Although epistemology is one of the core areas of philosophy, the term itself only came into existence relatively recently (it was coined by the 19th Century Scottish philosopher, James Frederick Ferrier (1808-64)). Nonetheless, even though the term is quite new, the cluster of philosophical questions that it describes go right back to antiquity, to the birth of philosophy itself.
So what is epistemology? Well, it is essentially the theory of knowledge. Epistemologists are concerned with such questions as ‘What is the nature of knowledge?’, and ‘How is knowledge acquired?’ They are also interested in a range of concepts which are closely related to knowledge, such as truth, rationality, understanding, and wisdom.
Duncan Pritchard is Professor of Philosophy UC Irvine.
‘How should one live?’ Perhaps uniquely among animals, human beings not only act, we also consider how we should act. We think that there are better and worse ways of acting, we reflect on our experience of making mistakes, and try to improve. Much of this, of course, relates to our own self-interest – meeting our needs, successfully achieving our personal goals, and so on. But that is not all. We are social creatures, we live together, and our lives and actions affect the lives and actions of other people. We are concerned not only for ourselves, but for other people as well, and how other people treat us is critical to our own happiness.
How should we relate to one another, how should we treat one another? How should we live so that each of our lives goes ‘best’? What is ‘good’ in life and how may we go about trying to attain it?
These questions form the basis for moral philosophy.
Michael Lacewing is a teacher of philosophy and theology at Christ’s Hospital School, Sussex.
Metaphysics of God
We should approach the question “does God exist?” with caution, and perhaps even suspicion. This is, we might assume, a classic question, one of the “big questions” of philosophy. And the question, posed in just three words, appears simple enough. Even though we may expect it to be difficult to reach an answer with any certainty, the range of possible responses seems fairly limited: “yes”, “no”, “I don’t know,” “maybe”.
Yet this would be to move too quickly, and to assume too much. The question “does God exist?” is structured in a way that implies that we already know what God is – that we have a concept of God – and that we are asking whether there is, in reality, something that corresponds to this concept. The question structurally resembles questions like “does Santa Claus exist?” and “do chairs exist?” and in these cases we know who Santa Claus is and we know what chairs are. What is in question is, are these things real? are there really such things?
Clare Carlisle is Reader in Philosophy and Theology at King's College London.
Metaphysics of Mind
What is the nature of mind, and how is it related to the brain and to the body? Can we account for the mind within a scientific and naturalistic framework, or does it require a different kind of treatment? How can we know of the existence of minds other than our own? What kinds of entities have minds? For example, would it be possible for machines to have minds? How would we know? All of these questions are at the heart of the philosophical subfield known as Philosophy of Mind.
Though some of these questions raise epistemological worries, in this guide we will focus primarily on those concerning the metaphysics of mind, a set of questions often referred to as the Mind-Body Problem.
Amy Kind is Russell K. Pitzer Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies.