Epistemology: The Key Thinkers
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Epistemology: The Key Thinkers

Stephen Hetherington, Stephen Hetherington

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eBook - ePub

Epistemology: The Key Thinkers

Stephen Hetherington, Stephen Hetherington

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About This Book

What have the great philosophers written about the nature of knowledge? Epistemology: The Key Thinkers tells the story of how our thinking about knowledge has developed, introducing you to some of the problems and forces that have dominated the history of philosophy. Beginning with Plato, Aristotle, ancient sceptics, and the medievals, before moving to Descartes, the British empiricists, Kant, American pragmatism, and twentieth-century thinkers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, W. V. O. Quine, Alvin Goldman, and beyond, each chapter guides you through the ideas, contribution, and legacy of a leading philosopher or movement. This second edition includes: · A new chapter covering medieval epistemology
· Extended guides to further reading and future directions for epistemology The final chapter looks to the future, highlighting some of the very latest debates that energise philosophical writing today about knowledge and how we know what we know.

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Stephen Hetherington
1. Key components
Epistemology’s history is one of … what? Thinkers? Yes, at least that: hence this book’s title. And then, through those thinkers, what other keys will unlock epistemology’s past? Should we conceive of that history as a sequence, possibly a progression, of important ideas or concepts? What of pivotal theses and theories? Arguments and objections? Might notable problems and challenges have been driving epistemology from at least some times to other times? Must general traditions and overarching ways of thinking also be mentioned? Possibly all of these have mattered. But which thinkers – and which ideas, concepts, theses, etc. – have mattered most? Who and what have been epistemology’s most influential forces? This book will help to clarify and answer that question.
2. Knowledge: Epistemology’s subject matter?
What have those ideas, concepts, theses, and so on – the tools used by epistemology’s key thinkers – been about? What has been epistemology’s subject matter? Has it stayed constant over the centuries? Or have there been shifts of focus and emphasis?
There has been at least some professed continuity. Probably the most consistently discussed topic within epistemology, from the beginning until now, is said to be knowledge. Etymologically, that is perfectly apt, with the term ‘epistemology’ hearkening back to the ancient Greek words episteme (knowledge) and logos (account). An account – a theory, an understanding, a grasp – of knowledge: is that, most centrally, what philosophers have long sought within epistemology?
Often it has been. Often it still is. Yet care is needed even here. Much epistemology has long been receptive to the possibility that its thinking will lead to sceptical conclusions, especially about people’s chances of having knowledge. Imagine believing yourself to know a lot about the world. But imagine, next, your starting to question whether you really do have all of that knowledge: ‘Surely I know … Well, do I?’ You proceed to think hard about this. Then imagine concluding that what had seemed to you to be so much knowledge on your part is not actually knowledge at all. With that conclusion, you would be embracing (even if reluctantly) a sceptical assessment of yourself as a knower. This could well constitute a problem for how you wish to view yourself. Sceptical results are challenges to initially favoured ideas and theses, such as the comforting presumption that one is a knower.
Indeed, such challenges can have a far wider reach. Sceptical conclusions within epistemology typically talk more generally – about people as a whole, not merely some unfortunate individual. For example, a sceptical conclusion could be universal in intent, proclaiming that there is no knowledge (even that there cannot be any). Or it might be less-than-universal but worrying nonetheless – by denying that the world does (or even could) include some notably important kind of knowledge.
And once an epistemological story does become sceptical, there is a sense in which it should not regard itself as ever having been about knowledge. It could not be claiming to tell us about knowledge-the-real-phenomenon-within-the-real-world – because it is denying that there is any such knowledge. Instead, the story would now be seen to have been a tale only of knowledge-as-it-would-be-if-any-really-existed. It is thus not about knowledge-actually. It is about knowledge-hypothetically.
That difference is important because an epistemological story only about knowledge-hypothetically, we may well feel, is about just an idea or concept of knowledge. It is not about knowledge, at any rate not if it is right to deny that any knowledge exists for the story to be about. The story would be about knowledge only as something we might wish to have, or as something we would – if not for the story – believe ourselves to have. (It would be about knowledge in somewhat the way that a fairy story is about wicked witches.)
