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Knowledge as a Social Phenomenon

Knowledge as a Social
Sean Sayers

The idea that knowledge is a social phenomenon is no longer
either novel or unfamiliar. With the growth of the social
sciences, we are accustomed to seeing ideas and beliefs in
social and historical terms, and trying to understand how they
arise and why they take the forms that they do. Philosophers,
however, are only gradually coming to terms with these views.

For they call in question ideas about the nature of knowledge
which have dominated epistemology since the seventeenth

The two major traditions in this branch of philosophy empiricism and rationalism – both regard genuine knowledge
as made up of absolute truths; and they look upon false ideas
as sheer errors and illusions, which must be revealed as such
and ‘committed to the flames’. Of course, these philosophies
both recognize the fact that our thoughts and beliefs are
subject to social influence. For it is no new discovery that
different people, in different societies, in different historical
periods, see the world differently. However, such influences
are seen as purely negative and distorting ones. They are
looked upon as the source of errors and illusions, which must
be eliminated if we are to achieve genuine knowledge.

The aim of traditional epistemology is to provide a method
to do just this. It seeks to establish an indubitable and universally valid basis for knowledge, either in immediate experience or in a priori reason. In this way, it hopes to guarantee
our claims to knowledge and to refute scepticism. The social
account of knowledge threatens to undermine this whole
approach. It challenges the view that either experience or
reason can provide a fixed bedrock upon which knowledge
can be founded. All ideas and beliefs are social products.

Social influences cannot be eliminated. Knowledge is social
through and through.

This social approach to knowledge, it is often thought,
must inevitably lead to relativism and sceptism; and some
recent writers have not shrunk from drawing this conclusion.

For fear of it, however, many others feel they must reject the
social view of knowledge altogether and defend the traditional concepts of absolute truth and error. They try to do so
by maintaining that facts about the social character of ideas
are irrelevant to epistemological questions of truth and falsity. Thus we seem to be presented with a choice between two
equally unsatisfactory alternatives. Either we acknowledge
that knowledge is a social phenomenon and embrace relativism, or we cling to the absolute view at the cost of denying the
social picture of knowledge. These are commonly regarded as
the only alternatives. Yet they are not, I will argue. For it is
possible to recognize that knowledge is a social phenomenon
34 Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989

without descending into relativism or scepticism. There is
another way. This is the social and historical approach in the
theory of knowledge, most fully developed by Hegel and

Hegel is perhaps the first great European thinker to comprehend knowledge in thoroughly social and historical terms. He
is aware that in doing so he is challenging the traditional,
foundational picture of knowledge, and with it the concepts of
absolute truth and error. He makes this point himself in the
‘Introduction’ to his Phenomenology of Spirit. For this reason, perhaps, he is often taken to be an advocate of relativism.

B ut he is not. On the contrary, Hegel is a strong realist, fully
committed to the notions of objectivity and truth.

In particular, he defends his own outlook -as a scientific
one, and he criticizes previous philosophies for being mistaken and defective in various ways. Yet he does not dismiss
them entirely as pure error. No sense can be made of the
history of thought, he insists, if it is regarded in these terms;
for then it would consist of nothing but ‘a museum of the
aberrations of the human intellect’ ,1 a mere catalogue of erroneous views.

Rather, we must see that knowledge is something which
develops in a progressive manner. Earlier theories constitute
necessary stages in this process. For earlier theories contain
some aspects of the truth, which are preserved and incorporated in the new and more adequate theories which arise out of
them. In this way, superseded views are not absolutely mistaken, and nor are they simply discarded as knowledge develops.

At the same time, this account casts doubt on the idea of
absolute truth; even if, as Engels argues, Hegel himself is
reluctant to question it. 2 For the history of knowledge is an
unending process, in which earlier and less adequate theories
are continually being replaced by more accurate and more
adequate ones; and it never reaches ‘absolute truth’, a final
point from which no further development is possible.

In contrast to the traditional approach, therefore, Hegel
does not conceive of knowledge as the building of an immutable superstructure on the basis of eternally fixed foundations. It does not involve such absolutes. Rather our understanding develops progressively, through a process in which
each earlier stage is necessary for the emergence of the next.

