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date: 06 August 2020


Abstract and Keywords

Epistemology, characterized broadly, is an account of knowledge. Within the discipline of philosophy, epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge and justification. Epistemologists have distinguished some species of knowledge, including: propositional knowledge (that something is so), nonpropositional knowledge of something (for instance, knowledge by acquaintance, or by direct awareness), empirical (a posteriori) propositional knowledge, nonempirical (a priori) propositional knowledge, and knowledge of how to do something. Recent epistemology has included controversies over distinctions between such species, for example, over the relations between some of these species and the viability of some of these species. This article gives a brief account of some of the best work in contemporary epistemology by leading epistemologists. It shows that this diversity in work hides a deeper rational unity.

Keywords: epistemology, knowledge, philosophy, justification, rational unity

1. Representative Distinctions and Debates

Epistemology, characterized broadly, is an account of knowledge. Within the discipline of philosophy, epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge and justification: in particular, the study of (a) the defining components, (b) the substantive conditions or sources, and (c) the limits of knowledge and justification. Categories (a)–(c) have prompted traditional philosophical controversy over the analysis of knowledge and justification, the sources of knowledge and justification (in the case, for instance, of rationalism vs. empiricism), and the status of skepticism about knowledge and justification.

Epistemologists have distinguished some species of knowledge, including: propositional knowledge (that something is so), nonpropositional knowledge of something (for instance, knowledge by acquaintance, or by direct awareness), empirical (a posteriori) propositional knowledge, nonempirical (a priori) propositional knowledge, and knowledge of how to do something. Recent epistemology has included controversies over distinctions between such species, for example, over (i) the relations between some of these species (for example, does knowledge‐of reduce somehow to knowledge‐that?) and (ii) the viability of some of these species (for instance, is there really such a thing as, or even a coherent notion of, a priori knowledge?).

A posteriori knowledge is widely regarded as knowledge that depends for its (p. 4) supporting ground on some specific sensory or perceptual content. In contrast, a priori knowledge is widely regarded as knowledge that does not depend for its supporting ground on such experiential content. The epistemological tradition stemming from Immanuel Kant proposes that the supporting ground for a priori knowledge comes solely from purely intellectual processes called “pure reason” or “pure understanding.” In this tradition, knowledge of logical truths is a standard case of a priori knowledge, whereas knowledge of the existence or presence of physical objects is a standard case of a posteriori knowledge. An account of a priori knowledge should explain what the relevant purely intellectual processes are and how they contribute to nonempirical knowledge. Analogously, an account of a posteriori knowledge should explain what sensory or perceptual experience is and how it contributes to empirical knowledge. Even so, epistemologists have sought an account of propositional knowledge in general, that is, an account of what is common to a priori and a posteriori knowledge.

Ever since Plato's Theaetetus, epistemologists have tried to identify the essential, defining components of propositional knowledge. These components will yield an analysis of propositional knowledge. An influential traditional view, inspired by Plato and Kant among others, is that propositional knowledge has three individually necessary and jointly sufficient components: justification, truth, and belief. On this view, propositional knowledge is, by definition, justified true belief. This tripartite definition has come to be called “the standard analysis.” (See the essay by Shope on this analysis.)

Knowledge is not just true belief. Some true beliefs are supported merely by lucky guesswork and thus are not knowledge. Knowledge requires that the satisfaction of its belief condition be “appropriately related” to the satisfaction of its truth condition. This is one broad way of understanding the justification condition of the standard analysis. We might say that a knower must have adequate indication that a known proposition is true. If we understand such adequate indication as a sort of evidence indicating that a proposition is true, we have adopted a prominent traditional view of the justification condition: justification as evidence. Questions about justification attract much attention in contemporary epistemology. Controversy arises over the meaning of “justification” as well as over the substantive conditions for a belief's being justified in a way appropriate to knowledge.

An ongoing controversy has emerged from this issue: Does epistemic justification, and thus knowledge, have foundations, and, if so, in what sense? The key question is whether some beliefs (a) have their epistemic justification noninferentially (that is, apart from evidential support from any other beliefs), and (b) supply epistemic justification for all justified beliefs that lack such noninferential justification. Traditional foundationalism, represented in different ways by, for example, Aristotle, Descartes, Bertrand Russell, C. I. Lewis, and Roderick Chisholm, offers an affirmative answer to this issue. (See the essay by Fumerton on foundationalism.)

(p. 5)

Foundationalists diverge over the specific conditions for noninferential justification. Some identify noninferential justification with self‐justification. Others propose that noninferential justification resides in evidential support from the nonconceptual content of nonbelief psychological states: for example, perception, sensation, or memory. Still others understand noninferential justification in terms of a belief's being “reliably produced,” that is, caused and sustained by some nonbelief belief‐producing process or source (for instance, perception, memory, or introspection) that tends to produce true rather than false beliefs. Such a view takes the causal source and sustainer of a belief to be crucial to its foundational justification. Contemporary foundationalists typically separate claims to noninferential, foundational justification from claims to certainty. They typically settle for a modest foundationalism implying that foundational beliefs need not be indubitable or infallible. This contrasts with the radical foundationalism often attributed to Descartes.

A prominent competitor against foundationalism is the coherence theory of justification, that is, epistemic coherentism. This view implies that the justification of any belief depends on that belief's having evidential support from some other belief via coherence relations such as entailment or explanatory relations. An influential contemporary version of epistemic coherentism states that evidential coherence relations among beliefs are typically explanatory relations. The general idea is that a belief is justified for you so long as it either best explains, or is best explained by, some member of the system of beliefs that has maximal explanatory power for you. Contemporary epistemic coherentism is holistic; it finds the ultimate source of justification in a system of interconnected beliefs or potential beliefs.

A problem for all versions of coherentism that aim to explain empirical justification is the isolation objection. According to this objection, coherentism entails that you can be epistemically justified in accepting an empirical proposition that is incompatible with, or at least improbable given, your total empirical evidence. The key assumption of this objection is that your total empirical evidence includes nonconceptual sensory and perceptual content, such as pain you feel or something you seem to see. Such content is not a belief or a proposition. Epistemic coherentism, by definition, makes justification a function solely of coherence relations between propositions, such as propositions one believes or accepts. As a result, coherentism seems to isolate justification from the evidential import of the nonconceptual content of nonbelief awareness‐states. Coherentists have tried to handle this problem, but no resolution enjoys wide acceptance.

