Alston, William P. (1921–)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


William P. Alston, an American philosopher, was born in Shreveport, Louisiana. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago (1951), and has taught at the University of Michigan (19491971), Rutgers University (19711976), the University of Illinois (19761980), and Syracuse University (19802000). Alston is a past president of the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association, the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and the Society of Christian Philosophers as well as the founding editor of both The Journal of Philosophical Research and Faith and Philosophy. He is best known for his work in epistemology, the philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and the philosophy of language.

Alston made his early reputation in Philosophy of Language (1964), where he rejects the verifiability criterion of meaning and referential theories, and argues that the meaning of a sentence consists in its illocutionary act potential. He defends this view in his recent Illocutionary Acts and Sentence Meaning (2000), emphasizing the normative character of illocutionary acts. To illustrate, in uttering "Eat all of your vegetables," Trudy performs the illocutionary act of ordering the hearer to eat all of his vegetables only if she takes responsibility for the satisfaction of certain conditions, including: the hearer has some vegetables, it is possible for him to eat them, and Trudy has authority over him. So, Trudy performs the aforementioned illocutionary act only if she renders herself liable to censure in case these conditions are not satisfiedonly if, Alston argues, she subjects her utterance to an illocutionary rule. Alston endorses a "Use Theory of Meaning," according to which a sentence's having a particular meaning consists in its being usable to play a particular role in communication. Because it is a sentence's illocutionary act potential that enables it to play this role, the meaning of a sentence consists in its usability to perform illocutionary acts of a particular type (in its being subject to a particular illocutionary rule).

Alston is also one of the leading proponents of realism about truth. In A Realist Conception of Truth (1996), he argues for alethic realism, the view that (1) truth is important and (2) a proposition is true if and only if what it claims to be the case is the case. Accordingly, the proposition that snow is white is true if and only if snow is white. Nothing else is necessary for the truth of that proposition. In opposition to epistemic conceptions of truth, a person need not be justified (rational, warranted) in believing that snow is white, nor must it be the case that she or he would be justified in believing it in ideal epistemic circumstances. Snow must simply be white. This is a minimalistbut not a deflationistaccount of the concept of truth because the property of truth may have features that go beyond this concept. Consequently, Alston's realist conception of truth is consistent with the correspondence theory, but does not entail it. His conception of truth is also consistent with different types of metaphysical antirealism, including idealism and Hilary Putnam's conceptual relativism. In A Sensible Metaphysical Realism (2001), Alston defends his own version of metaphysical realism, according to which large and important stretches of reality do not depend on conceptual schemes for their existence.

Alston's early work in the philosophy of religion, much of which is collected in Divine Nature and Human Language (1989), focuses on the nature and properties of God, the literal application of predicates (e.g. "knowing") to God, and divine action. While Alston's views on philosophical theology are crucial contributions to the field, his most pioneering work is thought to be Perceiving God (1991), in which he develops a "doxastic practice" approach to the epistemology of religious experience. He argues that putative experiences of God can provide prima facie justification for beliefs about God. This is because mystical perception (MP), in which beliefs about a religiously construed ultimate reality are based directly on putative experiences of it, is a basic doxastic practicea family of socially established belief-forming dispositions or mechanisms. MP (which includes Christian mystical perception [CMP], Hindu mystical perception, etc.) is analogous to sense perceptionthe basic practice of forming perceptual beliefs about the physical environment on the basis of sensory experience. Alston argues here, and in The Reliability of Sense Perception (1993), that any attempt to show that basic doxastic practices are reliable will be infected with epistemic circularity. Still, it is practically rational to suppose that CMP is reliable, and hence that the beliefs it generates are prima facie justified. It is also rational for practitioners of CMP, and practitioners of other forms of MP, to continue to engage in their respective practices.

Alston has had a striking impact on epistemology. His early work is devoted to defending fallibilist foundationalism, delineating and evaluating different concepts of epistemic justification, and advocating an account of justification that combines a core externalism with minimal accessibility to grounds. Rejecting perspectival internalism and higher-level requirements, Alston distinguishes between the activity of showing that a belief is justified and a belief's being justified. In Epistemic Justification (1989), he argues that a belief's being prima facie justified consists in its being based on an adequate ground that is fairly readily accessible. The ground must be adequateit must actually be sufficiently indicative of the truth of the belief. Because the subject need not have access to, or beliefs about, its adequacy, this is primarily an externalist, reliable-indicator account of justification. It anticipates the externalism of Alston's doxastic practice approach, according to which, for example, the socially established practice of sense perception must simply be reliable in order for a person's perceptual beliefs to be prima facie justified. In his recent work, he defends the Theory of Appearing as a superior alternative to sense-data and adverbial theories of the nature of perception. And, radically, in Beyond "Justification": Dimensions of Epistemic Evaluation (2005), he argues that there is no objective, epistemically crucial property of beliefs picked out by "justified." Consequently, epistemologists should dispense with the debate over justification, and instead investigate a plurality of epistemic desiderata, some of which are salvageable from it.

See also Epistemology; Metaphysics; Philosophy of Language; Philosophy of Religion.


primary works

"Ontological Commitments." Philosophical Studies 9 (1958): 817.

Philosophy of Language. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964.

"The Deontological Conception of Epistemic Justification." In Epistemic Justification: Essays in the Theory of Knowledge. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Divine Nature and Human Language: Essays in Philosophical Theology. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.

The Reliability of Sense Perception. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

A Realist Conception of Truth. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

"Belief, Acceptance, and Religious Faith." In Faith, Freedom, and Rationality: Philosophy of Religion Today, edited by Jeff Jordan and Daniel Howard-Snyder. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996.

"Back to the Theory of Appearing." In Epistemology: Philosophical Perspectives, 13, edited by James Tomberlin. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.

Illocutionary Acts and Sentence Meaning. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.

A Sensible Metaphysical Realism. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2001.

"Doing Epistemology without Justification." Philosophical Topics 29 (2001): 118.

Beyond "Justification": Dimensions of Epistemic Evaluation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005.

secondary works

Battaly, Heather D., and Michael P. Lynch, eds. Perspectives on the Philosophy of William P. Alston. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.

Senor, Thomas D., ed. The Rationality of Belief and the Plurality of Faith: Essays in Honor of William P. Alston. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Heather D. Battaly (2005)