The analogy which recurs throughout Hegel’ s writing is with
the growth of a plant.

The bud disappears in the bursting-forth of the blossom, and one might say that the former is refuted by the
latter, similarly, when the fruit appears, the blossom is
shown up in its turn as a false manifestation of the
plant, and the fruit now emerges as the truth of it
instead. These forms are not just distinguished from
one another, they also supplant one another as mutually incompatible. Yet at the same time their fluid
nature makes them moments of an organic unity in
which they not only do not conflict, but in which each
is as necessary as the other, and this mutual necessity
alone constitutes the life of the whole. 3

scura, this phenomenon arises just as much from the
historical life-process as the inversion of objects in the
retina does from their physicallife-process. 6

In other words, consciousness always arises out of, and reflects reality, even in its distortions. And what this implies is
that there are no absolute errors or illusions – there is an
aspect of truth in all ideas that are actually believed, no matter
how mistaken or false they may appear.

The Concept of Ideology
Similar ideas are involved in Marx’s philosophy. For Marx,
too, treats ideas as social and historical products: he regards
them as ideologies. This term has come to be used in a variety
of ways by social scientists. Frequently, it is taken to have a
purely sceptical and negative meaning. To describe ideas as
‘ideological’ is often simply to reject them as partial, relative
and false.

Marx’s philosophy, however, cannot properly be understood in these terms. This can best be seen in Marx’ s account
of religion. Certainly, for Marx, religious ideas are ideological; and it scarcely needs saying that Marx is an uncompromising critic of religion, a materialist and an atheist. Nevertheless, his treatment of religion is significantly different
from that of earlier, eighteenth-century, materialist and atheist critics of religion. They rejected religion as pure illusion,
bred of ignorance and fear, and fostered by priests and rulers
in order to reconcile people to the established order. There is
much in these views that Marx accepts. However, his account
also differs in important respects. For religious ideas, according to Marx, are not purely illusory or arbitrary. Following
and extending the work of the ‘young Hegelian’ critics of
religion, like Strauss (The Life of Jesus, 1835) and Feuerbach
(The Essence of Christianity, 1841), he insists that religion
has a real, though distorted content. Although religious ideas
are fantastic and illusory – ‘the opium of the people’ – at the
same time they reflect and express a real content. And this
becomes apparent when we understand the conditions which
give rise to religious ideas, and the reactions which are expressed and reflected in them.

Religious suffering is at one and the same time the
expression of real suffering and a protest against real
suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of
soulless conditions.4

In short, religion reflects objective conditions and articulates
real aspirations, even though these are represented in a distorted fashion, by being projected into a mythical and heavenly ‘beyond’. The religious world is thus ‘dissolved into its
secular basis’, as Marx puts it, and ‘the earthly family is
discovered to be the secret of the holy family’.5
Moreover, Marx takes this analysis further. He not only
attempts to interpret and make sense of ideological forms of
consciousness, he also tries to explain their genesis and thus
to account for their alien and distorted form. Describing the
general assumptions underlying this approach he writes,
Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their
actual life-process. If in all ideology men and their
circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera ob-



Conversely, there are no absolute truths. Knowledge can
never be indubitably or immutably certain. It is always a
product of specific social and historical conditions and limited thereby. It can only ever be a more or less satisfactory
approximation to truth – something partial and relative. But
that does not mean it is without any justification whatever,
and merely relative. According to Hegel and Marx, neither
pure absolutism nor mere relativism provides a satisfactory
account. These either/or extremes must both be rejected in
favour of a social and historical theory of knowledge. 7

Epistemology and Social Theory
These ideas have had a profound impact on modem intellectuallife; an impact that extends far beyond the Hegelian and
Marxist traditions, and into all areas of philosophy and social
thought. But old ways of thinking die hard. Many contemporary philosophers still cling on to the traditional view that
truth and error are absolutes. They try to defend this approach
by arguing that facts about the social and historical origins of
ideas have no relevance to the epistemological questions of
their truth or falsity. Epistemology, they insist, is an autonomous subject, quite distinct from, and independent of social
theory. John Anderson puts the point clearly when he writes,
an account of how views arise is not an account of their
truth, any more than in general, an account of a thing’s

Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989 35

origin is an account of the thing; and thus an exposition
of the social influences on philosophcal thought is not
philosophy and can settle no philosophical problems.8
Such views are highly questionable. Indeed, in the light of the
way the social sciences have transformed our understanding
of intellectual life, it seems little short of absurd to maintain
that nothing of positive epistemological significance can be
learned from the study of the social origins of ideas. Nevertheless, such views have been very widespread among analytical philosophers, and also influential in other schools,
such as structuralism. Moreover, the arguments which are
used to defend them raise important issues which must be
dealt with if the social approach in the theory of knowledge is
to be explained and defended.

These arguments run as follows. Whether an idea is true, it
is said, is simply a matter of whether or not its content corresponds to reality; and this is quite independent of its genesis.

Given this assumption, it seems that facts about the causes of
an idea are neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for its
truth. An idea can be true of a situation without being produced by it; and it can be the product of a particular situation
without being true of it. Let us examine each of these claims in

nected with it. Ultimately, they must have arisen from it and
be causally linked to it in some way. In short, being caused by
its object is a necessary condition for the truth of a belief.

This, at least, is the materialist and realist view. 10

The Nature of Illusion
For this reason, moreover, it is possible (and, in certain
circumstances, necessary) to distinguish the apparent object
of a belief or idea from its real object. This distinction is
useful in responding to the second line of criticism of the
historical approach. This approach, I have argued, leads to the
view that there is some truth in all ideas. However, it will be
objected that a belief may be the product of a particular
situation but not true of it.

Reference and Reality
In the first place, then, the fact that an idea has a particular
causal origin, it is said, can never be a necessary condition for
its truth. For example, an idea can just happen to correspond
to reality, it can be true purely by chance. So it is argued.

But what aspect of reality is in question here? A clock, for
example, may seem to show the time simply in virtue of the
way its hands are set. It is ‘correct’, according to this view, if
the way it is set corresponds to the actual time, and this is
quite independent of how the clock is otherwise functioning.

In this sense, a clock which changes randomly may just happen to be correct on occasions; and a clock that is stopped will
be precisely correct twice per day. On the other hand, a clock
which keeps time perfectly but which is set just one second
fast will never be correct.

This whole way of talking is seriously misleading. It
would be more illuminating to say that a random or a stopped
clock does not really show the time at all, but only appears to
do so, since the position of its hands gives no information
whatever about the time. Whereas a clock which is running
accurately, but set wrongly, can be informative about the time
– and likewise with a clock which either gains or loses in a
regular fashion. Indeed, most actual clocks and watches fall
into one or other of these categories. In other words, for a
clock to be telling the time it is not sufficient that the hands
happen to point to the correct time. There must be some
regular – i.e. causal – relation between its operation and the
passage of time.

Similar arguments apply to the relation of ideas to reality.

The view that a belief is true if it corresponds to reality,
regardless of how it arises, is open to the same objections. If
my ideas were, indeed, produced purely randomly, there
would be no reason to say that they refer to any particular
aspect of reality at all. For the content of a belief, the aspect of
reality to which it refers, is not an intrinsic property of the
belief. It is not determined purely by a subjective intention; it
does not consist in a sort of inner ‘pointing’ of the idea
towards reality. Meanings, as Putnam puts it, ‘just ain’t in the
head’.9 On the contrary, in order for my ideas to refer to a
particular aspect of reality, they must be objectively con36

Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989

Consider, for example, the illusion that there are pools of
water in the road ahead which is often experienced on a hot
sunny day. Although the illusion is caused by “these conditions, it is not true of them. Likewise with religious ideas.

Although they may well arise from particular social and
historical conditions, that is not to say that they are true of
them. Indeed, to many realistically minded people the insistence that there is some truth in such false ideas will seem a
quite unnecessary and unwarranted concession to subjectivism and obscurantism.

Such objections are based on a misunderstanding, however. The point of saying that there is some truth even in an
illusory experience, like a mirage, is not to suggest that, in
some sense, there really are pools in the road in such a case.

