Analysandum Analysis Essay

George Edward Moore (1873—1958)

G. E. Moore was a highly influential British philosopher of the early twentieth century. His career was spent mainly at Cambridge University, where he taught alongside Bertrand Russell and, later, Ludwig Wittgenstein. The period of their overlap there has been called the “golden age” of Cambridge philosophy. Moore’s main contributions to philosophy were in the areas of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and philosophical methodology. In epistemology, Moore is remembered as a stalwart defender of commonsense realism. Rejecting skepticism on the one hand, and, on the other, metaphysical theories that would invalidate the commonsense beliefs of “ordinary people” (non-philosophers), Moore articulated three different versions of a commonsense-realist epistemology over the course of his career.

Moore’s epistemological interests also motivated much of his metaphysical work, which to a large extent was focused on the ontology of cognition. In this regard, Moore was an important voice in the discussion about sense-data that dominated Anglo-American epistemology in the early twentieth century.

In ethics, Moore is famous for driving home the difference between moral and non-moral properties, which he cashed-out in terms of the non-natural and the natural. Moore’s classification of the moral as non-natural was to be one of the hinges upon which moral philosophy in the Anglo-American academy turned until roughly 1960.

Moore’s approach to philosophizing involved focusing on narrow problems and avoiding grand synthesis. His method was to scrutinize the meanings of the key terms in which philosophers expressed themselves while maintaining an implicit commitment to the ideals of clarity, rigor, and argumentation. This aspect of his philosophical style was sufficiently novel and conspicuous that many saw it as an innovation in philosophical methodology. In virtue of this, Moore, along with Bertrand Russell, is widely acknowledged as a founder of analytic philosophy, the kind of philosophy that has dominated the academy in Britain and the United States since roughly the 1930s.

Moore also had a significant influence outside of academic philosophy, through his contacts in the Cambridge Apostles and the Bloomsbury group. In both academic and non-academic spheres, Moore’s influence was due in no small part to his exceptional personality and moral character.

Table of Contents

  1. Biography
  2. Metaphysics and Epistemology
    1. Internal Relations and Absolute Idealism
    2. The Identity Theory of Truth, Propositional Realism, and Direct Realism
    3. Sense-Data and Indirect Realism
    4. From the Ontology of Cognition to Criteriology
  3. Ethics
    1. Goodness and Intrinsic Value
    2. The Open Question Argument and the Naturalistic Fallacy
    3. Ideal Utilitarianism
    4. The Influence of Moore’s Ethical Theory
  4. Philosophical Methodology
  5. Moore’s Influence and Character
  6. References and Further Readings
    1. Primary Sources
    2. Secondary Sources

1. Biography

George Edward Moore was born on November 4, 1873, one of seven children of Daniel and Henrietta Moore. There were eight Moore children in all, as Daniel had a daughter from his first wife. G. E. Moore was raised in the Upper Norwood district of South London. His early education came at the hands of his parents: his father taught him reading, writing, and music; and his mother taught him French. Moore was a more-than-competent pianist and composer. At eight he was enrolled at Dulwich College, where he studied mainly Greek and Latin, but also French, German, and mathematics. At eighteen he entered Cambridge University, where he began as a student in Classics.

His first two years of University study proved to be less than challenging, his time at Dulwich having already prepared him exceptionally well in Greek and Latin. It was during this time that Moore became interested in philosophy. As he later reminisced:

I had indeed at Dulwich read Plato’s Protagoras …; but I was certainly not then very keenly excited by any of the philosophical questions which that dialogue raises …. What must have happened, during this second year at Cambridge, was that I found I was very keenly interested in certain philosophical statements which I heard made in conversation. (Moore 1942a, 13)

The conversations in question involved such notables as Henry Sidgwick, James Ward, and J.M.E. McTaggart, who became his teachers, and Bertrand Russell—then a student two years ahead of Moore—who for a time became his friend and philosophical ally. Moore’s and Russell’s relationship was lifelong, but it became strained early on. It was Russell who convinced Moore to study Moral Science, a division of philosophy in the British University system. In 1896, Moore took first-class honors in both Classics and Moral Science. After this, he attempted to win a Prize-Fellowship, as McTaggart and Russell had done before him. He succeeded in 1898, on his second attempt, and remained at Cambridge as a Fellow of Trinity College until 1904.

Beginning around 1897, and continuing through his time as a Fellow, Moore began to act as a “professional” philosopher, participating in the doings of the extant philosophical societies (such as the Aristotelian Society and the Moral Sciences Club) and publishing his work. Many of his best known and most influential works date from this period. It was also during this period that Moore instigated the momentous break from the then dominant philosophy of Absolute Idealism that would prove to be the first step toward the rise of analytic philosophy.

After his fellowship ended, Moore left Cambridge for a period of seven years, during which time he lived in Edinburgh and Richmond, Surrey, and worked independently on various philosophical projects. He returned to Cambridge in 1911 as a lecturer in Moral Science, and he remained there for the majority of his career, and, indeed, his life. He earned a Litt.D. in 1913, was elected a fellow of the British Academy in1918, and was chosen as James Ward's successor as Professor of Mental Philosophy and Logic in 1925. He occupied that position until 1939, when he retired and was succeeded by Wittgenstein. From 1940 to1944 Moore was a visiting professor at several universities in the United States. He then returned to Cambridge, but not to teaching. He served as editor of Mind, the leading philosophical journal of the day, from 1921 to 1947. In 1951, he was awarded the British Order of Merit.

Beyond his professional career, Moore had a successful family life. In 1916 at age 43, he married Dorothy Ely, who had been his student. The couple had two sons: Nicholas (b.1918) and Timothy (b. 1922). By all accounts, Moore was an exemplary husband and father.

Moore died in Cambridge on October 24, 1958. He is buried in St. Giles’ churchyard.

2. Metaphysics and Epistemology

Two facts make it difficult to separate Moore’s contributions to metaphysics from his contributions to epistemology. First, his main contributions to metaphysics were in the ontology of cognition, which is often treated as a branch of epistemology. Second, his main contributions to epistemology were motivated by what he called the “commonsense” or “ordinary” view of the world, and this is properly a metaphysical conception, a worldview or Weltanschauung. Consequently, the next section treats Moore’s metaphysics and his epistemology together.

a. Internal Relations and Absolute Idealism

Moore became interested in philosophy at a time when Absolute Idealism had dominated the British universities for half a century, in a tradition stretching from S.T. Coleridge and T.H. Green to F.H. Bradley and J.M.E. McTaggart. McTaggart was Moore’s earliest philosophical mentor. Moore’s earliest philosophical views were inherited directly from him.

Absolute Idealism is a brand of metaphysical monism. It implies that, although the world presents itself to us as a collection of more or less discrete objects (this bird, that table, the earth and the sun, etc.), it really is one indivisible whole, whose nature is mental (or spiritual, or ideal) rather than material. Thus it is also a form of anti-realism, since it claims that the world of ordinary experience is something of an illusion—not that the objects of ordinary experience do not exist, but that they are not, as we normally take them to be, discrete. Instead, every object exists and is what it is at least partly in virtue of the relations it bears to other things—more precisely, to all other things. This is called the doctrine of internal relations, which Moore understood as the view that all relations are necessary. On this view, my coffee cup is not just the apparently self-contained entity that I lift off the table and draw to my lips. Instead, it contains, as essential parts of itself, relations to every other existing thing; thus, as I draw it to my lips, I draw the universe along with it, and am responsible for, in a sense, reconfiguring the universe. Since, on this view, everything that exists does so only in virtue of its relations to everything else, it is misleading to say of any one thing, for example, my coffee cup, that it exists simpliciter. The only thing that exists simpliciter is the whole—the entire network of necessarily related objects.

Though Moore accepted Absolute Idealism for a short while in his undergraduate years, he is best remembered for the views he developed in opposition to it. In fact, what is most characteristic of Moore’s mature philosophy is a thoroughgoing realism about what he came to call the “commonsense” or “ordinary” view of the world. This involves a lush metaphysical pluralism (the belief that there are many things that exist simpliciter) that stands in sharp contrast to the monism of the Absolute Idealists.

Inklings of Moore’s misgivings about Absolute Idealism begin to appear as early as 1897, in his first (unsuccessful) Prize-Fellowship dissertation on “The Metaphysical Basis of Ethics.” Though in it he openly identifies with the British Idealist school, it is here that Moore first raises a point that proved to be the hole in the Idealists’ dike. The Idealists’ doctrine of the internality of all relations has implications for the ontology of cognition. Specifically, it implies that objects of knowledge/cognition are not independent of their knowers. In other words, being known (cognized, perceived, etc.) makes a difference to the nature and being of the thing being known, the “object” of knowledge. Indeed, it was this aspect of the view which marked it as Idealist, as the Idealists commonly posited a great Mind, often simply called “the Absolute,” that “grounded” the whole of reality by cognizing it. And it is this view in the ontology of cognition that Moore obliquely rejects in his 1897 dissertation. He does not address it directly and in specie, but only in the restricted context of moral epistemology. In discussing Kant’s moral epistemology, Moore argues that Kant’s conception of practical reason conflates the faculty of judgment with judgments themselves (that is, bearers of objective truth), which he thinks should be kept separate. To maintain a sharp distinction between cognitive faculties and their activities, on the one hand, and their objects, on the other, is a staple of Austro-German philosophy from Bolzano and Lotze to Husserl, and it is likely that Moore got the idea from reading in that tradition (cf. Bell 1999).

At this point, Moore had neither the doctrine of internal relations nor British Idealism in his sights. It is probably more accurate to say that he was objecting to what is frequently called psychologism—the view that apparently objective truths (for example, of logic, mathematics, ethics, etc.) are to be accounted for in terms of the operations of subjective cognitive or “psychological” faculties. Psychologism was common to nearly all versions of Kantian and post-Kantian Idealism, including British Absolute Idealism. It was also a common feature of thought in the British empirical tradition, from Hume to Mill. For the British Idealists, psychologism was a consequence of the doctrine of internal relations as the latter applies to the ontology of cognition.

It was not long before Moore recognized this. Accordingly, he expanded the scope of his 1897 criticism from the ontology of moral knowledge to the ontology of knowledge in general, and this quickly became the principal weapon in his rebellion against British Idealism. This began in earnest in his successful 1898 Prize-Fellowship dissertation, which formed the basis for his first influential paper, “The Nature of Judgment” (Moore 1899). In both of these works, Moore pushes the anti-psychologistic distinction between subjective faculties/activities and their objects. He couples this, however, with a peculiar account of the nature of truth, of propositions and of ordinary objects.

b. The Identity Theory of Truth, Propositional Realism, and Direct Realism

The Idealist F.H. Bradley had held that truth was a matter of correspondence between a judgment (which was made up of ideas) and its object. At first glance Bradley’s view appears to be the classical correspondence theory of truth, but it is actually a peculiar inversion of that theory. On the classical correspondence theory, the “truth maker” is the object, not any subject who does the believing of this truth. That is, facts makes truths be true; believers don’t do this. But, given the Idealists’ views about the ontological priority of the mental/ideal and the internality of all relations, it follows that any judgment’s being true is ultimately due to the great Mind, the Absolute. Thus, as Moore notes at the beginning of his paper, while Bradley affirms that truth is not a relation between realityand our judgments, but rather judgments “in themselves,” he does not remain true to this view, and ends up flirting with psychologism.

Replacing Bradley’s overtly psychologistic terms “idea” and “judgment” with the more neutral terms “concept” and “proposition,” and maintaining his anti-psychologistic distinction between subject and object, Moore rejects the Idealistic inversion of the correspondence theory of truth. He does not simply revert to the classical version, however. Instead, he seeks to secure the objectivity of truth by eliminating the notion of correspondence entirely. Truth could not be a matter of correspondence between proposition and object, Moore argues, since in a case like “2+2=4” we regard the proposition as true even though there is no object in the empirical world to which the proposition corresponds. Thus, propositions must be regarded as true (or false) “in themselves,” without reference either to a subject which entertains them as elements in occurrent acts of consciousness, or to any object beyond them which they might be “about.” Instead, when a proposition is true, it is because a peculiar relation obtains among the concepts that make it up. Since this view casts the proposition as its own truth-maker, it has been called the “identity theory” of truth, (cf. Baldwin 1991). Moore sums up his view this way:

A proposition is composed not of words, nor yet of thoughts, but of concepts. Concepts are possible objects of thought; but this is no definition of them. … It is indifferent to their nature whether anybody thinks them or not. They are incapable of change, and the relation into which they enter with the knowing subject implies no action or reaction [on the part of the proposition]. … A proposition is a synthesis of concepts; and just as concepts are themselves immutably what they are, so they stand in infinite relations to one another equally immutable. A proposition is constituted by any number of concepts, together with a specific relation between them; and according to the nature of this relation the proposition may be either true or false. What kind of relation makes a proposition true, what false, cannot be further defined, but must be immediately recognised. (Moore 1899, 179-180)

Thus understood, propositions seem to be a lot like Platonic Forms: they are unchanging bearers of truth that exist independently of any “instances” of consciousness. Historically, there is nothing peculiar in this (apart from its appearance in the British context, perhaps). In fact, these views of Moore’s are in keeping with what may be called the “standard” nineteenth and early-twentieth century view of propositions held by Bolzano, Frege, Russell, W.E. Johnson, and L.S. Stebbing (cf. Willard 1984, 180 f.; Bell 1999).

What is novel in Moore, however, is his identity theory of truth, and his related identification of ordinary objects with propositions. One aspect of the standard view was that whenever a proposition happened to be involved in an occurrent act of consciousness, it played the role of “object”—the act was immediately of or about the proposition. Thus, prima facie, the only form of epistemological realism compatible with the standard view is “indirect” or “representative” realism. This is the view that the external world is not given to us directly, but only as mediated by a surrogate object, like a proposition or, in Moore’s later philosophy, a sense-datum. But this aspect of the standard view chaffed against Moore’s growing partiality for common-sense (or “naïve”) realism, which assumes direct realism in epistemology. Thus, in order to secure direct, cognitive access to the external world, Moore cleverly eliminated the would-be mediators by identifyingpropositions with the objects of ordinary experience themselves.

