Epistemology Essay

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The Greek words for knowledge and explanation are episteme and logos, respectively. Epistemology is the study of the nature (theory) of knowledge and justification. Epistemology is the kind of philosophy (or the primary role assigned to philosophy) valued in the scientific view of the world. In such a world, significant emphasis is placed on providing evidence for our claims to know, and philosophy has the task of examining the logic and methods involved in questions of how we know and what gives knowledge the property of being valid. The phrase ”after epistemology” or ”overcoming epistemology” often heard in philosophical circles is, in part, a reaction to restricting philosophy to epistemological concerns, to matters of ”knowing about knowing.” The tradition of continental philosophy (hermeneutics, existentialism, critical theory, phenomenology, etc.) that inspires much thinking in the social sciences today, expands the concern with knowing to ”knowing about being and doing.” In other words its concerns are not strictly epistemological, but also metaphysical and aesthetic.

Debates between the two great classical modern philosophies of rationalism and empiricism that developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries form the backdrop for understanding the emergence of social science methodologies. Empiricist epistemology (Locke, Hume, Berkeley) argued that knowledge is derived from sense experience; genuine, legitimate knowledge consists of beliefs that can be justified by observation. Rationalist epistemology (Descartes, Spinoza) held that reason is the sure path to knowledge. Rationalists may claim that sense experiences are an effect of external causes; that a priori ideas (concepts, theories, etc.) provide a structure for making sense of experience; and/or that reason provides a kind of certainty that the senses cannot provide. Kant’s philosophy is recognized for (among other things) its grand synthesis and reconciliation of the key insights of these two theories of knowledge.

Empiricism as an epistemology continues to occupy a central place in thinking about methodology, particularly in Anglo-American traditions. It is one of the cornerstones of the naturalistic interpretation of the social sciences – the view that the explanatory and predictive methods of the natural sciences, as well as the aim of developing a theory of the way the natural world works, ought to be extended to the social (human or moral) sciences.

Rationalist and empiricist epistemologies are foundationalist; that is, they hold that any claim labeled as ”knowledge” must rest on a secure (i.e., permanent, indisputable) foundation. The rationalist locates this foundation in reason; the empiricist, in sense experience. While acknowledging that reason and experience are important in understanding the nature of knowledge, much contemporary epistemology is nonfoundationalist – it rejects the view that knowledge must be erected on an absolutely secure foundation. Nonfoundationalists argue there simply are no such things as secure foundations; hence, our knowledge is always conjectural and subject to revision. This distinction between foundationalist and nonfoundationalist epistemologies is one way of marking the difference between philosophies of positivism and postpositivism. The former believe in the possibility (and necessity) of unassailable ground for any claim to knowledge; the latter abandon this idea. However, postpositivism does not discard the idea that knowledge is built up from (relatively) neutral observations of the ”way things are.” It simply acknowledges that, at any given time, our understanding of the way things are might be mistaken. Postpositivists are thus fallibilists with respect to knowledge – the presumption is that current knowledge is correct given the best available procedures, evidence, and arguments, yet current understandings can be revised in light of new criticism or evidence.


  1. Grayling, A. C. (1996) Epistemology. In: Bunnin, N. & Tsui-James, E. P. (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy. Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 38-63.
  2. Taylor, C. (1995) Overcoming epistemology. In: Philosophical Arguments. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  3. Turner, S. P. & Roth, P. A. (2003) The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy ofthe Social Sciences. Blackwell, Oxford.

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