November 26, 2006

Blogger "Recent Comments" Add-On

Click here for a nice "Recent Comments" add-on for your Blogger service. It's free and includes a comment feed. Just installed one on Knowability in about 15 minutes. It promises to be compatible with your eventual free upgrade to Blogger Beta.

Incidentally, my feed URLs are at the bottom of the sidebar. Consider signing in for an email subscription to posts and/or comments.

November 22, 2006

Philosophical Insults (Frances)

Thanks to Joe for the invitation to communicate.

Nowadays philosophers rarely call one another idiots in print (things tend to get a little nastier in private). But this doesn’t mean that they don’t insult one another in their publications. I thought it might be fun to catalogue some of the insults from recent literature. I’d like people to share their favorites in the comments.

My favorites are the more subtle ones. Suppose Jones publishes a criticism of Smith and then Smith responds in print. Smith can insult Jones in many ways. One common way is to use the phrase ‘It is curious that’, as in ‘It is curious that Jones thinks that my view includes the claim that P’. What is often (not always) meant is this: ‘Jones is a f**king idiot. He thinks I said that P, when any fool can see that I said no such thing’. Similar points hold for ‘It is interesting that Jones thinks that I said that P’ and ‘The proposal that Jones makes on my behalf is very strange, even borderline incoherent’ and ‘I am surprised that Jones says that P’.

Here’s a rather different way to insult: ‘In a useful article’, as in ‘In a useful article, Jones considers the claim that P’. What is often (not always) meant is something like this: ‘Jones wrote a largely boneheaded article on the claim that P; however, by working through his confusions we will be able to see the important points more clearly.’ I hope it’s legitimate of me to point out that Davidson did this in one of his classic articles, although I can’t remember which one. When I was a beginning graduate student at Minnesota, and full of myself, I did it as well in a paper written for a class. My professor, Joseph Owens, drew a line through the phrase and wrote in the margin ‘Out’. It was clear that I wasn’t going to get away with such nonsense.

I don’t want to imply that these insults are never deserved. On the contrary, on many occasions the author is responding to some jerk. And even when one isn’t responding to a jerk, the insult can be non-personal in the sense that the author is such a lover of the truth and hater of the false that he or she hurls invectives not at people but merely at ideas that strike her as false. I once had a colleague who often publicly destroyed visiting speakers, but it was plain to most of us—and often enough the visiting speaker—that his target was the ideas he thought were false. It was never the person advocating the ideas. This made the behavior more tolerable, even admirable.

The insults noted above seem a bit subtle. But maybe that’s the wrong predicate. Perhaps not subtle but restrained?

Baker & Hacker insulted Kripke’s interpretation of Wittgenstein with real gusto. Hacker also insulted the recent history books by Soames, who like Kripke is a rather mediocre philosopher. But their insults are usually unrestrained. Over the years Dennett and Searle have traded many insults, or at least remarks that looked pretty insulting. But I’m not sure that all those were real insults. Dennett has a good sense of humor, and it comes out in his writing. So perhaps he wasn’t really insulting Searle, although his Journal of Philosophy review of Searle’s Rediscovery of the Mind seemed pretty tough to me. I can’t speak with any authority about Searle. Of course, in that book Seale seemed to be telling us that just about everyone in the philosophy of mind had been making terribly elementary and boneheaded mistakes for many years.

As any child will tell you, being ignored can be quite an insult. In that vein, I recall a footnote in an article on the nature of belief by some moderately famous person. He noted that perhaps he should consider what Dennett’s theory would do with the example being considered in the body of the essay. But he declined to make the probe, saying that in reality Dennett’s exceedingly vague remarks could hardly amount to anything like a view worth considering. Ouch!

So: what are your favorite examples—restrained or not? Please don’t reveal the identity of the insulter, at least if he or she is still alive and isn’t already well known as one who insults opponents. I realize that it is easy to thumb through Nietzsche, say, and find some pretty potent insults. But I’m more interested in contemporary writers, not least because I think it might be fun to try to figure out the identity of the insulter!

It also might be interesting to note which famous contemporaries never insulted any of their many critics. For instance, did Rawls or Lewis ever insult any of their critics?

November 21, 2006

David Lewis and the Future of Formal Methods


Synthese - An International Journal for Epistemology, Logic and Philosophy of Science hosts its first annual conference at the Carlsberg Academy in Copenhagen, October 3- 5 , 2007. The conference is sponsored by PHIS - The Danish Research School in Philosophy, History of Ideas and History of Science and Springer.

