Naturalized epistemology

Naturalized epistemology, coined by W. V. O. Quine, is a collection of philosophic views concerned with the theory of knowledge that emphasize the role of natural scientific methods. This shared emphasis on scientific methods of studying knowledge shifts focus to the empirical processes of knowledge acquisition and away from many traditional philosophical questions. There are noteworthy distinctions within naturalized epistemology. Replacement naturalism maintains that traditional epistemology should be abandoned and replaced with the methodologies of the natural sciences. The general thesis of cooperative naturalism is that traditional epistemology can benefit in its inquiry by using the knowledge we have gained from the cognitive sciences. Substantive naturalism focuses on an asserted equality of facts of knowledge and natural facts.

Objections to naturalized epistemology have targeted features of the general project as well as characteristics of specific versions. Some objectors suggest that natural scientific knowledge cannot be circularly grounded by the knowledge obtained through cognitive science, which is itself a natural science. This objection from circularity has been aimed specifically at strict replacement naturalism. There are similar challenges to substance naturalism that maintain that the substance naturalists' thesis that all facts of knowledge are natural facts is not only circular but fails to accommodate certain facts. Several other objectors have found fault in the inability of naturalized methods to adequately address questions about what value forms of potential knowledge have or lack. Naturalized epistemology is generally opposed to the antipsychologism of Immanuel Kant, Gottlob Frege, Karl Popper, Edmund Husserl and others.

Forms of naturalism

Replacement naturalism

W. V. O. Quine's version of naturalized epistemology considers reasons for serious doubt about the fruitfulness of traditional philosophic study of scientific knowledge.[1] These concerns are raised in light of the long attested incapacity of philosophers to find a satisfactory answer to the problems of radical scepticism, more particularly, to David Hume's criticism of induction. But also, because of the contemporaneous attempts and failures to reduce mathematics to pure logic by those in or philosophically sympathetic to The Vienna Circle. He concludes that studies of scientific knowledge concerned with meaning or truth fail to achieve the Cartesian goal of certainty. The failures in the reduction of mathematics to pure logic imply that scientific knowledge can at best be defined with the aid of less certain set-theoretic notions. Even if set theory's lacking the certainty of pure logic is deemed acceptable, the usefulness of constructing an encoding of scientific knowledge as logic and set theory is undermined by the inability to construct a useful translation from logic and set-theory back to scientific knowledge. If no translation between scientific knowledge and the logical structures can be constructed that works both ways, then the properties of the purely logical and set-theoretic constructions do not usefully inform understanding of scientific knowledge.[1]

On Quine's account, attempts to pursue the traditional project of finding the meanings and truths of science philosophically have failed on their own terms and failed to offer any advantage over the more direct methods of psychology. Quine rejects the analytic-synthetic distinction and emphasizes the holistic nature of our beliefs. Since traditional philosophic analysis of knowledge fails, those wishing to study knowledge ought to employ natural scientific methods. Scientific study of knowledge differs from philosophic study by focusing on how humans acquire knowledge rather than speculative analysis of knowledge.[1] According to Quine, this appeal to science to ground the project of studying knowledge, which itself underlies science, should not be dismissed for its circularity since it is the best option available after ruling out traditional philosophic methods for their more serious flaws. This identification and tolerance of circularity is reflected elsewhere in Quine's works.[2]

Cooperative naturalism

Cooperative naturalism is a version of naturalized epistemology which states that while there are evaluative questions to pursue, the empirical results from psychology concerning how individuals actually think and reason are essential and useful for making progress in these evaluative questions. This form of naturalism says that our psychological and biological limitations and abilities are relevant to the study of human knowledge. Empirical work is relevant to epistemology but only if epistemology is itself as broad as the study of human knowledge.[3]

Substantive naturalism

Substantive naturalism is a form of naturalized epistemology that emphasizes how all epistemic facts are natural facts. Natural facts can be based on two main ideas. The first is that all natural facts include all facts that science would verify. The second is to provide a list of examples that consists of natural items. This will help in deducing what else can be included.[3]


