Monday, February 13, 2012

Metaphysical and Conceptual Knowledge Connections

Knowledge shows up in theories a lot lately. Or should I say that 'knowledge' shows up in statements of theories? One question I'm hoping to research a fair amount in the near future concerns the status of theoretical claims about knowledge. The knowledge first program, broadly construed, says that knowledge has some kind of priority or privileged status, which makes it a good candidate to explain other states. (My broad construction applies not just to the Williamson project, but to all of those recent projects that posit strong theoretical roles for knowledge, such as the knowledge-action links of Hawthorne and Stanley.) Here's a question I'm interested in: how should we understand the knowledge first attitude? Here are two candidate interpretations:

  1. Knowledge, the mental state, is metaphysically (relatively) fundamental; it is among the (more) basic building blocks of the world. Questions about knowledge are questions about the (relatively) natural epistemic joints.

  2. KNOWLEDGE, the concept, is conceptually (relatively) fundamental; it is among the (more) basic ideas in our understanding of the world. Questions about knowledge are questions about our (relatively) fundamental conceptual framework.

(The hedges there indicate that knowledge 'first' should surely not be meant to imply absolute priority; one can subscribe, for instance, to the metaphysical interpretation of the knowledge first project and still believe that physical particles are the most fundamental bits of the universe; knowledge is prior to most of psychology and epistemology, perhaps, but not prior to physics.)

My suspicion, which I'm not yet in a position to make good on, is that a lot of authors are fairly indiscriminate about this distinction, and furthermore that it matters. But I'm not at all ready to argue for that claim; I need to re-read a lot of this literature with the question in mind. In this blog post, however, I'll highlight a number of passages that suggest each of the readings. Inclusion on this list is not meant as an indication either that the author endorses one interpretation over the other, or that the author is in any way confused on the matter; this is just a list of passages that strike me as suggestive of one of the two views, so that eventually I can look back and have a whole list of material to scrutinize.

I'll continue to update this blog post as I find passages that appear relevant. Suggestions, of course, are extremely welcome!

Passages suggestive of the metaphysical interpretation:

  •  "E = K equates the extensions of the concepts knowledge and evidence in any possible situation; that is enough to make it an informative thesis. By itself, K = K does not equate the concepts themselves; nor is it to be read as offering an analysis of either the concept evidence or the concept knowledge, or as making one concept prior to the other in any sense. ... [E]ven if the concepts are equivalent a priori, it does not follow that one is prior to the other." (Williamson, KAIL 186)

Passages suggestive of the conceptual interpretation:

  • "Perhaps we can understand how something could found belief only by thinking of it as knowledge." (KAIL 186)

  • "The transparency of evidence would make Ep equivalent to KEp. Given E = K, that is tantamount to making Kp equivalent to KKp." (KAIL 191)

  • " purpose is to establish that knowledge is conceptually connected to practical interests. This point is compatible with many different approaches to the nature of knowledge." (Stanley, KAPI 89)

In all cases, bold emphasis mine; other emphasis in original.


  1. On the face of it, the KAIL passage you cite as suggestive of the metaphysical interpretation of the knowledge first program doesn't strike me as being so suggestive. It's a passage about the E=K thesis, a thesis which is distinct from the knowledge first program (although TW is committed to both). So I'm not sure we can learn what TW means by 'knowledge first' from what he says here about the E=K thesis.

  2. Quite right, Carrie -- entries on the lists will be at best small parts of inductive cases for the relevant interpretations. I don't think that in this instance it's totally irrelevant, because I think that E = K comprises part of the argument for the knowledge first approach.