Part IV. Epistemology and Metaphysics

Chemistry Laboratory at Howard University, Washington, D.C., Library of Congress

In this part of our study of philosophy we look at the question as to whether we can know anything about anything at all. If knowledge can be had, then how does one get it? And what kinds of things can be known? Does skepticism rule? Topics are briefly introduced here in a somewhat non-standard manner.

Rather than taking a traditional approach in epistemology and metaphysics, we will use a variety of studies to illustrate how these two divisions of philosophy are interrelated. Modern science and its implications for everyday life are seen as good examples of the integration of epistemology and metaphysics.

In our first reading, August Comte argues that our knowledge in the sciences has features unique to each science. Just as in social processes, Comte believes our knowledge passes through three stages: the theological, the metaphysical and the positive or scientific. On this view, knowledge can only be obtained by observation and reason in the discovery of lawful succession. John Stuart Mill, who admired Comte's work, argues that the science of human nature can become an exact science just like the sciences of physics and astronomy. The reason, he thinks, we do not have comparable knowledge about human nature and behavior is that the antecedent conditions of human beings are far too many and complex to be measured with sufficient accuracy.

The vision of a unified scientific understanding of reality is provided in the first glimpse of "a theory of everything" suggested by the scientific materialism of Frederich Engels. Engels argues that discoveries in the sciences provide the basis by which all aspects of the universe can be understood and unified in terms of the philosophy of materialism.

An understanding of knowledge and reality is based on the nature and tests of truth. A pragmatic theory of truth is urged by William James. He thinks what is true is essentially what is useful. Since we discover the true and the useful in the same manner, he believes false beliefs are those beliefs which are not useful and do not allow us to accomplish our goals. One problem with the pragmatic theory of truth is, of course, that sometimes a useful idea turns out to be false.

The coherence theory of truth sees truth as a property of a system of interrelated statements—much as that exemplified in discipline of geometry. On this theory, we can find out if a statement is true when it can be derived from some other statement or statements known to be true. Knowledge, then, is represented by the system of logically consistent statements known through their logical relations with each other. Harold H. Joachim provides a particularly interesting version of this theory of truth.

The correspondence theory of truth, however, is different. The correspondence theory, as explained by Bertrand Russell, holds that facts in the world are distinguishable from our thoughts about those facts. When a statement expressing an idea is directly related to, or is in accord with, a fact, then that statement is said to be true. A false statement is one that does not "correspond" to the facts. A major problem with the correspondence theory of truth is the question of what counts as being a fact. In the first chapter of this text, we pointed out that facts, strictly speaking, are not "in the world" since they do not have size, shape, or weight as do other things in the world. Facts are not colored, heavy, or large.

The problem of future truths illustrates a straightforward example of an interface between a philosophical theory and a number of a real-world applications. In Aristotle's "The Sea-Fight Tomorrow," a knotty problem involving language, truth, and reality is described. Aristotle suggests two ways of resolution; other solutions are left to the reader.

The final reading in this section brings together a number of philosophical issues as related to what makes a life significant. William James reminds us that the function of our study of ideas is not for knowledge for its own sake but for the purpose of human aspiration, endurance, and effort.