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Scepticism and Ordinary Epistemic Practice

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It is not unusual for epistemologists to argue that ordinary epistemic practice is a setting within which (infallibilist) scepticism will not arise. Such scepticism is deemed to be an alien invader, impugning such epistemic practice entirely from without. But this paper argues that the suggested sort of analysis overstates the extent to which ordinary epistemic practice is antipathetic to some vital aspects of such sceptical thinking. The paper describes how a gradualist analysis of knowledge can do more justice to what sceptics seek to achieve – while also showing how sceptical thinking can even be part of (and is able to have some muted epistemic impact within) ordinary epistemic practice.

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  1. An infallibilist sceptical possibility is a possibility which is intended by its sceptical advocate to be incompatible with the presence of infallible justificatory support or warrant (but which might not be claimed by that sceptic to preclude fallible justificatory support or warrant).

  2. Is there much sceptical thinking that does not apply an infallibilist standard? At least some sceptical arguments that claim to rely only upon a fallibilist standard are concealedly infallibilist, as I show in “Fallibilism and Knowing That One Is Not Dreaming,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 32 (2002), 83–102.

  3. “Is Fallibility an Epistemological Shortcoming?,” Philosophical Quarterly 54 (2004), 232–251, at p. 249 (final emphasis added).

  4. In different places, Leite requires one’s existing evidence to provide some reason either for thinking that the sceptical possibility is true (e.g., p. 248) or that it might be true (e.g., p. 246). This distinction (and any such indeterminacy on the matter) will matter soon. See note 5.

  5. Here is one possible – and not extraordinary – utterance: “He won! My horse won! I’m dreaming. I must be. Seriously, am I dreaming? Pinch me.” Leite (in correspondence) asks whether a dreaming possibility could ever genuinely – neither outrageously nor laughably – arise if there is no antecedent reason in support of it. (And he doubts that this could ever occur.) But all that is needed, even for an ordinary doubt to arise, is support for a possibility qua possibility – as against its being actualised on the particular occasion. When Descartes introduced the possibility of his dreaming, he did so by adverting to – and thereby rendering more ordinary – his having had some deceptively life-like dreams in the past. Appropriately, this was support simply for a possibility – not the actuality – of his dreaming now.

  6. Like many other epistemologists, I have argued for the defeat of some sceptical arguments. See, for example, Epistemology’s Paradox: Is a Theory of Knowledge Possible? (Savage MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1992), chs 1–3; “Scepticism on Scepticism”, Philosophia 25 (1997), 323–30; Good Knowledge, Bad Knowledge: On Two Dogmas of Epistemology (Oxford: Clarendon Pres, 2001), ch. 2; “Fallibilism and Knowing That One Is Not Dreaming”.

  7. Sections 4 and 5 will provide a fuller theoretical setting within which to understand and locate this distinction.

  8. See The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd edn (University of Chicago, 1970 [1962]).

  9. In Good Knowledge, Bad Knowledge, ch. 2, I show this in more detail.

  10. Strictly, we should distinguish between grades or degrees of such ordinariness. Contexts of ordinary epistemic practice could be more or less epistemically ordinary, as can the knowledge within them. I will continue using the simpler formulation, though.

  11. Again (as the previous note observed), we should recognise that each of these terms has a qualitative dimension. There are further epistemic degrees to be considered, if only because there are degrees of ordinariness and of extraordinariness. But, for simplicity, I continue leaving this complication to one side.

  12. And how epistemically bad can knowledge that p be? For an argument for its being able to be very bad indeed, see my Good Knowledge, Bad Knowledge, ch. 4. For a less extreme position, see my “Knowledge’s Boundary Problem”, Synthese 150 (2006), 41–56.

  13. Many contemporary epistemologists seem to assume that if we are not to accept an absolutism or an invariantism – as Peter Unger calls it, in Philosophical Relativity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984) – about knowledge that p, then we must accept contextualism instead. John Hawthorne is a recent case of someone accepting that dichotomy’s exhaustiveness: Knowledge and Lotteries (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004). But section 5 introduced a further non-absolutist conceptual option, and in the present section I show how it transcends contextualism.

  14. “Elusive Knowledge,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 74 (1996), 549–67.

  15. “Knowledge and Context,” Journal of Philosophy 83 (1986), 574–585; “Skepticism, Relevance, and Relativity,” in Dretske and His Critics, (ed.) B. P. McLaughlin (Cambridge, Massachusetts.: Blackwell, 1991), 17–37.

  16. “Solving the Skeptical Problem,” Philosophical Review 104 (1995), 1–52; “Contextualism: An Explanation and Defense,” in John Greco and Ernest Sosa (eds.), The Blackwell Guide to Epistemology (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999), 187–205.

  17. And the more relevant are the alternatives which are eliminated, the more relevant (other things being equal) is the knowledge which is thereby constituted. That is the core of how I reconceive the epistemic role of the relevance of an alternative, as I have explained elsewhere: Good Knowledge, Bad Knowledge, pp. 54–56.

  18. This is a simplifying assumption, made for the purposes of this paper. The epistemic dimension is here being assumed simply to be justificatory.

  19. The range of extraordinariness will be restricted to a smaller possible domain of values, with all of them being of an especially high standard: each of them needs to be – to some extent or other – ‘extraordinarily good.’ In contrast, the range of comparative ordinariness encompasses a larger possible domain of values, such as from those that are ‘barely adequate’ to those that are ‘just short of extraordinarily good.’

  20. Lewis claimed (“Elusive Knowledge,” pp. 562–563) to do so. Elsewhere (Good Knowledge, Bad Knowledge, pp. 52–54), I have denied that he succeeded.

  21. For related remarks on contextualism’s possible inadequacy, see Igor Douven, “The Context-Insensitivity of ‘Knowing More’ and ‘Knowing Better’,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 34 (2004), 313–326.


Thanks to Adam Leite for his comments on drafts of this paper.

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Correspondence to Stephen Hetherington.

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Hetherington, S. Scepticism and Ordinary Epistemic Practice. Philosophia 34, 303–310 (2006).

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