Internalism and externalism in epistemology

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P028-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 30, 2020, from

2. Justification internalism – pro and con

The most explicit arguments for accessibility internalism have proceeded from a deontological conception of justification, according to which a belief is justified only if having the belief does not violate any intellectual obligation or requirement, only if one is permitted to have the belief. In Ginet (1975) the argument goes as follows:

  1. One should believe that p only if one is (epistemically) permitted to do so.

  2. One is permitted to believe that p only if one has a justification for the belief.

  3. But a condition cannot be required for permission unless one is able to determine whether it obtains.

  4. Hence one can always determine whether one has a justification for a belief.

Note that this argument is designed to support both kinds of accessibility requirement. For to determine ‘whether one has a justification for a belief’ one must be able to spot both the allegedly justifying condition and also determine whether it suffices to do the job.

One trouble with this argument is that, even if cogent, it does not show that justification must be ascertainable simply on reflection. Its conclusion is only that the subject must be able to know of it somehow or other. In addition, there are serious questions about the deontological conception of justification on which the argument is based: it would seem to assume an unwarranted degree of voluntary control of beliefs (Alston 1989: 115–52).

To be sure, accessibility internalism has a strong intuitive appeal. It has seemed obvious to many philosophers through the centuries that we should be able to determine the epistemic status of our beliefs just by armchair reflection, and that has been the standard method, at least since Descartes shut himself up in a small room to determine whether there was anything he knew with certainty. But intuitive plausibility, even when combined with hallowed tradition, is not enough to bear the weight of so strong a restriction. Moreover, this plausibility stems partly from confusions, particularly that between the activity of justifying a belief and the state of being justified in believing that p. The former does seem to presuppose reflective access. At least I cannot adduce a support in justifying (arguing for) my belief that p unless I can become aware of that support. But we cannot infer from this that there is the same requirement for being justified in believing that p. Obviously, I am justified in many beliefs that I have never engaged in justifying. Otherwise I would have precious few justified beliefs, since I spend little time justifying my beliefs.

Another common motive for embracing internalism is the supposition that it removes an obstacle to giving an effective response to the sceptical denial or doubt that we have any knowledge or justified beliefs. If I have to rely on what I think I have learned from perception, induction, explanation or scientific theorizing, in order to show that certain of my beliefs are justified, then my attempt is open to sceptical challenges to those sources. If I only need to rely on reflection, it is supposed, I do not have this worry. But this line of thought deals only with certain kinds of scepticism. If my only appeal is to reflection, I am immune to challenge from scepticism about perception and induction. But that leaves scepticism about reflection. Though historically most sceptics have concentrated on perception, induction and high level reasoning, some of the classical sceptical arguments would apply to reflection as much as to anything else. Hence internalism provides only a limited guarantee against sceptical doubts (see Scepticism).

The very features of internalism that make it attractive to many also give rise to some serious liabilities. For one thing the position would seem to be much too sanguine concerning the cognitive powers of mere reflection. Here the above distinction between access to the justifier and access to its justificatory efficacy is relevant. Claims to reflective access to the latter are very dubious. Some epistemologists (Chisholm [1966] 1989: 7, 76) exhibit confidence that, just by thinking about the matter, one can tell what justifies what, but I find this very questionable. It partly depends on how we think of justification. The deontological conception may seem more friendly to internalism here. It is easy to convince oneself that one can tell what is permitted to one or required of one just by carefully considering the matter. But if being justified in believing that p involves believing in such a way as to be in a strong position to get the truth, then we must deny, must we not, that we are generally able to determine that just by raising the question? Will that tell us, for example, how much and what kind of evidence will put us in a position to get the truth in our scientific theorizing or our religious beliefs?

This issue will recur in the second objection. For now we should note also that not everything is clear sailing vis-à-vis access to the justifier. For example, a common type of alleged justifier consists in other justified beliefs of the subject (my belief that my wife is not at home is justified because it is based on my justified belief that her car is not in the garage). But then to know that I have a justifier of this sort I would not only have to know that I have this belief (which may well be accessible on reflection) but also that it is justified. And that brings us back to justificatory efficacy again, namely the issue of what it takes to justify the belief that my wife’s car is not in the garage. Again, suppose that a certain belief is justified only if my total evidence (the set of all my justified beliefs) renders that belief probable. Then we also run into the difficulty of determining just by reflection the entire range of my beliefs, and it is doubtful that I can accurately survey all my beliefs just by thinking about the matter.

The second objection involves the point just noted that it seems clearly wrong to suppose that we can determine by armchair reflection whether certain (allegedly justifying) conditions render a belief likely to be true. If a belief’s being justified implies the probability of its truth, then it follows that anything we can ascertain by reflection will not amount to justification in this sense. And surely this implication of the probability of truth is an essential part of what makes it desirable and important that our beliefs be justified. If this implication is lacking why should we care whether our beliefs are justified? After all, the basic aim of cognition is to believe what is true and to avoid believing what is false. Thus internalism would seem disconnected from any understanding of justification that renders it a major epistemic desideratum.

In the face of these difficulties we should note that there is a weaker brand of internalism on the market, according to which what bears on the justification of belief is restricted to the evidence, reasons or experiences of the subject, in contrast to what is external to the subject’s cognitive states (Feldman and Conee 1985). This position is not subject to the objections we have been surveying. But the opposite side of that coin is that it cannot draw on the intuitive support we have seen to accrue to accessibility internalism.

Citing this article:
Alston, William P.. Justification internalism – pro and con. Internalism and externalism in epistemology, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P028-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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