Related concepts and fundamentals:
Epistemology (/ɪˌpɪstɪˈmɒlədʒi/ ( listen); from
Greek ἐπιστήμη, epistēmē, meaning 'knowledge', and
λόγος, logos, meaning 'logical discourse') is the branch of
philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge.
Epistemology studies the nature of knowledge, justification, and the
rationality of belief. Much of the debate in epistemology centers on
four areas: (1) the philosophical analysis of the nature of knowledge
and how it relates to such concepts as truth, belief, and
justification, (2) various problems of skepticism, (3) the
sources and scope of knowledge and justified belief, and (4) the
criteria for knowledge and justification.
Epistemology addresses such
questions as "What makes justified beliefs justified?", "What does
it mean to say that we know something?" and fundamentally "How do
we know that we know?"
The term 'epistemology' was first used by Scottish philosopher James
Frederick Ferrier in 1854.[a] However, according to Brett Warren, King
James VI of Scotland had previously personified this philosophical
concept as the character Epistemon in 1591.
3.4 Gettier problem
3.4.1 Responses to Gettier
126.96.36.199 Infallibilism, indefeasibility
188.8.131.52 Other responses
3.5 Externalism and internalism
3.6 Value problem
4 Acquiring knowledge
A priori and a posteriori knowledge
4.2 Analytic–synthetic distinction
4.3 Branches or schools of thought
4.4 Regress problem
4.4.1 Response to the regress problem
5 Indian pramana
7 See also
10 Works cited
11 External links
Main article: Daemonologie
In a philosophical dialogue, King James VI of Scotland penned the
character Epistemon as the personification of a philosophical concept
to debate on arguments of whether the ancient religious perceptions of
witchcraft should be punished in a politically fueled Christian
society. The arguments King James poses, through the character
Epistemon, are based on ideas of theological reasoning regarding
society's belief, as his opponent Philomathes takes a philosophical
stance on society's legal aspects but seeks to obtain greater
knowledge from Epistemon, whose name is Greek for scientist. This
philosophical approach signified a
Philomath seeking to obtain greater
knowledge through epistemology with the use of theology. The dialogue
was used by King James to educate society on various concepts
including the history and etymology of the subjects debated.
The word epistemology is derived from the ancient Greek epistēmē
meaning "knowledge" and the suffix -logy, meaning "logical discourse"
(derived from the Greek word logos meaning "discourse"). J.F. Ferrier
coined epistemology on the model of 'ontology', to designate that
branch of philosophy which aims to discover the meaning of knowledge,
and called it the 'true beginning' of philosophy. The word is
equivalent to the concept Wissenschaftslehre, which was used by German
Johann Fichte and
Bernard Bolzano for different projects
before it was taken up again by Husserl. French philosophers then gave
the term épistémologie a narrower meaning as 'theory of knowledge
[théorie de la connaissance].' E.g.,
Émile Meyerson opened his
Identity and Reality, written in 1908, with the remark that the word
'is becoming current' as equivalent to 'the philosophy of the
Part of a series on
Related concepts and fundamentals:
In mathematics, it is known that 2 + 2 = 4, but there is also knowing
how to add two numbers, and knowing a person (e.g., oneself), place
(e.g., one's hometown), thing (e.g., cars), or activity (e.g.,
addition). Some philosophers think there is an important distinction
between "knowing that" (know a concept), "knowing how" (understand an
operation), and "acquaintance-knowledge" (know by relation), with
epistemology being primarily concerned with the first of these.
While these distinctions are not explicit in English, they are defined
explicitly in other languages (N.B. some languages related to English
have been said to retain these verbs, e.g. Scots: "wit" and "ken"). In
French, Portuguese, Spanish, German and Dutch to know (a person) is
translated using connaître, conhecer, conocer and kennen
respectively, whereas to know (how to do something) is translated
using savoir, saber, wissen and weten. Modern Greek has the verbs
γνωρίζω (gnorízo) and ξέρω (kséro). Italian has the verbs
conoscere and sapere and the nouns for knowledge are conoscenza and
sapienza. German has the verbs wissen and kennen. Wissen implies
knowing a fact, kennen implies knowing in the sense of being
acquainted with and having a working knowledge of; there is also a
noun derived from kennen, namely Erkennen, which has been said to
imply knowledge in the form of recognition or acknowledgment. The verb
itself implies a process: you have to go from one state to another,
from a state of "not-erkennen" to a state of true erkennen. This verb
seems to be the most appropriate in terms of describing the "episteme"
in one of the modern European languages, hence the German name
"Erkenntnistheorie". The theoretical interpretation and significance
of these linguistic issues remains controversial.
