Archives For scientific ideals

Author Information: Nuria Anaya-Reig, Rey Juan Carlos University,

Anaya-Reig, Nuria. “Implicit Theories Influencing Researchers: A Field for the Psychology of Science to Explore.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 25-30.

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

From the 2014 White House Science Fair.
Image by NASA HQ Photo via Flickr / Creative Commons


This essay is in reply to:

Wylie, C. D. 2018. “‘I Just Love Research’: Beliefs About What Makes Researchers Successful.” Social Epistemology 32 (4): 262-271, doi: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1458349.

What traits in a student do researchers believe characterize a good future scientist? To what degree do these beliefs influence the selection of candidates? These are fundamental questions that resonate in the work of Caitlin Donahue Wylie (2018). As part of a qualitative ethnographic study, an interview was given to two engineering professors working as principal investigators (PIs), as well as to their respective groups of graduate students, most of whom were already working as new researchers. The total sample consisted of 27 people.

Results indicate that, among this class of researchers, interest, assertiveness, and enthusiasm for one’s own field of study are commonly regarded as key signs of a good future researcher. Moreover, the interviewees believe enthusiasm to be related to a desire to learn and a strong work ethic. Lastly, the research suggests that possible, unintentional exclusions may occur during candidate selection due to biases on the part of the PIs, reflecting preferences for features belonging to majority groups (such as ethnicity, religion and gender). This essay offers some ideas that may help minimize such biases.

Implicit Theories Undergirding Research

Essentially, the work of Wylie (2018) demonstrates that experienced scientists base their selection process for new researchers on implicit theories. While this may at first appear to be a rather modest contribution, the core of Wylie’s research is substantial and of great relevance to the psychology of science for at least three reasons.

First, studying such matters offers different angle from which to investigate and attempt to understand the scientific psyche: studying the psychology of scientists is one of the central areas of research in this subdiscipline (Feist 2006). Second, although the research question addresses a well-known issue in social psychology and the results of the study are thus quite predictable, the latter nevertheless constitute new data and are therefore valuable in their own right. Indeed, they enrich theoretical knowledge about implicit ideas given that, in science and scientific reasoning, it is essential to differentiate between tests and theories (Feist 2006).

Finally, because in the way it is currently being applied, the psychology of science cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that if scientists’ implicit beliefs are mistaken, those beliefs may have negative repercussions for the population of current and future researchers (Wylie 2018).

In his role as psychologist of science (Anaya-Reig and Romo 2017), Ramón y Cajal mused upon this issue over a century ago. In “The Investigator as Teacher,” chapter IX of his work Reglas y consejos sobre investigación científica (1920), he noted:

¿Qué signos denuncian el talento creador y la vocación inquebrantable por la indagación científica?

[What signs identify creative talent and an irrevocable calling for scientific research?]

Problema grave, capitalísimo, sobre el cual han discurrido altos pensadores e insignes pedagogos, sin llegar a normas definitivas. La dificultad sube de punto considerando que no basta encontrar entendimientos perspicaces y aptos para las pesquisas de laboratorio sino conquistarlos definitivamente para el culto de la verdad original.

[This serious and fundamentally important question has been discussed at length by deep thinkers and noted teachers, without coming to any real conclusions. The problem is even more difficult when taking into account the fact that it is not enough to find capable and clear-sighted and capable minds for laboratory research; they must also be genuine converts to the worship of original data.]

Los futuros sabios, blanco de nuestros desvelos educadores, ¿se encuentran por ventura entre los discípulos más serios y aplicados, acaparadores de premios y triunfadores en oposiciones?

[Are future scientists—the goal of our educational vigilance—found by chance among the most serious students who work diligently, those who win prizes and competitions?]

Algunas veces, sí, pero no siempre. Si la regla fuera infalible, fácil resultara la tarea del profesor, bastaríale dirigirse a los premios extraordinarios de la licenciatura y a los números primeros de las oposiciones a cátedras. Mas la realidad se complace a menudo en burlar previsiones y malograr esperanzas. (Ramón y Cajal 1920, 221-222)

[Sometimes, but not always. If the rule were infallible, the teacher’s work would be easy. He could simply focus his efforts on the outstanding prizewinners among the degree candidates, and on those at the top of the list in professional competitions. But reality often takes pleasure in laughing at predictions and in blasting hopes. (Ramón y Cajal 1999, 141)]

Returning to Implicit Theories

Let us briefly recall that naïve or implicit theories are stable and organized beliefs that people have formed intuitively, without the rigor of the scientific method; their content can be accessed only with great difficulty, given that people are unaware that they have them. This makes not only modifying them difficult but also leads those who possess them to search for facts that confirm what they already believe or, in other words, to fall prey to confirmation bias (Romo 1997).

People tend to identify and organize regularities in their environment thanks to implicit or incidental learning, which is based on associative learning, due to the need to adapt to the varying situations with which we are faced. We formulate naïve theories that help us comprehend, anticipate and deal with the disparate situations confronting us in the best way possible. Indeed, we are surrounded by a such an overwhelming amount of information that formulating implicit theories, learning which things seem to appear together at the same time, is a very effective way of making the world more predictable and controllable.

Naturally, human behavior is no exception to this rule. In fact, the content of implicit theories is fundamentally of a social nature (Wegner and Vallacher 1977), as is revealed by the fact that a good portion of such theories take the form of so-called Implicit Personality Theories (IPT), a category to which the beliefs of the researchers under consideration here also belong.

IPTs get their name because their content consists of personal qualities or personality traits. They are idiosyncratic, even if there indeed are certain coincidences among members of the same social group.

Understood broadly, IPTs can be defined as those beliefs that everyone has about human beings in general; for example, that man is by nature good, or just the opposite. Defined more precisely, IPTs refer to those beliefs that we have about the personal characteristics of specific types of people. For example, we frequently assume that a writer need be a cultured, sensitive and bohemian sort of person (Moya 1996).

It should be noted that implicit theories, in contrast to those of a scientific nature, are also characterized by their specificity and incoherence, given that they are based on simple, linear coincidences, are composed of ideas that are habitually interconnected, and seek only verification and utility. Still, this does not necessarily mean that such ideas are necessarily mistaken or useless (Pozo, Rey, Sanz and Limón 1992). Although implicit theories have a limited explanatory power, they do have descriptive and predictive capacities (Pozo Municio 1996).

Some Reflections on the Subject

Scientists being led by their intuitions…what is going on? Then again, what is wrong with that? Why must researchers behave differently from other people when engaged in selection processes? Scientists behave as we all do in our daily lives when it comes to all sorts of things. Any other way of proceeding would not just be unprofitable but also would be, in cognitive terms, costly and exhausting.

All things considered, researchers, no matter how rigorously scientific they may be, are still people and as such intuitively seek out answers to problems which influence their labor in specific ways while not in themselves being the goal of their work.

Moreover, we should not be surprised either when different researchers, whether novice or seasoned, share identical beliefs, especially if they work within the same field, since, as noted above, although implicit theories reveal themselves in opinions or personal expectations, part of their tacit content is shared by many people (Runco 2011).

The above leads one, in turn, to make further observations about the work of Wylie (2018). In the first place, as for implicit theories, rather than simply suggesting that researchers’ selections may be guided by a perceptual bias, it must be affirmed that this indeed is the case. As has been noted, implicit theories operate with confirmation biases which in fact reinforce their content.

Another matter is what sorts of biases these are: Wylie (2018) suggests that they often take the form of a possible preference for certain features that are characteristic of the majority groups to which the PIs belong, a conclusion based on several studies showing that white, middle-class men predominate in the fields of science and engineering, which may cause them to react poorly to students who do not meet those standards and indeed may even lead to the latter giving up because of the discomfort they feel in such environments.

This is certainly one possible interpretation; another is that the confirmation bias exhibited by these researchers might arise because they have observed such traits in people who have achieved excellence in their field and therefore may not, in fact, be the result of a preference for interacting with people who resemble them physical or culturally.

It is worth noting here that implicit theories need not be mistaken or useless (Pozo, Rey, Sanz and Limón 1992). Indeed, this is certainly true for the beliefs held by the group of researchers. Aren’t scientists, especially the best among them, passionate about their work? Do they not dedicate many hours to it and put a great deal of effort into carrying it out? Are they not assertive? Research has conclusively shown (Romo 2008) that all creative scientists, without exception, exhibit high levels of intrinsic motivation when it comes to the work that they do.

Similarly, since Hayes (1981) we have known that it takes an average of ten years to master a discipline and achieve something notable within it. It has also been observed that researchers exhibit high levels of self-confidence and tend to be arrogant and aggressive. Indeed, it is known that scientists, as compared to non-scientists, are not only more assertive but also more domineering, more self-assured, more self-reliant and even more hostile (Feist 2006). Several studies, like that of Feist and Gorman (1998) for example, have concluded that there are differences in personality traits between scientists and non-scientists.

On the other hand, this does not mean that people’s implicit ideas are necessarily correct. In fact, they are often mistaken. A good example of this is one belief that guided those researchers studied by Wylie as they selected graduates according to their academic credentials. Although they claimed that grades were an insufficient indicator, they then went on to qualify that claim: “They believe students’ demonstrated willingness to learn is more important, though they also want students who are ‘bright’ and achieve some ‘academic success.’” (2018, 4).

However, the empirical evidence shows that neither high grades nor high scores on aptitude tests are reliable predictors of a successful scientific career (Feist 2006). The evidence also suggests that creative genius is not necessarily associated with academic performance. Indeed, many geniuses were mediocre students (Simonton 2006).


The psychology of science continues to amass data to help orient the selection of potentially good researchers for those scientists interested in recruiting them: see, for example Feist (2006) or Anaya-Reig (2018). At the practical level, however, this knowledge will be of little use if those who are best able to benefit from it continue to cling to beliefs that may be mistaken.

Therefore, it is of great interest to keep exploring the implicit theories held by researchers in different disciplines. Making them explicit is an essential first step both for the psychology of science, if that discipline’s body of knowledge is to have practical repercussions in laboratories as well as other research centers, as well as for those scientists who wish to acquire rigorous knowledge about what inherent qualities make a good researcher, all while keeping in mind that the implicit nature of personal beliefs makes such a process difficult.

As noted above, subjects who are interviewed are often unaware that they possess them (Pozo, Rey, Sanz and Limón 1992). Moreover, modifying them requires a change of a conceptual or representational nature (Pozo, Scheuer, Mateos Sanz and Pérez Echeverría 2006).

Lastly, it may perhaps be unreasonable to promote certain skills among university students in general without considering the aptitudes necessary for acquiring them. Although it may be obvious, it should be remembered that educational resources, like those of all types, are necessarily limited. Since we know that only 2% of the population devotes itself to science (Feist 2006), it may very well be more worthwhile to work on improving our ability to target those students who have potential. Anything else would be like trying to train a person who has no vocal talent whatsoever to sing opera.

Contact details:


Anaya-Reig, N. 2018. “Cajal: Key Psychological Factors in the Self-Construction of a Genius.” Social Epistemology. doi: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1522555.

Anaya-Reig, N., and M. Romo. 2017. “Cajal, Psychologist of Science.” The Spanish Journal of Psychology 20: e69. doi: 10.1017/sjp.2017.71.

Feist, G. J. 2006. The Psychology of Science and the Origins of the Scientific Mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Feist, G. J., and M. E. Gorman. 1998. “The Psychology of Science: Review and Integration of a Nascent Discipline.” Review of General Psychology 2 (1): 3–47. doi: 10.1037/1089-2680.2.1.3.

