Teach Yourself Epistemology

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy devoted especially to study of the concepts of knowledge and justified belief. The name for this discipline, epistemology, comes from the Greek word episteme, signifying “knowledge.” This is why epistemology is sometimes called “the theory of knowledge.” Unfortunately, this designation leads to a truncated view of a complex subject matter ranging over a wide variety of issues having to do with the status of belief.

The study of epistemology is notoriously difficult. It is also difficult to teach. Most university professors in the Anglo-American analytic tradition present the subject as a series of problem-solving ventures. The most persistent theories addressing these problems are presented and compared. Sometimes the teacher favors a general approach in epistemology and gives special attention to explaining and defending that approach and spelling out its implications.

One of the great problems of epistemology is how to think about the subject matter. This is the most fundamental problem for the enterprise of epistemology (which I distinguish from the enterprise of knowing and responsible believing). And yet this problem is often passed over, not only in the classroom, but by epistemologists in their own systematic work.

In my view, this places the student at risk. The student new to epistemology is liable to learn epistemology second-hand, taking as given the various problems and their proposed solutions, arranged in whatever order suits the professor or textbook writer. One very common approach is to begin with the threat of skepticism, which hangs as an ominous spectre over the whole enterprise—and is perhaps never completely exorcised.

A proper approach to “doing epistemology” would have to be delineated with great care and in more space than I have here. But there is a sense in which the self-educated have an advantage when coming to this subject matter. They are more likely to embark upon the enterprise of epistemology with that sense of wonder that is characteristically Aristotelian. In this case, the wonder is that we are capable of knowing so many things in such diverse areas of investigation, and that we move confidently through the world believing much that we do not know or would claim to know.

Still, the student needs a guide to such a complex subject. And while no text can serve in place of careful reflection on aspects of knowing and believing as they present themselves, there are a few very good books to guide the student and prompt examination of long-standing issues in epistemology.

In my own teaching, I have favored three books on the subject:

These books complement each other nicely. The book by Robert Audi will require a tutor for most who are new to the subject. It is rich and comprehensive, and, most important, very sensible about the topics it addresses. Better than any other book I know of, this book presents the subject in a natural order that is conducive to proper progress through to thorny issues it addresses.

To anchor a course in epistemology, I’ve found that the books by Feldman and Bon Jour complement each other neatly. They are concise and readable surveys of major topics. Laurence Bon Jour adopts a method of presentation that he explains clearly at the outset. While I think the method he adopts is unfortunate, it does give readers a sense of the rootedness of trends in contemporary epistemology in the influential work of the great 17th-century philosopher René Descartes. Of special value is Bon Jour’s treatment of the contest between foundationalists and coherentists in epistemology. A convert from coherentism to foundationalism, Bon Jour excels in his exposition of this debate; yet he is also realistic about the persistent philosophical challenges raised by foundationalism.

Richard Feldman demonstrates the exacting technique of analytic philosophy in a way that is accessible and interesting to newcomers. His book is a pleasure to recommend for that reason alone. But it is strong in many other respects. Feldman selects only the most fundamental issues in epistemology, and his book is a natural choice for someone with my anti-skeptical predilections for foundationalism and internalism in epistemology. His juxtaposition of evidentialism on the one hand and internalism and externalism on the other hand is initially puzzling. The presentation of evidentialism is a model of exposition at the introductory level.

Neither Feldman nor Bon Jour does justice to the problems associated with sensory perception. This large area of study in epistemology is set aside by Feldman, perhaps in the interests of conserving space. I think the decision to postpone consideration of the theory of perception can be defended. Feldman simply ignores the topic. Bon Jour, on the other hand, takes pains to explore the theory of perception. He defends a position called indirect or representative realism. As a direct realist, I believe this is a mistake. The presentation is well-organized and focused. And, in my judgment, Bon Jour’s development and defense of indirect realism creates opportunities to indicate significant problems for his position, which is part of any thorough defense of direct realism.

Several other books make useful companions to the ones I’ve recommended above:

The student also needs a collection, or anthology, of readings in epistemology. The best anthologies include selections from influential thinkers going back to Plato, as well as seminal essays by more recent philosophers. Among the best are:

Epistemology, like all professional philosophy, is “trendy.” The serious student of the discipline must understand these trends, even at the risk of being misled about their importance or being distracted from the real business of epistemology. The books I’ve described and recommended here contribute greatly to that task.


