Some reflections on the recently-finished Midwest Epistemology Workshop (MEW1). (Links are to the papers that were precirculated.)
First, there are some very lively discussions regarding a thesis at the core of some of the prominent virtue-theoretic epistemologies: the thesis that knowledge is a success from ability (and for which one deserves credit). So we had John Greco and Ernie Sosa arguing for, and Jennifer Lackey arguing against, a thesis of this sort (although Greco was less confident about the credit thesis). I expect this to be an area where a good deal of work will be done.
Second, the pragmatic encroachment issue is getting a huge boost from recent work by Matt McGrath (including co-authored work with Jeremy Fantl): McGrath’s paper at MEW1 urged that it is by “putting knowledge to work,” i.e., in the justification of speech and action, that one can defend a plausible version of epistemic fallibilism. The idea, as I understand it, is to defend a knowledge-justification principle that links knowledge to the justification of (not only belief but also) action. McGrath formulated the principle as follows: “If you know that p, then p is epistemically eligible to justify you in φ-ing for any φ.” Two relevant implications are, first, that one’s status as having knowledge turns on more than merely truth-relevant factors; but second, that in cases where the epistemic status of your belief that p is at issue, it is something like the just-quoted knowledge-justification principle that determines when the chance of not-p is not significant for you (and hence when you count as knowing p in a fallible sort of way). A very interesting paper.
Third, traditional concerns continue to interest many of us. Richard Fumerton continues to press on us a very traditional — one might even say austere, and I would add skepticism-inducing — vision of epistemology. He argued on behalf of the view that our most secure knowledge is that of our own conscious mental states, and from here went on to defend a version of traditional foundationalism — one that, if I understood correctly, suggests that our knowledge of the nonmental world is invariably inferential. As always, a fun time was had by all as we tried to find the holes in an argument whose conclusions were so obviously false. (OK, this is not the fairest presentation; but as always Fumerton’s defense was robust.) And for his part, Al Casullo urged that Philip Kitcher’s continued attacks on the a priori are less than fully persuasive, for failing to be clear about which of his (Kitcher’s) own results flow from the theory of knowledge he brings to the issue, and which flow from the nature of the a priori itself.
Then there were a series of papers focusing on externalist, and in particular reliabilist, themes. Baron Reed’s paper argued that a version of the skeptical argument thought to pose problems for internalist epistemologists, which begins by noting that one is on an epistemic par with a doppelganger who clearly lacks the knowledge in question, can be directed at externalists, including reliabilists. Sandy Goldberg’s paper tried to appeal to a reliabilist premise to establish skeptical conclusions about the justification of (some sizable subset of) philosophical beliefs. Two distinct arguments were presented on behalf of the claim that, on matters of philosophical controversy, one’s beliefs are not reliably formed; and if either of these argument is successful, we have a new variant on arguments seen in the literature on the epistemology of disagreement. Robert Audi‘s paper aimed to develop the idea of reliability as a personal virtue. And David Henderson‘s paper, though not explicitly about reliability per se, made clear that certain practices among knowledge communities might have an enhancing or disenhancing effect on the reliability of its members’ beliefs.
Happily, the papers presented at MEW1 will be published in a forthcoming (2008) edition of Philosophical Studies, so if you missed out on the fun you can see (in written form) the product of this fun. Alas, there is no way to reproduce the head-scratching, hand-waving, dozing, and consumption of fermented beverages that took place there; pictures will have to suffice.
Until next year in Nebraska…