In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Aspects of Scientific Knowledge

  • Introduction
  • Historical Background
  • Studies of Historical Figures
  • Anthologies
  • Databases
  • Journals
  • Feminist Studies
  • Philosophically Engaged Historical and Cultural Studies of Science
  • Science and Non-Western Cultures

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Philosophy Social Aspects of Scientific Knowledge
Helen E. Longino
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0011


Attention to the social dimensions of scientific knowledge is a relatively recent focus of philosophers of science. While some earlier philosophers made contributions to the topic that are still of relevance today, modern interest was stimulated by historians and sociologists of science such as Thomas Kuhn and the growing role played by the sciences in society and, by extension, in the lives of its citizens. There are two main vectors of interest: internal relations within scientific communities, and relations between science and society. This article covers literature in both categories. It starts with work that functions as historical backdrop to current work. As a subfield within philosophy of science, this area is too recent to have dedicated journals and has only a few anthologies. Nevertheless, there are resources in both categories. The remainder of the article lists work in specific subareas.

Historical Background

This section lists work prefiguring current discussions, as well as more-recent work more directly generative of the current literature. Among the former, Mill 1978 is a strong defense of the role of criticism in the justification of knowledge claims. Dewey 1925 and Peirce 1958 emphasize different aspects of the sociality of science, John Dewey focused more on the interrelation of science and democratic society, while Charles Peirce was more interested in the importance of community in the validation of knowledge. Popper 2002 (first published in 1963), Kuhn 2012 (first published in 1962), and Feyerabend 1978 represent the work of mid-20th-century antagonists, with Karl Popper upholding a role for criticism but within the limits of his falsificationism, while Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend rejected the assumptions of empiricism and offered radical challenges to the then-dominant picture of scientific knowledge and scientific change. Kuhn emphasized the role of the community and community standards in inquiry; Feyerabend argued for the proliferation of methods and theories. The notion of an episteme in Foucault 1970 is similar to but broader than Kuhn’s concept of paradigm and has a political dimension absent from the latter. Fuller 2002 is also concerned with political dimensions, especially with the regulation of science.

  • Dewey, John. Experience and Nature. Lectures upon the Paul Carus Foundation 1. Chicago: Open Court, 1925.

    Dewey’s best-known work; an account of the character of ideas and knowledge as tools and plans of action. Science is thus linked to experience and prediction. Republished as recently as 2012 (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger).

  • Feyerabend, Paul K. Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge. London, UK: Verso, 1978.

    A rejection of the idea of a “scientific method” in favor of multiplicity of theories and methods.

  • Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. World of Man: A Library of Theory and Research on the Human Sciences. New York: Pantheon, 1970.

    A study of 18th-century human sciences that introduces Foucault’s idea of an episteme, as the system of meanings, questions, and authorization structures that determine the shape of a science. Republished as recently as 1997 (London: Routledge).

  • Fuller, Steve. Social Epistemology. Science, Technology, and Society. 2d ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.

    Fuller’s idiosyncratic reading of the philosophy and sociology of science, from which he draws a mandate for the social epistemologist as regulator of the process of inquiry. First published in 1988.

  • Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 4th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

    A classic work. Science as cycles of normal puzzle-solving inquiry punctuated by revolutions in which a current paradigm (set of worldviews, meanings, instrumentation, experimental methods, standards of evaluation, in the context of which puzzles are solved) is replaced by a new one. The social character of science is emphasized. Originally published in 1962, the 2012 edition features a substantial introduction by Ian Hacking.

  • Mill, John Stuart. “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion.” In On Liberty. By John Stuart Mill, 15–52. Edited by Elizabeth Rapaport. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1978.

    The classic statement of liberalism, advocating the value of diversity of opinion and critical exchange among those holding diverse views. First published in 1859 (London: J. W. Parker); republished as recently as 2012 (New York: Cambridge University Press).

  • Peirce, Charles Sanders. Values in a Universe of Choice: Selected Writings of Charles S. Peirce (1839–1914). Edited by Philip Wiener. New York: Doubleday, 1958.

    See “The Fixation of Belief” (pp. 91–112) and “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” (pp. 113–136). These two essays, first published in 1878 and 1877, respectively, articulate Peirce’s view about the communitarian character of inquiry, and his conception of truth as that to which all inquirers would assent at the end of inquiry.

  • Popper, Karl R. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. London: Routledge, 2002.

    The Popperian form of criticism: conjectures may come from any source; the scientific approach is to attempt to refute them. Conjectures are corroborated after such refutation attempts but not confirmed. Originally published in 1963 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul).

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