What makes writing academic: Re-thinking theory for practice

The young warrior fell to writing on a tanzaku (Wikicommons)

The re-purposing of my Ph.D. thesis is underway and I am contracted to publish it soonish with Bloomsbury. I’ve checked with them that it is ok to use my blog to share some work in progress, something I have kind of been doing on and off for the past 8 years (including the research years), e.g. sharing the readings that have made me think about academic writing in a certain way.

I am now, somewhat gingerly, sharing the provisional title and outline with the intention of crowd-sourcing updated resources, ideas, publications, thoughts and examples that you* might like or expect to see in ‘yet another book on academic writing’ (yawn) provisionally titled:

What makes writing academic: Re-thinking theory for practice

This is the, still provisional, outline:

You can comment publicly on this post or DM me or email me. When the book comes to the light of day, I will duly acknowledge any insights and suggestions that make me think and make their way into the book itself.

* by ‘you’, I mean “an informed, interested, and well-meaning’other'”. You might be a university student at any level; a teacher of academic writing; an academic writer; an editor; a reader of academic writing; a researcher/scholar of academic writing; an academic; a colleague; someone who knows my work already.

Do not comment if your intention is to promote a commercial service such as essay mills or private coaching/tutoring, or to be nasty.


‘The Practice of Theory: Rhetoric, Pedagogy, and Knowledge in the Academy’ by Bernard-Donals (1998)

A summary and review

This post follows my previous post reviewing research that approaches academic writing as a transformative social practice. Specifically, I am documenting how writing scholars have harnessed the social philosophy of Critical Realism to argue that academic writing: a) is epistemically and ontologically important in describing and representing knowledge, albeit not exclusively so; and b) can be an agent of/for social change.

If anybody has read these two books – Judd and Bernard-Donals – I would welcome a discussion about them. Specifically, I would welcome reflecting on their relevance to current academic writing practices and forms. For example, is their project of ‘reclaiming reality’ a worthy and meaningful one, particularly in light of current debates about post-Truth politics and the relativist discourses that have emerged (cf. alternative facts)? Can it inform debates about the status of alternative writing and assessment practices, such as multimodal and multilingual forms of academic communication? But also, is there something of a ‘straw man’ argument in their critiques of other writing traditions?

I found this book difficult to read, much denser and less reader-friendly than Judd’s. I’m also not comfortable with some of the characterisations of other writing traditions, but maybe I simply have too many gaps in my knowledge. I think part of my discomfort is also because Bernard-Donals is having this conversation with a tradition of American rhetoric and composition scholars who are steeped in the classics (Plato and Aristotle); are schooled in hermeneutics and rhetoric, right up to the post-modernism of Richard Rorty; and are comfortable with philosophising and historicising academic writing in ways that are incommensurable with, or irrelevant to, skills-based approaches.

The book is also difficult because there are practically no paragraph breaks! It’s like reading in apnoea from start to finish.

In a nutshell, this is what Bernard-Donals is saying: rhetoric is a means to/a method for knowing the world. This world is real and is composed of both social and natural structures and mechanisms that are measurable, observable, objective. In other words, he subscribes to a foundationalist ontology in which language/writing is not constitutive of reality but is descriptive of it. By being descriptive of reality, it remains ontologically distinct from it. Language/writing, then, is epistemic/transitive as opposed to ontological/intransitive. This matters because it allows us to see writing as one of many ways of interpreting and describing the world, one that, presumably, is not inherently superior to other ways (although Bernard-Donals does not make such a normative claim).

Having established that the social and natural worlds exist independently of their knowers (and writers) by appealing to Bhaskar’s critical realism, he seems to claim that writing can intervene critically in (how it describes?) reality. It is this critical intervention that allows rhetoric to be an agent of change and transformation, something that non-foundationalist and relativist conceptualisations of writing are incapable of, according to Bernard-Donals.

My understanding of the Critical Realist distinction between ‘epistemological and ontological’ in relation to writing is that an epistemological understanding of writing sees writng as a means to an end: writing is a method which provides access to knowledge of the world. In other words, it helps us to know things. On this account, academic writing is a transitive process that provides access to knowledge of reality which is intransitive (i.e. real/objective, not dependent on who is describing it or how they are describing it). The underlying assumption is that there exists an external objective factual reality, that there are several ways (methods, means, modalities, etc.) to describe reality, writing being just one of these ways.

