Chapter 05



A. Chapter Summary and Goals
B. Discussion Text

5.A. Skepticism and Certainty
5.B. Sources of Knowledge: Rationalism and Empiricism
5.C. A Priori Knowledge
5.D. Foundationalism and Coherentism
5.E. Problems with Justified Belief
5.F. The Social Construction of Knowledge

C. Discussion and Essay Questions
D. Topical Links, Web Links and Activities
E. Self-Test Questions and Answers
F. Suggestions for Further Reading

A. Chapter Summary and Goals


Summary: A little familiarity with the long history of disputes between rationalists, empiricists, skeptics, and various kinds of relativists, should prompt some caution in thinking about what knowledge is and how we can and do get it. What is the role of "experience" and just what is meant by "experience?" Empiricists like Locke and Hume have insisted that experience is foundational for knowledge, though their accounts of experience are open to objections of the sort brought by Searle. But are "foundations" even needed? Perhaps I should judge the truth of any given belief in light of how well it coheres with my other beliefs. Against foundationalists, coherentists like Dancy have argued that coherence is the real test for knowledge. What is the role of tradition, inherited background, or gender in our conceptions of knowledge? Social constructionists, borrowing ideas from Kuhn, have sometimes claimed that our ideas of what knowledge is and when we have it are due largely or even entirely to such factors. Disputes have also broken out in recent years over the extent to which real knowledge requires that I must know how I know. Perhaps, as externalists like Plantinga or Goldman argue, I can have real knowledge provided my beliefs are produced by some reliable, truth conducive process, for example, through sense perception, or in some subconscious way, even though I may not know of or really understand how those processes work. Internalists on the other hand stress what at first may seem a more common sense view, namely that I cannot claim to know something when I have no idea how I know it or whether I am justified in my claim to know. It seems clear that claims to knowledge should not be made irresponsibly. Ethical considerations arise when we think about knowledge. But, what sort of ethical considerations? Virtue epistemologists like Zagzebski argue that our focus should be on intellectual virtues. Knowledge will result from acts of intellectual virtue. Carefulness, integrity, open-mindedness, patience and other such virtues are necessary for knowledge and even as sufficient for it as anything could be. These questions and issues continue to provoke controversy. How the issues are resolved matters to us. For one thing, the progress of both the physical and social sciences, upon which much depends, requires a careful handling of epistemological issues. These discussions also matter because we tend to think that our lives as knowers are ethically qualified in some way. What I believe may be the result of vices or virtues that I have. What I believe may be due to a failure to check my sources, or my calculations, carefully, or to organize my thinking logically. Such failures can sometimes be criminal. On the other hand, my beliefs may be a credit to me, insofar as they reveal good, or dutiful, intellectual character.


  • Understand the tension between skepticism and certainty
  • Understand the distinction between rationalist and empiricist sources of knowledge
  • Understand problems associated with a priori knowledge
  • Understand foundationalism and coherentism
  • Understand problems with justified belief
  • Understand issues surrounding the social construction of knowledge

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