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Author Information: Patrick Bondy, Wichita State University,

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

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

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In “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance,” Nadja El Kassar brings disparate conceptions of ignorance from recent epistemology into contact with each other, and she proposes an integrated conception of ignorance which aims to capture the important aspects of each of these conceptions. This paper is both useful and stimulating for anyone interested in the subjects of knowledge and ignorance, especially those who might be ignorant of work on ignorance conducted in other branches of epistemology.

El Kassar’s View of Ignorance

El Kassar identifies three broad approaches to ignorance in the epistemology literature which lead up to her proposed integrated conception:

(1) Propositional conception of ignorance

This is the standard approach in epistemology. On this approach, ignorance consists of a subject’s lacking either knowledge of or belief in a true proposition.

(2) Agential conception of ignorance

Agential ignorance goes beyond mere propositional ignorance, in “explicitly includ[ing] the epistemic agent as contributing to and maintaining ignorance” (p.3). Epistemic vices such as arrogance, laziness, and closed-mindedness contribute to this sort of ignorance. On this approach, the particular way in which ignorance is brought about or maintained is viewed as partly constitutive of the ignorance itself.

(3) Structural conception of ignorance

Like the agential conception, this conception of ignorance views the causes of ignorance as partly constitutive of ignorance. Unlike the agential conception, however, the structural conception takes into account belief-forming practices and social structures that go beyond the individual cognizer.

(4) Integrated conception of ignorance

El Kassar argues that each of these other conceptions of ignorance gets at something important, and that they are not reducible to each other. So she proposes her integrated conception, which aims to bring the key features of these approaches together: “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)” (p.7).

In the remainder of this commentary, I will do three things. First, I will briefly argue in defense of the Standard View, on the ground that we can say everything we want to say about ignorance, taking the propositional conception of ignorance as fundamental. Second, I will suggest that proponents of the Standard View of ignorance do not need to choose between viewing ignorance as a lack of knowledge and ignorance as lack of true belief. Just as there are strong and weak senses of “knowledge,” there can be corresponding weak and strong senses of “ignorance.”

Third, I will propose that we should recognize another kind of ignorance, which we might call practical ignorance, which consists of not knowing how to do things. There is a clear way in which practical ignorance is distinct from propositional ignorance, given that knowledge-how and knowledge-that appear to be different kinds of knowledge that are irreducible to each other. But there is also a sense in which practical ignorance can be partly constitutive of propositional ignorance, which is similar to how El Kassar sees agential ignorance as partly constitutive of ignorance in general. Indeed, I will suggest, El Kassar’s integrated view of ignorance might easily be extended to cover practical ignorance as well.

Propositional Ignorance as Fundamental

I want to defend the view that propositional ignorance is the most fundamental kind of ignorance. Viewing ignorance this way is intuitively plausible, and it allows us to say everything we need to say about ignorance.

The claim that propositional ignorance is most fundamental is ambiguous. On the one hand, it might mean that agential and structural ignorance are entirely reducible to it, in the sense that the crucial aspects of agential and structural ignorance as described above, such as the cognitive dispositions of individual subject or the knowledge-producing institutions extant in a society, are themselves all forms of propositional ignorance or that they derive from propositional ignorance.

El Kassar notes that that kind of reductivism is implausible, and it is not the view I mean to defend here. Instead, I mean to defend the proposal that “The propositional conception is most fundamental because the second and the third conceptions are not really conceptions of ignorance but rather accounts of different causes of ignorance” (p. 4).

On this view, the only condition that constitutes ignorance is lack of knowledge or true belief, and so all ignorance is propositional ignorance. But propositional ignorance might be brought about in various ways, and it is useful to distinguish the various ways in which it can be brought about or sustained, especially when some of those ways make a person’s or a group’s ignorance particularly dangerous or resilient.

This approach does not aim to denigrate the projects pursued by proponents of agential and structural conceptions of ignorance. It does not even aim to prevent us from talking about different kinds of ignorance as differentiated by their agential or structural causes.

Just as we can categorize propositional knowledge into different kinds based on the subject matter of what is known and the methods by which knowledge in different areas is acquired, all the while acknowledging that these are still all kinds of propositional knowledge, so too we can distinguish kinds of propositional ignorance based on the subject matter and the ways in which ignorance is caused or maintained, while still recognizing these as kinds of propositional ignorance.

El Kassar objects (p. 4) that this proposal misunderstands the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance, for they aim to broaden our view of ignorance, to incorporate more than just propositional ignorance. They view certain kinds of agential or structural causes of ignorance as part of what constitutes ignorance itself. Propositional conceptions of ignorance cannot capture these aspects of ignorance; these aspects of ignorance are not propositional in nature, after all.

But it seems that propositionalists can make two replies here. First, if virtue epistemologists such as Greco (2009) are right, then knowledge itself depends on subjects possessing and exercising certain cognitive abilities. In that case, there are agential aspects to propositional knowledge—and in some cases, to propositional ignorance. So some aspects of agential ignorance can be built into propositional ignorance.

And second, it’s not clear that we need to broaden the conception of ignorance to include things beyond propositional ignorance. Granting that there are aspects of agential and structural conceptions of ignorance that are left out of the account of what ignorance is when we take propositional ignorance as fundamental, it does not follow that we cannot take those aspects of agential and structural ignorance into account at all.

Some kinds of causes of ignorance are worth dwelling on in our theories of knowledge and ignorance. We just don’t need to think of the causes of ignorance as themselves forms of ignorance, or as part of what constitutes ignorance.

So it seems to me that we can still say everything we want to say about what are here called propositional, agential, and structural ignorance, even if we only ultimately count propositional ignorance as ignorance proper, and we count the features of agential and structural ignorance as important causes of ignorance proper but not themselves constitutive of ignorance.

Propositional Ignorance: Lack of Knowledge or True Belief?

El Kassar notes that if we take the propositional conception as fundamental, then we will need to decide whether to take ignorance to consist of a lack of true belief or a lack of knowledge. But perhaps we can have it both ways. As Goldman and Olsson (2010) note, ordinarily, from the fact that S lacks knowledge that p, one may infer that S is ignorant of p. Knowledge and ignorance appear to exhaust the logical space, for a given subject S and true proposition p.

Furthermore, in ordinary English there are strong and weak senses of “knowledge,” with the weak sense meaning simply true belief, and the strong sense meaning Gettier-proof justified true belief. In the weak sense of “knowledge,” ignorance is a lack of knowledge and a lack of true belief, because knowledge and true belief are one and the same, on this conception of knowledge.

In the strong sense of knowledge, on the other hand, a lack of knowledge results from lacking true belief, or from lacking justification, or from being Gettiered. But, Goldman and Olsson argue, lacking justification or being Gettiered do not make a person ignorant of whether p is true. As long as p is true and S believes p, it is incorrect to say that S is ignorant of p.

So Goldman and Olsson plump for the view of ignorance as lack of true belief. But another option is to take their initial point about ignorance as a lack of knowledge at face value. Given that ignorance is a lack of knowledge, and given that there are strong and weak senses of “knowledge,” one would expect that there also are strong and weak senses of “ignorance.” A lack of knowledge in the weak sense would be ignorance in the strong sense, and a lack of knowledge in the strong sense would be ignorance in the weak sense. Because knowledge in the strong sense consists of more than knowledge in the weak sense, a lack of knowledge in the strong sense takes less than does a lack of knowledge in the weak sense.

Practical Ignorance

The proposal here is that ignorance at bottom consists of a lack of knowledge. So far, in line with the Standard View, we have only been considering propositional knowledge: ignorance consists of the existence of a true proposition p, and S’s lacking knowledge that p.

But on the assumption that knowledge-how is not reducible to knowledge-that, it seems useful to have a conception of ignorance which will apply to the lack of knowledge-how.[1] For example, it seems natural enough to say that I am ignorant of how to kick a field goal, or how to speak Mandarin, or how to build a sturdy chair. And if knowledge-how is not just a species of knowledge-that, then my ignorance of these things consists of more than a simple lack of true beliefs about how these things are done: they consist at least in part of my lacking the ability to do them. We can call this kind of ignorance practical ignorance.

Importantly, practical ignorance is not reducible to the agential kind of ignorance discussed above. Although the agential conception takes cognitive abilities and dispositions to be partly constitutive of ignorance, practical ignorance would be much broader, encompassing practical inabilities as well as cognitive inabilities. Further, the agential conception of ignorance draws our attention to ignorance that can sometimes be actively maintained by very sophisticated intellectual abilities, in which case such ignorance does not manifest practical ignorance.

For example, one might have the ability to reinterpret data to support a preferred outlook. That is not a truth-conducive ability, but it is an ability to form desired beliefs, and it is an ability at which people can become quite proficient. In cases where a subject exercises such an ability, she might successfully maintain a distorted or mistaken outlook because of the exercise of practical abilities, not because of practical ignorance.

Like propositional ignorance, practical ignorance can be partly caused or sustained by agential and structural features of a person or a society. For example, practical ignorance can be actively maintained by an individual’s interference in her own development, or by other people’s interference in her development. Social structures geared toward the oppression of segments of the population, or which simply encourage members of certain social groups to participate in some activities and not to participate in others, can also contribute to sustaining people’s practical inabilities.

And, like agential ignorance, practical ignorance can be responsible for maintaining propositional ignorance in individuals or in groups, about individual propositions or about whole domains of knowledge.

For example, the inability to speak local languages can keep victims of human trafficking from gaining knowledge of the kinds of resources that might be available to them. The inability to perform relatively simple arithmetical calculations can prevent an individual from knowing whether she is receiving the correct amount of change in a transaction. The inability to conceptualize certain kinds of behaviour as abusive can sustain a lack of understanding of one’s situation.[2] And so on.

So although practical and propositional ignorance are different kinds of ignorance, on the assumption that know-how and knowledge-that are irreducible to each other, they appear to be susceptible to being intertwined in these ways.

The nature of practical ignorance and its relation to propositional ignorance bears further investigation. One potential feature of El Kassar’s integrated conception of ignorance is that, although it has a doxastic component built in, and so it does not account for practical ignorance as I am conceiving of it, it might be straightforwardly extended to cover practical ignorance as well.

For example, theoretical and practical ignorance might be defined and brought together as follows:

Theoretical ignorance: this would remain as El Kassar formulates her integrated conception of ignorance, as “a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs – either she has no belief about p or a false belief – and her epistemic attitudes (doxastic attitudes, epistemic virtues, epistemic vices)” (p.7).

