Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Justified, True Belief

"What is knowledge?" asked Socrates. After much discussion, he and Theaetetus finally arrive at the classic formula: knowledge is justified, true belief. That is, knowledge is not merely believing something, nor merely believing something that happens to be true, but believing something you also have reason to believe is true (i.e., something you are "justified" in believing is true.) In order to know that you stole my money, it is not enough that you in fact stole my money. I must believe it too. Conversely, it is not enough that I believe it, you must actually have done it. But even if you did take my money, I must believe it on reasonable grounds before my belief can be counted as knowledge. If I think you took my money only because you have curly hair, and I happen to mistrust curly-haired people, then even my true belief cannot be counted as knowledge. In the twentieth century, philosophers realized that things are even more complicated than this, but this definition of knowledge remains influential and has the virtue of being clear.

When I've been talking to students this semester, I've been contrasting this classic definition of knowledge with a more pragmatic one. Instead of thinking of knowledge as particular state of mind (a particular kind of belief), I've been suggesting they think of it as an ability—the ability to hold one's own in a conversation. And I've been telling them that they know they have something knowledgeable to say in this conversation if they can write a good prose paragraph about it. That is, if they can make a claim in a single clear, declarative sentence, and if they can then support it with five or six further sentences, then, for all practical purposes, they "know" it. Or rather, we might say they know it for "academic" purposes.

This won't satisfy a philosopher, of course. You can obviously write a paragraph in support of a claim you don't believe, and you can write a paragraph in support of a claim that turns out to be false. Even the third condition of knowing—justification—is not necessarily satisfied by writing a paragraph. Prejudice, too, can be expresses in well-formed prose.

But a paragraph that has been written in a specifically academic environment, like a university program or research community, is written under particular, shall we say, "pressures". If it holds up under those pressures, it has a certain kind of strength, and in academia this strength is valorized as knowledge. A trained academic will subject his or her writing to those pressures soon after drafting the paragraph. It will become clear almost immediately whether the words can maintain their "composure" in the face of criticism. That is, it will become clear whether the scholar or student was "able to write" the paragraph only after the roughly six sentence, roughly 200 words, have been committed to the page.

It's a bit like putting nine pieces of wood together in an attempt to make a table. Whether or not it's a table will be immediately clear once you try to stand it on its own four legs. Whether or not it's a good table, of course, will require further stress testing, but much of this can be done by the carpenter himmerherself. Or, to take another example, the figure skater knows intuitively whether or not she can land a triple axel, the pianist knows wether or not he can play a particular fugue, just from the experience of doing it. They turn to their master, coach or teacher only to learn how to improve their performance. Likewise, the paragraph will or will not "hold up" in an sense that should be immediately clear to the writer. The teacher merely identifies places the text, joints, that could be more precisely articulated.

In a workshop yesterday, I asked the students whether there was some other point of writing than (a) expressing justified, true beliefs or (b) holding one's own in a scholarly conversation. One student rightly suggested "to persuade". But in the face of this ambition—to write persuasively—I always try to defend the higher virtue of writing knowledgeably. In academic writing you are not always trying to convince your reader that something is the case. You are merely providing the best argument you have for it. It may be true. You may believe it is true. And you may have good reason to think so. But your readers come to your writing with their own beliefs and their own reasons. It is more important that your writing facilitates a conversation than that it wins your reader over. This is also why academic writing isn't for everyone. You're not really playing to win. As Jonathan puts it, the academic writer wants to be tackled.

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I started writing this post at 6:00. By 6:45, I had written 795 words in 6 paragraphs. As always, we must keep in mind that I'm "merely" blogging, not actually writing an "academic" text. But the quantities are still suggestive. In regards to academic writing, I know what I'm talking about, so it takes me about ten minutes to write a paragraph that contributes to the ongoing conversation about it. In more critical contexts, like a book or journal article, you can expect it to take a bit longer. But let your goal be to be able to compose a solid prose paragraph, one that "holds up", in under 30 minutes. It's a good sign that you know your subject.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

An interpretation of some things that I know about very well will not be, itself, something that I know. It will be based on knowledge, but it is basically my way of saying: "this is how the facts I know fit together in a convincing pattern, as best as I can determine. This is my reasoning; these are the possible objections." But I never know my argument is true, only that it is convincing and persuasive (I hope)."

Now a bullshit argument will be one that (1) is not based on things I actually know or (2) is an arbitrary putting-together of what I know, one that won't hold water theoretically or (3) both.