How Do We Know? An Introduction to Epistemology


Mark W. Foreman & James K. Dew Jr., How Do We Know? An Introduction to Epistemology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, January 2014. 175 pp. Paperback, $20.00.

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A couple of weeks back, I introduced you to Mark Foreman, who introduced me to philosophy. I told you about then his Prelude to Philosophy. Today, for philosophy Friday, I thought I’d tell you about his other new book. This time, he is co-authoring along with James K. Dew Jr., a philosophy and history of ideas prof at Southeastern. Together, they’ve written an accessible introduction to epistemology. Perhaps my favorite branch of philosophy, epistemology is the study of knowledge. It tests the limits and methods of knowing and is a powerful tool in apologetics.

The book takes its title from the key question in that study: How Do We Know? Since the authors are writing for people with no background in philosophy (9), the opening chapter tackles basic definitions. The authors want to make sure everyone is clear on what epistemology is and why it is important. As for the latter, everyone deals with epistemology whether they know or it not, so it is best to do so from an informed perspective. From this most basic foundation, the second chapter defines knowledge itself. In the main, knowledge is defined as “justified true belief” (JTB). In order for something to count as knowledge, it must be true, you must believe it is true, and you must have proper reasons for doing so. There have been recent challenges to this, most notably from Edmund Gettier. In keeping the discussion on the ground level, the authors manage to cover with clarity the issues with “Gettier problems.”

From here, the chapters that follow are each framed by a question. The first two were as well, so that makes for a nice unifying effect. Chapter 3 explains where knowledge comes from, and in doing so, discusses the difference between rationalism and empiricism. Further, they discuss the reliability of testimony, as well as the role revelation plays. Next, chapter 4 explains where truth comes from and how we find it. This requires a discussion of the three main theories of truth: correspondence, coherence, and pragmatic.

Chapter 5 is about the structure of arguments and how we draw inferences (either inductive or deductive). Chapter 6 explains how perception works, as well as how we understand our perceptions to correspond to reality. Chapter 7 focuses on justification. At first glance, the chapter title (Do we need justification?) might make some think we’ve suddenly started talking about salvation . However, the discussion comes back to a topic in chapter 2 (what is knowledge?) and explains the different understandings of how we give reasons for our beliefs. In answering this, the discussion covers the structure of knowledge itself. The primary distinction is whether one thinks of knowledge as a pyramid shape (foundationalism) or a web shape (coherentism).

The final three chapters focus on the virtues of our knowing, whether we have revelation (and its impact on our knowledge), and the question of certainty. This final chapter is especially helpful in its discussion of skepticism. Readers might be surprised to know the different varieties of skepticism. Also, surprising is fact that it is possible to be less than 100% certain about what we know and not be antsy about it. This is a good way to close out the book since it addresses postmodern concerns about what we can and can’t know.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book. It was a good refresher as I was studying to Ph.D entrance exams. Even if I wasn’t studying, I still would have read it rather quickly and enjoyed the clarity of the discussion. Epistemology has been my favorite philosophical subject for a quite a while and this is probably the first book I would give someone who wants to study it further.

Author: Nate

I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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