And this is a potentially disturbing prospect to bear in mind as we study some of epistemology’s history. Even when epistemological stories seem to be about knowledge, are they really so? We face at least the possibility of sceptical theses from epistemology’s history being true. But if they are, have epistemology’s stories ever really been about knowledge (as against merely seeming to be so)? The alternative would be epistemology’s only ever having been about ideas or concepts of knowledge – knowledge-hypothetically – only knowledge as it would be if we had some. This book will contain many epistemological ideas, theories, arguments and so on – parts or wholes of epistemological stories. If we already know right now, before we engage with these, that knowledge exists, then we may read the book with a confidence that its focus will be upon knowledge itself.1 We would know already, for instance, that when we fashion a concept of knowledge, this concept is answerable to the reality of what the knowledge ‘out there’ in the world is actually like.
But do we know that much, in advance of doing epistemology? Not clearly; and so we have an epistemological challenge about epistemology. We do epistemology, partly in order to find out whether we have knowledge. Our doing epistemology is not itself a guarantee of there being knowledge. The history of epistemology has often involved people writing as if they are telling us, somehow directly and unproblematically, about knowledge. Not always, though; more cautiously, some epistemologists acknowledge their writing first and foremost about a concept or idea of knowledge, rather than directly about the phenomenon of knowledge.2 This is a delicate issue, threaded throughout epistemology’s history. We have ideas as to what knowledge is, if it exists; do we want more than ideas? Yes: we also wish for them to be accurate ideas, correct in what they say about knowledge. And again, that desire is our hoping for epistemology to reveal something about knowledge the phenomenon, not only about our ideas or concepts of knowledge (even if these are intended in turn to be about knowledge). How is epistemology to accomplish this?
On the face of it, most epistemologists discussed in this book have aimed to be discussing knowledge itself (or something related), not only an idea or concept of it. They say that knowledge, or something related, is their topic. Ostensibly, they will talk of knowledge. But epistemology’s practices or methods are discursive – discussing, proposing, reflecting. And these are not guaranteed in advance to be accurate. They do develop or fashion a concept (at least one; maybe more) of knowledge. However, discussion then continues, leading to criticisms and refinements of those concepts. In all of this, the goal remains that of accuracy. How is that outcome sought in practice? The concepts are subjected to strict and searching philosophical testing. Time and again, epistemologists ask whether a particular theorist’s concept of knowledge is consistent and coherent, explanatory and illuminating. As the book proceeds, we will come to appreciate the efforts by some of history’s outstanding epistemological thinkers to satisfy that sort of standard – hopefully so that their concepts are really informing us about knowledge and related phenomena.
3. Problems and progress
If such epistemological informing has occurred, it has done so over time; and not always smoothly so. Problems have arisen, repeatedly. How has this happened? Do concepts beget problems? Or do concepts arise from problems? Both of these occur, it appears, within epistemology as elsewhere. This book will display many instances of that reciprocal fecundity. The perennial desire, of course, is that the problems also beget solutions. But epistemologists have long been aware of the possibility that we will never reach solutions.3 In that way, problems within epistemology could become a problem for epistemology – for its ultimate capacity to be informative, via its concepts, about knowledge as a phenomenon.
Of course, we will not know whether epistemology has such a problem, until we have surveyed its attempts to solve the problems it poses for itself. At the very least, we must bear in mind that talk of problems need not be an admission of defeat.4 Epistemologists often speak of the problem of knowledge (and of associated problems such as scepticism).5 This is usually meant to designate a cluster of problems for our understanding knowledge, for our gaining a philosophically adequate concept of knowledge. Yet there is also an epistemological virtue in confronting these problems. They are problems of which we might never even have thought prior to pursuing epistemology. Philosophical reflection on knowledge often reveals previously unsuspected problems for the would-be consistency, coherence, and explanatory power of what might have been our pre-philosophical concepts of knowledge. So, even if there is a problem for epistemology in not yet having solved these problems, there is a different sort of problem for non-philosophers if they have not even noticed the failings within their concepts of knowledge. Even the problem of not having solved a problem can be a piece of progress – an advance not made by those, such as non-philosophers, who remain unaware of the unsolved problem in the first place. Epistemology struggles; this is a problem for it. Even so, this problem could be progress, albeit not all the progress we might seek.
How much epistemological progress, if any, is guaranteed? Or might we never entirely solve the problems noticed by epistemologists? Perhaps knowledge is somehow not fully understandable by the likes of us, no matter that it is our knowledge. Maybe our best epistemological thinkers are those who are intelligent and insightful enough to notice philosophical problems within our concepts of knowledge, even when they cannot proceed to solve those problems.
Here, too...

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