Reputation: What it is and Why it Matters

HomeReviewsPhilosophy (Reviews)Reputation: What it is and Why it Matters

Reputation: What it is and Why it Matters. Gloria Origgi. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.


Reputation explains why reputation is both personally and socially important; how it circulates among people; and how it affects what others say about us. It is preoccupied with two fundamental philosophical questions: Can reputation be considered a rational motivation for action and can it be considered a rational justification in the acquisition of information. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, or “methodological eclecticism,” Reputation examines the nature and purpose of reputation in an accessible and thoughtful manner that raises questions about who we are and why we do what we do.

The first chapter introduces the idea of reputation as our social ego: our reputational self that makes how we see ourselves integral to our self-awareness. It is not a reflection of ourselves, which is our subjective self, but a refraction of our image that is warped and redacted through the eyes of others. Delving into the literature of sociology and psychology, Origgi argues that our social ego, what we think others think of us, is critical to our self-identity.

Devoted to theoretical approaches to reputation is the subject of chapter two with attention paid to evolutionary and rational choice theories. According to these theories, people are altruistic because cooperation is required for the human species to survive and, in the process, acquire a good reputation in the community (indirect reciprocity). However, Origgi adopts a more modest approach to understand reputation with a look at the language of everyday life and findings by social scientists. Following Ian Hacking, Lorraine Daston, and Steve Shapin, Origgi’s approach combines conceptual analysis and historical epistemology: concepts are analyzed in a philosophical and historical context. This is entirely appropriate given the topic of reputation whose reality is dependent upon a context and therefore resists approaches like hermeneutical readings or genealogical exercises.

Chapter three deals with the communicative aspects of reputation: how it circulates and stabilizes. Reputations are of two types: 1) informal (e.g., rumors, gossip innuendo) and 2) formal (e.g., ranking systems, product labels, established hierarchies). Origgi reviews the social science literature to show how informal reputations are repaired and ruined through gossip, rumors, and other forms of informal social behavior. The ease which a reputation can be rehabilitated or destroyed raises the question how trustworthy it is in the first place. In chapter four, Origgi looks at the tools of social science – social capital, networks, and hierarchies – to understand how formal reputations are ranked, evaluated, and stabilized.

Chapter five contains a critical analysis of our biases in trusting people based on their reputations. A common bias is our trust of “experts” because of their superior epistemic positions but we also suffer other biases, such as prejudice, emotions, reputational signals and cues, and one’s own professional and personal associations. Because we suffer from these biases, we have an epistemic responsibility to make sure our perception of social relations do not distort our assessment of others. As Origgi states, “So just as traditional epistemology taught us to mistrust our senses, an epistemology of reputation taught us to mistrust the spontaneous verdicts initially issued by our ‘social sense.’”

In chapter six Origgi stakes out her normative position of replacing homo econmicus (the rational economic person) with homo comparativus (a comparative consciousness where we evaluate each other in a community) as the basic unit of analysis in the social sciences. According to Origgi, reality can be perceived only through evaluative comparisons which erodes the distinction between descriptive and evaluative accounts. She also criticizes philosophies that put symbolic values to reputations as the unit of analysis of human action (e.g., honor, the economy of esteem) as found in the works of Geoffrey Brennan, Philip Pettit, and Anthony Appiah.

The next three chapters contain case studies of the way reputations are built in the Web, the wine market, and the university. Regarding the Web, Origgi argues that it is not only information but a type of meta-memory where data is stored forever which inevitably affects one’s reputation. The hope would be that the Web could productive a form of collective wisdom, although how exactly this is accomplished remains to be seen (e.g., page ranking, algorithms). In the wine market, Origgi compares the different systems of classifying and ranking wines (i.e., California versus French) and the rise of “independent” critics affect a vineyard’s reputation. Finally, how an academic establishes his or her reputation is slowly changing, although there still is a bias to publications in established journals and presses. Perhaps more problematic is purportedly objective measures (e.g., impact factor) that evaluates the worth of a faculty member’s scholarship. Not only can lead to meaningless research but devalues teaching and service in the academy.

The concluding chapter examines the implications of Origgi’s conception of reputation for “our epistemic life and public decisions.” If what is said about us and about the things around us is decisively important, then the way we think about ourselves and our role as informed citizens must adapt to this transformation. We therefore need to develop new tools to govern our actions and the circulation of our opinions in order to sustain our democracies.

Origgi’s Reputation: What it is and Why it Matters is paradoxically a timely and timeless book about this subject. It is timely with reputations being destroyed and restored at breath-taking speed in this world of social media; but it is also timeless because, as social beings, we always used reputation as a way to navigate the world. Thought-provoking and wonderful to read, Reputation can only enhance Origgi’s own as a philosopher of note, wit, and importance.

Lee Trepanier

Written by

Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science, Department Chair, and University Pre-Law Advisor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).