Lecture Notes, UC Davis Philosophy 102, Theory of Knowledge

Introductory Remarks

G. J. Mattey, Senior Lecturer

This course is about knowledge. Over the last two and one-half millenia, philosophers (and others) have had much to say about knowledge. For example, they have debated about what knowledge is, whether we have any knowledge, and if we do, exactly what it is that we know. These and related issues will be at the center of our investigations.

Theory of Knowledge as Theory

The title of the course is "theory of knowledge." What does the title signify? It might suggest that our attempts to understand knowledge have not produced a definitive outcome (though sometimes what is called "theory" is widely accepted as fact). In fact, there have been, and still are, many different answers proposed to the questions we have just asked. Many of these answers are in fundamental opposition to one another. For example, "internalist" theories are pitted against "externalist" theories, "infallibilist" theories against "fallibilist" theories. (We will be investigating these disputes as the course unfolds.)

The situation is similar in other areas of philosophy. Philosophers sometimes describe ethics and aesthetics as "theory of value" (or "value theory"). Right and wrong, good and bad, are values, and there are rival accounts of what these are, what makes them what they are, and so forth. Indeed, practically any area of philosophical investigation shows myriad competing theories, none of which has gained a decisive advantage over the other.

Methodism vs. Particularism

Not only is there disagreement among philosophers over what is the correct account of knowledge (if there even is one), but there is further disagreement about how to go about investigating knowledge. The twentieth-century philosopher Roderick Chisholm distinguishes between two distinct approaches, which he calls "methodism" and "particularism."

Methodist theorists begin with a pre-conception of what knowledge is. Let us take as a classical example, the claim that knowledge is infallible judgment. It then investigates which items fall under that conception. To extend our example, it might be thought that simple judgments of mathematics, such as that 2+2=4, made by a rational person with a clear mind who is paying attention are infallible.

Particularist theorists begin the other way around, with a pre-conception of some items are known. They might find that a rational person with a clear mind who is paying attention knows that 2+2=4. Then they would ask what such cases have in common and count that as knowledge.

These two approaches can lead to very different results. The methodist may have a conception of what knowledge is that severely restricts the range of what is known. It does not decide in advance which specific items count as knowledge and which do not. Particularism does decide in advance, at least to some items. In this sense, it is a much safer approach by anyone who thinks that we actually have knowledge.

Each side faces a problem. There are many different conceptions of knowledge that have been used as the starting point for theory of knowledge. Which of them is correct? One way of deciding would be to see whether they capture the actual cases of knowledge, which would require that we first be able to tell what they are, in which case particularism is correct.

On the other hand, there is widespread disagreement about which particular cases count as knowledge. How should we decide which cases are legitimate and which are not? It seems that we could do so only if we had a conception of knowledge in mind to distinguish real knowledge from apparent knowledge, in which case methodism is correct.

If neither approach is able to defend itself against the other, then it looks as if either the whole enterprise of theory of knowledge is misguided or else theory of knowledge must be based on some other method.

Common Ground

One possible way out of this dilemma is to try to find some areas of agreement and work from them. Perhaps there is something in common between everyone's conception of knowledge. Perhaps there are some cases that everyone agrees are cases of knowledge. It would be even better if there were both.

We should state from the outset that it is very unlikely that we will find any components of a conception of knowledge or any cases of knowledge upon which there is universal agreement. But it seems that there are many reasons for disagreement that are irrelevant to putting together a theory of knowledge. For example, one may disagree out of sheer contrariness. We should at least require that any relevant dissent should be based on plausible reasons. (And oof course we can always ask how we arrive at this requirement, what makes a reason plausible, etc. We shall not take up these issues at this point.)

Let us look at some examples on both the methodist and particularist sides. Plato, the first systematic theorist of knowledge, proposed that whatever is known is true: there is no false knowledge. He also proposed that knowledge be stable or secure, unlike fluxuating opinion. Most theorists of knowledge have followed him and adopted these requirements.

Another feature of knowledge broadly agreed upon is that it involves some kind of endorsement of or commitment to the truth of what is known. We have been calling such endorsement "judgment," but there is disagreement about whether knowledge requires deliberation. We could call it "assent," but even here some would say in not all cases of knowledge is there some conscious act of assenting that produces the judgment. The judgment might be an automatic response to the environment. The disagreement on this point runs deep, as we will see.

Plato also held that among the items of human knowledge are some mathematical judgments. Many philosophers since his time, most notably Descartes in the seventeenth century, have taken mathematical judgments to be paradigm cases of knowledge. The best cases are those where the judgment is made by someone with mathematical training, who is focused on mathematical proposition in question, and whose mind is functioning normally.

