(This is an excerpt from Joseph Smith's First Vision by Steven C. Harper.)
In philosophical terms, Joseph Smith’s first vision is epistemological. Epistemology is the philosophy of knowing. It seeks answers to such questions as:
What is knowledge?
What do I know?
How do I know?
Joseph’s vision is about knowing. “How to act I did not know,” he said about his prevision self. But after the vision he knew. “I had seen a vision, I knew it, and I knew that God knew it” (1838 account; see chapter 4).
This book is also epistemological. It asks, What can be known of Joseph’s experience and how? It seeks answers based on the historical method and on spiritual experience. We who seek to know the veracity of Joseph’s testimony can know only through Joseph. He was the only witness. He created the evidence we have to evaluate. When studying the vision, it is best to seek learning by faithfully studying Joseph’s accounts. It is worst to assume what his experience must have been like and how he would respond to it. But that’s exactly what many people do, including many who believe in Joseph’s vision. They create hypothetical history that is easily disproved. For example, without ever analyzing the evidence closely, some assume that if a teenage boy saw God and Christ, he would obviously tell his family right away. Certainly he would remember the date of the event and his precise age at the time. Undoubtedly he would write down the experience immediately. And surely he would relate it the same way every time he told it. Yet not one of those assumptions is supported by the historical record—the accounts that come to us from Joseph.
Joseph Smith’s epistemology—the seeking way of knowing he described and enacted in the grove—can be our way of knowing. In other words, if we seek as Joseph did, we can come to know what he knew as he knew it. Probably the best known statement of this seeking way of knowing is Moroni 10:3–5 in the Book of Mormon. We sometimes hear this passage summed up as “just pray about it,” but those four words are hardly an adequate summary of the scripture’s more than one hundred carefully chosen words. Rather, Moroni enjoins his readers to act in specific ways and to act upon the testimonies captured in and communicated by the Book of Mormon. These two ingredients—the testimony itself and our ability to independently test its veracity—are essential to this epistemological recipe. We must have the testimony in order to verify it. But simply knowing about a testimony is not the same as knowing whether it is true. Thus, Moroni invites those who read the testimony to remember and to ponder it. This is a call for brainwork: reading, remembering, pondering—all with real intent, or focused purpose. To this, Moroni continues, add spiritual longings and capacities: faith, sincerity, prayer to God in the name of Jesus Christ. When the seeker invests all of th required elements—intellectual and spiritual—the promise is that “by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5).
An early Latter-day Saint newspaper article explained this way of knowing: “Search the revelations which we publish, and ask your heavenly Father, in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, to manifest the truth unto you, and if you do it with an eye single to his glory, nothing doubting, he will answer you by the power of his Holy Spirit: You will then know for yourselves and not for another: You will not then be dependent on man for the knowledge of God.”1 Elder Dallin H. Oaks described this way of knowing as the “principle of independent verification by revelation.” This is seeking. It is Mormon epistemology. “We encourage everyone to study the scriptures,” Elder Oaks declared, “and to prayerfully seek personal revelation to know their meanings for themselves.”
Joseph Smith’s First Vision, Steven C. Harper, pp. 3-5