WITTGENSTEIN IN THE WORLD: Today, we have the Gettier problem!


But why would anyone care?: Today, we don't have naming of parts, though the poem is still sadly relevant.

Today, we have "the Gettier problem." We're going to give it a Wittgenstein hook, with a connection to our failing society's lack of daily logic.

Some may ask what "the Gettier problem" is. For the record, that question can mean different things.

Below, you see the capsule account given by the leading authority on the problem. Below, we'll simplify this account. The gods on Olympus have started to chuckle even as we type this:

The Gettier problem, in the field of epistemology, is a landmark philosophical problem concerning the understanding of descriptive knowledge. Attributed to American philosopher Edmund Gettier, Gettier-type counterexamples (called "Gettier-cases") challenge the long-held justified true belief (JTB) account of knowledge. 

The JTB account holds that knowledge is equivalent to justified true belief; if all three conditions (justification, truth, and belief) are met of a given claim, then we have knowledge of that claim. In his 1963 three-page paper titled "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?", Gettier attempts to illustrate by means of two counterexamples that there are cases where individuals can have a justified, true belief regarding a claim but still fail to know it because the reasons for the belief, while justified, turn out to be false. 

Thus, Gettier claims to have shown that the JTB account is inadequate because it does not account for all of the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge.

At this point, some will ask what "epistemology" is. According to that same authority, epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge. Epistemologists study the nature, origin, and scope of knowledge, epistemic justification, the rationality of belief, and various related issues. Epistemology is considered a major subfield of philosophy, along with other major subfields such as ethics, logic, and metaphysics.

As categorized there, epistemology is a subfield distinct from the subfield called logic. But it comes pretty close to that more familiar-sounding field.

Back to the Gettier problem. In somewhat simpler language, this is what's been said:

You can believe that some statement is true, and your belief can be accurate. You can even have a sensible reason which "justifies" your belief. (For example, you didn't just flip a coin.) 

You can believe it, and it can be true. You can even have a sensible reason for your belief. But that doesn't mean that you knew that the statement in question was true! That's what Gettier tried to show, thus creating "the Gettier problem."

A sensible person might ask at this point why anyone would care about this. In fact, there's an event in the news this very week which involves these basic elements, though we won't get there today.

Friend, are you intrigued at this point by the Gettier problem? If so, a bonus awaits.

As the leading authority offers additional background, two of those familiar names enter the picture again. One of them even devised the so-called "stopped clock case!"

The question of what constitutes "knowledge" is as old as philosophy itself. Early instances are found in Plato's dialogues, notably Meno and Theaetetus. Gettier himself was not actually the first to raise the problem named after him; its existence was acknowledged by both Alexius Meinong and Bertrand Russell, the latter of which discussed the problem in his book Human knowledge: Its scope and limits...

Russell's case, called the stopped clock case, goes as follows: 

Alice sees a clock that reads two o'clock and believes that the time is two o'clock. It is, in fact, two o'clock. There's a problem, however: unknown to Alice, the clock she's looking at stopped twelve hours ago. Alice thus has an accidentally true, justified belief...Gettier's formulation of the problem was important as it coincided with the rise of the sort of philosophical naturalism promoted by W. V. O. Quine and others, and was used as a justification for a shift towards externalist theories of justification.

Did Alice "know" it was two o'clock? Out here in the actual world, it's hard to imagine a circumstance in which the question would arise—in which anyone would waste their time debating so utterly pointless a point.

As such, this can feel like "Planet of the Toffs"—like academic rule by a gang of disconnected Brahmins who sit around the club conducting pseudo-discussions about topics which don't matter.

Inevitably, it was Russell—the third most important philosopher of the past two hundred years—who devised "the stopped clock case." Meanwhile, according to the leading authority, Gettier's formulation was important because of its connection to "the philosophical naturalism promoted by" Quine.

Quine was the fifth most important—and not only that! Gettier's formulation was also used as a justification for a shift towards externalist theories of justification! The kind of externalist theories which have never been mentioned, not even once, anywhere outside the club!

