Epistemology: The Theory of Knowledge

If we think of Socrates and the natural philosophers who came before him, it's not hard to see that they share some common concerns. The Pre-Socratics were interested in understanding how the cosmos existed, and believed that it was not necessary to appeal to mythology to do so. Socrates was interested in living the good life and believed that any rational person could, if they diligently tried, do so. But in both natural philosophy and moral philosophy we are interested in knowing the truth. So, before we can answer either Socrates or the natural philosophers, we must first have a conception of what it is to know. 'Epistemology' is the branch or subdivision of philosophy which is dedicated to the study of knowledge, its attainment, and its limitations.

episteme (knowledge) + logos (giving an account/explanation of) = epistemology (the theory of knowledge)

I. Introduction to Epistemology: An Overview -

  1. Three Central Questions:

    1. What is knowledge? (What‘s the difference between knowledge and opinion?)

    2. Can we have knowledge? (Are humans capable of knowing anything?)

    3. How do we get knowledge? (What‘s the process by which knowledge is obtained?)

  2. Three Preliminary Answers:

    1. What is Knowledge?

      1. beliefs which are
      2. true
      3. for which we can give sufficient justification

    2. Can we have knowledge?

      1. Skepticism - "No!"
      2. Dogmatism - "Yes!"

    3. How do we obtain knowledge?

      1. Rationalism - through rational reflection on ideas alone
      2. Empiricism - through the senses alone

  3. Two Kinds of Beliefs:

    Since Knowledge is composed of beliefs, it will be important, as we shall see later, to determine the source of our beliefs. Generally speaking, we can draw a distinction between two types of beliefs based on how those beliefs are acquired.

    1. A Priori - beliefs that require no experience (e.g., analytic propositions)

    2. A Posteriori - beliefs that require some experience (e.g., synthetic propositions)

II. The Three Essential Elements of Knowledge Expanded

  1. Beliefs - a cognitive state of awareness that is not certain

    1. Hunch/Intuition (no justification possible)

    2. Opinion/belief (justified to some degree, but not certain)

  2. Truth - beliefs that correspond with reality (the way the universe is) are true, otherwise they are false


    Note: Remember that only factual beliefs have a truth value assignment. Thus, evaluative and aesthetical beliefs are not in themselves usually thought to be true or false. For example, it might be true that you think blue is a preferable color than red, but it is not necessarily true that blue is prettier than red.

  3. Justification - the evidence which demonstrates a connection between our beliefs and the world

    1. Internalism: Justification rests upon a belief's relation to other beliefs

      1. Foundationalism - some beliefs are terminal (or self-justifying), all others are derived from them

      2. Coherentism - all beliefs are justified by their relations to all your other beliefs; no terminal beliefs

    2. Externalism: Justification rests upon the way a belief is formed; the right process of belief formation gives justification (Cognitive Science - 'right' brain states)

  4. Expanding our Preliminary Answers - Can we have knowledge?

    1. Three possible answers:

      1. Dogmatism - we can have knowledge
      2. Skepticism - we can’t have knowledge
      3. Relativism - it’s all knowledge

    2. Dogmatism:

      1. Radical Dogmatism - Anyone can know any/everything.

      2. Mitigated Dogmatism - Some people know some things.

    3. Skepticism: Two varieties

      1. Radical Skepticism - No one can know anything.

        This position maintains that knowledge is, in principle, impossible to attain. That is, it is impossible to be certain that our beliefs meet the criterion of truth. Thus we have no knowledge.

      2. Mitigated Skepticism - No one actually knows anything.

    4. Relativism - what is true is 'true' for you

      1. Absolute Relativism - truth is relative to each individual

      2. Mitigated Relativism - truth is relative to the culture/group in which you are raised

      3. The Problem with Relativism: it leads to inconsistencies and contradictions, or, the denial of truth

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