We call ‘epistemic diversity’ the ability or possibility of producing diverse and rich epistemic apparati to make sense of the world around us. Such epistemic apparati may be sophisticated philosophical conceptualisations or theories, or their corresponding folk theories that each one of us has, in virtue of their experience as epistemic agent and language user in given cultural contexts. In this section, we discuss how differente conceptions of knowledge may hinder or foster epistemic diversity; subsequently, we link this discussion to the widespread move in philosophy and science towards a monolingual disciplinary environment.
A central concept in philosophy is ‘knowledge’. Arguably, answering the question of what knowledge is (or, differently put, understanding what knowledge is) is not independent from the ways in which we build knowledge (which, admittedly, is a question at the core of philosophical argumentation and of scientific method).
According to an established tradition in philosophy, to understand what knowledge is means to state the conditions under which we have knowledge of a given proposition. We speak then of ‘propositional knowledge’, and knowledge is, in this approach, a justified true belief (JTB). While JTB had been effectively refuted already by Gettier, the view is still dominant in that it drives large part of contemporary research in epistemology. Specifically, in analytic philosophy, ‘knowledge’ is typically analysed as follows:
A subject S knows that p if, and only if:
p is true,
S believes that p,
S is justified in believing in p.
Critical aspects of this analysis have been identified as early as 1963 in the well known study of Gettier (1963). And yet, analytic philosophy has been hard working in providing conditions and specifications that would make the previous analysis correct or at least viable. We lack space to make justice to the sophisticated and elaborated philosophical production to defend this idea, and we direct the reader to the thorough introductions to this view and to the corresponding debates by Ichikawa and Steup (2017) and Steup (2017). Despite the well known critical aspects of JTB, the view is still on today’s research agenda (see e.g. Turri 2012; Kraft 2012, or Dutant 2015); at the same time, altogether different views are explored, for instance in the philosophy of information (see e.g. Dretske 1983, 2008; Floridi 2004, 2012). JTB presupposes that knowledge is propositional—whether it is mainly, solely, or perhaps essentially propositional does not matter here. What does matter is that, because knowledge is expressed propositionally, one can say under what conditions a subject S knows something (‘that p’). Implicit in the analysis is that subjects are individuals, often idealised and fully rational epistemic agents, and that ‘to know that p’ requires some form of correspondence between the proposition (p) and the world (a state of affair, a fact, etc.)—on theories of truth and especially on the correspondence theory, see David (2016).
Now, while analyses along those lines have the clear merit of being precise, rigorous, and neat, one might wonder whether, to maintain such a high level of conceptual rigour, we are also paying a high price. In particular, one might wonder who this epistemic agent is and whether s/he is far too idealised, or whether a correspondence theory of truth provides an adequate account of the relations between our language and the world (for an example of such criticism, see Radder 2017). Another issue concerns the distinction between ‘know that’ and ‘know how’; in the ‘intellectualist’ approach of Stanley and Williamson (2001) and of Stanley (2011), ‘knowing how’ is a form of answering questions to be expressed in propositions. It should be noted in that the critical assessment of Radder (2017) also concerns the ‘materiality’ of ‘know how’, which in his view cannot be fully accounted for with a propositional concept of knowledge. In fact, the ‘materiality’ of knowledge is an aspect that non-analytic philosophers of science also paid attention to, see e.g. Baird (2004).
It is not our intention to enter the debate and to weight the merit or shortcomings of the many debates around propositional concepts of knowledge. Instead, we wish to establish a link between what knowledge is and how to build it. In particular, embracing some form of JTB leads to producing knowledge (i.e. building arguments) that hinders, rather than fosters, epistemic diversity. In this section, we highlight reasons related to the preferred argumentation strategies; later in the paper, we also give reasons related to working in a monolingual rather than multilingual academic environment.
To see how that may be the case, one may browse serendipically mainstream journals in analytic philosophy (including Anglo-American philosophy of science). The way in which, in philosophy, we produce knowledge is by designing arguments to the effect that a given claim is well supported by evidence and by given inferential rules. It won’t take long to recognise patterns in the set up of an article’s argumentation strategy. Ideas are often presented rhetorically as logical consequences of a given set of premises, as negative results established from an analysis of a competing view or theory, or as knock-down counterexamples to a proposed view or account. What we take issue with is not the rigour in the thinking. One motivation of the founding scholars of analytic philosophy was the insistence on a precise, rigorous, and empirically-based reasoning. This, we believe, has value. Also, there is of course value in discovering mistakes and pointing them out. What we take issue with is in case the only goal is to prove a negative point, with no contextualisation of why the mistake needs to be corrected.
