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Author Information: Rik Peels, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam,

Peels, Rik. “Exploring the Boundaries of Ignorance: Its Nature and Accidental Features.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 10-18.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

From the Metropolitan United Church in downtown Toronto.
Image by Loozrboy via Flickr / Creative Commons


This article responds to El Kassar, Nadja (2018). “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance.” Social Epistemology. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1518498.

As does Bondy, Patrick. “Knowledge and Ignorance, Theoretical and Practical.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 9-14.

Nadja El Kassar is right that different fields in philosophy use rather different conceptions of ignorance. I also agree with her that there seem to be three major conceptions of ignorance: (i) ignorance as propositional ignorance, which she calls the ‘propositional conception of ignorance’, (ii) ignorance as actively upheld false outlooks, which she names the ‘agential conception of ignorance’, and (iii) ignorance as an epistemic practice, which she dubs the ‘structural conception of ignorance’.

It is remarkable that nobody else has addressed the question before of how these three conceptions relate to each other. I consider it a great virtue of her lucid essay that she not only considers this question in detail, but also provides an account that is meant to do justice to all these different conceptions of ignorance. Let us call her account the El Kassar Synthesis. It reads as follows:

Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs – either she has no belief about p or a false belief – and her epistemic attitudes (doxastic attitudes, epistemic virtues, epistemic vices).[1]

My reply to her insightful paper is structured as follows. First, I argue that her synthesis needs revision on various important points (§2). After that, I show that, despite her ambition to capture the main varieties of ignorance in her account, there are important kinds of ignorance that the El Kassar Synthesis leaves out (§4).

I then consider the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance and suggest that we should distinguish between the nature of ignorance and its accidental features. I also argue that these two other conceptions of ignorance are best understood as accounts of important accidental features of ignorance (§5). I sketch and reply to four objections that one might level against my account of the nature and accidental features of ignorance (§6).

I conclude that ignorance should be understood as the absence of propositional knowledge or the absence of true belief, the absence of objectual knowledge, or the absence of procedural knowledge. I also conclude that epistemic vices, hermeneutical frameworks, intentional avoidance of evidence, and other important phenomena that the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance draw our attention to, are best understood as important accidental features of ignorance, not as properties that are essential to ignorance.


Before I explore the tenability of the El Kassar Synthesis in more detail, I would like to make a few preliminary points about it that call for some fine-tuning on her part. Remember that on the El Kassar Synthesis, ignorance should be understood as follows:

El Kassar Synthesis version 1: Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs – either she has no belief about p or a false belief – and her epistemic attitudes (doxastic attitudes, epistemic virtues, epistemic vices).[2]

It seems to me that this synthesis needs revision on at least three points.

First, a false belief is an epistemic attitude and even a doxastic attitude. Moreover, if – as is widely thought among philosophers – there are exactly three doxastic attitudes, namely belief, disbelief, and suspension of judgment, then any case of ignorance that manifests itself in a doxastic attitude is one in which one lacks a belief about p or one has a false belief about p.

After all, if one holds a false belief and that is manifest in one’s doxastic attitude, it is because one holds a false belief (that is the manifestation). If one holds no belief and that is manifest in one’s doxastic attitudes, it is because one suspends judgment (that is the manifestation). Of course, it is also possible that one is deeply ignorant (e.g, one cannot even consider the proposition), but then it is simply not even manifest in one’s doxastic attitudes.

The reference to doxastic attitudes in the second conjunct is, therefore, redundant. The revised El Kassar Synthesis reads as follows:

El Kassar Synthesis version 2: Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs – either she has no belief about p or a false belief – and her epistemic attitudes (epistemic virtues, epistemic vices).

What is left in the second conjunct after the first revision is epistemic virtues and vices. There is a problem with this, though. Ignorance need not be manifested in any epistemic virtues or vices. True, it happens often enough. But it is not necessary; it does not belong to the essence of being ignorant.

If one is ignorant of the fact that Antarctica is the greatest desert on earth (which is actually a fact), then that may simply be a fairly cognitively isolated, single fact of which one is ignorant. Nothing follows about such substantial cognitive phenomena as intellectual virtues and vices (which are, after all, dispositions) like open-mindedness or dogmatism. A version that takes this point into account reads as follows:

El Kassar Synthesis version 3: Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs: either she has no belief about p or a false belief.

A third and final worry I would like to raise here is that on the El Kassar Synthesis, ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs—and, as we saw, on versions 1 and 2, in her intellectual character traits (epistemic virtues, epistemic vices). I find this worrisome, because it is widely accepted that virtues and vices are dispositions themselves, and many philosophers have argued this also holds for beliefs.[3]

If so, on the El Kassar Synthesis, ignorance is a disposition that manifests itself in a number of dispositions (beliefs, lack of beliefs, virtues, vices). What sort of thing is ignorance if it is a disposition to manifest certain dispositions? It seems if one is disposed to manifest certain dispositions, one simply has those dispositions and will, therefore, manifest them in the relevant circumstances.

Moreover, virtue or the manifestation of virtue does not seem to be an instance or exemplification of ignorance; at most, this seems to be the case for vices. Open-mindedness, thoroughness, and intellectual perseverance are clearly not manifestations of ignorance.[4] If anything, they are the opposite: manifestations of knowledge, insight, and understanding. An account that takes these points also into account would therefore look as follows:

El Kassar Synthesis version 4: Ignorance is an epistemic agent’s having no belief or a false belief about p.

It seems to me that version 4 is significantly more plausible than version 1. I realize, though, that it is also a significant revision of the original El Kassar Synthesis. My criticisms in what follows will, therefore, also be directed against version 1 of El Kassar’s synthesis.

Propositional, Objectual, and Procedural Ignorance

On the first conception of ignorance that El Kassar explores, the propositional one, ignorance is ignorance of the truth of a proposition. On the Standard View of ignorance, defended by Pierre Le Morvan and others,[5] ignorance is lack of propositional knowledge, whereas on the New View, championed by me and others,[6] ignorance is lack of true belief.

I would like to add that it may more suitable to call these ‘conceptions of propositional ignorance’ rather than ‘positional conceptions of ignorance’. After all, they are explicitly concerned with and limit themselves to situations in which one is ignorant of the truth of one or more propositions; they do not say that all ignorance is ignorance of a proposition.

More importantly, though, we should note that ever since Bertrand Russell, it has been quite common in epistemology to distinguish not only propositional knowledge (or knowledge-that), but also knowledge by acquaintance or objectual knowledge (knowledge-of) and procedural or technical knowledge (knowledge-how).[7]

Examples of knowledge by acquaintance are my knowledge of my fiancée’s lovely personality, my knowledge of the taste of the Scotch whisky Talisker Storm, my knowledge of Southern France, and my knowledge of the smell of fresh raspberries. Examples of technical or procedural knowledge are my knowledge of how to navigate through Amsterdam by bike, my knowledge of how to catch a North Sea cod, my knowledge of how to get the attention of a group of 150 students (the latter, incidentally, suggests that know-how comes in degrees…).

