Spring 2016, NYU Abu Dhabi
This course will be a survey of central issues in contemporary epistemology. We'll examine a variety of skeptical arguments that tell us we can't know whether the world is as it appears to us, and major strategies for resisting them.
Along the way, we'll wrestle with foundational questions including:
- What is knowledge? Why might it matter whether we have it? What sorts of things can we know or be certain of?
- Does knowledge always have to be based on secure foundations?
- If you know something, will you always know that you know it? Will you always be able to prove that you know it?
- What sort of attitude is belief? What sort of control do we have over what we believe?
- What is evidence, or good reasons for believing something? What is the connection between knowledge and evidence?
- Do we have any good reasons to believe some things rather than others? What features of our minds and/or the world contribute to making our beliefs reasonable?
- What should we do when our epistemic peers disagree with us? When are we required to suspend judgment about the issue?
Prerequisite: One prior course in philosophy (such as PHIL-AD 101-119), or equivalent background. This course is not intended as an introduction to philosophy. I'll assume you have prior experience writing philosophical papers, reading texts critically, analyzing and responding to philosophical arguments, and so on. If you've already taken a prior course in philosophy, that will be adequate preparation. If you've just "read and thought a lot" about the issues this course covers, that is in most cases not adequate preparation. It won't have given you practice and feedback on writing philosophy papers, and it won't have given you experience analyzing and discussing arguments in the way we'll be doing in this class.
If you're unsure whether you're prepared for the course, you are welcome to write to me about it. You can also take a look at the handouts linked in the Methodologies section below, to see how much of them seem familiar to you.
Credit hours: 4
This course counts toward the following NYUAD degree requirements:
- Concentrations > Disciplinary Concentrations > Philosophy
- Majors > Philosophy > Theoretical Philosophy
Meetings: The course will meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 9:15 - 10:30 AM, in room A2-021.
Instructor: The course is taught by Prof. Jim Pryor <firstname.lastname@example.org>. My office in Abu Dhabi is A6-143. Office hours to be determined.
Goals for the course include:
- Gaining familiarity with major questions, positions, and arguments in contemporary epistemology. You should understand why the questions listed above are significant, and be able to explain different answers to them.
- Improving your ability to closely read, interpret, and evaluate contemporary philosophical texts. This includes identifying arguments and their underlying assumptions; formulating counter-examples and other objections; and recognizing how a view can best be defended (whether you endorse it or not).
- Improving your ability to clearly explain and critically respond to philosophical arguments, both in discussion and in writing.
- Improving your ability to articulate your own positions, formulate your own arguments, and reply to reasoned objections.
Teaching and Learning Methodologies
Our class meetings will be a mix of structured presentation and seminar-style discussion. My expectations for the latter are explained in the Requirements section.
Here are detailed explanations of
how you'll be expected to read philosophy papers, and
how you'll be expected to write them.
An explanation of what different grades mean for written work is linked below.
It is essential that you attend the class meetings. Much material not in the readings will be presented in class.
There will be a reading assignment for most meetings. These readings are often short, but they all require close study. You should read them carefully before we discuss them in class, and you will need to read them more than once. For most of the readings, you won't understand the material sufficiently with just a single reading. A good strategy would be to read the assignment once before we discuss it, and then go back and read it again after we've discussed it.
I expect our class meetings to have lots of discussion, and for all students to participate. Talking about philosophy is one of the best ways to learn how to do it. Your participation in these discussions will make up 10% of your grade for the course. See this page on participation for more details (though this class won't have separate "discussion sections" as that page assumes; we'll integrate discussion into the main meetings).
The rest of your grade will be based on:
Ungraded writing assignments: There will be one exercise (around 1200 words) due on Thursday 25 Feb that practices extracting and explaining the argument from a passage we're reading. There will be another exercise due on Tuesday 3 May that answers a selection of the Study Questions for Part I of the Frances book on Disagreement (pp. 101-4).
Neither of these exercises are graded; you get credit just for submitting (serious efforts at) them on time. (15% of the final grade)
First essay (around 2000 words, due Tuesday 15 March): One paper you write for the course will be graded, and given detailed feedback. You will then rewrite the paper, and the rewrite will also be graded. (first version is 10% of the final grade, second version is 15%)
Second essay (2000-3000 words, due Tuesday 26 April): For the second paper, you will give each other feedback. You will submit only the final version of this paper. (25% of the final grade)
The topics for both essays will be distributed 2 weeks before the paper is due. You are strongly encouraged to meet with me to discuss an outline of your ideas, before you attempt to finalize and polish your paper.
Instead of a final exam, you will answer a selection of the Study Questions for Part II of the Frances book on Disagreement (pp. 205-7). These will be due Tuesday 17 May, during the final exam period. (25% of the final grade)
Grades and Academic Integrity
Here is an explanation of what different grades mean for written work. (See also the "How you'll be graded" section of the writing guidelines.)
