The growth of knowledge in societies throughout history has had one common trend, whether in the ancient Kingdoms of Asia, Africa and what is known today as Latin America or in the Europe of the “Dark Ages”. That unique similarity, in the days of Socrates, was called “dialogue” or what is known in contemporary linguistic schools as “debate”. The importance of debate as “a pedagogical device” in crystallizing issues has led some universities such as Oxford to encourage students, before leaving their walls, to eagerly participate in the school’s debate clubs as a way of sharpening their intellectual skills. In pre-colonial Africa, when participatory democracy was the norm, this critical exchange of views was conducted under the famous palaver hut, indicating that the adjective “palaver” should not give a one-sided interpretation of the multi-functions of that hall of discussion to simply imply the settling of disputes. Today, linguists have decided to call the process of discussing an issue on which people disagree as “debate”. The rationale of the intellectual importance of the palaver hut as the site or forum for the fertilization of ideas and the growth of knowledge can be seen at the famous University of Liberia’s (UL) palaver huts, where sometimes, when debates are so fierce but polite, the twin huts are almost fearsome arena for those who lack the courage to engage in such a contest of ideas. Similarly the discursive analyses of the men and women who daily quizzed each other in tea bars known as “atayee cafes” on Benson Street in Monrovia cannot be dismissed off hand as rubbish; but rather as an immense contribution to the growth of public awareness on critical issues.
In this light, the importance of “debate” in the growth of public knowledge in today’s Liberia can equally be seen within the context of the fruitful exchanges on “the numerical rankings of Liberian Presidents” that took place in the Perspective journal recently between Dr. D. Elwood Dunn and Dr. William E. Allen. The core of the issue at stake in the debate, from a careful reading of their exchanges, is to find an agreeable or common index for the ranking of the presidents of Liberia, since 1847 (Allen, 2005; Dunn, 2005a; 2005b). This exercise, in my opinion and many would support me, is extremely important and then relevant for post-war Liberia in correcting one of the many distortions in the historiography of the country in which a few “heroes” are glorified at the expense of the spectacular achievements of their many lesser known compatriots. However, at this interesting juncture of reassessing our past to guide the present, as if untouched by his country’s biased and turbulent history, a voice of objection has been raised by Mr. Tarnue Johnson, who immediately dismisses the entire process as a useless effort and as such “A Dialogue of Much Ado about Little” (Johnson, 2005). The young Liberian educator, in condemning this important chapter in Liberian history bases his arguments on the works of numerous philosophers from Immanuel Kant to Jacques Derrida to support his claim. In essence, one cannot comment on Mr. Tarnue Johnson’s assertion without a close reading of the same publications of the key intellectuals who, in the past, similar to Prof. Dunn and Dr. Allen’s heated debate, had much faith in intellectual discourses as a means of learning from their mistakes.
Against this backdrop, without boring the reader with the rhetoric of the history and philosophy of science and all its abstract jargons, I will support my comments that the Dunn-Allen dialogue is both important and relevant for post-war Liberia by making repeated references also to the famous philosophical works of Professors Thomas S. Kuhn and Karl R. Popper listed by Mr. Tarnue Johnson in his references. In so doing, I will link the two philosophers’ four-decade-old debate (in 1965) with the current exchanges between Prof. Dunn and Dr. Allen – one, an older and renowned and career political scientist and the other, a younger, curious and brilliant historian. I have chosen this linkage to make a comparison in the Liberian context, because in the early 1960s, the younger Dr. Thomas Kuhn (43) challenged the older Dr. Karl Popper (63) in a famous debate at Bedford College, University of London on a number of methodological issues in philosophy which are beyond this paper (see Fuller, 2000). To defend his position, Thomas Kuhn, in the absence of the almighty internet, had to leave Harvard University to travel across the Atlantic Ocean, with due respect for his older opponent, to Bedford College, where the older professor was the Chair and unrivaled guru of philosophy in Europe. But in the case of the older Dr. Dunn and the younger Dr. Allen, thanks to the internet and Bill Gates and his colleagues, the latter did not have to leave his warm weather in Atlanta to face his older opponent in the cold auditorium of The University of the South in Sewanee Tennessee. Instead, technology has made matters much more easier for both men and their online audience. In this historical reference, contrary to Mr. Tarnue Johnson’s claim, I will therefore look at the similarity between the Kuhn-Popper and the Dunn-Allen debates and their contributions to the growth of public knowledge in their respective contexts.
Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper and The Dunn-Allen Debate
To preempt the question, ‘what Kuhn and Popper have do with the Dunn-Allen debate?’, the answer is simple: I have deliberately chosen these two scholars, Kuhn and Popper, from the roster of scholars cited by Mr. Johnson, because, without elaborating, he includes their publications in his references to buttress his argument. That is, “to separate the wheat from the chaff” so as not to make the reader lose track of my comment, it is better to use the same sources for easy comparative reading in making my case, given some degree of similarity between the two episodes. In other words, four decades ago on 13 July 1965 at Bedford College, University of London something dramatic in the world of philosophy happened, which departments of philosophy in western universities could not ignore because of its far-reaching implications (Fuller, 2000:xv). That event was a debate between a historian of science (Dr. Thomas Samuel Kuhn of Harvard University) and a philosopher of science (Dr. Karl Raimund Popper of the University of London) that resulted from their important books on the philosophy and methodology of science. The American Thomas S. Kuhn (1922-96) published his famous work “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” in 1962, while the Austrian-born Karl R. Popper (1902-94) wrote his seminal book “Logic of Scientific Discovery” in German in1934, which was translated into English in 1959. The entire intellectual fight between these two men and their supporters across the Atlantic which was dubbed as “the struggle for the soul of science” (Fuller, 2000: Ch. II) had to do with their respective methodological approaches in the theory of knowledge also known as “epistemology” in philosophy. In this context, Prof. Popper introduced two arguments as to why a scientific theory is accepted and others are rejected. That is, according to Popper, scientific theory develops, because (1) it goes through “trial and error” known as “evolutionary epistemology”, since, overtime, it benefits from constructive criticism as we have seen in the case of the Dunn-Allen debate; and (2) in coining the concept “falsification”, Popper argues that scientific theory is nothing but a bundle of hypotheses that should be tested against prevailing facts to see if they are true or false (see Popper, 1962: 231; for a brief but insightful account of the debate, see Hughes, 1990:Ch. 4:70-86). In this light, aside from his classic work on falsification in 1959, “The Logic of Scientific Discovery”, the title of Popper’s second important philosophical text on the issue, “Conjectures and Refutations”, also sums up his thesis. In this text, Popper entitles Chapter 4 “Falsifiability”, where he forcefully argues his thesis (see Popper, 1963).
On the contrary, Thomas Kuhn, defending his “Paradigm Shift” thesis in his landmark book “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” that has since become the ‘New Testament’ for philosophy students, refuted both claims by Prof. Popper as useful criteria for the growth of science (see Hughes, 1990: 71). In his contention, Kuhn also introduces the concept of “normal science” or “paradigm” in philosophy, which he defines as “an accepted model or pattern” for problem solving in science (Kuhn, 1962: Ch.II:10). Thus, unlike the “trial and error” or “falsificationist” and “evolutionary epistemology” approaches of Popper, Kuhn says new “Paradigms gain their [superior] status because they are more successful than their competitors in solving a few problems that a group of practitioners has come to recognize as acute”(ibid.: 23). To add more flesh to his paradigm shift argument, Kuhn then explains that scientific achievements by great minds such as Copernicus, Newton, Lavoisier and Einstein which are known as “scientific revolutions” fall within the paradigm shift criterion, because each scientist’s discovery overthrown an older and outdated theory (ibid.: Ch.I: 6; for a forceful argument of this point, see Ch. VII 66-76). Synoptically, as the title of Chapter X of Kuhn’s book testifies, “Revolutions [in scientific theories] as Changes in World View”, this implies that new approaches in methodologies affect those in the field who are skilled in the old techniques. That is, according to the Kuhnian perspective, in a competitive world of ideas, a change in a model of knowledge production always leads to a new approach quite different from the old mode of analysis, giving clearer understanding to the problem to be solved. This clearly resonates with what has led to the formulation of the “joint statement” put forward by Prof. Dunn and Dr. Allen in the final analysis of their debate, agreeing that Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is undisputedly the 24th President of the Republic of Liberia (see Dunn and Allen, 2005).
What has the Dunn-Allen Debate Taught Us as Liberians in 2005?
The growth of public knowledge in every society, in the Kuhnian sense, is the result of meaningful dialogues on critical issues. The young Thomas Kuhn, refusing to exploit what he calls the “utility of confrontation” because of his admiration for Dr. Karl Popper, however, musters the courage, like Dr. William E. Allen against Dr. Dunn, to disagree with him on principled issues (see Kuhn, 1970: 1). Thus, the “utility” derived from such fruitful exchanges such as the Kuhn-Popper confrontation (in 1965) and the Dunn-Allen debate (in 2005) are somehow similar. In other words, the end-result of the debate between Professors Kuhn and Popper, to benefit millions of social science students, was compiled by the chairman of the debate (Prof. Imre Lakatos of the London School of Economics) in the form a book which, in accordance with the logic of my assertion, was precisely entitled “Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge” (see Lakatos and Musgrave, eds., 1970). This book which has gone through its twentieth reprint in 1999 has found and continue to find a permanent resting place in the study of almost all social science students, because of its rich contents and historical value. Similarly, in the Liberian context, the “utility” or benefit that Liberian educators, students and even the ordinary Liberians have derived from the Dunn-Allen confrontation is an insightful historical record and an agreeable way of looking back proudly at our rich and enviable history in assigning credits to the past heroic men and women who deserve them. In the Kuhnian language, the new methodology for the analysis of “presidential successions” now and in the future is undeniably a “paradigm shift” for Liberian historians, while Popperian “falsificationists” would also say that the critical reaction of Dr. William E. Allen that this “evolving debate” cannot be resolved without concrete facts to convince the Liberian people (Allen, 2005) and the immediate archival findings by Dr. D. Elwood Dunn to both modify and defend his position have falsified the outdated mode of historical analysis by the old school of thought in Liberian history (see Dunn, 2005b; Dunn and Allen, 2005); hence, the relevance for a new systematic approach in this particular phase of Liberian history. Additionally, the findings of both Drs. Dunn and Allen is a welcome chapter in post-war Liberian history, when political awareness is heightened and the veil of ethnicity has been brutally torn into pieces so much so that, nowadays in our country, nothing can be taken for granted. That is, as Dr. Allen’s argument implies, using the Derridaian perspective of critical discourse, Liberians will no longer accept easily what they read but to critically analyze it, as we try to unravel the problematic of our heritage (on this “deconstructionist” way of thinking, see Derrida, 1976: 289).
Another encouraging aspect of the entire dialogue is that, for those who have had the unfortunate experience of being shouted down or ostracized for being “inquisitive” or posing embarrassing but useful questions to superiors or “bossman” for clarity, the Dunn-Allen debate has shown that in the new Liberia even intellectual giants should be prepared to climb down from their “ivory towers” to humbly put aside their age and titles to submit their public statements for critical scrutiny without the inquirer being subjected to bigotry and the arrogant questions: “Do you know who I am?” or “You know whom you are talking to?”. Aside from its immense historical and pedagogic value to students in Liberia and undergraduate and graduate students of Liberian studies and researchers, the result of this insightful debate also confirms the old advice of Ecclesiastes (4.9) that “two [minds] are better than one”. That is, in the atmosphere of candid and open-minded discussion shown by both men, many Liberians and even Liberianists outside of the country have broadened their understanding of that important section of the Liberian constitutional history. And given that Mr. Tarnue Johnson was a student in the former Soviet Union, he ought to know that one of the main causes of the decline and demise of that great country and its East European allies was their leadership’s flouting of their own golden rule of “criticism and self-criticism” by stifling dissent. As a consequence, the once enviable intellectual and scientific achievements of Soviet and East European scholarship was destroyed.
In short, the sustainable transformation of the Liberian society is not only economic and the building of physical infrastructure but the rectification and reconciliation of the many years of wrong that many of our fellow citizens have sadly experienced, because of either their class or ethnic position, in spite of their capabilities and tangible contributions, to borrow the phrase of the late Liberian philosopher and President Dr. William Richard Tolbert, Jr., to “a wholesome functioning society” in Liberia. In essence, every facet of what constitutes a genuine post-war reconstruction process and participatory democracy in 21st century Liberia, which involves the changing of our mindset to accommodate constructive criticisms for the sake of democracy, peace and progress with all its ramifications should be encouraged as Prof. Dunn and Dr. Allen have also remarkably demonstrated through their struggle for what I may also call the soul of Liberian history. As such, when Liberian history begs for fuller treatment, these true critical social theorists and patriotic Liberians must be praised for their shining example for defeating pride and putting their country first, which exercise should be praised and not hastily condemned as useless. And as honest Liberians wittily say: “give a man or a woman his or her flowers, while he or she is alive”. So, BRAVO Prof. Dunn and Dr. Allen !
Allen, William E. (2005) The 23rd or Not the 23rd:
The Evolving Debate on Ranking Liberian Presidents.
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Dunn, D. Elwood and William E. Allen (2005) Mrs. Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson is the 24th President. Online: URL:http://www.theperspective.org/articles/1223200501.html
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