Title / Between Logic and Intuition: David Lewis and the Future of Formal Methods in Philosophy

Abstract / David Lewis is one of the most important figures in contemporary philosophy. His approach balances elegantly between the use of rigorous formal methods and sound philosophical intuitions. The benefit of such an approach is reflected in the substantial impact his philosophical insights have had not only in many core areas of philosophy, but also in neighboring disciplines ranging from computer science to game theory and linguistics. The interplay between logic and intuition to obtain results of both philosophical and interdisciplinary importance makes Lewis' work a prime example of formal philosophy. Lewis' work exemplifies the fruitful interplay between logic and intuition that is central to contemporary philosophy. This conference serves as a tribute to Lewis and as a venue for adressing questions concerning the relationship between logic and philosophical intuition. This first Synthese Annual Conference is the venue for discussing the future of formal methods in philosophy.

Invited Speakers / John Collins, Hannes Leitgeb, Rohit Parikh, L.A. Paul, Brian Weatherson

Program Committee and Conference Chairs / Johan van Benthem, Vincent F. Hendricks, John Symons (SYNTHESE) , Stig Andur Pedersen (PHIS)

Conference Manager / Pelle Guldborg Hansen

Call for papers / Synthese invites papers on the work of David Lewis and formal philosophy in accordance with the conference abstract. The final papers should be sent electronically to Editor-in-Chief, Vincent F. Hendricks at, using "SAC"-submission in the subject entry. The deadline for submitting a paper for consideration is April 1, 2007. Notification of acceptance for presentation at the conference is August 1, 2007.

Publication / A selection of the best papers will be published as an anthology in the Synthese Library book series.

Website Link

November 02, 2006

Contextualism vs. Interest-dependent Invariantism (Greco)

Thanks to Joe for the invitation to post.

I want to raise some considerations about attributor contextualism and interest-dependent invariantism. (These considerations come from a paper called “What’s Wrong with Contextualism” that I am working on for Philosophical Quarterly. ) First, I want to raise some methodological considerations about how we ought to decide the case between the two. Second, I want to argue that these considerations at least point us in the direction of attributor contextualism for knowledge attributions. Here is the gist of the argument: John Hawthorne and Jason Stanley have made a lot of the idea that knowledge is the norm of practical reasoning, using this plausible thesis to argue in favor of invariantism and against contextualism. But it seems to me that the argument can be turned on its head. In other words, the idea that knowledge is for practical reasoning seems to me to count in favor of contextualism. The main idea is this: If knowledge is for practical reasoning, then it is the relevant practical reasoning context that should govern. Sometimes this is the subject-context-- we make a knowledge attribution in the context of discussion about what S should do. But other times it is the attributor context-- we make the attribution while wondering what we should do. Still other times it is a third party's context-- we are discussing what some third guy should do. Technically this turns out to be a version of attributor contextualism, since the truth value of knowledge attributions varies across attributor context. The governing idea, though, is that truth values are relative to practical reasoning contexts.

Below this idea is developed more fully.

The usual methodology for adjudicating between contextualism and interest-dependent invariantism in epistemology is two-fold: consult our intuitions about possible cases, and consult the linguistic data regarding actual language use. We may include in the latter descriptions about how certain grammatical kinds in our language in fact behave. So, for example, it is common to describe the ways that indexicals behave, and to describe analogies or disanalogies with “knows.” This methodology invites different ways to explain the relevant data. For example, contextualists and invariantists will offer competing explanations for why a knowledge claim seems true or seems false in a possible case, with one side explaining the intuition in terms of semantic competence, the other in terms of pragmatics, perhaps together with “semantic blindness.”

I think we can supplement this two-fold methodology in a fruitful way. Specifically, we can ask what our concept of knowledge and our knowledge language are for. We can ask what roles they play in our conceptual economy and our linguistic practices. By doing so, I suggest, we gain further insight about how our concepts and language can be expected to behave. This same methodology has recently been defended by Edward Craig.

There seems to be no known language in which sentences using “know” do not find a comfortable and colloquial equivalent. The implication is that it answers to some very general needs of human life and thought, and it would surely be interesting to know which and how . . . .

Instead of begining with ordinary usage, we begin with an ordinary situation. We take some prima facie plausible hypothesis about what the concept of knowledge does for us, what its role in our life might be, and then ask what a concept having that role would be like, what conditions would govern its application. (2)

What might such a “prima facie plausible hypothesis” be? Here are two ideas that have received a lot of play lately: that knowledge is the norm of practical reasoning, and that an important function of our knowledge language is to flag good information and good sources of information. The first idea is emphasized by, among others, Hawthorne and Stanley. The latter idea has been defended in detail by Craig.

