What is epistemology?

We explain what epistemology is, the branch of philosophy that studies knowledge. What is its function, history and the different currents.

  1. What is epistemology?

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies the theory of knowledge , using both the object and the subject that will access knowledge, as well as the limits of knowledge itself. The term comes from the Greek word ἐπιστήμη, which means knowledge .

Epistemology is sometimes confused with methodology , philosophy of science and more recently with gnoseology, since all these sciences have in common that they study the process of knowledge construction. However, epistemology has differences that make it unique, being an indispensable tool for the analysis of science and its forms of development in general.

The function of epistemology is to crystallize, that is, to clarify what are the circumstances in which it can be known and what are its limits , that is to say, it determines the scope and validity of knowledge . To do this, it uses as a means to determine the validity or invalidity of knowledge the arguments. They can be demonstrative, intuitive, using authority resources, among others.

The word epistemology is composed of “episteme,” a term that derives from Greek and refers to knowledge or science . Formerly, classical thinkers used the term “episteme” to differentiate it from “tekne,” the latter referring to the notion of technique, to instrumental knowledge. It was also distinguished from the “doxa” or general knowledge and often associated with the plebs.

On the other hand, the term epistemology has the suffix ” logos “, which refers to the study of a subject or thing . In this way we can conclude that epistemology is the study of knowledge. We will go deeper into this question below.

Epistemology as a science aims to study the objective, historical and social circumstances of the production of different types of knowledge that are considered scientific, what are the criteria used to consider something as a scientist, and works with concepts such as truth, justification, hypothesis , corroboration, etc. In short, it is the study of how and under what conditions scientific knowledge is produced . It is considered one of the branches of philosophy.

  1. Currents or epistemological doctrines

Dogmatism affirms that knowledge can be acquired since it is reality itself.

There are several schools or streams that deal with the subject of knowledge. Some of them are:

  • Criticism developed by Kant, who affirms that knowledge can be achieved, but for that it requires thorough analysis.
  • Dogmatism instead, he affirms that knowledge can be acquired since it is reality itself.
  • Skepticism on the other hand, it is a totally antagonistic current, which denies the possibility of knowing the truth due to factors external to the subject of knowledge that do not allow him to access reality.

Other currents focus their attention on how to access knowledge:

  • Empiricism which states that the only way to access knowledge is through experience.
  • Rationalism which, on the other hand, states that the only means of achieving true knowledge is through the use of reason and logic .
  1. Gnoseology and methodology

This distinction is important, since it is at this point that some current debates revolve.

Gnoseology is the study of knowledge in general (for example, mathematical knowledge, or some non-scientific knowledge), and many authors are trying to erase the distinctions between this science and epistemology, seeking a unification of them. For example, the word epistemology is translated into English as ” gnoseology “, but in Spanish-speaking countries this distinction is maintained.

With regard to the philosophy of science, it is considered to be broader than epistemology since they tend to deepen deeper issues or in certain more metaphysical cases , such as if we know through the senses, etc. Epistemology starts from a base already stipulated and does not seek to inquire about these issues.

The methodology strictly deals with the processes necessary to reach a certain knowledge , while not seeking to investigate the conditions that carried it out, or the conditions of legitimation. It can be considered as one of the branches most associated with the technique.

  1. History of epistemology

Epistemology - Galileo Galilei
Galileo Galilei was a leading author in the field of epistemology.

This branch of philosophy has its origins in Ancient Greece . At this time knowledge could be classified according to the way in which they had been achieved in doxa or episteme . The former refer to knowledge that has not been submitted to reflections, but is acquired in an ordinary way. Epistemic knowledge, on the contrary, was achieved through rigorous reflection.

However, the concept of epistemology as we know it was begun to be discussed during the Renaissance . Some of the most prominent authors in this area were Descartes, Galileo Galilei, Kant, Newton, among others. This resurgence of epistemology was due to the emergence of scientific knowledge and the need to validate such knowledge. For this, it analyzes the methods , procedures and foundations that are used in the field of science.

While talking about epistemology before the nineteenth century may at some point be anachronistic, we find some authors who have greatly influenced this discipline . Such is the case of René Descartes with the Speech of the Method, or the same John Locke and Immanuel Kant. Philosophers of this stature have managed to incorporate within their great theoretical framework notions regarding how scientific knowledge is produced, although epistemology as such did not yet exist.

Undoubtedly the epistemological school that had the greatest influence at the theoretical level and that revolutionized the discipline, despite the overwhelming criticism he will receive from one of his disciples, were the logical neo-positivists. Grouped in the famous Vienna Circle, a group of intellectuals who studied the logical forms of thought and the construction of scientific knowledge, they saw in Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein their greatest inspiration. It was the first great epistemology school of the twentieth century, taking care of the study of the logical forms of the statements and establishing criteria based on logic.

It will be Karl Popper who discusses the basis on which the epistemology of logical neopositivists was raised , when criticizing the induction criterion, understood as the process by which a singular statement through many verifications reaches a more general knowledge . Popper postulates that this is not only impossible, but that it has serious consequences, and will replace it with the logical-deductive method, understanding that no theory is verified, but that it is only corroborated until a new knowledge puts it into question.

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