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.
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 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. 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.” 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.” Friedrich Nietszche wrote, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” 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; which is a Modernist, atheistic movement.
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. 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. 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 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. 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. 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.
 John Hospers, An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis (New Delhi: Allied Publishers Limited, 2006), 209.
 Roy Porter, The Enlightenment, 2nd ed. (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 1.
 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.
 Christoph Cox, Nietzsche: Naturalism and Interpretation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 16.
 Sue Vander Hook, Communism (ABDO Publishing Company: North Mankato, 2011), 143.
 Professor Huxley, David Hume: A Study of His Philosophy and Life (Wildside: Rockville, 2008), 65-67.
 Steven Best & Douglas Kellner, The Postmodern Turn (The Guilford Press: New York, 1997), 165.
 Those are all appropriate criticisms of the Modern period.
 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.