Contemporary Responses to Skepticism
PHGA 7358: Contemporary Responses to Skepticism
Professor Bryan Frances
There are several kinds of arguments for several kinds of radical skepticism. One of the most powerful arguments proceeds from reflections on skeptical hypotheses. Roughly put, the argument is this: (i) if you know that you have hands, then you must also know, by an incredibly simple deduction that you have actually carried out, that you’re not a handless brain-in-a-vat being fed electro-chemical inputs that make it seem as though you have a full body, including hands; (ii) in order to know that such a skeptical scenario doesn’t hold, you need some evidence or other epistemic factor that rules out that skeptical scenario; but (iii) you have no such evidence or epistemic factor. The radical skeptic has to explain why (i)-(iii) are true; the anti-skeptic has to explain why some of (i)-(iii) are false.
The last forty years have witnessed some truly remarkable insights into these hypothesis-based skeptical arguments. Many of these insights concern how we use the concept of knowledge in ordinary conversations. In particular, epistemologists are now obsessed with the semantic and pragmatic properties of words such as ‘know’.
In addition, there is a growing recognition that it isn’t clear what the radical skeptic is really saying. Is she denying us knowledge? Or is she saying something else and is actually happy to admit we may know lots of things?
I propose that we look at these contemporary insights in order to see what they tell us about (a) knowledge, (b) epistemically good belief, (c) our linguistic practice of ascribing knowledge, (d) the practical purposes served by our employment of epistemic concepts, and (e) the content of radical skepticism. We may also consider (f) how one should adjust one’s life, if at all, once one becomes convinced of the truth of a form of radical skepticism.
To get a relatively painless introduction to a decent portion of the content of the course, you can read all but section 4 (which is not relevant to the course) of:
DeRose, Keith 1999. “Responding to Skepticism”, in DeRose and Warfield, ed., Skepticism: A Contemporary Reader, OUP
which is conveniently available on-line at:
Most class time will be devoted to discussion. There will not be much lecturing (no more than 30% of class time will be lecture).
There is just one essay to write, which is worth 85% of one’s grade (15% is for class participation). One must, however, turn in a complete rough draft about two weeks before the final version of the essay is due.
There will not be a great deal of reading in this course compared to other philosophy seminars. However, I’ll be expecting students to have detailed and deep understanding of the materials we do read.
We will begin the course by going over some bread-and-butter concepts for the theory of knowledge: the relations among (kinds of) knowledge, belief, justification, truth, rationality, and evidence. We will use the relevant sections of this or a similar introductory work:
John Hospers: An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis, 4th ed., Prentice-Hall, 1997.
Then we’ll get to the main seminar readings, which will include most of the following (as well as some other readings):
Bergmann, Michael 2008. “Externalist Responses to Skepticism” in Greco, ed., Oxford Handbook of Skepticism, OUP.
DeRose, Keith 1992. “Contextualism and Knowledge Attributions,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 52: 913-929.
DeRose, Keith 1995. “Solving the Skeptical Problem,” Philosophical Review 104: 1-52.
DeRose, Keith 1996. “Relevant Alternatives and the Content of Knowledge Attributions,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 56: 193-197.
DeRose, Keith 2004. “Single Scoreboard Semantics,” Philosophical Studies 119: 1-21.
Dretske, Fred 1981. “The Pragmatic Dimension of Knowledge.” Philosophical Studies 40: 363-378.
Frances, Bryan 2005. Chapters 1-4 of Scepticism Comes Alive, OUP.
Frances, Bryan ms. “The Skeptical Consequences of Taking Philosophy Seriously”.
Lewis, David 1996. “Elusive Knowledge.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 74: 549-67.
Pritchard, Duncan 2002. “Recent Work on Skepticism.” American Philosophical Quarterly 39: 215-256.
Pritchard, Duncan 2008. “Radical Scepticism, Epistemic Luck and Epistemic Value”, Proceedings and Addresses of the Aristotelian Society, suppl. vol., 82.
Pritchard, Duncan 2008. “Sensitivity, Safety, and Anti-Luck Epistemology”, in Greco, ed., Oxford Handbook of Skepticism, OUP.
Sosa, Ernest 1994. “Philosophical Scepticism and Epistemic Circularity”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supp. vol., 68: 263-90.
Stroud, Barry 1984. The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Stroud, Barry 1994. “Scepticism, ‘Externalism’, and the Goal of Epistemology”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supp. vol., 68: 290-307.
Vogel, Jonathan 2008. “Internalist Responses to Skepticism”, in Greco, ed., Oxford Handbook of Skepticism, OUP.