Examples and Epistemology

Examples and Epistemology


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Posted Sep 22, 2005 - 6:14 PM:
Subject: Examples and Epistemology
Often while doing philosophy we do something which supposedly is a perfectly normal thing to do, and then we question whether we are justified in doing that, or we claim that the thing was a ‘paradigm case’, and so needs no justification (it is a bedrock truth). An example of this: While discussing or thinking about epistemology, we point at a chair and say “I know that chair is blue.” This opens the door for the skeptical question, “but how do you really know?”, and then we try to give justifications for our knowledge claim. Or, we respond by saying (as do Moore on knowledge and Hume on causation) “The fact that we may have skeptical doubts does not mean that I was not justified in saying “I know”; the right word to use in that context IS ‘know’, it is a paradigm case of knowing something.” So one way of taking “I know that chair is blue” is claiming that it is an ordinary conviction, or something we all take for granted, and then questioning whether we are really justified in holding this conviction or in taking it for granted. The other way of taking it would be to say that if that doesn’t count as a genuine knowledge claim, then nothing does; our use of the word ‘know’ cannot be doubted in such a perfectly ordinary case. The problem, however, is that our pointing at the chair and saying “I know that chair is blue” is anything BUT ordinary. That is, the saying part was perfectly ordinary, but the context wasn’t. The context was already tainted by philosophical considerations, and so we run the risk of taking for granted a host of philosophical assumption before we even start asking the big questions. An ordinary case of saying “I know that chair is blue” would involve some things leading up to uttering the sentence which make sense of uttering it. For example, I may be on the phone with you, trying to convince you to buy my blue chair, knowing full well that a blue chair would look atrocious in the understated earth-tone color scheme of your home. “Look, I know the chair is blue, but it’s really comfy, and maybe a little break in the color pattern is exactly the kind of excitement your home needs.” Now, what kind of response from you is appropriate here? You might say, “Oh come on, I’m not falling for that. I'm sorry but I just don’t need a blue chair.” Or you might be convinced, and exclaim “Gosh, I never thought about that, that’s a great idea!” You might just hang up the phone, because you know I won’t shut up about the chair. All these responses would be quite intelligible, expected even. But what on earth would I do if you responded thusly?: “But how do you KNOW the chair is blue?” Would I even begin to know how to answer that? Perhaps (and we’re stretching here), if I was feeling conversationally charitable, I would assume that maybe you had mistaken me for your color-blind friend, and thus that my saying the chair is blue is not necessarily to be trusted. So then I would say, “Look, I’m not your color blind friend; the chair really is blue." Maybe we can think of some more examples which would make sense out of your asking me how I know the chair is blue, but in each of these cases, the details of my response to your question will depend on the details of the context and circumstances leading up to your asking me. In philosophy, we tend to want only one definitive answer, but in ordinary cases (ordinary cases as defined and illustrated above) the answers will vary depending on the context. Without the proper circumstances leading up to it, simply pointing at a chair and saying “I know that chair is blue” makes sense (if it makes any sense at all) only in a philosophical setting, and thus it is neither an ordinary conviction to be doubted nor a paradigm case not to be questioned. Saying “I know that chair is blue” no matter how ordinary the sentence or how easily the meaning is grasped is only an ordinary example of a knowledge claim if there are ordinary (non philosophical) circumstances leading up to it. When these circumstances are lacking, we only have a philosophical example, and philosophical examples can only be counted on to support philosophical claims if we already hold those claims to be true (we'd be guilty of begging the question).

Reformed Nihilist

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Posted Sep 22, 2005 - 6:56 PM:

It reminds me of the airport security guard asking a passenger "Is there anything that has been placed in your bag without your knowledge".grin The difference is that the security guard wasn't trying to be philosophical.raised eyebrow

In regards to the blue chair, I would say that it suffices to say that we mean something in particular when we say "blue chair", and as long as what we mean is consistent (or corehent) with 1) what we are observing and 2) the other things we hold to be true, then we don't really have any problems.

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Posted Sep 22, 2005 - 7:43 PM:

moderatesizedobject wrote:
Often while doing philosophy we do something which supposedly is a perfectly normal thing to do, and then we question whether we are justified in doing that,

Yes that is what philosophers often do, and what everyone ought to do.
or we claim that the thing was a ‘paradigm case’, and so needs no justification (it is a bedrock truth).

Why do you say a paradigm needs no justification?

But to the topic of examples used by philosophers: Sometime examples are quite entertaining, for instance when the example assigns human traits to other objects in the world. I just love the ones comparing some ostentatious scientific terms no one understands except in the most encompassing way.

Things like “chairs” are refreshing, so far as I am concerned.

Probabalistic Philosopher

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Posted Sep 23, 2005 - 10:50 PM:

I always enjoyed Leonard J. Savage's example in his Personal Probability course.

"Let us consider a practical example. How much does this potato weight?"

Of course, the potato was as mythical as your blue chair.

He was a master of philosophical irony, I think.
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