Knowing that You Know (Can We Know Anything?)

Here’s a great Q & A from an interesting site called Ask Philosophers, where anyone can submit a question to be answered by a professional philosopher.  This question relates to skepticism in epistemology, and I think the answer is a good, common sense one.

Question: Has the “epistemology project” failed? I tell students that you cannot make any knowledge claims without begging the question, falling prey to the problem of the criterion, or getting stuck on an infinite regress. The only way of escape is to make dogmatic assumptions regarding basic beliefs, coherence, and corrsepondences about reality…I still enjoy the study of logic and epistemology but acknowledge its limitations and flaws. As philosophers I am sure you’re not willing to dismiss epistemology this quickly.

Response from Allen Stairs on August 2, 2009

Initial disclaimer: I am no epistemologist. But I’m not sure I quite understand. First, why are all assumptions about basic beliefs, etc. dogmatic? Are you perhaps demanding that one must be certain of such things? Why isn’t it good enough to say “I know Peter was at the meeting because I was there and I spoke with him?” People who say things like that could be mistaken, of course. But suppose that as the world turns out, I’m right: I did attend the meeting and I did speak with Peter. Then don’t I know that he was there? If not, why not?

Perhaps the worry is that I don’t know that I know this (doubtful in this case, but happens sometimes.) But it’s long been doubted that knowing X requires knowing that you know X. Perhaps the thought is that to know X always requires being able to give some particular sort of justification. But reliabilists wouldn’t buy that. On their view, I know something (roughly) if my beliefs about it come to be in a reliable way, even if I have no clue what the mechanism is.

So while certain sorts of projects in epistemology fail, the field is still thriving, near as I can tell. But in any case, it seems to me that one sensible version of the epistemological enterprise takes it for granted: we know lots and lots of stuff. The project isn’t to prove this, but to provide plausible analyses and accounts of what this amounts to. Seems like a reasonable project to me.


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One thought on “Knowing that You Know (Can We Know Anything?)

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