History's Most Common Epistemology

The other day I was explaining to a young person what the word "epistemology" means.  To keep things simple, I said it is how you know what you know, or in terms of political discussion, how you know you are right.  They asked for an example.  I said that the use of logic and reason beginning from a set of givens or first principles is one approach to epsitemology.  They said they assumed everyone used that approach.  I told them that I thought not -- that, by my observation, the most common epistemology through history has been: "I was told it by a high status person in my family or tribe."  Based on sampling of social media, I still think this is still the case today.


  1. cc:

    It is worse than that. Most people base their ideas either on what the crowd around them thinks (not even a high status person) or based on how they feel. So some people want to punish the rich out of envy even if this will hurt economic growth and jobs, which means themselves.

  2. SamWah:

    Yeaaahhhh, pretty much.

  3. Carl S:

    Learning from previous generations is what allows society to advance. We are all standing on the shoulders of giants. If everybody had to learn everything by use of logic and reason beginning from a set of givens or first principles then we'd still be in the stone age.

    So, my initial assumption is the opposite, nobody uses that approach as it is terribly inefficient. I am willing to accept Relativity as a robust scientific model without having to derive the field equations myself. My only evidence for this is that I have been assured by high-status people I trust that the model has been repeatedly verified.

  4. pbft:

    Carl S has a critical and totally valid point. A common discussion with our children was this: How do you know when to question authority? Questioning everything is a waste of time, and questioning nothing is for sheep, not people. One rule that we came to is that if you're being asked to accept something on faith or trust, question it mightily.

  5. Dances With Felines:

    Cultural epistemophobia is a worldwide problem. There are no cultures in which word of mouth education does not rule the day.

  6. Mercury:

    You don't need epistemology if you preface everything with "I feel...."

  7. james:

    As chance would have it, I had an appointment with my deontologist today. Just a minor operation to get my brains out of my arse using Ocaam's razor. Asked him the same question.
    By the time he'd explained first principles I was out of it.