Quine articulates the problem of circularity inherent in naturalized epistemology when it is treated as a replacement for traditional epistemology.[1] If the goal of traditional epistemology is to validate or to provide the foundation for the natural sciences, naturalized epistemology would be tasked with validating the natural sciences by means of those very sciences. That is, an empirical investigation into the criteria which are used to scientifically evaluate evidence must presuppose those very same criteria.[4] However, Quine points out that these thoughts of validation are merely a byproduct of traditional epistemology.[1] Instead, the naturalized epistemologist should only be concerned with understanding the link between observation and science even if that understanding relies on the very science under investigation.[1]

In order to understand the link between observation and science, Quine's naturalized epistemology must be able to identify and describe the process by which scientific knowledge is acquired. One form of this investigation is reliabilism which requires that a belief be the product of some reliable method if it is to be considered knowledge. Since naturalized epistemology relies on empirical evidence, all epistemic facts which comprise this reliable method must be reducible to natural facts.[3] That is, all facts related to the process of understanding must be expressible in terms of natural facts. If this is not true, i.e. there are facts which cannot be expressed as natural facts, science would have no means of investigating them. In this vein, Roderick Chisholm argues that there are epistemic principles (or facts) which are necessary to knowledge acquisition, but may not be, themselves, natural facts.[3] If Chisholm is correct, naturalized epistemology would be unable to account for these epistemic principles and, as a result, would be unable to wholly describe the process by which knowledge is obtained.

Beyond Quine's own concerns and potential discrepancies between epistemic and natural facts, Hilary Putnam argues that the replacement of traditional epistemology with naturalized epistemology necessitates the elimination of the normative.[5] But without the normative, there is no "justification, rational acceptability [nor] warranted assertibility". Ultimately, there is no "true" since any method for arriving at the truth was abandoned with the normative. All notions which would explain truth are only intelligible when the normative is presupposed. Moreover, for there to be "thinkers", there "must be some kind of truth"; otherwise, "our thoughts aren't really about anything[,...] there is no sense in which any thought is right or wrong".[5] Without the normative to dictate how one should proceed or which methods should be employed, naturalized epistemology cannot determine the "right" criteria by which empirical evidence should be evaluated.[4] But these are precisely the issues which traditional epistemology has been tasked with. If naturalized epistemology does not provide the means for addressing these issues, it cannot succeed as a replacement to traditional epistemology.

Jaegwon Kim, another critic of naturalized epistemology, further articulates the difficulty of removing the normative component. He notes that modern epistemology has been dominated by the concepts of justification and reliability.[6] Kim explains that epistemology and knowledge are nearly eliminated in their common sense meanings without normative concepts such as these. These concepts are meant to engender the question "What conditions must a belief meet if we are justified in accepting it as true?". That is to say, what are the necessary criteria by which a particular belief can be declared as "true" (or, should it fail to meet these criteria, can we rightly infer its falsity)? This notion of truth rests solely on the conception and application of the criteria which are set forth in traditional and modern theories of epistemology.

Kim adds to this claim by explaining how the idea of "justification" is the only notion (among "belief" and "truth") which is the defining characteristic of an epistemological study. To remove this aspect is to alter the very meaning and goal of epistemology, whereby we are no longer discussing the study and acquisition of knowledge. Justification is what makes knowledge valuable and normative; without it what can rightly be said to be true or false? We are left with only descriptions of the processes by which we arrive at a belief. Kim realizes that Quine is moving epistemology into the realm of psychology, where Quine’s main interest is based on the sensory input-output relationship of an individual. This account can never establish an affirmable statement which can lead us to truth, since all statements without the normative are purely descriptive (which can never amount to knowledge). The vulgar allowance of any statement without discrimination as scientifically valid, though not true, makes Quine’s theory difficult to accept under any epistemic theory which requires truth as the object of knowledge.

