Varieties of Scepticism

Course Status: 
CEU credits: 
Academic year: 
Start and end dates: 
17 Sep 2012 - 7 Dec 2012
Katalin Farkas


This is an advanced epistemology course for PhD students. MA students who have a sufficient background in epistemology can also take the course, after consultation with the instructor. MA students with an interest in epistemology but without much background are advised to take the core Epistemology course in the coming Winter term.

Outline and goals

Knowledge is supposed to be of paramount importance in our life: it's what helps us to get around in everyday matters – you need to know all sorts of things to get to the airport on time, to pass a driving test, or to be able cook an edible omelette. Knowledge is also a fundamental achievement that pertains to the essence of humankind: “all men by nature desire to know”, says Aristotle in the first sentence of Metaphysics. Yet knowledge as a theoretical concept is very elusive.

One problem is that as soon as we start to think systematically about knowledge, and try to establish necessary conditions for knowing, it often turns out that these conditions are almost never fulfilled. Epistemologists are in constant dialogue with the sceptic: a largely imaginary figure, who constantly raises problems about meeting the prima facie intuitive necessary conditions for knowledge. For example, it may seem intuitive that in order to know that p, we should be able to exclude scenarios that are incompatible with the truth of p. Then it may seem that we should be able to exclude the possibility that we are dreaming or deceived by a demon – a seemingly impossible task.

The course addresses these ancient problems in light of some of the recent developments in the philosophy and scepticism, while also keeping the historical background in mind.

Learning outcomes

Students will master some key concepts in contemporary epistemology relating to various positions and famous problems. 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. 

Main topics to be discussed:

  1. Ancient versus modern scepticism – scepticism as a way of life, scepticism and belief
  2. Modern scepticism: knowledge of the external world
  3. The dream argument
  4. Good case and bad case skeptical arguments
  5. Deductive closure and skepticism
  6. Contextualism about knowledge
  7. Contrastivism about knowledge

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 (2000 words) of the presentation. Instead of a written version, it is also possible to comment on discussion threads throughout the term; with at least 3 comments and adding up to 2000 words.


40% presentation, 60% written version or comments