Social epistemology

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Social epistemology refers to a broad set of approaches that can be taken in the study of knowledge that construes human knowledge as a collective achievement. Another way of characterizing social epistemology is as the evaluation of the social dimensions of knowledge or information. [1] It is sometimes simplified to mean a social justification of belief. [1]

Knowledge is a familiarity, awareness, or understanding of someone or something, such as facts, information, descriptions, or skills, which is acquired through experience or education by perceiving, discovering, or learning.


One of the enduring difficulties with defining "social epistemology" that arises is the attempt to determine what the word "knowledge" means in this context. There is also a challenge in arriving at a definition of "social" which satisfies academics from different disciplines. [1] Social epistemologists may exist working in many of the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, most commonly in philosophy and sociology. In addition to marking a distinct movement in traditional and analytic epistemology, social epistemology is associated with the interdisciplinary field of science and technology studies (STS).

Philosophy The rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Such questions are often posed as problems to be studied or resolved. The term was probably coined by Pythagoras. Philosophical methods include questioning, critical discussion, rational argument, and systematic presentation. Classic philosophical questions include: Is it possible to know anything and to prove it? What is most real? Philosophers also pose more practical and concrete questions such as: Is there a best way to live? Is it better to be just or unjust? Do humans have free will?

Sociology Scientific study of human society and its origins, development, organizations, and institutions

Sociology is a study of society, patterns of social relationships, social interaction and culture of everyday life. It is a social science that uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about social order, acceptance, and change or social evolution. Sociology is also defined as the general science of society. While some sociologists conduct research that may be applied directly to social policy and welfare, others focus primarily on refining the theoretical understanding of social processes. Subject matter ranges from the micro-sociology level of individual agency and interaction to the macro level of systems and the social structure.

Epistemology A branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge.


The consideration of social dimensions of knowledge in relation to philosophy started in 380 B.C.E with Plato's dialogue: Charmides. In it he questions the degree of certainty an unprofessional in a field can have towards a person's claim to be a specialist in that same field. As the exploration of a dependence on authoritative figures constitutes a part of the study of social epistemology, it confirms the existence of the ideology in minds long before it was given its label.

The Charmides is a dialogue of Plato, in which Socrates engages a handsome and popular boy in a conversation about the meaning of sophrosyne, a Greek word usually translated into English as "temperance", "self-control", or "restraint". As is typical with Platonic early dialogues, the two never arrive at a completely satisfactory definition, but the discussion nevertheless raises many important points.

In 1936, Karl Mannheim turned Karl Marx's theory of ideology (which interpreted the "social" aspect in epistemology to be of a political or sociological nature) into an analysis of how the human society develops and functions in this respect.

Karl Mannheim Hungarian-German philosopher and sociologist

Karl Mannheim was an influential German sociologist during the first half of the 20th century. He was a founding father of classical sociology, as well as idea of sociology of knowledge. Mannheim is known for Ideology and Utopia (1929) wherein he argues that ideologies are representative of the true nature of a society, and that, in trying to achieve a utopia, the dogmas of ideology affect the intellectual integrity of theories of philosophy and theories of history.

Karl Marx German philosopher, economist, historian, sociologist, political theorist and journalist

Karl Marx was a German philosopher, economist, historian, sociologist, political theorist, journalist and socialist revolutionary.

It was not until the 1970s that there was a powerful growth of interest amongst philosophers in topics such as epistemic value of testimony, the nature and function of expertise, proper distribution of cognitive labor and resources among individuals in the communities and the status of group reasoning and knowledge.

The rise of social epistemology

The term "social epistemology" was firstly used by the library scientists Margaret Egan and Jesse Shera in the 1950s. Steven Shapin also used it in 1979. However, it was not until the late 1980s that its current sense began to emerge. In 1987, the philosophical journal Synthese published a special issue on social epistemology which included two authors that have since taken the branch of epistemology in two divergent directions: Alvin Goldman and Steve Fuller. [2] Fuller founded a journal called Social Epistemology: A journal of knowledge, culture, and policy in 1987 and published his first book, Social Epistemology, in 1988. Goldman's Knowledge in a Social World came out in 1999. Goldman advocates for a type of epistemology which is sometimes called "veritistic epistemology" because of its large emphasis on truth. [3] This type of epistemology is sometimes seen to side with "essentialism" as opposed to "multiculturalism". [3] But Goldman has argued that this association between veritistic epistemology and essentialism is not necessary. [3] He describes Social Epistemology as knowledge derived from one's interactions with another person, group or society.

