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“Epistemological negotiation:” a riddle

By June 14, 2020July 26th, 2020No Comments

The current pandemic has already challenged the boundaries of Science and academic community, states and international organizations, work and personal life and not only. The “epistemological negotiation” is suggested here as a draft way for the discussion on coronavirus to advance, as a riddle.

The framework

The temptation of an early assessment of the pandemic is big, however our planet is going through a singular experience which can neither be ignore not fully answered. Despite the shut down of borders and the restriction of travel, online cafés remain open and discuss the news in their own way, researchers around the world have changed their agendas and only talk about the coronavirus, diplomats try to heal the wounds that opened during the first phase of the pandemic, enterprises profit, enterprises loose… It’s as if the entire planet counted the days one by one. During this phase, many of us got carried away by inertia and continued our routines, others took advantage of the opportunity to diverge from it, others didn’t understand much, many died and continue dying.

Of course, under normal circumstances, the action of the WHO would have been sufficient to resolve the issues related to the pandemic. Yet, there is no doubt that the hostilities that ratcheted up within the organization jeopardize scientific and political dialogue and witness its limits, at least in the form it had before the crisis. Beyond the obvious conflicts between different countries, contemporary conditions – such as the acquired right of patients to know – shape a different framework than the one that constituted the WHO. In addition, we shouldn’t forget that many aspects of the COVID 19 remain unknown until today. These issues didn’t exist before the crisis, at least not to the same extent. Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised that the WHO is going through its own crisis. However, a wrecking of this organization would lead to very painful consequences at an international level.

In parallel, the new framework that was set up as an answer to the sanitary crisis is itself part of the problem. Musing, reflecting, thinking – such activities look like feats today. While current conditions challenge the freedom of expression and thought, let’s avoid the comfort of cynicism and pessimism. Nevertheless, we can agree that the wild animals chilling out in quarantined cities around the world were very cute. Today we are forced to rethink the new conditions either we like it or not.

Epistemological negotion and contemporary Cerberus

Within such a framework, the epistemolocial negotion looks like a necessary condition for a common course both nationally and at an international level. According to a Greek saying “there’s nothing more permanent than the provisional”, thus we need to use this concept with care. In the debate on coronavirus every new word can be registered in a new doctrine – in the Foucauldian sense – as it has been the case before with the quantitative criteria for the evaluation of academic research (Katz). Let it be. From a cosmopolitan perspective (Bozeman) it seems that the epistemological negotiation constitutes today the best way for the transition from a regime to another (e.g. from a country to another) as well as for the dialogue between different approaches on how to overcome the crisis. Maybe this way we’ll avoid the three heads of the contemporary Cerberus: metaphysics, relativism and conspiracy theories.

In the collective work we edited with Annie Gentès “L’aventure épistémologique contemporaine” (Kimé, 2019) we discussed and exposed dimensions of the contemporary epistemological adventure. Yet, I think that the idea of Anne Françoise Schmidt around which the work is structured, – a democracy of sciences – is only possible for short periods of time and not under conflicting conditions. In addition, I don’t think it’s possible at a level of the mass characterized by the “unbearable lightness of copy+paste” as a friend put it on Facebook. Yet, this discussion we opened back in 2014 in a conference at the École des Mines can be rather useful today.

The contribution of Franck Varenne in that book put forward the idea of an epistemology in “real time.” Even though I found that idea interesting at the time, in the current framework it seems to me that it creates more problems than it can solve. Now is not the time for an assessment of the action of the epistemological community in France before and after the lock down. Yet, combined with the challenge of the field, such an epistemology cannot avoid the contemporary Cerberus. In the “war against the coronavirus” (Em. Macron) the condition of an “intimate milieu” (Chrysos) for such an epistemology to exist is critically challenged. Epistemology is subordinated to the mindset of think tanks and arenas even if this subordination leads to the loss of the self-declared war. I hope that progressively we’ll start talking about the “peace against the coronavirus” or even the “peace with the coronavirus.”

However, the epistemological negotiation is not a melting pot where everything can be mingled. It’s opposed to the mentality of the shipwreck, i.e. admitting that a common course is not possible. As Castoriadis put it, the institution of a society is primarly imaginary. Insofar leaders embrace the imaginary of the shipwreck they contribute to its materialization. Everyone holds some part of the responsibility, nonetheless it would be abusive to say that everyone is equally responsible. The first phase of the pandemic revealed again the lack of solidarity at an European level while the EU worries for its common future raised again.

In addition, there’s still the question of democratic communication at the epistemological level with the public. Today there is no ideal way for a direct and real time public dialogue on the challenges implied by the coronavirus. In the book “Les développeurs” (FYP, 2015) I elaborated with the help of the editor a style to enable such a communication. Yet, that’s not sufficient either. Epistemological negotiation, especially when in public, remains a riddle with multiple (right or wrong) answers.

The pandemic revealed the crisis of contemporary governance. The design of a common course out of the crisis remains an open challenge. The riddle of the epistemological negotiation and its multiple answers is better than the shipwreck.

I hope this summers sheds some lights on that!