The most foundational discipline in all of philosophy is epistemology. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that focuses on the study of knowledge. Knowledge can be accessed through different means, including memory, learning and language. Questions in epistemology include ‘What are the different types of knowledge?’, ‘Is their more to knowledge than memory?’ and ‘What can and cannot be known?’ Without a proper theory of knowledge, it is impossible to know anything about metaphysics and the various disciplines that branch from metaphysics, such as science, history and ethics. In light of these questions, the following sketches an epistemological framework through which these queries can be viewed.
There is no single kind of knowledge. Rather, there are different types of knowledge; some of which are more valuable than others. One example is the distinction between memory and understanding. Memory consists in the ability to recite a particular fact without understanding the details of that fact. Usually, memorization is brought about by intentional repetition of a particular fact until it is sewn into the mind. The facts memorized tend to be isolated rather than strung together into a single, coherent framework. Reciting a fact is almost like being on autopilot, which requires no real thinking whatsoever (Orlin, 2013).
Yet there is more to knowledge than merely memorizing facts. In contrast to memory is understanding. Understanding consists in the ability to relate certain facts together. More importantly, understanding is the ability to build upon previous facts. In epistemology, this is known as foundationalism. According to foundationalism, knowledge is like a tower that rests upon previous truth propositions (Chisolm, Theory of Knowledge, p. 30). At the bottom of the tower are beliefs that are ‘properly basic’, meaning they are not justified by any other belief. Properly basic beliefs tend to be acquired through experience. Examples of properly basic beliefs include belief in the actuality of the external world and the existence of other minds. Properly basic beliefs can be rationally assumed, provided there are no sufficient reasons to suppose the alternative. Comprising the superstructure of the epistemological tower are non-basic beliefs, which are truth propositions derived from former beliefs. Memory consists in the ability to arbitrarily recite a proposition within the tower; whereas understanding consists in the ability to apprehend the tower in its entirety.
Perhaps the distinction between memory and understanding can best be understood with an example. A physics student may be able to recite a mathematical formula, such as F=ma, without the slightest understanding about what the various symbols in the formula represent. This is an instance of memorization. Although the physics student may be able to recite the formula, he is not able to apply the formula. In contrast, understanding consists in the ability to apply the mathematical formula, such as calculating the gravitational tug exerted by one astronomical body onto another astronomical body. Thus highlights the distinction between memory and understanding.
Knowing or ‘being aware’ of a particular fact shortly follows the ability to memorize a particular fact. ‘Knowing’ is a highly nebulous term. In this particular instance, knowing is the ability to recall certain facts and information. As reference earlier, the ability to recall certain facts and information is not the same as understanding facts and information. In contrast, understanding is a process that is learned which strings information together into a coherent picture of the world. Knowing is in some ways less valuable than memory, since knowing information merely requires attention whereas memory requires intention.
Another way of gaining access to knowledge, other than awareness, memorization and understanding, is through the use of language. Language is the defining trait of our species that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. It is necessary for our everyday interactions and the key ingredient to comprising this paper. It is the medium that we use to relate the substrate of thought to the external world. Without it, thought and comprehension would be practically impossible.
Some epistemologists argue that there are certain facts that cannot be learned because there are limits to our use of language. Specifically, the human mind originally evolved in a terrain of extended bodies that moved at relative speeds in a moderately short time span. Our language describes the physics of this terrain. In particular, there is a theory of physics embedded in language. There is a theory of mass embedded in nouns, a theory of action embedded in verbs, a theory of time embedded in tense and a theory of space embedded in prepositions (Pinker, The Stuff of Thought, p. 192-6). Yet the theory of physics embedded in language is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the physics of the external world. It could be that there are certain barriers in our language that prevent us from fully comprehending truths about the universe. Take our use of tense, for example. It is very difficult to articulate sentences that are not in a particular tense. This being the case, questions such, ‘What happened before time began?’ are completely nonsensical to us, since the use of ‘before’ assumes the existence of time.
To continue upon the theme of time, there are future tense facts that cannot be learned either. For example, if human beings are genuinely free creatures and the future is not fixed, then it is logically impossible to know with certainty the future actions of those free creatures. In addition, physicists tend to believe that there is an inherit randomness to the universe. This being the case, physicists can only calculate the likelihood of the universe inhabiting a certain future state, but cannot know with certainty that the universe will inhabit such a state. Some philosophers, such as the late David Hume, have argued that we cannot know the sun will rise tomorrow, since prior experiences cannot determine what we will in fact experience.
In conclusion, epistemology is a very broad and comprehensive topic. Although it is a highly abstract field of study, it is the necessary foundation for conducting other modes of research in science, history and ethics. One reason that epistemology is technical is that there are different types of knowledge that can be acquired through memory, learning and language. Memorizing or being aware of certain propositions is not synonymous with understanding certain propositions. One of the fruits of epistemology is that it allows us to explore what we can and cannot know. Some philosophers have argued that language inhibits us from understanding certain truths about the universe, such as whether time began. Other philosophers have argued that future tense facts are unknowable as well. Thus illustrates the difficulties that accompany finite creatures trying to know an infinite universe.