In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Epistemology

  • Introduction
  • General Perspectives
  • Anthologies
  • Learning From Experts
  • Collective Agents and Collective Beliefs
  • Epistemic Relativism
  • Evidence in the Law
  • Internet Epistemology
  • Computer Simulations
  • Argumentation and Dialectical Justification
  • Moral Social Epistemology
  • Social Constructivism
  • Feminist Social Epistemology

Philosophy Social Epistemology
Alvin I. Goldman, Thomas Blanchard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0088


Until recently the orientation of both historical and contemporary epistemology has been heavily individualistic. The emphasis has been on choices among belief, disbelief, and agnosticism (suspension of judgment) that confront individual epistemic agents. Such agents are assumed to observe the world (or their own minds) and reflect on the resulting evidence via their own cognitive powers. Such a perspective was dramatized by Descartes roughly 350 years ago, and it has continued to dominate the epistemological scene. However, a “socializing” movement has recently emerged that seeks to redress the imbalance that results from undue neglect of the social dimensions of knowledge. The movement does not reject a concern for individual epistemic decision making, but it finds at least equal importance in the study of epistemic decision making in social contexts. What does this mean? In what sense is social epistemology social? A three-part answer is offered. First, social epistemology continues to reflect on optimal methods for individual belief formation but specifically considers evidential inputs from other people—their opinions, assertions, and arguments (known as interpersonal social epistemology). Questions therefore arise about how epistemic agents should respond to the testimony of others and how they should modify their doxastic attitude toward a given proposition upon learning that others have a different attitude toward it. Second, social epistemology commonly acknowledges the existence of collective doxastic agents such as juries, committees, and other group agents, which make judgments as a function of their members’ judgments (collective social epistemology). Third, social epistemology considers communities and societies as systems and institutions with system-level properties that often influence the intellectual outputs of their members (institutional social epistemology). The ways they organize the epistemic labor—the ways they open or close channels of communication for eager or reluctant speakers, thereby encouraging or discouraging assorted modes of information or disinformation propagation—are enormously significant to the knowledge state of a society. For example, the degree to which laypersons manage (in the maelstrom of conflicting chatter) to learn and understand the current state of science as it bears on public issues is a topic that belongs on the epistemological agenda. The criteria for epistemic assessment in social epistemology need not depart dramatically from individual epistemology. Knowledge, truth, rationality, and justification can remain the benchmarks or standards by which to assess both social and individual methods. But social epistemology introduces a new class of methods and systems to analyze and evaluate in epistemic terms. Alternatively, social epistemology may hold that the social dimensions of knowledge create a need to revise or reformulate the customary concepts of knowledge, rationality, truth, and/or objectivity.

General Perspectives

There is a wide variety of general approaches to social epistemology. As an approximation, these various positions can be placed on the following spectrum. At one end of the spectrum lies what may be called classical social epistemology, which retains the focus of traditional epistemology on truth, rationality, and the normative question of how agents should behave epistemically. It is social in that it focuses on social practices and institutions and their epistemic effects on the pursuit of truth. Goldman 2011 offers a survey and classification of classical social epistemology. Goldman 1999 is a seminal defense and articulation of classical social epistemology. Craig 1990 is an early defense of the importance of taking the social into account for the projects of traditional epistemology. Fricker 1998 insists on the political dimensions of classical social epistemology. On the other end of the spectrum lies anticlassical social epistemology, which rejects or ignores traditional epistemology’s notions of truth, knowledge, and justification. (Note that although anticlassical social epistemologists typically reject traditional epistemology’s way of understanding these concepts, they significantly differ in their motivations, scholarly traditions, and positive accounts of those notions.) Kuhn 1970 had a major influence on the development of anticlassical social epistemology, even though Kuhn himself did not accept such an interpretation of his work. Fuller 1988 is an articulation of anticlassical social epistemology which abandons traditional epistemology’s focus on truth. Kusch 2002 offers a version of social epistemology that rejects realist and objectivist stances on truth and justification. Epistemic relativism and social constructivism are species of anticlassical social epistemology (see Epistemic Relativism and Social Constructivism). Kitcher 1994 offers a useful comparison of these two sides of the spectrum and a defense of the classical side. Longino 2002 is an influential attempt to reach a middle ground between the two extremes of the spectrum.

  • Craig, Edward. Knowledge and the State of Nature. Oxford: Clarendon, 1990.

    Argues that the traditional project of conceptual analysis of knowledge is misguided, and that understanding our concept of knowledge requires examining how it fulfills fundamental social needs. By considering a fictional “state of nature,” Craig exhibits our dependence on “good informants,” from which, he argues, our concept of knowledge arises. Craig also examines the implications of this hypothesis for familiar themes in epistemology (skepticism, externalism, etc.).

  • Fricker, Miranda. “Rational Authority and Social Power: Towards a Truly Social Epistemology.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 98 (1998): 159–177.

    DOI: 10.1111/1467-9264.00030

    Argues that our need for good informants (see Craig 1990) gives rise to certain norms of credibility. In particular sociopolitical contexts, these norms can give rise to unfair distributions of credibility. Fricker emphasizes the importance of studying this kind of epistemic injustice, and of the consequent political dimension of social epistemology.

  • Fuller, Steve. Social Epistemology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

    An exposition and defense of anticlassical social epistemology. Fuller is concerned with the normative question of how the institution of science should be organized, and what scientific strategies best foster knowledge production. However, he parts company with traditional epistemology in rejecting the claim that knowledge is truth entailing. On Fuller’s view, knowledge is a social status that entails certain privileges, and the task of social epistemology is to evaluate the just allocation of these privileges.

  • Goldman, Alvin. Knowledge in a Social World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1093/0198238207.001.0001

    A seminal work arguing that social epistemology should be seen as complementing rather than replacing traditional epistemology: on this view social epistemology retains traditional epistemology’s normative focus on how epistemic practices can foster the production of true beliefs. Examines several social practices and systems in terms of their ability to produce “veritistic value” (the kind of value we place on having true beliefs).

  • Goldman, Alvin. “A Guide to Social Epistemology.” In Social Epistemology: Essential Readings. Edited by Alvin Goldman and Dennis Whitcomb, 11–37. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    A survey of (classical) social epistemology. Distinguishes among three kinds of social epistemology, concerned respectively with the social evidence that individuals can acquire, the judgments of collective doxastic agents, and the epistemic effects of certain social systems and institutions.

  • Kitcher, Philip. “Contrasting Conceptions of Social Epistemology.” In Socializing Epistemology. Edited by Frederick Schmitt, 111–134. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994.

    A comparative discussion of classical and anticlassical social epistemology (not Kitcher’s terms), and a defense of the classical side of the spectrum. Kitcher argues for a “minimal social epistemology” on which individual agents are the primary bearers of knowledge; the task of social epistemology so conceived is to examine how social processes and institutions foster or hinder individuals’ acquisition of knowledge.

  • Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

    Kuhn’s work is a major influence on anticlassical social epistemology (although he himself did not accept such a reading of his work). The notion of incommensurability has been used to develop a relativist view of scientific knowledge, and many sociologists of science have relied on the concept of a paradigm shift to insist on the primacy of social factors over the “pure” search for truth in explaining scientific change.

  • Kusch, Martin. Knowledge by Agreement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1093/0199251223.001.0001

    A work in anticlassical social epistemology, arguing for a “communitarian epistemology” on which groups are the primary bearers of knowledge. Kusch parts company with traditional epistemology in endorsing a form of relativism about truth and justification. On Kusch’s view, knowledge is a social status: to know is to share the consensual views of one’s community and be recognized as a member of the community on this basis.

  • Longino, Helen. The Fate of Knowledge. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

    Longino articulates a view of knowledge (“critical contextual empiricism”) intended to represent a middle ground between classical and anticlassical social epistemology. Longino retains the classical normative distinction between knowledge and mere opinion but argues for the need to socialize our concept of knowledge and to replace traditional notions of truth and justification with the socialized notions of conformation and epistemic acceptability.

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