Recently some epistemologists have recommended that we give up the traditional evidence condition for knowledge. They recommend that we construe the justification condition as a causal condition or at least replace the justification condition with a causal condition. The general idea is that you know that P if (a) you believe that P, (b) P is true, and (c) your believing that P is causally produced and sustained by the fact that makes P true. This is the basis of the causal theory (p. 6) of knowing. It admits of various characterizations of the conditions for a belief's being produced or sustained.

A causal theory owes us special treatment of our knowledge of universal propositions. Evidently, I know, for example, that all cars are manufactured ultimately by humans, but my believing that this is so seems not to be causally supported by the fact that all cars are thus manufactured. It is not clear that the latter fact causally produces any belief, let alone my belief that all cars are manufactured ultimately by humans. A causal theory of knowing must handle this problem.

Another problem is that causal theories typically neglect what seems to be crucial to any account of the justification condition for knowledge: the requirement that justificational support for a belief be accessible, in some sense, to the believer. The rough idea is that one must be able to access, or bring to awareness, the justification underlying one's beliefs. The causal origins of a belief are often very complex and inaccessible to a believer. Causal theories thus face problems from an accessibility requirement on justification. Such problems will be especially pressing for a causal theorist who aims to capture, rather than dispense with, a justification condition. Internalism regarding justification preserves an accessibility requirement on what confers justification, whereas epistemic externalism rejects this requirement. Debates over internalism and externalism abound in current epistemology, but internalists do not yet share a uniform detailed account of accessibility. (See the essays by BonJour and Sosa on such debates.)

The standard analysis of knowledge, however elaborated, faces a devastating challenge that initially gave rise to causal theories of knowledge: the Gettier problem. In 1963 Edmund Gettier published a highly influential challenge to the view that if you have a justified true belief that P, then you know that P. Here is one of Gettier's counterexamples to this view:

Smith is justified in believing the false proposition that (i) Jones owns a Ford. On the basis of (i), Smith infers, and thus is justified in believing, that (ii) either Jones owns a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona. As it happens, Brown is in Barcelona, and so (ii) is true. So, although Smith is justified in believing the true proposition (ii), Smith does not know (ii).

Gettier‐style counterexamples are cases where a person has justified true belief that P but lacks knowledge that P. The Gettier problem is the problem of finding a modification of, or an alternative to, the standard analysis that avoids difficulties from Gettier‐style counterexamples. The controversy over the Gettier problem is highly complex and still unsettled. (See the essay by Shope for details.)

Many epistemologists take the lesson of Gettier‐style counterexamples to be that propositional knowledge requires a fourth condition, beyond the justification, truth, and belief conditions. No specific fourth condition has received unanimous (p. 7) acceptance, but some proposals have become prominent. The so‐called “defeasibility condition,” for example, requires that justification appropriate to knowledge be “undefeated” in the sense that a specific subjunctive conditional concerning defeaters of justification be true of that justification. For instance, one defeasibility fourth condition requires of Smith's knowing that P that there be no true proposition, Q, such that if Q became justified for Smith, P would no longer be justified for Smith. So if Smith knows, on the basis of visual perception, that Mary removed books from the library, then Smith's coming to believe the true proposition that Mary's identical twin removed books from the library would not undermine the justification for Smith's belief that Mary removed the books. A different approach avoids subjunctive conditionals of that sort and contends that propositional knowledge requires justified true belief sustained by the collective totality of actual truths. This approach requires a detailed account of when justification is undermined and restored.

The Gettier problem is epistemologically important. One branch of epistemology seeks a precise understanding of the nature (for example, the essential components) of propositional knowledge. Our having a precise understanding of propositional knowledge requires our having a Gettier‐proof analysis of such knowledge. Epistemologists thus need a defensible solution to the Gettier problem, however complex that solution may be.

Epistemologists have long debated the limits, or scope, of knowledge. The more limited we take the scope of knowledge to be, the more skeptical we are. Two influential types of skepticism are knowledge‐skepticism and justification‐skepticism. Unrestricted knowledge‐skepticism states that no one knows anything, whereas unrestricted justification‐skepticism offers the more extreme view that no one is even justified in believing anything. Some forms of skepticism are stronger than others. The strongest form of knowledge‐skepticism states that it is impossible for anyone to know anything. A weaker form denies the actuality of our having knowledge, but leaves open its possibility. Many skeptics have restricted their skepticism to a particular domain of supposed knowledge: for example, knowledge of the external world, knowledge of other minds, knowledge of the past or the future, or knowledge of unperceived items. Such limited skepticism is more common than unrestricted skepticism in the history of epistemology.

Arguments supporting skepticism come in many forms. (See the essays by Klein and Heil for details.) One of the most difficult is the Problem of the Criterion, a version of which was stated by the sixteenth‐century skeptic Michel de Montaigne:

To adjudicate [between the true and the false] among the appearances of things, we need to have a distinguishing method; to validate this method, we need to have a justifying argument; but to validate this justifying argument, we need the very method at issue. And there we are, going round on the wheel.

(p. 8) This line of skeptical argument originated in ancient Greece, with epistemology itself. It forces us to face this question: How can we specify what we know without having specified how we know, and how can we specify how we know without having specified what we know? Is there any reasonable way out of this threatening circle? This is one of the most difficult epistemological problems, and a cogent epistemology must offer a defensible solution to it. Contemporary epistemology offers no widely accepted reply to this problem.

2. Whither Unity?

Reflection on the state of contemporary epistemology leaves many bewildered. Just a sample of the kinds of epistemological theory now in circulation includes foundationalism, coherentism, contextualism, reliabilism, evidentialism, explanationism, pragmatism, internalism, externalism, deontologism, naturalism, and skepticism. These general positions do not all compete to explain the same epistemological phenomena. They do, however, all subsume remarkably diverse species of epistemological theory. Reliabilism, for example, now comes in many manifestations, including process reliabilism, indicator reliabilism, and virtue reliabilism. Likewise, foundationalism admits of considerable subsidiary variety, including radical foundationalism and modest foundationalism; and coherentism yields subjectivist and objectivist species, among many others. Within internalism, furthermore, we find access internalism, awareness internalism, and a host of additional intriguing species. Epistemological naturalism, too, offers taxonomic complexity, including for example eliminative, noneliminative, and pragmatic species. Is there any glimmer of hope for disciplinary unity within epistemology?

