Problems of Knowledge


Problems of Knowledge: a critical introduction to epistemology by Michael Williams is an interesting, well-written philosophy book. Its relevance to ordinary life? Mainly to raise awareness of issues, some quite subtle, associated with what we believe and why, how we can be wrong, and how to fix our inevitable mistakes. Epistemology is like the infrastructure of knowledge: the plumbing, electrical wiring, air handlers, etc. that make the rest of the job possible. We don't want to worry about infrastructure most of the time. But we do want it to be reliable and we definitely need to know when it's in danger of breaking down due to stress beyond what it's built to handle. Likewise knowledge.

In his Introduction Williams begins by defining epistemology, "the theory of knowledge". He lists five key problems that will be the focus of the book:

  • What is knowledge? How does it differ from mere belief or opinion?
  • What are the scope and limits of human knowledge? Are some things outside the realm of knowledge? What's the difference between empirical and a priori knowledge?
  • How can knowledge be acquired? Can we improve our ways of getting knowledge?
  • Is it possible to know anything? What are the varieties of philosophical skepticism, and how can they be answered?
  • Is knowledge worth having, and if so why?

The answers to these occupy the next 250 pages, and are not always clear. (If it were possible to summarize briefly, then the book wouldn't be necessary!) Among the major conclusions in Problems of Knowledge:

  • Knowledge is "appropriately justified belief". To say that a person knows something means that they believe it, that it's true, and that their belief that it's true is adequately grounded, i.e., based on good evidence and solid procedures of thinking.
  • Radical Skepticism raises powerful challenges. The classical "Agrippa's trilemma" denies that any knowledge is possible by asking "Why?" of any statement. There are three major responses, none satisfactory: infinite regress; dogmatic assumption; or circularity. Newer modes of radical skepticism include the Cartesian "How do I know I'm not dreaming, or being deluded by an evil demon?" and the related "How do I know other minds exist?", "How do I know the universe wasn't created moments ago?", and "How do I know the laws of Nature will persist?".
  • Foundationalism, the attempt to identify basic beliefs that all other knowledge can be based on, is tricky and perhaps unsound. So is Coherence Theory, the attempt to fit all beliefs into a whole that hangs together self-supported.
  • Contextualism, the author's preferred answer to the problems of radical skepticism, argues that there are many constraints on doubt (e.g., "Wittgenstein remarks that, if you tried to doubt everything, you would not get as far as doubting anything.") and that the standards for adequately grounding a belief vary depending on circumstance ("context"). A questioner can challenge a belief in various ways, and if the believer can provide adequate justification under those circumstances, then the belief qualifies as knowledge. Some challenges are out of order (e.g., "But how do you know you're not a brain in a vat?" in response to "My car won't start!").
  • Induction is a necessary but risky business. Probability arguments can be helpful.
  • Relativism, like skepticism, is self-limiting.

Problems is far from easy reading. It's not a textbook, but as the author says in the preface, "I think that philosophical ideas are important, so that they ought to circulate outside narrowly professional circles; and I think that they can be made to do so, if not in full rigorous detail, then at least not in hopelessly garbled form." Problems attempts to bridge that gap.

(cf. EpistemologicalEnginerooms (2000-08-10), Red Patch Now (2008-06-21), Water Conservation and Epistemology (2010-07-03), ...) - ^z - 2010-07-29