Epistemology: An Introduction and Collection of Resources

This page contains an organized collection of links to beginner friendly videos, podcasts and articles on epistemology. To get started, simply choose a topic from the list below.

What is epistemology?

“Think of all the things that you know, or at least think you know, right now. You know, for example, that the earth is round and that Paris is the capital of France. You know that you can speak (or at least read) English, and that two plus two is equal to four. You know, presumably, that all bachelors are unmarried men, that it is wrong to hurt people just for fun, that The Godfather is a wonderful film, and that water has the chemical structure H2O. And so on. But what is it that all these cases of knowledge have in common? Think again of the examples just given, which include geographical, linguistic, mathematical, aesthetic, ethical, and scientific knowledge. Given these myriad types of knowledge, what, if anything, ties them all together? It is this sort of question that is asked by those who study epistemology, which is the theory of knowledge.” – Excerpt from What is This Thing Called Knowledge? by Duncan Pritchard.

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Foundational Concepts

Truth

“Philosophers are interested in a constellation of issues involving the concept of truth. A preliminary issue, although somewhat subsidiary, is to decide what sorts of things can be true. Is truth a property of sentences (which are linguistic entities in some language or other), or is truth a property of propositions (nonlinguistic, abstract and timeless entities)? The principal issue is: What is truth? It is the problem of being clear about what you are saying when you say some claim or other is true. The most important theories of truth are the Correspondence Theory, the Semantic Theory, the Deflationary Theory, the Coherence Theory, and the Pragmatic Theory. They are explained and compared [in the article]. Whichever theory of truth is advanced to settle the principal issue, there are a number of additional issues to be addressed:

  1. Can claims about the future be true now?
  2. Can there be some algorithm for finding truth – some recipe or procedure for deciding, for any claim in the system of, say, arithmetic, whether the claim is true?
  3. Can the predicate “is true” be completely defined in other terms so that it can be eliminated, without loss of meaning, from any context in which it occurs?
  4. To what extent do theories of truth avoid paradox?
  5. Is the goal of scientific research to achieve truth?”

Excerpt from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Truth by Bradley Dowden and Norman Swartz.

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Belief

“Contemporary analytic philosophers of mind generally use the term “belief” to refer to the attitude we have, roughly, whenever we take something to be the case or regard it as true. To believe something, in this sense, needn’t involve actively reflecting on it: Of the vast number of things ordinary adults believe, only a few can be at the fore of the mind at any single time. Nor does the term “belief”, in standard philosophical usage, imply any uncertainty or any extended reflection about the matter in question (as it sometimes does in ordinary English usage). Many of the things we believe, in the relevant sense, are quite mundane: that we have heads, that it’s the 21st century, that a coffee mug is on the desk. Forming beliefs is thus one of the most basic and important features of the mind, and the concept of belief plays a crucial role in both philosophy of mind and epistemology. The “mind-body problem”, for example, so central to philosophy of mind, is in part the question of whether and how a purely physical organism can have beliefs. Much of epistemology revolves around questions about when and how our beliefs are justified or qualify as knowledge.” – Excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Belief by Eric Schwitzgebel.

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Justification

“Pick a belief that you hold, a belief the truth of which you are about as certain of as anything else you believe. Take, for example, your belief that the earth orbits the sun, rather than vice versa. If you are certain about this matter then, intuitively, you must regard this belief as being rightly held, as being justified. Now ask yourself the following question: what is it that justifies this belief? […] One possible answer to this question of what justifies your belief that the earth orbits the sun could be that nothing justifies it; that this belief does not need further support in order to be rightly held. However, as far as most beliefs are concerned (if not all of them), this possibility is not very plausible.

Think of one’s belief as being like a house. If a house lacks foundations, then it falls down.The same applies to a belief. If it lacks a solid foundation – if there is nothing that is justifying this belief – then the belief is not properly held, and so ‘falls down’. After all, if one can rightly hold a belief without that belief being supported by good grounds of any sort, then that seems to preclude us from making any epistemic distinction between the beliefs of rational and irrational agents.” – Excerpt from What is This Thing Called Knowledge? by Duncan Pritchard.

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Sources of Knowledge

Perception

“Our basic knowledge of the external world comes through the five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. For most of us the sense of sight plays the key role. I know what the world out there is like because I can see it. If I am uncertain whether what I see is really there, I can usually reach out and touch it to make sure. I know that there is a fly in my soup because I can see it, and, if it comes to it, touch it and even taste it. But what is the precise relationship between what I think I see and what is actually in front of me? Can I ever be sure about what is out there? Could I be dreaming? Do objects continue to exist when nobody is observing them? Do I ever have direct experience of the external world? These are all questions about how we acquire knowledge of our surroundings; they belong to the branch of philosophy known as the theory of knowledge or epistemology.” – Excerpt from Philosophy: The Basics by Nigel Warburton.

