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Epistemology

Epistemology

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Any systematic exposition of the grounds of and means to knowledge constitutes an epistemology. Standard epistemologies of mathematics find such grounds in axiomatic self-evidence and means in methods of proof. Epistemologies of the natural sciences additionally underscore methods of experimental verification. Emerging in the shadow of the natural sciences, the social sciences have since their inception been the province of a stubborn epistemological divide. On the one side are those who insist that the natural sciences offer the only valid model of the attainment of knowledge about the empirical world and that the social sciences should thus strive to emulate their methodological precedent. On the other side are those who insist that human actions and creations are different in kind from the events and objects to which natural scientists attend and require methods of approach and comprehension entirely their own. Strictly speaking, these alternatives are incompatible; no perfect compromise is possible.

Emerging clearly in the middle of the nineteenth century, the divide at issue rests in distinct philosophical precedents and traditions of scholarship. On the side of a unified science is Auguste Comtes positivism, which casts society as the final and most complex object to become available to the senses in the course of the evolution of human cognition and amenable, if not precisely to experimental manipulation, then to controlled comparative inquiry rigorous enough to yield knowledge in its wake. Comtes Course of Positive Philosophy (18301842) inaugurates what he coined sociology as a science every bit as natural as its predecessors, but clearly reflects both the rationalism of René Descartes and the empiricism of Etienne Bonnot de Condillac. Comtes most influential epistemological heir is Émile Durkheim, who takes particular pains to distinguish the empirical domain of psychology from that of sociology in his late nineteenth-century work. The former encompasses at once what is common to all human beings and what is idiosyncratic to one or another of them. The latter, encompassing what marks human beings as members of specific collectivities, is the proper domain of social facts available to the senses first of all as the experience of externally imposed obligation or coercion. It yields the classic definition of society as a normative order. It permits two basic modes of inquiry, both of which might be put into the service of controlled comparison. One of these pursues a sampling of particular cases substantial enough to reveal patterning variables and their statistical co-variations. Another seeks to extract from perhaps only a single case a model of the system of which it is representative or expresses the limit. The first is the mode of statistical and quantitative inquiry not only in sociology but across all the social sciences. The second is the mode of model-theoretic inquirywhether rigorously algebraic, as in much of contemporary economics, or largely qualitative, as in Durkheims own Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912).

On the side of the divide itself is Wilhelm Diltheys programmatic distinction between the natural sciences and what he termed the Geisteswissenschaften, sciences of spirit or mind or human sciences. The latter category includes all of the disciplines that make up the social sciences, but its cardinal focus is the discipline of historical inquiry and what would come by the late nineteenth century to be known as cultural anthropology. The human sciences do not in Diltheys typology produce knowledge but instead produce understanding. The latter is a mode of knowing grounded of necessity in self-reflection because the objectifications of spirit or mindhuman actions and artifactsthat constitute its investigative terrain are precisely the objectifications of such psychic states as intentions, beliefs, values and sentiments. The human scientist understands any such objectification not in determining its efficient cause but in interpreting its always particular meaning or significance in light of the broader historical or cultural context in which it is embedded. Diltheys work follows the founder of biblical hermeneutics, Friedrich Schleiermacher, in presuming that the process of interpretation rests essentially in the interpreters capacity imaginatively and empathetically to enter into the lives of others. He derived his thoroughgoing separation of the physical from the experiential world from Immanuel Kants similarly thorough separation of the objective from the subjective in his three Critiques, published in 1781, 1788, and 1790. In his appropriation of Kant at least, Dilthey is at one with his only slightly later contemporary, Max Weber.

