First note on epistemic value

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In Meno, one of Plato’s dialogues on the nature of virtue, Socrates and Meno engage in a discussion concerning the value of knowledge, so as to establish the reason it is preferable to an opinion. One of the scenarios considered, involves a traveller who intends to visit Larissa and ventures to ask for directions: in one case, someone would make use of a belief__ _of theirs concerning the location of Larissa to opine on the road leading to it and would eventually be found correct in the directions provided; while another case would have a person who would resort to their _knowledge of the exact location of Larissa to mark the way leading to it, also to be found correct in their statement.

Through the dialogue, Socrates and Meno suggest that knowledge is of a higher epistemic value, for it rests on firm foundations and, hence, it is likely to remain constant, always yielding the expected result(s); whereas an opinion might have been right for a number of contingent reasons and, given that it is not predicated on sound foundations, may be subject to change should the factors contributing to its correctness no longer [inter]operate in the specific way(s) that engendered such a truth. An opinion, albeit a true one in a given context, is appreciated as generally unreliable relative to knowledge and is therefore regarded as having a lesser epistemic value.

Granted this value scale holds; how are we to attach epistemic value to propositions? Can value of this sort be determined ex ante and, if so, in which cases? Where true opinion and knowledge yield the same result, how can a distinction be drawn between them? Is there a variance in the degree of discernibility peculiar to each of these two epistemic categories in case they deliver the same result?

Of form and constitution

Let us begin delving into the matter by considering the distinction between the form and the constitution of a case: a statement p standing for “deliver these documents” is presented to us for examination. We surmise that the form of this statement consists of agent x instructing patient y to act w. To further examine the actual, qualitative relations between the facts, we proceed to assess the constitution of the case, such as through the following two examples:

  • If the relationship between the agent and the patient is one of hierarchy, then the agent is issuing an order _that is expected to be complied with by the patient on the basis of certain roles that establish and inform the hierarchy between them. Let this constitution of the case be _C1.
  • Should another kind of relation between the agent and the patient be hypothesised, of say a gunman x threatening the patient y to [deliver these documents], then x is in fact ordering y, and hence our consideration can no longer factor in any kind of structured hierarchy between their roles, but must rather account for the coercion involved. Let this be C2.

In addition, we have to draw clear delineations between two types of assessment we may make: (1) the general and (2) the particular:

  1. Regarding the former, we can suggest that all p qua p will always and necessarily amount to our formal understanding of it, where x instructs y to act w. That is an analytic category derived from the statement itself, which is epistemologically (though not metaphysically) a priori. Whenever it is stipulated that the form of that p _remains the same, our analytic assessment of it will always be constant and so will its truthfulness, _regardless of the specificities peculiar to the constitution of the case.
  2. As for the latter, we require empirical data to determine whether C1 or C2  or any possible Cz is truthful in the case. Factoring in to our consideration the one that corresponds to the actual state of affairs, will yield us a context-specific knowledge that is synthetic as it encompasses both the formal and the constitutional understanding of the case. That would be an epistemologically a posteriori category.

Both (1) and (2) as described would amount to knowledge, if we were to follow the classification of Plato/Socrates. An opinion relating to them could only be held by obfuscating the distinction between the general and the particular, specifically where a certain formulation of p would take Cz as constant, therefore elevating a particularised knowledge into a generalised one. The truth correspondence of that — its epistemic value — would be dubious or rather indeterminable ex ante, for the formulation of the statement would be assuming necessary constancy in the [inter]operation of the facts in all possible states of affairs, essentially transfiguring a judgement about a certain constitution into a formal relation, decisively obliterating the distinction between them. Put differently, it would be treating an _a posteriori _assessment as _a priori _certainty by identifying the form with the constitution.

Opinions can be held for a variety of considerations, regarding the form or the constitution of the case, the general or the particular assessment delivered. To conclude this first note on the topic, I would therefore tend to prefer considering judgements as partaking of varying degrees of suboptimal reliability, willing to put them to the test in the way they may be testable, rather than dismiss them in advance. Let their classification into knowledge or credence follow thenceforth.

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Protesilaos Stavrou

EU policy analyst. Philosopher. Web developer.
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