Introduction to Epistemology

Philosophy - "1. (a) Love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual means and moral self-discipline. (b) The investigation of causes and laws underlying reality. (c) A system of philosophical inquiry or demonstration. 2. Inquiry into the nature of things based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods. 3. The critique and analysis of fundamental beliefs as they come to be conceptualised and formulated. 7. The science comprising logic, ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, and epistemology. 10. The system of values by which one lives: a philosophy of life."(1)

Epistemology - "The branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and foundations, and its extent and validity.   [Greek epist - knowledge (from epistasthai, to understand : epi-, epi- + histanai, to place, determine) + -logy.]

In the study of "knowledge" and what it means to say that we "know" anything, there are five separate concepts that play key roles. Despite the fact that these five concepts play such distinct parts, most people (and many philosophers who presumably should know better) tend to conflate one or more of them. So as an introduction to some essays on Epistemology, I am going to more closely define the five words that I will be using to denote these different concepts.   Setting out my intended meaning for these words, here at the beginning, will (I hope) prevent some potential for confusion, and defuse some forms of criticism.   Although of course in the essays that follow, I will be describing each of these words in much greater detail.

The five critical concepts that will play key roles in this exploration are -

"Belief" - A belief is a relationship between concepts that you think accurately represents the facts of the matter.   A belief is to be distinguished from an opinion, thought, surmise, hypothesis, or wish, etc., in that a belief is intended and expected to be true.   A belief aims at truth.   Opinions, thoughts, surmises, hypotheses, wishes, and so forth, do not aim at truth, are not presupposed to be true, and are not expected to be true.   To believe something, is to believe that it is true.

Belief - "1. The mental act, condition, or habit of placing trust or confidence in another.   2. Mental acceptance of and conviction in the truth, actuality, or validity of something.   3. Something believed or accepted as true, especially a particular tenet or a body of tenets accepted by a group of persons.

"Fact" - I use this word to refer to the way that matters really are as opposed to the way that we think things are, or that things may appear to be.   Facts are aspects of Reality.   In the words of the dictionary definition -

Fact - "1. Information presented as objectively real.   2. A real occurrence; an event.   3. a. Something having real, demonstrable existence.   b. The quality of being real or actual.   4. A thing that has been done, especially a crime."

Some people also refer to what I am calling "facts" as "states of affairs".   Many people (including some philosophers) use the term "The Truth" (capitalized) to refer to what I am calling "facts".   Some people will also challenge the very concept, and will question what facts are (and I will discuss that challenge in Section II).   The concept of "facts" presupposes that there is something that renders statements (or propositions) true or false.   If you hold a metaphysical belief that denies this, then you can consider that "facts" as such do not exist.   But for now, it will be sufficient to note that facts are neither true nor false.   Facts simply are.   And we'll leave the problem of the "existence" of facts, or the question of just what facts "are", until later.   I will just add for now that in general application (independently of a particular theory of truth), the term "facts" will refer to whatever it is that renders statements (or propositions) true or false  -  regardless of one's initial metaphysical premises about what that might be.

"Concept" - In my essay on the Theory of Concepts I go into much greater depth on the meaning and nature of a concept.   But for the purpose of this introduction, a "concept" is a cognitive pigeon-hole wherein, for reasons of mental economy, we collect one or more similar instances from experience together in order to treat them together as a single cognitive unit..  

Concept - "1. A general idea derived or inferred from specific instances or occurrences.   2. Something formed in the mind; a thought or notion. See synonyms at idea."

Idea - "1. Something, such as a thought or conception, that potentially or actually exists in the mind as a product of mental activity.   2. An opinion, a conviction, or a principle.   3. A plan, scheme, or method.   4. The gist of a specific situation; significance.   5. A notion; a fancy.   6. (Music) A theme or motif.   7. (Philosophy) a. In the philosophy of Plato, an archetype of which a corresponding being in phenomenal reality is an imperfect replica. b. In the philosophy of Kant, a concept of reason that is transcendent but non-empirical. c. In the philosophy of Hegel, absolute truth; the complete and ultimate product of reason."