Of course, there are not. Clearly the experience is false about
the object it appears to be about. This is a minimal insight,
however, and there is more that we can say about the experience than this. But we can do so only if we reject the view that
epistemology is autonomous and facts about the origins of
ideas are not relevant to it. For it is precisely a grasp of these
facts that enables us to understand what is going on in such

They make it clear that pools in the road are only the
apparent object of the experience. What we are seeing in a
mirage is not something in the road at all. Rather, we are
seeing the sky, refracted through the hot air. The real object of
the experience is the sky; and, when the experience is understood in this way, it is evident that there is some truth in it. It
correctly reflects some of the visual aspects of the real object,
the sky – e.g. its blueness and its brightness – though, of
course, in a distorted and illusory form. And it does so,
moreover, because the experience is ultimately caused by
light from the sky.

A similar analysis applies in the more complex and interesting case of religious experience and belief. For, according
to the view I am defending, religion is also a fantastic and
illusory form of experience. The apparent objects of religious
belief do not exist: there is no heaven, there are no gods.

These are important conclusions, which form the starting
point for the criticism of religion. But this criticism can be
taken further, as the social and historical approach reveals.

Marx writes that
The religious world is but the reflex of the real world,
and for a society based upon the production of commodities, in which the producers in general … reduce
their individual private labour to the standard of homogeneous human labour … Christianity with its cultus of
abstract man, more especially in its bourgeois developments, Protestantism, Deism, etc., is the most fitting
form of religion. ll
Religious beliefs have their origins on earth, not in heaven; in
alienated aspects of social relations, which are then projected
into a transcendent ‘beyond’. These earthly phenomena are
the real objects of religious belief. Grasping the real origins
of religious ideas makes it clear that they are distorted forms
of appearance, not of God and heaven, but of the believer’s
real and earthly situation. This is their real object. The secret
of the holy family is, indeed, as Marx says, the earthly family.

No doubt, illusory ideas are false about their apparent objects. In these cases, objective reality is not as it is literally
taken to be. For all that, however, such ideas are not absolute
errors, or pure illusions. There is an element of truth in them,
even though it is present in a distorted form. This element of
truth becomes evident when the real object of these ideas is
revealed; and this is done by understanding their genesis, by
discovering the circumstances which give rise to them.

In short, an account of the origin of ideas is quite essential
to a full and proper understanding of their nature and content,
and for an adequate assessment of their truth or falsity; just as,
in general, an account of a thing’s origin is a necessary part of
a satisfactory account of it. We must reject the absolute, antihistorical, and anti-genetic views which lie at the basis of the
traditional outlook in the theory of knowledge and much
contemporary philosophy. Only in this way can we begin to
recognize the real significance of the view that knowledge is
a social phenomenon.








G. W. F. Hegel, Logic, trans. W. Wallace, Clarendon Press,
Oxford, 3rd edition, 1975, p. 126.

F. Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End o/Classical German Philosophy, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works,
2 vols., Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow,

G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology 0/ Spirit, trans. A. V.

Miller, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1977, p. 2.

K. Marx, ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction’, in Early Writings, Penguin,
Hannondsworth, 1975, p. 244.

K. Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, in K. Marx and F. Engels,
Selected Works, 2 vols., Foreign Languages Publishing
House, Moscow, 1958.

K. Marx and F. Engels, The German Ideology, Part I, International Publishers, New York, 1970.

For a fuller account of these ideas see S. Sayers, Reality and
Reason, Blackwell, Oxford, 1985. In the remainder of this
paper I respond to some objections made to these ideas. I am
grateful to D. Goldstick, J. O. Young and C. Radford for
putting these objections to me.

J. Anderson, ‘Marxist Philosophy’, in Studies in Empirical
Philosophy, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1962.

H. Putnam, ‘The Meaning of “Meaning’.. , in Mind, Language and Reality, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,

Similar ideas have been interestingly developed and defended in recent years, in the form of the ‘causal theory of
reference’, by writers like Putnam and Kripke. See Putnam,
‘The Meaning of “Meaning'” and ‘Explanation and Reference’, in loco sit.; S. A. Kripke, Naming and Necessity,
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1980; and S.

Sayers, Reality and Reason, chapter 7. .

K. Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Foreign Languages Publishing
House, Moscow, 1961, p. 79.

Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989 37

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