In his paper On Denoting and his later book Problems of Philosophy
Bertrand Russell stressed the distinction between "knowledge by
description" and "knowledge by acquaintance".
Gilbert Ryle is also
credited with stressing the distinction between knowing how and
knowing that in The Concept of Mind. In Personal Knowledge, Michael
Polanyi argues for the epistemological relevance of knowledge how and
knowledge that; using the example of the act of balance involved in
riding a bicycle, he suggests that the theoretical knowledge of the
physics involved in maintaining a state of balance cannot substitute
for the practical knowledge of how to ride, and that it is important
to understand how both are established and grounded. This position is
essentially Ryle's, who argued that a failure to acknowledge the
distinction between knowledge that and knowledge how leads to infinite
In recent times, epistemologists including Sosa, Greco, Kvanvig,
Zagzebski and Duncan Pritchard have argued that epistemology should
evaluate people's "properties" (i.e., intellectual virtues) and not
just the properties of propositions or of propositional mental
Main article: Belief
In common speech, a "statement of belief" is typically an expression
of faith or trust in a person, power or other entity—while it
includes such traditional views, epistemology is also concerned with
what we believe. This includes 'the' truth, and everything else we
accept as 'true' for ourselves from a cognitive point of view.
Main article: Truth
See also: Criteria of truth
Whether someone's belief is true is not a prerequisite for (its)
belief. On the other hand, if something is actually known, then it
categorically cannot be false. For example, if a person believes that
a bridge is safe enough to support them, and attempts to cross it, but
the bridge then collapses under their weight, it could be said that
they believed that the bridge was safe but that their belief was
mistaken. It would not be accurate to say that they knew that the
bridge was safe, because plainly it was not. By contrast, if the
bridge actually supported their weight, then the person might say that
they had believed the bridge was safe, whereas now, after proving it
to themself (by crossing it), they know it was safe.
Epistemologists argue over whether belief is the proper truth-bearer.
Some would rather describe knowledge as a system of justified true
propositions, and others as a system of justified true sentences.
Plato, in his Gorgias, argues that belief is the most commonly invoked
In the Theaetetus,
Socrates considers a number of theories as to what
knowledge is, the last being that knowledge is true belief "with an
account" (meaning explained or defined in some way). According to the
theory that knowledge is justified true belief, in order to know that
a given proposition is true, one must not only believe the relevant
true proposition, but one must also have a good reason for doing so.
One implication of this would be that no one would gain knowledge just
by believing something that happened to be true. For example, an ill
person with no medical training, but with a generally optimistic
attitude, might believe that he will recover from his illness quickly.
Nevertheless, even if this belief turned out to be true, the patient
would not have known that he would get well since his belief lacked
The definition of knowledge as justified true belief was widely
accepted until the 1960s. At this time, a paper written by the
Edmund Gettier provoked major widespread
discussion. (See theories of justification for other views on the
Main article: Gettier problem
Euler diagram representing a definition of knowledge.
Edmund Gettier is best known for a short paper entitled 'Is Justified
Belief Knowledge?' published in 1963, which called into question
the theory of knowledge that had been dominant among philosophers for
thousands of years. This in turn called into question the actual
value of philosophy if such an obvious and easy counterexample to a
major theory could exist without anyone noticing it for thousands of
years. In a few pages, Gettier argued that there are situations in
which one's belief may be justified and true, yet fail to count as
knowledge. That is, Gettier contended that while justified belief in a
true proposition is necessary for that proposition to be known, it is
not sufficient. As in the diagram, a true proposition can be believed
by an individual (purple region) but still not fall within the
"knowledge" category (yellow region).
According to Gettier, there are certain circumstances in which one
does not have knowledge, even when all of the above conditions are
met. Gettier proposed two thought experiments, which have come to be
known as "Gettier cases", as counterexamples to the classical account
of knowledge. One of the cases involves two men, Smith and Jones, who
are awaiting the results of their applications for the same job. Each
man has ten coins in his pocket. Smith has excellent reasons to
believe that Jones will get the job and, furthermore, knows that Jones
has ten coins in his pocket (he recently counted them). From this
Smith infers, "the man who will get the job has ten coins in his
pocket." However, Smith is unaware that he also has ten coins in his
own pocket. Furthermore, Smith, not Jones, is going to get the job.
