Roderick Chisholm argues that we can successful arrive at a general criterion for distinguishing between cases in which we have knowledge and cases in which we do not if we begin with specific instances in which we clearly have knowledge, and then generalise from those cases to arrive at the principles of “good” belief.
Step 1: Chisholm begins by adumbrating Montaigne’s formulation of the problem of criterion (590*).
Argument: We cannot know that our beliefs are true unless we have a criterion for distinguishing between true or false beliefs. But we cannot know that a given criterion succeeds at distinguishing between true or false beliefs unless we can check to see if it yields the right results. Moreover, we can check to see if a criterion yields the right results only if we already know which of our beliefs are true and which are false.
Upshot: When we attempt to find a criterion of knowledge, we find ourselves caught in a vicious circle.
Step 2: Chisholm describes the dogmatist and the sceptic as occupying opposite extremes on the continuum of how much we think we can know (590-591).
Argument: The dogmatist claims that we can know far more than we actually can. The sceptic claims that we can know far less than we probably can. Common sense suggests that the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes.
Upshot: We know less than the dogmatist claims, but more than the sceptic claims.
Step 3: Chisholm considers Cardinal Mercier’s tripartite criterion of truth (591-592).
Argument: A criterion of truth should be internal: the mind must be able to find sufficient reason within itself to hold that a proposition is true. A criterion of truth should be objective: it is not the subjective feeling of certainty, but the objective fact that causes the feeling that constitutes the reason for holding something true. A criterion of truth should be immediate: If we are to find a criterion that avoids an infinite regress, then we must find grounds for assent that presuppose no other.
Upshot: A criterion of truth should be internal, objective and immediate.
Step 4: Chisholm considers Descartes formulation of the problem of criterion (592-593).
Argument: Beliefs are like a pile of good and bad apples in which the bad apples tend to infect the good. We must therefore get rid of the bad apples; which is to say, the false beliefs. If we succeed, we would be left with a stock of true beliefs that we can rely on completely. However, we can only tell which beliefs are the good ones if we have a method for doing so. But given that there are good and bad methods, we must first find a method for deciding between good and bad methods. But in order to do that, we must first have a method for that method, and so on, ad infinitum.
Upshot: The attempt to find a method to distinguish between good and bad beliefs generates an infinite regress.
Step 5: Chisholm reformulates the problem of criterion in terms of a pair of questions (593-594).
Argument: We may distinguish between the questions: (A) What do we know? What is the extent of our knowledge? and (B) How do we decide whether we know? What are the criteria of knowledge? If we knew the answer to (A), we would be able to figure out the answer to (B). Alternatively, if we somehow already knew the answer to (B), we would be able to figure out the answer to (A).
Upshot: There are two possible strategies for successfully answering (A) and (B).
Step 6: Chisholm distinguishes between methodist and particularist strategies for solving the problem of criterion (594-596).
Argument: Methodists believe that we already know the answer to (B), and that we can therefore use (B) to figure out the answer to (A). Particularists believe that we already know the answer to (A), and that we can use (A) to figure out the answer to (B). The sceptic claims that we cannot know the answer to (A) unless we first know the answer to (B), and that we cannot know the answer to (B) until we first know the answer to (A).
Upshot: There are three possible approaches one can take to answering (A) and (B): the methodist, particularist, or sceptical.
Step 7: Chisholm sides with the particularist (596-597).
Argument: We do not need to apply a criterion to determine if we know things like this is a hand. There are certain clear cases of knowledge. We are free to begin with such cases, and (based on these clear cases) opine what the criterion for knowledge should be. For example, if we begin with clear cases of perceptual knowledge, we are led to embrace the criterion of accepting the testimony of the senses unless we have some reason to distrust them on a particular occasion.
Upshot: We can solve the problem of criterion by beginning with particular cases of knowledge and generalising to formulate a criterion for true belief.
Step 8: Chisholm defines what he takes to be the key concepts in a theory of evidence (597-598).
Argument: A mental state, A, is intrinsically preferable to another, B, only if anyone who prefers B to A is mistaken in his preference. A proposition, p, is beyond reasonable doubt only if believing p is epistemically preferable to withholding belief in P. A proposition, p, is evident for S only if it is beyond reasonable doubt for S. A proposition, p, is acceptable if withholding belief in p is not preferable to believing p, and unacceptable if withholding p is preferable to believing p. A proposition, p, has some presumption in its favour only if believing p is preferable to believing not-p. A proposition, p, is certain if there is no other proposition that is epistemically preferable to believing p.
