Thursday 17 May 2012

Outline of Chisholm’s “The Problem of Criterion”


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.

Thursday 10 May 2012

Outline of Peirce’s “The Fixation of Belief”


Charles Sanders Peirce argues that the aim of inquiry is the fixation of belief, and that the scientific method is the most effective way of so doing. 


Step 1: Peirce begins with a historical sketch of different approaches to the art of reasoning (109-111*).

Argument: The Romans and medievalists took all knowledge to rest on authority or reason, with the latter also ultimately derived from authority. Roger Bacon, in the 13th century, held that knowledge was derived from subjective experience, while Francis Bacon, in the Novum Organum, argued that experience must be understood as something open to verification. The chemist, Lavoisier, initiated a shift away from the maxim, “read, work, pray and re-read” to a method focused on manipulation of substances, rather than words. Finally, Darwin employs the statistical approach used to explain the movements of molecules to explain biological variation.

Upshot: The conception of what constitutes proper reasoning has varied over time.

Step 2: Peirce argues that the value of learning the guiding principles of inference is that they allow us to draw true conclusions from true premises (111-113).

Argument: We have a tendency to form beliefs that go beyond what logic would justify.  This is especially true in domains where our beliefs are not constrained by experience.   Hence, what constitutes a valid pattern of reasoning may fail to correspond with what feels, to us, like the most natural pattern of reasoning.  This provides some motivation for learning the principles of valid inference.

Upshot: Patterns of reasoning that ensure true conclusions, given true premises count as valid irrespective of the feelings or impulses of those who rely on them.
Step 3: Peirce imposes a restriction on which guiding principles may be considered determinants of validity (113).

Argument: We may draw a distinction between guiding principles that are necessarily taken for granted in asking whether a certain conclusion follows from certain premises and those that are not implied by that question. With respect to the former, it does not make sense to inquire into their truth since such an inquiry already requires that such principles be assumed true.  Moreover, so long as we stick to these principles, we will always arrive at true conclusions from true premises.

Upshot: The guiding principles that determine valid reasoning are those that are presupposed by the very concept of reasoning.

Step 4: Peirce draws three points of contrast between belief and doubt that are relevant to inquiry (114).

Argument: Belief and doubt differ (i) in terms of their sensation, (ii) in that belief guides our desires and actions while doubt only prompts us to take steps towards its dissolution, and (iii) doubt is an uneasy or dissatisfied state we wish to change into belief while belief is a calm and satisfactory state we do not wish to change into some other belief.

Upshot: Belief and doubt play different roles in inquiry, with the former constituting its destination and the latter its driving force.

Step 5: Peirce argues that doubt is the driving force behind inquiry and that the settlement of opinion is the end of inquiry (114-115).

Argument: The irritation caused by doubt motivates us to inquire, and inquiry comes to an end once we arrive at a settled opinion, whether or not that opinion is true. Truth cannot motivate us because whether or not an opinion is true always lies outside the mind, and therefore could not affect it.

Upshot: This falsifies at least three conceptions of proof: (i) the thesis that inquiry begins with the posing of any question one pleases, (ii) the thesis that inquiry involves a search for certainty, even with respect to things that are not actually doubted, and (iii) the thesis that we may continue to inquire about something that everyone is already convinced about.

Step 6: Peirce considers the effectiveness of the “method of tenacity” as means of fixing belief (115-117).

Argument: Often, our instinctive dislike for an undecided state of mind prompts us to cling to the views we already have.  Subjects may also embrace beliefs they find agreeable, and attempt to shield themselves from considerations that would prompt them to change their mind. These are examples of the method of tenacity.  However, this method of fixing belief often proves unsuccessful since subjects who are confronted with the competing opinions of others are often led to revise their own.  

Upshot: The method of tenacity often proves to be ineffectual for fixing belief.
Step 7: Peirce considers the effectiveness of the “method of authority” as a means of fixing belief (117-118).

Argument: The method of authority represents a shift from a focus on the individual (as with the method of tenacity) to a focus on a certain community. It involves the imposition or regulation of the beliefs of a population by social institutions, and has proven to be more effective at fixing belief than the method of tenacity.  However, institutions cannot regulate opinions on every subject.  Moreover, as subjects come to recognise that members of other societies believe differently, they are often led to question the beliefs of their own.

Upshot: The method of authority is ineffectual as a general means of fixing belief.

Step 8: Peirce considers the efficacy of the “a priori method” as a means of fixing belief (118-120).

Argument: Although the a priori method is superior, with respect to reason, than those discussed thus far, the intuitions that underlay the method (like tastes) tend to vary from time, in step with the intellectual fashions of the time.  Moreover, when it is observed that people from other cultures have quite different intuitions, this leads many to question the assumption that their own intuitions are somehow privileged or right.  This, in turn, ultimately gives rise to doubt.

Upshot:  The a priori method ultimately proves less than satisfactory as a means of fixing belief.

Step 10: Peirce considers the “scientific method”, and argues that it is most preferred method (of those discussed) for fixing belief (120-121).

Argument: The scientific method is able to satisfy our doubts because it bases belief on external rather than human factors.  This frees it of the vicissitudes of human nature.  Moreover, the wide reliance on the scientific method, and its long track record of success, instils confidence, making the method less likely to give rise to doubt when it is consistently applied.

Upshot: The scientific method is the most successful of those considered, for fixing belief.

Step 11: Peirce outlines what he takes to be the primary contrast between the scientific method and the others he considers (121).

Argument: There is no wrong way to employ the methods of tenacity, authority, and a priori reasoning, from the point of view of the methods themselves.  This is because they all endorse whatever belief a subject already has about the best way to employ that method.  However, the scientific method, which has an objective standard of what counts as good reasoning, allows for the possibility that a subject may fail to reason correctly.

Upshot: The scientific method alone is able to allow for the possibility of both bad reasoning and good reasoning.

Step 12: Peirce concedes that the scientific method is not superior to the other methods of fixing belief in every respect (121-123).

Argument: The a priori method may generate more comfortable conclusions; the method of authority will always be preferred by institutions to stamp out inconvenient beliefs and may better facilitate peace and social stability; the method of tenacity requires a resolute character and is to be admired for its simplicity and directness.

Upshot: The scientific method is not superior to the others in every respect.


Although the scientific method is not superior, as a means of fixing belief, in every respect, it is still worth adopting and defending.


1. What, according to Peirce, is the primary goal of inquiry? Do you agree? Why or why not?

2. Based on what Peirce has to say about the role of doubt in inquiry, how would he feel about the Cartesian search for certainty?

3. What is the fundamental hypothesis of the scientific method? Is it consistent with the possibility that we are in the Matrix? Why or why not?

4. What, according to Peirce, makes the scientific method superior to the other methods of fixing belief? Do you agree? Why or why not?

*Page numbers based on The Essential Peirce anthology.