By Annabel Adams

The University of California, Irvine has been home to many innovative and interdisciplinary fields of study. Its presence on the international stage solidified in the late 80s as the field of critical theory, for which UCI still holds a #1 ranking by U.S. News and World Report, dominated academic discourse in much of the humanities. Now, the university is achieving rankings and recognition for its renowned faculty in philosophy. UCI ranked highly in several fields of philosophy in the 2017-2018 Philosophical Gourmet Report, which assesses the quality and reputation of Ph.D. programs in philosophy throughout the English-speaking world. Jointly administered by the UCI School of Humanities and School of Social Sciences, the graduate program in philosophy earned top worldwide rankings in several fields, including the history of analytic philosophy and epistemology.

Path-breaking epistemologists

The School of Humanities is home to philosophers who have launched new fields of inquiry, who are leaders in burgeoning areas of study, and who have created innovative models for making philosophy accessible to the community and public at large. While the UCI School of Humanities’ Department of Philosophy includes several disciplinary areas of focus, its expertise in epistemology, a branch of philosophy centered on exploring the conditions for—and limits of—knowledge, is a unique strength of UCI. The 2017-2018 Philosophical Gourmet Report ranked UCI #9 in epistemology.

“With such top scholars in the field of epistemology as Sven Bernecker, Annalisa Coliva, Marcello Oreste Fiocco, Margaret Gilbert, Duncan Pritchard and Karl Schafer, among our many other distinguished philosophy colleagues, UCI is leading the way to new and better understandings of how we can know,” said Georges Van Den Abbeele, dean of the School of Humanities. “In an era of ‘fake news’ and bias against the tenets of scientific evidence, the urgency of leading-edge work in epistemology cannot be overestimated.”

Sven Bernecker, professor of philosophy, is a leading epistemologist and a pioneer of the philosophical examination of memory. He currently holds a dual appointment at UCI and the University of Cologne in Germany where he founded and directs the Center for Contemporary Epistemology and the Kantian Tradition. He received the position to launch this center in 2016 as part of an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship, Germany's most prestigious prize for international researchers. Currently, Bernecker is working on a novel account of knowledge as explanation-based non-accidental true belief and is exploring issues in medical epistemology.

Annalisa Coliva, professor and chair of the UCI Department of Philosophy, is an international leader on “hinge epistemology,” a phrase inspired by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's remarks in his last masterpiece,  On Certainty (published posthumously in 1969). “The take-home message is that knowledge and the justification for  all of  our beliefs—whether they are scientific ones, more ordinary ones, religious ones,  political ones, ethical ones, aesthetic ones, etc.—always take place within a system of assumptions (evocatively called ‘hinges’ by Wittgenstein),” says Coliva. In other words, the assumptions that form the foundation of what we believe to be true—and even the assumptions that form the basis of our scientific hypotheses—are often non-provable and taken for granted. These are what our knowledge hinges on. The point is not to make people despair in a perceived inability to know anything, but rather to unravel the nature and status of those very assumptions on which their knowledge rests. 

Duncan Pritchard, Chancellor’s Professor of Philosophy, is one of the most preeminent epistemologists of this generation and also an expert on hinge epistemology. In fact, he delivered the prestigious Soochow Lectures in Philosophy on this very topic in 2013. These lectures have since been published as Epistemic Angst: Radical Skepticism and the Groundlessness of Our Believing  (Princeton UP, 2015). Pritchard’s other monographs on epistemology include Epistemological Disjunctivism  (Oxford UP, 2012), The Nature and Value of Knowledge  (co-authored with Adrian Haddock and Alan Millar, Oxford UP, 2010),  and Epistemic Luck  (Oxford UP, 2005). Pritchard has recently established, and now directs, a new research cluster in epistemology, which reflects UCI’s new status as one of the leading places for this area of philosophy. 

Margaret Gilbert, Abraham I. Melden Chair in Moral Philosophy, founded the field of “collective epistemology,” a branch of contemporary analytic philosophy that centers on how groups form and reinforce beliefs. Gilbert’s work in this area—going back to her book On Social Facts (Routledge and Princeton, 1989)—started from the observation that people constantly refer to the beliefs of groups. Thus people say things like “The team thinks it will win,” and “The Department believes it should strengthen its efforts in favor of diversity.” As Gilbert argued, it is not plausible to construe such statements as summations of the personal beliefs of the members of the group in question. She has theorized that they refer, rather, to a kind of commitment—a joint commitment—to speak and act in terms of the belief in question in relevant contexts. By jointly committing with others in this way, one gains rights to the other parties' conformity to the commitment, and obligations from those parties to conform.

“The production of collective beliefs is virtually unavoidable when human beings get together,” says Gilbert. “Suppose for example that one person says to another ‘Lovely day!’ and the other says ‘True!’ The parties now implicitly understand that they collectively believe—or think, as a group—that this is a lovely day and that each is obligated to continue to talk and act along these lines within their interaction—whatever they personally think.” While weather is an innocuous example, this type of groupthink dominates politics and realms of discourse that impact how we live our day-to-day lives.

In her book Rights and Demands: A Foundational Inquiry, just published by Oxford University Press, Gilbert sheds further light on the kinds of rights associated with joint commitment, rights that she labels "demand-rights." These have received “little attention in the philosophical literature overall.” These rights provide a person with the standing or authority to demand a certain action of someone. The central question of the book then is: How does one person find him or herself with the authority to demand an action of another person? After exploring a number of possibilities, Gilbert argues that joint commitment may well be the sole ground of such authority.

