Lecture Notes, UC Davis Philosophy 102, Theory of Knowledge

Intellectual Guidance

G. J. Mattey, Senior Lecturer

Picture of Richard Foley

Richard Foley

Both Descartes and James tried to provide us with intellectual guidance. Descartes claimed that we ought to rid our minds of preconceived opinions and to use the criterion of clear and distinct perception to re-build our system of beliefs. And he showed what, in his view, would be the end-product of the process of construction.

James exhorted us not to be too conservative in what we believe. The strict standards of scientific inquiry are not appropriate for practical beliefs. We should not pass up the opportunity to believe something (the existence of God) that has vital consequences for the conduct of our lives.

Richard Foley, a philosopher at New York University, examines the general question "What am I to believe?" from the standpoint of late twentieth-century theory of knowledge. In this lecture, we will be examining his article with that name.

The Egocentric Question

The question "What am I to believe?" is stated in the first person. It is a question any of us may ask ourselves at any time. We answer the question not by providing a list of specific things we ought to believe, but rather by formulating for ourselves "some general advice about how to proceed intellectually." It is advice we give to ourselves, because even though we might appeal to something outside ourselves as the basis for proceeding (for example, "consult the most respected authorities on the matter"), ultimately it is up to ourselves to decide whether any given procedure is the best way to go.

The question is really about standards for believing. There are many competing standards for belief. One could appeal to intuition, to what is commonly accepted ("common sense"), to the deliverances of the senses, etc. "I will want to know whether these standards are desirable ones."

Foley suggests a standard that is appropriate for an individual trying to make up his own mind about how to believe. "I am to make up my mind by marshalling my intellectual resources in a way that conforms to my own deepest intellectual standards." This is an egocentric answer to an egocentric question. I am to make use of my own intellectual resources: my reason, my memory, my present perception, etc. I am to use these resources in a way that I cannot, after deep reflection, be critical of the way I have used them.


The appeal to one's own standards is not very satisfying, Foley points out. The question "What am I to believe?" seems to call for a justification of the use of any given set of standards. Yet this is appropriate if the question is epistemic (as opposed, say, to practical). Even though we would like to determine the right way of forming beliefs about a world outside ourselves, we are forced back to the issue of our own standards. Foley says that "the reflection ultimately curls back upon me." This is because I am the investigator, and it is I who must make the decision what to believe.

Once we bring standards into the foreground, we begin to ask questions about the standards themselves. Are they reliable enough to warrant belief? How do I evaluate reliablity? The epistemologist finds that there are no marks of reliability. Any attempt to evaluate reliability depends on the use of a method that itself must be reliable. Foley's claim that there are no "non-question-begging guarantees" echos the problem of the standard, which was raised by the ancient skeptics.

If we cannot meet the Cartesian ideal of immunity from error, there is at least one goal that we can attain. We can insure that we are immue from self-condemnation. So, we are looking for beliefs that are above reproach from ourselves. "This is the post-Cartesian answer to the Cartesian question."

This answer provides no substantive guidance, however. It would be regrettable if epistemology had something to offer by way of guidance, but it does not. Even if it issues decrees such as to use the method that is most reliable, it cannot give these decrees any more substance. It cannot determine which method is the most reliable. "However, this is precisely one of the matters about which I will want advice." The standard of reliability, then, will not provide real intellectual guidance. Indeed, one must already be reliable in order reliably to determine which methods are reliable.

The same argument applies to other proposed standards, such as that "I am rational only if I conform to the standards of the acknowledge experts." I would have to determine what does conform to those standards, and to do so I would have to conduct an inquiry that conforms to them. "But which stadards are these, I want to know." In general, the problem is that of knowng how to apply whatever recommendation is made.

Any more "internal" suggestion is of no greater help. No matter what feature of my thinking I appeal to as a standard, I will have to appeal to that standard in order to justy them.

Perhaps a way out is to appeal to standards that do not themselves have to be evaluated by standards. In that case, we have "immediate and unproblematic access" to the conditions of rationality. An example is a view held by Bertrand Russell, that "we are directly acquainted with certain truths and that these truths make various other propositions probable for us." We would have to be able to ascertain which truths we are directly acquainted with and which are made probable by them.

The only way to avoid circularity here is to claim that we are directly acquainted with the fact that we are directly acquainted with a truth. But this tactic is generally shunned by epistemologists today. We cannot avoid stopping at a standard which is incapable of providing any concrete advice about what we should believe.

