Popper among the epistemologists

A nice demonstration of the profile of Popper and conjectural knowledge in the profession. In The Oxford Handbook of Epistemology (ed Paul Moser), OUP 2002 there are two passing references to Popper but not as a serious participant in the field.


“Cohen’s own argument against a belief requirement for knowing  begins with certain insights that he credits to Descartes and to Karl Popper that a natural scientist could ideally conduct inquiries and experiments without believing the favoured hypotheses the scientist employs in those inquiries. Where Popper (1972) understood ‘knowledge’ in a special sense as labeling, for example, theories and hypotheses that a group of scientists have made it their policy to utilize in their work, Cohen speaks of a single scientist as knowing.


“Everyone who has read a high-school science text knows how the story is supposed to go. Scientific knowledge is based on observation and/or experiment; from statements knowable on the basis of observation, scientists reason to their conclusions using a body of strategies that can be collected under the title “scientific method. ” This picture of scientific knowledge has a long history, with prominent elaboration of it in the early modern period in the writings of Bacon and Descartes (influential writers with rather different views about method). Before the twentieth century, it was popular to think of scientific method as an instrument of discovery, but, in the heyday of logical empiricism, that conception came under severe scrutiny. Reichenbach, Hempel, and Popper distinguished between a “context of discovery” and a “context of justification, ” arguing that there were no methods that would lead scientists to the initial formulation of new hypotheses, but that, once proposed, possibly as a result of a variety of factors including imagination and luck, those hypotheses were subject to methodical check. In their treatments, scientific method reduced to the logic of confirmation.”

So what are the 20 contributors (counting the editor) talk about for 600 pages. Mostly the justification of beliefs.

1. Conditions and Analyses of Knowing, Robert K. Shope
2. The Sources of Knowledge, Robert Audi
3. A Priori Knowledge, Albert Casullo
4. The Sciences and Epistemology, Alvin I. Goldman
5. Conceptual Diversity in Epistemology, Richard Foley
6. Theories of Justification, Richard Fumerton
7. Internalism and Externalism, Laurence BonJour
8. Tracking, Competence, and Knowledge, Ernest Sosa
9. Virtues in Epistemology, John Greco
10. Mind and Knowledge, John Heil
11. Skepticism, Peter Klein  
12. Epistemological Duties, Richard Feldman  
13. Scientific Knowledge, Philip Kitcher  
14. Explanation and Epistemology, William G. Lycan  
15. Decision Theory and Epistemology, Mark Kaplan  
16. Embodiment and Epistemology, Louise M. Antony  
17. Epistemology and Ethics, Noah Lemos  
18. Epistemology in Philosophy of Religion, Philip L. Quinn  
19. Formal Problems about Knowledge, Roy Sorensen  

From the editor’s Introduction

“EPISTEMOLOGY, characterized broadly, is an account of knowledge. Within the discipline of philosophy, epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge and justification: in particular, the study of (a) the defining components, (b) the substantive conditions or sources, and (c) the limits of knowledge and justification. Categories (a)-(c) have prompted traditional philosophical controversy over the analysis of knowledge and justification, the sources of knowledge and justification (in the case, for instance, of rationalism vs. empiricism), and the status of skepticism about knowledge and justification.”

“Epistemologists have distinguished some species of knowledge, including: propositional knowledge (that something is so), nonpropositional knowledge of something (for instance, knowledge by acquaintance, or by direct awareness), empirical (a posteriori) propositional knowledge, nonempirical (a priori) propositional knowledge, and knowledge of how to do something. Recent epistemology has included controversies over distinctions between such species, for example, over (i) the relations between some of these species (for example, does knowledgeof reduce somehow to knowledge-that?) and (ii) the viability of some of these species (for instance, is there really such a thing as, or even a coherent notion of, a priori knowledge?).”

