Archives For phenomenal knowledge

Author Information: Michel Croce, University of Edinburgh, michel.croce@ed.ac.uk.

Croce, Michel. “Objective Expertise and Functionalist Constraints.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 5 (2019): 25-35.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. This essay is published in two separate posts, the first of which is available at this link. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-49a

Pictured here, an artist’s rendering of Christian Quast and his uncle who can do plumbing. Some liberties in representation have been taken.
Image by Natalie Bowers via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

. . . . In a word, Quast cannot have his cake and eat it too.

On the Fundamental Ingredients of Expertise

The balanced account suffers from a second problem pertaining to the aforementioned ingredients of expertise, namely primary competence, secondary competence, and intellectual virtues (see also Hardwig 1994, 92). According to ExpertF-C-M, expertise requires an undefeated disposition to fulfill a particular service function adequately at the moment of assessment.

In turn, all three ingredients feature in the undefeated-disposition requirement, in that lacking any of them defeats the attribution of expertise. In this section, I demonstrate that this account is too strong, as it poses unduly restrictive requirements for one to be an expert. In particular, I worry about secondary competence and what Quast calls “intellectually virtuous character” as necessary components of expertise.

Let us consider secondary, or explanatory, competence first: the ability to give an account of one’s performances. We have already seen that on the balanced account, failing to display secondary competence defeats expertise because, as the wine-consultant case shows, we expect from experts that they can give us explanations regarding their services.

However, the plausibility of this understanding of expertise entirely rests on the specifics of the example Quast introduces. In the proposed case, a subject challenges the wine consultant’s evaluation because of its inconsistency with the subject’s expectations and the testimony of the former owner of the cellar. Notice, though, that the disposition to account for one’s performances—in particular, to laypeople—requires an entirely different set of abilities than the ones necessary to fulfill one’s service function successfully. The former set includes such intellectual virtues as a sensitivity to a layperson’s epistemic resources, communicative clarity, intellectual generosity, and possibly other abilities.[1]

A civil engineer could well possess primary competence in demolishing or rebuilding a bridge and the ability to discuss it with other experts yet lack the competence to provide effective explanations of their techniques, strategies, and related risks to a lay audience. Something similar happens in sports. A lot of amazing athletes can do extremely complicated things that are generally out of reach for most human beings, yet they may not be able properly to account for what they do.

They can show you these actions hundreds of times, but if you ask them to tell you how they do that, you might feel extremely disappointed or confused by their explanations. This is why not all the greatest sport heroes are good coaches and not all the best civil engineers can effectively account for what they do to a lay audience. For as I will stress in the final section, primary competence and secondary competence are, in a sense, different kinds of expertise.

A Private or People’s Expertise

The required combination of these competences for a proper understanding of expertise on Quast’s view is somewhat surprising if we bear in mind that he wants to confer objective expertise to “private experts,” who can offer us quite specific services such as fixing some leaky drain pipes. In Quast’s private-expert case, it seems odd to require that Christian’s father-in-law be able to give an account of how he is going to fix the pipe in order to fulfill the function of a private expert.

For, on the one hand, the relevant contrast class includes two individuals, namely Christian and his wife, who—as we are told—are both inexperienced in these kinds of handicraft matters. On the other, Christian’s father-in-law might even lack the necessary abilities properly to explain how he will repair the pipes.

These considerations make it hard to see why giving an appropriate account of the provided service should be necessary for Christian’s father-in-law to be an expert on a functionalist view that aims at being in a position to grant private experts objective expertise.

Consider now the other ingredient of expertise on Quast’s view, namely one’s intellectual character in the sense of their willingness to manifest primary and secondary competence when appropriate. The above considerations about the intellectual abilities required for one to deliver proper explanations of one’s service should provide sufficient reason to consider possession of an intellectually virtuous character as a relevant component of the competences required for one to be an expert rather than as mere willingness to manifest such competences.[2] Thus, in the remainder of this critical notice I shall simply tackle the willingness component and, in particular, the willingness to manifest secondary competence when appropriate.

Suppose a physicist, call him Ivory Tower, is completely reluctant to share anything related to his work with people, especially laypersons. Ivory’s social interactions are limited to what’s required for him to keep his position at his institution. Ivory works in optics, and, in particular, he is developing reliable ways to see through walls by using special cameras. More specifically, he is working on a project that would allow rescue teams to individuate people when the terrain is dangerous and would allow cars to avoid accidents by identifying obstacles or vehicles from around the corner.

Quast’s view commits us to conclude that Ivory lacks expertise in optics or whatever more specific subfield he is working in because he fails to display the required willingness to give an account of his performances when appropriate. This verdict is unsatisfying in general, as it strikes us as evident that Ivory’s extremely sophisticated work in optics should suffice to grant him the status of an expert.

Furthermore, the verdict is unsatisfying even from the perspective of a functionalist account of expertise, as Quast’s purports to be. For despite lacking willingness to explain his work to others, Ivory is surely serving laypeople’s needs. He does so by attempting to solve problems in optics and providing the community with new resources rather than by making himself accountable for his work to a lay audience, but this merely amounts to another relevant way an expert can serve their community, as I will argue in the next section. Thus, since there seem to be no good reasons to deny Ivory the expertise he has acquired through years of intense work, we can conclude that the willingness to manifest secondary competence is not a necessary condition for one to possess expertise.

Two allegedly key ingredients in Quast’s account of expertise, namely secondary competence and the willingness to manifest that competence when appropriate, are less fundamental than one might have initially thought. In fact, they should not be considered necessary requirements for one to be an expert in some domain. In the final section, I shall explore some implications of the considerations offered so far, with the aim of contributing to reaching a better understanding of the notion of, and the role of, an expert in the context of the society we currently live in.

Expertise Today: Toward an Objective Approach

Many reputable scholars characterize the age we live in as a post-truth era (Fuller 2018) in which the very idea of expertise is dead (Nichols 2017), as it has been replaced by a free market in information and self-attributed competences that takes place in the blogosphere (Coady 2012), the internet (Lynch 2016), and more recently social media, where fake news easily proliferates (Vosoughi et al. 2018). As Nichols thoroughly describes (see §7), we’re surrounded by a gigantic amount of news and by experts who are more and more specialized in any domain, and yet we know less than before and distrust expertise.

If there is one thing epistemologists can surely do—in fact, must do—to counteract the advance of post-truth thinking in our society, it is attempting to reach a better understanding of the notion of expertise. Such a service would not solve all the problems, yet it would at least contribute to indicating where genuine competence lies and who has it and therefore to marking a neater distinction between experts and charlatans. This is why I am largely sympathetic to Quast’s efforts, as it is clear that we need experts now more than ever.

It is for the same reasons, though, that I believe Quast’s balanced account of expertise is on the wrong track. In this final section, I make two points to suggest how we should redirect our search for a better account of expertise. First, I explain why we need a more objective account of expertise. Second, I suggest an alternative way to look at the service experts are supposed to fulfill in our communities.

The first consideration is called for by the peculiar situation we’re currently in. As I showed in §1, the functionalist spirit of the balanced account of expertise ends up undermining the very notion of objective expertise that Goldman has in mind when he argues that “being an expert is not simply a matter of veritistic superiority to most of the community. Some non-comparative threshold of veritistic attainment must be reached” (2001, 91).

Since Goldman admits that it might be difficult to determine where the bar has to be set, one might suspect the balanced account has a clear advantage over a purely objective approach to expertise, as on Quast’s view being suitably disposed and willing to serve the need of a relevant contrast class is all it takes for one to achieve the status of an expert.

This is a mistake though because it is far from obvious that a novice or group of novices can reliably ascribe expertise to someone who is supposed to be more competent than they are in a domain. In other words, the more context sensitive and subject sensitive is the process of expertise attribution, the higher is the risk of misplacing trust in non-experts. This is an unwelcome consequence of the balanced account—a consequence that makes the account lose its alleged positional advantage over objective approaches to expertise.

Against the Balanced Account

My proposed epistemic consideration against the balanced account of expertise can be supported by a further reason for favoring an objective account of expertise—namely, the fact that this latter account provides a community with robust criteria for assessing who is to be trusted to deliver a service in any field. This translates into a practical advantage for the entire community, which can create ways to signal who and where experts are[3] and therefore help lay members navigate the current ocean of self-attributed competences and epistemic egalitarian ideals. Needless to say, this consideration does not suffice as a remedy against the detrimental effects of post-truth thinking; yet it should at least offer motivation for directing our efforts toward an objective approach to expertise rather than a “balanced” one.

The second consideration brings the distinction between primary and secondary competence back on stage. In a realist, or objective, approach, the attribution of expertise cannot depend on the specific function one is required to fulfill relative to some contrast class in a particular context. Some handy craftsperson who has learned how to repair the very same leaky drain pipe at one’s home over the years does not count as an expert, because their competence is too limited and unreliable in similar situations in which a proficient plumber is expected to succeed.

Yet, an objective account is in a position to distinguish at least two broad kinds of expertise, namely the expertise of those who can reliably provide some sort of service in a domain and those who can explain what’s going on in a domain to others, especially laypeople. Call the former domain-oriented expertise and the latter novice-oriented expertise.

The set of domain-oriented experts includes reliable plumbers, scuba divers, wine tasters, lawyers, doctors, musicians, and scholars, among others. Their expertise consists of an ability to serve the needs of a community in their respective domains—that is, what Quast calls primary competence. In particular, the function of domain-oriented experts encompasses two main roles:

(i) that of expert practitioners, who address specific needs of the community members—for example, repairing leaky drain pipes, maintaining or restoring health, and performing jazz music; and

(ii) that of expert innovators, whose job is to improve the community’s capacity to serve the needs of their members by developing new resources, advancing the techniques, or carrying out groundbreaking research in a domain—for example, creating more-robust drain pipes, developing new therapies against cancer, or composing jazz music.

As should be evident, both functions demand that the subject have intellectual or practical dispositions to reliably deliver the required services. However, these roles are quite different, and not all expert practitioners are also expert innovators, and vice versa. Thus, any individual who fulfills either role possesses domain-oriented expertise.

In contrast, the set of novice-oriented experts includes those individuals who have secondary competence, namely the capacity to help laypeople understand the services domain-oriented experts provide to the community. This set typically includes teachers and science popularizers, but all domain-oriented experts who possess a sufficient amount of secondary competence may have novice-oriented expertise too.

However, possessing domain-oriented expertise does not ensure that one also has novice-oriented expertise, as the wine-consultant and civil-engineer cases discussed in §2 demonstrate. For this service activates a different set of dispositions—namely, novice-oriented abilities, which are not strictly necessary for one to possess domain-oriented expertise.

Conclusion

The proposed categorization of the two main services experts fulfill in a community allows us to take into due consideration the functionalist element of expertise without giving up on an objective perspective that grants conceptual primacy to the dispositional component of expertise. We all wish to be surrounded by subjects who can offer clear explanations of how they are going to satisfy our needs, but we’d better also have an account that explains why some experts greatly serve the domain-oriented needs of our community without being able to serve the novice-oriented ones.

This is not only important for us to improve the explanatory power of our definition of expertise, but also for a community to evaluate how to deploy its resources to ensure that both kinds of experts are in a suitable position to fulfill their respective service function.

This reply to Quast’s insightful paper aimed at shedding light on some limits of his account and sketching a strategy to accept Quast’s suggestions about the necessary balance between a dispositional dimension and a functionalist dimension of expertise within an objective approach. Far from offering a comprehensive alternative account, I hope this reply can encourage others to address the important issues Quast has raised in his paper and can contribute to improving our understanding of the notion of expertise.

Contact details: michel.croce@ed.ac.uk

References

Coady, David. 2012. What to Believe Now: Applying Epistemology to Contemporary Issues. Malden (MA): Wiley-Blackwell.

Croce, Michel. 2019. “On What It Takes to Be An Expert.” The Philosophical Quarterly 69(274): 1-21.

Fuller, Steve. Post-Truth: Knowledge as A Power Game. London: Anthem Press.

Goldman, Alvin. 2001. “Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 63: 85-110.

Lynch, Michael. 2016. The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in The Age of Big Data. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Nichols, Tom. 2017. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. New York: Oxford University Press.

Quast, Christian. 2018. “Towards A Balanced Account of Expertise.” Social Epistemology 32(6): 397-419.

Vosoughi, Soroush; Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral. (2018). “The Spread of True and False News Online.” Science 359 (6380): 1146-1151.

[1] These virtues are part of what I have elsewhere called novice-oriented abilities (see Croce 2019, 13).

[2] For the sake of completeness, it should also be noted that other intellectual virtues may be required for one to possess primary competence in a domain, especially in those fields in which competence involves some propositional knowledge and understanding. In particular, I have in mind virtues such as thoroughness, intellectual perseverance, creativity, open-mindedness, intellectual curiosity, and autonomy (see Croce 2019, 18).

[3] As Goldman points out, this is the role of academic certifications, professional accreditations, work experiences, and so on (2001, 97).

Author Information: Michel Croce, University of Edinburgh, michel.croce@ed.ac.uk.

Croce, Michel. “Objective Expertise and Functionalist Constraints.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 5 (2019): 25-35.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. This essay is published in two separate posts, the second of which is available at this link. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-496

Image by Bill Kerr via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Christian Quast has recently embarked on the project of systematizing the debate about the notion of expertise, an extremely fascinating and important issue addressed by scholars of many disciplines yet still in need of an interdisciplinary take. He sheds light on a number of relevant features of this notion and defends what he calls a “balanced” account of expertise, namely one that defines this concept in light of an expert’s dispositions, manifestations of their dispositions, and social role or function.

In doing so, Quast argues against three versions of reductionism about expertise: ReductionismF, which reduces expertise to the function an expert fulfills in a community; ReductionismM, which confuses expertise with the manifestation of an expert’s competence; and ReductionismD, in which expertise boils down to possessing suitable dispositions in a specific domain—that is, practical abilities or epistemic properties such as knowledge, true beliefs, or understanding.

As an attempt at bringing together interdisciplinary discussions of a specific topic, Quast’s project is ambitious and provides a genuine contribution to the ongoing discussions around the topic of expertise in philosophy, psychology, and the social sciences. Inevitably, Quast’s rich analysis and original proposal raise a number of worries that deserve to be further inspected.

In this critical reply, I offer some considerations that put pressure on Quast’s balanced account and hopefully help anyone interested in this debate take a step forward toward explaining what it takes for one to be an expert. The reply is structured as follows. First, I argue that his allegedly balanced view is liable to a potentially compromising tension between its function component and the ingredients of objective expertise (§1).

