January 14, 2014
What is Epistemology?
- The word “epistemology” is a combination of two Greek words: episteme and logos
- As a whole, epistemology attempts to provide an account of the nature of knowledge
- Within the whole, a number of sub-fields address more specific problems involving
different knowledge claims
o Some examples:
What differentiates true knowledge from mere belief?
What can we know? Can we have genuine religious knowledge? What
about moral knowledge? Can we really know the past?
What are the conditions of knowledge?
Where does knowledge come from? Candidates include perception,
introspection, memory, reason, testimony, etc.
Is knowledge even possible? Can the challenge of skepticism be met?
Are there different kinds of knowledge? For example, is self-knowledge
different from knowledge of other things?
- We will be asking whether the external world is as it appears to be
o As Bailey writes, this amounts to asking whether “any of our beliefs about the
world outside our own heads [are] justified? Can we be sure that any of them at
all are true?” (133rc)
- The philosophers whom we will study do hold that such beliefs are justified. They differ,
however, in the justifications that they offer
- Credited with inaugurating the so-called “Modern” or “Early Modern” period of philosophy
- Famous works include the Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy
Approaching the Meditations
- Descartes deliberately chose the title of this book. Called Meditation, there is a built-in
emphasis on the first-person singular
- Descartes always speaks in these terms; he invites his readers to do the same
- Consider the situation of the meditator or inquirer. Their situation can be seen in two
o The first perspective is historical. Here, the inquirer is considered as someone
living in the 1630s/40s and seeking indubitable knowledge. The question to ask is- why? Why would such a person come to doubt the reliability of his
knowledge? Different answers suggest themselves:
It might be apparent to such a person that the best scientific explanations
of natural phenomena available at that time were grossly inadequate.
The reintroduction of ancient texts, with radically different evaluative
visions of the universe and human beings, might call into question
knowledge about the normative realm
The enormous turmoil of early modern Europe might lead one to doubt
the trustworthiness of authority
o The second perspective is ahistorical. Here, the inquirer is considered as an
epistemic agent living in any era and seeking indubitable knowledge. Why would
a person so conceived come to think of her knowledge as dubitable? Again, there
are different answers:
The necessary limitations on any agent’s knowledge- limitations in both
extent (concerning the range of propositions that one can claim to know)
and in degree or accuracy (concerning the way in which one knows what
one knows)- might lead her to doubt her epistemic condition
o See the first paragraph of the Synopsis of the Meditations (Bailey p.142rc)
January 15, 2014
What Can Be Doubted?
- Descartes is convinced of the need for certain knowledge. In the Meditations, he seeks
to discover them. To do so, he sets aside all his beliefs or opinions that are open to
- This raises a question: What can be doubted?
- There is a problem. We have so many beliefs. How can we go through them to
determine which ones are dubitable and which ones are not?
- Descartes is aware of this problem. He writes:
o “[I]t will not be necessary for me to show that all my opinions are false… Once
the foundations of a building are undermined, anything build on them collapses of
its own accord; so I will go straight for the basic principles on which all my former
beliefs rested” (Bailey 144rc)
- Rather than go through all his beliefs or opinions individually, Descartes will place them
in groups. If he finds that here is a problem with the group, then he will dispense all
members of the group in one fell swoop
- This leads to a question: how can our beliefs or opinions be grouped? There are different
answers to this question. To see how Descartes handles it, we need to study the
progress of Meditation One Meditation One: Initial Arguments
- Meditation One contains a series of arguments intended to e