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Epistemology attempts to explain the nature and scope of knowledge and rational belief. Its purview also includes formulating and assessing arguments for skeptical conclusions that we do not have knowledge of various kinds. In addition, epistemologists address topics that are closely related to these core concerns, including evaluations of thought processes and the relationship of science to philosophy. What follows is an overview of contemporary developments in epistemology.

The Analysis of Knowledge

The traditional analysis of knowledge is that it is a combination of three conditions: truth, belief, and justification. The idea is that for someone to have factual knowledge, what is known has to be a fact and thus true; the person has to regard it as true, that is, believe it; and the person must have an adequate basis for believing itthat is, have sufficient justification for believing it. These conditions yield knowledge defined as a sufficiently justified true belief.

The publication by Edmund Gettier (1963) of one brief critical discussion of the traditional analysis brought about a flurry of activity in epistemology. Gettier refuted the traditional analysis by offering convincing counterexamples. He described examples in which someone forms a belief on the basis of strong justifying evidence, but the belief merely happens to be true as a result of a fortunate accident, independently of the evidence. Here is an example similar to Gettier's. Someone sees something that looks perfectly sheeplike in a nearby field. On that basis the person justifiably believes that there is a sheep in the field. As it turns out, what the person sees is not a sheep. It is a highly realistic statue. However, the person's belief that there is a sheep in the field is true because of the fortunate coincidence that there is a real sheep hidden from view elsewhere in the field. Such a belief is clearly not a case of knowledge despite its being an instance of justified true belief. So justified true belief is not sufficient for knowledge.

Arguing that the person in the example does not have an adequate basis for believing that there is a sheep in the field seems to require taking the general position that few beliefs are justified. For if that person does not have an adequate basis and is not justified, then someone in a similar situation who actually does see a sheep would also be unjustified, given that her visual information would be no better. In almost all cases of actual knowledge of the world, there are possible, although unusual, cases in which one has the same belief on the basis of comparable reasons, yet that belief is only true in this accidental way. Therefore, responding to the Gettier cases by raising the standards for justification leads to the conclusion that we know very little.

Most epistemologists responded to Gettier's examples by seeking a fourth condition for knowledge in addition to justified true belief. Some proposed that to have knowledge, it is also required that the justification for one's belief be undefeated, meaning roughly that there is no truth that would undermine the justification for the belief (Klein 1976). Others have suggested that in cases of knowledge the justification does not involve a falsehood (Chisholm 1989). Still others have required that the reasons justifying a known belief be conclusive roughly, reasons that would not exist unless the belief were true (Dretske 1971). Counterexamples refuted the original versions of these analyses, more complex analyses replaced the originals, and new counterexamples followed. (See Shope [1983] for a detailed summary of responses to Gettier's examples.)

Not all epistemologists accept the necessity of the three traditional conditions for knowledge. Some reject the justification condition. One proposed replacement requires a suitable causal connection between a known belief and the facts that make the belief true (Armstrong 1973, Goldman 1967). Another proposed replacement requires a known belief to vary counterfactually with the truth of that belief: if the belief were not true, it would not be believed by the same method, and if it were true, it would be believed by the same method (Nozick 1981). Others have taken the more drastic tack of denying that any set of necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge can be given. An alternative explanation of knowledge is that it is the most inclusive factive mental state (Williamson 2000). A mental state is factive if the existence of the state guarantees its truth. Unlike the traditional analysis, this approach does not imply that the concept of knowledge can be decomposed into parts.

Although epistemologists have learned much about knowledge from this research, no consensus has emerged about the solution to the problem raised by examples like Gettier's.

Justification: Foundationalism and Coherentism

Justification itself has been investigated intensively in the wake of the Gettier problem. A central issue underlying views about justification is the infinite-regress problem. Typically, a belief is justified because it has support from other beliefs. For example, someone might be justified in believing that there are people in the next room by inference from the justified belief that Allen, Barbara, and Carol are in the next room. The supporting beliefs garner support from still other beliefs. The belief that Allen, Barbara, and Carol are in the next room might be justified by inference from the justified belief that they said they would enter the next room and then shouted that they had done so. However, given that our minds are finite, there cannot be an infinite regress of justifying beliefs. Therefore, either there are some beliefsbasic beliefsthat are justified without the support of other beliefs; or our beliefs form some sort of circle or web, with each justified/rational belief getting support from other beliefs within the system; or our beliefs are not justified at all. Foundationalism favors the first alternative, while coherentism favors the second. The third alternative, that no belief has any justification, seems indefensible.

The classic foundationalist view is that a belief is justified provided that it is a basic belief or rests upon a foundation of basic beliefs. Usually, the contents of basic beliefs are taken to be propositions about the mental states of the believer. For example, when someone observes an ordinary physical object in good viewing conditions, that person's visual system produces an experiential state. This is an internal mental state of the observer, knowable by introspection. Believing about oneself that one is in this experiential state is said to be a basic belief. Beliefs of this sort are supposed to provide a secure foundation for the rest of our justified beliefs. Classic foundationalists differ about the source of the security of basic beliefs. Candidate sources include the alleged infallibility of our introspective capacities and the alleged immunity from doubt of some beliefs. According to classic foundationalism, we acquire whatever justified beliefs we can get about the external world by inference from our introspectively justified beliefs about our own states. Some foundationalists hold that only a deductive (logically necessary) connection can secure sufficient justification for knowledge, whereas others hold that inductive or explanatory relations also suffice. The question of what support is sufficiently strong for knowledge is central to the discussion of epistemological skepticism.

Some foundationalists have relaxed the requirements for basic beliefs (Chisholm 1989, Huemer 2001). The central foundationalist view is that each justified belief is basic or derives its justification from basic beliefs. This view does not require basic beliefs to be certain or infallible. A more modest level of independent support is enough to stop the regress of derived justification. Foundationalists can consistently hold that support from other beliefs gets the basic beliefs beyond this modest level. If the basic beliefs need not be maximally secure, then another departure from the classic view becomes attractive. Basic beliefs can include ordinary perceptual beliefs. For example, the belief that one sees a dog can be basic. It can gain some justification that is independent of other beliefs directly from an experience, which is visually just as though one is seeing a dog. Modest foundationalism is widely thought to be an improvement upon classical foundationalism.

Modest foundationalism has its share of critics, however. Its defenders have been challenged to explain how the basic beliefs can receive even modest support from experience (BonJour 1985). The main problem is that the best understood sort of epistemic support is the justification that is given by the premises of a strong argument for its conclusion, yet the experiences cited by modest foundationalists as providing foundational support do not seem to qualify as premises of arguments. This is because experiences are not statements, but the only kinds of things that can be premises are statements.

Coherentism is the chief rival to foundationalism (Lehrer 1974, BonJour 1985). Coherentists deny that there are any basic beliefs. The secure foundations that classic foundationalists have sought are, according to coherentists, impossible. They contend that all justified beliefs get their justification from a relation of coherence that holds among a body of beliefs. Coherentists have attempted to say what constitutes coherence, often appealing to explanatory relations among beliefs as the source of coherence. Some propose that justification arises from reflective equilibrium a mutual adjustment of beliefs about particular cases and beliefs about general principles covering these cases that maximizes explanatory relationships among them (Goodman 1984).

Coherentists have been challenged to avoid the apparent implication of their theory that justified beliefs can have an implausible sort of detachment from sensory input. A body of beliefs can be internally coherent while the beliefs fail to take into account the person's experience, yet coherentism seems to imply that these cohering beliefs would be justified. Intuitively, however, such beliefs seem to be as unjustified as the beliefs formed by accepting as true everything in some well-crafted, elaborate, but fantastic story.

Not all philosophers agree that we must choose sides between foundationalism and coherentism. Several have argued that the central epistemological considerations on both sides can be reconciled (Alston 1989, Haack 1993, Sosa 1991).

Justification: Other Issues

In addition to formulating and assessing foundationalism, coherentism, and other theories of justification, epistemologists have addressed a variety of other questions about epistemic justification. Standard versions of foundationalism and coherentism share the presupposition that justification is determined by relations among the reflectively accessible contents of our mindsexperiential states, beliefs, memories, inferences, and so on. Some philosophers, however, have opposed this internalist presupposition, engendering extensive discussion of the contrast between this view about justification and its externalist alternatives. (See Kornblith 2001 for essays on these issues.)

For internalists, justification is determined entirely by internal mental factors, whereas externalists assert that justification is at least partly determined by other things. Some internalists also require the believer to be aware of all justifying factors. A typical internalist theory is evidentialism, which holds that evidence held in mind determines the epistemic status of beliefs (Conee and Feldman 2004, Haack 1993). Reliabilism exemplifies the externalist viewpoint (Goldman 1979). Reliabilism maintains that a belief's justification is determined by a propensity to produce true beliefs of the process or mechanism leading to the belief. This reliability is not an internal factor because the truth of a belief is usually not an internal fact.

