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Knowledge and its Place in Nature // Reviews // Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews // University of Notre Dame

2003.12.01

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HILARY KORNBLITH

Knowledge and its Place in Nature


Kornblith, Hilary, Knowledge and its Place in Nature, Oxford, 2003, 177pp, $ 29.95
(hbk), ISBN 0199246319.

Reviewed by Paul A. Roth, University of Missouri, St. Louis

We seek to represent the world. When our representations succeed in a particularly fortuitous manner,
we term the result knowledge. But questions then arise: which representation qualify as knowledge,
and why? One of the divers epistemological theories lately bruited about would assimilate all empirical
knowledgerepresentations of the world properly obtainedto results certified by the various
sciences (liberally understood). Call this doctrine naturalism.

Yet mention naturalism, and many philosophers smirk. The reason? Too vague and underspecified, or
so some epistemologists claim. This places a special burden on those seeking to advance the cause of
naturalism (I include myself here) to clarify naturalisms relation to more conventional forms of
philosophizing. In this regard, Hilary Kornbliths Knowledge and its Place in Nature both succeeds and
fails. Success occurs in those chapters where Kornblith directly addresses and defends naturalism
against two prime forms of mystery-mongering rampant in philosophyinvoking intuitions and
sacralizing norms. However, and more importantly, Kornblith ultimately fails to advance the case for
naturalism. For he attempts to link his variant of naturalisma decidedly anti-metaphysical doctrine as
usually understood to a deeply problematic claim that knowledge constitutes a natural kinda
stubbornly metaphysical doctrine as usually understood. The result disappoints.

The book has six chapters. Chapters 1, 5, and 6 explore the meta-theme of how Kornblith conceives of
naturalisms relation to more traditional conceptions of philosophy. Chapter 1 contrasts appeals to
intuition and naturalism as methodological arbiters of philosophical practice. Kornblith examines
arguments by George Bealer to the effect that if naturalists have no room for appeal to intuition, then
so much the worse for naturalism. Bealer and others charge that naturalism must be ruled out as a
philosophy because it cannot accommodate what is, in point of fact, standard operating procedure for
philosophers. Although Nelson Goodmans name appears nowhere in the text and Kornblith cites no
works of his, Kornbliths defense here has the appropriate Goodmanian flavor, viz., that Recognition
of appropriate inferential patterns is an empirical affair for the naturalist (22). Kornblith effectively
rebuts the various cavils against naturalism raised by friends of intuitions. He rightly, I would say,
identifies philosophy as more a particular set of questions, and not as possessing its own special
methods or unique . priori insights.

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Knowledge and its Place in Nature // Reviews // Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews // University of Notre Dame

Chapters 5 and 6 also concern methodological issues, first in the guise of whether or how a
naturalistic approach can deal with questions regarding normativity (Chapter 5) and questions
regarding just how philosophy as a practice fits into a naturalistic view of matters (Chapter 6). The
accounts of normativity Kornblith considers in detail are those of Goldman and Stich. Quine he
dismisses for failing to take seriously enough the question: What, ultimately is the source of
epistemic normativity? (139) I would have thought that a good naturalist eschews just this sort of
question. In any case, his critique of Goldman proceeds much more straightforwardly than does his
critique of Stich. For Goldman, unlike Stich or Kornblith, seems content in the end to offer a decidedly
unnaturalistic conceptual analysis of notions such as justification (165). Kornblith, quite rightly,
questions how this analysis squares with Goldmans acknowledgment that some other notion of
justification might be preferable to the one we now possess (143-45).

His critique of Stich proves much more elusive and labored. One wonders whether this reflects the fact
that less separates Stich and Kornblith than Kornblith insists. Kornblith imagines that what separates
his account from both Quines and Stichs is that he gives reasons they lack for the importance
assigned to truth. Yet, as I object below, Kornblith helps himself to a notion of truth for which he
provides no argument and which rests uneasily with his naturalism. Thus, his philosophical distance
from Quine and Stich may well be less than he imagines. However, it remains to Kornbliths credit that
he does clarify just why questions of normativity pose no special difficulty for a naturalist.

Chapter 6 concerns how Kornblith distinguishes philosophy from the special sciences used to answer
philosophical questions. I take this as Kornbliths way of approaching Quines (in)famous remark
regarding the mutual containment of philosophy and empirical psychology. Kornblith appears to
deny mutual containment. For he asserts, Philosophy may properly be viewed as empirically informed
theory construction without, at the same time, turning it into a series of chapters within the special
sciences (177). But does philosophy per se constitutes a form of knowledge? Kornblith encourages the
thought that it does in remarks such as the following: I do not see it [epistemology] as nothing more
than a branch of cognitive ethology (172). On one reading, this implies that philosophy does
constitutes a type of special science in its own right. Yet philosophy in a naturalized perspective
cannot be segregated from whatever processes one uses to study knowledge production. Knowledge,
Kornblith insists, is a feature of the world (159). I remain unclear as to just how Kornblith would
specify philosophy as a non-redundant form of empirical inquiry.

In chapters 3 and 4, Kornblith critiques what he takes to be the main competitors to his notion of
knowledge as natural kind. Chapter 4 builds on familiar grounds, rehearsing a variety of externalist
arguments against those who would put some internalist requirement on what to count as knowledge.
Central to the notion of knowledge as Kornblith defends it is the view that non-language-users can and
do have knowledge. Kornblith assembles some of the usual suspectsDescartes, Sosa, BonJourfor
examination and summary dispatch.

Troubles typical of Kornbliths case manifest themselves in the remaining chapters. Chapter 3 focuses
on those, such as Brandom and Davidson, who would account for knowledge in terms of social
practices, paradigmatically linguistic ones (163-4). On their view, knowledge, in its various forms,
presupposes linguistic representation, in its various forms. But Kornblith maintains a form of
reliabilism which denies that linguistic representation constitutes a necessary condition for knowing.
Yet central to his account is his unexplicated and undefended notion of truth. For he defines reliability
by reference to truth (full stop). This permits a conceptual disengagement of Kornbliths account of
reliability from social practices. Reliability, anchored by Truth, becomes the standard by which to
evaluate competing social practices. Knowledge does not require engagement with the epistemic
practice of any community. What is good and bad in a given social practice is best measured by the
standard of reliability, a standard that may be met with or without engagement in social epistemic
practices (102). Of course, determining what identifies this standard is something Kornblith leaves as
an exercise for the reader.

The temptation to read the analytic/synthetic distinction back into Kornbliths work constantly asserts
itself. Knowledge links to reliability, and reliability links to truth. Truth, it seems, links to accurate
representation. What make this category [the category of knowledge] an important one, on my view, is
not that people in our society have the concept; rather, it is that this category accurately describes a
feature of the world (165). The conception of knowledge endorsed by Kornblith requires reliably
produced true belief (58, 62). Yet truth is not a property that appears to the senses. So while Kornblith

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Knowledge and its Place in Nature // Reviews // Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews // University of Notre Dame

makes it a defining property of the kind, nothing in either what he does or could tell us indicates what
empirical property it is.

But why then his recurrent homage to Quine? The account of knowledge as accurate representation
seems more Tractarian than Quinean. I thought problems began with the discovery that no sentence-
by-sentence account of accurate description works. Put another way, to speak unproblematically of
accurate representation for single sentences by-passes Quines reasons for naturalizing
epistemology. If one takes seriously the problematic which Quine bequeaths to epistemology, one
cannot simply help oneself to an unexplicated notion of truth qua accurate representation. (As Jim
Maffie pointed out to me, Kornblith owes an account of truth that covers non-linguistic
representations.) We literally, from a Quinean perspective, cannot understand what this means without
falling back into ways of speaking about the world-word relation which Quine rejects. Kornblith
imagines himself entitled to have it both ways. Just why I simply do not comprehend.

Chapter 2 stands as the philosophical core of this book, its raison dtre. For here Kornblith mounts
his primary account and defense of his claim that knowledge constitutes a legitimate scientific
category. In a word, it is a natural kind (29). The claim is novel, and on the face of it puzzling.
Naturalism in its original American incarnation promised to link philosophy to science in the perennial
philosophic quest to clear away what obscures rational inquiry. Declaring that naturalism links to
natural kinds, however, undoes this by burdening the relatively unproblematic notion of empirical
inquiry with that of natural kinds.

In a Quinean spirit, I note that the occurrence of natural in naturalism and its occurrence in natural
kinds constitutes an orthographic accident. They stand conceptually unrelated, for the latter notion
reads necessities into nature which no empirical method could possibly discover or divine.

