Epistemology and Scientific Institutions

Epistemology and Scientific Institutions

Institutions are means to reproduce the social relations existing within a given society and in particular the societal distribution of labor. With the separation of intellectual and manual labor, the production and transmission of knowledge becomes part of the societal distribution of labor. A separate knowledge economy with its own epistemic institutions emerges which must be sustained by the material economy of a society and integrated into its other institutional frameworks. The latter challenge is enhanced by the strive for autonomy characteristic of institutions as self-referential fields of societal interactions.

Knowledge is the capacity of an individual or a group to solve problems and to mentally anticipate the corresponding actions. Knowledge is constrained but not determined by material culture and existing social relations. It arises from the reflection on material, socially constrained actions. Its dissemination and transmission relies on external representations, comprising language, material culture and social relations. The reflection on actions involving such external representations may create higher-order forms of knowledge that are removed from the primary actions, but in ways that are dependent on the contingent material and social nature of external representations. The dissemination and transmission of knowledge‑dependent on existing technologies and external representations serving as means of communication‑takes place in the context of knowledge systems that rely on societal institutions.

The integration of epistemic institutions comprises the need to deal with resource allocation and other generic problems of the institutional coordination and control of material actions. It also includes, more specifically, the need to handle problems concerning intrasocietal knowledge transmission and the corresponding transaction costs. In the case of epistemic institutions, the characteristic relative autonomy of institutions opens up possibilities of creating knowledge for its own sake, or rather, for the sake of the purposes defined self-referentially by the institution itself.

The specificity of scientific institutions (such as libraries, archives, academies, universities, laboratories, scientific foundations and think tanks) lies in their function to foster the production and accumulation of knowledge as well as its preservation and distribution. The mode of knowledge production, the dissemination outreach and hegemony of knowledge are historically dependent on institutional, economic, political and cultural contexts. The project elaborates how scientific institutions shaped, stabilized and changed collective epistemological practices, mental models and cognitive processes by coordinating the actions of individuals in a specific distribution of labor and their interaction with the environment.