DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P059-3
Version: v3,  Published online: 2021
Retrieved July 13, 2024, from

3. The nature of knowledge

At least since Plato’s Theaetetus, epistemology has embraced the Socratic project of providing a ‘definition’ or ‘account’ of knowledge. Such an account is supposed to give insight into the nature of knowledge, by describing conditions that are a) individually necessary, b) jointly sufficient, and c) informative. To say that a condition on knowledge is necessary is to say that anything that counts as knowledge must satisfy the condition. To say that some set of conditions is sufficient for knowledge is to say that anything that satisfies the conditions thereby counts as knowledge; if a thing satisfies those conditions, that is enough for the thing to be knowledge. Finally, an adequate account of knowledge ought to be informative in the sense of providing insight or understanding regarding the nature of knowledge. If an account is circular, for example, it would fail to do this.

Gettier (1963) famously challenges what was then a rough consensus in epistemology regarding the nature of knowledge – that knowledge is equivalent to justified true belief. A belief is justified, in the relevant sense, insofar as it is based on good evidence, or good grounds. Famously, Gettier provided two counterexamples to the consensus view (often called the JTB account of knowledge), each purporting to show that a belief might be both true and justified, and yet not qualify as knowledge (see Gettier problem).

Here is one of Gettier’s counterexamples, paraphrasing his original formulation.

Job Applicant. Suppose that Smith has applied for a job position and has strong evidence that both a) Jones will get the job, and b) Jones has ten coins in his pocket. We may suppose that the president of the company has assured Smith that Jones will get the job, and that Jones has just recently shown Smith that he has the ten coins. On the basis of this strong evidence, Smith forms the belief that the person who will get the job has ten coins in their pocket. Now suppose that, unknown to Smith, it is in fact Smith who will get the job. And, also unknown to Smith, he himself has ten coins in his picket.

According to Gettier, Smith’s belief is both true and justified, but does not amount to knowledge. That is, the case shows that the traditional account is incorrect.

Gettier’s counterexamples and his negative assessment of the JTB account have been largely accepted, and the next several decades have seen a series of alternative accounts, as well as counterexamples to these. Alternatives to the JTB account have generally fallen into two broad categories. The first retains the traditional justification condition but strengthens the JTB account by adding a fourth condition. The second replaces the traditional justification condition with a different condition altogether.

An early example of the first category is the ‘no false lemma’ account, which required that, in cases of knowledge, S’s reasoning does not go through a false belief. This is a plausible diagnosis of what is going wrong in early Gettier cases. For example, Smith’s reasoning includes the false belief that Jones will get the job. An early example of the second category is the causal theory of knowledge, which required that there must be an appropriate causal relation between S’s belief and the facts that make it true. The causal theory also plausibly diagnoses early Gettier cases. For example, Smith’s belief that the person who will get the job has ten coins in their pocket is causally unrelated to the fact that makes it true, which is that Smith himself will get the job (see Causal theory of knowledge).

However, both of these accounts are plausibly refuted by the following Gettier case.

Fake Barn Country. Henry is driving in the countryside and sees a barn ahead in clear view. On this basis he believes that the object ahead is a barn. Unknown to Henry, however, the area is dotted with barn facades that are indistinguishable from real barns from the road. However, Henry happens to be looking at the one real barn in the area.

(Goldman 1976)

Henry’s belief is both true and well-grounded. Moreover, Henry’s belief is based directly on his perception of the barn, as opposed to any reasoning that goes through a false step. And yet, plausibly, Henry does not know that the object is a barn. Accordingly, Fake Barn Country seems to be a counterexample to the ‘no false lemma’ account. Likewise, Henry’s belief is straightforwardly caused by the fact that makes it true. Accordingly, the case is a counterexample to the causal theory as well.

Many other proposals have followed in response to Gettier’s paper, including modal accounts, defeasibility accounts, and virtue-theoretic accounts (see Defeasibility theory of knowledge; Modal epistemology; Virtue epistemology). However, there has been no consensus that any of these offer an adequate account of knowledge. One reaction to this impasse has been to give up on the project of constructing a traditional account, in the sense of providing necessary, sufficient and informative conditions. One alternative is to focus on constructing partial accounts of knowledge; for example, accounts of epistemic justification, or accounts of the modal relation that knowledge requires between mind and world (see Justification, epistemic; Modal epistemology). Another alternative is to offer an account of knowledge, but using an alternative (i.e., non-Socratic) model of explanation, such as a genealogical model. A third alternative, which characterizes the ‘knowledge first’ methodology in epistemology, is to treat knowledge as a theoretical primitive, using it to analyse other phenomena such as belief, justification, and evidence (see Williamson, Timothy §3). In all such cases, the criteria for assessing these accounts will be largely in terms of their explanatory power. That is, all of these approaches are continuous with the traditional Socratic approach, insofar as they aim to give insight into what knowledge is, and into the relations between knowledge and other phenomena of interest. (See also Gettier problem; Knowledge, concept of; Metaphysics of knowledge)

Citing this article:
Greco, John. The nature of knowledge. Epistemology, 2021, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P059-3. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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