Question One Continued: A priori knowledge, Gettier Problems, and Ayer

The PhilPapers Survey was a survey of professional philosophers and others on their philosophical views, carried out in November 2009. The Survey was taken by 3226 respondents, including 1803 philosophy faculty members and/or PhDs and 829 philosophy graduate students.

The PhilPapers Metasurvey was a concurrent survey of professional philosophers and others concerning their predictions of the results of the Survey. The Metasurvey was taken by 727 respondents including 438 professional philosophers and PhDs and 210 philosophy graduate students. (

The PhilPapers Survey never asked me for my philosophical views, but that’s not stopping me. So here is my stab at the survey, one post at a time.

Question One

Is there a priori knowledge?
Current answer: Yes
Confidence in answer: 8 (on my subjective unjustified scale of confidence)
The question of whether there is a priori knowledge forced me to attempt to define knowledge. I defaulted to the position that knowledge is defined by a set of three necessary and jointly sufficient conditions. For there to be knowledge of some proposition p, 1) p must be believed, 2)p must be true, and 3) there must be some sort of justification by which p is believed to be true. Justified True Belief, or JTB, was the dominant epistemological model for the first 2,500 years of philosophy (this is a bit of an exaggeration, but it gets to the point). Then Edmund Gettier wrote a short article in 1963 entitled “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge”. Suddenly, it seemed that JTB was insufficient. Perhaps a fourth necessary condition was needed.

Last night, in preparation for coursework, I found an interesting wrinkle to this debate. Chapter 9 of Garth Hallett’s Linguistic Philosophy: The Central Story relates a debate between Bernard Williams and A.J. Ayer.1 Williams says,

What is necessary — and what represents the undoubted fact that knowledge differs from mere true belief — is that one or more of conditions should obtain, which relate the fact that A has this belief to the fact that, given the truth of p, it is no accident that A believes p rather than not-p. This formula is vague and over-generous, but it gets us, I think, on the right line.2

Ayer concurs with Williams that we need something like this vague “no accident” clause, but doubts that the vagueness could ever be fully resolved. He explains,

…that there are various different grounds on which claims to knowledge can be accredited, and I therefore suspect that if one is trying to define knowledge, in its personal aspect, on may have to be content with some such vague formula as my own “having the right to be sure.” If one ventures on anything more precise, one is likely to be faced with counter-examples… We are usually able to decide the question in particular cases, though even here there may be differences of opinion, but I have some doubt whether these particular decisions can be fitted tidily under any general rule.3

I myself attempted some sort of vague qualifier in light of Gettier examples, i.e. that there must be some sort of relation between the justification and that the belief is true. In other words, it can’t happen by accident. I agree with Williams that this vagueness heads us in the right direction for an account of knowledge. I am not quite in Ayer’s boat that the vagueness cannot be resolved. Perhaps we can allay the degree of vagueness without stumbling too far away from a true account of knowledge. Therefore, I am willing to stick to my definition of JTB as knowledge with the caveat that such a definition is admittedly vague and there may be borderline cases which prove JTB not fully adequate.

1 G. Hallett. 2008. “Wittgenstein versus Theoretical ‘Intuitions'” in Linguistic Philosophy: The Central Story. Albany: State University of New York Press.
2 Ibid. 74.
3Ibid. 75.

Posted on March 29, 2011, in PhilPaper Survey and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Hey Daniel,

    It seems that in math, the justification is not something separate from the truth of the matter or of my belief in it. For science more generally, there often seems to be something understood in any given theory, even if we also have ask about whether it occurs in reality. Concerning whether or not I have a certain amount of change in my pocket, however, there is a disconnect. So I think that there might be equivocations on “knowledge,” which would doom any attempt to unite it under a single definition. (Although, for the record, Socrates shoots down JTB in the Thaetetus and never finds a satisfactory alternative). What do you think?


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