Gettier Cases in Literature

I’ve been idly interested in Gettier cases in unusual locations for a while, at least in part to convince myself that they’re actually important, rather than just marginal philosophical cases.  Recently, I realized that there may be some that play important roles in literature.  However, the only one that came to mind is something I only very hazily recollect.  When I was young, I read several mystery novels by Agatha Christie.  In one, I seem to remember that the murderer had killed the victim in a very clever way and concealed the evidence extremely well, but used one more extra twist to protect herself.  (I believe it was a female murderer.)  She placed a lot of misleading evidence, that pointed to her having killed the person, but in a way different from how the victim actually died.  By framing herself, she hoped that the police would at first end up in a Gettier situation, with a justified, true belief that she killed the victim, but that once they saw through the flimsy framing evidence, that would throw them off the trail, so that she could get off without getting caught.  (Of course, in the end it didn’t work out for her.)

If anyone recognizes this story, it would be useful to have some more specific details, so that it can be used as an example.  And if anyone knows of any other cases that appear in literature, that would also be nice.  This one is nice also for illustrating why knowledge is much better than being Gettierized – as Timothy Williamson points out several times in Knowledge and its Limits, someone with knowledge is much less likely to get led astray than someone who merely has true belief, or for whom misleading evidence is available.  But I also think it may put some pressure on his conception of misleading evidence being only evidence for a false proposition, rather than Gettierizing evidence for a true one.

9 Replies to “Gettier Cases in Literature”

  1. There are cases of this in the Harry Potter books.


    J.K. Rowling likes to reveal at the end that the main characters have been misinterpreting things all along. A key example is Severus Snape in the first book, where he seems to be the bad guy until the end, when it turns out he\‘s been helping Harry all along.

    A twist on this occurs in the third book. The whole book you\‘re supposed to think Sirius Black was responsible for the death of Harry\‘s parents, but the reason everyone thinks that is because everyone thinks he actually killed them. Black himself never disputes the charges, because he thinks he is responsible for their death, but it\‘s not because he turned their location over to Voldemort. Peter Pettigrew is the one who betrayed them. But Black was supposed to be safeguarding the information, and he trusted Pettigrew with it, thinking he would never betray his friends. So Black is responsible for the death of Harry\‘s parents, and his never denying that misleads everyone into thinking he had betrayed them the way Pettigrew had. I think that counts as a Gettier case. I think there are others in the Potter books, but I\‘m not thinking of one at the moment.

  2. There are many Agatha Christie books with that plot structure. (SPOILERS AHEAD). They include her first published novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in which a man poisons his wealthy wife, having before an accomplice buy the poison disguised as himself while he establishes an alibi. He counts that the police will first suspect him of buying the poison, arrest him, then he will produce his alibi and be acquitted for life. The book you are thinking of may be The Hollow, in which a jealous wife plots the murder of her husband; she shoots him, hides the gun, then thows a second gun on the side of the body, and runs to the body and picks the gun to be seen by others with it. So first she is suspected of having shot him in the spot, then when the police find out that the gun she had in her hand doesn’t match the bullet suspiscion is lifted. I can remember two or three more based on the same trick.

  3. What I’ve always wanted, to “convince myself that they’re actually important rather than just marginal philosophical cases” are legal Gettier cases. There are a number of cases of justified false beliefs. And questions arise in those cases about the degree to which the suspects are guilty of attempt (say, if they had a justified false belief they were smuggling heroin or, say, a justified false belief that the person they were assaulting was not a police officer). Are there any cases in which an agent was Gettiered? In which the suspect had a justified and only (un)luckily true belief, say, that the substance was heroin or that the person being assaulted was not a police officer? Do questions arise in those cases about what the suspect is guilty of? Or are they pretty much open and shut?

  4. The belief that Sirius Black caused the deaths of Harry Potter’s parents is a true belief. Most people were believing it because they had a justified belief that Sirius Black had betrayed them. The real reason it’s true is that he had given the traitor the ability to betray them when he had been the one Harry’s parents had entrusted with the only way to find them. The belief that he had betrayed them might be false, but the belief that he’d caused their death seems to me to be true.

  5. Another example is the movie The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. MI5 arranges for the East Germans to believe that the head of their counter-intelligence
    service, Mundt, is a British spy. In fact he is a British spy, and the evidence justifies their belief. But they later introduce (false) evidence which indicates that the case against Mundt has been cooked up by them to incriminate Mundt.

  6. Thanks Duncan for mentioning my paper.

    There also a nice Gettier case in ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’

    Algernon has a friend he thinks is called “Ernest”. His real name, however, is “Jack”; for the purposes of entertainment he pretends to be his invnted younger brother “Ernest”. In the first scene, Algernon looks inside his friend’s cigarette case and finds the inscription “From Little Cecily, with the fondest love to dear Uncle Jack”. Jack has to admit that this is his real name. Algernon does not believe him and provides justifying evidence that his name must be “Ernest”

    “You have always told me it was Ernest. I have introduced you to everyone as Ernest. You answer to the name of Ernest. You look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life. It is perfectly absurd your saying that your name isn’t Ernest. It’s on your cards. Here is one of them. ‘Mr Ernest Worthing, B.4, The Albany.’ I’ll keep this as a proof that your name is Ernest if ever you attempt to deny it to me, or to Gwendolen, or to anyone else.” (Wilde, 1895, Act 1, 157-165)

    And, at the end of the play, Jack discovers that he was indeed christened “Ernest”. Algernon therefore has a justified true belief. He has, though, been lucky; that Jack had adopted the name of “Ernest” is simply coincidental. He does not therefore know his friend’s name is “Ernest”.

    I mention this in — shameless publicity warning — the first chapter of my very soon to be published ‘An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge’ (Polity).


Leave a Reply