Hayes, J. R. 1981. The Complete Problem Solver. Philadelphia, PA: Franklin Institute Press.

Moya, M. 1996. “Percepción social y personas.” In Psicología social, 93-119. Madrid, Spain: McGraw-Hill.

Pozo Municio, J. I. 1996. Aprendices y maestros. La nueva cultura del aprendizaje. Madrid, Spain: Alianza.

Pozo, J. I., M. P. Rey, A. Sanz, and M. Limón. 1992. “Las ideas de los alumnos sobre la ciencia como teorías implícitas.” Infancia y Aprendizaje 57: 3-22.

Pozo, J. I., N. Scheuer, M. M. Mateos Sanz, and M. P. Pérez Echeverría. 2006. “Las teorías implícitas sobre el aprendizaje y la enseñanza.” In Nuevas formas de pensar la enseñanza y el aprendizaje: las concepciones de profesores y alumnos, 95-134. Barcelona, Spain: Graó.

Ramón y Cajal, S. 1920. Reglas y consejos sobre investigación científica. (Los tónicos de la voluntad). 5th ed. Madrid, Spain: Nicolás Moya.

Ramón y Cajal, S. 1999. Advice for a Young Investigator, translated by N. Swanson and L. W. Swanson. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Romo, M. 1997. Psicología de la creatividad. Barcelona, Spain: Paidós.

Romo, M. 2008. Epistemología y Psicología. Madrid, Spain: Pirámide.

Runco, M. 2011. “Implicit theories.” In Encyclopaedia of Creativity, edited by M. Runco and S. R. Pritzker, 644-646. 2nd ed. Elsevier.

Simonton, D. K. 2006. “Creative genius, Knowledge, and Reason. The Lives and Works of Eminents Creators.” In Creativity and reason in cognitive development, edited by J. C. Kaufman and J. Baer, 43-59. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Wegner, D. M., and R. R, Vallacher. 1977. Implicit Psychology. An introduction to Social Cognition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Wylie, C. D. 2018. “‘I Just Love Research’: Beliefs About What Makes Researchers Successful.” Social Epistemology 32 (4): 262-271, doi: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1458349.

Author Information: Jim Butcher, Canterbury Christ Church University,

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

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

Maori dancers about to perform at the 2017 Turangawaewae Regatta in New Zealand.
Image by Hone Tho via Flickr / Creative Commons


This paper was prompted by the prominence of new arguments in favour of ‘decolonising geography. This was taken by the 2017 Royal Geographical Society–Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IGB) annual conference as its theme, with many preparatory papers in Area and Transactions and sessions organised around this. In both, to ‘decolonise’ was presented as an imperative for geography as a field of study, and for all geographers within it, to address urgently (Daigle and Sundberg, 2017; Jazeel, 2017).

In the USA, the annual American Association of Geographers (AAG) conference in New Orleans of 2018 also featured a number of well attended sessions that took the same perspective. The number of journal articles published advocating decolonialism has also increased sharply in the last two years.

The spirit in which this paper is written is supportive of new debates in the academy, and supportive of the equality goals of decolonise. However it takes issue with important assumptions that, it is argued, will not advance the cause of marginalised or of geography as a discipline.

The paper is in three related parts, each written in the spirit of raising debate. First it considers the principal knowledge claim of decolonise: that a distinctly Western epistemology presents itself as a universal way of knowing, and that this is complicit in colonialism of the past and coloniality of the present through its undermining of a pluriverse of ontologies and consequent diversity of epistemologies (Sundberg, 2014; Grosfoguel, 2007; Mignolo, 2007). The paper also illustrates further how this principle of decolonialism is articulated in some key geographical debates. It then highlights a number of contradictions in and questions with this epistemological claim.

Second, decolonialism’s critique of universalist epistemology is effectively, and often explicitly, a critique of the Enlightenment, as Enlightenment humanism established knowledge as a product of universal rationality rather that varied cultures or deities (Pagden, 2015; Malik, 2014). The paper argues that decolonialism marks a retreat from what was positive about the Enlightenment tradition: the capacity of (geographical) knowledge to transcend time and place, and hence act as universal knowledge.

In conclusion I briefly broach the value of decolonising geography in terms of its claim to be challenging injustice. I suggest that a truly humanist and universalist approach to knowledge has more to offer geographers seeking ways to tackle inequality and differential access to the process of producing knowledge than has the epistemic relativism of decolonize.

The Epistemological Claim of Decolonise

One of the claims made prominently at the conference and elsewhere by advocates of decolonisation is that geographical knowledge can be ‘Western’ (Radcliffe, 2017), ‘Eurocentric’ (Jazeel, 2017) ‘colonial’ (Baldwin, 2017; Noxolo, 2017) or ‘imperial’ (Tolia-Kelly, 2017; Connell, 2007 & 2017). This is not just a question of a close link between geographical knowledge and Western interests per se – it is well established that geographical understanding has developed through and been utilised for partial, often brutal, interests. For example, one of the principal figures in the history of UK geography, Halford Mackinder, regarded geography as central to Britain’s colonial mission (Livingstone, 1992).

At issue here is an epistemological one: Do the ideas, theories and techniques that today’s geographers have inherited constitute a universal geographical tradition of human knowledge to be passed on, built upon and critiqued, or; are the ideas, theories and techniques themselves ‘saturated in colonialism’ (Radcliffe, 2017: 329) and hence part of a particular system of knowledge in urgent need of decolonisation.

In his advocacy of decolonialism, Grosfoguel (2007: 212) argues that it is wrong to say that ‘there is one sole epistemic tradition from which to achieve truth and universality’. Rather, he and other decolonial theorists argue for a pluriverse – a variety of ways of knowing corresponding to different historical experience and culture (Sundberg, 2014; Mignolo, 2013).

Decolonialism holds that systems of knowledge existing in colonised societies were effectively undermined by the false universal claims of the West, claims that were in turn inextricably bound up with colonialism itself. Hence in this formulation the persistence of the ‘sole epistemic tradition’ of ‘the West’ well after formal decolonisation has taken place ensures the continuation of a discriminatory culture of ‘coloniality’ (Grosfoguel, ibid.).

As a result it is not deemed sufficient to oppose colonialism or its legacy within the parameters of contemporary (geographical) thought, as that thought is itself the product of a Western epistemology complicit in colonialism and the denial of other ways of knowing. Jazeel quotes Audre Lorde to accentuate this: ‘the masters tools will never demolish the masters house’ (2017: 335).

This leads decolonial theory to argue that there needs to be a delinking from Western colonial epistemology (Mignolo, 2007). Here they part company with many post-colonial, liberal and Left arguments against colonialism and racism and for national independence and equal rights. These latter perspectives are viewed as unable to demolish the ‘masters house’, as they are using the ‘master’s tools’.

For Grosfoguel, rights – the basis around which almost all liberation struggles have been fought for the last 250 years – are ‘ … articulated to the simultaneous production and reproduction of an international division of labour of core / periphery that overlaps with the global racial / ethnic hierarchy of Europeans / non-Europeans’ (2007: 214). Rights discourse, as with ‘Western’ knowledge, is regarded as part of a Cartesian ‘Western global design’ (ibid.).

The relationship to the Enlightenment, then, is key. Enlightenment ideas are associated with modernity: the mastery of nature by people, as well as notions of rights and the social contract that influenced the development of the modern state. But for decolonial thinkers, modernity itself is inextricably tied to colonialism (Grosfoguel, 2007; Mignolo, 2007). Hence the challenge for decolonisation is to oppose not just colonialism and inequality, but also the Enlightenment universalism that shapes academic disciplines and fields including geography (ibid.).

Decolonial theory proposes in its stead the pluriverse of ways of knowing (Sundberg, 2014). For example (Blaser, 2012: 7) writes of a ‘pluriverse with multiple and distinct ontologies or worlds’ that ‘bring themselves into being and sustain themselves even as they interact, interfere and mingle with each other’ under asymmetrical circumstances (my italics). Effectively this answers philosopher Ernest Gellner’s rhetorical question: ‘Is there but one world or are there many’ (Gellner,1987: 83) with the clear answer ‘many’.

It is important at this point to distinguish between a plurality of ideas, influences and cultures, as opposed to a pluriverse of ontologies; different worlds. The former is uncontentious – openness to ideas from other societies has to be progressive, and this is evident throughout history, if not self evident.

Cities and ports have played an important role in the mixing of cultures and ideas, and often have proved to be the drivers of scientific and social advance. Scientists have learned much from traditional practices, and have been able to systematise and apply that knowledge in other contexts. Equally, reviewing curricula to consider the case for the inclusion of different concepts, theories and techniques is a worthwhile exercise.

A pluriverse of ways of knowing has much greater implications, as it posits diverse systems of knowledge as opposed to a diversity of viewpoints per se.

The Debate in Geography

The RGS-IGB 2017 Annual Conference call for sessions set out the aim of decolonising geographical knowledges as being to ‘to query implicitly universal claims to knowledges associated with the west, and further interrogate how such knowledges continue to marginalise and discount places, people, knowledges across the world’ (RGS-IGB, 2017).

Recent papers advocating decolonise argue in similar vein. Radcliffe argues that: ‘Decolonial writers argue that the modern episteme is always and intrinsically saturated with coloniality’ (2017: 329), hence the need to be alert to ‘multiple, diverse epistemic and ethical projects’ and to ‘delink’ from ‘Euro-American frameworks’ (ibid. 330). She goes on to argue that decoloniality should cover all aspects of geographical education: ‘racism and colonial modern epistemic privileging are often found in students selection and progress; course design, curriculum content; pedagogies; staff recruitment; resource allocation; and research priorities and debates’ (ibid. 331).

This challenge to the development of knowledge as a universal human endeavour, across history and culture, is often regarded not only as an issue for geographers, but is posed as a moral and political imperative (Elliot-Cooper, 2017; Jazeel, 2017 ). For Elliott-Cooper:

Geographers sit at a historical crossroads in academia, and there is no middle, benevolent way forward. We can either attempt to ignore, and implicitly reproduce the imperial logics that have influenced the shape of British geography since its inception, or actively rethink and dismantle imperialism’s afterlife by unlearning the unjust global hierarchies of knowledge production on which much of the Empires legitimacy was based. (2017:334)

To see contemporary geography as an expression of ‘imperialism’s afterlife’ serves to dramatically reinforce a sense of geographical knowledge – knowledge itself, not its origin or application – as ‘colonial’ or ‘imperial’. This approach often involves eschewing one’s own, or ‘Western’, knowledge in favour of that of marginalised people. Two academics, reflecting on their teaching, state: ‘Our efforts do not even begin to live up to decolonial land based pedagogies being implemented across indigenous communities‘ (Daigle and Sundberg, 2017: 339).

This deference to ‘land based pedagogies’, speaks to an eschewal modern geographical knowledge and method in favour of a plurality of knowledges, but with authority granted on the basis of indigeneity. Noxolo makes a similar case, arguing that ‘[t]here are material conditions of experience out of which both postcolonial and, crucially decolonial, writings emerge’ (2017: 342). Emphasis is placed on intellectual authority of the lived experience of the marginalised.

