History of the World

Epistemology Through the Ages

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.

Oar in calm water by Maria Luisa Pedrosa

Oar in calm water by Maria Luisa Pedrosa

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.

Aristotle by Plutinus

Aristotle by Plutinus

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. We will “Have courage to use [our] own understanding.”[3] Friedrich Nietszche wrote, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”[4] Reason had now become highly exalted.

However, with Revelation gone, these new intellectuals had narrowed their essential tools from three down to two: the Five Senses and Reason. A natural outworking of relying on only the senses and Reason is materialism – the view that nothing else exists outside of the physical realm. One of the problems with the elevation of Reason in Enlightenment thought is that an absolute level of certitude results in hubris. This is why the next period, born out of the Enlightenment, allowed for one of the bloodiest centuries on the planet.

We’ve now arrived at The Modernist period of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.  Because Modernists bought into the notion of Reason with “absolute certainty” they became arrogant enough to believe that they could impose their will and use their power to oppress others.  The 20th century, undoubtedly, was a time of tremendous oppression with 100 million deaths due to Communism;[5] which is a Modernist, atheistic movement.

David Hume by Skara Kommun

David Hume by Skara Kommun

During the Modernist period there were some important shifts in terms of knowledge.  One of them was a reinvestigation of the Five Senses.  The philosopher David Hume began to question the notion that the data we receive from our senses is actually reliable.  He suggested that an object does not actually exist as it appears to our senses but is simply the representation our senses make it appear to be.[6] Therefore he concluded that it is impossible to actually be in touch with the way that the world really is.  This leads to skepticism and is a far cry from where Realists began as yet another of the three original tools (The Five Senses) had been removed.

During this period of uncertainty with the perception of the world, art began to change.  Paintings became more abstract and “Modern” artists like van Gogh, Cezanne, and Picasso emerged.[7]  When the people began to lose their notion of reality and delve into imprecise sense perception, precise art was abandoned altogether.  In contrast to the previous period of Classicism, where paintings depicted images as exact renderings of a subject, Modern art began to depict fuddled and obtuse images.

The Scream by Edvard Munch

The Scream by Edvard Munch

The Scream by Edvard Munch is a very famous example of this.

As we have moved through history from Realists to Modernists, we have lost two of the three essential tools to understanding the world.  Revelation is now ignored outright and the Five Senses have been determined as unreliable. We are currently in the Postmodern period.  Postmodernists are looking at Modernism and all of its ills and have arrived at this assessment:  The flaws of Modernism are many — consumerism, abuse of power, radical individuality, misuse of the planet, the list goes on.[8] Postmodernists have not only decided to reject the consequences of Modernism but what they conclude to be the causes of those consequences.  They believe that because oppression stemmed from abuse of power which stemmed from confidence in the Modernist capability to know the world (in other words, Modernists really thought they were right!) then the real problem is: Rationality, dogmatism, certainty, foundationalism, and epistemology.[9]  All of that has to go.

So we are now witnessing the last of the three essential tools being targeted for extinction – Reason and Rationality.

This is why people are saying today: There is no objective truth or there is no way to know what is true.  Reason can no longer be used to discover something that is true for everyone; but only for the individual.  Therefore truth is no longer objective, it is subjective.  Just because something is true for you does not mean it is true for me.

This notion keeps the evils of certainty and dogmatism locked away so that it can never reemerge and cause the kind of oppression that occurred in the last century. But in order to lock away those evils, humanity has now sacrificed the reliability of The Five Senses, Reason and Rationality, and spiritual Revelation.

Considering the journey that humanity has taken from the beginning to the present and what has been lost along the way, I want to end with what I believe to be a crucial question: Are we better off without these tools?

As always, anyone with some insight is welcome to weigh in.


[1] John Hospers, An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis (New Delhi: Allied Publishers Limited, 2006), 209.

[2] Roy Porter, The Enlightenment, 2nd ed. (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 1.

[3] James Schmidt, “The Question of Enlightenment: Kant, Mendelssohn, and the Mittwochsgesellschaft,” Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 50, No. 2 (Apr-Jun 1989), 269.

[4] Christoph Cox, Nietzsche: Naturalism and Interpretation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 16.

