Naturalized epistemology

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P033-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 05, 2024, from

Article Summary

The term ‘naturalized epistemology’ was coined by W.V. Quine to refer to an approach to epistemology which he introduced in his 1969 essay ‘Epistemology Naturalized’. Many of the moves that are distinctive of naturalized epistemology were made by David Hume, but Quine’s essay fixes the sense of the term as it is used today.

Naturalized epistemology has critical as well as constructive thrusts. In a critical spirit, ‘naturalists’ (theorists who identify with the label ‘naturalized epistemology’) abandon several assumptions that are part of the tradition. They reject Descartes’ vision of epistemology as the attempt to convert our beliefs into an edifice resting on a foundation about which we have complete certainty. Descartes is wrong to equate knowledge with certainty, and wrong to think that knowledge is available through a priori theorizing, through reasoning which makes no use of experience. Nor should epistemology continue as David Hume’s attempt to rest knowledge on an introspective study of the mind’s contents. Moreover, the global sceptic’s claim that there is no way to justify all our views at once, should either be conceded or ignored.

On the constructive side, naturalists suggest that in investigating knowledge we rely on the apparatus, techniques and assumptions of natural science. Accordingly, naturalized epistemology will be a scientific (and hence neither indefeasible nor a priori) explanation of how it is that some beliefs come to be knowledge. Issues of scepticism will be addressed only when they come up in the course of a scientific investigation.

Quine’s seminal essay lays out the core of naturalized epistemology, but subsequent naturalists disagree on the appropriate responses to several issues, among them the following: First, may theories be tested on the basis of (independently plausible) theory-neutral observation, or are observations simply more theory? Second, after being naturalized, does epistemology survive as an autonomous discipline? Quine argues that epistemology should become a subfield of natural science, presumably a part of psychology, so that there is no separate field left specifically to philosophers. But can all our questions about knowledge be answered by natural scientists? Third, the claim that epistemology explains how knowledge comes to be suggests that epistemology will merely describe the origins of beliefs we take to be known; but what is the relationship between such descriptive issues and normative issues such as that of how we ought to arrive at our views? Fourth, to what extent is the new approach to epistemology susceptible to sceptical concerns such as those that so plagued traditional epistemologists, and how effective a response can be made to those concerns?

    Citing this article:
    Luper, Steven. Naturalized epistemology, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P033-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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