We may well want to read something due to the experience of the writer, or to consider how a society gathers information, precisely in order to begin to understand perspectives and conditions of others who’s lives may be very different to our own. But these writings enter into a world of ideas, theories and techniques in which individual geographers can judge their usefulness, veracity and explanatory power. The extent to which they are judged favourably as knowledge may well depend upon how far they transcend the conditions in which they were produced rather than their capacity to represent varied experience.

This is not at all to denigrate accounts based more directly upon lived experience and the diverse techniques and ideas that arise out of that, but simply to recognise the importance of generalisation, systematisation and abstraction in the production of knowledge that can have a universal veracity and capacity to help people in any context to understand and act upon the world we collectively inhabit.

Contradictions: Geography’s History and Darwin

There is a strong case against the epistemic relativism of decolonialism. Geographical thought is premised upon no more and no less that the impulse to understand the world around us in order to act upon it, whether we seek to conserve, harness or transform. Geographical knowledge qua knowledge is not tied to place, person or context in the way decolonise assumes – it is better understood not as the product of a pluriverse of ways of knowing the world, but a diverse universe of experience.

From ancient Greece onwards, and indeed prior to that, human societies have developed the capacity to act upon the world in pursuit of their ends, and to reflect upon their role in doing that. Geography – ‘earth writing’ – a term first used in 3,000 BC by scholars in Alexandria, is part of that humanistic tradition. From Herodotus mapping the Nile and considering its flow in 450 BC, up to today’s sophisticated Geographical Information Systems, knowledge confers the capacity to act.

How elites act is shaped by their societies and what they considered to be their political and economic goals. But the knowledge and techniques developed provide the basis for subsequent developments in knowledge, often in quite different societies. Knowledge and technique cross boundaries – the greater the capacity to travel and trade, the greater too the exchange of ideas on map making, agriculture, navigation and much else.

The 15th century explorer Prince Henry the Navigator acted in the interests of the Portuguese crown and instigated the slave trade, but was also a midwife to modern science. He was intrigued by the myth of Prester John, yet he also helped to see off the myths of seamonsters. His discoveries fueled a questioning of the notion that knowledge came from the external authority of a god, and a growing scientific spirit began to decentre mysticism and religion, a process that was later consolidated in the Enlightenment (Livingstone, 1992). Geographical knowledge – including that you were not going to sail off the end of the world, and that sea monsters are not real – stands as knowledge useful for any society or any individual, irrespective of Portugal’s leading role in the slave trade at this time.

So whilst of course it is important to consider and study the people, the society and interests involved in the production of knowledge, is also important to see knowledge’s universal potential. This is something downplayed by the calls to decolonise – knowledge and even technique seem at times to be tainted by the times in which they were developed and by the individuals who did the developing.

Deciding what is the best of this, always a worthy pursuit, may involve re-evaluating contributions from a variety of sources. Involvement in these sources, in the production of knowledge, may be shaped by national or racial oppression, poverty and access to resources, but it has little to do with epistemic oppression (Fricker, 1999).

Take for example, Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1998, original 1859). Darwin’s research involved all of the features regarded as ‘imperial’ by Connell (2007) and by other advocates of decolonialism: an association with the military (The Beagle was a military ship) and the use of others’ societies for data gathering without their consent or involvement. The voyage was funded by the British state who were engaged in colonial domination. Geography and scientific voyages were closely linked with imperial ambition (Livingstone, 1992).

Yet Darwin’s theory marked a major breakthrough in the understanding of evolution regardless of this context. As an explorer sponsored by the British imperialist state, and having benefitted from a good education, Darwin as an individual was clearly better placed to make this breakthrough that native inhabitants of Britain’s colonies or the Galapagos Islands – he had ‘privilege’ and he was ‘white’, two terms often used by decolonial activists to qualify or deny the authority of truth claims. Yet the Origin of the Species stands regardless of context as a ground breaking step forward in human understanding.

Darwinism has another link to colonialism. Social Darwinism was to provide the pseudo- scientific justification for the racism that in turn legitimised the imperialist Scramble for Africa and attendant racial extermination (Malik, 1997). Yet the veracity of Darwin’s theory is not diminished by the horrors justified through its bastardisation as Social Darwinism. Contrary to the view key to decolonialism, geographical knowledge can be sound and an advance on previous thinking regardless of the uses and misuses to which it is put. That is in no way to legitimise those uses, but simply to recognise that ideas that have a universal veracity emerge from particular, contradictory and often (especially from the perspective of today) reactionary contexts.

Geographical knowledge can be (mis)understood and (mis)used to further particular politics. Darwin’s ideas received a cool reception amongst those in the American South who believed that God had created wholly separate races with a differential capacity for intellect and reason. In New Zealand the same ideas were welcomed as a basis for an assumed superior group of colonisers taking over from an assumed less evolved, inferior group. This was in the context of struggle between Mauri and land hungry colonialists.

For Marx, Darwinism provided a metaphor for class struggle. For economic liberals social Darwinism buttressed the notion of laisser-faire free trade. Anarchist geographer Kropotkin advocated small scale cooperative societies – survival of those who cooperate, as they are best fitted for survival (Livingstone, 1992). So as well as being produced in contexts of power and inequality, knowledge is also mobilised in such contexts.

However Darwin’s theory as the highest expression of human understanding of its time in its field stands regardless of these interpretations and mobilisations, to be accepted or criticised according to reason and scientific evidence alone. Geographical and scientific theory clearly does have the potential to constitute universal knowledge, and its capacity to do so is not limited by the context within which it emerged, or the interests of those who developed it. We cannot decolonise knowledge that is not, itself, colonial.

Decolonialism’s Critique of Enlightenment Universalism

It is clear that the epistemology of decolonialism is based, often explicitly, upon a critique of the Enlightenment and its orientation towards knowledge and truth. Emejulu states this clearly in a piece titled Another University is Possible (2017). She accepts that the Enlightenment viewed all men as endowed with rationality and logic, and with inalienable rights, that human authority was replacing the church – all the positive, humanist claims that defenders of the Enlightenment would cite.

However, she questions who is included in ‘Man’ – who counts as human in Enlightenment humanism? How universal is Enlightenment universalism? Who can be part of European modernity? She argues that the restriction of the category of those who are to be free was intrinsic to Enlightenment thought – i.e. it was a Western Enlightenment, not only geographically, but in essence. Knowledge, ideas themselves, can be ‘Eurocentric,’ ‘Western’ or even (increasingly) ‘white’ in the eyes of advocates of decoloniality.

Emejulu quotes Mills from his book The Racial Contract (1999):

The contemporary interpretation of the Enlightenment obscures its exclusion of women, ‘savages’, slaves and indigenous peoples through the prevailing racial science as inherently irrational beings. Savages – or the colonial other: the Native or Aboriginal peoples, the African, the Indian, the slave – were constructed as subhuman, incapable of logical reasoning and thus not subject to the equality or liberty enjoyed by ‘men’. It is here, in the hierarchies of modernity that we can understand the central role of racism in shaping the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is brought into being by Europe’s colonial entanglements and is wholly dependent on its particular patriarchal relations – which Europe, in turn, imposed on its colonial subjects.

So these authors argue that the Enlightenment did not establish, nor establish the potential for, universal freedoms and rights or knowledge either, but that it stemmed from particular interests and experiences, and played the role of enforcing the domination of those interests. Humanistic notions of the pursuit of knowledge are considered partial, as a false universalist flag raised in the service of Western colonialism.

Matthew Arnold’s 19th century liberal humanist vision of knowledge (in schools) referring to ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits’ (Arnold, 1869: viii) is rejected in favour of a view of knowledge itself as relative to incommensurate diverse human experience. This perspectival view of knowledge is central to the advocacy of decolonialism.

Sundberg (2014: 38), citing Blaser (2009), claims that the concept of the universal is itself ‘inherently colonial’, and can only exist through ‘performances’ that ‘tend to suppress and / or contain the enactment of other possible worlds’. This is a striking rejection of universality. Whilst logically universal claims can undermine different ways to think about the world, assuming that this in inherent in universal thinking questions geographical thought from any source that aspires to transcend diverse experience and be judged as part of a global geographical conversation across time and space.

Whilst this point is made by Sundberg to deny the wider veracity of Western thinking, logically it would apply to others too – it suggests Southern scholars, too, should not aspire to speak too far outside of their assumed ontological and epistemological identities in search of universal truths.

Saigon Opera House in Ho Chi Minh City.
Image by David McKelvey via Flickr / Creative Commons


In Defence of the Enlightenment Legacy

The view as set out by Emejulu (2017) and implicit or explicit through much of literature is both one sided and also a misreading of the Enlightenment. Many Enlightenment thinkers articulated ideas that were new and revolutionary in that they posited two things: the centrality of humanity in making the world in which we live (through reason and through scientific understanding replacing religious and mystical views of one’s place and possibilities), and; the possibility and moral desirability of universal freedoms from subjection by others – natural, universal rights applicable to all. Both the study of the world, and the idea that people within the world were equal and free, were central to the Enlightenment (Pagden, 2015; Malik, 2014).

However, these ideas emerged within and through a world of interests, prejudices and limitations. So there is a dialectical relationship: the new ideas that point to the possibility and desirability of human equality and freedom, and the world as it was which, as Emejulu rightly says, was far from free or equal and far from becoming so.

Consider the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 – a document shaped by the new ideas of the Enlightenment, and associated with freedom and rights subsequently. Some of its signatories and drafters, including Thomas Jefferson, were slaveholders or had a stake in the slave trade. Yet the Declaration served as an emblem for opponents of slavery and inequality for the next 200 years.

The most famous clause in the Declaration states: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ (US Congress, 1776). At the time principled abolitionists played on the contradiction between the grand ideas and the practice of men like Jefferson. Some even argued that the clause relating to the ‘right of revolution’ (which was there to justify fighting for independence from the British) could apply to slaves who were not being treated equally.

Martin Luther King referenced the Declaration in his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech at the Washington for Jobs and Freedom Demonstration of August 28, 1963: ‘When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ (King, 1991: 217). King’s speech, holding society to account by its own highest, universal moral standards, was in a long and noble tradition.

In the same vein the French Revolution’s Declaration on the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1791) also states: ‘All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.’ The dialectical tension between by the ideas that informed the French Revolution and the reality of the society is well illustrated by CLR James in The Black Jacobins (2001, original 1938). James writes of the Haitian revolution, a revolution in revolutionary France’s colony, in which slaves and their leaders took the ideas of the revolutionaries at their word. They directly confronted the limits of the revolution by insisting that its demand for liberty, fraternity and equality be made truly universal and applied to themselves, the slaves in the colonies.

The force of these Enlightenment influenced universalist conceptions of humanity, central to both Declarations, feature throughout the history of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. For example, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnamese Declaration of Independence in 1945 cites both the famous ‘all men are created equal’ clause from the American Declaration, and its equivalent in the French Declaration, to accuse both of these imperialist countries of denying these ‘undeniable truths’ (Ho Chi Minh, 1945). In the Vietnamese Declaration it was assumed that the denial of Enlightenment ideals, not their assertion, characterised colonialism and imperialism. This is reversed in decolonial theory.

Equally, colonialism involved the denial of the fruits of modern geographical knowledge and technique, not an imposition of ‘colonial’ ideas. Just as geographic technique and knowledge developed in the imperialist West no doubt played a dark role in the war in Vietnam – not least cartography in charting bombing missions – so those same tools (or more advanced versions) in mapping, agriculture and much else are utilised today to enable a sovereign Vietnam look to a better future.