All roads seem to lead back to these fellows as they lounge about at the club! For a bit of comic relief, consider this account of Principia Mathematica (Russell and Whitehead), the fifth most important philosophy book of the 20th century:

Gödel placed himself at the very center of the storm over mathematical foundations, which had broken with a deeply unnerving discovery Bertrand Russell had made at the turn of the century while working on Principia Mathematica. Russell's idea had been to establish the soundness of mathematics by showing how it could all be reduced to principles of logic so self-evident as to be beyond doubt. Defining even the simplest operations of arithmetic in terms of what Russell called such "primitive" notions, however, was far from an obvious task. Even the notion of what a number is raised immediate problems. The laboriousness of the methodology and notation was all too evident in the (often remarked) fact that that it took more than seven hundred pages to reach the conclusion, "1 + 1 = 2," a result which Russell and Whitehead described as "occasionally useful."

Principia Mathematica was the fifth most important philosophy book of the 20th century. That said, did Russell and Whitehead really spend 700 pages "reaching the conclusion" that 1 + 1 = 2?

We don't know how to score that claim, though it's certainly bruited a lot. That account comes from Stephen Budianksy's recent book, Journey to the Edge of Reason: The Life of Kurt Gödel, the latest attempt to make Gödel easy for general readers.

To his credit, Russell was deeply involved in the actual affairs of the world. Also, he was willing to see the humor in his philosophical work, as described in several passages in Budiansky's book—humorous passages concerning the mammoth size of the manuscript and its later lack of readers.

Did Russell's "philosophical" work ever make any sense at all? We can't answer that question. But there he was, in his typical way, devising the crucial "stopped clock case." 

Did we mention the fact that he was recently rated the third most important philosopher of the past two hundred years?

Why do we cite the Gettier problem today? With apologies, it's because we read an overview of the life of the late Robert Nozick in the past few days.

In our (limited) experience, Nozick was always a thoroughly good, decent person. He was also a star of the academic philosophy world. Especially given what follows, we can't stress those points strongly enough.

In the fall of our freshman year, we took the introductory philosophy course, Problems in Philosophy, as taught by Professor Nozick. We were 17 at the time. He himself was 26, and he may have looked younger.

This was the course which showed us freshmen (and, we're sure, some sophomores and juniors) what academic philosophy was all about. It was also the course which sent at least some of  us streaming toward the exits, deciding to major in just about anything else.

(We went to History & Lit for a year, then staged a triumphant return.)

It may be that the course, Phil 3, was taught extremely well. We recall the way our teaching assistant, NAME WITHHELD, tore at his hair and agonized as he stared out the window in Emerson Hall, wondering how he could possibly know that 7 + 5 = 12.

(For the record, Miss Cummings had told us in second grade—and we still believed her!)

How well was Phil 3 taught? We can't evaluate that question now. But as enrollees' disillusionment with the young professor became more and more clear, we thought we sere seeing a very nice young person whose career was coming undone.

In fact, he was soon the hottest thing in American academic philosophy. In this account of his life, we read about his approach to the Gettier problem.

As we did, we decided, once again, that we freshmen had maybe been right.

The world we've been describing this week is the world the early Wittgenstein entered in 1911. At age 22, he presented himself, unannounced, at Russell's rooms in Cambridge. Russell soon accepted him as an unmitigated genius.

Eventually, things went sideways between the two, then they went downhill. Along the way, the later Wittgenstein surfaced, and one of two things happened:

According to that survey in 1999, he produced the most important philosophy book of the 20th century—a work which helped establish him as the most important philosopher of the past two hundred years.

Either that happened, or this did:

According to Professor Horwich, his later work was largely thrown under the bus by the philosophy establishment. For ourselves, we suspect that Horwich may be right. In the weeks ahead, we'll return to what he has said.

Along the way this week, we've taken a look at the world Wittgenstein entered, at age 22. back in 1911. It hints of Planet of the Toffs. For today, we leave you with two questions:

Did "Alice" know what time it was? And why would anyone care?

