Your argument paper should be at least 1,500 words, on a topic in contemporary (
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Your argument paper should be at least 1,500 words, on a topic in contemporary (not historical) epistemology. I prefer an issue related to something explicitly discussed in Feldman’s book, Huemer’s book, or Audi’s book. Your paper should be a response to some published journal article in contemporary epistemology, such as one indexed at Philpapers.org under “Epistemology”
Information about the Term Paper
In this class, you will be asked to write a 1,500 – 3,000 word argument paper.
An argument paper is not a report and it is not an encyclopedia article.
You are not being asked to write about the history of philosophy, nor are you being asked to present all views in a detached, equally balanced way, while reserving your own views to the end.
Instead, you are being asked to give an argument in favor of your own position on an issue. It should be clear from the start of the paper what your position is.
Picking a Topic
You may write on any topic which meets these four criteria:
You find it interesting enough to want to write a paper defending a view on it.
It falls broadly under “Contemporary Analytic Epistemology”, as opposed to the History of Philosophy (Ancient, Medieval or Enlightenment era) or Continental Philosophy (Lyotard, Deluze, etc.). Your topic may intersect with historical or continental thought but should be based on what we study in class.
The topic is indexed as a subheading on philpapers.org/browse/epistemology (Links to an external site.)
The topic is discussed in a textbook, either in Feldman’s book or Huemer’s book or Audi’s book, which you should use as a secondary source and cite in the paper.
One way to pick a topic is to look through the Table of Contents in Feldman, Huemer, and Audi’s textbooks, and pick a sub-topic that interests you. Turn to that page, and read the pages written on that sub-topic. If it still interests you, maybe it’s a good topic.
Not Sure what topics might be relevant?
1. There are Three Big Questions
First, I wish everybody came into the course with a sense of the big questions we are trying to answer. There are different ways to divide up the kinds of questions posed in epistemology, but the biggest three categories of questions are these.
First, what is it to know something? What is the definition of “knowledge”? We’ll start the course with the “Traditional Analysis” of knowledge, that knowledge is a Justified True Belief. We’ll then quickly see, with the Gettier problem, that this analysis doesn’t work. We’ll then look at a variety of attempts to “patch” the definition, or some alternative definitions of knowledge on which justification and evidence play less of a role than we might have expected. This gives birth to a variety of accounts of justification, including:
● Virtue Epistemology
● Causal Theory
● Epistemic Luck
Second, do we know anything at all? The problem of skepticism threatens to undermine most or all of our claims to knowledge. There are a variety of responses to skepticism, including:
● Accepting Skepticism
● Pragmatic Encroachment
● Moorean Dogmatism
● Transcendental Arguments
● Idealism or Phenomenalism
● Direct Realism
Third, assuming we do have knowledge, what are the sources of knowledge? Why do those sources give us justification? Are we right to afford them the kind of justification which we normally afford them? How should we deal with conflicting sources of evidence? What do we count as knowing within a specific domain or through a specific source? Thus there are debates about:
● A Priori Knowledge
● Other Minds
● Epistemic Injustice
● … And many, many more.
2. We study Language because it offers a Window into Knowledge
Second, I wish everybody came into a course like this prepared to talk about language, without mistakenly thinking that all we care about is language.
Much of the discussion in analytic theory of knowledge centers around language and the ways we ordinarily use the word “know” or “knowledge”, or related words like “believe” or “doubt” or “perceive”. This gives many beginning students the mistaken impression that epistemology is all about how to use words correctly, or that philosophy is just interested in studying words and concepts and what humans mean by them rather than reality. Far from it!
Ultimately analytic epistemologists want to know what knowledge is in reality, not what people think “knowledge” means or how people use the word “knowledge”. We start with the simpler question of how people use the word “knows”, however. Partly, this is just to establish a baseline that everybody can agree on. Mostly, though, we study ordinary language because analytic philosophy reasons that our concepts and words for “knowledge” must be responding to, shaped by, or aiming at something, and while our concepts for “knowledge” don’t determine its nature, presumably its nature determines why we have the concepts for “knowledge” that we do.
