World Cultures General Glossary
Epistemology

General Glossary
Philosophy
   Epistemology, as a branch of Western philosophy, is the study of human knowledge. In Western philosophy, epistemology asks the following questions:
  • What do we know?
  • On what can we base certainty?
  • How do we know things?
  • How do we manage with uncertain knowledge?
Although most cultures deal with these questions in some form or another, the Western philosophical tradition is more or less unique in its insistence on abstracting these questions into a separate line of inquiry.


Ancient Greece
The Sophists
   In this tradition, it is the Sophists who first challenged the certainty of human knowledge. Fundametal to the Sophistic way of thinking was the idea that "man is the measure of all things," as Protagoras put it. This meant that human knowledge, rather than conforming to some objective reality, in fact imposed itself and its own interpretations on the outside world. The Sophists were, however, less concerned with natural sciences than they were with ethics and politics; they would argue that there was no such thing as absolute or objective morality.


Ancient Greece
Socrates

General Glossary
Skepticism
   This tradition was carried on by Socrates, although neither he nor his pupils thought of him as a Sophist. However, Socrates carried the Sophistic concern with knowledge to a radical extreme. He claimed that he knew one and only one thing: that he knew nothing. So he set about questioning people who claimed to have knowledge, ostensibly for the purpose of learning from them. His method of questioning, called elenchus , imitated a cross-examination in a court of law. He would keep questioning his listener until he had forced him into a contradiction. As in a court of law, this contradiction proved that the speaker was lying in some way, in this case, did not really know what they claimed to know. Socrates, then, was the first in a line of skeptics, that questioned whether or not human beings can know anything at all. While Socrates never claimed that knowledge is impossible, still, at his death, he never claimed to have discovered any piece of knowledge whatsoever.


Ancient Greece
Aristotle
Plato
   Socrates, then, radically shifted the concerns of Greek philosophy. After the death of Socrates, the two major philosophers of Greek history, Plato and Aristotle, had to address the question of human knowledge, for neither were willing to be as radical as Socrates and claim no knowledge whatsoever. For Plato, knowledge corresponded to the nature of the object: objects which really exist produce certain knowledge, while objects that only partly exist, or don't exist at all, produce uncertain knowledge. Therefore, since your knowledge of the phenomenal world is defective, that is, since you can't know the phenomenal world with certainty, that means that the phenomenal world only partly exists. Aristotle took a similar view but refused to tie the certainty of human knowledge to the existence (or lack of existence) of the objects of human knowledge. Instead, Aristotle proposed that some objects of human knowledge, such as mathematics, allow for certain knowledge, while other objects of human knowledge, such as ethics and politics, because there are so many variables involved, only allow for probably knowledge. Certain knowledge is knowledge that was always true; probable knowledge is knowledge that is true most of the time .


   The great revolution of Aristoteleanism, then, was the division of human sciences ("science" means "knowledge"). Each science had its appropriate method of inquiry and its appropriate quality of knowledge. Aristotle refused to say that certain knowledge is better than probable knowledge, just that it was different. Aristotle also made epistemology a separate line of inquiry; he separated out logic, which is the science of making propositions about the world, as a distinct human science. The concern with logic and argument in the classical world is largely an epistemological concern.


Hellenistic Greece
Skepticism
   Much of the classical tradition following Aristotle focusses on the nature of probable knowledge. Hellenistic and Roman philosophy almost overwhelmingly rejected the notion that human beings can know anything for certain; the most radical of these thinkers were called Skeptics and Cynics. Their concern was largely with the nature of probable knowledge: how do you arrive at that knowledge? How do you apply it? And most importantly, how do you convince others? The latter question dominated the science of rhetoric, which took as its starting point the idea that all ethical and political questions yielded probable, and hence uncertain, knowledge.


   In 30 A.D., when the Roman governor of Palestine was confronted by an angry Jewish crowd demanding the execution of the leader of a small, radical religious movement, like Socrates, he cross-examined him. When he asked him if he was a king, the man replied, "To this end I was born, and for this cause I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone that belongs to the truth will hear me." The governor, being a Roman, answered as any educated Roman would. For Pontius Pilate had been raised on the Greek and Roman skeptical traditions that denied that there was anything like certain truth, only probable knowledge. So, as any other Roman would have done, he asked the question, "What is truth?," but received no answer.

   You can see the dilemma that the introduction of Christianity into Greek and Roman culture precipitated. In many ways, the philosophy of Christianity, which insisted on an absolute knowledge of the divine and of ethics, did not fit the Greek and Roman skeptical emphasis on probable knowledge. Paul of Tarsus, one of the original founders of Christianity, answered this question simply: the knowledge of the Romans and Greeks, that is, human knowledge, is the knowledge of fools. Christianity at its inception, then, had a strong anti-rational perspective. This did not, however, make the problem go away. Much of the history of early Christian philosophy is an attempt to paste Greek and Roman philosophical methods and questions onto the new religion; the first thing that had to go was the insistence on probable knowledge to the exclusion of certain knowledge. So early Christian thinkers such as Augustine and Boethius took on the epistemological traditions of Greece and Rome to demonstrate that one could arrive at certain knowledge in matters of Christian religion.


European Enlightenment
Descartes
   The most serious challenge to Western epistemological traditions came with Descartes and Cartesianism. Descartes set about reinventing Western epistemology with a radical perspective: what if nothing were true? How, if you doubted everything, could you find something—anything—that was true. His conclusion, of course, was the famous cogito: Cogito ergo sum , or, "I think, therefore I am." From this base he built up a series of other true propositions, including the existence of God. In many ways, Descartes was trying to accomplish the same thing that Augustine, Boethius, and other early Christian thinkers were attempting: how do you address the possibility, firmly entrenched in the Western tradition, that there may be no such thing as certain knowledge? How do you reconcile that with religious faith? For that was Descartes' ultimate goal: to prove the existence of God and the validity of the Christian religion.


   Although he saw himself as answering old and vexing questions in the Christian tradition, he actually created a radically new way of approaching the world: systematic doubt. The hallmark of Cartesianism is setting up a formal system of doubt, that is, of questioning all propositions and conclusions using a formal system. Once one has arrived at a certain piece of knowledge, that piece of knowledge then becomes the basis for clearing up other doubts. Descartes systematic doubt became the basis of the Enlightenment and modern scientific tradition. One begins with a proposition, or hypothesis, that is in doubt and then tests that proposition until one arrives, more or less, at a certain conclusion. That does not, however, end the story. When confronted by the conclusions of others, one's job is to doubt those conclusions and redo the tests. Once a hypothesis has been tested and retested, then one can conclude that one has arrived at a "scientific truth." That, of course, doesn't end it, for all scientific truths can be doubted sometime in the future. In other words, although scientists speak about certainty and truth all the time, the foundational epistemology of Western science is to doubt everything.

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-3-97