Philosophy Value of Knowledge
Erik J. Olsson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0008


Everyone agrees that it is good to know. If you know that it will rain tomorrow, you can adapt your traveling plans accordingly; if you know that the euro crisis will soon be over, you can make a fortune buying euros; if you know a lot about philosophy, you can become a highly regarded teacher; and so on. Knowledge is clearly valuable in the sense of securing success in practical life, or at least making success more likely. Even philosophers, who disagree about many other things, do not normally debate the proposition that knowledge is of great value in practical terms. Moreover, they normally do not dispute the claim that knowledge is, in some ways, more valuable than other, lesser things, such as mere true belief. But this is where agreement usually ends. Philosophers disagree widely over what it is that makes knowledge more valuable than mere true belief. The question of why knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief, raised with characteristic clarity by Plato in the dialogue Meno, has therefore been in the focus of the epistemological debate. The value of knowledge was long not considered to be a serious epistemological concern until it emerged, in the late 1990s, as the central problem of a new research program with contributions from, among others, Jonathan Kvanvig, Ernest Sosa, Richard Swinburne, and Linda Zagzebski. Other authors followed, for example, John Greco, Wayne Riggs, and Duncan Pritchard, marking what has been referred to as a “value turn” in epistemology. A characteristic feature of this movement is that the value problem is used to guide inquiry into the traditionally more debated issue regarding the nature of knowledge. Thus, authors in the value tradition tend to think that any reasonable definition of knowledge should satisfy the condition that knowledge comes out as being distinctively valuable. These authors generally believe, moreover, that the reliabilist account of knowledge, according to which knowledge amounts to reliably produced true belief, does not satisfy this condition because of the so-called swamping problem: if a belief is true, the fact that it was reliably acquired does not seem to add value. Hence, they are inclined to reject the reliabilist theory in favor of other definitions of knowledge, such as a definition that explicates knowledge in terms of intellectual (epistemic) virtue or some variation on that theme.

General Overviews and Textbooks

There are not too many books that deal exclusively with the value of knowledge. The most well-known book-length study is Kvanvig 2003. Kvanvig’s book was instrumental in setting the agenda for the value debate, and it continues to be one of the most cited texts in this area of epistemology. Published in 2003, it is still a useful introductory text starting with classical approaches and leading up to contemporary work. Classical and early responses to the value problem are dismissed in the first chapter (for reasons that later authors have sometimes contested). It can also be used as a textbook if supplemented with articles that provide different outlooks on the topic, such as the overviews Olsson 2011, Pritchard 2007, and Pritchard and Turri 2011.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511498909

    Kvanvig argues that virtue epistemology can solve the value problem as that problem was understood by Plato. But he also thinks that the problem in its most general form—showing why knowledge is more valuable than its conceptual parts—does not admit of a plausible solution. Instead, he argues that understanding, not knowledge, is what has distinctive value.

  • Olsson, Erik J. “The Value of Knowledge.” Philosophy Compass 6.12 (2011): 874–883.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2011.00425.x

    This article provides an overview of the area, starting with historical figures and early work. The contemporary debate is surveyed and some recent developments are highlighted, including recent criticisms of virtue epistemology. The emphasis is on classical and reliabilist-externalist responses.

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

    Focusing on virtue epistemology, Pritchard’s extensive survey covers most works on the value of knowledge that had been published up to 2007. It also treats some nonstandard, though related, subjects such as the relation between epistemic value and the problem of skepticism, and the value of true belief.

  • Pritchard, Duncan H., and John Turri. “The Value of Knowledge.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2011.

    This is a useful overview of the problem of the value of knowledge, covering a number of the most significant and useful debates and positions.

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