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Basic Knowledge Project

Basic Knowledge (2007-2009)


Funded by the AHRC.

TWiki pages for this project.

The Project Team


Principal Investigator: Crispin Wright.

Co-Investigators: Jessica Brown and Duncan Pritchard (Edinburgh).

Independent Auditor: Stewart Cohen (ASU).

Post-Doctoral Fellows: Dylan Dodd and Elia Zardini.

Other Members: Philip Ebert (Stirling), Jesper Kallestrup (Edinburgh) and Martin Smith.

Project Students: Björn Brodowski, Joshua Clarkson, Paul Dimmock, Federico Luzzi and Daniele Sgaravatti.

The Research Problem


In September 2007, Arché is launching a new five-year project in Epistemology. The project is led by Crispin Wright, in partnership with Jessica Brown and Duncan Pritchard. Major AHRC funding has been secured to support postdoctoral fellowships and PhD studentships for research within the project agenda or on topics closely associated with it. However, at this stage we are also keen to identify prospective postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers who would potentially be interested in applying for their own individual awards from external sources (such as the British Academy and the AHRC) to enable them to join the project. Arché will provide tailored support for the individual funding applications of accepted candidates, who will of course also be eligible for any appointments made possible by the AHRC project award to the Centre.

An outline of the programme of research is given below. This is a guideline only; we welcome feedback and comments and will, naturally, be willing to factor in the research interests of successful applicants as the project progresses.

We are also keen to receive expressions of interest from prospective visiting scholars at senior and intermediate career stages who would welcome an opportunity to spend time at Arché during the period of the project and contribute to its research, and/or to join the international network of scholars who will participate in an associated programme of twice-yearly workshops. Those who have already accepted invitations to participate in the network include Finn Spicer (Bristol), Sven Bernecker (Manchester), Elizabeth Fricker (Oxford), Ralph Wedgwood (Oxford) Christopher Hookway (Sheffield), Bryan Frances (Fordham), Lars Gundersen (Aarhus, Arché Associate Fellow), Sven Rosenkranz (Barcelona, Arché Associate Fellow), Annalisa Coliva (University of Modena), Carrie Jenkins (Nottingham), Martin Davies (Oxford), and James Pryor (NYU).

Enquiries and informal expressions of interest can be sent by email to Arché. Please give details of your current and prospective research interests, and of any external source to which you intend to apply for funding.

Basic Knowledge: Outline of Research Problems and Questions

(a) The overarching problem

Much knowledge is based on reasons. But an old thought says that since reasoning in general needs premises and cannot improve epistemically on their quality, vicious circularity or regress threatens any attempt to so conceive all of our knowledge. This seems to enforce a category of basic knowledge, unsupported by articulable reasons.

This conclusion is independently plausible. Perceptual knowledge, memories, basic psychological self-knowledge, elementary logical, mathematical and modal knowledge — all these, it seems, are characteristically non-inferential. In each case, the phenomenology of belief is normally one of immediacy and spontaneity, with the natural responses to a request for reasons – “I can see it”, “I was there”, “It’s my toothache”, “It’s obvious”, “It couldn’t be otherwise” – usually (though debatably) understood as serving not to supply them but to deny the need.

The project’s goal is to explore in depth a cluster of questions to which these thoughts give rise:

  • Must some of our knowledge be non-inferential?
  • If so, what varieties of such knowledge should be countenanced?
  • What different models of the achievement of such knowledge are possible?

These questions are given urgency by a threat which seems to overshadow basic knowledge. Knowledge, surely, requires forming beliefs in some intellectually responsible fashion, involving (the possibility of) scrutiny of their pedigree. Yet in the case of basic beliefs – where there will be no supporting beliefs – it looks as though there will be nothing to scrutinise. Where reasons give out, so, it seems, does any scope for policing.

Responses have typically either denied the need for scrutiny or rejected the category of basic knowledge. Externalism argues that a reconceived taxonomy of virtuous ways of forming beliefs is needed whereby, without reflective scrutiny, features external to the thinker can determine whether or not a true belief is in good standing. A prima facie drawback of such views is that by putting knowledge beyond a priori (sceptical) refutation, they give rise to a second-order sceptical challenge: if a true belief’s status as knowledge is determined by external circumstances, beyond reflective awareness, how can we justifiably ever lay claim to knowledge?

Is this question unavoidable, or does it merely represent regression to the internalist way of thinking which externalism was meant to surpass? If the former, can externalism find resources to address it, or does it demand a response of a different kind?

Coherentism rejects the idea of basic knowledge; rather, intellectual responsibility can be achieved through possession of beliefs which are mutually supportive. Such views, although widely held to be of questionable stability, have recently been defended by BonJour and Lehrer. A detailed reappraisal of their possibilities is needed if the motivation for positing basic knowledge is to be properly assessed.

(b) The Strategy

Our work will concentrate successively on five key sets of questions whose treatment will inform responses to the overarching concerns.

PHASE 1 will be devoted to the two most important Sceptical Paradoxes. Cartesian scepticism makes destructive play with scenarios of subjectively undetectable cognitive disablement. Humean scepticism argues that there is an implicit vicious circularity in our methods of belief-formation. Our principal concerns will be with

  • the potency of the paradoxes when best formulated (there is a tradition of doubt whether scepticism offers any serious intellectual challenge);
  • the extent to which the paradoxes are vulnerable to the controls on knowledge – counterfactual sensitivity, “safety”, reliability, – proposed by externalist writers such as Nozick, Dretske, and Williamson;
  • the plausibility (and possible generalisations) of the ‘Dogmatist’ view of Pryor, Peacocke and others, that perception can generate knowledge immediately without reflective authority;
  • the possibility of defusing sceptical argument via the idea (DeRose, Lewis and Michael Williams) that the correctness of knowledge ascriptions varies as a function of the context of appraisal.

PHASE 2 will focus on Closure and Transmission of Knowledge across Entailment. Both Dretske and Nozick supposed that the paradoxes essentially rely on closure and noticed that its validity was compromised by their (respective) sensitivity constraints. This false dawn overlooked Humean scepticism (and some of the failures of closure licensed by the Dretske-Nozick approach are anyway independently paradoxical). The debate has left the standing of closure unclear, however. Some (influential) objections confuse it with transmission (see below), but two continuing issues require investigation:

  • The occurrence of cases where powerfully supported true beliefs involving no Gettier-style element cannot amount to knowledge unless closure fails (“Lottery cases”).
  • A range of paradoxes of change of mind, including the so-called “Kripke paradox”, which seem to depend on closure and still have no agreed treatment.

Transmission is stronger than closure, requiring that any recognisably valid argument with knowable premises can provide for inferential knowledge of its conclusion. Simple question-begging creates obvious exceptions. More interesting cases examined in recent writings of Wright, Davies, Brown, Pryor and others, include:

  • Moore’s “proof” of an external world;
  • the so-called McKinsey paradox;
  • and Putnam’s “proof” that we are not brains-in-a-vat.
Those involving perceptual and psychological self-knowledge are particularly interesting, since they seemingly involve transmission failures of basic (presuppositionless?) knowledge. Clarifying this phenomenon will impact on our understanding of the possible models of basic knowledge.

PHASE 3 addresses the prospects for Non-evidential Warrant – “entitlements”, according to contemporary idiom. One (putative) genre of non-evidential justification for belief is illustrated by Pascal’s wager and Reichenbach’s purported justification of inductive inference. Our principal focus will be on the rationalistic conceptions of entitlement of method respectively canvassed by Burge and Peacocke, and on Wright’s related proposal of a notion of non-evidential warrant for certain very general presuppositions – some of Wittgenstein’s “hinges” (see On Certainty). The following questions are especially important:

  • Are entitlements defeasible?
  • How exactly may they be grounded in rationality?
  • What conceptions of knowledge allow it to be underwritten by entitlement?
  • What (if any) propositional attitude does entitlement entitle one to?

PHASE 4 concerns with the contrast between Internalist and Externalist Standpoints. Roughly speaking, internalism sees knowledge as true belief enhanced in respects available to reflective awareness, while externalism finds an essential role for other considerations – counterfactual sensitivity, reliability of provenance, etc. What needs to be better understood is not merely their distinction but why we should care about the kind of factors the two standpoints respectively regard as knowledge-making. The following questions will provide additional foci:

  • Is either standpoint better equipped to make sense of epistemic responsibility?
  • Does compliance with any followable norm have to be, at some level, an “internally” assessable issue?
  • Is either standpoint more likely to foster scepticism, or better equipped to defuse it?
  • Are the views in genuine competition, or are they rather emphasising different, complementary, forms of epistemic virtue?
  • Is there an independent question concerning internalist and externalist conceptions of evidence?

PHASE 5 focuses on a priori knowledge, drawing on recent work by Boghossian, BonJour, Peacocke and Yablo, and building on the work of existing Arché projects in Modality and Foundations of Mathematics. Specific concerns will be with the role of non-inferential knowledge in the justification of mathematical axioms, in basic modal knowledge, and in the epistemology of logical inference. The issues here, some of the hardest in epistemology, include:

  • the very idea of a faculty of rational ‘intuition’;
  • forms of rationalism which avoid ‘intuition’ by maintaining that basic a priori knowledge is obtained through understanding alone;
  • the corrigibility, defeasibility and fallibility of a priori warrants;
  • the status of our apparently non-inferential impressions of necessity and possibility;
  • the justification of basic rules of inference and the Lewis Carroll problem.

We invite students and scholars interested in visiting or joining Arché to pursue research connected with any of these projects to visit our visitors pages.