Weber is well known for his address of the problem of objectivity in the human sciences. He recognized that particular evaluative commitments do and even should influence the content of the questions that the human scientist poses. He insisted that the scientists research, properly conducted, should and can produce nothing else but facts. His resolution still has its adherents, but the problem of objectivity itself long predates him and lasts beyond him. In its general form, it is the result of the reflective recognition that beliefs and evaluative orientations are generally conditioned by or contingent upon their historical, cultural and social context; hence, for example, Thorstein Veblens observation that distinct fractions of the dominant classes are drawn to those intellectual pursuits that are most intimately concerned with the practical bases of their dominance. Prima facie, the same should broadly be true of beliefs about and evaluative orientations toward the historical, the cultural and the social themselves. This does not entail that the latter beliefs and orientations are wrong-headed, but it does point to the need for an account of how and when and why a researcher is right to suppose that they are enduringly true or valid. Thus construed, the problem of objectivity has inspired three general responses. One is Comtes own: a progressivist rendering of cognitive and moral evolution positing that modern society has become disburdened of the sources of the errors and confusions that clouded the mental and moral landscapes of societies less developed.

Though no longer with a positivist inflection, a similar evolutionism has a central place in Jürgen Habermas much more recent efforts to reestablish the foundations of a critical social theory. A second response emerges in the later Marxist tradition, in which the problem of objectivity gains intensity with the presumption that the prevailing ideas of every class-divided society are ideological distortions that serve not truth but the reproduction of the dominant class.

Though with many variations, it seeks in social institutions or psychosocial circumstances those factors that permit certain individuals to become detached from their classes of origin and so think outside of the boundaries that would otherwise constrict their judgment. In a classic contribution to what is thus a sociology of knowledge, Karl Mannheims work sees such factors in the coalescence of the secular, liberal university in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Europe. Louis Althussers work focuses instead on the conjunctures of politico-economic structure and personal circumstance in which an investigators exercise of experiment and critique effect an epistemic break from the ideology in which his thinking had previously been mired. Though once again with many variations, a third response might be called pragmatic. The philosophical resources it taps include Kant and Ludwig Wittgenstein. From Weber to anthropologist Clifford Geertz and social theorist Niklas Luhmann, its proponents regard proper intellectual labor in the human sciences as having its end in heuristic and diagnostic constructions and interventions that, whatever their contingencies or motivations, facilitate clarity, communication and translation. Hardly a return to positivism, this response nevertheless highlights the analytical service of an intellectual device of steadily increasing saliency in the epistemological toolkit of the natural sciences themselves: the model.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Althusser, Louis. [1965] 1969. For Marx. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Pantheon Books.

Comte, Auguste. [18301842] 1896. The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte. Trans. Harriet Martineau. London: G. Bell & Sons.

Condillac, Etienne Bonnot de. [1746] 2001. Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge. Trans. and ed. Hans Aarsleff. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Descartes, René. [1637] 1993. Discourse on Method; and Meditations on First Philosophy. Trans. Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Dilthey, Wilhelm. [1883] 1989. Introduction to the Human Sciences: Selected Works. Vol. 1. Ed. Rudolf A. Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Durkheim, Émile. [1895] 1982. Rules of Sociological Method. Ed. Steven Lukes and trans. W. D. Halls. New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim, Émile. [1912] 1995. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Trans. Karen E. Fields. New York: The Free Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture. In The Interpretation of Cultures, 330. New York: Basic Books.

Geertz, Clifford. 1980. From the Natives Point of View: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding. In Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, 5570. New York: Basic Books.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1984. Reason and the Rationalization of Society Vol. 1 of The Theory of Communicative Action. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1987. Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason. Vol. 2 of The Theory of Communicative Action. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press.

Kant, Immanuel. [1781] 1978. Immanuel Kants Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Norman Kemp-Smith. London: Macmillan.

Kant, Immanuel. [1788] 2002. Critique of Practical Reason. Trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Kant, Immanuel. [1790] 1987. Critique of Judgment. Trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Luhmann, Niklas. 1998. Observations on Modernity. Trans. William Whobry. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Mannheim, Karl. [1929] 1948. Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge. Trans. Louis Wirth and Edward Shils. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. [1799] 1988. On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Survivors. Trans. Richard Crouter. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Veblen, Thorstein. 1919. The Place of Science in Modern Civilization and Other Essays. New York: B. W. Heubsch.

