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CHAPTER ONE __________________________________________________________________ 4

RATIONALISM __________________________________________________________________ 4

INTRODUCTION __________________________________________________________________ 4

RATIONALISM ___________________________________________________________________ 5

KEY NOTIONS ___________________________________________________________________ 6

A PRIORI KNOWLEDGE _____________________________________________________________ 8

INNATE IDEAS ___________________________________________________________________ 9
Plato and the Slave Boy _________________________________________________________ 9
Descartes and the Trademark Argument ___________________________________________ 10
EMPIRICAL AND LOGICAL TRUTHS __________________________________________________ 11
FOUNDATIONALISM AND THE COGITO ________________________________________________ 14
CLEAR AND DISTINCT IDEAS _______________________________________________________ 15

BIOGRAPHIES OF THE MAIN RATIONALISTS _______________________________________ 17

RENÉ DESCARTES _______________________________________________________________ 17

BARUCH SPINOZA _______________________________________________________________ 18
GODFRIED WILLHELM LEIBNIZ _____________________________________________________ 18

EMPIRICISM ___________________________________________________________________ 19



Primary and Secondary Qualities ___________________________________________ 20

EMPIRICAL KNOWLEDGE _________________________________________________________ 21
BERKLEY AND IDEALISM _________________________________________________________ 22
Berkeley’s Criticism of Locke _______________________________________________ 22
ARGUMENTS FOR IDEALISM _______________________________________________________ 23

CHAPTER TWO _________________________________________________________________ 24

EMPIRICISM ___________________________________________________________________ 24

DAVID HUME __________________________________________________________________ 24

HUME’S FORK __________________________________________________________________ 24

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IDEAS AND IMPRESSIONS ________________________________________________________ 24
CAUSATION ____________________________________________________________________ 24
SENSE DATA AND SCEPTICISM ____________________________________________________ 25

CHAPTER THREE_______________________________________________________________ 26

PERCEPTION ___________________________________________________________________ 26

EMPIRICISM AND PERCEPTION ______________________________________________________ 27

NAÏVE REALISM _________________________________________________________________ 27
THE PERCEIVER AND THE PERCEIVED ________________________________________________ 29
REPRESENTATIVE REALISM ________________________________________________________ 30
Criticisms of Representative Realism _____________________________________________ 31
IDEALISM ______________________________________________________________________ 31
MENTAL EVENTS ________________________________________________________________ 32
PHENOMENALISM ________________________________________________________________ 33
PHENOMENALISM AND SCEPTICISM __________________________________________________ 34
Problems With Phenomenalism __________________________________________________ 35

CHAPTER FOUR ________________________________________________________________ 36

KNOWLEDGE, BELIEF AND TRUTH ______________________________________________ 36

DEFINITIONS OF TRUTH _________________________________________________________ 36

KNOWLEDGE BY DESCRIPTION AND ACQUAINTANCE ____________________________________ 37

KNOWLEDGE AND BELIEF _________________________________________________________ 38
CONDITIONS OF KNOWLEDGE ______________________________________________________ 39
Knowledge __________________________________________________________________ 40
NECESSARY AND SUFFICIENT CONDITIONS ____________________________________________ 41

GETTIER PROBLEMS ____________________________________________________________ 43

RESPONSES TO GETTIER ___________________________________________________________ 44

SUMMARY OF GETTIER PROBLEM AND RESPONSES. _____________________________________ 47

FOUNDATIONALISM ____________________________________________________________ 48

CORRESPONDENCE THEORY _____________________________________________________ 49

COHERENCE THEORY AND IDEALISM _________________________________________________ 49

RELIABILISM ___________________________________________________________________ 51

PROBLEMS WITH RELIABILISM ______________________________________________________ 51

PHENOMENALISM ______________________________________________________________ 52

PROBLEMS WITH PHENOMENALISM __________________________________________________ 53

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CHAPTER FIVE _________________________________________________________________ 54

SKEPTICISM ___________________________________________________________________ 54

THE SOURCES OF KNOWLEDGE ________________________________________________ 56

THE ARGUMENTS FROM ILLUSION AND DECEPTION ____________________________ 58

1. OPTICAL ILLUSIONS ____________________________________________________________ 58

2. DELUSIONS, WAKING DREAMS AND VISIONS. _________________________________________ 60
3. NATURAL ILLUSIONS ___________________________________________________________ 60
4. RELATIVE OR SUBJECTIVE SENSATIONS _____________________________________________ 61

COUNTER ARGUMENTS ________________________________________________________ 63

WITNESSES AND TESTIMONY ___________________________________________________ 68

EXERCISE______________________________________________________________________ 68

APPENDIX : BRIEF HISTORY OF SCEPTICISM ____________________________________ 70

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Chapter one

When I throw a ball into the air and watch it fall, I am confirming something that I know to be
true about things in the world - that is, that they obey the law of gravity. But how do I know
this? Is it from having seen it happen countless times? Or, is it from understanding some
principle or law that is fundamental to the universe?

This debate has been part of philosophy for a long time. On the one hand are those who claim
that our knowledge of the world comes from experience and the information that we receive
through our senses: these are called Empiricists. They would view the law of gravity as being
dependent on observation (the ball falls once, twice, ten times, fifty, a hundred, a thousand…
and so on). From the empiricist’s point of view, our knowledge of things comes from piecing
together all the different bits of experience to arrive at an overall explanation. So, if the
experiences change – the ball stays in the air – so must the explanation.

On the other hand, there are those who argue that we understand the world through reason:
these are the Rationalists. In the case of the ball, they would argue that we discover the
fundamental truth (the law of gravity) which underlies all these experiences. A better example
might involve the idea of an object: do we learn this concept from experience (“that thing
seems to be a thing”), or is it because we already have the idea of it (“That things seems to be
a red thing”). So, for the rationalist, there are certain principles or ideas that form the basis of
our understanding of the world. We do not create them; they already exist. The empiricist, on
the other hand, doubts the very existence of these “first principles”, and instead tries to show
that they can be derived wholly from experience.

In all truth, this distinction between rationalism and empiricism is not really as simple as that;
both outlooks are vital to our understanding of the world. Science, for example can’t just rely
on the application of laws because those laws may change; on the other hand, it can’t just
perform experiments without having an idea of what best explains the underlying behaviour
(that is, they must have what’s called a “working hypothesis”). However, the two labels are

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useful in the sense that they represent the two furthest extremes in how we acquire knowledge
and allow us to see what’s good and bad in each approach.

First of all, let's look more closely at Rationalism.


Rationalism - from the Latin ratio, meaning 'reason' - is a point of view that states that reason
plays the main role in understanding the world and obtaining knowledge. Whilst rationalism
has existed throughout the history of philosophy, it is usually associated specifically with
three philosophers during the Renaissance:

1. René Descartes (1596-1650)

2. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716)

3. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677)

All three of these philosophers shared the belief that we can best understand the world
through logic and reasoning. However, this does not mean that they were uninterested in
science and experiment – on the contrary, both rationalists and empiricists were keen on
scientific enquiry. This was because they were reacting against centuries-old traditions which
tried to base an understanding of the world upon ideas put forward by the 4th century BC
Greek philosopher Aristotle and the world view of the Bible. Such an outlook was therefore
based on tradition and authority, rather than reason and experiment.

For example, Aristotle believed that

 The earth is the centre of the universe.

 The sun and the planets orbit the earth.

 The stars are fixed to a crystalline sphere and are unchanging and eternal.

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It is therefore amazing to think that this view persisted for almost 2,000 years. So, although
scientific enquiry has always been around, it was not until the 16th century that our world
view actually began to change. That it did so was based on the overthrowing of tradition in
favour of rational and scientific investigation.

Below are a list of important dates in the development of the modern scientific and rational
view of the world (though you will not be tested on them, they are interesting and put the
above comments in context).

Date Event

1543 Copernicus argues that the movement of the stars and heavenly bodies is more
“logical” if we consider the Sun as the centre of the solar system.

1572 Tycho Brahe discovers, through astronomical observations, that the stars are not
stationary or unchanging.

1609 Based on Brahe’s work, Johannes Kepler formulates his 3 laws of planetary

1638 Galileo Galilei publishes his Mathematical Discourses and Demonstations on

Two New Sciences, outlining discoveries which directly contradict the views of

1687 Isaac Newton publishes his Principia Mathematica in which he sets out the
theory of gravity, basing his work on the discoveries of Kepler and Galileo.

Key Notions

Whilst rationalists shared an appreciation for science and empirical enquiry, they also
emphasised certain key notions that were not shared by empiricism and became the subject of
keen debate between the two camps.

1. A Priori Knowledge – “Some ideas are true independent of experience”. Whilst

rationalists did not deny that the senses give us important information about the
world, they did not consider them to be the sole means of knowledge. In fact, they

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quite often thought that the senses mislead us. For this reason, they argued that
knowledge which is independent of experience must be more trustworthy because it
has less to do with the senses. So, for instance, maths was considered “more pure”
than Geography or physics. Such ideas they called a priori, which is a Latin phrase
meaning “prior to” or “before” – experience, that is. Examples of such knowledge

a. Mathematical propositions (2 + 2 = 4).

b. Things which are true by definition (all bachelors are unmarried).

c. Self-evident truths (such as “I think therefore I am” or “God exists”).

2. Innate Ideas – “Some ideas are present from birth”. Amongst those ideas which do
not require the proof or suggestion of sense experience are concepts which are present
from birth. These ideas – which are called innate – can theoretically be discovered or
‘brought out’ (the original meaning of the word “education”) from within the mind of
each individual. So, for example, one of Descartes’ arguments for the existence of
God is that the idea is present in the mind from birth, left there almost as if an artist
had signed his work or left a trademark.

3. Logical Necessity – “Some things cannot be conceived of as otherwise”. Another

important idea for rationalists is that of necessity. Although we may use the word
every day, the rationalists actually meant something very specific by it. So, for
instance, we might say something like, “In order to pass your exams you have to study
hard”. However, in reality, there are lots of ways you might pass your exams: you
may have a natural talent for learning so that you don’t have to work hard (it just
sticks); you may be lucky; you may bribe an examiner – or cheat. However, if we
were to say something like, “In order to have 3 things you have to have more than 2
things,” then we are approaching more what the rationalists meant by the term. To
distinguish between these two uses, philosophers generally call the first sort – passing
your exams – “empirical necessity” (it could be otherwise); the latter sort (having 4
things) is called a logical necessity or logical truth. So, if we can prove that something
is true because “it could not be otherwise”, then we have achieved logical necessity
and an absolute degree of certainty. The goal for rationalists was therefore to find

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those “logical necessities” which would help us find certainty in the world and answer
those difficult moral, religious and metaphysical questions that interest us so much.

We will now look at each of these in turn in more detail.

A Priori Knowledge
As we have already seen, the term a priori refers to knowledge which we can claim
independent of experience. So, that Dave likes red wine is not an a priori truth – even if it is
true – because we can never know the truth of the statement without asking Dave. Because of
this, such knowledge is termed a posteriori – Latin, “after” – because if comes after or
follows from experience.

However, a posteriori knowledge is not as reliable as a priori knowledge. It is not, as

philosophers say, “true in all possible worlds”. In other words, the Dave I know may like red
wine, but the Dave you know may be teetotal. Furthermore, the Dave I know may eventually
give up drinking altogether. A priori knowledge, however, is absolute. If I say that something
is absolutely true, then there is no possible situation in which it can be false.


Given the above definitions, which of the following statements would you say are a priori. To
help yourself, ask the question, “Could it be any other way?” If the answer is yes, then it is
not a priori.

Statement A priori?

