Historical Introduction to Philosophy/Epistemology

From Wikiversity
Jump to: navigation, search

Home Back Forward

Epistemology Introduction[edit]

The Greek word episteme is the root of Epistemology. This philosophical term is commonly associated to the inquiry of truth and knowledge. Greek philosophers seeded the study and from this cultivation of thought stem the growth of many sciences. The meaning of the word has three distinctions. First, epistemology can be the quest for true and scientific knowledge as opposed to opinion or belief. Secondly, reality is an organized body of thought. Lastly, sometimes referred to as the “first philosophy” is the understanding of the divine. Restated epistemology has three focuses, a practical application, an applied science, and theological.
As stated the roots are in the Greek language. Therefore, a better understanding of the fertility that the subject began requires a brief historical account of the conditions in which Greek philosophers lived. The first groups of philosophers are referred to as the Pre-Socratics. They include the Milesians, Ionians, Eleatics, Atomists, and Sophists. Important to this historical analysis is how the categorical grouping changes from geographical to ideological. The change is overlain by the conditions in society enabling Athens to become the center of reflection, instruction, wisdom, and government.
The first philosophers were residents of prosperous cities, the fact they traveled allows for speculation that they were well off enough to do so. Apart from trying to improve methods in farming and other occupations these men were in economic positions that afforded time for reflective thought. This reflection about nature produced conceptual questions laying the foundations for philosophy in a non-empirical study of existence, knowledge, and value. Important to their conclusions about nature is the fact they were based upon non-scientific methods of observation. However speculation of these men’s lives is based on few primary documents written by the philosophers themselves, but more on secondary sources, oral traditions, and the known historical events.

Historical Background[edit]

The peninsula of Greece or Hellas is located on the Aegean Sea. Ecologically the climate is very favorable for human habitation. Agriculture became widespread and early civilizations flourished. The three civilizations of the Bronze Age were the Minoan, Cycladic, and Helladic. These civilizations became the first high civilizations on the European continent; they developed great palaces and writing known as Linear A and B. On the Island of Crete, the Mycenaean’s rose to supremacy and consequently the Aegean people are referred to as such. The significance of the Mycenaean culture was their likeness to the Homeric hero’s as similarities in armor, weapons, and imagery was found at Knossos Palace. The 1600-1450 B.C. community, evidenced by grave artifacts traded between Greece, Crete, and Troy. However upon invasion and various natural disasters the Mycenaeans plummeted into a dark age around 1450 B.C. This led to population shift to the Ionian Isles (215 Britannia). This collapse of civilization is still not completely explained. However the decline, as evidenced in Egyptian records, was compounded by drought, climate change, harvest failure, epidemic and civil unrest.
The Dorians, a nomadic people, invade around the end of the Dark Ages 900 B.C. One of the first Greek historians, Thucydides, writes about the Trojan Wars in the 5thc. Thus written history is from a 400 year gap of compilation of oral traditions, claiming that the Dorian invasion was the wars between Troy and Sparta, resulting in are turn of the Hercules descendants. The Dorians were traditional enemies of the Ionians. (For further reading Britannia Macropedia) During the Archaic period (900B.C.) tensions created by war, economies, and religion influenced society. Trade expanded, the first Olympic Games began in 776 B.C., and gathering communities or Synoikismos develop in geographically secured regions atop alluvial plains surrounded by impassable mountains. Thucydides speculated that sanctuaries to the Gods became monumentalizes as early as the 8th century.
In any case by 6th century, cultural figures such as Lycurgus, author of the Spartan constitution, and Solon of Athens demonstrates a society that moved beyond subsistence and was ordered enough for viable trade and economic stratification. The diversity of economics gave rise to tyrants as well during the 6th century. Thus the first laws attempting to structure society were Draconian Laws of 621B.C. These laws were harsh and savagery. By 594 B.C., the laws were replaced by Solon, the poet and statesman; his Laws were more forgiving society and allowed the liberty of self expression. Paramount to the birth of western philosophy was the conditions of the times. The cultivation of epistemology as we will see was a process of civilizations boom and bust cycles. During those times of economic stability, conditions were prosperous enough to develop thought.

