Philosophy of Education, Epistemological Issues in

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Epistemological issues have always enjoyed a central place (along with metaphysical, moral, and social/political issues) in philosophical thinking about education. In the entry "Philosophy of Education, History of" in this encyclopedia, Kingsley Price skillfully treats the entire history of the subject, from the Presocratics to John Dewey. This entry covers the intervening decades, focusing on epistemological issues.

By the time of Dewey's death in 1952, philosophy in the English-speaking world was becoming increasing dominated by the analytic movement, which emphasized as methodological matters the importance of clarity, careful analysis, rigorous argumentation, and detailed attention to language, and philosophy of education was no exception to this general trend. The key figures in the development of analytic philosophy of education were Israel Scheffler in the United States, and Richard Peters and Paul Hirst in the United Kingdom. While their work exemplified two different strands of analytic philosophyPeters and Hirst worked in the 'ordinary language' tradition of analytic philosophy, which emphasized the explication of meanings as manifested in ordinary language, while Scheffler's brand of analysis took more serious account of logic and its associated formal techniques, and was more inclined to overrule ordinary language when theoretical improvement could be so gainedboth sought to bring a level of clarity and sophistication to an area of philosophy that did not always enjoy these, and to integrate philosophy of education with general philosophy. The following discusses some central epistemological issues in philosophy of education.

Epistemic Aims of Education

What is the fundamental epistemic aim of education? For educators, is the highest aim that of truth and the bringing about of true belief in students? Or is it, rather, rationality and the fostering of rational (or perhaps justified ) belief? Perhaps that aim is the more encompassing one of knowledge, which includes and integrates both of the previous possibilities? Or could the aim be that of enhancing student understanding ? Each of these has its advocates and deserves brief explication.


The most important contemporary advocate of truth as the fundamental epistemic aim of education is Alvin Goldman (1999). On his 'veritistic' view, the fundamental epistemic aim of education is the production of true belief in students, along with the development of student ability to discover new (to them) truths by way of inquiry.

Goldman's view has much to recommend it, although it faces some difficulties as well. First, not all modes of transmitting truths to studentsbrainwashing, indoctrination, deception, and the likeare educationally acceptable, despite their efficacy in producing true belief. Second, from the educational point of view it matters not only that students believe truths, but also on what basis they believe them: Mindless or otherwise unjustified true belief is not typically the intended aim of educational activities, despite the truth of the relevant student belief. Third, the general failure to enjoy 'direct access' to truth suggests that the relevant educational aim is not true belief, but rather student ability to estimate or judge the truth competently (Scheffler 1965, p. 54). These difficulties suggest that the fundamental epistemic aim of education is not true belief but rather rational belief.

rationality/critical thinking

The great majority of historically significant philosophers of education have endorsed the fostering of student rationality, or its educational cognate critical thinking, as the (or at least a) basic epistemic aim of education. On this view, educational efforts ought to strive to foster the abilities and dispositions conducive to rational student belief, the latter conceived as belief properly based on good reasons. Accordingly, educational activities are epistemically successful just to the extent that they result in enhanced student ability to evaluate candidate reasons for belief fairly and competently, and strengthened student disposition both to so evaluate and to believe accordingly. The dispositional or 'critical spirit' element of the view connects epistemic matters with matters of character, and the view as a whole is justified in terms of an appeal to the moral duty to treat students with respect as persons : Treating students with respect requires educating them in ways intended to foster critical thinking and thereby their autonomy, independence of judgment, and ability to shapeas far as possibletheir own minds and lives (Siegel 1988, 1997; Bailin and Siegel 2003).

Although versions of this view enjoy considerable support from both philosophers (historical and contemporary) and educators, it faces the important objection that rationality and critical thinking are arguably best thought of not as ends in themselves, but rather instrumentally, as means to the end of true belief: Why think that the former are epistemically valuable, other than as an effective route to truth (Goldman 1999)? This raises two questions: Can rationality/critical thinking be thought to be valuable other than instrumentally, as a means to truth? Can the virtues of both these putative epistemic ends of education be suitably combined (Siegel 2005b)?


Taking the fundamental epistemic aim of education to be knowledge has the advantage that, suitably understood in its 'strong' sense, that aim includes both truth and rationality/justification. This better captures the sense in which educators are concerned with the fundamental epistemic aim of education, since, from the educational point of view, mere true student belief is less adequate than true belief that is justified, rational, or otherwise based on good reasons; and justified or rational but nevertheless false belief is less adequate than such belief that is also true. This view, that knowledge (in the 'strong' sense that includes both truth and rational justification as conditions of knowledge) is the fundamental epistemic aim of education, is defended by several contemporary authors (Scheffler 1960, 1965, 1989; Adler 2003; Siegel 2005b). It appears to capture the strengths of both the previous views and to meet the objections to them outlined above.


The way in which all these putative epistemological aims of education involve student understanding is less than crystal clear, and a plausible case has been made by Catherine Z. Elgin, furthering a philosophical approach pioneered by Nelson Goodman, that it is the latterrather than truth, rationality or knowledgethat deserves to be regarded as the fundamental epistemic aim of education (Elgin 1999a, 1999b). Whether or not understanding can be integrated successfully with the other main proposed epistemic aims of education, can be shown to be less fundamental than those others, or deserves pride of place as the fundamental such aim, remains the subject of ongoing debate.

Testimony, Trust, and Teaching

Should students believe what their teachers tell them? Arguably, they should, and recent work on the epistemology of testimony suggests as much (Goldman 1999). But student belief in the otherwise unsupported testimonial pronouncements of their teachers conflicts with the view that critical thinking is an important aim of education, since such belief seems clearly enough not to be belief based on reasons subjected to critical scrutiny by the believer/student. Live issues concerning the epistemology of testimony are helpfully illuminated by the educational case. This is obviously not the place to tackle the broad question of the epistemology of testimony. But the educational case concerning testimony in the classroom setting deserves brief comment.

First, it is important to be clear about the sort of student under consideration. Very young children/students cannot evaluate the testimonial pronouncements of their teachers; they lack the cognitive capacity to do so. Such capacity develops gradually; before it is substantially achieved, trust in their teachers' pronouncements seems unproblematic. But how long is the period during which students enjoy such a holiday from the ordinary demands of responsible oversight of their cognitive lives? This is, at least in part, an empirical matter concerning the facts of psychological/cognitive development. Once such development has taken place and students are able to monitor and evaluate the epistemic standing of their beliefs, do those testimony-based beliefs enjoy positive justificatory status if the only thing the student can say in their defense is "my teacher said so"? Here the reductionist (who, like David Hume, holds that testimony-based beliefs are justified only if that justification can be reduced to testimony-independent good reasons to trust the speaker's testimony on a given occasion) and the antireductionist (who, like Thomas Reid, holds that testimony is itself a basic source of justification) will divide in the predictable way. But the latter will have to explain why the aim of fostering critical thinking (discussed above) can or should be abandoned in the case of teacher testimonial pronouncements, and how so abandoning it can be reconciled with the duty to treat students with respect as persons. It is not meant here to suggest that the antireductionist is doomed to failure. But the educational case does provide a sharp test case of epistemological views concerning testimony.

It should also be noted that the case in which students have nothing to justify their belief in the testimonial pronouncements of their teachers other than the pronouncements themselves is arguably relatively rare and certainly not typical. Just as believers typically have considerable evidence for the general reliability of testimony, so that their trust in testimonial pronouncements is accompanied by testimony-independent evidence that sanctions such trust (Adler 2002), so, too, do students typically have such evidence concerning their teachers' pronouncements. For even when students begin a class with no testimony-independent reason for believing what their teacher tells them, as the class proceeds and students observe their teacher lecture, explain, answer questions, and extemporize, such observation itself provides testimony-independent reason for trusting the teacher's testimonial pronouncements concerning the subject matter at hand (Siegel 2005b).

Indoctrination, Teaching, and Belief

Questions concerning the places of testimony and trust in the classroom lead naturally to questions concerning teaching and indoctrination. During the decades in which the analytic approach dominated the field, philosophers of education devoted considerable effort to the analysis of the concept of indoctrination (Snook 1972, Spiecker and Straughan 1991, Siegel 1988). The theories of indoctrination developed then divided into three broad types, which located indoctrination in either the aim or intention of the teacher/indoctrinator (namely, to get students to believe matters independently of the evidence for them), the method employed in transmitting the relevant beliefs (that is, in a way that precludes student questioning or demand for reasons), or the character or content of the doctrines transmitted (that is, content that does not admit of rational support or that is believed independently of such support). These three ways of understanding indoctrination have in common that (successful) indoctrination results in beliefs that students do not, will not, and/or cannot subject to critical scrutiny. That is, indoctrination, when successful, results in student acquisition of both specific beliefs and of habits or dispositions to believe independently of the evidential status of the indoctrinated beliefs. In this way indoctrination appears to be incompatible with most of the epistemic aims of education canvassed above, most obviously that concerning the fostering of rationality/critical thinking.

However, the seemingly obvious view that educators should eschew indoctrination in favor of more respectable epistemic educational practices is not so quickly established. First, can education be nonindoctrinating, either in principle or in practice, or is indoctrination inevitable? One might think it unavoidable since, as was suggested above, at least at early stages of development, students do not in fact have the cognitive capacity to challenge, evaluate, or critically consider that which they are taught. If it is for this reason unavoidable, is indoctrination as a consequence not necessarily or always a bad thing, something to be avoided by responsible educators? After all, if students are incapable of subjecting teacher testimonial pronouncements to critical scrutiny until after a certain cognitive-developmental stage is reached, language and concepts acquired, and an appropriate level of reasoning ability attained, it is hard to see how teachers can help bring students to the point at which they can exercise their critical abilities except by indoctrinating them. The alternative view, namely, that indoctrination is avoidable, requires a distinction between indoctrination and nonindoctrinating belief inculcation, but such a distinction is often thought to be controversial (Siegel 1988, 2005b).

Second, (why) should we value educational processes that result in student ability to subject candidate beliefs to critical scrutiny? Philosophers of education who differ in their answers to the question of the fundamental epistemic aim of education will differ in their answers to this one. Veritists will answer that we should value such processes because that ability will increase student acquisition of true belief. Advocates of critical thinking will answer, rather, that we should value them because student acquisition of rational/justified belief will be enhanced, and, moreover, that desirable dispositions will be fostered. Advocates of knowledge (in the strong sense) will embrace both these answers. Those who think indoctrination inevitable may well deny that we should value such processes at all (and may deny that there are, in fact, any such processes).

Open-Mindedness, Belief, and Commitment

A further epistemic good related to critical thinking, often regarded as a basic educational aim, is that of open-mindedness : Roughly, the ability to regard one's beliefs as fallible and subject to rational rejection or revision in light of evidence and critical reflection (Hare 1979, 1985). But how can open-mindedness be reconciled with the aim of fostering student knowledge or rationality, given that the latter involve student belief ? That is, how can students be expected both to believe those belief-candidates that reasons and evidence indicate are worthy of belief, and at the same time to remain open-minded about those very beliefs? This tension is insightfully addressed by Jonathan Adler (2004), who urges that open-mindedness be conceived as a meta-attitude toward one's beliefs rather than as a weakening of one's degree of belief or a weakened commitment toward the beliefs themselves, and that it be understood in terms of our general interest in attaining knowledge; he relates these matters to other fundamental issues concerning tolerance, autonomy, and authority that have long animated philosophers of education.

Further Topics

There is a range of further issues concerning epistemological dimensions of education that should be mentioned, even though they cannot be addressed in detail here. They include the following issues.

further issues concerning critical thinking

Partly because of its enduring status as a favored educational ideal, considerable philosophical energy has been expended on issues concerning critical thinking other than those already addressed. A particularly animated discussion involves the question of its generalizability : Is critical thinking generalizablethat is, applicable to a broad range of topics, domains, and issuesor is it rather subject-specific, such that critical thinking in one domain or discipline is importantly different from critical thinking in other areas? A range of views on the question can be found in The Generalizability of Critical Thinking (Norris 1992). A further issue is the place of domain-specific knowledge in critical thinking; here William Hare (1995) is particularly helpful. The relation between critical and creative thinking has also attracted considerable attention, with some arguing that these are fundamentally distinct and others arguing against such a sharp distinction. The topic has been insightfully treated in a series of works by Sharon Bailin, who challenges the distinction; see Bailin and Siegel 2003 and references therein.


It seems obvious enough that the curriculum should contain that knowledge/information thought to be most important for students to have, but the value and epistemological status of particular sorts of curricular content is controversial. Should a given subject, say mathematics, enjoy pride of place in the curriculum because it is in some sense intellectually central, or is its place secured by virtue of its practical importance or in some other way? More broadly, do particular content areasscience, language and literature, history, and the likedeserve their place in the curriculum because they constitute distinct "forms of knowledge" that are in some sense epistemologically fundamental, intrinsically important, and therefore the stuff of which all "liberally educated" students should be familiar (Hirst 1974)? Can this "forms of knowledge" view of traditional school subjects be sustained (Phillips 1987, pp. 120136)? Moreover, does this idea of "liberal education" overemphasize the traditional and theoretical to the detriment of the practical, and/or does it reflect a culturally biased "Eurocentric" view of reason, knowledge, and education's character and priorities (Siegel 1997, Bailin and Siegel 2003)?

teaching and learning

How should teaching and learning be conceived and the former conducted? The issues here are many and complex and depend for their resolution on psychological matters as well as on philosophy of mind and other areas of philosophy, yet they are rightly thought to be epistemological (in part) in so far as teaching is thought to involve knowledge transmission and the development of the ability to acquire knowledge, and learning is thought to involve such acquisition. (Passmore 1980, Pearson 1989, Hare 1993).

"group epistemologies" and feminist, multiculturalist, and postmodernist challenges to ideals of reason in education

By the 1970s analytic philosophy began to lose its dominant position in the field and, again, philosophy of education followed the trend established in the parent discipline. The rise of Feminism, Multiculturalism, and Postmodernism brought with them important challenges to traditional views concerning the universality and neutrality of 'reason' and rationality and, indeed, to the nature of knowledge itself. While space precludes serious attention to these challenges here, or even a clear articulation of the issues, they are an important part of the contemporary scene in the philosophy of education. (For further discussion and references, see Bailin and Siegel 2003; Siegel 1997, 2004, 2005).

See also Dewey, John; Feminist Epistemology; Multiculturalism; Philosophy of Education, Ethical and Political Issues In; Philosophy of Education, History of; Postmodernism.


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