His first move in this direction was to show that the identity theory of truth applies to propositions that, unlike “2+2=4,” do seem to require a relation to something outside themselves in order to be true. For instance, it is hard to see how the sentence “The cat is on the mat” could be true in itself, apart from a relation to some state of affairs in the empirical world. However, Moore says:

… this description [of truth] will also apply to those cases where there appears to be a reference to existence. Existence is itself a concept; it is something which we mean; and the great body of propositions, in which existence is joined to other concepts or syntheses of concepts are simply true or false according to the relation in which it stands to them. (Moore 1899, 181)

So, “The cat is on the mat” is true when the concepts constitutive of it (“cat,” “mat,” “on,” and so forth) are united with the concept “existence” by that indefinable, internal relation that is truth. Thus also for “The cat exists.” It is not that the proposition is true only if the cat exists; rather, it is that the cat exists only if the proposition is true in virtue of its own internal structure.

By making existence both dependent on truth and, like truth, internal to a proposition, Moore is in effect identifying the class of existents with the class of true propositions that involve the concept “existence” as a constituent. As Moore goes on to say “an existent is seen to be nothing but a concept or complex of concepts standing in a unique relation to the concept of existence,” and thus “it now appears that perception is to be regarded philosophically as the cognition of an existential proposition” (Moore 1899, 182-3). In this way, “the opposition of concepts to existents disappears,” (Moore 1899, 183), and Moore secures a direct realist account of cognition.

By the same token, he commits himself to what is, on the face of it, an unlikely view of the world: given the identity theory of truth, “it seems necessary to regard the world as formed of concepts” (Moore 1899, 182). But, Moore reminds us, this is not to be taken as a claim that reality is at bottom mentalistic or Ideal; for his account of concepts and propositions has already made clear that these exist independently of any acts of thinking. Thus, he says:

…the description of an existent as a proposition … seems to lose its strangeness, when it is remembered that a proposition is here to be understood, not as anything subjective—as an assertion or affirmation of something—but as the combination of concepts which is affirmed. (Moore 1899, 183)

Whether this really does alleviate the description’s strangeness is contestable; but it is clear that Moore means for it to be consistent with our commonsense view of the world. Unfortunately, however, the view has a peculiar consequence that is anything but commonsensical. Bertrand Russell called it the problem of “objective falsehoods.” Given Moore’s theory of truth and its attendant realism about propositions, false propositions have, or may have, the same ontological status as true propositions. At the very least, they are somehow “there” to be asserted or affirmed just as true propositions are. Moreover, since truth and falsity are prior to and independent of existence, there is no obvious reason why a false proposition could not include “existence” as a concept just as a true one can. By 1910, Bertrand Russell—who at first accepted Moore’s views—had convinced both himself and Moore that they were to be rejected precisely for these reasons (see Russell 1906, 1910; Moore 1953; see also the discussion of these matters in Baldwin 1991).

Nonetheless, Moore had held this view of truth and reality for approximately a decade, during which time many of his most influential works were published. Among these was his celebrated paper “The Refutation of Idealism” (Moore 1903b). Here he tackles Idealism head-on and in specie. Asserting that all forms of Idealism rest on the claim that esse is percipi (“to be is to be perceived,” or, as Moore treats it, “to be is to be experienced”), Moore argues that the claim is false. He begins by analyzing in great detail several possible meanings of the formula “esse is percipi.” Ultimately, he determines that Idealists take it to be an analytic truth, in that it is proved by the law of contradiction. Thus, they also believe existence and cognition to be somehow identical. According to this, for yellow to exist justis for someone to have a sensation of yellow. In identifying yellow and the sensation of yellow, the Idealist “fails to see that there is anything whatever in the latter that is not in the former” and thus, for him, “yellow and the sensation of yellow are absolutely identical” (Moore 1903b, 442). But, according to Moore, this is a mistake. Careful attention to the sensation of yellow, on the one hand, and yellow, on the other, will reveal that they are not identical. As he says, “the Idealist maintains that object and subject are necessarily connected, mainly because he fails to see that they are distinct” (Moore 1903b, 442); but Moore thinks he can show that they are distinct, and he deploys two arguments to this end.

His first argument turns upon what would later come to be called the paradox of analysis—an intractable problem that, ironically, would plague Moore’s own later work. The paradox can be explained in terms of the familiar act of defining a term. In any case of definition, one is confronted with two bits of language: the term to be defined (the definiendum) and the term that does the defining, the definition itself (the definiens). Both definiendum and definiens are supposed to have the same meaning—else the latter would not be able to illuminate the meaning of the former. But if both terms mean the same, it is hard to see how giving a definition could be illuminating. Consider the case of the definiendum “bachelor” and its definiens “unmarried man.” In order for “unmarried man” to be a good definition of “bachelor,” it must mean the same as “bachelor.” But if it means exactly the same thing, then it seems that saying “‘bachelor’ means ‘unmarried man’” shouldn’t be any different from saying “‘bachelor’ means ‘bachelor’” or “‘unmarried man’ means ‘unmarried man.’” And yet there does seem to be a difference in that we find the one informative; but the others, not. Thus it seems that there is a difference in meaning between “bachelor” and “unmarried man.”

In sum, then, the paradox is this: a term and its definition must say the same thing in order for the definition to be correct, and yet they must say something different in order for the definition to be informative. The paradox can be put into the form of a dilemma:

  1. If a definiens is correct, then its meaning is the same as that of the definiendum.
  2. If a definiens is informative, then its meaning is not the same as that of the definiendum.
  3. A defniens’ meaning cannot be both the same and not the same as that of the definiendum.
  4. Thus, a definiens cannot be both correct and informative.

Now, this paradox functions in Moore’s first argument against the formula “Esse is percipi” in the following way. The formula itself can be read as a definition. Just as we say, “A bachelor is an unmarried man,” so the Idealist says, “To exist is to be cognized,” or “Yellow is the sensation of yellow.” However, if the two really were identical, it would be superfluous to assert that that they were; thus, the fact that the Idealist sees some need to assert the formula reveals that there is, as with any definiendum and its definiens, some difference between existence and cognition, or yellow and the sensation of yellow. As Moore says,

Of course, the proposition [that is, the formula] also implies that experience is, after all, something distinct from yellow—else there would be no reason to insist that yellow is a sensation: and that the argument [that is, the formula] both affirms and denies that yellow and the sensation of yellow are distinct is what sufficiently refutes it. (Moore 1903b, 442)

The argument may seem decisive. However, we should note that it turns upon Moore’s decision to push the Idealists toward the second horn of the “paradox of analysis” dilemma. Both horns are utterly destructive to “knowledge by description” (of which definitional knowledge is a type), so the Idealists would fare no better with the first horn. But the paradox of analysis is a problem not only for the Idealists, but for everyone who wants to affirm the practice of giving a definition, or, as Moore would later call it, an “analysis” of a concept. Thus, one might be inclined to hold off on embracing either horn, and instead concentrate on resolving the paradox. Charity requires that we extend this reprieve to our adversaries as well. Indeed, except for the fact that Moore hadn’t yet fully grasped the scope of the paradox lying just below the surface of his argument, we’d have to say that he was being terribly unfair by insisting that the Idealists hurry up and impale themselves on the second horn.

Moore’s second argument is much better. It is essentially an application of the now familiar, anti-psychologistic distinction between subject and object. He begins by comparing a sensation of blue with a sensation of green. These are the same in one respect, in virtue of which they are both called “sensations”; but they differ in another respect, in virtue of which the one is said to be “of blue” and the other “of green.” Moore gives the name “consciousness” to the respect in which they are the same, and the respects in which they are different he calls “objects” of sensation or of consciousness. Thus, he says, every sensation is a complex of consciousness and object.

Having distinguished consciousness from object, Moore goes on to distinguish object from sensation. Focusing now on a single sensation, the sensation of blue, Moore says that, when it exists, either (1) consciousness alone exists, (2) the object alone (that is, blue) exists, or (3) both exist together (presumably this is the sensation of blue). But each of these possibilities represents a different state of affairs: neither (1) consciousness alone, nor (3) consciousness and blue together are identical to (2) blue. Thus it is not the case that the sensation of blue is identical to blue, and it is therefore false that esse is percipi.

This negative conclusion of Moore’s essay is the refutation of idealism, properly speaking. However, the essay also has a positive conclusion, which purports to establish the truth of a direct realist account of cognition. Most philosophers in the modern period have accepted some form of representationalism, according to which we have direct cognitive access only to our own mental states (ideas, impressions, perceptions, judgments, etc.). But, according to Moore, what his analysis of consciousness shows is that, “whenever I have a mere sensation or idea, the fact is that I am then aware of something which is … not an inseparable aspect of my experience;” and this has the monumental consequence that,

there is … no question of how we are to ‘get outside the circle of our own ideas and sensations.’ Merely to have a sensation is already to be outside that circle. It is to know something which is as truly and really not a part of my experience, as anything which I can ever know. (Moore 1903b, 450)

Consistent with his 1899 view, we have direct cognitive access to the objects of our experience.

c. Sense-Data and Indirect Realism

The direct realism of Moore’s early period depended heavily upon an ontology of cognition that included both his propositional realism and his identity theory of truth. When the problem of objective falsehoods finally drove him to abandon both, a revised account of cognition was required to secure some form of epistemological realism. For instance, no longer could he explain the difference between “2+2=4” and “The cat is on the mat” by referring to the presence of the concept “existence” in the latter proposition. Instead, Moore now cashed out the difference in terms of what he called “sense-data.”

Examples of include color patches (the octagonal patch of red associated with a stop sign) and appearances (the elliptical appearance of a coin when viewed at an angle). Beyond examples of this sort, exactly what sense-data are was never made sufficiently clear by Moore or others. Thanks largely to Moore, their nature was kept a matter of ongoing debate in the early twentieth century.

Most proponents of sense-data construed them as mental entities responsible for mediating our sensory experiences of external objects. For example, in perceiving a stop-sign, what one is immediately conscious of is some set of sense-data through which are conveyed the stop-sign’s size, shape, color, and so on. The stop-sign itself remains “outside the circle of ideas,” or rather, sense-data, and we are thus aware of it only indirectly. In its usual form, sense-data theory is a form of representationalism consistent with indirect realism, not direct realism.

Moore initially accepted this representationalist view of sense-data; but he was not long content with it, since it seemed to leave the commonsense view of the world open to skeptical doubts of a familiar, Cartesian variety. Consequently, he modified sense-data theory to make it a form of direct realism, just as he had previously done with proposition theory. His strategy in both cases was the same: by making the purported mental-mediators identical with external objects, he would eliminate the need for a mediator and make external objects directly available to consciousness. Thus, for a period of about fifteen years, Moore attempted off-and-on to defend a view according to which sense-data were identical to external objects or parts of such objects. For instance, a sense-datum could be identical to the whole of an object in the case of a sound, while for visible objects, which always have “hidden” sides (the underside of a table or the back side of a coin, for example) a single sense-datum could be identical to only a part of the object’s surface.

Ultimately, Moore could not sustain this sense-data version of direct realism any better than his previous, propositional version. It gave way under the weight of arguments such as the argument from illusion and the argument from synthetic incompatibility. The latter runs as follows. Suppose that person A is looking at the front side of a coin straight-on, and person B is looking at the same coin from an angle. To A, the front side of the coin appears to be circular; to B, it appears to be elliptical. The sense-data theorist accounts for this by saying that A is seeing a circular sense-datum, while B is seeing an elliptical sense-datum. But, given that A and B are looking at the same part of the coin’s surface (the whole surface of the front side), Moore’s proposal that sense-data are identical to parts of the surfaces of external objects entails that the whole surface of the front side of the coin is both circular and elliptical at the same time; but this implies a contradiction, and so cannot be true.

The argument from illusion raises problems analogous to the problem of “objective falsehoods,” which drove Moore from his early propositional realism. On the representationalist version of sense-data theory, we can explain the difference between true perceptions and false (illusory) perceptions by referring to the correspondence and lack of correspondence between a sense-datum and the external object it represents. On Moore’s direct realist version, however, it makes no sense to speak of a sense-datum as failing to correspond to the object. Since sense-data are identical to objects or their parts, there can be no sense-data without there being—or, rather their being—an object, and this implies both that illusion is impossible (which flies in the face of experience) and that all those experiences that we would normally call “illusory” really aren’t—the “illusory object” really exists if illusory sense-data exist.

By 1925, Moore conceded that he could find no way around these sorts of arguments (cf. Moore 1925), hence he fell back on a version of indirect realism.

d. From the Ontology of Cognition to Criteriology

With his failed attempt to sustain a direct realist version of sense-data theory, Moore had come to the end of his rope in trying to work out an adequate, realist ontology of cognition. This did not lead to his abandoning either epistemological or metaphysical realism in general, however. To do so would have been a genuine possibility, since to abandon direct realism is to admit that we have no direct evidence of the existence of the commonsense world. While “indirect” or “representational” versions of realism are possible, it is nonetheless natural to see representationalism as opening the door to the very sort of anti-realism (in forms like idealism, phenomenalism, and so on) that Moore had labored to overthrow.

Instead of sliding down the potentially slippery slope from representationalism to anti-realism, however, Moore dug in his heels, insisting that we are justified in accepting the commonsense view of the world despite the fact that we cannot adequately explain, ontologically, how the world is given to us. As Moore himself put it, “We are all, I think, in the strange position that we do know many things…and yet we do not know how we know them.” (Moore 1925; in 1959, 44).

This approach comes through clearly in Moore’s 1925 paper “A Defense of Common Sense.” Here, Moore acknowledges that direct realism, indirect realism, and phenomenalism are more or less equally matched contenders for the correct account of cognition. Since we cannot determine the correct account, we do not know how it is that we know. However, he argues, it would be wrong to see this as grounds for calling into question that we know or what we know. Indeed, there are many things that we know perfectly well, despite our inability to say how we know them. Among these “beliefs of common sense” are such propositions as “There exists at present a living human body, which is my body,” “Ever since it [this body] was born, it has been either in contact with or not far from the surface of the earth,” and “I have often perceived both body and other things which formed part of its environment, including other human bodies” (Moore 1925; in 1959, 33).

Moore claims that he knows these and many other propositions to be certainly and wholly true; and one of the other propositions that Moore claims to know with certainty is that others have also known the aforementioned propositions to be true of themselves, just as he knows them to be true of himself. By claiming that these propositions of common sense (hereafter CS propositions) are certainly true, Moore means to oppose the skeptic who would deny that we know anything with certainty. By claiming that CS propositions are wholly true, he means to oppose the Idealist, who would claim that no statement about some isolated object can be true simpliciter, since each object has its identity only as a part of the whole universe.

