Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Problem of the Criterion

Chisholm contrasts the following pair of questions:

A.  What do we know?  What is the extent of our knowledge?
B.  How do we decide whether we know?  What are the criteria of knowledge?

The Problem of the Criterion: Both of these questions are the very foundation for epistemology.  The problem is that in order to answer question A, one must already answer question B.  However, one must also have answered question A in order to answer question B.  It seems like there is nowhere to start the inquiry into knowledge because (1) I can only identify instances of knowledge if I have a clear definition of knowledge and (2) I can only have a clear definition of knowledge if I have identified instances of knowledge.

The problem is this: we cannot answer either question.  This seems to make epistemology impossible.  The problem is that we are led to skepticism

Chisholm thinks that a natural response to this problem is skepticism.  Skepticism is the view that there is no knowledge.

Problem of the Criterion as Skeptical Argument:
1. We cannot know the extent of our knowledge until we know the criteria for knowledge.
2. We cannot know the criteria for knowledge until we know the extent of our knowledge.
3.  Therefore, neither question can be answered.


1. Criteria for knowledge are  prior to instances of knowledge.
2.  Instances of knowledge are prior to criteria for knowledge.
3.  Therefore,  neither instances of knowledge or criteria for knowledge are unattainable.

We can understand priority in two ways: temporal priority or conceptual/logical priority.  Temporal priority is when something is prior or before in time.  To say that criteria for knowledge is temporally prior to instances of knowledge, this means that the criteria must come before the instances in time.  Conceptual priority means that it is in principle impossible for something to exist without another thing already existing.  For example, to say that criteria are conceptually prior to instances of knowledge just means that it is logically impossible to have instances of knowledge without also having criteria for knowledge.  As Sven notes, the conceptual or logical priority argument is much stronger than if the argument uses the notion of temporal priority, since one can get around the temporal priority requirement by having both at the same time!

3 Responses to the Problem of the Criterion:
Skepticism: We cannot answer either question, since both questions require that the other already be answered first.  
Methodism:  We should answer the question about criteria first. We begin with a method that provides us criteria for knowledge in order to answer the question about the extent of our knowledge.  e.g. In order to know if I have knowledge about there being a barn on a hill, I should first decide on the criteria or standards I use to determine if I have knowledge.  Once I have a method that I know is a good way of getting knowledge, then I will be able to identify specific instances or examples of knowledge.
Particularism:  We should answer the question about particular examples of knowledge first.  We begin with an answer about what we know in order to answer the question about what criteria for knowledge are.  e.g.  I start with a good particular example of knowledge, such as "The sun is shining."  Given a particular instance of knowledge, I can then identify what features of this belief (such as the fact that it results from an immediate visual perception, perhaps) make it knowledge, which will then be my criteria for knowledge.  

First-order vs. Second-order Skepticism.  First-order skepticism (immediate skepticism) is skepticism about our perceptions and beliefs about the immediate surrounding world, such as beliefs about tables and chairs.  A first-order skeptic thinks that any kind of knowledge is impossible.  Second-order skepticism (reflective skepticism) is the theory that we cannot have knowledge about knowledge itself.  We can know things in a simple way, such as “This is a chair” or “The sun shines”, but we cannot have a theory of knowledge.  We cannot know about knowledge itself.  Second-order skepticism is the kind of skepticism that is the most appropriate response to the Problem of the Criterion, since the argument merely shows the impossibility for theorizing about knowledge.

Relationship Between Two Kinds of Skepticism.  If one is a first-order skeptic, it follows that they will also be a second-order skeptic. If one is skeptical about the possibility of any individual instances of knowledge, then it would necessarily mean that they are skeptical about a larger theory about knowledge.  But does second-order skepticism about theories of knowledge lead to first-order skepticism?  Not necessarily.  The second-order skeptic is skeptical not about simple truths such as "I have shoes on" but about general theories about knowledge, such as "Knowledge is justified true belief."  They will admit that we know some things, but admittedly they will not be able to specify what it means to "know" something.  Just because someone thinks that we cannot have systematic theories about knowledge does not mean that we cannot have simple knowledge about tables and chairs.

Chisholm is a Particularist.  He thinks that we should assume an answer about the extent of our knowledge.  He thinks we can identify instances of knowledge.  From these instances, he then builds arguments about the criteria of knowledge.  After reflecting on instances of knowledge, we reach a reflective equilibrium, which is something like a neutral standpoint.  From this neutral reflective position, we can generalize about the cases and formulate criteria for beliefs to be respectable, or good.

Problems with Particularism. Moser thinks that intuitive judgments and common-sense judgments are often based on arbitrary socio-economic conditions.  Why should we privelege certain intuitions over others?  Also, such intuitions can easily be false and are often based on the best possible evidence available.  Indeed, such intuitions can be at odds with our best science.

Is the Problem of the Criterion a Pseudo-Problem?  Some might think that because it is in principle impossible to solve the problem of the criterion, this makes it a problem that is not worth addressing.  Amico thinks that the problem of the criterion is like the problem of trying to make a square circle.  It is, in principle, impossible to answer.  This means that we should not waste our time trying to solve this problem.

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