Epistemology is the study of knowledge, and the acquisition of knowledge. Another way to say this could be that it’s the study of certainty, and how we acquire our beliefs.
Doubt, then, is central to epistemological thinking, because it enables us to get some distance from the beliefs and assumptions that bind us to a certain view of what constitutes “knowing.”
Another way to say this might be that if you want to examine the fundamental nature of reality and you value getting to the truth more than confirming what you already thought you knew, you’re going to have to set aside, at least temporarily, all the things you thought were certain and true before you started to look more closely at what knowledge is.
Otherwise, you simply can’t hope to learn anything new from asking these kinds of questions. This is a common theme in philosophy, whether it be the “Radical Doubt” of Descartes or the skepticism of the, er, skeptics… it’s often thought that in order to hold a belief with any real certainty it’s first necessary to subject that belief to intense scrutiny. This is, in fact, the notion at the very heart of philosophy, which led to the development of the other sciences, and later the scientific method.
So it is doubt that will be our greatest ally when it comes to the study of knowledge and the acquisition of truth.
“The mind must be turned away from the world of change, until its eye can look straight at reality.”
Plato, The Republic
It might sound kind of abstract and silly on the surface, but it’s actually an incredibly important question, and one of the largest areas in philosophy. Interestingly, there was a time when the dominant epistemology in the field (Rationalism) was not dependent on evidence from the outside world but thought one could achieve certain knowledge through thought alone – which sounds a little bizarre to the modern ear because of the enormous impact of the competing theory of Empiricism, the epistemological theory at the heart of scientific inquiry. In fact this theory has become so dominant that I probably don’t even have to explain what it is, since the word “empirical” has come to be synonymous with the process of acquiring data from our senses in order to come to a better understanding of things, rather than thinking we can simply “think” our way to the truth, as the Rationalists did.
By far one of the most impactful theories of knowledge came way before the Rationalists and Empiricists. Plato, way back at the birth of Philosophy, argued that “knowledge” consisted of a justified true belief. This theory of knowledge is still commonly used today, although there are numerous others.
You may now be wondering why we’re worrying so much about what counts as knowledge when we should be more worried about what the truth is and how it works. But don’t worry, epistemology has plenty of theories about that, too.
Feel free to google this stuff for yourself or look it up on one of my recommended philosophy websites, because it’s a rich and fascinating area (particularly the truth stuff, but that’s just me), but for now, I’ll have to leave you with this little “stub article” because the truth, which I also believe to be justified, is that I… am sleepy.
Here’s my mind map of epistemology!