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Naturalism and Normativity: Some Issues Concerning Naturalised Epistemology

Christopher Hookway
Sheffield University

(Draft Copy - Comments Invited - Not for Citation)


It is still a common objection to attempts to defend naturalised approaches to epistemology that they fail to address some of the most fundamental questions that motivate epistemological inquiries in the first place. For illustrative purposes, consider Quine's proposal that epistemology should be transformed into part of cognitive psychology. Then the objection is:
Cognitive psychology can only describe and explain the ways in which our cognitive faculties actually do work.

Epistemology is concerned with the evaluation of our cognitive practices; among other things, it describes epistemic norms and attempts to settle whether they are legitimate or illegitimate.

Granted the additional premise that a descriptive-explanatory account of a practice cannot provide it with a legitimation or defend norms to be used in pursuing it, the standard anxiety is easily understood.

The issue raised here is obviously related to a much older tradition of debate about naturalism in ethics. The naturalistic fallacy, supposedly the fallacy of attempting to account for norms ('oughts') in terms of natural properties of agents and their environments, would, it seems, be as much to be avoided in the case of epistemic norms as in the case of ethical norms. Any description or explanation of our practices can, it seems, invite the normative question which it is good or desirable that our beliefs and activities should be structured in such a way.

For reasons that will become clear below, I shall not say much about what I mean by 'naturalism'. The position can encompass a broad range of views - as can be seen from the fact that Donald Davidson, who is presumably committed to a kind of non- reductive realism about norms, is happy to describe his own work as 'naturalised epistemology'. A minimum naturalistic commitment would hold that an adequate scientific account of human life and rationality should make no claims that conflict with the claims that we are material objects and that our faculties and capacities are the products of natural selection: there is nothing 'supernatural' about our function that requires the belief that we are partially exempt from familiar biological explanatory models. A stronger position (sometimes defended by Quine) might hold that the philosophical needs that prompt us to think about mind, cognition and rationality can be met entirely by research in the special sciences - for example, in psychology. An intermediate position (also sometimes defended by Quine) holds that these needs can always be met by inquiries that are a posteriori, that are scientific in a broad sense (Quine would include history). While it is by no means obvious that the minimum commitment requires such 'anti-apriorism', my concern in this paper will be with positions that do.


Before turning to some responses to the charge that a proper naturalistic epistemology cannot tackle some fundamental normative issues, we should attempt to see what these normative requirements are.

An initial question concerns whose normative needs are to be addressed. Two possibilities arise here. First: would someone whose outlook was broadly naturalistic find themselves facing pressing normative questions in the course of their reflections which could not be answered without compromising their naturalism? A variant on this question is: would someone who denied that there was substantive a priori knowledge find himself facing normative questions in the course of his reflections which could only be answered through an a priori epistemology. If either of these questions has an affirmative answer, then a naturalistic approach to questions of epistemology and rationality would be in serious trouble. If neither does, then a naturalistically inclined philosopher will be able to justify to himself the standards of rationality and cognition that he applies. The second apparently stronger possibility would require our naturalist to be able to satisfy someone who lacked a broadly naturalistic outlook that a naturalistic epistemology was an adequate philosophical account of knowledge. This seems an unreasonable demand, unless it can be shown that the legitimation of a system of norms will not meet the first condition unless it also meets the second. Whether this is so depends upon some views about how and when normative questions arise in the course of reflection.

A second issue flows out of this. It is a controversial matter whether an adequate epistemology should be able to handle the challenges raised by 'traditional' (Cartesian) scepticism. Quine describes someone who is concerned by such possibilities as 'overreacting', and he clearly feels that they are not serious. I shall not discuss them here.


