What's the point?
Types of knowledge
- I know how to ride a bike
- I know who that person is
- I know that London is the capital of England
In contrast, the second two examples are often recognised as being different. Rather than being subconscious, they relate to a declarative sense of what we know about the world around us. As such , they are sometimes termed ‘contact with reality’ knowledge. The first example is described as ‘acquaintance knowledge’ - that is, you have a familiarity with this part of reality. This may be a person or place, and may still not be that explicit (in particular I am thinking of that sense of recognition that we get about someone’s face, without clearly remembering their name), although we may argue that this wouldn’t count as knowledge. However, it is the third example that I gave above that is the type of knowledge that we are particularly interested in here: propositional knowledge. This is knowledge about propositions, i.e. specific facts about the world, for which the knower does not have to have had direct experiential contact (unlike the other forms). These are discrete concepts that are able to be transferred between people and across time, and are a major component of what constitutes the repository of total human knowledge, as we might think about it. This is therefore identified as being a category of knowledge that is quite different. I find it fascinating that this distinction is something that is actually clearly built into many other languages. For instance, in German, the verb kennen refers to the knowledge of a place or person, whilst wissen refers to the propositional knowledge that we are interested in. However, in English we can continue whilst specifying the type that we mean, and for propositional knowledge we shall term it ‘know-that’.
The classical definition
- It is true
- You believe it
- Your belief is justified
Let’s work through it to understand it better. Firstly, everyone is in agreement that for you to know something it has to be true. That is, if a proposition is actually false, people would tend to agree that you didn’t actually know it. Similarly, there is generally consensus that you have to have a belief in it being true for you to know something. If you have no confidence, or even an active disbelief in something, then again, we would all be pretty confident that we don’t really know it. We might use a different word (hunch, suspicion) that might indicate some partial belief, but again this is different from knowledge.
The final part of the definition is where all the trouble lies. I think of this as being the ‘anti-luck’ component. In essence, we can think of cases where someone believes something for a completely unjustified reason, and every so often may indeed actually be right. For example, a man believes that it will rain tomorrow because of a dream he had. If it does indeed rain (and he was someone that did truly believe in the predictive ability of dreams) then this would be a true belief. But we would all feel that it clearly isn’t knowledge, as the truth of it was predicated on some amount of luck (to a greater or lesser degree depending how much it rains where the gentleman lives). For knowledge to exist, we want something that can negate the presence of such luck in any true belief. The answer to this has been justification. That is, the application of a reasoned approach as to why you believe something to be true, thus transforming it from simple belief into knowledge. Now this all seems very reasonable, and indeed this was accepted as a basic truth until someone noticed that there was a problem.
If you want to delve into this topic a bit more, I’ve added a number of links and resources below. This video series from wireless philosophy provides a nice introduction. In addition, for those of you with a particularly strong interest, the Coursera series ‘Introduction to Philosophy’ from the team at The University of Edinburgh is a great starting point.
Links & References
- Lacewing, M. Philosophy for AS and A level: Epistemology and Moral Philosophy. Routledge. 2017.
- Epistemology. The Basics of Philosophy. https://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_epistemology.html
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Epistemology. 2020. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology/
- Wireless Philosophy. Philosophy - Epistemology. Youtube. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r_Y3utIeTPg&list=PLtKNX4SfKpzUxuye9OdaRfL5fbpGa3bH5&index=1
- University of Edinburgh. Introduction to Philosophy. Coursera.