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The owl of Athena is a symbol of knowledge.

Knowledge can be defined as awareness of facts or as practical skills, and may also refer to familiarity with objects or situations. Knowledge of facts, also referred to as propositional knowledge, is often defined as true belief that is distinct from opinion or guesswork by virtue of justification. While there is wide agreement among philosophers that it is a form of true belief, many controversies in philosophy focus on justification: whether it is needed at all, how to understand it, and whether something else besides it is needed. These controversies intensified due to a series of thought experiments by Edmund Gettier and have provoked various alternative definitions. Some of them deny that justification is necessary and replace it, for example, with reliability or the manifestation of cognitive virtues. Others contend that justification is needed but formulate additional requirements, for example, that no defeaters of the belief are present or that the person would not have the belief if it was false.

Knowledge can be produced in many different ways. The most important source is perception, which refers to the usage of the five senses. Many theorists also include introspection as a source of knowledge, not of external physical objects, but of one's own mental states. Other sources often discussed include memory, rational intuition, inference, and testimony. According to foundationalism, some of these sources are basic in the sense that they can justify beliefs without depending on other mental states. This claim is rejected by coherentists, who contend that a sufficient degree of coherence among all the mental states of the believer is necessary for knowledge.

Many different aspects of knowledge are investigated and it plays a role in various disciplines. It is the primary subject of the field of epistemology, which studies what we know, how we come to know it, and what it means to know something. The problem of the value of knowledge concerns the question of why knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief. Philosophical skepticism is the controversial thesis that we lack any form of knowledge or that knowledge is impossible. Formal epistemology studies, among other things, the rules governing how knowledge and related states behave and in what relations they stand to each other. Science tries to acquire knowledge using the scientific method, which is based on repeatable experimentation, observation, and measurement. Many religions hold that humans should seek knowledge and that God or the divine is the source of knowledge.


Numerous definitions of knowledge have been suggested.[1][2][3] The expressions "conception of knowledge", "theory of knowledge", and "analysis of knowledge" are sometimes utilized as synonyms.[4][5][1] There is wide, though not universal, agreement among philosophers that knowledge can be characterized as a cognitive success or an epistemic contact with reality and that propositional knowledge is a form of true belief.[6][7] Most definitions of knowledge in analytic philosophy aim to determine the essential features of propositional knowledge, which is also referred to as knowledge-that.[7] Knowledge-that can be expressed using that-clauses as in "I know that Dave is at home".[8][9][10] It contrasts with knowledge-how (know-how) expressing practical competence, as in "she knows how to swim", and knowledge by acquaintance, which refers to a familiarity with the known object based on previous direct experience.[11][9][7]

There are many deep disagreements about knowledge's precise nature despite agreement on these general but vague characteristics. One definition that many philosophers consider to be standard is justified true belief (JTB). However, it has been criticized in diverse ways and many alternative definitions have been suggested.[8][7] These disagreements have various sources that belong to the goals and methods within epistemology and other fields, or to differences concerning the standards of knowledge that people intend to uphold. Some theorists focus on knowledge's most salient features in their attempt to give a practically useful definition.[7] Others try to provide a theoretically precise definition by listing the conditions that are individually necessary and jointly sufficient. The term "analysis of knowledge" is often used for this approach. It can be understood in analogy to how chemists analyze a sample by seeking a list of all the chemical elements composing it.[7][1][12] Others seek a common core among diverse examples of knowledge,[6] such as Paul Silva's "awareness first" epistemology[13] or Barry Allen's definition of knowledge as "superlative artifactual performance".[14][15]

Methodological differences concern whether researchers base their inquiry on abstract and general intuitions or hypotheses, or on concrete and specific cases, referred to as methodism and particularism, respectively.[16][17][18] Another source of disagreement is the role of ordinary language in one's inquiry: the weight given to how the term "knowledge" is used in everyday discourse.[10][5] According to Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, there is no clear-cut definition of knowledge since it is just a cluster of concepts related through family resemblance.[19]

Different conceptions of the standards of knowledge are also responsible for various disagreements. Some epistemologists hold that knowledge demands very high requirements, like infallibility, and is therefore quite rare. Others see knowledge as a rather common phenomenon, prevalent in many everyday situations, without excessively high standards.[1][20][9][21]

Justified true belief

Many philosophers define knowledge as justified true belief (JTB). This definition characterizes knowledge through three essential features: as (1) a belief that is (2) true and (3) justified.[8][7] In the dialogue Theaetetus by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, Socrates pondered the distinction between knowledge and true belief but rejected the JTB definition of knowledge.[22][23] The most widely accepted feature is truth: one can believe something false but one cannot know something false.[9][10] A few ordinary language philosophers have raised doubts that knowledge is a form of belief based on everyday expressions like "I do not believe that; I know it".[8][9][7] Most theorists reject this distinction and explain such expressions through ambiguities of natural language.[8][9]

The main controversy surrounding the JTB definition concerns its third feature: justification.[8][7][1] The motivation for including this component is that many true beliefs do apparently not amount to knowledge. Specifically, this covers cases of superstition, lucky guesses, or erroneous reasoning. The corresponding beliefs may even be true but it seems there is more to knowledge than just being right about something.[8][9][5] The JTB definition solves this problem by identifying proper justification as the additional component needed, which is absent in the above-mentioned cases. Many philosophers have understood justification internalistically (internalism): a belief is justified if it is supported by another mental state of the person, such as a perceptual experience, a memory, or a second belief. This mental state has to constitute a sufficiently strong evidence or reason for the believed proposition. Some modern versions modify the JTB definition by using an externalist conception of justification instead. This means that justification depends not just on factors internal to the subject but also on external factors. They can include, for example, that the belief was produced by a reliable process or that the believed fact caused the belief.[1][8][9][5]

Gettier problem and alternatives

The JTB definition came under severe criticism in the 20th century, when Edmund Gettier gave a series of counterexamples.[24] They purport to present concrete cases of justified true beliefs that fail to constitute knowledge. The reason for their failure is usually a form of epistemic luck: the justification is not relevant to the truth.[8][9][7] In a well-known example, there is a country road with many barn facades and only one real barn. The person driving is not aware of this, stops by a lucky coincidence in front of the real barn, and forms the belief that he is in front of a barn. It has been argued that this justified true belief does not constitute knowledge since the person wouldn't have been able to tell the difference without the fortuitous accident.[25][26][27] So even though the belief is justified, it is a lucky coincidence that it is also true. The responses to these counterexamples have been diverse. According to some, they show that the JTB definition of knowledge is deeply flawed and that a radical reconceptualization of knowledge is necessary, often by denying justification a role.[1] This can happen, for example, by replacing justification with reliability or by understanding knowledge as the manifestation of cognitive virtues. Other approaches include defining it in regard to the cognitive role it plays in providing reasons for doing or thinking something or seeing it as the most general factive mental state operator.[6] Various theorists are diametrically opposed to the radical reconceptualization and either deny that Gettier cases pose problems or they try to solve them by making smaller modifications to how justification is defined. Such approaches result in a minimal modification of the JTB definition.[1]

Between these two extremes, some philosophers have suggested various moderate departures. They agree that the JTB definition is a step in the right direction: justified true belief is a necessary condition of knowledge. However, they disagree that it is a sufficient condition. They hold instead that an additional criterion, some feature X, is necessary for knowledge. For this reason, they are often referred to as JTB+X definitions of knowledge.[1][28] A closely related approach speaks not of justification but of warrant and defines warrant as justification together with whatever else is necessary to arrive at knowledge.[8][29] Many candidates for the fourth feature have been suggested. In this regard, knowledge may be defined as justified true belief that does not depend on any false beliefs, that there are no defeaters present, or that the person would not have the belief if it was false.[27][5] According to Simon Blackburn, those who have a justified true belief 'through a defect, flaw, or failure' fail to have knowledge.[30] Such and similar definitions are successful at avoiding many of the original Gettier cases. However, they often fall prey to newly conceived counterexamples.[7] To avoid all possible cases, it may be necessary to find a criterion that excludes all forms of epistemic luck. It has been argued that such a criterion would set the required standards of knowledge very high: the belief has to be infallible to succeed in all cases.[9][31] This would mean that very few of our beliefs amount to knowledge, if any.[9][21][7] For example, Richard Kirkham suggests that our definition of knowledge requires that the evidence for the belief necessitates its truth.[30] There is still very little consensus in the academic discourse as to which of the proposed modifications or reconceptualizations is correct.[7][6][1]


