DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P059-3
Version: v3,  Published online: 2021
Retrieved April 21, 2024, from

8. Social epistemology

Whereas traditional epistemology has been largely concerned with the individual knower, conceived as a more or less independent and self-sufficient inquirer, contemporary epistemology has taken a decidedly social turn. Specifically, social epistemology is concerned with varieties of social epistemic dependence; i.e., the ways in which knowledge depends on other persons, and on other features of the social environment.

One consequence of this social turn is increased attention to the epistemology of testimony. It is widely recognized that a great deal of our knowledge depends on testimony, either directly or indirectly. An adequate epistemology, then, should account for the nature and functioning of testimonial knowledge. One important issue here is whether testimonial knowledge reduces to knowledge of some other kind. For example, David Hume thought that testimonial knowledge was simply a kind of inductive knowledge, based on prior evidence regarding when speakers are likely or not to tell the truth. A number of contemporary epistemologists have embraced Hume’s reductionism, whereas others have insisted that testimonial evidence and testimonial knowledge are sui generis, or irreducible to some other kind.

An important objection to reductionism is that it makes testimonial knowledge too hard. Specifically, the inductive evidence that reductionism requires seems unavailable in many cases, especially if we keep in mind that such evidence must be a) ultimately independent of testimony, and b) good enough to ground knowledge. An important objection to anti-reductionist theories, in turn, is that they make testimonial knowledge too easy. For example, a number of anti-reductionist theories emphasize the role of trust in testimonial knowledge. The objection is that trust, as opposed to evidence, seems incapable of grounding knowledge.

Another important issue in the epistemology of testimony concerns the transmission of knowledge through testimony and related mediums, such as traditional media and education. Suppose that sources such as perception, reflection, and reasoning generate or produce knowledge. Should testimony be understood as an additional generative source, or is the function of testimony (and related mediums) to transmit knowledge rather than generate it? A number of philosophers have argued that the transmission of knowledge is a distinctive epistemic phenomenon, irreducible to knowledge generation and requiring its own theoretical treatment. From this perspective, traditional epistemology has been largely concerned with the generation of knowledge rather than the transmission of knowledge, thereby ignoring an essential epistemic phenomenon. (See also Testimony.)

A second focus of social epistemology is the epistemic functioning of social systems, such as legal, educational, scientific, and political systems. An important issue here concerns the ways in which organizational or structural features of such systems serve to enable or undermine good epistemic functioning. For example, a number of philosophers have argued that democracies are superior to alternative political systems from an epistemic point of view. It is a controversial and interesting question, however, regarding which features of democracies are epistemically advantageous. (See also Epistemology of education; Legal evidence and inference.)

Another concern of social epistemology is the nature and functioning of group knowledge and group knowers. It is commonplace in ordinary language to attribute knowledge to corporations, nations and other groups; for example, that the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company knows that smoking causes cancer. Does this kind of claim imply a group knower (the company) over and above individual knowers within the company who know? Whether or not group knowers and group knowledge are ‘irreducible’ to individual knowers and knowledge, interesting questions arise regarding how group knowers and knowledge function, and how these are related to individual knowers and knowledge. (See also Collective intentionality.)

Another area of social epistemology investigates important relations among epistemic standing and social-political standing. This kind of investigation has its roots in feminist epistemology and some forms of critical theory, including critical race theory (see Feminist epistemology; Critical theory). One important issue in this domain is the epistemic relevance of social location. For example, it is obvious that various forms of marginalization involve epistemic disadvantages, such as restricted access to quality education and to important information sources. However, feminist standpoint theory has long argued that marginalization entails epistemic advantages as well. For example, from a marginalized position it is easier to see through distortions and biases that function to preserve existing power and privilege. A related issue concerns the relationship between social-political standing and epistemic agency, including the rights and responsibilities afforded to one as a knower. For example, social epistemologists have investigated various forms of epistemic injustice; i.e., ways in which persons can be unjustly harmed in their capacity as knowers. Related issues concern relationships among social status, intellectual authority, and expertise.

Finally, social epistemology often takes the form of ‘applied’ epistemology; for example, by investigating the epistemology of information bubbles, echo chambers, fake news, and other problematic features of contemporary social-political discourse. Here as elsewhere, the project is to understand the epistemic dimensions of these phenomena, but also to put forward strategies for amelioration. (See also Collective intentionality; Epistemology of education; Feminist epistemology; Social epistemology; Testimony.)

Citing this article:
Greco, John. Social epistemology. Epistemology, 2021, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P059-3. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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