Sunday, March 25, 2007

Putting skepticism in its place

There a nice little post on epistemology by Ken Taylor over at the Philosophy Talk blog. Ken is expressing some misgivings about a kind of epistemology that I tend to share. I don't have much of anything to add to Ken's post. In the video series Donald Davidson: Conversations with Philosophers that I've mentioned before, there is a panel discussion with Davidson, Quine and Strawson. One of the questions that they are asked is what they think the role of the skeptic in philosophy is. None of them think it is a particularly big role. Quine and Davidson respond similarly. Strawson says one of the best things I've heard from him. Roughly: This is one of the few things that I agree with Heidegger on. Kant said that the scandal of philosophy was that no one had proved the existence of the external world and Heidegger said the real scandal of philosophy was that people still tried.

[Edit: John Greco put up a follow up post to Taylor's over at the Philosophy Talk blog. Also, over at Certain Doubts there is an interesting way to take Taylor's post. Finally, Aidan has a good response to Taylor's post in the comments here.]


Aidan said...

I'm not really sure I see Taylor's point all that clearly. I think, first of all, that it's a distortion of recent work on scepticism to present it as trying to see what 'fudged' analysis of knowledge survives the sceptics challenge. Some stuff might fit that description, for example, perhaps some of the work on contextualism in the 90's could be read as engaged in that project. But the debate between Wright and Pryor, to take one example, is focused on justification rather than knowledge.

One thing that debate suggests is that Taylor's idea that knowledge is vulnerable to scepticism in a way that rational or warranted belief because possessing the former but not the latter requires one to have ruled out relevant alternatives is far from obviously correct. Part of what's at stake between the parties concerns whether one needs independent justification for the claim that one is not in some sceptical scenario in order for it appearing to one that p to provide one with justification that p. Pryor's Dogmatist suggests that such independent justification is not required, while Crispin suggests it is, but that it must be conceived of as some kind of default entitlement. To assume that there's a relevant point of contrast here between knowledge and justified or rational belief is simply to settle by fiat one of the most interesting questions in contemporary epistemology (a debate which has spilled over into the philosophy of logic and mathematics, with interesting results).

As Crispin stresses in his recent work on this topic, scepticism presents us with a paradox. As Taylor notes, sceptical arguments are 'pretty seductive and pretty darned hard to answer'. But that's a shared feature of any genuinely paradoxical reasoning surely. Soritical reasoning is pretty damn seductive, as we are all too aware. The plausibility of dialetheism bears testament to the seeming irresistibility of the reasoning employed in the set-theoretic and semantic paradoxes. Are we to despair of responding to any genuine paradox? Or is there something which makes scepticism a uniquely intractable problem? If so, Taylor's discussion didn't seem to contain even so much as a gesture at what that feature might be.

So yeah, basically I wasn't convinced by anything Taylor had to say. The debates are much richer and more principled than he makes them out to be, they concern warrant as well as knowledge, and I don't see what might justify pessimism concerning the prospects for a satisfying response to the sceptic which wouldn't also ground pessimism concerning our prospects for replying to any genuine paradox. So I'm definitely with Kant rather than Heidegger here; the idea that it's scandalous that we haven't shelved these fascinating core questions concerning the most central members of our family of epistemological concepts strikes me as pretty wild, I have to say.

Aidan said...

^ in a way that rational or warranted belief *isn't*

Shawn said...

I'm not sure if Taylor was arguing that epistemology as such was not of worth so much as expressing some reservations about the area. Since it seemed more like the latter, it isn't surprising that it didn't convince you. I haven't read much recent epistemology, but it doesn't surprise me that Taylor was distorting or ignoring recent work in the field. I'll try to explain what in the spirit of his post I found myself nodding with. This might indicate a lacuna in my epistemology education, which is surely there since I haven't had any good epistemology classes on recent stuff. I took Taylor to be meaning some of the post-Gettier discussions of the concept of knowledge, fiddling with the conditions slightly or greatly, the articles that, rhetorically, focused on Knowledge. That sort of approach managed to turn me off of the area. When we read articles of that sort in the M&E core last term, I was similarly turned off. When the topics shifted, I was drawn back into epistemology. If the topic was the epistemology of logic or something along those lines I imagine that it would be more appealing and more probably more worthwhile. So, I should correct something in my post. I agree with Taylor's sentiment for a restricted area of epistemology that seems to comprise most of the epistemology with which I'm familiar but which comprises a small region of epistemology as a whole. The Wright and Pryor stuff seems likely to be outside the region I had in mind since the justification literature that I've read (sadly little) has been helpful.

John Greco and Ken Taylor have a short back and forth in the comments on Taylor's post that express more or less what I had in mind.