The English word knowledge can translate a variety of words in other languages that refer to different states.[6] The Latin words cognitio and scientia can both be translated as "knowledge".[6] Romance languages have two major verbs that would both be translated as "to know": for example, connaître and savoir in French or conocer and saber in Spanish.[6] In ancient Greek, there were four such important knowledge words: epistēmē (unchanging theoretical knowledge), technē (expert technical knowledge), mētis (strategic knowledge), and gnōsis (personal intellectual knowledge).[15] All these different types of knowledge can be considered forms of cognitive success.[6]

Propositional knowledge

Propositional knowledge, also referred to as descriptive knowledge, is the paradigmatic type of knowledge in analytic philosophy, and various classifications are used to distinguish between its different subtypes.[8][9][10] The distinctions between the major types are usually drawn based on the linguistic formulations used to express them.[1] Propositional knowledge is propositional in the sense that it involves a relation to a proposition. Since propositions are often expressed through that-clauses, it is also referred to as knowledge-that, as in "Akari knows that Canberra is the capital of Australia".[9][10][7][6] In this case, Akari stands in the relation of knowing to the proposition "Canberra is the capital of Australia". Closely related types of knowledge are know-wh, for example, knowing where the Taj Mahal is or knowing who killed J. F. Kennedy.[9] These expressions are normally understood as types of propositional knowledge since they usually can be paraphrased using a that-clause.[9][10][32]

An important distinction among propositional forms of knowledge is between apriori and aposteriori knowledge. For aposteriori knowledge, its justification is based on empirical evidence, like sensory experience. It contrasts with apriori knowledge, which is based on pure reason or rational intuition without the need for sensation.[10] Apriori knowledge is sometimes identified with innate knowledge, which is inborn and does not need to be newly learned. Popular suggestions for this type include the knowledge of basic mathematical claims, like "2 + 2 = 4". It is distinguished from acquired knowledge, which the person needs to learn first in order to possess it.[10] Two closely related distinctions are those between necessary and contingent knowledge, based on whether it is possible at all that the known proposition is false, as well as between analytic and synthetic knowledge, based on whether the truth of the known proposition depends only on the meaning of the terms it uses.[33][34][10]

A different distinction is that between occurrent and dispositional knowledge. It mirrors the distinction between occurrent and dispositional beliefs: to know occurrently means to entertain the corresponding representation currently, to be aware of it. "Dispositional knowledge" refers to the mere ability to do so without its execution. In this regard, a person fully immersed in a go-kart race has dispositional but not occurrent knowledge of where their home is. The reason is that they are currently occupied with something else but could easily provide this information if they stopped and focused on it.[10][35][36]

Non-propositional knowledge

For non-propositional knowledge, no essential relation to a proposition is involved. The two most well-known forms are knowledge-how (know-how or procedural knowledge) and knowledge by acquaintance.[11][9][10] The term "know-how" refers to some form of practical ability or skill. It can be defined as having the corresponding competence.[9][32] Examples include knowing how to ride a bicycle or knowing how to play the guitar. Some of the abilities responsible for know-how may also involve certain forms of knowledge-that, as in knowing how to prove a mathematical theorem. But this is not generally the case.[6] It is usually argued that mainly humans and maybe other higher animals possess propositional knowledge since it requires an advanced form of mind. Practical knowledge, on the other hand, is more common in the animal kingdom. In this regard, an ant knows how to walk even though it presumably lacks a mind sufficiently developed enough to stand in a relation to the corresponding proposition by representing it.[32]

