Epistemology: in all its vari-coloured extravagance

The study of isms....

Disclaimer: I don't know a whole lot about this stuff, and I'm not that well-read in it at the moment. Please, if you notice something that I'm wrong about, message me and I'll edit it. I know there are closet epistemologists among us Everythingians.

Epistemology is basically the study of knowledge and how we come about achieving/justifying knowledge. It encompasses a wide variety of odd sounding isms, some of which I will describe below. Rather than get into annoying mathematical-y terminology in this node (truth functional entailment, etc.) I will try to keep it readable, and without a lot of formalization (S is justified in believing that p iff p is..etc, etc.). In the past 20 years or so, epistemology (and its problems) have become the focus of intense debates, both internally and externally. There have also been renewed attempts to formulate alternatives to traditional epistemologies. The feminist standpoint epistemologies are a good example of this, as well as the work of people like Richard Rorty who have exploded the idea that epistemology is necessary or even relevant. But, rather than deal with these somewhat exciting topics here, I'll give a little bit of the necessary information first. Here are some of the isms:

Foundationalism: Currently one of the two main sub-categories of epistemology (the other being Coherentism). The basic idea (that was a bad joke) of Foundationalism is that there are...foundational beliefs. These sort of beliefs do not require justification in the same sense that regular beliefs generally do. The grand-daddy of Foundationalism is Rene Descartes. His foundational belief was "Cogito Ergo Sum" (yes, I know he never actually said or wrote this...its just succint is all). Essentially he held that this belief ("I think, therefore, I am") was indubitable and that from this single truth, this Archimedean point, he could confer justification (through rationalisation) upon all subsequent beliefs. Of course, Descartes scholars will tell you it is much more complicated than that (involving God and such) but...I'm not a Descartes scholar, thank God (another terrible joke).
Some Names
Traditional: Rene Descartes
Contemporary: Robert Audi

Coherentism: A theory that proposes our beliefs are not justified upon some hard metaphysical 'ground', but instead are justified based upon their coherence with each other. For instance: if we believe that all swans are white, but we also believe that there are black swans in New Zealand, we do not hold a coherent belief set. Thus, at least some of these beliefs are not 'justifiably held'. If we believe that "Dogs are animals", "Mammals are animals" and "Dogs are mammals" we do hold a coherent 'web of beliefs'

Some Names
Contemporary: Jonathan Dancy
In some ways, Quine
(though it is not immediately obvious that his 'Coherentism' would 
jive well with other more "traditional" Coherentists).

Externalism: Externalism is the position that epistemic justification is not something internal to the individual cognizer, like a process that the individual cognizer must necessarily present (or have access to) as a ‘defense’ of their belief if confronted. Rather, for the externalist, justification is something conferred upon epistemic objects (beliefs) by an external process, description or event. These can be ontological, theological, empirical, linguistic, etc. For example, the statement that God ultimately confers justification, or that the mental processes described by cognitive psychology confer justification would both be considered externalist positions. Descartes’ position was externalist because his attempt to ground his epistemology firmly in the self-affirming cogito still required some sort of explanation. He asks, after establishing (indubitably) his own existence, “…from whom do I then derive my existence?”. This, then, is precisely the problem that externalism helps the foundationalist answer. Descartes answers that “were I myself the author of my being, I should doubt nothing and I should desire nothing, and finally no perfection would be lacking in me”. Since this is patently not true for him, he moves on to state that, “I know clearly that I depend on some being different from myself”. This ‘being’ is, eventually, God. Thus, Descartes originally internalistic (self-referential) foundationalism encountered problems and moved towards a theological/ontological externalism to extricate itself from those problems.
Some Names
Contemporary: Alvin Goldman, most foundationalists

Reliabilism: A form of externalism put forth by Alvin Goldman (among others) that states that justified true belief comes from beliefs that are formed via statistically reliable processes. Examples of such processes are "standard perceptual processes, remembering, good reasoning, and introspection". Thus, rather than requiring the problematic foudnational belief, Goldman can appeal to the discoveries of cognitive psychology to 'justify' a belief. Critics of reliabilism say it removes epistemic responsibility (like most externalist theories) from the individual cognizer. Goldman (and other externalists) usually argue that such 'responsibility' is not the province of the epistemologist, but rather of the ethicist, or someone like minded.
Name: Alvin Goldman

