Epistemology – The Theory of Knowledge



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Higher/Int 2 Philosophy, Epistemology

Epistemology – The Theory of Knowledge



By the end of this unit you should be able to

Explain what philosophers understand by knowledge

Explain the tripartite definition for knowledge

Explain the main challenges to this definition

Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these challenges

Explain the differing claims for the source of knowledge

Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these claims

Explain, analyse and evaluate Descartes’ epistemological claims





This unit comprises of an introduction to the general themes and problems in epistemology followed by a focused investigation of the epistemology of Rene Descartes.


In this first section of the unit we will explore the following questions:-


  1. How do we define knowledge?

  2. How is this definition of knowledge challenged?

  3. What are the claims for the source of knowledge?

  4. How convincing are each of the main theories of knowledge?


1 How do we define knowledge?


Epistemology is also called the Theory of Knowledge. Note the use of the term theory. What do you think this indicates?


You may have heard people say, “I know what I know okay!” This suggests that there is something certain that they possess which they call knowledge.

If only it were that simples!




Here are some different knowledge statements.



  1. I know the earth is the third planet from the sun.

  2. I know how to ride a bike.

  3. I know North Berwick.

  4. I know 2 + 2 = 4

  5. I know men.

  6. I know all bachelors are unmarried men.

  7. I know the sun will rise tomorrow.

  8. I know food will nourish me.

  9. I know salt tastes salty.

  10. I know the best way home

  11. I know murder is wrong

  12. I know this is my body.

  13. I know how to speak English.

  14. I know what red is like.

  15. I know the meaning of life

  16. I know me.

  17. I know I like ice-cream.

  18. I know the earth is flat.

  19. I know smoking is bad.

  20. I know maths.

Is knowing that the earth is the third planet from the sun similar to knowing how to ride a bike or that murder is wrong or that 2 + 2 =4?




Assignment 1 (Paired Task)


  1. Look at the 20 claims above. For what reason could each be accepted as a knowledge claim?

  2. Do some claims have a similar reason?



Epistemology differentiates between the following three different kinds of knowledge:-


I know the earth is the third plant = Knowledge that…

I know how to ride a bike = Knowledge how…

I know North Berwick = Knowledge about…


Knowing that, is called propositional knowledge. Knowing that the earth is the third planet is an example of “knowledge that…”. Propositional Knowledge.
Knowing how to ride a bike is “knowledge how..”, this is an ability or a skill.
Knowing about North Berwick is a third kind of knowledge often called knowledge by acquaintance. It comes from familiarity. Implicit in this claim is that the claimant has been to North Berwick.
(Some would claim that knowing how is a special kind of knowing that.)

Our Focus

Epistemology is mainly concerned with propositional knowledge because this kind of knowledge involves making truth-claims. Propositional knowledge claims are capable of being true or false. Propositions claim that something is, or is not the case.


Propositional knowledge is knowledge that, not knowledge how or knowledge about. So we are dealing with beliefs that claim to be facts.
Proposition knowledge claims are important individually because we make judgments and decisions on what we believe to be the case. They are also important because we use accepted facts as a foundation for other belief/facts.
Assignment 2


  1. What three different kinds of knowledge can be identified?

  2. Give an example of each different kind of knowledge.

  3. With what kind of knowledge is epistemology concerned?

  4. Why is propositional knowledge important?

Now that we know what kind of knowledge concerns us, we need to agree a definition.

Perhaps the most common simple definition of knowledge is justified true belief. This important definition is also known as the tripartite definition of knowledge.
Tripartite Definition – “I have knowledge if…”


  1. I believe that something is true

  2. I have a good reason to believe that it is true and

  3. It is true.




  • This definition is claiming is that there are three necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge to take place.


So for the first statement on page 1 to be knowledge an individual..


  1. would have to believe that the earth was the third planet from the sun.

  2. would have to have justification for believing that the earth was the third planet from the sun.

  3. that the earth was the third plant from the sun would have to be true.

The phrase “necessary and sufficient conditions” is very important and useful. So all the conditions of JTB are needed (necessary) and no more are required (sufficient)


The availability of water is a necessary condition for making a cup of tea but is not sufficient.
What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for making a cup of tea?

Assignment 3 (Revision)




  1. What is epistemology?

  2. What different kinds of knowledge are there?

  3. Give examples of each kind of knowledge.

  4. With which kind of knowledge are we concerned?

  5. Why is this kind of knowledge important?

  6. How can this kind of knowledge be defined?

  7. What does this definition claim?

  8. Apply this definition to a propositional claim of your choice.

  9. Into which of the three knowledge categories do each of the statements on page 1, examples 4-20 fall?

  10. Subject the claim “The earth is flat” to the JTB test.

  11. How would you describe a “flat earth” claim?

  12. How would you respond to the claim “I know what I know”?

Obviously, the kind of knowledge involved in a straightforward historical claim like "I know that in fourteen hundred and ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue" is quite different from the kind of knowledge delivered through an introspective intuition, as in "I know that I exist." And both of these are quite different from the knowledge involved in the religious assertion, "I know that God loves me" and so on.



2 How is Justified True Belief Challenged?
Remember our working definition for knowledge is a belief that is justified and true.
The question is - are these the only necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge?
Some do not think so!
The Greek philosopher Plato pointed out that we can be right about something but not really know about something. He used a story to illustrate his argument.


A traveller asked a local which of the two roads ahead led to the town he wished to reach. The local, not knowing but wishing to be helpful pointed to the one which subsequently proved to be the right choice.
The traveller believed that it was the correct road, he was justified in his belief and his belief was true - it was the correct road - but he did really know it was the correct road?

Why do you think that Plato said that the traveller did not really know?



Many years after Plato, in fact only about forty years ago, a then very young philosopher called Edmund Gettier wrote a two-page article the content of which epistemologists are still dealing with.
The title of the article was “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”
In his article, Gettier gave some examples of hypothetical situations in which it appeared that beliefs were justified and true but we were left with the feeling that knowledge had not been achieved.
T
Gettier (left) and friend
hese examples have the catchy title of Gettier Examples! On the next page is not a Gettier example but a Gettier-Type Example.
It is a little less complex but still hits all the Gettier buttons – sort of Gettier-Lite – if you like!




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