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An Interview with Distinguished Professor Duncan Pritchard, FRSE on Epistemology, Skepticism, Wittge

UCI professor of philosophy Duncan Pritchardphoto: Steve Zylius/UCI

UCI professor of philosophy Duncan Pritchard photo: Steve Zylius/UCI

Interviewer: Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Numbering: Issue 22.A, Idea: Outliers & Outsiders (Part Eighteen)

Place of Publication: Langley, British Columbia, Canada

Title: In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Individual Publication Date: March 8, 2020

Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2020

Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing

Frequency: Three Times Per Year

Words: 3,124

ISSN 2369-6885


Professor Duncan Pritchard is UC Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. His monographs include Epistemic Luck (Oxford UP, 2005), The Nature and Value of Knowledge (co-authored, Oxford UP, 2010), Epistemological Disjunctivism (Oxford UP, 2012), Epistemic Angst: Radical Skepticism and the Groundlessness of Our Believing (Princeton UP, 2015), and Skepticism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP, 2019). He discusses: epistemology; skepticism; Wittgenstein; cognitive science; philosophy of religion and theology; the decline of some philosophy of religion and theology; philosophy of education; philosophy of law; anti-luck virtue epistemology; and bringing these together at once.

Keywords: Duncan Pritchard, epistemic, epistemology, Irvine, philosophy, pyrrhonian, skepticism, University of California, Wittgenstein.

An Interview with Distinguished Professor Duncan Pritchard, FRSE on Epistemology, Skepticism, Wittgenstein, Cognitive Science, Education, and Law: Distinguished Professor, University of California, Irvine & Director, Graduate Studies, Philosophy, University of California, Irvine (Part Two)[1],[2]*

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Thank, very much, for the charming Part One to the interview. As agreed, we intend this as a long-form interview. I decided parts because some interviews work best in segments if done in this manner. Now, with some of the family and personal narrative brought forward in an entertaining manner, I would like to focus on some of the important issues dealing with the academic work. Your stipulated research interests include “Epistemology; Skepticism; Wittgenstein; Philosophy of Cognitive Science; Philosophy of Religion; Philosophy of Education; Philosophy of Law.” In my time at UCIrvine, I was impressed by the culture, the academic atmosphere, and the area, in general. Your foci, certainly, seem related to one another. So, I agree. It’s an exciting place. Let’s make this an Anthill – so to speak – Part Two or session two for the audience today, the hill or mound will be built in the sequence of the aforementioned topics in the quote above. Once I read more thoroughly through materials by you, I will then utilize these responses to dig more directly into the dirt and find some ants for eating. Many of the listed interests seem straightforward. I will inquire in the order presented. So, epistemology is the study of how we acquire knowledge. It’s a foundational field. When did this interest in epistemology come forward for you?

Professor Duncan Pritchard: It was epistemology that got me into philosophy, if truth be told. I took a course on the subject and found it fascinating, and I soon switched to studying straight philosophy (I had previously been studying English Literature). Although I’ve done work on other areas of philosophy, I keep returning to epistemological questions, as they always seem so fundamental. Indeed, even when I do engage with another area of philosophy, such as the philosophy of mind, it always seems to be the epistemological questions within that domain that interest me. I think epistemological questions are also particularly relevant from a contemporary social perspective too, particularly in this supposedly ‘post-truth’ world we live in. My work on epistemology includes such core topics as the theory of knowledge, radical skepticism, epistemic value, social epistemology, the relationship between knowledge and understanding, the nature of inquiry, and the intellectual virtues. It also includes topics in applied epistemology, such as the epistemology of education, legal epistemology, and some epistemological issues in cognitive science.

2. Jacobsen: Epistemology relates in a direct manner to skepticism. The main skeptical idea: certain knowledge is impossible. In another variation, one should maintain a skeptical attitude about particular claims or all claims, e.g., the efficacy of widespread practices including prayer, or beliefs in supernatural powers or abilities, or beliefs in ghosts, angels and demons (Devil included), and more. What is the strength of skepticism as a philosophical program, especially when taken in a rigorous form within the focus of formal epistemology?

