The Content of Knowledge

  • Joseph C. Pitt
Part of the The University of Western Ontario Series in Philosophy of Science book series (WONS, volume 50)


The history of the theory of knowledge from the Greeks through the 17th Century can be written as a history of attempts to construct an account of knowledge as certainty (i.e., infallibilism). This history might also be written from a variety of other points of view, for example, as the conquest of reason, as the accumulation of truth, and as the continuing quest for rationality, among other candidates. No particular view has a clear lien on accuracy. But the question here is not which of the many historical perspectives that there are is the correct one. Rather, the problem is how to choose among these perspectives. Despite what was said earlier against simple-minded wholesale categorizations of individual thinkers, we need to provide at least a working Solution to this problem because without a systematic rendering of the past we cannot employ contemporary categories of analysis to best advantage. As noted earlier, my purpose is not merely to explicate Galileo’s epistemological views, but to understand how those views contribute to our understanding of science. It is for this reason that I am making the effort to translate some of Galileo’s concerns into our modern idiom. And, as we have seen, he raises the issue of certainty himself fairly early. Thus, it is important to locate the issue of certainty on the historical screen, but only in broad and, we grant, not indelible strokes.


Scientific Revolution Justify True Belief British Empiricist Compound Motion Terrestrial Globe 
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  1. 52.
    Think of the wealth of detail in James Joyce’s Ulysses — and then how much he left out.Google Scholar
  2. 53.
    Cf. I. B. Cohen [1985] for a provocative discussion of the develop-ment of the concept of a revolution in science.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Popkin [1979], Burnyeat [ 1983 ].Google Scholar
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    See Levi [1980]; Lewis [1946]; Kant [1964]; Pierce [1955].Google Scholar
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    For a thorough examination of the arguments on this issue see R. Almeder’s [1987].Google Scholar
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    This is not to say that there are no theories of knowledge in which absolute truth is down-played. Some recent examples of efforts in this direction are to be found in the work of Rescher [1973], Laudan [1978] and the present author [ 1981 ]. Essential to these programs is the abandonment of any attempt to see science and, hence, knowledge as in some sense marching toward some final theory or ultimate set of truths.Google Scholar
  7. 58.
    Even given Stillman Drake’s monumental efforts to document the details of Galileo’s scientific life, it is still not clear how Galileo came to put his theory of the tides together with his Reply to Ignoli, ultimately producing the Dialogue. At the risk of suggesting too much of a similarity between contemporary life and behavior pat-terns of scientists in Galileo’s time, it almost looks as if when ap-proached by the Church for something to show the outside world, Galileo reached into his bottom drawer and came up with lots of bits and pieces which had been resting down there finished for some time but which remained unpublished. He then got the idea of putting them together, a not uncommon practice among our more hard-pressed and overcommitted colleagues today. If there is a dif-ference it might be that today we would be content to publish a book of essays, while Galileo tried to make it all hang together.Google Scholar
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    Except for the arguments for the earth’s motion based on the variations in the sunspots, which, if Drake is correct, Galileo had not yet seen as significant.Google Scholar
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    Galileo is not alone in his attacks on that distinction. See, for example, Cardinal Bellarmine’s Louvaine lectures [ 1985 ].Google Scholar
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    See Wallace [1984] for a thorough account of Aristotelian/Renais-sance principles of proof, and his [1981] for an account of reasoning ex suppositione in particular.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Laudan [1981].Google Scholar
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    Wallace notes that this is the only outright use of the expression ex suppositione in the Dialogue [1984, p. 310]Google Scholar
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    Anticipating in interesting ways Newton’s second rule, “Therefore to the same natural effects we must, as far as possible, assign the same causes.” (Newton [1974, Vol. 2, p. 398])Google Scholar
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    On this point McMullin even agrees.Google Scholar
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    Copernicus offers a feeble attempt at providing the required physical theory. But, a pale adaptation of Aristotelian mechanics, it was recognized as inadequate from the Start.Google Scholar
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    Koyre [1978] maintained that Galileo performed few if any experi-ments and these experimental results he refers to are falsified by Galileo’s own contemporaries. This is a typical Koyrean exaggera-tion. Thomas Settie has reenacted a number of Galileo’s experiments and performed them to accord with Galileo’s own reports. Koyre’s insistence on the lack of any real role for experimentation in Galileo’s method appears connected to his obsession with the idea that the Scientific Revolution is an intellectual revolt. The result of recent scholarship has shown Koyre’s view here to be very narrow; see, for example, Drake [1975], McLachlan [1973], Settie [ 1961 ].Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joseph C. Pitt
    • 1
  1. 1.Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State UniversityUSA

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