Here’s an epistemic excellence some people have. They can, on the basis of the slimmest of evidence, figure out what is going on in a situation. The kind of situation where I notice this the most is in social situations, but it can happen in other situations as well. A former colleague, Bob Burch, said that while in grad school, they’d play a game where everyone got to read the first two sentences of a paper in a journal and then predict what the paper would do on that basis. Some people can do this very well; Bob is one of those people. Others can apparently read people’s motives in the same way, employing what is apparently only the slimmest of evidence to unearth the truth. Good detective novels seem to have characters chock-full of this ability.

Call such an ability “discernment” (and don’t worry too much about the ordinary language connotations of the term, if you think they call into question calling the above ability by this name). I don’t bring up such cases as an objection to evidentialism, though others may wish to take it in that direction. I bring it up simply because it is such an interesting ability. But if there is a problem here for any particular view in epistemology, we’d first have to know what we should say about such discernment. Does it result in rational beliefs? Does it yield knowledge? Is the ability explicable in terms of additional background information possessed by the discerning, or in terms of some special capacity to access the right kind of background information in the relevant circumstances?


Discernment — 17 Comments

  1. Hi Jon,

    Interesting post. I think such discernment can produce knowledge. One explanation for why is that discernment is an intellectual excellence, and such excellences generally are epistemically efficacious.

    One further hunch that arises in reflecting on your discussion: what counts as evidence for a subject depends essentially upon what sorts of intellectual excellences she’s endowed with, discernment included. So awareness of the content of the first two sentences of the paper counts as evidence for Mr. Burch that it defends position X, whereas such awareness does not count as evidence for most of the rest of us that it defends position X.

  2. Hey, I’m new to this forum. I have a few responses to John’s comment. First, is it to be taken for granted that such an ability is an intellectual excellence? I’m not too familiar with that terminology outside of an aristotelian framework, and I don’t quite know how exactly it is defined in whatever framework you’re working within. I only mention this because I vaguely suspect that “epistemically eficacious” is somehow built into our identification of an intellectual excellence, which would mean in this case that the question had been begged.

  3. Raleigh,

    An intellectual excellence is, to a rough approximation, an intellectual trait that, when exercised, does or would produce true beliefs (in a normal environment, over a certain range of propositions or questions – – and there might yet be other caveats).

    In any event, I don’t see how I’d be begging any questions by simply answering a couple of Jon’s questions!

  4. I don’t do epistemology, so I’m unsure what to make of this, but in the social situation case, an important fact is that most people think they’re good at evaluating social situations, but most aren’t. At least that’s what I get from my rather limited knowledge of the relevant social psychology. Perhaps saying we think we’re good is too strong of an interpretation. Perhaps all that can be said is that we go around forming beliefs and relying on them as if we took ourselves to be good judges of social situations. Even those of us who know we’re a little lacking in social judgment still form those beliefs.

    If that’s the case, then the question is how that impacts the entitlement of someone who actually has discernment, but has no particular reason to believe that he does (I assume the case where he has good reason to believe he possess discernment isn’t especially interesting). I’d tend to think that general facts about our unreliability would undermine any such entitlement, but I’m hardly sure about that.

  5. Though I certainly do not think John was previously begging the question, I do have to (respectfully) disagree with his claim that discernment yields knowledge. However, I do think discernment is an actually ability people posses. For me, discernment is more of a heuristic capacity than a bona fide producer of knowledge. In other words, in most cases I do not think the propensity to discernment will display the type of reliability we would demand for knowledge. But, that does not mean discernment is not useful, it just means when the stakes are high we would probably want something more secure (i.e. informed).

    Nevertheless, as I think about it, maybe discernment would have the type of reliability we want in given domains. So, for example, in the case of Burch described by Jon it does seem reasonable to suggest (as I think John did) that over the course of time Burch developed such a familiarity with papers, philosophy, etc. that he could with a high probability predict the contents of certain kinds of papers with limited information. So, maybe I think discernment can be knowledge in limited domains. Not sure, but this is a great question.

  6. This may be obvious, but whether we get knowledge this way in part depends on what you think the target knowledge consists in.

    I take it that your good-guessing-of-paper-contents friend did not form the belief that the paper would do X, Y and Z based on the first two sentences. Probably he formed a belief that it was probably to some degree that it would go on to do X, Y and Z. In the right circumstances that might be knowledge, or so it seems to me. I have the analogous reaction to more complicated cases.

    I think that it is hard to separate the ability from background knowledge. Certainly in the paper-guessing case, an ability to do this depends on having some knowledge of what is being written about generally, what the standard positions are, and much more. I’ve recently been wondering about how this impacts accounts of intuitionism. Often you find papers defining intuitionism as committed to non-inferential beliefs at the ground level. But it seems to me that a belief might be not the result of any real inference and still made salient or even rational based on background knowledge that has been incorporated into a person’s way of assessing matters. (This may be a side issue with respect to the reasons for the thread, but it has been bugging me lately.)

  7. Justin,

    I was taking it as part of the description of the case that the subject genuinely does have the relevant ability, not just that she appears to or thinks she does. I think you’re right, though, that results from experimental psychology should make us cautious when self-attributing such abilities.


    I think you’re on to something. We could define a properly basic belief (sometimes called ‘foundational belief’) two different ways:

    (a) A justified belief, whose justification does not essentially depend on being based on other beliefs.

    (b) A justified belief, whose justification does not essentially depend on the subject’s other beliefs (or: what else the subject believes).

    Tell me if I’ve got this right: you’re suggesting that we could have (justified) ethical beliefs that satisfy definition (a), but not definition (b).

    I think this is exactly right, and not just in ethics. I also think that the subtle difference between (a) and (b) often gets overlooked, which goes some way toward explaining resistance to foundationalist epistemology. (Short story: people easily mistake an objection to (b) as undermining foundationalism, when it’s really (a) that underwrites foundationalist intuitions.)

  8. I believe discernment is what Malcolm Gladwell calls “thin-slicing” in Blink. He presents several anecdotal cases of people having the ability to tell whether a piece of art is genuine or a forgery after looking at it briefly, about concert musicians being able to figure out the skill of a performer after the first few notes and so on. Dr. Burch’s ability would appear to be another such anecdotal instance.

    To really tell whether discernment is a genuine source of knowledge, it would seem that you’d have to do empirical testing comparing discernment with more traditional methods of gaining knowledge. If you divided people into two groups, one of which utilized discernment and the other which made deliberative, considered judgments and you could show that the former was just as reliable as the latter, I think that would be a strong case that discernment could result in knowledge, or at least rational belief.

  9. John T,

    You wrote:

    Tell me if I’ve got this right: you’re suggesting that we could have (justified) ethical beliefs that satisfy definition (a), but not definition (b).

    Don’t you mean (b) but not (a)? (Unless I’ve got myself confused with too many double negatives.)

    I think whether this is the same thought depends on how being based on is connected to being inferred from. If based on just is inferred from then it is close to what I was thinking. If not the idea is related but not the same.

    I was reading articles in which intuitionism was characterized (in part) as the view that a belief is basic if it is non-inferentially grounded. It seemed to me that a belief could be non-inferential while still depending on the subject’s other present or past beliefs for its rational status and genesis. Jon’s examples seemed to be of this sort.

    I’m not sure how this cuts for the viability of intuitionism. I’m actually wondering whether some such views might still count as intuitionist in some good sense, whereas others might not. But I’m not sure I know how to draw the relevant line if that turns out to be true.

  10. Mark,

    I seem to have written down what I had in mind, but in any event, you’ve described things again, and I think you’re basically right. I remember making a similar distinction in my dissertation.

    As for how it relates to intuitionism, my hunch is that it just forces us to distinguish two forms of intuitionism, one of them much more plausible than the other. Plausible Intuitionism says that the properly basic beliefs aren’t inferential but their epistemic status still depends on what else the subject believes.

  11. I apologize for interrupting the flow of dialogue, but I would like to respond to the original post.

    I think discernment is essentially a belief forming process which requires relevant background beliefs. In my experience with cases of discernment, it appears that the discerner is endowed with an especially keen insight into clues and hints which indicate the concluding belief. I think that while this process does not by default produce knowledge, it might be possible for a belief arrived at in this way to be justified by the repeated success and subsequent reliability of the discernment process.

    Furthermore, this seems to be a rather normal means of arriving at belief, but it is more acutely developed in some people who are more skilled at picking up cues within the scope of their area of ‘discernment expertise’. Perhaps more insight might be gained if a psychological perspective was offered. Accounts of highly intuitive people who usually have IQs in the ‘genius’ range seem to evaluate situations very quickly through a process that might be the same as discernment. Perhaps a close evaluation of these cases would yield further insight, given that the two phenomena are analogous.

  12. I realize the conversation is a bit dead, but I would have thought that the rarity of discernment matters for even those people who have it. The possessor of discernment seems to have no particular reason to believe he has the ability, and no reason to believe he’s different from other people who in fact lack the ability (of course, he need not be aware of the fact that most people lack the ability).

  13. Interesting post. This is my first experience with the blog, so please bear with me if I seem to be coming from left field, so to speak.

    How should opaque (in other words: hard to discern) people and situations play into this consideration? Not only is the case of discernment tricky due to the fact that people often think they have discernment when they do not, but also because the objects of discernment can have a changing level of opaqueness. Take the case of the poker-player actor. Not only can the poker-player actor adjust his opaqueness at will, but he can also choose to be discerned wrongly. Not only is the poker-player actor opaque but he is also deceptive!

    As such, I am inclined to think that discernment yields some justification (though it is hard to quantify how much) though not knowledge. Those are my first thoughts anyway.



  14. On discernment, there are definitely situations in which I have this, I would say ability, I am not sure it is an excellence. I have adduced things that turn out to be true based on the most minimal evidence, a word, a look, a significant omission. Sometimes, I think this ability depends on the background knowledge I have about the situation and that background knowledge makes me say oh yes. this is what is happening. Other times, it is just an ability to create the most likely story that accounts for the observed fact and that likely story turns out to be true.

    Sometimes I think though this ability isn’t discernment as much as simply noticing, being aware of what is said, not said, implied et al.

    However, despite the fact I have this ability in some situations I don’t have it in all situations, so I don’t think this ability is universally productive of knowledge for me. There are plenty of situations that I just can’t read even with a lot of evidence. Other times I miss recognizing events as events worthy of being regarded as evidence and hence I don’t interpret them with this ability.

    The other thing that seems problematic is occasionally I really do turn out to be wrong. I’ve never been wrong about the things I really strongly knew were true, but still I’ve been wrong about likely stories about said event.

    and I totally agree that some people think they are specially attuned and they are not and I’ve encountered that enough to distrust my own ability… so anyway, even though I “know” I’m right a lot of the time… I don’t regard this ability as genuinely productive of knowledge full stop.

    The other thing that seems relevant about this ability epistemically/epistemologically (not sure of the term here I’m not an epistemologist) …Even though I really know when I’m right, I’m wrong about it enough or don’t trust the ability enough that I want to seek verification of the interpretation of said event…”I saw X and think Y about it, what do you shared viewer of X (or hear of my interpretation of X) think of Y,”

    this is really, I think, what gossip is, the ongoing process of verifying of this intuitional/ dispositional excellence that I think all humans possess to some degree.

    so it that sense, this ability that may in and of itself not be productive of actual knowledge leads to the production of actual knowledge in that it stimulates us to verify, compare, submit the disposition to scrutiny.

  15. Anne, I like your morally innocuous account of gossip–I feel much better about my behavior now! I agree with the phenomenological story here, with one small exception, and that is that I expect we are all fallible even when we are most strongly convinced that we are right. In the good cases, we find out that we were wrong; in the bad cases, we either never find it out, or we won’t admit that we were wrong. And then there is, we hope, the larger majority of cases where we really are right.

    I like the Gladwell language of “thin-slicing” here. It is interesting to test our abilities to decipher the truth in certain areas by slicing our evidence thinner in different cases (hoping of course to hold fixed all other variables), and seeing whether we are still reliable. Thought of this way, discernment is some function on background learning and having a capacity to thin-slice beyond some vague threshold. And of course it is subject-matter specific–one can have it about horses, for example, and not have it about one’s spouse. Just for a hypothetical example…

  16. Surely we do size up people and their actions, take a stab at their intentions, and make snap decisions on this basis—sometimes rashly, sometimes shrewdly. And there seems no harm in crediting shrewd judgment with an ability to discern.

    But an epistemic excellence? Surely not. A practical skill, Yes. A source of knowledge or justified belief, No.

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