Toward a Better Epistemology: Why Do We Care About What We Know?

A reaction to the ‘Gettier problem’

Tucker Lieberman
12 min readMay 27, 2021

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Abstract digital art by Tucker Lieberman. It began as a close-up photograph of striped carpet.
Digital art by Tucker Lieberman.

Why should we assume, with Socrates, that it is useful or even possible to give one single account of the many instances of knowledge? Why should we expect that each instance of knowledge is a branch off the main tree of Knowledge? What if, instead, each instance of knowledge is loosely bound to others by a Wittgensteinian “family resemblance”?

Epistemology

The study of the definition and meaning of knowledge has, since Socrates, been known as epistemology. And the project of epistemology, as traditionally conceived, is too restrictive. It is restrictive in at least three ways.

First, it tries to make a clean taxonomy of two broad types of knowledge: “propositional” knowledge, which is a statement we make about something, and “non-propositional” knowledge, which includes subtypes like ability (e.g. riding a bicycle, learning to swim) and familiarity (e.g. recognizing a person, navigating a neighborhood). It’s not actually possible to do this cleanly. We can’t always distinguish when our knowledge is propositional or not.

Bicycling and swimming are only truly learned by “doing,” yet we call out support to those who are learning, like: “Once the bicycle has momentum, you won’t fall” or “Look how the water supports your weight as you hold onto the wall with one hand!” When I immediately recognize a person who waves to me, I may have no need to articulate this, but if it takes me a few moments to recognize them, I may find myself constructing an argument or making some kind of mental exclamation, especially if I have to explain this process to someone else. The same goes for finding my way around my neighborhood.

Now, by contrast, consider writing and math, which we are often taught to think of as following a set of propositional rules. How much of that turns out to be less propositional and more about ability and familiarity — something we learn by doing! One needs non-propositional knowledge to be able to express what one knows propositionally. Just because something can be expressed propositionally does not mean that the proposition captures all the information there is to know, nor that it is the best way to convey the…

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Tucker Lieberman

Editor for Prism & Pen. Author of the novel "Most Famous Short Film of All Time." https://tuckerlieberman.com/