Weber, Max. [1905] 1975. Roscher and Knies: The Logical Problems of Historical Economics. Trans. Guy Oakes. New York: The Free Press.

Weber, Max. [1919] 1946. Science as a Vocation. In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, eds. Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills, 129156. New York: Oxford University Press.

Weber, Max. 1949. The Methodology of the Social Sciences. Trans. Edward Shils and Henry Finch. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. New York: Macmillan.

James D. Faubion

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Epistemology

EPISTEMOLOGY

EPISTEMOLOGY. Epistemology means "theory of knowledge," and sometimes more specifically "theory of the sciences." As a term, epistemology (French, épistémologie, German, Erkenntnistheorie ) entered European languages in the mid-nineteenth century. As a subject matter, it was present in ancient Greece, both in Plato's discussions of knowledge in the Meno and Theaetetus, and in Aristotle's characterizations in his logical works of "scientific" knowledge, that is, knowledge organized around basic principles from which other knowledge can be derived, or through which various facts can be explained. The root word episteme meant 'knowledge' in Greek; in early modern times the corresponding Latin word scientia meant 'organized knowledge', especially of a sort suitable for presentation as an ordered body of doctrine.

In early modern Europe, the theory of knowledge was examined and discussed in a variety of intellectual contexts. These included discussions of the methods and structure of knowledge in general, but especially of organized knowledge. The most important objects of knowledge included God and religious doctrines, the natural world as a whole as well as specific parts of it (as in astronomy, mechanics, or metallurgy), and knowledge of human nature, including the human body (in medicine and physiology) and the soul or mind. These topics were discussed in university courses and the extensive literature they spawned, and in the works of individual philosophers outside universities, perhaps under princely or other wealthy patronage, but often not. European universities were church-related institutions that had been invigorated by the recovery of Aristotle's and other ancient works in the twelfth to sixteenth centuries. They provided a backdrop of theory, largely Aristotelian, of how knowledge is acquired and organized. Significant early modern thinkers such as Nicolaus Copernicus (14731543), Johannes Kepler (15711630), Galileo Galilei (15641642), Francis Bacon (15611626), René Descartes (15961650), Thomas Hobbes (15881679), Baruch Spinoza (16321677), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716), John Locke (16321704), George Berkeley (16851753), and David Hume (17111776) worked largely outside this setting. Of major early modern philosophers, only Immanuel Kant (17241804) enjoyed a career as a university professor.

THE NEW SCIENCE

The single most significant early modern epistemological episode was the rise of the "new science" in the period from 1500 to 1750. This episode is sometimes described as the "scientific revolution," even though it took two hundred and fifty years to unfold and did not really constitute a unified revolution. Early results in astronomy (the Sun-centered solar system) and optics (the theory of lenses) fomented intellectual change and heralded the extension of human knowledge into new domains of the large and the small, through the telescope and microscope. The theory of vision exemplifies themes arising from this initial work. Relying on optical advances, Descartes developed a bold new conception of the physiological and cognitive bases of sight, which challenged Aristotelian orthodoxies concerning the physical and physiological operation of the senses, and formed part of his more general challenge to the Aristotelian theory of mind. In his fully developed system, Descartes appealed to purely rational considerations (epistemological rationalism) to ground his new theory of matter and of sensory properties such as light and color. Berkeley challenged Descartes's theory of vision in developing his own rival theory of knowledge, which denied any purely rational insight into the nature of matter, and rendered sensory experience the sole basis for knowledge of the natural world (epistemological empiricism).

