What Is a Prescriptive Theory?


Prescription is a technical and formal term in the discipline of epistemology, or the science of how humanity knows things. It is also important in the philosophy of science. Among other things, it is the most abstract and general theory there is: It is the theory that grounds other theories.


  • Epistemology has always concerned itself with the foundations of knowledge. In more technical terms, it has sought a paradigm for thought, that basis on which all other things can be proven. Broadly, reason or the senses have been the forms of knowledge. To put it simply, writers such as Plato or Baruch Spinoza have supported the former; John Locke or David Hume have supported the latter. Other writers such as Immanuel Kant and J.G. Fichte have tried to combine the two approaches. Either way, all major writers in epistemology have sought to lay out a theory of prescription to ground their theories.


  • Prescriptive theories are abstract, general frameworks for knowledge within which the individual can come to certain conclusions. God, universal forms, categories of thought (such as place or time), Substance, ego and many other concepts have served to ground knowledge. If God exists, say St. Augustine or Rene Descartes, then our knowledge is sure, since God guarantees the reality of objects around us, including our own consciousness. Writers like Friedrich Nietzsche have posited that reality is the creation of those strong enough to convince others of its reality. These are examples of prescription.


  • Prescriptive theories cannot be proven in and of themselves. They are axiomatic, which means they are the means of proving anything. They are frameworks for proving things. For example, one may have a prescriptive theory that all knowledge comes from the senses. The fact that the senses pick up what is actually “out there” is unprovable. Nevertheless, the axiom that they do serves as a foundation to ground all our other experiences.


  • Prescription serves to furnish a sort of certainty that our experiences or thoughts are real, rather than creations of our imagination. Primarily, prescriptive theories seek to make truth a real, viable category rather than a relative term. If a prescriptive theory is true, then the ground of reality has been reached.


  • To a great extent, the number of contradictory prescriptive theories have shown the relativity of all knowledge. What one thinks he knows only works if it is part of a broader system. One can only think that 2 + 2 = 4 if one believes that numbers are actually real things (rather than symbols whose value is culturally determined) and also believes that each number is an actual, solid and discrete unit. Even the simplest of knowledge claims assumes a broader system of thought. This system is the prescription.

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