Sociology, history, and epistemology

More than 50 years ago, Quine suggested that epistemology must be “naturalized.” Here is Kwame Anthony Appiah explaining this idea in his book Thinking It Through:

To claim that a belief is justified is not just to say when it will be believed but also to say when it ought to be believed. And we don’t normally think of natural science as telling us what we ought to do. Science, surely, is about describing and explaining the world, not about what we should do?

One way to reconcile these two ideas would be to build on the central idea of reliabilism and say that what psychology can teach us is which belief-forming processes are in fact reliable. So here epistemology and psychology would go hand in hand. Epistemology would tell us that we ought to form our beliefs in ways that are reliable, while psychology examines which ways these are.

p. 74-75

This role for psychology should be familiar to anyone who’s read Thinking Fast and Slow — cognitive biases are rampant and get in the way of accurate belief — or Superforecasting — here are some practices to overcome those limitations — or any number of similar books.

But why stop at psychology?

Belief formation is necessarily social, as I’ve pointed out in a few recent posts. In one I quoted Will Wilkinson:

If you want an unusually high-fidelity mental model of the world, the main thing isn’t probability theory or an encyclopedic knowledge of the heuristics and biases that so often make our reasoning go wrong. It’s learning who to trust. That’s really all there is to it. That’s the ballgame.

In another I quoted Naomi Oreskes:

Feminist philosophers of science, most notably Sandra Harding and Helen Longino, turned that argument on its head, suggest[ed] that objectivity could be reenvisaged as a social accomplishment, something that is collectively achieved.

In one of those posts I unwittingly used the term “social epistemology” to make my point that belief is social; that turns out to be its own philosophical niche. Per Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Social epistemology gets its distinctive character by standing in contrast with what might be dubbed “individual” epistemology. Epistemology in general is concerned with how people should go about the business of trying to determine what is true, or what are the facts of the matter, on selected topics. In the case of individual epistemology, the person or agent in question who seeks the truth is a single individual who undertakes the task all by himself/herself, without consulting others. By contrast social epistemology is, in the first instance, an enterprise concerned with how people can best pursue the truth (whichever truth is in question) with the help of, or in the face of, others. It is also concerned with truth acquisition by groups, or collective agents.

The entry is full of all sorts of good topics familiar to anyone who reads about behavioral science: rules for Bayesian reasoning, how to aggregate beliefs in a group, network models of how beliefs spread, when and whether deliberation leads to true belief. But it is all fairly ahistorical.

Compare that to Charles Mills, writing about race, white supremacy, and why epistemology, once naturalized, needs both sociology and history:

[Quine’s work] had opened Pandora’s box. A naturalized epistemology had, perforce, also to be a socialized epistemology; this was ‘a straightforward extension of the naturalistic approach.’ What had originally been a specifically Marxist concept, ‘standpoint theory,’ was adopted and developed to its most sophisticated form in the work of feminist theorists, and it became possible for books with titles like Social Epistemology and Socializing Epistemology, and journals called Social Epistemology, to be published and seen as a legitimate part of philosophy. The Marxist challenge thrown down a century before could finally be taken up…

A central theme of the epistemology of the past few decades has been the discrediting of the idea of a raw perceptual ‘given’ completely unmediated by concepts… In most cases the concepts will not be neutral but oriented toward a certain understanding, embedded in sub-theories and larger theories about how things work.

In the orthodox left tradition, this set of issues is handled through the category of ‘ideology’; in more recent radical theory, through Foucault’s ‘discourses.’ But whatever one’s larger meta-theoretical sympathies, whatever approach one thinks best for investigating these ideational matters, such concerns obviously need to be part of a social epistemology. For if the society is one structured by relations of domination and subordination (as of course all societies in human history past the hunting-and-gathering stage have been) then in certain areas this conceptual apparatus is likely to be negatively shaped and inflected in various ways by the biases of the ruling group(s).

Black Rights / White Wrongs p. 60-63

Crucially, Mills characterizes this kind of bias as “ignorance” in part because it has “the virtue of signaling my theoretical sympathies with what I know will seem to many a deplorably old-fashioned ‘conservative’ realist intellectual framework, one in which truth, falsity, facts, reality, and so forth are not enclosed with ironic scare-quotes.” The history and sociology of race (like class or gender) help explain not just why people believe what they do but also why people reach incorrect beliefs.

That view is in contrast with some other sociological programs, as the Stanford entry on social epistemology notes:

A movement somewhat analogous to social epistemology was developed in the middle part of the 20th century, in which sociologists and deconstructionists set out to debunk orthodox epistemology, sometimes challenging the very possibility of truth, rationality, factuality, and/or other presumed desiderata of mainstream epistemology. Members of the “strong program” in the sociology of science, such as Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar (1986), challenged the notions of objective truth and factuality, arguing that so-called “facts” are not discovered or revealed by science, but instead “constructed”, “constituted”, or “fabricated”. “There is no object beyond discourse,” they wrote. “The organization of discourse is the object” (1986: 73).

A similar version of postmodernism was offered by the philosopher Richard Rorty (1979). Rorty rejected the traditional conception of knowledge as “accuracy of representation” and sought to replace it with a notion of “social justification of belief”. As he expressed it, there is no such thing as a classical “objective truth”. The closest thing to (so called) truth is merely the practice of “keeping the conversation going” (1979: 377).

But as Oreskes argues in her defense of science as a social practice, the recognition that knowledge is fundamentally social doesn’t require a belief in relativism.

A naturalized epistemology requires, in Appiah’s words, a search for “belief-forming processes [that] are in fact reliable.” That requires the study of how belief formation works at the group level–including an appreciation of history and sociology. To overcome our biases we need to consider the specific society within which we are trying to find the truth, and the injustices that pervade it.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s