Defending Particularism

Previously, in looking at the problem of the criterion, we discussed the ways in which we could try to sort good beliefs from bad beliefs. I ended by stating that between the four different positions that we could take — skepticism, methodism, particularism, reflective equilibrium — particularism was the one that could give us the best foundation for knowing if we have good beliefs or not. But why is that the case? How can we be so sure that this one method for evaluating beliefs trumps all others.

Let’s begin by giving a quick review of each position. Skepticism argues that we can neither know that we have a good method for sorting knowledge nor any foundational knowledge by which to evaluate beliefs. Therefore, you can’t know any epistemic claims. Methodism asserts that you can’t know which beliefs are good until you have a good method for sorting them. Therefore, good beliefs are determined by good methods. Particularism asserts that there are certain foundational truths that we can just know are true and these dictate which methods we use to sort beliefs. Finally, reflective equilibrium asserts that one can start with a balanced approach between methodism and particularism by choosing intuitively correct methods and basic knowledge. Therefore, our methods depend on our particular judgments and our particular judgments on our methods.

With that being said, let me state outright that epistemological skepticism is false. That this is so can be demonstrated by a simple syllogism.

  1. If skepticism is true, then I don’t know that I have hands.
  2. I know that I have hands.
  3. Therefore, skepticism is false.

As noted before, G.E. Moore used these basic premises to demonstrate that there are certain basic propositional truths that can be known without any sort of evidence to back them. We just know them to be the case. That eliminates one of our four methods automatically.

Let’s take a look at the remaining options a little more closely starting with methodism. The person that chooses methodism works under the assumption that we cannot know which beliefs are good or bad until we know that we have a good method for sorting them. But there’s a problem with this belief. When we evaluate claims for their validity as truth, there is no distinction between particular and general claims. A broad statement is either true or false just as a specific statement is true or false.

So, let’s assume we have a methodist that has formulated a method, M, for sorting truth claims. The methodist must either assert that his formulation is the correct method for sorting beliefs or that is not. If he claims that we don’t know that M is the right method for sorting beliefs, then the methodist has just become a particularist. “But why?” you ask. Because in claiming that he can know that this is not the correct method for sorting knowledge, the methodist implicitly assumes that there is a foundational belief by which he can evaluate his sorting method. He’s taken a particularist position with just a single starting point — he can know a good method from a bad method.

Similarly, if the methodist asserts that his method for sorting knowledge is the correct method, then he falls into the exact same position. He’s started from a particularist position in asserting that he has a base knowledge which can determine which method is good or not.

Of the remaining two, reflective equilibrium falls into the same trap as methodism. Even though it attempts to strike a balance between methodism and particularism, any attempt to claim that one has found an intuitively correct method of sorting knowledge ultimately reduces to a particular starting point that is held to be foundationally true.

That leaves us with just particularism as a means by which we can determine which beliefs are good or bad. And common sense and a little reflection back up this position. As I write this, a cool breeze is coming in through my front door. I don’t have to question the reality of this breeze or demand perfect evidence for my knowledge of it as the skeptic demands. Nor do I need to determine a method by which I can sort through all the data coming from my sense to see if my belief that there is a breeze is accurate. Rather, I just know that the breeze is there because, whether I’m consciously aware of it or not, I can feel it moving across my skin.

These are properly basic beliefs, and we have many of them. Simply stated, we know a lot of things without having to have evidence or methods to back all of them up. Some philosophers, such as Alvin Plantinga, argue that even the knowledge of God is properly basic in a sense. But that is a topic for another post.

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