On Philosophy

August 13, 2006

First and Third Person Approaches to Knowledge

Filed under: Epistemology — Peter @ 12:34 am

As you might have deduced from recent posts knowledge has been the focus of my attention recently. Previously I had classified different kinds of epistemology by their goals. Under such a scheme the standard account of knowledge, as a true justified belief, tends to be associated with an investigation into which beliefs people think are knowledge. In this kind of investigation our intuitions about what knowledge is often end up guiding the project. In contrast I personally think that knowledge should be defined as simply a justified statements (as outlined here) primarily because one of the requirements I place on knowledge is that it lead us to the truth. Thus in this kind of investigation I would expect the accuracy and reliability of a statement to be key in deciding whether or not it is knowledge.

However there is another way of grouping approaches to epistemology. Instead of distinguishing epistemological investigations by their goals we can classify them instead by the perspective knowledge is examined from. For example, I hold that standard account arises from a third person approach to knowledge and epistemology. By third person I mean that when examining what knowledge is we approach the question by asking what kinds of beliefs held by other people should count as knowledge. Much of Hilary Kornblith’s book Knowledge and its Place in Nature can be seen as just this kind of investigation. In his book Kornblith ask the question: do animals have knowledge? He concludes that they do, and although he doesn’t attempt to define what knowledge is it seems he would agree that it is only a true belief (or perhaps only justified minimally by the senses). Whether Kornblith is right or not is besides the point; what is relevant is that no matter how you conduct such an investigation it is inevitable that the beliefs of others are eventually compared against the truth in order to evaluate them, and thus truth ends up as an essential part of knowledge.

This very comparison with the truth however is a possible problem. Unfortunately we as investigators don’t have privileged access to the truth, and thus what we end up comparing the knowledge of other people against is our knowledge. Of course this works well when we happen to be right, but since we are fallible that isn’t always the case. For example consider watching another person run towards a door at full speed. If we have reason to believe that they aren’t trying to hurt themselves then we may feel justified in saying that they don’t know that the door is there. However, imagine that when they reach the door it opens before them. Now we should probably revise our decision, and say that they knew the door was there and that they also knew that it would open. Our decision to label a belief as knowledge seems awfully fickle then, and even worse we have no standard to which we can compare our own beliefs. The search then for methods that allow us to get closer to the truth naturally then proceeds from a first person perspective. We ask: “how can I know?”, and since there is no accessible standard of truth for purposes of comparison we must define knowledge in some other way, most likely by its being justified or reliable. You might argue that we do have a standard of truth to compare our ideas to, specifically by testing them and seeing what happens, but then we would be running into a lot of doors.

So which view of knowledge is preferable? If we were interested in linguistics then a third person approach would be preferable. However, if we want our study of knowledge to yield useful results, the first person approach is the better choice. Ideally a first person account of knowledge can provide guidelines that you can use to acquire more true beliefs and have less false ones. On the other hand the third person account can only help you use the word knowledge with more precision and accuracy, which is not what I personally want from a philosophical investigation into knowledge.


1 Comment

  1. Any references on this issue of first-vs-third person perspectives in epistemology (or any other field of philosophy?)

    Comment by Neil — May 10, 2007 @ 11:30 am

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