Chisholm and the Epistemic Goal

Somewhere between the second and third editions of Theory of Knowledge, Chisholm changed his account of the epistemic goal, from believing the truth and avoiding the false to believing rationally and not believing the irrational. I never could quite see what the value was in the change (except some unremarkable ways to represent the first idea as requiring us to identify justified beliefs with true ones).

I now think I can find a reason. Suppose we recharacterize the second idea of the epistemic goal as believing in accord with what the totality of one’s evidence confirms. We will define the concept of evidence, and confirmation, as truth-related in some sense or other (which I’ll leave unspecified for now), so the truth-related appeal of the first characterization doesn’t disappear entirely.

So here’s the reason.

It has to do with avoiding Wedgwood’s contextualism, which derives from the first characterization of the epistemic goal. The reason for wanting to avoid this contextualism is Williamson’s anti-contextualism argument, which supports the conclusion that when we get to the epistemic concepts that really matter, contextualism will be untenable. I first proposed Foley’s egocentric rationality as such a concept, but Wedgwood’s contextualism threatens this conclusion, since egocentric rationality is clarified by Foley in terms of the goal of getting to the truth and avoiding error now. As the weighting of these two aspects changes (on the basis of what’s important from a practical point of view), but the quality of evidence is kept constant, an ascription of egocentric rationality can be true in the first context but not in the second.

Foley’s answer to such contextualism, I suspect, would be to deny the basis for it, since it conflates practical and epistemic rationality in a way Foley has always denied. But we can sidestep this issue (or maybe take another route to the same conclusion) by changing the epistemic goal in the way Chisholm does. Notice that the contextualism in question is established by insisting that the quality of evidence remains unchanged even though practical considerations are different. If the goal is to believe what is supported by one’s evidence, then this kind of rationality is no longer rendered contextual by Wedgwood’s considerations. Perhaps there is some other concept of rationality that is, but it’s not the central, important concept that matters from the epistemic point of view–or so Williamson’s argument implies.

This is the fourth post on which I’ve cited the implications of Williamson’s argument without a careful explication of it; I’ll try to correct this deficiency next and see if any contextualists want to cry “foul!”


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