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What is Knowledge? Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 1070 words Published: 7th Jul 2017

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What is truth? What is knowledge? These seemingly simple questions lie at the heart of philosophy’s oldest debates. They have generated numerous theories, revealed issues of perception, cognition and certainty and they occupy philosophers today just as they did thousands of years ago: While our records on the topic go back as far as half a millennium B.C., important works on truth have been published as recently as 2009 (by Michael Lynch, on pluralism – see David [2009]).

The first part of this essay covers the topics of beliefs and truth and puts an emphasis on a defense of a correspondentist conception of truth, while the second part moves on to a discussion of knowledge based the thesis that knowledge is objective, and can be defined as “justified true belief based on sufficient evidence”.

This paper is thus an argumentative paper, striving to defend the opinion of the author by engaging in a philosophical discussion.

I. Truth

Truth is a concept that, as established above, has numerous theories that established their own definitions and criteria to determine whether a truthbearer – a statement, claim, belief etc. that can be true or false – is indeed true. I will here focus on neo-classical theories of truth, as they attempt to address the question of what truth is most directly, and since they still serve as a foundation of much of the more recent debates on truth. I will thus leave aside theories such as Pluralism, Deflationism, and numerous other theories, while my focus lies on Correspondent, Pragmatic and Coherence theories of truth.

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The Correspondent Theory of Truth sees the nature of truth in its correspondence to reality. A statement is considered true if it describes the way things actually are (Russell, 1956). [EXAMPLE]. It is usually considered to presume some sort of realist framework that holds that there is such a thing as a reality outside of our minds, and that we are able to find some sort of relationship to that reality so that we can verify whether a claim is true or not. However, Kirkham (1992) holds that it would also be possible for correspondent theories to break with realism, for example by referring to facts of a world that exists rather in the mind of some superior entity rather than reality. For the sake of simplicity I will here assume correspondentist theories to adhere to ontological realism. The correspondent theory of truth has two prominent competitors and epistemic theories of truth, which I shall now illuminate.

First; the coherence theory of truth defines the nature of truth as coherence of a belief to a set or system of established beliefs. This includes the possibility for a truth to become apparent if it is merely entailed by an established belief in the system. Thus, the system of established beliefs is not only a tool to verify the truth of a belief – it is the source of the truth. (Glanzberg, 2006). Coherentism rejects the idea that we can access reality to verify our beliefs – it is hence related to idealism. Idealists maintain that experience essentially originates in mental activity. Thus, the notion that a set of beliefs describes the world as it is comes naturally to idealists (Glanzberg). [EXAMPLE]

Second; the pragmatist theory of truth proposes that whether a belief is true or not depends on the outcome of actions guided by that belief. Truth is thus determined by its practical value (Glanzberg, 2006). Even though the pragmatist theory of truth deserves a richer account, I will not engage with it much further for the sake of conciseness and because it falls prey to two important accusations. On the one hand, a false belief can also turn out to be true based on luck or different causational relationships than assumed. On the other hand, pragmatism does not allow us to make predictions of the future, since it reduces the definition of truth to beliefs of the past that have been confirmed by their outcome. The usefulness of a pragmatist account of truth is thus limited, both for philosophical study as well as the general scientific enquiry to generate truth.

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II. Belief and Knowledge

The word belief in everyday language refers to a claim that we are certain of in varying degrees, that we have evidence for in varying degrees and that may or may not be true. We speak of belief when a young child strongly believes in Sinterklaas, just as we speak of belief when a person vaguely believes that she will receive a fine when parking her car in central Maastricht without a parking ticket. While both cases have varying certainty and varying likeliness to be true, we do not explicitly distinguish to what extent the belief is certain, backed by evidence or whether it is actually true.

In philosophy it is specified what kind of belief is referred to. Further, a claim is only called a belief when its holder is certain of it; this means that hope and faith can be excluded from this definition of belief (Creel, 2001). Hereinafter I shall elaborate on three different kinds of belief and how they relate to knowledge in the realist framework.

First, a belief based on evidence is closer to being knowledge than a belief without evidence. However, there are many beliefs that are false, despite being backed by some evidence. Surely the child believing in Sinterklaas has some evidence, such as having seen an actor dressed in the Sinterklaas costume, yet her belief is false. Second, let us assume the belief is true and backed by evidence. It can constitute knowledge, but the evidence on which it is based could too weak to conclude that true, evidence based beliefs are knowledge (Creel). Third, the evidence criterion is specified to exclude the possibility of weak evidence – the evidence needs to be so strong, that the belief is justified. Is then a belief knowledge, when it can be said to be justified and true? This is where opinions diverge. Creel states that according to the justification theory of knowledge, the justification of a claim needs to be conclusive to be called knowledge. Steup (2006) claims that for a long time a justified true belief (JTB) has been the standard account of knowledge. Both are closely related, and both have been challenged 1963 by Edmund Gettier.



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