I cannot understand the meaning of as a first stab in the following sentence.

As a first stab, epistemology is the philosophical study of knowledge: its nature, its requirements, and its limitations.

What does it mean?

When looking in a dictionary, I found out that the meaning of the word stab is as follows: the act of pushing a knife into someone, or an injury caused by stabbing (Cambridge Dictionary)

  • 1
    Have you checked a dictionary for meanings of the noun stab? Is there something more specific that's confusing you about it?
    – cbh
    Commented Oct 8, 2016 at 18:48
  • For example, the meaning of the word stab in cambridge dictionary is as follows:the act of pushing a knife into someone, or an injury caused by stabbing
    – ali
    Commented Oct 8, 2016 at 18:55
  • In this context, stab means attempt. Look up the expression "to take a stab at".
    – Mick
    Commented Oct 8, 2016 at 19:37
  • 3
    We should also mention the idioms wild stab and stab in the dark, meaning an ill-informed initial attempt with little expectation of success. Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 3:14

3 Answers 3


You've found a definition of stab, however, look carefully at the Cambridge Dictionary entry: enter image description here

This is for the verb stab, not the noun. Since the sentence talks about making a stab at something, we need to check the noun definitions.

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These definitions don't help either, but, if we keep scrolling down, we'll find the links to idiomatic expressions:

enter image description here

where we learn:

enter image description here

However, we may be able to solve the mystery even more quickly simply by consulting a different dictionary. For example, Macmillan's entry for the noun stab looks like this:

enter image description here

The meaning is found in Definition 2.

By the way, a good way to look up a word in multiple dictionaries is to use OneLook.

  • 3
    To be fair to the OP, the exact wording "a first stab" is not cited in any of the dictionaries whose entries you have posted, advanced learners and native speakers will be familiar with the older version and add 2 and 2, but students who lack confidence, will expect to find the exact wording, and why not?. But it's good to show learners that a dictionary is their best ally :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 8, 2016 at 20:32
  • @Mari-LouA - Just to be clear, I thought it was a very fair question. That's why I took some time to answer it. You correctly point out that the pertinent meaning doesn't jump right off the dictionary page. Because many English words are like stab in that they have different noun, verb, and idiomatic meanings, I was hoping that my answer would provide some hints for learners who are taking a stab at finding the right meaning of a word in context.
    – J.R.
    Commented Oct 8, 2016 at 21:34

Stab in as a first stab means try/attempt as in the more common expression:

Have/make a stab at sth (informal): ​

  • to attempt to do something although you are not likely to be very successful: I'd never tried snorkelling before but I had a stab at it while I was in Greece.

Reading the whole paragraph the sense is clear:

  • As a first stab, epistemology is the philosophical study of knowledge: its nature, its requirements, and its limitations. The best way to begin our inquiry into this area is to try to get some idea, in an initial and tentative way, of why and in what way knowledge seems to deserve or even require philosophical investigation and ...
  • Thank you.I think you're right but stab here must be informal, while the text is academic.
    – ali
    Commented Oct 8, 2016 at 19:43
  • 1
    @ali You should have specified that the sentence is from a formal text in your question, and included a link to the source. In any case, Mr BonJour's style is somewhat breezy throughout, so "as a first stab" is not unexpected nor inappropriate here. Commented Oct 8, 2016 at 20:20
  • @ali - actually, if you check other usage examples in googles books google.it/… - you'll find the expression used in other academic contexts.
    – user5267
    Commented Oct 8, 2016 at 21:47
  • Absolute Beginner you're right but its use is not very common.
    – ali
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 10:18

There are various long-established idioms using 'stab' - as a first stab, make a stab at, make a fair stab at, etc. This appears to be a metaphor deriving from sword-fighting. A 'first stab' is a tentative thrust at the beginning of the fight. It gets the fight going, but is not expected to be immediately successful. So it means 'an initial attempt', the assumption being that more is to follow. So in the example it means, 'As an initial attempt at a definition.'

  • 2
    This adds nothing to the existing answers.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Mar 30, 2021 at 10:44

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