Definition, Divisions, Theories and Problems of Epistemology


Definition, Divisions, Theories and Problems of Epistemology

We shall be examining this topic under four major parts. The first and second parts will discuss the definition and divisions of epistemology while the third and final parts will dwell on theories of justification and some problems in epistemology.

The term ‘epistemology’ etymologically originated from two Greek words; ‘episteme’ and ‘logos’: ‘episteme’ meaning ‘knowledge’ and ‘logos’ meaning ‘science’ or ‘study of’.

It therefore follows that epistemology as the science or theory of knowledge is a branch of philosophy that studies the origin and nature of knowledge as well as the limits and justifications for knowledge claims. 

Some of the sources of knowledge are; sense experience, intuition, revelation, dream and so on. The most important term in the description of epistemology is ‘knowledge’ and the traditional account or definition of knowledge is ‘Justified True Belief’ (JTB).

In a simple analysis, this means, if an individual claims to know something, then, the claim must be true (i.e. it must be a product of proven fact and not opinion which is based on an individual’s viewpoint); the individual must believe it and he must be justified in believing it.

This position was however debunked by Edmund Gettier who showed that the traditional account was insufficient for knowledge and does not give us certainty, thereby calling for the need of a fourth condition.

This implies that knowledge which is often contrasted with belief connotes certainty while belief does not. This is so because a person can believe something, yet does not know it, but no one can claim to know something without believing it.

By the end of this article, you would be able to define epistemology, identify the main divisions of epistemology, List the theories of justification and Name some of the problems of epistemology.


Definition of Epistemology

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge that seeks to answer questions concerning the possibility of knowledge and how knowledge claims can be justified.

One of the basic tasks of epistemology is to proffer justifications to knowledge claims such that when a person says he knows something, he can be certain about knowing it and he would not be guessing or trapped in the natural attitude of equating belief with knowledge or opinion with truth.

Traditionally, knowledge is known as ‘Justified True Belief’ which is interpreted as: to claim to know something, one must be justified in knowing it, the claim must be true and one must believe the claim. In epistemology, the way knowledge is acquired is broadly divided into two forms which are Empiricism and Rationalism.

We shall now take a proper look at these two divisions.


Divisions of Epistemology

1. Empiricism

Have you ever tried to share a cultural or religious view with someone and found it difficult to buttress your point with concrete examples?

Have you had to explain the notion of angels, ancestors, spirits or God and your listener says, so long as I cannot hear, smell, taste, feel, or see any of these ideas, they are in fact nonsense and do not exists? Such a person with this kind of outlook on life is a typical empiricist. He or she has reduced the whole of reality to the physical.

Empiricism as a theory opines that knowledge of any kind is a product of sense perception. It emphasizes that our experiences are ultimately reducible to physical evidences. What this implies is that empiricists believe in the priority of sense experience to reason.

Knowledge acquired through sense experience is known as a posteriori knowledge which simply means knowledge after experience.

This explains why the hypothesized individual above would reject metaphysical concepts like angels, spirit or God, as well as knowledge from intuition or abstraction.

The philosopher, David Hume is a strong advocate of empiricism. He says, “…If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics; for instance, let us ask, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number?

No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?

No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

Here is Hume dismissing the whole of metaphysical ideas from the realm of knowledge simply because they lack phenomenal or concrete existence. He believes that for any concept to be real, it must be able to create impressions.

In other words, it must have a correlate or referent in the world. In this sense, on the one hand, when I say the word ‘boy’, it has a concrete, verifiable referent and is therefore real.

On the other hand, when I say the word ‘spirit’ it has no concrete verifiable referent and should be dismissed.

Hume is of the view that the meaning of a word is in what the word communicates. This means that, referentially, every word must stand for something.

Therefore, if we cannot perceive a word’s referent and we cannot create an actual image of this referent, then that word is meaningless.

John Locke rejects innate ideas the same way Hume rejects metaphysical ideas. Locke believes that the human mind at birth was a tabula rasa (a clean slate) and that no individual came into this world with inborn ideas, as all knowledge comes from experience.

What he means is that we knew nothing prior to being born and that it is only here in this world that we begin to form ideas as we encounter reality through our perception with the five senses.

In his work titled ‘An Essay Concerning Human Understanding’, he stated that all ideas come from sensation or reflection and went on to add that we may suppose the mind to be, as we say, a white paper, void of all characters, without ideas.

