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The Gettier Problem: A Study-Part 1


Gettier – What’s the Problem?

Philosophers who believe that Gettier-style arguments pose a substantial problem for the tripartite theory of knowledge vastly outnumber those who do not. In this series, I’m going to throw my lot in with the latter group and argue that Gettier arguments do not present substantial counterexamples to the justified true belief theory of knowledge as commonly construed. I will argue that while Gettier arguments do surface some problems in epistemology, they do not undermine JTB. Specifically, I will argue that JTB describes the justification of beliefs while Gettier arguments merely show the limitations of language that reference beliefs. I will argue that most Gettier-style counterexamples fail to make a distinction between a proposition (or a statement that exemplifies a proposition) and beliefs about or of propositions.

Treatments of the Gettier problem are expansive, complex, and varied. In his excellent article “Conditions and Analyses of Knowing,” [1] Robert Shope places responses into 5 distinct classes each class having multiple variations. In general, philosophers tend to attack the problem by attempting to amend or shore up the justification condition or by attempting to establish a (heretofore elusive) “fourth condition.” It will be useful to rehearse Shope’s taxonomy in order to better categorize my own response in light of the current literature.

Under the largest category which Shope titles, “Challenges to the Justification Condition” he outlines two main sub-classes elucidating problems with each. Causal theories attempt to demonstrate that the justification condition is unnecessary by arguing that knowledge consists of beliefs that are directly caused by the object of the belief. Some have tried to add a “nonaccidentality requirement” which states that the causal chain that is responsible for the belief not include any causes that might accidentally bring about the belief in question.

Others have attempted to analyze Getter cases in terms of reliability requirements. These models have the belief being formed by way of reliable processes but not necessarily starting from the event or state of affairs that the belief is about. A variation on the model (which Shope labels “Reliable Indicator analyses”) does include the target event or state of affairs and views the connection between belief and its target as the indicator of the strength of the causal chain. A third variation (“Conclusive Reasons analyses”) uses subjunctive conditionals to state the reliability factor: if not h then S would not believe that h (this is one example among many variants).

Shope then considers analyses done in terms of defeasibility. This class and the two that follow attempt to add a fourth condition to the standard account. Shope describes a defeasibility condition as one that describes the impact that a hypothetical circumstance (typically stated in the form of a subjunctive conditional) might have on an aspect of the knower’s epistemology if that circumstance brought the knower, unsuspectingly, into some relation with a true proposition or propositions.

Before providing his own analysis, Shope reviews two more approaches the first of which are analyses in terms of virtue epistemology. On Shope’s read, virtue-based solutions involve reference to characteristics true of the knower rather than merely of the process of coming to believe. Reliabilist theories would fall under virtue analyses on this read. A more specific type virtue analysis involves a deontological component and would include “some positive normative characterization” of the way the knower goes about attaining epistemic goals.

Plantinga gets his own category in the final approach in Shope’s list. Plantinga’s proper functionalism combines elements of reliabilism and virtue epistemology but includes the idea of belief producing mechanisms aimed at truth in the proper environment as a background requirement.

Shope carefully explains that each approach above deals with a certain subset of cases but no approach deals with all variants of Gettier-style examples. As he unpacks each view, he isolates a variant that each solution fails to address. In addition to Gettier’s original two cases, Shope isolates 11 new strains (with clever titles like “Neurotic Grabit” and “The Careless Typesetter”) that pose problems for one or more of the solutions he examines. Shope’s own approach contains specific elements of mine so we will examine elements of his solution in a later article. Shope’s detailed survey, however, demonstrates the obvious complexity of an adequate analysis of knowledge and the enormous effort epistemologists have exerted since 1963 in an attempt to answer Gettier.


[1] In this paper, Shope explores the various responses to the Gettier Problem (as well as surveys the critiques of the tripartite theory of knowledge in general). See Robert K. Shope, “Conditions and Analyses of Knowing” in Paul K. Moser, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Epistemology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). For the purposes of this paper, I will assume that the three conditions, justification, truth and belief, are individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for knowledge. My only claim at this point is that whatever belief, truth, and justification turn out to be, one does not have knowledge without meeting all three conditions. When the three conditions are met, one has knowledge.

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