Empiricism and rationalism as political ideas?

Are all human beings equal? – Of course, that’s why we call them human. ­– But how do we know? – Well, it’s not a matter of empirical discovery, it’s our premise. ­– I see. And so everything else follows?

The opposition between empiricism and rationalism is often introduced as an epistemological dispute, concerning primarily the ways knowledge is acquired, warranted and limited. This is what I learned as a student and what is still taught today. If you’ve studied philosophy for a bit, you will also have heard that this opposition is problematic and coarse-grained when taken as a historical category. But in my view the problem is not that this opposition is too coarse-grained (all categories of that kind are). Rather, the problem lies with introducing it as a mere epistemological dispute. As I see it,* the opposition casts a much wider conceptual net and is rooted in metaphysical and even political ideas. Thus, the opposition is to be seen in relation to a set of disagreements in both theoretical and practical philosophy. In what follows, I don’t want to present a historical or conceptual account, but merely suggest means of recognising this wide-ranging set of ideas and show how the distinction helps us seeing the metaphysical implications and political choices related to our epistemological leanings.

Let me begin with a simple question: Do you think there is, ultimately, only one true description of the world? If your answer is ‘yes’, I’d be inclined to think that you are likely to have rationalist commitments. Why? Well, because an empiricist would likely reject that assumption for the reason that we might not be able to assess whether we lack important knowledge. Thus, we might miss out on crucial insights required to answer that question in the first place. This epistemological caution bears on metaphysical questions: Might the world be a highly contingent place, subject to sudden or constant change? If this is affirmed, it might not make sense to say that there is one true description of the world. How does this play out in political or moral terms? Rephrasing the disagreement a bit, we might say that rationalists are committed to the idea that the world is ordered in a certain way, while empiricists will remain open as to whether such an order is available to us at all. Once we see explanatory order in relation to world order, it becomes clear that certain commitments might follow for what we are and, thus, for what is good for us. If you believe that we can attain the one true description of the world, you might also entertain the idea that this standard should inform our sciences and our conduct at large. – Of course, this is quite a caricature of what I have in mind. All I want to suggest is that it might be rewarding to look whether certain epistemological leanings go hand in hand with metaphysical and practical commitments. So let’s zoom in on the different levels in a bit more detail.

(1) Epistemology: As I have already noted, the opposition is commonly introduced as concerning the origin, justification and limits of knowledge. Are certain ideas or principles innate or acquired through the senses? Where do we have to look in order to justify our assumptions? Can we know everything there is to be known, at least in principle, or are there realms that we cannot even sensibly hope to enter? – If we focus on the question of origin, we can already see how the opposition between empiricism and rationalism affects the pervasive nature-nurture debates: Are certain concepts and the related abilities owing to learning within a certain (social) environment or are the crucial elements given to us from the get-go? Now, let’s assume you’re a rationalist and think that our conceptual activity is mostly determined from the outset. Doesn’t it follow from this that you also assume that we are equal in our conceptual capacities? And doesn’t it also follow that rules of reasoning and standards of rationality are the same for all (rather than owing, say, to cultural contexts)? – While the answers are never straightforward, I would assume at least certain leanings into one direction or another. But while such leanings might already inform political choices, it is equally important to see how they relate to other areas of philosophy.

(2) Metaphysics: If you are an empiricist and assume that the main sources of our knowledge are our (limited) senses, this often goes and in hand with epistemic humility and the idea that we cannot explain everything. Pressed why you think so, you might find yourself inclined to say that the limits of our knowledge have a metaphysical footing. After all, if we cannot say whether an event is fully explicable, might this not be due to the fact that the world is contingent? Couldn’t everything have been otherwise, for instance because God interferes in events here and there? In other words, if you don’t assume there to be a sufficient reason for everything, this might be because you accept brute facts. Accordingly, the world is a chancy place and what our sciences track might be good enough to get by, but never provide the certainty that is promised by our understanding of natural laws. Depending on the historical period, such assumptions often go hand in hand with more or less explicit forms of essentialism. The lawful necessities in nature might be taken to relate to the way things are. Now essences are not only taken to determine what things are, but also how they ought to be. – Once you enter the territory of essentialism, then, it is only a small step to leanings regarding norms of being (together), of rationality, and of goodness.

