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Fr. 404

October 1, 2013

The author evokes the case of wisdom as one instance in which knowledge could be seen to have an intrinsic rather than an instrumental value. Although wisdom or other refined knowledges of this kind might have instrumental worth in that wisdom can lead to the good or fulfilled life, it can stand alone as a body of knowledge should circumstances prevent the material or social realization of the good life. For this reason, wisdom’s worth is at most marginally instrumental; it retains value despite securing none of the individual’s goals at a given time. Indeed, Pritchard recalls the case of Job against whom events conspired to make life miserable, regardless of his wisdom, and maintains that it would be better to face such a situation with wisdom than without.

If knowledge can be said to have intrinsic worth or value in itself as its own end, then it would seem to be a limited case like that of instrumental value, as the brevity of Pritchard’s own presentation would suggest. Even were one to expand the case of knowledge’s intrinsic worth by making reference to certain conceptions of virtue epistemology in which the virtue, excellence or ἀρετή / aretế and telos of the individual as knower would be the possession of knowledge, such that all knowledge had worth in virtue of its form alone, it is nonetheless unclear if this would hold true of the content of all knowledge. Indeed, with such an extension, intrinsic worth seems to take on a rather amorphous shape, and it is difficult to understand in what this worth itself might precisely consist. From here, talk of knowledge and its worth might easily fall victim to the imprecise abstractions of rhetoric and tradition, e.g. knowledge is valuable in and of itself. Such statements leave one precisely at that point from which one set out: in what way is knowledge valuable? Such difficulties prove commonplace with the “intrinsic”, for the moment that one begins to speak in such terms, one sets aside the need to frame or explicate the value in terms other than those of the thing itself.

Although this seems to give one reason to prefer talk of knowledge’s instrumental value, this type of knowledge-talk is itself fraught with problems. If, on this count, the only factor separating true belief from knowledge is that knowledge is generally of more instrumental value than true belief, then the relevant distinction is merely quantitative. More specifically, insofar as the surplus value that knowledge would possess in comparison with true belief would be merely a matter of “how much”, knowledge would not be of some other kind than true belief. In reality, the two would be continuous with one another to a greater or lesser extent. This way of setting knowledge apart from true belief limits the potential explanatory power that the means of their distinction might otherwise afford, for it is not a conceptual distinction but instead a measure. Perhaps more simply, between knowledge and true belief in the case of instrumental value, there would not be a difference of kind but of degree. (Naturally, this distinction is the inverse of that found when positing the intrinsic value of knowledge as opposed to the simply instrumental value of true belief, where the two are thus divided by a difference of kind rather than degree.)

In other words, there are new difficulties in delimiting the two domains insofar as they are to be found on the same continuum, transition into one another and are of fundamentally the same kind. Knowledge is said to possess more of this thing (instrumental value) than true belief, but, when the time comes to distinguish the two, it is not an analysis of type that is needed but rather the calculation of an abstract unit (utility) that resists neat divisions and, hence, precise measurements. More precisely, one might wonder how one is to go about determining how many units of utility an instance of knowledge might hold in comparison with a parallel instance of true belief. To reprise the example given in the previous section, that of the map-reading individual, the first iteration of this example would seemingly posit an equal amount of units of utility in both knowledge and true belief in that both lead to the goal aimed at by the individual. Certainly, the second iteration would secure a quantitative distinction of some kind insofar as, in the case of the true map and knowledge, the individual would be able to locate successfully subsequent goal-locations whereas the individual, in the case of the false map and merely true belief would, would be unable to do so.

Yet it is not clear how we are to quantify the “more” that the case of the true map and knowledge would seem to offer. Would each further location correctly located constitute another unit of utility? Would such units continue to accrue as a linear function? Conversely, would such units be such to diminishing returns? Moreover, it is reasonable to expect that the units might change from one concrete situation to another. In short, it is hard to see of just how much help a quantitative distinction such as “more” can be when the units making up that distinction are unclear and fail to show of just what magnitude the divide between knowledge and true belief is. Although, one could hold this help to be simply provisional, a rule of thumb or starting point, the expectation would remain that this initial distinction or rule must in the end lead to something more interesting, informative and thoroughgoing.

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