edited by Birger Hjørland and Claudio Gnoli


Semantic issues and some often confused dichotomies

Preliminary editorial placeholder article; to be replaced when an author is found for an improved article (or for articles about parts of this article)

Table of contents:
1. Introduction
2. The meaning of the word social
3. Individualism versus collectivism
4. Methodological individualism versus methodological collectivism
5. Social versus individual epistemology
6. Atomism versus holism
7. Private versus public
8. Subjective versus objective
9. First-hand knowledge versus second-hand knowledge
10. First person perspective versus second- and third person perspective
11. Psychologism vs. sociologism vs. realism
12. Idealism vs. materialism vs dualism or 3 worlds metaphysics
13. Conclusion

The word social concerns knowledge organization in different ways, for example, because Jesse Shera in 1951 suggested that classification is based on social epistemology (SE). Two main meanings are distinguished: the broad meaning of term social, include the socio-cultural context and social norms of people, whereas a narrow sense just understands social as individuals in the plural. The narrow conception is associated with “positivism” and the attempt to study social phenomena by empiricist methods. This also influences how fields like social psychology, sociolinguistics, and SE are understood, in some paradigms as genuine social disciplines, in other as mere aggregation of individuals. The term social is related to a number of dichotomies which are often confused. This article briefly considers the following: individualism vs. collectivism, methodological individualism vs. methodological collectivism, social vs. individual epistemology, atomism vs. holism, private vs. public, subjective vs. objective, first-hand knowledge vs. second-hand knowledge, first person perspective vs. second- and third person perspective, psychologism vs. sociologism vs. realism and idealism vs. materialism vs dualism or 3 worlds metaphysics.

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1. Introduction

This entry is motivated by the need to introduce certain difficult semantic issues related to the word social. The term is important for knowledge organization (KO) because Jesse Shera (1951) argued that classification is based on social epistemology (SE), and because different schools of SE understand the term differently. It is also relevant for KO because it influences how fields with social as part of their names are understood and defined. This paper was originally drafted as an appendix to an article about social epistemology (SE) (Hjørland in press), but is now published as an editorial placeholder article written by both editors. It covers a huge terrain and is only intended as a preliminary guide for the readers further inquiry.

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2. The meaning of social

As a start it should be said that the term social is not limited to human beings. Social psychology, for example, although it is today mostly about human beings, was by the first handbook of social psychology (Murchison 1935) including chapters on, for example, population behavior of bacteria and insect societies, and even plants (all written by biologists). Thus, there have been, at the least historically views that sought the nature of social behavior in general behavioral-biological principles. It shows a change in theory developments in relation to the study of social phenomena, but this does not restrict the study of social phenomena to humans. Today, sociobiology and phytosociology are among the fields studying social issues in non-human populations. It should also be said that social and cultural are strongly related words, but we shall not here go further into this last term. We just conclude that social generally refers to the interaction, mutual influence, and integration within kinds of living entities.

The adjective social is used in more senses, which are of importance to separate in relation to scholarly fields and research. Danziger (2000) described how the term social got a very narrow, “impoverished” meaning in experimental psychology, because methodology is not ontologically neutral. He wrote (p. 329): “The historical emergence of a field devoted to the experimental investigation of effects identified as ‘social’ required a radical break with traditional conceptions of the social. Psychological experimentation was limited to the investigation of effects that were proximal, local, short-term, and decomposable”. Thus, the understanding of “the social” is dependent of the methodology of the researchers studying it: because some psychologists want psychology to be an experimental science, they have to understand psychological concepts in a way that allows them to be studied experimentally. In this case they define social much narrower than this term is ordinarily understood.

This insight has implications for the understanding of the meaning of terms such as social psychology, sociolinguistics, social epistemology (SE) etc. Each of this fields have conflicting paradigms, where “positivist”-oriented [1] paradigms in each discipline tend to understand “social” as basically aggregation of individuals, thereby reducing “the social” to the impoverished meaning related to the one given by Danziger, while many non-positivist paradigms tend to be genuine social. In the positivist tradition, “social” tends to mean individuals in plural, neglecting the historical and socio-cultural contexts of these individuals and the social norms influencing individual behavior.

