Knowledge | Jennifer Nagel

Summary of: Knowledge: A Very Short Introduction
By: Jennifer Nagel


In ‘Knowledge: A Very Short Introduction’, Jennifer Nagel dives into the captivating world of epistemology, exploring the complex depths of knowledge and how we gain it. This summary will guide readers through key concepts such as the intricacies of knowing versus believing, objective versus subjective truth, and the notable perspectives of well-known philosophers. Additionally, you will examine the role of skepticism, rationalism, and empiricism in shaping our understanding of knowledge, as well as the fascinating relationship between testimony and epistemology.

The Complexity of Knowledge

Knowledge is not just a simple concept as it seems to be. It is not a naturally occurring resource, but it is generated by a knower. The philosophical field of epistemology is devoted to the study of knowledge and to answer the questions of how we know what we know, and what knowledge means. The verb “to know” carries a complex meaning, and there is a difference between knowing something to be true and believing it to be true. Although some philosophers think truth is subjective, others believe that it is objective and exists outside any individual human self. The challenges of knowledge are interrogated in this comprehensive study.

Limits of Human Knowledge

The concept of knowledge is central to our lives, yet the limits of what we can truly know are a subject of heated debate among philosophers. Skeptics reject the notion of absolute knowledge, arguing that even the most apparently straightforward facts can never be indisputably proven. This ancient tradition of skepticism takes two forms: The Academic skeptics hold that knowledge is impossible, while the Pyrrhonians simply avoid arriving at any conclusion. The Stoics distinguish between impression, which is what one perceives, and the subsequent judgment of whether or not to accept what one perceives. Yet, there is no way to know for certain even what appears to be objective. Ultimately, knowledge may well remain something we strive for but never fully attain.

Descartes and Locke: Advancing Two Understandings of Knowledge

Rene Descartes and John Locke, key figures of seventeenth-century modern philosophy, made influential contributions to epistemological thought by refuting skeptics’ views on inaccessible knowledge. However, they had different approaches to knowledge. Descartes was a rationalist and believed that humans can apprehend fundamental truths, including the certainty of self-existence and God’s existence, which are innate and foundational. In contrast, Locke was an empiricist and thought that ideas are gained through sensation and reflection, which vary in each individual. While he agreed with some of Descartes’ work, he did not share the latter’s high opinion of humankind’s innate rationality. Overall, Descartes’ rationalism and Locke’s empiricism advanced two new understandings of knowledge, challenging the traditional views of skeptics and providing insights into the ways in which humans acquire knowledge.

The Slippery Relationship between Knowledge and Belief

The conditions through which we come to know something have been a subject of debate among philosophers. The classical analysis of knowledge suggests that a subject can only know a proposition when the proposition is factual, when the subject believes in the proposition, and when the subject is justified in her belief. However, philosopher Edmund Gettier argued that this is not always the case. Alvin Goldman proposed the theory of causal knowledge, which suggests that belief in a fact must have a causal connection to that fact. Yet, this, too, is fallible. Despite the lack of an exact formula, delving into the relationship between belief and knowledge continues to provide more insights into how we might know what we know.

Knowledge and Truth

The debate between externalism and internalism in epistemology questions the fundamental concept of knowledge. Externalists argue that any individual can know something without clear-cut evidence, while internalists believe that true knowledge is based on supporting evidence. For instance, externalists claim that to know something about Mount Everest, one must only have a relationship with the fact, while internalists require more concrete evidence. Despite the differences between the two, both place enormous significance on systematic first-person thinking. Through our senses, powers of deduction, and reflection, we can obtain knowledge. However, externalists accept automatic thinking as knowledge, whereas internalists hold that true knowledge must be based on a clear understanding of concrete evidence.

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