A truth should suffice

David Edmonds contrasts Edmund Gettier’s three-page 1963 masterpiece with the endless outflow induced by the emetic REF

January 24, 2013

What to make of the strange case of Professor Gettier? What mark do we award him, in a university world obsessed with impact and output?

Professor who? If you haven’t heard of Edmund L. Gettier III, then you don’t teach or study philosophy.

Exactly 50 years ago Gettier was an academic at Wayne State University in Detroit. He was in his mid-thirties. He wanted to get tenure but he hadn’t published anything, and he was under intense pressure to do so. He had one idea, which was to write about knowledge.

The issue of what should count as knowledge is, of course, one of the hoariest in philosophy. What does it mean to say “I know that Detroit is the most populous city in Michigan”?

Well, until 1963 many philosophers agreed on the answer: knowledge equals justified true belief. I believe Detroit is the most populous city in Michigan. I am justified in believing it - because, let’s say, I’ve read it in the Encylopaedia Britannica. And my belief is true: Detroit is indeed the most populous city in Michigan.

If any components in this “justified true belief” equation are missing, I can’t be said to have knowledge. Thus I can’t know that Ann Arbor is the most populous city in Michigan because it is not true. And if I believed Detroit was the most populous city only because I was under the silly delusion that big cities always began with the letter D, I would have no justification for my belief, and again couldn’t be said to know the proposition about Detroit.

So far, so straightforward. Then Gettier sent some counterexamples to the peer-reviewed journal Analysis, which published them. His article was shorter than this one. It was titled “Is justified true belief knowledge?”.

Take a variation of one of his examples. Smith and Jones both apply for a lectureship in logic. Smith believes Jones will be offered the post, because the head of the philosophy department has told him so. Smith also knows that Jones has a copy of Times Higher Education in his briefcase because he just saw Jones buy it and put it there. So Smith believes that the man who’ll get the logic post has a copy of THE in his briefcase. But does he know it?

Well, as it happens, the job is eventually awarded to Smith himself. And, by sheer chance, Smith too has a copy of THE in his briefcase, a fact of which he’s completely ignorant (he didn’t realise that when he was out shopping with his wife she had purchased a copy and placed it there). So did Smith know that the person who would be offered the job had a copy of THE in his briefcase? Surely not, even though his belief was both justified and true.

Not many academics live to see a puzzle or proof named in their honour. But the so-called Gettier problems generated a deluge of papers and the flow continues to this day, if at a slower pace. One recent and fascinating direction of research has been in experimental philosophy - where the intuitions of “civilians” (non-philosophers) have been tested in different parts of the world. The results are contentious but seem to indicate that the response of lay people is mixed - asked a question such as the one above, many do believe that Smith knows that the person to be awarded the job has THE in his briefcase.

Although the name Gettier has become famous in philosophical circles, Gettier himself was ambivalent about the paper. “Up to the last moment of decision, I would never have dreamed of submitting a philosophy paper that consisted of nothing but a counterexample.”

He got his tenure. Now in his mid-eighties, he is an emeritus professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His research output since the publication of that three-page paper has been not so much modest as non-existent. He hasn’t produced a single word.

Academics in the UK now operate under the shadow of research assessment. It’s a Procrustean process, far too inflexible to accommodate the case of Gettier. The research excellence framework and its precursors serve as scholarly emetics, provoking the spewing-out of articles and books that in many cases would be far better held in check. Gettier, admittedly, published only under research pressure. But his nano-paper is worth a hundred papers that make up typical journal fodder. In the way that university departments are judged, it is more valuable to have academics producing a constant stream of work of debatable significance than to have an Edmund L. Gettier III - whose one paper would be counted once.

As for Gettier, I asked him whether he had ever been tempted to publish more articles since his paper, half a century ago.

“No”, he answered, “because I really have nothing more to say.”

David Edmonds contrasts Edmund Gettier’s three-page 1963 masterpiece with the endless outflow induced by the emetic REF

What to make of the strange case of Professor Gettier? What mark do we award him, in a university world obsessed with impact and output?

Professor who? If you haven’t heard of Edmund L. Gettier III, then you don’t teach or study philosophy.

Exactly 50 years ago Gettier was an academic at Wayne State University in Detroit. He was in his mid-thirties. He wanted to get tenure but he hadn’t published anything, and he was under intense pressure to do so. He had one idea, which was to write about knowledge.

The issue of what should count as knowledge is, of course, one of the hoariest in philosophy. What does it mean to say “I know that Detroit is the most populous city in Michigan”?

Well, until 1963 many philosophers agreed on the answer: knowledge equals justified true belief. I believe Detroit is the most populous city in Michigan. I am justified in believing it - because, let’s say, I’ve read it in the Encylopaedia Britannica. And my belief is true: Detroit is indeed the most populous city in Michigan.

If any components in this “justified true belief” equation are missing, I can’t be said to have knowledge. Thus I can’t know that Ann Arbor is the most populous city in Michigan because it is not true. And if I believed Detroit was the most populous city only because I was under the silly delusion that big cities always began with the letter D, I would have no justification for my belief, and again couldn’t be said to know the proposition about Detroit.

So far, so straightforward. Then Gettier sent some counterexamples to the peer-reviewed journal Analysis, which published them. His article was shorter than this one. It was titled “Is justified true belief knowledge?”.

Take a variation of one of his examples. Smith and Jones both apply for a lectureship in logic. Smith believes Jones will be offered the post, because the head of the philosophy department has told him so. Smith also knows that Jones has a copy of Times Higher Education in his briefcase because he just saw Jones buy it and put it there. So Smith believes that the man who’ll get the logic post has a copy of THE in his briefcase. But does he know it?

Well, as it happens, the job is eventually awarded to Smith himself. And, by sheer chance, Smith too has a copy of THE in his briefcase, a fact of which he’s completely ignorant (he didn’t realise that when he was out shopping with his wife she had purchased a copy and placed it there). So did Smith know that the person who would be offered the job had a copy of THE in his briefcase? Surely not, even though his belief was both justified and true.

Not many academics live to see a puzzle or proof named in their honour. But the so-called Gettier problems generated a deluge of papers and the flow continues to this day, if at a slower pace. One recent and fascinating direction of research has been in experimental philosophy - where the intuitions of “civilians” (non-philosophers) have been tested in different parts of the world. The results are contentious but seem to indicate that the response of lay people is mixed - asked a question such as the one above, many do believe that Smith knows that the person to be awarded the job has THE in his briefcase.

Although the name Gettier has become famous in philosophical circles, Gettier himself was ambivalent about the paper. “Up to the last moment of decision, I would never have dreamed of submitting a philosophy paper that consisted of nothing but a counterexample.”

He got his tenure. Now in his mid-eighties, he is an emeritus professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His research output since the publication of that three-page paper has been not so much modest as non- existent. He hasn’t produced a single word.

Academics in the UK now operate under the shadow of research assessment. It’s a Procrustean process, far too inflexible to accommodate the case of Gettier. The research excellence framework and its precursors serve as scholarly emetics, provoking the spewing-out of articles and books that in many cases would be far better held in check. Gettier, admittedly, published only under research pressure. But his nano-paper is worth a hundred papers that make up typical journal fodder. In the way that university departments are judged, it is more valuable to have academics producing a constant stream of work of debatable significance than to have an Edmund L. Gettier III - whose one paper would be counted once.

As for Gettier, I asked him whether he had ever been tempted to publish more articles since his paper, half a century ago.

“No”, he answered, “because I really have nothing more to say.”

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