In support of his view, Moore claims that each CS proposition has an “ordinary meaning” which specifies exactly what it is one knows when one knows it. This “ordinary meaning” is perfectly clear to most everyone, except for some philosophers who

seem to think that [for example] the question “Do you believe that the earth has existed for many years past?” is not a plain question, such as should be met either by a plain “Yes” or “No,” or by a plain “I can’t make up my mind,” but is the sort of question which can be properly met by: “It all depends on what you mean by ‘the earth’ and ‘exists’ and ‘years’….” (Moore 1925; in 1959, 36)

But Moore thinks that to call things into question this way is perverse; and, far from being the task of philosophy, it actually undermines that task. For even the skeptic tacitly assents to the truth of CS propositions, at least in referring to himself as a philosopher, by making references to other philosophers with whom he may disagree, and so on:

For when I speak of ‘philosophers’ I mean, of course (as we all do), exclusively philosophers who have been human beings, with human bodies that have lived upon the earth, and who have at different times had many different experiences. (Moore 1925; in 1959, 40)

On the face of it, Moore’s general idea seems to be that the truth of CS propositions, and hence of the commonsense view of the world, is built into the terms of our ordinary language, so that if some philosopher wants to say that some CS proposition is false, he thereby disqualifies the very medium in which he expresses himself, and so speaks nonsensically. Either that or he is using terms in something other than their ordinary senses, in which case his claims have no bearing on the commonsense view of the world.

Since the bounds of intelligibility seem to be fixed by the ordinary meanings of CS propositions, the job of the philosopher begins by accepting them as starting points for philosophical reflection. Then, the philosopher questions not their truth, but what Moore calls their correct analysis. Giving an analysis resembles giving a definition, and in fact it is very difficult to say what distinguishes the two. For Moore, the difference is ontological: definition is performed upon words, analysis upon propositions and concepts. But both involve setting forth two terms that are supposed to mean the same, one of which is supposed to elucidate the other. In definition these are the definiendum (the term being defined) and the definiens (the term doing the defining); in analysis, they are the analysandum (the term being analyzed) and the analysans (the term doing the analyzing). Both may take the same verbal form, for example, “A brother is a male sibling” or “‘Brother’ means ‘male sibling’.” These sentences could express either an analysis or a definition, depending upon the intentions of the speaker. The difference cannot be determined just be looking. This was a matter of great confusion for Moore’s contemporaries. In any case, it is as analyses of CS propositions that views like direct realism, indirect realism, sense-data theory, phenomenalism, and the like have their place in philosophy. These views should not, according to Moore, disqualify or in any way challenge the commonsense view of the world, but only give us a deeper understanding of what it is to have a sensory experience, or to think a thought, etc.

Moore’s new approach to defending common sense is also apparent in what is arguably his most famous paper, “Proof of an External World” (Moore 1939). Here, after expending considerable effort to nail down the meaning of “external object” as “something whose existence does not depend on our experience,” Moore claims that he can prove some such objects exist

By holding up my two hands, and saying, as I make a certain gesture with the right hand, ‘Here is one hand’, and adding, as I make a certain gesture with the left, ‘and here is another’. (Moore 1939; in 1993, 166)

Moore’s complete line of thought seems to be this: “Here is one hand” is a CS proposition with an ordinary meaning. Using it in accordance with that meaning, presenting the hand for inspection is sufficient proof that the proposition is true—that there is indeed a hand there. Ditto for the other hand. But a hand, according to the ordinary meaning of “hand,” is a material object; and a material object, according to the ordinary meaning of “material object,” is an external object. Because there are two hands, and because hands are external objects, it follows that there is an external world, according to the ordinary meaning of “external world.”

Neither Moore’s defense of common sense nor his proof of an external world were universally convincing. Some misunderstood the latter as an attempt to disprove skepticism. Taken this way, it is clearly a miserable failure. However, as Moore himself later insisted, he never meant to disprove skepticism, but only to prove the existence of the external world:

I have sometimes distinguished between two different propositions, each of which has been made by some philosophers, namely (1) the proposition ‘There are no material things’ and (2) the proposition ‘Nobody knows for certain that there are any material things.’ And in my latest British Academy lecture called ‘Proof of an External World’ … I implied with regard to the first of these propositions that it could be proved to be false in such a way as this; namely, by holding up one of your hands and saying ‘This hand is a material thing; therefore there is at least one material thing’. But with regard to the second of the two propositions …. I do not think I have ever implied that it could be proved to be false in any such simple way … (Moore 1942b, 668)

Even without this misunderstanding, however, Moore’s new approach to promoting common sense is open to the charge of begging the question by simply assuming that CS propositions are true according to their ordinary meanings. Wittgenstein put the point bluntly: “Moore’s mistake lies in this—countering the assertion that one cannot know that, by saying ‘I do know it’” (Wittgenstein 1969, § 521). By stonewalling the skeptic in this way, Moore was in effect refusing to recognize that, lacking a plausible, direct realist account of cognition, there are legitimate grounds for questioning the truth of CS propositions. If it is possible that direct realism is false, then it is possible that none of our experiences connect us with the commonsense world. Thus, we have no indubitable evidence for there being such a world, and, supposing there are such things as CS propositions and their ordinary meanings, it is possible that they fail to represent reality accurately. Thus, both Moore’s defense and his proof are ill-founded, and can be maintained only by begging the question. Or so the objection goes.

Some have attempted to defend Moore, or at least Moorean style rejoinders to skepticism, by taking seriously Moore’s claim that he was not trying to disprove skepticism, and his admission that this would be a very hard thing to do. If we put aside the issue of proof, we can interpret Moore’s new approach as first, making a clean division between the ontology of cognition and what has come to be recognized as the other main aspect of epistemology—criteriology; and, second, attempting to deal with skepticism solely in terms of the latter. Whereas the ontology of cognition deals with the problem of how we know, criteriology deals with the problem of what we know, in the sense of what we are justified in believing. On this view, then, the issue is not whether commonsense realism is certainly true and skepticism certainly false; rather, the issue is what we ought to believe or regard as true given that we can neither prove nor disprove either position. On this interpretation, central to the Moorean approach is what has come to be called “the G. E. Moore shift” (a term coined by William Rowe). Consider a standard sort of skeptical argument:

  1. If I cannot tell the difference between waking and dreaming, then I cannot be sure that I have a body.
  2. I cannot tell the difference between waking and dreaming.
  3. Therefore, I cannot be sure that I have a body

Employing the G. E. Moore shift, we rearrange the propositions of the skeptic’s argument, thus:

  1. If I cannot tell the difference between waking and dreaming, then I cannot be sure that I have a body.
  2. I am sure that I have a body.
  3. Therefore, I can tell the difference between waking and dreaming.

The strategy can be generalized as follows, where CS is any proposition of common sense (such as “I am sure that I have a body”), and S is any skeptical proposition (such as “I cannot tell the difference between waking and dreaming”):

The Skeptic’s Argument

  1. If S then not-CS
  2. S
  3. not-CS

Moore’s Response (using “the shift”)

  1. If S then not-CS
  2. CS
  3. not-S

Both arguments are valid, but only one can be sound. Since both accept the conditional (1), the question of soundness comes down to the question of whether S or CS is true. And here Moore and the skeptic would be at an impasse, except that (according to Moore) we have more reason to believe any proposition of common sense than any skeptical proposition. That is because every skeptical proposition worth its salt is going to rest on some speculative account of the ontology of cognition that puts a mental surrogate (such as a proposition or a sense-datum) in place of what we would normally say was the object of our experience. But, given the highly uncertain nature of theories in the ontology of cognition, we are wise to treat them and claims based on them (as all legitimate skeptical claims are) with suspicion, and to refuse to let them bear too much weight in our decisions about what to believe. Thus, we should always end up on the side of commonsense.

In fact, this seems to be Moore’s procedure in a late paper called “Four Forms of Scepticism.” Taking as his S the claim made by Bertrand Russell that “I do not know for certain that this is a pencil,” Moore claims that it rests upon several assumptions, one of which is the denial of direct realism. And even though he admits to agreeing with Russell that direct realism is likely false, Moore nonetheless advocates rejecting S:

of no one of these [presuppositions of S] …do I feel as certain as that I do know for certain that this is a pencil. Nay, more: I do not think it is rational to be as certain of any one of these…propositions, as of the proposition that I do know that this is a pencil. (Moore 1959, 226)

It is clear that Moore is using the “shift” strategy. What is not clear is just what the source of justification for CS is supposed to be. In this case, at least, the shift seems to involve an appeal to a criterion of justification—and of rationality—that is not affected by the fact that we lack an adequate account of cognition. But Moore never tells us exactly what this criterion is. Since Moore, it has been the norm to attempt to do criteriology apart from the ontology of cognition, and the question about the criterion (or criteria) for justification remains a central matter of debate.

3. Ethics

Moore’s ethical views are presented in two books and two papers: Principia Ethica, Ethics, “The Conception of Intrinsic Value,” and “Is Goodness a Quality?” (respectively: Moore 1903a, 1912, 1922b, and 1932). Despite being vastly outnumbered by his writings on epistemology and metaphysics, his work in ethics was just as influential. The discrepancy in volume is due mainly to the fact that the details of Moore’s ethical views were far more stable, undergoing far less revision and development, than those of his metaphysical and epistemological views.

a. Goodness and Intrinsic Value

Moore’s most important ethical work is Principia Ethica. It had a profound impact in both philosophy and culture almost immediately upon its publication. In it, Moore lays out a version of ethical realism consistent with his early propositional realism and its attendant doctrines. In accordance with his “identity theory” of truth, ethical propositions, just like non-ethical propositions, are objectively true or false in themselves. Combined with his view that ordinary objects are identical to true existential propositions, this implies that ordinary objects which possess value do so intrinsically: they are true existential propositions that involve the concept “good.” Thus, an object’s status as good or bad (or, in the aesthetic realm, beautiful or ugly) depends on nothing outside of itself—neither its causes and effects nor its relationship to human beings, their preferences, or their judgments. It depends solely on the involvement of “good” as a concept, or, in the idiom of existence, a property.

Ethical propositions, then, differ from non-ethical ones only in virtue of the kinds of concepts they involve. Specifically, ethical propositions involve a range of unique concepts that we call “ethical” or “moral,” such as “good,” “right,” “duty,” etc. The most fundamental of these is “good”; the others count as moral concepts/properties only because they bear logical relationships (in the broad sense of “relations of meaning”) to “good.” This point will be discussed further below. For now, we will focus on Moore’s views concerning the nature of “good” itself.

The central thesis of Principia Ethica is that “good” is a simple, non-natural concept (or property). As we shall see (in Section 3b), it is not completely clear what Moore means by “non-natural.” What he means by “simple” however, is clear enough; so we shall start with that. For something to be ontologically simple (which is the sense in question here) is for it to possess no parts, to admit of no divisions or distinctions in its own constitution. A simple is not made up out of anything, and thus cannot be broken down into anything. Simples are therefore unanalyzable. In the case of “good,” it is a concept not made up of other concepts. Consequently it cannot be analyzed—broken down into constituents—in the way that “bachelor” can (see Section 2b). Moore illustrates the situation by comparing “good” to color concepts like “yellow.” Color concepts cannot be known by analytic description, but only by acquaintance, that is, direct cognition. Attempts at description or definition (that is, analysis) such as “yellow is a color brighter than blue,” fail to capture the essence of yellow. Likewise, purported analyses of “good,” in terms concepts like “pleasure” or “desire” or “evolutionary progress,” fail to capture what is meant by “good.”

b. The Open Question Argument and the Naturalistic Fallacy

Moore demonstrates the unanalyzability of “good” by what has come to be known as “the open question argument”: for any definition of “good”—“good(ness) is X”—it makes sense to ask whether goodness really is X, and whether X really is good. For instance, if we say “goodness is pleasure,” it makes sense to ask, “is goodness really pleasure?” and “is pleasure truly good?” Moore’s point is that every attempt at definition leaves it an open question as to what good really is. But this could be the case only if the definition failed to capture all of what is meant by “good.” Consider the case discussed above: “a bachelor is an unmarried man.” Here it makes no sense to respond “yes, but is a bachelor really an unmarried man?” or “but is every unmarried man really a bachelor?” The reason it doesn’t is that the full meaning of “bachelor” is captured by “unmarried man.” On the other hand, the reason it makes sense to ask these kinds of questions about purported definitions of “good” is that they fail to capture its full meaning. Since this is true of every purported definition of “good,” “good” cannot be defined; it can only be recognized in particular cases through acts of intuitive apprehension.

On this account, any ethical theory that attempts to define the good—and nearly all of them do—errs. Moore famously dubbed this particular error “the naturalistic fallacy.” In general, the fallacy “consists in identifying the simple notion which we mean by ‘good’ with some other notion” (Moore 1903a, 58); or, negatively, the “failure to distinguish clearly that unique and indefinable quality which we mean by good” (Moore 1903a, 59). To this extent, it is clear what Moore means by “the naturalistic fallacy.” However, his choice of “naturalistic” to describe this error is quite puzzling, as is his description of “good” as a non-natural property. In the modern era, “nature” has frequently been used as a synonym for the material world, the world studied by the natural sciences. Accordingly, “naturalistic” has usually been reserved for philosophical views amenable to the natural sciences, views like scientism, empiricism, materialism, and so on. In the Principia, Moore’s direct statements about the meanings of “natural,” “naturalistic,” etc., are in keeping with this norm. At one point, he describes “nature” (and hence the natural) as “that which is the subject-matter of the natural sciences and also of psychology” (Moore 1903a, Ch. 2 § 26). He also offers two alternative characterizations of the natural. The first is in terms of temporality, the second in terms of the capacity for independent existence in time (this latter applies specifically to properties). Even here he does not depart from the norm, for the objects of scientific inquiry are usually taken to be temporal individuals such as events or material individuals at varying levels of granularity (atoms, molecules, cells, “ordinary middle-sized objects,” planets, etc.).

On the one hand, then, Moore’s use of “natural” seems to be unremarkable. What is peculiar, on the other hand, is his use of “naturalistic” to describe the fallacy of equating “good” with any other concept. Moore’s “naturalistic fallacy” is not a matter of mistaking the temporal for the atemporal. Neither is it a matter of mistaking the empirical and the scientific for the non-empirical and non-scientific. This description might apply to hedonistic views that equate good with pleasure, since pleasure can be treated as an object of empirical study either for psychology or physiology. However, Moore means to charge even metaphysical theories of ethics—such as those of Aristotle, Aquinas and Kant—with commiting the naturalistic fallacy (cf. Moore 1903a, Ch. 4), and none of these equates goodness with something empirical or scientific in the modern sense. In fact, the naturalistic fallacy is really just a matter of mistaking the non-synonymous for the synonymous (thus William Frankena suggested in an important 1939 paper that it should be called “the definist fallacy”), and this has nothing to do with the distinction between the natural and the non-natural per se, as that distinction is normally understood.

All this points to the fact that either Moore has a much broader understanding of “natural” than he admits to in the Principia, or “naturalistic fallacy” is not an apt name for the phenomenon at issue. In the Principia, Moore seems prepared to accept the latter possibility when he claims “I do not care about the name: what I do care about is the fallacy. It does not matter what we call it, provided we recognise it when we meet with it” (Moore 1903a, Ch. 1, § 12). However the natural/non-natural terminology must have meant more to him than he let on, for he retained it throughout his career, even parting ways with ordinary usage to do so. This occurs in a 1922 paper on “The Conception of Intrinsic Value.” Here, Moore holds that value concepts alone are to be counted as non-natural, so that “non-natural” is practically equivalent to “moral” and “natural” to “non-moral.” Thus, in the end, it seems that Moore did have a much broader understanding of “natural”—and a correspondingly narrower conception of “non-natural”—than is articulated in the Principia.

c. Ideal Utilitarianism

Although it is the focus of his later book Ethics, only a single chapter of the Principia is given to what Moore called “practical ethics.” This is the area of ethics that has to do with behavior, and hence deals in concepts like “right,” “permissible,” “obligatory,” and the like. In both places, Moore promotes a view that has come to be called “ideal utilitarianism.”

Moore’s account of intrinsic value is limited to objects; it does not include actions. Actions, for Moore, possess value only instrumentally, insofar as they are productive of good consequences. Thus “right,” “duty,” and “virtue” are different ways of labeling actions (or dispositions to act) that are useful as means to good ends. They differ in meaning only insofar as the secondary details of the causal situation differ: “duty” marks a action as productive of more good than any possible alternative, “right” or “permissible” marks an action as productive of no less good than any possible alternative (Moore 1903a, Ch. 5, § 89), while virtues are dispositions to perform particularly unattractive duties:

as duties from expedient actions, so virtues are distinguished from other useful dispositions, not by any superior utility, but by the fact that they are dispositions, which it is particularly useful to praise and to sanction, because there are strong and common temptations to neglect the actions to which they lead. (Moore 1903a, Ch. 5, § 103)

Moore’s view is that there is no important difference in meaning between concepts like “duty” “right” and “virtue” on the one hand, and “expedient” or “useful” on the other. In this he agrees with the classic utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. However, whereas classic utilitarianism is hedonistic (that is, it defines good in terms of pleasure), Moore defends the sui generis status of “good” (see Section 3a). Moore’s utilitarianism is not, therefore, hedonistic. Instead, it is said to be ideal. To understand what this means, we must note two features of Moore’s view.

First, Moore’s utilitarianism is pluralistic. Since, on Moore’s account, “good” is a property/concept whose meaning is completely independent of any others, it can be instanced in any number of wholes—objects or states of affairs—of a variety of types. This means that many different kinds of objects can have intrinsic value—not just states of pleasure, as the classic utilitarians have it.

Second, “good” for Moore is a degreed property—one object or state of affairs can have more or less value than another. This is implicit in the way Moore distinguished between “duty” and “right.” “Duty” concerns producing the most good possible, while “right” concerns producing no less good than other options. Both definitions assume that possible outcomes (states of affairs) can be ranked in respect of their degrees of value. This is made explicit in Chapter 6 of the Principia, where Moore articulates his conception of an ideal state of affairs. In general, Moore says, an ideal state is one that is “good in itself in a high degree” (Moore 1903a, Ch. 6, § 110). Ideal utilitarianism, therefore, will be a brand of utilitarianism in which actions are to be ordered not to the greatest happiness or pleasure, but to those states of affairs possessing the highest degree of good.

Indeed, as Moore has set things up, duty will always be directed toward some ideal state (toward the state with the highest degree of good). Thus, to know which states are ideal, and, more specifically, which are most valuable and hence the most ideal, is crucial for practical ethics. According to Moore, the most valuable states we know of are the pleasures of personal relationships and aesthetic enjoyment. Thus, he concludes, “the ultimate and fundamental truth of Moral Philosophy” is that

it is only for the sake of these things [that is, the two ideal states of aesthetic and interpersonal enjoyment]—in order that as much of them as possible may at some time exist—that any one can be justified in performing any public or private duty; that they are the raison d’être of virtue; that it is they—these complex wholes themselves, and not any constituent or characteristic of them—that form the rational ultimate end of human action and the sole criterion of social progress. (Moore 1903a, Ch. 6, § 113)

d. The Influence of Moore’s Ethical Theory

Moore’s ethical theory had a tremendous influence both within and beyond the academy. Within the academy, non-cognitive theories of ethics dominated until nearly 1960. This was the logical consequence of adapting Moore’s ethical theory to a naturalistic worldview. Both his own and subsequent generations of philosophers took to heart Moore’s treatment of moral value as non-natural and his corresponding refusal to allow any characterization of good in natural terms. In doing so, however, they either failed to recognize or simply ignored the fact that Moore’s use of “natural” etc. was somewhat idiosyncratic. Taking these terms in their standard sense, Moore’s claims about “good” indicated that it was not merely indefinable, but unknowable by any scientific or “natural” means. Together with a scientistic outlook that restricted either the knowable or the existent to the scientifically verifiable, this yielded the view that “good” was unknowable.

It was essentially this view—albeit given a linguistic twist—that provided the theme upon which the most prominent ethical theories of the early- to mid-1900s counted as so many variations. This began with the logical positivist treatment of ethics. According to the logical positivists’ “verifiability principle of meaning,” the meaning of a proposition is its manner of empirical verification. If a proposition cannot be verified empirically, it is thereby revealed as meaningless. Given the Moorean characterization of “good” as non-natural and the usual sense of “non-natural” as connoting, among other things, “non-empirical,” the verification principle made ethical propositions meaningless. Still, ethical discourse obviously plays an important role in human life. According to the logical positivists, this was to be explained by treating ethical propositions not as statements of fact, but as expressions of emotion. For example, “honesty is good” is to be taken as equivalent to “hooray for honesty!” This view, commonly called “emotivism,” was popularized by A. J. Ayer in his book Language, Truth and Logic (Ayer 1936), and later modified by C. L. Stevenson (1944, 1963).

To an extent, emotivism had been anticipated in Moore’s treatment of practical ethics, in his view that

the true distinction between duties and expedient actions is not that the former are actions which it is in any sense more useful or obligatory or better to perform, but that they are actions which it is more useful to praise and to enforce by sanctions, since they are actions which there is a temptation to omit. (Moore 1903a, Ch. 5, § 101)

In other words, the language of practical ethics adds to non-ethical language only the connotation of approval or disapproval and their consequent “hortatory force” (cf. Daly 1996, 45-47). In emotivisim this claim was extended to all ethical discourse.

The larger part of the mid-century debate over the status of ethical claims was taken up with creative rejections of emotivism which were nonetheless in keeping with the basic Moorean disjunction between the moral and the natural(/empirical/scientific). Such alternatives came from Stuart Hamphire (1949), J. O. Urmson (1950), Stephen Toulmin (1950), and R. M. Hare (1952). British and American philosophers began to part ways with the Moorean disjunction only in the late 1950s and early 1960s, due largely to the work of Elizabeth Anscombe (Anscombe 1958) and Phillipa Foot (1958, 1959, 1961).

Beyond the academy, Moore’s emphasis on the value of personal relationships and aesthetic experiences endeared him to members of the Bloomsbury group, who embraced Moore as their patron saint. Bloomsbury was a group of avant-garde writers, artists, and intellectuals that proved to be immensely influential in culture beyond the academy. The group included (among others) Clive Bell, Roger Fry, Desmond McCarthy, John Maynard Keynes, and Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Many of the Bloomsbury men were also members of the Cambridge Apostles, and had first met each other and Moore in that context. Moore had been elected to this secret student society in 1894. As members of Bloomsbury, they embraced Moore’s idealization of friendship and aesthetic enjoyment as the highest human goods, and, through their own example and through their work, conveyed at least some of Moore’s views and values beyond the halls of academia and into the broader culture.

However, they also used Moore’s intuition-based moral epistemology as a justification for flouting the mores of their culture, especially in the area of sexual ethics. In fact, on account of Bloomsbury’s reputation for moral laxity, Moore’s views were often unfairly criticized as encouraging libertine behavior. This is clearly a case of guilt by association, as Moore himself never claimed that “free love” was a good. The closest he comes to the topic is in discussing social conventions about chastity as an example of rules that might, under certain circumstances, be suspended (Moore 1903a, ch. 5, §§ 95-96). However, far from endorsing that they actually be suspended, he argues that it is obligatory to obey the conventions of one’s society, since this will usually generate a state of greater good (in the form of social harmony) than violating them.

The situation with Bloomsbury illustrates the greatest weakness of Moore’s ethical system. It is not a theoretical weakness, but a practical one. From a theoretical perspective, intuitionism is invulnerable, and it is invulnerable because intuition is unverifiable—if someone claims to have an intuition that such and such is the case, there’s nothing anyone can do to prove or disprove it. However, because it is unverifiable, intuition can be used to justify anything. This is the practical problem with intuitionist ethics. Of course, the problem is not unique to Moore’s version of intuitionism, but attaches to intuitionism in specie.

4. Philosophical Methodology

Moore is usually regarded as an important methodological innovator. In fact his method of philosophical analysis is supposed to have been a formative inspiration for the analytic movement in philosophy. However, it is a bit misleading to speak of “Moore’s philosophical method.” Moore was what we might call an occasional philosopher. By his own admission, he possessed no innate drive to develop a systematic philosophy; rather, he was agitated into philosophizing only by the bizarre challenges some philosophers’ claims posed to his commonsense beliefs:

I do not think that the world or the sciences would ever have suggested to me any philosophical problems. What has suggested philosophical problems to me is things which other philosophers have said about the world or the sciences. (Moore 1942a, 14)

In the Library of Living Philosophers volume on Moore, V.J. McGill criticizes Moore’s piecemeal approach to philosophy. He rightly notes that Moore attempted to develop no grand system of philosophy, but worked instead in a few specific areas, for example, ethics, perception, and philosophical method. McGill blames Moore’s approach to philosophy on his commitment to a method which was simply not suited to deal with other sorts of philosophical issues. In his reply to McGill, however, Moore rejects this idea:

it is, of course true that there are ever so many interesting philosophical problems on which I have never said a word ... Mr. McGill suggests that the reason why I have not dealt with some of these other questions may have been that I was wedded to certain particular methods, and that these methods were not suitable for dealing with them. But I think I can assure him that this was not the case. I started discussing certain kinds of questions, because they happened to be what interested me most; and I only adopted certain particular methods (so far as I had adopted them) because they seemed to me suitable for those kinds of questions. I had no preference for any method…. (Moore 1942b, 676)

In a sense, then, Moore did not have a method. But, of course, he did have a way of going about his philosophizing, and one might call this “Moore’s method.” In this case, the “method” would consist, first, in tackling isolated philosophical problems rather than trying to build a philosophical system. Second, in tackling one of these isolated problems, it would involve the attempt to get very clear on what was meant by the propositions and concepts essential to stating the problem—in other words, the propositions and concepts would have to be analyzed. Likewise with the propositions and concepts involved in the answer (or possible answers).

In point of historical fact, Moore’s use of analysis to solve isolated philosophical problems—and so his “method”—proved to have a greater impact on philosophy than any of his developed theories in metaphysics, epistemology, or ethics. Though his early views about truth and propositions provided a necessary metaphysical and epistemological departure from British Idealism, these merely facilitated the rise of analytic philosophy. The substance of the movement came from Moore’s use of analysis as a method. Indeed, though use of the word “analysis” in philosophy antedates Moore, it was Moore who first used it in the sense that ultimately gave the movement its name.

Unfortunately, much of Moore’s influence in this regard was based on a mistake. It was mentioned above that the empirical equivalence of definition and analysis was a source of confusion for Moore’s contemporaries. Despite Moore’s best efforts to explain otherwise, many took him to have invented and endorsed linguistic analysis. Norman Malcolm represents this common misconception when he says, “The essence of Moore’s technique of refuting philosophical statements consists in pointing out that these statements go against ordinary language” (Malcolm 1942, 349). Malcolm goes on to tie Moore’s entire philosophical legacy to his “linguistic method:”

Moore’s great historical role consists in the fact that he has been perhaps the first philosopher to sense that any philosophical statement that violates ordinary language is false, and consistently to defend ordinary language against its philosophical violators” (Malcolm 1942, 368)

But Moore explicitly rejected the idea that his analyses had been in any important sense “linguistic.” “In my usage,” he insisted, “the analysanda must be a concept, or idea, or proposition, and not a verbal expression” (Moore 1942b, 663 f.):

I never intended to use the word [“analysis”] in such a way that the analysandum would be a verbal expression. When I have talked of analyzing anything, what I have talked of analyzing has always been an idea or concept or proposition, and not a verbal expression; that is to say, if I talked of analyzing a “proposition,” I was always using “proposition” in such a sense that no verbal expression (no sentence, for instance), can be a “proposition,” in that sense. (Moore 1942b, 661)

Our survey of Moore’s metaphysics in Section 2b makes it clear enough that a Moorean proposition is anything but a linguistic entity. How, then, did this misunderstanding arise? Even a brief survey of Moore’s work will reveal that he often used terms such as “meaning,” “definition,” and “predicate” to describe what he was dealing with or looking for in his philosophical activities, and it is easy to see how these suggest that he was engaged in some linguistic enterprise. In a particularly glaring example from Principia Ethica, Moore identifies the object of his of study in clearly grammatical terms: “My discussion hitherto has fallen under two main heads. Under the first, I tried to shew what “good”—the adjective “good”—means” (Moore 1903a, Ch. 5, § 86). In this case, it seems that Moore himself conflated a linguistic entity—the adjective “good”—with a conceptual one.

With characteristic humility, Moore was quick to count himself as partially responsible for the linguistic interpretation of his method. “I have often,” he admitted, “in giving analyses, used this word ‘means’ and thus given a false impression; …” (Moore 1942b, 664 f.). Though the linguistic interpretation of Moore persisted until well after his death, recent scholarship has continued to hammer the point home that this is a mistake, and the message seems to have finally been heard.

