Epistemology And Metaphysics

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The Difference between Epistemology and Metaphysics

The Difference between Epistemology and Metaphysics


Technically, epistemology is defined as "the theory or science that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of knowledge" (McKechnie, 1979, 614). As the dictionary definition suggests, epistemology is the study of what humans know: its origins, nature, methods, and limits. To understand this concept, think about epistemology as the study of "intellectual history." That is, where did what human know come from, what does it mean, what is the process by which this became known, and?don't ever forget this important aspects?do humans know this absolutely or only provisionally? Hence, the distinction between "Truth" and "truth," indicating that much of what humans assert as Truth (capital "T") is, in reality, truth (small "t"). And, as Socrates notes in Meno, a provisional truth at that (a "correct opinion") that is based upon a probability that the provisional truth may be a false (1981, 97-98.85-87).

Thus, epistemology might be thought of as "quantitative" in nature. That is, humans can quantify what they know. And, most textbooks and (perhaps) most teachers do precisely that. Typically, what teachers offer students through the curriculum and its courses is epistemological in nature; that is, teachers try to get students to know and understand precisely what human beings know. However, most tests and measures of human knowledge only assess what students. Hopefully, teachers also strive to get their students to understand what it is that human beings know. Modal epistemology concerns our epistemic access to facts about modality. In particular, modal epistemology typically concerns itself with questions about our knowledge, justified beliefs, etc., with respect to claims about metaphysical possibility and metaphysical necessity.

One important philosophical consideration all of this raises for professional educators is: Do teachers ever suggest to their students that much of what human beings know (and hopefully, understand) is what humans believe to be true, that is, "correct opinions" as Socrates taught? Or, do teachers transmit these ideas as static truths that are not to be questioned? If the latter, so much for developing the students' critical and creative thinking capacities...and schools functioning like information factories and teachers as instructors (McKechnie, 1979).


In contrast, metaphysics is "the branch of philosophy that deals with first principles and seeks to explain the nature of being or reality (ontology) and of the origin and structure of the world (cosmology)...popularly, any very subtle, perplexing, or difficult reasoning" (McKechnie, 1979, 1132).

The ellipsis in the definition provides the clearest insight into what metaphysics actually inquires into. The focus here is not what humans know (that's epistemology) but how humans know that they know that.... (The statement never really ends because metaphysics probes into and beyond the deepest realms of knowing as these realms become more mysterious and seemingly beyond the grasp of the intellect.)

Metaphysics, then, takes the self-conscious turn that epistemology avoids, examining the powers and processes of intellect by which humans have become conscious of the things that they know and act upon in their daily ...
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