Knowledge as primitive: after Plato

[Disclaimer: Contemporary Epistemology is NOT my area! This is just an underqualified musing on the issue.]

Lets address three moments in Epistemology:

Phase One: Plato


When we all start philosophy courses, one of the first things we learn is “knowledge is defined as ‘justified true belief'”. Sure, okay. Lets just assume this and in some way admit that it panders to a lot of our intuitions about knowledge, what do I mean? Lets explore this:


We shall concern ourselves with propositional knowledge only (that’s how we do Epistemology in my part of the world). If we take this, we shall formulate all knowledge claims into the following schema:

S knows that p

Lets look at some real life examples of how the term ‘know’ is used:

  • I love you/I know (Princess Leia and Han Solo – The Empire Strikes Back)
  • “I may not know art, but I know what I like”
  • I know that he was in the room, I saw him!
  • I know that Jesus loves me

Our intuitions tell us that, knowledge involves justification; for something to genuinely count as knowledge, you need to have a grounding. Our intuitions tell us that knowledge involves belief; to know something is to possess a mental state. Our intuitions tell us that knowledge involves truth; “surely something cannot count as knowledge if it is not true?!”, intuition might tell us.

Most of us who are lay people and care not for epistemology can be happy with a JTB account. But halt! Lets look at Plato’s so-called ‘tripartite’ definition in a formal way.

S knows that p iff:

  1. S believes that p
  2. p is true
  3. S is justified

So, what’s the big jiff? I’ll tell you…

Phase 2: Counterexamples

There are cases whereby we can say something is knowledge [in virtue of our pretheoretic intuition], but isn’t JTB. Here’s a case. I maintain that the Third law of motion in strict Newtonian Mechanics (pre-Lagrange, pre-Hamilton) is knowledge. I can say I believe (psychological phenomenon) in the Classical laws; I can say my belief is justified. Most of us (like engineers) want to say it is knowledge! But it’s not true!

A famous paper by the eponymous Gettier shows that, so-called Gettier cases should make us worry about the JTB account. What do we do now for epistemology?

Phase 3: Onwards, but forwards?

There are lots and lots of ways to react to the Gettier problem; I am just going to consider one for this post. Timothy Williamson has stated that the problem of all hitherto epistemology (for the past hundred or so years) is that it endorses a conceptual analysis scheme whereby it assumes we can analyse knowledge into these component parts like justified true belief.

Williamson makes a lot of suggestions; the most poignant ones are these

  1. Knowledge is a primitive
  2. Although knowledge is a primitive; we can understand it in conjunction with other things (like justification)
  3. The project of epistemology is one of psychology
  4. The project of epistemology is not one of conceptual analysis in the way of the ‘S knows that p iff…’ schema

I need to think hard about Williamson’s suggestion. I think 2,3 are correct, 1 I need to think hard about, and 4? I think that is just wildly out of my philosophical comfort zone if this is true; so I want to say it is false (but not that I disagree with it!)

These are all very hard issues



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