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Do You Know What Your Epistemology Is?

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with questions about what constitutes knowledge, rationality, justified belief, etc. Your opinions about how we know things, the limits of what we can know, and what constitutes a good standard for evidence are the elements that comprise your epistemology. Everyone has an epistemology whether they consciously reflect on it or not. When people say things like “there is no truth” or “the truth is absolute,” they’re expressing a very specific epistemology. When people say things like “truth can’t be known” or “beliefs are only rational if they’re backed by science” or “science isn’t the only way to know truth,” they’re expressing their epistemology.

It is literally impossible to not have an epistemology. Whenever people argue or make claims about the world, their claims are based on very specific understandings about the nature of truth and knowledge. This is an inescapable aspect of all forms of reasoning. Different people can have different views about what constitutes good evidence. Different people can have different views about what truth is and what it means to know something. A religious person who accepts what the bible says, for example, has different epistemic presuppositions than an atheist who rejects the concept of divinely inspired books. These differences are rooted in their respective epistemologies. That’s largely the basis of their disagreement and debate.

To say that someone is making philosophical presuppositions isn’t an insult or a criticism. It’s just a simple fact that logically follows from the very nature of reasoning and communicating. Philosophy underlies everything we do. That’s not inherently bad. It just is what it is. To say things like “we don’t need philosophy” betrays a misunderstanding of what philosophy actually is. You may not need to declare a major in philosophy at a university. You may not need to read Plato and Aristotle. That’s all fine. But it’s impossible to not do philosophy. We all have fundamental ideas about the nature of reality, the nature of knowledge, the nature of morality, and the meaning of life. Philosophy is nothing less than the investigation, analysis, or application of these fundamental ideas.

Philosophy is inherent in all we say and do. You may not do it consciously, but you’re doing it. You may not like using the word “philosophy,” but a rose by any other name is a rose still the same. Even when you say “philosophy is irrelevant,” you’re making a philosophical statement about what matters in life. We can do philosophy badly or we can do it well. We can do philosophy consciously or we can do it unconsciously. It’s up to us. The important thing to remember is that we have a choice.

We can’t avoid philosophizing, but we can choose to think consciously, critically, and creatively when we do it. When we do philosophy that way, we tend to get more out of it. And when we get more out of our philosophy, we usually get more out of life.

What Can Philosophy Do With Us?

The value of philosophy lies in the self-knowledge, interior depth, and sense of wonder that one acquires as a consequence of contemplating the fundamental categories of existence.

Unlike the sciences, philosophical activity is not identified by some specific body of knowledge it proposes to offer. Science is valuable because it provides answers, whereas philosophy is valuable because it provokes questions.

Philosophy invites us to attend to those questions whose answers are often difficult to define, troublesome to understand, and seemingly impossible to prove. Questions such as these, while an offense to our desire for simplicity and practicality, are ideal tools for cultivating the mind’s ability to reason clearly, imagine deeply, and think independently.

Even if a person fails at discovering concrete truths through philosophical investigation, they will, by their persistence in rigorously reflecting on the abstract, the provocative, the uncertain, and the paradoxical, make vast improvements in their ability to articulate what they think, analyze what they’re told, and appreciate what others believe.

Philosophy is not a static technique for finding truth, it’s a dynamic tool for facilitating transformation. 

The richest of possibilities lie not in our consideration of what we can do with philosophy, but in our contemplation of what philosophy can do with us.

The value of philosophy

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The pragmatist asks, “what is the value of Philosophy?”

The philosopher responds, “what standards do you use to determine value and what evidence can be offered for the justification of such standards?”

In the philosopher’s response to questions about the value of his discipline, we discover the following principle:

the very act of questioning something, no matter what it is, presupposes basic concepts and judgments which are themselves open to the same kind of questioning.

It is impossible for us to ask questions about anything without making use of certain fundamental ideas.

Concepts and judgments are the atoms and molecules out of which all our questions, even the most simple ones, are constructed.

If our basic concepts and judgments are flawed, fallacious, or hastily formed, then the questions that are based upon those concepts and judgments will yield answers that are characterized by the same limitations.

In philosophy, not only do we question reality, but we also question our own questions.

If there are things in this world that are truly important, then they can only be fully appreciated if we engage them with an open-mind that is willing to rethink its assumptions and refine its conceptual framework.

This vigilant effort to maintain an open-mind and a healthy sense of wonder is what lies at the heart of the philosophic enterprise.

The value of philosophy, then, is not that it offers us some tangible product of great worth, but that it invites us to think critically and unconventionally about what it means for something to even have worth and, moreover, it challenges us to be clear and honest with ourselves as to why we bother to care at all about the meaning, value, and importance of things.

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