Knowledge is one of the most basic categories that people use to perceive the world around them. It forms the basis of how people act and which decisions they make at every point of their life. However, the philosophical concept of knowledge is anything but simple because there is always the question of how people can know that they know something. While empiricism, idealism, and rationalism all present their potential answers, there is no definite way to disprove hard skepticism – and, moreover, there may be no practical need to.
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The philosophical discipline studying the nature and possibility of knowledge is called epistemology, and epistemological skepticism is probably the perspective that is best protected against possible reputations. Skeptics occupy an uncompromising position and proclaim that there is no definite way to proclaim any given piece of knowledge objectively true (Novy 2011). As they point out, a source may prove unreliable, interpretation of perceptions may be false, and even perceptions themselves are not guaranteed to correspond to something real. This is the philosophically strongest position because it only makes a negative claim and, thus, does not have to prove anything. However, not everyone is willing to agree that there is no place for true and objective knowledge in the world.
Several prominent perspectives offering an answer to the challenge of skepticism are empiricism, idealism, and rationalism. Empiricism is the most understandable from a commonsense perspective – its states there is an inherent correspondence between perceptions and reality, and, therefore, the perceived things are real. Yet, however emotionally appealing it is, there is no certain way to prove that such correspondence exists (Novy 2011). Idealism tries to solve this issue by claiming that humans can only deal in perceptions, and these do not necessarily need external reality to validate them (Berkeley 1710). A later example of this line of thinking would be Russell (1912), showing that one cannot doubt one’s perception of a table, but that does not mean that the table objectively exists. However, this approach fails to explain why the same thing always produces identical perceptions. Finally, rationalism seeks to identify self-evident truths that are a priori correct – such as an analytical judgment that a triangle always has three sides (Novy 2011). The problem with this approach, though, is that it only has very limited applicability and largely deals with abstract concepts, which limits its applicability severely.
Speaking of applicability, it might be reasonable to ask why people need knowledge in the first place. While it is true that some enjoy intellectual pursuits for their own sake, there is no arguing that, for the most part, people need knowledge to operate effectively based on truths as premises. In other words, it is may be appropriate to ask not merely whether something is true but what makes truth valuable in the first place. Russell (1912) may not be certain whether the table exists independently of his perceptions – but does it really matter as long as the table is always there when he needs to put something on it? The reason why people need knowledge is to be able to act reliably. Hence, as long as their beliefs enable such action, one may call them knowledge even if it is impossible to prove their truth to the well-entrenched skeptics.
In short, there is no certain philosophical way to prove the truth and objectivity of knowledge. Empiricism, idealism, and rationalism try to do it, each in their own way, but neither of them stands up to the challenge of total skepticism. Yet one may look at the problem differently and simply ask whether one’s knowledge is reliable enough to successfully act upon instead of fruitlessly pondering whether it is objectively true.
Berkeley, George. 1710. “Of the Principles of Human Knowledge.” Web.
Novy, Ron. 2011. “McElligot’s Pool: Epistemology (with Fish!).” In Dr. Seuss and Philosophy: Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!, edited by Jacob M. Held, 65-78. Washington, DC: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
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Russell, Bertrand. 1912. “The Principles of Philosophy.” Web.