While Smith has strong evidence to believe that Jones will get the
job, he is wrong. Smith has a justified true belief that the man who
will get the job has ten coins in his pocket; however, according to
Gettier, Smith does not know that the man who will get the job has ten
coins in his pocket, because Smith's belief is "...true by virtue of
the number of coins in Jones's pocket, while Smith does not know how
many coins are in Smith's pocket, and bases his belief...on a count of
the coins in Jones's pocket, whom he falsely believes to be the man
who will get the job." (see p. 122.) These cases fail to be
knowledge because the subject's belief is justified, but only happens
to be true by virtue of luck. In other words, he made the correct
choice (in this case predicting an outcome) for the wrong reasons.
This example is similar to those often given when discussing belief
and truth, wherein a person's belief of what will happen can
coincidentally be correct without his or her having the actual
knowledge to base it on.
Responses to Gettier
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The responses to Gettier have been varied. Usually, they have involved
substantial attempts to provide a definition of knowledge different
from the classical one, either by recasting knowledge as justified
true belief with some additional fourth condition, or proposing a
completely new set of conditions, disregarding the classical ones
In one response to Gettier, the American philosopher Richard Kirkham
has argued that the only definition of knowledge that could ever be
immune to all counterexamples is the infallibilist one. To qualify
as an item of knowledge, goes the theory, a belief must not only be
true and justified, the justification of the belief must necessitate
its truth. In other words, the justification for the belief must be
Yet another possible candidate for the fourth condition of knowledge
Defeasibility theory maintains that there should
be no overriding or defeating truths for the reasons that justify
one's belief. For example, suppose that person S believes he saw Tom
Grabit steal a book from the library and uses this to justify the
claim that Tom Grabit stole a book from the library. A possible
defeater or overriding proposition for such a claim could be a true
proposition like, "Tom Grabit's identical twin Sam is currently in the
same town as Tom." When no defeaters of one's justification exist, a
subject would be epistemologically justified.
The Indian philosopher B. K. Matilal has drawn on the Navya-Nyāya
fallibilism tradition to respond to the Gettier problem.
distinguishes between know p and know that one knows p—these are
different events, with different causal conditions. The second level
is a sort of implicit inference that usually follows immediately the
episode of knowing p (knowledge simpliciter). The Gettier case is
examined by referring to a view of
Gangesha Upadhyaya (late 12th
century), who takes any true belief to be knowledge; thus a true
belief acquired through a wrong route may just be regarded as
knowledge simpliciter on this view. The question of justification
arises only at the second level, when one considers the knowledgehood
of the acquired belief. Initially, there is lack of uncertainty, so it
becomes a true belief. But at the very next moment, when the hearer is
about to embark upon the venture of knowing whether he knows p, doubts
may arise. "If, in some Gettier-like cases, I am wrong in my inference
about the knowledgehood of the given occurrent belief (for the
evidence may be pseudo-evidence), then I am mistaken about the truth
of my belief – and this is in accordance with
Nyaya fallibilism: not
all knowledge-claims can be sustained."
Main article: Reliabilism
Reliabilism has been a significant line of response to the Gettier
problem among philosophers, originating with work by
Alvin Goldman in
the 1960s. According to reliabilism, a belief is justified (or
otherwise supported in such a way as to count towards knowledge) only
if it is produced by processes that typically yield a sufficiently
high ratio of true to false beliefs. In other words, this theory
states that a true belief counts as knowledge only if it is produced
by a reliable belief-forming process. Examples of reliable processes
include: standard perceptual processes, remembering, good reasoning,
Reliabilism has been challenged by Gettier cases. Another argument
that challenges reliabilism, like the Gettier cases (although it was
not presented in the same short article as the Gettier cases), is the
case of Henry and the barn façades. In the thought experiment, a man,
Henry, is driving along and sees a number of buildings that resemble
barns. Based on his perception of one of these, he concludes that he
has just seen barns. While he has seen one, and the perception he
based his belief that the one he saw was of a real barn, all the other
barn-like buildings he saw were façades. Theoretically, Henry does
not know that he has seen a barn, despite both his belief that he has
seen one being true and his belief being formed on the basis of a
reliable process (i.e. his vision), since he only acquired his true
belief by accident.
Robert Nozick has offered the following definition of knowledge: S
knows that P if and only if:
S believes that P;
if P were false, S would not believe that P;
if P were true, S would believe that P.
Nozick argues that the third of these conditions serves to address
cases of the sort described by Gettier. Nozick further claims this
condition addresses a case of the sort described by D. M.