Human beings need true beliefs about their environment, beliefs that can serve to guide their actions to a successful outcome. That being so, they need sources of information that will lead them to believe truths . . . So any community may be presumed to have an interest in evaluating sources of information; and in connection with that interest certain concepts will be in use. The hypothesis I wish to try out is that the concept of knowledge is one of them. To put it briefly and roughly, the concept of knowledge is used to flag approved sources of information. (11)

Putting the two ideas together, we get the following plausible thesis: that an important function of our concept of knowledge and our knowledge language, perhaps its primary function, is to flag information and sources of information for use in practical reasoning.

Now suppose this is right. Does that speak in favor of attributor contextualism or interest-dependent invariantism? To my mind, it speaks in favor of attributor contextualism. More specifically, it speaks in favor of the version of attributor contextualism that allows the attributor context to be sensitive to the interests and purposes operative in the subject context. My thinking is this: if the function of knowledge is to serve practical reasoning, it should be tied to the interests and purposes that are relevant to the practical reasoner.

To make the point more clearly we may use Hawthorne’s notion of a “practical environment.” One’s practical environment is constituted by those aspects of one’s environment that are relevant to practical reasoning. Often enough, the practical reasoner with whom we are concerned will be in the attributor’s practical environment. Often enough, that is, one attributes knowledge for the purpose of practical reasoning in one’s own practical environment. But sometimes the practical reasoner will be outside the attributor’s practical environment. For example, sometimes we attribute knowledge for the purpose of practical reasoning in the subject’s practical environment. In that case, it would seem, it is the interests and purposes operative in the subject’s practical environment that are relevant.

These considerations suggest the following general rule: the truth-value of knowledge attributions (and the like) depends on the interests and purposes operative in the relevant practical reasoning context. Sometimes this will be the practical environment of attributor, sometimes that of the subject, and sometimes that of some third party. The position that results, however, will be a version of attributor contextualism, since it entails that the truth-value of knowledge claims is variable over attributor contexts. More exactly, the position is a version of interest-dependent, subject-sensitive contextualism.

As I said above, these remarks are at best suggestive. I don’t pretend to have established the present version of contextualism over its competitors. It is worth noting, however, that the proposed view does very well in relation to Hawthorne’s scorecard for evaluating contextualist and invariantist positions. In fact, it does better than any position that Hawthorne considers. Not pretending to have argued for these claims, I will simply assert the following: subject-sensitive contextualism respects the Moorean constraint that most of our knowledge claims are true, respects plausible closure principles, preserves the intuitive connections between knowledge, assertion and practical reasoning, and can (near enough) respect disquotational schemas for ‘knows’. We get this last result because all knowledge attributions must satisfy fairly high minimal standards, and so a knowledge claim in one context can normally be imported into another. I say “near enough” because there will be exceptions to this general rule. Specifically, we cannot disquote into contexts where stakes drive relevant standards unusually high. That there are such exceptions, however, seems correct. That is, we do not expect disquotation to go in that direction. (Hawthoren correctly notes that no anti-skeptical view can respect both the “Epistemic Possibility Constraint” (If the probability for S that p is not zero, then S does not know that not-p) and the “Objective Chance Principle” ( that epistemic probability follows knowledge of objective probability). (94))

Finally, the proposed view deals nicely with a kind of counter-example that gets posed against contextualism--ones involving attributions of knowledge to a high-stakes subject context from a low-stakes attributor context. For example, consider the case where we are considering whether S “knows” that the bank is open on Saturday, based on the evidence that he was at the bank two weeks ago and it was open on Saturday then. Nothing much depends on his being right for us but a lot depends on it for him. Intuitively, we should judge that S’s claim to “know” is false, even though we are evaluating his claim from a low-stakes context. As Hawthorne and Stanley point out, it seems that it is the interests and purposes operative in the subject’s practical environment that should govern the standards for “knowledge” here. But so long as the attributor context can be properly sensitive to the interests operative in the subject’s practical environment, attributor contextualism can accommodate this point. More specifically, insofar as it is the practical reasoning of the subject that is at issue in the case, the present view rules that it is the interests and purposes operative in the subject’s practical environment that ought to govern our evaluation of the knowledge claim. On the other hand, if the knowledge claim is being evaluated for use in our own practical reasoning, then it is the interest and purposes operative in our own practical environment that should govern. All that seems intuitively correct to me. That is, the proposed position seems to me to yield the right results in each case.