Mostly, we take “knowledge” or “knowing” for granted, but the philosophical study of knowledge has had a long and detailed history that continues today.

We constantly claim to ‘know things’. We know the sun will rise tomorrow. We know when we drop something, it will fall. We know a factoid we read in a magazine. We know our friend’s cousin’s girlfriend’s friend saw a UFO that one time. 

You might think that some of these claims aren’t very good examples of knowledge, and that they’d be better characterised as “beliefs” – or more specifically, unjustified beliefs. Well, it turns out that’s a pretty important distinction. 

“Epistemology” comes from the Greek words “episteme” and “logos”. Translations vary slightly, but the general meaning is “account of knowledge”, meaning that epistemology is interested in figuring out things like what knowledge is, what counts as knowledge, how we come to understand things and how we justify our beliefs. In turn, this links to questions about the nature of ‘truth’. 

So, what is knowledge? 

A well-known, though still widely contentious, view of knowledge is that it is justified true belief.

This idea dates all the way back to Plato, who wrote that merely having a true belief isn’t sufficient for knowledge. Imagine that you are sick. You have no medical expertise and have not asked for any professional advice and yet you believe that you will get better because you’re a generally optimistic person. Even if you do get better, it doesn’t follow that you knew you were going to get better – only that your belief coincidentally happened to be true.  

So, Plato suggested, what if we added the need for a rational justification for our belief on top of it being true? In order for us to know something, it doesn’t just need to be true, it also needs to be something we can justify with good reason.  

Justification comes with its own unique problems, though. What counts as a good reason? What counts as a solid foundation for knowledge building?  

The two classical views in epistemology are that we should rely on the perceptual experiences we gain through our senses (empiricism) or that we should rely first and foremost on pure reason because our senses can deceive us (rationalism). Well-known empiricists include John Locke and David Hume; well-known rationalists include René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza. 

Though Plato didn’t stand by the justified true belief view of knowledge, it became quite popular up until the 20th century, when Edmund Gettier blew the problem wide open again with his paper “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”.  

Since then, there has been very little consensus on the definition, with many philosophers claiming that it’s impossible to create a definition of knowledge without exceptions.

Some more modern subfields within epistemology are concerned with the mechanics of knowledge between people. Feminist epistemology, and social epistemology more broadly, deals with a lot of issues that raise ethical questions about how we communicate and perceive knowledge from others.  

Prominent philosophers in this field include Miranda Fricker and José Medina. Fricker developed the concept of “epistemic injustice”, referring to injustices that involve the production, communication and understanding of knowledge.  

One type of knowledge-based injustice that Fricker focuses on, and that has large ethical considerations, is testimonial injustice. These are injustices of a kind that involve issues in the way that testimonies – the act of telling people things – are communicated, understood, believed. It largely involves the interrogation of prejudices that unfairly shape the credibility of speakers.  

Sometimes we give people too much credibility because they are attractive, charismatic or hold a position of power. Sometimes we don’t give people enough credibility because of a race, gender, class or other forms of bias related to identity.  

These types of distinctions are at the core of ethical communication and decision-making.

When we interrogate our own views and the views of others, we want to be asking ourselves questions such as: Have I made any unfair assumptions about the person speaking? Are my thoughts about this person and their views justified? Is this person qualified? Did I get my information from a reliable source?  

In short, a healthy degree of scepticism (and self-examination) should be used to filter through information that we receive from others and to question our initial attitudes towards information that we sometimes take for granted or ignore. In doing this, we can minimise misinformation and make sure that we’re appropriately treating those who have historically been and continue to be silenced and ignored. 

Ethics draws attention to the quality and character of the decisions we make. We typically hold that decisions are better if well-informed … which is another way of saying that when it comes to ethics, knowledge matters!