By Catarina Dutilh Novaes
I am currently supervising a MA thesis on interpersonal justification (by Sebastiano Lommi), and this is providing me with the opportunity to connect the dots between a number of topics and questions I’ve been interested in for years. In particular questions pertaining the epistemic value of deliberation, metaphors for argumentation, and the Enlightenment ideal of epistemic autonomy are all coming together. In this post I argue that the process whereby knowledge is shared through argumentation and exchange of reasons preserves the autonomy of the knowing subject to a greater extent than through testimony alone. Ultimately, the goal is to hit the sweet spot between preserving the autonomy of the knower while avoiding an overly individualistic picture of knowledge, i.e. one where the social dimension of knowledge is not sufficiently recognized.
The work of developmental psychologist Paul L. Harris (e.g. his book Trusting what you’re told) has been an important influence for my thinking on these matters. It is thanks to him that I got to see these issues through the lenses of Enlightenment ideals -- the exhortation to think for yourself -- which were a reaction to the then-prevailing model of (excessive) deference towards authority and testimony. Harris argues that the emphasis on the autonomy of the knowing subject thus conceived (as found in e.g. Kant, Rousseau, and centuries later in Piaget) swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction, leading to a mistaken conception of knowledge and learning as essentially individual processes, disregarding how much we in fact learn from others.
In recent decades, the importance of taking into account the social aspects of knowledge became increasingly acknowledged in epistemology, leading to the emergence of the subfield of social epistemology. Arguably, the main focus of social epistemology until now has been on testimony, though there has also been some work on interpersonal justification, understood as "argument addressed to those who disagree with us, or to ourselves when we are of two minds" (Ralws) (see here for Goldman’s classic ‘Argumentation and interpersonal justification’, where he argues (mistakenly, in my opinion) that personal justification remains the primitive notion). While these may not be the two only processes whereby a person shares knowledge with others, for present purposes I take these to be paradigmatic cases.