Then, I show that Quast’s threefold characterization of an objective expert is too strong, as it imposes conditions that several individuals whom we would consider experts are unable to fulfill (§2). Finally, I provide reasons in favor of endorsing an objective account of expertise in light of some specific features of our society, and show how this account can take into due consideration the different services experts ordinarily perform (§3).

Against a Balanced Account of Expertise

The first consideration I want to offer in response to Quast is that, to put it simply, he cannot have his cake and eat it too. Quast devotes a good amount of his paper to convincing us that the aforementioned reductionist accounts of expertise are flawed and that a more plausible story of what it takes for one to be an expert has to rely upon “an entangled interrelationship” between an expert’s dispositions and the contextual service function they perform in a community (2019, 412). In this section, I purport to show that such an entangled relationship of dispositions and functions on his balanced approach is largely problematic.

Let us recall Quast’s comprehensive definition of an expert, which is offered right at the end of his article:

(ExpertF-C-M) Someone e is an objective expert in contrast to some client c within a certain domain d only if e is undefeatedly disposed to fulfill a particular service function in d for c adequately at the moment of assessment (412).

At first glance, Quast’s move is attractive. In the end, we usually think of experts as subjects who are more competent than most people in a domain,[1] but, at the same time, we grant one the status of an expert (i) based on their social role and (ii) against a relevant contrast class of individuals who are unable to provide a similar service. In contrast, both ReductionismF and ReductionismD are liable to counterexamples.

The former is wrongly committed to granting the status of an expert translator to a subject who manages a translation-services company by delegating any job to unknown freelancers and lacks any translating skills (402). The latter is wrongly committed to grant the status of a wine expert to an individual who can correctly estimate the value of a wine cellar without having the ability or the willingness to provide an explanation of their evaluation (407).

In contrast, neither the manager nor the wine consultant satisfies the requirements of expertise on the balanced account. The former is not an expert, because he lacks the dispositions required to provide translating services—that is, knowledge of at least two languages, translating skills, and the like. The latter is not an expert, because her competence to assess the value of wine cellars gets defeated by her inability or unwillingness to give an account of her services at the moment of assessment (407).[2]

Dispositions and Functions in Tension

However, a closer inspection of Quast’s proposed view of expertise reveals a tension between the disposition component and the function component. Consider the disposition component first and, in particular, his analysis of objective expertise.

He conceives of objective expertise as encompassing the following three elements: (i) primary competence, which relates to an expert’s reliability in delivering the services they are supposed to provide; (ii) secondary competence, which relates to an expert’s ability to explain their services to a client, thereby establishing and fostering mutual trust; and (iii) intellectually virtuous character, which ensures that an expert is willing to manifest both the above competences when appropriate.

For the time being, let’s set aside a reasonable concern one might have about Quast’s unduly narrow characterization of the role intellectual-character virtues play in his account of objective expertise.[3]

The balanced account is quite demanding, as according to it someone is an objective expert insofar as they are competent in a given domain, able to provide their clients with tailored explanations of their services, and willing to do so in the appropriate circumstances. Going back to the wine-consultant case, it should be evident that the reason why the consultant might fail to be an expert is that she lacks secondary competence, intellectual virtues, or both, as her inability or unwillingness to share any considerations about her estimate of the wine cellar with the client demonstrates.

As anticipated, on the balanced account these considerations about objective expertise need to be balanced, or implemented, with further remarks on the service function of experts. Here Quast takes quite a concessive route and offers the case of a “private expert”: in the example, Christian Quast’s wife asks him to find someone who can fix or replace a leaky drain pipe; he approaches the issue by relying on his father-in-law, whose craft hobby enables him to solve the problem (410).

Quast is ready to admit that his father-in-law is more of an expert than himself and his wife, yet he goes so far as to concede that the man satisfies the requirements of a function-based account of expertise.

The function component plays a key role in this account, in that the service his father-in-law fulfills determines

(i) a relevant contrast class of individuals who lack the disposition to perform a specific function—that is, the class composed of Christian and his wife;

(ii) a proper characterization of the domain of expertise, namely that of replacing leaky drain pipes;

(iii) the degree of reliability required for Christian’s father-in-law to fulfill the function—that is, Christian’s own standards for replacement of leaky drain pipes;

(iv) a range of similar situations in which the man is supposed to be able to deliver his services; and

(v) minimum conditions for him to fulfill the individual requirements of objective expertise, which in this case require relative competence to repair the leaky drain pipe at the Quasts’ place.

Thus, on Quast’s balanced account, possession of expertise depends on contextual factors, such as the specifics of the contrast class of laypeople and the situation in which expertise is ascribed, as well as on practical factors, such as the needs of the relevant clients and the urgency of the required service. These elements determine whether a hobbyist-craftsperson is an expert in repairing leaky drain pipes or a wine consultant is an expert in value assessment of wine cellars.

Problems of Balance in Expertise

Unfortunately, the “balanced” account emerging from these components is less tenable than one might have initially thought. The first problem is that it is hard to make sense of the notion of objective expertise on such a functionalist account. For possession of objective expertise in a domain becomes hostage to two inherently relative elements, namely (i) the service someone is disposed and willing to fulfill for (ii) a community—or contrast class, to stick with Quast’s vocabulary.

On standard comparative accounts of expertise, (ii) obviously plays a major role, as possession of expertise merely amounts to being more of an expert in a (broader or narrower) domain than some group of people and therefore expertise reduces to an entirely comparative notion.

In such a perspective, both Christian’s father-in-law and a plumbing engineer are experts in repairing leaky drain pipes although the latter’s competence is much broader than the former’s. For each of them is more of an expert than the respective contrast class, which includes Christian and his wife in the former case versus, say, most people in the engineer’s town, district, or state in the latter case. Clearly, though, this diagnosis comes at the cost of giving up on the inquiry into the objective requirements of expertise.

Despite including (ii) in his account of expertise, Quast purports to endorse a view that makes room for objective expertise. Thus, he has to prevent this relative condition from delivering the standard comparative diagnosis in situations such as the leaky-drain-pipes one.

He does so through the service-function element—that is, (i)—by arguing that one is an objective expert insofar as they are undefeatedly disposed to serve a relevant need of the respective community or contrast class. Thus, on the balanced account we can still attribute objective expertise to both Christian’s father-in-law and a plumbing engineer as long as they can fix leaky drain pipes in the respective community or contrast class.

I am unpersuaded by this move for two reasons. The first is that introducing a relative element such as (i) does not neutralize the anti-objective effect of (ii); rather, it is likely to intensify such an effect by adding a further relative variable to the account. The second is that the only way for Quast to grant expertise to his father-in-law and a plumbing engineer is to impose odd restrictions on domains of expertise.

Specifically, he has to concede that his father-in-law is an expert because he serves the community composed of Christian and his wife by doing something like “repairing leaky drain pipes at the Quasts’ place” or “repairing leaky drain pipes of some kind.” In contrast, the plumbing engineer is an expert because he serves a wider community by, say, “repairing leaky drain pipes of any kind.”

This move would thus generate an unnecessary proliferation of domains of expertise depending on the specific needs of any relevant contrast class. For example, my auntie Renata, who helps most inhabitants of a rural village in Liguria react to (i.e., “like”) and comment on the content appearing in their Facebook news feed, would possess objective expertise in something like “adding likes and comments on posts on Facebook” relative to the contrast class composed of the citizens of Bevena, although her competence regarding social networks ends pretty much there.

These considerations show that the balanced account narrows the notion of expertise to the point that we lose our grip on what is objective about an expert’s competence. To avoid this result and save both the functionalist spirit of his view and its context sensitivity, Quast should abandon the idea of making room for objective expertise and endorse an entirely comparative account. This is why, in a word, Quast cannot have his cake and eat it too.

Contact details: michel.croce@ed.ac.uk

References

Coady, David. 2012. What to Believe Now: Applying Epistemology to Contemporary Issues. Malden (MA): Wiley-Blackwell.

Croce, Michel. 2019. “On What It Takes to Be An Expert.” The Philosophical Quarterly 69(274): 1-21.

Fuller, Steve. Post-Truth: Knowledge as A Power Game. London: Anthem Press.

Goldman, Alvin. 2001. “Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 63: 85-110.

Lynch, Michael. 2016. The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in The Age of Big Data. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Nichols, Tom. 2017. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. New York: Oxford University Press.

Quast, Christian. 2018. “Towards A Balanced Account of Expertise.” Social Epistemology 32(6): 397-419.

Vosoughi, Soroush; Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral. (2018). “The Spread of True and False News Online.” Science 359 (6380): 1146-1151.

[1] It may be helpful to note that this competence may boil down to different properties and dispositions depending on the specifics of the domain under consideration. For instance, the competence of an expert carpenter might involve a good deal of experience, practical skills, and know-how, whereas the competence of an expert in contemporary history might be mostly based on great instruction, analytical skills, and theoretical understanding of the extant literature and recent historical events.

[2] In the analysis of his wine-expert case, Quast points out that we might ascribe a default expertise to the wine consultant yet withdraw our attribution of expertise if she refuses to provide suitable explanations of her evaluation (407–8).

[3] As I have argued elsewhere (see Croce 2019, §§4–5), we have reasons to think the character virtues of an expert make them not only willing but also able to fulfill their service function within a community.

Author Information: Nadja El Kassar, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, nadja.elkassar@gess.ethz.ch.

El Kassar, Nadja. “A Critical Catalogue of Ignorance: A Reply to Patrick Bondy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 49-51.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-46U

Image by Lynn Friedman via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This article responds to critiques of El Kassar, Nadja (2018). “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance.” Social Epistemology. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1518498.

Including Bondy, Patrick. “Knowledge and Ignorance, Theoretical and Practical.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 9-14.

Thanks to Patrick Bondy for these inspiring comments that allows me to further explain the arguments and rationale of the integrated conception of ignorance. 

Weak and Strong Ignorance

Bondy’s suggestion that there is weak ignorance and strong ignorance just as there is strong and weak knowledge is very interesting and perceptive (Bondy 2018, 11-12). But I take it that this distinction is more relevant for defenders of the propositional conception of ignorance, in particular supporters of the Standard View and New View.

In my reply to Peels (2019), I suggest that we should not see knowledge and ignorance as simple opposites, nor that their accounts should be mirrored. And in the original article I have argued that the Standard View and the New View are not adequate for capturing ignorance. Therefore, Bondy’s suggestion and the related criticism of the debate between the Standard View and New View is not as pertinent for my integrated conception of ignorance, but I think it should be taken seriously as an alternative approach to distinguishing forms of ignorance.

“Agential Ignorance” and “Agential Conception of Ignorance”

I need to point to a terminological issue in Bondy’s reply that may be central for distinguishing conceptions of ignorance and particular instances of ignorance, and thus also for motivating and defending the integrated conception of ignorance: Bondy swiftly changes between “agential conception of ignorance” and “agential ignorance” and seems to use these terms interchangeably. Similarly, for “structural conception of ignorance” and “structural ignorance”.

But these terms are importantly distinct: the former refers to a conception or an approach, the latter to a form of ignorance, or also particular instances of ignorance. In my article I only discuss agential conceptions and structural conceptions and I do not use the terms “agential ignorance” or “structural ignorance” because I am specifically interested in conceptions of ignorance

Practical Ignorance

Bondy, like Peels, points out that I do not address lack of practical knowledge or lack of know-how. Again, I fully agree that this is an open question in my article and for the integrated conception and I look forward to addressing this question in more detail. In his reply, Bondy suggests that my integrated conception can be extended to apply to such “practical ignorance” in the following way:

Theoretical ignorance: this would remain as El Kassar formulates her integrated conception of ignorance, as “a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs – either she has no belief about p or a false belief – and her epistemic attitudes (doxastic attitudes, epistemic virtues, epistemic vices)”

Practical ignorance: a disposition of an agent that manifests itself in her actions – where S fails to φ, or S does not φ well or properly – and her practical attitudes (ethical and pragmatic attitudes, ethical or practical virtues and vices). (Bondy 2018, 13)

Yet, I have to reject this charitable extension. Bondy, as well as Peels, is right that there is work to do in this field, but simply imposing the integrated conception on “practical ignorance” would not be appropriate, nor is it an approach that I would wish to take.

First, I doubt that we can simply replace epistemic attitudes, virtues and vices with practical attitudes, practical virtues and vices to cover the practical case. Second, I think we need to respect the highly-evolved debate about know-how and include their concerns and arguments in any account that wants to address the lack of know-how or lack of practical knowledge. Any further conclusions require starting communication between the different fields and debates – a genuinely exciting prospect for philosophy of ignorance!

A first step might be to examine the terminology that we are using: Bondy discusses “practical ignorance” but maybe the term “incompetence” is more apt for these practical cases? Interestingly enough, psychologists who work on ignorance and meta-ignorance sometimes frame ignorance in terms of incompetence, see, for example Dunning in describing the Dunning-Kruger-Effect (Dunning 2011, 260).

Finally, and more fundamentally, I do not see why one should go for a unified account of theoretical and practical ignorance that uses the same components for both forms of ignorance. As I explain in my reply to Peels, I think that one should not aim for a unified account of ignorance and knowledge but instead take the phenomena seriously as they are. For now I take the same considerations to hold for theoretical ignorance and practical ignorance.

“We Can Say Everything That We Want to Say About Ignorance”

Bondy claims that “we can say everything we want to say about ignorance” (Bondy 2018, 9) with the propositional conception. But his claim is based on the assumption that what I call constituents of ignorance really are just causes of ignorance and I hope that my clarificatory remarks in this reply and my reply to Peels’ contribution explain why the assumption is not warranted and why the propositional conception does not say enough about ignorance. Let me briefly return to some arguments to motivate my position:

One problem is that Bondy’s (and Peels’) interpretation of closed-mindedness and other virtues or vices as causes of ignorance makes it seem as if these virtues and vices are naturally efficient causes; i.e. they turn the original claim that epistemic virtues and vices are co-constituents of ignorance into the claim that they are efficient causes.

But I would like to hear more about why we should draw this conclusion or why it is warranted. Again, a parallel in philosophy of know-how may be helpful in that context: know-how as a disposition does not explain why a performance occurred, it explains “why a certain kind of act … is possible in the first place” (Löwenstein 2017, 85, emphasis in original). And, similarly, a disposition, like open-mindedness or closed-mindedness, does not explain why someone does not know that p or why someone is ignorant of that particular fact. We need events in the world, decisions, beliefs, and motivations and the like to explain why someone is ignorant.

