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Social Epistemology and Spatial Difference

Another theoretical detour will help find answers. Proponents of social epistemology have worked out an account that fits well with the purpose of the proposed definition. They, too, wish to avoid restricting the attribution of knowledge to individuals. Instead, they situate knowledge in collectives and organizations. In doing so, they offer instruments that may help analyze the changing social composition of knowledge and to advance from definitions of the concept to a discussion of concrete conceptions. I introduce three innovations of this sort and discuss their perspectives and limits. As already indicated, the main problem that will show up is a lack of attention to the cultural media of knowledge and an ensuing space blindness— against which more extensive sociodiagnostic opportunities will become apparent.

A difficult, but interesting, point of departure can be found in Gilbert (1994), who is generally concerned with shared intentionality. Specifically, she also assumes collective or group beliefs. According to her, such beliefs surface when a group member expresses a view to which the others presumably (and legitimately) show reactions of shocked surprise. All had agreed for a long while that John is an unpleasant type, and suddenly Maggie comes up with the remark, “How nice John was again yesterday!” A group of string-theory researchers sits down for lunch, when a member sighs, “What nonsense this whole string theory is!” Gilbert argues that appalled reactions such as “What did you just say?” are quite in order here. Long-standing agreement (in the first example) and shared practice (in the second example) have produced a kind of obligation not to utter the statements in question. Such obligations may be unpleasant themselves, but they are to some extent unavoidable and fulfill basic social functions:

Apart from the general function of providing individuals with a sense of unity or community with others..., the collective beliefs evidently provide points from which people can go

forward, not forever locked in the back and forth of argumentative conflict. (p. 253)

I momentarily refrain from evaluating this argument and step right ahead to a second, more refined account of collective intellectual organization. Whereas Gilbert’s (1994) model refers only to the most basic practice of knowledge, the preservation of belief, this second account is concerned with reasons or collective rationality. Pettit (2003) has argued that a genuinely collective combination of elements of reasoning can often yield better results than is possible with an aggregate of complete individual judgments. Judging indeed offers an instructive example. Take a legal committee that must decide whether someone is liable for having broken a contract and whose members separately consider whether there was a valid contract in place to begin with and whether a breach of contract has occurred. The result may be the following distribution of premises and conclusions (Table 11.1).

Table 11.1 Individual and collective rationality in a court decision


Valid contract?















From Pettit (2003), p. 169

In this case the majority of complete individual judgments or conclusions speaks against liability (1:2)—but the sum of premises or basic judgments says the opposite (4:2 in favor of liability). So which stance is the more rational one: respecting the integral individual opinions or forming an integral collective judgment? Pettit (2003) suggests that comparable cases occur in various spheres of life and that in most cases people choose the strategy of “collectivizing reason” (p. 176). Moreover, if procedures and goals remain constant, collective agents emerge, and under Pettit’s premises it really seems rational to be obliged to follow their lead. The elements of collective reason, then, are not integral individual opinions but rather observations, arguments, and other information cut out of the context of their individual processing.

The model of collective rationality, of course, does not offer a complete conception of knowledge. It offers only material for rethinking aspects of knowledge practices (affecting the element justified in the standard definition or, in Shera’s (1970) terms, the process of filtering information; see footnote 5, above). Most important, it says little about how conclusions can be socially stabilized—Pettit (2003) only sketchily refers to the concept of the juridical person in Gierke’s (1990) Genossenschaftsrecht (law of fellowship). Hence, a third account that explicitly introduces the notion of collective knowledge is welcome. Goldman (2004) proposed just such an account as an alternative to Pettit’s (2003) collective rationality. The new aspect is the organization of epistemic competencies and epistemic authority. First, Goldman proposes to add that individual judgments may be differently weighed. (For instance, the opinion of an experienced doctor counts more than that of an apprentice.) As far as I see, this addition is compatible with (maybe even envisaged by) Pettit. What is more interesting is a second nondemocratic consideration, namely, whether an epistemic collective needs persons who are exclusively authorized to define its knowledge and draw consequences. In Goldman’s (2004) view, only such an authority structure can explain sentences such as, “We learned since 9/11 that not only did we not know what we didn’t know, but the F.B.I. didn’t know what it did know” (p. 12).

How is it possible that the same entity, in this instance the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, knew something and did not know it? Goldman’s (2004) answer is that the organization’s authorities did not realize the threat, so the organization could not react: “[A]t least one Bureau official with appropriate decision-making authority had to receive messages from the various agents, had to believe those messages, and had to pool or amalgamate them into a larger pattern” (p. 19).