I have a body

27 + 25 = 52

Internal angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees

There is a God

There is no God

What goes up must come down

Every event has a cause

Time is linear

Every cloud has a silver lining

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I am a thinking thing

Innate Ideas

To say that an idea is a priori is simply to say that we don’t need experience to settle whether
it is true or not. So, to know that “All bachelors are unmarried” is true, I don’t need to go out
and count how many bachelors are actually single. This is because to be a bachelor is to be
unmarried. However, to find out whether “All bachelors are called Kevin” is true, I would
need to go and find out by asking them or conducting a survey.

In this sense, innate ideas are a type of a priori knowledge. To know that they are true, we do
not need to conduct a survey, perform an experiment, etc. – they are just true. However,
although an innate idea is a form of a priori knowledge, not all a priori knowledge is innate.
This is because an innate idea is present from birth. So, although things which are present
from birth are true independent of experience (because when we are born we haven’t had
any), things which are true independent of experience are not necessarily present from birth.

A good way to illustrate this is to point out that empiricists do not deny the existence of a
priori knowledge, but they do deny the existence of innate ideas. The reason for this is that
empiricists consider the mind to be a blank slate. That is, that when we are born our minds are
clear of any ideas or impressions. However, as we have seen, a priori knowledge also
includes such things as mathematical truths (2 + 2 = 4) and things which are true by definition
(all bachelors are unmarried). So, we can deny the possibility of innate ideas without having
to deny that some things are true independent – or prior to – experience.

Plato and the Slave Boy

One of the first philosophers to hold the theory of innate ideas was the Greek philosopher
Plato. In the Meno, Plato imagines an uneducated slave boy who cannot be assumed to have
any knowledge of mathematics. However, by a process of questioning, Plato shows that the
boy is capable of arriving at mathematical truths (in this case, the area of a square).

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For Plato, all knowledge was merely memory. This was because he held a belief in
reincarnation and believed that the soul, before it is reborn, is in touch with the divine source
of all knowledge. Then, once it is born, it forgets not only its previous lives but also the
knowledge that it once had. However, by a process of education and prompting, the person
can be encouraged to remember that knowledge.

Descartes and the Trademark Argument

As mentioned earlier, Descartes also believed in innate ideas, one example of which is his
trademark argument for the existence of God. Just to remind you, the trademark argument
attempts to show that God must exist because I have an idea of him. Therefore, this idea must
have been placed there by God Himself as a sort of signature or trademark left by the maker.

The question here, obviously, is if there is any other possible source of the idea of God.
Descartes argues no, suggesting that the idea of an infinite being – such as God is – cannot
have arisen from a finite being – such as Descartes is. Furthermore, since – as Descartes puts
it – “a cause must have as much reality as its effect” – whatever has produced this idea must
share in some way in the quality of the idea. In other words, when we see an effect, we would
expect the cause to be something capable of producing it. So, if a wall displays a bullet hole,
then we would expect the gun which produced it to be powerful enough to make that hole in
the wall. In a similar way, Descartes relies on the idea that infinity (something without end,
immeasurable) cannot come from something finite (something with an end, measurable).
Therefore, God must have been the source of the idea and so He must exist.


You have been presented here with two examples of innate ideas. How convincing are they?
What – if any – are their weaknesses? Might they have similar weaknesses? As an exercise,
note down what you think are the strong and weak points of each argument. If there is a
weakness in one or both of the arguments, could you think of any way in which the argument
might be rescued by being rephrased or changed? Do this for both arguments (use the box
below for notes).

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Argument 1:

Argument 2:

Empirical and Logical Truths

We looked briefly earlier at the different types of truth. These are of two main types:
empirical and logical. The first type - empirical truth - deals with things that might have been
otherwise. So, the United Kingdom has a flag made up of red, white and blue – but it might
easily have been red, white and green. So, an empirical truth is therefore called contingent.
This simply means that it is dependent on other things and could change. Perhaps another

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point worth making here is that empirical truths do frequently change. A sort of pre-historic
duck which was thought to be extinct, for instance, turns out to be thriving in a remote part of
the Congo. Similarly, something which is empirically false may turn out to be true one day (or
might possibly have been true if things had happened differently). As such, empirical truths
are less certain.

Logical truths, however, are necessary. This means that there is no possible way that they
could have been otherwise. So, that black is the colour of mourning in western countries
might have been different (as it is in China, where they wear white); but that black is white, is
something that could never be possible. Similarly, that black is black (called in philosophy,
“the law of identity”), is an absolute certainty.

Here is a simple table to help you remember:

Type of Truth Degree of Meaning Example


Logically True Necessary Could not have been Up is not down

otherwise (absolutely

Logically False Necessary Could never have been Left is right

true (impossible)

Empirically True Contingent Happens to be true (could Most humans have two
have been otherwise) legs

Empirically False Contingent Happens to be false Humans can breathe

(could have been true) underwater unaided

Now, to get this straight in your head, move on to the next page and do the exercise there.


This exercise is a little bit tricky, so you should spend some time on it.

(a) First of all, you need to decide for each of the statements whether they are true or not.
If it is, simply write “true” in the right hand part of the “Type of statement” column;
if you think it’s false, write “false”. If you don’t like the way a statement is written –

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perhaps you think it’s ambiguous - you may change it to something that you think it is
easier to call “true” or “false”. Once you’ve done this for all of them, go on to part

(b) Now, go back through each of the “true” statements and for each of them ask the
question, “Could it possibly have happened any other way?” If the answer is yes, then
it is an empirical truth – so write “empirically” to the left of the word “true” that you
had written before (so it now reads “empirically true”). If the answer is no, then write
the word “logically true”. Do this for all the true statements and move on to part (c).

(c) Next, go through all the statements which you thought were false. Now, for each of
these, ask the question “Is it possible that this might have been true (in another world,
perhaps)?” If the answer is yes, then the statement is simply “empirically false”;
otherwise, if no, it is “logically false” (philosophers would say, “false in all possible

To help you I have done the first one for you. It happens to be true (as far as we know) that
there is no life on the moon. However, it could have been otherwise, so it is an empirical and
not a logical truth.

Statement Type of statement

There is no life on the moon Empirically true

All cows eat grass Empirically true

All humans are mortal Empirically true

Some pigs can fly Empirically false

Children are younger than their parents Logically true

The rain in Spain stays mainly in the

Empirically true or false

Dave likes red wine Empirically true or false

2+2=5 Logically false

The Sun is round Empirically true

God is good Logically true

The devil is good Logically false

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Foundationalism and the Cogito

As we have seen, the rationalists were primarily interested in logically necessary truths. But
why was this? Well, if you think back to some of the problems we looked at in regard to
scepticism, you will remember that the extreme sceptic thought that it was possible to doubt
everything. Now, if this is the case, then even the most every day-type bits of knowledge
become uncertain. So, to avoid this, the rationalists tried to find knowledge which was beyond

However, up until the 17th century, no one had ever really done this in a systematic way.
There had been discussion of scepticism and what it was and wasn’t possible to know, but
there had been no real attempt to answer the question, “What is there which is beyond

This all changed with the work of the French philosopher, Rene Descartes, and his
Meditations on the First Philosophy (1641). In it, rather than asking the question, “What can
we know?”, instead asked, “What is it possible to doubt?” In doing this, he established what
he called his “method of doubt” in order to arrive at something indubitable (that is, beyond

It was his hope that, once arrived at, this indubitable truth would act as a foundation for all
other knowledge. This approach to knowledge is therefore known as Foundationalism, and
can be likened to an upside-down pyramid with the single stone acting as a foundation or
basis for all the others.

What, then, in Descartes’ case, what was this single stone, this single indubitable truth? In the
second of the Meditations, Descartes has reached a point where he can conceivably doubt
everything. His senses cannot be trusted, he may be dreaming – he may even be unwittingly
deceived by some evil and all-powerful demon. However, he concludes that, even if he is
deceived, dreaming or mistaken, he cannot be deceived about the following facts:

1. That he is thinking.

2. That this seems to be his essential activity.

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3. That he, as a thinking thing, exists.

In another work, he sums this up in the famous Latin phrase, “Cogito Ergo Sum”, meaning, “I
think, therefore I am”. For this reason, this argument is often known simply as the Cogito. In
his foundationalist system, the cogito therefore acts as the fundamental basis of all other
knowledge. All other things, he argues, I may doubt; but that I exist, that I am a thinking
thing, I cannot. From here, he attempts to build up proofs and certainties with which to
guarantee the information received through the senses and so defeat scepticism.


What do you think of Descartes’ cogito. Do you agree with it? Is it absolutely certain, or are
there flaws in it?

Clear and Distinct Ideas

We have now seen what the Rationalists considered to be the most certain truths and why. But
what is it that is supposed to give such ideas their certainty? It may seem ludicrous to question
why it is that we believe that 2 + 2 = 4, or that "Black is not white", but if we are trying to
find reasons for knowledge (as the Rationalists are), we may feel entitled to ask this question.
You may recall that one category of a priori knowledge which the rationalists held was that of
self-evident truths. Rationalists like Descartes were well aware that there was a need to find
some criteria for establishing what exactly makes a truth self-evident. Well, the answer
Descartes gives relies on what he calls the clarity and distinctness of an idea. What does he
mean? What he says can be summarised as follows:

a) An idea is clear if we cannot help taking notice of it. Examples of this would be strong
physical sensations, such as pain, or thoughts, such as the desire for something.

b) An idea is distinct if it cannot possibly be confused with anything else. Some ideas, such
as toothache, are clear (we must take notice of it), but indistinct (we may be unsure of exactly
where the pain is).

Descartes also claimed that an idea could be clear without being distinct, but could not be
distinct without first being clear. This is because if an idea were distinct enough not to be
confusable with other ideas, this would also single it out so that we could not help but be
aware of it.


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1. Look at the following list of ideas/feelings and see which of them (if any) you think
are clear and distinct. Whilst you do this, note down exactly what you think is
clear/unclear and distinct/indistinct about them. I have done the first one for you.

Idea/Feeling Is it clear? Is it distinct?

Toothache Yes. I am clearly aware of it and Not really. I may feel the pain to be
can’t deny it. in another area than it’s actually in,
or all over the side of my face.

A ghost

The number 5



2. Given your experiences in part 1. of this exercise, what do you think are some of the
difficulties involved in using the clarity and distinctness of its idea as a guide to its
truth? Did you find it an easy and straight forward thing to do?


In this unit we have looked at one of the main approaches to knowledge – Rationalism – and
outlined some technical concepts which are generally useful in discussing philosophy.
However, don’t be put off by all the strange terms – all subjects have them. It is not necessary
to memorise them at this stage, and the ideas that they represent will come up throughout the

We have also looked briefly at some of Descartes’ philosophy. We will look more closely at
this later on, but for next we are going to look at the other main approach to knowledge:

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1. To help with the unfamiliar terms that you will come across as you study the course, I think
it would be a good idea if you created your own glossary of terms. All that this means is when
you come across a new term that you are unfamiliar with simply write it down, together with
its meaning. This will be more and more useful as we progress through the course and more
new terms arise. What I suggest is that you get hold of a small notebook – or even an A4 pad
with a ringbinder – and start a page for the first letter of each new term as they arise. If
possible, give a simple definition (in your own words) and an illustration or example. So, for
instance, typical entries might go something like this:

a priori – Knowledge which has no need to be tested in order to be true. Example: “Black is
not white”

Argument from illusion – the idea that our senses do not allow us to see the world as it
really is and even sometimes deceive us. Example: A mirage.

2. If you have not already done so, get hold of a copy of Descartes’ Meditations and read the
first two Meditations. There should be a copy in the Learning Centre.

There are also notes and commentary on the whole Meditations here.