A good example to point out the difference between an internalist theory and reliabilism involves the victim of a deceptive demon. The demon induces the victim to have the experiences like those a reasonable person might have through the perception of an ordinary environment. The demon's victim forms the same external world beliefs on the basis of these experiences. It is a further part of the example that the external world of the demon's victim is not at all an ordinary environment, and so her beliefs about her external world are not true. In such an example, the processes leading to the victim's external world beliefs seem to be unreliable because they produce her thoroughly false external world beliefs. So reliabilism seems to imply that such beliefs are not justified. The belief-forming processes of the counterpart person in a normal environment are presumed to be reliable, so that reliabilism implies that this person's beliefs are justified. In contrast, according to any internalist theory, the beliefs of both the normally situated person and the demon's victim are equally well justified if the individuals are in the same internal states.

Reliabilism has been a subject of intensive critical scrutiny since its introduction. Critics contend that reliabilists cannot plausibly specify the types of belief-forming processes or mechanisms on which the theory relies (Conee and Feldman 2004). For instance, the process of forming a typical visual belief can be classified as perception, visual perception, belief acquisition while relaxed, uninferred belief acquisition, and so on, indefinitely. The problem is to specify which of these process types has to be reliable in order for the resulting beliefs to be justified. Reliabilists must specify the relevant type for all of the processes that lead to justified beliefs. Critics have also charged that beliefs resulting from a reliable process can be unjustified when accompanied by a sufficient reason to think that the process is not reliable (BonJour 1985) and that beliefs resulting from an unreliable process can be justified when accompanied by reason to think that the process is reliable.

Some theories of justification require supplements to reliability. For instance, a proper functionalist theory holds that a belief is justified when the belief results from the operation of a generally reliable cognitive system that is functioning properly in an appropriate environment. One theistic variant of this view holds that the proper function of human cognitive systems is the result of the intentions of a creator (Plantinga 1993). In a nontheistic version, proper function is determined by natural selective forces. One prominent criticism of the proper functionalist approach is that it is possible for a cognitive mechanism to function improperly but felicitously. A perceptual mechanism might accidentally happen to work much better than it was designed to work. A resulting belief could be especially well justified by the acute perception.

Epistemologists also make comparisons between epistemic justification and ethical concepts such as obligation. Discussions of what a person is justified in believing easily slide into discussions of what the person should believe or is entitled to believe. Such talk is at least superficially similar to ethical evaluations of how a person should behave and what things the person is entitled to do. It can seem that the epistemic and ethical evaluations are fundamentally the same. However, there is some question about the applicability of ethical evaluations to beliefs. It is widely thought that what one morally should do is limited to those things that one can do. If something similar holds in epistemology, then what one should believe is limited to those things that one can believe. It apparently follows from this premise that beliefs must be under our voluntary control if we are to speak of our being justified in having them. Yet it seems that beliefs are not typically under voluntary control. Some philosophers respond by arguing that, contrary to appearances, we have sufficient control over our beliefs; some contend that it is acceptable to hold that we have justification for believing some propositions even though we are not able to control whether we believe them; and others conclude that few, if any, beliefs are justified since few, if any, are under our control. There is also concern about the connections between the epistemic justification of a belief and the moral or practical benefits of the belief. (Essays on this topic are collected in Steup 2001.)

Another widely discussed set of issues turns on a distinction between a priori justification and a posteriori justification. Justification of a belief is a priori when it does not derive from experience, and justification is a posteriori when it does. The leading candidates for a priori justification and knowledge are beliefs in basic truths of mathematics and logic. Other candidates include beliefs apparently made true entirely by conceptual relations, such as the belief that anything red is colored. These allegedly a priori justified propositions are, if true, necessarily true.

A priori justification seems mysterious to many philosophers, since it is difficult to understand what could justify beliefs independently of experience. A wide range of proposals has been made concerning how beliefs can have a priori justification. In the naturalistic approach a priori justification results from the operation of belief-forming processes that guarantee truth and justification (Kitcher 1980). The modal-reliability approach holds that conceptual intuitions necessarily present us with mostly truths (Bealer 2000). And a resolutely traditional approach holds that humans have a capacity for rational insight that finds truth-making, necessary connections in some thoughts (BonJour 1998).

It appears that a belief could not be a priori justified or known unless its truth is somehow abstractly guaranteed. It also appears that if there is an abstract guarantee that a belief is true, then the truth of the belief must not be merely contingent. So a priori knowledge of contingent truths would be surprising. Yet some philosophers have argued that we can have such knowledge (Kripke 1980), advancing the following kind of argument: Suppose that there is a unique tallest spy; knowing nothing about this and reasoning entirely in our armchairs, we can stipulate that the name "Stretch" refers to whoever happens to be the tallest spy, if there is one. Having done this, it seems that we can logically infer from what we have done, and thereby know a priori, the following contingent truth: if there is a unique tallest spy, then Stretch is a spy. Perhaps this knowledge would not be strictly a priori, since we would be using the experience of our introduction of the name "Stretch." Nonetheless, it seems to be a way to know a contingent truth that is at least remarkably similar to a priori knowledge.


Many traditional skeptical arguments appeal to the possibility of error. Skeptics often point out that it is possible for us to be wrong about even our most confident beliefs about the world external to our minds, perhaps because we are under the influence of a deceptive demon or some other source of deception. Skeptics typically make the further claim that this possibility implies that we lack knowledge of even the things about the world that we most confidently believe. (Many influential essays on skepticism may be found in DeRose 1999.)

Fallibilism is the heart of one influential response to skepticism (Chisholm 1989, Pryor 2000). Fallibilism is the view that knowledge is compatible with the possibility that the same belief on the same basis is false. For example, someone who has a clear view of a tree in the front yard and believes on a normal perceptual basis that there is a tree in the front yard is subject to some possibility of error. An experience that is visually just as though one is seeing a tree could have resulted from things like the efforts of a deceptive demon. However, a typical person who sees a tree has no reason at all to think that any such odd thing is actually occurring and every reason to think that there really is a tree present. Fallibilists hold that in such cases people often have sufficiently strong justification to know that there is a tree in the yard. According to fallibilists, a skeptical argument like the one about the possibility of error relies on setting the standard of justification for knowledge too high. We can have knowledge even though we cannot have the sort of absolute immunity from error that the skeptics wrongly associate with knowledge.

Fallibilism is not without problems. It is no easy task to explain what it is about our experiential evidence that makes it a good reason for thinking that we are in the presence of ordinary objects rather than the victims of some sort of deception. Some epistemologists contend that our justification for our external world beliefs depends upon an inference to the best explanation of our experiences (Vogel 1990), whereas others contend that there is something intrinsic to the character of experiences that makes them indicative of external world objects. Adequately spelling out just why our beliefs are even fallibly justified remains an unfulfilled task.

Some influential arguments for skepticism are updated versions of arguments based on possibilities of deception by dreams or demons. The newer arguments often appeal to the possibility of being a brain in a vat. The brain-in-a-vat arguments make use of the possibility that a fully functioning human brain, immersed in a life-sustaining vat of chemicals, receives computer-controlled neural stimulation that exactly matches the neural stimulation of an ordinary person in an ordinary environment. A premise of one brain-in-a-vat argument is that any of us might, for all we know, actually be such a brain in a vat. The argument also assumes that, since this possibility might be actual, we lack knowledge of the actual external world.

A much-discussed reply to such arguments employs a causal view of reference (Putnam). On one interpretation, the reply begins with the surprising contention that what a vat-entrapped brain would express by I am a brain in a vat would be a falsehood. A lifelong vat-entrapped brain would have learned the term vat from some computer-generated stimulations. The origin of the stimulation within the computer would have no causal connection to the brain's container of a sort that would be required for the brain's term vat to apply to the container. Hence, according to a causal view of reference, the brain's sentence I am a brain in a vat would not be true. Of course, what people in normal circumstances express by that same sentence is also false. Thus, the sentence I am a brain in a vat does not express a truth, whichever of these situations we are actually in. The antiskeptical reply concludes that by this use of a causal view of reference, we can justify denying the brain-in-a-vat argument's premise that, for all we know, we might be brains in a vat.

The success of this sort of antiskeptical reply is in dispute. In any event, a notable limitation of the approach is that at best it refutes skeptical arguments that rely on only some brain-in-a-vat possibilities. For instance, one possibility that is unaffected by the reply is that we recently became brains in a vat, and our term vat refers to the vat containing us because proper causal connections were forged in our pre-vat situation.

Skeptical arguments frequently rely on an epistemic-closure principle that says that if a person knows one proposition and sees that another proposition follows immediately from it, then the person knows the latter proposition, too. If someone knows an ordinary fact such as that she is seeing a table, then the closure principle implies that she could know by deduction that she is not a mere brain in a vat. Since, according to some skeptics, she cannot know that she is no brain in a vat, the skeptics conclude that she does not know anything from which she could deduce this, such as that she is seeing a table. Some philosophers have denied the closure principle in an effort to argue against this case for skepticism about knowledge of ordinary facts. Most philosophers, however, contend that some version of the closure principle must be true and any mistakes in skeptics' arguments must lie elsewhere (Hawthorne 2004).

