Talons Philosophy

An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course


Introductory Epistemological Discussion(s)

afraid of knowledge

Image courtesy of Flickr user Olya Afonina

We are embarking on our discussions of epistemology this weekend, having been briefly introduced to foundational concepts such as:

  • rationalism
  • empiricism
  • a priori knowledge
  • a posteriori knowledge
  • justified true belief
  • indirect knowledge
  • direct knowledge
  • knowledge by acquaintance
  • knowledge by description

I am curious to see where our cohort’s interests are shaping up against these introductory thoughts and ideas on the nature of knowledge, though. Because each of us is the owner of a uniquely personal theory of our own knowledge, which supplies us with answers to questions like What do I know? How do I know that I know it? Where does my opinion overlap with what is considered a fact? Where do they diverge? 

How these personal conceptions come together in the present digital age is of special concern to regular open onliner Stephen Downes:

What we ‘know’ is, if you will, a natural development that occurs in the mind, other things being equal, when presented with certain sets of phenomena; present the learner with different phenomena and they will learn different things. Like the Portugese word for ‘snow’, for example. And whether something counts as ‘knowledge’ rather than, say, ‘belief’ or ‘speculation’, depends less on the state of the world, and more on the strength or degree of connectedness between the entities. To ‘know’ something is to not be able to not know. It’s like finding Waldo, or looking at an abstract image. There may be a time when we don’t know where Waldo is, or what the image represents, but once we have an interpretation, it is not possible to look without seeing Waldo, without seeing the image.

So let us begin at the beginning, by relating our own theories of knowledge to what we have encountered in our initial reading.

We brainstormed several questions related to Epistemology in class this morning:

  • How do we know what we know? 
  • What is true? 
  • How we know was is factual? What is opinion? What is belief? 
  • How are senses and reasons different? How are they complimentary? 
  • What is knowledge? How do we acquire it? 
  • Are there things that we’ll never know? 

But now we are looking to continue to the discussion…

There are, naturally, more where that came from, and we might begin our discussion by continuing to list the essential questions of epistemology below in the comments to this post, or on the Twitter hashtag for #philosophy12.

Other items for consideration and discussion may include…

Sensory, Rational, and Objective knowledge

In terms of classifying these questions, which of them would you file under Sensory knowledge?

Which would you deem most closely related to Reason, or rational knowledge?

Which do you feel deal with certainty? 

Rationalism and Empiricism 

Of these two schools of epistemology, which do you feel corresponds to your own approach to learning and knowledge?

Who is considered to be a notable proponent of either of these disciplines? Who has made convincing arguments to introduce a combined process of the two? Or a third (or fourth) new way altogether?

Where do we see examples of rational or empirical perspectives on knowledge in competition (or dominance) in our contemporary society?

Different Types of Knowledge?

How do you distinguish between the various levels and descriptions of knowledge?

How might these distinctions be limited in their scope to a particular perspective on knowledge? How could we fix this bias, if it in fact exists?

By no means exhaustive, the above questions will hopefully serve as an opening salvo in an ongoing exploration of knowledge this weekend. So respond to one of the above, or a few, or pass along these questions to someone who might wish to offer an opinion or refer us to a significant piece of the conversation we may be missing. Don’t hesitate to pose new questions to the community as well!


14 Responses to Introductory Epistemological Discussion(s)

  1. ktay says:

    Of these two schools of epistemology, which do you feel corresponds to your own approach to learning and knowledge?

    Between Rationalism and Empiricism, I endorse a balance between the two. For my personal learning style, I tend to learn some things through empiricism, other things through rationalism, and also through a mixture of the two.

    My learning of subjects such as Physics or Mathematics is based on the principles from the school of rationalism. Through logical reasoning, I can solve a physics problem by applying a formula, inserting the right numbers, and calculating the answer. This doesn’t require me actually experiencing the problem; I am not very keen on throwing myself off a cliff in order to solve a problem concerning gravity and falling objects in physics.

    When I learn how to cook from my father, I observe how he does it, and try to imitate his actions when I cook. Over time, through empirical experience, I gain knowledge of how long I need to cook the food, how much seasoning to add in, and which ingredients need to be used. One could argue that cooking could be done through rationalism, but I disagree; delicious cooking comes only from experience, courtesy of the five senses.

    Learning that utilizes both schools is music. When I learn to play a new piece of piano music, logic tells me what each note value represents and how fast I have to play. Empiricism enables me to feel the music, and to put my feelings into the music.

