A CRITICAL ASSESSMENT OF GETTIER’S INSUFFICIENCY ARGUMENT
THE TRADITIONAL CONCEPTION OF KNOWLEDGE
To begin with, knowledge is generic in the sense that it is a concept that allows for several species to exist. This is not only the case; it is such a concept that allows for element of one to be found in the other so that we cannot talk of one species (especially the propositional knowledge) in isolation from other species. By species, I mean entities that constitute a class by virtue of sharing essential element which allows for explanatory fusion of one into the other. In many ways, looking at knowledge in such a way is like redefining ontology. But then, what are the most general kinds of events and entities that brought about knowledge? How are these things related hierarchically in terms of causal symmetry or priority? What is their meaning and how is it represented. The aim of this chapter is to present the idea of knowledge as discussed in the traditional conception of knowledge. The chapter will examine the reasons for the necessity of the tripartite conditions in the definition of knowledge. The chapter will also present A.J Ayer’s analysis of what knowledge is, it will also discuss Keith Lehrer’s analysis on the same subject matter. The chapter will not neglect pointing out some of the difficulties with the analysis in a short term.
The tripartite condition for knowledge stems from the traditional conception of what knowledge ought to be as seen in western epistemology. This means that the normative conception of knowledge is the central idea of the traditional conception of knowledge as seen in western epistemology. This conception has been discussed, charaterised and critiqued by different scholars’ analysis.
1.1 On the Traditional Conception of Knowledge
The definition of knowledge remains a recurring debate among philosophers in the field of normative epistemology. The classical definition, described but not ultimately endorsed by Plato1 specifies that a statement must meet three criteria in order to be considered knowledge: it must be justified, true, and believed. The justified true belief (JTB) analysis of knowledge aims at providing both the theoretical and practical conditions for knowledge claims.
To begin with, the traditional JTB account of knowledge as deduced in the dialogue with “Theatetus” says that to know that p, the following requirements must be satisfied: (1) you believe that p (2) you have justification that p (3) p is true. The first condition, belief is the state of mind in which a person thinks something to be the case, with or without there being empirical evidence to prove that something is the case with factual certainty2. Another way of defining belief sees it as a mental representation of an attitude positively oriented towards the likelihood of something being true.3 In the context of Ancient Greek thought, two related concepts were identified with regards to the concept of belief: pistis and doxa. Simplified, we may say that pistis refers to “trust” and “confidence”, while doxa refers to “opinion” and “acceptance”. The English word “orthodoxy” derives from doxa. Jonathan Leicester suggests that belief has the purpose of guiding action rather than indicating truth.4
In epistemology, philosophers use the term “belief” to refer to personal attitudes associated with true or false ideas and concepts. However, “belief” does not require active introspection and circumspection. For example, we never ponder whether or not the sun will rise. We simply assume the sun will rise. Since “belief” is an important aspect of mundane life, according to Eric Schwitzgebel in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a related question asks: “how a physical organism can have beliefs?”5
On justification, the idea that belief is conceptually prior to knowledge easily leads to the idea that evidence and justification are conceptually prior to knowledge too. Although that is most vivid in the traditional definition of knowledge as justified true belief, Gettier’s counterexamples to that definition did not remove the idea that the concept of justification or evidence would occur with the concept of belief in a more complex analysis of the concept of knowledge. Consequently, the concept of knowledge was assumed to be unavailable for use in an elucidation of the concept of justification or evidence, on pain of circularity.6 Once we cease to assume that belief is conceptually prior to knowledge, we can experiment with using the concept of knowledge to elucidate the concepts of justification and evidence.
The truth condition gives assurance that what may account as knowledge must not be by mere chance or luck but by logical truth. Thus a hypothesis is inconsistent with the evidence if and only if it is inconsistent with known truths; it is a good explanation of the evidence if and only if it is a good explanation of known truths. One’s evidence justifies belief in the hypothesis if and only if one’s knowledge justifies that belief. Knowledge figures in the account primarily as what justifies, not as what gets justified. Knowledge can justify a belief which is not itself knowledge, for the justification relation is not deductive. For example, I may be justified in believing that someone is a murderer by knowing that he emerged stealthily with a bloody knife from the room in which the body was subsequently discovered, even if he is in fact innocent and I therefore do not know that he is a murderer.
