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Getting It Right – Ernest Sosa

Below is an  article by Ernest Sosa on ‘knowledge’ appeared in The New York Times. (To read the original article please CLICK HERE).

What is it to truly know something? In our daily lives, we might not give this much thought — most of us rely on what we consider to be fair judgment and common sense in establishing knowledge. But the task of clearly defining true knowledge is trickier than it may first seem, and it is a problem philosophers have been wrestling with since Socrates.

One approach suggests that knowledge is a form of action, comparable to an archer’s success when he consciously aims to hit a target.

In the complacent 1950s, it was received wisdom that we know a given proposition to be true if, and only if, it is true, we believe it to be true, and we are justified in so believing. This consensus was exploded in a brief 1963 note by Edmund Gettier in the journal Analysis.

getting it right

Here is an example of the sort used by Gettier to refute that theory. Suppose you have every reason to believe that you own a Bentley, since you have had it in your possession for many years, and you parked it that morning at its usual spot. However, it has just been destroyed by a bomb, so that you own no Bentley, despite your well justified belief that you do. As you sit in a cafe having your morning latte, you muse that someone in that cafe owns a Bentley (since after all you do). And it turns out you are right, but only because the other person in the cafe, the barista, owns a Bentley, which you have no reason to suspect. So you here have a well justified true belief that is not knowledge.

After many failed attempts to fix the justified-true-belief account with minor modifications, philosophers tried more radical departures. One promising approach suggests that knowledge is a form of action, comparable to an archer’s success when he consciously aims to hit a target.

An archer’s shot can be assessed in several ways. It can be accurate (successful in hitting the target). It can also be adroit (skillful or competent). An archery shot is adroit only if, as the arrow leaves the bow, it is oriented well and powerfully enough. But a shot that is both accurate and adroit can still fall short. Consider an adroitly shot arrow leaving the bow with an orientation and speed that would normally take it straight to the bull’s-eye. A gust of wind then diverts it, but a second gust puts it back on track. This shot is both accurate and adroit, but it fails to be apt. A shot’s aptness requires that its success be attained not just by luck (such as the luck of that second gust). The success must rather be a result of competence.

This suggests the AAA account of a good archery shot. But we can generalize from this example, to give an account of a fully successful attempt of any sort. Any attempt will have a distinctive aim and will thus be fully successful only if it succeeds not only adroitly but also aptly.

Of course, a fully successful attempt is good overall only if the agent’s goal is good enough. An attempt to murder an innocent person is not good even if it fully succeeds. Aristotle in his “Nicomachean Ethics” developed an AAA account of attempts to lead a flourishing life in accord with fundamental human virtues (for example, justice or courage). Such an approach is called virtue ethics. Since there is much truth that must be grasped if one is to flourish, some philosophers have begun to treat truth’s apt attainment as virtuous in the Aristotelian sense, and have developed a virtue epistemology, which also turns out to solve problems like that posed by Gettier. (Aristotle himself in VI.2 of the “Nicomachean Ethics” upholds attaining truth as the proper work of the intellect.)

Virtue epistemology begins by recognizing assertions or affirmations. These can be either public, out loud, or to oneself in the privacy of one’s own mind. An affirmation could have any of many and various aims, and it could even have several at once. It could aim at misleading someone, as when it is a lie. Or it could be aimed at showing off, or at propping someone up, or at instilling confidence in oneself as one enters athletic competition.

A particularly important sort of affirmation is one aimed at attaining truth, at getting it right. Such an affirmation is called alethic (from the Greek term for truth). All it takes for an affirmation to be alethic is that one of its aims be: getting it right.

Humans perform acts of public affirmation in the endeavor to speak the truth, acts with crucial importance to a linguistic species. We need such affirmations for activities of the greatest import for life in society: for collective deliberation and coordination, and for the sharing of information. We need people to be willing to affirm things publicly. And we need them to be sincere (by and large) in doing so, by aligning public affirmation with private judgment. Finally, we need people whose assertions express what they actually know.

Virtue epistemology gives an AAA account of knowledge: to know affirmatively is to make an affirmation that is accurate (true) and adroit (which requires taking proper account of the evidence). But in addition, the affirmation must be apt; that is, its accuracy must be attributable to competence rather than luck.

Requiring knowledge to be apt (in addition to accurate and adroit) reconfigures epistemology as the ethics of belief. And, as a bonus, it allows contemporary virtue epistemology to solve our Gettier problem. We now have an explanation for why you fail to know that someone in the cafe owns a Bentley, when your own Bentley has been destroyed by a bomb, but the barista happens to own one. Your belief in that case falls short of knowledge for the reason that it fails to be apt. You are right that someone in the cafe owns a Bentley, but the correctness of your belief does not manifest your cognitive or epistemic competence. You are right only because by epistemic luck the barista happens to own one. When in your musings you affirm to yourself that someone in the cafe owns a Bentley, therefore, your affirmation is not an apt alethic affirmation, and hence falls short of knowledge.

                                                                       * * *

About the author

Ernest Sosa teaches philosophy at Rutgers University and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of many books, including “A Virtue Epistemology,” “Knowing Full Well” and, most recently, “Judgment and Agency.”

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