Epistemology in Philosophy: Knowledge and Consciousness

Presentation to the Philosophy Forum, June 2007

1. 1 Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies the nature, methods, and of knowledge and consciousness. The term "epistemology" is based on the Greek words for "episteme" (knowledge) and "logos" (account). It was introduced by the Scottish philosopher James Frederick Ferrier (1808-1864).

1.2 Knowledge can be differentiated between “knowledge-that” (theoretical knowledge) and “knowledge-how” (practical knowledge). This distinction is well-recognised in most languages but not English1. It is quite ironic that in most studies of philosophy “epistemology” is solely concerned with knowledge, but not consciousness; in other words it is discusses how we know things but not what we know!

1.3 Historically, knowlegde has usually been defined in accord to Plato's dialogue Theaetetus, where it is defined as “justified true belief”, that is something is true and believed to be so. It is an intersection between the set of all propositions that an individual believes and all propositions that are true.

1.4 This historically dominant model was strongly challenged by the American philosopher Edmund Gettier in the 1960s. Through the use of counterfactual conditionals and sheer chance, Gettier was able to show that justified true beliefs do not necessarily equate with knowledge. Early challenges suggested a “no false premises” ad-hoc definition could be added, but Gettier again showed that justified true belief is insufficient to define as knowledge. Most contemporary epistemologists accept Gettier's conclusion.2

1.5 Stronger definitions requires that that ultimately “true knowledge” can only be acquired by infallible knowledge (i.e., the belief must necessitate truth) or, alternatively, that claims to such knowledge cannot made whilst the possibility of overriding truths exist (indefeasibility).

1.6 The acquisition of knowledge confronts radical skepticism, in particular the problem of the possibility of infinite regression for justifications for belief. The skeptic will argue that since such regression is always potentially infinite no beliefs are justified and therefore knowledge is impossible.

1.7 Arguments against infinite regression include infinitism (the argument that regression is not infinite), foundationalism (that some beliefs are infallible or self-justifying), the claim that belief is not due to linear chains of reasoning but rather coherence with the total argument (coherentism) and finally, with the very ugly phrase (foundherentism), the suggestion (by Susan Haak) that combines coherence and foundationalist positionswith an analogy of a crossword puzzle or lattice-work, where knowledge is acquired by mutual lines of reasoning and justification supporting one another.

1.8 Assuming knowledge can be acquired, distinction is usually made between a priori (known independently of experience) and a posteriori knowledge (known by experience) along with the distinction between analytic knowledge (subject and predicate are contained in the proposition) and synthetic knowledge (subject and predictate are distinct in the proposition).

1.9 The intuitive distinction is that analytic knowledge is a priori and synthetic knowledge is synthetic. Immanuel Kant claimed that space and time was both known known independently of experience and with distinct subject and predictate. W.V.O. Quine rejected the distinction between the synthetic and analytic by linguistic holism3.

1.10 Empiricism claims that knowledge is gained through experience. Rationlism argues that it is acquired through innate reason (“intuition”), whether part of the mind (Kant) or independent (Plato's Forms). Constructivism claims that knowledge is contingent on social convention.

2.1 Consciousness is variously defined along with sentience (from the Latin “to feel”) and sapience (Latin “to know”, or “to be wise”). "Consciousness" derives from Latin conscientia which primarily means moral conscience (knowledge-with, shared knowledge). Descartes was the first to use it in the sense of the individual ego, but which was expanded by Locke to include moral responsibility4.

2.1 Consciousness is distinguished between “phenomenal consciousness” (P-consciousness) of pure experience, sounds, emotions etc., and “access consciouness” (A-awareness) of introspection, memory etc. The exploration of consciouness as experience and memory is in the philosophical school and psychology of phenomenology5.

2.2 The philosophical concept of consciousness has been criticised from sources as varied as Marx, Nietzsche and Foucault. Marx considered that social relations preceeded consciousness (“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”), Nietzsche reversed the conception of free will and moral action ("they give you free will only to later blame yourself").

2.3 As per the original definition, it seems that the relationship between consciousness and language is extremely strong. The experience of humans who have not acquired or have lost the ability to use language (feral children, infants etc) suggests that their capacity to engage in moral reasoning, social relations etc is likewise limited. Consciousness and language are arguably identical in content.

1) In European languages consider from the Romance group the difference between (French) 'connaître' and 'savoir', the Teutonic (German) "kennen" and "wissen.", and the Hellenic (Greek) gnorízo and kséro.

2) One of Gettier's examples is as follows: Smith walks into a room and seems to see Jones in it; he immediately forms the belief, with some justification, "Jones is in the room." But in fact, it is not Jones that Smith saw; it was a life-size replica propped in Jones's chair. Nevertheless, Jones is in the room; he is just hiding under the desk reading comic books while his replica makes it seem as though he is in. So Smith's belief (if it is justified) is also true.