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Philosophy Epistemology
Jeremy Fantl, Matthew McGrath, Ernest Sosa
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 November 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0041


Much epistemological work in the Western tradition focuses on the nature of knowledge—its sources, significance, and scope. But justified belief, epistemic virtue and responsibility, understanding, and evidence are epistemologically important, and not just because of the role they play in knowledge. The readings in this section represent the most recent influential work, as of the first decade of the 21st century, on the range of issues covered by General Epistemology.


Whether one is a professor looking to design a course in epistemology or a student looking to see what the discipline has to offer, the quickest way to do so can be with a textbook. Most textbooks do not get into all the possible details on the various objections and moves that are made within each epistemological subdiscipline; however, textbooks can provide a helpful overview of the epistemological terrain. And some upper-level textbooks can even advance the field in their own right.

Topical Textbooks

If you are not looking for a general overview of epistemology but are more interested in the state of a more limited sub-area, there are a number of textbooks that concentrate their energy in a more focused way. Some do so by concentrating on the methodology of epistemology, as Tanesini 1999 does in exploring how feminist issues are brought to bear on epistemology. Others emphasize particular epistemological subject matter, as Wood 1998 does in its focus on religious epistemology. And still others limit their discussion to various historical eras, as Everson 1990 and Gerson 2009 do in exploring epistemological thought in the ancient world.

General Textbooks

Most epistemology textbooks cover the whole range of current epistemological issues. Although there are often differences in emphasis (e.g., BonJour 2002 places greater emphasis on historical treatments than does Dancy 1991) and in what topics are covered (e.g., Audi 2002 has sections on virtue epistemology and feminist epistemology that are not found in all other volumes, and Feldman 2003 has a nice section on philosophy and science), you can expect a standard epistemology textbook to include discussions of skepticism, the structure of justification, the analysis of knowledge, and debates about a priori knowledge. Some textbooks (e.g., Williams 2001, Dancy 1991) are more argumentative—they present and argue for their own positions on controversial views—whereas others (e.g., Audi 2002, Fisher and Everitt 1994, Fumerton 2006) are content to present the difficulties with all the various positions without coming to a conclusion of their own. Textbooks also differ in their target audience—i.e., introductory or advanced students. Fisher and Everitt 1994, Dancy 1991, and Williams 2001 can all safely be used in advanced epistemology seminars, whereas Fumerton 2006 and Morton 2002 are targeted at beginning students. Audi 2002 and BonJour 2002 are designed for midlevel students with some background in epistemology but not necessarily any training in epistemology per se.


Formulating and responding to the challenge of skepticism—the view that we can’t know anything (or much of anything)—is often taken to be the central problem of epistemology. Knows is the sixth most common verb in English, and although it is often used in sentences such as, “I know how to ride a bike” and “I know your friend Jane,” a large chunk of the verb’s use is taken up by claims of knowing something to be the case. One worry about skepticism, then, is that if true, it would require a dramatic revision in the way we think and talk. The current section is divided into subsections listing collections of essays, historical treatments of skepticism, contemporary positions that have been seen as sympathetic to skepticism, and contemporary responses and replies to skepticism.


Collections can provide both helpful overviews of the range of work on a topic and discussions that move the field (as many of the essays do in Roth and Ross 1990). Most of the collections mentioned here represent some of the best philosophical work on skepticism as of the first decade of the 21st century, although Landesman and Meeks 2003 has some emphasis on historical themes, and Luper 2003 contains discussions of Pyrrhonism. Clay and Lehrer 1989 presents itself as unified around reliabilist themes (even though the subject matter of the essay is actually broader), whereas DeRose and Warfield 1999 includes a section on contextualist responses to skepticism.

Historical Treatments of Skepticism (and Commentaries)

The most prominent starting points for discussions of skepticism are Descartes 1996 and Hume 2007, although a more general skeptical argument is often seen in Sextus’s Outlines of Pyrrhonism (Annas and Barnes 1985). Descartes famously argues that we cannot eliminate the possibility that we are dreaming (or that we are being deceived by a malicious demon) and, at least initially, draws the conclusion that we cannot be certain of anything. Curley 1978 offers further discussion on Descartes’s skeptical worries and how he attempts to resolve them. Hume offers a more focused skeptical argument directed at knowledge of the future on the basis of observation of the past—the so-called argument from induction: because there is no necessary connection between the past’s being a certain way and the future’s being that way, all inference from the past to the future will have to include the principle that the future will resemble the past; yet, this principle is itself not supported either by experience or by reason, on pain of circularity. Popkin 1979 provides a nice overview of the historical skeptical context surrounding Descartes and Hume. Sextus’s Pyrrhonian skepticism is a general strategy, according to which we should withhold judgment on all matters of fact: because no matter how we reason for a judgment, there is an opposing judgment that we can reason for in a parallel manner (e.g., if we stop our reasoning at a foundation that has no further reason, we can do the same with an opposing judgment), we should realize that favoring our own judgment is ultimately arbitrary. Burnyeat 1983 and Hankinson 1995 are helpful treatments of skeptical thought influenced by, and setting the stage for, Sextus’s Pyrrhonian reflections.

Contemporary Skepticism: Sympathetic Positions

Many epistemologists take skepticism seriously, but not too many end up endorsing the view or even remaining neutral. (In fact, the falsity of skepticism is often taken to be a desideratum of an adequate epistemological theory, and the primary work is seen to be that of figuring out what knowledge must be like in order for skepticism to be false.) Some philosophers, however, end up more sympathetic to skepticism, and some (e.g., Unger 1975) even do, in the end, endorse it. Fogelin 1994 and Fumerton 1995, although stopping short of endorsing skepticism, both seem convinced that the responses to skepticism are inadequate, and so we are left without a resolution of the problem, whereas Stroud 1984, while not explicitly endorsing skepticism, prefers to couch his discussion of the view in terms of what skeptical worries should teach us, offering what amounts to a thorough defense of a skeptical position.

Responses to Skepticism

Most current responses to skepticism are unsympathetic. Some argue directly that skepticism is false—that we can indeed know things. One way to argue for this commits one to a certain account of knowledge. Klein 1991 emphasizes how defeaters to one’s belief figure in an account of knowledge, whereas Dretske 1970 and Stine 1976 commit to accounts of knowledge that require ruling out only relevant alternative possibilities (not all alternative possibilities). These latter two papers both represent seminal statements of what has come to be known as relevant alternatives theories of knowledge but also (especially Stine) anticipate the later move to contextualist theories (see Role of Context). Moore 1959, on the other hand, doesn’t have much to say in its refutation of skepticism about what knowledge is; it just argues rather directly that we can be more sure that we know mundane truths than that the requirements of skepticism are true. Pryor 2000, following Moore, argues that there are things we can know even if we lack any nonquestion-begging reasons for them. Similarly neutral on exactly what the conditions of knowledge are, Strawson 1985 argues that the beliefs targeted by the skeptic are parts of the ineliminable framework of our belief systems and therefore are amenable to a Humean, naturalistic salvation: we can retain them because we have to. Cavell 1999 emphasizes not an argument that we do know things, but rather the inevitable consequences of skepticism—for example, that a skeptical attitude rids the world of meaning. Other philosophers reply to skepticism not by showing directly that it is false but that its arguments are somehow problematic. For example, Williams 1996 argues that skeptical arguments themselves presuppose a loaded conception of epistemic states. See also the sources in Role of Context, many of which deal with contextualist responses to skepticism, as well as those in Virtue Epistemology, several of which involve distinctive responses of their own.

