Examples of Examples

I’ve been reading Timothy Williamson’s The Philosophy of Philosophy over the break. Hopefully I’ll have some serious posts on it to follow. This isn’t one such post. But I was interested in this remark.

The canonical example in the literature on philosophical thought experiments is Edmund Gettier’s use of them to refute the traditional analysis of knowledge as justified true belief. (179)

Is this really the canonical example? If so, how did it become so. I know that I discussed it at some length in What Good are Counterexamples?, but I don’t think that’s enough to make it canonical.

In any case, if it is canonical, that’s probably a bad thing as far as I’m concerned. What’s striking about the Gettier case is that it seems so easy to generalise. It’s not too controversial whether a particular example is a “Gettier example” or not. So it isn’t clear how much our intuitions/judgments about this particular case are driving the argument. I think it would be much better to have more methodological attention paid to examples like the one Socrates uses at the start of The Republic to convince Cephalus that justice does not always consist in paying your debts. That example has the disutility of being not fully spelled out. But it’s nice as an example of the power of examples because we can all agree that it supports the conclusion Socrates draws even if we couldn’t state what general principle is driving the example, nor know how to generalise the particular example. In that respect, it really shows the philosophical power of examples in a way that it isn’t clear the Gettier case does.

10 Replies to “Examples of Examples”

  1. About how Gettier’s cases got to be the canonical examples of thought experiments — gosh, they did get cited a lot (ISI lists 345 citations, which looks low to me). And Gettier himself was not out pushing any positive theory of knowledge of his own in that paper, so there is no fear that one’s rejection of the JTB account is actually driven by the charms of the alternate theory on offer. (Not that one’s rejection of Cephalus’ view is likely to be driven by the Republic’s positive theory of justice as a natural relation of control within the tripartite soul, but the Gettier paper looks to me like a cleaner example of the pure force of counter-example unaccompanied by theory.)
    Actually I’m not sure I see the contrast you find between Plato’s example and Gettier’s here. When you say that the Gettier case is ‘so easy to generalise’ did you mean to say that it’s immediately evident what underlying principle generates all cases of justified true belief that fail to be cases of knowledge? Help me out, I’m still not sure what it is. I think there are a lot of fairly different types of JTB-but-not-K cases out there. OK, maybe the particular cases in Gettier’s paper are reliance-on-a-false-lemma cases. (Do students have to see that before they see that these cases are not cases of knowledge?) And if that is the principle you see here, then I think Williamson’s line on this point is fairly compelling: it’s much easier to feel doubts about the abstract and general principle that no belief essentially based on a false belief ever amounts to knowledge than it is to feel doubts about the particular cases that Gettier sketches. So I don’t think we’re driven to accept Gettier’s conclusion by an attitude to the general principle rather than the particular case.
    Perhaps you mean that Gettier’s cases generalize easily in the sense that, once we are exposed to them we can easily imagine a variety of cases that would make the same point. But doesn’t Plato’s debt-repayment case lend itself equally well to the production of variants?
    I agree that it’s not immediately transparent which general principle is driving the Cephalus example, but we could probably get some candidates that would be as good as the no-false-lemma one was for the Gettier cases without too much work (in the dialogue Polemarchus immediately suggests that the principle here is that a friend ought always to do good to a friend).
    But maybe I’m missing something about the differences between these examples?

  2. I meant the point that we can easily imagine variants that make the same point. And I’m not sure that Plato’s case can be generalised in quite the same way.

    If what our friend asks us to return is something that he will use to harm himself, rather than another, is it obvious that justice does not require us to return it?

    If our friend is not “out of his mind”, but making what we see as an understandable but mistaken judgment about when it is appropriate to use force, is it obvious what justice does and doesn’t require?

    More relevantly, I think that in either of these cases, it isn’t obvious that they are the same kind of case as Socrates’ original case. But in the Gettier example, it is clear that all the variants are the same kind of case. And that’s the difference I was most worried about.

  3. One reason for taking the Gettier cases to be canonical (at least from my perspective) comes from the fact that there is a lot of intuition-skepticism out there. Consequently, the context in which one is talking about counterexamples generally is often a context in which one is trying to establish the evidential status of the corresponding intuition. The Gettier cases then have the virtue that they seem to provide a reason for abandoning the JTB analysis. Contexts in which one is concerned with the “power” of counterexamples are less frequent and often arise only after the first issue has been settled.

  4. I don’t really see this distinction between “reason” and “power”. I could put the worry I have entirely in terms of reasons.