    Who is considered to be a notable proponent of either of these disciplines? Who has made convincing arguments to introduce a combined process of the two? Or a third (or fourth) new way altogether?

    A notable proponent for the school of rationalism is Rene Descartes, while a proponent for the opposing school of empiricism is John Locke. Descartes believed that the credibility of all knowledge was doubtful; the only way to know anything independent of “reality” was to use the power of reason.

    Philosophers after Descartes were heavily influenced by him, and one of these philosophers was John Locke. Locke challenged Descartes’ thinking fully; he disagreed with the theory that knowledge came from reasoning, and instead proposed the “blank slate” theory. This theory proposed that a person was born with an empty mind, which could only be filled with ideas that were by-products of sensory experience.

    After both Descartes and Locke was Immanuel Kant, who introduced a new discipline that combined some elements of both schools and rejected others. One of the founding principles of his discipline was the “unity of consciousness”, which suggested that knowledge was only unified in a person’s mind. However, Kant believed that consciousness was something that was inexplicable.

    Wilhelm von Humboldt synthesized the ideas of Kant and his student, Johann Gottfried Herder, to form the school of cultural relativism. One of Kant’s principles was that knowledge only existed in the human mind, which universally structured perception according to a priori concepts of space and time. His student Herder theorized that these structures that Kant considered universal were not the only influencing factor; cultural structures also influenced knowledge as well. This stipulated that the beliefs, activities, and knowledge that an individual harboured should be understood in context with the culture of that certain individual. Since Kant combined elements of empiricism and rationalism together, and these were combined with Herder’s principles, this formed a new discipline.

    Where do we see examples of rational or empirical perspectives on knowledge in competition (or dominance) in our contemporary society?

    An area that showcases empirical and rational perspectives in competition is moral judgement. Some philosophers think that morality evolves from reasoning about how to judge objective moral truths, while others believe that moral judgement stems from emotional responses that arise when we observe the behaviour of others. For example, a moral dilemma could be how we view right and wrong. A rationalist, using logical reasoning, could say that:

    The law is right.
    Murder is against the law.
    Therefore, murder is not right.

    The rationalist obtains his or her moral judgement through a rational thought process. However, the empiricist will use a different approach: he or she would view the dilemma more flexibly. He or she would come to a conclusion based on the behaviour and circumstances of the murderer and the victim, rather than using a black and white viewpoint. In addition, the emotions of the empiricist would also play a factor, influencing his or her judgement; whereas the rationalist would not take their personal emotions as a factor.

  2. kelseyf says:

    Rationalism and Empiricism

    Of these two schools of epistemology, which do you feel corresponds to your own approach to learning and knowledge?

    I believe that I can relate and agree to both. I think that humans are born with innate knowledge, such as our natural instincts. However, I believe most of our knowledge is gained through experience and learning, not information hidden away in our minds being retrieved.

    Who is considered to be a notable proponent of either of these disciplines?

    John Locke was a leading philosopher in empiricism. He believed that each person was born a “blank slate” and that we only gained knowledge through sensory experience. Plato, on the other hand believed that there is basic knowledge everyone has, not gained through experience.

    Where do we see examples of rational or empirical perspectives on knowledge in competition (or dominance) in our contemporary society?

    I believe our society is in the middle on rationalism and empiricism. Now it is well known that we are not born a blank slate as John Locke thought, however we do still gain knowledge through our own personal experiences.

  3. Vincent says:

    I would argue that often the difference between empiricism and rationalism only exists to aid others in its understanding, and that both concepts are rather the same entity and not two different entities. I was a little frustrated during the class discussion today, because we put the concepts away from the centre of the line. I kept on thinking that all the concepts were meant to sit in-between the two. From my perspective, all those concepts that we place on either side of that line really were under a single unitary idea, epistemology, that separating them felt odd.

    Its like I was screaming inside my own mind, I couldn’t take the thought of parting those concepts. However, I shouldn’t assume that my own thoughts are correct here. Perhaps someone else could enlighten me as to why those concepts are separate; as from my perspective, they both play equally powerful roles in the scientific community. I also continually felt that we ignored the robotic perspective, we only focused on what humans would feel; what about the hard 01 logic that computers use? I also felt frustrated that we only considered how this applies in sound-related languages, if we were to think in other languages that consider objects and concepts as one and the same thing, e.g. some hieroglyphic languages then there would be an entirely different perspective on where to place some of those concepts. Overall placing any of the concepts away from the middle seemed to shrink my perspective rather than grow it. Despite that it sounds fairly rigid to place all the concepts in the middle, it actually opens many possibilities.

    With the concepts in the middle we consider all the alien perspectives on these ideas. With the concepts closer, or on the middle we open the possibility for more perspectives on this one overarching idea, epistemology.

    Hopefully that wasn’t too confusing, and I also hope it was insightful. Moreover, if someone could perhaps provide an anterior perspective on this, I would be quite interested in replying.

    Sincerely – Vincent Badenhorst

    • bryanjack says:

      This is an interesting idea, Vincent, and one that crossed my mind as our diagram/notes came together on the board, as well. I’d be interested in seeing how you would put together these various concepts, either as a Venn diagram, mind map, or other organization – philosodoodle, perhaps?

      I also want to apologize for (potentially) unnecessarily shutting down your introduction to the computer/robotic angle, but was conscious of time and wanted to get through what we had on the board. Hopefully your own inquiry into Epistemology this week might give you an opportunity to dive a little deeper with this topic.

      Mr. J

  4. jeff says:

    Of these two schools of epistemology (Rationalism & Empiricism), which do you feel corresponds to your own approach to learning and knowledge?

    To me, empiricism is the only form of ‘true’ learning. I can tell you 45 degrees Celsius is hot. However, if I don’t truly experience the heat, how can I really know that it’s hot? For me, a huge part of learning is simply through experience, because only through experience can we find our own perspective on what we experience. For example, when I look at a physics equation, do I truly know the concept of vf^2 = vi^2 + 2ad (velocity final squared equals velocity initial squared plus two acceleration times distance)? Memorizing that formula is only rote memorization; I don’t truly know what that formula means. I can only think of it on an extremely superficial level, so would I count it as knowledge?
    From a rational standpoint, I could. I could reason to myself that because of my innate knowledge that this is correct, it must be correct. However, empiricism may argue that no, you don’t truly know it because you haven’t experienced it. I lean on the side of empiricism because I know that I don’t know it. I know that it’s rote memorization. I know that just because I can get the correct answer every time from that formula, it doesn’t mean that I truly know know what that formula is. And for that reason, I believe solely in empirical knowledge, because I don’t believe that our minds can reason out answers without truly experiencing it.

    • bryanjack says:

      I wonder, Jeff, about the role of the aesthetic, or the imagination, in understanding things outside of the senses. Granted, our dreams or creative ideas would arguably not be able to exist if we had never had sensory experiences; but they are a kind of “something-out-of-nothing” idea, especially if we look at the truly abstract or impressionistic forms of art.

      What kinds of knowledge might arise from these types of creative experiences or creations?

  5. sassidy says:

    I’m very much on the empirical side of knowledge. It so happens that this almost-too-perfectly relates to my most recent metaphysics postings (basically anti-faith propaganda, if you look at it in that light).

    The connection works out wonderfully that empiricism is likely the whole -ism behind my views on the superior force.

    Pics or it didn’t happen.

    Side note: I think I may end up getting Twitter because of this class because I still feel forced to primp my comment for this blog. Perhaps I’ll be there soon…

  6. jbaloc says:

    Locke`s theory, tabula rasa, otherwise known as “blank slate”, is bugging me like an itch at the middle of my back. Pulling from Chomsky I scratch the itch that the mind is born “blank” in the human body without rules for processing data, and that data is added from sensory experiences. Concluding that the body is constructed by a framework of varied specialized organs which are extremely complex and genetically determined, and these organs interact for human function, which is also determined by human biology. There is no reason to believe that the little finger is a more complex and serving organ than those parts of the brain involved in higher mental faculties. The body is in effect, a highly specified system of organs organized according to a genetic program that determines their function, their structure, the process of their development, in quite a detailed manner. So to say “mental organs” serve to interpret senses, born a blank slate. The vast complexity of the genetic program puts forth a blank slate vexes me. The genetic program is a form of language, a program, that puts together the body, insisting the body has a priori knowledge, which is not to far of to insist the mind has a priori knowledge.
    To answer Vincent on his question of Rationalism and Empiricism being separated:
    Naturally when we try to puzzle something out, we break up, put together, eat, and excrete, to come to answers. By separating rationalism and empiricism we try to find answers as we would by comparing them. I look at it as two roads, one with a dead end, and the other that goes to the end of the rainbow. But the road to the end of the rainbow has a gate. The key to the gate being on the road that is a dead end. By finding varied answers by separating, we can put that to find answers in the comparison road. Sorry my answer will not satisfy your question most likely.
    To send out a question of my own. Empiricism in its simplest form states that knowledge comes from sensory experiences, so would someone lacking, say 2 of the 5 sense, have less knowledge?

