Article

Social Epistemology

Alvin I. Goldman and Thomas Blanchard

in Philosophy

ISBN: 9780195396577
Published online October 2012 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0088
Social Epistemology

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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.

Article.  13495 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy ; Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art ; Epistemology ; Feminist Philosophy ; History of Western Philosophy ; Metaphysics ; Moral Philosophy ; Non-Western Philosophy ; Philosophy of Language ; Philosophy of Law ; Philosophy of Mathematics and Logic ; Philosophy of Mind ; Philosophy of Religion ; Philosophy of Science ; Social and Political Philosophy

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