Epistemology is called a branch of philosophy and not science. There are several epistemic theories some of which actually were mainstream sometimes. But it appears that, for example, some of them achieve greater success than others. Just compare ancient epistemology and scientific method with contemporary. So, if different epistemic theories can be more or less successful and this success actually can be observed, why is it called a branch of philosophy?

Arguments in the answers include the one that in order to be a foundation of science epistemology must not be science. I would say almost all of them reduce to this. But I see 2 problems: epistemology appeared much earlier than science and it, I'd say, was on par with other philosophies, including those trying to describe our world. While the first problem is historical, second is more complicated.

One can see sciences as algorithms, which are refreshed constantly and have some kind of leaps a while after new information (contradicting expectations) is acquired. For epistemology there is nothing wrong too, we can see it as a looping algorithm which changes itself on each iteration.

  • 1
    Even assuming that there was some viewpoint neutral way to judge "success", which there isn't, the possibility of ranking is not sufficient to make something into a science. Some artists and businessmen achieve greater "success" than others, but art and business are not sciences either. And on traditional views science is not even after "success", but "empirical truth". Quine did suggest turning "epistemology into a chapter of psychology", but this is unpopular even among analytic philosophers.
    – Conifold
    Aug 31, 2018 at 0:08
  • @Conifold, success of arts does not make it science only because arts do not try to explain the world or solve a problem. But there are some rules which make a composition successful and those could be measured by scientific methods. And businessmen also can be more successful if they know how market works which is economics and social psychology - sciences. I reject empirical truth, truth exists only in logic. Relativity is more successful than newtonian physics: it could provide a model explaining unpredicted experiments in a seemingly consistent way and it's used in satellites' clocks.
    – rus9384
    Aug 31, 2018 at 0:52
  • Are you familiar with the demarcation problem, especially with regard to the edge of what is science and what is not?
    – Cort Ammon
    Aug 31, 2018 at 1:07
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    Russell comments that the problem of how we know things is the most difficult of philosophical questions, It would impossible to approach this problem from a purely empirical standpoint. It is a problem for psychology and metaphysics, and ultimately it would require a study of consciousness. I cannot see how the empirical sciences could have anything to say about it.
    – user20253
    Aug 31, 2018 at 12:35
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    That science can be applied to X does not make X a science either. And what you or I accept or reject is moot, when it comes to classifications what matters is what the majority of users prefer. Notice how to judge even relatively uncontroversial "success" you had to select indicators that others are free to reject or devalue. Now transfer this to epistemology and you have your answer since along with ethics it is in charge of the selection.
    – Conifold
    Sep 1, 2018 at 3:50

4 Answers 4


Epistemology is the study of knowledge and justified belief.

As the study of knowledge, epistemology is concerned with the following questions:

What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge?

What are its sources?

What is its structure, and what are its limits?

As the study of justified belief, epistemology aims to answer questions such as: How we are to understand the concept of justification? What makes justified beliefs justified? Is justification internal or external to one's own mind? Understood more broadly, epistemology is about issues having to do with the creation and dissemination of knowledge in particular areas of inquiry.

Beliefs arise in people for a wide variety of causes. Among them, we must list psychological factors such as desires, emotional needs, prejudice, and biases of various kinds.

Obviously, when beliefs originate in sources like these, they don't qualify as knowledge even if true. For true beliefs to count as knowledge, it is necessary that they originate in sources we have good reason to consider reliable. These are perception, introspection, memory, reason, and testimony.

Example-religious epistemology; central issue for religious epistemology is raised by evidentialism. According to evidentialism, knowledge requires adequate evidence. However, there does not seem to be any adequate evidence of God's existence. Is it possible, then, for theists to endorse evidentialism?

To bring epistemology on the right path, it must be made a part of the natural sciences and become cognitive psychology.

The aim of naturalistic epistemology thus understood is to replace traditional epistemology with an altogether new and redefined project.

According to a moderate version of naturalistic epistemology, one primary task of epistemology is to identify how knowledge and justification are anchored in the natural world, just as it is the purpose of physics to explain phenomena like heat and cold, or thunder and lightning in terms of properties of the natural world.

