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.