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branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge

Epistemology is derived from the Greek words episteme (knowledge) and logos (word/speech) is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature, origin and scope of knowledge.


  • Since the word "knowledge" occurs in my general title... I am going to be talking about epistemology, although I prefer to use the eighteenth-century, indeed, medieval phrase, "natural philosophy." ...that enterprise of the human mind which attempts to trace lawfulness to nature, dead and living, but which is not directed to specific inquiries into how this or that law works. Philosophy in the sense in which I practice it, natural philosophy, is concerned with lawfulness rather than with laws and the general nature of laws rather than with the specific structure of this or that law.
  • Thinking is another attribute of the soul; and here I discover what properly belongs to myself. This alone is inseparable from me. I am—I exist: this is certain.
  • No more useful inquiry can be proposed than that which seeks to determine the nature and the scope of human knowledge. ... This investigation should be undertaken once at least in his life by anyone who has the slightest regard for truth, since in pursuing it the true instruments of knowledge and the whole method of inquiry come to light. But nothing seems to me more futile than the conduct of those who boldly dispute about the secrets of nature ... without yet having ever asked even whether human reason is adequate to the solution of these problems.
  • Cogito, ergo sum.
  • Can science ever be immune from experiments conceived out of prejudices and stereotypes, conscious or not? (Which is not to suggest that it cannot in discrete areas identify and locate verifiable phenemonena in nature.) I await the study that says lesbians have a region of the hypothalamus that resembles straight men and I would not be surprised if, at this very moment, some scientist somewhere is studying brains of deceased Asians to see if they have an enlarged "math region" of the brain.
  • How does it happen that a properly endowed natural scientist comes to concern himself with epistemology? Is there no more valuable work in his specialty? I hear many of my colleagues saying, and I sense it from many more, that they feel this way. I cannot share this sentiment. When I think about the ablest students whom I have encountered in my teaching, that is, those who distinguish themselves by their independence of judgment and not merely their quick-wittedness, I can affirm that they had a vigorous interest in epistemology. They happily began discussions about the goals and methods of science, and they showed unequivocally, through their tenacity in defending their views, that the subject seemed important to them. Indeed, one should not be surprised at this.
    • Albert Einstein, “Ernst Mach,” Physikalische Zeitschrift (1916) 17, pp. 101-102, a memorial notice for Ernst Mach, as quoted by Don Howard, "Albert Einstein on the Relationship between Philosophy and Physics."
  • Science can only be comprehended epistemologically, which means as one category of possible knowledge, as long as knowledge is not equated either effusively with the absolute knowledge of a great philosophy or blindly with scientistic self-understanding of the actual business of research.
  • Both social and biosocial factors are necessary to interpret crosscultural studies, with the general proviso that one's research interest determines which elements, in what combinations, are significant for the provision of understanding.
    • Gilbert Herdt, "Bisexuality and the Causes of Homosexuality: The Case of the Sambia" (1998)
  • The fruitfulness of knowledge indeed plays a role in its claim to truth, but the fruitfulness in question is to be understood as intrinsic to the science and not as usefulness for ulterior purposes.
    • Max Horkheimer, "Notes on Science and the Crisis," Critical Theory: Selected Essays (1995) p. 3.
  • A modern theory of knowledge which takes account of the relational as distinct from the merely relative character of all historical knowledge must start with the assumption that there are spheres of thought in which it is impossible to conceive of absolute truth existing independently of the values and position of the subject and unrelated to the social context.
  • Physics is mathematical, not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little: it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover. For the rest our knowledge is negative.
  • The genius of culture is to create an ontological system so compelling that what is inside and outside of a person are viewed as of a piece, no seams and patches noticable.
    • Richard Shweder, "Cultural psyschology-What is it?" Cultural Psychology (1990)
  • Hegel’s lack of charity toward the instrument metaphor is not arbitrary. It represents his disenchantment with the assumption that knowledge is power and that method is the means to this end. ... Descartes’ conception of method, like Bacon’s, is linked to this idea of knowledge as an instrument of power. ... The same could be said of Locke. Hegel can rightly claim that the instrument metaphor pervades the epistemological tradition he is seeking to transcend.
  • A further turn is to be found in some "unmasking" accounts of natural science, which aim to show that its pretensions to deliver the truth are unfounded, because of social forces that control its activities. Unlike the case of history, these do not use truths of the same kind; they do not apply science to the criticism of science. They apply the social sciences, and typically depend on the remarkable assumption that the sociology of knowledge is in a better position to deliver truth about science than science is to deliver truth about the world.

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