Lisa McNulty MA.(Kent University)

Specialist Communities and Cross-Cultural Epistemic Practices

In 'Cross Cultural Epistemic Practices', Hongladarom argues that in accepting knowledge as belonging to social groups, we should accept that those groups choose their own epistemic goals and maxims. The epistemologist must therefore become part anthropologist, and compare epistemic maxims rather as an ethicist compares ethical theories. Not all social groups have the ultimate epistemic aim 'pursue truth'. For example, the Thai maxim is 'Seek truth only to the extent that it does not disrupt social continuity or hierarchy' (p. 85).

Perhaps deference to a hierarchical epistemic authority could enrich the epistemic community as a whole? All cultures delegate epistemic responsibility to some extent. But if knowledge could simply be "a kind of treasure that enhances the social status of anyone who possesses it", then what is epistemic responsibility? Also the Thai maxim appears to be epistemic only insofar as it mentions the pursuit of truth; merely stating that Thai society prizes social stability over knowledge-acquisition. That doesn't in itself tell us anything about a separate Thai epistemology.

However genuinely separate maxims do exist: we could compare one society which prioritized the pursuit of truth, and another which, (either disbelieving in truth, doubting our access to it, or simply regarding it as less important than other considerations), prioritized coherence of belief. However, I am concerned about a possible incommensurability problem between existing cultures. Claiming that what knowledge actually is, rather than merely the means by which it is gained or the esteem in which it is held, varies between cultures, implies relativism about knowledge; which, confusingly, Hongladarom is at pains to deny. How can we make sense of this denial?

We need to reconsider what we mean by an epistemic culture or community, and to consider why epistemic maxims vary. If epistemic cultures can be defined as socially coherent groups sharing an epistemic goal or maxim, then we should look beyond our primary understanding of cultures as separate geographical groups and include specialist knowledge communities. In these, it is both commonplace and intellectually necessary to follow several epistemic maxims in different contexts, by belonging to several epistemic communities. It is therefore appropriate to speak of epistemic maxims as variable dependent on the type of knowledge sought, instead of claiming that the definition of knowledge varies between cultures. Any account of social epistemology ought to be able to provide a definition of knowledge that supervenes over all epistemic communities; but in order to succeed Hongladarom must reassess what is meant by an 'epistemic maxim'. I argue that such maxims cannot define what truth actually is, but merely what actions are appropriate to gain and maintain epistemic goals in the context of a particular social or intellectual community.