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Introduction to Epistemology

The following is a transcript of this video.

At the beginning of Aristotle’s work Metaphysics he states “All men by nature desire to know.” But what does it mean to know? This is one of the questions that is addressed by the field of epistemology which we will provide an introduction to in this article. Specifically, we will examine the meanings of the terms epistemology and knowledge, look at what it means to know, examine some of the questions which epistemology addresses, and discuss why such a field arose in the first place.

The term epistemology is derived from the Greek word episteme, which means knowledge and the suffix ology which signifies the “doctrine or study of. . .”. So by combining these two terms, the word epistemology means the doctrine or study of knowledge.

Epistemology attempts to answer a number of fundamental questions. Some examples of these questions include: ‘what is the nature of knowledge?’ ‘what are the obstacles to the attainment of knowledge?’, ‘what can be known’, and ‘how does knowledge differ from opinion or belief?’ Thus, when one is said to have an epistemology it means that they have a theory which addresses such questions.

How is knowledge obtained? Traditionally philosophers have distinguished two main methods of knowledge acquisition. One way is through the senses or via one’s experience. One can, for example, examine a plant and through the experience produced by one’s senses come to know certain characteristics of it, such as its shape, size, smell, texture, and whether it produces fruits or flowers. Those who believe that this is the main way people obtain knowledge are called empiricists.

However, as people have known for thousands of years, sometimes the information given to us via our senses is deceiving. For example, our senses seem to tell us the earth is flat, but we now know such a belief to be false. So can our senses always be trusted?

Furthermore, some contemporary philosophers have stressed that our bodies and sensory apparatus influence how we interpret the entirety of reality outside of us. For example, the way the world looks to a bat is likely quite different from the way it appears to us humans. Such speculation has led some to emphasize the important influencing effect that our bodies, and the sensory equipment we have evolved, have on our pursuit of knowledge about the world.

Such speculations and scepticisms on the workings of our sensory apparatus, has led some to suggest that there must be a way to obtain knowledge which can overcome or correct the sometimes illusory nature of our sense experience. Knowledge, it is posited, can also be obtained via the process of reasoning, and those who stress this route of knowledge acquisition are called rationalists.

Often when people introduce epistemology they do not take the time to examine what type of knowledge the field of epistemology is concerned with, but it is important to take the time to do this given that there is more than one type of knowledge.  Generally epistemology has focused on what is called propositional knowledge, or knowledge of facts. Examples of this type of knowledge include such statements as “I know that a giraffe has four legs” or “I know that 3 times 30 equals 90”.

Knowledge of facts, or propositional knowledge, can be contrasted to practical knowledge, which includes knowledge of how to drive a car or knowledge of how to play baseball. Practical knowledge is often called ‘know-how’ because it is the ability to ‘know how to do something’. This type of knowledge is implicit or unconscious, and in fact is knowledge that we utilize every moment of our waking lives. For example, we don’t have to analyze and gain knowledge of how to walk down a flight of steps each time we encounter a new step, instead at an early age we develop the practical knowledge of how to walk down stairs and unconsciously retain this knowledge for the remainder of our lives.

Practical knowledge has typically not been the main concern of epistemology. However, some philosophers, most notably Martin Heidegger, have spent considerable time contemplating this type of knowledge as he viewed it as a much more fundamental and important type of knowledge than propositional knowledge. An individual could be a genius in quantum physics, however, this knowledge would be virtually useless if the individual didn’t have the practical knowledge of how to get out of bed in the morning.

