- Disagreement by Bryan Frances
Attention to the question of whether testimony is a distinctive source of knowledge is a comparatively recent development in Western epistemology. Does being told that p constitute reason for you to believe that p, independently of what you empirically establish about the speaker’s reliability, sincerity, and evaluative position? Still more recently — in just the last decade — Western epistemologists have become occupied with related problems concerning disagreement. What is the rational response, for instance, to discovering that an epistemic peer disagrees with you about p? In the battery of new articles that explore this question, various fine-grained distinctions have been proposed to accommodate cases where it seems that disagreement ought to shake our confidence that p and cases where we appear entitled to remain steadfast. Inevitably, there has been some overlap and redundancy between these rapid-fire proposals. An unfortunate consequence of the shifting structure of our burgeoning terminological framework is that disagreement is a difficult topic to teach effectively. Confronted with the proliferation of fascinating but increasingly esoteric test cases in recent articles, students often find it difficult to see the forest for the trees. This is a shame, as the topic is fresh, practically relevant, and packed with the potential to excite undergraduates.
Bryan Frances’ accessible textbook is therefore a welcome addition to the literature. Disagreement is exceptionally well paced, introducing material over twenty-eight short and engaging chapters. The fifty-five problem cases (or “stories” [pp. ix–x]) that Frances provides are carefully explained and sequenced, allowing students to gradually refine their understanding of the need for terminological subtlety. By inviting readers to puzzle over his stories, and by both admitting that his own views have changed and pointing out where his current position is tentative, Frances successfully conveys the youth of this branch of Western epistemology. Readers are made to feel that their own innovations could advance philosophical understanding of this topic, which would be a great motivation in the classroom.
Instead of critiquing views defended in the current literature, many of which he finds “premature” (p. 6), Frances uses his stories to guide readers through the central ideas underlying contemporary debates. Throughout, he emphasizes the practical question of what philosophy can teach us about everyday disagreements, even going so far as to lay out a decision procedure for how to resolve them (p. 110). This approach allows him to touch on many of the issues that undergraduates find most interesting, although I found it disappointing that he omits discussion of intrapersonal disagreement. (My students have enjoyed reflecting upon the rationality of their [End Page 357] own changes of mind, and when they should have trusted their initial judgment.) Similarly, although he writes that the “ethics of disagreement” is beyond the scope of his book, he misses the opportunity provided by his approach to relate epistemology to political theory (p. 76). A chapter examining the link between disagreement and collective agency (how should a group whose members disagree decide to act?) would also have been appreciated.
Nevertheless, Frances expertly forestalls a number of journeys down blind alleys that, in my experience, students are apt to tread when first confronted with this material. Of particular note in this respect are Frances’ distinction between how we typically behave when faced with disagreement (when splitting a dinner check, for example, we may amicably accept our friend’s calculation rather than quibble over a few dollars) and what the standards of rationality require of us in such situations (p. 75); his surfacing of key “disagreement factors,” such as the background knowledge and cognitive ability of disputants, which often ground intuitions about how seriously we ought to take particular disagreements (p. 26); his contrast between the rationality of retaining one’s belief in a case of disagreement and the rationality of one’s retained belief, and his subsequent explanation of their independence (p. 80); his attention to the differing demands of disagreements between solitary disputants and groups of disputants (pp. 94–98); and, perhaps most of all, his characterization of disagreement...