Post Author: Bill Pratt
Actually the answer is neither, but we’ll get to that soon enough. Why ask this question in the first place? Because philosophy is a discipline that builds one layer upon another (just like many other disciplines), and since philosophy provides a foundation for all of the sciences, it is extremely important to understand where to start.
To examine this issue of the order of philosophical disciplines, we will refer to Tom Howe’s helpful notes on the subject (some of which are captured in his book Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation). So what comes first? Howe’s answer may surprise you, but the answer is . . . reality. What is reality?
Simply put, reality is that which is. Notice that the characterization of reality is not, “what is.” To characterize reality as “what” implies that reality is basically some identity, or essence. When one asks, “What is it?” one is inquiring about the identity or essence of the entity in question. But, there are many identities in reality. That is to say, reality consists of many essences, or “whats.” But all essences have at least one thing in common, namely, that they exist. Therefore, reality at its most basic level is not a particular essence, or a group of essences. Reality is that which exists, or, as we have phrased it, “That which is.”
So the first thing we look at is that which exists, or reality. Any philosophy that skips this step will go off the rails quickly. The next question that must be answered after we’ve looked at that which exists is, “What is that which is?” This is the discipline of metaphysics. According to Howe, in metaphysics we are “inquiring into the nature of reality.”
After we examine the nature of that which exists, we may then move on to the next question in philosophy: “How do we know that which is?” Howe writes, “Epistemology is the discipline that addresses [that] question . . .” He continues:
Epistemology does not begin with itself and attempt to justify the existence of the extra-mental. Rather, epistemology must begin with the assumption that knowledge is a fact. If knowledge is not a fact of existence, then no one would be able to investigate its possibility, because any investigation necessarily assumes the fact of knowledge. Knowledge is a fact to be investigated, not a mere possibility to be actualized. If knowledge was not a fact to be investigated, then there would be no possibility of knowing this.
So there is our answer. The order of disciplines in philosophy is 1) reality (that which is), 2) metaphysics (what is that which is?), and 3) epistemology (how do we know that which is?). Virtually all of the confusion in modern philosophy is due to the fact that it has started with epistemology instead of reality and metaphysics.
Descartes got the ball rolling when he started his philosophical investigations by asking how he could know anything instead of first looking at that which exists. Modern philosophy, following Descartes, never has answered the question of what the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge are, and they never will. Why? Because knowledge depends on reality, not vice versa. A philosophy that starts with epistemology and that skips reality and metaphysics is doomed to ask questions that can never be answered.