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Relying On Others An Essay In Epistemology Questions

What Does it Mean to Trust in Epistemic Authority?

Paper presented at the 7th Annual Roundtable in Philosophy of Social Science, Barnard College, Columbia University, New York, March 11-13 2005.

“There must be a minimal degree of trust in communication for language and action to be more than stabs in the dark”
Sissela Bok, Lying
“Mais qu’y a-t-il donc de si périlleux dans le fait que les gens parlent, et leurs discours indéfiniment prolifèrent?”
Michel Foucault, L’ordre du discours
“I learned an enormous amount and accepted it on human authority, and then I found some things confirmed or disconfirmed by my own experience”
Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty

Consider this case. At high-school in Italy many years ago I heard my teacher of Latin say: “Cicero’s prose is full of synecdoches”[1]. I had a vague idea of what a synecdoche was, and ignored until then that one could characterize Cicero’s writing in this way. Nevertheless, I relied on my teacher’s intellectual authority to acquire the belief that Cicero’s prose is full of synecdoches, and today have a more precise idea of what my teacher was talking about. Was I justified in any sense in uncritically accepting that pronouncement by deferring to my teacher’s authority? Let us have a closer look at the example. Many things were going on in this apparently trivial case of belief acquisition. I was sitting in a classroom, aware of being in a social institution – school- dedicated to knowledge transmission, and I had been properly instructed to believe what people say in school. While listening to the teacher, I was simultaneously learning a fact, that Cicero’s prose was full of synecdoches, and acquiring a linguistic concept, that is, the word “synecdoche” (or, if not acquiring it, at least acquiring a rule about its appropriate use, or, better, enriching its meaning). I was learning a fact and learning a language meaning at the same time. My reliance on Italian educational institutions was strong enough to accept this on pure deferential bases.

Or consider another example. I was born in Milan on February 8th 1967. I believe this is true because the office of Vital Records in the Milan Municipal Building registered few days after that date the testimony of my father or my mother that I was indeed born on the 8th of February in a hospital in Milan, and delivered a birth certificate with this date on it. This fact concerns me, and of course I was present, but I can access it only through this complex, institution-mediated form of indirect testimony.

Or else: I know that smoking causes cancer, I’ve been told this and it was enough relevant information for me to make me quit cigarettes 10 years ago. I don’t have the slightest idea of the physiological process that a smoker’s body undergoes from inhaling smoke to developing a cellular process that ends in cancer. Nevertheless, the partial character of my understanding of what it really means that smoke causes cancer doesn’t refrain me to state it in conversations and to rule my behavior according to this belief.

Our cognitive life is pervaded with partially understood, poorly justified, beliefs. The greater part of our knowledge is acquired from other’s people spoken or written words. The floating of other people’s words in our minds is the price we pay for thinking. Traditional epistemology warns us of the risks of uncritically relying on other people’s authority in acquiring new beliefs. One could view the overall project of classical epistemology - from Plato to the contemporary rationalist perspectives on knowledge - as a normative enterprise aiming at protecting us from credulity and ill-founded opinions. Various criteria, rules and principles on how to conduct our mind have been put forward as a guarantee to preserve the autonomy and freedom of thought necessary to the acquisition of knowledge. Just as an example, a great part of Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding is an attempt to establish principles of regulation of opinions, stated in terms of obligations on one’s own “epistemic conduct”, that strengthen our intellectual autonomy. According to Locke, four major sources of false opinions threaten our mind:

I. Propositions that are not in themselves certain and evident, but doubtful and false, taken up for principles
II. Received hypotheses
III. Predominant passions or inclinations
IV. Authority

(Locke, Essay, Book 4, XX, 7)

Reliance on other people’s authority is thus viewed as a major threat to the cognitive autonomy that distinguishes us as rational thinkers. Exposure to received beliefs increases our risk of being “infected by falsity”, the worst danger against which the overall epistemological enterprise was built.

Yet, the massive trust of others that permeates our cognitive life calls for an epistemic treatment, and has become a central issue in contemporary debates in philosophy of knowledge and social epistemology. A number of approaches have been put forward in order to account for the epistemic reliability of the “division of cognitive labour” so typical in contemporary, information-dense societies.
Most analyses that have been recently proposed in social epistemology, concentrate on the evidential grounds for trusting other people’s authority: Trusting someone’s authority on a given matter means assessing her trustworthiness on that matter. Trustworthiness depends on both competence and benevolence. In order to assess other people’s trustworthiness one needs evidential criteria of their competence and their benevolence. For example, a scientist who trusts the authority of a colleague on a certain experimental data grounds her judgment in her knowledge of her colleague’s previous records in that scientific domain (such as the number of publications in the relevant reviews of the domain, or the number of patents, etc.) plus the beliefs that she is self-interested in being truthful for the sake of their future collaborative work.[2] Yet, this “reductionist” analysis, that I will detail later, misses some central intuitions about the presumptive character of our trust in others and its motivational dimension. Trust in testimony has a spontaneous dimension that doesn’t seem to be based on rational assessment of other people’s truthfulness. Also, an evidential analysis of epistemic authority doesn’t account for cases of partial understanding, as in the examples above, in which the overt asymmetry between the epistemic position of the authoritative source and the interlocutors is such that it cannot be treated by appealing to evidential criteria only. Here, my aim is to explore some treatments of the more familiar notion of trust in social sciences, moral and political philosophy in order to understand to what extent the notion of epistemic trust may be illuminated by these analyses. I will contrast evidential vs. motivational analyses in social sciences and claim that motivational analyses can find their places in an epistemology of trust. Motivational analyses have often been described as non-cognitive. Take, for instance Lawrence Becker’s distinction between cognitive vs. non cognitive treatments on trust: “Trust is ‘cognitive’ if it is fundamentally a matter of our beliefs or expectations about others’ trustworthiness; it is non cognitive if it is fundamentally a matter of our having trustful attitudes, affects, emotions, or motivational structures […] To say that we trust others in a non cognitive way is to say that we are disposed to be trustful of them independently of our beliefs or expectations about their trustworthiness” [Becker 1996, 44, 60].[3] I will oppose this distinction by arguing that in the case of epistemic trust a motivational analysis of trust can be cognitive, that is, it can shed some light on our mental processes of acquisition of beliefs and knowledge. In particular, I will try to ground the cognitive bases of our epistemic trust in our communicative practices. My purpose here is to explore a broader notion of epistemic trust, one that could account of what is common in cases as different as the blind trust of the patient in her doctor, the trust needed in collaborative intellectual work and the everyday trust needed to sustain our ordinary conversations.
Intellectual trust is a central question of contemporary epistemological concerns. Yet, most debate around this notion fails to provide a proper analysis of the notion and only superficially bridge it to the parallel social, political and moral treatments of trust. The result is a lack of explanatory power of this notion in epistemology. Often one has the feeling that talking of trust in epistemology is just a way of evoking the need to varnish our study of knowledge with some moral and social considerations.[4] My belief is that intellectual trust deserves more attention, and its intricate relation with the notion of trust in use in social science needs to be better disentangled.
On the other hand, sociological and moral theories of trust in authority fail to make the distinction between epistemic vs. political authority and present themselves as simultaneously accounting for the two concepts.
There are some obvious parallels between the notion of epistemic trust and that of social and political trust. Trust in authority poses a similar puzzle in both cases. How can someone - an institution or an individual - legitimately impose her/its will on other people’s and have a right to rule over their conducts? How is this compatible with freedom and autonomy? And why should we trust an authority to impose us a duty to obey for our own good?
Much ink has been spilt on this apparent paradoxical relation between trust in authority and freedom. And of course an equivalent puzzle can be reformulated in the case of intellectual trust: How can it ever be rational to surrender our reason and accept what another person says on the basis that she is saying this? What does it mean to grant intellectual authority to other people?
The very notion of ‘authority’ in philosophy is notoriously ambiguous between the authority that someone exercises on other people’s beliefs and the authority that someone exercises on other people’s actions.[5] As Friedman has rightly pointed out: “A person may be said to have authority in two distinct senses: For one, he may be said to be ‘in authority’, meaning that he occupies some office, position or status which entitles him to make decisions about how other people should behave. But, secondly, a person may be said to be ‘an authority’, meaning that his views or utterances are entitled to be believed” [Friedman, 1990, p. 57].
In both cases, the appeal to authority calls for an explanation or a normative justification of the legitimacy of the authoritative source, a legitimacy that must be acknowledged by those who submit to it. Still, I think that trust in epistemic authority and in political authority are two distinct phenomena that deserve a separate treatment.
As I said above, most accounts of epistemic trust ground its legitimacy in the evidential bases we have to assess other people’s trustworthiness. Motivational accounts in the case of knowledge seem desperately unable to avoid the risk of credulity and irrationality that accompanies prima facie any a priori trust in others as a source of knowledge.
In what follows, I will briefly sketch evidential vs. motivational approaches to trust as they are discussed in social sciences and then try to use this distinction to gain a better understanding of epistemic trust.

Evidential accounts of trust
A common view of trust in contemporary social science reduces it to a set of rational expectations about the likely behaviour of others in a future cooperation with us. Take the definition that Diego Gambetta gives in his influential anthology on trust: “Trust (or, symmetrically, distrust) is a particular level of the subjective probability with which an agent assesses that another agent or group of agents will perform a particular action, both before he can monitor such action (or independently of his capacity ever to be able to monitor it) and in a context in which it affects his own action. When we say we trust someone or that someone is trustworthy, we im­plicitly mean that the probability that he will perform an action that is beneficial or at least not detrimental to us is high enough for us to consider engaging in some form of cooperation with him. Correspondingly, when we say that someone is untrustworthy, we imply that that probability is low enough for us to refrain from doing so” [Gambetta, 1988, p. 218]. Thus trust is a cognitive notion, a set of beliefs or expectations about the commitment of the trusted in behaving in a determinate way in a context that is relevant to us. Following the literature, I call these analyses reductive and evidential. They are reductive accounts because they don’t set trust as a primitive notion, but reduce it to more fundamental notions such as beliefs and expectations. They are evidential because they make trust depend on the probabilities we assign to our expectations towards other people’s actions towards us. I may trust or distrust on the basis of some evidence that I have about someone else’s future behaviour. As it has been stressed by contemporary literature on trust in social science, trust must be distinguished from pure reliance. Trust is an interesting notion in social sciences only insofar as it explains the implicit commitment that it imposes on a relationship. If it were just a matter of assessing probabilities of another person’s behaviour without taking into account the effect of her behaviour on our own actions, it would not be so different from general inductive reasoning. I trust on a certain level of stability of the social world around me. I trust the person that I cross when walking on the street not to assault me. This is the minimal level of trust that a society should be able to arrange in order to perpetuate. I need to rely on some regularities of the social world in order to act. But the interest of the notion of trust in social sciences is that it takes into account not only social regularities but also commitments.
A recent explanation of trust that takes clearly in account expectations about other people’s commitment – and not simply regularity - is found in Russell Hardin’s analysis of trust as a encapsulated interest, that is, trust as belief that it is in the interest of the trusted to attend the truster’s interests in the relevant matter [cf. Hardin 2002].
Thus, evidential accounts of social trust try to reduce it to justified expectations upon the objective probability of other people’s commitments.
The key-aspect of evidential accounts that I would like to contrast with motivational accounts is that trust is viewed as a cognitive attitude, as knowledge or belief, for which we can find a rational justification in terms of the capacity we have to read and assess the commitments of others.