Another response to skepticism appeals to epistemic contextualism (Cohen 1999, Lewis 1996). Contextualists endeavor to account for the intuitive pull of the arguments for skepticism while allowing that many of our ordinary attributions of knowledge are correct. Their central thesis is about truth conditions for uses of sentences including the word know and kindred terms. A statement of the truth conditions for a particular use of a sentence specifies the conditions that have to be realized in order for that use of the sentence to state a truth. The main form of epistemic contextualism holds that the truth conditions of particular uses of any sentence including know, or cognate expressions, vary with the context in which the sentence is used.

Typically, the varying aspect of the truth conditions is said to be the strength of the epistemic position that is required of the subject of the sentence for a use of know to apply to the subject. Usually, contextualists assert that the required strength of epistemic position varies across a range that allows, at its low end, many true sentences that attribute "knowledge" to someone. Thus, what we say is often true when, in ordinary circumstances, we classify as "knowledge" beliefs that are based on perception, memory, testimony, and perhaps inductive generalization and inference to the best explanation. Contextualists typically also assert that some contexts, at the high end of the range of variation, are demanding enough to make true denials of "knowledge" of the external world. For instance, contextualists often claim that where issues concerning skepticism are salient, the standards for true attributions of "knowledge" are very high and that consequently, in those contexts, skeptical denials of "knowledge" are correct.

Some critics of contextualism deny that skepticism is true even when arguments for it are salient. Appealing to antiskeptical grounds such as the fallibilism discussed above, the critics contend that the arguments fail and that skepticism is wrong whether or not we are thinking about it (Conee and Feldman 2004). Other critics question the linguistic foundations of contextualism (Stanley 2004).

Departures from Tradition

The philosophical study of knowledge, justification, and skepticism is the core of traditional epistemology. Some epistemologists have extended the discipline. One such extension involves connecting epistemology to scientific research about how people form beliefs and how they process information. Naturalism in epistemology is roughly the view that there is substantial overlap between epistemology and the sciences that study human cognition. Some philosophers endorse naturalism, whereas others find a reasonably clear distinction between the scientific/empirical questions about cognition and the conceptual questions at the heart of epistemology. A radically naturalistic epistemology advocates abandoning traditional epistemology and replacing it with the closest empirical discipline, cognitive psychology (Quine 1969). Few philosophers defend this extreme view. However, many urge close ties between epistemology and empirical studies of human cognition. For example, epistemologists who highlight the search for ways to improve our reasoning contend that the empirical study of how people actually reason is crucial for developing useful recommendations (Kornblith 1994). Philosophers who believe that the primary role of epistemology is to explain the concepts of knowledge, justification, and the like typically see less room for empirical input. Some advocate a less extreme form of naturalized epistemology that requires explaining central epistemic concepts in terms that they deem naturalistically legitimate.

Traditional epistemology has been largely individualistic in its emphasis on questions about knowledge and justification as they apply to individuals. However, a social epistemology has arisen that raises questions about what it is for groups to have knowledge and how social factors influence the spread and development of knowledge (Schmitt 1994, Goldman 1999).

Another approach in epistemology highlights epistemic virtues (Sosa 1991). One version of virtue epistemology is a variant on the reliabilist view discussed earlier. This approach attempts to characterize knowledge or justification in terms of epistemic virtues that yield reliably true beliefs, such as open-mindedness and a willingness to consider new evidence. In a greater departure from traditional issues, other versions of virtue epistemology propose that epistemologists replace or supplement the traditional topics with that of virtuous epistemic conduct.

Epistemology and Related Disciplines

There has been extensive and significant epistemological work done in relation to issues in the philosophy of mind. Externalism in the philosophy of mind, usually called content externalism, is the widely held view that environmental factors can help to determine the identity of some mental states. One simple content-externalist claim is that the content of a person's thoughts formulated with natural kind terms, such as elm and water, depends on causal connections to the kind that was actually involved in the person's learning the term. If the connection had been to a different natural kind, then the person's thoughts formulated with the same term would have included a concept referring instead to the other kind. There need not be any distinguishing feature that displays to the person which kind the person's thoughts are about.

Seemingly, if this simple content externalist theory is true, then we can know it a priori. We can know that external causes help to determine some thought contents by just considering how the reference of our natural-kind terms intuitively varies in some causally different hypothetical situations. If this is correct, then the theory appears to be incompatible with the conjunction of two plausible epistemological doctrines. One of the doctrines is that we can know the contents of our own thoughts by just giving introspective attention to them. If so, then we could combine our a priori knowledge of the simple content externalist theory with our introspective knowledge of the content of one of our thoughts that is expressible using water. We could infer that water is causally connected to the thought and that water therefore exists. Yet, according to a second plausible epistemological doctrine, knowledge of our environment is not so easy. It requires empirical information. Thus, the simple content externalist theory seems to imply that either we cannot know the contents of our thoughts as easily as it otherwise seems we can, or that empirical knowledge of the existence of things in our environment is easier than it otherwise seems to be.

Critics of this line of reasoning have asked whether it can really be known, without empirical investigation, that content externalism applies to any of our concepts. The applicability of the version of content externalism described here to a concept is contingent on the existence of an appropriate causal connection between the concept and some natural kind. This dependence suggests that empirical information about the existence of a properly connected kind is needed to justify applying content externalism to our concepts. (For further discussion, see the essays in Nuccetelli 2003.)

Much that qualifies as epistemology has been done in other areas of philosophy. What follows is a brief inventory of some epistemic work in allied fields. One classic epistemological topic is the problem of induction. This is the problem of establishing whether or not people can use observation of some cases to draw justified conclusions about unobserved cases, and if this can be done, explaining when and why such inferences are reasonable. This problem has been pursued within the part of philosophy of science known as confirmation theory. Second, factual knowledge entails truth. Truth is a traditional topic in epistemology. Various theories of truth are also presented and discussed in metaphysics, the philosophy of language, and philosophical logic. Third, rational change of belief is closely related to the epistemological topic of justified belief. Rational belief change is a focus of probability theory, especially under the classification of Baysian epistemology. Fourth, epistemological issues are often important to issues of morality and religion. Epistemic concerns pertaining to morality, such as the question of how we can know what is morally right, are usually discussed in works that are primarily about moral philosophy. Similarly, epistemic issues pertaining to God are discussed primarily in works in the philosophy of religion. Finally, in the vicinity of the border between epistemology and cognitive science there has been considerable attention devoted to the nature of purported sources of knowledge and to the ways in which they do their epistemic work. Topics here include perception, memory, intuition, and testimony.

See also A Priori and A Posteriori; Basic Statements; Classical Foundationalism; Coherentism; Contextualism; Doubt; Epistemology, History of; Evidentialism; Experience; Illusions; Inference to the Best Explanation; Internalism versus Externalism; Introspection; Intuition; Knowledge and Belief; Knowledge and Truth, The Value of; Knowledge, A Priori; Memory; Naturalized Epistemology; Perception; Propositional Knowledge, Definition of; Rationalism; Reason; Relevant Alternatives; Reliabilism; Self-Knowledge; Skepticism, History of; Social Epistemology; Solipsism; Subjectivist Epistemology; Testimony; Virtue Epistemology.


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Earl Conee (1996, 2005)

Richard Feldman (1996, 2005)


views updated May 18 2018


The term epistemology is used with two separate meanings according to different cultural traditions. In English-speaking countries, epistemology denotes the philosphical theory of knowledge in general: in this sense, it includes themes and problems such as the question of the possibility of valid knowledge, the analysis of the nature of such validity, the foundation of knowledge on reason or on experience and the senses, the analysis of different types of knowledge, and the limits of knowledge. In continental Europe, the above issues are considered part of the field of the more general discipline of gnoseology (gnoséologie in French, gnoseologia in Italian and Spanish) or theory of knowledge (Erkenntnistheorie in German), whereas the aim of epistemological inquiry is restricted to scientific knowledge.

In this second sense, with particular respect to social sciences (and sociology, in particular) the fundamental epistemological question becomes: "Is it possible to acquire any valid knowledge of human social reality? And, if so, by what means?" As these questions show, epistemological issues are inescapably interconnected with methodological problems; however, they cannot be reduced to simple technical procedures and their validity, as a long empiricist tradition among sociologists has tried to do. A full epistemological awareness, from a sociological point of view, should cope with at least four main issues:

  1. Is the nature of the object of social sciences (i.e., social reality) fundamentally different from that of the object of natural sciences (i.e., natural reality)?
  2. Consequently, what is the most appropriate gnoseological procedure with which to study and understand social reality?
  3. Are we sure that the particular knowledge we get by studying a particular social reality can be generalized?
  4. What kind of causality can we postulate between social events, if any?

Historically, the various sociological traditions or schools have answered these four questions differently. We shall trace them by following the three main epistemological debates that took place between three pairs of opposing schools of sociological and epistemological thinking: positivism versus historicism, logical empiricism versus dialectical theory, and realism versus constructivism.


At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the discipline of sociology originated as the positivistic science of human society and aligned itself against metaphysical and philosophical speculation about social life. This, according to Auguste Comte, the founder of sociology, implied the straight application of the scientific method used in physics and the other natural sciences to the analysis of human society. His social physics (Comte 1830–42) is the expression of the new culture of the Industrial Revolution and of its practical ambition of a totally planned social life. Comte's positivistic doctrine is organic and progressive and holds a naive faith in the possibility of automatically translating scientific knowledge of the laws of society into a new harmonious social order.

The uncritical assumptions of Comte as to the reliability and universal applicability of scientific method were at least partially tempered by John Stuart Mill, who considered illiberal and doctrinaire Comte's idea that, once sociological laws are established by the same scientific method of natural science, they can no longer be questioned. Mill objected that scientific knowledge never provides absolute certainties, and he organically settled the British empiricist tradition in his A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive (1834). Starting from the epistemological positions of David Hume, Mill considered knowledge as fundamentally grounded on human experience, and the induction as its proper method. The possibility of inductive generalization is based on the idea of regularity and uniformity of human nature, ordinated by laws; and even social events are correlated in the form of empirical laws, which we can understand using the scientific method, considered as a formal logical structure independent from human subjectivity.

The individualistic and liberal features (based on utilitarian ethics) of British positivism were particularly evident in Herbert Spencer, who opposed to Comte's organicistic view of society the greater importance of the particular with respect to the organic whole. His central focus on the concept of evolution supplied him with a synthetic perspective with which to study reality as a whole, using the analogy of biological and inorganic evolution to consider social evolution (1876–1896). However, the most complete development of a positivistic epistemology in sociological thought is certainly contained in Emile Durkheim's work Les régles de la méthode sociologique (1895). What he terms faits sociaux (social facts) can be characterized according to four criteria: two of the criteria are related to the subjects observed, whereas the other two are concerned with the sociologist observing them.

The first criterion considers the social facts as a reality external to the individual conscience: social institutions have their own life independent from individual life. The second criterion is that this external, objective nature of social facts consequently confers upon them a normative, coercive power over the individual: these social facts impose themselves on him, even without his will. Morals, public opinion, law, customs are all examples of this. These two features of social facts require, on the part of the social scientist observing them, the observance of two further qualifying criteria. Firstly, they should be considered as "things," that is, they should be studied as an external, objective reality, separate from the individual consciousness. Secondly, consistent with their nature, social facts can be explained only by other social facts: the nature of social causality is specific, and can be reduced neither to psychological causes of individual behavior, nor to biological causality, as Spencer's evolutionism suggested. The emerging nature of social phenomena from the level of psychological and biological phenomena grounds their autonomous, distinct reality: this, in turn, constitutes the specific field of sociology and of the other social sciences. To explain social phenomena, sociology should adopt a unilinear concept of causation: the same effect always corresponds to the same cause. Any plurality of causes, according to Durkheim, involves the impossibility of sorting a scientific principle of causality.

In sum, we can say that the classic positivistic paradigm of sociology is characterized by the recognition of the specific nature of social facts as emerging from the other spheres of reality. However, this implies an idea of sociology as a naturalistic science of society, using the same methods already applied with success in natural sciences (methodological monism), and grounded on experience as perceived by the senses and generalized on the basis of universal human nature (induction). Finally, a proper explanation of social facts should take into account only one cause for each effect (mono-causal determinism).

A serious challenge to this epistemological view of sociology came from the German Historical School: the debate about the method (methodenstreit) which took place in Germany during the last decades of the nineteenth century is the first example of epistemological debate in sociological history. It started with Wilhelm Dilthey, the major representative of German historicism, who argued against Comte and Mill's proposal of introducing the methods of physics into the "moral sciences." What he termed "spiritual sciences" (Geisteswissenschaften) were of a radically different type from the natural sciences and therefore they could not share the same method (Dilthey 1833). In fact, their objects were states of mind, spiritual experiences that could be apprehended only by means of an "empathic understanding" (Verstehen): "we explain nature, we understand psychic life" (ibid.). In the first phase of Dilthey's thought, this understanding, on which the sociohistorical nature of the spiritual sciences is grounded, was not considered to be mediated by sense perception, but rather as producing a direct and immediate intuitive knowledge-by-acquaintance. In the second phase of his thought (1905), however, he believed that psychic life was not immediately understandable, but would require the hermeneutic interpretation of its objective displays in cultural life. In any case, his distinction between the aim of natural sciences (to explain erklären data by means of external senses) and the scope of human sciences (to understand verstehen through an intrapsychic experience) was posited as a long-lasting distinction in the social sciences.

Wizhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert, two other adherents of German historicism, criticized Dilthey's distinction between nature and spirit and the related sciences, since they considered human knowledge as always a spiritual activity, without regard to its object. In its place, they proposed a distinction based on the form and on the different type of methods used: whereas the idiographic method is a description of singular events, the nomothetic method is concerned with the inquiry of regularities and general laws (Windelband 1894). The first type of procedure is typical of—though not exclusive to—the sciences of the particular, the sciences of culture that, being historical, had to interpret and understand the individual character of the historical event; the second type of method is more typical of the sciences of the general, natural sciences that are aimed at establishing general laws. Knowledge is always a simplification of reality, which is a heterogeneous continuum (eterogenes Kontinuum); knowledge can either proceed by making a homogeneous Kontinuum, as the natural sciences do, or by sectionalizing a portion of heterogeneous Diskretum, such as the sciences of culture do. Rickert (1896) further developed the necessity of referring to values as a foundation for sociohistorical knowledge: the sciences of culture (Kulturwissenschaft) are not idiographic disciplines only, they should also refer to value relevences (Wertbeziehung) if they want to understand the actual meaning of sociohistorical events.

The most significant attempt to reconcile the two antitheses (understanding/explanation and idiographic/nomothetic) has been carried out by Max Weber, the founder of German sociology, who was profoundly influenced by German historicism, although critical of its idealistic orientation. In his methodological essays (1904–17) and in subsequent works, Weber undertakes an inquiry into the nature and validity of methods used in the social sciences and presents a general epistemological framework for his interpretive sociology (Verstehende Soziologie). He argued in particular for the necessity of when investigating social actions, 1) resorting to an interpretive understanding, which is not separated by causal explanation, 2) while avoiding value judgements, establishing value relevances (Wertbeziehungen) of the subject matter as criteria for its cultural importance and scientific pertinence, and 3) preserving the social and cultural uniqueness of the historical event, using the idealtype methodology. These three points constitute Weber's main elaboration of the epistemological tenets of German historicism.

With regard to the first point, Weber criticized Wilhelm Wundt and George Simmel (who were influenced by Dilthey), who reduced sociohistorical knowledge to psychological understanding, since this position cannot support an objective knowledge: to properly understand a socio-historical event requires establishing some relations of cause and effect in order to test our interpretive comprehension. Therefore, Weber conceived an idea of sociology as both a generalizing, nomothetic and interpretive, idiographic science, arguing for the complementarity of interpretive understanding and causal explanation: that is, a researchers personal understanding should be balanced by empirical and statistically established regularities of scientific explanation (1913).

Secondly, Weber distinguishes value judgements, based on personal faith and belief, and fact judgements, based on science. Scientific knowledge cannot be neutral, in the sense that the values of the researcher inevitably influence his choices of relevance—the specific selection of problems and focus. However, it can be nonevaluative and objective in the sense that, once its priorities have been selected according to the researcher's personal values, the researcher should proceed by testing empirical evidence supporting his hypotheses, thus expressing fact judgements only.

Finally, the ideal-type concept was employed by Weber to explain certain unique historical events using a model of plural causality: a singular event is always the effect of a multiplicity of historical connections. The problem becomes, in the infinite flow of events, to sort out the proper model of factors that under certain conditions and at a certain time can probably explain that effect. This also implies a probabilistic idea of causation, which gets beyond the deterministic approach typical of positivistic unilinear causation by a model of plural probabilistic-causal connections.


The epistemological legacy of German historicism—with its dualistic approach to the relationship between social and natural sciences, its preferential bias for a gnoseological model based oninterpretive understanding, and its probabilistic model of multiple causality—has undoubtedly influenced a significant part of contemporary twentieth century sociology, such as the School of Chicago (Park's contacts with Windelband and Simmel are well known) and, more strongly, the later interpretive sociology (through Weber and Simmel) and the phenomenological tradition in sociology (through Schutz). Its impact is manifest even in the antipositivistic methodological choices of many sociologists as different as Pitrim Aliksandrovič Sorokin (1959) and Charles Wright Mills (1959). Altogether, these different currents answer negatively the epistemological question about the possibility of acquiring knowledge of human social reality by means of empirical data alone. They reject the methodological unity of the natural and social sciences and do not accept the straight application of the scientific method to sociological analysis. When researchers undertake empirical research, they resort to methodological perspectives that result from the researcher's epistemological choices: they tend to reject technical terminologies and statistical quantification, to privilege common-sense conceptualization and language, and to take the point of view of the social actor instead of that of the researcher and of the scientific community. Qualitative methodologies of this kind are also favored by those microsociologies—such as symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, and sociologies of daily life of different varieties—that have not been directly influenced by the idealistic and antipositivistic tenets of the German historicism. Although seldom explicitly stated, their epistemological foundations, which tacitly direct their choice of methods and tools of social research, are mostly consonant with those of interpretive and phenomenological sociologies.

The large majority of sociologists, however, followed an empirical-quantitative approach and accepted the scientific method borrowed from natural sciences as the appropriate and valid method of social sciences. The positivistic epistemological foundations of this mainstream sociology are quite evident in its most significant representatives Lazarsfeld and Lundberg, and in their utilization of the social survey as the main research tool of sociological inquiry. Lazarsfeld, in particular, although reluctant during his work at Columbia University to directly tackle epistemological issues while preferring practical empirical research, was well known for his neo-positivistic convictions (Gallino 1973:27), which were rooted in his mathematical and psychological background within the Vienna philosophical movements of the post-World War I period.

In fact, during the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century, a new group of positivists, the so-called "Vienna Circle," arose in the Austrian capital, profoundly influenced by the work of the physicist Ernst Mach, the pioneers of mathematical logic Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and by the French conventionalism of Pierre Duhem and Jules-Henri Poincaré. Mach considered science not a fact-finding but a fact-related activity: it cannot claim to discover the absolute truth about reality, since its laws are not absolute but, at best, "limitations of possibilities." Russell, among the pioneers of mathematical logic, attempted a logical foundation of mathematics that considers the element of necessity present in both disciplines. This can be considered as the basis of the logical structure of thinking. Finally, Duhem and Poincaré suggested an idea of scientific theories as being purely hypothetical and conventional constructions of the human mind.

On these premises, the main representatives of the "Vienna Circle"—Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, and Otto Neurath—preferred the label of logical empiricism or neopositivism to distinguish themselves from classical positivism, since they discarded its sensist view—the idea that knowledge originates from experience ganied only through the senses, and from the observation and verification of that experience. They rejected direct observation of experience as the only means of hypothesis testing, and they considered verification as "testability in principle." In this way, they accepted theoretical constructs without direct empirical referents as meaningful. They renewed empiricism on the new basis of the logical analysis of language: in fact, they argued that linguistic statements can be shown to be true or false by appeal to both logic and experience, and that both means, being factual, can be considered meaningful.

Logical empiricism still mantained some fundamental epistemological tenets of classical positivism, however, such as the idea that only empirically verifiable knowledge was meaningful, that science was a cumulative process based on induction, that the method of physics was the method of all sciences including social sciences (methodological monism), and that the discovery of natural and general laws was the fundamental aim of any science. The criticism of Karl Popper was aimed at most of these foundations and reversed them in a sort of negativism (Cipolla 1990). Since his first major publication (Popper 1934), the Austrian philosopher formulated his tenets in opposition to the main assumptions of the neopositivist: first and foremost, the induction as an appropriate method to infer general laws from the observation of a singular case. He argued that one case is enough to demonstrate the falsity of induction and that verification always depends on observational theories that are often derived from substantially the same theory from which hypotheses under test have been deducted, making their test logically inconclusive. Popper dropped the notion of verification itself in favor of that of falsification, and proposed a hypothetic–deductive method, based on the assumption that a hypothesis can be definitely considered false if it fails an adequate test, while if it is congruent with data this does not necessary mean it is true. In any case, Popper argued that a theory is maintained as true only provisionally, and it always remains a conjectural hypothesis that can be confuted in the future. In this way, scientific knowledge is never a closed, completed system, but always remains open to new possibilities. And even though Popper believed in the methodological monism—the unified theory of method—this is not absolute but conjectural, critical, and subject to falsification (1963).

A substantial refusal of methodological monism is represented by the Frankfurt School with its "critical theory of society" that advocates the necessity of the dialectical method in sociology. Its epistemological tenets are derived partly from Weber's thought on Western reason and rationalization and partly from the young Hegel-influenced Marx of the Philosophical-Economical Manuscripts of 1844. It was also strongly influenced by the two critical Marxists Lukacs and Korsch and by the psychoanalysis of Freud. Dialectical epistemology implies:

  1. The holistic approach, that is, the necessity of considering the totality in order to understand the parts, which are mediated by totality.
  2. The denial of the separation of history and sociological theory in order to grasp the dialectical process of change.
  3. A demystifying attitude in undertaking critical analysis of society and of the irrationality of Enlightenment reason once it has become purely instrumental and separated from its goals, that is, when it's become a pure means of domination over men and society.

In 1961 the second most significant debate in the history of sociological epistemology took place at Tübingen between Theodor Adorno and Jurgen Habermas (two of the most prominent representatives of the Frankfurt School) on one side and Karl Popper and Hans Albert on the other (Adorno et al. 1969). The neopositivistic epistemology of the latter two was strongly questioned by the former two, who criticized its dialectic nature and who considered it a sort of logical formalism without any connection with its contents and that was incapable of understanding the social reality. The aim of sociology is to go beyond apparent phenomena, to grasp social contradictions and conflicts by interpreting society as a totality. This implies a refusal of the individualistic approach of positivism, of its monism with regard to the scientific method, of its measurement and quantification of social reality. Beyond Popper and Albert, the actual target of the Frankfurt scholars was the American school of sociology, whose positivistic analytical framework (theoretical categories and their translation into research tools) was considered an ideological reflection of the domination structures in the late capitalistic society.


Since the 1960s, logical empiricism, under criticism from many sources, has dissolved in a plurality of postpositivistic approaches, whose common denominator is a reformulation of positivistic tradition. This allows them to be grouped under the label of scientific realism, which asserts the absolute or relative independence of the reality under scientific scrutiny from the human researcher studying it. This, in turn, is based on the fundamental distinction between the objectivity of the reality observed and the subjectivity of the scientific observer studying it. The common tenet of realisms of all types is that the observer does not belong to the reality he observes; by means of his techniques of scientific inquiry, he should avoid any involvement and influence on reality, maintaining a neutral position. In this way, the subjectivity of the observer is limited to his "discovery" of the objective reality.

One of the first attacks on the neopositivistic legacy was by Willard Van Ormand Quine (1952), who proposed a holistic view of knowledge, considered as a field of forces whose limiting conditions are constituted by experience. In turn, Mary Hesse (1974) considered scientific language as a dynamic system whose continuing growth is due to metaphorical extension of the natural language. Thomas Kuhn (1962) greatly contributed to the growing consciousness of the reality of scientific change by analyzing its actual historical development, challenging the common-sense concept of science as a purely rational enterprise. Taking scientific practice into account, he showed how it is usually ruled by a paradigm, a world view, legitimized by the scientific community, that remains dominant until a new paradigm replaces it.

Paul K. Feyerabend, with his "methodological anarchism" (1975), proposed a paradoxical and extreme view of science. In Feyerabend's view, the scientific method remains the only rational procedure for deciding and agreeing upon which theory is more adequate to describe and explain a state of affairs in the natural as well as in the social worlds. Of course, rationality depends on common premises and procedures: the advantage of accepting them is great because it is through them that intersubjectivity is achieved. Scientific objectivity resides neither in the object of knowledge, as classical positivism maintained, nor in the subject, as idealists tend to believe, but rather in the intersubjectivity that results when researchers adopt the same procedures and accept the premises on which those procedures are based. It is the reproducibility of the methods, techniques, and tools of scientific research that secures the replicability of results. And their reproducibility is due largely to their being public procedures, easily scrutinized and reapplied. The results of the research in the natural sciences may be more objective than those in the social sciences, but this is due to the standardization and publicity of procedures in the natural sciences. There is no ground for supposing that natural sciences possess a special objective attitude, while social scientists possess a value-oriented attitude. The problem is that many research procedures in the social sciences are not reproducible, because they often reflect a private state of mind communicated through linguistic expression full of connotative meanings, often not shared by all in the research community.

The critical realism of Roy Bashkar (1975) proposes an ontology based on the distinction of three spheres: the real, the actual, and the empiric, arguing in favor of the existence of structures or hidden mechanisms that can work independently from our knowledge, but whose power can be empirically investigated both in closed and open systems. This realistic view of science is supported also by Rom Harré (1986), who stresses the role of models in the development of theory. The new realists also suggest a relational paradigm for sociology in order to overcome the traditional antinomy between structure and action by a theory of structuralization (Giddens 1984) and by a transformative model of social activity (Bhaskar 1989). According to this new paradigm, the social structure should be considered as both the omnipresent condition and the continuously reproduced outcome of the intentional human action. This view is shared by the applied rationalism of Pierre Bourdieu, who systematically applies relational concepts and methodically compares his theoretical models with the empirical material that is the result of different research methodologies (Bourdieu et al. 1973). The critical view of science taken by the new realists, joined with their transformative conception of social reality, has produced a critical naturalism that considers both the positivist and the historicist traditions as dependent on the same positivistic conception of the natural sciences. This critical naturalism holds that, in actuality, both the human social life and the natural life are liable to scientific explanation, although of a different kind (Bhaskar 1989).

