04 Jun

What Is Epistemology?

Posted By polity_admin_user

by Stephen Hetherington

What is epistemology? It’s about knowledge – but in a special way. It’s about the very idea of knowing. It doesn’t assume that whatever people accept as being knowledge, for instance, is knowledge. Perhaps most people haven’t thought enough about knowledge’s nature. Perhaps different people would describe knowledge quite differently. So, how can we really know what knowledge is? Maybe we never will. But we can try to do so; which is where epistemology enters. It is knowledgeology, done philosophically. (Well, that’s my name for it. Philosophers usually call it theory of knowledge.) It wrestles with preliminary questions about knowledge, ‘wait-a-moment’ and ‘not so fast’ questions about knowledge’s nature, extent, and value. Hence, so does this book, in an easily readable way, since it is an introduction to epistemology. For instance, what is knowledge – mine, yours, anyone’s? How do we gain it, when we do? We claim knowledge repeatedly and confidently. Yet even this doesn’t ensure our understanding what it is. Might knowledge be unattainable for us, without our noticing this failing in ourselves?

This book introduces you to such questions. You speedily find yourself actively building a theory of knowledge, piece by piece. Then you test that theory: you refine and revise it, like a scientist testing a bold new idea. Finally, you’re invited to apply such thinking: please, go ahead, make your day – by using your newly enhanced epistemological skills while reflecting upon personally, politically, or socially powerful issues. How do you know that you’re a good person, that you love someone, what your future should be, or that you aren’t a racist? Ponder also the morality of abortion, of capital punishment, the existence of God. Ask seriously whether history gives us knowledge: do you know anything of what has happened in the past century of humankind’s travels and travails, for example? Would even professional historians lack such knowledge? And what of science? How does it provide knowledge? These are epistemological questions. If you value having knowledge, you should also value doing epistemology. Who knows? You might even want to be a knowledgeologist. Epistemology is fun.


Stephen Hetherington is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New South Wales. His new book, What Is Epistemologyis now available from Polity.