Second, as I say in the article, ignorance is more than a doxastic issue, it also has an attitudinal component, how one is ignorant – not how one has become ignorant, but the particular character of one’s ignorance. That also involves more than saying what kind of ignorance (e.g. propositional ignorance or practical ignorance) the particular instance belongs to. There is another facet of ignorance that is constitutive of ignorance and it cannot be captured by the propositional conception since it is restricted to the doxastic component.

That is why I want to say more about ignorance than just refer to the doxastic component. And even more, I suggest that everyone who wants to capture actual instances of ignorance should want to say more about ignorance than the propositional conception does.[1]

Contact details: nadja.elkassar@gess.ethz.ch

References

Bondy, Patrick. 2018. “Knowledge and Ignorance, Theoretical and Practical.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7 (12): 9–14.

Dunning, David. 2011. “The Dunning–Kruger Effect.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 44:247–96. Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-385522-0.00005-6.

Löwenstein, David. 2017. Know-How as Competence: A Rylean Responsibilist Account. Studies in Theoretical Philosophy, vol. 4. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann.

Peels, Rik. 2019. “Exploring the Boundaries of Ignorance: Its Nature and Accidental Features.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8 (1): 10–18.

[1] Thanks to David Löwenstein and Lutz Wingert for helpful discussions.

Author Information: Nadja El Kassar, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, nadja.elkassar@gess.ethz.ch

El Kassar, Nadja. “The Irreducibility of Ignorance: A Reply to Peels.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 31-38.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-46K

Image by dima barsky via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This article responds to critiques of El Kassar, Nadja (2018). “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance.” Social Epistemology. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1518498.

Including Peels, Rik. “Exploring the Boundaries of Ignorance: Its Nature and Accidental Features.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 10-18.

Thanks to Rik Peels for his thought-provoking comments which give me the opportunity to say more about the arguments and rationale of my article and the integrated conception. 

General Remarks About Two Approaches to Ignorance

Rik Peels’ and Patrick Bondy’s replies allow me to highlight and distinguish two approaches to ignorance, one that focuses on ignorance as a simple doxastic (propositional) phenomenon and another that regards ignorance as a complex epistemological phenomenon that is constituted by a doxastic component and by other epistemic components. The distinction can be illustrated by Peels’ conception and my integrated conception of ignorance proposed in the article. Peels’ conception belongs with the first approach, my conception belongs with the second approach.

As Peels’ reply also evinces, the two approaches come with different assumptions and consequences. For example, the first approach presupposes that accounts of knowledge and ignorance are symmetrical and/or mirror each other and, consequently, it will expect that an account of ignorance has the same features as an account of knowledge.

In contrast, the second approach takes ignorance to be a topic in its own right and therefore it is not concerned by criticism that points out that its account of ignorance makes claims that an account of knowledge does not make or does not fit with an account of knowledge in other ways. I will return to this distinction later. A major concern of the second approach (and my conception shares this concern) is to develop an account of ignorance sui generis, not an account of ignorance in the light of knowledge (or accounts of knowledge).

Why Peels’ Attempt at Reducing the Integrated Conception to His View Fails

Peels argues that the integrated conception of ignorance boils down to the conception of ignorance that he endorses. However, if I understand his considerations and arguments correctly, the observations can either be accommodated by my conception or my conception can give reasons for rejecting Peels’ assumptions. Let me discuss the three central steps in turn.

Doxastic Attitudes in the Second Conjunct

As a first step Peels notes that “the reference to doxastic attitudes in the second conjunct is … redundant” (Peels 2019, 11) since holding a false belief or holding no belief, the manifestations of ignorance, just are doxastic attitudes. But the doxastic attitudes in the second conjunct are not redundant because they capture second-order (and in general higher-order) attitudes towards ignorance, e.g. I am ignorant of the rules of Japanese grammar and I (truly) believe that I do not know these rules.

Socratic ignorance also includes more doxastic attitudes than those at the first level of ignorance. Those doxastic attitudes can also constitute ignorance. Peels’ observation indicates that it might be advisable for me to talk of meta-attitudes rather than doxastic attitudes to avoid confusion about the double appearance of doxastic attitudes.

Epistemic Virtues and Vices and the Nature of Ignorance

Peels’ second step concerns the other two components of the second conjunct. Epistemic virtues and vices “[do] not belong to the essence of being ignorant” (Peels 2019, 11). But I do not see what reasons Peels has for this claim. My arguments for saying that they do belong to the nature of being ignorant from the original article are still valid. One does not capture ignorance by focusing only on the doxastic component.

This is what my example of Kate and Hannah who are ignorant of the fact that cruise ships produce high emissions of carbon and sulfur dioxides but have different epistemic attitudes towards not knowing this fact and thus are ignorant in different ways is meant to show. Their being ignorant is not just determined by the doxastic component but also by their attitudes.

This does not mean that all ignorance comes with closed-mindedness or open-mindedness, it just means that all states of ignorance are constituted by a doxastic component and an attitudinal component (whichever attitudes fills that spot and whether it is implicit or explicit is an open question and depends on the relevant instance of ignorance). I am interested to hear which additional reasons Peels has for cutting epistemic virtues and vices from the second conjunct and delineating the nature of ignorance in the way that he does.

Ignorance as a Disposition?

Peels’ third step consists in a number of questions about ignorance as a disposition. He writes:

“[O]n the El Kassar synthesis, ignorance is a disposition that manifests itself in a number of dispositions (beliefs, lack of belief, virtues, vices). What sort of thing is ignorance if it is a disposition to manifest certain dispositions? It seems if one is disposed to manifest certain dispositions, one simply has those dispositions and will, therefore, manifest them in the relevant circumstances.” (Peels 2019, 12, emphasis in original).

These questions seem to indicate to Peels that the dispositional character of ignorance on the integrated conception is unclear and therefore disposition may be removed from the integrated conception. It does not make sense to say that ignorance is a disposition.

But Peels’ questions and conclusion themselves invite a number of questions and, therefore, I do not see how anything problematic follows for my conception. It is not clear to me whether Peels is worried because my conception implies that a disposition is manifested in another disposition that may be manifested or not, or whether he is concerned because my conception implies that one disposition (in the present context: ignorance) may have different stimulus conditions and different manifestations.

In reply to the first worry I can confirm that I think that it is possible that a disposition can be manifested in other dispositions. But I do not see why this is a problem. An example may help undergird my claim. Think e.g. of the disposition to act courageously, it is constituted at minimum by the disposition to take action when necessary and to feel as is appropriate. Aristotle’s description of the courageous person reveals how complicated the virtue is and that it consists in a number of dispositions:

Now the brave man is as dauntless as man may be. Therefore, while he will fear even the things that are not beyond human strength, he will fear them as he ought and as reason directs, and he will face them for the sake of what is noble; for this is the end of excellence. But it is possible to fear these more, or less, and again to fear things that are not terrible as if they were.

Of the faults that are committed one consists in fearing what one should not, another in fearing as we should not, another in fearing when we should not, and so on; and so too with respect to the things that inspire confidence. The man, then, who faces and who fears the right things and with the right aim, in the right way and at the right time, and who feels confidence under the corresponding conditions, is brave; for the brave man feels and acts according to the merits of the case and in whatever way reason directs. (Nicomachean Ethics, 1115b 17-22)

The fact that courage consists in other dispositions also explains why there are many ways to not be virtuously courageous. For the present context all that matters is that a disposition can consist in other dispositions that can be manifested or not.

The second worry might be alleviated by introducing the notion of multi-track dispositions into my argument. A multi-track disposition, a term widely acknowledged in philosophical work on disposition, is individuated by several pairs of stimulus conditions and manifestations (Vetter 2015, 34). Thus, ignorance as a disposition may be spelled out as a multi-track disposition that has different stimulus conditions and different manifestations.

Peels also argues against the view that epistemic virtues themselves are manifestations of ignorance. But I do not hold that epistemic virtues simpliciter are manifestations of ignorance, rather I submit that epistemic virtues (or vices) necessarily appear in manifestations of ignorance, they co-constitute ignorance.

Enveloped in Peels’ argument is another objection, namely, that epistemic virtues cannot appear in manifestations of ignorance, it is only epistemic vices that can be manifestations of ignorance – or as I would say: can appear in manifestations of ignorance. Peels claims that, “open-mindedness, thoroughness, and intellectual perseverance are clearly not manifestations of ignorance. If anything, they are the opposite: manifestations of knowledge, insight and understanding.” (Peels 2019, 12, emphasis in original)

Let me address this concern by explaining how ignorance can be related to epistemic virtues. Being open-mindedly ignorant, and being ignorant in an intellectually persevering way become more plausible forms and instantiations of ignorance if one recognizes the significance of ignorance in scientific research. Think, e.g., of a scientist who wants to find out how Earth was formed does not know how Earth was formed and she may dedicate her whole life to answering that question and will persist in the face of challenges and setbacks.

Similarly, for a scientist who wants to improve existing therapies for cancer and sets out to develop nanotechnological devices to support clinicians. She can be open-mindedly ignorant about the details of the new device. In fact, most scientists are probably open-mindedly ignorant; they do want to know more about what it is they do not know in their field and are after more evidence and insights. That is also one reason for conducting experiments etc. Firestein (2012) and several contributions in Gross and McGoey’s Routledge Handbook of Ignorance Studies (2015) discuss this connection in more detail.

Thus, Peels’ third step also does not succeed and as it stands the integrated conception thus does not reduce to Peels’ view. But I’d be interested to hear more about why such a revision of the integrated conception suggests itself.

Correction Concerning “How One Is Ignorant”

Let me address a cause of confusion in the integrated conception. When I call for an account of ignorance to explain “how one is ignorant”, I do not want the account to explain how one has become ignorant, i.e. provide a genetic or causal story of a particular state of ignorance. This assumption leads Peels and Bondy to their objections concerning causal components in my conception of the nature of ignorance.

Instead, what I require, is for an account of ignorance to capture what one’s ignorance is like, what epistemic attitudes the subject has towards the doxastic component of her ignorance. The confusion and the fundamental objections to the integrated conception may be explained by the different approaches of ignorance that I have mentioned at the start of my reply.

No Mirroring Nor Symmetry Required

Peels notes that theories of knowledge do not include a causal story of how the subject became knowledgeable, nor about the quality of the subject’s knowledge, and from this he concludes that the integrated conception of ignorance which he takes to provide such a causal story must be rejected. However, as it stands, his argument is not conclusive.

First, it builds on confusion about the claims of the integrated conception that I have addressed in the previous section (3): the integrated conception does not provide a causal story for how the subject became ignorant, nor does it claim that such a causal story should be part of an account of the nature of ignorance. Rather, it spells out which additional features of ignorance are also constitutive – namely, an epistemic attitude – in addition to the doxastic component accepted by everyone.

Second, it is unclear why theories of knowledge and theories of ignorance have to presuppose a current-time slice approach, as effectively endorsed by Peels. Some theories of knowledge want to distinguish lucky true belief from knowledge and therefore look at the causal history of the subject coming to their true belief and therefore reject current-time slice approaches (e.g. Goldman 2012).

Third, Peels’ objection presupposes that theories of knowledge and theories of ignorance have to contain the same constituents and features or have to be symmetrical or have to mirror each other in some way, but I do not see why these presuppositions hold. Knowledge and ignorance are obviously intimately connected but I am curious to hear further arguments for why their accounts have to be unified or symmetrical or mirrored.

The Distinction Between Necessary and Contingent or Accidental Features of Ignorance

Peels argues that my conception confuses necessary and contingent or accidental features of ignorance but it is not clear what reasons Peels can give to support his diagnosis. My conception specifically distinguishes necessary components of ignorance and contingent/accidental instantiations of a necessary component of ignorance.

Peels’ discussion of my example of Kate and Hannah who both do not know that cruise ships have bad effects for the environment seems to jumble necessary features of ignorance whose instantiation is contingent (e.g. open-mindedness instantiates the epistemic attitude-component in open-minded ignorance) and contingent features of ignorance that trace back the causal history of an instance of ignorance. Peels writes:

Hannah is deeply and willingly ignorant about the high emissions of both carbon and sulfur dioxides of cruise ships (I recently found out that a single cruise trip has roughly the same amount of emission as seven million cars in an average year combined). Kate is much more open-minded, but has simply never considered the issue in any detail. She is in a state of suspending ignorance regarding the emission of cruise ships.

I reply that they are both ignorant, at least propositionally ignorant, but that their ignorance has different, contingent features: Hannah’s ignorance is deep ignorance, Kate’s ignorance is suspending ignorance, Hannah’s ignorance is willing or intentional, Kate’s ignorance is not. These are among the contingent features of ignorance; both are ignorant and, therefore, meet the criteria that I laid out for the nature of ignorance. (Peels 2019, 16-17)

Hannah’s and Kate’s particular epistemic attitudes are (to some extent) contingent but the fact that ignorance consists in a doxastic component and an attitudinal component is not contingent but necessary. In other words: which epistemic attitude is instantiated is accidental, but that there is an epistemic attitude present is not accidental but necessary. That is what the integrated conception holds. I’m interested to hear more about Peels’ argument for the opposing claim in the light of these clarifications.

Being Constitutive and Being Causal

Peels’ argumentation seems to presuppose that something that is constitutive of a state or disposition cannot also be causal, but it is not clear why that should be the case. E.g. Elzinga (2018) argues that epistemic self-confidence is constitutive of intellectual autonomy and at the same time may causally contribute to intellectual autonomy.

And note also that a constitutive relation between dispositions does not have to entail a causal relation in the sense of an efficient cause. Some authors in Action Theory argue that a disposition is not the cause of an action; rather, a decision, motivation, desire (etc.) is the cause of the action (cf. Löwenstein 2017, 85-86). I do not want to take sides on this issue, this is just to point out that Peels’ approach to something being constitutive and being a cause is not straightforward. (See also Section 4 in my upcoming reply to Patrick Bondy.)

Other Forms of Ignorance

Peels notes that my approach does not capture objectual and procedural ignorance as spelled out by Nottelmann (e.g. Nottelmann 2016). He tries to show that the integrated conception does not work for lack of know-how: “not knowing how to ride a bike does not seem to come with certain intellectual virtues or vices” (Peels 2019, 13) nor for lack of objectual ignorance: “if I am not familiar with the smell of fresh raspberries, that does not imply any false beliefs or absence of beliefs, nor does it come with intellectual virtues or vices” (Peels 2019, 13).

I am glad that Peels picks out this gap in the article, as does Bondy. It is an important and stimulating open question how the integrated conception fits with such other forms of ignorance – I am open-mindedly ignorant with respect to its answers. But the article did not set out to give an all-encompassing account of ignorance. Nor is it clear, whether one account will work for all forms of ignorance (viz. propositional ignorance, objectual ignorance, technical/procedural ignorance). Peels’ observation thus highlights an important open question for all theories of ignorance but not a particular objection against my integrated conception.