Biographies of the Main Rationalists

Rationalism existed as a movement during the 17th and 18th centuries. The main three names
usually mentioned in connection with it are:

 René Descartes

 Baruch Spinoza

 Godfried Willhelm Leibniz

René Descartes

The French philosopher Descartes (1596-1650) is considered the father of modern

philosophy. His main work, The Meditations, represents his attempt to establish a firm

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rational foundation for knowledge. To do this Descartes employed a method of doubt,
whereby everything that he believed was called into question. Through this method Descartes
claimed to have discovered the only undeniable truth: "I think, therefore I am". This allowed
him, by combining this with other arguments - such as that for the existence of God, to
guarantee that certain types of knowledge gained in certain ways were certain.

He is also famous for his views on mind and body, whereby he claims that the two are distinct
and of different natures (this is called Cartesian Dualism).

Principal works: Discourse on Method; Meditations on the First Philosophy; Passions of the
Soul; Principles of Philosophy.

Baruch Spinoza
The Dutch philosopher Spinoza (1632-1677), influenced by Descartes, developed a system
within which he considered the problems involved in Descartes' philosophy could be
overcome. For Spinoza, God was the identical with the world, leading many to view him as a
pantheist (someone who believes that God is nature).

Spinoza's solution to the mind-body problem was to argue that mental and physical substance
were in fact modes of the same substance (i.e. God). In this sense, he was a monist (someone
who believes in one substance) as opposed to a dualist like Descartes (someone who believes
in two).

Principal works: Short Treatise Concerning God, Man and His Happiness; Theological-
Political Treatise; Ethics Demonstrated Through the Method of Geometry (more commonly
called simply the Ethics).

Godfried Willhelm Leibniz

The German philosopher Leibniz (1646-1716) opposed both Descartes and Spinoza by
arguing that the world was composed of an infinite number of substances (instead of one or
two) which he called Monads. Leibniz's main contribution to philosophy is his idea that we
live in the best of all possible worlds. This is an attempt to reconcile the idea that everything
is pre-determined from the beginning of time by God, but also that human beings have free
will. He held this position by arguing that although it was possible that the world could be
different, it was not actually the case.

Leibniz also contributed to mathematics and is credited with the invention of the infinitesimal

Principal works: Theodicy; Discourse on Metaphysics; The New System of Nature; New
Essays Concerning Human Understanding; Monadology.

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Whilst many philosophers were interested in science and its ability to discover
and evolve new ideas, not all of them shared the Rationalist’s approach to
knowledge. The Rationalist’s faith in necessity, reason and innate ideas was
attacked by Empiricist philosophers who believed that the main source of
knowledge was the senses.

The English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) was

not alone in considering that the mind is “white paper,
void of all characters, without any ideas”. This idea can
be traced back to Aristotle, the pupil of the Greek
philosopher Plato, who said: “There is nothing in the
mind except what was first in the senses.”

The Main Empiricists

Apart from Locke, the other main philosophers who are

generally termed Empiricists are:

Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1783). An Irish philosopher and clergyman, he is

considered the founder of Idealism, a view which sees ideas as the only reality.

David Hume (1711-1776). A Scottish philosopher and modern sceptic who was to
influence the twentieth century movement of Logical Positivism (among others).

Though these three philosophers differed in the actual details of their

philosophies, they were all pretty much in agreement in their opposition to the
principles of Rationalism. We will now deal with these one by one.

Innate Ideas

The notion of innate ideas, as we have already seen, presupposes that certain
knowledge is present from birth. This is different to saying that some types of
knowledge are a priori (or true by definition). Empiricists would not want to deny,
for example, that “All bachelors are unmarried” is a truth independent of
experience. They would, however, deny that such a truth could be innate.

For the Empiricists, the mind is a Tabula Rasa (which is Latin for “blank slate”).
When we learn or experience things, it is as if the mind is being written on. For
the Rationalists, however, the mind is like a computer: the hardware already has
some functions (innate ideas) before the software (experiences, specific
knowledge) is loaded onto it.


If innate ideas don’t exist, is it possible to learn everything?

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Simple ideas

The Empiricists want to argue that all our ideas come from experience. So, how
do we understand the world? Locke thought that our experiences provided us with
what he termed simple and complex ideas. Simple ideas might include the
redness of a rose, the smell of coffee, the taste of sugar or the sensation of heat.
We thereafter use these ideas as the basis for reflection, combining and
comparing them to form complex ideas in order to understand the world.

An example of this can be seen in the way we might get a better understanding
of heat. I might burn my hand on a flame, but also on an extremely cold piece of
ice. Reflecting on this and other examples I may come to the conclusion that it is
not heat which is solely responsible for burns, but difference in temperature (in
this case, the difference between my hand and the hot and cold things). Thus, the
simple sensations and experiences form the basis for more abstract ideas such as


Pick 3 things (they may be anything - objects, ideas, emotions, etc. – but try and
mix them) and list 3 simple ideas about them (I have done the first two as
examples). Do you reach a point were your simple ideas cannot be any simpler?

Object (Complex Idea) Simple Ideas

A pen Shiny, hard, small

The idea of beauty Proportion, symmetry, pleasure

Primary and Secondary Qualities

If we reject, as the Empiricists do, the idea that all our knowledge comes from
rational principles, we are left with a major question: How can we tell which of
our perceptions are real or true? Locke’s answer is to suggest the existence of
what he calls primary and secondary qualities.

First of all, let us consider an object – a table, for example. Now, Locke’s view is
that certain qualities of the table are primary qualities of the object (such as the
table’s shape and size), but others - secondary qualities - are produced by powers
in the object itself, which act on our senses to produce sensations and
impressions. Such things as colour, taste and temperature are therefore
secondary whilst other primary qualities include number (how many objects there
are) and motion (an object’s speed or movement).

The main thing Locke was trying to do is to limit knowledge to the things that
could be said to be primary qualities. So, as far as the table is concerned, such
things as its size, shape and weight are fixed and measurable. Its colour, on the
other hand, is a matter of subjective opinion.

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Of the simple ideas you listed in the previous example, which are primary and
which are secondary? Go through your lists and mark P or S next to each one.

Empirical Knowledge

Locke considered that knowledge could be of certain types depending on how

ideas could be compared. The idea of black, for instance, could be contrasted with
that of white; other ideas seem to share a common source, such as light and fire,
which quite often go together. These ways of building up information, Locke
thought, are the main means by which we turn simple ideas into complex ones.

But how certain is such knowledge? Locke considered that there are 3 main types
of knowledge:

1. Intuitive. This form of knowledge is the most certain because it seems the
most obvious to us and the most difficult to doubt. This would include such
things as “I have a body”, “Black is not white”, but also – according to Locke –
“God exists”. These, he argues, are so obvious that we accept them
intuitively. (This may also be called a priori knowledge or truth by definition.)

2. Demonstrative. When we begin to put simple ideas together to form complex

ones, we are demonstrating something. So, for example, if I compare the
heat of the Sun with the heat of a fire, I may demonstrate that they are both
made of similar substances. (This form of knowledge is less certain because it
may change, therefore it is a posteriori.)

3. Sensitive. This form of knowledge is the most uncertain because it relies

merely on the evidence of the senses. If I look to see how many chairs there
are in another room, I am relying on sensitive knowledge, which – as
Descartes has shown – can, in some cases, be mistaken. (This is also a
posteriori, though the least certain.)

Intuitive Demonstrative Sensitive

“Black is not white” “Sun is similar to fire” “There are ten chairs”

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Locke’s idea of intuitive knowledge (that certain things seem intuitively to be

true) seems very similar to Descartes’ concept of clear and distinct ideas. Do
you think that Locke is any more successful in presenting an account of how
we may be certain?

Berkley and Idealism

Locke’s concept of primary and secondary

qualities, whilst intended to help us make
sense of the limits of knowledge, also had an
unintended use. Locke had argued that some
of the information which we receive through
our senses is subjective and should not be
trusted (secondary qualities), whilst other
information could be considered objective and
constituted reliable knowledge (primary

From Locke’s point of view, the thing that

possessed these different qualities – the
substance – could never really be known in
itself. If, for example, we consider once again
the example of the table, we can be aware of
such things as its colour or texture (secondary
qualities) or its shape and size (primary
qualities). But we cannot know the thing itself
because everything we experience about the
table will come under one of these two categories.

The Irish philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1783), pointed out that if all we
ever see are primary or secondary qualities, how do we know that substance
really exists? In other words, there may be no such thing as matter. This view
is called Idealism.

Berkeley’s Criticism of Locke

Berkeley considered Locke and other philosophers to have opened the door to
atheism and scepticism by this view of knowledge. In an attempt to defend
faith in God and knowledge from such attacks, Berkeley attempted to show
that, rather than sensations of objects arising from powers in the object itself
(as Locke thought), the experiences were actually in the perceiver (us).

What this means is that the object does not need to possess any powers with
which it produces effects on our senses, because the object does not exist
apart from our perception of it. This allows Berkeley to deny the sceptical
argument that we do not see objects as they really are.

Berkeley’s View of Reality

Perceiver Perception Object

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Arguments for Idealism

The main arguments for Idealism are based on the idea that our perceptions
of objects are in us. In other words, when we say that an object is red its
redness is part of our perception of it, not in the object or - as Locke argues -
an effect of some power of redness in the object.

So what arguments does Berkeley use? First he attacks the idea that
secondary qualities can exist in the object:

1. Sensation. When you put your hand in cold water, the temperature
feels different depending on the temperature of your hand. If your
hand is hot, the water will feel colder; if your hand is cold, the water
will feel warmer. The water cannot be hot and cold at the same time.
Therefore the perception of temperature must be in the perceiver.

2. Taste. If a taste is pleasurable, such as the sweetness of sugar, how

can we say that pleasure exists in the object itself (the sugar)? This
would be to ascribe feeling to an inanimate substance - which would be
ridiculous. Therefore, since we cannot separate the taste of sweetness
from our pleasure, both must exist in the perceiver and not in the
object (the same obviously goes for displeasure).

Next he tries to show that some perceptions are relative, attacking both
primary and secondary qualities:

3. Colour. If two people see the same object from different perspectives,
one might think it was a different colour to the other. Both colours
cannot exist in the object at the same time, so the colour must exist in
the perceiver and not in the object.

4. Speed. If I am standing still and I see a train passing, the people on

that train are moving at a certain speed, but to each other they appear
to be sitting still. If speed exists in the object, how can the people on
the train be both moving and at rest? The answer must be that the
quality exists in the perceiver.

Finally, Berkeley tries to show that there is no difference between real and
apparent qualities:

5. The Master Argument. Berkeley's main argument is meant to show that

it is impossible for something to exist without being perceived (or, as he
says, esse est percipi, Latin for "To be is to be perceived"). This means
that if we cannot imagine what the perception of something must be like,
we cannot really say that it exists. Berkeley uses this idea to attack the
notion of substance or matter, for if all the qualities that we ascribe to it
are either primary or secondary qualities, can we actually say that the
substance itself exists?


Think about what problems there might be with this. Briefly outline:

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1. What might this view mean for science?
2. How it might be possible to verify our perceptions?
3. Is it possible to prove or disprove Berkeley’s argument?


The Scottish Philosopher David Hume (1711-76) is
widely known for his sceptical attitudes to certain
types of knowledge. As with the other Empiricists,
Hume disagreed with such philosophers as
Descartes that the mind contained innate ideas. He
also criticised the idea that we could be certain
about anything outside of our experience or the true
nature of the world.

Hume’s Fork

Hume divided knowledge into what he termed

“relations of ideas” and “matters of fact”. Relations
of ideas are what we have been calling analytic truths or a priori knowledge.
These are such things as “All bachelors are unmarried”, “2 + 2 = 4”, etc. These
are certain in as much as we cannot conceive of them being otherwise. Matters of
fact, however, can be falsified. I may say, “The sun will rise tomorrow” (which is
extremely likely) – but is not impossible that it will not.

Ideas and Impressions

For Hume, ideas are simply weaker versions of sense impressions. So, for
instance, an idea of the Sun is not as vivid as actually looking at the thing itself.
Furthermore, nothing can exist in the mind without either first being experienced
or formed through the combination of other experiences.


How might Hume account for the following ideas?

1. A mermaid
2. A golden mountain
3. Heaven


The Rationalists argued that there was such a thing as “necessary connection”.
We looked at the idea of necessity earlier and saw how it was meant to show that
certain things were the case because mathematical or logical principles meant
that they could not be otherwise.

However, Hume argued that all our knowledge of cause and effect came through
habit. So, for instance, if we see the Sun rise it is not because it corresponds to

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some eternal and unchangeable law, but because we have seen it rise countless
times – what he terms, “constant conjunction”. Therefore, the more we have
experienced things, the more certain they will be.


For Hume, cause and effect is nothing more than habitual perception. Are there
any examples that might contradict this? Also, Hume sees miracles as being
unlikely for this exact reason – that they have not been observed often enough.
Can this view be criticised?

Sense Data and Scepticism

In unit 2, we saw that rationalists attempt to overcome sceptical arguments by

appeal to first principles. So, for instance, Descartes attempted to prove the
reliability of the senses (within limits) and the existence of the outside world by
appeal to the idea that God exists, was not a deceiver and that therefore certain
things could be clearly and distinctly perceived.

However, empiricists deny these first principles, arguing instead that such ideas
are either true by definition (all bachelors are unmarried) – and therefore tell us
nothing about the world – or are built up from experience. This seems to leave
the empiricism more open to sceptical attack as there seems to be no way of
guaranteeing the truth of individual perceptions. At least with rationalism there
was an attempt to give certain knowledge a different origin than that of sense
experience. However, since empiricists argue that all knowledge ultimately comes
through the senses, there seems to be a greater possibility of deception. In fact,
the only form of absolute knowledge that they are left with are truths by
definition – which tell us nothing about the world anyway.

In the end, what the empiricist is left with is just “sense data”. In other words,
whilst we cannot be certain that a chair in front of us actually exists or
corresponds to our idea of it, we can at least be certain that we have a certain
sense impression. “Sense data” is therefore a term for everything that we
perceive (philosophers have also used other terms – such as “percepts”, “ideas”
and “impressions”).


In the last two units we have looked at the different approaches to knowledge
and the various arguments involved in attempting to guarantee knowledge. Most
of the philosophers we have looked at have tried to argue that either reason or
experience is responsible for knowledge and are therefore termed either
"Rationalists" or "Empiricists". In the next unit we will look in more detail at
exactly what role perception plays in knowledge. To test your understanding so
far, you will finish this unit by completing the essay assignment below.


Answer the following past paper question below (answer all parts). The deadline
for submission is October 9th 2002. Essays may be handwritten or typed.
Submissions may be via email, post or in person. There is an upper word limit of
2000 words, and a lower limit of 600.

1. Answer each part individually (total marks = 45) :

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a) Explain and briefly illustrate the meaning of a priori and a posteriori
knowledge. (6 marks)

b) Identify and explain two reasons why empiricism may lead to scepticism
concerning the extent of our knowledge. (15 marks)

c) Assess the view that all our concepts are derived from sense experience. (24

Chapter Three
We began TOK (theory of knowledge) by looking at scepticism and problems related
to acquiring knowledge. Following that, we looked at Empiricism, Rationalism and
how knowledge is acquired. Now we are going to look at different theories of

What you see is what you get

In his book, Ways of Seeing, John Berger states the problem of perception nicely:

Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises

before it can speak.

But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before

words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding
world; we explain that world with words, but the words can never
undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between
what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we
see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it.
Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.
(From Ways of Seeing, p.7)

Many artists, writers and thinkers have been concerned with this problem. Berger
cites the Surrealist painter René Magritte’s work as illustrating this.

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As you can see, what we see (a pipe) does not correspond to the meaning of the words
(“this is not a pipe”). Many philosophers have been intrigued by this problem: is what
we see, what we get? Does the world correspond to our experience of it?

Empiricism and Perception

As we saw with Empiricism in the last unit, one of its main problems is how to check
which of our perceptions are true. This problem arises because, for the Empiricist,
only what is experienced is real. Therefore, our knowledge of objects comes not from
mathematical or logical principles – as it does for the Rationalist – but from direct

So, the fact that we know things about objects in the world is primarily because we
have experienced them. All knowledge of physical laws or scientific truths comes
through our observation of things that seem to correspond or validate such knowledge.
This view has given birth to 4 main theories of perception: Naïve Realism,
Representative Realism, Idealism and Phenomenalism.

We shall now look at each of these in turn.

Naïve Realism

First of all let’s look at naïve realism.


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Naïve Realism is the common sense, everyday viewpoint (also called Direct
Realism). Before we go on to look at exactly what it consists of, I want you to put
yourself in the shoes of “the person on the street”. Go through the following list of
questions and note down what sort of assumptions you think the average person has.
Bear in mind that you already have some philosophical training, so try not to be too
controversial – just go for what you think most people believe.

1. Does the world correspond to my perception of it?

2. Is there such a thing as matter and can we know it?
3. How certain are the laws of science and the natural world?
4. Do things that happen when human beings are not around?
5. Do other people see the world in the same way that I do?
6. Are smells, colours, tastes, etc., real? Can others share them?

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The Perceiver and the Perceived

You should now have a list of assumptions that most non-philosophers would agree
to. These things might include such things as: the world exists apart from our
perception of it; physical laws are certain and can be tested; objects continue to exist
when no one is there to perceive them; and so on.

This theory supposes that the process of perception has two main parts: the perceiver
and the thing perceived (the object).

So, when I look at an object – a table, for example – what I see is pretty much what
there is. The table is brown, shiny, has a certain shape, texture, etc. This seems quite
unproblematic. But what if a sceptical sort of person were to say, “You say that the
table is brown, but what about in different light – e.g. electric light as opposed to
daylight”. The sceptic has a point, I think. Can the table be both colours? Obviously
not. So, must we then assume that the table has no colour at all? Or that, what we
think of as real, isn’t so obvious after all?

The sceptic isn’t finished there, though. What about the shape of the table? It seems
square from one angle – straight above – but what about from the side, or some other
angle? Can we then say that the table is square at all? It seems here that we are in a
similar position to that of colour.

A further problem with this viewpoint is that there seems to be no way of

distinguishing between truth and illusion. In other words, whether I am looking at a
real person, or just an illusion (caused by sensory mistake, hallucination, etc.), there is
no way I can tell them apart.

You may notice a trend here: all these arguments have cropped up before in our
discussion of scepticism and the argument from illusion. However, in the case of the
naïve realist’s view of the world, what it actually means is that each of the “common-
sense” perceptions that the person in the street holds about everyday objects can be
questioned. In other words, the break-down of the direct realist’s view has severe
consequences for each of the 6 questions we looked at earlier (“Does the world
correspond to my perception of it?” etc.). So, if we want to be a “naïve” or “direct”
realist, we have problems. Don’t we?

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Imagine this situation: I am making a cup of tea; I go to the sink, fill the kettle, plug it
in and switch it on. I turn around to get some cups, but when I turn back I discover
that the kettle is gone. No one has come into the room – I am alone – and the kettle is
nowhere to be found. Is there any way that the direct theory of perception can help me
understand this situation?

Representative Realism

As you should by now begin to see, the direct or naïve realist has great difficulty in
differentiating between true and false perceptions. This is because the only appeal that
such a view can make is to perception itself. As we saw in the above situation,
perception alone could not help us: the kettle was there, and now it’s gone.

However, naïve realism is still defended by some philosophers on the grounds that the
way in which we see the world includes variation (size, shape, colour, etc.). So,
although a stick appears bent in water, that is how it actually should look. Whilst this
seems a good counter attack to the sceptical arguments, it arguably doesn’t save us
from the problem of telling false from true perceptions.

However, there is another version of realism that deserves some exploration. This is
called Representative or Indirect Realism. This view argues that we experience
reality indirectly by perceptions that represent the real world. So, if we see a brown
table, what we are actually seeing is not the table itself but a representation of it. In
this way, differences of perception which occur due to changes in light conditions,
position of viewer, etc., can be easily explained: it is not the object which is changing,
only the perception of it.

Whereas naïve or direct realism is a two-part theory (perceiver and perceiver),

representative realism has three parts: the perceiver, the perception of the object and
the object itself.

This view has been very popular among philosophers – we have already seen
Descartes, Locke and Hume use versions of it. But will it solve the problems faced by
naïve realism?

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Imagine this situation: A man is standing on the corner of a busy road and witnesses
two cars collide. Neither driver is hurt, but both step out of their cars to inspect the
damage. Driver A is a young mother with a young child in the back of the car; driver
B is a business executive in a hurry; the witness is an old man wearing glasses. As the
two drivers argue about whose fault it was, the old man – let’s call him person C
approaches them and offers to confirm what happened. What does each one see?
Whose is the correct view?

Criticisms of Representative Realism

As you can see, it is difficult to clearly define what a real or objective experience
might consist of because every description is also another viewpoint. This is the same
with anything, from physical objects to ideas. The problem then seems to be that if we
can only ever experience perceptions of objects (what Locke would call secondary
qualities), who is to say that those objects actually exist?

Although this is an extreme point of view, there have been philosophers – such as
Berkeley – who have used this argument to point out the problems with the
representative theory. As you can see, what a representative realist actually sees is not
the object itself, but a representation of it. This representation has been called various
things, but the most usual term is “sense-data”. Representative realism therefore
reduces all knowledge of the world to knowledge of our perceptions.

We are next going to look at how the problems with representative realism gave birth
to something called Idealism.


We have already looked at Idealism briefly in association with empiricism. As we saw

then, the Irish Philosopher George Berkeley has most famously advocated the theory.
The interesting thing about Berkeley’s theory is that it was initially intended as a
counter-argument to sceptical arguments about the existence of the soul.

The thing to remember here is that Berkeley himself was not a sceptic, the main
purpose of his arguments being to show how easily sceptical arguments could be
applied to the existence of physical matter. In this way, Berkeley’s scepticism is very
similar to Hume’s (although Hume’s target was the type of certainty that Rationalism
claimed for itself). Unfortunately, this point is usually forgotten when discussing the

If we refer back to the three-part theory of perception as proposed by such

philosophers as Locke, we can see what Berkeley has done.

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As we saw in our earlier discussion of Berkeley, he takes the three-part model

proposed by Locke and points out that we can never actually experience the object
itself. Is this true? Look at the following arguments for the existence of physical
matter and identify the counter-arguments – if any – that Berkeley might use to
disprove them.

1. We can touch things

2. We can witness other people interacting with things
3. Things behave according to certain laws
4. We can agree with other people about the nature of things

Mental Events

As you can see, it is easy for idealists to argue that our only knowledge of the world
comes through sense experience. Berkeley also argued that it is impossible to think of
something that cannot be imagined, because to conceive of such a thing would be to
imagine it. Therefore, all arguments about the existence of objects can be reduced to
perceptions or assumptions based upon perceptions.

However, the main problem for idealist theories of perception is how to account for
the way in which the world seems to make sense. If we look, once again, at the four
things above which most people would agree with, we could see that idealists are left
with certain options:

1. Our perceptions are all individual and do not completely correspond

2. Our perceptions do correspond (somehow)
3. The world does not exist, only me (a view called Solipsism)

Since few idealists would wish to argue that only "I" exist (no. 3), we are left with
options 1 and 2. Option 1 would entail that our perceptions are all different, but that at
least we perceive something similar.

However, the problem with this is that if our perceptions differ too much from other
people’s we will not be able to interact with the world effectively. I call something
“red”, but actually see what someone else calls green. Unless this was very systematic
(i.e. they always saw green when I saw red, and so on), the world would be in chaos.

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On the other hand, if the disagreement was systematic – aside from the question of
whether this was possible – what would be the difference with saying that our
perceptions actually corresponded?

This leaves us with the final option (no. 2) that our perceptions do correspond to other
people’s. This is the main problem for idealists: if our perceptions correspond, what

As you can see from the above diagram, a world that is full of perceptions is without a
foundation. Idealism does away with this foundation when it rejects the possibility of
experiencing the properties of physical objects.


What further problems does the above diagram suggest about idealism?


We now come to the final theory of perception, that of Phenomenalism. Like

Idealism, Phenomenalism argues that our knowledge about the world comes through
our senses. Furthermore, it also shifts knowledge about the world away from any talk
of “the object itself” and replaces it with our experiences of it.

This is a little bit more difficult to grasp than the previous theories, mainly because it
is a theory of truth and not just an account of perception. We shall look at definitions
of truth, knowledge and belief in the next unit, so we shall only touch upon this theory

Statements about the World

The Phenomenalist view argues that when we talk about a thing – such as a tree – we
are actually talking about our perceptions of it. So, when we say, “The leaves on the
tree are green,” what you are really saying is that you have a certain perception of

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shape and colour that you call a tree. This might seem to be a trifling difference, but
notice that by doing so we are not saying anything about the tree, only our perception
of it. In other words, the phemomenalist agrees with the representative realist that we
may only perceive sense-data; however, the obejcts which produce the impressions on
me exist as “permanent possibilities of sensation” (this last phrase is from the version
of phenomenalism put forward by J. S. Mill – we shall look at another one shortly).

But why would anyone want to do this? The main reason stems from the problems
with the naïve and representative realist theories of perception. As we have already
seen, naïve realism is inadequate - the world is simply not as it appears to be
(viewpoints change, people experience different things, light conditions alter the way
objects appear). However, the idea that all we see are representations of real objects is
equally problematic. As Berkeley pointed out, what is to stop us from simply saying
that the physical objects are not there at all (Idealism)?

So, phenomenalism tries to argue that this confusion stems from the fact that we talk
about things that are "beyond perception". What proof do we have for the existence of
these objects? Instead of thinking of objects as having a substance (which we cannot
see) which then interacts with our senses to give us representations of it, why not
simply assume that our perceptions are the main source of knowledge. In this way, by
talking only about our perception and experience of things, we are not led into saying
things that cannot be backed by the evidence of our senses. From the phenomenalist
point of view, although objects cannot be directly perceived, that is not to say that
they do not exist - rather, they exist as permanent possibilities of sensation.


Which of the following statements would a phenomenalist say could be backed up by


Statement Backed up by Experience?

The tree has green leaves Yes/No
All swans are white Yes/No
2+2=4 Yes/No
Maths is beautiful Yes/No
Shakespeare is a great writer Yes/No

Sense and Nonsense

What do you think? Can all of these statements be backed up by experience? If not,
what status do they then have? Phenomenalists, such as the 20 th century English
philosopher A. J. Ayer, thought that if statements could not be confirmed by some
sense experience then they were literally non-sensical. We shall look at this view in
more detail in the next unit.

Phenomenalism and Scepticism

As well as attempting to limit what knowledge can be obtained and how,

phenomenalism has also been used against scepticism. Both realism and idealism

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were open to sceptical attack - although in different ways. Realism was either seen as
not being able to account for errors (naïve realism) or being open to scepticism about
the existence of objects (representative realism). Idealism, in proposing that
everything is immaterial, has the problem that our perceptions have nothing to refer to
(no physical objects) and therefore cannot be verified.

So how does phenomenalism solve these problems? First of all, phenomenalism does
not say that we experience objects directly (in this way, it is similar to indirect
realism). Rather, objects are "permanent possibilities of sensation". In other words, an
object does not exist unless it is possible to experience it in some way. In this way,
phenomenalism is a form of empiricism - it relies on experience for knowledge.

Problems With Phenomenalism

There are a number of problems with this theory.

First of all, unlike Berkeley, phenomenalists do not want to argue that we live in a
spiritual or mental universe. If you remember, Berkeley had to propose that God was
continously observing everything in the world so that it existed. However, to achieve
a similar thing - without invoking God - the phenomenalist must allow that an object
has the possibility of being perceived (otherwise, if an object is just defined as a
collection of sense-data, if it were not perceived it would not exist). This leaves the
door open for saying that there are possible perceptions of objects which are never
perceived - although they are capable of being so (this is the problem of the tree
which falls in the forest and no-one is around to hear it, so does it make a noise?).
Does this mean that we can't know about them? Would talk about them be nonsense?

Another problem is that talk about sense-data is not the same as the sense impressions
which we commonly refer to. We can say, for example, "I see a red car", but if I say,
"I see red sense-data", it could mean all sorts of things - a red hat, a red ball. This
implies that perceptual knowledge is not as easily categorised as the phenomenalists

Finally, if we do not propose that something exists behind our perceptions, how can
we account for the way the world is? For instance, if physics proposed that the world
was made up of certain particles that were too small to observe, wouldn’t the
phenomenalists view this as non-sensical or metaphycsical? However, what if the
theory worked (it successfully predicted certain events)? It seems that the criteria that
something must be observable in order for us to be able to talk about it is a bit limited.

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In this unit we have looked at the 4 main theories of perception: naïve (direct) realism,
representative (indirect) realism, idealism and phenomenalism. Whereas realism sees
our perception of the world as basically reliable, indirect realism introduces the notion
of “sense-data” to account for the differences in those perceptions. Idealism
concentrates on the idea that we can only really be sure of our perceptions, and
Phenomenalism, whilst not supporting the anti-materialist aspects of idealism,
similarly emphasises experience over conjecture. From this last point of view, we
understand the world by analysing our own perceptions of it, and what this allows us
to say and not say.


Answer the following essay question. Submissions may be via email. Essays may be
handwritten or typed. There is an upper word limit of 2500 words and a lower limit of

1) Answer all parts of the question (total marks available: 45):

a) Briefly explain the view that our senses only inform us about how things seem.
(6 marks)
b) Outline and illustrate two arguments which might be used to support a
representative theory of perception. (15 marks)
c) Assess the case for naïve realism. (24 marks)

Chapter four

Knowledge, belief and truth

Definitions of Truth

In the gospel of John in the New Testament (18:28-40), Jesus is brought up before Pontius
Pilate, the Roman governor of the region. Pilate, a practical and worldly man, is bemused as
to why Jesus has been brought before him: what has he done?

During a brief exchange between Pilate and Jesus, we see two distinct concepts of truth at
work. On the one hand, Jesus has a very firm idea (18:37):

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“You are right in saying I am a king. For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the
world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.

To which Pilate merely replies: “What is truth?” – as if to say, “You think truth exists
independently of everyone as a standard by which we can judge our beliefs?”

This sort of debate has been central to philosophy for centuries. We will now look at different
theories of knowledge, truth and belief.

What is Knowledge?

There are a number of different ways in which the verb ‘to know’ is used. I can know
someone’s voice, a piece of music or my own mind. However, this sort of knowledge seems
less specific than factual knowledge: I can know someone’s voice or face without necessarily
being able to put a name to it; I may change my mind.

Factual knowledge usually entails knowing that something is the case. It is also called
propositional knowledge because it can take the form of a logical proposition. For example,
“Wales’ rugby team is not as good as it once was” proposes a fact. It is something which
might either be true or false.

Knowledge by Description and Acquaintance

Bertrand Russell identified two main types of knowledge: knowledge by description and
knowledge by acquaintance. The second of these we might also call "propositional
knowledge". In other words, I know that something is true (or false). These sorts of statement
can therefore always be phrased in the following way: "I know that X is true" (where X is a
statement such as "John is bald").

The other type of knowledge is different in the sense that it cannot be put into the same sort of
form. For instance, if I say, "I am in pain", it is not the same as knowing some sort of detailed

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medical account of your pain. Similarly, saying "I know how to ride a bike" is not the same as
saying, "I know that to ride a bike you need to push the pedals round and turn the handle
bars". The distinction here is between being acquainted with direct sense experience (pain,
balance and co-ordination, a friend’s face) and inference (“I know the chemical composition
of citric acid”).


Which of these two different types of knowledge – if either – do you feel are less certain?
Does the fact that many statements which claim knowledge by acquaintance cannot be
completely translated into knowledge by description make them less or more certain?

Knowledge and Belief

Although sometimes the words ‘know’ and ‘believe’ are used interchangeably, in a strict
sense they are very different. Probably, no one would criticise you for saying, “I believe it’s
time for us to go” when you actually mean simply, “It’s time for us to go”.

However, belief frequently implies that there is something you are either unsure of or for
which there is insufficient proof. For instance, I might say, “I believe that a European single
currency is a good thing”, or “I believe that Wales will win next Saturday”. These things may
very well be false: the single currency may prove disastrous, and Wales – judging on recent
form – may very well lose.

Knowledge, on the other hand, in its strict sense, only applies to things that are true.
Therefore, it may be inappropriate to say, “I know that Wales will win” or that “I know which
horse will win the 3:30 at Washington”, because there is an element of doubt involved (unless
I have some proven psychic ability, such as Mystic ).


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Try to think of a sentence which meets one of these three categories (belief, knowledge by
acquaintance or knowledge by description) then write it down in the first column of the box
below, labelling the type of knowledge it represents in the next column (go for 2 or 3
examples of each type).

I have put in a few examples of my own to start you off.

Sentence Type of Knowledge

I am in pain. Acquaintance

Paris is the capital of France. Description

Wales will win the Triple Crown this year. Belief

Conditions of Knowledge

The first philosopher to define knowledge was Plato, who stated that for us to say that we
know something:

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1. It must be true.

2. We must actually believe it (it must be consciously held).

3. There must be sufficient evidence for it (it must be justified).

Therefore, we may say that knowledge is ‘true justified belief’.



Believe Justifi
d ed


Using the following table, think of things that fit these criteria in different ways (true but not
justified belief, untrue but justified, etc.). Place a tick under the appropriate column heading
as you go.

Statement True? Justified? Believed?

How does this tripartite (3-part) definition of knowledge hold up? Have you identified any
problems with it? Before going further we need to look at some useful terms.

If and only if

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Like our use of the words ‘knowledge’ and ‘ belief’, the word ‘if’ has different uses.
Sometimes when we use it we only want to convey a loose connection between statements: “I
will come with you to the pictures if you go on Friday”. In this example, the two statements –
your going to the cinema, my coming with you – are not absolutely connected. I may go to the
cinema with you on another evening if you suggest it – in other words, other things are

However, if I say, “I will come with you to the pictures if, and only if, you go on Friday”, I
am excluding other possibilities (such as going on Tuesday). This distinction is important for
philosophers because it allows them to be more precise about the relationship between certain


Indicate which of the following examples of ‘if’ are and which are examples of ‘if and only

Statement If If and Only If

I will die if I stop breathing

I can make a hot cup of tea if I have hot water

I will pass my exams if there is a miracle

If I eat any more I will be sick

Necessary and Sufficient Conditions

When we talk of something being true ‘if and only if’ something else is true, this can happen
in one of two ways. For instance, if we take the example, “I will grow up to be strong and
healthy if I exercise and eat sensibly”, in what way might this be true? Will I be strong and
healthy only from eating sensibly and exercising? Or can these things be achieved in other

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So, in this example:

1. These would be necessary conditions for health if it could not be achieved without them.

2. These would be sufficient conditions for health if that were all that were needed to be
done in order to be healthy.

Another example might be learning to drive. Passing my theory test is a necessary condition
of getting a driving license, but it is not a sufficient condition (you also need to pass your
practical test).


