Knowledge: A Very Short Introduction by Jennifer Nagel

This entry in the Oxford University Press series of “very short introductions” was recommended on a popular philosophy blog, so I gave it a try. It deals with questions like these:

What is knowledge? What is the difference between just thinking that something is true and actually knowing that it is? How are we able to know anything at all?

This isn’t a general introduction to epistemology, but since that branch of philosophy is also known as “the theory of knowledge”, it comes pretty close. The author doesn’t provide her own answers to the questions above. Instead, she explains the answers given by various philosophers from ancient times to the present. There are chapters on skepticism and the debate between rationalists and empiricists, but the more interesting discussion begins with what’s known as the “Gettier problem”.

Most philosophers have accepted the idea that a belief counts as knowledge if it is both true and justified. Truth isn’t enough. I might believe there are precisely 11 coins in your pocket, and you might actually have 11 coins in your pocket, but unless I have a good reason for believing there are 11, and not some other amount, I don’t really know you have 11. I’m just making a lucky guess. For me to know you have 11 coins, I need a reason for thinking that’s how many there are, e.g. I saw you empty your pocket and then put exactly 11 coins back in.

A philosopher named Edmund Gettier wrote a short paper in 1963 that challenged the standard idea that knowledge is the same as true, justified belief. He argued that a belief can be very well-justified and also quite true, but not count as knowledge. For example, I might believe you own a Chevrolet, since you bought my Chevrolet a while back. Then, this morning, I noticed that you drove that same Chevrolet to work. So it’s reasonable for me to believe you own a Chevrolet. Most people would say I know you own one.

But what if you secretly sold your Chevrolet to someone else yesterday, and the buyer said you could borrow it for the day. Furthermore, what if you used the money you got from selling your old Chevrolet yesterday to buy a new one last night? You do, in fact, own a Chevrolet, and I have very good reasons to believe you do, but the Chevrolet you own isn’t the one I saw you drive into the parking lot. Do I actually know you still own a Chevrolet or am I merely making a well-founded but lucky guess? My belief that you own a Chevrolet is true, and justified, but, according to Gettier (and many other philosophers), I don’t actually know you own one. For all I know, you could have sold your Chevrolet and bought a Ford last night, and I’d still be convinced you owned a Chevrolet. It just so happens you bought another Chevrolet, which makes my belief that you own one true, but I’m ignorant of the true situation. I don’t know you still own a Chevrolet. I merely assume you do. And my very reasonable assumption just happens to be true.

Philosophers have been analyzing Gettier’s article and offering ways around it for years, but there is still no general agreement as to what knowledge is. Nor is there general agreement about the other questions Prof. Nagel asks. Personally, I think it’s almost impossible to find simple answers to traditional philosophical questions. That’s why the questions have lingered so long. One reason is that philosophers too often try to find “the answer”, arguing that something like knowledge amounts to X or Y, when the best answer is that X, Y and Z, as well as A, B and C, all capture aspects of the problem they’re working on.

So, I recommend Knowledge: A Very Short Introduction, especially if you find topics like the Gettier problem interesting. It’s a good summary of some key issues in the theory of knowledge, although you’ll probably be left with more questions than answers.

Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism by Paul Boghossian

Boghossian is a professor of philosophy at New York University. This is a short, well-argued book, although its title is misleading. Its subject is doubt about knowledge or the dismissal of knowledge. The idea that anyone is afraid of knowledge is only mentioned once on the next to last page.

Boghossian’s main target is constructivism: the idea that “knowledge is constructed by societies in ways that reflect their contingent social needs and interests”. He points out that constructivism comes in different varieties. The benign version simply notes that we gather knowledge about topics we’re interested in or need to investigate. He is concerned with versions that lead people, often academics, to say that no group’s or culture’s beliefs are more valid or accurate than anyone else’s. From the epilogue:

There look to be severe objections to each and every version of constructivism about knowledge that we have examined. A constructivism about truth is incoherent. A constructivism about justification is scarcely any better. And there seem to be decisive objections to the idea that we cannot explain belief through epistemic reasons alone.

On the positive side, we failed to find any good arguments for constructivist views…. At its best, … social constructivist thought exposes the contingency of those of our social practices which we had wrongly come to regard as naturally mandated. It does so by relying on the standard canons of good scientific reasoning. It goes astray when it aspires to become a general theory of truth or knowledge. The difficulty lies in understanding why such generalized applications of social construction have come to tempt so many.

He believes that the appeal of constructivism is mainly political, although misguided:

Constructivist views of knowledge are closely linked to such progressive movements as post-colonialism and multiculturalism because they supply the philosophical resources with which to protect oppressed cultures from charges of holding false or unjustified views. [But] if the powerful can’t criticize the oppressed, because the central epistemological categories are inexorably tied to particular perspectives, it also follows that the oppressed can’t criticize the powerful.

