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Fr. 405

October 2, 2013

In the end, though general in scope, differences of degree (and, hence, the distinction by magnitudes of instrumental value) do not admit of a simple, generalized application and are of little explanatory value from one case to another, where the units of measurement would have to be adjusted in order to account for differences in circumstances. In sum, opting to distinguish between knowledge and true belief in terms of quantity rather than quality or positing a difference in degree rather than in kind precludes a more thoroughgoing, scientific (in the sense of systematic) and conceptual distinction between the two, undercuts the potential explanatory power that such a distinction should hold, and amounts to an inadequate means of distinguishing between those thornier instances of knowledge and true belief.

To wax speculative or metaphilosophical for a moment, differences of kind traditionally prove to be that on which philosophy depends in order to move forward. Indeed, philosophical distinctions are most often of this type: substance and accident; essence and appearance; res cogitans and res extensa; means and ends; consciousness and awareness; and so on and so forth. In short, philosophical distinctions are, classically, differences of kind. If, by contrast, differences of degree are popular within the sciences, epistemology remains a field within philosophy, notwithstanding any claims to scientificity or systematicity.

To return to the text, Pritchard deems his preliminary findings on instrumental and intrinsic worth to have been sufficient to guarantee at least the interest in such a question as well as its possibility, a conclusion that the foregoing considerations do nothing to diminish. Yet these considerations do complicate the nature of the case to be made for the value of knowledge and underscore the need for better articulated categories for making sense of this value. They also give reason to wonder if there are not indeed other criteria by which one might judge of knowledge’s value. For, in coming back to the question from which Pritchard’s account sets out, “what is common to all cases or instances of knowledge?”, it might well be the case that knowledge and its worth are overdetermined.

To put the point somewhat differently, there may be no single factor that makes all instances of knowledge knowledge. Accordingly, the urge to totalize a given value or simplify the complex interplay of determining values should be resisted here. Instead, it might prove more helpful to posit something in the way of a family resemblance between various instances of knowledge, in a rhetorical move and position that must, without, a doubt recall the later writings of Wittgenstein. This move would allow for differences in the details at the level of the value of a given piece of knowledge or of its nature while still leaving the investigator both a measure of explanatory power and reason to pursue those investigations. In other words, one would still be able to speak of “knowledge” and of its “worth”. Between the various instances,  their interrelatedness or general similarity (to speak somewhat loosely) would be recognized without positing one particular way in which all instances of knowledge and value must be alike, for it would remain that one could see to what extent they are all instances of knowledge.

As this move would seem to entail on a methodological level, it might then prove more useful to proceed on a case-by-case basis or in ad hoc fashion in determining what it is that makes knowledge knowledge (rather than appealing to a universal measure, identical in every instance). Of course, this would not amount to suggesting that there are not generalities. Quite the contrary, for there would remain generalities possessing a greater or lesser measure of explanatory power; it is precisely this the plural form that this move would take upon itself to emphasize and hold up in practice. Although each generality would then possessed of a certain general application, this would not thereby exclude the possibility of other generalities at work in the same instance or family of instances. In the end, the effort to determine what holds all instances of knowledge together as knowledge as well as that to specify the value of knowledge proper as opposed to true belief proves greatly more complicated than the relatively simplistic explanation of the start might have led one to expect.

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