Monday, 29 January 2007

"Selling Out" McDowell

Today, I saw an online news report describing how avid Jimi Hendrix fans have been lamenting the “selling out” of the late musician by a recent energy-drink advertising campaign. This got me thinking; couldn’t the self-professed goal of this blog be described as “selling out” McDowell in the name of epistemology? (See Welcome to the Space of Reasons for more on my blog’s overarching goal.) Specifically, I see McDowell as providing a post-Gettier version of justification internalism, in which “internal” is understood along the lines of Conee and Feldman’s “mentalism”. This is a position I hope to limn in greater detail in the near future. However, there seems to be at least two initial objections to my description of McDowell as a J-internalist, one methodological (or meta-philosophical) and the other theoretical. In this post I will attempt to address the methodological, or what I will henceforth call the “sell-out” objection to my proposal.

The “sell-out” objection derives most of its force from the fact that the label of “J-internalist” is not one that McDowell ever applies to himself. Moreover, I suspect that McDowell would positively object to the application of such a label to his approach, even if compelling theoretical grounds could be presented for doing so. My suspicion is rooted in what I believe to be one of the chief motivations behind McDowell’s decision to use unconventional philosophical terms when articulating his position. After decades, and in some cases centuries, of use in countless debates, much of the traditional language of epistemology has become hopelessly cathected with a host of conflicting (and often unhelpful) philosophical connotations. Admittedly, theoretical distinctions, such as the internalist/externalist distinction in epistemology, were originally intended to clarify points of disagreement between philosophers. However, according to the “sell-out” objection, the traditional terminology now only serves to conceal and confuse, rather than codify and clarify. Moreover, commitment to a particular approach, the philosophical counterpart to political partisanship, has prevented many philosophers from appreciating the valuable insights contained in alternative views, occasionally even blinding them to ways their own position could be enhanced via a melding with that of others. Thus, McDowell’s reluctance to employ the standard nomenclature of the field seems well motivated.

Breaking ranks from the traditional J-internalist/J-externalist distinction seems to gel with McDowell’s attempt to inject a fresh new perspective on these decades-old debates. Moreover, many would argue that by attempting to apply the “J-internalist” label to his approach I’m making my task much more difficult than it needs to be. Why not simply describe McDowell as best you can and then let the J-internalist/J-externalist chips fall where they may? This, after all, is what he himself seems to do. Moreover, the premature application of a label may, at best, only serve to hide the many subtleties of McDowell’s own position and, at worst, reduce him to a mere recapitulation of someone else’s position or a crude caricature of his own.

While I am sympathetic to these sentiments, I still think there is something to be said for the old distinctions. For one thing, McDowell’s use of unconventional terminology can itself hamper comprehension, as evinced by the audible groans and bewildered protests that issue from the average philosophy student when reading Mind and World for the first time. McDowell is often difficult to follow, to say the least. I maintain that this is due, in no small part, to his use of unconventional terminology and metaphors. At best, this makes it difficult for a reader to immediately appreciate what McDowell is attempting to get across, and at worse, it may prompt the reader to stop reading! By recasting McDowell in the standard language of epistemology I hope to make him accessible to a broader audience. By construing McDowell as a J-internalism I hope to situate him in the philosophical literature. Fulfilling both objectives will not only aid readers in seeing where McDowell stands in relation to others, but would better facilitate the assessment of his relative strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps most important of all, this process will help to clarify McDowell’s unique contribution to the ongoing debates. Rather than forcing him into some preset mould, I believe this will actually foster a better appreciation of just how nuanced a thinker he is.

A final collateral benefit of my attempt to characterise McDowell as a J-internalist is the injection of a fresh perspective into the J-internalist/J-externalist debate. By canvassing the claim that McDowell is a J-internalist I will (eo ipso) be articulating what I take to be a robust and philosophically compelling version of J-internalism. Specifically, I believe McDowell provides J-internalism with a powerful new tool (embodied in his conception of object-dependent singular thought) that relatively few J-internalists recognise as available to them. Thus, if successful, my project would also equip J-internalists with added theoretical artillery in the fight against J-externalism. Given all the aforementioned benefits, can I really be blamed for attempting to “sell out” McDowell for my own epistemological gain.

Saturday, 27 January 2007

An Exchange with Adrian Haddock

Note: The following was originally supposed to be just a reply to Adrian's comments (See McDowell, Knowledge and Credit below), but I decided to feature it as its own separate post so that it doesn't distract from the other important issues raised by Adam's post. Of particular interest are Adrian's elucidative comments that follow.