Upshot: There are six key concepts that are relevant to the attempt find a satisfactory criterion of knowledge.
Step 10: Chisholm attempts to arrive at a criterion for certainty by considering the “first truths of fact” (598).
Argument: The “first truths of fact” refers to propositions about one’s mental states at a given time, such as one’s thinking certain thoughts, entertaining certain beliefs, or being in certain sensory or emotional states. Such states are “self-presenting” in that it is necessarily true that if one is in that state at some time, t, then it is evident to one at that one is in that state at t. Perceiving that p and remembering that p are not self-presenting states, but seeming to see that p and seeming to remember that p are. Moreover, seeming to see that p and seeming to remember that p is indirect evidence for p.
Upshot: If something is self-presenting, then it satisfies the criterion for certainty.
Step 11: Chisholm attempts to arrive at a criterion for certainty by considering the “first truths of reason” (599).
Argument: An axiom is a necessary proposition, such that one cannot understand it without thereby knowing that it is true. A proposition is a priori for S at time t, if one of the following is true at t: (i) the proposition is an axiom for S at t, or (ii) it is evident to S that the proposition is entailed by a set of propositions that are axioms for S at t. All a priori propositions are “first truths of reason”.
Upshot: If something is an axiom for one, then it satisfies the criterion for certainty.
Step 12: Chisholm weighs the merits of the claim that sources of indirect evidence should be treated as innocent (i.e., reliable) until there is positive grounds for thinking them guilty (599-600).
Argument: We can begin attempting to articulate principles for a theory of the indirectly evident by considering the following two claims: (M): If it is evident to S that she seems to remember that p, then it is beyond reasonable doubt for S that p, and (P): If it is evident to S that she seems to perceive that p, then it is evident to S that p. However, (M) and (P) are too permissive, and a complete epistemology is needed in order to ad the appropriate qualifications. Nevertheless, (M) and (p) are possible starting points.
Upshot: We can, in principle, arrive at criterion if we paradigm cases of knowledge.
Step 13: Chisholm acknowledges that he has simply presupposed particularism when formulating his criterion of knowledge (600).
Argument: Given that our options are particularism, methodism, and scepticism, there is no non-question-begging way of choosing between the three. However, this does not mean that the sceptic is right because if we assume particularism, we are able acknowledge an obvious fact that we are unable to acknowledge if we assume scepticism; namely, that we do know many things.
Upshot: We are no less justified in assuming particularism than any of the other two approaches to the problem of criterion.
Step 14: Chisholm maintains that his proposed criterion for knowledge satisfies Cardinal Mercier’s three requirements (600).
Argument: Since Chisholm’s criterion, which relies on self-presenting or axiomatic propositions as indirect evidence for claims about the world, does not appeal to any external authority, it satisfies Mercier’s requirement of being internal. Since Chisholm’s approach allows that a subject may be mistaken about whether one mental state is preferable to another, it follows that it is objective. Since Chisholm’s criterion, if it is adequate, involves principles that are necessarily true, it satisfies Mercier’s requirement of being immediate.
Upshot: Chisholm’s criterion of knowledge satisfies Mercier’s requirements of being internal, objective and immediate.
We may successfully arrive at a criterion for knowledge by adopting a particularist approach which assumes that there are clear cases of knowledge, and generalises from such cases to arrive at broad principles. The particularist approach Chisholm offers begins with propositions about which we are certain, and use such propositions as indirect evidence for propositions, which are thereby placed beyond reasonable doubt.
1. Do you agree with Cardinal Mercier's claim that a criterion of knowledge should be internal, objective, and immediate? Why or why not?
2. Do you think Chisholm's assumption that there are certain clear cases of knowledge is warranted? Why or why not?
3. What, according to Chisholm, is the difference between something being evident and something being beyond reasonable doubt? In your opinion, is being beyond reasonable doubt (as the expression is used by Chisholm) sufficient for a belief to be justified? Is it sufficient for a belief to constitute knowledge?
4. Do you agree with Chisholm's claim that we can be certain about "first truths of fact"? What about "first truths of reason"? Why or why not?
*Page numbers based on the, Epistemology: Contemporary Readings, anthology.