PHIL 440: Topics in Epistemology
Knowledge and Its Limits: January Term 2018–19
Draft syllabus in progress. (This URL — http://bit.ly/phil440 — updates live.) Details are still subject to change.
Course Meetings: Tuesdays, 2–5, BUCH B307
Instructor: Jonathan Ichikawa — firstname.lastname@example.org
Office Hours: Wednesdays, 12:30–2:30 and by appointment
This is an upper-level undergraduate philosophy seminar in epistemology. This is an advanced course; prior familiarity with academic philosophical investigation into epistemology will be assumed. A previous course in epistemology (PHIL 240 at UBC or the equivalent) is a prerequisite. Because this is a discussion-heavy seminar, enrolment is capped at 25.
The course will be centred primarily around one book: Timothy Williamson’s (2000) Knowledge and Its Limits. Williamson’s book has been extremely influential—it is one of the most important philosophy books of the past several decades. The central theme of the book, as Williamson puts it, is “knowledge first”. Instead of taking knowledge to be something to be explained, Williamson suggests that it is something with which we should explain other interesting phenomena. The result is a particularly externalist approach to epistemology, according to which we know a lot of things, but we don’t — indeed, in a deep sense we couldn’t — always know what we know.
Questions we’ll focus on include:
- Whether it is possible to analyze the concept of knowledge
- Whether it makes sense to think of mental states that depend on features outside one’s head
- How knowledge relates to other mental states
- Whether it is easier to know about one’s own experiences than about the external world
- How to think about the difference between knowing something, and knowing that you know it
- What kind of epistemic access is necessary to make sense of responsibility
- What evidence is, and whether we have evidence against skeptical hypotheses
- How knowledge relates to assertion
- Whether there are truths that are by nature unknowable
The main text for this seminar is Timothy Williamson’s Knowledge and Its Limits. The ebook is available via the UBC library, but some students may wish to purchase their own copy as well. Additional readings will be made available via Canvas. Two good sources for secondary literature on Williamson are Williamson on Knowledge (2009), edited by Duncan Pritchard and Patrick Greenough, and Knowledge First: Approaches in Epistemology and Mind (2018), edited by J. Adam Carter, Emma Gordon, and Benjamin Jarvis. (The latter is available electronically via the UBC library.)
“Am I ready for this course?”
One common question from undergraduate students, especially in their second or third year, is whether it makes sense to take a fourth-year course. In my opinion, if you have at least a couple of philosophy courses under your belt, including PHIL 240, it is worth considering it, even if you’re in your second or third year. Expect a lot more student-driven discussion than you’ve seen in lower-level courses, and more difficult readings, with higher expectations for students to engage them on their own. The writing expectations are also higher—you should be comfortable writing philosophy papers by the time you take this course. Hopefully you are getting As on your 200 and 300-level philosophy term papers. If this describes you and you are interested in taking the next step, I’d encourage you to give 440 a try.
If you haven’t taken 240 or the equivalent somewhere else, this is probably not the course for you.
If you have particular questions about whether it you’d be a good candidate for the course, feel free to get in touch.
Here are readings which you may have studied in your previous work, that will be helpful background. They are not required readings for this course, but you may find it helpful to look at them if you don’t know them already:
- Gettier, “Is justified true belief knowledge?”
- Stanford Encyclopedia Article: The Analysis of Knowledge
- Descartes, Meditations
- Goldman, “What is Justified Belief?”
- Sosa, “How to Defeat Opposition to Moore”
This is a discussion-driven upper-level seminar. All students are expected to attend all courses, to read all required readings, and to come prepared to discuss them. The seminars will be structured primarily around student discussions, so it is essential that you come prepared and ready to participate. Don’t expect to merely listen and learn. See below for coursework expectations.
This course will also be offered, with additional assignments and expectations, as PHIL 540 for graduate students. Students interested in this option should contact me directly.
This seminar should be in significant part a student-driven discussion; high levels of participation are expected. Attendance is mandatory. All students should come prepared to discuss the week’s readings every week; there will also be regular presentations and brief written reactions to readings. Expect a significant amount of reading—a chapter of Williamson’s book and one or more additional required readings each week.
PHIL 440 students will be assessed according to the following criteria:
- Précis Responses and ComPAIR Feedback (15%). This element has two weekly components.
- First, by midnight each Saturday night (three days before class), students will submit a very brief (maximum 200-word) written reaction to one or more of the week’s required readings. The format for this can be relatively free: it might be a summary of the paper, or of a particularly challenging part of the paper, or a presentation of an objection, a connection between different ideas, or even just a question arising from the reading.
- Second, students will give comparisons and feedback to some of their classmates’ (anonymized) work. This will happen online via ComPAIR. You can read more about ComPAIR here. This should happen by the seminar time.
- Students will receive a grade each week, both for their own submitted work, and for the feedback they give to others. Students may participate in the feedback exercise element even if they do not submit their own work that week.
- The top ten grades (out of 13 weeks) will be recorded (so each student may skip this assignment up to 3 times without penalty).
- Note that the use of ComPAIR is a bit of an experiment—depending on how it turns out, I may change the structure of this course element over the semester. I’ll explain this in class.
- Presentations (20%). Twice each semester, on a schedule to be agreed upon in advance, students will make a presentation of 10–15 minutes of some of their thoughts about a required reading to the seminar. It is fine for this to duplicate the material of that week’s précis response, but this should be a genuine presentation, not merely a reading of the précis. The use of visual aids such as handouts or slides is encouraged. The point of these presentations is to share ideas and prompt discussions about the material we’re all reading.
- Final Essay (35%). This should be an original research paper of 4,000–6,000 words, on a central topic in the course. Students are highly encouraged to discuss paper ideas with me well in advance. Students are required to prepare preliminary material in advance as described below. If you find that you need to write a longer term paper, talk to me about it in advance. The deadline for the term paper is April 12.
- Essay Preliminaries (10%). Students should prepare a preliminary extended abstract for their essays, indicating the main issues discussed, and outlining central views and arguments. They may optionally include draft material for particular sections of the paper. This should be no more than 1,500 words total. The deadline for this is March 29.
- Peer Feedback on Essay Preliminaries (10%). Each student will be assigned another student’s preliminaries, to offer critiques and suggestions for improvement. While students are invited to meet personally to discuss these suggestions, it should also be prepared in written form; this feedback will be assessed. Deadline is April 5 (I will also give each student feedback on their own preliminaries.)
- Participation (10%). I will assign each student participation credit based on their contributions to the course. I recognize that different students have different personalities and levels of comfort; it is certainly not the case that taking up a lot of the class talking time is the only way to get participation credit. (A timely or thoughtful comment is much more valuable than a lengthy off-topic one!) Active listening to others’ comments—demonstrated by thoughtful questions/reactions, or incorporating others’ ideas into your own—is also a form of participation. Participation in the online discussion forum via Canvas is also a way to get participation credit. Attendance is mandatory for participation credit. Please be in touch in advance if you need to miss a week’s meeting.
Each week has a list of required readings and supplemental readings. Only required readings are required for all students, but students are encouraged to engage with at least some of the supplemental readings over the course of the semester as well. The reading list is work in progress—sections shaded grey are still under consideration and may change.
- KAIL: Knowledge and its Limits, by Timothy Williamson
- CGJ: Knowledge First: Approaches in Epistemology and Mind (2018), edited by J. Adam Carter, Emma Gordon, and Benjamin Jarvis.
- GP: Williamson on Knowledge (2009), edited by Patrick Greenough and Duncan Pritchard
Before our first meeting:
Presentations: Charlotte, Archie
- KAIL ch. 3: Primeness
- Ichikawa and Jenkins, “On putting knowledge ‘first’”, in CGJ or here
Presentations: Jordan, Shoshana
Presentations: Archie, Scarlett
Presentations: Vergil, Shuguo
- KAIL ch. 6: An Application (Surprise Exam!)
- Miracchi, “Competence to Know” (note that this week is more of a disjoint topic week; these two readings aren’t super closely connected.)
Presentations: Shoshana, Micah
- KAIL ch. 7: Sensitivity
- Ichikawa, Contextualising Knowledge ch 2 (on OSO)
Presentations: Bryce, Vergil, Shuguo
- Williamson ch. 8: Skepticism
- TBD Whitcomb?
Presentations: Charlotte, Jarrod, Jia Huah
- Williamson ch. 9: Evidence
- Goldman, “Williamson on Knowledge and Evidence,” in GP
- Littlejohn, “How and why knowledge is first”
Presentations: Melanie, Scarlett
- very strongly recommended if you’re not already familiar with Bayesian probabilistic reasoning: TBD
- Williamson ch. 10: Evidential Probabability
- Kaplan, “Williamson’s Casual Approach to Causalism”
Presentations: Jarrod, Melanie
- Williamson ch. 11: Assertion
- Schechter, “No need for excuses”
Presentations: Bryce, Micah
March 29: Paper Preliminaries Due
- Williamson ch. 12: Structural Unknowability
- Meylan, “In Support of the Knowledge-First Conception of the Normativity of Justification”, in CGJ (note that this week is more of a disjoint topic week; these two readings aren’t super closely connected.)
Presentations: Jia Huah
April 5: Peer Feedback Due
April 12: Final Paper Due