Review of How Do We Know? by James K. Dew Jr. and Mark W. Foreman

How Do We Know? An Introduction to Epistemology by James K. Dew Jr. and Mark W. Foreman, Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2014, 174 pp.

Though my own views on epistemology differ considerably from those of the authors of How Do We Know?, I found this to be quite an excellent read. Unlike Moser’s The Theory of Knowledge, A Thematic Introduction, for example, Dew and Foreman’s book is actually introductory, and actually readable. And as short as it is, it can be read in just a few sittings.

One of the greatest virtues of this volume is its use of clear definitions. As I expect referencing these definitions to be valuable to my readers and to myself in the future, I’ll list a number of them:

Belief – something we hold to be true (p. 22)

Intuition – knowledge arrived at immediately (without a mediator) (p. 37)

Hard empiricism – that knowledge comes only from the senses (p. 38)

Soft empiricism – that most knowledge comes to us through the senses (p. 38)

Coherentism (as a definition of truth) – that a proposition is true if it coheres with, or is consistent with, everything else that a person believes (p. 52)

Pragmatism (as a definition of truth) – truth is a set of beliefs that works for a particular person or group in dealing with reality or accomplishing particular tasks. (p. 53-54)

Correspondence (as a definition of truth) – truth is defined as that which corresponds to reality. In other words, true propositions or statements are required to fit with, or line up with, what we find in the world. (p. 56)

Justification – refers to a person having reasons or evidence for his beliefs (p. 95). [But a second definition is given that these must be “good reasons” (p. 96)]

Internalism – that some kind of justification is needed for our beliefs if we are to be counted as rational. (p. 97)

Externalism – that it is not necessary to have access to the reasons in evidence that support a given belief. (p. 100)

Reliabilism – that a person can be reasonable in her beliefs and rational even if she does not have cognitive access to the reasons and evidence that support her beliefs, as long as her beliefs have been formed in a reliable fashion. (p. 102) [Why the authors use feminine pronouns I do not know.]

Noetic structure – the relationship between our beliefs. (p 103)

Basic belief – a foundational belief that does not require argumentation or empirical data to support it. (p. 104)

Foundationalism – that basic beliefs serve as the epistemic foundations for our believing and knowing, and non-basic beliefs must ultimately be supported by and built on basic beliefs. (p. 104)

Incorrigible beliefs – truths that are obvious on first reflection. (p. 105)

Virtue epistemology – that our ability to find the truth depends in large part on the proper development and use of our intellectual virtues. (p. 115)

But some terms are not so well defined. The book talks a lot about “certainty” but the closest thing I found to a definition of the term is that it is something “absolutely sure.” I don’t believe the authors ever define “perception” either, which is a term their empirical theory depends on. They ask “What is a perception” and then say “Or put another way, how well do our perceptions tell us about the external world outside of our minds.” (p. 79) But these surely are not identical questions.

I do think that this book excellently accomplishes its goal of being an introduction to epistemology. It is the clearest I’ve read on the subject. Where the authors explain epistemology in general they are excellent. But where they attempt to develop their own “Christian perspective” I must think they fail completely.

The Christian theory of the authors seems to be something tacked on to a generally secular epistemology. Special revelation is an afterthought. The divinity of Christ, in their view, must be argued for before the Scriptures are accepted as revelation. The book gives no thought to the role of the Holy Spirit in knowledge acquisition nor the fact that Jesus Christ is himself the Logos. In fact, there are very few biblical citations in the volume. Where the Bible is cited it is mostly to support natural theology (p. 132), the incarnation (p. 138-139), and arguments that Jesus is the Son of God (p. 143). No attempt is apparently made to discern the epistemology of the Bible itself. The resultant theory is essentially autonomous—focused on man’s own ability, and lacking emphasis on Jesus as the very truth himself and God’s revelation being our ultimately foundation for knowledge.


About douglasdouma

I am a husband to beautiful wife, an ordained minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church - Hanover Presbytery, and founder of Sola - Appalachian Christian Retreat ( In addition to blogging at this site I am the author of The Presbyterian Philosopher - The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark (Wipf&Stock, 2017) and compiling editor of Clark and His Correspondents: Selected Letters of Gordon H. Clark (Trinity Foundation, 2017). I have a bachelor degree in mechanical engineering (University of Michigan), a master's in business administration (Wake Forest University) and a master of divinity (Sangre de Cristo Seminary). I'm an avid hiker, having completed a northbound thru-hike of the Appalachian trail in 2013 and the first 500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016.
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