Contextualism and Indeterminacy: A Critque of Gettier Counter Examples

This essay will examine the nature and legitimacy of counter examples that contest important characterizations of knowledge. The thesis hinges on considerations of contextualism that render knowledge within a determinate context infallible and its analysis incontestable. To support this thesis I make two claims. First, there is no perfect knowledge without a perfectly determinate context. Second, all knowledge claims are perfect the moment upon conception according to the author’s determinate context.  I will present an argument supporting this claim by holding that JTB is correct and citing Gettier case counter examples.

There is no perfect knowledge without a perfectly determinate context.
As it is, there are two modes of knowing: relationally and substantively, with the former derived from reason and the latter from experience. Relational knowledge does not rely on ontological qualification, but instead functions from universal relationships outside time and change. This renders its operations within a contextual determinacy. Substantive knowledge claims rely on ontological qualifications which are subject to time and change. This renders its operations from a contextual indeterminacy.  As a result, any claim to perfect knowledge that is not purely relational can be contested on grounds of insufficient experience or information. So long as there is change, there is the continual possibility of new information and new knowledge. This is because all substantive knowledge claims rely on the limitations of empirically derived sense data information.

All substantive knowledge claims are perfect the moment upon conception   according to the author’s context.
An author instantiating a claim qualifies its legitimacy according to a context that accounts for all the information available in that moment. A substantive knowledge claim made about the world is never more accurate than in the moment of its conception. In this way, substantive knowledge claims are perfect in that they are instantiated in a contextually determinate moment where all possible considerations regarding all known facts are accounted for. From that point in time forward, however, the knowledge claim becomes indeterminate and must be reevaluated according to any new information that may alter the context in which the claim was initially instantiated. Because no substantive knowledge is perfect, any analysis of that knowledge claim in a context other than the context in which it was initially instantiated can be reinterpreted in counter examples.

The problem with an analysis of knowledge is determining the contextual limits in which it operates. A context can accommodate any number of conditions for the analysis of knowledge and successfully function to confirm knowledge. What is important is defining those conditions when a knowledge claim is made.

One would be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t implicitly abide by the pragmatics of JTB. Most generally, all empirical knowledge derived from experience fulfills the criteria of verity, commitment and justification. Without one of these conditions knowledge is left to luck or unverifiable knowledge. However, all empirical knowledge claims are derived from evidenced phenomena limited to the context of experience.

The analysis of knowledge as justified true belief states that S knows that P, IFF (i) P is True, (ii) S believes that P, and (iii) S is justified in believing that P.  What is important in a knowledge claim is how the author understood these conditions at the time of the claim: P may be a relative value; S may have believed P at the time, but no longer does; S may have been justified, but due to the addition of defeaters is not currently justified that P. According to the variability of these conditions, the knowledge claim still stands within the context it was instantiated. A counter argument only invites the reformulation of a knowledge claim under an entirely new information that yields a context incommensurable with the old.

It is too easy to perform an analysis of knowledge with figures Smith and Jones, who have no subjective perspective to talk about, and come up with counter examples of JTB. What we over look is the perspective of Smith and Jones and the knowledge limited to the evidence at their disposal. Given the context of their perspective, they can be skeptical about a previous claim to knowledge, or they can assert the knowledge claim and exercise it and correct for inconsistencies in the conditions of JTB along the way.

It is important to include what is entailed when referring to ‘context’. Context is the extent of coherent information within a perspective. It is a paradigm that contains a web of beliefs, values, maxims, facts, and semantics in which all other information and experience is filtered and viewed. Any given counter-example recontextualizes the initiatial characterizations of knowledge to accommodate the new information within a given perspective. It is plausible to take a characterization of knowledge and reject counter-examples on the grounds that the counter-examples destroy the intended context of the knowledge.

If we hold the JTB analysis as correct, can we say that people whose intuitions run that Gettier cases aren’t cases of knowledge are misled? The answer lies in knowledge as a tool of reconciliation, both with the memory of experience and social agreements. With memory, the JTB allows us to compare knowledge claims according to the context of past memories. We can compare and contrast these knowledge claims and make adjustments according to new information and context. In this way we refine knowledge claims against the ever growing reservoir of contextual experience.

Regarding social agreements, the function of knowledge as a social utility must not be overlooked. One would never need conditions for knowledge such as those in JTB if the context of our perspective was all to consider. Only because of the value of coherent experience among individuals do we analyze knowledge in order to verify knowledge among our various contextual experiences. All knowledge is formulated according to specific conditions within a specific context. To say that a characterization of knowledge is wrong is to overlook the social utility of arriving at an agreement regarding the knowledge of a coherent human experience.

The Gettier cases took the subjects Smith and Jones and superimposed information not privied to them. In ordinary life, such ignorance occurs regularly, yet we cannot say whether our knowledge claims are ultimately accurate or inaccurate unless according to all potential variables and defeaters. We can only consider the context of our experiences and make pragmatic judgements from there.

In conclusion, all characterizations of knowledge and the substantive knowledge claims they produce are ultimately incontestable given that they were instantiated within a contextually determinate moment. Any counter examples brought against a characterization such as JTB implicitly consider new information and conditions and offer the knowledge claim up for reinstantiation according to the new context. It is not that the counter examples are wrong, but rather they are incommensurable so long as they operate within a context with new information.