Knowledge as Competence

I got an interesting and very precise question from a student in class today. “You say you have to believe what you know. But isn’t belief totally subjective?”

There are two ways to respond. One is to stick to one’s philosophical guns and say that knowledge isn’t “merely” belief but a special kind of belief, namely, “justified, true belief”. Belief can be acknowledged as a the subjective or “mental” component of knowledge, i.e., the part that has to be “in the mind”, without saying that knowledge is entirely subjective. Belief is a necessary but sufficient attribute of knowledge.

But in the class I had been pursuing another line. I hadn’t actually said, “Knowledge is justified, true belief.” I had said “Knowledge is the ability to form justified, true beliefs.” When faced with a particular situation, I had said, knowledge is your competence to make up your mind about it. “Competence” here implies that you’re going to form not just any old belief but a “good” one. And goodness in the way of belief is what we call “truth”. The requirement of justification prevents us from counting as “knowledge” the sort of prejudices that allow snap judgments, even when they happen to hit on the truth. We have to be able to provide a reasonable account of why we believe something if we are going to claim to know it.

I think this strategy of treating knowledge, not as a kind of belief, but as a basis for (or “way of holding” or “way of forming”) beliefs might be fruitful, but I’m not sure how well it holds up to philosophical critique. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it’s been discussed to death among philosophers. Comments are welcome.

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