Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Epistemic expressivism and the argument from motivation


This paper explores in detail an argument for epistemic expressivism, what we call the Argument from Motivation. While the Argument from Motivation has sometimes been anticipated, it has never been set out in detail. The argument has three premises, roughly, that certain judgments expressed in attributions of knowledge are intrinsically motivating in a distinct way (P1); that motivation for action requires desire-like states or conative attitudes (HTM); and that the semantic content of knowledge attributions cannot be specified without reference to the intrinsically motivating judgments that such attributions express (P2). We argue that these premises entail a version of ecumenical expressivism. Since the argument from motivation has not been explicitly stated before, there is no current discussion of the argument. In this paper we therefore consider and reject various objections that one might propose to the argument, including some that stem from the idea that knowledge is factive, or that knowledge involves evidence that rules out relevant alternatives. Other objections to (P1) specifically might be derived from cases of apparent lack of epistemic motivation considered in in Kvanvig (The value of knowledge and the pursuit of understanding, 2003) and Brown (Nous 42(2):167–189, 2008), as well as from general forms of externalism about epistemic motivation. We consider these and find them wanting. Finally, the paper offers some critical remarks about the prospect of denying (P2).

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.

    Note that Cuneo exploits the purported analogy in an attempt to show the unsustainability of expressivism in ethics.

  2. 2.

    Later, we consider cases that appear to question this general rule.

  3. 3.

    Thanks to a reviewer for this journal for promting us to clarify an objection along these lines.

  4. 4.

    Kvanvig refers to this as the ‘Spock problem’. For reasons we will not go into here, we think that Kvanvig’s discussion of the Spock figure raises other worries.

  5. 5.

    Brown’s case can also be read as a counterexample to (P2), but since the response we provide in defence of (P1) can be given in defence of (P2) as well, we will not provide a separate treatment of Brown’s case with respect to (P2).

  6. 6.

    Note that Surgeon differs from high-stakes cases in that in Surgeon it is considered appropriate to attribute knowledge, whereas this is less clearly the case in the classical high-stakes cases discussed in Sect. 3.

  7. 7.

    When saying that the desire is universal, we mean that all normal agents have this desire in sufficient strength. When saying that the desire is general, we mean that it’s object is of a rather general nature.

  8. 8.

    Although Kvanvig’s case of depression discussed earlier may at first seem to be such a case, some of the points we raised in our discussion questions whether that is really so. Additionally, there is a further question of whether we are here dealing with an otherwise normal individual that fails to be appropriately epistemically motivated.


  1. Bach, K. (2008). Applying pragmatics to epistemology. Philosophical Issues, 18, 68–88.

  2. Brink, D. O. (1989). Moral realism and the foundations of ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  3. Brown, J. (2008). Subject-sensitive invariantism and the knowledge norm for practical reasoning. Nous, 42(2), 167–189.

  4. Chrisman, M. (2007). From epistemic contextualism to epistemic expressivism. Philosophical Studies, 135, 225–254.

  5. Chrisman, M. (2010). From epistemic expressivism to epistemic inferentialism. In A. Haddock, D. Pritchard, & A. Millar (Eds.), Social epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  6. Cohen, S. (1999). Contextualism, skepticism, and the structure of reasons. Nous, 33, 57–89.

  7. Cuneo, T. (2007). The normative web: An argument for moral realism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  8. DeRose, K. (1992). Contextualism and knowledge attributions. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 52(4), 913–929.

  9. DeRose, K. (1995). Solving the skeptical problem. Philosophical Review, 104(1), 1–52.

  10. DeRose, K. (2009). The case for contextualism: Knowledge, skepticism, and contextualism. Volume 1: Knowledge, skepticism, and context. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  11. Dreier, J. (2000). Dispositions and fetishes: Externalist models of moral motivation. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 61(3), 619–638.

  12. Field, H. (1998). Epistemological nonfactualism and the a prioricity of logic. Philosophical Studies, 92(1–2), 1–24.

  13. Field, H. (2009). Epistemology without metaphysics. Philosophical Studies, 143, 249–290.

  14. Hawthorne, J. (2004). Knowledge and lotteries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  15. Kappel, K. (2010a). Expressivism about knowledge and the value of knowledge. Acta Analytica, 25(2), 175–194.

  16. Kappel, K. (2010b). On saying that someone knows: Themes from Craig. In A. Haddock, A. Millar, & D. Pritchard (Eds.), Social epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  17. Kvanvig, J. L. (2003). The value of knowledge and the pursuit of understanding. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  18. Lewis, D. (1996). Elusive Knowledge. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 74(4), 549–567.

  19. Lynch, M. (2009). Truth, value and epistemic expressivism. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, LXXIX(1), 76–97.

  20. Mackie, J. L. (1977). Ethics: Inventing right and wrong. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

  21. Ridge, M. (2006). Ecumenical expressivism: Finessing Frege. Ethics, 116(2), 302–336.

  22. Ridge, M. (2009). Moral assertion for expressivists. Nous, 19, 182–204.

  23. Rysiew, P. (2001). The context-sensitivity of knowledge attributions. Nous, 35(2), 477–514.

  24. Rysiew, P. (2007). Speaking of knowing. Nous, 41(4), 627–662.

  25. Sinclair, N. (2007). Expressivism and the practicality of moral convictions. Journal of Value Inquiry, 41(2–4), 201–220.

  26. Smith, M. (1987). The Humean theory of motivation. Mind, 96(381), 36–61.

  27. Smith, M. (1994). The moral problem. Oxford: Blackwell.

  28. Stanley, J. (2005). Knowledge and practical interests. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Download references


An earlier version of this material was presented at the Epistemic Expressivism workshop, Edinburgh University 15–16 October, 2011 organised by Matthew Chrisman and Mike Ridge, and we would like to participants there for comments and helpful suggestions. Also, we are also grateful for comments and suggestions made by anonymous reviewers for this journal.

Author information

Correspondence to Klemens Kappel.

Additional information

Klemens Kappel and Emil Moeller are shared first authors of the paper as both have contributed equally to the content and the writing of the paper.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Kappel, K., Moeller, E.F.L. Epistemic expressivism and the argument from motivation. Synthese 191, 1529–1547 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-013-0347-4

Download citation


  • Epistemic expressivism
  • Epistemology
  • Argument from motivation
  • Meta-epistemology
  • Meta-ethics
  • Ecumenical expressivism
  • Epistemic motivation