What is Knowledge?

Philosopher Edmund Gettier is famous for dispelling the popular notion that knowledge can be defined as a justified, true belief. His short, two-page paper provides (rare, though theoretically plausible) cases in which one had a belief that was both justified and true, though its justification turned out to be on false foundation, and its truth was by chance; in this way, Gettier demonstrates that we need another definition for knowledge since one can still hold a belief that is justified and true without having knowledge.

Let’s begin with Gettier’s scenario with Jones and Smith, two men applying for the same job.  Smith, knowing that Jones has ten coins in his pocket, has justification for believing that Jones would get the job–the employer told him so.  Thus, Smith claims, “The man with ten coins in his pocket will get the job.”  Unexpectedly, Smith lands the job, not Jones, and unbeknownst to Smith, he himself also has ten coins in his pocket.

Did Smith “know” that the man with ten coins in his pocket would get the job?  

Gettier claims–and I’m sure you will agree–that despite having justification for a belief that was technically true, Smith did not have knowledge.

If then, justification, truth, and belief are insufficient requirements of knowledge, I set out to determine what might supplement or replace them to create a whole set of necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge.

Still believing that knowledge is a justified, true belief, I initially suggested that proper justification is only conducive to knowledge if it was caused by the thing believed. In this way, Smith’s justification for believing that Jones will get the job–that the employer had told Smith he intended to hire Jones–would not count as justification since it is non-contingent to Jones having already gotten the job.

Collier’s opposition to a similar scenario of Goldman’s, however, shows otherwise: while Goldman suggested a belief’s justification is only conducive of knowledge if it is the product of experience, memory or a direct sense perception of the thing believed, Collier reasoned that if one, upon being administered a hallucinogen, is caused to hallucinate that one has been administered a hallucinogen, he did not actually “know” that he had been administered the hallucinogen, although his justification was caused by the thing believed.



In Russell’s similar scenario, a man justifiably believes the time to be 2 o’clock upon seeing a clock in the town square whose hands point to 2 o’clock. Although in Russell’s scenario it was 2 o’clock, the subject was unaware that the town clock had, in fact, stopped working precisely twelve hours earlier. Thus, Collier demonstrates that even when the justification is caused by the thing believed, a justified true belief may still yield claims unworthy of being called “knowledge”.


Thus I realized my issue was not with our conception of justification, but with Gettier’s usageing of the term “belief”; he denoted it as a single and unspecific claim, isolated from the premises upon which it stands. Although Gettier claims one justified belief may be induced from another, I take issue with using one justified belief as justification for another before the former’s truth is confirmed; rather, I regard every knowledge claim in the context of its (often hidden) premises. If any earlier premises are found fallacious or unjustified, then no resulting belief, regardless of its accuracy, is justified. Until all premises are confirmed, all consequent beliefs are “educated guesses”, not “justified beliefs”.

Though Gettier’s final belief regarding Jones’ job (“The man with 10 coins in his pocket will get the job”) was confusingly true and justified, reunited with its premises (that Jones would get the job, and that Jones had 10 coins in his pocket), the full “belief” is that “Jones, the man who will get the job, has 10 coins in his pocket”. Without isolating the concluding belief from its justifying premise, we can plainly see that the resulting knowledge claim is no longer true: the two clauses believed to be synonymous (“Jones” and “the man who will get the job”) are not so. Similarly, tracing Russell’s sample belief, “The current time is 2 o’clock”, back to its premises (“A properly functioning clock indicates the current time”; “This clock is properly functioning”, “This clock indicates 2 o’clock”) also prevents the misunderstandings caused by the non-specificity of Russell’s initial conclusion, “It is 2 o’clock”: evaluating knowledge claims in the broader context of their premises reveals a critical premise to be false (“This clock is properly functioning”) and thus reveals “It is 2 o’clock” to be not a justified, true belief but an educated guess.

One might oppose evaluating every knowledge claim only in the context of its premises since each claim might necessitate following a potentially endless succession of hidden premises (i.e. “I know x because y, and I know y because z, and I know z because …” etc). While that arduous result is possible, it is not unheard of: skeptical and rationalist philosophers agree that one cannot advance a step until one is sure the ground upon which one already stands is solid.


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