Archives For technology

Author Information: Joshua Earle, Virginia Tech, jearle@vt.edu.

Earle, Joshua. “Deleting the Instrument Clause: Technology as Praxis.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 59-62.

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

Image by Tambako the Jaguar via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Damien Williams, in his review of Dr. Ashley Shew’s new book Animal Constructions and Technical Knowledge (2017), foregrounds in his title what is probably the most important thesis in Shew’s work. Namely that in our definition of technology, we focus too much on the human, and in doing so we miss a lot of things that should be considered technological use and knowledge. Williams calls this “Deleting the Human Clause” (Williams, 2018).

I agree with Shew (and Williams), for all the reasons they state (and potentially some more as well), but I think we ought to go further. I believe we should also delete the instrument clause.

Beginning With Definitions

There are two sets of definitions that I want to work with here. One is the set of definitions argued over by philosophers (and referenced by both Shew and Williams). The other is a more generic, “common-sense” definition that sits, mostly unexamined, in the back of our minds. Both generally invoke both the human clause (obviously with the exception of Shew) and the instrument clause.

Taking the “common-sense” definition first, we, generally speaking, think of technology as the things that humans make and use. The computer on which I write this article, and on which you, ostensibly, read it, is a technology. So is the book, or the airplane, or the hammer. In fact, the more advanced the object is, the more technological it is. So while the hammer might be a technology, it generally gets relegated to a mere “tool” while the computer or the airplane seems to be more than “just” a tool, and becomes more purely technological.

Peeling apart the layers therein would be interesting, but is beyond the scope of this article, but you get the idea. Our technologies are what give us functionalities we might not have otherwise. The more functionalities it gives us, the more technological it is.

The academic definitions of technology are a bit more abstract. Joe Pitt calls technology “humanity at work,” foregrounding the production of artefacts and the iteration of old into new (2000, pg 11). Georges Canguilhem called technology “the extension of human faculties” (2009, pg 94). Philip Brey, referencing Canguilhem (but also Marshall McLuhan, Ernst Kapp, and David Rothenberg) takes this definition up as well, but extending it to include not just action, but intent, and refining some various ways of considering extension and what counts as a technical artefact (sometimes, like Soylent Green, it’s people) (Brey, 2000).

Both the common sense and the academic definitions of technology use the human clause, which Shew troubles. But even if we alter instances of “human” to “human or non-human agents” there is still something that chafes. What if we think about things that do work for us in the world, but are not reliant on artefacts or tools, are those things still technology?

While each definition focuses on objects, none talks about what form or function those objects need to perform in order to count as technologies. Brey, hewing close to Heidegger, even talks about how using people as objects, as means to an end, would put them within the definition of technology (Ibid, pg. 12). But this also puts people in problematic power arrangements and elides the agency of the people being used toward an end. It also begs the question, can we use ourselves to an end? Does that make us our own technology?

This may be the ultimate danger that Heidegger warned us about, but I think it’s a category mistake. Instead of objectifying agents into technical objects, if, instead we look at the exercise of agency itself as what is key to the definition of technology, things shift. Technology no longer becomes about the objects, but about the actions, and how those actions affect the world. Technology becomes praxis.

Technology as Action

Let’s think through some liminal cases that first inspired this line of thought: Language and Agriculture. It’s certainly arguable that either of these things fits any definition of technology other than mine (praxis). Don Ihde would definitely disagree with me, as he explicitly states that one needs a tool or an instrument to be technology, though he hews close to my definition in other ways (Ihde, 2012; 2018). If Pitt’s definition, “humanity at work” is true, then agriculture is, indeed a technology . . . even without the various artifactual apparati that normally surround it.

Agriculture can be done entirely by hand, without any tools whatsoever, is iterative and produces a tangible output: food, in greater quantity/efficiency than would normally exist. By Brey’s and Canguihem’s definition, it should fit as well, as agriculture extends our intent (for greater amounts of food more locally available) into action and the production of something not otherwise existing in nature. Agriculture is basically (and I’m being too cute by half with this, I know) the intensification of nature. It is, in essence, moving things rather than creating or building them.

Language is a slightly harder case, but one I want to explicitly include in my definition, but I would also say fits Pitt’s and Brey’s definitions, IF we delete or ignore the instrument clause. While language does not produce any tangible artefacts directly (one might say the book or the written word, but most languages have never been written at all), it is the single most fundamental way in which we extend our intent into the world.

It is work, it moves people and things, it is constantly iterative. It is often the very first thing that is used when attempting to affect the world, and the only way by which more than one agent is able to cooperate on any task (I am using the broadest possible definition of language, here). Language could be argued to be the technology by which culture itself is made possible.

There is another way in which focusing on the artefact or the tool or the instrument is problematic. Allow me to illustrate with the favorite philosophical example: the hammer. A question: is a hammer built, but never used, technology[1]? If it is, then all of the definitions above no longer hold. An unused hammer is not “at work” as in Pitt’s definition, nor does it iterate, as Pitt’s definition requires. An unused hammer extends nothing vs. Canguilhem and Brey, unless we count the potential for use, the potential for extension.

But if we do, what potential uses count and which do not? A stick used by an ape (or a person, I suppose) to tease out some tasty termites from their dirt-mound home is, I would argue (and so does Shew), a technological use of a tool. But is the stick, before it is picked up by the ape, or after it is discarded, still a technology or a tool? It always already had the potential to be used, and can be again after it is discarded. But such a definition requires that any and everything as technology, which renders the definition meaningless. So, the potential for use cannot be enough to be technology.

Perhaps instead the unused hammer is just a tool? But again, the stick example renders the definition of “tool” in this way meaningless. Again, only while in use can we consider a hammer a tool. Certainly the hammer, even unused, is an artefact. The being of an artefact is not reliant on use, merely on being fashioned by an external agent. Thus if we can imagine actions without artefacts that count as technology, and artefacts that do not count as technology, then including artefacts in one’s definition of technology seems logically unsound.

Theory of Technology

I believe we should separate our terms: tool, instrument, artefact, and technology. Too often these get conflated. Central, to me, is the idea that technology is an active thing, it is a production. Via Pitt, technology requires/consists in work. Via Canguilhem and Brey it is extension. Both of these are verbs: “work” and “extend.” Techné, the root of the word technology, is about craft, making and doing; it is about action and intent.

It is about, bringing-forth or poiesis (a-la Heidegger, 2003; Haraway, 2016). To this end, I propose, that we define “technology” as praxis, as the mechanisms or techniques used to address problems. “Tools” are artefacts in use, toward the realizing of technological ends. “Instruments” are specific arrangements of artefacts and tools used to bring about particular effects, particularly inscriptions which signify or make meaning of the artefacts’ work (a-la Latour, 1987; Barad, 2007).

One critique I can foresee is that it would seem that almost any action taken could thus be considered technology. Eating, by itself, could be considered a mechanism by which the problem of hunger is addressed. I answer this by maintaining that there be at least one step between the problem and solution. There needs to be the putting together of theory (not just desire, but a plan) and action.

So, while I do not consider eating, in and of itself, (a) technology; producing a meal — via gathering, cooking, hunting, or otherwise — would be. This opens up some things as non-human uses of technology that even Shew didn’t consider like a wolf pack’s coordinated hunting, or dolphins’ various clever ways to get rewards from their handlers.

So, does treating technology as praxis help? Does extracting the confounding definitions of artefact, tool, and instrument from the definition of technology help? Does this definition include too many things, and thus lose meaning and usefulness? I posit this definition as a provocation, and I look forward to any discussion the readers of SERRC might have.

Contact details: jearle@vt.edu

References

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Duke University Press.

Brey, P. (2000). Theories of Technology as Extension of Human Faculties. Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Technology. Research in Philosophy and Technology, 19, 1–20.

Canguilhem, G. (2009). Knowledge of Life. Fordham University Press.

Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.

Heidegger, M. (2003). The Question Concerning Technology. In D. Kaplan (Ed.), Readings in the Philosophy of Technology. Rowan & Littlefield.

Ihde, D. (2012). Technics and praxis: A philosophy of technology (Vol. 24). Springer Science & Business Media.

Ihde, D., & Malafouris, L. (2018). Homo faber Revisited: Postphenomenology and Material Engagement Theory. Philosophy & Technology, 1–20.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Harvard university press.

Pitt, J. C. (2000). Thinking about technology. Seven Bridges Press,.

Shew, A. (2017). Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge. Lexington Books.

Williams, D. (2018). “Deleting the Human Clause: A Review of Ashley Shew’s Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2: 42-44.

[1] This is the philosophical version of “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”

Author Information: William Davis, California Northstate University, William.Davis@csnu.edu.

Davis, William. “Crisis. Reform. Repeat.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 37-44.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-422

Yale University, in the skyline of New Haven, Connecticut.
Image by Ali Eminov via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

If you have been involved in higher education in recent decades, you have noticed shifts in how courses are conceived and delivered, and what students, teachers, and administrators expect of each other. Also, water feels wet. The latter statement offers as much insight as the first. When authors argue the need for new academic models, indeed that a kind of crisis in United States higher education is occurring, faculty and administrators in higher education are forgiven if we give a yawning reply: not much insight there.

Another Crisis

Those with far more experience in academia than I will, likely, shake their heads and scoff: demands for shifts in educational models and practices seemingly occur every few years. Not long ago, I was part of the SERRC Collective Judgment Forum (2013) debating the notion that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are the future of higher education. The possibilities and challenges portended by online education would disrupt (“disruptive technologies” often represent the goals not the fears of the California culture where I live and work) the landscape of colleges and universities in the United States and the rest of the world.

Higher education would have to adapt to meet the needs of burgeoning numbers of people (at what point does one become a ‘student?’) seeking knowledge. The system of higher education faced a crisis; the thousands of people enrolling in MOOCs indicated that hordes of students might abandon traditional universities and embrace new styles of learning that matched the demands of twenty-first century life.

Can you count the number of professional crises you have lived through? If the humanities and/or social sciences are your home, then you likely remember quite a few (Kalin, 2017; Mandler, 2015; Tworek, 2013). That number, of course, represents calamity on a local level: crises that affect you, that loom over your future employment. For many academics, MOOCs felt like just such a threat.

Historian of technology Thomas Hughes (1994)[i] describes patterns in the development, change, and emergence of technologies as “technological momentum.” Technological momentum bridges two expansive and nuanced theories of technological development: determinism—the claim that technologies are the crucial drivers of culture—and constructivism—the idea that cultures drive technological change. MOOCs might motivate change in higher education, but the demands of relevant social groups (Pinch and Bijker 1984) would alter MOOCs, too.

Professors ought not fear their jobs would disappear or consolidate so precipitously that the profession itself would be transformed in a few years or decade: the mammoth system of higher education in the U.S. has its own inertia. Change would happen over time; teachers, students, and universities would adapt and exert counter-influences. Water feels wet.

MOOCs have not revolutionized models of higher education in the United States. Behind the eagerness for models of learning that will satisfy increasing numbers of people seeking higher education, of which MOOCs are one example, lies a growing concern about how higher education is organized, practiced, and evaluated. To understand the changes that higher education seems to require, we ought first to understand what it currently offers. Cathy Davidson (2017), as well as Michal Crow and William Dabars (2015), offer such histories of college and university systems in the United States. Their works demonstrate that a crisis in higher education does not approach; it has arrived.

Education in an Age of Flux

I teach at a new college in a university that opened its doors only a decade ago. One might expect that a new college offers boundless opportunity to address a crisis: create a program of study and methods of evaluating that program (including the students and faculty) that will meet the needs of the twenty-first century world. Situated as we are in northern California, and with faculty trained at Research 1 (R1) institutions, our college could draw from various models of traditional higher education like the University of California system or even private institutions (as we are) like Stanford.

These institutions set lofty standards, but do they represent the kinds of institutions that we ought to emulate? Research by Davidson (2017), Crow and Dabars would recommend we not follow the well-worn paths that established universities (those in existence for at least a few decades) in the United States have trodden. The authors seem to adopt the perspective that higher education functions like a system of technology (Hughes 1994); the momentum exerted by such systems has determining effects, but the possibility of directing the course of the systems exists nevertheless.

Michael Crow and William Dabars (2015) propose a design for reshaping U.S. universities that does not require the total abandonment of current models. The impetus for the needed transformation, they claim, is that the foundations of higher education in the U.S. have decayed; universities cannot meet the demands of the era.

The priorities that once drove research institutions have been assiduously copied, like so much assessment based on memorization and regurgitation that teachers of undergraduates might recognize, that their legibility and efficacy have faded. Crow and Dabars target elite, private institutions like Dartmouth and Harvard as exemplars of higher education that cannot, under their current alignment, meet the needs of twenty-first century students. Concerned as they are with egalitarianism, the authors note that public institutions of higher education born from the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 fare no better at providing for the needs of the nation’s people (National Research Council 1995).

Crow and Dabars’s New American University model (2015, pp. 6-8) emphasizes access, discovery, inclusiveness, and functionality. Education ought to be available to all (access and inclusiveness) that seek knowledge and understanding of the world (discovery) in order to operate within, change, and/or improve it (functionality). The Morrill Acts, on a charitable reading, represent the United States of America’s assertion that the country and its people would mutually benefit from public education available to large swaths of the population.

Crow and Dabars, as well as Davidson (2017), base their interventions on an ostensibly similar claim: more people need better access to resources that will foster intellectual development and permit them to lead more productive lives. The nation benefits when individuals have stimulating engagement with ideas through competent instruction.  Individuals benefit because they may pursue their own goals that, in turn, will ideally benefit the nation.

Arizona State University epitomizes the New American University model. ASU enrolls over 70,000 students—many in online programs—and prides itself on the numbers of students it accepts rather than rejects (compare such a stance with Ivy League schools in the U.S.A.). Crow, President of ASU since 2002, has fostered an interdisciplinary approach to higher education at the university. Numerous institutes and centers (well over 50) have been created to focus student learning on issues/topics of present and future concern. For instance, the Decision Center for a Desert City asks students to imagine a future Phoenix, Arizona, with no, or incredibly limited, access to fresh water.

To engage with a topic that impacts manifold aspects of cities and citizens, solutions will require perspectives from work in disciplines ranging from engineering and the physical sciences to the social sciences and the humanities. The traditional colleges of, e.g., Engineering, Law, Arts and Sciences, etc., still exist at ASU. However, the institutes and centers appear as semi-autonomous empires with faculty from multiple disciplines, and often with interdisciplinary training themselves, leading students to investigate causes of and solutions to existing and emerging problems.