Still coming: Examples of lapses in daily logic. Also, Wittgenstein made easy


  1. "As categorized there, epistemology is a subfield distinct from the subfield called logic. But it comes pretty close to that more familiar-sounding field."

    Logic is a method for extending knowledge.

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  2. " In fact, there's an event in the news this very week which involves these basic elements, though we won't get there today."

    Instead of teasing us with such statements, it would be more effective to Somerby's explanation if he would simply describe the event because examples aid understanding and are more effective immediately after the explanation than they will be next week (or never, as frequently happens with Somerby).

  3. Somerby hops from philosophical problem to problem because he has no sincere interest in understanding the point of such problems, nor of the endeavor called philosophy. He only wants to knock those who pursue it:

    "Out here in the actual world, it's hard to imagine a circumstance in which the question would arise—in which anyone would waste their time debating so utterly pointless a point."

    This is the buffoon standing in front of the Warhol painting and opining, "I cannot imagine why anyone would waste their time creating such a worthless painting."

    Nihilism is not a good look for adolescents striking a pose. It is an even worse look for a former teacher who had access to young minds at a vulnerable stage.

    And one has to ask why Somerby would have spent four years pursuing such pointless questions, if not to waste his mother's money in a passive-aggressive gesture that probably went right past her. He could have studied education and learned how to be effective for those beautiful black children in his classrooms but he wasted his time instead. At least he escaped the draft -- and perhaps that was his motive. It certainly wasn't to become an educated person. And now he is so dysfunctional that he defends Trump, Roy Moore, Ron Johnson, and insurrectionists who are a real threat to our democracy, while tearing down the institutions intended to preserve our republic: education and a free press.

    1. I'm still looking for a Liberal who has more disdain for Republican voters than Republican politicians do.
      It's a losing proposition, because there is no such thing.

    2. Real unicorns are MUCH more prevalent.

    3. "Out here in the actual world, it's hard to imagine a circumstance in which the question would arise—in which anyone would waste their time debating so utterly pointless a point."

      True. The point has nothing to do with life (or death) here in the actual world. It's a totally useless invention. It is meaningless when put up against decisions we make and the irrationality cruelty of the world.

    4. This point that you consider so meaningless is exactly the one that Somerby raised about whether Trump believes his own lies.

    5. @11:04 you got it up to eight! We're proud of you. Eight and two is ten. Score!

    6. How dumb is fuck? Is it possible to know how dumb fuck is? What would it mean to know how dumb fuck is?

      Is one fuck plus one fuck equal to two fucks?

  4. Republican politicians are trying valiantly to get me to vote for them by killing Republican voters.
    15-20 million more, and they might just win me over.

  5. "(We went to History & Lit for a year, then staged a triumphant return.)"

    Somerby no doubt discovered that both history and literature have more required reading than philosophy.

    I too started as a philosophy major. In the discussion sections, I discovered that my classes were full of guys who liked to argue but who didn't listen to each other's points. They either ignored or talked over the girls in the class, who tried to participate in such discussions. At one point, a guy said "You may argue better than I do, but that doesn't make you right." That was when I switched my major to history and never looked back. History classes were 10-week courses requiring a book a week. If you took several in one quarter, that meant reading 2-3 history books a week.

    Somerby repeatedly demonstrates a kind of intellectual laziness. I doubt he would have been able to hack a major with more reading. Even math courses with nightly problem sets weren't as much work as History and Literature majors put in.

    Somerby's phrase "triumphant return" is puzzling. His grades don't seem to have been very high (based on the D Quine gave him in what is now the 3rd course he has admitted doing poorly in). What was triumphant about running back to the major where arguing is considered homework?

