Philosophy 136 - 7.5.1 Social Epistemology

The traditional epistemology that most of this chapter has covered is singularly focused on individuals. Theories are focused on what a person can know or when a subject is justified. For the most part, gaining knowledge is often treated as an individual effort. Social epistemology instead investigates how groups pursue knowledge and justification and how an individual can best seek justification and knowledge in a social world. Social epistemology takes seriously the fact that humans are, by and large, social animals that rely on others for belief formation. Because humans are social creatures, we rely on others for much of what we come to know. Our dependence on others for true beliefs eases knowledge acquisition, but it also complicates the task due to concerns regarding the reliability of others.

How much of your knowledge was gained strictly from independent investigation conducted only by yourself? Very little, most likely. We rely on other humans from the past and present for a very large proportion of our knowledge. Scientific endeavors consist of amending and adding to the work of others over the course of centuries. The propositional knowledge learned in school is gained through layers upon layers of individuals trusting the testimony of others—students trusting the testimony of teachers, teachers trusting the testimony of books, the writers of the books trusting the testimony of sources, and so on. The news we view, the books we read, the conversations we overhear—all of these are social means of gaining knowledge.


Social means of gaining knowledge are called testimony. Any time you believe something because you read it or heard it somewhere, you believe based on testimony. Of course, people are not always reliable. People sometimes use poor reasoning, misremember, or even lie. Hence, testimony is also sometimes unreliable. And this raises the question, When is testimony justified?

Testimony is clearly of importance to social epistemology. In determining whether to believe what others tell us, we ask whether they are trustworthy. A trustworthy source of testimony is honest, unbiased, rational, well-informed, and clearheaded. We further look for an expert or authority. An expert or authority is a person whose experience, education, and knowledge in an area make them more reliable. Questions surrounding testimony are questions about justification. When are we justified in believing others? Who are we justified in believing in particular situations? When and how does testimony give us justification for a belief? And what do we do when the testimony of others conflicts with our already held beliefs?

Large, spacious room with very high ceilings. Books shelves line the walls. Rows of tables, dotted with small reading lamps, stretch along the sides, with a wide aisle between them.
Figure 7.11 All of the information contained in libraries is a form of testimonial knowledge. This is one of the public reading rooms in the New York Public Library. (credit: “New York Public Library” by soomness/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Peer Disagreement

When the testimony of another contradicts your own belief, what should you do? In cases where the other person is an expert and you are not, then the testimony ought to weaken your confidence in your belief. You should either change your belief or withhold from believing either way until you can get further justification. But what should you do when the person is not an expert but an epistemic peer? An epistemic peer is a person who is in an equal epistemic position relative to some domain—that is, they have the same cognitive ability, evidence, and background knowledge in that domain. A person can be an epistemic peer with respect to one domain but not another. You may know that you are on level epistemic ground with regard to the subject of baseball with your best friend but that they are an authority compared to you on the subject of baking.

Social epistemologists theorize about how peer disagreement ought to function in justification and belief. Some theorists argue that you should always modify your conviction in some way in the face of peer disagreement, though they disagree about exactly how you ought to modify your view. Others maintain that peer disagreement does not always give you reason to think you are mistaken (Frances and Matheson 2018).

Think Like a Philosopher

When assessing the testimony of a person you believe is an epistemic peer, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does the person supplying the testimony have a history of lying?
  2. Is this person known to have biases that might distort their perceptions?
  3. Does this person have a good track record?
  4. Does this person’s testimony conflict with testimony from others?
  5. What are this person’s motives?

When assessing the testimony of a purported authority on some subject, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is this a question on which there is expertise?
  2. Is the person supplying the testimony an expert in the relevant field?
  3. Is there a consensus among experts in the relevant field on the question at hand?
  4. Does this person’s testimony reflect agreement with the consensus of experts?
  5. Is there reason to think this person is biased?

Group Justification

So far, we have looked at how social factors influence an individual’s justification and beliefs. Social epistemology also investigates whether it is possible for groups to have beliefs. We often attribute beliefs to groups of people. We say things like “The United States believes in freedom,” “The Supreme Court holds that a right to privacy exists,” “Scientists believe in climate change,” and “The jury knew he was guilty.” When can it rightfully be said that a group believes something? One answer is that a group believes P only in cases in which all or almost all members of the group believe P. However, we do attribute beliefs to groups while not always assuming that every member holds the belief. The Supreme Court example above illustrates that not every member of a group must believe something for us to say that the group does. When the court decides an issue with a 6–3 vote, we still attribute belief to the court as a whole.

Another view is a commitment view. Group belief does not require that all members believe; rather, members of the group are jointly committed to a belief as a body merely by virtue of being members of that group (Goldman and O’Connor 2019). Group commitment to a belief creates a normative constraint on members of a group to emulate the belief. Commitment views may work for any group formed around allegiance to specific ideas. Take religious groups, for example, which coalesce around beliefs pertaining to God and religious dogma.

If groups are capable of beliefs, then clearly the question of justification of group belief is relevant. Note that some of the previous theories on epistemic justification are applicable to questions of group justification. Goldman focused on reliable processes. Social epistemology also focuses on the reliability of processes used in juries, democracies, and the sciences.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax