Tuesday, February 26, 2013

What Is Knowledge?

I'm working a on stand-alone page with this title. This morning's post is a preliminary sketch of it. Comments, questions, and criticisms are welcome.

In my seminars I present three mutually reinforcing definitions of knowledge.

1. Knowledge is justified, true belief. It is not enough that you believe something; what you believe also has to be true. And it is not enough that you happen to hold a true belief if that belief is based on a mere prejudice. You must have a good reason to believe, a justification. Finally, do note that it is not enough that something be true and justified; you must also believe it. That's not actually a trivial point; many scholars today are coming to the cynical realization that speaking their minds may not be the best way to advance their careers. They would be better off, they think, saying entirely orthodox, reliably publishable things. However strategically wise that may be, it is important to me to emphasize that, lacking belief, such writers are not writing down what they know. That aside, they may be behaving in a perfectly rational manner.

The problem with this definition, in any case, is that it construes knowledge as some exalted "state of mind". One might think the goal is simply to get into that state and stay there. The second definition, while it does not reject the first, is intended to introduce a more social and dynamic atmosphere.

2. Knowledge is the ability to hold your own in a conversation with other knowledgeable people. These other people are your peers and it is no particular mystery who they are or what they know. There is no circularity here because, in academic life, they are given in advance of your own knowledge project. After much study, you know something when you can have sustained intellectual discussion about it with them. This doesn't have to mean they already knew what you have learned (although many of the things you come to know are known by others before you). It just means that you don't know until you can talk to them about it. Moreover, you may know (as proven by your ability to converse) without causing them to know. You may fail to persuade them.

The last definition is intended to get us squarely into the problem of writing.

3. Knowledge is the ability to compose a coherent prose paragraph in 27 minutes. A paragraph is at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words long. It makes a single well-defined claim and offers support for it. You know something if working for 27 minutes at composing such a paragraph is a meaningful activity for you. (27 minutes is a rough, ballpark figure that usefully divides the hour into two half hours including a 3-minute break. Some people know how to write 18 and even 13 minute paragraphs. Some people need longer, but I recommend training yourself to be able to do it in 27, from both a quality and quantity point of view.)

This post isn't quite a paragraph (and isn't quite three paragraphs either) but it does suggest something of what I'm talking about. My claim to know what knowledge is depends, minimally, on my ability to write a paragraph that identifies and describes the three aspects I've just mentioned. Even better, I claim to have the ability to write three full paragraphs in about an hour and a half, one for each definition. I could also converse intelligently about what knowledge is with any number of knowledgeable peers, including, even, professional philosophers, although here I think my knowledge would begin to run into its limits, as is only fitting.

How much and how well we know something will be shown in our mastery of specific discourses. There is no simple shame in ignorance. But to think one knows something, when one is unable to converse about it or write about it, is a bit, to my mind, foolish. Conversely, to think one does not know something one has not talked about with anyone, and has not tried to write down, is not humble but vain. One has avoided knowing that one does not know.

The regular habit of writing down what you know will help you distinguish what you know from what you don't know. It will also help you better understand what knowledge is.


fjb said...

In the spirit of friendly amendment: In the first of your three definitions of knowledge, it isn't clear to me in what sense you mean that "cynical" writers may be writing or publishing things that they do not believe. Is it that that they are actually writing things that they either take to be false or are just agnostic about (but that will be "acceptable"); or that they are writing down things that they believe, in the minimal sense of holding them to be true, but do not "believe in" (i.e. believe to be important, interesting, and genuinely worth asserting as well as true)? This dichotomy might be too simple, but it looks to me as though there's a slide in your expression of this point - perhaps as a result of associations between "justified, true belief" as an account of knowledge and a relatively "thin" understanding of what counts as believing something.

Thomas said...

I agree that there's some conceptual slippage there. What I like in the JTB definition is that it gives you three questions to ask when trying to pick something to write down:

Is it true?
Is it justified?
Do I believe it?

Now, we might say: "If I didn't think it was true I wouldn't believe it, would I? So those are the same issue."

My point here is just that there is temptation to write things that are "true" but not really among your beliefs. (We can imagine someone who knows he should believe something but just can't bring himself to. I'm like this about a number of things.)

There is also a temptation to write falsehoods that can be justified. Sticking to things you actually believe, i.e., beliefs you hold (and I suppose, yes, that this means think they are important in some sense) will keep you working near core of your strength, which will keep you balanced.