Beginnings of Pragmatism: Against scientism and logical positivist analysis of knowledge

The problem of knowledge has concerned thinkers as early as they could reflect on it. One of the earliest definitions is that knowledge requires justified belief that is true. This derives from a Platonic problematic having to do with differentiating belief, which is what might be called a committed sense that something must be be the case, and certainty – knowing that something is the case. In practical matters, the definition isn’t necessary to argue; the problem arises when people start talking about things not in immediate evidence – gods, triangles, political claims, etc.

Now, the reader should be aware that the ‘justified true belief’ (JBT) definition is only one of several possible. But in the 20th Century, it became quite popular among American philosophers influenced by Anglo-German Logical Positivism, because it seemed readily accessible to linguistic analysis. Until, that is, a young thinker named Gettier published a paper demonstrating that the purely logical analysis of JBT claims left something to be desired….

In a recent article on Scientia Salon, Coel Hellier raised objections to the Gettier problem of knowledge claims (, arguing that the ‘truth’ criterion of JTB ought to be abandoned; to which I submitted 2 comments:

Comment 1:
(The issue, as understood by Gettier’s readers and interlocutors, concerns knowledge expressed in the form of ‘justified true belief (

“(a) S knows that P IFF (i.e., if and only if)
(i) P is true,
(ii) S believes that P, and
(iii) S is justified in believing that P”

Gettier’s first case:

“(d) Jones is the man who will get the job, and Jones has ten coins in his pocket

Proposition (d) entails:
(e) The man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket

Smith is clearly justified in believing that (e) is true.

unknown to Smith, he himself, not Jones, will get the job. And, also, unknown to Smith, he himself has ten coins in his pocket.
Proposition (e) is then true, though proposition (d), from which Smith inferred
(e), is false”)

(My comment:) The present case lacks any temporal verification process we would expect in the real world. E.g., in the real world, at time X-1 (prior to hire), Smith would *not* know that ‘the man hired will have ten coins in his pocket,’ he’d only have a hypothesis that this will be the case. At X+1 (after hire), he knows that the man hired has 10 coins in his pocket, but he also knows that this had no dependence on his prior beliefs that Jones would get hired and Jones has 10 coins in his pocket.

But the world of which Gettier writes is *not* the real world, it’s a logically possible world, governed by the rules of formal logic. Gettier doesn’t have to explain this in the context of his readership.

The community of epistemologists for which Gettier is writing would understand that his cases are not problematic because of their ‘real world’ application, but because of their formal logic problems. We can see this when Gettier remarks that knowledge is understood as “someone’s knowing a given proposition.” What is known is not a thing, nor an idea, nor anything other than a statement. This means, what Smith ‘knows’ is *not* that the man hired has ten coins in his pocket; he asserts the proposition “the man hired has ten coins in his pocket,” which turns out to be true; but as derived from false inference, this cannot be considered knowledge (per JBT). (The truth is not logically dependent on the justified beliefs.)

We can see this better in Gettier’s second example:

“(f) Jones owns a Ford.
(Then) Smith selects three place names quite at random and constructs the following three propositions:
(g) Either Jones owns a Ford, or Brown is in Boston.
(h) Either Jones owns a Ford, or Brown is in Barcelona.
(i) Either Jones owns a Ford, or Brown is in Brest-Litovsk.
Each of these propositions is entailed by (f).”

Here Gettier gives an empirical justification for (f); but the only justification for (g), (h), or (i) is the logical entailment made viable by its disjunctive truth-value:

A B A \or B
(As long as one statement is true, the proposition is true.)

Thus Smith asserts the proposition “Jones owns a Ford OR Brown is in Barcelona,” which he believes (per Gettier), and which happens to be true, and is technically justifiable; but the verification of the second statement is unknown to him; so his assertion cannot constitute knowledge (per JBT). (True; justified; believed; but no knowledge claim.)

This also has little real world applicability (why would a real world Smith be doing this?). The problem has to do with the formal structure of knowledge claims.

So, pace Coel here, what gives epistemologists problems is not the truth of the concluding propositions, but logical relations between knowledge claims, beliefs, justification, and their true conclusions.

Comment 2:
(However, I wanted also to comment on the claim for scientism that Coel Hellier made in his article, while also noting that my own problems with Gettier are historical and Pragmatic. My comment:)

In grappling with the Gettier problem I have learned a lot. Epistemology is not my interest, and I haven’t read up on formal logic since I was an undergraduate.

The issues raised here for me are difficult to explain, because they have to do with the history of philosophy and logic as it has developed in America – why, e.g., to answer another commentator’s query, Peirce, certainly a major figure in the formation of modern logic, is infrequently discussed within the study of it. But such a historical discussion would take far too long here.

Being in the Pragmatist camp, and thus having understandings of the problems of ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ (Peirce, James, Dewey) somewhat different than that of the JBT criteria (e.g., what’s the cash value? what am I supposed to do with it?), I find myself somewhat in sympathy for Coel’s wish to derive a more empirically based understanding of knowledge (although I don’t buy that this would necessarily reduce to any scientism).

To be honest it’s a mystery to me why the Analytic tradition (still informed largely by Logical Positivist projects) seems committed to preservation of Platonic problematics. (Although, as I’ve noted elsewhere, Logical Positivism, despite an asserted empiricism, always seemed to me to be a surreptitious linguistic idealism.) And it should be noted that, though the Analytic tradition of formal logic has contributed greatly to current usage (especially in the field of computer languages), obscure discussions like the Gettier problem have isolated it from the common interests of many ‘laymen,’ in much the same way as Lacanian hairsplitting over ‘mirror stages’ for ‘Selves’ and ‘Others’ distances many from current Continentalist theory. At what point does philosophy connect with the people that it is intended to inform?

As to Coel’s scientism here: (“We can then ask what counts as justification, for which the best answer — if we’re talking about knowledge about the real world — is provided by the methods adopted by science.”)

He admittedly depends on the dictionary definition:

“Knowledge: Facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.”

That’s a good definition. But here’s one small aspect of the larger problem:

Knowledge of the rhetoric of romance has contributed greatly to the conception of millions of children in the West. This is a “skill acquired through experience.” But beyond statistics, science has nothing to say of it; it is an art. That it is a knowledge can’t be debated (not pragmatically): it works – that is its verification. (If it gets you into bed with your preferred partner, you know exactly what you’re doing.)

I’m not being frivolous here. Indeed, this example also demonstrates the problem with JBT knowledge criteria. Does a proposition get me into bed with a preferred partner? “I have justified belief that you and I will experience orgasm tonight.” What an unsavory opening line! (“I will have an orgasm tonight, but my partner is at home, buster!” – Is that getting ‘gettierized’ – what a disappointment!)

Scientism isn’t getting me into bed; and logical positivistic analysis isn’t getting me into bed.

Can Pragmatism get me into bed with a preferred partner? – but that’s another story.

(The answer to that question is ‘yes;’ but again, that’s another story. Suffice it now to remark that the Pragmatistic theory of knowledge has an inbuilt verification requirement, noticed above as “what am I supposed to do with it?” That is, the Pragmatistic understanding of knowledge is that it does not hang about in some ethereal ‘truth space,’ but actually forms the basis of human action. That’s as true for Peirce as it is for James or Dewey, whatever their (many) differences. Thus, yes, Pragmatism can account for the knowledge of rhetoric as a knowledge, as well as the use of it in romantic situations; and in such a way as to ground further application of it.)


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