ASU aims to educate broad sections of the population, not just those with imposing standardized tests scores and impressive high school GPAs, to tackle obstacles facing our country and our world. Science and Technology Studies, an interdisciplinary program with scholars that Crow and Dabars frequently cite in their text, attracted my interest because its practitioners embrace ‘messy’ problems that require input from, just to name a few, historians, philosophers, political scientists, and sociologists. While a graduate student in STS, I struggled to explain my program of study to others without referencing existing disciplines like philosophy, history, etc. Though I studied in an interdisciplinary program, I still conceptualized education in disciplinary silos.

As ASU graduates more students, and attracts more interdisciplinary scholars as teachers, we ought to observe how their experiment in education impacts the issues and problems their centers and institutes investigate as well as the students themselves. If students learn from interdisciplinary educators, alongside other students that have not be trained exclusively in the theories and practices of, say, the physical sciences or humanities and social sciences, then they might not see difficult challenges like mental illness in the homeless population of major U.S. cities as concerns to be addressed mainly by psychology, pharmacology, and/or sociology.

Cathy Davidson’s The New Education offers specific illustrations of pedagogical practices that mesh well with Crow and Dabars’s message. Both texts urge universities to include larger numbers of students in research and design, particularly students that do not envision themselves in fields like engineering and the physical sciences. Elite, small universities like Duke, where Davidson previously taught, will struggle to scale up to educate the masses of students that seek higher education, even if they desired to do so.

Further, the kinds of students these institutions attract do not represent the majority of people seeking to further their education beyond the high school level. All colleges and universities need not admit every applicant to align with the models presented by Davidson, Crow and Dabars, but they must commit to interdisciplinary approaches. As a scholar with degrees in Science and Technology Studies, I am an eager acolyte: I buy into the interdisciplinary model of education, and I am part of a college that seeks to implement some version of that model.

Questioning the Wisdom of Tradition

We assume that our institutions have been optimally structured and inherently calibrated not only to facilitate the production and diffusion of knowledge but also to seek knowledge with purpose and link useful knowledge with action for the common good. (Crow and Dabars 2015, 179)

The institutions that Crow, Dabars, and Davidson critique as emblematic of traditional models of higher education have histories that range from decades to centuries. As faculty at a college of health sciences established the same year Crow and Dabars published their work, I am both excited by their proposals and frustrated by the attempts to implement them.

My college currently focuses on preparing students for careers in the health sciences, particularly medicine and pharmacy. Most of our faculty are early-career professionals; we come to the college with memories of how departments were organized at our previous institutions.

Because of my background in an interdisciplinary graduate program at Virginia Tech, and my interest in the program’s history (originally organized as the Center for the Study of Science in Society), I had the chance to interview professors that worked to develop the structures that would “facilitate the production and diffusion of knowledge” (Crow and Dabars 2015, 179). Like those early professors at Virginia Tech, our current faculty at California Northstate University College of Health Sciences come from distinct disciplines and have limited experience with the challenges of designing and implementing interdisciplinary coursework. We endeavor to foster collaboration across disciplines, but we learn as we go.

Crow and Dabars’s chapter “Designing Knowledge Enterprises” reminds one of what a new institution lacks: momentum. At meetings spread out over nearly a year, our faculty discussed and debated the nuances of a promotion and retention policy that acknowledges the contributions of all faculty while satisfying administrative demands that faculty titles, like assistant, associate, and full professor, reflect the practices of other institutions. What markers indicate that a scholar has achieved the level of, say, associate professor?

Originally trained in disciplines like biology, chemistry, physics, or English (coming from the interdisciplinary program of Science and Technology Studies, I am a bit of an outlier) our faculty have been disciplined to think in terms of our own areas of study. We have been trained to advance knowledge in increasingly particular specialties. The criteria to determine a faculty member’s level largely matches what other institutions have developed. Although the faculty endeavored to create a holistic rubric for faculty evaluation, we confronted an administration more familiar with analytic rubrics. How can a university committee compare the work done by professors of genetics and composition?[ii]

Without institutional memory to guide us, the policies and directives at my college of health sciences develop through collective deliberation on the needs of our students, staff, faculty, college, and community. We do not invent policy. We examine publicly available policies created at and for other institutions of higher learning to help guide our own decisions and proposals. Though we can glean much from elite private institutions, as described by Crow and Dabars, and from celebrated public institutions like the University of California or California State University systems that Davidson draws upon at times in her text, my colleagues know that we are not like those other institutions and systems of higher education.

Our college’s diminutive size (faculty, staff, and students) lends itself to agility: when a policy is flawed, we can quickly recognize a problem and adjust it (not to say we rectify it, but we move in the direction of doing so, e.g., a promotion policy with criteria appropriate for faculty, and administrators, from any department). If we identify student, staff, faculty, or administrator needs that have gone unaddressed, we modify or add policies.

The size of our college certainly limits what we can do: we lack the faculty and student numbers to engage in as many projects as we like. We do not have access to the financial reservoirs of large or long-standing institutions to purchase all the equipment one finds at a University of California campus, so we must be creative and make use of what materials we do possess or can purchase.

What our college lacks, somewhat counterintuitively, sets us up to carry forth with what Davidson (2017) describes in her chapter “The Future of Learning:”

The lecture is broken, so we must think of better ways to incorporate active learning into the classroom . . . . The traditional professional and apprentice models don’t teach students how to be experts, and so we must look to peer learning and peer mentoring, rich cocurricular experiences, and research to put the student, not the professor or the institution, at the center. (248-9)

Davidson does not contend that lecture has no place in a classroom. She champion flipped classrooms (Armbruster, Patel, Johnson, and Weiss 2009) and learning spaces that emphasize active student engagement (Elby 2001; Johnson and Johnson 1999) with ideas and concepts—e.g., forming and critiquing arguments (Kuhn 2010).

Claiming that universities “must prepare our students for their epic journey . . . . should give them agency . . . to push back [against the world] and not merely adapt to it” (Davidson 2017, 13) sounds simultaneously like fodder for a press-release and a call to action. It will likely strike educators, a particular audience of Davidson’s text, as obvious, but that should not detract from its intentions. Yes, students need to learn to adapt and be flexible—their chosen professions will almost certainly transform in the coming decades. College students ought to consider the kinds of lives they want to live and the people they want to be, not just the kinds of professions they wish to pursue.

Ought we demonstrate for students that the university symbolizes a locale to cultivate a perspective of “sympathy, empathy, sensitivity, and responsiveness” (Held 2011, p. 479)? Do we see ourselves in a symbiotic world (Margulis and Sagan) or an adversarial world of competition? Davidson, Crow, and Dabars propose a narrative of connectivity, not just of academic disciplines, but of everyday problems and concerns. Professors ought to continue advancing knowledge, even in particular disciplines, but we must not imagine that we do it alone (individually, in teams, in disciplines, or even in institutions).

After Sifting: What to Keep

Crow and Dabars emphasize the interplay between form and function as integral to developing a model for the New American University. We at California Northstate also scrutinize the structure of our colleges. Though our college of health sciences has a life and physical science department, and a department of humanities and social sciences, our full-time faculty number less than twenty. We are on college and university committees together; we are, daily, visible to each other.

With varying levels of success so far, we have developed integrated course-based undergraduate research experiences for our students. In the coming year, we aim to integrate projects in humanities and social sciences courses with those from the physical sciences. Most of our students want to be health practitioners, and we endeavor to demonstrate to them the usefulness of chemistry along with service learning. As we integrate our courses, research, and outreach projects, we aim to provide students with an understanding that the pieces (courses) that make up their education unify through our work and their own.

Team teaching a research methods course with professors of genetics and chemistry in the fall of 2017, I witnessed the rigor and the creativity required for life and physical science research. Students were often confused: the teachers approached the same topics from seemingly disparate perspectives. As my PhD advisor, James Collier, often recounted to me regarding his graduate education in Science and Technology Studies (STS), graduate students were often expected to be the sites of synthesis. Professors came from traditional departments like history, philosophy, and sociology; students in STS needed to absorb the styles and techniques of various disciplines to emerge as interdisciplinarians.

Our students in the research methods class that fall saw a biologist, a chemist, and an STS scholar and likely thought: I want to be none of those things. Why should I learn how to be a health practitioner from professors that do not identify as health practitioners themselves?

When faculty adapt to meet the needs of students pursuing higher education, we often develop the kinds of creole languages elaborated by Peter Galison (1997) to help our students see the connections between traditionally distinct areas of study. Our students, then, should be educated to speak in multiple registers depending on their audience, and we must model that for them. Hailing from disparate disciplines and attempting to teach in ways distinct from how we were taught (e.g., flipped classrooms) and from perspectives still maturing (interdisciplinarity), university faculty have much to learn.

Our institutions, too, need to adapt: traditional distinctions of teaching, scholarship, and service (the hallmarks of many university promotion policies) will demand adjustment if they are to serve as accurate markers of the work we perform. Students, as stakeholders in their own education, should observe faculty as we struggle to become what we wish to see from them. Davidson, Crow, and Dabars argue that current and future crises will not be resolved effectively by approaches that imagine problems as solely technical, social, economic, cultural, or political. For institutions of higher education to serve the needs of their people, nations, and environments (just some of the pieces that must be served), they must acclimate to a world of increasing connectivity. I know: water feels wet.

Contact details: William.Davis@csnu.edu

References

Armbruster, Peter, Maya Patel, Erika Johnson, and Martha Weiss. 2009. “Active Learning and Student-centered Pedagogy Improve Student Attitudes and Performance in Introductory Biology” Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education 8: 203-13.

Bijker, Wiebe. 1993. “Do Not Dispair: There Is Life after Constructivism.” Science, Technology and Human Values 18: 113-38.

Crow, Michael; and William Dabars. Designing the New University. Johns Hopkinds University Press, 2015.

Davidson, Cathy. The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux. Basic Books, 2017.

Davis, William, Martin Evenden, Gregory Sandstrom and Aliaksandr Puptsau. 2013. “Are MOOCs the Future of Higher Education? A Collective Judgment Forum.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (7) 23-27.

Elby, Andrew. 2001. “Helping Physics Students Learn How to Learn.” American Journal of Physics (Physics Education Research Supplement) 69 (S1): S54-S64.

Galison, Peter. 1997. Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Hughes, Thomas. 1994. “The Evolution of Large Technical Systems.” The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Johnson, David, and Roger T. Johnson. 1999. “Making Cooperative Learning Work.” Theory into Practice 38 (2): 67-73.

Kalin, Mike. “The Crisis in the Humanities: A Self-Inflicted Wound?” Independent School, Winter 2017. https://www.nais.org/magazine/independent-school/winter-2017/the-crisis-in-the-humanities-a-self-inflicted-wou/

Kuhn, Deanna. 2010. “Teaching and Learning Science as Argument.” Science Education 94 (5): 810-24.

Mandler, Peter. “Rise of the Humanities.” Aeon Magazine, December 17, 2015. https://aeon.co/essays/the-humanities-are-booming-only-the-professors-can-t-see-it

National Research Council. Colleges of Agriculture at the Land Grant Universities: A Profile. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1995.

Pinch, Trevor and Wiebe Bijker. 1984. “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other.” Social Studies of Science 14: 399-441.

Smith, Merritt, and Leo Marx. 1994. Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism

Tworek, Heidi. “The Real Reason the Humanities Are ‘in Crisis.’” The Atlantic, December 18, 2013. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/the-real-reason-the-humanities-are-in-crisis/282441/

[i] My descriptions here of technological determinism and social constructivism lack nuance. For specifics regarding determinism, see the 1994 anthology from Leo Marx and Merritt Smith, Does Technology Drive History. For richer explanations of constructivism, see Bijker (1993), “Do not despair: There is life after constructivism,” and Pinch and Bijker (1984) “The social construction of facts and artifacts: Or how the sociology of science and the sociology of technology might benefit each other.”

[ii] Hardly rhetorical, that last question is live on my campus. If you have suggestions, please write me.

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, rsasswe@uccs.edu

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

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3X8

The town of Messkirch, the hometown of Martin Heidegger.
Image by Renaud Camus via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Jeff Kochan is upfront about not being able “to make everyone happy” in order to write “a successful book.” For him, choices had to be made, such as promoting “Martin Heidegger’s existential conception of science . . . the sociology of scientific knowledge . . . [and the view that] the accounts of science presented by SSK [sociology of scientific knowledge] and Heidegger are, in fact, largely compatible, even mutually reinforcing.” (1) This means combining the existentialist approach of Heidegger with the sociological view of science as a social endeavour.

Such a marriage is bound to be successful, according to the author, because together they can exercise greater vitality than either would on its own.  If each party were to incorporate the other’s approach and insights, they would realize how much they needed each other all along. This is not an arranged or forced marriage, according to Kochan the matchmaker, but an ideal one he has envisioned from the moment he laid his eyes on each of them independently.

The Importance of Practice

Enumerating the critics of each party, Kochan hastens to suggest that “both SSK and Heidegger have much more to offer a practice-based approach to science than has been allowed by their critics.” (6) The Heideggerian deconstruction of science, in this view, is historically informed and embodies a “form of human existence.” (7) Focusing on the early works of Heidegger Kochan presents an ideal groom who can offer his SSK bride the theoretical insights of overcoming the Cartesian-Kantian false binary of subject-object (11) while benefitting from her rendering his “theoretical position” more “concrete, interesting, and useful through combination with empirical studies and theoretical insights already extant in the SSK literature.” (8)

In this context, there seems to be a greater urgency to make Heidegger relevant to contemporary sociological studies of scientific practices than an expressed need by SSK to be grounded existentially in the Heideggerian philosophy (or for that matter, in any particular philosophical tradition). One can perceive this postmodern juxtaposition (drawing on seemingly unrelated sources in order to discover something novel and more interesting when combined) as an attempt to fill intellectual vacuums.

This marriage is advisable, even prudent, to ward off criticism levelled at either party independently: Heidegger for his abstract existential subjectivism and SSK for unwarranted objectivity. For example, we are promised, with Heidegger’s “phenomenology of the subject as ‘being-in-the-world’ . . . SSK practitioners will no longer be vulnerable to the threat of external-world scepticism.” (9-10) Together, so the argument proceeds, they will not simply adopt each other’s insights and practices but will transform themselves each into the other, shedding their misguided singularity and historical positions for the sake of this idealized research program of the future.

