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Prospects for a Causal Theory of Knowledge

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Philip P. Hanson*
Simon Fraser University


Knowing is something that we do not have much of a theory about. (H. Putman, “The Analytic and the Synthetic,” Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 3 (1962), p. 365.)

Interest has recently been shown in causal theories of perception, memory, inference, reference, truth, justification and belief, as well as in a more general “causal theory of knowledge” which would embrace and connect all of these concepts within a broad epistemological framework. The burden of this paper is that prospects are poor for an interesting and general enough causal theory of knowledge. A threat to generality arises from the causal theory's difficulties with knowledge of general truths. A threat to interest arises when attempts to accommodate general truths lead to a weakening of the notion of “causal connection” appealed to, making dubious the explanatory force of such an appeal.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1978

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Ancestors of this paper were read at the University of Toronto, the University of Ottawa, and the C.P.A. Congress in Edmonton, June, 1975. I am grateful to all those who made comments on those occasions. I am also indebted to David Hills, Louis Loeb, William Smith, David Wong, Ronald de Sousa, and especially Paul Benacerraf for helpful discussions on this topic. Naturally, I am solely responsible for any inadequacies in what follows.


1 Goldman, A.A Causal Theory of Knowing”, Journal of Philosophy, 64 (1967), pp. 357-72;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Grice, H. P.The Causal Theory of Perception”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supp. vol. 35 (1961), pp. 121-52;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Pitcher, G. A Theory of Perception (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1971);Google Scholar Deutscher, M. and Martin, C. B.Remembering”, Philosophical Review 75 (1966), pp. 161-96;Google Scholar Deutscher, M.A Causal Account of Inferring”, in Contemporary Philosophy in Australia, ed. Brown, R. and Rollins, C. D. (George Allen and Unwin, Ltd., London, 1969), pp. 97–118;Google Scholar Field, H.Tarski's Theory of Truth”, Journal of Philosophy, 69 (1972), pp. 347-75;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Kripke, S.Naming and Necessity”, in The Semantics of Natural Language, ed. Harman, G. and Davidson, D. (D. Reidel Pub. Co., Dordrecht-Holland, 1972), pp. 253–355,Google Scholar 763-69; Grandy, R.Reference, Meaning and Belief”, Journal of Philosophy 70 (1973), pp. 439-52;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Boyd, R.Realism, Underdetermination, and a Causal Theory of Evidence”, Noûs 7 (1973), pp. 1–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 “p” stands for a declarative sentence of English, and “t” stands for a time. Goldman (op. cit.) poses this as a necessary and sufficient condition for knowledge, but it seems that the prospects for a viable causal theory are increased if we drop the sufficiency claim. For instance, Harman, G. has argued in Thought (Princeton University Press, 1973), pp. 142-54,Google Scholar that our concept of knowledge has certain “social aspects” which are not reflected in (1). But this by itself suggests only that (1) is not sufficient.

3 Gettier, E.Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, Analysis, 23 (1963), pp. 121-23;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Lehrer, K.Knowledge, Truth and Evidence”, Analysis 25 (1965), pp. 168-75;CrossRefGoogle Scholar G. Harman, op.cit.

4 The qualification “among” is explained in n.2. There are several challenges in the literature to Gettier's explanation of the force of his counterexamples. But I think that the counterexamples themselves stand even if his explanation of them is wrong. A suggestion about where to look for a correct explanation is given inn. 16. Cf. Rozeboom, W.Why I Know So Much More Than You Do”, American Philosophical Quarterly, 4 (1967), pp. 281-90;Google Scholar Thalberg, I.In Defence of Justified True Belief”, Journal of Philosophy 66 (1968), pp. 794-803;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Richman, R.Justified True Belief as Knowledge”, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 4 (1974-5), pp. 435-39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Fitch, G. W.Richman on the Principle of Deducibility for Justification”, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 6 (1976), pp. 299-302.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Odegard, D.Can a Justified Belief be False?”, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 6 (1976), pp. 561-68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

5 A number of substantive-looking criticisms of the causal theory have already appeared in the literature. See especially Skyrms, B.The Explication of ‘X knows that p’”, Journal of Philosophy 64 (1967), pp. 373-89;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Benacerraf, P.Mathematical Truth”, journal of Philosophy 70 (1973), pp. 661-79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar I will not say much about these except to indicate, where appropriate, points of contact with the line of argument to be developed.

