siding with history

For anyone who has followed the philosophy blogs at all for the past week, they already know about the Synthese controversy. For those who don’t know about it (and some of my Scottish friends may not), it was prompted by Brian Leiter’s call to boycott Synthese for editorial misconduct regarding a special issue, Evolution and its Rivals (here is the original post). The papers for this issue were published online but then Barbara Forrest (who is a colleague of mine at Southeastern La. Univ.) was asked by one of the editors-in-chief to make changes to her essay, the “Non-Epistemology of Intelligent Design,” even though her essay had already been accepted and published online. The stated reason for the request was that it was due to “forces beyond the control” of the Editors-in-Chief at Synthese. The reason for the sudden turn around, as it is being widely interpreted, is that Francis Beckwith (or more likely “friends” of Beckwith) lobbied and pressured the editors to get Forrest to make changes. Whether or not the editors caved to this pressure (John Symons, one of the editors, explicitly denies caving though has not directly answered the question whether he and/or the other editors-in-chief were lobbied on behalf of Beckwith), or whether the editors came to agree (on second thought so to speak) with some of the criticisms regarding Forrest’s essay is a subject that has been furiously debated on the blogs (see here and here for instance). Forrest, however, did not make the changes since she felt that it was important to detail the political, institutional, and financial connections between Beckwith and those (such as the Discovery Institute) who had a vested interest in getting intelligent design legitimized, whereas Beckwith himself interpreted Forrest’s essay as an attack on his entire life rather than on his philosophical ideas (see here for Beckwith’s take). There was some discussion of a disclaimer, apparently, but the guest editors and authors claim that they were told the print version of the journal would not have a disclaimer, but when it came out it did have a disclaimer which stated, among other things, that  some of the papers in this issue employ a tone that may make it hard to distinguish between dispassionate intellectual discussion of other views and disqualification of a targeted author or group.” Now it is hard not to see the disqualified, targeted author as Beckwith, though Larry Laudan in the comments to one of the posts linked above makes the case that he himself is targeted in the essay by Robert Pennock with a tone that justifies the disclaimer (which in turn initiated another round of debate and accusations of Laudan mining quotes inappropriately). Whatever the true, full story is, there is enough here to raise concerns about the conduct of the editors. Most importantly, as Ingo Bragandt and Eric Schliesser point out, Beckwith cites the extraordinary step of the editors choosing to issue a disclaimer as evidence in support of his claim that the substance of Forrest’s article, rather than just its tone, is suspect, and it is this which many feel might be used in an effort to de-legitimize any testimony Professor Forrest might give in the future in a courtroom or before the Louisiana state legislature as she fights to undermine legislation that places the teaching of intelligent design on a par with evolutionary theory in biology classes. As a result of this concern, in addition to the apparent editorial misconduct, a number of petitions have been set forth which range from calling for the editors to disclaim the disclaimer to, most recently, allowing Forrest to rebut Beckwith’s rebuttal.

I have followed the ongoing controversy in part because it brings to light a number of important issues in the philosophy profession that have been brought up within the comments – e.g., what is the status of special issues and the proper relationship between guest and general editors; the role of prestige and reputation in the field; the differing reactions among Anglophone (primarily American) and European philosophers, etc. As is my wont, I have found it interesting how history creeps in to a number of the arguments and justifications one makes for one’s stance. In short, one wants to be on the right side of history. That being said, there are a number of philosophers who believe the whole controversy is a tempest in a teacup at most or an outright witch hunt at worst. For them, there is insufficient evidence to tarnish the reputations of the editors and the journal that had been, prior to this incident, sterling. The very term “witch hunt,” which Philippe Huneman used to describe the prosecutorial approach of many to the actions of the editors-in-chief at Synthese, clearly brings with it an association of being on the wrong side of history. Who looks back upon the prosecutors at the Salem with trials, or at Joseph McCarthy’s hearings, and thinks ‘well done!’? But at the time it is not always clear whether one is on the right side of history. As events unfolded in Egypt a few months back, talking heads frequently chalked up the Obama administration’s cautious approach to the events by claiming that they wanted to come out on the right side of history; similarly, no doubt, for France and Britain with respect to Libya. But critics (take Putin for instance) argue that being militarily involved in Libya is being on the wrong side of history. Moving on to philosophy, Heidegger likely thought he was on the right side of history when he embraced the Nazi party and Hitler’s rise to power; and Descartes recognized, as he launched into his Meditations, that frequently in the past he was on the wrong side of history. Now of course he did not put it this way, but the temporal subsequently entered Descartes’ concept of the cogito in an important way (as Deleuze and Guattari also point out in What is Philosophy?), such that what one thinks one knows now may, with the passage of time, be revealed to be false. This was also an important aspect of Ladyman and Ross’s critique of traditional scientific realism (as I discuss here), whereby there are certain entities posited by today’s best theories which, by the lights of tomorrow’s best theories do not actually exist today, and since we can’t say which ones these are the best approach to scientific realism is to abandon the notion of entities (hence the title of their book, Every Thing Must Go) and urge instead the reality of patterns.

This is not intended as a riff on skepticism regarding our knowledge of whether or not one is on the right side of history, but rather it brought to mind that the Synthese affair is a helpful example of Deleuze’s theory of events. As that which eludes the present state of affairs, being simultaneously past and future, the Synthese affair is an event that cannot be pinpointed to a present state of affairs but continually refers to the past – note the efforts of those who signed the petitions along with others to try to find out what actually happened, the facts that are already in the past – and to the future as people debate what to do, which course of action they believe is best, including whether or not to sign a petition, call for a boycott, or ignore the whole thing. Events are neither on the right or wrong side of history; they are, rather, the creativity that is the condition for the possibility of being judged to be on the right or wrong side of history. And yet these events are at the same time inseparable from what is the case, from existent states of affairs such as the status and institutional prestige of Synthese or Leiter’s blog, for instance (consider the non-response that would most certainly have followed had there been editorial misconduct at a little known journal and a seldom read blogger called for a boycott), the current state of the philosophy profession, and more germane to the Synthese affair there is the current state of scientific education in the United States along with the preponderance of the religious right and its largely willing embrace of intelligent design and the public policies that support it. It is in this context where events allow for the possibility of creating future judgments, of creating history, including the judgment that it was all for not. Around 300 people to this point have signed the petition in an effort to rectify a perceived wrong; time will tell if these efforts amount to much. I am one of those have signed the petition (it’s available here).

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