The Foundational Philosophers[edit]

Miletus, a Greek colonial port city, is home to Thales (624-545 B.C.). He is recognized as the first philosopher since the written and oral records of western philosophy can be traced to him. A summary of Thales contribution to philosophy suggested that all things are full of the Gods, but that by some nature or principle all things come into being. He evidences this by the magnet because it moves iron it must possess a soul. The arche or prime mover for Thales was water because the “seeds of everything have a moist nature.” Aristotle frames this in Metaphysics, “the first philosophers…of the nature of matter were the only principles of all things; that of which all things consist…the element and the principle of things, and therefore they think nothing is either generated or destroyed” (Metaphysics 983, 5-10) Although his argument is based on observation of the natural world, Thales plants the seed that develops into the quest for knowledge, scientific and divine. The concept that everything comes from an arche and thus returns to an arche is monism or belief in one substance.
Next was Anaximander (610-540 B.C.) writes On Nature, of which only a few parts survive. “they give justice and reparation to one another for their injustice in accordance with the arrangement of things.” 19 Collectively his contribution was the universe originated from the apeiron or the boundless. Therefore the arche, or ultimate underlying substance, must be something other than the four elements of earth, fire, water, and air as if anyone was limitless it would destroy the other. Anaximander is laying the foundation for theology and the quest to identify the divine.
Interestingly enough the next of the philosophers, the Ionian, Pythagoras was not even a mathematician. Rather he focuses on a doctrine of metempsychosis or belief that the soul is immortal. He believed the ordering of the natural world was in accordance with mathematic relationships and harmony. His teaching promoted a strict way of life including a strict vegetarian diet since his ideology incorporated that each human and animal soul is reborn. His successor Heraclitus agreed with the Milesians on the cyclic nature of stuff, but claimed the arche was fire and that the flux in nature allowed the contraries of hot and cold to change each element into each other. This applies to ideas as well for instance without strife there is no justice or without war there is no king. “on must realize that war is shared and “Conflict is Justice, and that all things come to pass (and are ordained?) in accordance with conflict.”(Longman) This harmony of conflict sustains the world under a law of process and opposition. Logos, or proportion as used in the common language of the Greeks, was the standard for all things. However, he also uses it in a more technical term in which logos is an underlying organizational principle of the universe…this principle, though is hidden and perceptible only to the intelligence.”(Peters) Therefore, Heraclitus is particularly important to the establishment of logos as a foundation in Stoicism, Christianity and epistemology because only through the journey to knowledge is the divine revealed.
The Eleatic, Parmenides, 5th century physician, conceptualized the on or being is neither changeable nor divisible and cannot be created or destroyed. Further, he alludes to the dualistic nature of the cosmos in his Opinions. In this discussion he states the difference between that which is and that which cannot be as me on, or nonbeing. In epistemology it is only the being that can be named or identified. Therefore, there can be only one original being and everything else is illusory. Thus, everything is actual or perceived, likewise either true or false. His conclusions about being are highly contested by Plato.
Anaxagoras (500-428 B.C.), a Milesian, moves, during the consolidation of intellectuals and power, to Athens. He concluded that nothing can come into being or perished. All things are ultimate realities of the four elements, taking the shape of the dominant element and creation was a mixture of elements stirred by nous, or father of all substances. Everything is as it is perceived, no fissure between appearances and reality. Most importantly he believes the mind does not mix with things because it is too fine, this separation constructs a foundation for mind and body dualism.
Empedocles rejects monism. He claims rather forces love and strife coupled with the four elements is the motivation for existence. There exist divine gods that are immortal and powerful but they do not influence being.

In conclusion, these pre-Socratic philosophers deposit the origin of uncertainty that develop into the study of epistemology. The pre-Socratics believed all things to be made of matter; in that only through reason of sense perceptions can knowledge be found. Heraclitus fostered this hypothesis, but subsequent philosophers moved towards a concept that everything was in flux.

The Germination of Epistemology[edit]

The next set of contemporaries impact the world of inquiry. They develop styles of writing and rhetoric that challenge the beliefs and authorities in civil society.

Democritus, the Atomist wrote over fifty works that were destroyed by Christians in the 4th century A.D. Democritus expanded the Parmenidean concept of the atomon, or an indestructible, indivisible material of one true substance into a complex mixture of atoms that collide and adhere to each. Democritus and Leucippus hypothesized that there exists either a void of non-being or spatially full of being. In other words, nothing happens randomly rather it is structured by three differences in atoms and their attraction to each other. This is shape being rhythm, order being contact, and mode being position. These constructs are known by senses. Size and shape of the perceptible world is only perceived by senses and are thus named out of convention, or nomos.

