Phil 351

Theory of Knowledge

Time: Tuesday/Thursday 9:35-10:50 am

Location: YMCA 113

Instructor: Kenny Easwaran

Office: YMCA Building 314, 979-847-6128

Office Hours: Wednesday/Thursday 1-2 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 be difficult, but hopefully not too long, 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 Tuesdays 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.

After the online move, weekly quizzes will be replaced by participation in the online discussion forums. By 9:30 pm on the Sunday, you should post a new thread in the discussion forum for the week's reading. By 9:30 am on the Tuesday, you should post a comment on someone else's thread. No threads will be visible until you have created one of your own. Literally anything you write will give you credit, but be aware that other students will read what you write and will want to be able to say something in response!

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


Every Thursday we will have student presentations. After some class discussion of the topics from the reading that we discussed on Tuesday, we will randomly choose one member of each group to make a presentation on their topic. Each selected person will make about a 5 minute presentation, followed by about 5 minutes of class discussion. After all presentations are finished, I will randomly assign groups and assign topics to each for the following week's discussion.

Groups will be expected to communicate over the weekend to figure out a time (possibly over the weekend, possibly as late as Wednesday) to meet up and discuss their topic and come up with an outline of the presentation. All members of the group should be part of this discussion, because you don't know which one of you will be the presenter in class.

After the online move, the current plan is to continue with live videochats via Zoom ( I believe that I can use its functionality to let people "raise their hand" to ask a question, and to assign people to groups for discussion to prepare for Thursday presentations, but we will evaluate this.

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 papers for levels 1 and 2) The 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 related 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!

Office Hours: YMCA 314, Wednesday/Thursday 1-2 pm, or by appointment.

Please come visit me to talk about any material, especially if you want further discussion or clarification on anything related to this class, but also about anything else you'd like to talk about, in philosophy or in any other field. Although I only teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays, my other roles in the Philosophy Department mean I am on campus most other days as well, when I'm not traveling to a conference, and I'm happy to schedule meetings when I'm available.

(I can talk about non-academic things too, but federal Title IX regulations mandate that I report any allegations of sexual assault, sexual discrimination, or sexual harassment when they involve TAMU students, faculty, or staff. If you would like to talk about these events in a more confidential setting, you are encouraged to make an appointment with the Student Counseling Service ( Students and faculty can report concerning, non-emergency behavior at

Disability Statement:

Texas A&M University is committed to providing equitable access to learning opportunities for all students. If you experience barriers to your education due to a disability or think you may have a disability, please contact Disability Resources in the Student Services Building or at (979) 845-1637 or visit Disabilities may include, but are not limited, to attentional, learning, mental health, sensory, physical, or chronic health conditions. All students are encouraged to discuss their disability related needs with Disability Resources and their instructors as soon as possible.

Schedule of Topics

Jan. 14, 16: Skepticism


Introduction and Chapter I of Deliverance from Error, by Muhammad Al Ghazālī, 1115 (another translation - in this one the introduction is labeled "Quoth the Imam Ghazali", and Chapter I is labeled "The Subterfuges of the Sophists")

Meditation 1 (pages 1-3) of Meditations on First Philosophy, by René Descartes, 1641

Further reading: Zhuangzi


WiPhi: Jennifer Nagel on Skepticism

Jan. 21, 23: 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


WiPhi: Kevin McCain on epistemic regress, discussing foundationalism, infinitism, and coherentism

Jan. 28, 30: Sense perception


Susanna Siegel, "Cognitive Penetrability and Perceptual Justification", 2012

In-class demonstrations:






Theoretical perception

"Things you can't unsee"

Writing Assignment 1 - due Sunday, Feb. 2

send as a .pdf file to easwaran AT tamu DOT edu

Feb. 4, 6: 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

Willard Van Orman Quina, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism", 1951

Feb. 11, 13: The Analysis of Knowledge


Edmund Gettier, "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?", 1963

Further reading:

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa and Matthias Steup "The Analysis of Knowledge", 2017 (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

