Phi 4311


Syllabus for Spring 2016

Course Description

This course begins with two central questions from Plato about knowledge: what is its nature and why is it valuable? The tension between these two questions leads directly to some of the central topics in the history of epistemology: skepticism, the nature of truth, the nature of justification, including the debates between foundationalists and coherentists and between externalists and internalists, and the Gettier problem. Each topic will be discussed from the point of view of whether it is possible to construct a theory of knowledge that can answer both of Plato’s questions.

Goals and Expectations

  • To become acquainted with some of the fundamental issues within contemporary epistemology.
  • To learn to write and think carefully, clearly, and to the point.

Policies & Procedures

  • Class time will consist of lecture and discussion, with primary focus on the latter.
  • Two portfolios, three exams, and a daily assignment journal will be the basis for grading. Each portfolio will be worth 25% of the grade.  In each portfolio, 75% of the grade will be on your paper, and 25% on your comments on others’ papers. Each exam will be worth 10% of the course grade. The remainder of the grade will depend on the quality of your journal.
    • Daily Assignment Journal: Students will be required to keep a journal for the course. There will be a journal assignment due nearly every class meeting, and need to be entered in the Discussions section of Canvas.  For each article or chapter assigned for a given class meeting, the journal assignment is to do one of two things:  (1) State the thesis of the article, and give the major argument for it; or (2) If you cannot do (1), describe your attempts to do (1) and why you were unable to succeed. Journal assignments will be due at the beginning of every class meeting, and missed journal assignments may not be made up.  The purpose of these daily assignments is to teach the skill of active reading, which involves not merely passing one’s eyes over the text and grasping the meaning of each sentence in the text, but involves actively seeking the argumentative structure of the piece.  Seeing such structure enables one to be a responsible critic when disagreeing with an author, since one will have demonstrated a clear grasp of the author’s point of view prior to disagreeing. The grading for the journals will be pass/fail.
    • Two 5-7 Page Papers: Rough drafts of these papers will be due at the beginning of weeks 5 and 12, with final drafts due three weeks later.  Students should email a Word version of their draft to the instructor and TA, and will arrange in class to send their draft to two students.  Students will then write comments on both drafts he or she  receives. Late drafts will not be accepted.  Students who do not hand in drafts will not receive any drafts on which to comment, and will receive a maximum grade of 50% of the total points available for the portfolio. It is thus imperative to turn in drafts on time.Each paper can be in either of two forms:  (i) The first form is a critical piece, building on one of the journal entries.  Whereas the journal entries are intended to develop interpretive skills, the paper assignments provide the opportunity to cultivate the ability to evaluate complex positions and arguments.  You may pick any journal entry as your point from which to begin the paper.  Your intended audience is someone at your own educational level who is not in this class and has not read the paper which is the source of your journal entry.  So you should first explain the position and argument of the paper being analyzed, and then turn to an evaluation of it.  Evaluations can involve any of the following:  arguing that one of the premises of the argument is false, arguing that the conclusion does not follow from the premises, or defending the premises from objections you can think of to them or which you discover by reading the work of others who disagree with the position of the paper you are evaluating.  If your evaluation consists of arguing that the conclusion does not follow from the premises, you need to explain what needs to be changed or added to the argument so that the conclusion would then follow.  After doing so, you will then be in a position either to defend the new argument from objections to it, or argue that one of the premises is false. (ii) The second form is problem-centered.  The major problems that drive the history of epistemology can be found in the course outline below, and your paper may choose to explore one of these problems more fully than we will have time for in class.  If you choose this option, your paper will be an exploration of the variety of positions and arguments regarding that problem.  Instead of a traditional paper format, this option involves writing an extended letter to your parents about this topic.  I will want your letter to explain the problem and your thoughts on it in an accessible fashion, but I will also want you to explain the personal significance of the issues.  In other words, I will be looking for such things as:  an explanation to your parents of why you are taking the time to write to her about this issue, what is so intriguing about it to you, why it matters to you, what excites or bores you about it, how thinking about such issues makes a difference in your life.   Documentation style for this paper will use a list of references at the end of the letter, with references in the text.SPECIAL NOTE FOR STUDENTS RECEIVING GRADUATE CREDIT: Papers should be somewhat more substantial in length, in the range of 8-12 pages, and the only option for the paper is the first option.

      These papers are intended to accomplish two primary goals. First, I want you to develop the skill of critically thinking through the arguments and positions we discuss in class, rather than relying solely on the evaluation of them which I present in class. Second, I want you to learn the importance of revision for good writing. First drafts are rarely as clear and lucid as they seem to their authors, and seeing one’s initial attempts through the eyes of one’s peers will help to show how to turn an initial attempt at a paper into something much more substantial. In order to facilitate the process of re-writing, students are required to write critical comments on each of two drafts of papers by other students in the class. By “critical,” I do not mean merely “negative.” Critical commentary points out both the strengths and the weaknesses of a given paper, and it does so in a way that is respectful and helpful.  You may note grammatical mistakes and inelegancies, but the primary focus of your comments should be on the substance of the paper.  Remember that the task of the author of the paper is to convince you that he or she is correct in their evaluation, so it is not your job to work hard to find a good point in the paper.  The paper should defend a position in a straightforward and accessible way, and where it doesn’t, you should make a note of it.  Your primary job as a commentator is to summarize in one quick paragraph what you think the point of the paper is, and in the remainder, comment on how successful the paper was at defending this point.  So, substantive comments will focus on issues such as:  not being able to ascertain the point of the paper, not being able to determine what the argument is for this point, finding the argument unpersuasive and identifying the precise point at which the argument fails to persuade. These comments are due at the beginning of the first class of weeks six and thirteen. Late comments will not be accepted. If a student does not hand in a set of comments, then he will receive a grade of “F” for that portion of her grade. Part of the purpose for comments is a continuation of the critical skills emphasized in the daily assignment journal. The other part is the goal of helping other students see their initial attempts at writing through the eyes of another, to see their work more as others see it, and to be able to improve their work through the revision process.

      Final drafts of each paper will be due at the beginning of weeks eight and fifteen.  The final draft will be part of a portfolio turned in, which will include:  the rough draft of the paper and the comments received on it, the rough drafts of papers commented on and the comments on these papers, the final draft of the paper, together with an explanation of the changes made in response to the comments received and an evaluation of the quality of these comments.

    Against Pragmatic Encroachment


    Two Questions:  What is knowledge and why is it valuable? Plato, Meno

    • The Nature of Knowledge: Definition, Justification, Truth, and Skepticism
      • Plato, Theaetetus
      • Arguments for and against Skepticism
        1. Stroud, “The Problem of the External World”
        2. Moore, “Proof of an External World”
      • Defining Knowledge
        1. Gettier, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”
        2. Harman, “Thought, Selections”
        3. Zagzebski, “The Inescapability of Gettier Problems”
      • The Regress Problem
        1. Sosa, “The Raft and the Pyramid”
        2. Chisholm, “The Myth of the Given”
        3. BonJour, “Can Empirical Knowledge Have a Foundation?”
        4. Davidson, “A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge”
        5. Klein, “Human Knowledge and the Infinite Regress of Reasons”
      • Justification/Warrant/Rationality
        1. Goldman, “What is Justified Belief?”
        2. Feldman and Conee, “Evidentialism”
        3. Plantinga, “Warrant: A First Approximation”
        4. Greco, “Virtues and Vices of Virtue Epistemology”
    • The Value of Knowledge:  Given what we know about the nature of knowledge, how can we account for its value?
      • Why Should Enquiring Minds Want to Know? Meno Problems and Epistemological Axiology: Jonathan L. Kvanvig.
      • Negative Implications: Closure and Pragmatic Encroachment
        1. Epistemic Operators: Fred Dretske.
        2. Knowledge and Skepticism: Robert Nozick.
        3. Solving the Skeptical Problem: Keith DeRose.
        4. Contextualist Solutions to Epistemological Problems: Scepticism, Gettier, and the Lottery: Stewart Cohen.
        5. Elusive Knowledge: David Lewis.
        6. Sensitive Moderate Invariantism: John Hawthorne.
        7. Knowledge and Practical Interest, Selections: Jason Stanley.
        8. Evidence, Pragmatics, and Justification: Jeremy Fantl and Matthew McGrath.
        9. The Assessment-Sensitivity of Knowledge Attributions: John MacFarlane.
      • Positive Attempts: Virtue Epistemology
        1. Virtues of the Mind, Selections: Linda Zagzebski.
        2. Virtues and Vices of Virtue Epistemology: John Greco.
        3. The Place of Truth in Epistemology: Ernest Sosa.