[5] Sue Vander Hook, Communism (ABDO Publishing Company: North Mankato, 2011), 143.

[6] Professor Huxley, David Hume: A Study of His Philosophy and Life (Wildside: Rockville, 2008), 65-67.

[7] Steven Best & Douglas Kellner, The Postmodern Turn (The Guilford Press: New York, 1997), 165.

[8] Those are all appropriate criticisms of the Modern period.

[9] David B. Morris, “The Plot of Suffering: AIDS and Evil,” Evil After Postmodernism: Histories, Narratives and Ethics, ed. Jennifer L. Geddes (Routledge: New York, 2001), 61-64.

11 Comments on “Epistemology Through the Ages

  1. It seems evident in today’s world that the only way forward is backward. With many adopting fundamentalist arguments or traditionalist thinking, it seems that man is regressing back to pre-Enlightenment days where, in a sense, man was “irrational” and “unreasonable.” By “unreasonable,” I’m simply referring to the blind faith in which the unenlightened were subject to.

    Thus, if man truly is losing reason and rationale, are we not simply regressing back into what we supposedly moved beyond?

    • Hi Mikaela,

      Thanks for the comment! Yeah, I think you’re right. The tools that I mentioned are vital to assessing reality and, if we forego them all, we are not progressing forward but are moving backward. In another sense I can see that we are actually off the highway altogether and heading into the ditch (if I can be allowed to crudely mix metaphors). If you think about it, the ideas I’m trying to communicate with you now won’t be grounded in anything sensible if they are not rationally ordered. So I think that the move to get rid of reason and rationality will ultimately fail (and some of my mentors would argue it already has).

      Then the question becomes: Once the postmodern experiment is fully recognized to be a failure, what will rise up in its place? As a classical Christian I would advocate for a return to a more “ancient realist” style of assessing reality. I think their method is the way to go, especially when combined with faith. This is what people like Anselm and Aquinas were referring to when they talked about fides quaerens intellectum or a “faith seeking understanding”; which isn’t a blind faith but a trust based on certain evidences. I think all of these elements, carefully used in relation to each other, provides the proper mental environment to formulate a robust worldview – which is what I’m seeking to do here with this site.

      But, hey, thanks again for the comment, Mikaela! I appreciate your insight and the opportunity to have this discussion!

      • I’m actually working on a theory titled Post-Modernism: What’s Next?

        But I’m trying to incorporate multi-dimensions of ideas, especially the bridge between each popular theories. From the classics, to the Sophists, to the Church, the Enlightenment and so forth. I’m still trying to find directionality though, and it’s just an idea I’ve come up with recently.

        I’m trying to incorporate aspects from various religions, and fundamentally Christianity (for the Western spectrum) and possibly Buddhism and Daoism for the Eastern.

        What are your thoughts on Eastern religions?

        I look forward to reading more of your blogs though!

        • Shoot, you know, I think that question is almost too broad for me to answer in a few sentences. Ha! But, generally speaking, I think the eastern religions have a lot of helpful things to say when it comes to this side of reality. And what I mean by that is not in their particular assessment of reality but in various aspects of individual growth and health. There’s no question that, when it comes to that, there are some tremendous insights to be found.

          Before I was a Christian, I studied Confucius and I still find some of his wisdom to be incredibly insightful. But when it comes to eastern pronouncements about the other side of reality, or the afterlife, I find them to be either internally inconsistent or just plain incoherent. Granted, I’m using “Western” ways of assessing those religions which someone from the eastern perspective might dismiss. But I’m thoroughly convinced that the 3 laws of logic (that I addressed in the post), for example, is true in Chicago as well as Calcutta – which narrows my options when it comes time to commit to a particular viewpoint.

          I’m very much interested to see what you come up with, Mikaela. Especially in terms of that bridge that you mentioned and incorporating those aspects from eastern religions. If you noticed in this post I stuck with what was taking place in the West only because trying to incorporate everything else seems like a high mountain to climb. Best of luck with that! And, as I said, I’ll be interested to see what you come up with. I’ll also come check out your blog when I get off work later.

          Thanks again for the convo!

          P.S. I just remembered, I think there are a few posts I wrote where I begin to address some of the inconsistencies I see with certain eastern viewpoints. Check them out if you like!

