My view of knowledge

by Neil Rickert

In my posts on consciousness, I indicated that I saw knowledge as an important issue.  Today, I will say more about my view of knowledge.


The traditional account of knowledge by philosophers, is that knowledge is justified true belief (or JTB for short).  That has always seemed wrong to me.  It is my experience that when I express disagreement with that view, I get blow back.  So the JTB idea seems to have a lot of support, though I find it hard to understand why.

When people support JTB, they usually acknowledge the need for some additional requirement to deal with the Gettier problem, though they rarely say what that additional requirement should be.  Personally, I don’t worry much about the Gettier problem, since for me, the whole idea of knowledge as natural language statements seems mistaken.

I recall first thinking about knowledge when I was walking home from school at around 10 years of age.  I wondered to myself whether knowledge could be based on natural language statements that we hold to be true.  And I quickly concluded that had to be wrong.  For one thing, most of the natural language statements that I took to be true were not anything where I had learned them as natural language statements.  And then there was the question of how language statements connected to the world, how they were about things in the world and how we could come to know that they are about things in the world.  The JTB characterization of knowledge does not come close to addressing those questions.  My conclusion, as a 10 year old, was that knowledge had to be far more structural, far more to do with how we relate to the world.  I guess that’s something similar to what Searle calls “the background”, though of course I had not heard of that at age 10.

Knowledge and computers

When AI researchers want something similar to justified true belief in their AI systems, they add a database.  The database is often called a “knowledge base”.  Yet most ordinary people doubt that a computer can know anything at all.  When people express doubt about what a computer can know, they are expressing doubt that what can be in computer databases should count as knowledge.

Perceptual knowledge

If I look around, I might notice that the cat is on the mat.  Then “the cat is on the mat” is said to be an example of perceptual knowledge, a belief acquired through perception and justified by that same act of perception.  That is in keeping with the JTB characterization of knowledge.  But I want to ask the question “how did we know that was a cat?”  That’s a question usually not discussed much in philosophical discussions of knowledge.  Our very ability to perceive, and to perceive that there is a cat, requires a huge amount of knowledge which seems to be prerequisite to acquiring justified true beliefs.  It is that prerequisite set of abilities, rather than the acquired beliefs, that I want to count as knowledge.

How I see knowledge

To me, what should count as knowledge is that set of abilities that enable us to get along in the world.  To investigate knowledge, in that sense, we must investigate perception and how it works; we must investigate meaning and how that works.  So when connect consciousness to knowledge, it is those underlying abilities that I see as important.

To say that differently, I see the study of knowledge as closely linked to the study of perception and of intentionality.  A theory of knowledge should include a theoretical basis for both perception and intentionality.


2 Comments to “My view of knowledge”

  1. Neil,

    Knowing your dislike to JTB, let me explain my interpretation. It may be not too far from your concept of knowledge.

    In philosophical discussions the two theories of truth – correspondence and coherence – are usually seen as competitors and thus mutually exclusive. Instead, I see correspondence and coherence being the two necessary dimensions of knowledge. To rely on anything as knowledge, both dimensions must exist. Generally, correspondence is emphasized in perceptual knowledge, coherence in our worldview: the existent body of knowledge which gives meaning to new perceptions by coherence.

    So, coherence Justifies the True Beliefs which correspond our perceptions. You may call the acts of forming correspondences and coherences ’abilities’.


    • Thanks.

      I find both the correspondence theory and the coherence theory of truth to be unsatisfactory. I won’t elaborate, because I’m sure you are familiar with some of the objections. But I’ll pass on that problem for a moment.

      A cognitive agent needs the ability to discern truth, as you are already admitting (at least implicitly). As I see it, that ability ought to count as knowledge. And that ability is prior to any ability to hold true beliefs. So the knowledge required for discerning truth cannot itself be a matter of JTB.

      For me, “knowledge” should be something like the set of abilities that are required in order for an agent to be able to hold beliefs, to be able to discern the truth of those beliefs, to be able to judge whether the agent is sufficiently justified in holding those beliefs. So I see knowledge and belief as complementary to one another, rather than as being different names for the same thing.


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