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

Ignorance in general: combines theoretical and practical ignorance. Ignorance in general would then be: a disposition of an agent that manifests itself in an agent’s beliefs or actions – whereby she fails to succeed in achieving the characteristic goal of the activity in question (believing truly, knowing, or successfully carrying out some practical action) – and in her epistemic and practical attitudes (doxastic attitudes, ethical attitudes, epistemic and practical virtues and vices).

Of course, this is only a suggestion about how practical ignorance could be conceptualized. I have argued in defense of the Standard View of (theoretical) ignorance, so this sort of unified integrated conception is not available to me. Nor do I mean to suggest that El Kassar is committed to developing her view of ignorance in this direction.

Still, given a commitment to El Kassar’s integrated view of ignorance, and given that we should also want to give an account of practical ignorance, this seems like a plausible way to deliver a unified treatment of ignorance.

Contact details:


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

Goldman, Alvin and Olsson, Erik (2009). “Reliabilism and the Value of Knowledge.” In: A. Haddock, A. Millar, and D. Pritchard, eds., Epistemic Value. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 19-41.

Greco, John (2009). “Knowledge and Success from Ability.” Philosophical Studies 142 (1): 17-26.

Fricker, Miranda (2007). Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

[1] Peels (2010) briefly considers the possibility of practical ignorance, only to set it aside and focus on propositional ignorance.

[2] I have in mind here Fricker’s (2007) treatment of hermeneutical injustice.

Author Information: Christopher M. Brown, University of Tennessee, Martin,

Brown, Christopher M. “Defending Some Objections to Moti Mizrahi’s Arguments for Weak Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 1-35.

The complete pdf of the article gives specific page references. Due to the length of Brown’s article, we will be posting it in three parts. The first installment can be found here. Shortlink for part two:

Please refer to:

Image by Bruce Irschick via Flickr / Creative Commons


Problems for Mizrahi’s Argument, Given the Number and Kind of Philosophical Assumptions at Play in the Argument

In his 2017b response, Mizrahi makes some general criticisms of my strategy in criticizing Mizrahi’s Argument as well as offering particular objections to particular arguments I make in my 2017 essay with respect to Mizrahi’s Argument. In response, then, I first say a few things about Mizrahi’s general criticisms. Second, I respond to Mizrahi’s particular objections.

Mizrahi’s first general criticism of my approach is that I simply criticize Mizrahi’s Argument by proposing certain “what ifs?” (2017b, 9). His objection seems to be the following:

  1. “The question of whether scientific knowledge is superior to non-scientific [academic] knowledge is a question that can be answered empirically” (2017b, 10).
  2. “Therefore, in order to pose a serious challenge to my defense of Weak Scientism, Brown must come up with more than mere ‘what ifs’” (2017b, 10).

The argument is clearly an enthymeme. Mizrahi presumably is presupposing:

  1. If the question of whether scientific knowledge is superior to non-scientific [academic] knowledge is a question that one can answer empirically, then, in order to pose a serious challenge to my defense of Weak Scientism, Brown must come up with more than mere “what ifs” [assumption].

But why accept 27? Presumably because we are supposed to privilege empirical (I read Mizrahi’s ‘empirical’ here as ‘experimental/scientific’) evidence over non-empirical evidence. But that’s just assuming the sort of thing that is at issue when debating the truth or falsity of scientism. So Mizrahi’s response here begs the question against those who raise critical questions about Mizrahi’s Argument and Weak Scientism.

In addition, premise 25 is one of the propositions up for debate here. Mizrahi thinks Mizrahi’s Argument is a scientific argument. I disagree, for reasons stated in my 2017 article (more on this below).

A second general criticism Mizrahi raises for my critique of Mizrahi’s Argument concerns my habit of speaking about “controversial philosophical assumptions” at play in Mizrahi’s Argument. First, Mizrahi does not like my use of the word ‘assumptions’ in reference to the (implied) premises of Mizrahi’s Argument (2017b, 12; 14) since, according to Mizrahi, “an assumption is a statement that is taken to be true without justification or support.”

I just have to confess that I don’t think ‘assumption’ necessarily has this connotation. I certainly did not intend to communicate in every case I use the word ‘assumption’ in my 2017 article that Mizrahi had not supplied any justification or support for such propositions (although I do think it is the case that Mizrahi does not offer justification for some of the [implied] premises in Mizrahi’s Argument). For better or for worse (probably worse) I was thinking of ‘assumption’ as a synonym of ‘stipulation’ or ‘presupposition’ or ‘premise.’ But I will try to be more precise in what follows.

Second, Mizrahi takes me to task for calling the (implied) premises of Mizrahi’s Argument controversial, since I don’t say why they are controversial and, as Mizrahi states with respect to his 2017a, “the way I have characterized knowledge is exactly the way others in the scientism debate understand knowledge (see, e.g., Peels 2016, 2462), which means that my characterization of knowledge is not controversial as far as the scientism debate in philosophy is concerned” (2017b, 13; see also 14-15).  In addition, by calling a premise ‘controversial’, Mizrahi takes me to mean that I am saying it is doubtful (2017b, 14-15), which, if true, would raise some puzzles for my own responses to Mizrahi 2017a.

In response, my comment in 2017 that the (implied) premises in Mizrahi’s Argument are controversial was neither intended as commentary on a narrow philosophical discussion—what Mizrahi calls “the scientism debate in philosophy” (2017b, 13; emphasis mine)—nor meant simply to point out that it is possible to doubt those premises (Mizrahi 2017b, 14-15). Rather, what I intended to say (and should have made clearer) is that the (implied) premises of Mizrahi’s Argument are controversial when we contrast them with the views of a number of different philosophical schools of thought.

That is to say, I meant to suggest that a healthy minority of contemporary philosophers will reject those premises, and have reasons for rejecting them, where that healthy minority consists (just to name a few schools of thought that have contemporary adherents) of some Platonists, Aristotelians, neo-Aristotelians, Augustinians, Thomists, Scotists, Suarezians, Ockhamists, Cartesians, Liebnizians, Kantians, neo-Kantians of various sorts, Phenomenologists, Existentialists, Whiteheadians, as well as quite a few non-naturalist analytic philosophers.

Indeed, if we practice “the democracy of the dead,” as G. K. Chesterton suggested is only fair,[1] the majority of philosophers in the past would reject the implied premises in Mizrahi’s Argument; or, if that’s a bit anachronistic, they would reject premises at least analogous to those in Mizrahi’s Argument insofar as they would not reduce philosophical knowledge to what professional philosophers make public; think of, to take just one example, Plato’s criticism of the professional philosophers of his day as false philosophers in the Phaedo[2] and the Republic.[3]

Of course, there are non-philosophers too, including practicing natural scientists (past and present) who (would) also reject Weak Scientism and many of the (implied) premises in Mizrahi’s Argument. One gets the impression from both 2017a and 2017b that Mizrahi does not think Mizrahi’s Argument is at all controversial. It was for these reasons and in the sense specified here that I emphasized in my 2017 response that a number of (implied) premises in Mizrahi’s Argument are, in fact, very controversial.

In addition, Mizrahi himself cites contemporary philosophers engaged in “the scientism debate in philosophy” who reject Mizrahi’s reduction of philosophy and philosophical knowledge to what philosophers publish (see, e.g., Sorrell 1994 and Haack 2017). There are other professional philosophers engaged in debates about the plausibility of scientism who reject quite a few of the premises in Mizrahi’s Argument (see, e.g., Brown 2011, the authors of some of the papers in Williams & Robinson 2015, and the work of analytic philosopher, Edward Feser, who has offered criticisms of scientism in: 2008, 83-85; 2010a; 2010b, and 2014, 9-24).

Third, Mizrahi thinks I should not call his assumptions philosophical unless I have first defined ‘philosophy’ (2017b, 13; 14), particularly since I claim that his argument is a philosophical and not a scientific argument (2017b, 9; 15). He states: “what Brown labels as ‘philosophical’ is not really philosophical, or at least he is not in a positon to claim that it is philosophical, since he does not tell us what makes something philosophical (other than being work produced by professional philosophers, which is a characterization of ‘philosophical’ that he rejects)” (2017b, 14).

I do not define the nature of philosophy in my 2017 response to Mizrahi’s 2017a. I supposed, perhaps wrongly, that such an endeavor was altogether outside the scope of the project of offering some critical comments on a philosophy paper. Of course, as Mizrahi no doubt knows, even the greatest of Greek philosophers, e.g., Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, all think about philosophy in very different ways (for Socrates philosophy is a way of life which consists of a search for wisdom; for Plato philosophy is not only a search for wisdom but also involves the possession of wisdom, if only by way of the recollection of an other-worldly (or pre-worldly) set of experiences; Aristotle thinks philosophy is said in many ways (hence metaphysics is ‘first philosophy’), but pace Plato, successful philosophy, Aristotle thinks, needs to make sense of what we know by common sense).

St. Augustine has yet a different way of thinking about the nature of philosophy (philosophy is the search for wisdom, but such a search need not be limited to a mere human investigation, as with the Greeks; it may be that wisdom can be found in a rational reception of a divine revelation). By the time we get to the twentieth century there is also the great divide between analytic and continental approaches to philosophy. As Mizrahi points out, philosophers today disagree with one another about the nature of philosophy (2017a, 356).

So I could give an account of how I understand the philosophical enterprise, but that account itself would be controversial, and beside the point.[4] Perhaps, if only for dialectical purposes, we can give the following as a sufficient condition for pieces of writing and discourse that count as philosophy (N.B. philosophy, not good philosophy):

(P) Those articles published in philosophical journals and what academics with a Ph.D. in philosophy teach in courses at public universities with titles such as Introduction to Philosophy, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Normative Ethics, and Philosophy of Science.

Whereas Mizrahi takes the reduction of philosophy to what professional philosophers publish in academic journals as a premise in Mizrahi’s Argument, I don’t take P to be a necessary condition for something’s counting as philosophy. For philosophical discourses are also recorded, for example, in old books, some of which are not typically taught in philosophy courses today, and (some very good) philosophy, productive of philosophical knowledge, also occurs in conversations between persons who can directly see and hear one another. Indeed, some persons who do not have a Ph.D. in philosophy do (good) philosophy too.