Pritchard: My work on skepticism falls under two main, though overlapping, themes. The core issue is about radical skepticism, and so whether knowledge is possible. I take this puzzle to be a way that we can gain a greater insight on the nature of our epistemic access to the world around us. I argue that the problem of radical skepticism needs to be formulated in a certain fashion if we are to appreciate the challenge that it poses. This then has consequences for the response to radical skepticism that I offer—what I call the biscopic response—which essentially integrates themes from the work of Wittgenstein and the contemporary philosopher John McDowell. (For the details, see my most recent monograph, Epistemic Angst: Radical Skepticism and the Groundlessness of Our Believing (Princeton University Press, 2015)).

I’m also interested in a broader kind of skepticism which is not cast as an argument or a paradox, but rather consists of a certain kind of attitude. This form of skepticism has its roots in the work of the ancient Pyrrhonian skeptics, and it’s influence has been enormous throughout intellectual history. For example, one of my philosophical heroes is the 16th century French philosopher Montaigne, who epitomizes the Pyrrhonian skeptical method in the early modern period. (Hume is another important philosopher from this period who is heavily influenced by Pyrrhonian skepticism, though he is writing much later).

I tried to blend discussion of the debate about radical skepticism with Pyrrhonian skepticism in my latest book, Scepticism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2019), which is written for a general audience. One of the themes of this work is to understand what an intellectually virtuous form of skepticism might look like, and so the book draws on my other writings on the nature of the intellectual virtues. This also enables me to relate the debate about skepticism to broader social concerns that are particularly pressing in the information age that we live in, such as the fact that there is so much misinformation about, and that many influential figures in our society do not seem to care that much about the truth. (See also the online course entitled ‘Skepticism’ that I created to go with the book, available on the Coursera platform: This features contributions from a number of prominent scholars from UC Irvine, across several disciplines).

3. Jacobsen: What makes Wittgenstein an integral thinker for you? Someone worth studying for an epistemologist and skeptic. 

Pritchard: Wittgenstein was, in my opinion, one of the greatest philosophers to have ever lived. His work is full of innovative ideas. Indeed, much of the work of his that we have is contained in unedited notebooks, and yet they are nonetheless full of insightful nuggets—time spent reading (or even re-reading) anything Wittgenstein wrote is never wasted, as there is always a lot to learn.

As an epistemologist, I’m particularly intrigued by his final notebooks, which were published posthumously as On Certainty. These are four notebooks that take us right up to just before he died, and hence they are also interesting from an historical point of view, in addition to their tremendous philosophical importance. In these works Wittgenstein offers a sustained treatment of questions about knowledge, certainty and doubt. In the process he explores a very distinctive account of the structure of rational evaluation, according to which all rational evaluation takes place relative to certain basic convictions that we hold, which are not themselves rationally grounded at all. These are our hinge certainties, as they are known (employing a metaphor that Wittgenstein used). What’s especially intriguing about this proposal is that Wittgenstein clearly thought that embracing this idea is the antidote to radical skepticism, and yet at first glance it can seem like a capitulation to the skeptical challenge, for doesn’t the radical sceptic also maintain that our basic convictions are rationally groundless? There is thus an important philosophical project of explaining how Wittgenstein’s idea—which I have argued he acquired from reading the work of the prominent Catholic thinker, John Henry Newman—could have the anti-skeptical import that he clearly thought it had, and this project has informed a lot of my recent work. Hinge epistemology also has lots of ramifications for other philosophical debates, such as regarding relativism.

4. Jacobsen: The human brain evolved to be good enough. A lot of costs came with this, including biases in forms of thought and in what can possibly be thought. Cognitive science seems to show this in listings of cognitive biases. What brings cognitive science into the philosophical formulation for you?

Pritchard: I’m principally interested in our relationship with technology, and how it alters our cognitive processes. In particular, there’s a prominent movement in cognitive science (extended cognition)—initially driven, incidentally, by philosophers such as Andy Clark—which allows that our cognitive processes can be genuinely extended by technology (such that this isn’t simply our cognitive processes being supplemented or aided by technology, but where the technology becomes a proper part of an extended cognitive process). I find this idea plausible, and have been trying to work out under what conditions, exactly, a cognitive process can become extended in this way. Moreover, this proposal clearly has epistemological ramifications, since it holds out the possibility that some of our knowledge is not attributable to our biological selves and the associated cognitive agency, but is rather due to our extended cognitive agency (i.e., the integrated set of purely biological and extended cognitive processes). There is thus the possibility of (what I have called) extended knowledge.