What about evidential accounts of intellectual trust? An evidential theory of intellectual trust assigns probabilities to our expectations on our interlocutors’ truthfulness on a subject matter. And of course truthfulness is a matter of competence as well as of benevolence. But competence and benevolence are very different things. Competence seems to be a more objective trait than benevolence: I can trust you on your willingness to help me translating Herodotus even if I don’t defer to your competence in Ancient Greek. Competence doesn’t depend on your commitment to be trustworthy to me.
Most evidential accounts of intellectual trust explore the dimension of competence more than that of benevolence. The epistemological literature on assessing expertise insists on what are the cognitive strategies that we can adopt in order to assess the reliability of doctors, lawyers, witnesses, journalists, etc. Alvin Goldman argues that there exist “truth-revealing situations” [6] in which a novice can test the competence of the expert even if she doesn’t know how the expert has come to collect her evidence. For example, the weather today is a truth-revealing situation of the expertise of the weather forecast that I have read yesterday on the New York Times. If the NYT weather forecast were systematically lower in predicting whether than the Yahoo weather forecast, I would have evidence to trust the latter more than the former even if I don’t have the slightest idea about how a weather forecast is produced. That’s our commonsense practice in order to calibrate our informants’ expertise even if we are novices in their domain of expertise. If my doctor’s therapy against my stomach ache is inefficacious, I am in a truth revealing situation to assess her competence. Of course, not every domain of expertise admits truth-revealing situations: A large portions of formal sciences such as mathematics of physics don’t. In these cases, there exist alternative strategies that allow us to assess the reliability of the overall social process that sustains the epistemic dependence of laymen to experts. Such strategies have been investigated by various authors, for example Philip Kitcher who names the overall project of describing the strategies of granting expertise to others as The study of the organisation of cognitive labour. As he points out: “Once we have recognized that individuals form beliefs by relying on information supplied by others, there are serious issues about the conditions that should be met if the community is to form a consensus on a particular issue – questions about the division of opinion and of cognitive effort within the community and issues about the proper attribution of authority” [Kitcher, 1994, 114]. For example, I can have methods to track your past records within a particular domain and grant you authority on the basis of your “earned reputation” in this domain[7]. Or I can grant you authority due to your better epistemic position: I call my sister in Milan and she tells me that it is raining there and I believe her because I am able to assess her better epistemic position about the weather in Milan. These accounts insist on the rational bases of our trust in other people’s epistemic authority and appeal to a conceptual framework similar to that of the evidential accounts of trust in social sciences by using the language of rational decision theory or of microeconomics[8].
Evidential accounts of trust in authority illuminate the reasons why we reliably appeal to experts in specialized domains. But, as I said, trust in epistemic authority doesn’t seem to reduce only to assessment of expertise. Nor have we always the choice to trust or distrust. The examples that I give at the beginning of this paper show that it is not always a matter of deciding to defer to other people’s authority: It just happens that the very nature of some of our beliefs is deferential, and that’s not a phenomenon that seems to be captured by these accounts.

Motivational accounts of trust
Many authors in social science and moral philosophy claim that evidential accounts fail to provide an appropriate picture of trust, by appealing only to a set of rational expectations on other people’s motivations to commit to cooperation. Our commitment to trust is not only cognitive, that is, based on the degree of our beliefs about the future actions of the trusted. Trust involves also a motivational, non-representational dimension that may depend on our deep moral, emotional or cultural pre-commitments. Thus, in the paper I have mentioned above, Becker speaks of our trust as non-cognitive if it is a disposition to be trustful “independently of our beliefs or expectations about their trustworthiness” [p. 50]. In a book entitled Authority Richard Sennett defines trust in authority as an emotional commitment. And in a seminal paper, Annette Baier defines trust as the accepted vulnerability to another’s possible but not expected ill will toward one, and explores the varieties of moral, emotional and cultural grounds on which we accept this vulnerability. On the same line, Otto Lagerspetz says: “trust is not the fact that one, after calculating the odds, feels no risk: It is feeling no risk without calculating the odds” [1998] These accounts try to capture the idea that in many circumstances our trust in others cannot be converted into subjective estimates of risk, because the margins of ignorance or uncertainty are too broad for such estimates to be possible. Also, as Baier points out, “trust can come with no beginnings, with gradual as well as sudden beginnings and with various degrees of self-consciousness, voluntariness and expressness” [Baier, 1986, p.240]. That is, the child who trusts her mother, the patient who trusts her doctor, the novice scientist who trusts the truth of the main results in her domain without having gone through the details of the proofs, have different degrees of control and thus of choice on their trustful attitude. As the anthropologist Maurice Bloch says in his explanation of the role of deference in rituals: “We are permanently floating in a soup of deference” Most of the time we are not aware of the reason we have to trust. We simply do so[9].
The moral philosophical literature on motivational trust tries to establish to what extent such trustful attitudes are morally justified. Baier’s conclusion is that they are insofar as there are minimal reasons to think that the trusted exerting her authority on us is caring for the goods we want her to care for. For example it is justified to trust our partner in the treatment of our child even if we don’t approve or understand her actions, if we have reasons to think that she cares for the child.
A more empirical literature in social psychology and economics tries to establish the effects of motivational trust on stabilizing cooperation and reliability in negotiations and in everyday life.
What about the epistemic implications of motivational accounts? Do they illuminate in any sense our trust in epistemic authority? At a first glance, motivational accounts seem better equipped to explain a broader spectrum of cases than evidential accounts do. A motivational dimension seems to be involved in the asymmetrical deferential relations of trust in epistemic authority that I’ve tried to suggest in my previous examples. Indeed, trust in epistemic authority doesn’t seem to be a matter of choice in the most straightforward examples: The child who trusts her mother when she tells her that she needs to breathe air to survive - even if she cannot see air and cannot figure out what is the role of oxygen in our survival - doesn’t have the choice to be skeptical, as well as the patient who is told by her doctor that she has contracted a potentially lethal disease. Also, we find ourselves committed to trust the intellectual authority of other people just because we are part of the same linguistic and epistemic community, we share the same institutions and we acknowledge a “division of cognitive labour” in our community. But if we accept the principle that a certain amount of “default” trust - or spontaneous trust - is needed to sustain our cognitive life in a social environment, how do we avoid the risk of credulity that such a trustful disposition seems to imply? And if the motivational trust that sustains our social relations may be based on moral, cultural or emotional pre-commitments, what about the pre-commitments underlying the motivational trust that sustains our cognitive relations? Moral commitments to trust in other people’s intellectual authority typically ground the adhesion to the most irrational beliefs. Religious beliefs or allegiance to a guru’s thoughts are often justified in terms of moral or emotional commitments. But that’s exactly the kind of beliefs that an epistemological account of trust should try to ban in order to avoid the risk of gullibility imputed to a default trustful attitude towards the words of others.