Knowledge by acquaintance refers to familiarity with an individual that results from direct experiential contact with this individual.[9][10][7][6] It often, but not exclusively, concerns a relation to a person. On the linguistic level, it does not require a that-clause and can be expressed using a direct object. So when someone claims that they know Wladimir Klitschko personally, they are expressing that they had a certain kind of contact with him and not that they know a certain fact about him. This is usually understood to mean that it constitutes a relation to a concrete individual and not to a proposition. Knowledge by acquaintance plays a central role in Bertrand Russell's epistemology. He contrasts it with knowledge by description, which is a form of propositional knowledge not based on direct perceptual experience.[37][38] So by watching a documentary about Wladimir Klitschko, the viewer may acquire various forms of knowledge by description about him, for example, about his nationality or his career in boxing, without acquiring knowledge by acquaintance of him. However, there is some controversy about whether it is possible to acquire knowledge by acquaintance in its pure non-propositional form. In this regard, some theorists have suggested that it might be better to understand it as one type of propositional knowledge that is only expressed in a grammatically different way.[8]

Other distinctions


"Self-knowledge" usually refers to a person's knowledge of their own sensations, thoughts, beliefs, and other mental states.[39] A number of questions regarding self-knowledge have been the subject of extensive debates in philosophy, including whether self-knowledge differs from other types of knowledge, whether we have privileged self-knowledge compared to knowledge of other minds, and the nature of our acquaintance with ourselves.[39] David Hume expressed skepticism about whether we could ever have self-knowledge over and above our immediate awareness of a "bundle of perceptions", which was part of his broader skepticism about personal identity.[39]

Situated knowledge

Situated knowledge is knowledge specific to a particular situation. It was used by Donna Haraway as an extension of the feminist approaches of "successor science" suggested by Sandra Harding, one which "offers a more adequate, richer, better account of a world, in order to live in it well and in critical, reflexive relation to our own as well as others' practices of domination and the unequal parts of privilege and oppression that makes up all positions."[40] This situation partially transforms science into a narrative, which Arturo Escobar explains as, "neither fictions nor supposed facts." This narrative of situation is historical textures woven of fact and fiction, and as Escobar explains further, "even the most neutral scientific domains are narratives in this sense," insisting that rather than a purpose dismissing science as a trivial matter of contingency, "it is to treat (this narrative) in the most serious way, without succumbing to its mystification as 'the truth' or to the ironic skepticism common to many critiques."[41]

Haraway's argument stems from the limitations of the human perception, as well as the overemphasis of the sense of vision in science. According to Haraway, vision in science has been, "used to signify a leap out of the marked body and into a conquering gaze from nowhere." This is the "gaze that mythically inscribes all the marked bodies, that makes the unmarked category claim the power to see and not be seen, to represent while escaping representation."[40] This causes a limitation of views in the position of science itself as a potential player in the creation of knowledge, resulting in a position of "modest witness". This is what Haraway terms a "god trick", or the aforementioned representation while escaping representation.[42] In order to avoid this, "Haraway perpetuates a tradition of thought which emphasizes the importance of the subject in terms of both ethical and political accountability".[43]

Some methods of generating knowledge, such as trial and error, or learning from experience, tend to create highly situational knowledge. Situational knowledge is often embedded in language, culture, or traditions. This integration of situational knowledge is an allusion to the community, and its attempts at collecting subjective perspectives into an embodiment "of views from somewhere."[40] Knowledge is also said to be related to the capacity of acknowledgement in human beings.[44]

Even though Haraway's arguments are largely based on feminist studies,[40] this idea of different worlds, as well as the skeptic stance of situated knowledge is present in the main arguments of post-structuralism. Fundamentally, both argue the contingency of knowledge on the presence of history; power, and geography, as well as the rejection of universal rules or laws or elementary structures; and the idea of power as an inherited trait of objectification.[45]

Higher and lower knowledge

Many forms of eastern spirituality and religion distinguish between higher and lower knowledge. They are also referred to as para vidya and apara vidya in Hinduism or the two truths doctrine in Buddhism. Lower knowledge is based on the senses and the intellect.[46] In this regard, all forms of empirical and objective knowledge belong to this category.[47] Most of the knowledge needed in one's everyday functioning is lower knowledge. It is about mundane or conventional things that are in tune with common sense, like that mice are smaller than elephants. It is relevant to many practical issues, like how to repair a car or how to persuade a customer.[46][48] Scientific knowledge, for example, that the chemical composition of water is H2O, is often seen as one of the most advanced forms of lower knowledge.[49]

Higher knowledge, on the other hand, is understood as knowledge of God, the absolute, the true self, or the ultimate reality. It belongs neither to the external world of physical objects nor to the internal world of the experience of emotions and concepts. Many spiritual teachings emphasize the increased importance, or sometimes even exclusive importance, of higher knowledge in comparison to lower knowledge. This is usually based on the idea that achieving higher knowledge is one of the central steps on the spiritual path. In this regard, higher knowledge is seen as what frees the individual from ignorance, helps them realize God, or liberates them from the cycle of rebirth.[47][48] This is often combined with the view that lower knowledge is in some way based on a delusion: it belongs to the realm of mere appearances or Maya, while higher knowledge manages to view the reality underlying these appearances.[49] In the Buddhist tradition, the attainment of higher knowledge or ultimate truth is often associated with seeing the world from the perspective of sunyata, i.e. as a form of emptiness lacking inherent existence or intrinsic nature.[46][50][51]

Sources of knowledge

Sources of knowledge are ways how people come to know things or how knowledge is created. Different sources of knowledge are discussed in the academic literature, often in terms of the mental faculties responsible. They include perception, introspection, memory, inference, and testimony. However, not everyone agrees that all of them actually lead to knowledge. Usually, perception or observation, i.e. using one of the five senses, is identified as the most important source.[9][10][6] So knowing that the baby is sleeping constitutes observational knowledge if it was caused by a perception of the snoring baby. But this would not be the case if one learned about this fact through a telephone conversation with one's spouse. Direct realists explain observational knowledge by holding that perception constitutes a direct contact with the perceived object. Indirect realists, on the other hand, contend that this contact happens indirectly: we can only directly perceive sense data, which are then interpreted as representing external objects. This distinction is important since it affects whether the knowledge of external objects is direct or indirect and may thus have an impact on how certain the knowledge is.[6] Introspection is often seen in analogy to perception as a source of knowledge, not of external physical objects, but of internal mental states. Traditionally, various theorists have ascribed a special epistemic status to introspection by claiming that it is infallible or that there is no introspective difference between appearance and reality. However, this claim has been contested in the contemporary discourse. Critics argue that it may be possible, for example, to mistake an unpleasant itch for a pain or to confuse the experience of a slight ellipse for the experience of a circle.[6] Perceptual and introspective knowledge often act as a form of fundamental or basic knowledge. According to some empiricists, perceptual knowledge is the only source of basic knowledge and provides the foundation for all other knowledge.[9][10]

Memory is usually identified as another source of knowledge. It differs from perception and introspection in that it is not as independent or fundamental as they are since it depends on other previous experiences.[52][6] The faculty of memory retains knowledge acquired in the past and makes it accessible in the present, as when remembering a past event or a friend's phone number.[53][54] It is generally considered a reliable source of knowledge, but it may deceive us at times nonetheless, either because the original experience was unreliable or because the memory degraded and does not accurately represent the original experience anymore.[6]

Knowledge based on perception, introspection, or memory may also give rise to inferential knowledge, which comes about when reasoning is applied to draw inferences from another known fact.[9][10][6] In this regard, the perceptual knowledge of a Czech stamp on a postcard may give rise to the inferential knowledge that one's friend is visiting the Czech Republic. According to rationalists, some forms of knowledge are completely independent of observation and introspection. They are needed to explain how certain apriori beliefs, like the mathematical belief that 2 + 2 = 4, constitute knowledge. Some theorists hold that the faculty of pure reason or rational intuition is responsible in these cases since there seem to be no sensory perceptions that could justify such general and abstract knowledge.[52][55] However, difficulties in providing a clear account of pure reason or rational intuition have led various empirically minded epistemologists to doubt that they constitute independent sources of knowledge.[9][10][6] A closely related approach is to hold that this type of knowledge is innate. According to Plato's theory of recollection, for example, it is accessed through a special form of remembering.[9][10]

Testimony is often included as an additional source of knowledge. Unlike the other sources, it is not tied to one specific cognitive faculty. Instead, it is based on the idea that one person can come to know a fact because another person talks about this fact. Testimony can happen in numerous ways, like regular speech, a letter, the newspaper, or an online blog. The problem of testimony consists in clarifying under what circumstances and why it constitutes a source of knowledge. A popular response is that it depends on the reliability of the person pronouncing the testimony: only testimony from reliable sources can lead to knowledge.[6][56][57]

Structure of knowledge

The expression "structure of knowledge" refers to the way in which the mental states of a person need to be related to each other for knowledge to arise.[58][59] Most theorists hold that, among other things, an agent has to have good reasons for holding a belief if this belief is to amount to knowledge. So when challenged, the agent may justify their belief by referring to their reason for holding it. In many cases, this reason is itself a belief that may as well be challenged. So when the agent believes that Ford cars are cheaper than BMWs because they believe to have heard this from a reliable source, they may be challenged to justify why they believe that their source is reliable. If it turns out that their reasons are not well supported, this also affects the epistemic status of the original belief. However, whatever support they present may also be challenged.[8][6][5] This threatens to lead to an infinite regress since the epistemic status at each step depends on the epistemic status of the previous step.[60][61] Theories of the structure of knowledge offer responses for how to solve this problem.[8][6][5]

The three most common theories are foundationalism, coherentism, and infinitism. Foundationalists and coherentists deny the existence of this infinite regress, in contrast to infinitists.[8][6][5] According to foundationalists, some basic reasons have their epistemic status independent of other reasons and thereby constitute the endpoint of the regress. Against this view, it has been argued that the concept of "basic reason" is contradictory: there should be a reason for why some reasons are basic and others are non-basic, in which case the basic reasons would depend on another reason after all and would therefore not be basic. An additional problem consists in finding plausible candidates for basic reasons.[8][6][5]

Coherentists and infinitists avoid these problems by denying the distinction between basic and non-basic reasons. Coherentists argue that there is only a finite number of reasons, which mutually support each other and thereby ensure each other's epistemic status.[8][6] Their critics contend that this constitutes the fallacy of circular reasoning.[62][63] For example, if belief b1 supports belief b2 and belief b2 supports belief b1, the agent has a reason for accepting one belief if they already have the other. However, their mutual support alone is not a good reason for newly accepting both beliefs at once. A closely related issue is that there can be various distinct sets of coherent beliefs and coherentists face the problem of explaining why we should accept one coherent set rather than another.[8][6] For infinitists, in contrast to foundationalists and coherentists, there is an infinite number of reasons. This position faces the problem of explaining how human knowledge is possible at all since it seems that the human mind is limited and cannot possess an infinite amount of reasons.[8] In their traditional forms, foundationalists, coherentists and infinitists all face the Gettier problem, i.e. that having a reason or justification for a true belief is not sufficient for knowledge in cases where cognitive luck is responsible for the success.[8]

Value of knowledge

Los portadores de la antorcha (The Torch-Bearers) – Sculpture by Anna Hyatt Huntington symbolizing the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next (Ciudad Universitaria, Madrid, Spain)

It is generally assumed that knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief. If so, what is the explanation? A formulation of the value problem in epistemology first occurs in Plato's Meno. Socrates points out to Meno that a man who knew the way to Larissa could lead others there correctly. But so, too, could a man who had true beliefs about how to get there, even if he had not gone there or had any knowledge of Larissa. Socrates says that it seems that both knowledge and true opinion can guide action. Meno then wonders why knowledge is valued more than true belief and why knowledge and true belief are different. Socrates responds that knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief because it is tethered or justified. Justification, or working out the reason for a true belief, locks down true belief.[64]

The problem is to identify what (if anything) makes knowledge more valuable than mere true belief, or that makes knowledge more valuable than a mere minimal conjunction of its components, such as justification, safety, sensitivity, statistical likelihood, and anti-Gettier conditions, on a particular analysis of knowledge that conceives of knowledge as divided into components (to which knowledge-first epistemological theories, which posit knowledge as fundamental, are notable exceptions).[65] The value problem re-emerged in the philosophical literature on epistemology in the twenty-first century following the rise of virtue epistemology in the 1980s, partly because of the obvious link to the concept of value in ethics.[66]

In contemporary philosophy, epistemologists including Ernest Sosa, John Greco, Jonathan Kvanvig,[67] Linda Zagzebski, and Duncan Pritchard have defended virtue epistemology as a solution to the value problem. They argue that epistemology should also evaluate the "properties" of people as epistemic agents (i.e. intellectual virtues), rather than merely the properties of propositions and propositional mental attitudes.

Philosophical skepticism

Philosophical skepticism in its strongest form, also referred to as global skepticism, is the thesis that we lack any form of knowledge or that knowledge is impossible. This position is quite radical and very few philosophers have explicitly defended it. However, it has been influential nonetheless, usually in a negative sense: many researchers see it as a serious challenge to any epistemological theory and often try to show how their preferred theory overcomes it.[8][9][6][5] For example, it is commonly accepted that perceptual experience constitutes a source of knowledge. However, according to the dream argument, this is not the case since dreaming provides unreliable information and since the agent could be dreaming right now. In this case, they would be unable to distinguish actual perceptual experience from the dreaming experience. Since they may be dreaming at any time without being aware of this, it is then argued that there is no perceptual knowledge.[8][9][10] A similar often cited thought experiment assumes that the agent is actually a brain in a vat that is just fed electrical stimuli. Such a brain would have the false impression of having a body and interacting with the external world. The basic thrust of the argument is the same: since the agent is unable to tell the difference, they do not know that they have a body responsible for reliable perceptions.[6]

One issue revealed through these thought experiments is the problem of underdetermination: that the evidence available is not sufficient to make a rational decision between competing theories. And if two contrary hypotheses explain the appearances equally well then the agent is not justified in believing one of those hypotheses rather than the other. Based on this premise, the general skeptic just has to argue that this is true for all our knowledge, that there is always an alternative and very different explanation.[6] Another skeptic argument is based on the idea that human cognition is fallible and therefore lacks absolute certainty. More specific arguments target particular theories of knowledge, such as foundationalism or coherentism, and try to show that their concept of knowledge is deeply flawed.[8][6] An important argument against global skepticism is that it seems to contradict itself: the claim that there is no knowledge appears to constitute a knowledge-claim itself.[10] Other responses come from common sense philosophy and reject global skepticism based on the fact that it contradicts common sense. It is then argued against skepticism by seeing common sense as more reliable than the abstract reasoning cited in favor of skepticism.[6]

Certain less radical forms of skepticism deny that knowledge exists within a specific area or discipline, sometimes referred to as local or selective skepticism.[9][10][6] It is often motivated by the idea that certain phenomena do not accurately represent their subject matter. They may thus lead to false impressions concerning its nature. External world skeptics hold that we can only know about our own sensory impressions and experiences but not about the external world. This is based on the idea that beliefs about the external world are mediated through the senses. The senses are faulty at times and may thus show things that are not really there. This problem is avoided on the level of sensory impressions, which are given to the experiencer directly without an intermediary. In this sense, the person may be wrong about seeing a red Ferrari in the street (it might have been a Maserati or a mere light reflection) but they cannot be wrong about having a sensory impression of seeing a patch of red color.[9][10][6][5] The inverse path is taken by some materialists, who accept the existence of the external physical world but deny the existence of the internal realm of mind and consciousness based on the difficulty of explaining how the two realms can exist together.[5] Other forms of local skepticism accept scientific knowledge but deny the possibility of moral knowledge, for example, because there is no reliable way to empirically measure whether a moral claim is true or false. [9]

The issue of the definition and standards of knowledge is central to the question of whether skepticism in its different forms is true. If very high standards are used, for example, that knowledge implies infallibility, then skepticism becomes more plausible. In this case, the skeptic only has to show that no belief is absolutely certain, that while the actual belief is true, it could have been false. However, the more these standards are weakened to how the term is used in everyday language, the less plausible skepticism becomes.[10][7][6]

