Saturday, January 17, 2009

Commitments to knowledge and defaults to knowledge

I've been reading in epistemology lately, and shall be doing so regularly for a while yet. I've seen a couple of moves which strike me as puzzling.

First, it's claimed by some writers that knowledge has a normative element. Apparently, when I assert a claim to knowledge, I am making a "commitment" to truth, that (on the basis of evidence) I am "entitled" to this commitment, and that I have a "right" to believe it. Such strange talk! When I claim to "know" something, I certainly feel I'm correct, that the world is a certain way, but I don't feel like I'm making an ethical claim. Can one make an ethical claim and not be aware of doing it? Suppose I'm saying to the janitor, in the act of handing her the object in question, "The trash can is here," which I would claim to know. Am I making a commitment, or feeling entitled or asserting a right to my belief that the trash can is at a certain place? I think not. I am disposed to think a certain way about the world when I make a knowledge claim, but that I'm committed, entitled, asserting a right, etc. -- that would be a very odd way of talking about what I'm doing in making a knowledge claim. Odd because I'm not doing that. I somehow think others are not doing it either. Why is it that people so quickly want to artificially inject ethics into everything?

Second, I've seen it claimed that, lacking any other contextual cues, any assertion I make is tacitly defaulted to a knowledge claim. Really? In the normal course of my daily utterances, anything I say is a claim to knowledge? Automatically unless shown otherwise? Now that's a strong claim! I think it's fair to say I'm asserting a belief in what I say, and that I've a certain level of psychological attachment to what I say. "Yes, Pat, I think the trash can is right behind the filing cabinet." Do I claim to know that? Often, I don't even consider the epistemic status of what I say. After the fact I might say I was psychologically assured of my statement to Pat, and that I indeed believed it. But to claim that I knew something or that I was asserting a knowledge claim at that instant is way over-stated. I can't see why some writers in epistemology want to make such assured claims about people's utterances. What surveys or psychological studies show that this is the default way that people view their utterances? I sure don't see them giving any citations to this effect.


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At 5:09 PM, Blogger ~ Marty Alan Michelson, Ph.D. said...

you wrote: "my belief that the trash can is at a certain place? I think not. I am disposed . . ."

nice pun. though, i don't think it was intentional.

At 4:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent, excellent, excellent. I too have always been puzzled at the rush to inject ethics into epistemology.

At 2:40 PM, Blogger Jonathan said...

Who are you talking about here? Do you have in mind those like Alvin Plantinga who locate talk about "justification" over and against the verificationist debates by pointing out how talk of one's "justification" in believing/stating, say, a given proposition involves one's "right" to hold a belief and so, involves very little (we are often justified in these terms and yet wrong in our believing as we do)? Or, are you thinking of critical theorists who (following Emmanuel Levinas, Derrida, and others) point to the putatively violent aspect of human language and, thus, human representational knowledge? Or, do you have others in mind, say, Realists like William Alston and Christopher Insole who think (contra Davidson and, ironically, Dummett) that claims to knowledge necessarily involve claims to truth if they are not confused?

At 10:13 AM, Blogger wiggy said...

I'm not sure that people have anything ethically loaded in mind when they say that knowledge is normative. It's just to say that having knowledge involves having a belief with priviledged status. It's a true belief that is connected to the world in the right way. At the very least, you didn't come to believe it by chance.

As for the ethics of assertion, people are standardly blamed if their assertions are unsupported. That seems plain enough. If you are wrong about the location of the trash can, you are subject to give an account of why you said that it was where you thought it was. If you said it because you really wanted it to be in such a convenient location, someone might be upset (maybe they were late to class trying to find it) and you would be subject to blame (their lateness was your fault). All that seems fairly straightforward and straightforwardly ethical.

As for assertions being knowledge claims, I share your skepticism.


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