Analyzing Knowledge

The traditional starting point for discussions on the nature of knowledge in the Western philosophical tradition is often seen to be Plato’s Theaetetus and Meno, in which knowledge is proposed to be equivalent to true belief supported by an account—a picture of knowledge that is often cited as the ancestor of the more contemporary “justified true belief” analysis of knowledge. This picture was complicated in the later part of the 20th century, in response to Edmund Gettier’s classic paper (Gettier 1963), which has been standardly taken to have shown that justified true belief is not sufficient for knowledge. In the two decades following the publication of Gettier’s paper, a number of proposals for adding a “fourth” condition to rule out “accidentally” true justified belief were explored, including the requirement that the justification not be based on a falsehood (Harman 1973). Beginning in the late 1960s, the claim that knowledge required justification came under increased attack, and it was hoped that analyses of knowledge in terms of causal, counterfactual, and other “externalist” relations between a belief and the truth would be immune to Gettier problems. Pappas and Swain 1978 collects many of the influential attempts to avoid the Gettier problem in both the JTB+ tradition and the externalist tradition. Shope 1983 provides a comprehensive survey of the state of this literature as of the early eighties. These two texts were published before Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations (Nozick 1981), one of the most influential externalist accounts of knowledge since the late 1960s. Zagzebski 1994 raises the general question of what sorts of theories of knowledge will be susceptible to Gettier problems and concludes that whatever is “added” to true belief in the account must itself entail truth. Since the 1990s, there have been fewer attempted analyses of knowledge and vigorous debate about whether and why epistemologists should continue to search for an analysis. Craig 1990, although not opposed to seeking conditions of knowledge, argues that the search should be informed by an understanding of the point of the concept of knowledge. Timothy Williamson’s “knowledge first” epistemology (Williamson 2000) holds that we can and should explain justified belief (and other epistemically important notions, such as evidence, probability, and warranted assertibility) in terms of knowledge rather than vice versa. Sosa 2007 argues for an analysis of animal knowledge as apt belief, while arguing that reflective knowledge requires rather “apt belief aptly noted.” See also several of the sources in Structure of Justification and Virtue Epistemology.

The Structure of Justification

Questions about the structure of justification are often seen to have their source in the regress problem (often traced to Sextus Empiricus’s Pyrrhonian skepticism). The regress problem arises from the joint ruling out of justified beliefs by four attractive principles. First, a belief for which you have no reason is unjustified. Second, something can be a reason for a belief only if it is itself a justified belief. Third, a belief cannot be a reason for itself, either directly or through a circular chain of reasons. Fourth, the chain of reasons cannot be infinite. Foundationalists respond to the regress problem by denying either the second or the third principle. Coherentists, at least of one kind, deny the third principle, claiming that reasons can be ultimately used in their own justification. Holistic coherentists deny an assumption that may seem implicit in all the principles—that justificatory support is linear. Infinitists deny the fourth principle. Foundationalism and coherentism constitute the historically most influential views, and a majority of the citations in this section are devoted to them. See also Fogelin 1994, cited under Contemporary Skepticism: Sympathetic Positions, and Annas and Barnes 1985, cited under Historical Treatments of Skepticism (and Commentaries).

Foundationalist Views

The latter half of the 20th century saw a movement away from infallibilist forms of foundationalism arguably found in Descartes. Thus, for Lewis 1977, some self-justifying statements are not known with certainty. Fallibilism is a lynchpin of Chisholm’s influential work (Chisholm 1982, Chisholm 1989) and of the moderate foundationalism in Audi 1993. Van Cleve 1979, Alston 1989, and Plantinga 1993 show how externalism about epistemic justification can be squared with foundationalism and may even entail it. DePaul 2001 contains several papers that explore the possibility of returning to the older infallibilist versions of foundationalism. (See also Fumerton’s contribution to that collection.)

Coherentist Views

Sellars 1956, Sellars 1973, Sellars 1975, BonJour 1985, and Davidson 1989 raise doubts about whether anything other than a belief can justify a belief. If this is correct, it seems that if any of our beliefs are to be justified, they must be justified through coherence. Davidson 1989 and especially BonJour 1985 and Lehrer 1990 address the crucial questions of what coherence is and whether it is truth conducive. (It should be noted, however, that BonJour switched sides and, in the early 21st century, is a foundationalist.) Bender 1989 is recommended for the study of the work of BonJour and Lehrer. Olsson 2005 is a more formal examination of the relation between coherence and probability.

Alternative Views

Few philosophers have discussed infinitism in anything other than passing, and then dismissively (see Sosa 1991, “The Raft and the Pyramid,” for an important exception). Klein 1999 is the leading defender of infinitism. Some philosophers (Haack 1993 and Sosa 1991) have sought to find a middle ground between foundationalism and coherentism in hopes of avoiding the problems associated with both views. Foley 1993 offers a distinctive approach that focuses on epistemic justification rather than knowledge. The debate in Bonjour and Sosa 2003, in addition to being an accessible introduction to key issues in epistemology, includes discussion, favorable and critical, of ways of combining foundationalism and coherentism.

Externalism and Internalism

Internalism about epistemic justification holds that epistemic justification is “internal” to the justified subject. Internalism comes in at least two kinds, depending on whether “internal” is understood ontologically (so that internal factors are those fixed by the subject’s mind) or epistemically, that is, in terms of accessibility (so that internal factors are those accessible through reflection alone). One sort of ontological internalism (endorsed by Conee and Feldman in their contribution to Kornblith 2001) is mentalism, the view that epistemic justification is fixed by one’s mental states. The accessibility internalist (e.g., Cohen 2002, Fumerton 1995, Lehrer 1990) requires that certain conditions of epistemic justification be accessible to the justified subject. Externalists deny the necessity of the relevant internal conditions. For instance, Goldman 1976 denies that justified belief requires accessibility through reflection alone of the conditions that make one justified or that those conditions do justify. Some philosophers (e.g., Alston 1989) have endorsed views in which epistemic justification has both internal and external conditions. Sosa 1991 distinguishes animal from reflective knowledge, arguing that much of what externalists have proposed is true of animal knowledge but not of reflective knowledge. Kornblith 2001 is an excellent introduction to the field and contains papers that form exchanges between leading proponents of sides in these disputes.

Virtue Epistemology and Epistemic Value

The problem of epistemic value is generally seen to have its source in Plato’s Meno, in which Socrates wonders what might make knowledge more valuable than mere true opinion, which seems to be of primary value, both epistemic and practical. The readings on epistemic value address the difficulties involved in figuring out what is of primary epistemic value and how knowledge might be of special value even if true belief is what is of primary epistemic value. One reason knowledge might be more valuable than mere true belief is that it reflects well on us when we have knowledge, as opposed to a belief that is true, say, as a matter of luck. But why would it reflect well on us unless the source of the epistemic value in a true belief is somehow in us? Such reflections have led some to adopt what has come to be called virtue epistemology. Virtue epistemology locates the source of a belief’s justification in the nature of the intellectual or cognitive faculty that produces the belief: if the belief was delivered by such a “competence,” it is justified. As such, virtue epistemology runs contrary to some traditional epistemological views, which locate the source of a belief’s justification in the nature of the reasons or evidence that supports the belief. The virtue epistemologist argues that “reason-based” competences are only a special case, not operative, that is, in our most simple and basic mathematical or logical beliefs.


