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A new maneuver against the epistemic relativist


Epistemic relativists often appeal to an epistemic incommensurability thesis. One notable example is the position advanced by Wittgenstein in On certainty (1969). However, Ian Hacking’s radical denial of the possibility of objective epistemic reasons for belief poses, we suggest, an even more forceful challenge to mainstream meta-epistemology. Our central objective will be to develop a novel strategy for defusing Hacking’s line of argument. Specifically, we show that the epistemic incommensurability thesis can be resisted even if we grant the very insights that lead Hacking to claim that epistemic reasons are always relative to a style of reasoning. Surprisingly, the key to defusing the argument is to be found in recent mainstream work on the epistemic state of objectual understanding.

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  1. Cf. Cuneo’s (2007) discussion of what he calls minimal epistemic realism, which is the position one presupposes by taking ordinary epistemological discourse at face value.

  2. See here, for example, Field (1996, 1998), Gibbard (2003) and Chrisman (2007) for versions of this kind of view. Cf. Lynch (2009) for a challenge to the coherence of this kind of position.

  3. Global relativists, for instance, are trivially epistemic relativists. See, for example, Meiland (1977).

  4. By reference to EC, there are epistemic facts of the form “S is justified in believing p.” Proponents of EC, however, deny the absolute and objective character of such facts. Accordingly, EC is incompatible with (3) of the Simple View. For some samples of defenses of EC, see Rorty (1980, 1989, 1995) and Hales (2006). For other presentations of EC, cf. Alston (1993), Boghossian (2006) and Lynch (2010).

  5. For example, Rorty (1979) reasons to EC on the basis of a full-scale anti-representationalist epistemology while Wittgenstein (1969), on the other hand, has been read as endorsing EC (in On certainty) by way of his view that hinge propositions can be neither rationally supported nor rationally doubted.

  6. Although what constitutes radical departure between belief systems is often taken as simply intuitive, there are ways to make the idea explicit. As Boghossian notes, one relevant element here will be commitments to different epistemic principles. Perhaps also, more broadly, commitment to different hinge propositions (including hinge propositions that are not about epistemic principles are relevant.

  7. See, for example, Strawson (1985).

  8. Coliva suggests that the claim that we cannot rationally support hinge propositions with evidence—a kind of anti-foundationalism—does not commit one (as the naturalist thinks) to the arationality of accepting them. Working with a broader conception of rationality (ala Wright 2004), we might view the acceptance of hinge propositions as “rationally mandatory” (2010, p. 5) in the following sense: that it is constitutive of rationality that we accept what makes it possible. And the acceptance of hinge propositions are precisely the conditions of possibility of a system “within which reasons for and against specific empirical propositions can be produced” (2010, p. 5).

  9. This interpretation is motivated by Wittgenstein’s River Bed analogy (OC§96–99).

  10. Cf. (Lynch (2010), p. 271), who characterizes the question with reference to whether what he calls deep epistemic disagreements are rationally irresolvable.

  11. See Baghramian (2004) and also Kusch (2010) for excellent analyses of Hacking’s form of epistemic relativism. As Kusch observes, Hacking distances himself from the kind of epistemic relativism he defends in his early and perhaps most influential work on styles of reasoning (e.g., 1982, 1992).

  12. One might draw the observation that Hacking’s view supports a kind of semantic incommensurability thesis, where what’s relative to a style of reasoning is propositional meaning. Crucially, though, even if such a thesis is granted, this is compatible with the claim that Hacking’s argument commits him to epistemic relativism. Compare: on MacFarlane (2011) taxonomy, one can accept assessment sensitivity and reject local invariantism: the resulting position would be a kind of truth-relativist who is also a content-relativist.

  13. See below for Hacking’s distinction between propositions that do and do not depend on styles of reasoning.

  14. To stress, this feature of Hacking’s motivation for epistemic relativism makes it a thesis of particular philosophical interest (beyond standard arguments from diversity to an epistemic relativist’s conclusion) in that it allows us to bypass entirely the issue of whether individuals could be committed to radically divergent belief systems. Thanks to an anonymous referee for requesting further emphasis here.

  15. For example, Hacking suggests that “even after Paracelsus is translated into modern German, one still has to learn how he reasoned in order to understand him” (1982, p. 331).

