Gruffalosian Epistemology

I posted this elsewhere, but thought I’d share here too on the rough chance anyone out there enjoys nerding out on philosophy like I do at the moment. I’ve gone way down a rabbit hole and not sure if I’m ever coming out!

You know you’ve gone down the philosophy rabbit hole when you start seeing examples everywhere you look. Like reading a book to your three year old.

The Gruffalo is a classic children’s book by author and illustrator combo Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. There’s even a short film version of it you can watch via the ABC.

It tells the story of a mouse taking a stroll through a deep, dark wood wanting to find a nice place to eat an acorn. On his journey the mouse comes across three sinister characters who each try to lure the mouse away so they can eat him. Each time the mouse responds by telling them yes, they could do that, but it might upset his friend the Gruffalo. He then proceeds to give a detailed description of some of the Gruffalo’s terrifying characteristics.

The mouse is feeling pretty proud of himself for pulling the wool over the eyes of the snake, owl and fox, and is walking away confidently to eat his acorn when he bumps into…a Gruffalo! Just as the characters we’ve met so far, the Gruffalo considers the mouse will make a fine snack.

This is very unexpected for the mouse, who was not aware that he was in fact describing a real thing. But the mouse is quick witted, and explains that while he could try to eat him as a snack, he might not get what he bargains for. He claims to the Gruffalo that he is the scariest creature in the woods, and not only that - he can prove it!

The mouse instructs the Gruffalo to follow him as he returns along the path through which he came. As the mouse travels the path with the Gruffalo behind him, he once again meets the fox, owl and snake. When they see him (or rather, the Gruffalo behind him) coming, they each cower in fear and make a rapid exit. The Gruffalo is convinced that the mouse is in fact telling the truth…he’s the scariest thing in the wood and might be best left uneaten.

Now there’s lots of lessons you could draw from this story. But as I said, I’m viewing the world through a philosophy lens at the moment, so for me this is story about knowledge. How do we know what we know, and when do we know it?

What constitutes knowledge is a major area of discussion in philosophy. For a long time, it was thought that you know something if you have a justified true belief. All three have to be present, otherwise it’s not knowledge. That justification can come from a number of evidence sources. You can experience it yourself through your senses or you can receive testimony from a trusted source.

Then a guy called Gettier came along in the 1960s and suggested that it’s possible for someone to have a justified true belief without having knowledge if they just happen to stumble across the right answer. He started providing examples of when this can happen, and so did other people as they started to question it more. These became known as Gettier Cases.

So I’m wondering, is The Gruffalo a Gettier Case?

We know from reading the story, that the Gruffalo exists within the story, so that takes care of the truth part. Prior to bumping into the Gruffalo, the mouse doesn’t believe it to be true so he obviously doesn’t have knowledge of it until he has personal experience. The snake, owl and fox on the other hand each form a justified true belief about the Gruffalo from hearing the mouse’s testimony, so in that sense they have knowledge of the Gruffalo’s existence. But there is no direct connection between what turns out to be the truth of their belief (the Gruffalo’s existence) and their justification of it, because it was based on false testimony from an untrustworthy source. So is it really accurate to claim that they know it? Do you require something more than justified true belief to truly have knowledge?

I’ll put it to you another way - if some guy that looks like Santa and calls himself Santa rocks up at your house on Christmas Eve, does that mean kids all over the world currently have knowledge that adults don’t? They have evidence of his existence - testimony from all sorts of trusted sources, presents left where there were none before, physical manifestations of the man in red at shopping centres all over town. They are playing the snake, fox and owl characters in our story and we’re the mouse.

I share this because I’m lost in the abyss that is the total head fuck that is thinking about thinking (aka philosophy), so I thought I’d share the joy/pain/who knows what?

1 Like