As is usually the case with his reflections on McDowell, I find Adrian's comments very illuminating. While I agree with his point that locutions like 'reflectively accessible' are 'philosophical terms of art', I'll like to play devil's advocate by arguing that there is something problematic about McDowell's employment of the concept. McDowell's commitment to 'reflective accessibility' is typically instantiated in his claim that a subject's epistemic standing is determined solely by factors that constitute 'how thing are with her subjectively.' I take this expression to be an umbrella term for the kinds of things we typically take to be reflectively accessible, such as beliefs, experiences etc. But by using this expression, McDowell doesn't define what he means by 'reflectively accessible'. Rather, he merely implicitly appeals to a list of items we typically take to be such. But that is a far cry from providing us with an account of what 'reflective accessibility' consists in.

Adrian's locution: 'accessible to the subject in the way in which the subject's mental states are accessible to the subject' is equally unhelpful. Again, all it does is list one item, namely mental states, that is typically taken to be reflectively accessible, while failing to say precisely what is meant by 'reflective accessibility.' The question then becomes, what does it mean for mental states to be 'reflectively accessible'? This question is particularly pertinent given that McDowell's brand of singular anti-individualism seems to entail that a subject may often lack knowledge about her own mental states, such that she may think she is entertaining a certain thought when in fact she is having an illusion of thought. This picture of mental states, if not at odds with our putative understanding, is certainly not how we would typically think about reflectively accessible items. Consequently, it is misleading to simply define 'reflective accessibility' via an ostensive reference to items we take to be paradigmatic cases of reflective accessibility, when these very items have been re-described so that they no longer match our putative understanding of what reflective accessibility consists in.

In sum, the McDowellian take on the question of reflective accessibility amounts to the following rhetorical slight of hand: to redefine mental states etc, in a way that makes reflective access to them problematic, and then to simply define 'reflective accessibility' via an ostensive reference to mental states, all the while pretending to talk about them in the way we typically do.

Friday, 26 January 2007

McDowell, Knowledge and Credit (Carter)

Note: The following post was written by J. Adam Carter, from over at Virtue Epistemology, who has given me permission to feature it here. Be sure to check out the exchange between Adrian Haddock and I that follows:

I'm interested in getting clear about two features, specifically, of John McDowell's theory of knowledge. (1) How does his account answer any of the three value problems; (2) How does his account explain why knowers are credit-worthy?

I haven't yet come across literature that can explain the first of these questions, but after thinking about 'Knowledge and the Internal' I am somewhat confused as to how a satisfactory answer to (2) would go.

McDowell, in criticizing the 'hybrid' account, claims that what is epistemically significant between a knower and a non-knower (take the context of the New Evil Genius setting) should not fall outside the knower's standing in the space of reasons. And so, because the hybrid account posits that the 'favor from the world' is something external to the knower's standing in the SOR, McDowell rejects the view.

However, by preserving the Sellarsian idea of knowledge as a satisfactory standing in the space of reasons, McDowell abolishes the hybrid idea by Trojan Horsing in what was external in the hybrid account so that it falls within the knower's standing in the space of reasons. He does this by requiring that facts be reasons, and also be such that they shape the space of reasons in which agent finds herself.

What is troubling to me is this: McDowell, by making this move, thinks that facts are reflectively accessible. However, this just seems dubious to me when we think about an agent and his envatted counterpart forming the belief that p. What seems to be reflectively accessible to both is the content of some belief, which they take as a reason. For the lucky non-envatted agent, the content reflectively assessible to her is a fact. However, crucially, it is not reflectively accessible to the non-envatted agent that what she takes as a reason is a fact. And so, what is 'epistemically significant' between the knower and non-knower is something which, as in the case of the hybrid view, is not obiviously creditable to the agent. And so, I can't see how his account is going to explain why knowers are any more creditworthy than non-knowers.

The above is my 'naive' concern, and perhaps this will be assuaged after I get clearer on his view.

That aside, I'd be interested in either reasons for or against endorsing my concern and also any literature recommedations that would be useful to getting clear on what McDowell's view would say (on either of the initial questions).