Enlightenment ideas, expressed in the American Declaration of Independence and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, were drafted by people complicit in slavery and formed a rational and moral basis for equality. The former does not contradict the latter. In similar vein geographical knowledge was harnessed to oppress, and provided the basis for post- colonial governments to progress. The Declarations were both of their time and transcendent of their time, as is good geographical knowledge. It is in the latter sense that we judge their worth as knowledge to help us understand and act upon the world today.

There is much else to be said about the Enlightenment of course. There were great diversity and contradictions within it. What Enlightenment scholar Jonathan Israel (2009) terms the Radical Enlightenment consisted of thinkers who pushed at the contradiction between the potential in Enlightenment thought and some of the backward beliefs prevalent amongst their contemporaries. They went well beyond the limiting assumption of humanity characteristic of their time: that some were capable of citizenship rights, and others were not.

Thomas Paine argued against slavery on the grounds that it infringed the universal (natural) right to human freedom. He did not restrict his category of ‘Man’ to western Man. He criticised colonialism too. He argued that Africans were productive, peaceful citizens in their own countries, until the English enslaved them (Paine, 1774). Diderot, Raynal, d’Holbach and others contributed to a 1770 volume titled Histoire Philosophique des Deux Indes (The Philosophical History of the Two Indies). The book asserts that ‘natural liberty is the right which nature has given to everyone to dispose of himself according to his will’. It prophesied and defended the revolutionary overthrow of slavery: ‘The negroes only want a chief, sufficiently courageous to lead them to vengeance and slaughter… Where is the new Spartacus?’ (cited in Malik, 2017).

So Emejulu’s account, and the assumption of decolonialism, are wrong. The issue is not that the Enlightenment is racist and partial, and the intellectual traditions that draw upon its legacy comprise ‘imperial’ or ‘colonial’ knowledge. Rather, the Enlightenment put reason and rationality, scientific method and the potential for liberty and equality at the centre of intellectual and political life. It provided a basis for common, human pursuit of knowledge.

The growth of scientific method associated with the Enlightenment, as an orientation towards knowledge, was not linked to any particular culture or deity, but to universal reason (Malik, 2014). The implication of this is that theories should be judged for their capacity to explain and predict, concepts for their capacity to illuminate and techniques for their efficacy. That they should be judged with consideration for (or even deference towards) the identity, political or social, of their originator, or with regard to context or contemporary use – all key to decolonialism – undermines the pursuit of truth as a universal, human project.

Knowledge, theories and techniques are better seen as having the capacity to transcend place and power. The veracity of a theory, the usefulness of a concept or the efficacy of a technique are remarkably unaffected by their origin and their context. Audre Lorde’s idiom, ‘The masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house’, invoked by Jazeel (2017: 335) to argue that the traditions of knowledge and rights associated with the West cannot be the basis for the liberation of the non-West, is simply untrue in this context. The anti-colonial and anti-racist movements of the past achieved a massive amount through struggles that explicitly drew upon iconic assertions of the ‘Western’ Enlightenment. There is clearly some way to go.

Concluding Thoughts: Decolonialism and Liberation

To decolonise has been presented as a moral imperative connected to liberation (Jazeel, 2017; Elliot-Cooper, 2017). I think it is better regarded as one approach, premised upon particular political views and assumptions such as critical race theory and the intersectional politics of identity. In its advocacy of an ontological pluriverse and of diverse systems of knowledge, there is one knowledge claim that cannot be allowed – the claim that knowledge, from any source, ultimately, can aspire to be universal. In addition, presenting decolonialism as a moral and political imperative leaves little room for alternatives which become, a priori, immoral.

By contrast, Brenda Wingfield, Vice President of the Academy of Science of South Africa, argues that: ‘What’s really important is that South African teachers, lecturers and professors must develop curricula that build on the best knowledge skills, values, beliefs and habits from around the world’ (2017) (my italics). She fears that the rhetoric of decolonialism will effectively delink South Africa from science’s cutting edge. She points out that this in turn reduces the opportunity for young black South African scholars to be involved with the most advanced knowledge whatever its source, and also the opportunity to adapt and utilise that knowledge to address local issues and conditions. In other words, decolonialism could damage the potential for material liberation from poverty, and for promoting a more equal involvement in the global production of knowledge about our shared world.

In the spirit of the Radical Enlightenment, I would argue that the best of geographical knowledge and technique be made available for the benefit of all, on the terms of the beneficiaries. In judging ’the best’, origin and context, whilst important and enlightening areas of study in themselves, are secondary.

Academics and universities could certainly more effectively challenge the marginalisation of parts of the world in academic life and the production of geographical knowledge. Suggestions would include: Truly reciprocal academic exchanges, funded by Western universities who can better afford it, where budding academics from the South can choose freely from the curriculum around their own priorities; greater joint projects to understand and find solutions to problems as they are defined by Southern governments; increased funding for twinning with under resourced universities in the South, with a “no strings attached” undertaking to share knowledge, training and resources as they are demanded from academics based in the South.

In other words, we should prioritise a relationship between knowledge and resources from the best universities in the world (wherever they are located), and the sovereignty of the South.

None of this necessitates the decolonisation of geographical knowledge. Rather, it requires us to think afresh at how the promissory note of the Enlightenment – the ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality (and I would add of the potential to understand the word in order to change it) – can be cashed.

Contact details:


Arnold, Matthew. (1869). Culture and anarchy: An essay in political and social criticism. Oxford: Project Gutenberg.

Baldwin, A. (2017) Decolonising geographical knowledges: the incommensurable, the university and democracy. Area, 49, 3, 329-331. DOI:10.1111/area.12374

Blaser, M. (2012). Ontology and indigeneity: on the political ontology of heterogenous assemblages. Cultural Geographies, 21, 1, 7 DOI:10.1177/1474474012462534.

Connell, R. (2007). Southern theory: Social science and the global dynamics of knowledge. London: Polity.

Connell, R. (2017) Decolonising the curriculum. Retrieved from: .

Daigle, M and Sundberg, J. (2017). From where we stand: unsettling geographical knowledge in the classroom. Transactions, 42 , 338-341. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12195

Darwin, C. (1998, original 1859). The origin of species (Classics of world literature). London: Wordsworth.

Elliott-Cooper, A. (2017). ‘Free, decolonised education’: a lesson from the south African student struggle. Area, 49, 3, 332-334. DOI: 10.1111/area.12375

Emejulu, A. (2017). Another university is possible. Verso books blog. January 12 Retrieved from: .

Esson, J, Noxolo, P. Baxter, R. Daley, P. and Byron, M. (2017). The 2017 RGS-IGB chair’s theme: decolonising geographical knowledges, or reproducing coloniality? Area, 49,3, 384-388. DOI: 10.1111/area.12371

Fricker, M. (1999) Epistemic oppression and epistemic privilege, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 29: sup1, 191-210. DOI: 10.1080/00455091.1999.10716836

Gellner, E. (1987). Relativism and the social sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grosfoguel, R. (2007). The epistemic decolonial turn. Cultural Studies, 21:2-3, 211-223. DOI:10.1080/09502380601162514

Ho Chi Minh. (1945) Declaration of independence, democratic republic of Vietnam. Retrieved from: .

Israel, J. (2009) A revolution of the mind: Radical enlightenment and the Intellectual origins of modern democracy. Princeton University Press.

James, CLR (2001, original 1938) The black Jacobins. Toussaint L’ouverture and the San Domingo revolution. London: Penguin

Jazeel. (2017). Mainstreaming geography’s decolonial imperative. Transactions, 42, 334-337. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12200

King, Martin Luther. (1991). A testament of hope: The essential writings of Martin Luther King. New York: Harper Collins.

Livingstone, David. N. (1992). The geographical tradition: Episodes in the history of a contested enterprise. London: Wiley

Malik, K. (1996). The meaning of race: Race, history and culture in Western society. London: Palgrave.

Malik, K. (2014). The quest for a moral compass: a global history of ethics. London: Atlantic.

Malik, K. (2017) Are SOAS students right to ‘decolonise’ their minds from western philosophers? The Observer. Sunday 19 Feb Retrieved from: .

Mignolo, W. (2007). Delinking. Cultural Studies, 21,2-3, 449-514. DOI: 10.1080/09502380601162647

Mignolo, W. (2013). On pluriversality. Retrieved from

Mills, C.W. (1999). The racial contract. Cornell University Press.

Noxolo, P. (2017). Decolonial theory in a time of the recolonization of UK research. Transactions, 42, 342-344. DOI:10.1111/tran.12202

Pagden, A. (2015). The Enlightenment: And why it still matters. Oxford: OUP Press

Paine, T. (1774). Essay on slavery, 1774. In Foot. M and Kramnick I. (eds) (1987). Thomas Paine Reader: London:Penguin: 52-56

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Wingfield, B. (2017) What “decolonised education” should and shouldn’t mean. The Conversation. February 14. Retrieved from: .

Author Information: Markus Arnold, University of Klagenfurt,

Arnold, Markus. “Is There Anything Wrong with Thomas Kuhn?.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 42-47.

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

Image by Rob Thomas via Flickr / Creative Commons


Twenty-two years after his death, Thomas Kuhn’s work is still able to provoke lively debates, where arguments are exchanged and competing interpretations of his theories are advanced. The Kuhnian Image of Science is a good example, as the book brings together ten scholars in a debate for and against Thomas Kuhn’s legacy. The question, the edited volume raises, is straightforward:

“Does the Kuhnian image of science provide an adequate model of scientific change? If we abandon the Kuhnian picture of revolutionary change and incommensurability […], what consequences would follow from that vis-à-vis our understanding of science as a social, epistemic endeavor?” (7)

In this review I will concentrate on the first two parts of the book, i.e. and in particular on the debate between those who are questioning (Mizrahi, Argamakova, Park, Sankey), and those who are defending Kuhn (Kindi, Patton), since their arguments are closely related. Therefore, I will discuss some of their major arguments in topological order.

Debating Kuhn’s Evidence

The editor Moti Mizrahi opens the debate in his introduction with a confrontational thesis: Kuhn, in his opinion, is responsible for an “infectious disease” (3), for “the pathological state of the field of philosophy of science in general, and general philosophy of science in particular” (3). Kuhn’s vice is his use of case studies (from the history of science) as arguments, although – according to Moti Mizrahi – they are nothing more than “anecdotal evidence” leading to “hasty generalizations” and “fallacious inductive reasoning” (6).

Hearing the trumpets of the troops ready to battle one is eager to learn how to do it right: How the standards of inductive reasoning within philosophy of science are re-erected. Yet, anticipating one of the results of this review, the “inductive reasoning” intended to refute Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis (found in the first part of the book) is actually its weakest part.

However, to understand the intricacy of this difficult task, we have to recognize, that it is not easy to support or falsify inductively a complex theory of science. Broadly speaking, in Kuhn’s account we should empirically observe sciences displaying at least four different manifestations: (1.) “proto-science” in the pre-paradigm phase, when there is no general consensus about theories, methods and standards, (2.) “normal science”, when scientists are most of the time focused on preserving, but also adapting existing paradigms to new problems and new scientific fields, (3.) sciences in a state of crisis, when more and more “anomalies” occur, which defy explanations in conformity with established procedures, and finally (4.) on rare occasions a “revolutionary” state, when different paradigms compete with each other and scientific theories based on one paradigm are to some extent “incommensurable” with those based on another paradigm.