Without flogging this marriage metaphor to death, one may ask if the two parties are indeed as keen to absorb the insights of their counterpart. In other words, do SSK practitioners need the Heideggerian vocabulary to make their work more integrated? Their adherents and successors have proven time and again that they can find ways to adjust their studies to remain relevant. By contrast, the Heideggerians remain fairly insulated from the studies of science, reviving “The Question Concerning Technology” (1954) whenever asked about technoscience. Is Kochan too optimistic to think that citing Heidegger’s earliest works will make him more rather than less relevant in the 21st century?

But What Can We Learn?

Kochan seems to think that reviving the Heideggerian project is worthwhile: what if we took the best from one tradition and combined it with the best of another? What if we transcended the subject-object binary and fully appreciated that “knowledge of the object [science] necessarily implicates the knowing subject [practitioner]”? (351) Under such conditions (as philosophers of science have understood for a century), the observer is an active participant in the observation, so much so (as some interpreters of quantum physics admit) that the very act of observing impacts the objects being perceived.

Add to this the social dimension of the community of observers-participants and the social dynamics to which they are institutionally subjected, and you have the contemporary landscape that has transformed the study of Science into the study of the Scientific Community and eventually into the study of the Scientific Enterprise.

But there is another objection to be made here: Even if we agree with Kochan that “the subject is no longer seen as a social substance gaining access to an external world, but an entity whose basic modes of existence include being-in-the-world and being-with-others,” (351) what about the dynamics of market capitalism and democratic political formations? What about the industrial-academic-military complex? To hope for the “subject” to be more “in-the-world” and “with-others” is already quite common among sociologists of science and social epistemologists, but does this recognition alone suffice to understand that neoliberalism has a definite view of what the scientific enterprise is supposed to accomplish?

Though Kochan nods at “conservative” and “liberal” critics, he fails to concede that theirs remain theoretical critiques divorced from the neoliberal realities that permeate every sociological study of science and that dictate the institutional conditions under which the very conception of technoscience is set.

Kochan’s appreciation of the Heideggerian oeuvre is laudable, even admirable in its Quixotic enthusiasm for Heidegger’s four-layered approach (“being-in-the-world,” “being-with-others,” “understanding,” and “affectivity”, 356), but does this amount to more than “things affect us, therefore they exist”? (357) Just like the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am,” this formulation brings the world back to us as a defining factor in how we perceive ourselves instead of integrating us into the world.

Perhaps a Spinozist approach would bridge the binary Kochan (with Heidegger’s help) wishes to overcome. Kochan wants us to agree with him that “we are compelled by the system [of science and of society?] only insofar as we, collectively, compel one another.” (374) Here, then, we are shifting ground towards SSK practices and focusing on the sociality of human existence and the ways the world and our activities within it ought to be understood. There is something quite appealing in bringing German and Scottish thinkers together, but it seems that merging them is both unrealistic and perhaps too contrived. For those, like Kochan, who dream of a Hegelian aufhebung of sorts, this is an outstanding book.

For the Marxist and sociological skeptics who worry about neoliberal trappings, this book will remain an erudite and scholarly attempt to force a merger. As we look at this as yet another arranged marriage, we should ask ourselves: would the couple ever have consented to this on their own? And if the answer is no, who are we to force this on them?

Contact details: rsassowe@uccs.edu

References

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

Author Information: Adam Riggio, SERRC Digital Editor, serrc.digital@gmail.com

Riggio, Adam. “Action in Harmony with a Global World.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 20-26.

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

Image by cornie via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Bryan Van Norden has become about as notorious as an academic philosopher can be while remaining a virtuous person. His notoriety came with a column in the New York Times that took the still-ethnocentric approach of many North American and European university philosophy departments to task. The condescending and insulting dismissal of great works of thought from cultures and civilizations beyond Europe and European-descended North America should scandalize us. That it does not is to the detriment of academic philosophy’s culture.

Anyone who cares about the future of philosophy as a tradition should read Taking Back Philosophy and take its lessons to heart, if one does not agree already with its purpose. The discipline of philosophy, as practiced in North American and European universities, must incorporate all the philosophical traditions of humanity into its curriculum and its subject matter. It is simple realism.

A Globalized World With No Absolute Hierarchies

I am not going to argue for this decision, because I consider it obvious that this must be done. Taking Back Philosophy is a quick read, an introduction to a political task that philosophers, no matter their institutional homes, must support if the tradition is going to survive beyond the walls of universities increasingly co-opted by destructive economic, management, and human resources policies.

Philosophy as a creative tradition cannot survive in an education economy built on the back of student debt, where institutions’ priorities are set by a management class yoked to capital investors and corporate partners, which prioritizes the proliferation of countless administrative-only positions while highly educated teachers and researchers compete ruthlessly for poverty wages.

With this larger context in mind, Van Norden’s call for the enlargement of departments’ curriculums to cover all traditions is one essential pillar of the vision to liberate philosophy from the institutions that are destroying it as a viable creative process. In total, those four pillars are 1) universal accessibility, economically and physically; 2) community guidance of a university’s priorities; 3) restoring power over the institution to creative and research professionals; and 4) globalizing the scope of education’s content.

Taking Back Philosophy is a substantial brick through the window of the struggle to rebuild our higher education institutions along these democratic and liberating lines. Van Norden regularly publishes work of comparative philosophy that examines many problems of ethics and ontology using texts, arguments, and concepts from Western, Chinese, and Indian philosophy. But if you come to Taking Back Philosophy expecting more than a brick through those windows, you’ll be disappointed. One chapter walks through a number of problems as examples, but the sustained conceptual engagement of a creative philosophical work is absent. Only the call to action remains.

What a slyly provocative call it is – the book’s last sentence, “Let’s discuss it . . .”

Unifying a Tradition of Traditions

I find it difficult to write a conventional review of Taking Back Philosophy, because so much of Van Norden’s polemic is common sense to me. Of course, philosophy departments must be open to primary material from all the traditions of the human world, not just the Western. I am incapable of understanding why anyone would argue against this, given how globalized human civilization is today. For the context of this discussion, I will consider a historical and a technological aspect of contemporary globalization. Respectively, these are the fall of the European military empires, and the incredible intensity with which contemporary communications and travel technology integrates people all over Earth.

We no longer live in a world dominated by European military colonial empires, so re-emerging centres of culture and economics must be taken on their own terms. The Orientalist presumption, which Edward Said spent a career mapping, that there is no serious difference among Japanese, Malay, Chinese, Hindu, Turkic, Turkish, Persian, Arab, Levantine, or Maghreb cultures is not only wrong, but outright stupid. Orientalism as an academic discipline thrived for the centuries it did only because European weaponry intentionally and persistently kept those cultures from asserting themselves.

Indigenous peoples – throughout the Americas, Australia, the Pacific, and Africa – who have been the targets of cultural and eradicative genocides for centuries now claim and agitate for their human rights, as well as inclusion in the broader human community and species. I believe most people of conscience are appalled and depressed that these claims are controversial at all, and even seen by some as a sign of civilizational decline.

The impact of contemporary technology I consider an even more important factor than the end of imperialist colonialism in the imperative to globalize the philosophical tradition. Despite the popular rhetoric of contemporary globalization, the human world has been globalized for millennia. Virtually since urban life first developed, long-distance international trade and communication began as well.

Here are some examples. Some of the first major cities of ancient Babylon achieved their greatest economic prosperity through trade with cities on the south of the Arabian Peninsula, and as far east along the Indian Ocean coast as Balochistan. From 4000 to 1000 years ago, Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Persian, Arab, Chinese, Mongol, Indian, Bantu, Malian, Inca, and Anishinaabeg peoples, among others, built trade networks and institutions stretching across continents.

Contemporary globalization is different in the speed and quantity of commerce, and diversity of goods. It is now possible to reach the opposite side of the planet in a day’s travel, a journey so ordinary that tens of millions of people take these flights each year. Real-time communication is now possible between anywhere on Earth with broadband internet connections thanks to satellite networks and undersea fibre-optic cables. In 2015, the total material value of all goods and commercial services traded internationally was US$21-trillion. That’s a drop from the previous year’s all-time (literally) high of US$24-trillion.[1]

Travel, communication, and productivity has never been so massive or intense in all of human history. The major control hubs of the global economy are no longer centralized in a small set of colonial powers, but a variety of economic centres throughout the world, depending on industry. From Beijing, Moscow, Mumbai, Lagos, and Berlin to Tokyo, and Washington, the oil fields of Kansas, the Dakotas, Alberta, and Iraq, and the coltan, titanium, and tantalum mines of Congo, Kazakhstan, and China.

All these proliferating lists express a simple truth – all cultures of the world now legitimately claim recognition as equals, as human communities sharing our Earth as we hollow it out. Philosophical traditions from all over the world are components of those claims to equal recognition.

The Tradition of Process Thought

So that is the situation forcing a recalcitrant and reactionary academy to widen its curricular horizons – Do so, or face irrelevancy in a global civilization with multiple centres all standing as civic equals in the human community. This is where Van Norden himself leaves us. Thankfully, he understands that a polemic ending with a precise program immediately becomes empty dogma, a conclusion which taints the plausibility of an argument. His point is simple – that the academic discipline must expand its arms. He leaves the more complex questions of how the philosophical tradition itself can develop as a genuinely global community.

Process philosophy is a relatively new philosophical tradition, which can adopt the classics of Daoist philosophy as broad frameworks and guides. By process philosophy, I mean the research community that has grown around Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari as primary innovators of their model of thought – a process philosophy that converges with an ecological post-humanism. The following are some essential aspects of this new school of process thinking, each principle in accord with the core concepts of the foundational texts of Daoism, Dao De Jing and Zhuang Zi.

Ecological post-humanist process philosophy is a thorough materialism, but it is an anti-reductive materialism. All that exists is bodies of matter and fields of force, whose potentials include everything for which Western philosophers have often felt obligated to postulate a separate substance over and above matter, whether calling it mind, spirit, or soul.

As process philosophy, the emphasis in any ontological analysis is on movement, change, and relationships instead of the more traditional Western focus on identity and sufficiency. If I can refer to examples from the beginning of Western philosophy in Greece, process thought is an underground movement with the voice of Heraclitus critiquing a mainstream with the voice of Parmenides. Becoming, not being, is the primary focus of ontological analysis.

Process thinking therefore is primarily concerned with potential and capacity. Knowledge, in process philosophy, as a result becomes inextricably bound with action. This unites a philosophical school identified as “Continental” in common-sense categories of academic disciplines with the concerns of pragmatist philosophy. Analytic philosophy took up many concepts from early 20th century pragmatism in the decades following the death of John Dewey. These inheritors, however, remained unable to overcome the paradoxes stymieing traditional pragmatist approaches, particularly how to reconcile truth as correspondence with knowledge having a purpose in action and achievement.

A solution to this problem of knowledge and action was developed in the works of Barry Allen during the 2000s. Allen built an account of perception that was rooted in contemporary research in animal behaviour, human neurology, and the theoretical interpretations of evolution in the works of Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin.

His first analysis, focussed as it was on the dynamics of how human knowledge spurs technological and civilizational development, remains humanistic. Arguing from discoveries of how profoundly the plastic human brain is shaped in childhood by environmental interaction, Allen concludes that successful or productive worldly action itself constitutes the correspondence of our knowledge and the world. Knowledge does not consist of a private reserve of information that mirrors worldly states of affairs, but the physical and mental interaction of a person with surrounding processes and bodies to constitute those states of affairs. The plasticity of the human brain and our powers of social coordination are responsible for the peculiarly human mode of civilizational technology, but the same power to constitute states of affairs through activity is common to all processes and bodies.[2]

“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. Whatever is soft, fluid, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard.” – Lao Zi
The Burney Falls in Shasta County, Northern California. Image by melfoody via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Action in Phase With All Processes: Wu Wei

Movement of interaction constitutes the world. This is the core principle of pragmatist process philosophy, and as such brings this school of thought into accord with the Daoist tradition. Ontological analysis in the Dao De Jing is entirely focussed on vectors of becoming – understanding the world in terms of its changes, movements, and flows, as each of these processes integrate in the complexity of states of affairs.

Not only is the Dao De Jing a foundational text in what is primarily a process tradition of philosophy, but it is also primarily pragmatist. Its author Lao Zi frames ontological arguments in practical concerns, as when he writes, “The most supple things in the world ride roughshod over the most rigid” (Dao De Jing §43). This is a practical and ethical argument against a Parmenidean conception of identity requiring stability as a necessary condition.

What cannot change cannot continue to exist, as the turbulence of existence will overcome and erase what can exist only by never adapting to the pressures of overwhelming external forces. What can only exist by being what it now is, will eventually cease to be. That which exists in metamorphosis and transformation has a remarkable resilience, because it is able to gain power from the world’s changes. This Daoist principle, articulated in such abstract terms, is in Deleuze and Guattari’s work the interplay of the varieties of territorializations.

Knowledge in the Chinese tradition, as a concept, is determined by an ideal of achieving harmonious interaction with an actor’s environment. Knowing facts of states of affairs – including their relationships and tendencies to spontaneous and proliferating change – is an important element of comprehensive knowledge. Nonetheless, Lao Zi describes such catalogue-friendly factual knowledge as, “Those who know are not full of knowledge. Those full of knowledge do not know” (Dao De Jing 81). Knowing the facts alone is profoundly inadequate to knowing how those facts constrict and open potentials for action. Perfectly harmonious action is the model of the Daoist concept of Wu Wei – knowledge of the causal connections among all the bodies and processes constituting the world’s territories understood profoundly enough that self-conscious thought about them becomes unnecessary.[3]

Factual knowledge is only a condition of achieving the purpose of knowledge: perfectly adapting your actions to the changes of the world. All organisms’ actions change their environments, creating physically distinctive territories: places that, were it not for my action, would be different. In contrast to the dualistic Western concept of nature, the world in Daoist thought is a complex field of overlapping territories whose tensions and conflicts shape the character of places. Fulfilled knowledge in this ontological context is knowledge that directly conditions your own actions and the character of your territory to harmonize most productively with the actions and territories that are always flowing around your own.

Politics of the Harmonious Life

The Western tradition, especially in its current sub-disciplinary divisions of concepts and discourses, has treated problems of knowledge as a domain separate from ethics, morality, politics, and fundamental ontology. Social epistemology is one field of the transdisciplinary humanities that unites knowledge with political concerns, but its approaches remain controversial in much of the conservative mainstream academy. The Chinese tradition has fundamentally united knowledge, moral philosophy, and all fields of politics especially political economy since the popular eruption of Daoist thought in the Warring States period 2300 years ago. Philosophical writing throughout eastern Asia since then has operated in this field of thought.