The most epistemologically impressive achievement of the new science was Newton's mechanics, which unified the celestial and terrestrial domains through the laws of motion and the inverse-square law of gravitational attraction. Isaac Newton (16421727) claimed that his new advances arose by turning away from rationalist philosophical systems such as that of Descartes (though Newton's work arose partly in direct response to Descartes's physical theories), and relying instead on observation and experiment. Indeed, the inverse-square law was established by fitting a single mathematical law to a diversity of empirical information about falling bodies and planetary motions. Further, Newton did not pretend to understand how gravity works. He simply claimed that bodies tend toward one another according to his law. His scientific achievements inspired subsequent philosophical analysis and were used to support epistemological empiricism.

COGNITION AND PSYCHOLOGY

Early modern theories typically explained the cognitive basis of knowledge through the powers of the human mind. In the Aristotelian scheme, various cognitive powers had been distinguished, including the senses, imagination, memory, and intellect. Later authors accepted these basic powers and focused epistemological debate on their mode of operation, scope, and limits. The intellect and senses were viewed as natural mental tools for the production of knowledge. Thus, the nature and possibility of knowledge might be investigated via the power and reliability of the human cognitive faculties. Rationalist epistemologists such as Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz agreed that the human intellect possesses the capacity by itself, without appeal to sensory experience, to discern the essence or nature of God, matter, and the human mind. Empiricist philosophers such as Locke and Hume denied such power to the human intellect, and sought to base all human knowledge of the natural world in sensory experience. Hume held that the human mind differs only in degree from the minds of other animals, and denied that the human cognitive faculties naturally confer rational justification on their products. Knowledge of significant matters of fact for him reduced to cognitive habits produced by experiencing empirical regularities. Kant later created a distinction between the empirical psychological study of the mind (as in Hume), and the study of the logical or conceptual basis of knowledge. In this way he distinguished epistemology as a subject area from empirical psychology (even though he didn't possess the German word for "epistemology").

ORDER AND SYSTEM OF KNOWLEDGE

Early modern philosophers were presented an order of knowledge in university instruction, largely derived from the Aristotelian organization of the disciplines. Knowledge was divided into the theoretical (metaphysical and physical) and the practical (moral and political). Metaphysics studied the nature of being itself (the fundamental nature of reality, such as substance and its properties). Physics included the entire natural world, from the basic properties of bodies or matter through the study of living things (biology) to psychology. The eighteenth century articulated such systems, as in the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot (17131784) and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (17171783), and in the highly structured philosophical system of the German philosopher Christian Wolff (16791754). These later systems often agreed with Bacon in dividing knowledge relative to the cognitive faculties: historywhich meant all collections of facts, whether about nature or about human societywas based in memory, poetry (and art more generally) was based in imagination, and philosophyboth theoretical, including what we would call natural science, and practicalwas based in reason (or the intellect). Such classifications sometimes diverged. Thus, psychology was first classified under physics or the science of nature, later as a metaphysical science, then as a "moral science" (or "human science"), and later again as a natural science. Classification and reclassification of the disciplines continues.

SKEPTICISM AND LIMITS

In many accounts of early modern epistemology, the revival of ancient skepticism in the sixteenth century figures prominently. Skeptical writings did inspire discussion. In religious contexts, skepticism about human ability to understand the divine was used both to support the claim that organized religion must use its divinely sanctioned authority to teach the truth about God and religious topics, and also to challenge whether anyone can claim to have the truth about such matters. Some philosophers, such as Francisco Sánchez (c. 15501623), skeptically questioned whether human theoretical knowledge could really uncover the nature of reality as in metaphysics, and suggested a more limited, experience-based goal for knowledge. Descartes used skepticism as a tool for achieving certainty in metaphysical knowledge, but did not himself take the skeptical threat seriously. Other philosophers, such as Spinoza and Locke, quickly dismissed skeptical arguments. Philosophical empiricists such as Hume developed a mitigated skepticism, permitting Newtonian-type knowledge of empirical regularities in nature, but denying human ability to go beyond such regularities to the existence of God or the alleged immateriality of the human soul or mind. Generally, early modern epistemology increasingly recognized limits to human knowledge, culminating in Kant's system of transcendental idealism, according to which knowledge of bare reality, the existence of God, or the soul's immateriality, lie beyond human capacity.

