Philosophy 119 - 7.1.1 How to Do Epistemology

Like other areas within philosophy, epistemology begins with the philosophical method of doubting and asking questions. What if everything we think we know is false? Can we be sure of the truth of our beliefs? What does it even mean for a belief to be true? Philosophers ask questions about the nature and possibility of knowledge and related concepts and then craft possible answers. But because of the nature of philosophical investigation, simply offering answers is never enough. Philosophers also try to identify problems with those answers, formulate possible solutions to those problems, and look for counterarguments. For example, in questioning the possibility of knowledge, philosophers imagine ways the world could be such that our beliefs are false and then try to determine whether we can rule out the possibility that the world really is this way. What if there’s a powerful evil demon who feeds you all your conscious experiences, making you believe you are currently reading a philosophy text when in fact you are not? How could you rule this out? And if you can’t rule it out, what does this say about the concept of knowledge?

In answering epistemological questions, theorists utilize arguments. Philosophers also offer counterexamples to assess theories and positions. And many philosophers utilize research to apply epistemological concerns to current issues and other areas of study. These are the tools used in epistemological investigation: arguments, conceptual analysis, counterexamples, and research.

Conceptual Analysis and Counterexamples

One of the main questions within epistemology pertains to the nature of the concepts of knowledge, justification, and truth. Analyzing what concepts mean is the practice of conceptual analysis. The idea is that we can answer questions like “What is knowledge?” and “What is truth?” by using our grasp of the relevant concepts. When investigating a concept, theorists attempt to identify the essential features of the concept, or its necessary conditions. So, when investigating knowledge, theorists work to identify features that all instances of knowledge share. But researchers are not only interested in isolating the necessary conditions for concepts such as knowledge; they also want to determine what set of conditions, when taken together, always amounts to knowledge—that is, its sufficient conditions. Conceptual analysis is an important element of doing philosophy, particularly epistemology. When doing conceptual analysis, theorists actively endeavor to come up with counterexamples to proposed definitions. A counterexample is a case that illustrates that a statement, definition, or argument is flawed.

Connections

The introductory chapter provides an in-depth exploration of conceptual analysis. Counterexamples are discussed in the chapter on logic and reasoning.

Counterexamples to definitions in epistemology usually take the form of hypothetical cases—thought experiments intended to show that a definition includes features that are either not necessary or not sufficient for the concept. If a counterexample works to defeat an analysis, then theorists will amend the analysis, offer a new definition, and start the process over again. The counterexample method is part of the philosophical practice of getting closer to an accurate account of a concept. Understanding the process of conceptual analysis is key to following the debate in epistemological theorizing about knowledge and justification.

For example, a theorist could contend that certainty is a necessary component of knowledge: if a person were not completely certain of a belief, then they could not be said to know the belief, even if the belief were true. To argue against this “certainty” theory, another philosopher could offer examples of true beliefs that aren’t quite certain but are nevertheless considered to be knowledge. For example, take my current belief that there’s a bird on a branch outside my office window. I believe this because I can see the bird and I trust my vision. Is it possible that I am wrong? Yes. I could be hallucinating, or the so-called bird may be a decoy (a fake stuffed bird). But let’s grant that there is indeed a real bird on the branch and that “there is a bird on that branch” is true right now. Can I say that I know there is a bird on the branch, given that I believe it, it’s true, and I have good reason to believe it? If yes, then the “certainty” thesis is flawed. Certainty is not necessary to have knowledge. This chapter includes several examples such as this, where a theorist offers an example to undermine a particular account of knowledge or justification.

Arguments

As with all areas of philosophy, epistemology relies on the use of argumentation. As explained in the chapter on logic and reasoning, argumentation involves offering reasons in support of a conclusion. The aforementioned counterexample method is a type of argumentation, the aim of which is to prove that an analysis or definition is flawed. Here is an example of a structured argument:

  1. Testimonial injustice occurs when the opinions of individuals/groups are unfairly ignored or treated as untrustworthy.
  2. If the testimony of women in criminal court cases is less likely to be believed than that of men, then this is unfair.
  3. So, if the testimony of women in criminal court cases is less likely to be believed than that of men, this is a case of testimonial injustice.

The above argument links the general concept of testimonial injustice to a specific possible real-world scenario: women being treated as less believable by a jury. If women are considered less believable, then it is problematic.

Research

Notice that the above argument does not say that women are in fact considered less believable. To establish this thesis, philosophers can offer further arguments. Often, arguments utilize empirical research. If a theorist can find studies that indicate that women are treated less seriously than men in general, then they can argue that this attitude would extend to the courtroom. Philosophers often search for and utilize research from other areas of study. The research used can be wide-ranging. Epistemologists may use research from psychology, sociology, economics, medicine, or criminal justice. In the social and hard sciences, the goal is to accurately describe trends and phenomena. And this is where philosophy differs from the sciences—for epistemology, the goal is not only to describe but also to prescribe. Philosophers can argue that unjustifiably discounting the opinions of groups is bad and to be avoided. Hence, epistemology is a normative discipline.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax