Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

A Truth Should Suffice

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

A Truth Should Suffice

Article excerpt

David Edmonds contrasts Edmund Gettier's three-page 1963 masterpiece with the endless outflow induced by the emetic REF.

What to make of the strange case of Professor Gettier? What mark do we award him, in a university world obsessed with impact and output?

Professor who? If you haven't heard of Edmund L. Gettier III, then you don't teach or study philosophy.

Exactly 50 years ago Gettier was an academic at Wayne State University in Detroit. He was in his mid-thirties. He wanted to get tenure but he hadn't published anything, and he was under intense pressure to do so. He had one idea, which was to write about knowledge.

The issue of what should count as knowledge is, of course, one of the hoariest in philosophy. What does it mean to say "I know that Detroit is the most populous city in Michigan"?

Well, until 1963 many philosophers agreed on the answer: knowledge equals justified true belief. I believe Detroit is the most populous city in Michigan. I am justified in believing it - because, let's say, I've read it in the Encylopaedia Britannica. And my belief is true: Detroit is indeed the most populous city in Michigan.

If any components in this "justified true belief" equation are missing, I can't be said to have knowledge. Thus I can't know that Ann Arbor is the most populous city in Michigan because it is not true. And if I believed Detroit was the most populous city only because I was under the silly delusion that big cities always began with the letter D, I would have no justification for my belief, and again couldn't be said to know the proposition about Detroit.

So far, so straightforward. Then Gettier sent some counterexamples to the peer-reviewed journal Analysis, which published them. His article was shorter than this one. It was titled "Is justified true belief knowledge?".

Take a variation of one of his examples. Smith and Jones both apply for a lectureship in logic. Smith believes Jones will be offered the post, because the head of the philosophy department has told him so. Smith also knows that Jones has a copy of Times Higher Education in his briefcase because he just saw Jones buy it and put it there. So Smith believes that the man who'll get the logic post has a copy of THE in his briefcase. But does he know it?

Well, as it happens, the job is eventually awarded to Smith himself. And, by sheer chance, Smith too has a copy of THE in his briefcase, a fact of which he's completely ignorant (he didn't realise that when he was out shopping with his wife she had purchased a copy and placed it there). …

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