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ON A FORM OF SKEPTICAL ARGUMENT FROM POSSIBILITY1
Rogers Albritton Deceased. Long at Harvard and UCLA
I. I have been intermittently obsessed for years with a certain form of skeptical argument “from possibility,” as I will say. The idea of it is ancient and familiar. It’s that “anything’s possible,” as we say, so “you never know,” as we also say. Anything’s possible, so you never know. More expansively: you can always or practically always be wrong; but if you know, you can’t be wrong; so, you never or practically never know. That’s it, really, wrapped up in old newspaper and string. You may wonder what this package could contain that wasn’t rightly thrown out long ago. J.L. Austin dealt with it in 1946, for example, in a section of “Other Minds” headed “If I know I can’t be wrong,” and one might suppose that he had gotten rid of it forever. But you will gather that I don’t think he did, brilliant as that essay was and is. Three preliminary points: (1) That “if you know, you can’t be wrong” might mean only that you can’t both know and be wrong. From this generally agreed necessity that what you know be true, no necessity follows, of course, that what you know be a necessary truth or anything of the kind. Nor does the argument from possibility turn on any such modal fallacy or confusion. The principle of it—that if you know, you can’t be wrong—is, rather, this: that if, clearly, you may be wrong that p, you don’t know that p. If you have been looking into the question whether p or not, and it’s looking as if p, but some possibility remains that not-p, then you don’t yet know that p. Or if it isn’t that you’ve been looking into the question, but you’ve heard that p, or you seem to remember that p, or you’ve always taken it for granted that p—never mind how you got it into your head that p—and you have to admit that you may be wrong (you aren’t certain), then you don’t know that p. You can’t say, or think, “Well, of course I’m not certain that p, but all the same,
2 Rogers Albritton
I know that p.” Or: “Well, you’re right, of course, I may be wrong, but I don’t only think that p, I know it.” No such paradox can be the truth of the matter. That’s the principle of the argument, which then proceeds to urge in one way and another that you are seldom if ever in a position to reject, on sober consideration, that perhaps, just possibly, not-p, even where you would in everyday practical life have said you knew that p without a moment’s hesitation, or would have thought you must know it if you know anything at all. That you thus may be wrong in thinking just about anything you think (or might be wrong, or could be wrong, where those are weaker versions of the relevant “may be”) can be argued from the contingent limitations of human faculties and powers, and of the epistemic perspective of any such human individual as yourself, and from the actual history, as we suppose, of human error: not only mistake, but illusion and delusion, including of course individual illusion and delusion: optical illusions, hallucinations, dreams, madness. The usual skeptical repertoire. Or it may be argued from some exemplary thing or things that you, in particular, would have thought you knew: is it impossible, strictly speaking, that Michelangelo only pretended to be painting the Sistine chapel and nobody noticed because. . .and so forth? Can you say that no such thing could possibly go undiscovered or be kept quiet? Well then, it’s possible—there isn’t no chance—that somebody else painted that ceiling, and so you don’t actually know who painted it, do you? Is it impossible that someone should be convinced, at least for a time, that his name is Rogers Albritton when actually it’s something else? Surely that might happen to someone. Why not to you? Is it impossible that it has happened? Are you quite certain? On what ground? What’s so special about you? Couldn’t such a thing be a complete surprise? And so on. And then you are invited to generalize from the exemplary cases. (2) There is no appeal to mere logical possibility in the argument from possibility. The possibilities it alleges, from which it deduces rightly or wrongly that you don’t know much, are such possibilities as that someone may be under the bed, or just might be under the bed. They are “epistemic” possibilities, as we may say, “remote,” perhaps, or “bare” or “faint,” certainly not necessarily “live” or “strong”—indeed, probably negligible, or typically neglected, at any rate, unless a lot turns on ruling them out—but not merely “logical” or the like. And not what’s currently called “metaphysical,” either. If that object is a weather balloon then it “metaphysically” couldn’t have been a flying saucer, perhaps; but for all that, it may be a flying saucer, in the relevant sense, unless for example it can’t be because flying saucers are grounded on Tuesdays. (“Must” has the same sort of sense, of course. “It must be a flying saucer.”) I used to think that epistemic “may” and “can’t” and “must” had no future or past tenses, but they have past tenses, at least: “Didn’t I say it might be here? Here it is.” Or: “Well, it isn’t here, but still, it might have been, you were perfectly right to think it might be.” Or: “What
and if perhaps not-q. it looks as if it ought to be a great help in bashing philosophical skepticism. however obvious it seemed that he was right. I was wrong. later. which does not rely on any principle of epistemic closure. not-p. that you may be.) Modal closure. you ought not to say you know. here it is. no help in combatting the argument from possibility. seems undeniable under any kind of implication. may be false. and you will be hard put to come up with any other. even from your point of view. Modal closure can come into convincing you that most things you thought you knew. If that’s true. epistemic closure and nonclosure are irrelevant. II. or that whoever said it had to be was right.On a Form of Skeptical Argument from Possibility 3 a waste of time. It is. if you don’t know you aren’t dreaming. But of course. and that implication is no doubt evident to you. All right. It doesn’t of course follow. But it doesn’t follow that you don’t know you’re awake unless you also know you’re not dreaming. in an argument from possibility. That you are awake logically implies that you are not dreaming.’ just as you are prohibited from saying ‘I promise I will.” That it is here proves that whoever said it might be was right. (3) Fred Dretske and. but I may fail. but also is not closed under logical implication that is evident to you. To all this. then you are at least deprived of that defense against the suggestion that you may be. not-p. if you are aware you may break your word. at least. being aware that you may be mistaken doesn’t mean merely being aware that you are a fallible human being: it means that you have some concrete reason to suppose that you may be . The only role of urging that you don’t know you’re not dreaming. you have no business to promise. as I think it may well be. He says in ‘‘Other Minds”: ‘When you know you can’t be wrong’ is perfectly good sense. Robert Nozick have urged in print that the “set” of things you know not only is not closed under logical implication. looking here. is to make room for the allegation that you may be. and it also proves that whoever said it couldn’t be was wrong. much less from our point of view. then just conceivably. but it does not prove that whoever said it might not be was wrong. in telling you you were born there? Well then. taken one by one. however groundless his hunch that it might be was. whether evident to anyone or not. But if you don’t know you aren’t dreaming.’ If you are aware that you may be mistaken. however. You are prohibited from saying ‘I know it is so. I think. I told you it couldn’t be here. unlike epistemic closure. Now for Austin. however. Oh. but I may be wrong. it’s possible that you weren’t born there after all. just as. for unknown reasons. or if just conceivably (epistemic “just conceivably”) not-q. then at least perhaps not-p. If given that not-q. as Nozick puts it. (Do you know where you were born? Isn’t it possible that your parents lied.