The ideal of disciplinary unity within epistemology is obscure. Two questions enable us to clarify a bit: What exactly would it take for the discipline of epistemology to be “unified”? More to the point, what does it mean to say that epistemology is unified? Perhaps the discipline of epistemology is unified at least in virtue of its unifying philosophical questions about the analysis, sources, and limits of human knowledge. Even so, let's consider further kinds of unity.

The first notion of unity is simple, even simplistic given the theoretical thickets of contemporary epistemology. The simple idea is that epistemology is unified if and only if all epistemologists agree on their theories about the analysis, sources, and limits of knowledge. Any ideal of unity using this notion, however, seems at best wishful thinking, given the turbulent history of epistemology. Expecting agreement among contemporary epistemologists is no more reasonable than expecting (p. 9) agreement between, say, the deductivist rationalist Descartes and the inductivist empiricist Francis Bacon.

Mere agreement, in any case, is no automatic indicator of explanatory progress or even of truth. So the simple ideal is unmotivated as well as simplistic. Clearly, the widespread disagreement in epistemology these days does not by itself recommend relativism about truth in epistemology. Objective truth in epistemology, as elsewhere, can hide behind human disagreement. The fact that philosophers are especially skilled, even if sometimes too skilled, at fostering conceptual diversity offers no real encouragement whatever to relativists.

The second idea of unity is that epistemology is unified if and only if all epistemologists hold only true theories about the analysis, sources, and limits of knowledge. An ideal of informative truth, and truth alone, is, we may grant, above reproach for any discipline. Philosophers opposed to robust, realist truth as a philosophical goal routinely fall into a kind of self‐referential inconsistency, but we cannot digress to that story here.

The problem with the ideal of truth is not that it is misguided, but rather that we need guidelines for achieving it: in particular, guidelines that do not lead to the bewilderment of contemporary epistemology. More specifically, we need instruction on how pursuit of that ideal can free us from the puzzling complexity of epistemology. The needed instruction is not supplied by that noble ideal itself. Part of the problem is that many prominent positions within epistemology offer different, sometimes even conflicting, guidelines for acquiring truth. So, the unity here would be short‐lived at best.

A third, more promising approach recommends a kind of explanatory unity. Roughly, contemporary epistemology is unified if and only if we can correctly explain its diversity in a way that manifests common reasons for epistemologists to promote the different general positions and species of positions in circulation. We purchase unity, according to the explanatory ideal, by explaining, in terms of unifying common reasons, the kind of diversity in epistemology. The desired unity is thus that of common rationality. In particular, I shall propose that it is the unity of a kind of instrumental epistemic rationality. If we can secure this kind of unity, at least, we can begin to appreciate the value of the diversity in epistemology. Our main question is, then, just this: Why is there what seems to be unresolvable, perennial disagreement in epistemology?

a. Scientism

We might try to resolve or eliminate the disagreements of epistemology by taking science as our ultimate epistemological authority. This would commit us to the epistemological scientism suggested by Bertrand Russell, W. V. Quine, and others. (p. 10) Quine's rejection of traditional epistemology stems from his explanatory scientism, the view that the sciences have a monopoly on legitimate theoretical explanation. Quine proposes that we should treat epistemology as a chapter of empirical psychology, that empirical psychology should exhaust the theoretical concerns of epistemologists. Call this proposal eliminative naturalism regarding epistemology. It implies that traditional epistemology is dispensable, on the ground that it is replaceable by empirical psychology. Eliminative naturalism aims for a kind of “explication” that replaces an inexact concept by an exact one. Aiming for such explication, eliminative naturalists introduce conceptual substitutes for various ordinary epistemological and psychological concepts. Quine proposes, for instance, that we replace our ordinary notion of justification with a behaviorist notion concerning the relation between sensation and theory.

Quine's development of Russell's scientism collapses of its own weight, from self‐defeat. Eliminative naturalism regarding epistemology is not itself a thesis of the sciences, including empirical psychology. Given this objection, eliminative naturalism regarding epistemology evidently departs from Quine's own commitment to explanatory scientism. Explanatory scientism denies that there is any cognitively legitimate philosophy prior to, or independent of, the sciences (that is, any “first philosophy”), thus implying that theorists should not make philosophical claims exceeding the sciences.

Quine's own eliminative naturalism regarding epistemology seems to be an instance of philosophy prior to the sciences. Given this objection, Quine must show that his naturalized epistemology is an hypothesis of the sciences. Eliminative naturalists will have difficulty discharging this burden, because the sciences are not in the business of making sweeping claims about the status of epistemology (even if a stray individual scientist makes such claims on occasion). This may be an empirical truth about the sciences, but it is a warranted truth nonetheless, and it characterizes the sciences generally. Evidently, then, eliminative naturalism regarding epistemology, as combined with explanatory scientism, is self‐defeating. A naturalist, of whatever species, should care to avoid self‐defeat because the sciences do and because theoretical conflict is disadvantageous to unified explanation.

Quine might try to rescue eliminative naturalism by proposing a notion of science broader than that underwritten by the sciences as standardly characterized. Such a proposal would perhaps relax the implied requirement that eliminative naturalism be an hypothesis of the sciences. This, however, would land eliminative naturalists on the horns of a troublesome dilemma: either there will be a priori constraints on what counts as a science (since actual usage of “science” would not determine the broader notion), or the broader notion of science will be implausibly vague and unregulated in its employment. In the absence of any standard independent of the sciences, we certainly need an account of which of the various so‐called sciences are regulative for purposes of theory formation in epistemology. (p. 11) (Astrology, for example, should be out, along with parapsychology and scientology.) Such an account may very well take us beyond the sciences themselves, because it will be a metascientific account of the sciences and their function in regulating epistemology.

