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Knowledge and Explanation
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Canadian Journal of Philosophy 36.2 (2006) 137-164

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Knowledge and Explanation

University of St. Andrews
Edgecliffe, The Scores
St. Andrews, Fife
Scotland KY16 9AL

I Introduction

Craig (1990) casts doubt upon the project of trying to give the traditional sort of necessary and sufficient conditions for A knows that p. He interprets the inadequacy of existing analyses of knowledge as evidence that our concept of knowledge is complex and diffuse, and concludes that we should aim to understand it by thinking about the rôle the concept plays in our lives, rather than by trying to find necessary and sufficient conditions for the truth of knowledge ascriptions.

There is surely something right about Craig's view: we are unlikely to succeed in any attempt to analyse away the intricacies in our concept of knowledge. We cannot realistically hope to uncover a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for A knows that p which are in all cases either clearly satisfied or clearly not satisfied. Nor, I suspect, is it possible to offer necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge which are widely accepted as being more securely understood than knowledge itself.

But to conclude that we should therefore stop trying to find any necessary and sufficient conditions for A knows that p may be going a step too far. Perhaps we can further our understanding of what knowledge is by uncovering necessary and sufficient conditions which share the complexities of the target proposition. We can aim, not to 'clean up' these problematic features, but to capture them in ways which may prove illuminating, even if they do not amount to reductive analyses.

In this paper I attempt a project of this kind. I propose a necessary and sufficient condition for A knows that p that is, although recognizably similar to the traditional sets of conditions, arguably immune to the kind [End Page 137] of counterexample which tends to deter philosophers from thinking that any illuminating conditions can be found.1 I present this condition, however, not as an analysis of knowledge, but rather as a way of getting a handle on the concept and furthering the effort to understand what its rôle in our lives might be. Taken in this spirit, the current proposal is not at odds with the principles that motivate Craig's view.

In denying my proposal the status of a reductive analysis, I am mindful of the fact that it will tell us little more than that knowledge is 'non-accidental true belief.' What it offers is a (hopefully fruitful) way of spelling out what is meant by 'non-accidental' in this context. In what follows, I shall write 'KAp' for 'A knows that p' and 'BAp' for 'A believes that p.' I shall propose that KAp just in case BAp and it can be said (under specific circumstances, to be described shortly) that A believes p because p is true. But this is not a causal account of knowledge. The 'because' signals not causation, but explanation.

Explanationist accounts of knowledge somewhat similar to mine have been proposed by Alan Goldman2 (1988 and elsewhere) and Steven Rieber (1998). However, neither of these philosophers exploits what I take to be the most important strengths of an account of this type. Consequently Goldman's and Rieber's accounts face serious objections, which I think may be avoided by a sufficiently sophisticated explanationism. These objections will be discussed in section II below.

Neta (2002) has offered an account of knowledge which he claims is a modification of Rieber's. In fact, however, it is significantly different: Neta proposes that KAp iff p is 'the reason for' BAp (668). This sounds like an explanationist account, until we discover that 'reasons' are to be contrasted with 'non-rational causes,' revealing that this is essentially a justified true belief account in the traditional style. (The proposal is that KAp iff A reasonably believes that p on the strength of A's conclusive evidence that p (668). While explanationist accounts of the kind I am interested in do in some sense focus on...