Hilary Kornblith interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Hilary Kornblith is the jiving naturalising epistemologist who takes issue with both armchair and non-armchair philosophers because he thinks all they’re doing is fighting over how to do conceptual analysis. He thinks philosophy is wonderful, is concerned about epistemic normativity, goes deep with internalist vs externalist positions in epistemology and asks whether internalism can be saved, thinks about knowledge but not the concept of knowledge and believes he’s making headway, thinks animals have beliefs and knowledge like ours, thinks knowledge is a natural kind but philosophy isn’t and all in all is taking epistemology into a very funky post-gettier territory that makes him the very coolio-daddio of top cats. Smokin’.
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? Has it turned out to be what you imagined?
Hilary Kornblith: When I was in high school, I read a lot of existentialist novels and plays – Dostoevsky, Camus, Sartre – and I went on from there to read Nietzsche and some of Sartre’s essays and Being and Nothingness. When I got to college, I planned to be a math major, and, in addition to signing up for some math courses, I decided to take some philosophy. Quite by chance, I took a philosophy of science course in which the entire semester was devoted to reading Locke’s Essay. I was hooked. For the next few semesters, I took nothing but philosophy and math courses, and it wasn’t long before I realised that it was the philosophy that really moved me. I don’t know whether I can say that having a career in philosophy has turned out as I imagined, since in many ways I had little idea of what such a life would be like. But philosophy is still tremendously exciting to me, and the opportunity to think, and talk, and write about these issues has been wonderful.
3:AM: You’re a naturalistic epistemologist, and I guess that makes us think you’re some sort of Quinean, so perhaps we should begin by you telling us what you take naturalistic epistemology to mean. Is its attraction for you largely motivated by the feeling that a lot of a priori epistemology is a dead end (which the X-phi movement tends to think), or do you think there is still a place for armchair philosophising ?
HK: When I first began studying philosophy, a good deal of what went on in analytic epistemology was focused on addressing the Gettier problem. At first, I became quite caught up in it, and the kind of analytical ingenuity required for the work appealed to me. After a while, however, I started to lose interest. What I hankered for was an account of knowledge which would do far more than get our intuitions about cases right; I wanted a kind of account which would somehow be explanatory. Work on causal theories of knowledge – early work by Armstrong, and Dretske, and Goldman – seemed far more satisfying. As I started to see the ways in which work in the cognitive sciences could inform our understanding of central epistemological issues, my whole idea of what the philosophical enterprise is all about began to change. Quine certainly played a role here, as did Putnam’s (pre-1975) work in philosophy of science, and the exciting developments that went on in that time in philosophy of mind. It started becoming clear to me how one might have views about the nature of mind and of knowledge which are empirically informed. This way of thinking about philosophical theorizing makes sense of how philosophy might be a legitimate intellectual activity, in a way that a good deal of the armchair philosophy, I believe, cannot. The kind of approach I take is different from much of experimental philosophy. Although the experimental philosophers and I are certainly in agreement about the relevance of empirical work to philosophy, a good deal of their work is devoted to understanding features of our folk concepts, and in this respect, at least, I see them as making the same mistake as those armchair philosophers who are interested in conceptual analysis. The experimentalists think that we can only get at our concepts by way of empirical investigation, while the armchair philosophers think that we can skip the experiments and figure things out from our armchairs. What they have in common, however, is regarding our concepts as the targets of philosophical theorising, and I just don’t think that, in the vast majority of cases, the subject matter of philosophy has our concepts as its target. Epistemologists should be concerned with knowledge and justification and so on, not our concepts of them; philosophers of mind should be concerned with various features of our mental life and the large-scale structure of the mind, not our concepts of mind, or consciousness, or anything else. The role of empirical work in informing our philosophical theories, as I see it, is not that it gives us a better view of our folk concepts, but that it gives us a better view of knowledge, and the mind, and so on.
