Collaborative Inquiry:

An Epistemological Account of Inquiring Together


In this dissertation, I argue that the phenomenon of inquiring together, common across communities, lacks sufficient by epistemologists currently. I examine the phenomenon, including its social-epistemic character.

Dissertation Advisor: John Greco

Committee Members: Helen De Cruz, Joe Salerno, Eleonore Stump

Introduction to the Dissertation


The purpose of this dissertation is to shed light on a phenomenon of knowledge production that is pervasive across cultures and communities, yet unanalyzed by philosophers. Imagine two people meeting one afternoon to discuss a documentary they both watched over the weekend. Suppose the documentary left them both puzzled about the activities of migratory birds. Neither has much knowledge of birds, but now they are both quite interested in learning more. They converse with one another about the documentary, asking new questions and reading more on the topic together to gain new information about the flight patterns of various species. They go home that evening satisfied with all they have learned together.


When two or more people come together to answer a question, interpret some data, examine a particular line of reasoning, or derive a conclusion from other beliefs they share, they are inquiring together. Inquiring together, which I also call collaborative inquiry, is a social phenomenon as well as an epistemic phenomenon. Collaborative inquiry is a social phenomenon because it involves shared aims between inquirers, shared means to achieve those aims, and certain intentions to follow certain procedures and integrate the ideas and opinions of the other participants. It involves reacting and interacting with other persons in order to accomplish the task at hand. Collaborative inquiry is an epistemic phenomenon in part because its primary aims are epistemic in nature. Inquiry, including asking questions and debating ideas, is performed to obtain knowledge or gain understanding. Inquiring with other persons, knowing that each person can benefit from the participation of others, also aims at knowledge or understanding. Persons engaged in collaborative inquiry choose to work together because they want to achieve some epistemic goal they share.


It may seem obvious that any group of two or more persons has the potential to engage in collaborative inquiry, simply by deciding to work together in order, for instance, to learn more about ancient history, or to discuss and debate the nature and habits of migratory birds, or even to try to solve a crossword puzzle or a game of Sudoku. Yet, such activity has not been studied or analyzed in much, if any, capacity in epistemology. Social philosophy has certainly focused on social interaction, including discussion and cooperation with others, but it has failed to focus on collaborative inquiry per se. However, the social nature of collaborative inquiry has a significant impact, or so I argue, on its epistemic components and outcomes. Therefore, it seems necessary that collaborative inquiry be analyzed in epistemology as well. This dissertation is meant to demonstrate that collaborative inquiry is a common phenomenon lacking sufficient analysis in the epistemology literature. The dissertation is also an attempt to analyze the phenomenon from an epistemological stance, with its social features in mind.


With that in mind, in Chapter One I provide a basic sketch of the phenomenon, using common cases not unlike the documentary example just described. I use a variety of cases, trying to motivate the claim that the phenomenon is pervasive. I then focus on some important features of the phenomenon, including that a goal is shared by the participants, participants must be open and responsive to the views of one another, and they must be persistently engaged with one another to achieve the goal they share. The conclusion of Chapter One is that a certain social-epistemic phenomenon, inquiring together, is common both today and throughout history.


In Chapter Two, I argue that the social epistemology literature has, up to now, focused on the social character of information exchange and group knowledge, with very little attention to much else. I explicate various accounts in social epistemology to get a basic understanding of the phenomena that have been analyzed in the literature. Detailing several theories of information exchange and group knowledge allows me to contrast such phenomena with collaborative inquiry in Chapter Three. The conclusion of Chapter Two is that the social epistemology literature has concentrated primarily on information exchange and group knowledge.


In Chapter Three, I aim to show that the phenomenon of collaborative inquiry lacks adequate analysis in epistemology. I describe an uncommon case of collaborative inquiry, in order to show that the social features I described in Chapter One are not merely present when information is exchanged between participants, or when the group comes to know something over and above what its members know. Inquiring together has social features over and above those required for testimonial exchange. Inquiring together does not always result in a group knowing something qua group.


Once I have shown that the social epistemology literature lacks satisfactory analysis of collaborative inquiry, I provide a detailed account of it in Chapter Four. I first argue that collaborative inquiry requires shared agency, though shared agency itself may be analyzed in different ways. The shared goals that the participants have, the intentions they have toward one another, and the relations they have with one another indicate a kind of social agency in the activity. I then argue that inquiring together, which I showed in Chapter One has epistemic aims, achieves those epistemic aims in a uniquely social manner, generating a genuinely shared achievement. Even though each participant may gain individual knowledge by collaborating with others, the knowledge they gain is a shared achievement with each other participant. The conclusion of Chapter Four is that inquiring together is an epistemic activity only possible because of shared agency, and its result when successful is a social-epistemic achievement, the achievement of shared knowledge.


After showing in Chapter Four how the overarching social character of collaborative inquiry is epistemically relevant, I go on in Chapter Five to describe other epistemically relevant social characteristics of the phenomenon. First, collaborative inquiry sometimes results in knowledge that would not be achieved through individual inquiry, because some kinds of social cognition that promote knowledge are not possible without shared agency. Second, some kinds of social cognition play a role in allowing the development of shared epistemic agency. Finally, collaborative inquiry has long-term impacts on participants that are not possible with respect to group knowledge or testimony. For instance, studies in cognitive science show that knowledge generated by a person for herself is better remembered than knowledge given to her by another. The conclusion of Chapter Five is that collaborative inquiry involves social interactions of various kinds, which have epistemic power for various reasons.


