A Pluralist Account of Knowledge as a Natural Kind

Abstract

In an attempt to address some long-standing issues of epistemology, Hilary Kornblith proposes that knowledge is a natural kind the identification of which is the unique responsibility of one particular science: cognitive ethology. As Kornblith sees it, the natural kind thus picked out is knowledge as construed by reliabilism. Yet the claim that cognitive ethology has this special role has not convinced all critics. The present article argues that knowledge plays a causal and explanatory role within many of our more fruitful current theories, diverging from the reliabilist conception even in disciplines that are closely related to cognitive ethology, and thus still dealing with knowledge as a natural as opposed to a social phenomenon, where special attention will be given to cognitive neuroscience. However, rather than discarding the natural kind approach altogether, it is argued that many of Kornblith’s insights can in fact be preserved within a framework that is both naturalist and pluralist.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Siegel (2006) criticizes Kornblith for the role he ascribes to intuitions, which he views as question begging. I will grant that Siegel has a point here, although I think that Kornblith’s discussion can be seen as offering enough material to answer it. In my view, the issue Siegel raises hinges on whether or not one accepts the stance Kornblith promotes in his third claim. As I interpret Kornblith’s argument, he is aware that his line of reasoning demands an acceptance of naturalism. Made evident in his argument and possible to see in formulations such as: ‘From a naturalistic perspective, there are substantial advantages to looking outward at the phenomena under investigation rather than inward at our intuitions about them.’ (Kornblith 2002, p. 16, my italics). What Kornblith wants to do, as I understand him, is not to convince someone who is a firm non-naturalist that he or she has to accept that theoretical understanding trumps everyday intuitions, but rather give a plausible explanation of what role intuitions (can) fill in a naturalistic theory. So the question Kornblith discusses is that given a naturalistic stance, what role can intuitions play? The question begging that Siegel accuses Kornblith of seems to stem from an interpretation of Kornblith’s intentions that is not entirely correct or charitable.

  2. 2.

    Kornblith does not elaborate on his version of naturalism, but rather takes it for granted.

  3. 3.

    To put Kornblith’s ideas in context and perspective it might be illuminating to briefly mention that some more or less similar ideas, can be found in for example Maddy (2007) and van Fraassen (2002), who highlight that philosophy should adopt a scientific attitude – a stance. However, both Maddy’s and van Fraassen’s theories differ from Kornblith’s on crucial points.

  4. 4.

    Both Kusch (2005) and Bermúdez (2006) question Kornblith’s argument against a division between human and animal knowledge, since they claim that even unreflective knowledge – in humans – have aspects of logical reasoning built into it. This should, according to Kusch and Bermúdez, be seen as a genuine difference, which Kornblith downplays or ignores. I will regard it to ultimately be an open issue, in that there are arguments both for and against a division. So both interpretations of cognitive ethology and the usage of knowledge regarding animals and humans are reasonable, and the issue is in itself hence not enough to pose any real problem for Kornblith’s theory.

  5. 5.

    Bermúdez (2006) points out cases where cognitive ethologists disagree with Kornblith’s main tenets and about the possibility of using knowledge as a natural kind. I do not question Bermúdez in his argumentation and examples regarding other interpretations of how cognitive ethology should be viewed. But as concerning the previous point of anthropomorphism there is no general interpretation of the results from cognitive ethology that is totally conclusive and accepted by the majority of research, so I do not think that this is enough to pose a real threat to Kornblith’s theory.

  6. 6.

    Kornblith actually writes that cognitive ethology is ‘One of the more fruitful areas […]’ (Kornblith 2002, p. 28, my italics).

  7. 7.

    I will reconnect to this point below.

  8. 8.

    An argument for the priority of cognitive ethology over cognitive neuroscience might be found in the thesis of multiple realizability, where cognitive ethology can be interpreted as better equipped to explain what knowledge is given its more functionalistic ultimate perspective. However, if the differences between humans and other animals are made salient, the same thesis can just as well be used against Kornblith’s earlier merging of human and animal knowledge, and instead be interpreted as pointing out the importance of species-specific differences.

  9. 9.

    If this is not taken into account theoreticians risk talking past each other.

  10. 10.

    A contrasting opinion and discussion can be found in for example Horvath (2016, pp. 175–176).

  11. 11.

    Bermúdez mentions similar concerns, but sees the situation facing Kornblith’s theory as risking it being dubbed folk psychology rather than focusing on the possibility of an inclusive pluralism (Bermúdez 2006, p. 304).

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Acknowledgments

I am very grateful to Erik J. Olsson for his guidance, helpful comments and for him being extremely charitable with his knowledge and time. Thanks to Johannes Persson, Shira Singer and my anonymous referees for comments.

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Stephens, A. A Pluralist Account of Knowledge as a Natural Kind. Philosophia 44, 885–903 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-016-9738-3

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Keywords

  • Hilary Kornblith
  • Knowledge
  • Naturalistic epistemology
  • Cognitive neuroscience
  • Cognitive ethology
  • Pluralism
  • Natural kind