Reidian accounts of epistemic trust

Another way to argue for the role of motivational trust in knowledge acquisition is to see it as an innate disposition to accept what other people tell us. And indeed many authors have argued that a natural tendency to trust others is the only way to justify testimonial knowledge. The locus classicus of this position is Thomas Reid’s defense of trust in testimony: We are justified in believing what other people say because we, as humans have a natural disposition to speak the truth and a natural disposition to accept as true what other people tell us. Reid calls these two principles, “that tally with each other”[10], the Principle of Veracity and the Principle of Credulity. But the match between these two principles, that Reid considers self-evident, is far from being clear. The principle of veracity is not well correlated to truth: It just affirms that people are disposed to say what they believe to be true, which does not mean that they say what it is actually true[11]. Thus, an appeal to a natural trustful disposition doesn’t suffice to justify our epistemic trust and protect it from credulity.
Reid affirms that if we deny any legitimacy, or at least, naturalness to our trust in others, the result would be skepticism. We believe “by instinct” what our parents and teachers say long before having the capacity to critically judge their competence. But that is just a way of acknowledging the pervasiveness of the lore of inheritance and upbringing to shape one owns’ concepts and beliefs without explaining it. It is a fact that we are influenced by others, not only in infancy but in the acquisition of most of our beliefs. But acknowledging this fact is not sufficient explanation of why we are justified to comply with our trustful tendencies.
Modern defences of a Reidian epistemology[12] appeal to the existence of natural language as the material proof that the two principles (credulity and veracity) indeed tally with each other: Most statements in any public language are testimonial and most statements are true; if they were not it is difficult to imagine how a public language could have ever stabilized. [cf. Coady, 1992]. The very possibility of a common language presupposes a general truthful use of speech.
Tyler Burge relies on the “purely preservative character” of linguistic communication to argue that we have a priori justification to rely of what we understand other to be saying. Language, as memory, is a medium of content preservation[13].
I have discussed these positions elsewhere[14]. Here let me just mention that, although these positions give us some hints of the ‘passive’, non-intentional trust that characterizes our role of cognizers in a social community, their appeal to some structural features of language is less convincing in solving the paradox of epistemic trust, that is, how it is compatible with intellectual autonomy. That is, what concerns us here is: “how intellectual autonomy is possible, given what we know about the power of one’s inheritance and surroundings to shape one’s concepts, opinions and even the way one reasons?” [Foley, 2001: 128]
Epistemic trust out of self-trust
A different line of defense of the legitimacy of trust in others has been recently pursued by Richard Foley in his book on Intellectual Trust in Oneself and in Others [Cambridge, 2001]. Foley derives it from the justification we have to trust ourselves. We grant a default authority in our intellectual faculties to provide us with reliable information about the world. This is our only way out of skepticism. But if we have this basic trust in our intellectual faculties, why should we withhold it form others? We acknowledge the influence that others had in shaping our thoughts and opinions in the past. If acknowledging this fact doesn’t prevent us to grant authority to ourselves, it should not prevent us to grant authority to others, given that our opinions wouldn’t be reliable today if theirs were not in the past. And even in cases of interaction of people from different cultures whose influence upon our thinking is poor or nonexistent, we can rely on the general fact that our cognitive mechanisms are largely similar to extend our self-trust to them [cf. Foley 2004, ch. 4]. This strategy of simulation of other minds leads Foley to a sort of “modest epistemic universalism” according to which “It is trust in myself that creates for me a presumption in favor of other people’s opinions, eve if I know little about them”[15] [cf. ibidem p.108].
I find Foley’s position attractive as it preserves intellectual autonomy and ends in justifying just the minimal trust necessary to sustain our epistemic life, avoiding the “deferential incontinence” and thus gullibility that is imputed to Reidian solutions. But Foley’s analysis lacks the motivational dimension that I think an explanation of epistemic trust should include in order to account for very heterogeneous cases such as deliberate deference to an intellectual authority, passive trust to the authority of our cultural heritage and default trust that we grant to others in spontaneous conversation. What his account misses is the idea that in many contexts trusting others doesn’t seem to be depend on what we know or discover about them, as for instance that they are similar to us. Rather, trusting others is a matter of commitment to their trustworthiness in the social as well as in the epistemic cases. One could go further, and suggest that we owe this kind of commitment even to self-trust, that is, that the authority on my own mental states does not depend on something that I discover about myself. Self-trust is the product of a responsible and deliberative commitment about the consequences of assuming some beliefs as my beliefs. Richard Moran defends this line in his recent book, Authority and Estrangement[16]. According to Moran, this act of commitment is constitutive of my self-knowledge. I would not expand further, but I think it shows how problematic is to ground our trust in authority in self-trust. How can we capture the motivational dimension of epistemic trust we need to have a full-fledged notion of trust in authority? As we have seen, we cannot follow moral/social accounts of trust and ground a motivational account in emotional or moral pre-commitments, because this would unavoidably lead to irrationality. Still, grounding it in some innate dispositions or deriving it from self-trust misses the whole point of understanding the nature of our commitment to trust in other people’s authority.
In the last section, I will explore a different strategy, and consider one on the most straightforward contexts in which commitment, trust and knowledge bloom together, that is, human communication.
Conversation, trust and communication
One fundamental fact about the social transmission of knowledge that is surprisingly under-exploited in the epistemological literature on intellectual authority is that every social contagion of beliefs goes through a process of communication that ranges from street-level conversation to more institutionalized settings of information exchange. Our almost permanent immersion in talks and direct or indirect conversations is the major source of cognitive vulnerability to other people beliefs and reports, even when the exchange is not particularly focused on knowledge acquisition[17]. Communication is a voluntary act. Each time we speak we are intentionally seeking the attention of our interlocutors and thus presenting what we have to say as potentially relevant for them. Each time we listen, we intentionally engage in an interpretation of what has been said, and expand cognitive effort in order to make sense of what our interlocutor had in mind. In this last section of my paper, I will argue that it is the intentional, voluntary character of human communication that guarantees our intellectual autonomy even in those cases in which our epistemic position obliges us to defer to other people’s authority. And the making and breaking of epistemic trust is related in many ways to our conversational practices.
There are many different styles of discourse that imply different degrees of reciprocal trust. Of course, the set of norms and assumptions that we tacitly accept when engaging in intellectual conversation[18] are not the same we endorse in a party conversation where the common aim we tacitly share with our interlocutors is entertaining and social contact. Still, a basic reciprocal commitment, I will claim, has to take place in any genuine case of communication. And the cognitive dimension of this basic commitment has interesting consequences for our reciprocal trust.
Intentional analyses of communication have been a major contribution to philosophy of language and pragmatics in the last 40 years. We owe to Paul Grice[19] the modern pragmatic analysis of linguistic interpretation as the reconstruction of the speaker’s intentions. Simply decoding the linguistic meaning of the words conveyed in an act of communication is not enough to make sense of what the speaker wanted to tell us. Successful communication involves cooperation among interlocutors, even when the ultimate aim of one of the parties is to deceive the other: Without at least a common aim to understand each other, communication would not be possible. Thus communication is a much richer and constructive activity than simply decoding a linguistic signal. According to Grice, we infer what the speaker says on the tacit assumption that she is conforming to the same set of rules and maxims that guide our cooperative effort to understand each other. Among these maxims, two of them are worth considering for the present purposes: One is a maxim of quality of the information conveyed: “Do not say what you believe to be false” that Grice considers as most important. This doesn’t mean that the participants in a conversation are actually truthful. But they act as they were telling the truth, that is, they conform to the maxim, otherwise the minimal common aim to understand each other would not be realized. So they need at least to pretend to be cooperative. On the hearer’s side, the presumption that the speaker is conforming to the maxim doesn’t imply that the hearer comes automatically to believe what the speaker says. She interprets the speaker on the presumption that the speaker is conforming to the maxims, and that leads her to infer what she meant, even if, later, she may be led to revise her presumption on the basis of what she knows already or what she has come to believe during the conversation.
The other maxim that I would like to consider is that of relevance. Contemporary pragmatic theories have developed a notion of relevance as the key notion that guides our interpretations. For example Sperber and Wilson’s pragmatic approach, known as Relevance Theory, says that each act of communication communicates a presumption of its own relevance. A relevant piece of information, in a given context, is one that optimizes the balance between the cognitive effort I have to invest to process it and the benefits I have to entertain it in my mind. A potential communicator presents herself as having something to say that is relevant for us, otherwise we would not even engage in conversation. Communication is a very special case of behavior. It is always intentional and it requires, to be successful, to be recognized as intentional. I don’t automatically give attention to every cognitive stimulus that is potentially relevant for me, but I cannot refrain to allocate at least a minimal attention to an overt act of communication that is addressed to me, because the very fact that it is addressed to me is a cue that it worth attention. The presumption of relevance that accompanies every act of intentional communication is what grounds our spontaneous trust in others. I trust a communicator who intentionally asks for my attention to convey something that is relevant for me, and adopt a stance of trust that will guide me to a relevant interpretation of what she has said (that is, an interpretation that satisfies my expectations given what she says and what she may assume we are sharing as common ground contextual information). In this rich and constructive process of building new representations and hypothesis on the presumption that they will be relevant for me, the speaker and the hearer are both responsible for the set of thoughts they generate in conversation, that is, what Sperber and Wilson call their “mutual cognitive environment”. But the hearer doesn’t automatically accept as true the whole set of common ground thoughts that have been activated in the conversation. She may decide to entertain them in her mind for the sake of conversation, and trust the speaker that this is relevant information for her. Our mutual cognitive environments, that is, the set of hypotheses and representations that we activate in our mind when we communicate in order to understand each other, do not overlap with the set of what we actually believe. In conversation, our interior landscape enriches itself of new representations that have been created on the presumption of their relevance for us, a presumption we are justified to have because we have been intentionally addressed by our interlocutor. We trust our interlocutor in their willingness to share a mutually relevant cognitive environment, that is, to build a common ground that maximizes understanding and favors the emergence of new, relevant thoughts. But our previous knowledge and a more fine-grained check of the content communicated can end up in rejecting much of what has been said. Trusting in relevance of what other people say is the cognitive vulnerability that we accept in order to activate in our mind new thoughts and hypothesis that are shared with our interlocutors. There is never an automatic transfer of beliefs from one’s head to another’s. The “floating of other men’s opinions in our brains”[20] is mediated by a process of interpretation that make us activate a number of hypothesis on the presumption, guided by the hearer, that they will be relevant for us. These online thoughts that serve the purposes of conversation are not accepted by default as new beliefs. They are worth considering given the trust we make in our interlocutors. There may be even worth repeating without further checking because of their relevant effects in certain conversational contexts. But they can be easily discharged if their probability is too low given what we know about the world or what we have come to know about the interlocutor. We trust our interlocutors to be relevant enough to be worth our attention. Our trust is both fundamental and fragile: It is fundamental because I need to trust in other people’s willingness to be relevant for me in order to make sense of what they are saying. It is fragile because a further check can lead me to abandon most of the hypotheses I generated in conversation and withdraw credibility to my interlocutor.
Our mental life is populated by a bric-à-brac of drafty, sketchy semi-propositional representations that we need in order to sustain our interpretations of the thousands of discourses to which we are permanently exposed. We accept some of them as beliefs, we use others in our inferences and we throw a lot of them as pure noise. This doesn’t make us gullible beings: We trust others to cooperate in generating relevant sets of representations, and we share with them the responsibility of these representations. Of course, our epistemic strategies vary in the course of our life. The trust of a child in the relevance of what her parents say may lead her to automatically believing the content of what is said, that is, understanding and believing may be simultaneous processes in early childhood[21]. As we grow up, we develop strategies of checking and filtering information.
A presumption of trust in other people’s willingness to deliver us relevant information is thus the minimal default trust we are justified in having towards testimony. This stance of trust ends up enough often to an epistemic improvement of our cognitive life[22].
But our efforts in interpretation are not always rewarded. Trust in relevance guides our process of interpretation and may lead us to invest supplementary effort in trying to make sense of what our interlocutor is talking about. It is on the basis of our default trust, that we often invest too many resources with the only aim of making sense what the other person is talking about. Sometimes my supplementary efforts are rewarded, sometimes they end up in a too generous interpretation of what I was told. The overconfidence people sometimes have in the relevance of esoteric discourse depends on the direct proportionality between the effort people invest in interpreting others and the trust they have to receive relevant information. Trust in relevance may act as a bias that leads us to over-interpret or excessively rationalize what others say.
In a beautiful novel by Jerzy Kosinsky, Being There, adapted as a perhaps better known film with Peter Sellers, Chance Gardiner is a mentally impaired gardener who becomes an heir to the throne of a Wall Street tycoon, a presidential policy adviser and a media icon just by pronouncing few, enigmatic sentences about gardening.
As a result of a series of fortuitous accidents, Chance finds himself living in the house of Mr. Rand, a Wall Street tycoon and a close friend of the President of United States. In a dialogue with the President visiting Mr. Rand’s house, when asked to comment about the bad season at Wall Street, Chance says: “In a garden, growth has its season. There are spring and summer, but there are also fall and winter. And then spring and summer again. As long as the roots are not severed all is well and will be well” (p. 54). Looking for a relevant interpretation, and trusting (in this case mistakenly) to Chance’s willingness to be relevant, the President interprets it as an important statement about the fundamental symmetry between nature and society, and quotes him on television the day after.
We all have experiences of over-trust generated out of an over-investment in interpretation. And, conversely, an excessive investment in interpreting what a person says that reveals ill-founded may make our withdraw of trust more definitive.
Trust and comprehension are thus intimately related. An epistemology of trust should account for this relation. Our first epistemic objective in acquiring knowledge from others is to understand what they say and make sense of their thoughts within the context of ours. We are never passively infected by other people’s beliefs: we take the responsibility to interpret what they say and share with them a series of commitments on the quality of the exchange. The social dimension of knowledge is grounded in our cognitive activity as interpreters, an activity we always share with others.

Baier, A. [1986] “Trust and Antitrust”, Ethics, vol. 96, no. 2, pp. 231-260.
Becker, L.C. [1996] “Trust as Non-cognitive Security about Motives”, Ethics, 107, 43-61.
Blais, M. [1987] “Epistemic Tit for Tat”, Journal of Philosophy, 7, pp. 363-75.
Coady, C.A.J. [1992] Testimony, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Elgin, Catherine [1996] Considered Judgment, Princeton University Press
Foley, Richard [2001] Intellectual Trust in Oneself and Others, Cambridge University Press.
Gambetta, D. [1988] Trust. Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, on line edition at: http://www.sociology.ox.ac.uk/papers/trustbook.html
Goldman, A. [1991] "Epistemic Paternalism: Communication Control in Law and Society," The Journal of Philosophy 88: 113-131.
Hardin, Russell [2002] Trust, Russell Sage Foundation, New York.
Holton, R. [1994] “Deciding to Trust, Coming to Believe”, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 72, pp. 63-76.
Kitcher, P. [1992] “Authority, Deference and the Role of Individual Reason” in E. McMullin (ed.) The Social Dimension of Scientific Knowledge, University of Notre Dame Press.
Kitcher, P. [1994] “Contrasting conceptions of social epistemology” in F. Schmitt (ed.) Socializing Epistemology, Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 111-134.
Lackey, Jennifer [1999] “Testimonial Knowledge and Transmission” The Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 49, n. 197, pp. 471-490
Lagerspetz, O. [1998] Trust. The Tacit Demand, Kluwer.
Matilal, B.M., Chakrabati, A. (1994) Knowing from Words, Kluwer Academic Publishers
Moran, Richard [2001] Authority and Estrangement, Princeton University Press
Raz, Joseph [1986] The Morality of Freedom, Clarendon Press, Oxford
Raz, Joseph [1990] (ed.) Authority, New York University Press
Recanati, Francois [1997] “ Can We Believe What We Do not Understand?” Mind and Language, 12, 1,
Sennett, R. [1980] Authority, W. W. Norton, London.
Sperber, Dan [1997] “Intuitive and Reflexive Beliefs”, Mind and Language, 12, 1, pp. 67-83.
Sperber, Dan, Wilson, D. [1986/1995] Relevance: Communication and Cognition, Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

