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The most fundamental philosophical questions we can ask are: (1) what exists, and (2) what can we know about it? The first concern is of metaphysical/ontological character, the second is epistemological. Once we attend to the ontological and epistemological questions, we can delineate how to go about obtaining the knowledge we deem possible, and choose suitable methodology and methods. 

Core Western Metaphysical (ontological) Concerns

However, qualitative researchers are interested in more than the above. How about social reality and social facts, such as 'students', 'tourists', 'sustainability', 'crime' and 'boarding passes'?

At the level of metaphysical concerns, we can discerned between two main contrasting positions: materialism/metaphysical realism and immaterialism /metaphysical idealism. Put simply, the first states that things and objects in the world exist independent of our mind, the latter asserts that what exists are ideas or sense data. In addition, there is also a third response which completely denies the existence of matter and other minds - solipsism. These three doctrines are depicted below:


(Metaphysical) Realism

There is an external world or matter that exists independent of perception. Objects cause sensations or ideas. 


(Metaphysical) Idealism

Objects of perception are 'sense data' or 'appearances' or 'ideas'. There are only mind-dependent perceptions.


Material objects have no existence outside of a person's consciousness. Only the Self exists. 

Core Western Epistemological Concerns

There are different ways of organising Western ideas about knowledge, which has been documented in many academic texts. Most epistemological stances, however, can be traced to the doctrines outlined below. These are offered here as a starting point for the novice researchers, who may feel overwhelmed by the long history of philosophical thought. 


Knowledge derives a posteriori from experience of observable entities.


Knowledge derives a priori from logic and reason.


DIRECT:        Knowledge of the external world is direct as perceived through the senses (also called naive realism).

INDIRECT:    Knowledge of the external world is indirect (also called causal or representative realism).

SCIENTIFIC: Scientific theories describe the world as it really is, including both observable and unobservable entities (e.g. quantum particles).


Knowledge is limited to sense data and ideas (i.e., the content of the mind). 


No knowledge is possible; we should suspend judgement about the possibility of knowing anything. 

Source: Pernecky (2016, p. 27)

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