Epistemology is the study of knowledge and belief. It seeks to answer fundamental questions about what we can know and how we come to know it. The field of epistemology is concerned with a range of topics, but two primary questions stand out as central to the discipline.
What is knowledge?
The first question that epistemology addresses is the nature of knowledge itself. What does it mean to say that someone knows something? This may seem like a straightforward question, but it quickly becomes complex when we consider the various ways in which we use the term “knowledge.”
At its most basic level, knowledge is often defined as “justified true belief.” In other words, for someone to know something, they must believe it to be true and have good reason for doing so. However, this definition raises a number of important questions.
What counts as “justification”? How do we determine what is true? And how certain must we be in our beliefs before we can consider them knowledge?
One influential approach to understanding knowledge is known as “foundationalism.” According to foundationalism, some beliefs are “basic” and do not require further justification.
These basic beliefs serve as the foundation for other beliefs that are built on top of them. For example, you might believe that you are currently reading an article on your computer screen. This belief might be based on a number of other beliefs (e.g., that you own a computer, that you have internet access), but these other beliefs are themselves based on more basic beliefs (e., your sensory experiences).
Another approach to understanding knowledge is known as “coherentism.” According to coherentism, all beliefs are interconnected and mutually supportive. Rather than starting with a set of basic beliefs, coherentists argue that our beliefs form a web-like structure in which each belief supports and reinforces others.
What are the limits of human knowledge?
The second primary question that epistemology addresses is the limits of human knowledge. What can we know, and what are the boundaries of our understanding? This question has been a source of debate throughout the history of philosophy.
One important perspective on this question is skepticism. Skeptics argue that we cannot have knowledge about certain things, either because our senses are unreliable or because the world around us is fundamentally unknowable. For example, some skeptics argue that we cannot truly know anything about the external world beyond our own minds, since all of our experiences are mediated through our senses.
Another approach to understanding the limits of human knowledge is known as “empiricism.” Empiricists argue that all knowledge ultimately comes from experience. According to this view, we can only be certain about things that we have directly observed or experienced ourselves.
Ultimately, the questions that epistemology addresses are fundamental to our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. By exploring these questions, we gain a deeper appreciation for what we can know and how we come to know it.