Book Review: Justification Without Awareness

By David Pallmann


March 2, 2021

I recently finished Michael Bergmann’s Justification Without Awareness. It was very dense and I will certainly have to read it again since some discussions were above my current level of understanding. But I’ll offer some thoughts on the parts that I did understand.

The topic is epistemic justification. The book is divided into two parts. Part one develops an extended argument against epistemic internalism and part two defends epistemic externalism from objections. As a committed and passionate internalist, I dispute nearly all of the conclusions that Bergmann reaches. But that doesn’t mean that my opinion of the book is negative. On the contrary, I appreciate many things about it.

First, I appreciate Bergmann’s rigor. There is no question that he understands the issues involved, he understands internalist concerns about externalism, and he did his research. The book is well argued and well documented. I would venture to say that this is, by far, the best defense of externalism that I have yet come across.

Second, I appreciate Bergmann’s directness and succinctness. He doesn’t waste any time in getting to the point. The book is short, but each page was packed with information. I frequently found myself challenged by Bergmann’s arguments and stimulated to think harder. This was a nice change from other defenders of proper functionalism like Alvin Plantinga who take numerous pages to get to their point.

Turning to the contents of the book, as I said, part one develops an extended argument against internalism. Bergmann does so by means of a dilemma. Since internalism has an awareness requirement for justification, either internalists must hold that this awareness is strong or weak. If the awareness is strong (i.e. conceptual or propositional) then this generates an infinite regress which entails skepticism. On the other hand, if the awareness is weak then, Bergmann argues, internalism loses its presumed advantage over externalism, namely subjective assurance.

So what is the internalist to make of this argument? I agree with Bergmann that strong awareness is untenable. However, I disagree with him that weak awareness leaves internalism unmotivated. Bergmann devotes much space to critiquing the so-called four horsemen of traditional epistemology (Fumerton, McGrew, BonJour, and Fales). Because my approach follows Richard Fumerton, I shall not say anything with respect to Bergmann’s quibbles with the other three.

According to Fumerton, non inferential justification consists of three direct acquaintances. 1) Direct acquaintance with a thought (a truth-bearer), 2) direct acquaintance with a fact (a truth-maker), and 3) direct acquaintance with a correspondence between 1 and 2. Bergmann does not accept that Fumerton’s account is sufficient because he thinks it is conceivable that all three of these direct acquaintances can be fulfilled and yet fail to allow a subject to be justified in his belief. He gives us the example of Jack who has direct acquaintance with the fact that he is being appeared to redly, but because of a severe cognitive malfunction is simply not able to see that his direct acquaintance with the fact supports his belief.

Does this example show that Fumerton’s theory doesn’t work? I don’t think so. To see the problem, observe that Bergmann’s hypothetical scenario turns on the vague concept of a severe cognitive malfunction. But just what is this severe cognitive malfunction supposed to have accomplished? Bergmann doesn’t tell us. This leaves the defender of Fumerton’s theory to wonder just how it can be the case that a severe cognitive malfunction can both leave Jack’s direct acquaintances perfectly intact while rendering it such that he cannot have a justified belief? Bergmann most assuredly does not tell us how this can be the case. It seems to me that the only way for a severe cognitive malfunction to remove Jack’s ability to see that his belief is justified on the basis of his direct acquaintance would be to sever his direct acquaintance altogether. Until Bergmann demonstrates just how this cognitive malfunction is supposed to accomplish what he says it can accomplish, I believe that the proponent of Fumerton’s theory can say that his (Bergmann’s) example has failed to establish that direct acquaintance is insufficient for non-inferentially justified beliefs.

After allegedly showing that there is no escape from his dilemma, in part two, Bergmann turns to answer some objections to externalism. I wish to focus on his defense of epistemic circularity in particular. He makes a distinction between logical circularity and epistemic circularity. He states that the former is fallacious and the latter is not. He fully concedes that epistemic externalism is committed to epistemic circularity. However, he offers two arguments in support of the acceptability of epistemic circularity.

Before turning to address his arguments for the acceptability of epistemic circularity, I wish to challenge the legitimacy of the distinction that Bergmann makes between logical and epistemic circularity. He defines logical circularity as a premise of an argument being the same as the conclusion and he defines epistemic circularity as the justification for a belief depending upon the truth of the belief. Apparently he thinks this distinction is quite significant. But I simply cannot see how this is not a distinction without a difference. I would imagine that Bergmann is astute enough to know that an argument can be logically circular even if one premise isn’t word-for-word identical to the conclusion so long as they express the same thought, concept, or idea. But once we have understood this, then how is that any different from epistemic circularity? In both cases, circularity constitutes no positive epistemic gain because the truth of what is supposed to be established has to be assumed from the start. Hence, I do not believe that Bergmann’s distinction is legitimate. Circularity is fallacious regardless of what form it takes.

So if we reject circularity of any kind, what about Bergmann’s arguments for the acceptability of epistemic circularity? As I said, he offers two. 1) Most philosophers accept that it is okay and 2) there is no alternative. His first argument is extremely dubious and even misleading. He bases this claim on the fact that most philosophers accept that there are non-inferentially justified beliefs. He then argues that this actually entails epistemic circularity. However, I disagree. I believe that Richard Fumerton’s account avoids epistemic circularity. Although Bergmann presumably thinks he has already shown that Fumerton’s account doesn’t work, I have now explained why I believe Bergmann is wrong on this count. As such, it seems to me that the internalist need not accept that non-inferentially justified beliefs entail epistemic circularity. More fundamentally, Bergmann is also making a blatant appeal to majority. The mere fact that most philosophers accept something does not, in any way, show that it is acceptable.

Bergmann’s second argument depends on the thesis that there is no alternative to epistemic circularity. As I have already noted, I believe that Richard Fumerton has provided just such an alternative and I explained why Bergmann’s criticisms of Fumerton do not hold up. So on the one hand, I believe that the internalist has excellent grounds for simply rejecting Bergmann’s claim that there is no alternative. But even if Bergmann was correct that there really was no alternative to epistemic circularity, the internalist may still point out that he has committed an is-ought fallacy. Even if it were true that all reasoning was circular, it simply does not follow that all reasoning ought to be or that it is somehow capable of yielding positive epistemic goods. Consequently, I find Bergmann’s defense of epistemic circularity thoroughly unconvincing.

Despite the decided negativity of this review, in closing, I want to re-emphasize that I genuinely appreciated the book. Bergmann’s arguments are some of the best I have come across in support of externalism. He doesn’t rely on arguments from animal knowledge or infant knowledge or some other sort of gratuitous assumption that the internalist can easily reject. He addresses the foundational issues that internalists care about and takes on their best defenders. For that, I praise the effort of the book and I heartily recommend it as a stellar defense for externalists and a serious challenge to be answered for internalists.

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About the Author

By David Pallmann

David Pallmann is a student at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. He is also a member of the Society of Evangelical Arminians and directs the YouTube Apologetics ministry Faith Because of Reason.