          • Hi there,

            I’ll definitely have a look at them!

            I’ve been reading a bit about Buddhism and Daoism, and I agree that the theories of the afterlife are quite ambiguous. I was raised Christian as well, so I can see the controversy there between afterlife and salvation.

            I do like what Buddhism has to offer in terms of compassion, acceptance and self meditation. In a sense, it’s why many Christians at a later stage turn to Buddhism because it deals a lot with “inner peace.” One thing that Buddhism does fail to address thoroughly though, is the issue on pain. Conversely, it seems to me that Christianity nowadays has an over emphasis on pain and suffering – blessed are the persecuted.

            This is why I like taize services though, usually at the Lutheran church. To be honest (and this is just my personal experience), I’ve grown slightly weary of the contemporary Churches as it seems to be very institutionalised and commercialised now, taking the true essence of intimacy with God out of the picture entirely.

            I don’t know, I guess I’m just contrasting what I’m reading.

            My blog so far though, has been mostly random updates about life. I’m thinking of starting up a new blog when I have enough facts to blog about the human sciences (religion, philosophy, sociology etc.)

            WordPress lets you link two blogs into one right?

            • I’m with you on your observations about contemporary churches; in this country especially. When it came time to go find a church, I had to think about which one would express that intimacy that you talk about. Because that is important. And also not teach things that are unfounded. For the most part, I find smaller churches do that more effectively.

              Again, great insights on the failure of Buddhism to give a proper accounting of suffering. I agree with you on that one as well. As a matter of fact, I just wrote a post (for a class peer review) about the incoherence of the Buddhist view of the self. I’ll probably post it here soon.

              You know, it’s ironic that I do this now because, before having my spiritual epiphany of sorts and following Jesus, I was very much into the eastern/Buddhist way of thinking. As a matter of fact, I was seriously pursuing transcendental meditation. I guess that’s all to say that I don’t take issue with other views flippantly. But now I’m digressing.

              Yeah you should do that! I don’t know about linking blogs. I’m actually pretty ignorant when it comes to all of this. I only started this site about six months ago. But good luck with that and let me know what you come up with on your postmodern work!

              • Yeah, I live in Hong Kong actually, but I’m originally South African. This might explain my interest in linking the two worlds – East and West. That, and my mum just did her M.Th in Spirituality and I think she might publish it as a book next year. She did hers on Song of Songs, about how it’s a metaphorical journey on intimacy with God. She also managed to incorporate a few Eastern philosophies – merely from a philosophical POV not necessarily religious.

                That said, I’m thinking of doing my MSc this year.. I’m interested in religion, but I’m not entirely sure how practical it is in the workforce here in HK unless I went into research / education.. we’ll see..

                I look forward to reading your blog though, about Buddhism.

                What’s your take on Daoism? Because contrasted with Christianity, I find the parallel between “there can be no perfection without the presence of imperfection” (or sin) to be quite in tune with each other.

                I’m just trying to engage with as many people who know about this area of thought, so I’m actually quite glad I stumbled upon your blog!

                Is there another way to contact you? Like email or facebook or something? Because I’m not always on WordPress.

                • Here’s my email: npsala@ymail.com. I’d give you my Facebook but I’m rarely on it.

                  Yes, let’s keep this conversation going! I’ll wait to hear from you and then we can pick it up from there.

                  • Thanks! I’ve just heard from UCT (Uni of Cape Town) and apparently the deadline for applications was in September! I just wish I’d decided on this sooner. So I think I might just do a diploma or something in the next 6 months with Uni of London’s distance learning programme.

                    I’ll have to enroll for the 2015 year for my thesis with UCT.. Ah well.

                    Sure I’ll send you an email sometime :)

                    • Oh man, that’s a bummer! Well, as a returning student in my 30s, I can definitely say that the wait for UCT will be worth it.

                      You’ll have to bear with me, I just realized that I already have your email address (from my administrative view of your comments) so I’ll actually send you one soon. I’ve got a cram session for an exam tomorrow morning. But then I’ll send it along.

                      Have a good night, Mikaela! Or day… whatever time it is in Hong Kong.

  2. Pingback: The 3 Laws of Logic, Lickety Split | A Clear Lens

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