See also Alembert, Jean Le Rond d' ; Aristotelianism ; Bacon, Francis ; Berkeley, George ; Cartesianism ; Copernicus, Nicolaus ; Descartes, René ; Diderot, Denis ; Empiricism ; Encyclopédie ; Enlightenment ; Galileo Galilei ; Hobbes, Thomas ; Hume, David ; Kant, Immanuel ; Kepler, Johannes ; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm ; Locke, John ; Logic ; Natural Law ; Newton, Isaac ; Philosophes ; Philosophy ; Skepticism: Academic and Pyrrhonian ; Spinoza, Baruch ; Wolff, Christian .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Source

Sánchez, Francisco. That Nothing Is Known. Translated by Douglas F. S. Thomson. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1988. Translation of Quod Nihil Scitur (1581).

Secondary Sources

Ayers, Michael, and Daniel Garber, eds. Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K., 1998. Contains chapters on the cognitive faculties and other epistemological topics.

Emmanuel, Steven, ed. The Blackwell Guide to the Modern Philosophers: From Descartes to Nietzsche. Oxford and Malden, Mass., 2001. Contains chapters on all major early modern philosophers, often focusing on epistemology.

Hatfield, Gary. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Descartes and the Meditations. London and New York, 2003. Discusses Descartes's epistemology in relation to its intellectual context, including the rise of the new science.

Henry, John. The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science. London and New York, 1997. Includes discussion of the philosophical context of the new science.

Gary Hatfield

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Epistemology

Epistemology


The need for an entry on epistemologythe theory of knowledgeillustrates the important mediating role of philosophy in key aspects of the science-religion interface. More specifically, the problems occasioned for religious traditions by the rise of science have extended beyond particular disputes to a more pervasive sense that science stands as the measure of all valid knowledge. The result has been a significant questioning as to whether religious traditions can still be viewed as routes to truth. For those seeking to maintain that these traditions can be so viewed, and that the sciences might even profit by appropriating some of the practices of wisdom enshrined therein, epistemological analysis is inescapable.

A number of interrelated issues apply: What is knowledge? What can one know? Does knowledge require certainty, and how can one know?


What is knowledge?

Taking these in order, the standard philosophical definition of knowledge is that of justified true belief. The need for justification and the related concern for its mode of operation links to the fourth issue listed. The need for true beliefs raises the question as to what truth is in regard to propositions. There are three standard approaches: the correspondence, the coherence, and the pragmatic.


The instinct behind correspondence views of truthwhether in scientific or religious contextsis that true propositions bring something of reality to conceptual articulation. Despite the lasting importance of this instinct, questions exist about the adequacy of the metaphor of correspondence. How in the scientific context, for example, can concepts be thought to correspond to an intrinsically unconceptualized material reality? Does this not inevitably trade off the assumption that real knowledge, although unavailable to humans, is of an intuitive, unconceptualized form? And does that not in turn inevitably serve to denigrate the only forms of knowing of which humans are capable?

Implicit in the above statement of the instinct behind so-called correspondence approaches is the recognition that no one proposition can be fully adequate to the complexity of even one aspect of reality. For their part, coherentist approaches maintain that the best guide to truth consists in the maximally coherent configuration of all relevant statements pertaining to a given aspect of reality. Further, to the extent that all aspects of reality are viewed as being interrelated, coherentist approaches tend towards the aspiration for the maximally coherent configuration of all possible information pertaining to all aspects of reality. In scientific terms this might equate with the heuristically useful, although unattainable, hope for a perfected science and in Judeo-Christian terms with the hope for the eschatological gathering, fulfilling, and true configuring of all things in God.

