Replies to Alvin Goldman, Martin Kusch and William Talbott

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  • Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Vol. LXXI, No. 2, September 2005

    Replies to Alvin Goldman, Martin Kusch and William Talbott


    University of Massachusetts, Amherst

    I want to thank my three critics for their careful and thoughtful discussion of my work. I am grateful for their challenging comments, and for this opportu- nity to respond to their remarks.

    1. Reply to Alvin Goldman

    I. I Epistemology and the concept of knowledge Alvin Goldman and I agree on a great deal, but, in spite of our common commitment to naturalism, we disagree about proper method in philosophy. On Goldmans view, epistemology begins with conceptual analysis: we seek to understand our concept of knowledge. When that analysis reveals that knowledge is reliably produced true belief, an empirical investigation of the mechanisms of belief production and retention becomes the focus of episte- mological investigation. Without a prior analysis of the concept of knowl- edge, there is no reason for epistemologists to be interested in the mecha- nisms of belief production and retention. Conceptual analysis thus provides the starting point, and the raison dztre, for further philosophical work.

    Goldmans view of conceptual analysis is thoroughly naturalistic. Con- cepts are not platonic entities of any sort, on Goldmans view, nor is our access to them by way of some mysterious process of rational intuition. Rather, concepts are mental entities which play an important role in our men- tal economy, and while intuitions about hypothetical cases provide us with one fallible route to understanding our concepts, carefully controlled experi- mental work is required if we are fully to understand them. Thus, on Gold- mans view of philosophy, neither the conceptual analysis with which epis- temology begins, nor the subsequent work which it motivates, is pursued by a priori means. All the same, philosophical methodology is importantly dif- ferent from method in the sciences, on this view. As Goldman comments,

    Any imaginable case can shed useful light on our concept of knowledge, so long as the con- cept can be applied to the case and can generate intuitive responses, thereby indicating some-


  • thing relevant about that concepts contours. This highly permissive approach-which often strikes scientists as quite odd (because their own projects are of a different nature)+annot be explained by Kornbliths natural kinds approach. [406]

    Goldman is quite right about this. At the same time, I believe that Gold- man may have underestimated the extent to which I believe that standard phi- losophical practice should be modified. My objection to an investigation of our concept of knowledge is not that it inevitably fails to satisfy naturalistic scruples; there is a great deal of work in the cognitive sciences on the charac- ter of our concepts, and there is nothing a naturalist should object to in this. Goldmans project of conceptual analysis, as I see it, is entirely continuous with work in the cognitive sciences. My objection to an investigation of our concept of knowledge is, instead, that our concept of knowledge is of little, if any, epistemological interest. Epistemologists should be engaged with an attempt to understand the nature of knowledge itself, rather than our concept of knowledge.

    Just as chemists (qua chemists) should, and do, have no interest in folk chemical concepts, epistemologists should have no interest in our folk con- cept of knowledge, on my view. Early chemists did not attempt to elucidate the folk concept of gold or water; instead, they investigated gold and water themselves. Our folk concepts are, at times, a product of ignorance and mis- understanding. Chemists who wish to understand the nature of the physical world would be ill-advised to begin their studies with a careful investigation of the contours of our ordinary chemical concepts. Better, by far, to look at the chemical phenomena themselves rather than our pre-theoretic concepts of those phenomena.

