Social Epistemology: Theory and Applications

1. Mainstream Epistemology and Social Epistemology Epistemology has had a strongly individualist orientation, at least since Descartes. Knowledge, for Descartes, starts with the fact of one’s own thinking and with oneself as subject of that thinking. Whatever else can be known, it must be known by inference from one’s own mental contents. Achieving such knowledge is an individual, rather than a collective, enterprise. Descartes’s successors largely followed this lead, so the history of epistemology, down to our own time, has been a predominantly individualist affair. There are scattered exceptions. A handful of historical epistemologists gave brief space to the question of knowing, or believing justifiably, based on the testimony of others. Testimony-based knowledge would be one step into a more social epistemology. Hume took it for granted that we regularly rely on the factual statements of others, and argued that it is reasonable to do so if we have adequate reasons for trusting the veracity of these sources. However, reasons for such trust, according to Hume, must rest on personal observations of people’s veracity or reliability.1 Thomas Reid took a different view. He claimed that our natural attitude of trusting others is reasonable even if we know little if anything about others’ reliability. Testimony, at least sincere testimony, is always prima facie credible (Reid, 1970: 240-241). Here we have two philosophers of the 18th century both endorsing at least one element of what nowadays is called “social epistemology.” But these points did not much occupy either Hume’s or Reid’s corpus of philosophical writing; nor were these passages much studied or cited by their contemporaries and immediate successors. Fast forward now to the second half of the 20th century. Here we find intellectual currents pointing toward the socializing of epistemology. Several of these movements, however, were centered outside of philosophy and never adopted the label of “social epistemology,” or adopted it only belatedly.
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DOI 10.1017/S1358246109000022
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