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.

Postscript

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.

Be a Good Student—Best Book in This Category


armstrongstudy-is-hard-workIt’s brief, it’s well-organized, and it’s full of sane advice. It’s a book called Study Is Hard Work. The author, William H. Armstrong, explains all the fundamental skills needed to be a successful lifelong learner. Here are the chapter titles:

  1. Learning to Listen
  2. The Desire to Learn
  3. Using the Tools
  4. Getting More From What You Read
  5. Developing a Vocabulary
  6. Putting Ideas in Order
  7. Books and the Library
  8. Written Work
  9. Acquiring Skill in Methods
  10. How to Study Languages
  11. Letting Mathematics Serve You
  12. How to Study Science
  13. Getting the Most Out of History
  14. Tests and Examinations

All of this in 143 pages. Each chapter begins with an Interest Measurement Test and ends with five Review Questions. Each “Interest Measurement Test” is a set of five questions that get readers to think about their current experiences and skill level in some category of study. Here are a few samples:

  • “Have you ever stopped to think what your life would be like if there were no books?”
  • “Do you believe that you really have a desire to learn, or would you, had you been left alone from birth, be totally primitive and beastlike in your thoughts and feelings?”
  • “Do you believe that, other than your parents, the people who will most influence your life for good are your teachers?”
  • “When you have read a book do you feel that you have talked with, and come to know, the author?”
  • “Do you know certain traits of your own mind that lend themselves to some methods of study more effectively than others?”
  • “Would you agree that there is much of the poet in all great mathematicians?”
  • “Do you believe that your life will be influenced by your interpretation of history?”
  • “Are you afraid of tests, or do you consider them a challenge?”

Chapters are loaded with numbered tips, steps, strategies, for doing all the things a college or university student must do to succeed, all showing students how to achieve real success by learning with pleasure and good work management. My students are exceptional graduate students, and every one of them could benefit from practicing the methods set forth here.

bookstoreport-book-newsI came across this book at a charming little bookshop we visit when we’re in Port Angeles, Washington. One tip for studying foreign languages struck me right away as eminently sensible and yet generally unknown.

“Make your own vocabulary cards, writing the word to be learned on one side and the English meaning on the other. If you are lucky enough to be studying two languages, write the meaning in the second language on the back also.”

The second sentence is simply brilliant. It makes a truly powerful suggestion, and it strikes a positive chord about foreign language study. My first thought was, “If you’re going to learn a foreign language, why not make it two?”

If you aren’t officially a student and you read this book out of curiosity, you may feel a strong desire to sign on for a class at your local college or university. I say, go for it! But if for some reason you aren’t able to take a class, Armstrong is still an excellent guide through the steps to independent learning. It all begins with a desire to learn (chapter 2).

Note: There are two other groups who would be helped by this book. First, high school students, especially those who plan to go on to higher education. Why not learn how to learn before learning gets even harder? Second, home school parents. These heroic people know what lifelong learning means, and welcome suggestions for organizing the learning process into manageable steps. I believe that practicing the principles presented in this handy book will shave hours of labor from the task of home schooling, make the whole experience more enjoyable, and result in much less stress.

From Amazon:

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From “That Bookstore in Portland”:

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