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.

Labels: , , ,


I think you're misreading what we're trying to do in this paper. We're not trying to defend every knowledge-involving norm against every possible criticism. Rather, what we've done is to provide the first defense of a knowledge norm for action. The point of the paper is to give arguments for the knowledge norm of action akin to those that have been given for the knowledge norm of assertion. No one has ever done that, and our paper fills that lacuna.

Your criticisms are all about the fact that we haven't responded to some recent objections to the knowledge account of assertion. But that's not our purpose in this paper. Very different kinds of arguments are required to support knowledge norms for action than are required to support knowledge norms for beliefs, even if (as you point out) we can borrow some of the defensive maneuvers exploited by defenders of the knowledge norm for assertion.
Hey Jason, thanks for the comments.

I realize, of course, that you weren't trying to provide some kind of comprehensive defense of every knowledge-involving norm. And as I hope I made clear in the post, I do see the value of the you do undertake project in the paper - I can see that there's a lot of room to explore charting the connections between knowledge and action, and that there would remain lots to say even once we thought we were clear on all of the connections between knowledge and belief or assertion. Your discussion is to be welcomed, given that it makes an all-too rare attempt to make some serious progress on these issues.

That said, I guess I did view this also as an opportunity for you guys to say a bit more about knowledge-involving norms in general. That the particular defensive maneuver you exploit several times in the paper is available to *any* defender of a knowledge-involving norm seems to me to be open. Lackey raises doubts directly about this kind of move, while Matt's examples might suggest making it doesn't really enable one to avoid potential counterexamples. Far from proposing that you guys should have tackled every recent criticism of knowledge-involving norms, these particular criticisms raised what I saw as an especially important issue for the defender of knowledge-involving norms. That's why I was a disappointed to see those criticisms weren't touched on in your paper.

(By the way, congratulations on the Arche appointment! We'll have you talking like a Scot yet......)
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?