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Social epistemology

Martin Kusch

Social epistemology is the philosophical study of the relevance of communities to knowledge. Social epistemology can be done descriptively or normatively. It is part of the descriptive project, for instance, to clarify whether a social isolate (like Robinson Crusoe) could have knowledge. It is central to the normative project to define how groups should be organised for them to produce knowledge most reliably and effectively.

Most social epistemologists recognise that social epistemology is closely related to the sociology of knowledge. But different authors conceive differently of this relation. Some suggest that the sociology of knowledge is a purely descriptive and empirical enterprise, whereas social epistemology is purely conceptual, and, at least in part, a normative endeavour. Other social epistemologists see the two fields as inseparable.

One can conceive of social epistemology more broadly and more narrowly. In the latter case one counts as social epistemologists only those authors who apply the label to themselves. In the former case one includes among social epistemologists all those writers that fall under the above definition. On this view, most feminist epistemologists, many philosophers of science, and many historical figures (like Hume!) must be counted as social epistemologists. I shall concentrate here mostly on self-proclaimed social epistemologists. (See the entries for Sociology of Scientific Knowledge and Feminist Critique of Science for more material.)

Social epistemology is a relatively recent addition to philosophy. It is an exciting field for many reasons. Its problems and theories are still fresh and in rapid movement. A solid contribution to this field has a good chance of shaping its future. It is also an interdisciplinary project. Social epistemologists routinely use the results of psychologists, sociologists, economists, and historians.


The best starting point is:

  • Schmitt, F.F. (ed.) (1994), Socializing Epistemology: The Social Dimensions of Knowledge, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield.


To date the most interesting work in social epistemology has been done on the role of trust and testimony in knowledge. Important contributions include:

  • Audi, R. (1997), 'The Place of Testimony in the Fabric of Knowledge and Justification', American Philosophical Quarterly 34: 405-22.
  • Coady, C. A. J. (1992), Testimony: A Philosophical Study, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Craig, E. (1990), Knowledge and the State of Nature: An Essay in Conceptual Synthesis, Oxford: Clarendon.
  • Fricker, E. (1987), 'The Epistemology of Testimony', Aristotelian Society Supplement 61: 57-83.
  • Hardwig, J. (1985), 'Epistemic Dependence', The Journal of Philosophy 82: 335-49.
  • Hardwig, L. (1991), 'The Role of Trust in Knowledge', The Journal of Philosophy 88: 693-708.
  • Lipton, P. (1998), 'The Epistemology of Testimony', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 29: 1-31.
  • Welbourne, M. (1993), The Community of Knowledge, Aldershot: Gregg Revivals.


The two most important and direct contributions to social epistemology by the sociology of knowledge are:

  • Bloor, D. (1983), Wittgenstein: A Social Theory of Knowledge, New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Shapin, S. (1994), A Social History of Truth: Gentility, Credibility, and Scientific Knowledge in Seventeenth-Century England, Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press.


Good starting points for feminist social epistemology are:

  • Alcoff, L. and E. Potter (eds.) (1993), Feminist Epistemologies, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • Code, L. (1995), Rhetorical Spaces: Essays on Gendered Locations, London: Routledge.


The most prolific writer on social epistemology – and the editor of the journal by that name – is S. Fuller. His views are not, however, representative of the field. (I find some of his writings a bit obscure.) See, e.g.:

  • Fuller, S. (1988), Social Epistemology, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
  • Fuller, S. (1992), 'Epistemology Radically Naturalized: Recovering the Normative, the Experimental, and the Social', in R.N. Giere (ed.), Cognitive Models of Science, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 427-59.
  • Fuller, S. (1996), 'Recent Work in Social Epistemology', American Philosophical Quarterly 33: 149-66.


Alvin Goldman has been a key writer in epistemology for a long time. His forthcoming book on social epistemology (1999) will undoubtedly be the focal point of debates around social epistemology for some time:

  • Goldman, A.I. (1985), Epistemology and Cognition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Goldman, A.I. (1993), 'Epistemic Folkways and Scientific Epistemology', in Philosophical Issues 3: 271-84.
  • Goldman, A.I. (1999), Knowledge in A Social World, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Important work on the concept of collective belief has been done by M. Gilbert:

  • Gilbert, M. (1989), Social Facts, London: Routledge.
  • Gilbert, M. (1994), 'Remarks on Collective Belief', in Schmitt (1994a), 235-56.


Gilbert's work has been the starting point of a very important paper by Schmitt:

  • Schmitt, F.F. (1994b), 'The Justification of Group Belief', in Schmitt (1994a), 257-280.


Some important related contributions from other fields are:

  • Hutchins, E. (1995), Cognition in the Wild, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Klimoski, R. and S. Mohammed (1994), 'Team Mental Model: Construct or Metaphor', Journal of Management 20: 403-37.


One future development of the field will be (I predict) a convegence between social epistemology and so-called 'virtue epistemology'. An excellent review of this latter field is Zagzebski (1996); Kvanvig (1992) emphasises the social aspects of cognitive virtues.

  • Kvanvig, J.L. (1992), The Intellectual Virtues and the Life of the Mind: On the Place of the Virtues in Epistemology, Savage, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Zagzebski, L.T. (1996), Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.