What are the normative issues that we need to address? Two distinct issues arise, and I will now sketch a picture of reflection which will enable us to formulate them. I take it that our standards of epistemic rationality regulate a variety of activities, which we can designate by the broad term 'inquiries': this includes 'inner' deliberations as well as public co-operative problem solving activities. Inquiries are attempts to solve problems through deliberation, discussion, self-questioning, observation, experiment and so on: they correspond to what Michael Smith and Philip Pettit have called 'conversations of an intellectual kind'.1 Smith and Pettit argue that we can participate in such discussions with other people only if we possess confidence that they are sensitive to norms of rationality that are similar to those that we ourselves endorse. Otherwise it is hard to see why we should take seriously their challenges, accept the information that they contribute and so on. Similarly, we might suppose, I can undertake 'private' problem solving activities with confidence only if I am confident that my habits of belief formation, dispositions to question inferences and conclusions, sense of plausibility and self-evidence are in tune with the goals that drive my deliberations. Such confidence does not require me to be able to formulate the standards I employ and raise questions about whether they are correct. Indeed Quine seems to assume that much of our cognitive functioning is 'curiously passive' employing standards of simplicity and inductive soundness which are may not be susceptible to formal articulation.2 Such confidence is generally unreflective; but it is a plausible requirement of rationality that if we reflect upon our problem solving abilities, this confidence should not be revealed to be illegitimate. In that case, an adequate epistemology should enable us reflectively to endorse our cognitive skills: we should not be forced to conclude that it is a miracle that we do as well as we do.3

As well as this kind of confidence in the legitimacy of our (possibly unreflective) cognitive capacities, we face questions about the explicit norms we should follow in regulating our beliefs, inquiries and conversations. We reflect upon beliefs, inferences and strategies of inquiry and we measure them against explicit standards, intending to abandon them or revise them if they fail to meet these standards. So the second normative issue concerns whether a naturalised epistemology will enable us to reflect upon the explicit norms we follow and to understand the circumstances in which we should continue to endorse them. We might call these methodological norms.

Thus epistemic rationality requires us to possess a kind of confidence in our capacities which can survive the sort of reflection that looks as if it will inevitably give rise to epistemological issues. And it also requires us to be able to reflect upon explicit normative standards, and to be able to reason about whether they should be adopted, about whether they are correct. My main concern in this paper is with how far a naturalised epistemology will enable us to make sense of these aspects of our practice. I shall begin with the second issue, and I shall focus the discussion on two distinctive naturalistic approaches: Quine's proposals for a naturalised epistemology and the 'Normative Naturalism' defended by Larry Laudan.


Naturalistically inclined philosophers have a standard line of response to the charge. And in Quine's case at least, it is tied to an argument that the grounding of 'ought's in 'is's is far less problematic in the study of empirical knowledge than it is in the study of ethical norms. A particularly clear formulation of this reply is found in Laudan's 'Progress or rationality? The Prospects for Normative Naturalism'4. He is concerned with the character of 'methodological norms', and he is working with a conception of naturalism which is much broader than Quine's. For the present we can ignore this complication. Having listed a selection of 'methodological rules', he notes first that they have the form of commands. This is clear from examples such as:
Propound only falsifiable theories.

Avoid ad hoc modifications.

Since they are commands, he continues, 'they appear decidedly not to be the sort of utterance which could be true or false, but at best only useful. Moreover, he worries, 'To enquire concerning their truth conditions seems a mistake, for they appear to be quite unlike ordinary statements. Yet if they have no truth conditions, what would it even mean to ask about their warrant?'.

His answer is that the grammar of methodological rules obscures their underlying logical form: they are hypothetical imperatives whose form is:

If one's goal is y, then one ought to do x.
Thus the second of the Popperian maxims listed above should properly read:
If one wants to develop risky conjectures, then one ought to avoid ad hoc hypotheses.
The final twist of the argument is that such imperatives 'always assert a relation between means and ends.'
Specifically, every such rule presupposes that 'doing x' will, as a matter of fact, promote y, or bring us closer to the realisation of y.
The conclusion Laudan draws from this is confusedly expressed. He initially suggests that methodological rules are statements about instrumentalities. Later formulations weaken this a little: the warrant of the rule is determined by the warrant for the underlying statement; and anyone who asserts the rule is committed to the truth of the means-ends claim. The general point is that a naturalised epistemology can provide extensive information about means to ends, and that methodological rules (and, perhaps cognitive norms more generally) are fixed by these facts about means to ends.
Laudan's view thus has two components:

I. All methodological norms are hypothetical imperatives; they concern means to ends.

II. The instrumental truths upon which these imperatives depend can all be investigated within a naturalised epistemology.


The idea that epistemic norms are all hypothetical imperatives is found in Quine too:
Insofar as theoretical epistemology gets naturalised into a chapter of theoretical science, so normative epistemology gets naturalised into a chapter of engineering: the technology of anticipating sensory stimulation. (Pursuit of Truth, p.19).

Since Quine normally tells us that epistemology falls into place as a chapter of psychology, normative epistemology is presumably applied psychology. And, this quotation suggests, epistemic norms are hypothetical imperatives, concerned with means to the end of 'anticipating sensory stimulation'.

However this claim can easily be misinterpreted. Quine does not think of prediction is the aim of science. It may have been the scientific goal in the past, but a more common goal now is 'technology and understanding'. 'Anticipating sensory stimulation' is the checkpoint. This, he tells us, 'is not normative': 'I see it as defining a particular language game, in Wittgenstein's phrase', 'the game of science, in contrast to other good games such as fiction and poetry.' (p.20) In a telling analogy, we learn that prediction 'is what decides the game, like runs and outs in baseball' but it does not necessarily constitute the goal of any practising scientist. This may mean that anyone working in the sciences must adopt predictive success as a subordinate goal, as a means to technology and understanding. In that case, Quine seems to be saying that epistemic norms relate to this subordinate defining goal rather than to the ends that actually motivate research. We might wonder why Quine assigns such a central importance to this 'goal'. Since 'sensory stimulation' is a psychological notion, it is clearly related to the central role that he attaches to psychology.


Before continuing, we should note the apparently large difference between Quine and Laudan. Each looks in a different place for its paradigms of naturalistic study of our cognitive endeavours. Quine subordinates epistemology to psychology (at least for the most part): we study the ways in which the individual forms beliefs upon the basis of retinal stimulation. Laudan's examples are all drawn from the history of science: we learn how we ought to carry out inquiries through reflection on the techniques that have been effective in the past.

When Quine offers examples of how science can ground epistemic norms, his examples (paradoxically) rarely come from psychology. Having noted how 'Podiatry, appendectomy. and the surgical repair of hernias are technological correctives of bad side effects of natural selection', he urges that 'such also in essence is normative epistemology in its correcting and refining of our innate propensities to expectation by induction'.

A vest-pocket specimen of this is the exposure and correction of the gambler's fallacy: the insidious notion that a run of bad luck increases the likelihood that the next try will win. (From Stimulus to Science, p.50)
Such correction, we learn, 'is the therapeutic side of statistical theory, a substantial branch of applied mathematics that is part and parcel of normative epistemology' (ibid). In that case, Quine's naturalism turns to science for epistemological insight, but his focus on psychology is not an essential part of the position.

Other comments make clear that Quine is not opposed to gaining help from the History of Science as well as other non-psychological sciences such as mathematics. Claiming that 'naturalised epistemology on its normative side is occupied with heuristics generally - with the whole strategy of rational conjecture in the framing of scientific hypotheses', he notes that in The Pursuit of Truth, he has been focused on 'the testing of a theory after it has been thought up' and has thus 'passed over the thinking up, which is where the normative considerations come in.' Having recalled that in The Web of Belief, he had listed five relevant virtues (conservatism, generality, simplicity, refutability, and modesty), he notes that 'Further counsel is available anecdotally in the history of hard science.' (p.20)5

Why then does he insist so heavily on the centrality of psychology? The passage quoted above may suggest a division of labour. Explicit 'heuristic' norms govern the process of theory construction - 'thinking things up'. Theory testing is less susceptible to explicit normative control - he has said that induction does not present a body of normative standards, because we have no choice over whether to rely upon induction. Perhaps psychology is especially relevant to understanding our inductive procedures, to understanding how evidence is related to theory. In that case, psychology may have special relevance to the first of our two normative questions - that of grounding our confidence in our cognitive and rational capacities. Quine's emphasis on psychology (and on stimulations) may reflects his heavy commitment to empiricism, one which, presumably, Laudan does not share.

