thinkingman1_thumb7This blog post is part of the ‘Epistemology’ series. In this series I hope to explain, in layman’s terms, the fundamentals of this fascinating subject for people who may not have encountered it before (particularly my fellow freethinkers in Kampala). As people who pride themselves as being skeptics and critical thinkers, its highly important that we develop a good understanding of epistemology.

 

knowledge (1) 

Epistemology, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is:

Defined narrowly, epistemology is the study of knowledge and justified belief. As the study of knowledge, epistemology is concerned with the following questions: What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge? What are its sources? What is its structure, and what are its limits? As the study of justified belief, epistemology aims to answer questions such as: How we are to understand the concept of justification? What makes justified beliefs justified? Is justification internal or external to one’s own mind? Understood more broadly, epistemology is about issues having to do with the creation and dissemination of knowledge in particular areas of inquiry.

Types of Knowledge:

There are three types of knowledge, namely:

  • Personal/Acquaintance Knowledge (first hand acquaintance with a person, place, event, subject, etc)
  • Procedural/Ability Knowledge (knowing how to perform various actions)
  • Propositional/Descriptive Knowledge (knowledge that is, by its very nature, expressed in declarative sentences or indicative propositions)

In philosophy, it is propositional knowledge that is of most interest to philosophers. Both personal and procedural knowledge rely, to a large degree, on propositional knowledge.

So what does it mean to say that one ‘knows’ something?

In saying that one knows something, we are, in effect, saying something about the person doing the knowing, the proposition that this person claims to know, and the relationship between the two.

The things a person might claim to know might be things like:

  • Tokyo is the capital city of Japan
  • Kanye West is a rapper
  • Uganda lies north of Tanzania

The above statements are propositions – i.e. declarative statements – which can either be true or false.

If one were to say James knows that Tokyo is the capital city of Japan, he’s saying that he believes that the proposition “Tokyo is the capital city of Japan” is true. If James doesn’t believe that Tokyo is the capital city of Japan, it would be strange to say he knows that Tokyo is the capital city of Japan. Thus, one necessary component of knowledge is that James has to believe the proposition. Secondly, James might believe that the proposition “Tokyo is the capital city of Japan” is true, but then this proposition could actually turn out to be false. If that is the case, it would make no sense to say that James knows that “Tokyo is the capital city of Japan”. Thus, for James to be able to say that he knows that “Tokyo is the capital city of Japan”, at least two things would need to be the case, namely:

  1. James believes that “Tokyo is the capital city of Japan”.
  2. The proposition “Tokyo is the capital city of Japan” is true. 

Knowledge

The third condition:

While it is relatively easy for James to say he believes that “Tokyo is the capital city of Japan”, how would he go about trying to establish whether or not that proposition is actually true?

Due to the fact that no human being can claim omniscience (or infallible knowledge), the best James can do is to appeal to what might be considered good reasons, as fallible as they may be, for believing that the proposition is true. If he does this successfully, we would say that James is justified in believing that the proposition “Tokyo is the capital city of Japan” was true. The result is that for James to be able to say he knows that “Tokyo is the capital city of Japan”, it would have to be the case that:

  1. James believes that “Tokyo is the capital city of Japan”.
  2. James has good reasons for believing that the proposition “Tokyo is the capital city of Japan” is true.  Or put another way, James’ belief that “Tokyo is the capital city of Japan” is justified.
  3. The proposition “Tokyo is the capital city of Japan” is true.

With this deconstruction of what entails knowledge, we now see that James’ claim of knowledge of the proposition “Tokyo is the capital city of Japan” can be restated as James’ justified true belief in the proposition “Tokyo is the capital city of Japan”.

This analysis of knowledge is called the tripartite definition of knowledge – and is used as a working model for knowledge by philosophers. According to this analysis, the three conditions — truth, belief, and justification — are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for knowledge.


Next: In Part 2 of this series, we shall look at what is considered to be the major problem associated with this definition of knowledge, and how philosophers have tried to overcome that problem – and in Part 3, we’ll look at various theories of justification.

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