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Author Information: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College, serrc.digital@gmail.com.

Riggio, Adam. “Belief in a Weird World: A Review of Bernard Wills’ Believing Weird Things.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 3 (2019): 1-5.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-470

H. P. Lovecraft’s creation, Cthulhu, is one of the world’s most famous symbols of the weird.
Image by Chase Norton via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Weird is a strange word. The idea of weirdness itself is rather strange, as suits the subject I suppose. Bernard Wills has written the essay anthology Believing Weird Things, in part, to explore what weirdness is. The book itself, however, is rather weird. Or at least, it’s weird to an academic audience.

Let me explain. While I write quite a few book reviews for SERRC, over the last while, the amount of time between my receiving a review copy and actually writing and submitting the review of the book has lengthened from a flexible to a messianic duration. So my reviews often end up being informed by other reviews of the same book, where others have gotten around to it before me.

So this review is also, though in small part, a rebuke to Matthew Dentith’s earlier review of Believing Weird Things published late last year.[1] Although it remains far from perfect, Wills has written a book that is both challenging and accessible to a wide audience. Believing Weird Things is a popular book of philosophical thought, in the tradition of Bertrand Russell’s public philosophical essays. For some audiences of researchers, a book of that character may be too weird to understand at first.

What Is Weird? The Weird? Weirdness?

Whether something is weird is not a matter purely of ontology. There is no weird in itself, since weirdness is a relational property. Something is weird only in comparison to something else, relative to surroundings, wider environments, or the expectations of people regarding those surroundings and environment.

Weirdness is most fundamentally an epistemological concern. When a sudden disturbance appears in the smooth flowing of a natural process, that disturbance is simply disruptive and destructive. We as self-conscious observers may call it weird, but regarding the process and its disruption in themselves, there are matters of fact alone.

Science-fiction and horror literature has probed the nature of weirdness in more nuance than many philosophical arguments. The weird unsettles expectation, which creates an immediate fear and a profound fear. Speaking immediately, a weird encounter is a sign that presumptions about the reliability of the world to sustain your own life are in doubt. That causes fear for your life.

The more profound fear of the weird inspires is that, more than just your life being at risk, the fundamental nature of reality is at risk. It would be extremely dangerous to encounter creatures like the Shoggoths of Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” one of the stories that helped forge the genre of weird fiction, but their nature is weird enough such an encounter would call into doubt everything you believed about reality itself.

To be weird is to have a character or nature that is such an anomaly for your expectations of how and what the world is, as to be unnerving. A natural process cannot be unnerved, only a self-conscious subjectivity. What is, is; what is weird must be understood as weird.

Weirdness, therefore, is in the eye of the beholder. At least that’s what I would say if I were disposed to cheap clichés. Different people with different histories, cultures, moral and aesthetic values will consider different things weird.

The Relative Relativity of Weirdness

Wills himself describes it well in his essay on Rastafarian religious beliefs, one of the best in the volume. Rastafarianism is a Caribbean religious minority, its people marginalized in the faith’s Jamaican birthplace. The religion’s cultural influence far outshines its size because of the global fame and historical influence of Rastafarian musicians in reggae, such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Lee Scratch Perry.

But to someone raised in a generally Christian culture, some Rastafarian beliefs are genuinely strange, even though much of the religion is a clear outgrowth of the Abrahamic tradition. The Rastafarian Jah is the same God as Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Rastafarianism recasts the Jewish concept of the chosen people to refer to all Africans who suffered from colonization and the Atlantic slave trade, their Exodus being the ongoing process of decolonization. Like Islam, the moral principles of the religion incorporate rituals of worship into everyday social life, and it roots those moral principles in the shape of world history.

Rastafarian parallels with Christianity are, as Wills and I agree, rather weird. Rastafarianism has a Messiah figure that operates according to the same metaphysical principles as Christ. Haile Selassie I, Ethiopian Emperor from 1930 to 1974, is the living incarnation of God for Rastafarians.

I use the present tense because Rastafarians hold that Selassie is alive in some form, despite his 1974 assassination in Ethiopia’s communist uprising. In all seriousness, I expect there eventually to be a theological schism in Rastafarianism over how to reconcile their faith with the fact that Selassie was murdered and his body stuffed under the toilets of a palace bathroom, discovered decades later, long after that palace had been converted into government offices.

I can talk about this with an air of humour, as though I’m joking from a position of relative privilege at the expense of Rastafarianism and Rastas. The detachment that allows me to dehumanize Rastafarian culture with this smirking bemusement is rooted in my attitude toward the faith: it is alien, a culture I know only through song lyrics and cultural stereotypes. I find the Rastafarian faith’s messianism weird, but only because I was not raised a Rasta or near any Rastafarian communities.

In Wills’ best essays, he uses these extended philosophical case studies to uncover the epistemic, political, and moral implications of who considers what weird, and why.

Bernard Wills - Believing Weird ThingsA Disjointed Path to Its End

The only real problem I have with the book is that not all of its essays are as good as its best. If I can use terms that more often describe albums, Believing Weird Things is a little front-loaded. The book is divided roughly in half. The first essays explore weird ideas and beliefs as a philosophical historian building a book of fascinating case studies. The second half of the book describes different ways in which weirdness has been weaponized, how difference and strangeness become no longer guides to fascinating places, but targets to be destroyed.

If I can take a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean, consider this. The best essay in the first half of Believing Weird Things is “Why I Am Not a Rastaman.” The best essay in the book’s second half is “Portrait of an Islamophobe.”

Yet I don’t want to linger too long on praise for the actual best essay in the volume, where Wills insightfully and incisively identifies the dynamics of racist discourse that show how Islamophobic ideology merges the dehumanization of colonial racism with the paranoia and massification of classical European anti-Semitism.

That’s all I really need to say other than that “Portrait of an Islamophobe” alone is ethically worth your buying Believing Weird Things at its affordable price, expressly for the purpose of rewarding Wills with one more purchase in his next royalty payment.

So when my biggest critique of a book is that some essays aren’t as good as others in an essay collection, you can be pretty sure that I don’t have a significant problem with what he’s doing. Believing Weird Things ends with two essays that originally appeared in earlier forms at SERRC, two analyses of the nationalist turn in Western conservatism.

Those essays offered quality insights on the true nature of conservatism as a tradition of English political philosophy whose classical works were the landmarks of Thomas Hobbes and Edmund Burke, and how the nationalism that dominates today’s right wing itself betrays many of the principles of those great thinkers.

However, they make for an odd fit with the other essays of the book, all of which explicitly experiment with our concept of the weird to develop a new philosophical insight. These last two essays are fine in themselves, but as they appear in Believing Weird Things, they amount to filler tracks that stand apart from the main themes and style of the book.

Misunderstanding the Will to Weirdness

My last point is a soft rebuttal to Matthew Dentith’s earlier review of Believing Weird Things. I couldn’t help but find Dentith’s critiques a little off the mark, since they were rooted in a conception of the weird that Wills didn’t share. This conception of the weird is rooted in Forteana, the study and archiving of generally weird and strange phenomena, rumours, objects, folklore.

There are two central organizing concepts in the work of Charles Fort, as he first developed his project and how it has continued since. They are anti-systematicity and skepticism of skepticism. Fortean catalogues of weird things and events make no attempt to understand these departures from the norm as expressions of some underlying order. This is anti-systematicity, which parallels skepticism of skepticism, the refusal to doubt that something exists or occurred merely because its existence contradicts or is contrary to established knowledge.

Any system of knowledge based on these principles of anti-systematicity and skepticism of skepticism will regularly produce weirdnesses, because if you hold them, you will accept without much trouble radical departures inductively valid expectations about what is and is not possible. But these principles do not exhaustively define what is weird or what weird is. Fortean epistemology is openness to the weird, but does not itself define that which is weird. Dentith’s analysis of Wills’ work conflates the two.

But Dentith’s error is a learning opportunity for us in who the best audience for Believing Weird Things would be. Dentith’s misinterpretation flowed from his prior experience in academic research. Earlier in his career, the study of Forteana and the works of Michael Shermer, particularly his 1997 Why People Believe Weird Things, was important to his intellectual development.

In the introduction, Wills frames his own Believing Weird Things as a response to Shermer’s arguments from the end of the last century. Dentith critiques Wills for having chosen an apparent interlocutor from more than 20 years ago, seeing this as an attempt to restore Shermer’s ideas to a place in contemporary philosophical debates in the spheres of academic publication. But Wills never justifies such a restoration in his own book. Indeed, Wills never refers to Shermer in as much detail in the rest of the book as he does in the introduction.

Such a use of Shermer appears sloppy, and I do think Wills should have been a little more explicit in explaining the role that Shermer’s work plays in his own thinking. A figure who plays such a major role in an introduction, but disappears throughout the main body of the book makes for poor academic writing.

But Wills’ only mistake here was having given Dentith the opportunity to make his own mistake. Wills does not aim to restore Shermer to some more prestigious position in academic philosophical debates. Engaging with Shermer’s ideas has a more personal meaning for Wills, because a chance encounter with Shermer’s work was the inspiration for a trilogy of books that explore the nature of weirdness, of which Believing Weird Things is the second.

Wills refers to the work of Shermer to invoke him as an inspiration for his in-progress trilogy. Invoking an intellectual ancestor is not a reason that can inspire most academic writing, especially that based in paywalled research journals. Dentith did not understand this aspect of Believing Weird Things because he kept his analysis inside the context of the academician’s writing.

Conclusion: Life Is Weird

Bernard Wills has written a book for a general thinking audience, a contribution to the social and ethical antidotes to rouse the red-pilled from their dogmatic slumbers. Believing Weird Things asks readers to re-evaluate what they consider reasonable and strange, that weirdness is a category without a simple definition or clear boundaries.

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Between Forteana and Skepticism: A Review of Bernard Wills’ Believing Weird Things.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 48-52.

Wills, Bernard. Believing Weird Things. Montréal: Minkowski Institute Press, 2018.

[1] Okay, that makes me sound way, way too late.

Technology and Evil, Brian Martin

SERRC —  January 31, 2019 — 2 Comments

Author Information: Brian Martin, University of Wollongong, bmartin@uow.edu.au.

Martin, Brian. “Technology and Evil.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 1-14.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-466

A Russian Mil Mi-28 attack helicopter.
Image by Dmitri Terekhov via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Humans cause immense damage to each other and to the environment. Steven James Bartlett argues that humans have an inbuilt pathology that leads to violence and ecosystem destruction that can be called evil, in a clinical rather than a religious sense. Given that technologies are human constructions, it follows that technologies can embody the same pathologies as humans. An important implication of Bartlett’s ideas is that studies of technology should be normative in opposing destructive technologies.

Introduction

Humans, individually and collectively, do a lot of terrible things to each other and to the environment. Some obvious examples are murder, torture, war, genocide and massive environmental destruction. From the perspective of an ecologist from another solar system, humans are the world’s major pestilence, spreading everywhere, enslaving and experimenting on a few species for their own ends, causing extinctions of numerous other species and destroying the environment that supports them all.

These thoughts suggest that humans, as a species, have been causing some serious problems. Of course there are many individuals and groups trying to make the world a better place, for example campaigning against war and environmental degradation, and fostering harmony and sustainability. But is it possible that by focusing on what needs to be done and on the positives in human nature, the seriousness of the dark side of human behaviour is being neglected?

Here, I address these issues by looking at studies of human evil, with a focus on a book by Steven Bartlett. With this foundation, it is possible to look at technology with a new awareness of its deep problems. This will not provide easy solutions but may give a better appreciation of the task ahead.

Background

For decades, I have been studying war, ways to challenge war, and alternatives to military systems (e.g. Martin, 1984). My special interest has been in nonviolent action as a means for addressing social problems. Along the way, this led me to read about genocide and other forms of violence. Some writing in the area refers to evil, addressed from a secular, scientific and non-moralistic perspective.

Roy Baumeister (1997), a prominent psychologist, wrote a book titled Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, that I found highly insightful. Studying the psychology of perpetrators, ranging from murderers and terrorists to killers in genocide, Baumeister concluded that most commonly they feel justified in their actions and see themselves as victims. Often they think what they’ve done is not that important. Baumeister’s sophisticated analysis aims to counter the popular perception of evil-doers as malevolent or uncaring.

Baumeister is one of a number of psychologists willing to talk about good and evil. If the word evil feels uncomfortable, then substitute “violence and cruelty,” as in the subtitle of Baumeister’s book, and the meaning is much the same. It’s also possible to approach evil from the viewpoint of brain function, as in Simon Baron-Cohen’s (2011) The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. There are also studies that combine psychiatric and religious perspectives, such as M. Scott Peck’s (1988) People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil.

Another part of my background is technology studies, including being involved in the nuclear power debate, studying technological vulnerability, communication technology, and technology and euthanasia, among other topics. I married my interests in nonviolence and in technology by studying how technology could be designed and used for nonviolent struggle (Martin, 2001).

It was with this background that I encountered Steven James Bartlett’s (2005) massive book The Pathology of Man: A Study of Human Evil. Many of the issues it addresses, for example genocide and war, were familiar to me, but his perspective offered new and disturbing insights. The Pathology of Man is more in-depth and far-reaching than other studies I had encountered, and is worth bringing to wider attention.

Here, I offer an abbreviated account of Bartlett’s analysis of human evil. Then I spell out ways of applying his ideas to technology and conclude with some possible implications.

Bartlett on Evil

Steven James Bartlett is a philosopher and psychologist who for decades studied problems in human thinking. The Pathology of Man was published in 2005 but received little attention. This may partly be due to the challenge of reading an erudite 200,000-word treatise but also partly due to people being resistant to Bartlett’s message, for the very reasons expounded in his book.

In reviewing the history of disease theories, Bartlett points out that in previous eras a wide range of conditions were considered to be diseases, ranging from “Negro consumption” to anti-Semitism. This observation is part of his assessment of various conceptions of disease, relying on standard views about what counts as disease, while emphasising that judgements made are always relative to a framework that is value-laden.

This is a sample portion of Bartlett’s carefully laid out chain of logic and evidence for making a case that the human species is pathological, namely characteristic of a disease. In making this case, he is not speaking metaphorically but clinically. The fact that the human species has seldom been seen as pathological is due to humans adopting a framework that exempts themselves from this diagnosis, which would be embarrassing to accept, at least for those inclined to think of humans as the apotheosis of evolution.

Next stop: the concept of evil. Bartlett examines a wide range of perspectives, noting that most of them are religious in origin. In contrast, he prefers a more scientific view: “Human evil, in the restricted and specific sense in which I will use it, refers to apparently voluntary destructive behavior and attitudes that result in the general negation of health, happiness, and ultimately of life.” (p. 65) In referring to “general negation,” Bartlett is not thinking of a poor diet or personal nastiness but of bigger matters such as war, genocide and overpopulation.

Bartlett is especially interested in the psychology of evil, and canvasses the ideas of classic thinkers who have addressed this issue, including Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Karl Menninger, Erich Fromm and Scott Peck. This detailed survey has only a limited return: these leading thinkers have little to say about the origins of evil and what psychological needs it may serve.

So Bartlett turns to other angles, including Lewis Fry Richardson’s classic work quantifying evidence of human violence, and research on aggression by ethologists, notably Konrad Lorenz. Some insights come from this examination, including Richardson’s goal of examining human destructiveness without emotionality and Lorenz’s point that humans, unlike most other animals, have no inbuilt barriers to killing members of their own species.

Bartlett on the Psychology of Genocide

To stare the potential for human evil in the face, Bartlett undertakes a thorough assessment of evidence about genocide, seeking to find the psychological underpinning of systematic mass killings of other humans. He notes one important factor, a factor not widely discussed or even admitted: many humans gain pleasure from killing others. Two other relevant psychological processes are projection and splitting. Projection involves denying negative elements of oneself and attributing them to others, for example seeing others as dangerous, thereby providing a reason for attacking them: one’s own aggression is attributed to others.

Splitting involves dividing one’s own grandiose self-conception from the way others are thought of. “By belonging to the herd, the individual gains an inflated sense of power, emotional support, and connection. With the feeling of group-exaggerated power and puffed up personal importance comes a new awareness of one’s own identity, which is projected into the individual’s conception” of the individual’s favoured group (p. 157). As a member of a group, there are several factors that enable genocide: stereotyping, dehumanisation, euphemistic language and psychic numbing.

To provide a more vivid picture of the capacity for human evil, Bartlett examines the Holocaust, noting that it was not the only or most deadly genocide but one, partly due to extensive documentation, that provides plenty of evidence of the psychology of mass killing.

Anti-Semitism was not the preserve of the Nazis, but existed for centuries in numerous parts of the world, and indeed continues today. The long history of persistent anti-Semitism is, according to Bartlett, evidence that humans need to feel prejudice and to persecute others. But at this point there is an uncomfortable finding: most people who are anti-Semitic are psychologically normal, suggesting the possibility that what is normal can be pathological. This key point recurs in Bartlett’s forensic examination.

Prejudice and persecution do not usually bring sadness and remorse to the victimizers, but rather a sense of strengthened identity, pleasure, self-satisfaction, superiority, and power. Prejudice and persecution are Siamese twins: Together they generate a heightened and invigorated belief in the victimizers’ supremacy. The fact that prejudice and persecution benefit bigots and persecutors is often overlooked or denied. (p. 167)

Bartlett examines evidence about the psychology of several groups involved in the Holocaust: Nazi leaders, Nazi doctors, bystanders, refusers and resisters. Nazi leaders and doctors were, for the most part, normal and well-adjusted men (nearly all were men). Most of the leaders were above average intelligence, and some had very high IQs, and many of them were well educated and culturally sophisticated. Cognitively they were superior, but their moral intelligence was low.

Bystanders tend to do nothing due to conformity, lack of empathy and low moral sensibility. Most Germans were bystanders to Nazi atrocities, not participating but doing nothing to oppose them.

Next are refusers, those who declined to be involved in atrocities. Contrary to usual assumptions, in Nazi Germany there were few penalties for refusing to join killings; it was just a matter of asking for a different assignment. Despite this, of those men called up to join killing brigades, very few took advantage of this option. Refusers had to take some initiative, to think for themselves and resist the need to conform.

Finally, there were resisters, those who actively opposed the genocide, but even here Bartlett raises a concern, saying that in many cases resisters were driven more by anger at offenders than empathy with victims. In any case, in terms of psychology, resisters were the odd ones out, being disengaged with the dominant ideas and values in their society and being able to be emotionally alone, without peer group support. Bartlett’s concern here meshes with research on why people join contemporary social movements: most first become involved via personal connections with current members, not because of moral outrage about the issue (Jasper, 1997).

The implication of Bartlett’s analysis of the Holocaust is that there is something wrong with humans who are psychologically normal (see also Bartlett, 2011, 2013). When those who actively resist genocide are unusual psychologically, this points to problems with the way most humans think and feel.

Another one of Bartlett’s conclusions is that most solutions that have been proposed to the problem of genocide — such as moral education, cultivating acceptance and respect, and reducing psychological projection — are vague, simplistic and impractical. They do not measure up to the challenge posed by the observed psychology of genocide.

Bartlett’s assessment of the Holocaust did not surprise me because, for one of my studies of tactics against injustice (Martin, 2007), I read a dozen books and many articles about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which between half a million and a million people were killed in the space of a few months. The physical differences between the Tutsi and Hutu are slight; the Hutu killers targeted both Tutsi and “moderate” Hutu. It is not widely known that Rwanda is the most Christian country in Africa, yet many of the killings occurred in churches where Tutsi had gone for protection. In many cases, people killed neighbours they had lived next to for years, or even family members. The Rwandan genocide had always sounded horrific; reading detailed accounts to obtain examples for my article, I discovered it was far worse than I had imagined (Martin, 2009).

After investigating evidence about genocide and its implications about human psychology, Bartlett turns to terrorism. Many of his assessments accord with critical terrorism studies, for example that there is no standard definition of terrorism, the fear of terrorism is disproportionate to the threat, and terrorism is “framework-relative” in the sense that calling someone a terrorist puts you in opposition to them.

Bartlett’s interest is in the psychology of terrorists. He is sceptical of the widespread assumption that there must be something wrong with them psychologically, and cites evidence that terrorists are psychologically normal. Interestingly, he notes that there are no studies comparing the psychologies of terrorists and soldiers, two groups that each use violence to serve a cause. He also notes a striking absence: in counterterrorism writing, no one has studied the sorts of people who refuse to be involved in cruelty and violence and who are resistant to appeals to in-group prejudice, which is usually called loyalty or patriotism. By assuming there is something wrong with terrorists, counterterrorism specialists are missing the possibility of learning how to deal with the problem.

Bartlett on War Psychology

Relatively few people are involved in genocide or terrorism except by learning about them via media stories. It is another matter when it comes to war, because many people have lived through a time when their country has been at war. In this century, just think of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, where numerous governments have sent troops or provided military assistance.

Bartlett says there is plenty of evidence that war evokes powerful emotions among both soldiers and civilians. For some, it is the time of life when they feel most alive, whereas peacetime can seem boring and meaningless. Although killing other humans is proscribed by most moral systems, war is treated as an exception. There are psychological preconditions for organised killing, including manufacturing differences, dehumanising the enemy, nationalism, group identity and various forms of projection. Bartlett says it is also important to look at psychological factors that prevent people from trying to end wars.

Even though relatively few people are involved in war as combat troops or even as part of the systems that support war-fighting, an even smaller number devote serious effort to trying to end wars. Governments collectively spend hundreds of billions of dollars on their militaries but only a minuscule amount on furthering the causes of peace. This applies as well to research: there is a vastly more military-sponsored or military-inspired research than peace-related research. Bartlett concludes that, “war is a pathology which the great majority of human beings do not want to cure” (p. 211).

Thinking back over the major wars in the past century, in most countries it has been far easier to support war than to oppose it. Enlisting in the military is seen as patriotic whereas refusing military service, or deserting the army, is seen as treasonous. For civilians, defeating the enemy is seen as a cause for rejoicing, whereas advocating an end to war — except via victory — is a minority position.

There have been thousands of war movies: people flock to see killing on the screen, and the bad guys nearly always lose, especially in Hollywood. In contrast, the number of major films about nonviolent struggles is tiny — what else besides the 1982 film Gandhi? — and seldom do they attract a wide audience. Bartlett sums up the implications of war for human psychology:

By legitimating the moral atrocity of mass murder, war, clothed as it is in the psychologically attractive trappings of patriotism, heroism, and the ultimately good cause, is one of the main components of human evil. War, because it causes incalculable harm, because it gives men and women justification to kill and injure one another without remorse, because it suspends conscience and neutralizes compassion, because it takes the form of psychological epidemics in which dehumanization, cruelty, and hatred are given unrestrained freedom, and because it is a source of profound human gratification and meaning—because of these things, war is not only a pathology, but is one of the most evident expressions of human evil. (p. 225)

The Obedient Parasite

Bartlett next turns to obedience studies, discussing the famous research by Stanley Milgram (1974). However, he notes that such studies shouldn’t even be needed: the evidence of human behaviour during war and genocide should be enough to show that most human are obedient to authority, even when the authority is instructing them to harm others.

Another relevant emotion is hatred. Although hating is a widespread phenomenon — most recently evident in the phenomenon of online harassment (Citron, 2014) — Bartlett notes that psychologists and psychiatrists have given this emotion little attention. Hatred serves several functions, including providing a cause, overcoming the fear of death, and, in groups, helping build a sense of community.

Many people recognise that humans are destroying the ecological web that supports their own lives and those of numerous other species. Bartlett goes one step further, exploring the field of parasitology. Examining definitions and features of parasites, he concludes that, according to a broad definition, humans are parasites on the environment and other species, and are destroying the host at a record rate. He sees human parasitism as being reflected in social belief systems including the “cult of motherhood,” infatuation with children, and the belief that other species exist to serve humans, a longstanding attitude enshrined in some religions.

Reading The Pathology of Man, I was tempted to counter Bartlett’s arguments by pointing to the good things that so many humans have done and are doing, such as everyday politeness, altruism, caring for the disadvantaged, and the animal liberation movement. Bartlett could counter by noting it would be unwise to pay no attention to disease symptoms just because your body has many healthy parts. If there is a pathology inherent in the human species, it should not be ignored, but instead addressed face to face.

Remington 1858 Model Navy .36 Cap and Ball Revolver.
Image by Chuck Coker via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Technologies of Political Control

Bartlett’s analysis of human evil, including that violence and cruelty are perpetrated mostly by people who are psychologically normal and that many humans obtain pleasure out of violence against other humans, can be applied to technology. The aim in doing this is not to demonise particular types or uses of technology but to explore technological systems from a different angle in the hope of providing insights that are less salient from other perspectives.

Consider “technologies of political control,” most commonly used by governments against their own people (Ackroyd et al., 1974; Wright, 1998). These technologies include tools of torture and execution including electroshock batons, thumb cuffs, restraint chairs, leg shackles, stun grenades and gallows. They include technologies used against crowds such as convulsants and infrasound weapons (Omega Foundation, 2000). They include specially designed surveillance equipment.

In this discussion, “technology” refers not just to artefacts but also to the social arrangements surrounding these artefacts, including design, manufacture, and contexts of use. To refer to “technologies of political control” is to invoke this wider context: an artefact on its own may seem innocuous but still be implicated in systems of repression. Repression here refers to force used against humans for the purposes of harm, punishment or social control.

Torture has a long history. It must be considered a prime example of human evil. Few species intentionally inflict pain and suffering on other members of their own species. Among humans, torture is now officially renounced by every government in the world, but it still takes place in many countries, for example in China, Egypt and Afghanistan, as documented by Amnesty International. Torture also takes place in many conventional prisons, for example via solitary confinement.

To support torture and repression, there is an associated industry. Scientists design new ways to inflict pain and suffering, using drugs, loud noises, disorienting lights, sensory deprivation and other means. The tools for delivering these methods are constructed in factories and the products marketed around the world, especially to buyers seeking means to control and harm others. Periodically, “security fairs” are held in which companies selling repression technologies tout their products to potential buyers.

The technology of repression does not have a high profile, but it is a significant industry, involving tens of billions of dollars in annual sales. It is a prime cause of human suffering. So what are people doing about it?

Those directly involved seem to have few moral objections. Scientists use their skills to design more sophisticated ways of interrogating, incarcerating and torturing people. Engineers design the manufacturing processes and numerous workers maintain production. Sales agents tout the technologies to purchasers. Governments facilitate this operation, making extraordinary efforts to get around attempts to control the repression trade. So here is an entire industry built around technologies that serve to control and harm defenceless humans, and it seems to be no problem to find people who are willing to participate and indeed to tenaciously defend the continuation of the industry.

In this, most of the world’s population are bystanders. Mass media pay little attention. Indeed, there are fictional dramas that legitimise torture and, more generally, the use of violence against the bad guys. Most people remain ignorant of the trade in repression technologies. For those who learn about it, few make any attempt to do something about it, for example by joining a campaign.

Finally there are a few resisters. There are groups like the Omega Research Foundation that collect information about the repression trade and organisations like Amnesty International and Campaign Against Arms Trade that campaign against it. Journalists have played an important role in exposing the trade (Gregory, 1995).

The production, trade and use of technologies of repression, especially torture technologies, provide a prime example of how technologies can be implicated in human evil. They illustrate quite a few of the features noted by Bartlett. There is no evidence that the scientists, engineers, production workers, sales agents and politician allies of the industry are anything other than psychologically normal. Indeed, it is an industry organised much like any other, except devoted to producing objects used to harm humans.

Nearly all of those involved in the industry are simply operating as cogs in a large enterprise. They have abdicated responsibility for causing harm, a reflection of humans’ tendency to obey authorities. As for members of the public, the psychological process of projection provides a reassuring message: torture is only used as a last result against enemies such as terrorists. “We” are good and “they” are bad, so what is done to them is justified.

Weapons and Tobacco

Along with the technology of repression, weapons of war are prime candidates for being understood as implicated in evil. If war is an expression of the human potential for violence, then weapons are a part of that expression. Indeed, increasing the capacity of weapons to maim, kill and destroy has long been a prime aim of militaries. So-called conventional weapons include everything from bullets and bayonets to bombs and ballistic missiles, and then there are biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

Studying weaponry is a way of learning about the willingness of humans to use their ingenuity to harm other humans. Dum-dum bullets were designed to tumble in flight so as to cause more horrendous injuries on exiting a body. Brightly coloured land mines can be attractive to young children. Some of these weapons have been banned, while others take their place. In any case, it is reasonable to ask, what was going through the minds of those who conceived, designed, manufactured, sold and deployed such weapons?

The answer is straightforward, yet disturbing. Along the chain, individuals may have thought they were serving their country’s cause, helping defeat an enemy, or just doing their job and following orders. Indeed, it can be argued that scientific training and enculturation serve to develop scientists willing to work on assigned tasks without questioning their rationale (Schmidt, 2000).

Nuclear weapons, due to their capacity for mass destruction, have long been seen as especially bad, and there have been significant mass movements against these weapons (Wittner, 1993–2003). However, the opposition has not been all that successful, because there continue to be thousands of nuclear weapons in the arsenals of eight or so militaries, and most people seldom think about it. Nuclear weapons exemplify Bartlett’s contention that most people do not do much to oppose war — even a war that would devastate the earth.

Consider something a bit different: cigarettes. Smoking brings pleasure, or at least relief from craving, to hundreds of millions of people daily, at the expense of a massive death toll (Proctor, 2011). By current projections, hundreds of millions of people will die this century from smoking-related diseases.

Today, tobacco companies are stigmatised and smoking is becoming unfashionable — but only in some countries. Globally, there are ever more smokers and ever more victims of smoking-related illnesses. Cigarettes are part of a technological system of design, production, distribution, sales and use. Though the cigarette itself is less complex than many military weapons, the same questions can be asked of everyone involved in the tobacco industry: how can they continue when the evidence of harm is so overwhelming? How could industry leaders spend decades covering up their own evidence of harm while seeking to discredit scientists and public health officials whose efforts threatened their profits?

The answers draw on the same psychological processes involved in the perpetuation of violence and cruelty in more obvious cases such as genocide, including projection and obedience. The ideology of the capitalist system plays a role too, with the legitimating myths of the beneficial effects of markets and the virtue of satisfying consumer demand.

For examining the role of technology in evil, weapons and cigarettes are easy targets for condemnation. A more challenging case is the wide variety of technologies that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and hence to climate change, with potentially catastrophic effects for future generations and for the biosphere. The technologies involved include motor vehicles (at least those with internal combustion engines), steel and aluminum production, home heating and cooling, and the consumption of consumer goods. The energy system is implicated, at least the part of it predicated on carbon-based fuels, and there are other contributors as well such as fertilisers and clearing of forests.

Most of these technologies were not designed to cause harm, and those involved as producers and consumers may not have thought of their culpability for contributing to future damage to the environment and human life. Nevertheless, some individuals have greater roles and responsibilities. For example, many executives in fossil fuel companies and politicians with the power to reset energy priorities have done everything possible to restrain shifting to a sustainable energy economy.

Conceptualising the Technology of Evil

If technologies are implicated in evil, what is the best way to understand the connection? It could be said that an object designed and used for torture embodies evil. Embodiment seems appropriate if the primary purpose is for harm and the main use is for harm, but seldom is this sort of connection exclusive of other uses. A nuclear weapon, for example, might be used as an artwork, a museum exhibit, or a tool to thwart a giant asteroid hurtling towards earth.

Another option is to say that some technologies are “selectively useful” for harming others: they can potentially be useful for a variety of purposes but, for example, easier to use for torture than for brain surgery or keeping babies warm. To talk of selective usefulness instead of embodiment seems less essentialist, more open to multiple interpretations and uses.

Other terms are “abuse” and “misuse.” Think of a cloth covering a person’s face over which water is poured to give a simulation of drowning, used as a method of torture called waterboarding. It seems peculiar to say that the wet cloth embodies evil given that it is only the particular use that makes it a tool to cause harm to humans. “Abuse” and “misuse” have an ignominious history in the study of technology because they are often based on the assumption that technologies are inherently neutral. Nevertheless, these terms might be resurrected in speaking of the connection between technology and evil when referring to technologies that were not designed to cause harm and are seldom used for that purpose.

Consider next the role of technologies in contributing to climate change. For this, it is useful to note that most technologies have multiple uses and consequences. Oil production, for example, has various immediate environmental and health impacts. Oil, as a product, has multitudinous uses, such as heating houses, manufacturing plastics and fuelling military aircraft. The focus here is on a more general impact via the waste product carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming. In this role, it makes little sense to call oil evil in itself.

Instead, it is simply one player in a vast network of human activities that collectively are spoiling the environment and endangering future life on earth. The facilitators of evil in this case are the social and economic systems that maintain dependence on greenhouse gas sources and the psychological processes that enable groups and individuals to resist a shift to sustainable energy systems or to remain indifferent to the issue.

For climate change, and sustainability issues more generally, technologies are implicated as part of entrenched social institutions, practices and beliefs that have the potential to radically alter or destroy the conditions for human and non-human life. One way to speak of technologies in this circumstance is as partners. Another is to refer to them as actors or actants, along the lines of actor-network theory (Latour, 1987), though this gives insufficient salience to the psychological dimensions involved.

Another approach is to refer to technologies as extensions of humans. Marshall McLuhan (1964) famously described media as “extensions of man.” This description points to the way technologies expand human capabilities. Vehicles expand human capacities for movement, otherwise limited to walking and running. Information and communication technologies expand human senses of sight, hearing and speaking. Most relevantly here, weapons expand human capacities for violence, in particular killing and destruction. From this perspective, humans have developed technologies to extend a whole range of capacities, some of them immediately or indirectly harmful.

In social studies of technology, various frameworks have been used, including political economy, innovation, social shaping, cost-benefit analysis and actor-network theory. Each has advantages and disadvantages, but none of the commonly used frameworks emphasises moral evaluation or focuses on the way some technologies are designed or used for the purpose of harming humans and the environment.

Implications

The Pathology of Man is a deeply pessimistic and potentially disturbing book. Probing into the psychological foundations of violence and cruelty shows a side of human behaviour and thinking that is normally avoided. Most commentators prefer to look for signs of hope, and would finish a book such as this with suggestions for creating a better world. Bartlett, though, does not want to offer facile solutions.

Throughout the book, he notes that most people prefer not to examine the sources of human evil, and so he says that hope is actually part of the problem. By continually being hopeful and looking for happy endings, it becomes too easy to avoid looking at the diseased state of the human mind and the systems it has created.

Setting aside hope, nevertheless there are implications that can be derived from Bartlett’s analysis. Here I offer three possible messages regarding technology.

Firstly, if it makes sense to talk about human evil in a non-metaphorical sense, and to trace the origins of evil to features of human psychology, then technologies, as human creations, are necessarily implicated in evil. The implication is that a normative analysis is imperative. If evil is seen as something to be avoided or opposed, then likewise those technologies most closely embodying evil are likewise to be avoided or opposed. This implies making judgements about technologies. In technologies studies, this already occurs to some extent. However, common frameworks, such as political economy, innovation and actor-network theory, do not highlight moral evaluation.

Medical researchers do not hesitate to openly oppose disease, and in fact the overcoming of disease is an implicit foundation of research. Technology studies could more openly condemn certain technologies.

Secondly, if technology is implicated in evil, and if one of the psychological processes perpetuating evil is a lack of recognition of it and concern about it, there is a case for undertaking research that provides insights and tools for challenging the technology of evil. This has not been a theme in technology studies. Activists against torture technologies and military weaponry would be hard pressed to find useful studies or frameworks in the scholarship about technology.

One approach to the technology of evil is action research (McIntyre 2008; Touraine 1981), which involves combining learning with efforts towards social change. For example, research on the torture technology trade could involve trying various techniques to expose the trade, seeing which ones are most fruitful. This would provide insights about torture technologies not available via conventional research techniques.

Thirdly, education could usefully incorporate learning about the moral evaluation of technologies. Bartlett argues that one of the factors facilitating evil is the low moral development of most people, as revealed in the widespread complicity in or complacency about war preparation and wars, and about numerous other damaging activities.

One approach to challenging evil is to increase people’s moral capacities to recognise and act against evil. Technologies provide a convenient means to do this, because human-created objects abound in everyday life, so it can be an intriguing and informative exercise to figure out how a given object relates to killing, hatred, psychological projection and various other actions and ways of thinking involved in violence, cruelty and the destruction of the foundations of life.

No doubt there are many other ways to learn from the analysis of human evil. The most fundamental step is not to turn away but to face the possibility that there may be something deeply wrong with humans as a species, something that has made the species toxic to itself and other life forms. While it is valuable to focus on what is good about humans, to promote good it is also vital to fully grasp the size and depth of the dark side.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Steven Bartlett, Lyn Carson, Kurtis Hagen, Kelly Moore and Steve Wright for valuable comments on drafts.

Contact details: bmartin@uow.edu.au

References

Ackroyd, Carol, Margolis, Karen, Rosenhead, Jonathan, & Shallice, Tim (1977). The technology of political control. London: Penguin.

Baron-Cohen, Simon (2011). The science of evil: On empathy and the origins of cruelty. New York: Basic Books.

Bartlett, Steven James (2005). The pathology of man: A study of human evil. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Bartlett, Steven James (2011). Normality does not equal mental health: the need to look elsewhere for standards of good psychological health. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Bartlett, Steven James (2013). The dilemma of abnormality. In Thomas G. Plante (Ed.), Abnormal psychology across the ages, volume 3 (pp. 1–20). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Baumeister, Roy F. (1997). Evil: Inside human violence and cruelty. New York: Freeman.

Citron, D.K. (2014). Hate crimes in cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gregory, Martyn (director and producer). (1995). The torture trail [television]. UK: TVF.

Jasper, James M. (1997). The art of moral protest: Culture, biography, and creativity in social movements. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Latour, Bruno (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Martin, Brian (1984). Uprooting war. London: Freedom Press.

Martin, Brian (2001). Technology for nonviolent struggle. London: War Resisters’ International.

Martin, Brian (2007). Justice ignited: The dynamics of backfire. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Martin, Brian (2009). Managing outrage over genocide: case study Rwanda. Global Change, Peace & Security, 21(3), 275–290.

McIntyre, Alice (2008). Participatory action research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: New American Library.

Milgram, Stanley (1974). Obedience to authority. New York: Harper & Row.

Omega Foundation (2000). Crowd control technologies. Luxembourg: European Parliament.

Peck, M. Scott (1988). People of the lie: The hope for healing human evil. London: Rider.

Proctor, Robert N. (2011). Golden holocaust: Origins of the cigarette catastrophe and the case for abolition. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Schmidt, Jeff (2000). Disciplined minds: A critical look at salaried professionals and the soul-battering system that shapes their lives. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Touraine, Alain (1981). The voice and the eye: An analysis of social movements. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wittner, Lawrence S. (1993–2003). The struggle against the bomb, 3 volumes. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Wright, Steve (1998). An appraisal of technologies of political control. Luxembourg: European Parliament.

Author Information: John Lamola, University of Fort Hare, jlamola@mweb.co.za.

Lamola, John. “Will We Ever Have a Genuine African Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 39-45.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-45K

Image by Nike Knigge via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This collection of contributed and commissioned papers, The Palgrave Handbook of African Philosophy, edited by Adeshina Afolayan and Toyin Falola (2017), is a product of an ambitious project aimed at delivering the most comprehensive and contemporaneous portrait of African philosophy as a progressing, relevant and theoretically cogent academic discipline.

An anthology of this nature is a philosophical product in its own right. In a philosophical tradition that is still recovering from the bruising debates around its self-identity and questions of its most appropriate self-differentiating methodology, the choice of the panel of contributors and the thematic range of the content, including the editorial leitmotif being pursued, constitute a philosophical statement by the editors. In this case, the anthology might as well have been subtitled ‘Rethinking African Philosophy in the Age of Globalisation’, which, fortuitously, is the title of the customary Introduction chapter by the editors (1-18).

