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Is Epistemology a Kind of Inquiry

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(此文原载于Journal ofPhilosophical Research》2015第40卷)


Is Epistemology a Kind of Inquiry?

Xingming Hu

Nanjing University

Online version: https://www.pdcnet.org/pdc/bvdb.nsf/purchase?openform&fp=jpr&id=jpr_2015_0999_11_10_47

Abstract: There are three widely held beliefs among epistemologists: (1) the goal of inquiry is truth or something that entails truth; (2) epistemology aims for a reflectively stable theory via reflective equilibrium; (3) epistemology is a kind of inquiry. I argue that accepting (1) and (2) entails denying (3). This is a problem especially for the philosophers (e.g. Duncan Pritchard and Alvin Goldman) who accept both (1) and (2), for in order to be consistent, they must reject (3).  

Key words: goal of inquiry, epistemology, truth, reflective equilibrium


There are three widely held beliefs among epistemologists: (1) the goal of inquiry is truth or something that entails truth; (2) epistemology aims for a reflectively stable theory via reflective equilibrium; (3) epistemology is a kind of inquiry. Yet accepting (1) and (2) entails denying (3), or so I shall argue.

The Goal of Inquiry

It’s widely thought that the goal of inquiry is truth or something that entails truth. For example, Alvin Goldman (1987: 124-125) writes, “The chief rationale, quite simply, is that the goal of truth is the common denominator of intellectual pursuits, whatever methods or practices are championed as the best means to this end. True belief is the shared aim of the Inquisitor and the scientist, of the creationist and the evolutionist, and of all the competing research programmes that populate the agonistic arena of science.” Laurence BonJour (1985:7) writes, “What makes us cognitive beings at all is our capacity for belief, and the goal of our distinctively cognitive endeavors is truth: we want our beliefs to correctly and accurately depict the world.” Ernest Sosa seems to think that the goal of inquiry is knowledge, for he writes, “We’re supposed to be able to clinch an answer to a question, and thereby conclude inquiry, when we attain knowledge of that answer.” (Sosa, 2011:67) Since Sosa holds (roughly) that knowledge is true belief manifesting some competence of the agent, he must accept that the goal of inquiry is something that entails truth. Duncan Pritchard (2008) argues that the proper goal of inquiry is understanding, not knowledge or mere true belief. The term ‘understanding’ is used in a variety of ways. Epistemologists are mainly interested in two usages. One concerns a specific proposition, like 'I understand why p is the case’.  The other concerns a subject matter, as in ‘I understand quantum physics’, or even ‘I understand my boss’. Pritchard (2009) calls the first the atomistic usage and the second the holistic usage. He believes the atomistic usage is the paradigmatic usage of ‘understanding.’ The goal of inquiry is not to understand a subject matter, but to understand why p is the case. According to Pritchard (2008; 2009), the paradigmatic usage of ‘understanding' shows that understanding is necessarily factive, just like knowledge. Knowledge is necessarily factive in that it is impossible to know that p unless ‘p’ is true. But what does understanding is necessarily factive mean?  Does it simply mean that it is impossible to understand why p in terms of q unless ‘p’ and ‘q’ are both true? Pritchard offers the following example: suppose that I believe that my house has burned down because of an act of vandalism, when it was in fact caused by faulty wiring. Do I understand why my house burned down? Clearly not. It seems that for Pritchard, it is impossible to understand why p in terms of q unless both 'p' and 'q' are true. So he has to accept that the goal of inquiry is something that entails truth.

The Goal of Epistemology

Epistemology is widely recognized as a kind of inquiry. For example, Ernest Sosa et al (2008: ix) defines epistemology as a philosophical inquiry into the nature, conditions, and extent of human knowledge. A. C. Grayling (2003:38) characterizes epistemology as “the branch of philosophy concerned with enquiry into the nature, sources and validity of knowledge.” Peter Klein (1998, 2005) concludes his article “epistemology” for Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy with the sentence “it is clear that epistemology remains a vigorous area of inquiry at the heart of philosophy” (italics mine).

