Stan Crader

Author & Lecturer on Writing About Rural America

Epistemology: Theory of Truth or Knowledge?

Ever wonder why some people us a big word when a little one will do? I came across the word epistemology and before looking up the meaning felt more than a little disdain for the author. But after learning the true meaning of the word, I understood why it had been used.

Writers, unlike tent-revival preachers, are taught to use as few words as possible. It’s much easier to toss a book aside than it is to get up and walk out of a tent revival. Writers must be succinct. The bloviating speakers aren’t relegated to tent-revivals—they’ve been known to appear at graduations too. So writers use words that precisely describe a notion or situation, such as epistemology.

Epistemology is defined as being the study of or theory of knowledge. In one case epistemology was referred to as the theory of truth. And so I put down what I was reading at the time and began to ponder epistemology—the theory of truth. Really?

Is truth theoretical? No! Theory or hypothesis is developed from applied truth or knowledge—too many think it’s the reverse. Regardless of one’s belief, truth is immutable.

Knowledge is not so easy to pin down. Knowledge can be defined as a thorough awareness of one’s study. One’s study may not necessarily be steeped in truth. There’s a difference between knowledge gained through the study of theory and knowledge gained from the study of truth.

One of my blogs featured asking someone what they ‘know’ verses what they ‘think.’ Forcing someone to offer their opinion based on what they know about a subject can dramatically alter the tenor of the conversation. So now, when someone offers their opinion based on what they know, ask them to explain the epistemology of their knowledge. Is it based on truth or theory?

Using the word epistemology in a friendly conversation isn’t good form. So don’t lead with it. But people like it when they’re asked to explain their opinion—it shows the other person is listening. So, when talking about controversial subjects ask if their knowledge is based on theory or truth. And if they ask why you question their opinion, then spring the big one by replying, “I’m interested in the epistemology of your knowledge.” Doing so will cause them to feel momentarily complimented by being called knowledgeable while simultaneously being humbled and flummoxed by the use of the E word.

Watch for a split second grin followed by a frown. If the conversation continues, the knowledge was probably based on truth. Either way, you’ll have your answer and the conversation will have been more fruitful, truthful, and meaningful.

I just came across the word—Apostate. Stay tuned.

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