Epistemic Principles

A Primer for the Theory of Knowledge

by Nicholas Rescher (Author)
©2017 Monographs XIV, 172 Pages
Series: American University Studies, Volume 228


Epistemic Principles: A Primer of the Theory of Knowledge presents a compact account of the basic principles of the theory of knowledge. In doing this, Nicholas Rescher aims to fill the current gap in contemporary philosophical theory of knowledge with a comprehensive analysis of epistemological fundamentals. The book is not a mere inventory of such rules and principles, but rather interweaves them into a continuous exposition of basic issues. Written at a user-friendly and accessible level, Epistemic Principles is an essential addition for both advanced undergraduate and graduate courses in epistemology.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Principles
  • Notes
  • Chapter 2. Questions
  • Notes
  • Chapter 3. Ideas
  • Ideas Can Misfire
  • Plato on Ideas: Then and Now
  • Partial Access: Correct Description vs Correct Conception
  • Evaluating Ideas
  • The Aspect of Idealization
  • Category Mistakes
  • The Purposive Aspect: The Validation of Ideas
  • Notes
  • Chapter 4. Principles of Truth and Acceptance
  • Notes
  • Chapter 5. Presumption as a Pathway to Plausibility
  • Notes
  • Chapter 6. Conjecture and the Move from Mere Plausibility and Presumption to Acceptance
  • Notes
  • Chapter 7. Plausibility Conflicts and Paradox
  • Notes
  • Chapter 8. From Conjecture to Belief and from Belief to Knowledge
  • Note
  • Chapter 9. The Epistemic Gap and Grades of Acceptance
  • Notes
  • Chapter 10. Cognitive Thresholds
  • Notes
  • Chapter 11. Imprecision
  • Modes of Imprecision
  • Approximation and Quantitative Imprecision
  • Descriptive Imprecision and Vagueness
  • Classificatory Imprecision
  • Locational Imprecision Imprecise Boundaries and Transitions
  • Relational Imprecision and Standardistic Generalizations
  • Paradoxes of Vagueness
  • Oversimplification
  • Why Tolerate Imprecision?
  • Evolution and Imprecision
  • Postscript
  • Notes
  • Chapter 12. Intuitive Knowledge
  • Note
  • Chapter 13. Experience and Induction
  • Note
  • Chapter 14. Distributive vs. Collective Explanation
  • Notes
  • Chapter 15. Cognitive Importance
  • Notes
  • Chapter 16. Problems of Prediction
  • Notes
  • Chapter 17. Error and Cognitive Risk
  • Attitudes Toward Risk
  • Notes
  • Chapter 18. Problems of Skepticism
  • Notes
  • Chapter 19. Trust
  • Notes
  • Chapter 20. Common Sense
  • Note
  • Chapter 21. How Science Works
  • Notes
  • Chapter 22. Scientific Realism and Its Problems
  • Notes
  • Chapter 23. The Anthomorphic Contextuality of Science
  • Notes
  • Chapter 24. Ignorance and Limits of Knowledge
  • Notes
  • Chapter 25. On Systemic “Best Fit” Reasoning
  • Chapter 26. Inference from the Best Systematization
  • Notes
  • Chapter 27. The Cyclic Unity of Reason
  • Notes
  • Chapter 28. Fact, Fiction, and Functional Surrogacy
  • Chapter 29. A Pragmatic Coda
  • Note
  • Bibliography
  • Name Index

| ix →


While other creatures lower on the evolutionary scale maintain their existence through natural endowment and instinct, we humans act on the basis of thought-guiding information. Our very survival requires information as much as the air we breathe. Epistemology, the theoretical study of the ways and methods by which we acquire knowledge, has been cultivated by philosophers since the days of Plato in classic antiquity. And there are few areas that are as extensively subject to general principles as is epistemology, the theory of rational inquiry itself. And yet, strangely, there does not exist a general guidebook or handbook of principles here. The present work is a small contribution toward filling this very large gap.