This concept of nomos gives foundation to the Sophists’ argument between convention and nature. Sophia meaning wisdom was what the Sophist sought. Chrysippus believed the four virtues--temperance, courage, justice, and wisdom--were naturally occurring and not a convention. Virtue or arete was the means by which happiness was to be found. Protagoras, the most famous of the Sophists, stressed while keeping the appearance of virtue, one may use four types of speech (wishing, asking, answering, and commanding) in the power of persuasion. Unfortunately, this approach was misconstrued as a means for financial gain and helped to discredit the moral objective of the Sophist. Protagoras states, “man is the measure of all things”; by this he analyzes everything humans perceive makes the only reality like Plato's cave, in accordance with sense perception and convention. The Sophist contribution was to engage the question of justice, or dike, dikaiosyne, in an ethical or moral debate. Hence, the Sophist may be considered the first to raise the epistemological question how much of what we think we know about nature is objective and how much is human convention.

The greatest influence on Plato will be Socrates. Wisdom is the cardinal virtue. In practice the Socratic Method is based on conceptualizing that understanding your knowledge is limited. This understanding creates the ground for an endless search for knowledge and in turn brings people to self realization. In the Phaedo (96b), Socrates distinctions two types of knowledge, opinions and truths. In this quest for knowledge, Justice is the underlying faculty for all subsequent exploration.

Plato in his quest for justice inadvertently structures the path to truth and knowledge. His main goal was ethics, but from this search develops epistemology. Plato’s first argument in epistemology is made between true belief and knowledge. “You argue that a man cannot inquire either about that which he knows, or about that which he does not know; for if he knows, he has no need to inquire; and if not, he cannot; for he does not know the very subject about which he is to inquire.”(Meno 80e)
Plato uses a theory of recollection (anamnesis) to build on Pythagorean theory of rebirth. He poses knowledge is innate in “then it must, surely have been before we began to see and hear and use the other senses that we got knowledge of the equal itself, of what it is, if we were going to refer to the equals from our sense-perceptions.” (Phaedo 75b-76) In other words, these innate ideas Plato refers to are ideas that found their way in a mind without the mind needing to experience anything. Furthermore, he argues that not everything is known through the senses, “Well, but we ourselves are part body and part soul…then soul is more similar than body to the invisible, whereas body is more similar to that which is seen.” (Phaedo 79b) Another discussion between the opinion and truth, “so wouldn’t we be right to describe the difference between their mental states by saying that while this person has knowledge, the other one has beliefs?” (Republic 476d)

Philosophers have argued for and against the existence and/or possibility of innate ideas for ages. Those that reject innate ideas are most commonly empiricists; rationalists are the most common adherents. For an idea to be innate, it had to exist forever or be “implanted” somehow after the birth of a mind. Gottfried Leibniz held an extreme position on innate ideas, arguing that they were the only ideas in existence. This belief stemmed from his belief that simple substances (out of which everything is made) cannot be influenced by the environment; they have “no windows” through which they could be influenced by neighboring substances. Since minds are made of simple substances (which he called monads), they also can not be influenced by the environment; they cannot “experience” anything from the outside. This means that all the ideas that a mind has are innate. Leibniz argued that innate ideas (which may be more accurately called "perceptions" in Leibniz's terms) existed from the beginning of time, when God set them in motion. We can perceive things going on outside us only because God designed us to have accurate ideas about things going on in the universe at the same time that those things are actually going on. This connection between the ideas/perceptions of our minds and what's actually going on outside us is made possible by the pre-established harmony between them, which God set up in the beginning.

In his allegory of the cave, Plato explains “The point is that once you become acclimatized, you’ll see infinitely better than the others there; your experience of genuine right, morality, and goodness will enable you to identify every one of the images and recognize what it is an image of.” Moral leadership is discussed here. For Plato, justice and civic morality was his goal. To explain he uses the Diagram of the Line. What grounds Plato’s forms is ethics by the eide this was a reality beyond human sensibility that was beyond the flux of the cosmos. In the Timaeus he constructs that the world had a creator “In virtue of this reasoning when he framed the universe, he fashioned reason within soul and soul within body, to the end that the work he accomplished might be by nature as excellent and perfect as possible…that this world came to be, by the god’s providence, in very truth a living creature with soul and reason.” (Timaeus 30B-C) “The soul, then, as being immortal, and having been born again many times, and having seen all things that exist, whether in this world or in the world below, has knowledge of them all; and it is no wonder that she should be able to call to remembrance all that she ever knew about virtue and about everything” (Meno 81c) Soul is the bridge between the two realms of being and becoming. Below diagrams the connections to civil society as Plato tries to create in the Republic.

  • Soul-faculties
  • Polis-classes
  • Ethics-values

Three faculties the Tripartite:

  • Leaders-wisdom-rational
  • Warriors-courage-spiritual
  • Artisans-self discipline-appetitive

Together they make justice or utilitarianism as the goal to maximize happiness. Consequently, the foundations to feudalism are diagrammed in The Great Chain which represents a moral order. Plato’s dialectic style of writing differs from rhetoric, as the approach is to enlighten, rather than persuasive. For him the end product or telos is the structuring of an ethical city of virtue, Plato conceived a hierarchal structure in which the nous or intellect was the supreme reality or form. The above arguments of how we come to know what we know are the historical birth to epistemology.

The Branching of Epistemology[edit]

Aristotle was a student of Plato for twenty years. He became the teacher of Alexander the Great, whose conquest introduces many new ideologies in Greece. Aristotle establishes his school the Lyceum in Athens where the focus in on biological studies. In that he becomes the father of categorical logic, in which science classifies stuff into taxonomies. This process requires rigorous and disciplined study to place things where they belong.
Therefore, Aristotle disregards Plato’s Forms for Essences. His observation of natural things suggest that they perform the function and have the potential to change and thus only by intellect can one distinguish between reality and things of convention or belief. Consequently, he concludes that something’s are self evident. He observes through language man reflects the world in terms of subjects and predicates. The problem is self-awareness by accident or indispensable and key to understanding. For Aristotle reason was the way to self- knowledge, movement was caused by a first principle and thus our capacity to actuate. Aristotle bridges the gap between potentiality and actuality through nature.
As with other sciences he treats knowledge as an organized body of thought in which it is has its own taxonomy. In Metaphysics 1025b-1026a, he first divides Episteme into three groups. The first two are praktike, or action, as in how we make a choice, poietike or techne, meaning an applied science, or practical application of skill. The last, theoretike is again divided into three categories, mathematike, physike, and theologike. These will inquire on the divine, nature, and mathematical sciences. Consequently, it is Aristotle that broadens the branches of epistemology.

Change in direction of Epistemology[edit]

Following the death of Alexander the Great, society is thrust into a power vacuum. Three philosophies, Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Skepticism try to cope with the civil despair. Their individual goals are similar to the above philosophers in that happiness is the ultimate goal. Although virtue is still the foundation for hedonism, from hedone the Greek word meaning pleasure, the conceptualization was a misinterpretation of the philosophy and later will cause persecution and perversion of the term. Consequently, individual happiness takes precedent over community, western civilization to reverts to rampant superstition, chaos and religious fundamentalism.

Epistemology after the Middle Ages[edit]

John Locke (England 1632-1704) is to be equally credited and blamed with the idea that the issues of theory of knowledge of first philosophy, must come first in philosophy, although this became clear with Descartes Cartesian method. Basically “unless we are clear about or capacities for gaining knowledge, we are likely to waste our time in controversies over matters that are beyond our grasp and end in confusion.” Locke’s goal was not lofty it was simply to clear our some of the garbage (misconceptions and absurdities) that had accumulated on the grounds of philosophy, to this end he set about discerning how our minds work and from where the contense of our mind comes for the purpose of mitigating disputes weather religious or political. In short, how do we think and from where do our ideas come. To quote Locke himself “It is ambitious enough to be employed as an underlabourer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish which lies in the way to knowledge.” It is clear from these quotations (as well as from his works) that he had a conservative opinion of the capacities of human understanding and that there are some things that we are incapable of understanding.

Kant says[edit]

A Priori Concepts:
Most empiricists argue that concepts are derived from sensory stimulant and thus there can be no concept without the corresponding sensory stimulus, and it is through this stimulus that the meanings of the concepts are given to the observer. Kant argued that this was absurd, because he argued that through the experience itself the concept could be conveyed; the grounds for understanding the concept are in the experience itself. The mere sensation of something can not contain concepts, the concepts can not be formed until the sensation is transformed into "mental action." In the concept lies the understanding of said concept ... it is like once you put the concept into thoughts then it becomes understood correctly.

