Social Epistemology

Rina Aizawa
Social Epistemology

Since the early 1980s, social epistemology has become an important field in Anglo-American philosophy. It encompasses a wide variety of approaches, all of which regard the investigation of social aspects of inquiry to be relevant to discussions of justification and knowledge.

The approaches range from the conservative acknowledgment that individual thinkers are aided by others in their pursuits of truth to the radical view that both the goals of inquiry and the manner in which those goals are attained are profoundly social.

Individualistic rather than social epistemologies have dominated philosophical discourse since at least the time of Descartes. The writings of Mill, Peirce, Marx, Dewey, and Wittgenstein, which began to develop social epistemologies, are among a few exceptions to individualistic approaches.

Miri Miyasaka

They had little effect on epistemological work at the time they were published. Even the move to naturalism, taken by many epistemologists after W. V. Quine’s polemics in its favor, persisted—quite unnecessarily—in individualistic assumptions about the nature of knowledge and justification.

Quine argued in “Epistemology Naturalized” that epistemologists should attend to actual, rather than ideal, conditions of production of knowledge but he concluded that “epistemology ... falls into place as a chapter of psychology,” ignoring the sociology of knowledge altogether.

Movements outside of epistemology motivated and cleared the way for social epistemology. First and most important, the proliferation of interdisciplinary research on social aspects of scientific change following the publication of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions pressured naturalistic epistemologists to take sociology of knowledge seriously.

Barry Barnes
Barry Barnes

In particular, the skeptical and relativistic conclusions of sociologists and anthropologists of science—among them Barry Barnes, David Bloor, Steven Shapin, Simon Schaffer, Bruno Latour, Steve Woolgar, Harry Collins, Karin Knorr-Cetina, and Andrew Pickering—moved naturalistic epistemologists of science— including Ronald Giere, Larry Laudan, Philip Kitcher, and Paul Thagard—to take social accounts of scientific change seriously yet to draw their own epistemic conclusions.

Second, influential work during the late 1970s in the philosophy of language and philosophy of mind— core fields of philosophy—by Hilary Putnam, Tyler Burge, and others eschewed individualism and began producing social accounts. A more general openness to social approaches in philosophy followed.

Range of Social Epistemologies

Social epistemologies vary along several dimensions. First, they may emphasize either the procedures or the goals of inquiry. Whether the emphasis is on procedures or goals, the range here is as large as the range in epistemology as a whole: from consensus practices to critical engagement to truth to pragmatic success to socially constituted goals.

Rina Ikeuchi
Steven Shapin

Second, attempts to follow the procedures or attain the goals are evaluated for different units of inquiry. Some social epistemologists evaluate the attempts of individual human beings, assessing the influence of social processes on individual reasoning and decision making. Others evaluate the aggregate efforts of groups of people who may work together or separately.

Social epistemologies also tend to investigate particular domains and/or to work at particular levels of generality. Many (for example, Giere, David Hull, Kitcher, Helen Longino, Miriam Solomon, and Thagard) are social epistemologists of science rather than of ordinary knowledge or some other area of specialized knowledge.

Feminist epistemologists (for example, Donna Haraway, Lynn Hankinson Nelson, and Naomi Scheman) look at the gender-relatedness of methodologies or assumptions in several fields, not only those explicitly dealing with sex or sex roles.

Bruno Latour
Bruno Latour

Alvin Goldman (1992, 1999, 2002) works in the widest range of domains—from science to law to education to politics—and moves from the most general considerations of epistemics (in which he argues that truth is the ultimate epistemic goal) to the most concrete practical considerations (in which, for example, he argues that the common-law system is veritistically inferior to the Continental civil law system). Many social epistemologists work primarily at the general (abstract) level in their studies of areas such as testimony (Coady 1992), trust (Hardwig 1991), and knowledge (Kusch 2002).

Two journals are devoted to publishing material in social epistemology, Social Epistemology (1986–) and Episteme (2004–); many other journals publish special issues and individual articles in the area.

