Knowledge and Its Limits

Knowledge and Its Limits

Knowledge and Its Limits

Knowledge and Its Limits

Synopsis

Knowledge and its Limits presents a systematic new conception of knowledge as a kind of mental stage sensitive to the knower's environment. It makes a major contribution to the debate between externalist and internalist philosophies of mind, and breaks radically with the epistemological tradition of analyzing knowledge in terms of true belief. The theory casts new light on such philosophical problems as scepticism, evidence, probability and assertion, realism and anti-realism, and the limits of what can be known. The arguments are illustrated by rigorous models based on epistemic logic and probability theory. The result is a new way of doing epistemology and a notable contribution to the philosophy of mind.

Excerpt

If I had to summarize this book in two words, they would be: knowledge first. It takes the simple distinction between knowledge and ignorance as a starting point from which to explain other things, not as something itself to be explained. In that sense the book reverses the direction of explanation predominant in the history of epistemology.

Like many philosophers, I have long been impressed by the failure of attempts to find a correct analysis of the notion of knowledge in terms of supposedly more basic notions, such as belief, truth, and justification. One natural explanation of the failure is that knowledge has no such analysis. If so, I wondered, what follows? At first, I was tempted to draw the conclusion that the notion of knowledge did not matter very much, because we could use those other notions instead. Around 1986, however, I began to notice points at which philosophers had gone wrong through using combinations of those other notions when the notion of knowledge was what their purposes really called for. That raised the question: why did they not use the notion of knowledge when it was just what they needed? The first three chapters of this book explain but do not justify this neglect of the distinction between knowledge and ignorance. They do so by applying the lessons of recent philosophy of mind to epistemology and then using the result to enrich the philosophy of mind. That provides a theoretical context for work I had already been doing on knowledge and its limits, work in which the notion of knowledge figures as one of the main instruments of understanding. That work forms much of the basis for the final nine chapters. These chapters also sketch applications to the philosophy of language, the philosophy of science, and decision theory. The book suggests a way of doing epistemology in which the distinction between knowledge and ignorance is central and irreducible, and we can still aspire to systematicity and rigour.

This book draws together work done in many places. There are traces of my time at Trinity College Dublin and much more from that at University College Oxford, particularly from some periods of leave and partial teaching relief. The majority of the material is far more recent, since my move to the University of Edinburgh, again with valuable

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