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Epistemology

Epistemology

The theory of knowledge emerges bearing several names: , gnoseology, noetics, or sim­ply the theory of knowledge. Any attempt to precisely define these terms requires looking for equilibrium between two extremes. On the one hand, there is a danger of shifting to questions in infinite regression: How do we know that our knowledge is really correct, and how do we know that this precise knowledge is correct and not illu- sionary? On the other hand, we can be over­whelmed by bare historical description, because there are few themes like the problematic of knowledge that are interesting not only for all philosophers but also for many scientists, logi­cians, and mathematicians. We have no choice but to try to find a compromise solution and to rely above all on chosen intuitions that originate in our prephilosophical and prescientific behavior that need no theoretical justification. We trust these intuitions because they helped us to survive; we have nothing better to start with.

The different names for the theory of knowledge are often used as synonyms; in other cases, authors try to establish a certain differentiation in meaning. The term gnoseology usually accompanies an effort to describe the theory of knowledge as a set of ques­tions and answers that define our cognitive disposi­tions, even before the beginning of the cognitive act itself. The terminology is moreover slightly compli­cated by the shifts of meaning and different applica­tion in main linguistic-cultural contexts.

Epistemology in Time Versus Time in Epistemology

The perspective of time can facilitate the classifi­cation of different approaches to the problematic of epistemology. An examination of the history of epistemology suggests a double sense: history of epistemology considered as a philosophical disci­pline and history of knowledge considered as our abilities to know ourselves and the surround­ing world. This first approach can be called epistemology in time. The second line—time in epistemology—is dependent on the remarkable development of the natural sciences since the beginning of the 20th century, when many tradi­tional philosophical notions—space, causality, determinism, movement, and time—appeared in the new context of modern physics. The category of time, in particular, is a frequent theme and sub­ject of analyses and speculations. Time in episte­mology is a prototypical problem of modern epistemology that exposes different approaches and a possible delimitation of the relation between and science.

The term epistemology, in use since the 19th century, has never been unequivocal. In Continental philosophy, epistemology—the study of knowl- edge—is often related to the , which focuses on scientific methods and the results of natural sciences especially. According to French philosophy, the term epistemology is often inap­propriately identified with the theory of knowl­edge (gnoseology), considered as analysis and philosophical criticism of scientific knowledge. In their new thinking based on recent scientific dis­coveries, try to describe the devel­opment of particular scientific disciplines from different points of view.

However, epistemology is not a theory of sci­ence. Epistemology does not deal with concrete problematics of particular scientific fields and their procedures; rather, it is concerned with questions that are provoked by these scientific procedures. When physicists search beyond their measured data—to discover something hidden, to explore to what extent their work is a conventional language game, or to wonder whether notions and concrete objects have something in common—they have left the field of natural science and have begun to deal with epistemological questions.

To move on to define the object and content of epistemology, various conceptions, according to linguistic-cultural spheres, must be distinguished.

The questions of epistemology are neither questions of science nor questions of traditional metaphysics. Metaphysical methods cannot be used to resolve the questions of epistemology, even if they may often touch on them themati­cally. That is why Pierre Duhem and Emile Meyerson try to distinguish metaphysics and sci­ence with its theory on the one hand and to find a common basis for both disciplines on the other hand. It follows that Duhem believes that logical order reflects the ontological order, whereas Meyerson is not content with simple description of phenomena and control over them but requires their explanation.

Logicians and mathematicians often deal with questions of intuition and abstraction, as well as the adequacy of their application in mathematical theory; many of them (e.g., Jean Cavailles) find the central subject matter of their work in this field of epistemology.

The close connection between epistemology and science as such can be understood as a cer­tain way to distinguish epistemology from the philosophy of science itself, which frequently deals as well with a larger problematic of scien­tific development and thus does not avoid eco­nomic, social, and institutional questions; it is often in touch with the sociology of science. In this perspective, epistemology is more “theoretical”—in contact with the theory of sci­ence, it approaches unanswered questions and doubts. At the same time, epistemology is more “practical” because it (much less often) enters directly into current problematics, as in the case of the question of determinism in connection to quantum mechanics.

Epistemologists rarely aim to create a general (the one and only) theory; rather, they look for variations by turning their attention to the past. The connection between epistemology and history of science thus results from the very basis of the problem and the logical process of its solution (see, e.g., the work of Pierre Duhem and Michel Serres). The close connection between history and episte­mology gave birth to the new term historical epistemology.

Basic Issues

Epistemology can be characterized according to the basic issues it deals with, including the following:

  1. Crisis of the basis of science—It does not matter which science, as long as it is natural or mathe­matical. For example, the crisis of formalism in logic, the crisis of mathematical essentials, and the crisis of basic physical principles are all events that provoke a continuous revival of the philoso­phy of science. The task is often undertaken by scientists active in particular scientific disciplines (e.g., Henri Poincare, Meyerson).
  2. Mathematization of logic and attention to lan­guage spurred philosophers to attempt to explain scientific assertions and to use formal analysis to verify or falsify those assertions (Poincare).
  3. Specialization of modern science leads also to the relative autonomy of regional epistemologies, that is, the study of the specificities of particular scientific disciplines ().
  4. The rapidity of development of science, especially in the past 2 centuries, is one of the main reasons for the emergence of historical epistemology, the study of the appearance of scientific theories and their successive changes (Duhem).
  5. Epistemology also is influenced by efforts to obtain a better understanding of the historical determination of changes in knowledge and sci­entific theories and their individual and psycho­logical sources (Jean Piaget, Michel Foucault).

In the European tradition as influenced by French philosophy, scientific epistemology is related especially to Gaston Bachelard and was developed consecutively by other French authors, such as Cavailles, Georges Canguilhem, and Alexander Koyre. Scientific epistemologists typi­cally connect the history of science to the episte­mological problematic itself, but scientific epistemology should not be confused with the history of science.

Even though these features issue exclusively from the French domain, there is no “French epis­temological school”; nevertheless, some French philosophers, including Bachelard, Canguilhem, and Foucault, have greatly influenced other European and American thinkers. Whereas Bachelard is interested in physics and chemistry, Canguilhem and Foucault concentrate more on biology or, more precisely, on the history of bio­logical science. Foucault’s research surpasses narrow specialization in many ways, whereas Canguilhem is profoundly interested in the same field of biology. As a specialist, Canguilhem offers a rather different perspective of the epistemologi­cal problematic; he provides a detailed view of specific scientific disciplines and, in this sense, approaches Bachelard. They both differ from the encyclopedic Foucault, who ventures into the fields of linguistics, economy, history, and biology.

Despite all differences, Dominique Lecourt finds some common traits—and not marginal ones—in the work of the Bachelard, Canguilhem, and Foucault. He starts with a comparison between French epistemology on the one hand and its equivalent in American and Russian philosophy on the other. Lecourt overlooks personal relations between the French philosopher-epistemologists (Bachelard was Canguilhem’s teacher and Canguilhem was Foucault’s teacher); nevertheless, he uncovers some relevant connections, for exam­ple, a common philosophical conception based on “nonpositivism,” that is, an attitude that is in opposition to efforts to build “a science about science” or a technocratic variation of science organizing scientific work. Lecourt names John Desmond Bernal and Kernov among the propo­nents of “science about science”; he also mentions logical neopositivists (e.g., Hans Reichenbach), who talk about “the century of science” and seek to provide science about science and scientific criticism of philosophy at the same time.

Another approach to the theory of knowledge— again, called epistemology—derives from philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rudolf Carnap, and Hans Reich­enbach. It is mainly Anglophone philosophers who use the term epistemology to refer to a theory of basic themes in the theory of knowledge. These themes can be defined by general questions: What is knowledge: cognitive process, or fact? (This question focuses on trust, justification, truth, and their limits—the so-called Gettier problem.) What is the basis of justification, and what are its struc­ture, sources, and limitations? (This question focuses attention on the principles and sources of knowledge and basic ways to work with them.) What are the basic cognitive attitudes? (Human knowledge can be extended in the form of princi­pal attitudes in cognitive process, such as skepti­cism in various forms, cognitive optimism, relativism, etc.) What are the contributions of subject and object to the formation of knowledge, and what are the roles of empirical and rational (inductive and deductive) processes?

Epistemology, as a theory of knowledge in the broad sense, is the study of knowledge itself. This banal statement harbors considerable problems and many questions. Principally, the conception becomes gradually traditional; if not absolutely on the decline, it is certainly expanded by new themes. From a purely theoretical, often rather speculative level, it transforms into the methodological, empir­ical, or even “engineering” level. These changes are caused by the influence of the development of information technologies that necessarily demand a profound elaboration of formal cognitive pro­cesses, up to the level of research in artificial intel­ligence. From this perspective, the theory of knowledge is not considered only as a theory “for itself,” that is, without the traditional impact on an object, because this object can stand for many scientific disciplines, under the influence of their rapid development; it is more often a discussion of aims. Many of these objectives are embraced by cognitive sciences that successfully develop contacts with special (often empirical) sciences, alterna­tively with or without engineering ambitions.

Traditional Approaches

Traditional approaches to the theory of knowl­edge follow at least three lines.

  1. Epistemology is a theory of knowledge, in the sense of research on basic cognitive assumptions. What is the basis of our trust in the possibility of knowledge? Where do possible doubts about relevancy of obtained knowledge originate? Is there a historical model of knowledge? Does it make any sense to talk not only about knowl­edge as conceptual but also, in a larger sense, about the ways and methods of information exchange, that is, to take interest also in the ani­mal world and even the nonorganic one? How long can we hold these (in most cases a priori) thoughts and resist the need to argue against the special sciences (e.g., biology and physics)? Are there any limits of knowledge? If we are willing to consider and seek them, should we turn to the external world to look for the laws of nature and physical connections that would determine these limits? Or should we turn to more subjective areas and take an interest in the possibilities of psychological, physiological, and historical determination?

The transitory state between a general episte­mological problematic and its overlap with spe­cific knowledge can be observed in the analysis of cognitive methods. The first rough division into empirical and theoretical, general, and special methods is a textbook case; any subtler distinc­tion cannot stand without overlap to particular scientific disciplines. Analysis of simulation and modeling is mostly a study of concrete physical or mathematical models from selected domains: the atomic model, the universe model, models of n-dimensional spaces. Analysis of experiment is also intentional because real, physical experi­ments are genuine cases of empirical science. Theoreticians of thought experiments, who enjoy essentially a larger sphere of activity and avoid the aforementioned tendency, use numerous con­crete illustrations. In view of the fact that the question of method is considered as a problem of theory of knowledge, epistemology can then par­ticipate in concrete scientific disciplines, but also—in the case of scientific experiment and methods related to modern technologies that open classic questions of mind (e.g., the question of artificial intelligence)—a shift from cognitive sciences to particular engineering procedures can be observed.

  1. Beyond the limits of specialized knowledge is modern (regional) epistemology, often focused on one selected discipline of contemporary natu­ral science, characterized by considerable empir­ical orientation. Narrowly focused epistemologies dealing with concrete problems (e.g., epistemol­ogy of theory of relativity, epistemology of evo­lution biology, etc.) are not exceptional. Another transgression of limits, this time toward practical application, or at least toward concrete consider­ations of possible applications (data collection and information exchange in expert systems, particular models of artificial intelligence, agents and robots, etc.), is a way toward the engineer­ing approach to knowledge mentioned earlier.
  2. Definition of the limits (albeit often imprecise) between an engineering approach and cognitive sciences is not easy. Cognitive scientists provide their conclusions in the form of possible experi­ments in various shapes (from purely thought form up to completely realistic) or even directly in a concrete application.

Recognition of the content common to epistemol­ogy and cognitive sciences might be extended to other related disciplines—for instance, epistemologi­cal questions form part of the large field of thematic content of another specialized discipline: the philos­ophy of mind. Within the scope of philosophy of mind, attention is focused on problems related to identification of mental states, differences in the per­spectives of first person and third person, and espe­cially to the traditional problem of other minds.

The Philosophy of Science

This survey of possible approaches to the prob­lematic of knowledge is certainly not exhaustive. A broadly conceived problem could embrace also a domain known as the philosophy of science. The theory of science usually defines critical analysis of the basis of scientific thought and proper scientific theories. However, if these bases are considered in the broad sense, they include also prescientific, philosophical, or metaphysical assumptions of science, which does not exclude possible overlap to the field defined earlier as gnoseology—namely, epistemology as a theory of a priori knowledge. Just as the philosophy of science cannot escape the history of science, it also approaches closely the content of particular scientific theories and overlaps the field of episte­mology. Philosophy that shares with science itself some common characteristics—it is ratio­nal, constructive, it seeks veracity—cannot be an objective external perspective in all aspects. Besides, it is obvious that none of the mentioned approaches, not even the philosophy of science, can provide a universal methodology of science and scientific thought, even if such attempts can be found in the history of philosophy and sci­ence. Today, this ambition is consigned to the archives of unsuccessful ideas; nonetheless, its place has been quickly replaced by another effort, more poetically called dreaming—that is, dreaming about a final theory (Steven Weinberg) that would be the definitive theory. Dreams about the ultimate theory (theory of everything; unifying theory) were born in the field of physics as an effort to unify physical interactions. Nevertheless, some physicists would not protest against enthronement of this theory as the true Theory of Everything, to fulfill the ambitions of strict reductionism.

In conclusion, the traditional problem of the very possibility of knowledge studied by epistemologists has been divided into two lines. On the one hand, there are abstract, purely philosophical, analytical considerations of the essence of knowledge, the pos­sibility of knowledge, and its foundation, justifica­tion, veracity with overlap to problems of language, role of subject (internal and external in knowledge), senses, and reason. On the other hand, there is discus­sion about physical, physiological, biological, and psychological limits, and it is predominantly particu­lar disciplines that deal with the nature of these limits. Epistemologists (or philosophers in general) can express the pretheoretical basis of particular disci­plines and touch on methodological problems. Even if epistemology cannot offer anything factual (in the sense of empirical fact), it is not without competen­cies. With respect to the factual aspect, epistemolo- gists can ask questions of science, questions considered by philosophers of the first line of epistemology, that concern basic assumptions about the elaboration of scientific theories.

Josef Krob

See also Aristotle; Experiments, Thought; Information; Kant, Immanuel; Russell, Bertrand; Time, Teaching

Further Readings

Armstrong, D. M. (1973). Belief, truth, and knowledge. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

BonJour, L. (2002). Epistemology. Classic problems and contemporary responses. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Chisholm, R. (1989). Theory of knowledge (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Dretske, F. (1981). Knowledge and flow of information. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Greco, J., & Sosa, E. (Eds.). (1999). The Blackwell guide to epistemology. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Thagard, P. (1996). Introduction to cognitive science (2nd ed.). Cambridge: MIT Press.

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