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2012 (34) Heft 2

Social Epistemology


Editorial | Inhalt | Abstracts

The research program of social epistemology developed from a critique of philosophical epistemology around thirty years ago. Since then it has attracted ever-growing attention among philosophers. But social epistemology also offers prolific alignments for the social sciences. The starting point of social epistemology is the elementary fact that most of our knowledge is acquired not by our own autonomous exploration but by relying on information from others: on testimony. This is especially true in a modern world with a high degree of division of cognitive labour. We are especially dependent on the testimony of experts and specialists whose qualifications and competence cannot directly be judged by us as laypersons.

At first sight the approaches of social epistemology and social theory seem to be quite different. At the center of social epistemology there is a normative question: how can a person’s belief be justified and count as knowledge if it is not grounded in personal experience but based on testimony? For a social theory of knowledge the corresponding question is descriptive: how can a person’s belief be explained if it is based on testimony? The problem whether or not such a belief represents genuine knowledge in a philosophical sense is of no special concern from this perspective.

If social theory is framed within a rational actor approach, the divide narrows. Social theories in this tradition try to explain social facts and developments as aggregated results of rational individual action. If this approach is applied to the field of knowledge acquisition, the process of information transfer and the resulting beliefs must be traced back to rational actions of the individuals involved. If such a rational explanation is successful, the social scientist comes very close to the philosophical concept of rational justification. Vice versa, a philosophical justification of epistemological strategies can be taken as a first blueprint of a rational explanation.

To social scientists not only the explanation of descriptive and factual knowledge is of interest but even more so the explanation of moral knowledge and normative convictions. And whatever philosophical reasons we may have to separate moral and factual knowledge, a look at the empirical facts reveals that moral convictions are learned in much the same way as factual beliefs and that similar mechanisms are at work here. From a commonsense perspective, there is no clear demarcation between factual and moral knowledge and consequently people defer to moral experts as they defer to other experts. Therefore, whatever we think normatively about learning morality from moral experts, descriptively the analysis of knowledge transfer by testimonial processes will help us to understand the factual emergence of moral convictions too.

The epistemic role of moral expertise and moral experts is one of the focal points in this issue. However, the opening article by Caitlin Cole, Paul Harris and Melissa Koenig deals with a different topic: How do children acquire testimonial beliefs? The authors discuss empirical evidence of children’s trust in testimony, their sensitivity to and use of defeaters, and their appeals to positive reasons to trust what other people tell them. The paper by Karen Jones and François Schroeter starts the discussion on moral expertise and moral experts. They survey recent work and contest the asymmetry thesis according to which cognitive deference to expertise that characterizes other areas is out of place in morality. In her comment, Alison Hills defends her claim that deference to moral experts is not always appropriate. Dieter Birnbacher discusses the role of professional philosophers as ‘ethical experts’ and analyses the nature of the expertise they bring to bear on practical decisions. Tobias Steinig extends Goldman’s notions of expert and testimony to normative issues and uses this framework for a critical comment on the papers by Jones, Schroeter and Birnbacher. In Frank Dietrich’s paper the concept of a moral expert is defended but the delegation of quasi-legislative functions to ethics committees is questioned. Michael Baurmann also refers to the increasing influence of ethics committees and points out indicators that ethics may be undergoing a similar development to law in some respects. The paper by Martin Hoffmann concludes the section by examining how laypeople can judge the reliability of experts in the domain of morality.

Bernd Lahno focuses on the general structure of information transmission and introduces a game theoretic model to identify different forms of uncertainty in the relation between sender and receiver. Paul D. Thorn and Gerhard Schurz apply the method of ‘meta-induction’ to the claim that crowds can reveal a superior wisdom, thereby contesting the assumption that diverse and independent judgment is essential for ‘wise crowds’. The paper is followed by three comments: Christian J. Feldbacher stresses that both ability and diversity are of equal importance to a group’s performance; Carlo Martini argues that formal models are easily misunderstood when presented without a context of application, and Jan-Willem Romeijn, Peter Grünwald and Tom Sterkenburg claim that both meta-induction and crowd wisdom can be understood as pertaining to absolute reliability rather than comparative optimality.

This collection of papers is inspired by a conference on Collective Knowledge and Epistemic Trust. Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Social Epistemology which took place at the Afried Krupp Wissenschafskolleg in Greifswald from 6–8 May 2010 and was organized by Michael Baurmann, Alvin I. Goldman and Philip Kitcher. The organizers are grateful to the Deutsche Forschungsmeinschaft (DFG) and the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach-Stiftung for their generous financial support.


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