3:AM: One of the questions you set out to answer is what kinds of creatures must we be to know about the world, isn’t it? Is the answer you give a kind of Darwinean one which says: we must be creatures who can know the world because we survive, which indicates that somehow we dovetail the structure of our knowledge with that of the world, or do you agree with people like Stephen Stich that survival can’t guarantee anything like as much as that?
HK: I do agree with Stich that a quick move from our evolutionary origins to the reliability of our cognitive mechanisms is not legitimate. As I see it, the case for the reliability or unreliability of various cognitive mechanisms lies elsewhere. The fact that we have been able to develop a successful science, which issues in ever more accurate predictions and broader explanations, is the real ground for confidence that we are in a position to gain knowledge of the world around us. At the same time, one might ask how it is that the cognitive equipment we have came about, and here, no doubt, our evolutionary origins are relevant. If one’s interest is not in some global question about the possibility of knowledge, but about some particular mechanism or inferential tendency, this fact about our evolutionary origin is of no use at all in addressing questions about reliability. Here, there is simply no substitute for the kind of work that experimental psychologists do, work which shows some mechanisms to be quite reliable, and others to be quite unreliable.
3:AM: You think a lot about the sources of epistemic normativity, don’t you? Why not just drop the issue on the grounds that it’s a problem carried over from a non-naturalistic approach?
HK: I am concerned about epistemic normativity, and I don’t think that it is just a hangover from a priori and armchair approaches. Some ways of forming beliefs are better than others, and epistemologists of all stripes, I believe, have a legitimate interest in addressing the issue of what makes some of these ways better than others. Here too, I believe, that empirically informed approaches to the question have issued in more illuminating answers than the old armchair approaches. But I think that it would be a terrible mistake to give up on addressing normative questions in epistemology.
3:AM: If naturalistic vs non-naturalistic epistemology is a large issue, another major focus of work in epistemology in modern times has been the division between internalism and externalism. Like naturalism, externalism is understood in several different ways. Can a precise account be given of what it is at the moment? How do you understand it?
HK: Internalist approaches to epistemology, I believe, have a great deal of intuitive appeal. Internalists believe that the features in virtue of which a belief is justified must somehow be internal to the agent. On some views, this amounts to the claim that these features must be accessible to introspection and armchair reflection. On others, it amounts only to the claim that they must be mental features. Externalists reject any such view. I think that the idea that we can tell, simply by way of reflection, whether our beliefs are justified, is deeply commonsensical. More than that, the idea that responsible epistemic agents ought to reflect on their beliefs, and hold them only if they somehow pass muster, is utterly natural. When one points out, as epistemologists tend to do, that unreflectively arrived at belief may be unreliable, it seems just irresponsible not to engage in some sort of monitoring of one’s beliefs to assure that they are properly arrived at, or supported by the evidence, or some such thing. Here, as in so many other cases, however, it turns out that a very commonsensical idea looks far less attractive when one examines some of the experimental work which is not available to us from the armchair. The idea that we should check on our unreflective belief acquisition sounds great, but we need to know whether the processes of reflection which we put to work serves to improve our reliability or not. The worry that unreflective belief acquisition may be unreliable, after all, applies equally to reflective belief acquisition: it too may be unreliable. To my mind, the plausibility of internalist views about justification is dramatically decreased when one becomes vividly aware of what introspection and reflection actually achieve.
3:AM: Is the externalist throwing aside all the internalist epistemology of Kant and Descartes? You once asked: can internalism be saved? Can it?
HK: I do think that an understanding of contemporary work in the cognitive sciences has a profound effect on how one views the workings of the mind. It doesn’t work the way we pretheoretically think it does. Such an understanding, of course, should have a large effect on one’s views in philosophy of mind, but also in epistemology. The great philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries did not think that epistemological questions floated free of questions about how the mind works. Those philosophers took a stand on all sorts of questions which nowadays we would classify as questions of psychology, and their views about psychological questions shaped their views about epistemology, as well they should have. But these philosophers were not in a position to understand the mind as well as we can today, since the advent of experimental methods in psychology. It shows no disrespect for the brilliance of Descartes or Kant to acknowledge that the psychology which they worked with was primitive by comparison with what is available today in the cognitive sciences, any more than it shows disrespect for the brilliance of Aristotle to acknowledge that the physics he worked with does not compare with that of Newton or Einstein. So I do, of course, reject much that is central not only to the psychology of Descartes and Kant, but to their epistemology as well. No doubt, the best available theories of today will look primitive in comparison with what we are in a position to understand hundreds of years from now. What we need to do, however, is figure out what our best available theories of the mind suggest about epistemological issues, while we recognise that we may need to change our views on these questions as new evidence comes in.
