Research

I currently have two main research projects epistemology, one concerning the limitations of testimony as an epistemic source, and the second concerning the nature of understanding. I also have research interests in American pragmatism, specifically with regards to the epistemology of C.S. Peirce. I outline some of these projects below.

The Limits of Testimony

While testimony is one of our primary sources of knowledge, epistemologists have raised concerns that for some matters, testimony is either unable to provide knowledge, or else it is somehow unsuitable as a source of knowledge. For example, while acquiring simple empirical knowledge on the basis of testimony seems to generally be unproblematic, many have expressed worries that knowledge of normative facts – moral and aesthetic facts, for example – either cannot or ought not be acquired on the basis of testimony. It is also unclear whether testimony can be a source of epistemic states other than propositional knowledge and justification: it is up for debate, for example, whether one can acquire know-how or understanding on the basis of testimony.

My research on testimony aims to determine just how limited testimony is as an epistemic source. In general, these limits can come in two forms: testimony may be descriptively limited in that unable to provide certain types of knowledge or kinds of epistemic states, or it might be normatively limited in that there are certain types of knowledge or epistemic states for which one ought not rely on testimony. My central claim is that testimony is neither descriptively nor normatively limited, at least to any more significant extent than any other epistemic source.

A central part of this project involves investigating testimony’s unique nature as being a deferential source: when I know on the basis of your testimony I know because of the cognitive work that you did, while when I know using other epistemic sources – perception, memory, and inference, for example – I know because I figured things out for myself. I argue that the fact that testimony requires deferring to the cognitive work of others is both testimony’s defining characteristic and the source of all its potential limitations. This is because the common intuition behind the idea that there are limits to testimony is that it seems there are some things that we either have to or ought to figure out for ourselves, and, as a result, we either cannot or ought to rely on the work of others in certain cases. I argue, however, that relying on testimony does not preclude the possibility that a recipient does, in fact, play a significant role in figuring things out for themselves. Instead of conceiving of testimony as a deferential epistemic source, then, I argue that we should conceive of it as a cooperative source.

I have begun publishing developing this idea in recent publications, as well as other works in progress. For example, in my “Moral Understanding and Cooperative Testimony” (recently published at Canadian Journal of Philosophy) I argue that conceiving of testimony as cooperative as opposed to purely deferential can help make sense of how testimony can be an appropriate source of moral knowledge and understanding. I currently also have a manuscript in progress, “Deference and Cooperative Testimony” that looks to develop the concept more generally (and which will be the topic of a symposium session at the upcoming Pacific APA). My ultimate goal is to develop this project into a book or series or articles that will address a wide range of ways in which testimony might be limited as an epistemic source while also defending a novel conception of testimony.

Understanding in Social Epistemology

While epistemologists have historically focused on questions concerning knowledge and justification, understanding has recently received a resurgence of interest. Since this interest is relatively recent, there are still many open questions concerning the basic nature of characteristics of understanding. In my previous research I have addressed some of these questions by considering whether understanding is susceptible to certain kinds of epistemic luck (I argue that it is), and as to whether one can acquire understanding on the basis of testimony (I argue that one can).

My current project looks to apply some of the guiding questions in social epistemology to those of understanding. For example, while traditional epistemology focuses on the individual as knower, one question in social epistemology asks whether collectives and groups can also be rightly considered knowers. In my research I apply this question to understanding, and thus ask whether groups can also be properly considered to have understanding. My current work in progress, “Group Understanding”, attempts to answer this question in the affirmative. Defending this view requires determining how components of understanding – which, at the level of the individual are generally required to involve not only belief in a proposition but a grasp of the reasons why it’s true – can be distributed across members of a group. To this end I develop a notion of group grasping, whereby a group’s grasp of a proposition or phenomenon is the result of member interdependence; in other words, a group grasping occurs when members of the group are reliant on one another for the provision of reasons why the relevant proposition or phenomenon is the case.

In defending the view that understanding is not limited only to individuals I aim to extend the range of questions in social epistemology to states other than just knowledge and belief, while at the same time helping to progress questions about the nature of understanding.

Peircean Pragmatism in the 21st Century

In my research in American pragmatism I look to not only better understand C.S. Peirce’s philosophical system, but to apply it fruitfully to contemporary debates within a number of areas of philosophy. This project consists of three major components: the first focuses on Peirce’s epistemology, and applies his views to contemporary debates about fallibilism, doxastic voluntarism, disagreement. The second section concerns Peirce’s philosophy of language, and develops a Peircean conception of assertion in detail, as well as a general theory of speech acts generally, and argues that Peirce’s unique theory of assertion deserves to be included in contemporary debates. Finally, the last section addresses Peirce’s conception of normativity, and applies it to contemporary debates in metaethics, as well as those concerning epistemic norms.

Dissertation Abstract

Epistemically Responsible Action