Friday, July 20, 2007


The times, they are a changin'


Thursday, July 19, 2007


Knowledge and Action

I just discovered that the long-awaited 'Knowledge and Action' by Hawthorne and Stanley is online, so I've spent the morning so far reading it instead of doing anything I was meant to be doing. There's plenty of interest in the paper, including discussion of Fantl and McGrath's earlier proposal, and the development and defense of their own new positive proposal. That said, I found it a little dissatisfactory in a number of ways. First of all, one objection Hawthorne and Stanley have to the Fantl and McGrath proposal is that it looks like it'll have serious trouble retaining multi-premise epistemic closure. In the paper, there's a suggestion that the correct diagnosis of these difficulties is that Fantl and McGrath allow that knowledge might be compatible with probability less than 1. Then when developing their own framework in which to chart the connections between knowledge and reasons for acting, they write (10):

'It is clear enough that if we want multi-premise closure, we had better operate with a notion of probability according to which knowledge delivers probability 1.'

But I take it it's left open whether Hawthorne and Stanley really do retain MPC. Adopting a view on which knowledge delivers probability 1 may allow them to avoid the specific problems that the Fantl and McGrath proposal faced, but Hawthorne's own Knowledge and Lotteries pointed out that adopting knowledge-action principles, given the kind of sensitive-invariantist epistemology both Hawthorne and Stanley have expressed a preference for, may lead to trouble preserving MPC. (I argued last year that Hawthorne's proposal, while it may preserve the letter of single premise closure, seems unable to retain it's spirit). Now, perhaps their new proposal linking knowledge to reasons for action might allow them to steer clear of those problems. But it would have been nice to see the details; in their absence, it seemed entirely unclear whether the new proposal really marked that much of an improvement over Fantl and McGrath with respect to MPC, irregardless of whether knowledge delivers probability 1. As Hawthorne himself put it in his earlier discussion, ensuring that knowledge delivers probability 1 is just a 'first step' (182) towards a vindication of MPC.

But the main gripe I had, as with Hawthorne and Stanley's recent books, is the uncritical Williamsonianism which runs through the paper. That Williamson's anti-luminosity argument establishes its conclusion just seems to be taken for granted. Now, of course one doesn't want to have to reinvent the wheel every time one writes a paper. But on the other hand, it seems strange to treat Williamson's arguments almost like mathematical lemmas that one can simply help oneself to when needed, given their deeply controversial status. More importantly, I would really have liked to have seen a defense of the Williamson/DeRose proposal for handling putative counterexamples to the knowledge account of assertion. Virtually every time something that looks like a counterexample is produced, the reply is that it is a violation of the norm, but that's ok so long as we can find some excuse for the violator (he thought he was conforming to the norm, for example). Hawthorne and Stanley just seem to again take for granted that this kind of response is fine, but it's hard not to feel somewhat uneasy about it. Jennifer Lackey has given voice to these kinds of concerns in section 4 of her 'Norms of Assertion'.

Lastly, it seems relatively straightforward to convert Matt Weiner's counterexamples to the knowledge account of assertion in his excellent Phil Review paper into putative counterexamples to Hawthorne and Stanley's knowledge-action principle. (See p8 of this draft of 'Must We Know What We Say' for the counterexamples). Such cases are specifically designed to be cases in which the asserter doesn't even think their assertion conforms to the knowledge account, and yet we're meant to be pulled to judge that it was perfectly proper. Of course, there may be all kinds of ways to dodge the bullet here. But we're not given any clues about how to do that in the paper.

So, to sum up, the positive proposal of the paper seems really worth exploring, and the comparison with Fantl and McGrath's earlier attempt to articulate the relationship between knowledge and action is very welcome. I think Hawthorne and Stanley are right that this is an issue which has been unfairly neglected. But again I get the sense that chunks of Knowledge and its Limits are taken to be simply not up for discussion. That's very unfortunate. I'm sure our understanding of these aspects of Williamson's epistemology could well benefit from serious attention from Hawthorne and Stanley, but once again they don't receive it.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007


Life is Elsewhere

Not much going on here as I get settled back into Austin, start teaching again, and revise the draft of the paper I've been working on this past while so that I can start to get some feedback on it. In the meantime, I have been participating in some fun discussions elsewhere.

First of all, myself and others have been trying to get clear on Wright's Cautious man problem over at the Florida Student Blog.

Secondly, I've been attempting to criticize Errol Lord's interesting response to Williamson's anti-luminosity argument over at the Excluded Middle.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Happy Birthday!