There can be no general recipe for the conduct of our intellectual lives, if for no other reason than that questions can always arise about how to follow the recipe, questions to which the recipe itself can give no useful answer.


So far, we have focused on reliablity as a desirable feature of a method for producing belief. This is an "external" standard, in that whether a method is reliable will depend (generally) on the way the world is, independently of what we believe about it. An "internalist" can criticize such a standard on the grounds that it gives no useful advice about what to believe about the world. We need some internal determination of what is reliable.

Foley thinks this is a bad criticism, though. The reason is that the internalst is no better off than the externalist on this point. Take Descartes as a case in point. This method was not meant to be used universally, but was restricted to application by philosopher-scientists.

The method fails to give any useful advice because it cannot get off the ground. The problem that was rehearsed above is not based on any feature of externalism. Foley develops his this claim in detail.

Suppose the advice is to believe just those propositions which are not subject to the slightest doubt when brought clearly to mind. Then the question arises as to which propositions these are. The prescription itself cannot answer this question. Secondly, a weakness of internalism is exposed. The fact that it cannot be doubted does not mean the the proposition cannot be false. There is no reason to think that Descartes was right in thinking that what is not subject to doubt is therefore not open to being false. Thirdly, if Descartes seeks to avoid this objection by declaring in advance that only truths are clearly and distinctly perceived, then the philosopher-scientists will have to try to figure out whether something is really clearly and distinctly perceived, not apparently so.

While Descartes successfully articulated a goal of inquiry, certainty, he failed to provide a means. Either the propsed means are misdirected or they are not fundamental enough. Still, the goal seems too extreme. "The goal is far too demanding. Almost all of us are willing to put up with some risks of error in theoretical pursuits." Ultimately, Descartes's advice for those who would try to make belief risk-free is to have them believe "just that which strikes me as being risk-free and then hope for the best."

Deep Internalism

Such a suggestion lacks any substance at all. It is like a friend telling me to do what I think is best, even though she has no idea of what I actually do think is best. This is not real advice at all. It is the flip side of Descartes's attempt to give real advice about what beliefs are free of risk.

Foley has already suggested something similar as the best we can do in looking for guidance in what to believe. I should "have beliefs that I as a truth-seeker would not condemn myself for having, even if I am deeply reflective." It is not real advice, but rather "meta-advice" (at best). That is, it is advice about which advice I should follow in generating my beliefs. But it is not charitably understood as providing "serious, substantive intellectual guidance."

So what kind of recommendation is it? It is a statement about the conditions for believing rationally from the first-person point of view. Ideally, we would like these conditions to enlighten us in our thinking about the related notions of "truth, knowledge, skepticism, dogmatism, and intellectual disagreement, to name a few." And we would like to be able to use the recommendation to help us understand why we say that our belief is rational, both in theoretical and in practical contexts.

Logic and Probability

These are issues in epistemology. But they do not give us much, if any, concrete advice. Other areas of philosophy appear to be more promising. Studies of logic and probability, for example, at least help us to see when we would go wrong with certain beliefs, i.e., when they are inconsistent or incoherent.

They do not, however, tell us what to do once we run up against an inconsistency or an incoherency. There will be in general several options, and these formal sciences do not decide among them. And even the negative advice is limited in its scope. One reason is that the dictates as to what to avoid do not help us determine when we have gone over the edge. A new device is needed.

A deeper problem is indicated by various paradoxes, such as that of the lottery. It may well be rational to remain inconsistent or incoherent. Sometimes the alternatives are not rationally preferable. "Sometimes it is rational for me to have beliefs that I know cannot possibly all be accurate." For example, it may be rational to believe of each ticket in a lottery with one billion tickets that it is a loser. What inconsistency and incoherence indicate is that one's beliefs are less than ideal.

Advice from Science

If neither epistemology nor logic and probability do hold out the hope of giving much concrete advice about what to believe, maybe there are other sources. We can turn to experts when the issue is a philosophical one. Or when the issue is of some other kind, one can consult an expert in the field in question.

For more general advice, we might look toward cognitive science and history of science. These disciplines cannot provide advice at the highest level of generality. If they tried, they would face the same problems as did epistemology. But they do not even pretend to try to give this sort of advice. For there are questions about how these disciplines themselves are conducted, and also because the results of their investigation require interpretation. If we come to understand what inferences scientists have made historically, the question remains as to whether they are reliable. And something else would have to provide an answer to this question.

