Naturalistic Epistemology


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 the nature of knowledge, 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. In fact, the word is often used as a synonym to “discourses on learning” – from which it might be inferred that there are many epistemologies. Modern, western versions tend to be rooted in one or another of the following constructs:

  • Objectivity – a perspective on knowledge and knowing founded on the metaphor of objects. More specifically, Objectivity is the suggestion that real, reliable, truthful knowledge should be object-like – that is, manifesting such qualities as rigidity, replicability, decomposability, permanence, and independent existence.
  • Subjectivity – the indexing of claims to truth or interpretations to one’s own unique experiences. More naïve meanings of Subjectivity tend to cast the relationship between personal experience and accepted truth as unidirectional, with the former giving rise to the latter. More sophisticated interpretations posit a complex bidirectionality, by which subjects are created in/by/through the discourses they create.
  • Intersubjectivity – the perspective that human knowledge has to do with social accord. That is, cultural knowledge unfolds from and is enfolded individual knowing.
  • Interobjectivity – a perspective on knowledge and reality that underscores the mutually affective relationships between phenomena and knowledge of phenomena. In interobjective terms, knowledge of the world arises in agents’ actions within and interactions with the world. That is, knowledge is understood to inhere in interactions. It is embodied and embedded in the ever-unfolding choreography of action within the universe.

Among these constructs, Epistemology is most often defined in relation to Objectivity, and the topic is generally framed in terms of the concerns of Empiricism and Rationalism. (That detail underpins our rationale for its placement on our map.) There are many exceptions to this statement, most of which are flagged with adjectives or prefixes, including:

  • Constructivist Epistemology – a perspective that asserts knowledge (especially scientific knowledge) is not “out” in the world but constructed to explain sensory experience. Constructivist Epistemology is aligned with Pragmatism, sharing the convictions that truths evolve and their vital quality is that they suffice for the circumstances. (Note: Constructivist Epistemology and Non-Trivial Constructivisms are aligned, but the former is focused on collective knowledge and the latter on individual knowing.) Related discourses include:
    • Fictionalism (David Lewis, 1980s) – the perspective that all human knowledge must be a matter of make-belief, because our perceptual and cognitive limitations prevent us from having direct, objective, or comprehensive knowledge of reality
    • Operationalism (P.W. Bridgman, 1920s) – the process of defining how a concept can be measured, based on the conviction that the “meaning” of a concept is the same as the operations used to generate that concept
  • Epistemic Contextualism (Attributor Contextualism) (David Annis, 1970s) – the assertion that any claim to knowledge (e.g., “We know this”: “They know that”) is reflective of the context of the person making the claim. Epistemic Contextualism is an assumption of most entries in the Embeddedness Discourses region of our map, especially those that foreground being “situated.”
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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, places, and other aspects of existence. Most often, Indigenous Epistemologies are strongly resonant with Coherence Discourses, but there are exceptions. On this site, out of respect to authors and peoples, we do not attempt to impose western labels or to categorize onto Indigenous ways of being – beyond statements already made (i.e.., noting that western conceptions of Epistemology are inadequate for and inappropriate to such purposes).
  • Metaepistemology – a branch of Epistemology that looks across the assumptions, methods, and intentions of various perspectives on the nature, generation, and validation of knowledge. Associated notions include:
    • Metaknowledge (Meta-Knowledge) – literally, knowledge about knowledge. Typically, discussions of Metaknowledge are concerned with systemic tools for organizing and accessing knowledge.
    • Metalogic – the study of the properties of logical systems
    • Metamemory – one’s awareness of memory processes, usually engaged for the purposes of honing memory
    • Metatheory (Meta-Theory) – any theory that has itself as the subject matter.
  • Naturalized Epistemology (W.V.O. Quine, 1960s) – a descriptive term applicable to any perspective on knowledge production that focuses on empirical methods of the natural sciences
  • Neuroepistemology – Combining philosophy and Neuroscience, Neuroepistemology is concerned with making of how one’s brain contributes to the emergence to one’s mind.
  • 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.
  • Postmodern Epistemologies (Postmodernism) – Postmodern 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. Subcategories include:
    • Affirmative Postmodernism (Jean-François Lyotard, 1980s) – a category of Postmodern Epistemologies in which progress toward better worlds (socially, culturally, politically, economically, environmentally) is held as possible
    • Skeptical Postmodernism – a category of Postmodern Epistemologies in which ideologies, epistemologies, and ethics are regarded as matters of social accord, by which no system can be deemed better than any other. Consequently, notions of “progress” are necessarily matters of power dynamics.
  • Social Epistemology (Margaret Egan, Jesse Shera, 1950s) – an umbrella term that can be applied to any theory of Epistemology in which human knowledge is considered a collective achievement, as is reflected in most Embeddedness Discourses. Specific theories of Social Epistemology tend to focus on delineating and evaluating the social dimensions on knowledge, belief, norms, etc.
  • 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.
  • WEIRD Epistemologies – Building off the acronym WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic, coined by Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan in 2010), the umbrella notion of WEIRD Epistemologies spans almost all the entries on this site – that is, discourses on knowledge and learning that are rooted in western sensibilities.
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. In addition, constructs and discourses that might be encountered within (or in association with) contemporary educational discussions of Epistemology include:
  • Axiology (Theory of Value; Value Theory) – derived from the Greek axía “value, worth,” the study of the nature and types of value, as well as the activity of assigning values to things. Some definitions press into matters of moral philosophy and ethical theory.
  • Cognitive Justice (Shiv Visvanathan, 1990s) – Based on the premise that there are different Ways of Knowing (see above), Cognitive Justice asserts those forms are integral to different ways of doing and being, and so should not just co-exist but be treated equally.
  • Epistemic Agency (diffuse authorship) – Interpreting “epistemic” to refer broadly to any manifestation of knowledge or understanding, and interpreting “agency” as the capacity to act, Epistemic Agency typically applies to any deliberate effort to learn or to develop understanding. The construct has been the focus of much debate, especially around who or what might be properly described as an “epistemic agent” (e.g., individuals? communities? an artificially intelligent system?).
  • Epistemic Cognition (Clark Chinn, 2010s) – the subset of events of human cognition that have to do specifically with one’s understanding of reality, including matters of knowledge, wisdom, truth, understanding, and explanation
  • Epistemic Empathy (diffuse authorship) – a diversly interpreted phrase that is used most often to refer explicit indications that another’s Epistemic Agency is appreciated, and used less often to mean something akin to Theory of Mind (see Identity Discourses)
  • Epistemic Motivation ­– the desire (or felt need) to understand deeply
  • Epistemic Self-Doubt (Self-Doubt) – using one’s judgment to negatively assess one’s judgment – that is, a potentially self-amplifying distrust of one’s own understandings that can undermine the hope a achieving trustworthy, coherent knowledge
  • Epistemic Self-Esteem (Epistemic Confidence; Epistemic Self-Trust) – the strength of one’s convictions that one’s understandings are accurate and valid, whether justified or not
  • Epistemic Trust – one’s willingness to accept another’s statements as factual and applicable.
  • Epistemicide (Boaventura de Sousa Santos, 2010s) – a term coined to name and describe the imposition of Western knowledge systems and the consequent suppression and destruction of other ways of knowing, doing and being (see also Decolonizing Education, in Activist Discourses)
  • Epistemological Holism (Confirmation Holism) (Willard Van Orman Quine, 1980s) – the assertion that no scientific hypothesis or assertion stands alone; rather, they are elements of grander theories, which are in turn elements in grander webs of belief
  • Epistemological Pluralism (Epistemic Pluralism) – an embrace of the assertion that there are multiple ways of knowing, sometimes expressed as an obligation to consider diverse interpretations that arise through different methodologies and/or sensibilities
  • Integral Theory (Ken Wilber, 1970s) – an attempt to integrate a range of theories, thinkers, and paradigms into a coherent frame that honors distinctions while seeking complementarities. Integral Theory proposes four principal epistemological frames, generated by crossing the nature of the phenomenon (i.e., either individual or collective) with the position of the observer (i.e., either internal or external to the phenomenon): Individual–Exterior (concerned with empirical facts about objects); Individual–Interior (concerned with subjective experience); Collective–Interior (concerned with sociocultural knowledge); Collective–Exterior (concerned with systems-based possibilities). These four categories are similar to the constructs listed at the start of this synopsis, respectively ObjectivitySubjectivityIntersubjectivity, and Interobjectivity.
  • Postepistemological – an adjective used to label perspectives on knowledge that might be described as Postmodern Epistemologies (see above).

One of the important insights across most discussions of Epistemology, as it relates to education, is that “what is learned/taught” cannot be separated from “how it’s learned/taught.” This notion, in turn, has come to be tethered to different models of working in and across disciplines – an insight that has been expressed by such titles as “disciplinary learning” and “transdisciplinary learning.” Rather than surveying those discourses and their thickets of subdiscourses, we offer brief descriptions of some of their anchors – specifically, Disciplinarity, Crossdisciplinarity, Interdisciplinarity, MultidisciplinarityPluradisciplinarity, and Transdisciplinarity. This list is not complete, and there is no consensus on the meanings of any of them. In the descriptions below, we have attempted to home in on elements of reasonably broad agreement. We begin that effort with a set of images, which represents our attempt to consolidate and elaborate multiple efforts to develop graphics that highlight critical distinctions. (We recommend an image search for a sense of some of the graphics that have inspired this set.)

types of disciplinarity
  • Disciplinarity – the tendency to frame or interpret a phenomenon through the lenses afforded by a single discipline, including its distinct modes of analysis, interpretation, and description. Rigid Disciplinarity often manifests as impulses to criticize and reject other disciplinary perspectives, oriented by an attitude of “How is that perspective wrong?” – as opposed to, say, “How is it right?” or “What might I have to learn here?”
  • Crossdisciplinarity – an acknowledgement of the relevance and viability of other perspectives and interpretations, but reframing those insights through the lens of a preferred discipline. Crossdisciplinarity often manifests as questions tending toward “What might other disciplines add?”, “How can I use them?”, or “Do they align?”
  • Interdisciplinarity – a genuine engagement with modes of inquiry and interpretation of more than one discipline, motivated by a confidence that such engagement is likely to generate more nuanced insight. Interdisciplinaritybrings demands for sophisticated knowledge of more than one discipline, and it is thus most often associated with collaborations of experts.
  • Multidisciplinarity – the aggregation of multiple disciplines in a shared metadomain (e.g., the physical sciences, comprising physics, chemistry, astronomy, and earth science)
  • Pluradisciplinarity (Integral Methodological Pluralism; Methodological Pluralism) (Ken Wilber, 1990s) an approach to the study of a phenomenon that accommodates the epistemological limitations of any single perspective by embracing each of Objectivity, Subjectivity, Intersubjectivity, and Interobjectivity (see above) as offering necessary and legitimate insights. Pluradisciplinarity originates with Integral Theory (see above) and is oriented by Epistemological Pluralism (see above).
  • Transdisciplinarity – the collaboration of disciplinary experts on a common problem or concern. Transdisciplinarity entails multi-perspectival interpretations of the phenomenon, whereby different perspectives and strategies are engaged simply because it makes no sense to do otherwise.


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. With that point in mind, the Ancient Greek roots of the word Epistemology signals an important counterpoint:
  • Episteme – everyday, practical know-how. Episteme was regarded as a complement to Gnosis (see below). Episteme is focused on the immediate and pragmatic, whereas Gnosis is concerned with matters of spiritual meaning and divine truth. Episteme is more concerned with working through the details of current situations, whereas Gnosis looks back at beginnings and forward into possible futures. Associated notions included:
    • Logos – an ancient Greek term referring to a means to develop insight into an phenomenon based on reasoned analysis and logical argument
  • Gnosis – an ancient Greek word meaning “deep knowing, profound understanding.” Gnosis is derived from the PIE root *gno- “to know,” which is shared with dozens of common English words, including “knowledge,” “diagnosis,” “cognition,” “ignorant,” “notion,” “recognize,” and “notice.” Gnosis and Episteme (see above) were once seen as complementary and distinct categories of knowledge, and both were considered essential. That said, Gnosis was generally regarded as primary, because it addressed what were seen to be the eternal and universal aspects of existence. Whereas Episteme is about practical know-how, Gnosis is concerned with meaning. Associated constructs include:
    • Mythos – an ancient Greek term referring to a means to develop insight based on narrative, interpreted experience, and wisdom embedded in cultural mythology
    • Gnoseology (GnosiologyGnostology) – derived from the ancient Greek Gnosis, a complement of Epistemology. Its relationship to Epistemology is analogous to the relationship between Idealism and Realism. Concisely, Gnoseology is concerned with esoteric knowledge, wisdom traditions, spirituality, and other matters associated with deep meaning.