The pursuit of this task does not require of its proponents to replace traditional epistemology. Rather, this moderate approach accepts the need for cooperation between traditional conceptual analysis and empirical methods.

since many view scientific facts as social constructions, they would deny that the goal of our intellectual and scientific activities is to find facts. Such constructivism, if weak, asserts the epistemological claim that scientific theories are laden with social, cultural, and historical presuppositions and biases; if strong, it asserts the metaphysical claim that truth and reality are themselves socially constructed.

A success may temporarily establish claims that 'epistemological' path of understanding is outside the 'philosophical' domain but its a weak argument of scientificity and saying that scientific or any particular way is outside the domain of further conjectures/experience/variety of sources being synthesized in human mind. ref.

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology/#SEP https://www.researchgate.net/post/What_is_the_difference_between_epistemology_and_methodology https://www.quora.com/Is-science-the-only-valid-form-of-epistemology

  • Indeed, I predict epistemology being raised on psychology and history of science, to be more successful. There is no pronounced line between science amd unscience. Maybe what we call science now in 1000 years will be considered a very unprecise theory, just like flat Earth is considered very unprecise now. Just what we call pseudoscience is much eorse in helping people achieve their goals that science now. But this helpfulnuss is non-binary, it is somewhere on scale.
    – rus9384
    Aug 31, 2018 at 9:26
  • @rus9384-I am in agreement with your line of thinking
    – drvrm
    Aug 31, 2018 at 10:08

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge (including belief and evidence) and not just of scientific knowledge :

Naturalists seek continuity between epistemology and science so that epistemology may be conducted within science, as part of science. They propose creating such continuity by extending the epistemology of the sciences (e.g., their a posteriori methods, styles of explanation, and substantive findings) into the epistemology of epistemology. Critics, however, oppose naturalism on the grounds that it illegitimately expands science into epistemology and commits the 'fallacy' of scientism. Naturalism forsakes traditional features of our epistemic practices such as their normative-evaluative component and role as independent critic of science. It creates a sterile, one dimensional epistemology which grants science monopoly over what counts as evidence, knowledge and correct method. In order to avoid these shortcomings, critics maintain epistemology must remain an autonomous, extra-scientific affair employing sui generis, a priori methods and evidence. (James Maffie, 'Naturalism, Scientism and the Independence of Epistemology', Erkenntnis (1975-), Vol. 43, No. 1 (Jul., 1995), pp. 1-27 : 1.)

If there is historical knowledge, moral knowledge, aesthetic knowledge, religious knowledge, there is no reason a priori why such forms of knowledge should be subject to the same criteria or their presence determined by the same methods as scientific knowledge. Historical knowledge, for example, is usually idiographic (concerned with unique events) rather than nomothetic (concerned to bring events under covering laws).

If there can be normative knowledge - knowledge of values - it is hardly likely to be established by the same methods as scientific knowledge. 'But there can be no such knowledge !' Maybe - but the objection begs the question if it assumes that all knowledge is scientific knowledge and science cannot produce knowledge of values. it assumes what needs to be proved.

  • Well, historical theory also may be more or less successful - there also are rules: if an old tablet/book/etc. say so it was likely to be true. Aesthetical, moral, any... Except religious knowledge, maybe, because I really do not see any results - depends on what to count for religion. And success is seemingly powerful enough to count as knowledge. That is knowledge is non-binary, but somewhere on the scale of success. And I argue that normative is redundant: there are more or less effective methods. Showing something is more effective is 1000 times better than producing arbitrary rules.
    – rus9384
    Aug 31, 2018 at 15:55
  • 'there also are rules: if an old tablet/book/etc. say so it was likely to be true'. And where do you get that rule from ? I think few historians would be happy with that bald rule ! Best : GT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Aug 31, 2018 at 16:39
  • Well, it's not universal, but the presupposistion is that "official" sources were credible, unless some kind of overturn happened. Also, archeological sources are seen credible, I'd say the most credible.
    – rus9384
    Aug 31, 2018 at 16:42
  • I'm not sure by what criterion we can say that historical theory - a historical explanation - is successful. Since the past doesn't exist and we can only create a 'historical past', a story or narrative about the past based on inference, empathy and judicious imagination exercised on historical traces, there's nothing to test a historical explanation against in a way we can test a scientific hypothesis against predictions.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Aug 31, 2018 at 17:03
  • Good answer. There was a "Philosophy Now" magazine not too many years ago which commemorated some anniversary concerning Hume, and I read over it in a bookstore. Are you aware of any one book or article that may give a recent reassessment of Hume? Don't go to any trouble, but if you know I would appreciate if you could point me in the right direction.
    – Gordon
    Aug 31, 2018 at 17:29