    Historically, there have been many misunderstandings about the nature of knowledge.* It was once widely held that knowledge required certainty; on some conceptions, it required infallibility. I have no doubt that views of this sort may well have been reasonable. Descartes view of knowledge was clearly influenced by his entirely reasonable, but mistaken, belief that things firm and lasting in the sciences would never be attained without the benefits of derivation from a foundation of beliefs which are immune to error. If we




    Goldman says that An epistemological naturalist must either disavow the standard prac- tice (giving reasons for that disavowal) or tell a story that somehow reconciles the prac- tice with the precepts of naturalism. Kornblith takes the latter tack. [403] I may well have encouraged this misunderstanding I do say, as Goldman points out, There is room within a naturalistic epistemology for the practice of appeals to intuition, suitably under- stood. My suitable understanding, however, involves certain modifications of the standard practice, and so simply embracing either of the alternatives Goldman offers, without further elaboration, would be misleading. Nor need one look to the distant past to see examples of conceptions of knowledge which build in substantive errors. For example, I argue at length, in Chapter Four, that accounts of knowledge which require some sort of reflection on the quality of ones evidence fail to capture the real phenomenon of knowledge.


  • are interested in the nature of knowledge itself, however, we do best to follow the lead of work in the sciences: look at the phenomena, not at our concept of the phenomena. Investigations of ones concept of knowledge, just as inves- tigations of ones concept of aluminum or of a gene, shield one from the best source of accurate information about the phenomena we seek to understand.

    Goldman suggests that even if one thought that this described a coherent project-and 1 will have more to say about this momentarily-it is a project which would itself have to begin with conceptual analysis. After quoting a passage in which I note that knowledge requires more than just true belief, Goldman asks:

    Where does the assertion that knowledge is more than just true belief come from? What licenses it? Surely it doesnt come from cognitive ethology. It would have to come, one sup- poses, from a semantico-conceptual account of the term knowledge. But many would say that this is precisely what philosophy, in its analytic phase, aims to provide. So that job is not taken over by biological science, as Kornblith often suggests that it is. [407]

    Similarly, Goldman asks how we know which of the indefinitely many natu- ral kinds-including the various kinds in mineralogy or chemistry- knowledge is supposed to be. The answer, on Goldmans view, could only be provided by the kind of conceptual analysis he favors and which I would have us eschew. There is, I believe, an important disagreement between us on this issue.

    Imagine an early chemist interested in the nature of acids.3 The term acid was widely used before there was any real understanding of what it is that makes something an acid. So this chemist has vinegar (which is a dilute solution of acetic acid), hydrochloric acid, aqua regia (a mixture of hydro- chloric acid and sulphuric acid) available in his laboratory, and he is trying to determine what, if anything, these various substances have in common. He believes they are all members of a single natural kind, and he is interested in determining what it is that makes them members of that kind. He has some views about what these substances have in common-many of which are mistaken-but instead of analyzing his concept of acid, he turns to the work- bench and tries to figure out what these substances actually have in common. No one doubts the coherence of this project.

    Now imagine that another investigator hears about this project and announces that he wishes to help out. He too is going to find out what all acids have in common, and he has a number of samples of would-be acids which will form the basis of his investigation. Now suppose that the sam- ples which this investigator is examining include shoes, ships, sealing wax and his pet dog. Clearly something has gone wrong. This second investigator

    For an illuminating discussion of the origin and development of chemical terminology, see Maurice Crossland, Historical Studies in the Language of Chemistry, Dover, 1978.


  • is not engaged in the same project as the first, and it will be immediately obvious to anyone looking on that this is so. The same is true if this inves- tigator has samples which are members of a single natural kind, but one nowhere in the vicinity of an acid: say, a dog, a cat, a cow and a sheep. How are we to explain the mistake that this investigator is making?

    We might, following Goldman, ask for some sort of semantico-conceptual account of what an acid is, and use this to show that the investigation of shoes, ships and so on, or dogs, cats and so on, is not of the same sort as the first, chemical, investigation. There is a mistake which our second investiga- tor makes here, on this view, and it has to do with a failure of semantic com- petence. Im not sure whether I would want to disagree with this? but notice that the amount of conceptual analysis needed to rule out the bizarre or mis- guided investigator is utterly trivial. What is needed is not a detailed and fine- grained investigation of the concept of an acid; one certainly wouldnt want to devote two thousand years to arguing about the precise contours of the con- cept before ruling out these mistakes and getting on with the real work of studying acids. No such detailed investigation is necessary.

