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Epistemology, Circularity in

EPISTEMOLOGY, CIRCULARITY IN

Issues concerning circularity figure prominently in epistemology, finding a place in discussions of topics ranging from the Cartesian circle, to the problem of the criterion, to knowledge of the reliability of ways of forming belief.

Descartes and Cartesian Circles

Issues of circularity arise in the works of René Descartes. In his Meditations, in his search for items of certain knowledge (indubitable items given even the possibility of massive deception), Descartes finds that he is certain that he is a thinking being. But what makes this certain for him? The only explanation he finds is that he clearly and distinctly perceives this fact. Furthermore, he finds that clear and distinct perception could not be the source of such certainty if such perceptions could be false. So, he tentatively concludes, whatever is clearly and distinctly perceived is true. But does he really know this general principle? Could it not be that God has caused him to err even in what he clearly and distinctly perceives? Descartes then sets off to prove that a nondeceiving God necessarily exists.

In pondering the matter, Descartes seems to commit himself to the following two claims: (1) He can be certain that whatever he clearly and distinctly perceives is true only if he is first certain that God exists and is not a deceiver. (2) He can be certain that a nondeceiving God exists only if he is first certain that whatever he clearly and distinctly perceives is true. Accepting both these claims gives rise to the Cartesian circle. The problem is that if both (1) and (2) are true, then one cannot be certain of either the general principle or the view that a nondeceiving God exists. In general, if one must first know A to know B and one must first know B to know A, then it seems that one cannot know either A or B.

A related problem for Descartes concerns his use of his clear and distinct perceptions to support the general principle that whatever he clearly and distinctly perceives is true. To support this principle, he attempts to prove there is a nondeceiving God. Yet in his reasoning, he relies on premises that have no other support than his clear and distinct perceptions. Descartes thus relies on his particular clear and distinct perceptions to prove the general principle that whatever is clearly and distinctly perceived is true. To many critics, this is an epistemically unacceptable procedure. Seeing a similarity, the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid objected that if a man's honesty were called into question, it would be ridiculous to trust his own testimony concerning his honesty. Epistemic circularity consists in using beliefs from source A to support the proposition that source A is reliable. Descartes's use of his clear and distinct perceptions to support the principle that whatever is clearly and distinctly perceived is true exhibits just such circularity. Whether such circularity is vicious is still debated. Below are some late-twentieth-century views on the issue.

Chisholm and the Problem of the Criterion

Another problem of circularity, one made prominent in contemporary epistemology by Roderick Chisholm (1973), is the ancient problem of the diallelus, or wheel. The problem is that to know which particular beliefs are instances of knowledge, one must know some criterion of knowledge. But among the many contenders, which criterion is the right one? To know that some proposed criterion is the right one, one must know that it picks out only instances of knowledge. Thus, to know which criterion is right, one must already know which beliefs are instances of knowledge. Chisholm formulated the problem in terms of a pair of questions: (A) What do we know? What is the extent of our knowledge? (B) How are we to decide whether we know? What are the criteria of knowledge? The problem of the criterion arises insofar as one must know the answer to B before one can answer A, and one must know the answer to A before one can answer B. As in the case of the Cartesian circle, if this is so, then one can answer neither A nor B.

Chisholm identified three responses to these questions: skepticism, methodism, and particularism. The skeptic says that to answer A one must first answer B and to answer B one must first answer A. Therefore, the skeptic concludes, one can answer neither question. One can neither pick out instances of knowledge nor identify a criterion for it. In contrast, the methodist holds that one can answer B first and then answer A. Unlike the skeptic, the methodist believes that he can know a criterion of knowledge. He holds that one must know a criterion of knowledge to know or pick out particular instances of it. Chisholm took the empiricism of Locke and Hume to be forms of methodism. One difficulty with this sort of methodism, according to Chisholm, is that it implies that we know nothing about the external world, other minds, the past, or the future. The third approach, the one favored by Chisholm, is particularism. Unlike the methodist and the skeptic, the particularist holds that one need not know a criterion of knowledge to pick out particular instances of it. The particularist holds that he can answer A and then work out an answer to B. Chisholm took Thomas Reid and G. E. Moore to be particularists. They held that we know pretty much what we ordinarily think we know, and if some philosophical criterion implies that we do not, then so much the worse for that criterion. Thus, if some criterion implies that I do not know that there are other thinking people or that I was alive yesterday, then that criterion must be mistaken.

Recent Discussions of Epistemic Circularity

The problem of epistemic circularity has received much attention in recent epistemology. As noted above, the problem of epistemic circularity arises for Descartes in his use of his clear and distinct perceptions to support the general principle that whatever is clear and distinctly perceived is true. Epistemic circularity also seems to be a feature of attempts to support the reliability of such doxastic sources as memory, sense perception, introspection, intuitive reason, and induction. To support the belief that one of these sources is reliable, one must appeal, it seems, to particular beliefs that issue from that source. For example, it seems that to support the belief that perception is reliable, one must appeal to beliefs produced by perception, and to support the reliability of memory, one must appeal to some memory beliefs. To many philosophers, epistemic circularity seems vicious and epistemically unacceptable. Other philosophers argue that it is not necessarily vicious or unacceptable.

To focus the discussion, consider the following track-record argument for the reliability of sense perception:

At t 1, I formed the perceptual belief that p, and p is true.

At t 2, I formed the perceptual belief that q, and q is true.

At t 3, I formed the perceptual belief that r, and r is true.

And so on.

Therefore, perception is a reliable source of belief.

In this track-record argument for the reliability of perception, one reasons inductively from a wide sampling of perceptual beliefs, notes that the vast majority have been true, and concludes that perception is reliable. But how does one know that the second conjunct in each premise is true? How does one know, for example, that p is true? Let us suppose that it is known on the basis of perception. In this case, one is using perception to support the conclusion that perception is reliable. This makes the track-record argument epistemically circular. But is it therefore vicious or epistemically unacceptable?

A circular argument in which a premise is identical to the conclusion seems epistemically to carry no weight. Consider an argument of the form "p ; q ; r ; therefore p." Arguments exhibiting this sort of circularity seem useless for conferring justification on the conclusion. If, on the one hand, one is not justified in believing the premise that p, then the reasoning does not justify the conclusion that p. If, on the other hand, one is justified in believing the premise that p, then it seems that the conclusion that p is already justified, and the reasoning or argument does not confer any justification on the conclusion that p. A defender of the track-record argument or epistemically circular arguments may concede that arguments of this form are epistemically without weight. He may still point out that the track-record argument above does not have this defect. The conclusion that perception is reliable is not identical with one of the premises, and so the argument is not for that reason unacceptable.

Another criticism of the track-record argument is based on a view about what is required for perceptual knowledge. A critic of the track-record argument might object that perceptual knowledge epistemically depends on one's knowing that perception is reliable. On this view, perceptual beliefs amount to knowledge only in virtue of one's knowing that perception is reliable. Knowledge of the premises of the track-record argument, says the critic, depends on knowledge of the conclusion, that perception is reliable. If this is so, then the premises of the track-record argument do not make the conclusion knowledge. Rather, they derive their positive epistemic status from one's knowing the conclusion. On this view of the nature of perceptual knowledge, a track-record argument would again seem unable to yield knowledge of the conclusion.

In response, one might argue that this objection rests on a mistaken view about the nature of perceptual knowledge. Perceptual knowledge, one might argue, requires that perception be reliable, but it does not depend on one's knowing that perception is reliable. In other words, S 's having perceptual knowledge that p requires that S 's perceptual belief that p be reliably formed, but it does not require that S know either that perception is reliable or that his perceptual belief that p is reliably formed. One might note that young children and brute animals can have much in the way of perceptual knowledge without knowing much about perception. They might even be unable to form the metabelief that perception is reliable. Indeed, one might maintain that perceptual beliefs are instances of immediate knowledge, and that they do not depend for their justification on any other belief.

