The Doxastic Ideal in Traditional Epistemology and the Project of an Epistemology of Religion

By Stoenescu, Constantin | Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Doxastic Ideal in Traditional Epistemology and the Project of an Epistemology of Religion


Stoenescu, Constantin, Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies


The standard definition of knowledge and the concept of objective knowledge, as they were described in the epistemology sprung from the Vienna Circle, are too restricted in comparison with our natural disposal to admit different beliefs as reliable. The main guilt for this state of arts in epistemology belongs to the so- called, in Wolterstorff's terms, "doxastic ideal", namely, the traditional picture of the ideally formed beliefs. Locke's view of entitlement was the modern expression of this ideal and Hume's analysis of beliefs about future was its first powerful criticism. If we succeed in rejecting this ideal, then it become possible to extend the epistemological analysis over other sorts of beliefs, religious beliefs included.

Key Words:

Objective knowledge, justified true belief, Vienna Circle, doxastic ideal, reliably formed belief, religious belief

Some precautions

The debate concerning the possibility of an epistemology of religion has begun to occupy significant spaces in philosophical literature only in last two or three decades. The collective volume, Faith and Rationality1, edited by A. Plantinga and N. Wolterstorff and published in 1983, marked the turning point in the growing interest process for an epistemological analysis of faith and religious beliefs. Gradually, as a consequence of this new course of ideas inside the philosophical community, chapters devoted to epistemology of religion had been included in some readers and introductory works. I should mention only two remarkable contributions of this kind that belong to some philosophers which, in the meantime, gained the reputation as authorities on this field. Robert Audi2 pays a special attention to religious knowledge, as a kind of knowledge, beside scientific knowledge and moral knowledge. Nicholas Wolterstorff3 wrote a chapter about epistemology of religion in a reader published in series "Blackwell Philosophy Guides", in which we can find a generous treatment of some topics traditionally proscribed.

The main topic in epistemology of religion is the application of standard explanation about beliefs and the conditions in which a belief can be qualified as knowledge to the special case of religious beliefs. It is important to emphasize that from this standpoint of view the religious beliefs are deemed reductible to propositional contents expressed through the agency of "belief that". In other words, religious beliefs are defined as propositional attitudes. An epistemological investigation of this kind tries to answer to questions regarding the cognitive merits of religious beliefs, their content of truth, the reliability of their formation process, their warrantability and the conditions in which an epistemic subject, guided by the aim to find the truth and to avoid the error, can give his (her) assent. Moreover, can we claim that we know something when we are aware of our own religious beliefs? Can we obtain some pieces of knowledge from our religious beliefs using the critical power of our reason?

Although we can assert with good proofs that epistemology of religion already outlined its domain, still persist some ambiguities concerning the proper theoretical place of religious beliefs in a reasonable analysis of opinions. The debate itself is full of internal traps. For example, without any doubt, the issue raised by the theoretical opposition between rational theology and revealed theology has an influence upon the accepted criteria of knowledge. On the other hand, epistemologists have proposed to distinguish between different forms of beliefs, among them, to believe in and to believe that, only the beliefs produced by the act to believe that being reductible to the opinion that, where "opinion" is taken as an epistemological technical term, appointing that propositional content which could be a candidate to the title of knowledge. Supplementary, in an analytical epistemology of religion we must take into account other propositional attitudes, such as hoping that something will happen, agreeing that some events just have happened,, or regretting that other events had happened. …

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