Saturday, 22 June 2013

Folk Epistemology and Knowledge Ascription

María G. Navarro

I am a postdoctoral ‘Juan de la Cierva’ fellow at the Institute of Philosophy of the Spanish National Research Council. Until the end of November this year I am a visiting fellow at the Department of Philosophy at Birmingham.

I am interested in how people reason and ascribe knowledge through the daily act of making interpretations.

In the very simple, fast and productive act of interpreting something as being something all of us use and project our beliefs, desires and actions. But not less important is that we produce interpretations in order to express, represent, and reason about knowledge. That implies that being capable of producing interpretations is not only related to folk psychology but also to folk epistemology. But what does ‘epistemology’ mean when we affirm that it may be ‘folk’?


I like the definition proposed by Finn Spicer in his article ‘Knowledge and the Heuristics of Folk Epistemology.’ Following Spicer, ‘folk epistemology’ can be understood as a special competence we all have to ascribe and reason about knowledge. In my opinion, the presence of a folk-epistemology module is manifest in the fact that the activity of interpreting is a process of searching for plausible assumptions for the consistent formation of explanatory hypotheses. If the grass is wet you would probably think that it has been raining. But if you then saw the gardener, and you said ‘I thought it had been raining!’, he would know that, as you had not seen him before, his past action of watering the garden could not be part of your repertoire of hypotheses. The products of the activity of interpreting do not get their representational character from the sentences that express them, but rather from the fact that the interpretations are the content of intentional cognitive states.

Let us consider that, for some reason, the gardener follows a set of what some authors regard as inconsistent principles about knowledge ascription: how would that affect the representational character of the exclamation ‘I thought it had been raining!’? The idea that principles or heuristics governing knowledge ascription can be inconsistent is problematic from an epistemic point of view. The question would be how a folk-epistemic set of principles and heuristics followed by individuals in specific circumstances could be inconsistent.

In exploring these matters I find crucial Lisa Bortolotti’s work about the limits and definition of rationality. I am also interested in her responses to the problem of whether it is possible for us to interpret irrational behaviour and her explanatory hypothesis about the effect of what she has called ‘indeterminacy of ascription’ and ‘paralysis of interpretation’ in her article ‘
Can We Interpret Irrational Behaviour?’.

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