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Epistemology

DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-P059-3
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Published
2021
DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P059-3
Version: v3,  Published online: 2021
Retrieved January 29, 2022, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/overview/epistemology/v-3

2. Methodology in epistemology: beyond particularism

Epistemology in the latter part of the twentieth century was largely driven by the methodology of particularism. The idea was that epistemological theorizing properly begins with our intuitions about which particular cases count as knowledge and which do not. An adequate epistemological theory organizes cases in plausible ways. Epistemology in the twenty-first century has moved away from this methodology, looking to additional resources for adjudicating epistemological theories. Contemporary epistemology’s expanded range of topics, as well as its interdisciplinary nature, can be largely attributed to this shift in methodology.

One resource for adjudicating theories comes with renewed attention to the value of knowledge (see Epistemic value). For example, it is now widely recognized that an adequate theory of knowledge should do more than explain which cases count as knowledge and which do not – it should also explain why knowledge is valuable. If a theory fails to do this, thereby leaving the value of knowledge mysterious, that very failure counts heavily against the theory.

A second resource for adjudicating theories of knowledge concerns the intimate relations between knowledge and assertion. A strong characterization of such a relation is captured by the following ‘knowledge norm’ of assertion:

KNA. Assert that p only if you know that p.

At first glance, KNA might seem obviously restrictive. But evidence for the norm is impressive. Most notably, a common and seemingly appropriate response to a speaker’s assertion is to ask, ‘How do you know?’ Likewise, pointing out that one does not know is often an appropriate criticism of an assertion. KNA also fits well with the idea that testimony transmits knowledge, and with various other linguistic data. There is a burgeoning literature here, for and against ‘the knowledge account of assertion’. But few would deny that there are intimate relations between knowledge and assertion. An adequate theory of knowledge ought to account for this (see Assertion §§2–3).

Related considerations concern the relations among knowledge, action and practical reasoning. Once again, a number of philosophers have characterized the relationship in terms of norms of action and practical reasoning. For example, all of the following norms have been defended (and criticized) in the recent literature:

Act only on what you know.

If you know that p, then you can act on p.

If you know that p, then you can use p as a premise in your practical reasoning.

Once again, there is an interesting and growing literature here, both for and against various knowledge-action norms. But few would deny that there are intimate relations among knowledge, action and practical reasoning. An adequate theory of knowledge ought to account for this as well (see also Benton 2021).

Related considerations concern the point or purpose of the concept of knowledge and knowledge language. Craig (1990) argues that understanding the purpose of the concept of knowledge should give us insight into what knowledge is. For we can ask, what would the content of the concept have to be like for the concept to serve the purpose that it does? In engineering, the slogan is ‘form follows function.’ For concepts, Craig argued, content follows function.

Craig proposes the following thesis: A central function of the concept of knowledge is to flag good information and good sources of information for purposes of practical reasoning and action. That is, the concept of knowledge serves the informational needs of our highly social, highly information-dependent lives. And now we can ask: What must knowledge be like, assuming that the concept of knowledge does perform that function? An adequate theory of knowledge ought to give a plausible answer to this question. That is, it should not leave mysterious how the concept manages to serve the functions that it does.

Taken together, these considerations present a compelling picture: that the concept of knowledge serves to govern the flow of actionable information in an epistemic community. As such, the concept serves both individual planning and action, as well as the coordination of group planning and action. This broad point of view explains the close connection between knowledge and action; the purpose of knowledge is to serve action. It also helps to explain the close connection between knowledge and assertion; the purpose of assertion is to distribute knowledge. Finally, such a picture speaks to the practical value of the concept of knowledge, our knowledge language, and knowledge itself.

Contemporary epistemology takes this broad point of view seriously, and develops substantive theories in the context of the methodological constraints that it imposes. In doing so, contemporary epistemology takes up issues in value theory, action theory, philosophy of language, sociology, and empirical psychology, all of which enrich both the discipline’s questions and its subsequent theorizing.

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Citing this article:
Greco, John. Methodology in epistemology: beyond particularism. Epistemology, 2021, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P059-3. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/overview/epistemology/v-3/sections/methodology-in-epistemology-beyond-particularism.
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