The standard analysis

“An influential traditional view, inspired by Plato and Kant among others, is that propositional knowledge has three individually necessary and jointly sufficient components: justification, truth, and belief. On this view, propositional knowledge is, by definition, justified true belief. This tripartite definition has come to be called “the standard analysis. ” (See the essay by Shope on this analysis. )”

“Knowledge is not just true belief. Some true beliefs are supported merely by lucky guesswork and thus are not knowledge. Knowledge requires that the satisfaction of its belief condition be “appropriately related” to the satisfaction of its truth condition. This is one broad way of understanding the justification condition of the standard analysis. We might say that a knower must have adequate indication that a known proposition is true. If we understand such adequate indication as a sort of evidence indicating that a proposition is true, we have adopted a prominent traditional view of the justification condition: justification as evidence. Questions about justification attract much attention in contemporary epistemology. Controversy arises over the meaning of “justification” as well as over the substantive conditions for a belief’s being justified in a way appropriate to knowledge.”

“An ongoing controversy has emerged from this issue: Does epistemic justification, and thus knowledge, have foundations, and, if so, in what sense? The key question is whether some beliefs (a) have their epistemic justification noninferentially (that is, apart from evidential support from any other beliefs), and (b) supply epistemic justification for all justified beliefs that lack such noninferential justification. Traditional foundationalism, represented in different ways by, for example, Aristotle, Descartes, Bertrand Russell, C. I. Lewis, and Roderick Chisholm, offers an affirmative answer to this issue. (See the essay by Fumerton on foundationalism. )”

“Foundationalists diverge over the specific conditions for noninferential justification. Some identify noninferential justification with self-justification. Others propose that noninferential justification resides in evidential support from the nonconceptual content of nonbelief psychological states: for example, perception, sensation, or memory. Still others understand noninferential justification in terms of a belief ‘s being “reliably produced, ” that is, caused and sustained by some nonbelief belief-producing process or source (for instance, perception, memory, or introspection) that tends to produce true rather than false beliefs. Such a view takes the causal source and sustainer of a belief to be crucial to its foundational justification. Contemporary foundationalists typically separate claims to noninferential, foundational justification from claims to certainty. They typically settle for a modest foundationalism implying that foundational beliefs need not be indubitable or infallible. This contrasts with the radical foundationalism often attributed to Descartes.”

“A prominent competitor against foundationalism is the coherence theory of justification, that is, epistemic coherentism. This view implies that the justification of any belief depends on that belief ‘s having evidential support from some other belief via coherence relations such as entailment or explanatory relations. An influential contemporary version of epistemic coherentism states that evidential coherence relations among beliefs are typically explanatory relations. The general idea is that a belief is justified for you so long as it either best explains, or is best explained by, some member of the system of beliefs that has maximal explanatory power for you. Contemporary epistemic coherentism is holistic; it finds the ultimate source of justification in a system of interconnected beliefs or potential beliefs.”

“A problem for all versions of coherentism that aim to explain empirical justification is the isolation objection. According to this objection, coherentism entails that you can be epistemically justified in accepting an empirical proposition that is incompatible with, or at least improbable given, your total empirical evidence. The key assumption of this objection is that your total empirical evidence includes nonconceptual sensory and perceptual content, such as pain you feel or something you seem to see. Such content is not a belief or a proposition. Epistemic coherentism, by definition, makes justification a function solely of coherence relations between propositions, such as propositions one believes or accepts. As a result, coherentism seems to isolate justification from the evidential import of the nonconceptual content of nonbelief awareness-states. Coherentists have tried to handle this problem, but no resolution enjoys wide acceptance.”

“Recently some epistemologists have recommended that we give up the traditional evidence condition for knowledge. They recommend that we construe the justification condition as a causal condition or at least replace the justification condition with a causal condition. The general idea is that you know that P if (a) you believe that P, (b) P is true, and (c) your believing that P is causally produced and sustained by the fact that makes P true. This is the basis of the causal theory”

“The standard analysis of knowledge, however elaborated, faces a devastating challenge that initially gave rise to causal theories of knowledge: the Gettier problem. In 1963 Edmund Gettier published a highly influential challenge to the view that if you have a justified true belief that P, then you know that P. Here is one of Gettier’s counterexamples to this view:

Smith is justified in believing the false proposition that (i) Jones owns a Ford. On the basis of (i), Smith infers, and thus is justified in believing, that (ii) either Jones owns a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona. As it happens, Brown is in Barcelona, and so (ii) is true. So, although Smith is justified in believing the true proposition (ii), Smith does not know (ii).

