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Philosophical and psychological epistemology

Epistemology as a branch of philosophy (PhilEp) and in its standard fonn in the latter half of the 20th century involves discussions about the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge, its definition, and the reliability of cognitive processes. By contrast, Perry and numerous scholars following him (such as Hofer & Pintrich, 1997; Baxter Magolda, 2004; Schommer-Aikins, 2004; Kuhn & Weinstock, 2002; King & Kitchener, 2004, and others), work in a tradition of psychological epistemology (PsyEp) within which, like in philosophical epistemology as well, different views are presented by different scholars. As mentioned, the results of the PsyEp studies — especially Perry’s (1970) - concern the attitudes of empirically studied groups of students towards their own views about knowledge. From a philosophical point of view, such results do not directly show how knowledge should be analysed and what conditions one should lay out for something to be knowledge. In this section, the basic notions of philosophical epistemology will be elucidated in a standard fonn that can be found in introductions to 20th-century Western philosophical epistemology. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, for instance, contains easily accessible articles, references to which are given in the endnotes with respect to the themes discussed in the body text.

In the late 20th century, philosophical epistemology broadly speaking focused on debating a notion of knowledge that is characterised by three conditions;

  • (KB): Knowledge is a form of belief.
  • (TB): Knowledge is true belief.
  • (W): A true belief that counts as knowledge must be warranted, i.e., it must be justified either directly by being self-evident or by a non-inferential cognitive process, or through valid inference from other justified beliefs.8

Philosophers have different views on how exactly beliefs can be justified (i.e., warranted). One useful distinction is the one mentioned in the formulation of principle (W) above: beliefs can be justified directly through a cognitive process such as perception, or they can be justified through valid inference from other (directly or indirectly) justified beliefs. Typically, some logical principles are also included in the category of justified beliefs. Therefore, if one asks for the justification of my belief that there is a computer screen in front of me, many philosophers agree that the fact that I perceive a computer screen in front of me is sufficient to justify the claim. It is important to note, however, that justification is distinct from truth. Therefore, although my belief that there is a computer in front of me can be justified by reference to my perceiving it, my perception does not make my belief true. We can imagine some optical illusion or minors, for example, that create the impression that the screen is there although it in fact is not.

It is also important to note that, in the context of philosophical epistemology, a belief does not mean religious belief or faith but rather that someone takes something to be the case. If person a has a belief that p, a takes p to be true. Here a stands for an individual person and p for a proposition or statement, such as “the earth moves”, “it is raining”, or “justice is good”. Therefore, I have a belief that it is raining (in place x at time t) when I take it to be true that it is raining in place x at time t. A proposition or statement (p) as the object of belief is expressed in natural language as an indicative sentence, as opposed to questions, prayers, exclamations, confessions, and so on.

To see why PsyEp’s results do not have direct implications for the analysis of knowledge in the philosophical framework, we need to articulate one more principle.

(BNIT) A believes that p does not imply that p is true.

This principle can, in brief, be articulated as the obvious claim that belief does not imply truth.9 From the fact that a believes p to be the case, it does not follow that p is the case. For example, if I believe (i.e., take it to be the case) that it is raining in Finland at place x a certain moment of time (t), it does not follow that it is raining in Finland at place x at time t. Whether my belief is true or not, depends on whether it is actually raining in Finland at that place and that moment or not.

This is relevant for the results of PsyEp studies for the following reason. For example, Perry’s study concerns how students answer the questions about what they think (i.e., take to be the case) about the truth of what they learn in class. The result is that first students believed (i.e. took it to be the case) that what they learn at the university is true. Based on the principle explicated above (BNIT), this does not imply that what they learn at the university is true. Whether the contents taught are true or not, depends on how things are, not on whether students believe them to be true or not. Similarly, when the students become more critical towards university teaching, this does not make the contents taught change from true to false (or vice versa). If I stop believing that it is raining at place x at time f, my change of belief does not stop the rain.

In addition, it is worth pointing out that truth in the sense that it is used in philosophical epistemology does not come in degrees. Something can be more like the truth, closer to the truth, or more likely (i.e. more probable), but these are degrees of truth-likeness or probability, not of truth as such. Therefore, Perry’s study (1970) and the studies of the scholars belonging to the same tradition do not show that university teaching would become less true as the students’ confidence in it diminishes. It shows that the students’ confidence in the truth of what is being taught to them diminishes and they start to have greater trust in their own critical ability to distinguish between what is true and what is not.

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