What is Epistemology

Epistemology is from two Greek words –episteme (to know) and logos (study of). When combined. It means the study of the theories of knowledge. Epistemology, or the theory of knowledge as it is sometimes called, is that branch of philosophy which investigates the nature, scope and quality of human knowledge. Epistemology can also be seen as the investigation into the grounds and nature of knowledge itself.

The study of epistemology focuses on our means for acquiring knowledge and how we can differentiate between truth and falsehood. Modern epistemology generally involves a debate between rationalism and empiricism, of the question of whether knowledge can be acquired a priori or a posteriori.

Epistemology was practiced since Plato’s, Socrates’, and Aristotle’s day, but only gained that title in the 17th and 18th centuries. Despite the antiquity of its problems, it is still one of the most hotly debate areas of philosophy. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a group of philosopher from Europe began this influential branch of philosophy.

Some of them include Emmanuel Kant Rene Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, and George Berkeley. They believe that, since every fact, hypothesis, conjecture, etc. about the universe is something produced by us, perhaps, by studying ourselves and how we come to know these things; we could come to know the universe for us.

This is the study of the way in which we know rather than epistemologists did not think the study of our nature was just primary, but rather that it was necessary to understanding what parts of the universe were accessible to us.

This means question like; what is knowledge? How do human acquire knowledge? Can we know anything at all? How does knowledge originate? Can we know about necessary and possible things? Can we know we aren’t been fooled by a little demon? Can we know we are the only minds?

In seeking to find reliable source of knowledge there arose two central schools of epistemology, the rationalists (whose view is called rationalism) and the empiricists (whose view is called empiricism).


Rationalism is an epistemological view that the mind or intellect, rather than the senses, is the only or main source of knowledge. In other words, rationalism is a philosophic approach which emphasizes reason as the primary source of knowledge, prior or superior to, and independent of, sense perceptions.

The rationalists held that we can know some things just through the appropriate thinking processes. Knowledge can be acquired through the use of reasons.

Theories of knowledge like those of Plato and Descartes are called ‘rationalistic”. Both Plato and Descartes claim that the true knowledge is already within us in the form of innate ideas, which we do not acquire but are born with.

It is further maintained by rationalists that what we know as certain by various rationalistic procedures is the real world. The world that cannot be known with certainty is generally judged to be unreal and unimportant world.


Empiricism came from a Greek word, emperia which means experience. With regard to theories of knowledge, empiricism (understand in a broad sense) connote any doctrine which holds that all knowledge derives primarily from sense experience.

Knowledge is obtained through experience. In this broader sense, Aristotle and his followers would be empiricists. In a narrower sense, when empiricism contrasted with rationalism, it connotes a doctrine which claims that true knowledge derives exclusively from sense experience. In this narrower sense, empiricism would not accept that any new knowledge is acquired by either intellectual intuition or deductive reasoning.

Some empiricist philosophers include, Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon, David Hume, George Berkeley and many others.

(a)        Francis Bacon (1561 b – 1626)

Francis Bacon is sometimes called the father of British empiricism. In any case he rejected the mistakes of purely rational constructs and favored the use of the experimental method.

The classical empiricists were Locke, Berkeley and Hume, all of whom denied the existence of innate ideas.

(b)       George Berkeley (1985 – 1753)

George Berkeley was a Catholic bishop and a philosopher. He brought some new elements in empiricism, so much that he is sometimes called a mentalist, an immaterialist or even an idealist.

For Berkeley, the exterior world has no reality beyond being perceived. Berkeley puts it as esses est percipi “to be is to be perceived” what this means is that there is nothing in the universe except what is perceived by us.

But then, we know that for sure, things would exist even if we didn’t perceive them.

(c)        David Hume (1711-1776)

David Hume proposed philosophical reflections which have greatly influenced the general understanding of scientific activity. Hume applied the principle of empiricism without compromise. He claimed that our knowledge of things can be based only on sense-data, i.e. whatever we come to know through the activity of our senses.

Any knowledge claimed to be of something beyond our sense impressions is the consequence of speculative reasoning from immediate sense impressions to their supposed source or cause. But no good rational justification can ever be given for believing anything that is not related to immediate sense impressions.

Thus, nothing in our sense experience indicates necessary connection between a cause and its effect. No possible experience can ever indicate that similar past (or present) connections between natural events will apply in the future as they have occurred in the past, which the future will be similar to the past.

(d)       Rene Descartes

            Rene Descartes was a French Philosopher and mathematician born in French in the year 1596. Descartes is perhaps the most often quoted philosopher.

You must have heard his famous dictum. Cogito ergo sum- “I think, therefore I am”.  Descartes asks these questions: What can I know? What can I be certain of if I doubt absolute everything?

These questions probably seem less far out nowadays than they did in Descartes’ day, we know precisely how amazing the human mind can be, how real hallucinations seem and how disorienting virtual reality is.

Nevertheless the question is odd. Who really doubts if we are different people standings on the planet? Well, Descartes tried to. He thought that if he could doubt everything that was at all doubtable whatever was left would be certain knowledge.

Once you have certain knowledge, you have unimaginable power to build up a convincing philosophical and scientific system. That was Descartes’ ultimate goal. His method is however, not simply one of doubt; it is also one of inquiry. He was trying to find something out- what is certain knowledge.

He was assuming that there is something we want to know that no one else already knows. Furthermore, his “method of doubt” is not simple doubt, it is absolute doubt. We cannot just think “may be what I’m seeing is an illusion”, we have to assert everything I ever see is illusory”- and see what we are left with.

Anything we can possibly doubt must be doubted. Can you think of something it is impossible to doubt? Perhaps the best way to conceive of absolute doubt is to assume there is an evil demon (a Cartesian demon) whose sole purpose it is to trick you. The evil demon is extremely powerful and so can alter all of your perceptions to make anything look like any other thing.

What did Descartes do with these situations? He doubts everything. Absolutely everything! What did he find impossible to doubt? His own existence! Hence cogito ergo sum. What were the results of Descartes’ position? – (Solipsism – subject of knowledge is more important than the object of knowledge).

Using Descartes ‘method, questions of being must be set aside until questions of knowing have a satisfactory resolution. We must not, according to the method, stipulate anything.

Nevertheless, we must achieve absolute certainty. For many, strict skepticism –the belief that we can’t know anything resulting skepticism) is not to get us to stop believing, but rather for us to ponder the relationship between justification and our beliefs.

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