Gettier Cases

(This is an adapted extract from 'Justified true belief - knowledge and the myth of propositions'. My aim here is a bitesize condensation of the argument.)


The Gettier problem is that some cases of justified true belief don't amount to knowledge, so the JTB definition is inadequate. But I suggest that Gettier-cases really demonstrate the muddle caused by the myth of propositions.


A Gettier-case is a story with dramatic irony. Given that the story is fictional, we Gettier-spectators know the complete situation, because we have, as it were, objective knowledge of the features of reality in the story. But the protagonist doesn't have this knowledge. Here is an example.


A woman sees a group of people and mistakes one of them, a stranger, for her friend. So she believes her friend is there. And as it happens, her friend really is there, but hidden. So what she believes is the case. But does she know her friend is there?


The point is, what happens in the story has nothing to do with propositions. The woman’s mistake does not come from a false premise. She just believes the stranger is her friend, which is not the case. And her belief that her friend is there is not propositional. Propositional belief is as muddled an idea as propositional knowledge. There are just beliefs and knowledge-claims expressed by means of propositions.


We want to say that what she believes is true, because her friend really is there. But that is the myth of propositions at work. What she mistakenly believes is that her friend is there, which is a feature of reality. When we believe or know a feature of reality is the case, we do not believe or know a proposition. So we do not believe or know something that is true or false.


The woman does not know her friend is there because she lacks objective knowledge of that feature of reality. And afterwards, apprised of the situation and her mistake, she would not say she knew her friend was there. That is not how we use the word 'know'. She would say she believed the stranger was her friend, but was mistaken.


We say we know a feature of reality is the case only if it is, or we think it is, the case. And if it turns out not to be the case, we don’t say we have stopped knowing it. We just say we were mistaken. For example, we don’t say we stopped knowing the earth is flat.


Gettier-cases recycle the JTB definition's concentration on: subjective knowledge - what an individual knows - effectively ignoring objective knowledge and its justification; propositional knowledge - S knows that p - as though what we know is propositions rather than features of reality; and the truth condition - S knows that p only if p is true - which gets things back to front.


There are features of reality; there is what we believe or know about them, such as that they are the case; and there is what we say about them, which may be true or false. To muddle these things up is a mistake.


But Gettier-cases also contain the solution to the Gettier problem. The individuals believe things for reasons that don't objectively justify their beliefs, which is why their beliefs don't amount to knowledge. Objective knowledge of features of reality, which may be expressed by means of true factual assertions, frees us from subjective, epistemic isolation. It's the objective knowledge that we Gettier-spectators have.


Peter Holmes

31 July 2017