While I strongly recommend the books by Rober Audi, Richard Feldman, and Laurence Bon Jour as places to begin the systematic study of contemporary analytic epistemology, several other introductory texts make excellent ancillary reading:

A Plan for the Study of Epistemology

  1. Read the three introductory texts recommended at the beginning, by Robert Audi, Richard Feldman, and Bon Jour. Sketch a plan to read them simultaneously, following the topical sequence in Audi.
  2. Read a sample of classic and contemporary essays from one of the anthologies listed above. Read according to interest and accessibility and note those authors who are mentioned in Audi, Feldman, and Bon Jour. Follow the order of coverage by topic in your reading of Audi and the others.
  3. Use Jonathan Dancy’s Companion to Epistemology as a quick reference on sundry topics in epistemology.
  4. Consult the other companion volumes for more detail and discussion.
  5. Survey several other introductions listed in the Postscript above. Especially deserving of careful study are Chisholm, Lehrer, and Pollock.
  6. Begin reading on topics of special interest to you, in books and essays that focus especially on those topics.
  7. Think about issues in meta-epistemology, or the study of the proper study of epistemology. On this topic I especially recommend Chisholm, Theory of Knowledge (already listed) and his essay on “The Problem of the Criterion,” George Chatalian, Epistemology and Skepticism: An Enquiry into the Nature of Epistemology, and P. Coffey, Epistemology, or the Theory of Knowledge (1917).
  8. For a realist approach to epistemology, I suggest reading seminal essays by the so-called “New Realists” in 20-century American philosophy.

Recommended Reading for Doing Apologetics in Your Home

My lecture on “Apologetics in Your Home” has been popular at conferences. During this presentation, I recommend the following books to parents:

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) is best known as a great hymn writer. But his two books contain much timeless advice for the education of children in piety and critical thinking.

J. Budziszewski is a Christian author and professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas. He converted from Marxism to Christianity and has written these two books to guide Christian university students through the thickets of their “higher” educational experience.

American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) was a leading figure in the pragmatist movement in philosophy, and is well-known for his work on the philosophy of education. If used with caution, parents will find much wisdom in his book on How We Think.

Three books are listed here for the exceptional value they offer in areas related to logic and critical thinking. I recommend beginning with D. J. McInerny for an overview of issues related to the nature of truth, evidence, logic, and good judgment. The book by Bowell and Kemp is an excellent textbook—the best of breed, in my opinion. Parents should learn this material early, and lead their children through a close study of its principles before graduation from high school. The book by C. Allen and M. Hand is a useful reference work.

The book by Norman Geisler and David Geisler explains the challenges of relativism and postmodernism and offers practical advice for combining critical thinking with conversational skill in dialogue with nonbelievers.

Here are two additional books to consider: How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler, and Study Is Hard Work, by William Howard Armstrong.

Finally, for general wisdom on the cultivation of the mind, I highly recommend the classic by A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life.

Hacking the ABD Life: Part 2 — The Intellectual Virtues

The academic life has an intellectual component. Duh. But what does that mean?

It means, in part, that an exemplar of the academic life manages his or her life with intellectual virtue. An intellectual virtue is a character trait that improves the chances of believing well—of conducting inquiry in a responsible way and living responsibly on the basis of what is learned through inquiry.

I believe that all members of the human community are called to intellectual virtue, insofar as they are able. Intellectuals should be models of acting from intellectual virtue. I question whether a perceived intellectual is a genuine instance of such a person if he or she is severely lacking in intellectual virtue. The true intellectual must have a suitable measure of intellectual virtue. Diplomas are no assurance of that.

The Ph.D. candidate has already been initiated into academic life—the life of the guild, as it were. One can only hope that this also has included initiation into the intellectual life. The ABD life is a test of intellectual virtue, and an opportunity to grow in intellectual virtue. Certain particular virtues are especially salient to commendable intellectual practice at the ABD stage in one’s career. Here are three of them:

  • Curiosity
  • Courage
  • Moderation

Intellectual curiosity is a natural goad to dissertation research. Intellectual courage is needed to sustain research and overcome obstacles. The virtue of moderation curbs excesses of various kinds. Dissertation research tests the expression of these virtues.

