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Social epistemology

DOI: 10.4324/0123456789-P046-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved June 21, 2024, from

Article Summary

Social epistemology encompasses the study of the social dimensions of knowledge acquisition and transmission (Palermos and Pritchard 2013), the evaluation of beliefs and belief-forming mechanisms in their social contexts for their truth-related or veritistic features (Goldman 1999; Goldman and Blanchard 2016), and the study of the epistemic significance of other minds (Goldberg 2016a).

The relation of social epistemology to traditional epistemology, as pursued in the analytic tradition, is also a matter of debate (Palermos and Pritchard 2013). Philosophers working in critical and cultural studies of science understand social epistemology as an interdisciplinary framework for the study of knowledge from historical, cultural, and sociological perspectives (Fuller 1988). They propose that this approach should supplant traditional epistemology. Philosophers trained within the analytic approach consider social epistemology to mark an expansion of more traditional accounts. It would either be a new branch of epistemology, or offer a new paradigm for its pursuit (Goldman 1999).

A useful lens through which to understand some social dimensions of knowledge acquisition and transmission is to think of these dimensions as relations of epistemic dependence. Starting from Descartes, epistemologists have often praised exclusive self-reliance in knowledge acquisition as an ideal. Social epistemology is the study of those ways of gaining and communicating knowledge where the subject is not self-reliant but dependent on other agents or on tools that scaffold or extend her cognitive abilities (Pritchard 2010; Sterelny 2010; Palermos and Prichard 2013). Thus, testimony (Gelfert 2014), expert testimony (Goldman 2011), and peer disagreement (Kelly 2005) have been extensively studied by social epistemologists.

Another area of concern for social epistemology is the impact of individuals’ social identities, roles, or locations on their epistemic lives. These impacts are diverse; for example, they affect which experiential knowledge individuals are likely to acquire; their ability to access evidence or information; and the amount of credibility that they are granted as informants (Fricker 2007). This social dimension of knowledge has been long studied by feminist epistemologists, and it has been at the core of lively debates about epistemic injustice (Fricker 2007).

Two additional branches of social epistemology study systems and institutions designed to facilitate knowledge transmission acquisition and collectives such as groups or teams as epistemic agents. Researchers working in these areas are concerned with collective and distributed knowledge, with the division of epistemic labor, and with the effects of the Internet on knowledge and understanding.

Finally, and most recently, social epistemologists have become concerned with the obverse of knowledge: ignorance. Some of the pioneering work in this area has been carried out by feminist epistemologists and critical race theorists concerned with what they perceive as systemic features of epistemic communities which were instrumental in the widespread preservation of ignorance about a vast array of inconvenient truths (Mills 2007; Tuana 2006).

Citing this article:
Tanesini, Alessandra. Social epistemology, 2017, doi:10.4324/0123456789-P046-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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