Book Review: Epistemology: A Beginner’s Guide

Epistemology:  A Beginner’s Guide, by Robert M. Martin

This is a book that it is easier to respect than to like.  I do not necessarily consider it of vital importance for me to actively enjoy reading a book if I find it useful and instructive, and in this case I was definitely more interested in the arguments about what constitutes knowledge than I was about the entertainment value of this book.  As someone who enjoys philosophy in general and epistemology in particular [1], there was much interest I had in this book, as I wanted to see what sort of debates there were about the foundations of knowledge.  What I found certainly met my expectations.  The author did a good job at disguising his own opinions about knowledge and the conditions that are necessary for it, but one got the feeling at the same time that there was an air of unreality about much of the discussion, as if human beings were competent to be judges of what constitutes knowledge and what does not, which is not a conclusion I am ready to come to.   Indeed, a great deal of the discussion in the book hinged on various problems faced when people try to define what is and what is not knowledge for themselves.

This book is almost two hundred pages in length and is divided into nine chapters that are thematically organized.  The first chapter looks at how we define knowledge (1) and spends a lot of time looking at what elements are necessary for something to be considered to be knowledge, which include truth.  After this the author examines the strength of belief and evidence (2) that are required to make truth claims acceptable to an audience of philosophers, by no means a straightforward issue.  The author then turns to the issue of justification and various intriguing Gettier problems that indicate how problematic the issue of justification can be (3) before turning to justification in its relationship to questions of internal and external validity of one’s thinking and reasoning processes (4).  After this the author contrasts foundationalism and coherentism as ideas about the basis of knowledge (5) and looks at the issues of a priori knowledge, what makes knowledge analytic as opposed to synthetic, and what basis is necessary for the existence of firm knowledge (6).  The last three chapters of the book examine the problematic issue of knowledge based on sense-experience (7) as well as the approach of skepticism (8) and some new approaches to epistemology like feminist epistemology that the author subjects to some pretty fierce criticism in light of their political biases (9) before including some suggestions for future reading (not wikipedia) and an index.

In reading this book it is pretty clear that there are serious disputes all up and down the line when it comes to knowledge and the grounds and justifications people have in claiming it.  It would appear, at least to this observer, that a great deal of the issues that come with regards to epistemology relate to the wide gulf that exists between our desire to see ourselves (or at least those wiser members of our species) as arbiters of truth and error and as authorities when it comes to what constitutes knowledge and what does not, but yet we are continually confronted by the limits of our own perspectives, by the shaky foundations of our reason, and by the limitations and fallibility of our senses and our means of acquiring the raw material of information from which we can draw insights.  We desire to be on a firm foundation but find it difficult to justify our confidence in our own reason, by which we seek to claim the authority to be our own lawgivers and judges, and that lack of humility exposes us to continual problems in squaring the circles of our existence.  This book can be praised for being forthright about the seriousness of the disputes and issues.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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3 Responses to Book Review: Epistemology: A Beginner’s Guide

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

  2. Pingback: On Epistemology And The Problem Of Revealed Knowledge And Authority | Edge Induced Cohesion

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