J. Adam Carter

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

On Alan Millar’s "The Idea of Experience"

Alan Millar’s central contention in "The Idea of Experience" is that “the experientialist picture is not committed to thinking of experiences as involving, or themselves being, appearances which interpose themselves between subjects and their world and so is not undermined by objections which assume that it is so committed.” [Millar 1996 p.89] The target of Millar’s criticism is the disjunctive conception advocated by Snowdon and McDowell, which Millar depicts as claiming just the opposite. While there is evidence to suggest that disjunctivists often equate the experientialist picture with the presupposition that there are sensory intermediaries [See: Snowdon 1990] I do not believe that this equation is the main motivation behind their rejection of the experientialist picture. Rather, disjunctivists impugn the experientialist picture because it conceives of perceptual experience as "inner" and independent of the external world—what McDowell refers to as the "interiorization of the space of reasons". [McDowell 1986, p. 146]

While I agree with Millar that the experientialist need not posit a sensory intermediary, like sense data, the fact remains that for the experientialist we are having the same type of experience in both the veridical and hallucination case [Cf. Millar 1996, p.75]. Let e be the visual experience of there being (or seeming to be) an apple before me. According to experientialist, I am having the same sort of experience e when I see an apple before me and when I am having a hallucination that there is an apple before me. The upshot of this is that having the experience e is compatible with there being no apple before me. Now, the disjunctivist points out that e is taken by the experientialist to be the basis for my belief that there is an apple before me. However, if e is compatible with the possibility that there is no apple before me then e in no way guarantees that I am actually seeing an apple. Consequently, the disjuntivist insists that e fails to constitute a warrant for my belief that there is an apple before me. This failure of e to warrant my belief that there is an apple before me is rooted in experientialist conception of experience as independent of the external world, and therefore in no way beholden to it.

By contrast, the disjunctivist insist that in the veridical case our perceptual experience does not fall short of the facts themselves. For the time being I wish to bracket the question of how disjunctivists characterise our directly taking in facts in the world. It is sufficient for our present purposes to note that for the disjunctivist, veridical experiences are of one sort, e1, while hallucinatory experiences are of a different sort, e2. The disjunctivist may therefore grant that the experientialist picture does not entail the existence of a sensory intermediary. However, so long as the experientialist assumes that our visual experiences are neutral to whether or not there is an external object present, such experiences fail to warrant our belief that there is an external object present.

In sum, I believe Millar is successful in establishing the lemma that the experientialist picture does not necessarily presuppose the existence of a sensory intermediary. I also agree that disjunctivists often speak (erroneously) as if the experientialist is committed to the notion of a sensory intermediary. However, I do not believe that this fact is sufficient to establish his larger goal of discrediting the disjunctivit’s rejection of the experientialist picture. To do this, he would have to show either that the experientialist does not entail the interiorized conception or that the interiorized conception does not have the unfavourable consequences that the disjunctivist claims it does. Another issue raised in "The Idea of Experience" is the notion that there are different types of awareness and how this idea relates to experience. But since Millar gives this idea more in-depth treatment elsewhere I postpone discussion of it for another time.


McDowell, J. (1986), "Singular Thought and the Extent of Inner Space", Subject, Thought, and Context. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Millar, A, (1996) "The idea of experience", Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 96, 75-90.

Snowdon, P, (1990) "The Objects of Perceptual Experience", Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Vol.

Saturday, 20 January 2007

Isle of Skye Philosophy Hike, Scotland

A Wanton Band of Philosophers

Hi ho, hi ho...

Just About to Break Cloud Cover

Crispin Catching His Breath

James Declares Lunch Break

Mama Said There Would Be Days Like This...

Welcome to Middle Earth!

...One Ring to Rule Them All?

At the Summit

Breathtaking Vision! (and the scenary is nice too)

View from the Top

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

What's Going On...

First, I owe a word of thanks to Duncan Pritchard for encouraging visitors to his blog to check out mine. And let me just say for the record that at the time he posted his referral, I did not have his book, Epistemic Luck, among my recommended reading, so he was not being self-serving in his recommendation :-).

One upshot of Duncan’s promo is the high quality feedback I’ve gotten on my post, Un-discriminating Reliablism (Part 1). I'm particularly grateful to Geoff for getting the ball rolling in this regard. More recently, Ang Tong, from Angasm, has initiated a discussion so engaging that it bridges two blogs! You can find an extended version of the discussion on this blog, with a summarised version over at the Web of Belief. If the quality of feedback I’ve gotten so far is representative of things to come, then I’m certainly in for much more than I originally least one can only hope so. Thanks again for your thoughful comments guys!

Third, I'll like to alert you to the most recent Philosopher’s Carnival, which is being hosted by Westminister Wisdom. As always, there are a number of great links on a wide variety of subject matter.

Fourth, there are a number of interesting epistemology related reading material available online. One of my "real-life" philosophical heroes, Carrie Jenkins, has a new paper entitled Boghossian and Epistemic Analyticity. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but Carrie is as sharp as they come, so I’m sure she serves up lots to sink your philosophical incisors into. Equally exciting is Tim Williamson's forthcoming book, Philosophy of Philosophy, which you can now get a sneak peak of here. You can also find notes from his Hempel lectures by the same title here.