For a naturalist, the term natural cannot itself be explanatory or invoked as a fundamental concept.
The term goes proxy for a denial of . priori knowledge (and methods, e.g. conceptual analysis, that rely
on appeals to . priori insights) and for situating the pursuit of philosophical questions within the
methods of and evidence for empirical science. Nothing is natural simpliciter. Nature is itself not an
analytic primitive. Naturalists cannot fall back on appeals to nature or the natural without, in short,
ceasing to be naturalists. In this regard, an appeal to, e.g., a natural kind can only be understood as a
shorthand reference to further properties, ones empirically specifiable within some science or other.

To the best of my knowledge, no one prior to Kornblith has attempted to effectively reify the notion of
knowledge by claiming for it kind-like status. Why think of natural knowledge as a type or natural
kind? Kornbliths answer, as best I understand it, reifies knowledge in order to account for the causal
role it plays in scientific theories. The category of knowledge is, on my view, an important category
because it has a certain theoretical unity to it, that is, it plays a causal and explanatory role within our
current best theories (165; see also 159, 164). Which best theories does Kornblith reference? Ones in
cognitive ethology. Here we find what empirical case he makes for the critical claim that knowledge
has a theoretical unity, a unity which underwrites and legitimates, Kornblith believes, the
causal/explanatory role ethologists assign to it.

The specific argument here starts from the factand it is a factthat animal ethologists use
intentional descriptions to characterize various types of animal behavior. Of special interest are highly
coordinated behaviors, such as ravens tricking other birds in order to steal eggs or deceptive
behavior by piping plovers to lure predators away from nests (31-2). Indeed, Kornblith insists,
adversion to intentional descriptions of animal behavior proves to be necessary; without it, scientists
could not characterize what the behaviors had in common, and so could not use it to explain and
predict (34).

Reliabilism works in just here. For, Kornblith maintains, it is beyond dispute that the animal will need
to represent features of its environment if it is to deal with it effectively at all (38). That is, if
intentional and belief states can be justly attributed to any animal, that animal (indeed, the species
(56-7)) can be said to have representational states. Moreover, this representational capacity, while it
may supervene on physical states, cannot be identified with the physical states. No doubt beliefs are
entirely physically composed; but this does not require that they form a homogenous physical kind
(40). All that remains once Kornblith has argued that animals have representational states is to argue
that these states are produced by reliable mechanisms. It is the focus on this adoption of these
cognitive capacities to the environment that forces us to explain the possibility of successful behavior,

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Knowledge and its Place in Nature // Reviews // Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews // University of Notre Dame

and it is the explanation of successful behavior that requires the notion of knowledge rather than mere
belief. Knowledge explains the possibility of successful behavior in an environment, which in turn
explains fitness (57). Reliable representations constitute knowledge; animal behaviors can be best
explained as a response to these reliable representations; therefore, knowledge has a necessary role in
both explaining and predicting behavior.

What establishes the kindness of knowledge qua reliable representation is its special role in a theory
that succeeds in prediction and explanation (40). The essential homogeneity of reliable systemstheir
kind-constituting featureis thus specified functionally, not physically. Knowledge is a robust
category in the ethology literature; it is more than belief, and more than true belief. It requires reliably
produced true belief. Understood in this way, knowledge is properly viewed as a natural kind (68).
Kornblith interprets knowledge in terms of fitness, as reliable adaptation between an organism and its
environment. Knowledge, he states, is an ecological kind: it has to do with the fit between an
organism and its environment (65). The relationship need not be static; what matter is just that
changes in the ecological niche register in a reliable way on and for the organism. I take natural kinds
to be homeostatically clustered properties, properties that are mutually supporting and reinforcing in
the face of external change (61). The properties, whatever they are, support inductive inferences.
Whatever makes representations reliable suffices, on this account, to make the associated categories
projectible.

This brings me to my central complaint. Kornbliths entire case for taking ethologists at their word
with regard to imputing knowledge to non-human animals rests on the asserted explanatory and
predictive value of doing so. But, in the ethologists case, absolutely nothing Kornblith provides
establishes either claim as legitimate. Start with the claim for predictive efficacy. Paradigmatic here is
his discussion of the ravens who distract a hawk in order to steal its egg. Nothing in Kornbliths
account, or in any of the accounts he provides, shows the theoretical necessity of imputing knowledge
in order to predict what the ravens do. Indeed, nothing Kornblith says shows that the specific incident
could have been predicted in this way, apart perhaps from noting ravens do things like this. Put
ravens around eggs and they will do what they can to take them. What, in short, does adding the
assertion that ravens know something or believe something do to enhance the predictability of what
ravens do in these situations? Put another way, what properties in the world would a naturalist have to
uncover in order to establish that, indeed, knowledge states are at work? What would the discovery of
knowledge be the discovery of?

Ditto for claims that imputing beliefs and desires explain. Kornblith asserts, regarding such animal
behavior, that while the behavior is straightforwardly explained by appealing to beliefs and desires,
no one has ever offered an explanation of such complex behaviors in terms that obviate the need for
representational states (42). But the necessity for using this vocabulary works in only because
Kornblith defines reliability by appeal to truth. An animals ability to succeed in its ecological domain is
then attributed to knowledge, i.e., reliably produced true beliefs. Only by definitionally smuggling
truth in does he legitimate talk of knowledge in his desired sense:

When we turn to an explanation of the cognitive capacities of the species, however, the
theoretical enterprise we are now engaged in requires more than mere belief . It is the
focus on this adaptation of these cognitive capacities to the environment that forces us to
explain the possibility of successful behavior, and it is the explanation of successful
behavior that requires the notion of knowledge rather than mere belief. Knowledge explains
the possibility of successful behavior in an environment, which in turn explains fitness .
The resulting true beliefs are not merely accidentally true; they are produced by a cognitive
capacity that is attuned to its environment. In a word, the beliefs are reliably produced. The
concept of knowledge which is of interest here thus requires reliably produced true belief.
(57-8)

Successful adaptation requires attribution of certain cognitive capacities; explanation of how the
cognitive capacities adapt the species to the environment requires attribution of knowledge.
Knowledge means, by definition, representations that are reliably produced. Reliability means, by
definition, the process engendering the beliefs produces more truths than falsehoods. Definitional
sleight of hand, not science, makes truth and knowledge an inextricable part of Kornbliths ethological
picture.

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Knowledge and its Place in Nature // Reviews // Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews // University of Notre Dame

Understanding the definitional factors proves critical as well to accounting for what supposedly makes
knowledge a natural kind. Knowledge qua kind consists of the set of reliable belief-producing
mechanism and their outputs, whatever these might be. What is being claimed here is that natural
selection is selecting for knowledge-acquiring capacities, that is, processes of belief acquisition that
tend to produce truths . (59). If such processes and their outputs were not homeostatically
clustered, Kornblith assumes they would not provide a basis for stable inferences. In other words, the
various information processing capacities and information gathering abilities that animals possess
are attuned to the animals environment by natural selection, and it is thus that the category of beliefs
that manifest such attunementscases of knowledgeare rightly seen as a natural category, a natural
kind. (62-3) The kind has biological reality because the environment selects for it.

Which natural, i.e., empirical feature allows anyone to identify a process as a member of this kind? For
reliability itself does not exist as any single or necessary empirical property of any system. Reliability
characterizes only functioning (or, functioning-in-a-specified-environment). To think otherwise would
be to commit a version of a Rylean category mistake. Kornbliths category mistake mistakes the parts
of a systemindividually or jointlyfor the property of interest.

Put another way, the sole identifying characteristic for Kornbliths knowledge qua natural kind is that
the properties that are ultimately responsible for this homeostatic unity are also responsible for a
wide range of the kinds characteristic properties (62). Now, when dealing with atomic structure of
water (Kornbliths example), reference of the properties which account for homeostatic unity seems
clear enough. We have in hand a theory specifying the relevant features and how they interrelate. But
nothing answers to the definite description Kornblith must take the properties to entail generally in
the case of reliable systems of natural knowledge. Reliability entails no determinate set of natural
features and their articulated interrelationship. But if it is not identified necessarily with any of the
parts, or with any known relationship of these parts, how can reliable systems constitute a natural
kind? The reliability in the case of diverse natural systems can be known only ex post facto given the
very definition of the term. Any list of properties such as Kornblith imagines can thus be only
contingent and functional, and so not the stuff of which necessities and natural kinds are made.

Reliable systems may all be natural systems, but that does not entail that any physically discernable
feature of any system marks it as reliable. Absent a theory of reliability on the order of, e.g., theories of
atomic structure, no reason exists, contra Kornblith, for believing that reliability marks out a natural
kind.

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