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Socrates' Views on the Essence of Knowledge

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Ever since Socrates made it his life mission to spread wisdom, much to Athens’ dismay, man has been perplexed with countless philosophical questions. Questions that, by nature, seem to have no distinct nor satisfying answers and as such impart feelings of discomfort and hopelessness to those who take the time to entertain them. One such question is the one that asks, “What is knowledge?”. At first glance, this seemingly innocent question might offer a false sense of confidence in one’s ability to answer it. It is only when diving deep in the attempt to answer it concisely that one is faced with the realization of how big of an undertaking it really is and how foolishly arrogant one was to believe it to be trouble-free.

Nonetheless, unperturbed by the grandiosity of the task, many philosophers have moved forward in the attempt to give a unifying answer to the question of knowledge, beginning with no other than Socrates himself. In Plato’s account, Theaetetus, we find Socrates in full conversation with Theaetetus, a young Athenian boy, regarding the nature of knowledge. Along the course of the conversation, Socrates and Theaetetus, give three potential definitions of knowledge. These are: knowledge is nothing but perception, knowledge is true judgment, and knowledge is a true judgment with an account. They are quick to dismiss the first two definitions but entertain the third one, focusing on what it means to have an account. Socrates, once again, presents three distinct definitions: “making one’s thought apparent vocally by means of words and verbal expressions”, enumerating all of a thing’s elements, and “being able to tell some mark by which the object you are asked about differs from all other things”.

After a lengthy discussion in which Socrates and Theaetetus find weaknesses in all three definitions, a consensus is finally reached. That is, none of the previously discussed definitions suffice the question of what knowledge is and to top it all, no real realizable answer seems to exist. It is no wonder Athens resolved to give Socrates the death penalty, among other reasons. As fruitless as this discussion appears to be, many good things came out of it. For one, Socrates leaves Theaetetus with the realization that he doesn’t really know anything definite, hence the wisdom Socrates is tasked with spreading. But more importantly, it is through this discussion that the Justified True Belief theory of knowledge is born.

The Justified True Belief theory, or JTB, ranks among the most influential theories of knowledge and is often attributed to Plato, Socrates pupil and author of the Theaetetus. The theory goes as follows:

S knows that p if and only if:

  1. S believes that p, and
  2. p is true, and
  3. S is justified in believing that p.

‘S’ here being the Knower, the subject or person who potentially knows something. ‘p’ is what the Knower potentially knows. This can be anything, from beliefs to scientific facts, if the Knower believes it, there’s a justification for the Knower to believe it, and it is in fact true, the Knower’s knowledge is justified. In other words, the Knower has knowledge.

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For all intents and purposes, this theory lends itself to be easily accepted and seems to hold water. It neatly ties knowledge and the Knower together, seems logically intact, and it is easy enough to grasp. It ticks off all the boxes of a satisfying answer. In fact, it seems a little too good to be true, and it is. This is just a theory after all and continues to be so to this day. It is safe, then, to assume that this theory has its flaws, although not readily apparent.

Thus, a new contender enters the battle of knowledge, that of Edmund Gettier. Gettier was a professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. But he is better known for his contribution to the question of knowledge, mainly the rebuttal of the JTB theory. It takes a clever man to refute a theory that has survived for so long, Gettier is that man. His counter is just as clever, moreover, it is so simple that one wonders why it wasn’t apparent for so long. Gettier presents cases where all three of the criteria in JTB are achieved but knowledge still seems to be missing. Aptly named, Gettier Cases represent Gettier’s counter and discovery of a major fallacy in JTB.

A typical Gettier Case goes as follows: take a captain of a ship sailing out at sea. This captain believes that he is heading north and is justified by his compass, where the needle is pointing north. Suppose then, that this is the case and in fact he is heading north. The criteria of the JTB theory, then, is satisfied and, therefore, it is concluded that the captain has knowledge that he is sailing north. Now, suppose that his compass is broken, stuck in the north position. The question here is, would any reasonable person attribute this captain as to truly having knowledge? The answer is an obvious no, the captain’s knowledge is that of a coincidence. In fact, the main fallacy of the JTB theory is coincidences, random occurrences in everyday life, for in the case of the captain it was just as likely for him to have been going south as it happened that he was going north.

As damning as Gettier’s counter is to JTB, it would be foolish to completely dismiss it. Perhaps modifying the theory can alleviate its shortcomings. To do so, one needs to pinpoint exactly where the theory fails. Going through the captain example once more, the first premise is satisfied by the captain believing he is headed north. There is no fallacy here since all it takes is for the captain to believe something. The second premise is satisfied when it happens that the captain is indeed going north. No fallacy is found here either, but at last one more premise is left. The third and final premise is satisfied by the compass, it is what gives justification to the captain’s belief. But can a broken compass give any substantial justification to the captain’s belief. It was concluded that this is not the case therefore it is in the third premise of JTB where the fallacy occurs.

What is, then, a modification that can be conducted on this premise that would eliminate Gettier’s problem? The answer lies in the justification itself. As for the captain, the compass is what gave him certainty, but it was a false sense of certainty. Just the same, the justification itself for his belief is a false one, though it seemed otherwise. The only way for the JTB theory to work against Gettier’s counter is for a justification for a belief must be true and that is exactly the modification needed. Following the third premise a fourth one can be appended: S’s justification for believing p is not false.

The modified theory now allows for correctly attributing knowledge. The theory correctly renders the captain as void of knowledge in his belief of traveling north and successfully circumvents Gettier’s counter. Perhaps, philosophy isn’t as painful as previously mentioned and Socrates was just a discourse away from the answer. Except, Socrates was killed prematurely, and the modified theory has yet another flaw, a human one. An interesting situation arises, how is any human to know when a justification is true or false? No one person can know and by extension, the JTB theory once again fails to attribute knowledge. All that is left is the same sense of hopelessness and the same realization that Theaetetus had: Socrates was right, we truly don’t know anything.

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Socrates’ Views on the Essence of Knowledge. (2022, March 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 9, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/socrates-views-on-the-essence-of-knowledge/
“Socrates’ Views on the Essence of Knowledge.” Edubirdie, 18 Mar. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/socrates-views-on-the-essence-of-knowledge/
Socrates’ Views on the Essence of Knowledge. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/socrates-views-on-the-essence-of-knowledge/> [Accessed 9 Dec. 2022].
Socrates’ Views on the Essence of Knowledge [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Mar 18 [cited 2022 Dec 9]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/socrates-views-on-the-essence-of-knowledge/
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