Armstrong: A father believes his daughter innocent of committing a
particular crime, both because of faith in his baby girl and (now)
because he has seen presented in the courtroom a conclusive
demonstration of his daughter's innocence. His belief via the method
of the courtroom satisfies the four subjunctive conditions, but his
faith-based belief does not. If his daughter were guilty, he would
still believe her innocent, on the basis of faith in his daughter;
this would violate the third condition.
The British philosopher
Simon Blackburn has criticized this
formulation by suggesting that we do not want to accept as knowledge
beliefs, which, while they "track the truth" (as Nozick's account
requires), are not held for appropriate reasons. He says that "we do
not want to award the title of knowing something to someone who is
only meeting the conditions through a defect, flaw, or failure,
compared with someone else who is not meeting the conditions." In
addition to this, externalist accounts of knowledge, such as Nozick's,
are often forced to reject closure in cases where it is intuitively
Timothy Williamson has advanced a theory of knowledge according to
which knowledge is not justified true belief plus some extra
condition(s), but primary. In his book
Knowledge and its Limits,
Williamson argues that the concept of knowledge cannot be broken down
into a set of other concepts through analysis—instead, it is sui
generis. Thus, though knowledge requires justification, truth, and
belief, the word "knowledge" can't be, according to Williamson's
theory, accurately regarded as simply shorthand for "justified true
Alvin Goldman writes in his Causal
Theory of Knowing that in order for
knowledge to truly exist there must be a causal chain between the
proposition and the belief of that proposition.
Externalism and internalism
Main article: Internalism and externalism
A central debate about the nature of justification is a debate between
epistemological externalists on the one hand, and epistemological
internalists on the other.
Externalists hold that factors deemed "external", meaning outside of
the psychological states of those who gain knowledge, can be
conditions of justification. For example, an externalist response to
Gettier problem is to say that, in order for a justified true
belief to count as knowledge, there must be a link or dependency
between the belief and the state of the external world. Usually this
is understood to be a causal link. Such causation, to the extent that
it is "outside" the mind, would count as an external,
knowledge-yielding condition. Internalists, on the other hand, assert
that all knowledge-yielding conditions are within the psychological
states of those who gain knowledge.
Though unfamiliar with the internalist/externalist debate himself,
many point to
René Descartes as an early example of the internalist
path to justification. He wrote that, because the only method by which
we perceive the external world is through our senses, and that,
because the senses are not infallible, we should not consider our
concept of knowledge to be infallible. The only way to find anything
that could be described as "indubitably true", he advocates, would be
to see things "clearly and distinctly". He argued that if there is
an omnipotent, good being who made the world, then it's reasonable to
believe that people are made with the ability to know. However, this
does not mean that man's ability to know is perfect. God gave man the
ability to know, but not omniscience.
Descartes said that man must use
his capacities for knowledge correctly and carefully through
methodological doubt. The dictum "Cogito ergo sum" (I think,
therefore I am) is also commonly associated with Descartes' theory,
because in his own methodological doubt, doubting everything he
previously knew in order to start from a blank slate, the first thing
that he could not logically bring himself to doubt was his own
existence: "I do not exist" would be a contradiction in terms; the act
of saying that one does not exist assumes that someone must be making
the statement in the first place. Though
Descartes could doubt his
senses, his body and the world around him, he could not deny his own
existence, because he was able to doubt and must exist in order to do
so. Even if some "evil genius" were to be deceiving him, he would have
to exist in order to be deceived. This one sure point provided him
with what he would call his Archimedean point, in order to further
develop his foundation for knowledge. Simply put, Descartes'
epistemological justification depended upon his indubitable belief in
his own existence and his clear and distinct knowledge of God.
We generally assume that knowledge is more valuable than mere true
belief. If so, what is the explanation? A formulation of the value
problem in epistemology first occurs in Plato's Meno.
Meno that a man who knew the way to Larissa could lead others
there correctly. But so, too, could a man who had true beliefs about
how to get there, even if he had not gone there or had any knowledge
Socrates says that it seems that both knowledge and true
opinion can guide action.
Meno then wonders why knowledge is valued
more than true belief, and why knowledge and true belief are
Socrates responds that knowledge is more valuable than mere
true belief because it is tethered, or justified. Justification, or
working out the reason for a true belief, locks down true belief.
The problem is to identify what (if anything) makes knowledge more
valuable than mere true belief, or that makes knowledge more valuable
than a more minimal conjunction of its components, such as
justification, safety, sensitivity, statistical likelihood, and
anti-Gettier conditions, on a particular analysis of knowledge that
conceives of knowledge as divided into components (to which
knowledge-first epistemological theories, which posit knowledge as
fundamental, are notable exceptions). The value problem reemerged
in the philosophical literature on epistemology in the twenty-first
century following the rise of virtue epistemology in the 1980s, partly
because of the obvious link to the concept of value in ethics.
