Intellectual Assurance: Essays on Traditional Epistemic Internalism

Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press (2016)
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Ordinarily, people take themselves to know a lot. I know where I was born, I know that I have two hands, I know that two plus two equals four, and I also think I know a lot of other stuff too. However, the project of trying to provide a philosophically satisfying account of knowledge, one that holds up against skeptical challenges, has proven surprisingly difficult. Either one aims for an account of justification (and knowledge) that is epistemologically demanding, in an effort to offer an account that satisfactorily addresses skepticism, or one aims for an account of justification (and knowledge) that makes sense of our ordinary knowledge claims. However, the history of contemporary epistemology tells us that you cannot have both: the former results in skepticism, the latter in an unsatisfying response to skepticism. What we find, in the array of contemporary attempts to give accounts of knowledge and justification, are numerous views spread across the internalism/externalism spectrum that deal with the dilemma of the previous paragraph in different ways. Most of them are guided by the goal of accommodating our ordinary knowledge claims. This is especially true of externalist accounts, but many internalist accounts are guided by this same goal, though perhaps to a lesser degree. One kind of internalist view stands out for its insistence on providing philosophically satisfying accounts of knowledge and justification, even if doing so has skeptical implications. This is the traditional, old-fashioned, Cartesian-style internalism that was so prominent in the early 20th century and is now a minority position. Unlike competing versions of epistemic internalism, the guiding principle of traditional, Cartesian-style internalism (what I will henceforth call ‘traditional internalism’) is not to accommodate our commonsense views about the rationality of our ordinary beliefs. Instead, traditional internalism emphasizes rationality’s demand for philosophical assurance, on the basis of evidence that can withstand the strongest skeptical challenges, that our ordinary beliefs (perceptual and otherwise) are true. According to the traditional internalist, the philosopher, qua philosopher, ought to begin the epistemological project from the inside, placing a premium on satisfying our philosophical curiosity. Despite the relative unpopularity of traditional internalism the view can be taken to be worthy of attention for a variety of reasons. First, traditional internalism has great historical importance. Significant portions of the history of contemporary epistemology, and to a lesser degree philosophy in the modern era (roughly, Descartes to Kant), are grounded in a number of the intuitions that drive traditional internalism. Second, and perhaps even more importantly, traditional internalism serves as the source of a wide variety of criticisms for other, more prominent, contemporary epistemological views. In a number of debates the views of the traditional internalist are used to play a kind of Devil’s advocate. Finally, some of the ideas that ground traditional internalism have had a bit of resurgence of late.1 To put it simply, traditional internalism refuses to go away. In this introduction, I will do three things. First, I will situate traditional internalism among other competing versions of internalism by highlighting the ways in which traditional internalism differs from them (in particular, evidentialism and conservatism). Second, I will explain more carefully some of the central tenets of traditional internalism and what motivates them. Third, I will highlight some of the difficulties that threaten traditional internalism, and I will explain how the contributions to this volume interact with those difficulties. The goal of this volume is to test again the staying power of traditional internalism, to see if this once historically prominent view deserves another look, to see if traditional internalism is a legitimate contender providing useful criticisms of more prominent views, or, if instead it is time for traditional internalism to be left by the wayside.



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Author Profiles

Michael Bergmann
Purdue University
Brett Coppenger
Tuskegee University

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