Metaepistemology is, roughly, the branch of epistemology that asks questions about first-order epistemological questions. It inquires into fundamental aspects of epistemic theorizing like metaphysics, epistemology, semantics, agency, psychology, responsibility, reasons for belief, and beyond. So, if as traditionally conceived, epistemology is the theory of knowledge, metaepistemology is the theory of the theory of knowledge. It is an emerging and quickly developing branch of epistemology, partly because of the success of the more advanced ‘twin’ metanormative subject of metaethics. The success of metaethics and the structural similarities between metaethics and metaepistemology have inspired parallel conceptual forays in metaepistemology with far reaching implications for both subjects.
The current article offers a concise survey of basic themes and problems in metaepistemology. The survey, of course, aims neither at being exhaustive nor at presenting these basic themes and problems in their full sophistication and complexity. Rather, given the very broad span of themes and problems that fall under the label of metaepistemology, the aim is to introduce basic themes and problems and overview some of the cutting edge research that is currently undertaken in metaepistemology debates.
In what follows, “(meta)”epistemology contains brackets to indicate the epistemology of epistemology. This is to be distinguished from non-bracketed “metaepistemology,” which is meant to refer to the whole domain of metaepistemological theorizing (metaphysics, epistemology, semantics, agency and so forth).
Situating Metaepistemology within Epistemology and Metanormativity
Following the example of ethics (for example, Fisher 2011; see also Fumerton 1995), we can distinguish three basic branches of epistemology: normative epistemology, applied epistemology, and metaepistemology. Normative epistemology mostly deals with first-order theorizing about how we should form justified beliefs, gain understanding, truth and knowledge, offer accounts of the basic sources of knowledge (like memory, perception, testimony) and so forth, but it does not pursue higher-order questions about these matters or pressing applied epistemic matters. To the extent that it does, it embroils itself, respectively, in metaepistemology and applied epistemology. Applied epistemology draws from normative epistemological theorizing in order to respond to pressing epistemic matters of practical value, like climate change skepticism, jury decision-making, gender or race issues in epistemology, and so forth.
The following is an example to illustrate how the trichotomy of the epistemic domain is meant to divide epistemological labor. As is well-known, epistemologists are intrigued by the perennial question “What is knowledge?” and, accordingly, try to come up with plausible reductive analyses. This much is first-order normative epistemological theorizing at its best. If we conceptually dig deeper, however, move a level down and ask whether there is any “real” (or robust) knowledge or whether the project of reductive analysis of knowledge is any plausible, then we ask second-order, metaepistemological questions. That is, we ask questions about first-order epistemological questions, like the question “what is knowledge?”. Moreover, if we ask epistemic questions of pressing practical value, like whether gender, race, and ethnic origin factors affect ordinary knowledge attributions, then we are pressing applied questions (for example, Fricker 2010) and have swiftly moved into the field of applied epistemology.
Opinions diverge about the exact interrelation of the three branches of epistemology and the exact interrelation of metaepistemology and its twin metanormative subject of metaethics. In regard to the former issue, there are two broad, possible positions about the relation among the three branches. The first position is one we may call the autonomy thesis. According to the autonomy thesis, also sometimes propounded in ethical theory (compare Enoch 2013 for discussion), metaepistemology is an independent branch of epistemological inquiry that does not depend on the results of the other two branches of epistemology. Inversely, both applied and normative epistemology do not depend on the results of metaepistemology either. The autonomy thesis bears some prima facie plausibility because it seems intuitive that one may be, let us say, a coherentist, foundationalist, or reliabilist about normative epistemology but an expressivist, error theorist, or relativist about metaepistemology.
The other position on the matter is what we may call the interdependency thesis. It suggests that there are important theoretical interdependencies between the three branches (pace some prima facie appearances of autonomy). If, for example, we could reductively analyze epistemic justification in informative necessary and sufficient conditions, it seems that we would have a theory to invoke in normative justificatory matters and apply to pressing questions of epistemic justification like, say, climate change skepticism. However, the fact that such analyses do not seem readily available indicates that nothing is very obvious in metaepistemological matters.
In regard to the latter issue, namely, how to situate metaepistemology not merely within epistemology but within the broadly metanormative domain, there are again two broad, divergent positions. First, many metanormativists hold “the parity thesis” (or, sometimes called, “the unity thesis”) according to which the epistemic and the moral/practical are intertwined normative subjects, theoretically on a par and should therefore share the same metanormative fate, whatever that may be (realist, antirealist, Kantian constructivist, or even other) (compare Kim 1988; Cuneo 2007). Other metanormativists deny this and argue that there are important discontinuities between metaepistemology and metaethics and, hence, that we should instead hold “the disparity thesis” (compare Lenman 2008; Heathwood 2009).
For example, Cuneo (2007) has argued that the moral and the epistemic domain share core structural similarities (reasons, supervenience, motivation, and so forth) and that this bolsters the parity thesis. In response to Cuneo’s (2007) arguments for the parity thesis, it has been suggested by Lenman (2008) and Heathwood (2009) that while moral facts and truths may be irreducible, epistemic facts and truths may be reducible to facts and truths about evidence and probability (where these are ultimately to be understood in descriptive terms) and, therefore, there is a fundamental disparity between the two metanormative subjects. Again, Cuneo and Kyriacou (2017) have come up with a rejoinder to the Heathwood/Lenman case for the moral/epistemic disparity and argued that the parity seems to go through in the end. Of course, the dialectic is currently developing and the jury is still out.
