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  • Agency, Ontology, and Epistemic Justification:A Response to Freedman
  • Marilyn Nissim-Sabat (bio)

internalist, externalist, agency, ontology, phenomenology

In "Traumatic Blocking and Brandom's Oversight," Karyn Freedman's interesting response to Robert Brandom's 1988 paper, "Insights and Blindspots of Reliabilism," Freedman conceptualizes the relevant issues and her critique of Brandom within the same framework in which Brandom's essay is cast. This is the framework of the internalist–externalist contretemps, or, in Freedman's phrase, "stalemate" in analytic epistemology.

Brandom's most important claim is that a phenomenon he dubs "super blindsightedness" warrants a reliabilist corrective or "alternative" to internalism. Super blindsightedness is described by Brandom as an epistemological state of affairs such that a person who has a reliable true belief can be said to have knowledge even though that person does not have access to justificatory reasons for that belief. Thus, according to Brandom, the super blindsighted person knows, even though she does not meet the internalist criterion for knowledge—namely, that of access to justificatory reasons for her belief. Brandom believes that his views are consistent with internalism and that reliability should be accepted by internalists as a viable alternative to access in such cases. The example of super blindsightedness given by Brandom is that of people known as chicken-sexers who are highly reliable determiners of the sex of chickens who nevertheless do not have access to the true justificatory reasons for their determinations. The chicken-sexers themselves believe that their cues are visual, whereas studies have shown that in actuality they are olfactory.

Freedman's critique of Brandom is two-fold: first, she maintains that Brandom construes super blindsightedness too narrowly, as in his claim that it is a rare or "fringe" (Brandom) phenomenon. Second, Freedman argues that Brandom's views "concede more to externalism than he may wish to allow," and that "The recentering of epistemology from reasons to reliability is more tempting than Brandom supposes" (3). Freedman's extended example arguing for a far higher incidence of super blindsightedness than Brandom allows is that of survivors of sexual abuse who, Freedman avers, [End Page 13] are reliable knowers who do not have access to material that provides justification for their beliefs, and who, moreover, doubt their own reliability. In arguing for externalism as a necessary supplement to internalism in cases of blindsightedness, Freedman shows that socially constituted denials of the high prevalence of sexual abuse of and violence against women, which, for Freedman, constitute manifestly external factors, contribute to the sexually abused women's doubt of their own reliability. Thus, because the class of women who are survivors of sexual abuse and violence is very large, for Freedman super blindsightedness not only is not a rare, fringe phenomenon, it is commonplace.

Freedman's critique of Brandom is well-taken and well argued. However, Freedman is in substantial agreement with Brandom that the epistemology of super blindsightedness is such that in such cases, rather than maintaining that the super blindsighted do not know that which they claim to know, one must dispense with access to justification as a criterion of knowledge and accept the claims to knowledge. To restate the point, Brandom and Freedman agree that the super blindsighted are reliable knowers without access to justificatory reasons, and that this stance is preferable to holding that the super blindsighted people do not know because they do not have access to justificatory reasons, which reasons, nonetheless, do exist.

In this critique of Freedman, I argue against both Brandom and Freedman in support of the latter claim—that the super blindsighted do not know what they claim to know. However, the main thrust of this paper is a critique of Freedman with the aim of showing that the internalist–externalist epistemological framework as such is inadequate as a means of comprehending the kinds of examples she adduces to dispute Brandom's claim that super blindsightedness is rare. Additionally, mutatis mutandis, analytic epistemology is inadequate to comprehend the consequences for individuals of violence against blacks, gays, and other victims of such abuse. That is to say, I contend that the examples adduced by Freedman point to the inadequacy of the internalism–externalism framework.

To set...


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