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Alston, William P. Beyond Justification: Dimensions of Epistemic Evaluation.

ALSTON, William P. Beyond Justification: Dimensions of Epistemic Evaluation. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005. xiii + 256 pp. Cloth: $45.00--Those accustomed to the thoroughness, exactitude, and incisiveness of Alston's epistemological forays will hot be disappointed by this work. Once more, Alston takes a keen-edged scalpel to various central issues such as externalism versus internalism, reliabilism, foundationalism, coherence, truth-conduciveness, epistemic virtue, skepticism, contextualism (though Alston means something different by it than the view now widely disputed in the literature), and epistemic probability. However, his central thesis is that researchers should replace the notion of "justified belief" with a series of positive distinctively epistemic features of beliefs, called "epistemic desiderata" or "EDs." He maintains that philosophers have been bamboozled by focusing on the question of when a belief is justified. The field is much more crowded. Although not every petitioner warrants entrance, a number of candidate EDs deserve consideration.

EDs are not a loosely bound collection of random features. They are held together by the central goal of belief--the production of true beliefs, or at least of their probability. Alston lists EDs under five headings. A selection of candidates, with the groups under which they fall, include, under I, truth itself; under II, that the subject have adequate evidence for the belief, that the belief be based on adequate evidence, and that it be formed by a reliable process; under III, that the evidence be cognitively accessible to the subject and that he have a well-grounded metabelief that the evidence is an ED; under IV, that the belief be held permissibly and/or responsibly; and, under V, that the belief satisfy the cognitive goals of explanation, coherence, systematicity, and/or fostering further understanding. Not all the contenders on this list pass Alston's tests. For example, those in group IV presuppose that belief is generally under voluntary control, a view he rejects; and, for example, coherence, from group V, doesn't pass his test for being inherently truth-conducive. Nevertheless, he deems it preferable simply to list as many positive epistemic features of beliefs as one can, rather than raise the uniform question "When is a belief justified?" On the other hand, he also notes that many of the issues raised in this new context have been bruited under justificationist assumptions, and the levels of support for leading options remain unchanged by this replacement of topic.

As for truth-conductivity, Alston is interested only in adequate grounds for belief. (He seems willing to entertain the notion that some adequate beliefs are ungrounded, but he regards such cases as highly exceptional, "and for purposes of epistemology we can neglect that possibility.") The next step is to choose between epistemically relevant theories of probability. He opts for a frequency version of objective probability. The fit isn't ideal. First, it covers only propositions that are believed. Next, frequencies must include subjunctivities, what would occur as well as runs of actual cases. A few other minor adjustments are also needed, but this is a close enough fit for his inquiry.

Moreover, even among EDs Alston accepts, some EDs are more equal than others. (Apologies to Orwell.) Reliability and either the having or being based on adequate evidence are more directly truth-conducive, and others, such as the intellectual virtues listed, on the one hand, by Sosa and Goldman, and, on the other, by Zagzebski, are included only insofar as they further reliability (of producing true beliefs).

Finally, in roughly his last fifty pages, Alston reflects metaepistemically, on getting around a series of skeptical problems, especially those in which our grounds confront either vicious circularity or an endless series of further, unanchored groundings. Briefly, his solution is to take a more modest, piecemeal, top-clown approach to groundings. This enables him to appeal to something not already presupposed in the method we employ for grounding more specific groups of beliefs. However, if we try to go global, the threat of circularity or an infinite chain returns. This isn't wholly unwelcome; it may be taken as a sign that we are getting too close to truth-conduciveness itself for independent confirmation.

Alston treats a number of other topics in the course of his exposition. For example, he defends externalism and proposes accepting what he calls psychological realism to solve its notorious generality problem. He rejects deontological theories, as I have stated, as requiring voluntary belief; those requiring only indirect actions toward belief-acquisition are insufficiently truth-conducive. And in scouting the prospects for skepticism he defends the Ur-thesis of foundationalism: that we can have non-arbitrary, adequately grounded, basic beliefs, without appealing to an infinite series of groundings or inviting vicious circularity. Thus, the critical exposition covers quite a number of currently hot topics in epistemology.

In fact, there are far too many topics for me to do justice to in this review. But a further word about the replacement of justificationism by EDs may be forgiven. It seems unclear to me that much has really changed. A major concern is that the term "justification," with roots in morality, lends itself to internalist, and in particular deontological, accounts, and Alston has objected to their distinctive EDs. There is some reason to believe that this worry is exaggerated. However, the difference also raises a question of the choice between evaluative monism, represented by justificationism, and pluralism, represented by EDs. As for monism, Alston himself seems to find work for it under different titles; see, for example, his restriction to adequate grounds. There is a level past which it is correct to maintain that the subject should or shouldn't hold a certain belief. Whether we call beliefs achieving that status justified, it is, as an increasingly popular term has it, an entitlement which it seems we want to retain in out epistemic evaluations. But it is also just the sort of monistic evaluation of beliefs that Alston appears at times to advise us to abandon. Add to that, first, the large number of issues discussed in a justificationist context that can be mooted in an ED setting without missing a beat, and, second, the author's many acknowledgements that the new mode leaves many of the earlier problems with precisely the polemical tank they had before the switch. Thus, while it is often a good idea periodically to refresh shopworn philosophical vocabulary that has collected unwanted baggage, it appears in this case that the single substantive reason for the change is to deprive deontologists, coherentists, and perhaps others of a cheap, and dubious, lexicographic victory. But pluralism still doesn't appear to have displaced monism in epistemic evaluation. None of this detracts from any of the substantive results Alston achieves, but, if correct, it renders his central thesis less revolutionary than he recommends readers take it.--Gerald Vision, Temple University.
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Author:Vision, Gerald
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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