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The case for self-justifying beliefs in epistemology


To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The case for self-justifying beliefs in epistemology
Date: 19th September 2009 12:55

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 12 November, with your essay for the University of London Epistemology module, in response to the question, 'In order to amount to knowledge, a belief must be justified. So, unless some beliefs are self-justifying, there is no knowledge.' Discuss.

Regarding your comments on my response to your essay on Hume and causation, the point about Hume's position on causation vs the 'Humean' view of causation is that in assessing the adequacy of Hume's account, one needs to distinguish between failings which are the fault of Hume's radical empiricist starting point, and failings (if there are any) of any Humean view.

You asked why I said that your statement, 'From a rationalist viewpoint we are asked to accept cause and effect as innate knowledge' told me nothing. Suppose you asked me how chicken sexers are able to know whether a chick is male or female and I replied that the knowledge needed to do this is innate. That doesn't tell you what you needed to know. What kind of knowledge is it, innate or otherwise? Is it, as chicken sexers themselves believe, subtle differences in the appearance of the chick? or maybe something to do with their smell?

As I pointed out, Kant does in a way vindicate the rationalist view, in arguing that seeing objects as causally related is an a priori condition for the possibility of experience. This is an answer to the question of 'the kind of knowledge' knowledge of causation is.

Your example of statistical mechanics is a good way to loosen the hold of our pre-reflective notion of causes and powers. However, a case can still be made for the utility of talk of powers, at a higher level of description. (But that's all it is -- talk.)

About revision strategy: I think it is good not to be completely ignorant of one (or more) of the Modern philosophers covered in the Modern Philosophy paper. However, you are right that you will make better use of the study time available by making strategic choices of topics/ philosophers.


You have chosen to respond to this question by offering a review of the various positions in epistemology defined by the problem of justification. Just last week another of my students adopted the same strategy to a similarly worded question. You have offered a useful survey of the 'logical space' of the problem with which I can find little to disagree. However, I wonder whether there isn't something more in the question than this.

The various options and strategies could easily have been covered in less than a page. This is just background knowledge which anyone taking the Epistemology exam is expected to have. To your credit, your account is informative and eloquent. But it looks more like you were using the question as the occasion to give a short lecture on the problems of epistemology, rather than as a target for analysis and critique.

You do offer a critique of the notion of 'self-justifying beliefs', mentioning Sellars and the 'myth of the given'. This could be expanded upon. For example, isn't there a more common-sensical alternative to the traditional sense datum epistemology? G.E. Moore offered the example, 'I have two hands' (in his 'Refutation of Idealism'). Why can't there be a category of basic beliefs which are not indubitable in the Cartesian sense, but nevertheless in practice are sturdy enough to support our other beliefs?

The question is in two parts, so after a short introduction describing the options available I would answer it in the same fashion.

First, Is it true that in order to amount to knowledge a belief must be justified? You give an answer to this towards the end of your essay: reliabilism is one alternative to the view that justification is necessary for knowledge. You could also have mentioned some of the counter-examples discussed in the literature, such as chicken sexing (!). What is justification anyway? You don't make any attempt to define that notion beyond stating that the justification for a belief is itself a belief (is that always true?, can you think of exceptions?).

There are various possible conclusions you could draw. One might be that justification is not strictly necessary for knowledge, but the exceptional cases can be dealt with separately.

Secondly, what exactly is wrong with a chain of justifications which does not end with a self-justifying belief? You say very little about the options available to the coherentist or the infinitist. As an alternative to Klein, I would offer a more Wittgensteinian take. It is not that 'we can find a justification' if we search hard enough, but rather that at some point, 'my spade is turned'. There's nothing more to dig, not because we have finally found the rock bottom indubitable foundation but rather (in a Kantian spirit) we have reached the conditions for the possibility of there being such a thing as justification or knowledge (as Wittgenstein believed 'forms of life' to be).

Coherentism takes different forms. Quine, the naturalized epistemologist, is also a kind of coherentist but this is coherentism without any ambitions for being 'first philosophy'. You can (e.g.) be a traditional coherentist who goes all the way, and regards perceptual beliefs as having no special status, or a modified coherentist who privileges perceptual knowledge.

In short, you can keep much of what you say, but give a better answer to the question by structuring your essay around it, offering more argument and taking up less space with historical exposition.

All the best,