Philosophy professor Keith Lehrer challenges theory of knowledge at colloquium


For a couple hours on a Friday afternoon, scholars at the College of William and Mary were challenged to question the core of their conception of knowledge.

Jan. 25, students and professors gathered together for the “Defensible Knowledge and Exemplars of Truth” philosophy colloquium in James Blair Hall.

The attendees listened to Keith Lehrer, a philosophy professor at the University of Miami and the University of Arizona, discuss his philosophy of defensible knowledge outlined in his new book “Exemplars of Truth.” 

At the beginning of the colloquium, Lehrer distributed a sheet of paper with the philosophical proof of his defensible knowledge theory.

For the rest of the hour, Lehrer discussed the basis of his theory and lectured attendees on the value of epistemology, which explores the question of how one knows one’s knowledge of a topic or experience to be true. 

“… However you described an experience, you could go wrong,” Lehrer said. “There wasn’t any way to describe an experience that was infallible, and that’s because, in part, we are fallible.”

“Is there any security in the basic descriptions of experience that we use to defend our knowledge claims, to justify our knowledge claims?” Lehrer said. “… However you described an experience, you could go wrong. There wasn’t any way to describe an experience that was infallible, and that’s because, in part, we are fallible.”

In order to accept the fact that the knowledge one has of a topic or experience is true and infallible, Lehrer argued that one must be able to defend the basis of that knowledge.

According to Lehrer, true and sound knowledge, or defensible knowledge, is knowledge that can be justified through truth of experience rather than truth of description. 

“Through exemplar representation, you get conception,” Lehrer said. “With conception of the external thing, the experience comes to be a representation and evidence of the external thing, and it shows us something about truth.” 

Exemplar representation corresponds to a person’s lived experience. To explain truth of experience, Lehrer discussed how the philosophy of art and his study of the theory of knowledge came together academically. 

“If you run to an art gallery and start telling stories about the art object, even the creation of the art object, even the history of the art object, those are very nice learned exercises, but you are missing something,” Lehrer said. “You are missing what that art object is like in itself, and if you are missing that, you are missing something crucial.”

Lehrer argued that one arrives at a truthful basis of knowledge about that artwork by experiencing a piece of art aesthetically. With this exemplar of truth, Lehrer claimed that one could know what a piece of art represents, understand what a wine tastes like or grasp knowledge about any topic.

After the lecture, the colloquium audience — which included both professors and students — engaged with Lehrer by raising objections or discussing the details of his theories. Some students valued different parts of Lehrer’s seminar.

Mohith Dhillon ’22 appreciated how Lehrer’s ideas challenged the philosophical idea of a universal truth and encouraged communication to arrive at ideas of knowledge.

“I think there is a certain value to that,” Dhillon said. “The universal truth is quite optimistic, so I think this is valuable for studying human behavior and applying it to societal things. It sounds like it emphasizes the importance of communication and coming to consensus and all that. … For more of an attempt at universal truth, communication has got to be key.”

Another student, Yuan Dong ’21, appreciated the way in which Lehrer’s lecture made her think about music in terms of the different aspects of knowledge.

“Music is a unique case because it’s not seeable — it’s kind of in between,” Dong said. 

“Music is a unique case because it’s not seeable — it’s kind of in between,” Dong said. 

As the event wrapped up at 5 p.m., students and professors were invited to a reception in Blair Hall to further discuss Lehrer’s work.

The philosophy colloquium was part of a larger series of events hosted by the College’s philosophy department.

The department intends to host a similar colloquium Feb. 15 featuring Steven Wall, a professor of political philosophy at the University of Arizona, to foster further philosophical dialogue at the College. 


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