An example of these two views can be seen in the field of philosophy, in which Schmaus (2005, 99-100) wrote:

Solomon’s [2001] social empiricism appears to be using the term ‘social’ in a very minimal sense, in which it refers to a distribution of properties in a population, a distribution that is observable from an external point of view […] Solomon does not bring out the role of social norms in scientists’ thinking.

And (ibid., 124-5):

Ideally, philosophers interested in the nature of the social should also be engaged with philosophers and sociologists of science who are trying to understand the social character of scientific knowledge. This would not only bring about a better understanding of the social character of science but a better social metaphysics as well. It would provide a real-world case in which we could investigate whether an individualist approach to explaining such things as theory change and the growth of knowledge can account for the explanatory successes and failures of a nonindividualist approach to these questions. The answer to this question could shed much light on the relationship between the individual and the social.

Schmaus’ criticism corresponds to one Fuller (2000, 575) provided in relation to Goldman’s SE:

Goldman [1999] assumes a pre-sociological sense of ‘the social’ as the aggregation of individuals. Accordingly, social life occurs only in observable interactions between individuals. Upbringing, training, let alone spatiotemporally distributed patterns of structural domination, do not figure in Goldman's theory. Thus, all of the interesting properties of epistemic communities turn out to be either the intended or unintended consequences of such interaction. While hardly a novel view of the relationship between the individual and the social, it presupposes an indeterminacy of the social that is lacking in the individual. Individuals are presumed to have clearly identified psychological and biological properties prior to their engagement with others, whereas societies have no clear identity before they are constituted by specific individuals.

We have seen enough to conclude that the understanding of the word social is not a trivial matter, and that different understanding of it has important consequences for how research is done, and for how it should be interpreted. We now turn to consider a range of often confused dichotomies related to social knowledge.

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3. Individualism versus collectivism

Pettit (2015, 811) defined the two terms in the following way:

Individualism as a doctrine in social ontology — in the theory of what sorts of entities are important in the social world — is usually contrasted with collectivism. Collectivism comes in two varieties, hard and soft. The hard variety of collectivism argues that social-structural laws and forces, as revealed in social science, undermine the image of the human being as an autonomous agent. Individualism denies that this is so, while admitting that agency is subject to various limitations and failures. The softer variety of collectivism argues only that social science shows that human agency is not quite as central as common sense may suggest, illustrating the point in a variety of different theses. This sort of collectivism need not be rejected by individualists.

Brown (2004) provided a related dualism between individualism and anti-individualism and found that anti-individualism dominates contemporary philosophy of mind. She wrote (p. ix):

According to this view [anti-individualism], a subject’s thought contents are partly individuated by her environment. By contrast, individualists deny this and argue that a subject’s thought contents are wholly individuated by her ‘internal’ states, such as her brain states.

The doctrines of individualism and collectivism have their methodological counterparts, towards which we now turn.

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4. Methodological individualism versus methodological collectivism

Methodological individualism is mostly understood as the claim in the social sciences, which, as stated by Levine, Sober and Wright (1987, 69), implies:

[T]hat all social phenomena are best explained by the properties of the individuals who comprise the phenomena; or, equivalently, that any explanation involving macro-level, social concepts should in principle be reduced to micro-level explanations involving only individuals and their properties.

By implication methodological collectivism entails the claim that not all social phenomena are best explained by properties of individuals, but this is a seldom used term.

Levine, Sober and Wright further state that the term methodological individualism is used in different ways and often confused with other possible views. While methodological individualism is a dominant view, the authors argue that it is not good scientific methodology. They conclude (ibid., p. 84):

But so [misleading at best and harmful at worst] are assertions by methodological individualists concerning the proper way of understanding explanation in social science. Social science ought to be methodologically anti-reductionist if the properties and relations it investigates are supervenient [2]. This, we stress, is an empirical question, not one to be settled by methodological fiat.

In relation to SE this dichotomy has influenced different schools. Goldman is the founder of a dominant school, and, in Goldman (2002, 222), he admits to methodological individualism in which “all activities of groups, institutions, or social systems arise from the actions of individuals”. This has been criticized by Fuller, the founder of another influential school of SE, but Niiniluoto (2020, 449) found that “Fuller has not really developed his alternative of methodological holism”.

This dichotomy is also related to discussions in relation to cognitivism in psychology and other fields. In relation to KO, this was discussed by Hjørland (2013).

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5. Social versus individual epistemology

As already stated, SE is discussed in an independent article (Hjørland in press). In that article it is argued that Goldman’s position is not genuinely social, and that Fuller’s position is not genuinely epistemological. Rather, the suggestion made by library scientist Jesse Shera (1951) in relation to classification is seen as the best approach to SE, although at that time — before Kuhn’s alternative to positivism — it could not be fully developed.

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6. Atomism versus holism

Karakostas (2009, 635-6) explained atomism this way:

In the context of the atomism/holism issue in the natural sciences, if, broadly speaking, one adopts a strict bottom-up reasoning, starts thereby with the constituent parts of a system, maintains that these constituents have the properties that are characteristic of them independently of each other, and conceives a whole as a mere aggregate of its constituent parts, then one advocates atomism
and holism this way:
In contrast, one recognizes the necessity of a holistic conceptualization if, roughly speaking, one claims that the constituents of a whole have, at least, some of the properties that are characteristic of them only within the whole.

He also wrote, that “[a]lthough holism is frequently seen as the opposite of atomism, as the preceding general characterizations denote, nonetheless, atomism and holism may also be regarded as complementary viewpoints, in that, they both are needed to obtain a proper account of a given system”.

Clearly, this dichotomy is related to the debate of methodological individualism vs. collectivism but is wider in that it is not limited to living entities.

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7. Private versus public

In relation to knowledge, “private” and “public” are relative concepts. A receipt for cooking is private if you are the only one who knows it. You may share it with family and friends, and it becomes less private. If you publish it on an internet site, it is made public. It is even made more public if it is published in a book or journal, and maximal public that book or journal is published by a leading publisher, in a main language, indexed by major indexing services and available in one or more libraries. So called gray-literature are semi-publications because they are not marketed to “the public”. The view presented here is that the degree of being public is related to the degree of visibility, retrievability, accessibility and stability. In law and science, for example, it is important that publications can serve as proof, and therefore have a permanent existence. To publish means to make public, and our concepts of publication, publishing and “literature” are still much influenced by print technology (but gradually changing). (For a theory of publishing understood as the role of publishers see Bhaskar 2013.)

Of special interest for epistemology is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept “private language” which in his opinion is an illusion because language essentially is social (for the debate about this concept see Candlish and Wrisley 2019). The idea of a private language seems to correspond to the idea of individual epistemology, while the idea of language as essentially social seems to correspond to SE in the tradition of Kuhn (1962) (but not to the version of SE presented by Goldman 1999).

The title of Wilson (1977): Public Knowledge, Private Ignorance means that while libraries offer a wealth of public information, generally freely accessible, most of the nation's citizens still suffer a great deal from private ignorance, relying upon defective memory, personal files, and interpersonal contacts in their gathering of the information they need for effective decision making in an increasingly complex world..