Alston on Epistemic Circularity

William Alston, who has addressed the issue of epistemic circularity with both subtlety and care, finds that epistemic circularity does not always render an argument useless for justifying or establishing its conclusion. In "A 'Doxastic Practice' Approach to Epistemology," he writes, "Provided I can be justified in certain perceptual beliefs without already being justified in supposing that perception is reliable, I can legitimately use perceptual beliefs in an argument for the reliability of sense perception" (1989, p. 3). Still, Alston himself worries that track-record arguments are not sufficiently discriminating. Part of the worry is that someone with clearly unreliable ways of forming beliefs could produce a track-record argument comparable to the simple track-record argument for perception given above. Imagine a crystal-ball gazer who reasons as follows:

At t 1, I formed the belief that p on the basis of crystal-ball gazing, and p is true.

At t 2, I formed the belief that q on the basis of crystal-ball gazing, and q is true.

At t 3, I formed the belief that r on the basis of crystal-ball gazing, and r is true.

And so on.

Therefore, crystal-ball gazing is a reliable source of belief.

If the gazer is asked how he knows that p is true, he will reply that he knows it on the basis of gazing into his crystal ball. Alston worries that if we allow the use of epistemically circular arguments, then clearly unreliable sources of belief can be supported by such reasoning. In particular, it appears that the gazer's beliefs about the reliability of gazing would then be on a par with our beliefs about the reliability of perception. Alston believes that we need to try a different approach.

He argues that it is rational for us to form beliefs on the basis of certain sources such as perception and memory. The argument goes roughly as follows: (1) Many of our doxastic practices, our ways of forming beliefs, including perception and memory, are firmly established. (2) It does not seem to be in our power easily to avoid forming beliefs on the basis of these practices. (3) Moreover, even if there are alternative ways of forming beliefs, the very same problems of epistemic circularity that beset our attempts to support the reliability of our current practices would also confront these alternatives. (4) Therefore, it is rational for us to continue forming beliefs as we do, such as on the basis of perception and memory. But how does the fact that it is rational to continue to engage in these doxastic practices support the belief that they are reliable? Alston's view is that in taking it to be rational to form beliefs on the basis of our firmly established practices, I "commit" myself to judging that those ways of forming beliefs are reliable. I cannot reasonably judge that it is rational for me to form beliefs in those ways and deny that those ways of forming beliefs are reliable.

Alston's response to the problem of circularity is controversial. Some critics object that Alston's argument from firmly established doxastic practices is itself epistemically circular. Consider the claims that memory and introspection are firmly established practices and that one cannot easily avoid forming such beliefs. That certainly is true. But how does one know that? Clearly, one knows it on the basis of memory and introspection. Again, it does seem rational to form beliefs on the basis of reason. But in arguing that it is rational for one to form beliefs in that way, one must use reason itself. It does not seem, then, that Alston's strategy of appealing to our firmly established doxastic practices avoids epistemic circularity. If the track-record argument is unacceptable because it is epistemically circular, how would Alston's reasoning be any better? Furthermore, Alston worries that some clearly unreliable ways of forming beliefs can be supported if we allow epistemically circular arguments. How, critics object, does appeal to beliefs about firmly established practices help? Could not the gazer look into his crystal ball, form the belief that gazing is firmly established, and construct an argument analogous to Alston's? In short, if one problem with track-record and epistemically circular arguments is that clearly unreliable sources can be supported by them, the same seems true about arguments that appeal to beliefs about what is firmly established.

