Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Political Epistemology

This post is by Michael Hannon and Elizabeth Edenberg. Here they present their new book, Political Epistemology (published by Oxford University Press in May 2021). The following authors have contributed to the book: Elizabeth Anderson, Kristoffer Ahlstrom-Vij, Jason Brennan, Quassim Cassam, Thomas Christiano, Elizabeth Edenberg, David Estlund, Alexander Guerrero, Michael Hannon, Jennifer Lackey, Michael P. Lynch, Fabienne Peter, Jeroen de Ridder, Regina Rini, Jennifer R. Steele, Robert B. Talisse, and Briana Toole.

As current events around the world have illustrated, epistemological issues are at the center of our political lives. It has become increasingly difficult to discern legitimate sources of evidence, misinformation spreads faster than ever, and the role of truth in politics has allegedly decayed in recent years. It is therefore no coincidence that political discourse is currently saturated with epistemic notions like ‘post-truth,’ ‘fake news,’ ‘truth decay,’ ‘echo chambers,’ and ‘alternative facts.’ These issues are part of a rapidly growing area of research called ‘political epistemology.’

The term ‘political epistemology’ only recently entered the academic lexicon, but this newly thriving field has old roots. In the Republic, Plato attacked the epistemic merits of democracy in favor of ‘epistocracy’, or rule by the knowers. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill touted the epistemic benefits of deliberation for citizens; in Considerations on Representative Government, Mill advocated for plural voting for those with more education in order to improve the quality of political decisions. 

Elizabeth Edenberg

In “Truth and Politics”, Hannah Arendt analyzed the relationship between truth and political freedom. In Political Liberalism, John Rawls put the question of deep and persistent disagreements among citizens at the center of his political inquiry, ultimately arguing that cooperation across disagreements requires setting aside debates about the truth of particular views and instead adopting an agnostic epistemological position.

While scholars have been interested in topics at the intersection of political philosophy and epistemology at least since Plato, the past few years have witnessed an outpouring of new research in this area. For example, new work has been published on propaganda, fake news, political disagreement, conspiracy theories, voter ignorance, climate change skepticism, the epistemic harms of echo chambers, the epistemic merits of (and challenges to) democracy, and intellectual virtues and vices in politics. This rush of interest was largely sparked by the UK Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, but the themes that motivate this new research are deeper and more philosophical.

Michael Hannon

Our new book brings together leading political philosophers and epistemologists to explore ways in which the analytic and conceptual tools of epistemology bear on political philosophy, and vice versa. It is organized around three broad themes: truth and knowledge in politics; epistemic problems for democracy; and disagreement and polarization. This book investigates topics such as: the extent and implications of political ignorance, the value of democratic deliberation, the significance of epistemic considerations for political legitimacy, the epistemology of political disagreement, identity politics, political bullshit, and weaponized skepticism.


A premise underlying this collection of work is that, beyond a certain point, progress on certain foundational issues in both political philosophy and epistemology cannot be achieved without sharing insights across fields. By bringing political philosophers into conversation with epistemologists, this volume promotes more cross-pollination of ideas while also highlighting the richness and diversity of political epistemology as a newly emerging field. Our hope is that through careful analysis of the philosophical issues underlying contemporary political challenges, we can identify constructive paths forward.

Please note: There will be a virtual book launch on 20th May, 5-7pm (UK time). To register for the Zoom details, please visit this page where you also find a full schedule of the event. All welcome. 

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