Integrating the diversity of pragmatist views is the conviction that standard truth talk requires expanding to reflect the fact that human engagement with reality extends beyond the concern to know reality aright to include also the concern to live within it well: Truth is a matter of practical action as well as of conceptual articulation. This resonates with the emphasis within religious traditions upon the need to integrate attentiveness, discernment, and wise practice. While the sciences are justifiably viewed as the clearest example of the human capacity for knowing the world, the scientific community may have something to receive here in the form of a more explicit attentiveness to the specific practical objectives and potential applications of any proposed research project.

What can one know?

The question "What can one know?" has traditionally been answered in two different, but perhaps ultimately complementary, ways: the realist and the idealist. The strong realist maintains that knowledge must involve a real knowing of the world as it really is. The idealist maintains that human knowledge can only ever be a knowing of reality as mediated by human concepts. The bind for both science and religion has been to be caught between a strongly realist-correspondentialist definition of truth and the recognition that all truth claims are inextricably shaped by human concepts. Much philosophy of science has sought to counter the charge that science is simply a useful construct that does not actually convey knowledge. Likewise, much philosophical theology sets itself against the charge that religion is simply a human mythic creation or emotive projection.

A potential way beyond the realist-idealist impasse lies in the dual recognition that while all human engagement with reality is mediated by concepts, such concepts themselves reflect a long process of interaction with the world and, for the religious domain, with the reality of God in such a fashion as renders them at least partially adequate to the reality of things.


Knowledge and fallibility

The move to any such critical-realist position clearly requires one to relinquish an absolute connection between certainty and knowledge. As noted earlier, however, principles already exist that encourage one to view both scientific and religious knowledge in its full and final sense more as an aspiration than a present reality, and this without devaluing the partial knowledge already available. Recognizing the fallibility of scientific knowledge should keep science open to revision. So also, recognizing the inexhaustible richness of God should keep religious understanding open to there always being more.

Two different constructional metaphors have been offered in response to the question of how one can justify one's beliefs: that of a building resting on sure foundations and that of an interconnected web, the strength of which derives from mutual support between members. In spite of their dominance throughout much of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and even twentieth centuries, foundationalist models of justification have tended to recede, along with the strongly correspondential definition of truth with which they are associated, as the inextricable role of language and concept in all human engagement with reality has emerged more broadly into view.

Quite apart from the unrealizable character of foundationalist aspirations, alternative systemic, coherence-based approaches to justification have been claimed to fit the actual practices of scientific and religious reasoning better. It can be claimed that any danger of promoting a move towards closed systems wherein coherence is won at the cost of insularity and ossification can be offset by a recognition of the permanent fallibility of present understanding and a consequent continual drive towards ever more extensive coherence.

While pragmatist views are generally seen as having a limited contribution to make to the justification of propositions, some accord them a greater role in choosing between methods of ascertaining truth. Perhaps their real value is in reminding us of the various factors that may influence someone in finding one system, rather than another, truth-bearing. While that is particularly appropriate in the religious context, it may also be more appropriate in the scientific context than many scientists care to admit.


See also Critical Realism; Foundationalism; Idealism; Nonfoundationalism; Postfoundationalism; Pragmatism; Truth, Theories of


Bibliography

banner, michael c. the justification of science and the rationality of religious belief. oxford: clarendon, 1990.

clayton, philip. explanation from physics to theology: an essay in rationality and religion. new haven, conn.: yale university press, 1989.

deane-drummond, celia e. creation through wisdom: theology and the new biology. edinburgh: t&t clark, 2000.

murphy, nancey. theology in the age of scientific reasoning. ithaca, n.y.: cornell university press, 1990.

murphy, nancey, and ellis, george f. r. on the moral nature of the universe: theology, cosmology, and ethics. minneapolis, minn.: fortress, 1996.

murray, paul d. "truth and reason in science and theology: points of tension, correlation and compatibility." in god, humanity and the cosmos: a textbook in science and religion, ed. christopher southgate. harrisburg, pa.: trinity press international, 1999

rescher, nicholas. a system of pragmatic idealism, volume i: human knowledge in idealistic perspective. princeton, n.j.: princeton university press, 1992

soskice, janet martin. metaphor and religious language. oxford: clarendon, 1985

van huyssteen, j. wentzel. the shaping of rationality: toward interdisciplinarity in theology and science. grand rapids, mich.: eerdmans, 1999.