First Controversial Philosophical Premise in Mizrahi’s Argument

Having remarked on Mizrahi’s general criticisms of my objections to Mizrahi’s Argument, I now turn to addressing Mizrahi’s objections to the particular objections or points I make in my critique of Mizrahi’s Argument in 2017. I address these objections not in the order Mizrahi raises them in 2017b, but as these objections track with the objections I raise in my 2017 article, and in the order I raise them (Mizrahi does not comment upon what I call ‘the Second Assumption’ at play in Mizrahi’s Argument in his 2017b, and so I say nothing else about it here).

Recall that the general schema for Mizrahi’s Argument is the following:

  1. One kind of knowledge is better than another quantitatively or qualitatively [assumption].
    8. Scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) in terms of the number of journal articles published and the number of journal articles cited.
    9. Scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) insofar as scientific theories are more successful than non-scientific theories (including philosophical theories) where the success of a theory is understood in terms of its explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success.
    10. Therefore, scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific forms of knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) both quantitatively and qualitatively [from 8 and 9].
    11. Therefore, scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific forms of knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) [from 7 and 10].

A first controversial philosophical premise at play in Mizrahi’s Argument is a premise Mizrahi uses to defend premise 8 of Mizrahi’s Argument. The premise states that we should think about both knowledge and philosophy operationally. As I point out in 2017, Mizrahi needs to premise such accounts of knowledge and philosophy, since otherwise “it won’t be possible for him to measure the quantity of knowledge in scientific and non-scientific disciplines, something Mizrahi needs to do in order to make his argument for 8” (2017, 44).

Mizrahi has three criticisms of my comment here. First, Mizrahi claims to have provided sufficient justification for operationalizing the nature of philosophy and (philosophical) knowledge by noting the controversy surrounding the nature of philosophy. In light of such controversy, citing Lauer, Mizrahi says: “Arguably, as far as answering the question ‘What makes X philosophical?’ goes, [operationalizing philosophy as what professional philosophers do] may be the best we can do (Lauer 1989, 16)” (Mizrahi 2017a, 356; Mizrahi 2017b, 12). So, contrary to what I say (or imply), Mizrahi does not simply assume we should operationalize the nature of philosophy or knowledge. Second, Mizrahi thinks it problematic for me to challenge his premise reducing philosophy to what professional philosophers do without offering my own account of the nature of philosophy (2017b, 13). Third, Mizrahi thinks it strange that a philosopher (presumably, like me) who wants to defend the usefulness of philosophy should criticize his pragmatic account of the nature of philosophy.

As to Mizrahi’s first point, he offers justification for operationalizing the nature of philosophy and knowledge only in the sense of “here’s a reason why I am proceeding in the way that I am.” Indeed, as I point out in 2017, unless he operationalizes the nature of philosophy and knowledge, “it won’t be possible for him to measure the quantity of knowledge in scientific and non-scientific disciplines, something Mizrahi needs to do in order to make his argument for 8” (2017, 44).

Of course, Mizrahi is free to stipulate an understanding of philosophy or knowledge that can be measured empirically (it’s a free country). But insofar as one bemoans the current state of the research university as one obsessed with outcomes, and measuring outcomes empirically, Mizrahi will forgive those who think stipulating an understanding of the nature of philosophy and knowledge as operational is not only shallow insofar as philosophy and knowledge can’t fit into the narrow parameters of another empirical study, but furthermore, begs the question against those who think that, as great as experimental science and its methods are, experimental science does not constitute the only disciplined approach to searching for knowledge and understanding.

Mizrahi even goes so far to say (his way of) operationalizing the nature of knowledge and philosophy is the least controversial way of doing so (2017b, 13). It’s hard to understand why he thinks that is the case. Just citing the fact that philosophers disagree with one another about the nature of philosophy, citing one author who thinks this is the best we can do, and then adding an additional account of what philosophy is to the already large list of different accounts of what philosophy is—for after all, to say philosophy is what philosophers do, is itself to do some philosophy, i.e., metaphilosophy—does not warrant thinking (a way of) operationalizing of philosophy and knowledge is the least controversial way of thinking about philosophy and knowledge.

In addition, many philosophers think it is false that philosophy and philosophical knowledge are reducible to what professional philosophers do (it may be good to recall that Socrates, Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Locke, and Hume were not professional philosophers). Also, some philosophers think that not all professional philosophers are true philosophers (again, for precedent, see the arguments in Plato’s Phaedo and Republic). Still other philosophers will insist on a definition of knowledge such as, knowledge is warranted true belief, and also think much of what is argued in philosophy journals—and perhaps science journals too—does not meet the threshold of being warranted, and so of knowledge.

Perhaps Mizrahi means (his way of) operationalizing philosophy and knowledge are the least controversial ways of thinking about philosophy and knowledge among those engaged in “the scientism debate in philosophy” (2017b, 13). That may be so. In my original response—and in this response too—I’m trying to suggest that there are people interested in evaluating scientism that do not share the scientistic account of philosophy and knowledge of those engaged in “the scientism debate in philosophy.”

Having said something above why I did not describe the nature of philosophy in my 2017, I turn to Mizrahi’s puzzlement at my raising the possibility that we should not operationalize the nature of philosophy and knowledge, given my interest in showing that philosophy is useful. After all, if it may be the case that a published journal article in philosophy does not constitute philosophy or an item of philosophical knowledge, what hope can there be to for responding to those academics who think philosophy is dead or useless?

Mizrahi apparently puts me in the class of folk who want to defend philosophy as useful. Mizrahi also seems to assume the only way to show philosophy is useful is by defining philosophy operationally (2017b, 13). Therefore, it doesn’t make sense for me to be skeptical about operationalizing the nature of philosophy and knowledge.

Is philosophy useful? That depends upon what we mean by ‘useful.’ Philosophy won’t help us cure cancer or develop the next form of modern technology (not directly, at any rate).[5] So it is not useful as physics, chemistry, biology, or mathematics are useful. It is presumably in that technological sense of ‘useful’ that Martin Heidegger says, “It is entirely proper and perfectly as it should be: philosophy is of no use” (Einfuhrung in die Metaphysik; qtd. in Pieper 1992, 41).

But by ‘useful,’ we may mean, “able to help a person live a better life.” In my view, philosophy can be very useful in that sense. A philosopher can help persons live a better life—sometimes even herself—by writing journal articles (that is, there certainly are some excellent philosophy journal articles, and some—often far too few—read and profit from these). But more often than not, since most people who may profit from exposure to philosophy or a philosopher don’t read academic journals (and wouldn’t profit much from doing so, if they did), people’s lives are improved in the relevant sense by philosophy or philosophers insofar as they encounter a good philosopher in the classroom and in every day conversations or by reading classical philosophical works from the ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary periods.

By operationalizing the nature of philosophy and knowledge, Mizrahi’s Argument fails to account for those occasions, times, and places where most persons exposed to philosophy can—and sometimes do—profit from the experience by gaining knowledge they did not possess before about what makes for a flourishing human life.

A Third Controversial Philosophical Premise in Mizrahi’s Argument

In my 2017 article, I mention a third controversial philosophical premise at play in Mizrahi’s Argument: the view that the knowledge of each academic discipline—in terms of both its output and impact—can be quantitatively measured. Mizrahi objects that I do not “tell us what makes this alleged ‘assumption’ philosophical” (2017b, 13). He also states that I do not provide evidence that it is controversial. Finally, Mizrahi claims:

that we can measure the research output of academic fields is not “contentious” [Brown 2017, 45] at all. This so-called “assumption” is accepted by many researchers across disciplines, including philosophy [see, e.g., Kreuzman 2001 and Morrow & Sula 2011], and it has led to fruitful work in library and information science, bibliometrics, scientometrics, data science [Andres 2009], and philosophy [see, e.g., Wray & Bornmann 2015 and Ashton & Mizrahi 2017] (Mizrahi 2017b, 13).

As for my claim that the premise one can quantify over knowledge produced in academic disciplines is a philosophical premise, I assumed in my 2017 essay that Mizrahi and I were working from common ground here, since Mizrahi states, “it might be objected that the inductive generalizations outlined above [in defense of premise 8 of Mizrahi’s Argument] are not scientific arguments that produce scientific knowledge because they ultimately rest on philosophical assumptions. One philosophical assumption that they ultimately rest on, for example, is the assumption that academic knowledge produced by academic disciplines can be measured” (2017a, 356; emphasis mine).

I supposed Mizrahi to agree with the highlighted portion of the citation above, but it may be that Mizrahi was simply writing in the voice of an objector to his own view (of course, even then, we often agree with some of the premises in an objector’s argument). I also (wrongly) took it to be obvious that the premise in question is a philosophical premise. What else would it be? A piece of common sense? A statement confirmed by experimental science?[6] Something divinely revealed from heaven?

Mizrahi also claims I don’t provide evidence that the claim that we can quantify over how much knowledge is produced in the academy is controversial. What sort of evidence is Mizrahi looking for? That some philosophical paper says so? Surely Mizrahi does not think we can settle a scholarly—let alone a philosophical—dispute by simply making an appeal to an authority. Does Mizrahi think we need sociological evidence to settle our dispute? Is that the best way to provide evidence for a claim? If the answer to either of these last two questions is ‘yes’, then Mizrahi’s Argument for Weak Scientism is begging the question at issue.

But, in any case, I do offer philosophical evidence that the philosophical claim that academic knowledge can be quantitatively measured is controversial in my 2017 article:

in order to measure the amount of scientific and non-scientific, academic knowledge—as Mizrahi needs to do in order to make his argument for premise 8 [of Mizrahi’s Argument]—he needs to define knowledge teleologically—as the goal or aim of an academic discipline—or operationally—as what academics produce. But thinking about the nature of (academic) knowledge in that pragmatic way is philosophically controversial. Therefore, thinking we can measure quantitatively the amount of knowledge across academic disciplines is itself philosophically controversial, since the latter assumption only makes sense on a pragmatic account of knowledge, which is itself a controversial philosophical assumption (2017, 45).

As I noted above, by ‘controversial’ here, I mean there is (at least) a large minority of philosophers, whether we simply count professional philosophers alive today, or also include dead philosophers, who (would) reject the claims that we can collectively quantify over what counts as knowledge, knowledge is teleological, only academics produce philosophical knowledge, and philosophical knowledge is what philosophers publish in academic journals.

