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Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

William J. Talbott
PHIL 550
Seattle Campus

Seminar in Epistemology

Class description

Epistemology is often approached solipsistically. For example, I know that I exist, but what reason do I have to believe that anyone else exists or even that an external world exists? The usual presumption of this question is that whatever those reasons might be, they cannot presuppose that others exist or that an external world exists. Especially since Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, these solipsistic presuppositions of epistemology have been challenged by developments in what is called social epistemology. The seminar will focus on various different challenges to solipsistic epistemology that have been raised by social epistemologists, including: Are at least some fundamental reasons themselves social? For example, it has been argued that testimony is a source of fundamental reasons—that is, reasons that don't have to be validated by any other source (where testimony is understood broadly to include all communication). Even more radically, could the lack of testimony itself be a reason for belief? For example, belief in the validity of Wiles's second proof of Fermat's Last Theorem seems to be supported, at least in part, by the fact that it was published several years ago and no mathematician has claimed to find a flaw with it (unlike what happened when he published his first "proof"). Is some knowledge social rather than individual? We will explore various senses in which it can be said that a group has knowledge and explore many different arenas in which it seems that the group's opinion is more reliable than opinions of any of the members of the group. For example, in the 2004 presidential election, the most established political prediction market predicted the final vote more accurately than any pre-election poll and correctly predicted the winner of the popular vote in all 50 states. Finally, we will consider whether evolutionary and cultural selection might favor group rationality and whether group rationality might be enhanced by individual irrationality. Perhaps the social process of growth in knowledge benefits from diversity of opinion, so that what seem to be irrational epistemic practices, such as jumping to conclusions, generalizing on the basis of small samples, or continuing to defend a view even when it seems hopeless turn out to play a positive role in the growth of knowledge. Combining all three of these challenges, it might be claimed that most of our knowledge is not due to our individualistic epistemic virtues, but to the way that our epistemic vices play a role in the social generation of knowledge, which then comes to us via testimony. These are the kinds of issues that the seminar will address. Students will write weekly responses to the readings, will make a seminar presentation and a 5-page paper based on the presentation, and will write a term paper.

Student learning goals

General method of instruction

Recommended preparation

Class assignments and grading


The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Last Update by Sara L. Caka
Date: 04/29/2008