  7. joel says:

    In response to Vincent’scomment on the separation of Empircism and Rationalism, I think the reason we divide the two concepts is just a way of breaking own the subject. For others it might just be to dence a topic if the two sides are stuck together. But I agree with you. I’m having a hard time seeing the difference between Empiricism and Rationalism. The oly other thing I could offer is that we do try in a class discussion to break down the barriers between the two topicsand just see it under the whole scope of, as I believe you said, just as Epistimology.

  8. davidwaffles says:

    Of these two schools of epistemology, which do you feel corresponds to your own approach to learning and knowledge?

    To me, the better way of acquiring knowledge and becoming better at learning has mostly to do with a empiricism. In my opinion, I believe the experiences and things you feel with your senses are the things that dictate a large percent of the person you are. I know that in my case, I need to experience something in order to really learn about it. I tend to find that when people give me pure verbal instruction, I get really confused, and don’t really know how to go about the instruction.

  9. Thad says:

    Frankly speaking, I agree with jeff’s opinion of empiricism is the valid way to acquire knowledge. Knowledge won’t simply generated by an innate idea which is simply just an inspiration.

    Since my perspective to develop epistemology is foundationalism, it turns out to be more understandable to interpret this matter. What foundationalism basically introduced is that all knowledge is based on a platform which is mostly considered as experience or direct knowledge. Like a house with a firm underground structure to support it. Quote from Wikipedia: Knowledge is a familiarity, awareness or understanding of someone or something, such as facts, information, descriptions, or skills, which is acquired through experience or education by perceiving, discovering, or learning. However, simply using the definition to argue apparently is not convincible.

    Another example, sometimes you have those inspirational thoughts that come across your mind, so you might wonder are those the knowledge? the answer is no, if there’s no past experience to play the role as a base you won’t be able to generate the thoughts or idea. Some say: in order to be creative a variety or knowlege and experience is demanded. So I believe that empiricism is the only “sound” way to gain knowledge.

  10. Vincent says:

    In response to John’s post, I agree that it is human nature to break apart and organize, however, does this mean it is the most effective way to organize data. Perhaps some of the time it is more effective, however, I find that we often ignore the holistic concept of any particular school of philosophy and focus on its separate pieces. What would be different by viewing an idea as its whole?

    I think if we shift the concept’s pieces together and build the puzzle, there is something to be learned from its whole. In our class discussion, putting empiricism and rationalism together, opens the possibility for computer minds to enter our discussion of epistemology. I think it may even bring the thought process of dolphins, or whales (Kelsey and Jeff) into the discussion; as how they approach this same idea may differ. Again I think this has a massive connection to language, because dolphins and whales speak in a different language than our own, they therefore may interpret some of these ideas differently; some of these concepts may even appear on opposite sides of the empiricism-rationalism scale (like computers).

    Anyway, thank you for replying John, I appreciate the response. I hope our future discussions will involve other types of languages and consciousness, as this may affect where we place those concepts immensely.

    • bryanjack says:

      This is an interesting thread, Vincent (and John, and others who have touched upon it), that reminds me of a question Avery asked on Twitter yesterday. He asked, “Can we find the meaning of a closed system while trapped inside it? (i.e. the universe)” to which occasional open-participant Chris replied, “How did we know the universe is a closed system?”


      I agree that it is beneficial for a certain type of understanding to break concepts into further and further pieces; but that something else occurs if we attempt to look at what seem like disparate pieces as a unified whole. For example, contemplating that there may not be an ‘edge’ to the universe; or, if there is, what is beyond that edge is not definitively separate. Great leaps in scientific or philosophical thinking have often come by way of such acts of assimilation.

      Perhaps interestingly as well, the arts can often provide the means of these unifying perspectives… making our segue into Aesthetics in a few weeks all the more timely.

  11. shiyun says:

    Of these two schools of epistemology, which do you feel corresponds to your own approach to learning and knowledge?

    In my opinion, I think that the neither rationalism or empiricism could do without each other. The way I learn is by using both. An example would be learning to ride a bicycle. You can watch someone ride their bike, see how they try to stay balanced, and then try it yourself (empiricism). But as a beginner, you are bound to fall a few times. The instinct of you breaking your fall in a way that best protects you, is something that just comes to naturally without much thinking. It’s sort of just common sense, like it’s something that you’ve always known how to do (rationalism). And after the fall, you get back up and try again and again until you master how to ride a bike, which is learning through sensory experiences (empiricism). Pulling from this example, I would say that I learn best when using both schools of epistemology simultaneously.


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