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Coherentism, reliabilism, internalism, externalism


To: Alfred M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Coherentism, reliabilism, internalism, externalism
Date: 25 September 2007 11:58

Dear Al,

Thank you for your email of 22 August, with your third University of London Epistemology essay, in the form of a dialogue on coherentism, reliabilism, internalism and externalism (etc.).

I note that in my two previous responses I remarked that you had 'missed the point of the question'. This time, I can't make this criticism as you haven't said what the question is!

However, there are a lot of good ideas here, and I get the general drift of what you are trying to say.

My job is to get you through the exam (and with good marks). It is essential that you know and understand the importance that examiners place on 'relevance to the question'. As an illustration of this, students who memorize essays for reproduction in the examination can come badly unstuck, if the question is just slightly different from the one to which the essay was originally written. The examiners want to know (want you to prove to them) not only how much you know about the general topic, but also how good you are at constructing an argument in response to a specific challenge - how good you are 'on your feet'.

Which brings us to Fog and Phyllus, the peripatetic soldier-philosophers.

One of the charms of the dialogue format (and the reason why Plato's dialogues are so gripping) is that we see the participants actively thinking on their feet, responding to the other participants' arguments rather than merely trotting out their pet theory. You have done well here, in making the issues come alive. They did so for me.

As the dialogue started, I gained the initial impression that your intention was to explore the nature of concepts from a broadly Wittgensteinian perspective. In the 'Philosophical Investigations' Wittgenstein puts forward his theory of rule following and 'forms of life' in opposition to what he sees as the twin illusions of Platonism and psychologism. The illusion of Platonism is not necessarily literal belief in Platonic forms but rather the notion that there is an objective entity, 'the meaning of A' with which my mind somehow makes contact when I use the term 'A' correctly. The illusion of psychologism internalizes the meaning-object, while retaining its determinacy. While according to Wittgenstein's doctrine of 'meaning is use' there is nothing but the language game itself, the things we say and do and the reasons that we give in justification.

Another way of expressing this radical view of language is to say that there is no 'god's eye view' of language. There is only the point of view of language users themselves.

The point I want to make here is that this is something that externalists in epistemology fully accept. Externalism is not god's view but merely the view of the 'third person'. It is seen as a natural correlate of Wittgenstein's argument against a private language. If it is not possible, in principle, to determine what I mean by 'S' by observation of what I do and say, then I don't know what I mean either (see Philosophical Investigations para 258).

However, my sympathies are with you to a greater extent than this would imply, because I have a strong complaint about externalism in epistemology: externalists make things too easy for themselves. They assume from the start the very thing that causes such anxiety about knowledge. Externalists tell us that *If* A knows that P then such-and-such consequences follow. But what we want to know is what *right* do we have (do we ever have) to claim that we 'know' something, when no empirical belief (as numerous sceptical examples show) is 100 per cent certain.

This gives renewed impetus to a form of internalism which sees that there is something that we need to justify: the pragmatic value of the concept 'knowledge'.

How would one show this? I think you are right in stressing the importance of 'functional knowledge'. We need a term to distinguish knowledge from true belief. If I tell you that I believe that P, and moreover my belief that P is true I have not added anything to the claim that P. (The assertion that P is to all intents and purposes equivalent to the assertion that it is true that P.) But if I say that I know that P then I have said - or rather done - something extra. I am putting myself forward as an authority on the question whether P, and inviting you to accept that authority.

On this view the pragmatic value of the concept of knowledge lies in our interest in testimony, in assessing the credentials of potential bearers of testimony, i.e. deciding who to 'trust' in forming our beliefs. Arguably, the social structures which you describe could not exist in the absence of this feature. Human beings do not simply babble and disseminate beliefs. They investigate, reason, argue, persuade. All of these normative notions imply a distinction between knowledge and mere true belief. On the evidence of the 'Philosophical Investigations' Wittgenstein was fully aware of the aspect of normativity. It is because we cannot speak of 'right' in the case of the private linguist, that there is no following of a rule, no meaning expressed.

You also talk of coherentism in your dialogue. Here, the essential point concerns the absence of 'foundations'. There are no privileged knowledge claims, everything is up for revision. I would argue that this is a separate issue to some extent: you can adopt a 'performative' view of knowledge as a coherentist or anti-coherentist. But that is a topic for another essay.

All the best,