1. INTRODUCTORY REMARKS
My goal here is two-fold. First, I want to accurately describe as best I can the actual methodology employed by analytical epistemologists, at least as I understand that methodology. In my view there has been a tendency in the recent debate about the methodology of analytical philosophy to offer a far too crude account of what it is that analytical philosophers do when they do philosophy, and this is especially so when it comes to describing what analytical epistemologists do. Second, I want to defend this methodology from some recent attacks in the literature, especially from exponents of a particularly robust form of experimental philosophy. In particular, I claim that once we understand the methodology actually employed by analytical epistemologists properly then we will see that it is not as exposed to certain challenges in the way that some have claimed.
In order to keep my discussion focussed, I will train my attention on the specific epistemological task of offering a theory of propositional knowledge.
2. EXTENSIONAL, INTENSIONAL AND GENERAL INTUITIONS
Contemporary epistemologists engaged in the project of offering a theory of knowledge are often characterised as appealing to just one set of data as ‘input’ to that theoryviz., the data provided by their intuitions about knowledge. As we will see below, I think this way of describing the methodology of contemporary epistemology is far too simplistic. But even insofar as we focus on the philosophical data provided by intuition, I still think we need to recognise that this data comes in various categories, some of which carry very different epistemic weight when compared to others.
Much of the focus when it comes to the role of intuition in epistemology is on our intuitive responses to cases, where we are asked to form an intuitive judgement about whether the target term is applicable in the case under discussion (which may be actual or hypothetical). Call such intuitive judgements, extensional intuitions. As regards knowledge, the obvious example to give in this regard is the famous Gettier-style cases in which we are offered situations in which an agent has a justified true belief and yet their belief is only true as a matter of luck (cf. Gettier 1963). Such cases are held to elicit the intuition that the agent lacks knowledge, and thus that the extension of this term does not cover such cases. This in turn gives us reason to believe that knowledge is not simply justified true belief.
There is much more to the role of intuition in epistemology than extensional intuitions, however. In particular, one key source of intuitional input to epistemology is that provided by our intuitions regarding the intension of the target term. Call these intensional intuitions. With regard to the specific epistemological project that concerns us, the relevant intensional intuitions will be about knowledge.
Here are some claims about knowledge which might plausibly be offered as intensional intuitions:
(i) Knowledge that p entails p;
(ii) S’s knowledge that p entails that S believes that p;
(iii) S’s knowledge that p entails that S is in possession of reasons for thinking that p is true;
(iv) S’s knowledge that p entails that S’s belief that p is not true simply as a matter of luck;
(v) S’s knowledge that p is the result of S’s exercise of a relevant cognitive ability.
This list is clearly not exhaustive, and nor are all the claims on this list beyond contention. But insofar as these claims are intuitively true, then they appear to specifically constitute intuitions regarding the intension of the target term.
Now clearly there will be an interplay between our extensional and intensional intuitions about a term. Perhaps, for example, one’s inclination to judge that knowledge is factive is a reflection of our inclination to judge that agents lack knowledge in cases where the proposition believed by the agent is false. Alternatively, perhaps the direction of fit is the other way around, and our extensional intuitions in this case reflect a prior intentional intuition about the factivity of knowledge. But even though there might be close connections between the relevant extensional and intensional intuitions when it comes to specific cases, we clearly cannot take it as given that this is so across the board, particularly since there seem to be cases where our extensional and intensional intuitions are in conflict (we will consider some examples presently).
There is a further type of intuitive data which is relevant here, a kind of intuitive data which is closely related to intensional intuitions but ultimately distinct. For in addition to having intuitions about the intension of a term, we can also have general intuitions about that term which are neither about its intension or its extension. For example, that knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief is often cited as an important epistemological intuition, but while this intuition is clearly about knowledge, it does not fall into either of the two categories we have demarcated. Other intuitions of this sort could be that knowledge is an ‘inquiry-stopper’, or that knowledge is the norm for assertion. Call this class of intuitions general intuitions.
Within any one domain, such as epistemology, there will inevitably be a complex interplay between these three categories of intuition. One might, for instance, have an intuition about the intension of a term which is called into question by an extensional intuition one has regarding a case in which the term has application (or lacks application). This will obviously generate a theoretical tension that will need to be resolved, perhaps by highlighting an important ambiguity in the intensional intuition or by showing that the extensional intuition can be explained away.
