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Social Epistemology and argumentation
Conceptions of Social Epistemology
Conceptions of Social Epistemology
“We have interests, intrinsic and extrinsic, in acquiring knowledge (true belief)
and avoiding error.” (Goldman 1999: 69)
- Epistemology evaluates practices along truth-linked (veritistic) dimensions.
Social epistemology evaluates specifically social practices along these
Competitors to veritism
1. Consensus consequentialism
Pure consequentialism: social practices ought to be evaluated by their ability to
promote agreement.
- In the writings of Jürgen Habermas (1984), John Rawls (1993), Bruce Ackerman
(1989), and, in argumentation theory Frans van Eemeren and Rob
Grootendorst (1984, 2004)
Conceptions of Social Epistemology
When we argue, we typically try to get the interlocuter to agree – mediators
are sometimes employed to help reach agreement.
B) Philosophers of science of cite intersubjectivity as a distinguishing mark of
- The context of these writers (excluding van Eemeren and Grootendorst) is
political and social philosophy; discussion in order to reach a decision on what
to do (practical reasoning as opposed to theoretical reasoning). So, what is
reasonable for them to take into focus is not necessarily reasonable for social
Cases against: totalitarian news coverage. Biased jury selection. Belief pill for
- If the goal is set for achieving rational agreement, the evaluation is different.
- Why do we want others to agree with us? Is agreement a tell-tale sign of
Conceptions of Social Epistemology
2. Pragmatism
Social belief-causing mechanisms should be evaluated by the amount of utility
that they would produce.
- One motivation: truth is a notion to be avoided. “Success” as goal
achievement or desire-fulfillment involves something more concrete.
However, in comparison to correspondence theory (for example), it seems to
involve a reference to relation between mind and world, only the direction of fit is
Stich (1990: ch. 5): We have no reason to prefer truth
We have belief tokens (mental states) that are mapped onto the world by an
interpretation function. But the interpretation function could have been set
differently, hence, they all could have received a different mapping. How the
mapping is now is merely a historical coincident, and we have no principled way
of deciding between them.
Conceptions of Social Epistemology
There is no water in the sun-> true if and only there is no H20 in the sun
(Function: reference)
There is no water in the sun-> true if and only if there is no H20 or XYZ in the
(Function: reference*)
Goldman (1999, 72-73): if this is a real problem, then a similar problem would
beset satisfaction. Namely, there could be satisfaction, satisfaction*,
satisfaction**, …
Alston (1996): Stich confuses truth conditions, i.e. the assigning of propositional
content to bearers of such contents (beliefs), with truth value, i.e. the relation a
given proposition to the world.
Conceptions of Social Epistemology
Stich: we have no general argument for the claim that believing a true claim is
always more beneficial than believing a false claim.
Goldman: “If I adopt means M, then I will achieve end E.”
- Assume that agent A values E more than anything else, A is in a position to
adopt M, and there is no other means M* that A believes would establish E.
Suppose further that the means-end proposition is true and M is adopted. E
follows. So there is at least some connection, and many inferential procedures
feed this kind of reasoning. True beliefs about the consequences of our actions
are the most useful ones in establishing what to do and, thus, satisfy our
- Second, we do value truth in itself in, for example, science and law.
Conceptions of Social Epistemology
3. Proceduralism
All the previous account are consequentialist: they identify some fundamental aim
(true belief / consensus / utility satisfaction) and evaluate social practices in
relation to achieving this aim. Are there any alternatives that locate the value in
the procedure itself?
Certain models of deliberative democracy (Mill, Arendt, Habermas) hold that a
certain kind of democratic procedure (deliberation) is valuable in itself.
- But this is disputed by many theorists of deliberative democracy (Elster,
Estlund). Anyway, as Goldman (1999:77) notes, such a procedure would not be
relevant to all social activities pertaining to knowledge. For example, the
norms of ideal speech situation do not apply to mass communication or to
Conceptions of Social Epistemology
Objectivity: Helen Longino (1990: 76) has argued that objectivity is the ultimate
aim, and a scientific communities exhibit objectivity to the degree that they
satisfy four criteria necessary for achieving the transformative dimension of
critical discourse: 1) There must recognized avenues for the criticism of evidence,
of methods, and of assumptions of reasoning; 2) there must exist a shared
standards that critics can invoke; 3) the community as a whole must be responsive
to such criticisms; 4) intellectual authority must be shared equally among
qualified practitioners.
