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

  • Introduction
  • Early Work
  • Politics and (Post) Truth
  • Fake News, Misinformation, and Propaganda
  • Political Disagreement and Polarization
  • The Epistemic Dimensions of Public Reason
  • Political Ignorance and Political Irrationality
  • Epistemic Virtues and Vices in Politics
  • The Epistemic Obligations of Citizens
  • Epistemic Paternalism
  • Political Cognition
  • Social Media and Democracy

Philosophy Political Epistemology
Michael Hannon, Elizabeth Edenberg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0408


Political epistemology lies at the intersection of political philosophy and epistemology. Put broadly, political epistemologists investigate the ways in which epistemological issues are at the center of our political lives. For example, they explore how claims of knowledge, truth, and expertise impact political decisions and forms of legitimate authority. Research in this domain ranges from asking questions about whether (and to what extent) legitimate authority hinges on epistemic evaluation of the process or outcome of political decisions to questions about epistemic virtues and vices of individuals in their role as political agents. Political epistemologists ask questions such as: which forms of government can leverage the collective wisdom of the public and to what extent does ignorance, propaganda, or misinformation undermine the legitimacy of collective decisions? What role should disagreement play in our political lives and how does disagreement impact society (i.e., does it lead to polarization or can it be productively leveraged to reveal blind spots based on different perspectives)? In what ways are socially and politically marginalized groups in a position of epistemic privilege vis-à-vis social structures? While the term ‘political epistemology’ is fairly new, scholars have been interested in topics at the intersection of political philosophy and epistemology at least since Plato. Until recently, however, political philosophy and epistemology proceeded largely in their own silos. The subfield of political epistemology explicitly draws on the insights from both areas of philosophy (as well as cognate areas like political science and social psychology). As a result, the past few years have witnessed an outpouring of new research that draws important and tighter connections between epistemology (especially social epistemology) and political philosophy. For example, new work has been published on propaganda, fake news, belief polarization, political disagreement, conspiracy theories, the epistemic merits of democracy, voter ignorance, irrationality in politics, distrust, and the epistemic harms of echo chambers. Political epistemology is now a flourishing area of philosophy.

Early Work

Politics and epistemology have frequently intersected in the history of philosophy, but political epistemology has only recently been recognized as a distinctive subfield of philosophy. As such, “early work” is characterized as pre-21st-century. This section includes classic works like Plato 1997 and Aristotle 1998. Neither Plato nor Aristotle were defenders of democracy for largely epistemic reasons: both thought ordinary citizens were too uninformed to govern themselves well. Mill 1991 is more optimistic about citizens in liberal democracies, but Mill too worries about citizen incompetence and thus proposes that more knowledgeable citizens should have extra votes. Downs 1957 agrees with Plato (and others) that voters may be ignorant, but claims that voter ignorance is rational because the cost of being adequately informed is too high for most people. Dewey 1927 rejects Plato’s “rule by experts” in favor of a pragmatist view of public deliberation, which many scholars regard as a precursor to modern Deliberative Democracy. As a pragmatist, however, Dewey set aside the search for unchanging and timeless moral truths. Arendt 1967 picks up on the fraught relationship between politics and truth, and she carefully examines the ways in which truth and power come into conflict. Cohen 1986 provides the first contemporary articulation of an “epistemic” conception of democracy. This seminal article continues to inform work on epistemic democracy, such as Estlund 1993, an attempt to give the notion of truth a central role in democracy—but without risking the elitism of Plato and, to a lesser extent, Mill. In contrast to the epistemic democrats, Rawls 1993 famously takes the stance of “epistemic abstinence,” rejecting the relevance of truth for justifying certain principles of justice. Gaus 1996 raises a number of criticisms against Rawls and attempts to defend political liberalism partly on epistemic terms.

  • Arendt, Hannah. “Truth and Politics.” The New Yorker, 25 February 1967: 49–88.

    A seminal article exploring the conflict between politics and truth. Arendt reflects on Plato’s idea that truth telling can obstruct the survival and flourishing of the state, and she asks when lying is a necessary and justifiable political tool. A great starting point for those interested in how to balance epistemic goals with political goals.

  • Aristotle. The Politics. Translated by C. D. C. Reeve. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1998.

    One can find the roots of deliberative democracy and collective wisdom in Aristotle’s Politics. Although Aristotle was no defender of democracy, he argues that “the many” may be better rulers than “the virtuous few,” at least when the judgments of the many are pooled together. This epistemic argument for popular rule has attracted the attention of modern democratic theorists.

  • Cohen, Joshua. “An Epistemic Conception of Democracy.” Ethics 97.1 (1986): 26–38.

    DOI: 10.1086/292815

    Perhaps the first contemporary articulation of epistemic democracy. This exploratory paper outlines an epistemic interpretation of voting, called “epistemic populism.” Cohen reflects on the structure of epistemic populism and maintains that it is a more plausible interpretation of populism than some alternatives. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Dewey, John. The Public and Its Problems. New York: Henry Holt, 1927.

    Dewey’s first major work in political philosophy and an important work in pragmatist political philosophy. It includes reflections on the future of democracy in the era of mass communication, social complexity, and pluralism. Dewey rejects Plato’s idea of a political technocracy, a system of governance in which decision makers are comprised of an elite of technical experts.

  • Downs, Anthony. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper & Row, 1957.

    A classic statement of the view that political ignorance is actually rational for most citizens. Downs argues that voters have little incentive to become informed because there is a vanishingly small chance that their vote will affect the outcome of an election. An important text for theories of voter ignorance and irrationality.

  • Estlund, David. “Making Truth Safe for Democracy.” In The Idea of Democracy. Edited by David Copp, Jean Hampton, and John Roemer, 71–100. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

    A response to epistocracy, or rule by the knowers. Estlund raises the following difficulty for epistocratic authoritarianism: Who will know the knowers? Estlund does not defend skepticism; he argues that no knower is knowable enough to be accepted by all reasonable citizens. These ideas are part of the foundation for his landmark book Estlund 2008 (cited under Epistemic Democracy).

  • Gaus, Gerald. Justificatory Liberalism: An Essay on Epistemology and Political Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

    Addresses many central issues in moral and political philosophy through epistemological investigations. The book’s central question is: “How do we justify our moral judgments, both to ourselves and others?” Gaus raises a number of criticisms against Rawls’s political liberalism and develops a distinctive epistemological position in defense of political liberalism.

  • Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty and Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

    In On Liberty, Mill defends the epistemic value of free discussion and disagreement as a means to finding the truth. In Considerations on Representative Government, Mill defends a version of epistocracy (rule by the knowers) that gives extra votes to citizens with more education, since education tends to correlate with political knowledge. Originally published 1861.

  • Plato. “Republic.” In Plato: Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1997.

    Perhaps the first attack on the epistemic merits of democracy. Plato believed political decision making required rule by experts, since citizens in a democracy couldn’t be trusted to make competent decisions. He therefore advocated what Estlund 2008 (cited under Epistemic Democracy) calls “epistocracy,” the rule by the knowers.

  • Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

    This book set the agenda for discussions of reasonable disagreement in politics. Rawls famously argues for a turn to public reason, which remains agnostic about controversial truth claims, in order for the justification of political power to be legitimate in the context of reasonable disagreement about the good life.

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