For simplicity of discussion, I divide the universe of concepts into two separate fields:

The meaning of a concept is the integrated totality of the properties (quality and quantity) of the subsumed set of instances (entities or experiences), plus the set of qualities across which the subsumed instances are recognized as similar to each other, and different from other instances.   The definition of a concept is a particular specification of the few essential distinguishing characteristics across which the subsumed instances are acknowledged to be similar to each other, and different from other instances. The meaning is greater than the definition by the inclusion of all of the known characteristics across which the instances are similar, all of the known and unknown instances which are similar across those characteristics, and the integrated totality of the properties of the subsumed set of entities or experiences.

The possessor of the concept properly grasps the meaning of the concept when (iff) s/he can successfully recognize whether or not some new instance is subsumed within the boundaries of that concept.   For example, consider the atomic proposition "some F are G".   One can be said to properly understand the meaning of this proposition when one can recognize whether or not the existents subsumed within the concept (F) bear the specified relationship (some x are y) to the boundary conditions of the concept (G).   Therefore, if you can recognize that at least one existent subsumed within the concept F is also subsumed within the concept G, then you understand the meaning of the proposition and can recognize that the proposition is true.  

But it does not necessarily follow that you thereby are consciously aware of all the similarity characteristics that you might possibly employ to achieve that recognition.   Especially since the concepts involved are open ended sets and include within their meaning existents you have not yet encountered and characteristics you are not consciously aware of.   Because "knowledge" entails a conscious belief, you therefore might be able to recognize when the proposition is true without actually knowing all the conditions under which it would be true.

"Knowledge" - I focus here specifically on "knowledge that . . ." rather than on any of the variants of "knowledge how to . . .".   All knowledge can be captured as a series of propositions.   Whatever it is that you know, can be framed as a proposition - a relationship among concepts.   Knowledge is a species of belief, in that you think the proposition involved accurately represents the facts of the matter.   But it is more than a simple belief by having the additional characteristics of being a belief that is both true and justified.  

Knowledge   - "1. The state or fact of knowing.   2. Familiarity, awareness, or understanding gained through experience or study.   3. The sum or range of what has been perceived, discovered, or learned.   4. Learning; erudition.   5. Specific information about something."

Consider a statement of knowledge "S knows that p".   In order for the statement "p" to be considered "knowledge" possessed by S, rather than "opinion" or "belief" held by S -

This is a summary of philosophy's standard "Justified-True-Belief" model of Knowledge with the added details that:-

"Truth" - For the purposes of this introduction, the concept "Truth" applies only to propositions, not to facts. A proposition about facts can be true or false. But the facts simply are. Those who would conflate the facts with the truth, even if they capitalize the former, tend to confuse the difference between a state of affairs in reality (the facts) with propositions about that state of affairs.  

Truth - "1. Conformity to fact or actuality.   2. A statement proven to be or accepted as true.   3. Sincerity; integrity.   4. Fidelity to an original or a standard.   5. Reality; actuality."

  There is a key feature of this set of definitions that is worth specifically noting.   All five of these concepts are intimately inter-related.


One cannot entertain anything that can be represented by a proposition without presupposing concepts.   One cannot hold a belief without making use of a proposition.   And it doesn't have to be consciously.   You can employ a proposition without being aware of doing so.   You cannot "believe" something without presupposing that there are relationships between concepts that you maintain are correct, which of course presupposes both "concepts" and "truth".   And you cannot "know" something without also believing it, and without it also being true.   Each of these five separate concepts is dependent on all of the other four.   The five stand together as an integrated set of ideas upon which rests all that we know, and believe, and think.


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(1)   Unless otherwise specified, all dictionary definitions are quoted from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation; further reproduction and distribution restricted in accordance with the Copyright Law of the United States. All rights reserved.