Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto - OCS, 15th INTERNATIONAL ISKO CONFERENCE

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Jonathan Furner

Last modified: 2017-12-19


In efforts to construct theoretical foundations for information studies, scholars have drawn variously on conceptions of social epistemology, social justice, and epistemic justice (among other ideas). Is it possible to untangle the relationships among these conceptions, in order to arrive at a compelling justification for a distinctively “critical” LIS (library and information science, generally) and KO (knowledge organization, specifically)? In the proposed paper, I address this question through conceptual analysis.

Epistemology, traditionally characterized as philosophy of knowledge, may instead be understood in a slightly broader sense, as philosophy of belief. Theories of belief come in two generic flavors: Truth -oriented theories are those that distinguish between beliefs that true propositions are true, and beliefs that false propositions are true; while relevance -oriented theories are those that distinguish between beliefs that relevant propositions are relevant, and beliefs that non-relevant propositions are relevant. We may use this distinction to express a historical disconnect between epistemology as a subfield of what has come to be known as analytic philosophy, and other fields such as library and information science. The theorizing about belief that occurs in epistemology is typically truth-oriented; that done by LIS scholars has typically been relevance-oriented.

Like truth and relevance, and other concepts like beauty and freedom, justice is a value—a more-or-less desirable feature of the outcomes of people’s decisions and actions. Typically, justice is seen to be done when people are treated in accordance with their just deserts, on their merits or needs, without prejudice or bias or discrimination, without violation of their human rights, without limitation of their freedoms, and without the exercise of any form of oppression stemming from asymmetric power relations. Different theories of justice account for the relationships between notions of desert, merit, bias and so on in different ways. Theories of social justice highlight the importance of individuals’ identifying with certain groups—races, genders, and classes, for example—and of ensuring that such memberships are taken into appropriate account in any calculus of justice (see, e.g., Roberts & Noble, 2016). Theories of epistemic justice are special in the way that they focus on the fairness of our treatments of people in their capacity as believers and as knowers (see, e.g., Fricker, 2013).

Analysis of recent work at the intersection of epistemology and ethics points to a potentially innovative mode of critical KO. In the first place, we may clarify how the goals of KO may be viewed as the result of applying the normative theory of a particular flavor of social epistemology . Applied social epistemology is the study of normative questions about the social practices that are most likely to generate true or relevant beliefs (see, e.g., Goldman, 1999). So, for example, we might ask, On what kinds of grounds should we assign positive evaluations to testimony? Under what kinds of conditions should we believe that what we read is true, or that what we’re told is relevant? Our answers to questions such as these provide sets of desiderata, both for our search engines and for the KO systems that underlie them.

Secondly, we have an opportunity to characterize our values with more precision. Working towards social justice as a goal involves the basic reform of oppressive, discriminatory social practices and institutions, as well as the redistribution of material and cultural resources. Certainly it is the case that among those practices and institutions are those by whose means we produce and consume knowledge—the practices and institutions, in other words, of library and information services, including KO systems such as bibliographic classification schemes, subject heading lists, and thesauri. Yet, notwithstanding the virtue inherent in its pursuit, to present social justice as the primary end to which library and information service is directed is to undermine the unique character of such service. That unique character is captured in the idea that the librarian’s mission is to provide access to the world’s recorded knowledge: in other words, to foster epistemic justice by enabling the dissemination and acquisition of true beliefs.

Thirdly and relatedly, we have an opportunity to proclaim a veritistic turn , in the course of which the centrality of epistemological concerns to KO is recognized, and truth supplants relevance as a core value. It seems both possible and desirable to distinguish between relevance-oriented and truth-oriented characterizations of the mission of the information worker, along the same lines on which it is useful to distinguish between two families of theories of belief. Relevance-oriented KO is that which seeks to evaluate its practices, institutions, and products on the basis of the extent to which the desires of users are satisfied. Truth-oriented KO is evaluated on the basis of the extent to which the beliefs acquired by users are true.

Given the historical attachment of LIS to relevance-oriented service, the influence of postmodernist denials of the possibility of objective knowledge, and the maintenance in IFLA’s Code of Ethics (among many others) of a statement of information workers’ commitment to “neutrality” (IFLA, 2012), perhaps this last is the most controversial of conclusions? Then again, in the era of Trump, fake news, and “alternative facts,” maybe it shouldn’t be. The skeptic may feel that this is simply a contemporary manifestation of the age-old debate in librarianship over the competing principles of “Give them what they say they want” and “Give them what we think they need.” I suggest that the most critical task facing KO theorists today is to recognize the moral emptiness of both of those positions and provide a justification for a KO that is consistent with contemporary, pluralist conceptions of truth. In the full paper, I propose to develop this idea, with the goal of rebuilding a conceptual framework for truth-oriented evaluation of KO systems.


Fricker, Miranda. “Epistemic Justice as a Condition of Political Freedom?” Synthese 190, no. 7 (May 2013): 1317–1332.

Goldman, Alvin I. Knowledge in a Social World . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. IFLA Code of Ethics for Librarians and Information Workers . The Hague: IFLA, 2012. https://www.ifla.org/publications/node/11092 .

Roberts, Sarah T., and Safiya Umoja Noble. “Empowered to Name, Inspired to Act: Social Responsibility and Diversity as Calls to Action in the LIS Context.” Library Trends 64, no. 3 (winter 2016): 512–532.