Phil. 4


Philosophy 180

Theory of Knowledge

Spring semester 2000
Prof. Dowden





Course summary: Everybody agrees that knowledge is valuable, but philosophers disagree about what knowledge is, how we get it, what kinds we can have, and even whether anybody has any. In examining these topics and the philosophical disagreements, our seminar provides an introduction to the major theories of knowledge. The philosophers' technical term for the study of theories of knowledge is 'epistemology.' We will focus on contemporary issues in epistemology in the analytic tradition. Our course will not discuss what kinds of knowledge are valuable for achieving your life's goals--such as whether knowledge of computers is more valuable to you than knowledge of Buddhism.


Grades: Your grade will be determined by a short writing assignment (5%), a quiz (15%), a test (20%), an essay (25%), a final exam (20%), occasional contributions to class discussions (5%) and a seven to ten minute oral presentation to the class (10%). There will be no multiple choice nor true-false questions. From time to time during the semester, sample questions will be given out to help guide your study.


Textbooks: The two required textbooks are (1) Common Sense, Science and Scepticism: A Historical Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge, by Alan Musgrave, Cambridge University Press, 1993, and (2) The Theory of Knowledge: Classic and Contemporary Readings, Second Edition by Louis Pojman, Wadsworth Publishing Co, 1999. The easier book is by Musgrave. The Musgrave book is historically based and is the extended argument of one author. The Pojman book is a collection of articles by a wide variety of authors on a wide variety of topics. Almost all the Pojman articles were written for professional journals of philosophy.


Prerequisites: Six units of college philosophy, but no specific course is required. The two most helpful courses are Phil. 125 and Phil. 21. The prerequisite requirement might be waived if you talk to me about your interests and experience.


Purpose of the course: By the end of this course you will be familiar with the major theories of knowledge and have a good idea of what the significant issues are in this field. You will have gained the tools to build your own theory of knowledge, perhaps by adopting a version of one of the theories you have studied. You will be able to foresee criticisms that might be raised against your theory, and you will be able to offer reasonable defenses of it. You will be able to convince other people that a solipsist epistemology is correct.


Add-Drop: To add the course if it is full, see me about signing up on the waiting list. When there is room, students on the waiting list will be added in this order: seniors majoring in philosophy who are graduating this semester, other seniors majoring in philosophy, students majoring in philosophy who are not seniors, then all other students by random selection. To drop the course during the first two weeks, use the Casper telephone system. No paperwork is required. After the first two weeks, it is harder to drop, and a departmental form is required, the "Petition to Add/Drop After Deadline." Make sure you are dropped officially (by Casper or by the instructor or department secretary); don't simply walk away into the ozone or else you will get a "U" grade for the course, which is counted as an "F" by the Registrar in computing your GPA (grade point average).

Professor: My office is in Amador Hall, room 461B, phone 278-7384. My office hours will be announced at the first class meeting, but if those hours are inconvenient for you, then we can arrange an appointment for an alternative time. You may send e-mail to me any time at



The schedule of topics below may vary slightly, but the due dates of assignments are firm. The overall plan of the course is for us to read the Musgrave book with some skipping, and to supplement this with articles from the Pojman text and elsewhere. The articles in the Pojman text will be a major resource for your essay assignment.

1. Why are there philosophical problems about knowledge?

Do we really have any? How do we get the knowledge we do have? What is knowledge? Kinds of knowledge (knowledge by acquaintance, competence knowledge, propositional knowledge). Skepticism, Gettier counterexamples, empiricism, rationalism

First reading assignment: Musgrave, chapter 1.


2. Attacks on skepticism

Wittgenstein, Pyrrho, Descartes, Hume, Moore

Do you know that you know?


3. Perception as a means of knowledge acquisition

Sextus Empiricus, Aristotle, sense data, theory-laden observation


4. Empiricism

Causal theory of perception, secondary qualities, Berkeley.

"The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself," says Bertrand Russell.


5. Other Minds

Russell, Wittgenstein

Do we know other minds besides our own by telepathy?


6. The problem of induction

Hume, Russell, Strawson, Popper, Goodman

The hypothesis that bread has nourished us in the past but will always be poisonous in the future has never been refuted, so it's reasonable to believe this hypothesis. Therefore, it's reasonable to deduce from this that the next piece of bread you eat will poison you.


7. Rationalism and the Apriori

Descartes, Kant's synthetic apriori, non-Euclidean geometry, Platonism in mathematics.

Descartes provides a secure foundation for our knowledge. Kant says we have objective knowledge but can never know the nature of reality as it truly is. Harvard University philosopher Hilary Putnam says the discovery of non-Euclidean geometry is the most significant event in the history of epistemology. Numbers and other mathematical objects are exceptional in apparently having no locations in space or time and in having no relations of cause and effect; this makes it difficult to account for the possibility of our knowledge of such objects, leading many philosophers to embrace nominalism, the doctrine that there are no such objects, and to embark on ambitious projects for interpreting mathematics so as to preserve the subject while eliminating its objects.


8. Theories of truth

Aristotle, Liar paradox, Tarski's Undefinability Theorem.

Tarski argues that our language cannot contain a coherent global concept of truth.


9. Fallibilism, Critical Realism, Foundationalism and Coherentism

Popper, Musgrave.

Wouldn't you like your superstructure of knowledge claims to rest on a firm foundation?


10. Internalism and Externalism, Justificationists and Reliabilists

The psychologistic epistemologist claims that states of knowledge that p are distinguished from states of mere true belief that p by the character of the processes which, in each case, cause a person to believe that p. 20th century epistemology can be distinguished from the epistemology of previous centuries by an attitude of explicit distaste for theories of knowledge which describe the psychological capacities and activities of the subject.


11. Naturalized epistemology and Postmodernism

Quine, Rorty.

Classical epistemology is dead, says W.V. Quine.


Due dates:

Writing assignment, Tuesday, February 15, 2000

Quiz, Tuesday, March 14

Test, Thursday, April 13

Essay due Tuesday, May 9


Background for the course: If you would like to read an elementary introduction to this course, you can't do better than Bertrand Russell's 1912 book, The Problems of Philosophy. It is Russell's positions that so many authors attack as they define their own positions. A second classic is The Web of Belief, 2nd edition, by Quine and Ullian, 1970. This is an elementary text on epistemology and the philosophy of science. It was written in 1959 for a freshman-level English course. You can read it right through at one sitting. It discusses rational belief, observation, self-evidence, testimony, hypotheses, induction, intuition, confirmation, refutation, explanation, and evaluation. We will be talking about all these topics in our course, but at a more advanced level than that in the above two books. During the course I will be assuming you have already learned most of what is covered in the book Thinking and Writing about Philosophy by Hugo Bedau, Bedford Books, 1996. This small paperback covers the following topics:

Taking notes when you read philosophy. How to read a philosophy article and then write a summary. Extracting the author's thesis in one sentence. How to define your terms. Evaluating an argument by analogy. How to construct a philosophical essay, including writing a draft, revising the draft, using quotations, citing outside sources of ideas, and avoiding plagiarism.

The Russell and Bedau books are on library reserve for our course. Our library doesn't have the Quine book. 


Updated: April 16, 2000