Philosophy Knowledge-first Epistemology
Clayton Littlejohn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0380


Although there has long been a tradition of trying to analyze knowledge in terms of things taken to be more basic (e.g., beliefs that are true and that meet further conditions), this approach to knowledge has fallen somewhat out of favor; this is in part because it is believed that all such analyses are inadequate. Timothy Williamson has proposed that we should try to run these analyses in the other direction and use the concept of knowledge to give philosophically fruitful characterizations of belief, evidence, justification, and rationality. This has inspired a considerable amount of recent work in epistemology and in the philosophy of mind.

Foundational Texts

We find an early statement of the idea that knowledge is not something that can be properly characterized as a belief that meets further conditions in Cook Wilson 1926 and in Prichard 1909. Williamson 2000 defends this negative view, too, but then proposes that we should try to use knowledge to give an account of other notions such as belief, evidence, rationality, justification, and warranted assertion. This proposal has generated a great deal of discussion in the recent literature.

  • Cook Wilson, John. Statement and Inference. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1926.

    Cook Wilson defends the position that knowledge is something that cannot be characterized in other terms. In particular, he denies that knowledge is a kind of belief that meets further conditions (e.g., that it is true and supported by the evidence, etc.). This is an early and important source of skepticism about the possibility of providing a fruitful philosophical analysis or account of knowledge.

  • Prichard, H. A. Kant’s Theory of Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1909.

    In the course of criticizing Kant’s epistemology, Prichard maintains that we ought to adopt a kind of primitivist view of knowledge. He thought that it would be impossible to have a theory of knowledge because he thought that any attempt to explicate knowledge in other terms would be bound to fail. His work showed the influence of John Cook Wilson.

  • Williamson, Timothy. Knowledge and Its Limits. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    Williamson defends the view that knowledge cannot be analyzed in terms of anything more basic and proposes that we might be able to use the concept of knowledge to give analyses of other notions. He defends the view that knowledge is the most general factive mental state, that we should identify a thinker’s evidence with his or her knowledge, and that knowledge is the normative standard for assertion and belief. Rather than think of knowledge as a justified belief that meets further conditions, knowledge is what justifies belief.

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