One passage from 'Epistemology Naturalised' suggests that Quine is uneasy about much epistemological use of the history of science:

The dislodging of epistemology from its old status of first philosophy loosed a wave, we saw, of epistemological nihilism. This mood is reflected somewhat in the tendency of Polanyi, Kuhn and the late Russell Hanson to belittle the role of evidence and to accentuate cultural relativism. Hanson ventured even to discredit the idea of observation, arguing that so-called observations vary from observer to observer with the amount of knowledge that the observers bring with them. The veteran physicist looks at some apparatus and sees an x-ray tube. The neophyte, looking at the same place, observes rather "a glass and metal instrument replete with wires, reflectors, screws, lamps and pushbuttons". One man's observation is another man's closed book or flight of fancy. (p.88)
Hence Quine's central interest in psychology over history depends upon the belief that 'evidence' and 'observation' have to be made fundamental if we are not to collapse into 'nihilism' or 'relativism' and the belief that those who have turned to history for a naturalistic basis for epistemology have failed to avoid this danger. Indeed, this emphasis was already present in his description of how epistemic norms are to be understood as hypothetical imperatives: the end to which we seek efficient means was stated explicitly in terms drawn from Quinean armchair psychology - 'anticipating sensory stimulations'. Even if he is abandoning 'first philosophy', he wants to retain psychology as a kind of 'first epistemology'.


We have now outlined a range of problems that a natrualised approach to epistemic rationality must address, and we have taken note of a common strategy for dealing with them. Can a broadly naturalised epistemology meet these demands. Let us take the two normative issues in turn. First: can a naturalised epistemology ground our confidence in our capacities to solve problems effectively?

Let us consider what Quine says when considering the legitimacy of our reliance upon induction. He is criticising the suggestion that there is a genuine normative question of why we are 'entitled' to rely on induction. It rests on a false presupposition: we are not 'entitled', but we are 'bound to':

We are bound by the innate wiring of our nervous system, conferred by natural selection. Our tendency is to expect similar stimulations to have sequels that are similar to each other. the similarity here is subjective, and our scale or standard of similarity is innate but subject to modification through experience. Natural selection has favoured in us a similarity standard that has made for largely successful induction by meshing pretty well with the regularities of nature over the past few dozen millennia.

This, plus the happy circumstance that nature has apparently persisted pretty well in her old ways right down to the present day, accounts for the continuing success by and large of induction. Our genes account for our still continuing to rely on it. But all this is compatible with a major change, right now, in the course of nature, so I see no entitlement [to rely upon induction]. Such a change would be contrary to our firmest scientific laws, but to argue thus is to argue inductively, begging the question.

Where evidence can be decisive is rather on the negative side: refutation of an observational categorical by an observed counter-instance. This is how some of our false inductions get weeded out, and how science keeps a grip on reality. ('Responses', Inquiry 1994, 502-3.)

A paragraph or so later comes what might be Quine's key move: 'But traditional epistemology enjoys no evident advantage over naturalism in these normative matters' (ibid 503).

This passage invites some comments. Quine resists the poor argument that we are warranted in relying on induction because natural selection would not provide us with inductive habits if they were not adaptive. Since our cognitive needs differ from those of our evolutionary forebears, the evolutionary argument does not provide any reason for believing that our habits and capacities are well fitted to our current refined cognitive needs. Striking, although not emphasised as much as may be appropriate, Quine is committed to the importance of our having the capacity to revise and develop our inductive habits in the face of predictive failure - our similarity standard is innate 'but subject to modification through experience' and, he should have added. education. So we possess a body of inductive habits, which we are able to modify and develop in the light of our other knowledge and experience, which we have never been given any reason to doubt. Indeed those inductive habits confirm us in trusting them. If our reliance on induction does not meet the strong degree of support that he takes to be required for 'entitlement', we can see how reflection does not threaten our confidence in it. And we can see how empirical information - about our successes and about our flexibility, as well as our growing knowledge of the mechanisms involve all contribute to reinforcing that confidence.

