Skip to content

Author: Dominic Dixon

Social epistemology and LIS: a short overview

Social epistemology (SE) can be loosely considered the philosophical study of knowledge from a social perspective. This contrasts with what one might call classical epistemology which has been primarily concerned with knowledge from the individualist perspective. The first use of the term social epistemology came from within library and information science itself, with Jess Shera and Margaret Egan (1952) defining it as ‘the study of those processes by which society as a whole seeks to achieve a perceptive or understanding relation to the total environment—physical, psychological, and intellectual’ and noting that it would lift ‘the discipline [of epistemology] from the intellectual life of the individual to that of the society, nation, or culture’. Shera and Egan saw SE as a necessary development in epistemology given the increasing complexity of social structures and institutions. This is illustrated by way of analogy with economics, which they noted has moved from the micro to the macro perspective as the satisfaction of human means became delocalised and the need arose for a more systematic study of economic processes.  

Shera and Egan saw SE not only as a necessary development in epistemology but as a new intellectual discipline that could provide a foundation for library and information science. They saw this new discipline as providing a theoretical framework for the study of the intellectual processes of society underpinned by a sound research methodology. One main area of research for SE outlined by Shera and Egan is what they call situational analysis, which they note would answer questions such as ‘What information or knowledge is required when a business enterprise or commercial undertaking proposes to open a new market? What information or knowledge should be available when a legislative body is considering a new or revised tax law? What information or knowledge is essential to a chemical industry that is developing a new synthetic fiber?’ (1952, p.135.) This seems to amount to research into the information needs of specific user groups; thus, it is arguable that an SE-like research program has been going on within LIS for quite some time, despite the fact that many of those carrying out this research might not necessarily recognise what they are doing as SE.  

As Budd (2002) has noted, Shera’s approach to SE is not so much philosophical but rather sociological. That is, he focuses more on providing a sociology of knowledge than on defining what social epistemology is and giving a framework for how it can be applied. This approach is problematic in that if he is to claim SE is the proper foundation for LIS then it must be more than simply a study of knowledge from a sociological perspective, as this would be a foundation with a very limited scope if a foundation at all. Shera stated that a foundation for LIS must take into account both how man knows (individual cognition) and how society knows (social cognition). The former, how man knows, is covered by traditional epistemology, while the latter falls within the scope of SE. Thus, to fully understand SE, it is necessary to ask what is social cognition? Shera describes this as ‘how society knows, and the nature of the socio-psychological system by means of which personal knowledge becomes social knowledge, i.e. the knowledge possessed by a society’ (1961, p.89).   

This reveals a tension between describing social cognition in terms of how society – considered as an entity in and of itself – knows and describing it in terms of the processes by which personal knowledge becomes societal knowledge. If the former, then the problem of how society knows would collapse into the problem of how man knows (individual cognition). The knowledge possessed by society could be considered the aggregate of the knowledge possessed by its individuals. Thus, the latter would be a more plausible project to investigate. Shera does later stress that the ‘Librarian can carry out his social responsibilities with maximum effectiveness only when he understands the cognitive processes of society and can translate that understanding into service’ (1961, p.90). This would suggest he put a high level of importance on the latter part of the definition of social cognition – this would, perhaps, be a more fruitful approach for SE in relation to LIS (something I will investigate in detail at a later stage of my research).  

While similarly motivated, more modern variants of SE – such as that expounded by Goldman (1999) and later developed in relation to LIS by Budd (2004) – tend to focus on the evaluation of social processes in relation to their contribution to knowledge acquisition. Budd credits Shera as having first put forward SE but notes that his attempt to argue for it was not particularly clear in that it lacked a conception of what exactly SE is, instead focusing more on give a sociological account of the social aspects of knowledge. Budd refers to this approach to establish SE as ‘rather postmodern’ (2004, p.362) However, rather than being purely critical, Budd seeks to give his own account of what SE is, first turning to look at epistemology in general. In traditional epistemology, Budd notes, knowledge has typically been defined as justified true belief (ibid). The idea being that for any belief held by an individual to count as knowledge, it must be the case that the belief is actually true and that the individual is justified in believing it is true. In other words, if one’s belief that milk is in the fridge is to count as true, there must actually be milk in the fridge, and one must have directly verified this by looking inside the fridge and seeing the milk. It is in the seeking of justification for knowledge claims that, for Budd, the need for social epistemology becomes apparent.   

Budd notes that social epistemology resides in the ‘system of production, dissemination, reception, and assessment of knowledge’ (2004, p.362). He notes that this system is intrinsically focused on the collective rather than the individual. He gives the example of scientific communication, noting that it is impossible for any one individual scientist to step outside of this system and continue to do science.  This thought can be illuminated by considering Wittgenstein’s idea that the meaning of utterances lies in their use and acceptance within the linguistic community in which they are spoken, thus language considered in isolation lacks meaning. Similarly, the scientist’s work, taking place outside of the scientific community, would be rendered meaningless as an intrinsic part of science is that it takes part within a collective framework that is universally accepted within the scientific community.  

With regard to libraries, for Budd, they are a necessary part of the aforementioned system, with aims and objectives that are focused on both individual and collective outcomes. Budd notes that if we are to accept social epistemology as the foundation for LIS, then it follows that ‘[…] the academic library exists to make manifest and tangible the products of social processes aimed at putting us on the path to knowledge’ (2004, p.364). What this means is that one of the main goals of academic libraries, with SE as a philosophical foundation, would be to provide reliable processes by which knowledge can be acquired and evaluated, both from the individual and collection viewpoint. Budd suggests that, for the library, these processes are veritism and reliabilism.  


Veritism, for which Budd follows Goldman (1999), is focused on the efficacy of social practices in contributing to the production of true beliefs. It can be likened to consequentialism in ethics, whereby an action is judged solely on its consequences, i.e. an action has moral value if and only if it produces a positive outcome. Similarly, under veritism, a social practice would be described as having epistemic value if and only if it resulted mostly in the production of true beliefs. For Goldman, veritistic social epistemology (VSE) is a normative project. That is, rather than simply seeking to describe social practices in relation to knowledge, it seeks to evaluate them based on what he refers to as ‘knowledge consequences’ (Budd, 2004, p.6-7). This project extends to both existing social practices as well as possible future ones, thus it provides a way of evaluating potential social practices for their potential contribution to the goal of advancing human knowledge.  

To demonstrate the Library’s role as part of a social practice in contributing to the production of true beliefs, Budd gives the example of a student evaluating a proposition. He notes that first, they would develop a belief in this proposition, then they would apply rational scepticism to evaluate this belief, which then might lead them to the library where they would seek evaluations, critiques, and counter-arguments for the proposition. Budd admits here that given the fallibility of the individual, the library cannot provide a process which necessarily leads to the production of true beliefs, i.e. the individual might fail to carry out a wide enough search and thus miss out key arguments against the particular proposition they are evaluating. This leads him to the second of the two processes, reliabilism (2004, p.364).   


Reliabilism refers to the position in epistemology, rather than the everyday concept of reliability. While there are a number of different kinds of reliabilism, Budd follows the definition put forward by Alvin Goldman, which states that a belief counts as knowledge if and only if it is true and it is justified by a reliable process (Goldman and Beddor, 2017).  Reliabilism, in general, can be seen as a response to so-called Gettier problems for the traditional theory of knowledge as justified true belief (JTB). Gettier (1963) noted in his famous paper Is Justified True Belief Knowledge? that it is possible to have cases where someone is justified in having a belief without it being the case that the belief is actually true. For example, consider a case where someone is walking in the desert and sees ahead of them what they think is water, but in fact, it is a mirage. However, on reaching the spot they discover there is actually some water under a rock. This would seem to be a case where under JTB, the belief would be justified since there actually was water, but intuitively we would not want to accept that the person had knowledge there was water. In other words, the justification condition fails (Jenkins and Steup, 2017). Thus, the reliabilist attempts to strengthen the concept of justification by specifying not only that a belief should be justified but that it is must be justified by a reliable process. For Budd, this reliabilist approach essentially provides a way of fine-tuning the library’s contribution to the process of knowledge acquisition. With veritism as a foundation, and a reliable set of tools and sources for the user to maximize true beliefs, the library would be more likely to achieve its overall aims and objectives (2004, p.364).   

Budd lends weight to his argument for VSE as a foundation for LIS by way of a number of practical examples. He notes that specific objectives for the library can be integrated in collection management, information literacy and in information services in general. For collection management, he notes, a VSE approach would lead to a more critical assessment of materials to be acquired or presented to the user. In information literacy, VSE a greater understanding of concepts such as testimony, expertise, evidence and corroboration could become more integrated into programs aimed at reaching all students. In information services in general, professional interactions could become more focused on the critical appraisal of information (2004, p.366).  