Still, at the middle level, cognitive science and the history of science can provide us with "some useful rules of thumb." They can provide data which can be converted into advice with the help of other disciplines. Examples come from cognitive science, where various patterns of error have been discovered (hasty generalization, bad probability calculation). So we can get data from them about our tendencies to make these kinds of errors. History of science can offer data, though not so straightforwardly. Actual cases are better than hypothetical cases because they are not so easily manipulated.

So we get a mine of data from cognitive science and history of science. How can this be converted into advice about what one is to believe. Negative advice is easy to come by if a pattern of error has been revealed. But it is not easy to see how these data can generate positive advice.

One suggestion is to use the method of "reflective equilbrium," first proposed by Nelson Goodman in Fact, Fiction, and Forcast, pp. 62-65, and popluarized by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice. The idea here is that we begin with an initial view about which methods of belief-formation are best, then compare this with the data of cognitive science and history of science, as well as other cases. You go back and forth between the intitial view and the data until things stabilize around one view.

Foley notes the standard problem for this procedure. It is unhelpful meta-advice, which is "essentially the same" as the advice given in the egocentric precription to confrom to your own standards. It does not say how to accumulate data or how to proceed once you do. "It leaves me to mich about on these questions as best I can."

Philosophical Advice

Such mucking is inevitable, as it is "part of the human intellectual predicament." Philosophy just cannot give the desired general advice. Its attempt to do so are either empty or else not fundamental enough.

At the lower level, expert opinion and the combination of cognitive science and history of science are more effective than epistemology and general philosophy at giving advice. Expert opinion is best for "specific advice on local intellectual concerns." The gathering of data is best for producing rules of thumb.

Philosophers can make important contributions to this project. For example, they can help clarify the ends, theoretical and practical, of investigation. They can distinguish, among epistemic ends, between the synchronic and the diachronic, where different means are appropriate. (An example is the preference for simplicity in explanation, which may be better suited to some ends than for others.)

Another role for philosophers is to serve as critics fo ongoing inquiries. They can serve as "intellectual gadflies." They can clarify what an explanation is and weigh in on which arguments are good and which are bad. They can also set down conditions for rational investigation, even though the won't tell us much of substance.

The Role of Epistemology

Some people insist that epistemology should be the starting-point of investigation, because it is the only form of inquiry at a high enough level of generality to be able to guide all other inquiry. In this way, it can serve as "an arbiter of intellectual procedures."

But this gets things backwards. "Epistemology begins at a late stage of inquiry. It builds on preexisting inquiry and without that inquiry it would be subjectless." We cannot do epistemology from scratch, "and hence it is no more capable of giving us non-question-begging advice about basic issues of intellectual procedure than anything else."

We must also abandon the deeper presumption that it is important that such advice be given at all. Descartes and Locke seem to have regarded philosophy's role as one of stemming intellectual anarchy in the face of competing points of view.

But this is not right. On the contrary, when we finally come to epistemological investigation, we are already well-formed in our intellectual assumptions as well as our skills and habits. We mostly use them in an automatic fashion. It is better to try to hone them than to start over with some new rules for the direction of the mind. "The emphasis is better placed on the development of skills and habits that we think will help make us more reliable inquirers."

Intellectual Autonomy

This project is piecemeal, not dramatic as was Descartes's. Epistemological questions such as the possibility of starting with a very different background do not help us improve our modes of inquiry, because they will not be real options for us. "It is not as if we are radically free to reconstitute ourselves intellectually in any way that we see fit and that we need some guidance about whether to do so or how to do so."

We may be able to train ourselves to do so, or even make the change instantaneously using drugs. Still, we will judge the reliability of the drugged alternative from the standpoint of the our un-drugged perspective. It seems less reliable.

The greatest threat to inquiry is not intellectual chaos, but conformity. We cannot help being guided by our heratige, and it is very hard not to surrender to it entirely. "It is all to easy for us to be intellectual lemmings." If we are going to be autonomous intellectually, we have to work from within that heritage, but working with our own epistemic standards. "This ability creates a space for intellectual antonomy."

There are many threats. The dominant standard functions best when internalized. "We accept as our own the very norms by which we are controlled." All we can do is to monitor ourselves and try to avoid contamination. We may well not be successful, if the internalizing procedure is effective enough.

Foley ends by comparing the possibility of total domination with that of total deception. Neither possibilities justifies giving up the intellectual projects with which we are engaged. There can be knowledge in the face of the possibility of massive deception, and there can be autonomy in the face of the possibility of massive domination. When my own standards differ from the dominant ones, autonomy and egocentric rationality dictate sticking to my own.

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