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Understanding and Essence


Modal epistemology has been dominated by a focus on establishing an account either of how we have modal knowledge or how we have justified beliefs about modality. One component of this focus has been that necessity and possibility are basic access points for modal reasoning. For example, knowing that P is necessary plays a role in deducing that P is essential, and knowing that both P and ¬P are possible plays a role in knowing that P is accidental. Chalmers (2002) and Williamson (2007) provide two good examples of contrasting views in modal epistemology that focus on providing an account of modal knowledge where necessity and possibility are basic access points for modal knowledge, and Yablo (1993) provides a good account of how we have justified beliefs about modality. In contrast to this tradition I argue for and outline a modal epistemology based on objectual understanding and essence, rather than knowledge or justification and necessity and possibility. The account employs a non-modal conception of essence and takes objectual understanding of essence, rather than knowledge of essence to be basic in modal reasoning. I begin by articulating Kvanvig’s (2003) account of objectual understanding, on which objectual understanding of Φ is not equivalent to propositional knowledge of Φ. I then argue that an epistemology of essence that uses property variation-in-imagination is better construed as a model that delivers objectual understanding of essence rather than knowledge of essence. I argue that this is so, since the latter and not the former runs into a version of the Meno paradox. I show how this account can be applied to two issues in modal epistemology: the Benacerraf problem for modality, and the architecture of modal knowledge.

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  1. 1.

    See Hale (2002) for discussion of the first presupposition. See Peacocke (1998) for discussion of the second presupposition.

  2. 2.

    See, Yablo (2002) and Soames (2005: Ch 9) for discussion of Chalmers’ conceivability account. And see C.S. Jenkins (2008) for discussion of Williamson’s counterfactual account.

  3. 3.

    See D. Pritchard “Knowing the Answer, Understanding, and Epistemic Value’ forthcoming in Grazer Philosophische Studien for discussion of different kinds of luck.

  4. 4.

    See Pg. 104–112 for discussion.

  5. 5.

    At least one reason in contemporary literature for being wary of the use of intuitions as the sole guide to theory construction comes from recent work by experimental philosophers on the probative value of intuitions.

  6. 6.

    The reference I am making here is to the well-known passage from Descartes’ 6th meditation where he discusses the difference between imagination and pure understanding with respect to geometrical figures. See Descartes (1985), pp. 50-51.

  7. 7.

    One might have caught that the language I use here, though reversed, is central in the exchange between Descartes and Arnauld in the 4 th set of objections and replies to the former’s Meditations on First Philosophy. In that exchange Arnauld questions whether conceivability entails possibility, since there are apparent cases where one could claim to have conceived of something that is impossible because they were ignorant of a property that actually made the purported conception impossible. In particular, he offers the example of a subject that claims to have conceived of a right-triangle that does not have the Pythagorean property a2 + b2 = c2, because they are ignorant of the fact that it is an essential property of a right triangle that it has the Pythagorean property. Arnauld maintains that Descartes has failed to consider the role of adequate ideas, ideas that contain every property of an object, in the formation of a conception of an object that tracks what is genuinely possible for the object. Descartes responds by noting that adequate ideas are not required for conceivability exercises that can allow one to gain modal knowledge. He responds to Arnauld by maintaining that complete ideas are all that are required, where complete ideas are ideas that allow one to recognize something as a substance. For further discussion of this see Descartes 1985, pp. 138-162, and Almog (2002).

  8. 8.

    Although the point of departure for my response here is Lowe (2008) the terminology and mode of discussion I deploy is absent in his presentation. I do not aim to suggest here that any commitments my discussion takes on are exactly the one’s that Lowe’s discussion is saddled with.

  9. 9.

    I would like to thank an anonymous referee for bringing this question to my attention.


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I would like to thank the members of the St. Andrews University 2009 Arche Methodology Conference for comments on this paper, special thanks to David Chalmers. In addition, I would like to thank Sonia Roca-Royes for discussion of many of the points in this paper. I hope this paper serves as impetus for further exploration of alternative accounts of the epistemology of modality.

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Correspondence to Anand Jayprakash Vaidya.

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Vaidya, A.J. Understanding and Essence. Philosophia 38, 811–833 (2010).

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  • Modal epistemology
  • Objectual understanding
  • Epistemology of essence
  • Benacerraf problem
  • Meno paradox
  • Variation-in-imagination
  • Architecture of modal knowledge