Being explicit on beliefs about knowledge

Principal Metaphors

The word Epistemology is derived from the Greek epistēmē (“knowledge”) + logos (“study”) – which might be interpreted to mean that the term is broad enough to reach across all discourses on learning. While that is in many ways true, in the original coining of Epistemology, the following were the case:
  • Knowledge is … held truth
  • Knowing is … enacting or acting on held truth
  • Learner is … an actor
  • Learning is … getting (acquiring, attaining, constructing, etc.)
  • Teaching is … providing, compelling


The word was coined in the mid-1800s, but the interest is ancient.


Epistemology encompasses all discourses concerned with what knowledge is, the scope and limits of knowledge, and how knowledge is generated, validated, enacted, and maintained. In broadest terms, then, Epistemology reaches across every entry included on this site – and, in fact, the word is often used to refer specifically to discourses on learning (and, less often, teaching). However, it is most often used much more narrowly, to refer to philosophical discourses, especially those associated with distinctions and debates around Rationalism and Empiricism – which is how we have placed it on our map.   There are many exceptions to this statement, most of which are flagged with adjectives or prefixes, including:
  • Postmodern EpistemologiesPostmodern Epistemologies criticize most discussions of Epistemology as “modernist” and “totalizing” – or, concisely, as founded on the same indefensible assumptions as a majority of Correspondence Discourses. In direct contrast, Postmodern Epistemologies foreground the inevitability of partial knowledge and shifting realities, along with the importance of situated truths and local narratives. In other words, most Coherence Discourses could be described as reflecting Postmodern Epistemologies.
  • Postepistemological – An adjective used to label perspectives on knowledge that might be described as Postmodern Epistemologies (see above).
  • Evolutionary Epistemology – Combining philosophy and evolutionary biology, Evolutionary Epistemology can be applied to most Eco-Complexity Discourses as it refers to research into the evolution of cognition across living forms, theories of knowledge based on evolutionary selection, and the emergence of human knowledge.
  • Genetic Epistemology is Jean Piaget’s theory of the genesis/origin of knowing/epistemology, in which ideas are understood to evolve in relationship to and interaction with others in an ecosystem of notions.
  • Neuroepistemology – Combining philosophy and Neuroscience, Neuroepistemology is concerned with making of how one’s brain contributes to the emergence to one’s mind.
  • Feminist Epistemology – Aligned with some Activist Discourses, Feminist Epistemology interrogates the influence of gender in the production and deployment of knowledge, with a particular interest in how non-males are disenfranchised by some conceptions of knowledge.
  • Participatory Epistemology – Variously defined, most versions of Participatory Epistemology cluster around rejections of such dichotomies as subject/object, internal/external, and human/nonhuman as they assert that meaning arises through participation in the world.
  • Indigenous Epistemologies (Aboriginal Epistemologies) – In academic circles, the word Epistemology typically signals explicit interest in the philosophy of knowledge. In contrast, the phrase Indigenous Epistemologies refers more to ways of being – that is, to flag how matters of knowing for many cultures are vibrantly knitted into the stories, histories, ceremonies, traditions, and other habits acting. Most often, Indigenous Epistemologies are strongly resonant with Coherence Discourses, but there are exceptions.
  • Ways of Knowing – A more general phrase that is often used to counter and critique the originating assumptions of Epistemology, typically accompanied by lists of non-dualist attitudes or strategies and that either reject or minimize the roles of Rationalism and Empiricism. For example, such lists often include Emotion, Imagination, Intuition, Faith, and Connected Knowing.
To underscore that each of the above constructs represents a significant departure from the original meaning of Epistemology, we have plotted approximate locations on the map at the bottom of this page.


As already signaled, the word Epistemology is interpreted and defined in many ways. Indeed, as evidenced by the examples of “other” epistemologies presented above, the word is sometimes used to label discourses that not only fall outside the original scope of Epistemology, but that reject its defining premises. In other words, care should be taken when using the word. There’s a good chance that listeners will be working with a range of competing interpretations.


  • Evolutionary Epistemology
  • Feminist Epistemology
  • Indigenous Epistemologies (Aboriginal Epistemologies)
  • Neuroepistemology
  • Participatory Epistemology (Participatory Theory)
  • Postepistemological
  • Postmodern Epistemologies
  • Ways of Knowing

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Epistemology” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.

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