Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2016

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Fumerton, Richard A.

First Committee Member

Jeske, Diane

Second Committee Member

Fales, Evan

Third Committee Member

Cunning, David

Fourth Committee Member

Hasan, Ali


I argue that to know that a proposition is true one must have justification for being certain that the proposition is true. That is, one must have infallible epistemic justification for believing the proposition. It is widely accepted among epistemologists that we rarely, if ever, have such strong justification for our beliefs. It follows that there is precious little that we know. That conclusion is unacceptable to many philosophers. I argue that the positions that lead to the skeptical conclusion are well-motivated and that the skeptical conclusion is implicitly accepted by ordinary speakers.

My dissertation has three main components: a metaphilosophical position, an epistemological position, and an error theory. First, the metaphilosophical position. One very important part of philosophy is the analysis of our ordinary concepts. Analysis of our concepts begins with reflecting on what we are inclined to say about various actual and possible cases when considered under specific descriptions. This traditional method has recently come under attack, due in part to the rise of semantic externalism. I agree with externalists that if ‘meaning is reference’ then there is little reason to think reflecting on our concepts from the armchair will provide insight to the nature of the concepts we investigate. I defend a version of semantic internalism which grounds meaning in factors with which subjects are directly acquainted. That view supports the traditional methodology. Furthermore, as the goal of philosophical analysis is to accurately describe concepts of philosophical interest, the only kind of objection that could be decisive against a proposed analysis is that it does not correctly describe our concept. That opens the door to a skeptical analysis of knowledge.

Second, the epistemological position. I argue that the unacceptability of sentences of the form “S knows that p but it is possible for S that not-p” is best explained by the hypothesis that our concept of knowledge requires having justification for being certain that what one believes is true. I offer as a criterion of justified certainty the idea that when one knows a proposition is true, one is in a position to decisively answer questions about one’s knowledge of that proposition. I survey a number of competing theories of knowledge and show that they allow for the possibility of knowledge when one fails my criterion of decisive answerability. Those views fail my criterion because according to those views there is nothing the subject is aware of that guarantees for the subject that the allegedly known proposition is true. On that basis, I contend that knowledge is direct awareness of the factors that constitute the truth of the proposition one believes.

Third, the error theory. Of course, we rarely have direct awareness of the factors that constitute the truth of the propositions we believe. So, our knowledge attributions are generally false. Yet, they are overwhelmingly natural to make. I argue that competent speakers are often quick to recognize knowledge attributions as a kind of ‘loose talk’ akin to the way we loosely ascribe geometric properties to ordinary objects. We regularly call objects ‘square’ that are not even close to being square, and we are quick to recognize this when challenged. I argue that we do this because we are so accustomed to communicating using strict language to make false claims that we often do not attend to the literal falsity of what we are saying. While we accept very demanding standards for knowledge, the phenomenon of recognizing that our knowledge claims are regularly false is as pervasive as our use of loose speech.


analysis of knowledge, semantics of knowledge attributions, skepticism


xvi, 246 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 235-246).


Copyright © 2016 Gregory Douglas Stoutenburg

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