In Banff: Branden Fitelson on Formal Epistemology

The first talk in Banff is by Branden Fitelson, who is giving a ‘“Survey” of Formal Epistemology: some propaganda, and an example’. It’s a part of the general movement towards carving out the discipline of ‘formal epistemology’. It’s a partly political talk, recounting the motivation for Formal Epistemology. He recounted Bob Meyer’s manifesto of the “Logicians Liberation League.” It’s worth recounting the section Branden quoted.

Do not be deceived, Establishment pigs (this means you too, Establishment dogs). The subservience of past generations of logicians does not mean that we shall bear forever our treatment as animals (you barnyard fowl). We are human beings (you swine). You are living in a day when logicians will not any longer endure your taunts, your slurs, your insults (you filthy vermin). In the name of A. N. Whitehead and B. Russell we gather; in the spirit of R. Carnap and A. Tarski, we march; by the word of W. V. O. Quine, we shall prevail. Beware you snakes of the Philosophical Power Structure, which you have created and which you maintain to put down the logician; you have caged the eagle of reason, the dove of wisdom, and the lark of a definite, precisely formulated formal system, with exact formation rules, a recursive set of axioms, and clear and cogent rules of inference, and you have made them your pigeons. Oh, you filterable viruses, we will shake you off and fly once more.

This manifesto was presented in 1969, but according to Branden it has relevance today: Branden sees “Formal Epistemology” as the application of formal techniques to broadly epistemological philosophical questions – and that’s pretty broad. Branden sees it as formal techniques applied to all areas of philosophy other than metaphysics.

The rest of the talk cashed out a parallel between a “relevantist” argument against classical deductive logic and the Goodman “grue” argument against Carnapian inductive logic. Branded argued that the friend of Carnapian inductive logic can make the same kind of response to the “paradoxes of confirmation” that the friend of classical logic can against the “paradoxes of entailment” – to distinguish entailment/consequence and the constraints on rational inference. What do you need to do in the case of inductive logic? It turns on the Requirement of Total Evidence: that evidential support is always defined only in terms of the total evidence available to the agent in the situation. (I won’t rehearse the entire argument here: check Branden’s slides for the details.)

This looks right to me. The interesting issue one has when one rejects a bridge principle like this (between entailment and rational infererence, or between evidential support and the totality of evidence available) is to give an alternative explanation of the tie between the two things thought to be connected by the bridge. People thought the bridge principle was plausible for a reason. Those of us (Gilbert Harman in Change in View, and JC and me in Logical Pluralism) have to say something about the connection between deductive consequence and rational inference. Similarly, Branden (and any defender of an inductive logic) should say something about what bridge principles are plausible and not suspect to these paradoxes. Branden will be trying out some of these principles in his forthcoming book on inductive logic.


I’m Greg Restall, and this is my personal website. I am the Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews, and the Director of the Arché Philosophical Research Centre for Logic, Language, Metaphysics and Epistemology I like thinking about – and helping other people think about – logic and philosophy and the many different ways they can inform each other.


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