The value problem has been presented as an argument against epistemic
reliabilism by philosophers including Linda Zagzebski, Wayne Riggs and
Richard Swinburne. Zagzebski analogizes the value of knowledge to the
value of espresso produced by an espresso maker: "The liquid in this
cup is not improved by the fact that it comes from a reliable espresso
maker. If the espresso tastes good, it makes no difference if it comes
from an unreliable machine." For Zagzebski, the value of knowledge
deflates to the value of mere true belief. She assumes that
reliability in itself has no value or disvalue, but Goldman and Olsson
disagree. They point out that Zagzebski's conclusion rests on the
assumption of veritism: all that matters is the acquisition of true
belief. To the contrary, they argue that a reliable process for
acquiring a true belief adds value to the mere true belief by making
it more likely that future beliefs of a similar kind will be true. By
analogy, having a reliable espresso maker that produced a good cup of
espresso would be more valuable than having an unreliable one that
luckily produced a good cup because the reliable one would more likely
produce good future cups compared to the unreliable one.
The value problem is important to assessing the adequacy of theories
of knowledge that conceive of knowledge as consisting of true belief
and other components. According to Kvanvig, an adequate account of
knowledge should resist counterexamples and allow an explanation of
the value of knowledge over mere true belief. Should a theory of
knowledge fail to do so, it would prove inadequate.
One of the more influential responses to the problem is that knowledge
is not particularly valuable and is not what ought to be the main
focus of epistemology. Instead, epistemologists ought to focus on
other mental states, such as understanding. Advocates of virtue
epistemology have argued that the value of knowledge comes from an
internal relationship between the knower and the mental state of
A priori and a posteriori knowledge
Main article: A priori and a posteriori
The nature of this distinction has been disputed by various
philosophers; however, the terms may be roughly defined as follows:
A priori knowledge is knowledge that is known independently of
experience (that is, it is non-empirical, or arrived at beforehand,
usually by reason). It will henceforth be acquired through anything
that is independent from experience.
A posteriori knowledge is knowledge that is known by experience (that
is, it is empirical, or arrived at afterward).
A priori knowledge is a way of gaining knowledge without the need of
experience. In Bruce Russell's article "A Priori Justification and
Knowledge" he says that it is "knowledge based on a priori
justification," (1) which relies on intuition and the nature of these
intuitions. A priori knowledge is often contrasted with posteriori
knowledge, which is knowledge gained by experience. A way to look at
the difference between the two is through an example. Bruce Russell
gives two propositions in which the reader decides which one he
believes more. Option A: All crows are birds. Option B: All crows are
black. If you believe option A, then you are a priori justified in
believing it because you don't have to see a crow to know it's a bird.
If you believe in option B, then you are posteriori justified to
believe it because you have seen many crows therefore knowing they are
black. He goes on to say that it doesn't matter if the statement is
true or not, only that if you believe in one or the other that
The idea of a priori knowledge is that it is based on intuition or
Laurence BonJour says in his article "The Structure
of Empirical Knowledge", that a "rational insight is an immediate,
non-inferential grasp, apprehension or 'seeing' that some proposition
is necessarily true." (3) Going back to the crow example, by Laurence
BonJour's definition the reason you would believe in option A is
because you have an immediate knowledge that a crow is a bird, without
ever experiencing one.
Evolutionary psychology takes a novel approach to the problem. It says
that there is an innate predisposition for certain types of learning.
"Only small parts of the brain resemble a tabula rasa; this is true
even for human beings. The remainder is more like an exposed negative
waiting to be dipped into a developer fluid"
Main article: Analytic–synthetic distinction
Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, drew a distinction
between "analytic" and "synthetic" propositions. He contended that
some propositions are such that we can know them to be true just by
understanding their meaning. For example, consider, "My father's
brother is my uncle." We can know it to be true solely by virtue of
our understanding what its terms mean. Philosophers call such
propositions "analytic". Synthetic propositions, on the other hand,
have distinct subjects and predicates. An example would be, "My
father's brother has black hair." Kant stated that all mathematical
and scientific statements are analytic a priori propositions because
they are necessarily true but our knowledge about the attributes of
the mathematical or physical subjects we can only get by logical
The American philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine, in his Two Dogmas of
Empiricism, famously challenged the distinction, arguing that the two
have a blurry boundary. Some contemporary philosophers have offered
more sustainable accounts of the distinction.