That account may be adequate, but it confounds two different aspects: achieving knowledge and drawing practical consequences. On the one hand, one might simply ask whether knowledge of an imminent threat existed at all somewhere in the organization or even at the correct place. Such knowledge could have existed, for instance, because it would have been easy for people to combine alarming observations; because at least one agent, with or without authorization, actually brought together relevant pieces of information; or because a computerized system had switched over to flight-attack alert. On the other hand, this knowledge could have led decision-makers to draw consequences or not. In that case a fitting description would be that the FBI knew something but did not react. What remains of Goldman’s (2004) account is that epistemic organizations need nodal points where information is brought together and theoretical conclusions are arrived at. But these organizations need not be so hierarchical that the persons who know and those who decide are the same individuals.

Taken together, the three accounts of social epistemic structures present an interesting range of possibilities. All may be translated into conceptions of knowledge, but into obviously one-sided ones. In Gilbert’s (1994) case, keeping information available would involve dull conformity pressure, or what Durkheim (1893/1933) called “mechanical solidarity” (pp. 71-110). In Goldman’s (2004) view, assembling information seems to be possible only in top echelons of a hierarchy. Even in Pettit’s (2003) democratic vision constant socioepistemic unity is tied to a narrow pattern, corporate law.

Hence, two very different conclusions can be drawn. The first is that the nature of knowledge heavily depends on its social organization. Whether a collective, a person, or a set of rules decides will affect various aspects like the complexity, generality or particularity, and expandability or closure of the information kept available. Luckily, real social knowledge is circulating between different organizations and is today also structured by other patterns of social order, such as systemic codes of communication. But the claustrophobic impression conveyed by the discussed paradigms of social epistemology may also be due to another factor, their neglect of the spatial and medial externality of fixated knowledge.

More precisely, the second possible conclusion about the effect of social epis- temic structures has to do with the way in which information is stored for later use. Gilbert (1994), Pettit (2003), and Goldman (2004) all aim at a seat of epistemic unity (group belief or obligation, the juridical person, and decision-making authority, respectively). However, information can be kept available for future use in spatial dispersion as well. A corporation or intelligence agency may have stored its knowledge in experts and archives and on tapes and hard drives in various locations, and may still have relatively well-organized procedures of reporting and access. Even a group of researchers may confidently rely on past publications. Recognizing such reservoirs immediately reduces social pressure in most of the given examples. Gilbert’s string theorists could allow each other some free expressions of doubt at lunch time; Goldman’s chief officers could leave to others some of the knowledgegenerating work and concentrate on making decisions under difficult circumstances. At the level of theory, the introduction of material infrastructures helps to avoid the simplistic dichotomy of knowledge as a mere aggregation of individual views and the idea of a completely unified knowledge community.

Certainly, spatial dispersion also poses problems. In the given context they can be subsumed in a simple principle, capturing the flip side of relaxed social pressure: lack of social control. Sometimes reporting procedures fail, leaving the officers in charge little or no chance to bring the knowledge of their organization to bear. Sometimes the research group falls apart because different members draw different conclusions from collective publications. The resulting ambivalence could be a reason why spatially dispersed knowledge is not very popular in epistemology. Proponents of anarchist epistemologies like Jacques Derrida are the main (and in philosophy almost the only) ones to show a special interest in this issue.[1]

Other theoretical accounts, however, would have reason to follow, for the spatially enriched approach offers a range of systematic perspectives, not least an understanding of the way in which media- and communication-technology conditions epochs of knowledge. It undeniably helps reconstruct traditional settings in which a whole geography of knowledge centers (from Athens to Paris) and places of assembly (archives, libraries, collections, and schools) had to be mastered and in which new mechanisms of dispersion (e.g., the printing press and an expanding literary market) brought about radical change. It can even be used to analyze structural changes of knowledge in an age of ever-improving communication and information technology, where the epistemic importance of spatial distance is allegedly in decline or at least changing its character. In this context new observations concerning the density of socioepistemic control will also be possible.

  • [1] An accessible version of Derrida’s (1996/1998) theory of spatially dispersed knowledge is thepartly autobiographic essay on monolingualism, where he explained what it means to learn Frenchculture in Algeria. For a systematic reconstruction of this theory, see Quadflieg (2007).
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