What is Being in a Position to Know?

Plantinga once told me that the proper response to Lehrer’s gypsy lawyer case is this: “The lawyer doesn’t know, but he is in a position to know.” Here the idea is that the lawyer already has all the evidence needed, but doesn’t know because the belief is based improperly (according to many, including Plantinga). And recently I’ve been considering here the possibility that knowing p puts one in a position to know other things, where being in such a position might be used to explain the value of knowledge over true belief. For it to do that, the possession of knowledge would itself have to imply being in a position to know some specific range of truths.

The obvious sense of the phrase is a bit different, I think. Bush is in a position to know about security threats to the U.S. because all he has to do is ask and he’ll find out. I’m in a position to know details of our departmental budget because I can look them up onPeopleSoft. Bush doesn’t have the access codes needed to do this (unless the new Aschcroft powers far exceed my assumptions here) and so isn’t in a position to know this information.

Neither case is the sort involved in the first paragraph. Neither case is like the gypsy lawyer case, and neither case is one involving a range of truths implied by some knowledge already possessed. The first case is the most obvious, but the second less so. So let me explain. One might think I’m in a position to know about our departmental budget because I know the access codes and know what they are for. But that’s stronger than is needed: all I need is true beliefs about each of these. So knowledge isn’t needed to explain what I’m in a position to know.

So here’s the explanatory challenge. What am I in a position to know that requires appeal to knowledge to explain my being in such a position? Meta-knowledge is an example of such, since being in a position to know is a factive operator, I think. So one can’t be in a position to know p unless p is true, and if p is about what one knows, then knowledge is required to explain being in a position to know what one knows. Besides meta-knowledge, however, are there other examples (where the notion of being in a position to know is understood is something like the ordinary use of the phrase)?


What is Being in a Position to Know? — 4 Comments

  1. In our talk at the Missouri conference, Marian and I distinguished about 12 things one might mean by “positioned to know” (the phrase comes up in many discussions of closure principles). I doubt you’ll find a univocal understanding of it. And on some non-trivial readings, being positioned to know that P does not seem to imply that P (“getting into position” may be involved in making P true).

  2. Ah, I remember that now, Fritz. I think I see the non-factive reading, but I’m not sure. Am I always in a position to know, in this sense, that I’m reflecting, even when I’m not reflecting?

  3. I think that the senses of “pos to know” in which you’re always (or almost always) positioned to know that you’re reflecting, even when you’re not currently reflecting, aren’t the best senses of “position to know”. By that I mean they aren’t the most philosophically helpful or interesting ones. But many understandings have that consequence. Most are involved in some variant of your favorite fallacy [conditional fallacy] in some non-trivial way.

  4. Yes, I saw Shope’s shadow in your first comment! There are times when I think a person, at a mid-level university, could have a successful career doing nothing but publishing pieces pointing out new instances of that mistake…

    Is your paper online? I’ll look to see, and maybe we can talk some about the more philosophically interesting senses. Maybe you think all of those are ones for which the operator in question is factive?

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