Why Social Epistemology Is Real Epistemology
How is social epistemology related to mainstream epistemology? Does it retain the traditional character of epistemology while merely giving it a social twist? Or does it advocate a radical socializing enterprise that heads down a very different path? In the latter case it might not merit the label “epistemology” at all. In the former case what exactly are the social twists and how do they relate to the mainstream? Three conceptions of social epistemology are distinguished here: revisionist, preservationist, and expansionist. Revisionism rejects mainstream assumptions, including the objectivity of truth and rationality, and it is plausible to deny it the status of “real” epistemology. Preservationism is in keeping with mainstream epistemology and qualifies as “real” epistemology. It studies epistemic decision-making by individual doxastic agents. What makes it social is its study of doxastic decision-making in light of social evidence. Other preservationist topics include epistemic norms associated with various speech and communicational activities (assertion, debate, argumentation). Expansionistm seeks to enlarge the reach of social epistemology while remaining continuous with the tradition. Its chief topics are the epistemic properties of collective doxastic agents and the influence of alternative social systems on epistemic outcomes. Illustrations of the social-system approach include (i) examination of legal adjudication systems and (ii) epistemic approaches to democracy. In law we can ask which of various trial systems (species of social epistemic systems) tend to generate the most accurate verdicts. In political theory democratic decision-making processes might be defended by appeal to their putative epistemic characteristics, e.g., their reliability.
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