Social epistemology

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Social epistemology is a broad set of approaches to the study of knowledge, all of which construe human knowledge as a collective achievement. Another way of positioning social epistemology is as the study of the social dimensions of knowledge.[1] One of the enduring difficulties with defining social epistemology is defining what knowledge means in this context. There is also a challenge in arriving at a definition of social which satisfies academics from different disciplines.[2] Social epistemologists may be found working in many of the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, most commonly in philosophy and sociology. In addition to marking a distinct movement in traditional, analytic epistemology, social epistemology is associated with the interdisciplinary field of Science and Technology Studies (STS).


The emergence of social epistemology

The term "social epistemology" was first used by the library scientists Margaret Egan and Jesse Shera in the 1950s. Steven Shapin also used it in 1979. But its current sense began to emerge in the late 1980s. In 1987, the philosophical journal Synthese published a special issue on social epistemology, which would include two authors that have since taken the discipline in two divergent directions: Alvin Goldman and Steve Fuller3. Fuller founded a journal called Social Epistemology: a journal of knowledge, culture, and policy in 1987 and published his first book, Social Epistemology, in 1988. Goldman's Knowledge in a Social World came out in 1999; he is currently editor of the journal Episteme: a journal of social epistemology, which was founded in 2004. While the aims and scope of these two journals overlap in many respects, Social Epistemology is more open to science studies in addition to philosophy, while "the principal style [of Episteme] is that of analytical philosophy". Goldman advocates for a type of epistemology which is sometimes called veritistic epistemology because of its large emphasis on truth.[3] This type of epistemology is sometimes seen to side with "essentialism" as opposed to "multiculturalism"[4] But Goldman has argued that this association between veritistic epistemology and essentialism is not necessary [5]

The basic view of knowledge that motivated the emergence of social epistemology can be traced to the work of Thomas Kuhn and Michel Foucault, which gained in prominence at the end of the 1960s. Both brought historical concerns directly to bear on problems long associated with the philosophy of science. Perhaps the most notable issue here was the nature of truth, which both Kuhn and Foucault described as a relative and contingent notion. On this background, ongoing work in the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) and the history and philosophy of science (HPS) was able to assert its epistemological consequences, leading most notably to the establishment of the "Strong Programme" at the University of Edinburgh. In terms of the two strands of social epistemology, Fuller is more sensitive and receptive to this historical trajectory (if not always in agreement) than Goldman, whose self-styled 'veritistic' social epistemology can be reasonably read as a systematic rejection of the more extreme claims associated with Kuhn and Foucault.

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