Pragmatic Philosophy and the Social Function of Knowledge

Tilman Reitz

Even the members of the scientific community still do not know what it means to live in a “knowledge” society. Recent discussions of the issue are pervaded by a tension that is rarely noticed, for its aspects are situated within different academic disciplines. The social sciences mostly lack a well-considered definition of knowledge, whereas philosophical debates about such a definition usually fail to discuss the social constitution of knowledge. The following contribution presents an analysis of this problem, outlines a solution, and points out some of its implications.

Useful inspiration is found in pragmatic philosophy and in the efforts of social epistemology. Yet I argue that both of these approaches, too, overlook or repress a theoretical challenge: the spatial dispersion of social knowledge, which has been important since the invention of writing and storage media but which is pivotal in global networks of information. If knowledge is seated not only in the minds of individuals but also in the ways in which they collectively and collaboratively map their world, then it also matters where that knowledge is kept and how access to it is organized. The library thus serves as a paradigm of my account. The definition that will be developed permits inclusion of material resources and places in understandings of knowledge, and it can be noted at the outset that the very term social epistemology was coined in library studies (Shera, 1970).

I proceed in four steps. First, I illustrate the problematic tension of sociological characterizations and philosophical definitions of knowledge. The second step develops an alternative to dominant philosophical discussions of the issue. The intention is to arrive at a definition that allows one to conceive of knowledge as a complex of social practices and cultural artifacts. In the third step, I compare this approach to results of social epistemology and identify the problem of space. Lastly, I place my account in the context of reflections about the knowledge society.

T. Reitz (*)

Institute of Sociology, Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Jena, Germany e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

P. Meusburger et al. (eds.), Knowledge and Action, Knowledge and Space 9, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-44588-5_11

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