Which Groups Have Scientific Knowledge? A Reply to Chris Dragos, Silvia Tossut

Author Information: Silvia Tossut, Vita-Salute San Raffaele University, silvia.tossut@gmail.com

Tossut, Silvia. “Which Groups Have Scientific Knowledge? A Reply to Chris Dragos.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 7 (2016): 18-21.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-35E

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Image credit: University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment, via flickr

In a recent paper in Social Epistemology, Chris Dragos (2016) tackles the question of groups having scientific knowledge, arguing for the failure of Kristina Rolin’s argument that the general scientific community can know. Although I find Dragos’ paper to be a valuable reflection on an important theme, I also have some remarks concerning his argument. I sincerely hope a fruitful discussion will follow this short reply. 

Groups as Epistemic Subjects

The possibility for groups to be subjects of scientific knowledge makes sense within a collective approach to epistemology; that is, within an approach accepting the thesis that groups can be epistemic subjects. If groups can have beliefs, it is possible to investigate under what additional conditions a group belief qualifies as knowledge.

Assuming that groups have beliefs and that such beliefs can amount to knowledge, Dragos focuses on the other conditions needed to attribute knowledge to a group. Dragos starts telling us that one of these conditions concerns the relational structure of the knowing subject. Since he harks back to Brad Wray’s argument, I call this the Wray condition for collective knowledge:

Wray Condition (W-Cond): only collective subjects that have organic solidarity can be the subject of knowledge.

In the case of scientific research, organic solidarity amounts to the division of cognitive labor. Thus, research teams can have knowledge. As a corollary, Wray holds that the general scientific community cannot be a subject of knowledge, since its members lack the required organic solidarity.

Dragos compares the W-Cond, to another condition for collective knowledge, developed by Kristina Rolin:

Rolin Condition (R-Cond): a collective subject must have collective justification to have knowledge.

Clearly, the meaning of R-Cond depends on the understanding of justification that one adopts. According to Rolin, justification is due to the epistemic responsibility for the default entitlements. Applied to scientific research, R-Cond entails that since sometimes the general scientific community is the epistemically responsible subject, sometimes it can be a knowing subject.

Before turning to some observations on Dragos’ argument against Rolin’s conclusion, let me say that I am not entirely sure that W-Cond and R-Cond are mutually exclusive, despite their giving opposite answers to the same issue (the possibility for the general scientific community to know). Consider W-Cond first. Wray focuses on the relational structure internal to the collective subject, claiming that only certain kinds of groups can be epistemic subjects. Being a collective epistemic subject is not merely a matter of being “jointly committed to believe”, as Gilbert suggests, but it requires that a specific kind of relation obtain among the members.

On the other side, Rolin aims at studying the collective version of another epistemic notion, the notion of justification. What does collective justification amount to? When is a collective subject justified? Clearly, not all the theories of justification are apt to be applied to collective subjects. So, if Dragos wants to discard Rolin’s approach, he should also tell us which alternative interpretation of collective justification he has in mind.

Now, let me turn to one point of Dragos’ argument. He says that Rolin assumes that “collective justification straightforwardly implies collective knowledge”(3). Dragos’, then, sees a problem in the inference from collective justification to collective knowledge.

Before presenting my remarks, let me recall Dragos’ distinction among auto-justification (J-Auto) and allo-justification (J-Allo). If we call J-factors all the factors that are subject to epistemological evaluation to determine whether justification obtains, then we can choose among two opposing positions:

J-Auto: The possessor or proper subject of knowledge that p is the possessor or proper subject of all J-factors.

J-Allo: The possessor or proper subject of knowledge that p need not be the possessor or proper subject of all J-factors.

