There are various approaches to the epistemological treatment of knowledge: the normative approach, the descriptive approach and the moral approach or virtue epistemology. The normative approach is the historically dominant position which holds that for something to be knowledge, it must satisfy certain epistemic principles or criteria. In this approach, the attempt is to establish general criteria for knowledge or general condition which anything that has claim to knowledge must satisfy.

The descriptive approach while acknowledging the possibility of an objective criterion for knowledge would also try to study knowledge descriptively by trying to discover how awareness first arises in us and what mental operations unfold in leading to knowledge. This approach is the traditional descriptive and the naturalistic approach.

The moral approach or virtue epistemology emphasize the idea that justification and knowledge arise from the proper functioning of our intellectual virtue or faculties in an appropriate environment. Here focus is on the Characteristics of the knower, rather than on individual beliefs or collection of beliefs.

Belief, truth and justification as conditions for knowledge are all embodied in the normative approach. So, we shall relay, the normative approach, then see how and why these are conditions for knowledge and the problematics involved.

Normative analysis of knowledge

Epistemologists for along time ago took their analysis of knowledge from Plato´s tripartite analysis which he himself later rejected. This contained in Theaetetus 201d -201e are as follows:

  1. Knowledge as perception
  2. Knowledge as true belief
  3. Knowledge as true belief plus “logos”

PLATO favoured the last, and “logos” there referred to warrant or justification. He rejected this as inadequate and in Meno 98 saw knowledge as true belief with “right reason”. Thus, the classical definition since Plato became knowledge as Justified true belief. This classical definition has received various modifications since being challenged by Edmund GETTIER´s 1963 article “Is justified true belief knowledge?”

However, this classical tripartite consideration of knowledge known as “traditional analysis of propositional knowledge” is widely accepted by mainstream philosophers like ARISTOTLE, AQUINAS, LOCKE and later RUSSELL. This analysis shows that knowledge has three components:

  1. Belief
  2. Truth
  3. Justification

Provoked by the Gettier poser, philosophers have tried putting these components in various forms with modifications. Here are some examples:

  1. Clarence I. Lewis – An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation (1946)

In this work he sees knowledge under the following conditions; 1. Knowledge must be apprehension or a belief in what is true or a fact as against what is false and not fact. 2. Cognition must have meaning in the sense that something is signified, believed in or asserted which lies beyond cognitive experience itself. 3. Knowledge must have ground or reason 4. Knowledge must be certain.

  1. John Hospers – An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis (1997)

He distinguished two senses of knowing, the weak and strong sense. The weak sense implies the following conditions; 1. One believes it 2. One has good reasons to base one´s belief 3. One takes the belief to be true. The strong sense implies; that 1. One believes it 2. One believes it to be true 3. Absolutely conclusive evidence is demanded.

  1. Alfred J. Ayer – The problem of knowledge (1956)

For AYER the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge are; 1. That what one said to know be true 2. That one be sure of it 3. That one should have the right to be sure. This right to be sure can be earned in various ways a) valid proofs b) Reliable Authority c) Reference to perception d) Reference to scientific laws e) Reference to intuition. For Ayer, the divergence of the right to be sure make a complete description of knowledge difficult

  1. Neal Klausner and Paul Kuntz – Philosophy: The Study of Alternative Beliefs (1961)

For them any claim to knowledge must include: 1. Acceptance, acknowledgement, affirmation of a statement that something is the case 2. That one has adequate, good, sufficient evidence that something is the case 3. That what is actually affirmed is actually the case.

  1. Peter Carruthers – Human Knowledge and Human nature (1992)

For him the conditions are; 1. It must be believed to be true 2. To true belief is added a controversial quality namely Justification, which is derived either from a reliable process or some causation that makes the belief to be imperative.

  1. Douglas Odegard – Knowledge and Scepticism (1982)

For him four things are involved: 1. Our being sure of it 2. Our certainty of what we are sure of 3. Our being permanently justified in being sure of it. 4. The truth of propositions essential to that justification.

