Wednesday, June 23, 2010

On the role of epistemology

I just read Bruce Aune's harsh critique of Chisholm's epistemology (Chisholm on Empirical Knowledge, in Ernest Sosa (ed.), Essays on the Philosophy of R.M. Chisholm, Amsterdam 1979). I am not able to state how much and how far the Chisholm who is the target of Aune's criticism corresponds to R.M. Chisholm. Sometimes, there seems to be a huge difference between the two. Consider for instance the following re-phrasing of Chisholm by Aune's:
[Chisholm] then formulates the principle that, necessarily, if it does seem to S that he has a headache or believes that p, then it is evident to S that he seems to have a headache or believes that p.
In my view, this way of setting up an epistemological theory –that is, assuming that we do know (more or less) what we think we know, and then formulating criteria by which this assumed knowledge can be justified– is objectionable (p.239, my emphasis).
Here Aune seems to misunderstand Chisholm's claim, which is not that we know that p, but rather that we believe that p. And I, for one, would easily agree that if one believes that p, than it is evident for her that she believes it.
However, this is not the point I would like to address. On the other hand, what I want to underline is that this target-Chisholm (henceforth t-Ch) seems very close to Kumārila Bhaṭṭa's epistemology. He, then, offers a good example of how Kumārila's epistemology could enhance the contemporary philosophical debate. In fact, t-C and Kumārila share the idea that epistemology must serve to explain our knowledge and that knowledge is indeed possible. Aune's critiques are often to the case that we cannot trust our memory, perception, etc., because we might have been drugged, or old, or gullible. This is all true, but it risks to boil down to the assumption that knowledge is hardly if ever possible. An epistemologist may not be concerned with that and carry on with his/her task of accomplishing a single piece of genuine knowledge. But t-C and Kumārila (just like, in a way, Kant) are more concerned with knowledge-outside-epistemology. Epistemology is for them a preliminary step in order to ground the validity of other kinds of knowledge. If epistemology ends up with nothing, then –they would argue– it has just failed. One might object that Aune's epistemology (again, I am only referring to Aune as the author of the article mentioned above and not to his previous and later works) does not deny that knowledge is possible. Indeed, he claims that knowledge is possible, but that t-C's epistemology (just like any other) fails to justify it. But this would be no good news for t-C or Kumārila, since they intend epistemology as the foundation of other branches of philosophy (and knowledge in general).

A further question in this connection: analytical philosophy has often been busy in finding counter-examples (the brain-in-the-vat one, or the theory of possible worlds, etc.). Aune is no exception, and he tries to imagine cases where, e.g., Smith could believe that p without that being evident to him. Such counter-examples might be useful, but they might be misleading also. In fact, t-C's and Kumārila's epistemology do not intend to cover all possible instances of right cognition. On the other hand, they want to explain by and large, how is ordinary knowledge possible. Exceptions are possible, hence Kumārila devises the falsification principle (every cognition is valid unless and until it is proven to be false). In these cases, a counter-example is only effective if it hits the core of the theory. That Brown has been trained while under hypnosis to believe that p and that he hence believes that p without that being evident to him seems not to threaten the core of t-C's theory.

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