Knowability and the Limits of Knowledge

Are there things that exist yet cannot be known? Does human knowledge have limits and, if so, how can we acknowledge and perhaps supersede them? The importance of such questions is self-evident: human communities and societies are nurtured and defined by a shared quest for practical and theoretical knowledge of different kinds and about different domains.

The present workshop will dive into this delicate philosophical problem from a cross-disciplinary point of view. The limits of understanding, knowledge, and the knowable are among the most vexing issues in both present-day epistemology and the history of philosophy. Both approaches have contributed remarkably to the disentanglement of the issue at stake and its many theoretical instantiations. Superseding the traditional compartmentalization of disciplines and domains, the workshop will bring together scholars from both communities fostering a mutual cross-pollination of methods, problems, and solutions.

Hosted by the MeLO Seminar series (organized by Christophe Geudens and Nicola Polloni at KU Leuven), the workshop will consist of four talks by experts in medieval and analytic philosophy, equally distributed among historical and modern approaches to knowability.

Due to the current travel restrictions, the workshop will take place on Zoom, on 2-3 September 2021, from 4pm until 6pm CEST on 2 September and 4pm until 6:30pm on 3 September. There will be two talks per day of c. 45 mins each, followed by c. 15 mins of discussion. On 3 September, the workshop will end with an open floor discussion, providing an opportunity to all participants to reflect on the four talks, float new ideas and explore the possibility of future collaborations. Attendance is free, but registration is required. If you would like to attend, please send an email to Christophe Geudens at the following email address:

2 September 2021, 4-5pm CEST

Jan Heylen (KU Leuven) & Felipe Morales Carbonell (KU Leuven), Concepts of Knowability

‘What can we know?’ is one of the main philosophical questions. The history of philosophy is rife with different positions on the question of what is knowable. How, though, should we understand the notion of knowability? We will examine the problem of how to characterize the concept of knowability and give an overview of various directions taken in the literature about the problem, to then raise some concerns. First, we examine the traditional concept of knowability in terms of there being a possibility to know and raise the need for a factive concept of knowability. Next, we branch out into two different types of conceptualization that can handle this requirement: one that offers a counterfactual analysis (Edgington, Schlöder), one that offers an analysis in terms of capacities (Fara, Humphreys). After we discuss the conceptual issues that arise from these perspectives, we will summarize and consider the similarities shared by these perspectives, which point towards ways in which the discussion can be taken further.

2 September 2021, 5-6pm CEST

Philip Choi (Purdue University), Moral Responsibility and Invincible Ignorance

Many plausible accounts of moral responsibility posit at least two necessary conditions. One is the freedom condition, according to which, roughly, an agent S is morally responsible for her act a if a is done by S freely. The other is what can be called the epistemic condition, according to which, roughly, S is morally responsible for her act a if S is aware of important aspects of a, for instance, its consequence, moral significance, etc., to a certain degree. Thus, it’s not implausible to think that one’s ignorance, a type of failure to meet the epistemic condition, can excuse herself from moral blame for what she has done, as abundant examples (from Peter Abelard’s Christianity scorners to Michael Zimmerman’s Doris) have shown. But do all types of ignorance provide moral excuses? If not, what type of ignorance can play that role? In this presentation, I will examine an answer to this question suggested by 14th century philosophers with the conception of invincible ignorance.

3 September 2021, 4-5pm CEST

Robert Pasnau (University of Colorado Boulder), How Deluded Are We? A Comparison of Skeptical Scenarios

Philosophy thrives on the prospect of intellectual disaster. Might the world be nothing like it seems to be? Might there not be an external world at all? Might everything just be a dream? These look like calamities, and the persistent inability of the philosophers to rule them out as live possibilities looks like a serious intellectual failing. But there is a school of thought that urges us to stop worrying, not because we shouldn’t be concerned with ruling out every disaster we might imagine, but because these scenarios, on close inspection, are not so disastrous at all. I will be taking the pro-calamity view: that, yes, to discover ourselves to be living in a dream, or a matrix, really is the intellectual disaster it seems on its face to be. But this seemingly obvious conclusion turns out to be surprisingly difficult to maintain.

3 September 2021, 5-6pm CEST

Charles Bolyard (James Madison University), Henry of Ghent, William of Ockham, and Kataleptic Impressions

The paper begins with a brief discussion of the Stoic notion of a kataleptic impression, especially as interpreted through Cicero and Augustine.  The main focus, however, will lie with the responses of Henry of Ghent and William of Ockham to the epistemological problems involved. Even though neither Henry nor Ockham directly reference Stoic kataleptic impressions as such, I will argue that they nevertheless provide a convenient way of understanding their anti-skeptical positions.

3 September 2021, 6-6:30pm CEST

Open floor discussion, moderated by Christophe Geudens (KU Leuven).

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