Besides writers from across the representative regions of Africa in its heterogeneous culturo-linguistic kaleidoscope, Africanists and Africologists from Europe and North America are included in this Handbook on African Philosophy (hereafter ‘The Handbook’). This geographic and ethnic-national diversity, subliminally, proclaims the capacity for cosmopolitan self-expression of African Philosophy in ‘the age of globalisation’.

Decidedly, this undermines and eschews a view, represented by Paulin Hountondji amongst others, that African philosophy proper, is a set of philosophical text exclusively written by Africans (Hountondji 2018), in favour of a kind of a cosmopolitanism held by Anthony Kwame Appiah (2006) and Achille Mbembe (2007).

In the Introduction, the editors compliment Kwasi Wiredu’s A Companion to African Philosophy that was published as part of the Blackwell Companions to Philosophy series in 2004. They point out that Wiredu’s volume (he was assisted by William E. Abraham, Abiola Irele and Ifeanyi Menkiti) is historical in that ‘it constitutes a significant nod to the appearance of African philosophy in the global academe that is decidedly sold to the idea of the universality of Western philosophy’ (p.1). Laced around this gesture of professional magnanimity, is a construct of a developmental trajectory of African philosophical thought.

Accordingly, it is suggested that whereas A Companion to African Philosophy (2004) of Blackwell marked the enthronement of African philosophy as a credible intellectual system within the global academe of Humanities, Palgrave’s Handbook on African Philosophy (2017) is a declaratory demonstration of the maturity of African philosophy.  The volume is thus presented as both an exhibition of the progressive prowess of African philosophy into the prevailing Zeitgeist of globalisation, and, as a handbook, an up-to-date go-to source on African philosophy in the global age.

I propose to isolate for critical reflection issues relating to the epistemic sovereignty of Africa within the global geography of knowledge and knowledge production as provoked by this publication. My issues revolve around a contention on the measurement or criteria for judgement of progress in philosophy as applied to a polemical vision of an evolving and maturing African Philosophy, as presented by the editors.

Will African philosophy be deemed to have progressed when it assumes a global cosmopolitan identity, or when portrayed as such, as the volume emblematically suggests?  I found it more than provocative that co-editor, Afolayan, contributed a chapter entitled ‘African Philosophy, Afropolitanism, and Africa’ (391-403) in which he surreptitiously endorses Achille Mbembe’s African-identity-defusing Afropolitarian campaign (Mbembe 2007).

Hinged around this critical observation of the reconstruction of African thought through the prism of Euro-American globalism, I shall restrict my commentary to the following: (1) the implication to  the vexed philosophical question of ‘Who is an African philosopher?’ related to the criteria employed in the assemblage of the contributing authors; (2) The occasion and location of the production of the book, that is, the global economic-power dynamics that continue to determine the prospects of Africa’s epistemic sovereignty, and; (3), interrogate the application of relevance as a quality of progress the editors used as a criterion and imperative which guided the selection of the articles.

As a prelude to this aforementioned disputation it is, of course, necessary that I give a summary overview of the structure of the volume and its contents.

Evaluations, Appraisals, and Re-Imaginations

The Handbook is a breath-taking assemblage of fifty original scientific contributions and commissioned papers from forty-three scholars of African post-colonial thought. The contributed chapters are arranged into five thematic parts.

The first part of the collection decidedly avoids the tendency of ‘introducing and justifying African philosophy’. Far from this vindicationist, and exogenous pre-occupation, the opening six essays are bound together by a thematic title of being ‘reappraisals’. Here African philosophy has attained a status of self-reassessment and self-critique. To underscore and crystalise the strategic purpose of this section, there is Safro Kwame’s ‘Rethinking the history of African Philosophy’ (97-104).

Even the classical thoughts of Kwame Nkrumah and Frantz Fanon, lack of reference to whom would render any anthology on African social thought incomplete, are subjected to a timely interrogation. This is performed by Teodoris Kiros’ ‘A Philosophical Re-reading of Fanon, Nkrumah, and Cabral in the Age of globalism and Postmodernity’ (49-60).

Being hinged around the motif of globalisation, the anthology proceeds, in the second part of its collection, to position African philosophy in an interrogative dialogue with major worldviews from Africa, her diaspora and beyond. These range from A.G.A. Bello’s ‘Islamic Philosophy and the challenge of African Philosophy’ (223-231) to the tackling of the semantic issue relating the naming of African philosophical enterprise as conducted in and outside of Africa. Lucius Outlaw undertakes this in the contorted ‘“Black” Philosophy, “African” Philosophy, “Africana” Philosophy: Transnational Deconstructive and Reconstructive Renovations in “Philosophy”’ (245-268).

A refreshing surprise in this section is a contribution by Latin American philosophy of decoloniality, Walter Mignolo. In his ‘The Advent of Black Thinkers and the Limits of Continental Philosophy’ (287-302) dealing with ‘the mirage of universalism behind European localism’ (293), he reminds how historically, the ‘global was confused with the universal’ and in turn, how the universal is essentially Eurocentricism. He warns that ‘to assume that philosophy is universal is an aberration’ (287).

Mignolo’s rare focus on Africa is taken up by Messy Kebede in the third Part of the volume dealing with a plethora of ‘Issues and Discourses’ which are by now perennial challenges confronting African intellectuals. In the chapter, ‘Re-imagining the Philosophy of Decolonisation’ (447-460) we find Kebede seized with recasting ‘the controversy’ on conflicting philosophical approaches to African decolonization (447).

According to him, ‘the essential source of the controversy emanates from the attempt of negritude philosophers to counter the colonial discourse and rehabilitate the African self through racialisation’. Against this, he proposes Henri Bergson’s (454-455) paradoxical embrace and transcendence of the culturo-racial centrality of African identity.

This chapter turns out to be the only one in the collection that attempts a systematic engagement with the ontological challenges that globalisation presents to Africans. Kebede insightfully compresses Appiah’s famed notion of cosmopolitanism into a concept of ‘glocalization’, an approach that accommodates both global and local realities, and ‘wants neither the preservation of African identity nor its dissolution’ (456).

The mission of discharging the volume’s objective of situating African critical thought onto the pressing crises of the times and demonstrating that the African philosophical tradition has attained tools to tackle these issues is demonstrated in the fourth Part of the book. This is particularly borne out in the chapters ‘African Philosophy and World Terror’ by Leonard Praeg (659-670), Helen Lauer’s ‘African Philosophy and the Challenge of Science’ (605-620) and Edwin Etieyibo’s ‘Ubuntu and the Environment’ (638-659).

There can, of course, be no handbook on African Philosophy without a confrontation of the state of the Philosophy curriculum in Africa. ‘African Philosophy and the curriculum’ is the subject head of the seven papers clustered under this Part 5. Contributors in this field on the transformation of the Philosophy syllabus attempt to move the discussion into the rubric of pedagogic relevance and the future of African philosophy.

Emblematic of this focus is Thaddeus Metz’s ‘African Philosophy as a Multidisciplinary Discourse’ (795-812) wherein he surveys the ‘successful’ infusing of the African philosophical tradition into other disciplines, such as ‘law/politics . . .psychology/medicine . . . and ecology’(795).

Whilst it establishes the intellectual stature of African philosophy, the anthology lacks a formal article that problematizes globalisation as it affects Africa. A discussion of Afropolitanism by Afolayan merely touches the swelling sore of African social otology within a hype that denies identitarian difference.  Equally, whilst the subject of science and technology is registered as a challenge, a chapter on the raw economic question of global financialisation of capital and the structural constraints African face in this global economy is conspicuously missing.

Globalization, Cosmopolitanism as Progress

The polemic editorial framework of Afolayan and Falola is that ‘progress in African philosophy would only be significant to the extent that it serves to intellectually instigate progress on the continent’ (12). This, specifically, is progress as the rate of the impact that philosophy has on the surmounting of ‘the African predicament’ of being African in a global community and a technologically advancing world (13).

It is upheld that it is only in this regard that this philosophy would be ‘disciplinary relevant’ (9). Relevance to, and in the global age, is upheld as the litmus test of the contemporary efficacy of African philosophy.

I concur with the editors that demonstrating an ability at unravelling the complicated economic theoretical formulae and programs that are ever proving so futile in turning the tide against poverty and misdevelopment in Africa, would be the real litmus test of the maturity of African Philosophy.

I believe there is sincerity in Afolayan and Falola’s exhortation that ‘there is a need for African philosophers to get to the street and get their theories dirtied by the African predicament on the continent’ (12). But how can this be achieved when those who are Afrophilosophising are sitting in Florida, Austria and the Europeanised enclaves of South African life?

Has this African discipline made any progress when approximately twelve out of forty-three of the contributors to this important reference guide on contemporary African thought are non-indigenous Africans?  Is this staging of an extra-African cosmopolitarian symposium that poly-flexes and dims the light of African intellection a sign of the progress of African philosophy?

Whilst admiring the theoretical necessity of this publication as a plausible catalyst for a progressive philosophical debate, I remain with a nagging sociocultural curiosity.  I cannot help asking why, besides Godfery Tangwa, the only authors who contributed more than one chapters to ‘The Handbook on African Philosophy’ are, Metz, Praeg, Lauer, and Hosthemke.

In consternation, I ploughed through Tangwa’s two chapters on this matter, ‘African Philosophy: appraisal of a recurrent problematic’ (19-34) which addresses the question of who is an African philosopher, and his ‘Revisiting the Language Question in African Philosophy’ (pp129-140).  I found his dismissive trivialisation of the former question troubling (30). I further pondered on his fractured disputation that we must make do with the compromise that a lack of a certain level and kind of proficiency in English (and any European language) as the language of African academic production under-privileges indigenous African thinkers.

His conclusion that no answers have yet been found to the question: “What is African literature [Philosophy]? Is it literature [Philosophy] about Africa or literature [Philosophy] written by Africans?” (p130) has only compounded this haunting curiosity.

In a recent review of Edwin Etieyibo’s essay ‘African Philosophy: Its history, Context, and Contemporary Times’ in Method, Substance and the Future of African Philosophy (Etieyibo 2016, 13-34) Anke Graness, professor at the University of Vienna, engages in an intense critique of Etieyibo’s attempts at defining ‘what is an African philosopher’ (Graness 2018,47). Dismissing the latter’s vain disquisition about the ‘narrow view’ and ‘broader view’ of an African philosopher, Graness concludes that:

I think it is less important to clarify the continental affiliation of those who practice philosophy in Africa than it is to clarify the definition and demarcation of African philosophy. This clarification has important consequences, for example for the integration of African philosophy into curricula and publication projects, and especially for financial support. (ibid).

The critical existential-epistemic crisis relating to the authenticity of knowledge production, the question of ‘who is the producer?’ is resolved into the economic logic of academic survival. Graness proceeds to elaborate that a philosopher on the African continent who, according to her example, is ‘a Wittgenstein specialist’:

would certainly have plenty of funding possibilities via research programs in analytic philosophy, philosophy of language, continental philosophy and all kinds of funding foundations; those dealing with marginalised and formerly excluded philosophy traditions in Africa hardly any funding prospects at all. In this respect, a definition of the term ‘African philosophy’ is not only relevant here, but also decisive.

Is this all that it comes down to? Is it a fact that until African scholarship and institutions have their own African financial fountains, we will forever have to have themes, books and conferences whose leitmotif will be dictated from the ‘developed North’? Elsewhere, employing a Marxian framework, I alerted of the ramifications of international post-colonial economic and political power relations on the emergence of epistemic hegemonies and the regulation of knowledge consumption, that is, the determination of canonicity in a discipline such as philosophy (see Lamola 2016).

We finally, then, have to ask: Has African philosophy really progressed, or can it ever progress if publication compendia that canonizes stages of its development can only be undertaken by publishing interests that are based in the colonial metropoles? Why the Blackwell and the Palgrave Macmillan collected volumes? Will we ever have a ‘Wakanda[1] Handbook on African Thought’?

Conclusion

Within the context of the ambition of this project, Godfery Tagwa’s two chapters referred to earlier (19-34; 129-140) illustrate the existential aporia in which African philosophy finds itself. These, and the issue of the location of Africa within the matrix of commercial interests in global knowledge production, begs the question of whether, with the suggested cosmopolitanism that is driven by imperial values and languages, will we ever have a genuine African philosophy. A consideration of these issues, which could not be rigorously pursued in this book review, leaves us with a sceptical if not a pessimistic disposition on the possibility of a genuine, let alone, authentic, African philosophy.

My predilection is that until we have an epistm that is crafted and articulated in an African language by persons whose lived-experience is embedded in Africa, and/or what Africa represents to the world, we may never be able to claim having a genuine African philosophy. The representation of African philosophy as a centreless, open-ended, free-to-all enterprise, as in The Palgrave Handbook, militates against this goal.

Contact details: jlamola@mweb.co.za

References

The Palgrave Handbook of African Philosophy. Edited By Adeshina Afolayan, and Toyin Falola. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017.

Appiah, Kwame A. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006

Etieyibo, Edwin. ‘African Philosophy in History, Context, and Contemporary Times’. In: Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. London: Palgrave Macmillan 2018, pp. 13-33.

Graness, Anke. “African Philosophy and History.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 45-54.

Hountondji, Paulin J. “How African is Philosophy in Africa?” Filosofia Theoretica: Journal of African Philosophy, Culture and Religions, Vol. 7, no, 3 (2018): 72-93

Lamola, M. John. “The Political Economy of the Philosophical Canon: an Africanist critique”.  Philosophia Africana. Vol. 17, no, 20 (2016): 89-99

Mbembe, Achille. “Afropolitanism”. In: Simon Njami, ed., Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent. Johannesburg: Jacana 2007, pp. 26-30

Wiredu, Kwasi (ed.). A Companion to African Philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004

[1] The mythical technologically and economically futuristic African country in the movie The Black Panther

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

Kochan, Jeff. “Disassembling the System: A Reply to Paolo Palladino and Adam Riggio.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 29-38.

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

Image by tackyshack via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Here concludes a symposium on the latest book by Jeff Kochan, Science as Social Existence. You can find each of the articles in the series in this list:

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

Riggio, Adam. “The Very Being of a Conceptual Scheme: Disciplinary and Conceptual Critiques.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 53-59.

Palladino, Paolo. “Heidegger Today: On Jeff Kochan’s Science and Social Existence.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 41-46.

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.

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

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

• • •

This essay brings to a formal close SERRC’s review symposium on my book Science as Social Existence: Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (Open Book Publishers, 2017). All told, four reviewers stepped forward: Raphael Sassower (2018); Pablo Schyfter (2018); Paolo Palladino (2018); and Adam Riggio (2018); listed here in the order in which their reviews have appeared. My thanks to them for their thoughtful and often spirited engagement with my book.

I have already responded to Sassower and Schyfter separately (Kochan 2018a & 2018b), so my main task here will be to respond to Palladino and Riggio. My thanks go, as well, to Eric Kerr, who has organised this symposium.

Why Bother Being Epochal?

I coulda been a contender!

I coulda been somebody…

– Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (1954)

This symposium was kicked off last May by Raphael Sassower (2018). Six months out, Adam Riggio has now brought up the rear, rounding out the reviewers’ side by crystallising Sassower’s initial criticism of Science as Social Existence into two words: ‘Why bother?’ (Riggio 2018, 53).

As a question directed at me – ‘Why bother writing Science as Social Existence?’ – the answer is easy: because I felt like it. It was a joy (in a weirdly afflicted way) to write the book, and a joy to see it published. That the SERRC books editor then offered to organise a book symposium was a wonderful surprise, outstripping my expectations.

On the other hand, as a question directed at potential readers – ‘Why bother reading Science as Social Existence?’ – the answer is more difficult to give, because, at the end of the day, it is not mine to give. I am sure that, had I tried to predict and pursue the fashions of the academic marketplace, I would have ended up feeling miserable. By my reckoning, it was better to write from a place of joy, and give a few readers the best of what I have, than to chase popular demand, and deliver something fashionable but personally hollow. Luckily, my wonderful publisher is not in the business of making money.

It is fortuitous that one symposiast, Paolo Palladino, has already answered the second question for me. After summarising his appreciation for several aspects of Science as Social Existence, Palladino concludes: ‘All this seems to me a wholly satisfactory answer to Sassower’s question’ (Palladino 2018, 43).

Predictably, some tough guys will scoff at joy. Either because they already have so much they cannot see the need for more, or because they have so little they cannot abide seeing it in others. Riggio has shared with us his insights about disciplinarity, culled from his ‘decade of work as a professional-level philosopher’ (Riggio 2018, 54). My own experience suggests that academia could use more joy. ‘Why bother?’ is really a bureaucrat’s question, asked by hiring, funding, and promotions committees. Perhaps better questions could be asked.

Presumably Riggio would not begrudge me my joy, but his interests do lie elsewhere. He wants me to be ‘epochal’ (Riggio 2018, 58). According to him, had I not allegedly hobbled myself with disciplinarity, then, ‘[i]nstead of writing about Martin Heidegger and David Bloor, he [being me] could have written something with the potential to leave him [being me] mentioned in the same breath as such epochal thinkers. He could have become epochal himself. […] How about next time, Jeff?’ (Riggio 2018, 58). Wow. That is quite flattering … I guess. But my answer is: ‘no thanks.’ Not this time, and not the next time either.

But no worries. There is a lot of beautiful space between the dizzying heights of epochaldom and a one-way ticket to Palookaville.

 

Who Will Bother to Read Science as Social Existence?

Yes, who will bother to read my book? It is still too early to tell, with the data sample still quite small. As far as SERRC goes, the sample is exactly four. Let us start with the first reviewer: why did Sassower read Science as Social Existence? I must admit that I am already stumped. Nevertheless, Sassower’s review sparked the symposium that has now followed, and I am warmly grateful to him for that.

The second reviewer is Pablo Schyfter. Why did Schyfter read Science as Social Existence? Here the reasons seem more easily accessible, and Riggio’s reflections on disciplinarity can help us to draw them out.

Riggio finds it frustrating that I organised my book as a constructive dialogue between two academic disciplines: Heidegger Studies; and Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK). He laments ‘how vulnerable this makes him [being me] to academic attacks’ (Riggio 2018, 53). He offers Sassower’ review as a case in point.

But Riggio might just as well have offered Schyfter’s review. As I note in my response to the latter, Schyfter fashions himself as SSK’s disciplinary gate-keeper, and he tries to paint me as an attempted gate-crasher (Kochan 2018b). His self-appointed goal is to protect the purity of SSK against my perceived infiltration from without. But Schyfter fails to realise that I am already well within the gates, because the boundaries of the discipline are much less precise than he would like us to believe.

This is a point Riggio also fails to realise, and so my separate response to Schyfter may also serve as a response to Riggio’s similar criticisms in respect of my presentation of SSK.

The third reviewer is Palladino, and the why-question has already been answered. He read Science as Social Existence because he thought it was interesting: ‘I hope to have conveyed how much I enjoyed thinking about the questions Science as Social Existence poses’ (Palladino 2018, 46). Naturally, I am warmly grateful to Palladino as well.

Reviewer number four is Riggio. Why did he read it? He appears to equivocate.

Why All this Bother about Disciplinarity?

On the one hand, Riggio seems to have read the book because it interested him. He starts by saying that Science as Social Existence offers a ‘constructive dialogue’ between Heidegger and SSK, that ‘[t]his open-minded approach to problem solving remains sadly rare in academic culture,’ and that ‘such a trans-disciplinary philosophical project is worthwhile and valuable’ (Riggio 2018, 53). Later, he calls my combination of Heidegger and SSK ‘a very valuable experiment,’ as well as ‘brilliantly insightful in how philosophically challenging and creative it is’ (Riggio 2018, 57).

Sorry for laying that on so thick, but it is fun to repeat such stuff. Yet, that is then as far as it goes. Instead of developing one or more of these positive points, Riggio spends the rest of his time focussing on what he perceives to be the negative consequences of my choice to work at a disciplinary level. As we have seen, Riggio laments how vulnerable this allegedly makes me to ‘attacks’ from the likes of Sassower and Schyfter. Apparently he hopes to protect me from such perceived aggression.