Justified true belief is a definition of knowledge that gained approval during the Enlightenment, ‘justified’ standing in contrast to ‘revealed’. There have been attempts to trace it back to Plato and his dialogues.7 The concept of justified true belief states that in order to know that a given proposition is true, one must not only believe the relevant true proposition, but also have justification for doing so.
Philosophers have thought a great deal about knowledge matters, especially about the nature of what we can know or may mistakenly think we know sources of knowledge, such knowledge as a storehouse of what we have learned in the past, consciousness as revealing our inner lives, reflection as a way to acquire knowledge of abstract matters, and testimony as providing knowledge originally acquired by others. In approaching knowledge definition in epistemology, the theory of knowledge and justification, it is appropriate to consider all description. It seems altogether natural to believe these things given my experience, and I think I justifiedly believed them. I believed them, not in the way I would if I accepted the result of wishful thinking or of merely guessing, but with justification. By that I mean above all that the beliefs I refer to were justified.
The theory of knowledge suffered a significant setback with the discovery of Gettier problems, situations in which the above conditions were seemingly met but that many philosophers disagree that anything is known.8 Robert Nozick suggested a clarification of “justification” which he believed eliminates the problem: the justification has to be such that were the justification false, the knowledge would be false. If so we can say belief becomes knowledge (accepted reality) when it is justified.
1.2 A. J. Ayer on ‘The Problem of Knowledge’
In The Problem of Knowledge, Ayer defended a context-based account of knowledge that had as its essential ingredients that some claim, p, counted as knowledge for a person, A, iff p was true, A was sure that p, and A had, in the relevant context, ‘the right to be sure’ about the truth of p. The contextual element is apparent in the discussion after Ayer outlines what is required to have the ‘right to be sure’ in the mathematical case. One avenue to knowledge in this case lies in the ability of the agent to provide a proof of the relevant proposition. In the case of perception, or memory, it is clear that it is impossible to possess such a proof, so a more relaxed standard is required. To state in general how strong the backing needs to be for a believer to have the right to be sure that their belief is true is not possible; doing so would require drawing up a list of conditions “under which perception, or memory, or testimony, or other forms of evidence are reliable.”9 Ayer thought this would be too complicated a task, if at all possible. The ‘correct’ standard to set for claims to knowledge is to be decided pragmatically, on grounds of practical convenience. The skeptics ploy of setting an impossible standard, one requiring the impossibility of error, should be resisted, as one has the right to be sure even where error is possible.
The account offered was intended as an analysis of knowledge, but revealingly Ayer did not require that believers be aware of how they have the right to be sure. It was allowed that somebody who invariably correctly predicted the outcome of a lottery could be said to know that their prediction was true, even though they, nor anyone else, had any idea of how the predictions came to be reliable. Ayer admitted that this case, and others like it, may cause some dispute: it was not clearly covered by the meaning of the term ‘knowledge’, and so left room for some stipulation.10
Ayer’s particular analysis came under attack in a famous paper by Gettier (1963), in which satisfaction of the three clauses (the truth of p, the belief in p, and the right to be sure that p) was held to be insufficient for knowledge. Gettier’s argument requires that someone, A, could be justified in believing a false proposition, and that if A was justified in believing p and q is deducible from p, and A accepted q by deducing it from p, then A would be justified in believing q. An example used by Gettier has the following structure: (i) Jones owns a Ford. (ii) Either Jones owns a Ford or Brown is in Boston. Smith believes, and has ample evidence for, (i). He deduces (ii) from (i), and so is justified in believing (ii), even though, in fact, he has no idea of where Brown is. It turns out that (i) is false, but (ii) is true – unbeknownst to Smith, Brown is indeed in Boston. Gettier concluded that in this case all three clauses of the analysis of knowledge are satisfied, but that we should judge in this case that Smith did not know (ii). The suggestion was that an additional clause, or clauses, was needed11.
The literature spawned by the Gettier counter-examples is huge, nearly all of it attempting to pin down the elusive additional clause(s). Ayer himself did not think that any such additional clauses were needed. The counter-examples, he thought, showed that what was needed was a more careful account of what ‘being justified’ consisted in.