Some problems with social epistemology  

While Budd’s approach to social epistemology certainly has clear benefits – it can’t hurt for libraries to be more focused on making sure their approach to both facilitating and providing sources for knowledge acquisition are fine-tuned for maximum efficacy – a philosophical foundation solely grounded in epistemology, whether from an individual or social perspective, would be too limited in scope. For example, the philosophy of mathematics considers ontological, epistemic and aesthetic questions regarding mathematics. A similar point has been made by Floridi (2002), who noted that “To focus only on knowledge—whether to assess or criticize its possibility and nature—introduces an epistemological bias inconsistent with the real nature of LIS”.  

McDowell (2002) has argued, on similar lines, that SE, VSE in particular, fails to take into account non-epistemic factors but argues not that these are outside the scope of VSE but rather that they are an intrinsic part of VSE which should not be overlooked. What is being argued is that the failure to take into account these non-epistemic factors shows that SE is insufficient as a foundation for LIS. McDowell argues that moral issues relating to information should also be considered alongside epistemic ones. In particular, she focuses on what she calls “social trust”. The idea is that given SE’s focus specifically on social factors relevant to knowledge acquisition, it is important that it also considers moral issues, such as trust, which can affect the willingness of individuals to engage with information services to evaluate and acquire knowledge. For McDowell, SE in general is too focused on epistemic factors with potentially damaging effects. For example, she notes that social epistemologists often consider that ‘if people are making decisions about what sources to consult for information, only those decisions made for overtly epistemic reasons are relevant and evaluable’ (2002, p. 52).   

To illustrate this, consider a student seeking articles in a library discovery tool. It might be thought that their only consideration in evaluating any articles retrieved would be things like the track record of the author, or whether it was peer-reviewed. However, while there is an element of trust involved here – i.e. trust in the epistemic character of the author or publisher – what McDowell argues is that there is also a wider element of social trust, for example, trust in the moral character of the institution. If the student does not trust the institution from a moral perspective for whatever reason, this may have an impact on their epistemic evaluation of the information. In other words, while social trust and epistemic trust can be pulled apart, the former can have a direct effect on the latter and thus, if, as SE claims, the final consideration should be the effect on knowledge acquisition, these non-epistemic issues must be considered, otherwise it is unlikely that SE will be able to achieve its goal.  

As noted above, VSE is analogous to consequentialist ethics. A common argument against consequentialism is that it leads to the situation where actions which we would normally deem morally wrong can end up being considered good as long as they produce a good outcome. For example, if all that matters are the consequences of action then killing an innocent person to save a number of lives could be justified. This is because the consequences would be a greater increase in overall moral goodness. Foot (1967) has illustrated this with a thought experiment which has become known as the trolley problem. In this thought experiment, we are asked to consider a situation in which a runaway trolley is on some train track heading towards five people who are tied up and unable to move. In this situation, we have the option of pulling a lever, which would send the train down another track where there is only one person. Pulling the lever saves the lives of the five at the expense of killing the one person on the other track. What this thought experiment is supposed to demonstrate, is that under consequentialism, pulling the lever would be the preferred option, giving that it saves the lives of five people, even though intuitively it means we have killed one person. While the debate on the trolley problem is far from settled, it does serve to illustrate that VSE is not unproblematic.  

As McDowell (2002) notes, under VSE, where all that matters are the epistemic consequences, it might be epistemically justified to tie someone up and force them to read philosophy texts all day, so long as the outcome would be a net increase in knowledge (p53). While this is an extreme example which obviously (one would hope) is unlikely to ever happen, it does serve to illustrate the point that focusing solely on epistemic consequences can have detrimental effects in other non-epistemic areas. As with the discussion of social trust above, McDowell sees this as a reason to make non-epistemic considerations intrinsic to SE; however, for the reasons discussed above, this is also reason to suggest SE is too limited in scope to serve as a conceptual foundation for LIS.

To return to Eegan and Shera, approaching the theoretical, foundational elements of LIS from a wider perspective, incorporating consideration of the increasingly more social rather than purely individualist nature of knowledge would be of great instrumental value to LIS. A discipline which is largely concerned with facilitating the acquisition of knowledge needs to understand the processes by which knowledge is acquired whether social or individual.


Budd, J. M. (2002). Jessa Shera, Sociologist of Knowledge?. The Library Quarterly, 72(4), 423-440. 

Budd, J. M. (2004). Academic libraries and knowledge: A social epistemology framework. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 30(5), 361-367. 

Egan, M. E., & Shera, J. H. (1952). Foundations of a theory of bibliography. The Library Quarterly, 22(2), 125-137. 

Floridi, L. (2002). On defining library and information science as applied philosophy of information. Social epistemology, 16(1), 37-49. 

Foot, Philippa (1967). The problem of abortion and the doctrine of double effect. Oxford Review, 5:5-15. 

Gettier, E. (1963) “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, Analysis, 23(6), pp. 121-123. doi: 10.1093/analys/23.6.121. 

Jenkins, J. and Steup, M. (2017) The Analysis of Knowledge (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), Available at: (Accessed: 26 August 2017). 

McDowell, A. (2002). Trust and information: The role of trust in the social epistemology of information science. Social Epistemology, 16(1), 51-63. 

Shera, J. H. (1961). What is librarianship. Louisiana Library Association Bulletin, 24(96), 167. 

Leave a Comment

Book Review: The No-nonsense Guide to Born-digital Content

This comprehensive yet easily digestible guide to working with born digital-content aims to dispel the idea of the digital as digitised analogue materials and provide a complete guide to working with content that has been brought to life in the digital realm. As stated in the foreword by Trevor Owens, Head of Digital Content Management for the Library of Congress, there is a need for a shift in thinking within the information profession away from thinking of digital material as digitised physical items towards a digit-first mindset. The introduction expands on this problem, setting out why it is important and how this book seeks to address it.

Chapter one provides the basics, covering what digital information is, the formats on which it can come as well as storage media and how it is encoded on them. The final section covers code repositories such as GitHub and gives some command line basics – necessary skills for any information professional looking to be well equipped for working with more modern forms of born-digital content. While the chapter is perhaps unavoidably technical at times, it does manage to give a clear overview of the necessary knowledge to understand what it means for content to be born-digital and how to begin working with it.

Chapters two and three focus on selection and acquisition. The former outlines the types of materials one might be dealing with when selecting born-digital content and presents a number of examples, including ones from Stanford University and even NASA. In the latter example, it is interesting to read about NASA’s approach to archiving, preserving and making space data accessible not only for scientist and educators but for the general public. The latter chapter is more technical and sets out some guiding principles for acquiring born-digital materials in a number of ways including on physical formats such as floppy disks, hard-disks and USB drives, as well as network-born content such as emails, HTML, PDF and social media. Relevant technical aspects for the preservation of each type of content are discussed and guidance provided on accessioning and ingesting this content into digital repositories. Overall, these two chapters combined should leave readers of all levels with a clear idea of how to begin developing mission statements, collection policies and donor agreements for the selection and acquisition of born-digital content for their own purposes.

Chapter four focuses on describing born-digital content, covering, in particular, the elements of description that are unique to born-digital content and how to address these using existing systems and standards. Examples are giving using familiar bibliographic formats and standards used in libraries, such as AACR, MARC, RDA and BIBFRAME, as well as some used specifically in archives and records management such as IASD(G), RAD and DACS. The final section of the chapter presents several use-cases which help put the first half of the chapter into context. One thing this chapter does particularly well is highlight just how time-consuming it can be to make sure born-digital content is accurately described to enable both preservation and access.

Chapter five covers the preservation and storage strategies involved in working with born-digital content. It begins by referring back to the chapter on selection, noting the importance of having a good selection policy in making sure born-digital content is well preserved. This is also related to storage media, noting the challenge and risks involved overcoming the (often in-built) obsolesce of many forms of digital storage media and outlining the importance of developing effective strategies and policies for preserving born-digital content. The latter two concepts, strategy and policy, are expanded on further towards the end of the chapter where some prominent digital preservation models are discussed.

It is no understatement that facilitating access to digital content, in general, can be extremely complex and challenging. Chapter six, covering access specifically, serves to highlight this point very well while, covering everything from decisions about access strategies, through to legal and technological restrictions and the importance of doing research to understand who will be accessing the content and what their needs are. This latter section of the chapter is perhaps a touch underdeveloped as understanding your user’s needs is arguably fundamental to understanding how to approach born-digital content as a whole. However, it does highlight some useful materials at the end of the chapter for anyone who wants to get up-to-speed in this area and begin carrying out user research to improve access provisions.

