Should the fundamental question in epistemology be "How can I know"? On the other hand, should it rather be "What can I know"?


In this essay, I will look at both these questions as they both seem to play a major role in the study of knowledge.

I will cover two of the main elements that correspond to these questions of attaining knowledge, Empiricism, and rationalism.

In order to show examples of both these views; I will use the philosophical thinking of Rene Decartes, a rationalist who asked, "Of what can we be certain"? (Descartes, 1968) By using a method of systematic doubt, and David Hume, an empiricist that argued that "true knowledge can be derived only from data collected by our senses". (Hume, 1977)

Can we ever really know, in the sense of being sure of, anything? In addition, if so what? (Magee,1998:7)

These questions are essentially the fundamental questions in epistemology.

To ask what can we know? Relates to the basic features of existence, not the sort of information that science gives about particular things, but about whether concepts such as justice or love have any external objective reality, about the structure of the world as we experience it.

To ask how can we know? Moreover, is there anything of which we can be certain? Do we depend entirely on our senses or can we discover basic truths simply by thinking? These questions are considered under the umbrella of epistemology as the theory or study of knowledge. It is how we justify the truth of what we claim.

Epistemology as defined by Chris Lawn for Oscail\'s philosophy foundation module states "the study of knowledge, its scope and limit" (Oscail, 2003:12-2)

It is the critical study of philosophical problems associated with knowledge, what it is, how we acquire it and its many forms. It is the branch of philosophy, which is concerned with procedures by which we come to claim that something is true.

For epistemology the fundamental issue is whether our knowledge originates in and is dependant on data we receive through our senses or whether the only true certainties are those that come from our own minds, from the way we think and organise our experience using reason and logic.

This brings me to the two main elements of the study of knowledge, Empiricism and rationalism, the former holds that all knowledge starts with the mind. When we experience anything there are tow factors at work, firstly sensations of sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. These sensations seem to come from outside ourselves and therefore give data about the world around us. Secondly our own senses. If I had bad hearing, it is possible I may be in error as to what I hear, if I am colour blind, I will be mistaken in my patterns, shades, contrasts etc. Empiricists will start with sensations of an experience and say all knowledge of the world is based on sensation.

The latter will claim that the basis of knowledge is the set of ideas we have. The mind set that interprets experience, i.e. the mind is primary, and the data of experience are secondary. However, there does seem to be a certain category of things of which we can be certain, for example 2+2=4, We know there is a definite truth to this statement, "Mathematics and logic work from agreed definitions. When these are accepted, certain results follow. They do not depend upon particular situations or experiences" (Oliver, 2000:35)

In epistemology empiricism has been contrasted with rationalism

If in favour of empiricism it would seem in some respects that empiricism is the easier option, compared to rationalism which has one more entity to contend with; Innate knowledge.

To the empiricist, innate knowledge is unobservable and does nothing; this knowledge may lay completely dormant. If an individual were born with no sight, how would they have any concept of colour? Innate knowledge would surely not include colour.

Alternatively, take the idea of the perfect triangle, again classed by the rationalist as innate knowledge. yet we could manifest from experiences of other \'average\' triangles and the use of imagination, a perfect triangle.

The main argument in favour of empiricism is science, which is founded on empirical principles. "If we base our conclusions about the world on empiricism, we can change our theories and improve upon them and see