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Criteria for indefeasible knowledge: John Mcdowell and ‘epistemological disjunctivism’

Abstract

Duncan Pritchard has recently defended a view he calls ‘epistemological disjunctivism’, largely inspired by John McDowell. I argue that Pritchard is right to associate the view with McDowell, and that McDowell’s ‘inference-blocking’ argument against the sceptic succeeds only if epistemological disjunctivism is accepted. However, Pritchard also recognises that epistemological disjunctivism appears to conflict with our belief that genuine and illusory experiences are indistinguishable (the ‘distinguishability problem’). Since the indistinguishability of experiences is the antecedent in the inference McDowell intends to block, I suggest that his argument rests on an inconsistent set of premises. In support of this, I show that Pritchard’s response to the distinguishability problem is incompatible with the conclusion of the ‘inference-blocking’ argument, and that the response available in McDowell’s work relies on a mistaken conception of fallibility. Either McDowell must deny the sceptic’s premise that perceptual experiences are indistinguishable, or he must give up his conclusion that perceptual warrant can be indefeasible.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    See, for example, Greco (2004).

  2. 2.

    For the difference between these two statements of McDowell’s view, see (2009).

  3. 3.

    For an earlier version of this claim, see (1982).

  4. 4.

    Williamson (2000, p. 266) has shown that indefeasibility does not logically entail factiveness. However, since his counterexamples are situations where a false belief can never be discovered, one could hardly exploit them to thwart the sceptic’s conclusion. To all intents and purposes, McDowell’s indefeasibility claim requires that perceptual warrant is factive.

  5. 5.

    For an intriguing challenge to this last claim, see Noe (2006) and Phillips (2011).

  6. 6.

    For the transition from legal to philosophical usage, see Macagno and Walton (2014, p. 82).

  7. 7.

    This example is drawn directly from Williamson (2000, p. 265).

  8. 8.

    See Donnellan (1966).

  9. 9.

    This adaptation of the example is based on Pritchard (2012, p. 98).

  10. 10.

    As Wittgenstein asks in On Certainty: ‘Doesn’t one need grounds for doubt? (1969, §122).

  11. 11.

    For an example, see Descartes (1637/1985, p. 127).

  12. 12.

    See also (2011, p. 34).

  13. 13.

    Oxford English Dictionary Online, accessed 4 March 2014. The Dictionary also contains an archaic sense: ‘liable to mislead’. More on this below.

  14. 14.

    By contrast, the following reply would be ungrammatical: ‘I don’t mean there’s something he’s fallible about; he’s just fallible.’

  15. 15.

    See McDowell (2011, pp. 41–42).

  16. 16.

    Oxford English Dictionary Online, accessed 4 March 2014.

  17. 17.

    Oxford English Dictionary Online, accessed 4 March 2014. (My emphasis.)

References

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Acknowledgments

I am grateful to Max de Gaynesford, Andrew Khoury, and James Stazicker for comments on previous drafts, to Asya Passinsky for discussion, and to audiences at Reading University, LSE, and the Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society and the Mind Association 2013.

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Correspondence to Peter Dennis.

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Dennis, P. Criteria for indefeasible knowledge: John Mcdowell and ‘epistemological disjunctivism’. Synthese 191, 4099–4113 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-014-0516-0

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Keywords

  • Scepticism
  • Indefeasibility
  • Fallibility
  • Epistemological disjunctivism
  • McDowell
  • Pritchard