” he says. isn’t as propositional as it looks.” with “I know” parenthetical.” “you have no business. but I may be wrong” might. “You are prohibited. It’s a species of what could quite naturally be called “contradiction” even in the case of “I promise I will. for a kind of self-contradiction. and thinking you know it is riskier. but that by itself is no bar against using the expressions ‘I know’ and ‘I promise’ as we do in fact use them. but I don’t” or “I know it is so.” “you ought not. but I may be unable to get there” cancels itself. even if “I know it is so” is. but I may be wrong” or “I promise I will.” which cancels itself as smartly as “I know it is so. therefore. But why doesn’t it. as he taught us. seems not to say only that ‘it is so. as it were. of course. like “Daddy knows best. Just as ‘but I may fail’ does not mean merely ‘but I am a weak human being’ (in which case it would be no more exciting than adding ‘D. Of course. nevertheless you know that it is: isn’t that exactly the position. either. be a contradiction narrowly so called. Thinking practically anything is risky. as I suppose he might agree. but I may fail. absurdly. and one might well wonder if “I may be wrong” is as propositional as it looks. makes a strongly propositional impression. as I’ll put it for short. But it isn’t. but I may be wrong. but for all I know it isn’t. that contradiction or no contradiction one just does know all sorts of things even though one may be wrong as to practically any of them. if it doesn’t? To be sure. has every appearance of doing just that: ‘saying’ a true or false thing. “I know it is so. (1946: 170) Thus Austin. whether you can say so or not? “It is naturally always possible.’): it means that there is some concrete reason for me to suppose that I shall break my word. one feels dimly that it can’t matter. and nevertheless we know a lot.” on the other hand. propositional appearances can be false. not morals.” which. “I promise I will” in its promising use (which isn’t. but I may fail” are cut out.” “that I may be .” and not just ‘saying’ that whatever is in question is so.’ “I know it is so. life is risk. I can’t quite honestly promise that I will keep our rendezvous if I think I may die on the way there. Austin doesn’t actually deny anything I’ve said thus far. but I may be wrong” and “I promise I will. for all Austin has told us to the contrary.” at any rate. however useful it might rhetorically be for some purpose.V. to be sure. and that’s logic. I know. but I may fail” were a species of naughtiness. and perhaps he wouldn’t.” Austin says with the parenthetical gloss “‘humanly’ possible. as if the trouble with ‘‘I know it is so. Even “It is so. “I promise to be there. or so we nervously think now. its only use) doesn’t ‘say’ anything true or false. Don’t we? Even if you can’t say that while you may be wrong and it may be that France is not in Europe.” Or so it seems to me. it seems fair to say that both “I know it is so. or didn’t matter. Instead he rather breezily writes as if it weren’t the point. And the same goes for “I know it is so. in Urmson’s term for such clauses. It is naturally always possible (‘humanly’ possible) that I may be mistaken or may break my word. and “I know it is so.4 Rogers Albritton mistaken in this case. But all the same.
” one thinks. whenever we did that. but I may be wrong” seems no less unutterable with a straight face than if we hadn’t long ago given up the quest for certainty. But then. you will be lying if you do—or would Austin not admit that? In any case. trying to cozy up to it that knowing needn’t after all be knowing. But even knowing in the teeth of a strong possibility of mistake may be manageable. has been cancelled. though as you will recall I was disastrously mistaken.” he says. Earlier on the same page he is a little more cautious: “we seem always. much less that I am mistaken. . that one does have some concrete reason to suppose that one may be mistaken or wrong. if that’s what it is. I didn’t in that other case. that there is concrete reason to suppose that I may be? It doesn’t. . Just as ‘but I may fail’ does not mean merely ‘but I am a weak human being’. Obviously. the sun does rise and set. liable to be mistaken” (my emphasis). or may be wrong. No implicature. the speaker has absurdly undermined what would have been a pretension to know.On a Form of Skeptical Argument from Possibility 5 mistaken”. that “implicature. “If you are aware that you may be mistaken. That is. being aware that you may be mistaken doesn’t mean merely being aware that you are a fallible human being: it means that you have some concrete reason to suppose that you may be mistaken in this case. Nevertheless. But we’ve known that for centuries. unless perhaps you may well be wrong. of course. and a lot else. Austin is not very helpful. as one thinks it all over in this not altogether cheering way. you ought not to say you know. That’s the position. so to speak.” Is Austin suggesting that the sentence or clause “I may be mistaken” or “I may be wrong” means. to suppose that I may be mistaken. How could it not? So even though you may be wrong. in some contexts.” But this “position” doesn’t exist. he goes on. Who knows? The meaning of “know” must be rather relaxed by now. as I was saying. I wouldn’t say. Like this: “I know he is honest. I wouldn’t count on it that I’m not mistaken again. one does feel the need of explaining away somehow that “I know it is so. which might be a bit much. So if I were you. often enough. It’s our condition. I may be. or practically always. And there. All it means is that one may be mistaken. there. if he had said as much and shut up. and leaving it at that. haven’t we? And yet we go right on saying we know it. in this case. we do.” in Grice’s term. . The meaning of what we say conforms itself to what we know. since we continue to say so even now that we know (as we suppose) the astronomical facts of the matter. If so. maybe even always.’ This chap is extremely convincing. So. ‘may well be. and we know even more than we think!” But then. But I may be mistaken. I know he’s honest. But perhaps the point is that one gives people to understand by saying the sentence. On the contrary. should be easy to cancel. you know. After all. ‘‘We are practically always liable to be mistaken. But he may be dishonest.: it means that there is some concrete reason to suppose that I shall break my word. “How true. I have no concrete reason. either. after another distracting parallel with ‘I promise’: “But of course. I suppose. of course. in the case at hand. Perhaps it’s very relaxed.
I can feel it. but are everywhere wrong that we know. but still I know. or we wouldn’t be having this conference. and the absurdity of “I know it is so. “Well. is fantastic. It would no doubt be ridiculous to think that the whole use of “I know” is more or less loose.” That. trusting us to take it as you mean it. even if you don’t exactly. They inexorably collide. that is.” We may congratulate you on your instinct in the matter of this shady type if he doesn’t steal the spoons. more emphatically. All right. and the alternative idea that we mean it strictly. you don’t know. But what you mean doesn’t alter what what you say means. if we only knew it? Or perhaps we’re human beings. But we don’t have all day for you to explain the position. unless we’re gartersnakes. by the argument from possibility or some other. but I don’t see that he gives any reason to resist it.) “We are fallible human beings. unbuttoned talk. a lot of loose talk. It suggests. the meaning of “I know” might be quite strict in the matter of whether you know if you may be wrong.” for example. If you don’t really know. You don’t only believe the man is honest. I don’t really know.’” . as it typically is.” as one might say with a little smile. The fact is. even if we are commonly not inconveniently strict in our use of it. Is that in the cards? Austin writes as if it were. we even welcome. if not at the beginning. all right. The spirit giveth life.6 Rogers Albritton Or does he know? Perhaps he does. It is as if you know he is. though it doesn’t follow that you had no business to say you did. or only feel that he is. Saying a thing loosely isn’t therefore saying a looser thing. but I may be wrong” suggests that in this respect “I know” is quite strict. if that’s how the talk is taken. in which case he would have cancelled his rambling concession that he might be mistaken. even year after year. not au pied de la lettre. But how awful is the awful truth that we are fallible human beings? Are we so fallible that perhaps we’re gartersnakes and not human beings. It saves time. and needn’t mislead anybody. That we use the expression as we do in fact use it is no proof to the contrary. but human beings are gartersnakes. But the letter of a language isn’t altered by just a lot of spirited or relaxed. We tolerate. Austin would resist this suggestion. rightly. “I know” and “I may be mistaken” can’t be gotten through a logical intersection by adroit steering and some sounding of horns. as if we never meant it quite seriously and it were in effect everywhere elliptical for “I know well enough” or “I know for all practical purposes. “but of course I don’t mean to excite you. There may be no conveniently short way of saying the looser thing. I suppose. We all know what you mean when you say ‘‘I know he’s honest. In short. indeed. it seems. So you say you know he is honest. It’s no good saying. and should have said so at the end. that (after all) we don’t know where we may be wrong. no matter how often and unobjectionably we say we do in a loose way of saying so. (“It is naturally always possible (‘humanly’ possible) that I may be mistaken”.V. often enough. Did I excite you? I do apologize. or explains how exactly it is to be resisted. quite. would be an incoherent idea. I only meant ‘unless we’re gartersnakes’ as one might say ‘D.