Most of the collections included here, especially Axtell 2000 and Fairweather and Zagzebski 2001, confine themselves primarily to discussions of virtue epistemology, although Haddock, et al. 2009 is dedicated to questions involving epistemic value, and Steup 2001 covers virtue epistemology, questions of epistemic value, and other questions in the vicinity. Kvanvig 1996 likewise covers greater terrain than mere questions about epistemic virtue, in that it includes essays inspired by many facets of the work of Alvin Plantinga, but because Plantinga’s work on properly functioning cognitive faculties has been seen to play a role in the development of virtue epistemology, many of the essays in that collection are relevant here. Because virtue epistemology was inspired to some extent by work on virtue ethics, there are a number of volumes (e.g., DePaul and Zagzebski 2003, Pritchard and Brady 2003) that include papers drawing on virtue theories in both ethics and epistemology.

Virtue Epistemology

Explicit discussion of the importance of virtues in epistemology began with Sosa 1980 and gained prominence gradually (e.g., in Code 1987 and Sosa 1991 [cited under Alternative Views]), so by the early to mid-1990s, the term virtue epistemology was already well established (see, e.g., the title of Greco’s defense of virtue epistemology [Greco 1993]). From 1992 to 1996, books by Kvanvig (Kvanvig 1992), Montmarquet (Montmarquet 1993), and, most important, Zagzebski (Zagzebski 1996) served to solidify virtue epistemology as a genuine competitor to the reigning theories, although Kvanvig, unlike Sosa and Greco or Montmarquet and Zagzebski (all of whom provide accounts of knowledge and justification in terms of intellectual virtues), was skeptical about virtue epistemology’s chances of offering accounts of traditional epistemic concepts, properties, and relations (such as knowledge and justification). Still, Kvanvig, like Code before him, saw epistemic virtues as representing the locus of what should be of primary importance in epistemology (see Kvanvig 2003, cited under Epistemic Value, for his more recent discussion of this issue). The developments over this time period are helpfully surveyed in Axtell 1997. Virtue epistemology has been rejuvenated anew more recently by the work of Pritchard, including Pritchard 2005 (although it receives some not entirely friendly treatment therein), and by the release of Sosa’s virtue theory in epistemology (Sosa 2007–2009), a development of more than two decades of Sosa’s work on the intellectual virtues and their relation to skepticism and other epistemological subdisciplines. See also the sources in The Structure of Justification.

Epistemic Value

What is of epistemic value? It is natural to confine epistemic value to true belief (and perhaps the avoidance of false belief). But, if this is right, how do we account for what seem to be distinct epistemic values—for example, the value of justified belief and the value of knowledge? Riggs 2002 and Zagzebski 2000 argue that this question is unanswerable for certain kinds of reliabilist views, but not, Zagzebski argues, for virtue epistemologists. A similar answer is presented by Sosa 2003 and Greco 2003: we can explain the extra value of knowledge in terms of the value of getting credit for our true beliefs. In general, we can solve the value problem—how knowledge (and other epistemic goods) have value over and above true belief—if those goods have value intrinsically or if they derive their value from other epistemic goods (not true belief) that have their value intrinsically. For example, DePaul 2001 argues that knowledge does not derive its value from true belief, whereas Elgin 2004 argues that it can be positively epistemically valuable to believe falsely. Of course, another option is just to deny that knowledge has distinctive epistemic value (at least over and above justified true belief). This option is explored by Kvanvig 2003, though Kvanvig does not think that true belief is the sole epistemic value. Pritchard 2007 provides a helpful overview of contemporary work in this area.

  • DePaul, Michael R. “Value Monism in Epistemology.” In Knowledge, Truth, and Duty: Essays on Epistemic Justification, Responsibility, and Virtue. Edited by Matthias Steup, 170–186. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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    An argument that there are multiple epistemic goods. In particular, knowledge seems to constitute an epistemic good over and above mere true belief.

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  • Elgin, Catherine Z. “True Enough.” Philosophical Issues 14 (2004): 113–131.

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    An argument that sometimes the epistemically correct option is to accept what is false in order to achieve other epistemic goods.

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  • Greco, John. “Knowledge as Credit for True Belief.” In Intellectual Virtue: Perspectives from Ethics and Epistemology. Edited by Michael DePaul and Linda Zagzebski, 111–134. Oxford: Clarendon, 2003.

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    An argument that if by attributing knowledge we give credit to a believer, two traditional epistemological puzzles can be resolved: the lottery puzzle and the Gettier problem.

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  • Kvanvig, Jonathan L. The Value of Knowledge and the Pursuit of Understanding. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

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    An argument that the epistemological emphasis on knowledge is misguided and should be replaced by an investigation of understanding.

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  • Pritchard, Duncan. “Recent Work on Epistemic Value.” American Philosophical Quarterly 44 (2007): 85–110.

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    A helpful critical survey of the literature on epistemic value.

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  • Riggs, Wayne D. “Reliability and the Value of Knowledge.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 64 (2002): 79–96.

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    A reply to the so-called value problem for reliabilism, according to which reliabilism cannot account for the extra value of knowledge, because reliably true belief is no more valuable than mere true belief.

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  • Sosa, Ernest. “The Place of Truth in Epistemology.” In Intellectual Virtue: Perspectives from Ethics and Epistemology. Edited by Michael DePaul and Linda Zagzebski, 155–180. Oxford: Clarendon, 2003.

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    A discussion of why we might value knowledge more than mere true belief even if knowledge is just true belief delivered by an intellectual virtue.

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  • Zagzebski, Linda. “From Reliabilism to Virtue Epistemology.” In Knowledge, Belief, and Character: Readings in Virtue Epistemology. Edited by Guy Axtell, 113–122. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.

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    An argument that process reliabilism cannot solve the “value problem”—the problem of explaining why knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief—and that this difficulty should lead us to embrace virtue epistemology.

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Naturalized Epistemology and the A Priori

One traditional epistemological division is between empiricists, who believe that all knowledge ultimately is derived solely from experience, and rationalists, who believe that some knowledge derives from pure reason. Knowledge from pure reason is usually referred to as a priori knowledge, and some (e.g., Bealer) take a priori methods—for example, the reliance on philosophical intuition—to be an essential part of philosophical methodology. This claim is questioned by epistemological naturalists who, following Quine, argue that philosophical questions are best resolved without appeal to any a priori intuition, and argue for the same methods that we use to resolve questions in the natural sciences. For naturalists, epistemology and, more generally, philosophy, ought to be continuous with the natural sciences.


