On Particularism

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One of the most basic problems of epistemology is called “the problem of the criterion.” The problem reveals itself when one tries to figure out how to separate their beliefs into the categories of knowledge and of mere belief. How does one begin? There are two options: one could proceed by formulating a criteria for what qualifies as knowledge and seeing which beliefs meet the criteria; or one could start with instances of knowledge and try to come up with a criteria for knowledge based on features of these instances. If one picks the first option, then one is a “methodist” (obviously not of the religious variety), and if one picks the second option, one is a particularist.

Why are people often skeptical of particularism? Well, it seems to some people to be “cheating” to simply assert that we do know things and to work from there. This move is especially aggravating to the skeptic who demands proof that we know anything at all. However, it is important to recognize the importance that phenomenology and intuitions play in epistemology. Many arguments are nothing more than appeals to intuition about whether people would consider person X justified in situation Y. Although it might seem illegitimate, it really does seem to be the case that we do indeed know certain things, and it is unclear how the skeptic can simply dismiss this appeal to intuition. Much of what goes on in epistemology consists of philosophers attempting to figure out what we mean when we use the words “knowledge” and “justification.” It seems that there is a real phenomenon that people are referencing when they use the word knowledge, namely, the experience they have of knowing. In fact, if it is the case that one does not have an experience of being a knower, then they must mean absolutely nothing by the term knowledge when they use it. In order for discourse in epistemology to be meaningful, there ultimately needs to be some pre-theoretic grasp of what it means to know something, and I would argue that this can only come from experience. Thus, it seems to fairly clear that methodism is the wrong way to proceed out of the problem of the criterion.

Furthermore, I would argue that historically, methodism has led to skepticism. The methodology of Descartes and Locke ultimately led to the skepticism of Hume and others. It seems unclear how one could come up with criteria for what would qualify as knowledge if one had no instances of knowledge from which to base the criteria off of. A person might wonder how anyone could be justified in using a method for discerning knowledge, if that method itself was not rooted in any sort of knowledge. The method would seem to always be arbitrary. This seems to be a valid concern.

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3 Responses to “On Particularism”

  1. David Says:

    Excellent Post. Bravo.

    Would you say it’s helpful to think of knowledge as being roughly classified into “easy” and “difficult” in the sense that some instances of knowledge are simply obvious and nearly impossible to doubt, while other instances of knowledge are more difficult to apprehend? So, 2+2=4 is just obvious, while some complicated geometric proof might require a higher level of evidence or something to be justified as knowledge.

    The reason I ask is that I typically find that a skeptic wants to start at the top, with the difficult instances of knowledge, try to show (by way of their difficulty) that we can’t really know them, and then move all the way down to otherwise obvious instances of knowledge such as sense perception. In other words, the skeptic doesn’t seem to want to admit that there are varying degrees of difficulty when it comes to determining what counts as knowledge. They either want everything to be easily admitted (hence, I think, the appeal of naturalism), or they assume that nothing is admitted at all.

    Any thoughts?

  2. Krause Says:

    Yeah, I think your intuitions seem right here. With particularism, you want to start with paradigm cases of knowledge: stuff you just happen to know, regardless if you can explain how or why. Then you form a criteria for knowledge and a methodology for evaluating whether or not something counts as knowledge from these paradigm cases. At least, I think this is the basic idea.

  3. David Says:

    Yeah, I heard J. P. give a talk on this once, and he basically said the same thing. And when the skeptic asks you how you know which cases are paradigm and which aren’t, just ignore the question (as its aimed at getting you back into methodism!) and ask them to give you a reason for not accepting the cases that seem so obviously to be the paradigm ones. Good stuff. I like particularists. They’re feisty. 😛

    By the way, you and Mike need to get some icons (pun intended). The guy with the greek name has a cool one, and so does Andrew. You two need to ditch the plain, generic outline of a person with the ugly grey background and get something cool, or at least a picture of yourselves.

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