This realistic view has been seriously challenged in the 1980s and 1990s by the constructivistic movement, giving rise to the third, and still ongoing, epistemological debate in the history of sociology. Constructivism proposes the unification of the objective reality observed with the subjective reality of the observer. The rationale is that the reality investigated and the science used to investigate it have an equally subjective origin, which implies that the reality observed "depends" on the observer. This does not mean that constructivism denies the actual existence of an autonomous reality from the observer, but rather that an "objective" representation of this external reality by scientific knowledge is not possible. All that can be said about reality is inevitably a "construction" of the observer (von Foerster 1984), who, in turn, being part of this reality, is a "black box" whose internal components are unobservable. Therefore, even for the constructivists, reality is an elusive objectivity, with its autonomous existence which cannot be reduced to a simple subjective and arbitrary experience. What is "constructed" is the knowledge and not the reality (Von Glasersfeld 1987).

There are different types of constructivism. The most radical (Von Glasersfeld 1995) maintains that nothing can be said even by the observer, apart from the trivial verification that he observes. An unknowable observer faces an unknowable reality. A more moderated type of constructivism considers still possible a theory of the observer, even though it denies the same possibility for the reality observed (Maturana 1988). And finally, there is a constructivism which accepts both a theory of the observer and of the observed, considering them as mental systems (Luhmann 1990).


As the current debate between realism and constructivism shows, the positions only appear distant. Especially when they move from the more abstract theory to the empirical research, the respective positions become more ambiguous, vague, and overlapping. Moreover, there are clear indications that the old cleavages between positivistic and interpretive sociologies may slowly fade away. Even though quantitative research techniques appear more precise and rigorous—with their standardization and reproducibility features—than qualitative methods, it is difficult to justify using quantification for all types of sociological data. Many sociologists believe that not all aspects of social phenomena could be subject to the rules of quantification. And most of them start out thinking that quantitative and qualitative methods and techniques are complementary. Yet, such an integrated and pluralistic methodology needs to be justified by an explicit epistemology. Therefore, the times seem ripe for a new epistemological foundation of an emerging integrated and pluralistic methodology, even though a few attempts have been made towards this goal.

The first attempt was the ecological paradigm of Gregory Bateson (1972). Strongly influenced by his participation in the 1940s in the interdisciplinary research group on cybernetics composed of Von Neumann, Shannon, Von Foerster, and Wiener, among others, he then organized all his subsequent work in different fields around a few central cybernetics concepts, including schismogenesis, circular communication, and feedback. On the ground of this new theoretical perspective, he built up an epistemology aimed at getting beyond the boundaries between the internal and the external components of the observer, the "mind," conceived as a network of founding relationships. In this process, the identity of the observing subject is dissolved into its ecological environment, in the relationship between subjective meanings, action, and action objective. Even though Bateson's epistemology precedes the debate between realism and constructivism, it has clearly inspired most of the constructivistic approach.

A second attempt, historically, can be traced in Edgar Morin's attempt to set up a new general method (Morin 1977, 1980, 1986), which can be applied in every field of knowledge according to a methodological plurivers. In this way, he tries to overcome the shortcomings of the traditional scientific paradigm, which he considers disjointed, reductive, and simplified, since it does not take into account the complexity of reality. The multidimensional character of reality is precisely the starting point of his very comprehensive attempt to found a new epistemology based on the auto-eco-organizing principle. An attempt, however, which for the most part is affected by a biologistic bias, seems quite inappropriate for the social sciences.

Finally, Costantino Cipolla has proposed a new correlational paradigm based on an epistemology of tolerance (Cipolla 1997) which prefers an "inter-" and "co-" perspective linking together and integrating the traditionally opposite epistemological poles in an attempt to reassemble them into a new pluralistic approach. Closer to the sociological tradition of the first two attempts, this new correlational paradigm takes into account the reasons of both the realists and the constructivists and focuses its attention on the connection, the relation, and the link between the objective reality and the subjective observer in order to avoid any absolutism of either of the poles. It is starting from this bivalent conception of reality—which considers reality as both autonomous in itself and "constructed" by the subject, who is in turn the outcome of the real social forces, so that each pole is considered only partially autonomous and strictly interconnected with the other—that it should be possible to re-found the sociological epistemology on the ground of the methodological research questions of the discipline, in recognition of the fundamental ambivalence of reality and of the need of an adductive procedure as a "double movement" between induction and deduction, particular and general, theoretical hypotheses and social reality beyond any self-contained reductivistic monism.


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Costantino Cipolla

Guido Giarelli


views updated May 14 2018



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.


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


views updated Jun 08 2018


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 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.


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").


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.


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 .


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


views updated Jun 08 2018


A term that derives from the Greek πιστήμη and λόγος meaning the science of knowledge; in its broadest signification it refers simply to an investigation of knowledge and its problems. A synonymous term is criteriology, from the Greek κρίνω meaning to distinguish or judge, which implies the testing of knowledge to distinguish the true from the false. see criterion (criteriology). Related to these are the expressions critique of knowledge and gnoseology; the former is Kantian in origin and is much used in contemporary philosophy, whereas the latter predominates in European usage. Among scholastics all of these terms are taken to mean the science of true and certain knowledge.

It may be said that epistemology, in its present state of development, is the newest, the most unfinished, and the most unsatisfactory area of philosophical investigation. It is also the most controversial. There is no unanimity about its name, its subject matter, or even the precise problems it attempts to solve. Some important philosophers regard it as a wholly synthetic discipline that owes its existence neither to the demands of reality nor to the exigencies of the human mind, but only to the need for a reaction against false and misleading theories of knowledge. Their point seems to be that an integral realism need not be, and even cannot be, critical. Yet the fact remains that there is, and always has been, a critical problem; this is what assures epistemology of its proper place among the philosophical disciplines. The fact that it has become prominent only in modern times and that it was dealt with summarily by ancient and medieval thinkers does not lessen the need to solve the problems associated with its critique of knowledge.

Greek and Medieval Origins. Since men have always asked questions about knowledge and have always been concerned with distinguishing the true from the false, epistemology has a long history. Before the golden age of Greek philosophy, it was natural for men to be less interested in knowledge than in the world of nature. Yet the difficulty of penetrating into nature's secrets gave rise to many different interpretations and conclusions; the very multiplicity of cosmological systems, in fact, prompted the skepticism of the sophists. Because many mistakes were made, it was easy for the skeptic to find a willing ear for his claim that truth is unattainable. It took the profounder minds of socrates, plato, and aristotle to produce a reaction against this early skepticism, and in their investigations and conclusions are to be found the origins of a genuine scientific epistemology. Particularly with Aristotle was begun the ordered statement of what can now be recognized as the main epistemological tradition, one in accord with the common sense of the ordinary man but going far beyond the latter's primitive indications. The main ideas of this tradition are the recognition of the difference between sensory and intellectual knowledge; a basing of the abstract knowledge of the intellect in a sensory content that depends totally on experience; the denial of innatism; the outline of a theory of abstraction; and, in general, the complex of doctrines that has come to be known as moderate realism, wherein a balanced doctrine of universals makes both philosophy and science possible. The Aristotelian view allows for a theory of truth and a theory of error, and recognizes that the mind of man is capable of distinguishing between the one and the other.

After Aristotle came a rapid decline toward the materialism of the Epicureans and the Stoics, with its attendant skepticism. This attitude persisted roughly to the time of St. augustine, with whom there was an accent on the theory of illumination and a tendency toward the radical intellectualism of neoplatonism. Augustinian views had a strong influence during the early medieval period. They were counteracted during the high scholastic period, however, as the works of Aristotle were recovered and much of their content incorporated into Western thought. The Aristotelian development reached its zenith in the synthesis of St. thomas aquinas and the allied realism of duns scotus, although it also gave rise to epistemological difficulties associated with the Latin averroism of siger of brabant (see double truth, theory of).

After the golden age of scholasticism, Aristotelian realism gave way to nominalism, and this in turn prepared the way for empiricism and a return to materialism. Attempts were made to revive the older epistemological tradition in the writings of Cardinal Tommaso de Vio ca jetan, Silvestri ferrariensis, Francisco suÁrez, and john of st. thomas. The results, however, were sporadic and the influence of these men severely limited.

Modern Development. The reversal of the anti-intellectualist trend really began only with René descartes, who initiated a movement to restore the rights of the intellect, and in so doing became the father of modern philosophy. Although a great mathematician, Descartes was a poor epistemologist, if only because he attempted to apply mathematical methodology to all areas of knowledge. His unsound psychology, moreover, left his epistemological doctrines vitiated by assumptions that have plagued the science of knowledge ever since. Descartes denied the true value of sensation; he reintroduced the innate ideas of Plato, and is responsible for the representationist conception of knowledgea conception that has been consistently attributed to scholastics, though they never maintained it. Descartes's intentions were the best; he meant to be a realist and to defend the primacy of reason, but his presuppositions led inevitably to idealism and skepticism, and he succeeded only in fostering an absolute dualism of mind and matter that still confuses contemporary thought.