Following what was widely seen as Quine’s naturalized critique of a priori methods in philosophy, interest in defending the a priori was not particularly high until the mid-1980s or so. Starting with Aron Edidin’s 1984 “A Priori Knowledge for Fallibilist” (included in Casullo 1999), epistemologists started to distinguish between the sources (like pure reason) that could provide a priori justification to a belief and sources that could undermine or defeat that belief after the fact: a belief could be a priori justified or count as a priori knowledge, perhaps, even if it allowed for defeat even by empirical evidence. The distinction freed epistemologists to grant Quine’s contention that no statement is immune to empirical revision, while maintaining that a priori methods could be viable. This freedom, in turn, led to renewed interest in a priori justification and knowledge generally (e.g., as evidenced in the papers in Boghossian and Peacocke 2000) and, of course, to renewed interest in the philosophical naturalism that sparked the worries about the a priori in the first place (e.g., Kornblith 1994, French, et al. 1994). Much of the progression with respect to the a priori is documented in Casullo 1999. Because one of the primary a priori methods is the method of intuition—the method of reflecting on cases and engaging with how things seem to one in response to those cases—much of the discussion of the worth of the a priori has come to revolve around the worth and nature of philosophical intuitions. DePaul and Ramsey 1998 contains a number of essays by both philosophers and psychologists on the subject. More recently, some philosophers have undertaken to subject philosophical intuitions to empirical testing—to see, for one, if intuitions reported by philosophers are shared by nonphilosophers and, for two, if the intuitive reactions of nonphilosophers might tell us something of philosophical interest. This status of this movement—”experimental philosophy”—is recorded in the essays in Knobe and Nichols 2008.

Naturalism: Sympathetic Positions

Naturalized epistemology has its source in Quine 1969 and Quine 1980, which argue that there is no principled way to separate out the methods of epistemology from the methods of natural science. Much of the work since, even by those who are sympathetic to naturalized epistemology (e.g., Kitcher 1992), constitutes arguments for the view; it does not, that is, often amount to doing naturalized epistemology (although Goldman 1992 may be an exception to this). The arguments themselves, of course, might take into account empirical facts (as Code 1996 and Stich 1990 do), yet it remains that most discussions of naturalized epistemology are arguments about philosophy. (Perhaps this is because naturalistic philosophers think that, ultimately, cognitive science [as indicated in Stein 1996] already does what naturalized epistemology should be doing.) Of course, it is possible to both argue for naturalized epistemology and do some naturalized epistemology at the same time (as Kornblith 2005 and Shimony 1993 do).

Rationalist Views and Criticisms of Naturalism

Arguments for the a priori and against naturalism generally take one of three perhaps related forms—that naturalism is somehow self-defeating (e.g., Bealer 1996, Bealer 1992), that naturalism leads to skepticism (e.g., BonJour 1998, Katz 1997), or that naturalism cannot account for the normativity of the epistemic endeavor (e.g., Kim 1988): naturalism can tell us only how we reason, not how we should reason. These arguments are “perhaps related” because, as Bealer 1992 argues, it is because naturalism leaves out normativity that it can account neither for the naturalist claim that it, itself, is justified, nor for naturalist claims that only the methods of science can deliver justification. Plantinga 1993 offers variants on these arguments, according to which the only way that the naturalized epistemologist can avoid skepticism is to invoke some sort of metaphysical supernaturalism—a supernatural guarantor that naturalistic methods will get us to the truth.

General Discussions of Naturalism and/or the A Priori

One of Quine’s most influential arguments against the a priori begins from his claim that no statement is immune to empirical revision (one of the many Quinean positions discussed in an enlightening way by Putnam 1983 and Hookway 1988). If this is supposed to be a problem for a priori justification or knowledge, then for a statement to be a priori justified or known, it must be immune to empirical revision (an analysis offered by, for example, Kitcher 1980). But this sort of account of a priori justification has been questioned convincing by Al Casullo in a number of influential papers, the core of which have been included in Casullo 2003, along with more general and important work on the nature and prospects for a priori justification (including discussion of how a priori justification squares with reliabilism).

Epistemic Sources: Memory, Perception, Testimony

Our knowledge derives from many sources, and the nature of these sources—especially of memory, perception, and testimony—has been a central issue in epistemology throughout the history of Western philosophy. One persistent epistemological question about these sources is whether they require validation through other sources. Reductionists about testimony, for instance, argue that testimony provides justification only by virtue of one’s having justification, through other sources, for regarding testimony as reliable. In the early 21st century, there are few reductionists about perceptual or memory knowledge (although this has not always been so). A second question is how, assuming reductionism is of a false source, the source manages to provide knowledge or justification. Many philosophers have thought that these epistemological questions depend on metaphysical questions about the nature of perception, memory, and testimony: if perception affords direct contact with reality, this contact has been thought to explain how perception justifies, and similarly how memory and even testimony justify.

Widely Cited Historical Sources

The idea that there is somehow something common in the perceiver’s mind and in the object perceived in the case of veridical, which continues to be influential in work on perception, is given its classic formulation in Aristotle’s De Anima (Aristotle 1986). Descartes’s distinction between formal and objective reality within a rationalist framework (Descartes 1987) is an attempt to accommodate this insight. Also influential is work in the empiricist tradition (Locke 1995, Berkeley 2005, Hume 2000, Mill 2005), which jointly represents a movement away from realism about perception and toward the idealism or phenomenalism. The discussion of memory and testimony in Locke and Hume continues to be influential to contemporary epistemology. These empiricist views are submitted to trenchant critique in Reid 1969 and Kant 1965. The idea, from Kant 1965, that perception involves not mere receptivity but also spontaneity continues to exert a powerful influence on contemporary thinking.

  • Aristotle. De Anima. Edited by H. Lawson-Tancred, translated by H. Lawson-Tancred. New York: Penguin Classics, 1986.

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    Proposes that perception involves the perceived object’s “enforming” the perceiver, with the result that there is a sensible form shared by the object and the perceiver’s mind. Perhaps the most sustained and sophisticated treatment of perception in ancient philosophy.

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  • Berkeley, George. A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2005.

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    Argues for a representational view of perception, according to which we represent the external objects of perception as ideas in the mind, but the external objects themselves are only ideas in the mind.

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  • Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy. Translated by John Cottingham. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

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    Argues, especially in the second and third Meditations, that perceptual grasp of objects in the world requires prior a priori grasp of their natures.

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  • Hume, David. An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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    An important early commentary on the epistemic worth of testimony, in the context of a discussion of belief in miracles. Argues for a reductionism about testimony, according to which the trust we place in testimony requires independent confirmation that the testimony is reliable.

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  • Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. New York: St. Martin’s, 1965.

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    Distinguishes between “things in themselves,” which are unknowable, and their manifestation in experience (the “phenomena”), which are knowable. In perceiving a phenomenon, we perceive the unknowable thing in itself as having various perceptual qualities.

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  • Locke, John. An Essay concerning Human Understanding. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1995.

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    Traditionally thought to be a classic indirect-realist view of perception. Also includes a discussion of testimony.

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  • Mill, John Stuart. An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy. New York: Adamant, 2005.

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    Develops the view that physical objects are “permanent possibilities of sensation,” a historically important version of phenomenalism, the doctrine that physical objects are in some way reducible to sensations. Also poses and attempts to resolve the “problem of other minds.”

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  • Reid, Thomas. Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1969.