At the same time, I am skeptical whether Peels’ proposed account, the threefold synthesis, succeeds at capturing objectual and procedural ignorance. I do not see how the threefold synthesis is informative regarding objectual and procedural ignorance since it just states that objectual ignorance is “lack of objectual knowledge” and procedural ignorance is “lack of procedural knowledge”. Peels’ formulates the Threefold Synthesis as follows, with an additional footnote:

Threefold Synthesis: Ignorance is an epistemic agent’s lack of propositional knowledge or lack of true belief, lack of objectual knowledge, or lack of procedural knowledge.9

9If the Standard View on Ignorance is correct, then one could simply replace this with: Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in lack of (propositional, objectual, or procedural) knowledge. (Peels 2019, 13)

I do not see how these statements go toward capturing lack of competence, e.g. not possessing the competence to ski, or lack of objectual knowledge, e.g. not knowing Paris. I guess that philosophers interested in ignorance and in this issue will have to carefully study the phenomena that they want to capture and their interrelations – as Bondy starts to do in his Reply (Bondy 2018, 12-14) – in order to set out to adequately capture what Peels calls lack of objectual knowledge or lack of procedural knowledge.

What Does One Want From an Account of Ignorance?

Peels’ reply evinces that anyone who wants to develop an account of ignorance needs to answer a number of fundamental questions, including: What is it that we want from an account of ignorance? Do we want it a unified account for knowledge and ignorance? Do we want a simple account? Or do we want to adequately capture the phenomenon and be able to explain its significance in epistemic practices of epistemic agents? I want the account to be able to do the latter and have therefore put forward the integrated conception.

Two Clarificatory Remarks

In closing, I would like to add two clarificatory remarks. Peels suggests that the structural conception and agnotology are identical conceptions or approaches (Peels 2019, 15-16). But even though there are signficant connections between the structural conception and agnotology, they are distinct.

The examples for the structural conception in my article are from feminist epistemology of ignorance, not from agnotology. I do not want to engage in labelling and including or excluding authors and their works from fields and disciplines, but there are differences between works in epistemology of ignorance and agnotology since agnotology is often taken to belong with history of science. I would not want to simply identify them.

I do not see how Peels’ observations that the examples for agential conceptions of ignorance include causal language and that the conception of ignorance that he finds in critical race theory does not fit with someone being ignorant “of the fact that Antarctica is the largest desert on earth” (Peels 2019, 14) present objections to the integrated conception.

If there are claims about the causes of ignorance in these theories, that does not mean that my conception, which is distinct from these conceptions, makes the same claims. I specifically develop a new conception because of the advantages and disadvantages of the different conceptions that I discuss in the article.[1]

Contact details: nadja.elkassar@gess.ethz.ch

References

Aristoteles. 1995. The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation. Volume Two. Edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

Bondy, Patrick. 2018. “Knowledge and Ignorance, Theoretical and Practical.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7 (12): 9–14.

Elzinga, Benjamin. 2019. “A Relational Account of Intellectual Autonomy.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 49 (1): 22–47. https://doi.org/10.1080/00455091.2018.1533369.

Firestein, Stuart. 2012. Ignorance: How It Drives Science. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Goldman, Alvin I. 2012. Reliabilism and Contemporary Epistemology: Essays. New York, NY.: Oxford Univ. Press.

Gross, Matthias, and Linsey McGoey, eds. 2015. Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies. Routledge International Handbooks. London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Löwenstein, David. 2017. Know-How as Competence: A Rylean Responsibilist Account. Studies in Theoretical Philosophy, vol. 4. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann.

Nottelmann, Nikolaj. 2016. “The Varieties of Ignorance.” In The Epistemic Dimensions of Ignorance, edited by Rik Peels and Martijn Blaauw, 33–56. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9780511820076.003.

Peels, Rik. 2019. “Exploring the Boundaries of Ignorance: Its Nature and Accidental Features.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8 (1): 10–18.

Vetter, Barbara. 2015. Potentiality: From Dispositions to Modality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1] Thanks to David Löwenstein and Lutz Wingert for helpful discussions.

Author Information: Rik Peels, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, mail@rikpeels.nl.

Peels, Rik. “Exploring the Boundaries of Ignorance: Its Nature and Accidental Features.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 10-18.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-456

From the Metropolitan United Church in downtown Toronto.
Image by Loozrboy via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This article responds to El Kassar, Nadja (2018). “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance.” Social Epistemology. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1518498.

As does Bondy, Patrick. “Knowledge and Ignorance, Theoretical and Practical.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 9-14.

Nadja El Kassar is right that different fields in philosophy use rather different conceptions of ignorance. I also agree with her that there seem to be three major conceptions of ignorance: (i) ignorance as propositional ignorance, which she calls the ‘propositional conception of ignorance’, (ii) ignorance as actively upheld false outlooks, which she names the ‘agential conception of ignorance’, and (iii) ignorance as an epistemic practice, which she dubs the ‘structural conception of ignorance’.

It is remarkable that nobody else has addressed the question before of how these three conceptions relate to each other. I consider it a great virtue of her lucid essay that she not only considers this question in detail, but also provides an account that is meant to do justice to all these different conceptions of ignorance. Let us call her account the El Kassar Synthesis. It reads as follows:

Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs – either she has no belief about p or a false belief – and her epistemic attitudes (doxastic attitudes, epistemic virtues, epistemic vices).[1]

My reply to her insightful paper is structured as follows. First, I argue that her synthesis needs revision on various important points (§2). After that, I show that, despite her ambition to capture the main varieties of ignorance in her account, there are important kinds of ignorance that the El Kassar Synthesis leaves out (§4).

I then consider the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance and suggest that we should distinguish between the nature of ignorance and its accidental features. I also argue that these two other conceptions of ignorance are best understood as accounts of important accidental features of ignorance (§5). I sketch and reply to four objections that one might level against my account of the nature and accidental features of ignorance (§6).

I conclude that ignorance should be understood as the absence of propositional knowledge or the absence of true belief, the absence of objectual knowledge, or the absence of procedural knowledge. I also conclude that epistemic vices, hermeneutical frameworks, intentional avoidance of evidence, and other important phenomena that the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance draw our attention to, are best understood as important accidental features of ignorance, not as properties that are essential to ignorance.

Preliminaries

Before I explore the tenability of the El Kassar Synthesis in more detail, I would like to make a few preliminary points about it that call for some fine-tuning on her part. Remember that on the El Kassar Synthesis, ignorance should be understood as follows:

El Kassar Synthesis version 1: Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs – either she has no belief about p or a false belief – and her epistemic attitudes (doxastic attitudes, epistemic virtues, epistemic vices).[2]

It seems to me that this synthesis needs revision on at least three points.

First, a false belief is an epistemic attitude and even a doxastic attitude. Moreover, if – as is widely thought among philosophers – there are exactly three doxastic attitudes, namely belief, disbelief, and suspension of judgment, then any case of ignorance that manifests itself in a doxastic attitude is one in which one lacks a belief about p or one has a false belief about p.

After all, if one holds a false belief and that is manifest in one’s doxastic attitude, it is because one holds a false belief (that is the manifestation). If one holds no belief and that is manifest in one’s doxastic attitudes, it is because one suspends judgment (that is the manifestation). Of course, it is also possible that one is deeply ignorant (e.g, one cannot even consider the proposition), but then it is simply not even manifest in one’s doxastic attitudes.

The reference to doxastic attitudes in the second conjunct is, therefore, redundant. The revised El Kassar Synthesis reads as follows:

El Kassar Synthesis version 2: Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs – either she has no belief about p or a false belief – and her epistemic attitudes (epistemic virtues, epistemic vices).

What is left in the second conjunct after the first revision is epistemic virtues and vices. There is a problem with this, though. Ignorance need not be manifested in any epistemic virtues or vices. True, it happens often enough. But it is not necessary; it does not belong to the essence of being ignorant.

If one is ignorant of the fact that Antarctica is the greatest desert on earth (which is actually a fact), then that may simply be a fairly cognitively isolated, single fact of which one is ignorant. Nothing follows about such substantial cognitive phenomena as intellectual virtues and vices (which are, after all, dispositions) like open-mindedness or dogmatism. A version that takes this point into account reads as follows:

El Kassar Synthesis version 3: Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs: either she has no belief about p or a false belief.

A third and final worry I would like to raise here is that on the El Kassar Synthesis, ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs—and, as we saw, on versions 1 and 2, in her intellectual character traits (epistemic virtues, epistemic vices). I find this worrisome, because it is widely accepted that virtues and vices are dispositions themselves, and many philosophers have argued this also holds for beliefs.[3]

If so, on the El Kassar Synthesis, ignorance is a disposition that manifests itself in a number of dispositions (beliefs, lack of beliefs, virtues, vices). What sort of thing is ignorance if it is a disposition to manifest certain dispositions? It seems if one is disposed to manifest certain dispositions, one simply has those dispositions and will, therefore, manifest them in the relevant circumstances.

Moreover, virtue or the manifestation of virtue does not seem to be an instance or exemplification of ignorance; at most, this seems to be the case for vices. Open-mindedness, thoroughness, and intellectual perseverance are clearly not manifestations of ignorance.[4] If anything, they are the opposite: manifestations of knowledge, insight, and understanding. An account that takes these points also into account would therefore look as follows:

El Kassar Synthesis version 4: Ignorance is an epistemic agent’s having no belief or a false belief about p.

It seems to me that version 4 is significantly more plausible than version 1. I realize, though, that it is also a significant revision of the original El Kassar Synthesis. My criticisms in what follows will, therefore, also be directed against version 1 of El Kassar’s synthesis.

Propositional, Objectual, and Procedural Ignorance

On the first conception of ignorance that El Kassar explores, the propositional one, ignorance is ignorance of the truth of a proposition. On the Standard View of ignorance, defended by Pierre Le Morvan and others,[5] ignorance is lack of propositional knowledge, whereas on the New View, championed by me and others,[6] ignorance is lack of true belief.

I would like to add that it may more suitable to call these ‘conceptions of propositional ignorance’ rather than ‘positional conceptions of ignorance’. After all, they are explicitly concerned with and limit themselves to situations in which one is ignorant of the truth of one or more propositions; they do not say that all ignorance is ignorance of a proposition.

More importantly, though, we should note that ever since Bertrand Russell, it has been quite common in epistemology to distinguish not only propositional knowledge (or knowledge-that), but also knowledge by acquaintance or objectual knowledge (knowledge-of) and procedural or technical knowledge (knowledge-how).[7]

Examples of knowledge by acquaintance are my knowledge of my fiancée’s lovely personality, my knowledge of the taste of the Scotch whisky Talisker Storm, my knowledge of Southern France, and my knowledge of the smell of fresh raspberries. Examples of technical or procedural knowledge are my knowledge of how to navigate through Amsterdam by bike, my knowledge of how to catch a North Sea cod, my knowledge of how to get the attention of a group of 150 students (the latter, incidentally, suggests that know-how comes in degrees…).

Since ignorance is often taken to be lack of knowledge, it is only natural to consider whether there can also be objectual and technical ignorance. Nikolaj Nottelmann, in a recent piece, has convincingly argued that there are such varieties of ignorance.[8]

The rub is that the El Kassar Synthesis, on all of its four versions, does not capture these two other varieties of ignorance. If one is ignorant of how to ride a bike, it is not so much that one lacks beliefs about p or that one has false beliefs about p (even if it is clear exactly which proposition p is). Also, not knowing how to ride a bike does not seem to come with certain intellectual virtues or vices.

The same is true for objectual ignorance: if I am not familiar with the smell of fresh raspberries, that does not imply any false beliefs or absence of beliefs, nor does it come with intellectual virtues or vices. Objectual and procedural ignorance seem to be sui generis kinds of ignorance.

The following definition does capture these three varieties of ignorance—one that, for obvious reasons, I will call the ‘threefold synthesis’:

Threefold Synthesis: Ignorance is an epistemic agent’s lack of propositional knowledge or lack of true belief, lack of objectual knowledge, or lack of procedural knowledge.[9]

Of course, each of the four versions of the El Kassar Synthesis could be revised so as to accommodate this. As we shall see below, though, we have good reason to formulate the Threefold Synthesis independently from the El Kassar Synthesis.

The Agential and Structural Conceptions of Ignorance

According to El Kassar, there is a second conception of ignorance, not captured in the conception of propositional ignorance but captured in the conception of agential ignorance, namely ignorance as an actively upheld false outlook. This conception has, understandably, been particularly influential in the epistemology of race. Charles Mills, whose contributions to this field have been seminal, defines such ignorance as the absence of beliefs, false belief, or a set of false beliefs, brought about by various factors, such as people’s whiteness in the case of white people, that leads to a variety of behavior, such as avoiding evidence.[10] El Kassar suggests that José Medina, who has also contributed much to this field, defends a conception along these lines as well.[11]

The way Charles Mills phrases things suggests a natural interpretation of such ignorance, though. It is this: ignorance is the lack of belief, false beliefs, or various false beliefs (all captured by the conception of propositional ignorance), brought about or caused by a variety of factors. What these factors are will differ from case to case: people’s whiteness, people’s social power and status, people’s being Western, people’s being male, and people’s being heterosexual.

But this means that the agential conception is not a conception of the nature of ignorance. It grants the nature of ignorance as conceived of by the conception of propositional ignorance spelled out above and then, for obvious reasons, goes on to focus on those cases in which such ignorance has particular causes, namely the kinds of factors I just mentioned.[12]

Remarkably, much of what El Kassar herself says supports this interpretation. For example, she says: “Medina picks out a kind of ignorance, active ignorance, that is fed by epistemic vices – in particular, arrogance, laziness and closed-mindedness.” (p. 3; italics are mine) This seems entirely right to me: the epistemology of race focuses on ignorance with specific, contingent features that are crucially relevant for the debate in that field: (i) it is actively upheld, (ii) it is often, but not always, disbelieving ignorance, (iii) it is fed by epistemic vices, etc.

This is of course all perfectly compatible with the Standard or New Views on Ignorance. Most people’s ignorance of the fact that Antarctica is the largest desert on earth is a clear case of ignorance, but one that is not at all relevant to the epistemology of race.