Finally, note that Mizrahi’s evidence that (a) reducing what academics know to what can be quantitatively measured is not controversial is that (b) there are academics from across the disciplines, including philosophy, who accept the premise that we can quantify over knowledge produced by academics and (c) the premise that we can quantify over knowledge produced by academic disciplines has led to fruitful work in a number of disciplines, including information science.

But (a)’s itself being controversial (i.e., that a large minority reject it), even false, is consistent with the truth of both (b) and (c). By analogy, it is no doubt also true that (d) academics from across the disciplines, even some philosophers, think quantitative assessment of college teaching is a good idea and (e) much data has been collected from quantitative assessments of college teaching which will be very useful for those seeking doctorates in education. But surely Mizrahi knows that (d) is controversial among academics, even if (e) is true. Mizrahi’s argument that (a) is true on the basis of (b) and (c) is a non-sequitur.

A Fourth Controversial Philosophical Premise

In my 2017 article, I claim that a fourth controversial philosophical premise is doing important work for Mizrahi’s Argument. This premise states: the quantity of knowledge of each academic discipline—in terms of both output and impact—can be accurately measured by looking at the publications of participants within that discipline. I argue that reducing the production of academic knowledge to what academics publish shows a decided bias in favor of the philosophy of education dominating the contemporary research university, in contrast to the traditional liberal arts model that places a high value on reading and teaching classic texts in philosophy, mathematics, history (including the history of science), and literature. Showing such favor is significant for two reasons.

First, it is question-begging insofar as the philosophy of education in modern research universities, prizing as it does the sort of knowledge that the methods of the experimental sciences are specially designed to produce, i.e., new knowledge and discoveries, is itself rooted in a kind of cultural scientism, one that is supported by big business, university administrators, many journalists, most politicians, and, of course, the research scientists and academics complicit in this scientistic way of thinking about the university.[7] Second, since academics produce knowledge in ways other than publishing, e.g., by way of reading, teaching, mentoring, giving lectures, and engaging others in conversation, the premise that the quantity of knowledge of each academic discipline can be accurately measured by output and impact of publications does not “present us with a representative sample of knowledge produced within all academic disciplines” (Brown 2017, 46). That means that Mizrahi’s inference to the conclusion scientists produce more knowledge that non-scientific academics from the premise, scientists produce more publications than non-scientific academics and scientists produce publications that are cited more often that those published by non-scientist academics is logically invalid.

Mizrahi responds to my comments in this context by stating that I am confusing “passing on knowledge” or “sharing knowledge” with “producing knowledge” (2017b, 14). This distinction is significant, thinks Mizrahi, since “as far as the scientism debate is concerned, and the charge that philosophy is useless, the question is whether the methodologies of the sciences are superior to those of other fields in terms of producing knowledge, not in terms of sharing knowledge” (2017b, 14). Finally, Mizrahi also notes that those in the humanities do not corner the market on activities such as teaching, for scientists pass on knowledge by way of teaching too.

Mizrahi seems to assume that sharing knowledge is not a form of producing knowledge. But I would have thought that, if a person S does not know p at time t and S comes to know p at t+1, then that counts as an instance of the production of knowledge, even if some person other than S knows p at t or some time before t or S comes to know p by way of being taught by a person who already knows p. But say, if only for the sake of argument, that Mizrahi is correct to think sharing knowledge does not entail the producing of knowledge. The fact that either Mizrahi does not count passing on or sharing knowledge as a kind of producing of knowledge or Mizrahi’s Argument does not measure the sharing or passing on of knowledge would seem to mean that Mizrahi’s Argument simply measures the production of new knowledge or discoveries, where new knowledge or a discovery can be defined as follows:

(N) New knowledge or discovery =df some human persons come to know p at time t, where no human person or persons knew p before t.

Mizrahi’s focus on knowledge as new knowledge or discovery in Mizrahi’s Argument reinforces a real limitation of (that argument for) Weak Scientism insofar as it equates knowledge with new knowledge. But it also confirms what I said in my 2017 article: Mizrahi’s Argument is question-begging since it has as a premise that knowledge is to be understood as equivalent to the sort of knowledge which the methods of the experimental sciences are specially designed to produce, i.e., new knowledge and discoveries.

Surely philosophers sometimes make new discoveries, or collectively (believe they) make progress, but philosophy (in the view of some philosophers) is more about individual intellectual progress rather than collective intellectual progress (of course, we may think it is also has the power to bring about social progress, but some of us have our real doubts about that). As Josef Pieper says:

‘Progress’ in the philosophical realm is assuredly a problematic category—insofar as it means an ever growing collective accumulation of knowledge, growing in the same measure as time passes. There exists, under this aspect, an analogy to poetry. Has Goethe ‘progressed’ farther than Homer?—one cannot ask such a question. Philosophical progress undeniably occurs, yet not so much in the succession of generations as rather in the personal and dynamic existence of the philosopher himself (1992, 92).

To the charge that scientists teach students too, I, of course, concur. But if passing on knowledge by way of teaching, mentoring, giving lectures, and personal conversations count as ways of producing knowledge, then Mizrahi’s defense of premise 8 of Mizrahi’s Argument does not, as I say in my 2017 article, “present us with a representative sample of knowledge produced within all academic disciplines” (2017, 46). And if passing on knowledge by way of teaching or reading does not count as a way of producing knowledge, then, given what many of us take to be the real intellectual significance of passing on knowledge through teaching and reading, the position Mizrahi is actually defending in 2017a and 2017b is even weaker:

(Very, Very, Very, Very Weak Scientism): When it comes to the knowledge that is produced by academic journals, i.e., the N knowledge or discoveries published in academic journals, knowledge that comes from scientific academic journals is the best.

A Fifth Controversial Philosophical Premise

Although Mizrahi says nothing about it in his 2017b response to my 2017 essay, I think it is important to emphasize again that, in arguing that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge in terms of quantity of knowledge, Mizrahi makes use of a fifth controversial philosophical premise in Mizrahi’s Argument: the quantity of knowledge—in terms of output and impact—of each academic discipline can be successfully measured by looking simply at the journal articles published (output) and cited (impact) within that discipline. For to count only journal articles when quantifying over impact of the knowledge of a discipline is, again, to adopt a scientific, discovery-oriented, approach to thinking about the nature of knowledge.

For how often do the works of Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Dostoevsky, just for starters, continue to have research impact on the work of historians, social scientists, theologians, and literature professors, not to mention, philosophers? So Mizrahi’s Argument either begs the question against non-scientist academics for another reason—it neglects to count citations of great thinkers from the past—or, by focusing only on the citation of journal articles, we are given yet another reason to think the sample Mizrahi uses to make his inductive generalization in defense of premise 8 of Mizrahi’s Argument is simply not a representative one.

The Sixth and Ninth Controversial Philosophical Premises

Here I address the following controversial philosophical premises, both of which function as key background assumptions in Mizrahi’s Argument:

(K1) For any two pieces of knowledge, p and q, where p and q are produced by an academic discipline or disciplines, p is to be treated as qualitatively equal to q where measuring the quantity of knowledge produced within academic disciplines is concerned.

(K2) For any two pieces of knowledge, p and q, where p and q are produced by an academic discipline or disciplines, p is to be treated as qualitatively equal to q in the sense of the nobility or importance or perfection of p and q where measuring the quality of p and q, where quality in this latter sense measures the extent to which the theories employed in an academic discipline or discipline productive ofand q enjoy some degree of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success.

Premise 8 of Mizrahi’s Argument says that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific academic knowledge because scientists publish more journal articles than non-scientists and the journal articles published by scientists are cited more often—and so have a greater “research impact”—than do the journal articles published by non-scientists (2017a, 355-58). In my 2017 essay I note that, in concluding to premise 8 on the basis of his inductive generalizations, Mizrahi is assuming (something such as) K1.

Furthermore, we may reasonably think K1 is false since the production of some sorts of non-scientific knowledge work may be harder than the production of scientific knowledge (and if a piece of work W is harder to publish than a piece of work W1, then, all other things being equal, W is qualitatively better than W1). For example, I mentioned the recent essay by philosopher David Papineau: “Is Philosophy Simply Harder than Science?” (2017). I also offered up as a reason for questioning whether K1 is correct Aristotle’s famous epistemological-axiological thesis that a little knowledge about the noblest things is more desirable than a lot of knowledge about less noble things.[8]

Premise 9 of Mizrahi’s Argument says that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific academic knowledge insofar as scientific theories are more successful than non-scientific theories (including philosophical theories) where the success of a theory is understood in terms of its explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success. In my 2017 response, I suggest that Mizrahi has (something such as) K2 implicitly premised as a background philosophical assumption in his argument for premise 9, and a premise such as K2 is a philosophically controversial one. At the very least, Mizrahi’s implicitly premising K2 in Mizrahi’s Argument therefore limits the audience for which Mizrahi’s Argument will be at all rhetorically convincing. For as I stated in my 2017 response:

Assume . . .  the following Aristotelian epistemological axiom: less certain knowledge (or less explanatorily successful knowledge or less instrumentally successful knowledge or less testable knowledge) about a nobler subject, e.g., God or human persons, is, all other things being equal, more valuable than more certain knowledge (or more explanatorily successful knowledge or more instrumentally successful knowledge or more testable knowledge) about a less noble subject, e.g., stars or starfish. . . . [And] consider, then, a piece of philosophical knowledge P and a piece of scientific knowledge S, where P constitutes knowledge of a nobler subject than S. If S enjoys greater explanatory power and more instrumental success and greater testability when compared to P, it won’t follow that S is qualitatively better than P (2017, 50).

Mizrahi raises a number of objections to the sections of my 2017 essay where I mention implicit premises at work in Mizrahi’s Argument such as K1 and K2. First, I don’t explain why, following Papineau, philosophy may be harder than science (2017b, 9). Second, he offers some reasons to think Papineau is wrong: “producing scientific knowledge typically takes more time, effort, money, people, and resources . . . [therefore], scientific knowledge is harder to produce than non-scientific knowledge” (2017b, 9). Third, he notes I don’t argue for Aristotle’s epistemological-axiological thesis, let alone explain what it means for one item of knowledge to be nobler than another.

Fourth, in response to my notion that philosophy and science use different methodologies insofar as the methods of the former do not invite consensus whereas the methods of the latter do, Mizrahi notes that “many philosophers would probably disagree with that, for they see the lack of consensus, and thus progress in philosophy as a serious problem” (2017b, 10). Fifth, Mizrahi thinks there is precedent for his employing a premise such as K1 in his defense of premise 8 in Mizrahi’s Argument insofar as analytic epistemologists often use variables in talking about the nature of knowledge, e.g., propositions such as ‘if person S knows p, then p is true,’ and therefore treat all instances of knowledge as qualitatively equal (2017b, 13, n. 2).

In mentioning Papineau’s article in my 2017 essay, I offer an alternative interpretation of the data that Mizrahi employs in order to defend premise 8 of Mizrahi’s Argument, an interpretation that he should—and does not—rule out in his 2017a paper, namely, that scientists produce more knowledge than non-scientists not because scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge but rather because non-scientific knowledge (such as philosophical knowledge) is harder to produce than scientific knowledge. Indeed, Mizrahi himself feels the need to rule out this possibility in his 2017b reply to my 2017 article’s raising this very point (see 2017b, 9).

Mizrahi’s inference about the greater difficulty of scientific work compared to non-scientific academic work such as philosophy goes through only if we think about the production of philosophical knowledge in the operational manner in which Mizrahi does. According to that model of philosophical knowledge, philosophical knowledge is produced whenever someone publishes a journal article. But, traditionally, philosophical knowledge is not that easy to come by. Granted, scientific knowledge too is hard to produce. As Mizrahi well notes, it takes lots of “time, effort, money, people, and resources” to produce scientific knowledge.

But we live in a time that holds science in high regard (some think, too high a regard), not just because of the success of science to produce new knowledge, but because science constantly provides us with obvious material benefits and new forms of technology and entertainment.[9] So it stands to reason that more time, effort, money, and resources are poured into scientific endeavors and more young people are attracted to careers in science than in other academic disciplines. When one adds to all of this that scientists within their fields enjoy a great consensus regarding their methods and aims, which invites greater cooperation among researchers with those fields, it is not surprising that scientists produce more knowledge than those in non-scientific academic disciplines.

But all of that is compatible with philosophy being harder than science. For, as we’ve seen, there is very little collective consensus among philosophers about the nature of philosophy and its appropriate methods. Indeed, many academics—indeed, even some philosophers—think knowledge about philosophical topics is not possible at all. It’s not beyond the pale to suggest that skepticism about the possibility of philosophical knowledge is partly a result of the modern trend towards a scientistic account of knowledge. In addition, some philosophers think philosophical knowledge is harder to acquire than scientific knowledge, if only because of the nature of those topics and questions that are properly philosophical (see Papineau 2017 and Van Inwagen 2015, 14-15).

As for the meaning of Aristotle’s epistemological-axiological claim, I take it that Aristotle thinks p is a nobler piece of knowledge than q if, all others being equal, the object of p is nobler than the object of q. For example, say we think (with Aristotle) that it is better to be a rational being than a non-rational being. It would follow that rational animals (such as human persons) are nobler than non-rational animals. Therefore, applying Aristotle’s epistemological-axiological claim, all other things being equal, knowing something about human persons—particularly qua embodied rational being—is a nobler piece of knowledge than knowing something about any non-rational object.

Now, as Mizrahi points out, not all philosophers agree with Aristotle. But my original point in mentioning Aristotle’s epistemological-axiological thesis was to highlight an implicit controversial philosophical premise in the background of Mizrahi’s Argument. The Aristotelian epistemological-axiological thesis is perhaps rejected by many, but not all, contemporary philosophers. The implicit assumption that Aristotle is wrong that (knowledge of) some object is nobler than (knowledge of) another object is a philosophical assumption (just as any arguments that Aristotle is wrong will be philosophical arguments). Indeed, it may be that any reason a philosopher will give for rejecting Aristotle’s epistemological-axiological thesis will also show that they are already committed to some form of scientistic position.

I say the practice of philosophy doesn’t invite consensus, whereas one of the advantages of an experimental method is that it does. That is a clear difference between philosophy and the experimental sciences, and since at least the time of Kant, given the advantage of a community of scholars being able to agree on most (of course, not all) first principles where some intellectual endeavor is concerned, some philosophers have suggested philosophy does not compare favorably with the experimental sciences.

So it is no surprise that, as Mizrahi notes, “many [contemporary] philosophers . . . see the lack of consensus, and thus progress in philosophy as a serious problem” (2017b, 10). But it doesn’t follow from that sociological fact, as Mizrahi seems to suggest it does (2017, 10), that those same philosophers disagree that philosophical methods don’t invite consensus. A philosopher could lament the fact that the methods of philosophy don’t invite consensus (in contrast to the methods of the experimental sciences) but agree that that is the sober truth about the nature of philosophy (some professional philosophers don’t like philosophy or have science envy; I’ve met a few). In addition, the fact that some philosophers disagree with the view that philosophical methods do not invite consensus shouldn’t be surprising. Philosophical questions are by nature controversial.[10]

Finally, Mizrahi defends his premising (something such as) K1 by citing the precedent of epistemologists who often treat all items of knowledge as qualitatively the same, for example,  when they make claims such as, ‘if S knows p, then p is true.’ But the two cases are not, in fact, parallel. For, unlike the epistemologist thinking about the nature of knowledge, Mizrahi is arguing about and comparing the value of various items of knowledge. For Mizrahi to assume KI in an argument that tries to show scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge is to beg a question against those who reasonably think philosophy is harder than science or the things that philosophers qua philosophers know are nobler than the things that scientists qua scientists know, whereas epistemologists arguably are not begging a question when engaged in the practice of abstracting from various circumstances (by employing variables) in order to determine what all instances of knowledge have in common.

The Seventh and Eighth Controversial Philosophical Premises

In his attempt to defend the thesis that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge, Mizrahi assumes that a theory A is qualitatively better than a theory B if A is more successful than B (2017a, 358). He thus thinks about a theory’s qualitative value in pragmatic terms. But not all philosophers think about the qualitative goodness of a theory in pragmatic terms, particularly in a philosophical context, if only because, of two theories A and B, A could be true and B false, where B is more successful than A, and a philosopher may prize truth over successful outcomes.[11] This constitutes a seventh controversial philosophical premise in Mizrahi’s Argument.

In addition, as I point out in my 2017 response, there is an eighth controversial philosophical premise in the background of Mizrahi’s Argument, namely, that a theory A is more successful than a theory B if A is more explanatorily successful than B, and more instrumentally successful than B, and more predictively successful than B. Even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that this is a helpful account of a good scientific explanation, interestingly, Mizrahi thinks these criteria for a successful scientific theory can be rightfully applied as the measure of success for a theory, simpliciter.

I argued in my 2017 response that to think philosophical theories have to be, for example, instrumentally successful (in the way experimental scientific theories are, namely, (a) are such that they can be put to work to solve immediate material problems such as the best way to treat a disease or (b) are such that they directly lead to technological innovations) and predicatively successful in an argument for the conclusion that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge is “to beg the question against non-scientific ways of knowing, ways of knowing that do not, by their very nature, employ controlled experiments and empirical tests as an aspect of their methodologies” (2017, 48).

In responding to my comments, Mizrahi makes three points. First, I criticize his account of explanation without offering my own account of explanation (2017b, 19). Second, passing over my comments that good philosophical theories need not be instrumentally successful (in the relevant sense) or predicatively successful, Mizrahi argues that I can’t say, as I do, that good philosophical theories explain things but do not enjoy the good-making qualities of all good explanations. As Mizrahi states, “the good-making properties of [good] explanations include unification, coherence, simplicity, and testability. Contrary to what Brown (2017, 48) seems to think, these good-making properties apply to explanations in general, not just to scientific explanations in particular” (2017b, 19) and

Contrary to what Brown asserts without argument, then, ‘To think that a theory T is successful only if—or to the extent that—it enjoys predicative success or testability’ is not to beg the question against non-scientific ways of knowing. For, insofar as non-scientific ways of knowing employ IBE [i.e., inference to the best explanation], which Brown admits is the case as far as philosophy is concerned, then their explanations must be testable (as well as unified, coherent, and simple) if they are to be good explanations (Mizrahi 2017b, 2); emphases in the original).

Mizrahi offers as evidence for the claim that all good explanations are testable and enjoy predicative power the ubiquity of such a claim in introductory textbooks on logic and critical thinking, and he offers as a representative example a chapter from a textbook by two philosophers, Sinnott-Armstrong & Fogelin 2010.

I plead guilty to not offering an account of good explanation in my 2017 article (for the same sort of reason I gave above for not defining philosophy). What I contend is that just as philosophical methods are different in kind from those of the experimental scientists, so too is a good philosophical explanation different in kind from what counts as a good explanation in an empirical science. That is not to say that philosophical and scientific explanations have nothing significant in common, just as it is not to say that the practice of philosophy has nothing in common with experimental scientific practice, despite their radical differences.

For both philosophy—at least on many accounts of its nature—and experimental science are human disciplines: their premises, conclusions, theories, and proposed explanations must submit to the bar of what human reason alone can establish.[12] Indeed, many philosophers who do not share Mizrahi’s scientistic cast of mind could happily agree that good philosophical explanations are coherent and, all other things being equal, that one philosophical explanation E is better than another E1 if E is more unified or simpler or has more explanatory power or depth or modesty than E1.

Others would add (controversially, of course) that, all other things being equal, philosophical theory E is better than E1 if E makes better sense of, or is more consistent with, common-sense assumptions about reality and human life,[13] e.g., if theory E implies human persons are never morally responsible for their actions whereas E1 does not, then, all other things being equal, E1 is a better philosophical theory than theory E. In addition, we may think, taking another cue from Aristotle, that a philosophical theory E is better than a theory E1, all other things being equal, if E raises fewer philosophical puzzles than E1.

Mizrahi also premises that good philosophical explanations have to be testable (2017a, 360; 2017b, 19-20). But what does he mean? Consider the following possibilities:

(T1) A theory or explanation T is testable if and only if T can be evaluated by controlled experiments and other methods characteristic of the experimental sciences, e.g., inductive generalization.

(T2) A theory or explanation is testable if and only if T can be evaluated by (a) controlled experiments and other methods characteristic of the experimental sciences, e.g., inductive generalization or (b) on the basis of deductive arguments or (c) the method of disambiguating premises, or (d) the method of refutation by counter-example or (e) inference to the best explanation or (e) thought experiments (or (f) any number of other philosophical methods or (g) methods we use in everyday life).