These questions of collective beliefs and when and why it makes sense to agree to demands from places of authority provide an appropriate starting point from which to ask: what is authority and when and why does it make sense to uphold it? What are the collective beliefs we hold with our political parties? To add Coliva and Pritchard’s concerns to the latter—what are the assumptions on which these beliefs are hinged?

Taking philosophy to the public 

Professor of Philosophy Karl Shafer, whose contributions to epistemology are broad, has published many papers in the top journals of the field. He believes that UCI Philosophy’s epistemologists are unique in their commitment to taking philosophy outside of the classroom. “A commitment to the idea that epistemology can be useful in real world contexts is one of the things that is most distinctive of UCI’s group of epistemologists,” he says. “In so many areas of life today, opinions are polarized in ways that make it difficult to reach any sort of rational consensus about questions of great public concern. The question of what to believe seems pressing in ways it may not have a generation or two ago. Thus, there is ample room at present for epistemological reflection on the nature of knowledge, understanding, and rational belief to help us find more reasonable and effective ways of settling these sorts of epistemic disputes.”

This shared commitment to making epistemology—and philosophy more broadly—accessible to the public, can be seen in several ways. 

Associate Professor of Philosophy Marcello Oreste Fiocco investigates foundational issues in epistemology. He is also the creator of TH!NK, a four-week program that introduces philosophical thought to fifth-graders in Orange County. Through the program, Fiocco and a team of graduate students familiarize students with philosophical thought and discourse by reading aloud short stories and then raising questions intended to illustrate the difference between obtaining information about a situation and critically engaging it. The latter is the basis of philosophical thought. 

As to the value of epistemology in society, Fiocco says, “Becoming more aware of how one engages the world intellectually and what one's cognitive limitations are can make one more open-minded and tolerant. Open-mindedness and tolerance are needed for us to cooperate in order to find solutions to problems that threaten us all.”

While Fiocco works to make philosophy accessible and meaningful to the Orange County community, Pritchard is working to make philosophy more accessible and impactful within the UCI community itself. He recently gained a grant from the Provost’s Initiative on Understanding and Engaging With Extremism, which is part of a broader UCI Confronting Extremism initiative launched last October. This grant will enable Pritchard and Coliva to develop two Massive Open Online Courses, or “MOOCs,” that will challenge the denial of science, as related to subjective and objective truths encountered in public life. The courses will lead to outreach work in local schools and, it is hoped, beyond. In the planning stage now, the project will be a collaboration with the Division of  Continuing Education, the Division of Undergraduate Education, and the Center for Instructional Design. 

“This MOOC will examine such topics as fake news, post-truth politics, and climate change denial. As the courses will explain, all of these problematic contemporary phenomena have their source in underlying epistemological ideas that are of dubious pedigree,” Pritchard says. “Unpacking these dubious ideas is one of the roles of epistemology, and can help us to understand both how we ended up in this situation and what we need to do to resolve it.” The first MOOC takes skepticism as its focus and will be led by Pritchard in 2019.

Across campus, the Department of Philosophy has some of the most highly enrolled undergraduate classes. In winter 2018, Philosophy 1 (Intro to Philosophy), taught online by Pritchard, reached maximum allowable capacity with 343 students. The previous year, the same class, taught in person by Coliva, also reached maximum capacity.

Since 2016, Bernecker and Coliva have directed the minor in Medical Humanities at UCI, which is among the top three programs with the most minors in the School of Humanities.

This year, the Philosophy Department experienced the highest graduate-student yield—percentage of students who accepted admittance—of any department in the School of Humanities, admitting 16 new Ph.D. students (last year, the department admitted four). Several of the admitted Ph.D. students noted Professors Coliva and Pritchard—who lead the growing international field of hinge epistemology—as their draw for coming to UCI.

Solving problems today

While trending today, the idea of “fake news” is not new. What is new is the sheer deluge of information one receives and encounters on a day-to-day basis from both reliable and questionable sources. Then there’s the relative ease with which people can create and disseminate fake news, like “deepfakes”—the combining and  superimposing o f existing images and videos onto source images or videos (as happened with student activist Emma González when a doctored video of her appearing to tear up the U.S. Constitution circulated). 

Because epistemology centers on what it is to know something—how we can know something and what it is to have evidence for or to “justify” beliefs—it is the perfect tool for examining information itself. In fact, one of the earliest lessons in epistemology is that human beliefs are often hinged on what we can see. With such knowledge, and awareness of our increasing inability to trust what we see, we can work to habituate ourselves to seeking additional justification to decide whether what we see is actually the case. 

“As it becomes harder for students and society at large to discern fact from fiction, to determine the reliability of sources, and to make sense of the world, the skills of our UCI epistemologists are vital,” says Van Den Abbeele. “One of the most actionable steps we can all take as citizens is to explore our personal beliefs, the collective beliefs of our various communities, and to be more discerning of the sources we rely on for information.”

Bernecker adds, “Each of us consumes a lot of information from sources of dubious reliability. Some such information is fake news. There is widespread agreement that the consumption of fake news is bad for democracy, but there is no consensus on what fake news is and how to deal with it. Epistemology can help us understand the phenomenon of fake news and develop strategies to mitigate its impact.” 

To learn more about UCI Philosophy, visit: http://bit.ly/UCIphilosophy

Photo credit:
Opper, F. B. (1894) The fin de siècle newspaper proprietor / F. Opper. , 1894. N.Y.: Published by Keppler & Schwarzmann, March 7. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2012648704/.