[1] This example is a reformulation of a Francois Recanati’s example in his paper: “Can We Believe What We Do Not Understand?” Mind and Language, 1997, that I have discussed at length in another paper: “Croire sans comprendre”, Cahiers de Philosophie de l’Universite de Caen, 2000. The problem of deferential beliefs was originally raised by Dan Sperber in a series of papers: “Apparent Irrational Beliefs”, “Intuitive and Reflexive Beliefs” Mind and language, 1997.
[2] Another possible rational motivation to be trustworthy in the case of science is the high cost of cheating in the scientific community and the fear of risking permanent exclusion (see M. Blais [1987])
[3] It is interesting to notice that Becker liquidates much of the recent debate around the epistemic role of motivational trust by introducing credulity, as the disposition to believe what another person says and to banish skeptical thoughts, and reliance, as a disposition to depend upon other people in some respects (pp. 45-46), both of them that lie outside the reach of a rational motivation to accept other people’s intellectual authority.
[4] Take for example Hardwig analysis in his paper: “The Role of Trust in Knowledge”. There are exceptions to this critics, as for example R. Foley’s book Intellectual Trust in Oneself and Others (Cambridge UP, 2001) in which a detailed analysis of trust in the authority of others is provided in ch.4.
[5] For an analysis of this ambiguity, cf. R. B. Friedman (1990) “On the Concept of Authority in Political Philosophy” in J. Raz (ed.) Authority, New York University Press.
[6] Cf. A. Goldman "Epistemic Paternalism: Communication Control in Law and Society," The Journal of Philosophy 88 (1991): 113-131.
[7] Kitcher [1992] defines this kind of authority: “earned authority”.
[8] Cf. for an example of use of the economics framework A. Goldman and M. Shaked [1991] and P. Kitcher [1993] ch.8.
[9] Bloch explains rituals as a collective moment of awareness of the deference to the tradition. Cf. M. Bloch (2004): “Rituals and Deference”, in H. Whitehouse and J. Laidlaw (eds.) Rituals and Memory: Towards a Comparative Anthropology of Religion, Altamira Press, London.
[10] Cf. Reid [1764] Inquiry into the Human Mind, § 24.
[11] See on this point K. Leherer: “Testimony, Justification and Coherence”, in Matilal & Chakrabarti (eds.) pp. 51-67.
[12] For an overview of contemporary Reidian epistemology, see R. Foley [2001]
[13] Cf. T. Burge: “Content Preservation”, Philosophical Review, 102, pp. 457-487.
[14] Cf. G. Origgi [2004] “Is Trust an Epistemological Notion?”, Episteme, vol. 1, n.1, pp. 1-12.
[15] As Foley says, a stronger epistemic universalism would imply that other people’s opinions are necessarily prima facie credible. Cf. ibidem, p. 107.
[16] Cf. R. Moran [2001] Authority and Estrangement, Princeton University Press, especially ch. 2.
[17] On the fortuitous character of lot of our knowledge, cf. R. Hardin: “If it Rained Knowledge”, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 33, pp. 3-24; and [2004] “Why Know?’ manuscript. Cf. also Jennifer Lackey: “Knowledge is not necessarily transmitted via testimony, but testimony can itself generate knowledge” [Jennifer Lackey (1999) “Testimonial Knowledge and Transmission”, The Philosophical Quarterly, 199, p. 490, vol. 49 n. 197]

[18] For an analysis of the mutually accepted norms that rule intellectual conversations, see P. Pettit and M Smith [1996] “Freedom in Belief and Desire”, The Journal of Philosophy, 93, 9, pp. 429-449.
[19] Cf. P. Grice [1957] Meaning, …
[20] Cf. J. Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. John W. Yolton, London 1961, 1, p. 58
[21] Interesting recent results in developmental psychology show that even young children are not gullible and have strategies for filtering information. See F. Clément, P. Harris, M. Koening (2004) “The Ontogenesis of Trust”, Mind&Language, vol. 19, 4, pp. 360-379.

[22] D. Sperber and D. Wilson have explained the details of the correlation between relevance and truth in D. Sperber, D. Wilson (2002): “Truthfulness and Relevance” Mind,

Author Information: Sanford C. Goldberg, Northwestern University, s-goldberg@northwestern.edu

Goldberg, Sanford C. 2013. “‘Analytic Social Epistemology’ and the Epistemic Significance of Other Minds.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (8): 26-48.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-S8

Please refer to:

In this paper I develop a rationale for pursuing a distinctly “social” epistemology, according to which social epistemology is the systematic study of the epistemic significance of other minds. After articulating what I have in mind with this expression, I argue that the resulting rationale informs work presently being done in the emerging tradition of “Analytic Social Epistemology” (ASE). I go on to diagnose Steve Fuller’s (2012) dismissal of ASE (as “retrograde”) as reflecting a rather deep — and, to date, deeply uncharitable — misunderstanding of the aims and rationale of this emerging tradition. Far from being retrograde, the best of the work in the emerging ASE tradition provides a nice compliment to the best of the social epistemology work in the social science tradition. The key to seeing this point is twofold: we need to recognize the normative orientation of (much of) the work in ASE; and, perhaps more importantly, we need to appreciate the difference between how Fuller (2012) understands the normativity of social epistemology, and how this is understood by theorists within the ASE tradition. I conclude with what I hope will be some constructive suggestions on this score.

Section 1: Communities, Dependency Relations, Norms and Assessment

In the last thirty years or so, philosophers, social scientists, and others have begun to speak of and pursue inquiry within a distinctly “social” epistemological framework. That there should be a subfield of epistemology in “social epistemology,” and that this subfield should have begun to attract a good deal of attention, are matters that require some explanation. (After all, there is no corresponding phenomenon with “baseball epistemology,” or “financial epistemology,” or “dinner epistemology,” or … .)

In one sense, the explanation is obvious. As standardly conceived, epistemology is the theory of knowledge. As standardly practiced, the theory of knowledge is interested in (among other things) the various sources of knowledge. We might think to explain the existence of a distinctly “social” epistemology, then, in terms of the existence of distinctly social sources of knowledge. According to this explanation, it is because we get a good deal of what we know from other people, that we ought to devote time to studying the nature of this source, and the nature of the knowledge that it produces.

There is much to this explanation. For one thing, the explanation foregrounds a claim — the claim that there are distinctly social sources of knowledge — whose plausibility has been at the center of a good deal of recent discussion. Given the highly individualistic orientation of much of traditional epistemology, many thinkers (at least since the British empiricists) wonder whether so-called “social” sources of knowledge might be reduced to other (individualistic) sources of knowledge: perception, inference, memory, etc. [1]1 For another thing, the present explanation makes clear that one rationale for pursuing social epistemology rests on the failure of such a reduction. In recent years, a good deal of ink has been spilled in examining the case for and against this reductive project.

Still, I think that it will not do to explain the existence of social epistemology entirely in terms of the fact that much of our knowledge comes from social sources. For one thing, it seems wrong to restrict epistemology’s potential interest in “the social” to that of a source of knowledge. On the contrary, those who are sympathetic to the pursuit of “social epistemology” often hold that one’s community is implicated in one’s body of knowledge in ways that go far beyond that of being a source of information. Nor is this the only drawback of the proposed explanation. Such an explanation fails to make clear precisely why many theorists think that social epistemology presents a challenge to certain aspects of the epistemological tradition. And by “many theorists” I have in mind not only the usual suspects (people like Steve Fuller and other sociologists of knowledge, those working in the history and philosophy of science, and theorists from Science and Technology Studies programs). I also have in mind some epistemologists whose training was within the epistemological tradition, and whose work continues to engage that tradition — including many of the very people Fuller dismisses as “analytic social epistemologists.” An adequate explanation for the emergence of social epistemology ought to explain the challenge such a development presents to epistemology as traditionally practiced.

In order to appreciate the nature of this challenge, and so to deepen our explanation for the existence (and rationale) of a distinctly social epistemology, we would do well to begin with the reasons for thinking that there are distinctly social sources of knowledge. These reasons, I want to suggest, point to a central deficiency in traditional epistemology, as it seeks to represent the contributions others make in one’s attempts at knowledge. Once we recognize this, we will be in a position to appreciate the variety of different ways in which knowledge acquisition is (often, and perhaps even typically) a social activity.

Epistemic Communities

Traditional epistemology is individualistic in its orientation: it focuses on the states, skills, and background information of individual epistemic subjects. As such it recognizes only two general ways for an individual to acquire knowledge of her environment: [2] through perception, or through inference (relying on one’s own background information). Once this framework is accepted, we are limited in the role(s) that other people can be recognized as playing in one’s pursuit of knowledge. Put in the starkest terms possible, others’ antics and appearances — their doings and sayings, their dress and manner of presentation etc. — are no different in principle from the antics and appearances of any of the objects in one’s environment. That is to say, on this framework other people’s antics and appearances have the status of evidence from which one can come to know things through inference. Thus, when I come to know e.g. that the Dean is upset through your telling me that she is, my route to knowledge here is no different in kind than the route by which I come to know that it’s cold outside by seeing my brother reach for his parka, or the route by which I come to know that we have a mouse problem by observing the mouse droppings under the sink, or the route by which I come to know that it is currently raining by hearing the characteristic patter-patter-patter on my roof. In each case perception makes available to me a piece of evidence — an utterance of yours; a piece of nonverbal behavior of my brother’s; mouse droppings; sounds coming from the roof — from which I go on to make inferences. In making these inferences, I am relying on my background information, both for interpreting the evidence in the first place (those things are mouse droppings; that’s the sound of rain), and for knowing which inferences to draw from my evidence (the presence of mouse droppings is highly correlated with the nearby presence of mice; my brother reaches for his parka only when it’s cold outside; you assert things only when what you assert is true).

I want to suggest that this approach to the role others play in one’s pursuit of knowledge fundamentally mischaracterizes that role. To be sure, we often do draw inferences from others’ antics, speech, and appearances; and when we do, their antics, speech, and appearances serve as evidence. But there are also cases in which we rely on others as epistemic subjects in their own right. When we do, we regard them not merely as providing potential evidence, but also, and more centrally, as manifesting the very results of their own epistemic sensibility. And when one comes to acquire knowledge through relying on results others have made manifest to one in this way, (i) one’s own knowledge depends on more than the evidence in one’s own possession; (ii) one’s reasons outstrip what one oneself can offer in defense of one’s beliefs; (iii) one’s access to the facts go beyond what is accessible merely to one’s own eyes (or ears or …). In these cases the epistemic task has been socially distributed; and with only a little overstatement we might say that the distinct epistemic subjects involved constitute (part of) an epistemic community.

I cannot pretend that this picture is anything but controversial among those who grew up in the more traditional, individualistic orientation that characterizes orthodox epistemology. [3] But I won’t defend this picture further here.[4] Instead, I would like to suggest how social epistemology looks from the vantage point of those who take this picture seriously. Those who do take this picture seriously recognize that we stand in a fundamentally different relation to other epistemic subjects than we do to the rest of the items in our environment. And once one recognizes this, one sees the need to characterize what I will proceed to call the epistemic significance of other minds.

To understand what this involves, let me describe in more detail how (from the epistemic point of view) our relations to other epistemic subjects differ from our relations to the rest of the items in our environment. Here I highlight three dimensions of difference.

