Epistemology (pronounced eh-PIH-stem-AH-luh-jee) is the study of knowledge. It raises questions like
What is truth?
Do we really know what we think we know?
How can knowledge be made more reliable?
It’s one of the oldest branches of philosophy, reaching far back into the time before Socrates. Today, epistemology is connected with many other areas of philosophy and science — after all, every area of study is a kind of knowledge!
II. Types of Epistemology
Since people have been thinking about what knowledge is for so long, the types of epistemology are almost infinite. Here is a list of some of the more common types in the Western tradition:
- Foundationalism: all knowledge is built on the basis of a few axioms, or statements that cannot be doubted. For example, geometry is based on a few axioms like “two points determine a line” and “parallel lines never intersect.” On the basis of these statements, geometricians can derive all sorts of mathematical truths.
- Pros: foundationalism is extremely precise. It draws a clear line between what is knowledge and what isn’t. As long as the axioms are true and the logic is sound, we can be 100% sure of our knowledge.
- Cons: you have to have a lot of confidence in your axioms! If just one axiom turns out to be false, then all you knowledge can come crashing. This is a small risk in abstract fields like geometry, but when you start talking about the real world, things get messy in a hurry, and so it gets very difficult to create reliable axioms for foundationalism.
- Coherentism: knowledge is true as long as it isn’t self-contradictory. You can believe whatever you want, and as long as it’s consistent with itself, it counts as knowledge.
- Pros: coherentism is flexible. Because it isn’t based on axioms, you don’t have to be completely welded to any particular claims — if something turns out to be false, you can just throw it out and the rest of your knowledge is still sound
- Cons: coherentism makes it hard to judge other people’s views as “false.” For example, what if someone said that unicorns are real, and they live on Mars? This is a pretty ridiculous claim, but it’s not a self-contradiction! And, on the basis of coherentism, it would be very difficult to disprove. So coherentism might be too flexible.
- Pragmatism: if it works, it’s true. Ideas are just tools that human beings use to get by in a world that we will never fully understand. If the tools work well for their purpose and help us live good lives, then they’re true. If not, they’re false. Pragmatism doesn’t draw a black-and-white line between true and false, but allows for a grey area where something can be kind-of true and kind-of false. That’s either a pro or a con, depending on your perspective.
- Pros: avoids the problems of both foundationalism and coherentism. Also, pragmatists realize that human beings have limits, and our knowledge is always changing.
- Cons: hard to define “what works.” For example, the Greeks had all kinds of incorrect ideas about how the universe works, which we’ve since disproven. But these were the best ideas available at the time, and they worked well in helping Greek culture thrive. So were these ideas right at the time, but now they’re wrong? That seems like an odd thing to say, but it is implied by pragmatism.
III. Epistemology vs. Ontology
Epistemology is the study of knowledge, whereas ontology is the study of existence. Ontology raises questions about what exists, what kinds of things exist, and what it means for something to exist. It’s one of the most abstract branches of philosophy. Ontology, however, does deal with some pretty important questions. For example, the question “Does God exist?” is an ontological question, and one that many people have dedicated their lives to!
Ontology is closely related to epistemology, but they’re considered to be separate branches of philosophy. Consider the following
Does God exist?
Is the universe solely composed of physical matter, or are there non-material beings like souls and spirits?
What is free will? Do human beings have it?
How can we know if God exists?
Can spirits and souls be observed or detected? If not, does it still make sense to say we have knowledge of them?
Is free will something that we know, or just something we experience? Is there even a difference?
Ontology tends to be more important to foundationalists than coherentists or pragmatists, especially pragmatists. That’s because pragmatists see ontological questions as artificial constructs of language: a pragmatist would probably not be so interested in the question of whether God exists, but would be more interested in the question of what the word “God” means to a particular person or community, and how the idea functions in everyday, practical life. Only once these questions are answered can we raise questions about existence, according to pragmatism.
IV. Quotes about Epistemology
“Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as “the truth” exists… If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’ — well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five — well, two and two are five.” (George Orwell)
George Orwell argued that the Nazis had a very specific epistemology based on absolute faith in the leader (Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, and other Nazi high command). This is an example of a foundationalist epistemology — it has just one axiom, namely “the Leader is never wrong.” Clearly, this axiom is untrue, and therefore the entire epistemology is wrong. This is an extreme example of the sort of weakness you often find in foundationalism.
“Knowledge would be fatal. It is the uncertainty that charms one. A mist makes things wonderful.” (Oscar Wilde)
This quote suggests not only that human knowledge is limited, but in fact that this is a good thing! We might take this as a critique of epistemology as a whole, since Wilde doesn’t think we should be pursuing complete knowledge (or, by extension, a complete philosophy of knowledge). On the other hand, this could be an argument for pragmatism, since it’s all based on what improves human life.
V. The History and Importance of Epistemology
Since this branch of philosophy is so ancient, very little is known about the early history of epistemology. It’s likely that cavemen, gathered around their fires, looked up at the stars and asked what they might be made of (an ontological question) and how human beings could find out (an epistemological question).
In the Western tradition, formal epistemology started with the Greeks, who were mainly foundationalists, though by no means all — the Greeks actually disagreed about nearly everything. However, during the time that philosophy was on the rise, the Greeks were developing a system of deductive reasoning, which is one of the main tools of foundationalism. This bolstered the followers of Plato, who adhered to a unique version of foundationalist epistemology.
This Greek influence was strongly felt in the Middle Ages, when the Islamic world was at the forefront of philosophy. Medieval Muslim scholars devoured the works of Aristotle and Plato, and used them to develop a highly rationalistic system based on a simple axiom: “there is only one God.” Slightly later, these Islamic texts were translated into Latin so that Christian philosophers like Thomas Aquinas could read them, and this brought about a revolution in Christian epistemology — Islamic-style foundationalism proved to be extremely appealing to the Christians, who put their own stamp on the ideas of Islamic philosophers.
In non-Western traditions, foundationalism was generally less dominant, even in the ancient world. Indian philosophers, for example, argued for a huge variety of epistemological methods, and generally held that there were several ways to obtain knowledge — meanwhile Western philosophers were more likely to argue for just one.
Pragmatism is the baby of the epistemological family, since it only showed up in formal philosophy around 100 years ago. Of course, everyday people often take a pragmatic view toward knowledge since they don’t have the time to ponder abstract philosophical ideas! But it wasn’t until around the late 1800s that philosophers came to see the wisdom in this. Then a group of American philosophers created the pragmatist epistemology, which to this day is widely considered to be the one major American contribution to world philosophy. (Of course, some philosophers consider pragmatism to be vulgar or simplistic, so not everyone agrees that it’s a good contribution!)
VI. Epistemology in Popular Culture
“Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.” (Vizzini, The Princess Bride)
This classic comedy routine demonstrates both foundationalism and coherentism. It starts off as a foundationalist argument: the axiom is “only a great fool would reach for what he was given.” Everything else flows from that argument. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty unreliable axiom! Then the argument almost immediately lapses into self-contradiction, since Vizzini concludes that he cannot drink from either cup. Therefore, Vizzini’s reasoning is bad on both coherentist and foundationalist views. (It’s also bad on a pragmatist view, since he chooses wrong and dies!)
“Napoleon is always right” (Animal Farm)
Several characters repeat this line over the course of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. It’s an example of the foundationalist epistemology he was talking about in §4. In the context of the book, it’s a tragic thing to hear the characters say, since the reader knows that Napoleon is often not only wrong, but deliberately lying.