Apparently, Boghossian doesn’t recognize the appeal of oppressed groups being on an equal footing with the powerful (“your views are merely a matter of perspective and no more valid than ours”). He concludes:

The intuitive view is that there is a way things are that is independent of human opinion, and that we are capable of arriving at belief about how things are that is objectively reasonable, binding on anyone capable of appreciating the relevant evidence regardless of their social or cultural perspective. Difficult as these notions may be, it is a mistake to think that recent philosophy has uncovered powerful reasons for rejecting them.

The Subject’s Point of View by Katalin Farkas

In a nutshell, Professor Farkas argues that meaning is in the head after all. That’s the “internalist” position that most academic philosophers have rejected in favor of a newer position called “externalism”. That’s the idea that, in Hilary Putnam’s well-known phrase, “meaning ain’t in the head”.

Putnam argued for his position by describing a thought experiment in which two guys named Oscar are exactly the same in every way and live on two Earth’s that seem to be the same in every way too. They both call the clear, tasteless liquid around them “water”, but it’s years before anyone on either planet has figured out what water is made of. The thing is that, without anyone knowing it yet, the water on Earth is H2O (as we now know) but on Twin Earth it’s XYZ (i.e. not H2O). The question is: “What do Oscar and his twin mean by the word “water”?” Putnam and the other externalists think that they mean different things when they each use that word. (You can read more about the thought experiment here.)

Farkas, on the other hand, thinks that the great 17th century philosopher René Descartes was basically right. Meaning is a psychological phenomenon. If Oscar and his twin on that other Earth have the exact same conscious thoughts about what they both call “water”, the word has the same meaning for both of them, regardless of what water’s (unknown) molecular composition happens to be. 

Here’s the last paragraph of the book:

I have defended a certain conception of the mental, one I regard as developing Descartes’s fundamental insight about the mind: that the mind is essentially revealed from the subject’s point of view. I have shown that this conception lies at the heart of contemporary internalist theories. I have considered an objection against the notion of internally individuated content [or meaning] and found it wanting. Hopefully, we can now give back the subject and her point of view the proper place they deserve.

I also accept the internalist position, which is probably the main reason I enjoyed the book. The author’s discussion of sense and reference was especially helpful, but it’s not a book for anyone unfamiliar with the topic.

Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry by Bernard Williams

In Descartes, the greatly respected English philosopher Bernard Williams explains and evaluates Rene Descartes’s epistemological project: his attempt to identify what he can know for certain.

As is well-known, Descartes begins by doubting as much as possible. He cannot doubt his own existence, however, since he is certain that he is thinking about the problem at hand (cogito, ergo sum). What is less well-known is that Descartes makes crucial use of much more questionable propositions in his pursuit of certainty. In particular, he relies on the propositions that God exists and that God would not allow him to be mistaken or deceived about “clear and distinct” ideas.

It is hard to read this book without concluding that modern philosophy would have been better served if someone other than Descartes had been its “father”. Certainty was not a reasonable goal. Invoking God’s benevolence was illogical. And starting with “I think” seems to have made modern philosophy too solipsistic. Perhaps “we live” would have been a more helpful starting point.  (11/20/12)

Walking the Tightrope of Reason: The Precarious Life of a Rational Animal by Robert Fogelin

It’s a long title for a short book about how difficult it is to be completely rational. 

Professor Fogelin begins by arguing that it is irrational to ignore the law of non-contradiction (we should never maintain that P and not P). However, he then shows that our beliefs are rarely completely consistent and that complete consistency is not even a reasonable goal.

Fogelin suggests that the rules we follow, such as the rules of language, logic, ethics and law, in fact, all of the rules that govern our lives, are “dilemma-prone”. Yet these rules are perfectly acceptable if we apply them in a “serious, purposive manner”. It is also crucial that we test our conclusions against experience — ideas need to be tested against something other than other ideas. He concludes that skeptical doubts can never be eliminated, but that skepticism has a role to play in limiting fanaticism (what Hume called “enthusiasm”). 

The helpful lesson of this book (helpful for philosophers anyway) is that the quest for certainty is a waste of time, even dangerous, since it can distract us from more important intellectual pursuits. It is good enough to be rational without aiming for complete and perfect rationality.  (6/3/11) 

The Structure of Empirical Knowledge by Laurence BonJour

BonJour presents a coherence theory of justification for empirical knowledge. What justifies our empirical beliefs is their coherence with our other beliefs, which is more than mere consistency between beliefs. Coherence involves various relations, including inferential and explanatory relations. Explaining justification in terms of coherence is also different from offering a coherence theory of truth, which he rejects in favor of the correspondence theory. BonJour also strongly argues in favor of an internalist view of justification as opposed to an externalist view.

He argues that foundationalist theories cannot explain empirical justification, which leaves coherence theories as the best alternative. However, by insisting that a coherence theory has to allow for observational input (the “Observation Requirement”), he ends up with a theory that seems almost as foundationalist as coherentist. He recognizes this fact and concedes that a “pure” coherence theory will not work. In fact, in later years, BonJour abandoned the coherence theory of justification he defended in this book. (10/10/10)