Epistemology: The Study of How Knowledge Is Formed

Epistemology is the science of knowledge. Learn all about it in this article.
Epistemology: The Study of How Knowledge Is Formed

Last update: 06 June, 2023

Epistemology can be defined as the scientific study of knowledge. In general terms, it deals with the conditions under which knowledge is produced. However, its real raison d’être points to the need to validate knowledge – that is, to separate that which is considered true from that which is not.

Epistemology is considered one of the oldest branches of philosophy. In fact, the first reflections on this subject were found in ancient Greece, with such well-known thinkers as Plato and Aristotle. In the following article, you’ll learn a little more about epistemology: what it is, its branches, functions, and applications.

What is epistemology?

The ancient Greeks distinguished three forms or levels of knowledge:

  • Doxa: This term was first used by Parmenides and then by Plato. This is related to opinion and belief.
  • Episteme: This is the concept that was closest to what we call “science” today. For Plato, episteme was the knowledge that should be considered true, while Aristotle believed that it was the means to apprehend reality.
  • Gnosis: This has to do with personal experience and perceptions. It’s more related to the spiritual or mystical.

According to its etymology, the concept that concerns us results from the union of the voice episteme (knowledge) with logos (study). Thus, epistemology can be defined as the study of knowledge.

Of course, throughout history, different authors have proposed their own definitions. For the renowned philosopher Mario Bunge, epistemology deals with the process of scientific research and its product: scientific knowledge.

Additionally, Guillermo Briones points out that this discipline seeks to understand the object of study of science, analyzing its philosophical assumptions, as well as the implicit values, the structuring of its theories, and the methods used to collect and interpret data, to confirm or refute assertions.

In short, this branch of philosophy is responsible for examining different aspects involved in the production of knowledge. These include the foundations on which it rests, its origin, nature, limits and even validity and quality, critically analyzing the process that leads to truly scientific knowledge and the formulation of laws.

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Questions about knowledge

In his book Theory of Knowledge, Johannes Hessen examines a series of questions that have always been raised in epistemology. These questions can be considered a starting point for anyone wishing to venture into reflection.

In a way, how these questions are answered determines the approach or stance that is taken with respect to knowledge and its modes of production. Let’s take a look at what they are.

What is knowledge?

This question can be answered in various ways. From a phenomenological point of view, knowledge is considered to be an act or phenomenon, where a subject (cognoscente) is in front of an object.

However, from the perspective of psychology, it’s considered to be a process. This means that it takes into account the mental processes that take place during the act in which the subject apprehends the characteristics of that which is known or to be known.

Is knowledge possible?

According to the aforementioned author, it’s possible to answer in a skeptical way, stating that it isn’t possible to really know anything or anyone, that knowledge is only appearance or a vain illusion. However, there are those who are confident that there is the possibility of building certainty around the object, which would be the position of dogmatism.

At an intermediate point of these two views is the position known as relativism. In this position, one can know not everything.

Where does knowledge come from?

Aristotle held that there’s nothing in the mind that has not existed before in experience – that is, that has not been experienced by the subject. However, mirages and hallucinations show that the senses can mislead us.

Therefore, in the opposite view, it’s affirmed that reason will not deceive us. This is how the perspective of rationalism states that true knowledge is born of reason or makes use of it, although empiricism affirms the contrary.

Does knowledge occur in the subject or the object?

From one point of view, knowledge starts from the object or reality and the subject apprehends the properties of this to build an image of it. But the opposite position affirms that it is from the subject, with its ideas and consciousness, where everything arises.

What is truth?

This is a key question and the most difficult to answer in epistemology. To say what truth is, or to apply a criterion to affirm that knowledge is true, is difficult.

There are those who flatly deny such a possibility. Others admit that it is possible to reach valid knowledge, as long as an objective procedure is applied, such as the scientific method.

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There are different subdivisions, currents, trends, and schools within the field of epistemology, depending on the approach assumed or the discipline. In relation to the latter, we have the epistemology of sociology, psychology, biology, chemistry, etc., referring to the research process in these sciences.

On the other hand, we also speak of legal epistemology (relating to the methods and procedures used by jurists), normative epistemology, modal, evolutionary, and even genetic epistemology. The latter, established by the renowned pedagogue Jean Piaget, states that knowledge is the product of the interaction of the individual with his or her environment.

There are also other approaches and schools, such as postcolonial and feminist epistemology. One of the most influential in the 20th century is the logical neopositivism of the so-called Vienna Circle.

The main epistemologists

It can be said that an epistemologist is a philosopher who deals with scientific work. Thus, while men of science study reality, he observes and analyzes how theories are constructed, the reasoning and methods used, as well as the paradigms that in each era determine the ways of knowing.

Throughout history, many names stand out in epistemology:

  • In ancient Greece, Parmenides was the precursor, although Plato and Aristotle, each from his own position, laid the foundations of this discipline.
  • In the Middle Ages, certain scholastic philosophers stand out, such as Saint Augustine and Saint Anselm, as well as the Andalusian Muslim scholar Averroes.
  • With the birth of modern science, great names also arise around the reflection on knowledge: at this time the English empiricists stand out: Locke, Hume, and Berkeley.
  • We can’t fail to mention two illustrious thinkers, each in his own area, such as Descartes and Kant.
  • In the 20th century, the epistemological schools are represented by Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
  • More recently, the figures of Karl Popper, critic of logical neopositivism, and the French hermeneuticists Hans-Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur stand out.
René Descartes en la epistemología
René Descartes represents the rationalism of his time and the search for the method that ensures scientific knowledge.

The usefulness of epistemology

We’ve already explained what epistemology deals with, with respect to science or knowledge in general. However, if there were any doubts as to its value or scope, it can be emphasized that this discipline is useful for the following:

  • To explore relationships between different fields of knowledge.
  • To help to understand and even resolve conflicts of interest.
  • To analyze and evaluate the relevance of applied methods.
  • To discern what knowledge should be considered scientific.
  • To deepen the different valid ways of producing knowledge.
  • To promote debate on what can be accepted as ethical in science.
  • To determine the criteria to validate the soundness and scope of the findings obtained.
  • To contribute to the maintenance of a critical approach to the limits of knowledge.
  • To maintain adequate vigilance on the ideologies that influence the work of science.

The validity of epistemology today

Epistemology is not only useful to those who observe from the outside, but also to those who do science. The scientist is a human being and as such, is not exempt from incurring in situations that could go against the postulates.

Currently, with the production of knowledge by artificial intelligence systems, a whole panorama of possible interpretations and reflections from epistemology has opened up. There are many challenges to be faced in this regard. Although there’s still a long way to go, epistemology will always have something to contribute.

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.