Teaching‎ > ‎2017 Fall‎ > ‎

Phil 351

Theory of Knowledge

Time: Monday/Wednesday 3-3:50 pm
Location: YMCA 115

Instructor: Kenny Easwaran
Office: YMCA Building 314, 979-847-6128
Office Hours: Monday/Wednesday 1-3 pm, or by appointment.

Course Description:
This course covers central topics in epistemology - the theory of knowledge. This will begin with traditional topics like skepticism and certainty, perception and memory, and the problem of induction, but also include newer topics like social epistemology and probability. I hope to challenge your beliefs and encourage us all to think deeper about what it takes for an individual to know something, for a community to know something, and why we should care about knowledge vs mere opinion.

Learning Outcomes: 
This course aims to introduce students to a broad range of topics in epistemology, the theory of knowledge. It also aims to develop student skills in expressing their thoughts clearly in both spoken and written form, including expression of arguments for a view, and analysis of arguments for and against it.

Grading policies: 
1/4 of the overall grade will be from weekly reading quizzes
1/4 of the overall grade will be from presentations
1/4 of the overall grade will be from writing assignments during the semester
1/4 of the overall grade will be from the final paper
If you need to miss a day of class, be sure to let me know in advance, or else you will lose points from a quiz or presentation.

Each week will have an assigned reading, which will be fairly short, so that you can think deeply about it and look up any unfamiliar words, names, or ideas that are mentioned in it. There will be reading comprehension quizzes on Wednesdays that will sometimes ask questions even about these tangential ideas to make sure you have been looking them up. I want you to develop some habits of intellectual curiosity - to learn to read by looking beyond just the text itself.

There is no assigned book for this class - instead, readings will be posted or linked on the website, or sent via e-mail.

Every Friday we will have student presentations. Groups will be assigned randomly on Mondays, and on Friday, one member of each group will be selected to make a brief (usually about 5 minutes) presentation.

Writing Assignments:
Writing a philosophy paper is a difficult task that is quite different from many of the other sorts of writing that you have done for other classes. Thus, rather than starting out with a full paper, the assignments will progress through various levels, like in a video game. For each assignment, you'll write a paper at the level that you're on - just as with levels in video games, the idea here is to ensure that you are always working on a task that is challenging enough to be interesting, but not so challenging that it is frustrating. I'll mark each paper as either "complete", "almost", "good effort" or "not much progress". Once one of your assignments is marked "complete", for the next assignment you will move to the next level. Your final grade for the assignments will depend on how far you have progressed through the levels by the last assignment (which is the fifth):
Level 3: Complete=A+, Almost=A, Good Effort=A-, Not Much Progress=B+
Level 2: Complete=B, Almost=B-, Good Effort=C+, Not Much Progress=C
Level 1: Complete=C-, Almost=D, Good Effort=D-, Not Much Progress=F

For each assignment, you should write about a new topic, preferably one we discussed since the last assignment - you won't be re-writing previous assignments. (Sample papersThe particular assignments are as follows:

Level 1 Paper: Short expository paper, 150-300 words.
Choose one particular argument from the readings and explain that argument in a very short paper. We will discuss what exactly this means over the first few weeks in class. Remember that in philosophy, "argument" means not just a claim or a view or a theory, but the reason for believing it. It will be helpful in your notes to explicitly write the premises and conclusions of the argument(s) in your papers so that you know exactly what you need to support or criticize.

Level 2 Paper: Expository paper, 400-600 words.
Explain two arguments in a slightly longer paper. They might both be from the readings, or one might be from the readings and one from discussion in class. These two arguments should have an important connection to each other - you might explain one argument, and then another argument that aims to refute one of the premises from the first; or you might explain one argument, and then another argument that extends the first; or there might be some other interesting relationship between the arguments. Because this paper has some complexity to it, when you are done with the body of the paper you should write an introductory paragraph that explains what the paper is going to be about, and how the arguments are related to each other.

Level 3 Paper: Expository and critical paper, 700-1000 words.
At this point you're ready to do some original work. This level of paper should include an explanation of two related arguments from the readings or discussions, like a Level 2 paper, and then a new argument of your own showing that one of these earlier arguments is unsound (i.e., it either has a false premise, or the premises fail to support the conclusion). Be sure to consider ways that the author of the earlier argument might respond or object to your criticism, and defend your argument!

(this assignment structure is borrowed from Dustin Locke)

Final Paper:
The final paper should be a Level 3 paper as described above, and can be on any topic we have discussed all semester. It will be graded on an ordinary letter scale. If you have worked your way through the assignments you will be prepared to write a great philosophy paper!

Disability Statement:
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal anti-discrimination statute that provides comprehensive civil rights protection for persons with disabilities. Among other things, this legislation requires that all students with disabilities be guaranteed a learning environment that provides for reasonable accommodation of their disabilities. If you believe you have a disability requiring an accommodation, please contact Disability Services, currently located in the Disability Services building at the Student Services at White Creek complex on west campus or call 979-845-1637. For additional information, visit http://disability.tamu.edu.

Schedule of Topics

Aug. 30, Sept. 1, 4: Skepticism

First day canceled for hurricane safety - watch for updates to assignments

Paragraphs 1-17 (pages 2-5) of Deliverance from Error, by Muhammad Al Ghazālī, 1115
Meditation 1 (pages 1-3) of Meditations on First Philosophy, by René Descartes, 1641

Sept. 6, 8: The trilemma of foundations
Chapter 1 of Hans Albert, Treatise on Critical Reason, 1968
Read sections 1 and 2 (pages 12-21) thoroughly, and also section 4 (pages 28-38). We will not focus on section 3, but you may find it of interest. I won't quiz you on anything from the footnotes, but they may be helpful starting points for learning about important developments in philosophy in the 20th century.
Further reading:
Roderick Chisholm, "The Myth of the Given", 1964

Sept. 11, 13, 15: Sense perception
In-class demonstrations:
Theoretical perception
"Things you can't unsee"

Sept. 18, 20, 22: A priori knowledge
Laurence BonJour, "In Defense of the A Priori", 2014
Read the sections up to p. 182 closely - the last two pages about empiricism can be skimmed. You might also glance at some of the companion piece, Michael Devitt's "There is No A Priori Knowledge", and the replies that BonJour and Devitt give in their back-and-forth argument over the rest of that chapter.
Further reading:
Lewis Carroll, "What the Tortoise Said to Achilles", 1895

Writing Assignment 1 - due Monday, Sept. 25

Sept. 25, 27, 29: Conspiracy theories

Oct. 2, 4, 6: Epistemic dependence

Writing Assignment 2

Oct. 9, 11, 13: Epistemic injustice

Oct. 16, 18, 20: Group minds and knowledge

Writing Assignment 3

Oct. 23, 25, 27: Scientific knowledge

Oct. 30, Nov. 1, 3: The problem of induction

Writing Assignment 4

Nov. 6, 8, 10: Bayesianism

Nov. 13, 15, 17: Seeing like a state

Writing Assignment 5

Nov. 20: TBA

Nov. 27, 29, Dec. 1: TBA

Dec. 4, 6: TBA