Getting Gettier straight: thought experiments, deviant realizations and default interpretations


It has been pointed out that Gettier case scenarios have deviant realizations and that deviant realizations raise a difficulty for the logical analysis of thought experiments. Grundmann and Horvath have shown that it is possible to rule out deviant realizations by suitably modifying the scenario of a Gettier-style thought experiment. They hypothesize further that the enriched scenario corresponds to the way expert epistemologists implicitly interpret the original one. However, no precise account of this implicit enrichment is offered, which makes the proposal somewhat ad hoc. Drawing on pragmatic theory, I argue that the content of Grundmann and Horvath’s modified scenario corresponds to the default interpretation of the original scenario and that epistemological expertise is not required to access the deviance-proof interpretation. This Default Interpretation proposal offers thus a more general and independently motivated solution to the Problem of Deviant Realizations.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    The argument is valid in the weakest normal modal logic K.

  2. 2.

    This principle holds in the weakest normal modal logic K.

  3. 3.

    Ichikawa and Jarvis’s (2009) proposal, which relies on the notion of truth in fiction, also falls under this type of strategy. According to them, the principles governing the interpretation of fiction are sufficient to rule out deviant realizers. See however Williamson (2009) for some criticism.

  4. 4.

    The modifications proposed by Grundmann and Horvath are inserted between brackets, in italic characters. As there will be successive layers of modifications, the latest modifications are in italic boldface characters, whereas those belonging to a previous layer are just in italic.

  5. 5.

    I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer for pressing this worry.

  6. 6.

    I should add that this necessary condition is not universally accepted, as some epistemologists hold the view that knowledge, in some cases, can be obtained by inference from false beliefs (Warfield 2005; Fitelson 2010). However, this view remains controversial (Ball and Blome-Tillmann 2014; Montminy 2014; Schnee 2015). Also, the kind of counterexamples that motivate the view follow a pattern that is not instantiated here. I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer for drawing my attention to this issue.

  7. 7.

    I am indebted to an anonymous referee for drawing my attention to this issue.

  8. 8.

    These phenomena have been extensively studied by linguists under a varieties of conceptualizations: generalized conversational implicatures (Grice 1989a; Levinson 2000), implicitures (1994), explicatures (Sperber and Wilson 1995; Wilson and Sperber 2012), free pragmatic enrichments (Recanati 2010; Pagin 2014). See Jaszczolt (2018) for a survey.

  9. 9.

    In Gricean and neo-Gricean pragmatics, this contrast is what defines the difference between generalized and particularized conversational implicatures (Grice 1989a, p. 39; Horn 2004, pp. 4–5). I take it that this contrast is still significant even if one thinks that default interpretations are not implicatures (but rather explicatures or implicitures).

  10. 10.

    Some aspects of Levinson’s theory are controversial among pragmaticists. I take it that these problems do not affect the general point made in the paper which should hold, mutatis mutandis, within alternative pragmatic theories. This issue is addressed in the next section.

  11. 11.

    Since the Gettier scenario (G), and the scenarios of thought experiments more generally, do not usually employ marked or abnormal expressions (even though some thought experiments may admittedly describe highly abnormal situations), the M-heuristic will not be at work here.

  12. 12.

    This phrasing should not be taken to imply that the I-heuristics ends up selecting a unique and maximally specific situation, where all the details would be fleshed out. Rather, the I-heuristic prompts the hearer to maximize such connections in her interpretation of the scenario, which means that if several more specific interpretations are available, the hearer will be prompted to choose an interpretation that maximizes these connections. This does not mean that the interpretation will correspond to a unique maximally specific situation but only to a relatively more constrained interpretation.

  13. 13.

    See Fischer and Engelhardt (2017) for a useful review of recent psychological work on stereotypes and their relevance for the study of philosophical intuitions.

  14. 14.

    The wavy arrow symbol is used to express a relation of pragmatic inference between an utterance (on the line above) and a sentence (on the right-hand side) expressing an aspect of the preferred interpretation of that utterance.

  15. 15.

    See Machery (2017, chapter 2) for a useful review of the literature. See Nagel et al. (2013) for a study of lay responses to Gettier cases.

  16. 16.

    See (Machery 2017, chapter 2) for a review of the empirical findings.

  17. 17.

    For example, fake barn cases are known to elicit divided judgments among experts (Horvath and Wiegmann 2016) and as well among naive subjects (Nagel et al. 2013; Turri 2017). One strategy to explain this instability would be to appeal to a diversity of default interpretation among subjects. Of course, the implementation and defense of such a strategy would require much more work that can be done within the scope of this paper. I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer for suggesting this example.

  18. 18.

    I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for raising this objection.

  19. 19.

    I would like to thank Synthese’s two anonymous reviewers for valuable criticism that helped improve the paper, as well as the participants of the Intuitions and the Expertise Defence workshop in Aarhus (September 2017) for valuable feedback. Special thanks to Anna Daria Anna Drożdżowicz, Karen Kiil Brøcker, Anne Reboul, Samuel Schindler and Tom Schoonen for their comments on previous versions of this paper.


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The writing of this paper was supported by the project “Intuitions in Science and Philosophy” funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research DFF 4180-00071.

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Correspondence to Pierre Saint-Germier.

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Saint-Germier, P. Getting Gettier straight: thought experiments, deviant realizations and default interpretations. Synthese 198, 1783–1806 (2021).

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  • Gettier case
  • Deviant realizations
  • Default interpretation
  • Thought experiments
  • Pragmatics