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February 21, 2008


P. Froward

"Wisdom" is when somebody agrees with you.

Nicholas Maxwell

You say I alone review my books on Amazon. If you had looked a little further, you would have noticed that I have merely contributed extracts from a number of reviews that have been written by others. On Amazon.co.uk, for example, there are the following extracts from reviews of the first edition of "From Knowledge to Wisdom":-

"Maxwell is advocating nothing less than a revolution (based on reason, not on religious or Marxist doctrine) in our intellectual goals and methods of inquiry ... There are altogether too many symptoms of malaise in our science-based society for Nicholas Maxwell's diagnosis to be ignored."
Professor Christopher Longuet-Higgins, Nature.

"a strong effort is needed if one is to stand back and clearly state the objections to the whole enormous tangle of misconceptions which surround the notion of science to-day. Maxwell has made that effort in this powerful, profound and important book."
Dr. Mary Midgley, University Quarterly.

"The essential idea is really so simple, so transparently right ... It is a profound book, refreshingly unpretentious, and deserves to be read, refined and implemented."
Dr. Stewart Richards, Annals of Science.

"Maxwell's book is a major contribution to current work on the intellectual status and social functions of science ... [It] comes as an enormous breath of fresh air, for here is a philosopher of science with enough backbone to offer root and branch criticism of scientific practices and to call for their reform."
Dr. David Collingridge, Social Studies of Science.

"Maxwell has, I believe, written a very important book which will resonate in the years to come. For those who are not inextricably and cynically locked into the power and career structure of academia with its government-industrial-military connections, this is a book to read, think about, and act on."
Dr. Brian Easlea, Journal of Applied Philosophy.

"This book is a provocative and sustained argument for a 'revolution', a call for a 'sweeping, holistic change in the overall aims and methods of institutionalized inquiry and education, from knowledge to wisdom' ... Maxwell offers solid and convincing arguments for the exciting and important thesis that rational research and debate among professionals concerning values and their realization is both possible and ought to be undertaken."
Professor Jeff Foss, Canadian Philosophical Review

"Wisdom, as Maxwell's own experience shows, has been outlawed from the western academic and intellectual system ... In such a climate, Maxwell's effort to get a hearing on behalf of wisdom is indeed praiseworthy." Dr. Ziauddin Sardar, Inquiry

"Maxwell's argument ... is a powerful one. His critique of the underlying empiricism of the philosophy of knowledge is coherent and well argued, as is his defence of the philosophy of wisdom. Most interesting, perhaps, from a philosophical viewpoint, is his analysis of the social and human sciences and the humanities, which have always posed problems to more orthodox philosophers, wishing to reconcile them with the natural sciences. In Maxwell's schema they pose no such problems, featuring primarily ... as methodologies, aiding our pursuit of our diverse social and personal endeavours. This is an exciting and important work, which should be read by all students of the philosophy of science. It also provides a framework for historical analysis and should be of interest to all but the most blinkered of historians of science and philosophy."
Dr. John Hendry, British Journal for the History of Science

"Nicholas Maxwell (1984) defines freedom as 'the capacity to achieve what is of value in a range of circumstances'. I think this is about as good a short definition of freedom as could be. In particular, it appropriately leaves wide open the question of just what is of value. Our unique ability to reconsider our deepest convictions about what makes life worth living obliges us to take seriously the discovery that there is no palpable constraint on what we can consider."
Professor Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolving

Mick H

Well yes, but that's hardly the point, is it? It all appears as a review of your book, as posted by yourself. I wouldn't want to be too prescriptive, but I'd have thought that's not what Amazon had in mind when they set up their review function, or what people reading book reviews on Amazon expect - that the author of the book would give himself a 5-star review, even if that review consists of cobbled-together bits from other reviewers. And the review I quoted, of your "Is Science Neurotic?", is, I believe, all your own work.

Mind you, as I noted, at least you're open about it.


