Social Interaction and the Development of Knowledge

By Jeremy I. M. Carpendale; Ulrich Miiller | Go to book overview

3
Piaget's Social Epistemology
Richard F. Kitchener
Colorado State University

In this chapter, I explore this question: In what sense does Jean Piaget have a social epistemology? When I use the term social epistemology, I am using it in the sense in which traditional epistemologists use the term epistemology and not in the much looser sense in which many scientists use the term. What is that sense?

Epistemology can be taken in a purely descriptive (empirical) sense or a normative sense. In the purely descriptive sense, epistemology would be concerned with the study of belief formation and change: How are beliefs and other cognitive representations formed, retained, and revised? An account of such belief formation would presumably be purely factual in nature, concerned with the question of what causal conditions explain this trajectory. These causal conditions might be individualistic in nature—internal states of the individual—or environmental events external to the individual.

A likely candidate for such external events would be social factors because many (if not most) of our beliefs are formed as a result of processes of social interaction with others—parents, teachers, and peers. It would be surprising if at least some of our beliefs were not reflections of the beliefs or interests of larger social groups to which we belong. Hence, this limited social epistemology would be of considerable significance because a complete causal account of the acquisition, maintenance, and revision of our beliefs would involve social factors. 1

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1
Not every epistemologist would accept this view in an unqualified way. They would argue that causal factors of a social type are appropriate only for irrational beliefs, whereas rational beliefs require no such causal account. This is sometimes called the asymmetry principle of explanation.

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