Event Detail

Mon Feb 8, 2016
Howison Library, 4–6 PM
Philosophy Colloquium
Jennifer Marusic (Brandeis University)
Locke on Knowledge and the Grounds of Probability

Locke’s epistemology is primarily concerned with answering two questions:

  1. What can we know?
  2. When it comes to matters that we do not know, how are we to conduct ourselves and what should our attitudes be?

My aim is to argue against a widespread interpretation of Locke’s answers to these questions and to propose an alternative, which suggests that his views about doxastic responsibility depend on his views about what is knowable. According to the widespread interpretation, Locke holds that we can only know a narrow class of propositions, sometimes characterized as necessary propositions and sometimes as analytic propositions. This reading, then, claims that Locke holds that contingent propositions about the world are not knowable, but that we can and should rely on probable judgments about the world in our everyday lives. Moreover, this reading furnishes Locke with a response to the external world skeptic: he concedes to the skeptic that we do not know that there is an external world, but insists that it is nevertheless extremely probable that there is one.

I argue that this picture is inconsistent with Locke’s account of the grounds of probability: Locke holds that what we know provides evidence in light of which we ought to make probable judgments. If the widespread interpretation were right, we wouldn’t have evidence to support our probable judgments about the world. In contrast, I claim that Locke’s view is that knowledge about the way the world contingently is provides evidence in light of which we ought to make probable judgments about things we do not know. I conclude by considering why Locke thinks that knowledge is suited to play this role, particularly in light of his analyzing knowledge in terms of the perception of the agreement or disagreement of ideas.