Both Judd and Bernard-Donals think of writing as ‘epistemological’ in this sense. They argue that by ‘reclaiming reality’ (which is Roy Bhaskar’s socio-scientific project), a realist ontology does away with the reification of interpretative relativistic hermeneutic and anti-foundationalist ontologies because a Realist philosophy acknowledges that there are material structures, mechanisms and tendencies that exist independently of language. Once reality has been reclaimed, then language and its written forms, via the intentional author as agent, can do the methodological work* of intervening critically on these material structures in order to change them, not merely describe them and re-describe them as part of a sui generis language game:

“Re-description does not change the material [real] constraints by which you are bound” (Bernad-Donals, p. 228).

Bernard-Donals is here lamenting the relativism of the hermeneutic tradition underlying politicised discourse that allows for real social phenomena such as ‘riots’ or ‘poverty’ do be re-described in ways that deny their structural, historical and material reality. This denial, he argues, does little to change reality. For example, the re-description of the 1992 Los Angeles ‘rioters’ as ‘thugs’ by some of the media denies the real material structures that generate the social, racial, and class injustices that trigger revolts and that lead to physical, social, and psychological harms. These social injustices are as real (structural) as the facts (physical) of the natural world. In this sense their reality remains unchanged, regardless of whether it is (re)described, observed, documented or written about.

Acknowledging that academic writing may be able to change the reality of what it is representing matters for establishing what kind of writing practices the academy chooses. For example, a well-argued and persuasive essay does not make it a true or a socially just essay. However, as Judd has argued, if academic writing is to advance the educational mission of social justice, its writing pedagogies need to support this aim: it is not enough for students to write about any reality they desire, however persuasive, well-supported and logical their writing may be. This is why expressivist, cognitivist, and socio-constructivist writing pedagogies do not lead to social change.

Instead, a critical realist pedagogy can lead to changes in material practices because it is concerned with the truth and in unveiling the underlying structures, mechanisms and tendencies of reality, both social and physical.

An ontological understanding of writing, by contrast, is one that collapses intransitive knowledge of reality with transitive knowledge: what this means is that language/writing becomes the reality it purports to represent. This is what Rorty meant when he claimed that it is language all the way the way down, meaning that there is no reality beyond or outside language – we each create our own incommensurable narratives and stories with no way of externally arbitrating which story is true because there is no world outside of language. Post-post modernists such as Hilary Lawson hold this kind of ontological view of language.

Critical pedagogist Freire is also criticised by Bernard-Donals for much the same reasons, arguing that Freire (and educationalist Ira Shor) collapses the reality of the world with how language describes it when he suggests that in order for social change to come about, both the oppressed and the oppressor simply need to change their descriptions of the world and come to see the world as each describes it. This conflation of language with reality is what Roy Bhaskar has described as an epistemic fallacy, namely the view that how we come to know about the world (eg epistemologically through language) is how the world is (ontology).

The above ontological approach to rhetoric has been referred to as the ‘rhetorical turn’, a position that has been discredited for being relativistic and inimical to social change and transformation because it denies the existence of an objective natural and social world. Similarly, Judd, whose critical realist approach to academic writing is inspired by Bernard-Donal’s, dismisses expressivist and socio-constructivist approaches to academic writing for being socially non-transformative.

Instead, critical realism is put forward by both writers as a conceptual toolkit for reclaiming the power of writing as an agent of change. However, this is where I am not clear about the implications of all this for academic writing: are both Judd and Bernard-Donals arguing that all academic writing needs to advance social justice? If so, then how and who determines what social justice looks like and for whom? There seems to be an underlying normativity to critical realism and I can’t get my head around what implications this has for academic writing….

*”language and its written forms, via the intentional author as agent, can do the methodological work of intervening critically on these material structures in order to change them, not merely describe them and re-describe them”: what does this mean in practice i.e. what kind of ‘methodological work’ and how does methodology lead to change?


Bernard-Donals, M. (1998). The Practice of Theory: Rhetoric, Knowledge, and Pedagogy in the Academy (Literature, Culture, Theory, pp. I-Vi). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bhaskar, R. (1979). The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sciences. Routledge.

Bhaskar, R. (1989). Reclaiming Reality: A Critical Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy. Verso.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press

Judd, D. (2003). Critical realism and composition theory. Routledge.

Lawson, Hilary (2001). Closure: A Story of Everything. Routledge.

