Epistemology/Gettier cases

In 1963, Edmund Gettier released one of the most influential philosophy papers of the 20th century entitled Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?. Maybe deciding he should quit while ahead, he has never released another paper on epistemology since. In the previous chapter, each of the conditions of the tripartite analysis of knowledge were scrutinised to see if they are really necessary for knowledge. In this chapter, we will study the critique that Gettier made of justified true belief. In his paper, Gettier presents two counterexamples to the JTB analysis of knowledge which purported to show cases in which a person could have a justified true belief that fails to be knowledge. These examples and other similar examples which attack the sufficiency of the JTB conditions are now referred to as "Gettier cases".

Gettier's counterexamples Edit

Smith doesn't know how many coins are in his pocket
Jones owns a very reliable clock

In his first counterexample, Gettier gives us the case of two people applying for a job:

  • Smith and Jones apply for a job
  • Smith hears the interviewer say “I’m going to give Jones the job”
  • Smith also sees Jones count out 10 coins from his pocket
  • Smith forms the belief “the person who will get the job will have 10 coins in their pocket”
    • This is justified: Smith has good reason to think Jones will get the job and that Jones has 10 coins in his pocket
  • But actually Smith gets the job! Unknown to him, he has 10 coins in his pocket!
  • So his justified belief has turned out to be true by random chance and satisfies the JTB conditions for knowledge

In the last chapter, we discussed why most philosophers see epistemic luck as a deadly blow for any analysis of knowledge and this is exactly what Gettier has shown can happen for the tripartite analysis of knowledge. In his next case, Gettier utilises the idea of disjunction to arrive at the same result. Disjunction is when you combine two propositions (1) and (2) together to make the proposition "(1) or (2)" which is made true if either one (or both) is true.

In his second counterexample, Gettier gives us another case involving Smith and Jones:

  • Smith sees Jones driving a Ford
  • Smith thinks to himself that not only does he have justification for believing Jones owns a Ford but also the belief “Either Jones owns a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona”
    • He is justified in believing this is true because he is justified in believing that Jones owns a Ford (and this alone would make his belief true)
  • But Jones doesn’t own a Ford, He was driving a friend’s car!
  • By complete chance Brown is in Barcelona

Once again, Gettier has provided an example where Smith has justified true belief by a complete coincidence – can this possibly be considered true knowledge?

Russell's counterexample Edit

Previously to Gettier's paper in 1963, Bertrand Russell provided this example in his 1948 book Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits:

  • Jones owns a very precise, reliable clock
  • Jones comes downstairs in the morning to check the time from his trusty clock
  • It shows the time to be 10 o'clock
  • Jones forms the belief “It’s 10 in the morning”
    • Justified: his clock has always been reliable and precise in the past
  • However, last night at 10pm, the clock stopped and hadn’t moved since
  • By chance, it is 10 in the morning! So Jones has JTB
  • If Jones had gotten down the stairs even a minute later, he would have been wrong

This example not only shows that there are possible cases of justified true belief which fail to be knowledge, but also that such cases can even be uncomplicated everyday cases of belief!

How to respond to the Gettier cases Edit

Most contemporary philosophers agree that justification, belief and truth are not sufficient for knowledge precisely because of the type of examples that Gettier presents. This leaves epistemology in big trouble, if this common sense analysis of knowledge isn't enough, what can we replace it with? We will briefly consider one obvious response.

Simply adding a condition ruling out epistemic luck solves the problem of Gettier cases. However, it is not a solution favoured by philosophers. This is because this solution is ad hoc. Something is called ad hoc when it is created to solve a problem and for which we have no other independent reason for creating. This is a problem because it means that this solution is trivial and uninteresting; it tells us nothing new about how knowledge works and why it is not lucky. A good analysis of knowledge would rule out epistemic luck without needing to add a "no epistemic luck" rule because it would tell us something substantive about how and why our knowledge is not lucky.

The "no epistemic luck" analysis of knowledge: A subject S knows that p if and only if
  1. S is justified in believing that p,
  2. p is true,
  3. S believes that p, and
  4. S’s belief that p was not formed as the result of epistemic luck

where p is a proposition.

In the following chapters of this section, we will explore the various ways in which philosophers have responded to Gettier cases. We will discuss the prospects of adding an extra condition to the JTB analysis (sometimes called JTB+X), then the views of those philosophers who have argued that this kind of analysis of knowledge has been doomed from the start, ending finally on the consideration that maybe all attempts to analyse knowledge are doomed, maybe knowledge is simply unanalysable.

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