paul d. murray

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epistemology

epistemology The philosophical theory of knowledge—of how we know what we know. Epistemology is generally characterized by a division between two competing schools of thought: rationalism and empiricism. Both traditions of thought received their most systematic philosophical expressions in the context of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. Both approaches were concerned with finding secure foundations for knowledge, and clearly distinguishing such well-grounded knowledge from mere prejudice, belief, or opinion. The model of certainty which impressed the rationalists (Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza) was that to be found in the formal demonstrations of logic and mathematics. They sought to reconstruct critically the total of human knowledge by the employment of such ‘pure’ reasoning from indubitable axioms or foundations (hence Descartes's ‘I think therefore I am’). The empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, and Hume) took direct acquaintance with the ‘impressions’ of sense-experience as their bedrock of infallible knowledge. Disputes between rationalists and empiricists centred especially on the possibility of innate knowledge, of knowledge acquired a priori, or independently of experience. Empiricists vigorously denied this, advocating their view of the human mind as a blank sheet or tabula rasa, until marked by the impressions of sensory experience.

The eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant is widely held to have achieved a transcendence of this conflict of ideas, insisting that a framework of basic organizing concepts (space, time, causality, and others) could not be acquired by experience alone, yet was necessary for us to be able to interpret the world of experience at all. These concepts were therefore prior to experience, but nevertheless (a nod in the direction of the empiricists) they could only be used to make objective judgements within the bounds of possible experience.

It is arguable that all theoretical and empirical approaches in sociology presuppose (explicitly or implicitly) some epistemological position or other. Largescale quantitative research is often (though wrongly) characterized in terms of empiricist or positivist epistemology, whilst the main opposition to positivism has derived (directly or indirectly) from the Kantian tradition. Whereas Kant thought the basic conceptual structure (the ‘categories’ and ‘forms of intuition’) underlying objective judgements about the world were necessary and therefore universal, many of Kant's successors in the human sciences have historically or socio-culturally relativized his position. Accordingly, it is common for sociological anti-positivists to argue that some conceptual or theoretical framework must be presupposed in any empirical research or factual judgement, but that there are several competing conceptual frameworks, and no neutral standpoint can be found from which to adjudicate between them. Arguments such as this lead to epistemological relativism, conventionalism, or agnosticism. Another argument, deriving from nineteenth-century neo-Kantianism, emphasizes the qualitatively different form of understanding involved in intersubjective communication and the interpretation of meaning (compared with the objective understanding we have of the material world). This form of understanding has its own conceptual and methodological conditions of possibility which may be philosophically analysed, as in phenomenological and hermeneutic philosophies of social science. Critical (or transcendental) realists (such as Roy Bhaskar) also draw upon Kant's method of argument, and recognize the necessity of prior conceptual organization for all empirical knowledge. They nevertheless insist upon the knowability of realities which exist and act independently of our knowledge of them. This philosophical tradition is claimed by its adherents to offer a defence of naturalism, whilst at the same time accepting the main arguments of the Kantians against positivism and empiricism.

Some post-structuralists, impatient with the apparently interminable disputes among rival epistemologies, have sought to avoid epistemology entirely. The main argument for doing so begins with a premiss which is common ground to most non-positivist philosophers of social science. This is that we have no direct or unmediated access to the realities about which our theories claim to provide knowledge. Some form of conceptual or linguistic ordering is necessary for even the most basic reports of our experiences or observations. We cannot step outside of language or discourse so as to check whether our discourse does, after all, correspond to reality. The conclusion which is then drawn from this axiom is that the classical epistemological question as to the adequacy of our discourse to the reality it purports to represent is in principle unanswerable and therefore misconceived. These post-structuralists are then led to deny the knowability of any reality beyond, or independent of, discourse, thence into an oscillation between epistemological agnosticism and metaphysical idealism. Of course, it does not at all follow from the widely accepted claim that language (or ‘discourse’) is necessary to our knowledge of the world, that we cannot then know the world. This would be as if someone were to say that, because we have no way of telling what colour things are other than by looking at them, we cannot know what colour they (really) are! So far, attempts to avoid epistemology appear to have yielded only yet more terminologically impenetrable epistemologies.

