Williamson’s cognitive turn
In Knowledge and Its Limits, as well as in a number of papers, Timothy Williamson develops a new, ‘knowledge first’ approach to epistemology and philosophy, where the notion of knowledge plays the leading role. His proposal is to take knowledge as a basic and primitive notion, from which we explain other important concepts and distinctions in our conceptual scheme. Philosophical orthodoxy has for a period of time taken belief to be the central explanatory notion in the conceptual triangle involving assertion, truth and action, but on Williamson’s conception there is a change in roles, and knowledge is put to do explanatory work on the triangle as well as on the notion of belief itself. This thesis explores Williamson's approach and seeks to assess its explanatory pros and cons.
The primitiveness of knowledge does not preclude reflective understanding, since we can elucidate the notion of knowledge through its role in our thinking and by providing a modest positive account. Williamson builds such an account on his core thesis that knowledge is a sui generis mental state. According to Williamson, the theory of knowledge can be firmly established as a branch in the philosophy of mind. In this sense, his ‘knowledge first’ epistemology takes a cognitive turn. Williamson makes this foundation his point of departure from which he can develop non-circular accounts of evidence, justification, warranted assertibility, and elucidate practical reasoning as well as refute scepticism. Those accounts employ knowledge as their chief explainer, and in return they can help elucidate the notion of knowledge by revealing its role in our thought. Hence a two-way explanatory relation unfolds itself: By placing knowledge at the centre of epistemology, and situating epistemology in the philosophy of mind, Williamson can provide rigorous accounts of central notions in our conceptual scheme. In return, those accounts provide material for a reflective understanding of knowledge that compensates for our lack of analysis. What’s more, the correctness of those accounts will provide a strong justification for Williamson’s conception of knowledge.
For this reason, an assessment of Williamson’s approach will need to consider both whether his conception of knowledge can provide an account of these notions, and whether those explanations can help us understand knowledge itself as well as justify this conception. In light of this, the present thesis starts with a description of Williamson’s account of knowledge. First, we observe the unanalysability of knowledge (chapter 1), before we encounter knowledge as a mental state (chapter 2), and as the basis for justification (chapter 3). The rest of this thesis explores two of Williamson’s main applications of his account: the elucidation of assertion (chapter 4), and the refutation of scepticism (chapters 5 and 6).