There are good reasons to suppose that Kuhn’s somehow schematic and ideal-typical description of scientific change is too simple compared with the complexities shown by many historical case studies. Nevertheless, the counter-arguments under consideration brought forward against his model seem, paradoxically, to underestimate the complexity of Kuhn’s claims. For example, in Kuhn’s Incommensurability Thesis Mizrahi decides to discuss scientific change only in general.  He claims that Kuhn argues:

“Scientific change (specifically, revolutionary change) is characterized by taxonomic incommensurability.” (33)

The compounded phrase “[s]cientific change (specifically, revolutionary change)” indicates that, in Mizrahi’s interpretation, for Kuhn not all scientific change is per definition revolutionary. But then arguments against Kuhn’s theory should consider at least two kinds of scientific change separately: revolutionary change and those (commensurable) non-revolutionary scientific changes within “normal science.”

Keeping in mind that for Kuhn theory change is possible to a certain degree within normal science (only changing paradigms must be averted)[1], it is not clear, why Kuhn’s “image of science” should be dismissed because “as far as theory change is concerned” taxonomic incommensurability “is the exception rather than the rule” (38).[2]

Or another example, in Can Kuhn’s Taxonomic Incommensurability Be an Image of Science? where Seungbae Park comes to the conclusion that historical evidence shows that “scientific revolution is rare, taxonomic incommensurability is rare, and taxonomic commensurability is common” (61). It is, for similar reasons, unclear why this conclusion should not be commensurable with Kuhn’s description of normal science, since Kuhn claimed that normal science is common and scientific revolutions are rare.

However, this is not Park’s last argument about scientific change: He asks furthermore if we should not distinguish between the distant scientific past, when scientific revolutions were more common, and the recent past, “since most recent past theories have been stable, most present theories will also be stable” (70). Kuhn’s theory of revolutionary paradigm change is, in his opinion, first of all not appropriate for understanding the development of contemporary and future science.

Incommensurable Paradigms of Language?

After a discussion of the critical reception of Thomas Kuhn’s and Paul Feyerabend’s work and the objections raised against their claim that scientific theories or paradigms are incommensurable, Howard Sankey admits in The Demise of the Incommensurability Thesis that:

“the idea that there is conceptual change in science now seems commonplace. But the much-feared consequences, such as incomparability, communication breakdown, and irrationality now all seem to have been greatly overblown.” (88)

Prima facie it seems like a self-critical admission of an inappropriate former reception of Kuhn’s theory of incommensurability, especially by those philosophers of science who tried to fight “irrationality” with the means of referential semantics. However, Sankey seems to think that the dissolution of the exaggerated accusations of Kuhn’s critics somehow makes now Kuhn’s theory of incommensurability obsolete. Hence, Sankey can summarize:

“with the demise of the incommensurability thesis, the debate about scientific realism is free to proceed in a manner that is unencumbered by the semantic concerns about wholesale referential discontinuity that were prompted by the incommensurability thesis.” (88)

For Sankey, Kuhn’s concept of incommensurability is dead (87). He seems to blame Kuhn for the misguided interpretations of his opponents. It comes down to the argument: if it’s not possible to criticize Kuhn’s concept of incommensurability as “irrational” anymore, then Kuhn’s concept cannot claim any relevance for future discussions.

However, more importantly: These arguments against Kuhn are based on referential semantics, i.e. semantic concerns about referential continuity. Hence, what their objections against Kuhn’s incommensurability theory inadvertently show is, paradoxically, the incommensurability of competing paradigms of language. This becomes apparent, for example, when Mizrahi criticizes Kuhn’s sometimes-vague formulations, especially in his early Structure. Mizrahi refers to statements where Kuhn argues with caution:

“The normal-scientific tradition that emerges from a scientific revolution is not only incompatible but often [sic] actually incommensurable with that which has gone before.” (Kuhn 1996, 103)

Formulations such as this prompt Mizrahi to ask: If taxonomic incommensurability (TI):

“is not a general thesis about the nature of scientific change, then what is its explanatory value? How does (TI) help us in terms of understanding the nature of scientific change? On most accounts of explanation, an explanans must have some degree of generality […] But if (TI) has no degree of generality, then it is difficult to see what the explanatory value of (TI) is.” (37)

Kuhn could have responded that his arguments in Structure are explicitly based on Wittgenstein’s theory of “language games” with its central concept of “family resemblance”, which by definition does not allow the assumption that there are unambiguous conceptual boundaries and a distinguishing characteristic, which all or even most of the phenomena aligned by a concept have in common.[3]

Indeed, understanding Wittgenstein’s concept of “family resemblance” is central to understand Kuhn’s theory of “paradigms”, “paradigm shifts”, and the meaning of “incommensurability”.[4] Yet, it is possible to come to similar conclusions without referring to the late Wittgenstein: For example, Alexandra Argamakova despite of her negative evaluation of many of Kuhn’s arguments, unlike Mizrahi, is closer on this issue to Kuhn where she claims in Modeling Scientific Development: “distinct breakthroughs in science can be marked as revolutions, but no universal system of criteria for such appraisal can be formulated in a normative philosophical manner” (54).

Defending Kuhn’s Epistemology

In two of the book’s most interesting discussions of Kuhn’s epistemology, Vasso Kandi’s The Kuhnian Straw Man and Lydia Patton’s Kuhn, Pedagogy, and Practice, the allegation that Kuhn developed his theory on the basis of selected historical cases is refuted. Furthermore, Kindi, defending the innovative character of Kuhn’s work asks “for a more faithful reading”:

“Kuhn’s new image of science, which is actually a mosaic of different traditions, was not put together by generalizing from instances; it emerged once attention was drawn to what makes scientific practice possible, namely paradigms and what follows from them (normal science, anomalies, revolutions). In accordance with Kuhn’s own understanding of scientific revolutions, his revolution in the perception of science did not have to summon new facts or make new discoveries; it only needed a new perspective.” (104)

While Lydia Patton forcefully argues that:

“Kuhn’s original work did not restrict ‘paradigm’ to ‘theoretical framework’, nor did he restrict the perspective of scientific practice to the content of propositions with a truth-value. And it is mainly because Kuhn’s arguments in Structure are outside the semantic view, and focus instead on the practice of science, that they are interesting and fresh.” (124)

Both, Patton and Kindi, offer a close reading of Kuhn’s work, trying to give new perspectives on some of the more contested concepts in Kuhn’s epistemology.

The Social in Social Epistemology

One explicit aim of this edited volume is, as the editor asserts, to outline what consequences would follow from this debate for “our understanding of science as a social, epistemic endeavor” (7). But for this reviewer it is not obvious how the strong emphasis on discounting Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis in the first part of the book should lead to a better understanding of science as a social practice.

Kuhn’s theory of incommensurability of competing paradigms is precisely the point within his epistemology where value judgments and social decisions come into play. While traditionally those who defended the “progress of science” (cf. Sankey: 87) against what they saw as Kuhn’s “anti-realist” position were often those who wanted to defend the objectivity of science by excluding “external” influences, like the “social” and the political, from the scientific core.[5]

It is therefore important when talking about incommensurability of paradigms, and the possibility of a “communication breakdown”, to distinguish between two distinct meanings: (a) the impossibility to communicate at all because people do not understand each other’s language or paradigms and (b) the decision after a long and futile debate to end any further communication as a waste of time since no agreement can be reached. It is this second meaning, describing a social phenomenon, which is very common in science. Sankey argues against the first meaning when he declares:

“Given that scientists are able to understand what is said by theories whose terms are untranslatable into their own, no insuperable obstacle stands in the way of full communication between the ‘proponents of competing paradigms.’” (87)

While Sankey “wonders what all the fuss was about” (87), he has only shown (in accordance with Kuhn: cf. Kuhn 2000) that in theory full communication may be possible, but not that communication breakdowns are not common between scientists working with different paradigms. While on a theoretical level these workday problems to communicate may seem, for some philosophers of science, trivial. However, on the social level for working scientists, such communication breakdowns are often not only the reason for fraught relations between colleagues, but also for disciplinary segmentation and sometimes for re-drawing boundaries of scientific disciplines.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that in this volume those who discuss social as well as epistemological practices of scientists are not those who criticize incommensurability from a semantic point of view. Social and epistemological practices are considered in one way or the other by those defending Kuhn, like Kindi and Patton, and those whose main concern is to revise certain aspects of Kuhn’s image of science, like James A. Marcum, Barbara Gabriella Renzi & Giulio Napolitano, and David P. Rowbottom.

However, as I confined this review to the discussion of the first six articles I can only point out that the four remaining articles go beyond the topics discussed thus far and would deserve not only attentive readers but also a thorough discussion. They analyze, for example, scientific revolutions in mathematics (Andrew Aberdein), the role of evolutionary metaphors (Gabriella Renzi/Napolitano, Marcum) and of methodological contextualism in the philosophy of science (Rowbottom). Hence, although this edited volume has some weaknesses, there are several contributions, which open new avenues of thought about Kuhn, and are worth reading for those interested in Kuhn and in philosophy of science.

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Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Kuhn, Thomas S. „Commensurability, Comparability, Communicability,“ In Thomas S. Kuhn, Thomas S. The Road Since Structure. Philosophical Essays, 1970-1993, 33-57. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Mizrahi, Moti (Ed.) The Kuhnian Image of Science. Time for a Decisive Transformation? Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophische Untersuchungen / Philosophical Investigations. Transl. by G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

[1] Kuhn discusses this type of theory change, for example, as divergent „articulation(s) of the paradigm“ (Kuhn 1996, 83; cf. Kuhn 1996, 23, 29-34, 122).

[2] Always on condition that, like Moti Mizrahi in this argument, we accept the concept of „incommensurability“ as defined by referential semantics. On some problems with „referential continuity“ as main argument against incommensurability see further below.

[3] “Instead of pointing out something common to all […], I’m saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common in virtue of which we use the same word for all – but there are many different kinds of affinity between them“ (Wittgenstein 2009, § 65) “I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family – build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, and so on and so forth – overlap and criss-cross in the same way.” (§ 67)

[4] Cf. Kuhn 1996, Ch. 5. Later, Kuhn argued explicitly against referential semantics but then on the basis of a hermeneutic (holistic) theory of language (Kuhn 2000; but cf. Kuhn 1996, 128f.).

[5] This, despite the fact that Kuhn himself tried to restrict the relevant „social“ factors in his epistemology to social dynamics within scientific communities.

Author information: Moti Mizrahi, Florida Institute of Technology,

Mizrahi, Moti. “More in Defense of Weak Scientism: Another Reply to Brown.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 4 (2018): 7-25.

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

Please refer to:

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In my (2017a), I defend a view I call Weak Scientism, which is the view that knowledge produced by scientific disciplines is better than knowledge produced by non-scientific disciplines.[1] Scientific knowledge can be said to be quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as scientific disciplines produce more impactful knowledge–in the form of scholarly publications–than non-scientific disciplines (as measured by research output and research impact). Scientific knowledge can be said to be qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as such knowledge is explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively more successful than non-scientific knowledge.

Brown (2017a) raises several objections against my defense of Weak Scientism and I have replied to his objections (Mizrahi 2017b), thereby showing again that Weak Scientism is a defensible view. Since then, Brown (2017b) has reiterated his objections in another reply on SERRC. Almost unchanged from his previous attack on Weak Scientism (Brown 2017a), Brown’s (2017b) objections are the following:

  1. Weak Scientism is not strong enough to count as scientism.
  2. Advocates of Strong Scientism should not endorse Weak Scientism.
  3. Weak Scientism does not show that philosophy is useless.
  4. My defense of Weak Scientism appeals to controversial philosophical assumptions.
  5. My defense of Weak Scientism is a philosophical argument.
  6. There is nothing wrong with persuasive definitions of scientism.