Branches or schools of thought
The historical study of philosophical epistemology is the historical
study of efforts to gain philosophical understanding or knowledge of
the nature and scope of human knowledge. Since efforts to get that
kind of understanding have a history, the questions philosophical
epistemology asks today about human knowledge are not necessarily the
same as they once were. But that does not mean that philosophical
epistemology is itself a historical subject, or that it pursues only
or even primarily historical understanding.
In philosophy, empiricism is generally a theory of knowledge focusing
on the role of experience, especially experience based on perceptual
observations by the senses. Certain forms treat all knowledge as
empirical, while some regard disciplines such as
mathematics and logic as exceptions.
There are many variants of empiricism, positivism, realism and common
sense being among the most commonly expounded. But central to all
empiricist epistemologies is the notion of the epistemologically
privileged status of sense data.
Many idealists believe that knowledge is primarily (at least in some
areas) acquired by a priori processes or is innate—for example, in
the form of concepts not derived from experience. The relevant
theoretical processes often go by the name "intuition". The
relevant theoretical concepts may purportedly be part of the structure
of the human mind (as in Kant's theory of transcendental idealism), or
they may be said to exist independently of the mind (as in Plato's
theory of Forms).
Main article: Rationalism
By contrast with empiricism and idealism, which centres around the
epistemologically privileged status of sense data (empirical) and the
primacy of Reason (theoretical) respectively, modern rationalism adds
a third 'system of thinking', (as
Gaston Bachelard has termed these
areas) and holds that all three are of equal importance: The
empirical, the theoretical and the abstract. For Bachelard,
rationalism makes equal reference to all three systems of thinking.
Constructivism is a view in philosophy according to which all
"knowledge is a compilation of human-made constructions", "not the
neutral discovery of an objective truth". Whereas objectivism is
concerned with the "object of our knowledge", constructivism
emphasises "how we construct knowledge". Constructivism proposes
new definitions for knowledge and truth that form a new paradigm,
based on inter-subjectivity instead of the classical objectivity, and
on viability instead of truth. Piagetian constructivism, however,
believes in objectivity—constructs can be validated through
experimentation. The constructivist point of view is pragmatic; as
Vico said: "The norm of the truth is to have made it."
Pragmatism is an empiricist epistemology formulated by Charles Sanders
Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, which understands truth as that
which is practically applicable in the world. Peirce formulates the
maxim: 'Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical
bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our
conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the
object.' This suggests that we are to analyse ideas and objects in
the world for their practical value. This is in contrast to any
correspondence theory of truth which holds that what is true is what
corresponds to an external reality.
William James suggests that
through a pragmatist epistemology 'Theories thus become instruments,
not answers to enigmas in which we can rest.'  A more contemporary
understanding of pragmatism was developed by the philosopher Richard
Rorty who proposed that values were historically contingent and
dependent upon their utility within a given historical period. 
Main article: Regress argument
The regress problem is the problem of providing a complete logical
foundation for human knowledge. The traditional way of supporting a
rational argument is to appeal to other rational arguments, typically
using chains of reason and rules of logic. A classic example that goes
Aristotle is deducing that
Socrates is mortal. We have a
logical rule that says All humans are mortal and an assertion that
Socrates is human and we deduce that
Socrates is mortal. In this
example how do we know that
Socrates is human? Presumably we apply
other rules such as: All born from human females are human. Which then
leaves open the question how do we know that all born from humans are
human? This is the regress problem: how can we eventually terminate a
logical argument with some statement(s) that do not require further
justification but can still be considered rational and justified?
As John Pollock stated:
... to justify a belief one must appeal to a further justified belief.
This means that one of two things can be the case. Either there are
some beliefs that we can be justified for holding, without being able
to justify them on the basis of any other belief, or else for each
justified belief there is an infinite regress of (potential)
justification [the nebula theory]. On this theory there is no rock
bottom of justification. Justification just meanders in and out
through our network of beliefs, stopping nowhere.
The apparent impossibility of completing an infinite chain of
reasoning is thought by some to support skepticism. It is also the
impetus for Descartes' famous dictum: I think, therefore I am.
Descartes was looking for some logical statement that could be true
without appeal to other statements.