I have never taken anyone else for my mother. Is it yesterday’s news that we may be gartersnakes? I would have thought not. I have a ticket.” between strictly and not so strictly so saying. we make lots of mistakes. there are a few losing tickets. obviously. I just know it!” But I don’t. I may say I do. I don’t know that it will. and that. similar cases. I don’t accept that suggestion. in our use of “I know. To be sure. We are far from infallible. that Albania is not somewhere between Russia and China. But I don’t see that his remarks have any force against it. So I don’t know that it will win. though not very. Imagine a philanthropic lottery in which almost everyone wins. That’s a perfectly concrete fact about the lottery. and is a compelling reason (other things being equal) to suppose that this ticket I’ve bought may lose. but I don’t know that it won’t. Are people infallible when it comes to their mothers? Of course not. And I would expect a thoroughgoing skeptic to be unimpressed by the contrast between concrete reasons to suppose that one may be mistaken in a particular case. The argument. another class on skepticism when I discovered that I had firmly confused a certain undergraduate before me with a certain absent graduate student. On the contrary. Why aren’t what we take for things we know like that. it seems a demented idea. any more than (I suppose) Austin would. in turn. if the lottery is a fair lottery and I have no mysterious powers. and lots of other such ideas are. either. if we know anything.On a Form of Skeptical Argument from Possibility 7 Something is going wrong there. “It’s a winner. I have no concrete reason to suppose that it. The point is. that there are losers . Why don’t I know that it won’t? Because it might and therefore may. like all the others. is from natural possibility to epistemic possibility. and general reasons to suppose that one may be mistaken in any such case. or enough. But this lottery is so set up that some tickets do lose. and be flat wrong. and of the other day in. that a sane grownup should be taken in by someone who is not his mother. assume that she is his mother. like tickets in a lottery about which we know. that isn’t a “logical” question. But has no one? Could no one? Again. What if it is. as distinguished from others. as distinguished from other. though no doubt unlikely. even if the argument from possibility were valid. It’s the question whether as the world goes it’s impossible in the nature of things or on the contrary possible. How is that general reflection deficient in concreteness? The point is not that we are fallible human beings in some thin sense in which it verges on incoherence to suppose about a human being that he’s infallible. in a class on skepticism. but to keep things exciting. rosy as it is like all the others. here. myself. We are sadly fallible for example. My skeptic will remind me of the embarrassing day when I discovered. in particular. surely. may lose. I believe. to secure a contrast. and in fact we are not practically always liable to be mistaken? There might in that case be room for us to know a lot. would make a kind of room that might otherwise have seemed unavailable for the annoying suggestion that our use of “I know” (and “you know” and “she knows” and so on) is in very large part not strict. Enough I mean.
“May be” (or “might be”). say. as big as the Soviet Union or bigger. do I. It’s the “may be” of “she may be for all I know” or the “might be” of “She might be. seriously speaking. among the things people think they know. You can’t locate people by eliminating all the places they may not be. distinguish from any of the other similar things they think they know.”) One thinks: “Well. some that I can’t identify—in my present position. or even may be. That it may not be so doesn’t logically imply that it is not so. might be wrong.” (“He promises he will. isn’t ambiguous. in the use the argument makes of it. but he doesn’t believe it. which again isn’t merely “logical”? Is it inconceivable that I am mixed up even on this point. again. Isn’t it like the lottery? Isn’t it even probable that among the things I in particular think I know.8 Rogers Albritton among these indistinguishable tickets? I’ve bought this thing. So it’s obvious that ‘It is so. I’m sure of it. know that it isn’t? Surely I don’t. There are losers. but he may fail” is. that Monaco is smaller than the Soviet Union. nevertheless. for example. the paradox of “I know it is so. and she says he was with her” from what it means in “I may be wrong. “I may be wrong” means nothing different in “I may be wrong. of course. certainly. there was that loser about Albania.” with “it may not be. it can. have every reason to think they know. as if they could only be where they must be. This one. that Monaco is smaller than the Soviet Union. If a thing may not be so. might conceivably in the ordinary sense. But do I need one? Isn’t there concrete reason all the same to think that I may be? But now. But it isn’t a transform of ‘‘I promise I will. at least—are wrong? Why not this one? I can’t believe it. sometimes. and Monaco may be. but I may be wrong’ can’t be a contradiction. but actually might. So even a thing that I can’t believe is wrong may be wrong. might be wrong: not “logically” might. as I was about the location of Albania? I have no special reason to think I am. if I do admit that I may be. I can’t believe it isn’t. but I may fail. On the other hand. but it may not be’ doesn’t contradict itself. but I don’t believe it” can (apparently) be shown to be merely ‘‘pragmatic. for all that I can’t believe it.” Moreover. wrong. don’t ask me. “It’s raining. and can’t. I suppose. I suppose. out of their heads. all right. That’s the argument. but he may be wrong” is as bad as “I know it is so. but I may be wrong. so to speak: namely. because surely the clash of it derives from the clash of “It is so.”) The argument doesn’t equivocate on any of these expressions. but that’s the point: even things people can’t believe are wrong are. So I don’t actually know that Monaco is smaller than the Soviet Union. I’m not infallible.” namely by recasting it in the third person: “It’s raining. wait a minute.” “He knows it is so. It’s a winner.” which isn’t contradiction. Does Austin explain it away? I don’t see that he does. ‘I know it is so. but I may be wrong” does not yield to the method by which Moore’s paradox. might be. Can I refuse to admit that this one about the relative sizes of Monaco and the Soviet Union may lose. he denies he did it. . Who knows?” (“Could be” has the same use: “She could be.
but it may not be. But simply: It is so. in any case. this: that by “I know it is so” one unavoidably represents oneself as being in a certain position with regard to the question whether it is so or not. implied. Does that matter? Isn’t the point. “D.” and therefore isn’t the absurdity of self-contradiction. as Austin does. without any such qualification as “unless I’m wrong” or “if I’m not mistaken. if I’m not mistaken” is not in the same way all right (though it might be put to good transitory use by someone who for the time being felt a little unsure—as one can—whether he really knew what he seemed to know. rather.) So why can’t we know what may not be so. any more than “It is so. And if you aren’t. of entitlement to say that it is. but I may be wrong” would express a contradiction narrowly so called—or pretty narrowly so called. so what’s the problem? Answer: In the first place. a position. which is unexciting because that’s no doubt about as much as I would have been understood to mean anyway. Or: It is so. in the context. (That “can’’ is “logical.” in a sense. but aren’t wrong about? ‘‘I know it is so. “I know it is so. definite. It’s “logically” out that a thing may be false and yet I can see that it can’t be false. in this epistemic use. “I know it is so. but one doesn’t contradict oneself by saying it. to say it. but I may be wrong” isn’t that it says anything self-contradictory. except by a child who hasn’t . Either you’re in a position to take it that p.On a Form of Skeptical Argument from Possibility 9 be so. “It is so.V” added onto “I promise that I will” converts “I promise that I will” into the lesser promise that I will if I possibly can. and. There’s no having it both ways. that the thing in question may be false? In that case. namely.” And of course if one says “but I may be wrong” or anything of the kind. but it may not be” does. strictly speaking. The position of knowing a thing just is one or another position to take it as true. Not: It is so. but I may be wrong” does derive from that of “It is so. that “Deo Volente” isn’t an exciting addition to what would otherwise be flat promises. Their conflict is surely “logical. or not). but I may be wrong” is an absurd thing to say. flat. to assert flatly that it is. one unavoidably represents oneself as precisely not in that position. depending on how propositional “it can’t be” and “it may be” are.” of course. as it seems to. if there is occasion to do so. It may derive instead from the clash of some other implication of “I know that it is so” with “I may be wrong. when it nevertheless is so? And therefore know what we may be wrong about. however tolerable and convenient it may be for you to say you do. In the second place. it isn’t clear that the absurdity of “I know it is so. and it isn’t dissolved by suggesting. unless I’m wrong.” What if “I know that it is so” meant something like ‘I can see that it can’t be false’ and ‘I may be wrong’. and its absurdity is in a way incurable. suppose that the trouble with “I know it is so. That’s the problem. God willing. or you aren’t. and that a similar addition to what would otherwise be flat claims to know isn’t very exciting either. in effect. if I’m not mistaken” is all right. you don’t know that p.
