged group. But the argument is not really a semantic one. If Benton wants, following Gramsci, to call everyone an intellectual, then I am happy to talk of a democratic dialogue between academic-intellectuals and lay-intellectuals, rather than academics and lay agents.

The important issue is that a dialogic relationship has to eschew the conception that progress needs an epistemically privileged class, because that ultimately is monologic. And here both Popper and Rorty are correct to note the problems that arise when self-defining intellectual elites seek to legislate for others. It is interesting that Benton avoids engaging with the problems they raise concerning those deemed to be intellectuals, for there are real problems concerning intellectual fashions, dogmatism, elitism and secular-clerical mentality, not to mention the problems with those deemed to be intellects often coming from privileged groups. bell hooks (1981) argued black female intellectuals tended to be marginalised by black male activists and white feminists, meaning that the elitism of the concept is complemented in practice with an elitism of selection concerning who is recognised as an intellectual with a voice permitted to speak in the public sphere.

However, using Gramscian terminology, it is the case that Sassower actually defended the use of “traditional” and not organic intellectuals. Sassower did have an expansive definition to include rappers etc. but did end up narrowing it down to academics with the task of academics as public intellectuals being that of acting as “responsible gadflies”. Academic public intellectuals should be paid for by the US government and US media outlets ought to host them because they would shift the focus, in their printspace and airtime, from celebrity gossip and mud-slinging between politicians to a more intellectual debate about social and political matters. Academic public intellectuals would be better placed to define problems and offer solutions by thinking in a deeper way by being freed from commercial pressure and normative commitments. The pursuit of the truth would guide them and they would float above sectional interests to arrive at the best / objective definition of problems and the best proposal for their solutions.

But as Gramsci argued, no-one, including those positioned as “intellectuals”, can float about social and normative interests. Furthermore, Sassower implicitly treats the state as a neutral body open to the “best argument”, which is reminiscent of the classical pluralist model of the state, and the technocratic notion that problems are objective entities separated from normative commitments and the influence of class etc. This replicated the notion that while there can be a philosophy of knowledge there can only be a sociology of error, for it sees all social and normative influences as corrupting on the pursuit of truth.

Now, in considering why Benton defended Sassower by defending Gramsci, we can note that Benton recorded Sassower’s definition of himself as a Marxist, despite Sassower also calling Marxists ‘rabid’ (and engaging in other polemic against “radicals”). The real issue here though is that while Sassower did envisage, briefly, a post-capitalist society, it was not a post-liberal society and nor was it a society that was based on a redistribution of wealth or a society that abolished class. It was not a socialist or communist society that he had in mind. Sassower drew on Rifkin (2014) to argue that technology may result in the cost of commodities becoming negligible and that with increased use of ICT younger people may prefer access to items over ownership of items.

Image by Fabio Falanga via Flickr / Creative Commons


Sassower also held at one point that neoliberalism was not necessarily negative and that it needed to be assessed on its performance. In other words, the Marxism motivated no commitment to socialism or communism, or changing prior property distribution, but was an (undialectical) form of technological determinism which focused on consumption and not production contra Marxism. His “Marxism” also existed alongside the technocratic view that neoliberalism can be assessed as a potentially positive form of capitalism, in a fashion analogous to a (positivist value-free) experiment. Later Sassower argued against neoliberalism and this commitment to heterogenous positions may be intelligible in terms of a technocratic approach, whereby the search is for the best “objective” solution entails a move from a neutral approach to neoliberalism to a critical approach, and from considering neoliberalism, which claims to liberate the citizen as consumer (not producer-worker) to considering a consumer-focused post-capitalism to liberate the post-capitalist citizen-consumer.

Contact details:

Continued Here.


Archer, Margaret. Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

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

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

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

Benton, Ted. “Realism and Social Science: Some Comments on Roy Bhaskar’s ‘The Possibility of Naturalism’”, Radical Philosophy 27 (1981): 13-21.

Benton, Ted. “Some Comments on Cruickshank’s and Sassower’s Democratic Problem-Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no 10 (2017): 60-65.

Bhaskar, Roy. A Realist Theory of Science. London: Verso, 1997 (1975).

Bhaskar, Roy. The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sciences. 3rd edition. London: Routledge, 1998 (1979).

Cruickshank, Justin. “The Usefulness of Fallibilism: A Popperian Critique of Critical Realism”, Philosophy of the Social Sciences 37 (3) (2007): 263–288

Cruickshank, Justin. “Knowing Social Reality: A Critique of Bhaskar and Archer’s attempt to derive a Social Ontology from Lay Knowledge”, Philosophy of the Social Sciences 40 (4) (2010): 579-602.

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

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. London: Bloomsbury, 2013 (1975).

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Gunn, Richard. “Marxism and Philosophy: A Critique of Critical Realism.” Capital and Class 37 (1988): 87 – 116.

Hacohen, Malachi H. Karl Popper. The Formative Years 1902-1945: Politics and Philosophy in Interwar Vienna. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

hooks, bell. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. London: Pluto, 1981.

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

Magill, Kevin. “Against Critical Realism.” Capital and Class 54 (1994): 113 – 136.

Newton-Smith, W.H. The Rationality of Science. London: Routledge, 1981.

Popper, Karl R. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth in Scientific Knowledge. London: Routledge, 1963.

Popper, Karl, R. “Normal Science and its Dangers.” In Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, edited by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, 51-58. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Popper, Karl, R. Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Reed, Isaac, A. “Science, Democracy and the Sociology of Power.” In Democratic Problem-Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology, Justin Cruickshank and Raphael Sassower, 69-79. London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017.

Rifkin, Jeremy. The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism. New York: St. Martins Griffin, 2014.

Shearmur, Jeremy. “Popper, Social Epistemology and Dialogue”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 1-12.

