What Is Epistemology? Pt. 4: Other Epistemologies

What is epistemology? What types of knowledge exist? What is justification? Are there other epistemologies?

In this final portion of “What is Epistemology?” I briefly go over snippets of Pre-Socratic, Chinese, and Indian epistemology.

Epistemology before epistemology

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all get their due as great Greek philosophers, but there are dozens of individuals before them who haven’t gotten as much attention. These individuals are identified as the “Pre-Socratics.” It’s important to note that the Pre-Socratics aren’t a homogeneous group with similar opinions, nor were they practicing epistemology as we formally understand it. Even as late as Aristotle, who wrote after Socrates, the distinctions between different areas in philosophy had not fully formed. Nonetheless, many Pre-Socratics had to indirectly address concerns we’d consider epistemological in nature in order to theorize about other aspects of philosophy.

Although there was no single flavor of epistemology among these early philosophers, it’s apparent that when their ideas are compared to modern conceptions of knowledge, there is a noticeable contrast. The JTB Standard Analysis didn’t exist back then and, in fact, for many Pre-Socratics, the nature of knowledge had absolutely nothing to do with belief. Knowledge was more akin to a status, something that existed and could be identified within the world itself. Inquiries into this status usually took the form of asking what sort of things were knowable, essentially asking about the specific properties making some detail of the world comprehensible. This kind of investigative process makes ancient epistemology more of a metaphysical investigation than an explicitly epistemological one. Part of the reason for this peculiarity is because truth in ancient epistemology was more akin to reality “as it is.” Ancient philosophers sought to see the world in an objective but rigid way. Modern conceptions of truth, which are more nuanced and aware of human limitation, tend to aim at the truth through different avenues, like semantics, rather than just metaphysics alone.

One might think this difference is because modern investigative methodology is rooted in empirical and material concerns, like observing quantum entanglement or the observable effects of newly enacted laws and policies. Today, we’re no longer talking about esoteric things like the nature of the soul so, of course, modern epistemology is radically different. Thinking this way, however, is somewhat of a misnomer. The Pre-Socratics, while not practicing the scientific method, were like scientists in the sense that they believed the universe had a comprehensible order. So, they investigated matters by conceptualizing the details of the cosmos (as best they could) and observing how real-world phenomena fit with their conceptions. It is true that the Pre-Socratics lacked the extensive investigative process that is the hallmark of the scientific method, but their motivations probably didn’t differ vastly from those of modern scientists. Many, though not all, asked questions about real-world phenomena like, “How did the earth form?” And, “Why is there water?” Some even practiced rudimentary astronomy and mathematics.

Non-Western epistemology

There are lots of different cultures with unique epistemologies for their respective philosophical traditions. Keep in mind though, as stated in an earlier blog post, epistemology is a Western concept which might not translate perfectly across cultures. Even the notion of trying to comprehend what philosophy looks like outside of our own culture may force us to make untenable assumptions.

A good example of the difficulties that emerge from this sort of comparative philosophy can be found when looking at Chinese philosophy. Chinese philosophical literature is a rich collection of works going back potentially as far as 2000 BCE. Although the tradition can’t be summed up in one word, if you were hard pressed, you might try to reduce it all to the concept of “Dao” ( 道) or Tao. Westerners might recognize this idea from Daoism or Taoism, with these names referring to the concept of Dao as practiced within a religious context. Dao, as a general philosophy, is concerned with discerning the proper structure of the universe, and the analysis of Dao is effectively indistinguishable from the practice of Chinese philosophy itself. Dao, however, is not an analytic tradition, at least not in the same sense as Western philosophy. That is to say, Chinese philosophy doesn’t favor the same distinctions that Western philosophy does. So while Western philosophers might have considered questions about metaphysics distinct from questions regarding epistemology, Chinese philosophy doesn’t really have the same types of conceptual categories.

With regards to epistemological content in Chinese philosophy, although there is no “Chinese epistemology” as a field of inquiry, there do exist concepts that indirectly illuminate what Chinese philosophers thought about knowledge. One key concept is known as Xin(心) which literally translates to heart. Metaphorically, it has the same connotations it does in English — emotion, passion, intuition — but interestingly enough it also refers to reason, experience, rationality, and wisdom, which is why it’s usually translated as “heart-mind” in English. Even though Western culture favors a distinction between rationality and emotion, the heart-mind shows that others might not. This doesn’t make these cultures any “less rational,” and as far as Chinese philosophy is concerned, rationality and emotion are simply different shades of perception given that they come from the same source. Thus Chinese philosophy has a “rational” dimension and an “emotional” dimension with knowledge being about perceiving the world through both. As a result of this, Chinese philosophy is practiced with what is called tianren heyi (天人合一), an understanding of the interconnected relationship between humanity and reality. Comparatively, Western epistemology and more broadly, Western philosophy views the world in terms of isolated perceivers (us) and independent objects (the things out there in the world). The general assumption of the Western philosophical tradition is that objects have properties which can be deduced by observers in the right frame of mind, despite the fact that the distinction between both might be blurrier than we think (for example, we ourselves could be viewed as both subjects and objects, something that has created interesting philosophical problems like the mind-body problem). Admittedly, both of these descriptions create somewhat of a broad-brushed generalization about the differences between Western and Chinese philosophy, but I think it still paints a useful picture.

Another long-running philosophical tradition can be found in India. Potentially going back as far as 1000 BCE, India also provides a rich wealth of philosophies like Buddhism, Jain, and Hinduism. If there was one word to summarize the broad range of Indian philosophy it’d be the concept of Pramāṇa, which is a Sanskrit word meaning “measure.” Measure is a reflection of understanding, with the concept of Pramāṇa being a core aspect of Indian epistemology. The assessment of different Pramāṇas has generated questions that weren’t even considered in Western philosophy until much later.

Pramāṇa can be thought of as “proof,” or the way by which someone understands something. In essence, Pramāṇas are knowledge-sources or methods which justify acquired knowledge. While Western epistemology is concerned with the nature of knowledge itself, Pramāṇa and other related concepts are focused on understanding how one comes to know things. Classical texts identify six accurate Pramāṇas for knowledge: Pratyakṣa (perception), Anumāṇa (inference), Upamāṇa (comparison and analogy), Arthāpatti (postulation, derivation from circumstances), Anupalabdi (non-perception, negative/cognitive proof) and Śabda (word, testimony of past or present reliable experts). Broadly speaking, some of the most important parts of Indian epistemology are precisely about determining which Pramāṇas are most accurate for discerning the truth. Different schools of thought — from those rooted in various Hindu traditions to those of various Buddhist traditions, to schools tied to Jainism — debate about which Pramāṇas are the most effective to use, with some accepting only one or two. Some suggest Pramāṇas may not even be definable or possibly don’t exist — essentially forms of skepticism.

This post provides just a taste of the different types of epistemologies that have existed. Future posts will go into depth on other cultures’ takes on knowledge and the implications of these different systems.