Knowledge and Scepticism

Course Status: 
CEU credits: 
Academic year: 
Academic Program: 
Master of Arts in Philosophy
Katalin Farkas
Learning Outcomes: 
Students will master key concepts in contemporary epistemology relating to various positions, famous problems, the analysis of knowledge, and so on. These concepts include (among others) epistemic internalism and externalism, reliabilism, virtue epistemology, epistemic obligations, doxastic voluntarism deductive closure, the lottery problem, contextualism, contrastivism, etc. Armed with these concepts, students will be able to approach texts and lectures in contemporary epistemology. Students will become familiar with arguments for and against certain positions, and will hopefully develop their own take at least on one issue.
Assessment : 
Course requirements: * Regular attendance, conscientious reading of all the papers, and participation in the seminar discussions throughout the term * Presentation of an issue (based on answering questions related to the readings), and a short written version (1500 words) of the presentation. Questions will be handed out prior to the commencement of larger topics. The deadline for submitting the written version is the 11th of January 2010. * Satisfactory results in the two written exams. Each exam covers about half of the course. A list of study questions will be distributed in advance (these may not be the same as the exam questions). The questions will be both about the readings (including parts that have not been discussed in the class) and the material covered in the lectures. * The 1st written exam is on 29 October, covering the issues of sceptical arguments, deductive closure and contextualism. * The 2nd written exam is on 10 December covering the issues of virtue epistemology, epistemic duties and know how. Grading: * essay + presentation: 40 points * first exam: 40 points * second exam: 40 points * The maximum score is 120 points. Grades are awarded on the basis of the score achieved. In borderline cases, the seminar activity may be considered.

Week by week

(Additional background readings will be specified during the term; electronic copies, where available, will be uploaded to the Q:\Philosophy\Knowledge and Scepticism 2009 folder)

1. Introduction to sceptical arguments. Much of modern epistemology has been dominated by the program of answering a hypothetical sceptic who challenges all our claims to knowledge. The paradigmatic instance of such a discussion is Descartes's First Meditation, and this is where we start.

  • Descartes: First Meditation. In Descartes, René (1984). Philosophical Writings of René Descartes. 3 volumes. Edited and translated by J. Cottingham, R. Stoothof, D. Murdoch and A. Kenny. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2. The phenomenology of dreams. According to the usual reconstructions of Descartes’s Dream Arguments, dreams raise the possibility of non-veridical experiences which seem exactly like wakeful experiences. In recent years, however, there has been a growing dissatisfaction with this 'philosophical' notion of dreams, and various people argued that the phenomenology of dreams is in fact very different from the phenomenology of normal perception.

  • Colin McGinn 2004: “What are dreams?” ch. 6 of Mindsight. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press: pp. 74-95.
  • Ernest Sosa 2007: “Dreams and Philosophy”  Lecture 1. of A Virtue Epistemology. Apt Belief and Reflective Knowledge, Volume . Oxford: Clarendon Press. Pp. 1-21

3. Dreams and the Dream Argument. If the 'orthodox' philosophical conception of dreams is untenable, does this undermine the traditional Dream Argument? Ernest Sosa thinks the answer is yes; we shall look at his argument. 

  • Ernest Sosa: “Dreams and Philosophy”

4. Good Case and Bad Case. A number of skeptical arguments are based on the assumption that our justification, or evidence, is the same in the ‘Good Case’ (ie. in normal perceptual circumstances) and the ‘Bad Case’ (some skeptical scenario like dreaming or being a brain-in-a-vat). Several contemporary epistemologists have challenged this assumption; we shall look at a challenging chapter from Timothy Williamson’s influential book, Knowledge and its Limits.

  • Timothy Williamson 2000: “Scepticism”. Chapter 8. of Knowledge and its Limits Oxford University Press. pp. 164-83        

5. Deductive closure and scepticism. The principle of ‘Deductive Closure’ (that knowledge extends along known entailment) is supposed to be one of the major assumptions of the skeptical argument. Some seek the refutation of scepticism in rejecting or restricting the Closure principle.

  • Stine, G. C. 1976, “Skepticism, Relevant Alternatives, and Deductive Closure” Philosophical Studies  29/4,  pp. 249-261

6. Challenges to the deductive closure principle. The deductive closure principle is prima facie very plausible, and giving it up in order to refute the sceptic may seem like paying a high price. However, it turns out that questions can be raised about the closure principle also outside the context of skeptical arguments.

  • Vogel, J., 1990, “Are There Counterexamples to the Closure Principle?” in Doubting: Contemporary Perspectives on Skepticism, M. Roth and G. Ross (eds.), Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. Pp 13-27

7. Refining deductive closure. A closer look at the proper formulation of the closure principle and a rehearsal of considerations of why it shouldn’t be given up after all.

  • John Hawthorne 2004, sections 1.4 and 1.5 of Knowledge and lotteries, Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 31-46

8. Contextualism, introduction to the issue. Contextualism is a thesis about the semantics of certain kinds of expressions: the claim is that truth-conditions of sentences containing these expressions are dependent on the context, appropriately specified. There is an extended debate in the philosophy of language about the proper account of these expressions. This lecture is an introduction to these issues, and their application to epistemology.