    1. It seems likely that Somerby got an A in "Introduction to Sophistry".

    2. Anonymouse 9:01pm, you let some silly college dudes run you out of a major and you’re calling Somerby a quitter?

    3. Like Somerby, I decided the major was silly and switched to History. Somerby quit on History and Literature. There is little virtue in sticking with a major you dislike, as Somerby appears to dislike philosophy. He would have benefitted far more in his teaching career if he had stuck with history or lit. Today, he seems to have read nothing of American Lit beyond Walden. He mangled his interpretation of My Antonia.

      It is no coincidence that the greatest number of philosophy majors become lawyers, especially litigators. Ask yourself whether you would enjoy hanging out with a bunch of college sophomore future-litigators.

      Philosophy is not taught at the high school level. There is no way to know whether you will like it, or sociology, or economics, or modern dance, or any of the numerous other disciplines not presented to high school students. There is no way to know until you try, which is the point of breadth requirements in college.

    4. Anonymouse 11:02a.m., I’ve been assuming that Bob went back to philosophy. It seems to be a field of study where the level of relevance and complexity is dependent upon what Somerby is writing about it day to day.

    5. He said he made a triumphant return to philosophy, whatever that means.

      It seems like Somerby's attack is more against elite philosophers sitting in their clubs. He has complained about those who wrote important books in their early 20s and those who wrote important books and then became demented in old age. He has complained about Russell spending 700 pages to prove that 1+1=2, pretending that it is the arithmetic that was important, not the logical proof of a basic mathematical fact (more of Somerby's wilfull obtuseness).

      Excessively literal readings of philosophy are no more appropriate than in any other context. Pretending that the field of philosophy is misguided or has lost its way because any cashier can make change from a dollar is ridiculous and totally misses the point of what philosophy is about. As a philosophy major, Somerby should know the answers to his own questions here. So why is he doing this?

      You tell me.

    6. He is getting paid for oblique attacks of the left.

    7. “ You tell me.”

      You got it.

      This is one man’s opinion of a field that caught his interest, disappointed him for several reasons, but eventually drew him back and continues to break his heart even as it simultaneously intrigues him.

      Can Anonymices overlook a blogger who critiques their shared tribe ( but still avers as being vastly superior to the alternative) and go along for the interesting ride without referencing his mother?

    8. No, his mother forced him to go to Harvard and he has never gotten over it. I see this as a long screed against his mother, who he feels less comfortable overtly attacking than he does Quine and Goedel.

      This belief about his mother comes out of an interview with Somerby shortly before his one-man standup show (which was based on his life).

    9. Then allow him to have that. Allow anyone to have that.

    10. I admit that this is easy with me. My mother died when I was two and my father would have had to have forced Harvard into taking me, rather than the other way around.

      Bob’s starting point deserves some cred and openess.

    11. If Somerby were honest and simply said "I hated my college days because my mother forced me to attend Harvard," I would have no beef. Instead, he pretends that philosophy is an effete waste of time with no value to anyone (despite having existed for centuries) and brilliant people are actually dummies.

      Why do you think Somerby deserves to spew garbage (disinformation) simply because he disliked his youth?

      If he keeps this up, I plan to start attacking his chosen career, standup comedy.

    12. Bob should have majored in physics so he could understand relativity.

    13. Anonymouse 9:12am, I think Somerby and anyone else deserves to voice conflicting feelings about any field of study that they have undertaken.

      In their living room or on their blog.

      I don’t consider. those opinions to automatically be disinformation because it’s Harvard, man… and it’s a class and an institution that neither of us ever experienced.

      Several years ago, I watched Clint Eastwood in the movie Play Misty For Me. Netflix or Amazon Prime ( I don’t remember which) recommended that I watch The Paper Chase too, which I did.

      Neither of those movies could be made now.

    14. I guess you missed the part where I said I too started as a philosophy major. I have read several of the works Somerby writes about, and Godel was part of my graduate training. I am saying it is "disinformation" because Somerby is lying about things, not because it is Harvard. Several of these philosophers were not at Harvard. I WAS at Harvard, so you are wrong when you say "neither of us ever experienced".