In my 2017 response, I took Mizrahi to mean (something such as) T1 by ‘a good explanation is testable’. For example, Mizrahi states: “as a general rule of thumb, choose the explanation that yields independently testable predictions” (2017a, 360; emphases mine). If Mizrahi accepts T1 and thinks all good explanations must be testable, then, as I stated in my 2017 response, “philosophical theories will . . . not compare favorably with scientific ones” (2017, 49).

But as philosopher Ed Feser well points out, to compare the epistemic values of science and philosophy and fault philosophy for not being good at making testable predications is like comparing metal detectors and gardening tools and concluding gardening tools are not as good as metal detectors because gardening tools do not allow us to successfully detect for metal (2014, 23).

In other words, if T1 is what Mizrahi means by ‘testable’ and Mizrahi thinks all good explanations are testable, then Mizrahi’s Argument does, as I contend in my 2017 response, “beg the question against non-scientific ways of knowing, ways of knowing that do not, by their very nature, employ controlled experiments and empirical tests as an aspect of their methodologies” (2017, 48; see also Robinson 2015).

But perhaps Mizrahi means by ‘an explanation’s being testable’ something such as T2. But in that case, good philosophical work, whether classical or contemporary, will compare favorably with the good work done by experimental scientists (of course, whether one thinks this last statement is true will depend upon one’s philosophical perspective).

Some Concluding General Remarks About Mizrahi’s Argument

Given the number of (implied) controversial philosophical premises that function as background assumptions in Mizrahi’s Argument, that argument should not convince those who do not already hold to (a view close to) Weak Scientism. As we’ve seen, Mizrahi premises, for example, that philosophy should be operationally defined as what philosophers do, that knowledge within all academic disciplines should be operationally defined as what academics publish in academic journals, K1, K2, and all good explanations are explanatorily, instrumentally, and predicatively successful.

Of course, the number of controversial philosophical premises at play in Mizrahi’s Argument isn’t in and of itself a philosophical problem for Mizrahi’s Argument, since the same could be said for just about any philosophical argument. But one gets the distinct impression that Mizrahi thinks Mizrahi’s Argument should have very wide appeal among philosophers. If Mizrahi wants to convince those of us who don’t already share his views, he needs to do some more work defending the implied premises of Mizrahi’s Argument, or else come up with a different argument for Weak Scientism.

Indeed, many of the implied controversial philosophical premises I’ve identified in Mizrahi’s Argument are, as we’ve seen, not only doing some heavy philosophical lifting in that argument, but such premises imply that (something such as) Weak Scientism is true, e.g., the quantity of knowledge of each academic discipline—in terms of both output and impact—can be accurately measured by looking at the publications of participants within that discipline, K1, K2, a theory A is more successful than a theory B if A is more explanatorily successful than B, and more instrumentally successful than B, and more predictively successful than B, and an explanation is a good explanation only if it is testable in the sense of T1. Mizrahi’s Argument thus begs too many questions to count as a good argument for Weak Scientism.

Mizrahi is also at pains to maintain that his argument for Weak Scientism is a scientific and not a philosophical argument, and this because a significant part of his argument for Weak Scientism not only draws on scientific evidence, but employs “the structure of inductive generalization from samples, which are inferences commonly made by practicing scientists” (2017a, 356). I admit that a scientific argument from information science is “a central feature of Mizrahi’s Argument” (Brown 2017, 50) insofar as he uses scientific evidence from information science to support premise 8 of Mizrahi’s Argument. But, as I also note in my 2017 essay, “Mizrahi can’t reasonably maintain his argument is thereby a scientific one, given the number of controversial philosophical assumptions employed as background assumptions in his argument” (2017, 51).

My objection that Mizrahi’s Argument is a piece of philosophy and not a scientific argument is one that Mizrahi highlights in his response (2017b, 9). He raises two objections to my claim that Mizrahi’s Argument is a philosophical and not a scientific argument. First, he thinks I have no grounds for claiming Mizrahi’s Argument is a philosophical argument since I don’t give an account of philosophy, and I reject his operationalized account of philosophy (2017b, 15). Second, Mizrahi states that

Brown seems to think than an argument is scientific only if an audience of peers finds the premises of that argument uncontroversial. . . . Accordingly, Brown’s (2017) criterion of controversy [according to Mizrahi, I think this is dubitability] and his necessary condition for an argument being scientific have the absurd consequence that arguments presented by scientists at scientific conferences (or published in scientific journals and books) are not scientific arguments unless they are met with unquestioned acceptance by peer audiences (2017b, 16).

I have already addressed Mizrahi’s comment about the nature of philosophy above. In response to his second objection, Mizrahi wrongly equates my expression, “controversial background philosophical assumptions,” with his expression, “controversial premises in a scientific argument.” Recognizing this false equivalency is important for evaluating my original objection, and this for a number of reasons.

First, what Mizrahi calls the “premises of a scientist’s argument” (2017b, 15) are, typically, I take it, not philosophical premises or assumptions. For is Mizrahi claiming that scientists, at the presentation of a scientific paper, are asking questions about propositions such as K1 or K2?

Second, Mizrahi and I both admit that philosophical background assumptions are sometimes in play in a scientific argument. Some of these claims, e.g., that there exists an external world, some philosophers will reject. What I claimed in my 2017 essay is that a scientific argument—in contrast to a philosophical argument—employs background philosophical assumptions that “are largely non-controversial for the community to which those arguments are addressed, namely, the community of practicing scientists” (2017, 15). For example, an argument that presupposed the truth of theism (or atheism), would not be, properly speaking, a scientific argument, but, at best, a philosophical argument that draws on some scientific evidence to defend certain of its premises.

So, contrary to what Mizrahi says, my argument that Mizrahi’s Argument is not a scientific argument neither implies that Darwin’s Origin of the Species is not science, nor does it imply a scientist’s paper is not science if audience members challenge that paper’s premises, methods, findings, or conclusion. Rather, my comment stands unscathed: because of the number of philosophical background premises that are controversial among the members of the audience to which Mizrahi’s Argument is directed—presumably all academics—Mizrahi’s Argument is not a scientific argument but rather, a philosophical argument that draws on some data from information science to defend one of its crucial premises, namely premise 8.

But, as I pointed out above, even Mizrahi’s argument for premise 8 in Mizrahi’s Argument is a philosophical argument, drawing as that argument does on the controversial philosophical background premises such as philosophy should be operationally defined as what philosophers do, knowledge within all academic disciplines should be operationally defined as what academics publish in academic journals, and K1.

Finally, there is another reason why Mizrahi himself, given his own philosophical principles, should think Mizrahi’s Argument is a piece of philosophy. As we’ve seen, Mizrahi thinks that philosophy and philosophical knowledge should be defined operationally, i.e., philosophy is what philosophers do, e.g., publish articles in philosophy journals, and philosophical knowledge is what philosophers produce, i.e., publications in philosophy journals (see Mizrahi 2017a, 353). But Mizrahi’s 2017a paper is published in a philosophy journal. Therefore, by Mizrahi’s own way of understanding philosophy and science, Mizrahi’s Argument is not a scientific argument, but a philosophical argument (contrary to what Mizrahi says in both 2017a and 2017b).

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Aquinas, Saint Thomas. Summa Theologiae. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Allen, TX: Christian Classics, 1981.

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Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. W.D. Ross. In The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941.

Augustine, Saint. Confessions. Trans. Frank Sheed. 1942; reprint, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2006.

Brown, Christopher. “Some Logical Problems for Scientism.” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 85 (2011): 189-200.

Brown, Christopher. “Some Objections to Moti Mizrahi’s ‘What’s So Bad about Scientism?’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 42-54.

Bourget, David and David J. Chalmers. “What do philosophers believe?” Philosophical Studies 170, 3 (2014): 465-500.

Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy. 1908; reprint, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995.

Feldman, Richard. Epistemology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2003.

Feser, Edward. The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008.

Feser, Edward. “Blinded by Scientism.” Public Discourse. March 9, 2010a. Accessed January 15, 2018.

Feser, Edward. “Recovering Sight after Scientism.” Public Discourse. March 12, 2010b. Accessed January 15, 2018.

Feser, Edward. Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction. editiones scholasticae, 2014.

Haack, Susan. Defending Science—Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Haack, Susan. “The Real Question: Can Philosophy Be Saved? Free Inquiry (October/November 2017): 40-43.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. God, Philosophy, and Universities. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

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

Mizrahi, Moti. “In Defense of Weak Scientism: A Reply to Brown.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017b): 9-22.

Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. “scientism,” accessed January 10, 2018,

Papineau, David. “Is Philosophy Simply Harder than Science?” The Times Literary Supplement On-line. June 1, 2017. Accessed July 11, 2017.

Pieper, Josef. In Defense of Philosophy. Trans. Lothar Krauth. 1966; reprint, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992.

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Plato. Gorgias. Trans. Donald J. Zeyl. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987.

Plato. Republic. Trans. C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2004.

Postman, Neil. Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

Robinson, Daniel N. “Science, Scientism, and Explanation.” In Scientism: the New Orthodoxy. Williams and Robinson, eds. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015, 23-40.

Rosenberg, Alex. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2011.

Sorrell, Tom. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. First edition. London: Routledge, 1994.

Sorell, Tom. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. Kindle edition. London: Routledge, 2013.

Van Inwagen, Peter. Metaphysics. 4th edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2015.

Williams, Richard. N. and Daniel N. Robinson, eds. Scientism: the New Orthodoxy. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

[1] “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about” (Orthodoxy [chapter four] 1995, 53).

[2] See Phaedo, 61c-d and 64b-69e.

[3] See Republic 473c-480a.

[4] Here follows a description of something like one traditional way of thinking about the intellectual discipline of philosophy, one that I often give in my introduction to philosophy classes. It describes philosophy by comparing and contrasting it with the experimental sciences, on the one hand, and revealed theology, on the other hand: philosophy is that intellectual discipline which investigates the nature of ultimate reality, knowledge, and value (i.e., subjects the investigation of which raise questions that can’t be settled simply by running controlled experiments and taking quantitative measurements) by way of methods such as deductive argumentation, conceptual analysis, and reflection upon one’s own experiences and the experiences of others (where the experiences of others include, but are not limited to, the experiences of experimental scientists doing experimental science and the experiences of those who practice other intellectual disciplines), by way of the natural light of human reason alone (where this last clause is concerned, philosophy is usefully compared and contrasted with revealed theology: revealed theology and philosophy investigate many of the same questions, e.g., are there any sorts of actions that ought to never be performed, no matter what?, but whereas philosophy draws upon the natural light of human reason alone to answer its characteristic questions [in this way philosophy is like the experimental sciences], and not on any supposed divine revelations, revealed theology makes use of the natural light of reason and [what revealed theologians believe by faith is] some divine revelation).

