Epistemology and methodology: main trends and ends

The scholastics of the late medieval period were especially concerned with two epistemological questions: the relationship between reason and faith, and the nature of concepts and universals. The major positions on the latter issue—realism, nominalism, and conceptualism—were defined during this period.

The Reformation and the rise of modern science raised questions about cognitive methodology, and gave rise to a rebirth of sceptical doctrines, trends that culminated in the writings of Rene Descartes (1596-1650).

During the modern period, from Descartes to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), epistemological concerns were at the forefront of philosophy, as thinkers attempted to understand the implications of the new science. They also attempted, unsuccessfully, to deal with sceptical attacks on the validity of sense perception, concepts, and induction. In the 19th and 20th centuries, epistemological issues continued to receive attention from philosophers of various schools, including Idealism, Logical Positivism, and Linguistic Analysis.

A familiarity with the history of philosophy provides the best introduction to epistemology. The following works are of special importance for epistemology:

Plato, Theaetetus

Aristotle, Posterior Analytics

Rene Descartes, Meditations

John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding

David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding

Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics

Epistemology as a discipline.

Why should there be such a subject as epistemology? Aristotle provided the answer when he said that philosophy begins in wonder, in a kind of puzzlement about things. Nearly all human beings wish to comprehend the world they live in, a world that includes the individual as well as other persons, and most people construct hypotheses of varying degrees of sophistication to help them make sense of that world. No conjectures would be necessary if the world were simple; but its features and events defy easy explanation. The ordinary person is likely to give up somewhere in the process of trying to develop a coherent account of things and to rest content with whatever degree of understanding he has managed to achieve.

Philosophers, in contrast, are struck by, even obsessed by, matters that are not immediately comprehensible. Philosophers are, of course, ordinary persons in all respects except perhaps one. They aim to construct theories about the world and its inhabitants that are consistent, synoptic, true to the facts and that possess explanatory power. They thus carry the process of inquiry further than people generally tend to do, and this is what saying that they have developed a philosophy about these matters means. Epistemologists, in particular, are philosophers whose theories deal with puzzles about the nature, scope, and limits of human knowledge.

Like ordinary persons, epistemologists usually start from the assumption that they have plenty of knowledge about the world and its multifarious features. Yet, as they reflect upon what is presumably known, epistemologists begin to discover that commonly accepted convictions are less secure than originally assumed and that many of man's firmest beliefs are dubious or possibly even chimerical. Anomalous features of the world that most people notice but tend to minimise or ignore cause such doubts and hesitations. Epistemologists notice these things too, but, in wondering about them, they come to realise that they provide profound challenges to the knowledge claims that most individuals blithely and unreflectingly accept as true.

What then are these puzzling issues? While there is a vast array of anomalies and perplexities, two of these issues will be briefly described in order to illustrate why such difficulties call into question common claims to have knowledge about the world.


"Our knowledge of the external world".

Most people have noticed that vision can play tricks on them. A straight stick put in water looks bent to them, but they know it is not; railroad tracks are seen to be converging in the distance, yet one knows that they are not; the wheels of wagons on a movie screen appear to be going backward, but one knows that they are not; and the pages of English-language books reflected in mirrors cannot be read from left to right, yet one knows that they were printed to be read that way. Each of these phenomena is thus misleading in some way. If human beings were to accept the world as being exactly as it looks, they would be mistaken about how things really are. They would think the stick in water really to be bent, the railway tracks really to be convergent, and the writing on pages really to be reversed. These are visual anomalies, and they produce the sorts of epistemological disquietudes referred to above. Though they may seem to the ordinary person to be simple problems, not worth serious notice, for those who ponder them they pose difficult questions. For instance, human beings claim to know that the stick is not really bent and the tracks not really convergent. But how do they know that these things are so?