Plagiarism is a serious offense and will result in failed assignments, failed courses, and worse. You should be familiar with
the NYUAD page on academic integrity.
This community expects fairness, respect, and honesty.
Your papers may be submitted to turnitin.com for review; if there is some special reason you don't want your work to be reviewed by that website, discuss this with me at the start of term.
If you have good reason for being unable to submit work for a deadline, discuss this with me well in advance of the deadline (at least one week before), and we will make different arrangements. You will not be able to contact me about this at the last minute. The only other cases in which late work will be accepted will be for serious and well-documented emergencies.
If things aren't going well for you in some way (physically, emotionally, or otherwise) during the term, and you think this is impacting or will impact your work, please let me know as soon as you can, or have someone at the university who knows what is going on contact me.
Other readings will be made available on the course website.
The reading assignements are posted in the Handouts, Readings, and Lecture Notes section of the website.
Please check that space regularly, as things may sometimes be reorganized, and the schedule will be adjusted, based on how our discussions in class are proceeding.
- Thu 28 Jan: Introduction
- Week 2 (2-4 Feb): Appearance vs reality
- Topics include: does knowledge require certainty?, fallibilism, different kinds of skeptical argument, discussion of The Matrix, knowledge and facts, realism and objectivity
- Week 3 (9-11 Feb): Knowledge, belief, and reasons; Decartes' First Meditation
- Topics include: relation between knowing and believing, relation between knowing and having reasons; Descartes' dreaming argument; Stroud's analysis of the dreaming argument
- Week 4 (16-18 Feb): Continuing analysis of Descartes' dreaming argument; "Evidentialist" responses to skepticism
- Topics include: David and Jean Blumenfeld's analysis of the dreaming argument, and of different responses to it
- Week 5 (23-25 Feb): Continuing with "evidentialist" responses; Begin "relevant alternatives" responses
- Topics include: is this all just a terminological dispute about the word "know"? Stroud's discussion of relevant alternatives
- Week 6 (1-3 Mar): Continuing with "relevant alternatives" responses; Begin Gettier Problem for defining knowledge
- Topics include: does justified true belief suffice for knowledge?
- Week 7 (8-10 Mar): Extra-evidential theories of knowledge
- Topics include: Dretske's relevant alternatives theory, Goldman and perceptual discrimination
- Week 8 (Tue 15 Mar): the Regress argument for foundational justification
- Topics include: sense-data
- Sat 26 Mar: Continuing with regress argument
- Week 9 (29-31 Mar): Reliabilist theories of justification
- Topics include: Goldman on justified belief, challenges for reliabilism (generality, range, and regulating our beliefs)
- Week 10 (5-7 Apr): Continuing with reliabilism
- Topics include: BonJour's critique of reliabilism, conservativism about justification
- Week 11 (12-14 Apr): Foundationalist versus coherentist theories of justification
- Topics include: the regress argument again, immediate justification, reasons on which you base your belief, classical versus modest foundationalism, BonJour's critique of foundationalism, different epistemic levels
- Week 12 (19-21 Apr): Introducing the issue of epistemic disagreement
- Topics include: higher-order evidence, epistemic peers
- Week 13 (26-28 Apr): Refining the debate about epistemic disagreement
- Topics include: different areas of disagreement, what counts as responding to disagreement
- Tue 3 May: Continuing with disagreement
- Topics include: should we "conciliate" or demote our estimate of our peer's abilities?
- Last week (10-12 May): Continuing with disagreement
- Topics include: is there always a uniquely correct way to respond to a given body of evidence? can we rely on our disputed judgments in assessing our peer's abilities?
- 13 Apr
- I updated some of the dates on the readings, partly to record when we actually did discuss the past readings. For the upcoming readings, the changes were: we only spent one class on the first chunk of the Disagreement book, and I suspect we'll only spend one class on the second chunk too. We can use the time left over at the end to read more literature on the Disagreement debate.
- 7 Apr
- Second Graded Paper is due on Tuesday 26 April.
- 5 April
- As I proposed in class, we'll meet early again this coming Thursday, and try to finish the next topic (foundationalism vs coherentism) in that one long session, to give us more time to work through the Disagreement book. I've adjusted the reading dates for the Disagreement readings a bit.
- 29 Mar
- I updated the web notes on sense-data.
- 15 Mar
- After today, our class next meets on Sat 26 March, which goes on the Thursday teaching schedule. I've updated some of the dates for upcoming readings, to accommodate the class we missed last week.
- 3 Mar
- As I said in class on Tuesday, we can nudge some of the readings forward a bit, leaving us a bit more time to spend on Goldman's important article, which we'll discuss next week. I updated the dates for reading assignments this morning, so now you can rely on what the website says again. (I may adjust again later in the term, too, depending on our pace.)
- 1 Mar
- First Graded Paper is due on Tuesday 15 Mar.
- 18 Feb
- Practice Writing Exercise is due on Thursday 25 Feb.