Chapters seven focuses on designing and implementing workflows. Of particular interest is the author’s conceptions of workflows as living documents to be updated or amended as conditions change – something that is happening with increasing frequency when it comes to digital content. This point is well illustrated in the case study of the Denver Art Museum’s stewardship of the American Institute for Graphic Art’s award and recognition materials, where their initial choice of tools and software created the necessary flexibility to work with the variety of materials at hand.

The final chapter looks to the future covering such things as advances in storage media, software and apps, cloud technologies, as well as emerging trends in description and access. The final section, growing your skills, takes an inspiring look at the kind of skills future information professionals will need when working with born-digital content, such as scripting with languages such as python and PHP and working with web APIs. Skills that will benefit any information professional working with modern library management systems and software.

Overall, this book is clear and comprehensive (taking the no-nonsense part of the title seriously) and would be useful for readers of all levels, from LIS students and academics to senior library managers. Each chapter gives enough information to get started but also benefits strongly from the suggested reading that will allow the reader to begin researching and building a deeper knowledge in their own area of interest.

Heather Ryan, Walker Sampson.  The No-Nonsense Guide to Born-Digital Content.  London:  Facet Publishing;  2018. ( No-Nonsense Guide Series).  240 pp.  Softcover and EPUB. $75.99US, £59.95UK. Softcover ISBN 978-1-78330-195-9; EPUB ISBN 978-1-78330-256-7.

Leave a Comment

Why Library and Information Science needs Philosophy

The idea that philosophy is of value to science is a contentious issue. Perhaps one of the most widely discussed attacks on philosophy has come from the late Stephen Hawking, who made the bold claim that ‘…philosophy is dead’ (2010, p.5). Hawking argued that it is impossible to answer fundamental questions regarding the nature of the universe without scientific data, such as that gathered from the Large Hadron Collider and from space research in general. While the traditional questions of philosophy, such as ‘why are we here?’ and ‘where do we come from?’, he argued, are things most people sometimes wonder, these questions cannot be answered by philosophy as it has not kept up with developments in modern science. Hawking also makes the further claim that the influence philosophers have had has been limited and that their preoccupation with such issues as the problem of induction has made them obstacles to progress (Warman, 2017).

If this were true, then it would perhaps be clear that philosophy would be of no relevance to library and information science (LIS). However, it is clear that this is nonsense: philosophy is far from dead and is of great value to science and thus also to LIS. What Hawking, and other critics, often fail to recognise is the implicitness of philosophy within science, whether this is in the inferences made by scientists or at the speculative stage, where, as Norris (2017) notes, ‘scientists ignore the guidance offered by well-informed philosophers only at risk of falling into various beguiling fallacies of fictions’. The thought is that philosophical investigation can reveal the concepts that should guide scientific experiments and that without understanding philosophical thought scientists could end up empirically testing ideas and concepts that do not make logical sense and/or do not reflect reality.

Independent of the aforementioned implicitness of philosophy within science, it does not follow from the claim that philosophy has not kept up with developments in science, that philosophy as an academic discipline is dead. A more reasonable conclusion might be that philosophy has nothing to contribute to science, but, as we will see, this is also not true. Philosophy has much to contribute to all sciences, just as the sciences, in turn, have much to contribute to philosophy. For example, it could apply its rigorous analytical framework to analyse the truth of the conclusions being put forward by scientists following the results of their experiments, or by revealing the underlying presuppositions that may have guided the nature of the experiments they carried out. Logic is topic neutral and therefore one does not need to have in-depth subject knowledge to spot a bad argument.

Concerning Hawking’s second claim – that philosophy’s preoccupation with outstanding problems has made them it an obstacle to progress – this would seem to ignore the fact that science stemmed from philosophy. As Russell (1959) noted in his canonical Problems of Philosophy ‘as soon as definite knowledge concerning any subject becomes possible, this subject ceases to be called philosophy, and becomes a separate science’ (p.90). What Russell is saying here is that once there exists the means to develop subject specific knowledge through empirical methods, i.e. by carrying out experiments, it stops being philosophy (stops depending upon a priori reasoning and analysis) and becomes science (starts depending upon experimental observation).

Thus, as Russell also noted, ‘every advance in knowledge robs philosophy of some problems which it formerly had’ (Russell and Slater, 2003, p.124). This, historically, is how science developed from its roots in what was known as natural philosophy. However, while science and philosophy are now seen as distinct activities, each with their own methods – empirical observation for the former and logical analysis (to put it very simplistically) for the latter – they still inform each other in an interdependent relationship. Science relies on philosophical assumptions and philosophical investigation is informed by science (Pigliucci, 2010).

As Floridi (2002) has noted, throughout its history, philosophy has been responsible for ‘the whole chain of knowledge production’ (p.134). Its role has been to identify different kinds of problems and outsource them to new disciplines best suited to tackle them. However, following this, it has always returned to these problems to clarify the concepts involved and the tools and methods used to investigate them (ibid.). It is not then that science robs philosophy of problems, as Russell argued, but rather that philosophy serves to prepare ideas for empirical testing.

This is similar to Godfrey-Smith’s (2017) contention that the relationship between philosophy and science is that of incubator and incubatee. In this relationship, philosophy acts as the incubator for ideas, which, once fully developed, can be tested with appropriate empirical methods. He notes that many of the concepts in psychology originated from philosophy. One such example provided is associationism – the view that thoughts are associated based on causal history (Mandelbaum, 2017) – which has moved from being a philosophical concept to a concept now studied in psychology (Godfrey-Smith, 2017, p.2).

A final problem with Hawking’s argument is that the claim that philosophy is dead itself amounts to a philosophical claim. In other words, by claiming that philosophy is dead Hawking is doing philosophy. De Haro (2013, p.6) refers to this as the ‘the fallacy of anti-philosophicalism’. He claims that to argue that philosophy is not useful to science requires one to have a complete knowledge of the subject matter, methods and goals of science in general. However, even if one has this knowledge, to argue about them it is necessary to do philosophy. While De Haro thinks this is a strong argument against the fallacy of anti-philosophicalism, the strongest argument, he claims, comes from looking at the work of Thomas Kuhn on how science develops.

Kuhn argued that progress in science is not linear but rather a series of revolutions or paradigm shifts (De Haro, 2013, p.7). For Kuhn, a paradigm must have two characteristics. First, it must be significant enough in its achievements to attract adherents to the existing paradigm – these achievements can include new laws, theories, applications and instrumentation. Second, it must be sufficiently open-ended to leave problems to be solved for those who have moved away from the existing paradigm. (Kuhn, 1970, p.10).  What De Haro argues is that these paradigm shifts cannot occur without uncovering the underlying presuppositions of the existing paradigm – these presuppositions are an ‘intrinsic and necessary part of science regarded as pursuit of truth’ (p.7).  What this means is that science cannot move forward towards truth without the ongoing process of uncovering underlying presuppositions and subjecting them to critical analysis. Thus, philosophy is necessary – though not in itself sufficient – for progress in science.

This can be demonstrated by considering Kuhn’s example of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Prior to formulating this theory, the idea of evolution had already been suggested and had been discussed for decades. The element of Darwin’s theory that faced the most difficulty was that he proposed an alternative to the teleological view of evolution – the view that evolution is purpose, or goal driven.  Theories of evolution prior to Darwin relied upon the existence of a creator, i.e. God, who set in motion the purpose, or goals, that evolution worked towards (Kuhn, 1970, p.171-172). This forced people to ask ‘what could ‘evolution,’, ‘development,’ and ‘progress’ mean in the absence of a specified goal?’ (ibid.). In other words, for science to make progress in light of Darwin’s theory, it became necessary to answer philosophical questions

Philosophy and normativity

A further element of philosophy that is important to science is concerned with normativity. While science, in general, is considered descriptive, i.e. it describes the world as it is but does not prescribe action. Some sciences, such as the applied sciences, are normative in the sense that they aim to put in place norms, such as in the science of educational psychology where it would aim to put in places norms surrounding learning and teaching in light of evidence from empirical experiment and observation (Thagard, 2009). LIS can also be seen as having an applied element in that it aims to put in place norms for practice, such as, for example, how we should best make information discoverable to library users in light of empirical evidence from information seeking behaviour studies.

We can, also, go deeper, and ask: why it is a norm in the first place that we should seek to improve the discoverability of information? This can also be related to Hume’s famous ‘is/ought’ problem. Hume argued that when we move from a descriptive claim to a normative claim, we are committing a logical fallacy as there is nothing in the descriptive claim that suggests anything normative (Cohon, 2017). To move from descriptive to normative there must be a logical argument provided to justify the move. Once this move has been made, answering these normative questions is best carried out within the philosophical framework.

As Thagard (2009, 246) notes ‘philosophy is the field […] with the most experience in the assessment of normativity. Epistemology, the philosophical theory of knowledge, traditionally addresses whether and how people ought to obtain knowledge. Ethics traditionally addresses how people ought to act’. What Thagard is saying is that there is no other field as well equipped as philosophy to answer normative questions. It follows from this, given that the questions at the foundational level in LIS will require, primarily, normative and not descriptive answers, that philosophy is the field best equipped to provide a foundation for LIS.


For philosophy to be of relevance to LIS, and to provide it with the conceptual foundation it needs, it must be the case that philosophy is of intrinsic value to science more broadly. I hope to have shown here that Hawking’s “philosophy is dead” argument, or the “the fallacy of anti-philosophicalism” – does not provide good reason to reject the idea that philosophy has nothing to contribute to science. Further, I also hope to have shown that philosophy is of value to science, and that, in fact, it is difficult for science to make progress without looking at its own underlying assumptions, which necessitates doing philosophy.

Finally, the normative element implicit in sciences with an applied element, which aim to be more than just descriptive – such as LIS – is dependent upon the answering of philosophical questions. De Haro (2013, p.8) offers a set of specific tasks for philosophy in relation to science. To return to the relationship between LIS and philosophy, these tasks can be paraphrased as tasks for a conceptual foundation for LIS as follows:

  • Analyse the terms and presuppositions of LIS to clarify their meaning and reveal underlying assumptions;
  • Discover standards for what count as good theories, valid modes of explanation and appropriate methods within LIS;
  • Develop an epistemological framework for research within LIS;
  • Provide ethical guidance, i.e. help uncover the most plausible ethical principles for LIS;
  • Explain how the research within LIS fits into the wider scientific framework and also within society as a whole.

In my PhD research, I will be investigating whether the philosophy of information is fit to carry out these tasks.


Cohon, R. (2017) Hume’s Moral Philosophy, Available at: (Accessed: 10 August 2017).

de Haro, S. (2013). Science and Philosophy: A Love-Hate Relationship. arXiv preprint arXiv:1307.1244.

Floridi, L. (2002) “What is the Philosophy of Information?”, Metaphilosophy, 33(1&2), pp. 123-145. doi: 10.1111/1467-9973.00221.

Fyffe, R. (2015) “The Value of Information: Normativity, Epistemology, and LIS in Luciano Floridi”, portal: Libraries and the Academy, 15(2), pp. 267-286. doi: 10.1353/pla.2015.0020.

Godfrey-Smith, P. (2017) On the Relation Between Philosophy and Science, Available at: (Accessed: 10 August 2017).

Hawking, S. & Mlodoninow, (L. 2010) The Grand Design. London: Transworld Publishers.

Kuhn, T. (1970) The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago [u.a.]: Univ. of Chicago Press. (Accessed: 3 September 2017).

Mandelbaum, E. (2017) Associationist Theories of Thought (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), Available at: (Accessed: 2 September 2017).

Norris, C. (2017) Hawking contra Philosophy | Issue 82 | Philosophy Now, Available at: (Accessed: 30 July 2017).

Pigliucci, M. (2010) “On science and philosophy”, EMBO reports, 11(5), pp. 326-326. doi: 10.1038/embor.2010.53.

Russell, B. and Slater, J. (2003) The philosophy of logical atomism and other essays, 1914-19. London: Routledge.

Russell, B. (1959) The problems of philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thagard, P. (2009) “Why Cognitive Science Needs Philosophy and Vice Versa”, Topics in Cognitive Science, 1(2), pp. 237-254. doi: 10.1111/j.1756-8765.2009.01016.x.

Warman, M. (2017) Stephen Hawking tells Google ‘philosophy is dead’, Available at: (Accessed: 25 March 2017).

Leave a Comment

From library and information science to philosophy and back

In a letter to his friend and student, Norman Malcolm, Wittgenstein wrote:

…what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life… (1958, p. 93)

As much as I enjoy a bit of logic talk, this is something I have tried to keep in mind since finishing my undergraduate in philosophy. Which is not to say that I commit myself to the view that philosophy must necessarily be concerned only with practical matters, but rather that since I have chosen not to go down the route of pursuing a career in academic philosophy, I want to be able to apply the skills I gained studying philosophy to whatever I occupy myself with in everyday life, which as it turns out is library and information science.

