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Fr. 466

December 23, 2013

One potential answer is to be found in Goldman and Olsson’s 2009 article “Reliabilism and the Value of Knowledge”. As the title of the article suggests, the general perspective from which the authors approach the question of surplus value is not that of virtue ethics but rather a reliabilist framework, where the emphasis is placed on the reliability or truth-conduciveness of processes used to justify knowledge claims. (For a more in-depth presentation of reliabilism in epistemology, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (

The authors begin by questioning to whom the intuition that knowledge is more valuable than merely true belief is to be ascribed. Contrary to Greco’s assessment of the 1.) and 2.) above, Goldman and Olsson contend that surplus value intuitions stem from epistemologists’ own conceptions of knowledge and in virtue of which the latter attempt to show that individuals should value knowledge over merely true belief. With this in mind and given the absence of any attempt to dispel conceptual confusions, the criterion of ordinary thinkers and thinking put in place by Greco has little role to play in the present account.

This conceit aside, Goldman and Olsson are, generally speaking, in agreement with Greco that at least some kinds of knowledge have more value than merely true belief. Yet, like Greco, they find that this contention must be tempered with a certain amount of realism about what a solution to the surplus value problem can reasonably provide in the way of answers. More simply, demanding too much of the solution diminishes any theory’s chances of resolving the surplus value problem. For this reason, again like Greco, they join to their account a limiting, negative strategy. In contrast with Greco’s, the strategy provided by the authors is, however, the first of the two outlined above: demonstrate in relevant cases that knowledge has the same value as merely true belief. This contention will receive further consideration before we turn our attention to their arguments securing the surplus value of knowledge.

The reason for considering these limiting cases owes to the considerable interpretative difficulties brought on by postulating that knowledge is more valuable (in whatever way) than merely true belief in every case. In light of said difficulties, the authors seek to introduce a weak sense of knowledge so as to limit surplus value’s generality and to render it more plausible. They do this by isolating one case of knowledge that seems equivalent to merely true belief: those cases where knowledge and ignorance exhaust the possible ways of describing the situation.

By way of example, consider a case in which three contestants are competing on a television game show for a cash prize. In order to win the prize, these contestants must accumulate more points by writing down (out of sight of the other contestants) the correct response to questions drawn from a number of fields: literature, geography, science, etc. The host determines the points to be attributed by tallying how many contestants gave correct answers to a given question. If the answer given is correct, then she can be said to have known the answer. If the answer is incorrect, then she can be said to have been been ignorant of the answer. Accordingly, the contestants are divided into one of two exclusive groups, namely, those who know and those who do not, regardless of the means by which each came to decide on an answer. More simply, the individual receives just as much credit in this set of circumstances for having given the correct answer on the basis of a lucky guess or unreliable testimony as she does for having determined the answer through truth conducive, repeatable processes or the exercise of intellectual virtues.

This is the essence of Goldman’s and Olsson’s “(COMPL)” principle where not knowing that p is precisely being ignorant of p, with no need for further clarification. Insofar as the target proposition or belief is factive and knowledge consists in merely true belief, knowledge and ignorance are complements of one another and so exhaust the range of descriptions applicable. Indeed, for a number of practical, everyday environments, it seems right to say that there is no need to introduce precisions other than those included in the complementary principle, which largely suffices for the individual’s needs in these cases. If this weak sense of knowledge seems relative to a certain environment or we admit that such a principle trades on a certain vagueness in the category of knowledge, this takes nothing away from its decidedly practical orientation.

Where objections are, however, to be encountered is on the suspicion that, even in such well defined environments, knowledge qua knowledge requires more than merely true belief. If knowledge is, in fact, justified true belief plus an anti-Gettier condition, then it seems wrong to use knowledge as a blanket description of all instances, for some will undoubtedly violate justification and safety conditions (as in the case of a lucky guess). Yet, as Goldman and Olsson point out, failure to know that p in this strong sense of knowledge does not necessarily entail ignorance on the part of the would-be knower, as per an inference from the latter’s not knowing to her ignorance. Otherwise, (COMPL) would be unable to describe a range of widely observed cases of knowing in which one legitimately infers from not knowing to ignorance on the knower’s part.

So long as the strong sense of knowledge is that being advance and the individual in question does not know, there are, in fact, three ways for her knowing to go wrong, of which only one is ignorance. The authors capture this in a tripartite diagram where not knowing on the strong sense can fall into the following subcases:

1.) by being ignorant of p (not affirming it in the target proposition)
2.) by believing p unjustifiedly (as per the justification clause)
3.) by believing p justifiedly but in violating the anti-Gettier condition (as per the anti-Gettier clause)

Given the tripartite division of cases, there can be no legitimate inference from not knowing p to being ignorant of p. If, on the contrary, individuals regularly make such inferences and with good reason, then there must be some other sense of knowledge at use in everyday reasoning about knowledge and structured in such a way as to allow this inference. To claim otherwise, as the authors remind the reader, entails gross misrepresentation of the would-be knower in that it is misleading to characterize a case of 1.) as being strictly equivalent to that of 2.) or 3.). For, in 2.) and 3.), the individual is undeniably cognizant of p and affirms, albeit for the wrong reasons.

In the end, the authors are content to have demonstrated that the existence of a strong sense does not exclude that of a weak sense and that with the introduction of a weak sense disappears “the unqualified thesis that knowledge is more valuable than true belief” (Goldman and Olsson, p. 21). In turn, this eliminates the need for proponents of surplus value to explain away the apparent equivalence of knowledge and merely true belief in all instances, even the trivial. All of this serves to pave the way for Goldman and Olsson’s own positive account of surplus value.

(That said, such an argumentative move, i.e. that of multiplying the kinds of knowledge in order to lessen the explanatory burden on surplus value does violate the commonly held criterion of simplicity in promoting fragmentation of the meaning and application of accounts of knowledge. We shall not pursue this line of inquiry any further but content ourselves with the question of whether it is necessary or even plausible to stop at two kinds of knowledge to the exclusion of all others.)

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