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Does epistemological justification come to an end?


To: Stephen B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Does epistemological justification come to an end?
Date: 14th September 2009 10:31

Dear Stephen,

Thank you for your email of 6 September, with your first essay, for the University of London Epistemology module, in response to the question, 'Justification must come to an end. Therefore, some of our beliefs are either self-justifying or unjustified.' Discuss.

As an undergraduate, I was a voracious reader but also very uneconomic with my time -- I would think nothing of spending two months (on one occasion three months) on one essay. I would emphasize that this is not an example to follow!

I would say, though, that the research you do must be driven by your interest in a problem or question. Don't read stuff just because you feel you 'ought' to have read it. Some books deserved to be plundered rather than read (consider Bacon's advice on reading).

I don't give reading lists because I don't want all my UoL students to end up reading the same things. Trust your judgement, but don't rely too heavily on easy summaries (such as encyclopaedia articles). If a book interests you, find reviews of the book on JSTOR. Books reviews can be a very valuable concentrated source of philosophical debate.

Some of my students have accounts with Questia, which seems to offer good value for a relatively modest outlay.

These days, because so much is available on the internet, it is not necessary to buy as many books as it might have been in the past. However, some of the most important books that I've read I discovered by accident in second-hand book shops.

From your essay (which I will discuss in a minute) it is clear that you would have no difficulty gaining marks in the 2/i bracket. If you have the ambition to do more then you should be prepared to read more widely and deeply -- and put in a lot more hours of study.


This is a very good, well structured answer to the question. You have correctly identified the logical structure of the claim and examined the most obvious options in response to that claim: foundationalism, coherentism and infinitism. Your summary of the debate under each heading is reasonably accurate.

You could do better than this, however. The essay as a whole comes over as rather pat. I would blame the question to some extent, because it positively invites an answer which surveys the various options and sums up the pros and cons. However, you would get higher marks for pushing deeper. Your aporetic conclusion is bought too cheaply. You suggest that maybe 'the fault lies in the question' but what have you done to actually show this? Who says that foundationalism, coherentism and infinitism are the only options?

What is justification? I would have thought that more needs to be said here, especially in the light of Gettier. Although you throw in a quick reference to Gettier's challenge, you don't offer any explanation of how the traditional concept of justification which Gettier challenged connects with the idea of a belief's 'not being formed as a result of epistemic luck' which covers the various lines which have been taken in response to Gettier.

I agree with your statement that 'knowledge implies certainty'. You might like to look at an answer which I recently gave to the question from Demetrius on the relation between knowledge and certainty: See

What I say there in relation to the 'contextual' view of knowledge (David Lewis) challenges the idea of 'justification' in a different way from Gettier. The argument, 'justification must come to end. Therefore...' assumes a notion of justification which does not depend in any way on the circumstances in which a question has been raised. But is that correct?

Let's look at your example: Your mother believes that the sky is blue. So do I. But you do not. The considerations which you offer are ones that hadn't occurred to me prior to reading your essay. I was well aware that the blue colour of the sky is the result of differential scattering of the blue and yellow ends of the visible spectrum. I didn't believe (as perhaps a young child might believe) that the sky is a solid coloured dome or ceiling. However, now that it occurs to me (as a result of reading your essay) there is a question being begged: how can a blue ceiling and a blue sky both BE blue? Isn't there an equivocation here?

Previously, I thought that it sufficed for the truth, 'X is blue' that X appears blue to normal perceivers in normal light under normal circumstances. By this criterion, the sky is blue. However, your objection suggests that we need to refine the definition of ' blue' in order to give due recognition to the difference between an object X's 'having a blue surface', and X's merely 'appearing as if it has a blue surface.' (Then maybe we have to consider the difference between objects which reflect blue light, and objects like blue light bulbs which transmit blue light, and so on.)

The relevance to justification is this: I WAS justified in holding that the sky is blue. After you raised your objection, my justification -- which was fine up to that point -- ceased to be adequate. It became necessary to add something extra to justify/ defend my belief which was not needed before. (Compare this with my example in my response to Demetrius, 'Sue knows that Bob is cheating on her,' and how this knowledge claim might be challenged by raising a question about Bob's possible twin brother from Australia.)

As I hint in my Ask a Philosopher answer, this suggests a radical shake-up in our notions of knowledge and justification. The fact that we are able to defend our beliefs when challenged demonstrates our 'justification' for holding those beliefs. But challenges can come from various directions, more or less expected, and some totally unexpected.

Possibly, one might look again at infinitism: to say that a chain of justification extends 'to infinity' is a rather inflated way of saying that chains of justification do not have a definite end point. As the challenges increase, the chain gets longer, but there is no absolute limit.

These are just some thoughts on possible ways of taking the discussion further.

One other thing that I should mention is that you will get credit for referring to specific philosophers, and crediting them with lines of argument that you discuss. You don't have to overdo this. However, one or two, or a few judiciously selected names will give added authority and will make a difference to the overall impression.

All the best,