may or may not be formally valid. not in Albania.” So is “It’s there. or by God. who doesn’t go for “D. And if we don’t keep our heads and do . In some sense they aren’t there in sufficient quantity for the argument’s skeptical purpose.” What I don’t see is how these analogies with “I promise. We know a lot. I simply don’t. I don’t deny the analogy. which I can hardly be. and that Monaco isn’t a patch on the Soviet Union. I know. But it seems “presuppositionally valid” at worst. intrinsically “performative. among other things. if we keep our heads. III. Not quite being in a certain position is a variety of not being in it. I know perfectly well not only that I was born and the like. Not that I have adequately discussed that discussion. as far as I can see. What’s wrong with the argument. defeat the argument from possibility. then I don’t simply know. They can’t be. then. Am I pervasively in no position to reject it that I may be wrong.” And so is “It’s there. I see in Austin’s discussion no means of evading the conclusion that I don’t know anything like as much as I think (so to speak). in other words.” “You have my word. and so are the rest of that tribe of inconsistent representations of one’s epistemic position. but also that I was born in Ohio. you never know. We can’t in good faith think otherwise. that couldn’t be cleaned up if we had the time? It’s the possibilities. as it were—a lesser performance than of straightsaying “I know it’s there. among other things. Indeed. I have skirted its centerpiece: the analogy between “I know” and “I promise. If it said anything. as G.” and so on. ‘‘I know it is so. “I know that Monaco is smaller than the Soviet Union. as the argument from possibility supposes? If so. unless of course it isn’t” is nonsense.E. it would represent me as both in and not in a position to know that the thing is so. and so forth and so forth. Indeed. If I’m in no position to reject it that I may be wrong. I think. I bet.” but a performance of the same genre. My guess is that it isn’t. since in fact one knows a lot. as one might put it. Moore would invite me to notice.10 Rogers Albritton caught on yet. but I may be wrong” has no use. “It is so.” Even the undecorated declarative sentence is. but I don’t know that it is” is itself malformed. The addition of “but I may be wrong” doesn’t convert “I know it is so” into a claim to know rather less than that it is so.” on which Austin expands for pages. The argument that since anything’s possible. “I know it’s there” is.V” as a qualification of promises to Him. But with knowing. A possibility we may neglect is a possibility. if not “ill formed. the case is different. “performative”: it can’t be said straight without putting what it says on offer. it would say that I both am not and may be mistaken that it is so: that is.” “I guarantee it.
perhaps. of course.On a Form of Skeptical Argument from Possibility 11 think otherwise. that I have knees (and the like) leaves me obstinate (cf . I believe. that I “may” or “can’t” have no knees. Do they all say they do? Well. but as it were better than know. as Wittgenstein’s On Certainty has I think taught me. its tundras! The moon just possibly so tasty that it beats Roquefort! Every one of us a genius. in this matter of knowledge and possibility. though impossibles are interestingly harder to think of than sillies. Is anything impossible. Nothing would make them possibilities. that every mailman simply loves his job. deprive me of it that I “may conceivably have no knees. And that’s the usual position among us. then. for example. it’s not like that in the least. It’s impossible. if we call it anything of the kind. with its steppes. What’s to believe? There is not. not exactly. though other. no. then. . Wittgenstein 1969: ss. as far as the eye of the mind can see! Enormous Monaco. Or the poll was faked. they’re lying. The linguistic facts are very complicated. that I have knees? As to that. not know. for the present. So do I know that not every mailman loves his job? Well.” “can’t have no knees. indeed I’m stuck with it. I count myself as one who knows perfectly well that he has knees. and I have dark misgivings. we could not entertain any possibilities whatever. in. and if it were. I wasn’t born yesterday. On Certainty oscillates. One can work up a certain enthusiasm for the idea that we don’t know anything. Here “I know” and “I don’t know” do seem adrift. There’s no help for it. nice or nasty. we do so inconsistently with what we know perfectly well.” “must” and their kind does. because the use of “I know” is too “specialized” to permit that I know. And that puts it out of question whether I may or can’t have none. or that we don’t know either. I take it. But of course it isn’t that I don’t know but what every mailman does simply love his job.” “must have knees” or anything of the kind. more poignant positions are of course imaginable. that I have knees. Know it? I don’t even know any mailmen. if anyone wants to know. An immense stock. Think of the freedom of it! The vista of possibilities! Everything unstuck. We who so variously think all sorts of things are necessarily stuck with an equally various stock of what we can only call knowledge. Epistemic possibilities are grounded in fact. any “possibility that I have no knees. either. in the relevant sense? Yes. for the most part. to call it “belief. namely that we know a lot. but don’t tell me that just maybe there isn’t a single mailman alive who doesn’t find it enthralling to deliver all that mail. Do I. perhaps. What it is. We don’t say we know in such cases. so to speak. Wittgenstein’s suggestion that I shouldn’t.” as if I believed that I am not dead. 1–11).” Not that it’s impossible that I have no knees. or have knees. if that’s right. maybe! But in truth. But on balance. But the use of (epistemic) “may. It’s laughable. The thing is impossible. or God knows what. or don’t. is “senseless” in my present position.” “can’t. I do not face. I’ve got it.
I want to say one thing that must be said. that the word “know” has buckled under what Wittgenstein calls a “metaphysical emphasis” (1969: s. “You’re so dumb you don’t even know you’re alive!” It’s hard to believe that we’re that dumb. A misguided skeptic might say. just his head emerging from the wet sheets. now do you? In all honesty. ‘‘I don’t mean to deny that you know all sorts of things (we all do) in a weak sense. And the correlative idea that skepticism is irrefutable if it sticks to a terrific sense of “know” is wrong. I know . even though we may be dead. even though we may be elsewhere? That seems to me wrong. for certain. and where we are. you miserable little philosopher. says savagely to Bruce Dern. Someone else. ‘They’re lying. The question isn’t whether you know you’ve got feet as contrasted with some poor soul kept wrapped up in wet sheets and taught that he’s a fish from the waist down. sir. “I put it to you. Of course. Come on! The question is whether you really know. that mysteriously attaches itself to the word “know” if you say it dramatically enough. however baldly. But this high sense of “know” and therefore the low sense too. In the film of The Great Gatsby. Karen Black. that you don’t actually know which end is up. are entirely illusory. if the deity advised a certain caution in the matter of the so-called law of noncontradiction? And you have the audacity to say you know this and that about Monaco. There is no such sense. and a high. under this sort of pressure into a low sense in which we know enough to get by. in a grotesquely wrong register. you wouldn’t defy the deity on the most elementary point of logic. and it isn’t that we don’t have any.12 Rogers Albritton IV. none of it certain. or really know pitifully little. I believe. superlative sense in which God knows if we know anything. as I recall. But before I look for more precise pressure points. therefore.” I want to say “Sure. there is surely another. Don’t we in some low sense know we’re alive. Antiskeptics and skeptics alike should resist as a wicked seduction the ecumenical proposal that although there is a high or deep sense or way of knowing in which only a god or one with a god in him could know the time of day. 482) and gone nonsensical. if we had any? It wouldn’t be anything. Am I making any progress? I wonder. He might say. quite humble little sense or way of knowing enough to come in out of the rain. in bizarre circumstances. That we don’t really know anything. if you aren’t mistaken! I can’t believe my ears!” One feels as if the sense of the word “know” were fracturing. might be in some doubt as to whether he had feet or not. would you? Would you actually defy the deity. which isn’t threatened by the argument from possibility. What would this superlative knowledge be. and that little not even securely speakable (“I”? What’s I? What’s thinking? What’s existing?) registers. or something. which you have never so much as visited. naturally. that you’ve got feet. piteously.
