HOW DO WE KNOW…IT’S A GOOD BOOK? A BOOK REVIEW
How do we Know? An Introduction to Epistemology. By James K. Dew Jr. and Mark W. Foreman. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014. 174 pp. $16.00. ISBN 978-0-8308-4036-6.
Questions concerning knowledge are frequently considered to be unimportant and unnecessary. That being said, every single human that is able to ask questions has at some point in their life asked an epistemological question (this tendency is especially visible amongst teenagers, though this symptom has been known to surface even in grown adults and even some children have shown signs of this tendency.), such as: How do you know? What do I need to know? Can you teach me? Etc. In How do we know?, authors James K. Dew Jr. and Mark W. Foreman introduce the uninitiated reader to the philosophical domain of Epistemology. In this book review I will begin by noting the purpose and intended audience of this book, followed by an overview of how they accomplish their purpose. I will include any critiques or thoughts concerning the contents of this book in my overview. I will conclude with my estimation of the relative worth and utility of this book.
The proposed purpose of this book is to introduce “the major issues in epistemology while also making the discussion as accessible as possible. (p. 8.)” This is done from a distinctly Christian perspective (and, so it seems, the authors have been influenced primarily by Modern philosophy, though we see the influence of Plato and Aristotle on occasion). The book is written for students or laymen who are interested in the philosophical domain of epistemology, but “who have no background in philosophy and lack familiarity with these issues. (p. 9.)”
The book is divided into 10 seemingly unrelated chapters (in the sense that there seems to be little to no reason for the particular order of the chapters). The book concludes with a brief list of suggested reading, for those whose curiosity has been peaked. The book also has a very good index which makes finding particular subjects quite easy. In chapter 1 the authors introduce the subject of the book, describing what will be covered, and explaining, briefly, what the study of Epistemology entails. The second chapter, suggests that the answer to the question “what is knowledge?” just is Justified True Belief. It, therefore, provides an overview of the JTB theory of knowledge, considers the Gettier problems for the JTB theory, and suggests that the Gettier problems can be solved. Though we must keep in mind that this book is an introduction for the uninitiated, it certainly seems odd that a chapter of this nature would not (1) accurately portray Plato’s definition of knowledge (Socrates explicitly rejects the JTB theory in the very same dialogue where it is proposed. For Plato, knowledge just is contemplation of the unchanging forms.), (2) introduce the reader to the Aristotelian-thomistic definition of knowledge (this theory explicitly rejects the JTB Theory, defining knowledge as the intellectual union between the knower and the thing known – that is, the essence/nature of the thing known is united with the mind of the knower. This theory is actually more in line with the true Platonic theory of knowledge than the JTB theory. Indeed, their assumption that the JTB theory of knowledge just is the proper definition of knowledge is, most likely, the cause of a number of other weaknesses in their exposition of epistemology, as I will note later.), and (3) introduce the reader, at least briefly, to Plantinga’s variation of the JTB theory (where “Warrant” replaces “justification”).
In chapter 3 the authors explain four sources of knowledge (reason, experience, testimonies and revelation) and explain why “faith” is not a source of knowledge. They should have categorized revelation as a subcategory of testimony, due to the fact that revelation just is divinely inspired, written, testimony about God’s relation to man, etc. They also should have noted that, strictly speaking, testimony is not a source of knowledge, but of “belief” (belief has been traditionally defined as “voluntary assent to the truth of an affirmation that is proposed as true by a trustworthy authority”. Their explanation of faith is basic, but good. In the fourth chapter the authors consider the question of truth. They first refute the notion that there are no truths, followed by a consideration of the prominent definitions of truth (coherency, correspondence, and pragmatism). They then consider how coherency and pragmatism can be used a tests for truth claims. In chapter 5 the authors consider how inferences are made, how to recognize inferences, the types of inferences and the various errors that can be made when inferring x from y. This chapter is a good introduction to the subject.