Transcendental idealism:
In his Critique of Practical Reason Kant says, "all objects that can be given to us can be conceptualized in two ways: on the one hand, as appearances; on the other hand, and things themselves." This means that we have knowledge of appearances, not how things are in themselves. Kant also says that these categories can be applied to "phenomena" but not to "noumena."

Phenomena and Noumena:
Kant says that "phenomena" are objects that are possible experience; essentially the stuff we can experience, the world around us. "Noumena" are objects that are knowable through thought alone, and it therefore doesn't make sense to describe them as experiences. Keep in mind that Kant also say that Noumena are to be used only negatively, this means that it is there only to designate the limit of knowledge. Break it down like this ... Phenomena are the world of the sense, and the noumena are the world of our understanding.


Epistemology grew out of a social concern relative to the environment and conflict surrounding communities, although Greece was at its high culture, structure within society allowed the liberty of thought. The root of epistemology is in the minutest aspects of our very existence. The very genesis of how reality is constructed, has given rise to conventions for expressing our origin and the forms in which we give name to. Thus sprouts a critical reflection regarding the source and essence of the body superimposing with our natural surroundings. This process of potentiality to actuality births the metaphysical root of epistemology.
Clearly the Pre-Socratics planted these questions, but it was Plato, schooled by Socrates civic virtue, that turns his quest to establish a moral society into a theological concept. Since Plato’s epistemology evolved from the exploration of the apparent, imagined, and the recalled. Thus the character of awareness and how we acquire knowledge say without experience, prior, as opposed through the senses, posterior, expands the subject of epistemology.

In turn, his student, Aristotle, lays the foundations for epistemology as a model discipline that will incorporate the practical application of science and the work ethic required for thought to be based in the real as opposed to the belief. Altogether, the goal of early philosophy was to seek a virtuous society that could live harmoniously for the ultimate tranquility of each individual within a community.


  1. Why is the historical setting important to the development of epistemology?
  2. What contribution does Heraclitus make to epistemology?
  3. Why is sense perception a controversial subject relative to the concepts of epistemology?
  4. How does Parmenides poem influence the division with in the question of knowledge?
  5. How do Plato’s Diagram of the Line and The Allegory of the Cave demonstrate the difference between opinion and truth?
  6. What bridges the two realms of being and becoming as described in the above scenarios?
  7. How is the arche interpreted by the Pre-Socratics, Sophist, and Plato?

John Locke: Main Works (Publication Dates)[edit]

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690)

Treatises on Government (1690)

Thoughts on Education (1693)

Letter Concerning Toleration (1689)

Greek Vocabulary[edit]

(Familiarize with these terms as used then.)

Aisthesis, Anamnesis, Apeiron, Arche, Arete, Doxa, Eide, Episteme, Logos, Nous, Praktike, Psyche, Rhoe, Skepsis, Sophia, Techne, Telos, Theoretike

Epistemology Related Terms[edit]

First Philosophy: Epistemology

Epistemology: from ancient Greek “episteme” or “Knowledge,” a branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, how it is acquired, and whether true knowledge is possible.

Experience: Sensation and Reflection

Sensation: Knowledge about external stuff based on our senses

Reflection: Perceiving, thinking, doubting, believing, reasoning, knowing, willing etc.

Substance: Something we know not what

Modes: Accidents or incidental properties

Power: Disposition to affect other things


The Longman Standard History of Philosophy Daniel Kolak, Garrett Thomson, Pearson Longman Education Inc., New York, 2006

Greek Philosophical Terms A Historical Lexicon F.E. Peters New York University Press, New York, 1967

The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy Robert Audi General Editor, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1995

Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2nd Edition Volume 3 Donald M. Borchert Editor in Chief, Macmillan Reference, Thompson Corp. USA, 2006

Britannica Knowledge in Depth 15th Edition, Volume 20 Philip Goetz, Editor in Chief, Chicago, 1991

The Great Conversation 5th Edition Volume 2 by Norman Melchert, Oxford University Press 2007, ISBN 0-19-530681-3

A Dictionary of Common Philosophical Terms by Gregory Pence, McGraw Hill 2000, ISBN 0-07-282931-1





http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html





see also[edit]

Home Back Forward