Having seen these sample opinions on the normative ground for knowledge, let us now look into a deeper analysis of the basic conditions for knowledge, why and how they are conditions for knowledge.

Belief and knowledge

If “A” knows that “P” it is claimed, then that “A” believes that “P”.

Three theories have been proposed to explain the relationship between knowledge and belief: 1. Entailment thesis 2. Incompatibility thesis and 3. Separability thesis. These theories will explain whether belief has anything to do with knowledge.

  1. Entailment thesis

For many epistemologists, knowledge entails belief; unless I believe that such and such is the case, then, knowledge will be a mere guess work. Thus, belief is a logical and necessary condition for knowledge. Knowledge at least is a true belief. Some philosophers demand that belief be substituted with other closely related attitudes such as conviction to avoid confusion. Those who hold this view include Lehrer, Neal KLAUSNER and Paul KUNTZ. Lehrer talk of “acceptance”, for Ayer “being sure”, others, certainty and understanding. Critics say that belief cannot be a condition for knowledge. Plato will represent belief as a grade of cognition lower than knowledge; for one cannot believe and know at the same time, for we talk of belief when we do not know; to talk of belief when one knows could be misleading.

  1. Incompatibility thesis

For Plato, knowledge and belief are wholly different and incompatible states of the mind. Knowledge differs from belief by being infallible for knowledge consists in the absolutely certain mistake-proof apprehension of necessary truths, whereas belief is fallible and belong to the world of opinion and contingency.

For H. A. PRICHARD, knowledge involves certainty, but belief does not involve certainty. For him, knowledge is indubitable whereas belief is dubitable. For knowledge cannot be either true or false, but only beliefs are. And to believe rules out the possibility of knowing. Prichard however is wrong is dismissing belief as a guess work, for belief demand some level of confidence. Secondly, belief might be a component of an infallible form of knowledge, for what is proposed is that belief is one of the elements in knowledge and not that belief is knowledge. The uncertainty of belief in thus compensated by other conditions of knowledge.

For Duncan JONES, knowledge and belief are incompatible from the point of view of view of various linguistic uses of belief and knowledge. For instance, people use to say “I don´t belief he did it, but I know he did it, that is, to say that I know ´P´ but I don’t belief ´P.´ Objections to Duncan Jones lies on the idea of misrepresentation, for what people are saying only expresses a shock. So, it is a matter of shock and not an expression of incompatibility of knowledge and belief. For K. LEHRER[2], knowledge does not involve certainty but to ward off skepticism, acceptance could be better.

  1. Separability thesis

This means that belief and knowledge are separable through they can go together. For A. WOOZLEY, knowledge can exist in the absence of confidence about the item known, although it could be accompanied by confidence as well. Even-though people are unsure of their claim they might know that the claim is true. However, for Woozley it would be odd for those who lack confidence to claim knowledge.

For C. RADFORD, knowledge is not only compatible with the lack of certainty, but also with lack of belief. Example, John had forgotten that he studied the history of the Nigerian-Biafran War, yet he was able to give a correct answer as to when it begun. Thus, the answer “1967” is said to be given without belief. Both acknowledge that when we claim knowledge we ought at least to believe we have knowledge or else our behavior is intentionally misleading.

Conclusively inspite of this dissenting thesis, most epistemologist hold that knowledge requires belief, but belief does not require knowledge. Knowledge is a belief of a certain kind, satisfying certain conditions, which from the traditional point of view would include truth and justification. Let us now move to the truth condition for knowledge.

The Truth Condition for Knowledge

Knowledge as distinguished from belief and opinion must have a necessary ingredient of being true. To know something, we must be correct in what we believe. Hence, knowledge demands not only belief; but a truth requirement. Knowledge without truth is impossible, according to the traditional conception of knowledge. We are inclined to think that truth is the proper aim of scientific inquiry. Knowledge which is not the effect of the truth is not really knowledge since to know falsely equals not knowing. Generally, it seems intuitively wrong to ascribe knowledge where the claim in question are not in fact true. For Lynne Rudder BAKER to deny the truth condition is to commit cognitive suicide.