[5] Although, as I pointed out in my 2017 essay, it seems one can plausibly argue that modern science has the history of Western philosophy as a necessary or de facto cause of its existence, and so the instrumental successes of modern science also belong to Western philosophy indirectly.

[6] For academics don’t agree on which claims count as knowledge claims, e.g., some will say we can know propositions such as murder is always wrong, others don’t think we can know ethical claims are true. Are we, then, to simply measure those claims published at the university that all—or the great majority of academics believe count as knowledge claims? But in that case, we are no longer measuring what counts as knowledge, but rather what a certain group of people, at a certain time, believes counts as knowledge. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say cataloguing what a certain group of people believe is sociology and not philosophy.

[7] See, e.g., Alasdair MacIntyre 2009, esp. 15-18 and 173-180.

[8] See, e.g., On the Parts of Animals, Book I, chapter 5 [644b32-645a1]. See also St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles, book one, ch. 5, 5 and Summa theologiae Ia. q. 1, a. 5, ad1.

[9] Of course, modern science and technology produce negative effects too, e.g., pollution, and, according to some, increased dissolution of traditional social bonds. But, because the positive effects of modern science and technology are often immediate and the negative effects often arise only after some time has passed, it is hard for us to take into account, let alone see, the negative consequences of modern science and technology. For some helpful discussion of the history of the culturally transformative effects of modern science and technology, both positive and negative, see Postman 1993.

[10] See, e.g., Bourget & Chalmers 2014. As that study shows, when a good number of contemporary philosophers were polled about a number of major philosophical questions, every question asked turns out to be collectively controversial. Although the paper certainly identifies certain tendencies among contemporary philosophers, e.g., 72.8% identified as atheists, and only 14.6% identified as theists, that latter number is still a healthy minority view so that its seems right to say that whether atheism or theism is true is collectively controversial for contemporary philosophers. For some good discussion of philosophical questions as, by nature, controversial, see also Van Inwagen 2015, 11-19.

[11] A small point: in responding to my comment here, Mizrahi misrepresents what I say. He renders what I call in my 2017 article “the seventh assumption” as “One theory can be said to be qualitatively better than another” (2017b, 12). That’s not what I say; rather I suggest Mizrahi’s Argument premises a theory A is qualitatively better than theory B if A is more successful than theory B.

[12] In this way, philosophy and the experimental sciences differ from one historically important way of understanding the discipline of revealed theology. For example, as St. Thomas Aquinas understands the discipline of revealed theology (see, e.g., Summa theologiae Ia. q. 1.), revealed theology is that scientia that treats especially of propositions it is reasonable to believe are divinely revealed, propositions that can’t be known by the natural light of human reason alone. In addition, the wise teacher of revealed theology can (a) show it is reasonable to believe by faith that these propositions are divinely revealed and (b) use the human disciplines, especially philosophy, to show how propositions that are reasonably believed by faith are not meaningless and do not contradict propositions we know to be true by way of the human disciplines, e.g., philosophy and the sciences.

[13] See, e.g., Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, book vii, ch. 1 (1145b2-7).

Author Information: Adam Riggio, Anderson College,

Riggio, Adam. “The Complexity of Rights, Claims, and Social Reality.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 17-24.

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I have not often thrown myself into the ring of a long-running chain of replies that began in Social Epistemology. My own research specialties fit into the conceptual boundaries of social epistemology – the social and cultural aspects of knowledge production are central to my work – but not always in its disciplinary boundaries. As such, the specific literature from which a debate flows will not be familiar enough to me that I could add something genuinely valuable to a conversation.

That said, on seeing the exchange between J. Angelo Corlett and Gregory Lobo reignite, I realized that I could contribute a worthwhile comment. At least, I hope it will be worthwhile. My reply will have two steps. First, I wish to indicate the limits of the field of Corlett and Lobo’s debate. What social phenomena would their ontologies best describe?

In the recent exchange earlier this year, their most obvious difference was the most important for philosophers: over the proper domain to put these ideas into practice. After that comes the most critically-minded element of my reply, asking whether the concepts that Corlett and Lobo have discussed in their exchange can be put to practical use on their own. If not, what additional concepts or ideas would their social ontologies need to be put to work, as all political and moral philosophies must ultimately do.

What Is Society Made Of?

A social ontology is a philosophical account of what are the component constituents of social and political institutions and objects. Examples of institutions are governments, international treaties, and courts. Examples of objects are moral and ethical principles, and most importantly for the current essay, human rights. Working with these examples as the central models for our understanding of what social ontology is and is for, one can see the explanatory purposes of any particular social ontology. Such purpose is, regarding institutions, understanding how they appear and what powers they manifest in everyday human life. Regarding objects, such purpose is understanding what they actually are, how they exist in a fundamental form.

It is relatively easy to understand the existence of our institutions because we can visit courts and parliaments, watch summits and international meetings on television, read the texts of treaties. The ontological challenge regarding institutions is understanding their power over people. What enables the recognition of a law court, for example, as an authority over those people falling under what its rules define as its jurisdiction. Whether an institution like a court is something to which you owe your fealty or your defiance, a social ontology would identify what aspects or components of that court would prompt strong attitudes, what would make indifference to it impossible.

The matter of objects is more challenging for a simple empirical reason. Institutions are themselves obviously material – I can walk into the Supreme Court of my country Canada, tour the facilities, read its judgments, meet the judges. However, while I can read human rights laws and declarations, listen to speeches and discussions about human rights, and study philosophical and theoretical texts about human rights, I cannot perceive the right itself. As an object of social ontology, a human right does not itself inhere in any particular matter. It can be discussed and understood, but never perceived.

None of these challenges are at all challenging from any perspective except for the one I would call reductive materialist. To be a materialist is to believe that all of reality is ultimately constituted from particles and fields of force, or perhaps only fields of force. Very generally speaking, this is what you could call me. Where a materialist differs specifically from a reductive materialist is that a person who deserves the latter description puts strict limits on the creative power of emergent processes, what systems can develop from dynamic relations among components, and how different those new systems can be from their components. A materialist need never be so harsh as to doubt, suspect, or oppose the power or existence of emergent processes, though some are.

The Emergence of Human Society, Morality, Rights, and Life

When developing an ontology of the social, the amount of creation by emergence you are willing to accept or tolerate is directly related to how many difficulties your philosophical investigation will encounter, and how intense those difficulties are. If emergence processes give you no serious concern other than to observe and understand how they work, then your investigation will discover and construct an ontology of the social with little stress or consternation. For those who, for whatever reasons, are doubtful or suspicious of emergence, their conceptual struggles will receive no sympathy or pity from me. It does not suit to make life or philosophy more difficult than it needs to be, because it will keep you from finding the truths you want to discover.

A better question to ask when developing the fundamental principles of a social ontology is what physical processes produce social objects and institutions as emergent properties. On the face of it, this would appear to be a very different question than the matter at the centre of Corlett and Lobo’s exchange. Their essays revolve around how to identify and what could be that which facilitates the recognition of others’ human rights.

Another way to phrase that question is to ask what it takes for someone to qualify as human, and so deserving of rights. The object of their inquiries is the same as that explored by Hannah Arendt and Seyla Benhabib in their pioneering works in human rights theory, what constitutes a person’s right to claim rights. Human rights theory is a discourse grounded in the moral and political domain of philosophical thinking. So building a social ontology of human rights requires identifying a process through which moral discourses and imperatives emerge from the physical.

Where you look for these processes depends on your ontological comfort level with emergence. If you give yourself a philosophical imperative to minimize the productive power of emergence in your ontology, you will look for the shortest conceivable path from the physical, assemblages of particles and fields of force, to human rights themselves. An institutional view on the ontology of human rights, speaking very broadly, takes them to be constituted through laws and organizations that codify and uphold law. Examples include international treaties like UDHR or UNDRIP, the International Criminal Court, and the different domestic legislatures, state constitutions, and police forces that codify and enforce human rights through their laws.

Yet this need not be sufficient, since human rights in themselves do not appear in these institutions. They are the objects of discussion in all these laws, treaties, arguments, and rules, but they are present only in the intentions of the actors involved, legislators, lawyers, police, judges, and so on.

The Power of Intentionality

This is why group and individual intentions can function well as a foundation for a social ontology of human rights. Human rights, along with all the other objects and institutions of social existence, would emerge from a common substrate of individual and group intentions and intentionality. Such is the legacy of John Searle’s social ontology of intentionality.

Lobo was correct to identify that Searle made an important observation about the importance of intentional stances in constituting a society where respect for any particular set of human rights (or even just its possibility condition, the right to claim rights and have those claims discussed fairly) is a universal, or at least a widespread belief. As Lobo put it in one of his recent articles at the Reply Collective, human rights only become effective in a society’s political morality when individuals and groups within that society form the intentions to recognize rights and rights claims.

The epistemology of such a notion is particularly interesting, coming from Searle, given his home sub-discipline of philosophy where rational argument is so highly prized in professional discourse. It is to Searle’s credit that he has arrived at the conclusion that rational argument alone is not enough to compel recognition of a human rights claim. This is the point Lobo eloquently makes with his description of the story of Mr. Saifullah, a Rohingya refugee from ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, living as an illegal alien in Pakistan.

A human rights claimant like Saifullah does not make demands on the people and legal institutions to recognize his rights claims as legitimate. He must supplicate himself to the authorities of various state and legal institutions around the world for them to recognize his rights. A rational argument in favour of his having rights will not be enough to justify his receiving them, no matter the logical validity of his argument or the truth of his argument’s premises.

You Need to Recognize

Recognition is a matter of intention. I, or preferably for Saifullah someone whose institutional office has the material power to help him, must have an intentional attitude toward him that recognizes his right to claim rights. At the moment of his interview, no one with such material power such as Myanmar’s government or Pakistan’s immigration authority had such an attitude. No one in a position to give him citizenship rights or even material aid recognized Saifullah as a legal immigrant or a refugee.

The intentional stance that those with material power over Saifullah take toward him is as an illegal alien; given such intentions, his claims are not recognized. If his claims for rights are not recognized, then neither is his humanity. He is ejected not only from the communities of Pakistanis or Burmese, but the community of humanity itself. I remain skeptical that an ontology of society that centres on group intentionality alone can understand the nature of this recognition and its refusal, for reasons that will become clear through the rest of this essay.

