DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P049-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 26, 2020, from

1. The epistemological background

Philosophy in the Western tradition, and beyond, has long enshrined a particular picture of the starting point and the task of epistemology. The task has principally been seen as trying to understand what sort of thing or goal knowledge is and thereby to distinguish it from counterfeit, inferior or merely different items such as superstition, opinion or belief. In pursuit of this, it became necessary to further contrast or identify knowledge with such notions as justified or reliable belief. Often the task was propelled by worries about (or enthusiasm for) scepticism, either total or partial. But equally, philosophers uninterested in the sceptical problem have attempted to distinguish knowledge from various pretenders to its title and to chart the interrelations of the various areas, types or sources of knowledge (see Epistemology, history of; Ryle, G.).

In all of this thinking about the nature and value of knowledge, however, the picture has persisted (except in the speculations of a handful of thinkers) of the subject doing the investigation as initially positioned in a state of cognitive isolation. This picture has endured in spite of the fact that the data to be accommodated and explained seem ill at ease with it. Such data include the fact that these cognizers unhesitatingly claim to know many things that surely transcend the power of the individual resources they bring to the epistemic task. To be sure, individual cognizers know about the existence and disposition of middle-sized objects and their surroundings in the more or less immediate vicinity, but they also know facts well beyond their immediate ken, such as numerous everyday facts of geography and history. They also know how conceptually to identify and linguistically to label these objects and surroundings in terms intelligible to others. Beyond this array of relatively ordinary convictions, there are a host of more recondite things many such individuals know – such as the population of the USA, the day-to-day temperature of the environment, the non-existence of a largest prime number, the military practices of ancient peoples, the chemical composition of water or of various medicines, certain facts about the workings of engines and about the workings of institutions.

It is, I think, perfectly clear that the isolated individual imagined as the hero of so much epistemological writing is not equal to the task of amassing such knowledge from purely individual resources of perception, experiment, memory and inference. Some theorists, it is true, heroically deny that anything that involves accepting the word of others can really deserve the name of knowledge. But they have either failed to appreciate the enormity of this denial, in terms of the massive amount and quality of information thus excluded and its often intimate connection with much else that is included, or they have so construed knowledge as to make its attainment a rare privilege for the elite (as in Plato who banishes not only testimony but also perception from the realm of knowledge, and then imagines that a purified ‘science’ will emerge from contemplation of the unchanging Forms). Short of such heroic, but either myopic or puritan, responses we have no option but to recognize the need for a pooling of resources so that knowledge requires some reliance upon one’s fellow cognizers. But the individualist picture dies hard. So the idea emerges that the necessary reliance upon the word of others in the enterprise of knowledge is itself something for which the isolated individual discovers the need and provides (from individual resources alone) the justification.

Citing this article:
Coady, C.A.J.. The epistemological background. Testimony, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P049-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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