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Understanding and philosophical methodology


According to Conceptualism, philosophy is an independent discipline that can be pursued from the armchair because philosophy seeks truths that can be discovered purely on the basis of our understanding of expressions and the concepts they express. In his recent book, The Philosophy of Philosophy, Timothy Williamson argues that while philosophy can indeed be pursued from the armchair, we should reject any form of Conceptualism. In this paper, we show that Williamson’s arguments against Conceptualism are not successful, and we sketch a way to understand understanding that shows that there is a clear sense in which we can indeed come to know the answers to (many) philosophical questions purely on the basis of understanding.

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  1. 1.

    Williamson (2007, p. 2). (All page references hereafter will be to this book unless otherwise indicated.).

  2. 2.

    Throughout his book Williamson formulates claims both at the level of language and at the level of thought. For ease of discussion we will allow ourselves to move back and forth between the two, without being very careful about the difference when it doesn’t matter.

  3. 3.

    The main negative part of The Philosophy of Philosophy (Chaps. 1–4) comprises the discussion of these three attempts.

  4. 4.

    Boghossian (1996).

  5. 5.

    p. 2.

  6. 6.

    Chapter 2.

  7. 7.

    While we agree with Williamson’s point here, vagueness is an unfortunate choice of philosophical subjects to use as a counterexample to CP1. The vast majority of the research on vagueness focuses on vague expressions (typically predicates), and one of the main goals of this research is to develop a semantic theory that will adequately capture the behavior of vague expressions while avoiding paradox. Such a theory, obviously, is a collection of meta-linguistic claims. Moreover, it is implausible to suggest that the main focus of research on vagueness is really on non-meta-linguistic questions like whether Mars was always either dry or not dry. We doubt that many theorists have any real interest in this question for its own sake. Some theories imply an answer to this question, and vagueness theorists are interested in whether or not this is a good consequence. But for theories that don’t imply an answer, the answer depends on empirical facts about water on Mars, and nobody seems to think that it is the business of philosophers to discover such facts.

  8. 8.

    Jackson (1998, pp. 30–31).

  9. 9.

    Of course, Jackson and other Conceptualists go to great lengths to provide their own answers to these questions.

  10. 10.

    Goldman (2007) holds a view according to which philosophical intuitions are primarily evidence for claims about the characteristics of our individual mental representations. However, for precisely this reason Goldman thinks that intuitions have very limited and indirect evidential value for philosophy. Hence it would be implausible to construe him as endorsing CP1, or Conceptualism more generally.

  11. 11.

    Boghossian (1996).

  12. 12.

    p. 53.

  13. 13.

    Chapter 3.

  14. 14.

    Russell (2008) is a rare exception.

  15. 15.

    Jackson (1998), Chalmers and Jackson (2001).

  16. 16.

    Boghossian (1996, 2003) and Peacocke (2004). Boghossian says little about matters of philosophical methodology, and so it is not entirely clear whether to group him among the Conceptualists. Nevertheless, he does develop an account of a significant range of a priori knowledge in terms of understanding, and he is clearly one of Williamson’s targets.

  17. 17.

    Peacocke (2004, p. 27). Peacocke goes on to refer to those who still believe in metaphysical analyticity as a “possibly non-existent class of theorists” (p. 27, n. 28).

  18. 18.

    See, e.g. Boghossian (1994, 1996).

  19. 19.

    Ayer (1946, p. 57).

  20. 20.

    Ayer (1954, p. 114).

  21. 21.

    Hempel (1945).

  22. 22.

    Goodman (1954).

  23. 23.

    EA is distinct from the notion of epistemological analyticity formulated in Boghossian (1996), although how exactly it differs depends on how one interprets Boghossian’s formulations. Boghossian sometimes characterizes a statement as epistemologically analytic when understanding it suffices for having a justified belief in its truth, in which case EA is a weaker notion that requires only belief. However, Boghossian sometimes characterizes a statement as epistemologically analytic when understanding it suffices for being justified in believing it. This is naturally construed as a claim about propositional justification, about it being epistemically appropriate for the subject to have the belief, whether or not she actually has it.

  24. 24.

    Williamson talks about understanding-assent “links” rather than guarantees. However, we wish to avoid the misleading suggestion that the strong necessary connection that Williamson criticizes is the only epistemologically interesting link between understanding and assent, or the only link that might be available to the Conceptualist.

  25. 25.

