Hamlet's Argument for Particularism


O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
(Act 1, Scene 5)

When reflective people begin to ask which of their beliefs count as items of knowledge, they are led down one of three roads. The problem of deciding between these positions is what Roderick Chisholm called “The Problem of the Criteria” (see his essay by the same name). What is the process by which we begin to distinguish an item of knowledge from an item of non-knowledge? Chisholm offered two questions that people will answer in a different order. Depending on which question you think should be answered first in the search for knowledge, you fall into one of the three views:

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 first view says that we cannot answer either question until we have answered the other. This creates a dialectical loop from which escape is impossible. We can’t decide what we know until we decide how we know; for without a method, how would we distinguish cases of knowledge from cases of non-knowledge in a responsible way if we didn’t have a criteria? But we can’t decide how we know unless we can decide what we know, because any judgment about right method would have to begin by identifying what is common between cases of knowledge; and these common features would then provide the criteria for knowledge. So the answer to each question is dependent on the other. We can’t get knowledge on this view, either of method or of particular cases of knowledge about non-method propositions. Hence, this view is a form of skepticism.

A second view answers question B first. The answer to question B is some kind of method. We begin with a method, and this method is used by the individual to delineate which of his or her beliefs are knowledge and which are not. This view is called methodism (note: NOT the denomination of Christianity…). For the methodist, separating knowledge from non-knowledge starts with a rule about which properties a belief has to have in order to be considered knowledge. There have been many rules proposed. One common rule is that “A belief is knowledge if it is either self-evidently true, or based on experience (through observation or induction)”; another is “A belief is knowledge if it is either self-evidently true, or can be deduced from self-evidently true beliefs”. From an answer to question B, the methodist then begins to answer question A, using the method he or she has adopted. Adherents of this view have included Locke and Hume as well as numerous other Enlightenment thinkers.

The third view is that we answer question A first. We start with particular cases of knowledge. We just know what these are. We know that we have hands (and not just the sensation or appearance of hands), that the past is real, that there is objective good and evil, and that there are other human beings out there in the external world. From these (and many other) particular cases of knowledge, we then can build a method for deciding about future knowledge claims by finding what is common between them. This view is called particularism, and it has been held by Thomas Reid, G. E. Moore, Chisholm, and others in the common-sense tradition.

What does any of this have to do with Hamlet? Horatio is frightened by the ghost of Hamlet’s father (partly) because ghosts don’t fit into Horatio’s ontology and epistemology. Nevertheless he finds himself with what seems like an experience of a ghost, and knowledge of the ghost’s existence. Hamlet corrects Horatio’s methodism and encourages him to widen his view of the world and welcome in the ghost instead of dismissing it based on preconceived ideas about how the world is and what we can know about it. Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark is thus linking knowledge and experience. The basic argument implicit in his words is

1. When we start categorizing things intellectually we still haven’t “seen it all”.

2. If we haven’t “seen it all”, we should be willing to widen our view about what exists and what can be known if we encounter new entities and items of knowledge that conflict with our previous categories.

3. Therefore we should be willing to accept the existence of new entities and new items of knowledge if we encounter them, even if they conflict with our previous categories about existence and knowledge.

I often find myself in the position of Horatio–it seems that I know something, and yet I can’t explain how this particular item of knowledge fits into my preset definitions about what knowledge is. But instead of sticking to my dreamt-up philosophical definitions of knowledge that can’t encompass those things in heaven and on earth that I seem to know, I should welcome new knowledge and revise my definition. Not everyone will agree with me about this, but it seems to be more reasonable than the alternatives.

This view carries with it two interesting implications.  Firstly, just as there can be evidence about the identity of a criminal or the eating habits of an animal, there can be evidence in favor of a specific definition of knowledge.  This evidence is based on what we take to be particular cases of knowledge.  These will have identifiable properties that make it qualify as an item of knowledge.  New items of knowledge could fit better into one definition of knowledge than another.  Depending on which definition these new items seem to fall into, they can confirm one or the other.

Consequently, second, we should anticipate frequent revisions in our definition of knowledge.  Any new item of knowledge could have implications for how we define the concept of knowledge.  Because we are constantly learning, we should be ready to alter our definition of knowledge to fit with our experience of the reality of knowledge.  The number of particular cases of what we consider knowledge will grow, and our definition of knowledge will not remain static because it is contingent on those particular cases.


One Response to “Hamlet's Argument for Particularism”

  1. Narrative and Normativity (1): Outlining a Particularist Approach « The Well of Questions Says:

    […] and normativity. For previous examination of the concept of particularism and its implications, see here. I will first list a narrative event of this kind, and then write an analysis of the implications I […]

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