Finally, if you need to take a break from the intellectually serious and find yourself in the mood for some off-beat (and somewhat cranky) philosophical humour, you may want to check out The Space of Reason's evil twin: Freewill Tastes Like Chicken!

Well, that’s all for now…but don't worry, the next jaunt into the Space of Reasons begins soon!

Sunday, 14 January 2007

The University of St Andrews, Scotland, UK

The South-east Entrance

Walkway Leading to the Philosophy Department

The St Andrews Philosophy Department

Another Pic of the Philosophy Department

View Form the Department Steps

View From Department Library

The St Andrews Quad

The Quad (Viewed from an Angle)

The Quad (Viewed from the Right)

The Quad (Viewed From the Left)

The Scores (St Andrews Coastal Street)

The St Andrews Castle Ruins

The West Scores

Another Pic of the West Scores

Sunday, 7 January 2007

Un-discriminating Reliabilism (Part 2)

In [Goldman 1976], Goldman rejects the idea that knowledge requires evidence or justification, and instead conceives of knowledge as true belief that satisfies a reliability condition. On this view, reliability is what you add to true beliefs, instead of evidence or justification, in order to get knowledge. However, in [Goldman 1979], Goldman came to hold the view that instead of replacing the notion of justification in an account of knowledge, reliability is what makes a belief justified. This shift in Goldman’s thought is indeed significant, since it represents his move towards a full-fledged J-externalism. But there is an equally important (earlier) shift that takes place in [Goldman 1976]; namely, Goldman’s rejection of the causal account advocated in [Goldman 1967] and his embracing of the idea that knowledge requires certain discriminative abilities, a view he motivates with his now famous barn case (pp. 772-773). An analysis of the barn case leads Goldman to conclude:
A person knows that p, I suggest, only if the actual state of affairs in which p is true is distinguishable or discriminable by him from a relevant possible state of affairs in which p is false. If there is a relevant possible state of affairs in which p is false and which is indistinguishable by him from the actual state of affairs, then he fails to know that p. (Ibid, 774)
Notice that the above discrimination requirement avoids the unfavourable consequences of the Gettier case described in my previous post in at least two ways. First, it omits all talk of justification and so (in at least one sense) traditional Gettier problems never arise. Second, since according to the aforementioned Gettier case S is unable to discriminate between the actual red cube and the hologram, her true belief does not constitute knowledge (thereby preserving our common-sense intuitions regarding such cases). But, and this is crucial to the point I’m getting at, what is doing the actual work in [Goldman 1976]’s reply to Gettier is the discrimination requirement, and not the notion of reliability a la (J-Rel). Admittedly, in [Goldman 1976], Goldman defines reliability in terms of a subject being able to discriminate between relevant alternatives and thus the former is taken to entail the latter. However, in later formulations of the reliability requirement, explicit appeals to discriminative abilities are increasingly omitted, and Goldman eventually comes to define a reliable process as more or less one that tends to produce true beliefs. Moreover, I do not believe this shift in Goldman’s definition of reliability is by accident. Presumably, talk of discriminative abilities falls out of Goldman’s analysis (now taken to be unnecessary) once he shifts to an explicit J-externalism, where what makes a belief justified need not be internally available to the subject.

The objection may be raised that even with the J-externalist turn in Goldman’s thinking, the discrimination requirement remains an implicit part of his account. I will not deny that this may be the case. Even so, it has long been recognised that the discrimination requirement can stand on its own, independent of any appeals to reliability (see for example [McGinn 1984]). Thus, if my claim that what is doing the work vis-a-vis Gettier is actually the discrimination requirement, rather than reliability qua reliability, then this is at least sufficient to establish that when it comes to the aforementioned Gettier case, reliability a la (J-Rel) is at best explanatorily redundant and at worst explanatorily inert. (The second more unpropitious option holds if you consider my arguments in (Part 1) persuasive.) Moreover, even if one were to reject the account of the evolution of Goldman’s thought outlined above, my more general conclusions still stand: (1) that though reliability and discrimination are classically taken to go together this need not be the case and (2) if (DR) is doing the heavy lifting in classic reliabilist replies to Gettier then the widely held assumption that (J-Rel) constitutes a successful reply to Gettier may be unwarranted.


Goldman, A. (1967), 'A Causal Theory of Knowing', Journal of Philosophy 64: 355-372.

Goldman, A. (1976), 'Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge', Journal of Philosophy 73: 771-791.