Philosophers generally agree that truth is required for knowledge, but they have opposing ideas on the question of what it means for a belief to be true? When is something or belief the case? When is a proposition true? Etc. The questions resulted to three major theories of truth.

  1. The correspondence theory
  2. The coherence theory
  3. The pragmatic theory

To understand the truth condition of knowledge, we have to understand even though not in details these theories.

  1. Correspondence theory

This theory is defended by philosophers like ARISTOTLE, AQUINAS, LOCKE, G.E. MOORE, B. RUSSELL, early WITTGENSTEIN, G. L. AUSTIN, etc. There are lots of version, but the central thesis holds that true propositions correspond with reality or agrees with some relevant aspect or part of it. A candidate for truth is true if and only if it corresponds to facts. Traditionally put as “Adequatio rei intellectus” – adequation of the intellect to the thing.

However, the problem is to determine the exact sense in which a true statement correspond to reality? What does it mean? Does it mean literal picturing of reality as early Wittgenstein would say? Does it mean detailing word to word relationship with reality? Is it structural isomorphism? Etc. Equally, how will the correspondence be realized by propositions about very different sorts of subject matter such as physical situations, general physical laws, historical facts etc.? How would the correspondence theory be related to knowledge? How can one hold that correspondence relationship holds between a statement and the world? Does it mean mirroring? How do we have access to reality as it is? Some say that if we know how the world is, then we know the truth about it and to look for a correspondence again as truth will be redundant.

Inspite of all these problems, all the versions of correspondence point to the way things are even if no one knows that this relationship holds. Laurence Bonjour observed that the best way to understand the correspondence theory following the Aristotle´s original statement in Bk IV, is to construct it as saying that a proposition is true if reality is whatever way or features the proposition describes it as having. This is the normal generally accepted position of epistemological truth.

  1. Coherence Theory

Here a statement is said to be true if it coheres with a specific or comprehensive system of statements – “vero verum consonant.” This is in matters of ideas to ideas and propositions to propositions. A statement is true if it fits with other systems of truth or ideas. Seen among philosophers who are system builders, the idealists like LEIBNIZ, DESCARTES, SPINOZA etc. For them, ideas in view must cohere with ones already accepted.

Even-though coherence can be a mark of true things, they cannot be truth, to say that truth itself is coherence is problematic. Many people are loss as to what coherence in truth really means; Is it logical consistency? Fitting in? or Is it being consonant? Some say it presupposes a correspondence theory. Some have argued that there can be a system of consistent body of falsehood. This means that the attempt to seek knowledge without reference to how things are, hold no water.

Thus, to be a logically reasoned theory coherence theory must presuppose a kind of correspondence theory. Otherwise, it would lead to an unacceptable relativism about truth. This theory confuses the criteria for the nature of truth.

  1. Pragmatic Theory

This holds that a proposition is true if it is useful in a certain way. Proponents include William JAMES, Sanders PIERCE, John DEWEY, F.C. SCHILLER. William James sees truth as workability of ideas, Dewey holds that truth is success in the enquiry. Dewey´s theory is called Instrumentalism. In William James this theory urges a connection between what is true and what is useful.

The question then is, is every type of knowledge reducible to usefulness? Is there any common way of identifying usefulness? Some of our knowledge are true but useful or when is something useful? For example, of what use is it to say, “The snake is long”, the “poetry is beautiful?” This is because what is useful in one case might not be useful in another case. Therefore, to reduce knowledge to usefulness will not be helping knowledge. Critics point out that the confliction of truth with utility is pernicious because the ethics of belief requires that we pursue truth with honesty, even if its consequence should prove detrimental to our material well-being, that is, we must understand that truth is a condition for knowledge. Pragmatism then could lead to a dangerous relativism and infinite regress unless anchored on correspondence to reality.

For as Aristotle said, to say that what is that it is and what is not that it is not is to say truth. Truth is a condition for knowledge, but it must refer to what is. Correspondence theory thus seems a better explanation for truth; it is more fundamental and foundational and presumed by other theories.