Procedures or Goals of Inquiry

Longino’s normative approach is to evaluate the procedures of a knowledge community. Her “critical contextual empiricism” (2002) evaluates four features of the knowledge community: the “tempered” equality of intellectual authority (equality moderated by deference for expertise), presence of forums for criticism, some shared norms (including empirical success in a scientific community), and responsiveness to criticism.

The secret entrance to Mordor :) - Prachov Rocks / Czech Republic (by jidhash).
Procedures or Goals of Inquiry

Normative judgments will be of epistemic communities rather than of individuals and will be positive for communities following the appropriate procedures, irrespective of outcome.

Goldman, Kitcher, and Hilary Kornblith all take truth (or significant truth) to be the central goal of all kinds of inquiry. They assess various social processes and practices for their conduciveness to truth attainment.

For example, Goldman (1992) shows that in some situations, such as some legal contexts, groups reach the truth more reliably when some true information is deliberately withheld from them—for example, misleading prejudicial information.

Avocado tree (Persea americana) flowers
Alvin Goldman

So Goldman concludes that social epistemologists need to think about communication control, for paternalistic epistemic reasons. Goldman (1992, 1999) and Kitcher (1993) explore the consequences of intellectual rivalry and credit seeking in science.

They both conclude that rivalry and credit seeking can lead scientists to distribute their cognitive effort well over the available research approaches, coming to a veritistic conclusion more quickly than they otherwise would.

Kornblith (in Schmitt 1994) argues that the widespread practice of deference to experts may be reliable in one social setting and unreliable in another, depending on the institutions through which a society confers the title of “expert.”

Donna Haraway
Donna Haraway

Some hold that, although truth is the ultimate epistemic goal, it is mediated by coherence of belief. They examine social processes for their conduciveness to coherence. For example, Keith Lehrer (1990) argues that individual reasoning yields more coherent belief if it makes use of all the information residing in a community;

Thagard (1993) argues that delays in the transmission of information across a community can be conducive to a good distribution of cognitive labor and thereby eventually to maximal explanatory coherence and truth.

Although most social epistemologists who employ normative goals regard truth as the most important epistemic goal, there is a range of other, less traditional, positions. Giere (1988), for example, claims that the goal of scientific inquiry is theories that model the world rather than directly correspond to it and that social practices such as credit seeking should be assessed for their conduciveness to producing good models.

Chongmyo Plaza - Cloud Atlas concept by Adam Kuczek
Keith Lehrer

Solomon (2001) argues that scientific theories aim for empirical success. Steve Fuller (2002) writes of a range of epistemic goals espoused by scientific communities and argues that those goals should themselves be debated by scientists.

The most radical position on epistemic goals is one that claims that our social epistemic practices construct truths rather than discover them and, furthermore, negotiate the goals of inquiry rather than set them in some nonarbitrary manner.

Work in the “strong program” in sociology of science during the 1970s and 1980s— notably by Barnes and Bloor, Latour and Woolgar, Shapin and Schaffer, Latour and Woolgar, and Collins and Trevor Pinch—was frequently guided by such social constructivism. (Recent work in the sociology of science is usually more philosophically sophisticated: See, for example, Shapin [1994].)

Steve Fuller - Madrid, Spain
Steve Fuller

Most contemporary social epistemologists in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition are motivated by their disagreement with the social constructivist tradition, and they argue for the less radical positions just described.

The Distribution of Cognitive Labor

The distribution of cognitive labor is a common theme in social epistemology and is a link between social epistemology and evolutionary epistemology. It is wasteful to duplicate the efforts of others, beyond the minimum required to check robustness of results. It is most efficient to have different individuals or research groups pursue different avenues of inquiry, especially when, as is usually the case, there is more than one promising direction to follow.

Hull (1988), following the founder of evolutionary epistemology, Donald Campbell, was one of the first to apply this idea in the social epistemology of science, where he argued that new theories are like new organisms—produced by random variation on past theories—where only the fittest survive. And there is no way of knowing in advance which theory will be the fittest.

Trevor Pinch - India
Trevor Pinch

Others have also given accounts of how cognitive labor is distributed, although they have not emphasized the evolutionary analogy. Kitcher (1993) and Goldman (1992, 1999) have argued that the desire for credit leads to an effective division of cognitive labor; Thagard (1993) has argued that the same result is achieved by delays in dissemination of information; Giere (1988) thinks that interests and variation in cognitive resources distribute research effort;

Solomon (2001) has argued that cognitive biases such as salience, availability, and representativeness can result in effective distribution of belief and thereby of research effort. (Not all these stories are, of course, true; some combination of them may be.) For all of the aforementioned thinkers, it is the distribution of cognitive labor across a community that is epistemically valuable rather than the decisions of any particular individual.

Cognitive labor can be divided not only for discovery and development of new ideas but also for storage of facts, theories, and techniques that are widely accepted. Just as books contain information that no individual could retain, information is also stored in communities in ways that are accessible to most or all members of that community but could not be duplicated within each head.

The Distribution of Cognitive Labor - Yua Shinkawa
The Distribution of Cognitive Labor

One important way in which this is brought about is when people with expertise on different subjects—or with different experiences or techniques—increase the knowledge within a community.

Knowledge and expertise is thus socially distributed. Edwin Hutchins’s account of navigation (1995), in which skills and knowledge are distributed across the officers and enlisted men on board a naval vessel, is an example of this process.

A final way in which cognitive labor can be distributed is for the process of coming to consensus. In traditional philosophies of science, consensus is presented as the outcome of the identical decision of each member of a scientific community:

Donald Campbell
Donald Campbell

A good consensus is the result of each scientist choosing the best theory through the same process, and a bad consensus is the result of each scientist choosing the wrong theory through the same inappropriate process. Of course, this is just the simplest model of group consensus formation, and it presumes the same starting point, the same endpoint, and the same processes of change.

The only time that the members of the group may differ is during the period of dissent, when, as Hull (1998, p. 521) would say, a thousand theories may bloom. Giere, Hull, Kitcher, and others would also say that, when coming to consensus, each scientist picks the same theory for the same overriding good reasons.

Other accounts of consensus formation in which cognitive labor is distributed include that of Hussein Sarkar (1983), who finds that different scientists may select the same theory for different good reasons, and Solomon (2001), who finds that, although individual scientists may make biased and idiosyncratic decisions, there is a social perspective from which to evaluate the overall normativity of the decisions.

The Units of Inquiry

The Units of Inquiry
The Units of Inquiry

Who knows? And who is justified in his or her knowledge? Nelson (1990) argues provocatively that only societies can really know. Some social epistemologists consider the outcomes of social epistemic processes for individuals and some for communities.

The most conservative social epistemologies look only at the effects of social processes on individual reasoning and knowledge. For example, Kornblith (in Schmitt 1994) looks at those circumstances under which one scientist can judge that it is reasonable to rely on the expertise of another scientist.

Coady’s work on the role of testimony (1992) argues that individuals are typically justified in relying on the word of others. The claim is that individual human beings reason better when placed in favorable epistemic social situations. Epistemic terms such as “knows” and “is justified” are applied to individual human beings.

Hussein Sarkar
Hussein Sarkar

More radically, social groups can be understood as having emergent epistemic qualities that are due to something other than the epistemic properties of their members. Gilbert (1989) argues that group knowledge need have no coincidences with the knowledge ascribed to individual members of the group.

Longino (1990, 2002) presents four conditions for objective knowledge that are satisfied by (some) knowledge societies rather than by individuals: tempered equality of intellectual authority, forums for criticism, responsiveness to criticism, and some shared values of inquiry.

Nelson (1990) argues that communities set the standards of evidence and are the primary knowers. Kusch’s “communitarian epistemology” (2002) argues for a similar conclusion through a performative analysis of testimony. Goldman (1999) shows that some kinds of social organization (for example, that of the American justice system) lead to poorer results than other kinds (for example, the Continental justice system).

intellectual authority - Yeon Ji Eun
intellectual authority

Schmitt (1994) argues that group justificatory processes can achieve, through interactions, more than the sum of individual justifications. Solomon (2001) shows that differently organized scientific communities make better and worse scientific decisions.
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