Towards a broader Epistemology

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Towards a broader Epistemology

It is often argued by atheists and theists alike that if one desires obtaining justification, and knowledge then that person has the primary goal of getting at truth; in other words if one desires knowledge one’s primary goal is truth. I recall when I first revealed that I was a theist on this board, that a lot of the philosophically minded individuals in this group have what Richard Dawkin’s calls a deep “care for truth”. This may be the case for both some theists and atheists alike, but is it the case that we want knowledge because we want truth in all cases? I remember watching an interview with Dawkins where he claimed that those who care about knowledge, ought to care for truth. Dawkins then seemed to assume that the only type of knowledge is scientific in nature. I will argue against Dawkins, and against other philosophers who claim that truth is the primary epistemic/philosophical goal.

In Truth as the Primary Epistemic Goal: A Working Hypothesis, Marian David relies on the premise that epistemology is the traditional theory of knowledge. Johathan Kvanvig argues against David in Is Truth the Primary Epistemic Goal? by denying the premise that epistemology is the traditional theory of knowledge, and several other premises he finds doubtable. I will take a similar stance as Kvanvig, and argue against David’s premise. In general, David’s characterization of Epistemology seems too narrow. First, I will briefly present David’s account. Secondly, I will briefly touch on Kvanvig’s objection, since I concur with his conclusion and methodology. Thirdly, I will entertain a possible reply that David can make, and finally, I will deny that reply.

According to David, epistemology is the theory of knowledge, and the primary epistemic goal is truth (David 301). He argues that a primary epistemic goal is “the goal that is most important or most relevant to the subject matter of epistemology” (David 301). The “theory of knowledge” David understands to be the traditional theory of knowledge is typically spelled out as a non-accidental justified true belief, or in other words, a justified true belief with some other condition that solves the Gettier problem. David contends that there are two possibilities for the primary epistemic goal: having a justified belief or having a non-accidental true belief (David 301). David prefers the latter, since justified beliefs most likely yield true beliefs anyhow (David 304). Thus, David argues that the primary epistemic goal is truth: in other words we want knowledge because we want true beliefs (David 308-310).

As Matthius Steup points out, the virtue of this approach is that it can spell out exactly how moral justification, prudential justification, and epistemic justification are different (Steup 253). Epistemic justification differs in that it has the primary epistemic goal of getting true beliefs; Steup states, “The standard answer is that epistemic justification is linked to truth in a way that moral and prudential justification is not” (Steup 253). In contrast, moral justification has the goal of pursuing the good, and prudential justification has the goal of holding beliefs that may be most convenient or would most likely help one succeed.

Kvanvig argues against David by raising objections to two of David’s presumptions. The first objections are against the claim that justification is the only epistemic concept. Kvanvig also maintains that the conception of epistemology as the traditional theory of knowledge is too narrow, and he suggests that successful cognition is also studied in epistemology.

I will argue along similar lines as Kvanvig that epistemology is not just the traditional theory of knowledge, but rather that epistemology covers a much broader field of inquiry. Thus, I assume a broader claim: that epistemology is the study and inquiry into the nature of knowledge, in general. The objection to David is presented in the following two arguments: the first that epistemology is not the traditional theory of knowledge. This does not mean that epistemology is not concerned with the traditional theory of knowledge. Instead, my claim is that there may be other concerns within epistemology that are not equivalent to the traditional theory of knowledge:

1. If [(epistemology is the traditional theory of knowledge) and (epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge)], then all knowledge is propositional.

2. All knowledge is not propositional.

3. Thus, it is not the case that [(epistemology is the traditional theory of knowledge) and (epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge)]. (1, 2 Modus Tollens)

From (3) we can get the following disjunction via Demorgan‘s Law:

4. Either (not epistemology is the traditional theory of knowledge) or (not epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge).

