Introduction to Philosophy: Knowledge and Its Limits

This course is an introductory survey of the major issues in epistemology, the theory of knowledge. It is topic-oriented rather than history-oriented. This emphasis means we will often consider problems independently of their historical context. Hopefully, what is lost by way of historical grounding will be balanced by a gain in interest in the issues themselves. In this class, we will address what are arguably the really deep problems of epistemology: How do humans come to know? What is knowledge, anyway? How can we ever be sure to know anything? For instance, how can be be sure that we are not brains in vats, or that we don't live in the Matrix? What could possibly justify our confidence in what we take ourselves to know? What are the rules for making inferences that generate new knowledge? How do humans learn? Can machines learn, too? What do cognitive science and neuroscience teach us about human knowledge? And finally, does gender influence our conceptions of knowledge, and if so, how?

Along with serving as an introduction to some philosophical puzzles, the course also hopes to develop and foster good argumentative skills and critical thinking on the part of the student. Combined with the fact that philosophical texts are frequently difficult for beginning students, this makes the course relatively challenging for an introductory course. But for those with a speculative turn of mind, it should be fun.

Course Materials

Course materials such as lecture notes, handouts, etc will be made available as they will be used in class.

Powerpoint presentation by Gil Hertshten:

Study guide for the midterm and final exams:

Paper prompt:

Information concerning plagiarism and guides on how to write a smashing philosophy paper can be found in the sidebar of the top page of the teaching section. The leaflet concerning plagiarism is absolutely mandatory reading.

The following materials are mandatory for this course:

  • Book: Michael Huemer (ed.), Epistemology: Contemporary Readings, Routledge, 2002. This book costs about $35 and is available at the Price Center bookstore.
  • You will need a so-called "clicker", an InterWrite student response device that is available from the Price Center bookstore for $52 (new) or $39 (used). Make sure to get a new clicker operating at radio frequency and not an old infrared one or an "iClicker". For more information, visit
  • A number of readings for this course are available from e-reserves: Link to this course's e-reserves page
  • Two articles from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy are mandatory readings: William Talbott, Bayesian epistemology, and Elizabeth Anderson, Feminist epistemology and philosophy of science.

Additional Readings and Materials

Note: These additional materials will not be tested in exams. They serve to give you some background or to offer some additional food for thought.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) is an excellent source for academically serious, yet relatively accessible survey articles on many, many topics in philosophy, including epistemology. For this course, the survey article on knowledge by Matthias Steup is pertinent: Epistemology

A relatively new, but outstanding, source of very accessible material to many issues covered in this class are the Philosophy Bites podcasts of top philosophers interviewed by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton. They are absolutely free. So next time you ride to school, make sure to upload some of them beforehand to your iPod! Relevant for this class are for example:

  • Edward Craig - What is Philosophy? (Edward Craig, editor of the Routledge Encylopedia of Philosophy and author of Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction gives an interesting angle on the nature of philosophy, how it relates to other kinds of thinking, and what makes good philosophy good.)
  • M.M. McCabe on the Paradox of Inquiry (In Plato's dialogue The Meno, Socrates presents an apparent paradox that makes our ability to learn anything new puzzling. M.M. McCabe discusses this apparent paradox and its relevance in this episode of Philosophy Bites.)
  • Simon Blackburn on Plato's Cave (What is the nature of reality? Is the world as it appears, or is there something timeless behind the world of appearances? Simon Blackburn discusses one of the most famous images in Philosophy: Plato's cave.)
  • Miranda Fricker on Epistemic Injustice (Testimonial injustice occurs when others fail to treat you seriously as a source of knowledge. In this interview Miranda Fricker, author of a recent book on the topic, explains this concept which lies at the intersection between epistemology and political philosophy.)
  • Barry Stroud on Scepticism (Can I trust my senses? Can I tell that I'm not now dreaming? Some philosophical sceptics have maintained that we can't know anything for certain. Barry Stroud discusses the challenge posed by such sceptics in this episode of Philosophy Bites.)
  • A C Grayling on Descartes' Cogito (Anthony Grayling, author of a recent biography of Rene Descartes, explores Descartes' Cogito argument, the pivotal argument of the Meditations, in conversation with Nigel Warburton in this episode of Philosophy Bites.)

Grading Comments

The class average for the final exam was 22.54. The distribution was as follows:

Some general comments by the TA can be found here.

The class average for the midterm exam was 17.02. The distribution was as follows:

Here are some general comments on the grading from the TA:

  • Be sure to answer the precise question you were asked. If the question has multiple parts, make sure you addressed each of them. There is no harm in guessing if you don't know the answer, but only a correct answer to the specific question asked will be accepted (there is of course partial credit).
  • Adhere to the recommended length of the answers. If you answer is very short and concise, the chances are that you are missing some important points that you are expected to address. There is no harm in writing long answers, but usually the questions can be fully answered in the suggested length.
  • If you are asked for an argument against a view, it should be a criticism of that view, not a competing view.
  • When asked whether an argument succeeds, a simple yes or no answer doesn't suffice. Argue your position.
  • When asked to discuss an issue, or what view you prefer, you should present your own well argued opinion.

Two commonly problematic answers:

  • "Analyze theory-building how we will, we all must start in the middle" -- this refers to the internalist vs. externalist debate regarding justification.
  • Reichenbach's solution to Hume's problem of induction is pragmatic vindication which is expressed using a decision table (different from Popper's deductive method of testing).

The class average for the short papers was 14.56, with a standard deviation of 4. The distribution was as follows:

Here are some general comments on the grading from the TA:

  • Many students misunderstand the proper way to cite. When citing, among other things, always provide a page number, never cite an un-refereed source, and never cite a secondary source that is citing the primary one.
  • Don't over quote. The point of this exercise was to be able to say in your own words what goes on in an argument and to intelligently analyze it. When you quote a lot it usually appears as if you are unable to fully understand the argument.
  • Always make sure you are answering all questions in a prompt fully, precisely and in depth. Remember that even though the introduction of novel original thoughts is welcomed, your first priority is to make sure to address the issues you were asked to address.
  • Avoid writing introductions that just give generic background information. A good introduction is interesting, presents your thesis and to the point.
  • The word limits are there for a reason. A paper on any of the topics could be a sentence long and it could be a book. There are enough things to say on these topics. The length guidelines are there because we expect something that can be covered in the relevant depth. If you write a short paper you probably won't live up to our expectations of depth.
  • Reread your paper several times, looking for grammatical errors, but mainly to see whether it is coherent with each paragraph presenting a main idea that helps build up the entire argument.

A copy of the grading rubric to be used for the short paper assignment can be found here.