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The Unification Challenge for Knowledge-First Epistemology

If one endorses a ‘knowledge-first’ epistemology, one tends to believe that the analytic project at the heart of traditional epistemology - the reductive analysis of knowledge in terms of belief, truth and various justification conditions - is fundamentally misguided. Here, the central thought is that philosophers engaging in the traditional project have been working with an understanding of an explanatory priority in epistemology - an idea of the correct order of philosophical analysis - which is the wrong way around. They thus call for its reversal. Instead of taking knowledge as the central explanandum in epistemological theorising, knowledge-firsters argue that we should start instead by taking knowledge as a basic epistemic kind which can be put to work in the analysis and elucidation of the very epistemological phenomena (belief and justification and other epistemic concepts) that the traditional post-Gettier project took knowledge to be reducible to. Knowledge, according this line of argument, ought to have theoretical priority in epistemological theorising.


Recent second-wave literature on knowledge-first approaches to epistemology however suggests that this claim which is characteristic of knowledge-first views - that knowledge does, or ought to have, theoretical priority in epistemological projects - underdetermines a number of more specific conceptual and metaphysical theses with respect to knowledge and related epistemic concepts (Jenkins and Jenkins 2017). Jenkins’ and Jenkins’ (pace knowledge-firster’s such as Nagel and Roessler) argue that this is bad news for the knowledge-first programme. While these stay true to Williamsons’ remarks in Knowledge and It’s Limits, Jenkins and Jenkins observe, the separation of these theses suggest a picture of knowledge-first epistemology which is highly disparate: when followed to their conclusion, these provide us with an account of knowledge-first epistemology on which it is composed by a a set of independent theses which - despite being jointly endorsed by Williamson - lack any real natural or explanatory unity. This leaves a proponent of knowledge-first epistemology vulnerable to what I'm calling the Unificatory Challenge viz. to provide an account of how and why the central theses of knowledge-first epistemology work together to form a unified and coherent whole.


In the next series of posts, I’ll outline what I see as the best response open to the knowledge-first programme to the Unificatory Challenge - one which, as I will argue in third post, not only provides a framework which accounts for and explains the unity of typical knowledge first theses but which also suggests modifications to these which provide responses to recent objections to the programme (Papineau 2018, McGlynn 2017). That is, I’ll argue that there is an alternative and stronger way of formulating the priority thesis which has been overlooked in recent debates, which grounds and connects knowledge-first theorising with contemporary literature on naturalistic approaches to epistemology: the claim that knowledge itself is a psychological natural kind (modified from Kornblith 2007 with Magnus 2015, 2018).

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