Moll Flanders and the Gettier problem

Moll Flanders is an early 18th-century novel written by Daniel Defoe. Moll is a fictional character whose famous conundrum is her discovery that she has accidentally married her own biological brother.

The “Gettier problem” is an epistemological question raised by Edmund Gettier in a 1963 paper, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, in which he questioned a traditional definition of knowledge—a justified true belief—as insufficient. Gettier died earlier this year in 2021. I have described the philosophical problem in a separate article. To present it generally: Gettier pointed out that, when we have reason to believe a certain proposition, sometimes we formulate a vague statement about it, and the vague statement may well turn out to be true, but for a different reason than we originally assumed. For example, if I say, “Don’t worry about the utility bill on the table; it’ll be affordable, and it isn’t due until the end of the month,” and I say this because I am thinking about the electric bill, whereas the utility bill on the table is actually the phone bill, then arguably my statement about the utility bill on the table is not an example of my own “knowledge.” My statement, which was justified for the electric bill, might also be true for the phone bill: that bill, too, is affordable and isn’t due until the end of the month, and therefore we don’t need to worry about the bill. But I was “correct” only due to a happy coincidence. Although I presented a justified true belief, something went awry in my justification, and therefore I didn’t know what I was talking about. This distinction between knowledge and non-knowledge feels intuitive. But why? By what definition of knowledge can I be described as not having known? This is the Gettier problem. It is a problem for the definition of knowledge.

In this blog post, I propose that Moll Flanders suffers the Gettier problem.

Moll’s problem

In Defoe’s 1722 novel, the narrator, Moll, is born to an inmate of London’s Newgate Prison. Moll grows up not knowing her biological mother. Raised by someone else, she is poor and becomes a household servant. Eventually, Moll begins to enjoy a fairly happy life with her third husband. She is pregnant with her third child by him when she realizes that her husband’s mother is her own long-lost biological mother. Moll has, therefore, married her own brother.

This is how Moll tells her story. For emphasis, I have put the family terms mother-in-law, mother, daughter, husband, brother in bold type. At the end, I have also emphasized Moll’s insistence that this is a new discovery for her: she had “known nothing” of her husband’s preexisting family relationship to her.

“We lived here all together, my mother-in-law, at my entreaty, continuing in the house, for she was too kind a mother to be parted with; my husband likewise continued the same as at first, and I thought myself the happiest creature alive, when an odd and surprising event put an end to all that felicity in a moment, and rendered my condition the most uncomfortable, if not the most miserable, in the world.

My mother was a mighty cheerful, good-humoured old woman—I may call her old woman, for her son was above thirty…

…with a great deal of good-humoured confidence she told me she was one of the second sort of inhabitants [of Newgate] herself.

my mother, smiling, said, ‘You need not think a thing strange, daughter…’

Here she went on with her own story so long, and in so particular a manner, that I began to be very uneasy; but coming to one particular that required telling her name, I thought I should have sunk down in the place.

…this was certainly no more or less than my own mother, and I had now had two children, and was big with another by my own brother, and lay with him still every night.

I was now the most unhappy of all women in the world. Oh! had the story never been told me, all had been well; it had been no crime to have lain with my husband, since as to his being my relation I had known nothing of it.

—Daniel Defoe, ‘Moll Flanders’

It seems that Moll frets that her marriage may be invalid. Her marriage is, she says, a “crime.” She acknowledges that she is committing “open avowed incest and whoredom” despite maintaining “the appearance of an honest wife.” In Moll’s estimation, it isn’t possible for the same woman to have biologically mothered both Moll and Moll’s husband; the same woman can’t be her “mother” and “mother-in-law.” She means this at least legally, as she eventually tells her husband that she is “not your lawful wife” and their children are “not legal children.” If this woman indeed gave birth to a girl and a boy, a subsequent “marriage” between those two siblings would be invalid and no marriage at all. She may mean it religiously and in a broader ontological way, too.

Here is the situation, quite simply:

Before the big revelation, Moll and her mother-in-law sometimes call each other “mother” and “daughter.” These are terms of endearment, and they are also, in a sense, true, since to be a mother-in-law or a daughter-in-law is to be a specific type of mother or daughter. Thus, for Moll to say “My mother was a mighty cheerful, good-humoured old woman” is a justified true belief.

After the revelation that her mother-in-law is the same person who gave birth to her, Moll reflects that “this was certainly no more or less than my own mother.” This relationship of “mother” takes on new meaning. Though it did not bother her before, it bothers her now. She insists: “I had known nothing of it.”

In other words, when Moll says, “My mother was a mighty cheerful, good-humoured old woman,” implying but crucially omitting the detail of “mother-in-law,” she did not know what she was talking about. The woman is not Moll’s mother-in-law, because Moll’s marriage is invalid. The woman is only Moll’s mother. Moll’s original statement remains true only if we shift the meaning of the phrase “my mother” and alter the reasoning behind its use.

Moll’s justified true belief wasn’t knowledge. This is the Gettier problem.

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