Epistemic Dependency Relations

First, there are various epistemic dependency relations that structure our interactions with others. Depending on a thermometer for knowledge of the current temperature differs from depending on another’s telling you the temperature: in the latter case but not the former, you are depending on your source to make available to you a piece of knowledge that is the result of her own epistemic sensibility. This isn’t to say that she herself arrived at her judgment relying only on her own on-board cognitive competences. Perhaps she herself came to know the current temperature by glimpsing the read-out of a nearby thermometer, or by reading the weather section of her newspaper. But even if she did, you remain epistemically dependent on her: you are relying on the epistemic goodness of the processes through which she came in possession of and subsequently reported the information in question. That is, you are epistemically dependent on her in her selection of a good source, in her competent “reading” of that source, and in her competent reporting of what she read.

When you depend on her in this way, your knowledge of the temperature depends on the epistemic goodness of the results of her epistemic sensibility on this occasion. To be sure, when you know the temperature through reading a thermometer, you are relying on it to be working properly. However, when it comes to the epistemic tasks involved in coming to know the temperature, it makes no sense to say that you have distributed some of that task to the thermometer. A thermometer exhibits no epistemic sensibility on which to rely; insofar as you are relying on the thermometer’s output, your reliance is only as epistemically good as yourown grounds for so relying (observed track record; reasons for trusting the company that manufactured it; and so forth). I describe this difference by saying that whereas reliance on another epistemic subject can make you epistemically dependent on that subject, reliance on a mere instrument (or other item in your environment) does not do so. Of course, relying on another person’s say-so is one kind of epistemic dependence; but it is not the only kind, and it is a task of social epistemology to enumerate and describe the variety of kinds of epistemic dependence exhibited in our interactions with others.[5]

Epistemic Norms

Second, there are a variety of epistemic norms that enable us to calibrate our expectations of one another as we pursue our inquiries (whether individually or jointly). You might well expect the shadows creeping across your lawn to proceed at a calculable rate, and to correspond in some regular way to the time of day. But insofar as you have such expectations, these expectations require some epistemic support — e.g. by appeal to your past observations of the rate of the shadow’s creep, the correlations you have made between this creep and the observed time, and so forth. In contrast, there are a variety of expectations we have of others  — in particular, with respect to the roles that they play in our attempts of knowledge — where it is not obvious that these expectations are evidentially grounded in this way. For example, consider the expectations we have of others’ assertions: we expect others to be knowledgeable or reliable in what they tell us, and we hold them responsible when they are not. But it is far from clear that this practice depends on everyone’s having sufficient evidence that assertions generally are highly knowledgeable or reliable. Rather, these expectations appear to reflect epistemic norms governing the practice of assertion, where the norms themselves are at least implicitly mutually acknowledged by all members of the speech community, and where it is the (internalization of the) norms themselves that underwrite our expectations of knowledgeableness or reliability in others’ assertions.[6]

Given that we live in complicated communities exhibiting a high degree of the division of intellectual labor, we would expect there to be other coordination problems whose solutions rely on other epistemic norms; the epistemic norms involved in assertion need not be the only instance. I regard it as a task for social epistemology to enumerate and describe these norms, and to articulate their epistemic bearing on the expectations they underwrite.

Epistemic Assessment of Other Minds

Third, as a result of the first two points, the epistemic assessment of beliefs formed through one of the “social routes” to knowledge[7] would appear to be decidedly different from the epistemic assessment of beliefs not so formed. In particular, the former would appear to require the assessment of a variety of social factors that have no relevance in assessments of the latter sort. The point can be put vividly, if somewhat misleadingly, by saying that if a route to knowledge is social, there is no way that we ought to assess the resulting belief in the sort of terms Descartes described in Meditations on a First Philosophy.[8]

Descartes thought that he was in a position from the armchair to certify all that he knew and justifiedly believed, merely by reflecting on the reasons and evidence that were available to him then and there, as well as the relations holding between these reasons and the beliefs he formed on their basis. But it is wrong to think that an armchair assessment of this sort, or indeed any assessment restricted to features of the individual in isolation, will be adequate to cases involving a “social route” to knowledge. On the contrary, insofar as epistemic tasks really are socially distributed, our assessment itself must be a social one. It must take into account not only the other individual(s) on whom the belief epistemically depends, but also the social practices and epistemic norms that structure the relations between the individuals. In such cases, we will need to rethink the nature of epistemic assessment so that it proceeds along social lines, in a way that reflects the various epistemic dependencies and epistemic norms that are implicated in the production and sustainment of belief. I regard it as a task for social epistemology to reconceive the nature of epistemic assessment, and, where needed, to reconceive the categories employed in the assessment. [9]

In short, the epistemic significance of other minds can be seen in (i) the various forms taken by our epistemic dependence on others, (ii) the variety of norms that underwrite our expectations of one another as we make our way in the common epistemic environment, and (iii) the distinctive epistemic assessment(s) implicated whenever a doxastic state is the result of a “social route” to knowledge. It is these, (i)-(iii), that capture the ways in which our relations to other epistemic subjects differs from our relations to the rest of the items in our environment. And it is this, I propose, that provides the rationale for a distinctly social epistemology: social epistemology ought to be the systematic investigation into the epistemic significance of other minds, where this is understood to involve the epistemic tasks I have described in connection with each of (i)-(iii).

Below I will be suggesting that this rationale informs the emerging tradition in social epistemology that is sometimes known as “Analytic Social Epistemology.” But before I develop that idea, I want to draw out several lessons from the foregoing rationale.

The Extent to Which Epistemology is Social

First, if the foregoing rationale is to be our guide, it is an open question to what extent epistemology is social. To be sure, it is social at least in part because we depend on others as sources of knowledge. But this does not exhaust the roles others play in our pursuit of knowledge. Consider the roles others play as experts, as well as in the certification of expertise; in policing standards of assertoric speech and writing; in peer review; in the collective research projects involving teams of researcher, where no single person is in a position to have all of the relevant expertise or to possess all of the relevant evidence; in devising technologies aimed at enabling us to discern more of nature’s secrets, and in training others how to use that technology; and in the process by which we educate our young to become thoughtful, critical, productive members of our own knowledge community. In all of these and perhaps many other ways, we depend on each other epistemically. As I see matters, it is the task of social epistemology to enumerate and describe these ways, to characterize the epistemic norms that underwrite our expectations of one another in these efforts, and to describe the epistemic standards we bring to bear when we assess the results. None of us should be confident of the precise contours of social epistemology (or its place in epistemology more generally) in advance of an extended investigation into these matters.

Second, it is an open question how best to understand the role of technology in inquiry. Here I mean to include not only tools of communication and information technology but also the distinctive technology and instrumentation employed in mathematics and the social, natural, and human sciences. It is an open question how to understand technology’s role here since it is far from clear how we ought to think of that role, given the rationale I have suggested for the pursuit of social epistemology. On one hand, technology falls within that part of the world whose antics provide us merely with evidence. On the other, technology itself is typically the result of a good deal of epistemic effort: other epistemic subjects bring their epistemic sensibility to bear on the construction, validation, employment, and teaching of technology. What is more, at least some of our technology — here I have in mind scientific instruments — are themselves specifically designed for the purpose of providing results which enable us to discern aspects of the world’s features that would go undetected by unaided perception. Thus our reliance on technology does appear, in both indirect and direct ways, to involve reliance on other epistemic subjects. It would thus seem that social epistemology would do well to explore the epistemological dimension of our reliance on technology.

Third, it is an open question whether the individual epistemic subject is the proper unit of analysis at which to conduct epistemic assessment. So far I have been speaking as if the unit of analysis is the individual subject. This way of speaking is compatible with a view in epistemology and in the philosophy of the social sciences known as “methodological individualism,” according to which all statements regarding communities or collectives can be understood, without remainder, in terms of statements regarding individual actors and their relations to one another. At the same time, many social epistemologists take issue with methodological individualism, and it might seem curious that I have been speaking in ways that appear to emerge from such a doctrine. But the matter is complicated. On the one hand, my sense is that most of the early criticisms of methodological individualism are not compelling. On the other, the increasing complexity and interconnectedness of the world in which we pursue inquiry, as manifested in the prevalence of “big data” [10] (in which our epistemic dependence on others is more profound than any one of us can appreciate), enhance the need to assess the case for a more collective epistemology. The development and evaluation of this case ought to be on the agenda of social epistemology.

All three of these points suggest that we do a great disservice to the potential of social epistemology research if the only rationale we recognize for pursuing this research is that there are social sources of knowledge. Such a conception is far too limited. In studying the variety of epistemic dependency relations, the set of epistemic norms that enable epistemic tasks to be socially distributed, and the nature of the epistemic standards used to assess the resulting beliefs, we can see clearly why social epistemology is not merely one category among others on the list of sources of knowledge. We can also see the sort of challenge that social epistemology presents to orthodoxy. In a nutshell, our epistemic dependence on others cannot be understood in the orthodox (individualistic) terms of traditional epistemology, nor can the questions about the nature and scope of this dependence find their place among the standard questions of individualistic epistemology. It would thus be a significant mistake to think that acknowledging the relevance of social epistemology is merely adding one other item to the list of knowledge sources.

In short, I submit that the pursuit of social epistemology is the attempt to come to terms with the epistemic significance of other minds. To do so we can begin by acknowledging other people, not merely as sources of knowledge, but as resources of knowledge — where others bring their own epistemic sensibility to bear in all sorts of ways as we shape and operate within a common epistemic environment.

Section 2: A Rationale for Social Epistemology

I intend for the foregoing to serve as a rationale for pursuing social epistemology. What is more, I believe that this rationale does in fact inform the sort of social epistemology that is prevalent on the contemporary Anglo-American epistemology scene. (Since Fuller describes this scene as “Analytic Social Epistemology,” or “ASE” for short, I will follow his lead on this — despite my dislike of this label.[11]) In this section I will argue that my proposed rationale informs work within the emerging ASE tradition in three main ways.

First, my proposed rationale makes sense of the origins of ASE within traditional (Anglo-American) epistemology, and explains its early focus on issues of testimony. Second, my proposed rationale makes sense of the variety of topics currently being pursued within the emerging ASE tradition. And third, my proposed rationale provides a plausible construal of the contours of ASE within epistemology more generally — contours that can lead us to predict the shape of future work within this tradition. While the majority of those actively engaged in ASE will not find my comments controversial it is worth clarifying for those who are unfamiliar with this emerging tradition or are laboring under mischaracterizations of it.[12]

The Emerging Tradition of Analytic Social Epistemology

First, the rationale I have proposed for the pursuit of social epistemology makes sense of the origins of the subfield of social epistemology within traditional (Anglo-American) epistemology. On my reconstruction, these origins lie in the attempt to make sense of what I have been calling the epistemic significance of other minds. In particular, the move to a more social epistemology begins in a re-examination of the role others play in our individual attempts to acquire knowledge. From this vantage point, it is natural that testimony (as a source of knowledge) should loom so large at the outset of the emerging tradition of ASE. This focus on testimony is natural in only because testimony offers the clearest case in which the individualism of orthodox epistemology is inadequate, in the ways described in section 1. Thus, it is precisely in thinking about the nature of testimonial knowledge that we bring maximum pressure to bear on the prevalent individualism of traditional epistemology. Or so I argued in my last book (Goldberg 2010), and so it was argued in the introduction to the very first anthology in Goldmanian (Anglo-American) social epistemology, Schmitt (1994).[13] And indeed, this is precisely what we find: in its earliest moments, ASE focused the role others play in enabling the acquisition of knowledge through testimony. As we will see shortly, this is a point that Fuller himself acknowledges (Fuller 2012, 275).

