Knowledge as (cognitive) achievement

 There are philosophers (e.g. John Greco) who argue that knowledge is to be seen as an cognitive

John Greco

achievement/cognitive success. In this view, knowledge is a true belief which is gained because of certain skills (‘intellectual virtues’ to put it broadly) that the agent possess. According to the proponents of this view, the major advantage of this theory over the rest is the following. They claim that this definition of knowloedge is free from the threat of ‘Gettierasitation’. At the first glance, this account looks like an intuitive one. However, a closer inspection would reveal that the definition is inadequate in capturing all instances of knowledge (such as testimonial knowledge). Apart from that, this definition is not free from all sorts of ‘Gettieraisations’ (such as in the presence of environmental luck).In short, ‘being an achievement’ is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for knowledge.

Suppose that a person namely Dayal, who is completely unfamiliar with Hyderabad, reached at the Hyderabad railway station. He asked to some stranger that where the University of Hyderabad (UoH) is located. Dayal got the right information about the location of UoH and he formed his belief accordingly. In usual cases Dayal’s true belief would count as knowledge. However we cannot call it as Dayal’s cognitive achievement. At best it is a mixture of the cognitive achievements of the person who provided the information and of Dayal (suppose that the person has gone to the UoH personally). Thus the thesis that knowledge is a cognitive achievement fails to capture such instances of knowledge.

Some have argued that the above held definition of knowledge is not immune to certain Gettier cases as well. This definition of knowledge is certainly immune to Gettier cases where the difficulty in calling a justified true belief as knowledge arises due to the intervention of some factor and hence the belief formed turns out to be true merely out of luck. As we are familiar from the Gettier cases, the presence of luck rules out the possibility of knowledge. However, the above mentioned account of knowledge is not immune to what might be called ‘environmental luck’. Let me present an example to make this point. Suppose that Abhishek is a shooter who has excellent skill in shooting. There are ten targets arranged in different positions. Abhishek choose one target and he shot at and was successful in hitting the target. Here, Abhishek’s hitting the target is because of his skill and hence is his achievement. Now, further suppose that all the targets except the one Abhishek hits has a magnetic field which will carry divert the direction of the bullet. Only out of luck it happened to be the case that Abhishek chose the target which was free from the presence of magnetic field. If we apply similar cases in belief forming instances, though the true belief formed is an achievement, the presence luck involved will prevent it from qualifying as knowledge(remember the fake barn example). (However, if we consider the knowing-how instances, it is doubtful whether we can conclude from the above example that Abhishek does not know how to shoot.) The above given examples and arguments shows that, ‘being an achievement’ is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for knowledge.


6 comments on “Knowledge as (cognitive) achievement

  1. I am curious about your thoughts concerning “knowledge” or capacity that cannot be described as a cognitive achievement. For example, something like compassion, which incorporates a cognitive aspect, but also something to do with feelings.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I presume that you are talking about ‘knowledge’ through compassion. May be one will argue that it is possible that one can have a knowledge of other’s mental state (eg.suffering) through compassion. It seems to me that it is more appropriate to say that one can understand (rather than knowing) others mental state through compassion or empathy or the like. Even if we suppose that we can legitimately say that one can know someone else’s suffering through compassion, it seems to me that the knowledge in question is one of non-propositional one. Epistemology in general deals with propositional knowledge.

    • Sreejith, I have a question for you. In your response to drgeraldstein you pointed to an understanding/knowing distinction. Could you speak to that a bit? Specifically, what do you see as a difference between understanding and knowing, and, must one already “know” to truly understand? I would want to say yes, but who cares what I think? I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.

      Thanks in advance.

  3. Also, I’m quite intrigued by drgeraldstein’s question. She/he seems to be aimed at a certain understanding that is connected to emotions (i.e compassion) which he/she doesn’t see as a cognitive achievement. But why isn’t this a cognitive achievement? I take it that the assumption that it is not might rely on the notion that the agent didn’t have to ‘work’ to get that knowledge, but is that accurate? The way one reflects seems to do some work as to how they ‘understand’ the situation. This can be done in different ways but it seems like an achievement nonetheless if one correctly maps their compassion to an appropriate emotion being exhibited by another.

    Just a thought…

  4. One last comment then I’m done, I promise 🙂

    Are you a skeptic? DO you think knowledge can be had? You’ve criticized Greco/Pritchard (rightfully so) that they do not get around the Gettier problem, but I’m curious to hear what you think would be a better solution, if you think a solution is even needed (contextualists of certain stripes don’t think so).

    Thanks again!

  5. Hello Justin,

    Thank you very much for your thoughtful and intriguing comments. Of course I care and I am sure that many others will care that what you, a sharp Philosopher, think :-). The reason why I preferred to say ‘understanding through compassion/empathy’ than to say ‘knowledge through compassion/empathy’ is as follows. When I say ‘I understand his pain/suffering’, as far as I can think, I don’t seem to say that I have a set of beliefs about his pain which are justified and true. I have a feeling that same is the case even when I say ‘I know his pain’. In both the cases what is intended to say is something like ‘I can imagine that how anyone in this kind of a situation will feel’. Even when the word ‘know’ is used in the instance where I say ‘I know his pain, by ‘know’ I do not mean anything like what an epistemologyst would mean by it. This was the kind of idea that I had in mind when I used the world ‘understanding’ rather than ‘knowledge’ in this case.

    Knowledge and understanding:
    However the above mentioned is not the only sense in which ‘understanding’ can be used. I think your worry “must one already ‘know’ to truly understand?” is significant when we think of many cases. My feeling is that, at least in many cases, knowing is not a necessary per-requisite for understanding (Let me put aside your phrase “truly understand” for the time being). In the current literature many holds that grasping the relationship between the propositions is crucial for understanding. Some (e.g. Elgin, Catherine (2004)., “True enough”, Philosophical Issues, 14., pp.113-131) argues that having knowledge is not a necessary condition for having understanding. She argues that most of the theories in science are not true in a strict sense and are hence cannot be considered as knowledge. She argues that, the epistemic worth of science is to understood as providing an understanding. ( The issue which you have raised is debated in the following papers as well. 1) Grimm, Stephen R (2006)., “Is understanding a species of knowledge?”, British Journal of Philosophy of Science, 57., pp.515-535; 2) Morris, Kevin (2011)., “A Defense of lucky understanding”, British Journal of Philosophy of Science, 0., pp.1-15

    compassion and cognitive achievement: I am inclined to say that since compassion can be considered as a part of our cognition, an understanding which is gained through compassion is to be considered as a cognitive achievement.

    If I understand my self correctly, I am not a septic. However I have a feeling that epistemology is affected by some kind of inadequacy in characterizing the epistemic goods. I am sympathetic to the view that perhaps ‘knowledge’ as it is understood by the epistemologists is not the kind of epistemic good we value. May be there is a point in the claims that search for alternative epistemic terms such as ‘understanding’ and ‘wisdom’ is required in epistemology. Thank you once again!

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