Skepticism and Epistemic Agency

Dissertation, The Johns Hopkins University (2002)
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Abstract
Epistemic contextualists like David Lewis allow that we have substantially infallibilist reflective intuitions about knowledge even though our everyday talk accepts fallibilist attributions of knowledge. They give serious weight to both our everyday talk and our propensity to assent to the skeptic's conclusions, and give us a concept of knowledge that accommodates both. The skeptic would, of course, leverage such infallibilist intuitions in order to undermine the legitimacy of our everyday attributions. Most contemporary epistemologists would simply argue that our concept of knowledge is fallibilist, but this doesn't give them a particularly convincing reply to intuitively compelling skeptical arguments. ;This essay, most generally, takes up the question of how best to argue about skepticism. I claim that a philosophical account of knowledge that responds to skepticism should be able to clearly accommodate our epistemic agency. In chapter 1 I explain how skepticism challenges our naIve conception of agency and introduce two criteria for an adequate response to skepticism. In chapter 2, I discuss contextualist solutions; I argue they fail to satisfy our criteria and fail on their own terms; I explain how both failures relate to a failure to adequately treat epistemic agency. In chapter 3 I develop a conception of epistemic agency that describes what it is to be an active, reasoning source of belief. This picture is at odds with a dominant strain of epistemology that has it that one is substantially subject to belief, not effectively responsible for it; I criticize an influential argument by Bernard Williams that claims belief is not an attitude we control. This discussion in chapter 3 gives support to, a rationale for, the anti-insulationism requirement set out in chapter 1. Finally, in chapter 4 I return to the methodological issues of how to argue about skepticism. I first defend the idea that a knowledge-based skepticism is worth philosophical attention. I then offer an interpretation of what the skeptic is up to, and discuss what an effective counterstrategy might look like; I suggest that a particular sort of normative argument is the best way with the skeptic
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