History of Relevant Alternatives

There’s a way of understanding the relevant alternatives theory of knowledge that makes infallibilism its ancestor. To get this result, play the “all-or-nothing” game with the skeptic so that the skeptic gets everything s/he wants if (and only if) s/he wins the game. Then, to rule out everything the skeptic will use to challenge any knowledge claim, one will have to have evidence that guarantees that anything incompatible with a given belief is false.

If one doesn’t wish to play this game with the skeptic, there are two weaker stances to take.

The first stance requires the same global reach against anything contrary to a given belief, but doesn’t require evidence that guarantees anything. Instead, it is enough to have evidence that shows that anything incompatible with a given belief is false, where it is denied that evidence shows something only if it guarantees it.

The second stance limits the class of contraries that one needs to rule out in order to have knowledge. The ruling out in question could be clarified either in terms of guaranteeing that the none of these contraries is true, or merely showing that none is true. What distinguishes this second stance is an insistence that the class of relevant alternatives need not encompass the entire range of contraries of a given belief.

In these moves from infallibilism to the modern version of the relevant alternatives theory, the central forces seem to be the abandonment of closure and the desire to preserve something of the common sense rejection of skepticism. That makes Goldman’s “Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge” central to this history, and perhaps the first instance of the modern relevant alternatives theory (the version that refuses to count all contraries as relevant, and perhaps doesn’t require evidence that shows a contrary to be false to be evidence that guarantees that this contrary is false). But perhaps others can find precursors of this modern RAT elsewhere?


History of Relevant Alternatives — 3 Comments

  1. Dretske, 1970: “Epistemic Operators,” Journal of Philosophy 67: 1007-1023; see esp. the last couple of paragraphs for the relevant alternatives stuff.

    On this:
    In these moves from infallibilism to the modern version of the relevant alternatives theory, the central forces seem to be the abandonment of closure…

    I don’t think that denying closure is essential to RAT. Many (perhaps most?) RATers follow the lead of Gail Stine (“Skepticism, Relevant Alternatives, and Deductive Closure,” Philosophical Studies 29 (1976): 249-261) in upholding closure (at least relative to a fixed context) in a relevant alternatives account.

  2. Yes, Keith, that’s right that some RATs want to uphold closure (the above remark is about historical motives, however). Turns out not to work, or so I say (the key to the argument against this is the following: tell me what the relevant alternatives are for p and I can in any number of cases find something that p implies that is compatible with that entire set).

  3. I think that Stine-style contextualist RA theories (which provided Stine with her way of preserving closure within RA) don’t work. By this I mean theories that take what the range of relevant alternatives is to be itself a key component of the meaning of knowledge attributions. For reasons I give in part II of “Contextualism and Knowledge Attributions” (PPR, ’92), for RAT to work, the range of relevant alternatives has to be a function of both the content of the attribution, and also features of the subject’s situation. Thus, you can have a difference in RAs even where there is no difference in content, if the difference in RAs is due to a difference in what I call “subject factors.” If you want to stick with using RAs to specify the content of KAs, you’re going to have to do something like specifying the content of a KA on an occasion to be a function from subject situations to ranges of RAs (as I suggest in a later PPR paper, “Relevant Alternatives and the Content of Knowledge Attributions,” ’96, see p. 195, n. 7).

    Still, I think that contextualism allows one to preserve closure (at least relative to a particular content), and even that you can do this while be some kind of RA theorist, so long as you don’t tie the content of a KA on an occasion too closely to the matter of what the range of RAs is.

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