Unsurprisingly then, even though it clearly is a case of ignorance, it does not meet any of the other, contingent criteria that are so pivotal in critical race theory: (i) it is not actively upheld, (ii) it is deep ignorance rather than disbelieving ignorance (most people have never considered this statement about Antarctica), (iii) it is normally not in any way fed by epistemic vices, such as closed-mindedness, laziness, intellectual arrogance, or dogmatism.

That this is a more plausible way of understanding the nature of ignorance and its accidental features can be seen by considering what is widely regarded as the opposite of ignorance: knowledge. According to most philosophers, to know a particular proposition p is to believe a true proposition p on the basis of some kind of justification in a non-lucky (in some sense of the word) way. That is what it is to know something, that is the nature of knowledge.

But in various cases, knowledge can have all sorts of accidental properties: it can be sought and found or one can stumble upon it, it may be the result of the exercise of intellectual virtue or it may be pretty much automatic (such as in the case of my knowledge that I exist), it may be morally good to know that thing or it may be morally bad (as in the case of a privacy violation), it may be based primarily on the exercise of one’s own cognitive capacities or primarily on those of other people (in some cases of testimony), and so on. If this is the case, then it is only natural to think that the same applies to the opposite of knowledge, namely ignorance, and that we should, therefore, clearly distinguish between its nature and its accidental (sometimes crucially important) features:

The nature of ignorance

Ignorance is the lack of propositional knowledge / the lack of true belief, or the lack of objectual knowledge, or the lack of procedural knowledge.[13]

Accidental, context-dependent features of ignorance

Willful or unintentional;

Individual or collective;

Small-scale (individual propositions) or large-scale (whole themes, topics, areas of life);

Brought about by external factors, such as the government, institutions, or socially accepted frameworks, or internal factors, such as one’s own intellectual vices, background assumptions, or hermeneutic paradigms;

And so on.

According to El Kassar, an advantage of her position is that it tells us how one is ignorant (p. 7). However, an account of, say, knowledge, also need not tell us how a particular person in specific circumstances knows something.[14] Perceptual knowledge is crucially important in our lives, and so is knowledge based on memory, moral knowledge (if there is such a thing), and so on.

It is surely no defect in all the many accounts of knowledge, such as externalism, internalism, reliabilism, internalist externalism, proper functionalism, deontologism, or even knowledge-first epistemology, that they do not tell us how a particular person in specific circumstances knows something. They were never meant to do that.

Clearly, mutatis mutandis, the same point applies to the structural conception of ignorance that plays an important role in agnotology. Agnotology is the field that studies how various institutional structures and mechanisms can intentionally keep people ignorant or make them ignorant or create different kinds of doubt. The ignorance about the effects of smoking brought about and intentionally maintained by the tobacco industry is a well-known example.

Again, the natural interpretation is to say that people are ignorant because they lack propositional knowledge or true belief, they lack objectual knowledge, or they lack procedural knowledge. And they do so because – and this is what agnotology focuses on – it is intentionally brought about or maintained by various institutions, agencies, governments, mechanisms, and so on. Understandably, the field is more interested in studying those accidental features of ignorance than in studying its nature.

Objections and Replies

Before we draw a conclusion, let us consider El Kassar’s objections to a position along the lines I have suggested.[15] First, she suggests that we lose a lot if we reject the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance. We lose such things as: ignorance as a bad practice, the role of epistemic agency, the fact that much ignorance is strategic, and so on. I reply that, fortunately, we do not: those are highly important, but contingent features of ignorance: some cases of ignorance have them, others do not. This leaves plenty of room to study such contingent features of ignorance in critical race theory and agnotology.[16]

Second, she suggests that this account would exclude highly important kinds of ignorance, such as ignorance deliberately constructed by companies. I reply that it does not: it just says that its being deliberately constructed by, say, pharmaceutical companies, is an accidental or contingent feature and that it is not part of the nature of ignorance.

Third, Roget’s Thesaurus, for example, lists knowledge as only one of the antonyms of ignorance. Other options are cognizance, understanding, competence, cultivation, education, experience, intelligence, literacy, talent, and wisdom. I reply that we can make sense of this on my alternative, threefold synthesis: competence, cultivation, education, intelligence, and so on, all come with knowledge and true belief and remove certain kinds of ignorance. Thus, it makes perfect sense that these are mentioned as antonyms of ignorance.

Finally, one may wonder whether my alternative conception enables us to distinguish between Hannah and Kate, as described by El Kassar. Hannah is deeply and willingly ignorant about the high emissions of both carbon and sulfur dioxides of cruise ships (I recently found out that a single cruise trip has roughly the same amount of emission as seven million cars in an average year combined). Kate is much more open-minded, but has simply never considered the issue in any detail.

She is in a state of suspending ignorance regarding the emission of cruise ships. I reply that they are both ignorant, at least propositionally ignorant, but that their ignorance has different, contingent features: Hannah’s ignorance is deep ignorance, Kate’s ignorance is suspending ignorance, Hannah’s ignorance is willing or intentional, Kate’s ignorance is not. These are among the contingent features of ignorance; both are ignorant and, therefore, meet the criteria that I laid out for the nature of ignorance.

The Nature and Accidental Features of Ignorance

I conclude that ignorance is the lack of propositional knowledge or true belief, the lack of objectual knowledge, or the lack of procedural knowledge. That is the nature of ignorance: each case meets this threefold disjunctive criterion. I also conclude that ignorance has a wide variety of accidental or contingent features. Various fields have drawn attention to these accidental or contingent features because they matter crucially in certain debates in those fields. It is not surprising then that the focus in mainstream epistemology is on the nature of ignorance, whereas the focus in agnotology, epistemology of race, feminist epistemology, and various other debates is on those context-dependent features of ignorance.

This is not at all to say that the nature of ignorance is more important than its accidental features. Contingent, context-dependent features of something may be significantly more important. For example, it may well be the case that we have the parents that we have essentially; that we would be someone else if we had different biological parents. If so, that is part of our nature or essence.

And yet, certain contingent and accidental features may matter more to us, such as whether or not our partner loves us. Let us not confuse the nature of something with the accidental features of it that we value or disvalue. If we get this distinction straight, there is no principled reason not to accept the threefold synthesis that I have suggested in this paper as a plausible alternative to El Kassar’s synthesis.[17]

Contact details: mail@rikpeels.nl

References

Driver, Julia. (1989). “The Virtues of Ignorance,” The Journal of Philosophy 86.7, 373-384.

El Kassar, Nadja. (2018). “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance”, Social Epistemology, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1518498.

Le Morvan, Pierre. (2011). “On Ignorance: A Reply to Peels”, Philosophia 39.2, 335-344.

Medina, José. (2013). The Epistemology of Resistance (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Mills, Charles. (2015). “Global White Ignorance”, in M. Gross and L. McGoey (eds.), Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies (London: Routledge), 217-227.

Nottelmann, Nikolaj. (2015). “Ignorance”, in Robert Audi (ed.), Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Peels, Rik. (2010). “What Is Ignorance?”, Philosophia 38, 57-67.

Peels, Rik. (2014). “What Kind of Ignorance Excuses? Two Neglected Issues”, The Philosophical Quarterly 64 (256), 478–496.

Peels, Rik, ed. 2017. Perspectives on Ignorance from Moral and Social Philosophy (New York: Routledge).

Peels, Rik. (2019). “Asserting Ignorance”, in Sanford C. Goldberg (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Assertion (Oxford: Oxford University Press), forthcoming.

Peels, Rik, and Martijn Blaauw, eds. (2016). The Epistemic Dimensions of Ignorance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Russell, Bertrand. (1980). The Problems of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Schwitzgebel, Eric. (2002). “A Phenomenal, Dispositional Account of Belief”, Noûs 36.2, 249-275.

[1] El Kassar 2018, 7.

[2] El Kassar 2018, 7.

[3] E.g. Schwitzgebel 2002.

[4] Julia driver (1989) has argued that certain moral virtues, such as modesty, imply some kind of ignorance. However, moral virtues are different from epistemic virtues and the suggestion that something implies ignorance is different from the idea that something manifests ignorance.

[5] See Le Morvan 2011. See also various essays in Peels and Blaauw 2016; Peels 2017.

[6] See Peels 2010; 2014; 2019. See also various essays in Peels and Blaauw 2016; Peels 2017.

[7] See Russell 1980, 3.

[8] See Nottelmann 2015.

[9] If the Standard View on Ignorance is correct, then one could simply replace this with: Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in lack of (propositional, objectual, or procedural) knowledge.

[10] See Mills 2015, 217.

[11] See Medina 2013.

[12] El Kassar in her paper mentions Anne Meylan’s suggestion on this point. Anne Meylan has suggested – and confirmed to me in personal correspondence – that we ought to distinguish between the state of being ignorant (which is nicely captured by the Standard View or the New View) and the action or failure to act that induced that state of ignorance (that the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance refer to), such as absence of inquiry or a sloppy way of dealing with evidence. I fully agree with Anne Meylan’s distinction on this point and, as I argue in more detail below, taking this distinction into account can lead to a significantly improved account of ignorance.

[13] The disjunction is meant to be inclusive.

[15] See pp. 4-5 of her paper.

[16] As Anne Meylan has pointed out to me in correspondence, it is generally true that doxastic states are not as such morally bad; whether or not they are depends on their contingent, extrinsic features.

[17] For their helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper, I would like to thank Thirza Lagewaard, Anne Meylan, and Nadja El Kassar.

Author Information: Frank Scalambrino, Duquesne University, franklscalambrino@gmail.com.

Scalambrino, Frank. “Reviewing Nolen Gertz’s Nihilism and Technology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 22-28.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-44B

Image by Jinx! via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

There are three (3) parts to this review, each of which brings a philosophical, and/or structural, issue regarding Dr. Gertz’s book into critical focus.

1) His characterization of “nihilism.”

a) This is specifically about Nietzsche.

2) His (lack of) characterization of the anti- and post-humanist positions in philosophy of technology.

a) Importantly, this should also change what he says about Marx.

3) In light of the above two changes, going forward, he should (re)consider the way he frames his “human-nihilism relations”

1) Consider that: If his characterization of nihilism in Nietzsche as “Who cares?” were correct, then Nietzsche would not have been able to say that Christianity is nihilistic (cf. The Anti-Christ §§6-7; cf. The Will to Power §247). The following organizes a range of ways he could correct this, from the most to least pervasive.

1a) He could completely drop the term “nihilism.” Ultimately, I think the term that fits best with his project, as it stands, is “decadence.” (More on this below.) In §43 of The Will to Power, Nietzsche explained that “Nihilism is not a cause, but only the rationale of decadence.”

1b) He could keep the term “nihilism” on the cover, but re-work the text to reflect technology as decadence, and then frame decadence as indicating a kind of nihilism (to justify keeping nihilism on the cover).

1c) He could keep everything as is; however, as will be clear below, his conception of nihilism and human-nihilism relations leaves him open to two counter-arguments which – as I see it – are devastating to his project. The first suggests that from the point of view of Nietzsche’s actual definition of “nihilism,” his theory itself is nihilistic. The second suggests that (from a post-human point of view) the ethical suggestions he makes (based on his revelation of human-nihilism relations) are “empty threats” in that the “de-humanization” of which he warns refers to a non-entity.

Lastly, I strongly suggest anyone interested in “nihilism” in Nietzsche consult both Heidegger (1987) and Deleuze (2006).

1. Gertz’s Characterization of “Nihilism”

Nietzsche’s writings are notoriously difficult to interpret. Of course, this is not the place to provide a “How to Read Nietzsche.” However, Dr. Gertz’s approach to reading Nietzsche is peculiar enough to warrant the following remarks about the difficulties involved. When approaching Nietzsche you should ask three questions: (1) Do you believe Nietzsche’s writings are wholly coherent, partially coherent, or not coherent at all? (2) Do you believe Nietzsche’s writings are wholly consistent, partially consistent, or not consistent at all? (3) Does Nietzsche’s being consistent make a “system” out of his philosophy?

The first question is important because you may believe that Nietzsche was a “madman.” And, the fallacy of ad hominem aside, you may believe his “madness” somehow invalidates what he said – either partially or totally. Further, it is clear that Nietzsche does not endorse a philosophy which considers rationality the most important aspect of being human. Thus, it may be possible to consider Nietzsche’s writings as purposeful or inspired incoherence.

For example, this latter point of view may find support in Nietzsche’s letters, and is exemplified by Blanchot’s comment: “The fundamental characteristic of Nietzsche’s truth is that it can only be misunderstood, can only be the object of an endless misunderstanding.” (1995: 299).

The second question is important because across Nietzsche’s writings he seemingly contradicts himself or changes his philosophical position. There are two main issues, then, regarding consistency. On the one hand, “distinct periods” of philosophy have been associated with various groupings of Nietzsche’s writings, and establishing these periods – along with affirming position changes – can be supported by Nietzsche’s own words (so long as one considers those statements coherent).

Thus, according to the standard division, we have the “Early Writings” from 1872-1876, the “Middle Writings” from 1878-1882, the “Later Writings” from 1883-1887, and the “Final Writings” of 1888. By examining Dr. Gertz’s Bibliography it is clear that he privileges the “Later” and “Unpublished” of Nietzsche’s writings. On the other hand, as William H. Schaberg convincingly argued in his The Nietzsche Canon: A Publication History and Bibliography, despite all of the “inconsistencies,” from beginning to end, Nietzsche’s writings represent the development of what he called the “Dionysian Worldview.” Importantly, Dr. Gertz neither addresses these exegetical issues nor does he even mention Dionysus.

The third question is important because throughout the last century of Nietzsche scholarship there have been various trends regarding the above, first two, questions, and often the “consistency” and “anti-system” issues have been conflated. Thus, scholars in the past have argued that Nietzsche must be inconsistent – if not incoherent – because he is purposefully an “anti-systematic thinker.”

However, as Schaberg’s work, among others, makes clear: To have a consistent theme does not necessitate that one’s work is “systematic.” For example, it is not the case that all philosophers are “systematic” philosophers merely because they consistently write about philosophy. That the “Dionysian Worldview” is ultimately Nietzsche’s consistent theme is not negated by any inconsistencies regarding how to best characterize that worldview.

Thus, I would be interested to know the process through which Dr. Gertz decided on the title of this book. On the one hand, it is clear that he considers this a book that combines Nietzsche and philosophy of technology. On the other hand, Dr. Gertz’s allegiance to (the unfortunately titled) “postphenomenology” and the way he takes up Nietzsche’s ideas make the title of his book problematic. For instance, the title of the first section of Chapter 2 is: “What is Nihilism?”

What About the Meaning of Nihilism?

