4.2 Schools of Epistemology


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • The major philosophical schools of epistemology.

Various approaches to the question of the best way to seek knowledge have interwoven themselves throughout the history of philosophy.  Some have focused on logic and mathematics and stressed that it is our awareness of the ideas or concepts of the mind that give us the best glimpse of reality.  These “rationalists” tend to distrust the senses as inaccurate and deceptive, while they hold the pure ideas of the mind as most real.  Others have said just the opposite, that what really gives us our best knowledge of the world is our senses.  Conceptual ideas, these “empiricists” claim, are but fuzzy abstractions of the mind derived by having first sensed the world outside us.  Yet others have expressed doubt about both the mind and the senses.  These “skeptics” have held that to fully trust either can be dangerous and that the best approach to knowledge is to hold on to a kind of suspension of belief, to keep an open mind, and to ask deeper questions.

As you read about these schools of epistemology try to keep in mind these distinctions.  Here is a chart to help you remember them.

What give us true knowledge are the ideas of the mind experienced a priori (without prior experience)


Concepts are to be trusted most; the information of the senses should not be trusted, for our senses often deceive us

What give us true knowledge are our experiences of the world, the information our senses provide, for any knowledge comes only a posteriori (after experience)


Concepts are but fuzzy abstractions that come only after we have perceived our world fully; our senses and experiments with the world are what give us certainty.

Neither the contents of reason nor of sensation should be fully trusted, both can deceive.


The best attitude the philosopher should take is one of detachment and intellectual non-committal.  Only this approach brings us greater learning about ourselves and our world.

In addition to these three schools, we will also take a look at Constructivism, a 19th-century movement emerging from the thought of Immanuel Kant that argued that our minds do not perceive the world, but instead, our minds construct our world.  “Constructivists” hold that the only “reality” we can ever know is the one our minds build for us, and this is an entirely mental, psychological world.

Let’s look first at Skepticism, in some ways the easiest epistemology to understand.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book