These are a few basic things about the possible positions in situating metaepistemology within epistemology proper and within metanormativity. We now turn to the basic question of what it is that makes epistemology a distinctively normative subject and how from epistemic normativity we arrive at perplexing metaepistemological questions.
One of the most remarkable characteristics of human primates is their evolved, often linguistically mediated, capacity for cognizing and, moreover, the intrinsic normativity of this cognizing; intrinsic normativity of cognizing because our wide array of cognitive endeavors seem to be inherently “fraught with ought” and evaluable in terms of (in)correctness. Intuitively, to the extent that we are rational and responsible agents, there are propositions we ought to believe and propositions we ought not to believe, and there are cognitive practices, methods, processes, habits, and so forth that are epistemically correct to employ and others that are epistemically incorrect to employ. That is, (in)correct from the epistemic point of view.
Indeed, generations of epistemologists from the early moderns like Descartes (1641), Locke (1690) and Hume (1739), to Clifford (1877), Chisholm (1966), Alston (1988), Fumerton (1995), Feldman (2002) and beyond have attested the normativity of cognizing and have talked about corresponding epistemic duties, oughts, obligations, requirements, and so forth—terms that for current purposes are used interchangeably—that rational agents have.
For example, intuitively, we ought to believe on the basis of the relevant evidence or the relevant reliable cognitive process and ought not to believe what is merely bequeathed by tradition, dictated by fiat of authority or simply feels good. It is also epistemically correct to collect evidence meticulously and open-mindedly, and it is epistemically incorrect to cook up your lab research to the conclusions that a generous research sponsor would favor (for example, say, that extensive consumption of red meat incurs no side-effects on health and the environment).
It is precisely this intrinsic normativity of our cognitive endeavors (practices, methods, processes, habits, beliefs, theories) that gives rise to metaepistemological questions because as rational, responsible agents we seem bound by epistemic duties and obligations that are rationally non-optional and inescapable. To the extent that we are rational agents, we seem constrained by epistemic oughts and duties regardless of whether we like it or not, or whether we submit to these or not. The fact is reflected in ordinary locutions like “p is the right thing to believe,” “You should trust what Paul says because he is an expert on the matter,” or ‘They should have known this much; there is no excuse,” and so forth. Call this fundamental appearance of ordinary epistemic discourse the deontic appearance.
Of course, the deontic appearance is the prima facie appearance of ordinary epistemic discourse and appearances, even deeply entrenched appearances, as we know very well may be deceptive. Secunda facie, we may have no epistemic duties or obligations and epistemic normativity may not be explainable in deontological terms. But at least prima facie we often talk and think in terms of propositions that one should or should not believe and in terms of practices, processes, methods, habits etc. that one should and should not employ. This much of epistemic appearance seems unequivocal and whether we should debunk the deontic appearance or not is a further question down
It should also be underscored that the deontic appearance of ordinary epistemic discourse seems to have a distinctively categorical flavor; that is, the phenomenology of our everyday talk and thought about duties, obligations, oughts, seems to imply the existence of categorical duties and obligations such as duties that are in some sense unconditional, that is independent of our psychology (desires, dispositions, beliefs,) and constrain what we ought to believe insofar as we are rational. For example, if a speaker utters, “You should believe that p” in an ordinary conversational context her statement would, typically, conversationally implicate that it is an (epistemic) fact of sorts that “You should believe that p.” A fortiori, the conversational implication is that anyone epistemically rational would be obliged to believe that p because it constitutes a categorical epistemic obligation (derivative of a corresponding epistemic fact).
In line with the deontic appearance, the broadly internalist view that takes it that we are bound by reflectively accessible epistemic duties is called epistemic deontologism (compare Clifford 1877; Alston 1988; Feldman 2002). It asserts that we have reflectively accessible, epistemic duties and that they should regulate rational doxastic behavior, namely, endorsing, maintaining, and revising a belief. Epistemic deontologism can be construed in a number of ways depending on how we understand epistemic goals of inquiry. Accordingly, we can have different proposals about how to construe epistemic duties.
However, the standard way to understand epistemic deontologism has been in terms of epistemic justification (for discussion see Feldman 2002). Roughly, an epistemic duty for S to believe p exists iff S has sufficient justification for p. Sufficient justification may in turn be understood in various ways, perhaps, along broadly evidentialist lines, that is, in terms of a relatively high ratio of evidential probability (for example, Heathwood 2009) or even along reliabilist lines, that is, in terms of a high ratio of truth output by a process (or ability) in an externalist framework (for example, Goldman 1979).
This, of course, is not the only way epistemic deontologism may be construed because it can also be construed in terms of alternative epistemic goals/values like truth, knowledge, and even understanding or wisdom (compare for the latter two goals Kyriacou 2016). That would mean that, roughly, an epistemic duty for S to believe p exists iff p is true or an instance of knowledge or even promotes understanding or wisdom. However, the best construal of epistemic deontologism is a question we need not further dwell on here. The important thing for current explicating purposes is that no matter how epistemic duties are to be construed, the deontic appearance stirs a whole host of perplexing and far-reaching metaepistemological questions.