He asks, how then does an idea enter into the mind? How does the mind form images and create endless variety of memories? What furnishes the mind with all the materials of reason and knowledge? To these questions, Locke answers in one word: from EXPERIENCE.

Locke totally believes that nothing enters into the human mind without first passing through the senses. The mind he claims is incapable of forming its own ideas and is therefore reliant on sense experience for knowledge formation.

From Minima’s, quotation of Locke in his paper titled ‘Problems in Locke’s Theory of Knowledge,’ Locke admonished thus; Let anyone examine his own thoughts and thoroughly search into his understanding and then let him tell me whether all the original ideas he has there are any other than from the senses; or of the operation of his mind considered as objects of his reflection: and how great a mass of knowledge so ever he imagines to be lodged there, he will, upon taking a strict view see that he had not any idea in his mind but what one of ‘these two’ have imprinted; though perhaps with infinite variety compounded and enlarged by the understanding.

By ‘these two’ as stated above, Locke was making reference to:  

(1) Simple ideas

(2) Complex ideas which he had earlier discoursed in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding’. Simple ideas are basically individual products of experiences as conceived by the senses while complex ideas are formed through a combination of various simple ideas through the power of the mind.

For instance, a ‘man’ is a simple idea, a ‘lion’ is another simple idea but the combination of the properties of a man and the properties of a lion to create an image of a man with a lion’s head would form a complex idea. The senses cannot furnish us with the image of a man with a lion’s head, as nothing of such is believed to exist. It takes the power of the mind through reason to create such a complex idea.

Meanwhile, reason cannot do this without relying on information from the senses. This is why once again; Locke believes that we cannot find any information in the human mind that is not a product of the senses.

2. Rationalism

On certain occasions, you may have encountered people who speak so highly of ideas or knowledge beyond the physical. Sometimes, we hear people talk about the physical world as being a dream or a mere passage into the real world.

Such people may not deny that there is such a reality as the physical world which is accessible by the senses but believe that things in the physical world are mere phenomena or shadows of the ideal, metaphysical or real world which is accessible by reason.

Rationalism is that school of thought in epistemology which holds that knowledge comes from reason. It advocates the reality and priority of a priori knowledge, that is, knowledge that is acquired without the aid of the senses.

Plato is a well-known rationalist who made a distinction between the Physical World and the Intelligible World (severally referred to as Ideal or Real World, World of Forms and Ideas).

In Plato’s theory of the Divided Line, he broadly divided reality into two levels: the intelligible world occupying the higher level and the visible world occupying the lower level and stated thus;

“Take a line divided into two unequal parts, one to represent the visible order, the other the intelligible; and divide each part again in the same proportion, symbolizing degrees of comparative clearness or obscurity.”

Plato’s description is such that the higher level which is occupied by the intelligible world is the world of pure knowledge, rationality, thought and the Forms, while the lower level which is occupied by the visible world is the world of opinion, belief, imagination, things, shadows and images.

He believes that things in the visible world have no reality in themselves as they rely on the intelligible world for their reality.

This is why he calls visible world a mere phenomenon of the intelligible world, shadow of the Forms or prototype of the archetype.

René Descartes is another rationalist who did not agree that the senses are capable of leading anyone to true, certain and indubitable knowledge.

He casts doubts on the senses saying that they are deceptive and unreliable. With this claim, he refuted the position of the empiricists claiming that it is unreliable. He believes that reason alone can furnish a person with the certainty of knowledge.

This is because reason is capable of abstraction, intuition and apprehension of reality. He arrived at the ability of reason to attain certainty of knowledge through his principle of the Methodic Doubt.

For he said; “Because I wished to give myself entirely to the search after truth, I thought that it was necessary for me to adopt apparently opposite course and reject as absolutely false everything concerning which I could imagine the least ground of doubt, in order to see whether afterwards there remained anything in my beliefs which was entirely certain.”

In the process doubting and setting aside all that he ever admitted as true or real, he came to the conclusion that he was certain about the fact the he was thinking.

All attempts to doubt the fact of this process was a further confirmation of the existence of his thought. This is not far from the fact that the act of doubting is an act of thinking.

Since to doubt is to think, it follows that thought is irrefutable and it takes only an existing being to think. This was how he arrived at his famous dictum, ‘cogito ergo sum’ (I think therefore, I exist). Descartes’s doubt leads him to the discovery of the certainty of thought and the existence of the self.


Theories of justification

One of the conditions for accepting a belief as true is that such a belief must have a justifier. An instance of a justifier would be the availability of proof, evidence or reason given in support of a claim.

For instance, if there was no power supply while on your way out of the house, yet you put a cup of water in the refrigerator only to return and discover that there was ice in the refrigerator and the water was frozen.

In this situation, the frozen water and the ice in the refrigerator are reasons or proofs which serve as justification for the belief that there had been power supply while you were away.

Theory of justification in epistemology offers a comprehensive and legitimate account for beliefs. Epistemologists are interested in different forms of belief which exhibit justificatory grounds as motivation behind why an individual holds a belief to be either true or false.

It is at this point that we see a very close relationship between knowledge and truth. For a claim to pass as knowledge, it must first be true and indubitable.

In the event that an individual makes a case, and another at that point offers a reason to doubt it, the proper course of action for the individual who makes the case would typically be to give support or justification for his or her position.

Epistemologically, there are different theories for offering justifications for knowledge claims. This includes; correspondence theory, coherence theory and foundationalism.


1. Correspondence Theory

Correspondence as a theory of knowledge justification is very important in the establishment of claims. Newscasters, when reporting a state of affairs from their studio often rely on a correspondence reporter who is present at the scene of the event to provide pictures, audios and videos or conduct interviews in support of the claim made by a reporter in the studio.

We see that it is not just enough to report to the world that ballot boxes were snatched during an election. Such a claim, when backed with a correspondence report gives credence to it. The correspondence theory holds that a fact is an agreement, a harmony or correspondence of a state of affairs with the real world.

As it were, a belief must concur with the situation on ground as a general rule before it can pass as convincing.

Roderick Chisholm is of the view that, a state of affairs p is identical with a state of affairs q if and only if, necessarily, p ‘occurs’ if and only if q also occurs. He went on to say in another work that whoever believes p believes q, and vice versa.

For a state of affairs to be true, it must exist and be verifiable. This means that the mode of talking about truth that appears to be most appealing in epistemology is that truth would always have a representation on the ground.

This gives us a reason to say that truth is a reflection of reality, as such, whatever knowledge claim that is made must evidently conform to reality.

Along these lines, we see that truth produces knowledge. When a state of affair has been established as true or false, the certainty of the status of that condition gives us knowledge about the condition.


2. Coherence Theory

One way of comprehending the term coherentism is to think about a spider web. The spider begins to spin from a very tiny spot at the middle and continues to form somewhat irregular concentric circles around the spot until it gets big enough to trap insects for food.

A careful look at the web would reveal several strands of thread woven to form the web and most importantly, each strand is connected to the next and continuously.

The one provides support for the other in a way that leads to the overall strength of the web. In the same way, when a strand is broken, it weakens the overall strength of the web as a whole.

Coherentism holds that a statement is true if there is coherence or agreement between the statement and a systematic body of statements already known to be true.

Laurence BonJour stated that “beliefs are justified by virtue of their coherence with each other” and Ernest Sosa is of the view that a belief is justified if and only if it has a place within a system of beliefs that is coherent and comprehensive.

According to coherentists, the primary objects of justification are not individual beliefs but, rather, belief systems.

A belief system is justified if other parts of the belief system agrees or coheres appropriately. Individual beliefs are justified by virtue of belonging to such a set of beliefs.

Therefore, for the coherentist, epistemic justification is a holistic notion rather than a hierarchical one as implied in foundationalism.

The picture is not of basic beliefs being intrinsically justified and then passing on their justification to other beliefs.

It is, rather, of justification emerging when one’s belief system hangs together, or coheres. Coherence among beliefs is then, a matter of consistency. If a set of beliefs is inconsistent, it is impossible for all the beliefs in the set to be true, and hence they are not mutually supportive.

However, consistency is not enough for coherence; beliefs that are altogether unrelated to one another are consistent, but they are not mutually supportive.

Some coherentists suggest that mutual entailment is required for coherence in such a way that every member of a coherent set should be deducible from other members of the set.

However, BonJour thinks of coherence as more than mere consistency but less than mutual entailment, saying that it comes in degrees, with the degree increasing with the number of inferential connections among the component beliefs of the set and decreasing with the number of unexplained anomalies. Coherentism is viewed as a denial of foundationalism.

It is thus a claim that not all knowledge and justified beliefs rest ultimately on a foundation of self-referential knowledge.


3. Foundationalism

When we hear of the word ‘foundation’, what comes to mind most probably is a building. There can be no building without a foundation. It serves as the base upon which the entire building rests.

In addition, as is popularly said, when the foundation is faulty, the building is doomed to collapse. Foundationalism in epistemology entails basic, self-justifying and self-referential beliefs that give justificatory support to other beliefs.

Some philosophers who are referred to as foundationalists are of the opinion that just like the building as mentioned above, sure and incorrigible knowledge must be founded on foundations that are already known to be fixed and unshakable.

One might say, with a level of assurance that the primary aim of foundationalists is to invalidate the claim of some skeptics who opine that it is impossible to acquire absolute knowledge.

In the event that foundationalists have already lay claim to absolute knowledge, just as would anyone whose claim is rebuffed, it is expected that the foundationalists should offer convincingly justificatory grounds for the legitimization of their position.

Okoye stated that two things are required for foundationalist claim to stand.

The first is that there should be an account of known basic beliefs that are indubitable. 

The Second is that there should be an epistemic assent to what we believe. This for him is what differentiates foundationalism from other justificatory theories.

Generally, it is believed that these basic beliefs do not stand in need of justification simply because they are self-evident and other beliefs are justified through them. 

Therefore, these basic beliefs provide foundations for epistemic justifications.

The construction of a new foundation for any building involves pulling down the entire structure. Rene Descartes who is a popular foundationalist is of the view that it is not simply for aesthetic reasons that a building is rebuilt, because some buildings are rebuilt and modified necessarily in light of the fact that their foundations are defective.

His methodic doubt was his own way of reconstructing the entire building of knowledge. He questioned and dismissed everything that beclouds the mind’s view in its endeavour to attain certainty. 

In the process of his doubt, he found a reality that was impossible for him to question or doubt. This reality was the affirmation of his thought. He saw over the span of his doubting process that he could not question or doubt the fact that he doubted.

In other words, he could not doubt the reality of the fact that he was thinking. It is this according to Descartes, which lead to the clear proof of his existence.

Since to doubt is to think, to think is to exist. He went on to say that; he had chosen to doubt that everything that had been registered in his mind could possibly be products of hallucinations or simply dreams.

Yet, almost immediately he discovered that while he was attempting to discredit everything as false, it must be that he who was thinking was in fact something (a being).

This is why Descartes said, I have an unmistakable thought of myself as thinking, non-extended thing, and a credible thought of my body as extended and non-thinking thing and that the mind which is capable of thinking can exist separately from its body.

Along these lines, the mind is a substance unmistakably different from the body and whose nature is thought.

Given that the essential principle of foundationalism as earlier stated is the supposition that there are foundational or basic knowledge from which other non-basic claims are determined, and more so that foundationalism holds that these basic beliefs are self-justifying and therefore need no further justification, Descartes resolved that ‘thinking’ is the most profound state of affairs that cannot be denied without running into contradiction.

Thinking then, became the foundation upon which the entire edifice of his belief system was built. It is from this position that he went on to provide justification for his other epistemic claims about the existence of himself, other beings and ultimately God.


Also read: Philosophy as a Second-Order Activity

The Problems of Epistemology

From the above, we can tell that there are different positions like empiricism and rationalism when it comes to knowledge claims. In the same way, there are different positions competing for prominence when it comes to offering justification for knowledge such as foundationalism, correspondence and coherence theories.

The major problem of epistemology therefore, revolves around responding to the challenges posed by skeptics and being able to offer irrefutable justifications for knowledge claims. We shall now consider a few of the problems.

1. The Challenge of Skepticism: Skepticism, an orientation in epistemology is constantly challenging the quest for absolutely certain knowledge. The skeptics deny the possibility of certainty in epistemic claims. In fact, there is a sense in which the entire project of epistemology is an attempt to meet this skeptical challenge by proving that knowledge is possible.

Skepticism as an idea connotes the critical spirit, the tendency of not being easily satisfied with superficial evidence and striving to accept only incorrigible beliefs that are absolutely certain.

Richard Rorty argued in, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature that “the central problem of modern epistemology is the problem of knowing whether our inner representations were accurate, the problem of knowing how the mind can faithfully represent or mirror an external reality.”