For reference:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halting_problem https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gödel%27s_incompleteness_theorems https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gödel%27s_completeness_theorem

From the Halting problem we know that in any computational system it is impossible to predict, from within the system, whether a computation will complete i.e. get stuck in an endless loop. From Gödel incompleteness we know that any formal logical system cannot be both complete, that is universally applicable, and consistent i.e. full of contradictions. Taken together this means that if a science is developed into a logically consistent set of axioms and relations, i.e. it is mathematically describable, then it is not complete it doesn't describe everything.

How do Science avoid these pitfalls? Gödel completeness gives a clue:

Such a model (precisely, the set of "natural numbers" it contains) is necessarily non-standard, as it contains the code number of a proof of a contradiction of T. But T is consistent when viewed from the outside. Thus this code number of a proof of contradiction of T must be a non-standard number.

Simply put, there is an internal cognition of a science, but also an external viewpoint of it's "success". This external view would be the particular philosophy-of-sciense and chiefly Epistemology. Thus Epistemology (broadly) cannot be part of any Science, it must always be outside to guard against the pitfalls entailed by formal logic.

Note, this is a highly contracted overview, but I believe the central argument holds.

You may also find the following of interest:


  • I am aware of all these. I studied discrete math and also learned many things of CS here and at other places. But that's exactly what I meant. There is no true theory, only more and less successful ones. This follows from the fact that exactly simulating TM is undecidable (not even semidecidable as halting problem). So, all our theories will be non-exact. Also, using your reasoning we need something outside epistemology, outside of that, and that, and that...
    – rus9384
    Aug 31, 2018 at 18:21
  • As you note, at the core of finding absolute truth or certainty is regression. From here en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Münchhausen_trilemma we see that there are actually three scenarios: circular arguments, regression and axiomatic truth. Now Science has a purpose, namely to "find what works", which (obviously) cannot be served by regressive or circular arguments. But Philosophy has no problem with paradox, regression etc. Epistemology must explore all avenues to find Knowledge, it is therefore susceptible to the Münchhausen trilemma, thus Epistemology need be classified under Philosophy.
    – christo183
    Sep 1, 2018 at 8:56
  • The fact that scientific methods can be applied to Epistemology would indicate a self reference. Within Science that is problematic since it would call into question the Scientific method. But from without Science, Epistemology can buffer Science, through the various philosophy-of-sciences, against invalid reasoning. The lines aren't clear with Epistemology informing Science and Science informing Epistemology. But consider how else would a breakthrough in proof theory be disseminated to Biology.
    – christo183
    Sep 1, 2018 at 9:15
  • I argue they are interdependent just like words in languages are. Words referring to concepts are not taken just from definitions, you cannot define all words. They are learned by their context.
    – rus9384
    Sep 1, 2018 at 10:46
  • True, and they are also interdependent with Ontology. Indeed "Knowledge" grows organically just like language. Naturally at some point the question arises: How do we know? Which diverges from Scientific questions which are always about substantial things.
    – christo183
    Sep 1, 2018 at 12:06

I don't think epistemology is "unscientific". Rather it should be meta-scientific, or pre-scientific.

And necessarily so. It cannot take the scientific methods for granted, otherwise it would be unable to be critical of such methods. If it is a discipline that studies and analyses how knowledge is achieved, it cannot acritically use scientific methods as if it already knew that those were sound, as this is part of what it needs to demonstrate.

  • "It cannot take the scientific methods for granted" - well, it still is based on some methods. And success of such methods can be measured. Well, methodology can be self-definitive. Indeed, good methodolohy is seemngly always critical on itself. Of course, being critical on the rule "be critical on self" is paradox, so this seemingly applies only to other rules of methodogy. Since methodology and epistemology are undividable, this is highly connected to epistemology as well.
    – rus9384
    Sep 1, 2018 at 0:40

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