Topic Detail
Epistemology: The problem of Knowledge


Epistemology has been derived from Greek word “Episteme” which means “knowledge”. Philosophers make an inquiry about the nature of knowledge i.e. they say what is the nature of knowledge?, what are the sources of knowledge? And what knowledge is said to be valid? 

According to Socrates, among all problems of philosophy, the key problem is that epistemology in other words, the problem of knowledge was the key to all other problems in philosophy.

Plato said that, there is a difference between knowledge and opinion. Opinion can be right or wrong but knowledge can be true and complete understanding of something i.e. knowledge will be correct and complete information about something.

Plato also said, it is not sufficient to say that a thing is so, but why it is so as important? (it means knowledge must be based on inquiry and search for its reality).

Philosophers are greatly interested in the domains or realms of knowledge i.e.

  1. What is the nature of knowledge?
  2. How do we get knowledge?
  3. How for all knowledge is correct?

What is the nature of knowledge?

Nature of knowledge

            According to philosophers knowledge is of two types:

  1. Knowledge of the physical or external world e.g. earth rivers, living beings, non-living objects, solar system etc.
  2. Knowledge of ideas & concepts e.g. good and evil, freedom, justice, equality, wisdom, heaven and hell, spirit, faith, honesty, truth etc.

According to Johan Locke, an English philosopher, there are two types of ideas i.e. he talks about simple and complex ideas. He said that man’s mind can develop complex ideas after observation. But man’s mind cannot create a simple idea. A blind man can have no idea of colors.

Obstacles in gaining knowledge or obstacles to clear thinking

Bacon Idols: Bacon talks about four idols of mind which make biased and prejudice towards obtaining (true/valid) knowledge. He calls them obstacles to clear thinking these are:

Idols of Tribe: It means to accept ideas which are favorable to a group family or religion.

Idols of Cave: It means to give importance to personal opinion and ideas.

Idols of Market: It means to be impressed by the opinion or ideas of the others.

Idols of Theatre: It means attachment to a political party or leader to take one to an imaginary world.

Sources of knowledge (How do we get knowledge?)

How do we know something?

            Philosophers had mentioned the following five sources of getting knowledge or knowing something.

  1. Sense experience
  2. Reasoning
  3. Intuition
  4. Revelation
  5. Authority

a) Sense of experience

It is the knowledge which we get through our five senses i.e.

  1. Sense of hearing (Ears)
  2. Sense of seeing (Eyes)
  3. Sense of Taste (Tongue)
  4. Sense of touch (Skin)
  5. Sense of Smell (Nose)

So, the knowledge of colors, size & shape, coldness, hones, hardness or softness, different sounds (birds and animals), sweetness and bitterness etc. we get through our five senses.

Demerit: The knowledge which we get through our senses is often deceptive and untrue. It means that this knowledge is not always valid and reliable. One should be very careful in attaining knowledge through these senses.

            Knowledge of material objects can be gained by senses while knowledge of heat, cold, pain, sorrow, joy etc. i.e. the knowledge related to feeling and thinking is gained through our experiences. So, we also gain knowledge from our experiences in interaction with the environment. These experiences are called sense experiences and the theory is called imprecision.

b) Reasoning

It means “to reason”, “to think” etc.

We gain a lot of knowledge i.e. higher kind of knowledge by our power of reasoning. It is the power of the mind to think logically ad decide after careful observation. Higher kind of knowledge is knowledge about concepts and values of goodness, justice, freedom, sympathy etc. correct and complete knowledge to a great extent is gained by reasoning. After comparison and contrast, analysis and synthesis, the mind reaches to certain conclusions e.g. concept and knowledge about good, evil, vice and virtue, heaven and hell etc.

Genuine knowledge, according to Plato, comes by reasoning. Aristotle added that genuine knowledge is that when we find the causes of some concept or action i.e. why a thing is so?        

Descartes: I think, therefore, I am. So, to him the major source of knowledge is mind.

Plato: It is not sufficient to say that a thing is so, but why it is so, is important? He also gives importance to reasoning in knowledge. 

c) Intuition

It is a sudden awareness or immediate insight of some fact or into something. Mystics claim to achieve the knowledge of reality by intuition. There is no reason behind this type of knowledge. Ethical principles are a matter of intuition. True knowledge is obtained by intuition.

d) Revelation

It is divine knowledge which is revealed to prophets in state of dream, vision or trance. Prophets claim to possess religious knowledge by revelation.

e) Authority

It is recognized and established knowledge gained from a scholar, an institution or from an authentic book. Established schools, colleges, universities and religious institutions convey authorized type of knowledge. Great writers give us knowledge of the past e.g. Aristotle gave us knowledge about Plato. Renowned books give us correct knowledge if the author is not biased (subjective in opinion).


Validity of Knowledge: (Truth / Ontology of Knowledge)

            How can we know that the knowledge gained by us is true and valid? Is this knowledge true or correct?

According to philosophers, there are three list for the validity of knowledge.

  1. Test of correspondence
  2. Test of coherence
  3. Test of utility

1. Test of Correspondence: The knowledge which corresponds, with the actual fact is considered to be correct, which can be proved by man’s observation and with instruments. It means that if the knowledge is in agreement with in facts and it can be tested or verified by instruments then it is true and correct.


  1. When the germs of typhoid and malaria can be tested with the help of microscope, it is accepted to be true.
  2. The length of Sind river is said to be 500 meters, it can be measured with instruments.
  3. Lake Saiful Malook is very beautiful, we can go and verify it.

2. Test of Coherence: How far the new knowledge resemble the existing one. When the new knowledge cohere or is closely related with the existing knowledge it is accepted to be true and correct. If we take about a ghost, it is not accepted to be true because it does not resemble the existing knowledge, but when we take about a giant or dwarf, we accept it as correct because it resemble human beings.

3. Test of Utility: How far the new knowledge is useful for the betterment of human beings? The new knowledge which is useful for the betterment and welfare of the human beings is accepted to be true and correct. It means that when the new knowledge is useful in improving the practical life and conduct and of man, we can accept it to be true. The concept of God gives meaning and purpose to life, so it is accepted to be true because it makes life meaningful. The concept of heaven and hell and the concept that man is answerable to God, we accept it to be true because it leads with moral refinement of human character and it improves human life, values and conduct. It gives peace and progress to man’s life. Man is prevented from evils and wrong doings. The society is stable due to it.