As such, Dao-influenced philosophy has much to offer contemporary progressive political thought, especially the new communitarianism of contemporary social movements with their roots in Indigenous decolonization, advocacy for racial, sexual, and gender liberation, and 21st century socialist advocacy against radical economic inequality. In terms of philosophical tools and concepts for understanding and action, these movements have dense forebears, but a recent tradition.

The movement for economic equality and a just globalization draws on Antonio Gramsci’s introduction of radical historical contingency to the marxist tradition. While its phenomenological and testimonial principles and concepts are extremely powerful and viscerally rooted in the lived experience of subordinated – what Deleuze and Guattari called minoritarian – people as groups and individuals, the explicit resources of contemporary feminism is likewise a century-old storehouse of discourse. Indigenous liberation traditions draw from a variety of philosophical traditions lasting millennia, but the ongoing systematic and systematizing revival is almost entirely a 21st century practice.

Antonio Negri, Rosi Braidotti, and Isabelle Stengers’ masterworks unite an analysis of humanity’s destructive technological and ecological transformation of Earth and ourselves to develop a solution to those problems rooted in communitarian moralities and politics of seeking harmony while optimizing personal and social freedom. Daoism offers literally thousands of years of work in the most abstract metaphysics on the nature of freedom in harmony and flexibility in adaptation to contingency. Such conceptual resources are of immense value to these and related philosophical currents that are only just beginning to form explicitly in notable size in the Western tradition.

Van Norden has written a book that is, for philosophy as a university discipline, is a wake-up call to this obstinate branch of Western academy. The world around you is changing, and if you hold so fast to the contingent borders of your tradition, your territory will be overwritten, trampled, torn to bits. Live and act harmoniously with the changes that are coming. Change yourself.

It isn’t so hard to read some Lao Zi for a start.

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

Allen, Barry. Knowledge and Civilization. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2004.

Allen, Barry. Striking Beauty: A Philosophical Look at the Asian Martial Arts. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

Allen, Barry. Vanishing Into Things: Knowledge in Chinese Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

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

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, Or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2012.

Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.

Deleuze, Gilles. Bergsonism. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Zone Books, 1988.

Chew, Sing C. World Ecological Degradation: Accumulation, Urbanization, and Deforestation, 3000 B.C. – A.D. 2000. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 2001.

Negri, Antonio, and Michael Hardt. Assembly. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Parikka, Jussi. A Geology of Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Riggio, Adam. Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.

Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics I. Translated by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2010.

Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics II. Translated by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2011.

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

World Trade Organization. World Trade Statistical Review 2016. Retrieved from https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/statis_e/wts2016_e/wts2016_e.pdf

[1] That US$3-trillion drop in trade was largely the proliferating effect of the sudden price drop of human civilization’s most essential good, crude oil, to just less than half of its 2014 value.

[2] A student of Allen’s arrived at this conclusion in combining his scientific pragmatism with the French process ontology of Deleuze and Guattari in the context of ecological problems and eco-philosophical thinking.

[3] This concept of knowledge as perfectly harmonious but non-self-conscious action also conforms to Henri Bergson’s concept of intuition, the highest (so far) form of knowledge that unites the perfect harmony in action of brute animal instinct with the self-reflective and systematizing power of human understanding. This is a productive way for another creative contemporary philosophical path – the union of vitalist and materialist ideas in the work of thinkers like Jane Bennett – to connect with Asian philosophical traditions for centuries of philosophical resources on which to draw. But that’s a matter for another essay.

Author Information: Glen Miller, Texas A&M University, glenmiller@tamu.edu

Miller, Glen. “Animal Laborans, Homo Faber, or Something Else?.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 1-4.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3V5

Please refer to:

    • Stamm, Emma. “Retooling ‘The Human.’” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 36-40.
    • Williams, Damien. “Deleting the Human Clause: A Review of Ashley Shew’s Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 42-44.
Chamalow the cat escapes from his neighbours for some peace and quiet

“As preservationist Aldo Leopold put it, we should see non-human organisms as “fellow-members” in the citizenship of the earth.”
Image by Portier Jean Louis via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Ashley Shew’s Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge is an interdisciplinary inquiry that incorporates resources from philosophical investigations into technology and biology, from scientists and others who work on animal behavior and cognition, and popular culture. These resources allow her to take on her central question, “do animal behaviors and constructions count as technological knowledge in the same way that human enterprises do?” (p. 3) She aims to “advance a more inclusive account of technology and tool use, give an argument for ‘technological knowledge’ as including animal tool-making and tool use, and look at actual cases of tool use in non-human animals” (p. 2).

One important outcome of her analysis is a two-dimensional chart on which various artifacts of human and non-human origin can be mapped. One dimension tracks the amount of knowledge “embodied” in the object, an amended version of Davis Baird’s “thing knowledge”; the second dimension measures the “know-how” or the learned skill that the object requires of its user. By mapping out the overlap between human and non-human tools, Shew hopes that this book “unites dialogues about biological and engineering design and provides a more coherent, unified account of made things” (p. 3) and functions “to induce philosophers of technology to consider animal cases and to induce researchers in animal studies to think about animal tool use with the apparatus provided by philosophy of technology” (p. 11). The two-dimensional chart provides visual support for another goal of the book, which is to flatten the hierarchical view that sees humans as categorically different and superior to humans: based on her research, she wishes to “deny vehemently” the prospect that “humanity is somehow divorced from other life” (p. 32).

Shew’s concise yet wide-ranging summary of the tool-using behavior of other animals is enlightening and an important contribution to the philosophy of technology literature. (I do not have the expertise necessary to assess its contribution to animal researchers, but given the rigidity of disciplinary strictures and the limited dissemination of ideas of philosophy of technology even into the broader philosophical circles, much less other sciences, I would surmise it to be of value there as well.) I regularly ask my ethics students to ponder whether Aristotle would have amended De Anima and what he derives from it in Nicomachean Ethics given what we now know about communication between dolphins and primate behavior but have never had the time to pursue this non-philosophical research.

Of course, as Shew points out, we must make an educated guess about what animals such as apes, dolphins, and whales, and New Caledonian crows are thinking about or thinking through when they are making or using tools because we cannot ask them in language they understand, and even if we could, we would not understand their responses. Moreover, scientific analyses that simply report observed actions seem even more susceptible to the kind of risks that Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar identified in Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (1979), where anthropological techniques miss the meaning behind the acts that take place even as the target of their critique is one of the human sciences.

I am also sympathetic to Shew’s goal of persuading more people to place non-human animals on a continuum with humans. The “divorce” between humans and our evolutionary ancestors that she identifies is relatively new, at least in a historical context. Our predecessors had it right: our commonality—evident in the Scholastics interpretation of Aristotle, where human are rational animals and in the middling spot in the hierarchy of Arthur Lovejoy’s famous “Great Chain of Being” (Soper 1995, pp. 21-25)—has been lost in the wake of Enlightenment glorification of science and technology. As preservationist Aldo Leopold put it, we should see non-human organisms as “fellow-members” in the citizenship of the earth (1966, p. 240).

Shew’s extensive review of animal studies research shows that many characteristics of technical activities thought by many to be uniquely human, including intentionality, problem solving, and innovation, are performed by other species, an insight that is not at all obvious to people who spend most of their time surrounded by other humans, often engrossed with their flat screens. This insight has received minimal attention recently in philosophy of technology literature, which, as Shew points out, has focused more on technologies associated with engineering sciences.

Having apprehended this important insight, it seems worth asking the question of whether what occurs in the making and use of modern technology is in fact categorically different than the tool making and construction that humans share with other animals. Put another way, the discontinuity that matters is not between human technologies and their animal counterparts, but rather between modern technology and its primitive human and animal counterparts. (Distinction, of course, need not imply superiority.)

Another way to express this discontinuity is to say that while humans and non-humans share technics and technique, though perhaps to varying degrees, some human technology seems like a different animal altogether. While neither Plato nor Aristotle “felt drawn to join the two words—to speak of a logos of techne,” the cognitive dimension of high-tech objects has been present since the origins of the Greek term, i.e., “techne simply used logos” (Mitcham and Schatzberg 2009, p. 34). As Mitcham and Schatzberg put it, for Aristotle, techne itself is part of a “spectrum of different forms of engagement with reality, moving from sensation through experience to theory” (Mitcham and Schatzberg 2009, p. 33).

The theoretical dimension of technology functions for humans as a way of revealing the world. While it is possible that analogous cognitive processes occur in animals—we cannot be certain because we cannot communicate abstract and complex ideas with them—the evidence does not seem to me to support it, although perhaps I simply need to hear the (perhaps apocryphal) tale of the New Caledonian crow that falls into a well while staring into the heavens.

Moreover, several characteristics of modern technologies elucidate their human distinctiveness. Hans Jonas (1984) notes that modern technology, which is made possible by theory, operates at a more fundamental level, e.g., genetic or nano scales, than primitive technologies; their effects last longer; they have greater power and operate on a greater scale; and, at least in some cases, they operate on objects—such as humans themselves—in a different way than primitive or non-human technologies. Consider genetic engineering, especially to the human germline, and atomic weapons.

While tools and technics for humans and non-humans can satisfy practical concerns and provide a source of play or amusement, they do something more for humans. As Jonas writes, “technology, apart from its objective works, assumes ethical significance by the central place it now occupies in human purpose. Its cumulative creation, the expanding artificial environment, continuously reinforces the particular powers in man that created it, by compelling their unceasing inventive employment in its management and further advance, and by rewarding them with additional success—which only adds to the relentless claim” (Jonas 1984, p. 9). According to Jonas, it is this characteristic that differentiates homo faber from homo sapiens and, similarly, it seems to me, from other animals and their techniques. These characteristics of modern technology, Jonas argues, also make it a suitable topic for ethics.

Yet Jonas and Shew are not as adversarial as the preceding makes it seem. Jonas’s analysis of technology is paired with a philosophical inquiry into evolutionary connections in The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (2001), a project first published in 1966, completed before The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age (1984), originally published in 1979. He argues that a philosophical approach to evolution highlights continuity of organisms, rather than rupture, and that advanced complexity is accompanied by increasing risk. In both of these respects, Jonas is a kindred spirit of Shew’s, who argues for continuity and notes that other organisms may be better adapted to their niches than humans (Shew 2017, p. 18).

Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge left me wanting more. In particular, a longer second chapter, which sought to “disambiguate the relevant terminology—artifacts, tools, technology, and knowledge—in order to set up my argument that some non-human animal tool-related behavior should be seen as existing on a spectrum with technology” (p. 13), could have clarified the implications of her project for engineering design.

An expanded explanation of why the two dimensions that she used to map human and non-human artifacts are sufficient, or at least determinative, would have enabled the reader to more easily decide whether they should be considered on a continuum. Some mention of the ethical implications of her argument, however short, would have been welcome, although this concern is peripheral to her focus. A more expansive explanation of the benefits that animal researchers who employ her ideas would obtain would have also helped, though these may be obvious to practitioners in that field.

Finally, some comparison of her claims and those of Jonas mentioned above; Aristotle, whose work also integrated biological research and philosophy; and, relatedly, Martin Heidegger (2008), whose diagnosis of the flawed trajectory of Western culture begins with Aristotle’s techne that becomes the dominant way to see the world, a flaw that other species do not share, would have added helpful context her argument. Hopefully Shew is working on a sequel!

Shew’s book, which Andrew Feenberg called “revolutionary” for philosophy of technology, is lucid and thought-provoking. It stimulates reflection on our relationships with non-humans and our technologies. It is worth reading.

Contact details: glenmiller@tamu.edu

References

Aristotle. 2017. De Anima. Translated by C. D. C. Reeve. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett.

Aristole. 2002. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Joe Sachs. Newburyport, Massachusetts: Focus Publishing.

Feenberg, Andrew. 2017. Back cover of Ashley Shew’s Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge.

Heidegger, Martin. 2008. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings. Edited by David Farrell Krell. London: Harper Perennial.

Jonas, Hans. 1984. Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jonas, Hans. 2001. The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

Latour, Bruno, and Steve Woolgar. 1979. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Beverley Hills, California: Sage Publications.

Leopold, Aldo. 1966. “The Land Ethic.” In A Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round River. New York: Ballantine Books.

Mitcham, Carl and Eric Schatzberg. 2009. “Defining Technology and the Engineering Sciences.” In Philosophy of Technology and Engineering Sciences, edited by Anthonie Meijers. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Shew, Ashley. 2017. Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Soper, Kate. 1995. What Is Nature? Culture, Politics, and the non-Human. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell.

Author Information: Damien Williams, Virginia Tech, damienw7@vt.edu

Williams, Damien. “Cultivating Technomoral Interrelations: A Review of Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 64-69.

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

Image by Stu Jones via CJ Sorg on Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Shannon Vallor’s most recent book, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting takes a look at what she calls the “Acute Technosocial Opacity” of the 21st century, a state in which technological, societal, political, and human-definitional changes occur at such a rapid-yet-shallow pace that they block our ability to conceptualize and understand them.[1]

Vallor is one of the most publicly engaged technological ethicists of the past several years, and much of her work’s weight comes from its direct engagement with philosophy—both philosophy of technology and various virtue ethical traditions—and the community of technological development and innovation that is Silicon Valley. It’s from this immersive perspective that Vallor begins her work in Virtues.

Vallor contends that we need a new way of understanding the projects of human flourishing and seeking the good life, and understanding which can help us reexamine how we make and participate through and with the technoscientific innovations of our time. The project of this book, then, is to provide the tools to create this new understanding, tools which Vallor believes can be found in an examination and synthesis of the world’s three leading Virtue Ethical Traditions: Aristotelian ethics, Confucian Ethics, and Buddhism.

Vallor breaks the work into three parts, and takes as her subject what she considers to be the four major world-changing technologies of the 21st century.  The book’s three parts are, “Foundations for a Technomoral Virtue Ethic,” “Cultivating the Self: Classical Virtue Traditions as Contemporary Guide,” and “Meeting the Future with Technomoral Wisdom, OR How To Live Well with Emerging Technologies.” The four world changing technologies, considered at length in Part III, are Social Media, Surveillance, Robotics/Artificial Intelligence, and Biomedical enhancement technologies.[2]

As Vallor moves through each of the three sections and four topics, she maintains a constant habit of returning to the questions of exactly how each one will either help us cultivate a new technomoral virtue ethic, or how said ethic would need to be cultivated, in order to address it. As both a stylistic and pedagogical choice, this works well, providing touchstones of reinforcement that mirror the process of intentional cultivation she discusses throughout the book.

