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What Is Epistemology?
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What is Epistemology?

Definition of epistemology

Epistemology is the philosophical study of knowledge. It concerns question such as: What does the concept of knowledge mean, e.g. what does it mean to know something? And how does a person get to know something? What is the basis for true knowledge, and how can a claim be justified?

The etymology of the word epistemology

Etymologically speaking, the root for the word epistemology derives from two Greek words. Firstly, “episteme”, which translates to "knowledge” and “understanding". Secondly, “-logia”, which translates to “science” or “study”. Hence, epistemology = the scientific study of knowledge.

Epistemology, not epistomology

This word is sometimes misspelled. It is epistemology, nothing else.

Knowledge as justified true belief

Knowledge, e.g. that a person knows something, may be defined as justified true belief. In other words, the person must be able to justify the claim, the claim itself must be true and the person must believe in it. For example, a person that claims that he or she knows that people have walked on the moon must be able to justify that claim. It may be justified by referring to films taken on the moon, as an example. It must also be a fact, i.e. people have indeed been to the moon, which, for the sake of this argument, we can assume is a fact. And, finally, the person must also actually believe that people have walked on the moon.

To justify a belief

It is necessary to justify beliefs by some sort of evidence. Here, the validity and reliability of the source becomes important. Can we trust the source that provides this evidence? It also becomes important to present and scrutinize the evidence put forward in terms of logic and reason. Does it seem plausible that the evidence can be used to support the claim?

Epistemology and non-philosophers

Besides philosophers, other scholars have had a long history of discussing and using the concept of epistemology. This is because the task of producing new knowledge is such a major part of the everyday work of academics. Thus, epistemology has a significant impact on the scientific endeavors of most scholars, given its importance for discussing the limits and possibilities of knowledge.

Further, scholars in academic departments and disciplines such as curriculum and instruction, educational science, and pedagogy have, more or less, an inherent interest in issues related to knowledge. This is because they often discuss, conduct research about, and report research results about what knowledge is and how it is transferred between individuals and groups.

Formal epistemology

Formal epistemology is the study of questions similar to that of regular epistemology, e.g. what is knowledge, how may a belief be justified, how do we know that something is true? However, in the study of these questions, the theories, concepts, and arguments used are not exclusively those of philosophy. Instead, they are found in both philosophy and in other academic disciplines and fields, such as mathematical logic, statistics, linguistics and computing.

Genetic epistemology

The theory of genetic epistemology is used to understand the cognitive development among children and how children understand, learn, and acquire new knowledge about the world around them. In short, the theory implies that symbolic systems, i.e. thoughts and knowledge, are built from sensory-motor schemes, i.e. from impressions and experiences in the world. The concept owes much from the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, who coined it to better understand development among children and adolescents.

Social epistemology

Social epistemology focuses on the social aspects of epistemology. Thus, concepts such as history and culture as well as academic writing tools and inter-disciplinary collaboration are important in the study of knowledge production. The idea is not necessarily to sharpen the definition of epistemology, even if that becomes a spin-off effect. Rather, to shift the focus more towards the human and social aspects of knowledge production, to emphasize the importance of, for example, social settings when new knowledge is produced and reported. Social epistemology is the interest of scholars from a number of different disciplines, including philosophy, sociology, psychology, and education.

Empiricism and rationalism


Empiricism is one of the traditional branches of epistemology. According to its followers, true knowledge is primarily founded on input from our senses, i.e. what we see, hear, taste, smell and touch. In other words, it is important to refer to experience and observations, when beliefs and claims are justified and proven, not ideas or traditions.


Rationalism emphasizes reason, rather than experience and observations, as the primary basis for justifying beliefs and claims. Thus, the rational (hence rationalism) and logical human mind is the source for new knowledge, not the material work around us. Research results are verified primarily by reasoning according to rationalism.


In summary, epistemology is about knowledge, and a number of challenging questions, such as How do we produce new knowledge, and When do we know that we know something? Hopefully, this article has provided some insight into the concept and some of the challenges and possibilities that surround the use of it. For further reading, see for example some of the many entries found in high-quality online philosophical dictionaries about epistemology. Finally, if you enjoyed this article, please feel free to distribute its web address to friends and colleagues. Thanks for reading and take care.

Street Talk

Very interesting Kent.

  about 1 decade ago

Thanks Shawn. I try to make it accessible to as many as possible.

  about 1 decade ago
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