On Philosophy

August 10, 2006

Edmund Gettier’s Objections To The Standard Account of Knowledge

Filed under: Epistemology — Peter @ 12:54 am

The standard account of knowledge is that it is a justified true belief. As I have posted earlier I object to this account, not because it is inconsistent or unintuitive, but because knowledge defined in this way cannot play role we require it to in our investigations. Edmund Gettier has a different kind of objection to the standard account of knowledge. He claims that it is inconstant with our sense of what knowledge is, and gives two cases that he feels demonstrate this inconsistency. As I shall show below, however, neither case necessarily undermines the standard account of knowledge, given that one has sufficiently high standards for justification.

Case 1

Smith and Jones are both applying for the same job. Smith has good evidence that Jones will get the job, and he knows that Jones has 10 cents in his pocket. From this he concludes that the man who will get the job has 10 cents in his pocket. However in a surprising turn of events Jones gets the job, and more surprisingly he has 10 cents in his pocket (unbeknownst to Jones). The proposition that “the man who gets the job has 10 cents in his pocket” was justified, true, and believed by Jones, but clearly it wasn’t knowledge.

A bit of reflection should reveal that what is wrong with this situation is that the statement “the man who gets the job has 10 cents in his pocket” is not really justified. It is true that when used as a rigid designator for Smith the proposition was justified, but it is not justified when “the man who gets the job” is not a rigid designator. To see why this is so imagine the following situation: I am currently holding a balloon, balloons float, therefore the object I am holding will float away when I release it. Then someone replaces the balloon in my hand with a rock. I am no longer justified in holding the statement “the object I am holding will float away when I release it” to be true, unless you think that rocks float. As the example shows you can’t generalize from a single object to a class of objects without additional reasons.

Case 2

Smith has strong evidence that Jones owns a Ford. He also has no idea where Brown is at the moment. From this he constructs three propositions: “Jones owns a Ford or Brown is in Boston”, “Jones owns a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona”, and “Jones owns a Ford or Brown is in Brest-Litovsk”. Then, again by coincidence, it turns out that Jones has sold his Ford, unbeknownst to Smith, but that Brown is in Barcelona. Once more it seems that the standard account of knowledge would claim that the proposition “Jones owns a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona” is knowledge, because it is both true and justified, and yet it certainly doesn’t seem like knowledge to us.

Again I would deny that “Jones owns a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona” is properly justified. It is essential to sound justification that it be based on true principles. However the justification for the statement above is based on the fact that Jones owns a Ford. If Jones doesn’t actually own a Ford, as is given in the example, then the justification isn’t sound, and hence shouldn’t count as the justification required by the standard account of knowledge.

Why do I defend the standard account of knowledge? I am certainly no big fan of it, but I think that progress needs to be made by looking more closely at the role knowledge is expected to play in our investigations. Even if we could show that the standard account came into conflict with our intuitions in some way, it wouldn’t be real progress to construct a new definition that was more in line with our intuitions. Why should we expect our intuitions to be reliable guides to finding truth and knowledge?

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1 Comment

  1. I’m with you on this one. You told me to look up Gettier’s objections a while back, but when I did, I was disappointed, since it seemed clear enough to me that his examples weren’t really justified.

    Comment by Carl — August 11, 2006 @ 11:31 pm


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