In what follows, I will respond to these objections, thereby showing once more that Weak Scientism is a defensible view. Since I have been asked to keep this as short as possible, however, I will try to focus on what I take to be new in Brown’s (2017b) latest attack on Weak Scientism.

Is Weak Scientism Strong Enough to Count as Scientism?

Brown (2017b) argues for (1) on the grounds that, on Weak Scientism, “philosophical knowledge may be nearly as valuable as scientific knowledge.” Brown (2017b, 4) goes on to characterize a view he labels “Scientism2,” which he admits is the same view as Strong Scientism, and says that “there is a huge logical gap between Strong Scientism (Scientism2) and Weak Scientism.”

As was the case the first time Brown raised this objection, it is not clear how it is supposed to show that Weak Scientism is not “really” a (weaker) version of scientism (Mizrahi 2017b, 10-11). Of course there is a logical gap between Strong Scientism and Weak Scientism; that is why I distinguish between these two epistemological views. If I am right, Strong Scientism is too strong to be a defensible version of scientism, whereas Weak Scientism is a defensible (weaker) version of scientism (Mizrahi 2017a, 353-354).

Of course Weak Scientism “leaves open the possibility that there is philosophical knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 5). If I am right, such philosophical knowledge would be inferior to scientific knowledge both quantitatively (in terms of research output and research impact) and qualitatively (in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success) (Mizrahi 2017a, 358).

Brown (2017b, 5) does try to offer a reason “for thinking it strange that Weak Scientism counts as a species of scientism” in his latest attack on Weak Scientism, which does not appear in his previous attack. He invites us to imagine a theist who believes that “modern science is the greatest new intellectual achievement since the fifteenth century” (emphasis in original). Brown then claims that this theist would be an advocate of Weak Scientism because Brown (2017b, 6) takes “modern science is the greatest new intellectual achievement since the fifteenth century” to be “(roughly) equivalent to Weak Scientism.” For Brown (2017b, 6), however, “it seems odd, to say the least, that [this theist] should count as an advocate (even roughly) of scientism.”

Unfortunately, Brown’s appeal to intuition is rather difficult to evaluate because his hypothetical case is under-described.[2] First, the key phrase, namely, “modern science is the greatest new intellectual achievement since the fifteenth century,” is vague in more ways than one. I have no idea what “greatest” is supposed to mean here. Greatest in what respects? What are the other “intellectual achievements” relative to which science is said to be “the greatest”?

Also, what does “intellectual achievement” mean here? There are multiple accounts and literary traditions in history and philosophy of science, science studies, and the like on what counts as “intellectual achievements” or progress in science (Mizrahi 2013b). Without a clear understanding of what these key phrases mean here, it is difficult to tell how Brown’s intuition about this hypothetical case is supposed to be a reason to think that Weak Scientism is not “really” a (weaker) version of scientism.

Toward the end of his discussion of (1), Brown says something that suggests he actually has an issue with the word ‘scientism’. Brown (2017b, 6) writes, “perhaps Mizrahi should coin a new word for the position with respect to scientific knowledge and non-scientific forms of academic knowledge he wants to talk about” (emphasis in original). It should be clear, of course, that it does not matter what label I use for the view that “Of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the best knowledge” (Mizrahi 2017a, 354; emphasis in original). What matters is the content of the view, not the label.

Whether Brown likes the label or not, Weak Scientism is a (weaker) version of scientism because it is the view that scientific ways of knowing are superior (in certain relevant respects) to non-scientific ways of knowing, whereas Strong Scientism is the view that scientific ways of knowing are the only ways of knowing. As I have pointed out in my previous reply to Brown, whether scientific ways of knowing are superior to non-scientific ways of knowing is essentially what the scientism debate is all about (Mizrahi 2017b, 13).

Before I conclude this discussion of (1), I would like to point out that Brown seems to have misunderstood Weak Scientism. He (2017b, 3) claims that “Weak Scientism is a normative and not a descriptive claim.” This is a mistake. As a thesis (Peels 2017, 11), Weak Scientism is a descriptive claim about scientific knowledge in comparison to non-scientific knowledge. This should be clear provided that we keep in mind what it means to say that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge. As I have argued in my (2017a), to say that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge is to say that there is a lot more scientific knowledge than non-scientific knowledge (as measured by research output) and that the impact of scientific knowledge is greater than that of non-scientific knowledge (as measured by research impact).

To say that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge is to say that scientific knowledge is explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively more successful than non-scientific knowledge. All these claims about the superiority of scientific knowledge to non-scientific knowledge are descriptive, not normative, claims. That is to say, Weak Scientism is the view that, as a matter of fact, knowledge produced by scientific fields of study is quantitatively (in terms of research output and research impact) and qualitatively (in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success) better than knowledge produced by non-scientific fields of study.

Of course, Weak Scientism does have some normative implications. For instance, if scientific knowledge is indeed better than non-scientific knowledge, then, other things being equal, we should give more evidential weight to scientific knowledge than to non-scientific knowledge. For example, suppose that I am considering whether to vaccinate my child or not. On the one hand, I have scientific knowledge in the form of results from clinical trials according to which MMR vaccines are generally safe and effective.

On the other hand, I have knowledge in the form of stories about children who were vaccinated and then began to display symptoms of autism. If Weak Scientism is true, and I want to make a decision based on the best available information, then I should give more evidential weight to the scientific knowledge about MMR vaccines than to the anecdotal knowledge about MMR vaccines simply because the former is scientific (i.e., knowledge obtained by means of the methods of science, such as clinical trials) and the latter is not.

Should Advocates of Strong Scientism Endorse Weak Scientism?

Brown (2017b, 7) argues for (2) on the grounds that “once the advocate of Strong Scientism sees that an advocate of Weak Scientism admits the possibility that there is real knowledge other than what is produced by the natural sciences […] the advocate of Strong Scientism, at least given their philosophical presuppositions, will reject Weak Scientism out of hand.” It is not clear which “philosophical presuppositions” Brown is talking about here. Brown quotes Rosenberg (2011, 20), who claims that physics tells us what reality is like, presumably as an example of a proponent of Strong Scientism who would not endorse Weak Scientism. But it is not clear why Brown thinks that Rosenberg would “reject Weak Scientism out of hand” (Brown 2017d, 7).

Like other proponents of scientism, Rosenberg should endorse Weak Scientism because, unlike Strong Scientism, Weak Scientism is a defensible view. Insofar as we should endorse the view that has the most evidence in its favor, Weak Scientism has more going for it than Strong Scientism does. For to show that Strong Scientism is true, one would have to show that no field of study other than scientific ones can produce knowledge. Of course, that is not easy to show. To show that Weak Scientism is true, one only needs to show that the knowledge produced in scientific fields of study is better (in certain relevant respects) than the knowledge produced in non-scientific fields.

That is precisely what I show in my (2017a). I argue that the knowledge produced in scientific fields is quantitatively better than the knowledge produced in non-scientific fields because there is a lot more scientific knowledge than non-scientific knowledge (as measured by research output) and the former has a greater impact than the latter (as measured by research impact). I also argue that the knowledge produced in scientific fields is qualitatively better than knowledge produced in non-scientific fields because it is more explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively successful.

Contrary to what Brown (2017b, 7) seems to think, I do not have to show “that there is real knowledge other than scientific knowledge.” To defend Weak Scientism, all I have to show is that scientific knowledge is better (in certain relevant respects) than non-scientific knowledge. If anyone must argue for the claim that there is real knowledge other than scientific knowledge, it is Brown, for he wants to defend the value or usefulness of non-scientific knowledge, specifically, philosophical knowledge.

It is important to emphasize the point about the ways in which scientific knowledge is quantitatively and qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge because it looks like Brown has confused the two. For he thinks that I justify my quantitative analysis of scholarly publications in scientific and non-scientific fields by “citing the precedent of epistemologists who often treat all items of knowledge as qualitatively the same” (Brown 2017b, 22; emphasis added).

Here Brown fails to carefully distinguish between my claim that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge and my claim that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge. For the purposes of a quantitative study of knowledge, information and data scientists can do precisely what epistemologists do and “abstract from various circumstances (by employing variables)” (Brown 2017b, 22) in order to determine which knowledge is quantitatively better.

How Is Weak Scientism Relevant to the Claim that Philosophy Is Useless?

Brown (2017b, 7-8) argues for (3) on the grounds that “Weak Scientism itself implies nothing about the degree to which philosophical knowledge is valuable or useful other than stating scientific knowledge is better than philosophical knowledge” (emphasis in original).

Strictly speaking, Brown is wrong about this because Weak Scientism does imply something about the degree to which scientific knowledge is better than philosophical knowledge. Recall that to say that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge is to say that scientific fields of study publish more research and that scientific research has greater impact than the research published in non-scientific fields of study.

Contrary to what Brown seems to think, we can say to what degree scientific research is superior to non-scientific research in terms of output and impact. That is precisely what bibliometric indicators like h-index and other metrics are for (Rousseau et al. 2018). Such bibliometric indicators allow us to say how many articles are published in a given field, how many of those published articles are cited, and how many times they are cited. For instance, according to Scimago Journal & Country Rank (2018), which contains data from the Scopus database, of the 3,815 Philosophy articles published in the United States in 2016-2017, approximately 14% are cited, and their h-index is approximately 160.

On the other hand, of the 24,378 Psychology articles published in the United States in 2016-2017, approximately 40% are cited, and their h-index is approximately 640. Contrary to what Brown seems to think, then, we can say to what degree research in Psychology is better than research in Philosophy in terms of research output (i.e., number of publications) and research impact (i.e., number of citations). We can use the same bibliometric indicators and metrics to compare research in other scientific and non-scientific fields of study.

As I have already said in my previous reply to Brown, “Weak Scientism does not entail that philosophy is useless” and “I have no interest in defending the charge that philosophy is useless” (Mizrahi 2017b, 11-12). So, I am not sure why Brown brings up (3) again. Since he insists, however, let me explain why philosophers who are concerned about the charge that philosophy is useless should engage with Weak Scientism as well.

Suppose that a foundation or agency is considering whether to give a substantial grant to one of two projects. The first project is that of a philosopher who will sit in her armchair and contemplate the nature of friendship.[3] The second project is that of a team of social scientists who will conduct a longitudinal study of the effects of friendship on human well-being (e.g., Yang et al. 2016).

If Weak Scientism is true, and the foundation or agency wants to fund the project that is likely to yield better results, then it should give the grant to the team of social scientists rather than to the armchair philosopher simply because the former’s project is scientific, whereas the latter’s is not. This is because the scientific project will more likely yield better knowledge than the non-scientific project will. In other words, unlike the project of the armchair philosopher, the scientific project will probably produce more research (i.e., more publications) that will have a greater impact (i.e., more citations) and the knowledge produced will be explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively more successful than any knowledge that the philosopher’s project might produce.

This example should really hit home for Brown, since reading his latest attack on Weak Scientism gives one the impression that he thinks of philosophy as a personal, “self-improvement” kind of enterprise, rather than an academic discipline or field of study. For instance, he seems to be saying that philosophy is not in the business of producing “new knowledge” or making “discoveries” (Brown 2017b, 17).