      You might watch The Chair (Netflix). I consider it very accurate. It does a good job of explaining why an effete, seemingly irrelevant discipline (American literature) should continue to exist. I believe that contradicts your point about certain movies not being made. Harvard doesn't have the clout to suppress Clint Eastwood (who happens to be a major conservative).

      Somerby isn't just airing his dirty psychological laundry. He is working to further the mistaken conservative ideas that there is no knowable truth and that everyone's opinion is equally valid and expertise is a waste of time.

      How exactly is Somerby expressing "feelings" when he calls the top 10 or 20 philosophers of the last 200 years a bunch of frauds? Can you not tell the difference between feelings and slurs?

    15. Anonymouse 10:30am, I have no trouble thinking the “discipline of American literature” should exist. I’ve never seen Somerby suggest otherwise, though he returned to major in the field of philosophy.

      Hell, I’ve never seen him advocate that the discipline of philosophy not exist, just that it strive to present itself as more relevant to daily life as your dearest interest via Thoreau and company managed to do with everyone who has lived in the community of man.

    16. Thoreau was a philosopher only in the sense that he wrote about man's relation to nature. Somerby has repeatedly blamed philosophers for not intervening in politics and he has asked what the study of logic is good for when it has no real world application (in his eyes).

      If he had more guts, he would be attacking Fauci, like the rest of the conservatives, instead of trying to undermine science by attacking Einstein (who is symbolic of scientific genius).

      The humanities are very much under attack on college campuses (in terms of funding and resources) because the increasing focus on college as job training and the inability to see the relevance of disciplines such as philosophy and literature, is leading to decreasing enrollments. Somerby is joining that attack, which is essentially an attack on knowledge for its own sake and not for some practical purpose, a major tenet of scientific research. This is short-sighted and will cost humanity dearly if allowed to destroy the academy.

      Hitler's first act was to destroy the very fine German universities on the grounds that things like modern art and jazz were degenerate and science should serve his war goals, not explore abstract questions or advance theory. German scientists fled to America (among other places) and greatly improved our university faculties, leading to our current dominance in science and other fields. If our university system is similarly weakened by conservatives who do not understand its purpose, we will lose an important advantage that our economy and culture depend upon. And we will continue down the path of becoming a third world country.

      I don't want to see that happen because I value the search for truth. Somerby doesn't care, and his attack is just as destructive, no matter what his reasons.

    17. Where did Somerby dispense the label of “fraud” on the top 20 philosophers of the last 200” years?

      He didn’t say they were frauds. He’s said that they could have spent some time on focusing their vast intellects on more immediate issues.

      Let me reassure you… there’s every indication that he thinks you were right to choose Thoreau over Godel.

      No one could remake the movies I mentioned. In both vehicles there is a conflict between how you render a pathological woman and how you render a nonpathological woman relative to the god of expertise.

    18. He said that if they couldn't explain things clearly to him that it was likely they didn't understand those things themselves, which is equivalent to calling an expert a fraud (someone pretending to understand what they don't really know). I found that a highly offensive remark applied to folks like Einstein, Godel and even the biographers.

      I did not choose Thoreau over Godel. I dislike Thoreau (and his buddy Emerson). I am not in any sense a Romantic, as they were. Thoreau was not a historian, the field I chose. I did choose Godel. He was the subject of an introductory course on computational modeling required for my doctorate.

      Play Misty for Me is about a pathological woman, but there is no expertise involved. Eastwood's character is a DJ on a jazz station. The Paper Chase has nothing to do with any pathological woman. Both the professor and the student are male in that film.

      You don't seem to know what you are talking about. If you are suggesting that one cannot make films about pathological women, you are certainly wrong. A Promising Young Woman is a recent example. The movies have very few nonpathological women, and in fact, very few starring roles for women in dramas any more. That said, Freud considered everyone to be pathological in some sense, having all made a bargain with their id for better or worse. Like Somerby, you seem to just toss a movie title out there without thinking much about what they mean.

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  7. Keep it coming Bob. Enjoying your writing immensely.


  8. Why doesn't Somerby weed out the spam on his blog?


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