Jesse Shera American librarian

Jesse Hauk Shera was an American librarian and information scientist who pioneered the use of information technology in libraries and played a role in the expansion of its use in other areas throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

Steven Shapin American sociologist

Steven Shapin is an American historian and sociologist of science. He is the Franklin L. Ford Research Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is considered one of the earliest scholars on the sociology of scientific knowledge, and is credited with creating new approaches. He has won many awards, including the 2014 George Sarton Medal of the History of Science Society for career contributions to the field.

Synthese is a scholarly periodical edited by Otávio Bueno, Wiebe van der Hoek, Gila Sher, and Catarina Dutilh Novaes specializing in papers in epistemology, methodology, and philosophy of science.

Goldman looks into one of the two strategies of the socialization of epistemology. This strategy includes the evaluation of social factors that impact knowledge formed on true belief. In contrast, Fuller takes preference for the second strategy that defines knowledge influenced by social factors as collectively accepted belief. The difference between the two can be simplified with exemplars e.g.: the first strategy means analyzing how your degree of wealth (a social factor) influences what information you determine to be valid whilst the second strategy occurs when an evaluation is done on wealth’s influence upon your knowledge acquired from the beliefs of the society in which you find yourself. [4]

In 2012, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Social Epistemology, Fuller reflected upon the history and the prospects of the field, including the need for social epistemology to re-connect with the larger issues of knowledge production first identified by Charles Sanders Peirce as cognitive economy and nowadays often pursued by library and information science. As for the "analytic social epistemology", to which Goldman has been a significant contributor, Fuller concludes that it has "failed to make significant progress owing, in part, to a minimal understanding of actual knowledge practices, a minimised role for philosophers in ongoing inquiry, and a focus on maintaining the status quo of epistemology as a field." [5]

The basic view of knowledge that motivated the emergence of social epistemology as it is perceived today can be traced to the work of Thomas Kuhn and Michel Foucault, which gained acknowledgment at the end of the 1960s. Both brought historical concerns directly to bear on problems long associated with the philosophy of science. Perhaps the most notable issue here was the nature of truth, which both Kuhn and Foucault described as a relative and contingent notion. On this background, ongoing work in the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) and the history and philosophy of science (HPS) was able to assert its epistemological consequences, leading most notably to the establishment of the strong programme at the University of Edinburgh. In terms of the two strands of social epistemology, Fuller is more sensitive and receptive to this historical trajectory (if not always in agreement) than Goldman, whose "veritistic" social epistemology can be reasonably read as a systematic rejection of the more extreme claims associated with Kuhn and Foucault.

Social epistemology as a field within analytic philosophy

As a field within analytic philosophy, social epistemology foregrounds the social aspects of knowledge creation and dissemination. What precisely these social aspects are, and whether they have beneficial or detrimental effects upon the possibilities to create, acquire and spread knowledge is a subject of continuous debate.

Within the field, "the social" is approached in two complementary and not mutually exclusive ways: "the social" character of knowledge can either be approached through inquiries in inter-individual epistemic relations or through inquiries focusing on epistemic communities. The inter-individual approach typically focuses on issues such as testimony, epistemic trust as a form of trust placed by one individual in another, epistemic dependence, epistemic authority, etc. The community approach typically focuses on issues such as community standards of justification, community procedures of critique, diversity, epistemic justice, and collective knowledge. [1]

Social epistemology as a field within analytic philosophy has close ties to, and often overlaps with feminist epistemology and philosophy of science. While parts of the field engage in abstract, normative considerations of knowledge creation and dissemination, other parts of the field are "naturalized epistemology" in the sense that they draw on empirically gained insights---which could mean natural science research from, e.g., cognitive psychology, be that qualitative or quantitative social science research. (For the notion of "naturalized epistemology" see Willard Van Orman Quine.) And while parts of the field are concerned with analytic considerations of rather general character, case-based and domain-specific inquiries in, e.g., knowledge creation in collaborative scientific practice, knowledge exchange on online platforms or knowledge gained in learning institutions play an increasing role.

