Is being an achievement a necessary condition for knowledge?

Virtue epistemologists (such as John Greco) have argued that knowledge is to be seen as a cognitive achievement.  Duncan Pritchard argues that being an achievement is not a necessary condition of knowledge. Pritchard uses the example of testimonial knowledge to argue that being an achievement is not a necessary condition for knowledge. He agues that in testimonial knowledge, the one who gains knowledge through testimony is hardly making an achievement. The following example will make Pritchard’s point clear.


Suppose that a person namely P, who is completely unfamiliar with Hyderabad, reached at the Hyderabad railway station. He asked to some stranger that where the University of Hyderabad (UoH) is located. P got the right information about the location of UoH and he formed his belief regarding the location of UoH accordingly. Pritchard’s point is that, in usual cases P’s true belief would count as knowledge. However we cannot call it as P’s cognitive achievement. According to Pritchard, at best it is a mixture of the cognitive achievements of the person who provided the information and of P (suppose that the person has gone to the UoH personally). Thus the thesis that knowledge is a cognitive achievement fails to capture such instances of knowledge.

John Greco's book

John Greco

However, it is not clear whether the example provided will serve Pritchard to establish his point. It is not clear that how the knowledge which P posses is not an instance of cognitive achievement. The person P would not have asked about the location of the University to any one randomly. He will definitely be sensitive to potential defeaters. For example, he will not ask to a small kid or a person who is heavily drunk. P will form his belief according to what the kid or the drunk person would say about the location of the university. This would mean that in forming a belief about the location of UoH, P is making a cognitive achievement through the use of his intellectual skills (virtues?). In the example mentioned above, it is true that the testifier has gone to the university and has applied her/his intellectual skills to form the knowledge regarding the location of the university. And hence the knowledge gained is a case of cognitive achievement. However, it is not clear that how this will make P’s knowledge one of being not an achievement. If the knowledge which P posses is a result of the cognitive achievements of both P and the testifier, it is not clear that how that will undermine the view that knowledge is to be seen as a cognitive achievement. It is not clear because of the following reason. Though the information which P receives from the testifier is a cognitive achievement of the testifier, it does not mean that P need not apply any intellectual virtues to form her/his belief to make it his/her knowledge. If P believes the information (s)he receives from the testifier without the application of nay intellectual virtues (blind belief), that piece of belief cannot be considered as a knowledge of P. That would mean that testimony is a case of cognitive achievement. Hence the argument that testimonial knowledge is a case which show that being an achievement is not a necessary condition for knowledge does not seem to succeed.


8 comments on “Is being an achievement a necessary condition for knowledge?

  1. If I get information from a cereal box is the cereal box the achiever?

  2. Can you provide a definition of “cognitive achievement”? Would something like “having once in passing heard someone describe the location of UoH, and having correctly recalled the description at time t” count as a cognitive achievement involving knowledge of the description of the location? And now if the description is correct, and on the basis of recalling the description, the subject walks to the place described — or correctly draws a map showing the place, or merely works it out in his mind and by a few hand gestures — when do we say the “cognitive achievement” that is a criterion for knowledge has occurred?

    • I am not sure that I can define ‘cognitive achievement’; but let me try. I guess ‘cognitive achievement’ in the context of epistemology can be defined as follows. If one succeeds in attaining a goal by the excercise of a cognitive aility, and the goal is attained due to the excercise of the cognitive ability then it can be called as a ‘cognitive achievement’. In the example provided, I do not think tht if one just happened to remember a pssing remarks made by some strangers and some how it happened to be true it would be a cognitive acheivement. As you hinted, the process of remebering is a cognitve process but I do not think that it is sufficient to make the getting of true beleif a cognitive achievement. In order to for the tue beleif in question to be a cognitive acheivement, the person who got the true belief should have got it through the application of some intellectual virtues. (S)he would not have just beleived any passing remarks one makes.

      • Sounds like a fair start: For [a cognitive process] to count as a cognitive achievement, it must involve the attainment of a goal in virtue of the exercise of cognitive abilities. Is this a fair paraphrase of your definition?

        Let me try to apply this definition to your original example, to see whether I understand what we’re saying and how we should speak about these things.

        It seems a lot hangs on how we define the goal of the cognitive process. In the example, is the goal “to know the location of UoH” in any relevant sense of “knowing a location”? It seems that person P has met this goal. And it seems P has done so, as you illustrate, in virtue of the exercise of cognitive abilities involved in the selection of credible witnesses to obtain reliable testimony, and in the interpretation of the testimony and assessment of its reliability.

        Aren’t these cognitive abilities sufficient to make the knowledge a cognitive achievement, by the definition we’re trying? On what grounds could we deny that they are sufficient?

        Can we even make sense of the idea of a conscious person requesting such testimony and understanding the answer without having exercised therewith some relevant cognitive ability? The questioner asked a human being instead of a mailbox or a lamppost, for instance, and showed at least this much sense; and he recognized certain sounds as English utterances; and interpreted these utterances as a meaningful response to his question; and he applied the response to his environment, connecting in thought the information contained in the response to his surroundings; and he automatically associates all this with the same set of background beliefs and memories that he drew on to ask the question in the first place; and so on.

        Perhaps there’s some special way we’re supposed to define “cognitive ability” in this conversation? What shall we say is the difference between “cognitive ability” and “cognitive process”?

        Meanwhile, if P’s knowledge of locations on the basis of (his own assessments of) third-person testimony does not count as cognitive achievement, then we should ask more generally: When does knowledge based on third-person testimony count as cognitive achievement? Or does the term “cognitive achievement” only pertain to first-hand knowledge?

        Maybe it would be better for me to get clear on some of this, before perhaps returning to more complicated cases involving memory of testimony.

    • Sorry for the late reply. Let me try to answer the worry that you raised that why would anyone think at all that knowledge from testimony is not an instance of cognitive achievement. The idea is as follows. A beleif becomes a cogntive achievement of you if it is yoiur cognitive ability which is the most salient factor in you possessing the beleif. To put it differently, Excercise of your cognitive ability is the best explanation for you possessing the true beleif. In this view, if one is saying that you have a true bleif becuase of the excercise of your intellectual virtues (cognitive abilities), ‘becuase’ is to be understood as siting the factor which is the most salient factor for you possesing the belief. In the long cuasal chain which leads you to beleive in a particular proposition, there will be various factors involved. However, it is the most saliet factor – which is only a part of the long causal chain – that is to be sited as the explantion of you possesing the beleif. In short, to say that knowledge is a cognitve achievement is to say the following: it is the excercise of the intellectual abilkites of the agent that best explains her possesing the true belief. Now, the people who argue that being an achievement is not a necessary conditon for knowledge claims the folliwng: it is not the intellectual abilities/cognitive abilies/intellectual virtues of the agent that is the most salient factor in testimonial cases. In cases of testimonial knowledge, some argue, it is the cognitive abilites of the testifier that is the most slient factor for the agent possesing the true beleif.
      Ther are people (such as John Greco and Ernest Sosa) who provide arguements against such a view. However, in my view the point is that the argument that being an achievement is not a necessary conditon for knowledg is a strong and intutively appealing argument as well. In the arguments cashingout the “salient factor” has been a slippery affair. I can understand your worries. Perhaps I did not express the issue clearly in the post since I was not so clear on it at the time of posting it. Thanks for commenting and once again my apologies for being so late to respond.

  3. Very philosophical post! I can’t wait to read more from you.

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