Flourishing and Technology

In Part I, “Foundations,” Vallor covers both the definitions of her terms and the argument for her project. Chapter 1, “Virtue Ethics, Technology, and Human Flourishing,” begins with the notion of virtue as a continuum that gets cultivated, rather than a fixed end point of achievement. She notes that while there are many virtue traditions with their own ideas about what it means to flourish, there is a difference between recognizing multiple definitions of flourishing and a purely relativist claim that all definitions of flourishing are equal.[3] Vallor engages these different understandings of flourishing, throughout the text, but she also looks at other ethical traditions, to explore how they would handle the problem of technosocial opacity.

Without resorting to strawmen, Vallor examines The Kantian Categorical Imperative and Utilitarianism, in turn. She demonstrates that Kant’s ethics would result in us trying to create codes of behavior that are either always right, or always wrong (“Never Murder;” “Always Tell the Truth”), and Utilitarian consequentialism would allow us to make excuses for horrible choices in the name of “the Greater Good.” Which is to say nothing of how nebulous, variable, and incommensurate all of our understandings of “utility” and “good” will be with each other. Vallor says that rigid rules-based nature of each of these systems simply can’t account for the variety of experiences and challenges humans are likely to face in life.

Not only that, but deontological and consequentialist ethics have always been this inflexible, and this inflexibility will only be more of a problem in the face of the challenges posed by the speed and potency of the four abovementioned technologies.[4] Vallor states that the technologies of today are more likely to facilitate a “technological convergence,” in which they “merge synergistically” and become more powerful and impactful than the sum of their parts. She says that these complex, synergistic systems of technology cannot be responded to and grappled with via rigid rules.[5]

Vallor then folds in discussion of several of her predecessors in the philosophy of technology—thinkers like Hans Jonas and Albert Borgmann—giving a history of the conceptual frameworks by which philosophers have tried to deal with technological drift and lurch. From here, she decides that each of these theorists has helped to get us part of the way, but their theories all need some alterations in order to fully succeed.[6]

In Chapter 2, “The Case for a Global Technomoral Virtue Ethic,” Vallor explores the basic tenets of Aristotelian, Confucian, and Buddhist ethics, laying the groundwork for the new system she hopes to build. She explores each of their different perspectives on what constitutes The Good Life in moderate detail, clearly noting that there are some aspects of these systems that are incommensurate with “virtue” and “good” as we understand them, today.[7] Aristotle, for instance, believed that some people were naturally suited to be slaves, and that women were morally and intellectually inferior to men, and the Buddha taught that women would always have a harder time attaining the enlightenment of Nirvana.

Rather than simply attempting to repackage old ones for today’s challenges, these ancient virtue traditions can teach us something about the shared commitments of virtue ethics, more generally. Vallor says that what we learn from them will fuel the project of building a wholly new virtue tradition. To discuss their shared underpinnings, she talks about “thick” and “thin” moral concepts.[8] A thin moral concept is defined here as only the “skeleton of an idea” of morality, while a thick concept provides the rich details that make each tradition unique. If we look at the thin concepts, Vallor says, we can see the bone structure of these traditions is made of 4 shared commitments:

  • To the Highest Human Good (whatever that may be);
  • That moral virtues understood to be cultivated states of character;
  • To a practical path of moral self-cultivation; and
  • That we can have a conception of what humans are generally like.[9]

Vallor uses these commitments to build a plausible definition of “flourishing,” looking at things like intentional practice within a global community toward moral goods internal to that practice, a set of criteria from Alasdair MacIntyre which she adopts and expands on, [10] These goals are never fully realized, but always worked toward, and always with a community. All of this is meant to be supported by and to help foster goods like global community, intercultural understanding, and collective human wisdom.

We need a global technomoral virtue ethics because while the challenges we face require ancient virtues such as courage and charity and community, they’re now required to handle ethical deliberations at a scope the world has never seen.

But Vallor says that a virtue tradition, new or old, need not be universal in order to do real, lasting work; it only needs to be engaged in by enough people to move the global needle. And while there may be differences in rendering these ideas from one person or culture to the next, if we do the work of intentional cultivation of a pluralist ethics, then we can work from diverse standpoints, toward one goal.[11]

To do this, we will need to intentionally craft both ourselves and our communities and societies. This is because not everyone considers the same goods as good, and even our agreed-upon values play out in vastly different ways when they’re sought by billions of different people in complex, fluid situations.[12] Only with intention can we exclude systems which group things like intentional harm and acceleration of global conflict under the umbrella of “technomoral virtues.”

Cultivating Techno-Ethics

Part II does the work of laying out the process of technomoral cultivation. Vallor’s goal is to examine what we can learn by focusing on the similarities and crucial differences of other virtue traditions. Starting in chapter 3, Vallor once again places Aristotle, Kongzi (Confucius), and the Buddha in conceptual conversation, asking what we can come to understand from each. From there, she moves on to detailing the actual process of cultivating the technomoral self, listing seven key intentional practices that will aid in this:

  • Moral Habituation
  • Relational Understanding
  • Reflective Self-Examination
  • Intentional Self-Direction of Moral Development
  • Perceptual Attention to Moral Salience
  • Prudential Judgment
  • Appropriate Extension of Moral Concern[13]

Vallor moves through each of these in turn, taking the time to show how each step resonates with the historical virtue traditions she’s used as orientation markers, thus far, while also highlighting key areas of their divergence from those past theories.

Vallor says that the most important thing to remember is that each step is a part of a continual process of training and becoming; none of them is some sort of final achievement by which we will “become moral,” and some are that less than others. Moral Habituation is the first step on this list, because it is the quality at the foundation of all of the others: constant cultivation of the kind of person you want to be. And, we have to remember that while all seven steps must be undertaken continually, they also have to be undertaken communally. Only by working with others can we build systems and societies necessary to sustain these values in the world.

In Chapter 6, “Technomoral Wisdom for an Uncertain Future,” Vallor provides “a taxonomy of technomoral virtues.”[14] The twelve concepts she lists—honesty, self-control, humility, justice, courage, empathy, care, civility, flexibility, perspective, magnanimity, and technomoral wisdom—are not intended to be an exhaustive list of all possible technomoral virtues.

Rather, these twelve things together form system by which to understand the most crucial qualities for dealing with our 21st century lives. They’re all listed with “associated virtues,” which help provide a boarder and deeper sense of the kinds of conceptual connections we can achieve via relational engagement with all virtues.[15] Each member of the list should support and be supported by not only the other members, but also any as-yet-unknown or -undiscovered virtues.

Here, Vallor continues a pattern she’s established throughout the text of grounding potentially unfamiliar concepts in a frame of real-life technological predicaments from the 20th or 21st century. Scandals such as Facebook privacy controversies, the flash crash of 2010, or even the moral stances (or lack thereof) of CEO’s and engineers are discussed with a mind toward highlighting the final virtue: Technomoral Wisdom.[16] Technomoral Wisdom is a means of being able to unify the other virtues, and to understand the ways in which our challenges interweave with and reflect each other. In this way we can both cultivate virtuous responses within ourselves and our existing communities, and also begin to more intentionally create new individual, cultural, and global systems.

Applications and Transformations

In Part III, Vallor puts to the test everything that we’ve discussed so far, placing all of the principles, practices, and virtues in direct, extensive conversation with the four major technologies that frame the book. Exploring how new social media, surveillance cultures, robots and AI, and biomedical enhancement technologies are set to shape our world in radically new ways, and how we can develop new habits of engagement with them. Each technology is explored in its own chapter so as to better explore which virtues best suit which topic, which good might be expressed by or in spite of each field, and which cultivation practices will be required within each. In this way, Vallor highlights the real dangers of failing to skillfully adapt to the requirements of each of these unprecedented challenges.

While Vallor considers most every aspect of this project in great detail, there are points throughout the text where she seems to fall prey to some of the same technological pessimism, utopianism, or determinism for which she rightly calls out other thinkers, in earlier chapters. There is still a sense that these technologies are, of their nature, terrifying, and that all we can do is rein them in.

Additionally, her crucial point seems to be that through intentional cultivation of the self and our society, or that through our personally grappling with these tasks, we can move the world, a stance which leaves out, for instance, notions of potential socioeconomic or political resistance to these moves. There are those with a vested interest in not having a more mindful and intentional technomoral ethos, because that would undercut how they make their money. However, it may be that this is Vallor’s intent.

The audience and goal for this book seems to be ethicists who will be persuaded to become philosophers of technology, who will then take up this book’s understandings and go speak to policy makers and entrepreneurs, who will then make changes in how they deal with the public. If this is the case, then there will already be a shared conceptual background between Vallor and many of the other scholars whom she intends to make help her to do the hard work of changing how people think about their values. But those philosophers will need a great deal more power, oversight authority, and influence to effectively advocate for and implement what Vallor suggests, here, and we’ll need sociopolitical mechanisms for making those valuative changes, as well.

While the implications of climate catastrophes, dystopian police states, just-dumb-enough AI, and rampant gene hacking seem real, obvious, and avoidable to many of us, many others take them as merely naysaying distractions from the good of technosocial progress and the ever-innovating free market.[17] With that in mind, we need tools with which to begin the process of helping people understand why they ought to care about technomoral virtue, even when they have such large, driving incentives not to.

Without that, we are simply presenting people who would sell everything about us for another dollar with the tools by which to make a more cultivated, compassionate, and interrelational world, and hoping that enough of them understand the virtue of those tools, before it is too late. Technology and the Virtues is a fantastic schematic for a set of these tools.

Contact details: damienw7@vt.edu

References

Vallor, Shannon. Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a World Worth Wanting New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

[1] Shannon Vallor, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a World Worth Wanting (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016) ,6.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Ibid., 19—21.

[4] Ibid., 22—26.

[5] Ibid. 28.

[6] Ibid., 28—32.

[7] Ibid., 35.

[8] Ibid., 43.

[9] Ibid., 44.

[10] Ibid., 45—47.

[11] Ibid., 54—55.

[12] Ibid., 51.

[13] Ibid., 64.

[14] Ibid., 119.

[15] Ibid., 120.

[16] Ibid., 122—154.

[17] Ibid., 249—254.

Author Information: Paul R. Smart, University of Southampton, ps02v@ecs.soton.ac.uk

Smart, Paul R. “(Fake?) News Alert: Intellectual Virtues Required for Online Knowledge!.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 45-55.

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

Please refer to:

Image by BTC Keychain via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Richard Heersmink’s (2018) article, A virtue epistemology of the Internet: Search engines, intellectual virtues, and education, provides an important and timely analysis of the Internet from the standpoint of virtue epistemology.[1] According to Richard, the Internet is an important epistemic resource, but it is one that comes with a range of epistemic hazards. Such hazards, he suggests, motivate a consideration of the ways in which individuals should interact with the Internet.

In particular, Richard appeals to a specific branch of virtue epistemology, known as virtue responsibilism, arguing that certain kinds of cognitive trait (e.g., curiosity and open-mindedness) are useful in helping us press maximal epistemic benefit from the Internet. Given the utility of such traits, coupled with the epistemic importance of the Internet, Richard suggests that educational policy should be adapted so as to equip would-be knowers with the cognitive wherewithal to cope with the epistemic challenges thrown up by the online environment.

There is, no doubt, something right about all this. Few would disagree with the claim that a certain level of discernment and discrimination is important when it comes to the evaluation of online content. Whether such ‘virtues’ are best understood from the perspective of virtue responsibilism or virtue reliabilism is, I think, a moot point, for I suspect that in the case of both virtue responsibilism and virtue reliabilism what matters is the way in which belief-forming informational circuits are subject to active configuration by processes that may be broadly construed as metacognitive in nature (Smart, in pressa). That, however, is a minor quibble, and it is one that is of little consequence to the issues raised in Richard’s paper.

For the most part, then, I find myself in agreement with many of the assumptions that motivate the target article. I agree that the Internet is an important epistemic resource that is unprecedented in terms of its scale, scope, and accessibility. I also agree that, at the present time, the Internet is far from an epistemically safe environment, and this raises issues regarding the epistemic standing of individual Internet users. In particular, it looks unlikely that the indiscriminate selection and endorsement of online information will do much to bolster one’s epistemic credentials.

We thus encounter something of a dilemma: As an epistemic resource, the Internet stands poised to elevate our epistemic standing, but as an open and public space the Internet provides ample opportunities for our doxastic systems to be led astray. The result is that we are obliged to divide the online informational cornucopia into a treasure trove of genuine facts and a ragbag collection of ‘false facts’ and ‘fake news.’ The information superhighway, it seems, promises to expand our epistemic power and potential, but the road ahead is one that is fraught with a dizzying array of epistemic perils, problems, and pitfalls. What ought we to do in response to such a situation?

It is at this point that I suspect my own views start to diverge with those of the target article. Richard’s response to the dilemma is to focus attention on the individual agent and consider the ways in which an agent’s cognitive character can be adapted to meet the challenges of the Internet. My own approach is somewhat different. It is borne out of three kinds of doubt: doubts about the feasibility (although not the value) of virtue-oriented educational policies, doubts about the basic validity of virtue theoretic conceptions of knowledge, and doubts about whether the aforementioned dilemma is best resolved by attempting to change the agent as opposed to the environment in which the agent is embedded. As always, space is limited and life is short, so I will restrict my discussion to issues that I deem to be of greatest interest to the epistemological community.

Reliable Technology

Inasmuch as intellectual virtues are required for online knowledge—i.e., knowledge that we possess as a result of our interactions and engagements with the Internet—they are surely only part of a much  broader (and richer) story that includes details about the environment in which our cognitive systems operate. In judging the role of intellectual virtue in shielding us from the epistemic hazards of the online environment, it therefore seems important to have some understanding of the actual technologies we interact with.

This is important because it helps us understand the kinds of intellectual virtue that might be required, as well as the efficacy of specific intellectual virtues in helping us believe the truth (and thus working as virtues in the first place). Internet technologies are, of course, many and varied, and it will not be possible to assess their general relevance to epistemological debates in the present commentary. For the sake of brevity, I will therefore restrict my attention to one particular technology: blockchain.

Blockchain is perhaps best known for its role in supporting the digital cryptocurrency, Bitcoin. It provides us with a means of storing data in a secure fashion, using a combination of data encryption and data linking techniques. For present purposes, we can think of a blockchain as a connected set of data records (or data blocks), each of which contains some body of encrypted data. In the case of Bitcoin, of course, the data blocks contain data of a particular kind, namely, data pertaining to financial transactions. But this is not the only kind of data that can be stored in a blockchain. In fact, blockchains can be used to store information about pretty much anything. This includes online voting records, news reports, sensor readings, personal health records, and so on.

Once data is recorded inside a blockchain, it is very difficult to modify. In essence, the data stored within a blockchain is immutable, in the sense that it cannot be changed without ‘breaking the chain’ of data blocks, and thereby invalidating the data contained within the blockchain. This property makes blockchains of considerable epistemic significance, because it speaks to some of the issues (e.g., concerns about data tampering and malign forms of information manipulation) that are likely to animate epistemological debates in this area.

This does not mean, of course, that the information stored within a blockchain is guaranteed to be factually correct, in the sense of being true and thus yielding improvements in epistemic standing. Nevertheless, there are, I think, reasons to regard blockchain as an important technology relative to efforts to make the online environment a somewhat safer place for would-be knowers. Consider, for example, the title of the present article. Suppose that we wanted to record the fact that a person known as Paul Smart—that’s me—wrote an article with the title:

(Fake?) News Alert: Intellectual Virtues Required for Online Knowledge!

We can incorporate this particular piece of information into a blockchain using something called a cryptographic hash function, which yields a unique identifier for the block and all of its contents. In the case of the aforementioned title, the cryptographic hash (as returned by the SHA256 algorithm[2]) is:

7147bd321e79a63041d9b00a937954976236289ee4de6f8c97533fb6083a8532

Now suppose that someone wants to alter the title, perhaps to garner support for an alternative argumentative position. In particular, let’s suppose they want to claim that the title of the article is:

Fake News Alert: Intellectual Virtues Required for Online Knowledge!

From an orthographic perspective, of course, not much has changed. But the subtlety of the alteration is not something that can be used to cause confusion about the actual wording of the original title—the title that I intended for the present article. (Neither can it be used to cast doubt about the provenance of the paper—the fact that the author of the paper was a person called Paul Smart.) To see this, note that the hash generated for the ‘fake’ title looks nothing like the original:

cc05baf2fa7a439674916fe56611eaacc55d31f25aa6458b255f8290a831ddc4

It is this property that, at least in part, makes blockchains useful for recording information that might otherwise be prone to epistemically malign forms of information manipulation. Imagine, for the sake of argument, that climatological data, as recorded by globally distributed sensors, was stored in a blockchain. The immutability of such data makes it extremely difficult for anyone to manipulate the data in such a way as to confirm or deny the reality of year-on-year changes in global temperature. Neither is it easy to alter information pertaining to the provenance of existing data records, i.e., information about when, where, and how such data was generated.

None of this should delude us into thinking that blockchain technology is a panacea for Internet-related epistemic problems—it isn’t! Neither does blockchain obviate the need for agents to exercise at least some degree of intellectual virtue when it comes to the selection and evaluation of competing data streams. Nevertheless, there is, I think, something that is of crucial epistemological interest and relevance here—something that makes blockchain and other cybersecurity technologies deserving of further epistemological attention. In particular, such technologies may be seen as enhancing the epistemic safety of the online environment, and thus perhaps reducing the need for intellectual virtue.

In this sense, the epistemological analysis of Internet technologies may be best approached from some variant of modal epistemology—e.g., epistemological approaches that emphasize the modal stability of true beliefs across close possible worlds (Pritchard, 2009, chap. 2). But even if we choose to countenance an approach that appeals to issues of intellectual virtue, there is still, I suggest, a need to broaden the analytic net to include technologies that (for the time being at least) lie beyond the bounds of the individual cognitive agent.

Safety in Numbers

“From an epistemic perspective,” Richard writes, “the most salient dimension of the Internet is that it is an information space” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 5). Somewhat surprisingly, I disagree. Although it is obviously true that the Internet is an information space, it is not clear that this is its most salient feature, at least from an epistemological standpoint. In particular, there is, I suggest, a sense in which the Internet is more than just an information space. As is clear from the explosive growth in all things social—social media, social networks, social bots, and so on—the Internet functions as a social technology, yielding all manner of opportunities for people to create, share and process information in a collaborative fashion. The result, I suggest, is that we should not simply think of the Internet as an information space (although it is surely that), we should also view it as a social space.

Viewing the Internet as a social space is important because it changes the way we think about the epistemic impact of the Internet, relative to the discovery, production, representation, acquisition, processing and utilization of knowledge. Smart (in pressb), for example, suggests that some online systems function as knowledge machines, which are systems in which some form of knowledge-relevant processing is realized by a socio-technical mechanism, i.e., a mechanism whose component elements are drawn from either the social (human) or the technological realm.

An interesting feature of many of these systems is the way in which the reliability (or truth-conducive) nature of the realized process is rooted in the socio-technical nature of the underlying (realizing) mechanism. When it comes to human computation or citizen science systems, for example, user contributions are typically solicited from multiple independent users as a means of improving the reliability of specific epistemic outputs (Smart, in pressb; Smart and Shadbolt, in press; Watson and Floridi, 2018). Such insights highlight the socially-distributed character of at least some forms of online knowledge production, thereby moving us beyond the realms of individual, agent-centric analyses.

On a not altogether unrelated note, it is important to appreciate the way in which social participation can itself be used to safeguard online systems from various forms of malign intervention. One example is provided by the Google PageRank algorithm. In this case, any attempt to ‘artificially’ elevate the ranking assigned to specific contributions (e.g., a user’s website) is offset by the globally-distributed nature of the linking effort, coupled with the fact that links to a specific resource are themselves weighted by the ranking of the resource from which the link originates. This makes it difficult for any single agent to subvert the operation of the PageRank algorithm.

Even ostensibly non-social technologies can be seen to rely on the distributed and decentralized nature of the Internet. In the case of blockchain, for example, multiple elements of a peer-to-peer network participate in the computational processes that make blockchain work. In this way, the integrity of the larger system is founded on the collaborative efforts of an array of otherwise independent computational elements. And it is this that (perhaps) allows us to think of blockchain’s epistemically-desirable features as being rooted in something of a ‘social’ substrate.

All of this, I suggest, speaks in favor of an approach that moves beyond a preoccupation with the properties of individual Internet users. In particular, there seems to be considerable merit in approaching the Internet from a more socially-oriented epistemological perspective. It is easy to see the social aspects of the Internet as lying at the root of a panoply of epistemic concerns, especially when it comes to the opportunities for misinformation, deception, and manipulation. But in light of the above discussion, perhaps an alternative, more positive, take on the Internet (qua social space) starts to come into sharper focus. This is a view that highlights the way in which certain kinds of online system can work to transform a ‘vice’ into a ‘virtue,’ exploiting the social properties of the Internet for the purposes of dealing with reliability-related concerns.

Image by Dariorug via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Filter Bubblicious

Search engines form one of the focal points of Richard’s analysis, and, as with previous work in this area, Richard finds at least some aspects of their operation to be highly problematic. A particular issue surfaces in respect of personalized search. Here, Richard’s analysis echoes the sentiments expressed by other epistemologists who regard personalized search algorithms as of dubious epistemic value.

In fact, I suspect the consensus that has emerged in this area fails to tell the whole story about the epistemic consequences of personalized search. Indeed, from a virtue epistemological position, I worry that epistemologists are in danger of failing to heed their own advice—prematurely converging on a particular view without proper consideration of competing positions. In my new-found role as the virtue epistemologist’s guardian angel (or should that be devil’s advocate?), I will attempt to highlight a couple of reasons why I think more empirical research is required before we can say anything useful about the epistemological impact of personalized search algorithms.

My first worry is that our understanding about the extent to which search results and subsequent user behavior is affected by personalization is surprisingly poor. Consider, for example, the results of one study, which attempted to quantify the effect of personalization on search results (Hannak et al., 2013). Using an empirical approach, Hannak et al. (2013) report a demonstrable personalization effect, with 11.7% of search results exhibiting differences due to personalization. Interestingly, however, the effect of personalization appeared to be greater for search results with lower rankings; highly ranked results (i.e., those appearing at the top of a list of search results) appeared to be much less affected by personalization.

This result is interesting given the observation that college students “prefer to click on links in higher positions even when the abstracts are less relevant to the task at hand” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 6). From one perspective, of course, this tendency looks like a vice that jeopardizes the epistemic standing of the individual user. And yet, from another perspective, it looks like the preference for higher ranked search results is poised to negate (or at least reduce) the negative epistemological effects of personalized search. What we seem to have here, in essence, is a situation in which one kind of ‘intellectual vice’ (i.e., a tendency to select highly-ranked search results) is playing something of a more positive (virtuous?) role in mitigating the negative epistemological sequelae of a seemingly vicious technology (i.e., personalized search).

None of this means that the epistemic effects of personalized search are to the overall benefit of individual users; nevertheless, the aforementioned results do call for a more nuanced and empirically informed approach when considering the veritistic value of search engines, as well as other kinds of Internet-related technology.

A second worry relates to the scope of the epistemological analysis upon which judgements about the veritistic value of search engines are based. In this case, it is unclear whether analyses that focus their attention on individual agents are best placed to reveal the full gamut of epistemic costs and benefits associated with a particular technology, especially one that operates in the socio-technical ecology of the Internet. To help us understand this worry in a little more detail, it will be useful to introduce the notion of mandevillian intelligence (Smart, in pressc; Smart, in pressd).

Mandevillian intelligence is a specific form of collective intelligence in which the cognitive shortcomings and epistemic vices of the individual agent are seen to yield cognitive benefits and epistemic virtues at the collective or social level of analysis, e.g., at the level of collective doxastic agents (see Palermos, 2015) or socio-epistemic systems (see Goldman, 2011). According to this idea, personalized search systems may play a productive role in serving the collective cognitive good, providing a means by which individual vices (e.g., a tendency for confirmation bias) are translated into something that more closely resembles an epistemic virtue (e.g., greater cognitive coverage of a complex space of thoughts, ideas, opinions, and so on). Consider, for example, the way in which personalized search may help to focus individual attention on particular bodies of information, thereby restricting access to a larger space of ideas, opinions, and other information.

While such forms of ‘restricted access’ or ‘selective information exposure’ are unlikely to yield much in the way of an epistemic benefit for the individual agent, it is possible that by exploiting (and, indeed, accentuating!) an existing cognitive bias (e.g., confirmation bias), personalized search may work to promote cognitive diversity, helping to prevent precipitant forms of cognitive convergence (see Zollman, 2010) and assisting with the epistemically optimal division of cognitive labor (see Muldoon, 2013). This possibility reveals something of a tension in how we interpret or evaluate the veritistic value of a particular technology or epistemic practice. In particular, it seems that assessments of veritistic value may vary according to whether our epistemological gaze is directed towards individual epistemic agents or the collective ensembles in which those agents are situated.

The Necessity of Virtue

As Richard notes, virtue epistemology is characterized by a shift in emphasis, away from the traditional targets of epistemological analysis (e.g., truth, justification and belief) and towards the cognitive properties of would-be knowers. “Virtue epistemology,” Richard writes, “is less concerned with the nature of truth and more concerned with the cognitive character of agents” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 2). This is, no doubt, a refreshing change, relative to the intellectual orientation of traditional philosophical debates.

Nevertheless, I assume that virtue epistemologists still recognize the value and priority of truth when it comes to issues of epistemic evaluation. Someone who holds false beliefs is not the possessor of knowledge, and this remains the case irrespective of whatever vices and virtues the agent has. In other words, it does not matter how careful, attentive and assiduous an agent is in selecting and evaluating information, if what the agent believes is false, they simply do not know.

What seems to be important in the case of virtue epistemology is the role that intellectual virtue plays in securing the truth of an agent’s beliefs. In particular, the central feature of virtue epistemology (at least to my mind) is that the truth of an agent’s beliefs stem from the exercise of intellectual virtue. It is thus not the case that truth is unimportant (or less important) when it comes to issues of positive epistemic standing; rather, it is the role that intellectual virtue plays in establishing the truth of an agent’s beliefs. An agent is thus a bona fide knower when they believe the truth and the truth in question is attributable to some aspect of their cognitive character, specifically, a cognitive trait (virtue responsibilism) or cognitive faculty (virtue reliabilism).

What then makes something a vice or virtue seems to be tied to the reliability of token instantiations of processes that are consistent with an agent’s cognitive character. Intellectual virtues are thus “cognitive character traits that are truth-conducive and minimalise error” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 3), while intellectual vices are characterized as “cognitive character traits that are not truth-conducive and do not minimalise error” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 3). It is this feature of the intellectual virtues—the fact that they are, in general, reliable (or give rise to reliable belief-relevant processes)—that looks to be important when it comes to issues of epistemic evaluation.

So this is what I find problematic about virtue theoretic approaches to knowledge. (Note that I am not an epistemologist by training, so this will require a generous—and hopefully virtue-inspiring swig—of the ole intellectual courage.) Imagine a state-of-affairs in which the Internet was (contrary to the present state-of-affairs) a perfectly safe environment—one where the factive status of online information was guaranteed as a result of advances in cyber-security techniques and intelligent fact-checking services. Next, let us imagine that we have two individuals, Paul and Sophia, who differ with respect to their cognitive character. Paul is the least virtuous of the two, unreflectively and automatically accepting whatever the Internet tells him. Sophia is more circumspect, wary of being led astray by (the now non-existent) fake news.

Inasmuch as we see the exercise of intellectual virtue as necessary for online knowledge, it looks unlikely that poor old Paul can be said to know very much. This is because the truth of Paul’s beliefs are not the result of anything that warrants the label ‘intellectual virtue.’ Paul, of course, does have a lot of true beliefs, but the truth of these beliefs does not stem from the exercise of his intellectual virtues—if, indeed, he has any. In fact, inasmuch as there is any evidence of virtue in play here, it is probably best attributed to the technologies that work to ensure the safety of the online environment. The factive status of Paul’s beliefs thus has more to do with the reliability of the Internet than it does with the elements of his cognitive character.

But is it correct to say that Paul has no online knowledge in this situation? Personally, I do not have this intuition. In other words, in a perfectly safe environment, I can see no reason why we should restrict knowledge attributions to agents whose beliefs are true specifically as the result of intellectual virtue. My sense is that even the most unreflective of agents could be credited with knowledge in a situation where there was no possibility of them being wrong. And if that is indeed the case, then why insist that it is only the exercise of intellectual virtue that underwrites positive epistemic standing?

After all, it seems perfectly possible, to my mind, that Sophia’s epistemic caution contributes no more to the minimization of error in an epistemically benign (i.e., safe) environment than does Paul’s uncritical acceptance. (In fact, given the relative efficiency of their doxastic systems, it may very well be the case that Sophia ends up with fewer true beliefs than Paul.) It might be claimed that this case is invalidated by a failure to consider the modal stability of an agent’s beliefs relative to close possible worlds, as well as perhaps their sensitivity to counterfactual error possibilities. But given the way in which the case is characterized, I suggest that there are no close possible worlds that should worry us—the cybersecurity and fact checking technologies are, let us assume, sufficiently robust as to ensure the modal distance of those worrisome worlds.

One implication of all this is to raise doubts about the necessity of intellectual virtue, relative to our conceptual understanding of knowledge. If there are cases where intellectual virtue is not required for positive epistemic standing, then intellectual virtue cannot be a necessary condition for knowledge attribution. And if that is the case, then why should intellectual virtue form the basis of an approach that is intended to deal with the epistemic shortcomings of the (contemporary) Internet?

Part of the attraction of virtue epistemology, I suspect, is the way in which a suite of generally reliable processes are inextricably linked to the agent who is the ultimate target of epistemic evaluation. This linkage, which is established via the appeal to cognitive character, helps to ensure the portability of an agent’s truth-tracking capabilities—it helps to ensure, in other words, that wherever the agent goes their reliable truth-tracking capabilities are sure to follow.

However, in an era where our doxastic systems are more-or-less constantly plugged into a reliable and epistemically safe environment, it is not so clear that agential capabilities are relevant to epistemic standing. This, I suggest, raises doubts about the necessity of intellectual virtue in securing positive epistemic status, and it also (although this is perhaps less clear) encourages us to focus our attention on some of the engineering efforts (as opposed to agent-oriented educational programs) that might be required to make the online world an epistemically safer place.

Conclusion

What, then, should we make of the appeal to virtue epistemology in our attempt to deal with the  epistemic hazards of the Internet. My main concern is that the appeal to virtue epistemology (and the emphasis placed on intellectual virtue) risks an unproductive focus on individual human agents at the expense of both the technological and social features of the online world. This certainly does not rule out the relevance of virtue theoretic approaches as part of our attempt to understand the epistemic significance of the Internet, but other approaches (e.g., modal reliabilism, process reliabilism, distributed reliabilism, and systems-oriented social epistemology) also look to be important.

Personally, I remain agnostic with regard to the relevance of different epistemological approaches, although I worry about the extent to which virtue epistemology is best placed to inform policy-related decisions (e.g., those relating to education). In particular, I fear that by focusing our attention on individual agents and issues of intellectual virtue, we risk overlooking some of the socio-epistemic benefits of the Internet, denigrating a particular technology (e.g., personalized search) on account of its failure to enhance individual knowledge, while ignoring the way a technology contributes to more collective forms of epistemic success.

In concluding his thought-provoking paper on virtue epistemology and the Internet, Richard suggests that “there is an important role for educators to teach and assess [intellectual] virtues as part of formal school and university curricula, perhaps as part of critical thinking courses” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 10). I have said relatively little about this particular issue in the present paper. For what it’s worth, however, I can see no reason to object to the general idea of Internet-oriented educational policies. The only caveat, perhaps, concerns the relative emphasis that might be placed on the instillation of intellectual virtue as opposed to the inculcation of technical skills, especially those that enable future generations to make the online world a safer place.

No doubt there is room for both kinds of pedagogical program (assuming they can even be dissociated). At the very least, it seems to me that the effort to resolve a problem (i.e., engineer a safer Internet) is just as important as the effort to merely cope with it (i.e., acquire a virtuous cognitive character). But, in any case, when it comes to education and learning, we should not lose sight of the fact that the Internet is itself something that is used for educational purposes. Perhaps, then, the more important point about education and the Internet is not so much the precise details of what gets taught, so much as the issue of whether the Internet (with all its epistemic foibles) is really the best place to learn.

Contact details: ps02v@ecs.soton.ac.uk

References

Goldman, A. I. (2011). A guide to social epistemology. In A. I. Goldman and D. Whitcomb (Eds.), Social Epistemology: Essential Readings, pp. 11–37. New York, New York, USA: Oxford University Press.

Hannak, A., P. Sapiezynski, A. Molavi Kakhki, B. Krishnamurthy, D. Lazer, A. Mislove, and C. Wilson (2013). Measuring personalization of Web search. In D. Schwabe, V. Almeida, H. Glaser, R. Baeza-Yates, and S. Moon (Eds.), Proceedings of the 22nd International Conference  on World Wide Web, Rio  de Janeiro, Brazil, pp. 527–538. ACM.

Heersmink, R. (2018). A virtue epistemology of the Internet: Search engines, intellectual virtues, and education. Social Epistemology 32 (1), 1–12.

Muldoon, R. (2013). Diversity and the division of cognitive labor. Philosophy Compass 8 (2), 117–125.

Palermos, S. O. (2015). Active externalism, virtue reliabilism and scientific knowledge. Synthese 192 (9), 2955–2986.

Pritchard, D. (2009). Knowledge. Basingstoke, England, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Smart, P. R. (in pressa). Emerging digital technologies: Implications for extended conceptions of cognition and knowledge. In A. J. Carter, A. Clark, J. Kallestrup, O. S. Palermos, and D. Pritchard (Eds.), Extended Epistemology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Smart, P. R. (in pressb). Knowledge machines. The Knowledge Engineering Review.

Smart, P. R. (in pressc). Mandevillian intelligence. Synthese.

Smart, P. R. (in pressd). Mandevillian intelligence: From individual vice to collective virtue. In A. J. Carter, A. Clark, J. Kallestrup, O. S. Palermos, and D. Pritchard (Eds.), Socially Extended Epistemology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Smart, P. R. and N. R. Shadbolt (in press). The World Wide Web. In J. Chase and D. Coady (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Applied Epistemology. New York, New York, USA: Routledge.

Watson, D. and L. Floridi (2018). Crowdsourced science: Sociotechnical epistemology in the e-research paradigm. Synthese 195 (2), 741–764.

Zollman, K. J. S. (2010). The epistemic benefit of transient diversity. Erkenntnis 72 (1), 17–35.

[1] This work is supported under SOCIAM: The Theory and Practice of Social Machines. The SOCIAM Project is funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) under grant number EP/J017728/1 and comprises the Universities of Southampton, Oxford and Edinburgh.

[2] See http://www.xorbin.com/tools/sha256-hash-calculator [accessed: 30th  January 2018].

Author Information: Damien Williams, Virginia Tech, damienw7@vt.edu

Williams, Damien. “Deleting the Human Clause: A Review of Ashley Shew’s Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 42-44.

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

Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge is Ashley Shew’s debut monograph and in it she argues that we need to reassess and possibly even drastically change the way in which we think about and classify the categories of technology, tool use, and construction behavior. Drawing from the fields of anthropology, animal studies, and philosophy of technology and engineering, Shew demonstrates that there are several assumptions made by researchers in all of these fields—assumptions about intelligence, intentionality, creativity and the capacity for novel behavior.

Many of these assumptions, Shew says, were developed to guard against the hazard of anthropomorphizing the animals under investigation, and to prevent those researchers ascribing human-like qualities to animals that don’t have them. However, this has led to us swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction, engaging in “a kind of speciesist arrogance” which results in our not ascribing otherwise laudable characteristics to animals for the mere fact that they aren’t human.[1]

Shew says that we consciously and unconsciously appended a “human clause” to all of our definitions of technology, tool use, and intelligence, and this clause’s presumption—that it doesn’t really “count” if humans aren’t the ones doing it—is precisely what has to change.

In Animal Constructions, Shew’s tone is both light and intensely focused, weaving together extensive notes, bibliography, and index with humor, personal touches, and even poignancy, all providing a sense of weight and urgency to her project. As she lays out the pieces of her argument, she is extremely careful about highlighting and bracketing out her own biases, throughout the text; an important fact, given that the whole project is about the recognition of assumptions and bias in human behavior. In Chapter 6, when discussing whether birds can be said to understand what they’re doing, Shew says that she

[relies] greatly on quotations…because the study’s authors describe crow tool uses and manufacture using language that is very suggestive about crows’ technological understanding and behaviors—language that, given my particular philosophical research agenda, might sound biased in paraphrase.[2]

In a chapter 6 endnote, Shew continues to touch on this issue of bias and its potential to become prejudice, highlighting the difficulty of cross-species comparison, and noting that “we also compare the intelligence of culturally and economically privileged humans with that of less privileged humans, a practice that leads to oppression, exploitation, slavery, genocide, etc.”[3] In the conclusion, she elaborates on this somewhat, pointing out the ways in which biases about the “right kinds” of bodies and minds have led to embarrassments and atrocities in human history.[4] As we’ll see, this means that the question of how and why we categorize animal construction behaviors as we do has implications which are far more immediate and crucial than research projects.

The content of Animal Constructions is arranged in such a way as to make a strong case for the intelligence, creativity, and ingenuity of animals, throughout, but it also provides several contrast cases in which we see that there are several animal behaviors which might appear to be intentional, but which are the product of instinct or the extended phenotype of the species in question.[5] According to Shew, these latter cases do more than act as exceptions that test the rule; they also provide the basis for reframing the ways in which we compare the behaviors of humans and nonhuman animals.

If we can accept that construction behavior exists on a spectrum or continuum with tool use and other technological behaviors, and we can come to recognize that animals such as spiders and beavers make constructions as a part of the instinctual, DNA-based, phenotypical natures, then we can begin to interrogate whether the same might not be true for the things that humans make and do. If we can understand this, then we can grasp that “the nature of technology is not merely tied to the nature of humanity, but to humanity in our animality” (emphasis present in original).[6]

Using examples from animal studies reaching back several decades, Shew discusses experimental observations of apes, monkeys, cetaceans (dolphins and whales), and birds. Each example set moves further away from the kind of animals we see as “like us,” and details how each group possess traits and behaviors humans tend to think only exist in ourselves.[7] Chimps and monkeys test tool-making techniques and make plans; dolphins and whales pass hunting techniques on to their children and cohort, have names, and social rituals; birds make complex tools for different scenarios, adapt them to novel circumstances, and learn to lie.[8]

To further discuss the similarities between humans and other animals, Shew draws on theories about the relationship between body and mind, such as embodiment and extended mind hypotheses, from philosophy of mind, which say that the kind of mind we are is intimately tied to the kinds of bodies we are. She pairs this with work from disability studies which forwards the conceptual framework of “bodyminds,” saying that they aren’t simply linked; they’re the same.[9] This is the culmination of descriptions of animal behaviors and a prelude a redefinition and reframing of the concepts of “technology” and “knowledge.”

Editor's note - My favourite part of this review roundtable is scanning through pictures of smart animals

Dyson the seal. Image by Valerie via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In the book’s conclusion, Shew suggests placing all the products of animal construction behavior on a two-axis scale, where the x-axis is “know-how” (the knowledge it takes to accomplish a task) and the y-axis is “thing knowledge” (the information about the world that gets built into constructed objects).[10] When we do this, she says, we can see that every made thing, be it object or social construct (a passage with important implications) falls somewhere outside of the 0, 0 point.[11] This is Shew’s main thrust throughout Animal Constructions: That humans are animals and our technology is not what sets us apart or makes us special; in fact, it may be the very thing that most deeply ties us to our position within the continuum of nature.

For Shew, we need to be less concerned about the possibility of incorrectly thinking that animals are too much like us, and far more concerned that we’re missing the ways in which we’re still and always animals. Forgetting our animal nature and thinking that there is some elevating, extra special thing about humans—our language, our brains, our technologies, our culture—is arrogant in the extreme.

While Shew says that she doesn’t necessarily want to consider the moral implications of her argument in this particular book, it’s easy to see how her work could be foundational to a project about moral and social implications, especially within fields such as animal studies or STS.[12] And an extension like this would fit perfectly well with the goal she lays out in the introduction, regarding her intended audience: “I hope to induce philosophers of technology to consider animal cases and induce researchers in animal studies to think about animal tool use with the apparatus provided by philosophy of technology.”[13]

In Animal Constructions, Shew has built a toolkit filled with fine arguments and novel arrangements that should easily provide the instruments necessary for anyone looking to think differently about the nature of technology, engineering, construction, and behavior, in the animal world. Shew says that “A full-bodied approach to the epistemology of technology requires that assumptions embedded in our definitions…be made clear,”[14] and Animal Constructions is most certainly a mechanism by which to deeply delve into that process of clarification.

Contact details: damienw7@vt.edu

References

Shew, Ashley. Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017.

[1] Ashley Shew, Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge p. 107

[2] Ibid., p. 73

[3] Ibid., p. 89, n. 7

[4] Ibid., pg. 107—122

[5] Ibid., pg. 107—122

[6] Ibid., p. 19

[7] On page 95, Shew makes brief mention various instances of octopus tool use; more of these examples would really drive the point home.

[8] Shew, pg. 35—51; 53—65; 67—89

[9] Ibid., p. 108

[10] Ibid., pg. 110—119

[11] Ibid., p. 118

[12] Ibid., p. 16

[13] Ibid., p. 11

[14] Ibid., p 105

Author Information: Robert Frodeman, University of North Texas, robert.frodeman@unt.edu

Frodeman, Robert. “The Politics of AI.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 48-49.

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

This robot, with its evocatively cute face, would turn its head toward the most prominent human face it could see.
Image from Jeena Paradies via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has been a cheerleader for technology for decades. He begins an early 2018 column by declaring that he wants to take a break from the wall-to-wall Trump commentary. Instead, ‘While You Were Sleeping’ consists of an account of the latest computer wizardry that’s occurring under our noses. What Friedman misses is that he is still writing about Trump after all.

His focus is on quantum computing. Friedman revisits a lab he had been to a mere two years earlier; on the earlier visit he had come away impressed, but feeling that “this was Star Wars stuff — a galaxy and many years far away.” To his surprise, however, the technology had moved quicker than anticipated: “clearly quantum computing has gone from science fiction to nonfiction faster than most anyone expected.”

Friedman hears that quantum computers will work 100,000 times faster than the fastest computers today, and will be able to solve unimaginably complex problems. Wonders await – such as the NSA’s ability to crack the hardest encryption codes. Not that there is any reason for us to worry about that; the NSA has our best interests at heart. And in any case, the Chinese are working on quantum computing, too.

Friedman does note that this increase in computing power will lead to the supplanting of “middle-skill and even high-skill work.” Which he allows could pose a problem. Fortunately, there is a solution at hand: education! Our educational system simply needs to adapt to the imperatives of technology. This means not only K-12 education, and community colleges and universities, but also lifelong worker training. Friedman reports on an interview with IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, who told him:

“Every job will require some technology, and therefore we’ll need to revamp education. The K-12 curriculum is obvious, but it’s the adult retraining — lifelong learning systems — that will be even more important…. Some jobs will be displaced, but 100 percent of jobs will be augmented by AI.”