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"epistemology." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 Mar. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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epistemology

epistemology (ĬpĬs´təmŏl´əjē) [Gr.,=knowledge or science], the branch of philosophy that is directed toward theories of the sources, nature, and limits of knowledge. Since the 17th cent. epistemology has been one of the fundamental themes of philosophers, who were necessarily obliged to coordinate the theory of knowledge with developing scientific thought. Réné Descartes and other philosophers (e.g., Baruch Spinoza, G. W. Leibniz, and Blaise Pascal) sought to retain the belief in the existence of innate (a priori) ideas together with an acceptance of the values of data and ideas derived from experience (a posteriori). This position was basically that of rationalism. Opposed to it later was empiricism, notably as expounded by John Locke, David Hume, and John Stuart Mill, which denied the existence of innate ideas altogether. The impressive critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant had immense effects in an attempt to combine the two views. In later theories the split was reflected in idealism and materialism. The causal theory of knowledge, advanced by Alfred North Whitehead and others, stressed the role of the nervous system as intermediary between an object and the perception of it. The methods of perceiving, obtaining, and validating data derived from sense experience has been central to pragmatism, with the teachings of C. S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Sir Karl Popper developed the view that scientific knowledge rests on hypotheses that, while they cannot be positively verified, can be proven false and have withstood repeated attempts to show that they are. Philosophers in the 20th cent. have criticized and revised the traditional view that knowledge is justified true belief. A springboard for their research has been the thesis that all knowledge is theory-laden.

See A. D. Woozley, Theory of Knowledge (1949, repr. 1966); J. Dancy, Introduction to Contemporary Epistemology (1985); A. J. Ayer, The Problem of Knowledge (1956, repr. 1988).

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"epistemology." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 Mar. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"epistemology." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/epistemology

"epistemology." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved March 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/epistemology

epistemology

e·pis·te·mol·o·gy / iˌpistəˈmäləjē/ • n. Philos. the theory of knowledge, esp. with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. DERIVATIVES: e·pis·te·mo·log·i·cal / -məˈläjikəl/ adj. e·pis·te·mol·o·gist / -jist/ n.

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"epistemology." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 Mar. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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epistemology

epistemology Branch of philosophy that critically examines the nature, limits and validity of knowledge, and the difference between knowledge and belief. Descartes showed that many previously ‘philosophical’ questions would be better studied scientifically, and that what remained of metaphysics should be absorbed into epistemology.

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"epistemology." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 Mar. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"epistemology." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/epistemology-0

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epistemology

epistemology The study of knowledge: a branch of philosophy important in artificial intelligence for theoretical investigations of belief and knowledge representation.

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"epistemology." A Dictionary of Computing. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 Mar. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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epistemology

epistemology XIX, f. epistemo-, comb, form of Gr. epistḗmē knowledge, f. epístasthai know (how to do), f. EPI- +stánai STAND; see -LOGY.

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"epistemology." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 Mar. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"epistemology." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/epistemology-0

"epistemology." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved March 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/epistemology-0

Epistemology

EPISTEMOLOGY.

This entry includes three subentries:

Ancient
Early Modern
Modern

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"Epistemology." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 Mar. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Epistemology

Epistemology (reflection on how knowledge arises): see ONTOLOGY.

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"Epistemology." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 Mar. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Epistemology." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/epistemology

"Epistemology." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved March 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/epistemology