Dr. Gertz notes that because the meaning of “nihilism” in the writings of Nietzsche is controversial, he will not even attempt to define nihilism in terms of Nietzsche’s writings (p. 13). He then, without referencing any philosopher at all, defines “nihilism” stating: “in everyday usage it is taken to mean something roughly equivalent to the expression ‘Who cares?’” (p. 13). Lastly, in the next section he uses Jean-Paul Sartre to characterize nihilism as “bad faith.” All this is problematic.

First, is this book about “nihilism” or “bad faith”? It seems to be about the latter, which (more on this to come) leads one to wonder whether the title and the supposed (at times forced) use of Nietzsche were not a (nihilistic?) marketing-ploy. Second, though Dr. Gertz doesn’t think it necessary to articulate and defend the meaning of “nihilism” in Nietzsche, just a casual glance at the same section of the “Unpublished Writings” (The Will to Power) that Gertz invokes can be used to argue against his characterization of “nihilism” as “Who cares?”

For example, Nietzsche is far more hardcore than “Who cares?” as evidenced by: “Nihilism does not only contemplate the ‘in vain!’ nor is it merely the belief that everything deserves to perish: one helps to destroy… [emphasis added]” (1968b: 18). “Nihilism” pertains to moral value. It is in this context that Nietzsche is a so-called “immoralist.”

Nietzsche came to see the will as, pun intended, beyond good and evil. It is moralizing that leads to nihilism. Consider the following from Nietzsche:

“Schopenhauer interpreted high intellectuality as liberation from the will; he did not want to see the freedom from moral prejudice which is part of the emancipation of the great spirit… Fundamental instinctive principle of all philosophers and historians and psychologists: everything of value in man, art, history, science, religion, technology [emphasis added], must be proved to be of moral value, morally conditioned, in aim, means and outcome… ‘Does man become better through it?’” (1968b: pp. 205-6).

The will is free, beyond all moral values, and so the desire to domesticate it is nihilistic – if for no reason other than in domesticating it one has lowered the sovereignty of the will into conformity with some set of rules designed for the preservation of the herd (or academic-cartel). Incidentally, I invoked this Nietzschean point in my chapter: “What Control? Life at the limits of power expression” in our book Social Epistemology and Technology. Moreover, none of us “philosophers of the future” have yet expressed this point in a way that surpasses the excellence and eloquence of Baudrillard (cf. The Perfect Crime and The Agony of Power).

In other words, what is in play are power differentials. Thus, oddly, as soon as Dr. Gertz begins moralizing by denouncing technology as “nihilistic,” he reveals himself – not technology – to be nihilistic. For all these reasons, and more, it is not clear why Dr. Gertz insists on the term “nihilism” or precisely how he sees this as Nietzsche’s position.

To be sure, the most recent data from the CDC indicate that chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis are presently at an all-time high; do you think this has nothing to do with the technological mediation of our social relations? Yet, the problem of bringing in Nietzsche’s conception of “nihilism” is that Nietzsche might not see this as a problem at all. On the one hand, we have all heard the story that Nietzsche knew he had syphilis; yet, he supposedly refused to seek treatment, and subsequently died from it.

On the other hand, at times it seems as though the Nietzschean term Dr. Gertz could have used would have been “decadence.” Thus, the problem with technology is that it is motivated by decadence and breeds decadence. Ultimately, the problem is that – despite the nowadays obligatory affirmation of the “non-binary” nature of whatever we happen to be talking about – Dr. Gertz frames his conception in terms of the bifurcation: technophile v. technophobe. Yet, Nietzsche is, of course, a transcendental philosopher, so there are three (not 2) positions. The third position is Amor Fati.

The ‘predominance of suffering over pleasure’ or the opposite (hedonism): these two doctrines are already signposts to nihilism… that is how a kind of man speaks who no longer dares to posit a will, a purpose, a meaning: for any healthier kind of man the value of life is certainly not measured by the standard of these trifles [pleasure and pain]. And suffering might predominate, and in spite of that a powerful will might exist, a Yes to life, a need for this predominance. (Nietzsche, 1968b: p. 23).

In terms of philosophy of technology, if it is our fate to exist in a world torn asunder by technological mediation, well, then, love it (in this wise, even the “Death of God” can be celebrated). And, here would be the place to mention “postmodern irony,” which Dr. Gertz does not consider. In sum, Dr. Gertz’s use of the term “nihilism” is, to say the least, problematic.

Technology’s Disconnect From Nietzsche Himself

Nietzsche infamously never used a typewriter. It was invented during his lifetime, and, as the story goes, he supposedly tried to use the technology but couldn’t get the hang of it, so he went back to writing by hand. This story points to an insight that it seems Dr. Gertz’s book doesn’t consider. For Nietzsche human existence is the point of departure, not technology.

So, the very idea that technological mediation will lead to a better existence (even if “better” only means “more efficient,” as it could in the case of the typewriter), should, according to Nietzsche’s actual logic of “nihilism,” see the desire to use a typewriter as either a symptom of decadence or an expression of strength; however, these options do not manifest in the logic of Gertz’s Nietzsche analysis.

Rather, Dr. Gertz moralizes the use of technology: “Working out which of these perspectives is correct is thus vital for ensuring that technologies are providing us leisure as a form of liberation rather than providing us leisure as a form of dehumanization.” (p. 4). Does the “Who cares?” logic of Gertz’s “nihilism” necessarily lead to an interpretation of Nietzsche as a kind of “Luddite”?

Before moving on to the next part of this review, a few last remarks about how Dr. Gertz uses Nietzsche’s writings are called for. There are nine (9) chapters in Nihilism and Technology. Dr. Gertz primarily uses the first two chapters to speak to the terminology he will use throughout the book. He uses the third chapter to align himself with the academic-cartel, and the remaining chapters are supposed to illustrate his explication of what he calls Nietzsche’s five “human-nihilism relations.” All of these so-called “human-nihilism relations” revolve around discussions which take place only in the “Third Essay” of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals – except one foray into The Gay Science.

Two points should be made here. First, Dr. Gertz calls these “nihilism relations,” but they are really just examples of “Slave Mentality.” This should come as no surprise to those familiar with Nietzsche because of where in his writings Dr. Gertz is focused. Moreover, there is not enough space here to fully explain why, but it is problematic to simply replace the term “Slave Mentality” with “nihilism relation.”

Second, among these “nihilism relations” there are two glaring misappropriations of Nietzsche’s writings regarding “pity” and “divinity.” That is, when Dr. Gertz equates “pity sex” (i.e. having “sexual intercourse,” of one kind or another, with someone ostensibly because you “pity” them) with Nietzsche’s famous discussion of pity in On the Genealogy of Morals, it both overlooks Nietzsche’s comments regarding “Master” pity and trivializes the notion of “pity” in Nietzsche.

For, as already noted above, if in your day to day practice of life you remain oriented to the belief that you need an excuse for whatever you do, then you are moralizing. (Remember when we used to think that Nietzsche was “dangerous”?) If you are moralizing, then you’re a nihilist. You’re a nihilist because you believe there is a world that is better than the one that exists. You believe in a world that is nothing. “Conclusion: The faith in the categories of reason is the cause of nihilism. We have measured the value of the world according to categories that refer to a purely fictitious world.” (Nietzsche, 1968b: p. 13).

Lastly, Dr. Gertz notes: “Google stands as proof that humans do not need gods, that humans are capable of fulfilling the role once reserved for the gods.” (p. 199). However, in making that statement he neither accurately speaks of the gods, in general, nor of Nietzsche’s understanding of – for example – Dionysus.

2) The Anti- and Post-Humanist Positions in Philosophy of Technology

In a footnote Dr. Gertz thanks an “anonymous reviewer” for telling him to clarify his position regarding humanism, transhumanism, and posthumanism; however, despite what sounds like his acknowledgement, he does not provide such a clarification. The idea is supposed to be that transhumanism is a kind of humanism, and anti- and post-humanism are philosophies which deny that “human” refers to a “natural category.” It is for this reason that many scholars talk of “two Marxisms.” That is to say, there is the earlier Marxism which takes “human” as a natural category and aims at liberation, and there is the later Marxism which takes “human” to be category constructed by Capital.

It is from this latter idea that the “care for the self” is criticized as something to be sold to “the worker” and to eventually transform the worker’s work into the work of consumption – this secures perpetual demand, as “the worker” is transformed into the “consumer.” Moreover, this is absolutely of central importance in the philosophy of technology. For, from a point of view that is truly post-human, Dr. Gertz’s moralizing-warning that technology may lead to “a form of dehumanization.” (p. 4) is an empty threat.

On the one hand, this fidelity to “human” as a natural category comes from Don Ihde’s “postphenomenology.” For Gertz’s idea of “human-nihilism relations” was developed from Idhe’s “human-technology relations.” (p. 45). Gertz notes, “Ihde turns Heidegger’s analysis of hammering into an exemplar of how to carry out analyses of human-technology relations, analyses which lead Ihde to expand the field of human-technology relations beyond Heidegger’s examples” (p. 49).

However, there are two significant problems here, both of which point back, again, to the lack of clarification regarding post-humanism. First, Heidegger speaks of Dasein and of Being, not of “human.” Similarly, Nietzsche could say, “The will to overcome an affect is ultimately only the will of another affect, or of several other affects.” (Nietzsche, 1989a: §117), or “There is no ‘being’ behind doing … the ‘doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything.” (Nietzsche, 1989b: p. 45).

Second, the section of Being & Time from which “postphenomenology” develops its relations of “co-constitution” is “The Worldhood of the World,” not “Being-in-the-World.” In other words, Dasein is not an aspect of “ready-to-hand” hammering, the ready-to-hand is an aspect of Dasein. Thus, “human” may be seen as a “worldly” “present-at-hand” projection of an “in order to.” Again, this is also why Gertz doesn’t characterize Marxism (p. 5) as “two Marxisms,” namely he does not consider the anti- or post-humanist readings of Marx.

Hence, the importance of clarifying the incommensurability between humanism and post-humanism: Gertz’s characterization of technology as nihilistic due to its de-humanizing may turn out to be itself nihilistic in terms of its moralizing (noted in Part I, above) and in terms of its taking the fictional-rational category “human” as more primordial than the (according to Nietzsche) non-discursive sovereign will.

3) His “human-nihilism relations”

Students of the philosophy of technology will find the Chapter 3 discussion of Ihde’s work helpful; going forward, we should inquire regarding Ihde’s four categories – in the context of post-humanism and cybernetics – if they are exhaustive. Moreover, how might each of these categories look from a point of view which takes the fundamental alteration of (human) be-ing by technology to be desirable?

This is a difficult question to navigate because it shifts the context for understanding Gertz’s philic/phobic dichotomy away from “care for the self” and toward a context of “evolutionary selection.” Might public self-awareness, in such a context, influence the evolutionary selection?

So long as one is explicitly taking a stand for humanism, then one could argue that the matrix of human-technology relations are symptoms of decadence. Interestingly, such a stance may make Nihilism and Technology, first and foremost, an ethics book and not a philosophy of technology book. Yet, especially, though perhaps not exclusively, presenting only the humanistic point of view leaves one open to the counter-argument that the “intellectual” and “philosophical” relations to “technology” that allow for such an analysis into these various discursive identities betrays a kind of decadence. It would not be much of a stretch to come to the conclusion that Nietzsche would consider “academics” decadent.

Further, it would also be helpful for philosophy of technology students to consider – from a humanistic point of view – the use of technology to extend human life in light of “human-decadence relations.” Of course, whether or not these relations, in general, lead to nihilism is a separate question. However, the people who profit from the decadence on which these technologies stand will rhetorically-bulwark the implementation of their technological procedures in terms of “saving lives.” Here, Nietzsche was again prophetic, as he explicitly considered a philosophy of “survive at all costs” to be a sign of degeneracy and decay.

Contact details: franklscalambrino@gmail.com

References

Blanchot, Maurice. (1995). The Work of Fire. C. Mandell (Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles. (2006). Nietzsche and Philosophy. H. Tomlinson (Trans.). New York: Columbia University.

Heidegger, Martin. (1987). D.F. Krell (Ed.). Nietzsche, Vol. IV: Nihilism. F.A. Capuzzi (Trans.). New York: Harper & Row.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1989a). Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. W. Kaufmann (Trans.). New York: Vintage.

_____. (1989b). On the Genealogy of Morals /Ecce Homo. W. Kaufmann (Trans.). New York: Vintage Books.

_____. (1968a). Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ. R.J. Hollingdale (Trans.). Middlesex, England: Penguin Books.

_____. (1968b). The Will to Power. W. Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (Trans.). New York: Vintage Books.

Schaberg, William H. (1995). The Nietzsche Canon: A Publication History and Bibliography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Author Information: Jeff Kochan, University of Konstanz, jwkochan@gmail.com.

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: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-44s

Image by Brandon Warren via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

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.

Acknowledgement

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: jwkochan@gmail.com

References

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. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Xm

Kochan, Jeff (2017). Science as Social Existence: Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers). http://dx.doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0129

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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsa.2014.10.004

Kochan, Jeff (2010). ‘Contrastive Explanation and the “Strong Programme” in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge.’ Social Studies of Science 40(1): 127-44. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306312709104780

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: Pablo Schyfter, University of Edinburgh, p.schyfter@ed.ac.uk

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.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3ZI

Understanding the practice of science is a complex and contentious field of study. Scientific practitioners, as above, are sometimes also difficult to understand.
Photo by Christian Reed via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Jeff Kochan’s Science as Social Existence (2017) presents an engaging study of two perspectives on science and scientific knowledge: Heidegger’s existential phenomenology and the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK). The book sets down an interesting path to merge the two traditions. Kochan tries to navigate the path’s turns and terrains in original and fruitful ways.

Here, I offer reflections from the perspective of SSK and more specifically, the Edinburgh School’s Strong Programme in the sociology of scientific knowledge. I contend that Kochan’s work does not represent or engage with SSK satisfactorily, and is hindered in its accomplishments as a result. I begin by considering Kochan’s most important claims and ambitions, before turning to my analysis.

The Nature of the Argument

First, Jeff Kochan claims that Heidegger’s existential phenomenology and SSK can fix each other’s flaws and can together constitute a superior framework for analysing science and its epistemic work and products. Kochan elaborates this first claim by using the next two.

Second, he argues that Heidegger’s work can resolve what he considers to be SSK’s long-running and unresolved problem concerning the relationship between knowledge-makers and the world about which they make knowledge. Kochan claims that the Strong Programme employs a form of realism that draws a divide between the knower and the world. He refers to this realism as a ‘glass-bulb model.’ Kochan goes on to state that ‘alternatives to [the glass-bulb model] have already begun to earn a respected place within the broader field of science studies,’ (2017, 33) though he offers no examples to support the claim. He contends that Heidegger’s assistance is imperative since ‘science studies scholars can no longer take external-world realism for granted’ (ibid.).

