Handbook of epistemology

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Aristotle and Plato

Thierry Dugnolle


First part: The knowledgeable body

  1. Science of the soul or science of matter?
  2. Perception and imagination
  3. Instinct, learning and memory
  4. Emotions, will and attention
  5. Speech

Second part: The development of reason

  1. Justification and evaluation of knowledge
  2. Research and discovery
  3. What is reason?


Epistemology is the knowledge about knowledge. If we understand the concept of science in the most general sense, all forms of knowledge, epistemology is the science of science.

Two criteria are fundamental to define knowledge: truth and proof. Knowledge must be true and proven to be truly knowledge.

In this book epistemology is conceived as a part of psychology, the science of the soul, because knowledge exists when souls discover truths and their proofs.

Knowledge about knowledge is of fundamental importance for the development of all knowledge, because recognizing one's own capacity to acquire knowledge makes one more capable to acquire it.


Cognition is the production and use of internal representations that prepare for action. A soul gives itself representations, it is what represents to itself, what perceives and imagines. To seek the soul in the brain is to look for the representations it gives itself.

Imagination is the production of internal representations. Perception is the imagination of the present. To perceive is always to conceive because perception attributes concepts to perceived beings. A concept is determined by the set of detection systems that signal the presence of an object by attributing this concept to it. This definition is general because any information processing unit can be considered as a detection system.

Reflection is the knowledge of oneself as a soul, that is, as a being who perceives, imagines, feels and wants. Where does one find that self which must be perceived? And how does it represent itself? La Gioconda is not only a representation of Mona Lisa, it is also a representation of Leonardo da Vinci. The same goes for all our representations.

Perceptions reveal the truth about matter because the nature of matter is to be perceptible.

We could not learn if we did not have the natural ability to learn. This instinct to learn is based on the ability of nervous systems to take advantage of their experience to guide their development, and thus on the plasticity of neurons and their synapses.

We can define emotions from some general characters: An emotion is triggered by the detection of specific conditions, fear by the detection of danger, sadness by the detection of misfortune, anger by the detection of the unacceptable ... This detection is followed very quickly by reflex reactions and physiological changes that enable the body to adapt to the novelty of its situation. Emotions determine motives, ie desires or aversions. They tell us the goals that deserve to be pursued, and what we must flee or avoid.

Will and attention are explained with a model of a centralized administration without a central administrator. Executive modules enforce decisions made voluntarily. These are neural circuits capable of recording decisions already made, received on their input channels, and then giving the commands that apply them to their output channels. Designer modules make proposals to evaluator modules for decision making. The evaluation modules obey the executive modules and therefore the decisions taken previously, which makes the will autonomous in its evaluations. The designer modules also obey the executive modules, which makes the will autonomous in its execution. This model also explains attention since it is the selection of the representations subjected to an evaluation for the purpose of a voluntary decision.

Ethical knowledge consists of evaluating actions, behaviors and their ends. Silent ethical knowledge is the know-how-to-evaluate that results from the emotions and the will. An ethical knowledge can be defined as the knowledge of an ideal, because an evaluation system determines an ideal. One builds oneself by giving oneself an ideal of the self, thus by deciding the criteria of evaluation of our decisions.

Speech is the voluntary emission of signals to influence the imagination and the will of those who receive them.

Words make sense when they awaken the imagination. When the concepts detected by our perception systems are associated with verbal expressions that name them, we can both describe what we perceive, by naming perceived concepts, and imagine what is described, by simulating the detection of named concepts. To understand words is to know how to use them, and we must imagine what they incite us to imagine.

Silent knowledge is the knowledge that precedes speech and results from perception, imagination, emotion and will. It can be translated into words as soon as the detection systems that it uses are named by verbal expressions. Silent knowledge is fundamental to the development of reason, because talking knowledge begins as a translation of silent knowledge. It can then fly on its own because it can speak about speech, but it needs silent knowledge to take off, because words must awaken the imagination to make sense.

Thought is the imagination of speech.