Let us emphasise, we are far from trying to demonise analytic philosophy. What we take issue with is the standardization of argumentation, which, we think, hinders epistemic diversity. Arguments do come in a variety of forms—Millgram (2001), for instance, surveys the ones used in practical reasoning and makes the point that choosing one or the one may have important repercussions on ethical theory or other areas. But analytic philosophy de facto limited the admissible ones.
As Preston (2010) has noticed, analytic philosophy became somehow victim of its own commendable principles: rigour became a value on its own, at the expenses of the contents. In a similar vein, van Inwagen (2006) seems to suggest that central to analytic philosophy is the (style of) analysis of concepts, and less their contents. Analogous remarks are likewise made by Schliesser in a recent blog post and interview.Footnote 1 The level of technicality reached by present-day analytic contributions has greatly increased; however, this has also led to a debate that became much inward- rather than outward looking. A sign of this is the lack of self-reflection in the field, although the problem begins to be recognised, thanks especially to metaphilosophical discussions in experimental philosophy—see for instance the recent contributions of Nado (2016) and Machery (2017). In history and philosophy of science, instead, many sub-fields other than Anglo-American philosophy of science produced important reflections on their own identity, methods, or preferred topics—see, among others: Andler 2009; Boon 2017; Chang 1999; Longino 1987; Massimi 2009; Radder 1997; Schickore 2011; Schliesser 2006, 2011.
It is therefore in this sense that Preston (2010) talks about the illusion of analytic philosophy, because, somehow, it did not live up to its own standards (let alone reflect on them). To be fair, Preston also mentions the illusion of continental philosophy, but he doesn’t quite develop it further. So perhaps, at the other end of the spectrum, another story ought to be told about the illusion of an all-and-only culture- and context-based continental philosophy. If one were to tell such a story, good places to start would definitively be D’Agostini (1997) and Glock (2008).
This standardization of argumentation de facto coincides with the use of English as the main (or sole) language for scientific communication. In Sect. 3, we try to reconstruct the lineage between the kinds of standardization of argumentation alluded above and the standardization of language. In the remaining part of this section we explore whether, and to what extent, a different conceptualization of knowledge may lead to a different way of building it, thus fostering epistemic diversity.
Alternative views of what knowledge is have been proposed in the fields of philosophy of information and of technology, and of cognitive science—see e.g. Floridi (2011a), Giere (2010), Leonelli (2014), Nersessian (2008), Russo (2016). What emerges from these contributions is that knowledge, rather than being reduced to the propositions in which we express it, is to be understood as a distributed and embodied phenomenon. Accounts of distributed and embodied cognition make the point that knowledge is not ‘owned’ by a single, individual agent, but is instead distributed across individuals and across groups of different epistemic agents (be they human, artificial, or hybrid). Knowledge is also distributed across socio-technical systems that we humans belong to. Our being part of these systems makes knowledge also embodied, in the sense that it is not merely or purely an intellectual, abstract ‘thing’, but very much part of our material relation with the surrounding world. In such a framework, knowledge is not simply about establishing the right sort of ‘correspondence’ with the world, but rather the right sort of connections. The correctness theory of truth developed in the philosophy of information helps here (Floridi 2011b), as it abandons a monolithic, absolute conception of truth, in favour of a concept that is relative to a given model for handling information, and does not require what Tarski called the ‘classical conception’ of truth, one that establishes a correspondence between language and reality.
Embracing a conception of knowledge as distributed and embodied cognition fosters epistemic diversity because we are forced to consider all sorts of non-propositional factors that may play a role at any step of the process of knowledge production: social and cultural relations, interaction with technology, the use of specific conceptual frameworks, and also the use of different vehicular languages. This is is much broader and inclusive than a merely propositional conception of knowledge. Interestingly enough, broadening the notion of knowledge beyond its propositional nature, may also shed light on classic debates in philosophy of science, notably about ‘scientific progress’. According to Mizrahi (2013), for instance, scientific progress is more than a simple accumulation of true propositions. An (historically-informed) analysis of actual cases from the scientific practice shows, according to him, that (scientific) knowledge ought to include ‘know-how’ besides ‘know-that’. We take Mizrahi’s argument to lend support to our point, namely that knowledge is not to be reduced to propositions.