I appreciate Riggio’s concern, but I think I have done a good enough job on my own of defending myself against Sassower and Schyfter. I would have rather Riggio had developed his positive points, no doubt also delivering some excellent criticism along the way. For example, he could have helped to make my ostensibly ‘open-minded approach to problem solving’ less rare by more substantially engaging with it and encouraging others to adopt the same approach. I could have benefited from his advice, and I reckon others could have too.

In my view, one of the biggest tragedies of the periodic disciplinary dogmatism one encounters in academia is that it often drives creative minds into a kind of extra-disciplinary exile. And I know how lonely it can be out there. Yet, rather than trying to pull me out there with him, I would have preferred it if Riggio had joined me in here where there is no end of action, not to mention loads of intellectual resources. It helps to keep one’s elbows up, for sure, and certainly also to have engaged and well-positioned allies like Palladino, who is, he emphasises, not invested in ‘disciplinary purity’ (Palladino 2018, 41).

Let me make a final, more proximal point before I close this section. One key goal of Science as Social Existence is to defend the Edinburgh School’s ‘Strong Programme’ in SSK by removing the School’s vulnerability to sceptical attack (see also Kochan 2018b). Riffing off Riggio, I can now conjecture that the Edinburgh School’s vulnerability arises, in part, from their open-minded approach to problem solving, more specifically, their mixing together of two disciplines: sociology and philosophy.

Yet, the Edinburgh School experiences friction between their philosophical and sociological interests, in the form of a sceptical attack. My diagnosis: they tried to mix sociology with the wrong kind of philosophy. They might have gone for Heideggerian phenomenology. By easing them in this direction, I relieve them of their vulnerability.

Hence I do for the Edinburgh School what Riggio thinks I should have done for Science as Social Existence. I release them from the disciplinary friction which led to their vulnerability. However, I do this, not by urging them to abandon disciplinarity altogether, but by nudging them onto a different disciplinary ground. Moreover, I could do this only by embracing the very disciplinarity that Riggio suggests I abandon, that is, only by digging down into the methodological and conceptual clockwork of Heidegger and SSK.

Oh, Bother! – The Conceptual System Returns

One thing I try to do in Science as Social Existence, especially in Chapter 7, is to turn methodological attention away from systems and towards subjects. Palladino correctly identifies this as having been motivated by my discontent with ‘perspectives that have increasingly come to dominate science and technology studies’ (Palladino 2018, 45). Indeed, in Chapters 2 and 3, I discuss how these perspectives have often sought to reverse the gains made by earlier SSK practitioners.

My argument is that, by emphasising systems over subjects, contemporary theorists have often suppressed subjectivity as a fundamental explanatory resource. They shift attention from subjects to systems. The emphasis is usually then put on systems of practice, but it could also be on systems of concepts. Either way, the system is primary, the subject secondary.

Palladino agrees with me that the system should not be viewed as more important than the subject (Palladino 2018, 46). Yet, in contrast to me, he sees subject and system as equally primary, as fundamentally co-constitutive. Palladino grounds this difference between us in my alleged equation of subjectivity with Being. He, on the other hand, equates subjectivity with Becoming, with a ‘performative operation’ (Palladino 2018, 45).

I am less inclined to draw such a sharp distinction between Being and Becoming. In my view, Becoming presupposes Being, because Becoming is a change-of-state in Being, in something that already is, that already exists. In Science as Social Existence, I write: ‘Grammatically, the phrase “the meaning of being” is similar in structure to the phrase “the thrill of a lifetime.” […] A lifetime is a historical-existential space wherein thrills can happen. Likewise, being is a historical-existential space wherein meaning can happen,’ that is, a space wherein meaning can come into being, where it can become (Kochan 2017, 54).

The subject, construed as being-in-the-world, is a historical-existential space wherein one finds possibilities for Becoming. Palladino’s ‘performative operation’ presupposes a performer, just as the concept of practice presupposes a practitioner. What or who a subject is – its meaning or significance – is the result of practice, but that a subject is – its existence – is not. A subject may experience itself as an unintelligible tangle of perceptions – as does, perhaps, a newborn baby – slowly acquiring meaning as it stumbles through a world shared with others, actualising or being actualised in accordance with the existential possibilities of its Being (cf. Kochan 2017, 145ff.; see also Kochan 2015a).

A system of practices or of concepts thus presupposes a subjectivity that does the practicing or the conceptualising. Since, following Heidegger, subjectivity is not just being-in-the-world, but also being-with-others, it is a necessarily plural phenomenon. Combined with Heidegger’s account of the subject, SSK thus becomes (necessarily but not sufficiently) the sociological study of scientific subjectivity in relation to the world. The primary explanatory resource is now the community of historically interacting subjects, along with the material resources they enrol in those interactions.

The system-centred theorist reifies this inter-subjectivity, turning it into a system, scheme, or network with an agency of its own. The subject is thus subordinated to the power of the system. Combining insights from SSK pioneers Barry Barnes and David Bloor, I argue, instead, that ‘the system does not carry us along, we carry it along. We are compelled by the system only insofar as we, collectively, compel one another’ (Kochan 2017, 374).

Herein lies the nub of my problem with Riggio’s apparently uncritical use of such terms as ‘discipline’ and ‘conceptual scheme.’ In Science as Social Existence, I introduce Heidegger’s existential conception of science as his alternative to the, in his day, dominant account of science as a conceptual scheme (Kochan 2017, 59). In other words, Heidegger attempts to de-reify – to deconstruct – science construed as a conceptual scheme, arguing instead that science is, at its base, an existential phenomenon produced by interacting subjects in the world.

This is how I view Riggio’s ‘disciplines.’ They are no more than historical communities of individuals interacting with one another in the world. The vulnerability Riggio sees in my disciplinarity is not vulnerability to the impersonal power of a system, but to discrete and concrete individuals who, for whatever reason, feel the need to attack. When one is attacked by an amorphous and impersonal ‘system,’ one may feel overwhelmed and powerless. When one is attacked by one or more fragile fellow humans, the odds look decidedly different.

Those who profit from their social situation will often be invested in the status quo. One effective way for them to protect their investment is to reify their situation, painting it as an impersonal system, in the hands of no one in particular. They thus protect their profits, while obscuring their responsibility. This is why, on the penultimate page of Science as Social Existence, I cite Baudelaire, characterising the system-centred theorist as ‘a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito’ (Kochan 2017, 379).

A Regrettable Absence and Two Allegedly Missed Alternatives

For some readers, the preceding section will have brought to mind Michel Foucault. Palladino regrets that I say (almost) nothing about Foucault (Palladino 2018, 45). I regret it too. While writing Science as Social Existence, I was sharply aware of Foucault’s potential relevance, but I felt that I was already juggling enough. This is not an excuse, but an admission of weakness. The absence is indeed regrettable.

I have, however, criticised Foucault elsewhere (Kochan 2015b). Or have I? What I criticised was what Edward Said labels an ‘overblown’ and ‘extreme’ use of Foucault (Said 2000/1982, 213). My most immediate concern was Ian Hacking, who is arguably allied with the system-centred theorists I take on in Science as Social Existence. Hence, the ‘overblown’ interpretation of Foucault appears to be a tool of my opponents. But perhaps there is another interpretation of Foucault, one that could better serve me? I will leave that for someone else to decide.

My research is now taking me in a different direction. Perspicaciously, Palladino has intuited something of that direction. He takes Sassower’s ‘possibly accidental’ mention of Spinoza, and suggests that a ‘Spinozist monadology’ may offer an alternative approach to some of the topics I address in Science as Social Existence (Palladino 2018, 44). Yet one accident follows another: for it was Leibniz, not Spinoza, who introduced a monadology. This wrinkle is, however, an opportune one, as it gives me an excuse to discuss both Spinoza and Leibniz.

Leibniz attempted to solve the problem of mind-body (or subject-object) interaction by arguing for a ‘pre-established harmony’ between the two. The law-governed actions of mind and body track one another in a way preordained by God (Monadology §78 [Leibniz 1965, 161]). This pre-ordination takes the shape of a rational plan, a ‘sealed blueprint’ (A Vindication of God’s Justice §82 [Leibniz 1965, 133]). Leibniz imagined God as an artisan who stands outside the world, guiding its interior operations according to a rational and universal plan.

Spinoza, in contrast, viewed God as immanent in nature. For him, there is nothing external to nature (Ethics I, P18 [Spinoza 1994, 100]). The problem of mind-body interaction is solved because ‘the thinking substance and the extended [i.e., bodily] substance are one and the same’ (Ethics II, P7 [Spinoza 1994, 119]). Yet, for Spinoza natural events are also rationally and universally ordered: ‘the laws and rules of Nature, according to which all things happen, […] are always and everywhere the same’ (Ethics III, preface [Spinoza 1994, 153]). Here too, then, the world is governed by a rational and universal measure, but one implemented from within rather than from without.

Both Leibniz and Spinoza seem to have viewed nature as a unified whole, a dynamic totality underpinned by a core set of logically consistent principles, a rational plan. They were therefore modern thinkers à la lettre. Insofar as Heidegger sought an alternative to modern rationalism, his two modernist predecessors would seem to offer, not different alternatives, but a retreat back into modernity. Yet this may be too quick.

For Heidegger, the rationalistic impulse to grasp the world as a whole, as a ‘world picture,’ a ‘basic blueprint,’ or a unified set of abstract axioms from which all else can be deduced, was a historically contingent impulse, generated and sustained within a specific cultural tradition. He worried that this impulse, were it to gain global hegemony, could squeeze out other, perhaps humanly vital, existential possibilities present both within and without the broader European legacy.

Heidegger’s own search for alternatives to modernity was decidedly idiosyncratic. In Chapter 7 of Science as Social Existence, I discuss his attempt to reconceptualise the ‘thing’ as a ‘four-fold.’ Heidegger suggested that the thing be seen as a ‘gathering’ of earth, sky, gods, and mortals (Kochan 2017, 368ff.).

Here is where Leibniz and, especially, Spinoza may still be relevant. Heidegger’s four-fold is an attempt to rethink – in non-modern and non-rationalistic terms – the panpsychism often attributed to Leibniz and Spinoza. This is the doctrine that, to one degree or another, mind is always present in body, that, to some extent or other, subjectivity is always present in the object. Hence, panpsychism may promise an alternative to the modern subject-object split.

Yet, for Heidegger, this promise is only a half-measure, because the frame in which panpsychism unites subject and object is a universal, rationalist one. As I read it, the four-fold attempts to dislodge things from this globalising frame. It is more of a recipe than a blueprint. The precise nature of the four ingredients, as well as the proportions by which they are mixed, may vary from one region to the next. Rather than imposing a uniform blueprint on the world, the four-fold embraces a plurality of potential combinations. A can of Coke may be everywhere the same, but each region will have its own daily bread.

Postcolonial STS: A Path Forward or a Dead End?

Palladino is once again perspicacious in suggesting that the route forward in respect of these issues may lie in anthropology (Palladino 2018, 46). For my part, I have been reading Tim Ingold’s phenomenologically inflected work. Ingold draws on Heidegger’s conceptualisation of the thing as a ‘gathering,’ and combines it with insights from the ethnography of animistic Indigenous groups (Ingold 2013, 215). Rejecting 19th-c. European construals of animism – wherein a thing is animated by a spirit that inhabits it – Ingold instead interprets animism as a ‘poetics of life’ (Ingold 2018, 22).

Animism, as Ingold presents it, seems closer to Heidegger’s non-modern phenomenology of existence than it does to Leibniz’s and Spinoza’s modern panpsychism. Palladino notes a connection between this panpsychism and actor-network theory (ANT), currently a dominant position in science and technology studies (STS) (Palladino 2018, 44). It is worth noting, then, that Ingold explicitly opposes his anthropology of life to ANT, especially as represented in the works of Bruno Latour (e.g., Ingold 2013 & 2011).

Ingold argues that animism – as a poetics of life – ‘betters even science in its comprehension of the fullness of existence’ (Ingold 2018, 22). I am less inclined to draw such a clean line between science and animism, in particular, and science and indigenous knowledge, more generally. Indeed, I have begun to explore how scientific and indigenous knowledges may sometimes be combined in ways that can respect and strengthen both (Kochan 2018c & 2015b).

In Chapter 7 of Science as Social Existence, I introduce Heidegger’s distinction between ‘enframing’ and poiēsis as two distinct ways in which things may be experienced (Kochan 2017, 359ff.). These roughly correspond to a modern and a non-modern mode of experience. They also encompass panpsychism and animism, respectively. I argue in Science as Social Existence that a system-centred understanding of experience is one in which things are ‘framed’ according to a universal blueprint. In contrast, poiēsis embraces pluralism, and thus resists the idea that life can be framed as a system, that it can be fully rationalised and reduced to a core set of concepts or practices.

This returns me to Riggio’s ‘conceptual schemes.’ Picking up Heidegger’s concepts of enframing and poiēsis, Riggio treats them both as conceptual systems or ‘frameworks’ (Riggio 2018, 55). As should be clear from the above, I reject this construal. In my view, enframing is a disposition to experience the world as ‘framed.’ Poiēsis, in contrast, refuses this disposition. Ingold’s animism, as a poetics of life, might be viewed as a mode of poiēsis – an existential openness to a world vibrant with life – rather than as a framework or scheme.

Riggio expresses horror at the way Heidegger’s concept of poiēsis, in his only recently published Black Notebooks, ‘guides’ one towards anti-Semitism (Riggio 2018, 56f). I have not read the Black Notebooks, as I have no stomach for still more of Heidegger’s already well-known anti-Semitic opinions and behaviour. But I do wish that Riggio had provided some specific textual evidence and exegesis, because, based on my own understanding of poiēsis, I find it difficult to see how it should ‘guide’ one towards anti-Semitism.

According to Riggio, the Black Notebooks are ‘pro-Indigenous and anti-colonial, but also anti-Semitic in equal intensity’ (Riggio 2018, 57). Since, in Science as Social Existence, I say nothing about Indigenous knowledge or colonialism, it is fortuitous that Riggio independently introduces these topics in his review, thereby allowing a link-up with Palladino’s suggestion that anthropology may offer a way forward. If I have understood him correctly, Riggio worries that poiēsis is a conceptual framework in which pro-Indigenous and anti-Semitic sentiments are logically inseparable.

Since I do not think that poiēsis is a conceptual framework, I do not feel the force of Riggio’s worry. However, if he were right, then the obvious response would be to reject poiēsis as a tool for Indigenous Studies. This would hardly be a tragedy, since Heidegger has never been an authoritative figure in that field anyway. In any case, the best source for learning about Indigenous peoples is Indigenous people (e.g., Battiste & Henderson 2000; Cajete 2000; Smith 2012; and a book recommended by Riggio, with which I am not yet familiar, Simpson 2017).

But perhaps Riggio worries more deeply that, quite independently of the concept of poiēsis, Indigenous Studies may entail anti-Semitism? If this were true, then the consequences would be profound not just for students of Indigenous culture, but, more importantly, for Indigenous peoples themselves. More particularly, but less importantly, it would be a serious blow to those, like myself, who currently work in the emerging field of postcolonial STS (e.g., Harding 2011).

But we have now moved well beyond the boundaries of Science as Social Existence. It is a testament to the vital intelligence of my fellow symposiasts that the discussion has stretched much further than the book itself, touching also on broader, often more important, issues. Once again, I thank Raphael Sassower, Pablo Schyfter, Paolo Palladino and Adam Riggio for their vigorous engagement with Science as Social Existence. To those readers who have followed our conversation, my heartfelt thanks as well.

Contact details: jwkochan@gmail.com

References

Battiste, Marie and James (Sa’ke’j) Youngblood Henderson (2000). Protecting Indigenous Knowledge and Heritage: A Global Challenge (Saskatoon: Purich Publishing).

Cajete, Gregory (2000). Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence (Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers).

Harding, Sandra (2011). The Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies Reader (Durham NC: Duke University Press).

Ingold, Tim (2018). Anthropology: Why It Matters (Cambridge UK: Polity Press).

Ingold, Tim (2013). ‘Anthropology Beyond Humanity’ (Edward Westermarck Memorial Lecture). Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 38(3): 2-23.

Ingold, Tim (2011). ‘When ANT meets SPIDER: Social Theory for Arthropods.’ In Carl Knappett & Lanbros Malafouris (eds.), Material Agency: Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Approach (New York: Springer), pp. 209-215.

Kochan, Jeff (2018a). ‘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 (2018b). ‘Supressed Subjectivity and Truncated Tradition: A Reply to Pablo Schyfter.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(12): 15-21. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-44s

Kochan, Jeff (2018c). ‘Decolonising Science in Canada: A Work in Progress.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(11): 42-47. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-43i

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

Kochan, Jeff (2015a). ‘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 (2015b). ‘Objective Styles in Northern Field Science.’ Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 52: 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsa.2015.04.001

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm von (1965). Monadology and Other Philosophical Essays, trans. Paul Schrecker and Anne Martin Schrecker (New York: Macmillan).

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

Riggio, Adam (2018). ‘The Very Being of a Conceptual Scheme.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(11): 53-59.

Said, Edward (2000/1982). ‘Travelling Theory.’ In M. Bayoumi and A. Rubin (eds.), The Edward Said Reader (New York: Vintage Books), pp. 195-217.

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.

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

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai (2012). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, second edition (London: Zed Books).

Spinoza, Benedict de (1994). A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works, ed. and trans. Edwin Curley (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

 

Author Information: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College, serrc.digital@gmail.com.

Riggio, Adam. “The Very Being of a Conceptual Scheme: Disciplinary and Conceptual Critiques.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 53-59.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-446

Image by Grant Tarrant via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Jeff Kochan’s book on what the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) can learn from Heideggerian existential philosophy is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure, and for the same reason. My own review consists of two parts. First, I will describe the fascinating frustration of Kochan’s project, then explore some of the limitations that a straightforward adaptation of Heidegger’s ideas to the conceptual plane of SSK encounters.

Kochan’s work fascinates because he puts two complex sub-disciplines of the humanities – Heidegger studies and SSK – in a constructive dialogue. Kochan isolates seemingly intractable conceptual problems at the heart of SSK’s foundational texts, then carefully analyzes concepts and epistemic frameworks from the writings of Martin Heidegger to find solutions to those problems. This open-minded approach to problem solving remains sadly rare in academic culture. Whether or not you think Kochan’s analyses and solutions are accurate or best, I think we can all agree that such a trans-disciplinary philosophical project is worthwhile and valuable.

Yet Kochan’s work also frustrates because of how vulnerable this makes him to academic attacks. This is ultimately a problem of style on Kochan’s part. He is explicit in making the ideas of Martin Heidegger himself central to his critical analysis of SSK; this leaves him vulnerable to criticisms like those of my colleague Raphael Sassower earlier in SERRC’s symposium. Essentially, the criticism amounted to “Why bother?”.

Presuming the Boundarylessness of Disciplines

Any attempt to apply the concepts and discoveries of one tradition to the problems of another faces a problem that is difficult for any writer to overcome. What one tradition takes to be a reasonable assumption, another tradition may take to be a foundational matter of inquiry.

In Kochan’s case, he takes the founders of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge to have saddled their tradition with a dangerous omission. They take for granted that the material world of everyday life does exist as we experience it, and that therefore the relationship of the subject to the world need not be a matter of inquiry.

Yet the foundational thinkers of SSK, David Bloor and Harry Collins, did not consider such an ontological inquiry worth pursuing. It would have kept them from exploring the questions, subject matters, and concepts that were their priorities.

Kochan’s book is written under the premise that SSK’s indifference to seeking a guarantee for the material reality of the world is a problematic omission. But a premise itself can be called into question, a call that on its own would remove its status as a premise. Premises are, after all, the unquestioned beginnings of any inquiry; they are the conditions of an inquiry’s validity.