Dragos claims that Rolin merely assumes J-Auto, since she holds that when a group attains epistemic justification we can say that scientific knowledge is collective knowledge. Dragos argues that since J-Allo is viable (that is, since J-Allo can be defended with independent arguments), then “the claim that only a group can attain epistemic justification fails to imply the claim that a group can know” (emphasis added).[1] In particular, Dragos says that: “Without an argument for the inference from collective justification to collective knowledge (i.e. a reason for retaining J-Auto and resisting J-Allo) Rolin’s argument fails to show that collective knowledge obtains at all. At most, it shows only that collective justification sometimes obtains” (5).

I now turn to critical remarks on Dragos’ argument.

A) Rolin does not need to resist J-Allo. The reason for this is that J-Allo and J-Auto are not opposing claims since, as a matter of logic, J-Allo includes J-Auto cases. If J-Allo is correct, then in order to be justified one doesn’t need to be the subject of all the J-factors—but it can also be the case that it is subjects of all the J-factors. The possession of all the J-factors on the part of the general scientific community is both an instance of J-Auto and an aberrant instance of J-Allo. Since Rolin’s point is that sometimes the general scientific community can have knowledge, and since the viability of J-Allo says nothing against this possibility, she does not need an argument to resist J-Allo. There is a problem only if one thinks that the possibility of collective knowledge prevents the possibility of individual knowledge. As to this point, I say something below.

B) Rolin does not straightforwardly infer collective knowledge from collective justification. Dragos seems to assume that R-Cond is meant to be a sufficient condition for knowledge. I do not think that it is so. Rather, as in the classical tripartite definition of knowledge, collective justification should be understood as a necessary condition for collective knowledge. In this sense, R-Cond parallels W-Cond—nobody thinks that organic solidarity is sufficient for a collective subject to have knowledge, and nobody should think that having collective justification suffices for knowledge. Yet, if a certain collective subject (in the interesting case, the general scientific community) can have collective justification, it is a candidate for the possession of knowledge, just as smaller groups sometimes are.

In introducing a certain understanding of collective justification, Rolin is respecting the conceptual connection among justification and knowledge due to the classical definition of knowledge, and in so doing she is giving (part of) a definition of collective knowledge.


I think that the debate over collective epistemology in general, and in a derivative guise specifically in Dragos’ paper, suffers from a lack of understanding of the relations among individual and collective epistemic concepts. It is not clear in which sense, for example, whether (and why) the possibility of collective knowledge might prevent the possibility of individual knowledge. The same applies to justification. As Gilbert (2004) clearly puts it, the standards for justification might be different for individual and collective subjects. Recalling Dragos’ distinction, one might say that collective subjects need to have J-Auto, while individual subjects can have J-Allo.

The possibility for individuals to have knowledge (or to be justified) does not rule out the possibility that the relevant collective subject have collective knowledge (or are collectively justified): after all, what matters for collective beliefs (and derivatively for all the other epistemic notions) is that they have an entrenched position within the collective subject (Gilbert 2000, 45-46). In my opinion, a serious advancement in collective epistemology will be possible only after a clarification of the relations among collective and individual epistemic concepts.


Dragos, Chris. “Which Groups Have Scientific Knowledge? Wray vs. Rolin.” Social Epistemology (2016): 1-13. doi: 10.1080/02691728.2016.1172361.

Gilbert, Margaret. Sociality and Responsibility: New Essays in Plural Subject Theory. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.

Gilbert, Margaret. “Collective Epistemology.” Episteme 1, no. 2 (2004): 95-107.

[1] It is not really clear to me the reason why the “only” appears at this point of Dragos’ discussion, since I don’t think that Rolin holds that collective knowledge prevents the possibility of individual knowledge, nor is this emphasized elsewhere in Dragos’ argument. As I will say in the conclusion, I think that this is due to a general problem for collective epistemology.

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4 replies


  1. Collective Knowledge and Collective Justification, K. Brad Wray « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective
  2. Justified Group Belief in Science, Chris Dragos « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective
  3. Organic Solidarity, Science and Group Knowledge, Mark D. West « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective
  4. Collective Epistemic Responsibility: A Reply to Chris Dragos, Kristina Rolin « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective

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