To serve the purposes of eliminative naturalism, any proposed new notion of science must exclude traditional epistemology, while including epistemological naturalism, in a way that is not ad hoc. Such a strategy for escaping self‐defeat demands, in any case, a hitherto unexplicated notion of science, which is no small order. Eliminative naturalists have not defended any such strategy; nor have they otherwise resolved the problem of self‐defeat. That problem concerns eliminative naturalism, and not necessarily more moderate versions of epistemological naturalism. (See the essay by Goldman for a more moderate understanding of how the sciences bear on epistemology.)

b. Pragmatism

A cousin of eliminative naturalism is replacement pragmatism, proposed by Richard Rorty and others. This is the twofold view that (a) the vocabulary, problems, and goals of traditional epistemology are unprofitable (not “useful”) and thus in need of replacement by pragmatist successors, and (b) the main task of epistemology is to study the comparative advantages and disadvantages of the differing vocabularies from different cultures. Replacement pragmatism affirms the pointlessness and dispensability of philosophical concerns about how the world really is (and about objective truth) and recommends the central philosophical importance of what is profitable, advantageous, or useful. Since useful beliefs can be false and thereby fail to represent how the world really is, a desire for useful beliefs is not automatically a desire for beliefs that represent how the world really is. An obviously false belief can be useful to a person with certain purposes.

Replacement pragmatism implies that a proposition is acceptable to us if and only if it is useful to us, that is, it is useful to us to accept the proposition. (We may, if only for the sake of argument, permit pragmatists to define “useful” however they find useful.) If, however, usefulness determines acceptability in the manner implied, a proposition will be acceptable to us if and only if it is true (and thus factually the case) that the proposition is useful to us. The pragmatist's appeal to usefulness, therefore, entails something about matters of fact, or actual truth, regarding usefulness. This is a factuality requirement on pragmatism. It reveals that pragmatism does not—and evidently cannot—avoid considerations about the real, or factual, nature of things, about how things really are.

Replacement pragmatism invites a troublesome dilemma, one horn of which is self‐defeat. Is such pragmatism supposed to offer a true claim about acceptability? (p. 12) Does it aim to characterize the real nature of acceptability, how acceptability really is? If it does, it offers a characterization illicit by its own standard. It then runs afoul of its own assumption that we should eliminate from philosophy concerns about how things really are. As a result, replacement pragmatism faces a disturbing kind of self‐defeat: it does what it says should not be done. On the other hand, if replacement pragmatism does not offer, or even aim to offer, a characterization of the real nature of acceptability, then why should we bother with it at all if we aim to characterize acceptability regarding propositions? Given the latter aim, we should not bother with it, for it is then irrelevant, useless to our purpose at hand. Considerations of usefulness, always significant to pragmatism, can thus count against replacement pragmatism itself. So, a dilemma confronts replacement pragmatism: either replacement pragmatism is self‐defeating, or it is irrelevant to the typical epistemologist seeking an account of acceptability. This dilemma indicates that replacement pragmatism fails to challenge traditional epistemology. Many of us will not find a self‐defeating theory “useful,” given our explanatory aims. Accordingly, the self‐defeat of pragmatism will be decisive for us, given the very standards of replacement pragmatism.

c. Intuitionism

Many philosophers have resisted both scientism and pragmatism, looking instead to common sense or “preanalytic epistemic data” as a basis for adjudicating epistemological claims. The latter approach has attracted philosophers in the phenomenological tradition of Brentano and Husserl and philosophers in the common‐sense tradition of Reid, Moore, and Chisholm. The rough idea is that we have pretheoretical access, via “intuition” or “common sense,” to certain considerations about justification, and these considerations can support one epistemological view over others.

It is often left unclear what the epistemic status of the relevant preanalytic epistemic data is supposed to be. Such data, we hear, are accessed by “intuition” or by “common sense.” We thus have some epistemologists talking as follows: “Intuitively (or commonsensically), justification resides in a particular case like this, and does not reside in a case like that.” A statement of this sort aims to guide our formulation of a notion of justification or at least a general explanatory principle concerning justification. A simple question arises: is such a statement self‐justifying, with no need of independent epistemic support? If so, what notion of self‐justification can sanction the deliverances of intuition or common sense, but exclude spontaneous judgments no better, epistemically, than mere prejudice or guesswork?

Literal talk of self‐justification invites trouble. If one statement can literally (p. 13) justify itself, solely in virtue of itself, then every statement can. Statements do not differ on their supporting themselves. Such so‐called “support” is universal. A widely accepted adequacy condition on standards of justification is, however, that they not allow for the justification of every proposition, that they not leave us with an “anything goes” approach to justification. Literal self‐justification violates this condition. Some philosophers apparently use the term “self‐justification” in a nonliteral sense, but we cannot digress to this interpretive matter.

Intuitive judgments and common‐sense judgments can, and sometimes do, result from special, even biased, linguistic training. Why then should we regard such judgments as automatically epistemically privileged? Intuitive judgments and common‐sense judgments certainly can be false, as a little reflection illustrates. Such judgments, furthermore, do not always seem to be supported by the best available evidence. Consider, for instance, how various judgments of “common sense” are at odds with our best available evidence from the sciences or even from careful ordinary perception. It is unclear, then, why we should regard intuitive judgments or common‐sense judgments as the basis of our standards for justification.

Common‐sense theorists apparently rely on an operative notion, or concept, of justification implying that common sense is a genuine source of justification. A reliable sign of a conceptual commitment at work among common‐sense theorists, particularly Moore, is that they are not genuinely open to potential counterexamples to their assumption that common sense is a genuine source of justification. A parallel point bears on advocates of intuitions and on attempts to use one's “reflective” or “considered” judgments to justify epistemic standards. Appeal to such judgments to justify statements presupposes considerations about an operative notion implying that such judgments in fact have a certain epistemic significance. An operative notion of justification enables one to deem suitable “reflection” a source of genuine justification and to hold that reflective judgments yield justification. Apart from the operative notion, one will lack a decisive link between reflection and justification.

The same point applies to positions that give science or pragmatic value final authority in epistemology. An operative notion of justification will enable one to deem science or pragmatic value a source of genuine justification. In fact, apart from the operative notion, one will lack a decisive link between science or pragmatic value and genuine justification. The conferring of justification, in terms of science or pragmatic value, will then depend crucially on an operative notion connecting science or pragmatic value with actual justification.

