During his trial Socrates argued that human wisdom came from the acknowledgment of human ignorance (Plato, 1969, P. 52), a position arrived at via the traditional account of knowledge as justified true belief. Because of such conclusions this account, which leaves us without a useful “knowledge”, is not without its detractors. Therefore the traditional theory of knowledge as justified true belief will be outlined. Its success, strengths and weakness as an account of knowledge will be assessed in relation to competing theories such as “critical rationalism”, where knowledge is not infallible but merely the best available theory (Popper, 1984, p. 26-7).
The question of demarcation between belief and knowledge has been a central debate in epistemology. The traditional account of knowledge considered belief to be an essential component of knowledge. For the purpose of argument, the proposition ‘time is a dimension in relation to other dimensions’ is true. But if the individual does not believe it to be so then they don’t know it. This is the first condition of the traditional theory of knowledge, the belief condition. A belief may be true or false, but knowledge must be true. The second condition of knowledge is the Truth condition.
A proposition that meets the first two conditions of the traditional epistemological theory is not necessarily considered knowledge, as it still has to satisfy the evidence condition. According to this position, a propositions status as knowledge is not based on belief or accidental truth, but must be justified to the point of infallibility in order to be considered knowledge.
The infallibility of knowledge has been a controversial point for epistemologists. The truth condition, according to the traditional theory has to be satisfied in order for a proposition to be considered knowledge. But the truth or falsity of a proposition is determined by the justification. A proposition can be considered true and justified on the basis of all available evidence, but a contrary observation can disprove a long held piece of knowledge, this is the “problem of induction” (Popper, 1984, p. 42). This is not the only problem with the evidence condition. The infinite regress of reasons that one proposition is justified with another, is a problem for the traditional account of knowledge. If one proposition is supported by another and so forth until there is a whole system of propositions, it becomes self-referring without finding a foundation that justifies the totality of propositions.
Foundational and fallibility issues have been central weakness of the traditional account of knowledge. There have been varied attempts to solve the problem of knowledge, either in proposing foundations in an attempt to solve the infinite regress of reasons, or by weakening the idea of infallibility of knowledge. Theses philosophers opt to define knowledge as the best available theory on the basis of all current evidence to avoid scepticism, the position that we have no knowledge.
Epistemological foundationalism, in both its empiricist and rationalist variants has attempted to ground knowledge and thus save the justified true belief account of knowledge from both the infinite regress of reasons and scepticism. These problems left unsolved would invalidate any synthetic propositions claim to knowledge. Empiricist conceived that all knowledge was grounded in the senses. John Locke expressed the idea in his phrase “Tabula Rasa” that the human mind is like a blank canvas getting filled in by experience (Teichman, Evens, 1991 p.246). This foundational theory, which does not weaken the evidence condition, is still subject to the infinite regress of reasons, the problem of induction, the fallibility of sense-observations and thus all the problems associated with the traditional account of knowledge.
Perceptual information can lead to false propositions; Descartes recognising this fact chose to doubt his ability to know the external world (Descartes, 1984, p.96). Retaining the evidence condition as proposed by the traditional account of knowledge Descartes looked for foundational propositions that are self-evident and therefore indubitable. Synthetic propositions, which are contingent upon empirical verification, are fallible, but analytical propositions, which are true by necessity of meaning, are candidates for epistemological foundations. The distinction between analytical and synthetic propositions can be illustrated with two examples of the different types of propositions. The proposition ‘all triangles have three sides’ is an analytical proposition. Its truth-value is not determined by empirical evidence but by the meaning of the word triangle, a shape with three sides. Synthetic propositions make claims about the world; ‘all rabbits are white’ is an example. Its truth-value is contingent upon the state of the world, whether or not all rabbits are white. Descartes in his argument from dreaming held that true analytical propositions are knowledge by the standard of justified true belief (Descartes, 1984, p. 98). The usefulness of analytical propositions, and hence knowledge found within the paradigm of the traditional account is considered a major of weakness of the theory.
Competing theories of epistemology have contested the conditions under which knowledge is traditionally defined. The critical rationalism of Karl Popper has contested the infallibility clause in the evidence condition and thus paradoxically the truth condition of knowledge. The truth-value of a proposition is therefore not the determining factor of its value as knowledge but rather its truth-argument being able to account for all available evidence better than all other propositions. For Popper knowledge was not static, but a developing project, “the advance of knowledge consists, mainly, in the modification of earlier knowledge” (Popper, 1984, p. 28). Accordingly by this theory the replacement of one set of ideas by another that constituted a better explanation of all available evidence, is not an occasion to morn our inability to gain knowledge, but rather a moment of increasing knowledge. This theory also provides a demarcation between knowledge and belief, which preferences knowledge over belief in a workable manner. If according to the traditional account, knowledge were infallible it would not be useful because only analytical propositions can meet such criteria. Belief then would be more useful then knowledge, invalidating any attempt by traditional account epistemologists to give us practical reasons to preference knowledge over belief
For the critical rationalist knowledge is a process of development based around a method of trial and error (Popper, 1984, p. 56). Therefore along with the truth and evidence condition, the belief condition is challenged. Because we do not have to believe our current theories to be true, they might be true, while falsified theories are believed to be untrue (Popper, 1984, p.56). The weakness of this theory is that it overturns all the three conditions that make knowledge definite and solid. It finds strength in circumventing the problems (infinite regress of reasons, foundations and infallibility issues) associated with the traditional account of knowledge. Hence synthetic propositions, both useful and informative are considered knowledge according to critical rationalism. This constitutes a functional rather than dysfunctional system of knowledge, because it makes allowances for adaptability that the traditional account does not.
The traditional account of knowledge as justified true belief, aims to make knowledge a concrete concept, giving us a clear cut method for discerning between what we know and don’t know. But the conclusion of this method leads to a situation where knowledge is either non-existent (scepticism) or useless (rationalist) Socrates himself concluded the former (Plato, 1969, P. 52). The critical rationalists and best available theory epistemologists allow for a working concept of knowledge by weakening the criterion for something to be known. The traditional theory of knowledge is ultimately unsuccessful because while it considers knowledge more justified than belief, it gives no practical reason to preference knowledge over forms of information such as a mere belief, which while not being certainly true can be informative and useful. Hence the traditional account does not provide a functional theory of knowledge.
Written by Mathew Toll.
Descartes, R. (1984), Discourse on Method and The Meditations, Penguin, Bungay.
Plato, (1969), The Last Days of Socrates, Trans Tredennick, H. Penguin, London.
Popper, K. R. (1984), Conjectures and Refutations, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.
(Written mid 2006).