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No work for a theory of epistemic dispositions


Externalists about epistemic justification have long emphasized the connection between truth and justification, with this coupling finding explicit expression in process reliabilism. Process reliabilism, however, faces a number of severe difficulties, leading disenchanted process reliabilists to find a new theoretical home. The conceptual flag under which such epistemologists have preferred to gather is that of dispositions. Just as reliabilism is determined by the frequency of a particular outcome, making it possible to characterize justification in terms of a particular relationship to truth, dispositions are accompanied by concrete, worldly manifestations. By taking true beliefs as the result, not of certain processes but of particular dispositions, these epistemologists have attempted to respond to the numerous obstacles to reliabilism. Yet all this work has proceeded without regard to the wealth of contemporary work on the metaphysics of dispositions, making the new hope premature at best, ill-founded at worst. Combining contemporary dispositional accounts of justification with extant analyses of dispositions reveals that the latter is the case. The structural differences between epistemic justification and dispositions make it clear that not only should process reliabilism be abandoned, but the subsequent appeal to dispositions along with it.

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  1. By ‘epistemic justification,’ I refer to the notion of justification picked out by true natural language occurrences of “S is justified in believing that p.”

  2. See Sosa (1991, pp. 140 and 242).

  3. See Greco (2002, p. 302) and (2003, p. 469). It is unclear how Greco takes his views on epistemic justification to interact with natural language occurrences of “S is justified in believing that p.” On the one hand, Greco says that epistemic justification, the terminology that many authors use to refer to the natural language use, is whatever it is that turns true belief into knowledge (p. 288), but this would be to deny that there are false justified beliefs. For Greco then, it seems that ‘epistemic justification’ does not coincide the natural language uses of ‘S is justified in believing that p.’ It might be then that ‘subjective justification’ does capture this sense since Greco says that being subjectively justified is being justified from the “knower’s own point of view” (p. 303).

  4. See Lasonen-Aarnio (2010, p. 12) and Lasonen-Aarnio (2016 and Forthcoming). “Reasonable belief” is a technical notion—for more, see Sect. 2.2.

  5. This is a toy theory of reliability in comparison to Goldman’s original thoughts on reliability, but it should be adequate to point out the difficulties for process reliabilism (See Goldman 1979, p. 11).

  6. This example due to Plantinga (1993, p. 199).

  7. This example due to Cohen (1984, p. 281).

  8. For a fuller explication of the generality problem, see Conee and Feldman (1998). For arguments that the scope of the generality problem is wider than just process reliabilism, see Comesana (2006) and Bishop (2010).

  9. See Sosa (1991).

  10. Ibid, p. 225. Here I have focused on the disposition-based view that Sosa gives in Knowledge and Perspective. I have focused on Sosa’s early work as an exemplar for a dispositions-focused view of justification, a strategy it is clear that he is no longer satisfied with, opting instead for a view centered around competences and abilities. To be fair to Sosa, it must be acknowledged that his early work contained talk of competences and abilities as well, but that his more recent views have strayed from an account of the intellectual virtues explicitly in terms of dispositions to focus on abilities and competences instead. In Knowledge in Perspective, Sosa gives three summaries of his view, one in terms of dispositions, one in terms of ability, and one in terms of competence:

    A subject S’s intellectual virtue V relative to an ‘environment’ E may be defined as S’s disposition to believe correctly propositions in a field F relative to which S stands in conditions C, in ‘environment’ E. (Sosa 1991, p. 140.)

    Let us define an intellectual virtue or faculty as a competence in virtue of which one would mostly attain the truth and avoid error in a certain field of propositions F, when in certain conditions C. (Sosa 1991, p. 138.)

    An intellectual virtue may be viewed as a subject-grounded ability to tell truth from error infallibly or at least reliably in a correlated field. (Sosa 1991, p. 242.)

    Sosa thus regarded competences, abilities, and dispositions as closely related in Knowledge and Perspective. In his latest work, however, Sosa shifts his focus to competence and ability, saying that it is not clear if dispositions suit the SSS structure of account he intends to give:

    It is not immediately obvious that dispositions generally, as opposed to competences specifically, still have that triple structure. But with a bit of stretching they can be made to share it. (Sosa 2015, p. 27.)

    Sosa thus no longer takes dispositions to be particularly illuminating when discussing competence. General dispositions must instead be stretched and distorted a bit to fit his current understanding of the intellectual virtues, making Sosa’s current view better characterized as focusing on competences and abilities. In his latest take on the New Evil Demon Problem, he barely mentions dispositions, opting to conduct the discussion in terms of competences instead. (See Sosa (Forthcoming), Chapter 5.) For more on the prospects of Sosa’s current view, see the conclusion of this paper.

