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Epistemology: Philosophy of Knowledge

by Ron Kurtus (27 January 2002)

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that is dedicated to the study of knowledge, and its sources, varieties and limits. There are several schools of thought on how that knowledge is gathered. They include empiricism, logical positivism, and apriorism.

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Epistemology

Epistemology is the theory of human knowledge. It is concerned with the origin, structure, methods and validity of human knowledge. It deals such mental phenomena as thinking, perceiving, knowing and understanding.

A major assumption in epistemology that would seem obvious--but is still important--is that the logical structure of the human mind is unchanging.

Gathering knowledge

There are several schools of thought or theories on how knowledge is gathered or attained in humans. To a degree, they should also apply to the knowledge in animals.

Empiricism

Empiricism is the theory that the only source of human knowledge is experience. Empiricism proclaims that experiments and observation are the main instruments for the acquisition of knowledge.

Experience includes inner experience-reflection upon the mind and its operations-as well as sense perception. Knowledge of the physical world is considered a generalization from particular instances and can never reach more than a high degree of probability.

Empiricism accepts that there is some innate or a priori knowledge based on mathematical or logic rules.

Positivism

Positivism--or logical positivism--is an extension of empiricism, in that that knowledge is derived from experience, but it also believes that nothing is innate and that only that which can be measured is worth worrying about.

Logical positivism is also known as scientific empiricism. It is a school of philosophy that uses the methodology and precision of mathematics and the natural sciences in the field of philosophy. It considers philosophy an analytical, rather than a speculative, inquiry.

Followers of this school try to clarify the language of science by showing that the content of scientific theories could be reduced to truths of logic and mathematics coupled with propositions referring to sense experience.

Positivism believes that metaphysical speculation is nonsensical, propositions of logic and mathematics tautological, and moral or value statements merely emotive. They believe that verification is essential and that a proposition has meaning only if some sense-experience would determine its truth.

Apriorism

Apriorism is a school of thought that believes that knowledge is innate. This philosophy believes that humans can acquire knowledge of a special sort, called "a priori knowledge" via non-inductive means. They differ, however, in their accounts of where such knowledge comes from. Two broad families of apriorist views can be distinguished in this regard.

The impositionist view holds that a priori knowledge reflects the logical structures of the mind. On the other hand, the reflectionist view holds that we can have a priori knowledge of what exists as a result that the knowing subject and the objects of knowledge are in some sense and to some degree pre-tuned to each other.

Compromise

The schools of thought on how knowledge is gathered seem to go to the extremes of the spectrum in saying it is all one way or nothing at all. A more likely explanation is a compromise between the extremes.

It is certainly obvious that babies and young animals have certain knowledge and skills that seems to be "hard-wired" into their systems. This is analogous to the computer that has part of its operating system built into the computer chips and hardware, before any software is installed.

As a person experiences life, he or she then gains knowledge empirically. This is also true for animals. The learning process is not quite trial and error, since the built in logical circuits of the brain allow for the basis of reasoning and problem solving. Still, experience can certainly enhance the reasoning skills.

Summary

Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge, its sources, varieties and limits. There are several schools of thought on how that knowledge is gathered. They include empiricism, logical positivism, and apriorism. In general, a compromise on the schools of thought is the best way to go.


"I think, therefore I am." Rene' Descartes


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