Fuller, Steve. “Social Epistemology: The Future of an Unfulfilled Promise.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 7 (2014): 29-37.
Social Epistemology: The Future of an Unfulfilled Promise 1
Steve Fuller, Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology, University of Warwick
How the World Has Changed Since the Eighties
I recently ran across a South African book that offered a critical survey of the various strands of thought that feed into contemporary ‘transdisciplinarity’. The text contained a brief discussion of social epistemology – in particular my version (the analytic version was not mentioned). Much to my bemusement, ‘social epistemology’ was described as a movement from the 1980s. While it certainly began then, I would hope that it continues to have relevance in a world that has consigned both the Cold War and Duran Duran to the dustbin of history. At the same time, it is clear that many of the field’s sustaining themes look different from when I founded the journal and published the book Social Epistemology (1988), now more than a quarter-century ago.
If I had to point one consistent source of ‘originality’ in my thinking, it would lie in imagining a moment in the past when things could have been different, and then tracing the consequences of the path not followed. Such moments would be chosen strategically to satisfy some normative ambition, but the import of this exercise would be to show that ‘the real’ can operate as a platform for launching ‘the ideal’. The policy problem then is determining what – if any – aspects of our current condition might produce a similar effect in the foreseeable future. Applied to Science and Technology Studies (STS), it would mean, say, reading Leviathan and the Air-Pump’s account of how Robert Boyle
triumphed over Thomas Hobbes not as a celebration of the sheer contingency of the outcome, but as a record of failure from which one might learn when a similar circumstance arises in the future, so that the Hobbes-figure might win (assuming, as I do, his way is preferable). When I founded social epistemology, these two positions were not so clearly distinguished because they faced a common foe: the classic ‘Whig’ view according to which Boyle justifiably beat Hobbes, and the world has been a better place for it. However, that foe is largely gone, and so the differences between its two opponents now acquire salience.
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