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8. Subjective versus objective

This dualism operates at two levels:

  • Metaphysical realism assumes that the material world exists “objectively”, independent of human beings and our conceptualizations, whereas constructivism assumes that it is constructed by human consciousness, either individually or collectively, and therefore is subjective.
  • Epistemological realism assumes that humans can have knowledge about the objective world, e.g., by using “the scientific method” (see Hoyningen-Huene 2013). (So-called “naïve realism” assumes that reality is as we experience it.) Epistemological realism contrasts other epistemologies, such as Kantian philosophy, which assume that we can never discover “the thing-in-itself” (German: Ding an sich), i.e., we cannot know the status of objects as they are, independent of representation and observation. In Kuhn’s (1962) terminology: our descriptions of the world are always dependent on the paradigm from which it is observed. Probably the best answer to this dilemma is to assume that no methods can ever guarantee objective results, but that this does not make all methods useless or equal. Interesting is feminist epistemologist Sandra Harding (2005) distinction between “weak objectivity” of supposed value-neutral research versus “strong objectivity” of engaged research.

Matheron (1989, 26) argue that it is an error to believe that objective and subjective are necessarily opposites:

We shall not dwell at such length on the notion of subjectivity, insofar as it refers to the opinions, beliefs, and feelings of conviction of this or that individual. Let us mainly note that this is not in any way the logical opposite of objectivity. People said to be ‘reasonable’ or ‘sensible’ will often give their (subjective) agreement to a well-corroborated (objective) statement such as ‘when an apple becomes detached from a tree, it falls down and does not fly towards the stars.’ In that sense, obviously, any probabilistic statement, insofar as some individual expresses his support for it, can always be said to be subjective. But this does not exclude a priori its objectivity. An objective law, such as the law of universal attraction, insofar as I believe it to be ‘true’ can also be said to be subjective, since it does, in fact, represent my personal opinion.

Understood in this way subjectivity is not something that should be avoided, but something inevitably that should be cultivated.

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9. First-hand knowledge versus second-hand knowledge

First-hand knowledge is what you observe or reason by yourself. Second-hand knowledge is knowledge you obtain from others. The study of second-hand knowledge is often confused with SE. Quinton (2004, 7), for example wrote: “Social Epistemology arose from the recognition that nearly all that we believe or claim to know is second hand and derived from the speech or writing of others”.

Patrick Wilson’s book (1983) Second-Hand Knowledge is an example, and it understands itself as SE, which the author (pp. 194-6) defended from the epistemological position of Pyrrhonian skepticism. (In the eyes of the present authors “Pyrrhonian skepticism” is an epistemological position, whereas the study of second-hand knowledge in itself is not.) Also, the school of SE founded by Goldman has mainly, but not exclusively, understood SE as the study of second-hand knowledge.

The concept first-hand knowledge corresponds to Bertrand Russel’s (1911) “knowledge by acquaintance” (versus “knowledge by description”). However, the idea that first-hand knowledge has a privileged epistemic status is based on an empiricist-based assumption considering first-hand knowledge as independent on social influences. Other positions, based on historicist assumptions, by contrast consider the individual’s observations and cognition as social in nature, and therefore consider second-hand knowledge in many cases to have the same degree of certainty, thereby downplaying the status of first-hand knowledge. For example, my first-hand knowledge of something is often less reliable than knowledge of that thing given to me by an expert.

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10. First person perspective versus second- and third person perspective

Merriam-Webster (2023) defined:

In first person point of view the narrator is a character in the story telling it from their perspective. In third person point of view the narrator is not part of the story and the characters never acknowledge the narrator's presence. Less common than first and third is second person point of view. In second person point of view the reader is part of the story. The narrator describes the reader's actions, thoughts, and background using ‘you’.

Grimm (2021, §5.1) in the section “Perspective-taking and its Critics” wrote:

A central tenet of the humanistic tradition is that when an agent has a first-person perspective on the world, there is value in trying to ‘take up’ or ‘assume’ that perspective, rather than simply trying to map that agent’s perspective from a detached, third-person perspective.

He further wrote that philosophers differ about the epistemic value of this project of perspective-taking, and wrote:

Against the push for perspective-taking as a source of understanding, especially in the social sciences, at least three strains of criticism arose: Positivist, Critical, and Gadamerian […].
[The Positivist critique expressed] grave doubts about the reliability of the processes associated with perspective taking […].
Critical Theorists have argued that the first-person perspective is not the most theoretically or politically important perspective, because it often masks deeper and more significant sources of behavior (see Warnke 2019). The deeper sources might include an agent’s own, unacknowledged motivations, or they might include the presuppositions, power dynamics, and economic conditions of the society that shaped the possibility spaces in which the agent moves. […]
The Gadamerian critique, finally, is that we can never fully jump outside of our own cares and concerns in order to adopt the cares and concerns of others. Reliving or re-experiencing — in the sense of transposing ourselves out of our framework and into the framework of other agents or cultures — is thus an impossible ideal. Instead, we always take our frameworks with us.

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11. Psychologism versus sociologism versus realism

Psychologism is the assumption that research and knowledge depend on the individuals, who produce it, and that principles for enquiry should be based on psychological principles. Quine (1969, 82) thought that epistemology should be “a chapter of psychology”. (For a broad overview of debates on this position see Kusch 2020.)

Sociologism covers the assumption that research and knowledge depend on the societies, who produce it, and that principles for enquiry should be based on sociological principles (see Hund 1990). It is not a common term, but it is often associated with social constructivism.

Realism is the assumption that research and knowledge depend on world itself, and that principles for enquiry should be based on studying the world rather than on studying psychology or sociology. It implies that knowledge cannot just be reduced to the psychological or the sociological. However, the claim of constructivists (psychological or sociological) is not necessarily that there is no reality, or that reality does not matter, but that what is taken to be objective knowledge can often be shown to reflect social or cultural biases, for example, assumptions in male-dominated cultures.

All knowledge claims must depend both on the individual, on the society and on reality, the question is how these influences are understood. (It is a widespread misunderstanding in elementary introductions that positivism represents a realist position, but positivism and realism are two different positions and traditions. Positivism is the tendency to let the data speak for themselves and reject the question whether these data represent a real world, as metaphysical.)

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12. Idealism versus materialism versus dualism or 3 worlds metaphysics

Idealism and materialism are two kinds of philosophical monism (as opposed to dualism or 3 worlds metaphysics).

Idealism was by Guyer and Horstmann (2023, §1) defined:

Within modern philosophy there are sometimes taken to be two fundamental conceptions of idealism:
    1. something mental (the mind, spirit, reason, will) is the ultimate foundation of all reality, or even exhaustive of reality, and
    2. although the existence of something independent of the mind is conceded, everything that we can know about this mind-independent “reality” is held to be so permeated by the creative, formative, or constructive activities of the mind (of some kind or other) that all claims to knowledge must be considered, in some sense, to be a form of self-knowledge.

Idealism in sense 1 has been called ‘metaphysical’ or ‘ontological idealism’, while idealism in sense 2 has been called ‘formal’ or ‘epistemological idealism’.

Materialism was defined by Stack (1998):

Materialism is a set of related theories which hold that all entities and processes are composed of — or are reducible to — matter, material forces or physical processes. All events and facts are explainable, actually or in principle, in terms of body, material objects or dynamic material changes or movements. In general, the metaphysical theory of materialism entails the denial of the reality of spiritual beings, consciousness and mental or psychic states or processes, as ontologically distinct from, or independent of, material changes or processes. Since it denies the existence of spiritual beings or forces, materialism typically is allied with atheism or agnosticism.

