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Fr. 464

December 20, 2013

Kvanvig’s criticism turns on a series of increasingly demanding series of questions to which any tenable epistemological position must answer in order to provide a satisfactory answer to the value of knowledge and, by extension, to any possible surplus value problem. Moreover, all of these claims are entailed, either at an explicit or an implicit level, by the widely held intuition that knowledge is valuable. Failing to answer any one of these questions is therefore, on Kvanvig’s view, grounds for dismissing that theory of knowledge’s value. Finally, as no theory presently available seems in a position to answer all of the demands made upon it by Kvanvig’s four-part test, Kvanvig naturally concludes that there can be no satisfactory theory of knowledge’s value and that “knowledge does not have the kind of value it is ordinarily thought to have” (The Value of Knowledge, p. 157, cited by Greco in Achieving Knowledge, pp. 94-95). In short, surplus value is a false problem, and Kvanvig fulfills the negative task of dispelling this illusion.

As previously stated, Greco’s task here is also of the negative variety and consists in explaining away the conceptual confusions about the value of knowledge introduced by Kvanvig in his own attempt to explain away similar confusions elicited by common ways of thinking about this value. Which conceptual confusions can Kvanvig be said to introduce? From Greco’s presentation of Kvanvig’s position, we can extract four claims on the presentation of knowledge’s value. From least demanding to most, the claims can be formulated as the following questions:

1.) Why is knowledge valuable?
2.) Why is knowledge more valuable than merely true belief?
3.) Why is knowledge more valuable than any subset of its constituents?
4.) Why is knowledge more valuable than the value of all its parts considered together?

Of the four questions or claims, Greco thinks that only the first two are to be found in ordinary thinking about knowledge; thus, Kvanvig’s explicitation of 3.) and 4.) merely serve to obfuscate the already considerably complex debate surrounding (surplus) value. More briefly, any philosophically viable account need only engage claims 1.) and 2.). Notably, Greco seeks to limit his considerations of the claims above simply to what ordinary thinking and thinkers might find of these claims. Greco considers that most ordinary thinkers are liable to grant 1.). Likewise, the demands placed upon a theory of knowledge’s value by 2.) seem desirable in that this responds to a commonly held, pretheoretical intuition that most would grant.

On the contrary, this criterion, whereby the epistemologist seeks to resolve the value problem through answering only those demands placed upon her by ordinary thinking, is no longer visible in 3.). As Greco underscores in his discussion, ordinary thinking about the value of knowledge is unlikely to posit a claim of the sort seen in 3.). Greco considers a case in which it is granted in advance that some justified true belief account of knowledge, paired with an anti-Gettier condition, correctly describes how knowledge functions. If, on this view and as per 3.), this anti-Gettier condition brings no new value to knowledge apart from that which already inheres in the justified true belief, then it seems that knowledge is not more valuable than any subset of its constituent elements and so fails to fulfill the surplus value intuition. Hence, there is no case to be made for knowledge’s value over and beyond that of merely true belief, surplus value proving a mere illusion.

For Greco, where Kvanvig’s error lies in supposing that ordinary thinking contains an intuition like that in 3.). As Greco is quick to point out, most individuals are unaware of the difficulties posed by Gettier cases. If such “ordinary thinkers” are thus unaware of the motivation behind constituent element that separates knowledge from the subset of elements necessary but otherwise insufficient for it, there is little reason to think that they would intuitively find that knowledge must have value over and beyond this collection of properties “justified”, “true” and “belief”. Indeed, these properties are unlikely to be considered by the ordinary thinker as a set to which knowledge would be opposed. If one attempts to counter the objection by maintaining that 3.) falls out of the intuitions in 1.) and 2.) as an implication, it is no more clear that this enters into the ordinary thinker’s intuitions or reasoning about value. Nor does the ordinary thinker’s possible familiarity with Gettier cases and subsequent admission that knowledge is not simply justified true belief necessitate that she hold convictions as to whether knowledge’s value surpasses that of a subset of its elements. The constraints placed by Kvanvig on a solution to the surplus value problem are thus abusive as regards the intuitions that initially fuel that problem.

In a similar vein, claim 4.), i.e. that knowledge must have a value exceeding that of the combination of its components, encounters difficulties at the level of its own internal coherence. At times, it is difficult to understand precisely what is at issue in this claim. In general, we might say that Kvanvig seeks an account of knowledge on which, to reprise the example above, knowledge proper would have more value than that stemming from and inherent to each part of the combination and relation of: an anti-Gettier condition; justification; truth; belief. From where might this additional value stem and in what might it consist properly speaking? For the way in which the demand is worded gives reason to think that knowledge’s proper value would be amorphous or phantomlike in some sense, insubstantial and uninstantiated until such a time as the required parts are properly aligned.

Greco himself brings out this problem through the “value problem of bachelorhood” (Greco, p. 96), wherein we are asked to give why bachelorhood is valuable above and beyond the value of its constituent elements: being male; being unmarried; being fit for marriage. The combination of these elements is all that is entailed by bachelorhood; there is no phantom property born of their relation that could be said to bring extra value to that same relation beyond that implied in the combination of those elements. Even on a more charitable reading, where we understand 4.) as “the knowledge qua whole is more valuable than the components taken separately, we can find, with Greco, that, although understandable, the question seems to imply that the whole being considered is of the organic variety and so confers some additional value on its constituent elements as that in which they are united to serve some common end. Yet this is not obviously the case into which knowledge falls. Certainly, it is difficult to maintain that ordinary thinking holds, implicitly or otherwise, that the additional value of knowledge owes to a surplus value stemming from the single-endedness of the parts organized in the organic whole that is knowledge. Such a claim strains belief.

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