Nor is this the only area in which the proposed rationale informs the recent Goldmanian tradition in social epistemology. The proposed rationale can also make sense of the issues that have more recently been pursued on the contemporary ASE scene. Beyond the work on testimony, there has been a good deal of work on such phenomena as disagreement,[14] collective epistemology,[15] the epistemology of inclusiveness,[16] and the epistemology of instrument-based belief.[17] In each case we can make sense of the inclusion of the topic (on the list of things currently being pursued within the ASE tradition) in terms of their being facets of the epistemic significance of other minds — that is, in the very terms suggested by the proposed rationale. It is perhaps worth making this explicit.

Consider the literature on the epistemology of disagreement. This literature addresses the epistemic significance of (peer) disagreement. Here the question is centrally whether the fact of (peer) disagreement itself constitutes a basis for revising one’s confidence on the disputed matter. Why should it even occur to us that the fact of disagreement itself — as opposed to the arguments and evidence cited within the disagreement — might have any epistemic significance at all? That it does occur to us reflects uncertainty regarding the epistemic significance to be ascribed to the output of another epistemic subject’s own cognitive system.

Consider next the recent interest in collective epistemology. Work on this topic addresses whether there is any place in our ontology for groups or collective subjects, or whether the relevant “social” phenomena are ultimately reducible to an ontology that recognizes only collections of discrete individuals. Once again, we can understand this as asking after the epistemic significance of collaboration and cooperation with others in inquiry: does the effect of such collaboration underwrite an epistemic subject over and above the individuals who are collaborating? This is another facet of the epistemic significance of other minds.

Next, consider the recent attention to inclusiveness. While there is one aspect of this topic that can be understood in the fully individualistic terms of orthodox epistemology — How does being inclusive in one’s deliberations affect one’s own epistemic perspective?[18] — there are many other aspects that can only be understood as exploring the epistemic significance of other minds. For example, how does inclusiveness in group deliberation affect the quality of the group’s decisions? [19] This question concerns what we might describe as the epistemic significance of deliberation with other minds. For another example, what epistemic norms are proper for group deliberation if such deliberation aims to acknowledge the reality of multiple (and diverse) epistemic subjects, each of whom has her or his own take on matters? [20] This is a question about the norms that are proper when one is dealing with other epistemic subjects.

I have just been suggesting that my proposed rationale can make sense of the variety of topics currently being pursued within the emerging ASE tradition. I turn, finally, to a third way in which the proposed rationale informs contemporary work in the emerging ASE tradition. By seeing this tradition as organized around and motivated by the epistemic significance of other minds, we arrive at a plausible construal of the contours of social epistemology within Anglo-American epistemology more generally. Others are not merely sources of knowledge; they permeate our attempts to acquire and maintain knowledge. Insofar as these interactions between subjects are shaped by cognitive labor of each of the subjects, there is an opportunity to pursue the epistemic significance of the interaction — in other words, an opportunity to do social epistemology, ASE-style. This would lead us to predict that future topics of research will develop around the ways in which other minds bear on our epistemic projects, not merely by providing us with information, but also as cooperative subjects in joint modes of inquiry, and as fellows in a shared tradition, with shared practices and institutions that shape both our expectations of one another and the forms of our interaction.

In this section I have been belaboring the point that the work being done within the emerging tradition of ASE can be understood as part of a comprehensive attempt to characterize the epistemic significance of other minds. I now want to go on to argue that, when it is understood in this way, ASE is not guilty of the more serious of the charges Fuller levels against it. (While it is guilty of some of the lesser charges, the explanation for this does not attest to the “retrograde” status of ASE, as Fuller contends.)

Section 3: Addressing Fuller’s Critique

In this section I want to argue that, while some of the concerns Fuller raises against the emerging tradition of ASE are apt, the significance he attaches to these criticisms is faulty, and as a result his wholesale critique of ASE fails to hit the mark. To make good on this claim I will be assuming that ASE can be understood as part of a comprehensive attempt to characterize the epistemic significance of other minds.

I want to begin with what I take to be Fuller’s central criticism of ASE. This criticism is implicit in the question that serves as the heading of the section of his paper in which he discusses ASE: “Why is ASE so retrograde?” (273; italics added) Simply put, Fuller faults ASE with having failed to make any significant advances, and he purports to explain this alleged failure as the result of ASE’s supposedly “‘minimalist’ aspirations” (274). He writes that ASE’s “‘minimalist’ aspirations” are seen in (and I quote)

(1) A tendency to operate with a minimal understanding of actual knowledge practices, including their histories and aspirations, a strategy that is often defended in the name of maximum abstraction and generality.

(2) A tendency to minimize the impact that the philosopher could have on ongoing forms of inquiry, such that the Lockean self-description of having been an ‘underlabourer’ for Newton is presented as ambitious.[21]

(3) A tendency to focus on extant epistemic practices — ‘trust,’ ‘testimony,’ and ‘expertise’ — that appear designed so as to minimally upset the status quo, such that those who would significantly alter our default epistemic behaviors are always put on the back foot in terms of burden of proof (Fuller 2012, 274-75).

On the basis of this criticism, Fuller describes ASE as playing a role analogous to that of the sixteenth-Century astronomer Tycho Brahe. It was Brahe who “proposed a compromise solution to the discrepancies between the Ptolemaic and Copernican worldview” by suggesting that we continue to endorse “the ancient view that the earth is the centre of the universe” while simultaneously holding “the modern view that all the other celestial bodies orbit the sun.” (273) The suggestion appears to be that ASE, like Brahe, is “retrograde” insofar as it pursues inquiry within an old and inadequate intellectual framework. In fact, Fuller goes so far as to say that, under the influence of people like Alvin Goldman, ASE “has marched steadily backwards” to the point where “we might currently speak of a Ptolemaic turn in social epistemology.” (274)

I find Fuller’s rhetoric, and in particular his astronomical analogy, rather seriously misguided.[22] While his description of ASE in (1)-(3) above does capture some aspects of the contemporary literature, his analysis of the contemporary scene in “Analytic Social Epistemology” substantially distorts that scene’s features.

Fuller’s First Criticism

Suppose that I am right to think that so-called “Analytic Social Epistemology” can be understood as part of a systematic attempt to come to terms with the epistemic significance of other minds. Suppose further that I am right to think that this attempt will involve the three tasks I mentioned above: (i) identifying and describing the varieties of types of epistemic dependence; (ii) characterizing the norms that entitle us to the expectations which inform our informational dealings with one another (and with our instruments and technologies); and (iii) giving an account of the epistemic assessment of the doxastic states that result from this interaction. This is enough to see that Fuller is quite right to think that proponents of ASE need to know about our actual knowledge practices. (These include such things as our deference to experts and the accepted methods of expertise validation; the practices through which we rely on technologies in the pursuit of inquiry; the distributed nature of work on epistemic teams; and so forth.) After all, it is these “knowledge practices” that provide a good deal of the evidence for what it is that social epistemology ought to be identifying and describing in the first place.

Nor is this the only thing Fuller is right about. I think it is only slightly exaggerated to say that, as things now stand, many of the theorists within the emerging ASE tradition “operate with a minimal understanding of actual knowledge practices.” Putting these two points together, I can endorse a qualified version of the first half of Fuller’s criticism in (1): proponents of ASE ought to know more than we standardly do about “knowledge practices”.

This is a fair criticism, but one that is not particularly damning. After all, if one thinks that a group of theorists within a given theoretical tradition ought to know more about a certain topic, then the proper reaction would be to regard them as needing to learn more about the topic. It would not be to dismiss the entire theoretical tradition from they come. Perhaps this more limited reaction is all that Fuller means to be expressing with his criticism in (1). But it appears that his critique is more than this. After all, he goes on to offer an explanation for the current state of ignorance.

Fuller describes this “minimal understanding of actual knowledge practices” as “a strategy” among theorists in the ASE tradition which is “often defended in the name of maximum abstraction and generality” (italics added). This rhetoric makes it seem as though Fuller regards the offending ignorance as reflecting something to which theorists in the ASE tradition are ideologically committed. Perhaps there are some theorists within the ASE tradition who are so committed, and who would defend this commitment in the way Fuller describes. But even so it would be a far cry to condemning ASE itself as ideologically committed to such ignorance.

If this is what Fuller has in mind, he is substantially distorting the emerging ASE tradition. I argued above that ASE can be understood to be part of a systematic attempt to discern the epistemic significance of other minds. If so, theorists within this tradition have clear grounds for addressing such ignorance. Indeed, this was precisely what I acknowledged above. In light of this, we might more charitably explain the continued existence of such a state of minimal understanding, not (as Fuller does) as something to which ASE is ideologically committed, but rather as a temporary state, perhaps to be expected in the early years in which ASE is being developed, but one which we would expect will diminish as time goes on. If I had to guess, I would identify three main factors as those that contribute to the present state of relative ignorance.

First, theorists in the ASE tradition have shown a marked interest in the normative over the descriptive, and this has lead us to focus less attention on our actual knowledge practices. Second, the tradition Fuller describes as ASE is still less than two decades old, and while two decades might seem like a long time, philosophy is a discipline in which change comes slowly — for better and for worse. Third, a very common phenomenon in academic research, the division of intellectual labor, reinforces the already-existing tendencies among theorists in this tradition to stick to the normative questions. I would predict that we will begin to see these divisions break down in the next generation or two of social epistemologists in the ASE tradition. But as I say, these are guesses. And whether or not my more charitable explanation is correct, I can say this: this state of minimal understanding is one that, by the lights of the very rationale I have described for ASE, ought to be eliminated. And this is enough to show that it would not be correct to think that such a minimal understanding is a core commitment of ASE (owing perhaps to its commitment to “maximum abstraction and generality”).

I conclude, then, that while Fuller is correct in part of what he says in (1) — there is a relative ignorance of current knowledge practices among many of us working in the ASE tradition – he is wrong if he thinks that this is a particularly damning criticism. It is rather a constructive criticism that can and should be addressed in future work.

Fuller’s Second Criticism

What should be said of Fuller’s second criticism, to the effect that ASE exhibits “a tendency to minimize the impact that the philosopher could have on ongoing forms of inquiry”? I confess that I am unclear why this should be thought a criticism, even if it is true. Perhaps Fuller is giving expression to the view that ASE is objectionable unless it is committed to some sort of pragmatism in the philosophy of science, and to some sort of activist agenda in the real world.[23] But it is hard to see why this should be.

In particular, it is hard to see why ASE should be objectionable unless it endorses some sort of pragmatism in the philosophy of science. If this really is Fuller’s view, then in effect he is tying his approach to social epistemology to a particular philosophical position — and a rather contentious one at that. Wouldn’t it be better to delimit the scope of the sort of inquiry one proposes to do within social epistemology, and then let the ideological chips fall where they may?

What is more, if Fuller really is tying his conception of social epistemology to pragmatist views in epistemology and philosophy of science, he is endorsing views that are often subject to the very criticisms he is at pains to avoid. In particular, pragmatist views are susceptible to the sort of criticism Goldman makes when he criticizes the “veriphobic” traditions in epistemology and philosophy of science (Goldman 2009). The criticism Goldman has in mind is one that bears against any view whose standards of assessment do not include or make any reference to truth. But this is a worry that can arise regarding pragmatist standards, at least insofar as their focus replaces truth with what “works,” what “makes a difference” (to the course of our experience; to our ability to build new technologies; etc.).

