Meditation XIV, Epistēmē – A Brief Introduction to Epistemology

Sigmund Freud – The Science Museum, London

~ When two people meet, they unconsciously affect one another in ways the mind cannot even begin to comprehend. The meeting may be brief and uneventful with nothing fruitful happening as a result of it. But the die is cast and the wheels of time have turned. The present as we know it is now the past and the future is always just beyond reach. Looking backwards, we see the roads we travelled and everything is fated. Looking forward, we see nothing but mist and mazes.  Nothing happens out of mere coincidence and randomness. No effect is without a cause just as no cause is without an effect. For every action there is a reaction and we find that events of the past are necessary and certain. Our meeting today is inevitable.


Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the nature, scope and possibility of knowledge. It is the study of how right our beliefs and opinions really are and the extent of human knowledge. Since all of us have opinions, beliefs, prejudices and biases, the study of epistemology is relevant to all of us. What we take to be (our knowledge) must be examined not only as they are but also the manner which they came to be inside our minds. This includes the studying of the various methods that we use to acquire new beliefs and render old ones obsolete. Due to the fact that epistemology involves evaluating the methods used to acquire new beliefs and the degree of accuracy of these beliefs, it is commonly known as the First Philosophy. What use it is to seek an understanding of the world only to realize that the way we gain this knowledge is flawed? Therefore it is in epistemology that we must start the journey into philosophy proper.

Many philosophers since the days of Socrates have sought to provide a basis which would demonstrate the possibility of knowledge. The philosopher Plato had little concerns with this absolute ‘basis’ although he was interested in the nature of knowledge. He was more concerned with what distinguishes knowledge from belief. For Plato, correct belief can be turned into knowledge through fixing it by means of a reason or cause. His pupil, Aristotle, showed more interested in searching for a ‘criterion of truth’ that could be used as a basis to demonstrate the possibility of knowledge. According to Aristotle, one thinks that one has the knowledge of something when we know its reason and cause. He then proceeds further to use syllogism (if A equals B and B equals C, A equals C), a form of logic, to find the necessary truth about something. The teachings of both Plato and Aristotle would stretch late into the Middle Ages when Christian philosophers like Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine adopted them.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, Western philosophy was divided between the rationalist and the empiricist. Rationalists like Descartes emphasized the role of reason in gaining knowledge while empiricists like John Locke emphasized the role of experience. The philosopher Descartes employed a method of systematic scepticism in his search for certainty as a foundation for further knowledge. His method of doubt led to one of the most famous propositions in philosophy, namely, Cogito Ergo Sum (I think, therefore I am). For Descartes, although one can doubt even one’s own existence, one cannot doubt that there exists a being that is doing the doubting. As a result, a version of his proposition starts with, I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am. He goes on further and establishes the existence of self as a thinking thing which he held to be the foundation that all further knowledge would stand upon.

John Locke on the other hand, maintained that all our ideas arise from experience although he did not think that all knowledge of truths was derived from experience. Some knowledge, he maintains, rest on intuition and demonstration. He did however; think that experience is the foundation for knowledge in that the simple ideas gained from the senses are the source of everything else that we can understand. This view is in contrast of the rationalist philosopher Leibniz who holds that there is the possibility of innate ideas that are independent of experience or a priori. Such knowledge is derived from truths absolutely necessary that exist prior to experience and demonstration.

It was only later that Immanuel Kant synthesized the two opposing schools of thought by saying that although all knowledge begins with experience, it does not follow that it all arises out of experience. This provided a bridge that shows that the existence of a priori knowledge is quite compatible with Locke’s view that no knowledge is innate. Kant proceeded by demonstrating that there exist synthetic a priori knowledge that are necessary like those we find in mathematics. For Kant, there are limits to pure reason which human understanding cannot violate. Any attempt to do so would be hindered by the presence of antinomies and contradictions.

There are many problems that plague the study of epistemology. Among these problems include justifying beliefs that we choose to adopt. What makes a belief justified? Is it because the belief is a result from a reliable process of thought? Some philosophers claim that beliefs are justified if they are coherent with all existing beliefs. Should this be true, there would be no need for a solid foundation that we should base all our knowledge on. All that is required is that the new belief be in line with all existing beliefs. The second problem lies in the structure of how we justify our beliefs. If belief A is justified because of belief B, what justifies belief B? Consequently, there would be an infinite regress to find the cause of each belief. This of course would be an impossible task for any human.

Sceptics are keen on exploiting the weakness of our inability to provide a solid foundation which all knowledge can rest on. Sceptical philosophy founded by Pyrrho refused to acknowledge the claims to knowledge unless a ‘criterion of truth’ can be produced. Knowledge-sceptics hold that we cannot achieve knowledge and that we have no right to accept as truth any of our beliefs. Furthermore, because sceptics claim that they can always find an equally good reason against a certain belief, the balance of reasons (for and against a certain belief) implies that we cannot defend our right to our beliefs by only showing evidence that support them. Should this be true, all knowledge would be impossible!

It now falls into the hands of the philosophers to objectively look at the problems of epistemology and to understand whether there are any remote likelihood of gaining knowledge in our world. As we enter into this realm of illusions and insanity, we must stand ready to question even our deepest, darkest and dearest beliefs. Failing to do so would contradict the very nature of this enquiry and would cause us to fall short of the ultimate goal in our quest for knowledge. As we take a deep breath before plunging into the abyss, we should keep in mind that the ultimate truth of all reality belongs to the heavens and not to mortal humans. Even so, it is inevitable that we remain infatuated with the truth.

Having stated briefly introduced the study of epistemology, I would now endeavour to provide a summary of important works in the field of epistemology. The literature that I have selected for this enterprise aims to give a thorough but concise overview of nature of our human knowledge. This task, I admit, is a massive one. The writings of famous philosophers on knowledge have accumulated to piles and piles of printed material since the time of Plato and Aristotle. Some of these works are impenetrable and exceedingly time-consuming to read and study. In order to reduce this process of summarizing to something more feasible and achievable, I have narrowed down the amount writings to important selections of philosophical work.

I am well aware that many individuals may not agree with the range of selections that I will choose to include. However, I do sincerely believe that the works I have chosen would provide an individual new to philosophy the necessary starting point for understanding epistemology. There are two pitfalls in summarizing works of other writers. First, making philosophical works too brief and short would sometimes mean that the original meaning that the author intended to convey would be distorted. Second, the person summarizing may add in his own personal opinions and views on certain matters that would cause other readers to misinterpret the original meaning of things and link these misinterpretations to the original author. I hope do avoid these pitfalls as much as I can. Furthermore, I would also appreciate any individual who points out any misinterpretation on my part. This ends the Fourteenth Meditation.

~ Ee Suen Zheng

One Response to “Meditation XIV, Epistēmē – A Brief Introduction to Epistemology”
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  1. the art of war…

    …He wrote that . . ….

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