Uncategorized, Welcome, world-building, Writers Co-op, writing technique

Epistemology for Writers


I know, epistemology is the arcane study of knowledge. Epistemologists theorize how we know the difference between what is a justified belief and what is just opinion. And, I realize it originated way back before we mutually decided (against all reason) that everyone’s belief and opinion is equally valid. It is an old way of looking at what we know.

But, fiction writers have to know that, don’t we? Don’t we have to make our readers’ believe our story? People have been studying knowledge for so long that there are now many types of epistemology, but, luckily for us, three types suffice. To be believable, no element of our story can be obviously wrong, the story can’t contradict itself, and all the elements have to fit into the story -they have to “work.” Understanding these three basics makes our job easier.

Foundationalism: or, recognizing that all knowledge is based on accepted facts. Don’t write, “He leveled his semi-automatic rifle and held the trigger back until the clip was empty.” You’ll lose ex-soldiers, gun owners and anyone else who knows that you have to pull the trigger every time you fire a semi-auto.
Pro: Foundationalism is extremely precise. It draws a clear line between what is knowledge and what isn’t. As long as the facts are true and the logic is sound, we can be 100% sure of our reader’s acceptance.
Con: You have to be sure of your facts! If just one is false, then your reader may doubt more of the story.

Coherentism: Avoid contradictions. Don’t have your character “enter a triangular storage area” and then proceed to describe the contents of four corners. Actions are true so long as they are not self-contradictory.
Pro: Coherentism is flexible. It isn’t based on facts. It is the consistent logic of your creativity.
Con: Mere coherentism can fool you into too quickly believing your own “facts.” For example, you can write that unicorns are real and they live on Mars. This is not a self-contradiction. But it is a ridiculous claim unless other story elements strongly support it.

Pragmatism: If it works, it’s true. If your story elements work well for the purpose of your story, the reader will likely accept them. Otherwise, “Nope, that doesn’t make sense.”
Pro: Pragmatism avoids the problems of both foundationalism and coherentism. Pragmatists realize that human beings have limits and that our knowledge is always changing.
Con: It is hard to define “what works.” For example, the Greeks had many incorrect ideas about how the universe works, which we have since disproven. But the ideas were believed at the time, so they worked for then, but now, they are wrong. That’s pragmatism.

All of which is to justify saying that for your story to be believable, you have to know your facts, avoid contradictions and understand your readers’ beliefs.

Source: http://philosophyterms.com/epistemology/

Personally, I find Calvin’s approach appealing:



11 thoughts on “Epistemology for Writers

  1. mimispeike says:

    Making little jokes with historical facts and events is my style, and I do fudge things, especially dates, a bit, not much, in one case by about two years, for I have a locked-in time frame.

    When I play with a date, I own up to it in the footnotes, adding something like, ‘Give me a break. This is a story about a talking cat’.

    A bright note: I had worked on book three, dropping book one because of trouble with good information on ships in my pirate episode. I have discovered a man, Robert Jacob, an expert on pirate life, who has written an information-packed book and who has offered to answer my questions about the interior set-up of my vessel, and he is highly recommended by Doug Lutz. (I know him from here, right? At least I think I do.)

    I have new energy to tackle my sea-going segment. For instance: my claim is that a stack of sails under repair was sitting out on the deck (where objects could be hidden). Does that do, or would sail have been worked on below deck? I would like to get this sort of stuff straight.

    For the price of a hard copy book, that looks from the table of contents to be packed with minutia, I may have snagged an expert advisor.

    Find Robert Jacob, and his book, ‘A Pirate’s Life in the Golden Age of Piracy’ on Facebook.

    A final word: you can’t beat historical research for neat, obscure ideas that you never would have thought of yourself.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Perry Palin says:

    It is important for your facts to be real for the reader, even if you made them up.

    On another site I contacted a writer who posted a story where wild whitetail deer go into a barn to sleep, and two horses stay in a field when the rest of the herd runs off. The writer admitted that he didn’t really know deer or horses. He had grown up in town. Too bad, because the story had promise otherwise. But I couldn’t get past these unbelievable facts.

    I wrote a story about two boys on a canoe trip to a small trout lake. The magazine editor who bought the story asked me, “Where is that lake?” I was pleased that he thought it was a real place. I told him, “Well, it’s just a story.” He said, “I know, but is the lake in the Boundary Waters?”

    Liked by 5 people

  3. GD Deckard says:

    I was just looking up something related and was surprised to find that the main use today of epistemology is in the development of A.I. Makes sense.
    I mean, we do have to know how we know something in order to program some thing to know something. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s some epistemological weirdness here.  Early in the history of AI, people tried to tell computers exactly how to respond “intelligently” to any eventuality.  Results were mostly disappointing.  Nowadays, it is common to program computers with ways to learn and then turn them loose on humongous datasets.  The computers often learn to perform well, but trying to specify what they “know” as a result of all that learning can be a challenge.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. victoracquista says:

    Thanks GD for another post to get me thinking. I have an assortment of other people’s wisdom captured in memorable quotes that percolate in some uncategorized file cabinet in my mind. This one surfaced to consciousness and seems appropriate: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” – Daniel Patrick Moynihan
    Strange times we live in when alternative facts run rampant. Does that mean we can write any bs we want to? I hope not. I think readers are willing to suspend disbelief but only to a point. Using facts, even if you fictionalize how they work into your story, represents the kind of writing that appeals to me as a reader.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. GD Deckard says:

    I like the comments here. We really don’t know how we know what we know, any more than we understand intelligence.
    🙂 Maybe we should throw hubris into the mix as we attempt to create something we don’t understand without knowing how to know if we’ve succeeded?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. DocTom says:

    Interesting discussion, GD. This actually points to the problem with writing science fiction today – we just know so much more than we used to. You can’t have your characters running around in a rain forest on Venus, or struggling against gravity while trying to hike Jovian mountains. Saturn’s moon Titan? Great site for a story – it has rivers and lakes. Of course, it helps to know they’re filled with liquid methane and when it rains, it’s ethane, not water, dropping out of the sky. And don’t get me started on poor old Pluto! Writing fantasy requires world building and you definitely need to be coherent; but when it rains at least it’s water coming down!

    Liked by 2 people

    • GD Deckard says:

      Good points. Today’s hard sci-fi writers often talk the same way on Facebook.
      A favored topic of posts is a news article on some scientific advancement. They call it “story fodder” and it usually changes the “sci” part of our “fi.”

      Even fantasy authors now have to be aware of our rapidly expanding knowledge. Modern witches just don’t need a scrying mirror or a flying broom.

      In my distopian moments, I remember an old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s