A Definition of Epistemology

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Reply Thu 20 Dec, 2007 04:24 pm
Here is a definition of Epistemology from:

Dictionary of Philosophy

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Φιλοφια Βιου Κυβερνητης

Epistemology: (Gr. episteme, knowledge + logos, theory) The branch of philosophy which investigates the origin, structure, methods and validity of knowledge. The term "epistemology" appears to have been used for the first time by J. F. Ferrier, Institutes of Metaphysics (1854) who distinguished two branches of philosophy -- epistemology and ontology. The German equivalent of epistemology, Erkenntnistheorie, was used by the Kantian, K. L. Reinhold, (1789); Das Fundament des philosophischen Wissens (1791), but the term did not gain currency until after its adoption by E. Zeller, Ueber Aufgabe und Bedeutung der Erkenntnisstheorie (1862). The term theory of knowledge is a common English equivalent of epistemology and translation of Erkenntnistheorie; the term Gnosiology has also been suggested but has gained few adherents.

The scope of epistemology may be indicated by considering its relations to the allied disciplines: (a) metaphysics, (b) logic, and (c) psychology.

(a) Speculative philosophy is commonly considered to embrace metaphysics (see Metaphysics) and epistemology as its two coordinate branches or if the term metaphysics be extended to embrace the whole of speculative philosophy, then epistemology and ontology become the two main subdivisions of metaphysics in the wide sense. Whichever usage is adopted, epistemology as the philosophical theory of knowledge is one of the two main branches of philosophy. The question of the relative priority of epistemology and metaphysics (or ontology) has occasioned considerable controversy: the dominant view fostered by Descartes, Locke and Kant is that epistemology is the prior philosophical science, the investigation of the possibility and limits of knowledge being a necessary and indispensible preliminary to any metaphysical speculations regarding the nature of ultimate reality. On the other hand, strongly metaphysical thinkers like Spinoza and Hegel, and more recently S. Alexander and A. N. Whitehead, have first attacked the metaphvsical problems and adopted the view of knowledge consonant with their metaphysics. Between these two extremes is the view that epistemology and metaphysics are logically interdependent and that a metaphysically presuppositionless epistemology is as unattainable as an epistemologically presuppositionless metaphysics.

(b) Despite the fact that traditional logic embraced many topics which would now be considered epistemological, the demarcation between logic and epistemology is now fairly clear-cut: logic is the formal science of the principles governing valid reasoning; epistemology is the philosophical science of the nature of knowledge and truth. For example, though the decision as to whether a given process of reasoning is valid or not is a logical question, the inquiry into the nature of validity is epistemological.

(c) The relation between psychology and epistemology is particularly intimate since the cognitive processes of perception, memory, imagination, conception and reasoning, investigated by empirical psychology are the very processes which, in quite a different context, are the special subject matter of epistemology. Nevertheless the psychological and epistemological treatments of the cognitive processes of mind are radically different: scientific psychology is concerned solely with the description and explanation of conscious processes, e.g. particular acts of perception, in the context of other conscious events; epistemology is interested in the cognitive pretentions of the perceptions, i.e. their apparent reference to external objects. In short, whereas psychology is the investigation of all states of mind including the cognitive in the context of the mental life, epistemology investigates only cognitive states and these solely with respect to their cognitive import. Psychology and epistemology are by virtue of the partial identity of their subject matter interdependent sciences. The psychology of perception, memory, imagination, conception, etc. affords indispensable data for epistemological interpretation and on the other hand epistemological analysis of the cognitive processes may sometimea prove psychologically suggestive. The epistemologist must, however, guard against a particularly insidious form of the genetic fallacy: viz. the supposition that the psychological origin of an item of knowledge prejudices either favorably or unfavorably its cognitive validity -- a fallacy which is psychologism at its worst.

An examination of the generally recognized problems of epistemology and of the representative solutions of these problems will serve to further clarify the nature and scope of epistemological inquiry. The emphasis in epistemology has varied from one historical era to another and yet there is a residium of epistemological problems which has persisted to the present.

