University of Nottingham

Knowledge and Skepticism


Course Description 
This course will explore some of the primary questions and issues in epistemology. The aim of these lectures will be to familiarize you with some of the problems and debates central to the field and to equip you with the philosophical skills necessary to do more advanced work. The course will be divided into four parts and will consider four general questions: What is knowledge? What, if anything, do we know? How can we defend our knowledge from skeptical challenges? Why do we have a concept of knowledge at all?

Knowledge & Skepticism

Part 1: Analyzing Knowledge.
We investigate various attempts to analyze the concept of knowledge. What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge? Is knowledge anything more than justified true belief? Are there reasons to doubt that knowledge requires belief, justification, or truth? We will look at Edmund Gettier’s highly influence (two-page) article that allegedly refutes the “traditional conception of knowledge”, as well as some responses to Gettier’s article. We conclude by reflecting on whether we should give up traditional analyses of knowledge.

Gettier, E. 1963. “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” Analysis 23: 121-23. 
Radford, C. 1966. “Knowledge - by Examples,” Analysis 27: 1-11. 
Goldman, A. 1967. “A Causal Theory of Knowing,” Journal of Philosophy 64 (12): 357-372. 
Sosa, E. 1964. “The Analysis of 'Knowledge That P,” Analysis 25: 1-8. 
Armstrong, D. 1973. Belief, Truth, and Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). 
Goldman, A. 1976. “Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge,” Journal of Philosophy 73: 771-91. 
Lehrer, K. and Paxson, T. 1969, “Knowledge: Undefeated Justified True Belief," Journal of Philosophy 66 (8): 225-237. 

Part 2: Skeptical Challenges
We investigate skepticism about knowledge. Our main focus will be Descartes’s formulation of skepticism in his Meditiations, as well as modern versions of the skeptical challenge. We will explore questions such as: Do I know that I am not currently dreaming? Do I know that I am not a brain in a vat? Must I know that I am not a brain in a vat in order to know anything? Can we just reject skepticism as absurd and improbable? We will also look at Peter Unger’s new formulation of skepticism, which argues that knowledge requires certainty, but we can be certain of almost nothing; therefore, we hardly know anything.

Descartes, R., Meditations, 1-2. 
Unger, P. 1971. “A Defense of Skepticism,” Philosophical Review 80: 198-219. 
Hume, D., A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, part IV, sect. 2. 
Williams, M. 1999. “Skepticism,” in J. Greco and E. Sosa Blackwell Guide to Epistemology. 
Russell, B., The Problems of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1912), chs. 1-3. 
Williams, B. 1978. Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry (Penguin), ch. 2 and appendix 3. 
Stroud, B. 1984. The Significance of Philosophical Skepticism (Clarendon Press), esp. ch. 1. 

Part 3: Responses to Skepticism
We explore several responses to the skeptical challenges outlined in Part 2. In particular, we look at four responses: (1) Descartes’s Cogito, (2) G.E. Moore’s “proof” of an external world, (3) Dretske’s denial of epistemic closure, and (4) David Lewis’s Contextualism. After investigating the virtues and vices of each of these proposed solutions, we will conclude by reflecting on whether or not skepticism is all that bad.

Descartes, R., Meditations, 2. 
Moore, G.E. 1959. “A Defence of Common Sense,” Philosophical Papers (Allen & Unwin). 
Lewis, D. 1996. “Elusive Knowledge,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 74 (4): 549-567. 
Schiffer, J. 1996. “Contextualist Solutions to Skepticism,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 96: 317-333. 
Nozick, R. 1981. Philosophical Explanations (Clarendon Press), ch. 3, sects. I & II. 
Craig, E. 1989. “Nozick and the Skeptic,” Analysis 49: 161-62. 

Part 4: The Purpose of Knowledge
This course concludes by exploring why we have a concept of knowledge at all. What might life be like without our familiar concept of knowledge? Would this gap in our cognitive economy have profound implications or would our lives proceed roughly as they have? We will reflect on what life might be like without our concept of knowledge in order to gain a better understanding of whether – and if so, why – this concept is important or valuable. We will look specifically at Edward Craig’s book Knowledge and the State of Nature, which offers a new and potentially fruitful way of investigating knowledge.

Craig, E. 1990. Knowledge and the State of Nature (Oxford: Blackwell), ch. 1-3 and 10.
Dancy, J. 1992. “Review of Knowledge and the State of Nature,” The Philosophical Quarterly 42 (186): 393-395.
Kappel, K. 2010. “On Saying that Someone Knows: Themes from Craig,” Social Epistemology (eds.) Haddock, A., Millar, A., and Pritchard, D. (Oxford University Press).
Kelp, C. 2011. ‘What’s the Point of “Knowledge” Anyway?’ Episteme 8: 53-66.