In other words, ordinary language is the first word, but not the last word, when it comes to epistemology. As a former Theory of Knowledge s tudent put it:
Language is a tool we use to try to convey real things. The word “knowledge” was created and is used to reveal a distinction that exists in reality even though the word in the way we use it may not perfectly convey the significance or true nature of that distinction.
The purpose of philosophy is not necessarily to clarify what words mean in the regular sense we use them but rather to reveal the exact distinction the words are getting at . . . the most fundamental thing. It seems that all this time I thought the purpose of philosophy is to help us recognize contradictions in how we talk and think, but now I realize that this logical process is simply a tool to really get at truth. It makes so much more sense to me why philosophy is considered the quest for truth, and not just the quest for consistency. The “love of wisdom” is not founded on the release from the trap of contradiction, but because that release is what helps us know reality.
So, now I know my purpose more clearly too; to express exactly what the fundamental distinction is that the concept of “knowledge” emerged from, or was
3. Progress in Philosophy means Understanding the Problem Better
1 Logsdon, Maya. Correspondence. (2019). Used with permission.
intended to express, not what we mean when we say it in an ordinary way.
Third, I wish students were more prepared both for the “disappointment” of going through a class only to discover the most important questions are precisely the ones with no good answers, and at the same time able to see that the pursuit of philosophical questions isn’t hopeless, and that we can and do make progress over time.
After all, many of the questions we are studying have been raised at other ways and forms in history for millenia. You will not learn “The Solution” to any of these age-old problems in a Philosophy course. Instead, you will learn how to handle and cope with difficult questions that don’t have pat answers you can memorize. You’ll come to see that the same problems which bothered Plato and Descartes can bother us today.
At the same time, philosophy has made progress in understanding the Theory of Knowledge. Much of this progress consists not in having “the Solution” but rather in having a more complex understanding of the problems, the variety of “solutions” which might be posed, and the various costs and benefits of each of those solutions.
For instance, contextualism is a promising way of “solving” the problem of skepticism: the question of how I know I have hands if I don’t know that I’m not a brain in a vat. We’ll both begin and end the course with a discussion of contextualism. But contextualism doesn’t “solve” the problem of skepticism to everybody’s satisfaction. At best, it provides a response to skepticism, while generating some “costs” of its own. Whether contextualism is a better response than idealism, or than foundationalism, or than direct realism, depends on how the “costs” and “benefits” of each view are weighed, and there is no consensus on that. Nonetheless, we understand the costs and benefits of different responses better now than Descartes did 400 years ago, because we know where the various responses to skepticism lead to down the road.
4. Abstract Debates Get Real Quick
Lastly, I wish more students understood that, even while we deal with these debates at an abstract level, the issues in a theory of knowledge course are at the root of many of our real-world conflicts in contemporary societies.
The way we discuss the theory of knowledge will be highly abstract. “Abstract” means we’ll avoid anything likely to pull in our emotions and sway us, like references to current events. We’ll discuss whether justification requires a foundation of basic beliefs, or whether it is enough for justification to simply have one’s belief cohere with other beliefs, or whether someone might count as knowing something even if they can’t cite any evidence for their
belief. We’ll discuss whether there is a single universal standard for “rationality” or whether the standards for “rationality” are always local and cultural. We’ll discuss whether sources of knowledge must be reliable or ‘track the truth’, or whether knowledge is compatible with luck. We’ll discuss whether science can provide us with knowledge of the real world, given that science rests on inductive reasoning, and yet it is arguable that nothing but induction justifies induction.
Those debates all sound pretty abstract and removed from reality. Reread the last paragraph again a little more carefully, however, and you’ll quickly see that what look like abstract issues are in fact the very issues with which 21st century society is wrestling. Social media reinforces epistemic bubbles as two groups of people “see” the same photograph in a completely different way depending on their prior beliefs. False messages spread quickly as “memes” by affirming what people are already predisposed to believe. Disagreements seem irresolvable no matter how much evidence either side offers the other.
So, while Theory of Knowledge is a pretty abstract course, I hope students will recognize that it is also a highly practical one.