Third, Kochan suggests that SSK can resolve Heidegger’s comparatively limited understanding of ‘the social.’ That is, the former can lend its social scientific perspectives and methods to bolster Heidegger’s insufficient explanation of human collectives and their behaviour.  Not only does SSK offer a more detailed understanding, it also contributes tools with which to carry out research.

Finally, in his reply to Raphael Sassower’s review, Kochan dismisses the former’s criticisms about the book’s failure to address social phenomena such as capitalism, neoliberalism, and industrial-academic-military complexes (Sassower 2018) by saying, ‘these are not what my book is about’ (Kochan 2018, 3). Kochan contends that he cannot be faulted for not accomplishing goals that he never set out to accomplish. This response serves as the starting point for my own analysis.

I agree with the basics of Kochan’s reply. Sassower’s criticisms overlook or disregard the author’s intents, and like all authors Kochan is entitled to set his own goals. However, the sympathy that Kochan expects from Sassower is not one that he offers David Bloor, Barry Barnes or the others in SSK whom he criticises.

His principal criticism—the second claim above—relies on a misrepresentation of the Strong Programme’s ambitions and concerns. That is, Kochan does not describe what their work is about accurately. Moreover, what Kochan looks to draw from SSK more broadly—the third claim above—features little in the book. That is, Kochan’s book is not really about one of things that it is supposed to be about.

Here, I will first explain Kochan’s misrepresentation of Strong Programme goals and the resultant errors in his criticism. Next, I will examine Kochan’s lack of concern for crucial aspects of SSK, which reflects both his misrepresentation of the tradition and his choice not to engage with it meaningfully.

Aims and Essentials in SSK

Kochan’s unfair criticisms of the Strong Programme (and SSK more broadly) first involve the tradition’s treatment of ontological issues. Kochan argues that the Strong Programme does not offer a satisfactory analysis of the world’s existence. When he introduces SSK in the book’s first chapter, he does so by focusing on ‘the problem of how one can know that the external world exists’ (2017, 37). And yet, this was never a defining concern for those who developed SSK. Their work was not about ontology. For most of them, it still is not.

Kochan claims that the Strong Programme failed by not delivering a convincing argument for ‘the claim that the subject can, in fact, know that this world, as well as the things within it, actually exists’ (2017, 49). Bloor and Barnes’ realist position accepts a basic presupposition, held implicitly by people as they live their lives, that the world with which they interact exists.  Kochan chastises this form of realism because it does not ‘establish the existence of the external world’ (2017, 49).

But again, this was never the tradition’s intent nor is it a requisite for their actual intents. The Strong Programme did not entirely ignore ontology. Knowledge and Social Imagery, in which Bloor presents the fundamental aims and methods of the Strong Programme, mentions and engages with some ontological topics (1976). Nonetheless, they form a very limited part of the book and the tradition, and so should not take precedence when evaluating SSK. Kochan’s criticism employs a form of misrepresentation similar to the one he dislikes when Sassower applies it to Science as Social Existence.

Moreover, Kochan faults the Strong Programme for doing what it hoped to do. He argues that the main hurdle to correcting Bloor and Barnes’s flawed realism is the scholars’ ‘preoccupation with epistemological, at the expense of ontological, issues’ (2017, 50). Knowledge and Social Imagery begins with an explicit declaration of ambitions, all of which concern epistemology and social studies of knowledge. Kochan either dismisses or ignores those aims in order to convey the importance and strength of his arguments. He does the same for other SSK fundamentals.

On several occasions, Kochan chooses to cast aside concerns or commitments that are vital to the Strong Programme. For instance, when he employs Heidegger’s phenomenology to challenge the Strong Programme’s criticism of external-world sceptics, Kochan writes:

from the standpoint of Heidegger’s own response to the external-world sceptic, the distinction SSK practitioners draw between absolute and relative knowledge is somewhat beside the point. (2017, 48)

And yet, few things are as explicitly vital to the Strong Programme as a clear rejection of absolutism and a wholehearted commitment to relativism. In Knowledge and Social Imagery, Bloor writes that ‘[there] is no denying that the strong programme in the sociology of knowledge rests on a form of relativism.’ (1976, 158) Elsewhere, he summarises the basic relation between absolutism and relativism as follows:

If you are a relativist you cannot be an absolutist, and if you are not a relativist you must be an absolutist. Relativism and absolutism are mutually exclusive positions. (2007, 252)

Bloor’s writings on the study of knowledge, like his analyses of rules and rule-following (1997), invariably draw distinctions between absolutism and relativism and unequivocally commit to the latter. As such, when Kochan treats the distinction as ‘somewhat beside the point,’ he is marginalising an indispensable component of what he sets out to criticise.

Finally, Kochan at times disregards the importance of social collectives to the Strong Programme and SSK more broadly. For instance, when analysing Bloor’s perspective on referencing as an intentional state requiring specific forms of content, Kochan writes:

For the purposes of the present analysis, whether that content is best explained in collectivist or individualist terms is beside the point. (2017, 79)

Crucial to social science is the relationship (and often the distinction) between collective and individual phenomena. The Strong Programme embraces and employs collectivism, and in part distinguishes itself through its understanding of knowledge as a social institution. Thus the distinction between individualism and collectivism is not ‘beside the point,’ and understanding SSK demands a dedicated concern for the social. Unfortunately, Kochan does not recognise its importance.

The Social and Practice

As part of his attempt to draw Heidegger and SSK into partnership, Kochan argues that the former can benefit from SSK’s comprehension of the social and its tools for exploring its phenomena. However, Kochan dedicates a surprisingly small part of his book to discussing social scientific topics. Most notably, his explanation of the social character of scientific work and scientific knowledge is very limited and lacks the detail and nuance that he offers when discussing Heidegger and ontology.

Kochan repeatedly explains the social by referring to ‘tradition.’ He writes that Heidegger and SSK both ‘regard science as a finite, social and historical practice’ (2017, 208) but relies on opaque notions of history and tradition to support the claim. He refers to the ‘history of thinking’ (2017, 6) that determines how a community behaves and knows, and contends that an individual’s understanding of things ‘can be explained by reference to the tradition which structures the way she thinks about those things’ (2017, 221).

The inherited a priori framework that structures thinking gains its authority from the ‘tradition which both enables and is sustained by [the everyday work-world]’ (2017, 224). Finally, Kochan argues that Bloor and Heidegger study normativity—a topic crucial to SSK—by ‘tracing its origin back to tradition’ (2017, 217).

Kochan rests his explanation of the social on ‘history’ and ‘tradition,’ but never offers an explicit, clear definition of either one. Although on occasion he employs terms like ‘socio-cultural,’ Kochan does not dedicate attention to SSK’s concern for social collectives. He mentions the importance of socialisation, but does not support the claim with evidence or analysis. As such, Kochan does not explore or employ the field’s social scientific concepts or methods, both of which he describes as the tradition’s contribution to his hybrid theory.

Kochan’s lack of concern for the social also involves a general disregard for scientific practice. Early in the book, Kochan states that he will demonstrate how SSK and Heidegger offer ‘mutually reinforcing models of the way scientists get things done’ (2017, 8). However, he does not address the lived undertakings involved in scientific work.

The way scientists get things done’ concerns more than their place within an abstract notion of tradition. It also involves what practitioners do, including the most mundane of behaviours. Kochan criticises science studies for arguing that ‘theory can be unproblematically reduced to practice. (2017, 57).

He offers no evidence that science studies believes this, though if it did, Kochan would be correct. Understanding science and its knowledge cannot be reduced entirely to making sense of its practices; science is more than what specific groups of people do. However, understanding science also cannot circumvent what happens in places like laboratories, fields and conferences rooms.

One example of Kochan’s omission of practice is his discussion of Joseph Rouse’s criticisms of Heidegger’s ‘theory-dominant account of the scientific enterprise’ (2017, 86). Heidegger’s analysis of science rests on the notion that specific forms of ‘projection’ underlie our epistemic engagement with entities and events. Science’s start involved a ‘change-over’ to a mathematical form of projection called mathesis and a ‘shift in experience within the range of possible understandings of nature opened up by the mathematical projection’ (2017, 90).

Rouse criticises Heidegger for never offering a satisfactory explanation of how ‘change-overs’ from one projection to another occur. Kochan challenges Rouse much as he criticises science studies: by saying that the latter wants to reduce everything to practice at the total expense of theory. I believe that Kochan fails to engage with the real issue. If Rouse supports a practice-only explanation of science—which Kochan does not demonstrate convincingly—then the former’s position is flawed.

However, Rouse’s failure would not resolve Heidegger’s problem. The latter would still not offer a clear explanation of what occurs in the lived world of scientific work. He would still fail to explain how change-overs happen. It is hardly radical to suggest that science is something that was developed by communities of people doing certain things. If its birth involved a novel form of projection, then it is also hardly radical to wonder how that projection came to be.

Moreover, Heidegger’s mathesis veers Kochan away from the particularities and nuances of scientific work. He writes:

Heidegger’s account of modern science as mathesis began with Heidegger’s insistence that facts, measurement, and experiment, broadly construed, figure as continuous threads running from modern science all the way back through medieval to ancient science. (2017, 281)

Such a claim relies on an excessively broad conceptualisation of facts, measurements, experiments and other lived components of science. It does not reflect the workings of scientific practice, which SSK seeks to investigate. In a sense, commitment to the claim involves a belittling of empirical study. It also involves marginalising one of SSK’s most important contributions to the study of science: its methodologies.

Missing Methodologies

Kochan does not present any analysis of SSK methodologies, nor does he offer his own. To some, methodologies might appear to be secondary components of theoretical traditions. To those in SSK and especially those who developed the Strong Programme, methodologies are all-important.

In the first and second pages of Knowledge and Social Imagery, Bloor introduces his aims in the book and his ambitions for the programme he is about to present. He states that the purpose of his book is to challenge social scientific and philosophical arguments that fail to place science and its knowledge ‘within the scope of a thorough-going sociological scrutiny’ (1976, 4). Bloor then explains that as a result, ‘the discussions which follow will sometimes, though not always, have to be methodological rather than substantive’ (1976, 4).

Put simply, Bloor sets out to demonstrate that science can be studied sociologically and to establish the methods with which to carry out those studies. He introduces four tenets—of causality, impartiality, symmetry and reflexivity—and states that they will ‘define what will be called the strong programme in the sociology of knowledge’ (1976, 7) As such, I believe that Kochan’s lack of concern for methodology is another example of overlooking what SSK seeks to do. Moreover, it is an example of Kochan not incorporating SSK meaningfully into his hybrid theory.

In his introduction, Kochan summarises each chapter’s aim and content. He describes Chapter 6 as an exploration of a historical episode involving Robert Boyle and Francis Line, as well as an evaluation of Bloor’s concept of ‘social imagery’ and Heidegger’s notions of ‘world picture’ and ‘basic blueprint.’ Kochan writes:

Bloor’s work suggests ways in which Heidegger’s concepts of ‘world picture’ and ‘basic blueprint’ might be rephrased and further developed in a more sociological idiom…” (2017, 15)

Here, Kochan seems to describe the potential of Bloor’s scholarship as principally a semantic reformulation of Heidegger’s ideas, or at most a set of concepts that can make Heidegger’s work more accessible to practitioners in SSK and other social studies of science. I believe this is one symptom of a broader and very important trouble. Kochan does not consider the possibility that the Strong Programme and SSK involve more than concepts.

He does not acknowledge vital parts of the traditions with great potentialfor his mission. He chooses to mention empirical SSK studies and their research practices only in passing. For instance, Kochan does not engage seriously with the Bath School and its Empirical Programme of Relativism (EPOR), although its contributions to SSK were no less important than those of the Edinburgh School. (Collins 1981, 1983) EPOR’s many case studies helped put the latter’s methodological tenets into action and thus give greater substance to what Bloor defines as the core of the Strong Programme.

One can also consider the importance of methodology by returning to the issue of the external world. I have argued that the Strong Programme did not embark on an ontological mission. Kochan’s criticism of what he terms a ‘glass-bulb model’ relies on an inaccurate representation of what the tradition set out to do. I also believe that his criticism overlooks or belittles the methodological function of Bloor and Barnes’ realism. Kochan writes:

Barnes does not actually argue for the existence of the external world, but only for the utility of the assertion that such a world exists. (2017, 29)

‘Only for the utility’ implies that methodological uses and effectiveness are inferior parameters with which to judge the quality and appropriateness of ontological commitments. I believe that Barnes’s choice is at least in part methodological. It serves a form of research not concerned with ontological questions and instead intent on studying the lived workings of science and its knowledge-making. If Kochan is allowed to set his own research and writing goals, so are the Edinburghers. Moreover, this is a case of Kochan not embracing all-important lessons from SSK. The tradition offers limited insights into the social if its methodology is not lent fuller attention.

From Glass Bulbs to Light Bulbs

I began by listing three claims which I believe capture Kochan’s key aims in Science as Social Existence. I then introduced one of his most important responses to Raphael Sassower’s review. Two questions bind the four claims together. First, what is a person’s work about? Second, does the work accomplish what it means to do? These help to evaluate Kochan’s treatment of work with which he engages, and to evaluate his success in doing so. In both cases, I believe that Science as Social Existence displays flaws.

As I have demonstrated, Kochan misrepresents what Barnes, Bloor and others in SSK set out to do (he does not acknowledge what their work is about) and he does not employ SSK material to resolve Heidegger’s limited understanding of the social (he does not accomplish an important part of what his book is supposed to be about.)

One can understand the book’s problems by expanding on Kochan’s glass-bulb metaphor. Kochan contends that Barnes and Bloor commit to a division that separates people and the world they seek to understand: a ‘glass bulb model.’ His perspective would benefit from viewing the Strong Programme as a working light bulb. It may employ a glass-bulb, but cannot be reduced to it.

To understand what it is, how it work and what it can offer, one must examine a light bulb’s entire constitution. Only by acknowledging what else is required to generate light and by considering what that light is meant to enable, can one present an accurate and useful analysis of its limitations and potential. It also shows why the glass bulb exists, and why it belongs in the broader system.

Contact details: p.schyfter@ed.ac.uk

References

Bloor, David. 1976. Knowledge and Social Imagery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bloor, David. 1997. Wittgenstein, Rules and Institutions. London: Routledge.