If the issue is one of legitimating our confidence in our cognitive capacities, Quine's worries about circularity seem out of place.6 Our confidence legitimately grows with success. The possibility that all might change tomorrow may not be answerable by an argument that provides any sort of guarantee, but nor does it give rise to any strong sense of epistemic vulnerability. At worst, it brings out that we are fallible, and dependent upon the grace of nature. Thus far it seems reasonable to agree: there is no reason in principle why a naturalised approach to the study of epistemic rationality should be any worse placed than 'traditional epistemology' to legitimate our confidence in our cognitive skills. The burden of proof lies with someone who wants to deny this: they must point to some particular aspects of our reflective practice where our confidence would be shaken by the information that only 'naturalistic' information was available.


When we turn to explicit norms, the response is essentially the same. We are aware of many examples of mathematical or psychological investigations bring out inadequacies in our reasoning habits. Once we are informed about the gambler's fallacy, we shall see the force of norms which call for care and caution before placing bets. Psychological studies of inference - for example, the debate that has grown up around the Wason selection task - alert us to areas where mistake is likely; and we can learn to avoid these errors by adopting norms to govern our deliberations and conversations. So there is not problem in accepting that a naturalised study of knowledge can ground norms of epistemic rationality. An adequate criticism on this basis would have to show that there are more fundamental norms that cannot receive this kind of vindication. Once again, the burden of proof lies with someone who would persuade us that this is actually the case. So far, we have no reason to think that naturalised epistemology is any worse off than traditional epistemology.


At this stage it may be useful to introduce a criticism of Quine's rhetoric and his procedures which is due to Susan Haack (Evidence and Inquiry, chapter VI - but I shall put the point in rather different terms). The naturalism about normative epistemology that we have sketched on the basis of Quine's comments holds that normative standards are revisable in the light of experience; there is no a priori first philosophy which can legislate about the norms we should follow in trying to make sense of experience. While experiential science and mathematics may be invaluable as a source of relevant experience or other clues that revision is required, the resulting position falls short of the claims made in some of Quine's strongest naturalistic rhetoric. Everyday experience is no less relevant than purely scientific experience; and history is just as helpful as psychology. So the claim that normative epistemology falls into place as a chapter of 'natural science' seems wrong - unless the meaning of 'natural science' is stretched so far that it loses all of its value. Indeed, a similar process of assessment and revision of habitual responses may occur when we revise our ethical or aesthetic views.

Here is a conjecture about what has gone wrong. Quine holds that if we want to understand how theories are developed on the basis of our sparse experiential input, then we have no alternative but to turn to cognitive psychology and social psychology: let us say, to cognitive science. There is an intelligible cognitive task which can best be carried out scientifically. Indeed, we might think that there are important questions about ethics which will only be answered in this way too. In each case, we might think that Quine is too Cartesian, focusing on individual psychology and ignoring the social and co-operative nature of these activities. Moreover such investigations are likely to throw up information which we can use to improve our performance: we can be alerted to unexpected disrupting influences or to ways in which we can be led into error. But these inquires are largely theoretical, concerned with enabling us to understand how we form our beliefs or make our evaluations.7 Since Hume, Locke and (presumably) Carnap were largely concerned with these explanatory ventures when they studied cognition, it is not surprising that Quine saw continuities between scientific studies of cognition and various enterprises within the earlier epistemological tradition.

Since some of these earlier studies of cognition were largely introspective, dealing with observable relations between metal states that were assumed to be open to the introspective gaze, it is unsurprising that they fed directly into claims about normative epistemological standards. Psychological theory was not very different from careful introspective reflection. Studying the nature of cognition and studying the normative structure of the ways in which we reflect upon our beliefs, actions, plans and deliberations were not wholly separate investigations. If psychological categories were grounded in introspection, it is unsurprising that they are well suited for the descriptions of reasoning and beliefs that we use when trying to regulate our inquiries. Once we move beyond an introspective psychology, there is no reason to expect this to continue to be true. One can be a naturalist and allow that all standards of rationality can be reassessed in the light of experience, without adopting the belief that normative epistemology is simply applied cognitive science.


