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Understanding epistemic development : parsing knowledge by epistemic content Hallett, Darcy Dwaine

Abstract

Over the past three decades, research into the developmental course by means of which persons come to an increasingly mature conception of the knowing process has yielded a partially converging picture. What is generally agreed is that this epistemic course typically begins with something like a naive realism, according to which knowledge is understood as simply absorbed through the senses, or simply a matter of getting the facts straight. Gradually, people come to question this black-and-white view of the world, sometimes qualifying their belief in right and wrong, sometimes purporting that one cannot be certain about anything. Eventually, though, many or most move toward a more rationalistic stand where, while absolute certainty is seen to be an impossibility, some things can be reasonably thought to be true and some arguments can be said to be better supported than others. Despite broad agreement about this general bill of particulars, what nevertheless remains deeply confusing is just how much radical disagreement actually exists regarding the ages at which this course of epistemic development is said to occur. Some describe this development as an accomplishment of university undergraduates or even older adults while others have found evidence for these same developmental accomplishments during adolescence and even the middle school years. Furthermore, abilities ascribed to 4- or 7-year-old children by certain investigators of children's "theory of mind" bear a striking resemblance to abilities described by classic research in epistemic development. In order to make sense o f this confusion, it is proposed that epistemic development is not a 'one-miracle' affair in which individuals simultaneously come to grips with the prospect of relativity in all possible domains of knowledge. Instead, it is argued to be a process that applies itself progressively to knowledge located further and further along a proposed 'fact of the matter' continuum. By conceiving of different types of knowledge as lying along this continuum, I hypothesize that people will begin to think relativistically about 'institutional' facts (which lie in the middle of the continuum) before they do so for 'brute' facts (seen as at the extreme end of the continuum). The Epistemic Doubt Questionnaire was administered to 242 participants ranging from high school students to 4t h year undergraduates. Hierarchical and K-means cluster analyses result in theoretically consistent clusters and ANOVA's show development from high school to late university, demonstrating good construct validity for the EDQ. Results strongly support the hypothesis that knowledge of different epistemic content are treated differently, with matters of'brute' fact evidencing later epistemic development than matters of 'institutional' fact. These results suggest several potentially promising avenues for future research.

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