Bloor, David. 2007. “Epistemic Grace: Antirelativism as Theology in Disguise.” Common Knowledge 13 (2-3): 250-280. doi: 10.1215/0961754X-2007-007

Bloor, David. 2016. “Relativism Versus Absolutism: In Defense of a Dichotomy.” Common Knowledge 22 (3): 288-499. doi: 10.1215/0961754X-3622372

Collins, Harry. 1981. “Stages in the Empirical Programme of Relativism.” Social Studies of Science 11 (1): 3-10. doi: 10.1177/030631278101100101

Collins, Harry. 1983. “An Empirical Relativist Programme in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge.” In Science Observed: Perspectives on the Social Study of Science, edited by Karin Knorr-Cetina and Michael Mulkay, 115–140. London: Sage.

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

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

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

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, bwills@grenfell.mun.ca.

Wills, Bernard. “On the Limits of Any Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 34-39.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Zn

See also:

Image by Vancouver Island University via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Mizrahi is, alas, still confused though that perhaps is my fault. I did not attribute to him the view that non-scientific disciplines do not produce knowledge.[1] I am sorry if a cursory glance at my article created that impression but what I thought I had said was that this was the position known as strong scientism. Indeed, looking over my paper it seems that I made it quite clear that this position was ‘strong scientism’ and that Mizrahi defended something called ‘weak scientism’. According to this latter view the humane disciplines do indeed produce knowledge only of a qualitatively and quantitatively inferior kind. If this is not what weak scientism says I confess I don’t know what it says.

Thus, the opening salvo of his response, where he answers at some length a charge I did not make, has sailed clean over its intended target. (Mizrahi, 41-42) In my paper I distinguished weak scientism from strong scientism precisely on these grounds and then argued that the weaknesses of the former still dogged the latter: Mizrahi does not address this in his response. Here is a place where Mizrahi could have learned from humanities scholars and their practices of close reading and attended to the rhetorical and argumentative structure of my essay.

I began by critiquing ‘strong scientism’ which I said was not Mizrahi’s view and I did this by way of setting up my actual argument which was that Mizrahi’s proposed replacement ‘weak scientism’ suffered from the same basic flaws. I ask Mizrahi to read my response again and ask himself honestly if I accused him of being a proponent of ‘strong scientism’ rather than of ‘weak scientism’. To help him let me include the following citation from my piece:

I will focus, then, on the qualitative question and particularly on the claim that science produces knowledge and all the other things we tend to call knowledge are in fact not knowledge at all but something else. I will then consider Mr. Mizrahi’s peculiar version of this claim ‘weak scientism’ which is that while there may be knowledge of some sort outside of the sciences (it is hard, he thinks, to show otherwise) this knowledge is of a qualitatively lesser kind. (Wills, 18)

Asking Why Quantity of Production Matters

Mizrahi is still on about quantity. (Mizrahi, 42) I really have no idea why he is obsessed with this point. However, as he regards it as essential to ‘weak scientism’ I will quote what I said in a footnote to my essay: “Does Mizrahi mean to say that if a particular sub-discipline of English produces more articles in a given year than a small subfield of science then that discipline of English is superior to that subfield of science? I’m sure he does not mean to say this but it seems to follow from his words.” This point is surely not lost on him.

I have no firm opinion at all as to whether the totality of the sciences have produced more ‘stuff’ than the totality of the humanities between 1997 and 2017 and the reason is that I simply don’t care. I don’t accept quantity as a valid measure here unless it is backed up by qualitative considerations and if Mizrahi can’t make the case on qualitative grounds then quantity is simply irrelevant for the reason I gave: there are more commercials than there are artistic masterpieces. However, if Mizrahi still wants to fuss over quantitative metrics he faces the problem I raised.

While science in a global sense may indeed produce more sheer bulk of material than English, say, if there are subfields of science that do not produce more knowledge than subfields of English by this measure these must be inferior. Plus, what if it were true that Shakespeare scholars produced more papers than physicists? Would that cause Mizrahi to lower his estimate of physics? He would be an odd man if he did.

At any rate, there are all kinds of extrinsic reasons why scientific papers are so numerous that include the interests of corporations, governments, militaries and so on. The fact that there is so much science does not by itself indicate that there is anything intrinsically better about science and if science is intrinsically better that fact stands no matter how much of it there happens to be.

On the Power of Recursivity

To my argument that recursive processes can produce an infinite amount of knowledge he replies with an ineffectual jibe: “good luck publishing that!” (46) Well I am happy to inform him that I have indeed published ‘that’. I have published a number of papers on ancient and early modern philosophy that touch on the question of reflexivity and its attendant paradoxes as Mizrahi can find out by googling my name. Since he is so concerned about purely extrinsic measures of scholarly worth he will have to admit that there are in fact journals happy to ‘publish that’ and to that extent my point stands by his own chosen metric.

At any rate, in a further answer to this charge we get the following sophism: Besides, just as “recursive processes can extend our knowledge indefinitely in the field of mathematics,” they can also extend our knowledge in other fields as well, including scientific fields. That is, one “can produce a potential infinity of knowledge simply by reflecting recursively on the” (Wills 2018, 23) (sic) Standard Model in physics or any other scientific theory and/or finding. For this reason, Wills’ objection does nothing at all to undermine Weak Scientism.” (46)

Of course we can extend our knowledge indefinitely by reflecting on the standard model in physics just as Augustine says. But this has nothing whatsoever to do with whether a proposition is scientific or not. It can be done with any proposition at all. Nor is recursive doubling a scientific procedure in the terms described by Mizrahi. This is why quantitative claims about the superiority of science can never succeed unless, as I have said many times, they are backed up with qualitative considerations which would render a quantitative argument unnecessary.

On the Intentionality of the Ism

Mizrahi makes the standard response to the concerns I raised about sexism and colonialism. He denies he is a racist and indeed, Fox News style, turns the charge back on me. (44-45) He should understand, however, that my concern here is not personal but systemic racism. The version of scientific ideology he proposes has a history and that history is not innocent. It is a definition of knowledge and as such it has a social and political dimension. Part of this has been the exclusion of various others such as women or indigenous peoples from the socially sanctioned circle of knowers. This is the ‘privilege’ I refer to in my paper.

Mizrahi, as a participant in a certain tradition or practice of knowledge that claims and can often assert hegemony over other discourses, benefits from that privilege. That is not rocket science. Nor is the fact that, rightly or wrongly, Mizrahi is making hegemonic claims for science from which he himself stands to benefit. It is nothing to the point for Mizrahi to proclaim his innocence of any such intention or to use the ‘you are the real racist for calling me a racist’ ploy. As anyone familiar with the discourse about racism and colonialism can tell him, intention is not the salient feature of this sort of analysis but overall effect.

Also he has not distinguished an ideological critique from an ad hominem attack. I am not attacking him as a person but simply pointing that the position he takes on scientism has social, political and monetary implications that make his defense of weak-scientism ideologically loaded. And let me emphasize again that this has nothing whatsoever to do with Mizrahi’s intentions or personal feelings: I am happy to consider him a perfect gentleman. Perhaps a consideration of Marx would help him see this point a bit better and I can assure Mizrahi that Marx’s impact rating is stellar.

So Who Is Correct?

Of course, as Mizrahi says, all this is forgivable if his overall thesis is correct. (45) Apparently, I truly did not understand that “Even if it is true that “craft knowledge has roughly 3 million-year head start,” it is irrelevant to whether Weak Scientism is true or false. This is because Weak Scientism is a thesis about academic knowledge or research produced by academic fields of study (Mizrahi 2017a, 356; Mizrahi 2017b, 11; Mizrahi 2018a, 12). (46) I admit this point did escape me.[2]

This means that if I find knowledge produced outside the academy with qualities comparable to scientific knowledge that is irrelevant to the argument. Well, by all means then, let me limit my consideration to the academy since Mizrahi has defined that as his sole battleground. I gave many examples of knowledge in my paper that come from an academic context. Let us consider these with respect to Mizrahi’s chosen criteria for “good explanations, namely, unification, coherence, simplicity, and testability (Mizrahi 2017a, 360-362; Mizrahi 2017b, 19-20; Mizrahi 2018a, 17).” (47) (46)

Mizrahi seems to think this applies to a statement I made about Joyce scholars. (47) Let me take them as my ‘academic’ example. I take it as a given that a masterful exposition of Portrait of the Artist as Young Man will show the unity, coherence and simplicity of the work’s design to the extent that these are artistically desired features. What about testability? How does a Joyce scholar test what he says? As I said he tests it against the text. He does this in two ways.

First on the level of direct observation he establishes what Stephen Daedalus, say, does on page 46. This is, as far as I can see, a perfectly reputable kind of knowledge and if we can answer the question about page 46 directly we do not need to resort to any more complex explanatory processes. The fact that such a procedure is perfectly adequate to establish the truth means that scientific procedures of a more complex kind are unnecessary. The use of scientific method, while it may mean better knowledge in many cases, does not mean better knowledge here so Mizrahi’s complaint on this score is beside the point. (47)

Statue of James Joyce in Dublin, Ireland
Image by Loic Pinseel via Flickr / Creative Commons

What Can Improve Knowledge?

Of course, the Joyce scholar will also have an interpretation of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This is where he answers broader questions about the work’s meaning, structure, unity and so on. This also entails the test of looking at the text not at any particular point but as a whole. What in this hermeneutic process would be improved by ‘scientific method’ as Mizrahi describes it? Where does the Joyce scholar need to draw testable consequences from a novel hypothesis and test it with an experiment? What would that even mean in this context?

His test is close reading as this is practiced in the discipline of English literature and he has peers who judge if he has done this well or badly. What is amiss with this process that it could be improved by procedures that have nothing to do with determining the meaning and significance of books? How on this question could science even begin to show its supposed ‘superiority’? It seems to me the only option for Mizrahi here is to deny that the Joyce scholar knows anything (beyond bare factual information) and this means, alas, that his position once again collapses into strong scientism.

I think, however, that I see where Mizrahi’s confusion lies. He seems to think I am saying the following: Joyce scholars look at a book to determine a fact just as scientists look at the world to determine a fact ergo Joyce scholars are scientists. (47) Let me reassure him I am not so jejune. Of course, field notes and other forms of direct observation are part of the arsenal of science. Plus, scientific statements are, at the end of the day, brought into relationship with observation either directly or indirectly. Still, Joyce scholars do not just look at page numbers or what characters are wearing in Chapter 2. They formulate interpretations of Joyce.

In this way too scientists not only observe things but formulate and test hypotheses, construct theories and so on. In some ways these may be comparable processes but they are not identical. Hermeneutics is not just an application of hyothetico-deductive method to a book. Conclusions about Joyce are not products of experimental testing and I can conceive of no way in which they could be strengthened by them except in a purely ancillary sense (ie. we might learn something indirect about Ulysses by exhuming Joyce’s bones).

Thus, Mizrahi’s argument that scientific explanations have more ‘good-making properties’ overall (47) is, whether true or not, irrelevant to the myriad of cases in which scientific explanations are either A. unnecessary or B. inapplicable. Once again we teeter on the brink of strong scientism (which Mizrahi rejects) for we are now forced to say that if a scientific explanation of a phenomenon is not to be had then there can be no other form of explanation.

There Are Radical Differences in How Knowledge Is Produced

Let me go back to my daughter who was not out in a field or cave somewhere but in a university classroom when she presented her analysis of Scriabin’s Prometheus chord. This, I hope, satisfies Mizrahi’s demand that I confine myself to an ‘academic’ context. Both her instructor and her classmates agreed that her analysis was sound. Why? Because it was the clearest, simplest explanation that answered the question of how Scriabin created this chord. It was an abduction that the community of knowers of which she was a part found adequate and that was the end of the story.

The reason, let me emphasize again since Mizrahi has such trouble with the point, is that this was all the question required. Kristin did not deduce a “…consequence that follows from a hypothesis plus auxiliary hypothesis” (47) to be made subject of a testable prediction. Why? Because that is not how knowledge is produced in her domain and such a procedure would add no value to her conclusion which concerned not facts about the natural world but Scriabin’s thought processes and aesthetic intentions.

Again it seems that either Mizrahi must concede this point OR adopt the strong scientist position that Kristin only seems to know something about Scriabin while actually there is nothing to be known about Scriabin outside the experimental sciences. So, to make his case he must still explain why science can produce better results in music theory, which IS an academic subject, than explanatory procedures currently used in that domain. Otherwise the superiority of science is only contextual which is a trivial thesis denied by no one.

Thus, Mizrahi is still bedeviled by the same problem. How is science supposed to show its superiority in domains where its explanatory procedures are simply not necessary and would add no value to existing explanations? I do not think Mizrahi has established the point that:”…if distinct fields of study have the same aim (i.e., to explain), then their products (i.e., explanations) can be evaluated with respect to similar criteria, such as unification, coherence, simplicity, and testability (Mizrahi 2017a, 360-362; Mizrahi 2017b, 19-20; Mizrahi 2018a, 17). Mizrahi says ‘similar’ but his argument actually depends on these criteria being ‘identical’ such that we can judge all explanations by one pre-set standard: in this case hypothetico-deductive method.

But this is nonsense. All disciplines use abduction, true, but they do not all arrive at the ‘best explanation’ by the same procedures. Their procedures are analogical not univocal. Failure to see this distinction seems to be at the root of Mizrahi’s errors. Differing explanatory processes can be compared but not identified as can be seen if we imagine a classicist taking his copy of the Iliad down to the chemistry lab to be analyzed for its meaning. The Chemistry lab here is the classicist’s brain! To use a less flippant example though there are sciences such as paleontology that make liberal use of narrative reconstruction (i.e. how those hominid bones got in that tiny cave) which is a form of abduction that does not correspond simply to the standard H/D model. Still, the story the paleontologist reconstructs, if it is a good one, has unity, simplicity and coherence regardless of the fact that it has not achieved this by a robotic application of H/D but rather by another, less formalized, form of inference.

Thus, I think Mizrahi’s reforming zeal (48) has got the better of him. He does not help his case by issuing the Borg-like boast that ‘resistance is futile’. If I recall my Trek lore correctly, the boast that ‘resistance is futile’ ended in ignominious defeat. One final point. One should never proofread one’s own papers, I did indeed misspell Mizrahi for which I heartily apologize.

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

Mizrahi, Moti. “Weak Scientism Defended Once More.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 41-50.

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

[1] Though, as I point out in my response (Wills, 22), he clearly vacillates on this point.

[2] It is an odd kind of scientism that holds science is superior within the academy while leaving open the question of whether non-scientific knowledge outside the academy may be superior to science. However, if that is Mizrahi’s position I will not quibble.