Response to the regress problem
Many epistemologists studying justification have attempted to argue
for various types of chains of reasoning that can escape the regress
Foundationalists respond to the regress problem by asserting that
certain "foundations" or "basic beliefs" support other beliefs but do
not themselves require justification from other beliefs. These beliefs
might be justified because they are self-evident, infallible, or
derive from reliable cognitive mechanisms. Perception, memory, and a
priori intuition are often considered to be possible examples of basic
The chief criticism of foundationalism is that if a belief is not
supported by other beliefs, accepting it may be arbitrary or
Another response to the regress problem is coherentism, which is the
rejection of the assumption that the regress proceeds according to a
pattern of linear justification. To avoid the charge of circularity,
coherentists hold that an individual belief is justified circularly by
the way it fits together (coheres) with the rest of the belief system
of which it is a part. This theory has the advantage of avoiding the
infinite regress without claiming special, possibly arbitrary status
for some particular class of beliefs. Yet, since a system can be
coherent while also being wrong, coherentists face the difficulty of
ensuring that the whole system corresponds to reality. Additionally,
most logicians agree that any argument that is circular is trivially
valid. That is, to be illuminating, arguments must be linear with
conclusions that follow from stated premises.
However, Warburton writes in 'Thinking from A to Z', "Circular
arguments are not invalid; in other words, from a logical point of
view there is nothing intrinsically wrong with them. However, they
are, when viciously circular, spectacularly uninformative. (Warburton
A position known as "foundherentism", advanced by Susan Haack, is
meant to be a unification of foundationalism and coherentism. One
component of this theory is what is called the "analogy of the
crossword puzzle." Whereas, for example, infinitists regard the
regress of reasons as "shaped" like a single line,
Susan Haack has
argued that it is more like a crossword puzzle, with multiple lines
mutually supporting each other.
An alternative resolution to the regress problem is known as
"infinitism". Infinitists take the infinite series to be merely
potential, in the sense that an individual may have indefinitely many
reasons available to them, without having consciously thought through
all of these reasons when the need arises. This position is motivated
in part by the desire to avoid what is seen as the arbitrariness and
circularity of its chief competitors, foundationalism and coherentism.
Main article: Pramana
Indian philosophical schools such as the Hindu Nyaya, and Carvaka, and
later, the Jain and Buddhist philosophical schools, developed an
epistemological tradition which is termed "pramana" independently of
the Western philosophical tradition.
Pramana can be translated as
"instrument of knowledge" and refers to various means or sources of
knowledge which were held to be reliable by Indian philosophers. Each
Indian philosophy had their own theories about which
pramanas were valid means to knowledge and which was unreliable (and
why). A Vedic text, Taittirīya Āraṇyaka (c. 9th–6th
centuries BCE), lists "four means of attaining correct knowledge":
smṛti ("tradition" or "scripture"), pratyakṣa ("perception"),
aitihya ("communication by one who is expert", or "tradition), and
anumāna ("reasoning" or "inference").
In the Indian traditions, the most widely discussed pramanas are:
Pratyakṣa (perception), Anumāṇa (inference), Upamāṇa
(comparison and analogy), Arthāpatti (postulation, derivation from
circumstances), Anupalabdi (non-perception, negative/cognitive proof)
and Śabda (word, testimony of past or present reliable experts).
Nyaya school (beginning with the
Nyāya Sūtras of Gotama,
between 6th-century BCE and 2nd-century CE) were a proponent
of realism and supported four pramanas (perception, inference,
comparison/analogy and testimony), the Buddhist epistemologists
Dignaga and Dharmakirti) generally accepted only perception and
The theory of knowledge of the Buddha in the early Buddhist texts has
been interpreted as a form of pragmatism as well as a form of
correspondence theory. Likewise, the Buddhist philosopher
Dharmakirti has been interpreted both as holding a form of pragmatism
or correspondence theory for his view that what is true is what has
effective power (arthakriya). The Buddhist
theory of emptiness (shunyata) meanwhile has been interpreted as a
form of philosophical skepticism.
The main Jain contribution to epistemology has been their theory of
"many sided-ness" or "multi-perspectivism" (Anekantavada) which says
that since the world is multifaceted, any single viewpoint is limited
(naya — a partial standpoint). This has been interpreted as a
kind of pluralism or perspectivism. According to Jain
epistemology, none of the pramanas gives absolute or perfect knowledge
since they are each limited points of view.
Carvaka school of materialists only accepted the pramana of
perception and hence were one of the first empiricists. There was
also another school of philosophical skepticism, the Ajñana.