Similarly, one might be led by one’s intensional and extensional intuitions towards a theoretical account of a term which is in conflict with one or more of the general intuitions. For example, one’s intensional and extensional intuitions might lead one to adopt a particular account of knowledge, but one might then realise that this account is unable to accommodate an important general intuition about knowledge, such as the putative general intuition noted above that knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief. Again, this will result in a theoretical tension that needs to be resolved. And of course, even within a particular category of intuition one could have intuitions that conflicte.g., by having extensional intuitions which seemingly support different theories of knowledge.
The foregoing reminds us that intuitions are not set in stone but are instead highly defeasible, even when we consider them only in the light of other intuitions (we will consider some non-intuitive data that is part of the epistemological project in a moment). This raises the interesting question of just how defeasible our intuitions are, which brings me to a further point. For while I think we should regard all of our intuitions as individually defeasible, I also think we should resist putting all our intuitions on a theoretical par. Indeed, I want to suggest that some intuitions will be less defeasible than others, and some classes of intuition may well be collectively indefeasible.
As an illustration of this point, notice that our most deep-seated intensional intuitions about a term play a very specific role in the analytical project. This is because an account of, say, knowledge which did not respect many of our most fundamental intensional intuitions about this term would be unlikely to count as a theory of knowledge at all. Suppose, for example, that we offered a theory of knowledge on which it wasn’t factive, didn’t entail belief, didn’t require supporting evidence, was consistent with lucky true belief, didn’t require the exercise of a relevant cognitive ability, and so on. What would make such a theory a theory of knowledge, specifically? The point I am getting at here is that our most basic intensional intuitions about a concept play the role of picking out the very thing that we are trying to understand, and hence we cannot depart too far from them without losing that which we seek.
Call our most deep-seated intensional intuitions about a concept, intensional platitudes. The foregoing is consistent with us rejecting or revising some of the intensional platitudes as part of pursuing the analytical project, but not with rejecting or revising the intensional platitudes en masse. This is the very specific sense in which intuitions can have a kind of indefeasible standing within the analytical project.
This point about intensional platitudes ensures that they enjoy an enhanced epistemic role in the analytical project, since the process of reflective equilibrium undertaken by the analytical philosopher to square all the intuitive data (and much more besides, as we will see below) will need to pay special respect to these intuitions. Our intuitions can differ in epistemic standing in other ways too. Take extensional intuitions, for example. Some extensional intuitions can be extremely robust and thus carry a great deal of evidential weight. The Gettier-style cases are an obvious case in point here, though it is important to remember that even here the intuitions in question are still defeasible. But other cases might be far less compelling, even though they do still elicit the relevant intuition.
The extent to which an extensional intuition carries epistemic weight can depend on other factors too, such as the degree to which it trades on a real-life example. This is partly why I think the Gettier case is so compelling, in that it involves a very simple everyday scenario. Indeed, Gettier-style cases occur all the time in real life. In contrast, some extensional intuitions trade on examples which concern far-fetched scenarios (e.g., cases that appeal to science fiction), and some examples concern scenarios which may not even be possible, in some suitably robust sense of ‘possible’ (e.g., metaphysically possible). Ceteris paribus, the more far-fetched the example is, and particularly the more dubious the example is in terms of its possibility, the less epistemic weight any extensional intuition based on this case will have, for the simple reason that there is more scope to reject the example.
3. VIRTUOUS INTUITION
We have thus delineated three categories of intuition, and also shown how there is a complex interplay between them, both in terms of determining their relationships to each other, and in determining their respective epistemic weights. This complexity demonstrates the need for analytical philosophers to have a great deal of critical skill if they are to effectively make use of this intuitive data as part of forming a particular theory, such as a theory of knowledge. This is not the only way in which skill is required, however, since I think it is clear that it is also required in order to properly elicit the relevant intuitional data in the first place.
We can explore this point by delineating a further kind of category of intuitions which concerns intuitions about the correct linguistic usage of the target term. Call this category of intuitions, linguistic intuitions. So, for example, epistemologists might appeal to intuitions we have about the correct usage of the word ‘knows’ in a particular conversational context as part of the relevant evidence when formulating a theory of knowledge.
