A smorgasbord of Meno problems

There is a ton of recent work on the Meno problem (or problems) about the value of knowledge. That work is interesting and creative, but often annoyingly unclear about just what the Meno problem (or problems) is (or are) supposed to be. I’m going to try to add some clarity by systematically classifying the many Meno problems.

Here goes. Start with the claim that knowledge is better than true belief. There are three important questions about this claim: the questions of whether it is true, why it is true, and what follows from the putative fact that it is true. These three questions are complicated in four important ways.

First, they are complicated by the fact that theorists sometimes replace “true belief” with a term like “proper parts of knowledge”, the idea being (roughly) that the questions should be asked not only about true belief, but about every state that, like true belief and justified belief, features some of the necessary conditions on knowledge but not others. Other times, theorists replace “true belief” with some very general term like “everything in the ballpark of knowledge”, the idea being that we should ask if (and why, and what follows from the putative fact that) knowledge is better than every other epistemic state.

The second and third complications have to do with the notion of betterness. Different theorists can mean to invoke different *dimensions* of betterness by the term “better than”: they can mean to invoke prudential betterness, moral betterness, epistemic betterness, or all-things-considered betterness. Also, different theorists can mean to invoke different *kinds* of betterness: betterness as a means, and betterness as an end. The second and third complications, then, are that different theorists invoke different dimensions and kinds of value.

The fourth complication arises from the issue of which items of knowledge are supposed to be better than which items of true belief (or whatever true belief has been replaced by). In some cases, theorists seem to be comparing every item of knowledge to every item of true belief (etc). In other cases, they just try to compare items of knowledge and true belief (etc) of a certain class, for instance the class of pairs of these items across which *other things are equal*. And in other cases still, the authors just take the relevant betterness to hold generically, as e.g. it holds generically that grizzlies are bigger than black bears.

In summary, the Meno drives theorists to ask numerous questions about the value of knowledge. Those questions focus on whether knowledge is better than true belief, and why, and what follows from that fact; and they are complicated because different theorists fill in the details differently: the notion of true belief is sometimes replaced by other notions, the notion of betterness is sometimes replaced by other (more specific) notions, and class of the items compared to one another is sometimes wider and other times narrower.

For each exhaustive way of specifying (and/or refraining from specifying) these niceties, there is a particular question about the value of knowledge. Each such question is its own Meno problem; these problems form an interesting domain of inquiry centered on the idea that knowledge is somehow better than states like true belief. We can get a reflective understanding of this domain by classifying its constituent questions in accordance with figure 1, linked below, which identifies 540 distinct Meno problems:


For instance, suppose we set the variables in the table such that

a = Why is it true that
b = epistemically
c = as an end
d = true belief
e =<removed>

This leaves us with the following question:

Why is it true that knowledge is better epistemically as an end than true belief?

Or to pose the same question more simply by semantically descending from the truth predicate,

Why is knowledge better epistemically as an end than true belief?

The recent literature on epistemic value features numerous attempts to answer this question, and to answer the many other questions we get by setting the variables differently. In some cases, theorists are quite clear about which question or questions they are addressing. In other cases they are unclear on the matter, and as a result there is a significant literature (featuring Greco, Riggs, Baehr, Pritchard, and others) trying to get straight on what the Meno problem really is, or on what the various Meno problems really are. The best way to get straight on this issue, I think, is to appreciate that there are at least 540 distinct Meno problems, and to keep in mind the distinctions among them.

Among the attempts to solve these problems, the three most prominent themes are what I’ll call denial, credit theory, and anti-reliabilism. Deniers focus on the *is it true that?* questions. They conclude that knowledge is in fact not better than true belief (or one or more of its other parts), or at least that there are one or more significant ways in which knowledge fails to be better than true belief (or one or more of its other parts). Credit theorists focus on the *why is it true that?* questions. They argue for a certain theory of the nature of knowledge, namely the credit theory, on the grounds that it answers some or all of these why-questions. Anti-reliabilists focus on the *what follows from the putative fact that?* questions. They argue that a certain important conclusion follows, that conclusion being that reliabilism is false.

Each of these three themes – denial, credit theory, and anti-reliabilism – comes in many flavors, as do numerous other themes. The differences across these themes and their flavors are often determined by the (often implicit) choice to focus on one (or more) of the 540 Meno problems as opposed others. It seems safe to say that these themes will continue to work out for a good while, and that advancements can be made by paying greater attention to precisely which Meno problems are at issue.


A smorgasbord of Meno problems — 3 Comments

  1. Interesting work, Dennis!

    How might the diachronic/synchronic distinction figure into your taxonomy of questions? I don’t think it maps perfectly onto the “as an end/as a means” distinction. As I understand things, the diachronic/synchronic distinction is important for Jon Kvanvig’s view.

    Also, there’s been lots of work recently focusing on the different sorts of extrinsic value, and how this might affect our assessment of the dialectic surrounding value questions, which suggests a further variable in the smorgasbord.

  2. Thanks for adding these helpful points, John.

    Re the diachronic/synchronic distinction, I’m not sure where it fits in. I should go back and read Jon’s stuff again about that. Jon – what is the best thing of yours to study here? The piece replying to Goldman-Olsson?

    About the different kinds of extrinsic value, John, you are certainly right to point out that more Meno problems can be generated by taking these into account. (Actually, I should be quick to do that myself, since my own preferred solutions tend to invoke fancy sorts of extrinsic value). How about this: instead of distinguishing between as-an-end and as-a-means value, we can distinguish between as-a-means value and three sorts of as-an-end value:


    Here, X is of contributory value iff it is valuable because of its role as a part in a valuable larger whole, e.g. as the fifth note in a good song is valuable because of its role as a part of a valuable song. (I actually think true belief is of contributory epistemic value in this way).

    X is of indicative value iff it is valuable because of its role as evidence for something valuable, as e.g. the doctor’s testimony that you don’t have a disease is valuable as evidence that you don’t have that disease.

    X is of fundamental value iff it is valuable and nothing explains why it is valuable. (I actually think knowledge is fundamentally epistemically valuable.)

    So, how about we expand the smorgasbord by replacing the end/means distinction with the contributory/indicative/fundamental/instrumental distinction?

  3. Hey Dennis,

    I think that all sounds good. As for the tripartite distinction of as-an-end value (contributory, indicative, fundamental), I’m wondering how we map onto that the sort of value Diana’s dress has. People say it has “final value.” But it isn’t part of a larger whole that’s valuable, so it’s not contributory. It doesn’t have indicative value (unless we’re thinking of it as indicative of Diana, which doesn’t seem right). And it doesn’t have fundamental value, since it’s value is explained by it’s relation to Diana.

    Also, perhaps the definitions for the different sorts of value should be relativized to respects. E.g. “X is of fundamental value iff it is valuable in respect R and nothing explains why it is valuable in respect R.” I say this because X might be indicatively valuable in some way, where this indicative value has an explanation. Someone might take the original definition of fundamental value to then entail that X isn’t of fundamental value, because something explains X’s value. But that would be a bad inference, I think, since X might also be fundamentally valuable in some other way.

    Anyway, I think you’re doing some valuable (!) work here, and I look forward to seeing the final result.

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