Epistemology in the Twentieth Century

Authored by: Matthias Steup

The Routledge Companion to Twentieth Century Philosophy

Print publication date:  March  2008
Online publication date:  October  2008

Print ISBN: 9780415299367
eBook ISBN: 9780203879368
Adobe ISBN: 9781134424030


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Epistemology, in the strict sense of the word, is concerned with the nature of knowledge and justified (or reasonable) belief. This twofold concern may be divided into five discernable questions:

What is knowledge?

What is justified belief?

How do we acquire knowledge?

What makes our beliefs justified?

Is the extent of justified belief and knowledge roughly what we take it to be, or are the skeptics right when they claim that it is much smaller than what we would like to think?

The first question differs from the third, and the second from the fourth, because we must distinguish between issues of definition and issues of substance.1 Before we can address the substantive issues raised by questions 3 and 4, we must first settle what we mean when we talk of knowledge and justification. Thus, after a brief historical overview, this chapter focuses on the conceptual issues that arise when we try to answer questions 1 and 2. Here, we encounter issues such as: How can we distinguish between the kind of justification that is relevant to knowledge, and other kinds of justification? Is justification a deontological concept, to be understood in such terms as “ought,” “permission,” or “obligation”? How is justification related to knowledge? Can knowledge be understood as justified true belief? In the next section, turning to issues that arise when we attempt to answer questions 3 and 4, we shall examine two important debates – foundationalism vs. coherentism, and internalism vs. externalism – and review the most important theories on the nature of knowledge and justification, such as evidentialism, reliabilism, the conclusive reasons theory, and the tracking theory. After that, our topic will be a new approach – virtue epistemology – that received much attention during the last two decades of the twentieth century and that sheds new light on the problems that plague the theories previously examined. In the following section, we turn to the problem of how to respond to skeptical arguments. There, we will focus on the notorious brain-in-the-vat argument and discuss several responses to it: Moorean anti-skepticism, fallibilism, abandoning closure, the relevant alternatives theory, and contextualism. A brief overview of alternative approaches is then presented. The chapter will conclude with an outlook on the state of epistemology at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

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