However, it seems that Longino advocates objectivity and impartiality in place
of subjectivity and partiality in order to avoid arbitrariness. But nonarbitrariness has instrumental value: it promotes finding the truth. So the
criteria seems consequentalist.
Conceptions of Social Epistemology
Rationality: there are accounts of rationality as a non-consequentalist approach.
- Goldman argues that theorists of rationality are a) unable to give a nonconsequentalist accounts. For example, a Bayesian account of rationality
ultimately refers to disutility, i.e. losing money; and b) too limited in scope. For
example, there is no single way of describing reporting in terms of rationality.
A different challenge issues from Siegel (2005) “…education should strive to foster,
not (just) true belief, but (also) the skills, abilities and dispositions constitutive of
critical thinking, and the rational belief generated and sustained by it.”
- Discusses education but I believe that the issue has wider application, though
does not necessarily extend to all areas of social epistemology.
- Accepts that both aims are important.
- Goldman accepts that critical thinking has value, but emphasizes that the
value is instrumental.
Conceptions of Social Epistemology
1. One or many aims?
From the fact that truth is taken as a central aim, it does not follow that it must be the
sole aim:
- Truth is naturally a central aim: what is taught is considered to be true.
- The point of teaching justified beliefs, however, is the idea that justification is a
fallible indicator of truth.
If mere true belief is the sole aim, then brainwashing, indoctrination, chemical
manipulation etc. would be acceptable methods.
They are not acceptable methods.
Therefore, true belief is not the sole aim.
The point is that students ought to believe the true, because of the reasons the
teachers think are good reasons for believing the true.
Good reasons are intertwined with education. The object ought to be knowledge in
the strong sense: justified true belief.
Conceptions of Social Epistemology
2. Bare difference argument
Assume that two agents, Maria and Mario, have identical beliefs, the only
difference being that one has a rationally held belief and the other does not.
First assume that the belief is true. Is there is a difference? Then assume that
the belief is false. Is there a difference.
In both cases, if Maria’s belief is held rationally and Mario’s belief is a lucky guess,
Maria’s belief seems more commendable.
Conceptions of Social Epistemology
3. Access to truth
For most beliefs, it seems that we have no direct access to their truth: we have to
reason evidentially, i.e. judge whether p is true based on evidence and
But this is not easy; students therefore need to develop skills and dispositions that
allow them to reason well, evaluate evidence well, search for evidence,
construct and evaluate arguments well, etc.
R. Firth: “To the extent that we are rational, each of us decides at any time t
whether a belief is true, in precisely the same way that we would decide at t
whether we ourselves are, or would be, warranted at t in having that belief.”
(1981: 19).
As Siegel notes, even Goldman makes this point: “The usual route to true belief,
of course, is to obtain some kind of evidence that points to the true
proposition and away from the rivals” (1999: 24)
Conceptions of Social Epistemology
Argument here:
1. Truth can be determined only by certain methods.
2. As educators, we want students to be able to determine (i.e. be able and
disposed to seek) the truth.
3. Therefore, in education the ultimate end is not truth per se, but enabling
students to judge or estimate wisely.
Enlarged argument:
1. Truth can be determined only by certain methods m1,…, mn.
2. As educators, we want students to be able to determine (i.e. be able and
disposed to seek) the truth.
3. Therefore, we need to teach the students methods m1,…, mn.
4. Methods in themselves are not sufficient for a critical thinker but also relevant
dispositions (Siegel 1988).
5. Therefore, in education the ultimate end is not truth per se, but enabling the
students to judge or estimate wisely (by giving certain skills and dispositions).
Conceptions of Social Epistemology
4. Fundamental aims outside education
Goldman (2001:34) has argued that a main problem for deontological
evidentialism ((DE): the view that an agent should assign a degree a belief to
a proposition in proportion to the weight of evidence she possesses) is that it
cannot account for the virtue of evidence gathering:
1. DE is not consequentialist (proportioning is not justified by its ability to lead to
truth or some other value).
2. If one only needs to proportion belief to evidence, the easiest way to do this is
to not believe anything.
3. But this leads to investigational sloth, which is unacceptable.
4. Therefore, DE cannot be the underlying value behind all epistemic virtues.
Conceptions of Social Epistemology
Replies noted by Siegel:
- The relevant epistemological duty is rational belief – if I have done all I can to
believe rationally, I have done my epistemological duty (Feldman 2002).
- DE can somehow account for the virtues.
- ‘Investigational sloth’ can be criticized as a failure of character.
But most importantly:
- This criticism does nothing against the virtue monism that Siegel represents, which
accepts that rational belief also has instrumental virtue.
Accounting for virtues:
- We are often required by our role as a citizen, a parent, a professional, a member
of a given board, etc. to know about the relevant issues.
- Similar considerations seem relevant if one were to enlarge the fundamental aim
of rational belief outside education: to politics, law,…
- The role of trust seems essential: to what extent can we, and should we trust
individuals and institutions, if they are not able to justify their positions with
reasons we can accept?
Conceptions of Social Epistemology
Possible counters for Goldman’s position:
1. Rational belief, i.e. belief reached by critical thinking, is only meaningful in
terms of instrumental value.
Siegel admits that Goldman has an argumentative advantage here but argues that his
arguments show there is more to rational belief than But: DePaul (2001) has
noted both of the following cannot be true: a) knowledge is epistemically better
than mere true belief; and b) true belief is the only epistemic good.
The new evil demon –problem (Cohen and Lehrer): suppose you have a twin that has
through her/his whole life been deceived by the evil demon. S/he has had all the
experiences you have had but all of them have been false. We seem to have the
intuition that your twin is justified in her/his beliefs. But then, “proper contact”
with the world is not essential for justification.
2. Siegel’s position involves a confusion between a test for whether the
fundamental aim has been achieved and the aim itself.
Conceptions of Social Epistemology
5. Reasons for Critical Thinking outside epistemology
1. We want to students (and persons in general) to be reflective: to take our fallibility
2. Education is not only a propositional matter: it needs to develop dispositions and
particular traits of character.
- To counter (in favor of Goldman): if one takes as fundamental aim true beliefs, the
next question is “Which true beliefs?” It seems essential to teach methods and
dispositions that will produce the largest amount of true beliefs about relevant
matters over a long period of time (and after education). Critical thinking can be
justified from this consequentialist and veritistic position.
3. Education ought to foster autonomy. Siegel quotes Israel Scheffler (1989: 139) that
we must “surrender the idea of shaping or molding the mind of the pupil. The function
of education… is rather to liberate the mind, strengthen its critical powers, [and]
inform it with knowledge and the capacity to independent inquiry.”
So, Siegel concludes: critical thinking can be justified from both within epistemology
and from perspectives outside, without denying the important instrumentalist link.
Conceptions of Social Epistemology
How is veritism empolyed and how does it look like in practice?
Truth is set as the ultimate aim; procedures are evaluated in respect to their
ability to produce V-value. For example, the values for belief, withholding, and
V-value of B(true) = 1
V-value of W(true) = .5
V-value of R(true) = 0
For degree of belief:
V-value DBx = X
A good procedure gives us high (or higher than others) V-value in respect to questions
of interest.
This does not imply that we can, in practice, appraise V-values (at least any better than
those involved in the process), but it does give us a theoretical way to present
what we are after.
Further complications arise out of the concept of interest, complex agents (who needs
to know what) and causal attribution (what does eventually affect our beliefs).
Ackerman, B. 1989. Why Dialogue? Journal of Philosophy 86: 5-22.
Alston, W. 1996. A Realist Conception of Truth. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
DePaul, M. R. 2001. Value Monism in Epistemology. In M. Steup (ed.) Knowledge, Truth and Duty: Essays on Epistemic
Justification, Responsibility, and Virtue. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Eemeren, F. and R. Grootendorst. 1984. Speech Acts in Argumentative Discussion. Dordrecht, Holland: Foris
Eemeren, F. and R. Grootendorst. 2004. A Systematic Theory of Argumentation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Feldman, R. 2002. Epistemological Duties. In P. Moser (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Epistemology.
Firth, R. 1981. Epistemic Merit, Intrinsic and Instrumental. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association, vol.
55: 5-23.
Goldman, A. 1999. Knowledge in a Social World. Oxford: Princeton Press.
Goldman, A. 2001. The Unity of Epistemic Virtues. In A. Fairweather and L. Zagrebski (eds.) Virtue Epistemology. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Habermas, J. 1984. The Theory of Communicative Action, 2 vols. Transl. T. McCarthy. Boston, Mass.: Beacon.
Longino, H. 1990. Science as Social Knowledge. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Rawls, J. 1993. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press
Scheffler, I. 1989. Reason and Teaching. Indianpolis: Hackett.
Siegel, H. 1988. Educating Reason: Rationality, Critical Thinking, and Education. London: Routledge.
Siegel, H. 2005. Trust, Thinking, Testimony and Trust: Alvin Goldman on Epistemology and Education. Philosophy and
Phenomenological Research. Vol. LXXI: 345-366.

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