Gettier-style counterexamples are cases where a person has justified true belief that P but lacks knowledge that P. The Gettier problem is the problem of finding a modification of, or an alternative to, the standard analysis that avoids difficulties from Gettier-style counterexamples. The controversy over the Gettier problem is highly complex and still unsettled. (See the essay by Shope for details. )”

In “The Sciences and Epistemology, ” Alvin Goldman finds that epistemology cannot be subsumed under or identified with a science. Epistemology and the sciences, according to Goldman, should remain distinct yet cooperative. He presents several examples that illustrate the relevance of science to epistemology. Drawing from work in psychology, he proposes that science can shed light on epistemic achievements by contributing to our understanding of the nature and extent of human cognitive endowments. He suggests, in addition, that psychology can also contribute to our understanding of the sources of knowledge. Finally, Goldman argues that some specific projects in epistemology can receive important contributions from psychology, economics, and sociology.

In “Conceptual Diversity in Epistemology, ” Richard Foley reflects on such central topics in epistemology as knowledge, warrant, rationality, and justification. He aims to distinguish such concepts in a general theory. Epistemologists have searched for that which constitutes knowledge when added to true belief. Foley calls this “warrant” and suggests that rationality and justification are not linked to knowledge by necessity. He proceeds to offer a general schema for rationality. This schema enables a distinction between “rationality” and “rationality all things considered. ” Foley proposes how these concepts can work together in a system that “provides the necessary materials for an approach to epistemology that is clarifying, theoretically respectable, and relevant to our actual lives. ”

In “Theories of Justification, ” Richard Fumerton offers an overview of several prominent positions on the nature of justification. He begins by isolating episte- mic justification from nonepistemic justification. He also distinguishes between “having justification for a belief” and “having a justified belief, ” arguing that the former is conceptually more fundamental. Fumerton then addresses the possibility that justification is a normative matter, suggesting that this possibility has little to offer a concept of epistemic justification. He also critically examines more specific attempts to capture the structure and content of epistemic justification. These include traditional foundationalism and variants thereof, externalist versions of foundationalism; contextualism; coherentism; and “mixed” theories which combine aspects of coherentism and foundationalism.

In “Scientific Knowledge, ” Philip Kitcher offers an approach to scientific knowledge that is more systematic than many current approaches in the epistemology of science. He challenges arguments against the truth of the theoretical claims of science. In addition, he attempts to discover reasons for endorsing the truth of such claims. He tries to apply current “scientific method” to this end (including confirmation theory and Bayesianism), but doubts that any contextindependent method gives warrant to the theoretical claims of science. He suggests that the discovery of reasons might succeed if we ask why anyone thinks the theoretical claims we accept are true and then look for answers that reconstruct actual belief-generating processes. To this end, Kitcher presents the “homely argument” for scientific truth. It entails that when a field of science is continually applied to yield precise predictions, then it is at least approximately true. He defends this approach and offers a supplementary account that gives more attention to detail. This account includes a historical aspect (a dependence on the previous conclusions of scientists) that must answer to skeptical challenges and a social aspect (the coordination of individuals in pursuit of specific knowledgerelated goals).

In “Decision Theory and Epistemology, ” Mark Kaplan finds it characteristic of orthodox Bayesians to hold that (1) for each person and each hypothesis she comprehends, there is a precise degree of confidence that person has in the truth of that proposition, and (2) no person can be counted as rational unless the degree of confidence assignment she thus harbors satisfies the axioms of the probability calculus. Many epistemologists have objected to the idea that each of us harbors a precise degree of confidence assignment. Even if we had such an assignment, the condition on a person’s being rational endorsed by the orthodox Bayesian would be too demanding to be applied to beings, such as ourselves, who have limited logical/mathematical skills. In addition, in focusing exclusively on degrees of confidence, the Bayesian approach tells us nothing about the epistemic status of the doxastic states epistemologists have traditionally been concerned about— categorical beliefs. Kaplan’s purpose is twofold. First, he aims to show that, as powerful as many of such criticisms are against orthodox Bayesianism, there is a credible kind of Bayesianism. Without appeal to idealization or false precision, it offers a substantive account of how the probability calculus constrains the (imprecise) opinions of actual persons and of how this account impinges on traditional epistemological concerns. Second, he aims to show how this Bayesianism finds a foundation in considerations concerning rational preference.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Popper among the epistemologists

  1. hsearles says:

    “Reichenbach, Hempel, and Popper distinguished between a ‘context of discovery’ and a ‘context of justification,’ arguing that there were no methods that would lead scientists to the initial formulation of new hypotheses, but that, once proposed, possibly as a result of a variety of factors including imagination and luck, those hypotheses were subject to methodical check. In their treatments, scientific method reduced to the logic of confirmation.”
    This sentence is enough to conclude that the editor really has no knowledge of what Popper really said (he probably believes Popper to simply be the naive falsificationist taught in today’s universities).

