– Bruce Long

In a previous article, we investigated the link between the traditional philosophical (core) disciplines of ontology (the study of what exists and how, which is nowadays largely subsumed under science and especially physics) and epistemology (the study of knowledge: what it is and how we get and possess it.) We found that – especially in the case of ontology – there is a very specific contemporary set of concepts and matching technologies in computer science that map to the philosophical discipline. In this article, I will focus more on the question of how epistemology relates to city planning philosophy.

The reader should note that most of these articles cross the boundary between philosophy and the philosophy of planning, but due to my specific expertise they lean heavily on the former, with explanations of how urban and city planning philosophy is informed by it. This article will be no exception, and I will also limit my discussion of social psychology even though it is very much directly relevant to the topics being discussed.

The specific theme with which I will engage for our investigation is an important debate in contemporary epistemology. It is about whether knowledge exists only internally (inside the mind of a thinking, believing agent) or externally (outside in society and in libraries) or some combination of the two.

Epistemology is one of the longest standing and most resilient of the philosophical disciplines. It has lasted so long and remained a pertinent discipline partly because it is closely related to the philosophy of mind – and specifically the question of how the mind exists – and partly because even if one thinks one has a correct definition of the nature of a mind (is it just brain processes, or is it some immaterial entitity, or is it some kind of epiphenomenon) then it is not easy to determine what a final definition of knowledge might be. Most recently in the discipline – there have been at east three fairly significant new sets of explanations and definitions of knowledge and knowledge acquisition.

The first big epistemological move of the 20th century was associated with Bertrand Russell, as its primary progenitor. It is associated with what is called the correspondence theory of truth or the object reference theory, which theory says that for statements and beliefs to be true, they must correspond to, or refer to, objectively real things. Beliefs are about entities, and according to Russell’s theory of truth entities must exist independently either materially or logically (or in some cases mathematically) in order for our statements about them to be true. The associated epistemology is based upon the sense data view, and has a heritage with the German existentialists including Edmund Husserl. According to Russell, there is knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description.

The sense data (literally the information delivered to our central nervous system by our peripheral nervous system and presented to us in sensory stimulus and perception) we experience when seeing a colour or feeling a texture is something with which we have immediate acquaintance: our beliefs about colours and textures are informed by sense data with which we have immediate acquaintance. The knowledge of the existence of an external object like a table, however, is knowledge by description. We need a set of concepts which could be best characterised as descriptions (although there is an entire literature about what concepts might really be) in order to grasp the nature of the table.

Alvin Plantinga is a Theistic Analytic Philosopher. Here he is referring to process reliabilism.

Alvin Goldman

Perhaps the second truly revisionary epistemological effort is largely recognised as the brainchild of philosopher Alvin Goldman. Goldman introduced process reliabilism: or at the very least developed its codification into a coherent basis for and epistemology or theory of knowledge and knowing. Epistemology is in large part about how what information and beliefs we hold are made true. Truth of some belief content is generally regarded as the prerequisite for that content to become knowledge. The idea is that believing that unicorns are real is not knowledge, but thinking or believing that 1+1=2 is knowledge:  a fairly basic distinction for most people (although philosophers wrestle with plenty of nuances and surprising exceptions).

Process reliabilism emphasises the role of the process of knowledge acquisition as the basis of truth: the mechanisms and processes which are responsible for the acquisition of information and beliefs (including via sense data) that will become knowledge. Process reliabilism is about how a belief is justified: the process and mechanism for justification. The process must be reliable and consistent. Mathematical proofs of simple geometric concepts would be regarded as a good justification for mathematical knowledge. Alcohol induced dreams of unicorns: not so good.

More recently, information theoretic approaches have come to the fore in epistemology (and Goldman’s approach has significant informational elements too). Philosopher Fred Dretske led what I will call the informationist epistemology charge in 1982 with his book Knowledge and the Flow of Information. Dretske used and adapted elements of Claude E Shannon’s formal Mathematical Theory of Communication, which the mathematical engineer produced in 1948. This kind of epistemology is thought to face problems due to the difficulties with associating semantic content or meaning with a quantiative or measure-based conception of information and information transfer. However, Russell and Goldman’s epistemologies also face challenges.

