Epistemology (from the ancient Greek ἐπιστήμη, epistème, “certain knowledge i.e. science” and λόγος, logos, “discourse”) is that branch of philosophy that deals with the conditions under which scientific knowledge can be had and the methods of attaining such knowledge. Epistemology can be considered a part of the philosophy of science, the discipline that in addition to the foundations and methods of the various scientific disciplines also deals with the philosophical implications of scientific discoveries.

The term, coined in 1854 by Scottish philosopher James Frederick Ferrier, specifically denotes that part of gnoseology that studies the foundations, validity and limits of scientific knowledge. In English-speaking countries, the term “epistemology” has a broader meaning and is used as a synonym for gnoseology or theory of knowledge-the discipline that deals with the study of knowledge in general.

Epistemology in the narrow sense arose with the problem of demarcation between what is science and what science is not. The position of logical neopositivism attributes meaning to scientific discourse, leaving philosophy with the sole task of clarifying the specific features of science, with an identification, therefore, of philosophy with epistemology. Although many of the theses of neopositivism find fewer and fewer followers, the vast complex of analyses carried out by the neopositivists constitutes the benchmark of all contemporary epistemology. Significant within this are the positions of Hempel, Nagel and other proponents of liberalized neoempiricism, who have abandoned some neopositivist theses (the need for an operational reduction of all scientific concepts, physicalism), while continuing to move within the conceptual framework characteristic of the Vienna philosophers. Further along went K. Popper, who substituted the principle of verification for that of “falsification”; J. Piaget’s genetic epistemology, departing from neopositivism, instead takes as its fundamental theme “the study of the transition from states of lesser knowledge to states of more advanced knowledge,” that is, the “constitution” of scientific knowledge.

In sharp polemic with epistemologies of empiricist origin is the critical theory of Horkheimer, Adorno and Habermas, in which science is a set of techniques for the domination of nature and society, and neoempiricist epistemology the rationalization of this domination. The focus of epistemological inquiry, then, is the relationship between scientific organization and social organization, knowing subject and society. While an applied and open epistemology, without rigid models of reference, capable of detecting the concrete results obtained from scientific research, aims at Gaston Bachelard, who gives birth to a central reflection in contemporary epistemological thought. A participant witness to the great cultural events of the century, from psychoanalysis to surrealism, Bachelard, a man of extensive interests and the author of a vast body of work, becomes the proponent of a new scientific spirit, plural and rigorously operative, attentive to the extension of methods and the multiplicity of objects.

In a different direction proceeds the thought of Thomas Kuhn, although, like Bachelard, he emphasizes the discontinuous nature of scientific progress. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) Kuhn traces and distinguishes the phases of “normal research,” which results “stably founded on one or more results achieved by past science and to which a particular scientific community, for a time, recognizes the capacity to constitute the foundation of its practice,” from “scientific revolutions,” which undermine the structure of scientific knowledge by revising its parameters and acquisitions. Critical of Kuhn is Imre Lakatos, who is closer to Popper’s critical rationalism. In his works (The Methodology of Scientific Research Programs, 1970; Demonstrations and Refutations, posthumously 1976), Lakatos sees the development of scientific theories as a succession of research programs that may conflict with each other. “According to my methodology,” Lakatos writes, “the greatest scientific achievements are research programs that can be evaluated in terms of progressive and regressive problem slippage; scientific revolutions consist in the replacement of one research program by another. This methodology offers a new rational reconstruction of science.”

More daring is the thinking of Paul Feyerabend, who regards science as “an essentially anarchic enterprise.” In his most controversial work, Against Method (1970), Feyerabend comes to regard science as free from any methodological assumptions that might stifle its development by constraining it. His elaboration is not without paradoxical features and provocative elements and aims, as a whole, to think of science as human expression, bringing it closer in some works (Science as Art, 1981; or Dialogue on Method, 1989) to art and myth. H. Putnam, in Reason, Truth and History (1981; Reason, Truth and History) focusing on one of the central themes of epistemology and philosophy of language, the notion of truth, tries to mediate between the more realist views of truth as correspondence and the more deflationary ones; he thus proposes a non-objectivistic-naturalistic concept of truth, which preserves a criterion of objectivity of reference (theory of direct reference). Several turns in Putnam’s thought. From the initial position of “metaphysical realism” in favor later of alternative forms of realism called “internal realism” (Kantian-inspired position), “pragmatic realism,” “realism with a human face,” and “naive realism.”

Exponent of philosophical naturalism W. V. O. Quine develops a project of “naturalized epistemology” that aims to provide answers to fundamental questions of knowledge and meaning with the help of methods and tools of the natural sciences. The philosopher rejects the view that there is a “first philosophy,” which constitutes a theoretical standpoint that precedes science and is capable of justifying it. From the 1969 essay Epistemology Naturalized to more current works such as From Stimulus to Science (2001; From Stimulus to Science: Logic, Mathematics, Linguistics), he outlines his naturalism, highlighting points of rupture and continuity with the empiricist tradition. He attempts to reinterpret its significant theses: the holism of knowledge, the critique of the distinction between truth of reason and truth of fact, semantic indeterminacy, ontological relativity, and the inscrutability of reference.

N. Goodman shares some of Quine’s basic principles: the purpose of remaining within a fundamental empiricist perspective, but freeing it from the dogmas that impoverish it; the need to value the theoretical-constructive dimension of cognitive activity over its observational-factual dimension; the intent to “liberalize” and “pluralize” the conceptual schemes by which man knows the world; and the rejection, in the field of philosophy of language and logic, of any Platonic-essentialist type of conception. In the gnoseological-epistemological sphere, the most important theses are: the inseparability of the world from the symbolic modes by which we describe and account for it; the existence of an irreducible plurality of these “versions of the world”; the nonexistence of ” versions of the world” that are objectively truer or more fundamental than others.

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