Ayer, disputed Gettier’s claim that any deduction from a justified, but false, proposition preserves justification. We already knew, he claimed, that the notion of having evidence for a claim is very difficult to elucidate; Hempel’s paradoxes succeeded in showing that. Once we had managed to throw more light on the justification relation, we would see that his proposed analysis was sufficient for knowledge12.
1.3 Kieth Lehrer on Justified True Belief
Lehrer develops accounts of the first two conditions of knowledge: that p be true and that S accept that p. The truth condition for knowledge comes directly out of the original conception of knowledge as the recognition of correct information. In order to know that p, S must “get p right.” The traditional way of expressing this is to say that p has to be true in order to be known. This is captured in the common question, “Do you know that it is true?” There seems to be no real difference between this and the shorter question, “Do you know it?”) But the, what is the term truth? To get a feel for what accounts of truth look like, we will begin with one of the original definition of truth, given by Aristotle. For Aristotle, what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.13 The point here is that, Aristotle is comparing reality (what is or what is not) with what is said about reality (that it is or that it is not). Truth is a match between the two and falsehood a mismatch. This is reflected in what Lehrer calls the “absolute theory” of truth: (AT) It is true that p if and only if p, which looks like an abbreviated version of Aristotle’s definition. Such a theory is “minimal,” in that it tells us what truth is by describing what is true using one of the components of “It is true that p. The same holds for the “disquotational theory” of truth, “X” is true if and only if X, for a declarative sentence “X.”14 It is called “disquotational” because the condition for truth is formed by dropping the quotation marks around the sentence whose truth-condition is being given. Similarly, Alfred Tarski, whose writings on truth are probably the most influential in the twentieth century, regarded such minimal conditions as only necessary, and not sufficient, for a theory of truth15. But as we will see, Lehrer thinks they are enough for a theory of knowledge. Lehrer does the best he can to avoid saying anything substantive about truth and to avoid solving the paradoxes of truth. His truth condition is minimal, and at that, not completely general. But he thinks that it is enough to serve the purposes of a theory of knowledge. We have already noted that we could dispense with any reference to truth and reformulate condition (iT) as follows:
(iT’) If S knows that p, then p.16
We have seen that Lehrer ties truth to acceptance, as its goal: one accepts that p in the interests of accepting all and only what is true. He thinks that there is no problem with this goal as long as it is restricted to non-paradoxical sentences. All the paradoxes mean is that the goal of accepting all that is true cannot be met. Moreover, as Lehrer notes, one could reformulate the goal of acceptance: to accept that p if and only if p. A final twist is Lehrer’s attempt to give an account of correspondence based on the notion of true acceptance. He sets up a condition on true acceptance, (G) What S accepts, that p, is true if and only if S accepts that p and p, which is a kind of extension of (AT). If p is not paradoxical, we might want to say that S’s acceptance that p is true just in case S’s acceptance that p corresponds to the fact that p. True acceptance is what corresponds to the fact. This has the consequence that S’s acceptance that p corresponds to the fact that p if and only if S accepts that p and p.17 “Thus, it appears that an account of what it is to accept that p, what it is for a mental state of acceptance to be an acceptance that p, to have that content rather than another, yields at least a minimal account of correspondence” 18 I do not believe that we gain any understanding about the nature of correspondence given this equivalence, though in some sense it may be an “account.” The engine that makes it work, (G), sweeps the basis of true acceptance under the rug. We should like to know about the correspondence between acceptance and what is accepted in order to understand why (G) holds. So (G) does not reveal anything about what acceptance is.
What then is Lehrer’s acceptance condition for knowledge? The first thing to notice about Lehrer’s acceptance is that it is goal-directed. Lehrer makes this explicit. For him, acceptance is an attitude defined in terms of some purpose, which is the expression to accept that p is an abbreviation or shorthand for the more explicit expression to accept that p for O, where O is some specific objective or purpose. It involves an evaluation of whether the attitude fulfils the purpose.19 There are many purposes which acceptance might fulfil. We often accept something for the sake of argument or test an hypothesis, in a way that is provisional and does not involve any lasting or real commitment to its being true. We are also told on p. 14 that we may accept something to make another person happy. Most importantly for our purposes, a person may accept something with the goal of accepting all and only what is true. Let us call this “epistemic acceptance.” This is what Lehrer has in mind for his condition on knowledge, which, in its unabbreviated form, should read, (iA’) If S knows that p, then S accepts that p with the objective of accepting all and only what is true. Note that in all these cases, when a person accepts something, it is with a goal in mind. Acceptance is the outcome of an evaluation of whether accepting will fulfill the goal in question. This means immediately that the acceptance of God’s existence is not epistemic in Lehrer’s sense. To break the impasse, we must look at the risks and rewards of making the choice one way or the other. Pascal elaborates account of why this is so reveals clearly an evaluative component of this acceptance.