It turns out that there is great significance in this contrast when it comes to the nature and purpose of the modern school. Whereas Premodern Formal Education was principally concerned more with Gnosis, models of formal education since the 1600s – including Standardized EducationAuthentic Education, and Democratic Citizenship Education – have been principally oriented toward Episteme. Further to this point, other traditions have engaged with similar matters in different ways – which is the focus of a companion website to this one (Metaphors of Learning in Different Languages). Illustrative examples include:

  • Pramāṇa (Buddhism and Hinduism, 1st millennium BCE) ­– from Sanskrit for “proof, means to knowledge,” a term common to Buddhism and Hinduism that has to do with trustworthy sources of knowledge. Different schools of thought have different perspectives on valid approaches, but most hover around such means as experience, perception, tradition, reasoning, and expert testimony. Associated notions include:
    • Dharma (Buddhism and Hinduism, 1st millennium BCE) – from Sanskrit for “carrying, holding,” a diversely interpreted term in Buddhism and Hinduism that invokes notions of norms, customs, rules, and laws that infuse cultural realities and/or that govern the cosmos
    • Karma (Buddhism and Hinduism, 1st millennium BCE) – from Sanskrit for “deed,” a diversely interpreted term in Buddhism and Hinduism that refers to the rippling consequences that can be triggered by an action (or an intention to act). Karma is often inappropriately interpreted in terms of linear cause-and-effect, but it is less about “linear causality” and more about “emergent consequentiality.”


  • Affirmative Postmodernism
  • Axiology (Theory of Value; Value Theory)
  • Cognitive Justice
  • Confucianism
  • Constructivist Epistemology
  • Crossdisciplinarity
  • Dharma
  • Disciplinarity
  • Episteme
  • Epistemic Agency
  • Epistemic Cognition
  • Epistemic Contextualism (Attributor Contextualism)
  • Epistemic Empathy
  • Epistemic Motivation
  • Epistemic Self-Doubt (Self-Doubt)
  • Epistemic Self-Esteem (Epistemic Confidence; Epistemic Self-Trust)
  • Epistemic Trust
  • Epistemicide
  • Epistemological Holism (Confirmation Holism)
  • Epistemological Pluralism (Epistemic Pluralism)
  • Evolutionary Epistemology
  • Feminist Epistemology
  • Fictionalism
  • Gnoseology (Gnosiology, Gnostology)
  • Gnosis
  • Indigenous Epistemologies (Aboriginal Epistemologies)
  • Integral Theory
  • Interdisciplinarity
  • Interobjectivity
  • Intersubjectivity
  • Karma
  • Logos
  • Metaepistemology
  • Metaknowledge (Meta-Knowledge)
  • Metalogic
  • Metascience
  • Metatheory (Meta-Theory)
  • Multidisciplinarity
  • Mythos
  • Naturalized Epistemology
  • Neuroepistemology
  • Objectivity
  • Operationalism
  • Participatory Epistemology (Participatory Theory)
  • Pluradisciplinarity (Integral Methodological Pluralism; Methodological Pluralism)
  • Postepistemological
  • Postmodern Epistemologies (Postmodernism)
  • Pramāṇa
  • Skeptical Postmodernism
  • Social Epistemology
  • Subjectivity
  • Transdisciplinarity
  • Ways of Knowing
  • WEIRD Epistemologies

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Epistemology” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.

⇦ Back to Map
⇦ Back to List