Rometty notes that technology companies “are inventing these technologies, so we have the responsibility to help people adapt to it — and I don’t mean just giving them tablets or P.C.s, but lifelong learning systems.”

For that’s how it works: people adapt to technology, rather than the other way around. And what if our job gets outsourced or taken over by a machine? Friedman then turns to education-to-work expert Heather McGowan: workers “must reach up and learn a new skill or in some ways expand our capabilities as humans in order to fully realize our collaborative potential.” Education must become “a continuous process where the focused outcome is the ability to learn and adapt with agency as opposed to the transactional action of acquiring a set skill.” It all sounds rather rigorous, frog-marched into the future for our own good.

Which should have brought Friedman back to Trump. Friedman and Rometty and McGowan are failing to connect the results of the last election. Clinton lost the crucial states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan by a total of 80,000 votes. Clinton lost these states in large part because of the disaffection of white, non-college educated voters, people who have been hurt by previous technological development, who are angry about being marginalized by the ‘system’, and who pine for the good old days, when America was Great and they had a decent paycheck. Of course, Clinton knew all this, which is why her platform, Friedman-like, proposed a whole series of worker re-education programs. But somehow the coal miners were not interested in becoming computer programmers or dental hygienists. They preferred to remain coal miners – or actually, not coal miners. And Trump rode their anger to the White House.

Commentators like Friedman might usefully spend some of their time speculating on how our politics will be affected as worker displacement moves up the socio-economic scale.

At root, Friedman and his cohorts remain children of the Enlightenment: universal education remains the solution to the political problems caused by run-amok technological advance. This, however, assumes that ‘all men are created equal’ – and not only in their ability, but also in their willingness to become educated, and then reeducated again, and once again. They do not seem to have considered the possibility that a sizeable minority of Americans—or any other nationality—will remain resistant to constant epistemic revolution, and that rather than engaging in ‘lifelong learning’ are likely to channel their displacement by artificial intelligence into angry, reactionary politics.

And as AI ascends the skills level, the number of the politically roused is likely to increase, helped along by the demagogue’s traditional arts, now married to the focus-group phrases of Frank Luntz. Perhaps the machinations of turning ‘estate tax’ into ‘death tax’ won’t fool the more sophisticated. It’s an experiment that we are running now, with a middle-class tax cut just passed by Congress, but which diminishes each year until it turns into a tax increase in a few years. But how many will notice the latest scam?

The problem, however, is that even if those of us who live in non-shithole countries manage to get with the educational program, that still leaves “countries like Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, China and India — where huge numbers of youths are already unemployed because they lack the education for even this middle-skill work THAT’S [sic] now being automated.” A large cohort of angry, displaced young men ripe for apocalyptic recruitment. I wonder what Friedman’s solution is to that.

The point that no one seems willing to raise is whether it might be time to question the cultural imperative of constant innovation.

Contact details: robert.frodeman@unt.edu

References

Friedman, Thomas. “While You Were Sleeping.” New York Times. 16 January 2018. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/16/opinion/while-you-were-sleeping.html

Author Information: Emma Stamm, Virginia Tech, stamm@vt.edu

Stamm, Emma. “Retooling ‘The Human.’” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 36-40.

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

Ashley Shew’s Animal Constructions and Technical Knowledge challenges philosophers of technology with the following provocation: What would happen if we included tools made and used by nonhuman animals in our broad definition of “technology?”

Throughout Animal Constructions, Shew makes the case that this is more than simply an interesting question. It is, she says, a necessary interrogation within a field that may well be suffering from a sort of speciesist myopia. Blending accounts from a range of animal case studies — including primates, cetaceans, crows, and more — with pragmatic theoretical analysis, Shew demonstrates that examining animal constructions through a philosophical lens not only expands our awareness of the nonhuman world, but has implications for how humans should conceive of their own relationship with technology.

At the beginning of Animal Constructions, Shew presents us with “the human clause,” her assessment of “the idea that human beings are the only creatures that can have or do use technology” (14). This misconception stems from the notion of homo faber, “(hu)man the maker” (14), which “sits at the center of many definitions of technology… (and) is apparent in many texts theorizing technology” (14).

It would appear that this precondition for technology, long taken as dogma by technologists and philosophers alike, is less stable than has often been assumed. Placing influential ideas from philosophers of technology in dialogue with empirical field and (to a lesser extent) laboratory studies conducted on animals, Shew argues that any thorough philosophical account of technology not only might, but must include objects made and used by nonhuman animals.

Animal Constructions and Technical Knowledge lucidly demonstrates this: by the conclusion, readers may wonder how the intricate ecosystem of animal tool-use has been so systematically excluded from philosophical treatments of the technical. Shew has accomplished much in recasting a disciplinary norm as a glaring oversight — although this oversight may be forgivable, considering the skill set required to achieve its goals. The author’s ambitions demand not only fluency with interdisciplinary research methods, but acute sensitivity to each of the disciplines it mobilizes.

Animal Constructions is a philosophical text wholly committed to representing science and technology on their own terms while speaking to a primarily humanities-based audience, a balance its author strikes gracefully. Indeed, Shew’s transitions from the purely descriptive to the interpretive are, for the most part, seamless. For example, in her chapter on cetaceans, she examines the case of dolphins trained to identify man-made objects of a certain size category (60), noting that the success of this initiative indicates that dolphins have the human-like capacity to think in abstract categories. This interpretation feels natural and very reasonable.

Importantly, the studies selected are neither conceptually simple, nor do they appear cherry-picked to serve her argument. A chapter titled “Spiderwebs, Beaver Dams, and Other Contrast Cases” (91) explores research on animal constructions that do not entirely fit the author’s definitions of technology. Here, it is revealed that while this topic is necessarily complicated for techno-philosophers, these complexities do not foreclose the potential for the nonhuman world to provide humans with a greater awareness of technology in theory and practice.

Ambiguous Interpretations

That being said, in certain parts, the empirical observations Shew uses to make her argument seem questionable. In a chapter on ape and primate cases, readers are given the tale of Santino, a chimpanzee in a Switzerland zoo with the pesky habit of storing stones specifically to throw at visitors (40). Investigators declared this behavior “the first unambiguous evidence of forward-planning in a nonhuman animal” (40) — a claim that may seem spurious, since many of us have witnessed dogs burying bones to dig up in the future, or squirrels storing food for winter.

However, as with every case study in the book, the story of Santino comes from well-documented, formal research, none of which was conducted by the author herself. If it was discovered that factual knowledge such as the aforementioned are, in fact, erroneous, it is not a flaw of the book itself. Moreover, so many examples are used that the larger arguments of Animal Constructions will hold up even if parts of the science on which it relies comes to be revised.

In making the case for animals so completely, Animal Constructions and Technical Knowledge is a success. The book also makes a substantial contribution with the methodological frameworks it gives to those interested in extending its project. Animal Constructions is as much conceptual cartography as it is a work of persuasion: Shew not only orients readers to her discipline — she does not assume readerly familiarity with its academic heritage — but provides a map that philosophers may use to situate the nonhuman in their own reflection on technology. This is largely why Animal Constructions is such a notable text for 21st century philosophy, as so many scholars are committed to rethinking “the human” in the wake of recent innovations in technoscience.

Animal Knowledge

Animal Constructions is of particular interest to critical and social epistemologists. Its opening chapters introduce a handful of ideas about what defines technical knowledge, concepts that bear on the author’s assessment of animal activity. Historically, Shew writes, philosophers of technology have furnished us with two types of accounts of technical knowledge. The first sees technology as constituting a unique case for philosophers (3).

In this view, the philosophical concerns of technology cannot be reduced to those of science (or, indeed, any domain of knowledge to which technology is frequently seen as subordinate). “This strain of thought represents a negative reaction to the idea that philosophy is the handmaiden of science, that technology is simply ‘applied science,’” she writes (3). It is a line of reasoning that relies on a careful distinction between “knowing how” and “knowing that,” claiming that technological knowledge is, principally, skillfulness in the first: know-how, or knowledge about “making or doing something” (3) as opposed to the latter “textbook”-ish knowledge. Here, philosophy of technology is demarcated from philosophy of science in that it exists outside the realm of theoretical epistemologies, i.e., knowledge bodies that have been abstracted from contextual application.

If “know-how” is indeed the foundation for a pragmatic philosophy of technology, the discipline would seem to openly embrace animal tools and constructions in its scope. After all, animals clearly “know how” to engage the material world. However, as Shew points out, most technology philosophers who abide by this dictum in fact lean heavily on the human clause. “This first type of account nearly universally insists that human beings are the sole possessors of technical knowledge” (4), she says, referencing the work  of philosophers A. Rupert Hall, Edwin T. Layton, Walter Vincenti, Carl Mitcham, and Joseph C. Pitt (3) as evidence.

The human clause is also present in the second account, although it is not nearly so deterministic. This camp has roots in the philosophy of science (6) and “sees knowledge as embodied in the objects themselves” (6). Here, Shew draws from the theorizations of Davis Baird, whose concept “thing knowledge” — “knowledge that is encapsulated in devices or otherwise materially instantiated” (6) — recurs throughout the book’s chapters specifically devoted to animal studies (chapters 4, 5, 6 and 7).

Scientific instruments are offered as perhaps the most exemplary cases of “thing knowledge,” but specialized tools made by humans are far from the only knowledge-bearing objects. The parameters of “thing knowledge” allow for more generous interpretations: Shew offers that Baird’s ideas include “know-how that is demonstrated or instantiated by the construction of a device that can be used by people or creatures without the advanced knowledge of its creators” (6). This is a wide category indeed, one that can certainly accommodate animal artefacts.

Image from Sergey Rodovnichenko via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

The author adapts this understanding of thing-knowledge, along with Davis Baird’s five general ideals for knowledge — detachment, efficacy, longevity, connection and objectivity (6) — as a scale within which some artefacts made and used by animals may be thought as “technologies” and others not. Positioned against “know-how,” “thing knowledge” serves as the other axis for this framework (112-113). Equally considered is the question of whether animals can set intentions and engage in purpose-driven behavior. Shew suggests that animal constructions which result from responses to stimuli, instinctive behavior, or other byproducts of evolutionary processes may not count as technology in the same way that artefacts which seem to come from purposiveness and forward-planning would (6-7).

Noting that intentionality is a tenuous issue in animal studies (because we can’t interview animals about their reasons for making and using things), Shew indicates that observations on intentionality can, at least in part, be inferred by exploring related areas, including “technology products that encode knowledge,” “problem-solving,” and “innovation” (9). These characteristics are taken up throughout each case study, albeit in different ways and to different ends.

At its core, the manner in which Animal Constructions grapples with animal cognition as a precursor to animal technology is an epistemological inquiry into the nonhuman. In the midst of revealing her aims, Shew writes: “this requires me to address questions about animal minds — whether animals set intentions and how intentionality evolved, whether animals are able to innovate, whether they can problem solve, how they learn — as well as questions about what constitutes technology and what constitutes knowledge” (9). Her answer to the animal-specific queries is a clear “yes,” although this yes comes with multiple caveats.

Throughout the text, Shew notes the propensity of research and observation to alter objects under study, clarifying that our understanding of animals is always filtered through a human lens. With a nod to Thomas Nagel’s famous essay “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” (34), she maintains that we do not, in fact, know what it is like to be a chimpanzee, crow, spider or beaver. However, much more important to her project is the possibility that caution around perceived categorical differences, often foregrounded in the name of scholarly self-reflexivity, can hold back understanding of the nonhuman.

“In our fear of anthropomorphization and desire for a sparkle of objectivity, we can move too far in the other direction, viewing human beings as removed from the larger animal kingdom,” she declares (16).

Emphasizing kinship and closeness over remoteness and detachment, Shew’s pointed proclamations about animal life rest on the overarching “yes:” yes, animals solve problems, innovate, and set intentions. They also transmit knowledge culturally and socially. Weaving these observations together, Shew suggests that our anthropocentrism represents a form of bias (108); as with all biases, it stifles discourse and knowledge production for the fields within which it is imbricated — here, technological knowledge.

While this work explicitly pertains to technology, the lingering question of “what constitutes knowledge overall?” does not vanish in the details. Shew’s take on what constitutes animal knowledge has immediate relevance to work on knowledge made and manipulated by nonhumans. By the book’s end, it is evident that animal research can help us unhinge “the human clause” from our epistemology of the technical, facilitating a radical reinvestigation of both tool use and materially embodied knowledge.

Breaking Down Boundaries

But its approach has implications for taxonomies that not only divide humans and animals, but humans, animals and entities outside of the animal kingdom.  Although it is beyond the scope of this text, the methods of Animal Constructions can easily be applied to digital “minds” and artificial general intelligence, along with plant and fungus life. (One can imagine a smooth transition from a discussion on spider web-spinning, p. 92, to the casting of spores by algae and mushrooms). In that it excavates taxonomies and affirms the violence done by categorical delineations, Animal Constructions bears surface resemblance to the work of Michel Foucault and Donna Haraway. However, its commitment to positive knowledge places it in a tradition that more boldly supports the possibilities of knowing than does the legacies of Foucault and Haraway. That is to say, the offerings of Animal Constructions are not designed to self-deconstruct, or ironically self-reflect.

In its investigation of the flaws of anthropocentrism, Animal Constructions implies a deceptively straightforward question: what work does “the human clause” do for us? —  in other words, what has led “the human” to become so inexorably central to our technological and philosophical consciousness? Shew does not address this head-on, but she does give readers plenty of material to begin answering it for themselves. And perhaps they should: while the text resists ethical statements, there is an ethos to this particular question.

Applied at the societal level, an investigation of the roots of “the human clause” could be leveraged toward democratic ends. If we do, in  fact, include tools made and used by nonhuman animals in our definition of technology, it may mar the popular image of technological knowledge as a sort of “magic” or erudite specialization only accessible to certain types of minds. There is clear potential for this epistemological position to be advanced in the name of social inclusivity.

Whether or not readers detect a social project among the conversations engaged by Animal Constructions, its relevance to future studies is undeniable. The maps provided by Animal Constructions and Technical Knowledge do not tell readers where to go, but will certainly come in useful for anybody exploring the nonhuman territories of 21st century. Indeed, Animal Construction and Technical Knowledge is not only a substantive offering to philosophy of technology, but a set of tools whose true power may only be revealed in time.

Contact details: stamm@vt.edu

References

Shew, Ashley. Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017.