List of counterexamples by G.J. Mattey

No False Lemmas

Michael Clark, "Knowledge and Grounds, A Comment on Mr. Gettier's Paper", 1963

SEP article, Section 4


SEP article, Section 6.1

"Norman the Clairvoyant" from the list of counterexamples

Causal Theory

Alvin Goldman, "A Causal Theory of Knowing", 1967

SEP article, Section 6.2


SEP article, Section 5.1


WiPhi: Jennifer Nagel on the Gettier problem

WiPhi: Jennifer Nagel on No False Lemmas and No Defeaters

WiPhi: Jennifer Nagel on Causal and Reliabilist theories

WiPhi: Geoff Pynn on Tracking (related to sensitivity)

Writing Assignment 2 - due Sunday, Feb. 16

send as a .pdf file to easwaran AT tamu DOT edu

Feb. 18, 20: Knowledge from Testimony


Jennifer Lackey, "Knowing from Testimony", 2006

Further reading:

Elizabeth Fricker, "Trusting Others in the Sciences", 2002

Jennifer Lackey wins million dollar grant to teach philosophy in prisons

Feb. 25, 27 - No class

I will be at conferences in Chicago

March 3, 5: Epistemic dependence


John Hardwig, "Epistemic Dependence", 1985

Further reading:

Paper whose list of authors is longer than the paper

Visualization of disease transmission (paper discussing how to use the model in teaching)

Short video exemplifying both points we discussed this week

March 10, 12 - No class

Spring Break

Writing Assignment 3 - due Sunday, March 15

send as a .pdf file to easwaran AT tamu DOT edu

Move to online classes due to covid-19

March 17, 19: classes canceled for move to online

March 17, 9:30 AM Central time: optional test of Zoom meeting software

March. 24, 26: Epistemic injustice


Miranda Fricker, "Epistemic Injustice and a Role for Virtue in the Politics of Knowing", 2003

(spoiler warnings - if you haven't read/watched To Kill a Mockingbird or The Talented Mr. Ripley, this paper will spoil some plot twists)

Further reading: Jose Medina, "The Relevance of Credibility Excess in a Proportional View of Epistemic Injustice", 2010

March 31, April 2: The Ethics of Belief


William Clifford, "The Ethics of Belief", 1877

Presentation topics for April 9:

For each one, explain the topic, explain why it is relevant to the issues that Clifford and James were discussing, and say something about what you and your group members think about it.

Legal standards

Can Clifford or James explain the difference between "beyond a reasonable doubt" in criminal cases vs "preponderance of evidence" in civil cases?

A related paper, in case you want to dig farther into this: Georgi Gardiner, "Legal Burdens of Proof and Statistical Evidence", 2020

Pascal's Wager

What would Clifford or James say about the reasoning in Pascal's Wager?

The Power of Positive Thinking / The Secret

Type I and Type II errors in statistics (and why they are relevant to the coronavirus)

Writing Assignment 4 - due Sunday, April 5

send as a .pdf file to easwaran AT tamu DOT edu

April 7, 9: The Will to Believe


William James, "The Will to Believe", 1896

annotated version:

April 16, 21: The Problem of Induction


David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section IV, "Sceptical Doubts concerning the Operations of the Understanding", 1748 (another, slightly modernized version is here)

Further reading:

Nelson Goodman, "The New Riddle of Induction", 1955


WiPhi: Dan Greco on Hume's riddle

WiPhi: Dan Greco's introduction to Hume

Presentation topics:

The Gambler's Fallacy

"Hot Hands"

Spelke on object permanence

Counterinduction (search for the concept in this article)

Say a few words about what the topic is, and say what it reveals either about our innate habits of reasoning via induction, or about Hume's arguments about whether induction is justified.

April 23, 25: Bayesianism


Kenny Easwaran, Bayesianism I (particularly introduction and section 1.1) and Bayesianism II (particularly section 3 on Bayesian epistemology) (2011)

Further reading:

James Joyce, Bayes' Theorem (2003) (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

William Talbott, Bayesian Epistemology (2008) (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Covid-19 testing (search for "Bayes")

Writing Assignment 5 - due Sunday, April 26

send as a .pdf file to easwaran AT tamu DOT edu

April 28: Echo Chambers and Filter Bubbles


Thi Nguyen, "Escape the Echo Chamber" (2018)

Further reading:

Thi Nguyen, "Echo Chambers and Epistemic Bubbles" (2018) - a longer and more scholarly version of the same article

History of the name "Nguyen" (discusses why the name is so common, and how to pronounce it, including why even different Vietnamese people will sometimes give you different guidance)

Final paper - due Sunday, May 3

send as a .pdf file to easwaran AT tamu DOT edu