Goldman, A. (1979), 'What is Justified Belief?' Justification and Knowledge, Dordrecht: Reidel.

Friday, 5 January 2007

Dennett's "Breaking the Spell"Team

The "Breaking the Spell" Teaching and Research Support
From left to right: Avery, Rick, Sarah, Adam and Felipe

Boating with Dennett
Felipe, Avery, Dan

Avery at the Helm (Think: We're All Going to Die!)
From right to left: Avery, Sarah, Dan, Felipe

The Finished Product!

A Celebration Dinner (Maine, NH)

Tuesday, 2 January 2007

Un-discriminating Reliabilism (Part 1)

J-reliabilism is perhaps the most well-known, if not most widely held, response to Gettier’s criticism of the JTB account of knowledge. However, in this post (as well as in the one to follow), I argue that J-reliabilism is insufficient for responding to Gettier. Furthermore, I argue that what is really doing the work in classical formulations of reliabilism, such as that found in [Goldman 1976], is the discrimination requirement, or (DR):
(DR) For any subject S, if S knows that p then S can distinguish the actual situation in which p from all relevant or nearby alternative situations in which ~p.
Recall, J-reliabilism amounts to following claim:
(J-Rel) For any subject S, S’s belief that p is justified IFF it was formed via a reliable process (i.e., a process that tends to produce true beliefs).
According to (J-Rel), reliability is what makes a belief justified. (see [Goldman 1979]). By defining justification in terms of reliability, J-reliabilists hope to eliminate that element of luck that allows our beliefs, under the traditional JTB account, to be Gettiered. However, it is not clear that (J-Rel) is sufficient for resisting Gettier type cases. For example, consider the following perceptual Gettier case:

Suppose S has strong perceptual evidence for, and comes to believe, the proposition:
(a) There is a red cube in the box on the table.
Now, it so happens that there is in fact a red cube in the box on the table, though the cube is being obscured from S’s visual field by some sort of barrier. Furthermore, the box is rigged up to a computer which projects a visual hologram of a red cube in the box. However, the computer is programmed to only project the hologram of the red cube in the box when there is a real red cube in the box. Moreover, S lacks any of this background information, and forms her belief that (a) purely on the basis of the hologram of the red cube. All of the following seem true in the above case:
(i) (a) is true
(ii) S believes (a) is true
(iii) S’s belief that (a) is formed via a reliable process
Ex hypothesi, (iii) is true since the computer is programmed to only project the hologram of a red cube when there is an actual red cube present (one may build in whatever stipulations one likes, such as that the computer is eternal and infallible in its operation etc.). Thus, S’s belief that there is a red cube in the box is reliable since the process by which the belief was formed would, given the computer’s programming, tend to produce true beliefs. However, I believe this represents a bona fide Gettier case since, though S has a justified (i.e., reliably formed) true belief, we wouldn’t say that she has knowledge.

I take the above Gettier case to show that mere reliability is insufficient for eliminating the element of luck from S’s belief that (a). To wit, (J-Rel) fails to eliminate the element of luck associated with S’s belief that (a) since the fact that her belief is reliable is (from the subject’s perspective) itself merely a matter of luck. Thus, we may say that it is lucky that S’s belief was formed via a reliable process. Significantly, the particular species of epistemic luck here described is easily eliminated by making the reliability of the belief forming process internally available to S. Thus, if S knew that what she was seeing was merely a hologram, but that the hologram was itself reliably linked to the presence of an actual red cube in the box, then our intuitions would grant that S does in fact know that there is a red cube in the box. Thus, I see the above Gettier case as corroborating the internalist intuition that that which justifies S’s beliefs should be internally available to her.

Notice that I haven’t made any references to S being able to discriminate between actual red cubes and holograms of red cubes, nor to definitions of reliability that appeal to relevant alternatives (See [Goldman 1986]). This failure to invoke (DR) is in keeping with my ultimate goal of showing that what is doing the real work in classic reliabilist accounts is not reliability qua reliability, but rather an implicit commitment to (DR). Above, I have argued that reliability alone [i.e., (J-Rel)] is insufficient for responding to Gettier. In my next post, I argue that the mistaken assumption that (J-Rel) and (DR) must go together has misled reliability advocates to impute to J-reliabilism an explanatory power that it actually lacks.


Goldman, A. (1967), 'A Causal Theory of Knowing', Journal of Philosophy 64: 355-372.

Goldman, A. (1976), 'Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge', Journal of Philosophy 73: 771-791.

Goldman, A. (1979), 'What is Justified Belief?' Justification and Knowledge, Dordrecht: Reidel.