A Lewisian Theory of Knowledge?

David Lewis’s central work in epistemology is his article “Elusive Knowledge,” defending a version of contextualism constructed out of a relevant alternatives theory of knowledge. If your a fan of RA theories of knowledge, the view might have more plausibility than it will for those of us not so enamored, and in any case, it is a depressingly deflationary approach to the subject, informing us that knowledge may flourish when we pay it no mind, but the slightest bit of reflection destroys it entirely.

There is a different Lewisian approach, however, one that he instances in a number of other areas, that it is somewhat surprising to find missing here.
Think of what he has to say about chance, for example. What he looks for is not exactly a theory of chance, but a theory of whatever it is that plays the role of chance in our ordinary thinking. Whatever does the best job theoretically of accounting for this role is judged to be the best theory, and whatever is left over in the ordinary notion of chance or, for the more metaphysically inclined, the property of chanciness, is ignored: spoils to the victor, as Lewis likes to say. The initial theory, then, is driven by the Principle Principal, since Lewis initially thought that it is the best guide there is to the role chance plays in our thinking.

So why not do epistemology this way? Why not try to figure out what role knowledge plays in our thinking and try to identify some guiding principle or principles about it? That would be a Lewisian theory of knowledge. It would be interesting to see what the guiding principles for the knowledge role might be, though I know what a number of epistemologists will say: it’s just justification itself! So then a Lewisian theory of knowledge would be one that identifies knowledge and justification. Quite stunning, and disappointing. But maybe there are other ideas?


A Lewisian Theory of Knowledge? — 4 Comments

  1. Hi Jon,

    It seems to me that this Lewisian approach to knowledge (should we call it “Canberra epistemology”?) is actually quite popular these days, with many now proposing that knowledge plays the role of regulating assertion or practical reasoning, or that knowledge plays the role of evidence.

  2. Hi John, yes, that’s exactly the kind of principle I was thinking about: appropriate assertion requires knowledge and knowledge is sufficient for practical reasoning. What we’d need is someone to defend the idea that anything that plays these roles is close enough to knowledge to not worry about cases in which some item satisfies the guiding principles but clearly isn’t a case of knowledge. We’d need, that is, a “spoils to the victor” kind of argument.

  3. Jon,

    Is what you have in mind similar to what you’ll find in the closing section of Weatherson’s “What Good are Counterexamples?”? The position he’s describing in that paper seems to be pretty similar to what you’re describing as the (a?) Lewisian approach to knowledge.

  4. Hi Clayton, yes, you’re right, there are parts of that paper that seem like just what I’m suggesting. Especially the part about the network of relations to other natural properties (though the only one that gets much attention is the norm of assertion link). His goal in mentioning the network idea, though, is just to block a certain kind of objection to his preferred view about the nature of knowledge, and not quite to pursue a methodology to generate a theory of knowledge as defensible as any could be. So if we took the network idea and developed it by citing the links that are crucial for the best theory of knowledge, we’d have something of the sort I was thinking about here.

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