Our problem concerns what is ultimately authoritative in epistemology: intuitions (say, of common sense) or theory (say, scientific theory) or considerations of usefulness (as in pragmatism)? Our selection of one of these options will leave us with some kind of intuitionism, scientism, or pragmatism, and ideally our selection would not be self‐defeating. How should we decide?

(p. 14) 3. Instrumental Rationality

Any standard or strategy worthy of the title “epistemic” must have as its fundamental goal the acquisition of truth and the avoidance of error. This follows from the fact that genuine knowledge has truth as an essential condition and excludes error. Of course, contemporary epistemology offers numerous strategies for acquiring truth and avoiding error, including contextualist, coherentist, foundationalist, internalist, and externalist strategies. Ideally, we would be able to say convincingly that a particular strategy is more effective at acquiring truth and avoiding error than all the others, and then be done with the problem of final epistemological authority. Whatever strategy has maximal effectiveness in getting truth and blocking error would then have final epistemological authority for us. Unfortunately for us, the problem resists such quick resolution.

Skeptics can help us appreciate the problem we face. They raise general questions about the reliability of our cognitive sources; that is, they ask about our cognitive sources altogether, as a whole. In doing so, they wonder what convincing reason we have to regard those sources as reliable for acquiring truth and avoiding error. Skeptics thus would not be answered by having the reliability of one cognitive source (say, vision) checked by another cognitive source (say, touch). Any answer we give to the general question of the reliability of our cognitive sources will apparently rely on input from one of the very sources under question by the skeptic. Unfortunately, we cannot test the reliability of our cognitive sources without relying on them in a way that takes for granted something under dispute by skeptics.

Our offering any kind of support for the reliability of our cognitive sources will depend on our use of such cognitive sources as perception, introspection, belief, memory, testimony, intuition, and common sense. Since all such sources are under question by skeptics, with regard to reliability, our use of them cannot deliver the kind of evidence of reliability sought by skeptics. Unfortunately, we cannot assume a position independent of our own cognitive sources to deliver a test of their reliability of the sort demanded by skeptics. This is the human cognitive predicament, and no one has shown how we can escape it. Even if we have genuine knowledge, we cannot establish our claims to knowledge or reliable belief without a kind of evidential circularity. This predicament bears on skeptics too, because they cannot show without circularity that withholding judgment is the most effective means of acquiring truth and avoiding error.

Any effort to establish a set of epistemic standards as maximally reliable, or reliable at all, will meet an inescapable charge of evidential circularity. Given the generality of the skeptical challenge, we lack the resources for avoiding evidential circularity. This circularity does not preclude reliable belief or even knowledge. It rather precludes our answering global challenges in a manner free of the kind of (p. 15) arbitrariness characteristic of circular reasoning. The problem is not fallibilism or inductivism but question begging evidential circularity. Such circularity threatens to make reasoning in epistemology superfluous.

The best we can do, if we value epistemology, is to avail ourselves of a kind of instrumental epistemic rationality that does not pretend to escape evidential circularity. Epistemologists, by nature, offer standards that aim to secure truth while avoiding error, but some theorists wield different specific concepts of justification and different standards for discerning justification. Their common goal of acquiring truth does not yield agreement about the “best way” to acquire truth; nor does any noncircular test for effectiveness in acquiring truth. Still, there can be rationality in the face of divergence in concepts of justification and in standards for discerning justification. (See the essay by Foley on this topic.)

Different theorists can have different epistemic subgoals in using a concept of epistemic justification and can be instrumentally rational relative to their subgoals. Suppose, for example, that a theorist has the subgoal of accommodating the truth‐seeking methods of the sciences in any context. In that case, a theorist might wield a concept of justification that, in keeping with the position of Russell and Quine, awards epistemic primacy to science over common sense in cases of conflict. Alternatively, suppose that a theorist has the subgoal of accommodating the deliverances of reliable group testimony in any context. In that case, a theorist might propose a contextualist concept of justification that awards epistemic primacy to group testimony over individual testimony in cases of conflict. Similarly, one might reasonably endorse internalism if one aims to evaluate truth from the standpoint of evidence accessible to the believer. On the other hand, one might reasonably endorse externalism if one has the epistemic subgoal of evaluating truth from the standpoint of cognitively relevant processes that may be inaccessible to a believer.

Instrumental epistemic rationality allows, then, for reasonable divergence in epistemic subgoals, owing to what one aims to accomplish with a specific epistemic notion or standard. We may call this view metaepistemic instrumentalism, for short. It enables us to explain, even explain as rational, epistemological divergence on the basis of a common, unifying kind of rationality: instrumental epistemic rationality. It does not follow, however, that anything goes in epistemology, for certain constraints on truth (such as the Aristotelian adequacy condition on truth identified by Tarski's schema T) will exclude a range of views. Some philosophical positions and goals will thus be beyond the pale of epistemology, at least as classically understood.

Does metaepistemic instrumentalism preclude genuine disagreement in epistemology? It certainly permits that knowledge and justification are natural kinds: that is, that they consist of causally stable properties that support explanatory and inductive inferences. Our problem is not whether justification is a natural kind, but rather which natural kind should constrain our standards in epistemology. The (p. 16) relativity allowed by metaepistemic instrumentalism, owing to divergence in epistemic subgoals, offers no challenge to realism about epistemic phenomena. It does not entail substantive relativism about truth, justification, or knowledge: the view that mere belief determines truth, justification, or knowledge. In addition, metaepistemic instrumentalism does not imply that all epistemological disagreements are merely semantic or otherwise less than genuine. Still, the widespread neglect of divergence in epistemic subgoals and corresponding specific epistemic notions does account for much postulating of disagreement where epistemologists are actually just talking at cross purposes. In fact, this neglect results in the common false assumption, endorsed by Rorty and other philosophical pessimists, that contemporary epistemology suffers fatal defects from its unresolvable perennial disagreements.

Metaepistemic instrumentalism enables us to explain as rational conceptual divergence what initially looked like unresolvable perennial disagreement. The key to such explanation is, of course, the divergence in epistemic subgoals, a divergence allowable by instrumental epistemic rationality. Recall that the human cognitive predicament blocks our eliminating, in a noncircular manner, all but our own subgoals as unreliable in achieving truth and avoiding error. It recommends the kind of epistemic tolerance allowed by metaepistemic instrumentalism, which does not pretend to deliver skeptic‐resistant reasons even for instrumental epistemic rationality.

