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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Prominence of ‘knowledge’ in Epistemic Assessment
  4. The Knowledge Norm and Its Competitors
  5. (WA) and (Prominence of ‘knowledge’)
  6. Exceptions to the Norm
  7. The Communicative Functions of ‘Knowledge’
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

Knowledge norms of action are sometimes said to be motivated by the fact that they align with natural assessments of action in ordinary language. Competent and rational speakers normally use ‘knowledge’ and its cognates when they assess action. In contrast, competing accounts in terms of evidence, warrant or reliability do not straightforwardly align with ordinary language assessments of action. In response to this line of reasoning, I argue that a warrant account of action may explain the prominence of ‘knowledge’ in epistemic assessments better than the knowledge account. If this explanation is successful, it undermines a central rationale for the ‘knowledge first’ program in epistemology. Moreover, the explanation provides an insight into the social functions of knowledge ascriptions as well as a methodological lesson about the relationship between folk epistemology and epistemological theorizing.

The Prominence of ‘knowledge’ in Epistemic Assessment

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Prominence of ‘knowledge’ in Epistemic Assessment
  4. The Knowledge Norm and Its Competitors
  5. (WA) and (Prominence of ‘knowledge’)
  6. Exceptions to the Norm
  7. The Communicative Functions of ‘Knowledge’
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

A reasonable starting point for an investigation into our complex folk epistemological practices is the observation that the term ‘knowledge’ plays a very prominent role therein. Here's a widely debated sentence that may illustrate this fact: ‘You shouldn't have gone down this street, since you did not know that the restaurant was there.’ And here's another: ‘Since she knows that the bank will be open tomorrow, she doesn't need to go to today.’ Such sentences are epistemologically interesting in part because they involve both a knowledge ascription and an epistemic assessment: an assessment of a subject's epistemic position vis-à-vis a proposition that is relevant for a pertinent action. It is no coincidence that the sentences involve both a knowledge ascription and an epistemic assessment. In fact, we normally articulate epistemic assessment in terms of ‘knowledge’ and its cognates.1 A case of normal epistemic assessment can be partly characterized as one in which the assessor correctly presupposes that the assessed subject is in a normal practical context and normal epistemic circumstances with regard to some proposition.2 Although we sometimes use alternative epistemic vocabulary in such cases, this is the exception to the norm of using ‘knowledge’. We can express this aspect of our folk epistemology as follows:

(Prominence of ‘knowledge’)

In normal cases of epistemic assessment of action, ordinary speakers frequently use the term ‘knowledge’ and its cognates.

What is the significance of the assumption about our folk epistemology expressed by (Prominence of ‘knowledge’)? Some epistemologists regard it as important evidence for epistemological theorizing and, more specifically, for adopting a knowledge norm of action (including speech acts such as assertion).3 For example, Stanley and Hawthorne make the following claim:

[I]t is considerably more natural to appraise behavior with the verb ‘know’ than the phrase ‘justified belief’, or even ‘reasonable belief’. Perhaps this is because ‘know’ is a phrase of colloquial English, whereas ‘justified belief’ is a phrase from philosophy classrooms. But this is itself a fact that should be surprising, if the fundamental concept of appraisal were justification rather than knowledge. (Hawthorne and Stanley 2008: 573)

The remark is representative of a line of reasoning that has become increasingly invoked since Williamson, in motivating his ‘knowledge first’ epistemology, made the following claim:

Conversational patterns confirm the knowledge account [footnote omitted]. Consider a standard response to an assertion, the question ‘how do you know?’. The question presupposes that it has an answer, that somehow you do know. … ‘How do you know?’ is normally appropriate. (Williamson 2000: 252, citing Unger 1975: 250–65; Slote 1979).

Williamson's argument concerns assertion, but it exemplifies the general line of reasoning from the assumption expressed by (Prominence of ‘knowledge’) to a knowledge norm of action (see also Fantl and McGrath 2009, 2012; Sutton 2007).

The assumption that we use ‘knowledge’ far more frequently than alternative epistemic terminology such as ‘justification’, ‘warrant’, ‘reliability’ and ‘evidence’ is highly plausible.4 So, it provides an explanatory challenge to any non-knowledge norm of action: Why do we tend to use ‘knowledge’ in our epistemic assessments if knowledge norms of action are misguided? The challenge articulated by this question has not been taken as seriously as it should by theorists who reject the knowledge norm of action. So, I propose to take it seriously. Specifically, I will set forth principles that, if coupled with a plausible norm of action, can explain the prominence of ‘knowledge’. Providing such an explanation is not merely important in order to resist knowledge norms of action. Moreover, this explanation of why ‘knowledge’ plays a prominent role in epistemic assessment offers an insight into the social functions of knowledge ascriptions.5 So, I will simultaneously pursue the negative aim of undermining a central rational for ‘knowledge first’ epistemology and the positive aim of illuminating the relationship between folk epistemology and epistemological theorizing.

The Knowledge Norm and Its Competitors

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Prominence of ‘knowledge’ in Epistemic Assessment
  4. The Knowledge Norm and Its Competitors
  5. (WA) and (Prominence of ‘knowledge’)
  6. Exceptions to the Norm
  7. The Communicative Functions of ‘Knowledge’
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

It will be useful to consider concrete versions of the knowledge account and a concrete competitor. Since Williamson launched his ‘knowledge first’ program, knowledge norms of action have gained prominence (Williamson 2000). Hawthorne and Stanley (2008) articulate the following two principles:

The Action-Knowledge Principle: Treat the proposition that p as a reason for acting only if you know that p.

The Reason-Knowledge Principle: Where one's choice is p-dependent, it is appropriate to treat the proposition that p as a reason for acting iff you know that p.

In a shorthand formulation (which I allow myself throughout), the latter principle has it that knowledge is necessary and sufficient for action. The details of Hawthorne and Stanley's principles, including their notion of p-dependency, matter little for the present purpose.6 Below I will discuss various criticisms of the knowledge norms of action and practical reasoning. This is best done in contrast with a concrete alternative account.

Various alternatives have been proposed (Brown 2008; Douven 2006; Gerken 2011; Kvanvig 2009; Rysiew 2001, 2007). Alternative accounts have often concerned assertion, as Douven's rational credibility rule exemplifies (Douven 2006: 449).

