What is knowledge? How do we know what we know? Do we really know anything at all? These questions, as well as multiple others that arise when searching for the answers are what epistemology is all about. Various philosophers present their own positions in which they try to provide answers to these questions. From externalism to internalism, empiricism to rationalism, and even skepticism, we are exposed to a wide variety of ways that these thinkers use to find the key to truly objective thinking.
It can be said with little to no argument that knowledge implies truth. You can’t know something if it’s false; it just isn’t so. You can start by saying knowledge is true belief, but you need something more to prove your true belief. Philosophers call this something a warrant. Therefore we come to the conclusion that knowledge is warranted true belief. Now, this begs the question: what is warrant?
This question leads us to a major division epistemological thinking; externalism and internalism. Internalists believe that a belief is warranted if it stands in the right sort of relation to other beliefs. They say that knowledge is justified true belief. Externalists believe that a belief is warranted if it stands in the right sort of relation to the world. They say that knowledge is true belief arising from a reliable process external to ourselves that connects us with the known (309). Every philosopher’s views fall into one of these two schools of thought.
The externalist approach is very dominant in Indian philosophy. The Nyaya philosophers practiced Externalist Realism. According to Nyaya philosophy, knowledge is true belief produced by a source of knowledge, or pramana. There are four sources of knowledge that the Nyaya Sutra, the earliest form of Nyaya work, characterizes. These are perception, inference, analogy, and testimony (310). There are guidelines to determine that our source of knowledge we use to justify a belief is genuine. A perception must be veridical, must not be mediated by language, and must arise from a direct sensory relationship with the object known (310-311).
There are three types of inference; inferring the effect from the cause, inferring the cause from the effect, and inferring a general rule from its instances (311). For example, you see someone light a scented candle, so you infer the room will smell good. If the room smells good, you infer that a scented candle was lighted. From this, you infer that in general, when scented candles are lighted it makes the room smell good. We make inferences from things that we perceive, however, inference does not reduce to perception since it produces knowledge about things we do not immediately perceive (311).
Analogy is restricted to the acquisition of vocabulary only because presumably one would learn of new objects through direct perception, reliable inference, or trustworthy testimony (notes class #4 9/4/13). We learn most of what we know from the testimony of others (what they say and write). Their telling us is the cause of us knowing it; we are made to know things by what other people say (311). A source of knowledge justifies both its result and itself; it is self-revealing like a self-illumining lamp. This is how they make a foundation for other knowledge to be justified by.
Nagarjuna, a skeptic, rejects projects of epistemology. He believes in the Buddhist message of interdependent origination, which states that everything is interconnected, and emptiness, which states that everything is “without a reality of its own (314).” He rejects the idea of “knowledge sources,” because there is no source for the identification of those sources. If you look for one, then what is the source for that source? Nagarjuna calls this endless search for sources an infinite regress. In response to the argument of the sources being self-proving; he argues that something to be proved cannot be a prover. (316-317) For example, if a couple with a daughter has another child, a boy, then that daughter becomes a sister. At the same time, the boy becomes a brother. The girl is becoming a sister because the boy is born, but the boy is becoming a brother because the girl exists, so who produces whom?
Gangesha, founder of the New Logic, states that a skeptic’s argument is self-defeating because it employs the very logical patterns that it denounces (317). If it is impossible to know anything as skeptics argue it is, then how can the skeptic know what they are talking about? Skeptics use inference to guide action, so why is not okay for philosophers to use it to support their theories (317)? Gangesha claims that skeptics are hypocrites because they doubt in the seminar room what they accept outside of it (318). They doubt a philosopher’s reasoning for believing that cars on the streets are real, but wouldn’t stand in front of one driving towards them. In Gangesha’s mind, a true skeptic is one who wouldn’t move out of the way of oncoming traffic, wondering whether it’s all a dream.
Nargarjuna’s arguments are smart and make sense, but the realist’s argument of the four pramanas is strong enough to not be debunked by him. You have to be able to have a point where you can stop questioning and just trust your senses. If you see something that looks likes orange juice, smells like orange juice, feels like orange juice, and tastes like orange juice, your perception is enough to prove that is indeed orange juice. Gangesha also makes a very good point about the hypocrisy of skepticism because if skeptic’s truly believed that you could not know anything, how would they even know to believe that? It seems that a true skeptic would not be able to live sanely.
On the other hand, there are the internalists. There are three traditions of internalism in Western philosophy: rationalism, empiricism, and skepticism. Plato begins the rationalist tradition which sustains that we can are able to attain knowledge independent of experience (604). He argues that our knowledge of the material world exists because of our prior acquaintance with forms (334). Forms are abstract universals that exist independent of us. They make things what they are, and enable us to think about things as they are (599). Knowledge is the subjective possession of an objective truth (notes class #7 9/11/13). Plato states that when we know something, we can reflect on our reasons for believing it and be able to provide an account that proves why we know what we know is true (334). According to the Meno, an account of X must meet at least three conditions.
First, it must be applicable to all instances of X (not too narrow). Second, it must not be applicable to things that are not X (not too broad). And third, it must not be circular (not contain in the account itself any mention of that which is to be defined or explained) (335). An example of an account being circular would be defining a friendship as a relationship between two friends. In the Theaetetus, Plato rejects the definition of knowledge as perception as too narrow. He argues that knowledge is justified true belief and there are basic items, like letters, that we can’t justify by anything else, but still know more clearly and directly than anything else. These items are a foundation of knowledge that justify everything else.
Plato’s idea of forms seems a little too out there to be legitimate. There is nothing tangible about them which makes them hard to believe in. It’s weird to use something so hard to prove the existences of as a basis of knowledge.
Another rationalist is Rene Descartes. Descartes also uses a new strong skeptical argument to show that there is a foundation of certain beliefs on which all other knowledge rests (373). His goal is to stop the infinite regress by finding foundational truths that cannot be doubted. His method was to doubt literally everything possible to see if he could find an unquestionable foundation for knowledge. He believes that illusions and dreaming give us reason to doubt everything we have ever learned from our senses (374). Descartes finally found a secure foundation for knowledge in that you cannot doubt that you exist. There can be no strong skeptical arguments made against “I think” or “I am.” If you doubt that you exist, who is doing the doubting (374)? Descartes theory is very interesting. The way he doubts everything to prevent doubt makes it seem almost foolproof.
The third rationalist is G.W. Leibniz. Leibniz believes that no matter how many instances there are that confirm a general truth, there are not enough to establish the universal necessity of the same truth (385). Leibniz believes in a foundation of knowledge that justifies everything else. The items in the foundation are known, they are necessary truths and in fact, some are innate to our minds (386). He states that objects of our intellectual ideas are immediate and always present in our understanding (386).
The first philosopher of empiricism is Aristotle. Aristotle deals with the separation of the mind and body. He distinguishes sensation which happens through sense organs from thought which seems to be a function of mind, and argues that the mind is separable from the body (notes class #7 9/11/13). He that since everything is a possible object of thought, then that in the soul which is called mind is before it thinks, is not actually any real thing, and this is why it cannot reasonably be regarded as blended with the body (344). Empiricism claims that sense experience is the ultimate starting point for all knowledge. Aristotle states that forms are not constituents of reality like Plato believes, but rather products are the mind and the mind takes on form from experiences (notes class #7 9/11/13).
While none of these philosophers ideas can ever be 100% proven, that’s exactly what is interesting about epistemology. It could be studied endlessly. The search for what constitutes knowledge and true belief is a difficult one and these novel ideas are still fascinating to minds of every generation.