Epistemic Circularity: An Essay on the Problem of Meta-Justification

Dissertation, The Ohio State University (2000)

Epistemic circularity is, roughly stated, a property of an argument such that its conclusion must be true if one may be said to have a justified belief in its premises. An example is an argument for the general reliability of sense-perception that makes use of sensory beliefs among its premises; as William Alston has pointed out, epistemic circularity poses a difficult problem for defending the reliability of sense-perception. It is also a key element in for a related meta-epistemological problem, dubbed here The Problem of Meta-Justification. First we pose a question: how can we ultimately justify our standards of justification? The difficulty can be neatly stated in the form of a Meta-Regress Argument similar to the classic regress argument for foundationalism. The options offered by the Meta-Regress Argument are: self-support meta-foundationalism, meta-coherentism, meta-regressism, strict particularism, strict methodism, and meta-skepticism. ;One might attempt to defuse the threat of epistemic circularity by attempting to show it to be "virtuous," rather than vicious. But no one has adequately argued that epistemic, circularity is indeed virtuous, and several arguments can be deployed showing it to be vicious. Meta-coherentists, drawing on insights related to the Method of Reflective Equilibrium, might try to find ways to mitigate the viciousness; but their attempts fail. Varieties of particularism and methodism, two positions on the Problem of the Criterion, might also be offered as a way to escape epistemic circularity; but these views too fall prey to serious objections. ;The results of Chapters 1--3 of this dissertation, sketched above, appear to support meta-skepticism. It is possible, however, that there are some beliefs that are epistemically rational but nonjustified . Such beliefs can support justification standards without themselves being justified. In this way, meta-skepticism can be avoided. This solution to the Problem of Meta-Justification is developed in Chapter 4 in a way that owes a heavy debt to the epistemology of the great Scots philosopher, Thomas Reid
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