Who is a dogmatist?

In half of my dissertation (Princeton 1997), and then (more capably) in a series of papers:

I've defended an epistemology of perception I called "dogmatist." At a certain point, I realized that the commitments I was taking to be definitive of "dogmatism" where shared by a large family of views, and that I had been defending one specific member of the family. It was distinguished by being internalist, being about perception, and giving a central explanatory role to the phenomenology of perceptual experience. Other views that differed in these respects could also be "dogmatists."

Around the same time I started defending these views, Michael Huemer also defended views of much the same sort, which he called "Phenomenal Conservatism." That term refers to the specific kind of dogmatist view that he and I are sympathetic to, rather than to the whole family. Huemer defends this kind of view more broadly than just in the case of perception; I am sympathetic to such generalizations but also am open to there being other possible sources of justification, which he resists. We don't agree about all the arguments we each give for our views, but there is of course some overlap.

Huemer and I weren't the first to defend this kind of view. In broad outline it can be traced back to the first "dogmatists"---the Stoics. (The term "dogmatist" originally meant those who thought we could have reasonable beliefs, contrary to what their Skeptical contemporaries claimed.) Roots of our view can also be seen in the common sense philosophy of Reid and Moore, and the particularism of Chisholm. (How much ground we share with Chisholm is an interesting issue, whose answer isn't obvious. See Alston 2007 for some relevant details.)

More recently, you can see views more recognizably like our own in Pollock 1974 and a series of "modest foundationalisms" that were developed in the 1970s and 1980s. These views were clearly instances of dogmatism, as I understand it, though many of them weren't Huemer's and my specific kind of dogmatism. Pollock for instance gave a central role to a neo-Wittgensteinean theory of concepts, and others of our predecessors gave a central role to a non-propositional notion of acquaintance. Also, not all of our modest foundationalist ancestors were foundationalists about perception; some thought we had immediate but defeasible justification concerning other subject-matters.

I do believe in immediate but defeasible justification but am not myself a foundationalist, as that requires additional commitments about what other sorts of justification are or aren't possible, and about the global structure of justification.

Since the mid-90s, there have been a lot more dogmatist views appearing: sometimes views whose specific sympathies are right in line with Huemer and mine, but other times diverging in crucial respects (e.g., by not being internalist). I hope that he and I have contributed to these developments, but some of the momentum was already out there when we arrived. Below I'll try to list other works I'm aware of since 1970 or so with dogmatist leanings. It's helpful for me to keep track of this somewhere, and it may help some other researchers too.

In the field, not everybody uses the term "dogmatist" in the same way. Some use it to refer to the specific views Huemer and I have about perception; but as I said, my own understanding of the term is more general. Some associate this term with specific commitments about the legitimacy of Moore-style proofs of the external world. I've myself argued that Moore-style proofs aren't guilty of all the vices they've usually been charged with (though they're no saints either). And I think there are natural motivational connections between dogmatism and the arguments I gave there. But in my own mind, these connections are substantive not definitional. It's no part of the meaning of "dogmatism" to take any specific stand about Moorean arguments. However, as I said, some other authors do understand "dogmatism" to include extra commitments, like my own, about Moorean arguments.

There are of course other uses of the term "dogmatic" and its cognates in philosophy. In addition to the modern perjorative folk meaning, there is another notable technical use in philosophy, to refer to a puzzle developed by Kripke and first reported by Harman, concerning when a subject is entitled to believe any future evidence against something she now believes would be misleading. Yet another use is Richard Jeffrey's: he calls "dogmatic" theories of rational belief that are all-or-nothing instead of probabilistic.

To make things more awkward, there's also a growing use of the term "neo-Moorean," where sometimes that means the combination of dogmatist plus Moore-proof-friendly views I hold, and other times just means what I mean by dogmatism alone.

I had a role too in introducing a distinctive use of the terms "liberal" and "conservative" in epistemology discussions. In my mouth, these are exclusive but not exhaustive categories (there's at least a third category, that reliabilists provide a good example of, and that I've tried out different labels for). Moreover they aren't absolute categories: one might be liberal about some epistemic vulnerabilities and conservative (or third-category) about others. However, here too, other authors don't always use these terms in the same way I do. It's common to see the term "liberal" used to mean "dogmatism about perception," for example. In my own mouth, dogmatism about perception involves commitment to non-conservativism about every potential underminer. I myself take a liberal stance towards some underminers---for instance, the claim that your experiences are unreliable; and a neither-liberal-nor-conservative stance towards others---for instance, the claim that you're not having those experiences, or that they don't justify. In my view, these latter claims have to be false; it's not enough to lack evidence that they're true. I doubt that a liberal stance towards all underminers is coherent.

If you're reading any given author who uses "dogmatism" or "neo-Moorean" or "liberal/conservative", and you want to know specifically what they mean by them, not just the general idea, you'll have to look closely at what that specific author says. If you want to know more specifically what I mean by them, consult my papers. I'm trying to be consistent in my usage over time; but I'm not certain I've succeeded. Do let me know if you think not.

I'll also take this opportunity to clarify my own views about what "the argument" is supposed to be for dogmatism.

First, let me clarify my views are about what "the argument" is for any substantial philosophical position: in almost every case I can think of, I don't think there is a compelling single argument. Sometimes philosophers give such arguments, for example van Inwagen's "Consequence Argument" for Incompatibilism. The practice of giving and responding to these arguments is dialectically valuable. But in the end, I don't myself usually find those supporting arguments very compelling. If anything will be compelling, it will be the much more complex debate that grows up around the argument; or some productive distinctions that a theory introduces; or something of that sort. What philosophers designate as "the argument" for their position is usually not what turns out to be persuasive, at any rate not for me. I suspect that, whatever you may think, it's not so for you, either. Though I may be wrong.

Even if the attitude I just expressed is right, it doesn't mean the practice of giving and responding to arguments isn't useful. But it should inform our expectations about when views need arguments of that sort. I think it's common, and entirely appropriate, for views to have some initial---perhaps weak, perhaps disposable---motivation, and then we explore how well they stand up, how useful they prove in thinking about other issues, and so on. That's all I think one generally can stably accomplish when supporting a philosophical view. Arguments that appear to be more irresistable are usually relying on our not attending to some distinction, or so on.

OK, so that's my general attitude. You may not agree with it. But knowing it may help clarify what my intentions were about dogmatism. In my first paper on these issues, I only aimed to supply the initial---perhaps weak, perhaps disposable---motivation for considering dogmatism seriously. That is contained in the following passage:

For a large class of propositions, like the proposition that there are hands, it's intuitively very natural to think that having an experience as of that proposition justifies one in believing that proposition to be true. What's more, one's justification here doesn't seem to depend on any complicated justifying argument. An experience as of there being hands seems to justify one in believing there are hands in a perfectly straightforward and immediate way. When asked, "What justifies you in believing there are hands?" one is likely to respond, "I can simply see that there are hands." One might be wrong: one might not really be seeing a hand. But it seems like the mere fact that one has a visual experience of that phenomenological sort is enough to make it reasonable for one to believe that there are hands. No premises about the character of one's experience---or any other sophisticated assumptions---seem to be needed.

I say, let's take these intuitive appearances at face value. Let's say that our perceptual beliefs in these propositions are indeed justified in a way that does not require any further beliefs or reflection or introspective awareness. They have a kind of justification which is immediate, albeit defeasible. (p. 536)

Some have responded by complaining that the considerations I cite here don't inevitably lead to the theory I end up with. Of course they don't. By all means, critics are welcome to sharpen our understanding of what range of views these considerations are hospitable to. But they shouldn't think I was trying here to present an argument of the sort they're denying is present. I don't think I try anywhere to do that. I thought I said as much a few pages later:

Note that I am only proposing a dogmatic story about the nature of your justification. My argument that your justification has this nature is not itself dogmatic. The argument that your justification has this nature proceeds via standard philosophical methodology: we start with what it seems intuitively natural to say about perception, and we retain that natural view until we find objections that require us to abandon it. This is just sensible philosophical conservativism. (p. 538)

You may ask, What's the point or value in providing a "weak, disposable motivation" for a view, if one agrees it doesn't stand up as a very compelling argument for that view specifically? The point is just that arbitrary corner of logical space aren't worth investigating. We ought to be able to say something initially plausible and accessible to motivate taking a view seriously. I might instead have done that by rehearsing cases where past philosophers have defended the same or similar ideas. Once a view has earned our attention, such motivations needn't continue to be any substantial part of what makes it credible. I would measure dogmatism by how useful it turns out to be when thinking through skeptical and other issues, how well it can be defended against criticism, and so on. Not by any three or five line argument I offer. And in fact, that's how I think you will measure it, even if I do offer such an argument.

That's about all I have to say. I understand others do think arguments play a larger role in philosophical persuasion, and may be unsatisfied with the little that I've tried to offer as direct positive argument for dogmatism. They may think they do have other arguments for dogmatism, or for a competing view, that are more irresistable and directly compelling, and will remain so even after philosophers poke and kick them for a few years. My own view is that that's very unusual in philosophy, and the lack of it is no obstacle to progress.

All right, so here are references to other works in recent history I'm aware of that have strong dogmatist elements. See also these links: