Blogging with teasers is fun. So here’s mine: how, in discussing epistemological metatheory, am I going to get you to think of Jason Stanley and steroids in the same thought? I will. I promise. (No, not just by getting you to read that question!)
It is a familiar theme in recent philosophy, and epistemology in particular, to distinguish two approaches to the subject. The first is conceptual analysis and the second is naturalized epistemology. The second requires that, in some important sense, epistemology be continuous with natural science; the first asks that we spend our time providing sets of necessary and sufficient conditions that give the content of important epistemological concepts such as knowledge and justification.
I want to explore my preferred alternative here, but first I want to ask where ordinary language philosophy fits into this picture. Think of the debates between contextualists, contrastivists, and invariantists. As far as I can see, it is a stretch to say they are engaging in the project of conceptual analysis. What they are doing is investigating various formal features of linguistic usage in order to generate an appropriate semantical treatment of epistemic language. This isn’t either conceptual analysis or naturalized philosophy.
There are important differences between old-style ordinary language philosophy and this more recent revival, of course. The recent revival is not anti-theory and anti-philosophy the way much of old-style ordinary language philosophy was. And the recent stuff is infused with a sophisticated use of logic and formal semantics. It’s like J.L. Austin on (logico-semantical) steroids. (OK, it only works if you know Jason and his work…)
It is true, however, that ordinary language philosophy leads naturally, even if not inevitably, to conceptual analysis, though it is a bit difficult to say how or why. Even so, no matter what approach one takes to theorizing, there have to be some connections to ordinary ways of talking and thinking, even if theoretical inquiry leads to reform movements of various sorts.
But my interest is not so much with where ordinary language fits into theorizing, but rather with an alternative to the divide between conceptual analysis and naturalized epistemology. An alternative to these approaches is value-driven epistemology. This sort of inquiry tries to determine what is valuable from a purely theoretical point of view, and develops accounts of the items so identified in ways that reveal and explain the perceived value. The intellectual heritage of this approach is Platonic, most expressly in the Meno, the Theaetetus, and the Sophist. In the first, Socrates considers the question of the value of knowledge over true belief, and this examination leads to the issue in the second of the difference between the two, and in the third, to an account of the method of collection and division. This method some have taken as an account of logos, that notion used in the previous dialogue as an account of the distinction between true belief and knowledge. In my view, it is better taken as an account of understanding, since it requires too much reflection to pass the “small children and animals” test for a theory of knowledge, but the important point here is not the results of the inquiry but its nature.
The picture of theory construction that emerges from these Platonic beginnings is an interplay between the valuable items identified and their nature as we learn of it in theory construction. The nature of the thing in question can show that it doesn’t have the value we first thought it did, and that something else instead should be the focus of our epistemology. Moreover, the results of our efforts will have quite significant practical implications. I expect, for example, that a properly developed account of cognitive achievements will tell us something about the adequacy of our educational system and the kinds of goals that are appropriate to it. It will also tell us something about attempts to develop “rules for the direction of the mind.” If there is value in true opinion, we should want rules that help us achieve that. And if the value of true opinion is less than the value of other cognitive achievements, no set of rules for the direction of the mind should aim (only) at true opinion. In addition, our intuitive sense of intellectual character traits can be honed by the results of value-driven epistemology. It is well-known, for example, that acceding to authority was thought a virtue in the middle ages and is thought a vice now; that originality and creativity are thought of as virtues now but not so much in earlier times. Even in philosophy, originality of thought trumps careful defenses and meticulous argumentation (OK, that’s a tendentious remark about recognition in philosophy). A good, value-driven epistemology would give us a vantage point from which to assess these features of contemporary culture.
OK, I’ll now step off the soapbox. Here’s the point. Nowhere in this description of value-driven epistemology do we appeal to conceptual analysis or the project of naturalizing epistemology (or to some type of ordinary language philosophy). It is equally true that nothing in this approach requires washing one’s hands of these other approaches, but the independence of the value-driven approach shows that these other approaches are not the only approaches available. And, of course, I think not the most promising either.