Stove, David. Scientific Irrationalism: Origins of a Postmodern Cult. London: Transaction, 2007 (1998).

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

Author Information: Gregory Lobo, Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia,

Lobo, Gregory J. “Back to Basics: Straw Men, Status Functions, and Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 6-19.

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

Please refer to:

Image by United To End Genocide, via Flickr


“They won’t let me be a citizen, because then they have to give me rights and they won’t call me a refugee because then they have to give me aid,” said Mr. Saifullah. “I am not a citizen or a refugee. I am an illegal alien. I am nothing.”[1]

While Mr. Saifullah, quite tragically, gets it, Professor Corlett, sadly, does not. This brief essay is an attempt to help Professor Corlett “get it,” to understand why status functions are important for understanding human rights. Along the way some basic misunderstandings regarding the substance and purpose of John Searle’s reflections on how his social ontology might shed light on discussions of human rights will be clarified. These misunderstandings are evident in Corlett (2016),[2] henceforth simply 2016, and were initially addressed in a scant seven pages by Lobo (2017),[3] henceforth Lobo.[4] In reaction to Lobo’s seven pages, Professor Corlett produced a 22 page response,[5] henceforth 2017, rejecting Lobo’s clarifications and reaffirming his original conclusions as found in 2016.

In the first part of what follows, Corlett’s principal objection to Searle’s thinking will be re-presented. As in Lobo, it will be shown once more that the objection is unfounded, by comparing relevant textual citations from 2016 and 2017 with textual citations from Searle (2010)[6] and Searle (2011).[7] In the second part, the purpose of Searle’s intervention into the field of human rights thinking will be clarified. This will reveal that Corlett’s objections — even if they were not baseless — are in any event not germane.

Finally, what is claimed in Lobo to be Searle’s major contribution to human rights thinking, based on the concept of the status function, will be discussed. In 2017 Corlett mishandled (that is, treated without due care) Lobo’s representation (paraphrase) of what he, Lobo, understands to be Searle’s major contribution to the discussion.[8] It is possible that it is this error by Corlett that led to him dismissing said contribution in 2017 as entirely unoriginal. The discussion will clarify both the substance of Searle’s actual contribution and its originality.

Errors and Corrections

Fundamentally, Corlett errs in his characterization of Searle’s thinking on human rights. Among his initial errors is this: “Searle’s conception of human rights is purely institutional, e.g. he believes that such rights are products only of social construction.”[9] Corlett’s related but more principal concern would seem to be that Searle’s thinking on human rights “is not completely justified”[10] because Searle does not address the issue of what Corlett refers to as the “essential moral properties” of such rights. The best explication to found in Corlett of what this might mean is this: a human right “finds at least part of its grounding in morality.”[11] It is appropriate to ask, what is meant by morality? “By ‘morality,’ it is meant that such rights have moral foundations in an objective sense.”[12]

If the reader is less that satisfied with this tautology, so be it: Corlett offers nothing further. Of more concern, perhaps, is that based on Corlett (2016 and 2017) everything indicates that the guarantor of objectivity, and thus morality (and of the objectivity of objectivity and the morality of morality), would seem to be none other than the “tradition” or the “leading philosophers of human rights.” This, of course, should not worry the reader in any way at all. It is important to point out that Corlett re-words this moral concern of his towards the conclusion of 2016, criticizing Searle’s thinking, both in general and on human rights specifically, for lacking what he refers to as a “morally normative” component or element,[13] for which a non-tautological explication is never offered.

Now, to support this characterization of Searle’s thinking, Corlett quotes from Searle (2011), an article in which Searle is replying to some of the critics of his 2010 work. Having characterized Searle’s conception of human rights as “purely institutional” and “social construction[ist],” and complained that Searle’s thinking “does not even address” questions of morality in relation to human rights, Corlett seeks to give credence to this characterization by quoting Searle, thusly: “‘[o]n my [Searle is using the first person] account all rights are status functions and thus human creations. We do not discover human rights in nature as we discover human chromosomes. But if human rights are created by human beings, then what rationally compelling justification can we give for the creation of universal human rights?’ (Searle 2011, pp. 139–140).”[14]

Here it is relevant to ask, if Corlett is going to quote Searle asking what rationally compelling justification can be given for the creation of universal human rights, why does Corlett not let Searle answer? For Searle does answer the question Corlett quotes. But Corlett passes over Searle’s answer, as if it does not exist.

Instead of allowing Searle his answer (quoting it), Corlett immediately interjects a non sequitur: “In Searle’s terms, then, human rights are epistemically subjective rather than objective.”[15] Now, this is a non sequitur insofar as it has nothing to do with the question Searle poses; however, it is anything but a non sequitur for Corlett’s purposes. For by interjecting so, Corlett is clearly seeking to hang Searle on what Corlett sees as the problematic inferences one can make when reading Searle’s question in the absence of an answer.

Corlett, it appears, seems to want the reader to imagine that Searle is posing a rhetorical question, out of exasperation, to which everyone already knows the answer. Through his presentation of Searle’s question, absent Searle’s answer, it looks like Corlett is suggesting that in asking the question, “what rationally compelling justification can we give for the creation of universal human rights?”, Searle is implying that we really can’t give a rationally compelling justification for them at all. This would mean that we are left only with institutions and social construction — or what Corlett sums up as the “epistemically subjective”.

But Corlett is being dishonest.[16] For Searle does answer; his question is not born of exasperation, and it is certainly not rhetorical.[17] And his answer, as much as his question — which is about universal human rights and their justification — shows that Searle seeks, in fact, to ground human rights in moral foundations, even as he continues to understand human rights, indeed all rights, as the result of human creativity.

The Meaning of the Question

Still, before turning to Searle’s answer, it is worth considering further the implications of Searle’s question, especially with respect to Corlett’s accusation that Searle’s thinking lacks considerations of the morally normative. Searle asks about legitimacy in the creation of universal human rights. But for a right to be universal it would have to be, ipso facto, normative, morally so, ethically so, and it would have to be so normative for everyone — for it is universal. In other words, a universal human right is, by definition, always already morally normative, and Corlett’s principal complaint against Searle’s thinking, that it lacks consideration of the morally normative because it is purely institutional, collapses.

That being the case, it is still worth pondering the implications of Searle’s answer to the question he poses. Recall that Searle is asking after a rationally compelling justification for the creation of universal human rights. He immediately responds: “I offer a justification, but if I am right it limits the scope of human rights.”[18] How could this be so; how could his thinking contemplate limits (which again, suggests normativity)? For on Corlett’s reading, Searle’s “purely institutional”, “social construction[ist]” understanding of human rights amounts to a “madness” which does nothing less than pave the way to outrages like white supremacy and slave ownership.[19] On Corlett’s reading, Searle’s thinking allows any old anybody to dream up any whimsy that strikes their fancy and call it a human right. In 2016 Corlett, as is being evidenced, understands Searle poorly and thus his reading is completely wrong (not only plausibly wrong but, to repeat, completely wrong); but in 2017, after Lobo, Corlett still manages to somehow remain refractory to evidence that annuls his thesis.

Here is, finally, how Searle answers the question he posed: “A right is legitimately created only if it can rationally be justified by a correct conception of human nature, a set of values about human beings, and can rationally impose an obligation on all human beings to respect it.”[20] In insisting that the rights in question have to be rationally imposable on all, Searle is insisting on something that is equivalent to an insistence on moral normativity and universality. Corlett missed these words. One could argue that he had to miss them, for they incontrovertibly refute all elements of his thesis. Or it could be allowed, charitably, that in 2016 he missed these words due to the pressures of working to deadline, and the employment of the quite fallible strategy of selective reading, which has claimed many more and much greater heads than his.

What is perhaps quite unforgivable however, is Corlett’s reaction when confronted by these words of Searle in Lobo. In 2017, having had the chance to contemplate both the existence of these words, and the damage they quite clearly do to his thesis, Corlett responds in the following manner: he concedes that this “is the closest published statement by Searle of which I [Corlett] am aware that on the surface appears to align his view of human rights with the conception of human rights as moral ones which I attribute to the contemporary human rights tradition.”[21] But his concern, the reader will recall, is that Searle is a pure institutionalist, a “mad”[22] social constructionist, whose work “lacks an essentially morally normative component.”[23] The quotation, one among many (see Lobo for more), confirms that Corlett’s concerns are groundless. So now the less charitable conclusion must be drawn: Corlett is purposefully ignoring the evidence before his eyes.

How Do You Justify?

Look at his initial response: “on the surface,” he insists, superficially, this quotation seems to successfully indicate that Corlett has misjudged Searle. But only there, on the surface. “However, the statement does not quite succeed in doing so,”[24] Corlett continues, in an attempt to regain his footing. This is to be expected, for the reader will recall, Corlett’s standard is “complete justification.”[25] According to such logic, not quite succeeding amounts to nothing less than unmitigated failure. But in what way is the statement not quite successful? How will Corlett justify his use of the mitigating locution, “on the surface”?

As follows: “according to the conception of human rights which I articulate but do not endorse in Corlett (2016) and herein, being rationally justified by a correct conception of human nature is not a jointly sufficient condition of a human right, though it might be relevant to the issue of human rights possession (i.e., of who qualifies in having a human right).”[26] This “justification” is left without further comment. Corlett seems to think it is meaningful. The reader should decide for herself, but it is here deemed — further commentary notwithstanding — twaddle.

From the ridiculous to the sublime: what Corlett does next in his attempt to annul the overwhelming evidence that he has, as they say, constructed a straw man, a straw Searle, against whom to aim his arrows, is nothing less than extraordinary. He extends his attempt to undercut the pertinence Searle’s wholly unobjectionable observation that a “right is legitimately created only if it can rationally be justified by a correct conception of human nature,” by introducing into argument the following, equally unobjectionable, truism: “That something is rationally justified can be a subjective or relative matter.”[27] This is extraordinary — in this context — because Searle is careful to make this consideration central to his thinking.

In his discussion of human rights he very clearly says:  “I can at least argue for my conception of what I think is valuable in human life.”[28] In other words, and in the same sense, he can certainly argue (as can Corlett) for what he thinks should be morally normative. But as Searle immediately observes: “such arguments, as is typical in ethics, are not demonstrative, in the sense that any rational [and, it might well be added, reasonable] person is bound to accept them on pain of irrationality [or unreasonableness].”[29] Searle concludes this thought with an idea that should interest Corlett, for it speaks directly to the latter’s concerns: “But from the fact that they [the arguments] have an element of epistemic subjectivity, it does not follow that they are arbitrary or beyond the scope of argument”.[30]

It would seem there is little more to be said on this topic, for anyone who understands, at least roughly, how language works, knows that it is possible to say equivalent things without using identical words. Thus it is no stretch whatsoever to conclude on the basis of what Searle says that he is arguing, explicitly, for moral considerations in the elaboration of human rights. He explicitly rejects the notion that they can be elaborated arbitrarily or without reference to moral foundations. This information and argument was presented in Lobo, but ignored in and by Corlett in 2017.

When Is the Universal Truly Necessary?

Sadly, however, this is not in fact the least of it. What is truly astonishing about Corlett’s pointing up that subjectivity and rationality are an important concern — as indeed they are — is that, in neither 2016 nor 2017, is there found any clear (non-tautological) explication of what counts as “morally normative” — his central peeve — anyway; the closest Corlett comes to giving the expression some substance is when he refers to “what are moral rights above and beyond what societies say they are” in 2016,[31] and in 2017, when he says that “human rights are […] are non-institutionally moral or ethical, backed by valid moral or ethical principles or rules.”[32]

To repeat: in an attempt to cut at Searle, Corlett informs his reader (as if the reader were unaware): “That something is rationally justified can be a subjective or relative matter.”[33] To be clear, Corlett is broadcasting the insight that what counts as rational and as justified (and by extension, surely, what is “true,” “valid,” “objective” and so on) is in fact subjective, relative — to one’s point of view, no doubt. It is claimed here that this intervention is astonishing. Why? Not for its content, certainly, but because the subject of its enunciation, namely Corlett himself, has in both 2016 and 2017 used the following phrases as if they were not tainted with subjectivity or relativity in the slightest: “‘true morality’,”[34] “valid moral claims,”[35] “valid moral rules,”[36] “a morally enlightened moral conscience,”[37] “objectively valid moral rules,”[38] “valid moral principles,”[39] notions like “objectively valid,”[40] “a proper interpretation,”[41] formulations like “[b]y ‘valid’ is meant objectively valid,”[42] “valid moral or ethical principles,”[43]  and this, while exhausting, is hardly an exhaustive list.

In not one single instance that can be found does Corlett allow that something like “true morality” might be a subjective or relative matter, that what counts as “a morally enlightened moral conscience” might be an unsettled question, within the scope of argument.[44] What is to be made of a statement like the following: “what makes a human right valid […] is valid [?] moral/ethical principles or rules which confer [wait for it…] validity on a human rights claim or interest and thereby confer the right in question to a particular individual or group”?[45] It is too distressingly convoluted and tautological to be considered a valid[46] English sentence; but what is more bothersome in the present context is it begs the question (begged by all the other just cited formulations too): who decides what is valid, true, objective, normative, moral, proper and so on?[47]

For Corlett there is a “true morality” that is not subjective, not relative; there are “valid moral claims” that are not subjective or relative matters; there is a “morally enlightened moral conscience” (yes, he uses the redundancy) and this is neither subjective nor relative. It is surprising that Corlett — that anyone engaged in the philosophical, and more pointedly, the social epistemological, if you will, enterprise — would so unselfconsciously, so unreflectively, so unironically, deploy such terms in an attempt to find fault with Searle’s — indeed, anyone’s — thinking. Does he not realize that such formulations are entirely of a piece with the discourses of radical religionists, Nazis, Stalinists, Maoists and so on?

They are not, however, part of Searle’s discourse. And in this regard it is to be noted, as a sort of coda to this section, that in the piece most selectively cited by Corlett[48] in 2016, and which has provided much food for thought above, Searle has the following to say about validity and the morally normative. First, validity: “a valid justification does not necessarily produce agreement.”[49] This observation does not seem to register with Corlett (his truism cited above notwithstanding). Searle goes on: “As a philosopher I would have a much easier life if people agreed with all my valid arguments. (No doubt my adversaries have the same feeling about my inability to appreciate their ‘valid’ arguments.)

The point for the present discussion is that one can legitimately argue for the validity and universality of certain human rights even though one knows that the conception of human dignity that one is arguing from is not universally shared and that one’s arguments will not convince people who wish to deny humans their rights.”[50] Who would dispute this? On the face of the evidence (2016 and 2017) Corlett would: “the moral conception of a human rights holds that such rights do not change.”[51] In other words, Corlett thinks these things can placed beyond argument. An audience of totalitarians would likely be the first to agree.

Regarding human rights more specifically, Searle says: “there ought to be a general account of them and how they relate to our humanity.”[52] This is essentially an argument in favor of something like moral normativity; he then adds, “I try to provide the beginning of such an account.”[53] Indeed. He then offers up a critique of merely “utilitarian” justifications of human rights, which again evinces his understanding of the need for some sort of normative grounding for them. It is deeply troubling that Corlett cannot intellectually grasp this. Finally, Searle reiterates his point, already present in 2010 but ignored for some reason by Corlett in 2016 and 2017, namely, that “a right can continue to exist even when it is not recognized” and that one therefore does “not lose” one’s “rights in a situation where they are generally violated.”[54] This provides a segue into the next section.

Searle’s Purpose and Contribution

In 2017, towards the end of his 22 pages responding to Lobo’s seven, Corlett admits that he doesn’t really know what Searle is up to in Searle (2010): “this discussion of Searle’s view of human rights raises the question of precisely which questions he is attempting to answer.”[55] Corlett offers up a couple of possibilities; but both are wrong. The overall goal for the chapter that so vexes Corlett is not to explore the field or tradition of human rights but to see what light, if any, Searle’s social ontology sheds on the ontology of human rights.[56] Towards the end of his chapter, Searle, having partially (but hardly completely) explored the debate on human rights, summarizes his basic position, using italics:

the justification for human rights cannot be ethically neutral. It involves more than just a biological conception of what sorts of beings we are; it also involves a conception of what is valuable, actually or potentially, about our very existence.[57]

Though he does not speak of morality in this quotation, he mentions ethics and elaborates what he means: it concerns what is valuable about our existence, which is to say, what is good, and best even. In other words, he insists on the need to formulate human rights by the light of reason (it is unclear how else such universal human rights might be formulated), with close attention paid to considerations grounded in the non-institutional, i.e. the biological, and extending into the ethical and moral. This quotation, in and of itself, should be enough to short-circuit Corlett’s argument, and knock the stuffing, the straw, out of the Searlean stand-in he constructs; in the face of it he could gracefully admit that he had misread Searle (for misreading is something to which even the best of us succumb), perhaps express gratitude for the clarification, and all involved could move on. Or not.

