What is Epistemology?
The word epistemology is derived from the words episteme “knowledge, acquaintance with knowledge” and logos “study, word or message”. The study seeks to determine how knowledge is perceived as well as assessing what knowledge is.
Know(ledge) Knowledge (as well as knowing) is a conclusion reached by the know-er. Through the complex interaction between the one knowing and the information gathered, knowledge is synthesized.
How do we know?
The “How” of knowledge is a process concerning the interaction of outside stimulus and our complicated person.
We are very complex individuals. Each of us perceives the world through the unique number of variables that differentiate us. Our experiences lead us to develop unique perspectives on information that may or may not be inherent to information itself.
Truth is a piece of information standing separately from perception. Though it is nearly impossible to qualify completely (as deconstructionism may lead us away from such a certain identification), truth is best defined as unsullied fact.
Through perception of truth, one knows.
Consider the phrase: Olaf has black fur.
I am deciding, through perception of truth: Olaf’s (my dog) fur is the color black. To come to this conclusion one must see, hear, or sense the dog Olaf and likewise perceive that he has fur and it is indeed a black hue.
We have a problem, I cannot perceive and decide Olaf, fur and black without gathering prior information. What information do I need to know to come to this conclusion? First I need to know who Olaf is (further what a dog is), what fur is, and what black is. Thus, we add the variable of belief.
Through experience we conclude, there are constants. A man is (usually) a being with two eyes, two legs, two arms and some sort of face. I know this through ‘perceiving’ this ‘truth’ and thus developing an understanding for what man is. Likewise I develop beliefs based on perceivable truths.
Through perception of truth, relating to belief, one knows.
I decide through belief and perception of truth: Olaf’s fur is black. To come to this conclusion my belief of black, Olaf (dog) and fur must match up with my perception of truth.
We have a problem, in order to perceive black, fur and Olaf against my belief of black, fur and Olaf I must understand black, fur and Olaf against perception and belief. In other words Olaf’s fur might be a different shade of black, his fur might be a different texture of fur, Olaf might have grown – so I cannot recognize him as the same Olaf. My brain must understand to its capacity the evidence presented before me. Maybe I looked once, or heard of Olaf’s fur color once but I needed to see or hear again. The evidence presented needs to ‘click’. Thus we add understanding.
In lieu of our complex person, information must be gathered to a point of cognition. It is here perception and belief are added into an equation and brought out the other end into knowledge. To use an idiom, ‘you gotta put two and two together’.
Through understood perception of truth, relating to belief, one knows.
I decide through my understanding of my perception of truth, as they relate to my beliefs: Olaf’s fur is black. I understand black, fur and Olaf do indeed relate to my beliefs of black, fur and Olaf as I perceive black, fur and Olaf.
-But- (and this is as far as I’ll take it)
How can I believe something, or understand my belief of something unless I have prior experience of it. Belief requires some sort of judgment based on the sensory data given, through experiences not directly relating to this current experience. Thus, we realize the value of preconception.
Past experiences allow individuals to judge information, affording them belief . Emotions, experiences and understanding of past experiences alter how we conceptualize input.
Through understood perception of truth, relating to preconceived belief, one knows.
All of this information allows for one to ‘know’ something. By the time one goes through the process of ‘knowing’ Olaf has black fur, an overwhelming series of associations and judgments take place. Perhaps an individual grew up in a dog loving household, maybe someone is allergic to dog fur, possibly another holds black as a bad omen.
Mrs. Flood and Maw Maw
At the age of fourteen I spent my first thanksgiving away from home. I went with a friend and their family to Missoula, Montana. That week we stayed in my friend’s aunt’s home. I was excited upon arrival, as the house was incredibly beautiful. The landscape stretched out for miles, no sight of airplanes, tall buildings or water treatment plants. Despite all of these great things there was a problem, the aunt in whose house we were staying was in the middle of radiation therapy for cancer. On the way to the home my friend reminded me several times the aunt was bald. I was warned not to seem too shocked if she came down with a shiny head, so her feelings would not be hurt.
We get to the home, unpack our things and hear the door upstairs slam. The aunt had just arrived home from another errand. As we continue packing downstairs she bounds down the wooden steps to greet us. I was shocked! A woman, bald from radiation therapy could walk!
I know this sounds a bit stupid now. I know now going through radiation treatment does not render one unable to walk, nor does being bald for that matter. Two years prior to this event, my grandmother (Maw Maw) was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. After six months of treatment, family reconciliation and heartache, she died. My grandmother also received radiation therapy and was bald. But due to the severity of her condition Maw Maw was constrained (in body not soul) to a wheelchair.
My knowledge of radiation therapy, cancer and hair-loss were constrained by my previous personal experience. I did not even cognitively realize the wrongful association of immobility until new knowledge presented itself to me. What I knew was confronted by new information.
The How interacts with the What
The process by which we come to know truth is fantastically complicated. The ‘how we know’ question only becomes more complicated as it relates with the “what” of knowledge. Now, knowledge and truth are not the same, as I have shown above. Knowledge is what we decide (cognitively or not). The question “what is knowledge?” adds a great deal of complication to the matter. Further, the validity of knowledge comes into question. In the case of the grandmother, was my previous knowledge of cancer and radiation therapy ‘correct’? These get town to the issue of truth. Are truths universal, objective, outside of perception? Do truths rely on others to be true, are they subjective and are they local? Is unrealized knowledge valid to one ignorant of said knowledge?
These questions may seem odd but they are the crux of epistemological discussions. In concurrent posts I will discuss how these arguments are realized and how they relate with forms of thinking through time.