Since ignorance is often taken to be lack of knowledge, it is only natural to consider whether there can also be objectual and technical ignorance. Nikolaj Nottelmann, in a recent piece, has convincingly argued that there are such varieties of ignorance.[8]

The rub is that the El Kassar Synthesis, on all of its four versions, does not capture these two other varieties of ignorance. If one is ignorant of how to ride a bike, it is not so much that one lacks beliefs about p or that one has false beliefs about p (even if it is clear exactly which proposition p is). Also, not knowing how to ride a bike does not seem to come with certain intellectual virtues or vices.

The same is true for objectual ignorance: if I am not familiar with the smell of fresh raspberries, that does not imply any false beliefs or absence of beliefs, nor does it come with intellectual virtues or vices. Objectual and procedural ignorance seem to be sui generis kinds of ignorance.

The following definition does capture these three varieties of ignorance—one that, for obvious reasons, I will call the ‘threefold synthesis’:

Threefold Synthesis: Ignorance is an epistemic agent’s lack of propositional knowledge or lack of true belief, lack of objectual knowledge, or lack of procedural knowledge.[9]

Of course, each of the four versions of the El Kassar Synthesis could be revised so as to accommodate this. As we shall see below, though, we have good reason to formulate the Threefold Synthesis independently from the El Kassar Synthesis.

The Agential and Structural Conceptions of Ignorance

According to El Kassar, there is a second conception of ignorance, not captured in the conception of propositional ignorance but captured in the conception of agential ignorance, namely ignorance as an actively upheld false outlook. This conception has, understandably, been particularly influential in the epistemology of race. Charles Mills, whose contributions to this field have been seminal, defines such ignorance as the absence of beliefs, false belief, or a set of false beliefs, brought about by various factors, such as people’s whiteness in the case of white people, that leads to a variety of behavior, such as avoiding evidence.[10] El Kassar suggests that José Medina, who has also contributed much to this field, defends a conception along these lines as well.[11]

The way Charles Mills phrases things suggests a natural interpretation of such ignorance, though. It is this: ignorance is the lack of belief, false beliefs, or various false beliefs (all captured by the conception of propositional ignorance), brought about or caused by a variety of factors. What these factors are will differ from case to case: people’s whiteness, people’s social power and status, people’s being Western, people’s being male, and people’s being heterosexual.

But this means that the agential conception is not a conception of the nature of ignorance. It grants the nature of ignorance as conceived of by the conception of propositional ignorance spelled out above and then, for obvious reasons, goes on to focus on those cases in which such ignorance has particular causes, namely the kinds of factors I just mentioned.[12]

Remarkably, much of what El Kassar herself says supports this interpretation. For example, she says: “Medina picks out a kind of ignorance, active ignorance, that is fed by epistemic vices – in particular, arrogance, laziness and closed-mindedness.” (p. 3; italics are mine) This seems entirely right to me: the epistemology of race focuses on ignorance with specific, contingent features that are crucially relevant for the debate in that field: (i) it is actively upheld, (ii) it is often, but not always, disbelieving ignorance, (iii) it is fed by epistemic vices, etc.

This is of course all perfectly compatible with the Standard or New Views on Ignorance. Most people’s ignorance of the fact that Antarctica is the largest desert on earth is a clear case of ignorance, but one that is not at all relevant to the epistemology of race.

Unsurprisingly then, even though it clearly is a case of ignorance, it does not meet any of the other, contingent criteria that are so pivotal in critical race theory: (i) it is not actively upheld, (ii) it is deep ignorance rather than disbelieving ignorance (most people have never considered this statement about Antarctica), (iii) it is normally not in any way fed by epistemic vices, such as closed-mindedness, laziness, intellectual arrogance, or dogmatism.

That this is a more plausible way of understanding the nature of ignorance and its accidental features can be seen by considering what is widely regarded as the opposite of ignorance: knowledge. According to most philosophers, to know a particular proposition p is to believe a true proposition p on the basis of some kind of justification in a non-lucky (in some sense of the word) way. That is what it is to know something, that is the nature of knowledge.

But in various cases, knowledge can have all sorts of accidental properties: it can be sought and found or one can stumble upon it, it may be the result of the exercise of intellectual virtue or it may be pretty much automatic (such as in the case of my knowledge that I exist), it may be morally good to know that thing or it may be morally bad (as in the case of a privacy violation), it may be based primarily on the exercise of one’s own cognitive capacities or primarily on those of other people (in some cases of testimony), and so on. If this is the case, then it is only natural to think that the same applies to the opposite of knowledge, namely ignorance, and that we should, therefore, clearly distinguish between its nature and its accidental (sometimes crucially important) features:

The nature of ignorance

Ignorance is the lack of propositional knowledge / the lack of true belief, or the lack of objectual knowledge, or the lack of procedural knowledge.[13]

Accidental, context-dependent features of ignorance

Willful or unintentional;

Individual or collective;

Small-scale (individual propositions) or large-scale (whole themes, topics, areas of life);

Brought about by external factors, such as the government, institutions, or socially accepted frameworks, or internal factors, such as one’s own intellectual vices, background assumptions, or hermeneutic paradigms;

And so on.

According to El Kassar, an advantage of her position is that it tells us how one is ignorant (p. 7). However, an account of, say, knowledge, also need not tell us how a particular person in specific circumstances knows something.[14] Perceptual knowledge is crucially important in our lives, and so is knowledge based on memory, moral knowledge (if there is such a thing), and so on.

It is surely no defect in all the many accounts of knowledge, such as externalism, internalism, reliabilism, internalist externalism, proper functionalism, deontologism, or even knowledge-first epistemology, that they do not tell us how a particular person in specific circumstances knows something. They were never meant to do that.

Clearly, mutatis mutandis, the same point applies to the structural conception of ignorance that plays an important role in agnotology. Agnotology is the field that studies how various institutional structures and mechanisms can intentionally keep people ignorant or make them ignorant or create different kinds of doubt. The ignorance about the effects of smoking brought about and intentionally maintained by the tobacco industry is a well-known example.

Again, the natural interpretation is to say that people are ignorant because they lack propositional knowledge or true belief, they lack objectual knowledge, or they lack procedural knowledge. And they do so because – and this is what agnotology focuses on – it is intentionally brought about or maintained by various institutions, agencies, governments, mechanisms, and so on. Understandably, the field is more interested in studying those accidental features of ignorance than in studying its nature.

Objections and Replies

Before we draw a conclusion, let us consider El Kassar’s objections to a position along the lines I have suggested.[15] First, she suggests that we lose a lot if we reject the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance. We lose such things as: ignorance as a bad practice, the role of epistemic agency, the fact that much ignorance is strategic, and so on. I reply that, fortunately, we do not: those are highly important, but contingent features of ignorance: some cases of ignorance have them, others do not. This leaves plenty of room to study such contingent features of ignorance in critical race theory and agnotology.[16]

Second, she suggests that this account would exclude highly important kinds of ignorance, such as ignorance deliberately constructed by companies. I reply that it does not: it just says that its being deliberately constructed by, say, pharmaceutical companies, is an accidental or contingent feature and that it is not part of the nature of ignorance.

