In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Reasons in Epistemology

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works

Philosophy Reasons in Epistemology
Kurt Sylvan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0183


Reasons attract great interest in new literature on the foundations of epistemic normativity. This follows a trend in metaethics, where many take reasons to be the building blocks of normativity, and where sophisticated work on reasons has illuminated long-standing issues about the nature of normativity. Besides the recent upsurge of interest, reasons have played important roles in the past fifty years of work on the nature of knowledge, perception, reasoning, rationality, and justification. This article provides a comprehensive overview of (1) the literature on the nature of reasons for belief and other doxastic attitudes, (2) the role that reasons play in discussions of the nature of knowledge, perception, reasoning, rationality, and justification, and (3) the liaisons between epistemology and metaethics that owe to work on reasons and rationality. This article is unique in citing work outside of epistemology narrowly understood. Some of the best work on the general nature of reasons and rationality has been written by philosophers typically classified as metaethicists. They include Maria Alvarez, John Broome, Jonathan Dancy, Pamela Hieronymi, Niko Kolodny, Christine Korsgaard, Derek Parfit, Joseph Raz, T. M. Scanlon, Mark Schroeder, John Skorupski, and Judith Jarvis Thomson. While their ultimate aims are metaethical, they often make general claims about reasons and discuss reasons for belief at length. Awareness of their work in epistemology has led to major advances in the literature on epistemic reasons.

Introductory Works

Because there are no textbooks and few introductory pieces that focus narrowly on reasons in epistemology, this article dives right into the literature. There are, however, a few pieces that could serve as starting points and a few that stand out as landmark works. Reisner and Steglich-Petersen 2011 is a collection on reasons for belief that contains a helpful introduction to the literature. Chapters 3 and 4 (pp. 89–156) of Littlejohn 2012 synoptically cover many of the topics below. Landmark contributions by metaethicists on the general nature of reasons and rationality include Scanlon 1998, Dancy 2000, Parfit 2001, Skorupski 2011, and Thomson 2008. Landmark contributions to the literature in epistemology include Swain 1981, Millar 1991, Littlejohn 2012, and Gibbons 2013.

  • Dancy, Jonathan. Practical Reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    Argues that normative reasons are facts and that motivating reasons are possibly nonobtaining states of affairs. While many targets in the book are metaethical, Dancy’s view is general and has implications for epistemology.

  • Gibbons, John. The Norm of Belief. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199673391.001.0001

    In this book-length defense of a perspective-dependent, but externalist conception of epistemic reasons and rationality, the author touches in an accessible and lively way on many of the central issues discussed in this article, especially the distinction between subjective and objective reasons, the nature of possession, the relationship between reasons and knowledge, and issues about reasons at the interface between epistemology and the philosophy of practical reason. Apart from representing the state of the art, this book serves as a terrific overview of the field.

  • Littlejohn, Clayton. Justification and the Truth Connection. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139060097

    Defends the striking claim that there are no false justified beliefs, and in the course of doing so defends the view that normative reasons for belief are facts.

  • Millar, Alan. Reasons and Experience. Oxford: Clarendon, 1991.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198242703.001.0001

    A classic account of how experience provides us with reasons for belief, containing important discussions of the nature of epistemic reasons and reasoning.

  • Parfit, Derek. “Rationality and Reasons.” In Exploring Practical Philosophy. Edited by Dan Egonsson, Bjorn Petterson, and Toni Ronnow-Rasmussen. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2001.

    Argues that normative reasons of all sorts are facts and that rationality consists in correctly responding to apparent normative reasons, which need not be genuine normative reasons.

  • Reisner, Andrew, and Asbjorn Steglich-Petersen, eds. Reasons for Belief. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511977206

    A recent collection of papers on reasons for belief that contains a helpful and up-to-date introduction.

  • Scanlon, T. M. What We Owe to Each Other. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

    Pp. 17–107 of this book constitute the locus classicus of the “reasons first” approach to normativity, and contain highly influential discussions of reasons and rationality.

  • Skorupski, John. The Domain of Reasons. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    The largest and most systematic defense of a “reasons first” approach to normativity in the literature, containing several chapters on epistemic reasons.

  • Swain, Marshall. Reasons and Knowledge. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.

    In the course of this book-length defense of a defeasibility account of knowledge, Swain argues that normative epistemic reasons are propositions and that motivating epistemic reasons are mental states.

  • Thomson, Judith Jarvis. Normativity. Chicago: Open Court, 2008.

    This book contains some influential doubts about the “reasons first” approach and provides an analysis of reasons for attitudes (including belief) and actions. See especially Chapters 8 and 9 (pp. 125–164). These chapters also contain a defense of the intriguing thesis that all normative reasons are a species of reasons for belief: normative reasons for action and for nondoxastic attitudes are, roughly, normative reasons for believing that these acts or attitudes are correct.

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