Social Knowledge

I’ve been thinking about a technical issue in social epistemology. Can some things be known only by groups, not individuals? My intuition says no. If something can be known at all, it can be known by a single mind. It may take a collective effort to discover it, of course. It may take a whole village or an entire civilization to uncover some fact. But once it is known, it can be known by individuals. If no individual can possibly understand it, I’m not willing to call it knowledge.

But this raises a question. Is one such individual knower enough? Is something known if only one person could ever know it? I think this is where I become a social epistemologist. I believe that knowledge must, in principle, be understandable to several people. The “in principle” is important. Suppose I am a pilot whose plane crashes in the pacific ocean near a desert Island. I bail out and parachute to safety, carrying a map. Based on my last known location, I correctly identify the island on my map. I know where I am.

Now, at this point, no other human being knows where I am. But once they find the wreckage of my plane, they can make a reasonable guess as to where I might be. That is, I know something that can, in principle, be known by others, even though no one else knows. I think all knowledge must meet this minimal condition.

But let’s think about “academic” or “scholarly” knowledge. I want to argue that scholarly knowledge is the sort of thing an individual can know and share with a group of people, namely, peers. Thomas Kuhn suggested that a “paradigm” is usually maintained by a scientific community of 20-100 people.  That puts a good bound it. Scientific or scholarly claims should be comprehensible to at least 20 people. Indeed, such truths should not  remain unknown to those 20 people for long. Discoveries are made to be shared with your peers.

6 thoughts on “Social Knowledge

  1. I don’t see any problems with the particulars but I wonder if it’s more about deciding how to use the word ‘knowledge’ than actually expanding our understanding of what goes on.

    There’s reams of literature on implicit (tacit) and explicit knowledge that described a lot of interesting phenomena – it was even raised in the current replication kerfuffle when some failed replications are defended on things like lab practices. What form of knowledge was involved there?

    I think you can also usefully think of things that groups ‘know’ but individuals don’t. Of course, groups can only have tacit knowledge but I would argue that most of what comes under the heading ‘local knowledge’ is of this nature. I also like to think of it as ‘Hayekian’ knowledge. Many of the problems in development projects is that needs assessment is done by ‘asking the local people’ what they need. But very often projects based on this approach fail and are accused of not ‘asking the local people’. But, in fact, no one individual actually ‘knows’ but the group’s behaviors signal the local knowledge (eg farming practices) based on a sort of evolutionary process. Also, betting markets try to use this approach. Hayek, in his Problem of Knowledge in Society, was contrasting the knowability of economic needs by any one individual with that of the group relying on the price mechanism. But these things happen all over the place. In ‘Century of the Gene’, Keller described how none of the labs have the same definition of ‘gene’ but this is actually a productive state because it allows progress. So while the ‘knowledge’ in any one individual’s brain is imperfect, the group as a whole is much closer. I would expect that in most fields, this is more the norm than exception. For instance, in my field, linguistics, the key concepts ‘word’, ‘sentence’, even ‘language’ do not have universally agreed upon definitions but if you survey the field as a whole, you’d probably identify some consensus.

    These are not all the same thing, so I can see the benefit of keeping only ‘explicable’ knowledge as ‘knowledge’ but you still need a way of talking about the other phenomena because ‘explicit or propositional knowledge’ alone is not enough to get at what’s going on.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Dominik. I’m not sure I understand your point exactly, however.

      Suppose a community knows when to sow and when to reap. Surely, some of the individual members of the community–namely, those who do the actual reaping and sowing–also know this? Now, the individuals may be ignorant about where their knowledge comes from, i.e., they may not know *why* this is the right time to sow. But so, too, might the community. There may be no local knowledge about why beans should be planted in June. It’s just what the community has been doing (successfully) as long as it can remember. If the scientists in the community turn their attention to this question, however, whatever the learn could be communicated to other individuals.

  2. I think the point that not all of the knowledge is organised in a way that is easily communicated in a propositional manner and even less so in a manner that is easily translated into the sort of scientific knowledge you are after.

    You instinctively picked the one bit of information that seems very susceptible to this kind of communication. But there’s a lot of negative information – eg about what not to plant and how/where not to plant it – that may not be a part of anyone’s explicit or explicable knowledge. But having spent a lot of time in places with a lot of local knowledge, even things like times of planting are not easily communicated because they arise out of a whole lot of social interactions and may not be abstracted from them. The high-low context culture is a useful concept. Low context cultures are used to spelling everything out, high context find it unnatural. You will find plenty of examples of this in James C Scott’s ‘Seeing like a state’. But you will find a lot of the same phenomena within scientific communities.

    Basically, what I’m trying to say is that if you categorically reject the idea that there are things a group can know that no individual in that group does, you impoverish your view of knowledge and will make practical mistakes when trying to uncover what the knowledge is. A lot of that comes under the umbrella of tacit knowledge – Harry Collins has written a great summary of it. And the point is that if that tacit knowledge becomes communicable in the way you suggest, something of its ‘power’ is lost. But it gains new powers. I think you’re focusing on the gains and I on the losses.

    But I agree that communication is a sine-qua-non of scholarly knowledge. I often see this in philosophers who seem to have a Hegelian instinct and think that just because someone has thought something – it means the spirit has become manifest and we can now consider a reality – no matter how narrowly distributed that thought is.

  3. Let’s say the following proposition is true (I just found it on the Internet, so…):

    “Pole beans do not thrive when beets are planted nearby, but bush beans aren’t affected.”

    We can imagine a community that never plants pole beans near their beets, but sometimes plants bush beans there, sometimes not.

    Now, *we* (you and I) know why their pole beans generally thrive. They seem to be deliberately keeping them away from their beets. They even seem to understand that there’s no reason to worry about the bush beans. But then we ask them to explain what they’re doing and they make no mention of the threat that beets pose to pole beans. (Instead, they point to ancillary positive reasons to plant the pole beans, bush beans, and beets where they do.)

    On your view, we want to say that the community knows about the threat, but none of the individuals do.

    But now suppose we suggest that they plant their pole beans near the beets this year. Suppose they say: “You know, that thought has never occurred to us, but why not? Let’s try it.” If we let them do it, their pole beans will not thrive this year.

    Where, in this story, are you seeing the community’s knowledge about the threat that beans pose to pole beans? To me, it seems that they are as ignorant about it as they are about how their brains make their planting decisions. They’ve no doubt evolved into the practice that works here, but they have not gained the knowledge that could also have informed it. They can see, but they don’t *know* how their eyes work.

    1. I agree with everything you say. But the argument is not really about this. It is about what can still be called knowledge. I argue that knowledge refers to a richer universe of phenomena and what you’re describing should be circumscribed as ‘propositional’ or ‘consciously manipulable’ or ‘testable atomistic’ knowledge. But I would argue that ‘testable knowledge’ is, using James C Scott’s term, ‘parasitic’ on the messy world of knowledge in general from tacit to practical (good old ‘phronesis’). It simplifies the world but ignoring the complexity. This also makes it more operational and its testability has huge benefits – but it cannot exist without the background.

      I note that you isolated a particular bit of knowledge from a vast tapestry because that’s what your view of knowledge allows you to see. But the community’s knowledge is not atomistic in that way. Individual bits of manipulable knowledge are not that easy to isolate. That’s why those community members find it hard to express that sort of preference when asked.

      You isolated a bit of communicable knowledge by posing a hypothetical alternative – a sort of hypothesis test. But that’s not how this sort of knowledge works in practice. It is embedded in ritual, custom, story telling, etc. People don’t simply try different things just on the offchance (or rather they do in the sense that there is always variation and heterogeneity but they don’t think of it in those terms). This is similar to the replication crisis – until the invaders, in the shape of Gelman et al., showed up the Wansink tribe were happy to just go along with their rich tapestry of ritual and community type knowledge…

      I just spent six months in East Timor and it is often very difficult to get a straight answer to a question like ‘How far is it to X.’ Not that people don’t know, they do a organize their lives around the knowledge, they’re just not used to thinking and speaking in those terms. So, the sort of knowledge you’re talking about is dependent on a shared practice of asking questions in a certain way. Some parts of it are talked about but many are not – there is only so far you can go with knowing how to do something automatically – like riding a bike.

      It reminds of me, too, of Polanyi’s notion of ‘economic prejudice’ (see Once you redefine everything in terms of economic value, you stop being able to see lots of things and simply stop understanding why others see things differently. This difference is not communicable because the frames of reference are too different.

      All I’m trying to do is temper your categorical statement X is or is not knowledge. I’d say that all of these things are a kind of knowledge but not the same kind. They share a family resemblance, if you will, but not a strict set membership.

      Sorry, for banging on about this – I’m doing this more to clarify my own thoughts than trying to pick a fight.

      1. Do bang on! (It’s me who must apologize for leaving your comment in the moderation filter so long.) I’m also in this to clarify my thoughts, not to win a fight.

        I agree with you that there is a tacit, non-atomic dimension to knowledge. There are individuals who know tacitly how to score goals, and there are teams that know tacitly how to win games. There is an individual and collective phronesis of champions. But I would argue that in so far as the team “knows” (tacitly) how to win a game, the members of the team each “know” (tacitly) their places on it. They know both the explicit “game plan” and the implicit “team spirit” that animates them.

        It’s true that I often reach for propositional knowledge for examples. But I think the question “Are some propositions knowable by groups that are not knowable by individuals?” has the same (or a similar) answer as the question, “Do groups have tacit knowledge that individuals within those groups cannot in principle acquire?” The “in principle” is important. Each craft skill, like each proposition, can be learned by an individual. Of course, we can’t individually master every craft, just as we can’t individually learn every fact.

        Your two examples are interesting. The people of East Timor know (or sometimes don’t know) individually, in their way, how far it is to the next town, even if they can’t put a number on it as we might wish. It’s not the community that holds this knowledge independent of the person you are talking to.

        The Wansink Tribe, as I understand it, is being accused of doing what Richard Feynman called “Cargo Cult” science. They’ve got landing strips, and radars, and phones made out of bamboo mats and coconuts. Gelman et al. are not recent invaders, they are the occupying forces that brought Coca-Cola to the Island in the first place and, having now left, are being worshiped through the mimetic simulation of the most superficial aspects of science. Upon their return they realize that the natives have misunderstood how all these devices work (i.e., not by magic). The individual members of the Wansink Tribe (so the criticism goes) do not *know* how to do science and therefore do not know what they claim to know. The tribe as a group is no smarter. Needless to say, Gelman and Co. are not about to land their planes on those beaches!

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