The crisis of our time is over-population. Against this, Wisdom is so much Lotus eating. We could sort out all the others if we could stop procreating at such an unsustainable rate. Never before has the biosphere been so in thrall to a single species. 98% of vertebrate land biomass is involved in human activities, as farm animals, pets or prey. If we cannot control our birth rate, Nature will do it for us, through a combination of pandemic, famine, war and volcanism.

Nicholas Maxwell

Dear Mick Hartley, You quote from an online summary of my thesis that we need a new kind of rational inquiry devoted to wisdom, and then remark "Brilliant! Why did no one think of this before?" But as I make clear (on my website, for example, or in my book "From Knowledge to Wisdom"), an important part of my argument is that it has been thought of before: this was the basic idea of the philosophes of the French Enlightenment, namely to learn from scientific progress how to achieve social progress towards an enlightened world. Unfortunately, in developing this profoundly important idea, the philosophes made basic mistakes, and it is this very seriously defective version of the Elightenment programme, inherited from the 18th century, that is built into academia today. What I am arguing for is a genuinely rational kind of academic inquiry - one which corrects the intellectual defects inherited from the Enlightenment - devoted to helping promote human welfare. Perhaps you should read just a little further into my work, and see whether it can be dismissed in such glib, satirical terms. Have a look at "The Basic Argument" at www.nick-maxwell.demon.co.uk

Nicholas Maxwell

Dear Mike Hartley, I find your response that my "review" of my book "From Knowledge to Wisdom" is still MY review, despite the fact that it consists of comments from such well-known philosophers as Daniel Dennett and Mary Midgley, very odd. What you said initially, namely "And each of those reviews is written by....Nicholas Maxwell" hardly does justice to what these reviews actually consist of - namely comments written by others, some by well-known philosophers, in respectable journals such as Nature. The other "reviews" of my books on Amazon are the same: extracts from genuine reviews written by others, sometimes by very well-known philosohers, and published in well-known journals. The exception is the "review" of "Is Science Neurotic?". That was I think written by me (or my publisher); it was intended to give an outline of what the book is about. I would like to have done for this book what I have done for my others: provide critical comments by others. Unfortunately, I was not able to do that. But here is what I would like to have included:

What critics have said about "Is Science Neurotic?":-

This book is bursting with intellectual energy and ambition...[It] provides a good account of issues needing debate. In accessible language, Maxwell articulates many of today's key scientific and social issues...his methodical analysis of topics such as induction and unity, his historical perspective on the Enlightenment, his opinions on string theory and his identification of the most important problems of living are absorbing and insightful."
Clare McNiven, Journal of Consciousness Studies

"Is science neurotic? Yes, says Nicholas Maxwell, and the sooner we acknowledge it and understand the reasons why, the better it will be for academic inquiry generally and, indeed, for the whole of humankind. This is a bold claim … But it is also realistic and deserves to be taken very seriously … My summary in no way does justice to the strength and detail of Maxwell's well crafted arguments … I found the book fascinating, stimulating and convincing … after reading this book, I have come to see the profound importance of its central message."
Dr. Mathew Iredale, The Philosopher's Magazine

"… the title Is Science Neurotic? could be rewritten to read Is Academe Neurotic? since this book goes far beyond the science wars to condemn, in large, sweeping gestures, all of modern academic inquiry. The sweeping gestures are refreshing and exciting to read in the current climate of specialised, technical, philosophical writing. Stylistically, Maxwell writes like someone following Popper or Feyerabend, who understood the philosopher to be improving the World, rather than contributing to a small piece of one of many debates, each of which can be understood only by the small number of its participants…. In spite of this, the argument is complex, graceful, and its finer points are quite subtle…. The book's final chapter calls for nothing less than revolution in academia, including the very meaning of academic life and work, as well as a list of the nine most serious problems facing the contemporary world - problems which it is the task of academia to articulate, analyse, and attempt to solve. This chapter sums up what the reader has felt all along: that this is not really a work of philosophy of science, but a work of 'Philosophy', which addresses 'Big Questions' and answers them without hesitation…. I enjoyed the book as a whole for its intelligence, courageous spirit, and refusal to participate in the specialisation and elitism of the current academic climate…. it is a book that can be enjoyed by any intelligent lay-reader. It is a good book to assign to students for these reasons, as well - it will get them thinking about questions like: What is science for? What is philosophy for? Why should we think? Why should we learn? How can academia contribute of the welfare of people? … the feeling with which this book leaves the reader [is] that these are the questions in which philosophy is grounded and which it ought never to attempt to leave behind."
Margret Grebowicz, Metascience