Internalism The opposite of externalism (obviously). Internalism holds that some sort of internal process is what justifies beliefs. For instance: incorrigibilty, infallibility, analyticity. For example: The statement "I exist" is justified by the fact that if someone understands this statement, they cannot help but know that it is true. Thus, it is internally justified. Requires that the individual cognizer have epistemic access to the justificatory process at the time of belief, generally amenable to Coherentism.
I don't know the literature well enough
to give you any Internalist names, 
though a lot of Coherentists would subscribe to this sort of thing...

Skepticism: To me the most sensible position to hold. States that we cannot 'know' anything and that justification is just a fancy rhetorical defense move in a ballet of idjits. There have been a lot of pretty convincing (convincing to me at least) defenses of this position, which all make me think that philosophy is so much fluff. Though I still find the fluff interesting, funny, and at times beatiful.
Some Names
David Hume, Keith Lehrer, most postmodern types that even touch epistemology.

Epistemological Anarchism: Could be seen as related to skepticism, though it is less programmatic. Less an epistemological position than the rejection of epistemological positions. A view most radically proposed by philosopher of science/hilarious man, Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend states in correspondence with his close friend and opponent, Imre Lakatos that:
"While the political anarchist wants to remove a certain form of life, the epistemological anarchist may want to defend it, for he has no everlasting loyalty to any institution and any ideology. Like the Dadaist (whom he resembles in many respects) he 'not only has no programme, he is against all programmes'"

Thus, rather than adopting a programme, the epistemological anarchist adapts programmes to fit their own pragmatic worldview. Obviously not a very popular view in epistemological circles, but, nevertheless, an interesting one that I have a lot more sympathy with than say... traditional, Cartesian foundationalism. Not to mention how convincing Feyerabend's rhetoric can be...
The name: Feyerabend, Paul Feyerabend

Idealism Anything we can know comes from our ideas. Bishop George Berkeley was one of the earlier systematizers of this sort of idea.. His whole shtick was the idea that "To be is to be perceived". Thus, to have knowledge is to have knowledge about an idea. (Don't worry, he doesn't get rid of the external world: It's all an idea in the mind of God...). The epistemological gyst of this is that we can only know one sort of thing: Ideas. (Rather than being able to know 'material substances' etc.)
Some Names
George Berkeley, Immanuel Kant (in a different, more hardcore way)

Empricism A theory that proposes that all knowledge comes from the senses. The big gun of empiricism is John Locke. The epistemological drift goes like this: beliefs can only be about/based upon sense data. Thus, our beliefs about things like God or gold mountains (a popular example for philosophers...)must be traced back to our sensory experiences. Depending upon how you look at it, Hume either exploded this view with a reduction to absurdity or developed it the furthest. I would side with the former.
Some Names
John Locke, David Hume, sometimes George Berkeley

Naturalism Some people see naturalized epistemology as both the death of epistemology and not a part of epistemology at all. The naturalist project can be summed up relatively briefly. They want to make epistemology a chapter of empirical psychology (to paraphrase Quine). All epistemic justification and explanation is put squarely on the broad, hirsute shoulders of some empirical science. It is usually some sort of psychology, but it could also be neurology, sociology or a number of others. Basically, it dissolved epistemic concerns and makes them empirical ones. Traditional epistemologists tend to get very upset about the whole deal.
Some Names
W.V. Quine, and in some readings, David Hume

Well, those are all the isms for now, as I learn more about some other ones I'll node them. Until then...watch the skies. If you are interested, check out my node Feminist Standpoint Epistemology for an explanation of some of the newer epistemological developments. Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein also had some very interesting things to say about epistemology, or at least their words have the implication of saying interesting things about epistemology.

Updated on April 29, 2002 at 2:10 am.