Brit Brogaard's LEMMINGS is one year old today!

Update: Joe Salerno's Knowability has come of age too.

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Friday, July 06, 2007


Mere Probability and Warranted Assertion

On the flight back to Austin I reread a chunk of Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, which I really enjoyed again. I hear that for American school kids, the period around the civil war is the equivalent of the Second World War in Europe; you end up studying it countless times, almost to the exclusion of anything else. But I'm coming at it all fresh, and I haven't really had much contact with Pragmaticism, so it's all very new and very interesting to me. Plus there's great stuff on the philosophical agenda of On the Origin of Species and its reception, and, if my memory serves me correctly, there's the story of the philosophy departments at Chicago and John Hopkins to come.

Here are just a couple of quotes I liked. First of all, there's Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. on the KK principle (p62):

"I detest a man who knows what he knows."

"The abolitionists had a stock phrase that a man was either a knave or a fool who did not act as they knew to be right. So Calvin thought of the Catholics and the Catholics of Calvin. So I don't doubt do the more convinced prohibitionists think of their opponents today. When you know that you know persecution comes easy. It is as well that some of us don't know that we know anything."

More seriously, I thought a quote from Benjamin Peirce raised a nice issue. As part of a court case, he and Charles Sanders Peirce were to figure out the likelihood that a woman had signed her name perfectly twice, once on her will, and once on a purported secret 'second page' to that will nullifying any further will that might be drawn up on that person's behalf. The person who had produced both documents stood to gain all of the money if they were accepted as genuine, so obviously the authenticity of the documents became of great importance. The Peirces calculated that the chance that the lady had produced a second signature quite so like the first, with precisely the same distribution of distinctive strokes, was 1 in 2,666,000,000,000,000,000,000, and so they urged the signature on the 'second page' must have been traced from the first page. Peirce testified that this number:

"transcends human experience. So vast an improbability is practically an impossibility. Such evanescent shadows of probability cannot belong to actual life. They are unimaginably less than those least things which the law cares not for.

The coincidence which is presented in this case cannot therefor be reasonably regarded as having occurred in the ordinary course of signing a name. Under a solemn sense of the responsibility involved in the assertion, I declare that the coincidence which has here occured must have had its origin in an intention to produce it...[I]t is utterly repugnant to sound reason to attribute this coincidence to any cause but design." (p172-3)

I thought it was interesting that Peirce makes no bones about his merely probabilistic grounds to make this assertion, but he also acknowledges that he is in a situation which make the standards for warranted assertion particularly high. There's a well known argument from Williamson in favor of the knowledge account of assertion which proceeds by pushing the intuition that you cannot flat-out assert that a lottery ticket has lost (before the outcome of the draw is known), even if the probability that it hasn't lost is utterly minuscule. The diagnosis given is that mere probabilistic grounds are enough for assertion; one needs to know. But who would resent Peirce's assertion on these grounds were he to make it?

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Monday, July 02, 2007


CFP: The Arché/CSMN Graduate Conference

Where: The University of St Andrews

When: November 2-4, 2007

Keynotes: Kit Fine (NYU), John Hawthorne (Oxford) and Gabriel Uzquiano (Oxford)

For the fourth annual graduate conference hosted by Arché at the University of St Andrews, we invite high-quality papers in the areas of Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Logic, Epistemology, and Metaphysics.

Deadline for submissions: August 15th, 2007

All papers will have Arché/St Andrews staff respondents, and will be follows by open discussion. Applicants should submit the following for blind review:

1. A cover sheet including author name, title of paper, institutional affiliation and email address

2. An abstract ready for blind review

3. A paper suitable for a 35-minutes presentation, of no more than 5000 words, and ready for blind review.

Electronic submissions are preferred. Papers can be submitted in .doc, .rtf, .ps., .txt, or .pdf format to:

Submissions in hard copy are also accepted. These should be sent to:

Arché Graduate Conference
Arché Research Centre
17-19 College Street
St Andrews
KY16 9AL

Accommodation expenses for all graduate speakers will be covered. Travel expenses for graduate speakers traveling from within the UK will also be covered.

For more information, please contact the organizers at, or visit the conference website.

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Sunday, July 01, 2007


It's migrated all the way from Russia.......

The mini-hiatus I've unintentionally taken this month looks set to continue for at least another week as I battle to get a draft of the paper I've been writing forever finished, and try to get ready for moving back to Austin on Thursday (how did that come up so fast?).

In the absence of any actual content, I present instead the best video on Youtube, 'Birds of Britain'. Enjoy.

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