The skeptical challenge has been instrumental to the advancement of knowledge, as epistemologists on their part have tried to proffer justifications that will stand the criticisms of the most rigorous skeptic. Justification of knowledge is necessary because, when an individual says he knows something, and a skeptic casts doubt on it, it becomes necessary for the claimant to proffer evidence for holding such a claim.

For this reason, another task of the epistemologist is to respond to the criticisms of the skeptics thereby advancing the course of knowledge. There are universal skeptics who claim that no one can know anything at all, believing that knowledge is impossible.

Gorgias is an example of an advocate of this school of thought. He believes that “if there is anything, it cannot be known; that if anything can be known, it cannot be communicated by one person to another” therefore, nothing exists.

But there are individuals who believe that they at least know some things and are certain about the existence of such things.

Descartes who was initially skeptical about all things came to the conclusion that one can at least be certain about his or her existence as a thinking being. There have been responses to absolute denial of knowledge as held by Gorgias.

St. Augustine for instance, is of the view that if anyone says we cannot know anything for certain, we should ask him if he is certain about what he claims. If he says no, we should disregard him for he cannot be taken seriously but, if he says yes, then he should be aware that he is at least certain that he cannot know anything for certain.

In other words, anyone who doubts the possibility of knowing anything for certain knows at least one thing for certain, and that is the fact that he doubts.

With this response, Augustine was able to show that it is contradictory to hold that knowledge is absolutely impossible.

Immanuel Kant in his work Critique of Pure Reason held that, things in themselves are forever inaccessible to the human mind. For him, this is because we only know things empirically through sense experience.

Any attempt to begin to find underlying factors or principles beneath things leads to metaphysics. 

Therefore, we know things as they appear to us. We know them through their attributes and qualities. He concluded that knowledge concerning the soul, the world and God are not genuine because they are “mere thought entities, fictions of the brain, or pseudo objects.”

2. The Problem of Appearance and Reality: The problem of appearance and reality arises as a result of the difficulty in differentiating between them. We often times make reference to the one in place of the other, the same way an uncritical mind finds it difficult to distinguish between knowledge and opinion. The way the world appears to us most times is not what it really is.

For instance, when we look into the sky, we see the sun rising from the East and setting in the West. This rising and setting to the ordinary eyes connotes movement but it has been scientifically proven with justification from images taken from the moon that the sun is motionless.

Meaning that while the sun appears to move, in reality it does not move. We may have seen a stick or a rod when partially immersed in a pool of water appearing bent to the sight but when completely out of the water, it is straight.

There are instances of mirages and illusions which make us wonder if we can be certain about the true nature of things. If this is the case, what guarantee do we have for our claims to knowledge no matter the epistemic orientation we hold?


Also read: The Value of Philosophy to the Society

Conclusion on Definition, Divisions, Theories and Problems of Epistemology

We can now appreciate the fact that the task of epistemology is a daunting one. Epistemologists are interested in making our knowledge of the world more clear and distinct.

However, there is the need to point out something very important about the empiricists.

In fairness to them, we must state categorically that even though the empiricists hold that knowledge is derived from the senses, they do not deny the existence of reason. 

They admit the important role reason plays in the process of knowledge acquisition by organizing sense data in a meaningful and productive manner, but simply emphasize that reason on its own cannot help us with knowledge formation.

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge that seeks to respond to the criticisms of the skeptics or offer justification to knowledge claims in such a manner that will not be susceptible to doubt.

In epistemology, the rationalists display some skeptical tendencies about the claims of the empiricists while the empiricists also cast some doubts on the claims of the rationalists.

David Hume, being an empiricist, believes that the only way we can know anything is through sense experience. He distinguished between impressions and ideas, saying that impressions are perceptions which come with experience. Impressions are perceptions of our senses and ideas are pale copies of these impressions.

He argues that to have thought or an idea about something; we must have its impression which comes from experience. So, each thought we have, must correspond to an impression.

Therefore, our knowledge is strictly limited to impressions. If our reasoning does not involve thoughts which come from impressions, then our reasoning does not have a legitimate ground.

As a way of responding to the criticisms of the skeptics, epistemologists have come up with different positions which they believe would yield certainty of knowledge.

While foundationalists believe that incorrigible knowledge must be founded on basic foundations, coherentists believe that a knowledge claim must agree with a system of beliefs.

The correspondence theorists hold that for a belief to count as knowledge, it must have a representation on the ground.

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