“is not whether you are or aren’t. that you have feet? And don’t give me feet as contrasted with a fishtail or hooves. There is no such better position. But why shouldn’t he be crazy? I don’t understand what knowing in the superlative sense that one has or doesn’t have a headache. it would be terrifically surprising if someone who had a bad headache believed that he didn’t. and I wonder if anyone actually ever hasn’t known for certain whether he had feet or not? I suppose so. or with papier-mache feet. like Moore! Come on. external feet as contrasted with an undetectable illusion of feet. At which the skeptic may protest that I’m missing the point again. No such uncertainty surrounds the question whether I’ve got feet. Ten. And I have a similar problem with the suggestion that I superlatively know what five and five make. that I have feet? Under this stress.” he says. Yes indeed. and what would it be like if he couldn’t? Have we any idea of it? Of course. Of course you aren’t. unless perhaps you hated your feet anyway. I wish I knew for certain! But I can’t get out of these sheets. in an equally boring way. It must be awful. unless perhaps just having one or not. So what would I be claiming . even as to some question of elementary arithmetic. he’d be crazy. but unlike some other philosophers I don’t see that this couldn’t possibly happen. I know for certain that I do. you do. is supposed to be. a little craziness.” And so on.’’ he says. the word can seem to take on a superlative sense. But never mind the feet. And of course there could be a strange lapse of mind. with regard to whether you have feet or not. even. What about the knowing? In the skeptic’s last remarks. But what would it be to know anything in this superlative sense? “As God knows it. do you really think you know. and insisted sincerely that he felt perfectly fine. or even that you know it for certain. one thinks. or a big craziness. in a standard sort of situation of “not knowing for certain” whether p or not.” “You’re damn right.On a Form of Skeptical Argument from Possibility 13 they’re lying. But how does God know it? Have we any idea? He can’t be wrong. But do you? Does anybody? Don’t just say you know you have feet in that boring way. They’ve glued them together or something. If anybody knows absolutely for certain that he has feet. But how not? Why not? Do we understand the vague notion of infallibility that is operating here? Not just that he never is wrong. Say it in a nonboring way. with certainty. in this life. I suppose. don’t you think so? God. I want real. Do I know. of course. Why won’t you help me? How can you be so heartless?’ And so on. but that he can’t be. with certainty.” one thinks. for the moment. the verb “know” is buckling. Not me. You couldn’t be in a better position to know for certain that you have feet. if you dare. What’s that? A human being can be wrong. And don’t pretend you don’t know what that would be like!” I reply: “I suppose it would be exactly like having feet. material. as one might say. If the fellow didn’t at some level know that what he was saying was false. I’ve got feet like everyone else. “The question.
not any other day. I’d say. is. We don’t superlatively know anything. even. He isn’t mythological or fictitious. How could one be wrong that one existed? Even a maniac can hardly go wrong if he sticks to that little point about himself. I don’t know what that would be. looking up from her precocious arithmetical labors with a skeptical frown. after all. metaphors. one may say. and defied God himself to say to me ‘‘Your gears are slipping”? I don’t know what I would be claiming. or know we’re here. but it’s not in the language. or ferreted out and grasped with a grasp that makes Madame Sosostris look like a piker. And there’s no room at all for ‘‘apparently” and “really” in these peculiar matters.” What is it for them to make ten really? Really as contrasted with what? Apparently? That five and five apparently make ten would be an absurd thing for any of us to say. by God. except for playing with.” But can he? Is this knowledge at all? Perhaps it is. what? Ten. and therefore there is no such literal thought to think as “I’m fictitious. It’s boring. “I’m over here!” shouted in a dense fog doesn’t express any superlative knowledge. In some sense he does. I think we have no clear idea. for example.14 Rogers Albritton if I claimed to know that five and five make ten. The argument . rather than of any superlative acquaintance with oneself? Even if I’m all confused as to who I am and even what I am. not even that we exist. even quite ordinary. I bet. It’s any. but if so doesn’t it come of knowing the use of the first person pronoun. Period. knowing one has a head.” for example. A very young child might say it. or would be. It’s like a label reading “This is fictitious” or “This no longer exists. one may not have a head. It’s a cute sentence. hardly worth mentioning. of what this superlative knowledge would be like.’ of course. divinely perfect certainty. I know more interesting things than that. for all that it can’t be contradicted. knowing. “I can tell. believe me. is not a clear idea. in any case at all.” I know that I exist in the same sort of way I know that this is today. because the idea of this superlative state. So I don’t know what superlative knowledge. and therefore can’t think clearly either that we haven’t got any or that we’ve got some. Five and five make. But as to knowing. just very common knowledge. and neither does ‘‘I exist. in which the fact itself is handed to us on a platter. Would it be knowing (without emphasis) that they really make ten? If so. wherever we are. analogies. or even dead. It’s not an idea at all.” he says maniacally. I can hardly think I’m just an old wives’ tale. But why not? Because that sentence and others like it have no literal meaning. that five and five make ten. as most grownups do. Of course I know that five and five make ten. but there it is: he exists. There’s always ‘that one exists. It’s pictures. That’s not superlative knowledge.’’ as far as I can see. But it isn’t only this incurably unclear ambition of superlatively knowing one has a head that is frustrated if. my problem shifts to that “really. But is this an item of superlative knowledge he’s got? “I know I do. but not one of us. not elsewhere.
in effect. and the like. one must be careful not to mistake this true sense for a highflying nonsense. or not for certain. The character of knowledge strictly so-called does indeed emerge under pressure: “He has a twin. What else would he say?” But a position to know is a position to know. fleeing the scene? I put it to you that you don’t. under this inquisition. There is no such thing as knowing but not for a fact or not for certain. And I’m not admitting that one can know in a weak sense or way if one’s position to know is compromised by present possibilities. aren’t knowing with bells on. for certain. I doubt it. the idea of real knowledge goes nonsensical. I remind you: do you really know it was he in the black raincoat. can I make out that there is no such pandemic of possible error as the argument from possibility requires? I think I could if I understood possibility better than I do. indeed. or hardly ever. I don’t. it won’t do for me to come out with it that I just do and I don’t care how. The same goes for “beyond doubt” and so on. There are no greater and lesser knowing. which jumps right up into the intense inane with all the other crystalline senses that “determine” quite wonderful referents: the really flat. One may expect attack. the really simple: in short. that’s all. Knowing for a fact. Now then. the really one. To be sure. That’s exactly what I want to reject. ‘‘He would say that. “And that’s right. What “for a fact” does. V. and its correlative nonidea of the disheveled knowledge we’ve got. by thinking to distinguish strong and weak senses of the verb “know. “Present possibilities” is a redundancy there. And there’s something in that. the really perfect.) But under illicit pressure. the really solid. I don’t deny that some or all of these locutions have an additional function of indicating the strength of one’s position to know. and we had better face it that we can never. and aren’t saying so as lightly as someone might. and not go running off after the kite of superlative knowledge like a lightminded dog. finally. But I don’t. of course.” One might instead think that what crystallizes under the pressure of possibility is the true sense of “know. and will only try to . Was Descartes thus guilty of barking up the wrong tree? I don’t know. I’m not endorsing a category of clear and absent dangers.” which it has had all along. What I need is a drink. as if knowing really for a fact or knowing really for certain were an unattainable species of knowledge. like everyone else. in “I know for a fact that he loathes her” is only to underline that you do know. There’s knowing. how it would fare under attack. one needn’t go in for the nonidea of superlative knowledge. that it is doomed.On a Form of Skeptical Argument from Possibility 15 from possibility should stick to this sinister objective. (Or if I do. But again. strong or not so strong. and be announcing. claim more than to know but not for a fact. greater knowing as contrasted with lesser knowing.
