The Gettier Problem and the Tripartite Theory of Knowledge

Imagine the following scenario:

A farmer worries because his prize cow has wandered away from his farm. A milkman comes to the farm, and the farmer expresses his concern. The milkman tells the farmer he shouldn’t worry because he’s actually seen the cow in a nearby field. The farmer looks at the field in the distance just to be sure, and he sees what seems to be a large shape that is black and white. The farmer is satisfied by what he has seen and now knows the location of his cow.

Later, the milkman decides to go to the field to double-check that the cow really is there. The cow is in fact in the field, but to the milkman’s surprise, the cow is actually completely hidden in a grove of trees. However, in the same field, there is a large black-and-white piece of paper caught in a tree. Upon seeing this, the milkman realizes that the farmer mistook this large piece of paper for his cow.

This then raises the question: Was the farmer right when he said he knew the cow was in the field?

The cow in the field is a classic example of what is known as a “Gettier problem.” Gettier problems, discovered by Edmund Gettier in 1963, are challenges to the traditional philosophical approach to defining knowledge as a true belief that is justified. Gettier created a series of problems (based on actual or possible situations) where an individual has a belief that ends up being true and has evidence to support it, but it fails to actually be knowledge.

According to Plato, in order for one to have knowledge of something, three conditions have to be satisfied. This is known as the tripartite theory of knowledge.

According to the tripartite theory of knowledge, knowledge is when a true belief is justified. Therefore, if a person believes something to be true, and then it ends up being true through justification, then that person knows it. The three conditions of the tripartite theory of knowledge are:

  1. Belief: A person can’t know something to be true without first believing that it is true.

  2. Truth: If a person knows something, then it must be true. If a belief is false, then it cannot be true, and therefore, it cannot be known.

  3. Justification: It is not enough to simply believe something to be true. There must be a justification through sufficient evidence.

With the Gettier problems, Edmund Gettier was able to show that the tripartite theory of knowledge was incorrect. While his problems differed in specific details, they all shared two similar characteristics:

  1. While justification is present, the justification is fallible because there is the possibility that the belief could end up being false.

  2. Each problem features luck. In all of the Gettier problems, the belief becomes justified; however, it is due to the presence of pure luck.

There are four main theories that attempt to fix the tripartite theory of knowledge. Now, instead of three conditions (which can be looked at as a triangle), knowledge has an extra condition (and is now viewed as a square).

The four main theories are:

  1. No False Belief Condition: This theory states a belief cannot be based on a belief that is false. For example, a watch stops working at 10 a.m., and you are unaware of this fact. Twelve hours later, at 10 p.m., you look at the watch. The time on the watch is actually correct, but your belief that the watch is working is incorrect.
  2. Causal Connection Condition: Between knowledge and a belief, there has to be a causal connection. For example, consider the following situation. Tom believes Frank is in his bedroom. Tom sees Frank standing in his bedroom. Therefore, Tom is justified in his belief. Unknown to Tom, however, is the fact that Tom didn’t see Frank at all. Instead, it was Frank’s twin brother, Sam, who was standing and seen by Tom, and Frank is actually hiding underneath Tom’s bed. While Frank was in the room, it was not because Tom knew this. According to the causal connection condition, Tom shouldn’t be able to conclude that Frank is in the bedroom because there is no connection between seeing Sam and knowing Frank is in the room.
  3. Conclusive Reasons Condition: A reason for a belief must exist that would not exist if the belief itself were false. For example, if a person believes there is a table in front of him, the reason would not exist if there was not a table in front of him.
  4. Defeasibility Condition: This theory states that as long as there is not evidence pointing to the contrary, a belief is known. In the scenario with Tom, Frank, and Sam, Tom is entitled to say Frank is in the bedroom because he isn’t aware of evidence pointing to the contrary.

While these four theories attempt to fix the tripartite theory of knowledge, they also have their problems. It is for this reason that Edmund Gettier’s work has become so influential. From his work, the question arises: Will we ever truly understand knowledge?