    While I am someone who does suggest that there is virtue in having dialogues in academia between experts, a la Boettke’s approach with Austrian economics at GMU, things like this collection are powerful counterarguments against that approach. What is the point of the academic process of discovery relying on journal articles and specialized experts if it has consistently failed? Sadly, the tertiary education in the Western world is the worst kind of racket found in society for the sole fact that the object it seeks to control is the most precious object of all: human thought. For me, the end result is being torn between two, mutually incompatible actions: either trying to dialogue with the current academia, or rejecting them as a false high priesthood.

    However, conjectural knowledge has never been a very popular topic among those dominant in academia either. One need not go any further than Sextus Empiricus’ (160-210AD) _Against the Professors_for a reminder of that.

  2. Constantius says:

    Popper regarded conjecture & refutation as a “New way of knowing” (OSE2 383). From a commonsensical point of view we don’t attribute the term knowledge to ‘Conjectures’. The term ‘Conjecture’ is defined in the Chamber’s English Dictionary as “an opinion formed on slight or defective evidence or none: an opinion without proof: a guess”. We usually use the term knowledge for information about which we have no uncertainty; things supported by evidence, or derived from valid inferences. We can’t define a term by means of other terms which are contradictory to the first term; so it is clearly a logically incoherent way of defining things. It is inconsistent to put knowledge & conjecture in the same category. Popper’s statement “All knowledge is conjectural” is certainly a contradiction in terms.
    The objection is strengthened when we look at Popper’s statement & see that the idea itself is not recognized as conjectural, rather it was a universal, affirmative knowledge claim. Thus it is self-refuting; for if the statement itself is right then the statement itself is a conjecture, we can’t be sure/certain whether it is right or wrong. On the other hand, if the statement is not a conjecture then it is false because according to the statement itself: “All knowledge (including it) is conjectural”. The proposition asserts the very thing it denies; thus it is self-contradictory.
    The notion of conjecture implies a precisely designated mental activity which can be clearly distinguished from our conception of knowledge. The notion itself depends on the prior concept of knowledge. And the concept of conjecture was developed to distinguish positively verified knowledge from guesswork & speculations. In the Objectivist Philosophy of Ayn Rand, this situation is regarded as “The Fallacy of the Stolen Concept”; a classic example was Proudhon’s claim that “Property is Theft”. The concept of theft is dependent upon the prior idea of Property & is unintelligible without it. So the claim was logically inconsistent.
    We also see a Popper employing a large vocabulary of German & English. We can see that his knowledge about language and vocabulary is in no sense of the word; ‘conjectural’. In order to think & express each & every one of his numerous ideas in a meaningful way, he is required to learn & know the vocabulary of the language he uses. As we have already seen, this implies knowledge (of Language), not (whimsical) conjectures. For example, the German word ‘Forschung’ either means Scientific Discovery or not; there is no room for conjecturing linguistic solutions (for the problem of communication) in order to communicate with others.
    As we have seen already, ‘All knowledge is conjectural’ is simply false. The observation of the writer ‘the sun is shining’ is not a conjecture. ‘2+2=4’, ‘Einstein’s parents are dead’, ‘Barack H. Obama is the president of the USA’ (at the time of writing) these statements are demonstrable to any sane person either ostensibly or by presenting evidence beyond reasonable doubts, via simple commonsense, or by means of logic. They are matters of facts; not conjectures based on prejudices.

  3. Rafe says:

    Popper was primarily concerned with the knowledge embodied in general theories, especially the universal laws of science. He took a lot of trouble to explain why these are conjectural and he pointed out that his approach is quite different from the traditional concern with “justified true beliefs”.

    You need to try harder to understand the difference between Popper’s approach and the others, and to work out which approach is most helpful for scientists and indeed for any kind of learning and problem-solving.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

please answer (required): * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.