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    A rejection of representationalism and the theory of ideas. Argues for something like a direct realism. Reid was an early proponent of the Scottish common sense school of philosophy, according to which we can, unless there is evidence to the contrary, take for granted that we can trust the deliverances of memory, perception, and testimony.

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The leading accounts of the epistemology of memory belief are the phenomenalistic account, according to which memory belief is justified by a present memory impression; the preservationist account, according to which memory belief is justified, if at all, by the original grounds on which it was formed; and the inferentialist account, according to which memory belief is justified by inference. Few defend inferentialism, although something like this is perhaps required if holistic coherentism is true. The phenomenalistic account is defended by Pollock 1999 as well as Plantinga 1993. The widely accepted preservationist account is given sustained defense in Burge 1993. Huemer 1999 and Owens 2000 give broadly preservationist accounts but attempt to explain the intuition that, if one has no reason to give up a belief, one is in some sense reasonable to retain it. We can speak not merely of factual memory (remembering that p) but also of experiential or episodic, memory (remembering φ-ing, or remembering an object or event). In the middle 20th century, and arguably throughout the early modern period, the question of how such knowledge is possible was one of the most discussed questions about memory. Does memory require some sort of trace, physical or imagistic, in the mind of the subject? Malcolm 1977, working from a Wittgensteinian framework, answered negatively. Martin and Deutscher 1966 is one of the best-known defenses of a positive answer. Senor 2005 produces a very helpful survey of historical and contemporary epistemological work on memory.


One key question about perception is whether we perceive physical objects directly, as the direct realist holds, or only indirectly, through perceiving some sort of intermediary, as the indirect realist holds. In the early 21st century few are indirect realists, with Frank Jackson (Jackson 1977) an important exception, although Jackson has since abandoned this view. Many take arguments by Sellars 1956 and Chisholm 1957 to have refuted the version of indirect realism that takes what is directly perceived to be a sense-datum. A second question epistemologists have asked about perception is whether experience itself can be a reason for perceptual belief or whether it enables knowledge without providing a reason or justification. Following Sellars, Brewer 2002 and McDowell 1994 argue that experience can indeed be a reason. Goldman 1976 and Dretske 1973 provide externalist accounts of perceptual knowledge that do not make experiences reasons or evidence. The collection by Dancy 1988 is an excellent source.


Hardwig 1991 argues that the central role of trust in science has not been properly appreciated by epistemologists and poses a challenge to epistemology: our theory of knowledge must allow knowledge to be gained through trust. The book-length study of testimony in Coady 1992 is a thorough defense of antireductionism about testimony. Burge 1993 defends antireductionism about testimony by appealing to general relations between testimony, belief, and rationality. Fricker 1994 argues for local reductionism, according to which testimonial justification requires the possession of nontestimonial reasons to believe a piece of testimony, but these reasons need not be reasons to think that testimony in general is reliable. Goldman 1999 gives an account of testimony and its place in social epistemology. Lackey 2008 argues for a third alternative to reductionism and antireductionism that takes testimony as a distinctive source of justification and knowledge but that denies we can access this source unless we have positive reasons, ultimately not derived from testimony, to accept a piece of testimony on a particular occasion. Lackey and Sosa 2006 provides a representative sample of the state of this thriving literature.

The Ethics Of Belief

The term ethics of belief is taken from the title of an 1877 essay by W. K. Clifford (Clifford 1999). In that essay, Clifford argues that “it is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” This talk of wrongness, as well as of what we have a duty to believe and of what we should believe, raises a number of important questions for epistemology. First, how should talk of what we ought to believe be understood? Is the “ought” here ethical? If not, can we make sense of a distinctively epistemic deontology? If so, how does the epistemic ought relate to evidence? Can practical factors affect what one ought epistemically to believe, or only evidence? Second, there might be reasons to doubt the whole enterprise of the deontology-applied belief—whether it be epistemic or ethical. Some philosophers have argued that there can be a deontology of belief only if beliefs, like actions, are under our voluntary control, but this seems not to be true. We will divide the readings here into two categories: (1) those concerned primarily with how to understand talk of what one ought to believe and how it relates to evidence and (2) those concerned with the question of whether there can be a deontology of belief at all. It seems clear that what one ought to believe is not unrelated to what one ought to do. In Clifford’s famous example of the ship owner, his failure to believe in accordance with the evidence that his ship might very well not be seaworthy leads to his action of sending the ship on its way, which results in the death of the sailors. But in what sense is it true that one ought to have certain beliefs? Are there ethical obligations to believe in accord with the evidence? If so, these would seem to be defeated in certain cases (e.g., when a belief in accord with the evidence does more harm than good.) Still, even when belief in accordance with the evidence isn’t ethically required, cannot it still be the case that one should—epistemically should—believe in accord with the evidence? But how can we understand this “should”? Alston has influentially argued that there is no such thing as epistemic obligation to believe, because obligation applies only to that which is voluntary, and belief is not voluntary. Some (e.g., Feldman) have agreed with Alston that belief is not voluntary but argued that the epistemic should does not require voluntariness of belief. Others (e.g., Ryan) have argued that belief is in an important sense voluntary. If there is any good sense in which “should” applies to belief, then questions arise about what determines this “should”—purely epistemic reasons or practical and moral reasons as well? Can there be practical reasons for belief, or are reasons to believe always evidential?

“Ought to Believe” and Its Relation to Evidence

Clifford 1999 provides vehement arguments favoring the claim, which Clifford apparently took to be ethical, that we ought to believe what is best supported by the evidence. James 2007 is a famous reply, given in an 1896 lecture to the Philosophical Clubs of Yale and Brown Universities, that this is to place too much value on avoiding falsity at the cost of missing out on important true beliefs, for example, religious and ethical truths. James also questions the role of evidence in some of the general principles we rely on in science and everyday life. Feldman 2000 clarifies the detail between Clifford and James and argues that James’s arguments ignore the role of suspending judgment and as a result fail to show anything substantive. Feldman is careful to distinguish an epistemic “ought” from an ethical “ought” and claims, first, that only the former is of relevance to epistemology, and second, that what one ought to believe is a matter of one’s evidence. Adler 2002 is a book-length treatment of the ethics of belief and argues for a strong form of evidentialism. John Locke is often considered the father of evidentialism; Wolterstorff 1996 is, in large part, a critical examination of Locke’s evidentialism. In both decision theory and the philosophy of science, there has been significant discussion, not always making its way into mainstream epistemology, of the role of pragmatic factors in what one ought to believe. Rudner 1953 is an important defense of the relevance of practical factors to theory acceptance in science, and Nozick 1994 argues, using a decision-theoretic framework, that rational belief is not solely a matter of evidence or probability.

Doxastic Voluntarism and Epistemic Deontology

Much of the literature on epistemic deontology concerns whether there can be such a thing, in the face of Alston’s 1988 argument that deontological notions imply doxastic voluntarism, that is, the view that we have such voluntary control over our beliefs. Following Williams 1976, Alston claims that we lack such control. Ryan 2003 replies by defending the claim that beliefs are in an important sense voluntary and that this is enough to secure epistemic deontologism. Hieronymi 2006 argues that we can be responsible for our beliefs, even if we cannot believe at all. Feldman 2008 argues that epistemic deontology of a modest sort does not require doxastic voluntarism. Nottelmann 2007 is a book-length study of the notion of epistemic blamelessness and its relations to responsibility and control, and it provides a nice survey of the existing literature.

Belief Revision

In both formal and mainstream epistemology there has been considerable discussion of the dynamics of belief. A prominent position is that we should not revise our beliefs in the absence of positive evidence against them. This is epistemic conservatism, which has been subject to considerable debate. Whether or not one is an epistemic conservative, there are important questions of how belief should be revised in the face of new information. Formal epistemologists have attempted to model rational belief change, both for binary (on-off) belief as well as for graded belief, or degrees of confidence.

Discussions of Epistemic Conservatism

Sklar 1975 sees conservatism as a plausible basis on which to resist skepticism. Harman 1986 defends a kind of conservatism on the basis of a number of considerations, including that we seem rationally to retain our beliefs long after we have forgotten our original evidence for them. Lycan 1988 defends only a very weak form of conservatism. Foley 1983 criticizes a number of Chisholm’s “conservative” principles. Christensen 1994 criticizes a wider range of conservative principles, including those by all the philosophers mentioned and others.

Belief Revision in Formal Epistemology

Alchourrón, et al. 1985 present the influential AGM account of belief revision, which attempts to give conditions for rational belief revision based on logical relations between the beliefs at a certain time and the deletion or addition of a belief or set of beliefs. This theory is further explained and developed by Gärdenfors 1988. Pollock and Gillies 2004 criticizes the AGM approach for neglecting justificatory relationships that go beyond logical relations. Further discussion by formal epistemologists of the AGM approach and its rivals can be found in Gärdenfors 2003. Levi 1991 draws from insights by pragmatist philosophers in his formal account of belief revision. Although AGM and Levi are concerned with rational revision of full belief, the Bayesian tradition focuses on rational revision of degrees of belief. Jeffrey 1990 remains the most widely read book on Bayesianism by philosophers. Maher 1993 makes an extensive and philosophically sophisticated investigation of Bayesianism, including Bayesian views of belief revision.

  • Alchourrón, Carlos E., Peter Gärdenfors, and David Makinson. “On the Logic of Theory Change: Partial Meet Contraction and Revision Functions.” Journal of Symbolic Logic 50 (1985): 510–530.

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    Locus classicus for the AGM account of belief revision.

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  • Gärdenfors, Peter. Knowledge in Flux: Modeling the Dynamics of Epistemic States. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988.

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    Introduces the reader to the subject of knowledge representation and belief revision and includes detailed development of the AGM model.

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  • Gärdenfors, Peter, ed. Belief Revision. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

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    Collects formal work on belief revision from leaders in the field. Includes a valuable introduction by Gärdenfors to the formal study of belief revision.

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  • Jeffrey, Richard C. The Logic of Decision. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

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    Often used as a sourcebook on probability kinematics by philosophers. Includes a development of Jeffrey conditionalization, as an alternative to standard conditionalization.

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  • Levi, Issac. The Fixation of Belief and Its Undoing. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

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    Develops a formally sophisticated view of rational belief change informed by the model of belief found in the pragmatists Peirce and Dewey that maintains a fundamental place for full belief. Includes a substantial critique of work by Gärdenfors, et al.

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  • Maher, Patrick. Betting on Theories. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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    A detailed examination of, among other things, diachronic rationality and, in particular, the famous Dutch book arguments that one’s degrees of confidence ought to satisfy the probability axioms. Argues that the fundamental basis for confirmation and belief revision is decision theory. Develops a notion of theory acceptance that is not reducible to probability.

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  • Pollock, John L., and Anthony S. Gillies. “Belief Revision and Epistemology.” Synthese 122 (2004): 69–92.

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    Argues against “postulational” accounts of belief revision (such as the AGM account), which attempt to explain rational belief revision simply in terms of the beliefs a subject has at a time and their logical relations. What is needed instead is sensitivity to defeasible justificatory relationships.

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The notion of evidence is central in both epistemology and the philosophy of science. We speak of objects and events as evidence as well as facts and arguably even beliefs and experiences. How can we understand how all these different sorts of entities can be evidence? Should we think of fingerprints as evidence by virtue of facts about fingerprints being evidence? Should we think of facts as evidence because they affect the justification of belief? Apart from questions of what the sorts of things that are evidence, epistemologists also ask how evidence relates to probability. There is a long tradition in the philosophy of science that addresses this question. Achinstein 1983 collects the seminal papers by Carnap, Goodman, Hempel, and others, addressing the “paradox of the ravens,” the “grue” paradox, and more. One standard account of evidence, influential in the philosophy of science and among Bayesians—E is evidence for P if E raises the probability of P, that is, Pr(P/E)>Pr(P)—has been disputed most famously by Achinstein 2001, which, while informed about formal matters, is highly accessible. Howson and Urbach 2006 explains and defends Bayesianism. Kaplan 1996 is an attempt to explain the relevance of decision theory to philosophy, but it includes an excellent chapter on evidence. Sober 2008 gives an accessible account of evidence, rebutting certain of Achinstein’s arguments and casting some doubt on the Bayesians’ use of prior probabilities. Outside of philosophy of science, the concept of evidence is used by Conee and Feldman 2004 as a basis for understanding epistemic justification and knowledge. Williamson 2000 reverses this order of explanation, arguing for the provocative thesis E = K, which holds that one’s evidence is what one knows.

The Role of Context

“Nonepistemic” features of a context seem to affect our readiness to say we know things. We are more reluctant to say we know things when a lot is at stake, and we are more reluctant to say we know things when we are in philosophy classrooms than in ordinary life (a point made forcefully by Hume). Does the role of nonepistemic features exhaust itself in our readiness to say that we know things? Or does our varying readiness to say that we know derive from differences in the truth of knowledge-attributions as the result of differences in nonepistemic features of a context? Some—contextualists and subject-sensitive invariantists, to name just two views—think it does. See also some of the entries in Skepticism.

Precursors to the Contemporary Debate

Current discussion of the role of context in epistemology can easily be dated to the middle of the 20th century, with a number of ordinary language philosophers and positivists observing that nonepistemic features of a context are relevant to our willingness to attribute knowledge. It was a quick step to the conclusion that these features are relevant as well to what is required for those attributions to be true. Both Ayer 1956 and Rudner 1953 emphasize the importance of the context of the potential knower in determining how much evidence the knower must have in order to, in Ayer’s phrase, “have the right to be sure.” Wittgenstein 1972 and Austin 1979 both point out that the appropriateness of knowledge-attributions can vary greatly, depending on what the point is of the conversation in which those knowledge-attributions occur. Austin points out that we typically regard some possibilities as irrelevant to the conversational point and so concludes that we do not need to eliminate those possibilities unless the conversational point switches. And Wittgenstein notes that different assumptions underlie some conversational practices and not others.

  • Austin, J. L. “Other Minds.” In Philosophical Papers. By J. L. Austin, 76–116. Oxford: Clarendon, 1979.

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    A precursor to both contextualist and relevant alternatives accounts of knowledge, according to which to say correctly one knows something, one only has to be able to eliminate those alternative possibilities that are relevant in one’s context.

