From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXVIII No. 2


Roderick Chisholm 

and the


Zenon Stavrinides

Roderick M. Chisholm died earlier this year at the age of eighty two. His reputation was earned through the development of original, influential views and arguments in the fields of epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, history of philosophy and ethics, set out in innumerable papers and several books, including Perceiving, Theory of Knowledge, Person and Object, The First Person and the collection of essays The Foundations of Knowing. But his most influential contributions to the subject is surely his penetrating and subtle treatment of the so-called problem of the criterion. 

Chisholm's treatment of this forms the subject of the present article. So what is the problem?

Chisholm begins his discussion of it in the Theory of Knowledge by contrasting the following pairs of questions: (A) What do we know? or What is the extent of our knowledge?, and (B) How are we to decide, in any particular case, whether we know? or What are the criteria of knowing? He then expresses the problem of the criterion thus:

If we know the answer to either of these questions, then, perhaps, we may devise a procedure that will enable us to answer the other. If we can specify the criteria of knowledge, we may have a way of deciding how far our knowledge extends. Or if we know how far it does extend, and are able to say what the things are that we know, then we may be able to formulate criteria enabling us to mark off the things that we do know from those that we do not. But if we do not have the answer to the first question, then it would seem, we have no way of answering the second.

We, therefore, have to assume at the outset either some view concerning the criteria of knowledge, or else some view concerning what we know. We may be unwilling to make either assumption, but in that case the way is open for the sceptic to claim: 'We do not know what, if anything, we know, and we have no way of deciding, in any particular case, whether or not we know'. So, if the sceptical possibility is to be blocked, we have to adopt some position either about the criteria or about the extent of knowledge.

Chisholm thinks that both of these approaches have been tried in the history of philosophy. There have been philosophers who proposed sets of criteria or a method for deciding whether an ostensible item of knowledge is the genuine article, and then went on to determine what it is that we know. This approach, which Chisholm calls 'methodism', is, in fact, characteristic of empiricism, though not exclusively so. Empiricist philosophers such as Locke and Hume, took the line that all knowledge arose from sense-experience, and so every valid claim to knowledge had to satisfy certain empirical criteria, and they proceeded to develop views on the extent and scope of knowledge. Chisholm is critical of 'methodism', especially in its most empiricist version, because he thinks it (a) begins with a very far-reaching and completely arbitrary generalisation, and (b) rules out of court all those very many things we take ourselves to know which cannot be shown to arise from sense-experience, including facts about physical objects.

Chisholm sketches a second approach to the problem of the criterion which he calls 'particularism', and which consists in the view that we do know a vast number of particular matters of fact - such as facts about ourselves and the various things we see, hear, touch and remember - even though we may be unable to tell how we know them. 

Chisholm advances Thomas Reid and G.E. Moore as exponents of 'particularism'. Given that Chisholm rejects 'methodism', he must pin all his hopes on 'particularism', as the only other non-sceptical possibility. As he puts it in The Foundations of Knowing: 'We start with particular cases of knowledge and then from those we generalise and formulate criteria of goodness - criteria telling us what it is for a belief to be epistemologically respectable'. 

What would count as cases of knowledge? In response to this question Chisholm expresses a robust, though not uncritical, trust in the deliverances of his senses: He says:

'If I report to you the things I now see and hear and feel - or, if you prefer, the things I now think I see and hear and feel - the chances are that my report will be correct; I will be telling you something I know. To be sure, there are hallucinations and illusions. People often think they see or hear things that in fact they do not see or hear. 

But from this fact - that our senses do sometimes deceive us - it hardly follows that your senses and mine are deceiving you and me right now.' 

Thus, Chisholm says, our reports as to what we see, hear, feel and remember are to be accepted as instances of knowledge, unless there is some positive reason for thinking that the deliverances of our senses and memory are distorted by such factors as drugs and brainwashing. In his view the senses and memory should be regarded as innocent until there is reason on some particular occasions for thinking they are guilty on those particular occasions. Once we identify a variety of instances of knowledge, we will proceed to the project of formulating the relevant criteria.

'..As rational beings, we assume that by investigating these instances we can formulate criteria that any instance must satisfy if it is to be countenanced and we can formulate other criteria that any instance must satisfy if it is ruled out or forbidden.'

