The philosophical theory of knowledge-of how we know what we know. Epistemology is generally characterized by a division between two competing schools of thought: rationalism and empiricism . Both traditions of thought received their most systematic philosophical expressions in the context of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. Both approaches were concerned with finding secure foundations for knowledge, and clearly distinguishing such well-grounded knowledge from mere prejudice, belief, or opinion. The model of certainty which impressed the rationalists ( Descartes , Leibniz, and Spinoza) was that to be found in the formal demonstrations of logic and mathematics. They sought to reconstruct critically the total of human knowledge by the employment of such ‘pure’ reasoning from indubitable axioms or foundations (hence Descartes's ‘I think therefore I am’). The empiricists ( Locke , Berkeley, and Hume ) took direct acquaintance with the ‘impressions’ of sense-experience as their bedrock of infallible knowledge. Disputes between rationalists and empiricists centred especially on the possibility of innate knowledge, of knowledge acquired a priori, or independently of experience. Empiricists vigorously denied this, advocating their view of the human mind as a blank sheet or tabula rasa , until marked by the impressions of sensory experience.
The eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant is widely held to have achieved a transcendence of this conflict of ideas, insisting that a framework of basic organizing concepts (space, time, causality, and others) could not be acquired by experience alone, yet was necessary for us to be able to interpret the world of experience at all. These concepts were therefore prior to experience, but nevertheless (a nod in the direction of the empiricists) they could only be used to make objective judgements within the bounds of possible experience.
It is arguable that all theoretical and empirical approaches in sociology presuppose (explicitly or implicitly) some epistemological position or other. Largescale quantitative research is often (though wrongly) characterized in terms of empiricist or positivist epistemology, whilst the main opposition to positivism has derived (directly or indirectly) from the Kantian tradition. Whereas Kant thought the basic conceptual structure (the ‘categories’ and ‘forms of intuition’) underlying objective judgements about the world were necessary and therefore universal, many of Kant's successors in the human sciences have historically or socio-culturally relativized his position. Accordingly, it is common for sociological anti-positivists to argue that some conceptual or theoretical framework must be presupposed in any empirical research or factual judgement, but that there are several competing conceptual frameworks, and no neutral standpoint can be found from which to adjudicate between them. Arguments such as this lead to epistemological relativism , conventionalism , or agnosticism. Another argument, deriving from nineteenth-century neo-Kantianism, emphasizes the qualitatively different form of understanding involved in intersubjective communication and the interpretation of meaning (compared with the objective understanding we have of the material world). This form of understanding has its own conceptual and methodological conditions of possibility which may be philosophically analysed, as in phenomenological and hermeneutic philosophies of social science. Critical (or transcendental) realists (such as Roy Bhaskar) also draw upon Kant's method of argument, and recognize the necessity of prior conceptual organization for all empirical knowledge. They nevertheless insist upon the knowability of realities which exist and act independently of our knowledge of them. This philosophical tradition is claimed by its adherents to offer a defence of naturalism , whilst at the same time accepting the main arguments of the Kantians against positivism and empiricism.
Some post-structuralists , impatient with the apparently interminable disputes among rival epistemologies, have sought to avoid epistemology entirely. The main argument for doing so begins with a premiss which is common ground to most non-positivist philosophers of social science. This is that we have no direct or unmediated access to the realities about which our theories claim to provide knowledge. Some form of conceptual or linguistic ordering is necessary for even the most basic reports of our experiences or observations. We cannot step outside of language or discourse so as to check whether our discourse does, after all, correspond to reality. The conclusion which is then drawn from this axiom is that the classical epistemological question as to the adequacy of our discourse to the reality it purports to represent is in principle unanswerable and therefore misconceived. These post-structuralists are then led to deny the knowability of any reality beyond, or independent of, discourse, thence into an oscillation between epistemological agnosticism and metaphysical idealism . Of course, it does not at all follow from the widely accepted claim that language (or ‘discourse’) is necessary to our knowledge of the world, that we cannot then know the world. This would be as if someone were to say that, because we have no way of telling what colour things are other than by looking at them, we cannot know what colour they (really) are! So far, attempts to avoid epistemology appear to have yielded only yet more terminologically impenetrable epistemologies.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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  • Epistemology — (from Greek επιστήμη episteme , knowledge + λόγος , logos ) or theory of knowledge is a branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope (limitations) of knowledge. [Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volume 3, 1967, Macmillan, Inc.] The term… …   Wikipedia

  • Epistemology — • That branch of philosophy which is concerned with the value of human knowledge Catholic Encyclopedia. Kevin Knight. 2006. Epistemology     Epistemology      …   Catholic encyclopedia

  • epistemology —    Epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge, epistemic justification and rational belief. Traditionally knowledge has been defined as justified true belief , but this definition has been sharply disputed in recent decades. Among the… …   Christian Philosophy

  • epistemology — e*pis te*mol o*gy, n. [Gr. ? knowledge + logy.] The theory or science of the method or grounds of knowledge. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • epistemology — theory of knowledge, 1856, coined by Scottish philosopher James F. Ferrier (1808 1864) from Gk. episteme knowledge, from Ionic Gk. epistasthai know how to do, understand, lit. overstand, from epi over, near (see EPI (Cf. epi )) + histasthai to… …   Etymology dictionary

  • epistemology — ► NOUN ▪ the branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. DERIVATIVES epistemic adjective epistemological adjective epistemologist noun. ORIGIN from Greek epist m knowledge …   English terms dictionary

  • epistemology — [ē pis΄tə mäl′ə jē, ipis΄tə mäl′ə jē] n. pl. epistemologies [< Gr epistēmē, knowledge < epistanai, to understand, believe (< epi + histanai, orig., to stand before, confront: see STAND) + LOGY] the study or theory of the nature, sources …   English World dictionary

  • epistemology — epistemological /i pis teuh meuh loj i keuhl/, adj. epistemologically, adv. epistemologist, n. /i pis teuh mol euh jee/, n. a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge. [1855 60; < Gk… …   Universalium

  • epistemology — noun /ɪˌpɪstəˈmɑlədʒi/ a) The branch of philosophy dealing with the study of knowledge; theory of knowledge, asking such questions as What is knowledge? , How is knowledge acquired? , What do people know? , How do we know what we know? . Some… …   Wiktionary

  • epistemology — (Gk., epistēmē, knowledge) The theory of knowledge. Its central questions include the origin of knowledge; the place of experience in generating knowledge, and the place of reason in doing so; the relationship between knowledge and certainty, and …   Philosophy dictionary

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