As a result of these objections and others like them, most, including Quine in his later writings, have agreed that naturalized epistemology as a replacement may be too strong of a view.[3] However, these objections have helped shape rather than completely eliminate naturalized epistemology. One product of these objections is cooperative naturalism which holds that empirical results are essential and useful to epistemology. That is, while traditional epistemology cannot be eliminated, neither can it succeed in its investigation of knowledge without empirical results from the natural sciences. In any case, Quinean Replacement Naturalism finds relatively few supporters.[3]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Quine, Willard (2004). "Epistemology Naturalized". In E. Sosa & J. Kim (ed.). Epistemology: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 292–300. ISBN 0-631-19724-9.
  2. ^ Quine, Willard (1994). "Two Dogmas of Empiricism". From a Logical Point of View. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 20–46. ISBN 0-674-32351-3.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Feldman, Richard. "Naturalized Epistemology". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved September 31, 2009. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  4. ^ a b Giere, Ronald (1985). "Philosophy of Science Naturalized". Philosophy of Science. 52 (3): 331–356. CiteSeerX doi:10.1086/289255.
  5. ^ a b Putnam, Hilary (2004). "Why Reason Can't Be Naturalized". In E. Sosa & J. Kim (ed.). Epistemology: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 314–324. ISBN 0-631-19724-9.
  6. ^ Kim, Jaegwon (2004). "What is 'Naturalized Epistemology'?". In E. Sosa & J. Kim (ed.). Epistemology: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 301–313. ISBN 0-631-19724-9.

Selected bibliography

  • Almeder, Robert (1998) Harmless Naturalism: The Limits of Science and the Nature of Philosophy, Peru, Illinois: Open Court.
  • BonJour, Laurence (1994) "Against Naturalized Epistemology," Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XIX: 283-300.
  • Chisholm, Roderick (1966)Theory of Knowledge, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Chisholm, Roderick (1982) The Foundations of Knowing, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Chisholm, Roderick (1989)Theory of Knowledge, 3rd ed., Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Feldman, Richard (1999), "Methodological Naturalism in Epistemology," in The Blackwell Guide to Epistemology, edited by John Greco and Ernest Sosa, Malden, Ma: Blackwell, pp. 170–186.
  • Foley, Richard (1994) "Quine and Naturalized Epistemology," Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XIX: 243-260.
  • Fumerton, Richard (1994) "Skepticism and Naturalistic Epistemology," Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XIX: 321-340.
  • Fumerton, Richard (1995) Metaepistemology and Skepticism, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
  • Gibbard, Allan (1990) Wise Feelings, Apt Choices, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Goldman, Alvin (1979) "What is Justified Belief?," in G. Pappas, ed., Justification and Knowledge: New Studies in Epistemology, Dordrecht, Reidel: 1-23.
  • Goldman, Alvin (1992), Liaisons: Philosophy Meets the Cognitive and Social Sciences, Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Haack, Susan (1993) Evidence and Inquiry: Towards Reconstruction in Epistemology, Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Harman, Gilbert (1977) Thought, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Kim, Jaegwon (1988) "What is Naturalized Epistemology?" Philosophical Perspectives 2 edited by James E. Tomberlin, Asascadero, CA: Ridgeview Publishing Co: 381-406.
  • Kitcher, Philip (1992) "The Naturalists Return," Philosophical Review, 101: 53-114.
  • Kornblith, Hilary (1994) Naturalizing Epistemology 2nd Edition, Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Kornblith, Hilary (1999) "In Defense of a Naturalized Epistemology" in The Blackwell Guide to Epistemology, edited by John Greco and Ernest Sosa, Malden, Ma: Blackwell, pp. 158–169.
  • Kornblith, Hilary (1988) "How Internal Can You Get?," Synthese, 74: 313-327.
  • Lehrer, Keith (1997) Self-Trust: A study of Reason, Knowledge and Autonomy, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Lycan, William (1988) Judgement and Justification, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Mafffie, James (1990) "Recent Work on Naturalizing Epistemology," American Philosophical Quarterly 27: 281-293.
  • Pollock, John (1986) Contemporary Theories of Knowledge, Totawa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.
  • Quine, W.V.O. (1969) Ontological Relativity and Other Essays, New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Quine, W.V.O. (1990) "Norms and Aims" in The Pursuit of Truth, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Steup, Matthias, An Introduction to Contemporary Epistemology, Prentice-Hall, 1996.
  • Stich, Stephen and Richard Nisbett (1980), "Justification and the Psychology of Human Reasoning," Philosophy of Science 47: 188-202.
  • Stich, Stephen (1990) The Fragmentation of Reason, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Strawson, Peter (1952) Introduction to Logical Theory, New York: Wiley.
  • van Cleve, James (1985) "Epistemic Supervenience and the Circle of Belief" Monist 68: 90-104.