(3) Theology / Sources of Normativity: If you allow for an essentialist determination of how things are and ought to be, this immediately raises the question of the sources of such essences and norms. Traditionally, we often find this question addressed in the opposition between theological intellectualism (or rationalism) and voluntarism: Intellectualists assume that norms of being and acting are prior to what God wills. So even God is bound by an order prior to his will. God acts out of reasons that are at least partly determined by the way natural things and processes are set up. By contrast, voluntarists assume that something is rational or right because God wills it, not vice versa. It is clear how this opposition rhymes with that of rationalism and empiricism: The rationalist assumes one order that even binds God. The empiricist remains epistemically humble, because she believes that rationality is fallible. Perhaps she believes this because she assumes that the world is a chancy place, which in turn might be owing to the idea that the omnipotent God can intervene anytime. It is equally clear how this opposition might translate into (lacking) justifications of moral norms or political power. – Unlike often assumed in the wake of Blumenberg and others, this doesn’t mean that voluntarism or empiricism straightforwardly translate into political absolutism. It is hardly ever a particular political idea that is endorsed as a result of empiricist or rationalist leanings. Nevertheless, we will likely find elements that play out in the justification of different systems.**

Summing up, we can see that certain ideas in epistemology go hand in hand with certain metaphysical as well as moral and political assumptions. The point is not to argue for systematically interwoven sets of doctrines, but to show that the opposition of empiricism and rationalism is so much more than just a disagreement about whether our minds are “blank slates”. Our piecemeal approach to philosophical domains might have its upsides, but it blurs our vision when it comes to the tight connections between theoretical and practical questions which clearly were more obvious to our historical predecessors. Seen this way, you might try and see whether you’ll find pertinently coherent assumptions in historical or current authors or in yourself. I’m not saying you’re inconsistent if you diverge from a certain set of assumptions. But it might be worth asking if and why you conform or diverge.


* A number of ideas alluded to here would never have seen the light of day without numerous conversations with Laura Georgescu.

** See my posts on Ockham’s and Wittgenstein’s voluntarism for more details.

Music for chameleons or humans during pandemics

Surely nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition, but who would have expected Covid-19 pandemics one year ago? More significantly for teachers, who would have expected a massive use of virtual platforms for contactless teaching? The first lockdown and the first “transfer” from real to virtual has been (to me, and I’m stressed that this post relates to my personal experience) a real shock. In March (again, my case) I remember students checking their phones during my last “in person” class, interrupting me to claim: “This will be our last class here for a while, it seems, they’re shutting down schools and university as well”. It was as surprising at least as the Spanish Inquisition (until then, almost nobody was really taking seriously Covid) and brought some accents of drama into the room; parting was strange, as well as my incapacity of answering to the practical question “what will we do next week?”. The rest is history, almost everybody teaching at the University or in schools moved online and had to re-adapt everything to the space of her laptop-screen, the whole being framed by a more or less personal space, offered to the view of students for the first time (such a shame in my case, for, in order to show as little as possible of my room, I chose a strange angle and eventually have no massive and impressive lines of bookshelves to show off). Be this as it may, this is not a post on Zoom’s or other tools’ aesthetics. There are YouTube tutorials for this, I guess.

The point I want to raise is so evident that it might appear flat; but it was not so to me until we entered the second lockdown and went back to a new, massive and continuous (up to the current day) use of Zoom. How much of us do we bring in class whilst teaching? What exactly do we transmit to students together with our attempts at explaining God’s simplicity and the complex story of his attributes, when external conditions are of no help (e.g. poor concentration deriving from flat-sharing, or too much privacy: cams shut down, how do you know students are still there, poorly or completely not interested by the story of the divine attributes?). The first question is broad of course. We bring a lot of us into the classroom. Our experience, from which we draw examples and images that can help out clarifying difficult abstract concepts. And the same applies to Zoom, but in a slightly different way (see the previously mentioned focus difficulty). But let’s go back to the divine attributes. Whilst preparing my power-point presentation n. 1000 etc. for the undergraduate survey-class on medieval philosophy, I was once choosing images to explain the absolute distance between creator and creatures. I put there the image of the Porphyrian tree, to show how God cannot be there at all. At a certain point I thought, well, God is a total alien, that is the idea. A completely different being. I was looking for an image to fix this, for none can think without images, right? And David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust popped up in my mind, the cover of Life on Mars? Was there anyone like him before him? Of course not. So, I put it there, it made me smile, I finished to prepare it and eventually taught the class. It worked out well, so well that we ended up listening to the song together. It sounds cheesy I know, but the point is again another. What enters the screen? How do we reach each other? Focus is not self-evident these days. 

Some weeks before using David Bowie for Aquinas, whilst teaching the same class, a smart student was smiling so much at the screen that I thought he was doing something else, so I asked him what the reason of his exaggerated smile was. He told me that he was smiling at me, because I was there striving to explain Maimonides (again, on divine attributes) in a moment in which nothing made much sense (a lot of my students had Covid-19, many lost their temporary jobs and ended up in financial troubles). I did not know what to reply immediately, just said something like: “Talking about Maimonides is our normality, mine and yours, think about it. Why are we here otherwise?” I could have done better indeed but found not better thing to say right there. And that student, Simon, is very smart. I doubled efforts, tried to reach out to them as much as possible each time, tried to be clearer and clearer. I am of course not as cheesy as to arrive to the point of making claims like: “Music is the answer, we listened together to Life on Mars? and this is the best you can do on Zoom”. I have colleagues who used to play music regularly during their classes when there was still no pandemic. But I realized how everything was much more difficult and that I was completely sharing Simon’s difficulty (Simon is the smiling student above): finding motivation to prepare classes and to enjoy my work. Being home in rigid lockdown for almost three months today, you basically go from your laptop to your laptop, either preparing courses or teaching them, to people who are as tired as you. Focusing is difficult. I decided to repeat the music experiment in the class on Port-Royal thinkers. How to explain Jansenism and Pascal’s background? We listened to Jansenist Sainte-Colombe’s music (e. g., Le tombeau des regrets) and I told the story of his pupil Marin Marais, who learned from him virtuous technique and then chose the world, becoming Versailles’ official composer. This was immediately understood and triggered a lot of commentaries that went from Pascal to the Logic or Art of Thinking passing through observations on Montaigne. What actually brings you better to the Port-Royalists’ spirit than a Leçon des ténèbres? Given the time-challenge (how long will they remain focused, once the meeting is launched?) and the necessity to transmit some content, I think the music experiment worked. In the end, aren’t we all using YouTube when we sit in front of the computer? The medium is the same. And during pandemics, we all are at pains with attention problems. So, maybe, this explains the massive usage of paintings in my power-points (never used so much of my poor competences of history of art before) or the references to literature and books, even the last entering my (invisible to them) library. I used to refer to books or show paintings even before the pandemic of course. What is different now is that they are more needed than ever to create bridges from one desktop to others.

“Our colleagues … will seize upon public cases of misconduct as an opportunity …” A note on a retraction notice

The editors of Vivarium, a leading journal in the history of philosophy, recently published a notice on the retraction of several articles. It comes as no surprise that there was much discussion of the case on social media. Alongside the shock about the incident, it was the retraction notice itself that drew attention of blogs and individual commenters. The gist was that they had done a good job in conscientiously documenting instances of alleged plagiarism and describing the “cut throat nature of academic life”, as Eric Schliesser put it in a timely post on the issue. In what follows, I want to confine myself to the nature of the retraction notice.

What struck me in this notice is an aspect that I would like to call the moral framing of the editorial work in opposition to much of the rest of academia. Here is the passage I have in mind:

“We do not enjoy performing our duty. For marginal fields such as those served by Vivarium, we have seen from experience that the damage wreaked by plagiarism extends to institutions, bringing vulnerable positions, departments, and institutes to the attention of administrators eager to let the rationale of collective punishment direct the evisceration of budgets in Social Sciences and the Humanities. Our colleagues in adjacent fields will seize upon public cases of misconduct as an opportunity to reallocate scarce resources in their favor, thereby ensuring that those who previously lost out to plagiarists in competition for fellowships and positions lose out once again.” (C. Schabel / W. Duba, Notice, Vivarium 2020, 257; italics mine)

What is contrasted here is the unpleasant “duty” of the editors with the, shall we say, moral recklessness of administrators and colleagues. Of course, we are familiar with tirades about academia. But this is a formal notice about the reasons for retraction, in a top journal of the discipline. The conscientious listing of passages that follows makes for a strange contrast to the allusions (“we have seen from experience”) and unverified accusations expressed here. For a journal that rightly prides itself on standards of scholarly evidence, this is not a good look. Let me point out two aspects:

  • Firstly, it might indeed be the case that there are “administrators” who could be quoted as having used measures of “collective punishment” in such cases. But do we have evidence about this? And is this really evidence about the “eagerness” of administrators or are we looking at an even more structural issue? Most importantly, what is the reason to point this out in the given context? Does it serve to heighten the blameworthiness of what is being documented?
  • Secondly, I wonder about the reference to “our colleagues”. Since I am a specialist in the pertinent “marginal field”, the expression “our colleagues” should extend to my colleagues. The phrasing according to which they “will seize upon public cases” amounts to a prediction of their behaviour. Have my academic colleagues done such things? Are they likely to do such things? I know that people say all sorts of bad things on Twitter and I know that academia is competitive, but nothing I heard about such cases would bear testimony to the supposed behaviour. Again, would it not be apt to provide at least some evidence for this prediction?

Thus, we might say that the notice has a twofold structure: on the one hand, it outlines the passages and reasons for retraction; on the other hand, it frames this outline in a wider context of academic practices and moral standards. But while the outline fulfils good scholarly standards, the adjacent framing appeals to undocumented experience or hearsay. It is especially this latter part that strikes me as problematic, not least because it treats sociological assumptions about the current academic context as something that does not require reliable evidence.