What is Epistemology?

Epistemology is synonymous with theories of knowledge. For a claim to be true the claim must have a foundation. Yet finding a firm foundation can be difficult. Epistemology is subdivided into rationalism andempiricism which are considered ways of acquiring knowledge. Yet these two concepts have limitations. Truth is essential for one to have knowledge; how can one know something if what they think is true is in fact false?

Problems with Foundationalism and Anti-Foundationalism

Epistemology must be grounded on a firm foundation for otherwise how can ones claims to knowledge be supported? Arguments without foundations rely on circular reasoning or an infinite regress. When an claim is based on circular reasoning, the argument itself is supported based on a previous claim, but at the same time the claim provides support for itself farther around the circular chain.

Infinite regress is different. How can something provide support for something else if the claim that provides support is not founded by itself or something prior? If all claims must be supported, then each prior claim needs support as well. If the argument is not well founded then it relies on the previous claim, and so on, and so on, therefore one ends up in a infinite regress. There is no foundation.

Anti-Foundationalism argues to the contrary; some people claim truth is relative. To some it is not important if values differ. This can thrust one into a moral quandary. For example it is considered for certain areas in Asia and Africa that female genital mutilation is acceptable morally, but people in the West would reject this.

Problems With Rationalism and Empiricism

According to epistemology there are two ways to acquire knowledge. First is rationalism in which one possess’ rational principles independent of experience. These rational principles exist in the mind, which is immortal and immutable. That is because something which does not exist in space and time cannot be destroyed. Therefore rational principles exist independently of ones physical bodies, since ones body is spatial and temporal and therefore subject to destruction.

Descartes talks about the relationship, or lack thereof, between mind and body, how the two can interface if they are so dissimilar, and he is unable to give a satisfactory explanation of how a mind and body can interact.

There are problems with empiricism too. One is called the Veil of Perception, introduced by John Locke’s representationalism. How does one perceive anything? Does one see the thing in itself? To think this would be called naive realism. If one does see things as they are, then how does one see them? Does the matter itself fall into one’s eyes? One may counter that what one sees is reflected light. Believing what one sees is a representation of what is being viewed, is called representation realism. And if what one sees is not exactly as it exists in itself, how can one say that this thing even resembles what one sees, or even exists at all? If the lights are turned out might the object cease to exist? In other words if one does not perceive the thing in itself, how can one know they perceive the thing at all?

The Types of Truth

What is truth? In order to have knowledge one must know that certain opinions are true. While truth is essential to having knowledge, one must realize that there are different standards for truth. The types of truths include the following:

  • Correspondence Theory of Truth
  • Pragmatic Theory of Truth
  • Coherence Theory of Truth

First is the correspondence theory of truth. That means there is a correspondence between what one thinks and the world. For example to say the sky is blue would be true because the sky is in fact blue, (well the sky usually appear blue to human eyes).

Another theory of truth is the pragmatic theory of truth. This is the idea if it works then it is true. For example if one were to ask if the computer works properly, and one turns it on and all goes well, then this statement would in fact be true. It is true that it works properly.

Finally, there is the coherence theory of truth. That is what people find coherent is, in fact, true. When figuring out mathematical equations, if the derivations are coherent (hold together) then the final formula is in fact true.

Epistemology is a huge subject and this just scratches the surface. Epistemology includes issues surrounding foundationalism and anti-foundationalism, and it’s subdivisions are rationalism and empiricism. For something to be known as knowledge, it must in fact be true. There are three basic theories for truth, correspondence, pragmatic, and the coherence theories of truth. Searching for truth is a worthy pursuit.


Honderich, Ted. Ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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Doug Frame

I am a former professor who taught for 8 years. I have a BA and an MA in Philosophy. I enjoy reading philosophy but ever more so I enjoy writing philosophy. I am a Certified Logic-Based Consultant Email me for an initial consultation frame@framepublishing.com

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