Epistemology is amongst the most important and most debated areas of Philosophy; Defining knowledge itself has proved to be one of the most pressing problems. Knowledge has often been described as ‘justified true belief;’ This tradition can be observed to have been applied as far back as the times of Plato, and claims that there are three criteria that must be satisfied in order for an individual to possess knowledge. This is known as the tripartite theory of knowledge.
Following the requirements of this theory, if we believe something, have justification for such a belief, and it is true, then our belief is knowledge. 1 The allegory of a ladder aptly describes the logic behind the tripartite theory of knowledge; the bottom of the ladder representing ignorance, and the top, knowledge. A belief must overcome each rung of the ladder, thus bringing it closer to knowledge. The first step is an unjustified belief. At the next step, the belief becomes justified, but may still prove to be true or false and therefore cannot constitute knowledge.
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The next step is an unjustified true belief; hereby truth has been found but there is no reasoning behind it. The last stage, when accomplished, establishes a justified true belief. The believer knows their belief to be true and has justification for this; hence the believer has achieved knowledge. 2This seems logical and straightforward, but it is debatable as to whether this can really be praised with describing the full extent of what knowledge is.
Gettier most notably expanded upon why this theory is slightly dubious by pointing out that a justified true belief may not actually be what we would commonly refer to as knowledge by pointing out a number of examples of justified true beliefs that were not knowledge. 3 Thus, it would seem, the tripartite theory, fails. However, by expanding upon the notions of truth and justification it might be possible for find some way of agreeing with the tripartite theory post Gettier. On the basis of the tripartite theory, to be considered true knowledge, a belief must be justifiable4.
If we take the meaning of a justifiable belief to be one we are ‘within our rights of holding5’ we must question our justification for such a conclusion. Therefore, it must surely call the benefits of defining a belief as ‘justifiable’ into question, that is to say, it leads us to consider whether ‘justifiable’ is really a term worthy of a rung on the allegorical ladder to true knowledge. It also means that, in fact, any justifications we might propose in search of certain knowledge, have to justify the means of their justification; therefore leading to a seemingly ‘infinite regression. ‘
To avoid this, one might suggest that there must be some form of basis that we may rely on without questioning; This basis of beginning with a priori principles which we must believe to be true prior to experience is the stance taken by rationalists. However, many Empiricists have questioned whether such a priori principles can actually exist. Since our experience is so limited, it seems valid to suggest that, in fact, we can only ever say what has been the case as far as we and others may account for. For the Empiricists, our knowledge is based on reasoning, through a process of deduction7.
Therefore, we gain knowledge from what we might call a common denominator perceived from a range of experiences. Hereby, for the likes of Aristotle, true knowledge is what we gain from our reasoning on the basis of our experiences in the world. However, this idea of basing knowledge, although partially, on perception, also seems to call many things into question. Surely, therefore, it seems safer to suggest that knowledge could merely be what one subjectively believes to be true even if such a proposition would deem the idea of knowledge as less worthy.
Perception and observation can be understood as conveying information about what is inputted to our senses. The result of these processes, or output, is considered to be a belief; such a belief may constitute knowledge. However, it would seem that much of our knowledge does come to us through our senses, adding to the suggestion of it subjective nature. Although the way that we perceive the world may be, in part, determined by the world, it is also heavily determined by us. We are not able to receive information about the world passively, and arguably contribute much to our own experiences.
Thus implying an unreliable basis for knowledge and leading to questioning of whether true knowledge can actually exist at all. The notion that knowledge or certainty can never be absolute has been entertained by philosophers for years; in particular, certainty of anything that is based wholly on sense experience8. Throughout the history of philosophy there have been numerous arguments portraying the unreliability of sense experience that are often hard to refute; one of the most memorable being that anything we gather from what we experience through our senses can never be deemed reliable as to what is actually beyond such appearances.
Sensory skeptics have highlighted this fact that that any knowledge gained from perceptions is biased by how things appear solely to us and that we cannot know what causes those appearances. Thus, any explanation of knowledge that involves experience, or sense knowledge, is called into question. Throughout the history of philosophy, sensory skeptics have argued that we perceive only things as they appear to us and cannot know what, if anything, causes those appearances.
Thus, if there is sense knowledge involved in a theory of knowledge from that stance of the skeptic, it will always be personal, direct and inconsistent as any conclusions we make from this very personal input are, therefore, subject to error as we have no way of knowing whether our inferences from our perceptions of the world are actually correct. This case could lead us towards Plato’s argument of true knowledge that states that it is to be found outside the realms of the physical world.
However, in turn, surely we must question the worthiness of something outside our own experience as it can never be experienced and therefore has questionable value. It would seem a logical conclusion that all we can ever claim to ‘know’ must be on the basis of our own experience. Thus we begin this deductive process of acquiring knowledge at birth where the mind is, what John Locke referred to as a ‘Tabula Rasa,9’ Therefore, knowledge could be more simply defined at the output of our reasoning on the basis of our experiences.
In conclusion, knowledge, even if we are to question its certainty or its basis of what has been called assumption, is information that is both true and justified in as far as it is possible to draw any conclusions on the matter. In response to Gettier, if we have a belief that is true and we can find justification for it, even if the justification is false, we still, arguably come to the same truthful conclusion. We might add to the tripartite theory that true knowledge also requires that the justifications made to also be true, that is to say, there must be no errors is the reasoning of the individual.
Although when subject to the challenges of skepticism as to the concept of knowledge itself, as far as we can understand, the tripartite theory does produce as adequate account of what knowledge is and logical way or establishing it. Therefore, knowledge is justifiable true belief that has been based on experienced and justified by human reasoning. Any definition of knowledge without these qualifying factors is beyond the realms of our experience and, therefore, arguably beyond our understanding and therefore of little value.