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Strange bedfellows: on Pritchard’s disjunctivist hinge epistemology


The paper discusses some themes in Duncan Pritchard’s last book, Epistemic Angst. Radical Skepticism and the Groundlessness of Our Believing. It considers it in relation to other forms of Wittgenstein-inspired hinge-epistemology. It focuses, in particular, on the proposed treatment of Closure in relation to entailments containing hinges, the treatment of Underdetermination-based skeptical paradox and the avail to disjunctivism to respond to the latter. It argues that, although bold and thought-provoking, the mix of hinge epistemology and disjunctivism Pritchard proposes is not motivated.

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  1. 1.

    Early examples of it are Wright (1985, 2004), Strawson (1985), Williams (1991). More recent ones are Coliva (2015) and the papers contained in Coliva and Moyal-Sharrock (2016). It is heterodox because disjunctivism is usually considered a development of Moorean rather than Wittgensteinian views, and more in keeping with an externalist rather than an internalist epistemology.

  2. 2.

    Pritchard’s two paradoxes are roughly equivalent to the Cartesian and the Humean paradoxes highlighted by Wright (1985, 2004). Pritchard argues that the two paradoxes significantly differ and that they call for rather distinct solutions. Wright, in contrast, contends that despite their differences they depend on a common lacuna in the skeptical reasoning and hence call for a unified solution. The lacuna consists in not seeing that a lack of evidential justification for the denial of radically skeptical hypotheses, such as the dreaming or the BIV one, or for heavyweight assumptions, such as “There is an external world” or “Our senses are mostly reliable”, does not necessarily entail that either that denial or the relevant assumptions are not made rationally. Wright labors to show that they are because we have a rational entitlement—that is, a non-evidential warrant—for them. While I concur with Wright’s diagnosis of the common lacuna motivating these forms of skepticism, in my own work I have claimed that both paradoxes proceed by assuming rightly (contra Wright) that there are only evidential justifications, but by concluding—mistakenly—that lack of justification is tantamount to lack of rationality. By contrast, I have claimed that, even if unjustified and unjustifiable, the relevant assumptions are still rational, since epistemic rationality extends to the assumptions, which make the acquisition of epistemic (evidential) justifications possible in the first place.

  3. 3.

    See Wright (1985, 2004).

  4. 4.

    See Wright (2004, pp. 209–211) and Coliva (2015, pp. 33–43, infra).

  5. 5.

    Wright (2012, pp. 232–235) represents a considerable change of mind with respect to Wright (2004). For Wright actually endorses the view that Closure does not fail for evidential warrant and that we can therefore augment the initial rational support we have for “There is an external world”, which is merely a kind of non-evidential warrant, going through a Moore-style argument, starting with the evidentially warranted premise that here is one’s hand.

  6. 6.

    I myself have defended this strategy in Coliva (2015, chapter 3). Dretske (1970) and Nozick (1981) have too, although they differed about the principled reasons why Closure should fail. Their reasons were grounded in their respective accounts of knowledge. Mine are in fact grounded in a “moderate” conception of the structure of empirical justification, according to which the latter is due to having a certain course of experience, absent defeaters, once certain heavyweight assumptions—like “there is an external world”, or “our sense organs are mostly reliable”, etc.—are in place.

  7. 7.

    See Coliva (2015, chapter 3).

  8. 8.

    Notice, moreover, that in Coliva (2015, chapter 3), I have proposed a more nuanced account of Transmission of justification principle (and of its failure) than Wright’s. In my opinion, there are two kinds of it. Namely, Wright’s, which imposes that for an argument to transmit justification (or warrant, in his terminology) from the premises to the conclusion, justification for the latter is not needed in order to have justification for the former; and another one, call it Coliva’s, that imposes that for an argument to transmit justification (or warrant) from the premises to the conclusion, the latter need not be assumed in order to have justification for the former. I have argued that while these two kinds of transmission are compatible with one another, as they apply to different kinds of argument, the philosophically more interesting one is in fact the latter.

  9. 9.

    See Moyal-Sharrock (2005, pp. 140–143). For a critical appraisal, see Coliva (2010, pp. 152–161).

  10. 10.

    Wright thinks it involves a form of trust in which one is taking a risk. I do not think this is a necessary component of acceptance and I believe Wright’s reading is at odds with On Certainty. See Coliva (2010, pp. 135–138).

  11. 11.

    See McGlynn (2012). (Cf. fn. 5).

  12. 12.

    See DeRose (1995).

  13. 13.

    In my opinion, it is not wise to insist on the “a-rationality” of commitments. For that idea is completely in line with skepticism about hinges. In my own work, I have labored to distinguish between the fact that we do not possess evidence (or other forms of justification) for hinges and the fact that they would thereby fail at rationality altogether, through the notion of extended rationality. Accordingly, epistemic rationality extends beyond evidentially justified beliefs to those assumptions which, while unjustifiable, make the acquisition of epistemic justifications possible in the first place.

  14. 14.

    Cunnigham (2016) uses the adjective “decisive”.

  15. 15.

    For another account sympathetic to Wittgenstein’s position in On Certainty, and skeptical of the need of complementing it with disjunctivism, see Ashton (2015).

  16. 16.

    For a critical appraisal of Pritchard’s disjunctivism, see Ranalli (2018). For the relationship between Pritchard’s epistemological disjunctivism and metaphysical disjunctivism, see Cunningham (2016).

  17. 17.

    Pace McDowell (1982).

  18. 18.

    Burge (2010, p. 62, fn.1).

  19. 19.

    Ibid. Cf. also Burge (2010, p. 362–364, fn. 97; and pp. 392–394).

  20. 20.

    See Burge (2010, p. 84, fn. 33).

  21. 21.

    Cf. McDowell (1982).

  22. 22.

    This is not to say that that move would be ultimately successful. For one could still raise a second-order skeptical paradox, according to which it may be conceded that one has knowledge that there is a hand if one is perceiving one’s hand. Yet, the issue would then be how one could claim to have that knowledge, or rationally redeem it, if the possibility that perceptions and hallucinations may be subjectively indistinguishable is granted. For this line of argument against McDowell, see Wright (2002).


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Correspondence to Annalisa Coliva.

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Coliva, A. Strange bedfellows: on Pritchard’s disjunctivist hinge epistemology. Synthese 198, 3521–3532 (2021).

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  • Hinge epistemology
  • Disjunctivism
  • Closure
  • Underdetermination-based skepticism
  • Perception
  • Pritchard