This is, in bare outline, Chisholm's treatment of the criterion problem. He makes two assumptions, or at least two which he actually acknowledges, and which may be called into question. The first assumption is, of course, that we do know things, rather than know nothing. The second assumption is expressed in the last quotation, and it amounts to the view that every case which we intuitively identify as an instance of knowledge satisfies discoverable criteria capable of formulation. Let us take the two assumptions in turn.

To begin with, Chisholm takes it for granted that we do know what we ordinarily take ourselves to know, and adopts a smugly dismissive attitude towards the sceptical position. As he puts it in the Foundations:

What few philosophers have had the courage to recognise is this: we can deal with the problem only by begging the question... One may object: 'Does not this mean, then, that the sceptic is right after all?' I would answer: 'Not at all.' His view is only one of the three possibilities and in itself has no more to recommend it than the others do. And in favour of our approach there is the fact that we do know many things, after all. 

At this point one may well object that Chisholm's whole approach 'has the effect of ruling out even relatively weak versions of scepticism absolutely and conclusively from the very beginning of one's epistemological inquiry in a way which is both question-begging and dogmatic'. The sceptical challenge must be faced and dealt with reasonably and fairly, and this means that it will not do to simply affirm with conviction that 'we do know many things'. If scepticism claims to be a reasonable position, the reasoning behind it must be presented as an argument, and the argument itself will be open to challenge, like every other view in philosophy. 

Unless the sceptical position is supported by an argument whose premises can be accepted as true or as more likely to be true than our common sense beliefs about the world and further whose conclusion can be seen to follow validly from the premises, there is no general reason for abandoning our ordinary claims to knowledge.

The second assumption is that the cases which we intuitively identify as instances of knowledge - such as our beliefs as to what we see, hear, feel and remember - satisfy discoverable criteria capable of formulation. Given that so much in the philosophy of perception concerns the status of illusory experiences, we need some reason for assuring ourselves that certain kinds of experiences are free from illusion or other sort of error. 

But Chisholm offers no such reason. He offers, instead, the suggestion that certain perceptual, introspective and memory beliefs can be accepted as constituting knowledge until and unless there is positive reason for revising our appraisal of them. This suggestion may be developed as follows: It may be said that the intuitively identified cases of knowledge which are to form our original stock of 'material' for our investigation of criteria are beliefs which we accept - even, which we cannot help accepting - as the primitive elements of our picture of ourselves and our environment, subject to revision and rejection on the basis of contrary evidence, such as other similarly primitive elements in conflict with them. 

So, for example, I may consider it to be certain that I am at a particular moment staring at my friend, until and unless the course of my experiences and my reflection on my memories brings forth elements which conflict with my intuitive perceptual belief. Once we collect a number of intuitive, but in principle, revisable beliefs about ourselves and the world, we try to formulate a set of criteria or explanatory principles that entail these beliefs and explain why they ought to be considered true.

But is it only mere assumption that such criteria can always be found implicit in instances of knowledge, and that once we formulate them we will be able to 'mark off the things that we do know from those that we do not'? 

Chisholm never appears to consider that knowledge and error may not be distinguishable by any set of generalisable criteria. He never, for example, considers that true and false scientific beliefs may not be separable by reference to criteria originally obtained from reflection on simple and straightforward perceptual, introspective and memory beliefs.

Chisholm's assumption - which he says we have to accept as 'rational beings' - is apparently shared by many philosophers of knowledge, as is evidenced by the large amount of work done in the field of epistemic logic. Many philosophers follow Chisholm in examining intuitively, identified, instances of perceptual, introspective and memory knowledge, formulating criteria or epistemic principles which they think underlie these instances, and then testing the principles against them. Such philosophers often revise what they consider as perceptual knowledge and memory about some particular matter of fact in the light of epistemic principles, and conversely, they revise these principles in the light of new instances, intuitive perceptual knowledge and memory. 

A procedure of this kind should result in mutual support and coherence between intuitive perceptual knowledge and criteria or formulated epistemic principles. And this general procedure of mutual adjustments, suggested by Chisholm, bears a marked similarity to the strategy of 'reflective equilibrium' between ethical principles and considered ethical judgments employed by some moral philosophers. 

But the ultimate test for would-be followers of Chishom with their assumption that genuine knowledge and what is wrongly thought to be knowledge can always be distinguished by reference to general criteria, is whether they can create a complete system of the principles of knowledge for different kinds of beliefs.


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