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Knowledge underground: Gossipy epistemology

Karen C Adkins, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation is an attempt to loosen what I see as a chokehold by which two paramount assumptions constrict our epistemic endeavors. These Enlightenment assumptions--that we accept or refute ideas as true based on transparently clear and orderly methods and criteria, and that individuals accept or refute truth claims--are still central in epistemology, despite their many critics (for the first, Kant, Hegel, James, Quine, Bayes; for the second, postmodernism, Deleuze and Guattari, Gilbert). Thinking about gossip as an epistemologically productive concept provides us with the means to critique those assumptions, and further attempts to broaden our notion of an epistemological foundation. Gossip at first appears to be an unlikely candidate for such a resurrection, mainly because its treatment by academics has been dismissive; this dismissal is in part due to Enlightenment conceptions about truth and falsehood. Chapter One surveys the social science literature on gossip and rumor, revealing that social scientists begin with such restrictive definitions of what gossip is that their conclusions amount to little more than tautology. Chapter Two shows that humanists have a slightly different approach to gossip, but with roughly similar results. The handful of philosophers who deal directly with gossip or rumor almost as a unit accept uncritically a division between "purposive" conversation and "idle" chatter. To do so, I think, perpetuates a limiting epistemic foundation on a linguistic level. In contrast, I argue in Chapter Three that the very existence of something like gossip proves the inadequacy of the foundationalist myth (at least in its current form), and that to attempt to understand and use gossip with foundationalist tools is simply a wrong fit. My understanding of gossip is based on this central fact: we undertake the activity of gossip or rumor-spreading because we are trying to make sense out of something--we need to collect knowledge socially. Gossip originates from dissonance; it acts as a (necessary) counterweight to more official information, and can't be considered apart from official knowledge. We use gossip and rumor, along with more orthodox sources of information, to formulate our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. The extent to which gossip and rumor are spread is the extent to which the analysis is shared, and not individualized. Gossip is both a genealogical tool and an speculative tool.

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Recommended Citation

Adkins, Karen C, "Knowledge underground: Gossipy epistemology" (1996). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9709568.