9. Formulating and defending the thesis. Contextualist theories claim that the truth-conditions of knowledge attributions claims depend on the context, and that this offers a solution to skeptical problems.  

  • DeRose Keith 1992. “Contextualism and Knowledge Attributions” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 52/ 4. pp. 913-929

10. Contextualism: some pros and cons. Contextualism is popular in one form or another, but there are still philosophers who are not convinced. Here we look at a defense of contextualism in response to some anti-contextualist criticism.

  • Stewart Cohen: Contextualism Defended: "Comments on Richard Feldman's" Skeptical Problems, Contextualist Solutions. Philosophical Studies 103: 87–98, 2001.
    (Recommended: Richard Feldman : Sceptical Problems, Contextualist solutions. Philosophical Studies 103: 61–85, 2001.)

11. Summary, catching up.

12. First test.

13. Virtue epistemology, introduction, background. A large part of 20-21 century epistemology has been devoted to the analysis of knowledge. Edmund Gettier’s “Is justified true belief knowledge” challenged the traditional ‘tri-partite- analysis of knowledge, and gave rise a whole industry of ‘Gettierology’, that is attempts to overcome Gettier-type counterexamples to the analysis of knowledge. Reliabilist justification promised a solution to the Gettier-problem, but they met with their own criticism. This lecture is an overview of these issues.

  • (Background: Gettier, Edmund 1963 “Is justified true belief knowledge?” Goldman, Alvin A. 1971: „What is justified belief?” in Kim-Sosa)

14. Sosa's virtue epistemology. Ernest Sosa is one of the most influential contemporary epistemologist. His theory is a synthesis of a number of different strands of epistemological theories: foundationalism and coherentism, externalism and internalism. We will read one of the programmatic fomulations of his theory of knowledge.

  • Sosa Ernest 1991 “Intellectual Virtue in Perspective” in: Knowledge in Perspective, Selected essays in Epistemology. Cambridge University Press 1991: pp. 270-93

15. Virtue epistemology – virtue responsibilism. Sosa’s version of virtue epistemology is sometimes  classified as ‘virtue reliabilism; here we look at the other branch of virtue epistemology, virtue responsibilism.

  • Montmarquet, J., 1987, "Epistemic Virtue," Mind 96: 482-497.

16.Virtue epistemology – the role of agents. Virtue theories of epistemology differ from other theories in their focus on the knowing agent, rather than simply on states of the agent.

  • Linda Zagzebski: “Must Knowers be Agents?” In Abrol Fairweather and Linda Zagzebski (eds.) Virtue Epistemology OUP 2001: 143-157

17. Epistemic responsibility, introduction. Many philosophers think that justification is a necessary conditions for knowledge. ‘Being justified’ is a normative notion, which also has application in moral philosophy. This suggests that notions used in moral philosophy, like responsibility, duties, obligations have an application also in epistemology.

18. Doxastic Voluntarism. If one has responsibility or obligations in epistemology, they relate to one’s beliefs. It is often argued in moral philosophy that responsibility and obligation applies only to thing we can de at will. But can one believe at will? According some influential views, one cannot.; we shall look at the question more closely.

  • Margery Bedford Naylor 1985 “Voluntary Belief” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 45/3 , pp. 427-436

19. Epistemic Obligation. If one cannot believe at will, one does not have responsibility and obligations with respect to beliefs – at least according to one line of argument. Richard Feldman, however, argues that one can have obligations even if one is not able to fulfill them, and this general observation opens the room for a notion of epistemic obligations.

  • Feldman, Richard (1988) “Epistemic Obligation” Philosophical Perspectives 2, Epistemology 235-56

20. Know how /know that; introduction. Even though there may not be many philosophers these days who share Gilbert Ryle’s logical behaviourist theory of the mind, his distinction between knowing how and knowing that, and his claim that the former is irreducible to the latter, have been widely accepted and are often quoted for example at the beginning of introductions to the theory of knowledge.

  • Gilber Ryle 1948 “Know that and know how” . Chapter II, sections (1)-(4) and (6) (section (5) is recommended) in The Concept of Mind. London: Hutchinson

21. Reducing Know How to Know That. Stanley and Williamson challenged the widespread conviction that ‘know how’ is not reducible to ‘know that’. It’s a difficult paper, but worth the ffort.

  • Stanley, Jason and  Timothy Williamson 2001, “Knowing How” The Journal of Philosophy, 98/8 pp. 411-444

22. Savoir Faire. Thinking about philosophy only in English may not be the best course. Ian Rumfitt criticizes Stanley and Williamson’s argument by referring to expressions of ‘know’ how’ in other languages.

  • Rumfitt, Ian 2003, “Savoir Faire” The Journal of Philosophy, 100/3 pp. 158-166

23. Summary, catching up.

24. Second test.