    Some people think that what happens when we reflect on the Gettier examples is that it triggers in us a realisation that inferences from a false premise do not constitute knowledge. The example, or our reactions to it, do not provide a reason for believing this; rather they just make us realise that we had reason all along to deny that any inference from a false belief is knowledge.

    What’s distinctive about other cases (like Socrates’) is that it seems clear that it is the example itself that is providing a reason, rather than letting us see that we had some other reason all along for rejecting the proferred analysis.

  5. Sorry, Brian. I misunderstood your use of “power”.

    I do accept that counterexamples sometimes have a “pointing function” in the sense that draw our attention to some general concern about a proposed analysis (and then we, perhaps, have a corresponding theoretical intuition). Other cases, however, involve pure, concrete-case intuitions. Obviously, these two functions are not mutually exclusive.

    But granting this, I disagree that the Gettier cases are not canonical in the sense that they don’t provide pure, unadulterated concrete-cases intuitions. In general, for instance, my students get the “doesn’t know” intuitions even though few of them could even begin to say what was causing the problem in a general way and couldn’t be said to realize what is wrong.

    Of course, one might claim that this realization is implicit. But then I begin to lose my grip on the distinction. Most of us think that intuitions are in some way dependent upon our implicit grasp/mastery of the relevant concepts. What appears to be the central issue then is what is convincing us that Smith doesn’t know. Is it that it seems to us that he doesn’t know or that it seems to us that knowledge can’t be derived via false, essential premises? I guess my own sense is that it is the former. (I am not even confident that I accept the latter claim.)

    In any event, point taken. Maybe the Plato case would be better, so long as it is equally convincing.

  6. Fair enough. I should have been clearer about “power” in the first place. And I’m more inclined to agree than disagree with what you say about the Gettier case. (The point about how students react to the case is quite a nice one in this context I think.)

    Maybe I should have stuck to something that I find much more convincing; namely that when we’re doing methodology it’s very important to have a lot of examples so as to avoid illicitly generalising from particular features of one example.

  7. For me, the canonical thought experiment is Thomson’s Talented Violinist. (Perhaps this is generational.) The details of the case are really uniquely important, and the case is not one that would ever actually arise. This makes it not really an “example”, but the original claim is about “thought experiments”— and I wouldn’t call Gettier cases thought experiments.

    As you say, Gettier cases are not so singular and detail driven. The take home lesson is a kind of schematic situation, for which indefinitely many specific instances can be generated. This is underscored by the fact that Gettier originally proposed more than one such case to elicit the same, singular intuition. (Thomson does offer other thought experiments, but for different purposes.)

  8. More than any other, I feel like I run across Max Black’s two spheres counterexample to the Identity of Indiscernibles. But I’m in grad school studying metaphysics, so that may explain the skew.

  9. Brian, you’re surely right that we should discuss multiple examples of examples so we don’t
    respond to accidental features of particular cases.

    But I’m still not sure about your claim that the Platonic example is a stronger example of resistance to generalization. You suggest that we can see how the example supports the conclusion Socrates draws even if we are unsure of the justice of repayment that is potentially harmful only to the recipient and not to a third party. However, given the conclusion Socrates draws, this example must concern harm to the recipient. Socrates describes a variant case involving of the repayment of money to an insane friend, and then suggests more generally that when restoring or repaying turns out to be harmful to the person repaid we would have a failure of justice. I don’t think this is supposed to be an ampliative move on his part (that would be so unsocratic, lol). In any event I think the weapons example only has the force that it does because we are capable of seeing it as an instance of something more general about the problem of defining justice in terms of particular acts whose moral properties vary with empirical circumstance. I’ll happily grant that we might be quite far from seeing exactly what it is about such definitions that is problematic, but then I think we are in the same predicament with the Gettier cases.

    The false lemma thing could explain what’s going on, but I think there are other possible explanations of the principle implicit grasp of which is leading us to recognize a failure of knowledge in the Gettier cases – perhaps what really troubles us is something about the instability of the subject’s mental state, the risk of his revising his opinion quite rationally upon receipt of perhaps quite readily available further information (a principle that – unlike the false-lemma principle – also explains our reaction to the ‘dead dictator’ cases). For what it’s worth I think it’s more psychologically plausible that detection of rational instability, rather than detection of false lemmas, is what is driving our responses to these cases, but I think it’s a hard (and partly empirical) question which principle is actually driving us here. I agree it’s easy to create more JTB-but-not-K cases, but I don’t think it’s easy to see exactly what principle underlies the creation of all cases just like those ones.

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