What Is Knowledge?

Leave a Comment

From time to time, I hope to discuss some of the philosophical conundrums that currently plague philosophers.  And defining knowledge is one of the chiefest.  It is perhaps the main point of contention in the world of epistemology.  Epistemology is the study of knowledge, rationality, and justification.  While metaphysics - the study of the nature of being or reality as well as categorization of things that exist - includes the nature of truth, epistemology often ventures into the nature of truth as well, as knowledge is closely tied to it.

On the face of it, answering the question "What is knowledge?" shouldn't be too difficult.  Simply put, it is the ascertainment of a fact about the world.  Dig a bit deeper, however, and things become increasingly complex and ambiguous.  In fact, despite the best efforts of epistemologists from the time of Plato to today, there is no agreed upon definition of knowledge among philosophers (though, as we shall see, there was a definition that was agreed upon by some for centuries until a few potent counterexamples punched some major holes in it).

There are three types of knowledge.  The first - knowledge of acquaintance - is knowledge of things we presented to our consciousness.  For example, we know things exist through our senses - I know there is a desk in front of me right now with keyboard and a screen.  We also are aware of our own thoughts and feelings.  The second type of knowledge is "know-how."  These are skills that are acquired through learning and practice, or are learned subconsciously.  Learning Greek, how to play the violin, how to drive a car are all examples of know-how.  There are also skills that are not learned consciously, such as "motor memory" for various sports.  Finally, there is propositional knowledge.  It is propositional knowledge that keeps epistemologists up at night.  Propositional knowledge is knowledge of the content of a statement.  The question is, what counts as knowing the content of a statement?  This is not an easy question, as there are a number of things to consider.

It seems fairly obvious that to know a statement one must believe it.  How could someone know something unless one believes it?  It also is apparent that to know something, it must be true.  One cannot know the moon is made of cheese if it is actually made of various metals and minerals.

Is this enough?  Is believing something that is true sufficient for propositional knowledge?  In a word, no.  The reason is that one could have a true belief about something by sheer coincidence.  For example, Ron is taking an exam in potions, and when asked on the test how long it takes to brew Felix Felicis, answers "six months," because he believes this is the correct answer.  While it is the correct answer, Ron chose the right answer not because of studying hard for the exam or paying attention in class, but because of sheer dumb luck (this is Ron, after all).  In order for a true belief to constitute knowledge, it must also be justified.  It is the combination of these three factors, known as justified true belief (alternatively, the tripartite analysis or simply JTB), that Plato laid forth in his dialogue Theaetetus as the definition of knowledge, and it has become the standard definition.

The standard definition of (propositional) knowledge stood for centuries, but it began to show cracks when at the beginning of the 20th century Alexius Meinong and Bertrand Russell raised a handful of counterexamples.  However, the real crisis did not come until an American philosopher by the name of Edmund Gettier published a brief paper 1963 (and I do mean brief; it was 3 pages, which for a philosopher is incredible).  In it, he raised two powerful counterexamples that soon sent shock waves through the philosophical community.  Since then, other counterexamples in the vein of Gettier's have been raised, furthering the quandary.

I'll give one of the two original examples. Smith has a justified belief that "Jones owns a Ford."  Based on this, he concludes (by the rule of disjunction introduction) that "Jones owns a Ford, or Brown is in Barcelona," even though Smith has no idea where Brown actually is.  As it turns out, Jones does not own a Ford, but by coincidence, Brown is in fact in Barcelona.  In this case, Smith has a true belief that is also justified, but most of us would agree that he does not have "knowledge."  This may seem like a strange or unlikely hypothetical, but if such a situation is even possible, then JTB is in trouble.

Since Gettier's paper, there have been several different responses from the philosophical community.  One is that the two examples give a true belief, but not a justified true belief.  A similar response is to claim that the two examples depend on a false premise (in the example given, that "Jones owns a Ford"), and therefore JTB could be easily adjusted to stipulate that a false premise must not be involved.  Another response is to agree that Gettier's paper shows there is a problem with JTB, and claims that JTB is necessary but not sufficient, so that a fourth element is needed (JTB + ?).  A further response is to once again agree with Gettier, but to maintain that the flaw lies with the current definition of justification, and that a more comprehensive and stringent definition for justification is needed.

There are a number of factors of epistemology that go into these various responses, as well as determining which is the correct one.  Despite the flurry of discussion on the issue in the past fifty years, there is no consensus about which response to the Gettier problem is the correct one.

In a few weeks I hope to begin a series outlining the major contributions of Alvin Plantinga to the philosophy of religion and epistemology, as he is not only largely responsible for reviving Christian philosophy but is also one of the leading epistemologists of the last few decades.  His response to the Gettier problem is an intriguing one, and it has garnered quite a lot of attention.
Next Post Newer Post Previous Post Older Post Home


Post a Comment