Knowledge, concept of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P031-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 21, 2021, from

10. Some challenges to traditional epistemology

A traditional question asked by epistemologists is ‘what ought we to believe?’ Typically, the answer is given by (1) describing the types of reasons that contribute to warranting a belief, and (2) developing a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge in which the types of reasons depicted in (1) play a prominent role. But there are many challenges to this answer.

We have already seen the challenge developed by the causal theorists and the reliabilists. Roughly, they hold that our beliefs need not be the result of proper reasoning to be counted as knowledge. Sufficiently reliable belief-acquisition methods are all that is required. Indeed, some have held that epistemology, when done correctly, is a branch of psychology because the primary issue is the study of reliable belief-acquisition methods. This programme has often been referred to as ‘naturalized epistemology’ and, in one form, its basic tenet is there are no a priori knowable epistemic principles (see Naturalized epistemology; Quine, W.V.).

Another challenge to traditional epistemology comes from ‘virtue epistemology’, which makes the primary object of epistemic evaluation traits of persons rather than properties of beliefs or belief-forming processes. The virture approach has been taken farthest by Linda Zagzebski (1996) who proposes an epistemic theory modelled on virtue ethics and argues that such a theory permits the recovering of such neglected epistemic values as understanding and wisdom (see Virtue epistemology).

A further type of challenge is that of Edward Craig (1990). While allowing that the debate has been shaped by real features of the concept of knowledge, he rejects the project of analysing it in necessary and sufficient conditions. Instead, he tries to ‘synthesize’ the concept by deriving these features from a pragmatic hypothesis about its purpose, thus explaining the debate rather than joining it.

Even more radical challenges have been developed. First, some have argued that there is no unique method of acquiring and revising beliefs that ought to be employed by all people (see Cognitive pluralism). Second, it has been argued that the proposed conditions of good reasoning (for example, objectivity and neutrality) tacitly aim at something other than truth. They are developed to prolong entrenched power (see Feminist epistemology). Finally, it has been argued that successful belief acquisition occurs when the future can be adequately anticipated and controlled (see Pragmatism).

The defenders of traditional epistemology have two basic types of reply. First, they can examine the particular arguments developed by the critics to determine whether any one of them is sound. Second, they can point out that the critics will have to defend the reasonableness of their views by at least tacitly employing the very principles of good reasoning investigated by traditional epistemologists. Of course, this would not show that the critic’s position is false, but it does at least illustrate the universality of the question ‘what ought we to believe?’.

Citing this article:
Klein, Peter D.. Some challenges to traditional epistemology. Knowledge, concept of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P031-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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