Granted that acceptance can have different kinds of objectives, what do all cases of “accepting that p for O” have in common? There is an attitude that results from evaluation of how well it would meet an objective, but what is the attitude? Lehrer described the attitude required for knowledge as one of “conviction,” which is reflected in one’s readiness to assert that p.20 One need not be so convinced as to feel certain that p, however. By 1980, in a survey of his own work, Lehrer called the attitude “acceptance,” rather than “belief.” He added that to accept something is to perform an action: by saying “I accept,” I actually accept, just as when I say “I promise,” I actually make a promise. (“Self-Profile” in Bogdan, ed. Keith Lehrer,21 So acceptance is optional.
Lehrer emphasizes the difference between his condition (iA) and a related condition, (iB) If S knows that p, then S believes that p. He is willing to use (iB) at times because this is how the condition has been formulated traditionally, but “when precision is needed” (p. 14), he reverts to (iA). We must not think that belief is simply a broader category than acceptance, as if acceptance were a belief which is held for some purpose or other. Instead, both belief and acceptance are ways in which we take p to be true. The essential difference between the belief and epistemic acceptance is that “acceptance involves evaluation in terms of the epistemic purpose.” Presumaby, belief would differ from other kinds of acceptance in that it does not involve evaluation in terms of their purposes, either. If belief is related to a purpose at all, is just a by-product. “Belief may result from the pursuit of some purpose, but it is not defined in terms of any purpose” 22
If belief is not the outcome of a purposive evaluative process, where does it come from? What Lehrer calls “simple belief,” is said to “arise in us naturally without our bidding and often against our will” 23Lehrer makes the bold claim that humans literally are of two minds. A lower-level mind has beliefs independently of a higher-level “metamind” which accepts things on the basis of evaluation of how well a goal is served by adopting a certain attitude. (It is “meta” because one of its objects is the mind itself, i.e., the attitudes such as acceptance that the mind might take on.) Lehrer’s example of a conflict between the two levels is one in which a person believes against all the evidence available to her that her loved one is safe.
Mental mind can positively evaluate simple belief, and on this basis accept what is believed (which it would not do in the safety case). On the other hand, it may negatively evaluate simple belief and accept the opposite of what is believed (as it might do in the case of the belief that one’s loved one is safe). There is no necessary connection between belief and acceptance. Lehrer states that “acceptance that p involving evaluation in terms of the epistemic purpose may coincide with belief that p. We may, therefore, expect the appropriate kind of acceptance or be accompanied by a kind of belief, but we should not assume that belief is a kind of acceptance”
1.4 An Examination of the Traditional Conception of Knowledge
But then, I think the primary problem in epistemology is to understand what exactly is needed in order for us to have or achieve knowledge. But there is a general feeling that epistemology started on a wrong footing in achieving this with the traditional account of knowledge.10 In the discourse on truth as a necessary condition for knowledge, the debate between advocates of correspondence theory, coherence theory and pragmatic theory of truth has dissolved into insubstantial trading in plausibility, as it is becoming evident that the parameter for what epistemologists regard as truth, prescribed by some of these theories may not be sufficient or may be too high to attain by fallible human.11 In the discourse about justification, to the right is the waiting arbitrariness of Foundationalism in the termination of justification in basic beliefs, and to the left is the risky raft of Coherentism and its sure promise of infinite regress or circularity,29 to use Ernest Sosa’s popular analogy. Many recent attempts to slip between the two horns of this dilemma in the name of virtue ethics, social epistemology or foundherentism have also created more problems which inherits the defects of both foundationalism and Coherentism or created another issues and questions entirely that threaten to lead epistemologists out of their domain.30 Taken together, we a faced with an impenetrable trilemma. In this epistemological gridlock, it is never an intellectual ignominy to retrace our steps back, to the source of the problem. If epistemology as a branch of philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato as Whitehead had once implied31 then care must be taken the body of his work provides valid footing for the footnote. Further still, the first condition of knowledge which is justification has received philosophical attention though, but it is pertinent to state that justification pose a big challenge to those who still want to retain the traditional account of knowledge, Justification is something (such as a fact or circumstance) that shows an action to be reasonably, logically or necessarily true. Most of the positive accounts have concentrated on this, with examples and counter-examples in abundance. The principal feature of the latter has been belief based on false assumptions, or on arguments which, though reasonable, contain stages which are actually incorrect. It will not do, however, simply to add a condition to the effect that knowledge must be based on true propositions alone, as this would also exclude cases where the unsuccessful reasoning is superfluous, the conclusion being well supported by other, correct arguments. Lehrer’s sophisticated analysis avoids this pitfall, but perhaps runs into a complementary difficulty. To the traditional formulation, he attaches the following stipulation: ‘If S is completely justified in believing any false statement F which entails (but is not entailed by) P, then S would be completely justified in believing P even if S were to suppose that F is false.’