(a) The initial and inescapable problem with which the epistemologist is confronted is that of the very possibility of knowledge: Is genuine knowledge at all attainable? The natural dogmatism of the human mind is confronted with the sceptic's challenge: a challenge grounded on the relativity of the senses (sensory scepticism) and the contradictions into which the reason is often betrayed (rational scepticism). An alternative to both dogmatism and extreme scepticism is a tentative or methodological scepticism of which Descartes' systematic doubt, Locke's cautious empiricism and Kant's critical epistemology are instances. See Dogmatism; Scepticism; Criticism. Scepticism in modern epistemology is commonly associated with solipsism, since a scepticism regarding knowledge of the external world leads to solipsism and the ego-centric predicament. See Solipsism; Ego-centric predicament.

(b) An epistemologist who rejects an extreme or agnostic scepticism, may very properly seek to determine the limits of knowledge and to assert that genuine knowledge is, within certain prescribed limits, possible yet beyond those limits impossible. There are, of course, innumerable ways of delimiting the knowable from the unknowable -- a typical instance of the sceptical delimitation of knowledge is the Kantian distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal world. See Phenomenon; Noumenon. A similar epistemological position is involved in the doctrine of certain recent positivists and radical empiricists that the knowable coincides with the meaningful and the verifiable, the unknowable with trie meaningless and unverifiable. See Positivism, Logical; Empiricism, Radical.

(c) The traditional problem of the origin of knowledge, viz. By what faculty or faculties of mind is knowledge attainable? It gave rise to the principal cleavage in modern epistemology between rationalism and empiricism (q.v.) though both occur in any thinker. The rationalists (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz) rely primarily -- though not exclusively -- on reason as the source of genuine knowledge, and the empiricists (Locke, Berkeley and Hume) rely mainly on experience. A broadly conceived empiricism such as Locke's which acknowledges the authenticity of knowledge derived both from the inner sense (see Reflection; Introspection), and the outer senses, contrasts with that type of sensationalism (q.v.) which is empiricism restricted to the outer senses. Various attempts, the most notable of which is the critical philosophy of Kant, have been made to reconcile rationalism and empiricism by assigning to reason and experience their respective roles in the constitution of knowledge. Few historical or contemporary epistemologists would subscribe either to a rationalism or an empiricism of an exclusive and extreme sort.

(d) The methodological problem bulks large in epistemology and the solutions of it follow in general the lines of cleavage determined by the previous problem. Rationalists of necessity have emphasized deductive and demonstrative procedures in the acquisition and elaboration of knowledge while empiricists have relied largely on induction and hypothesis but few philosophers have espoused the one method to the complete exclusion of the other. A few attempts have been made to elaborate distinctively philosophical methods reducible neither to the inductive procedure of the natural sciences nor the demonstrative method of mathematics -- such are the Transcendental Method of Kant and the Dialectical Method of Hegel though the validity and irreducibility of both of these methods are highly questionable. Pragmatism, operationalism, and phenomenology may perhaps in certain of their aspects be construed is recent attempts to evaluate new epistemological methods.

(e) The problem of the A PRIORI, though the especial concern of the rationalist, confronts the empiricist also since few epistemologists are prepared to exclude the a priori entirely from their accounts of knowledge. The problem is that of isolating the a priori or non-empirical elements in knowledge and accounting for them in terms of the human reason. Three principal theories of the a priori have been advanced:
  1. the theory of the intrinsic A PRIORI which asserts that the basic principles of logic, mathematics, natural sciences and philosophy are self-evident truths recognizable by such intrinsic traits as clarity and distinctness of ideas. The intrinsic theory received its definitive modern expression in the theory of "innate ideas" (q.v.) of Herbert of Cherbury, Descartes, and 17th century rationalism.
  2. The presuppositional theory of the a priori which validates a priori truths by demonstrating that they are presupposed either by their attempted denial (Leibniz) or by the very possibility of experience (Kant).
  3. The postulational theory of the A PRIORI elaborated under the influence of recent postulational techniques in mathematics, interprets a priori principles as rules or postulates arbitrarily posited in the construction of formal deductive systems. See Postulate; Posit.
(f) The problem of differentiating the principal kinds of knowledge is an essential task especially for an empirical epistemology. Perhaps the most elementary epistemological distinction is between
  1. non-inferential apprehension of objects by perception, memory, etc. (see Knowledge by Acquaintance), and
  2. inferential knowledge of things with which the knowing subject has no direct apprehension. See Knowledge by Description.
Acquaintance in turn assumes two principal forms: perception or acquaintance with external objects (see Perception), and introspection or the subject's acquaintance with the "self" and its cognitive, volitional and affective states. See Introspection; Reflection. Inferential knowledge includes knowledge of other selves (this is not to deny that knowledge of other minds may at times be immediate and non-inferential), historical knowledge, including not only history in the narrower sense but also astronomical, biological, anthropological and archaeological and even cosmological reconstructions of the past and finally scientific knowledge in so far as it involves inference and construction from observational data.