Abstract theoretical knowledge is the talking equivalent of the silent imagination of fictions. For theoretical beings to exist and be known, it is enough to make a theory of them, to give oneself principles and to reason from them. Theoretical beings exist as objects of theory, simply because it is true that we speak of them. Theoretical beings are completely determined by our definitions and by the theories in which we have defined them. Talking ethical knowledge resembles an abstract theory, because it is stated with principles which are admitted as true by definition of an ideal.

A statement, or a formula, is a knowledge when it is true and justified. The justification of knowledge is defined by induction: good observations, laws verified by well-controlled experiments and truths admitted by definition of their terms are all considered justified. Any logical consequence of true and justified premises is justified by the reasoning that proves this relation of consequence.

The justification of knowledge can not be separated from its evaluation. We do not just want proofs, we want good proofs, hence that they be based on good principles. But what is the principle of evaluation of principles? That a good principle must bear fruit.

Reason is to develop universal knowledge in common, honestly seeking truths and evidence, respecting the principle of equivalence of all observers, and more generally by voluntarily submitting to all the rules of critical thinking. We explore the space of possibilities whenever we examine knowledge in order to evaluate it. Critical tests are designed to select promising opportunities. Criticism is therefore a heuristic that helps us to solve the problem of the development of reason.

We do not know the range of skills that reason can give us. To know what reason makes us capable of, the best way, and the only way, is to try.

Detailed contents

First part: The knowledgeable body

  1. Science of the soul or science of matter?
  2. Perception and imagination
    1. Perception is the imagination of the present
    2. Silent inferences
    3. Imagine to simulate other souls
    4. Concepts
      1. Perception is conceptual
      2. Are concepts concrete beings ?
      3. Conceptual frameworks for perception
    5. Creative imagination
    6. Reflection
    7. The nature of matter and the truth of perception
  3. Instinct, learning and memory
    1. What is learning ?
    2. The instinct to learn
    3. Neural plasticity
    4. The development of instincts
    5. Procedural memory
    6. A neural model for episodic memory: the convergence-divergence zones
    7. Learning to perceive
  4. Emotions, will and attention
    1. Brain modules and routine activities
    2. Emotions
    3. Decision making and the autonomy of the will
    4. Problem solving
    5. Innovation
    6. A centralized administration without a central administrator
    7. The control of consciousness by consciousness: attention
    8. Silent ethical knowledge
    9. The construction of oneself
  5. Speech
    1. What is speech?
      1. Everything speaks
      2. Animal communication
      3. Influence the imagination and the will
    2. Meaning through imagination
    3. Understanding words means knowing how to use them
    4. Thought
    5. Theoretical frameworks and the priority of the a priori
    6. Freedom of interpretation
    7. Reasoning
    8. Mathematical truth

Second part: The development of reason

  1. Justification and evaluation of knowledge
    1. The problem of the recognition of knowledge
    2. The silent recognition of knowledge
    3. Justification of knowledge
      1. Knowledge justifying standards
      2. Justification of observations
      3. Justification of empirical laws by observation
      4. Justification by reasoning
      5. Justification of logic
      6. Justification of principles
    4. Evaluation of knowledge
      1. Evaluation of principles
      2. The ideal of intelligibility
      3. The analysis of complexity
      4. The knowledge of ends
      5. Evaluation of ethical knowledge
    5. Justification and evaluation of the knowledge about knowledge
  2. Research and discovery
    1. The will to know
    2. Theoretical problems
    3. Why do reasonings enable us to acquire knowledge ?
    4. Criticism is a heuristic
    5. The discovery of reason
  3. What is reason?
    1. Science of the individual or science of the general?
    2. Similarity and generality
      1. Similarities and concepts
      2. Similarity and typology
      3. Similarity between systems and analogy
      4. Symmetries
    3. The principle of equivalence of all observers and the generosity of truth
    4. Does Nature really obey laws?
    5. Where is the grain to grind?
    6. Good knowledge is the knowledge that makes us competent
    7. The unity of reason
    8. Is reason only a human invention?
    9. What can we hope?


This book is translated from Précis d'épistémologie