  11. See Greco (2002, p. 302).

  12. See Greco (2003, p. 469).

  13. See Lasonen-Aarnio (2010, 2016).

  14. See Lasonen-Aarnio (2016 and Forthcoming). What Lasonen-Aarnio holds is that reasonable belief, while distinct from justified belief, is extensionally very close to justified belief and thus can account for the intuitions in the New Evil Demon scenario. If her account is to address the New Evil Demon Problem, then reasonable belief will have to coincide with justified belief in that case, so understanding reasonable beliefs as justified beliefs does not distort Lasonen-Aarnio’s proposed solution to the problem. Parting ways with epistemological orthodoxy, however, Lasonen-Aarnio (2010) does not think that reasonable or justified belief is a necessary condition for knowledge. Instead, she holds that it is possible to be a lucky knower and thus have “unreasonable knowledge,” making it impossible to analyze knowledge in terms of dispositions (p. 17). Much thanks to an anonymous reviewer for helping me to see that Lasonen-Aarnio’s view of knowledge is not able to be understood in terms of dispositions.

  15. Baehr (2011), Battaly (2008), Roberts and Wood (2007) and Zagzebski (1996) all emphasize how essentially reliabilist understandings of belief-forming faculties do not fully capture the concept of intellectual virtues. For a comparison between Greco and Sosa’s virtue reliabilism and approaches that put less of an emphasis on reliability, see Fleisher (2017).

  16. See Sosa (1991, p. 140).

  17. See Greco (2003, p. 469).

  18. See Sosa (1991, p. 242), Greco (2002, p. 303) and Lasonen-Aarnio (2010, p. 12).

  19. See Sosa (1991, p. 248).

  20. This example is due to Hawthorne and Manley (2005, p. 182).

  21. Greco (2010) advocates a similar solution to the generality problem (pp. 78–79).

  22. See Lasonen-Aarnio (2016 and Forthcoming).

  23. Sosa (2003) suggests something similar in responding to the New Evil Demon Problem, namely that epistemic justification should be analyzed in terms of intellectual virtues that produce a large proportion of true beliefs in the actual world (pp. 156–157), a cashing out of his (2007, 2015) thought that what is important is whether the dispositions produce true beliefs under normal conditions. Greco (2002) follows Sosa’s lead, adopting the view that what matters to intellectual virtue is how cognitive dispositions perform in the actual world (p. 303).

  24. See Goodman (1954), Ryle (1949) and Quine (1960).

  25. For analyses of dispositions similar to Conditions Fixing, see Choi (2008), Mellor (2000, p. 263), Lewis (1997), Mumford (1998, p. 89), Prior (1985, pp. 48–49) and Steinberg (2010).

  26. A promising way to understand Lasonen-Aarnio’s and Sosa’s attempts to deal with the New Evil Demon problem is to view their move as conditions-fixing—what matters is the actual world, or normal conditions, when considering whether a given person has a a disposition to believe the truth. See Sect. 2.3.

  27. See Manley and Wasserman (2008, p. 76).

  28. Both Greco’s (2010) and Sosa’s (1991, 2007, 2015) accounts, due to including a safety condition on knowledge, have elements of a suitable proportion account. For whether a safety-based approach can save the dispositional account of justification, see Sect. 4.

  29. Those who embrace dispositional essentialism include Bird (2005, 2007), Ellis (2002), Ellis and Lierse (1994), Heil (2003), Martin (2008), Molnar (2003), Mumford (1998) and Mumford and Anjum (2011).

  30. It might be objected that the brain lesion is not a standard cognitive faculty. While this may be true, it is difficult to rule out the brain lesion as a faculty in a principled way. The brain lesion does not produce rational reflection, but this is true of other cognitive faculties like vision and smell. The brain lesion is not part of normal human development, but if defenders of DJ were to rule out the lesion with this strategy, then they would be leaning towards the already proposed proper functionalism, a route that proponents of DJ do not intend to pursue. Furthermore, ruling out the brain lesion will require some kind of principled answer to the generality problem. What level of description should we use to determine the faculty types? Should vision be the only faculty dealing with eyesight, or should night vision be its own faculty type? Should we allow seemings that are based in one part of the brain but not those that are delivered by the brain lesion? Without a principled answer to the generality problem, proponents of DJ will not be successful in ruling out the brain lesion as a cognitive faculty. For more on possible DJ solutions to the generality problem, see Sect. 4.3.

  31. See Vihvelin (2004, p. 438).

  32. See Lewis (1997).

  33. See Ranehill et al. (2015).

  34. Similar concerns apply to the New Dispositionalists take on abilities. Vihvelin’s (2004) account only holds the internal properties of the subject fixed, doing nothing to prevent Julie from having a false belief in Informed Academic. The same concerns then apply to the New Evil Demon counterpart, as their internal properties are identical to those of the justified believer in the actual world.

  35. An important aspect of Manley and Wasserman’s (2008) view is that the closeness of particular C-cases matters only for extrinsic dispositions (p. 78), but this will not allow advocates of DJ to dodge the critique offered here. Lasonen-Aarnio’s (Forthcoming) position is that “in the end...reasonableness is extrinsic.” Greco (2010) and Sosa’s (1991, 2007, 2015) emphasis on safety in their accounts of epistemic dispositions will create precisely the same problem. Like with Suitable Proportion, what matters is a proportion of a set of close worlds. If Greco and Sosa use this to understand what dispositions epistemic agents have, however, this will rule that the counterpart is unjustified in their beliefs as they are not disposed to believe truly.

  36. See Lasonen-Aarnio (2010, p. 12, no. 19 and Forthcoming). Even though Lasonen-Aarnio hopes to make sense of reasonableness in terms of knowledge-conducive dispositions, this does not mean that Lasonen-Aarnio hopes to analyze knowledge itself in terms of dispositions. In fact, Lasonen-Aarnio (2010) denies that this is possible due to occurrences of unreasonable knowledge (p. 17). Instead, the concept of reasonableness is analyzed in terms of dispositions that are conducive to knowing. Thank you very much to the anonymous reviewer that pointed out how Lasonen-Aarnio’s view on knowledge differs from her view of reasonableness.

  37. See Sosa (2003, p. 157). Italics are mine.

  38. Greco (2010, p. 151).

  39. I want to extend my thanks to an anonymous reviewer for highlighting this point about the paper’s methodology. There are multiple lessons that could be drawn from the failure of DJ, with one of these options being that the extant theories of dispositions are untenable.

  40. Dispositions are appealed to for other epistemic work beyond an analysis of justification, most obviously in theories of knowledge and solving the value problem—see Gundersen (2012), Greco (2010) and Sosa (1991, 2007, 2015). Nothing I’ve said here bears on those projects, and perhaps dispositions will end up being helpful in addressing issues in these areas. My arguments show, however, that epistemic dispositions will not be the Swiss Army knife that externalists have recently hoped, as they are incapable of filling one of the most central roles they were meant to play. It could also be that dispositions can be incorporated into an internalist account of justification, as Feldman (2004) relies on a dispositional account of belief and knowledge to illuminate evidence possession and Nolfi (2015) utilizes an account of dispositional belief to defend a normativist motivation for epistemic norms. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for mentioning the externalist as well as internalist projects that utilize epistemic dispositions.

  41. See Vetter (2019); Vetter and Jaster (2017), with a focus on the dispositional accounts of abilities at play in epistemology in her (2017, pp. 14–17). Alvarez (2017) has also argued that even character traits should not be understood as dispositions, making the link between agentive and cognitive abilities and dispositions tenuous indeed.

  42. See Sosa (2015, p. 27) and Footnote 11 of this paper.

  43. See Sosa (2015, p. 24 and 28).

  44. See Sosa (2015, p. 95) and (2017, p. 191).

  45. See Sosa (2015, p. 172).

  46. See Sosa (2017, p. 205).

  47. The view that knowledge is some sort of ability is quite popular, defended in some form by Hetherington (2012), Kenny (1992), Ryle (1949) and White (1982), and the strategy for defending this view against criticisms by Kvanvig (2003, 2010) and Pritchard (2009, 2012) has been to get more specific about precisely what constitutes an ability. Littlejohn (2014) argues that abilities can fail to be exercised in certain inhospitable environments, suggesting a possible solution at least to the New Evil Demon problem. If this account is further developed in a non-dispositional direction, the resulting view might avoid the criticisms of this paper. Directions forward might include Maier (2013) analysis of abilities in terms of options, as he explicitly argues that abilities are not reducible to dispositions (pp. 119–124) and Miracchi’s (2015) focus on competences to know.

  48. See Mele (2003, p. 447). Berofsky (2002, p. 196), invokes the distinction as a difference between type and token abilities, Whittle (2010, p. 2), as a distinction between local and global abilities, and Vihvelin (2013, pp. 11–12), as a difference between narrow and wide abilities. For more on the partition between general and specific abilities, see Maier (2018) and Jaster (Forthcoming).

  49. Even though we have surveyed dispositional accounts of abilities, there are numberous other proposals—Davidson (1973)understands abilities as causal powers, Lewis (1976) takes abilities to be constrained by possibility, Maier (2013) analyzes abilities in terms of options, and Romy Jaster (Forthcoming) takes abilities to be dependent on the notion of success.


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Correspondence to Robert Weston Siscoe.

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Thank you to Carolina Sartorio, Daniel Munro, Ernest Sosa, Jonathan Weisberg, Josh Cangelosi, Juan Comesana, Keith Lehrer, Robert Wallace, Stewart Cohen, the audience at the 2017 Canadian Philosophical Association, and an anonymous reviewer for their numerous recommendations in improving the paper.

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Siscoe, R.W. No work for a theory of epistemic dispositions. Synthese 198, 3477–3498 (2021).

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  • Dispositions
  • Epistemic justification
  • Process reliabilism