Social Epistemology


This unit provides an introduction to topics in social epistemology.

Texts and Courses


  • Epistemology (upper level undergraduate)

Assigned Texts

  • Townley, Cynthia (2011). A Defense of Ignorance: Its Value for Knowers and Roles in Feminist and Social Epistemologies. Lexington Books. chs. 1-3.
  • Hardwig, John (1985). "Epistemic dependence". Journal of Philosophy 82 (7):335-349.
  • Fricker, Miranda (2003). "Epistemic injustice and a role for virtue in the politics of knowing". Metaphilosophy 34 (1/2):154-173.
  • Fricker, Miranda (2007). Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford University Press. ch. 7.
  • Maitra, Ishani (2010). "The nature of epistemic injustice". Philosophical Books 51 (4):195-211.
  • Mills, Charles (2007). "White Ignorance". In Shannon Sullivan Nancy Tuana (ed.), Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance. State Univ of New York Pr 11-38.
  • Spelman, Elizabeth V. (2007). "Managing ignorance". In Shannon Sullivan Nancy Tuana (ed.), Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance. 119-31.

Recommended Schedule

Day Topic Reading
1 Epistemic Interdependence Townley, A Defense of Ignorance, ch. 1; Hardwig, “Epistemic Dependence”
2 Epistemic Interdependence Townley, A Defense of Ignorance, ch. 2
3 Epistemic Injustice Fricker, “Epistemic Injustice and a Role for Virtue”
4 Epistemic Injustice Fricker, Epistemic Injustice, ch. 7
5 Epistemic Injustice Maitra, “The Nature of Epistemic Injustice”
6 Ignorance Mills, “White Ignorance”
7 Ignorance Spelman, “Managing Ignorance”
8 Ignorance Townley, A Defense of Ignorance, ch. 3

Background Information

The suggested unit would be appropriate to include in an upper-level undergraduate epistemology survey class. Its subject matter is social epistemology, but with an emphasis on topics other than testimony and disagreement, which tend to dominate that literature in mainstream outlets. Three sub-topics are covered in the unit: epistemic interdependence, epistemic injustice, and ignorance.

The first three readings introduce and elaborate upon the theme that our epistemic lives are irremediably social, and hence so must be our epistemology. Townley does an especially nice job of making this case, and of showing how this introduces problems and issues into epistemology that we might have thought were only proper to social and political philosophy. Along the way, she also argues for the epistemic importance, and the social benefits, of ignorance.

The next few readings explore Miranda Fricker’s excellent work on one of those social/political problems that a genuinely social epistemology must deal with: epistemic injustice. This phenomenon occurs when a hearer grants too little credibility to a speaker on account of the influence of a pernicious stereotype on her (the hearer).

The final group of readings focuses on a particular sort of social ill that can be caused by widespread and motivated ignorance. Charles Mills iconically made the case that white supremacy is undergirded by a determined and, in some cases, epistemically and morally culpable, ignorance about the realities of the lives and history of people of color. Spelman articulates those ideas further, and Townley wraps up the unit by discussing all three topics in her chapter on institutional epistemic dependence.

Author Information

Wayne Riggs (University of Oklahoma)