Abstract of Chapter One

Working with others involves persons making plans that are responsive to the plans of others, forming intentions to work together, and responding to one another in ways that maintain the joint effort. Working together to inquire together has these qualities as well, and inquiring together is a pervasive phenomenon, or so I argue in this chapter. I first explain how the dissertation as a whole will proceed. I then describe a few common cases of people inquiring together, what I will also call “collaborative inquiry”. In relaying these cases, I hope to show that inquiring together is a general and ubiquitous phenomenon, spanning many fields of study, many areas of life, and many kinds of people. Once I have cited various cases of collaborative inquiry, I elucidate their similarities, trying to show what it is that makes them instances of the same phenomenon. To inquire together, a primary goal or goals must be both epistemic in nature and shared by the participants. As well, participants must be open to the views held by each other, responsive to their opinions, and persistently engaged with one another in their means to achieve the goals they share. The conclusion of Chapter One is that a certain social and epistemic phenomenon, inquiring together, is commonplace, and some of its characteristics are evident even without detailed analysis.


Abstract of Chapter Two

The purpose of Chapter 2 is to detail the existing literature in social epistemology, arguing that epistemologists concentrate on a few social-epistemic phenomena. Specifically, epistemologists have focused on information exchange, group knowledge, and institutional mechanisms of knowledge production (what I will also call “epistemic systems”). First, I describe the concept of analytic social epistemology, some assumptions that social epistemologists carry with them, and some various ways of doing social epistemology. In order to defend a thesis about all the literature in social epistemology without describing every thesis on offer in the field, I describe and expand upon a taxonomy of social-epistemic activity defended by Alvin Goldman. I then use a case described by Goldman to show that collaborative inquiry is present, though unanalyzed as such, in the social epistemology literature. One account, that of Helen Longino, does not immediately appear to fit into taxonomical structure defended by Goldman. I argue, though, that Longino’s account does not get at the basic social nature of collaborative inquiry. Finally, I detail the extent to which social epistemologists have focused on group knowledge and information exchange. To conclude this chapter, I explicate a few exceptions to the rule I just defended. That is, some social epistemologists (Miller, Tollefsen, Grasswick) have alluded to the phenomenon of collaborative inquiry I described in Chapter 1. Others have described shared agency in social-epistemic activity (Tollefsen, Miller, Tossut). However, none has analyzed or even described the phenomenon of collaborative inquiry in great detail, as I aim to do in subsequent chapters.

Abstract of Chapter Three

The purpose of Chapter 3 is to defend the claim that collaborative inquiry as sui generis. Inquiring together is an altogether different kind of socioepistemic phenomenon from others discussed in the literature. To defend this view, I first explain the claims of the dissertation and how to proceed in defending them. I then use the literature review from Chapter 2, along with an admittedly uncommon, yet informative, case of collaborative inquiry to show that inquiring together is not socioepistemic merely because it involves testimony or another kind of information exchange. As well, the example shows that inquiring together is not socioepistemic just because it results in group knowledge or some other collective attitude. These two claims, combined with the taxonomy of Chapter 2, entail that collaborative inquiry is sui generis, and no account of the phenomenon has yet been provided in the literature. The conclusion of this chapter is that we can see clearly what collaborative inquiry is not, but we need a positive account in order to see what collaborative inquiry is. Chapter 4 is an attempt to provide such a positive account.


Abstract of Chapter Four

The purpose of Chapter 4 is to defend a modest account of the phenomenon. I argue that collaborative inquiry requires shared agency, though shared agency itself may be analyzed in different ways. I contend that knowledge is a kind of creditable achievement, where this ought to be understood as broadly as possible. I argue that inquiring together, which requires epistemic aims, achieves those epistemic aims in a uniquely social manner, resulting in a genuinely shared achievement. Thus, inquiring together is a socioepistemic activity, possible only because of shared agency, and it results in a socioepistemic achievement, the shared achievement of knowledge. I conclude Chapter 4 by describing a virtue-theoretic account of knowledge, which also entails that collaborative inquiry has a distinctly socioepistemic character.


Abstract of Chapter Five

In the first part of this chapter, I use empirical studies to show that oftentimes, collaborative inquiry is more valuable than individual inquiry, group knowledge, and even testimony. These studies show correlations between collaborative learning and deeper understanding, between self-referential learning and memory retention, and between inquiry-based learning and explanatory understanding. All these studies suggest that collaborative inquiry, which has distinctively epistemic aims, has the proclivity to achieve those aims more often and to a greater extent than other social-epistemic activities. In the second half of the chapter, I argue that social cognition grounds shared inquiry, which can shed light on the epistemic efficacy described in the first half of the chapter. I argue that social cognition underlies shared epistemic activity, and some complex social-cognitive mechanisms underlie collaborative inquiry in particular. I describe social cognition, showing that certain basic social-cognitive mechanisms, such as mindreading, are necessary for shared epistemic activity. Some complex types of social cognition, such as shared reasoning, are necessary for collaborative inquiry, and so uniquely constitute the phenomenon under consideration in this dissertation. This can provide an explanation for why collaborative inquiry often produces better epistemic results than its social-epistemic alternatives. I conclude the chapter by discussing the value we find in social interaction with others, which can partly explain the value of collaborative inquiry.