6 “My concern will be with knowledge of empirical propositions only, since I think that the traditional analysis is adequate for knowledge of nonempirical truths” (Goldman, op.cit., p. 357). It is significant that Goldman drops the adequacy claim in a later published version of his paper. Cf. Roth, M. and Galis, L. (eds.), Knowing (Random House, N.Y., 1970), pp. 6768.Google Scholar

7 The qualification “apparently” is explained in n. 15.

8 An excellent discussion of this interpretation is to be found in H. Field, op. cit.

9 Steiner, M.The Causal Theory of Knowledge and Platonism”, Journal of Philosophy 70 (1973), pp. 57–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

10 Assuming that these are true. I am also relying here on an intuitive understanding of “generalization” which I hope the examples make clear enough. A rigorous definition would no doubt have to be framed relative to the syntax of some language in which they were to be expressed.

11 For Tarski's, informal exposition see “The Semantic Conception of Truth”, in Readings in Philosophical Analysis, ed. Feigl, H. and Sellars, W. (Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., N.Y., 1949).Google Scholar His more formal exposition is included in translation in his Logic, Semantics and Metamathematics, ed. Woodger, J. H. (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1956).Google Scholar See also H. Field, op. cit ..

12 P. Benacerraf, op. cit., argues somewhat analogously for the special case of mathematical truths, for which there is the added problem of how one can have causal interaction with the abstract mathematical entities which Tarski's truth conditions appear to admit as the referents of mathematical terms. See, however, n. 15.

13 The case derives in part from a puzzle introduced by Kaplan, D. in a somewhat different context. See his “Quantifying In”, in Words and Objections, ed. Harman, G. and Davidson, D. (D. Reidel Pub. Co., Dordrecht-Holland, 1969), esp. pp. 220-21.Google Scholar

14 I am speaking here about de dicto knowledge. If it is true, as some hold, that de re knowledge (and belief) of an object entails an appropriate causal connection with that object, then we might add that Ralph need not have any de re knowledge of the least-spy at-t in order to know that he exists. Cf. D. Kaplan, op. cit.

15 It was suggested to me by Calvin Normore that this problem case can be subsumed under the more general problem of knowledge of mathematical truths, since “The least spy exists” says, in effect, that there exists a certain well-ordered sequence of spies. Although spies are not mathematical entities per se, well-ordered sequences of spies might well be so regarded. If so, then this example would illustrate the breadth of the problem of mathematical knowledge. Indeed, to the extent that we adopt Tarski's treatment of generality involving denumerable sequences of members of the domain of discourse of the language in question, it would then appear that the problem of general knowledge as a whole is inextricably linked with, and perhaps even subsumable under, the problem of mathematical knowledge.

16 Cf. Skyrms, B. op. cit.; Hamlyn, D. The Theory of Knowledge (MacMillan Press Ltd., London,1970), p. 81.Google Scholar I think that it is in connection with this idea of relevance and interdependence of conditions that we should look for an explanation of the intuitive force of Gettier's examples. See n. 4 above.

17 I owe this way of putting it to John Heintz.

18 An interesting discussion of “impersonal” knowledge and society's contribution to epistemic constraints on “personal” knowledge is contained in Hilpinen's, RistoRemarks on Personal and Impersonal Knowledge”, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 8 (1977) pp. 1–9Google Scholar.

19 Reichenbach, Hans Experience and Prediction (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1938). p. 3.Google Scholar Books, speeches, and human actions are mechanisms by means of which we acquire knowledge, or come to know that which we know, but not the only means by which we could come to know this fact about our acquisition of knowledge!

20 When knowledge is posited in this way, scepticism about knowledge takes the form: there is nothing which explains our successes in predicting and controlling our environment. Of course, such scepticism might be motivated by an instrumentalism which denies that there is such a thing as explanation. I cannot pursue this question further here.

21 Since the writing of this paper, Klein, Peter D. has had published a paper which contains, among other things, arguments against the causal theory's ability to account for inferential knowledge. See “Knowledge, Causality, and Defeasibility”, Journal of Philosophy 73 (1976), pp. 792–812.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Since general knowledge is by and large inferential, his conclusions confirm mine, although it is worth pointing out that my argument against a causal account of general knowledge does not essentially depend on its being inferred. For Goldman's, latest pronouncements on knowledge, see his “Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge”, Journal of Philosophy 73 (1976), pp. 771-91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar