The Epistemological Question: The Theory of Knowledge

A Mini-Course in Epistemology, by Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty

This mini-course deals with the question of the trustworthiness of human knowledge. In discussing this question we seek to know what guarantees the same process as fruitful of true and certain knowledge.

This mini-course is divided into the following four Sections:

  • Section 1 – Truth and Certitude
  • Section 2 – Various Doctrines on Certitude
  • Section 3 – The Sources of Certitude
  • Section 4 – Scientific Certitude and Its Acquisition

Section 1: Truth and Certitude


  • a. The Nature of Truth;
  • b. Classification of Truth;
  • c. The Mind and Truth.

a) The Nature of Truth

Truth is a relation; it exists between two things. The two things are mind on the one hand, and something judged by the mind, that is, some judged reality, on the other.

When the judging mind forms a judgment which accurately squares with the reality about which the judgment is made, there is truth in the judging mind. In other words, when we know things accurately and factually, we have the truth about them. And since things are knowable, since they can be rightly judged upon by the mind, there is truth in them to know. Truth, therefore, is the relation of equality, of squaring-up, of adequation, between the mind and reality. The opposite of truth is falsity.

b) Classification of Truth

Since truth is the relation of equality or adequation between the mind and reality, it can be looked at from two standpoints, that of the mind, and that of reality.

  • Inasmuch as the mind can square up to reality by knowing it accurately, the mind can obtain and possess truth. This is truth in the mind, or truth of thought, or truth of knowledge. Its technical name is logical truth.
  • Inasmuch as any reality is knowable, inasmuch as it can be rightly known and accurately judged by an adequate mind, truth abides in it. This is truth in things. Its technical name is ontological truth.

Hence we have two classes or types of truth: the truth of thought and the truth of things.

There is a third type of truth which does not concern us here beyond a simple mention: this is the truth of speech and it consists in the agreement between the knowledge and the words of a speaker or writer. Truth in its logical and ontological aspects is verity; truth of speech is veracity. Veracity is called moral truth. This matter is discussed in the mini-course on Ethics.

Now, things or realities are what they are. And they are necessarily knowable as they are. If a knowing mind does not judge them truly, this is not the fault of things but the inadequacy of the mind or its precipitate use. Hence, things are necessarily true; there is no such thing as the falsity of things; there is no ontological falsity.

When we call things false as we often do — for we speak of false teeth, false whiskers, and false friends, to name but a few of a long list of such expressions — we speak figuratively, not literally. For false teeth, false whiskers, and false friends are not teeth, whiskers, or friends at all; they are things which bear the appearance of teeth, whiskers, and friends, and so an unwary mind may be led to judge that they are really teeth, whiskers, and friends. Thus it is manifest that the falsity touches the judgment about things, not the things themselves. It is logical falsity, not real or ontological falsity.

There are, then, three types of truth: ontological truth, logical truth, and moral truth. In other words, we have truth of things, truth of knowledge about things, and truth of utterance or speech. But there are only two types of falsity: logical falsity, which consists in mistaken judgment; and moral falsity, which consists in telling lies.

Strictly speaking, there are no degrees of truth. A thing is true of necessity, for it is what it is. A judgment is true or it is false. An utterance is true or it is mendacious. There is, therefore, no comparing of truth and seeing it as true, truer, and truest. But here again we have a way of speaking as though truth could be parceled out in degrees. We say, for example, “Your view of this matter seems truer than John’s view.” But what we mean is, “You seem to know more about this matter than John does,” or “Your view is more extensive, more complete than John’s.” The degrees are in one’s knowledge of truth, not in truth itself. We may always learn more about a thing, but our knowledge does not become truer as we advance; it becomes more ample. What we knew at first, if we had logical truth about it, remains true knowledge; our subsequent learning does not make the first truth truer.

There are, however, degrees of falsity. The full-grown tree which casts a shadow does not grow taller or shorter, but the shadow grows longer or deeper with the shifting, or the change of intensity, of light. Falsity is like the shadow; it has degrees of length and depth, but what casts the shadow remains unchanged. For falsity is all in the mind or in speech, whereas truth is based upon adamantine reality. The mind can be more deeply and deviously deceived; the lips can utter more and more details of falsehood. To take a new analogy, there is only one surface of the lake upon which the boat floats safely, but if it sinks, it may sink deeper and still deeper into the water. There are, therefore, degrees of falsity, but no degrees of truth.

c) The Mind and Truth

Philosophers list for us a litany of “states of the mind with reference to truth.” Such states are the following:

1. Ignorance is absence of intellectual knowledge in a person. It is a negative state of the mind with reference to truth. Ignorance may be an absence of knowledge which ought to be present, such as ignorance of legal procedure in a judge; and then it is called privative ignorance, for it constitutes a privation, a hurtful lack, in the person who suffers it. Or ignorance may be the absence of knowledge which we have no right to expect to be present, as ignorance of legal procedure in a farmer who has never studied law; and then it is called negative ignorance for it is a simple negation or simple absence if knowledge. The absence of knowledge in beings that could have it in any case is called nescience and not ignorance.

2. Doubt is the suspension of the mind between two contradictory judgments, between “It is” and “It isn’t.” When this indecision is owing to seemingly equal evidence on each side, it is called positive doubt; when it is owing to the absence of evidence for either side, it is negative doubt. A balance-scale stands even when there is an equal weight in each pan; it also stands even when there is no weight at all in either pan; here we have a telling illustration of positive and negative doubt.

3. Suspicion is the first inclination of the doubting mind to make a decision one way or the other. In doubt, the mind is like a man standing on a fence-top, perfectly erect, inclined to neither side. In suspicion, the mind begins to incline towards one judgment and away from its contradictory.

4. Opinion is the decision of a mind not wholly free of doubt. It is a decision; the mind gives judgment; but it is not a wholly confident and unhesitant judgment; there is in the mind some fear that maybe, after all, truth lies on the opposite side. It differs from doubt, for in doubt the mind stands hesitant; it differs from suspicion, for in suspicion the mind is inclined to make judgment but does not make it. Opinion is a clear decision and judgment of the mind, upon evidence that appears sufficient to win its assent, but it is not a judgment made with full and perfect confidence of being in the right.

5. Certitude or certainty is found in the mind’s unhesitant assent to truth. It is a judgment wholly confident, completely without fear of being wrong. In doubt, a man “doesn’t know what to say”; in suspicion, he “inclines to think”; in opinion, he “believes it to be thus”; in certitude, he knows. But cannot a man be certain of what is not true? Yes, but we have a special technical name for such certitude; we call it error. The name certitude, strictly used, is reserved for the mind’s unwavering assent to known truth.

It is manifest that the only knowledge that is worth winning is certain knowledge of truth. The human mind naturally wants truth; it wants true knowledge; it wants to hold true knowledge with certainty. Here in a single sentence we have the whole object of the science of epistemology; we may sum up that object in three words out of the sentence: knowledge, truth, certitude. Nay, we may sum it up in one word, certitude; for certitude means certain knowledge of truth.

Summary of the Section

In this Section we have defined truth, and have distinguished three types of truth: ontological truth or real truth which is the truth of reality or of things; logical truth which is the truth of judgment, of thought, of knowledge; and moral truth which is the truth of speech.

We have noted that the opposite of truth is falsity, which cannot exist in the ontological order (for things are what they are), but can exist in the logical and in the moral order.

We have seen that there are no degrees of truth, but that there are degrees of falsity, just as there are no degrees of variance in the straight line that runs from point A to point B, but there are endless degrees of variance of lines that run from point A and miss point B.

We have listed various states of the mind with reference to truth: ignorance, doubt, suspicion, opinion, certitude, error.

We have noticed that the Epistemological Question focusses upon certain knowledge of truth, or, in a word, upon certitude.

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Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at Self-Educated American.

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