Postgraduates work in progress

Speaker: Lilith Newton

Title: Epistemic Risk and Epistemic Anxiety

Abstract: In this paper, I outline a notion of epistemic anxiety, which I will use to illuminate the notion of epistemic risk. Doubts will be analysed as epistemic anxieties: when S (sincerely) doubts whether P, she takes seriously the possibility of forming an erroneous belief regarding P; insofar as forming an erroneous belief is an unwanted event, to take seriously the possibility of forming an erroneous belief regarding P is to be troubled by, or worried about, this prospect.

Doubts, like other kinds of anxieties, can be rational or irrational, depending on whether they are proportionate to the relevant risk. Taking a hint from Christopher Hookway’s reading of C. S. Peirce, I will argue that when doubts are proportionate to the relevant epistemic risk, doubts usefully guide inquiry. Thus rational doubts – doubts that are proportional to the relevant epistemic risk – should be solved: if S rationally doubts P, she should take steps to minimise the relevant epistemic risk, that of forming a false belief regarding P. S can do this, for example, by gathering more evidence concerning whether P.

However, where doubts are disproportionate to the relevant epistemic risk, they hinder our epistemological goals. In particular, sceptical doubts, where S takes seriously some sceptical possibility, prevent us from attaining knowledge without providing any help in guiding inquiry: as sceptical possibilities cannot be eliminated by any amount of evidence, S cannot take steps to reduce the risk of sceptical possibilities obtaining by gathering more evidence. Thus sceptical doubts should be dissolved: rather than taking steps to minimise the relevant epistemic risk, subjects ought to take steps to minimise their epistemic anxiety.

The notion of epistemic risk that arises out of the discussion will be in conflict with the modal account of risk recently defended by Duncan Pritchard. I will argue that Pritchard’s modal account rests on a conflation of a descriptive claim about how we tend to judge the riskiness of events, and a normative claim about how we ought to judge the riskiness of events. Data that Pritchard takes to support his account of risk will be analysed as involving epistemic anxiety that is disproportionate to the epistemic risk present.


If you would like to present work at the seminar, or for more information on dates and venues, please contact Olivia Coombes, John Dorsch or visit the Work in Progress Seminar homepage.

Work in Progress Seminar homepage

Nov 15 2019 -

Postgraduates work in progress

2019-11-15: Lilith Newton

Room 7.01, Dugald Stewart Building, 3 Charles Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9AD