The Normativity of Epistemology

I’ve got a friend who is an associate dean here, an anthropologist, who encouraged his kids to take as much logic and epistemology in college as they could get. In talking with him, I think he views epistemology as a branch of logic–in the way one would think of it if one thought of epistemology primarily in terms of non-deductive inference and confirmation theory.

I suspect this view is appropriate to much of the history of epistemology, with the more contemporary, normative view of epistemology being a more recent development. This difference leads to a question: when did the change take place, and why? My first thought is to cite Chisholm and his teacher, C.I. Lewis, with their emphasis on irreducible prima facie credibility for certain evidential connections. But perhaps the story is more complicated. For example, some have suggested that it is the pragmatists who are responsible for turning epistemology from a primary concern for non-deductive inference and confirmation theory to the contemporary emphasis on justification with the resulting normative conception of the discipline.

Any ideas here?


The Normativity of Epistemology — 4 Comments

  1. The logical positivists come to mind. For them, logic also had an epistemological role (in the epistemology of mathematics). Nevertheless, they did equate knowledge of the natural world with a posteriori, synthetic knowledge, and governed by inductive methods. The domain of the analytic, equated with the a priori, was what deductive logic (plus meaning postulates, i.e., logical syntax) was responsible for. That doesn’t explain the turn you indicate in which epistemology came to no longer be identified with inductive inference, but it may explain why deductive logic is not generally considered a (primarily) epistemological enterprise.

  2. Richard, that fits well with the social science perspective of my friend, enamored as they are with logical empiricist conceptions of science and scientific methodology. It also lends indirect support to the idea that it is the Chisholm/Lewis influence that brought about the change to a normative conception of epistemology.

  3. To my mind, the distinction between (a) epistemology as a discipline focused on confirmation theory, and (b) epistemology as a normative discipline focused on justification, is actually not all that clear.

    For one thing, confirmation theory is normative. Most (if not all) of the confirmation theory literature takes it as a background assumption that if one theory is better confirmed than another then the first theory is in some sense better off than the second. Moreover, the sense in which the more confirmed theory is taken to be better off is not some moral or aesthetic sense of betterness, but rather some sense of betterness that is more purely intellectual or truth-directed.

    For another thing, the contemporary literatures on justification and confirmation are intertwined. Many theories about justification have it that justification is closely related to evidence, and many confirmation theories have it that the confirmation relation is identical to (or at least closely related to) the evidence-for relation. Williamsonâ??s Bayesian evidentialism about justification is a particularly noteworthy example of a theory that bridges the two literatures.

    I do think that there is something to be made of the distinction between the two conceptions of the discipline, but articulating the basis of that distinction seems rather non-trivial.

  4. Dennis, you’re right that the distinction is not all that clear, and I don’t know of anyone who has made it clear. To my mind, the distinction is something like the distinction between the normativity of deductive logic and that of ethics, but even that distinction is not easy to state. The first has to do, I would think, with a subject matter one should master if one is interested in truth, and that characterization carries through to inductive logic and confirmation theory as well. The normativity of ethics and the theory of justification is different, concerned with what is demanded of us, or good for us, as we find ourselves.

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