"Maxwell's fundamental idea is so obvious that it has escaped notice. But acceptance of the idea requires nothing short of a complete revolution for the disciplines. Science should become more intellectually honest about its metaphysical presuppositions and its involvement in contributing to human value. Following this first step it cures itself of its irrational repressed aims and is empowered to progress to a more civilized world."
Professor Leemon McHenry, Review of Metaphysics

"Maxwell argues that the metaphysical assumptions underlying present-day scientific inquiry, referred to as standard empiricism or SE, have led to ominous irrationality. Hence the alarmingly provocative title; hence also-the argument carries this far-the sad state of the world today. Nor is Maxwell above invoking, as a parallel example to science's besetting "neurosis," the irrational behavior of Oedipus as Freud saw him: unintentionally yet intentionally slaying his father for love of his mother (Mother Earth?). Maxwell proposes replacing SE with his own metaphysical remedy, aim-oriented empiricism, or AOE. Since science does not acknowledge metaphysical presumptions and therefore disallows questioning them - they are, by definition, outside the realm of scientific investigation - Maxwell has experienced, over the 30-plus years of his professional life, scholarly rejection, which perhaps explains his occasional shrill tone. But he is a passionate and, despite everything, optimistic idealist. Maxwell claims that AOE, if adopted, will help deal with major survival problems such as global warming, Third World poverty, and nuclear disarmament, and science itself will become wisdom-oriented rather than knowledge-oriented--a good thing. A large appendix, about a third of the book, fleshes the argument out in technical, epistemological terms. Summing Up: Recommended. General readers; graduate students; faculty."
Professor M. Schiff, Choice

Is Science Neurotic? … is a rare and refreshing text that convincingly argues for a new conception of scientific empiricism that demands a re-evaluation of what [science and philosophy] can contribute to one another and of what they, and all academia, can contribute to humanity… Is Science Neurotic? is primarily a philosophy of science text, but it is clear that Maxwell is also appealing to scientists. The clear and concise style of the text's four main chapters make them accessible to anyone even vaguely familiar with philosophical writing and physics… it is quite inspiring to read a sound critique of the fragmented state of academia and an appeal to academia to promote and contribute to social change.
Sarah Smellie, Canadian Undergraduate Physics Journal

"Maxwell's aspirations are extraordinarily and admirably ambitious. He intends to contribute towards articulating and bringing about a form of social progress that embodies rationality and wisdom... by raising the question of how to integrate science into wisdom-inquiry and constructing novel and challenging arguments in answer to it, Maxwell is drawing attention to issues that need urgent attention in the philosophy of science."
Professor Hugh Lacey, Mind

“Maxwell has written a very important book . . . Maxwell eloquently discusses the astonishing advances and the terrifying realities of science without global wisdom. While science has brought forth significant advancements for society, it has also unleashed the potential for annihilation. Wisdom is now, as he puts it, not a luxury but a necessity . . . Maxwell’s book is first-rate. It demonstrates his erudition and devotion to his ideal of developing wisdom in students. Maxwell expertly discusses basic problems in our intellectual goals and methods of inquiry.”
Professor Joseph Davidow, Learning for Democracy

Mick H

Well I find your response to my response very odd. Of course it's your review. It's under your name, even if you're quoting others. You give yourself 5 stars, even!

Certainly my remarks are glib. It's a blog post, and not an article in a philosophy journal. It seems apposite to me though to point out the question-begging nature of your concern that we should be seeking wisdom rather than just knowledge. It's a cliché. And who defines wisdom anyway?

And having downloaded onto Amazon anything positive anyone's ever said about your books, I'm not so happy that you're coming and doing the same thing in the comments here.

Nicholas Maxwell

You do at least admit that your comments are glib. You say "It seems apposite to me though to point out the question-begging nature of your concern that we should be seeking wisdom rather than just knowledge." Yet again, through ignorance of my work, you completely miss the point. My basic thesis and argument is independent of "wisdom", and is not remotely question-begging. In fact my first book spelling out the argument, "What's Wrong With Science?" (1976) doesn't use the word "wisdom" once. The argument is that, judged from the standpoint of being designed to help promote human welfare, inquiry devoted to the pursuit of knowledge is seriously and damagingly irrational. "Wisdom" is introduced as a technical term to mean "the capacity to realize what is of value in life for oneself and others", wisdom (so defined) thus including knowledge, technological know-how and understanding. "Realize" means both "make real" and "apprehend". I argue that "wisdom-inquiry" (the rational conception of inquiry I argue for) does better justice to both the intellectual and practical aspects of inquiry than "knowledge-inquiry" does (knowledge-inquiry being, roughly, what we have at present). You may well decide, however, that it is safer to keep your pose of glibness than do what you ought to do, look just a little bit further into my work and see just how appallingly you have misundertood and misrepresented it. A look at "The Basic Argument" on my website (www.nick-maxwell.demon.co.uk) should suffice.

Mick H

Well this is all very patronising. I notice you've dropped your complaints about Amazon, since it's a little hard to deny that you've been giving positive reviews to your own books. As for the rest, I remain unpersuaded that you're dealing in anything more - as I've already said - than clichés. Of course knowledge on its own is inadequate. Of course we need to use it wisely. Who would deny that? By claiming to be using "wisdom" as a technical term, you're dressing up banality as a profound philosophical exercise.

But I think we've got about as far as we're going to get on this. And yes, I've looked at your website, and the "Basic Argument", thanks.

Nicholas Maxwell

Of course I deny I have been giving positive reviews of my books. The positive reviews are by others, not me. As for your remark that I am dealing in mere cliches, wrong again. What I am arguing for has dramatic implications for the whole character and structure of academic inquiry, its overall aims and methods, its relationship with the rest of society. The details are in my books "From Knowledge to Wisdom", "Is Science Neurotic?" and "The Comprehensibility of the Universe", but a summary of some of the implications of my argument can be found on the website of an organization I founded called "Friends of Wisdom": see www.knowledgetowisdom.org. Here is a relevant passage:-

"The revolution we need would change every branch and aspect of academic inquiry. A basic intellectual task of academic inquiry would be to articulate our problems of living (personal, social and global) and propose and critically assess possible solutions, possible actions. This would be the task of social inquiry and the humanities. Tackling problems of knowledge would be secondary. Social inquiry would be at the heart of the academic enterprise, intellectually more fundamental than natural science. On a rather more long-term basis, social inquiry would be concerned to help humanity build cooperatively rational methods of problem-solving into the fabric of social and political life, so that we may gradually acquire the capacity to resolve our conflicts and problems of living in more cooperatively rational ways than at present. Natural science would change to include three domains of discussion: evidence, theory, and aims - the latter including discussion of metaphysics, values and politics. Academic inquiry as a whole would become a kind of people's civil service, doing openly for the public what actual civil services are supposed to do in secret for governments. Academia would actively seek to educate the public by means of discussion and debate, and would not just study the public.

"These changes are not arbitrary. They all come from demanding that academia cure its current structural irrationality, so that reason - the authentic article - may be devoted to promoting human welfare."

The claim that we urgently need, on intellectual and humanitarian grounds, to transform academia so that it comes to resemble the above, may be wrong, but it is not a cliche. What I am arguing for has dramatic and wide-ranging implications indeed.

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