What is Knowledge?

The University of London International Programmes (UoL) has just begun releasing exam results for students who sat for exams in May. Suppose that on the day that results are released for your program, you access them in the way you’re officially instructed to by UoL, which involves entering your personal information into a UoL-supplied web form. You do precisely as you’re instructed, and as you pull your results up, you learn that you scored a 71 on exam X. ‘Excellent!’ you happily exclaim. And from this information, coupled with your awareness of the fact that all scores of 70 and over merit a first, you validly deduce,

(B) ‘I scored a first in exam X’.

Most of us, on the basis of the information provided above, would unhesitatingly say that you know that you scored a first on exam X. That is, we would ascribe knowledge of (B) to you. And the reason we’d be inclined to say that you have knowledge in this case is because you have excellent reasons for holding a true belief. For you validly inferred (B) from two powerfully supported premises, viz. (1) I scored a 71 on exam X (which is supported by the results you received, in a legitimate way, from a highly reliable source), and (2) all scores over 70 merit a first (which is supported by information received through legitimate sources like student handbooks etc.).

But now suppose you receive an email the following day from UoL explaining that there was a mix-up when results were initially released. (I should add, so as not to frighten anyone — whether current or prospective students — that this is only a hypothetical situation adduced to make a philosophical point!) Somehow, you received the results of another student, and she received your results. In fact, you’re told, your score on exam X was 72. “Even better!” you say. And, of course, from this newly received information it still follows that (B) is true.

But now a fascinating question arises: On the day that results were first released — when the results you received were not yours, but those of another student — is it the case that you knew then that (B) was true? Most of us would be inclined to respond that you did not. Yet notice the striking implications of this response. For on the day that results were initially released, you believed (B), you had excellent reasons for believing (B), and (B) is true. Yet, we would now say, contravening our earlier claim, that you did not on these three bases know (B). And this means that having excellent reasons for holding a true belief is not sufficient for knowledge attributions. That is, this response implies that even if you had instead received the correct result for exam X on the day results were initially released, you would not have known (B)! Yet recall that initially we were perfectly willing to attribute you with knowledge of (B).

In philosophy, cases like this are called Gettier cases. Now Gettier cases were initially developed precisely to shake us of the intuition that when we have excellent reasons for believing something that’s true, we thereby have knowledge of it. For they purport to show, as we saw above, that the conjunction of these conditions – often called the belief condition, the truth condition, and the justification condition (or the ‘having excellent reasons’ condition) – do not, when all are satisfied, guarantee knowledge on the part of the believing subject.

Diagram explaining definition of knowledgeBut if this is so, then what is knowledge? Words like ‘knowledge’ and ‘knows’ are among the most often used words in the English language. We all use them regularly in our daily lives, whether at work, at home, in school, in the courtroom, in the laboratory, and so on. And we certainly seem to use them with remarkable competence. But Gettier cases show that, even if we grant that we use the term ‘know’ competently, we cannot say precisely what is required to use it competently. That is, we cannot say what conditions are satisfied when we successfully ascribe knowledge to someone (whether that someone is ourselves or another person). Our understanding of this very commonly used concept, therefore, is plausibly not nearly as good as many of us would like to think it is.

One way to try to improve our understanding of what constitutes knowledge is to try to diagnose what goes wrong in Gettier cases — that is, to try to figure out what it is that prevents us from having knowledge. So, in the case above, why do we want to say that you do not know (B) when you infer it from another student’s results? The reason would seem to be that it’s a matter of luck that both your score and the score that you mistakenly received satisfied the requirements for earning a first. That is, you might just as easily have mistakenly received the results of a student who scored below 70, in which case you would not have inferred (B). Indeed, you then would have at least dispositionally believed, and believed falsely, that not-(B) is true!

If this is correct, it tells us two things about knowledge. First, knowledge is incompatible with certain kinds of luck. And this seems right. For suppose I say at the beginning of the season that team X will win the championship this year. And further suppose that team X does indeed go on to win the championship. If I were I then to say, ‘See, I knew team X would win!’ you’d rightly retort, ‘No, you didn’t know, you made a lucky guess!’ And this reasonable retort, which implies the incompatibility of knowledge and luck, is in accord with our findings so far about knowledge.

Second, it tells us that what we’ve called the justification condition is not up to the job of precluding this kind of luck from infecting our justified true beliefs. That’s in part what makes Gettier cases possible. And hence it’s in part what prevents justified true beliefs from counting as knowledge. It’s plausible to conclude, then, that what we need in our analysis of knowledge is a way to preclude this sort of luck from infecting our justification. This may require us to add an additional condition (or more) to the ‘justified true belief’ analysis of knowledge. Or it may require us to strengthen the justification condition such that it no longer permits lucky elements to wedge their way in. More radically, it may require us to jettison the notion that knowledge consists in (at least) justified true belief. Indeed, it may lead us to reject the notion that knowledge is analyzable into logically independent components altogether.

Philosophers are still working on these problems today. They’re among the many truly fascinating issues you’ll learn about should you choose to study epistemology, which is the philosophical discipline that’s concerned with the nature, sources and content of knowledge. It’s one of the foundation modules you’ll have to complete if you choose to study philosophy with the University of London International Programmes, whether you’re interested in their four course Certificate, eight course Diploma or twelve course BA in philosophy. I’ve only just begun working on it, but so far, like everything else I’ve done with UoL, it’s tremendous fun!

Eric is studying for the BA Philosophy by distance learning in Rhode Island, USA.

2 thoughts on “What is Knowledge?

  1. Great post Eric. I like your clarity in presenting the subject. One thing I noticed while preparing Epistemology is the lack of clarity of several papers I read. While other ones were really brilliant (e.g. Putnam and Gettier as well). Of course I’m just at the beginning of the Programme and need to improve my Philosophical terminology

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  2. Hi Massimiliano, thanks for the kind words. I agree, philosophers vary greatly with respect to clarity. And, unfortunately, this variance in clarity doesn’t track philosophical importance, so many of the unclear one simply must be read! One helpful way I’ve found to understand unclear philosophers is to find clear philosophers who have responded to their work. For most responses begin with a summary of the arguments that are being responded to, and I’ve found that what’s unclear in one author at first is often much easier to make out after reading (at least the introductions to) a few of these sorts of responses by other authors (while always being careful not to accept the summaries dogmatically, of course, since they too may get things wrong, especially when we’re concerned with an unclear author!).

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