4. Jacobsen: Religion is a complicated affair. I need two questions for this one, please. First, what is religion to you?

Pritchard: I have a policy of not declaring my own personal thoughts on religion. There are a few reasons for this. One is that I don’t have a straightforward stance to declare anyway. But a more important reason is that I think the whole debate about philosophy of religion has got side-tracked by people explicitly entwining their philosophical stance with their personal stance. The problem is that as philosophers we should be interested in these questions regardless of our personal convictions. One of the reasons why I think philosophy of religion has become such a niche subfield of philosophy is because people imagine that one would only be interested in it if one has prior religious conviction, and that’s simply not the case (or, at least, it ought not to be the case). We should get back to exploring these questions because of their intrinsic philosophical interest.

5. Jacobsen: Second, what makes the philosophy of religion, probably, a more relevant field of study in the modern context than, apparently, declining disciplines including theology or religious studies?

Pritchard: I think it would be a shame if religious studies is indeed a declining discipline (or theology for that matter, which I take to be a sub-division of it, concerned specifically with theistic religion). Religious questions are central to the human condition after all. Moreover, even if one adopts a purely materialistic conception of the world and our place in it, one that has no room for religion, one still needs to have a philosophical grasp of what it means to exclude religion from one’s worldview, and that is itself an issue for philosophy of religion (and thus religious studies). I find it intriguing that many people today take a certain kind of materialistic and scientistic worldview as obvious, and as incorporating no philosophical assumptions, such that it is kind of a ‘default’ rational way of responding to the world. But that’s not very plausible—the philosophical presuppositions are still there, as they are with any worldview, and they need to be made explicit and examined. (I don’t think it’s an accident, for example, that those in the grip of such a worldview also take a very instrumentalist attitude towards political and ethical questions). That’s a job for philosophy, and philosophy of religion has a role to play in such an endeavor.

Inevitably, my own work in philosophy of religion mostly covers epistemological questions, especially the question of whether religious belief can be rationally grounded. In this regard I advance a view that I call quasi-fideism, a thesis which I claim is rooted in the work of John Henry Newman and Wittgenstein.

6. Jacobsen: What is your philosophy of education?

Pritchard: My interest is in the question of what the overarching epistemic goals of education amount to. The view I defend is one on which these goals essentially concern the development of intellectual character, which is the integrated set of a subject’s intellectual virtues. This approach offers an important reorientation of education in the contemporary world, where education is far too often understood in purely instrumental terms, such as simply giving students useful skills or knowledge. Education should have much more ambitious goals, however, which is to help human beings to prosper, and for that they need the intellectual virtues.

7. Jacobsen: What is the philosophy of law? I ask this, too, because an extremely distinguished academic, Professor Elizabeth Loftus, works at UCIrvine.

Pritchard: There are lots of philosophical questions in law, most notably concerning the foundations of law. But as an epistemologist I’m naturally interested in some of the specifically epistemic questions that arise, such as the nature of legal evidence, or what kinds of epistemic bases are relevant for legal judgements about guilt or liability. I’ve also tried to bring my work on luck and risk to bear on legal issues, such as concerning the question of what is an acceptable degree of risk within a just legal system that an innocent person might be found guilty of a crime.

8. Jacobsen: What epistemology to garner knowledge about the world most makes sense within a skepticism framework grounded in the understandings brought forward by the philosophy of Wittgenstein, philosophy of cognitive science, and the philosophy of religion?

Pritchard: I don’t think there is a straightforward answer to your question. I advance a general theory of knowledge (anti-luck virtue epistemology), which incorporates insights from both virtue epistemology and anti-luck/risk epistemology. (For the details, see my co-authored monograph, The Nature and Value of Knowledge, (Oxford University Press, 2010)). I also have an account of how this way of thinking about knowledge should be situated with regard to answers to a range of epistemological questions about such topics as the nature of epistemic value, the relationship between knowledge and understanding, the importance of the intellectual virtues, the nature of inquiry, and so on. I then apply this theory of knowledge to philosophical questions in specific domains like cognitive science and education.

