What is knowledge?

AQA Philosophy

Zagzebski claims that knowledge is a ‘highly valued state in which a person is in cognitive contact with reality’.

Knowledge is therefore ‘a relation’ between ‘a conscious subject’ and a ‘portion of reality’ with which the knower is ‘directly or indirectly related’.

Zagzebski notes that the nature of truth, reality and propositions are metaphysical questions about the object of knowledge which epistemologists usually avoid, instead focusing on the nature of the state of knowing. So, accounts of knowledge focus on the conscious subject side of the relation.

‘knowledge is a relation between a conscious subject and some portion of reality, usually understood to be mediated through a true proposition, and the majority of epistemological attention has been devoted to the subject side of that relation. In the state of knowledge the knower is related to a true proposition. The most general way of characterizing the relation between the knower and the proposition known is that she takes it to be true, and this relation is standardly called the state of belief.’ – Zagzebski.

The knowing state is a ‘species’ of the belief state. ‘So knowing is a form of believing’.

True knowledge is not just desirable but praiseworthy. Sometimes even a lack of knowledge is considered blameworthy, such as when we criticise someone by saying they ‘ought’ to have known better. Knowledge is good sometimes in a moral way. Plato characterised its goodness as noble. Zagzebski claims the definition of knowledge must ‘adjudicate’ the sense in which knowledge is good.

Acquaintance knowledge, ability knowledge and propositional knowledge

Acquaintance knowledge

Knowledge “of”

Zagzebski define acquaintance knowledge as direct knowledge of something through experience. It includes knowledge of persons and things but also my own mental states which are usually regarded at ‘the most directly knowable portion of reality’.

Ability knowledge

Knowledge “how”

E.g. a person can know how to ride a bike. You cannot simply explain to someone how to ride a bike, they have to try it and figure it out for themselves. So, this knowledge cannot be like factual (propositional) knowledge.

Propositional knowledge

Knowledge “that”

Propositional knowledge is known by a true proposition about the world. It has been more discussed than acquaintance knowledge because it can be communicated from one person to another in a much more straightforward way than acquaintance knowledge. Some philosophers also regard reality to have a ‘propositional structure’ or that propositional knowledge is at least the “principle form in which reality becomes understandable to the human mind”.

The nature of definition

The question “what is knowledge?” can be taken as asking for a definition of knowledge. In that case, we need to think about what type of definition is needed.

Zagzebski claims that some different views of knowledge arise from different aims people have for knowledge. Definitions can serve many purposes:

A practical definition functions to help us identify and acquire particular instances of knowledge. This tells us nothing about how ‘knowledge’ relates to other philosophical concepts like ‘truth’ and ‘belief’. A practical definition is at least to some degree conventional (reducing to how a society chooses to define it).

However, Epistemologists are generally after a theoretical definition of knowledge, which involves a necessary truth about what knowledge is. It shows where the concept of knowledge is to be placed on the conceptual map of philosophy.

However, not all concepts defined by a necessary truth can have what is called a real definition.

Real definitions are those which refer to an objective reality. E.g. the definition of Water as H2O. This is a necessary truth because if water was not H2O then it would not be water, so water must (necessarily) be H2O. Such definitions refer to natural kinds which are categories of things which objectively exist, such as water or gold.

Some concepts can only have conceptual definitions. These concepts are defined by necessary truths but have no objective with no such independent investigable nature.

E.g.: ‘A Batchelor is an unmarried man’. This definition is a necessary truth but it is a conceptual definition because a Batchelor is just a social construct. There is no objective reality regarding what it is to be a Batchelor.

Zagzebski claims that knowledge is obviously dissimilar to such natural substances and yet Philosophers often aim for such a ‘real definition of knowledge’, though often only implicitly. She highlights the possibility that “perhaps knowledge is not in an ontological category for which a real definition is possible”.

How propositional knowledge may be analysed/defined

A theoretical definition of knowledge is a necessary truth about what knowledge is.

The current preferred method amongst epistemologists for analysing and defining knowledge is truth condition analysis. This involves defining a concept through determining the conditions that are:

  • Individually necessary. The conditions that are absolutely required.
  • Jointly sufficient. The conditions for which no more conditions are needed.

The definition of a concept which has necessary and sufficient conditions will be a necessary truth.

A truth is necessary if it must be true. “A Batchelor is an unmarried man” is a necessary truth because there is no way for an unmarried man to not be a Batchelor.

Consider the necessary and sufficient conditions for being a Batchelor. Being unmarried is necessary for being a Batchelor but it is not sufficient since a woman can be unmarried but cannot be a Batchelor. Being unmarried and a man is necessary and sufficient for being a Batchelor. So, truth condition analysis of “Batchelor” shows that it can be defined as an unmarried man.

If a concept can be defined through necessary and sufficient conditions, then it is a necessary truth because it is necessary that if those conditions are met then we have the thing in question.

If we could find the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge, then we will have a theoretical definition of knowledge which is a necessary truth.

Truth condition analysis involves proposing conditions and then testing them by attempting to find counterexamples.

Zagzebski adds some points about what a definition of knowledge should not involve. A definition should not be:

  • Ad hoc.
  • negative when it can be positive.
  • unnecessarily complex
  • more obscure than the concepts being defined.
  • Circular