Motivating the Unification Challenge: Two Approaches

In the previous post, I stated that knowledge-first epistemology - the recent movement which state that knowledge has theoretical priority in epistemological theorising - faces a unification challenge viz. how and why do the distinct priority theses endorsed by knowledge-first theorists come together to form a coherent and explanatorily unified framework for contemporary epistemology? This raises a number of obvious questions, which I’ll aim to address in this post: (i) what are the various (supposedly disparate) priority theses concerning knowledge that are fall under the banner of ‘knowledge-first epistemology’? (ii) which ones, if any, are most vulnerable to the unification challenge? and relatedly (iii), why should it matter if these are not explanatorily connected such as to constitute a unified and coherent framework? (thanks to my friend Dario Mortini for prompting me to elaborate on this point).

What are the distinct knowledge-first priority theses?

In their chapter cited in the previous post, Jenkins and Jenkins-Ichikawa draw out several ways of understanding the knowledge-first claim that knowledge does or ought to have theoretical priority in epistemological theorising. Central to their discussion is the distinction between metaphysical priority theses (viz. those which concern knowledge itself) and representational priority claims (those concerning the way we think about or conceptualise knowledge)

Metaphysical Priority Theses

M-2 Knowledge is a relatively fundamental feature of reality (this is contrasted with a less plausible claim M1, that knowledge is absolutely fundamental - in both cases, J&J interpret fundamentality in the manner described by the grounding literature in metaphysics viz. as an asymmetrical metaphysical dependency relation).

M-3 Knowledge does not have belief etc. as proper parts.

M-4 Knowledge is a mental state.

M-5 Knowledge plays important causal roles.

Representational Priority Theses

R-1 The concept KNOWS does not have BELIEVES as a part. R-2 BELIEVES has KNOWS as a part. R-3 KNOWS does not have any other concept as a part. R-4 Knowledge ascriptions need not involve tacit belief ascriptions. R-5 Belief ascriptions are parasitic on our capacity for knowledge ascriptions.

R-6 Children learn the concept KNOWS before the concept BELIEVES.

The Inter vs Intra Unification Challenge

For Jenkins and Jenkins, the central challenge for defenders of knowledge-first epistemology is to provide a compelling account of the relation between the metaphysical and conceptual priority theses. In opposition to contemporary defenders of knowledge first epistemology - who tend to systematically conflate and make inferences from conceptual to metaphysical claims when stating and defending their view (Nagel 2013, Fricker 2009 and Roessler 2013 are cited as paradigmatic examples) - Jenkins and Jenkins argue that there is no obvious connection between the conceptual and metaphysical priority theses. That is, they claim that knowledge-firsters owe us an account [not yet provided] as to why we ought to expect conceptual and metaphysical claims to align in this way.  Until then, Jenkins and Jenkins (pace Hilary Kornblith whose view I’ll be discussing in the next post) side with a pluralistic view of epistemology: ‘’we see no obvious reason not to think these [conceptual questions] are of significant epistemological interest in their own right, alongside [distinct but related] questions about knowledge itself’’ (16).

I agree with Jenkins and Jenkins in both respects: that is, I think there is a real and significant worry about the legitimacy of arguments in favour of knowledge-first epistemology which draw un-motivated inferences from conceptual and metaphysical claims. I also think that pluralism here is a viable position to adopt in light of this worry (i.e. I do not think that the claim that knowledge is a natural kind entails in a strict sense that conceptual analyses of knowledge are uninteresting or not independently worthwhile). However, I think that their focus on the disunity of metaphysical and conceptual claims obscures a distinctive unificatory challenge which faces knowledge-first epistemology. The primary worry regarding the relationship between conceptual and metaphysical claims that Jenkins and Jenkins highlight is a familiar topic in meta-philosophy. Philosophy in its current post-conceptual, metaphysics-friendly state, faces similar questions in nearly all of its sub-disciplines (from my own research, for example, I’ve encountered this worry regarding concepts and metaphysics in philosophy of science in discussion of causation and natural kinds, and the philosophy of mind and consciousness - as this recent twitter discussion attests). As such, it may be tempting to adopt a blasé attitude towards this particular unification challenge:to continue on the assumption that a proper account of the relationship between our philosophical concepts and their referents can be provided and defended elsewhere.

If this is correct, the unification challenge as presented by Jenkins and Jenkins-Ichikawa lacks real dialectical force. That is, while it may be granted that there is a puzzle here to be resolved, this isn’t distinctive to the knowledge-first project, or even distinctive to epistemology. Knowledge-first epistemology - like other sub-disciplines - can continue somewhat unaffected. In my view, however, this is to ignore or overlook a crucial aspect of the unification challenge - one which is not so easily put aside.  Even if the first unificatory challenge highlighted by Jenkins and Jenkins is resolved - via appeal to [an unknown] meta-philosophical claim about the relation between concepts and metaphysics - a further worry remains for proponents of knowledge-first epistemology which concerns the relationship between priority theses within the family of views. That is, we can ask, what do the knowledge-first claims within each group have in common? Do these constitute a coherent and unified theory of, for example, metaphysical claims about knowledge? The extent to which one will find this problematic for knowledge first views will depend on how one conceives of the knowledge-first project. I think that on a standard understanding of knowledge-first epistemology - as that which proposes a radical alternative to contemporary epistemic theorising - the problem is well motivated. This brings me to the motivation for setting out the unification challenge.

Motivating the Challenge

Following Jenkins and Jenkins, I take the motivation for the unification challenge to be two fold. First, much of recent work on knowledge-first epistemology aims to unpack and clarify what exactly the programme amounts to. On this view, understanding whether and how knowledge-first is or is not  a unified epistemological framework is of independent interest in its own right. That is, while the metaphysical priority theses can of course be endorsed separately, this is a substantial claim which has significant implications for knowledge first epistemology. In my view, to assert this at the outset would - without argument- be premature. Here, it will be useful to reflect on the genealogy of knowledge-first epistemology. The knowledge-first programme was traditionally appealing insofar as it purported to offer a way of approaching epistemological theorising which departs significantly from traditional epistemology, and avoided its problems. If fewer priority theses are endorsed, it becomes less apparent that there is a genuine and distinctive programme here. Again, while this is a perfectly benign conclusion -  it is a substantive and interesting claim in its own right[ In light of this, you can see my project here as attempting to examine the prospects for a knowledge first framework which is genuinely metaphysically unified, and properly distinctive].

Second and relatedly, the explanatory unification of knowledge-first priority theses is of crucial dialectical importance to the evaluation of the knowledge-first programme epistemology. Each of the distinct claims M2-M5 play different roles in the knowledge-first project. If the unification challenge cannot be answered, and the priority claims and independent of one another, then the arguments in favour of one claim (e.g. knowledge is a mental state) will not necessarily entail or support the others (e.g. the thesis that knowledge plays important causal roles). Again, in my view, the knowledge-firster ought to aim for better here.

Can the knowledge-firster do better? In the next post, I’ll outline a modified and up to date naturalistic epistemology (using recent work from philosophy of science) which can provide the explanatory framework the knowledge first project (in its metaphysical sense) needs to adequately answer the unification challenge.

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