Even apart from the linguistic error, however, the general contours of Moore’s genuine “method” seem to have had a lasting impact of their own. In his recent work on the history of analytic philosophy, Scott Soames counts as two of the movement’s three characteristic features “an implicit commitment…to the ideals of clarity, rigor, and argumentation” (Soames 2003, xiii) and “a widespread presumption…that it is often possible to make philosophical progress by intensively investigating a small, circumscribed range of philosophical issues while holding broader, systematic issues in abeyance” (Soames 2003, xv), and among its two most important achievements he includes “the recognition that philosophical speculation must be grounded in pre-philosophical thought” (Soames 2003, xi). Each of these can be traced directly back to Moore and his “method.”

5. Moore’s Influence and Character

It cannot be doubted that Moore was one of the most influential philosophers of the early twentieth century. It is peculiar, though, that his influence seems to have had little to do with his actual views. Though his early views about truth and propositions influenced Bertrand Russell for a time, they have long since ceased to play a role in mainstream philosophical discussions. The same can be said of his views in ethics and, except in the very general respects mentioned by Soames, philosophical methodology. Moreover, even when the influence of Moore’s ethical and methodological views was at its highest, there remains the fact that much of the detailed content of his views was ignored by those who claimed to be influenced by them. For both the “ordinary language” branch of analytic philosophy and the Bloomsbury group, Moore’s views were influential mainly in the sense that they provided forms into which they could pour their own content. And yet Moore himself was revered by all.

This puzzle about Moore’s influence has been addressed by Paul Levy (Levy 1979), who argues that Moore's influence was due more to his character than to his views. And, in fact, the uniqueness of Moore’s character is frequently mentioned by those who knew him and have written about him. G. J. Warnock, for instance, would seem to agree with Levy when he says:

…special notice should be paid to the character of Moore…it was not solely by reason of his intellectual gifts that Moore differed so greatly from his immediate predecessors, or influenced so powerfully his own contemporaries. He was not, and never had the least idea that he was, a much cleverer man than McTaggart … or Bradley. It was in point of character that he was different, and importantly so. (Warnock 1958, 12)

Foremost among his virtues were his unwavering honesty and his devotion to clarity and truth. Moore was never afraid to appear silly or naïve in his search for truth, and so he always said exactly what he thought in the best way he knew how. He was never afraid to admit an error. He gave no appearance of trying to promote either himself or his own agenda or system. This was remarkably refreshing in a context dominated by a philosophical system that had achieved the status of orthodoxy. He held both himself and others to exacting intellectual standards while at the same time exhibiting a spirit of great generosity and kindness in his personal relationships. Gilbert Ryle, the most prominent Cambridge philosopher in the generation after Moore, describes Moore’s significance this way:

He gave us courage not by making concessions, but by making no concessions to our youth or our shyness. He treated us as corrigible and therefore as responsible thinkers. He would explode at our mistakes and muddles with just that genial ferocity with which he would explode at the mistakes and muddles of philosophical high-ups, and with just the genial ferocity with which he would explode at mistakes and muddles of his own. (Ryle 1971, 270)

Similar reports come from Moore’s associates outside of academic philosophy. For instance, Leonard Woolf (a member of Bloomsbury and the Apostles) recalls:

There was in him an element which can, I think, be accurately called greatness, a combination of mind and character and behaviour, of thought and feeling, which made him qualitatively different from anyone else I have ever known. I recognize it in only one or two of the many famous dead men whom Ecclesiaasticus and others enjoin us to praise for one reason or another. (Woolf 1960, 131)

There is no doubt that Moore’s character captured a certain philosophical ideal established by Socrates long ago. Whatever we make of Moore’s views, we can be grateful for his character and whatever influence it had and continues to have.

6. References and Further Readings

The most complete bibliography of Moore’s writings is found in the 1971 edition of The Philosophy of G. E. Moore (listed, as “Schilpp, ed. 1942” in section b, below).

a. Primary Sources

  • Moore, G. E. 1899: “The Nature of Judgment,” Mind 8, 176-93. Reprinted in Moore 1993, 1-19.
  • Moore, G. E. 1901-2: “Truth” in J. Baldwin (ed.) Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, London: Macmillan. Reprinted in Moore 1993, 20-2.
  • Moore, G. E. 1903a: Principia Ethica, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Moore, G. E. 1903b: “The Refutation of Idealism” Mind 12, 433-53. Reprinted in Moore 1993, 23-44.
  • Moore, G. E. 1912: Ethics, London: Williams & Norgate.
  • Moore, G. E. 1922a: Philosophical Studies, K. Paul, London: Trench, Trubner & Co.
  • Moore, G. E. 1922b: “The Conception of Intrinsic Value” in Moore 1922a.
  • Moore, G. E. 1925: “A Defense of Common Sense” in J. H. Muirhead ed., Contemporary British Philosophy, London: Allen and Unwin, 193-223. Reprinted in Moore 1959, 126-148, and Moore 1993, 106-33.
  • Moore, G. E. 1939: “Proof of an External World,” Proceedings of the British Academy 25, 273-300. Reprinted in Moore 1993, 147-70.
  • Moore, G. E. 1942a: “An Autobiography,” in Schilpp ed., 1942, 3-39.
  • Moore, G. E. 1942b: “A Reply to My Critics,” in Schilpp ed., 1942, 535-677.
  • Moore, G. E. 1953: Some Main Problems of Philosophy, New York: Macmillan.
  • Moore, G. E. 1959: Philosophical Papers, London: George Allen and Unwin.
  • Moore, G. E. 1993: G. E. Moore: Selected Writings, ed. Thomas Baldwin, London: Routledge.

b. Secondary Sources

  • Ambrose and Lazerowitz (eds.). 1970: G. E. Moore: Essays in Retrospect, London: Allen and Unwin.
  • Anscombe, Elizabeth. 1958: “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Philosophy: The Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, vol. 33, no. 124, 1-19
  • Ayer, A. J. 1936, Language, Truth, and Logic, London: Gollancz.
  • Ayer, A. J. 1971: Russell and Moore: The Analytical Heritage, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Baldwin, T. 1990: G. E. Moore, London: Routledge.
  • Baldwin, T. 1991: “The Identity Theory of Truth,” Mind, New Series, Vol. 100, No. 1, 35-52.
  • Bell, David. 1999: “The Revolution of Moore and Russell: A Very British Coup?” in Anthony O’Hear (ed.), German Philosophy Since Kant, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Daly, Cahal B. 1996: Moral Philosophy in Britain: From Bradley to Wittgenstein, Dublin: Four Courts Press.
  • Foot, Phillipa. 1958: “Moral Arguments,” Mind, Vol. 67, 502-513.
  • Foot, Phillipa. 1959: “Moral Beliefs,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Vol. 59, 83-104.
  • Foot, Phillipa. “Goodness and Choice,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplemental Vol. 35, 45-61.
  • Frankena, William. 1939: “The Naturalistic Fallacy,” Mind, Vol. 48, 464-477.
  • Hampshire, Stuart. 1949: “Fallacies in Moral Philosophy,” Mind, Vol. 58, 466-482.
  • Hare, R. M. 1952: The Language of Morals, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Hutchinson, Brian. 2001: G. E. Moore’s Ethical Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Keynes, J. M. 1949: “My Early Beliefs” in Two Memoirs, London: Hart-Davis.
  • Levy, P. 1979: Moore: G. E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Lewy, Casmir. 1964: “G. E. Moore on the Naturalistic Fallacy,” Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. 50, 251-262.
  • Malcolm, N. 1942: “Moore and Ordinary Language,” in Schilpp (ed.) 1942, 343-368.
  • Olthuis, James H. 1968: Facts, Values and Ethics: a Confrontation with Twentieth-Century British Moral Philosophy, in Particular G. E. Moore, New York: Humanities Press.
  • Schilpp, P. A., ed. 1942: The Philosophy of G. E. Moore, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
  • Soames, Scott. 2003 . Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century, vol. 1, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
  • Stroll, A. 1994: Moore and Wittgenstein, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Stroll, A. 2000. Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Sylvester, R. P. 1990: The Moral Philosophy of G. E. Moore, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Regan, T. 1986: Bloomsbury’s Prophet, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Russell, B. 1906: “On the Nature of Truth,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society.
  • Russell, B. 1910: Philosophical Essays, London, New York, and Bombay: Longmans Green.
  • Ryle, G. 1971: “G. E. Moore,” in Collected Papers, vol. I, London: Hutchinson.
  • Stevenson, C. L. 1944: Ethics and Language, New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Stevenson, C. L. 1963: Facts and Values, New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Toulmin, Stephen. 1950: The Place of Reason in Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Urmson, J.O. 1950: “On Grading,” Mind, Vol. 59, 145-169.
  • Warnock, G.J. 1958: English Philosophy Since 1900, London: Oxford University Press.
  • Willard, D. 1984: Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge: A Study in Husserl’s Early Philosophy, Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.
  • Wittgenstein, L. 1969: On Certainty, Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Woolf, L. 1960: Sowing: An Autobiography of the Years 1880-1904, London: Hogarth Press.

Author Information

Aaron Preston
Malone College
U. S. A.

The Analysis of Knowledge

First published Tue Feb 6, 2001; substantive revision Mon Jan 16, 2006

The objective of the analysis of knowledge is to state the conditions that are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for propositional knowledge: knowledge that such-and-such is the case. Propositional knowledge must be distinguished from two other kinds of knowledge that fall outside the scope of the analysis: knowing a place or a person, and knowing how to do something. The concept to be analyzed — the analysandum — is commonly expressed using the schema “S knows that p”, where “S” refers to the knowing subject, and “p” to the proposition that is known. A proposed analysis consists of a statement of the following form: S knows that p if and only if ___. The blank is to be replaced by the analysans: a list of conditions that are individually necessary and jointly sufficient. To test whether a proposed analysis is correct, we must ask (a) whether every possible case in which the conditions listed in the analysans are met is a case in which S knows that p, and (b) whether every possible case in which S knows that p is a case in which each of these conditions is met. When we ask (a), we wish to find out whether the proposed analysans is sufficient for S's knowing that p; when we ask (b), we wish to determine whether each of the conditions listed in the analysans is necessary.

1. Knowledge as Justified True Belief

According to the following analysis, which is usually referred to as the “JTB” account, knowledge is justified true belief.

The JTB Analysis of Knowledge:
S knows that p iff
  1. p is true;
  2. S believes that p;
  3. S is justified in believing that p.

Condition (i), the truth condition, has not generated any significant degree of discussion. It is overwhelmingly clear that what is false cannot be known. For example, it is false that G. E. Moore is the author of Sense and Sensibilia. Since it is false, it is not the sort of thing anybody can know.

Although the truth-condition enjoys nearly universal consent, let us nevertheless consider at least one objection to it. According to this objection, Newtonian Physics is part of our overall scientific knowledge. But Newtonian Physics is false. So it's possible to know something false after all.[1]

In response, let us say that Newtonian physics involves a set of laws of nature {L1, L2,…, Ln}. When we say we know Newtonian physics, this could be interpreted as saying we know that, according to Newtonian physics, L1, L2,…, Ln are all true. And that claim is of course true.

Additionally, we can distinguish between two theories, T and T*, where T is Newtonian physics and T* updated theoretical physics at the cutting edge. T* does not literally include T as a part, but absorbs T by virtue of explaining in which way T is useful for understanding the world, what assumptions T is based on, where T fails, and how T must be corrected to describe the world accurately. So we could say that, since we know T*, we know Newtonian physics in the sense that we know how Newtonian physics helps us understand the world and where and how Newtonian physics fails.

1.1 The Belief Condition

Unlike the truth condition, condition (ii), the belief condition, has generated at least some discussion. Although initially it might seem obvious that knowing that p requires believing that p, some philosophers have argued that knowledge without belief is indeed possible. Suppose Walter comes home after work to find out that his house has burned down. He utters the words “I don't believe it.” Critics of the belief condition might argue that Walter knows that his house has burned down (he sees that it has), but, as his words indicate, he does not believe it. Therefore, there is knowledge without belief. To this objection, there is an effective reply. What Walter wishes to convey by saying “I don't believe it” is not that he really does not believe what he sees with his own eyes, but rather that he finds it hard to come to terms with what he sees.

A more serious counterexample has been suggested by Colin Radford (1966). Suppose Albert is quizzed on English history. One of the questions is: “When did Queen Elizabeth die?” Albert doesn't think he knows, but answers the question correctly. Moreover, he gives correct answers to many other questions to which he didn't think he knew the answer. Let us focus on Albert's answer to the question about Elizabeth:

(E) Elizabeth died in 1603.

Radford makes the following two claims about this example:

  1. Albert does not believe (E). Reason: He thinks he doesn't know the answer to the question. He doesn't trust his answer because he takes it to be a mere guess.
  2. Albert knows (E). Reason: His answer is not at all just a lucky guess. The fact that he answers most of the questions correctly indicates that he has actually learned, and never forgotten, the basic facts of English history.

Since he takes (a) and (b) to be true, Radford would argue that knowledge without belief is indeed possible. But Radford's example is not compelling. Those who think that belief is necessary for knowledge could reply that the example does not qualify as a case of knowledge without belief because it isn't a case of knowledge to begin with. Albert doesn't know (E) because he has no justification for believing (E). If he were to believe (E), his belief would be unjustified. This reply anticipates what we have not yet discussed: the necessity of the justification condition. Let us first discuss why friends of JTB hold that knowledge requires justification, and then discuss in greater detail why they would not accept Radford's alleged counterexample.

1.2 The Justification Condition

Why is condition (iii) necessary? Why not say that knowledge is true belief? The standard answer is that to identify knowledge with true belief would be implausible because a belief that is true just because of luck does not qualify as knowledge. Beliefs that are lacking justification are false more often than not. However, on occasion, such beliefs happen to be true. Suppose William takes a medication that has the following side effect: it causes him to be overcome with irrational fears. One of his fears is that he has cancer. This fear is so powerful that he starts believing it. Suppose further that, by sheer coincidence, he does have cancer. So his belief is true. Clearly, though, his belief does not amount to knowledge. But why not? Most epistemologists would agree that William does not know because his belief's truth is due to luck (bad luck, in this case). Let us refer to a belief's turning out to be true because of mere luck as epistemic luck. It is uncontroversial that knowledge is incompatible with epistemic luck. What, though, is needed to rule out epistemic luck? Advocates of the JTB account would say that what is needed is justification. A true belief, if an instance of knowledge and thus not true because of epistemic luck, must be justified. But what is it for a belief to be justified?[2]

Among the philosophers who favor the JTB approach, we find bewildering disagreement on how this question is to be answered. According to one prominent view, typically referred to as “evidentialism”, a belief is justified if, and only if, it fits the subject's evidence.[3] Evidentialists, then, would say that the reason why knowledge is not the same as true belief is that knowledge requires evidence. Opponents of evidentialism would say that evidentialist justification (i.e., having adequate evidence) is not needed to rule out epistemic luck. They would argue that what is needed instead is a suitable relation between the belief and the mental process that brought it about. What we are looking at here is an important disagreement about the nature of knowledge, which will be our main focus further below. In the meantime, we will continue our examination of the JTB analysis.

Let us return to Radford's objection to the belief condition, which we considered above. We are now in a position to discuss further how that objection can be rebutted. Recall that Albert does not take himself to know the answer to the question about the date of Elizabeth's death. He does not because he does not remember having learned the basic facts of British history. Now, it is of course true that he did learn these facts, and is indeed able to recall them. But is this by itself sufficient for knowing them? Philosophers who think that knowledge requires evidence would say that it is not. Albert needs to have evidence for believing that he learned those facts. Until he is quizzed, he has no such evidence. After the quiz, when he is told that most of his answers are correct, he does have the requisite evidence. For once he comes to know that he is able to produce consistently correct answers to the questions he is asked, he has acquired evidence for believing that he must have learned this subject matter at school. This evidence is also evidence for the answers he has given. So at that point, the justification condition is met, and thus (since the other conditions of knowledge are also met) he knows (again) that Elizabeth died in 1603. However, he did not know this before finding out that he must have learned those facts, for at that point his answer to the question lacked justification and thus did not add up to knowledge. Evidentialists would deny, therefore, that Radford has supplied us with a counterexample to the belief condition.[4]

2. The Gettier Problem

In his short 1963 paper, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, Edmund Gettier presented two effective counterexamples to the JTB analysis (Gettier 1963). The second of these goes as follows. Suppose Smith has good evidence for the false proposition

  1. Jones owns a Ford.[5]

Suppose further Smith infers from (1) the following three disjunctions:

  1. Either Jones owns a Ford or Brown is in Boston.
  2. Either Jones owns a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona.
  3. Either Jones owns a Ford or Brown is in Brest-Litovsk.

Since (1) entails each of the propositions (2) through (4), and since Smith recognizes these entailments, he is justified in believing each of propositions (2)-(4). Now suppose that, by sheer coincidence, Brown is indeed in Barcelona. Given these assumptions, we may say that Smith, when he believes (3), holds a justified true belief. However, is Smith's belief an instance of knowledge? Since Smith has no evidence whatever as to Brown's whereabouts, and so believes what is true only because of luck, the answer would have to be ‘no’. Consequently, the three conditions of the JTB account — truth, belief, and justification — are not sufficient for knowledge.[6] How must the analysis of knowledge be modified to make it immune to cases like the one we just considered? This is what is commonly referred to as the “Gettier problem”.

Epistemologists who think that the JTB approach is basically on the right track must choose between two different strategies for solving the Gettier problem. The first is to strengthen the justification condition. This was attempted by Roderick Chisholm.[7] The second strategy is to search for a suitable further condition, a condition that would, so to speak, “degettierize” justified true belief. Let us focus on this second strategy. According to one suggestion, the following fourth condition would do the trick:

(iv) S's belief that p is not inferred from any falsehood.[8]

Unfortunately, this proposal is unsuccessful. Since Gettier cases need not involve any inference, there are possible cases of justified true belief in which the subject fails to have knowledge although condition (iv) is met. Suppose, for example, that James, who is relaxing on a bench in a park, observes a dog that, about 8 yards away from him, is chewing on a bone. So he believes

  1. There is a dog over there.

Suppose further that what he takes to be a dog is actually a robot dog so perfect that, by vision alone, it could not be distinguished from an actual dog. James does not know that such robot dogs exist. But in fact a Japanese toy manufacturer has recently developed them, and what James sees is a prototype that is used for testing the public's response. Given these assumptions, (5) is of course false. But suppose further that just a few feet away from the robot dog, there is a real dog. Sitting behind a bush, he is concealed from James's view. Given this further assumption, James's belief is true. So once again, what we have before us is a justified true belief that doesn't qualify as an instance of knowledge. Arguably, this belief is directly justified by a visual experience; it is not inferred from any falsehood. But if (5) is indeed a non-inferential belief, then the JTB account, even if supplemented with (iv), gives us the wrong result that James knows (5).

Another case illustrating that clause (iv) won't do the job is the well-known Barn County case (Goldman 1976). Suppose there is a county in the Midwest with the following peculiar feature. The landscape next to the road leading through that county is peppered with barn-facades: structures that from the road look exactly like barns. Observation from any other viewpoint would immediately reveal these structures to be fakes: devices erected for the purpose of fooling unsuspecting motorists into believing in the presence of barns. Suppose Henry is driving along the road that leads through Barn County. Naturally, he will on numerous occasions form a false belief in the presence of a barn. Since Henry has no reason to suspect that he is the victim of organized deception, these beliefs are justified. Now suppose further that, on one of those occasions when he believes there is a barn over there, he happens to be looking at the one and only real barn in the county. This time, his belief is justified and true. But since its truth is the result of luck, it is exceedingly plausible to judge that Henry's belief is not an instance of knowledge. Yet condition (iv) is met in this case. His belief is clearly not the result of any inference from a falsehood. Once again, we see that (iv) does not succeed as a solution to the Gettier problem.

Above, we noted that the role of the justification condition is to ensure that the analysans does not mistakenly identify as knowledge a belief that is true because of epistemic luck. The lesson to be learned from the Gettier problem is that the justification condition by itself cannot ensure this. Even a justified belief, understood as a belief based on good evidence, can be true because of luck. So if a JTB analysis of knowledge is to rule out the full range of cases of epistemic luck, it must be amended with a suitable fourth condition, a condition that succeeds in preventing justified true belief from being “gettiered.” Thus amended, the JTB analysis becomes a JTB+ account of knowledge, where the '+' stands for the needed fourth condition.

3. An Alternative Approach: Reliabilism

The analysis of knowledge may be approached by asking the following question: What turns a true belief into knowledge? An uncontroversial answer to this question would be: the sort of thing that effectively prevents a belief from being true as a result of epistemic luck. Controversy begins as soon as this formula is turned into a substantive proposal. According to evidentialism, which endorses the JTB+ conception of knowledge, the combination of two things accomplishes this goal: evidentialist justification plus degettierization (a condition that prevents a true and justified belief from being “gettiered”). However, according to an alternative approach that has in the last three decades become increasingly popular, what stands in the way of epistemic luck — what turns a true belief into knowledge — is the reliability of the cognitive process that produced the belief. Consider how we acquire knowledge of our physical environment: we do so through sense experience. Sense experiential processes are, at least under normal conditions, highly reliable. There is nothing accidental about the truth of the beliefs these processes produce. Thus beliefs produced by sense experience, if true, should qualify as instances of knowledge. An analogous point could be made for other reliable cognitive processes, such as introspection, memory, and rational intuition. We might, therefore, say that what turns true belief into knowledge is the reliability of our cognitive processes.

This approach — reliabilism, as it is usually called — can be carried out in two different ways. First, there is reliabilism as a theory of justification (J-reliabilism).[9] The most basic version of this view — let's call it 'simple J-reliabilism' — takes knowledge to be justified true belief but, unlike evidentialism, conceives of justification in terms of reliability:

Simple J-Reliabilism:
Part A:S knows that p iff S's belief that p is (i) true and (ii) justified.
Part B:S is justified in believing that p iff S's belief that p was produced by a reliable cognitive process (in a way that degettierizes S's belief).

Second, there is reliabilism as a theory of knowledge (K-reliabilism).[10] According to this approach, knowledge does not require justification. Rather, what it requires (in addition to truth) is reliable belief formation. Let us define this second version of reliabilism thus:

Simple K-Reliabilism:
S knows that p if, and only if, S's belief that p (i) is true and (ii) was produced by a reliable cognitive process (in a way that degettierizes S's belief).

The degettierization-clauses in parentheses are needed because the Gettier problem is no less of a problem for reliabilism as it is for the JTB approach. We will set this issue aside for now and return to it at the end of this section.

In the following passage, Fred Dretske articulates how K-reliabilism can be motivated:

Those who think knowledge requires something other than, or at least more than, reliably produced true belief, something (usually) in the way of justification for the belief that one's reliably produced beliefs are being reliably produced, have, it seems to me, an obligation to say what benefits this justification is supposed to confer…. Who needs it, and why? If an animal inherits a perfectly reliable belief-generating mechanism, and it also inherits a disposition, everything being equal, to act on the basis of the beliefs so generated, what additional benefits are conferred by a justification that the beliefs are being produced in some reliable way? If there are no additional benefits, what good is this justification? Why should we insist that no one can have knowledge without it? (Dretske 1989, p. 95)

Further below we will discuss how advocates of the JTB approach might answer Dretske's question. In the meantime, let us focus a bit more on Dretske's account of knowledge. According to Dretske, reliable cognitive processes convey information, and thus endow not only humans, but (nonhuman) animals as well, with knowledge. He writes:

I wanted a characterization that would at least allow for the possibility that animals (a frog, rat, ape, or my dog) could know things without my having to suppose them capable of the more sophisticated intellectual operations involved in traditional analyses of knowledge. (Dretske 1985, p. 177)

It does indeed seem odd to think of frogs, rats, or dogs as having justified or unjustified beliefs. Yet attributing knowledge to animals is certainly in accord with our ordinary practice of using the word 'knowledge'. So if, with Dretske, we want an account of knowledge that includes animals among the knowing subjects, we might want to abandon the traditional JTB account in favor of K-reliabilism.

Advocates of J-reliabilism take justification, and thus reliable belief formation, to be a necessary condition of knowledge. Advocates of K-reliabilism also take reliable belief formation to be a necessary condition of knowledge, however without saying anything about justification. We might wonder, therefore, whether there is any substantive difference between the two views, a difference that goes beyond the mere terminological difference of using vs. not using the word 'justification'. Why not think that J and K-reliabilism actually amount to the same thing?[11]

Simple J-reliabilism and simple K-reliabilism would appear to be extensionally equivalent: whatever is a case of knowledge according to the former is also a case of knowledge according to the latter, and vice versa. This does not mean, however, that there is no important difference between the two views. Suppose B is a belief that, though produced by a reliable faculty or process, is in fact false. About B, K-reliabilism implies one and only one thing: B is not an instance of knowledge. But J-reliabilism implies two things about B: (i) B is not an instance of knowledge; (ii) B is a justified belief. So although the two theories do not differ with regard to which beliefs qualify as instances of knowledge and which do not, they do differ in the following respect: Whereas J-reliabilism yields implications about justification or the lack of it, K-reliabilism does not. This could be viewed as a consideration favoring J-reliabilism. Beliefs that fail to qualify as knowledge can, after all, still exhibit an epistemically desirable quality, namely that of being justified. We might be interested in having an account of this quality even if we do not want to conceive of justification as resulting from the possession of evidence.

According to Dretske, his version of K-reliabilism avoids Gettier problems. He says:

Gettier difficulties … arise for any account of knowledge that makes knowledge a product of some justificatory relationship (having good evidence, excellent reasons, etc.) that could relate one to something false…. This is [a] problem for justificational accounts. The problem is evaded in the information-theoretic model, because one can get into an appropriate justificational relationship to something false, but one cannot get into an appropriate informational relationship to something false. (Dretske 1985, p. 179)

However, consider again the case of the barn facades. Henry sees a real barn, and that's why he believes there is a barn near-by. Since the barn he is looking at is an actual barn, it would appear that the perceptual process that causes Henry to believe this does not relate him to anything false. So if perception, on account of its reliability, normally conveys information, it should do so in this case as well. Alas, it arguably does not. Since Henry would have believed the same had he been situated in front of one of the many barn-facades in the vicinity, we are reluctant to judge that Henry knows there is a barn nearby. There is reason to doubt, therefore, that Dretske's version of K-reliabilism escapes the Gettier problem.

In general terms, since reliable faculties can be just as misleading as a person's evidence, a bare bones reliability condition does little toward solving the Gettier problem. When Henry travels through Barn County, surely his vision works just as well as it would elsewhere. Hence, unless we are told how to gauge reliability relative to the subject's environment, reliabilism offers us no reason to judge that Henry fails to know that there is a barn near-by. Or consider the example of the Japanese toy-dog. When James believes that there is a toy-dog before him, his failure to know this is not due to a sudden deterioration of his vision. Rather, James fails to know because an otherwise reliable faculty, vision, is misleading on this particular occasion. Hence, if reliabilism is to yield the correct outcome about this case, it needs to be amended with a further clause. We need to be told either a principled reason why James's visual faculty fails to be reliable under the circumstances, or else why James fails to know even though his belief is produced by a reliable faculty. Clearly, then, Gettier cases pose as much of a problem for reliabilism as for an evidentialist JTB account. Neither theory, unless amended with a clever degettierization clause, succeeds in stating sufficient conditions of knowledge.[12]

4. Internalism and Externalism

Evidentialists reject both J-reliabilism and K-reliabilism. We will first focus on J-reliabilism and further below discuss why evidentialists reject K-reliabilism as well. Evidentialists reject J-reliabilism because they take justification to be something that is internal to the subject. J-reliabilists, on the other hand, take justification to be something that is external to the subject.[13]

How are we to understand the difference between the, so to speak, internality and the externality of justification? Let us turn to Roderick Chisholm, one of the chief advocates of internalism. In the third edition of Theory of Knowledge, Chisholm says the following:

If a person S is internally justified in believing a certain thing, then this may be something he can know just by reflecting upon his own state of mind. (Chisholm 1989, p. 7)

In the second edition of this book, he characterizes internalism in a somewhat different way:

We presuppose … that the things we know are justified for us in the following sense: we can know what it is, on any occasion, that constitutes our grounds, or reasons, or evidence for thinking that we know. (Chisholm 1977, p. 17)

These passages differ in the following respect: in the first Chisholm is concerned with the property of justification (a belief's being justified); in the second, with justifiers: the things that make justified beliefs justified. What is common to both passages is the constraint Chisholm imposes. In the first passage, Chisholm characterizes justification as something that is recognizable on reflection and, in the second, as the sort of thing that can be known on any occasion. Arguably, this is just a terminological difference. It would not be implausible to claim that what can be recognized through reflection is something that can be recognized on any occasion, and what can be recognized on any occasion is something that can be recognized through reflection. Although this point deserves further examination, let us here simply assume that recognizability on reflection and recognizability on any occasion amount to the same thing. In what follows, we will refer to it as direct recognizability.