Curiosity stimulates creativity and supplies the initial energy to launch a dissertation project. It’s often difficult to sustain that level of curiosity throughout the research and writing process. The Ph.D. candidate needs to have ways of staying engaged with the chosen topic. As long as new questions emerge with the progress of research, there is evidence of curiosity.

Courage helps the researcher stay at it. The intellectually courageous person believes in the good to be achieved by the research that has been undertaken. Courage fills the void when curiosity dries up, and finds fresh sources of curiosity in the act of persevering. This virtue is threatened in numerous ways. Among the most sinister are the negative judgments of others.

Moderation is probably the least appreciated of the three. Moderation protects the researcher from excesses that would lure him or her away from efficient realization of the primary objective. One can research to excess. The sociology of the ABD experience reinforces the sense that it isn’t possible to “over-research” a topic. Turning over every rock, however promising it may seem in advance, feels responsible; but it is really counter-productive, and hence irresponsible.

Future installments on “Hacking the ABD Life” will focus on specific intellectual virtues. Please chime in with thoughts you have about the connection between the intellectual life and doing scholarship from virtue. Let me know what virtues you think are most salient to realizing that dream of passing from ABD to Ph.D.

Hacking the ABD Life: Part 1 — “Good” Means “Good Enough”

ABD—”All But Dissertation.” This label has a distinctly demoralizing drum to it, especially as a designation for someone—the Ph.D. candidate—who has accomplished so much, usually comparatively early in life.

Of course, writing a doctoral dissertation is a huge undertaking in its own right. And it can make or break a Ph.D. candidate’s academic career. There are two main challenges. The first is as much psychological as it is anything else. You have to have “internal fortitude,” the ability to take small steps toward the completion of a big project, to manage hurdles and set-backs, and to survive the comparative loneliness of the process.

Second, you have to impress your dissertation committee with the quality of the finished product and with your prospects as a scholar. So the work has to be good. This, obviously, relates closely to the first main challenge.

Let me repeat the best advice I received while writing my Ph.D. dissertation: “Think of your dissertation as the last paper you write during your formal education, and keep in mind that it really doesn’t have to be longer than a hundred pages.” It didn’t hurt that this counsel came from a member of my dissertation committee.

The suggestion about length is probably situation-specific. It would be wise to consult with your committee about appropriate length. And “consultation” is the key word here. You should be able to share your own ideas about appropriate length, given your topic and the way you plan to organize your material. It is generally believed that the best dissertation topic is a narrowly focused topic. It would stand to reason that in many cases narrower focus translates into fewer total pages. There’s a saying, “Don’t beat a dead horse.” There’s another saying, “If the horse is dead, dismount.” The goal shouldn’t be to come up with a topic that will require X number of pages, but to come up with a topic that makes a worthy contribution to the field and establishes the author as a capable scholar, regardless of word count.

The more general principle in my advisor’s comment is that the dissertation isn’t a book. It’s not even a published paper. I caution against approaching your dissertation as if you were writing a book manuscript that will be ready to submit to one of the top academic presses. Your dissertation committee is large enough with the three to five people that play that official role. No point trying to write for the vague target audience for a book on the same topic. Save that for later.

Let me put it this way. You’ve got three people on your committee. Maybe one of them knows quite a lot about your topic. The other two are conversant. Are there others in the discipline who have go-to expertise on your topic? Probably so. Will they be in the room during your dissertation defense? Probably not. So you can forget about them.

Your work has to be good. I said that before. But how good does it have to be? Answer: good enough (lower-case “g”). So estimate how good that is and make that your goal. And I do mean estimate. Don’t calculate. Members of your committee have responsibilities. They should be able to advise you about what their expectations are. No one else’s opinion really counts, especially if they don’t see the work before the defense. (That includes the expert on another continent, and it includes your doting grandmother and admiring spouse—if you happen to be married.)

If you’re ABD, let me know your thoughts. If you’re on a dissertation committee for someone who is ABD, your comments would be especially valuable.

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