Rorty, R. (2008). Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press. doi: https://doi.org/10.1515/9781400833061


A summary and review of “Critical Realism and Composition Theory” by Judd (2003)

I first read this book at the start of my PhD, in 2013. I have recently re-read it in preparation for a research monograph and chapter I am writing, both for Bloomsbury Academic. The working title for the book is ‘What makes writing academic: re-thinking theory for practice’. The chapter is for an edited collection on social theory in EAP, provisionally titled ‘Critical Realism and EAP’.

Donald Judd’s book (2003) is unique, as far as I can gather, in turning the critical realist lens to academic writing. The only other attempt I have come across is Pratt (2010). My short-lived endeavours to contact both authors to ask where their work has since taken them have, in turn, led to dead-ends. Yet they have left me restless and have imposed on me an imperative to try and re-kindle the important insights I think both Judd and Pratt bring to understanding academic writing as a transformative social practice committed to social justice and change.

I am now reviving this blog to track thinking in progress. I started it back in 2013, as way to make visible my research on academic writing and to dialogue with myself about what I was reading and what conclusions I was coming to. As a research blog, it proved invaluable. It helped me articulate complex ideas and (mis)understandings; it kept me writing between PhD chapters; it functioned as an academic journal to refer back to; and it connected me with a global community of academic writing scholars. Now I need the blog to serve me again, to write a book and to write chapters for others.

So, I start with ‘Critical Realism and Composition Theory’ by Donald Judd (2003).

Judd is a teacher of English and Composition Studies, what the Americans call ‘Academic Writing’. He draws on the US’s established field of Rhetoric and Composition, which I have blogged about at length and which has informed much of my PhD. His book takes issue with 3 cornerstones of American Composition Studies (which, to varying degrees, have influenced the UK tradition of EAP):

  • Expressivist theory and voluntarism
  • Cognitive rhetoric and empirical positivism
  • Socio-constructivist rhetoric and super-idealism

After inflicting a scathing immanent critique by identifying the theoretical inconsistencies of each theory with regard to their practical classroom implications, he provides a radical transcendental critique by proposing the social philosophy of Critical Realism.

He berates Expressivist Theory for being individualistic and having the (un)intended consequence of all writing counting as ‘good writing’; he accuses Cognitive Rhetoric of falling foul to the linear, mechanistic determinism of input-output computer analogies, whereby each step in the writing process sequentially leads to a predictable outcome that takes no account of context or human agency; and he takes serious issue with Socio-constructivist and Post-modern theories of writing because, Judd argues, they lead to the kind of relativism that makes knowledge wholly transitive and incommensurable rather than intransitive and shared.

Transitive knowledge is knowledge of how we come to know things (epistemology). For example, how a doctor comes to know that a patient is ill or how a researcher comes to write about something they wish to understand better. However, the ‘how’ (epistemology) should not be collapsed into the ‘is’ (ontology). According to Judd, and the critical realist tradition he draws on, the reification of transitive knowledge by socio-constructivists is subject to the epistemic fallacy of reducing all knowledge to its method of discovery, such as language, discourse, and other methods of discovery that allow us to understand a phenomenon (e.g. the patient’s illness). The problem with reducing knowledge in this way, namely to how it is discovered, is that it risks being understood only by the communities that share the same discourses and methods. Instead, Judd proposes that knowledge be understood dialectically as an interaction between transitive knowledge and intransitive knowledge.

Intransitive knowledge is knowledge of something or knowledge that something is real (e.g. the patient is real, regardless of what we say about them or how we describe them or how else we account for them. The patient exists independently of how we come to know they exist). This reality includes both the social and the natural world. For example, social structures, such as capitalism, are real, until they are proven to be otherwise. Natural phenomena, such as gravity, are real, until they are proven to be otherwise.

Once we agree that some things are real (until proven otherwise) and that they are intransitive, we stand a better chance of ensuring that different communities are able to talk about the same reality. The fact that different communities (different theoretical traditions) invoke different methods, different discourses, different perspectives, and, ultimately, different values (transitive knowledge), does not change the reality of what they are talking about (intransitive knowledge).

How does all of this connect with Composition Studies/Academic Writing?

Hard to sum up in a bloggy paragraph, but, basically, his point is that none of the 3 pedagogies listed above recognise the distinction between transitive and intransititve knowledge. And by not recognising that knowledge is both epistemological (transitive) and ontological (intransitive), the 3 pedagogies fail to fulfil the ultimate function of education which is to be transformative, i.e. to change reality, change the status quo, further social justice, and recognise the social and natural realties we are all subject to (but not reducible to).

The theoretical inconstancies of each of the 3 traditions of writing listed above (expressivist; cognitive; socio-constructivist) lead to confused classroom practice on writing that ultimately thwarts the educative purpose of writing:

  • Expressivist pedagogy encourages students to dwell on individualistic transitive knowledge (i.e. what I think, how I got there, etc.).
  • Cognitive pedagogy encourages students to think that knowledge is sequential, logical, linear, predictable, and value-free, and that academic writing is meaningful and good as long as it is well-planned (IELTS essays or skills-based approaches to academic writing might be an example of the cognitive approach). This kind of knowledge is ultimately devoid of content, so neither transitive or intransitive.
  • Socio-constructivist pedagogies deny expert positions (such as the expertise of the teacher) by suggesting that knowledge is co-constructed and sanctioned by the community (the teacher and the students). This reifies epistemic relativity. Academic literacies approaches might be an example of socio-constructivist approaches. Socio-constructivist pedagogies assume a transitive conception of knowledge because they deny a reality that is external to the knower (the individual knower and the community of knowers).

Judd’s transcendental critique consists in proposing critical realism as an alternative theoretical foundation for academic writing.

There are four main reasons for proposing this (pp. 124-130):

  1. from a critical realist perspective, the reason we need knowledge is to further human emancipation. This means that writing instruction, if it is to have educational value in the academy, must create the conditions for humans to emancipate themselves;
  2. knowledge is neither solely individualistic (expressivist), cognitive, or relative (socio-constructivist), but about the social in the sense that it must recognise the social and institutional structures that explain social phenomena such as poverty; capitalism; climate change, injustice, and so on;
  3. knowledge is corrigible. Through self-reflexivity and an ongoing quest to understand and to know things, we can correct mistaken beliefs. Writing pedagogy should be educative in this respect, ie it should lead students away from mistaken beliefs and provide them with authentic and meaningful tasks to ensure they are writing from a position of knowledge;
  4. truth and consistency are epistemic virtues (Daston and Galison, 2007) that involve value judgments about social and natural reality. This means that writing tasks which require students to communicate their positions on social (and natural) phenomena need to allow students to learn content, do research, and read up about the phenomena they are being asked to write about. This ensures that writing pedagogy honours its educational mission to be emancipatory and transformative.

To conclude, a critical realist framing of academic writing frames writing as a socially transforming self-reflexive practice, a practice that gives space to the agency of the writer whilst recognising their dialectic interaction with established norms and conventions (social and institutional structures). What this means is that although academic writing is subject to established conventions, it is not reducible to or determined by these conventions (p. 113).


Bhaskar, Roy (1979). The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sciences. Routledge.

Daston, L., & Galison, P. (2007). Objectivity. New York: Zone Books

Judd, D. (2003). Critical realism and composition theory. Routledge.

Pratt D. (2010) Critical Realism. In: Modelling Written Communication. Methods Series (Methodological Prospects in the Social Sciences), vol 8. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-90-481-9843-6_2


Perspectives on Knowledge II

Defining knowledge by absences

This is a guest post by Dr Emanuela Spanò, a post-doc researcher at the University of Cagliari, Italy. Together with our Irish co-researcher, we have formed a writing group scoping literatures on European Higher Education to identify ecologies of knowledge. This project began in July 2019 following our attendence at SUSEES (Summer School in European Education Studies).

Knowledge is an analytical concept ridden with confusion and conceptual controversies. Simply put, the essential problem is that every thought can in some way be conceptualised as knowledge and the distinction between knowledge and action is not always clear cut (Hochschild, 2006). A key step in defining this concept is thus to constrain and circumscribe what we consider as “knowledge”.

As opposed to the standard commodified view of knowledge – whereby knowledge is understood as a product produced and transferred similarly to physical objects – we firstly see knowledge as embedded, produced and reproduced by particular fields (Bourdieu, 1984; 1989; 1993) such as academic disciplines, practitioner communities, or expert groups. In addition to explicit knowledge, we argue that tacit knowledge (including professional knowledge) can play a crucial role in governance and knowledge transfer. But one of our main aims is to focus on the absence of knowledge or of some types of knowledge. In our view, it can reveal, by contrast, the dominant forms of knowledge produced and reproduced within a specific field of practice. For this reason, we will try to map the specific forms of knowledge which emerge (or lack) in the specific field of educational research educational research, paying special attention to the presence/absence of resistant voices or counter-narratives that try to “decolonize” the field and find new research attitudes and new research methods.

Kitchen Stories (2003) – On the paradoxes of sociological knowledge

Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls “abyssal line” the frontier produced by capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy, which separates what happens in metropolitan society from what happens in the suburbs, just as before it separated what happened in the metropolis from what happened in the colonies. The latter conceived no longer as territorial colonies, but as social colonies, epistemic colonies. Our hypothesis is that “metropolitan knowledges” can creates the conditions for carrying out the “epistemicide” of other forms of knowledge not included in the scientific winner paradigms. In his view, we need an epistemological break in order to change mentality, methodologies, theories, and even university as institution that rules organize the social production of scientific knowledge.

First of all, the Eurocentric thought – which is obviously a thought of great wealth – must begin to dialogue with other knowledge in the world, in what de Sousa Santos calls ecology of knowledge. The proposal for ecology invites us to think that our knowledge, no matter how rigorous, is not the only one. It is a proposal that does not go against science, but against the monopoly of rigor on the part of science. There are other forms of rigour with which we will have to measure ourselves in order to arrive at integration between scientific knowledge and other forms of knowledge, other knowledges. The objective is to articulate scientific thought and popular thought, without ever believing that scientific thought is the only valid one (de Sousa Santos, 2018).

Today we must pay more attention to the different forms of knowledge that there are in the world, to the cognitive diversity of the world. We must begin another type of dialogue with the world, through an epistemological break. Many types of knowledge circulate in the world: artisan, vernacular, popular; the knowledge of women, men, natives, and peasants. All of this knowledge – says de Sousa Santos – is contained in the struggles, circulates and is forged in the struggles. The “epistemologies of the South”, according to de Sousa Santos, consist of procedures to validate knowledge produced by the efforts of those who fight against the systemic injustices of colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy.

These exhortations apply particularly to those of us who are involved in social sciences. So, de-colonizing our social science and our university (Mbembe, 2016), also means bringing out the forms or knowledge considered as “legitim” or “not-legitim” in a specific moment, and in a specific context. However, to approach other knowledge in the belief that there is only one valid form of knowledge, and that other knowledge is worthless, is to behave as an “epistemic extractivist”. Already Paulin Hountondji, philosopher of Benin, had approached the question in the 1997. In the book Endogenous Knowledge, Hountondji (1997) speaks of a global division of scientific work, born under colonialism but which persists in the post-colonial world, for which data collection and data collection and data analysis and practical applications of knowledge can occur in the periphery, but concepts, methods, equipment, training and recognition of research are formed predominantly in the metropolis.

Instead – according to de Sousa Santos – one can get to know “with” the people, while at the same time one gets to know a given social reality. It is possible to know by creating subjects, instead of establishing a subject-object relationship. As Orlando Fals Borda already said in 1995:

Do not monopolise your knowledge nor impose arrogantly your technique, but respect and combine your skills with the knowledge of the researched or /grassroots communities, taking them as full partners and co-researchers. Do not trust elitist versions of history and science which respond to dominant interests but be receptive to counter-narratives and try to recapture them. Do not depend solely on your culture to interpret facts, but recover local values, traits, beliefs, and arts for action by and with the research organisations. Do not impose your own ponderous scientific style for communicating results, but diffuse and share what you have learned together with the people, in a manner that is wholly understandable and even literary and pleasant, for science should not be necessarily a mystery nor a monopoly of experts and intellectuals” (Orlando Fals-Borda (1995, April). Research for social justice: Some North-South convergences. Plenary address at the Southern Sociological Society Meeting, Atlanta, GA. Retrieved from http://comm-org.wisc.edu/si/falsborda.htm.)

All in all, in our article we will try to be conscious of the “epistemic abyssal line” which separates it from the social and epistemic “colonies”. In this way, practicing and mapping the “ecologies of knowledge” which emerge in the specific field of higher education research, for bringing out the “epistemologies of the South”, that try to “decolonize” the field and the academia, more in general.