A notable epistemic subgoal shared by many epistemologists is to maximize the explanatory value of our belief system with regard to the world, including the position of humans in the world. Many of us thus value inference to the best available explanation as a means of acquiring informative truths and avoiding falsehoods. Dependence on instrumental epistemic rationality is not, however, peculiar to metaepistemic instrumentalism. Even skeptics are guided by their epistemic subgoals, thereby relying on instrumental epistemic rationality. In addition, many skeptical arguments owe their force to their alleged value in explaining certain epistemic phenomena, such as the nature of inferential justification in connection with the epistemic regress problem. Skeptics thus sometimes recommend their skepticism for its explanatory power, for its superiority over competing epistemological accounts. These considerations do not refute skeptics; they rather indicate the pervasive value of instrumental epistemic rationality.

Metaepistemic instrumentalism can save epistemology from skeptical worries about circularity or the mere possibility of error. It enables us reasonably to reply that, given our epistemic subgoals, skeptics are excessively risk averse. Skeptics lean heavily on the side of error‐avoidance in a way that hinders, from the standpoint of common epistemic subgoals, the acquisition of explanatory truths. Skeptics, I have suggested, have not actually shown that their risk‐averse strategy is the most effective means of acquiring informative truth and avoiding error. The question of how risk averse we should be does not demand, given metaepistemic instrumentalism, (p. 17) an answer favorable to skeptics. In the presence of varying epistemic subgoals, we can reasonably tolerate some diversity in answers to that question.

In sum, then, we can explain, and thereby unify, the epistemological diversity of our day. Within the tolerant confines of metaepistemic instrumentalism, we can welcome, even as rational, much of the remarkable divergence we see in contemporary epistemology. Some philosophers may clamor for more than instrumental epistemic rationality, but, given the human cognitive predicament, they are well advised to spend their theoretical energy elsewhere. For the rest of us, epistemology can proceed apace, with all its intriguing diversity and complexity. We can now see that the diversity hides a deeper rational unity.

4. The Essays in Brief

In “Conditions and Analyses of Knowing,” Robert Shope examines the essential conditions of propositional knowledge. He thus focuses on the conditions that must be satisfied for a person to have knowledge, specifically knowledge that something is so. Traditionally knowledge has been analyzed in terms of justified true belief. Shope first addresses philosophers' disagreements concerning the truth and belief conditions. After introducing the justification condition, he presents counterexamples (specifically Gettier‐type counterexamples) challenging the standard analysis of knowledge. These challenges have provoked several attempts to replace or to supplement the justification condition for knowledge. Shope presents and assesses several of these, including early causal theories, the nonaccidentality requirement, reliable process and conditional analyses, the reliable‐indicator analysis, the conclusive reasons analysis, defeasibility analyses, analyses in terms of cognitive or intellectual virtues, and Plantinga's proper functionalism. He then presents and defends his own account of knowledge.

In “The Sources of Knowledge,” Robert Audi identifies the sources from which we acquire knowledge or justified belief. He distinguishes what he calls the “four standard basic sources”: perception, memory, consciousness, and reason. A basic source yields knowledge or justified belief without positive dependence on another source. He distinguishes each of the above as a basic source of knowledge, with the exception of memory. Memory, while a basic source of justification, plays a preservative rather than a generative role in knowledge. Audi contrasts basic sources with nonbasic sources, concentrating on testimony. After clarifying the relationship between a source and a ground, or “what it is in virtue of which one (p. 18) knows or justifiedly believes,” Audi evaluates the basic sources' individual and collective autonomy as well as their vulnerability to defeasibility. He also examines the relationship of coherence to knowledge and justification, noting the distinction between a negative dependence on incoherence and a positive dependence on coherence.

In “A Priori Knowledge,” Albert Casullo identifies four questions central to the contemporary discussion about a priori knowledge: (1) What is a priori knowledge? (2) Is there a priori knowledge? (3) What is the relationship between the a priori and the necessary? (4) Is there synthetic a priori knowledge? Casullo is mainly concerned with (2). He is concerned with (3) and (4) only insofar as they relate to responses to (1) and (2). He begins by offering an answer to (1) in order to put us in a position to respond to (2). Ultimately, he defines a priori knowledge as true belief with a priori justification, where a belief is a priori justified if it is nonexperientially justified. Armed with this definition, Casullo evaluates several traditional arguments for and against the existence of a priori knowledge. He concludes that no argument on either side is convincing. By arguing on a priori grounds that the opposite position is deficient, the traditional arguments reach an impasse. A successful way to defend a priori knowledge, he argues, would be to find empirical evidence that supports the existence of nonexperiential sources of justification.

In “The Sciences and Epistemology,” Alvin Goldman finds that epistemology cannot be subsumed under or identified with a science. Epistemology and the sciences, according to Goldman, should remain distinct yet cooperative. He presents several examples that illustrate the relevance of science to epistemology. Drawing from work in psychology, he proposes that science can shed light on epistemic achievements by contributing to our understanding of the nature and extent of human cognitive endowments. He suggests, in addition, that psychology can also contribute to our understanding of the sources of knowledge. Finally, Goldman argues that some specific projects in epistemology can receive important contributions from psychology, economics, and sociology.

In “Conceptual Diversity in Epistemology,” Richard Foley reflects on such central topics in epistemology as knowledge, warrant, rationality, and justification. He aims to distinguish such concepts in a general theory. Epistemologists have searched for that which constitutes knowledge when added to true belief. Foley calls this “warrant” and suggests that rationality and justification are not linked to knowledge by necessity. He proceeds to offer a general schema for rationality. This schema enables a distinction between “rationality” and “rationality all things considered.” Foley proposes how these concepts can work together in a system that “provides the necessary materials for an approach to epistemology that is clarifying, theoretically respectable, and relevant to our actual lives.”