Fuller sometimes speaks in ways that invite others to think that he endorses this sort of truth-less pragmatism – as when he endorses the thought that “epistemic standards” are a “social construction” (Fuller 2012, 276) aimed at helping us realize our community’s goals (more on this below). Thus it is unclear whether Fuller’s charge in (2) can be made without committing him to a version of pragmatism that invites Goldman’s “veriphobia” criticism. In fairness to Fuller, he has written several books in which he claims to do just this. In light of this, I might reframe the present point as follows: insofar as Fuller aims to be offering a criticism that proponents of ASE themselves can see as scoring points against ASE, he is not advancing his case at all with the point that ASE exhibits “a tendency to minimize the impact that the philosopher could have on ongoing forms of inquiry.” On the contrary, this sort of criticism plays into the hands of his would-be critics. I conclude that Fuller’s charge in (2) is deeply contentious, unnecessarily limits our conception of social epistemology, and is arguably inconsistent with his avowed aim of avoiding “veriphobia.”

Fuller’s Third Criticism

This brings me to Fuller’s third criticism, that proponents of ASE exhibit “a tendency to focus on extant epistemic practices — ‘trust,’ ‘testimony,’ and ‘expertise’ — that appear designed so as to minimally upset the status quo.” Here Fuller is making two distinct claims: first, that there is “a tendency to focus on extant epistemic practices – ‘trust,’ ‘testimony,’ and ‘expertise’”; and second, that this tendency is “designed so as to minimally upset the status quo.” [24] While I agree with him (at least in broad outlines) on the first point, I think his second point (which is the damning one) is baseless.

Fuller is clearly correct that there is a good deal of work that has been done within the ASE tradition on the topics he mentions (testimony, trust, and expertise). Indeed, I myself noted this point above. I also think that the prevalence of this work within the emerging ASE tradition is easy to explain — but that the explanation gives the lie to Fuller’s more damning criticism. Fuller appears to think that the reason for this focus is an intentional effort on the part of theorists in this tradition to avoid “upset[ting] the status quo.” But this is precisely contrary to what is the case. As I noted above, the focus on such things as testimony, trust, and expertise brings maximum pressure to bear against the prevalent individualism of traditional epistemology. These phenomena — the phenomena of trust, testimony, and expertise — are the best (least contentious) case for thinking that the epistemic “status quo,” with its individualistic orientation, is inadequate to the tasks before us.[25] Thus, far from being a rearguard move to preserve the tradition, the focus on testimony, trust, and expertise is an attempt to break with tradition and open the way for a more fully social epistemology.

To be sure, a social epistemology that limits itself entirely to discussions of testimony, trust, and expertise is a stunted social epistemology. While Fuller nowhere claims that ASE is stunted in this fashion, it is worth underscoring that were such an allegation to be made it would be false. Indeed, if I am right that ASE can be seen as part of the systematic attempt to appreciate the epistemic significance of other minds, then we should expect that a great deal more than testimony will be studied within this emerging tradition. And above I noted the recent interest in disagreement, collective epistemology, the epistemology of beliefs formed through reliance on technology, and the epistemology of inclusiveness. To this we can add questions regarding the epistemology of privacy and secrecy.[26] That such topics are now as popular within the emerging tradition of ASE as is work on testimony and expertise undermines Fuller’s proposed explanation for the focus on testimony, trust, and expertise.

Section 4: Epistemic Intuitions

I have just rebutted Fuller’s charge against ASE of being retrograde (for having “minimalist aspirations”). But this is not the only charge Fuller levels against ASE. In the very same section of his paper from which I took the quote above, Fuller writes that

naturalized epistemology remained fixated on the philosopher’s ‘pre-analytic’ epistemic intuitions. … [S]ome in this camp [of naturalized epistemology] — perhaps Stephen Stich most notably — have gone native in their naturalism, embracing evolutionary psychology. Those who remain epistemologists, such as Goldman himself, have marched steadily backwards. … In fact, we might currently speak of a Ptolemaic turn in social epistemology. Following this turn, the empirical disciplines have been effectively abandoned in favor of computer models and other hypothetical scenarios, redolent of social contract theory, suggestive of transcendental arguments but ultimately pre-emptive of critical data checks (273-4).

Insofar as I understand the charge(s) Fuller is leveling here, they appear to be two: theorists within the ASE tradition rely on their own epistemic intuitions as their primary data; and the result is that the (computational and other) models they produce have little if any empirical validity. Neither of Fuller’s charges does what he wants them to do, namely, condemn ASE to a “retrograde” tradition that we must abandon if we are to make progress in social epistemology. While his first charge may be true, I want to suggest that this is not objectionable in the way Fuller thinks; and his second charge, if true, is a reason to criticize particular models, not grounds for abandoning the ASE tradition as a whole.

Consider the charge that practitioners of ASE rely on their own epistemic intuitions as their primary data. Is this charge, by itself, one that the proponent of ASE should fear? I don’t think so. I suspect that Fuller regards this charge as objectionable on the grounds that to rely one one’s own epistemic intuitions as one’s primary data, while simultaneously “operat[ing] with a minimal understanding of actual knowledge practices” (274), results in an empirically invalid theory. But if so, this is grounds for criticizing particular models, not for abandoning ASE.

Fuller might respond that his point is not (or not merely) that the models are empirically invalid, but rather that there is something wrong with consulting “pre-analytic epistemic intuitions” in the first place. But if this is Fuller’s criticism, then he has failed to appreciate the importance of the essentially normative aims of ASE. Let me explain.

The Normative Aims of Analytic Social Epistemology

Emerging out of traditional epistemology, ASE takes from epistemology two key things: a focus on the normative dimension of knowledge and inquiry; and the conceptual and theoretical tools with which to characterize this dimension.[27] The concepts of knowledge and evidence, of reasons and rationality are normative concepts: their application reflects the satisfaction of certain evaluative standards. To some extent, these standards can be discerned in what Fuller describes as “actual knowledge practices” — that is, in what passes for good reasons or evidence, in what is taken as rational and reasonable, and in the practices through which knowledge claims are accepted without further ado. After all, it is in these evaluative practices that the prevailing standards are made manifest. On this score the work of social theorists such as Fuller has been extremely illuminating, revealing our practices to be much less clean, and much more fraught with social and political considerations, than most would have supposed.

Still, a full account of the relevant epistemological standards requires more than a description of those practices alone can provide. For one thing, the evaluative practices themselves, being messy, are sometimes in conflict — there are debates over whether such-and-such is known, or is good evidence, or is reasonable. When this happens we need some way to adjudicate the conflict, and no appeal to the practices themselves will provide what is needed. (I will return to this issue below.) For another, there must be room to call our evaluative practices themselves into question — if not all at once (a recipe for self-defeat), at least on those occasions when there are well-motivated doubts regarding a particular practice. It is on such occasions that proponents of ASE do well to advert to the sort of normative standards epistemology is in the business of trying to articulate. No doubt, a good deal of the force of these standards rests on something Fuller might deride as “‘pre-analytic’ epistemic intuitions.” [28]  But I repeat: if the task is to assess the practices themselves, or to adjudicate between conflicts that arise within our practices, we need some critical perspective from outside the local practice(s). To be sure, this perspective itself is not beyond scrutiny.

We can and should explore whether the standards epistemologists present as our standards are in fact the right standards to have. Indeed, this is to do traditional epistemology. But Fuller’s criticism was meant precisely to be a criticism of the traditionalism of ASE. I can’t see how to make good on this criticism without at the same time abandoning epistemology’s traditional role as casting a critical eye on our existing “knowledge practices”. In saying this I do not intend to be offering an invitation to proponents of ASE to remain ignorant of such practices; I intend rather to be construing the emerging tradition of ASE as a complement to those who would describe these practices in detail.

Indeed, this is precisely why I think that the best way to motivate the project of social epistemology is as an exploration of the epistemic significance of other minds. The point here is simply this: given the epistemic role others play in our attempts to acquire knowledge, part of the challenge is to articulate the very normative standards that underwrite our expectations of one another as we play these roles. To be sure, knowing our “knowledge practices” will help us discern the standards that are implicit in our practices. But — for the reasons given — the social epistemologist cannot rest with knowledge of these practices alone. Insofar as we hope to be able to address disputes that arise within a set of practices, and to be able as well to call some practices into question, we would do well to equip ourselves with the normative vocabulary of traditional epistemology, as well as a sense of how this vocabulary might be applied to the cases involving multiple epistemic subjects.

Section 5: The Contributions of Analytic Social Epistemology

I come, finally, to what may be the crux of the contribution ASE can make to a seriously interdisciplinary social epistemology — as well as to the basis of what I regard as Fuller’s misunderstanding of ASE itself. It has to do with the essentially normative dimension of the work in ASE, as well as how theorists within the emerging ASE tradition understand epistemic normativity itself.

It will be helpful to begin by noting that Fuller himself regards his own work in social epistemology in normative terms. I quote him at some length:

I start with the existence of knowledge as a social phenomenon — defined primarily in textual terms — as something already given in the world. I then proceed to determine how it is possible that diversely and imperfectly informed individuals could have organized themselves to produce such an authoritative body of work that exerts normative force in precincts far beyond the sites of knowledge production itself. In short, my focus has been on the social construction of epistemic standards, assuming that they arise from and are largely maintained by processes that are relatively indirect to the desires and capacities of the relevant knowers (Fuller 2012, 276; italics added).

In fact, Fuller himself goes on to contrast his understanding of the normative dimension of knowledge with that of the theorist in the ASE tradition. The quote continues:

This focus stands in contrast to ASE’s more ‘classical’ approach of starting from the individual knower who is ultimately concerned with whether her beliefs correspond to an epistemic standard that is presumed to exist independently of her own individual or collective activity — be that standard cast in supernatural (e.g. the Cartesian deity) or naturalistic (e.g. the Quinean physical environment) terms (276; italics added).

Fuller’s own view, then, appears to be this. Knowledge itself is a “social phenomenon” from the start, and this is manifest in the normative dimension of knowledge: epistemic standards themselves are a “social construction.” The main aim of the social epistemologist, then, should be to describe this construction, as well as to characterize how “such an authoritative body of work … exerts normative force in precincts far beyond the sites of knowledge production itself.”

For my part, I might describe Fuller’s vision as a fully descriptive characterization of the normativity of knowledge. This characterization is informed by what I would call Fuller’s Central Assumption. Putting the point in my own words, the assumption is this:

Once we describe the social practices through which it comes to pass that things are taken as knowledge, count as good evidence, pass for being a justified theory, are certified as authoritative, are regarded as a legitimate criticism, and so forth, we will thereby have said what needs to be said about the relevant standards themselves.

From the perspective of such an assumption, attempts to attain an independent perspective on these very practices will be naïve at best, impossible at worst. Hence Fuller’s view of how the emerging tradition of ASE understands epistemic normativity: we continue to hold out for “an epistemic standard that is presumed to exist independently of [any subject’s] own individual or collective activity.” I assume that Fuller’s use of “presumed to exist” here is not otiose, but instead registers his view that the claimed independence is a philosopher’s fiction.

In response, I submit that Fuller’s Central Assumption is both superfluous and deeply contentious. It is superfluous: while one might think that the Central Assumption is needed to underwrite the interest social epistemologists should have in extant knowledge practices, I have argued that there are other grounds that underwrite this interest. In particular, we should be interested in knowledge practices since they serve as “evidence” for what our standards are. (These practices are not the end of the story, but they are important evidence nonetheless.)

But Fuller’s Central Assumption is also deeply contentious, and I suspect a good many —  perhaps even all — of those working in the ASE tradition would challenge it. This is not to say that epistemic standards can float free from the practices which Fuller would have us study. On the contrary, I repeat that a careful study of those practices should inform our understanding of the standards themselves. This is precisely why I think social epistemology itself does well to heed Fuller’s advice to characterize the practices. But as I noted above, this is not enough.