Third, Roget’s Thesaurus, for example, lists knowledge as only one of the antonyms of ignorance. Other options are cognizance, understanding, competence, cultivation, education, experience, intelligence, literacy, talent, and wisdom. I reply that we can make sense of this on my alternative, threefold synthesis: competence, cultivation, education, intelligence, and so on, all come with knowledge and true belief and remove certain kinds of ignorance. Thus, it makes perfect sense that these are mentioned as antonyms of ignorance.

Finally, one may wonder whether my alternative conception enables us to distinguish between Hannah and Kate, as described by El Kassar. Hannah is deeply and willingly ignorant about the high emissions of both carbon and sulfur dioxides of cruise ships (I recently found out that a single cruise trip has roughly the same amount of emission as seven million cars in an average year combined). Kate is much more open-minded, but has simply never considered the issue in any detail.

She is in a state of suspending ignorance regarding the emission of cruise ships. I reply that they are both ignorant, at least propositionally ignorant, but that their ignorance has different, contingent features: Hannah’s ignorance is deep ignorance, Kate’s ignorance is suspending ignorance, Hannah’s ignorance is willing or intentional, Kate’s ignorance is not. These are among the contingent features of ignorance; both are ignorant and, therefore, meet the criteria that I laid out for the nature of ignorance.

The Nature and Accidental Features of Ignorance

I conclude that ignorance is the lack of propositional knowledge or true belief, the lack of objectual knowledge, or the lack of procedural knowledge. That is the nature of ignorance: each case meets this threefold disjunctive criterion. I also conclude that ignorance has a wide variety of accidental or contingent features. Various fields have drawn attention to these accidental or contingent features because they matter crucially in certain debates in those fields. It is not surprising then that the focus in mainstream epistemology is on the nature of ignorance, whereas the focus in agnotology, epistemology of race, feminist epistemology, and various other debates is on those context-dependent features of ignorance.

This is not at all to say that the nature of ignorance is more important than its accidental features. Contingent, context-dependent features of something may be significantly more important. For example, it may well be the case that we have the parents that we have essentially; that we would be someone else if we had different biological parents. If so, that is part of our nature or essence.

And yet, certain contingent and accidental features may matter more to us, such as whether or not our partner loves us. Let us not confuse the nature of something with the accidental features of it that we value or disvalue. If we get this distinction straight, there is no principled reason not to accept the threefold synthesis that I have suggested in this paper as a plausible alternative to El Kassar’s synthesis.[17]

Contact details:


Driver, Julia. (1989). “The Virtues of Ignorance,” The Journal of Philosophy 86.7, 373-384.

El Kassar, Nadja. (2018). “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance”, Social Epistemology, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1518498.

Le Morvan, Pierre. (2011). “On Ignorance: A Reply to Peels”, Philosophia 39.2, 335-344.

Medina, José. (2013). The Epistemology of Resistance (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Mills, Charles. (2015). “Global White Ignorance”, in M. Gross and L. McGoey (eds.), Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies (London: Routledge), 217-227.

Nottelmann, Nikolaj. (2015). “Ignorance”, in Robert Audi (ed.), Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Peels, Rik. (2010). “What Is Ignorance?”, Philosophia 38, 57-67.

Peels, Rik. (2014). “What Kind of Ignorance Excuses? Two Neglected Issues”, The Philosophical Quarterly 64 (256), 478–496.

Peels, Rik, ed. 2017. Perspectives on Ignorance from Moral and Social Philosophy (New York: Routledge).

Peels, Rik. (2019). “Asserting Ignorance”, in Sanford C. Goldberg (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Assertion (Oxford: Oxford University Press), forthcoming.

Peels, Rik, and Martijn Blaauw, eds. (2016). The Epistemic Dimensions of Ignorance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Russell, Bertrand. (1980). The Problems of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Schwitzgebel, Eric. (2002). “A Phenomenal, Dispositional Account of Belief”, Noûs 36.2, 249-275.

[1] El Kassar 2018, 7.

[2] El Kassar 2018, 7.

[3] E.g. Schwitzgebel 2002.

[4] Julia driver (1989) has argued that certain moral virtues, such as modesty, imply some kind of ignorance. However, moral virtues are different from epistemic virtues and the suggestion that something implies ignorance is different from the idea that something manifests ignorance.

[5] See Le Morvan 2011. See also various essays in Peels and Blaauw 2016; Peels 2017.

[6] See Peels 2010; 2014; 2019. See also various essays in Peels and Blaauw 2016; Peels 2017.

[7] See Russell 1980, 3.

[8] See Nottelmann 2015.

[9] If the Standard View on Ignorance is correct, then one could simply replace this with: Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in lack of (propositional, objectual, or procedural) knowledge.

[10] See Mills 2015, 217.

[11] See Medina 2013.

[12] El Kassar in her paper mentions Anne Meylan’s suggestion on this point. Anne Meylan has suggested – and confirmed to me in personal correspondence – that we ought to distinguish between the state of being ignorant (which is nicely captured by the Standard View or the New View) and the action or failure to act that induced that state of ignorance (that the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance refer to), such as absence of inquiry or a sloppy way of dealing with evidence. I fully agree with Anne Meylan’s distinction on this point and, as I argue in more detail below, taking this distinction into account can lead to a significantly improved account of ignorance.

[13] The disjunction is meant to be inclusive.

[15] See pp. 4-5 of her paper.

[16] As Anne Meylan has pointed out to me in correspondence, it is generally true that doxastic states are not as such morally bad; whether or not they are depends on their contingent, extrinsic features.

[17] For their helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper, I would like to thank Thirza Lagewaard, Anne Meylan, and Nadja El Kassar.

Author Information: Jeff Kochan, University of Konstanz,

Kochan, Jeff. “Disassembling the System: A Reply to Paolo Palladino and Adam Riggio.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 29-38.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Image by tackyshack via Flickr / Creative Commons


Here concludes a symposium on the latest book by Jeff Kochan, Science as Social Existence. You can find each of the articles in the series in this list:

Kochan, Jeff. “Suppressed Subjectivity and Truncated Tradition: A Reply to Pablo Schyfter.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 15-21.

Riggio, Adam. “The Very Being of a Conceptual Scheme: Disciplinary and Conceptual Critiques.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 53-59.

Palladino, Paolo. “Heidegger Today: On Jeff Kochan’s Science and Social Existence.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 41-46.

Schyfter, Pablo. “Inaccurate Ambitions and Missing Methodologies: Thoughts on Jeff Kochan and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 8-14.

Kochan, Jeff. “On the Sociology of Subjectivity.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 39-41.

Sassower, Raphael. “Heidegger and the Sociologists: A Forced Marriage?.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 30-32.

• • •

This essay brings to a formal close SERRC’s review symposium on my book Science as Social Existence: Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (Open Book Publishers, 2017). All told, four reviewers stepped forward: Raphael Sassower (2018); Pablo Schyfter (2018); Paolo Palladino (2018); and Adam Riggio (2018); listed here in the order in which their reviews have appeared. My thanks to them for their thoughtful and often spirited engagement with my book.

I have already responded to Sassower and Schyfter separately (Kochan 2018a & 2018b), so my main task here will be to respond to Palladino and Riggio. My thanks go, as well, to Eric Kerr, who has organised this symposium.

Why Bother Being Epochal?

I coulda been a contender!