Other philosophers, particularly in recent times, have held that some perceptual judgments are clearly cases of knowledge. Suppose that I am facing in the direction of the sun with my eyes open, that my eyes are functioning normally, and that my mental state is clear and steady. When I judge that there is a light before me, these philosophers say, I know that there is a bright light before me.

Now let us evaluate these proposals. Numerous philosophers, especially from the twentieth century to the present, have disputed whether knowledge requires truth. Many of the same philosophers, and others as well, have questioned whether knowledge need be secure. Among those who claim that that security is required for knowledge, there is deep of disagreement about the degree of security needed.

As far as particular cases are concerned, most philosophers would not dispute that the kinds of cases given here should be counted as knowledge. But widespread disagreement arises regarding a much broader range of cases. What about the results of long computations or other chains of reasoning? And what about objects removed from us in space or time, or objects to small to be detected by our perceptual apparatus? To a great extent, the willingess to grant the title of knowledge in these cases depends on how secure one thinks judgment must be in order to count, or conversely, the degree of security demanded of knowledge depends on which cases one is willing to count.

Knowledge Attribution

Perhaps we can make some progress in the face of all this disagreement if we ask a question similar to one Plato asked. He wanted to know what makes knowledge valuable. I want to ask why it is that we make attributions of knowledge. What is the point of saying "he knows that," rather than "he is ignorant of that?" Or of asserting, "I know that," rather than "I do not know that?"

Many philosophers have noted a connection between knowledge attribution and the assignment of responsibility for actions. If someone does something with knowledge of its consequences, that person is held responsible for the consequences (all things being equal). But if the person is ignorant of the consequences, we often absolve him of guilt.

Or it could go the other way. It is generally agreed that the space shuttle Columbia was known to have been struck on the left wing by a piece of foam. The extent of the damage, however, was not known. Some NASA engineers wanted to have a spy satellite take a photograph of the wing, but they were overruled by their superiors, who asserted that any damage was minimal. Those administrators are held responsible by many people for allowing the shuttle to land despite their ignorance.

J. L. Austin pointed to the fact that when we attribute knowledge to ourselves, or claim to have knowledge, we are giving our word, holding ourselves responsible.

Another function of knowledge attribution is to serve as a sign of trust. This holds for both other- and self-attribution. When I say to someone else, "I know," I often intend for interlocutor to trust me that what I say is true. This phenomenon was evident in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

Why do we trust or not trust people when they make knowledge assertions? First, we take it that they are in a "position to know," which could be as the result of their training, good judgment (deliberative, not too rash), special situation with respect to the facts,

Another role of knowledge attribution is in explanation. (This is emphasized by the British philosopher Timothy Williamson.) Explanation generally is called for when behavior does not fall into an established pattern. To use one of Williamson's examples, the fact that a burglar spends all night ransacking a house could be explained by his knowledge that there is expensive jewelry hidden there. More broadly, we can explain common patterns by appeal to knowledge as well. The commuter takes his well-travelled route to work because he knows that it is the fastest.

We often attribute knowledge to people (including ourselves) in order to express that their being right is no accident.

All these uses of knowledge-attribution may indicate some core cases of knowledge where all of them are involved. Or, it may be that the number of different uses indicates that there is no unified account of knowledge. One of the biggests splits among theorists is over whether the connection to responsibility is essential to knowledge.

A Rough Account of Knowledge

We can now revisit the vague conditions of knowledge developed earlier in the lecture, where knowledge is stable commitment to what is true. If knowledge could be of the false, then how could we hold people responsible on the basis of it? Why would we express our trust in terms of knowledge? How could we explain any action in terms of what is false?

If knowledge were unstable, something that could desert one at any moment as does opinion, then we would hardly use knowledge attribution as a sign of trust. It would not be a good basis for the assignment of responsiblity, either. Williamson has argued that we cannot explain behavior such as the burglar's by something unstable, for he would then be subject to feeling at the slightest sound. And finally it could be accidental that we know: we just happen to be in the right state at the time.

Again, if we were not committed to what we know, then why would whe be giving our word when we make knowledge claims? How can one trust regarded anything when they are not committed to it? The burglar would not be risking capture by ransacking the house were he not committed to the presence of valuables.

So a case can be made for a very rough account of what knowledge is, based on our linguistic practices. But I think it is not likely that a more refined look at those practices will produce a more refined account of knowledge.

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