The Rational Credibility Rule: One should assert only what is rationally credible to one.

While Douven's proposal concerns assertion, it might be extrapolated to a more general norm of action. However, the proposal is characterized by the fact that its key notion of rational credibility appears to be binary.7 A gradable epistemic property is required to capture the idea that a subject's context determines the strength of the epistemic requirement on action (Brown 2008; Gerken 2011, 2012c).

To capture this idea, I adopt Burge's term ‘warrant’ as denoting a genus under which an internalist species, justification and its externalist counterpart, entitlement, are subsumable (Burge 2003; Gerken 2011, forthcoming). Both warrant and its species are non-factive gradable epistemic properties. Thus, a principle according to which the degree of warrant required for action varies with the deliberative context of the agent may be articulated. I have developed such a principle for action generally and assertive speech acts (Gerken 2011, 2012c). So, I will argue, that the Warrant-Action principle, (WA) for short, may figure in an account of the noted fact about our ordinary epistemic assessments noted above—i.e., in an account of (Prominence of ‘knowledge’):

(WA)

In the deliberative context, DC, S meets the epistemic conditions on rational use of (her belief that) p as a premise in practical reasoning or of (her belief that) p as a reason for acting iff S is warranted in believing that p to a degree that is adequate relative to DC.8

The principle's complexity is partly due to the fact that it is designed to capture the idea that deliberative context determines the degree of warrant required for action as well as for practical reasoning. According to (WA), some deliberative contexts call for more warrant than knowledge requires. But in other deliberative contexts, less warrant than knowledge requires will do.

The notion of a deliberative context can, roughly, be thought of as the agent's reasonably believed or presupposed practical context. Among the determiners of deliberative context, I originally mentioned the following four:9

  • (i) 
    Alternative courses of action,
  • (ii) 
    Availability of further evidence,
  • (iii) 
    Considerations of urgency and
  • (iv) 
    The stakes associated with the action.

While this list is incomplete, it gives us something to work with.10 The idea is that a configuration of (i)–(iv), all of which concern practical matters, partly determines S's deliberative context. In turn, S's deliberative context determines the degree of warrant that S must possess in order to meet the epistemic conditions on rationally acting on (the belief that) p. I will consider a version of the view according to which the factors that determine the degree of warrant are the traditional (epistemically purist) ones that bear on the truth-conduciveness of the agent's belief. So, S's deliberative context determines the degree of warrant that S must possess but not the degree of warrant that S does possess.

A comparison between (WA) and the knowledge norm may be illustrated by considering some cases which have been set forth as counterexamples to the latter.

Problem Cases for Taking Knowledge to be Necessary and Sufficient for Action

Cases of warranted false belief and Gettier-style cases are candidate counterexamples to the necessity of knowledge for action (see, e.g., Gerken 2011; Smithies 2012). Such familiar cases share a general feature. Consider the following trio:

As Ernest walks across the plains of Masai Mara, he sees a rock that looks just like a big lion lying on a nearby hill. Consequently, he forms the belief that there is a lion on the hill. After brisk practical deliberation, he loads his rifle and slowly backs away whilst keeping an eye on the lion look-alike rock. As it happens, a real lion lies hidden in the grass on the hill invisible to Ernest.

As Erna walks across the plains of Masai Mara, she sees a big lion lying on a nearby hill. Consequently, she forms the belief that there is a lion on the hill. After brisk practical deliberation, she loads her rifle and slowly backs away whilst keeping an eye on the lion.

As Earl walks across the plains of Masai Mara, he sees a rock that looks just like a big lion lying on a nearby hill. Consequently, he forms the belief that there is a lion on the hill. After brisk practical deliberation, he loads his rifle and slowly backs away whilst keeping an eye on the lion look-alike rock. In this case, there is no lion on the hill.

Insofar as Ernest, Earl and Erna are otherwise relevantly similar, their respective uses of their respective beliefs that p as a reason for their respective actions are equally reasonable. Yet in the first and last cases, the subjects do not know. So, such cases appear to support an epistemic norm of action such as (WA) over the competing knowledge norms.

It is insufficiently appreciated that the Gettier-style case of Ernest and the warranted false belief case of Earl share the following feature: Both Ernest and Earl are in epistemically abnormal circumstances. Normally, something that looks just like a lion in a lion habitat is a lion. This fact about epistemic normality contributes essentially to the explanation of why both Earnest's and Earl's actions are reasonable. (Bear this point in mind. It will be important in what follows.)

Candidate counter-examples to the view that knowledge is sufficient for action are less obvious. But Jessica Brown has provided an ingenious sample that includes the case SURGEON in which a student observes a surgeon who double-checks the patient's records prior to removing his diseased left kidney. Puzzled, the student asks a nurse what's going on:

Student

I don't understand. Why is she looking at the patient's records? She was in the clinic with the patient this morning. Doesn't she even know which kidney it is?

Nurse

Of course, she knows which kidney it is. But imagine what it would be like if she removed the wrong kidney. She shouldn't operate before checking the patient's records. (Brown 2008: 176)

In SURGEON, the degree of warrant required to rely on (the belief that) p in action appears to be greater than the degree of warrant required for knowledge. Reflection on the nurse's deliberate context explains why: The stakes are so high and the cost of getting more evidence so small that even a knower should investigate further before acting. Brown's cases have as a common denominator that the deliberative context is characterized, in part, by abnormally high stakes. (Bear this point in mind. It will become important for what follows.)

Proponents of knowledge accounts have replied to these purported counter-examples. One stock response is that in cases of warranted false belief such as the Masai Mara case, the agent is excused for violating the knowledge norm (DeRose 2009; Hawthorne and Stanley 2008). For arguments against this response, see Douven (2006) and Gerken (2011). In response to cases in which the epistemic requirements on action appear to be greater than those on knowledge, knowledge account proponents have argued that the subject does not know in such cases (Hawthorne and Stanley 2008; Fantl and McGrath 2009). For arguments against this response, see Gerken (2011) and Rysiew (2007).

These debates are unlikely to be settled anytime soon. But for the present purpose, my working-hypothesis will be that the cases are counterexamples to the view that may be articulated, in shorthand, as claiming that knowledge is necessary and sufficient for action. However, adopting this working-hypothesis gives rise to an explanatory challenge: What explains why we assess action and assertion in terms of knowledge? This explanatory challenge has not been explicitly addressed by opponents of the knowledge norms. To do so is among the central purposes of the ensuing investigation.