I coulda been somebody…

– Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (1954)

This symposium was kicked off last May by Raphael Sassower (2018). Six months out, Adam Riggio has now brought up the rear, rounding out the reviewers’ side by crystallising Sassower’s initial criticism of Science as Social Existence into two words: ‘Why bother?’ (Riggio 2018, 53).

As a question directed at me – ‘Why bother writing Science as Social Existence?’ – the answer is easy: because I felt like it. It was a joy (in a weirdly afflicted way) to write the book, and a joy to see it published. That the SERRC books editor then offered to organise a book symposium was a wonderful surprise, outstripping my expectations.

On the other hand, as a question directed at potential readers – ‘Why bother reading Science as Social Existence?’ – the answer is more difficult to give, because, at the end of the day, it is not mine to give. I am sure that, had I tried to predict and pursue the fashions of the academic marketplace, I would have ended up feeling miserable. By my reckoning, it was better to write from a place of joy, and give a few readers the best of what I have, than to chase popular demand, and deliver something fashionable but personally hollow. Luckily, my wonderful publisher is not in the business of making money.

It is fortuitous that one symposiast, Paolo Palladino, has already answered the second question for me. After summarising his appreciation for several aspects of Science as Social Existence, Palladino concludes: ‘All this seems to me a wholly satisfactory answer to Sassower’s question’ (Palladino 2018, 43).

Predictably, some tough guys will scoff at joy. Either because they already have so much they cannot see the need for more, or because they have so little they cannot abide seeing it in others. Riggio has shared with us his insights about disciplinarity, culled from his ‘decade of work as a professional-level philosopher’ (Riggio 2018, 54). My own experience suggests that academia could use more joy. ‘Why bother?’ is really a bureaucrat’s question, asked by hiring, funding, and promotions committees. Perhaps better questions could be asked.

Presumably Riggio would not begrudge me my joy, but his interests do lie elsewhere. He wants me to be ‘epochal’ (Riggio 2018, 58). According to him, had I not allegedly hobbled myself with disciplinarity, then, ‘[i]nstead of writing about Martin Heidegger and David Bloor, he [being me] could have written something with the potential to leave him [being me] mentioned in the same breath as such epochal thinkers. He could have become epochal himself. […] How about next time, Jeff?’ (Riggio 2018, 58). Wow. That is quite flattering … I guess. But my answer is: ‘no thanks.’ Not this time, and not the next time either.

But no worries. There is a lot of beautiful space between the dizzying heights of epochaldom and a one-way ticket to Palookaville.


Who Will Bother to Read Science as Social Existence?

Yes, who will bother to read my book? It is still too early to tell, with the data sample still quite small. As far as SERRC goes, the sample is exactly four. Let us start with the first reviewer: why did Sassower read Science as Social Existence? I must admit that I am already stumped. Nevertheless, Sassower’s review sparked the symposium that has now followed, and I am warmly grateful to him for that.

The second reviewer is Pablo Schyfter. Why did Schyfter read Science as Social Existence? Here the reasons seem more easily accessible, and Riggio’s reflections on disciplinarity can help us to draw them out.

Riggio finds it frustrating that I organised my book as a constructive dialogue between two academic disciplines: Heidegger Studies; and Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK). He laments ‘how vulnerable this makes him [being me] to academic attacks’ (Riggio 2018, 53). He offers Sassower’ review as a case in point.

But Riggio might just as well have offered Schyfter’s review. As I note in my response to the latter, Schyfter fashions himself as SSK’s disciplinary gate-keeper, and he tries to paint me as an attempted gate-crasher (Kochan 2018b). His self-appointed goal is to protect the purity of SSK against my perceived infiltration from without. But Schyfter fails to realise that I am already well within the gates, because the boundaries of the discipline are much less precise than he would like us to believe.

This is a point Riggio also fails to realise, and so my separate response to Schyfter may also serve as a response to Riggio’s similar criticisms in respect of my presentation of SSK.

The third reviewer is Palladino, and the why-question has already been answered. He read Science as Social Existence because he thought it was interesting: ‘I hope to have conveyed how much I enjoyed thinking about the questions Science as Social Existence poses’ (Palladino 2018, 46). Naturally, I am warmly grateful to Palladino as well.

Reviewer number four is Riggio. Why did he read it? He appears to equivocate.

Why All this Bother about Disciplinarity?

On the one hand, Riggio seems to have read the book because it interested him. He starts by saying that Science as Social Existence offers a ‘constructive dialogue’ between Heidegger and SSK, that ‘[t]his open-minded approach to problem solving remains sadly rare in academic culture,’ and that ‘such a trans-disciplinary philosophical project is worthwhile and valuable’ (Riggio 2018, 53). Later, he calls my combination of Heidegger and SSK ‘a very valuable experiment,’ as well as ‘brilliantly insightful in how philosophically challenging and creative it is’ (Riggio 2018, 57).

Sorry for laying that on so thick, but it is fun to repeat such stuff. Yet, that is then as far as it goes. Instead of developing one or more of these positive points, Riggio spends the rest of his time focussing on what he perceives to be the negative consequences of my choice to work at a disciplinary level. As we have seen, Riggio laments how vulnerable this allegedly makes me to ‘attacks’ from the likes of Sassower and Schyfter. Apparently he hopes to protect me from such perceived aggression.

I appreciate Riggio’s concern, but I think I have done a good enough job on my own of defending myself against Sassower and Schyfter. I would have rather Riggio had developed his positive points, no doubt also delivering some excellent criticism along the way. For example, he could have helped to make my ostensibly ‘open-minded approach to problem solving’ less rare by more substantially engaging with it and encouraging others to adopt the same approach. I could have benefited from his advice, and I reckon others could have too.

In my view, one of the biggest tragedies of the periodic disciplinary dogmatism one encounters in academia is that it often drives creative minds into a kind of extra-disciplinary exile. And I know how lonely it can be out there. Yet, rather than trying to pull me out there with him, I would have preferred it if Riggio had joined me in here where there is no end of action, not to mention loads of intellectual resources. It helps to keep one’s elbows up, for sure, and certainly also to have engaged and well-positioned allies like Palladino, who is, he emphasises, not invested in ‘disciplinary purity’ (Palladino 2018, 41).

Let me make a final, more proximal point before I close this section. One key goal of Science as Social Existence is to defend the Edinburgh School’s ‘Strong Programme’ in SSK by removing the School’s vulnerability to sceptical attack (see also Kochan 2018b). Riffing off Riggio, I can now conjecture that the Edinburgh School’s vulnerability arises, in part, from their open-minded approach to problem solving, more specifically, their mixing together of two disciplines: sociology and philosophy.

Yet, the Edinburgh School experiences friction between their philosophical and sociological interests, in the form of a sceptical attack. My diagnosis: they tried to mix sociology with the wrong kind of philosophy. They might have gone for Heideggerian phenomenology. By easing them in this direction, I relieve them of their vulnerability.

Hence I do for the Edinburgh School what Riggio thinks I should have done for Science as Social Existence. I release them from the disciplinary friction which led to their vulnerability. However, I do this, not by urging them to abandon disciplinarity altogether, but by nudging them onto a different disciplinary ground. Moreover, I could do this only by embracing the very disciplinarity that Riggio suggests I abandon, that is, only by digging down into the methodological and conceptual clockwork of Heidegger and SSK.

