DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P059-3
Version: v3,  Published online: 2021
Retrieved April 21, 2024, from

1. Methodology in epistemology: particularism and generalism

Chisholm (1982) describes two opposing methodologies in the history of epistemology, what we might call ‘particularism’ and ‘generalism’. Chisholm distinguished the opposing methodologies in terms of how they approach two basic questions in the theory of knowledge:

A. Which particular cases count as knowledge, and which do not?

B. What are the general theoretical principles that describe what we can know and what we cannot?

Particularists think that we can begin with an answer to A and then work out an answer to B. As such, particularists gives methodological privilege to our intuitions about particular cases. By contrast, generalists think that we can begin with an answer to B and then work out an answer to A. That is, generalists give methodological privilege to our intuitions about general theoretical principles. Particularism and generalism are opposing methodologies in that they constitute different strategies regarding where we should begin our theorizing and how theory construction should proceed. Chisholm cites Thomas Reid and G.E. Moore as particularists. This is because both began by taking it for granted that we know many things, and that we do not know others, and both evaluated philosophical theories according to how well they respected these methodological starting points. By contrast, Chisholm identified John Locke and David Hume as generalists, since they began with their empiricist principles regarding what can and cannot be known, and then evaluated particular cases accordingly, even when doing so entailed sceptical consequences that go contrary to common sense.

By the latter part of the twentieth century, the dominant methodology in epistemology was particularism. That is, there was general agreement that epistemological theorizing should begin with our intuitions about which particular cases count as knowledge and which do not, and that an adequate theory should state general principles that organize these cases in plausible ways. Put differently, there was general agreement that our pre-theoretical intuitions about particular cases should act as a methodological constraint on philosophical theory. But why choose particularism over generalism? The most straightforward reason is that we seem to be better at making judgments about particular cases than we are about philosophical principles. This is evidenced by a long history of failed philosophical principles, including the empiricist principles of Locke and Hume, but also the rationalist principles of Descartes, Spinoza and Leibnitz. Moreover, our ability to judge well about particular cases can be explained more or less straightforwardly, in terms of normal conceptual and linguistic competence. In this respect, we may draw an analogy to our abilities with grammar – all of us are fairly good at judging whether particular sentences are grammatical or ungrammatical, whereas few of us can accurately state the rules of grammar, i.e. the general principles that correctly organize those particular judgements. Finally, only our intuitions about particular cases have even a chance of being generally correct, since at least there is good pre-theoretical consensus about which cases count as knowledge and which do not. But there is no consensus at all regarding philosophical principles, and so no chance that we are generally reliable at correctly formulating these. In the end, then, particularism embodies a kind of philosophical humility: at least at the start of philosophical theorizing, this methodology recommends, we ought to privilege our common-sense judgements about particular cases over philosophical speculation about general principles.

Nevertheless, epistemology has recently moved away from this methodology. One worry about particularism is that it tends to generate superficial epistemologies. Specifically, particularism emphasizes organizing particular cases correctly, but a theory might do that while failing to generate philosophical insight or understanding. That is, a theory might successfully organize cases into their respective categories, but without getting at the nature of things, or getting at essences, or ‘cutting things at the joints’. That such is the case is suggested by the inelegance of many of the analyses generated during the Gettier era (see Gettier problem). Famously, accounts of knowledge in that period became increasingly more complex and ad hoc, creating the impression that intuitions were being accommodated but not explained.

A second worry about particularism is that our pre-theoretical intuitions about cases underdetermine theory. That is, any number of theoretical proposals might do equally well (or equally badly) explaining the relevant ‘data’. The idea that data underdetermines theory is a common theme in philosophy more generally, and it applies in epistemology as well (see Underdetermination). Accordingly, it seems that we need more than our intuitions about cases to adjudicate among competing epistemological theories.

A third challenge to particularism comes from so-called experimental philosophy (or X-phi), and the scepticism that it generates about the evidential quality of our intuitions about cases. Thus, several empirical studies suggest that the intuitions of trained philosophers are not replicated in non-philosophers. Moreover, these studies purport to show that there is considerable cultural variance in people’s intuitions about cases, including Gettier cases, suggesting that philosophers’ intuitions are merely parochial rather than evidential. There has been considerable debate about the soundness of such studies, as well as debate about how their results, if sound, should be interpreted. But the overall effect is to problematize the methodology of particularism, or any methodology that relies heavily on intuitions (see Experimental philosophy; Experimental epistemology).

By the end of the twentieth century, then, a methodology that relies so heavily on our intuitions about cases began to seem inadequate. Such intuitions underdetermine theory choice, and they were now considered more suspect than they used to be. Moreover, correctly organizing our intuitions, even when sound, does not guarantee philosophical insight or understanding. What epistemology needed was additional resources for building and adjudicating theories. Contemporary epistemology has recently found such resources, and can largely be characterized in terms of them. In particular, the new methodology takes seriously the relations among knowledge, assertion, practical reasoning and action. Relatedly, it emphasizes the various social functions of knowledge, the concept of knowledge, and knowledge language. (See also Common Sense School; Empiricism; Rationalism.)

Citing this article:
Greco, John. Methodology in epistemology: particularism and generalism. Epistemology, 2021, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P059-3. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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