Take the following situations and list both necessary and sufficient conditions for something
to be the case in each of them. The first example is given for you.

Situation Necessary Condition Sufficient Condition

Learning a foreign language Having a source of Learning vocabulary and

vocabulary (foreign language applying it using correct
speaker or dictionary) grammar

Riding a bike

Meeting a friend for a drink

Getting up in the morning at


Making a cake

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Gettier Problems

In 1963, the philosopher Edmund Gettier published an article in the Journal Analysis called
“Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” The article, although quite short, had a profound effect
on epistemology by challenging the long-held traditional definition of knowledge as proposed
by Plato almost two and a half thousand years before.

Gettier’s objections go something like this. Imagine a situation where all the traditional
conditions for knowledge were fulfilled – and yet you could not say that it constituted
knowledge. For instance, take the following situation:

1. Fred believes that Sam is in his room;

2. Fred sees Sam in his room;

3. Sam is in his room.

This fulfils the traditional conditions of knowledge. Sam is in his room, Fred believes that he
is and is justified in doing so by the experience of seeing him there. However, unknown to
Fred, what he sees in Sam’s room is not Sam at all, but his twin brother Tim. However, Sam
is actually in the room but is just out of sight (e.g. he is hiding under the bed).

From this point of view, it would appear that Fred is right, but only by coincidence. Sam is in
the room (albeit under the bed), Fred is justified in believing he is, except that it cannot be
said to be a genuine case for knowledge because Fred is only correct through coincidence.
Does this mean that the tripartite definition of knowledge is incorrect?


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Can you think of any other situations in ordinary life where it might be said that the tripartite
conditions of knowledge were met, and yet you would not say that someone actually had
knowledge? Try to list 3 examples.

Responses to Gettier

There have been 5 main attempts at trying to repair the damage made to the tripartite theory
by introducing another condition to the triangle (making it a square). These are as follows:

1. No False Belief Condition: Beliefs cannot be based on a false belief. This attempt argues
that no knowledge can be claimed if it relies on a false belief. So, in our example, it is
false that Fred is actually looking at Sam.

2. Defeasibility Condition: Something is known as long as there is no evidence to the

contrary. This is a common sense view, argued by Keith Lehrer and Thomas D. Paxson,
which argues that Fred would be perfectly entitled to claim that he knows that Sam is in
the room because he is not aware of anything to the contrary. In other words, there is
nothing to "defeat" the claim - "defeasibility" meaning "capable of being defeated".
Another example would be the flat earth theory, or the concept that the earth was the
centre of the universe. These were once claimed as knowledge by the majority of people –
until further knowledge arrived to prove that a different case is true.

3. Reliability. This theory proposes that justified true belief should be obtained through a
reliable method. Therefore, if I believe that Sam is in the room but I am also aware that
my method of checking is not wholly reliable (or that I am aware that there are more
reliable methods), then I cannot claim knowledge in this instance.

4. Conclusive Reasons Condition: A reason must exist for the belief that would not be true if
the belief itself were false. This was first put forward by Fred Dretske. If, for example, I
believe that there is a chair in front of me, the reason for believing that it is there would
not exist if the belief were false (that is, if the chair were not there).

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5. Causal Connection Condition: There must be a causal connection between the knowledge
and the belief. This argument, first put forward by Alvin Goldman, states that a belief
must have an appropriate connection to the knowledge claimed. In our example, Fred
should not be able to claim that he knows Sam is in the room because there is no
‘appropriate connection’ between his viewing Tim (Sam’s twin brother) and his
conclusion that Sam is in the room.


Are there any problems with any of the above theories? Take each in turn and see if you can
think of how they might be criticised.

Analysis of the Responses

Each of the 5 different responses admits that Gettier has highlighted a problem, and each
seeks to resolve it by adding another condition to knowledge. So, what was a tripartite
division becomes a four –part one. You could also think of this as moving from a triangle to a

Let's now look at each of the responses in turn:

1. No False Belief Condition. This response argues that we cannot be said to know anything
if it is based on a false belief or on a group of beliefs of which one is false. So, in the
example we have been considering, I cannot be said to know that Sam is in the room
because my "knowledge" is based on the false belief that I am seeing Sam (whereas I am
actually seeing Tim). So, adding this as an extra condition seems to work, doesn't it?

The main problem with this theory is that it seems to deny things that we would say that we
know. For instance, I may claim to know a certain piece of information because my friend
Bob told me. However, I might also believe that Bob is trustworthy because he has never lied
to me - which may turn out to be false. In this way, although Bob is not lying in this instance,
my belief that Bob has never lied to me is false. However, is this really a reason not to say
that we don't really know that what Bob has said is true? In this case the rule seems too harsh.
What if I had other information that agreed with what Bob said (so that I have other evidence

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for the truth of the statement)? According to this theory, my false belief that Bob has never
lied to me means that I cannot claim that I know this piece of information.

A comeback to this criticism is to say that only if the false belief is relevant to the knowledge
being claimed does it mean that the claim does not really constitute knowledge. But what if I
hold a belief that relies on something being true even though I do not consciously believe it?
For instance, imagine that I am due to meet Jane at 7pm. Imagine now that Jane's lift lets her
down and she has to catch a bus. Is my belief that I will meet Jane at 7pm a case of
knowledge? I do not consciously hold the belief that she is getting a lift, so I am not wrong
about that. However, can I really say that I know she will be there?

2. The Defeasibility Condition. This response argues that the extra condition should be that
there is no information that would count against the justification. So, in the case of Fred
and Sam, the fact that Tim was in the room should really count against the claim for

However, think of this example:

I think that Jim is at home because he is usually at home at this time. However, unknown to
me, Dave has called Jim to go out to play squash (an offer I know Jim would normally
accept). However, also unknown to me, Jim has just fallen over and sprained his ankle, so he
cannot play.

In this example, can I say that I know Jim is at home? From the point of view of the
defeasibility condition, there exists a fact that if it was true - Dave calls Jim to play squash -
would "defeat" my knowledge that Jim is at home. However, the other fact - Jim has just
sprained his ankle - means that he does not play and is therefore at home.

The problem here seems to be that either I say that I do know that Jim is at home - in which
case we are left with the same problem as earlier examples (it just happens to be true) - or I
have to admit that the simple existence of a fact that would defeat the initial belief is not
enough. In either case the defeasibility condition seems to be problematic.

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3. Reliability. The main problem with this approach lies in what we mean by reliability.
What defines a reliable method? A sceptic would point out that a method that we consider
reliable may still possibly deceive us (this is the problem of induction). Also, we must
consider the possibility of the application of the method - after all, human beings are not
perfect and even a reliable method does not stop people making mistakes.

4. Conclusive Reasons. The main objection to this theory is that it tends to exclude a lot of
things that we would consider knowledge. In other words, true knowledge would be quite
rare if we only ever accepted it when there were conclusive reasons. As we have already
seen, knowledge which excludes all doubt tends to tell us nothing about the world (e.g. all
bachelors are unmarried). On the other hand, knowledge which gives us information
about the world (e.g. all bachelors collect stamps) is always open to doubt. This leaves us
with the problem of defining what exactly a conclusive reason might be.

5. Causal Connection. The final theory proposes that there must be a direct link between my
justification (seeing Sam) and my belief (Sam is in the room). Therefore, Gettier is
answered by arguing that my belief that Sam is in the room is false when it is Tim that I
see, but it would be true if it were Sam.

There are a number of problems with this view, but the most convincing of them involves
inductive arguments. Consider an argument such as "all humans are mortal". What is the
cause of this belief? If it is the fact that individuals die, then this cannot be said to cause the
belief that all people die (so there appears to be no direct link between the facts and the
belief). On the other hand, the fact that humans die – because it is an inductive argument –
cannot be known by me. However, would we really say that we do not know that “all humans
are mortal”? This seems too strict a rule.

Summary of Gettier Problem and Responses.

As you can see, none of the suggested solutions to the Gettier problem are without their faults.
Does this mean that all attempts to define knowledge are fruitless? Whatever the case, it
appears that the tripartite definition offered by Plato is inadequate. However, this may not be
as disastrous as it sounds. As we have seen in looking at Descartes’ attempts at finding an

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absolutely indubitable truth, absolute certainty may be beyond our reach. However, we do
make claims to knowledge everyday and rely on them to go about our daily business. So, is it
that important that we cannot be absolutely certain about anything? If this approach is taken,
we may either say that there is no such thing as knowledge – which seems a very sceptical
position to take – or adopt the position that what we term knowledge may still be open to
doubt. Either way, we may adopt a pragmatic approach that allows us in our day-to-day
activities – or even our scientific endeavours – to still make claims to knowledge.

We will now go on to look at different definitions of truth.


The first theory of truth we are going to look at is called Foundationalism. As the term
implies, this view assumes that certain beliefs act as a foundation for other beliefs. So, for
instance, the statement, “The car is red” is a foundational belief in that it is not based upon
other beliefs, but is a direct experience.

On the other hand, a statement such as, “The Ferrari Testerosa is the fastest road car in the
world” is not foundational in that it rests on other beliefs (such as my trust in second hand
information in magazines, my own knowledge of available cars, etc.). Such a belief is
nonetheless still part of a foundational theory of knowledge.

From this point of view, beliefs are more or less certain according to the extent to which they
can be derived from foundational beliefs. Some beliefs, such as that there is a soul which
survives the death of the body, are very difficult to prove in that they seem very far removed
from direct foundational beliefs (such as that we have a mind).


What beliefs about the objects around you or the situation you are in are foundational, and
what are based upon such beliefs?

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Correspondence Theory

Foundationalism is basically what is termed a correspondence theory of knowledge. This is

because certain beliefs held in the mind are said to correspond – or not – to states of affairs in
the outside world.


The problem with this view is that we have no way of checking our beliefs. In other words, if
I believe that the moon is made of cheese, I can check this against the state of affairs, or ask
an astronaut. However, aren’t these ways of checking reliant upon other foundational beliefs?
What do they in turn rely upon? So, either the fundamental truth is somehow self-evident –
whatever that means – or there is a further supporting truth. And so we are caught in what is
called an ‘infinite regress’ – so called because the reasons which we base our beliefs upon
regress infinitely (in other words, there is never an end to them).

As you may recall from the previous unit, the realist view of perception was open to similar
criticisms. This is because realism implies a correspondence theory of knowledge.

Coherence theory and Idealism

From the above criticisms, it can be seen that the idea that beliefs correspond to states of
affairs is problematic. This is because what we get are not ‘states of affairs’ at all, but only
other perceptions that in turn require foundations. What can they be checked against?

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Idealism, which if you remember argued that our perceptions do not correspond to a separate
reality, argues that there are no foundational beliefs. Rather, our beliefs exist in a network of
interrelated perceptions. From this point of view, no one belief is more important than
another, but throw light upon one another.

There are 3 main problems with this view:

1. If false beliefs outweigh true ones, this would make the incorrect conclusion the correct
one – according to the coherence theory of truth. For instance, if I believe that the 1969
moon landings were faked in a photographic studio, I might be able to back this up with
selective evidence. If I then reach a point where the evidence for this is more than for the
belief that the moon landings took place, I would be forced to conclude that it was the

2. Coherence theory is also circular. If a certain belief is true because it coheres with others,
what do they cohere with? This is another example of an infinite regress. Also, since
coherence theory is not a foundational theory, we cannot appeal to one or a select number
of beliefs over the others, because all beliefs are equal.

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3. What does coherence itself consist of? If someone were to establish criteria for coherence,
this in itself would only be another belief, and so subject to the same criticisms, wouldn’t


A further account of knowledge and truth is provided by reliabilism. This theory supposes
that our main method of justifying our beliefs is to appeal to what has been reliable in the
past. Thus, if I want to prove to someone else that I could speak Russian (and not just some
string of made-up, Russian-sounding words), we could both go to a native Russian speaker or
a lecturer in the languages department at a university who could confirm it. I could also
translate some Russian books or attempt to display my knowledge by answering their

These methods would be acceptable to different degrees depending on how reliable they have
proven to be. For instance, the fact that I can ‘prove’ to a large group of people that I can
make a coin disappear is not very reliable (a fact that stage magicians exploit).

There are two main methods of reliabilist justification: internal and external. External is
obviously the most reliable because it deals with what is apparent to others. So, if I wish to
establish some medical fact, I can visit a doctor, who has established scientific ways and
means of confirming a diagnosis. Alternatively, I can rely on my own internal sensations to
inform me of my own condition (which is obviously not so reliable or open to demonstration).

Problems with Reliabilism

The internalist form of reliabilism seems to be circular. How do we know that the methods we
use to establish that something is true are really reliable? What method do I use to check that
the means for establishing whether the reliable method is reliable is itself reliable? And so on.

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The externalist form is open to the criticism that just because a method – such as use of a
thermometer - gives us a reliable response, this does not mean that the response is true. So, a
computer with a bug in it might always provide the same response to a particular question, but
that would not be the correct one.


Can you think of any other criticisms of reliabilism? Is it better as a theory of truth than the
others already discussed? Are there any counter arguments that a reliabilist could use?


The last theory we are going to look at is Phenomenalism. We looked briefly at this in the last
unit and, as you may recall, the theory proposes that we cannot experience anything beyond
the phenomena of our perceptions. This view, similar to Idealism, states that the real objects
of experience are beyond us, and that we cannot experience them directly.

The most well known form of Phenomenalism is that proposed by the English philosopher A.
J. Ayer and the movement known as Logical Positivism. From Ayer’s viewpoint, a
proposition is true only if some experience can verify it. So, the statement that the Amazon is
the longest river in the world may be measured by looking at satellite photographs of all the
world’s rivers. However, the statement that “I can turn invisible but only when I close my
eyes, no one is looking and there are no cameras, etc.” is considered by Ayer to be nonsense
because there is no possible way that anyone – even the ‘invisible man’ himself – can verify
it. This is called the Verification Principle.

For Phenomenalists, all statements about the world are actually statements about sense
experience – whether actual or possible. So, although we may not currently be able to prove
that there has been life on Mars, it may in future be possible to do so. In this sense, whereas
Idealists considered material objects not to exist, Phenomenalists consider them ‘permanent
possibilities of experience’.

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Problems with Phenomenalism

Phenomenalism as a theory of truth is a form of reliabilism. What can be justified – or

verified – has meaning, what cannot be – at least potentially - is nonsense. The methods used
to verify statements are traditional empirical and scientific ones – i.e. the senses plus scientific
equipment. As such, it is open to some of the same criticisms as reliabilism itself.

However, perhaps the main problem with the approach is that the verification principle itself
is too vague. How is a statement verified?

Maths and logic are also problematic for this theory in that they are truths that seem to be
independent of sensory verification. Ayer’s answer to this was to consider them conventions
of language. Similarly, all ethical and aesthetic statements were held to be neither true nor
false because they could not be verified.

Ironically, one criticism points out that the verification principle itself is not – by its own
criteria - meaningful. For, it is not an analytic truth (a ‘convention of language’) and neither is
there any possible or actual sense experience that could be said to verify it.


This unit has looked at various approaches to the definition of knowledge and truth. It has
also distinguished between two types of knowledge – by acquaintance and by description –
and distinguished between knowledge and belief. We also looked at the tripartite definition of
knowledge introduced by Plato, considered objections to this – so-called Gettier problems –
and then critically examined attempted solutions. We then looked at Foundationalism and
considered the Correspondence theory of truth which it implied. Problems with this lead us to
look at Idealism and the Coherence theory of truth. Finally, we looked at Phenomenalism and
the Reliabilist theory of truth.

This ends the Theory of Knowledge. Before moving on to the next chapter, complete the
following assignment.

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Assignment 5: chapter 4 - Definition of Knowledge

Answer the following past paper question below (answer all parts). Essays may be
handwritten or typed. Submissions may be via email, post or in person. There is an upper
word limit of 2000 words, and a lower limit of 600.

Total 45marks.

1. Identify and illustrate two ways in which beliefs may be justified. (6 marks)

2. Outline and illustrate the role of justification in distinguishing between knowledge and true
belief. (15 marks)

3. Assess the view that knowledge is true justified belief. (24 marks)

Chapter five

We have all had the experience of being unsure or mistaken about something: you
mistake someone's voice on the phone for someone else's; you wonder whether you've
locked the door after you've left the house; you think it's Tuesday when it is actually
Wednesday. These sorts of situation are common and do not tend to cause most
people any great deal of anxiety - we simply accept them as normal incidents. But
what if we were mistaken all the time? Is this possible?

From the very first beginnings of philosophy in ancient Greece, philosophers have
been discussing this question. On one side of the discussion are the Sceptics who
argue that it is impossible to be certain about anything. They point to similar examples
as the ones I have given above, arguing that if we can be deceived about such simple
things, who is to say that we are not mistaken more often than we think? (See
Appendix for a brief history of scepticism)

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On the other side of the discussion are the various groups of philosophers who have
tried to prove that certainty is possible. These attempts have given birth to various
theories of what knowledge is, how it can be guaranteed, etc., and the proper name for
this aspect of philosophy is Epistemology (from the Greek episteme, meaning
'knowledge', and logos, meaning 'study of' or 'talk about').

What Will We Be Studying?

In the following sections we will look at many of the main issues and problems in
TOK and we will consider how philosophers over the ages have attempted to answer
them. Throughout our survey we will always try and relate these problems to
everyday life so as to make the ideas more real. Although this will sometimes be
difficult or not always possible, most of the time it will allow us to clarify and
understand the theories better.

Some of the main issues we will be covering are:

· What possible reasons might make us doubt our knowledge?

· Is it possible to justify our knowledge with experience or rational proof?
· What is knowledge? Can it be defined?
· By what means do we come to know the world?

At the end of each section there will be an assignment or questions to help you work
through the ideas for yourself. Sometimes this will involve you doing some research
and extra reading using the Internet, journals or books; sometimes it may involve
making notes or answering questions on a video you have been asked to watch;
sometimes it may involve simply sitting down and trying to question your own
experience so that you can establish your own viewpoint.

There are many points in our daily life where we might be mistaken about things or
have cause to doubt them. As an exercise, I want you to think about the types of
mistake that are possible and what that mistake is due to. So, for instance, I might
think that today is Tuesday, when it is actually Thursday, which I could consider a
lapse of memory. Set your answers out in a table like this:

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Mistake Reason
Thinking it is Tuesday not Thursday Lapse of Memory
Mathematical mistake (42 + 59 = 111) Faulty Reasoning

Try and cover as many different types of mistake as you can think of (there is no need
to list more than one example for each type - confusing Tuesday and Thursday is an
example of faulty memory, so there is no need to list other examples).

Once you have done this, turn the page.

The Sources of Knowledge

Now, look through your list. How does it compare to mine?

Mistake Reason
Thinking it is Tuesday not Thursday Lapse of Memory
Mathematical mistake (42 + 59 = 111) Faulty Reasoning
Mistook a flying paper bag for a bird Visual hallucination
Thought I heard the doorbell ring Auditory hallucination
Thought I smelt burning Olfactory hallucination
Felt as if something was crawling up my arm Tactile hallucination
Dreamed that I won the lottery Dream (sleeping hallucination)
Accepted that Father Christmas is real False trust
Thought that Canada was a continent Misheard, confused, misinformed
Feeling of familiarity in unfamiliar place Déjà vu (false internal conviction)

Do you have any that aren't on my list? Or have you missed out some that I have
mentioned? Of course, the reasons for the different types of mistake might be
different to the answers I have given. Some might argue that Déjà vu, for instance, is a
form of ESP (Extra Sensory Perception, or psychic ability), or even evidence of
reincarnation or past life memories.

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From the point of view of the sceptic, the reason for the mistake is not so important as
the fact that the mistake itself is possible. Looking down the list you may also note
that most of the errors listed are due to some limitation in our sensory apparatus (our
eyes, ears, etc.). This is not really surprising in that almost all of our knowledge -
arguably - comes through them at one time or another.

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The arguments from illusion and deception

Most people don't really question their senses, but most people are also familiar with
the types of mistake reported above. Why, then, aren't we more sceptical of the
information coming through our senses?

For convenience, we can categorise the type of error under four main headings:

1. Optical illusions

These are traditional examples of diagrams, pictures, models, etc., which seem to
provide odd effects on the senses. Look at the following pictures and note what you
think this could tell us about our senses:

(a) The Grid

Stare at the grid below for a few seconds. Can you notice anything strange

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(b) Sloping lines
Look at the picture below of sloping lines. Or are they?

(c) Ascending and descending

Are the monks walking up or down?

(d) Old or young woman?

Can you see more than one face here?

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2. Delusions, waking dreams and visions.

There is, as you might guess, a great deal of debate as to whether visions - in the
religious sense - actually exist. However, setting this issue aside for the moment, it is
possible to classify certain experiences as delusional. For example, someone who is
running a fever, has suddenly woken from a deep sleep, is exhausted through hunger
or fatigue, or even under extreme stress, may hallucinate.

We may also include here certain types of mental illness where voices are heard or
things projected out onto the outside world so that they appear as real (whatever that
is! We shall come back to this later). However, the main thing to notice here is that
the mind is capable of producing illusions under certain circumstances.

3. Natural illusions

The types of thing included here would be such things as: moisture rising from the
ground appearing as a pool of water (a mirage); the light of a star that has by now died
but can still be seen; a stick in water that looks bent; the way the moon looks bigger
nearer to the horizon.

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These, and other examples, are often cited as proof that the senses cannot in
themselves be trusted. As with the optical illusions (above), there seems to be a
natural tendency to misinterpret, or provide misleading information regarding certain

4. Relative or subjective sensations

Hot water to a cold hand can feel hotter than to a warm hand - and vice versa. Also,
people who have had a limb amputated sometimes still have sensations where the
limb was. Experiences of this type suggest that even something as fundamental as our
bodily sensations can be mistaken.

This is an especially strong point for the sceptic because our sense of touch is very
often seen as being the most reliable, the thing most capable of giving us proof. If we
can touch or feel something we are more likely to accept it as real than if we have
merely seen it.

How far can Scepticism go?

So far we have considered ordinary doubts that people may suffer from in the course
of their everyday existence. However, we now come to the thorny question of to what
extent it is possible for there to be such a thing as "global" scepticism - that is, doubt
about everything which we experience.

To illustrate this it is necessary to distinguish between ordinary doubt and what is

called "philosophical doubt". We all experience ordinary doubt: "Did I leave the iron
on?", "Is Jim in a mood with me?", etc. These doubts are doubts about facts. If I go
back home, I can check if the iron is still on; if I talk to Jim, I may find out if I have
done something to offend him.

Philosophical doubts are different. In the above situations, examples of philosophical

doubts would be: is it possible to really tell if the iron is on; can I really find out if Jim
is angry with me - or even more radically, if Jim is actually there (and not some
figment of my imagination - or a robot!).

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Type of Doubt Example
Local scepticism (also called "ordinary
Is that a bird or a plane?
Global scepticism (also called
Are my senses mistaken all the time?
"philosophical doubt")

Before moving on, have a think about this difference and try to get it clear in your
head. Ordinary doubt - or local scepticism - can usually be tested - and even when it
can't, there may well come a time when it can. So, I may currently have doubts about
whether there is life on some distant planet; however, in the future, technology may
eventually allow me to actually find out (the development of a more powerful
telescope, for instance).