Important academic journals for social epistemology as a field within analytic philosophy are, e.g., Episteme , Hypatia , Social Epistemology , and Synthese . However, major works within this field are also published in journals that predominantly address philosophers of science and psychology or in interdisciplinary journals which focus on particular domains of inquiry (such as, e.g., Ethics and Information Technology ).

Major philosophers who influenced social epistemology

  1. Plato in Charmides Dialogue
  2. John Locke in Problem of Testimony
  3. David Hume in Problem of Testimony
  4. Thomas Reid in Problem of Testimony
  5. Karl Marx in interrelating Ideology and Knowledge.
    • used by Karl Mannheim who concentrated on the social conditioning of knowledge with the reasoning that a knowledge claim's validity is restricted by the social conditions with regard to which the claim was initially made.

Present and future concerns

In both stages, both varieties of social epistemology remain largely "academic" or "theoretical" projects. Yet both emphasize the social significance of knowledge and therefore the cultural value of social epistemology itself. A range of journals publishing social epistemology welcome papers that include a policy dimension.

More practical applications of social epistemology can be found in the areas of library science, academic publishing, guidelines for scientific authorship and collaboration, knowledge policy and debates over the role of the Internet in knowledge transmission and creation.

Social epistemology is still considered a relatively new addition to philosophy, with its problems and theories still fresh and in rapid movement. [6] Of increasing importance is social epistemology developments within transdisciplinarity as manifested by media ecology.

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 Goldman, Alvin; Blanchard, Thomas (2015). "Social Epistemology". In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy .
  2. A comparison of Goldman and Fuller can be found in Legitimizing Scientific Knowledge: An Introduction to Steve Fuller's Social Epistemology, Francis Remedios, Lexington Books, 2003. pp. 106 –112.
  3. 1 2 3 [ dead link ]
  4. Rimkutė, Audronė (2014). "The Problem of Social Knowledge in Contemporary Social Epistemology: Two Approaches". Problemos (in Lithuanian). 0 (65): 4–19. doi:10.15388/Problemos.2004.65.6645. ISSN   1392-1126.
  5. Fuller, Steve (2012). "Social Epistemology: A Quarter-Century Itinerary". Social Epistemology. 26 (3–4). doi:10.1080/02691728.2012.714415.
  6. Schmitt, Frederick F.; Scholz, Oliver R. (2010). "Introduction: The History of Social Epistemology". Episteme. 7 (1): 1–6. doi:10.3366/E174236000900077X. ISSN   1750-0117.

Related Research Articles

The Gettier problem, in the field of epistemology, is a landmark philosophical problem concerning our understanding of descriptive knowledge. Attributed to American philosopher Edmund Gettier, Gettier-type counterexamples challenge the long-held justified true belief (JTB) account of knowledge. The JTB account holds that knowledge is equivalent to justified true belief; if all three conditions are met of a given claim, then we have knowledge of that claim. In his 1963 three-page paper titled "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?", Gettier attempts to illustrate by means of two counterexamples that there are cases where individuals can have a justified, true belief regarding a claim but still fail to know it because the reasons for the belief, while justified, turn out to be false. Thus, Gettier claims to have shown that the JTB account is inadequate; that it does not account for all of the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge.

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20th-century philosophy saw the development of a number of new philosophical schools—including logical positivism, analytic philosophy, phenomenology, existentialism, and poststructuralism. In terms of the eras of philosophy, it is usually labelled as contemporary philosophy.

Virtue epistemology is a contemporary philosophical approach to epistemology that stresses the importance of intellectual, and specifically epistemic virtues. A distinguishing factor of virtue theories is that they use for the evaluation of knowledge the properties of the persons who hold beliefs in addition to or instead of the properties of propositions and beliefs. Some advocates of virtue epistemology claim to more closely follow theories of virtue ethics, while others see only a looser analogy between virtue in ethics and virtue in epistemology.

