Knowledge and belief

by Neil Rickert

It should have been clear, from the time I started this blog, that I have some disagreements with analytic philosophy.  The name I have given the blog already reflects that.  Epistemology, a subfield of philosophy, is one of the places where I disagree.

Commonly, epistemologists define “knowledge” as justified true belief.  And there, I disagree.  To be sure, what most philosophers mean by “belief” is different from what theist’s mean by belief.  Moreover, I agree that there can be value in attempting to analyze what is required to be justified in having particular beliefs.  But it seems to me that it goes too far to identify that with knowledge.

As I see it, knowledge and belief are complementary to one another.  We sometimes use belief as a temporary aid until we acquire the knowledge.  John Searle has a good discussion of this with respect to learning to ski, at around page 150 of his book “Intentionality.”

The “justified true belief” characterization of knowledge attempts to account for all knowledge in terms of linguistic expression.  To me, that seems too narrow.  It would, in theory, be valid to just discuss linguistic expression, in isolation from everything else.  But in practice, linguistic expression cannot be easily isolated from intuition, common sense and other apparenly non-linguistic forms of knowledge.  So I see the “justified true belief” characterization as distorting our view of knowledge.

2 Comments to “Knowledge and belief”

  1. I think that you may build a straw man (or take a minority view) on the tripartite, or JBT, theory of knowledge.

    I do not know of any prominent epistemologists who would even CLAIM JBT theories encompass what you seem to want them to encompass. Searle is also clear in many of his works to make this same distinction.

    Typically, epistemologists recognize three “types” of knowledge – propositional, ability and acquaintance (some have further categories, but those are the most common / basic). JBT theories are only ever applied to propositional-type knowledge.

    For example, there is a difference in stating, as a proposition, “I know how to ski” and actually knowing how to ski. JBT will dissect the proposition and say that for you to accurately state that you know how to ski, you must meet these conditions and this is how you must meet them.

    The differences in ability knowledge and propositional knowledge are subtle, but to equivocate them would be a misrepresentation of the object of theory of most contemporary epistemologists. To say that JBT is “distorting our view of knowledge” because it is “too narrow” does not seem to be correct. JBT does not claim to be anything other than narrow, and therefore to apply it outside of it’s own constraints and then criticize it for being misapplied does not seem like a valid criticism.

    However, it may be that there are ways in which JBT DOES distort our view of knowledge within its own constraints. It may be that I have not read this critique correctly. Does it overstep its own bounds in a way that I have missed in your post?


    • Thanks for the comments.

      Yes, I take a minority view (perhaps a minority of one). But then I didn’t expect people to instantly agree with me.

      As I see it, the JTB characterization takes propositional knowledge as free standing, and independent of other forms of knowledge. But maybe propositional knowledge builds on abilities, and perhaps it is often the underlying abilities that provide the justification.

      As to the “distort” comment – I say that, because I see serious misunderstandings of science in the writing of philosophers, and they are the kind of misunderstandings that would seem likely to come from looking at scientific knowledge as if it were propositional.


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