Epistemology degenerated after Descartes until, near the end of the 18th century, I. kant began a philosophical revolution that proposed to eliminate all unwarranted assumptions and to make a genuine critique of knowledge. Here Kant did not succeed, even though he put at the service of philosophy a penetrating and methodical intelligence, persevering labor, and excellent intention; for he was both profoundly intelligent and ignorant of the long epistemological tradition that had preceded him. Ignoring the fact that man's intellectual knowledge is abstracta fact that forced Aristotle and St. Thomas to admit an abstractive power in man's intellectKant saw no alternative between the innate ideas of Plato and Descartes, which he rejected, and his own theory, which would have intelligence informing the data of sensibility and imposing its own forms upon such data. For him, the mind makes things intelligible and imposes intelligibility upon them; the real in itself is unknowable. Metaphysics, in this view, becomes impossible and knowledge ends in subjectivism and agnosticism. Anticipating the impasse to which his speculative theory would lead, Kant thereupon developed his critique of practical reason and prepared the way for voluntarism and pragmatism. Contemporary idealism in epistemology also stems from Kant. At its opposite pole is the line of thought traceable to D. hume that has accompanied the development of the natural sciences and has manifested itself in various forms such as empiricism, positivism, scientism, utilitarianism, and instrumentalism.

Epistemological Problems. Textbooks and treatises on epistemology written over the past 50 years frequently contradict one another, offer totally different approaches, and fail to agree even on the basic problems. There are reasons that explain this situation; without doubt a preoccupation with combatting the subjectivism and skepticism that have been the legacy of Descartes, Kant, and Hume has played its part in promoting the general confusion. Defensiveness and negativism have marked most attempts to develop an epistemology within the scholastic tradition. Yet epistemology is not negative; it is a positive investigation of knowledge. Rather than being defensive it must assert the true claims to be made for knowledge in view of reason's nature and role in the life of man.

Although neither Aristotle nor St. Thomas Aquinas wrote treatises that were exclusively epistemological, both consistently made use of a positive and scientifically ordered critique of knowledge in their works. Since this is interwoven with different contents in their writings on many subjects, some effort is required to bring its precise epistemological bearing to light. In what follows an attempt is made to outline the basic epistemological problems implicit in the Aristotelian and Thomistic corpus, relying heavily on an analysis of such problems already provided by L. M. Régis (see bibliog.).

St. Thomas, using Aristotle's method, had pointed out that in a properly scientific investigation of anything only four types of question may be asked. These are: Does the thing exist? What is it? What are its properties? Why does it have these properties? (In 2 anal. post. 1.2). The first and second questions have to do with the composition of essence and existence, whereas the third and fourth have to do with the composition of substance and accident. Frequently, the first question does not arise because the existence of the thing may be evident to the senses or to the intelligence. In this case, the answers to the remaining three questions, formulated in series of demonstrations, constitute the science of that particular subject. It is obvious that in many cases the knowledge sought will be extensive and will give rise to a vast number of further questions; it is obvious also that either the imperfections of man's intelligence or the difficulties of the matter under investigation may make it difficult or impossible to proceed to any great length with the inquiry. But the fact remains that these four questions furnish the scientific framework in which any type of research can be pursued.

Applied to epistemology, this basic methodology suggests four questions about knowledge: Is there knowledge? What is knowledge? What are the properties of knowledge? Why does it have these properties? But knowledge is a fact of immediate experience, and thus the first question does not arise. The entire study of epistemology, therefore, may be subsumed under the remaining three questions.

Nature of Knowledge. As to the question, What is knowledge?, knowledge presents itself in man's experience as a complex of activities that occur interiorly and yet put him in contact with the exterior world in which he lives. The investigation of knowledge, as such, belongs properly to psychology, and it is from this science that epistemology accepts its basic principles. Fundamental to an understanding of knowledge is the fact that to know is not a physical, chemical, or mechanical activity, but a vital and immanent activity that is found only in living beings. Irreducibly different from transient activity, it is self-perfecting and terminates in the agent wherein it originates. This means that knowledge is a quality within man, a self-modification whose formal type is specified by its relation to something other than the agent, i.e., the object or thing known.

The subject-object paradox accentuates a mysterious aspect of knowledge that complicates all epistemological problems. The total interiority of knowing stresses the subjective element, to which proper attention must be givenalthough too much attention here leads to subjectivism and idealism. Simultaneously, knowledge demands that one recognize its exteriority, for knowing makes things other than the knower present to him. The first area of epistemological research, therefore, is the explanation of this subject-object relationship. The elucidation of its interiority and its simultaneous exteriority must be effected and related to the immanence and self-perfectiveness of cognitive operations (see intentionality; objectivity; consciousness).

Properties of Knowledge. The second general area of epistemological research is concerned with the answer to the question, What are the properties of knowledge? More precisely, it is concerned with the properties of truth and falsity. A kind of truth is associated with apprehensive knowledge on both the sensory and intellectual levels (see apprehension, simple). This truth follows from the necessary relationship between the knowing powers and their respective objects; it is necessary and unavoidable and, in a sense, is built into the cognitive operations, for these may not be false in apprehension. This kind of truth, though naturally guaranteed, is imperfect; indeed, it is as imperfect as the apprehensive knowledge of which it is a property. Apprehensive knowledge, the simple presentation of things, furnishes bits and snatches of reality on both the sensory and intellectual levels. It enables man to grasp isolated aspects of things without unifying these as they are actually found in reality.

The genuine problem of truth is the problem of the unification of this apprehensive knowledge on the intellectual level. The human intelligence has a passion for unity that leads it to integrate the fragmentary bits of knowledge gained through apprehension. This unification is brought about by a judgment or a series of judgments. When such unification is made in a way that adequates the actual unity found in reality, the mind judging produces a proposition or statement that is true. When, on the contrary, the proposition is at variance with the mode of being found in reality, the result is falsity. The very possibility of truth is therefore implicit in the difference between the two intellectual functions of apprehension and judgment. Whereas the former simply presents an object to the mind, the latter is a dynamic act wherein the mind not merely reports the things it sees but takes a stand and says something about them. It is in this enunciation that truth or falsity can properly be found. The problems surrounding truth, judgment, enunciation, and the assurance that at least some judgments may be adequated to reality form the second area of epistemological inquiry.

Explanation of Properties. The third general question that faces the epistemologist is: Why must knowledge have either truth or falsity? One may put the question in a different form, e.g., What is infallible knowledge? Seemingly simple, the latter question encompasses a vast series of problems that are extremely complex. The first problem necessarily concerns the very existence of truths that the human intellect must know infallibly, that it cannot miss, that are forced upon it by knowledge it must have and cannot avoid having. If there are such truths, it is important to discover what they are, and then, possessing them, to inquire how they may be used in the further investigation of reality.

St. Thomas was quite certain that first principles exist and can be, in fact, must be known. "In its origin all knowledge consists in becoming aware of the first in-demonstrable principles" (De ver. 10.6). "Among things apprehended there is to be found a certain order. The notion which we grasp before anything else and which is included in every apprehension is being. And on the notion of being and non-being is based the first indemonstrable principle, namely, that the same thing cannot be affirmed and denied at the same time. On this principle, in turn, are based all other principles" (Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 94.2). Here begins all certitude, a property of truth that arises in the first place from necessary judgments. But St. Thomas warns quite clearly that this is not the last word to be said about the subject. The knowledge of these principles is, properly understood, infallible, yet these are "the beginning and not the end of human enquiry, coming to us from nature and not because of our search for truth" (C. gent. 3.37).

The knowledge of first principles is vague and general; it gives absolutely certain knowledge about the most universal characteristics of all things, yet tells nothing about the more detailed and specific qualities. These must be sought out, and cannot be deduced from the general truths, though the latter always control the more particular truths. The knowledge of first principles does not offer the final answer, but only the starting point from which man's reason, with full knowledge of the controls it has in its possession and assurance of the absolute validity of these principles properly applied, can proceed to the long and often difficult task of searching out more detailed truths. But the first principles of thought are the foundation of all intellectual constructions. There is, moreover, no certitude in the last analysis unless all knowledge be resolved back to first principles whose own certitude is based on immediate evidence.

From further material, supplied by the senses, the intellect perceives other principles that are first within particular orders of knowledge. The precise form these judgments take is analyzed by St. Thomas at the beginning of the De veritate (1.1). Such judgments are simply the primary mental assents at which the human mind naturally arrives in its inspection of reality, both in terms of the general modes of being common to everything and the special modes of being proper to the different kinds of things in man's experience. The judgments relating to the general modes of being concern the transcendentals and are the source of all the principles and conclusions of metaphysics. The judgments that relate to the special modes of being concern the categories or various types of reality and are the source of all the principles and conclusions of the special sciences (see sciences, classification of). The ultimate test of the truth of any judgment, then, is the analytic resolution of that judgment back to first principles, which is the reason that St. Thomas can say: "There is never falsity in the intellect if the resolution to first principles be rightly carried out" (De ver. 1.12). The human intellect does not learn these principles, nor does it assume them; it arrives at them naturally and necessarily and immediately once it attains a knowledge of the terms that make them up.

The human mind thus attains truth and certitude by grasping first principles and then proceeding from these to conclusions. This does not mean that all knowledge can be deduced from these principles, but only that before anything can be deduced they must be admitted and applied. As regards contingent things, for example, in research in the natural sciences, this means that material things are investigated, weighed, and measured in the light of primary principlesboth the first principles of metaphysics and the first principles of the special science involved. The application of these principles to the data of experience produces the conclusions of the particular science.

