Musings on Gettier and the definition of knowledge

Scientia Salon

knowledge3by Coel Hellier

Philosophers have traditionally defined knowledge as a belief that is both true and justified, a definition that sufficed until, 50 years ago, Edmund Gettier pointed out that the conditions could be fulfilled by accident, in ways that didn’t amount to what we would intuitively regard as knowledge.

Gettier pointed to scenarios such as:

“Smith has applied for a job, but, it is claimed, has a justified belief that ‘Jones will get the job.’ He also has a justified belief that ‘Jones has 10 coins in his pocket.’ Smith therefore (justifiably) concludes that ‘the man who will get the job has 10 coins in his pocket.’ In fact, Jones does not get the job. Instead, Smith does. However, as it happens, Smith (unknowingly and by sheer chance) also had 10 coins in his pocket. So his belief that ‘the man who will get the job has 10 coins…

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6 thoughts on “Musings on Gettier and the definition of knowledge

  1. I tried to follow this argument and I read the comments and now I feel like my head’s gonna explode.

    “Smith therefore (justifiably) concludes that ‘the man who will get the job has 10 coins in his pocket.’”

    Is this a trick or something? How can Smith “justifiably” conclude that the utterly irrelevant matter of having 10 coins relates to getting a job? Or that there’s only one man in the whole wide world—Jones—who has 10 coins in his pocket?

    Now I know later on the author of this article comments on this irrelevance, but I still don’t see the point. Maybe you can explain in plain English? 🙂 I trust YOU to be clear!


    1. Thanks for the trust. I hope I can live up to it. Coel gives the typical example of the Gettier problem, but the problem itself is a bit convoluted. The ancient definition of knowledge is justified true belief. That is, I only know something if I believe it, I have good reasons for believing it, and it is actually true. A few decades ago Edmund Gettier pointed out a flaw in this definition.

      Consider this scenario. Suppose we meet for lunch regularly, and you see me bring chocolate cake every time, so you conclude I love chocolate cake. You believe I love chocolate cake and you’re justified in that belief by the evidence of me bringing it every day. However, I’ve actually been bringing the chocolate cake every day because it’s the only dessert available at the place I buy my lunch. Normally I make a point to eat a variety of desserts but I’m currently constrained in my choice. However, by sheer coincidence, I do love chocolate cake.

      You have justified true belief. The justification didn’t mean what you thought it meant, but your belief turned out to be true anyway. Can we say you actually knew that I loved chocolate cake?


      1. Your example makes WAY more sense. Thank you!

        Suppose the real reason you love chocolate cake is because your mother used to make it for you when you were a child and you have fond memories. If I say this, then I have knowledge. If I say you love chocolate cake because you always bring it, then I don’t have knowledge. In both cases I get it right that you love chocolate cake, but being able to account for WHY seems to make all the difference.

        I always thought that “justified” meant giving a correct account? It’s not enough to get things right by accident.

        So if “justified” doesn’t mean giving a correct account, but some kind of flimsy empirical evidence with no account, then maybe we could say:

        Justified true belief+correct account=knowledge?

        Sounds a little too pat, but I just thought I’d throw it out there. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s already been thrown and has been discarded as rubbish 🙂


        1. “Justified” just means having very good reasons for holding a belief. If I glance at my watch and see that it’s 12:46, I’m justified in believing it’s 12:46. If asked to explain my belief, I can give a reasonable justification for it. However, my watch could be broken and stuck at 12:46, so my belief could be false. I’m still justified in believing it to be 12:46 (my belief is not unreasonable or arbitrary) as long as I have no reason to suspect that my watch is broken. Now, if my watch is broken and it actually is 12:46 anyway, that’s another example of a Gettier case.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I agree, an excellent example, better than the one I did above!

            I think the Gettier problem is an interesting definitional problem, but only a definitional one. I agree with Coel that it looks less problematic when we realize that there are varying levels of justification. There isn’t a sharp break between belief that is and isn’t knowledge, only a spectrum of certitude. For example, I think social science discoveries are knowledge, but far less certain knowledge than E=mc2. It’s always going to be a judgment call when to consider a belief to be justified, with some people insisting that anything less than six sigma certainty isn’t knowledge, and others insisting that their gut feeling suffices.

            Any belief that we are confident about could turn out to be false after more information is available (the problem of induction). “True” only means that we have what we judge to be sufficient justification and haven’t received any additional information yet showing that the belief is inaccurate.


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