To question a premise is likewise to question the validity of any inquiry flowing from that premise. So when I question whether the inquiries constituting the core of SSK as a discipline of social and epistemological theory require demonstrating the existence of reality somehow external to the subjective, I have made a decision about what the inquiries of SSK are for.

Such a decision is fundamentally practical. In creating what we now consider the research discipline of SSK, Bloor, Collins, and their fellow travellers developed goals and processes of thinking for their fundamental inquiries. They set the boundaries of what questions and concepts mattered to the pursuit of those goals and processes. And while they may not have explicitly said so, setting those conceptual boundaries simultaneously implies that what does not matter to those goals and processes is irrelevant to the discipline itself.

So if you pursue those other questions, you may be doing something interesting and valuable. But there is no guarantee that your premises, concepts, inquiries, and discoveries will be directly relevant to someone else’s discipline. To return this general point to the more direct focus of my book review, there is no guarantee that the premises, concepts, inquiries, and discoveries of a thinker working in one of the Heideggerian sub-disciplines will be directly relevant to someone working in SSK.

The boundaries of all research disciplines work this way. Over my decade of work as a professional-level philosopher, this has typically been the most controversial and provocative point I make in any discussion that puts disciplines and traditions into dialogue. It disrupts a premise that thinkers across many disciplines of philosophy and those related to them: that we are all searching for the one truth.

Limits For Universality

Many thinkers share the premise that the ultimate aim of philosophical work is the discovery and creation of universal truth. Ironically, I do not consider that Heidegger himself shares such a premise. I hope that Kochan will be okay with how I repurpose some of Heidegger’s own concepts to argue that his own attempt to blend Heideggerian and SSK concepts and inquiries becomes something of a philosophical dead end.

Start with these two of Heidegger’s concepts: enframing, and poiesis. Both of these arise in Heidegger’s inquiries on the nature of science and technology, but we should not restrict their relevance to the disciplines of philosophy who alone focus on science and technology.

Remember that Heidegger understands the institutions and cultures of science, as well as attitudes around the use of technology, to be expressions of a much broader framework of thinking. That framework includes all ways in which human action and thinking engages with existence, contributes to the ongoing constitution of being.

Heidegger’s purpose for philosophical thinking is understanding the continuing process of movement and coming to be still, or development and decay (Of Generation and Corruption?). What framework or schema we develop for this most profound task of understanding guides how our own thoughts and actions influence how and what the universe becomes.

Enframing, therefore, is such a conceptual framework of understanding existence, which guides us in our action and thinking to contribute to shaping existence. The framework that Heidegger calls enframing, is a way of thinking that understands all of existence as a potential resource for our own use. You do not understand how to experience or make sense of what exists and what you encounter as having their own way of existence from which you can learn. Understanding existence in a framework of enframing, you wrench and distort all that you encounter to your own purposes.

Thought’s Radical Openness

Poiesis is Heidegger’s alternative to the destructive, self-centred nature of conceptual schema of enframing. A conceptual framework built according to the principles of poiesis approaches all encounters as opportunities for the creative development of thought.

Whenever you encounter a way of thinking or living different from your own, you investigate and explore it, seeking to understand that mode of existence on its own terms. You examine its powers, capacities, how it forms relationships through encounters of its own, and the dynamics of how those relationships change itself and others.

That Heidegger considers conceptual frameworks of poiesis the alternative to the depressingly destructive schema of enframing, reveals how the philosophy which Kochan advocates as a productive partner for SSK, actually argues against Kochan’s own most fundamental premises. This is because poiesis fundamentally denies the universality of any one framework of thinking, action, and existence.

The conception of philosophy as seeking a single universal truth would explicitly oppose how you would engage different research disciplines as poiesis. Like Heidegger’s enframing, yoking all inquiries and ways of thinking into a single trajectory wrenches all those modes of thinking out of their own character of becoming and adapts them to the goal of another.

More dangerous even than this, bending all thinking to the pursuit of a single goal which you yourself already holds presumes that your and only your framework of thinking is the proper trajectory. In presuming that SSK is obligated to include an account of how we know our experiences of social and scientific worlds are genuine interactions with a shared materiality, Kochan guides his own philosophical mission in Science as Social Existence using a conceptual framework of enframing.

For Heidegger, This Openness Nonetheless Remains Closed

Conceptual frameworks that are fundamentally of poiesis appear to be a profound antidote to humanity’s current crisis of technology, science, and ecology. People who think this way would consider all differences they encounter as learning opportunities, and come to respect the origins of those encounters as opportunities to make your own thinking more versatile and open.

Heidegger, however, takes this line of thinking in a regressive direction. As Heidegger understands poiesis, the best way to think in accordance with existence itself is to accept, explore, and adapt your thinking to all the varieties of existence that you encounter. You deny that any single way of existence or understanding is fundamentally universal, and instead create many schemes of understanding what exists to suit the singular character of each encounter.

This approach to the encounter with the different and the alien is still being developed today at the forefront of politically progressive activist philosophers. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, for example, is a philosopher doing the best ongoing work with such an attitude, in my own knowledge. However, I am not sure if Kochan, Heidegger scholars, or contemporary SSK researchers would be aware of her work, as she exists outside both their disciplines.

She is characterized academically as working in Indigenous Studies, a label that, despite the good intentions of its inclusion in the contemporary Canadian university system, also tends to marginalize such work for more mainstream professors. So a genuine potential for one set of disciplines to learn from another is stalled by the presumption of too much difference from so-called ‘real’ philosophy. Betasamosake Simpson would often be dismissed in more conservative disciplines as being ‘merely’ post-colonial, or ‘merely’ ethnic studies.

Instead of following the openness of a conceptual framework that supposedly encourages a more open mind, Heidegger conceives of poiesis as a passive and meditative way of existence. This is because he understands a person’s encounters in existence as essentially an event that happens to the person, in which that person is acted upon, instead of engaging in mutual action. Openness to the singular logics and processes unique to an encountered other, for Heidegger, means a willingness to accept as necessary the happenstance of where we contingently fall into existence.

What Do We Do With Our Disciplines?

More profound problems lurk in the nature of our existence’s happenstance, which guides our best framework for understanding existence, poiesis. The Heideggerian concept of poiesis guides arguments of his infamous Black Notebooks. This was the political expression of Heidegger’s approach to philosophy as passively adapting your thinking and existence to the circumstances of your contingent existence as a person.

The existence of the migrant, no matter whether colonizer or refugee, is an act of violence against existence, because moving imposes your own logic and desires on alien existence. You disrupt your tradition out of a demand for something different. It disconnects you from the long inheritance of a relationship with the more durable existence of your land and your culture.

These stable beings constitute the place where you contingently fall. To fall contingently into existence is birth, so the land and culture of your birth constitute the ‘There’ in the complete assemblage of a person’s ‘Being.’ So the Black Notebooks continue Heidegger’s explication of his concept of Dasein, an inquiry central to all his work. They are no exception.

The language that expresses these concepts in the Black Notebooks is horrifying in its contempt for cultures whose global mobility or dispersion breaks them from continuity with a single territory of land at a pace faster than many millennia. It confounds my own everyday political orientations. In its most straightforward terms, it is a pro-Indigenous and anti-colonial, but also anti-Semitic in equal intensity.

One way to interpret Kochan’s program in Science as Social Existence is as an advocate to merge the disciplines of SSK and Heidegger Studies, blending their central premises and conceptual frameworks to create a hybrid discipline. But if we think disciplinarily, we may be forced to account for the many other problems in a body of work that have nothing to do with the problems we want to investigate. The example of how the Black Notebooks express the political implications of Heidegger’s concept of enframing, poiesis, and Dasein is only the most recent of many equally massive issues.

No Disciplines, Instead Concepts

Jeff Kochan’s Science and Social Existence is subtitled Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. In both this title and throughout the book, he attempts a very valuable experiment to make a philosophical hybrid of two sets of concepts, inquiries, and methods of thinking. On one hand, we have the social epistemological frameworks and principles in the discipline, Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. And on one hand, we have the conceptions of grounded subjectivity found in the works of Martin Heidegger, and elaborated in the discipline based on interpreting those works.

However, there are two problems with this approach. The first problem is that he misunderstands the reason for his inquiry: sociologists of scientific knowledge need a conceptual account of how we know that the external world exists to be studied.

The way Kochan understands how to solve the external world is brilliantly insightful in how philosophically challenging and creative it is: develop for SSK a concept of subjectivity that pays no mind to any premises of an ontological separation of subject and world at all. He finds such a concept in the works of Martin Heidegger, and explores its epistemological aspects as enframing and poiesis.

Laying our justification problem aside, this other problem helps explain what made it arise in the first place. Kochan’s focus is on the disciplines of SSK and Heidegger interpretation. Yet his inquiry is conceptual, more purely philosophical: adapting a concept of subjectivity that unifies subject and world without needing to make a problem of their separation, to the practice of sociology focussing on the production of scientific knowledge.

His focus is disciplinary rather than conceptual, talking about what Heidegger and his interpreters have said about Heidegger’s own concepts, and the sociologists whose research explicitly continues the general program of the originators of the SSK approach to social science. Such a disciplinary focus unfortunately implies that the related problems of those thinkers themselves complicate our use in thinking of the concepts themselves.

So using in sociological practice any concept that does what Kochan wants Heidegger’s enframing, poiesis, and Dasein to do, ends up dragging along the problematic and dangerous elements and interpretations in Heidegger’s entire corpus and tradition.

Because he was thinking of the discipline of SSK instead of the techniques and concepts alone, he presumes that the actual practitioners of SSK working in university departments need an alternative conception of subjectivity beyond modernist dualism. They themselves do not need such a concept because they are too busy asking different questions.

Fortunately, practice, concepts, and discipline are only contingently linked. Instead of using concepts from different disciplines to improve an established practice, you can develop new concepts to guide the practice of a new discipline.

The fundamental problem with Kochan’s book is that he has misinterpreted its scope, and aimed without the ambition that his thinking actually already requires. He thought he was writing a book about how to bring two seemingly unrelated traditions together, to solve an important problem in one.

Yet Kochan was actually writing a book that had the potential to start an entirely different tradition of sociological theory and practice. Instead of writing about Martin Heidegger and David Bloor, he could have written something with the potential to leave him mentioned in the same breath as such epochal thinkers. He could have become epochal himself.

How about next time, Jeff?

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

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

Heidegger, Martin. Ponderings II-VI: Black Notebooks 1931-1938. Translated by Richard Rojcewicz. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2016.

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

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

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

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.

Author Information: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College, serrc.digital@gmail.com.

Riggio, Adam. “Asking the Best Questions About Epistemology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 31-35.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-42Y

Image by Juan Antonio Segal via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

My response to Jim Butcher’s piece carries a little extra authority because, as Digital Editor, I approved its publication in the first place. I say this not to disavow the authority of my role, but to acknowledge it.

For a web platform’s editor to have okayed and published a piece that he is about to critique explicitly, is an inherently problematic position. It was already an inherently problematic position to publish an essay that so directly critiques the priorities of post-colonial research in a platform that has become more explicitly allied with post-colonial research since I took over as editor.

Context: The Problem of Platforming

My own position as an editor who both approves and critiques is also difficult, thanks to an intriguingly awkward coincidence. I live in Toronto, where a well-heeled, prestigious intellectual debate series just hosted a high-profile conversation between David Frum and Steve Bannon over the future of Western politics.

Frum, the former speechwriter and policy developer for George W. Bush, was and remains a vocal advocate for spreading democracy by the barrel of a rocket launcher, as he was when he wrote the famous “Axis of Evil” speech for Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address. He took the liberal, progressive side, contrary to Bannon’s advocacy of open nationalism.

Protestors outside the venue during the event, who faced disproportionate violence from police and security guards, were primarily motivated by a principle with which I largely agree: No Platform.

No Platform is the refusal to cede your venue to people advocating particularly violent or exclusionary ideologies. The principle considers that there are two reasons for refusing a platform for people to air these views. One is that ceding a platform lends dignity, respect, and prestige to morally repugnant ideas. The other is that it shifts the popular limit of politically and morally acceptable discourse so that what was widely considered extremist 15 years ago (using democracy promotion as an excuse to invade a country of millions on fraudulent pretenses, as Frum did) as perhaps a touch conservative but not that bad.

The No Platform principle, however, is all-too-often depicted as an expression of cowardice, fragility, or weakness of the personalities and principles of those who refuse platforms. This disingenuous image suggests, when its proponents do not state explicitly, that progressive moral and political values are weak because they cannot stand up to the challenge of debating an opposing viewpoint.

It is, however, nationalism and similar ideologies based on authoritarian domination that erodes democratic institutions and enforces violent caste / race hierarchies, that are the genuinely weak ones. Such ideologies do not gain adherents through genuine reason. They instead play on resentment and disingenuous insults about opponents, including resentments of the historically marginalized, to seduce people with feelings of natural superiority and displays of power to control and suppress people who are different than they are.

The Scope of a Claim to Be Universal

I open my response to Butcher’s article with this prologue, so that you can understand why a common reaction to his piece is to wonder why he was given a platform to begin with. The common progressive reaction to critiques of post-colonial theory such as Butcher’s is to deny them the legitimacy of a platform.

I was okay with the publishing of Butcher’s piece because, despite and because of its flaws, it remains a valuable misunderstanding of post-colonial thinking. Butcher’s essay displays a common initial reaction of many Westerners to post-colonial challenges to the scientific and educational institutions and traditions that emerged from Europe’s Enlightenment period.

He is in good company, such as Rebecca Goldstein and Steven Pinker. He is also in bad company, such as Jordan Peterson, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Richard Dawkins.

Butcher’s fundamental philosophical error is mistaking a challenge to the Enlightenment tradition’s own specific claim of universality for a challenge to the very possibility of universality in knowledge. Here is an example from my own philosophical influences that I hope will contribute positively to explain this point.

That James Madison himself was a slave owner does not invalidate the philosophical strengths and concepts of his Federalist Papers. That he wrote the most philosophically insightful Federalist Papers likewise does not invalidate the moral and political violence of his having owned slaves or conceived the infamous and grotesque “three-fifths compromise” that precisely quantified the institutional sub-humanity of American slaves for census and taxation purposes.

European powers’ military-economic imperialism in the Atlantic slave trade and their colonization of the Americas fuelled European industrialization. European industrialization fuelled the growth of European scientific enterprise. The Enlightenment project began when this colonization process was already a century underway.

Popular morality that dehumanized Africans as slavish and Indigenous as savage was largely shared by the main intellectual and political leaders of the Enlightenment. The claims to universality of those who began the Enlightenment tradition were already corrupted by the ethical / political presumption that such universality required conformity to the specifically European (or Western) approach to universal knowledge.

Contemporary post-colonial research focuses primarily on demonstrating the falsehood of this necessity, the presumption that achieving the universal exclusively requires adopting the European-designed model whose crucible was the Enlightenment tradition.

When Knowledge Weds Itself to Terror

This presumption of exclusiveness is false. Even given the concept in post-colonial theory of different knowledge traditions constituting “multiple worlds” or “plural worlds,” the presumption of exclusiveness is false. Throughout his essay, Butcher presumes that taking differences in knowledge traditions to constitute multiple worlds of knowledge functions to exclude those worlds from each other.

The problem with Enlightenment traditions of science is not that they believed that universality in knowledge was possible. It was that they mistook the European approaches to knowledge as necessarily and exclusively universal. The European culture of science that descended from the Enlightenment was so economically and ideologically wedded to colonizing imperialism that the presumptions of what constituted properly universal forms of knowledge themselves justified the imperial enterprise.

The presumption of exclusiveness is the imperialist framework of thinking that post-colonial knowledge practices work to overcome. All the diversity of knowledge production methods in every non-Western culture was excluded from recognition as a legitimate method of knowledge production throughout the popular culture of Western societies. The British Empire was one of the worst offenders in its scale of influence around Earth, the intensity of its exclusionary rhetoric, and its ingenuity in building legal and military institutions to destroy and exclude all forms of knowledge that differed from the model of the Western Enlightenment.

In my own country of Canada, the Indian Act laws governing physical movement and removing political rights from Indigenous people created a residential concentration camp network in our Native Reserve system. This refusal of citizenship rights operated in concert with the national residential schools system, which forcibly separated Indigenous children from their families and communities, imprisoning them in boarding schools where teachers forced them through violence to forget their languages, cultural stories, and identities.

The United Nations recently declared, correctly, Canadian institutions of Indigenous governance to be machinery of a centuries-long act of genocide.

All of this was justified as the benevolence of English government educating Indigenous people to become proper citizens capable of learning at all. This is the intensity and seriousness to which European and broader Western institutions excluded ways of life from public legitimacy as knowledge producing cultures.

Misunderstanding “Decolonize”

In presuming that post-colonial thinkers themselves exclude all knowledge produced in scientific traditions and disciplines linked with imperialism-justifying ideologies, Butcher himself accuses post-colonial theory of colonialism.

Post-colonial thinkers who understand the fundamental point of post-colonial thinking do not consider their mission to exclude Western culture’s knowledge production traditions and methods from legitimacy as European empires did to others. Such exclusion is itself one of the central methods and principles of the imperialism that post-colonial thinking aims to identify.

Given the pervasiveness of exclusionary or delegitimizing attitudes toward Indigenous knowledge traditions in many academic disciplines for so long, it is naïve of anyone to think that any decolonizing process would be simple. Every practice in a scientific discipline should be scrutinized ruthlessly.

No territory should be exempt from the search for which practices presume their own exclusive correctness. This includes conceptual development, empirical research and interpretation methods, the popular images of the discipline, and how the university departments where all this work takes place carry out their daily work, hiring, tenure and promotion decision processes.

Butcher can say that the Enlightenment concept of universality, conceived abstractly, includes a plurality of sources, traditions, and methods of knowledge. All that he may say will not repair actual, concrete practices.

A memory of a man, frozen in stone, can no longer take issue with how others use his words.
Image by Ade Russell via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Epilogue: Unseemly Rhetoric

Butcher unfortunately leans on several rhetorical devices to make his point that have been widely discredited, due to their frequently occurring in racist right-wing trolling culture. Here is the most stark example.

He refers to Martin Luther King’s universally famous “I Have a Dream” segment from his speech at the March on Washington, to deride post-colonial theorists as themselves opposing genuine equality.

This has been a common tactic among the racist trolls of the United States at least since the 2012 murder trial of George Zimmerman. King’s words were often used to invalidate anti-racist advocates as themselves being anti-equality, as the quote was the rhetorical centrepiece of an argument that they wished to refuse Zimmerman a fair trial.

It did not matter to the trolls that the trial’s critics wanted us to explore, understand, and reject the ideologies that enabled Zimmerman to perceive Trayvon Martin as a dangerous threat to his neighbourhood, instead of a teenager being a jackass. King was quoted as a rhetorical means to use a superficial conception of equality to make more complex conceptions of equality appear hypocritical.

For Butcher to end his essay with such an appeal is, at best, terribly naive. Readers can easily imagine what it would be at worst. At worst, you need only consider what Steve Bannon and people like him propagate throughout popular culture today. But I am sure that Butcher would not consider himself so malicious in his intent.

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

Butcher, Jim. “Questioning the Epistemology of Decolonise: The Case of Geography.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 12-24.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Ottawa: Government of Canada, 2015.

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, s.w.fuller@warwick.ac.uk.

Fuller, Steve. “‘China’ As the West’s Other in World Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 1-11.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-42x

A man practices Taijiquan at the Kongzi Temple in Nanjing.
Image by Slices of Light via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This essay was previously published in the Journal of World Philosophy, their Summer 2018 issue.

Bryan Van Norden’s Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto draws on his expertise in Chinese philosophy to launch a comprehensive and often scathing critique of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy. I focus on the sense in which “China” figures as a “non-Western culture” in Van Norden’s argument. Here I identify an equivocation between what I call a “functional” and a “substantive” account of culture.

I argue that Van Norden, like perhaps most others who have discussed Chinese philosophy, presupposes a “functional” conception, whereby the relevant sense in which “China” matters is exactly as “non-Western,” which ends up incorporating some exogenous influences such as Indian Buddhism but not any of the Western philosophies that made major inroads in the twentieth century. I explore the implications of the functional/substantive distinction for the understanding of cross-cultural philosophy generally.

Dragging the West Into the World

I first ran across Bryan Van Norden’s understanding of philosophy from a very provocative piece entitled “Why the Western Philosophical Canon Is Xenophobic and Racist,”[1]  which trailed the book now under review. I was especially eager to review it because I had recently participated in a symposium in the Journal of World Philosophies that discussed Chinese philosophy—Van Norden’s own area of expertise—as a basis for launching a general understanding of world philosophy.[2]

However, as it turns out, most of the book is preoccupied with various denigrations of philosophy in contemporary America, from both inside and outside the discipline. The only thing I will say about this aspect of the book is that, even granting the legitimacy of Van Norden’s complaints, I don’t think that arguments around some “ontological” conception of what philosophy “really is” will resolve the matter because these can always be dismissed as self-serving and question-begging.

What could make a difference is showing that a broader philosophical palette would actually make philosophy graduates more employable in an increasingly globalized world. Those like Van Norden who oppose the “Anglo-analytic hegemony” in contemporary philosophy need to argue explicitly that it results in philosophy punching below its weight in terms of potential impact. That philosophy departments of the most analytic sort continue to survive and even flourish, and that their students continue to be employed, should be presented as setting a very low standard of achievement.

After all, philosophy departments tend to recruit students with better than average qualifications, while the costs for maintaining those departments remain relatively low. In contrast, another recent book that raises similar concerns to Van Norden’s, Socrates Tenured (Frodeman and Briggle 2016),[3] is more successful in pointing to extramural strategies for philosophy to pursue a more ambitious vision of general societal relevance.

Challenging How We Understand Culture Itself

But at its best, Taking Back Philosophy forces us to ask: what exactly does “culture” mean in “multicultural” or “cross-cultural” philosophy? For Van Norden, the culture he calls “China” is the exemplar of a non-Western philosophical culture. It refers primarily—if not exclusively—to those strands of Chinese thought associated with its ancient traditions. To be sure, this arguably covers everything that Chinese scholars and intellectuals wrote about prior to the late nineteenth century, when Western ideas started to be regularly discussed. It would then seem to suggest that “China” refers to the totality of its indigenous thought and culture.

But this is not quite right, since Van Norden certainly includes the various intellectually productive engagements that Buddhism as an alien (Indian) philosophy has had with the native Confucian and especially Daoist world-views. Yet he does not seem to want to include the twentieth-century encounters between Confucianism and, say, European liberalism and American pragmatism in the Republican period or Marxism in the Communist period. Here he differs from Leigh Jenco (2010),[4] who draws on the Republican Chinese encounter with various Western philosophies to ground a more general cross-cultural understanding of philosophy.

It would appear that Van Norden is operating with a functional rather than substantive conception of “China” as a philosophical culture. In other words, he is less concerned with all the philosophy that has happened within China than with simply the philosophy in China that makes it “non-Western.” Now some may conclude that this makes Van Norden as ethnocentric as the philosophers he criticizes.

I am happy to let readers judge for themselves on that score. However, functional conceptions of culture are quite pervasive, especially in the worlds of politics and business, whereby culture is treated as a strategic resource to provide a geographic region with what the classical political economist David Ricardo famously called “comparative advantage” in trade.

But equally, Benedict Anderson’s (1983) influential account of nationalism as the construction of “imagined communities” in the context of extricating local collective identities from otherwise homogenizing imperial tendencies would fall in this category. Basically your culture is what you do that nobody else does—or at least does not do as well as you. However, your culture is not the totality of all that you do, perhaps not even what you do most of the time.

To be sure, this is not the classical anthropological conception of culture, which is “substantive” in the sense of providing a systematic inventory of what people living in a given region actually think and do, regardless of any overlap with what others outside the culture think and do. Indeed, anthropologists in the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries expected that most of the items in the inventory would come from the outside, the so-called doctrine of “diffusionism.”

Thus, they have tended to stress the idiosyncratic mix of elements that go into the formation of any culture over any dominant principle. This helps explain why nowadays every culture seems to be depicted as a “hybrid.” I would include Jenco’s conception of Chinese culture in this “substantive” conception.

However, what distinguished, say, Victorians like Edward Tylor from today’s “hybrid anthropologists” was that the overlap of elements across cultures was used by the former as a basis for cross-cultural comparisons, albeit often to the detriment of the non-Western cultures involved. This fuelled ambitions that anthropology could be made into a “science” sporting general laws of progress, etc.

My point here is not to replay the history of the struggle for anthropology’s soul, which continues to this day, but simply to highlight a common assumption of the contesting parties—namely, that a “culture” is defined exclusively in terms of matters happening inside a given geographical region, in which case things happening outside the region must be somehow represented inside the region in order to count as part of a given culture. In contrast, the “functional” conception defines “culture” in purely relational terms, perhaps even with primary reference to what is presumed to lie outside a given culture.

Matters of Substance and Function

Both the substantive and the functional conception derive from the modern core understanding of culture, as articulated by Johann Gottfried Herder and the German Idealists, which assumed that each culture possesses an “essence” or “spirit.” On the substantive conception, which was Herder’s own, each culture is distinguished by virtue of having come from a given region, as per the etymological root of “culture” in “agriculture.” In that sense, a culture’s “essence” or “spirit” is like a seed that can develop in various ways depending on the soil in which it is planted.

Indeed, Herder’s teacher, Kant had already used the German Keime (“seeds”) in a book of lectures whose title is often credited with having coined “anthropology” (Wilson 2014).[5] This is the sense of culture that morphs into racialist ideologies. While such racialism can be found in Kant, it is worth stressing that his conception of race does not depend on the sense of genetic fixity that would become the hallmark of twentieth-century “scientific racism.” Rather, Kant appeared to treat “race” as a diagnostic category for environments that hold people back, to varying degrees, from realizing humanity’s full potential.

Here Kant was probably influenced by the Biblical dispersal of humanity, first with Adam’s Fall and then the Noachian flood, which implied that the very presence of different races or cultures marks our species’ decline from its common divine source. Put another way, Kant was committed to what Lamarck called the “inheritance of acquired traits,” though Lamarck lacked Kant’s Biblical declinist backdrop. Nevertheless, they agreed that a sustainably radical change to the environment could decisively change the character of its inhabitants. This marks them both as heirs to the Enlightenment.

To be sure, this reading of Kant is unlikely to assuage either today’s racists or, for that matter, anti-racists or multiculturalists, since it doesn’t assume that the preservation of racial or cultural identity possesses intrinsic (positive or negative) value. In this respect, Kant’s musings on race should be regarded as “merely historical,” based on his fallible second-hand knowledge of how peoples in different parts of the world have conducted their lives.

In fact, the only sense of difference that the German Idealists unequivocally valued was self-individuation, which is ultimately tied to the functional conception of culture, whereby my identity is directly tied to my difference from you. It follows that the boundaries of culture—or the self, for that matter—are moveable feasts. In effect, as your identity changes, mine does as well—and vice versa.

Justifying a New World Order

This is the metaphysics underwriting imperialism’s original liberal capitalist self-understanding as a global free-trade zone. In its ideal form, independent nation-states would generate worldwide prosperity by continually reorienting themselves to each other in response to market pressures. Even if the physical boundaries between nation-states do not change, their relationship to each other would, through the spontaneous generation and diffusion of innovations.

The result would be an ever-changing global division of labor. Of course, imperialism in practice fostered a much more rigid—even racialized—division of labor, as Marxists from Lenin onward decried. Those who nevertheless remain hopeful in the post-imperial era that the matter can ultimately be resolved diagnose the problem as one of “uneven development,” a phrase that leaves a sour aftertaste in the mouths of “post-colonialists.”

But more generally, “functionalism” as a movement in twentieth-century anthropology and sociology tended towards a relatively static vision of social order. And perhaps something similar could be said about Van Norden’s stereotyping of “China.” However, he would be hardly alone. In his magisterial The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, a book which Van Norden does not mention, Randall Collins (1998)[6] adopts a similarly functionalist stance. There it leads to a quite striking result, which has interesting social epistemological consequences.

Although Collins incorporates virtually every thinker that Chinese philosophy experts normally talk about, carefully identifying their doctrinal nuances and scholastic lineages, he ends his treatment of China at the historical moment that happens to coincide with what he marks as a sea change in the fortunes of Western philosophy, which occurs in Europe’s early modern period.

I put the point this way because Collins scrupulously avoids making any of the sorts of ethnocentric judgements that Van Norden rightly castigates throughout his book, whereby China is seen as un- or pre-philosophical. However, there is a difference in attitude to philosophy that emerges in Europe, less in terms of philosophy’s overall purpose than its modus operandi. Collins calls it rapid discovery science.

Rapid discovery science is the idea that standardization in the expression and validation of knowledge claims—both quantitatively and qualitatively—expedites the ascent to higher levels of abstraction and reflexivity by making it easier to record and reproduce contributions in the ongoing discourse. Collins means here not only the rise of mathematical notation to calculate and measure, but also “technical languages,” the mastery of which became the mark of “expertise” in a sense more associated with domain competence than with “wisdom.” In the latter case, the evolution of “peer review” out of the editorial regimentation of scientific correspondence in the early journals played a decisive role (Bazerman 1987).[7]

Citation conventions, from footnotes to bibliographies, were further efficiency measures. Collins rightly stresses the long-term role of universities in institutionalizing these innovations, but of more immediate import was the greater interconnectivity within Europe that was afforded by the printing press and an improved postal system. The overall result, so I believe, was that collective intellectual memory was consolidated to such an extent that intellectual texts could be treated as capital, something to both build upon and radically redeploy—once one has received the right training to access them. These correspond to the phases that Thomas Kuhn called “normal” and “revolutionary” science, respectively.

To be sure, Collins realizes that China had its own stretches in which competing philosophical schools pursued higher levels of abstraction and reflexivity, sometimes with impressive results. But these were maintained solely by the emotional energy of the participants who often dealt with each other directly. Once external events dispersed that energy, then the successors had to go back to a discursive “ground zero” of referring to original texts and reinventing arguments.

Can There Be More Than One Zero Point?

Of course, the West has not been immune to this dynamic. Indeed, it has even been romanticized. A popular conception of philosophy that continues to flourish at the undergraduate level is that there can be no genuine escape from origins, no genuine sense of progress. It is here that Alfred North Whitehead’s remark that all philosophy is footnotes to Plato gets taken a bit too seriously.

In any case, Collins’ rapid discovery science was specifically designed to escape just this situation, which Christian Europe had interpreted as the result of humanity’s fallen state, a product of Adam’s “Original Sin.” This insight figured centrally in the Augustinian theology that gradually—especially after the existential challenge that Islam posed to Christendom in the thirteenth century—began to color how Christians viewed their relationship to God, the source of all knowing and being. The Protestant Reformation marked a high watermark in this turn of thought, which became the crucible in which rapid discovery science was forged in the seventeenth century. Since the 1930s, this period has been called the “Scientific Revolution” (Harrison 2007).[8]

In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, all appeals to authority potentially became not sources of wisdom but objects of suspicion. They had to undergo severe scrutiny, which at the time were often characterized as “trials of faith.” Francis Bacon, the personal lawyer to England’s King James I, is a pivotal figure because he clearly saw continuity from the Inquisition in Catholic Europe (which he admired, even though it ensnared his intellectual ally Galileo), through the “witch trials” pursued by his fellow Protestants on both sides of the Atlantic, to his own innovation—the “crucial experiment”—which would be subsequently enshrined as the hallmark of the scientific method, most energetically by Karl Popper.

Bacon famously developed his own “hermeneutic of suspicion” as proscriptions against what he called “idols of the mind,” that is, lazy habits of thought that are born of too much reliance on authority, tradition, and surface appearances generally. For Bacon and his fellow early modern Christians, including such Catholics as Rene Descartes, these habits bore the mark of Original Sin because they traded on animal passions—and the whole point of the human project is to rise above our fallen animal natures to recover our divine birthright.

The cultural specificity of this point is often lost, even on Westerners for whom the original theological backdrop seems no longer compelling. What is cross-culturally striking about the radical critique of authority posed by the likes of Bacon and Descartes is that it did not descend into skepticism, even though—especially in the case of Descartes—the skeptical challenge was explicitly confronted. What provided the stopgap was faith, specifically in the idea that once we recognize our fallen nature, redemption becomes possible by finding a clearing on which to build truly secure foundations for knowledge and thereby to redeem the human condition, God willing.

For Descartes, this was “cogito ergo sum.” To be sure, the “God willing” clause, which was based on the doctrine of Divine Grace, became attenuated in the eighteenth century as “Providence” and then historicized as “Progress,” finally disappearing altogether with the rising tide of secularism in the nineteenth century (Löwith 1949; Fuller 2010: chap. 8).[9]

But its legacy was a peculiar turn of mind that continually seeks a clearing to chart a path to the source of all meaning, be it called “God” or “Truth.” This is what makes three otherwise quite temperamentally different philosophers—Husserl, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger—equally followers in Descartes’ footsteps. They all prioritized clearing a space from which to proceed over getting clear about the end state of the process.

Thus, the branches of modern Western philosophy concerned with knowledge—epistemology and the philosophy of science—have been focused more on methodology than axiology, that is, the means rather than the ends of knowledge. While this sense of detachment resonates with, say, the Buddhist disciplined abandonment of our default settings to become open to a higher level of state of being, the intellectual infrastructure provided by rapid discovery science allows for an archive to be generated that can be extended and reflected upon indefinitely by successive inquirers.

Common Themes Across Continents

A good way to see this point is that in principle the Buddhist and, for that matter, the Socratic quest for ultimate being could be achieved in one’s own lifetime with sufficient dedication, which includes taking seriously the inevitability of one’s own physical death. In contrast, the modern Western quest for knowledge—as exemplified by science—is understood as a potentially endless intergenerational journey in which today’s scientists effectively lead vicarious lives for the sake of how their successors will regard them.

Indeed, this is perhaps the core ethic promoted in Max Weber’s famous “Science as a Vocation” lecture (Fuller 2015: chap. 3).[10] Death as such enters, not to remind scientists that they must eventually end their inquiries but that whatever they will have achieved by the end of their lives will help pave the way for others to follow.

Heidegger appears as such a “deep” philosopher in the West because he questioned the metaphysical sustainability of the intellectual infrastructure of rapid discovery science, which the Weberian way of death presupposes. Here we need to recall that Heidegger’s popular reception was originally mediated by the postwar Existentialist movement, which was fixated on the paradoxes of the human condition thrown up by Hiroshima, whereby the most advanced science managed to end the biggest war in history by producing a weapon with the greatest chance of destroying humanity altogether in the future. Not surprisingly, Heidegger has proved a convenient vehicle for Westerners to discover Buddhism.

Early Outreach? Or Appropriation?

Finally, it is telling that the Western philosopher whom Van Norden credits with holding China in high esteem, Leibniz, himself had a functional understanding of China. To be sure, Leibniz was duly impressed by China’s long track record of imperial rule at the political, economic, and cultural levels, all of which were the envy of Europe. But Leibniz honed in on one feature of Chinese culture—what he took to be its “ideographic” script—which he believed could provide the intellectual infrastructure for a global project of organizing and codifying all knowledge so as to expedite its progress.

This was where he thought China had a decisive “comparative advantage” over the West. Clearly Leibniz was a devotee of rapid discovery science, and his project—shared by many contemporaries across Europe—would be pursued again to much greater effect two hundred years later by Paul Otlet, the founder of modern library and information science, and Otto Neurath, a founding member of the logical positivist movement.

While the Chinese regarded their written characters as simply a medium for people in a far-flung empire to communicate easily with each other, Leibniz saw in them the potential for collaboration on a universal scale, given that each character amounted to a picture of an abstraction, the metaphorical rendered literal, a message that was not simply conveyed but embedded in the medium. It seemed to satisfy the classical idea of nous, or “intellectual intuition,” as a kind of perception, which survives in the phrase, “seeing with the mind’s eye.”

However, the Chinese refused to take Leibniz’s bait, which led him to begin a train of thought that culminated in the so-called Needham Thesis, which turns on why Earth’s most advanced civilization, China, failed to have a “Scientific Revolution” (Needham 1969; Fuller 1997: chap. 5).[11] Whereas Leibniz was quick to relate Chinese unreceptiveness to his proposal to their polite but firm rejection of the solicitations of Christian missionaries, Joseph Needham, a committed Marxist, pointed to the formal elements of the distinctive cosmology promoted by the Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity, that China lacked—but stopping short of labelling the Chinese “heathens.”

An interesting feature of Leibniz’s modus operandi is that he saw cross-cultural encounters as continuous with commerce (Perkins 2004).[12]  No doubt his conception was influenced by living at a time when the only way a European could get a message to China was through traders and missionaries, who typically travelled together. But he also clearly imagined the resulting exchange as a negotiation in which each side could persuade the other to shift their default positions to potential mutual benefit.

This mentality would come to be crucial to the dynamic mentality of capitalist political economy, on which Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage was based. However, the Chinese responded to their European counterparts with hospitality but only selective engagement with their various intellectual and material wares, implying their unwillingness to be fluid with what I earlier called “self-individuation.”

Consequently, Europeans only came to properly understand Chinese characters in the mid-nineteenth century, by which time it was treated as a cultural idiosyncrasy, not a platform for pursuing universal knowledge. That world-historic moment for productive engagement had passed—for reasons that Marxist political economy adequately explains—and all subsequent attempts at a “universal language of thought” have been based on Indo-European languages and Western mathematical notation.

China is not part of this story at all, and continues to suffer from that fact, notwithstanding its steady ascendancy on the world stage over the past century. How this particular matter is remedied should focus minds interested in a productive future for cross-cultural philosophy and multiculturalism more generally. But depending on what we take the exact problem to be, the burden of credit and blame across cultures will be apportioned accordingly.

Based on the narrative that I have told here, I am inclined to conclude that the Chinese underestimated just how seriously Europeans like Leibniz took their own ideas. This in turn raises some rather deep questions about the role that a shift in the balance of plausibility away from “seeing with one’s own eyes” and towards “seeing with the mind’s eye” has played in the West’s ascendancy.

Conclusion

I began this piece by distinguishing a “substantive” and a “functional” approach to culture because even theorists as culturally sensitive as Van Norden and Collins adopt a “functional” rather than a “substantive” approach. They defend and elaborate China as a philosophical culture in purely relational terms, based on its “non-Western” character.

This leads them to include, say, Chinese Buddhism but not Chinese Republicanism or Chinese Communism—even though the first is no less exogenous than the second two to “China,” understood as the land mass on which Chinese culture has been built over several millennia. Of course, this is not to take away from Van Norden’s or Collins’ achievements in reminding us of the continued relevance of Chinese philosophical culture.

Yet theirs remains a strategically limited conception designed mainly to advance an argument about Western philosophy. Here Collins follows the path laid down by Leibniz and Needham, whereas Van Norden takes that argument and flips it against the West—or, rather, contemporary Western philosophy. The result in both cases is that “China” is instrumentalized for essentially Western purposes.

I have no problem whatsoever with this approach (which is my own), as long as one is fully aware of its conceptual implications, which I’m not sure that Van Norden is. For example, he may think that his understanding of Chinese philosophical culture is “purer” than, say, Leigh Jenco’s, which focuses on a period with significant Western influence. However, this is “purity” only in the sense of an “ideal type” of the sort the German Idealists would have recognized as a functionally differentiated category within an overarching system.

In Van Norden’s case, that system is governed by the West/non-West binary. Thus, there are various ways to be “Western” and various ways to be “non-Western” for Van Norden. Van Norden is not sufficiently explicit about this logic. The alternative conceptual strategy would be to adopt a “substantive” approach to China that takes seriously everything that happens within its physical borders, regardless of origin. The result would be the more diffuse, laundry list approach to culture that was championed by the classical anthropologists, for which “hybrid” is now the politically correct term.

