Epistemology is probably the most bad-ass sounding part of philosophy (a-PISS-tuh-MOL-a-JEE). The word itself is a bit intimidating and sounds kinda as if it’s got something to do with fencing. At least to me.

In reality, it has nothing to do with fencing. Like so much of philosophy, it’s a word derived from Greek, with epistēmē meaning ‘knowledge’, and –ology meaning ‘study of.’ Epistemologists are chiefly concerned with two questions, ‘What is knowledge?’ and ‘What can we know?’ In this post we’ll be exploring the first one.

Now we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to Kanye songs that refer to knowledge. There’s ‘I Need to Know’ from Freshmen Adjustment Vol. 1 and ‘U Know’ from Freshmen Adjustment Vol. 3. More recently, there’s the first line of ‘Streetlights’ from 808s and the intro to ‘Bound 2’.

For this one, though, we’re gonna go with ‘The New Workout Plan’. (NOTE: disclaimer.) 

This one’s from back in the day where Kanye was all upbeat and not afraid to be a little goofy. As far as goofy goes, however, Kanye is made to look like an amateur by Fonzworth Bentley in the blazer-bowtie-shorts-suspenders-headband-kneehighs combo, even before he cranks things up a notch with the boxing helmet and fashion-forward-older-woman glasses (which, incidentally, are not entirely dissimilar from those Baroness Helena Kennedy wears).

The line in question comes near the very end. Kanye as personal trainer, ever the optimist, looks out on his class and says, ‘I know y’all ain’t tired.’

Now the question a philosopher might ask is, how does he know? What needs to be true of Kanye for us to be able to say he knows his class isn’t tired?

For over two thousand years, philosophers thought they had it figured out. They’d answer, quite confidently, that three things need to be true:

  1. Kanye needs to believe his class isn’t tired.
You can’t know things that you don’t believe. This seems obvious.

  1. It must be true that his class isn’t tired.
Even if Kanye believes they aren’t tired, he can’t know they aren’t tired unless they actually aren’t tired. You can’t know things that are false.

  1. Kanye must be justified in believing that his class isn’t tired.
Even if Kanye believes they aren’t tired and they actually aren’t tired, he still doesn’t know they aren’t tired unless he’s justified in believing they aren’t tired. There needs to be some reason for his belief, e.g. he can see his class are burning through the exercises without even breaking a sweat.

We need the justification condition to prevent lucky guesses from being counted as knowledge. If knowledge were only true belief then we’d have to say that the person who guesses the lottery numbers one week knows what the lottery numbers are going to be, and this seems silly. You can’t know things that you aren’t justified in believing.

Thus we have the justified, true belief (or JTB) account of knowledge. For two thousand years, philosophers would have said that if Kanye meets these three conditions, he knows his class isn’t tired.

That all changed with the publication of Edmund Gettier’s ‘Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?’ in 1963. The paper, just three pages long, is the only thing Gettier ever published in his whole career. It’s said he only wrote it to satisfy the demands of departmental administrators and had so little confidence in it that he had it translated into Spanish to be published in an obscure little South American journal.

A very modest man.

Yet this is the paper that single-handedly blew the JTB account out of the water, cracked the field of epistemology wide open and has left every philosopher since scrambling for a response. It’s as close to a rags-to-riches, overnight-success story as philosophy ever gets. The Little Paper That Could. From humble beginnings to the bright lights of Analysis and required-reading lists worldwide.

So what’s the big idea?

Gettier’s little paper gives two examples of cases where a person has a justified, true belief without (seemingly) having knowledge. If you want to read those examples you can do so here. I’m not including them in my blogpost because once you know the recipe Gettier-style counterexamples are super easy to come up with (and to be honest Gettier’s are a bit boring).

So imagine this:

Kanye is on stage in San Jose. As he looks out on the crowd, he spies a young guy in the front row sporting a $20 t-shirt and a $10 haircut. He looks a lot like Mark Zuckerburg. So, Kanye thinks to himself, ‘Mark Zuckerburg is at my concert.’ But the guy Kanye’s looking at is not Mark. It’s some other baby-faced California tech dork. However, unbeknownst to Kanye, the real Zuckerburg is at the concert. He’s just at the back having a beer.

Now three things are true: (1) Kanye believes Zuckerburg is at the concert, (2) Zuckerburg is at the concert, and (3) Kanye is justified in believing Zuckerburg is at the concert (because he saw a guy who looked very much like Zuckerburg). So the JTB account of knowledge has to say that Kanye knows Zuckerburg is at the concert.

But this just seems ridiculous. After all, Kanye hasn’t even seen the real Zuckerburg! And even if the real Zuckerburg wasn’t there, Kanye would still believe he was! It would be silly to say Kanye knows Zuckerburg is at the concert.

So the JTB account of knowledge must be false. Knowledge must be something other than justified, true belief.

This was both a huge blow and a huge opportunity for philosophers. On the one hand, Gettier completely demolished one of the only things philosophers could actually call a success. Imagine it like in those movies where the main character has had a bad day and then says, ‘Well at least it’s not raining.’ Gettier is that rain.

On the other hand, though, every problem is an opportunity. And every problem in philosophy is an opportunity for post-docs to make their name with bafflingly complex and esoteric solutions. Try this one out for size:

“S knows that h iff (i) h is true, (ii) S is justified [by some evidence e] in believing h…, (iii) S believes that h on the basis of his justification and…(ivg)…there is an evidence-restricted alternative Fs* to S’s epistemic framework Fs such that (i) ‘S is justified in believing that h’ is epistemically derivable from the other members of the evidence component of Fs* and (ii) there is some subset of members of the evidence component of Fs* such that (a) the members of this subset are also members of the evidence component of Fs and (b) ‘S is justified in believing that h’ is epistemically derivable from the members of this subset. [Where Fs* is an ‘evidence-restricted alternative’ to Fs iff (i) For every true proposition q such that ‘S is justified in believing not-q’ is a member of the evidence component of Fs, ‘S is justified in believing q’ is a member of the evidence component of Fs*, (ii) for some subset C of members of Fs such that C is maximally consistent epistemically with the members generated in (i), every member of C is a member of Fs*, and (iii) no other propositions are members of Fs* except those that are implied epistemically by the members generated in (i) and (ii).]” 
– Marshall Swain, ‘Epistemic Defeasibility’

 If you read all that you should be ashamed of yourself. Life is too short.

There have been all kinds of attempted solutions to the Gettier problem, from throwing up your arms and claiming that Kanye knows Zuckerburg is there to going nuclear and declaring that no one knows anything. In a couple weeks I’m planning to discuss a few attempted solutions with the help of a Drake lyric. Until then, hit me with your very own Gettier-proof definitions of knowledge. Answers on a postcard.

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