Practical authority and epistemic authority: comity, expertise and public understanding Articles uri icon

publication date

  • July 2020

start page

  • 437

end page

  • 455


  • 3


  • 11

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 2040-3313

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 2040-3321


  • In contemporary societies, governance is becoming governance by experts or under expert advice. This paper offers a survey of the basic conceptual schema that underlies some legal and political uses of knowledge, which has been traditionally based on a two-fold principle of distribution of epistemic labour between public officials and experts. Building on the example of the European system of comitology and, particularly, on the European experiences in the field of nanotechnology regulation, where expert advice has proved to be particularly controversial, I will argue that the principal-agent logic that has been conventionally placed at the core of the relationship between public authorities and experts must be enhanced or specified. Facing situations of qualified uncertainty, when epistemic privilege of experts tends to decline because of the absence of conclusive evidence, the standard division of epistemic labour becomes blurred and crucial questions of (epistemic) justice come to the fore. Moreover, I will show that, at that point, the demand for lay people participation becomes increasingly compelling. The underlying context of this discussion is the understanding that both politics of knowledge and politics of ignorance are already playing a crucial role in the governance of our increasingly ungovernable democracies


  • experts and expertise; principle of comity; practical authority; european comitology; governance of new technologies; epistemic justice