Cognitive agency and belief ownership: Rethinking epistemic justification

Daniel Shane Breyer, Fordham University


In the dissertation, I explore the contemporary debate in epistemology over the nature of epistemic justification, a debate mainly between internalists and externalists. In general, internalists claim that only factors internal to a subject's perspective can contribute to justification, while externalists deny this. The guiding idea of the dissertation is that the subjective dimension of epistemic justification should be understood primarily in terms of belief ownership, rather than in traditional internalist terms. The thought here is that, to count as justified, one's beliefs must flow from oneself—from the exercise of one's own agency—rather than from a subpersonal mechanism. By approaching problems about subjective justification in this way, I argue, the externalist can avoid the pitfalls of both traditional internalist and traditional externalist theories, while retaining the advantages of externalism. To show this, I develop and defend two externalist-friendly models of cognitive agency and belief ownership. Each of these models can help the externalist build an adequate theory of justification and each is analogous to a currently held view of moral agency and desire ownership in the moral responsibility literature. In recent years, epistemologists have often referred to knowers as agents. Very little has been said, however, about just what cognitive agency is, especially by externalists. As a result, my accounts of cognitive agency fill an important gap in the contemporary literature. What emerges from the dissertation, then, is an entirely new way of thinking about both epistemic justification and cognitive agency. I call the general framework that emerges Epistemic Semi-compatibilism. It is semi-compatibilist, rather than compatibilist, because although this approach attempts to accommodate internalist or subjectivist intuitions about knowledge and justification, it does so by understanding those intuitions in terms of belief ownership, rather than in traditional internalist terms. And it is semi-compatibilist, rather than purely externalist, because it admits that any adequate theory of knowledge and justification must address certain internalist worries about justification.

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Recommended Citation

Breyer, Daniel Shane, "Cognitive agency and belief ownership: Rethinking epistemic justification" (2008). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3310414.