Thursday, October 17, 2013

Fairy tales and the coherentist account of knowledge

To: Emelie G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Fairy tales and the coherentist account of knowledge
Date: 31st December 2010 12:45

Dear Emelie,

Thank you for your email of 17 December, with your essay for the University of London BA Epistemology module, in response to the question, ''The fact that there are coherent fairy tales shows that one might have a coherent system of beliefs without those beliefs amounting to knowledge.' Discuss.'

For the first two pages of your essay, I seriously thought that you had completely confused a coherence theory of truth with a coherence theory of knowledge. This question is about the coherence theory of knowledge. However, finally, at the bottom of page 2 you remark, 'However it is possible to hold the coherence theory of knowledge without the coherence theory of truth.'

Having reached this point, you might have considered whether it might have been worth while to rewrite the essay, making the point about the difference between a coherence theory of truth and a coherence theory of knowledge in your first paragraph, then moving on to consider various formulations of the coherence theory of knowledge, definitions of 'coherence' etc.

It is *much* harder, in my opinion, to defend a coherence theory of truth than it is to defend a coherence theory of knowledge. Brand Blandshard's 'The Nature of Thought', first published before the Second World War, is still one of the main reference works for this theory. Contemporary philosophers who claim to believe in a coherence theory of truth, generally don't hold it in the strong form that Blanshard did.

You also need to consider what the question is asking. You are not being asked to list the various attractions of a coherence theory of knowledge (such as its rejection of dubious foundationalist assumptions, its congruence with our general understanding of the way we evaluate knowledge claims in the real world etc.). The question presents a specific objection to the coherence theory of knowledge, and you are being invited either to rebut that objection or confirm it.

In an exam, your time is limited. It is vital that you keep track of the question and focus all your energy in answering it.

The key issue here is one that you cover in your essay, although it is somewhat buried by irrelevant discussion (of the coherence theory of truth and the attractions of a coherence theory of knowledge etc.). Yes, the can be coherent fairy tales, but in order for this observation to confer the power of justification on the fairy tales in question, they would have to cohere with wider and wider interconnected systems of beliefs.

Moreover -- and this is perhaps the most important point -- not all beliefs are the same, even if they are ultimately all connected in a coherentist network. Quine's image in his famous essay, 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism', of the web of belief, with some beliefs nearer the periphery (so-called 'observational' statements) and other beliefs near the centre (so-called 'truths of logic') is helpful here. Observational statements are not 'privileged' in the sense in which the foundationalist or 'dogmatic empiricist' means this, but they do acquire special importance by virtue of their position near the periphery of the web of belief. In a way, this allows Quine (and coherentists who follow his lead) to have his cake and eat it; to allow observation a special role in the evaluation of the coherence of belief networks, without committing the 'sin' of foundationalism.

One issue which you do not mention at all is whether we are to be 'externalists' or 'internalists' about justification. This does have consequences for the way one interprets a coherentist theory of knowledge.

About the essay generally. I had the feeling (correct me if I'm wrong) that you had a pile of texts in front of you as you wrote this, and this partly explains why you spend too much time discussing e.g. the coherence theory of truth. When it comes to writing the essay, close all your books, put away your notes, and just get started. You can always tweak the essay draft later (for example, if there's something you meant to say which you have in your notes which you forgot about). Obviously, in an exam, you will need to be able to do this. Better to get into the habit now!

All the best for 2011,

Geoffrey