Prior to studying philosophy, I had been working as a library assistant in an academic library but it wasn’t until I graduated and was halfway through my LIS masters a couple of years later that I realised there are interesting philosophical issues to be considered in relation to libraries. By chance, while carrying out research for an assignment, I discovered a paper by John M. Budd, Academic Libraries and Knowledge: A Social Epistemology Framework, where he considered the role of the academic library in knowledge acquisition, and argued that, under a reliabilist epistemology, the library could be considered part of the so-called reliable process through which one acquires knowledge, by supporting the critical evaluation of knowledge claims.

While I am unsure if I would consider myself a reliabilist when it comes to epistemology, I certainly agree that libraries can and should play an important role when it comes to enabling the critical evaluation of knowledge claims. Though arguably not a new one, this issue has risen to prominence over the last few years, with the term “fake news” being thrown around readily and with some now referring to our current time as the era of “post-truth”. As a result, many librarians have stepped-up to argue that they are best equipped to help people identify fake news and many libraries have rebooted their information literacy programs to address the issue explicitly. However, an arguably overlooked point is the need for LIS courses to ensure future library and information professionals are equipped to deliver the kind of information literacy training necessary to do so – something which I think could be addressed by the inclusion of philosophy, or at least encouragement of philosophical reflection – within the LIS curriculum.

An apt analogy to demonstrate the importance of philosophy comes from the late Mary Midgley who likened philosophy to plumbing, noting that ‘plumbing and philosophy […] both have, beneath their surface, a fairly complex system which is usually unnoticed, but which sometimes goes wrong. In both cases, this can have serious consequences’ (2000, p.2). However, where they differ, she notes, is that ‘when the concepts we are living by work badly, they don’t usually drip through the ceiling or swamp the kitchen floor. They just quietly distort our thoughts and obstruct our thinking’ (Ibid., p.2).

To return to the point of this post, after following the threads from Budd’s paper on social epistemology I discovered what has become known as the “foundationalist debate” in LIS – the debate over whether LIS needs a philosophical foundation and if so what this foundation should be. This led me to Luciano Floridi’s philosophy of information (PI) and, in particular, his paper On defining library and information science as applied philosophy of information, where he argues that philosophy of information should be the foundation for LIS and that LIS can be seen as applied philosophy of information.

While I am more convinced of the former claim than the latter, I have become deeply interested in PI and the methodological framework proposed by Floridi for approaching philosophical problems, as well as in how this approach can be used to deal with philosophical issues as they arise in LIS. Carrying out research in PI has already led to me consider a number of what might be considered metaphilosophical issues such as ‘what is philosophy?’, ‘what constitutes a philosophical question?’, ‘what does it mean for philosophy to be applied?’ and ‘what is the relationship between science and philosophy’? – issues which I think attempting to answer can serve to strengthen the argument that a philosophical foundation would be of value to LIS, independently of whether that foundation is Floridi’s PI. Though in attempting to do so I will try to keep in mind the above quote from Wittgenstein and attempt to relate the answers to important questions in everyday (LIS) life.

To conclude, I am pleased to be beginning my doctoral research looking at philosophy and LIS, at City, University of London, under the supervision of Dr Lyn Robinson and Professor David Bawden, whose work I have enjoyed while exploring the philosophical and conceptual literature on library and information science. I would recommend their paper Curating the infosphere: Luciano Floridi’s Philosophy of Information as the foundation for Library and Information Science to anyone looking for a clear overview of the foundationalist debate in LIS. And for anyone looking for some accessible introductions to philosophy, I would recommend the following recently published titles:

Beebee, H. and Rush, M. (2019). Philosophy: Why it Matters. 1st ed. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Midgley, M. (2018). What Is Philosophy For? London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.

Williamson, T. (2018). Doing Philosophy : From Common Curiosity to Logical Reasoning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Budd, J. (2004). Academic Libraries and Knowledge: A Social Epistemology Framework. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 30(5), 361-367.

Floridi, L. (2002). On defining library and information science as applied philosophy of information. Social Epistemology,16(1), 37-49.

Malcolm, N. (1958). Ludwig Wittgenstein : A memoir. London, New York: Oxford University Press.

Midgley, M. (2000). Utopias, Dolphins and Computers. Milton: Taylor & Francis.

Leave a Comment