However, philosophical doubt - or global scepticism - seems to deny the possibility of

there being any conclusive way of finding out. For instance, if in regard to the
question of life on some other planet someone argued, "We can never really know that
there is not life on another planet because it may be undetectable to us," then that
person is a sceptic.

This sort of doubt is largely responsible for the reputation which philosophy seems to
have in some quarters of being absurd and unrealistic. "Do you think that table is
really there?" the philosopher asks. "You think you are talking to me, but what proof
do you have?" However, the underlying point is a serious one: how can we ever really
know something with absolute certainty? Remember, no matter how certain we are,
there is always room for doubt. Even something like science, which uses experiment
to prove theories, sometimes finds new truths which seem to contradict old ones
(Einstein's theory of Relativity, for example).

In summary, scepticism attacks certain beliefs that most of us hold to be true:

 It is sometimes possible to be certain about something.

 Our senses are mostly trustworthy.
 We can eventually find out whether we have been mistaken or not.
 It is possible to experience reality as it really is.


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Before moving on to the next section, I want you to do two things. Firstly, make a list
of what you think are sceptical arguments (you can base them on the examples I have
already given, but try to think of your own - 3 or 4 should do). Secondly, try to
identify answers that you think a non-sceptic could use to show that these problems
do not exist. Is it possible to do it?

Counter Arguments

So, what would it be like to be completely mistaken about everything? When I see a
mirage I can eventually find out that I was wrong to think there was a pool of water
there. But if I question my ability to check that fact - that is, to put my mistake right -
where does this leave me?

Some philosophers have attempted to argue against this point by pointing out how the
concept of a mistake only makes sense if it is possible to not be mistaken. D. Z.
Phillips, in his book Introducing Philosophy, lists 3 counter arguments to
philosophical doubt:

i. The mistakes we make with regard to the senses seem to take for granted the
accuracy of some of the sensory information. When we see a mirage, we do
not doubt that the ground is there; when we mistake someone's voice on the
phone, we do not doubt that someone is speaking.

ii. Philosophical doubt seems to ignore the fact that these errors form part of
the way we see the world. What would it be like for a straight stick not to
appear bent in water? Or to see clearly in a fog?

iii. Most of the examples given by sceptics involve unfavourable conditions:

tiredness leads to hallucination or a mistake; something is seen fleetingly or at
a distance; a fog obscures our vision. However, when these circumstances
change, we realise our mistake. We rub our eyes, and the illusion disappears.
We go closer, and we see clearly what we could not make out at a distance.
We wait, and the fog lifts.

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Despite these counter-arguments, sceptical arguments persist. In fact, some
philosophers have argued that it is impossible to prove the sceptic wrong, so we
should just accept it - and move on. However, before we do that, we are going to look
at another form of scepticism: the argument from dreaming.

The Argument from dreaming

Most of what we have covered so far has

dealt with the untrustworthiness of the
senses. However, certain philosophers have
taken the problem a stage further by asking
the question, "Is it possible to tell reality
from a dream?"

The basis for this question is simple: when

we dream we often believe that what we are
experiencing is real. So, how can we be sure
that what we are now experiencing is not a
dream of some sort?

The 17th century French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) most famously
asked this question in his Meditations on the First Philosophy . However, the idea
itself is not a new one. Many cultures contain stories and belief systems that portray
life as a dream. Hinduism, most notably, considers all material existence to be
illusory, or "maya", from which we "wake up" when we realise the true reality.
Descartes had a similar agenda, though his intention was to establish beyond doubt
that we are not deceived in any way - which dreaming would be an example of.

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The argument itself is not so easy to refute as you would think. To someone who
replies that the argument can be easily refuted by the simple fact that we wake up, it
can be pointed out that there are occasions when people seem to have dreamed of
doing that. This involves us in what is called an "infinite regress": anything which is
mentioned as being an aspect of reality (as opposed to a dream) is said to be part of
the content of the dream itself. So, I may dream that I think I am awake; I may dream
that I can tell waking from dreaming; and so on.

Descartes' answer to this problem is to try to guarantee knowledge

through appeals to God and rational necessity (we shall look at
this in more detail later in the course). However, other
philosophers have put forward arguments based upon the idea that
dreaming and waking up are concepts that are tied together (you
cannot have one without the other).


The idea of never waking up has been used by writers and film makers a number of
times. Jacob's Ladder (1990) provides an original twist to this sort of story, and the
1999 film by David Cronenberg, called eXistenZ, uses the modern day equivalent of
virtual reality games, with the tag line, "Where does reality stop... and the game


In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark says:

O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count

myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I
have bad dreams.
(II. ii. 254-6)

Here the idea seems to be that dreams provide some sort of link to - or proof of - the
existence of the outside world. Consider to what extent this may be true. Is it possible
that you are dreaming right now? What arguments might be used against someone

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who thought that life is a dream or illusion? As you consider these issues, make a list
of arguments for the argument (life may be a dream) and against it (dreams and reality
are different and easily distinguished). Which side wins? Try and make it like a real
argument where the points follow on from one another. For Example:

For Against
Dreams seem real when we are When compared to real life, dreams
dreaming seem fragmented
Real life is sometimes fragmented
But not always
and strange

Once you have done this, move on to the next section.

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Other Arguments

Brains in Vats

The recent films The Matrix (1999) and The Matrix Reloaded This image cannot currently be display ed.

(2003) , starring Keanu Reeves, imagines a situation where

human beings are deceived on a mass scale by artificially
intelligent machines to believe that they are living a normal life.
However, they are actually living in a massive hive of
incubators, providing energy for the machines whilst hooked up
to a virtual reality replica of the real world.

This is similar to what is called by philosophers the "Brains in Vats" argument, where
it is supposed that the world as we know it is actually technologically generated and
fed into our brain, which sits hooked up to wires in a vat of chemicals, devoid of a

(A lot has been written about the connections between philosophy and the themes of
the films. Anyone interested in exploring further should get hold of a copy of The
Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real (Open Court, 2002), edited
by William Irwin. The official Matrix website also has a section dedicated to
philosophical themes explored in the films written by actual philosophers - go to and choose Philosophy from the Mainframe menu. Be
careful, though: not all the material - in the book or website - is suitable for a

Worlds of Robots, Aliens and Hollywood Executives

Other variations on this argument include the idea that human-looking machines are
trying to pass themselves off as humans (Blade Runner, 1982), that the world is
maintained by an alien race (Dark City, 1998) or even that a whole community of
actors has been set up as a back-drop for the televised activities of one man (The
Truman Show, 1998).

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Whatever the plot details, the story is generally the same: systematic deception on a
massive scale. Modern variations of the story have tended to include advancements in
technology that would allow such deception - such as virtual reality, robotics, etc. -
but the idea itself is independent of the technological means. What is important is not
so much whether such a deception is possible, but how could we tell?

Witnesses and Testimony

This leads us nicely into our next topic - that of knowledge at second hand. Once
again, doubt concerning this sort of knowledge can be divided into what I shall call
"local" and "global" scepticism. Local scepticism concerning the statements and
behaviour of other people is common: "I think he's lying", "I don't believe her", "I
don't trust them".

We are quite use to being sceptical (with a small 's') about certain things: "He said
he'd swum the Channel, but I was sceptical". However, so-called "global" scepticism
about such things is a great deal more ambitious, and approaches the sort of scenario
we come across in the films listed above.

Imagine if everyone was deceiving you all the time, would you actually know what
truth was?


Despite the unlikelihood of being in something like The Truman Show, we cannot
deny that a great deal of our information comes at second hand and from distant
sources. Is there any knowledge, in fact, which does not come to us from second hand
sources? How much do we actually experience at first hand? As an exercise, make a
list of statements of different sorts - such as, "I know the world is round", "I know
Man landed on the moon", "I know grass is green" (choose about 5). Now, try to
identify where this knowledge comes from. How much of it - if any - is second-hand?
How much is first-hand? Which is more certain?


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In this unit we have looked at:

· The nature of scepticism

· How the senses may deceive us
· Arguments for illusion, deception and dreaming
· The difference between ordinary and philosophical doubt (Local and global
· Brains in vats, alien takeovers and Hollywood conspiracies

Assignment for Unit 1

Choose one essay title from the following two past paper questions. Although you
will not be ready to answer the whole question just yet - there are a few more things
we need to cover - you can make a start on it by sketching out some ideas. There is an
upper word limit of 1500 words, and a lower limit of 600.

1. Examine the extent to which sceptical arguments prevent us from claiming

knowledge about the recent and distant past.

2. Assess the implications of the argument from illusion for our knowledge of the
external world.

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Appendix : Brief History of Scepticism

Scepticism (from the Greek, skeptesthai, 'to examine') is the philosophical view that it
is impossible to know anything with absolute certainty, or to know the world as it
'really' is. The word can also mean a general reluctance to accept anything on face
value without sufficient proof (as in "He heard that Jim had run the 100m in under ten
seconds but he remained sceptical").

However, Scepticism (with a capital 'S') began in the 5th century BC in Greece where
certain philosophers came to express doubts about how certain we could be about our
knowledge. Protagoras of Abdera (480-411 BC), for instance, is reported to have said
that "man is the measure of all things" (i.e. that we make the world in our own image)
and Gorgias (485-380 BC) that "nothing exists; if anything does exist, it cannot be
known; if anything exists and can be known, it cannot be communicated". Many such
thinkers arose from the group known as the Sophists, men who would hire their skills
in debate and argument out to anyone for the right fee. From this point of view, this
form of scepticism is based on the fact that with enough skill, any argument can sound

Next came the Pyrrhonists, so called after Pyrrho of Elis, it's founder, who argued that
since we can never know true reality we should refrain from making judgements. His
pupil, Timon of Philius, followed this by adding that equally good arguments could be
made for either side of any argument (so it was impossible to decide). The New
Academy of the 2nd century BC, founded by Carneades (214-129 BC), taught only
that some arguments were more probable than others. Later sceptics include
Aenesidemus (1st century BC), who put forward ten arguments in support of the
sceptical position, and the Greek physician Sextus Empiricus (3rd century AD), who
argued the use of common sense over abstract theory.

When we reach the Renaissance we can see the influence of Greek scepticism in such
thinkers as the French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1553-1592), but the sceptical
issues only fully resurfaced with the French philosopher René Descartes ( 1596-
1650). Descartes attempted to use sceptical arguments in order to establish a firm

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ground for knowledge. So, Descartes reasoned, if we attempt to subject everything to
doubt we will hopefully discover at some point if there is anything that cannot be
doubted. This he claimed to achieve in his assertion that it is impossible to doubt that
we are thinking beings - which proves that we exist ( 'Cogito, ergo sum', which is
Latin for 'I think, therefore I am'). By employing this 'method of doubt', as he called it,
Descartes merely used scepticism as a means to find something certain, and was not
therefore actually a sceptic.

The sceptical cause was once again championed by the Scottish empiricist
philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), who argued that certain assumptions - such as
the link between cause and effect, natural laws, the existence of God and the soul -
were far from certain. What little we know that seems certain, Hume argued, was
based on observation and habit as opposed to any logical or scientific necessity. The
German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), influenced by Hume, set limits to
human knowledge by arguing that certain things - such as if there was proof for God,
or if the world had a beginning - did not make sense to be asked.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) argued that objective

knowledge did not actually exist, and his scepticism influenced in turn that of French
Existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). The American philosopher
George Santayana (1863-1952), argued that all belief - even that in oneself - is
irrational (even though it seems the most natural thing).

Modern day philosophy, although it does not generally take extreme sceptical
arguments very seriously, still retains the influence of earlier sceptical thinkers.

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