Two types of epistemic instrumentalism


Epistemic instrumentalism (EI) views epistemic norms and epistemic normativity as essentially involving the instrumental relation between means and ends. It construes notions like epistemic normativity, norms, and rationality, as forms of instrumental or means-end normativity, norms, and rationality. I do two main things in this paper. In part 1, I argue that there is an under-appreciated distinction between two independent types of epistemic instrumentalism. These are instrumentalism about epistemic norms (norm-EI) and instrumentalism about epistemic normativity (source-EI). In part 2, I argue that this under-appreciated distinction matters for the debate surrounding the plausibility of EI. Specifically, whether we interpret EI as norm-EI or as source-EI matters (i) for the widely discussed universality or categoricity objection to EI, and (ii) for two important motivations for adopting EI, namely naturalism and the practical utility of epistemic norms. I will then conclude by drawing some lessons for epistemic instrumentalism going forward.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.

    Foley (1987, 1993), Giere (1989), Maffie (1990), Laudan (1990a, b), Kornblith (1993), Nozick (1993), Quine (1998), Leite (2007), Schroeder (2007), Cowie (2014), Steglich-Petersen (2018), Sharadin (2018). See also Siegel (1996), Kelly (2003), Cuneo (2007), Lockard (2013), and Côté-Bouchard (2015, 2016) for criticisms of EI.

  2. 2.

    For more on this, see Littlejohn and Turri (2014). I follow the common usage, among contemporary epistemologists, of taking “epistemic” conditions to mean conditions having to do with notions like knowledge, truth, adequation with evidence, and coherence.

  3. 3.

    I am assuming here that notions like justification and rationality have to do with norms. To be epistemically justified, rational, and the like is to meet some (epistemic) norm(s). Note that I am not thereby committed to what Alston (1988) calls a “deontological” conception of epistemic justification and rationality. I leave open the possibility that epistemic norms are evaluative instead of deontic or prescriptive, i.e., norms specifying conditions under which doxastic attitudes are epistemically good or bad, rather than permitted or obligatory.

  4. 4.

    I return to this point below. This is not to say, of course, that these two kinds of questions are totally independent from each other. It might be that certain views about norm-questions constrain the answer one can give to source-questions, and vice versa. Relatedly, one cannot elucidate the normativity of epistemic norms without making some assumptions about what these norms are like and what they require. This, however, is compatible with what I say in what follows. To anticipate, my point will simply be that one can be an instrumentalist about epistemic norms without being an instrumentalist about epistemic normativity, and vice-versa. Thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing me on this point.

  5. 5.

    To be clear, norm-EI is not merely a thesis about the linguistic form of epistemic norms. It is rather a substantive thesis about what epistemic norms require, permit, or positively evaluate. It is the idea that having the relevant epistemic ends is part of the conditions under which something can count as epistemically good, required, or permitted for you. Epistemic ends are part of the conditions of applications of epistemic norms, in other words. I return to this point below, in Sect. 3.1.1. Thanks to an anonymous referee for raising this issue.

  6. 6.

    Note that unlike norm-EI, what makes source-EI an epistemic form of source-instrumentalism is not the epistemic character of the relevant ends. Rather, it counts as epistemic because it is an account of the normativity of epistemic norms and rationality (and not, say, prudential rationality). According to source-EI, the normative authority of epistemic norms comes from any of our ends, including non-epistemic ones. I return to this point in Sect. 3.1.2.

  7. 7.

    Note that Cowie mentions not only the ends that one does have, but also the ends that one should possess as the source of epistemic normativity. Does this mean Cowie is not really a proponent of source-EI? Not necessarily. It depends on the source of the “should” in “should possess”. In virtue of what, according to Cowie, should one possess these ends? If it is in virtue of further ends that she does have, then this can reasonably be seen as a form of source-EI. Alternatively, one could perhaps defend a version of source-EI according to which epistemic normativity comes from one’s idealized ends (the ends one would have if she were fully informed and rational). In any case, Cowie can at least be interpreted as a proponent of source-EI and I will use this interpretation in what follows. Thanks to an anonymous referee for raising this point.

  8. 8.

    Other authors who are primarily concerned with EI understood as source-EI include Kornblith (1993), Schroeder (2007), Cuneo (2007) and Côté-Bouchard (2015).

  9. 9.