(WA) and (Prominence of ‘knowledge’)

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Prominence of ‘knowledge’ in Epistemic Assessment
  4. The Knowledge Norm and Its Competitors
  5. (WA) and (Prominence of ‘knowledge’)
  6. Exceptions to the Norm
  7. The Communicative Functions of ‘Knowledge’
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

A family of explanatory problems arises for views according to which the epistemic requirement on action may fall short of or exceed the epistemic requirement on knowledge: What is the tight connection between knowledge and action and assertion? What explains why we normally assess action and assertion in terms of ‘knowledge'? If reflection on cases reveals that knowledge is neither necessary nor sufficient for action or assertion, why is the term ‘knowledge’ so prominent in epistemic assessments? These questions are pressing for defenders of any epistemic norm of action that resembles (WA).

The Thesis of (Normal Coincidence)

I will try to respond to this challenge by arguing that (WA) is compatible with the prominence of ‘knowledge’ in epistemic assessments of action and assertion. The response hinges on the assumption that the degree of warrant required for knowledge normally coincides with the degree of warrant necessary and sufficient for action. Varieties of such a response have been proposed by critics of knowledge norms (see, e.g., Douven 2006: 269). But to properly evaluate the response, it must be specified and developed in further detail.

To do so, I begin by explicating and defending the underlying assumption according to which the epistemic requirement on knowledge normally coincides with the epistemic requirement on action. Here is a stab at a more precise and qualified articulation of this assumption (see also Anderson ms):

(Normal Coincidence)

In normal cases of epistemic assessment, the degree of warrant necessary for S's knowing that p is frequently necessary and very frequently sufficient for the epistemic permissibility of S's acting on (the belief that) p.

To see why the included qualifications are required for the plausibility of (Normal Coincidence), let us break down the thesis and consider, in turn, its sufficiency claim and its necessity claim. The sufficiency claim, ‘(WSuf)’ for short, is this:

(WSuf)

In normal cases of epistemic assessment, the degree of warrant necessary for S's knowing that p is very frequently sufficient for the epistemic permissibility of S's acting on (the belief that) p.

The sufficiency claim, (WSuf), contains a ‘very frequently'-qualification. The reason for this that there may be cases of normal epistemic circumstances and normal practical contexts in which the degree of warrant required for knowledge is nevertheless insufficient for action.

However, such cases are rare. Recall, for example, Brown's SURGEON case in which the degree of warrant required for knowledge was insufficient for action. This case also seemed to be a case in which the practical context was rather abnormal due to the extreme stakes. So, it is quite hard to articulate a normal case of epistemic assessment in which the warrant necessary for knowledge is not sufficient for the epistemic permissibility of action.11 Fortunately, we need not quarrel over such cases and the associated notions of epistemic and practical normality. Given the ‘very frequently'-qualification, the assumption that there are such cases is consistent with (WSuf). Moreover, given this qualification, (WSuf) is consistent with a warrant norm such as (WA).

In a nutshell, then, (WSuf) is the claim that the warrant inherent in knowing is very frequently sufficient for relying on p in action.12 This is weak enough to make the thesis plausible and compatible with (WA) yet strong enough to preserve (WSuf) explanatory potential. So, I now turn to the necessity claim of (Normal Coincidence) which I will label (WNec) for short:

(WNec)

In normal cases of epistemic assessment, the degree of warrant necessary for S's knowing that p is frequently necessary for the epistemic permissibility of S's acting on (the belief that) p.

The frequently-qualification in (WNec) is due to the fact that there are normal cases in which acting on less warrant than is required for knowledge seems epistemically permissible. Examples include cases in which the stakes are very small and acting on a mistaken belief is less costly than acquiring further evidence. Assume, for illustration, that S has modest warrant for believing that the game has started. She vaguely remembers a stranger telling her the time of the kick-off in the bar the night before. But both S and the testifier were tipsy, and the fellow didn't seem all that reliable anyhow. S's testimonial warrant is arguably below the degree required for knowledge. Yet it is epistemically permissible for S to act on her belief that the game has started and turn on the television. So, insofar as such cases are not abnormal, the frequently-qualification is required.13 As above, this approach exemplifies the modus operandi of qualifying the relevant thesis rather than relying heavily on specific notions of practical or epistemic normality.

What is important for the present purpose is that it remains plausible that the degree of warrant required for knowledge is frequently required for action in normal epistemic and practical cases. But this amounts to little more than the claim that in normal cases, one frequently needs at least the same degree of warrant to act on p as one needs to know that p. While this has some independent plausibility, there is a further consideration in favor of (WNec). In many of the cases in which S acts on less warrant for believing that p than knowledge requires, S isn't acting on a poorly warranted outright belief that p. Rather, she is acting on a well-warranted belief that there is a chance that p. This class of cases does not threaten (WNec). Finally, (WNec) is quite modest. It is not the claim that in most cases the degree of warrant required for action is at least the degree required for knowledge. The subsequent account of the prominence of ‘knowledge’ only requires what (WNec) states: that the degree of warrant required for knowledge is frequently required for action in normal cases of epistemic assessment.

Normal Coincidence and the Prominence of ‘knowledge’

Recall that (WSuf) and (WNec) combine to form the thesis (Normal Coincidence) stated above in the previous section. Together, (Normal Coincidence) and the epistemic norm of action, (WA), provide the basis of a general explanation of why ‘knowledge’ figures so prominently in our everyday epistemic assessments. The general explanation involves the claim that using ‘knowledge’ in epistemic assessments is normally a reasonably accurate way of fulfilling the communicative functions of such assessments. More specifically, according to (WA), one's deliberative context determines the degree of warrant that is required for meeting the epistemic conditions on action. The deliberative context is determined by parameters such as alternative courses of action, urgency, availability of further evidence and the stakes associated with the action. As mentioned, it is very complex to account for the way in which the various parameters interact so as to determine the warrant-demand on action. However, in normal cases of epistemic assessment, the assessor's operative presupposition is that the subject's practical context and epistemic circumstances are normal.14

Given the idea, expressed by (WA), that one's deliberative context determines the epistemic requirement on one's action, (Normal Coincidence) allows for an account of why ‘knowledge’ is prominent. The idea, expressed by (Normal Coincidence), is that in normal cases of epistemic assessment, this warrant-demand frequently coincides with the degree required for knowledge. So, since the presupposition of practical and epistemic normality is operative in normal cases of epistemic assessment, the use of ‘knowledge’ in epistemic assessments is quite, although not entirely, accurate. So, in normal—but far from all—cases of epistemic assessment, an assessor is reasonably accurate, as well as conversationally appropriate, when she uses ‘knowledge’ in epistemic assessments of action. A final assumption in this general explanation is that it is because ‘knowledge’ is reasonably accurate and conversationally appropriate in normal cases of epistemic assessment that it figures so prominently.