We might clarify things a little further by considering an argument by Laurence BonJour. It aims to show that a naturalistic approach to epistemology is somehow self-defeating: in general, an adequate epistemology must acknowledge that some beliefs about what is a reason for what are knowable a priori. The argument assumes that there is a distinction between those beliefs which are immediate reports of the contents of experience and those which 'cannot be construed as strictly observational or experiential in any sense that has the slightest plausibility: beliefs about the remote past, beliefs about the future, beliefs about present situations where no observer is present, beliefs about general laws, the vast majority of the beliefs that make up theoretical science, and perhaps others' ('Against naturalised epistemology' 295-6). He then asks what sort of belief can count as a reason for one of these non-observational beliefs. The reason must either '(i) depend on an inference of some sort from some of the directly observational beliefs or (ii) be entirely independent of direct observation. A reason of sort (ii) is plainly a priori'. A reason of type (i) can obtain only if a conditional statement of the form:
If p1, p2, p3, etc are true then q is true (where p1 - p3 are observational and q is non-observational).
If all the relevant observational material is included in the antecedent, then a conditional of this kind 'can only be a priori.' Thus if any beliefs about non-observational matters are to be justified, there must be a priori statements of warrant, and this conflicts with the claim that all normative matters can be examined a posteriori. BonJour finds this argument 'as obvious and compelling as anything in philosophy'. His use of the argument is allied to his identification of the real gap in naturalised approaches to epistemic issues: the naturalist cannot provide any real reason for thinking that his beliefs are true. He believes that this is something that cannot be provided without engaging with sceptical arguments, and he thinks (plausibly) that we can only confront scepticism with the aid of a priori reasoning. Since we have already expressed the hope that a naturalised approach to epistemology can meet the normative demands that actually arise in the course of reflective inquiry, I will not say anything more here about the latter move. The question is rather: what should a defender of naturalism say about BonJour's 'obvious' and 'compelling' argument.

We might question the dichotomy that underlies it: either this conditional proposition is inferred from beliefs about what is directly observed or it is evidently a priori. Since BonJour says little by way of elucidation, it is reasonable to complain that the intended contrast is not very clear. If 'inferred from beliefs about what is directly observed' means that the believer can identify a set of observational premises together with a structure of argument which is supposed to ground the conclusion, then it is reasonable to object that a belief could fail to meet this condition without being a priori in any sense that need disturb a friend of naturalism. For a moderate holist like Quine, a belief can be held firm by its role in sustaining or integrating a substantial body of information even if the believer cannot point to the 'reasons' that warrant him in holding it. Suppose that the agent is reflectively confident in the habits of memory, inference and reflection which lead to the disposition to assent to the proposition that q. Since the weighing of evidence is `a largely passive affair', no specific doubts or questions are (or, perhaps, even can be) raised by reflection on that belief. In a very loose sense, this may be described as a priori: it is not a candidate for empirical assessment or re-assessment and it is taken for granted in providing reasons for believing other propositions. But since no questions arise about its normative status, there is no requirement that we develop an epistemological theory which will explain and justify the claim that we possess an a priori warrant for it. Moreover there seems to be no reason to suppose that its presence entails that we possess 'non-natural' capacities for weighing evidence.

BonJour seems to believe that the relations of epistemic dependence that hold our beliefs together have a clear and articulated structure which we can identify (I think he calls this the 'doxastic presumption'). If this were the case, then I can see that reflection would lead us to identify these structures of argument and raise questions about their soundness. BonJour's challenge may then be a pressing one. Once this assumption is abandoned (as surely it must be) then the focus of epistemic evaluation becomes more restricted: it is a feature of our cognitive economy that particular propositions and arguments emerge out of the murk and call for reflective assessment. My suggestion has been that it is not yet evident that the questions that arise in this way cannot be answered using normative standards whose soundness can be assessed in an a posteriori manner.

The moral I wish to draw from this discussion of BonJour's remark can be put in slightly different terms. Contrast two pictures of epistemic rationality. One, which is characteristic of much recent 'epistemology' holds that we carry out these evaluations using a general evaluative concept of justification. Epistemology must tell us what it is for a belief to be justified; unless each of our beliefs is justified our overall cognitive position is flawed; and so responsible reflective inquiry requires us to be able to tell, for each of our beliefs, whether it possesses this virtue of 'justification'. BonJour's challenge seems to be a call for us to identify the kind of 'justification' that his conditional possess. This view treats justification as a sort of 'evaluative kind'. The second picture is sceptical that we possess clear substantive general epistemic virtues such as 'justification'. However in the course of carrying out inquiries and testing our opinions, questions can arise about how we ought to go about answering particular problems, how we ought to respond to a surprising experience, whether we ought to trust our instincts in some particular case and so on. The Quinean epistemologist that I am considering holds that these specific issues can be addressed in a naturalistic manner. Although we might say that a belief is justified when it has been arrived at in a normatively adequate manner, we do not need to ground our practice of epistemic rationality in any sort of substantive account of 'justification'. It is not implausible that if you have the former picture, naturalism may turn out to be unattractive. The naturalistic picture that I am examining resists this picture.


We should conclude by raising an obvious difficulty. Both Laudan and Quine suggest that methodological norms all concern means to ends. But surely there are normative questions about what our ends should be: can a naturalised approach to epistemic rationality say anything sensible about these questions? What should our cognitive ends be?8

It is tempting to view this as a question about the form to be taken by the hypothetical imperatives that express the epistemic norms: what are the prescribed standards of belief and inference means to? Is it truth, empirically adequate belief, or what? Since both Quine and (especially) Laudan9 insist that the goals motivating scientific activity can vary over time, there would seem to be genuine questions about what these aims should be. In that case, we need normative guidance with the task of choosing them. It is surprising that neither seriously addresses the issue. In the case of Quine, this is especially surprising because he take the presence of competing 'ends' for morality to be a source of a major disanalogy between science and ethics, one which makes ethical realism impossible. We have seen that in the scientific case, he believes that the variety of goals which can motivate scientific activity have it in common that they can be pursued only by seeking theories that pass the checkpoint of experience. Hence norms that relate to that goal, together with ideals of simplicity etc, will be common to all versions of the 'scientific language game.' Making it, in effect, analytic that this is a fundamental subordinate goal for scientific activity will seem to some to be a desperate move.

Does reflection upon our beliefs, deliberations and inquiries give rise to any questions about the rationality of ends which cannot be transformed into questions about means to ends? If so, does this raise a serious difficulty for any naturalistic treatment of the matter? I assume that no interesting questions arise from questions about which language game to play - whether to be a scientist or a novelist. I also assume that no particular problems arise about which particular theoretical issues we should occupy ourselves with - whether to be philosophers or psychologists, which problems to work on and so on. Once such cases are set aside, we can begin to look at some more puzzling examples of addressing questions about what our epistemic ends are or should be. Even here, I will suggest the normative issues that arise can be understood in means-ends terms.

One kind of example is suggested by parallels with issues about the assessment of ends in the area of practical reason. Following John Dewey, I shall assume that the immediate motivation for inquiry may often be what I will call a 'problem' and he calls an 'indeterminate situation'. We are disturbed by the fact that there are incoherencies and incompletenesses of our knowledge in a particular area, and part of our uncertainty consists in the fact that we cannot formulate a clear question which articulates our worry. Cases where we lack (and seek) understanding may often be of this kind. It is characteristic of philosophical inquiries that we have a strong sense of not knowing our way around and we may also suspect that once we have distilled our lack of understanding into a clear question, progress may be easily made. Our initial cognitive goal is that of 'finding the right cognitive goal', finding a target for inquiry whose achievement, we hope, will remove our lack of understanding.

