Knowing That P Without Believing That P

For those interested, Eric knowledge ascriptions and belief ascriptions.  We just finished a draft on this topic, which can be found here.


The standard view in contemporary epistemology is that knowledge entails belief. Proponents of this claim rarely offer a positive argument in support of it.
Rather, they tend to treat the view as obvious, and if anything, support the view by arguing that there are no convincing counterexamples. We find this strategy to be problematic. In particular, we do not think the standard view is obvious, and moreover, we think there are cases in which a subject can know
some proposition P without (or at least without determinately) believing that P. In accordance with this, we present four plausible examples of knowledge without belief, and we provide empirical evidence which suggests that our intuitions about these scenarios are by no means atypical.

Comments are welcome.

[Cross-posted at Experimental Philosophy and The Splintered Mind]


  1. Joshua Stern

    Knowledge = Justified True Belief

    It’s definitional. I’m not sure there’s anything more to say. Buy the ticket, take the ride. Or not.

    I’m in the “not” category. I know that you say you know and/or believe X. I too can say X. Does that mean I have any position on the matter? Yet, if you don’t assume your conclusion here, what else could it mean to “know” something without belief, than to be able to quote it?

  2. Joshua, thanks for the comment. I’m not completely sure what you mean by saying, “[I]f you don’t assume your conclusion here, what else could it mean to ‘know’ something without belief, than to be able to quote it?” Perhaps you’re wondering what else an account of knowledge might look like if it’s not committed to the claim that knowledge entails belief. One possibility that we explore in the paper is a position drawn from the work of Ryle, Shope, and Joseph Margolis, among others. Gilbert Ryle, for instance, writes, “’Know’ is a capacity verb, and a capacity verb of that special sort that is used for signifying that the person described can bring things off, or get things right. ‘Believe’, on the other hand, is a tendency verb and one which does not connote that anything is brought off or got right” (1949, p. 133-134). In the paper, we argue that a view along these lines accords with our data, and furthermore, that the view is not committed to the claim that knowledge entails belief (i.e., one might have the relevant capacity without the corresponding tendency).

  3. gualtiero


    This is very interesting. I often wondered about this. I think it’s possible to know without believing, but it seems to me that this requires a failure of rationality. Would you agree that knowing without believing requires a some degree of irrationality, and if not, how can that be?

  4. Joshua Stern

    Well, what if I “know” that “Jane’s unicorn is pink”, because Jane told me so. She also told Jules. If I confer with Jules, we find we are in agreement about the matter. But, do we believe Jane even has a unicorn? Is it true that Jane has a unicorn? Is it a failure of rationality to exchange these assertions or to attempt to evaluate them, as we all “know” there is no actual, physical unicorn to be had?

    My take is that this is as you like it, it’s your game, you can call the rules. What you can’t do is claim any ontological validity for a one of them.

  5. Hey Gualtiero!

    Thanks for the comment. That’s a really good question. I’d have to think more about it, but I’m inclined to say that a knowledge state (in the absence of the corresponding belief state) can still be rational: at least in the sense that the knowledge state can be formed on the basis of reasons.

    For example, in one of our scenarios, the protagonist (a professor named “Juliet”) is prejudiced against student athletes, despite the fact that she has reasons to think that her athletic students are as capable as her other students. For instance, her chair just completed a study showing that the two groups perform equally well in their classes; and intrigued by this study, Juliet even reviews her own records and finds that, on average, her athletic students had performed better that her other students. Nevertheless, Juliet continues to treat her athletic students as if they are less capable than her other students.

    In this scenario, I would say that Juliet knows (but doesn’t believe) that her athletic students are as capable as her other students. And part of the basis on which I say this is that Juliet has *reasons* which endow her with the capacity to act as if her athletic students are as capable as her other students.

    However, I’d still admit that there is a certain failure of rationality here. It’s just that the failure of rationality pertains to Juliet’s lack of belief, not to her knowledge state.

    Does that seem plausible?

  6. Joshua Stern

    Whose rationality is it a failure of? Not Juliet, it seems to me. She “knows” what appears to be accurate, even a critic has to admit she has the justified and true parts down.

    But by that same note, what is left of the equation k = jtb? Who cares if it’s knowledge or snowledge, if it’s what she does?

  7. Hi Blake,

    this might muddy the waters as it presents an admittedly pathological case, but blindsighters arguably fit with your model.
    After all, they are capable of correctly choosing the orientation, direction of movement, colour, etc., of objects, all whilst holding no beliefs about them. This seems to fit with the capacity/tendency model. Blindsighters have the capacity to act on certain information but they lack the tendency to do so (i.e., they only do so under the forced-choice guessing paradigm).
    GY and DB, two of the most “famous” blindsighters have been tested for over twenty years now, so they are no longer surprised at their accuracy in these tests. So in addition to the capacity/tendency distinction in an “action” sense, there’s also the possibility of making this distinction in a phenomenological sense. GY and DB know that they are accurate with their choices, under test conditions, but they don’t hold any beliefs about the objects when they actually make their choices.
    Perhaps the pathological nature of the example doesn’t help the argument either way, but it struck me that it might be worth your consideration.

  8. We can know without knowing we know, because there are different levels of knowing. “Knowing that we know”–that sort of knowing does involve belief. Intuitive knowing does not involve belief, until it does, but then it is ‘reasoned’ knowing. Spiders know webs, but they don’t know they know webs. Birds know nests, but they don’t know they know nests. We know moral truth intuitively, but many of us do not know we know it.

  9. Hi Joshua. I don’t have any strong commitments on this issue. But as noted in my previous comment, I’m inclined to think that Juliet’s knowledge state is rational. What is irrational is just her failure to also believe that P. But I’ll have to think more about it.

  10. Blake,

    Yes, putting it that way would’ve made it unnecessary for me to add “until it does, but then it is ‘reasoned’ knowing”. Reasoned knowing does require belief. This is relevant to psychology, with respect to schema, heuristics, and all that. Very interesting. Thanks for the reply.

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