  16. This is an observation that has been noted by Feyerabend (1975).

  17. While, as Kusch notes, Hacking has been writing about styles of reasoning for over 25 years, his early argument outlined here turns out to be one that challenges the Simple View in a way that can’t be dismissed in the same manner of as more typical ‘arguments from diversity’ for epistemic relativism.

  18. Thanks to an anonymous referee for requesting this point be emphasized.

  19. For additional work on understanding-why, see Grimm (e.g. 2010), Greco (forthcoming), Brogaard (2005) and Hills (2009).

  20. This is especially typical in the philosophy of science. See here, for example, Lipton (2004), Woodward (2003), and Kitcher (2002). For a non-propositionalist (ability-based) defense of the knowledge-of-causes account, see Grimm (forthcoming).

  21. One line of argument to this effect is as follows: if understanding were just a matter of knowing certain propositions, then, we should expect that understanding can undermined by certain kinds of epistemic luck just as knowledge is. But, as Kvanvig (2003) and Pritchard (2009) suggest, it is not. Specifically, Kvanvig argues that objectual understanding is compatible with both Gettier-style and environmental epistemic luck (Cf. Pritchard 2005); Pritchard argues understanding to be (like knowledge) incompatible with Gettier-style epistemic luck though compatible with environmental epistemic luck).

  22. See here (Kvanvig (2003), Chap. 8) and [REFERENCE SUPPRESSED]. For example, one’s false belief that encouragement of the Social Realism art movement in Russia began in 1933 rather than 1934 does not preclude one’s understanding modern Russian history.

  23. Cf. Zagzebski (2001) and Elgin (2009) for some notable dissent on this point.

  24. Cf. Grimm (e.g. 2010, forthcoming), Hills (2009) and Strevens (2012).

  25. Kvanvig (2009) also considers logical and probabilistic relations, along with explanatory relations, as among the kinds of coherence-making relations that are grasped. Cf. Khalifa (2013) for a recent criticism of Kvanvig here.

  26. Hills (2009), for instance, suggests—in the context of discussing moral understanding—that the ability one possesses in virtue of satisfying the grasping requirement is an “ability to draw the right conclusion or give the right explanation in new cases” (Ibid., 6; our italics).

  27. As Grimm (2010) suggests, one who understands “is sensitive not just to how things are, but to how things stand modally, and in particular to how things might have been, if certain conditions had been different. He adds, elsewhere, that (at least, if the subject matter is appropriately simple) then, by manipulating it (e.g. entertaining counterfactual possibilities) allows the agent to ‘see’ the way in which ‘the manipulation influences (or fails to influence) other parts of the system’ (2010, p. 11).”

  28. As Hills (2009) notes, part of what one can do with understanding is generate beliefs in new propositions. In rejecting the claim that possessing the kind of abilities constitutive of understanding just is the possession of items of knowledge, Hills notes: “Gaining this extra knowledge may help you acquire the requisite abilities, but you might have the extra pieces of knowledge without having the kind of good judgment that enables you to generate new true...beliefs yourself. Surely no extra piece or pieces of knowledge guarantee that you have these abilities” (2009, p. 6).

  29. We are simplifying in part to avoid the unnecessary tediousness that comes with Hacking’s use of the epistemic modal “might.”

  30. The kind of possibility suggested here is epistemic possibility—what is possible given what one knows (or believes).

  31. It is worth pointing out here that the objectual understanding-based diagnosis we are proposing here is not meant to rival an externalist diagnosis. The grasping condition on objectual understanding can be conceived of as an internalist or as an externalist condition. The issue would turn on whether (and, perhaps to what extent) it must be reflectively accessible to one that the relations grasped by the subject are appropriately coherence-making vis-à-vis the subject matter in question. Thanks to [REFERENCE SUPPRESSED] for raising this issue.

  32. See, for example, Boghossian (2006) and Cappelen and Hawthorne (2009) for a variety of (very differently motivated) general considerations that count against the notion of relative truth. Cf. MacFarlane (e.g. 2007) and Hales (1997) for a sample of some defenses.

  33. See here Chaps. 1–4 of Pritchard (2005).


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Correspondence to J. Adam Carter.

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Carter, J.A., Gordon, E.C. A new maneuver against the epistemic relativist. Synthese 191, 1683–1695 (2014).

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  • Understanding
  • Epistemic relativism
  • Epistemic reasons
  • Hacking
  • Wittgenstein