Despite Lobo’s intentions to defend Searle’s account of intentionality as the bedrock of the recognition of human rights, the account still comes up empty. Just as there is nothing about a rational argument that compels our accord, there is nothing about a rights claim, no matter how wretched the condition of the claimant, that compels an intentional stance of recognition. The case of Saifullah and the millions upon millions others like him in global human civilization and history demonstrates that a social ontology of individual and group intentionality alone is insufficient to ground human rights as a true universal.

Saifullah’s intentional attitude of claiming his rights cannot compel Pakistani government officials, Myanmar President Htin Kyaw, or State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi to change their intentional attitudes towards him to recognize his claims as legitimate. No matter the pleas of victims, their group intentionality of claiming human rights cannot compel their enemies to change their own group intentionality of destroying them.

The screams and pleas of his victims in the fields of Srebrenica did not change Ratko Mladic’s intentional attitudes toward them, just as his conviction on genocide charges did not change the group intentionality of the communities who continue to venerate Mladic, Radovan Karadzic, Slobodan Milosevic, and the wider Serbian nationalist movement. The same goes for all genocidaires and mass murderers throughout human history.

The Limits of Intentionality as an Ontological Foundation

This entire discussion, stretching back to mid-2016 on the Reply Collective, of the relationship between a social ontology of group intentionality and human rights, began with a discussion in review of Raimo Tuomela’s book Social Ontology. At first, Tuomela and Searle are quite successful in building a social ontology to understand the powers of group intentionality to shape larger social and institutional structures. However, I consider Tuomela’s project ultimately superior to Searle’s approach for a reason that could best be described as Tuomela’s humility. Tuomela frames his inquiry as an investigation of how group intentionality fits into a more complex ontology of the social. Social existence, as Tuomela describes it, is a complex phenomenon that includes group intentionality as one important constituent.

Searle’s social ontology is simultaneously more reductive and less humble than Tuomela’s, despite the American’s relative fame and prestige. One cannot understand human rights ontologically without understanding how the dynamics of group intentionality can encourage or discourage the recognition of a particular person’s or community’s claim to some human right or rights. But group and individual intentionality is not sufficient for a complete understanding of the existence of all social structures, including institutions like governments and laws, as well as social objects like rights and community beliefs about morality. Tuomela recognizes this insufficiency from the start of his book, and limits the scope of his inquiry accordingly.

Searle, however, takes group intentionality to be entirely sufficient for the bedrock of an ontology of the social, kneecapping his investigation from the first step. The roots of this error, as well as his inability to recognize this error in his reasoning, lie in the core principles by which Searle has guided his career and work as a philosopher for decades. The sociologist Neil Gross published a scathing and insightful critique of Searle’s late-career turn to social and political theory, which explains these profound errors in very digestible and clear terms.

Gross’ critique of Searle begins with a simple observation. When Searle’s first major book on social theory, The Construction of Social Reality, appeared, one of the first and most common critical comments it received from the sociological community was that his theories were very similar to those of Émile Durkheim. Essentially, the sociological community received Searle’s work as achieving the same insights as Durkheim did, but with a theoretical vocabulary better suited to the approaches of North American analytic philosophy, Searle’s own intellectual milieu.

Catching Up to History

Durkheim was one of the major founding theorists and researchers of the modern discipline of sociology, but this critique was not complimentary to Searle or his theory. Durkheim is historically important to contemporary social theory, but theoretically and philosophically, he has been utterly surpassed. Durkheim and Searle articulate an entirely reductive materialist approach to the ontology of the social, rooting social processes in individual, group, and community psychology.

Durkheim’s priorities in doing so were shaped by his historical context. He had an imperative to convince a skeptical intellectual establishment that sociology could be a science at all, so had to shape his theories to the extremely reductive ontological presuppositions of the scientific community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Searle, however, admitted that he did not bother to research any of this history in any great detail when he was first developing his ontology of the social. Searle’s response to his first critics in this regard was that colleagues more familiar with the history of social theory pointed him to Durkheim as a possible forerunner of his ideas, but he explored little of this older work, having found Durkheim’s writing style difficult and obscure.

Gross explains that the features of Durkheim’s style which a contemporary American researcher would find difficult are rooted in the historical context of the time. So familiarity with his intellectual community’s nature and priorities would help someone understand his concepts, and why he wrote as he did. Searle instead dismissed Durkheim as too obscure, and possibly obscurantist, so ignored him as he developed his own theory.

However, if Searle has progressed his theory’s sophistication beyond that of Durkheim, this does not mean that his work is especially relevant to contemporary social thinking. Understanding that attitudes of mutual recognition is the foundation of inclusion in human community and the validity of human rights claims merely means that Searle has caught up to the insights of Max Weber and Karl Marx. If you want to be especially mean-spirited, you could say that Searle has only just caught up to Hegel. An enormous, complex, and vibrant tradition of theoretical development and empirical research that has continued for more than a century and is still living goes largely unremarked in Searle’s recent social and political theory. So the last task of this essay is understand why.

You Need to Recognize (Slight Return)

Understanding why Searle dismisses such a massive and complex heritage in 21st century social and human rights theory shows how inadequate conceptions of group intentionality are for a genuinely comprehensive ontology of the social. The theoretical machinery and toolboxes that Searle ignores, as Gross made clear in his remarks on Searle’s general ontology of the social, are those rooted in hermeneutic and structuralist philosophy.

Sociology as a science was able to move beyond the reductive materialism of Durkheim and the destructive influence of behaviourist psychology by folding into its practice and theory core ideas from hermeneutics as well as the structuralist and post-structuralist lines of descent. These theoretical approaches understand the common beliefs of groups and cultures as more than shared intentions. They describe how social institutions, structures, and objects, as well as cultural mores, mythic narratives, and historical consciousness come to exist as emergence from more straightforward group, community, and economic dynamics.

Emergence, whether of specific properties of a system or of wholly new bodies and systems themselves, is a material process, as material as fundamental particles and fields of force, as material as group and individual intentionality through purposive action in the world. Emergent systems, bodies, and properties are real because their constituents are the relations among their components, the dynamic fluctuations of these relationships.

The interaction of complex activities constitute wholly new bodies and processes at macroscopic scales to those component dynamics. Emergence as described is an essential concept in sociology, but also in what the common expression calls hard sciences such as cell biology. In cellular biology, the structures and constituent processes of the cell emerge from metabolic and protein chemistry. Once constituting a cellular system, the system as a whole becomes capable of activities and processes that are impossible for those component processes and elements alone. As well, the systematic processes of the cell affect the activities of their components as individuals.

In sociology, all the complex objects and institutions of culture emerge from individual and group actions and communications. Cultural systems are capable of activities and processes that are impossible for those constituents, such as identity creation processes based on tacit knowledge and habit, influenced by the structures and content of communications media, social institutions, and socialization processes. These cultural processes then influence and affect their components, a complex feedback process that is irreducible to the psychological or intentional attitudes of individual people.

Being emergent and producing such detailed feedback mechanisms to their components, their activities cannot be reduced to those of their components. They begin instead through the relations among components of the system. One may be tempted, in the name of simplifying theory, to reduce these emergent processes and systems to the activities of their components. But such a simple theory is not adequate to the real complexity of a world that includes processes that emerge from dynamic relations.


Searle’s social ontology attempts to build the entire social world from aggregates of individual and group intentions. Such an ontology avoids the differences in kind that arise in systems of dynamic relationships among components. Searle has created an ontology of the social that need rely on no emergent processes, an ontology of the social that pushes aside almost all of modern social theory, social theory that is based on principles of emergence. The component processes and dynamics of those emergence that are peculiarly social were all described in sub-disciplines that developed from or in dialogue with hermeneutic and structuralist theory.

Searle, since his famous confrontation with Jacques Derrida, has dismissed these cultural fields of study and theory as empty charlatanism. The fact often goes unspoken, but to understand why Searle built such a reductionist social ontology in his 21st century work, it should at least be considered a contributing factor. Searle’s influence in much of North American philosophy during the 1970s and 1980s lent his dismissive attitude an undue weight and contributed to marginalizing the core concepts of the cultural studies fields away from disciplines and departments where his prestige was waxing.

Yet the disciplines of knowledge of which Searle encouraged a continent-wide exorcism supplied all the key concepts and theories needed to understand emergent cultural processes. By dismissing such theories, Searle closed off his own philosophical thinking from the concepts that have become the bedrock of the last century of social theory, whether from cultural, political, media and communications, or sociological disciplines. Tuomela’s ontology of group intentions, where this long dialogue began, was sufficiently humble and open-minded that it had always been pitched as being about a particular component of the social.

Searle, refusing after decades to grant any validity to the fields he once dismissed, has crafted a theory of the same phenomena, but which is hobbled by its hubris in attempting a theoretical task for which it is inadequate. If the theory turns out to be inadequate, any practice flowing from such a theory will sadly be so as well.

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

Corlett, J. Angelo. “On Searle on Human Rights, Again!” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 5 (2016): 41-46.

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

Corlett, J. Angelo, and Julia Lyons Strobel. “Raimo Tuomela’s Social Ontology.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 6 (2017): 557-571.

D’Amico, Robert. “Reply to Corlett’s ‘Searle on Human Rights’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 5 (2016): 30-36.

Gross, Neil. “Comment on Searle.” Anthropological Theory 6, no. 1. (2006): 45-56.

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

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

Morowitz, Harold J. The Emergence of Everything. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Searle, John. The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Free Press, 1995.

Tuomela, Raimo. Social Ontology: Collective Intentionality and Group Agents. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Tuomela, Raimo. “The Limits of Groups: An Author Replies.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 28-33.

Author Information: Jeremy Fantl, University of Calgary,

Fantl, Jeremy. “Interest-Relativity and Testimony.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 11 (2015): 40-46.

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Image credit: smilla4, via flickr

In her “Testimony and Epistemic Risk: The Dependence Account”, Karyn Freedman defends an interest-relative account of justified belief and suggests that the account can contribute to literature on testimony. According to her interest-relative account, your interests in whether p is true can make a difference to whether you justifiedly believe that proposition. Freedman distinguishes her account from earlier versions by allowing a distinctive role for emotional interests and how much we care about whether p is true. [1]  Continue Reading…