Main article: Philosophical skepticism
Skepticism is a position that questions the validity of some or all of
Skepticism does not refer to any one specific school
of philosophy, rather it is a thread that runs through many
philosophical discussions of epistemology. The first well known Greek
Socrates who claimed that his only knowledge was that he
knew nothing with certainty. In Indian philosophy, Sanjaya
Belatthiputta was a famous skeptic and the Buddhist
has been seen as taking up a form of skepticism. Descartes' most
famous inquiry into mind and body also began as an exercise in
Descartes began by questioning the validity of all
knowledge and looking for some fact that was irrefutable. In so doing,
he came to his famous dictum: I think, therefore I am.
Foundationalism and the other responses to the regress problem are
essentially defenses against skepticism. Similarly, the pragmatism of
William James can be viewed as a coherentist defense against
skepticism. James discarded conventional philosophical views of truth
and defined truth to be based on how well a concept works in a
specific context rather than objective rational criteria. The
philosophy of Logical
Positivism and the work of philosophers such as
Kuhn and Popper can be viewed as skepticism applied to what can truly
be considered scientific knowledge.
For a topical guide to this subject, see Outline of epistemology.
Gödel's incompleteness theorems
Methods of obtaining knowledge
Monopolies of knowledge
Philosophy of space and time
Sociology of knowledge
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Stanford Encyclopedia of
Epistemology by Matthias Steup.
Epistemology by William Talbott.
Epistemology by Michael Bradie & William Harms.
Philosophy of Science by Elizabeth Anderson.
Epistemology by Richard Feldman.
Epistemology by Alvin Goldman.
Epistemology by John Greco.
Knowledge How by Jeremy Fantl.
Philosophy Study Guide offers many suggestions on what to
read, depending on the student's familiarity with the subject:
Epistemology & Methodology
Epistemology at PhilPapers
Knowledge-How at Philpapers
Epistemology at the Indiana
What Is Epistemology? – a brief introduction to the topic by Keith
Belief and Critical
Rationalism by Mathew Toll
Epistemology Introduction, Part 1 and Part 2 by Paul Newall at the
Knowledge (1986) – Marjorie Clay (ed.), an
electronic publication from The Council for Philosophical Studies.
An Introduction to
Epistemology by Paul Newall, aimed at beginners.
A short film about epistemology, for beginners on YouTube
Augustine of Hippo
A. J. Ayer
G. E. Moore
P. F. Strawson
Willard Van Orman Quine
Internalism and externalism
Theory of forms
A priori knowledge
Problem of induction
Problem of other minds
Outline of epistemology
Faith and rationality
Philosophy of perception
Philosophy of science
Articles related to epistemology
Philosophy of psychiatry
Philosophy of perception
Space and time
Schools of thought
Acintya bheda abheda
Foundationalism / Coherentism
Internalism and Externalism
Ordinary language philosophy
Rationalism / Reasonism
Philosophy by region
Women in philosophy
Philosophy of science
A priori and a posteriori
Ignoramus et ignorabimus
Problem of induction
Unity of science
Positivism / Reductionism / Determinism
Rationalism / Empiricism
Received view / Semantic view of theories
Scientific realism / Anti-realism
thermal and statistical
Space and time
Criticism of science
Faith and rationality
History and philosophy of science
History of science
History of evolutionary thought
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Philosophers of science by era
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John Stuart Mill
Charles Sanders Peirce
Alfred North Whitehead
C. D. Broad
Carl Gustav Hempel
W. V. O. Quine
Bas van Fraassen
Logical positivism / analytic philosophy
Machian positivism (empiriocriticism)
Rankean historical positivism
Russian positivism (empiriomonism)
Critique of metaphysics
Unity of science
Problem of induction
Related paradigm shifts
in the history of science
Non-Euclidean geometry (1830s)
Heisenberg uncertainty principle (1927)
Criticism of science
Holism in anthropology
Naturalism in literature
Objectivity in science
Philosophy of science
Relationship between religion and science
Social science (Philosophy)
1980s Fourth Great Debate in international relations
1990s Science Wars
1830 The Course in Positive Philosophy
1848 A General View of Positivism
1869 Critical History of Philosophy
Idealism and Positivism
1886 The Analysis of Sensations
Logic of Modern Physics
1936 Language, Truth, and Logic
1959 The Two Cultures
2001 The Universe in a Nutshell
A. J. Ayer
Materialism and Empirio-criticism
1923 History and Class Consciousness
Logic of Scientific Discovery
1936 The Poverty of Historicism
1942 World Hypotheses
1951 Two Dogmas of Empiricism
Truth and Method
1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
1963 Conjectures and Refutations
1964 One-Dimensional Man
Knowledge and Human Interests
1978 The Poverty of Theory
1980 The Scientific Image
1986 The Rhetoric of Economics
Theodor W. Adorno
Willard Van Orman Quine
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