There is thus a minimum of truth that each man must possess, and from which he can then proceed to knowledge of other truths. In other words, not only can man attain to truth, but to some extent he must attain it; there are certain truths he cannot miss. As St. Thomas says in this regard: "Although no man can attain to perfect apprehension of truth, yet no one is so completely deprived of it as not to know any at all. The knowledge of truth is easy in this sense, that immediately evident principles by means of which we come to truth are evident for all men" (In 2 meta. 1.275). The epistemological problems that arise in connection with the reasoning process include, e.g., an examination of the process of reasoning itself; an examination of the various types of reasoning, such as analysis and synthesis, induction and deduction, and finally the question of the validity of the evidence that conclusions borrow from principles. To many of these problems there are only partial or inadequate solutions, and to some of them there are no solutions at all. The work of the epistemologist is to provide answers to such questions on the basis of a sound logic, psychology, and metaphysics.

See Also: knowledge, theories of; criticism, philosophical; doubt; wonder; opinion.

Bibliography: l. m. rÉgis, Epistemology, tr. i. c. byrne (New York 1959). r. houde and j. p. mullaly, eds., Philosophy of Knowledge (Philadelphia 1960). j. maritain, Distinguish to Unite, or The Degrees of Knowledge, tr. g. b. phelan (New York 1959). p. coffey, Epistemology, 2 v. (New York 1917; repr. Gloucester, MA 1958). g. van riet, L'Épistémologie thomiste (Louvain 1946).

[g. c. reilly]


views updated May 23 2018


EPISTEMOLOGY . This branch of philosophy studies the nature, origin, and validity of knowledge; it is sometimes called "theory of knowledge." Epistemology has been central to modern philosophy since the sixteenth century, although it originally developed in Greek philosophy in close relation to ontology (theory of being) and metaphysics. (It is an open question whether epistemology can be completely disentangled from metaphysics.)

In Greek philosophy, and especially in Plato and Aristotle, the two words used to mean "knowledge" are epistēmē and gnōsis, the former having the narrower, more scientific connotation in opposition to doxa ("belief"), the latter the wider one, covering also perception, memory, and experience. Plato and Aristotle relate these two conceptions to the terms noēsis ("thinking, intuition") and sophia ("wisdom"). The Western Christian tradition, however, has paid more attention to epistemology than to gnoseology; the latter plays a greater role in Eastern Christian philosophy and theology, and, it goes without saying, among the gnostics.

Among the various epistemological positions (that is, theories of knowledge in the narrower sense), realism, which is the claimderiving from Plato and Aristotlethat forms and universals are objectively real (whether ante rem, "before things," as in Plato or in re, "in things," as in Aristotle) has had by far the longest tenure. In modern times, at least since William of Ockham in the fourteenth century, nominalism, or the view that forms and universals are only in language and in the mind, has held the field. The issue, however, is by no means dead and, oddly enough, returns in connection with modern philosophies of mathematics and even in the understanding of information theory.

A second, equally important epistemological question has been whether universal ideas are innate or only obtained through the senses. The two positions on this question were staked out by Plato and Aristotle respectively, the controversy continuing through the Middle Ages, with Augustine on the Platonic side and Thomas Aquinas on the Aristotelian. Modern philosophy begins with Descartes's emphatic support for the Platonic-Augustinian position. His contention that clear and distinct ideas are innate (a view often called epistemological idealism, to distinguish it from Plato's joint ontological and epistemological idealism) was challenged in turn by the British empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, and Hume), who sought to show that all ideas derive from the senses. Kant defined a new position by arguing the so-called presuppositional character of the "forms of perception" and "categories of understanding."

These epistemological controversies (which find remarkablealthough still insufficiently studiedparallels in the histories of both Hindu and Buddhist philosophies) have had a close relation to religious practices and doctrines, not only among Christians, but also among Jews and Muslims. Thus, for example, realism appears to support the theological doctrine concerning the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Mass, while nominalism is more congruent with the Protestant idea of the last supper, or "meal of remembrance." Similarly, realism is helpful in harmonizing revealed and natural theology, while voluntarism and fideism are more naturally related to nominalism.

Christianity, like the other monotheistic religions, cannot submit knowledge about God to ordinary epistemic criteria. Nor can it, without abjuring the biblical conception of faith, accept the pretensions of unrestrained gnosis or esoteric accretions. The resultant difficulties have given rise to such theological maneuvers as the Averroistic "double truth" (one for the natural, the other for the revealed) and the Thomistic "analogy of being" (in which the possibility of a single univocal meaning for the word being is renounced). In attempting to escape the Scylla of fideism, in which knowledge ultimately has no place at all in religion, Western religions have always been in danger of running afoul of the Charybdis of gnosticism, in which there is no need or room for faith. And behind these doctrines lurk the still greater dangers of atheism and pantheism, as well as gnostic dualism.

Epistemological issues in modern times have tended to revolve around the question of the existence of God and whether it is possible to know this or to establish it by some kind of "proof." Thus Anselm's purely a priori "ontological proof" vies with Thomas Aquinas's "five ways," which allegedly derive from empirical experience. All such "proofs" were rejected by Kant in favor of a moral argument that finds God a necessary presupposition of the moral, or practical reason. Here epistemology once again is closely related to ethics, as it had been in a different way in Greek and medieval philosophy. If the medieval world culminated in Dante's visionary belief that knowledge is love, the modern world has been working out the quite different formula of Francis Bacon that knowledge is power. The limits of this power, now coming into view, suggest the limits of the conception of knowledge and perhaps the limits of the epistemological enterprise as a whole.

A word must be said also about mysticism as a way of knowing in religion, apart from both reason and ordinary experience. When, for example, the poet Henry Vaughan says, "I saw eternity the other night," or an otherwise normal and ordinary person reports, "In one moment I was liberated and knew the purpose of life," we do not have criteria for judging the validity of the "knowledge" involved. Epistemology tends to look at such matters in terms of psychology and ethics, rather than ontology and metaphysics.

Since the twentieth century there have been signs that the three-hundred-year-old predominance of epistemology in philosophy is giving way to a concern with semantics, semiology, and meaning. If epistemology cannot find its way out of either subjectivism (Cartesianism, psychologism, psychoanalysis) or objectivism (materialism, positivism, Marxism), it is perhaps because these are simply two faces of the epistemological attitude itself, which, because it begins with the separation of knower and known (and, as it were, makes this central), cannot get them back together except in these unsatisfactory ways. Seen in this light, epistemology may lose its central role in philosophy. Other ways of conceiving human involvement in the world may turn out to be more sensible and useful.

If religion has been on the defensive against science in the modern era, the difficulty may turn out to lie not so much in the differences between religious and scientific ways of knowing as in the epistemological stance itself. Important modern philosophers, particularly Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein, abandoned the epistemological or "representational" point of view itself in their later philosophies. And this is very likely to be the direction to which philosophy itself will go in the future.

See Also



No outstanding survey history of epistemology exists. The most important works on the subject are the classic sources themselves.

Aristotle. Posterior Analytics. In The Basic Works of Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon. New York, 1941.

Augustine. Concerning the Teacher. Translated by G. C. Leckie. In Basic Writings of Saint Augustine, edited by Whitney J. Oates, vol. 1, pp. 361389. New York, 1948.

Berkeley, George. A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. Edited by A. C. Frazer. London, 1901.

Descartes, René. Meditations. In Philosophical Works of Descartes, edited by Elizabeth S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross. Cambridge, U.K., 1911.

Hegel, G. W. F. The Phenomenology of Mind. Translated by J. B. Baillie. New York, 1910.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Human Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. London, 1950.

Leibniz, G. W. New Essays on Human Understanding. Edited by A. G. Langley. La Salle, Ill., 1949.

Locke, John. An Essay concerning Human Understanding. 2 vols. Edited by A. C. Frazer. Oxford, 1894.

Plato. Theaetetus. In Plato's Theory of Knowledge: The Theaetetus and the Sophist of Plato, edited by Francis M. Cornford. London, 1935.

Russell, Bertrand. Human Knowledge, Its Scope and Limits. New York, 1948.

Thomas Aquinas. Truth. 3 vols. Translated by R. W. Mulligan, J. V. McGlynn, and R. W. Schmidt. Chicago, 19521954.

New Sources

Alcoff, Linda, ed. Epistemology: The Big Question. Oxford, U.K., 1998.

Anderson, Pamela Sue. A Feminist Philosophy of Religion: The Rationality and Myths of Religious Belief. London, 1997.

Bonjour, Laurence. Epistemology: Classical Problems and Contemporary Responses. Lanham, Md., 2002.

Plantinga, Alvin. Warrant and Proper Function. New York, 1993.

Sosa, Ernest. Knowledge in Perspective: Selected Essays in Epistemology. 1991; reprint Cambridge, U.K., 2003.

Henry Le Roy Finch (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated Jun 08 2018


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


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


views updated May 17 2018

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.


views updated Jun 11 2018

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.


views updated May 18 2018

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