In “Theories of Justification,” Richard Fumerton offers an overview of several prominent positions on the nature of justification. He begins by isolating epistemic (p. 19) justification from nonepistemic justification. He also distinguishes between “having justification for a belief” and “having a justified belief,” arguing that the former is conceptually more fundamental. Fumerton then addresses the possibility that justification is a normative matter, suggesting that this possibility has little to offer a concept of epistemic justification. He also critically examines more specific attempts to capture the structure and content of epistemic justification. These include traditional foundationalism and variants thereof, externalist versions of foundationalism; contextualism; coherentism; and “mixed” theories which combine aspects of coherentism and foundationalism.

In “Internalism and Externalism,” Laurence BonJour suggests that the contemporary epistemological debate over internalism and externalism concerns the formulation of the justification or warrant condition in an account of knowledge. The internalist requires that for a belief to meet this condition all of the necessary elements must be cognitively accessible to the believer. The externalist, on the other hand, claims that at least some such elements do not need to be accessible to the believer. BonJour gives an overview of this dispute, beginning with internalism and then considering the main reasons offered by externalists for rejecting the more traditional epistemological approach. He investigates the externalist alternative by looking at the most popular version, reliabilism, and at the main objections that have been raised against reliabilism. This motivates a look at some other versions of externalism, in order to see how susceptible they are to similar objections. BonJour suggests that the opposition between the two views is less straightforward than has usually been thought. He proposes, in addition, that each of them has valuable roles to play in major epistemological issues, even though the internalist approach is more fundamental in an important way.

In “Tracking, Competence, and Knowledge,” Ernest Sosa notes that in attempting to account for the conditions for knowledge, externalists have proposed that the justification condition be replaced or supplemented by the requirement that a certain modal relation obtain between a fact and a subject's belief concerning that fact. Sosa assesses attempts to identify such a relation. He focuses on an account labeled “Cartesian‐tracking.” This accounts for the relation in the form of two conditionals:

  1. A.  If a person S believes a proposition  PP.

  2. B.PS believes P.

Sosa modifies the account to make it more plausible, concluding that whereas before the modifications it was too weak to account for knowledge, with them it is too strong. He suggests that (B) be abandoned as a requirement and that (A), equipped with his modifications, can offer promising results in connection with skepticism. He argues that modified (A) coupled with the requirement that S's belief be “virtuous” can illuminate the nature of propositional knowledge.

(p. 20)

In “Virtues in Epistemology,” John Greco presents and evaluates two main notions of intellectual virtue. The first concerns Ernest Sosa's development of this concept as a disposition to grasp truth and avoid falsehood. Greco contrasts this with moral models of intellectual virtue that include a motivational component in their definition, namely a desire for truth. He claims, however, that if the latter were used to account for epistemic justification and knowledge, they would exclude obvious cases of knowledge. Instead, Greco offers a minimalist reliabilist account of intellectual virtue. He argues that this view, “in which the virtues are conceived as reliable cognitive abilities or powers,” can be illuminating in an account of knowledge. He sets out to support this on the ground that his approach to intellectual virtue can adequately address three major problems in the theory of knowledge: Humean skepticism, the Gettier problem, and the problem of showing that knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief.

In “Mind and Knowledge,” John Heil notes that our knowledge of the world depends on our nature as knowers. Many people, philosophers included, assume realism about the world toward which our beliefs are directed: that is, that the world is as it is independently of how we might take it to be. It is unclear how we could convincingly establish, in a noncircular manner, that the world is as we think it is. This suggests skepticism, and, according to Heil, realism and skepticism go hand in hand. Heil discusses the implications of such a view, particularly as they concern knowledge we seemingly have of our own states of mind. He considers the view that to calibrate ourselves as knowers we should proceed from resources “immediately available to the mind” to conclusions about the external world. He evaluates Descartes's attempt to do this and examines two other possibilities: an externalist view of mental content and an internalist approach to content.

In “Skepticism,” Peter Klein divides philosophical skepticism into two basic forms. The “Academic Skeptic” proposes that we cannot have knowledge of a certain set of propositions. The “Pyrrhonian Skeptic,” on the other hand, refrains from opining about whether we can have knowledge. Klein outlines two arguments for Academic Skepticism: (1) a “Cartesian‐style” argument based on the claim that knowledge entails the elimination of all doubt, and (2) a “Closure Principle∐style” argument based on the claim that if x entails y and S has justification for x, then S has justification for y. He evaluates both, suggesting that while there is plausible support for (2), there seems to be none for (1). Klein turns to contextualism to see if it can contribute to the discussion between one who claims that we can have knowledge about some epistemically interesting class of propositions and the Academic Skeptic. He outlines the background of Pyrrhonian Skepticism, pointing out that the Pyrrhonist withholds assent concerning our knowledge‐bearing status because reason cannot provide an adequate basis for assent. He assesses three possible patterns of reasoning (foundationalism, coherentism, and infinitism), and (p. 21) concludes that the Pyrrhonist view, that reason cannot resolve matters concerning the nonevident, is vindicated.

In “Epistemological Duties,” Richard Feldman uses three main questions to illuminate the topic of epistemological duties. (1) “What are our epistemological duties?” That is, what are the obligations of a believer qua believer? Is it simply our duty to form positive beliefs or to develop appropriate cognitive attitudes, which include disbelief and the suspension of judgment? Perhaps our duty is only to try to believe the truth. Perhaps it is more “diachronic”, involving evidence gathering and other extended efforts to maximize our true beliefs and to minimize our false beliefs. After suggesting that epistemological duties pertain to the development of appropriate cognitive attitudes, Feldman asks (2) “What makes a duty epistemological?” and (3) “How do epistemological duties interact with other kinds of duties?” His pursuit of (3) contributes to his response to (2), in that he uses it to argue that a concept of distinctly epistemological duty must exclude practical and moral duties that pertain to belief and include only duties that pertain to epistemological success (the act of having reasonable or justified cognitive attitudes).

In “Scientific Knowledge,” Philip Kitcher offers an approach to scientific knowledge that is more systematic than many current approaches in the epistemology of science. He challenges arguments against the truth of the theoretical claims of science. In addition, he attempts to discover reasons for endorsing the truth of such claims. He tries to apply current “scientific method” to this end (including confirmation theory and Bayesianism), but doubts that any context‐independent method gives warrant to the theoretical claims of science. He suggests that the discovery of reasons might succeed if we ask why anyone thinks the theoretical claims we accept are true and then look for answers that reconstruct actual belief‐generating processes. To this end, Kitcher presents the “homely argument” for scientific truth. It entails that when a field of science is continually applied to yield precise predictions, then it is at least approximately true. He defends this approach and offers a supplementary account that gives more attention to detail. This account includes a historical aspect (a dependence on the previous conclusions of scientists) that must answer to skeptical challenges and a social aspect (the coordination of individuals in pursuit of specific knowledge‐related goals).

In “Explanation and Epistemology,” William Lycan proposes that explanation and epistemology are related in at least three ways. First, “to explain something is an epistemic act, and to have something explained to you is to learn.” Lycan begins his account of explanation by drawing out several paradigms for scientific explanation, but he finds it unlikely that scientific explanation will be captured by a single set of necessary and sufficient conditions. Noting, however, that scientific explanation does not exhaust an account of explanation in general, he (p. 22) moves on to a second way in which explanation is related to epistemology: by the idea of explanatory inference. This is the idea of proceeding from a specific explanandum to the best hypothetical explanation for that explanandum. To account for a hypothesis' being “the best,” Lycan introduces “pragmatic virtues” that can increase the value of a hypothesis. This leads into a discussion of Explanationism. The third way in which explanation relates to epistemology claims that a belief can be justified if it is arrived at by explanatory inference. Lycan distinguishes four degrees of the theory, but focuses on “Weak Explanationism” (the idea that epistemic justification by explanatory inference is possible) and “Ferocious Explanationism” (the notion that explanatory inference is the only basic form of ampliative inference).

In “Decision Theory and Epistemology,” Mark Kaplan finds it characteristic of orthodox Bayesians to hold that (1) for each person and each hypothesis she comprehends, there is a precise degree of confidence that person has in the truth of that proposition, and (2) no person can be counted as rational unless the degree of confidence assignment she thus harbors satisfies the axioms of the probability calculus. Many epistemologists have objected to the idea that each of us harbors a precise degree of confidence assignment. Even if we had such an assignment, the condition on a person's being rational endorsed by the orthodox Bayesian would be too demanding to be applied to beings, such as ourselves, who have limited logical/mathematical skills. In addition, in focusing exclusively on degrees of confidence, the Bayesian approach tells us nothing about the epistemic status of the doxastic states epistemologists have traditionally been concerned about—categorical beliefs. Kaplan's purpose is twofold. First, he aims to show that, as powerful as many of such criticisms are against orthodox Bayesianism, there is a credible kind of Bayesianism. Without appeal to idealization or false precision, it offers a substantive account of how the probability calculus constrains the (imprecise) opinions of actual persons and of how this account impinges on traditional epistemological concerns. Second, he aims to show how this Bayesianism finds a foundation in considerations concerning rational preference.

In “Embodiment and Epistemology,” Louise Antony considers a kind of “Cartesian epistemology” according to which, so far as knowing goes, knowers could be completely disembodied, that is, pure Cartesian egos. Cartesian epistemology thus attributes little, if any, cognitive significance to a knower's embodiment. Antony examines a number of recent challenges to Cartesian epistemology, particularly challenges from feminist epistemology. She contends that we might have good reason to think that theorizing about knowledge can be influenced by features of our embodiment, even if we lack reasons to suppose that knowing itself varies relative to such features. She also argues that a masculinist bias can result in the mishandling of cognitive differences in cases where they actually exist. Antony examines a number of the ways in which the maleness of philosophy has, according to feminists, distorted epistemology. Even if a Cartesian approach offers (p. 23) one indispensable part of a comprehensive epistemology, according to Antony, we still need an epistemology that answers questions raised by our everyday, embodied lives.

In “Epistemology and Ethics,” Noah Lemos suggests that moral epistemology is mainly concerned with “whether and how we can have knowledge or justified belief” about moral issues. Lemos presents and replies to several problems that arise in this connection. He addresses arguments for ethical skepticism, the view that we cannot have moral knowledge or justified belief. Assuming that we can have moral knowledge, he considers how the moral epistemologist and moral philosopher should begin their account of this knowledge. Lemos favors a particularist approach whereby we begin with instances of moral knowledge and use these to formulate and evaluate criteria for moral knowledge. He relates his approach to concerns about the nature of the epistemic justification of moral beliefs as dealt with by foundationalists and coherentists. Lemos concludes his essay by responding to arguments against particularist approaches in moral epistemology. Specifically, he addresses the claim that our moral beliefs must receive their justification from an independent moral criterion developed from nonmoral beliefs.

In “Epistemology in Philosophy of Religion,” Philip Quinn focuses on the central problem of religious epistemology for monotheistic religions: the epistemic status of belief in the existence of God. His essay divides into two main sections. The first discusses arguments for God's existence. Quinn explores what epistemic conditions such arguments would have to satisfy to be successful and whether any arguments satisfy those conditions. He considers at length recent versions of the ontological and cosmological arguments, and then turns to inductive and cumulative‐case arguments. The second section examines the claims of Reformed Epistemology about belief in God. It assesses Alvin Plantinga's claim that belief in God is for many theists properly basic, that is, has positive epistemic status even when it is not based on arguments or any other kind of propositional evidence. Quinn distinguishes two versions of this claim. According to the first, emphasized in Plantinga's earlier work, theistic belief is properly basic with respect to justification or rationality. Quinn gives this claim detailed critical examination. According to the second version, prominent in Plantinga's more recent work, theistic belief is properly basic with respect to warrant. Quinn addresses this version more briefly.

In “Formal Problems about Knowledge,” Roy Sorensen examines epistemological issues that have logical aspects. He illustrates the hopes of the modal logicians who developed epistemic logic with Fitch's proof for unknowables and the surprise‐test paradox. He considers the epistemology of proof with the help of the knower paradox. One solution to this paradox is that knowledge is not closed under deduction. Sorensen reviews the broader history of this maneuver along with the relevant‐alternatives model of knowledge. This model assumes that “know” is an absolute term like “flat.” Sorensen argues that epistemic absolute (p. 24) terms differ from extensional absolute terms by virtue of their sensitivity to the completeness of the alternatives. This asymmetry, according to Sorensen, undermines recent claims that there is a structural parallel between the supervaluational and epistemicist theories of vagueness. He also suggests that we have overestimated the ability of logical demonstration to produce knowledge.