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  • Ayer, A. J. “Knowing as Having the Right to Be Sure.” In The Problem of Knowledge. By A. J. Ayer, 28–34. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1956.

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    An argument that to know something is to have the right to be sure but that whether one has the right to be sure can depend on what is at stake in the inquiry.

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  • Rudner, Richard. “The Scientist Qua Scientist Makes Value Judgments.” Philosophy of Science 20 (1953): 1–6.

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    An argument that it is legitimate, and unavoidable, for the scientist to bring in considerations of importance—how much is at stake—when deciding how much evidence is required in order to draw a conclusion.

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  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig. On Certainty. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

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    An early predecessor of contextualism, according to which the fundamental assumptions we make in our knowledge-claims can vary from one conversational context to another—and so, therefore, can the correctness of those knowledge-claims.

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Broadly Contextualist Views

Suppose that when we are in a philosophy classroom, the standards for a true attribution of knowledge go up, so that when we deny that we know things (or deny that others do), we speak truly. But suppose further that, when we are outside the philosophy classroom and, say, in an ordinary context, we (or someone else) know something, the standards fall, so that we, again, speak truly. If so, then we can accommodate both the skeptical intuition that when we are thinking, say, about the possibility that we are dreaming, we do not know, and also our ordinary intuitions and linguistic habits, which seem to suggest we know many things. The view that this picture of the “semantics” of knowledge-attributions is right has come to be called contextualism—the view that the truth of knowledge-attributions can vary with the context of the person making the attribution because, in effect, the semantic content of “S knows that p” varies across contexts of utterance. (A related view is contrastivism, most notably endorsed in Schaffer 2004, according to which statements of the form “S knows that p” hide an implicit contrast proposition, so that, most precisely, statements of the form “S knows that p” express propositions of the form S knows that p rather than q. It is this contrast proposition, according to contrastivism, that varies with contexts of utterance.) The earliest contemporary representative of contextualism is Annis 1978, but contextualism as constituted in the early 21st century is most commonly associated with three philosophers: Stewart Cohen, Keith DeRose, and David Lewis. Lewis 1996 provides a contextualist view meant to be seen as consistent with infallibilism—the view that knowledge requires that one eliminate all possibilities of error—but Cohen 1999 and DeRose 2009 both offer fallibilist views. Richard 2004 explores some of the consequences of contextualism and argues that, in order to avoid some of the more negative consequences, contextualism is best conjoined with a relativism about truth.

Criticisms of, and Alternatives to, Contextualism

Contextualism has not been met with universal acceptance. One primary criticism (leveled forcefully by, e.g., Brown 2005) is that, contra the contextualist, nonepistemic features of context only play a role in what knowledge-attributions it is reasonable to assert, not in what knowledge-attributions are true. A second criticism, versions of which have been put forth by Sosa (Sosa 2000, Sosa 2004) allows that contextualism might get the semantics of knowledge-attributions right but argues that it is not as successful as proponents allege in solving various philosophical problems (primarily, skepticism). Finally, some (e.g., Stanley 2005, Hawthorne 2004) have argued that the linguistic data do not suggest that contextualism is even the right view of the semantics of knowledge-attributions. Schiffer 1996, for example, suggests that the contextualist’s response to skepticism requires us to be wrong too often about what propositions our utterances express. Instead, Stanley and Hawthorne favor subject-sensitive invariantism, which allows a role for context in the truth of knowledge-attributions, but not the speaker’s context. For subject-sensitive invariantists, the relevant context is that of the knower. Fantl and McGrath 2002 also argues for a role for nonepistemic features of the subject’s context, although they are concerned not only with knowledge-attributions, but also with whether subjects are justified in believing (and their view is strictly consistent with contextualism). And there are other views in the neighborhood of contextualism that see a role for context, but not (or not only) for the context of knowledge-attribution. Relativists (e.g., MacFarlane 2005) allow the context of the person evaluating the knowledge-attribution to be relevant.

Knowing How and Knowing That

In ordinary discourse, we distinguish between someone’s “knowing how” to do something and “knowing that” something is the case. The question is whether this difference in vocabulary (“how” versus “that”) reflects a genuine or important difference in the relations picked out. According to intellectualists, it does not: to know how to do something just is to know that certain things are the case. Following Gilbert Ryle, most philosophers have believed that intellectualism is false. The readings in this section are largely divided into defenses of intellectualism and defenses of anti-intellectualism.

Intellectualist Views

Anti-intellectualism is more prominent among contemporary epistemologists than its rival, but Stanley and Williamson 2001 has inspired some to revisit the view that most thought Ryle effectively discredited. According to Stanley and Williamson, the differences between the grammatical structure of know-how and know-that locutions is no more significant, and admits of similar treatment, than the difference between know-who (and other know-wh) and know-that locutions. To know how to do something is, some complications aside, just to know, for some way of doing something, w, where w is a way for one to do that thing. Earlier representations of the view are Katzoff 1984 and Vendler 1972, the latter of which partly anticipates some of the arguments in Stanley and Williamson. Bengson and Moffett 2007 provides some metaphysical basis for intellectualism, to the extent that know-how is partly a matter of concept-possession, but that concept-possession is, importantly, a function of knowing that certain things are the case. All these authors disagree with Ryle’s view that know-how is a matter of having a certain kind of disposition or ability, but Brown 1971 and Snowdon 2003 both provide evocative examples of subjects who know how to do something but lack the requisite abilities, or vice versa.

Anti-Intellectualist Views

The seminal statement of anti-intellectualism is found in Ryle 1949 and Ryle 1971. According to Ryle and his followers, know-how essentially involves some sort of ability or disposition to perform the actions that lead to what one knows how to do, whereas knowing-that, even if it involves dispositions, is a more purely intellectual matter. For example, a baseball batting coach might know very well that the right way to hit a home run is to keep one’s head still, to lead with one’s front leg, to swing level, and so on, but the batting coach may not know how to hit a home run: know-how is not exhausted by even the most extensive collection of knowledge-that. Some (e.g., Hartland-Swann 1956, Hetherington 2006; Hartland-Swann’s account is disputed by Roland 1958) have even argued that knowledge-that is just a kind of know-how. But most anti-intellectualist views contend simply that knowledge-how and knowledge-that are distinct kinds. One can be an anti-intellectualist even if one does not think, with Ryle, that know-how is a matter of having a certain kind of ability or disposition (although Noë 2005 argues against a range of examples that it is); rather, know-who might relate the knower to a different kind of object than knowledge-that. For example, Carr 1979 argues that know-how relates a knower to an intentional action, whereas knowledge-that relates a knower to a proposition. (This conception of what distinguishes knowledge-that from knowledge-how is echoed in Rumfitt 2003.) Hawley 2003 is similarly hard to categorize as squarely anti-intellectualist because, as she maintains, her view can be made to fit with intellectualism as well.

Feminist Epistemology

One assumption found in at least some traditional epistemology is that the ideal of intellectual inquiry is objectivity—to be devoid of biases, of value judgments, and of the pressures of the contingent aspects of one’s nature. Feminist critiques of traditional epistemology have focused on this assumption in two ways. First, they have argued that the so-called ideal is not ideal at all, either because it is an impossibility, because even attempting to achieve it ends up divorcing one’s thought in unhealthy and epistemically irresponsible ways from the harms that certain lines of thinking can cause, or because allowing value judgments and the like to inform one’s inquiry actually allows for even greater objectivity. Second, they have argued that traditional epistemology has decidedly failed to live up to its own ideal, in that its most influential historical practitioners have been almost exclusively male (and white) and that this has led to epistemological views that reflect and sanction a rather narrow range of cognitive traits.