Sosa on Epistemic Circularity

Ernest Sosa (1994) holds that epistemic circularity is unavoidable if reflection on the reliability of our sources of belief is pushed far enough. In some cases, one might be able to support the belief that one source of beliefs is reliable by appealing to beliefs from another source. But we can always ask how we know that the second source is reliable. At some point, when reflection is pushed far enough, we cannot support the reliability of our sources except by appealing to beliefs that are the output of those sources. But if epistemic circularity is ultimately unavoidable, Sosa denies that it is necessarily vicious. Suppose, says Sosa, that W includes all our ways of forming beliefs, encompassing perception, memory, reasoning, etc. Suppose further (i) that W is reliable, indeed, that in our circumstances and with our nature, it is the most overall reliable way of forming beliefs we could have; (ii) that we are right in our description of W: it is exactly W that we use W in forming beliefs; and (iii) that we believe that W is reliable. Here our belief that W is reliable is formed by means of W and is true. Sosa asks, how could we possibly improve our epistemic situation? Our belief that W is reliable is based on W itself, but Sosa does not see that there is anything epistemically vicious or unacceptable about our belief that W is reliable. Since our belief that W is reliable is formed on the basis of W, we have not avoided epistemic circularity, but in what way does our belief fall short epistemically? Recalling Descartes's initial, tentative reasoning concerning the truth of what he clearly and distinctly perceives, Sosa suggests that we might reason in a similar way for the reliability of other sources. Consider the following reasoning: (1) I know that there is a hand in front of me. (2) The best explanation for this knowledge is that I perceive the fact that there is a hand in front of me. (3) But perception could not be the source of such knowledge if it were generally unreliable. (4) Therefore, perception is not generally unreliable.

Sosa asks what is supposed to be so bad about epistemic circularity. Alston worries that if we allow epistemically circular arguments, then someone could give arguments in favor of their unreliable ways of forming beliefs that are analogous to those we might give in favor of perception and memory. Sosa grants that the crystal-ball gazer, for example, could construct arguments analogous to the track-record argument, and he notes that the gazer might also appeal to his crystal ball and "see" that gazing is a firmly established practice and thus is rationally engaged in. Sosa concedes that the gazer's belief in the reliability of his way of forming beliefs might cohere with his other beliefs and, more generally, that someone could have a coherent, yet false, view about the reliability of his sources. Yet Sosa denies that this fact puts the gazer's beliefs about the reliability of his doxastic practices on a par with our own. The fact that beliefs cohere with one another might provide some degree of epistemic justification, but for Sosa, it is not the only thing relevant to the epistemic status of belief. What makes our view about our doxastic practices epistemically superior is the fact that it was formed on the basis of reliable sources or intellectual virtues. Thus, our beliefs about the reliability of memory, introspection, perception, and reason are epistemically superior to the beliefs of the gazer about crystal-ball gazing in virtue of the fact that our beliefs are based on reliable sources or intellectual virtues, whereas the gazer's are not.

See also Alston, William P.; Belief; Cartesianism; Chisholm, Roderick; Criteriology; Descartes, René; Epistemology, History of; Hume, David; Locke, John; Moore, George Edward; Reid, Thomas; Sosa, Ernest.

Bibliography

Alston, William. "A 'Doxastic Practice' Approach to Epistemology." In Knowledge and Skepticism, edited by Marjorie Clay and Keith Lehrer. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1989.

Alston, William. "Epistemic Circularity." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 47 (1) (1986): 130.

Alston, William. The Reliability of Sense Perception. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Amico, Robert P. The Problem of the Criterion. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1993.

Chisholm, Roderick. The Problem of the Criterion. Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1973.

Cohen, Stewart. "Basic Knowledge and the Problem of Easy Knowledge." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 65 (2) (2002): 309329.

Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy. 3rd ed. Translated by Donald Cress. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1993.

Fumerton, Richard. Metaepistemology and Skepticism. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995.

Reid, Thomas. Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1969. Especially essay 6, chap. 5.

Sosa, Ernest. "Philosophical Scepticism and Epistemic Circularity." Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supp. vol. 68 (1994): 263290.

Sosa, Ernest. "Reflective Knowledge in the Best Circles." Journal of Philosophy 94 (8) (1997): 410430.

Van Cleve, James. "Foundationalism, Epistemic Principles, and the Cartesian Circle." Philosophical Review 88 (1979): 5591.

Van Cleve, James. "Reliability, Justification, and the Problem of Induction." In Causation and Causal Theories. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, no. 9, edited by Peter A. French, Theodore E. Uehling, Jr., and Howard K. Wettstein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Noah M. Lemos (2005)

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