This brings us to the point of the current investigation: social epistemology. What all of the above examples (and they are only a few of many) have in common is that knowledge is regarded largely as an internal state of the individual associated with the possession of something like true beliefs or accurate, or factual, information. Alvin Goldman himself points out that the external, constructive component of knowledge is often overlooked, but that it is emphasised in social epistemology. Knowledge is both shared, and public, and cannot be realised any other way:

Until recently, epistemology—the study of knowledge and justified belief—was heavily individualistic in focus. The emphasis was on evaluating doxastic attitudes (beliefs and disbeliefs) of individuals in abstraction from their social environment. The result is a distorted picture of the human epistemic situation, which is largely shaped by social relationships and institutions. Social epistemology seeks to redress this imbalance by investigating the epistemic effects of social interactions and social systems. (4)

Now, there is an enormous amount that could be said about the intersection and relationship between social epistemology and planning philosophy. However, in keeping with the context of previous articles about the nature, development, and source of the character of the City, and with articles about ontology and epistemology in urban planning: I will focus – albeit succinctly – upon the concept of the group doxastic agent (thinking, doing being).

The term doxastic means ‘of belief’. An agent (thinking, doing being) is a doxastic agent if they have beliefs (at least one, in fact). More to the point: an agent is doxastic if they act a certain way because of the beliefs they hold. To give one a preview of the breadth and complexity of the questions in the field: humans beings are generally considered doxastic agents in a linguistic way, but many scientists think animals must also have beliefs – not just instincts. Scientists and philosophers (because there is still a philosophical question due to semantics but also information theory) are still trying to decide if animals could be having conceptual and especially linguistic beliefs: and that opens up an entire and enormous field of philosophical disquisition and enquiry.

It is because beliefs are generally regarded (although not according to all epistemologies or theories of knowledge) as an essential element of knowledge content for an individual agent, that it is a doxastic agent – or a believing agent – that is of interest to us. The usual formula that is applied (although it is certainly not universally approved) is the Platonic conception: that knowledge is justified true belief (JTB for short).

However, we are not just interested here in the individual and what they believe about their lived environment and the spaces around them (and the associated beliefs about their community and its effect on the environment). We are interested in group believing agents. This is an odd and typically philosophical way of saying that we want to know about groups of people who believe something that motivates them to act in certain ways and that might affect them and their environment otherwise.

Some obvious examples of the crossover of this kind of epistemology into planning and planning philosophy is planning for social inclusion. Another good example is urban planning for social justice. Social epistemology is also likely to be very important in understanding outcomes in human geography.

So can we be any more specific about this? Well, Goldman is a philosopher in the analytic tradition, and so various formal definitions that mesh with formal logics are important in his analysis:

We begin, however, with questions about social metaphysics. A major sub-question here is how group entities relate to their members. One approach to this relationship is a so-called “summative” account (a term that is used rather variously by different authors). Here is one articulation of the summative approach.

(S)A group G believes that P if and only if all or most of its members believe P.

The statement in bold is a typical thing for such philosophers to use. Goldman goes on to refine this definition, changing its focus. I will not follow him further here, since the material gets too wordy, specialised, and dense for my readers. However. Note that this definition leaves some people out. That is where the abovementioned efforts at designing spaces for social inclusion become important. Isolation is one of the most debilitating and damaging outcomes of certain kinds of living spaces: it affects commute times, accessibility of essential services, social contact, and mental health (directly and indirectly).

I will end this article with an interesting original (but perhaps obvious) philosophical question: If a person in an urban environment designed for social inclusion has different political and ideological beliefs to everyone else in the living space, will they still feel less isolated in the living space because of the planning? At what point will their different beliefs and values mean that the living space makes no difference to their isolation regardless of how good the planning is?

Social epistemology would seem to be not only the right epistemology to use in thinking about the philosophy of planning, but also the best place to start for many social questions that must be asked before urban and city plans are developed. Perhaps one exception might be where we are interested specifically in the individual’s lived experience of their environment, how this affects their mental state and subsequent actions. A reductionist about social dynamics – someone that thinks that social dynamics break down to individual’s behaviour – might well argue that social epistemology will lead to inappropriate information abstraction. That is, in generalising to groups, we might miss important dynamics associated with individual agents. It is not unreasonable to suggest that positivists about town planning would argue this position.



  1. Bedke, M. S. (2010). Developmental Process Reliabilism: on Justification, Defeat, and Evidence. Erkenntnis (1975-), 73(1), 1–17.
  2. Dretske, F. I. (1981). Knowledge and the flow of information. Oxford: Blackwell.
  3. Goldman, A., & Beddor, B. (2016). Reliabilist Epistemology. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/reliabilism/
  4. Goldman, A., & Blanchard, T. (2016). Social Epistemology. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/epistemology-social/
  5. Goldman, A. I. (2014). Social Process Reliabilism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  6. Perry, D. H. (2013). Process reliabilism: Experimental cognitive psychology and neuroscience.
  7. Tang, W. H. (2016). Reliabilism and the Suspension of Belief. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 94(2), 362–377.