In such cases, it seems easy to see how advice can be provided by a naturalised epistemology. There are no recipes for narrowing or clarifying our cognitive targets, but experience can guide us in trying out related questions, looking for clues, and hoping to arrive at an improved understanding of the issue that will enable us to eliminate our problem. Of course, there is a great deal of interesting work to do here. My point here is simply: such examples provide no reason to suppose that the sort of explicit normative reasoning involve cannot be grounded in empirical means ends inquiries.


I have not been able to discuss all the issues that arise about normative reasoning in the regulating of beliefs and inquiries - I am particularly aware that I have said virtually nothing about the role of the sorts of norms that are grounded in our understanding of concepts. My aims in the paper have been threefold. First to identify what we must look for from a naturalistic account of epistemic rationality: it must make room for an a reflective vindication of our confidence that we our cognitive capacities and habits are so structured as to enable us solve our problems and arrive at correct answers to our questions. Secondly, against this background, I have tried to disentangle some of the varied themes involved in Quine's picture a naturalistic normative epistemology. Once we escape an oversimplified picture of his project - albeit one that he encourages through his description of epistemology as a branch of theoretical psychology - I have suggested that the overall picture is not as unrealistic as it may, at first sight, appear. Finally, I have tried to identify where the real weak spots of this sort of approach are likely to lie. While I have not pushed this inquiry so far as I would wish, I hope to have suggested that the main worry (that he can say nothing about the evaluation of our epistemic ends) may turn out to be misplaced.


1'Freedom of thought and desire', Journal of Philosophy, 1996.

2See Word and Object, chapter 1, and for discussion, Hookway 'Naturalised epistemology and epistemic evaluation', Inquiry 1994.

3Although this suggests that it would be a failing in an epistemology that it suggested that our cognitive successes were a matter of luck, we should not expect the epistemology to provide a firm guarantee that all will be well. It is highly likely - and in accord with the spirit of naturalism - that we should depend upon 'the grace of nature'. (See Fogelin, Pyrrhonian Reflections on Knowledge and Justification, and Wittgenstein, On Certainty).

4No significance probably attaches to the fact that in his latest book, Quine he used the name 'normative naturalism' for his own position. (From Stimulus to Science 49-50)

5However he does seem to suggest that 'thinking things up' may resist very precise or rigorous sets of heuristics. 'Conservatism' and simplicity appear to have 'no general calibration', 'much less any comparative scale of the one against the other': 'For this reason alone - and it is not alone -there is no hope of a mechanical procedure for optimum hypothesising, Creating good hypotheses is an imaginative art, not a science. It is the art of science'. (From Stimulus to Science, p.49)

6Elsewhere, Quine makes similar remarks about induction and natural selection. He addresses the question 'Why should our innate subjective spacing of qualities have a special purchase on nature and a lien on the future' and after pointing out (memorably) that 'Creatures inveterately bad in their inductions have a pathetic but praiseworthy tendency to die before reproducing their kind' he concludes that 'These thoughts are not meant to justify induction. ..What natural selection contributes ... is a reason why induction works, granted that it does. ('Natural kinds' in Ontological Relativity)

7In saying that an investigation within cognitive science can answer theoretical questions in these areas, I am not committed to the claim that such investigations can answer all relevant theoretical issues about how we carryout inquiries or make evaluations. This seems extremely unlikely.

8The view that 'principles of rationality' should all be defended in means-ends terms is also defended in Robert Nozick's The Nature of Rationality, chapter 1. It is part of his view that we justify adopting something as a principle by showing that doing so can strengthen our motivation for doing what it requires. It accords with the picture being discussed here that principles are adopted because of the practical benefits of doing so; they are not adopted because they are somehow implicit in the foundations of the systems of evaluation that we are concerned with.

9A major concern of his papers is to show that we can gain methodological insights from (say) Newton's achievements in spite of he fact that one of his aims was 'show the hand of the Creator in the details of his creation' and to 'discourse of [God] from the appearances of things'. His conception of the aim of science was strikingly different from ours.

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