This general explanation only purports to establish compatibility between the prominence of ‘knowledge’ and (WA). This is an important first step in responding to the knowledge-first theorists' various appeals to (Prominence of ‘knowledge’). However, a bit more may be said in favor of this general explanation of (Prominence of ‘knowledge’). For example, it provides a fairly unified account of the cases in which knowledge is insufficient or unnecessary for action (see also Anderson ms).15 To see this, some more specific linguistic phenomena should be considered. Indeed, some phenomena that might be taken to support a knowledge account should, upon reflection, be taken to support the present alternative. In the next section, I make the case for this point.

Exceptions to the Norm

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Prominence of ‘knowledge’ in Epistemic Assessment
  4. The Knowledge Norm and Its Competitors
  5. (WA) and (Prominence of ‘knowledge’)
  6. Exceptions to the Norm
  7. The Communicative Functions of ‘Knowledge’
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

The above general explanation of (Prominence of ‘knowledge’) by appeal to (WA) and (Normal Coincidence) is significant in its own right. Moreover, it undermines the suggestion that knowledge accounts of action are favorable because they align with our ordinary use of epistemic vocabulary. However, some such arguments for a knowledge norm involve more specific linguistic phenomena. In this section, I consider whether the account outlined above can cover some such phenomena.

Reasonable and Unreasonable Complaints

Some theorists motivate the idea that knowledge is necessary for action by noting that one of its uses in epistemic assessments takes the form of a reasonable complaint. For example, Stanley and Hawthorne note that if Hannah, on the basis of a hunch, goes down the wrong street in search of a restaurant, it seems reasonable for Sarah to complain: ‘You shouldn't have gone down this street, since you didn't know that the restaurant was there’ (Hawthorne and Stanley 2008: 571). Although I will argue that it is ultimately problematic, consider a more schematic formulation:

(Knowledge Complaint)

You should not have acted on the assumption that p, since you didn't know that p.

Reasonable instances of such a complaint may appear to be evidence for the necessity of knowledge for action. Why else would it appear reasonable to complain that someone acted on a belief that did not amount to knowledge? But on closer inspection, (WA) and the necessity claim of (Normal Coincidence), (WNec), provide a more nuanced account of this linguistic phenomenon.

The first thing to note is that instances of (Knowledge Complaint) may be unreasonable if the case of epistemic assessment is abnormal.16 For example, assume that the epistemic circumstances are abnormal because S is subjected to an indiscernible illusion as of a flower in a vase. We do not need a theory of epistemic normality to deem this scenario an abnormal epistemic circumstance. Rather, it should be regarded as a paradigm case of epistemic abnormality that may constrain general assumptions about epistemic normality (Burge 2003; Gerken 2013b).

However, it is not reasonable for an assessor who is aware of S's epistemic circumstances to complain that S did not know that there was a flower in the vase when she acted on that assumption. One way to see this is to think of the response the subject might offer. S might reply ‘given the way it looked, it was reasonable to assume that there was a flower’ or ‘but all the evidence indicated that there was a real flower’ or ‘but I was justified in believing that it was a real flower’. Such replies to the complaint seem perfectly reasonable given a shared conversational presumption that it is epistemically abnormal to be confronted by an indiscernible illusion (see also Fantl and McGrath 2009: 125; Gerken 2011). A notable, but rarely noticed, feature of such responses is that it is natural to switch from the default ‘knows’ to alternative epistemic vocabulary. I return to this important point in section 5B.

Consider next a case that involves the following configuration of practical factors: The stakes associated with the action are extremely low, it is extremely urgent to act, there are no alternative actions and it is extremely costly to gather further evidence. Given that the assessor is aware of this configuration of practical factors, her complaint would be unreasonable (Gerken 2011).17 Again, the range of reasonable responses to the complaint provides evidence for this verdict. For example, S might respond: ‘Since I needed to act right away, I had to act on the basis of the available evidence’ or ‘collecting more information would have been more costly than making the wrong decision’ or ‘it is true that I didn't know, but I had some reason to believe that p and it didn't matter much anyway’. These responses to the ‘you-didn't-know’ complaint seem perfectly reasonable. Fortunately, (WA) can account for this: The responses are ordinary language expressions of the fact that a particular (abnormal) configuration of practical factors set forth a warrant-requirement on action that falls short of the warrant-requirement on knowledge.

So, instances of (Knowledge Complaint) tend to be reasonable in normal cases of epistemic assessment, but they can be unreasonable in abnormal cases of epistemic assessment. The latter may occur when the epistemic circumstances are abnormal and/or the deliberative context is abnormal. Given this assumption, (WA) and (WNec) may explain not merely why ‘knowledge’ is prominently used in such complaints but also why this use frequently appears to be reasonable. According to (WNec), if the case of epistemic assessment is normal, then someone with a miniscule degree of warrant frequently fails to have the degree of warrant required for action. So, given that there is a correct conversational presumption of normality, instances of the (Knowledge Complaint) are frequently reasonable according to (WA). So, (WA) can, together with (WNec), account for reasonable negative epistemic assessments in terms of ‘knowledge’.