or have any reason to believe it. in a punchbowl ? I’m so sorry. It doesn’t sufficiently register their objectivity to describe this possibility and impossibility as “intersubjective. it is not ideally objective like facts as one metaphysically imagines them without a shred of appearance on. then. ignorant days. right and left. or on any other question. and seemed perfectly possible. or whatnot. Second. It was possible for all I knew. A thing like that could happen. To see any.’ Possibility in the ‘epistemic’ sense of the argument from possibility is not in that limiting degree objective. and we are all hallucinating. and therefore we knew hardly anything. The critical points are two: first. as matters eventually turn out but no one could reasonably have guessed in the old. they no longer have any feet. even if they were there. God sees no such possibilities or impossibilities. One is tempted to think that even if fallible human beings see no possibility that. so to speak. that our feet have gone the way of all flesh by some exotic route. and therefore may happen. or be able to give us any. say.” even.” I don’t know that any such awful hotfoot has ever been administered to the reasonable. for example. or even merely intersubjective. and there is no place for it in “His” sight that we may or may not or must or can’t. no skeptic would know it. The missing dog is a Great Dane? Oh well . “In the sight of God” (the God of this way of speaking) we have feet. which God. The earth has turned out to . being God. However.) Possibility and impossibility of the type in question here are objective even if they vanish at the ideal limit of objectivity. Everyone may think it possible (or impossible) that p and be just wrong. but now I know better and see that it isn’t possible after all. if I am the one considering whether a thing is possible or not. There is no divine perspective on the question of our having feet. as I’ve already said rather cryptically. one must be situated . it is nevertheless possible in the sight of God . that epistemic possibility is not subjective. which will dispose nicely of the once universal opinion of the reasonable that of course it was out of the question that p. isn’t. or we don’t (ignoring the vagueness of “have feet”). But nothing is ‘possible in the sight of God. where we like to think the facts are. It may turn out that p. I don’t deny it and don’t mean to concede only that it “logically might. “His” view is the view from nowhere. We can’t have all these possibilities to delight and depress us. I suspect not. we can forget the crawlspace. but objective. in which it might seem (and therefore be) possible that so and so but impossible that so and so.16 Rogers Albritton persuade you that even if there were all those possibilities. though in fact it will prove nothing of interest. to borrow Tom Nagel’s nice phrase. I who thought a thing possible can learn that it isn’t and wasn’t. somehow. possibility in the sense of the argument from possibility is not relative to just my situation. True believers and village skeptics will be cheered by this turn of events. (What happened to your darling little whatever it was? Good God. and the elderly reasonable will perhaps think “what next!!” and hope that what’s next will be one in the eye for the unreasonably credulous or incredulous.
we can’t (we in this room can’t. or nonsensical (I am trying to speak for us. We know now that it isn’t at rest. or (I would say) knowing perfectly well. that it would be idiotic in this day and age to think that the earth may rest on this or that. or God). It’s a nonstarter. that was hasty of them. But as we all know. in a certain way. indeed. when Anaximander asserted. But my guess is that there has been no debacle of the kind I mean. of course. or the like. so to speak. would have thought possible (on reflection) is a fact (or is even possible) after all.well. as it seems. not impossible. The example is a bad example of impossibility. in a desperate effort to explain things to a rather weird child. I suppose one might say even now. or that it is actually impossible that the earth is round because the people in China would fall off if it were. that is) except in conflict with believing. “Impossible” is the wrong word for this idea. or that some pigs can fly. these last concessions don’t entail that the earth does or may rest on a column of invisible material like a ball on a pedestal. They should have thought that they might be mistaken. and said. after the “because” I give out. like a ball on a pedestal? No we should not. and that just possibly the earth rests on a column of some invisible material. that there was no Peloponnesian war. after all. in fact. either. but that doesn’t prove anything. It doesn’t get as far as impossible. . I mean. The column of invisible material is good. there isn’t the slightest possibility that the earth rests on a column of anything. No truly awful discovery that what only a crank. . that it’s as if the earth rests on a column of invisible material sticking up out of the sun. because. It’s no more “impossible” than that we are a troop of baboons. There needs to be a little more prima facie room . I doubt that there is any precedent for such a discovery as. except of course in some sense. or whatever one did then. like a ball on a pedestal. To be sure. Indeed. because “impossible” is too weak a word for the actual status of the idea that the earth rests on an invisible column and therefore doesn’t fall. or the like. for example. and so forth. and so on. not sixth century Greeks. “Impossible!” If so. But that doesn’t prove anything. dead at the starting gate with its legs in the air. I believe. What it is is just absurdly false.On a Form of Skeptical Argument from Possibility 17 be round. quite ordinary people of the time may have snorted. or that the queens of England may have been men. I wouldn’t bet my allowance that children will never be told in ordinary schools that in a sense the earth rests on as it were a sort of column. somehow. at best. Should we think that we too might be mistaken even now. you see. “Scientists Say Earth May Rest on Huge Tortoise” strikes the wrong note. They should have reflected. and so forth. and everything is pretty funny deep inside things. it goes around the sun. Johnny. and no truly awful discovery that what only a crank. and to revolve around the sun. because: and so forth. never mind. We haven’t that distance on it. Fall where? Well. in Greek. It’s like that. that the earth has no support and nevertheless doesn’t move from where it is because it is equidistant from its surroundings in three dimensions. would have thought impossible is impossible.
a fact (if “fact” is the word for it) from which it does not follow that we can’t be baboons or must be human beings. it isn’t. absolutely impossible that p. It isn’t even that we can see that we aren’t baboons. one couldn’t see anything. which is worse than impossible.18 Rogers Albritton for it that p in order for it to be quite impossible that p. And it seems equally out of order that the earth may or can’t be supported by a huge tortoise or a transparent column with holes in it for the moon and so forth. though again. pterodactyls have been extinct for centuries. whether it is possible or impossible that p. then I have to think that perhaps my very own as it were words have no meanings either. In the position from which one would see that anything’s possible. for God’s sake!” There. not baboons. Nobody did. as one imagines it. if one could see anything. which I can’t help. (Not Godzilla. so to speak. but the pterodactyls. now it’s pterodactyls. I suppose. Why are you such a sucker for whatever that rotten Popov kid says? Last week it was Godzilla. be in a position to entertain it and reject it as impossible. I didn’t invent it. and we would be free to think absolutely anything possible (what else could we think?) would on the contrary be one in which the question. which might seem still more promising. Wise up. and therefore I am not. Words and their meanings are as ‘external’ as trees. that is. of the position in which nothing a posteriori is settled yet. though they’ve heard of both baboons and human beings) is that we are human beings. like the dinosaur. Out of order in our actual situation. in our present situation.) That we are a troop of baboons. since its sense would be in question too. Am I sure? Yes I’m sure. here and now. certainly. What one can’t invent is a position outside all such epistemic confines. If anyone thought it possible that we were baboons. however. Is it possible that they have a cage of live pterodactyls at the Moscow zoo? “No. and so is the idea. no question would have an answer already. as far as I can see. someone might. And that isn’t thinking. or think anything either. could not have its usual sense. But why? Because that’s not possible. no doubt. and can only pretend to reject as impossible. If I have to think that perhaps there are no such words. in which. is impossibility properly so called. Pterodactyls were a prehistoric creature. therefore. But not fine in our mouths or heads. is a suggestion that we can only pretend to entertain. Fine. in which the question “Is it possible or not?” nevertheless has its usual purchase and from which it is evidently possible after all that the earth is supported by a huge tortoise and we are baboons. The idea of this position in which nothing is settled yet is illusory. “Baboons? They can’t be baboons. and indeed no question could have its usual sense. as far as I can see. . which might seem more promising. One can invent others. though thinkable by someone. I can hear them talking. What we know (as some unfortunate men and women might not. in imaginable circumstances. thinking. as we all know? I wouldn’t say we knew any such thing. perhaps. No such modal remarks are in order. he would be mistaken. or nothing a posteriori except that it looks as if there were physical objects about (and the like).” All right. as I would have thought. That position. Virginia.
