In March 2014, I attended a workshop on natural kinds in Paris. Other attendees included Matt Slater, Muhammad Ali Khalidi, and Thomas Reydon. It seemed to me that, although we disagreed about many of the details, we shared a core conception of natural kinds.1 I mooted the idea of writing a consensus statement. We could give it a flashy name, refer to in our writing, and then maybe other people would start using the phrase too.
Today, while moving the last papers out of my old office, I came across an outline from the conference. Here I’ve quoted it exactly, including the all-caps title.2 Despite agreement from at least some of the others, nobody else assented to sign on.
THE SPRINGTIME in PARIS VIEW
NKs should be understood by way of scientificclassification
they are natural to the extent that the world constrains classificatory categories3
metaphysical depth is attained by starting superficially and, by considering evidence, making contingent a posteriori claims of greater depth
Anything we say will be facile, so I think we can admit the inadequacies and go with what we have.
I just turned in grades for my Theory of Knowledge course. It’s only the second time I’ve taught the course, and it’s been more than a decade since the first time. I didn’t do any of the same readings, so it might as well have been a new prep.
From my point of view, the course was a grab bag of issues about knowledge. I didn’t have a narrative arch that held it all together. However, one of my standard last-day discussion exercises is to have students break into groups and try to describe what the course was about. One stage of this is to have them state the essentials in one sentence.
Here was one answer: “We looked at what knowledge is and how that knowledge can be applicable to everyday life, including skepticism about knowledge, whether context matters when understanding knowledge, and the relationship between ethics and knowledge.”
Here is another: “The course is about if we can know some things, how we might come to know those things, and when we are justified in believing said things (including the testimony of others).”
And a third: “Theory of knowledge addresses the skeptical challenge of explaining how humans can know anything by offering accounts of how knowledge claims can be justified.”
As they were working out their sentence, I overheard a member of the third group comment, “Anything we say will be facile, so I think we can admit the inadequacies and go with what we have.” This struck me as being a fair summary of the course.
I structured the course around recent rather than historical literature. We read parts of Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice, and it was a big hit with students.
I feel like it would have helped to have an article that actually advocated for scepticism, but I’m not sure what the candidate would be. Without such a reading, it’s too easy to treat scepticism as a rhetorical bugbear. We can’t accept that (an author writes) because it would be tantamount to scepticism— but so what?
There were no topics or readings which students really hated. That’s good in one sense, but it doesn’t provide any guidance about what to drop. And I feel like it would make sense to swap some of the topics next time.
Consider a schematic case in which your total evidence is E and you are trying to determine whether you should believe P, believe not-P, or suspend judgment. Uniqueness is the view that exactly one of these choices would be rational. Permissivism is the view that more than one of these choices would be rational. Nihilism is the view that none of these options is rational.1
That’s how I posed it in an earlier post, anyway. Then I stumbled across a forthcoming article by Elizabeth Jackson & Margaret Greta Turnbull. Nodding to Feldman, they define Uniqueness as “the thesis that there is at most one rational doxastic attitude toward a proposition.” In my terms, this is the disjunction of Uniqueness and Nihilism. Ugh.
I’ve been teaching epistemology this semester, and we’ve recently been talking about permissivism. The setup is this: Let E be the total evidence, and let P be some claim. One might believe P, believe not-P, or suspend judgement; call these doxastic attitudes towards P.
With that formalism in place, we can define Uniqueness: Given E, there is exactly one doxastic attitude that one may rationally adopt toward P.
In the article I’d assigned for class, Permissivism is defined as the negation of Uniqueness. The idea is that there are at least some situations in which, given E, one might rationally adopt different doxastic attitudes.1 For example, it might be rational to find the evidence convincing (and believe P) but also rational to be unconvinced (and suspend judgement).
Students found the readings less than clear, and I was trying to concisely formulate the opposition on the whiteboard. I stopped mid-sentence when I realized that I couldn’t just define Permissivism as the negation of Uniqueness. There’s a third possibility!
Call this Nihilism: Given E, there is no rationally permitted doxastic attitude that one may adopt.
I don’t know of an epistemologist who explicitly formulates Nihilism, nonetheless one who advocates it. I have a perverse impulse to write something arguing for it, just because it is a logically possible position, but that way lies madness.2
My colleague Ariel Zylberman has organized a one-day academic workshop here at UAlbany, coming up on March 15. The topic is constitutivism about moral norms— the view that norms are presumed by the very nature of action and agency.
The powerhouse list of speakers comprises Matthias Haase (Chicago), Michelle Kosch (Cornell), Sharon Street (NYU), and David Velleman (NYU). The official commenters will be Hille Paakkunainen (Syracuse), Francey Russell (Yale), Jason D’Cruz (UAlbany), and Paul Katsafanas (Boston University).
If it sounds like your kind of thing and you might be in the capital region in mid-March, more information and the registration form are at the workshop webpage. It’s a free workshop, but Ariel is asking that attendees register by March 1.
Aesthetics for Birds has reposted a symposium from Daily Nous on the question of whether we can separate considerations about artwork from considerations about the artist who created it. By way of my summer reading and current procrastinating at the end of the semester, here’s a comment on the topic.