3:AM: You say that epistemology must not examine the concept of knowledge and in saying this you’re making a radical move, aren’t you? You concede that there are natural and attractive reasons for doing conceptual analysis so why, as a naturalist, are you ignoring them? Is this because there is no room for intuitions in naturalistic epistemology?
HK: I am quite wedded to the view that epistemologists should concern themselves with knowledge rather than our concept of knowledge. The analogy I like to draw here is with our understanding of (other) natural kinds. Chemists in earlier centuries were quite interested in the nature of acids. They had no interest in analysing their concept of acid. After all, they knew that their understanding of acids was at a fairly primitive level, and what they wanted to do was understand something about the world better — the nature of acidity — not something about their own concepts. One of the goals of scientific theorising is to develop concepts which are adequate to the phenomena under study. In my view, things should work the same way in epistemology. We want to know what knowledge actually amounts to, not what our folk concept of knowledge is, since, just as with our pretheoretical concept of acidity, it might contain all sorts of misunderstandings and leave out all manner of important things. I think that when I first suggested the idea that knowledge should be viewed as a natural kind, many people thought this was just crazy. I was often asked how one could even make sense of this. Isn’t the category of knowledge something that we project upon the world, rather than something that we discover in it? I think I have made some headway in addressing these questions, however, and succeeded in explaining how it is that the category of knowledge might play an important role in empirical theories. To the extent that talk of knowledge can be shown to play an explanatory role in such theories, the analogy I wish to make with paradigm natural kinds such as acids and aluminum starts to make a good deal of sense. This is, of course, connected with the issue of the role of intuitions in philosophy. No one would suggest that we can adequately investigate what makes something an acid, or what makes something aluminum, by bringing our pretheoretical intuitions about these things into reflective equilibrium by way of armchair theorising. In my view, since the case can be made that knowledge too is a natural kind, the role of pretheoretical intuitions is similarly diminished in epistemology.
3:AM: Why is George Bealer wrong to think that naturalistic epistemology is self-defeating?
HK: Bealer has a number of reasons for thinking that a naturalistic epistemology is self-undermining. Let me focus on one of these. (I’ve tried to take on all of them in the first chapter of Knowledge and Its Place in Nature.) Bealer argues that the kind of naturalistic view which Quine holds will rob him of the ability to make the normative claims which (many) naturalists wish to make in epistemology. I don’t think this is right about Quine, but I’m certain it’s not right about my own view. To the extent that I can show that talk of knowledge is firmly rooted within empirical theories where it plays an important explanatory role, I thereby demonstrate its naturalistic credentials. But there is no doubt that my own views on this are, in quite a number of ways, very different from those of Quine.
3:AM: I guess the surprise move you make is that you say that knowledge is a ‘natural kind’ don’t you? Can you explain your idea here?
HK: What I argue is that talk of knowledge plays an important role in theories within cognitive ethology. The idea is this. First, one sees cognitive ethologists arguing that we need to attribute propositional attitudes to some animals in order to explain the sophistication of their cognitive achievements. Talk of belief in these animals is not some kind of anthropomorphism. We simply cannot explain the kinds of problem solving and behavioral sophistication some species exhibit without supposing that they have genuine beliefs. But once these ethologists finish making the case for animal belief, they quickly move to talk of animal knowledge as well. What I argue is that this is not a mere façon de parler. Rather, although belief may be adequate for explaining the behavior of individual animals — an animal which believes that p will behave no differently from an animal which knows that p—talk of knowledge is necessary once one begins to look at explaining the cognitive capacities of a species. The various processes of belief acquisition which are native to a species include ones which may allow for the reliable pick-up of information, which, in turn, allows individual members of the species to successfully negotiate their environment and satisfy their various desires. Ethologists thus have an interest in looking at these capacities for the reliable acquisition of belief, and it is not surprising that they have a name for the true beliefs which are the typical product of these reliable capacities. They call them items of knowledge. So I argue that talk of knowledge may thereby be seen to be embedded within a successful empirical theory.