Given the large difference between the two approaches to knowledge, the question looms large: why going for distributed and embodied cognition, rather than JTB? From a philosophy of science perspective, it suffices to look at the practice of the sciences (and of philosophy too) to realize how much knowledge is a collective endeavour, where individuals interact with one another and with technological equipments (from labs to computers to digital humanities tools) in specific institutional and social settings. Knowledge, while clearly expressed in propositional form in academic publications and conferences, is not to be reduced to it. From a more distinctive philosophical perspective, such conception of knowledge is not trapped in the straightjacket of rigid argumentation strategies. While rigour should remain a fundamental value in philosophy and in science, we can here concentrate on the contents of the arguments rather than on their mere structure.
Take philosophical contributions as the hallmark of the way we build knowledge. What we propose below is not a rigid scheme to structure a paper or a conference presentation, but rather is a ‘flexible epistemological strategy’ to produce valuable philosophy. While at a first glance what follows can be seen as an oversimplification, we believe it captures the gist of a strategy that can go counter an increasingly individualistic and confrontational academic culture.
To begin with, we should engage with a problem. Far too often we write papers that are narrow in scope, and that focus on details losing sight of a deeper problem that might lie behind. Why should we really care about taking issue with footnote X in the paper Y of Author Z? The footnote might be problematic, but if it is so, that must be explained with respect to a context. So, if there is a problem somewhere in the literature, we should say what we want to do with the problem: Analyse it? Solve it? Redress the debate? These are all different goals, and we should be clear about what we want to achieve in our contribution. Being clear about our goal will also help our readers engage with our project. Next, we should remember that we don’t write and think in a vacuum. Acknowledging other people’s contribution shows that there is an issue that the community is trying to address. We don’t own problems, or solutions. The view of knowledge as distributed and embodied cognition also means that it is a collective enterprise and each one of us is contributing something to it, no matter how tiny the contribution may be. This is to say that, in this collective enterprise it is unclear what we gain in proving each other wrong. Instead, it is a much more constructive attitude to identify problems in order to attempt a solution. Finally, we should aim to take the debate a step further by putting forward a proposal. Most likely it is not going to be the end of the debate, and we should humbly assert what we think our tiny contribution to solving the problem is.
This strategy, we think, can shed light on how disagreement in philosophy ought to be handled. If the goal is not to prove each other’s wrong, what do we disagree on? The epistemological strategy sketched above helps understand whether disagreement concerns, for instance, the reconstruction of state of the art, or the framing of the problem. Or perhaps it is about the relevance of the research question, or indeed about the contents of a proposed solution. In any of these cases we can contribute to make progress, rather than concluding with a negative result. So negative results are indeed important, but they shouldn’t be the goal of a philosophical project—the goal should instead be to positively contributing to a debate. Whether we make progress by establishing negative results also depends on how one understands progress in philosophy. We here take side with Floridi (2013), who conceives of a philosophical question as one that is inherently open-ended (and that can genuinely be informed by rational and honest disagreement); Floridi’s position is however different from the ‘reasonable optimism’ defended by Stoljar (2017). We instead do not side with other scholars such as Chalmers (2015), van Inwagen (2004), who think that progress is made by gradually converging towards truth—and that, they argue, isn’t quite happening in philosophy.
All this does not imply that we will always reach consensus, but it encourages a respectful interaction where we acknowledge disagreement, rather than demonise or patronise the other party. So, even if disagreement is not resolved, we can learn something, for instance about differences in the contents, norms, or perspectives. This has obvious consequences for assessment criteria, for instance in peer-review. The goal is not to compromise on quality and rigour in thinking, but in opposing practices that are rapidly spreading. When reviewing a paper, we should ask ourselves the question whether we are attempting a constructive, critical assessment, or whether we are justifying aggressive, patronising, disrespectful arguments behind the protection of blind review. But also, we might question the meaning of prizes for the ‘best paper’. What does ‘best’ mean? How do we assess brave papers that champion a new concept, or that attempt genuine inter- or trans-disciplinary dialogues? Or that try to get out of the ivory tower of philosophy and try to reach out, say, policy makers? The strategies to write a successful paper aimed at non-philosophers may diverge from the accepted norms and standards within the field. How do we assess such contributions? While it is beyond the scope and aims of this paper to provide recipes to address these issues, we believe it is nonetheless important to bring them to the fore for discussion.
