Friday, September 24, 2010

New draft paper on modals and modal epistemology

I've just completed a draft of a new paper on modals and modal epistemology, developing some of the ideas in my last few blog posts, and engaging with Timothy Williamson's discussion of counterfactuals and modal epistemology. Here's the abstract:
Modals and Modal Epistemology

Abstract. I distinguish (§§1-2) two projects in modal epistemology, and suggest (§3) that Timothy Williamson’s treatment of modal epistemology, relating truths of modality to counterfactual conditionals, is best understood as a way of addressing the mystery of why we should have developed cognitive access to facts of metaphysical modality. I offer (§4) a reconstruction of his argument, so interpreted. I compare Williamson’s counterfactual-based approach to metaphysical modality with a treatment in terms of quotidian modals (§§5-6), relating each to the dominant linguistic treatments of modals and conditionals (§§7-8). The insights offered by these linguistic treatments will emphasize the similarity of the counterfactual approach with the quotidian modals approach—in particular, they will demonstrate that the counterfactuals approach does not enjoy the advantage over the latter that Williamson claims for it. The ultimate lesson to be drawn (§9) is that there is a respect in which investigation into metaphysical modality is sui generis; but this is not a respect that renders modal epistemology implausibly mysterious.

The draft is online here. Comments are definitely very welcome -- feel free to email me, or leave a comment to this blog post, or get in touch with me in whatever other way seems like a good idea.


  1. jonathan weinberg9/24/2010 02:42:00 PM

    Hi Jonathan,

    I am (as is usual for me with all your arguments except those that concern my own work!) very sympathetic to your arguments here. One thing I'm surprised by here, though, is that if you're right about what questions Williamson is after, then it seems to follow that Williamson's arguments have in principle no _methodological_ implications at all. Do you think that's any sort of problem for your interpretation?

  2. Hi Jonathan, thanks for the thought.
    I'm not sure exactly what would count as a methodological implication. A possible competitor to Williamson's view would have it that it's hopeless to try to come to knowledge of metaphysical modality, which I guess might have the methodological implication that it's a bad idea to try. Insofar as Williamson's view is a competitor to that skeptical one, it provides a way of resisting that methodological claim, and so has a methodological implication.
    But if you just mean, Williamson's remarks about the epistemology of metaphysical modality don't really tell us very much about how we ought to go about investigating metaphysical modality, then I think I agree with you. One of the lessons, from my point of view at least, that has emerged with some of the discussions between you and me over the past couple of years, is that epistemological questions can end up pretty far divorced from methodological questions. (This is a major theme of the book I'm working on with Ben.) So it doesn't seem to me implausible that Williamson's remarks on modal epistemology might be neutral on many interesting questions about the proper methodology for modal investigation.
    I'd have to read the relevant Williamson again with that question in mind to see whether that seems like an exegetical shortcoming. Do you think it obvious that he means to be addressing methodological questions?

  3. jonathan weinberg9/25/2010 01:27:00 PM

    I do agree that epistemology and methodology can generally go off in their own independent directions, especially in the neighborhood of really fundamental sorts of epistemological questions. But it seems to me that Williamson is at least somewhat trying to engage with methodological questions, and if that's right, then putting a purely epistemological interpretation on him
    might be mistaken.

    Some textual evidence that he's not _just_ interested in the questions you attribute to him would include: his claims to be philosophizing about philosophy as it is actually practiced today (note that methodological questions need not be normative, but can also have their own how/why versions, too - not "how possibly" but "how actually", maybe?); his occasional appeals to the scientific psychological literature; his appeal to the idea that philosophers may possess some relevant form of judgment expertise. None of this makes much sense if he's just pursuing the questions you set out. (The Afterward is also explicitly methodological, but I don't want to put any weight on that since it's not of a piece with the rest of the book.)

    Perhaps unrelatedly, another aspect of his philosophical goals that might should enter in here, is he wants an account that disentangles armchair thought-experiment judgments from apriority and/or analyticity. His counterfactuals-centric approach does that in a way that perhaps the rival accounts you consider wouldn't.

  4. I didn't mean to suggest that Tim never engages methodological question in any of his book or related work; I was just talking about the material on modal epistemology and counterfactuals. So his remarks on intuitions and expertise, or on apriority and analyticity, look to me to be evaluable entirely separately from what I say about Tim here.

  5. Jonathan Weinberg9/26/2010 04:49:00 AM

    But he clearly thinks that the epistemology of modality stuff is of pretty direct relevance to those other sections of the book -- which doesn't make sense if the epistemology of modality stuff is just after the questions you discuss.

    And I do think that, to see what he's up to with the stuff on counterfactuals, his interest in prying modal knowledge loose of apriority and analyticity has got to be kept in view.