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Edmund L Gettier III and his three-page paper

Gettier is an American philosopher and Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst known for his three-page 1963 paper "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?" It was a paper he wrote to satisfy a publications requirement. Lacking enthusiasm for the work he had it published in an obscure South American journal, but the philosophy paper was later republished in the US and, according to Wikipedia, it "remains one of the most famous in recent philosophical history." There were those who believed Gettier was revolutionizing epistemology.

The following is an example of a problem raised by Gettier's question. I'm watching golf on Channel Four and it shows Rory McIlroy winning the tournament and I believe it, not realizing that Channel Four was showing a tape from last year's championship tournament, which McIlroy also won. My belief that McIlroy won was based on a mistake. But is it "true" knowledge? Here, Gettier's question is turning a simple mistake into a philosophical problem that in my opinion clarifies nothing.

I have a problem with Gettier's use of the word "true." Some believe we either know something or we don't. They don't understand the complexity of knowing. A phenomenon is a complexity of connections. Knowing some but not all of these connections makes knowledge an approximation – as in scientists saying "as far as we know." The meaning of "true" as used by Gettier and how it fits with this can just as well remain unknown.

I'm sticking with my Mac's dictionary definition of knowledge. Gettier's question doesn't spoil it. It reads:

Facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.

To push on and rephrase Gettier's question: If we believe something that happens to be true but believe it without evidence or on faulty evidence, is it knowledge? My answer is mundane:

If someone believes that the apple he sees is green, he has knowledge of its greenness however misinformed he is about how it came to be green.

If he doesn't see the apple and is told that it is red and believes it's green because someone else told him so, he does have knowledge of its greenness.

If he doesn't see the apple and is told that it is red and believes it, he is misinformed.

If he's color blind and therefore doesn't understand greenness, he needs eye surgery.

So what's the philosophical problem?

Gettier is retired. According to Wikipedia, Gettier has "published nothing" since his three-page paper. I know nothing about Gettier's philosophy beyond his three-page paper except descriptions of him by Wikipedia and others as having been attracted to the views of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Copyright © 2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.