Some collections on feminist epistemology (e.g., Harding and Hintikka 2003, Pinnick, et al. 2003) come at the discipline from the philosophy of science because one issue of central importance is the ways in which scientists have historically imported misogynistic assumptions into their practices. Perhaps this is one reason why Quine—whose work is so concerned with scientific practice—has been an area of interest for feminist epistemologists, as evidenced by, for example, Nelson and Nelson 2003 and Louise Antony’s “Quine as Feminist” in Antony and Witt 2002. Antony and Witt 2002 includes feminist perspectives on reasoning generally; further general collections on feminist epistemology include Alcoff and Potter 1993 and Garry and Pearsall 1996, the latter of which, along with Antony and Witt 2002, emphasizes race issues as well. For collections with some greater emphasis on critiques of feminist epistemology, see Haack 1994 and Pinnick, et al. 2003. See, especially, Louise Antony’s “Quine as Feminist” and Sally Haslanger’s “On Being Objective and Being Objectified” in Antony and Witt 2002 and Nelson’s “Who Knows: From Quine to Feminist Empiricism” in Nelson and Nelson 2003.

  • Alcoff, Linda, and Elizabeth Potter, eds. Feminist Epistemologies. New York: Routledge, 1993.

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    A collection of original papers by influential feminist philosophers, exploring the ways that gender might be relevant to epistemology.

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  • Antony, Louise M., and Charlotte Witt. A Mind of One’s Own: Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity. 2d ed. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2002.

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    The second edition of a very influential collection of papers exploring the ramifications of an ancestry of much contemporary epistemology that is exclusively white and male and often misogynistic.

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  • Garry, Ann, and Marilyn Pearsall, eds. Women, Knowledge, and Reality. 2d ed. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1996.

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    The second edition of a collection of essays on themes in feminist epistemology, including work on perspectives of women of color.

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  • Haack, Susan, ed. “Special Issue: Feminist Epistemology: For and Against.” Monist 77 (1994).

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    A special issue of The Monist devoted to feminist epistemology, consisting of essays exposing (and attempting to resolve) difficulties for the practice.

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  • Harding, Sandra G., and Merrill B. Hintikka. Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and the Philosophy of Science. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Reidel, 2003.

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    The second edition of a 1983 collection of essays, with some focus on the history of epistemology and related disciplines, exploring the ways in which sexist assumptions have progressed from the ancients to the early 21st century.

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  • Nelson, Lynn Hankinson, and Jack Nelson, eds. Feminist Interpretations of W. V. Quine. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003.

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    A collection of papers exploring the ways in which Quine’s epistemological work, especially his holism and his naturalism, might be important for feminist theorizing.

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  • Pinnick, Cassandra L., Noretta Koertge, and Robert F. Almeder, eds. Scrutinizing Feminist Epistemology: An Examination of Gender in Science. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003.

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    A collection of largely critical essays on feminist epistemology.

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One task of feminist epistemology is to offer negative critiques of the ways in which epistemology, science, and the philosophy of science have historically been conducted. One primary critique of the historical conduct of epistemology (e.g., Code 1991, Butler 1990, Haraway 1991) is its claim to neutrality—its claim to rise above the contingent features of the epistemologist’s situation. (See especially Code’s “Is the Sex of the Knower Epistemologically Significant?” in Code 1991.) But feminist epistemology (e.g., Harding 1991) also provides us with positive views about what the answers are to traditional epistemological questions and to nontraditional epistemological questions we might want answers to. Duran 1991 offers us a coherentist/contextualist epistemology motivated by feminist arguments, whereas Collins 2000 explores the importance of “self-defined knowledge” for group empowerment.

Chapters and Journal Articles

What exactly is feminist epistemology? As with discussions of naturalized epistemology, a significant chunk of the literature in feminist epistemology is concerned with exactly this question. The question can be asked while arguing in favor of feminist epistemology (as in Anderson 1995 and Longino 1997) or from a more critical position (as in Haack 1993). Like naturalized epistemology, as well, much of the literature in feminist epistemology is focused on defending or critiquing the discipline as a whole. For example, Lloyd 1995 defends feminist epistemology against the charge that its accusations of gender bias do not get at anything philosophically deep and important and is, at most, a contingent matter that needs rectifying. As Lloyd argues, epistemology has historically been concerned with unmasking precisely such distorting biases. And, Pinnick 1994 criticizes feminist epistemology by arguing that it ends up being just an unfortunate kind of relativism. But, again, feminist epistemology also offers positive proposals for how best to conduct our intellectual lives. One central lesson is that we should not seek to divorce from inquiry questions of value (as, e.g., Harding 1992 argues) or emotion (as, e.g., Jaggar 1989 argues); in fact, as Harding maintains, incorporating such questions can increase the degree of objectivity to which we can reasonably aspire.

  • Anderson, Elizabeth. “Feminist Epistemology: An Interpretation and Defense.” Hypatia 10 (1995): 50–84.

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    Argues that feminist epistemology is not best seen as a normative discipline devoted to feminine “ways of knowing,” but as a descriptive, naturalized discipline devoted to how conceptions of gender affect how knowledge is produced.

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  • Haack, Susan. “Epistemological Reflections of an Old Feminist.” Reason Papers 18 (1993): 31–42.

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    A critical view of feminist epistemology, according to which feminist epistemologists share little in common, and the connection between feminism and epistemology is nothing like what feminist epistemology requires.

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  • Harding, Sandra. “Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What Is ‘Strong Objectivity’?” Centennial Review 36 (1992): 437–470.

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    Argues that, although epistemology needs to eliminate gender bias, strong objectivity does not require that one’s values do not influence inquiry—that political values can help us develop a more objective worldview.

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  • Jaggar, Alison. “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology.” Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 32 (1989): 151–176.

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    A defense of the role of emotion in knowledge-seeking.

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  • Lloyd, Elizabeth. “Objectivity and the Double Standard for Feminist Epistemologies.” Synthese 104 (1995): 351–381.

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    Argues that because the limitations on objectivity are a central theme of analytic philosophy, criticizing feminist epistemology for pointing out that purportedly objective epistemic methods are gender biased constitutes a reprehensible double standard.

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  • Longino, Helen E. “Feminist Epistemology as a Local Epistemology.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 71 (1997): 19–36.

    DOI: 10.1111/1467-8349.00017Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that general epistemology gets at the possible meanings of epistemic terms, whereas normative epistemology can only extrapolate epistemic norms from the practices of specific communities: the reflections of inquiring feminists constitute the practices of one such community, and feminist epistemology is the theory of the norms of that practice.

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  • Pinnick, Cassandra L. “Feminist Epistemology: Implications for Philosophy of Science.” Philosophy of Science 61 (1994): 646–657.

    DOI: 10.1086/289827Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A critique of feminist epistemology, according to which feminist philosophy remains a troubling version of relativism.

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