Emanuela Spanò is a post-doc researcher at the University of Cagliari, Italy. Her work mainly focuses on gender, evaluation policies, lifelong learning, narrative research and the construction and representation of space in education. She is on Academia.edu (https://unica-it.academia.edu/EmanuelaSpanò) and on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/emspano) Mail contact: emanuela.spano@unica.it


Perspectives on Knowledge I

Defining knowledge

I begin 2020 with one of several reflections on ‘knowledge’, an age-old concept the meaning of which is being disfigured by ill-intentioned and disingenuous leaders, most notably during the highly toxic and xenophobic UK-US political discourses of 2019 and debates on the climate crisis.

Inevitably, ‘western’ academia is concurrently being forced to question its own ontological and epistemological grip on reality.

SRHE 2019, Plenary Panel (left to right: Professor Neil Harrison (Oxford University), Dr Foluke Adebisi (Bristol University), Dr Ibrar Bhatt (Queen’s University Belfast), Dr Elizabeth Hauke (Imperial College London), Dr Kathy Lukett (University of Cape Town)

I need to keep up with these debates, mainly because my research is on academic writing and how it claims to ‘shape knowledge‘, but also because I am increasingly identifying philosophies of higher education, values and social justice as fertile sites for making sense of the epistemic crisis. These sites seem to hold the shifts in perspective and language needed to make sense of epistemic toxicity and self-doubt.

Knowledge and true belief

Knowledge is a concept that is slippery and hard to define. A very flawed but intuitive definition consists of understanding it as follows:

“There is a way things are that is independent of us and our beliefs about it” (Boghossian, Fear of knowledge, p. 3, 2006).

This is hugely problematic, yet frequently invoked by default across all disciplines and in every day life (arguments with teenagers notably spring to mind here – it’s not my opinion, it’s a fact!).

Papineau (2019) claims that a better way of thinking about knowledge is in terms of being ‘open to a fact’ because, presumably, this gets rid of the trouble we run into when we invoke the notion of ‘things being independent of us’ (but he then argues against this position on the grounds I outline below). This way of thinking about knowledge, i.e. being ‘open to a fact’, is based on lines of sight: agents are assumed to know about what lies in their direction of gaze when nothing is in the way. This discriminatory ability can provide a foundation for the concept of knowledge. Those who have this ability can divide agents into those who know some fact and those who are ignorant of it. Basically, I can be said to ‘know something’ if I can see it clearly.

One of several problems with this understanding of ‘knowledge’ is that it doesn’t distinguish it from ‘having a true belief’ about something. For example, by believing ‘that I can see something clearly’, I get the same result as knowing ‘that I can see it’. By eliding the difference between ‘knowing’ and ‘believing’, Papineau concludes that we may as well do away with the concept of ‘knowledge’ and replace it with the concept of ‘true belief’.

‘Belief’, however, is a mental state that requires a ‘self’ (i.e. someone has to be believing), so knowledge in this sense of ‘belief’ can’t be ‘independent’ of us, either. This still doesn’t rule out the possibility of the external world being independent of us (in a Kantian sense), but it does mean that our knowledge of/belief about this world depends on us. This indicates that facts can be defined ontologically (i.e. we can say there is an objective/real world that is independent of us) as well as epistemically (i.e. in terms of how we come to know the world, including the normative value systems that we use to describe it).

Knowledge of this world can, therefore, only ever be our knowledge. It is not ‘knowledge’ that is independent of us. In this sense, knowledge can only be epistemic, not ontological, because it requires a ‘self’ to orient how we come to know the ontology.

Knowledge is mediated by the ‘self’

The history of science and philosophy have highlighted that the ‘self’, including its technologies (Foucault), mediates between us and the external world. Kant famously posited that the world appears to us as it is because of the subjective categories of space and time that we project on to it. Hume, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Foucault also questioned what it means for things to be ‘independent’ of us.

Thinking of knowledge as ‘things that are independent’ of us is, therefore, untenable (and I hereby pledge to stand by this claim, even whilst arguing with my teenager).

Knowledge as ‘epistemic virtue or vice’

Once we accept that knowledge of the world involves knowledge of our ‘selves’ or of a ‘belief’ about how things are, we begin to notice that, rather than facts, it is a series of values (virtues and vices) that underlie the way we talk about the world. In other words, we pass judgements on the ‘way things are’ and are actually unable to talk about these ‘things’ as if they were ‘independent’ of us.

