I haven’t been blogging recently (and have left a series unfinished), but can’t resist sharing a fun real-life epistemological experience.

The tripartite definition of knowledge is “justified true belief.” The idea is that having a justified true belief constitutes knowledge. In reverse order:

  • You must believe it for it to be knowledge.
  • It must be true to be knowledge. (It’s impossible to have knowledge that the earth is flat, though one might believe that.)
  • The belief must be justified. That time in high school I correctly shouted out the solution to a physics problem as soon as the teacher finished giving it doesn’t count, because I was just b.s.-ing.

It wasn’t until the 1980s, I believe, that a philosopher named Gettier came up with a challenge to the tripartite definition: cases that satisfy the definition, but don’t seem like knowledge. Rather than repeat his examples, I’ll share real-life case I just experienced.

I’m staying in a dorm. I had received several notifications earlier in the week about there being problems with the plumbing: outages, blockages, etc. Another family moved in. One day the husband asked me about a note his wife had found, with a request not to use the water because of a plumbing problem. I told him that the note must be from earlier in the week, and that he should ignore it. Later, however, I discovered that there had been a new problem with the plumbing, and that the note was recent; but also that the situation had been resolved by the time I spoke with my friend.

Was my belief that the notice was irrelevant justified? Yes, because there had been several earlier maintenance problems, and I had no knowledge of this new one.

Was my belief true? Yes, because the note was indeed irrelevant by the time we spoke about it.

Did I believe it? Yes of course.

Nevertheless, it was a pure fluke that I gave the right advice. I had a justification, but it was the wrong justification, even though I was right.

I’ll leave it there: a real life Gettier-type exception to the tripartite definition of knowledge.

(Shout-out to virtue-based epistemology!)