Methods of obtaining knowledge

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Knowledge may originate or be derived from the following origins or methods:


  • Observation or experience. This may be more or less sophisticated, ranging from a simple, "I saw" to carefully designed controlled experimentation.
  • Reason or logic. Taking other knowledge as data, by logical operations knowledge can be inferred. For example, the theoretical construct, the electron, is derived by logical inferences from observations and experiment. Such knowledge, being derivative, can not be better than the knowledge upon which it is founded.
  • Testimony. Knowledge based on the acceptance of testimony involves accepting what others say. For example, I only know that Kent is a county of England, that the First World War was horrendous. This seems to be a common way we get knowledge but is seen by philosophers as problematic. See Testimony, philosophical problems of.
    • Authority. Knowledge based on authority may rely upon the reputation of an individual such as Aristotle or Einstein or perhaps on institutional authority such as that of the Roman Catholic Church or Oxford University. Note that an authority may adopt knowledge upon other criteria such as divine revelation or observation as well as upon authority. Authority may have a political basis in the sense that some political process, perhaps involving status as well as simple voting, peer review, or comment. This is familiar to participants in academia.
  • Revelation. Many people believe knowledge may be obtained via revelation or even divine revelation, which may be directly from God or another spirit, perhaps conveyed through a religious text or texts, such as the Bible, although there is no evidence to support this claim[disputed ].

So far processes have been mentioned by which knowledge is obtained. But, in obtaining knowledge there are two main kinds of knowledge that one can obtain.

Fallible knowledge[edit]

The first is fallible knowledge. Fallible knowledge is characterized by Baron Reed as:

  • “(FK6) S fallibly knows that p = df (1) S knows that p on the basis of justification j and yet (2) S’s belief that p on the basis of j could have been either (i) false or (ii) accidentally true.
  • (FK7) S fallibly knows that p = df (1) S knows that p on the basis of justification j where (2) j makes probable the belief that p in the sense that S’s belief belongs to the class of beliefs which have the same (type) j and most, but not all, of which are true.”[1]

The intuition these formulations capture is that knowledge understood as justified true belief, is fallible, or allows room for error. If the justification for a true belief could have also justified a belief that turned out false, then it is possible that the justified true belief constituting knowledge could have been not knowledge. Another way of looking at it, but in which Reed suggests is equivalent, is to consider that justification makes probable the truth of a belief. Intuitions about knowledge that leave room for possible error thus represent fallible knowledge. It is in relation to these intuitions that the Gettier problem was initially posed by Edmund Gettier in 1963. See Epistemology. The results of Gettier's brief but forceful paper drove some people to amend the account of knowledge as justified true belief by adding a Gettier condition. Other people simply chose to endorse another kind of knowledge.

Infallible knowledge[edit]

Infallible knowledge represents the intuition that knowledge does not leave room for error. In this sense, justification makes knowledge certainly true while not leaving room for error. In fact, considering the notions of fallible knowledge above, if you reject the latter clauses in either formulation (FK6 or FK7) then you are either rejecting those claims in favor of other formulations of fallible knowledge or are an infallibilist. Since infallibilism invokes notions of certainty, skeptical worries are immediately brought up. The skeptic usually aims his most devastating attacks at infallible knowledge. Consider a skeptical syllogism like so:

-1) If knowledge requires justification (imagine it does), then the justification must entail the truth of the belief.

-2) Justification never entails the truth of a belief.

--> 3) Therefore, we never have knowledge.

Of course, there are many arguments against the skeptic but for the focus of this article it is merely helpful to see that each of the methods for obtaining knowledge presupposes a kind of knowledge that is obtained. For more on skepticism, see Epistemology. The distinction between fallible and infallible knowledge has also received a lot of attention.[2]


There are some interesting views about what role the genealogy of a belief can play in the formation of knowledge. Nietzsche famously critiqued the genealogy of beliefs and knowledge in both his On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic and The Gay Science. Of special interest here is section 110 in The Gay Science where Nietzsche criticizes the foundations of all knowledge.[3] He draws a distinction between knowledge-as-preservation and knowledge-as-truth. Knowledge-as-truth is the factive sense of knowledge that most epistemologists focus on. But knowledge-as-preservation was the original knowledge that was formed merely as a means for preservation of the species. Knowledge-as-preservation can be understood as our tendency to internalize certain methods of obtaining what we believe to be knowledge. Early on in our species we had to trust our faculties of observation and reason if we were to continue living and advancing. Nietzsche's real critique comes into play when he points out that since this knowledge-as-preservation was formed from fundamental errors (the idea that these faculties are not and were never foolproof) and it underlies our knowledge-as-truth, that all of our knowledge is founded upon fundamental errors. For Nietzsche this poses a potentially huge problem for the knowledge-as-truth. If none of the aforementioned methods of knowledge acquisition can give us justification that entails the truth of a belief, then it seems we are stuck with fallible knowledge.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Reed, Baron. "How to Think about Fallibilism." Philosophical Studies 107 (2002): 143-57. Web. 7 Apr. 2016.
  2. ^ See especially:
  3. ^ Nietzsche, Friedrich. "The Gay Science." The Nietzsche Reader. Ed. Keith A. Pearson. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 200. 220-21. Print.