    Following Williamson (pp. 74–75) the notion of assent employed in the characterization of both epistemological analyticity and of understanding-assent guarantees is meant to be dispositional; a subject need not be actively assenting to a thought throughout the time that she grasps it. It should also be understood so that a subject can count as assenting to the thought that foxes have fur, for example, even if she does not make the explicitly meta-level judgment that the thought that foxes have fur is true.

  26. 26.

    Chapter 4.

  27. 27.

    pp. 86–87.

  28. 28.

    pp. 87–88.

  29. 29.

    p. 77.

  30. 30.

    Williamson’s argument against CP3 actually has its origins in an earlier paper (2003) that responds to Boghossian 2003. In this paper Boghossian appeals to understanding-assent guarantees to help account for how it is possible to have a priori knowledge of very simple logical truths and inference rules. But Boghossian clearly does not intend to generalize this account to all armchair philosophical knowledge, as CP3 does. Nor is it plausible that armchair philosophical knowledge in general is epistemically on par with our knowledge of very simple logical truths and inference rules.

  31. 31.

    Chalmers and Jackson (2001, pp. 323–324).

  32. 32.

    Peacocke (2003, 2008).

  33. 33.

    For a more detailed positive proposal about how we can acquire knowledge via conceptual analysis, see Magdalena Balcerak Jackson (in review).

  34. 34.

    It may be that an account along these lines will not deliver the result that understanding-based knowledge of philosophical truths is, in general, certain knowledge. But in our view this is a welcome result, one that is much more faithful to the actual epistemic situation of armchair philosophers. Prior to the discovery of Gettier cases, for example, philosophers had quite strong understanding-based epistemic grounds for thinking that justified true belief is sufficient for knowledge. Their grounds were epistemically on a par with the grounds we now have for thinking that knowledge is sufficient for justified true belief.

  35. 35.

    See, for example, Jenkins (2008, 2010).

  36. 36.

    See, for example, Peacocke (2003, 2004).

  37. 37.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for Philosophical Studies for pressing us on this point.

  38. 38.

    An analogous claim is plausible for grasping a scheme of concepts. It is plausible that there are rules concerning, e.g. how concepts can be combined to form truth-evaluable thoughts. Concerns about whether it is appropriate to talk about “rules” in this case are tangential.

  39. 39.

    If being able to follow the rules of English does require having certain beliefs, it may still be difficult to see how such beliefs—e.g. about the syntactic and semantic structure of the language—could help lead to answers to interesting philosophical questions. However, the same thing can be said about the beliefs (allegedly) constitutive of being able to follow the rules of chess; there is an enormous gap between simple beliefs about how the pieces move and interesting truths about complex and abstract board structures. It is worth pointing out that in both cases there are plausibly “higher-order” beliefs and inferential abilities whose presence is required in order for the relevant beliefs to constitute one’s ability to follow the rules. Such beliefs and abilities would be part of one’s understanding of English or chess, and as such could play a (potentially quite substantial) role in armchair investigation.

  40. 40.

    p. 91.

  41. 41.

    pp. 90–91.

  42. 42.

    p. 91.

  43. 43.

    p. 98.

  44. 44.

    p. 126.

  45. 45.

    In conversation, Williamson acknowledges that fitting into a community of language or concept users may turn out to require that a subject satisfy some sort of “higher-order” rationality constraints. There is no discussion in The Philosophy of Philosophy of why we should expect the contribution to armchair philosophical knowledge made by such constraints to be negligible. (See also n. 39 above.).

  46. 46.

    p. 91.

  47. 47.

    See Fricker (2003).

  48. 48.

    See Heck (2006).

  49. 49.

    See Strawson (1994, Chap. 1) and Pettit (2001, Chap. 2).

  50. 50.

    See Pitt (2004).

  51. 51.

    p. 97.

  52. 52.

    A further difficult question, and one on which we take no stand here, is whether a subject with an ideal understanding of the concept (in some hard-to-specify sense) can fail to recognize the truth of the thought that every vixen is a vixen.


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Earlier versions of this material were given at the Thursday seminar of the Philosophy Program at the Research School of the Social Sciences, Australian National University and at a workshop at the University of Cologne, Germany. We are grateful to audiences at both events for much helpful discussion. Thanks especially to David Chalmers, Thomas Grundmann, Andrew McGonigal, Daniel Stoljar and Timothy Williamson. The research for this essay was supported by a grant from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.

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Correspondence to Brendan Balcerak Jackson.

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Balcerak Jackson, M., Balcerak Jackson, B. Understanding and philosophical methodology. Philos Stud 161, 185–205 (2012).

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  • Understanding
  • Metaphilosophy
  • Williamson, Timothy
  • Conceptual truth
  • Conceptual analysis
  • Analyticity