The shallowness of JTB

Brandon has a great post about the claim that “justified true belief was first held by Plato in his Theatetus.” The idea (JTB, that is) is a cockroach: degraded, unkillable, and fleeing as soon as the lights are turned on it.

Or at least that’s what I’d say about it if I was going for the Buwler-Lytton award. Less obnoxiously, I’ll leave it at mentioning that the claim is irritating for a whole host of reasons. Brandon mentions the important ones, but there are two other fundamental problems with JTB that need mentioning (other than the obvious problem that we know all sorts of things we don’t believe: definitions, names, a language, and anything in the first act of the mind):

1.) Our usual experience of coming to know something is not of justifying a belief. Take the paradigm case of things we know: mathematical truths. Open Euclid’s Elements at random and read a proposition, say, Similar solids are to one another in the triplicate ratio of their bases. Read through the proof and get to the point where you know it. In coming to know this, did you justify a belief? Of course not. It’s not as if this was one of your long cherished propositions which you finally found a rational account for. Again, take something obvious to you right now by observation, say, “my accent wall is dark brown”. Is this proposition formed by giving a justification for something you first believed and then found a reason for? Here again, no. Belief is neither prior to the experience in time, nor in causality, nor in knowledge. Where do the “beliefs” come in? Perhaps they come in by way of analysis: after you learn about similar solids, you can analyze this into a conclusion which you believe and a justification. But then we are making beliefs logically subsequent to conclusions known on a rational basis, and therefore logically subsequent to things that are known. And so to say that  knowledge is JTB requires taking knowledge as given.

The only time when belief is clearly prior to knowledge is when we try to find reasons for what we already believe, that is, when we are rationalizing. Much rationalizing is good, but it takes very little reflection on experience to see that beliefs aren’t the only things that can be prior to knowledge. Besides what we’ve already said, we all have experience with guesses being prior to knowledge, and if anything guesses are more commonly prior to knowledge than belief. Trial and error, hunches, tinkering, dialectical questioning, starting with the simplest explanation, etc. can all involve propositions we guess at without believing in.

2.) The sense in which knowledge is JTB is subsequent to the more basic problem of knowledge. Because of this, to take JTB as the fundamental account of knowledge blinds us to the fundamental problem of knowledge.

To know is in one sense opposed to be uncertain and in another sense to be unable to know, and the question of certitude comes after the question of what it is to know at all.  JTB, however, only considers knowledge as opposed to uncertainty. To be a rational thing at all as opposed to an irrational one looks to find an account of how we are certain, guess, believe, intuit, err, experience, justify, rationalize, or are conscious. Raising this question is to raise the real mystery of knowledge, and to see it as the source of that universe we call “the intentional order” or a being who is the other as other.

The question of certitude is an old and venerable one, but it still deals with a logically secondary account of knowledge, and the question itself is to some extent passé. The great debates over the possibility of absolute certitude belong to bygone eras. We Post-Moderns are comfortable with the idea that “absolute certitude” need not belong to ideas that we can express all that distinctly, and that almost all of what we want to know is usually light years away from absolute certitude.

Of all of our interior cognitive activities, belief is the one of the ones we are most in control of. Understanding knowledge as a belief gives us the comfort of thinking knowledge is something we form deliberately and consciously, as opposed to being the formal characteristic that is constitutive of our existence which we find ourselves in the midst of even before we raise a question of what we are. But understanding knowledge as JTB gives us a false and facile confidence that we understand what knowledge is, when in fact knowledge can only be understood in relation the whole universe. It is a remedy for the imperfection implicit in the finitude of things and is therefore as fundamentally set apart from created things as finite (cf. QDV q. 2 a. 1.) Even when we consider knowledge as certitude, this does not reduce to some special modality of beliefs but to the absolute ontological determination of Pure Act.


  1. David said,

    June 28, 2012 at 8:10 am

    Gettier says that ” Plato seems to be considering some such definition at Theaetetus 201, and perhaps accepting one at Meno 98.”

    That’s a rather tentative claim about Plato’s acceptance of JTB.

    I’d need to reread the Meno account and the commentators to see how strong a case could be made for the attribution.

    • June 29, 2012 at 8:05 am

      He absolutely considers it in Theatetus, and rejects it as inadequate (it can’t explain how we know simple things: concepts, terms, etc.) and circular.

      I’ll look at Meno 98, but the relevant point of Meno to the discussion is that knowledge in human beings traces back to an experience outside of the psycho-physical human experience that we are in touch with by a mechanism that is comparable to reminiscence or remembering. Knowledge does not arise out of belief, but out of a forgotten knowledge.

  2. David said,

    June 28, 2012 at 8:18 am

    There are some literature references here:

    See under the heading “True Belief and knowledge”.

  3. David said,

    June 29, 2012 at 9:49 am

    I make no claim about JTB as an adequate analysis of knowledge.

    Here, I’m more interested in the historical claim about Plato, FWIW.

  4. Jim S. said,

    June 30, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    I’ve never taken justification as something that occurs temporally posterior to having a belief. I’ve understood it to mean that one forms the belief because of the justification for it. Not that that exonerates JTB in general. It would explain your Euclid example nicely, but it wouldn’t explain your second example of basic sensory perception, since that’s not a matter of having a reason or justification at all.

  5. Jim S. said,

    July 1, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    By the way, Plantinga claims he has been unsuccessful in finding a pre-Gettier example of a philosopher advocating the JTB model, although some come close.

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