Oh, Bother! – The Conceptual System Returns

One thing I try to do in Science as Social Existence, especially in Chapter 7, is to turn methodological attention away from systems and towards subjects. Palladino correctly identifies this as having been motivated by my discontent with ‘perspectives that have increasingly come to dominate science and technology studies’ (Palladino 2018, 45). Indeed, in Chapters 2 and 3, I discuss how these perspectives have often sought to reverse the gains made by earlier SSK practitioners.

My argument is that, by emphasising systems over subjects, contemporary theorists have often suppressed subjectivity as a fundamental explanatory resource. They shift attention from subjects to systems. The emphasis is usually then put on systems of practice, but it could also be on systems of concepts. Either way, the system is primary, the subject secondary.

Palladino agrees with me that the system should not be viewed as more important than the subject (Palladino 2018, 46). Yet, in contrast to me, he sees subject and system as equally primary, as fundamentally co-constitutive. Palladino grounds this difference between us in my alleged equation of subjectivity with Being. He, on the other hand, equates subjectivity with Becoming, with a ‘performative operation’ (Palladino 2018, 45).

I am less inclined to draw such a sharp distinction between Being and Becoming. In my view, Becoming presupposes Being, because Becoming is a change-of-state in Being, in something that already is, that already exists. In Science as Social Existence, I write: ‘Grammatically, the phrase “the meaning of being” is similar in structure to the phrase “the thrill of a lifetime.” […] A lifetime is a historical-existential space wherein thrills can happen. Likewise, being is a historical-existential space wherein meaning can happen,’ that is, a space wherein meaning can come into being, where it can become (Kochan 2017, 54).

The subject, construed as being-in-the-world, is a historical-existential space wherein one finds possibilities for Becoming. Palladino’s ‘performative operation’ presupposes a performer, just as the concept of practice presupposes a practitioner. What or who a subject is – its meaning or significance – is the result of practice, but that a subject is – its existence – is not. A subject may experience itself as an unintelligible tangle of perceptions – as does, perhaps, a newborn baby – slowly acquiring meaning as it stumbles through a world shared with others, actualising or being actualised in accordance with the existential possibilities of its Being (cf. Kochan 2017, 145ff.; see also Kochan 2015a).

A system of practices or of concepts thus presupposes a subjectivity that does the practicing or the conceptualising. Since, following Heidegger, subjectivity is not just being-in-the-world, but also being-with-others, it is a necessarily plural phenomenon. Combined with Heidegger’s account of the subject, SSK thus becomes (necessarily but not sufficiently) the sociological study of scientific subjectivity in relation to the world. The primary explanatory resource is now the community of historically interacting subjects, along with the material resources they enrol in those interactions.

The system-centred theorist reifies this inter-subjectivity, turning it into a system, scheme, or network with an agency of its own. The subject is thus subordinated to the power of the system. Combining insights from SSK pioneers Barry Barnes and David Bloor, I argue, instead, that ‘the system does not carry us along, we carry it along. We are compelled by the system only insofar as we, collectively, compel one another’ (Kochan 2017, 374).

Herein lies the nub of my problem with Riggio’s apparently uncritical use of such terms as ‘discipline’ and ‘conceptual scheme.’ In Science as Social Existence, I introduce Heidegger’s existential conception of science as his alternative to the, in his day, dominant account of science as a conceptual scheme (Kochan 2017, 59). In other words, Heidegger attempts to de-reify – to deconstruct – science construed as a conceptual scheme, arguing instead that science is, at its base, an existential phenomenon produced by interacting subjects in the world.

This is how I view Riggio’s ‘disciplines.’ They are no more than historical communities of individuals interacting with one another in the world. The vulnerability Riggio sees in my disciplinarity is not vulnerability to the impersonal power of a system, but to discrete and concrete individuals who, for whatever reason, feel the need to attack. When one is attacked by an amorphous and impersonal ‘system,’ one may feel overwhelmed and powerless. When one is attacked by one or more fragile fellow humans, the odds look decidedly different.

Those who profit from their social situation will often be invested in the status quo. One effective way for them to protect their investment is to reify their situation, painting it as an impersonal system, in the hands of no one in particular. They thus protect their profits, while obscuring their responsibility. This is why, on the penultimate page of Science as Social Existence, I cite Baudelaire, characterising the system-centred theorist as ‘a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito’ (Kochan 2017, 379).

A Regrettable Absence and Two Allegedly Missed Alternatives

For some readers, the preceding section will have brought to mind Michel Foucault. Palladino regrets that I say (almost) nothing about Foucault (Palladino 2018, 45). I regret it too. While writing Science as Social Existence, I was sharply aware of Foucault’s potential relevance, but I felt that I was already juggling enough. This is not an excuse, but an admission of weakness. The absence is indeed regrettable.

I have, however, criticised Foucault elsewhere (Kochan 2015b). Or have I? What I criticised was what Edward Said labels an ‘overblown’ and ‘extreme’ use of Foucault (Said 2000/1982, 213). My most immediate concern was Ian Hacking, who is arguably allied with the system-centred theorists I take on in Science as Social Existence. Hence, the ‘overblown’ interpretation of Foucault appears to be a tool of my opponents. But perhaps there is another interpretation of Foucault, one that could better serve me? I will leave that for someone else to decide.

My research is now taking me in a different direction. Perspicaciously, Palladino has intuited something of that direction. He takes Sassower’s ‘possibly accidental’ mention of Spinoza, and suggests that a ‘Spinozist monadology’ may offer an alternative approach to some of the topics I address in Science as Social Existence (Palladino 2018, 44). Yet one accident follows another: for it was Leibniz, not Spinoza, who introduced a monadology. This wrinkle is, however, an opportune one, as it gives me an excuse to discuss both Spinoza and Leibniz.

Leibniz attempted to solve the problem of mind-body (or subject-object) interaction by arguing for a ‘pre-established harmony’ between the two. The law-governed actions of mind and body track one another in a way preordained by God (Monadology §78 [Leibniz 1965, 161]). This pre-ordination takes the shape of a rational plan, a ‘sealed blueprint’ (A Vindication of God’s Justice §82 [Leibniz 1965, 133]). Leibniz imagined God as an artisan who stands outside the world, guiding its interior operations according to a rational and universal plan.

Spinoza, in contrast, viewed God as immanent in nature. For him, there is nothing external to nature (Ethics I, P18 [Spinoza 1994, 100]). The problem of mind-body interaction is solved because ‘the thinking substance and the extended [i.e., bodily] substance are one and the same’ (Ethics II, P7 [Spinoza 1994, 119]). Yet, for Spinoza natural events are also rationally and universally ordered: ‘the laws and rules of Nature, according to which all things happen, […] are always and everywhere the same’ (Ethics III, preface [Spinoza 1994, 153]). Here too, then, the world is governed by a rational and universal measure, but one implemented from within rather than from without.

Both Leibniz and Spinoza seem to have viewed nature as a unified whole, a dynamic totality underpinned by a core set of logically consistent principles, a rational plan. They were therefore modern thinkers à la lettre. Insofar as Heidegger sought an alternative to modern rationalism, his two modernist predecessors would seem to offer, not different alternatives, but a retreat back into modernity. Yet this may be too quick.

For Heidegger, the rationalistic impulse to grasp the world as a whole, as a ‘world picture,’ a ‘basic blueprint,’ or a unified set of abstract axioms from which all else can be deduced, was a historically contingent impulse, generated and sustained within a specific cultural tradition. He worried that this impulse, were it to gain global hegemony, could squeeze out other, perhaps humanly vital, existential possibilities present both within and without the broader European legacy.

Heidegger’s own search for alternatives to modernity was decidedly idiosyncratic. In Chapter 7 of Science as Social Existence, I discuss his attempt to reconceptualise the ‘thing’ as a ‘four-fold.’ Heidegger suggested that the thing be seen as a ‘gathering’ of earth, sky, gods, and mortals (Kochan 2017, 368ff.).

Here is where Leibniz and, especially, Spinoza may still be relevant. Heidegger’s four-fold is an attempt to rethink – in non-modern and non-rationalistic terms – the panpsychism often attributed to Leibniz and Spinoza. This is the doctrine that, to one degree or another, mind is always present in body, that, to some extent or other, subjectivity is always present in the object. Hence, panpsychism may promise an alternative to the modern subject-object split.

Yet, for Heidegger, this promise is only a half-measure, because the frame in which panpsychism unites subject and object is a universal, rationalist one. As I read it, the four-fold attempts to dislodge things from this globalising frame. It is more of a recipe than a blueprint. The precise nature of the four ingredients, as well as the proportions by which they are mixed, may vary from one region to the next. Rather than imposing a uniform blueprint on the world, the four-fold embraces a plurality of potential combinations. A can of Coke may be everywhere the same, but each region will have its own daily bread.

Postcolonial STS: A Path Forward or a Dead End?

Palladino is once again perspicacious in suggesting that the route forward in respect of these issues may lie in anthropology (Palladino 2018, 46). For my part, I have been reading Tim Ingold’s phenomenologically inflected work. Ingold draws on Heidegger’s conceptualisation of the thing as a ‘gathering,’ and combines it with insights from the ethnography of animistic Indigenous groups (Ingold 2013, 215). Rejecting 19th-c. European construals of animism – wherein a thing is animated by a spirit that inhabits it – Ingold instead interprets animism as a ‘poetics of life’ (Ingold 2018, 22).

Animism, as Ingold presents it, seems closer to Heidegger’s non-modern phenomenology of existence than it does to Leibniz’s and Spinoza’s modern panpsychism. Palladino notes a connection between this panpsychism and actor-network theory (ANT), currently a dominant position in science and technology studies (STS) (Palladino 2018, 44). It is worth noting, then, that Ingold explicitly opposes his anthropology of life to ANT, especially as represented in the works of Bruno Latour (e.g., Ingold 2013 & 2011).

Ingold argues that animism – as a poetics of life – ‘betters even science in its comprehension of the fullness of existence’ (Ingold 2018, 22). I am less inclined to draw such a clean line between science and animism, in particular, and science and indigenous knowledge, more generally. Indeed, I have begun to explore how scientific and indigenous knowledges may sometimes be combined in ways that can respect and strengthen both (Kochan 2018c & 2015b).

In Chapter 7 of Science as Social Existence, I introduce Heidegger’s distinction between ‘enframing’ and poiēsis as two distinct ways in which things may be experienced (Kochan 2017, 359ff.). These roughly correspond to a modern and a non-modern mode of experience. They also encompass panpsychism and animism, respectively. I argue in Science as Social Existence that a system-centred understanding of experience is one in which things are ‘framed’ according to a universal blueprint. In contrast, poiēsis embraces pluralism, and thus resists the idea that life can be framed as a system, that it can be fully rationalised and reduced to a core set of concepts or practices.

This returns me to Riggio’s ‘conceptual schemes.’ Picking up Heidegger’s concepts of enframing and poiēsis, Riggio treats them both as conceptual systems or ‘frameworks’ (Riggio 2018, 55). As should be clear from the above, I reject this construal. In my view, enframing is a disposition to experience the world as ‘framed.’ Poiēsis, in contrast, refuses this disposition. Ingold’s animism, as a poetics of life, might be viewed as a mode of poiēsis – an existential openness to a world vibrant with life – rather than as a framework or scheme.

Riggio expresses horror at the way Heidegger’s concept of poiēsis, in his only recently published Black Notebooks, ‘guides’ one towards anti-Semitism (Riggio 2018, 56f). I have not read the Black Notebooks, as I have no stomach for still more of Heidegger’s already well-known anti-Semitic opinions and behaviour. But I do wish that Riggio had provided some specific textual evidence and exegesis, because, based on my own understanding of poiēsis, I find it difficult to see how it should ‘guide’ one towards anti-Semitism.

According to Riggio, the Black Notebooks are ‘pro-Indigenous and anti-colonial, but also anti-Semitic in equal intensity’ (Riggio 2018, 57). Since, in Science as Social Existence, I say nothing about Indigenous knowledge or colonialism, it is fortuitous that Riggio independently introduces these topics in his review, thereby allowing a link-up with Palladino’s suggestion that anthropology may offer a way forward. If I have understood him correctly, Riggio worries that poiēsis is a conceptual framework in which pro-Indigenous and anti-Semitic sentiments are logically inseparable.

Since I do not think that poiēsis is a conceptual framework, I do not feel the force of Riggio’s worry. However, if he were right, then the obvious response would be to reject poiēsis as a tool for Indigenous Studies. This would hardly be a tragedy, since Heidegger has never been an authoritative figure in that field anyway. In any case, the best source for learning about Indigenous peoples is Indigenous people (e.g., Battiste & Henderson 2000; Cajete 2000; Smith 2012; and a book recommended by Riggio, with which I am not yet familiar, Simpson 2017).

But perhaps Riggio worries more deeply that, quite independently of the concept of poiēsis, Indigenous Studies may entail anti-Semitism? If this were true, then the consequences would be profound not just for students of Indigenous culture, but, more importantly, for Indigenous peoples themselves. More particularly, but less importantly, it would be a serious blow to those, like myself, who currently work in the emerging field of postcolonial STS (e.g., Harding 2011).

But we have now moved well beyond the boundaries of Science as Social Existence. It is a testament to the vital intelligence of my fellow symposiasts that the discussion has stretched much further than the book itself, touching also on broader, often more important, issues. Once again, I thank Raphael Sassower, Pablo Schyfter, Paolo Palladino and Adam Riggio for their vigorous engagement with Science as Social Existence. To those readers who have followed our conversation, my heartfelt thanks as well.

Contact details:


Battiste, Marie and James (Sa’ke’j) Youngblood Henderson (2000). Protecting Indigenous Knowledge and Heritage: A Global Challenge (Saskatoon: Purich Publishing).

Cajete, Gregory (2000). Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence (Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers).

Harding, Sandra (2011). The Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies Reader (Durham NC: Duke University Press).

Ingold, Tim (2018). Anthropology: Why It Matters (Cambridge UK: Polity Press).

Ingold, Tim (2013). ‘Anthropology Beyond Humanity’ (Edward Westermarck Memorial Lecture). Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 38(3): 2-23.

