Philosophical Studies

, Volume 175, Issue 9, pp 2221–2237 | Cite as

Acting on true belief

  • Jens KipperEmail author


This paper critically examines Timothy Williamson’s claim that knowledge figures essentially in explanations of behavior. Since this claim implies that knowledge is causally efficacious in bringing about actions, it plays a key role in Williamson’s case for knowledge being a mental state. I first discuss a central example of Williamson, in which a burglar ransacks a house. I dispute Williamson’s claim that the best explanation of the burglar’s behavior invokes the burglar’s state of knowledge as he enters the house, by arguing that there is a better explanation that only mentions the burglar’s beliefs. Since the reasons that explain the superiority of my proposed explanation generalize, I conclude that one does not have to invoke a subject’s state of knowledge to explain behavior. Nevertheless, Williamson’s explanation is superior to belief-based explanations if one only considers facts that obtain before the action takes place. In the final part of the paper, I argue that this fact does not help Williamson’s case for considering knowledge as a mental state.


Explanations of action Knowledge first Mental states 



I have presented versions of this article at the University of Cologne and at MIT. I would like to thank the audiences on these occasions for helpful comments. I am especially grateful for comments and discussions to Nilanjan Das, Thomas Grundmann, Joachim Horvath, Zeynep Soysal, Marius Thomann, Timothy Williamson, Stephen Yablo, and an anonymous referee for this journal.


This work was supported by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG).


  1. Butterfill, S. A. (2013). What does knowledge explain? Commentary on Jennifer Nagel, ‘Knowledge as a mental State’. Oxford Studies in Epistemology, 4, 309–320.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Fricker, E. (2009). Is knowing a state of mind? The case against. In D. Pritchard & P. Greenough (Eds.), Williamson on knowledge (pp. 32–59). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Gendler, T. (2008). Alief and Belief. The Journal of Philosophy, 105(10), 634–663.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Goldman, A., & Olsson, E. (2009). Reliabilism and the value of knowledge. In A. Haddock, A. Millar, & D. H. Pritchard (Eds.), Epistemic value (pp. 19–41). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Kaplan, M. (2003). Who cares what you know? Philosophical Quarterly, 53(210), 105–116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Leite, A. (2005). On Williamson’s arguments that knowledge is a mental state. Ratio, 18(2), 165–175.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Magnus, P. D., & Cohen, J. (2003). Williamson on knowledge and psychological explanation. Philosophical Studies, 116(1), 37–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. McGlynn, A. (2014). Knowledge first? Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  9. Nagel, J. (2013). Knowledge as a mental state. Oxford Studies in Epistemology, 4, 275–310.Google Scholar
  10. Pearson, K. (1895). Notes on regression and inheritance in the case of two parents. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 58, 240–242.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Rysiew, P. (2013). Is knowledge a non-composite mental state? Oxford Studies in Epistemology, 4, 333–343.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Smith, M. (forthcoming). The cost of treating knowledge as a mental state. In A. Carter, E. Gordon & B. Jarvis (Eds.), Knowledge–first: Approaches in epistemology and mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Williamson, T. (1995). Is knowing a state of mind? Mind, 104(415), 533–565.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Williamson, T. (2000). Knowledge and its limits. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Williamson, T. (forthcoming). Acting on knowledge. In A. Carter, E. Gordon & B. Jarvis (Eds.), Knowledge–first: Approaches in epistemology and mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Yablo, S. (2005). Prime causation. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 70(2), 459–467.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophical DepartmentUniversity of CologneCologneGermany

Personalised recommendations