For anyone, there are some things you know and some things you don’t. What exactly is the difference? What does it take to know something? It is not enough to believe it: we do not know the things we are wrong about. Knowledge seems to be more of a way to get to the truth. The analysis of knowledge refers to the attempt to articulate what exactly this form of “getting to the truth” consists of.

More specifically, the project of analyzing knowledge consists of enunciating the conditions that are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for propositional knowledge, answering in depth the question what does it take to know something? By “propositional knowledge” we mean the knowledge of a proposition; for example, if Susana knows that Alyssa is a musician, she is aware of the proposition that Alyssa is a musician.

Propositional knowledge must be distinguished from “knowledge”, such as that obtained when Susan meets Alyssa. The relationship between propositional knowledge and knowledge in question in other “knowledge” locutions in English, such as knowledge-where (“Susan knows where she is”) and especially knowledge-how (“Susan knows how to ride a bike”) is subject to some debate.

Knowledge as a justified true belief

Traditional (“tripartite”) knowledge analysis has three components. According to this analysis, true and justified belief is necessary and sufficient for knowledge.

The tripartite analysis of knowledge:

S knows that p if;

p is true;

S believes that p;

S is justified in believing that p.

The tripartite analysis of knowledge is often abbreviated as the “JTB” analysis, for “justified true belief” in English.

Much of the twentieth-century literature on the analysis of knowledge took JTB analysis as a starting point. It became some sort of fiction convenient to assume that this analysis was widely accepted for much of the history of philosophy. In fact, however, JTB analysis was first articulated in the twentieth century by its attackers. Before turning to the influential twentieth-century arguments against JTB theory, let’s briefly consider the three traditional components of knowledge.

The truth condition

Most epistemologists have found it overwhelmingly plausible that you cannot know what is false. For example, Hillary Clinton did not win the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Consequently, no one knows that Hillary Clinton won the election. You can only know the things that are true.

Sometimes, when people are very sure of something that turns out to be wrong, we use the word “knows” to describe their situation. Many people expected Clinton to win the election. Generally speaking, you could even say that many people “knew” that Clinton would win the election, until she lost. Hazlett (2010) argues, based on data like this, that “knows” is not a factive verb[2] Hazlett’s diagnosis is highly controversial; most epistemologists will treat phrases like “I knew Clinton was going to win” as a kind of exaggeration, since they are not literally true.

The truth of something does not require anyone to know or prove that it is true. Not all truths are established truths. If you toss a coin and never check how it has fallen, it may be true that it has come out expensive, even if no one has any way of knowing.

Truth is a metaphysical notion, as opposed to epistemological: truth is a matter of how things are, not how they can be shown to be. So when we say that only true things can be known, we are not saying (yet) anything about how the truth can be accessed. As we shall see, the other conditions have an important role to play here. Knowledge is a type of relationship with truth: to know something is to have a certain type of access to a fact.

The condition of belief

The condition of belief is only slightly more controversial than the condition of truth. This general idea behind the condition of belief is that you can only know what you believe. Not believing in something prevents you from knowing it. In the context of JTB theory, “believing” means believing fully, or believing without further ad. On the other hand, in a weak sense, one can “believe” in something by virtue of being quite sure that it is probably true. In this weak sense, someone who considered Clinton the favorite to win the election, even acknowledging a non-trivial possibility that she would lose, could be said to “believe” that Clinton would win. To believe categorically that p, it is not enough to have a fairly high confidence in p; it’s something closer to a commitment or a safe being.

Although it might initially seem obvious that knowing that p requires believing that p, some philosophers have argued that knowledge without belief is, in fact, possible. Suppose Walter comes home from work and discovers that his house has burned down. He says, “I don’t think so.” Critics of the belief condition might argue that Walter knows his house has burned down (he sees that he has), but, as his words indicate, he does not believe it.

The standard answer is that Walter’s statement of disbelief is not literally true; what Walter wants to convey by saying “I don’t think so” is not that he doesn’t really believe his house has burned down, but that he finds it hard to accept what he sees. If you really didn’t believe it, some of your subsequent actions, like thrang your insurance company on the phone, would be quite mysterious.

The Counterexample of Colin Radford

Colin Radford (1966) has suggested a more serious counterexample. Suppose Albert is questioned about the history of England. One of the questions is, “When did Queen Elizabeth die?” Albert thinks he doesn’t know, but answers the question correctly. In addition, it correctly answers many other questions whose answer I did not think I knew. Let’s focus on Albert’s answer to the question about Isabella:

(E) Isabella died in 1603.

Radford makes the following two statements about this example:

Albert does not believe (E).

Alberto knows (E).

Radford’s intuitions about cases like these do not seem to be idiosyncratic; Myers-Schutz and Schwitzgebel (2013) find evidence to suggest that many ordinary speakers tend to react in the way radford suggests. In support of (a), Radford stresses that Albert believes he does not know the answer to the question. He does not trust his answer because he considers it a mere assumption. In support of (b), Radford argues that Albert’s answer is by no means a fortunate assumption. The fact that you answer most of the questions correctly indicates that you have really learned, and never forgotten, those historical facts.

Since it considers that (a) and (b) are true, Radford argues that belief is not necessary for knowledge. But either option (a) and (b) may be rejected. It could be denied (a), arguing that Albert has an unspoken belief in (E), even if it is not a belief that he believes amounts to knowledge. David Rose and Jonathan Schaffer (2013) take this path. Alternatively, one could deny (b), arguing that Albert’s correct answer is not an expression of knowledge, perhaps because, given his subjective position, he has no justification for believing (E).

The justification condition

Why is condition (iii) necessary? Why not say that knowledge is a true belief? The standard answer is that identifying knowledge with true belief would be implausible, because a belief can be true even if it is incorrectly formed. Suppose William tosses a coin and believes confidently – without any concrete basis – that it will come out cross. If by chance the coin comes out cross, William’s belief is true, but a fortunate assumption like this is not a knowledge. For William to know, his belief must be, in some epistemic sense, adequate or appropriate: it must be justified.

Socrates articulates the need for something resembling a condition of justification in Plato’s Theetethy, when he points out that “true opinion” is generally insufficient for knowledge. For example, if a lawyer uses sophistry to induce a jury into a belief that turns out to be true, that belief is not sufficiently well-founded to constitute knowledge.

Approaches to justification

There is considerable disagreement among epistemologists about what the type of justification is relevant in this case. Internalists on justification think that whether a belief is justified depends entirely on states in some sense internal to the subject. According to a common sense of “internal”, only those traits of a subject’s experience that are directly or introspectively available, which is called “access internalism”, count as “internal”. According to another, only the intrinsic states of the subject are “internal”, which is called “state internalism”.

Conee and Feldman (2001), present an example of an internalist view. According to them, S’s belief that p is justified if and only if one believes that p is the attitude toward p that best fits the evidence of S, where it is understood that it depends only on the internal mental states of S. Conee and Feldman call their view “evidentlism.” , and characterize it as the thesis that justification is entirely a matter of the subject’s evidence.

Given its (not insubstantial) assumption that the evidence a subject has is an internal matter, evidentialism implies internalism. Externalists on justification think that factors external to the subject may be relevant to justification; for example, process relativists think that justified beliefs are those that are formed by a cognitive process that tends to produce a high proportion of true beliefs in relation to false ones.

Types of justification

It is worth noting that one can distinguish between two important notions of justification, commonly referred to as “propositional justification” and “doxástic justification”. (Sometimes “ex ante” justification and “ex post” justification, respectively.) Unlike the internalist and externalist approaches to justification, the distinction between propositional and doxástic justification does not represent a conflict that must be resolved; it is a distinction between two distinct properties that are called “justification”.

Propositional justification refers to whether a subject has sufficient reason to believe a particular proposition; doxástic justification refers to whether a given belief is properly held A common way of relating the two is to suggest that propositional justification is the most fundamental, and that doxástic justification is a matter of a subject having a belief that adequately responds to or is based on their propositional justification.

Propositional and doxastic justification

The precise relationship between propositional and doxastic justification is subject to controversy, but it is incontrovertible that the two notions can be separated. Suppose Ingrid ignores a lot of excellent evidence that indicates that a certain neighborhood is dangerous, but she comes to superstitiously believe that the neighborhood is dangerous when she sees a black cat crossing the street. Since the formation of beliefs on the basis of superstition is not an epistically appropriate way of forming beliefs, Ingrid’s belief is not doxástically justified; however, he has good reason to believe as he does, so he has a propositional justification for the proposition that the neighborhood is dangerous.

Since knowledge is a particularly successful type of belief, doxástic justification is a stronger candidate for being closely related to knowledge; JTB theory is typically thought to invoke doxástic justification.

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Bibliographic References

Colin Radford, ‘Knowledge — by Examples’, Analysis 1966. Google Scholar

Blake Myers-Schulz, Eric Schwitzgebel. Knowing That P without Believing That P. First published: 09 April 2013

Earl Conee & Richard Feldman2001 – In Hilary Kornblith (ed.), American Philosophical Quarterly. Blackwell. pp. 1 – 18.

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