Philosophical Studies

, Volume 176, Issue 5, pp 1155–1175 | Cite as

Knowledge of objective modality

  • Margot StrohmingerEmail author
  • Juhani Yli-Vakkuri


The epistemology of modality has focused on metaphysical modality and, more recently, counterfactual conditionals. Knowledge of kinds of modality that are not metaphysical has so far gone largely unexplored. Yet other theoretically interesting kinds of modality, such as nomic, practical, and ‘easy’ possibility, are no less puzzling epistemologically. Could Clinton easily have won the 2016 presidential election—was it an easy possibility? Given that she didn’t in fact win the election, how, if at all, can we know whether she easily could have? This paper investigates the epistemology of the broad category of ‘objective’ modality, of which metaphysical modality is a special, limiting case. It argues that the same cognitive mechanisms that are capable of producing knowledge of metaphysical modality are also capable of producing knowledge of all other objective modalities. This conclusion can be used to explain the roles of counterfactual reasoning and the imagination in the epistemology of objective modality.


Epistemology of modality Modality Metaphysical necessity Conceivability and possibility Counterfactuals Imagination 



This paper started out as Margot Strohminger’s project. Juhani Yli-Vakkuri was recruited as a coauthor in the final stages of preparation for publication. Credit (and blame!) should be assigned accordingly. We would like thank Timothy Williamson for detailed comments on early drafts of this paper, as well as Johannes Brandl, Jessica Brown, Catharine Diehl, Peter Fritz, Christopher Gauker, Sören Häggqvist, John Hawthorne, Hannes Leitgeb, Julien Murzi, Christian Nimtz, Barbara Vetter, and audiences at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy (MCMP) at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the Free University of Berlin, the University of Antwerp, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Salzburg, and Bielefeld University for helpful comments and discussions. This research was supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.


  1. Berto, F., French, R., Priest, G., & Ripley, D. (2017). Williamson on counterpossibles. Journal of Philosophical Logic. Scholar
  2. Bull, R., & Segerberg, K. (1984). Basic modal logic. In D. Gabbay & F. Guenthner (Eds.), Handbook of philosophical logic (Vol. II, pp. 1–88). Dordrecht: D. Reidel.Google Scholar
  3. Byrne, A. (2007). Possibility and imagination. Philosophical Perspectives, 21, 125–144.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Chalmers, D. J. (2002). Does conceivability entail possibility? In T. S. Gendler & J. Hawthorne (Eds.), Conceivability and possibility (pp. 145–200). Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  5. Davies, M., & Humberstone, L. (1980). Two notions of necessity. Philosophical Studies, 38, 1–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Dorr, C. (2016a). To be F is to be G. Philosophical Perspectives, 30, 39–134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Dorr, C. (2016b). Against counterfactual miracles. Philosophical Review, 125, 241–286.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Fine, K. (2014). Permission and possible worlds. Dialectica, 68, 317–336.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Fritz, P. (2016). Propositional contingentism. The Review of Symbolic Logic, 9, 123–142.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Goodman, J. (2017). Reality is not structured. Analysis, 77, 43–53.Google Scholar
  11. Gregory, D. (2004). Imagining possibilities. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 69, 327–348.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Hale, B. (2013). Necessary beings: An essay on ontology, modality, and the relations between them. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Hale, B., & Leech, J. (2017). Relative necessity formulated. Journal of Philosophical Logic, 46, 1–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hawthorne, J. (2004). Knowledge and lotteries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Hill, C. S. (2014). Conceivability and possibility. In Meaning, mind, and knowledge (pp. 273–296). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Humberstone, I. L. (1981). Relative necessity revisited. Reports on Mathematical Logic, 13, 33–42.Google Scholar
  17. Kaplan, D. (1989). Demonstratives. In J. Almog et al. (Eds.), Themes from Kaplan (pp. 481–563). Oxford: Oxford University Press (Completed and circulated in mimeograph in the published form in 1977).Google Scholar
  18. Kment, B. (2014). Modality and explanatory reasoning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Kratzer, A. (1981). The notional category of modality. In H.-J. Eikmeyer & H. Rieser (Eds.), Words, worlds, and contexts (pp. 38–74). Berlin: de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  20. Kratzer, A. (2012). Modals and conditionals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Lange, M. (2009). Laws and lawmakers: Science, metaphysics, and the laws of nature. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Lewis, D. (1973). Counterfactuals. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  23. Lewis, D. (1979). Counterfactual dependence and time’s arrow. Noûs, 13, 455–476.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Peacocke, C. (1999). Being known. Oxford: Clarendon Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Portner, P. (2009). Modality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Sainsbury, M. (1997). Easy possibilities. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 57, 907–919.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Stalnaker, R. (2012). Mere possibilities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Strohminger, M., & Yli-Vakkuri, J. (2017). The epistemology of modality. Analysis, 77, 825–838.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. van Fraassen, B. (1977). The only necessity is verbal necessity. Journal of Philosophy, 74, 71–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Vetter, B. (2015). Potentiality: From dispositions to modality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Williamson, T. (2000). Knowledge and its limits. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Williamson, T. (2007). The philosophy of philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Williamson, T. (2016). Knowing by imagining. In A. Kind & P. Kung (Eds.), Knowledge through imagination (pp. 113–123). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Williamson, T. (2017a). Modal science. In Yli-Vakkuri & McCullagh 2017 (pp. 1–40).Google Scholar
  35. Williamson, T. (2017b). Reply to Sider. In Yli-Vakkuri & McCullagh 2017 (pp. 247–256).Google Scholar
  36. Williamson, T. (forthcoming). The counterfactual-based approach to modal epistemology. In O. Bueno & S. Shalkowski (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of modality. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  37. Yablo, S. (1993). Is conceivability a guide to possibility? Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 53, 1–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Yli-Vakkuri, J., & Hawthorne, J. (MS a). Modal epistemology (Unpublished manuscript).Google Scholar
  39. Yli-Vakkuri, J., & Hawthorne, J. (MS b). The necessity of mathematics (Unpublished manuscript).Google Scholar
  40. Yli-Vakkuri, J., & McCullagh, M. (Eds.). (2017). Williamson on modality. London: Routledge.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Humboldt University of BerlinBerlinGermany
  2. 2.Bielefeld UniversityBielefeldGermany

Personalised recommendations