Wednesday, January 4, 2012

On a proposed new definition of knowledge

To: James S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: On a proposed new definition of knowledge
Date: 10 October 2006 10:07

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your email of 3 October, with your University of London Epistemology essay entitled, 'Knowledge and Truth: A Proposed New Definition of Knowledge'.

In your essay you, 'present the provocative claim that the objective truth of a proposition is not necessary for knowledge of that proposition'.

I guess I should know - but unfortunately don't know - whether any philosopher has attempted to defend this claim. Obviously, if you knew of any you would have cited them. (More on this below.)

My first reaction is that 'knowledge' which is not true by definition just isn't what I mean by 'knowledge'. But maybe I'm just a victim of unquestioned dogma, as you claim. How would one resolve this issue?

There is one well tried method. Let's not bicker about the 'accepted' meaning of a word. Define 'knorridge' in the following way:

S knorrs p if and only if:

1. S believes p

2. S is justified in believing that p is true

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

Let's now consider the story of Green and Brown.

Brown, the practical jokester, boasts to his friends, 'Green thinks he knows that there is an orange on the table, but he's wrong!'

Brown is fully justified in saying that Green doesn't know that there is an orange on the table. He is justified in saying this because he substituted a fake orange.

Of course, we have to allow that Brown could himself be the victim of a deception. Tired and fed up with Brown's antics, Green has slyly substituted the real orange for the fake orange.

Or take this one stage further: Brown sees Green replace the fake orange with a real orange and switches again. It would make a good scene for a comedy film.

My question is: which is the more useful concept, knorridge or knowledge?

We already have concepts which describe how things are from a subject's perspective, or how the world is for that subject: Green believes, thinks, is certain, has every reason to be confident that there is an orange on the table. What is added when we say he knorrs that there is an orange on the table? I don't see that you have provided an adequate answer to this question.

What is added when we say that Green knows that there is an orange on the table is further test: that of our agreement with what Green claims. This is the essence of the 'factive' attitude, the point of having factive concepts in our vocabulary.

If beliefs were evaluated only from the perspective of 'I' or 'we', there would be no good reason for a concept of knowledge in addition to a concept of knorridge, or for factive attitudes. Our primary interest in a proposition or claim is whether we should believe it or not. There isn't any further question one can ask about its 'truth'. Scepticism is a worry, to the extent that it undermines our belief that we have a right to make the claims that we make about the world. This is the kind of scepticism that Descartes indulges in when he entertains the possibility of an evil demon.

There is a point in talking about 'knowledge' rather than 'knorridge' only because I, or we, are also interested in pronouncing judgement on what others believe.

This isn't intended as an answer to scepticism. I am simply describing the place of the concept of 'knowledge' (or factive attitudes generally) in our language.

The case of the comedy film (or fiction generally) is interesting because there is, or can be, an absolute answer to any question we raise - e.g. about the real or fake orange. It was fake if and only if that's what the script says. In the real world, given sufficiently contrived circumstances, any answer we give can, in principle, be overturned. This is the situation that the sceptic exploits. A script has defined boundaries whereas the world has not.

However, switching from knowledge to knorridge doesn't prevent sceptical doubts from arising. When I am gripped by sceptical doubt, my concern is, Do I have the right to make this claim? Do we, in fact, have the right to make any claim about anything? I can make a claim, provided that it is 'justified'. However, an essential part of my judgement about whether I am justified or not is my confidence in my power of judgement. Normally, we do not stop to question our confidence in our powers of judgement. But it is perfectly possible - and this is something that actually happens - that a subject, for whatever psychological reason, loses this confidence.

Your core idea is that there is a 'fact of the matter' whether I knorr that there is an orange on the table or not, a kind of fact, moreover which is accessible in a way that 'objective truths' are not. The problem is that all it takes is a loss of confidence, a change in my psychological state, to overturn this 'fact'. All the sceptic about knorridge seemingly has to do is point this out.

Wittgenstein has an answer to scepticism, which many readers find rather gnomic. To the question, 'But if you are certain, isn't it that you are shutting your eyes in the face of doubt?' He replies, 'They are shut' (Philosophical Investigations Page 224).

If I am confident in my powers of judgement then I am confident. Pointing out that it is conceivable that I might lose this confidence is not providing me with a reason to question my sense of confidence. My eyes are (as a matter of fact) shut. End of discussion.

Despite all I have said, I would like to see further work on your idea. If this view hasn't been broached before (I would have to spend hours searching through the Philosophers Index to be sure) and the argument can be sufficiently toughened up, then it would certainly merit an article in Mind or Philosophical Review.

As far as the University of London Examiners are concerned, provided that you show due awareness of how radical your proposal is, and have some kind of answer to the obvious objections, then you will gain credit rather than be penalised.

All the best,

Geoffrey