Nonfiction

Knowledge: What We Know?

Aristotle once wrote, “All men by nature desire knowledge” (Aristotle). What is knowledge, then, for all men to desire it?

Knowledge: What We Know?

Aristotle once wrote, “All men by nature desire knowledge” (Aristotle). What is knowledge, then, for all men to desire it? Philosophers have been debating this question for more than two millennia, but according to Dictionary.com, the definition of knowledge is “[an] acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles, as from study or investigation; general erudition” (“knowledge,” def.1). This definition suggests that knowledge is data, applicable only as an awareness of what facts are or aren’t known. While correct, this definition falls a little short by implying that knowledge is only a collection of information. Another definition of knowledge is “the fact or state of knowing; the perception of fact or truth; clear and certain mental apprehension” (“knowledge,” def. 4). This definition is quite ambiguous, however, raising the question—how does one arrive at a “state of knowing” or “clear and certain mental apprehension”?  Knowledge in this sense is provisional; conditions must first be met before the information can be considered knowledge.

In Theaetetus, a dialogue written around 360 B.C.E., Plato explicitly asks the question, “What is knowledge” (Theaetetus 11) through the use of his three main characters: Socrates, Theodorus, and Theaetetus. In it, Socrates poses the question to young Theaetetus who first defines knowledge by giving examples of different types of knowledge. Unsatisfied, Socrates presses the issue, wanting a simple, succinct answer. Theaetetus responds by giving his first meaningful attempt: that knowledge is perception (25). Like Plato, I have to disagree with this definition of knowledge, as it implies that what a person perceives to be is, which is certainly not the case.  Magicians are an example that disproves that knowledge is perception because their illusions are simply that: “something that deceives by producing a false or misleading impression of reality” (“illusion”). Although the perception is that a person is being sawed in half, the reality is that the sawee is in fact perfectly fine. Ipso facto knowledge is NOT perception.

The second definition that young Theaetetus posits is that knowledge is true judgment (knowledge is a belief) (116). Socrates refutes this definition by arguing first against the concept of false judgment before tackling the idea of true judgment. His counterargument against this is that of a jury being persuaded by a lawyer about an account that only a witness could know. So, while their judgment may be true based upon what they hear, the verdict would be given without true knowledge (155). Once again, Plato has the right of it as one cannot truly have knowledge of something simply from the belief that it is so. Humans once “knew” that the sun and stars orbited the earth based upon observation and belief, though today it is known to be the exact opposite, therefore knowledge is NOT true judgment.

Theaetetus’ third definition states that knowledge is true judgment with logos, or that knowledge is a belief with an account (158). Plato, through Socrates, again rebuffs this version after thrice attempting to define logos, and the dialogue ends without an acceptable definition of knowledge. Although Theaetetus fails to give a proper explanation, the final attempted definition, true judgment with logos closely mirrors a modern day version used by epistemologists.

Epistemology, which is “the branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge” (“epistemology”) classifies knowledge into three categories: knowledge of a person or place, knowledge of a technical nature (how to do something), and propositional knowledge (X knows that y). In dealing with propositional knowledge, epistemologists use a three part analysis to define knowledge as a justified true belief (Steup).  Belief is the first condition that must be met in order for information to be considered knowledge because if a person does not believe in the proposition, then they cannot know it. (As a person cannot falsely believe, only believe falsely.) While beliefs may be true or false, knowledge must be true to satisfy the second condition, the truth condition, otherwise it would only be an opinion at best or an outright lie at worst. The third and final condition of the analysis is the justification condition. This condition, which is perhaps the most important of the three, is necessary to show that a correct or true belief is correct for reasons other than simple, dumb luck (Steup). In this instance, justification means that the formation of a true belief is warranted, or reasonable based upon other factors. Epistemologists, however, differ on exactly what the justification condition entails. According to evidentialists, a belief is justified when there is evidence supporting that belief. Reliabilists, on the other hand, state that a belief is justified when that belief is conceived through reliable cognitive processes (Steup). Regardless of which view of justification is used in the model, satisfying all three conditions of the analysis should turn information into knowledge, but according to Edmund Gettier, this analysis is incomplete.

Gettier, an American philosopher, wrote a paper in 1963 refuting this established, epistemological definition of propositional knowledge. In this paper, Gettier presented two counterexamples that appear to show that “it is possible for a person to be justified in believing a proposition that is in fact false” (Gettier). Rather than reciting the two cases that Gettier presented, a perfect example of the Gettier problem, as it is known, actually presented itself during the course of this writing. I was reading an article about LeBron James, the basketball player, which began with a quotation taken from Sports Illustrated (Simmons). The quotation described James, but was in fact actually a reference to Michael Jordan written over twenty years ago.  My belief that the quotation was in reference to James was true and justified based upon both the title and content of the article. The Gettier problem arises because although the quotation was applicable, the quotation itself was about someone else, therefore my “knowledge” of the proposition was in reality false.

So do we really know anything at all? The obvious answer is absolutely, but when delving a bit deeper it becomes apparent that what we think we know far outstrips what we can quantifiably ascertain. The conditional aspect of what constitutes as knowledge gives a fluidity to the concept of what we do or do not know, causing “clear and certain mental apprehension” to be more difficult than what initially appears to be a relatively simple process. Oscar Wilde summed it up best: “I love talking about nothing. It is the only thing I know anything about.”


Works Cited.

Aristotle. “knowledge.” Quotations Page. Michael Moncur, 2012. Web. 10/27/2012.

Gettier, Edmund. “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” Philosophyfaculty.ucsd.edu. University of California San Diego. Web. 10/27/2012.

“illusion.” Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, 2012. Web. 10/27/2012.

“knowledge.” Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, 2012. Web. 10/27/2012.

Plato. “Theaetetus.” Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Unforgotten Classics. 2011. Ebook.

Simmons, Bill. “LeBron’s Quest for Immortality.” Grantland.com. ESPN.com, Oct. 26, 2012. Web. 10/27/2012.

Steup, Matthias. “Epistemology.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, Sept. 2012. Web. 10/27/2012.

Wilde, Oscar. “Oscar Wilde: Quotes.” Goodreads.com. Goodreads Inc. Web. 10/27/2012.


Adam Jackson originally wrote this essay for Palabras's original Website back in April 2013.


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