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Epistemology is the branch of Philosophy dealing with the nature, origin and scope of Knowledge, and Method in obtaining Knowledge. Some consensus exists as to which epistemological methods give human beings the most accurate understanding of the truth (rather than "The Truth"), but not whether there is just one "Truth".

Epistemology asks about the ultimate sources of Justification, Rationality, and other "epistemic" features of our beliefs. "How do we know things?" "What do we know when we know something?" These basic questions are not as simple-minded as they sound, and they challenge our beliefs to answer them.

The Nature of Belief

Because all people have epistemological beliefs, even if unconsciously, thinking beings cannot understand and analyze ideas without first having a system to accept and process those ideas. All people begin with rudimentary and undeveloped epistemological processes, however, those who study Philosophy and related disciplines can recognize faster how epistemological systems work. Philosophers and scientists, for example, can and do develop their own Epistemology from new discoveries.

Many of our beliefs have positive epistemological features, and many beliefs are quite rational and "justified", a term philosophers use in a technical way. However, most of us, at least in some moments, are not content with being merely rational, because even a rational belief can be false. One can be careful and logical in forming a belief, remain rational in holding the belief, but still be wrong when the belief is false. Arguably, our ultimate ambition is to believe the Truth, to put it simply, but in the press of the realities before us in the real world, the epistemological features of belief require much more expression than simple right-or-wrong duality. The question then becomes one of at what point belief is true, to what extent it is true, or for how long it is true.

One wonders how we can be sure any beliefs are true. Are there any guarantees available, we might ask? Some criteria can be used in order to decide on the truth of our beliefs, and with Logic, we can base our beliefs on Observation and Experiment, conscientiously answering objections found in Evidence, then pouring the results back into our formulations. Belief is rational, and possibly true, when it follows these basic guidelines. Epistemology and Logic, as forms of rationality, provide indicators of truth: If our beliefs are rational, then they are at least probably true. At the very least, the rationality of a belief gives us reason to think the belief is true.

Philosophers of all "schools of thought" agree, that people have the capacity to think of questions which seem to be unanswerable. For instance: "Is there an End to Time?" "Is there a God?" "Is there a Reality beyond that which we can sense?" Such questions are considered Transcendental, because they go beyond the very limits of human rationalality, beyond inquiry and even evidence, as Immanuel Kant argued. In the 20th century, some philosophers, such as the Positivists, declared such metaphysical questions to be devoid of any cognitive significance: Others rejected this, and still take these questions seriously, continuing to ask and search for answers.

Traditional and New Approaches

The two major schools of thought, inherited from the Modern Philosophy period (and thus not entirely applicable today), may prove useful in the basic categorizing of trends throughout the history of Epistemology:

  • Continental Rationalism holds there are innate ideas not found in experience. These ideas exist independently of any experience people may have, and may in some way derive from the very structure of the human mind, or they may exist independently of any mind. If they exist independently, they may be understood by a human mind once it reaches a necessary degree of sophistication.
  • British Empiricism denies there are any concepts which exist prior to experience. All knowledge is a product of active human learning, based upon perceptory interaction. Perception, however, may cause concern, since illusions, misunderstandings, and even hallucinations prove that perception does not always depict the world as it really is.


Immanuel Kant is widely credited with creating a synthesis between the two views, in his Transcendental Idealism. In Kant's view, people certainly do have human knowledge prior to particular experiences (a priori), such as causality, which is not devoid of cognitive significance, but that they also formulate knowledge based on experience (a posteriori). Kant held there are also synthetic a priori concepts, which are generated within the mind and used to process new empirical experiences, and of which we make use every day. An example is in driving down a road we've never seen before. We make use of all kinds of concepts we've formed and bring to bear on the new experience, concepts like Time and Distance, road signs, and even the operation of the car. This "Copernican Revolution", as Kant called it, brought together the otherwise disparate schools.

  • Foundationalism holds there are basic beliefs in which we can be certain, and we can also be confident in other beliefs rigorously derived from these. A famous example Descartes' cogito ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am"), by which he meant it is impossible to doubt one's own Existence. Whether our observation of our own mental activity is fundamentally different or more reliable than other observations is still in question. The difficulty of Foundationalism is that no set of basic beliefs proposed for it are trivial.
  • Coherentism holds we are more justified in beliefs if they form a coherent whole with our other beliefs. Because Foundational beliefs are rather limiting, Coherentism allows us to create a far richer "web of belief". However, the problem is that a set of beliefs can be internally consistent but still reflect poorly on the actual world. As the saying goes, two drunken sailors holding each other up may not be standing on solid ground themselves.


Recently, near the end of the Contemporary Philosophy period, Gilbert Harman and Susan Haack separately attempted to fuse Foundationalism and Coherentism. Haack called it "Foundherentalism", which acrues degrees of relative confidence to beliefs by mediating between the two approaches, establishing foundations for tautological beliefs, bringing in more esoteric beliefs through relative coherence. Newer philosophers also argue for combinations resembling Kantian Idealism or a mesh of Foundations and Coherence Theory. It is clear, neither Rationalism nor Empiricism, Foundationalism nor Coherentism, work on their own to explain human knowledge, or how knowledge is produced and maintained. It is is a very complicated process, as the famous Gettier Problem illustrated. A fusion of all these schools has been suggested, as a result.

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Some content adapted from the Wikinfo article "Epistemology" under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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