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Memory

“We learn a lot. Friends tell us about their lives. Books tell us about the past. We see the world. We reason and we reflect on our mental lives. As a result we come to know and to form justified beliefs about a range of topics. We also seem to keep these beliefs. How? The natural answer is: by memory. It is not too hard to understand that memory allows us to retain information. It is harder to understand exactly how memory allows us to retain knowledge and reasons for our beliefs. Learning is largely a matter of acquiring reasons for changing views. But how do we keep reasons for the views we keep? The epistemology of memory concerns memory’s role in our having knowledge and justification. This branch of epistemology, unlike nearly all other branches, addresses our having knowledge and justification over time.” – Excerpt from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Epistemology of Memory by Matthew Frise.

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Testimony

“Consider two lives. Helen Keller was born blind and deaf, but her access to the written word enabled her to succeed as a writer and activist. Peter the Wild Boy, discovered near Hanover, Germany in 1719, possessed sight and hearing, but was innocent of language. He left the world as innocent as he came. “Without artifice, particularly the shared human artifice of speech, an unmeaning silence traps Peter in an unvarying bestiality” (Newton 2002, 44. Emphasis mine).

The stark comparison illustrates the degree of our dependence on the word of others. Without the ability to give and receive testimony, we cannot transcend the limitations of our individual faculties to borrow from the thoughts, observations, and experiences of others. The kind of knowledge that separates human beings from the rest of the animal world disappears. While a deficiency in one’s sensory faculties can perhaps be compensated for, inability to draw from the knowledge of others forecloses all possibility of higher knowledge.” – Excerpt from the 1000 Word Philosophy article: Take My Word for It: On Testimony by Spenser Case.

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The Problem of Skepticism

“Even well-grounded beliefs can be mistaken. We can be deceived by our senses. We are fallible in perceptual matters, as in our memories, in our reasoning, and in other respects. One might now wonder, as skeptics do, whether we know even that it is improbable that our senses are now deceiving us. One might also wonder whether, when we take ourselves to see green grass, we are even justified in our belief that no such mistake has occurred. Suppose that I am in an unfamiliar park. I might not know or even justifiedly believe that artificial grass has not replaced the natural grass I take to be before me. (I may have heard of such substitutions and may have no good reason to believe this has not happened, though I do not consider the matter.) Am I justified in believing that there is green grass before me? Suppose that I am not justified in believing there is green grass before me. If not, how can I be justified in believing what appear to be far less obvious truths, such as that my home is secure against the elements, my car safe to drive, and my food free of poison? And how can I know the many things I need to know in life, such as that my family and friends are trustworthy, that I can control my behavior and thus partly determine my future, and that the world we live in at least approximates the structured reality portrayed by common sense and science?” – Excerpt from Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge by Robert Audi.

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Induction

“I have drunk coffee many times, but it has never poisoned me, so I assume on the basis of the inductive argument that coffee will not poison me in the future. Day has always followed night in my experience, so I assume that it will continue to do so. I have observed many times that if I stand in the rain I get wet, so I assume the future will be like the past, and avoid standing out in the rain whenever possible. These are all examples of induction. Our whole lives are based on the fact that induction provides us with fairly reliable predictions about our environment and the probable results of our actions. Without the principle of induction, our interaction with our environment would be completely chaotic: we would have no basis for assuming that the future would be like the past. We would not know if the food we were about to eat would nourish or poison us; we would not know at each step whether the ground would support us or open up into a chasm, and so on. All predicted regularity in our environment would be open to doubt.

Despite this central part played by induction in all our lives, there is the undeniable fact that the principle of induction is not entirely reliable. As we have already seen, it could give us a false answer to the question of whether or not all fur-covered animals are viviparous. Its conclusions are not as reliable as those arising from deductive arguments with true premises. To illustrate this point, Bertrand Russell used the example of a chicken that wakes up every morning thinking that as it was fed the previous day, so it would be again that day. It wakes up one morning only to have its neck wrung by the farmer. The chicken was using an inductive argument based on a large number of observations. In relying so heavily on induction are we being as foolish as this chicken?” – Excerpt from Philosophy: The Basics by Nigel Warburton.

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Further Reading

If you have never studied epistemology before, the following books are a good place to start:

Primary Sources:

Secondary Sources:

Miscellaneous Resources

1000 Word Philosophy

Wireless Philosophy

Philosophy Bites

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy


The following pages may also be of interest: