By: Samir Chopra
A few months ago, I noticed an interesting and telling interaction between a group of academic philosophers. A Facebook friend posted a little note about how one of her students had written to her about having encountered a so-called "Gettier case" i.e., she had acquired a true belief for invalid reasons. In the email, the student described how he/she had been told the 'right time' by a broken clock. The brief discussion that broke out in response to my friend's note featured a comment from someone noting that the broken clock example is originally due to Bertrand Russell. A little later, a participant in the discussion offered the following comment:
Even though the clock case is due to Russell, it's worth noting that "Gettier" cases were present in Nyāya philosophy in India well before Russell, for instance in the work of Gaṅgeśa, circa 1325 CE. The example is of someone inferring that there is fire on a faraway mountain based on the presence of smoke (a standard case of inference in Indian philosophy), but the smoke is actually dust. As it turns out, though, there is a fire on the mountain. See the Tattva-cintā-maṇi or "Jewel of Reflection on the Truth of Epistemology." [links added]
In response to this, one gentleman wrote:
[T]here are countless cases that are standardly referred to as gettier kinds despite author, radical diversity, historical inaccuracy
I found this response peculiar, and yet, interestingly revealing.
Naming a particular fact-pattern, one used in a standard pedagogical example, as a "Gettier case" is not an innocent act. It is fraught with significance. It attaches the name of a person, an individual philosopher, to an entire range of philosophical cases used to illustrate epistemological principles. That person, that philosopher, does not come unattached; his name brings in its train an entire philosophical tradition and serves to stamp its institutions and its personnel with the imprimatur of philosophical innovator, as worthwhile contributors to a hallowed--and well-established and recognized--tradition. Because of this naming process, in part, an entire area of philosophical work is marked off and stamped with a certain kind of ownership.
Of even more interest to me is the response I made note of. A philosophical discussion is underway, proceeding along familiar, well-worn lines. Names of well-known philosophers from well-known traditions roll off everyone's lips. Then, an interjection is made: politely pointing out that the nomenclature in use has an etymology that is not always acknowledged. This reminder is provided, I repeat, politely. There is no snark, and pointers to references are provided for the interesting reader. It is the very model of a respectful academic contribution to a philosophical discussion; I dare say I'd call it a useful philosophical contribution for the interested scholar of philosophy.
The response to this contribution--the first one, before any welcoming acknowledgments can be made--is, roughly, to cease and desist. There's a conversation going on; it's following the usual well-worn path, and you'd like us to look elsewhere? The nerve. There is no acknowledgment of an alternative tradition.
This is what silencing looks like.
Addendum: In response to my post, Professor Alan Richardson of the University of British Columbia wrote to me saying:
I find it interesting that the stopped clock example, which Russell mentions in a sentence of his 1948 Human Knowledge (on p 154 of the 1948 Simon and Schuster edition) would have been known to Russell (indeed to have been derived by Russell, one imagines) from Lewis Carroll’s little 1898 essay “The Two Clocks.”
So, Russell’s example gets subsumed under “Gettier cases” and what I have to think is the inspiration for it (the Carroll essay) goes missing. Yes, just another example of “the Matthew Effect” but given what your post was about, it seemed interesting enough.