There is, of course, a close relationship between extensional intuitions about a certain term and linguistic intuitions. Nonetheless, it is still important to distinguish them, for although there will clearly be a great deal of overlap in the two kinds of intuitive judgements one makes about a particular term, such judgements can come apart, in both directions. The case of knowledge (/‘knowledge’) is no exception.
On the one hand, there can be cases where we would intuitively judge that an agent lacks knowledge even while granting that it would be in some sense legitimate for the agent to say that she knows. Gettier-style examples are a case in point here, in that given the rational basis the agent possesses in support of her belief it clearly would be appropriate for her to assert that she has knowledge, even though she in fact fails to know.
On the other hand, there can be cases where we would intuitively judge that an agent possesses knowledge and yet nonetheless hold that for independent reasons it would not be appropriate for her to (flatly) assert that she knows (even though this assertion would be of a truth). An obvious example that springs to mind on this score is a case where such an assertion, though true, would in that conversational context generate a false conversational implicature.
We have then a subtle distinction between extensional and linguistic intuitions, and now that this distinction is on the table it ought to be clear that part of the skill of the analytical epistemologist will lie in determining which specific intuition is being elicited in a particular case. For what at first appears to be an extensional intuition could prove to in fact be a linguistic intuition, and vice versa.
This is just one way in which intellectual skillwhat we will refer to as ‘intellectual virtue’is required when undertaking the analytical project. A badly constructed example could obscure things, and so it may take a very carefully constructed case in order to draw out the relevant extensional intuition. A poorly formulated intensional intuition might gloss over an important distinction, and therefore be very misleading. A failure to attend to the ways in which the explicit usage of ‘knows’ within an example can affect our intuition about whether an agent in an example has knowledge could muddy the philosophical waters. And so on.
The intellectual virtues on display here—close attention to the salient details, a keen eye for spotting potential ambiguities in cases, and so on—will also be on display when the analytical philosopher adroitly conducts the complex process of reflective equilibrium that is required in order to ‘weigh-up’ all the relevant inputs to the analytical project. As noted above, this process is complex enough even if one restricts one’s attention only to the intuitional input. Since, as we will see below, the input to the analytical project goes beyond intuitions, the process is even more complex still.
That it is part of the methodology of analytical epistemology to regard intellectual virtue as being required in order to properly attend to the intuitional data is clear from considering how analytical epistemologists respond to intuitions. Indeed, the very fact that Gettier-style cases, when first presented, were able to shock epistemologists into seeing that the received wisdom in the theory of knowledge was wrong demonstrates that great skill can sometimes be required in order to elicit the relevant intuitional data. Because intuitions are most naturally understood as a kind of ‘intellectual seeing’, it is tempting to think that the intuitive data is manifest for all to see, but a moment’s reflection reveals that this would be a non-sequitor. For as the Gettier-style cases reveal, it can in fact be quite hard to draw out this intuitive data.
Further support for the claim that epistemology is wedded to the idea that intellectual virtue is required to properly elicit intuitions can be gleaned by examining how the intuitional judgements of subjects who have been given the relevant analytical skills are privileged over those same subjects’ first reactions to cases. Call these two types of intuitional judgement, initial intuitions and intuitions under reflection (where, note, the latter are still bona fide intuitional judgements, and hence are non-inferential).
To illustrate this contrast, consider first a case outside of epistemology, that of Robert Nozick’s (1974) ‘experience machine’. This is a machine that creates an artificial life for the subject experientially indistinguishable from ‘real’ life, in the sense that once one is in the machine one can’t tell that one’s experiences are in fact artificially generated. Let us stipulate that life inside the machine is significantly more pleasurable than normal life outside the machine. Here is the philosophical question: should one prefer an artificial life inside the machine, with all its additional attendant pleasure, to a real life outside the machine with all its attendant trials and tribulations?
My experience as someone who has often taught this example to students who are encountering philosophy for the first time is that insofar as the students have any initial opinions on this matter at all, then they tend to intuitively regard the life in the experience machine as at least no worse than the real life, and often preferable to the real life. Significantly, however, this judgement tends not to be stable. For example, if one asks the students whether they would be happy for their children to live their lives in the experience machine then most opt for the real life outside of the machine, even though they recognise that there is a tension between this judgement and the previous judgement about the desirability of the life in the machine. Relatedly, if one makes explicit that entering the machine is a one-way ticket—perhaps because one’s body becomes unusable thereafter as part of the ‘re-orientation’ process—then again students’ intuitions tend to shift towards regarding the life outside the machine as being preferable to the life inside the machine. In fact, once one has explored the example in some detail then the groundswell of opinion tends to be in favour of treating the real life outside the machine as better than the artificial life inside the machine.
Here, then, we have a case in which people’s initial verdicts about a scenario change over time in response to questioning and further reflection. Similar cases can be found in epistemology. For example, in my experience quite a few students introduced to epistemology for the first time are inclined to hold that there can be knowledge of falsehoods, though this judgement fades under questioning and further reflection.
A model of intuition which treats intellectual virtue as a requirement to best elicit intuitions can explain what is going on here. The process of reflecting on the example and identifying salient details is in effect training the subject to apply the relevant intellectual virtues so as to improve her ability to discern the relevant intuitional data. What we are ultimately seeking from subjects is thus not their initial intuitions at all, but rather their intuitions under reflection, where the latter (if we have done our job well enough anyway) are the product of the application of the relevant intellectual virtues.
An interesting issue regarding this account of the role of intuition in epistemology is what epistemic weight, if any, to attach to the initial intuitions. A hard-headed response would be to say ‘nothing at all’, on the basis that the corresponding intuitions under reflection effectively ‘trump’ them. I think this would be a mistake, however. In particular, I think that the fact that subjects’ are inclined to make the initial judgement retains some epistemic weight, and so has a part to play in the process of reflective equilibrium which is undertaken by the epistemologist.
Indeed, given that all intuition is defeasible, even when the product of the relevant intellectual virtues, it would be foolhardy to discount the epistemic weight of the initial intuitions altogether. For even if one has enough faith in the epistemic credentials of the analytical philosophical enterprise to suppose that those trained in this enterprise have greater skills on this score, one would still have to take into account the possibility that the ‘training’ had itself introduced error.
Now, one way in which error could be introduced via this process can be discounted—viz., where the agents concerned only come to form their ‘intuitive’ judgement after training because they are simply deferring to the testimony of the ‘expert’ in the room. It is undoubtedly the case that some people will be influenced this way, but it is irrelevant for our purposes since such judgements are not intuitions at all, on account of their being epistemically mediated.
Still, even setting aside potential error of this sort, there is nevertheless scope for the analytical enterprise to generate error in one’s intuitive judgements. For even if one holds that analytical philosophy can help an agent clarify the conceptual landscape, and thereby enable her to better form intuitive judgements, it is entirely consistent to also hold that this process can sometimes muddle the conceptual landscape, and lead to error. Philosophers, even philosophers who count as ‘good’ philosophers by analytical lights, have persuasively argued for theses that have been subsequently derided. Moreover, the fact that there is widespread disagreement in philosophy should surely give us pause when it comes to supposing that analytical philosophy always enhances one’s evidential position when it comes to forming intuitive judgements.
A final issue here is the potential for there to be a substantial conflict between the initial intuitions and the intuitions under reflection. It would be an odd epistemologist who was entirely unconcerned about the fact that her theory of knowledge directly conflicted with the folk’s initial intuitive judgements about knowledge. At the very least, that there is such a disparity calls out for an explanation.
4. NON-INTUITIONAL INPUTS TO A THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE
I maintain, then, that moving to a virtue-based model of intuition does not oblige one to dismiss the epistemic weight of subjects’ initial intuitions. Interestingly, however, when one takes into account the fact that subjects (including, possibly, one’s previous self) are inclined to make initial intuitive judgements of a certain sort, one is in effect appealing to empirical data. Moreover, although this data concerns subjects’ intuitions, it clearly provides a very different input to one’s theory to that provided by one’s own intuitions under reflection. To this extent, we can describe it as non-intuitional input to the theory of knowledge.
I don’t think there is anything puzzling about this. For notice that just as we accord subjects’ initial intuitions some epistemic weight when formulating a theory of knowledge, so we also accord some weight to the fact that other philosophers have different intuitions to oneself (even though they are also intuitions under reflection). For that too is a factor to take into account when offering a theory of knowledge, and, relatedly, something which calls out for explanation.
