Concept of gradable knowledge

Dissertation, University of Edinburgh (2019)
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Abstract

An orthodox view in epistemology holds that propositional knowledge is an absolute ‘yes or no’ affair, viz, propositional knowledge is ungradable. Call this view epistemic absolutism. This thesis purports to challenge this absolutist orthodoxy and develop an underexplored position—epistemic gradualism, which was initially proposed by Stephen Hetherington. As opposed to epistemic absolutism, epistemic gradualism argues that propositional knowledge can come in degrees. This thesis will examine motivations for endorsing absolutism and then, drawing on Hetherington’s original objections to absolutism, prove that absolutism is ill-grounded. In particular, I will explain why the primary ground for insisting absolutism, to wit, linguistic evidence from ordinary English language, fails to entail that knowledge-that is an ungradable concept. After that, I will revisit Hetherington’s two versions of gradualist theories—both will be revealed to be defective. Moreover, the current model of the debate between absolutism and gradualism constructed by Hetherington will give rise to an equivocal attitude towards the gradability of knowledge. That is, there is a prevailing equivocal view which agrees that knowledge can be improved by virtue of better justification but denies that knowledge is, by and large, a gradable concept. This thesis proposes to remodel the debate between absolutism and gradualism by basing it on a dispute about whether knowledge has a cut-off point distinguishing knowledge from everything that falls short of knowledge. Succinctly put, whether propositional knowledge has a threshold. It will be argued that gradualism, so interpreted, should deny that knowledge has a threshold, and treat knowledge as a spectrum concept analogous to ‘red’, ‘warm’, and so forth. The theoretical merits of this new model of the debate and the reconstructed gradualism will be shown. With a better-constructed gradualist account of knowledge in play, I will demonstrate how gradualism enjoys advantages over absolutism by illustrating gradualism’s potential applications in solving epistemological issues that absolutism finds difficult to address. For example, issues related to epistemic luck, faultless disagreements, scepticism, and the relationship between different types of knowledge.

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Changsheng Lai
Shanghai JiaoTong University

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