In philosophy, epistemology is the study of the origin, nature, and scope of knowledge. Epistemology, the word has been derived from two Greek words, ‘episteme’ meaning knowledge, and ‘logia’ meaning discourse. The main purpose of epistemology is to know about the origin and understand the nature and limits of the knowledge that a human possesses. It is one of the four main branches of philosophy. Basically, epistemology is the explanation of how a person thinks. It helps a person differentiate between truth and lie. Epistemology makes use of four different sources to gather knowledge, namely, intuitive, authoritative, logical, and empirical.
Branches of Epistemology
Empiricism is the true knowledge that a person primarily gains through his/her senses. Experiences and observations are taken into account to justify the beliefs and claims regarding knowledge. In empiricism, ideas and traditions are not considered to be the primary and most important source for knowledge.
Rationalism tends to emphasize rational, legitimate, or logical reasons to justify the beliefs and claims related to knowledge. It does not depend much on experience and observation. This means that the main source of knowledge is not the material world around us, but instead, it is the human mind.
Types of Epistemology
1. Formal Epistemology
Formal epistemology is the study of general questions such as What is knowledge? How do we know if something is true? How can someone justify a belief? The theories and concepts used to derive the answers to these following questions are non-philosophical.
2. Genetic Epistemology
Genetic epistemology is the study of the cognitive development of children. The prime focus is to understand the manner in which a child learns, understands, acquires new knowledge, or gets himself/herself adapted to a new environment. Here, both experience and rational thinking are employed to understand the child’s behaviour.
3. Social Epistemology
Social epistemology deals with the social aspects of knowledge production. Various historical and cultural factors are taken into account and are studied before creating new knowledge. The concept of social epistemology is primarily employed in academic fields such as sociology, psychology, etc.
4. Political Epistemology
Political epistemology is the theory of knowledge that studies the political aspects of our lives. Its main aim is to bring peace and equality to the world by analysing and studying the events occurring in societies step by step in detail.
Examples of Epistemology
1. Legal Affairs
Epistemology plays a prominent role in the production of knowledge in legal affairs. It is responsible for creating awareness of certain aspects of reality by analysing logical facts and pieces of evidence available. It involves a detailed investigation of the crime scene and a brief overview of similar cases to impart new information and produce a justification for the knowledge.
2. Changing the Password
Whenever you forget the password of your online social media handle and try to reset it, a verification code is sent to confirm the identity of the user. This process of verifying the validity of the user is an epistemic issue. Similarly, manual assigning of profile credentials at an office makes use of the concept of epistemology.
3. Security Issues
A number of technical security issues are resolved with the help of epistemology. To verify the authenticity of the websites and online blogs, an SSL certificate is issued that establishes a security protocol and creates an encrypted link between the web server and the browser. It saves the website’s identity and user’s privacy. The concept of epistemology arises when it is required to confirm the genuineness of the SSL certificate. For instance, an online shopping platform such as Amazon tends to buy the authentication certificate from a domain name service providing organisation say, Verisign. Now, if a person is trying to verify the originality of the authenticity certificate itself, he/she is knowingly or unknowingly employing the concept of epistemology during the process.
4. Scientific Discoveries
Epistemology plays a significant role in scientific inventions and discoveries. This is because scientific developments necessarily require rational thinking of ideas and strong observation of the experiments. In such a case, the main purpose of epistemology is to produce new knowledge with minimum or no error.
5. Decision Making
Decision making is a tedious task that involves gathering information, evaluating all the possible pros and cons, estimating alternative solutions to the problem, calculating risks, and making the appropriate choice as per the situation. The decision may include distinguishing between true and false, choosing the most appropriate option amongst various attributes, etc. The concept of epistemology in decision making serves to be a beneficial tool that simplifies and refines the process.
6. Critical Thinking
Epistemology helps in improving the critical thinking ability of an individual. It helps in broadening one’s senses and helps a person to evaluate the world from a broad perspective. The questions such as how do we think?, What is knowledge?, Why is it required to associate justification with knowledge?, etc., help a person get a clear understanding of the universe and to explore various phenomena occurring in nature. Epistemology helps humans make the best possible use of their thinking ability, improves their potential to reason and differentiate between good and bad, true and false, etc.
7. Confirming the Existence of Extraterrestrial Life
The existence of extraterrestrial life has always been a topic of debate. The questions like ‘are we alone in the universe?’ tend to stir all the knowledge a person possesses. To reach a common and well-framed answer to this query, one can use the epistemological approach. Primarily, epistemology tends to focus on the justification of the already existing knowledge, i.e., if aliens do exist, how do they look like? Has anyone ever seen them? If someone has seen them, do they have a recorded proof to support their claim? If a justified response to all such questions is available, then it is preferred to evaluate the other aspects and thoroughly brainstorm the question until a reliable and appropriate response is achieved. Hence, epistemology helps a person acquire knowledge in an authentic and scientific manner by considering all the facts.
8. Validating News
Epistemology finds its prime application to validate a piece of news or a report. For instance, a news headline read “I have not been a part of any unethical practice held at the bank.” Here, epistemology can be used to identify whether or not the news headline is genuine. The process begins with the identification of the person whose exact words have been published as the news headline. The next step is to confirm the bank where he/she was employed and the unethical practice that took place. Deep investigation and proper research are used to validate if the person is lying or not.
9. Understanding the World
Epistemology plays a key role in comprehending the world that we live in. In the absence of the concept of epistemology, there would be no particular explanation of how various phenomena existing in nature works. It helps the philosophers construct rational theories that support and justify various questions such as how do we know that the knowledge possessed by mankind regarding our planet to date is true?, What is the difference between knowledge and belief?, Will the world be a better place in the absence of caste and religion?, What is intelligence?, etc. Although some of the answers to various aspects of the world are still unknown to mankind, epistemology ensures the scope to develop an appropriate response in the near future.
10. Realising Paradoxes and Anomalies
The primary source of information for humans is vision. People believe what they see and their belief in things forms the basis of their knowledge. However, the knowledge gathered solely on the basis of visual experience tends to be false at times. For instance, if you look at the horizon, the surface of the earth and the sky seem to meet each other, but they do not. Similarly, a stick immersed in a bowl of water appears to be bent, but it is not. This means that visual proof of something is not sufficient to verify its authenticity. Various other senses such as touch can also mislead one to believe a piece of false information to be true. In such a case, epistemology plays an important role because it helps a person gather multiple pieces of evidences and explanations to support a theory. This is the reason why epistemology must be incorporated before acquiring a piece of information as knowledge.