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How do you know what you know? 

This may seem an inane question at first, recursive in nature and constructed solely to frustrate and confuse, but everyone should consider it at some point in their life. Epistemology is the investigation of this question; this study of what constitutes knowledge, if it even exists, and how we could go about gaining it if it does.

It's likely you're sitting on a chair right now. Are you sure that's a chair? You might say yes, since you can feel and see it beneath you, and it's true that sense perception is one of the most widely accepted methods of gaining knowledge, yet your senses are not always as reliable as you might hope. Optical illusions provide a good example of the fallibility of human senses; look at the checkerboard below, particularly the colours of the squares marked A and B.

Square B appears irrefutably lighter than square A, doesn't it? Now have a look at this deconstruction:

In fact, they're exact same shade of grey.

Even if you could always trust the evidence of your senses, there's no practical way for you to verify all your 'knowledge' through touch, sight, smell, sound or taste - what about atoms? Electric currents? Accepting knowledge second-hand from a figure of authority on a subject allows us to build on each others' achievements much like the pooling resources allowed our earliest ancestors to devote time to invention instead of constantly being on the hunt for their own meals. However, you need only look at the Santa Claus myth, believed by children across the world on the word of their parents, to see that relying on others' words can lead to false knowledge. This occur without deceit too, when the authority figure honestly believes their claims, as in the case of Ptolemy leading ancient Greece to believe the universe revolved around Earth.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Ptolemaic model is shown here on top with Copernicus' more accurate model below.

Perhaps now you'd like to fall back on pure, objective reasoning, as scientific theory does. However, even a formula as important as E=mc2 assumes that c, the constant representing the speed of light, is accurate. How do you know it is? Can you trust whoever told you it? You could actually measure it yourself with a bar of chocolate and a household microwave but then how could you be sure your eyes weren't playing tricks on you when you read the display? The entire field of scientific investigation relies on four fundamental assumptions1:

  1. There is a real and knowable universe
  2. The universe operates according to certain understandable rules or laws
  3. These laws are immutable - they do not change depending on where or when you are
  4. These laws can be discerned, studied and understood by people through careful observation, experimentation and research

As you can probably see by now, these assumptions include some inherent knowledge issues. Good scientists are generally very conscious of the presence of these uncertainties and tend to call even the ideas they are most confident in 'theories', such as the Theory of Evolution

Perhaps the only thing you can reason out (assuming the logical process we call 'reasoning' does lead to absolute truth) is Descartes' famous je pense, donc je suis, more commonly quoted as cogito ergo sum which translates to 'I think, therefore I am.' Yet believing this and this only could make a person mad, or at least very lonely, which is one reason why epistemeology seeks ways to validate the plethora of beliefs we call 'knowledge' in a variety of clever and intricate ways.



1. Feder, Kenneth L., (2010). Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. 5th ed. Toronto, Canada: McGraw-Hill.

Categories within Epistemology

Epistemology Viewpoint

2. Which philosopher or epistemological position from Hotz and Marquis articles for the study of epistemology? or Descartes, Hume, or Chuang Tzu or Feldman quotes a passage from Meno do you consider most relevant to the applied epistemological issues Why? 3. Nonaka and Nishiguchi discuss the steps companies have t

Theory of Knowledge: Goldman, Brandom and Bonjour.

Examine Goldman, Brandom and Bonjour's theories of knowledge. What reasons does Goldman give for saying that the most basic of j-rules must refer to cognitive states (and not social relations)? Compare and contrast the three thinkers on internalism and externalism. Present and evaluate Brandom's position on reliabilism.

Brief introduction to epistemology.

Epistemology deals with the three questions mentioned in the definition above. What is knowledge? How is knowledge acquired? How do we know that what we know is actually true? As human beings we have a tendency to desire to know truth. We also want to enjoy a certainty about the things we believe. We don't like to be wrong

Religion vs. Epistemology

I need some help/insight for this question, about 150 words. In the study of the origins of knowledge, belief and the nature of learning "Why not settle for Psychology" (Quine, 1969: 75). Should neuroscience replace epistemology? W.V. Quine (1969) Ontological Relativity and Other Essays NY: ColumbiaUniversity Press

Individual Paper

I need some help putting this paper together. Write a 1,050- to 1,400-word paper that compares two or more individual philosophers views on an epistemological topic concerning you and your profession (Director). Alternatively, compare and contrast two broad philosophical viewpoints in a similar fashion (for example, rationalism

Issue of meaning is discussed.

Delanty, G. & Strydom, P. (Eds). (2003). Philosophies of social science: The classic and contemporary readings. Why has the issue of meaning moved to the foreground in this so-called postmodern era (20th Century)?

John Locke's theory of Knowledge

Please help answer the following questions. Provide at least 400 words. For John Locke, knowledge comes from experience. But how to we acquire knowledge? Where does it come from?

Philosophy in 'The Matrix'


Description of Philosophy

Define philosophy and describe the nature of philosophical questions with special focus on how philosophical questions differ from questions of a scientific or factual nature. And include citation.

Theory of Knowledge

Is it useful to develop theories and/or paradigms in our approach to knowledge acquisition? What are the benefits and pitfalls of developing theories and paradigms? What conditions have to be met before we can accept something as true? (Discuss in the context of epistemic justification.)

Theory of Knowledge

Look especially for an understanding of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume (or Locke) and Kant, Write a concise 750-1000-word summative account on the following: What are the major areas of concern addressed by traditional philosophers of knowledge, and how do they compare with any concerns in this area? What avenues of e


Discuss the views of Relativism and why they are important. Which one is most in line with your personal views and why? Include a brief summary of Relativism.

Bonjour's version of coherentism

What are the differences between Bonjour's version of coherentism and what he describes as weak foundationalism? How might a foundationalist argue against Bonjour's account?

Intro to anthology

Are there reliable sources of information about the world that do not rely on perception and observation? If yes, what are they? If not then why?