That doesn’t of course dispose of the question whether anything p is maximally ridiculous or not. namely that for anything p such that we in our blinkered condition can only think it false or (at worst) impossible. or indeed could. if one is in a position to think anything at all. that p. in the sense that one is in no position.On a Form of Skeptical Argument from Possibility 19 All the same. to think it anything but false or impossible that p. though this awful fact has been kept from us by a vast conspiracy of guff about “Latin America” and other such inventions? I would say not. doesn’t entail that if anything is maximally ridiculous. however. in our situation. for instance. then we can’t. I don’t mean to be packing it into the idea of a truly awful surprise that no such surprise is possible. or may be true even if it never does turn out to be true. “logical” limits on what could be discovered . which of course I don’t concede. to think possible may be true nevertheless and may even get discovered. Could it be discovered by intrepid tourists that the earth has an edge after all. Why not? What doesn’t follow from that. that nothing we are in no position to think possible is or even may be true. say.) What I don’t concede is the formula which would permit universal instantiation. There would be a kind of contradiction in conceding that and instantiating it to our being baboons. since if the instantiation were valid it would prove that it wasn’t. I think. may someday turn out to be true. or by the reflection. or we know. (If it “logically couldn’t. or for me. and can only think false as everyone in that situation knows. will ever be discovered. it would prove that our being baboons isn’t an instance of a thing we “can only think false or impossible” in the relevant sense. in the fullness of time. To put this simple matter (about which I am not altogether clear in my mind) in another way: that something maximally ridiculous may be a fact. or even can’t think possible or impossible. in our cultural situation. it may be a fact. But it doesn’t follow. that nothing utterly surprising. If there is any such thing. if only we knew it. unless one’s position were somehow altered . something or other that it would be absurd. think of it that it may be true.” that’s another matter. For all I know. by hypothesis. is that we may be baboons. I concede that something we think impossible. it may nevertheless be true. so to say. Not by intrepid tourists and not in any other way either. or even for some of us. That is. as we understand that word. Some such stunning discovery may be in store for our descendants. for some p. . even if that’s right. perhaps. and can’t consistently quantify over it as one among other things that may after all be true. But they are not altered by the reflection that they do change over time. Why should I? I don’t see that I should. Such positions change over time. which had seemed impossible or. I don’t say that no truly awful surprise could possibly be in store for us. better than impossible in the fashion of our being baboons. It seems to me evident that one must be in no position to think it possible that p. There are. which I set aside here. which I concede. and that our own position is one in which large numbers of things are in this sense beyond doubt. just south of Tijuana.
that Hitler has taken refuge in another solar system. or may be in Tokyo. or may all be naked or (better) have no bodies. or it should be.” But it is too general. to enforce the absurd ideas that we may be baboons. I’m afraid it won’t work out that while I don’t exactly know that I know he isn’t. instead. But then. What is another impossible? I suppose it’s impossible. or that I should take . But if so. Well. and of the wrong logical form. and the thought is a commonplace. Another solar system? Come on! Perhaps it logically might be possible that that is where he went. I see no case at all for the view that any of those things is possible. or even impossible. Possible is “epistemic” throughout here. And what if there were rocket ships but they kept it quiet and it hasn’t come out? Isn’t that possible? No. again. there weren’t even any rocket ships in those days. thank heaven. if I’m not mistaken.20 Rogers Albritton which I don’t deny. for me to think it possible that any such rocket ship had been built and hidden and so forth. not speaker relative. and really. is no doubt in for a number of shocks as time goes on and may be in for some shock of unprecedented magnitude. not even remotely. I’m quite sure that it isn’t even remotely possible. I hope not because if. I’m sure. There my sympathies are with Prichard. or may all have slipped into thinking crazily that Monaco is smaller than the Soviet Union although actually it’s bigger and that five and seven make twelve although of course they make eight. I must think that for all I know I’m mistaken and it is just possible that Hitler is enjoying the sunshine in another solar system. silly. if he had gone anywhere. I’m sure it isn’t. All of them are just. so. but I know enough to be sure that he can’t be. it doesn’t follow that that’s where he may be. Do I know that it’s absolutely impossible? I wouldn’t say I knew it. Let’s see. again for reasons of which I have no mastery. Do I? The question is hard to get hold of. nevertheless I may and probably do know he isn’t. But what if in sober truth I don’t know any such thing. given my massive ignorance of the history of science and technology. and that’s not the only trouble with the idea. I believe that’s impossible. He couldn’t have gotten there even by now. exactly. I’ve been around. I believe not. or even for all I know may be. I’m sure it isn’t. I keep thinking of sillies. I suppose. Impossibles are harder to think of than sillies. Whether Hitler may or can’t be holed up in another solar system doesn’t depend on the little I know. but. Does it follow that he may be living in another solar system. again. again. There’s no misuse of “may be” in that thought. to say nothing of my own in particular. But that is no reason whatever. soberly. isn’t it possible? No. How would I know any such thing? Perhaps I don’t. I wonder if I do know that Hitler isn’t alive in another solar system. Perhaps I shouldn’t touch it. as one might say to a worrisomely serious child. I remember those days well enough to know that. One might pleasantly work it into a sermon on the text “You never know. then I’m afraid I must also think that I don’t exactly know that he isn’t. that even our own. Do I know that? Well yes. then. I don’t exactly know it isn’t possible. I’m not expert about these things.
I have no doubt that Hitler can’t be alive on Mars. and would think it lamentable if I didn’t. I suppose. What would I know. even philosophical. either by knowing that he can’t be or by knowing anything else either (except a hawk from a handsaw. not “Of course Hitler isn’t alive on Mars. including the point.On a Form of Skeptical Argument from Possibility 21 the suggestion that he may be with any. except out of courtesy or the like. . but what we had no feet. it doesn’t. These cases are not the same as not knowing. as far as I can see. I imagine. I should be thankful. I’m not conceding that I don’t know much. if I had one) that no means existed then by which any such voyage could have been undertaken except in ignorance or delusion. seriousness? No. you say. Well. probably. for example. even. too bad. p. And I don’t see that I must. and that I do. Do I know he can’t? No.” I think that a skeptic has no such reason in his repertoire. it’s a preposterous idea. strictly speaking I don’t. If I weren’t a gentleman I’d bet a lot (though not my immortal soul. or the moon. I wonder. if I ever run into it. a country. if I didn’t know that? Not much. like ‘‘He can’t be. a continent. if you insist on truth. correct as I think it is. that strictly speaking I don’t know that Hitler can’t be alive on Mars and therefore (given the special character of the question whether he is or isn’t) don’t in strict truth know (in the ordinary sense) that he isn’t. not precision? All right: I don’t know that not-p. what? I keep forgetting. if I don’t—not knowing. if I’m not mistaken. I don’t mean that it would be no cause for lament if we might never know. though I assume that many are well enough informed to know exactly that: that he can’t be. But I had marbles to spare. for such and such reasons. I would be sorry (though I could live with it) not to know that Monaco is smaller than the Soviet Union because I can never remember what sort of place Monaco is: a city. I don’t need to know that. Dozens of reasons. it seems to me. to say. I don’t believe he may be. because he couldn’t possibly have gotten there (that ‘couldn’t possibly have’ is not ‘epistemic’). It’s a question of truth. And again. much less on some planet of another solar system! He can’t conceivably. I assume that there is none. just possibly. and even on television!” but something more measured. Is “Monaco” another name for Africa perhaps? I’ve lost it about Monaco again. even though I personally don’t precisely know that not-p. I’m claiming that I may be in a position to dismiss out of hand the suggestion that perhaps p. in order to hold out against the idiotic idea that maybe. I have no intention of even verbally behaving as if he may be. I see no possibility that he is. exactly—that Hitler isn’t alive on Mars. can a philosophical skeptic give me reason to hedge this assumption at all. And now. you idiot! How can I get it into your thick head that people lie in print. for some p. if you insist on precision. to put it politely) in order to treat the lament that we may never know but what Hitler got away to Mars as crazed. or could never know. Even I know that people have feet.