In other words, take away all the false propositions on which S’s belief is based; if S is still justified in believing that P, then S knows that P. If he is not, then he doesn’t. Gettier’s challenge on the traditional account produces counter-instances where we can have the three criteria met, yet it doesn’t seem we have knowledge, could be seen as a call back to the root of the problem. It is also doubtful whether Socrates and Plato will identify with the traditional account much more than take it as an authoritative definition, for they promised to continue the analytical discourse further; though time did not permit them.31 Nevertheless, Gettier’s analysis still accepts justified true belief as necessary conditions for knowledge, though not sufficient. It is this first arm of the assumption: that is, taking belief, (justified and true aside), as necessary in the conception of knowledge that shall engage our critical interrogation in this work.
Ernest Sosa put this assumption succinctly in his paper, ‘the raft and the pyramid…’ that:
Not everything believed is known, but nothing can be known without being at least believed (or accepted, presumed, taken for granted, or the like) in some broad sense. What additional requirements must a belief fill in order to be knowledge?32
This shows that the notion of belief plays an “essentialist role33” in the conception of knowledge right from the time of Plato and the scathing criticism of this traditional account by Gettier, though penetrating and paradigm shifting, it takes the idea of necessity of belief as given, in the conception of knowledge. What we are saying here is that the condition that, ‘S believes that P’ is taken as necessary and fundamental for what must be counted as knowledge. If we accept this, then the truism and the logicality of the rest of the conditions; that P must be true (truth condition), that S must be justified in believing P (justification condition) follow or impinge on us naturally. For it will be counter intelligence to think that S knows that P, because S believes that P, but P is not true. Likewise, it will also be defective that S knows that P, P is true but S provides no ground upon which P is true. If we should ask Sosa what a belief is, he is likely going to answer that a belief is a mental state, just like hope and fear and that it incorporates propositional attitude.34 Sosa is honest enough to say that “being believed” implies being “…taken for granted, or the like, in some broad sense.”19 While many works have been done on the nature of belief as an epistemic concept, we are of the belief that the current works in epistemology still take for granted the traditional view of belief as essential or fundamental component of knowledge. It is our priority to disprove this essentialist role of belief in the conception of knowledge. We note what I call a “rationalist dogma” in the conception of knowledge in the traditional account. The dogma is that knowledge by being epistemic concept is analysable into logical facts and doxastic properties. The second dogma is that doxastic properties by being subjective, terminates in the intellect; a belief which may be seen as a carry-over from innatism. This dogma is apparent when we consider their way of considering belief as part of the definiens of the definiendum knowledge. Or in another way, the belief that knowledge is analysable into a smaller part call belief that has certain epistemic qualities (truth and justification) to distinguish it from just any belief; thus, belief being analysan of the analysandum call knowledge. By “dogma” here, I mean an assumption that is becoming too authoritative in the conception of a particular idea or concept. Keith Lehrer for instance seems to rejects the notion of “belief” for “acceptance.” The traditional account therefore reads, justified true acceptance.35 But we can still ask the difficult question: can we accept something without first “knowing”? If this is not possible then knowledge is not analysable down to acceptance or belief but is a constitutive part of it.
