Epistemology Research Paper Starter


(Research Starters)

An overview of epistemology and knowledge, and incorporates a series of historical and current philosophers that have grappled with this concept throughout the centuries, such as Plato and Lehrer is presented. Additionally, an examination of the work conducted by world-renowned psychologists Jean Piaget and Sigmund Freud, who are often associated solely for their psychologically-driven contributions, is included with regard to their input on genetic epistemology, and epistemology as it relates to the "psychosexual stages of development." The second portion of this article is more applied, and relates theoretical epistemological tenets to educational and psychological settings. Differentiation between epistemology that focuses on process, content, and ethics is outlined, and concepts related to Aristotelian epistemology (i.e., that which is theoretical, qualitative, and performative) are broached. Albert Einstein's disillusionment with educational institutions and his thoughts on re-aligning academia so that it parallels creative ventures are discussed, followed by a short segue into a simplistic story-telling technique that serves as an epistemological device.

Keywords Aristotelian Epistemology; Epistemology; Equilibrium; Genetic Epistemology; Knowledge; Plato; Psychosexual Stages of Development; Reasoned True Belief

Educational Theory: Epistemology



Epistemology, or the theory of knowledge (Hillerbrand, 1988), is a philosophical principle that has been investigated throughout the centuries by the world's greatest intellects, including Descartes, Durkheim, Bernard, Aristotle, and Plato. Plato classified knowledge (i.e., reasoned true belief) as the existence of three concepts: truth, belief, and evidence (Southerland, Sinatra & Matthews, 2001), and defined truth as that which reflects reality. Belief occurs when people grant authenticity toward such a truth, and evidence is a person's ability to defend such a stance. To exemplify the interaction of this tertiary ideal, one might assume that Jane is interested in crossing a bridge and needs to determine the safety of such an activity, and relies on her knowledge base and ability to reason. Visually, Jane can see that the bridge is built out of steel and concrete, which coincide with the materials of bridges that she has previously crossed. Therefore, she believes that the bridge is safe, and this belief is grounded in reality, or truth. Also, Jane's sister Sally previously crossed the bridge and arrived safely on the other side. Sally is of similar height and stature to Jane, thus providing convincing evidence that the bridge is indeed safe. The decision-making process that allowed her to come to such a conclusion is based on the three-fold conception of knowledge set forth by Plato.

Keith Lehrer

According to American philosopher Keith Lehrer (1990), knowledge can be depicted in terms of a person's proficiency in any given arena (e.g., "I know how to play the piano") as well as a means of indicating relationships (e.g., "I know Bob Smith"). Additionally, a person's knowledge is also representative of his or her established amount of accurate information. Information, in itself, is insufficient; if I look at my watch, which reads 3:00, I have acquired information regarding the time. However, unbeknownst to me, my watch broke several hours ago and therefore my acquisition of information is inadequate for the accurate possession of knowledge. The ability to decipher accurate information distinguishes human beings from other animals.

Moreover, Lehrer offers three conditions that serve as underpinnings for knowledge that resembles that which was proposed by Plato, including truth, acceptance, and justification. However, there are many inconsistencies that denote the obscurity of such a theory, and are therefore worthy of discussion. For example, a mother has a child that leaves for college, and is under the impression that the child is faring quite well. However, this acceptance of truth represents the mother's desire that her child is doing well, and is not based on a legitimate assessment. Thus, her willingness to consent to such a delusion is reinforced by the corresponding feelings of gratification that accompany her faulty belief. Therefore, one can infer that acceptance is not always based on truth.

Lehrer stipulates that "complete justification" surrounding what a person accepts is a necessary aspect of knowledge, as opposed to partial justification, in order to avoid making flawed assumptions. An example of partial justification is if Ann came to the determination that her husband would arrive home today at 12:00 noon from work, based on the fact that he always comes home at 12:00 noon for his lunch break. However, today, let us assume that her husband had an extended meeting, a flat tire, or was tempted to eat at a fancy restaurant in lieu of dining in with Ann. Hence her assumption, or partial judgment, defies that which is knowledge. Knowledge therefore, reflects complete justification of an accurate assessment on what one accepts as truth. This stance, as opposed to divergent opinions from philosophical predecessors who claim knowledge is a measurable and objective construct, assumes that although knowledge is based in accuracy, there is still a subjective air that affects its existence.

Jean Piaget

Piaget, one of the most eminent child psychologists of the 20th century, contributed greatly toward the understanding of child cognitions and is perhaps best known for highlighting the intellectual progress undertaken by the growing child. Incidentally, Piaget identified himself as neither a child psychologist, nor a genetic psychologist, but as a genetic epistemologist (Kitchner, 1986). According to Piaget, knowledge is the active relationship that people maintain with their surroundings. In other words, a young boy does not know how to tie his shoes because he passively observes his parents undertaking such a pursuit, but because he actively goes through the trial-and-error of crisscrossing the strands of lace that interweave his shoes. Moreover, Piaget felt that knowledge is reality-based, and that it is a limitless, never-ending process that continually evolves throughout the lives of human beings. He coined the term orthogenesis to refer to the fact that people intellectually strive for, and advance toward an ideal of infinite wisdom, but that they never arrive at such a destination point. Therefore, the nature of knowledge lies in an intellectual quest that is categorized through the progression of various stages, as opposed to an actual state of intellectualism (Tsou, 2006).

Moreover, Piaget emphasized the inherent need of people forging a sense of harmony or adaptation with their environment. He coined the term "equilibrium" to describe the cognitive process that enables such a system. People achieve equilibrium through the process of assimilation, whereby they incorporate new experiences into pre-existing schemata and accommodation, or the process of changing schemata to make room for new information. Piaget felt that the ability for assimilation and accommodation, or finding equilibrium, was the hallmark of a highly intelligent person who successfully progressed through the stages of cognitive development at a rapid pace. Piaget felt that the feeling of disequilibrium essentially was a positive force, as it motivated people to seek equilibrium. Since humans are creatures of comfort, and therefore seek equilibrium when they are in the throes of duress, the process of cognitive growth is initiated with each unpleasant new encounter.

Sigmund Freud

Similarly, Sigmund Freud, the famous psychologist who pioneered many innovative theories, can also be linked with epistemological contributions. A prominent psychological Freudian concept is the creation of his stage theory that delineates human development, termed the "psychosexual stages of development" (Miller & Stine, 1951), through which each human travels. Each stage of this theory (e.g., oral, anal, phallic) designates an area of the body (e.g., mouth, anus, genitals) that becomes the physiological focal point. Based on parental methods during each stage the child can progress normally, become overly indulged, or become neglected, each of which manifest into specific adult characteristics. For example, during the oral phase, infants are dependent on their mother's milk; if they do not receive an adequate level of dietary consumption, the resultant adult is "stuck" at...

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