As already noted, in the first passage Chisholm imposes the direct recognizability constraint on justification, in the second on justifiers. Does this amount to a substantive difference? If the direct recognizability of justifiers implies the direct recognizability of justification, and vice versa, then the two passages we considered would indeed just be alternative ways of stating the same point. Whether they really are is perhaps debatable, but here we will simply assume that it makes no substantive difference whether the characterization of internalism focuses on justification or justifiers.

Chisholm, then, defines internalism by saying that justification is recognizable on reflection, and thus in terms of the accessibility of justification. This type of internalism may therefore be called accessibility internalism. Alternatively, internalism could be defined in terms of limiting justifiers to mental states. According to this second approach, internalism says that justifiers must be internal to the mind, i.e., must be mental events or states. Internalism thus defined could be labeled mental state internalism.[14] Whether accessibility internalism and mental state internalism are genuine alternatives depends on whether being directly recognizable is an essential property of mental states. If it is, then what appear to be genuine alternatives might in fact not be.[15] Since here we cannot go into the details of this issue, we will cut this matter short and simply define internalism, as suggested by Chisholm, in terms of direct recognizability, while acknowledging that it might be preferable to define it by restricting justifiers to mental states. We will refer to internalism as defined here as “J-internalism,” since it imposes the direct recognizability constraint not on knowledge but justification.

Justification is directly recognizable. At any time t at which S holds a justified belief B, S is in a position to know at t that B is justified.[16]

J-internalism is to be contrasted with J-externalism, which is simply its negation.

Justification is not directly recognizable. It is not the case that at any time t at which S holds a justified belief B, S is in a position to know at t that B is justified. (There are times at which S holds a justified belief B but is not in a position to know that B is justified.)

Next, we will discuss what consequences we can derive from J-internalism. To begin with, we can derive the result that Simple J-reliabilism is an externalist theory. Suppose S's belief B has, at time t, the property of being reliably formed. B's being reliably formed at t, and S's being able to recognize at t that B is reliably formed, are clearly two different affairs. It could be the case that B is reliably formed without S's being able to tell at t that B is reliably formed. According to Simple J-reliabilism, however, reliability by itself — without the subject's having any evidence indicating its presence — is sufficient for justification. Simple J-reliabilism, therefore, allows for cases of the following kind: S's belief B is reliably formed and therefore justified, but, since B's reliability is, so to speak, “hidden” from S, S cannot directly recognize that B is justified. J-reliabilism is, therefore, an externalist theory.

To illustrate this point, let us consider a familiar example due to Laurence BonJour.[17] Suppose Norman is a perfectly reliable clairvoyant. At time t, his clairvoyance causes Norman to form the belief that the president is presently in New York. However, Norman has no evidence whatever indicating that he is clairvoyant. Nor has he at t any way of recognizing that his belief was caused by his clairvoyance. Norman, then, cannot at t recognize that his belief is justified. So Simple J-reliabilism implies that Norman's belief is justified at t although Norman cannot recognize at t that his belief is justified.

Second, J-internalism allows us to derive the consequence — as it should — that evidentialism is an internalist theory. The question of what a person's evidence consists of is of course not uncontroversial. Nor is it uncontroversial what kind of cognitive access a subject has to her evidence. However, it would not be without a good deal of initial plausibility to make the following two assumptions. First, a subject's evidence consists of her perceptual, introspective, memorial, and intuitional states, as well as her beliefs. In short, a subject's evidence consists of her mental states. Items other than mental states are never part of a subject's evidence.[18] Second, a subject's mental states are directly recognizable to her.[19] If we now add the further assumption (mentioned above) that the direct recognizability of justifiers implies the direct recognizability of justification, then we get the result that evidentialism is a form of J-internalism. Let us display the argument in detail:

Why Evidentialism is a Version of J-Internalism:
  1. According to evidentialism, justifiers consist of a person's evidence.
  2. A person's evidence (consisting of her mental states) is directly recognizable to that person.
  3. Therefore:
    According to evidentialism, a person's justifiers are directly recognizable to that person.
  4. If the justifiers that make a person's justified beliefs justified are directly recognizable to that person, then the justification of that person's justified beliefs is directly recognizable to that person.
  5. Therefore:
    According to evidentialism, the justification of a person's justified beliefs is directly recognizable to that person.

The crucial premises in this argument are (2) and (4). Evidentialists would be reluctant to call ‘evidence’ something that is not directly recognizable to a subject.[20] So (2) would appear to be a premise that evidentialists are likely to endorse. And (4) expresses no more than one part of what we already assumed: that the direct recognizability of justifiers implies the direct recognizability of justification, and vice versa. Of course, both premises might be challenged. What seems safe to say, therefore, is the conditional point that, if (2) and (4) capture what is essential to evidentialism, then evidentialism implies internalism about justification.

As mentioned at the beginning of this section, evidentialists also reject K-reliabilism. They do so because, pace Dretske, they think that internal justification — justification in the form of having adequate evidence — is necessary for knowledge. In other words, they deny that a belief's origin in a reliable cognitive process is sufficient for the belief's being an instance of knowledge. Let us refer to this position as internalism about knowledge, or K-internalism, and let us define it using the concept of internal justification: the kind of justification that meets the direct recognizability constraint.

Internal justification is a necessary condition of knowledge. A belief's origin in a reliable cognitive process is not sufficient for its being an instance of knowledge.

K-externalism is the negation of K-internalism:

Internal justification is not a necessary condition of knowledge. A belief's origin in a reliable cognitive process is sufficient for its being an instance of knowledge. Consequently, there are cases of knowledge without internal justification.

In this section, we have merely concerned ourselves with what internalists and externalists disagree about with regard to both justification and knowledge. In the next two sections, we will examine what reasons internalists and externalists can cite in support of their respective views.

5. Why Internalism?

First, both J- and K-internalism can be motivated by appealing to evidentialism as a premise. As we saw in the previous section, evidentialism is plausibly construed as entailing internalism. Consequently, reasons in support of evidentialism are also reasons in support of J-internalism. Moreover, evidentialists would say that internal justification is a necessary condition of knowledge. Evidentialists would support this claim with examples. Consider again BonJour's clairvoyant Norman. Norman has no evidence for thinking that he is a reliable clairvoyant. Suppose Norman's belief B is caused by his clairvoyance. Suppose further Norman has no independent evidence for B. Evidentialists would say that, since due to the lack of evidence B is unjustified, B is not an instance of knowledge. Considerations supporting evidentialism, then, are also considerations in favor of K-internalism.[21]

Second, there is an argument for internalism that starts with what is known as the deontological conception of epistemic justification:

Deontological Justification:
S is justified in believing that p iff in believing that p, S does not violate any of his epistemic duties.

The concept of duty employed here must not be confused with ethical or prudential duty. The type of duty in question is specifically epistemic.[22] What exactly epistemic duties are is a matter of controversy. A fairly uncontroversial starting point is to say that epistemic duties are those that arise in the pursuit of truth.[23] Thus we might express the concept of deontological justification alternatively as follows: S is justified in believing that p iff in believing that p, S does not fail to do what he ought to do in the pursuit of truth. Of course, this way of putting things leads us directly to a further question: In the pursuit of truth, exactly what is it that one ought to do? Evidentialists would say: It is to believe what, and only what, one's evidence supports.[24]

Let's call proponents of the deontological concept of justification deontologists. If deontologists conceive of epistemic duty in the way suggested in the previous paragraph, then they can argue as follows: To be justified is to meet the duty of believing what one's evidence supports. Evidential support is directly recognizable. Therefore, deontological justification is directly recognizable. Hence, deontological justification is internal justification.

There is also an argument from deontology to internalism that does not depend on evidentialism as a premise.[25] It derives the direct recognizability of justification from the premise that what determines epistemic duty is directly recognizable.

From Deontology to Internalism:
  1. Justification is a matter of epistemic duty fulfillment.
  2. Therefore:
    What determines justification is identical to what determines epistemic duty.
  3. What determines epistemic duty is directly recognizable.
  4. Therefore:
    What determines justification is directly recognizable.
  5. If what determines justification is directly recognizable, then justification itself is directly recognizable.
  6. Therefore:
    Justification is directly recognizable.

(2) follows directly from the deontological conception of justification. (5) is nothing new; we have assumed it above already. The argument's main premise is of course (3).[26] Though certainly not implausible, this premise is open to criticism. Clearly, then, the argument is not uncontroversial. Nevertheless, it seems fair to say that it represents a straightforward and not obviously implausible derivation of internalism from deontology.

Third, internalism (J or K) can be supported by objecting to particular externalist accounts of justification or knowledge. Let us use reliabilism for the purpose of illustration. Internalists will argue that reliable belief formation is neither necessary nor sufficient for justification, nor sufficient for knowledge when added to true belief. To challenge sufficiency, internalists would cite cases like BonJour's Norman, the unwittingly reliable clairvoyant. Evidentialists would say that the beliefs arising from his clairvoyance (unless supported by adequate evidence) are neither justified nor instances of knowledge. To support the claim that reliable belief production is not necessary for justification, internalists will appeal to the possibility of being deceived by Descartes's evil demon. Let's suppose you are a victim of such deception, and let's distinguish between the normal world and the evil demon world. Your memories, experiences, and beliefs in the evil demon world mirror your memories, experiences, and beliefs in the normal world. However, whereas your beliefs in the normal world are by and large true, by far most of your beliefs in the evil demon world are false and thus unreliably produced. Simple J-reliabilism implies, therefore, that your beliefs in the evil demon world are unjustified. To internalists, this is an intuitively implausible result. Here is why. Your beliefs in the normal world are (as we may assume) by and large supported by adquate evidence and therefore justified. However, as far as your evidence is concerned, there is no difference between the evil demon world and the normal world. Your beliefs in the evil demon world, internalists would therefore say, are also by and large supported by adequate evidence and therefore justified. Hence internalists would reject the claim that being produced by reliable faculties is a necessary condition of epistemic justification.[27]

6. Why Externalism?

One reason for externalism lies in the attraction of philosophical naturalism. According to Gilbert Harman, this view, when applied to ethics, “is the doctrine that moral facts are facts of nature. Naturalism as a general view is the sensible thesis that all facts are facts of nature” (Harman 1977, p. 17). What naturalists in ethics want, according to Harman,

is to be able to locate value, justice, right, wrong, and so forth in the world in the way that tables, colors, genes, temperatures, and so on can be located in the world. (Harman 1984, p. 33)

According to this conception of naturalism, a naturalist in epistemology wants to be able to locate such things as knowledge, justification, certainty, or probability “in the world in the way that tables, colors, genes, temperatures, and so on can be located in the world.” How, though, are naturalists to accomplish this? According to one answer to this question, they can accomplish this by identifying the non-epistemic grounds on which epistemic phenomena supervene. Alvin Goldman describes this desideratum as follows:

The term ‘justified’, I presume, is an evaluative term, a term of appraisal. Any correct definition or synonym of it would also feature evaluative terms. I assume that such definitions or synonyms might be given, but I am not interested in them. I want a set of substantive conditions that specify when a belief is justified … I want a theory of justified belief to specify in non-epistemic terms when a belief is justified. (Goldman 1979, p. 1)

However, internalists need not deny that epistemic phenomena supervene on non-epistemic grounds, and that it is the task of epistemology to reveal these grounds. It is doubtful, therefore, that the goal of locating epistemic value in the natural world establishes a link between philosophical naturalism and externalism.[28]

According to a second approach, the way to locate epistemic value in the natural world is to employ the methods of the natural sciences.[29] Appealing to this methodological constraint, externalists might argue that, because the study of justification and knowledge is an empirical study, justification and knowledge cannot be what internalists take it to be, but rather must be identified with reliable belief production: a phenomenon that can be studied empirically. It is far from clear, however, that the fundamental questions of epistemology can be answered by employing the methods of the natural sciences. For example, can empirical sciences solve the Gettier problem? Can they answer the question of whether knowledge requires evidence? Can they tell us whether the beliefs of evil demon victims are justified, or whether BonJour's Norman can acquire knowledge on account of his clairvoyance even though is he as no reason to suppose that he is in possession of such a faculty? Indeed, is the question of whether epistemology can be done solely by employing empirical science a question that can be answered by empirical science itself? It is not easy to imagine that these questions should be answered affirmatively. But if the methodological constraint in question cannot be sustained with complete generality, then this constraint offers us no compelling reason to think that justification and knowledge are the sort of thing that can only be studied empirically, and thus cannot be what internalist take them to be.

A second reason for externalism (more specifically, J-externalism) has to do with the connection between justification and truth. Internalists conceive of a justified belief as a belief that, relative to the subject's evidence or reasons, is likely to be true. However, such likelihood of truth is compatible with the belief's actual falsity. Indeed, likelihood of truth as internalists conceive of it can be exemplified in the evil demon world, in which your justified beliefs about the world are mostly false. Hence externalists view the connection between internalist justification and truth as being too thin and therefore demand a stronger kind of likelihood of truth.[30] Reliability is usually taken to fill the bill.[31] William Alston, for example, has argued that, without a reliability constraint, the connection between justification and truth becomes too tenuous.[32] He argues that only reliably formed beliefs can be justified, and defines a reliable belief-producing mechanism as one that “would yield mostly true beliefs in a sufficiently large and varied run of employments in situations of the sorts we typically encounter” (Alston 1993, p. 9). Suppose we endorse this conception of justification. Let's suppose further that most of our beliefs are justified. It then follows that most of the beliefs we form in ordinary circumstances would have to be true most of the time. Such a belief system could still be brought about by an evil demon. However, it would not be a belief-system consisting of mostly false beliefs, and thus the evil demon responsible for it wouldn't be quite as evil as he could be. So what Alston-type justification rules out is this: a belief system of mostly justified beliefs that is generated by an evil demon who sees to it that most of our beliefs are false. This, then, is the benefit we can secure when, as externalists suggest, we make reliability a necessary element of justification.

Internalists would object that a strong link between justification and truth runs afoul of the rather forceful intuition that the beliefs of an evil demon victim are justified even when they are mostly false. In response, externalists might concede that the sort of justification internalists have in mind and attribute to evil demon victims is a legitimate concept, but question the epistemological relevance of that concept. Of what epistemic value (of what value to the acquisition of knowledge), they might ask, is internal justification if it is the sort of thing an evil demon victim can enjoy, a person whose belief system is massively marred by falsehood? Internalists would reply that internal justification should not be expected to supply us with a guarantee of truth, and that its value derives (at least in part) from the fact that internal justification is necessary for knowledge.