The question of how to understand the nature of knowledge is, however, largely orthogonal to the skeptical question of whether such knowledge is possible (it took me many years to realise this). This in part explains why my response to radical skepticism is distinct from my account of knowledge (though there are some overlaps). As noted above, what I take from Wittgenstein is a certain conception of the structure of reasons that I think is specifically applicable to the question of how to deal with the puzzle posed by radical skepticism. I also advance a view I call epistemological disjunctivism which can explain how we can have a kind of direct epistemic access to the world around us. (For the details, see my monograph, Epistemological Disjunctivism, (Oxford University Press, 2012)). In addition, I think there is a story to be told about skepticism as an attitude, in the manner of Pyrrhonian skepticism, though again that issue is orthogonal to the question of the nature of knowledge (the intellectual virtues do have a bearing here, however).

9. Jacobsen: Do these understandings taken together have potential implications for education and the law?

Pritchard: Yes. As just noted, one needs to have a worked-out epistemology in order to apply it to domains like education and the law. So, for example, my epistemology, with the intellectual virtues at its heart, can explain why developing intellectual character is so important to education. I’ve also applied the anti-luck, or anti-risk, element to my epistemology to the legal case with regard to discussions of legal evidence and legal risk.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Distinguished Professor, University of California, Irvine; Director, Graduate Studies, Philosophy, University of California, Irvine.

[2] Individual Publication Date: March 22, 2020:; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2020:

Appendix II: Citation Style Listing

American Medical Association (AMA): Jacobsen S. An Interview with Distinguished Professor Duncan Pritchard, FRSE on Epistemology, Skepticism, Wittgenstein, Cognitive Science, Education, and Law (Part Two) [Online].March 2020; 22(A). Available from:

American Psychological Association (APA, 6th Edition, 2010): Jacobsen, S.D. (2020, March 22). An Interview with Distinguished Professor Duncan Pritchard, FRSE on Epistemology, Skepticism, Wittgenstein, Cognitive Science, Education, and Law (Part Two). Retrieved from

Brazilian National Standards (ABNT): JACOBSEN, S. An Interview with Distinguished Professor Duncan Pritchard, FRSE on Epistemology, Skepticism, Wittgenstein, Cognitive Science, Education, and Law (Part Two). In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal. 22.A, March. 2020. <>.

Chicago/Turabian, Author-Date (16th Edition): Jacobsen, Scott. 2020. “An Interview with Distinguished Professor Duncan Pritchard, FRSE on Epistemology, Skepticism, Wittgenstein, Cognitive Science, Education, and Law (Part Two).” In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal. 22.A.

Chicago/Turabian, Humanities (16th Edition): Jacobsen, Scott “An Interview with Distinguished Professor Duncan Pritchard, FRSE on Epistemology, Skepticism, Wittgenstein, Cognitive Science, Education, and Law (Part Two).” In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal. 22.A (March 2020).

Harvard: Jacobsen, S. 2020, ‘An Interview with Distinguished Professor Duncan Pritchard, FRSE on Epistemology, Skepticism, Wittgenstein, Cognitive Science, Education, and Law (Part Two)‘In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal, vol. 22.A. Available from: <>.

Harvard, Australian: Jacobsen, S. 2020, ‘An Interview with Distinguished Professor Duncan Pritchard, FRSE on Epistemology, Skepticism, Wittgenstein, Cognitive Science, Education, and Law (Part Two)‘In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal, vol. 22.A.,

Modern Language Association (MLA, 7th Edition, 2009): Scott D. Jacobsen. “An Interview with Distinguished Professor Duncan Pritchard, FRSE on Epistemology, Skepticism, Wittgenstein, Cognitive Science, Education, and Law (Part Two).” In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal 22.A (2020):March. 2020. Web. <>.

Vancouver/ICMJE: Jacobsen S. An Interview with Distinguished Professor Duncan Pritchard, FRSE on Epistemology, Skepticism, Wittgenstein, Cognitive Science, Education, and Law (Part Two) [Internet]. (2020, March 22(A). Available from:

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