Rather, Brown (2017b, 18) suggests that philosophy “is more about individual intellectual progress rather than collective intellectual progress.” Individual progress or self-improvement is great, of course, but I am not sure that it helps Brown’s case in defense of philosophy against what he sees as “the menace of scientism.” For this line of thinking simply adds fuel to the fire set by those who want to see philosophy burn. As I point out in my (2017a), scientists who dismiss philosophy do so because they find it academically useless.

For instance, Hawking and Mlodinow (2010, 5) write that ‘philosophy is dead’ because it ‘has not kept up with developments in science, particularly physics’ (emphasis added). Similarly, Weinberg (1994, 168) says that, as a working scientist, he ‘finds no help in professional philosophy’ (emphasis added). (Mizrahi 2017a, 356)

Likewise, Richard Feynman is rumored to have said that “philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds” (Kitcher 1998, 32). It is clear, then, that what these scientists complain about is professional or academic philosophy. Accordingly, they would have no problem with anyone who wants to pursue philosophy for the sake of “individual intellectual progress.” But that is not the issue here. Rather, the issue is academic knowledge or research.

Does My Defense of Weak Scientism Appeal to Controversial Philosophical Assumptions?

Brown (2017b, 9) argues for (4) on the grounds that I assume that “we are supposed to privilege empirical (I read Mizrahi’s ‘empirical’ here as ‘experimental/scientific’) evidence over non-empirical evidence.” But that is question-begging, Brown claims, since he takes me to be assuming something like the following: “If the question of whether scientific knowledge is superior to [academic] non-scientific knowledge is a question that one can answer empirically, then, in order to pose a serious challenge to my [Mizrahi’s] defense of Weak Scientism, Brown must come up with more than mere ‘what ifs’” (Mizrahi 2017b, 10; quoted in Brown 2017b, 8).

This objection seems to involve a confusion about how defeasible reasoning and defeating evidence are supposed to work. Given that “a rebutting defeater is evidence which prevents E from justifying belief in H by supporting not-H in a more direct way” (Kelly 2016), claims about what is actual cannot be defeated by mere possibilities, since claims of the form “Possibly, p” do not prevent a piece of evidence from justifying belief in “Actually, p” by supporting “Actually, not-p” directly.

For example, the claim “Hillary Clinton could have been the 45th President of the United States” does not prevent my perceptual and testimonial evidence from justifying my belief in “Donald Trump is the 45th President of the United States,” since the former does not support “It is not the case that Donald Trump is the 45th President of the United States” in a direct way. In general, claims of the form “Possibly, p” are not rebutting defeaters against claims of the form “Actually, p.” Defeating evidence against claims of the form “Actually, p” must be about what is actual (or at least probable), not what is merely possible, in order to support “Actually, not-p” directly.

For this reason, although “the production of some sorts of non-scientific knowledge work may be harder than the production of scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 19), Brown gives no reasons to think that it is actually or probably harder, which is why this possibility does nothing to undermine the claim that scientific knowledge is actually better than non-scientific knowledge. Just as it is possible that philosophical knowledge is harder to produce than scientific knowledge, it is also possible that scientific knowledge is harder to produce than philosophical knowledge. It is also possible that scientific and non-scientific knowledge are equally hard to produce.

Similarly, the possibility that “a little knowledge about the noblest things is more desirable than a lot of knowledge about less noble things” (Brown 2017b, 19), whatever “noble” is supposed to mean here, does not prevent my bibliometric evidence (in terms of research output and research impact) from justifying the belief that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge. Just as it is possible that philosophical knowledge is “nobler” (whatever that means) than scientific knowledge, it is also possible that scientific knowledge is “nobler” than philosophical knowledge or that they are equally “noble” (Mizrahi 2017b, 9-10).

In fact, even if Brown (2017a, 47) is right that “philosophy is harder than science” and that “knowing something about human persons–particularly qua embodied rational being–is a nobler piece of knowledge than knowing something about any non-rational object” (Brown 2017b, 21), whatever “noble” is supposed to mean here, it would still be the case that scientific fields produce more knowledge (as measured by research output), and more impactful knowledge (as measured by research impact), than non-scientific disciplines.

So, I am not sure why Brown keeps insisting on mentioning these mere possibilities. He also seems to forget that the natural and social sciences study human persons as well. Even if knowledge about human persons is “nobler” (whatever that means), there is a lot of scientific knowledge about human persons coming from scientific fields, such as anthropology, biology, genetics, medical science, neuroscience, physiology, psychology, and sociology, to name just a few.

One of the alleged “controversial philosophical assumptions” that my defense of Weak Scientism rests on, and that Brown (2017a) complains about the most in his previous attack on Weak Scientism, is my characterization of philosophy as the scholarly work that professional philosophers do. In my previous reply, I argue that Brown is not in a position to complain that this is a “controversial philosophical assumption,” since he rejects my characterization of philosophy as the scholarly work that professional philosophers produce, but he does not tell us what counts as philosophical (Mizrahi 2017b, 13). Well, it turns out that Brown does not reject my characterization of philosophy after all. For, after he was challenged to say what counts as philosophical, he came up with the following “sufficient condition for pieces of writing and discourse that count as philosophy” (Brown 2017b, 11):

(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 (Brown 2017b, 11; emphasis added).

Clearly, this is my characterization of philosophy in terms of the scholarly work that professional philosophers produce. Brown simply adds teaching to it. Since he admits that “scientists teach students too” (Brown 2017b, 18), however, it is not clear how adding teaching to my characterization of philosophy is supposed to support his attack on Weak Scientism. In fact, it may actually undermine his attack on Weak Scientism, since there is a lot more teaching going on in STEM fields than in non-STEM fields.

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (2017), in the 2015-16 academic year, post-secondary institutions in the United States conferred only 10,157 Bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies compared to 113,749 Bachelor’s degrees in biological and biomedical sciences, 106,850 Bachelor’s degrees in engineering, and 117,440 in psychology. In general, in the 2015-2016 academic year, 53.3% of the Bachelor’s degrees conferred by post-secondary institutions in the United States were degrees in STEM fields, whereas only 5.5% of conferred Bachelor’s degrees were in the humanities (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Bachelor’s degrees conferred by post-secondary institutions in the US, by field of study, 2015-2016 (Source: NCES)


Clearly, then, there is a lot more teaching going on in science than in philosophy (or even in the humanities in general), since a lot more students take science courses and graduate with degrees in scientific fields of study. So, even if Brown is right that we should include teaching in what counts as philosophy, it is still the case that scientific fields are quantitatively better than non-scientific fields.

Since Brown (2017b, 13) seems to agree that philosophy (at least in part) is the scholarly work that academic philosophers produce, it is peculiar that he complains, without argument, that “an understanding of philosophy and knowledge as operational is […] shallow insofar as philosophy and knowledge can’t fit into the narrow parameters of another empirical study.” Once Brown (2017b, 11) grants that “Those articles published in philosophical journals” count as philosophy, he thereby also grants that these journal articles can be studied empirically using the methods of bibliometrics, information science, or data science.

That is, Brown (2017b, 11) concedes that philosophy consists (at least in part) of “articles published in philosophical journals,” and so these articles can be compared to other articles published in science journals to determine research output, and they can also be compared to articles published in science journals in terms of citation counts to determine research impact. What exactly is “shallow” about that? Brown does not say.

A, perhaps unintended, consequence of Brown’s (P) is that the “great thinkers from the past” (Brown 2017b, 18), those that Brown (2017b, 13) likes to remind us “were not professional philosophers,” did not do philosophy, by Brown’s own lights. For “Socrates, Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Locke, and Hume” (Brown 2017b, 13) did not publish in philosophy journals, were not academics with a Ph.D. in philosophy, and did not teach at public universities courses “with titles such as Introduction to Philosophy, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Normative Ethics, and Philosophy of Science” (Brown 2017b, 11).

Another peculiar thing about Brown’s (P) is the restriction of the philosophical to what is being taught in public universities. What about community colleges and private universities? Is Brown suggesting that philosophy courses taught at private universities do not count as philosophy courses? This is peculiar, especially in light of the fact that, at least according to The Philosophical Gourmet Report (Brogaard and Pynes 2018), the top ranked philosophy programs in the United States are mostly located in private universities, such as New York University and Princeton University.

Is My Defense of Weak Scientism a Scientific or a Philosophical Argument?

Brown argues for (5) on the grounds that my (2017a) is published in a philosophy journal, namely, Social Epistemology, and so it a piece of philosophical knowledge by my lights, since I count as philosophy the research articles that are published in philosophy journals.

Brown would be correct about this if Social Epistemology were a philosophy journal. But it is not. Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy is an interdisciplinary journal. The journal’s “aim and scope” statement makes it clear that Social Epistemology is an interdisciplinary journal:

Social Epistemology provides a forum for philosophical and social scientific enquiry that incorporates the work of scholars from a variety of disciplines who share a concern with the production, assessment and validation of knowledge. The journal covers both empirical research into the origination and transmission of knowledge and normative considerations which arise as such research is implemented, serving as a guide for directing contemporary knowledge enterprises (Social Epistemology 2018).

The fact that Social Epistemology is an interdisciplinary journal, with contributions from “Philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, cultural historians, social studies of science researchers, [and] educators” (Social Epistemology 2018) would not surprise anyone who is familiar with the history of the journal. The founding editor of the journal is Steve Fuller, who was trained in an interdisciplinary field, namely, History and Philosophy of Science (HPS), and is currently the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology in the Department of Sociology at Warwick University. Brown (2017b, 15) would surely agree that sociology is not philosophy, given that, for him, “cataloguing what a certain group of people believes is sociology and not philosophy.” The current executive editor of the journal is James H. Collier, who is a professor of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech, and who was trained in Science and Technology Studies (STS), which is an interdisciplinary field as well.

Brown asserts without argument that the methods of a scientific field of study, such as sociology, are different in kind from those of philosophy: “What I contend is that […] philosophical methods are different in kind from those of the experimental scientists [sciences?]” (Brown 2017b, 24). He then goes on to speculate about what it means to say that an explanation is testable (Brown 2017b, 25). What Brown comes up with is rather unclear to me. For instance, I have no idea what it means to evaluate an explanation by inductive generalization (Brown 2017b, 25).

Instead, Brown should have consulted any one of the logic and reasoning textbooks I keep referring to in my (2017a) and (2017b) to find out that it is generally accepted among philosophers that the good-making properties of explanations, philosophical and otherwise, include testability among other good-making properties (see, e.g., Sinnott-Armstrong and Fogelin 2010, 257). As far as testability is concerned, to test an explanation or hypothesis is to determine “whether predictions that follow from it are true” (Salmon 2013, 255). In other words, “To say that a hypothesis is testable is at least to say that some prediction made on the basis of that hypothesis may confirm or disconfirm it” (Copi et al. 2011, 515).

For this reason, Feser’s analogy according to which “to compare the epistemic values of science and philosophy and fault philosophy for not being good at making testable predications [sic] 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” (Brown 2017b, 25), which Brown likes to refer to (Brown 2017a, 48), is inapt.

It is not an apt analogy because, unlike metal detectors and gardening tools, which serve different purposes, both science and philosophy are in the business of explaining things. Indeed, Brown admits that, like good scientific explanations, “good philosophical theories explain things” (emphasis in original). In other words, Brown admits that both scientific and philosophical theories are instruments of explanation (unlike gardening and metal-detecting instruments). To provide good explanations, then, both scientific and philosophical theories must be testable (Mizrahi 2017b, 19-20).