It is equally important, however, that this account extends to cases in which a negative assessment in terms of ‘knowledge’ is unreasonable. This part of the account has two steps. Firstly, it may be assumed that since ‘knowledge’ is normally an accurate term of epistemic assessment, it is the default term. Given this default status, and the fact that ordinary speakers are not epistemologists, ‘knowledge’ may continue to figure prominently in unreasonable complaints although it does not invariantly do so (see section 5B below). Secondly, the account affords explanations of the circumstances in which such complaints are unreasonable. For example, cases of action that are based on a warranted false belief may be paradigms of cases that exhibit epistemically abnormal circumstances. Moreover, if the stakes are very low and the cost of gathering further evidence exceeds the cost of acting on a false belief, then acting on less warrant than is required for knowledge may be reasonable. (WA) and (WNec) account for this phenomenon—a phenomenon that constitutes a prima facie challenge to any knowledge account of action.18

It appears, then, that (WA) and (Normal Coincidence)—and more specifically the latter's necessity claim, (WNec)—provide a unified account of a wide range of phenomena. It accounts both for the fact that ‘knowledge’ ordinarily figures in reasonable complaints and for the important cases in which a complaint in terms of ‘knowledge’ is unreasonable. In contrast, it appears that the knowledge account cannot, without modification, account for many cases of the latter type.

Infelicitous and Felicitous Conjunctions

The present account of the prominence of ‘knowledge’ also contributes to an explanation of specific linguistic facts that may be thought to support the idea that knowledge is sufficient for action. Consider the assertion ‘Hannah knows that the restaurant is on the left but she needs to consult a guidebook before she turns left’. In a normal case of epistemic assessment, there is something infelicitous about this assertion. The infelicity may be explained by appeal to the idea that knowledge is sufficient for action. For, if so, the knowledge ascription in the first conjunct entails that Hannah is in an epistemic position to act. But the second conjunct claims that she is not. So, given the knowledge account, a contradiction can be derived from the conjunction and contradictions are infelicitous if anything is. Here is a schematic formulation:

(Infelicitous Conjunction)

S knows that p but S needs to investigate further as to whether p before she can act on p.

However, (WA) and the sufficiency claim of (Normal Coincidence), (WSuf), can also explain why instances of (Infelicitous Conjunction) very frequently generate infelicitous intuitions in normal cases of epistemic assessment—i.e., when it is presupposed that S's practical context and epistemic circumstances are normal. For, given (WA) and (WSuf), if the case of epistemic assessment is normal and S knows that p, then S very frequently fulfills the epistemic conditions for acting on p. So, very frequently, S does not need to investigate further. But this is contrary to the second conjunct of (Infelicitous Conjunction). So, the present account of the prominence of ‘knowledge’ explains the infelicity of (Infelicitous Conjunction) insofar as the relevant instance of it is uttered in a normal case of epistemic assessment.19

There are instances of (Infelicitous Conjunction) that are not infelicitous. Among those are cases we find in Brown's SURGEON. Consider the assertion ‘She knows that it is the left kidney that needs removal but she needs to double-check before she can remove it’. One reason why this assertion is not infelicitous is, at least in part, that the practical context is not normal given the fact that the stakes are abnormally high. Recall from Brown's SURGEON case, the nurse's response in the dialogue: ‘Of course, she knows which kidney it is. But imagine what it would be like if she removed the wrong kidney.’ Here the nurse is, in effect, pointing towards the abnormally high stakes. Other parameters than stakes may be relevant. The nurse might equally well have completed her knowledge ascription as follows: ‘But it is so easy to double-check that she ought to do it’ (pointing towards the availability of further evidence). Similarly, ‘But the patient will be fine while she is checking his records’ (pointing towards the relative non-urgency of acting). The fact that it is natural to explicate the parameters that determine the deliberative context in response to such cases supports (WA).

So, as above, (WA) contributes to an explanation of two things. Firstly, instances of (Infelicitous Conjunction) are very frequently infelicitous in normal cases of epistemic assessment. Secondly, they may seem perfectly felicitous when uttered in certain abnormal contexts or given certain configurations of determiners of practical context.

The Explanatory Advantage of (WA) over the Knowledge Account

I have argued that given the thesis (Normal Coincidence), (WA) is compatible with the prominence of ‘knowledge’. But the proposed explanation may even be superior to the explanation afforded by knowledge norm. This is because it provides a fairly nuanced explanation of abnormal cases in which the use of ‘knowledge’ is inadequate. The knowledge norm does not clearly explain such cases. So, the present explanation may provide an abductive argument for (WA) over the knowledge norm of action.

I do not purport to have settled this issue. To explain the prominence of ‘knowledge’ in part by arguing that it is reasonably, but imperfectly, accurate in normal cases of epistemic assessment falls short of explaining why ‘knowledge’ is used rather than, for example, ‘justification’. A full explanation of this fact must go beyond the issues discussed above. For example, empirical investigations concerning the ontogenetic origin of epistemic concepts are clearly relevant. We acquire basic competence with ‘knowledge’ before doxastic terms such as ‘belief’ and before epistemic terms such as ‘justification’. One reason for this may be that ‘knowledge’ is factive. Hence, basic competence with the term does not require the competencies involved in recognizing misrepresentation which are, in turn, required for passing (verbal) false belief tests (Apperly 2010). In contrast, basic competence with non-factive epistemic terms such as ‘justification’ might require more demanding competencies. The assumption that ‘knowledge’ does not require cognitively demanding competencies may contribute to a full explanation of its early acquisition and its continued prominence. These developmental issues require independent investigation and may contribute to a full explanation of the prominence of ‘knowledge’. But although the above explanation is only partial, we may explore it further by considering whether it sheds light on our folk epistemology.

The Communicative Functions of ‘Knowledge’

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Prominence of ‘knowledge’ in Epistemic Assessment
  4. The Knowledge Norm and Its Competitors
  5. (WA) and (Prominence of ‘knowledge’)
  6. Exceptions to the Norm
  7. The Communicative Functions of ‘Knowledge’
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

So far, I have been arguing that (WA) is compatible with the prominence of ‘knowledge’. In this section, I will adopt (WA) and (Normal Coincidence) and try to put these theses to use in beginning to answer some hard questions: What work does the word ‘knowledge’ do for us in epistemic assessment? What are the social and communicative functions of ‘knowledge'? By taking (WA) and (Normal Coincidence) as guiding hypotheses, we can begin to answer these complex questions about our folk epistemology.

The Use of ‘Knowledge’ as a Threshold-marker

Epistemic assessments come in many forms, and it is doubtful that a single social or communicative function can characterize them all. Given this diversity of phenomena, I will focus on one communicative function that ‘knowledge’ often has in epistemic assessments. In normal cases of epistemic assessments, the term ‘knowledge’ frequently serves as what I will call a ‘threshold-marker’. We may articulate this idea as follows:

(Threshold-marking function of ‘knowledge’)

In normal cases of epistemic assessment, the use of ‘knowledge’ and its cognates frequently fills the communicative function of marking the threshold of warrant that S must possess with regard to p in order to be epistemically rational in acting on (the belief that) p.