It is also wildly held that epistemology aims for a reflectively stable theory via reflective equilibrium. In fact, according to Pritchard, this view is universally shared by analytical epistemologists. He says, “The methodology of analytical epistemology is essentially the application of a process of reflective equilibrium to the inputs just described.” (Pritchard, 2012:99) David K. Henderson et al (2011:181) characterize analytical epistemology in a similar way: “Epistemologists commonly characterize their discipline as devoted to achieving a kind of wide reflective equilibrium.” This might be an overstatement. But it is undeniable that many epistemologists do hold that epistemology aims for a reflectively stable theory via reflective equilibrium.

Pritchard (2012) himself is an example. According to him, the epistemologist ultimately seeks a reflectively stable theory of knowledge that can accommodate a particular set of inputs by applying a process of reflective equilibrium to these inputs. The set inputs includes the epistemologist's current intuitions, her previous intuitions, others' intuitions, and empirical data such as relevant work done by cognitive scientists. Pritchard distinguishes four kinds of intuitions: extensional, intensional, general and linguistic. Firstly, extensional intuitions are our intuitive responses to cases, where we are asked to form an intuitive judgment about whether the target term is applicable in the case under discussion. For example, in a classic Gettier case, that Smith does not know that the man who will get the job has 10 coins in his pocket is an example of extensional intuition. Secondly, intensional intuitions are our intuitions regarding the intension of the target term. Here are three claims about knowledge that are often offered as intensional intuitions: (a) Knowledge that p entails p; (b) S's knowledge that p entails that S believes that p; (c) S's knowledge that p entails that S's belief that p is not true simply as a matter of luck. Thirdly, general intuitions about a term 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 is neither about its extension nor its intension. Finally, linguistic intuitions are about the correct usage of the word knows in a particular conversational context. Pritchard further divides each kind of intuition into two classes: initial intuition and intuition under reflection. The former is like a gut feeling while the latter is the product of the application of the relevant intellectual virtues, such as close attention to the salient details, a keen eye for spotting potential ambiguities in cases, and so on.

How should these inputs be accommodated? Pritchard's (2012) answer is that we should apply a process of reflective equilibrium to the inputs. Since sometimes some inputs contradict each other, the epistemologist cannot respect all the inputs. She has to reject some of them in order to be consistent. But which to reject? According to Pritchard, each individual input is defeasible, that is, the epistemologist may reject any individual input. But there are three principles the epistemologist must obey: (i) the most deep-seated intensional intuitions about a concept(Pritchard calls them intensional platitudes) should not be rejected en masse; (ii) intuitions under reflection are privileged over initial intuitions; (iii) the extensional intuitions that trade on a real-life example are privileged over the extensional intuitions that trade on examples which concern far-fetched scenarios (for example, cases that appeal to science fiction). If the epistemologist follow these three principles, she achieves the goal of epistemology when she has a reflectively stable theory.

Like Pritchard, Goldman is another prominent epistemologist who holds that epistemology aims for a reflectively stable theory via reflective equilibrium. Take his solution to the problem of the criteria of justification, for example. According to Goldman, S’s believing p at time t is justified if and only if S’s believing p at t is permitted by a right system of justificational rules (J-rules). What is a right J-rule system? Goldman offers a few examples of candidate criteria for rightness of J-rule systems:

1. Conformity with R would guarantee a coherent set of beliefs.

2. R permits doxastic attitudes proportioned to the strength of one’s evidence.

3. Conformity with R would maximize the total number of true beliefs a cognizer would obtain.

In order to identify an acceptable criterion, what method should be used? Goldman (1986:66) writes, “The strategy I endorse is best expressed by the Goodman-Rawls conception of ‘considered judgments in reflective equilibrium’.”