Another common outlook as regards this is that belief is an opinion accepted and as such could be liken to Sosa’s notion of “subjective mental propositional attitude,”21 any attempt to analyse it further may take the discourse away from philosophy into the area of psychology or leave it epistemologically vacuous. But if the notion of belief is as foundational to the traditional account of knowledge as it has been adduced, then we must be able to inquire into its nature, and the essentialist role it plays in the determination of what the traditional account, as well as contemporary epistemology like naturalized epistemology take to be knowledge.
It is imperative to know what kind of knowledge we talk about in relation to traditional account of knowledge and generally in the field of epistemology. This is because many types of knowledge have been identified in the inventory of epistemology. There is knowledge by acquaintance, informational knowledge, knowledge as capability and propositional knowledge. What epistemologists deal with is the propositional knowledge.
But what is it to say that belief is necessary? By this epistemologists mean two interrelated things. First is that the belief is basic and by this they mean it is foundational in any conceptualization of knowledge. To be foundational is to form the base upon which further explication rest. On the other hand, to say belief is necessary is to claim that the definition of knowledge supervenes on belief. Here, to supervene means to be explainable by, or to be analysable down to a particular concept. That the definition of knowledge supervenes on belief therefore means we cannot define knowledge without reference to knowledge which forms its basic component.
From an empiricist point of view, a belief is a product of ideas, sense data or sense as various empiricists have chosen to term it individually. John Locke and David Hume for example will see it as relation of ideas and if it could be argued that man is born a tabular raza, devoid of any knowledge, we can also argue that he is born devoid of any belief. The implication of this is not only those ingredients of forming belief are ultimately from experience but also that it is formed from ‘knowing’ or ‘sensing’. Belief here seems to be a composite of knowledge and not the other way round. If belief as a concept itself is formed from ideas in our mind and concepts are universals use in modeling our experience into coherent comprehensive whole expressible with language, then the tracing of what constitute knowledge cannot terminate in belief but ideas. Before one can belief, he must have known a lot no matter how temporally contiguous the phenomenon of belief follows the phenomenon of knowing.
Under this new perspective, if a person believes that p, it is not the case that he knows that p, but that he knows q ( or q, r, s, t…), which, couple with other mental factors gives him the conviction and made him propose that he knows that p.
From these various arguments we make this claim that:
Traditional account of knowledge is rationalist biased
JTB takes belief to be constitutive part of knowledge and this has led, on a long run, to the trilemma faced by epistemologist today. JTB is a form of essentialism because it takes belief to be the essential nucleus of knowledge.
Knowledge is rather a constitutive part of belief because beliefs are formed upon what one “knows” (i.e. had sensed)
JTB is neither necessary nor sufficient account of knowledge.
We can therefore regard the impasse mentioned at the beginning of this chapter as a form of epistemic cul de sac the traditional account of knowledge has led us into. The only option we have is to reject it in its entirety, the only option we have is to double-back from the cul de sac. But, what promises are there for us if we delve into the metaphysics of knowledge? Perhaps it will clear the air about the nature of belief to which epistemologists erroneously ascribe or hinge the definition of knowledge. We can therefore see this project in three distinct but interrelated ways: as a criticism of the first assumption that knowledge is definable by belief in the traditional account of knowledge, as an attempt to dissolve the epistemological problems which has continued to meet the labour of many in the field of epistemology, and lastly as an attempt to show that what we call knowledge is in hierarchical order, starting from knowledge as acquaintance, to propositional knowledge and down to knowledge as capacity. Knowledge is therefore a universal, generic and has family of related but distinct concepts such as belief and cognition. These two are definable by knowledge and not the order way round. It is on the basis of want you know that you believe just as it is on the basis of what you know that you understand or cognize.
In this chapter, I have examined the traditional conception of knowledge; I have also identified and discussed Ayer’s and Lehrer’s analysis of the traditional account of knowledge. The chapter also attempted a short examination of the JTB as presented by these scholars. This will lead us to the second chapter where we have Gettier’s critique of the traditional account of knowledge. The chapter will clear be showing area where there are problems with the characterization of JTB as an adequate definition of knowledge.