The label ‘threshold-marker’ is novel but the basic idea is not. In fact, this function of ‘knowledge’ has been the subject of considerable controversy. Some theorists take the threshold-marking function to reflect a constitutive feature of the term ‘knowledge’ or its referent.20 Such theorists often seek to establish some version of pragmatic encroachment about knowledge.21 Other theorists, often resisting pragmatic encroachment theories of knowledge, argue that the threshold-marking function of ‘knowledge’ is not constitutive but merely a common pragmatic feature of the term.22

This dispute is too complex to settle here. However, the (WA)-based explanation of the abnormal cases of epistemic assessment provides prima facie reasons for assuming that the threshold-marking function of ‘knowledge’ is merely a common pragmatic feature. After all, reflection on the counter-examples to knowledge accounts of action suggests that ‘knowledge’ does not always fulfill action-guiding or threshold-marking functions. Rather, ‘knowledge’ may serve quite different functions—especially when the usual presupposition of epistemic and practical normality is not operative (Bach 2008; Beebe 2012; Gerken 2012c; Rysiew 2007, 2012). Moreover, cancelations can be felicitous in abnormal cases of epistemic assessment. Someone in Brown's SURGEON case might well say of the surgeon ‘She knows that it is the left kidney that needs to be removed. But I do not mean to say that she is in a position to operate before she has double-checked the records.’

Cancellability is often taken to be a mark, albeit a defeasible one, of pragmatic implicature (Blome-Tillmann 2008). So, there is some, albeit defeasible, reason for regarding the threshold-marking function of ‘knowledge’ as one of its central pragmatic functions. This view is not entailed by (WA). But the (WA)-based account of the prominence of ‘knowledge’ lends weight to it.

So, given the genuineness of the counter-examples to the view that knowledge is necessary and sufficient for action, there is a good reason to think that the threshold-marking function of ‘knowledge’ is not constitutive of it in the sense that it governs its semantics. However, the threshold-marking function of knowledge has been invoked as a reason to adopt a version of pragmatic encroachment. So, the present analysis of the role of ‘knowledge’ in epistemic assessment does not only undermine reasons for adopting knowledge accounts of action. It also undermines one of the central reasons for adopting pragmatic encroachment.

The Switch in Epistemic Vocabulary

It might be objected that while the present account explains the prominence of ‘knowledge’ in normal cases, it fails to explain its prevailing prominence in the absence of the presupposition of normality. For example, contextualist cases, such as DeRose's bank case, trade on the fact that ‘I don't know’ remains a natural assertion in a high-stakes context (DeRose 2009). Of course, the present account is consistent with the assumption that ‘knowledge’ remains prominent in abnormal practical contexts, such as high-stakes cases. Yet the (WA)-based account might be argued to have an explanatory deficit vis-à-vis knowledge accounts in this regard.

In response, at least two things may be said. Firstly, it is psychologically plausible to suppose that a word that may be accurately used in normal cases will continue to figure prominently in abnormal cases. Likewise, if ‘knowledge’ is established as the central epistemic term early in life, it may acquire an overly general role in epistemic assessments. Cognitive limitations and communicative facts may dictate that we continue to deploy ‘knowledge’ as the central term of epistemic evaluation in many abnormal cases. This may, according to the present account, be at the cost of accuracy (Gerken 2012b, 2013a). Secondly, it seems that we do, as a matter of fact, often switch epistemic vocabulary when the presupposition of normality is violated. This is a frequently overlooked but important linguistic phenomenon. When the conversational presumption of normality is distorted, adult speakers may find themselves switching to alternative, and often more fine-grained, epistemic vocabulary. We may articulate this assumption as follows:

(Terminological Switch)

It is natural to switch from ‘knowledge’ to alternative—and often more fine-grained—epistemic vocabulary in abnormal cases of epistemic assessment.

A case of epistemic assessment may be abnormal due to abnormal epistemic circumstances, due to an abnormal practical context or due to the assessor not presupposing such normality. Brown's SURGEON case exemplifies an abnormal practical context in which it is natural to switch to alternative epistemic vocabulary. For example, the nurse might reply: ‘Well you can't be too certain that it is the left kidney, can you? So, the surgeon should consult all available evidence.’ A warranted false belief case exemplifies abnormal epistemic circumstances in which it is natural to switch to alternative epistemic vocabulary. In the illusion-as-of-a-flower-in-the-vase case, it is natural to say: ‘It's not that your vision was unreliable, it's just that the environment was deceptive. So, acting on your belief was a reasonable thing to do.’23

Our capacity to switch to alternative epistemic vocabulary when it becomes apparent that the epistemic circumstances or the practical context is abnormal suggests something interesting about the folk's epistemological and linguistic competences. It suggests that ordinary speakers are tacitly aware of the limitations of the term ‘knowledge’ in epistemic assessment. This, in turn, augments the (WA) account according to which it is the warrant inherent in knowledge that explains why using ‘knowledge’ tends to be accurate in normal, but not in abnormal, cases of epistemic assessment.24 But, as mentioned, the fact that ‘knowledge’ may be inaccurate in abnormal cases of epistemic assessment does not preclude that it remains prominent in such cases. Cases such as DeRose's bank case and Brown's SURGEON case illustrate that ‘knowledge’ often figures in epistemic assessments in high-stakes cases. But the fact that we can, and often do, switch to alternative epistemic vocabulary in such cases illustrates some of the limitations of ‘knowledge’ as a term of epistemic assessment. Moreover, it is unclear whether proponents of a knowledge norm can explain such switches in epistemic vocabulary. So, again, (WA) appears to provide a more nuanced account of the phenomena than a ‘knowledge first’ account.

Using the Term ‘Knowledge’ as a Communicative Heuristic

It is a quite hard feat to express that given S's deliberative context, her degree of warrant for (a belief that) p is adequate for acting on (the belief that) p. Indeed, the facts about the deliberative context and the adequate degree of warrant are presuppositions that the speaker will be unable to articulate unless she is an epistemologist. So, although ordinary speakers sometimes switch to alternative epistemic vocabulary, they do not always express complex epistemic assessments in the most accurate manner. Consequently, the phrase ‘S knows that p’ may come in very handy as a sort of communicative heuristic in normal and abnormal cases alike.

