The Gettier Problem: A Study-Part 2

Gettier cases assume a particularist methodology in that they appeal to our intuition about what knowledge consists of. When encountering a Gettier case, we tend to say, “I may not know why, but that’s not a case of knowledge.” Pure intuitions are quite different, however.

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A Brief Remark on Intuitions and Gettier Cases

Gettier cases assume a particularist methodology in that they appeal to our intuition about what knowledge consists of. When encountering a Gettier case, we tend to say, “I may not know why, but that’s not a case of knowledge.” Pure intuitions are quite different, however, from intuitions that have been shaped by study or influence. 5585-WWU_smAn epistemologist who has studied the question of knowledge deeply may no longer be able to look at a specific case with virgin eyes. Her “intuition” may be deeply affected by what she consciously has come to learn about what knowledge should be or what she may be committed to in her theory. If this is true, then it might explain why Gettier cases continue to get more and more complex and why each case—and its subsequent solutions--may feed a new set of intuitions giving birth to new cases.

In an introductory philosophy course that I’ve taught for many years, at the beginning of each quarter I ask each batch of new students to create three columns on a sheet of paper and write “Faith,” “Belief,” and “Knowledge” at the top of each column. I then ask them to fill in the columns with examples from their own noetic structure. We then review the list. The knowledge column generally tends to contain the least number of items but typically contains things like “I am sitting in a chair” or “We are now located in Seattle” and the like. Being a philosophy professor, I forcefully challenge their knowledge column providing irrefutable evidence (at least irrefutable for beginning philosophy students) that they actually don’t know what they claim to know. When I then ask if they would like to change their minds, some students will easily move items from the “Knowledge” column to the “Belief” column now realizing they were “mistaken.”

This admittedly anecdotal experiment illustrates a difficulty in dealing with Gettier cases. The cases themselves demand that we rely on intuition in order to “see” that such cases do not constitute knowledge yet the intuitions we’re expected to appeal to are not pure and most likely are as varied as the people have them[1]. The more one studies Gettier cases, the more likely one may abandon their particularist intuitions and employ more of a methodist analysis simply because they know so much. I preface my own response to Gettier with this caveat. For my own intuitions are quite strong about why Gettier cases go wrong. But I fully acknowledge that my reader may not share them.

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[1] This may be why solving the Gettier problem tends to be so difficult. William Lycan goes further warning, “It is well to remind ourselves that no effort of analytic philosophy to provide strictly necessary and sufficient conditions for a philosophically interesting concept has ever succeeded.” (William G. Lycan, “On the Gettier Problem problem”) Lycan’s ominous claim applies not only to Gettier problems but to many problems in philosophy and is worth remembering at the beginning of this study to avoid too much frustration at the end.

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