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Barbara Herrnstein Smith. Scandalous Knowledge: Science, Truth and the Human.

Barbara Herrnstein Smith. Scandalous Knowledge: Science, Truth and the Human. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2006. 208 pp.

Did postmodern anti-foundationalism bring the End of Philosophy or just a new intellectual fashion? After two decades of debate, Barbara Herrnstein Smith's Scandalous Knowledge looks back at contemporary skepticism's little-known predecessors and at some well-known repercussions in the Culture Wars and Science Wars that followed. The book is not a seamless history or systematic treatise but a collection of pieces whose diversity reflects important dimensions of contemporary academic skepticism.

Smith's introduction links modern philosophy's skeptical origins to its more contemporary form: the critique of representational theories of knowledge and of realistic theories of objectivity. Smith catalogues three typical responses to the "knowledge problem": (a) ignoring it, (b) logically refuting skepticism, and (c) critiquing the concepts that give rise to the problem. Smith identifies the third, critical strategy with the sort of constructivist epistemologies and sociologies of science that these essays explain and defend from their critics' accusations of relativism.

In Chapter 2, "Pre-post-modern Relativism," Smith shows that some of the innovations of recent decades "could be seen as extensions and refinements of those early critiques and alternative 'relativist' accounts [of knowledge]" (30). "Netting the Truth" focuses on the epistemological issue of constructivism vs. realism/objectivism as found in the work of Ludwik Fleck, a distinguished immunologist whose defense of the social construction of knowledge broadly anticipates the critiques of rationalist philosophy of science that arose in the 1960s and 70s.

"Cutting Edge Equivocation: Conceptual Moves and Rhetorical Strategies in Contemporary Anti-Epistemology" focuses on the "perilous" strategy of trying to find the via media through the terms of classical epistemology on the one hand, and anti-foundational skepticism on the other. Smith observes that such attempts often fall afoul of "question-begging terms" and "perpetuate dubious conceptions of the issues" through the patching together of "mutually canceling concepts." "Disciplinary Cultures and Tribal Warfare: The Sciences and the Humanities Today" steps out of the threefold framework into C. P. Snow's legendary "two cultures" dichotomy. There Smith finds in the science community an over-confidence in its facts and an underestimation of meaning's complexity.

The final chapters, "Super Natural Science: The Claims of Evolutionary Psychology" and "Animal Relatives, Difficult Relations" examine some specifically scientific issues to quite different effects. "Super Natural Science" suggestively exposes the liabilities of evolutionary psychological assumptions, not only from the humanities perspective, but from the scientific perspective as well. By contrast, "Animal Relatives" does not so much target a single oversimplifying view, but rather shows how the complexity of the relationship between humans and other animals resists reduction to a single, essential similarity or difference.

Smith's essays are clear, informed, and intelligent. Given their controversial context, however, questions necessarily arise regarding their critical success as intellectual history or philosophical critique. The breadth and fine points of Smith's view make for engaging intellectual history. But Smith's sharper critiques and her introduction suggest a partisan intervention into methodological debates on the side of anti-foundational skepticism and social constructivism. As others have queried, however, it is not clear how much critical weight radical skepticism can support.

Social constructivism, for instance, is supposed to exemplify the third response to skepticism, the revision of the conceptions that gave rise to the problem of knowledge. But social constructivism is supposed to explain conceptions, not critique them. Likewise, Smith notes that the projects of the social constructivists are "not conventionally philosophic enterprises," i.e., they do not assess concepts at the foundational level. This foundational neutrality gives rise to Smith's attributions of "ontological agnosticism," "methodological modesty," and "theoretical economy."

Given all this foundational modesty, how does one get from constructive description to philosophical critique? How does one get from "is" to "ought"? As noted above, "Cutting-Edge Equivocation" accuses those who compromise between reductions and skepticism of patching together "mutually canceling concepts." But to say what concepts can and cannot mean in principle requires an essentialist view of concepts. Ontological agnosticism and methodological modesty cannot rule out apriori a via media between reduction and construction. When construction becomes critique, what are its foundations?

Some would say that radical skepticism cannot escape the trade off between doubt and critique: the more radical the doubt, the less is left to critique with. Conversely, the more skeptics generalize about the implications of their views, the more they resemble foundational thinking, thereby courting internal contradiction (and inviting response number 2). An epistemologist might well conclude that Smith's explanation of social constructivism presupposes the objectivity she rejects: "constructivist accounts of cognitive processes see beliefs ... as linked perceptual dispositions and behavioral routines that are continuously strengthened, weakened and reconfigured through our ongoing interaction with our environments" (4). But this includes natural environments as well as social environments. Such interactionist explanations may obviate the need for resemblance between thought and thing, but they still presuppose causal objectivity, i.e., something outside our language that shapes belief by applying external pressure through sensory experience. Resemblance may be out, but objectivity is still in.

Where Smith's rejection of objectivity appears premature, other takes on agnosticism are not radical enough. Smith's accuses critics of postmodern relativism with begging the question, i.e., of assuming that knowledge can attain absolute, objective, and universal authority. But since post-strong-foundational epistemology is coherentist rather than foundational, it follows that all philosophies beg the question of assumptions. Since no premises are self-evident, all philosophies go in circles. What domesticates their question-begging circularity is not self-evidence at the beginning, but explanatory power at the end. The issue is not who is presuppositionless, but who can explain the most. The resulting burden of comprehensive explanation gives traction to charges that radical skeptics cannot explain experience without covertly appealing to objectivity.

In the end, these essays are useful both for their intellectual-historical erudition and for their critique of facile scape-goating. But the achievement is not well characterized as internal, philosophical critique. Rather, it most resembles a skeptical view that brackets foundational theory, thereby recalling the first strategy: ignoring foundational justification. Likewise, Smith's denial of a post-classical paradigm shift (12) seems a more revealing claim than the underlying implication that philosophy does not need deep foundations.

Horace L. Fairlamb, University of Houston-Victoria
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Title Annotation:book notes
Author:Fairlamb, Horace L.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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