Epistemological Turn On Knowledge - 1220 Words | Essay Example (2022)

This paper seeks to explain the meaning of epistemological turn and explains the views held by Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume on knowledge.

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An epistemological turn is a philosophical term which in the history of philosophy, refers to the shift in philosophical attention from the classical and medieval focus on themes of metaphysics to a primary focus on themes and issues relating to human knowledge, usually considered to have occurred during the period from Descartes (1596-1650) through Kant (1724-1804).

On standard accounts, Descartes’ terms epistemological turn as a sea change in the history of philosophy which is usually marked by an inside-out approach to philosophical inquiry, an approach owed to the priority of thought.

A good example of this turn would be the one that occurred from Descartes to John Locke through Berkeley to Hume. All these had their observations and views during this philosophical turn and they all gave their accounts as far as knowledge is concerned, starting from Descartes.

Thinking comes after what is now known as the Epistemological Turn. The Epistemological Turn refers to the point in time when philosophers (and others) began to stress the knowledge of something rather than the belief in something. From this mode of thinking, Descartes sought to establish a starting point; he sought to find that one thing that could never be doubted. Therefore, according to him doubt everything until you find the one thing that you know is absolutely and necessarily true. Descartes sought to begin again from the foundations.

Descartes, who is commonly referred to as the father of philosophy seeks to define knowledge in terms of doubt. He distinguishes ‘scientia’ from ‘persuasia’ he says ” I distinguish the two as follows..there is a conviction when there remains some reason that might lead us to some doubt, but knowledge is a conviction based on reason so strong that it can never be shaken by any stronger reason(1640 letter. AT 3:64-65)” Descartes tries to make us understand doubt as to the contrast of certainty.

Descartes’ goal is to acquire knowledge of the truth. He says that for one to achieve this you have to doubt every proposition he has an insufficient reason for believing, and adding a proposition to his store of beliefs only when he has demonstrated that there is ample reason to believe it. But, for Descartes, we do not have “ample reason” for believing anything unless it is completely certain. He writes, for example, that “reason already convinces me that I must withhold assent no less carefully from what is not plainly certain and indubitable than from what is obviously false” (First Meditation).

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Descartes’ ideas are however refuted by his predecessor John Locke who in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding published in 1690. Here he discussed how knowledge in the mind is formed, and also the types of knowledge humans can have about things in the world.

Central to his viewpoint, is the tabula rasa view of the mind, simple and complex ideas and their association, primary and secondary qualities, and others. In this view, he posited that the mind contains innate capacities for certain activities, but the rest of the knowledge comes from experience with the world

The refutation of innate ideas stands in opposition to the views of Descartes, whose ideas were still held during Locke’s time. The ideas in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding helped influence later psychological movements, most notably behaviorism.

Locke is generally viewed as the first in the line of British empiricists, with Berkeley and Hume adopting his starting point. His fundamental claim is that human knowledge begins with sense experience and primarily is derived from it. Locke begins his philosophical examination of knowledge by trying to refute the claim that some of our knowledge is original, in the sense that it comes from ideas that are innate or inborn. This view was held most prominently by Descartes.

On the line after Locke’s empiricist view came Berkeley whose theorizing was empiricism at its most extreme. In his first publication, regarding vision, he stated that we only really perceive two spatial dimensions, height, and width. The third spatial dimension of depth is not directly known; rather, it is inferred by the mind.

He says that any knowledge of the empirical world is to be obtained only through direct perception and adds that error comes about through thinking about what individuals perceive. In addition to this, he says that knowledge of the empirical world of people, things, and actions around them may be purified and perfected merely by stripping away all thought, and with it language, from their pure perceptions.

David Hume’s philosophy concerning causality and objectivity is an elaboration of another aspect of Berkeley’s philosophy. Hume is interested in how we come to form ideas. He describes our perceptions as falling into two categories: impressions and ideas. Impressions and ideas can be distinguished in two ways. Firstly, impressions are more vivid, because they appeal directly to the senses (e.g. placing one’s hand on a hot stovetop). Ideas are dull in comparison to impressions because they “recall” impressions while lacking their intensity and strength. The thought being that calling upon the idea of becoming burning is insignificantly as intense (painful) as actually being burnt. Secondly, ideas are always copies of impressions. It is important to note, as Hume does, that because of this every idea must have a root impression. In other words, for an idea to be intelligible and have meaningfulness it must have an originating impression (or impressions) that it can be traced back to.

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Of all these philosophers, Descartes’ view is the best. For one Locke’s view is fundamentally flawed. It gives us no way of actually knowing external reality at all – only knowing certain qualities about it. And any complex ideas about these simple sensory ideas are merely probabilities in his view. Intuitive knowledge is certain, but there is no explanation of how this exists in itself within our minds. His concept of morality seems to stand in the same position as his idea of intuition – while it may not be doubtful, since it did not come from the senses, it is not clear how it is even known – since all knowledge is sensory-based. This does give the view that his philosophy does not seem to have integrity within its own.

In conclusion, I feel Descartes’s use of skepticism is ingenious, constructive, and produces a philosophy that is both workable and helpful for both science and the individual. Locke and the other empiricists produce a system which while it claims to reject skepticism does project a modest skeptical view, which quite easily – using logical deductions – leads eventually to an all-encompassing skepticism. His system makes any kind of study of the world invalid as a science. It does not help the individual since what he considers certain knowledge – that which is intuitive – does not seem to have any foundation for its existence, it merely exists without knowing how.


Craig (ed.), Edward, ‘The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy’, 2005, Routledge.

Descartes, René, ‘The Philosophical Writings Of Descartes, Volume II’ (trans. By Cottingham, Stoothoff, Murdoch), 1984, Cambridge University Press.

Dunn, John, ‘Locke, A Very Short Introduction’, 2003, OUP.

Hatfield, Gary, ‘Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Descartes And The Meditations’, 2003, Routledge.

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