Thursday, January 19, 2012

Is knowledge justified true belief?

To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is knowledge justified true belief?
Date: 8 December 2006 11:15

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 4 December, with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'Is knowledge justified true belief?'

Significantly, the one line which you have not explored is the 'Gettier counterexamples' (Edmund Gettier 'Is knowledge justified true belief?'). It is possible that this is your intended topic for your follow up essay, so I won't say any more about this.

You may be surprised to hear that the two most recent essays I have received on this question (interestingly, both students are American) both argued the case *against* condition (a). So much for what is 'generally agreed by almost all who ponder the issue'! Their essays were actually quite good. In both cases, the arguments revolved around worries about 'truth' and the threat of scepticism. It is worth while considering how you would respond to someone who argued that a 'better', more useful concept of knowledge would be one which allowed us to (occasionally? frequently?) say that someone 'knew' something that was not, in fact, the case.

Of course, if you just find it impossible to see how anyone could question (a), that might be rather difficult. But there is something to say here, or, at least, I found something to say in responding to the two essays. The strategy I used was to coin a 'new' concept, 'knorridge', which is like 'knowledge' except that in place of the standard three conditions, we have:

1. S believes p

2. S is justified in believing that p

3. S's justification for believing that p is commensurate with a) the degree to which the proposition fits into S's complete world model, b) the perceived importance (to both S and society at large) of the proposition in question, and c) the plausibility of existing counter-claims to p.

(This is the analysis offered by the first of the two Americans I mentioned.) My question was, 'Which is more useful as a concept, knowledge or knorridge?', or, if this does not amount to the same thing, 'Could we, in fact, get by with a concept of knorridge without ever talking about knowledge?' You might like to think how you would respond. (I doubt whether the acceptability of condition (a) is likely to come up as a specific question in the Epistemology exam.)

The case of belief is more widely contested. One stock example is the 'nervous schoolboy' who when asked what is the capital of France, doesn't 'believe' the answer that comes to his lips, even though we would like to say he does really know. If that doesn't convince, then one can look at the question how strongly one has to believe something. For example, one might point out that in ordinary language, we say things like, 'Deep down, you know that I'm right' to someone who doubts, or thinks that he doubts. Later the individual ruefully admits, 'Yes, I did know' (implying that he knew at the time, rather than that he now knows).

I haven't got much to say about your survey of the internalist/ externalist alternatives. This is text book stuff, but well presented.

I can't recall whether a question as simple as this has been used in the UoL Epistemology paper. Usually, exam questions have more of a twist, or are more specific in what they ask for. So if you were to see the simple question, 'Is knowledge justified true belief', a good strategy would be to try to spend equal time on each of the conditions, (a), (b) and (c). In answering (c), however, you would have to say something about Gettier.

It is interesting to explore what follows from an 'evolutionary' conception of knowledge. One paper which you should read on this is Quine's essay, 'Epistemology Naturalized'. In that paper, Quine famously stated, 'There is no First Philosophy'. In other words, philosophers who follow the Cartesian tradition are completely on the wrong track. From a 'naturalized' perspective, the questions Descartes asked cannot even be raised. This is the 'foundational' question for the philosophical discipline of epistemology: are we, in fact, interested in normative issues - such as arguments for scepticism and responses to those arguments - or is the study of epistemology, as Quine claims, continuous with science, in effect a branch of psychology?

From our previous dialogues, I can (maybe) guess your answer to this.

All the best,

Geoffrey