Naturalized epistemology, coined by W. V. O. Quine, is a collection of philosophic views concerned with the theory of knowledge that emphasize the role of natural scientific methods. This shared emphasis on scientific methods of studying knowledge shifts focus to the empirical processes of knowledge acquisition and away from many traditional philosophical questions. There are noteworthy distinctions within naturalized epistemology. Replacement naturalism maintains that traditional epistemology should be abandoned and replaced with the methodologies of the natural sciences. The general thesis of cooperative naturalism is that traditional epistemology can benefit in its inquiry by using the knowledge we have gained from the cognitive sciences. Substantive naturalism focuses on an asserted equality of facts of knowledge and natural facts.

Laurence BonJour is an American philosopher and Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Washington.

The philosophy of social science is the study of the logic, methods, and foundations of social sciences such as psychology, economics, and political science. Philosophers of social science are concerned with the differences and similarities between the social and the natural sciences, causal relationships between social phenomena, the possible existence of social laws, and the ontological significance of structure and agency.

Computational epistemology is a subdiscipline of formal epistemology that studies the intrinsic complexity of inductive problems for ideal and computationally bounded agents. In short, computational epistemology is to induction what recursion theory is to deduction.

Alvin Ira Goldman is an American philosopher who is Board of Governors Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science at Rutgers University in New Jersey and a leading figure in epistemology.

Formal epistemology uses formal methods from decision theory, logic, probability theory and computability theory to model and reason about issues of epistemological interest. Work in this area spans several academic fields, including philosophy, computer science, economics, and statistics. The focus of formal epistemology has tended to differ somewhat from that of traditional epistemology, with topics like uncertainty, induction, and belief revision garnering more attention than the analysis of knowledge, skepticism, and issues with justification.

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Outline of epistemology Overview of and topical guide to epistemology

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to epistemology:

Epistemology or theory of knowledge is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope (limitations) of knowledge. It addresses the questions "What is knowledge?", "How is knowledge acquired?", "What do people know?", "How do we know what we know?", and "Why do we know what we know?". Much of the debate in this field has focused on analyzing the nature of knowledge and how it relates to similar notions such as truth, belief, and justification. It also deals with the means of production of knowledge, as well as skepticism about different knowledge claims.

Martin Kusch is Professor of philosophy at the University of Vienna. Until 2009, Kusch was Professor of Philosophy and Sociology of science at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University. Prior to Cambridge, Kusch was lecturer in the Science Studies Unit of the University of Edinburgh.

Feminist epistemology is an examination of epistemology from a feminist standpoint. Elizabeth S. Anderson describes feminist epistemology as being concerned with the way in which gender influences our concept of knowledge and "practices of inquiry and justification". It is generally regarded as falling under the umbrella of social epistemology.

John Greco is an American philosopher. He is the Leonard and Elizabeth Eslick Chair in Philosophy at Saint Louis University. Greco received his Ph.D. from Brown University in 1989, where he studied under Ernest Sosa, and his AB from Georgetown University in 1983. His research interests are in epistemology and metaphysics and he has published widely on virtue epistemology, epistemic normativity, skepticism, and Thomas Reid. He is the Editor of American Philosophical Quarterly. For 2013-15, together with Eleonore Stump, he holds a $3.3 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation for a project on intellectual humility.

Formative epistemology is a collection of philosophic views concerned with the theory of knowledge that emphasize the role of natural scientific methods. According to formative epistemology, knowledge is gained through the imputation of thoughts from one human being to another in the societal setting. Humans are born without intrinsic knowledge and through their evolutionary and developmental processes gain knowledge from other human beings. Thus, according to formative epistemology, all knowledge is completely subjective and truth does not exist.

Jennifer Lackey American philosopher

Jennifer Lackey is a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University. She is known for her research in epistemology, especially on testimony, disagreement, memory, the norms of assertion, and virtue epistemology. She is the author of Learning from Words: Testimony as a Source of Knowledge and of numerous articles and book chapters. She is also co-editor of The Epistemology of Testimony and The Epistemology of Disagreement: New Essays.

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Critical theory is the reflective assessment and critique of society and culture by applying knowledge from the social sciences and the humanities to reveal and challenge power structures. Critical theory has origins in sociology and also in literary criticism. The sociologist Max Horkheimer described a theory as critical insofar as it seeks "to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them."


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