In various disciplines

Formal epistemology

Formal epistemology studies knowledge using formal tools, such as mathematics and logic.[68] An important issue in this field concerns the epistemic principles of knowledge. They are rules governing how knowledge and related states behave and in what relations they stand to each other. The transparency principle, also referred to as the luminosity of knowledge, is an often discussed principle. It states that knowing something implies the second-order knowledge that one knows it. So if Heike knows that today is Monday, then she also knows that she knows that today is Monday.[69][70][6] According to the conjunction principle, having two justified beliefs in two separate propositions implies that the agent is also justified in believing in the conjunction of these two propositions. The closure principle states that if the agent has a justified belief in one proposition and this proposition entails another proposition, then the agent is also justified in believing this other proposition. The evidence transfer principle applies this idea to evidence: if, in the case above, a certain piece of evidence justifies the first belief then it also justifies the second belief.[8]


The development of the scientific method has made a significant contribution to how knowledge of the physical world and its phenomena is acquired.[71] To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning and experimentation.[72] The scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.[73] Science, and the nature of scientific knowledge have also become the subject of philosophy. As science itself has developed, scientific knowledge now includes a broader usage[74] in the soft sciences such as biology and the social sciences – discussed elsewhere as meta-epistemology, or genetic epistemology, and to some extent related to "theory of cognitive development". Note that "epistemology" is the study of knowledge and how it is acquired. Science is "the process used everyday to logically complete thoughts through inference of facts determined by calculated experiments." Sir Francis Bacon was critical in the historical development of the scientific method; his works established and popularized an inductive methodology for scientific inquiry. His aphorism, "knowledge is power", is found in the Meditations Sacrae (1597).[75]

Until recent times, at least in the Western tradition, it was simply taken for granted that knowledge was something possessed only by humans – and probably adult humans at that. Sometimes the notion might stretch to Society-as-such, as in (e. g.) "the knowledge possessed by the Coptic culture" (as opposed to its individual members), but that was not assured either. Nor was it usual to consider unconscious knowledge in any systematic way until this approach was popularized by Freud.[76]



In many expressions of Christianity, such as Catholicism[77] and Anglicanism,[78] knowledge is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.

"The knowledge that comes from the Holy Spirit, however, is not limited to human knowledge; it is a special gift, which leads us to grasp, through creation, the greatness and love of God and his profound relationship with every creature." (Pope Francis, papal audience May 21, 2014)[79]


In Gnostic beliefs, everyone is said to possess a piece of the highest good or Ultimate God deep within themselves that had fallen from the spiritual world into the bodies of humans, sometimes called a divine spark. It is trapped in their material bodies created by the inferior God or Demiurge unless secret knowledge from the outside universe called gnosis is achieved. The one who brings such knowledge is considered the savior or redeemer.[80]


विद्या दान (Vidya Daan) i.e. knowledge sharing is a major part of Daan, a tenet of all Dharmic Religions.[81] Hindu Scriptures present two kinds of knowledge, Paroksh Gyan and Prataksh Gyan. Paroksh Gyan (also spelled Paroksha-Jnana) is secondhand knowledge: knowledge obtained from books, hearsay, etc. Pratyaksh Gyan (also spelled Pratyaksha-Jnana) is the knowledge borne of direct experience, i.e., knowledge that one discovers for oneself.[82] Jnana yoga ("path of knowledge") is one of three main types of yoga expounded by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. (It is compared and contrasted with Bhakti Yoga and Karma yoga.)


In Islam, knowledge (Arabic: علم, ʿilm) is given great significance. "The Knowing" (al-ʿAlīm) is one of the 99 names reflecting distinct attributes of God. The Qur'an asserts that knowledge comes from God (2:239) and various hadith encourage the acquisition of knowledge. Muhammad is reported to have said "Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave" and "Verily the men of knowledge are the inheritors of the prophets". Islamic scholars, theologians and jurists are often given the title alim, meaning "knowledgeble".[83]


In Jewish tradition, knowledge (Hebrew: דעת da'ath) is considered one of the most valuable traits a person can acquire. Observant Jews recite three times a day in the Amidah "Favor us with knowledge, understanding and discretion that come from you. Exalted are you, Existent-One, the gracious giver of knowledge." The Tanakh states, "A wise man gains power, and a man of knowledge maintains power", and "knowledge is chosen above gold".

The Old Testament's tree of the knowledge of good and evil contained the knowledge that separated Man from God: "And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil..." (Genesis 3:22)

See also


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