Miller (1998) presented Marx's view of materialism:

Marx takes both the social and the natural sciences to vindicate a materialist, dialectical view of reality. In its broadest claim, Marx's materialism has it that everything that exists is made of matter and is governed by the causal powers that physics seeks to discover. However, his materialism is not reductive. Within the constraints that the laws of physics impose, other laws regulate phenomena, in ways that cannot be described in the vocabulary of physics (see Dialectical materialism; Reduction, problems of; Unity of science).
Marx's view of cognition is also materialist in that it gives priority to material interests and mind-independent causes. Cognition grows out of the effort to change reality in order to satisfy one's needs. Initially, our concepts mark as relevant the distinctions that are practically important to us. The frustration of our efforts and expectations, together with the social exchange of information which is our main resource for effective change, lead to the continual revision of beliefs and even of the concepts in which they are framed. Like those modern 'scientific realists' who emphasize the success of theory-dependent interventions, Marx took the question of whether the whole process of inquiry improves the truth of our beliefs to be settled by its contribution to our capacity to get our way with nature (see Realism and antirealism).

It is characteristic for Marx's view that idealism plays an important role for conceptualizing materialism. In the first of his theses on Feuerbach, Marx ([1845] 2002) wrote:

The main defect of all hitherto-existing materialism — that of Feuerbach included — is that the Object [der Gegenstand], actuality, sensuousness, are conceived only in the form of the object [Objekts], or of contemplation [Anschauung], but not as human sensuous activity, practice [Praxis], not subjectively. Hence it happened that the active side, in opposition to materialism, was developed by idealism — but only abstractly, since, of course, idealism does not know real, sensuous activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects [Objekte], differentiated from thought-objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective [gegenst√§ndliche] activity. In The Essence of Christianity [Das Wesen des Christenthums], he therefore regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice [Praxis] is conceived and defined only in its dirty-Jewish form of appearance [Erscheinungsform] [note omitted]. Hence he does not grasp the significance of 'revolutionary', of 'practical-critical', activity.

Materialism is related to physicalism, but not accepted as a synonym by all philosophers. See further in Stoljar (2021).

Dualism is the metaphysical theory that the world consists of two fundamental substances, physical and mental, neither of which can be reduced to the other. Popper's three worlds (Popper 1972) is a metaphysical theory that the world consists of three fundamental substances. Valentine (1999, 32, dotted list added) described them as follows:

  • World 1, the world of physical objects which obey physical laws;
  • World 2, the world of mental states and subjective experiences; and
  • World 3, products of the human mind, abstract cultural objects, objective knowledge such as numbers, theories or books, which are governed by normative principles such as the rules of logic.

In information science, Popper’s theory has been discussed by, among others, Gnoli (2018) and Hjørland (2019). This debate is related to the term social because Gnoli claimed that the cognitive and “the sociological” approach to information science is each about a certain level of reality, whereas Hjørland claimed that these are not about two different levels of reality but are competing views about the same reality.

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13. Conclusion

Understanding the word social has been showed to be linked to different schools of thought. A proper understanding of this term as well as of presented dichotomies is important. They have been presented as independent, but there often are internal connections between them. As said in the introduction, the present article just provides a rough presentation of a wide field, which hopefully will be followed by more articles.

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1. Positivism is a polysemous term, which shall not be discussed here, where it is used about the position that Kuhn (1962) attacked and to which he developed an alternative. Although Kuhn was not well-read in the works of the logical positivists, it is commonly agreed that he was part of a historicist turn in the philosophy of science, which conflicts with the individualist epistemology he confronted. For a more developed explanation see Hjørland (in press).

2. Levine, Sober and Wright (1987, 77, italics in original) explained the concept “supervenience”: “For any kind of mental state — for example, the belief that snow is white, the intention to buy a chocolate bar, the feeling of pain — there are in principle many, perhaps infinitely many, physical states that could realize the mental state in question. This relationship is referred to as one of supervenience: mental states are supervenient on brain states. Similarly for social phenomena: many distributions of properties of individuals — their beliefs, desires, resources, interrelationships — can realize the same social type. In the case of supervenient properties and relations, type-type reductionism will not be possible”.

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Version 1.0 published 2023-04-20
Version 1.1 published 2023-05-15: mention of Wilson 1977 added
Version 1.2 published 2023-10-26: quotes from Marx and Miller added

Article category: Methods, approaches & philosophies

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