When we talk about the world being ‘real’ or ‘true’ or ‘objective’ or ‘relative’ or ‘just’ or ‘diverse’ or ‘structured’ or ‘stratified’, etc., we are judging it to be one way or the other, we are never describing it ‘as it is’.

Daston and Galison (2007) provide a fascinating historical perspective of epistemic virtues, of how ‘objectivity’, ‘truth’, ‘idealisation’, ‘pedagogic communicability’, ‘certainty’, ‘precision’, ‘replicability’ are human values rather than facts about the world. They show how these epistemic virtues and vices have played different roles at different times in shaping the Western concept of knowledge. They also show how virtues morph into vices as a result of human judgment, not facts.

The tension between self (including its technologies and extensions) and object are at the heart of the epistemic virtue lens.

The history of knowledge highlights diverse epistemic virtues (EVs), which I list below. These do not replace each other but evolve into each other. From truth-to-nature approaches that reify general idealised types; to mechanical objectivity that reifies individual objects devoid of relations and structures; to relational invariants that try to communicate structural objectivity; and then family resemblances that can only be detected via trained judgment.

 The book traces 3 epistemic virtues (EVs):

  1. Truth-to-nature (pre 1800s), when artists and scientists worked together to depict an idealised/sanitised/selective paradigm of nature/reality.

Artists and scientists worked together with ‘four eyes’ to capture the ‘essence’ of nature, drawing it but also stylising and sanitising it for pedagogic purposes and selecting what features were considered typical of a species and airbrushing out anomalies. Tensions sometimes arose between how the artist saw the object and how the scientist saw it.

Truth-to-nature was a ‘self-centred’ epistemic virtue, not an ‘objective’ one.

  • Mechanical and structural objectivity (18-1900s), when the ‘self’ was eliminated. This project failed, even though it still lingers in how we think about science.

Machine-mediation gave the impression that objects could be seen ‘as they were’ with no mediation of the self, no airbrushing of anomalies. Sight was now considered a vice, not a virtue, and the virtues of denial and restraint of the self became paramount for science (from ‘four-eyes’ to ‘blind eyes’).

But mechanical objectivity posed several problems, one being that it depicted objects in a way that was now ‘too real’ and therefore difficult to communicate pedagogically. What could be seen under a microscope or how structures were related, (eg snowflakes), now needed interpretation. A ‘scientific self’ was needed to mediate between the world and how it could be communicated.

This ‘scientific self’ manifested several virtues. He [sic] was patient, persevering, slow, methodical, reasonable and diligent. Newton is an example.

But this self was still too interfering in mediating reality. He was not objective. Nature needed to be ventriloquised (ie separated from the self). But this still required a ventriloquising ‘self’, namley someone to speak on behalf of nature.

Structural objectivity was invoked as the way to continue eliminating the self and to ensure that knowledge of the world could be communicated unequivocally and universally (cf analytic philosophy and the Vienna Circle). According to analytic philosophers and mathematicians, eg Frege, ‘objective is the law-like, the conceptual, the judgeable, what can be expressed in words’ (p. 267).

Clearly, however, this, too, was a subjective stance since only a ‘self’ can do the ‘judging’.

Structural objectivity failed, as did the analytic philosopher’s project because the world is substantial (cf Toulmin) as well as structural. Biology is a science of substances and properties (eg blood, colour, flesh, organic matter, environments) as well as structural relations (eg physics).

  • Trained judgment (1900s and beyond), where the self is needed to make sense of (judge and interpret) reality.

The expert and trained judgments of the scientist bring the ‘self’ back into play to make sense of ‘family resemblances’ between objects, not ideal types. The need to classify, manipulate, interpret patterns, graphs, electroencephalograms, etc. requires a ‘self’.

Concluding reflections

The post-truth era requires a Self that is trained to judge and is transparent about their values. This does not make them infallibe ‘experts’, but it does make them more qualified and informed than others to make judgments that are concurrently explicit about the values that orient that judgment. When judgments are trained and values are explicit, others can, in turn, make their own equally trained judgments in accordance with their values.

So, what might today’s epistemic virtues look like? What virtues and vices underscore the key epistemologies of this century’s humanism: post-humanism, Big Data, post-truth, ecologies of knowledge, climate change, gender, standpoint theories?

What role does the ‘self’ play and what responsibilities does it have in today’s educational landscape?

How can we reclaim confidence in knowledge without transcending into irreality, hubris and vice?

And, crucially for me, what role do academic writings have in shaping epistemic virtues and vices?