The Gettier Problem: A Study–Part 3




Which Condition Isn’t Met?

The basis of the tripartite analysis of knowledge begins not with truth but with belief. Typically, philosophers view knowledge as a species with belief being the genus. Knowledge is belief that has been modified or strengthened or improved upon. Belief, then, is the basis of the structure of knowledge and any analysis of knowledge has to include a robust account of what it means to believe. Many Gettier cases end up not being about belief at all and this is where they go wrong. The cases exchange terms about belief but end up describing a problem about the relations between the terms in the case and not about what the person described in the case actually is said to believe. Many cases run afoul based on an equivocation of terms used to describe propositional belief and an actual description of the contents of what the believer actually has as the object of belief.

By way of illustration, let’s look at Gettier’s first case[1] in which he describes Smith coming to have good evidence that the following proposition is true,

P1: Jones is the man who will get the job, and Jones has ten coins in his pocket.

He then comes to believe

P2: The man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket

based on the fact that P2 is entailed by P1. Gettier tells us that Smith is clearly justified in believing P2 based on the evidence that he has accrued in coming to believe P1. As it turns out, Smith ends up getting the job and Smith has ten coins in his pocket. Thus P2 is true, Smith believes it, and Smith is justified in believing it. But our intuitions are clear: Smith does not have knowledge.

On the surface, Gettier’s scenario seems to present a clear case against the sufficiency of JTB. Smith has justified, true, belief but clearly doesn’t have knowledge so JTB is inadequate. But if we examine the belief component in light of Gettier’s case, something has gone wrong with the case, not with JTB. Gettier tells us that Smith believes P2 and is justified in so believing because of his justified belief in P1. The difference between P1 and P2 is that the particular term “Jones” in P1 has been replaced with the general term “the man” in P2. The claim is that Smith believes both. But what does Smith actually believe when it comes to P2? It seems he could believe one of three things.

Smith could believe that “the man” refers to Jones where the referent of the term picks out the specific person Jones. In other words, when Smith uses the term “the man” the content of his belief is the specific person Jones and the two linguistic elements “the man” and “Jones” have the same referent. Insofar as what Smith believes, the term “the man” does not refer to any other human being. If this is the case, then Smith ends up not having knowledge precisely because he does not have justified, true, belief and not because he has justified, true, belief but requires something else in addition. His belief was not about something true, namely, he believed that Jones would get the job.

We might also read this case such that “the man who will get the job” refers to Smith himself such that the content of his belief references only the person Smith. In this case, Smith would not have knowledge either because he was not justified in believing “The man [Smith] who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket.” He had no evidence to support this belief. JTB remains intact and the belief fails to be knowledge because Smith is not justified in believing that he will get the job.

A final option is that Smith could believe that “the man who will get the job” refers to any man whatever. The content of the belief has no specific referent and means something like “whoever gets the job will have ten coins in his pocket.” Remember the claim here is that this is what Smith believes. But again, it should be clear that if this is Smith’s belief, he fails to have knowledge on JTB because Smith had no evidence whatever that any man with ten coins in his pocket would get the job; as with option 2, he was not justified in his belief.

In Gettier’s original argument, Smith derived the belief “the man who will get the job” from the justified belief “Jones will get the job.” In making this move, Gettier seems no longer to be analyzing the content of Smith’s beliefs. Gettier analyzes Smith’s knowledge in terms of the generalized sentence “the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket” where the term “the man” in the sentence can refer to any man whatever. But JTB describes what Smith must believe in order to have knowledge and, assuming Smith is rational, it seems entirely misguided to think that, for Smith, the term “the man who will get the job” has no specific referent or different referents depending on who gets the job. However, on any reading of the case where we’re concerned with Smith’s beliefs, we have no reason to believe Smith has knowledge and no reason to believe JTB is in any way inadequate. In each case, Smith has not met the requirements of JTB and that is why he does not know.

Admittedly, the description above is imprecise and addresses perhaps the simplest and most straightforward of the Gettier-style examples. It also doesn’t account for a number of epistemic tools on which we rely and ones that we most likely want to preserve: things like entailment relations in first-order logic. As noted above, there are many solutions that easily deal with Gettier’s original cases but fail with more complex cases and some of the more creative examples that deserve to be labeled Gettier-style cases. In order to see if the above account can be applied to the more complex cases, it will be necessary to articulate the above argument in more precise language and then apply the argument to further cases.


[1] Edmund Gettier, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge” in Analysis 23 (1963). Reprinted in Sven Bernecker and Fred Dretske, Knowledge: Readings in Contemporary Epistemology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 13-15