How do we know anything? This peculiar question has plagued philosophers, psychologists, and scientists from the times of Socrates to Darwin and continues as a topic of inquiry to this day. Individuals tend to approach this question with certain presuppositions, which subsequently play a part in radically shaping philosophy, culture, and everyday perceptions of physical objects. Within the modern landscape of relativism, contention, and artificial intelligence, an attempt to establish an answer to this question becomes seemingly imperative. To answer this fundamental question, one must begin by turning their attention to the subject of epistemology.
Epistemology is conventionally considered the theory of knowledge. Meaning epistemology is a theorized account of postulations regarding how humans acquire knowledge. However, another primary consideration of epistemology is establishing distinctions between justified beliefs and opinions. In some regard, the notion of justified belief is the core principle of epistemology.
The birth of epistemology as a formal subject can be traced back to ancient Greece. ‘Epistemology’ comes from the Greek “episteme” (knowledge) and “logos” (reason). Although a myriad of Pre-Socratic philosophers inquired into the nature of human knowledge, it was the philosophers Socrates and Plato who systematized the study of human knowledge as epistemology around 600 to 500 B.C. Socrates himself never wrote, but Plato was his protegee and accounted for all of his teacher’s dialogues and central beliefs in writing. Plato established the first theory of epistemology, but two other camps of epistemological thought succeeded him. These three theories have developed an interplay throughout history. The three camps are idealism, empiricism, and skepticism.
Idealism as Epistemology
Idealism was the first truly developed theory of knowledge. Originally, idealism centered around Plato’s doctrine of recollection. Plato believed that there is a perfect world in another realm, very similar to heaven, and humans owed their origin to it. He called this realm the world of forms. Within it, every imperfect form or copy within our world is wholly perfected. Meaning when you look at a chair and perceive it as a chair, there is a perfect form of that chair in the world of forms, free of any scratches or crooked legs. Plato contended that when we first perceive something for what we think is the first time, we are, in fact, recollecting the perfect form of that object, which resides in the world of forms. Thus, Plato thought knowledge begins in the mind, or more aptly, the soul. That notion of knowledge beginning in the mind is the central tenet of idealism in epistemology.
Later in history, the most influential proponent of idealism was that of Immanuel Kant. Kant proposed a system he called transcendental idealism, in which he separated the world into two categories: phenomena, or objects as they appear to us, and noumena, objects in themselves.
Kant viewed epistemology as humans having a blueprint of knowledge by virtue of being capable of reason. Kant believed that humans mentally impose the four major categories of quantity, quality, relation, and modality onto objects within the world. He believed we accomplished this through a priori knowledge or innate conceptual knowledge. After we project these categories onto objects, they appear to us as phenomena, but we can never truly know their noumena or how they exist in themselves. Meaning we cannot have knowledge of a squirrel as it is literally existing; we only have the capability of mentally categorizing it.
Kant’s influence on modern thought and Western culture is truly profound. We can observe the epistemology of Kant throughout our everyday lives. Within modernity, we often prioritize the reason and autonomy of individuals over how the world may truly exist in itself. The danger of such thought is that humans may begin to impose onto the world how they want it to exist at the expense of how it objectively exists.
Empiricism as Epistemology
While the epistemology of idealism holds that knowledge begins in our mind, empiricism contends it begins with our senses. The renowned philosopher and scientist Aristotle first proposed empiricism as the most logical way to approach epistemology. Similar to Plato, Aristotle believed that objects had a form or essence. However, Aristotle believed that epistemologically, humans first had to sense the matter of an object, then our mind would abstract the form. For example, Aristotle would say that in order to have knowledge of a blanket, you need first to sense the physical blanket, then your mind would abstract the universal form of that blanket.
The philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas was an avid proponent of Aristotle’s epistemology and expanded upon it further. Aquinas believed that when you abstract the form or essence of an object, your soul recognizes that although you are sensing an individual object, humans can know that there is a universal form that all other objects of the same essence abide by. For example, although one dog is brown and the other dog is black, they share the same form of dog but have different accidental or subjective qualities.
Empiricism is held by many individuals today, whether consciously or subconsciously. Much of modern science is predicated upon empirical principles and the notion that we gain knowledge from our senses. The biggest positive of empiricism is it allows humans to have a healthy relationship and understanding of matter. However, empiricism can also attempt to reduce humans to mere bundles of perceptions or conscious animals with no metaphysical qualities.
Skepticism as Epistemology
The third primary camp of thought within epistemology is skepticism. Unlike idealism which holds that we can have justified knowledge through the reason of our mind, or empiricism, which holds we can have justified belief through our senses, skepticism questions the validity of justified belief altogether. Meaning skeptics contend that we cannot have true knowledge of anything.
“I think, therefore I am” or “Cogito ergo sum” are the words of Rene Descartes, the philosopher whose epistemology most closely aligns with the tenets of skepticism. Although Descartes was not a proponent of the notion that we cannot have any knowledge, he employed a system of radical doubt that questioned the basis of reality. In fact, it is arguably a rarity within the intellectual sphere to find those who are absolute skeptics.
Descartes’ epistemology is predicated upon the principle of radical doubt, more aptly referred to as Cartesian doubt. His foremost philosophical mission was to attain an irrefutable foundation of knowledge. The basis of his ideology is encapsulated in his renowned quote, “I think, therefore I am”. Once Descartes could know he existed, he could juxtapose that fact with anything else he interacted with in order to attain certainty. This led Descartes to separate the mind and body as two distinct substances, or what is commonly referred to as Cartesian dualism.
Since skepticism in its purest form is rarely found, it is more so employed as a tool or for the sake of thought experiments or, like Descartes, finding certainty. For instance, who is to say that the human brain is not a brain in a vat and that reality is an illusion? It would be the job of a philosopher, psychologist, or scientist to attempt to disprove that assertion logically. As a tool, skepticism can be used to justify a nihilistic or meaningless worldview, which could potentially bring about chaos within our world.
Why Study Epistemology?
The psychologist, philosopher, and cultural icon Jordan Peterson once said, “Every person is a subconscious exponent of some great philosopher’s presuppositions.” Meaning philosophers have been the arbiters of how humans tend to think about a plethora of topics. Epistemology, in particular, is an academic enterprise, one which has been dictating the conscious and subconscious thoughts of civilizations since the days of the ancient Greeks. To study epistemology is to study how humans have thought and continue to think to this day. We can observe the influence of idealism, empiricism, and skepticism within academia, politics, science, culture, and everyday perceptions. Thus, everyone should study epistemology to understand not only what predicates the thoughts of others but also what underlies the thoughts that saturate our own individual minds every day.