In any case, given that the initial judgements made by subjects constitute empirical data that is relevant to the epistemological enterprise, it follows that epistemologists have an interest in the careful and systematic collection of this data. Although epistemologists have a role to play in this regard, such a task is probably best led by other specialists who have the specific skills that are salient to this undertaking. There is, for example, a wealth of empirical data on the kinds of heuristics and biases that blur human reasoning, and which would undoubtedly play a role in generating some of the intuitive responses given by subjects. Knowledge of these heuristics and biases would therefore be essential to the optimal gathering of the relevant data.
A second way in which a more informed and systematic collection of this data would be useful is in looking for whether some of the judgements about the target term are less universal than others. ‘Knows’ is a universal lexeme, which means that it is one of the few terms that appears in all known languages. Even so, there might well be widespread divergence in the intuitive judgements offered with regard to this term which reflects particular racial, cultural, social (etc.,) divisions. Given that many analytical philosophers get their data in this respect from a highly unrepresentative population sample (for the most part their undergraduate students), there is real potential for one to discover some very surprising empirical data on this score.
To this extent, I think that experimental philosophywhich aims to bring the specific expertise to bear in this regard in order to properly elicit this datais a welcome development. Indeed, given the fact that such data does have an epistemic weight within epistemology (and, for that matter, analytical philosophy), it is odd that there hasn’t been much interest until quite recently in appropriately collecting this data. Note, however, that this way of thinking about experimental philosophy sees it as merely assisting contemporary epistemology by helping it to collect better evidence of a certain type that is relevant to the project. It does not see experimental philosophy as posing fundamental problems for the epistemological enterprise, which is what some of its proponents claim. I will return to this issue below.
This is not the only kind of non-intuitional input which is relevant to offering a theory of knowledge. For example, one kind of additional data that epistemologists can appeal to takes the form of information about the genealogy and/or teleology of the concept in question. One aspect of this data is straightforwardly empirical. In learning something about how the concept in fact came about we thereby have information which can potentially play a role in helping us formulate a theory of knowledge. Of course, the epistemic significance of this data is not straightforward, and it is also highly defeasible, but as we saw above, that is also the case with the rest of the input to a theory of knowledge, with the exception of the intensional platitudes.
Note too that there is also potentially an a priori route to gaining an insight into the genealogy and/or teleology of a concept. A good example of how this might take place is offered in a seminal work by Edward Craig (1990). Here Craig asks us to imagine a ‘state of nature’ in which creatures with very similar interests and cognitive capacities to our own, and who occupy similar environments, nonetheless lack the concept of knowledge. The question that Craig asks is what would prompt agents in such circumstances to acquire this concept? Craig then offers us a complex, but highly plausible, answer to this question, one that informs his own theory of knowledge. The details of such a proposal are not relevant for our purposes; what is relevant is just that this account does seem able to offer us some input for our theory of knowledge (defeasible input, as always), and that the input in question is of an a priori nature, although it does not seem to fall into any of the categories of intuitive input noted above.
There will be other forms of data that epistemologists can appeal to in constructing a theory of knowledge—for example, relevant work done by cognitive scientists—but the foregoing should suffice to demonstrate the point that we are not limited to intuition alone.
5. THE METHODOLOGY AND GOAL OF THE THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE
I noted earlier that the methodology of analytical epistemology is essentially the application of a process of reflective equilibrium to the inputs just described. What the epistemologist is seeking is a reflectively stable theory of knowledge which can accommodate all these inputs. This is no easy task. As noted above, even within a single category of intuition-derived data there can be conflict, and the scope for conflict once all the varieties of inputboth intuitional and non-intuitionalare taken into account is huge. The task in hand for the epistemologist is to use her critical and logical acumen and, with a healthy dose of ingenuity, find the best way of squaring all this data.
The result may be quite revisionary, especially since, as we noted above, the only real constraint is that at least some of the intensional platitudes must be treated as sacrosanct. One would also expect there to be a fair degree of divergence amongst epistemologists in terms of the respective reflective equilibria that they reach. For one thing, attending to all the relevant evidence and ascribing it its due weight will be very tricky, especially since there is a feedback loop in play here, in that the weight one ascribes to one set of evidence will inevitably influence what weight one ascribes to other sets of evidence. I don’t think this should surprise or (in itself anyway) concern us, since it just reminds us that analytical philosophy is hard.
