Experience and Propositional Content

The restrictive view that collapses the distinction between epistemic permission and epistemic obligation is at odds with most versions of coherentism, and there’s an interesting reason why, I think. Suppose we begin with the assumption that knowledge and justification ultimately depend on experience (at least causally), and then consider what the relationship between experience and belief must be in order for the restrictive view to be correct. In order for the restrictive view to be correct, there can’t be any kind of optionality about how to interpret experience, doxastically speaking. Coherentists, and Lehrer is a paradigmatic example here, usually think of the relationship as involving some kind of looseness or play. Lehrer puts the point something like this: there is experience, but then there is always what we make of it. It is this feature that leads to the “alternative systems” objection to coherentism, though it is hard to see why it is an objection unless you’ve already got a decisive argument for the restrictive view.

In any case, this slippage between experience and belief is harder to endorse if you think that experience justifies belief in virtue of some propositional content of the experience.

If, for example, your experience is correctly characterized as an experience as if p, then it is hard to see why this experience doesn’t justify just the belief that p. Of course, an experience can be manifold in terms of propositional content: it may be both an experience as if p and as if q. In such a case, it looks like it will justify believing that p and believing that q.

What it won’t do is justify believing any competitors of p and q, and that is the point needed by coherentists to defend the kind of looseness or play that allows for a denial of the restrictive view based on the idea of a distinction between experience and its interpretation. So it looks like (empiricistically inclined) coherentists who want to distinguish between epistemic permissions and epistemic obligations may need the view that the justificatory relationship between experience and belief does not depend on experience having propositional content.


Experience and Propositional Content — 5 Comments

  1. I’m not sure that the experience/belief connection is the important one. Take a discipline that is virtually all the study of texts: scholarship on Plato or the Old Testament, for example. Here all the evidence is propositional, and none of the data is in dispute. And yet experts still disagree. (I suppose you could say the same about philosophical problems, like knowledge or free will.) These are cases of “slippage” as you put it which have nothing to do with experience, so I don’t think the point turns on whether experience has propositional content.

  2. It seems evident that the restrictive view could not be correct if there were an experience E such that an epistemic agent having E had evidence permitting the belief that p but not evidence making obligatory the belief that p. But I can’t see why this entails that the relation between experience and belief is not “slippery”. Certainly the restrictive position cannot entail that we have no experiences correctly described as, say, vaguely painful. Surely, if it did entail that, it would have no chance of being right.

  3. I find Heath’s comment interesting, but not very plausible. Surely, I think to myself, there is a good deal of non-propositional looseness and play in the textual experience of reading Plato, the OT, or any other corpus. Isn’t there? Or is the experience of a literary object (i.e., the reading a text) “propositional” by definition? I would have thought that at least one kind of interpretation is about trying out various ascriptions of propositional content to undetermined experienced. This might make texts a source of especially manageable examples to try out some the ideas in Jon’s post.

  4. A sentence in a written language can express many propositions. A view from a window can justify many propositions to varying degrees, not necessarily coherent.

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