Ingold, Tim (2011). ‘When ANT meets SPIDER: Social Theory for Arthropods.’ In Carl Knappett & Lanbros Malafouris (eds.), Material Agency: Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Approach (New York: Springer), pp. 209-215.

Kochan, Jeff (2018a). ‘On the Sociology of Subjectivity: A Reply to Raphael Sassower.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(5): 39-41.

Kochan, Jeff (2018b). ‘Supressed Subjectivity and Truncated Tradition: A Reply to Pablo Schyfter.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(12): 15-21.

Kochan, Jeff (2018c). ‘Decolonising Science in Canada: A Work in Progress.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(11): 42-47.

Kochan, Jeff (2017). Science as Social Existence: Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (Cambridge UK: Open Book Publishers).

Kochan, Jeff (2015a). ‘Putting a Spin on Circulating Reference, or How to Rediscover the Scientific Subject.’ Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 49: 103-107.

Kochan, Jeff (2015b). ‘Objective Styles in Northern Field Science.’ Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 52: 1-12.

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm von (1965). Monadology and Other Philosophical Essays, trans. Paul Schrecker and Anne Martin Schrecker (New York: Macmillan).

Palladino, Paolo (2018). ‘Heidegger Today: On Jeff Kochan’s Science and Social Existence.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(8): 41-46.

Riggio, Adam (2018). ‘The Very Being of a Conceptual Scheme.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(11): 53-59.

Said, Edward (2000/1982). ‘Travelling Theory.’ In M. Bayoumi and A. Rubin (eds.), The Edward Said Reader (New York: Vintage Books), pp. 195-217.

Sassower, Raphael (2018). ‘Heidegger and the Sociologists: A Forced Marriage?’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(5): 30-32.

Schyfter, Pablo (2018). ‘Inaccurate Ambitions and Missing Methodologies: Thoughts on Jeff Kochan and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(8): 8-14.

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake (2017). As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai (2012). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, second edition (London: Zed Books).

Spinoza, Benedict de (1994). A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works, ed. and trans. Edwin Curley (Princeton: Princeton University Press).


Author Information: Jonathan Matheson & Valerie Joly Chock, University of North Florida,

Matheson, Jonathan; Valerie Joly Chock. “Knowledge and Entailment: A Review of Jessica Brown’s Fallibilism: Evidence and Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 55-58.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Photo by JBColorado via Flickr / Creative Commons


Jessica Brown’s Fallibilism is an exemplary piece of analytic philosophy. In it, Brown engages a number of significant debates in contemporary epistemology with the aim of making a case for fallibilism about knowledge. The book is divided into two halves. In the first half (ch. 1-4), Brown raises a number of challenges to infallibilism. In the second half (ch. 5-8), Brown responds to challenges to fallibilism. Brown’s overall argument is that since fallibilism is more intuitively plausible than infallibilism, and since it fares no worse in terms of responding to the main objections, we should endorse fallibilism.

What Is Fallibilism?

In the introductory chapter, Brown distinguishes between fallibilism and infallibilism. According to her, infallibilism is the claim that one knows that p only if one’s evidence entails p, whereas fallibilism denies this. Brown settles on this definition after having examined some motivation and objections to other plausible definitions of infallibilism. With these definitions in hand, the chapter turns to examine some motivation for fallibilism and infallibilism.

Brown then argues that infallibilists face a trilemma: skepticism, shifty views of knowledge, or generous accounts of knowledge. Put differently, infallibilists must either reject that we know a great deal of what we think we know (since our evidence rarely seems to entail what we take ourselves to know), embrace a view about knowledge where the standards for knowledge, or knowledge ascriptions, vary with context, or include states of the world as part of our evidence. Brown notes that her focus is on non-skeptical infallibilist accounts, and explains why she restricts her attention in the remainder of the book to infallibilist views with generous conception of evidence.

In chapter 2, Brown lays the groundwork for her argument against infallibilism by demonstrating some commitments of non-skeptical infallibilists. In order to avoid skepticism, infallibilists must show that we have evidence that entails what we know. In order to do so, they must commit to certain claims regarding the nature of evidence and evidential support.

Brown argues that non-factive accounts of evidence are not suitable for defending infallibilism, and that infallibilists must embrace an externalist, factive account of evidence on which knowing that p is sufficient for p to be part of one’s evidence. That is, infallibilists need to endorse Factivity (p is evidence only if p is true) and the Sufficiency of knowledge for evidence (if one knows that p, then p is part of one’s evidence).

However, Brown argues, this is insufficient for infallibilists to avoid skepticism in cases of knowledge by testimony, inference to the best explanation, and enumerative induction. In addition, infallibilists are committed to the claim that if one knows p, then p is part of one’s evidence for p (the Sufficiency of knowledge for self-support thesis).

Sufficiency of Knowledge to Support Itself

Chapter 3 examines the Sufficiency of knowledge for self-support in more detail. Brown begins by examining how the infallibilist may motivate this thesis by appealing to a probabilistic account of evidential support. If probability raisers are evidence, then there is some reason to think that every proposition is evidence for itself.

The main problem for the thesis surrounds the infelicity of citing p as evidence for p. In the bulk of the chapter, Brown examines how the infallibilist may account for this infelicity by appealing to pragmatic explanations, conversational norms, or an error theory. Finding each of these explanations insufficient to explain the infelicity here, Brown concludes that the infallibilist’s commitment to the Sufficiency of knowledge for self-support thesis is indeed problematic.

Brown takes on the infallibilists’ conception of evidence in Chapter 4. As mentioned above, the infallibilist is committed to a factive account of evidence, where knowledge suffices for evidence. The central problem here is that such an account has it that intuitively equally justified agents (one in a good case and one in a bad case) are not in fact equally justified.

Brown then examines the ‘excuse maneuver’, which claims that the subject in the bad case is unjustified yet blameless in their belief, and the original intuition confuses these assessments. The excuse maneuver relies on the claim that knowledge is the norm of belief. Brown argues that the knowledge norm fails to provide comparative evaluations of epistemic positions where subjects are intuitively more or less justified, and fails to give an adequate account of propositional justification when the target proposition is not believed. In addition, Brown argues that extant accounts of what would provide the subject in the bad case with an excuse are all insufficient.

In Chapter 5 the book turns to defending fallibilism. The first challenge to fallibilism that Brown examines concerns closure. Fallibilism presents a threat to multi-premise closure since one could meet the threshold for knowledge regarding each individual premise, yet fail to meet it regarding the conclusion. Brown argues that giving up on closure is no cost to fallibilists since closure ought to be rejected on independent grounds having to do with defeat.

A subject can know the premises and deduce the conclusion from them, yet have a defeater (undercutting or rebutting) that prevents the subject from knowing the conclusion. Brown then defends such defeat counterexamples to closure from a number of recent objections to the very notion of defeat.

Chapter 6 focuses on undermining defeat and recent challenges that come to it from ‘level-splitting’ views. According to level-splitting views, rational akrasia is possible—i.e., it is possible to be rational in simultaneously believing both p and that your evidence does not support p. Brown argues that level-splitting views face problems when applied to theoretical and practical reasoning. She then examines and rejects attempts to respond to these objections to level-splitting views.

Brown considers objections to fallibilism from practical reasoning and the infelicity of concessive knowledge attributions in Chapter 7. She argues that these challenges are not limited to fallibilism but that they also present a problem for infallibilism. In particular, Brown examines how (fallibilist or infallibilist) non-skeptical views have difficulty accommodating the knowledge norm for practical reasoning (KNPR) in high-stakes cases.

She considers two possible responses: to reject KNPR or to maintain KNPR by means of explain-away maneuvers. Brown claims that one’s response is related to the notion of probability one takes as relevant to practical reasoning. According to her, fallibilists and infallibilists tend to respond differently to the challenge from practical reasoning because they adopt different views of probability.

However, Brown argues, both responses to the challenge are in principle available to each because it is compatible with their positions to adopt the alternative view of probability. Thus, Brown concludes that practical reasoning and concessive knowledge attributions do not provide reasons to prefer infallibilism over fallibilism, or vice versa.

Keen Focus, Insightful Eyes

Fallibilism is an exemplary piece of analytic philosophy. Brown is characteristically clear and accessible throughout. This book will be very much enjoyed by anyone interested in epistemology. Brown makes significant contributions to contemporary debates, making this a must read for anyone engaged in these epistemological issues. It is difficult to find much to resist in this book.

The arguments do not overstep and the central thesis is both narrow and modest. It’s worth emphasizing here that Brown does not argue that fallibilism is preferable to infallibilism tout court, but only that it is preferable to a very particular kind of infallibilism: non-skeptical, non-shifty infallibilism.  So, while the arguments are quite strong, the target is more narrow.

One of the central arguments against fallibilism that Brown considers concerns closure. While she distinguishes multi-premise closure from single-premise closure, the problems for fallibilism concern only the former, which she formulates as follows:

Necessarily, if S knows p1-n, competently deduces, and thereby comes to believe q, while retaining her knowledge of p1-n throughout, then S knows q. (101)

The fallibilist threshold condition is that knowledge that p requires that the probability of p on one’s evidence be greater than some threshold less than 1. This threshold condition generates counterexamples to multiple-premise closure in which S fails to know a proposition entailed by other propositions she knows. Where S’s evidence for each premise gives them a probability that meets the threshold, S knows each of the premises.

If together these premises entail q, then S knows premises p1-n that jointly entail conclusion q. The problem is that S knowing the premises in this way is compatible with the probability of the conclusion on S’s evidence not meeting the threshold. Thus, this presents possibility for counterexamples to closure and a problem for fallibilism.

As the argument goes, fallibilists must deny closure and this is a significant cost. Brown’s reply is to soften the consequence of denying closure by arguing that it is implausible due to alternative (and independent) reasons concerning defeat. Brown’s idea is that closure gives no reason to reject fallibilism, or favor infallibilism, given that defeat rules out closure in a way that is independent of the fallibilism-infallibilism debate.

After laying out her response, Brown moves on to consider and reply to objections concerning the legitimacy of defeat itself. She ultimately focuses on defending defeat against such objections and ignores other responses that may be available to fallibilists when dealing with this problem. Brown, though, is perhaps a little too quick to give up on closure.

Consider the following alternative framing of closure:

If S knows [p and p entails q] and believes q as the result of a competent deduction from that knowledge, then S knows q.

So understood, when there are multiple premises, closure only applies when the subject knows the conjunction of the premises and that the premises entail the conclusion. Framing closure in this way avoids the threshold problem (since the conjunction must be known). If S knows the conjunction and believes q (as the result of competent deduction), then S’s belief that q cannot be false. This is the case because the truth of p entailing q, coupled with the truth of p itself, guarantees that q is true. This framing of closure, then, eliminates the considered counterexamples.

Framing closure in this way not only avoids the threshold problem, but plausibly avoids the defeat problem as well. Regarding undercutting defeat, it is at least much harder to see how S can know that p entails q while possessing such a defeater. Regarding rebutting defeat, it is implausible that S would retain knowledge of the conjunction if S possesses a rebutting defeater.

However, none of this is a real problem for Brown’s argument. It simply seems that she has ignored some possible lines of response open to the fallibilist that allows the fallibilist to keep some principle in the neighborhood of closure, which is an intuitive advantage.

Contact details:


Brown, Jessica. Fallibilism: Evidence and Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Author Information: Patrick J. Reider, University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg,

Normative Functionalism and the Pittsburgh School: Table of Contents

Reider, Patrick J. 2012. “Sellars on Perception, Science, and Realism: A Critical Response.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (1): 39-56.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:


In this article, I explain the manner in which Sellars’ version of realism is undermined by his Kantian commitments and his normative functionalism. After providing an account of the perceptual and scientific models that support his realism, I argue for the following: Sellars’ perceptual/cognitive models do not permit sufficient perceptual and conceptual access to warrant a version of realism predicated upon our ability to know mind-independent existence. In other words, Sellars’ Kantian commitments, his norm-driven view of concepts, and his norm-guided view of reason place severe limits on one’s access to mind-independent reality. Consequently, when one strictly holds Sellars to these limits, he cannot show (or significantly support) the manner in which knowledge of mind-independent existence is possible.

1.1 Introduction

In what manner does Sellars believe perceptual knowledge is possible in light of his normative functionalist views? For instance, if 1) the meaning of words can be partly or fully reduced to the function they play in a language, 2) norms mediate and/or determine these functions, and 3) the manner in which perception unfolds is shaped by these norms (all of which are important aspects of normative functionalism), then in what sense does Sellars believe we can have objective empirical knowledge? This is an important question to ask, as it reveals the manner in which Sellars believes science, as a discipline founded upon empirical observation, can lead to knowledge of mind-independent existence.

In order to answer the above questions, we need to understand Sellars’ account of perception. One of his most complete accounts of perception, as it concerns his peculiar brand of realism, can be found in Science and Metaphysics: Variations on Kantian Themes.[1] Given the norm-driven account of Sellars’ views on meaning and the foreknowledge that Sellars is a realist, one might expect (and believe he needs) a view of perception that un-problematically supports realism. Instead, Sellars surprisingly makes numerous Kantian commitments that are central to his perceptual model — commitments which are historically interpreted as counter to realism. For example, take the following five Kantian commitments that Sellars adheres to in Science and Metaphysics (and throughout all of his later career): 1) neither sensibility (in itself) nor conceptuality (in itself) are capable of providing knowledge of the thing-in-itself, 2) without a pre-existing conceptual framework, no knowledge of empirical content is possible, 3) we are not directly aware of sensations, 4) in order to recognize empirical content, as facts or states of affairs, a judgment is required, and 5) in order to relate concepts to sensory content, via a judgment, the mind must first synthesize sensory content into coherent units of time and space.[2]

The above views are surprising for a realist to embrace, because they play a central role in Kant’s claim that the thing-in-itself (an entity’s true existence independent of how a person’s mind may contingently experience, believe, or feel about it) is unknowable. Despite Sellars’ Kantian commitments, he believes that “the gulf between appearances and things-in-themselves, though a genuine one, can in principle be bridged” (50). In what follows, I will first explain the manner in which Sellars believes this is possible. I then argue that his perceptual views do not support or allow the type of realist conclusion he draws from them. Continue Reading…