Here is how that strategy works. First, we examine what rule systems would likely be generated by each candidate criterion and reflect on implications of these rule systems for particular judgments of justifiedness and unjustifiedness. Then we check these judgments against our pretheoretic intuitions. A criterion is supported to the extent that implied judgments match up with such intuitions, and weakened to the extent that they do not. But our initial intuitions are not final. They can be rejected by reflection on candidate rule systems.

Since Goldman endorses this strategy when theorizing about justification, it seems reasonable to surmise that he, like Pritchard, believes that epistemology aims for a reflectively stable theory via reflective equilibrium.

Is Epistemology a Kind of Inquiry?

If epistemology aims for a reflectively stable theory via reflective equilibrium, then the goal of epistemology is not truth or something that entails truth, for a reflectively stable theory via reflective equilibrium might be completely false. Many philosophers (e.g. Michael DePaul) have pointed out that reflective equilibrium does not guarantee truth. Here I will use Pritchard’s account of reflective equilibrium as an example to briefly explain why a reflectively stable theory via reflective equilibrium might be completely false.

Pritchard (2012) notices there would be a fair degree of divergence amongst epistemologists in terms of the respective reflective equilibria that they reach. In principle, two epistemologists might come up with two completely contradictory theories of knowledge. Suppose each of them rejects some of the intensional platitudes. Since each individual input can be rejected, one epistemologist might reject what the other accepts and accept what the other rejects. This case is perhaps unlikely, but still possible. In such case, Pritchard would say both epistemologists achieve the goal of epistemology. But that raises a problem. Their theories -- systems of beliefs after reaching reflective equilibria -- cannot be both true. In fact, one epistemologist achieves the goal of epistemology while ending up with a theory of knowledge that is completely false. In a less extreme case, after reaching reflective equilibria, two epistemologists might partly agree on the nature of knowledge, but still have disagreements. For example, they might agree that knowledge requires true belief, but one thinks that a person can know that p even if she has no evidence for p, while the other might hold that if a person has no evidence for p, she cannot know that p. The two views cannot be both true. Besides, it is possible that what the two epistemologists agree on is false. Convergence does not imply that truth is reached. Thus it is still possible that one achieves the goal of epistemology but her theory of knowledge is completely false.

If the goal of epistemology is a reflectively stable theory that does not entail truth, but the goal of inquiry is truth or something that entails truth, then epistemology is not a kind of inquiry. Put differently, the following three claims cannot be all true: (1) the goal of inquiry is something that entails truth; (2) the goal of epistemology is a reflectively stable theory via reflective equilibrium; (3) epistemology is a kind of inquiry.

This is a problem especially for those who accept both (1) and (2). We have seen that Pritchard and Goldman explicitly endorse both (1) and (2). To be consistent, they have to deny (3). But if epistemology is not a kind of inquiry, what is it? Is it poem? Or fiction? Or religion? Pritchard and Goldman have to offer an account of the nature of epistemology different from the popular view (i.e. epistemology, like physics, is a kind of inquiry).  

Concluding Remarks

The tension discussed above is not restricted to epistemology. A similar tension also exists in the area of moral philosophy. For example, Rawls (1999:3) remarks in the beginning of A Theory of Justice, Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust. Here he seems to suggest that the goal of inquiry is something that entails truth. But then he argues that moral philosophy should employ the method of reflective equilibrium. It seems that he does not think the method offers us the best chance of achieving truth, for he never claims that what emerges from his reflective equilibrium are probably “truths” of justice. Rather, he seems to think that moral philosophy simply aims at achieving a reflectively stable theory via reflective equilibrium. So it seems that he has to deny that moral philosophy is a kind of inquiry.

The tension can be generalized. If one believes that the goal of inquiry is truth or something that entails truth and that philosophy aims for a reflectively stable theory via reflective equilibrium, she must deny that philosophy is a kind of inquiry.

Reference

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Daniels, N. 2011. Reflective Equilibrium,The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy(Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

DePaul, M. R. 1993.Balance and Refinement: Beyond coherence methods of moral inquiry. Routledge.

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