One issue that I have glossed over so far is what the epistemologist is trying to achieve with this methodology. There is a caricature of epistemology which has it as striving for an informative, but still fully reductive, analysis of knowledge, where this involves a ‘decomposition’ of the target term into its constituent conceptual parts without at any point appealing to the defined notion itself. Worse, it is sometimes alleged that the concept of knowledge being defined is to be identified with the ‘folk’ concept, such that where there is any significant mismatch between the theory and subjects’ initial judgements regarding the target term then the theory is potentially in jeopardy.
I don’t deny that it would be intellectually appealing to be able to offer a fully reductive theory of knowledge, but I think that it is a Herculean endeavour. Fortunately, the project of offering a theory of knowledge does not stand or fall by whether it can attain this end. In fact, I think that the actual practice of epistemologists in this regard—indeed, of philosophers more generally when offering a theory of a particular philosophical term—is more aimed at what P. F. Strawson (1992) referred to as an ‘elucidation’ of the target notion, where this involves an informative account of that notion which need not be fully exhaustive or reductive.
Two points are in order here. The first is to recognise that we are not simply trying to offer a theory of the folk notion. That much should be clear from what we have said in the previous sections. For while what the folk are inclined to say about knowledge (their initial intuitions) is of course data for the theory, such data is nonetheless defeasible, and needs to be considered in the light of other inputs into the theory, not least one’s intuitions under reflection. Of course, we do want our theory of knowledge to give special weight to the intensional platitudes, and one would expect these platitudes to reflect in a fundamental way the folk usage of ‘knowledge’, so to that extent one would not expect there to be too much of a discord between the theoretical account on offer and the folk usage. Nevertheless, given that any particular intensional platitude is not immune to revision this does not prevent there being a significant disparity between the folk usage and the theory account put forward. Indeed, we would reasonably expect the theory to depart from the folk usage of ‘knowledge’, not least because the folk usage does not itself suggest a consistent theory of this notion. The theoretical account we seek is thus likely to be a kind of ‘cleaned-up’ version of the folk notion, albeit an account which is essentially tied to the folk notion in virtue of the special weight that is attached to the intensional platitudes.
The second point is that a mere elucidation of a term can in fact give us just what we seek in terms of being a theory of that term, and can even be sometimes more informative than a reductive analysis. A good example in this regard is virtue epistemology. Suppose that it turns out that the best theory of knowledge understands this notion in terms of the further notion of cognitive virtue, but that it also turns out that one cannot offer a definition of cognitive virtue which does not ultimately itself appeal to the notion of knowledge. Would such a theory of knowledge thereby be a failure? I don’t see why. For we would surely have learnt something important about the nature of knowledge by recognising the truth of this theory, even if ultimately we were not presented with a fully reductive analysis. In particular, we would get to understand the close connections between knowledge and virtue.
6. TWO SOURCES OF SCEPTICISM ABOUT
CONTEMPORARY THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE
This last point offers us some purchase on one particular problem that has been raised for contemporary epistemology. According to this line of objectionmost associated with the work of Timothy Williamson (2000, ch. 1), but not exclusive to himthe theory of knowledge as it is understood by contemporary epistemologists is flawed because it is committed to offering a completely reductive analysis of knowledge. One common reason offered for why this project is problematic is basically a form of pessimistic induction, in that since a wide range of putatively reductive theories of knowledge have been offered since the introduction of the Gettier-style cases to epistemology in the mid-1960s, and since none of them has been universally accepted, so we have reason to think that the very project of decomposing knowledge into its constituent conceptual parts is doomed. A related thought on this score is that the kinds of theories of knowledge being proposed are increasingly complex and ad hoc such that we have grounds to think that this is a degenerating research programme.
Even if we grant that contemporary epistemology is indeed focussed on offering a completely reductive analysis of knowledge, I think we should be very suspicious of this critique. For while there have been some very complex and arguably ad hoc accounts of knowledge in the post-Gettier literature, there have also been some very well-motivated and elegant accounts. In particular, modal accounts of knowledge and virtue-theoretic accounts of knowledge have been very successful at dealing with a range of problem cases and are still ‘live’ proposals in the literature. In both cases they are also usually very straightforward accounts of knowledge, and so can hardly be charged with being unnecessarily complex. Indeed, given the convergence of opinion in epistemology towards views of this sort, one actually has grounds for supposing that if there is a research programme in epistemology which is concerned with offering a completely reductive analysis of knowledge, then it is in a progressive rather than degenerating state.
In any case, as we have seen above, the epistemological project of offering an account of knowledge is not wedded to providing a fully reductive analysis anyway. Indeed, as we also noted, if, say, a virtue-theoretic proposal turned out to be the optimal account of knowledge available, but it also turned out that one could only define cognitive virtues by appeal to knowledge, this needn’t be a catastrophe as the proposal could still be informative. The epistemological project of offering an account of knowledge thus does not stand or fall in terms of whether it can give a fully reductive account of this notion.
A more serious form of scepticism about the contemporary epistemological project comes from a radical form of experimental philosophy, what has been called the negative programme in experimental philosophy. As we have noted above, experimental philosophy in itself poses no fundamental challenge to contemporary epistemology since it merely offers us a way of gaining better empirical data of a kind that is already relevant to the contemporary epistemological enterprise of offering a theory of knowledge. Viewed this way, experimental philosophy offers us a way of enhancing the methodology of contemporary epistemology. Some have argued, however, that the experimental philosophy programme poses a far more serious challenge, not just to contemporary epistemology but also to the whole methodology of analytical philosophy.
In particular, the thought is that the entire appeal to intuitions that is at the heart of analytical philosophy is undermined by the data that has been collected by experimental philosophers. The kind of data which experimental philosophers have in mind here includes, for example, experiments which appear to show that subjects’ responses to cases are highly dependent on supposedly irrelevant factors, such as their ethnicity or the order in which cases are presented to them. The alleged upshot of this data is that analytical philosophers are wrong to rely so much on intuitions, and hence should radically restrict their use of them.
We should notice straight off a flaw in this critique, which is that, as we have argued above, there is much more to the project of analytical epistemology than the appeal to intuitions about cases (i.e., extensional intuitions). Thus even if we grant the import of these experiments, it still doesn’t follow that analytical epistemology is thereby posed anything like the dramaticindeed, potentially fatalthreat envisaged by proponents of the negative programme.
A second issue here is that, as also noted above, analytical epistemology doesn’t put that much epistemic weight on subjects’ first intuitive responses to cases anyway, at least in comparison to their intuitive judgements which are the result of due consideration and reflection. As Williamson puts the point:
“Much of the evidence for cross-cultural variation in judgements on theory experiments concerns verdicts by people without philosophical training. Yet philosophy students have to learn how to apply general concepts to specific examples with careful attention to the relevant subtleties, just as law students have to learn how to analyze hypothetical cases. Levels of disagreement over thought experiments seem to be significantly lower among fully trained philosophers than among novices.” (Williamson 2007, 191)
I think Williamson is entirely right on this score, and I would suggest that this phenomenon reflects the way in which philosophical training provides subjects with the skills relevant to making appropriate intuitive judgements about cases.
Two points need to be noted here. The first is to reiterate the point I made earlier that in responding to the negative programme in experimental philosophy in this way one is not thereby discounting the epistemic weight of subjects’ initial intuitions altogether. For one thing, a substantial divergence between subjects’ initial intuitions and their intuitions under reflection is something which requires explanation.
The second point is that this response poses in effect a further challenge to the negative programmeviz., to run further experiments which challenge even the intuitions under reflection formed by the philosophically trained. We clearly cannot rule-out a priori that a challenge of this sort could be effectively mounted. But for now at least, there is a clear lacuna in the data supporting the negative programme in experimental philosophy.
7. CONCLUDING REMARKS
We have seen, then, that the contemporary epistemological project of offering a theory of knowledge is not nearly as exposed to critique as some have supposed, at least once it is properly described. Of course, there are other challenges to contemporary analytical epistemology besides the two considered here, and I make no claim that even the rendering of the epistemological project that I offer can deal with all the main problems that have been levelled against this project. Still, I hope to have least shown here that there is far more to the methodology of contemporary analytical epistemology than many suppose.
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