The Philosophical Definition of Knowledge by Linda Zagzebski

Categories: Knowledge

Historian David J. Boorstin notes: “the great menace to progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge” (7). As the importance of knowledge is clear for humans, how is it that we ensure that our thoughts that we are accepting as knowledge are indeed knowledge and is not an illusion of knowledge? Knowledge is defined by philosopher Linda Zagzebski as “a belief arising out of acts of intellectual value” (“What is Knowledge”). We must rely on adequate evidence to know to accept or reject knowledge claims.

Philosopher W.K. Clifford claims that “It is wrong, always, everywhere, for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence.” This is accurate, as accepting knowledge claims without sufficient evidence can cause great problems in life and puts the knower on very shaky ground.

Having this knowledge can lead to great things in life, but the knower must be wary of claims that are not sufficiently supported and has to be able to tell the difference between legitimate and illegitimate claims of knowledge.

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The legitimacy of Clifford’s claim could vary depending on what school of philosophical thought the believer prescribes to. If they are a skeptic, Clifford’s claim may not be such a good claim to follow, as they would not be able to believe anything. Nothing would be sufficient evidence, which would leave them with little that they have the potential to know and a very empty life. This essay will focus on knowledge from the perspective of the reliabilist. This stance is much more common and fits with Clifford’s stance much better.

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A reliabilist is concerned about ensuring true belief and a proper connection between the belief and the real world.

There are two ways that we can come up our beliefs: logically and empirically. To be able to determine if something that we have come up with logically is true is much simpler than determining if something we have observed empirically is true. To determine if something that you have come across logically is true, you must construct a valid, true argument as to why that is the case. Normally this argument is based upon prior knowledge that must be true as well. This seems like a simple thing to do, but there are many ways to challenge an argument, so constructing an argument is much more difficult than it may seem. In addition, some opponents may call into question some of the information used in the premises as not being knowledge. While the argument may seem solid to one person, it may be very difficult to convince a skeptic with any argument.

To determine if something is knowledge through an empirical observation can be much more difficult. The observer must be sure that your senses are not deceiving you and are all accurately giving depictions of the real world. This is something that could happen in many ways. Examples are that you could see a mirage if the weather or lighting conditions are conducive to such. If you are in a state of paranoia, you could think that you hear things when you do not actually. If you are under the influence of any substance that may cloud your judgment, such as alcohol or drugs, then there is a chance you may be deceived. Generally, you can trust your senses, but you should take anything that might influence them into account. In addition, you should try to use as many senses or sources of knowledge as possible. This increases how sure you are able to be about your knowledge you have acquired. If this is the case, where the knower has come to believe p and in a reliable way, then it is circumstantially impossible for p to be wrong.

Now that we have defined what is considered to be adequate evidence, we can examine why it is never permissible to believe something on insufficient evidence. W.H. Clifford correctly proclaims that no belief “however seemingly trivial the belief, and however obscure the believer, is ever actually insignificant or without its effect on the fate of mankind.” (3). The beliefs that people hold have significant meaning not just for the believer but for those around the believer. People make judgments and life decisions based on their beliefs. If their beliefs are held without sufficient evidence, these people are liable to make serious mistakes in their life decisions. For example, if someone believes something that may seem incredibly insignificant, such as that black cats are bad luck. This may seem to be a pretty insignificant belief, though it cannot be argued that there is significant evidence to support the belief. For many believers, the act had some impact on their life, though it was minimal. As small as this effect was, it still did have an effect on the believer and the people around the believer. Some people who decided to obsess over the belief killed many black cats during the middle ages. This is a major moral mistake that was made by people believing in something fairly trivial based upon insufficient evidence.

There are many reasons why someone may want to believe something without sufficient evidence. An example could be in a car factory, where the cars that are being produced are continually failing safety tests. The people who have control over whether the car is able to be sold or not may convince themselves that the car is safe based on the few tests that the car does pass. This could have been a result of being motivated by profits or some other worldly or unworldly motivation, but they come to believe these false beliefs without sufficient evidence. The people who knew that the cars were not safe and decided to overlook it or ignore some evidence that they were unsafe are liable for anyone who gets injured as a result of these cars being sold to the public.

It is important to remember that only believing things based on sufficient evidence will never cause you to make incorrect decisions. If you know the full truth, nothing that you believe will ever cause you to make an incorrect or wrong decision despite your best efforts. Any mistakes or wrong decisions here are solely the responsibility of your choice, and not the beliefs that you hold. Believing in something based on insufficient evidence may cause you to make wrong decisions, however. Despite your best efforts, if you believe something based on insufficient evidence, it could cause you to make a wrong decision. The incorrect information that you believe in can influence your decision and throw off your judgment. Therefore, when making any decision, it is best to find as much information about the decision as possible to help ensure that you make the best decision. Even if you do not plan to make any notable decisions, it is still best to always find as much information as possible, because decisions are made all the time, and your beliefs, no matter how significant they may seem, influence those decisions. You should always remain wary of accepting things based off of insufficient evidence, however, as that can negate any benefits that were received from finding correctly supported evidence.

Someone who may argue W.H. Clifford’s claim is mathematician Blaise Pascal. He held a belief that has become one of the most popular theories in philosophy. His belief, called Pascal’s Wager states that we should believe in God because it cannot be proved or disproved through reason and using game theory, it is a logical act to choose to believe in God. This is because choosing to believe in God would have an infinite potential gain if God did exist and minimal loss if God did not. There would be an infinite loss if God did exist and the person did not believe, and a minimal gain if God did not exist. Here there is no evidence required to hold the belief and you should believe something not because of evidence but because you are trying to maximize utility.

There are many flaws in Pascal’s argument, thought the best response to it lies in moral mistakes. Holding a belief such as this keeps the believer liable to a moral mistake, which is in this case defined as a time where the actions of the religion conflict with the personal moral code of the believer. This is clearly wrong no matter what decision is made. They will either decide to act against their personal moral code or will decide to act against their beliefs. Basing beliefs off of substantial evidence would not create this problem and would allow the person making these decisions the opportunity to always make the correct decision.

The beliefs that are held are of significant importance to an individual as well as to the people and the world around them. We should ensure that the beliefs we hold are true and are appropriately supported to make sure that the decisions that are based off of those beliefs are not flawed. There are arguments against ensuring that everything we believe in is adequately supported, but they are weak arguments that often have significant flaws.

Works Cited

  1. Boorstin, Daniel J. Cleopatra’s Nose: Essays on the Unexpected. New York: Vintage, 1995. Print.
  2. Clifford, W.K. “The Ethics of Belief”. Contemporary Review. 1877. Print.
  3. Zagzebski, Linda. “What is Knowledge.” The Blackwell Guide to Epistemology. Ed. Greco, John, and Ernest Sosa. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999. 92-116. Print.

Cite this page

The Philosophical Definition of Knowledge by Linda Zagzebski. (2021, Sep 16). Retrieved from

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