And so, in 2016 and 2017 these words from Searle (2010), cited in Lobo, which constitute clear evidence that Searle acknowledges the need to ground human rights in moral norms, are simply ignored or disputed as not saying exactly what Corlett wants (remember: he will accept nothing less than complete justification). It remains to be seen whether they will be ignored again, so it is worth emphasizing what Searle is doing here: Searle is doing exactly what Corlett says he is not doing. That Searle doesn’t use Corlett’s favorite phrases is what seems to make it impossible for Corlett to see this. With the benefit of this second clarification, perhaps he will.

But Searle is also doing something else. While not concerned at all to align his thinking with Corlett’s hallowed tradition, he is anxious to explore and resolve a paradox at the heart of thinking about human rights: on the one hand it is said human rights did not exist before the Enlightenment, but on the other hand, it is also said that human rights have always existed, but were only recognized with the Enlightenment, and indeed, can exist even when not recognized.[58]

Searle’s way of resolving the paradox is what was argued in Lobo to be his big contribution to the debate, which Corlett in 2017 dismisses as unoriginal.

So Who Is Right?

First, it is important to see how Corlett understands Lobo’s paraphrasing of Searle’s contribution. Corlett, conveniently (in more than one sense of the word) cites Lobo summarizing Searle: “Searle ‘… makes a contribution to the philosophy of human rights whose importance, I think, is hard to exaggerate, when he points out that what is crucial is that their potential bearers be recognized as a fully-fledged member of the human community and thus as entitled to the rights that accrue, automatically and inalienably, to each and every member of said community’ (Lobo 2017, 28.).”[59] This quotation is truncated, which would not be a problem[60] were the truncation signaled with an ellipsis; but it is not (and the initial ellipsis is not being questioned here).[61] Here is what Lobo wrote, with the missing words italicized:

…makes a contribution to the philosophy of human rights whose importance, I think, is hard to exaggerate, when he points out that what is crucial is that their potential bearers be recognized as actual bearers, that each and every member of the human species must be recognized as a fully-fledged member of the human community and thus as entitled to the rights that accrue, automatically and inalienably, to each and every member of said community.[62]

Does it make a difference? Insofar as Corlett’s version of Lobo evinces once more what might at this point be justly characterized as a tendency to selectively read, to conveniently misread, it probably makes a difference. The difference it might make is compounded by the fact that Corlett repeats the misquotation again on his next page, and it is on the basis of this misquotation that he dismisses as unoriginal what Lobo has said is an important contribution to the human rights discussion, as “either assumed, asserted, or argued by many doing rights theory during the past few decades.”[63] Tellingly, he does not cite any textual support for this assertion. He does however again quote the substance of the misquotation (this is the third time), as part of his attempt to denude Searle’s contribution of value.

It is perhaps inevitable that, having misquoted Lobo, Corlett should misunderstand him, and believe him to be saying something already and widely said. What is it that Corlett thinks Lobo is saying, that has already been said? It is this: “one must be a human being in order to be in a position to make valid rights claims.”[64] Or, the “fact” that humans are “members of the human community”, Corlett continues, “places them in a position to possess human rights.”[65] Now if this were what Lobo is saying, and if this were what Searle is saying (for Lobo is taken to be explicating Searle here), then Corlett would be right, and Lobo, at the very least, would probably be embarrassed, but grateful for the lesson. But again, this formulation of Corlett is based on a misreading, evidenced by Corlett’s reliance on an unreliable, and ungrammatical misquotation he produced.

What the Meaning of the Argument Was in the First Place

So what is Lobo actually saying? First, a return to the accurate quote, again adding emphasis where appropriate: with regard to human rights “what is crucial is that their potential bearers be recognized as actual bearers.” To make sense of this (these are the final lines of Lobo; the idea has been explicated previously in that text), one has to understand the socio-ontological difference between potential and actual bearers, and it is here that Searle’s work, whatever faults it may well and otherwise manifest, is so important.

For Searle’s work (specifically his discussion of status functions) allows us to understand that being human is not an ontological condition but a socio-ontological condition. This is a subtle point.[66] But it is profound.[67] One might say that there is the species, homo sapiens, (this is in a sense an assertion about ontological reality) members of which are potential bearers of human rights. But at the level of the symbolic, at the level of social ontology, members of the species homo sapiens are only often, but not always, regarded as humans and thus — lately at least — as possessors of human rights. Thus, potential bearers of human rights, that is members of the species homo sapiens, have to be recognized as humans (members of the human community) if they are to effectively have their human rights. If Corlett does not understand this, it is simply because he does not understand how status functions work, which is the subject for another occasion.

The second part of the text mishandled by Corlett is this, emphasizing with italics where necessary: “each and every member of the human species [i.e. every individual homo sapiens] must be recognized as a fully-fledged member of the human community and thus as entitled to” human rights. Note what is not being said here. It is not being said that “one must be a human being in order to be in a position to make valid rights claims”; nor is it being said that “members of the community of humans […] possess human rights.” These are both by now trite observations which, and Corlett is surely correct here, have long been part of the human rights tradition.

What is being said, based on Searlean social ontology, is that one must be recognized as a human being in order to make valid rights claims, that one must be seen as a member of the human community to (effectively) possess human rights, or to not have one’s human rights violated. What is the difference? The difference is that being a homo sapiens does not mean you are seen as, recognized as, a human being, a member of the community, and it is in this sense that a homo sapiens/human being can be said to both possess and be denied their human rights. Corlett’s whole discourse in 2016 and 2017 is predicated on the (mistaken) assumption that being human is socio-ontologically unproblematic and that the issue is the social existence and recognition of rights; but in fact it is about where and when homo sapiens are recognized and not recognized qua humans.

Corlett, and likely the tradition he invokes (if indeed he invokes its positions accurately, which at this point, it is not uncharitable to imagine, we have reason to doubt), may well say “No! Humans are humans, and as such are possessors of human rights!” Well, he and his vaunted tradition should go say it to Mr. Saifullah.