    My view is that a proper study of knowledge requires no more-and no less-by way of conceptual analysis than is needed in the chemical case. And I think this marks a significant disagreement with Goldman. As Goldman sees it, there is a highly non-trivial and detailed investigation of our concept of knowledge which is required to do epistemology; as I see it, we will typi- cally require no such investigation at all. Goldman agrees with me that the methods involved in the chemical case are importantly different from those standardly used in philosophy: the hypothetical cases used to probe our intui- tions involve a method which is far more permissive than the methods used in scientific investigations. My view is that philosophy should not use such highly permissive methods, and it would do better to emulate successful sci- ences.

    As a result, many of the counterexamples which Goldman offers to my account, involving a deity which doesnt interact with its environment, or Swampman, are ones which my account is not designed to address. We may have intuitions about these cases, although I believe that in many such cases these intuitions are far more variable than they are made out to be, but it is not clear to me that a proper account of what knowledge is needs to be responsive to them. I see such cases as on a par with imaginary cases about

    As I see it, individual investigators here must have a certain recognitional capacity in order even to begin: they must be able to recognize at least some samples of the stuff they wish to examine. I dont think that the proper way to understand this is by viewing this recognitional capacity as peculiarly semantic or conceptual, but, as I see it, this is not where the important issue is between Goldman and me. Suppose we say that this is a semantic or conceptual ability. The real issue is Just how substantial the conceptual inves- tigation must be.


  • acids. Just as chemists neednt strive to produce an account of what an acid is which will answer to intuitions which investigators may have in the absence of a real understanding of the phenomena, epistemologists should, I believe, focus on the real phenomenon of knowledge and stop worrying about what their pre-theoretical intuitions say about extremely bizarre, counter- nomologicals cases. Once we view the object of investigation as knowledge itself rather than our concept of it, these cases no longer seem relevant.

    I return to this issue in my response to William Talbott.

    1.2 Concepts of knowledge and knowledge itself Different individuals, and different societies, may well have different concepts of knowledge. Sameness of concept is not required for sameness of referent, and so even if there is a good deal of variation in the concepts individuals have, they might all, nonetheless, be referring to the very same thing when they use the term knowledge. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that there is a great deal of agreement among individuals in their concepts of knowledge. We might still ask whether this concept is of any epistemologi- cal interest. My own view, unlike Goldmans, is that it is not.

    Suppose, as I have argued, that knowledge constitutes a real kind in nature: suppose, that is, that there is a kind of cognitive state which plays an important causal role in nature, and that proper explanations of various natu- ral phenomena must appeal to such states. Our concept of knowledge might, of course, characterize this kind accurately or inaccurately. But if we are inter- ested in knowledge itself, then there is no reason to examine our concept of it. If our concept of knowledge mischaracterizes the real phenomenon, then examining our concept will just elicit misinformation about it. Since our concepts often fail to capture fully and accurately the nature of real phenom- ena, we would do well to look at the phenomena themselves rather than our concepts.

    A different possibility is that our term knowledge picks out a kind with an interesting theoretical unity to it, but what unifies the kind is not some natural phenomenon at all; rather, the phenomenon of knowledge turns out to be some sort of social phenomenon. Consider, for example, the property of being married. This is a genuine property, and it confers real causal powers. Married individuals can do various things that unmarried individuals cannot. But unlike the property of having a kidney, the property of being married is one whose very existence is dependent upon certain social structures and

    Notice that the Gettier case is quite different from these other two since it is certainly not counter-nomological. The Gettier case thus needs, on my view, to be taken more seri- ously than the others, although having firm intuitions about a case, even about a nomologically possible case, does not assure that ones intuitions accurately capture fea- tures of the kind under investigation.


  • social conventions. Marriage is an institution which was humanly created, not a feature of the world which was discovered, existing independent of human conventio...


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