Epistemology is simultaneously the most crucial aspect of Man’s thought, and the least understood. In contrast to Metaphysics and Ethics (the two other main branches of philosophy), Epistemology has received very little attention – and the little it has received has been deplorably less than sufficient. Needless to say, therefore, there is much work to be done in this field. Almost all errors in epistemological theory stem from one crucial mistake – a mistake in accurately identifying what Epistemology is.
Generally, the three branches of philosophy are presented in the following basic fashion:
Metaphysics is the study of reality. Epistemology is the study of how we know reality. And Ethics is the study of the proper implications of the first two upon the life of Man.
Now, focus in on the description of Epistemology and see if you notice a dangerous sort of ambiguity. When asking “How do you know?”, there are two very different questions you could be asking – and if you fail to distinguish between those two different questions (as almost all philosophers have), you will consequently fail to distinguish between the two different answers. You could be asking “How did you discover that?” or you could be asking “How does one know that it is true?” Granted, many times these two questions (and their respective answers) could be very closely related, but not always – and that is where the trouble comes in.
Let us break these questions down in order to see the importance of their differences. The first – ‘How did you discover that?’ – emphasizes the subject (‘you’, in particular), and the subject’s experience (discovery). The second – ‘How does one know that it is true?’ – emphasizes the object (‘it’ – whatever it may be) in relation to all subjects in general (‘how does one’ rather than ‘how did you’), and the grounds upon which it is considered to be true (‘that it is true’). So the first is focused on one person’s subjective (though not entirely irrelevant) experience of the object, while the second is focused on the object and the way in which any given subject can know that it is true. That is a pretty radical difference to gloss over. Can you see, now, the chaos that could (and does) result from failing to make this crucial distinction? Without consciously making this distinction, one could confuse one’s own subjective experience of a thing with the objective ground for the truthfulness of that thing. Such is the confusion in most philosophical systems – including Objectivism.
To flesh this out, let’s look at an example:
-A child learns the ABC’s from his parents. Then he learns to count from his parents. Then he learns a plethora of other things – also from his parents. If this child were to consistently confuse his own subjective experience for the objective grounds for believing something, he would conclude that the primary test for whether an idea is true or false is whether or not his parent’s have taught it to him. Obviously, he would be mistaken. Even if everything his parents had ever told him was true, the fact that they taught it to him is not the proper objective ground for believing that it is true.
And that – the objective ground for belief – is the proper aim of Epistemology. The other – a person’s subjective experience in developing that belief – is more appropriately the subject matter for the Cognitive Sciences. It is not descriptions of subjective experiences and personal discoveries that Man needs in order to guide his worldview, but objective criteria (grounds for belief) with which he may accurately judge between the true and the false.
This, recognizing the crucial need for objective truth criteria, regardless of subjective experience, is the first - but not the only - step that needs to be taken in establishing rational epistemological principles with which Man can accurately and consistently discover the truth.
Look for future posts on Epistemology covering examples of proper truth criteria as well as further coverage on faulty epistemological assumptions in Objectivism and other philosophies.