External links

Alvin Goldman

Alvin Ira Goldman (born 1938) is an American philosopher who is Board of Governors Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science at Rutgers University in New Jersey and a leading figure in epistemology.

Descriptive knowledge

Descriptive knowledge, also declarative knowledge, propositional knowledge, or constative knowledge, is the type of knowledge that is, by its very nature, expressed in declarative sentences or indicative propositions. This distinguishes descriptive knowledge from what is commonly known as "knowing-how", or procedural knowledge (the knowledge of how, and especially how best, to perform some task), and "knowing of", or knowledge by acquaintance (the non-propositional knowledge of something through direct awareness of it). Descriptive knowledge is also identified as "knowing-that" or knowledge of fact, embodying concepts, principles, ideas, schemas, and theories. The entire descriptive knowledge of an individual constitute his understanding of the world and more specifically how it or a part of it works.The distinction between knowing-how and knowing-that was introduced in epistemology by Gilbert Ryle. For Ryle, the former differs in its emphasis and purpose since it is primarily practical knowledge whereas the latter focuses on indicative or explanatory knowledge.

Epistemological idealism

Epistemological idealism is a subjectivist position in epistemology that holds that what one knows about an object exists only in one's mind. It is opposed to epistemological realism.


Epistemology ( (listen); from Greek, Modern ἐπιστήμη, epistēmē, meaning 'knowledge', and -logy) is the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge.

Epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge, justification, and the rationality of belief. Much debate in epistemology centers on four areas: (1) the philosophical analysis of the nature of knowledge and how it relates to such concepts as truth, belief, and justification, (2) various problems of skepticism, (3) the sources and scope of knowledge and justified belief, and (4) the criteria for knowledge and justification. Epistemology addresses such questions as: "What makes justified beliefs justified?", "What does it mean to say that we know something?", and fundamentally "How do we know that we know?"

Hierarchical epistemology

Hierarchical epistemology is a theory of knowledge which posits that beings have different access to reality depending on their ontological rank.

Hilary Kornblith

Hilary Kornblith is an American Professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA, and one of contemporary epistemology's most prominent proponents of naturalized epistemology.

Holophrastic indeterminacy

Holophrastic indeterminacy, or indeterminacy of sentence translation, is one of two kinds of indeterminacy of translation to appear in the writings of philosopher W. V. O. Quine. According to Quine, "there is more than one correct method of translating sentences where the two translations differ not merely in the meanings attributed to the sub-sentential parts of speech but also in the net import of the whole sentence". It is holophrastic indeterminacy that underlies Quine's argument against synonymy, the basis of his objections to Rudolf Carnap's analytic/synthetic distinction. The other kind of indeterminacy introduced by Quine is the "inscrutability of reference", which refers to parts of a sentence or individual words.

Information source

An information source is a person, thing, or place from which information comes, arises, or is obtained. Information souces can be known as primary or secondary. That source might then inform a person about something or provide knowledge about it. Information sources are divided into separate distinct categories, primary, secondary, tertiary, and so on.

Jaegwon Kim

Jaegwon Kim (born September 12, 1934) is a Korean-American philosopher who is now an emeritus professor at Brown University, but who also taught at several other leading American universities. He is best known for his work on mental causation, the mind-body problem and the metaphysics of supervenience and events. Key themes in his work include: a rejection of Cartesian metaphysics, the limitations of strict psychophysical identity, supervenience, and the individuation of events. Kim's work on these and other contemporary metaphysical and epistemological issues is well represented by the papers collected in Supervenience and Mind: Selected Philosophical Essays (1993).

Laurence BonJour

Laurence BonJour (born August 31, 1943) is an American philosopher and Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Washington.

List of epistemologists

This is a list of epistemologists, that is, people who theorize about the nature of knowledge, belief formation and the nature of justification.


Meta-epistemology is a metaphilosophical study of the subject, matter, methods and aims of epistemology and of approaches to understanding and structuring our knowledge of knowledge itself.

In epistemology, there are two basic meta-epistemological approaches: traditional "normative" epistemology, and naturalized epistemology.

Traditional epistemology has been concerned with "justification". According to the traditional model of knowledge, some proposition p is knowledge if and only if:

some agent X believes p,

p is true,

X is justified in believing in pSince the time of Descartes, who sought to establish the criteria by which true beliefs could be acquired, and to determine those beliefs we are in fact justified in believing, the primary epistemological project has been the elucidation of the justificatory condition in this conception of knowledge (i.e. justified true belief).

Naturalized epistemology had its beginnings in the twentieth century with W. V. Quine. Quine's proposal, which is commonly called "Replacement Naturalism," is to excise every trace of normativity from the epistemological body. Quine wanted to merge epistemology with empirical psychology such that every epistemological statement would be replaced by a psychological statement.

Murray Clarke

Murray Clarke is a Professor of Philosophy at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada specializing in Cognitive Science, Philosophy of Mind, and Naturalized Epistemology. He is the author of Reconstructing Reason and Representation.

Problem of other minds

The problem of other minds is a philosophical problem traditionally stated as the following epistemological challenge raised by the skeptic: Given that I can only observe the behavior of others, how can I know that others have minds? It is a central issue of the philosophical idea known as solipsism: the notion that for any person only one's own mind is known to exist. Solipsism maintains that no matter how sophisticated someone's behavior is, behavior on its own does not guarantee the presence of mentality.


Psychologism is a philosophical position, according to which psychology plays a central role in grounding or explaining some other, non-psychological type of fact or law.

Social epistemology

Social epistemology refers to a broad set of approaches that can be taken in the study of knowledge that construes human knowledge as a collective achievement. Another way of characterizing social epistemology is as the evaluation of the social dimensions of knowledge or information. It is sometimes simplified to mean a social justification of belief.One of the enduring difficulties with defining "social epistemology" that arises is the attempt to determine what the word "knowledge" means in this context. There is also a challenge in arriving at a definition of "social" which satisfies academics from different disciplines. Social epistemologists may exist working in many of the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, most commonly in philosophy and sociology. In addition to marking a distinct movement in traditional and analytic epistemology, social epistemology is associated with the interdisciplinary field of science and technology studies (STS).

The Roots of Reference

The Roots of Reference is a 1974 book by philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine, in which the author expands on his earlier concepts about the inscrutability of reference and examines problems with traditional empiricism, arguing for a naturalized epistemology based on holism.

Willard Van Orman Quine

Willard Van Orman Quine (; known to intimates as "Van"; June 25, 1908 – December 25, 2000) was an American philosopher and logician in the analytic tradition, recognized as "one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century." From 1930 until his death 70 years later, Quine was continually affiliated with Harvard University in one way or another, first as a student, then as a professor of philosophy and a teacher of logic and set theory, and finally as a professor emeritus who published or revised several books in retirement. He filled the Edgar Pierce Chair of Philosophy at Harvard from 1956 to 1978. A 2009 poll conducted among analytic philosophers named Quine as the fifth most important philosopher of the past two centuries. He won the first Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy in 1993 for "his systematical and penetrating discussions of how learning of language and communication are based on socially available evidence and of the consequences of this for theories on knowledge and linguistic meaning." In 1996 he was awarded the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy for his "outstanding contributions to the progress of philosophy in the 20th century by proposing numerous theories based on keen insights in logic, epistemology, philosophy of science and philosophy of language."Quine falls squarely into the analytic philosophy tradition while also being the main proponent of the view that philosophy is not conceptual analysis but the abstract branch of the empirical sciences. His major writings include "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (1951), which attacked the distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions and advocated a form of semantic holism, and Word and Object (1960), which further developed these positions and introduced Quine's famous indeterminacy of translation thesis, advocating a behaviorist theory of meaning. He also developed an influential naturalized epistemology that tried to provide "an improved scientific explanation of how we have developed elaborate scientific theories on the basis of meager sensory input." He is also important in philosophy of science for his "systematic attempt to understand science from within the resources of science itself" and for his conception of philosophy as continuous with science. This led to his famous quip that "philosophy of science is philosophy enough." In philosophy of mathematics, he and his Harvard colleague Hilary Putnam developed the "Quine–Putnam indispensability thesis," an argument for the reality of mathematical entities.

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