A third reason for externalism has to do with Dretske's question about justification: “Who needs it, and why?” Dretske would say, of course, that nobody needs it (for the acquisition of knowledge, that is) because reliable belief production is sufficient for turning true belief into knowledge. With this, internalists disagree.[33] As we have seen, they take the existence of examples like BonJour's clairvoyant Norman as a decisive reason to reject this sufficiency claim. Internalists, therefore, would answer Dretske's question thus: Those who wish to enjoy knowledge need justification, and they need it because one does not know that p unless one has adequate evidence for believing that p.

In reply to this, Dretske might repeat a point — one that amounts to a fourth reason for externalism — from the passage we considered above: he takes animals such as frogs, rats, apes, and dogs to have knowledge. This is surely in line with the way we ordinarily use the concept of knowledge. The owner of a pet who does not attribute knowledge to it would be hard to find. But are animals capable of the sophisticated mental operations required by beings who enjoy the sort of justification internalists have in mind? It would seem not.[34]

7. Two Analyses of Knowledge

K-internalism and K-externalism, then, are supported by conflicting intuitions. On the one hand, there are examples like BonJour's clairvoyant Norman, examples that strongly suggest that internal justification is necessary for knowledge. On the other hand, there is Dretske's point that knowledge is enjoyed by not only humans but animals as well. This strongly suggests that internal justification is not necessary for knowledge. Both of these thoughts are inherently plausible. Might it be possible to reconcile them? If animals could have the sort of justification internalists have in mind, internalism would be compatible with animal knowledge. Certainly, animals have sensory experiences, just as humans do. Some internalists think that sensory experiences, in and by themselves, constitute evidence. Such internalists might not shy away from attributing internal justification and therefore knowledge to animals. Other internalists, however, think that S's sensory experiences constitute evidence only if S can coherently view them as a reliable guide to truth. That, it would seem, is a condition animals can't meet.

Suppose animals are not the sort of beings that can have internally justified or unjustified beliefs. If so, we get two alternative and irreconcilable analyses of knowledge: one internalist, the other externalist. Let us state a gloss of the respective analyses. In these analyses, the term “internal justification” stands for the kind of concept internalists have in mind, and the term “external justification” for the kind of concept externalists employ.

External Knowledge (EK):
S knows that p iff
  1. p is true;
  2. S believes that p;
  3. S is externally justified in believing that p (in a way that degettierizes S's belief).

Internal Knowledge (IK):
S knows that p iff

  1. p is true;
  2. S believes that p;
  3. S is internally justified in believing that p;
  4. S's belief that p is degettiered.

EK and IK agree and differ in the following respects:

  1. According to both EK and IK, knowledge requires true belief. The question each of these analyses is intended to answer is: what do we need to add to true belief to get knowledge?
  2. According to both, whether or not one knows is an external matter. K-internalists acknowledge the externality of knowledge for two reasons. The first is that knowledge requires truth; the second is that knowledge requires degettierization. Let us consider each of these reasons in turn.

    First, consider an evil demon victim's false belief that he has hands. By the victim's own lights, it certainly looks as though he has hands. Surely, the victim would take himself to know that he has hands. Since he has no hands, he is mistaken in thinking he knows he has hands. His failure to know, however, is not directly recognizable to him. For unless his evidential situation were to change radically, no amount of reflection will enable him to figure out that he has no hands. So because of the truth condition, it is not always directly recognizable whether or not one knows. Knowledge, therefore, is essentially external.

    Second, let us examine why degettierization is an external matter. Call the condition needed to rule out Gettier-cases the 'G-condition'. If the G-condition is met, then S is not in a Gettier situation. If the G-condition is not met, then S is in a Gettier situation. Whether or not the G-condition is met might not be directly recognizable to S, just as whether or not S's beliefs are reliably produced might not be directly recognizable to S's. For example, BonJour's Norman has a faculty (his clairvoyance) whose reliability is hidden from him. On reflection, Norman cannot tell that that he is a reliable clairvoyant. (Of course, future experiences might reveal this to him.) Similarly, evil demon victims cannot through reflection figure out that their perceptual faculties are unreliable. Likewise, a subject who is in a Gettier situation cannot directly recognize — find out through reflection alone — that he is. Consider Henry in Barn County: that there is an abundance of barn facades in the area is a feature of his situation that is (at least for the time being) hidden from him. Therefore, it's not directly recognizable to him that he is in a Gettier situation. This point can be generalized. It is an essential aspect of the G-condition that, when it is not met, the subject is not in a position to recognize this directly. Hence degettierization, and thereore knowledge, are essentially external.

  3. IK requires internal justification, EK does not. That is the one condition where the two analyses differ. As a result of this difference, EK includes within the scope of knowledge animals, but fails to accommodate the intuition underlying BonJour's case of clairvoyant Norman and other cases like that. IK, on the other hand, does accommodate this intuition, but — counter-intuitively, as K-externalists would say — excludes animals from the range of subjects that can have knowledge.

If the internalism/externalism controversy is seen as essentially a controversy over the nature of justification, then the debate over J-internalism vs. J-externalism would appear to be a case of talking past each other. J-internalists and J-externalists simply intend justification to achieve different things. They each operate with a different concept of justification. J-externalists take justification to be the sort of thing that turns true belief into knowledge, and they view the Gettier problem merely as the problem of adding the right sort of bells and whistles to the justification-condition. J-internalists, on the other hand, cannot view degettierization as something that can, in the form of a suitable clause, be tacked on to the justification condition, for degettierization is an external matter. Rather, internalists take justification to be the sort of thing that turns true and degettiered belief into knowledge. Since J-internalists and J-externalists assign different roles to justification, what they ultimately disagree about is not the nature of justification, but the sort of thing in relation to which the theoretical role of epistemic justification is fixed: knowledge. Internalists assign justification the role of turning true and degettiered belief into knowledge because they think that internal justification is necessary for knowledge. In contrast, externalists (J-externalists, that is) assign a different role to justification — that of turning true belief into knowledge — because they think that internal justification is not necessary for knowledge. It is this difference in their respective views on the nature of knowledge that leads to different views on the nature of justification.

Thus we are confronted with a fundamental disagreement about the nature of knowledge. Externalists such as Dretske would say that the desideratum of making knowledge a natural phenomenon that is instantiated equally by humans and animals must trump the demand that knowledge require the possession of justification in the form of adequate evidence. Externalists of that persuasion would have to say, therefore, that Norman, the unwitting clairvoyant, has knowledge just as much as a mouse that knows where to look for the cheese. Internalists would argue the other way around. To them, Norman-type cases establish the necessity of adequate evidence. And so they would say that, just as Norman's reliable clairvoyance (by itself, in the absence of evidence) does not give him knowledge, a mouse's reliable cognitive mechanisms do not give it knowledge of where to look for the cheese. Externalists would say that it merely seems to us that Norman lacks knowledge when in fact he has it. Internalists would say that it merely seems to us that animals know when in fact they do not.

It might be a mistake to expect that there is a decisive argument that settles the dispute between internalists and externalists one way or another. One way to respond to the intracatability of the debate is to acknowledge that there simply is not one concept of knowledge for which there is an analysis that has any chance of meeting with broad assent. Rather, we might conclude that, when we use the word “knowledge”, we have sometimes one concept and at other times another concept in mind. If we take this approach, we can distinguish beween animal knowledge and reflective knowledge. The former, we might say, is reliably formed true belief (that meets a suitable Gettier-clause built into the reliability condition), and the latter is internally justified true belief (that meets a suitable, separate Gettier-condition). Whereas the former kind of knowledge can be shared by animals and humans alike, the latter kind is available only to beings who are capable of intellectual reflection.[35]

To sum up, if we attempt to articulate an analysis of knowledge, we must find answers to the following questions:

  • How can the analysis of knowledge be made immune to Gettier cases?
  • Does knowledge require justification?
  • If it does, is the nature of justification internal or external?

As we have seen, how these questions are to be answered is extremely controversial. Most likely, there isn't one single concept of knowledge that permits consensus on what the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge are. Rather, it might be that we must distinguish between animal knowledge and reflective knowledge, and that each of these concepts has its own analysis. In addition to the problems we have discussed in this essay, there are further issues that bear, in a broader sense, on the analysis of knowledge. One of these is:

  • What is the extent of our knowledge? Do we know about as much as we think we do?

When we discuss this question, we are confronted with a paradox. On the one hand, there is a seemingly sound argument for the conclusion that we don't even know that we have hands, and thus know much less than we are inclined to think. On the other hand, we are convinced that we do know that we have hands. If this conviction is right, the argument can't be sound after all. The following, supplementary chapter discusses the issues that arise when we try to solve this paradox and examines how they bear on our understanding of the concept of knowledge.

Supplement: Knowledge and Skepticism


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  • –––, 1985. “Precis of Knowledge and the Flow of Information,” in Hilary Kornblith, ed., Naturalizing Epistemology. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • –––, 1989. “The Need to Know,” in Marjorie Clay and Keith Lehrer, eds., Knowledge and Skepticism. Boulder: Westview Press.
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  • Feldman, Richard, 1988a. “Epistemic Obligations,” in J.E. Tomberlin, ed., Philosophical Perspectives, 2. Atascadero: Ridgeview, pp. 235–56.
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  • –––, 1999. “Methodological Naturalism in Epistemology,” in Greco 1999.
  • Fumerton, Richard, 1995. Metaepistemology and Skepticism. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.
  • Gettier, Edmund, 1963. “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, Analysis, 23: 121–123, [Independent transcription in HTML available online].
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  • –––, 1991. “Epistemic Folkways and Scientific Epistemology,” in Liaisons: Philosophy Meets the Cognitive and Social Sciences. (Cambridge: MIT Press.)
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  • Greco, John, 1993. “Virtues and Vices of Virtue Epistemology,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 23.
  • Greco, John and Sosa, Ernest (eds.), 1999. The Blackwell Guide to Epistemology. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Harman, Gilbert, 1977. The Nature of Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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  • Kornblith, Hilary, 1999. “In Defense of a Naturalized Epistemology,” in Greco 1999.
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  • Lehrer, Keith, 1990. Theory of Knowledge. Boulder: Westview Press.
  • Nozick, Robert, 1981. Philosophical Explanations. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Plantinga, Alvin, 1993. Warrant: The Current Debate. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • –––, 1993b. Warrant and Proper Function. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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  • Pollock, John, 1986. Contemporary Theories of Knowledge. Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield.
  • Radford, Colin, 1966. “Knowledge—By Examples,” Analysis 27: 1–11.
  • Russell, Bruce, 2001 “Epistemic and Moral Duty,” in Steup (ed.) 2001 a.
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Bibliography for the Supplement

  • Austin, J. L., 1962. Sense and Sensibilia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Cohen, Stewart, 2005. “Contextualism Defended,” in Steup and Sosa (eds.) 2005, pp. 56–62.
  • –––, 2001. “Contextualism Defended: Comments on Richard Feldman's ‘Skeptical Problems, Contextualists Solutions',” Philosophical Studies, 103: 87–98.
  • –––, 1999. “Contextualism, Skepticism, and the Structure of Reasons,” Philosophical Perspectives, 13.
  • –––, 1988. “How to be a Fallibilist,” Philosophical Perspectives, 2, 91–123.
  • Conee, Earl, 2005. “Contextualism Contested”. In Steup and Sosa (eds.) 2005, pp. 47–56.
  • DeRose, Keith, 1999. “Contextualism: An Explanation and Defense,” in Greco and Sosa (eds.) 1999, pp. 187.
  • –––, 1995. “Solving the Skeptical Problem,” The Philosophical Review, 104: 1–52.
  • –––, 1992. “Contextualism and Knowledge Attributions,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 52: 913–929.
  • Dretske, Fred, 2005. “The Case Against Closure,” in Steup and Sosa (eds.) 2005, pp. 13–26.
  • –––, 1970. “Epistemic Operators,” The Journal of Philosophy, 67: 1007–23.
  • Engel, Mylan, 2003. “What's Wrong With Contextualism, and a Noncontextualist Resolution of the Skeptical Paradox,” Erkenntnis, 61: 203–231.
  • Feldman, Fred, 1986. A Cartesian Introduction to Philosophy. New York: McGraw Hill.
  • Feldman, Richard, 1999. “Contextualism and Skepticism,” Philosophical Perspectives, 13: 91–114.
  • –––, 2001. “Skeptical Problems, Contextualist Solutions,” Philosophical Studies, 103: 61–85.
  • Goldman, Alvin, 1976. “Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge,” The Journal of Philosophy, 73: 771–791.
  • Greco, John and Sosa, Ernest (eds.), 1999. The Blackwell Guide to Epistemology. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Hawthorne, John, 2005. “The Case for Closure,” in Steup and Sosa (eds.) 2005, pp. 26–43.
  • –––, 2004. Knowledge and Lotteries. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Lewis, David, 1996. “Elusive Knowledge,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 74: 549–567.
  • Lite, Adam, 2004. “Is Fallibility an Epistemological Shortcoming?” The Philosophical Quarterly, 54: 233–251.
  • Moore, G.E., 1959. Philosophical Papers. London: Allen and Unwin.
  • Pryor, James, 2005. “What's Wrong with Moore's Argument?” Philosophical Issues, 15: 349–378.
  • Russell, Bruce, 2004. “How to be an Anti-Skeptic and a Noncontextualist,” Erkenntnis, 61: 245–255.
  • Schiffer, Stephen, 1996. “Contextualist Solutions to Skepticism,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 96: 317–333.
  • Sosa, Ernest, 2003. “Relevant Alternatives, Contextualism Included,” Philosophical Studies, 119: 3–15.
  • Sosa, Ernest, 1999. “How to Defeat Opposition to Moore,” Philosophical Perspectives, 13: 141–153.
  • Steup, Matthias, 2005. “Contextualism and Conceptual Disambiguation,” Acta Analytica, 20: 3–15.
  • Steup, Matthias and Sosa, Ernest (eds.), 2005. Contemporary Debates in Epistemology. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Stine, Gail, 1976. “Skepticism, Relevant Alternatives, and Deductive Closure,” Philosophical Studies, 29: 249–61.
  • Stroud, Barry, 1984. The Significance of Philosophical Skepticism. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Vogel, Jonathan, 1976. “The New Relevant Alternatives Theory,” Philosophical Perspectives, 13: 155–180.

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contextualism, epistemic | epistemic closure principle | epistemology: naturalized | epistemology: social | epistemology: virtue | justification, epistemic: coherentist theories of | justification, epistemic: foundationalist theories of | justification, epistemic: internalist vs. externalist conceptions of | skepticism: and content externalism


I wish to thank Laurence BonJour and Michael Bergman for helpful comments and criticisms.

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