Sources of Knowledge
In epistemology, a common concern with respect to knowledge is what sources of information are capable of giving knowledge.
The following are some of the major sources of knowledge:
- Perception — that which can be perceived through the experiences of the senses. The view that experience is the primary source of knowledge is called empiricism.
- Reason — Reason can be considered a source of knowledge, either by deducing truths from existing knowledge, or by learning things a priori, discovering necessary truths (such as mathematical truths) through pure reason. The view that reason is the primary source of knowledge is called rationalism
- Introspection — knowledge of one’s self that can be found through internal self-evalution. This is generally considered to be a sort of perception. (For example, I know I am hungry or tired.)
- Memory — Memory is the storage of knowledge that was learned in the past — whether it be past events or current information.
- Testimony — Testimony relies on others to acquire knowledge and communicate it to us. Some deny that testimony can be a source of knowledge, and insist that beliefs gained through testimony must be verified in order to be knowledge.
Each of us possesses a great deal of knowledge. We know about ourselves; we know about the world around us; we know about abstract concepts and ideas. Philosophers have often wondered where this knowledge ultimately comes from.
Of course, we learn a lot of things from books, from the media, and from other people. To process information from these sources, however, we must already know many things: how to read, how to reason, who to trust. To learn these things requires yet more knowledge. What, then, is the most fundamental way of acquiring knowledge?
There are two competing traditions concerning the ultimate source of our knowledge: empiricism and rationalism.
Empiricists hold that all of our knowledge is ultimately derived from our senses or our experiences. They therefore deny the existence of innate knowledge, i.e. knowledge that we possess from birth. Empiricism fits well with the scientific world-view that places an emphasis on experimentation and observation. It struggles, however, to account for certain types of knowledge, e.g. knowledge of pure mathematics or ethics.
Rationalists hold that at least some of our knowledge is derived from reason alone, and that reason plays an important role in the acquisition of all of our knowledge. There is clearly a limit to what we can learn through abstract thought, but the rationalist’s claim is that reason play a role in observation, and so that the mind is more fundamental than the senses in the process of knowledge-acquisition.