The Voice of a Lost Man

Mr. Saifullah? The reader is referred to the present essay’s epigraph. Mr. Saifullah, according to the story in the New York Times, is a member of the Rohingya refugee community living in Pakistan for the last four decades, in conditions that the paper describes as “distressingly impoverished even by Karachi’s standards.” He and the community to which he belongs are actively being denied their basic rights.

But how can this be so?, Corlett must ask — for surely Mr. Saifullah is human; clearly he belongs to the human community. Such a “fact”, Corlett would say, means he possesses rights, and he can claim them. Corlett would invoke the morally normative elements of the rights Mr. Saifullah possesses as a member of the human community and insist on the application of the normativity in question. And surely, just like that, Mr. Saifullah’s humanity would be recognized by the relevant parties and his rights, never lost, just violated, would be made effective.

If only it were so easy…

But Mr. Saifullah, unlike Corlett, gets it. He understands (that is to say, his words evidence at least an implicit understanding) that being a homo sapiens does not in fact make you a member of the human community, for he understands that the human community is not ontological in any straightforward way; rather, it is socially and symbolically ontological.[68] He understands that it is not what one is, but how one is seen, for how one is seen is what determines whether one will be afforded the considerations rights supposedly guarantee one.

Look at Mr. Saifullah’s words: “They won’t let me be a citizen, because then they have to give me rights and they won’t call me a refugee because then they have to give me aid”. And then: “I am not a citizen or a refugee. I am an illegal alien. I am nothing.” He understands that they — they, those who are not part of any hallowed tradition, but whose thinking on the matter is nonetheless decisive in a way Corlett, safely ensconced in the beautiful University of San Diego, doesn’t seem to even want to comprehend — don’t want to see him as a citizen or grant him citizenship, because then his rights as a human would have to be honored.

But nor will they call him a refugee, because in today’s world, refugees have rights to aid that have to be honored. But Mr. Saifullah is not done. For he knows that the Pakistani functionaries who are not honoring his rights cannot simply ignore him as if he were not there. He is not invisible; he exists.[69] But as what? And so they assign him a status function, though it is not the status function of human: in effect they are saying, this homo sapiens is not (at least not first and foremost) a human; he is, rather, an illegal alien.

As such it is not so much that his rights as a human are violated — for he is not seen as a human, at least not in the important sense; it is that qua this sort of social object — i.e. an other beyond the protections of the law — his “rights” need not be so much be ignored as actively violated. For how else would one treat an illegal alien?[70] In being counted as an illegal alien, he is able to be counted as nothing.

There is little left to say, except for the fact that Searle’s contribution sheds light on the rise in animal rights activism and indeed, on cases where people treat animals better than they treat homo sapiens. The former somehow acquire the status of human (understood in this case as the bearer of “rights” to life and comfort and to not be killed for food, etc.) and receive a level of care that millions of homo sapiens do not, these latter being assigned the status not of humans but of “the poor” or “the criminal” or “illegal aliens” or what have you. This point was made in Lobo.[71]

Conclusion: isn’t it (really) ironic?

Professor Corlett, to conclude, ends with stupendous irony, only adding substance to and validating Searle’s contribution, when he argues, in an attempt to score an inconsequential point against Searle (and Lobo), that there “are humans [what he means to say, though he doesn’t know it, is homo sapiens] both throughout history and today who have neither a moral […] right to life nor to freedom of expression, namely, those who deserve capital punishment based on their” crimes.[72]

Here Corlett is evidencing his subjective, relative perspective. For in Colombia, for example, such homo sapiens do not exist (at least not today): the Colombian constitution explicitly forbids not only capital punishment but also life imprisonment, no matter what the crime. But he is also evidencing an implicit endorsement of the Searlean perspective. For, of course, in contexts where such respect for what are still considered members of the human community in Colombia is absent, such homo sapiens are indeed, as he says, displaced from said community, and thus stripped of the rights that are otherwise a “simple” consequence of being (declared) human.

How? By declaring them to be something else. Which is to say that they are, through an institutional process, assigned a status function which, given the particular institutional arrangement and its foundational moral norms, supersedes the status function of human: they become now the condemned, convicts, guilty of capital crimes or indeed crimes against humanity, all status functions which permit and, in the corresponding situation, possibly demand that the organism to which such status function is assigned be put to death. Hopefully Professor Corlett will take some time to consider the consequences of this latent corroboration of Lobo’s presentation of Searle before dashing off another excessively long response. Or perhaps he will take the higher road, and simply leave things as they now stand.

Contact details:


Corlett, J. Angelo. “More on Searle on Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 15-36.

Corlett, J. Angelo. “Searle on Human Rights.” Social Epistemology 30, no. 4 (2016): 440-463.

Lobo, Gregory J. “Reason, Morality and Recognition: On Searle’s Theory of Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no 9: (2017): 22-28.

Searle, John R. Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Searle, John R. “Replies.” Analysis 71, no. 4 (2011): 733-741.

[1] Mehreen Zahra-Malik, “Far From Myanmar Violence, Rohingya in Pakistan Are Seething,” The New York Times, Sep. 12, 2017, accessed Sep. 13, 2017 A version of this article appears in print on September 13, 2017, on Page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Far From Myanmar’s Strife, Pakistan’s Rohingya Suffer.

[2] J Angelo Corlett, “Searle on Human Rights,” Social Epistemology 30, no. 4 (2016): 440-463.

[3] Gregory J Lobo, “Reason, Morality and Recognition,” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 22-28.

[4] Fearing that the use of the first person, while often justified, nonetheless interrupts the dialectic of collaborative reasoning, as interlocutors instantiate a personal, private relationship with “their” arguments and interpretations, such that they become embodiments of the same and thus refractory to evidence that contradicts them/their position, the third person is employed consistently throughout this essay, in an attempt to avoid what in Colombia is called a dialogue of the deaf (diálogo de sordos).

[5] J Angelo Corlett, “More on Searle on Human Rights,” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 15-36.

[6] John R Searle, Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization (Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 2010).

[7]John R Searle, “Replies” Analysis 71, no. 4 (2011): 733-741.

[8] Corlett’s mishandling of Lobo’s words is troubling on the face of it; it is even more so in light of Corlett’s insistence that “both critics and defenders of an author’s work owe it to themselves, the author, and others to carefully quote an author in constructing her position” (2017, 32 emphasis added).

[9] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[10] Corlett, “Searle,” 455. It shall go unremarked that “complete justification” would seem to be an impossible standard.

[11] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[12] Corlett, “Searle,” 454-455. More will be said about Corlett’s use of the notion of objective below.

[13] Corlett, “Searle,” 461-462.

[14] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[15] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[16] Though Lobo’s sincere attempt to help Corlett understand and correct the errors in his understanding of Searle have been received ungraciously by Corlett and, rather, met with snide but baseless insinuations (see 2017, 32), the temptation to fall into a mimetic replication of Corlett’s unprofessional response will here be resisted. The characterization of Corlett as dishonest, to be absolutely clear, is direct, and based on the evidence: that even though Lobo points out what Corlett has done in 2016, alerting him to his error, Corlett continues to ignore the evidence, and proceeds as if it didn’t exist and directly refute his position. He might have been understandably distracted the first time round, but the second time suggests something approaching dishonesty. Additionally, elsewhere in 2017 (see page 26), Corlett again acts in such a way as to justify the charge of dishonesty, as when he textually cites Lobo paraphrasing Searle, ignores Lobo’s textual citation of Searle, and then faults Lobo for not citing Searle directly.

[17] At the risk of redundancy, the reader is again reminded that in 2017 Corlett points out that “both critics and defenders of an author’s work owe it to themselves, the author, and others to carefully quote an author in constructing her position” (2017, 32). It seems that  Corlett exempts himself from this simple standard, actively transgressing it by engaging in selective quotation to serve his ends or by simply representing his own version of an author’s position without recourse to textual evidence. For example, Corlett argues, or implies (the difference is hugely important to Corlett) that someone (probably Searle, possibly Lobo) is “insist[ing] that only humans can have a right to life” (2017, 33). But no one, at least niether Searle nor Lobo, insists on such a thing.

[18] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[19] Corlett, “Searle,” 456.

[20] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[21] Corlett, “More,” 28-29, emphasis added. It is important to point out that the issue is not really whether Searle’s thinking can be aligned with any tradition. What is in question is whether Searle integrates what Corlett refers to as moral normativity into his thinking on human rights. Though Searle doesn’t use that precise phrasing, the evidence is insurmountable: he clearly does.

[22] Again, Corlett deploys the phrase “Searlean madness” in 2016 (456) to make the case that there is no distance between Searle’s thinking and white supremacy. One wonders how much distance there is between this sort of aspersion and calumny.

[23] Corlett, “Searle,” 458.

[24] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[25] Corlett, “Searle,” 455.

[26] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[27] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[28] Searle, Making, 192.

[29] Searle, Making, 192. In footnote 18 on page 29 of 2017, Corlett makes a fuss about the difference between reasonable and rational, emphasizing his preference for the former. His argument is unconvincing and one can just as easily make the case for their interchangeability. A quick online search using Google reveals: rationality — the quality of being based on or in accordance with reason or logic. Corlett is quite clearly clutching at straw(s).

[30] Searle, Making, 192.

[31] Corlett, “Searle,” 455. One might ask, justly, in what way this formulation differs from Searle’s insistence that human rights be formulated to rationally impose an obligation on all human beings to respect them.

[32] Corlett, “More,” 22.

[33] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[34] Corlett, “Searle”, 455. Corlett uses quotation marks around this phrase, though it is not clear why. For they most certainly are not scare quotes. His use of the term is non-ironic, thoroughly sincere.

[35] Corlett, “Searle,” 456, 460.

[36] Corlett, “Searle,” 457.

[37] Corlett, “Searle,” 456, 457 twice, 459.

[38] Corlett, “Searle,” 455, 457.

[39] Corlett, “Searle,” 457.

[40] Corlett, “More,” 20.

[41] Corlett, “More,” 23.

[42] Wait, what? Corlett, “More,” 20.

[43] Corlett, “More,” 22.

[44] It is noted, in passing, that Searle would recognize such concepts to be subject to argument. See below.

[45] Corlett, “More,” 25.

[46] Stipulated here.

[47] To this most basic criticism can be added that Corlett, in repeatedly drawing on the formulation that human rights are “discovered by human reason” (2016, 455; 2017, 25, 34), seems to think that rights are on the same level as black holes and quarks (truly “discovered” by human reason before being empirically observed), and that, moreover, reason itself is an uncorrupt tool, that its ethical discoveries are somehow beyond subjectivity and relativity.

[48] That is to say, cited selectively, for Corlett’s rhetorical convenience, rather than for the dialectical process.

[49] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[50] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[51] Which might well lead one to describe such rights as eternal, insofar as eternal can be taken to mean unchanging.

[52] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[53] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[54] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[55] Corlett, “More,” 33.

[56] Searle, Making, 175.

[57] Searle, Making, 190.

[58] Searle, Making, 177.

[59] Corlett, “More,” 17.

[60] In point of fact it would be a problem, for as cited by Corlett, it is ungrammatical. Corlett appears not to notice.

[61] At the risk of even more redundancy: In 2017 Corlett insists that “both critics and defenders of an author’s work owe it to themselves, the author, and others to carefully quote an author in constructing her position” (2017, 32, emphasis added).

[62] Lobo, “Reason,” 28.

[63] Corlett, “More,” 18.