Thus, the most plausible denial of one of the disjuncts would be “not epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge.” Thus, we can conclude the following:

5. Thus, it is not the case that epistemology is the traditional theory of knowledge.

The second objection, which argues to the conclusion that it is false that the primary epistemic goal is truth, can be presented in the following way:

6. In epistemology we want knowledge because we want true beliefs. (this is loosely the thesis that David defends)

7. If (5) & (2), then not (6).

8. Thus, (5) & (2). (5, 2 Conjunction)

9. Thus, not (6) (8, 7 Modus Ponens)

As such, the conclusion is that it is not necessarily the case that in epistemology we want knowledge because we want true beliefs. Now I will make a case that might make this point more obvious. There are instances of knowledge where we just want a working knowledge of something. By “working knowledge of something,” I mean something close to what is called “know how.” For example, suppose John only wants knowledge to do a job adequately enough to get paid; he probably could not teach anyone else how to do this job, and thus could not rehearse any reasons for doing the job. Every day John does his job adequately enough to get paid, but he does not know the precise steps he takes in doing his job, since within his job, he is confronted with very different challenges each day; but he constantly has a particular end in mind and achieves various means to get to that end. This is not to say that philosophers are particularly fascinated with what can be called “know how,” but knowing how is certainly part of the epistemic landscape. If “know how“ is part of the epistemic landscape, then it belongs within epistemology.

Yet, there are cases of “know how” that are not propositional, and there are cases where “know how” is propositional. In the cases of “knowing how,” there is a case of knowledge that may not necessarily have the goal of truth, but rather it has the goal of understanding. It would seem that “know how” or knowledge, with the goal of understanding, has an epistemic goal that most resembles the goals of prudential or moral justification. In other words, it can be the case that we want to know because we want to succeed or because we think knowledge is morally valuable.

David could respond in one manner by emphasizing his point that epistemic goals should not be considered a means to an end. David contends that such a relationship confuses epistemology with ethics (David 309). Perhaps David might say, “in the John case, ‘know how’ is not within the realm of epistemology but rather ethics; thus knowledge, in the John case, has a more ethical goal than an epistemic one.”

In response to David one could argue, as W. Jay Wood does, that moral virtues like wisdom, prudence and studiousness have a lot to do with justifying our beliefs. Thus, Wood explores “knowing” within an ethical framework; sometimes this inquiry is called “virtue epistemology.” Epistemology, Wood argues, has a lot to do with ethics, and ethics has a lot to do with epistemology. Wood argues against William James, and thus against David as well, who both claim that there are two commandments that define our duty as knowers: “to know truth and avoid error” (David 298). Rather, Wood points out the following:

"This account…. offers too anemic a portrait of our lives as intellectual persons because it fails to integrate the task of discovering truth with other key intellectual and human concerns. To integrate our intellectual life within a whole life requires that we situate our intellectual pursuits within a broad motivational structure. We must monitor our intentions for seeking knowledge, the methods we employ and the use to which such knowledge is put, and we must evaluate the relative importance of the truths we do obtain" (Wood 55).

Wood captures nicely that it is too simple to just draw a distinction between epistemology and ethics. The two subjects have an intimate dialogue with one another, and it would be intellectually profitable to explore both together within a philosophical analysis of knowledge.

I have argued the thesis that epistemology as the traditional theory of knowledge is false. In addition, I provided an argument that if epistemology is to be conceived as encompassing a broader study of knowledge, then it is not entirely clear that truth is the primary epistemic goal; one could have a goal that is epistemic, yet closely resembles the goals of moral or prudential justification. Lastly, I have entertained a possible defence for David: that such goals are not within the framework of epistemology but rather of ethics. I found this reply unconvincing since both subjects probably have a lot to do with each other; thus with a broader framework, ethics can contribute to epistemology and epistemology to ethics. Some epistemic concerns might also be ethical, and some ethical concerns may also be epistemic. My goal in this paper is to broaden the horizon of what typically counts within the domain of epistemology and to open the subject up to further inquiry by drawing from other philosophical disciplines like ethics; as Wood states:

"a properly functioning mind is not one that, as [descartes] puts it, has been 'liberated from all cares' and 'happily agitated by no passions,' but one that has been suitably trained to care about the right things...for many types of knowledge our emotions are not mere hindrances but indispensable aspects of proper reasons itself. Contrary to the advocates of 'pure reason,' emotions constitute a chief means by which we gain, modify and sometimes reject important beliefs bearing on our well-being as humans: matters such as interpersonal relations, self-knowledge, issues of social justice, aesthetics and more" (Wood 175-176).