If the epistemic norm of action is as complex as (WA) and further complexity is added in determining the relevant deliberative context and the relevant degree of warrant, we need a linguistic device that simplifies our epistemic assessments. I propose that this is one of the communicative functions that ‘knowledge’ plays in ordinary discourse. Of course, the simplification will, on occasion, come at the cost of accuracy. But this cost is well worth the benefit of communicating epistemic assessments in an effective and reasonably accurate manner.25 As mentioned, it may be that non-factive terms such as ‘justification’ or ‘evidence’ require more demanding cognitive competencies than the factive ‘knowledge’. So, the fairly modest gain in accuracy in using such notions may, in many cases, not match up with sticking with ‘knowledge’.

The present account of the prominence of ‘knowledge’ motivates the assumption that the use of ‘knowledge’ is in fact a reasonably accurate communicative heuristic. Since ‘knowledge’ marks the threshold of warrant that is frequently the appropriate one in normal practical and epistemic circumstances, it serves us well as the default epistemic term. However, given the importance of epistemic assessment, it is crucial to recognize that the fact that we deploy ‘knowledge’ by default is a useful simplifying heuristic rather than a reflection of a true principle.

Folk psychology is often characterized, crudely, as centrally involving the prediction or explanation of a subject's behavior or agency on the basis of ascription of belief and desire to her. Perhaps, then, folk epistemology may be characterized, albeit even more crudely, as centrally involving the epistemic assessment of a subject's behavior or agency on the basis of ascription of knowledge to her. We frequently assess a subject's agency as epistemically reasonable just in case we ascribe to her knowledge of the relevant facts. In normal cases, this practice provides reasonably accurate epistemic assessments. But the practice extends to abnormal cases in which it is far less accurate. This is an important, but insufficiently appreciated, fact about folk epistemology.

Whether a subject's behaviour is regarded as epistemically reasonable will, in turn, partly determine whether we will trust her, collaborate with her, accept her testimony, vote for her, etc. Therefore, understanding the central roles and limitations of the use of ‘knowledge’ in epistemic assessment is crucial for understanding the basis for such decisions and the discourse about them (Nagel 2012). More generally, we want to understand folk psychology in part because we want to understand its limitations. For example, there are cases in which folk psychological belief-desire explanations are inaccurate. But the same is true of folk epistemology. In particular, it is important to understand that there are cases in which ‘knowledge’ is an inaccurate term of epistemic assessment.

Unless we want to postulate a radical error-theory about folk epistemology, it should constrain epistemological theorizing. But the preceding arguments suggest that folk epistemology should not rule epistemological theorizing. In contrast, epistemological theorizing may sometimes guide empirical investigations of folk epistemology by helping to specify circumstances in which our folk epistemological practices are inaccurate or biased (Gerken 2012b, 2013a; Nagel 2010, 2012). If the considerations above are on the right track, our heavy reliance on ‘knowledge’ in epistemic assessment is best seen as a useful but sometimes inaccurate communicative heuristic.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Prominence of ‘knowledge’ in Epistemic Assessment
  4. The Knowledge Norm and Its Competitors
  5. (WA) and (Prominence of ‘knowledge’)
  6. Exceptions to the Norm
  7. The Communicative Functions of ‘Knowledge’
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

Given (Normal Coincidence), the warrant-action principle, (WA), may account for the prominence of ‘knowledge’. Moreover, (WA) may account for a wide range of more specific linguistic phenomena pertaining to epistemic assessments. Finally, adopting (WA) as a working-hypothesis sheds new light on important social and communicative roles of ‘knowledge’ in epistemic assessment and, thereby, on poorly understood aspects of the complex relationship between folk epistemology and epistemological theorizing.26

Notes
  1. 1

    In the following, I will use ‘knowledge’ as shorthand for ‘ “knowledge” and its cognates’.

  2. 2

    I am not pursuing a definition in terms of normal practical context and normal epistemic circumstances, but only a necessary condition. I have partly characterized these notions in Gerken (2011, 2013b). See also Burge (2003) and Graham (2012). I assume that environmental factors, such as objective frequencies, partly determine whether a case of epistemic assessment is normal. But I reject that the issue reduces to a question about frequency (Smith 2010). Rather, ‘epistemic normality’ is a complex notion that is best illuminated by reflection on paradigm cases and its constitutive relation to other notions of normality. So, my modus operandi in what follows will be to try to consider cases in which judgments should be fairly robust. In more difficult cases, I will qualify various proposed theses rather than rely on substantive assumptions about epistemic and practical normality.

  3. 3

    Assertion is a speech act and, hence, an act. Here I will largely set aside the special case of assertion. After all, assertion is a distinctive kind of act with distinctive features that an account of it should reflect (Gerken 2012c).

  4. 4

    The facts that ‘knows’ is among the ten most frequent verbs (Davies and Gardner 2010) and that it is the first cognitive verb that we acquire (Bartsch and Wellman 1995; Apperly 2010) may provide empirical support for (Prominence of ‘knowledge’). However, we should not assume (without further empirical investigation) that ‘knowledge’ is more prominent than the alternative terms of epistemic assessment taken together. Thanks to Daniel Fogal on the last point.

  5. 5

    See Beebe (2012) and Smithies (2012) for contrasts.

  6. 6

    For qualifications, see Hawthorne and Stanley (2008). For similar principles, see Fantl and McGrath (2009).

  7. 7

    Of course, it might be argued that the notion of ‘rational credibility’ is reducible to that of rational graded belief. Another approach would be to contextualize the notion of rational credibility (see Douven 2006: fn. 49). Thanks to Igor Douven, Jonathan Kvanvig and Declan Smithies for discussion.

  8. 8

    I have simplified (WA) by removing a parenthesis around the ‘only if’ direction of the biconditional which is included in the original formulation in order to indicate that (WA)'s left-to-right direction may require restrictions (Gerken 2011: 531). But for the present purposes, I'll work with both directions.

  9. 9

    I will try to side-step some complex issues by working with cases in which there is little or no discrepancy between S's practical context, her perspective on it and the assessor's perspective on both. But I want to flag that these issues are complex and call for further reflection.