3:AM: Are you making a link between non-human animal knowledge as a natural kind and human-science knowledge as a natural kind? This raises the issue of whether animal knowledge is like human knowledge in a relevant enough sense to make this link. On the face of it, it seems a bit of a leap, and some philosophers argue that we don’t need to impute knowledge to animals to explain their behaviours. Also, the science-knowledge of humans seems too far from non-science knowledge of humans to count as a natural kind. So what’s your push-back? How do you defend your view?
HK: I agree that these are important issues. First, on the question of whether we really do need to attribute belief and knowledge to other animals, I largely defer to the cognitive ethologists. I believe that the arguments that they make on this score are extremely persuasive. More than this, I do think as well that a priori objections by philosophers to successful research programs in the sciences have a very bad track record. The fact that these scientific theories have a fine track record of successful prediction and explanation speaks for itself. (Which is not to say that I don’t directly discuss the work of those philosophers who would disagree.) But even if we grant this, I think you are quite right that many will argue that scientific knowledge in humans, and, indeed, reflective knowledge in general, is quite different in kind from the knowledge we see in other animals. I have discussed these issues in my latest book, On Reflection. Just very briefly, what I argue is that philosophers have had a tendency to present a kind of mystical view of the powers of reflection. Unreflective belief acquisition is seen in mechanistic terms, but when philosophers talk about reflection, it is as if reflective processes are not bound by the kinds of limitations which inevitably arise from being embedded within the same causal structure which governs unreflective belief acquisition. When we recognise that reflective processes are no more outside the causal net than unreflective processes, and that they are bound by similar constraints, we may come to understand the nature of reflection for the first time. When reflection is thereby demystified, I believe that the temptation to view human knowledge as different in kind from animal knowledge is undermined.
3:AM: Now ‘natural kinds’ are usually presented in metaphysical terms and have a pedigree going back to Aristotle don’t they? Isn’t Naturalism about giving us reasons for distrusting the intuitions and sacrilising norms etc that are typically used by the metaphysicians? Isn’t this a problem for your account?
HK: I do realise that talk of natural kinds dates back to Aristotle, but I’d better not say too much about ancient philosophers lest I be convicted of practicing history of philosophy without a license. My own reasons for favouring talk of natural kinds is just that I believe the best accounts of the success of scientific theories presupposes the existence of natural kinds. If we want to make sense of the possibility of successful inductive inference, and if we want to explain the possibility of laws of nature, we will need to appeal to something like natural kinds. This is, to be sure, a metaphysical commitment, but it is a metaphysical commitment that is implicit in science, as I see it.
3:AM: If knowledge is a natural kind, then are you not committed to something like teleology in nature, where the goal of the cognitive systems of human animals (and maybe non-human animals too) is knowledge? And are other goals such as pleasure or practicality also candidates for natural kinds? Or is knowledge an exclusive natural kind for humans?
HK: I do think that it is legitimate to talk of goals and functions in nature, and that these things can be made sense of in naturalistic terms. There is nothing at all contrary to naturalism in the idea of goal-directed systems. I am certainly open to the idea that this might be used to explain other philosophical categories besides knowledge. I have some real sympathy with the work of those moral realists who have tried to give naturalistic accounts of human flourishing, and who offer accounts of right action in such terms. (I suppose this is more evidence that I really do have deep affinities with Aristotle!) The kinds of claims I make about knowledge are thus meant to be illustrative of a general argumentative strategy which might well bear fruit in areas of philosophy which I have not thus far explored.
3:AM: You take a reliabilist view of truth, don’t you? But isn’t reliability a property of processes and so at best only an indicative extrinsic value, whereas truth is an intrinsic property of beliefs? I guess the question is: what is truth for the naturalistic epistemologist, and how can a reliabilist account carve out a natural kind?
HK: I wish I had more to say about truth. I’ve always been attracted to some version of the correspondence theory, but I don’t have anything original to add here.
3:AM: What is the status of philosophical truths arising from naturalistic epistemology? It might look like what we have is a sort of cognitive ethology, and so there’s really nothing for philosophy to contribute. But you reject this, don’t you? So how does the separate contribution of philosophy survive the naturalist approach to epistemology, or does philosophy get absorbed? As you asked in one of your papers: is philosophical knowledge possible?
HK: There is a worry that many have expressed that, on the naturalistic way of approaching philosophical questions, philosophy will somehow be co-opted by science. I’m not much worried about this. For one thing, I think that there are questions which philosophers raise which, although science bears on them, are not typically the central focus of those who work in the sciences. At the same time, I don’t have a view of philosophy which marks it out as different in kind from scientific work. For example, when I think about discussions at the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, a group which includes not only philosophers and psychologists, but also computer scientists and linguists, it is noteworthy that one can’t always tell just from the content of particular contributions from the audience, whether a given questioner is a philosopher or an empirical scientist. It’s not just that there is a cooperative spirit of investigation there, where we all recognise that we are engaged in a common project of inquiry. It’s also that the philosophers are well-versed in the relevant empirical data, and the scientists are well-versed in the more abstract issues which are typically the central focus of philosophical work. No one worries terribly much about who the questions belong to, or whether a given contribution is really philosophy or, instead, properly nothing but science. Perhaps another way to put this is that, although I think that knowledge is a natural kind, I don’t think that philosophy is.
3:AM: You’re currently been thinking about the stand off between naturalism and the first-person perspective. So what is this, and who wins?
HK: There has certainly been a great deal of work addressing the relationship between naturalism and the first-person perspective. Quite a number of philosophers have suggested that there are features of the first-person perspective that naturalism just cannot accommodate, whether it be qualitative character, or consciousness, or simply the ability we have to think of ourselves in a distinctively first-person manner. These are interesting issues, but the work I’ve done here takes a different tack. In my view, philosophers have shown a great deal more respect for the first-person point of view than it deserves. There’s a lot of empirical work on the various psychological mechanisms by way of which the first-person point of view is produced, and, when we understand this, I believe, we can stop romanticising and mythologising the first-person perspective. By putting the first-person point of view in a naturalistic perspective, I believe that we may genuinely come to understand it for the first time.
3:AM: And finally, for the budding naturalised epistemologists here at 3:AM, which five books (apart from your own which we’ll be reading straight after this) could you recommend we read to get further into this philosophical mindfield?
HK: The papers of Alvin Goldman which he has collected in Liaisons: Philosophy Meets the Cognitive and Social Sciences have been tremendously important to my philosophical development. I think that anyone who wants to understand what is going on in epistemology today could profit by reading these papers. Ernest Sosa’s A Virtue Epistemology: Apt Belief and Reflective Knowledge, Volume I, takes an approach which is quite different from my own, but Sosa and I are interested in many of the same phenomena, and this is deeply interesting work. Peter Carruthers’s recent book, The Opacity of Mind: An Integrative Theory of Self-Knowledge, beautifully illustrates the kind of naturalistic approach to the first-person perspective which I favour. Timothy Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious does a wonderful job of presenting an overview of work in social psychology for a lay audience, while, at the same time, giving references to the professional literature for those who wish to pursue the topic further. And, finally, Daniel Kahneman’srecent Thinking Fast and Slow is another work for a lay audience which presents work in psychology on what Sosa speaks of as reflective and animal knowledge in ways which provide an excellent beginner’s introduction to the experimental literature.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 29th, 2013.