To be sure, this approach is not without its own difficulties, ranging from a desire to return to origins (“racialism”) to forced comparisons between innovator and adopter cultures. But whichever way one goes on this matter, “China” remains a contested concept in the context of world philosophy.

Contact details: s.w.fuller@warwick.ac.uk

References

Bazerman, Charles. Shaping Written Knowledge. Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.

Collins, Randall. The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Frodeman, Robert; Adam Briggle. Socrates Tenured. Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).

Fuller, Steve. Science: Concepts in the Social Sciences. Milton Keynes UK: Open University Press, 1997.

Fuller, Steve. Science: The Art of Living. Durham UK: Acumen, 2010.

Fuller, Steve. Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History. London: Routledge, 2015.

Harrison, Peter. The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Jenco, Leigh. Making the Political: Founding and Action in the Political Theory of Zhang Shizhao. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Jenco, Leigh; Steve Fuller, David Haekwon Kim, Thaddeus Metz, and Miljana Milojevic, “Symposium: Are Certain Knowledge Frameworks More Congenial to the Aims of Cross-Cultural Philosophy?” Journal of World Philosophies 2, no. 2 (2017): 82-145.

Löwith, Karl. Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of Philosophy of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949.

Needham, Joseph. The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969.

Perkins, Franklin. Leibniz and China: A Commerce of Light. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

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

Wilson, Catherine. “Kant on Civilization, Culture and Moralization,” in Kant’s Lectures on Anthropology: A Critical Guide. Edited by A. Cohen. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014: 191-210.

[1] Bryan Van Norden, “Western Philosophy is Racist,” (https://aeon.co/essays/why-the-western-philosophical-canon-is-xenophobic-and-racist; last accessed on May 10, 2018).

[2] See: Leigh Jenco, Steve Fuller, David Haekwon Kim, Thaddeus Metz, and Miljana Milojevic, “Symposium: Are Certain Knowledge Frameworks More Congenial to the Aims of Cross-Cultural Philosophy?” Journal of World Philosophies 2, no. 2 (2017): 82-145 (https://scholarworks.iu.edu/iupjournals/index.php/jwp/article/view/1261/128; last accessed on May 10, 2018).

[3] Robert Frodeman, and Adam Briggle, Socrates Tenured (Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).

[4] Leigh Jenco, Making the Political: Founding and Action in the Political Theory of Zhang Shizhao (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[5] Catherine Wilson, “Kant on Civilization, Culture and Moralization,” in Kant’s Lectures on Anthropology: A Critical Guide, ed. A. Cohen (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 191-210.

[6] Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

[7] Charles Bazerman, Shaping Written Knowledge (Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987).

[8] Peter Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[9] Karl Löwith, Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of Philosophy of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949); Steve Fuller, Science: The Art of Living (Durham UK: Acumen, 2010).

[10] Steve Fuller, Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History (London: Routledge, 2015).

[11] Joseph Needham, The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969); Steve Fuller, Science: Concepts in the Social Sciences (Milton Keynes UK: Open University Press, 1997).

[12] Franklin Perkins, Leibniz and China: A Commerce of Light (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Author Information: Anke Graness, University of Vienna, anke.graness@univie.ac.at.

Graness, Anke. “African Philosophy and History.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 45-54.

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-42b

 

A view from Abwond, in South Sudan.
Image by SIM USA via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Edwin Etieyibo’s recent collection of papers is the result of the conference ‘African philosophy: Past, Present and Future’ held at the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa) in 2015. The presentations and lively discussions during that conference, especially those concerning the future methodology of philosophy in Africa and the steps to be taken towards integrating African philosophy in university curricula, were organised into four sections of the book: (I) African Philosophy and History; (II) Method in African Philosophy); (III) Substance of African Philosophy); (IV) African Philosophy and its Future. All four parts raise important questions and deserve a detailed discussion. However, I will focus my review on the first chapter, ‘African Philosophy and History’.

How Important Is the History of Philosophy?

The importance of the history of philosophy is vigorously contested. In particular, it was challenged by logical positivism and the analytic school during the twentieth century, both of which maintained that historiography had a weak epistemic basis. However, despite all attempts to minimise the role of the history of philosophy in current research and teaching, it continues to play a crucial role in present-day philosophy. An examination of what Africa has done towards writing a history of philosophy is of utmost relevance, especially to the formation of educational policy.

The first article is Edwin Etieyibo’s ‘African Philosophy in History, Context, and Contemporary Times’. Here, the first sentence of the essay is problematic. The author claims: ‘African philosophy does have a long history, albeit mostly undocumented, unwritten, and oral.’ (13) The author seems to assume that orality is a fundamental characteristic of African cultures and societies, and perhaps even that one cannot speak of philosophy in the absence of a written tradition.

Both assumptions have to be strongly refuted. There is a long tradition of written philosophy on the African continent, extending from the time of the ancient Egyptians and including Ethiopian philosophy, the Arabic-Islamic philosophical tradition in Africa south of the Sahara, the Ajami tradition, and the written tradition in the Swahili culture. Souleymane Bachir Diagne sharply criticises the equation of Africa with oral traditions. He calls it a gaze that confines Africa to its oral tradition and de-historicises the whole continent. He argues that the debate:

is often carried out in complete ignorance of the established history of intellectual centres in Africa, where texts containing an undeniable philosophical dimension were studied and commented on, in writing, and where the names of Plato and Aristotle, for example, were well known long before the European presence. (Diagne 2016, 57)

A number of philosophers, including Henry Odera Oruka and Sophie Oluwole, have provided positive proof of the existence of philosophy in oral traditions. And as Diagne argues:

to understand orality is to understand that it too involves intertextuality, which is to say the art of producing a text (it makes no difference if this text is oral) in relation to another one, which the new text evokes in different ways: by citing it, making allusion to it, imitating it, miming it, subverting it, treating it at times with derision. In this way orality returns on itself, becoming a critical reworking of its own stories, and along with them the knowledge and values that they can carry and transmit: it produces new stories that put the old ones, often established as canonical, into question. (Diagne 2016, 54)

It is troubling that prejudices about the history of philosophy in Africa are still widespread. Precisely for this reason, a more detailed study of the history of pre-twentieth-century African philosophy is urgently needed.

Discovering Long-Maligned African Thought

While the next sections of Etieyibo’s article deal with the rejection of African philosophy and in particular with the racist theses of some European philosophers such as Hume, Kant and Hegel, the fourth section of his contribution is devoted to the question of who can be regarded as an African philosopher. I will deal with this question in more detail in a moment.

Towards the end of his essay the author names six areas in which African philosophy lags behind international discourse, among them African metaphysics, African epistemology, African logic, and African philosophy of mind. Etieyibo leaves open what the qualifier ‘African’ means in this context. Concerning the institutional frame of academic philosophy, Etieyibo rightly laments that there is an insufficient number of publications on African philosophy and limited access to them; that there are too few specialist conferences and meetings regarding it; that the discipline suffers from a lack of financial support; and that there is too little exchange between scholars in the field. He maintains that the institutional framework of philosophy production in Africa must be significantly improved.

Two scholars who made major contributions to the reconstruction of the history of philosophy in Africa, particularly African philosophy’s development since the beginning of the twentieth century, also contributed to this section of the book: the American philosopher Barry Hallen (A Short History of African Philosophy, 2002, second edition 2009) and the Kenyan philosopher Dismas A. Masolo (African Philosophy in Search of Identity, 1994).

Barry Hallen starts his article with a number of important questions which have to be answered in order to demarcate the scope of research of a history of African philosophy:

Does African philosophy include all philosophy done by Africans regardless of content?

Does African philosophy include the work of non-Africans who focus on African content?

Can Africans who focus only on researching and teaching ‘Western’ philosophy be considered ‘African philosophers’?

In other words, who should be included in and excluded from the narrative of a history of African philosophy? Hallen’s questions concern the geographical and socio-cultural origin of the scholars and concepts which should be included in a history of philosophy in Africa, or to put it differently, how to localise thought and scholarship. Hallen does not answer these questions but rather focuses his explorations on the general significance of cultural or geographical labels like ‘Indian’, ‘Chinese’ or ‘African’ for philosophy and examines the relationship between the universal and the culturally particular in philosophy.

What Is an African Philosopher?

However, in his article Etieyibo tries to define ‘African philosopher’ using analytic and logical methods. Etieyibo asks whether blackness or being African obliges one to do African philosophy and, moreover, who may count as an African philosopher. To answer these questions, he differentiates between a ‘narrow view’ and a ‘broad view’ of who may be deemed an African philosopher.

According to the ‘narrow view’, ‘one is an African philosopher if one engages with works in African philosophy and works towards developing it.’ (19-20) Unfortunately, Etieyibo leaves open ‘what sorts of work count as African philosophy’ (20). He argues that this issue is not decisive; however, if we do not know what work counts as African philosophy, we will not be able to apply the ‘narrow view’ criterion (‘engages with works in African philosophy’) to identify someone as an African philosopher. Thus, we are thrown back on the old question, ‘What is African philosophy?’.

In the ‘broad view’ the basis of identification as an African philosopher is the ‘person’s origin and what the person does … That is, one is an African philosopher if one is an African and works in philosophy’ (20). Furthermore, Etieyibo argues that ‘just because one … is African does not mean that she does or ought to do African philosophy’. (22) Of course, it is absolutely correct to remind us that philosophers from Africa do not have any duty to do African philosophy– if doing African philosophy means one is constrained to dealing with theories and methodologies which emerged on the African continent or with issues that concern the African Lebenswelt alone.

Like philosophers anywhere in the world, philosophers in and from Africa are free to choose their areas of research without losing their identity as an African. If I do not lose my identity as a European when I deal with philosophical traditions from Africa, the same applies to philosophers from Africa. However, Etieyibo’s remarks do not bring us any closer to answering the questions raised by Hallen, which target issues of classification.

I think it is less important to clarify the continental affiliation of those who practice philosophy in Africa than it is to clarify the definition and demarcation of African philosophy. This clarification has important consequences, for example for the integration of African philosophy into curricula and publication projects, and especially for financial support: What exactly is the ‘African philosophy’ that has to be integrated in curricula? What is to be labelled and promoted as ‘African philosophy’—the work of a philosopher from Africa who is a Wittgenstein specialist? Or does ‘African philosophy’ include only the work of philosophers who deal with African thought traditions, the relevance of those traditions, issues of the African Lebenswelt, such as questions about concepts of justice in the present-day African context, etc.?

The Wittgenstein specialist would certainly have plenty of funding possibilities via research programs in analytic philosophy, philosophy of language, continental philosophy and all kinds of funding foundations; those dealing with marginalised and formerly excluded philosophy traditions in Africa hardly any funding prospects at all. In this respect, a definition of the term ‘African philosophy’ is not only relevant here, but also decisive.

Africa and Universality

Barry Hallen discusses in his essay the relationship between the universality and the particularity of philosophical knowledge with regard to the debates on African philosophy since the 1960s, when African philosophers started to discuss and to attack centuries-old ‘Western’ stereotypes that denied Africans’ ability to think rationally, logically, and critically. During the 1960s African philosophers started to reassert their capability and reclaim their right to describe and to represent the history, present, and future of their continent as well as the African history of ideas, and they refused to be defined and represented according to ‘Western’ anthropological and colonial terms. Hallen describes the debates about the question ‘What is African philosophy?’ between the 1960s and the 1980s as being of immense importance, for here African philosophers:

were putting their own house in order, and they were conscious of their responsibility as scholars to do so. This was Africa talking to Africa about an issue that mattered to Africa. (39)

But still, during these early years of academic philosophy in Africa south of the Sahara, ‘Western’ philosophers considered these debates ‘culture philosophy’ because of the focus on African languages and culture and their philosophical dimensions. For ‘Western’ philosophers, African philosophy seemed to lack the universal dimension characteristic of philosophy.

In the following passage, Hallen refers mainly to the Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu and his counterarguments against such allegations. Wiredu, who conducted a thorough study of his mother tongue Twi and the culture and political institutions of his people, the Akan, insisted that:

African philosophers are doing the same thing as Western philosophers when they extrapolate from the ideas, beliefs, and practices of their cultures to see their relevance to and for more transcendent concerns. African philosophers must therefore insist that the intellectual playing field be levelled and that our cultures be accorded the same initial integrity as any others. In Africa as in other places of the world African philosophy is philosophy, full stop. (41)

This is an important point: why is Heidegger’s theoretical work, which was devoted to the study of the German language and its origins and the Lebenswelt of his time, or Wittgenstein’s analysis taken to be philosophy, but theoretical work on African languages or Lebenswelten classified as cultural studies? Philosophy always starts from particular or contextual circumstances that give rise to further considerations. Wiredu has made this a fundamental principle of his work: he has applied the method of analytic philosophy to the study of a particular language and a particular context in order to make further, general judgments on this basis. The particular language in his case is his mother tongue Twi.

Or as Hallen expresses it:

The whole point of his philosophy is to demonstrate … that a philosophical methodology identified with the “Western” tradition … can be extracted from that tradition and applied to African content with positive consequences …’ (48) and ‘… using African content as a basis for abstracting alternative conceptualizations of truth, of the person, of the community, of development, of modernization that can then be placed in comparison with those more conventionally taken as paradigmatic by academic philosophy. (46-47)

Hallen is concerned that the current generation of young philosophers has not adopted Wiredu’s approach and method. So he asks: ‘Who else is doing philosophy in the African context along the lines of Wiredu?’ (45) Like Wiredu, Hallen argues that it is right and important to apply accepted philosophical methods to African content. He urges that those who argue that new and different forms of approach to philosophy are needed to represent African philosophy independently and fairly should develop and successfully implement such new methods.

One can only agree with Hallen’s criticism of the term ‘World philosophy’: that it is a euphemism for non-‘Western’ thought, for in such volumes on ‘World philosophy’ there is no section devoted to European philosophy (47). This also shows that there is a long way to go before non-European philosophy ceases to be considered exotica.

Africa Beyond Reaction

Dismas Masolo also begins his essay by referring to the difficulties that beset African philosophers in the twentieth century:

much of what we have done in the contemporary history of African philosophy appears to be only corrective work – that is, to respond to bad philosophy that came out of equally bad scholarship on Africa by European social scientists. (54)

Despite all the progress that has been made since then, Masolo criticises the current discourse in African philosophy as follows:

we have not developed out of those responses and corrections what Wiredu calls ‘a tradition of philosophy’ that builds on highlighting a discursive sparring among ourselves about our own specific conceptions, beliefs, or experiences in a manner that would be called philosophical. (56)

With reference to Wiredu, who demands ‘that folks throughout the continent should develop a sustainable or self-sustaining tradition of a philosophical discourse that explores Africans’ beliefs and conceptions of the world’ (57), Masolo underlines that a ‘sustainable tradition of a philosophical discourse’ has to be developed. Masolo does not provide us with a definition of ‘sustainable tradition’, but he points out that ‘sustained discourses among locals give traditions of thought their identities’ (57) and that it is important ‘to confront and interrogate the informing historical or ontological contents (such as specific socio-political or cultural interests) of philosophical or deontological principles when in competition with others.’ (57)

According to Masolo, it is vital to recognise the importance of the time and place in which philosophy emerges; no philosophers can completely free themselves from their locally and temporally conditioned context, which determines their thinking in important ways, e.g. their methodology, content, and research interests. Even so, it is necessary to try to transcend the local and to come to universal judgments. To demonstrate how local knowledge production can be made fruitful for philosophy and a ‘sustainable’, proprietary tradition of philosophy can be built, Masolo uses his own research on the famous intellectual, poet, and essayist Shaaban Bin Robert (1909-1962), who supported the preservation of the Tanzanian verse tradition and wrote Utubora Mkulima, a story about the search for human perfection which offers guidelines for a good life.

Masolo does not consider the difficult and complex situation of present-day African knowledge production an obstacle. This complexity is due to various tensions that emerge from aspects of colonial and neo-colonial heritage, among them the intersection of indigenous and colonial traditions of knowledge production, the relationship between local and global cultures, and the need to participate in international discourse and yet remain free of the domination of Western dictates of discourse. Masolo argues with reference to Hegel that such complex systems of social contradictions are a precondition for the formation of philosophy.

On campus at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Image by oncampus.ru via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Questions of Progress

The last article in this section is Edwin E. Etieyibo and Jonathan O. Chimakonam’s analysis ‘The State of African Philosophy’. Their starting point is the question: What progress has African philosophy made since the end of the great debate about its existence and nature?

Now, it is always difficult to define ‘progress’, but in philosophical debates it is even more difficult to make ‘progress’ manifest, because after all, philosophical research and debates do not lead to billable results or established form of output as do social sciences, economics or natural sciences. How can progress be measured in a discipline like philosophy, which despite continuous effort over thousands of years, has never even been able to reach definite conclusions about such key concepts as justice, truth, or being?

In order to measure ‘progress’ in African philosophy, the two authors propose to elicit numbers regarding scholars and researchers engaged in African philosophy, including the number of undergraduate and graduate students specializing in African philosophy; the number of publications, conferences, and courses about African philosophy; etc. (72) Thus, in the first line, Etieyibo and Chimakonam focus on progress as a matter of quantitative, not qualitative, analysis.

However, the authors also suggest analysing the content and substance of current research and debates in African philosophy. Here, of course, the standard or yardstick is again particularly unclear: how should the ‘substance’ of philosophical work be measured? And how can subjective preferences (with regard to the philosophical methods or schools considered relevant) be excluded from such an evaluation? What is considered to be ‘substantial’ – and what is not? The answer to these questions is never free of interests, preferences, and positions of power. What are the possible guidelines for questions about ‘substance’? The two authors do not give us any criteria.

Due to the scope of such quantitative research, the authors limit their enquiries to an investigation of the number of universities and philosophy departments in sub-Saharan Africa that offer courses in African philosophy. The two authors are well aware of the inadequate basis for their study; many of the departments they tried to contact in Africa did not respond, so no statements can be made about them, which leaves the authors’ database incomplete.

It is notable that there are many lusophone and francophone universities among those Etieyibo and Chimakonam were unable to include in their study due to lack of response to their enquiries. This suggests that the two Anglophone authors, disregarding the language issue, may have contacted those universities only in English. A language-sensitive approach would be necessary in a follow-up attempt. It is astonishing that none of the East African universities which exerted a profound influence on the development and traditions of African philosophy—such as Makerere University in Uganda, Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, and Nairobi University in Kenya—appear in the authors’ study.

Even though their search cannot claim to be complete, the authors think that it is possible to prove emerging tendencies from it. In their analysis of the curricula of philosophy departments of various African universities, they come to the conclusion (which is not new in itself but rather obvious) that philosophical education at African universities continues to be Eurocentric, since there are few or no courses in the curriculum that cover philosophical traditions which originated on the African continent.

Of course, such a numerical listing is interesting–especially against the background of the call for decolonization of curricula and universities. However, it would be more interesting to make a comparison between the present time and the situation in the 1960s and 1970s than between present circumstances and those prevalent less than half a dozen years ago. Such a comparison would certainly show a significant increase in the frequency of these courses and thus ‘progress’ in the quantitative sense. After all, the figures collected in Etieyibo and Chimakonam’s study can provide a basis of comparison should such a study be repeated in a few years.

It would be important in a follow-up study to examine to what extent the integration of African philosophy has progressed on an international level, e.g. in teaching at non-African universities (the US is certainly leading here) as well as at international conferences. African philosophy and African philosophers demonstrated an impressive presence at the most recent World Congress of Philosophy (WCP), which took place in 2018 in Beijing. Here, too, a lot has happened since the first appearance of African philosophy at the WCP in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1978.

Bringing African Thought Throughout the Globe

The authors raise but do not answer a crucial question of didactic methodology concerning the integration of African philosophy in the curriculum of philosophy departments worldwide: is it better to offer standalone courses in African philosophy or to integrate topics and content from African philosophy into existing courses on, for example, ethics, metaphysics, or political philosophy? Is it better to present African philosophy separately or to weave African philosophical perspectives into general philosophy courses? (77) Which of these approaches is more effective in disseminating knowledge about the history of ideas and the current philosophical debates in Africa? Which is more effective in diversifying the conversation in both educational settings and international discourse?