  10. 10

    For an expansion, see Gerken (2012c).

  11. 11

    As mentioned, the special case of assertive speech acts is trickier. Perhaps the kind, as opposed to mere degree, of warrant S needs to have in order to assert involves special (epistemically internalist) constraints (Gerken 2012a, forthcoming).

  12. 12

    This conclusion has an interesting corollary. Since S's knowledge that p entails that S has the degree of warrant required for knowing that p, we may derive the thesis that knowledge is very frequently sufficient for action:

    (KSuf) In normal cases of epistemic assessment, S's knowing that p is very frequently sufficient for the epistemic permissibility of S's acting on (the belief that) p.

    While (KSuf) is worth noting, I will only rely on (WSuf) in the below account of the prominence of ‘knowledge’.

  13. 13

    Thanks here to Sanford Goldberg, Ram Neta and Philip Nickel.

  14. 14

    I use the phrase ‘the operative presupposition’ to indicate that the propositional content of the presupposition need not be represented linguistically in the conversation and need not be a belief of the speaker or audience (Gerken 2012a).

  15. 15

    In sections 5B and 5C below, I discuss the fact that the term remains prominent in abnormal cases although it is a less accurate term of epistemic assessment in such cases.

  16. 16

    This is one reason why the schematic formulation is unfortunate. It lacks the context that is required to properly evaluate it. We need to consider instances in a wide range of normal and abnormal cases of epistemic assessment.

  17. 17

    I think it is reasonable to deem this scenario an abnormal deliberative context. But since the argument does not hinge on this assumption, I will not argue for this point here.

  18. 18

    Defenders of the knowledge account may argue (i) that the subject is excused from acting on less than knowledge or (ii) that the subject is acting on knowledge about the chance of p. I have argued that both maneuvers are problematic (Gerken 2011).

  19. 19

    Sometimes philosophers claim that the schematic formulation of (Infelicitous Conjunction) generates infelicitous intuitions even when evaluated in abstraction from any concrete context of utterance. I find such proclaimed context-free intuitions worrisome. Among other things, I worry that such judgments are too theory-laden to be best described as intuitive judgments (Gerken 2012b). The central point for the present purpose, however, is that instances of (Infelicitous Conjunction) can be felicitous if they are uttered in the right sort of context. As mentioned above, the same point applies to (Knowledge Complaint).

  20. 20

    Often such theorists focus on the sufficiency condition. Heller makes the following claim: ‘ “Knowledge” is our word for saying that S's epistemic condition is good enough when she has a true belief without saying exactly what that condition is’ (Heller 1999: 119). However, Heller's remark is, as it stands, compatible with rejecting that the threshold-marking function is constitutive of the semantics of ‘knowledge’. For similar remarks that seem committed to a constitutive thesis, see Hyman (1999); Hawthorne and Stanley (2008); Fantl and McGrath (2009).

  21. 21

    I use ‘pragmatic encroachment’ broadly to cover views such as contextualism (DeRose 2009; Cohen 1999; Heller 1999), non-indexical contextualism (MacFarlane 2006), subject-sensitive invariantism (Hawthorne 2004), interest-sensitive invariantism (Stanley 2005) and modest impurism (Fantl and McGrath 2009, 2012). My aim is simply to cast doubt upon the idea that the threshold-marking function of ‘knowledge’ is constitutive of the term. Hence, I will not discuss how it might be invoked as a premise in arguments for particular versions of pragmatic encroachment.

  22. 22

    Thus Rysiew: ‘What is pragmatically imparted by an utterance of “S knows that p” is a proposition of the form, “S's epistemic position with respect to p is good enough …”, where the ellipsis is completed according to context (Rysiew 2001: 487–8: see also Rysiew 2012). Kvanvig (2003: 171) makes a similar point: ‘One can say of other people, “They believe the truth, but they need to investigate further,” but one cannot say in as coherent a way, “They know the answer, but further inquiry is needed.” Attributions of knowledge have this pragmatic dimension of closure of inquiry, whereas attributions of having found the truth need not.’

  23. 23

    Moreover, many professions have adopted more fine-grained epistemological terminology than ‘knowledge’. For example, the legal term of choice is ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ rather than ‘knowledge’. I speculate that the legal terminology is adapted to circumstances that are abnormal compared to ordinary conversation. Likewise, many versions of the Precautionary Principle are not articulated in terms of ‘knowledge’ but in terms of ‘scientific consensus’ or ‘uncertainty’. However, since the nature of professional epistemological terminology is very poorly understood, this consideration only provides prima facie motivation for (Terminological Switch). I do think that an empirical case for the thesis can be built, but lack of space prevents me from building it here. The Precautionary Principle is worthy of special interest, and I plan to connect it to the present considerations elsewhere.

  24. 24

    The switch to alternative epistemic vocabulary will not include the term ‘warrant’ which is a term of art in epistemological theorizing. But it may well include vernacular terms such as ‘evidence’, ‘justification’, ‘reasonable belief’, ‘reliability’ and even my favorite phrase ‘normal circumstances’.

  25. 25

    Elsewhere I have considered some reasons for assuming that ‘knowledge'—or some near-equivalent term—is rationally necessary given our cognitive limitations, epistemic vocabulary and communicative needs (Gerken ms).

  26. 26

    I am grateful to the audience at the 2010 Episteme annual conference at the University of Edinburgh and the audience at the 2011 Rutgers/NYU epistemology Symposium at Rutgers University. Comments by Philip Nickel, Ram Neta and Sanford Goldberg resulted in reformulations of the principle (Normal Coincidence). I'm grateful to Kristoffer Ahlström-Vij, Klemens Kappel and Nikolaj Jang Lee Linding Pedersen for comments in a study group and to Jessica Brown, Igor Douven, Daniel Fogal, David Henderson, Jonathan Kvanvig, Patrick Rysiew and Declan Smithies for correspondence. Special thanks to Julie Brummer. Dedicated to Benjamin – rock on!

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Prominence of ‘knowledge’ in Epistemic Assessment
  4. The Knowledge Norm and Its Competitors
  5. (WA) and (Prominence of ‘knowledge’)
  6. Exceptions to the Norm
  7. The Communicative Functions of ‘Knowledge’
  8. Conclusion
  9. References
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