Gettier-type problem & 2 cakes of soap

Epistemology (from Greek ἐπιστήμη – episteme-, “knowledge, science” + λόγος, “logos”) or theory of knowledge is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope (limitations) of knowledge. It addresses the questions:

* What is knowledge?
* How is knowledge acquired?
* What do people know?
* How do we know what we know?


Classical accounts of epistemology (probably following a direct tracing back to Plato’s Theatetus) have generally rested upon the analytical framework structuring knowledge as justified true belief (or JTB), where a set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions are fulfilled.

The JTB Analysis of Knowledge:
S knows that p iff

1. p is true;
2. S believes that p;
3. S is justified in believing that p.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Then in 1963, along came Edmund Gettier and in an admirably short paper, demonstrating his now famous Gettier-type counterexamples, which fulfills the 3 JTB conditions and yet refutes the JTB tests on claims to knowledge, essentially on arguments of an unknown false premise.

[A cottage industry then sprang up offering different types and genres of Gettier-problems, and some interestingly on Jimmy Connors and tennis matches;
but thus far, none on ‘suchness’ and the Tathāgata.]

I have been revisiting a fair amount of old childhood readings lately, mostly anthologies of short stories and novellas, having been seized by several amusing intertwining threads of intertextual references (mostly tending towards the literary edges of weird fiction/epic horror).

But while trudging along old familiar tracks within the weird fictional wastelands, I rediscovered this seemingly sedate (but with a trace of the macabre) short story which may be offered up as an example of a Gettier-type problem:
Dusk, by Hector Hugh Munro@Saki
[link to full text of short-story]

Munro’s gray and sombre description of dusk-time at Hyde Park impressed upon me deeply when I read this many years ago, and probably never left me and indeed, must have unconsciously accompanied many of my own evening-time excursions.
Here are some memorable lines:

Dusk, to his mind, was the hour of the defeated. Men and women, who had fought and lost, who hid their fallen fortunes and dead hopes as far as possible from the scrutiny of the curious, came forth in this hour of gloaming, when their shabby clothes and bowed shoulders and unhappy eyes might pass unnoticed, or, at any rate, unrecognised.

A king that is conquered must see strange looks,
So bitter a thing is the heart of man.

The wanderers in the dusk did not choose to have strange looks fasten on them, therefore they came out in this bat-fashion, taking their pleasure sadly in a pleasure-ground that had emptied of its rightful occupants. […] He was in the mood to count himself among the defeated. Money troubles did not press on him; had he so wished he could have strolled into the thoroughfares of light and noise, and taken his place among the jostling ranks of those who enjoyed prosperity or struggled for it. He had failed in a more subtle ambition, and for the moment he was heartsore and disillusionised, and not disinclined to take a certain cynical pleasure in observing and labelling his fellow wanderers as they went their ways in the dark stretches between the lamp-lights.

Dusk, by Hector Hugh Munro@Saki

Wonderful lines…but back to the Gettier problem.
A reading of the story (scarcely more than 2 pages, really!), along with a careful inspection of the JTB framework above, suggests that the Dusk story (with the cake of soap as a pivotal “witness to genuineness”), fails in its JTB claim to knowledge in regards to condition 1 (p is not true, in this case), and therefore should not rightly be termed as a Gettier problem.

But what if, just what if, by some quirk of time and space, the unnamed young (and suspected con-)man in Munro’s Dusk turned out to be a younger Leopold Bloom from James Joyce’s Ulysses, odyssey-ing away from his Dublin to London, and already having a penchant for purchasing a cake of soap early in the day and wandering about town with it tucked away under the arm or in a pocket…

Then, with all three conditions fulfilled (p is now true, the young man as a Leopold Bloom doppelganger* did lose a cake of soap, and there lies a second piece of soap hidden under the bench!), we have a Gettier problem; and Munro’s protaganist at the end of the story is left facing the elderly gentleman and an unknown non sequitur, as long as the second cake of soap remains unfound.

Do texts speak to each other…?

{*Interestingly, Borges also sets up a meeting with a younger Borges-doppelganger or double on a park bench in a story, El Otro/The Other, written late in his life.

One thought on “Gettier-type problem & 2 cakes of soap

  1. Munro/Saki paints the character of Norman Gortsby (from the short story above, Dusk) with quick but deliberate strokes and produced a character of such surprising depth and a keen yet still-failed sapience, that it seems a pity and almost a crime to use him only in a two-page story.

    Think some effort expended towards locating Gortsby or a similar Gortsby-figure elsewhere within Saki’s oeuvre may be rewarding.

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