The practices can conflict; and it can come to pass that, in certain local contexts, we find that we want to criticize the practices. We need some way to have a perspective from which to do so. To this it might be said that we should study how the communities themselves resolve matters when their knowledge practices reach opposing verdicts, or how they themselves criticize their own practices and respond to such criticisms, etc. This would be in keeping with a fully descriptive characterization of the normativity of knowledge. But this strikes me as an inadequate response. While we would do well to study such things, we would also do well to aim to occupy a critical perspective even when addressing a community’s responses to its own internally-generated criticisms and difficulties. To do otherwise is to accept without criticism the community’s own standards (or at least their standards for criticizing their standards). In addition to being groundless, such an acceptance risks degenerating into a thoroughgoing form of subjectivism.

It will be asked how we can attain such a critical perspective on knowledge practices. This is a fair question. In response we do well to attend to the traditional epistemological orientation from which ASE derives. For while the work in ASE arises in the first instance by calling into question the adequacy of the individualistic orientation of traditional epistemology, most of the work in this tradition does not call into question the very categories that traditional epistemology gave us — the categories of evidence, reasons, rationality, justification, warrant, and knowledge (among others). And while some rethinking of these categories is called for, a wholesale repudiation of the categories themselves is not. Such a wholesale repudiation would not be in keeping with the proposed rationale for ASE, namely, the attempt to come to terms with the epistemic significance of other minds. If we want to address this, we do well to embrace the categories we have inherited from epistemology, and to consider the questions epistemologists raise as we seek to understand these categories and apply them in social contexts. In so doing we are articulating a perspective that can be used to criticize existing knowledge practices.

Let me illustrate this in more concrete terms.

A recent set of questions in contemporary epistemology focus on the value of knowledge: why is knowledge valuable, and in particular why is it more valuable than merely true belief? This question was originally raised (by Plato (1961), and more recently by Jon Kvanvig (2003)) independent of any interest in social epistemology. But we can take our answers to this question and use them to inform our assessment of existing knowledge practices. Do these practices succeed in preserving what we take to be valuable about knowledge? If the answer is negative, this can be the basis for criticizing such practices.

Or consider the epistemologist’s obsession with epistemic justification — with the sort of epistemic support which puts one in a position to know something. How, if at all, do existing knowledge practices preserve this support as information is disseminated across wide populations? As work is distributed across a great collection of individuals working as a research team? Or as we train the next generation to rely on the technologies and instrumentation we have invented in an attempt to learn more of nature’s secrets? If existing knowledge practices do not succeed in preserving this support in these (and other) contexts, this can be the basis for criticizing such practices.

Of course, it is always possible to decide that it is our epistemological theory, rather than our knowledge practices, that deserve criticism when there is a conflict. Perhaps existing knowledge practices suggest that knowledge is valuable for reasons beyond those already acknowledged by our favorite account of the value of knowledge — in which case we need to revise our theory, not our practices. Or maybe existing knowledge practices indicate that we need to rethink our theory of epistemic justification. (Indeed, I argued as much in my (2010).) But even granting all of this, there remains the possibility that epistemic doctrine can be used to criticize extant practice. Indeed, this is precisely one of the core motivations for Alvin Goldman’s veritistic approach to social epistemology: [29] using certain aspects of his reliabilist approach to epistemology, he aims to study the veritistic effects — the effects on the production of truth and falsity — of a variety of different practices in the law, in the polis, in the classroom, and in group deliberation. (One can imagine other applications as well.) Goldman’s efforts on this score offer other illustrations of how we might attain a critical perspective on existing knowledge practices. To be sure, when we apply epistemological doctrine to current knowledge practices we will need to employ our best judgment.

We will need to determine whether the negative assessments yielded by our application of existing doctrine should be accepted, so that the practice in question should be revised, or instead whether this tells against that doctrine itself. But in this respect our challenge is no different from any theorist’s challenge: we need to find a proper balance between the various theoretical desiderata we aim to satisfy. One thing we do not want to do is throw away the tools that enable us to raise these questions and to attain a potentially critical perspective on existing practice. Insofar as this is what Fuller is suggesting, his suggestion is not merely groundless; it is likely to be detrimental to our efforts to understand the social dimensions of knowledge.

Section 6: Conclusion

In this paper I have tried to suggest that ASE is motivated by the acknowledged need to characterize the epistemic significance of other minds, and I have suggested that, so motivated, ASE has a good deal to contribute to social epistemology more generally understood. It is my fervent hope that this message can be accepted in the spirit in which it is offered: as a way for moving beyond any turf battles, so that the sort of contemporary social epistemology deriving from the work of Alvin Goldman can be seen as contributing to, and complementing, the sort of social epistemology deriving from the social sciences.[30]


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Lackey, Jennifer. 2012. “Group knowledge attributions.” In Knowledge ascriptions, edited by Jessica Brown and Mikkel Gerken, 243-269. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Locke, John. 1690/1964. An essay concerning human understanding. (New York: Meridian.)

MacFarlane, John. 2010. “What is an assertion?” In Knowledge ascriptions, edited by Jessica Brown and Mikkel Gerken, 79-96. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pettit, Philip. and Christian List. 2011: Group agency: The possibility, design, and status of corporate agents. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Plato. 1961. “Meno.” In Plato: The collected dialogues, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Schmitt, Frederick. 1994. Socializing epistemology. New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield.

Schmitt, Frederick. 2006. “Testimonial justification and transindividual reasons.” In The epistemology of testimony, edited by Jennifer Lackey and Ernest Sosa, 193-224 Oxford University Press.

Tollefsen, Deborah. 2006. “From extended mind to collective mind.” Cognitive Systems Research 7: 140-50.

Tollefsen, Deborah. 2011. “Groups as rational sources.” In Collective epistemology, edited by Hans Bernhard Schmid, Daniel Sirtes, Marcel Weber, 225-230. Heusenstamm, Germany: Ontos-Verlag.

Williamson, Timothy. 2000. Knowledge and its limits. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1] The original source for such a view is often taken to be Hume (see e.g. Hume 1742/1846 and 1748/2000). For a recent defense of this view, see E. Fricker (1987, 1994, 1995). A “mixed” account (reductionistic about justification but not knowledge) is found in Audi 1997. I will take up this issue later in the text.

[2] Here I disregard the possibility of a priori routes to knowledge of the environment, as not relevant to my topic here.

[3] I suspect it will be more familiar to those who already have theoretical axes to grind against that tradition.

[4] I have attempted to do so elsewhere. See Goldberg 2010, 2011.

[5] I make some initial taxonomic distinctions in Goldberg 2011.

[6] This idea is prevalent in the literature on the so-called “norm of assertion.” See e.g. Williamson (2000), Lackey (2007), and the various papers in Brown and Cappelen, eds. (2011). Arguably, this idea can be traced back to a “deontic scorekeeping” view of assertion developed by Robert Brandom (1983, 2004). However, Brandom’s approach to assertion is explicitly distinguished from the approach favored by the “norm of assertion” crowd in MacFarlane (2011).

[7] The language of a “social route” to knowledge is taken from Goldman 1992. I do not claim that he endorses the picture I am presenting here.

[8] This is “misleading” since it creates the impression that I endorse Cartesian-style assessments for beliefs that do not involve any social dimension. (I don’t; see the Preface to Goldberg (2010).) My point in making this contrast here is to say that Cartesian-style assessments don’t so much as get off the ground in cases in which beliefs are formed through one or another “social route” to knowledge.

[9] Goldberg 2010 attempted to do just this.

[10] “Big data” is a term used to denote data sets that are so massive that they pose challenges to traditional techniques for the storage, manipulation, and analysis of information.

[11] The sort of social epistemology that is prevalent on the Anglo-American epistemology scene derives in large part from the work of Alvin Goldman. This said, one salient difference between my rationale for social epistemology and the one offered in Goldman (2009) is this: whereas Goldman sees social epistemology as devoted to considering the effects of various social arrangements on the production of true belief (in comparison with that of false belief), I have a more expansive conception of social epistemology — one that includes a place for more traditional epistemological concepts such as evidence, reasons, rationality, and justification. Still, I intend my rationale to be broadly Goldmanian in spirit; I offer my defense of this in my (2010: Chapter 7).

[12] In the following section I will be making an appeal to this rationale in order to argue that Fuller is mistaken in his main criticisms of the emerging ASE tradition. Lest it seem that the tradition I defend there is not the one Fuller criticizes under the label “ASE,” I spend some time here making the connection explicit.

[13] In the introduction to that book, as well as in more recent work (Schmitt 2006), Schmitt makes clear that testimony presents a test case for various assumptions we might put under the label “epistemic individualism.” See also Lackey (2006, 2008), where she emphasizes testimony’s challenge to individualistic epistemology.

[14] See for example two recent volumes published by OUP: Feldman and Warfield (2010), and Christensen and Lackey (2013).

[15] In addition to various recent articles (see e.g. Tollefson (2006, 2011), Miranda Fricker (forthcoming), and Jennifer Lackey (2012)) and the recent high-visibility book by Pettit and List (2011), OUP has two forthcoming volumes on collective epistemology, one edited by Jennifer Lackey, the other edited by Michael Brady and Miranda Fricker.

[16] See Episteme 3: 1-2 (2006) and Synthese 190 (2013), both of which are devoted to this topic.

[17] Two journal volumes (one just published, one forthcoming) deal with this from the perspective of the “extended cognition” hypothesis in the philosophy of mind. See Philosophical Explorations 15: 2, 2012, and a forthcoming one in Philosophical Issues.

[18] I myself pursued this very question in Goldberg (2013).

[19] This is the topic of Cariani (forthcoming).

[20] Such can be seen as the animating idea behind Miranda Fricker’s seminal work on epistemic injustice (Fricker 2007).

[21] [SG’s footnote: the reference is to the “Epistle to the Reader” in John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in which he contrasts the “monumental” work of the scientists of his day (he mentions Boyle, Sydenham, Huygenius, and Newton) with his work, whose “ambition” is that of an “under-labourer” whose aim is to “[clear] the ground a little, and [remove] some of the rubbish that lies in the way of knowledge.” (Locke 1690/1964: 58).]

[22] I also find this sort of name-calling to be patronizing, but I will not pursue this criticism here.

[23] This reading is reinforced by the following, which I quote at length: “… analytic social epistemologists … suppose one says enough by pointing out that some knowledge-relevant procedure, situation or practice would be better were it to go (or have gone) this or that way, regardless of how the advice is likely to be received. The analytic social epistemologist thus appears primarily concerned with assuaging her own conscience (i.e., ‘I said the right thing’) rather than with making a positive material difference to the practices of those whom she would instruct” (Fuller 2012, 272-73).

[24] To be sure, Fuller says that this tendency “appears” to be designed to avoid upsetting the status quo, not that it is so designed. But if he restricts his claim to the appearances without making any claim to reality, it is hard to read this as a criticism. So I am interpreting him so as to bring out the criticism he is making.

[25] See again Schmitt’s introduction to Schmitt (1994), and see also Goldberg (2010).

[26] See Episteme 10: 2 (2013), which is devoted to this.

[27] Goldman is explicit about the use of knowledge in his epistemology; see Goldman (1999, 2002, 2009). And while Goldman has not ventured much into discussions of epistemic justification in social epistemology, others have (see Schmitt (1994) and Goldberg (2010).)

[28] But not all; see section 5 below.

[29] See Goldman (1999, 2002, 2009).

[30] With thanks to Patrick Reider, for very helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

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