Unfortunately, the authors do not answer this fundamental question. And it is indeed a central and important question, for it entails the following issues: Does presenting special courses in African philosophy perpetuate the assumption that African philosophy is an exotic discipline somehow outside ‘normal’ discourse? Courses labelled ‘European philosophy’ are rarely offered, because the European tradition is presumed to stand as philosophy proper, and as such needs no further geographical qualification. To avoid viewing African discourse as exotica, it might be better to integrate examples from it into overviews and historical lectures.

Furthermore, is it possible to solve philosophical problems solely from the perspective of one philosophical tradition? Perhaps an intercultural approach to teaching and research should be the ‘normal’ way of doing philosophy. If so, it might not make sense to present courses solely on African philosophy; it would be more effective to integrate ‘African’ content into general philosophy courses.

The last part of Etieyibo and Chimakonam’s paper addresses the issue of the ‘substantiality’ of the discourse in African philosophy. What does it mean to do philosophy in a ‘substantial’ way? The authors do not answer this question but offer very sharp criticism of contemporary discourses on African philosophy–large parts of which I, for my part, cannot comprehend at all. For example I do not see contemporary African philosophers as ‘telling worthless stories’ or view them as being isolated people (86). Personally, I see a very serious struggle to create philosophical concepts that are rooted in the African experience. I do agree with Etieyibo and Chimakonam’s observation of a revival of the ethnophilosophical discourse (87).

However, most of the criticism seems to me, especially because of its lack of specificity, to be unfounded accusations. Without reference to certain works or examples, these accusations cannot be investigated and therefore remain unproven; as such, they cannot lead to substantial reflection on ways to avoid certain mistakes. Also the authors’ accusation that Heinz Kimmerle, the German philosopher who was instrumental in introducing African philosophy to the German-speaking world, denied the existence of African philosophy (87), must be decisively rejected.

Lastly, the authors urge that a link between theory and practice in philosophy is very important. Citing Karl Marx, the authors assert that philosophy must become practical (74), and in order for that practice to be relevant, they argue, it must engage with the African Lebenswelt. Only then can African philosophy be part of the solution to the problems Africa faces today.

Conclusion

Edwin Etieyibo rightly states in his article ‘that any serious discussion of African philosophy in terms of its progress must and ought to be cognizant of its history.’ (14) However, not even one article in this part of the book is dedicated either to philosophical traditions in Africa before the twentieth century, or to methodological issues of writing the history of philosophy in Africa. On the contrary, Etieyibo and Chimakonam even claim: ‘Pre-colonial Africa was a period where emotions rather than reason primarily reigned supreme.’ (74)

Not only does such a statement testify to a certain ignorance of the long history of philosophical traditions, written and oral, in Africa, but it also plays into the hands of those who have always accused the Africans of a lack of rationality and always maintained that only the encounter with Europe made education, science, technology, and even philosophy possible on the African continent. However, Etieyibo underlines in his article that ‘saying that philosophy does not exist in Africa and among Africans because they lack rationality is to say that Africans are both biologically and ontologically inferior’ (16)–an argument Etieyibo sharply rejects. His rejection of racist arguments on the one hand and statements like the one above, that emotion rather than reason reigned in Africa, seem inconsistent to me.

A thorough reconstruction of the history of philosophy in Africa should be one of the basic tasks for African philosophers, since a self-determined view of history is the basis for a self-determined concept of the future of a discipline or even of an entire continent. How philosophies of earlier centuries can be researched and integrated into the history of philosophy and what difficulties remain to be solved (for example the question of the significance of orally transmitted philosophy, the question of the place of Arabic-Islamic philosophy in the history of philosophy in Africa, etc.) are not addressed in this part of the book. The really important questions about the history of philosophy remain unexamined. It is quite disappointing that the part entitled ‘African Philosophy and History’ of the book offers no new understanding of the really important questions in the history of philosophy in Africa.

Contact details: anke.graness@univie.ac.at

References

Bachir Diagne, Souleymane. The ink of the scholars: reflections on philosophy in Africa. Dakar: CODESRIA 2016.

Etieyibo, Edwin E. ‘African Philosophy in History, Context, and Contemporary Times’. In: Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan 2018, pp. 13-33.

Etieyibo, Edwin E., and Jonathan O. Chimakonam: ‘The State of African Philosophy’. In: Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan 2018, pp. 71-90.

Hallen, Barry. ‘The Journey of African Philosophy’. In: Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan 2018, pp. 35-52.

Masolo, Dismas A. ‘History of Philosophy as a Problem: Our Case’. In: Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan 2018, pp. 53-69.

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Sir Wilfred Grenfell College (Memorial University), bwills@grenfell.mun.ca.

Wills, Bernard. “Weak Scientism: The Prosecution Rests.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 31-36.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-41T

Whoever has provoked men to rage against him has always gained a party in his favour too

Image by Vetustense Photorogue via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

On a lazy afternoon there is nothing like another defense of Weak Scientism to get the juices flowing. This one “Why Scientific Knowledge is Still the Best” is quite the specimen. It includes, among other delights, an attempt to humble my perceived pride based on a comparison between myself and my wonderful colleague Dr. Svetlana Barkanova. (Mizrahi, 2018c, 20)

Here I must concede defeat. I don’t hold a candle to the esteemed Dr. Barkanova and would never claim to be her equal. Plus, I need no metrics to convince me of this. I am well aware of her overall excellence as she is an acquaintance of mine. However, this petty display overshoots its mark. All I said was that journals have, in fact, published things (by me) Mizrahi explicitly claimed no journal would publish (2018b, 46) and, frankly, I think I have established that point with any objective reader. I am certainly not bragging or claiming I have some rock star status as a scholar. Let’s proceed then to address the specific arguments he offers in his essay.

Material Causes Behind Intellectual Appearances

I will begin with quantity. This is a point he claims I overemphasize though at the same time he claims it is a crucial component of his own argument. (2018c,19) At any rate, he goes on yet another tangent about the superior quantity and impact of scientific research. To this I respond again, so what? It is no doubt true that more research and more ‘impactful’ research is produced in the sciences but why is this so?

To quote Bill Clinton, “It’s the economy stupid”. Science serves the interests of corporations and the military in ways that the humanities do not and so more money gets directed to the sciences. Since this is the case more scientific research is produced overall.

Now one could make an argument that this speaks to an overall greater utility for the sciences as opposed to other domains, but this is not the argument Mizrahi makes. Rather he asserts raw quantity itself as a feature that makes for the superiority of science. In both my replies I explained the problem with this and in neither of his replies has Mizrahi rebutted my points.

I pointed out a. that commercials are not superior to great artworks even though their number and impact is greater and b. Shakespeare scholarship would not be superior to physics if it simply happened that there were more of it. Mizrahi’s response to this is to complain about the word ‘odd’ (Mizrahi, 19) as if I intended it as a gratuitous personal insult. Actually though, I intended only to imply that his position seemed odd. It still seems odd to me to claim that if Shakespeare scholars suddenly put out a tremendous burst of articles (and pulled into the lead in the great race to produce more and more research) then that would somehow throw particle physics in the shade.

But, if Mizrahi wants to accept that conclusion then he is certainly welcome to it. If he wants to say that weak scientism is only contingently true and that it is only contingently the case that the sciences happen currently to produce more impactful research (for whatever reason), then he has done only what he all too often does; won a debating point by reducing his own thesis to a truism, here, that more =more. (Mizrahi, 19) At any rate, the frustrating thing here is that while Mizrahi asserts again and again the quantitative superiority of science he never condescends to explain why quantity is a valid metric in the first place, he asserts the fact without explaining why I or anyone else should regard that fact as significant.[1]

An Unanswered Question: Recursivity and Science

And, since Mizrahi is obviously sensitive on the point, let me say that calling an argument a sophism is merely an objective description not a personal insult as Mizrahi seems to think. (Mizrahi, 21) Mizrahi still does not recognize the fallacy, perhaps a kinder, better word than sophism (mea culpa), he committed in his reply to my point concerning recursive knowledge. Let me try again. My point was simple. Any argument founded on the claimed quantitative superiority of science founders on the fact that recursive processes, any recursive processes, can produce an infinity of true propositions.

In response to this Mizrahi said that this is not a problem for scientism for we can reflect recursively on scientific propositions in the same manner. To this I responded by saying that this was true but irrelevant as this had nothing whatsoever to do with whether a proposition was scientific or not. Nor does his account of scientific explanation include reflexivity as a source of knowledge. Reflecting recursively on a scientific proposition is not the same as thinking scientifically.  His response his fallacious because it conflates two distinct processes.

This is why it does not matter in the least whether two people, a scientist or non-scientist, can produce an equal amount of knowledge by performing recursive acts in parallel. Neither are doing science. This perfectly obvious point is something Mizrahi claims he addresses in his replies to Brown (Mizrahi, 21) yet my examination of the passages he cites leaves me baffled for nothing in them touches remotely on the question of recursivity or explains how reflecting recursively on a scientific proposition is equivalent to uttering a scientific proposition as a scientist.

Since Mizrahi does not intend to reply any further I suppose I will just have to scratch my head on this one and bewail my own lack of native wit. Plus, as Mizrahi seems to set great store by citations and references even in informal spaces like a review and reply collective it is a little jarring to see HIS not quite panning out (more on this below however).[2]

Systems and Ideologies

Why does Dr. Mizrahi still think I am calling him a racist when I intended to speak only in terms of systemic and not personal racism (Mizrahi, 21-22)?   In a systemic and so intersectional context, non-white identity does not mean one cannot occupy a place of privilege. He still does not see the difference between an ad hominem attack and an ideological critique of scientism. (Mizrahi, 23) Lorraine Code and Helen Longino, among others, have explained how standard accounts of scientific method have (WITTINGLY OR NOT!!) excluded women as knowers and Mizrahi can consult their works if he is interested.[3]  He may also consult Edward Said on how pretensions to scientific ‘objectivity’ underwrite colonialism.

I, however, will use a different example, one closer to my own interests and experience. In the institution in which I teach a significant portion of the students are of indigenous Miq’maw heritage. They are, by and large, NOT interested in hearing that their elders convey a secondary and qualitatively inferior kind of knowledge when compared to western scientists. Now, you could say that this is simple perversity on their part; they should ‘man up’ and accept the gospel of weak scientism! Things are not however so simple.

It is idle to claim that the experience of colonial oppression is irrelevant because science is universal, objective and politically neutral. It is idle to claim that the elevation of scientific procedures to qualitative superiority has no social and political ramifications for those whose knowledge forms are thereby granted second class status. This is because the question of scientism is bound up with the question of authority.

The fact that Indigenous knowledge traditions are grounded in local knowledge, in traditional lore and in story means that on questions of importance to them indigenous peoples cannot speak. It means they have to listen to others who ‘know better’ because the propositions they utter have the form of science.[4]

Thus, whether intended or not, the elevation of scientific knowledge to superior status over indigenous knowledge elevates white settlers to authority over indigenous people and justifies the theft of their land and even of their children. Worse, indigenous people can see for themselves (because they are not blind) that this privileging of settler knowledge over their own is not benign. It is viciously exploitative and intended to keep indigenous peoples in a place of dependence and inferiority. Thus, Mizrahi’s facile assumption that scientism is ideologically innocent will not stand even cursory examination.

Partiality of Knowledge and the Limits of Learning

When I say that Mizrahi’s position is self-interested I am again simply pointing out a fact. If I were to write a paper arguing that the humanities are qualitatively superior to the sciences, deserved more funding than the sciences and that the hermeneutical practices of the humanities should be adopted by the sciences would Mizrahi not wonder if I was, in fact, being a little bit partial? Of course he would.

I, though, am not making that kind of argument, he is. I am not suggesting anyone is inferior to anyone; he is and as such I think it is perfectly legitimate to ask whether his position is tainted with bias. This is so especially as he has no much to say about the lack of ‘good faith’ in others.

On now to our unexpectedly long-lived example of Joyce scholars. Here I must thank Mizrahi for proving my point for me. Unaware that he is shooting his own argument in the foot he takes great pains to distinguish simplicity in scientific explanation from simplicity as an aesthetic quality.[5] He also distinguishes ‘accommodation’ (which the Joyce scholar seeks) from ‘novel prediction’ (which the scientist seeks). (Mizrahi, 25) It is indeed the case, as I myself asserted, that explanation in the humanities and in the sciences are related analogically not univocally. Terms from one domain do not immediately transfer directly to the other.

This is a perfect illustration of why scientific explanation is not the same as literary explanation. Simplicity is a desideratum for both forms of explanation but there is no answer to the question of whether general relativity is simpler than reader response theory for the obvious reason that different disciplines will parse the notion of simplicity differently.

But if this is so I ask again what makes a scientific theory qualitatively better than a critical reading of Joyce when they do not employ commensurate standards and have such fundamentally different aims? I ask again, what could ‘better’ possibly mean in this context? In what sense is a scientific theory simpler than a Joyce commentary if on Mizrahi’s own admission we are not dealing with univocal standards or senses of simplicity? In what sense is a scientific theory more coherent if we are not using ‘coherence’ in the same way in both domains?

Further I asked and ask again why the Joyce scholar even needs to make a novel prediction? Why is it a problem for his discipline if he does not use things he does not need? Further, Mizrahi resorts yet again to the canard that I am accusing him of saying the Joyce scholar does not produce knowledge as if this was even an answer to my question. (Mizrahi, 26)

Next, Scriabin. I think the best description of what my daughter did with the Prometheus chord is that she reverse engineered it. She worked backward from it to tell a story about how it came to be. Obviously this did not require any novel prediction about future Prometheus chords by future Scriabins. There is one Prometheus chord and it already exists. Further, the process by which it was created occurred once in the past.

Thus we are constructing an explanatory story about the past concerning a singular object not formulating a general law or making a testable prediction. This kind of story is used in all kinds of contexts. It is used here in music theory. It is used in those sciences concerned with past events. It is used by law enforcement to reconstruct a crime. Now, even if by some feat of prestidigitation one could contort such explanatory stories into the form of testable predictions this would be an after the fact rationalization not description of how actual people reason.

A World of Citations

Thus, let me emphasize once again that testability does not make science superior to on non-science for the simple reason that non-science does not typically need tests such as Mizrahi describes. Or, to put it another way testing is not employed in the same way in science and non-science so that if one says that, in some sense, the Joyce scholar ‘tests’ his ideas against the text one is speaking analogically not univocally as I attempted to point out in my previous reply. (Wills, 2018b, 38) Thus, Mizrahi’s claim about testability (Mizrahi, 28) is, yet again, beside the point.[6]

Now I turn to the minor objections. Dr. Mizrahi is upset that I have I have not cited the extensive literature on scientism. (Mizrahi, 18) Well Mizrahi has professed to show that science is superior to things like historiography and literary criticism even though he himself does not cite anything from those fields and shows no familiarity with what goes on in them.

Two can play at the rhetoric of citation and it is Mizrahi who claims that scientific procedures are better than non-scientific ones without making any direct comparison with the latter except for his cherished bugbear ‘armchair philosophy’. To return to the question of privilege, Mizrahi seems to assume that he is owed a deference he does not need to grant to others. As Latour says, citation is not accidental but essential to the rhetoric of an academic paper. (Latour; 1987, 30-62) Mizrahi’s use of the rhetoric of citation conveys the message that that his side has an epistemic privilege the other side does not: they are obliged to engage his literature but he is not obliged to engage theirs.

Again, Mizrahi accuses me of Eurocentric bias in citing Augustine and Aristotle (Mizrahi, 23) yet a glance at his own references does not reveal ANY citations from Shankara, Ashvaghosa, al Ghazzali, al Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Lao Tzu, Kung Fu Tzu, or any other thinker outside the western tradition. Miizrahi’s own citation list betrays the very story he is trying to tell about mine!  Finally, in a somewhat involved passage he responds to the charge that he vacillates between Weak and Strong Scientism by citing the full text of a passage from one of his replies to Brown. (Mizrahi, 24) I don’t why he does this because his words say the exact same thing even when put in this larger context.

He reports that certain philosophers and scientists think of knowledge as “the scholarly work or research produced in scientific fields of study studies, as opposed to non-scientific study.” He then states, directly, that he follows this view. (Mizrahi, 24) This does indeed look like vacillation between weak and strong scientism.

However, I will not hammer him on one passage for what might, after all, be an unintentional slip or loose phrasing. If he says his position is weak scientism and weak scientism only then I take him at his word.

Conclusion

I will reiterate again the one basic reason why I think weak scientism is unconvincing and that is that it seems to be an exercise in bare arithmetic. Is there more scientific research than non-scientific? Well, more is better! Does science have 4 of the features of good explanation and history only 3? Science wins! This purely arithmetic procedure completely ignores the contexts in which different scholars work and how they reach their conclusions.  I conclude by saying what I said in my first reply: that Mizrahi’s Weak Scientism is the mountain that gave birth to the proverbial mouse.

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

Bohannon, John. “Hate Journal Impact Factors? New Study Gives You One More Reason.” Science Magazine. 6 July 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/07/hate-journal-impact-factors-new-study-gives-you-one-more-reason.

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

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

Van Wesel, Maarten; Sally Wyatt, and Jeroen ten Haaf. “What A Difference a Colon Makes: How Superficial Factors Influence Subsequent Citation.” Scientometrics 98, no. 3 (2014): 1601-1615.

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

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] Mizrahi is not going to like this but some have questioned whether impact ratings and other quantitative metrics have the significance sometimes claimed for them. See Callaway, as well as Van Wesel, Wyatt,  ten Haaff, and Bohanon. Indeed, Mizrahi seems to have internalized the standards of the university’s corporate masters (with their spurious emphasis on external metrics) to an uncritical and disturbing degree.

[2] Is Mizrahi claiming in these passages that ‘scientific knowledge’ is any knowledge that happens to be produced by a scientist as ‘practitioner’ in a field (Mizrahi 21) whether accidental to her practice or not? If so, he has yet again defended his thesis at the cost of making it trivial.

[3] He may begin with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy if he likes.

[4]  See D. Simmonds on this point (addressing an anti-indigenous activist notorious in Canada): “My particular interest here is the way in which science has been reified by Widdowson and Howard and used to legitimate state decision-making on behalf of oppressed peoples. Science is counterposed to indigenous traditional knowledge, which by way of a children’s parable (The Emperor’s New Clothes) is denounced as mere superstition in the service of a corrupt “aboriginal industry.” The state is called upon to harness scientific rationalism in the old colonial interest of “civilizing the savages.” In the words of Widdowson and Howard, “It is not clear how the remnants of Neolithic culture that are inhibiting this development can be addressed without intensive government planning and intervention” (252).

[5] Simplicity as I use it here does not refer to ‘simple language’ but to the economy of a work’s design. I admit though that I should have distinguished between two kinds of simplicity here. The simplicity of the work itself and the simplicity of the critic’s exposition of the work which of course formally differ. It is the latter case that more closely resembles the simplicity of a scientific theory though if Mizrahi wants to deny they are identical that is entirely to my own purpose for I deny this as well.

[6] This speaks to the overall banality of Mizrahi’s thesis. He tells us that the best explanation is one “explains the most, leaves out the least, is consistent with background knowledge, is the least complicated, and yields independently testable predictions.” (Mizrahi, 28) He then adds “Wills seems to grant that “unity, simplicity and coherence are good making properties of explanations, but not testability. But why not testability?”. (Mizrahi, 28) Well I have said many times why not. Testability as Mizrahi defines it is not relevant to all inquiries. It is not even relevant to all scientific inquiries. ‘Testing’ can take different forms that resemble each other analogically not univocally. I don’t know how many different ways I can say this: the test of a thesis on metaphysics is elenchic. The test of a thesis about Joyce is a close examination of his texts. The test of an archeological claim is the examination of artefacts. Mizrahi’s entire argument boils down to the claim that science beats non-science 4 to 3! Yet clearly Mizrahi has tilted the field by asking non-science to conform to a standard external to it and applied arbitrarily. Unity, coherence, testability and so on are resemblance terms that cash out differently in different inquiries.