The problematics of correspondence theory of truth: Subjectivism and Objectivism

Subjectivism and objectivism are two extreme positions resulting from adopting the correspondence theory of truth. It tries to answer questions such as can we know reality? Are we capable of seizing things of the eternal world as they are? Subjectivism sees the world as it is for an individual subject. We cannot know reality as it is. The subject cannot know reality without altering it according to the subject´s capacity. Hence truth is relative to the subject. The subject is measure of truth. Objectivism recognises the existence of the real world, which is there independent of the subject´s knowledge. The claim here is that, the truth of the proposition depends on the actual existing universe or reality, not on what we think, or feel or behave.


Many who hold to subjectivism have pointed to the socio-historical conditioning of our knowledge. Sociology of knowledge holds that every thought has socio-historical determinants; WITTGENSTEIN from the linguistic viewpoint holds that our world is our language. PORTY doubts the existence of any extralinguistic substance. For the Post-modernists like NIETZSCHE, all experience are interpretations. Subjectivism branches out into relativism and perspectivism. On the other hand, expressions of objectivism are such theories like Naïve realism, Exaggerated realism, common sense realism etc.


Subjectivism have been accused of incoherency as defending it would imply abandoning it. It is also said to be based on confusion guilty of muddled thinking and cannot even determine the status of its statements. Subjectivism makes the process of enquiry incomprehensible for if subjectivism is true then there is no point for scientific research. Relativism makes truth problematic, for if truth is relative to groups or culture; then it becomes problematic because societies are made up of many groups and cultures contain many sub-cultures. To which of this does one measure or apportion truth. Finally, subjectivism fails to distinguish between what is believed to be true and what is in fact actually true.

Objectivism on the other hand have been criticized of propagating a philosophy of the myth of the given. This is the myth of the mind as mirror of nature. Subjectivists reject the objectivists idea of the human mind as a mere passive register. They argue that there is no immediate perception of anything as every perception is an interpretation.

Towards a reconciliation

There is no doubt that objectivism and subjectivism are extreme epistemological positions. This position is held by moderate realists, AQUINAS for instance and the existential phenomenologists. They hold that truth and knowledge will be meaningless if it does not refer to something which is not the creation of the knower and the knower cannot totally bracket himself from what he knows. Though many today recognize the socio-historical character of our thinking and other linguistic and interpretative influences on our knowing, but this does not prevent truth from having access to reality.

Bernard HARING, Free and Faithful in Christ, vol2, hold that man is not a photographer of truth and truth does not impress itself in the mind and will of a person who is not dedicated to it and not committed to discovering it. Objectivity however is possible, but an objectivity that involves the subjective. Objectivity here does not mean absoluteness. We therefore reiterate that pure objectivity and pure subjectivity are both illusions. Objective knowing is always in reference to a subject who thinks and is situated in time, space and culture. Thus, AQUINAS maxim “quid quid cognoscitus cogniscitur ad modum cognoscentes.” Thus, knowledge and truth are bipolar (objective-subjective relatedness).

From the above, we see that truth is a necessary condition for knowledge, we also uphold the correspondence theory of truth as adequate and that truth is bipolar. From here, then, we move to the last condition, Justification.

Justification and knowledge

Justification is the most difficult and controversial ingredient of knowledge. Many true beliefs obviously do not qualify as knowledge, for they could be as a result of guess work. For it is not enough for a belief to be true, as it is not impossible to have a lucky guess or conjectures that happen to be true and which in no way could be described as knowledge.

SOCRATES in Plato´s Meno distinguished between knowledge and right opinion by a popular metaphor called the “statue of Daedalus”. He said Daedalus was an artisan and military engineer in antiquity that designed vessels for the Greek army. And according to later mythology, he constructed wings to fly with feather attached to wax, and which he and his sons Icarus were supposed to have flown from a high cliff side, but Icarus flew too near the sun, the wax melted, and he fell into the sea and perished. Daedalus was a distant relative of Socrates and his statues were said to be life-like that they would run away if they were not chained. SOCRATES claims that knowledge is like the statue of Daedalus, chained down or anchored by justification, that is, to say, right opinion if allowed to fly will be burnt by the sun. For a mere right opinion that falls short of knowledge is like an unchained statue of Daedalus: fleeting, lacking in solid reasons and warrant. For one can believe something that happens to be true, but without good reason to support the belief and this disqualifies it from being genuine knowledge. For to say that one knows, there must be some grounding or supportive reasons for what he claims to know. It must have what epistemologists call justification.

Genuine knowledge requires that a knower have an adequate indication that the knower´s thing or belief or proposition is true. That indication or requirement is what is called epistemic justification. Justification then specifies the nature of support which different kinds of belief must have if their claim to knowledge is to be made good. For it is possible to arrive at, and to be wholly convinced by a belief that is in fact true on absurd, meaningless or superstitious ground.

Many have argued that the necessity of Justification for the knowledge claims of our belief lies in epistemic entitlement; an entitlement to hold such propositions. Here then, one can question: Does real knowledge imply justification? If yes, must justification be infallible? What type of support must be added to belief for it to qualify as knowledge? How do we know that a justification makes a belief true?

As said above, the indication or requirement is what is called epistemic justification. This amounts to the requirement that a true belief that qualifies as knowledge must be justified. According to PLATO, this amounts to saying, “have an adequate indication for truth”. For KANT and many other traditional philosopher, it means “to show evidence.” Hence, justification helps to save knowledge from being a mere true belief, a mere right opinion, a haunch. Justification by its very nature has some kind of connection with the truth. For there to be knowledge, it is necessary that the satisfaction of the belief condition be appropriately related to the satisfaction of the truth condition. This mediating link between belief and truth is justification. Justification here is offering reasons for one´s belief based on certain evaluative norms. Epistemic justification therefore is a property ascribed to a belief in view of satisfying certain evaluative norms concerning what a person ought to belief.

There are two approaches to epistemic justification. First, we could look at justification from the point of view of seeing whether our beliefs have been responsibly formed or held. This is called Epistemic responsibility. Second, justification could also be impersonal objective and outcome-oriented. This is called evidential justification or adequate grounding. Thus, for justification we need both epistemic justification and adequate grounding. The later becomes more necessary if we are evaluating the belief of others. According to Michael WILLIAM, while epistemic responsibility is methodologically fundamental, grounding is fundamental from a theoretical viewpoint.

In the attempt to relate justification to knowledge, two approaches are prominent; Internalism (Justificationist account of knowledge) and Externalism (Non-Justificationist account). Internalism hold that one must accept epistemic responsibility for his knowledge claims and be able to offer good grounds for his beliefs. This is the traditional position. Externalism, while it will demand conditions that a person´s belief must meet, if they are to count as knowledge, will not demand that the subject be aware that those conditions are fulfilled. It is called externalism because a person´s knowledge depends on “external factors”, factor which he may not be cognizant. For the moment let us focus on the former approach.

Traditional demand for Justification

Traditionally, epistemic justification must satisfy certain set of norms as follows;

  1. Justification must be internal
  2. Justification is truth oriented
  3. Justifying reasons are non-arbitrary

Justification must be internal

This means that it has to do with one´s cognitive set, not just with circumstances independent of one´s cognitive set. Cognitive set here means within the context of one´s consciousness. Epistemologically, internalism is the thesis that positive epistemic thesis demands a reflective access on the part of the subject to those facts that determines the epistemic status.

Evidentialism and internalism go together. Here, it is not only the availability of evidence to the subject that is demanded, but also that the subject is actually in a position not only having access to the evidence, but also reflectively to determine that it is evidence. Internalism is the view that epistemic justification for belief must be consciously accessible to the cognizer. It could rely on one´s visual experiences, memory, impression, reasoning process, introspection which is seen as possessing credibility. Thus, one should be conscious of believing one´s reason for them to play a justifying role. For reason to be internal means that one is aware of what he or she is talking about, so much so that he can vouch for it.

Justification is truth oriented

If “S” is justified in believing that “P”, then it has some reasons for thinking that “P” is true (as opposed to mere convenience, satisfaction, guess work, aesthetic reason and usefulness). What is needed are reasons and justifications that is truth conducive that increases or enhances the likelihood to an appropriate degree, that the belief is true. Evidence consist in further information of some appropriate sort in the light of which it becomes evident, that the proposition is true.

Justifying reasons are non-arbitrary

No belief can play the role of a justifier if it is merely by chance or adventitiously contained in one´s cognitive set. One´s reason for believing something must be satisfactory in the light of some standard because one could not be said to know something if one has arbitrarily or haphazardly decided to believe. A justifier cannot be simply posited without concrete basis. This can be expressed in another way, when it is said that to have knowledge is to have a true belief brought about by a non-accidental way.

Summarily, then, epistemic justification involves a basis of some sort for thinking that the proposition in question is true. This truth conducive basis according to the most standard interpretation is something that is within the cognitive possession of that person.

The problematics of justification as an element in knowledge

We would not have done justice to the Justification condition for knowledge, if we fail to outline or highlight, even though not in details some of the problematics involved. The problematics are historically categorized into two broad tracks: the problem of skepticism and the Gettier poser.

The Skeptics deny the possibility of justification and knowledge based on the danger of infinite regress and vicious circle. The problem is clearly seen in what is today called “Agrippa´s trilemma”. AGRIPPA an ancient skeptic developed argument against justification and knowledge. He said that any justificatory reason for knowledge will invite a challenge. This would push one into gratuitous assumption, vicious circle or infinite regress. The skeptics arguments provoked the question whether justificatory reason for knowledge must be fallible or infallible. Some will defend infallibility (the traditional position), other will defend that they are fallible.

Edmund L. GETTIER in 1963 published an article “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”. Here he presented counter examples, examples of propositions that satisfy all the conditions for knowledge and yet have no right to be called knowledge – to prove that justified true belief does not constitute knowledge. We cannot relay those arguments here given the scope of our question. However, the long and short of it is that the Gettier poser provoked responses from the internalists traditions and the externalists traditions. In the internalist or justificationist theory, some regarded the Gettier problem as mere allusion, some challenged by it provided a fourth condition to make up for the inadequacies. The fourth condition has various versions to include: knowledge or justification must be non-accidental; the indefeasibility condition; non-defective condition; absence of relevant falsehood; mitigated infallibility; knowledge is completely justified true belief; then conclusively Justified true belief.

From the externalist camp – two responses abound; the causal theory and the reliability theory defended by Alvin GOLDMAN, Peter CARRUTHERS etc. Each of these responses are not without their respective criticisms.

Evaluation and conclusion

From the foregoing excursus, it is very clear that knowledge is a complex phenomenon, as such a difficult concept because it is very fundamental. Our normative analysis has shown that knowledge has three basic components; Belief, Truth and Justification. Each of these components are not without their own problems. The problems encountered in epistemology does not make its an intellectual sophistry, rather the problems arise from the skeptics attempt to make knowledge a mere logical exercise and not a way of living as well.

From our studies in the normative condition for knowledge, we can go with two degrees or grades of knowledge, all of which has every right to be called knowledge. The first is knowledge as infallible, conclusive and even absolute. The second is knowledge as mitigated infallibility. We also discover that the three conditions for knowledge, none by itself independent of the others can claim knowledge. Thus, we can then for the moment define knowledge as a “true belief justified in the right, exact and relevant manner – which may not exclude causal and reliable process.” We also define it as a consciously held true belief, generated by events, experience, information, ideas, which a normal critical fair-minded mind accepts as a true and accurate reflection of a state of affair and which the contrary would not only be a remote real possibility but also an extra-ordinary turn of events.

[1] Originally my B. Phil Epistemology thesis for the Bachelor of Philosophy Written Examinations of Seat of Wisdom Seminary Owerri, June 2009.

[2] Cf. LEHRER, Keith, Theory of Knowledge, Routledge (1990).

© Valentine Anthony Umoh 2018

Universidad de Navarra