Do Gettier cases show that the tripartite definition of knowledge is inadequate?

In this essay I will argue that Gettier cases do show that the tripartite definition of knowledge is inadequate.

 

According to the tripartite definition of knowldge, the three necessary and sufficient elements to have knowledege are: 1) the belief by a of p 2) the truth of p and 3) the justification of the belief.

 

However, Gettier showed that ‘you could have a justified true belief and yet still lack knowldege of what you believe because your true belief was ultimately gained via luck’ (Duncan Pritchard. 2006. ‘The value of Knowledge’ and ‘Defining Knowledge’ from What is this thing called knowledge? 2nd Edition (London:Routledge). pp. 10-28 ). Therefore, Gettier cases show that there isn’t a biconditional relation between the three elements and the knowledge because the belief (by a of p), the truth(of p) and the justification (of the belief) are necessary but not sufficient conditions for knowledge because there is still something missing for the justified true belief in order to be knowledge. Therefore the tripartite definition is inadequate.

 

Now I’ll show how we came to the three elements of the tripartite definition of knowledge which is extremely important for epistemologists because ‘knowledge is the primary focus of epistemological theorising’ (Duncan Pritchard. 2006. ‘The value of Knowledge’ and ‘Defining Knowledge’ from What is this thing called knowledge? 2nd Edition (London:Routledge). pp. 10-28). Firstly, before giving a definition of the propositional knowledge (the knowledge in which we are more interested), we should consider the instrumental value of knowledge. Knowledge is valuable because it permits someone to achieve his goal. Approaching the topic of the value of knowledge, one of our premisses is: ‘one can only know what is true’(Duncan Pritchard. 2006. ‘The value of Knowledge’ and ‘Defining Knowledge’ from What is this thing called knowledge? 2nd Edition (London:Routledge). pp. 10-28). This demonstrates how the concept of truth is necessarily connected to the concept of knowledge. Indeed If a knows that p then s is in the psychological state of HOLDING p TRUE. If s knows that p then a believes that p. So, the belief of p by a and the truth of p are necessary for the knowledge of p by a. However, there is not a biconditional relation between knowledge and true beliefs because true belief is necessary but not sufficient for knowledge. In fact, ‘while knowledge requires truth, not every instance of a true belief is an istance of knowledge’ (Duncan Pritchard. 2006. ‘The value of Knowledge’ and ‘Defining Knowledge’ from What is this thing called knowledge? 2nd Edition (London:Routledge). pp. 10-28) . This means that in order to be knowlede, true belief must have something else. Since some true beliefs have instrumental value but not all of them, it can be the case that instances of knowledge are true beliefs with instrumental value. However a true belief with instrumental value is still not sufficient to have knowledge because ‘mere true belief is that, unlike knowledge, it is very unstable’ (Duncan Pritchard. 2006. ‘The value of Knowledge’ and ‘Defining Knowledge’ from What is this thing called knowledge? 2nd Edition (London:Routledge). pp. 10-28) because it is easily mistaken. That’s why Plato compares knowledge to the statues of the ancient Greek sculto Daedalus: ‘mere true belief is like one of the untethered statues of Daedalus, in that one could very easily lose it; knowledge, in contrast, is akin to a tethered statue, one that is therefore not easily lost’(Duncan Pritchard. 2006. ‘The value of Knowledge’ and ‘Defining Knowledge’ from What is this thing called knowledge? 2nd Edition (London:Routledge). pp. 10-28). Therefore, true belief, in order to be knowledge, needs to be justified. At this point seems that the best definition for knowledge is the tripartite definition: justified true belief.

 

However, Gettier confutes this definition, as shown above. I will use a different example from the ones cited by Gettier, though one that has the same general structure. Imagine a man, let’s call him Paul, who goes to the train station, as every morning, and takes the train that he takes everyday. So, his belief to be on the correct train is justified by the fact that the train has been always the same in the last ten years. However, he doesn’t notice that on the train it’s written another destination. So Paul is now forming his justified true belief (that he is going to London) by being on a train which has another sign destination written on. Fortunately, just the written destination was wrong, while the actual destination of the train was correct. After all, that Paul reaches his destination is, ultimately, a matter of luck.

 

This is the general structure that Gettier follows constructing his cases:

  • ‘First, he takes an agent who forms his belief in a way that would usually lead him to have a false belief’ (Duncan Pritchard. 2006. ‘The value of Knowledge’ and ‘Defining Knowledge’ from What is this thing called knowledge? 2nd Edition (London:Routledge). pp. 10-28). In the example above we took the case of someone taking a train with written on the wrong destination. Clearly, taking a train with the wrong destination in order to go to London would usually result in a false belief.
  • ‘Second, he adds some detail to the example to ensure that the agent’s belief is justified nonetheless’ (Duncan Pritchard. 2006. ‘The value of Knowledge’ and ‘Defining Knowledge’ from What is this thing called knowledge? 2nd Edition (London:Routledge). pp. 10-28). In the example above, the detail we added was that the passenger had no reason for thinking that the train was different from the one he was supposed to take because he goes to London everyday at the same time and the train is always the same. Thus his belief is entirely justified.
  • ‘Finally, he makes the case such that while the way in which the agent formed his belief would normally have resulted in a justified false belief, in this case it so happened that the belief was true’(Duncan Pritchard. 2006. ‘The value of Knowledge’ and ‘Defining Knowledge’ from What is this thing called knowledge? 2nd Edition (London:Routledge). pp. 10-28). In the train case, this is done by stipulating that the train just happens to be ‘telling’ the wrong destination but in fact it was going to the correct destination.

So we can conclude that knowledge is not simply justified true belief, but it’s necessary a greater co-operation on the part of the world than simply that the belief in question be true. One way to solve this issue is to guarantee the truth of the justification trough another justification: in that case the original belief would have its justification and then every justification would have its justification generating an infinte regress. There are many reactions to the infinte regress which can be sinthesised by Agrippa’s trilemma. The word ‘trilemma’, which derives from Greek, means a forced choice between three (tri-) unattractive alternatives (lemmas). In Agrippa’s trilemma the three alternatives are: infinitism, coherentism and foundationalism. These are just the main ones, but in general reactions are divided in: sceptical and non-sceptical theories. Non-sceptical theories, in turn, are divided until the far end which is the externalist view that is a relation between belief and the situation which makes it true. So, if we analize the various positions we can observe that the theory which goes farthest is the non-inferential knowledge that is the one which is non based on reasons. This shows that the regress ends in non inferential knowledge, because it’s impossibile to find an end in the knowledge based on reasons. So, in the end, Gettier has confuted the tripartite definition, without giving a solution. On the contrary he has raised many other issues. As for the infinite regress, indeed, we can notice that when we try to define the concept of knowledge we can’t reach a conclusion. Indeed we can’t properly define ‘knowledge’ because we don’t have the criteria for it. At the same time we can’t properly define the criteria without instances of knowledge. So, what’s the beginning and what’s the end? According to methodism, of which the Frech philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) is representative, we need criteria in order to define knowledge; according to particularism, of which the American philosopher Roderick Chisolm (1916-99) is representative, we need instances of knowledge in order to define criteria.

In conclusion I don’t agree neither with methodism neither with particularism, but with scepiticism: I think that an objective conception of knowledge is impossibile because knowledge and its criteria are like ‘The Chicken and the egg’. The chicken or the egg causality dilemma, indeed, is commonly stated as “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”.

 

Therefore, I think that even if Gettier cases do show that the tripartite definition of knowledge is inadequate, they’re still not useful because, in the end, it’s not possible to give a complete definition of the concept of knowledge.

 

Bibliography:

 

Plato, Meno, 96-100

 

Duncan Pritchard. 2006. ‘The value of Knowledge’ and ‘Defining Knowledge’ from What is this thing called knowledge? 2nd Edition (London:Routledge). pp. 10-28

 

  1. Gettier. 1963. ‘Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?’. Analysis 23, 121-3, reprinted in S. Bernecker and F. Dretske (eds) Knowledge: Readings in Contemporary Epistemology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
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