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Fr. 460

December 15, 2013

Is knowledge more valuable than merely true belief? Both intuitively and linguistically, one is tempted to answer in the affirmative: intuitively in that the word “knowledge” often comes with loftier trappings; linguistically in that the existence of two distinct words would suggest a difference of some kind. Although this question, that of the surplus value of knowledge, found its beginnings as a philosophical dilemma in Ancient Greece and Socrates’ discussion in the Meno, two millennia of philosophical inquiry have done little to resolve it. Indeed, along with knowledge’s nature, the question of its value remains one key area of dispute in contemporary epistemology.

In the hope of coming to some provisional formulation whose terms might be switched out at need, we shall briefly sketch out the main components of this dilemma as follows:

1.) Justified true belief (plus some anti-Gettier condition) is better than merely true belief.
2.) Knowledge is justified true belief (plus some anti-Gettier condition).
Therefore, 3.) knowledge is better than merely true belief.

Something like the above lies behind the intuition that knowledge is more valuable than merely true belief. Of the above deduction, it should be noted that the internal reasoning is valid. Accordingly, any who wish to deny the surplus value of knowledge must instead challenge one of the premises. As premise 2.) is merely definitional and will vary in accordance with the definition of the nature of knowledge being put forward by a given epistemological theory, the problem must lie with premise 1.). Indeed, insofar as 1.) advances the primary claim, i.e. that some combination of elements x, y and z is more valuable than y and z alone, issue must first and foremost be taken with this claim. The question remains on the means by which the opponent is to challenge this premise. That said, it is not only the opponent of surplus value who is confronted with challenges, for its proponent cannot rest content with the argument supplied above. After all, she must explain in what way knowledge is better in specifying what kind of value separates knowledge from merely true belief.

In view of the above, it now becomes possible to sketch out the problems with which the proponent and opponent of knowledge’s surplus value are respectively confronted. In general, the following argumentative strategies seem to be available to the two parties:

1. Confirm the surplus value by showing what kind of value knowledge has over and beyond merely true belief.

2. Deny the surplus value either by demonstrating that knowledge has the same value as merely true belief in all instances or by explaining away the intuition about surplus value through identification of conceptual confusion or pretheoretical dogmatism.

Surplus value 1

In short, whereas affirming surplus value consists in the single, albeit open-ended, task of defining value, negating surplus value can pass through either of two routes: first-order analysis of specific cases capable of being generalized in order to show that knowledge has the same value or second-order analysis of the concept of knowledge itself in order to extract the uncritical commitments that theorists bring to this concept. In other words, to affirm is to admit the existence of the relevant problem whereas to deny is to maintain that there is no problem, either through dogmatism (knowledge has the same value as merely true belief) or agnosticism (it is not clear why knowledge should have more value than merely true belief). The argumentative strategies now outlined, we shall briefly consider the difficulties with which each is faced in attempting to carry out its program.

First, brief consideration will be given to the difficulties that the proponent has in specifying the kind of value involved. As Duncan Pritchard’s discussion in the second chapter of What Is This Thing Called Knowledge? (pp. 11-20), the proposed value falls into one of two categories: instrumental or extrinsic value; final or intrinsic value. (For sake of convenience, we will speak of these as being either instrumental value or intrinsic, following Pritchard’s convention.) Whereas instrumental value is conferred on those things permitting an individual to reach the goals that she sets herself, intrinsic value owes to the thing’s being itself a goal for which she strives.

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