is true.” is no help. the argument need not confound “logical possibility” or the like with possibility in an ordinary “epistemic” sense or use of the word. Of course I may be wrong. what I am. as “know” is. and that’s not philosophical skepticism. so I win. moreover. There is no such sense. really. as he says. of course” is a sort of contradiction. absent even a funny feeling that might serve to select it from among all the others.” which. But the question is not whether it would be rational to take steps in view of some such possibility. that possibly (even just possibly) not-p. then no one in that position does know that p. there might equally be a booby trap set to kill us all. in their relevant use. But which ones? Not “which ones are not merely possible but actual?” Just “which ones are so much as possible?” We don’t know. or not. did I? and I have five. even if only just. And neither do skeptics. I say not. By hypothesis we don’t. It needn’t and shouldn’t confine itself to arguing that there is no knowledge in some high. perhaps. “It may be that not-p—we are fallible human beings—but all the same we know that p. To sum up. and not others. any move we make may be just what will bring it down. without disappearing en route. “Just possibly” and its kind are as univocal. if only one knew it. then just possibly anything I might do about it would be instantly fatal. has to be acknowledged as possible. like that of “I know. I believe. Who knows? And that’s right: who knows? Not I. then I don’t actually know. If I may be wrong. Some such things. so I have two.22 Rogers Albritton That there would be nothing to do about it if just possibly not-p. If there might be an enormous diamond under this floor for the finding. the word .” There is no doubt some contrast between semantics and pragmatics. Moreover. but the ground isn’t. at any rate. and this emphasis need not be the one Wittgenstein calls “metaphysical. and the argument can seem to threaten knowledge ordinarily and soberly so called.” if that’s what Austin was up to. It can seem to give us good reason to admit that possibly not-p over an unnerving range of things p. Deprive it of that inconsistency and it hasn’t a leg to stand on. Nor is it any help that the possibility in question isn’t a live possibility. and the (sort of) contradiction it is is not cured by calling it “pragmatic.” Nor can it be Austined into irrelevance by distinguishing senses or forces or strengths of “just possibly. or alternatively the ground outside may catastrophically give way if we rush out of the building: the building perfectly sound. and that’s the position. the question is whether this sort of thing is a possibility or not. if it’s determinately a possibility at all. If this building may be about to collapse. The principle of the argument. as far as I can see. not a sophism: if the position is. since if just possibly not-p. That we all know that p although just possibly not-p cannot be Griced into the company of “I have two fingers on my left hand. but I didn’t say just two fingers. is sound. that’s all. Their performative aspect. calling a skeptical argument from possibility can skirt various errors. Philosophical skepticism is a pretension to know. but it doesn’t help here. are no doubt possible. remarkable sense. No modal fallacy is involved in thinking so.
that is) is irrelevant to the argument from possibility. that neither you nor I could have understood a word of this paper if we didn’t know a lot. or that although the marquee reads “The Hustler” and “The Color of Money. or anything else. dimly. And. and it should seem. is the allegations of possibility with which it begins. we may nevertheless be in for The Apu Trilogy? I have stuck nervously to sillies and impossibles. at worst. perhaps. These allegations seem irrefutable. not the rest of it. Finally. not just any damn thing is possible. Aren’t they and their kind very commonly possibles. whether cracker-barrel or cosmopolitan. The ordinary use of “I know” in these everyday regions goes quite smoothly. unless the skepticism at issue has been allowed to drift or balloon into “irrefutable” nonsense. it often seems to me. but I do not yet see clearly why it is. I think it may be obvious. but these aren’t (necessarily) sillies or impossibles. self-evident that everything can’t be epistemically possible any more than everything could be financially possible. in which case he may not be Zeno Vendler. In fact. It’s all very well. to mock such creatures of philosophy as the illusion that we may be flamingos fast asleep in our cage. isn’t an impostor. in the respect at issue. and contrary to what we say we know: where we left our cars. and you may therefore know a lot (most of it uninteresting. that while anything’s possible. I hope. for all we know. or would say—much too great a range to satisfy a philosophical skeptic. What’s wrong with the argument from possibility. though (according to me) not ‘analyzable’ in any interesting sense. to be sure). moreover. But is it a mere amusement that I may not have left my car where I “know” I left it (“know” in scare quotes). and you never know. unless I’m wrong. I think. there. But that’s interesting. I bet it’s demonstrable. If I don’t know that the man I ‘take to be’ Zeno Vendler.On a Form of Skeptical Argument from Possibility 23 “know” doesn’t tolerate. The idea that skepticism is irrefutable is supine. the closure or nonclosure of the imaginary set of ‘things I know’ under evident logical implication (evident to me. But I know I haven’t. as I’ve let on. what’s on at the Fox Venice. in the usual course of events. Or if that isn’t self-evident. I mean it only as it would be meant in everyday talk. but . since possibility is closed under every kind of implication. perhaps. The concept of knowledge is strict anyway.” as we expected. if not unexpected. as a way of stressing that the question whether I actually know or not is to be taken strictly. It would be pleasant to think at least that I had thoroughly canvassed the grounds on which a skeptic might reasonably hope to show us that we are enmeshed in possibilities of error much more numerous than we can gracefully acknowledge. that matters only insofar as it suggests that he may be one. they are typically indefensible over an immense range of what we say. Needless to say. I haven’t demonstrated it. and the like? Is it irrelevant that I wouldn’t bet a grand on any of those things I “know” (“know” in scare quotes again)? Or that my perfect confidence that I saw Sheila on the very day—we even said hello—would probably erode under routine crossexamination? I think it is irrelevant. Keep “know” and “may” humble and intelligible.
so to speak. except for a few obvious errors of spelling and punctuation. ed. E. “where I know I left it. “Other Minds”. He was an inveterate reviser. On Certainty. you see. M. Isn’t that a blessing? I might keep talking just a little longer. Note 1. I think I know perfectly well. I thank Carol Voeller for assistance in preparing this type script for publication. J. Albritton began to sort through his papers in the years before his death. The typescript is untitled and undated. v. rethinker and restarter. Rogers Albritton died in 2002 leaving behind a large volume of papers. –Andrew Hsu (UCLA) References Austin. But I don’t know for sure what to do about these cases.” that ‘‘I know” must be put into scare quotes to clean up the question? No. Wright. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. if I did. L. 20: 148–187. The paper has circulated and stimulated some discussion. Don’t I know perfectly well that I may not have left my car where I know I left it. Thank you. still. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volumes. but pencilled notes on some copies indicate that it was delivered as a talk at a conference at UC Irvine in Spring. 1987. but did not live to review the bulk of them. Some have reported that ideas in this talk were presented in seminars at UCLA as early as 1974. where I left my car. Most of the papers are handwritten notes and fragments on diverse subjects that he was thinking and teaching about. v. by G. and isn’t it in that last phrase. H. so it seems fitting to publish it here. L. Wittgenstein. (1969). as I often do. the format of the notes and the presentation of the quote from Austin at the beginning of section II. so it is hard to know what he would have done with this piece had he lived. because. Anscombe and G. (1946). The typescript is reproduced without change. . This piece “on a certain form of skeptical argument ‘from possibility’” was one of a few “finished” items. he worked “for years” on skepticism and skeptical arguments. As Albritton himself mentions.24 Rogers Albritton not all that smoothly. I don’t believe it. I’m not that far gone.