Pragmatic Encroachment in Epistemology

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Brian Kim, Matthew McGrath
Routledge Studies in Epistemology
  • New York, NY: 
    , October
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Do practical or normative factors affect one’s knowledge without a change in any of the “epistemic” factors themselves? If so, which factors do so, and how should one understand them?

These questions are probably best introduced anecdotally. Is my knowledge of my bank’s hours different, or absent, between the contexts of simply testifying to a curious person and of needing to deposit a check tomorrow before my mortgage bill is due (4)? How about my knowledge of which transit option is best if I need to arrive in a city on a tight schedule (Brian Kim in 69–101; Charity Anderson and John Hawthorne in 107–116)? Or which city will help me avoid the Grim Reaper (Brad Armendt)? Can I know that I will lose the lottery (Dorit Ganson in 14–18)? Brian Kim and Matthew McGrath’s Pragmatic Encroachment in Epistemology collects contemporary essays centered around how pragmatic factors influence epistemic processes and knowledge.

I could recommend this volume on Kim and McGrath’s introduction alone. They provide a concise summary of the seminal motivating intuitions and thought experiments behind pragmatic encroachment, and they sketch some of the field’s prominent camps and methodologies. Their introduction concludes with concise summaries of the following essays, which helps orient readers to the thesis statements and argument outlines of some highly technical papers. My only criticism is that this introduction is abbreviated, leaving newcomers and non-specialists with a rather steep learning curve. For those prospective readers, I strongly recommend reading the introduction and then some outside secondary literature or early papers in the field before continuing. It will make the volume that much more accessible and rewarding.

The volume is structured in three movements. The first section’s essays include positive formalizations of pragmatic epistemologies and assessments of how particular aspects of a pragmatist account interact with other issues in epistemology: stake-sensitivity, credences, fallibilism or infallibilism, externalism or internalism. The second section consists of critiques. Included criticisms are either directed towards the whole pragmatist project or specific moves within the discourse, including amongst the volume’s authors in the case of Charity Anderson and John Hawthorne’s objection regarding closure and Kim’s response. The final section is the most accessible to interdisciplinary interest. These essays introduce possible applications or new directions for scholarship that can be birthed from the pragmatic encroachment discourse.

For scholars interested in the intersection of pragmatic encroachment and religion, I want to highlight a few of these later essays. N. Ángel Pinillos considers whether the felt pressure from skepticism serves a useful and appropriate function—on a non-teleological reading—in broader epistemic contexts. He consults evolutionary accounts regarding the utility of skepticism where deliberation is concerned. He concludes that skepticism may be ungeneralizable to more abstract, epistemic matters such as the brain-in-a-vat problem from the utility of its empirical and survival-oriented origins.

Brad Armendt writes on how the process of deliberation—particularly a person’s continual reevaluation of a fixed set of options—adjusts the stake-sensitivity of these beliefs. He considers Allan Gibbard and William Harper’s case of a man trying to anticipate where personified Death will be tonight. If he believes that Death makes appointments from evidence-based predictions, then the man should go to Aleppo if he has evidence that Death will be in Damascus. However, in that case, the man’s traveling to Damascus would also factor into the evidence from which Death draws, which means that the man should adjust his beliefs and remain in Aleppo. The person then continues through a deliberative cycle, showing that the act of deliberation may introduce a source of evidence to be considered.

Rima Basu and Mark Schroeder address questions of how normativity intersects with epistemology. They refer to the words of the Book of Common Prayer’s Rite II Eucharistic prayer and ask: Can one sin against another in thought alone? They briefly introduce how a “doxastic wrong” is understood as a directed offense based solely on one’s holding of a belief (181–83). The rest of their essay addresses two anticipated problems for this theoretical space. First, how can one be held responsible for one’s beliefs and any belief-related offense if beliefs are largely developed outside of one’s control (183–84)? Second, how can moral considerations influence the wrongness of a belief without affecting its evidential basis (184)?

In addition to challenging preconceptions of formal epistemology, these interdisciplinary-minded essays raise interesting questions for those studying the rationality of religion, the production of religious beliefs, and the nature of religious knowledge. Basu and Schroeder explicitly mention a prominent Christian theological belief in their discussion that has implications for both a person’s doxastic offenses against a deity and possible doxastic offenses across religious lines. Armendt and Pinollos indirectly address underlying processes behind belief production in ways that may provide fruitful study, especially considering critiques from skepticism or those related to decision theory. See Matthew Benton’s “Pragmatic Encroachment and Theistic Knowledge” in Knowledge, Belief, and God (Edited by Benton, Hawthorne, and Rabinowitz; Oxford University Press, 2018) for an expanded treatment of these questions and problems in a religious context.

I cannot stress how invaluable this edited volume is for those interested in engaging with the contemporary debates of pragmatic encroachment. This work features seminal pioneers—namely, McGrath and Hawthorne—while amplifying the voices of more contemporary practitioners. The essays are written for other specialists in the field. Their arguments and conclusions are best read with a familiarity with the field’s earlier discussions, jargon, and conventions. However, pragmatic encroachment holds profound implications for contemporary scholarship, and Pragmatic Encroachment in Epistemology is a well-curated, deep dive into its present waters.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Tofte is an MA student and research assistant for the Christian West and Islamic East project at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

Date of Review: 
February 10, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian Kim is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Oklahoma State University. He works on issues at the intersection of epistemology and rational choice theory. 

Matthew McGrath is Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers and Professorial Fellow at Arché, the University of St. Andrews.



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