Social epistemology

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P046-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

Social epistemology is the conceptual and normative study of the relevance to knowledge of social relations, interests and institutions. It is thus to be distinguished from the sociology of knowledge, which is an empirical study of the contingent social conditions or causes of what is commonly taken to be knowledge. Social epistemology revolves around the question of whether knowledge is to be understood individualistically or socially.

Epistemology has traditionally ascribed a secondary status to beliefs indebted to social relations – to testimony, expert authority, consensus, common sense and received wisdom. Such beliefs could attain the status of knowledge, if at all, only by being based on first-hand knowledge – that is, knowledge justified by the experience or reason of the individual knower.

Since the work of the common sense Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid in the mid-eighteenth century, epistemologists have from time to time taken seriously the idea that beliefs indebted to social relations have a primary and not merely secondary epistemic status. The bulk of work in social epistemology has, however, been done since Thomas Kuhn depicted scientific revolutions as involving social changes in science. Work on the subject since 1980 has been inspired by the ‘strong programme’ in the sociology of science, by feminist epistemology and by the naturalistic epistemology of W.V. Quine. These influences have inspired epistemologists to rethink the role of social relations – especially testimony – in knowledge. The subject that has emerged may be divided into three branches: the place of social factors in the knowledge possessed by individuals; the organization of individuals’ cognitive labour; and the nature of collective knowledge, including common sense, consensus and common, group, communal and impersonal knowledge.

    Citing this article:
    Schmitt, Frederick F.. Social epistemology, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P046-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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