What Is Wrong with Persuasive Definitions of Scientism?

Brown (2017b, 31) argues for (6) on the grounds that “persuasive definitions are [not] always dialectically pernicious.” He offers an argument whose conclusion is “abortion is murder” as an example of an argument for a persuasive definition of abortion. He then outlines an argument for a persuasive definition of scientism according to which “Weak Scientism is a view that has its advocates putting too high a value on scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32).

The problem, however, is that Brown is confounding arguments for a definition with the definition itself. Having an argument for a persuasive definition does not change the fact that it is a persuasive definition. To illustrate this point, let me give an example that I think Brown will appreciate. Suppose I define theism as an irrational belief in the existence of God. That is, “theism” means “an irrational belief in the existence of God.” I can also provide an argument for this definition:

P1: If it is irrational to have paradoxical beliefs and God is a paradoxical being, then theism is an irrational belief in the existence of God.

P2: It is irrational to have paradoxical beliefs and God is a paradoxical being (e.g., the omnipotence paradox).[4]


C: Theism is an irrational belief in the existence of God.

But surely, theists will complain that my definition of theism is a “dialectically pernicious” persuasive definition. For it stacks the deck against theists. It states that theists are already making a mistake, by definition, simply by believing in the existence of God. Even though I have provided an argument for this persuasive definition of theism, my definition is still a persuasive definition of theism, and my argument is unlikely to convince anyone who doesn’t already think that theism is irrational. Indeed, Brown (2017b, 30) himself admits that much when he says “good luck with that project!” about trying to construct a sound argument for “abortion is murder.” I take this to mean that pro-choice advocates would find his argument for “abortion is murder” dialectically inert precisely because it defines abortion in a manner that transfers “emotive force” (Salmon 2013, 65), which they cannot accept.

Likewise, theists would find the argument above dialectically inert precisely because it defines theism in a manner that transfers “emotive force” (Salmon 2013, 65), which they cannot accept. In other words, Brown seems to agree that there are good dialectical reasons to avoid appealing to persuasive definitions. Therefore, like “abortion is murder,” “theism is an irrational belief in the existence of God,” and “‘Homosexual’ means ‘one who has an unnatural desire for those of the same sex’” (Salmon 2013, 65), “Weak Scientism is a view that has its advocates putting too high a value on scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32) is a “dialectically pernicious” persuasive definition (cf. Williams 2015, 14).

Like persuasive definitions in general, it “masquerades as an honest assignment of meaning to a term while condemning or blessing with approval the subject matter of the definiendum” (Hurley 2015, 101). As I have pointed out in my (2017a), the problem with such definitions is that they “are strategies consisting in presupposing an unaccepted definition, taking a new unknowable description of meaning as if it were commonly shared” (Macagno and Walton 2014, 205).

As for Brown’s argument for the persuasive definition of Weak Scientism, according to which it “is a view that has its advocates putting too high a value on scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32), a key premise in this argument is the claim that there is a piece of philosophical knowledge that is better than scientific knowledge. This is premise 36 in Brown’s argument:

Some philosophers qua philosophers know that (a) true friendship is a necessary condition for human flourishing and (b) the possession of the moral virtues or a life project aimed at developing the moral virtues is a necessary condition for true friendship and (c) (therefore) the possession of the moral virtues or a life project aimed at developing the moral virtues is a necessary condition for human flourishing (see, e.g., the arguments in Plato’s Gorgias) and knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge (see, e.g., St. Augustine’s Confessions, book five, chapters iii and iv) [assumption]

There is a lot to unpack here, but I will focus on what I take to be the points most relevant to the scientism debate. First, Brown assumes 36 without argument, but why think it is true? In particular, why think that (a), (b), and (c) count as philosophical knowledge? Brown says that philosophers know (a), (b), and (c) in virtue of being philosophers, but he does not tell us why that is the case.

After all, accounts of friendship, with lessons about the significance of friendship, predate philosophy (see, e.g., the friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in The Epic of Gilgamesh). Did it really take Plato and Augustine to tell us about the significance of friendship? In fact, on Brown’s characterization of philosophy, namely, (P), (a), (b), and (c) do not count as philosophical knowledge at all, since Plato and Augustine did not publish in philosophy journals, were not academics with a Ph.D. in philosophy, and did not teach at public universities courses “with titles such as Introduction to Philosophy, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Normative Ethics, and Philosophy of Science” (Brown 2017b, 11).

Second, some philosophers, like Epicurus, need (and think that others need) friends to flourish, whereas others, like Diogenes of Sinope, need no one. For Diogenes, friends will only interrupt his sunbathing (Arrian VII.2). My point is not simply that philosophers disagree about the value of friendship and human flourishing. Of course they disagree.[5]

Rather, my point is that, in order to establish general truths about human beings, such as “Human beings need friends to flourish,” one must employ the methods of science, such as randomization and sampling procedures, blinding protocols, methods of statistical analysis, and the like; otherwise, one would simply commit the fallacies of cherry-picking anecdotal evidence and hasty generalization (Salmon 2013, 149-151). After all, the claim “Some need friends to flourish” does not necessitate, or even make more probable, the truth of “Human beings need friends to flourish.”[6]

Third, why think that “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32)? Better in what sense? Quantitatively? Qualitatively? Brown does not tell us. He simply declares it “self-evident” (Brown 2017b, 32). I take it that Brown would not want to argue that “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing” is better than scientific knowledge in the quantitative (i.e., in terms of research output and research impact) and qualitative (i.e., in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success) respects in which scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge, according to Weak Scientism.

If so, then in what sense exactly “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing” (Brown 2017b, 32) is supposed to be better than scientific knowledge? Brown (2017b, 32) simply assumes that without argument and without telling us in what sense exactly “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32).

Of course, philosophy does not have a monopoly on friendship and human flourishing as research topics. Psychologists and sociologists, among other scientists, work on friendship as well (see, e.g., Hojjat and Moyer 2017). To get an idea of how much research on friendship is done in scientific fields, such as psychology and sociology, and how much is done in philosophy, we can use a database like Web of Science.

Currently (03/29/2018), there are 12,334 records in Web of Science on the topic “friendship.” Only 76 of these records (0.61%) are from the Philosophy research area. Most of the records are from the Psychology (5,331 records) and Sociology (1,111) research areas (43.22% and 9%, respectively). As we can see from Figure 2, most of the research on friendship is done in scientific fields of study, such as psychology, sociology, and other social sciences.

Figure 2. Number of records on the topic “friendship” in Web of Science by research area (Source: Web of Science)


In terms of research impact, too, scientific knowledge about friendship is superior to philosophical knowledge about friendship. According to Web of Science, the average citations per year for Psychology research articles on the topic of friendship is 2826.11 (h-index is 148 and the average citations per item is 28.1), and the average citations per year for Sociology research articles on the topic of friendship is 644.10 (h-index is 86 and the average citations per item is 30.15), whereas the average citations per year for Philosophy research articles on friendship is 15.02 (h-index is 13 and the average citations per item is 8.11).

Quantitatively, then, psychological and sociological knowledge on friendship is better than philosophical knowledge in terms of research output and research impact. Both Psychology and Sociology produce significantly more research on friendship than Philosophy does, and the research they produce has significantly more impact (as measured by citation counts) than philosophical research on the same topic.

Qualitatively, too, psychological and sociological knowledge about friendship is better than philosophical knowledge about friendship. For, instead of rather vague statements about how “true friendship is a necessary condition for human flourishing” (Brown 2017b, 32) that are based on mostly armchair speculation, psychological and sociological research on friendship provides detailed explanations and accurate predictions about the effects of friendship (or lack thereof) on human well-being.

For instance, numerous studies provide evidence for the effects of friendships or lack of friendships on physical well-being (see, e.g., Yang et al. 2016) as well as mental well-being (see, e.g., Cacioppo and Patrick 2008). Further studies provide explanations for the biological and genetic bases of these effects (Cole et al. 2011). This knowledge, in turn, informs interventions designed to help people deal with loneliness and social isolation (see, e.g., Masi et al. 2010).[7]

To sum up, Brown (2017b, 32) has given no reasons to think that “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge.” He does not even tell us what “better” is supposed to mean here. He also ignores the fact that scientific fields of study, such as psychology and sociology, produce plenty of knowledge about human flourishing, both physical and mental well-being. In fact, as we have seen, science produces a lot more knowledge about topics related to human well-being, such as friendship, than philosophy does. For this reason, Brown (2017b, 32) has failed to show that “there is non-scientific form of knowledge better than scientific knowledge.”


At this point, I think it is quite clear that Brown and I are talking past each other on a couple of levels. First, I follow scientists (e.g., Weinberg 1994, 166-190) and philosophers (e.g., Haack 2007, 17-18 and Peels 2016, 2462) on both sides of the scientism debate in treating philosophy as an academic discipline or field of study, whereas Brown (2017b, 18) insists on thinking about philosophy as a personal activity of “individual intellectual progress.” Second, I follow scientists (e.g., Hawking and Mlodinow 2010, 5) and philosophers (e.g., Kidd 2016, 12-13 and Rosenberg 2011, 307) on both sides of the scientism debate in thinking about knowledge as the scholarly work or research produced in scientific fields of study, such as the natural sciences, as opposed to non-scientific fields of study, such as the humanities, whereas Brown insists on thinking about philosophical knowledge as personal knowledge.

To anyone who wishes to defend philosophy’s place in research universities alongside academic disciplines, such as history, linguistics, and physics, armed with this conception of philosophy as a “self-improvement” activity, I would use Brown’s (2017b, 30) words to say, “good luck with that project!” A much more promising strategy, I propose, is for philosophy to embrace scientific ways of knowing and for philosophers to incorporate scientific methods into their research.[8]

Contact details:


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[1] I thank Adam Riggio for inviting me to respond to Brown’s second attack on Weak Scientism.

[2] On why appeals to intuition are bad arguments, see Mizrahi (2012), (2013a), (2014), (2015a), (2015b), and (2015d).

[3] I use friendship as an example here because Brown (2017b, 31) uses it as an example of philosophical knowledge. I will say more about that in Section 6.

[4] For more on paradoxes involving the divine attributes, see Mizrahi (2013c).

[5] “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create)” (Lewis 1960, 71).

[6] On fallacious inductive reasoning in philosophy, see Mizrahi (2013d), (2015c), (2016), and (2017c).

[7] See also “The Friendship Bench” project:

[8] For recent examples, see Ashton and Mizrahi (2017) and (2018).

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs,

Sassower, Raphael. “Beyond Hubris: Desiderata of the Future of Political Economy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 7 (2015): 38-50.

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Image credit: Sarunas Mikalauskas, via flickr

In my latest Compromising the Ideals of Science (2015), it has dawned on me that when we provide a critique, any critical analysis of the state of affairs, radical or immanent, or both, we are in fact engaged indirectly in a comparison between an idealized state of affairs—of science, the scientific community, or political economy—and an existing set of circumstances under which such ideals are practiced. This is known as a heuristic, an aid of sorts, with which to approach a complex problem or set of facts; this is also known as the appeal to an “ideal type” in Max Weber’s sense of the term. The intent is to compare the here and now with an ideal to which it may approximate or strive to achieve. Or not.  Continue Reading…