[64] Corlett, “More,” 18.

[65] Corlett, “More,” 18.

[66] Hence, possibly, Corlett’s difficulty with it?

[67] See previous note.

[68] As any high schooler who learned the Greek roots of the word barbarian implicitly understands too.

[69] One might put it this way: his ontology is not in question (but nor is it decisive). What is in question, and what will be decisive, is his social ontology.

[70] This question, should it not be clear, is posed rhetorically.

[71] As further evidence of Corlett’s problematic practice, he usurps Lobo’s use of the phenomena of animal rights to make what seems to be a similar point, but without attribution. But typically, he gets it wrong because he misses the point. Someone who, in his own words, “painstakingly summarize[d]” Searle’s social ontology clearly doesn’t understand Searle’s main contribution to the field, status functions, and thus misses the point that social ontology is not about what is, it is about what can claim to be and what is recognized as being. People treat animals as if they were human, sometimes as if they were more than human. Often, people do not treat humans (homo sapiens) as human.

[72] Corlett, “More,” 2017.

Author Information: John Lyne, University of Pittsburgh,

Normative Functionalism and the Pittsburgh School: Table of Contents

Lyne, John. 2012. “Having ‘A Whole Battery of Concepts’: Thinking Rhetorically About the Norms of Reason.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (1): 143-148.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

The first part of this paper’s title alludes to the view of Wilfrid Sellers that having a concept requires having “a whole battery of concepts.” This has recently been described by Chauncey Maher (2012) as one of the shared assumptions of the “Pittsburgh School,” an important aspect of which is its commitment to “normative functionalism.” The second part alludes to the view that rhetoric works within cultural norms, as well as within the norms of reason, and that these have a complicated relationship to one another. The relationship between those two halves of the title are what I want to examine in this paper. I do so from the vantage of being physically located one floor up from the Pittsburgh Department of Philosophy, in the Department of Communication, and intellectually located somewhere at the very porous border between the norms of cultural expression and the norms of reason. However far my sensibilities may diverge from those of my philosophical colleagues, I take comfort in the fact that we all share the same elevators.

The rhetorician’s view of the battery of concepts, and of normative functioning as well, is one that presupposes fluidity rather than fixity. Broadly speaking, it shares with inferentialism a pragmatic framework. The rhetorical perspective is one that places emphasis on latitude and repertoire, including stories, lines of argument, and “scripts” for common types of interaction. On this view, to understand the way that concepts and norms bear upon judgment, one must consider how these are invoked and interpreted in variable ways, according to context, purpose, and audience. Rhetorical discourse is one of the inducements to navigating through the normative world. The academic student of rhetoric (hereafter “rhetorician”) is inclined by occupation to see judgments as something potentially and perpetually up for grabs, capable of veering one way or another, and subject to the influence of what Aristotle called “the available means of persuasion.” In what follows I want to lay out what I see as the implications of these starting points for thinking about what it means to be rhetorically situated within a field of norms, with a battery of concepts, and rendering judgments. Continue Reading…

Author Information: James Swindal, Duquesne University,

Normative Functionalism and the Pittsburgh School: Table of Contents

Swindal, James. 2012. “Norms and Causes: Loosing the Bonds of Deontic Constraint.” [1] Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (1): 117-132.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:


Some philosophers have developed comprehensive interactive models that purport to exhibit the various normative constraints that agents need to adopt in order to achieve what otherwise would be an unattainable and unsustainable social order. Robert Brandom’s semantic inferentialism purports to show how a rational construction of social coordination is enacted and maintained through specific mappings that agents make of each other’s commitments (beliefs) and entitlements (justified beliefs). Strongly influenced by Brandom’s account, Joseph Heath reconstructs a number of historically emergent deontic constraints that solve what are otherwise unsolvable game-theoretic problems in the maintenance of the social order. But both accounts omit a sufficient analysis of the way in which individual agents, who comprise the normative order, are effectively addressed by norms when they act. How does an agent, who is facing a unique interactive situation with more than one normative path to choose, make a decision? One solution, attractive to some continental thinkers, is to appeal to an innate irrational component of decision-making that lies outside of rational bounds (e.g., Nietzsche’s will to power or Adorno’s das Hinzutrentende). The model I will defend lies in an existential account of agency that occupies a middle ground between a pure naturalism (where instinct dominates) and a pure regularism, or “normativism” (where reason dominates). The existential model asserts that the given normative field within which an agent operates conditions the formation of the agent’s intention to act but does not determine the effecting of an action as such — whether individual or collective. On this model, the specification of the acting or not acting on the normative intention is determined only retrospectively on the basis of what the agent actually did in a way that is in principle public and observable. Thus the content of the agency can be reconstructed only historically. The embodied character of the agent is what makes the action relatable to the sum of conditions that were co-determinative of the action at the time it occurred. The advantage of this view is that it does not overreach the highly limited access that we have to the inner workings of intentions to act while at the same time providing an account of agency independent of simply the agent’s relation to norms.

Some social philosophers as of late have developed holistic models of socially developed and sustained normative systems. Jürgen Habermas, Robert Brandom, and Joseph Heath have developed theories which place rational choice analysis within a broader social holism. [2] Such theories, when fully developed, can actually serve to neutralize the need for strongly interventionist legal and economic steering of social coordination and thereby to support more cultural and hermeneutic forms of social integration. A problem, though, is that their reliance on forms of deontic constraint to solve coordination dilemmas cannot sufficiently account for the role of agent-centered purposive actions in such normative systems. Deontic constraints are determinations of consistency or inconsistency that can be applied to semantic and inferential expressions of decisions to act. For example, if I am deciding whether or not to give a contribution to a charity, I can express the proposition to do so relative to whether it would be inconsistent not to do so given other commitments I have de facto adopted by my prior actions, such as giving in the past. Continue Reading…