Drawing on work done over many years the book puts together a compact account of the basic principles of the theory of knowledge—a primer, if you will. In doing this it fills a gap because no comparable comprehensive survey of epistemological basics is as yet available. The book is not, however, a mere inventory of such rules and principles, but interweaves them into a continuous discussion of the issues. For explicit notice salient principles will out in boldface type. ← ix | x →

As with all my writings, the book was initially written out by hand. I am grateful to Estelle Burris for her invaluable help in transforming my hen scratches into publishable form.

| xi →


Philosophers since Descartes often have it that the pursuit of knowledge aims at certainty. Yet all too often they have not been so ready to acknowledge—as ordinary folks would readily do—that there are two decidedly different types of certainty:

something is absolutely certain if it is certain beyond any possible doubt.

something is effectively certain if it is certain beyond any reasonable doubt.

The former is a matter of absolute or categorical or transcendental certainty, the latter one of virtual or practical or mundane certainty.

Now when we say that knowledge must be certain, it is clearly the second that we do (or should!) have in view. After all, knowledge is a concept that does work for us in everyday-life communication. The certainty of knowledge is the certainly of life—the sort of certainly at issue with contentions on the order of “Houses can be built of brick,” “All men have bodies,” and the like—the sorts of claims that are the staple of the world we live in. ← xi | xii →

Consider the example of a dialectical situation of a knowledge-claim subject to sequential challenges:

It is clear that when the challenger has been pushed to his final move here he has “overstepped the bounds” of reasonable doubt, and has left the sphere of plausible challenges based upon real prospects of error, pursuing the will-of-the-wisps of purely theoretical and altogether hyperbolic worriments. (We need not be in a position positively to rule out uncannily real dreams, deceitful demons, powerful evil scientists operating remotely from other galaxies, etc.) And one can easily construct other such dialogical exercises, all yielding the same lesson: that in such interrogative situations, the series of challenges is soon forced to a recourse to absurdity. One reaches the level of obstacles it is in principle impossible to remove and whose removal cannot for that very reason reasonably be demanded.

There are, moreover, two further modes of certainty, the personal (“I am certain”) and the impersonal (“It is certain”). And there is an inherent conceptual connection between them. For when I am certain of something, and am further convinced that there is nothing that stands in its way apart from totally unrealistic obstacles (evil Cartesian deceivers, malignant hypnotists, life-is-but-a-dream supposition, or the like), then rational conjecture—and everyday-life understandings as well—will entitle me to make the (conscientiously defeasible) move from personal to impersonal certainty. ← xii | xiii →

The theory of knowledge has to seek for the difficult passage between virtual and absolute certainty, and indeed between mere plausibility and acceptability of any sort. In the end it must achieve an intermediation here. How such an intermediation can be managed and what sorts of issues must be faced and obstacles overcome will emerge as the central issue of the present book.

| 1 →

· 1 ·


A first-order rule is a generalization specifying what is to be done in a particular case; a principle is a second-order rule for determining what rule is to be followed. First order rules specify what to do; principles specify how to figure out what to do. “Look it up in the encyclopedia” is a first-order cognitive rule; “Get the answer from a reliable source” is a cognitive principle. The present book will deal specifically with principles of cognition—the rules that govern procedures for the acquisition and management of information.

The function of procedural principles is to guide the process of decision. Unlike directives they do not purport to make our decisions for us but only canalize them toward certain destinations. They issue injunctions along such lines as:


XIV, 172
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (November)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. XIV, 172 pp.

Biographical notes

Nicholas Rescher (Author)

Nicholas Rescher is Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh where he has also served as Chairman of the Philosophy Department and Director of the Center for Philosophy of Science. He is the recipient of eight honorary degrees from universities on three continents. He was awarded the Alexander von Humboldt Prize for Humanistic Scholarship in 1984, the Belgian Prix Mercier in 2005, the Aquinas Medal of the American Catholic Philosophical Association in 2007, the Founder’s Medal of the Metaphysical Society of America in 2016, and the Helmholtz Medal of the Germany Academy of Sciences (Berlin/Brandenburg) in 2016. In 2011 he received the premier cross of the Order of Merit (Bundesverdienstkreuz Erster Klasse) of the Federal Republic of Germany in recognition of contributions to philosophy. Fourteen books about Rescher’s philosophy have been published in five languages and ten doctoral dissertations have been dedicated to his work.


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188 pages