What criterion for knowledge?

by Massimo Pigliucci

There is a problem in epistemology—the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge—that has been raised more than two millennia ago and just doesn’t seem to go away. Here is how the problem, in a nutshell, is rendered by Andrew Cling in his contribution to the edited collection Skepticism—From Antiquity to Present: To know a proposition, we must first know a criterion of truth. To know a criterion of truth, we must first know a proposition. Therefore we cannot know any proposition or any criterion of truth.

To put it differently, the so-called problem of the criterion comes about because (i) whatever answer we give to the question “what do we know about X?” presupposes an answer to the underlying question “how do we know about X?” But (ii) we cannot answer the second question without answering the first one. Which means we can’t really answer either. Ergo, (iii) we don’t know crap, unless we are willing to (iv) engage in circular reasoning in which a proposition is justified by a second proposition, which is then justified by a third one, and so on, until we encounter a proposition that can only be justified by a previous one; or (v) we are okay with an infinite series of justifications, in which the first proposition is justified by a second one, which is justified by a third one, and so on and so forth, forever. … (continue at Substack)

Published by Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at platofootnote.org and howtobeastoic.org. He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

9 thoughts on “What criterion for knowledge?

    1. Peter, Quine is clearly a coherentist. And in a sense, so am I. But Quine understood that coherentism and the concept of a web of beliefs is the best we can do, not an answer to the skeptical challenge.


  1. And in a sense, so am I

    What sense would that be?

    the best we can do, not an answer to the skeptical challenge

    Yes, that is a practical, if it works, go with it answer.


    1. The “sense” in which I am a coherentist is that I apply the notion to empirical matters, not just theoretical ones. Some think that coherentism only works for math and logic, not science. I’m with Quine, it works also for science. Indeed, the three are linked together in our broadest web of beliefs.


    1. I shudder as well. Especially because of the link to “quiet quitting.” Philosophical school: nihilism? Hedonism? Hedo-nihilism? (I made the latter up.)


  2. Hedo-nihilism? (I made the latter up.)

    Yes, that is it. You have just identified a new species (Massimo Minimalus?).
    It has been flying under the radar for a while. Then those keen observers of human nature(they used to be observers of news), the BBC, gave it their imprimatur. But their conservative, stodgy background still shows. They called it “soft-girls”. Now that is what I call exlusionary, discriminatory terminology. “soft-they-them-their” would have been more up to date and less harmful.

    Unless of course the entire article is an elaborate exercise in irony. Yes, I think that is what it is. The title is a dead give-away. The best irony is undetectable to all except the most insightful. Bonus points if the author is unaware of the irony. The finest irony is so good that even the author is taken in by his own irony.

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