    Note that very few instrumentalists have defended norm-EI while clearly rejecting source-EI. Proponents of norm-EI tend to either endorse (or assume) source-EI, or to more or less ignore source-questions. This, however, does not undermine the distinction and its significance. First, as I have argued, there is a distinction. One clearly can accept norm-EI without source-EI. Second, as I argue below, some of the most prominent motivations and defences of EI apply to source-EI, but not to norm-EI. So, even if there are not many proponents of norm-EI who reject source-EI, the distinction still matters for those who want to defend norm-EI, whether or not they also accept source-EI.

  10. 10.

    See, for instance, Siegel (1996), Kornblith (1993), Papineau (1999), Kelly (2003), Schroeder (2007), Leite (2007), Cuneo (2007), Lockard (2013), Côté-Bouchard (2015), Sharadin (2018) and Steglich-Petersen (2018).

  11. 11.

    I use the following two examples in Côté-Bouchard (2015). The second example, “Spoiler Alert”, is adapted from Kelly (2003, p. 626).

  12. 12.

    Because, once again, you could claim that its normative authority comes from a source other than your ends. In that case, even if the instrumental epistemic norm would apply to you (because you are in the conditions under which these norms require things from people), that norm could still lack genuine authority. That is, it could still be the case that, even though the epistemic norm does “ask” you to believe something, you have no genuine reason to do as it says (just like you might have no genuine reason to respect a law that applies to you).

  13. 13.

    For more on this distinction between norms merely issuing requirements or applying to us, and norms having genuine reason-giving authority over us, see e.g., Foot (1972), Broome (2013) and Côté-Bouchard (2016, 2017).

  14. 14.

    I borrow these labels from Lockard (2013).

  15. 15.

    See e.g., Kornblith (1993) and Schroeder (2007, Ch. 6). Note, however, that Schroeder does not go as far as endorsing that pragmatist strategy. He only suggests it as a plausible possibility.

  16. 16.

    This is why radical pragmatists like Stich (1990)—who view doxastic attitudes as only subject to instrumental practical requirements—are not best seen as proponents of norm-EI.

  17. 17.

    See e.g., Lockard (2013), Côté-Bouchard (2015) and Sharadin (2018).

  18. 18.

    For instance Kornblith (1993) and Leite (2007).

  19. 19.

    Note that this strategy is not mutually exclusive with the pragmatist strategy. Rule-based instrumentalists can be either pragmatist or intellectualist. That is, they can either focus on rules promoting our epistemic ends over time (e.g., Leite 2007) or promoting all of our ends over time (e.g., Kornblith 1993).

  20. 20.

    One exception is Steglich-Petersen (2018). He argues that the universality objection fails because it assumes, wrongly, that epistemic norms must be understood in terms of doxastic obligations. If epistemic norms are permissions instead of obligations, the argument goes, then the universality objection loses its force. Unlike the moves discussed above, Steglich-Petersen’s strategy does apply to norm-EI. Whatever the merits of this strategy (which there is no space to evaluate here), my point is that instrumentalists who want to defend norm-EI need to do like Steglich-Petersen and look for other moves in defense of norm-EI.

  21. 21.

    It is worth noting that Steglich-Petersen himself does not claim that this norm can be naturalized.

  22. 22.

    See also Steglich-Petersen (2018, pp. 261–262).

  23. 23.

    This is what Wrenn (2010) calls the “standard” argument for the instrumental value of true belief. It is also similar to the pragmatist strategies used by Kornblith (1993) and Schroeder (2007) in defence of source-EI.

  24. 24.

    Although see Stich (1990) and Wrenn (2010) for doubts about this line of thought. Another common route to the usefulness of conforming to epistemic norms is via evolution and natural selection. As Quine puts it: “Creatures inveterately wrong in their inductions have a pathetic but praiseworthy tendency to die before reproducing their kind.” (Quine 1969, p. 129).

  25. 25.

    Other examples include Kornblith (1993) and Schroeder (2007).

  26. 26.

    As before, Steglich-Petersen (2018) is an exception. One of the motivations he invokes is that EI would unify epistemic and practical normativity, thereby keeping things theoretically simpler than if the epistemic and the practical were distinct, isolated domains. This motivation is arguably relevant to both norm-EI and source-EI.

  27. 27.

    One exception is Schroeder (2007) whose sketch of source-EI is part of a larger case in favour of instrumentalism about all normativity and normative reasons.

  28. 28.

    See e.g., Foot (1972), Williams (1979), Smith (1994), Schroeder (2007) and Goldman (2009) for versions of this view.

  29. 29.

    See e.g., Hampton (1998), Cuneo (2007), Parfit (2011), Enoch (2011), and Scanlon (2014) for criticisms.