In chapter 6 the authors explore three popular theories of perception (Direct Realism, Indirect realism/representationalism, and phenomenalism). They note the advantages and disadvantages of each theory and conclude that the best theory is some form of Direct Realism—probably a form of “Critical Realism”. This section would be helped by an in-depth analysis of Étienne Gilson’s work on this subject. In chapter 7 the authors consider the various theories concerning justification (they do not, for some reason, consider Plantinga’s replacement of “justification” with “warrant”). They contrast and compare Internalism vs. Externalism and Foundationalism (classic vs. moderate) vs. Coherentism. They then suggest a way of avoiding the “stalemate” that seems to have installed itself between these divergent theories. One can’t help but wonder if rejecting the JTB theory of knowledge outright might be a better solution. After all the JTB Theory was not accepted by a number of “heavyweights” in the epistemology, including Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas, all of whom made very clear distinctions between “belief” and “knowledge”.
In chapter 8 the authors look at a recently renewed idea (found originally in Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas, among others) of intellectual virtues and how virtue epistemology affects epistemological questions. They begin by considering ancient views of virtue (Plato and Aristotle), as well as early discussions of virtue epistemology (in Aristotle and Aquinas). They also look, and this is one of the best parts of this book, at a number of different intellectual virtues, and how they should affect our search for knowledge and truth. They conclude with some of the advantages of virtue epistemology. Chapter 9 comes as a surprise for those who have read other books on epistemology, but it is a good surprise. In chapter 9 the authors consider a specific type of knowledge, and its sources – religious knowledge (and specifically religious knowledge as found in Christianity). They argue that there are two sources of knowledge about God: (1) Natural Revelation (studied by Natural Theology), and (2) Special Revelation through Jesus-Christ and the Christian Scriptures (studied by Biblical Theology). They provide an interesting look at how we might provide reasons for considering the Christian Scriptures as a reliable source of knowledge. There is one problem with their presentation of Natural Revelation and Natural Theology, and that is their misrepresentation of Aquinas’s views concerning the value of the knowledge that can be gained from natural Revelation (cf. p. 136). They here state that, "In other words, Aquinas thought that nature points to God but does not prove absolutely that he exists. Furthermore, nature does not indicate what God is like. (p. 136)" In support of this claim they quote Aquinas's response to the question "whether the existence of God self-evident. (ST I, Q. 2, A. 1.)" Now, already, for anybody who has read Aquinas, this should seem strange, as in the very next article Aquinas says that the existence of God can be demonstrated in 5 ways. Indeed, for Aquinas, not only could we demonstrate, conclusively, that God exists, but we can also go on to demonstrate a certain number of God's attributes. Indeed, C. J. F. Williams, in his article "Believing in God and Knowing that God exists", begins the article by stating, "Aquinas believed that he knew that there was a God. He believed this even though he adhered to a very stringent conception of what could count as knowing. (C. J. F. Williams, "Believing in God and Knowing that God exists," Nous, 8 (1974), 273.)" Indeed, Aquinas, and most thomistic philosophers and theologians, claims that we can know that God exists (not probably, necessarily). As such, one can either agree with Aquinas on this point, or disagree with Aquinas on this point, but one can certainly not claim that Aquinas thought that we could only provide probable evidence that makes God's existence more likely than not.
In the tenth and final chapter the authors consider the question of certainty. They begin by explaining the various types of skepticism, followed by a discussion of whether or not we should even expect certainty for the majority of the things we seek to know. This is followed by a brief discussion of the degrees of certainty and the basis for these degrees of certainty. It is unfortunate that their analysis of certainty and the degrees of certainty does not appear to be influenced by their explanation of the the reason that there are degrees of certainty. The nature of the thing being known not only determines how we know it, but the type of certainty we can expect our knowledge of it to have. This tells us how much or how little certainty to expect in the various branches of knowledge. A little more interaction with the Aristotelian-thomistic theory of knowledge, and a little less dependence on the JTB theory of knowledge, would have been quite profitable for this chapter (and for the rest of the book).
All in all this book is a wonderful little introduction to the philosophical domain of Epistemology. Its lacuna’s aside, I would recommend this book as a primer on Epistemology, to be read before taking any courses on the subject. As such, I also think that the authors did a wonderful job of accomplishing their proposed purpose. This book will be most useful for those who have never studied epistemology, and who need (or want) to understand some of the discussions that take place in this difficult yet exciting domain of study.