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(ĭpĭs'təmŏl`əjē) [Gr.,=knowledge or science], the branch of philosophy that is directed toward theories of the sources, nature, and limits of knowledge. Since the 17th cent. epistemology has been one of the fundamental themes of philosophers, who were necessarily obliged to coordinate the theory of knowledge with developing scientific thought. Réné DescartesDescartes, René
, Lat. Renatus Cartesius, 1596–1650, French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist, b. La Haye. Descartes' methodology was a major influence in the transition from medieval science and philosophy to the modern era.
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 and other philosophers (e.g., Baruch Spinoza, G. W. Leibniz, and Blaise Pascal) sought to retain the belief in the existence of innate (a priori) ideas together with an acceptance of the values of data and ideas derived from experience (a posteriori). This position was basically that of rationalismrationalism
[Lat.,=belonging to reason], in philosophy, a theory that holds that reason alone, unaided by experience, can arrive at basic truth regarding the world. Associated with rationalism is the doctrine of innate ideas and the method of logically deducing truths about the
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. Opposed to it later was empiricismempiricism
[Gr.,=experience], philosophical doctrine that all knowledge is derived from experience. For most empiricists, experience includes inner experience—reflection upon the mind and its operations—as well as sense perception.
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, notably as expounded by John Locke, David Hume, and John Stuart Mill, which denied the existence of innate ideas altogether. The impressive critical philosophy of Immanuel KantKant, Immanuel
, 1724–1804, German metaphysician, one of the greatest figures in philosophy, b. Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia). Early Life and Works
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 had immense effects in an attempt to combine the two views. In later theories the split was reflected in idealism and materialism. The causal theory of knowledge, advanced by Alfred North WhiteheadWhitehead, Alfred North,
1861–1947, English mathematician and philosopher, grad. Trinity College, Cambridge, 1884. There he was a lecturer in mathematics until 1911. At the Univ.
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 and others, stressed the role of the nervous system as intermediary between an object and the perception of it. The methods of perceiving, obtaining, and validating data derived from sense experience has been central to pragmatismpragmatism
, method of philosophy in which the truth of a proposition is measured by its correspondence with experimental results and by its practical outcome. Thought is considered as simply an instrument for supporting the life aims of the human organism and has no real
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, with the teachings of C. S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Sir Karl PopperPopper, Sir Karl Raimund,
1902–94, Anglo-Austrian philosopher, b. Vienna. He became familiar with the Vienna circle of logical positivists (see logical positivism) while a student at the Univ. of Vienna (Ph.D., 1928). He taught at Canterbury Univ.
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 developed the view that scientific knowledge rests on hypotheses that, while they cannot be positively verified, can be proved false and have withstood repeated attempts to show that they are. Philosophers in the 20th cent. criticized and revised the traditional view that knowledge is justified true belief. A springboard for their research was the thesis that all knowledge is theory-laden.


See A. D. Woozley, Theory of Knowledge (1949, repr. 1966); J. Dancy, Introduction to Contemporary Epistemology (1985); A. J. Ayer, The Problem of Knowledge (1956, repr. 1988).

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(from the Greek episteme, knowledge) the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory (or theories) of knowledge, which seeks to inform us how we can know the world. Epistemology shares with ONTOLOGY, which is concerned to establish the kinds of things which exist, the claim to be the bedrock of all philosophical thinking and all knowledge.

An important division in epistemology is that between EMPIRICISM and RATIONALISM or IDEALISM. Whilst empiricists make our direct experience of the world the basis of all knowledge, rationalists and idealists argue that our knowledge of the world is governed by fixed and a priori concepts or CATEGORIES (e.g. conceptions of'S ubstance’, ‘causality’) which structure our every thought and argument and therefore our experience or perception of reality (see also KANT).

In most forms of epistemology, the pure thought of the individual thinking ‘ego’, the philosopher, has been taken as providing the route to the ultimate understanding of knowledge and the bedrock on which the epistemological theory advanced is based (see DESCARTES). Recently, however, more sociological forms of epistemology have emerged which have sought to ‘decentre’ the role played by the traditional individual 'S ubject’ in philosophy (see SUBJECT AND OBJECT, SUBJECT, STRUCTURALISM, DECONSTRUCTION), emphasizing instead the way in which knowledge is shaped by social structure, FORMS OF LIFE, etc. Thus the way is now open for much of the ground previously occupied by philosophy to be taken over by sociological accounts of knowledge and of science (see SOCIOLOGY OF KNOWLEDGE, SOCIOLOGY OF SCIENCE, KUHN, FEYERABEND).

Since any theory of knowledge must of necessity refer also to itself, it would be wrong to suggest that sociological theories of knowledge can any more avoid the element of circularity that must attend any theory of knowledge than could traditional philosophy. What such a sociological theory can however achieve is to dispense with the tendency to dogmatic closure in epistemological thinking of a kind which so often have been apparent in more traditional theories, with their claims to have reached bedrock. Once knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is seen clearly as a socially constructed phenomenon, the expectation of any final doctrines about the nature of knowledge can be seen as misplaced. See also SCIENCE.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000


the theory of knowledge, esp the critical study of its validity, methods, and scope
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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