  1. Alston, W. P. (1988). The deontological conception of epistemic justification. Philosophical Perspectives, 2, 257–299.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Broome, J. (2013). Rationality through reasoning. Chichester: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Côté-Bouchard, C. (2015). Epistemic instrumentalism and the too few reasons objection. International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 23(3), 337–355.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Côté-Bouchard, C. (2016). Can the aim of belief ground epistemic normativity? Philosophical Studies, 173, 3181–3198.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Côté-Bouchard, C. (2017). Is epistemic normativity value-based? Dialogue, 56(3), 407–430.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Cowie, C. (2014). In defence of instrumentalism about epistemic normativity. Synthese, 191(16), 4003–4017.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Cuneo, T. (2007). The normative web. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Enoch, D. (2011). Taking morality seriously: A defense of robust realism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Foley, R. (1987). The theory of epistemic rationality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Foley, R. (1993). Working without a net. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Foot, P. (1972). Morality as a system of hypothetical imperatives. Philosophical Review, 81, 305–316.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Giere, R. N. (1989). Scientific rationality as instrumental rationality. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 20(3), 377–384.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Goldman, A. H. (2009). Reasons from within: Desires and values. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Hampton, J. E. (1998). The authority of reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Kelly, T. (2003). Epistemic rationality as instrumental rationality: A critique. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 66(3), 612–640.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Kim, J. (1988). What is “naturalized epistemology”? In J. E. Tomberlin (Ed.), Philosophical perspectives (Vol. 2, pp. 381–405). Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Kornblith, H. (1993). Epistemic normativity. Synthese, 94, 357–376.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Laudan, L. (1990a). Normative naturalism. Philosophy of Science, 57, 44–59.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Laudan, L. (1990b). Aimless epistemology? Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 21, 315–322.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Leite, A. (2007). Epistemic instrumentalism and reasons for belief: A reply to Tom Kelly’s “epistemic rationality as instrumental rationality: A critique”. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 75(2), 456–464.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Littlejohn, C., and J. Turri. (eds). (2014). Epistemic norms: New essays on action, belief, and assertion. Oxford: OUP.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Lockard, M. (2013). Epistemic instrumentalism. Synthese, 190, 1701–1718.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Maffie, J. (1990). Naturalism and the normativity of epistemology. Philosophical Studies, 59, 333–349.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Nozick, R. (1993). The nature of rationality. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Papineau, D. (1999). Normativity and judgment. Aristotelian Society Supplementary, 73(1), 17–43.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Parfit, D. (2011). On what matters. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Quine, W. V. O. (1969). ‘Natural kinds’. In Ontological relativity and other essays. New York: Columbia UP.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Quine, W. V. O. (1998). Reply to morton white. In L. E. Hahn & P. A. Schilpp (Eds.), The philosophy of W.V. Quine (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: Open Court.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Scanlon, T. M. (2014). Being realistic about reasons. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Schroeder, M. (2007). Slaves of the passions. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Sharadin, N. (2018). Epistemic instrumentalism and the reason to believe in accord with the evidence. Synthese, 195(9), 3791–3809.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Siegel, H. (1996). Instrumental rationality and naturalized philosophy of science. Philosophy of Science, 63(3), 124.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Smith, M. (1994). The moral problem. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Steglich-Petersen, A. (2018). Epistemic instrumentalism, permissibility, and reasons for belief. In C. McHugh, J. Way, & D. Whiting (Eds.), Normativity: Epistemic and practical. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Stich, S. (1990). The fragmentation of reason. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Williams, B. (1979). Internal and external reasons. In R. Harrison (Ed.), Rational action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Wrenn, C. (2006). Epistemology as engineering? Theoria, 72(1), 60–79.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Wrenn, C. (2010). True belief is not instrumentally valuable. In C. D. Wright & N. J. L. L. Pedersen (Eds.), New waves in truth. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

Download references


Thanks to anonymous referees at Synthese for their helpful and generous feedback. I am also indebted to members of the Montréal Normativity Reading Group. Special thanks to Éliot Litalien, Marc-Kevin Daoust, Matthew Scarfone, and Tiger Zheng.


Funding was provided by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (Grant No. 756-2019-0366).

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Charles Côté-Bouchard.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Special issue: Instrumentalism about Epistemic Rationality: For and Against (eds. Thomas Sturm, Carl Hoefer, and Sven Rosenkranz.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Côté-Bouchard, C. Two types of epistemic instrumentalism. Synthese (2019).

Download citation


  • Epistemic instrumentalism
  • Epistemic normativity
  • Epistemic norms
  • Epistemic rationality
  • Epistemic reasons
  • Instrumentalism
  • Normativity
  • Rationality
  • Epistemology
  • Epistemic value