A summary of the structure of knowledge

In the final term of this year, I completed an online course on “Theory of Knowledge” from the University of Oxford’s department for continuing education. As part of this course, I have to submit two assignments. The first, which is a summary of the structure of knowledge and limited to around 500 words, was due on the 5th June and I am posting a copy of it below.

A summary of the structure of knowledge

According to Pritchard (2014), we can distinguish between two types of knowledge: knowledge of something or knowledge of how to do something also referred to as propositional knowledge and ability knowledge respectively. It is the first of these that we are interested in in this summary.

Knowledge is valuable because knowledge has instrumental and non-instrumental value. Having knowledge is instrumentally valuable in the sense that it helps us achieve our goals, but it is also non-instrumentally valuable in the sense that having knowledge enriches our lives in and of itself.

To claim to know something is to make a claim or a proposition that a) you believe something and b) that your belief is true. If I claim that it is raining in London while I am living in Lausanne, and assuming that I have no ill intent to deceive those I am talking to, I am making a proposition which I must ultimately believe – how could I claim it was raining if I didn’t ultimately believe it to be so? Intuitively it seems that we cannot claim propositional knowledge if we don’t first believe it.

The claim that we know something “aims at” truth, to use Pritchard’s (2014) phrase. Claiming knowledge intuits at the truth of reality. We don’t normally count someone who holds a false belief as holding knowledge of something. For example, in a pub quiz, someone could be said to be knowledgeable of the topic in question if they hold what is commonly accepted as the “correct” or truthful response. Someone who incorrectly or falsely believes the answer is another proposition cannot be said to know the answer.

Thus, we can say that truth and belief are necessary conditions of knowledge. However, a guess (like a bet) that gets to the truth of the matter (that turns out to be true) is also a claim that contains truth and belief but is not considered knowledge. Under normal circumstances, someone who wins at roulette with the number 29 can’t be said to know that 29 was the correct number, but they did have a true belief that 29 was the number.

Therefore, to count as knowledge, a claim needs have more than truth and belief, it also needs to be justified. Knowledge has historically been counted as justified true belief. All three of these elements are necessary conditions for knowledge but on their own, they are not sufficient conditions for knowledge.

For example, Gettier cases show us that justified true belief isn’t always enough for knowledge. By luck, some agents can still hold true beliefs that are justified but that we would not normally count as knowledge. In the case of an agent who “knows” the time by looking at a stopped clock, if they look at the clock at the “correct” time even though the clock has stopped they will have gained a justified true belief, but they will have done so by luck. If they had looked at the clock five minutes later or five minutes earlier they would have acquired a false belief (Pritchard, 2014).

So, we also need more than justified true belief. We still need to consider the type of justification that is used when combined with true belief. More specifically we need to consider what supports our beliefs in order for them to be justified. There are normally three ways of considering this: a) beliefs do not need to be grounded on anything b) beliefs can be founded on an infinite chain of justifications c) beliefs can be grounded on a circular chain of beliefs. The different schools of thought of infinitism, foundationalism and coherentism offer different responses to this trilemma.

Justification and the support needed for belief is closely linked to rationality. Normally only rational beliefs would be considered knowledge. We can think of a judge who reaches their decision either by weighing up the evidence presented or on the basis of their emotional or prejudice. A judge who rationally weighs up the evidence to reach a verdict can be justified in their true beliefs but a judge who doesn’t, can’t be. However not all rationality is linked to finding the truth and to justify our beliefs we should be concerned with having epistemically rational beliefs. Pascal’s wager is a good example of the difference between epistemically and non-epistemically rationality. In the same vein, we need to consider whether agents can or should be held responsible for their beliefs.

Are people responsible for paying attention to how their beliefs are formed? Can we count a belief as knowledge if the agent in question has not considered how they have formed their belief?


Pritchard, D. (2014) What is this thing called knowledge? 3rd edition. Routledge.


Please share your thoughts..

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.