The epistemological strategy we propose aims to promote diversity: about ideas, about traditions (philosophical or scientific), and also about language use. In fact, it is meant to facilitate and encourage inclusion of considerations about sociological aspects, values, or cultural components. After all, knowledge is not just propositional, and philosophical concepts (such as ‘knowledge’), no matter how sharply can be defined, are not merely abstract and theoretical. Concepts and theories are products of our philosophical and scientific investigations, just as they are products of our cultures, and this includes language in a fundamental way.
The epistemological point we want to make about epistemic diversity is also related to the competitive, confrontational, and individualistic cultural that is becoming established in academia. We should instead develop (or perhaps rediscover) argumentations strategies that, in addressing any philosophical problems, foster dialogue and collegiality rather than individualistic and confrontational attitudes. We claim no originality in making this point, but we wish to add to arguments made already within feminist scholarship—see Easley (1997), Hundleby (2018), Rooney (2010) and references therein. Feminist argumentation theory takes issue with widespread argumentation styles that favour confrontation and individualistic attitudes. These contributions link such traits to gender aspects, and most probably this is not unrelated to well-known, heavy gender imbalances in philosophy (see Beebee and Saul 2011; Haslanger 2008; Hutchison 2013 and references therein). The need for a dialogical (rather than adversarial) form of argumentation is also discussed in logic and philosophical logic, as part of a debate on the nature and structure of arguments—see e.g. Dutilh Novaes (2015). In our view, the move towards monolingual disciplinary environments (therefore raising the question of English as Lingua Franca) adds another perspective to the arguments offered within this literature.
One may rebut that, however, the view of knowledge as distributed and embodied cognition is a product of Anglo-American academe, which is written in English. Indeed it is, but with an important qualification. Many of these scholars, who do care about epistemic diversity, do not work in ‘mainstream’ philosophy of science, but rather in other philosophical schools such as ‘philosophy of science in practice’, ‘history and philosophy of science’, or ‘philosophy of information’, all of which tried, in different ways, to re-open the doors of philosophy to neighbouring disciplines in the sciences and in the humanities. More to the point, one could say that, notwithstanding the hard battles to establish such results in Anglo-American debates, similar ideas were already circulating in non-English speaking philosophy previously and almost unnoticed—the contributions of Merleau-Ponty, or of the French epistemologists, from Bachelard to Latour, come to mind. So we’d better make our language policy as open as possible to (re)integrate non-English traditions, contrasting the current tendency with a more balanced multilingual strategy, that we will present in the concluding section.
From a more sociological perspective, in academic as well as everyday settings, we routinely build connections with other people’s work, getting feedback on written pieces or on presentations. In short: it is never just our own idea, expressed in the form of ‘that p’. We might have gotten the wrong impression that ideas belong to single individual minds from reconstructions of the history of philosophy, which depicted the complex conceptual architectures of say, Leibniz or Kant, and that therefore return to us only a partial image of the philosophical enterprise. For one thing, these thinkers entertained relations with other intellectuals (from other cultures and speaking other languages) of their time that are far too often neglected. For another, and relatedly, far too often women have been excluded from these histories, thus conveying the idea that philosophy is a ‘male thing’, requiring skills that men, more than women, have (see e.g. Broad 2015).
For all these reasons, we submit that the epistemological approach to knowledge production just sketched can be the basis for a multilingual academic environment and editorial policies, as discussed later in the paper.
We began the discussion of epistemic diversity raising genuine philosophical questions about the nature of knowledge and of the way of producing it (in philosophy, this largely coincide with building arguments). But ultimately our aim is to connect a genuine philosophical problem with a more a historically- and sociologically-oriented issue, namely how and why philosophy and science by and large shifted towards a mono-lingual environment. Our goal is to show that the language in which we express knowledge has a deep influence on epistemic diversity.