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Dretske’s Claim about Knowledge

Dretske’s approach to knowledge and skepticism is distinct in terms of the priority that the scholar gives to sensual perception. According to Dretske, “if one sees that X is there, one knows that X is there,” (p. 88, n. 10). Dretske claims that both human beings and animals are to a large extent being driven to externalism about knowledge, whereas cognition and the ability to identify a given object based on comparison and reliance on surroundings allows to actual justifying that this object is located at a given place. Given the fact that “seeing” to become knowledge necessarily implies some ongoing cognitive procedures, either recognition or identification that is established as a criterion for seeing a given object, there can be situations when seeing does not involve cognitive process, which, consequently, denies the premise established by Dretske, e.g. “if one sees that X is there, one knows that X is there”.

In this paper, two distinct situations will be discussed under which “seeing” does not necessarily lead to knowing, which then denies the claim made by Dretske.

Many situations provide reach experiences to which our minds simply choose not to respond, that are meaningless or, vice versa, too informative for them. For instance, let us imagine a street overwhelmed by people. Even though a person watching the event from a window does see everything and everybody in detail, due to a large amount of information that is useless and, consequently, does not stimulate cognition, this person will not judge/believe/know the actual location of every one of the objects present in the event. Consequently, even though the object is seen and cognitively perceived, identified, the actual location remains unknown. As such, there is a distinct difference between seeing and actual knowing resulting from the interference of external factors, e.g. one sees more than one can cognitively process.

Furthermore, there are situations in which a lack of knowledge about the properties of a given object result in our inability to accurately identify the actual location and properties of that object. For instance, even though a child may be able to identify and recognize a hand placed right by his face, he/she might not be able to identify and, consequently, know a number of fingers if a child does not know how to count or does not know properties of a regular human hand. As such, a child will not be able to know the exact location of a definite number of fingers, if asked. As such, a child is not able to accurately respond to non-epistemologically perceived qualities and differences of objects if he/she has insufficient information about the properties of these objects and is not able to perform the necessary calculations/tasks. This case also proves that the claim stated by Dretske is invalid.

Finally, there are a number of objects that simply cannot and, likely, will never be seen that nevertheless exist. To be more precise, such organisms as bacteria could not have been seen years ago or experienced in any way and still, they did and do exist. As such, we still can have knowledge, information-based belief, about objects that remain invisible to us. Even though opponents argue that perceptual knowledge is transferred to theoretical knowledge, whereas concepts about objects that cannot be perceived are acquired through regular human perception and any other tools that aid in investigations, still knowledge about bacteria does not involve actual “seeing” through sensual activity; instead, it is a purely cognitive theoretical process. Following the claim made by Dretske, by replacing the conclusive account of perception with an indication account, one would actually be able to perceive the truth of claims that are in reality elusive. And still, there are situations when accounts of perception are, in fact, too strong. To be more precise, there can be cases when the surroundings are filled by similar objects that are to a large extent alike the one being studied and still, prevent from actual knowledge of truth due to the inability to identify a certain object among a large number of the ones identical or ones that are alike. Consequently, knowledge through seeing can be simply clouded by objects that share similar traits and, yet, are not identical. Furthermore, there can be cases when the objects are alike to the extent that features that differentiate one object from another are hidden due to the present limits of human knowledge and/or cognition. These cases can also be a source of faulty knowledge, as they result from faulty reasoning due to the inability of a human mind to absolutely know the traits of a given object.

Having discussed Dretske’s approach to knowledge from three perspectives, it becomes obvious that the claim made by the philosopher: “if one sees that X is there, one knows that X is there,” has quite many specific cases that are, in fact and exclusion from the general rule. There are situations when human cognition is simply unable to differentiate a certain object, when skills and knowledge of basic operations lack, and when similarities of surroundings lead to misconception. As such, Dretske’s claim is not valid.