Tagged: epistemology

On the Gettier Problem

At this years Wittgenstein Symposium (11-17 August 2013) I will give a talk on the Gettier problem. I am still thinking hard about what I want to tell the people who will attend my talk because the Gettier problem is a real case of what I call ‘Philosophical Intercultural Communication’. By that I want to say that the congress participants (I expect them to be professionals in philosophy, experts) will think that what I am saying about the Gettier problem is absolute nonsense, whereas, on the other side, I, myself, think that the Gettier problem is absolute nonsense.

So, there seems to be no possible way of communication. And if, as we suppose it to be in philosophy, it can only be the case that I am right and they are wrong or they are right and I am wrong, then it follows from that that either they are or I am an idiot, stupid or little intelligent, which is the component of shame in philosophical discussion.

Thus, the fact that I go there in order to speak about something – the Gettier problem – I do not understand, just in order to express my total incomprehension of it, can by regarded as courageous, silly, or as an act of sheer aggression against the discipline of philosophy.

But it is neither of these attributions. It is really the case that professional philosophers – be it in English or in German – are often talking in a “different language” from mine, and I do not understand what they are saying. And at the same time, while listening to them, I have the Impression that, if their way of talking about the subject is correct, then there is no place left over for my thoughts to be expressed (because their way of conceiving the problem or topic makes my treatment of it impossible from the very start). Or, to express it in other words, it is really a case of Philosophical Intercultural Communication.

The Gettier problem for me to is a parade example of the huge differences between the different cultures of philosophizing, because it seems to be necessary to go through a kind of mental conversion (similar to a religious conversion) for a person in order to be able to understand the Gettier problem at all.

I will now give a very short synopsis of the Gettier problem as I understand it. The aim of the Gettier counterexamples is to prove that the so called Standard Analysis of Knowledge is insufficient. The Standard Analysis defines Knowledge as justified, true belief. A person S knows a Proposition p iff (I) she believes p, (II) if she is justified in believing p, and (III) if p is true. In his article from 1963 Edmund Gettier constructed two counterexamples in which all of these three conditions are fulfilled, but even though the person S does not know.

The first counterexample is about Smith and Jones having a Job interview. Smith is justified to believe that Jones will get the Job. (Why? That’s not so important. It might be “that the president of the company assured him that Jones would in the end be selected.”) And Smith has seen ten coins in Jones pocket. Therefore he draws the following inference: “The man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket.” But the truth is that Smith, and not Jones, will get the Job, and Smith also has ten coins in his pocket (but he does not know that.

In conclusion, Smith believes that “the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket”, he is justified in believing it, and it is true – but, even though, he does not know it.

That’s at least the Interpretation of the case of the analytical epistemologists. They say, Smith was right, but luckily right. There was too much luck involved, epistemic luck, and he could, under different circumstances, easily have been wrong. And the fact that his assertion was nothing more than something like a ‘lucky guess’, is the reason why we say that Smith did not know that  “the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket”.

What I do not understand about this Interpretation of Gettier’s counterexample is the following: It is obviously based on the supposition that linguistic utterances have to be taken literally. That means that “the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket” can either be true or false, and in the case that it is true, all three conditions of the Standard Analysis of Knowledge are fulfilled.

That’s not my way of thinking. I would ask Smith: “What do you mean by ‘the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket’?” As I am neither a logician nor a lawyer, “the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket” and “the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket” can mean different things, depending, for example, on the man, Smith had in mind when constructing that phrase.

Or, shorter, I would not Interpret the first Gettier counterexample in the way that Smith was right when assuming that “the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket”. What he assumed, had the same linguistic expression like what was true, but it had a different content. What Smith had in mind was: “Jones will get the job, and Jones has ten coins in his pocket.” What was true was: Smith got the job, and Smith had ten coins in his pocket.

The reasons why the Gettier problem is important for me is, first, to be confronted with people who really do think logically. They think logically means that they take linguistic statements literally. For them there is no difference between “the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket” and “the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket”. (If you understand me literally, I will get angry. This is also the reason why I get angry with the Gettier problem: I also get angry when I experience that other persons – even fictitious ones are understood literally. I think that we express our contempt towards a person when we understand her literally and not according to what she wants to say.)

And, secondly, the Gettier problem shows in which kind of problems and mess you put yourself when thinking logically. The Gettier problem is up to now unsolved. And there is a reason for that: the concept of knowledge expresses an inner relation between the knower and the thing she knows. That is: something additional to external conditions like those of the Standard Analysis of Knowledge.

It can be evaluated by an observer whether a certain person has a certain belief (for instance if she says to have this belief), if there are reasons for her to be justified in having that belief, and if the belief is, in fact, true. But in order to find out what it is a person knows one has to start asking her what she means when saying that she has this certain belief. But logically thinking philosophers do not do that, for the logical analysis of linguistic expressions for them is already the highest degree of accuracy possible in philosophical research.

Knowledge has to escape them, for knowledge is an inner relation. Or, the inner relation is an important part of its characteristic: “I know that I know.” “I know what I know.” If you want to find out about what somebody knows you will have to start asking this person about what she thinks to know. If you start – like the epistomologists and logicians – with the conviction that the same words always necessarily mean the same things, and that it is completely irrelevant what people have in mind when saying them, you will miss knowledge. Of course, you will not miss other things which can be seen from outside, like truth, belief or justification – but you will miss knowledge.

This is what is really interesting about the Gettier problem: that logical thinking leads to an absolute standpoint (a perspective in which statements can just be true or false – and not: interpreted differently), and that there are certain things – like knowledge – which cannot be understood from such a standpoint; that knowledge pertains to those queer things which require a second, a relative perspective in order to be understood. Relative perspective means: You have to go, yourself, to the place where a certain person stands in order to find out what the landscape looks like from that standpoint.

In conclusion, the Gettier problem is interesting for me because so many intelligent philosophers writing a mountain of sophisticated papers have failed solving it. But instead of suspecting that there is something wrong with the conception of the problem, they are still investing more logic and sophistication into it.

Now I am about to come and tell them that the king is nude and to take away their favourite toy from them. How will they react? I suppose that by proving to me that I know so little about formal logic, the rules of logical thinking and handling definitions that I will degenerate psychically to a sobbering something that does not even know its own name, anymore.

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