Epistemology Through the Ages

by N.P. Sala

A hopscotch down memory lane from ancient realists to postmodernists.

For several millennia, people reflecting on the nature of reality understood it to be a certain way.  They saw essentially two things:  First, reality exists, i.e. there was something “out there.”  And second, there were minds to perceive that reality.  In other words there were knowers (people) and something to be known (the outside world). Since the Five Senses were the most obvious way at perceiving the outside world, knowers believed that the Five Senses gave a reasonably accurate picture of how the world really was. Sometimes they got it wrong (their senses deceived them) but they were adept at correcting those mistakes.

For example, an oar half submerged in water appears bent at the waterline. But knowers kept studying the phenomenon until they discovered refraction and, thus, added to their understanding of reality.

These ancient knowers, otherwise known as realists, used Reason and Rationality to analyze the information they received from the five senses.

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Aristotle came up with some of the basic laws of logic like The Law of Identity, The Law of Non-Contradiction, and The Law of Excluded Middle.[1] He hadn’t invented these things but, rather, articulated what everyone else already knew subconsciously and were employing on a daily basis. The ancients also drew from Revelation in order to understand the outside world. What I mean by “Revelation” is the notion that God could intervene at certain moments in reality and give information about the world.

This combination of using the Five Senses, Rationality, and Revelation was the essential modus operandi until about the time of the Enlightenment. During this new period, a couple of things happened to change this original understanding of reality. Philosophers of the period (like Francis Bacon, George Berkeley, and John Locke) took Reason and elevated it to the status of an absolute. Revelation was considered meaningless and thrown out. Kant considered this era as, “mankind’s final coming of age, the emancipation of the human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance and error.”[2] The new Enlightenment wisdom said: We don’t need God or anyone else to figure things out…


Epistemology Through the Ages | A Clear Lens