(g) The problem of the structure of the knowledge-situation is to determine with respect to each of the major kinds of knowledge just enumerated -- but particularly with respect to perception -- the constituents of the knowledge-situation in their relation to one another. The structural problem stated in general but rather vague terms is: What is the relation between the subjective and objective components of the knowledge-situation? In contemporary epistemology, the structural problem has assumed a position of such preeminence as frequently to eclipse other issues of epistemology. The problem has even been incorporated by some into the definition of philosophy. (See A. Lalande, Vocabulaire de la Philosophie, art. Theorie de la Connaissance. I. and G.D. Hicks, Encycl. Brit. 5th ed. art. Theory of Knowledge.) The principal cleavage in epistemology, according to this formulation of its problem, is between a subjectivism which telescopes the object of knowledge into the knowing subject (see Subjectivism; Idealism, Epistemological) and pan-objectivism which ascribes to the object all qualities perceived or otherwise cognized. See Pan-obiectivism. A compromise between the extrernes of subjectivism and objectivism is achieved by the theory of representative perception, which, distinguishing between primary and secondary qualities, considers the former objective, the latter subjective. See Representative Perception, Theory of; Primary Qualities; Secondary Qualities.
The structural problem stated in terms of the antithesis between subjective and objective is rather too vague for the purposes of epistemology and a more precise analysis of the knowledge-situation and statement of the issues involved is required. The perceptual situation -- and this analysis may presumably be extended with appropriate modifications to memory, imagination and other modes of cognition -- consists of a subject (the self, or pure act of perceiving), the content (sense data) and the object (the physical thing perceived). In terms of this analysis, two issues may be formulated
  1. Are content and object identical (epistemological monism), or are they numerically distinct (epistemological dualism)? and
  2. Does the object exist independently of the knowing subject (epistemological idealism) or is it dependent upon the subject (epistemological realism)?
(h) The problem of truth is perhaps the culmination of epistemological enquiry -- in any case it is the problem which brings the enquiry to the threshold of metaphysics. The traditional theories of the nature of truth are:
  1. the correspondence theory which conceives truth as a relation between an "idea" or a proposition and its object -- the relation has commonly been regarded as one of resemblance but it need not be so considered (see Correspondence theory of truth);
  2. the Coherence theory which adopts as the criterion of truth, the logical consistency of a proposition with a wider system of propositions (see Coherence theory of truth), and
  3. the intrinsic theory which views truth as an intrinsic property of the true proposition. See Intrinsic theory of truth. -- L-W.
Bibliography: L. T. Hobhouse, The Theory of Knowledge, 1896. H. Bergson, Introduction to Metaphysics, Eng. trans., 1912. W. P. Montague, Ways of Knowing, 1925. J. Dewey, The Quest for Certainty, 1929. W. James, The Meaning of Truth, 1909. C. I. Lewis, Mind and the World Order, 1929. D. Drake and others, Essays in Critical Realism, 1920. E. B. Holt, The Concept of Consciousness, 1914 W. James, Essays in Radical Empiricism, 1912. J. Laird, A Study in Realism, 1920. A. O. Lovejoy, The Revolt against Dualism, 1930. G. E. Moore, Philosophical Studies, 1922. B. Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, 1912. B. Russell, Scientific Method in Philosophy, 1914. E. G. Spaulding, The New Rationalism, 1918. S. Alexander, Space, Time, and Deity, 2nd ed., 1928. C. D. Broad, Perception, Physics, and Reality, 1914. C. D. Broad, Scientific Thought, 1923. C. D. Broad, Mind and its Place in Nature, 1925. B. Russell, The Analysis of Mind, 1921. N. K. Smith, Prolegomena to an Idealist Theory of Knowledge, 1924. H. Vaihinger, The Philosophy of "As If", Eng. trans., 1924. A. N. Whitehead, Principles of Natural Knowledge. A. N. Whitehead, Concept of Nature. H. H. Price, Perception, 1933. W. T. Stace, The Theory of Knowledge and Existence, 1932. L. Wood, The Analysis of Knowledge.

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