Thursday, February 2, 2012

Knowledge and having good reasons for one's beliefs

To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Knowledge and having good reasons for one's beliefs
Date: 16 January 2007 11:01

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 2 January, with your essay on the University of London question, 'Does knowledge involve having good reasons for one's beliefs? What are 'good reasons'?'

This reads like a condensed introduction to epistemology. You demonstrate impressive knowledge of the debates over the definition of knowledge. However, on my understanding of the point of the question, you would be marked down by an examiner on the grounds of relevance.

The trouble stems from your statement, 'It is probably safe to assume that the kind of knowledge intended is intellectual propositional knowledge.' But that is precisely the question being asked, or, rather, one half of it.

It does not go without saying that animals or small children have 'knowledge'. This is something that has to be argued for.

And then, supposing that they do, you would have to argue again for the claim that if an adult A believes that P as a result of the same chain of events or circumstances that would lead us to say that child C 'knows that P', it follows by virtue of those very facts that A 'knows that P'.

'Does knowledge involve having good reasons for one's beliefs' is about propositional knowledge. You can make this explicit in your preliminary remarks. We are not talking about knowledge how or about knowledge of in the sense of acquaintance. This is something that it is safe to assume.

On a prima facie reading, the first part of the question is whether it is acceptable, EVER, to say that A knows that P when A does not have a 'good reason' for believing that P. The second part of the question is, what is a 'good reason'?

The structure of your essay does not have to physically be in two parts, provided that you make it explicit that these are the two questions you are answering, in whatever way you choose to answer them. I would tend towards answering the second question first. You can always revise your answer to the second question in the light of the outcome of your answer to the first question.

Going back to the first part of the question, we can start with the issue of whether knowledge entails belief. If knowledge does not entail belief then it follows a fortiori that knowledge does not entail having good reasons for one's belief.

A proposed counterexample to 'knowledge entails belief' might be the nervous schoolboy who knows that Paris is the capital of France but doesn't believe the answer that is forming on his lips. You might have a critique of this example, or be able to find better examples.

But, then, even if we accept that knowledge does entail belief, does that require having good reasons for that belief? Here, it is appropriate to contrast internalist and externalist approaches. However, you need to find some way to bracket the issues that are not directly relevant to the question that is being asked.

It is not obvious to me that an externalist would necessarily deny that 'good reasons' are logically linked to the concept of knowledge, even if one allows cases of knowledge where the subject does not have good reasons. Would it be possible, for example, for a subject to have knowledge who does not have good reasons for ANY of his beliefs? This is arguably covered by the question: Is it the case that possession of some propositional knowledge involves having good reasons for some of one's beliefs? (where the two occurrences of 'some' bind different variables).

Again, an internalist might be prepared to allow that some forms of knowledge do not require 'reasons' because they are in some sense basic or foundational, while insisting that other forms of knowledge must be based on good reasons. Here, the definition of 'good reason' becomes crucial, because it could be said in reply that knowledge of basic propositions is in some sense 'self-justifying' and therefore a 'good reason' for itself.

It is really crucial, especially when you will have just one hour to answer a question in an exam, to focus your essay precisely on the question set.

There are two things that you need to demonstrate in the exam: that you have good knowledge of the topic in question; and that you are able to respond dialectically to the precise sense of the question, in other words, that you are good on your feet. If you fail on either criterion, then you will lose marks.

All the best,

Geoffrey