However, as we just said traditionally the focus of epistemology has been on propositional knowledge. Even when Heidegger philosophized about practical knowledge he was in fact trying to arrive at propositional knowledge about practical knowledge, or in other words facts about our practical knowledge. When one declares that they have propositional knowledge, or knowledge of a fact, what exactly does this knowing entail? Or more specifically, what does it mean “to know”? Nicholas Rescher provides an answer to this question in his book Epistemology – An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge:

“But what is propositional knowledge? It is emphatically not an activity or performance. You cannot answer the question “What are you doing?” with the response “I am knowing that Paris is the capital of France,” any more than you could say “I am owning this watch” or “I am liking roses.” Knowing a fact is not something that one does; it is a condition that one has come to occupy in relation to information.” (Nicholas Rescher, Epistemology – An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge)

When one comes to occupy such a relation to information, thus attaining knowledge of a fact, epistemologists have often defined this propositional knowledge as justified true belief. This definition emphasizes that mere belief is not enough to constitute knowledge, rather one must have good reasons for believing something to be true. So when one says “I believe this to be the case”, it should not be assumed to have the same meaning as if one had said “I know this to be the case” and in everyday language a difference between these two statement is indeed usually recognized.

Rather in order to know or have knowledge of something, in the sense of justified true belief, there must be solid grounds for holding the belief and the individual must be aware of such grounds. Guesses, conjectures or mere opinions that may or may not lead an individual to a correct belief of a fact are typically not classified as knowledge because such an individual would not be aware of the reasons for the proposition being true.

Now that we have introduced epistemology and looked at what it means to have knowledge, we will conclude the article by addressing the interesting question of why humans need a theory of knowledge in the first place. As Aristotle seems to have alluded to in the quote at the beginning of this lecture, humans seem to be inquisitive by nature, in a related manner Nicholas Rescher suggests that:

“. . . knowledge brings great benefits. The release of ignorance is foremost among them. We have evolved within nature into the ecological niche of an intelligent being. In consequence, the need for understanding, for “knowing one’s way about,” is one of the most fundamental demands of the human condition.” (Nicholas Rescher, Epistemology – An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge)

But while this may explain why we as humans need knowledge, it does not quite address why we need a theory of knowledge. If one accepts what is presented to their senses, or determined through the rational workings of their mind as true, and is not skeptical as to its validity, then the need for epistemology is limited. For in such a case one does not question what knowledge is or how humans can obtain it.

This sort of view was common among some of the ancient pre-Socratic philosophers who seemed to take for granted that we could know the nature of the universe. As the great historian of philosophy Frederick Copleston said:

“The pre-Socratic philosophers in the main were “dogmatists”, in the sense that they assumed that man can know reality objectively.” (Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy)

However, when one begins to question if we can be sure that the ideas, or representations in our mind actually correspond to the world “outside” of ourselves, or if we can ever hope to bridge the gulf between our ideas about the world and the world itself, then the problem of knowledge arises and along with it the need for an epistemology, or a theory of knowledge.

Interestingly some have suggested that it is fear that has led to the development of epistemology, a fear that we as human beings are lost in the cosmos with tools that are too inadequate to give us the knowledge we desire, such as explanations for why things happen, or truths about the meaning or purpose of our life in the scheme of this vast cosmos. Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison illuminate this point in their fascinating work Objectivity, they write:

“All epistemology begins in fear…fear that the senses are too feeble and the intellect to frail; fear that memory fades, even between adjacent steps of a mathematical demonstration; fear that authority and convention blinds; fear that God may keep secrets or demons deceive.” (Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity)

We will conclude this article with a quote by the 17th century polymath Blaise Pascal who alluded to such a fear when he wrote:

“…swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright.” (Blaise Pascal)

Further Resources

Good Places to Start One’s Study of Epistemology
An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge (2007) – Noah Lemos
Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge (2010) – Robert Audi
Problems of Knowledge: A Critical Introduction to Epistemology (2001) – Michael Williams
Objectivity: A Very Short Introduction (2012) – Stephen Gaukroger
Epistemology (2002) – Richard Feldman

More Advanced Works
Epistemology: An Anthology (2008) – Editors E.Sosa, J. Kim, J. Fantl, M. McGrath
Objectivity (2010) – Lorraine J. Daston and Peter Galison
Critique of Pure Reason (1781) – Immanuel Kant
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1739) – David Hume
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) – John Locke

Further Readings