Volume 42, Issue 4, 2014
Outline for a Reflexive Epistemology
This paper addresses the notion of a “theory of knowledge” from the perspective of sociological reflexivity. What becomes of the meaning of epistemology once the ontological status of knowledge is taken seriously, and its political dimensions impossible to ignore? If the knower is no longer an impersonal, universal subject, but always a situated and purposeful actor, what kind of epistemology do we need, and what social functions can we expect it to play? Sociological reflexivity embraces the historicity and situatedness of knowledge understood as a cultural product and a social practice. It therefore enables us to cope with the collapse of our absolute and universal epistemic foundations and frames of reference, and to redefine the existential and practical meanings of knowledge for social life. In so doing, it also gives political meaning to epistemology itself, understood as a sociological theory of knowledge, not a normative one. Reflexivity can be envisaged as both a “bending back” and a “bending forward” of knowledge as praxis. As a bending back of knowledge on itself, it entails a rigorous understanding of the social conditions of possibility of our thought and our values, and hence a critical assessment of what our worldviews and notions of truth owe to the social order in which we are inscribed. As a bending forward, it turns this objective understanding into an instrument of existential and social emancipation, by delineating the structural spaces of freedom and agency that allow for a meaningful and responsible scholarly practice.