Course Notes: Three Lectures on Knowledge

by Daniel A. Kaufman

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As readers of Course Notes will know, I created an entirely new Introduction to Philosophy course this year. Profound changes in the student population over the last several years, including an apparent inability to understand or even just read classics from the history of philosophy, as well as a troubling increase in the number of students plagiarizing exams and papers, have led me to create a course centered entirely around a series of carefully written lectures that I publish weekly on Blackboard (an online bulletin board) and which students who are enrolled can download. The course focuses on a number of core philosophical subjects – Reasoning; Personhood and Identity; Mind and Body; Freedom; Knowledge; Reality; Language; God; and Value and Obligation – and the lectures cover some of the central questions that arise in these areas, as well as some of the more influential positions philosophers have taken with respect to them. And while there is some reference to historical figures – in the unit on personhood and identity, for example, we talk briefly about John Locke, and in the unit on mind and body, I rehearsed some of Descartes’ arguments – the course at its heart is topical in nature.

We’ve just finished the unit on Knowledge, which consisted of three lectures, the substance of which I’d like to share in this installment of Course Notes.

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First we discussed the distinction Gilbert Ryle drew between “knowledge-how” and “knowledge-that.”  Since the rest of the unit would be concerned with the tripartite theory of knowledge and with questions regarding epistemic warrant, I thought it important that students understand that while we would be focusing on knowledge-that, it is neither the only sense in which we know nor the most fundamental.  Since students overwhelmingly are under the impression that competent performance (knowledge-how) is a function of the possession of some body of propositional knowledge (knowledge-that) – indeed, our entire society communicates this idea to young people, which is why they view their college education as an elaborate exercise in job preparation – it is important to help them see that knowledge-how is, in fact prior to and a prerequisite for knowledge-that; that acquiring propositional knowledge is itself a kind of performance that can be done competently or incompetently; and that good habits of scholarship must be developed before good scholarship can be produced. (It is my view that our collective failure to understand this has contributed significantly to the catastrophic state of student learning we find ourselves confronted with today.)

Having made it clear to students that for the rest of the unit, we would be concerning ourselves with questions and problems regarding knowledge-that, I moved on to a discussion of the a priori.  The idea of empirical knowledge is relatively straightforward, in the sense that there is nothing mysterious per se about the notion that one can come to know things on the basis of what one perceives. Certainly, there are reasons why we might doubt the accuracy of what we see, hear, etc. – but unless one is considering the issue from the most abstract of perspectives, these remain in the background and have little effect on our day to day epistemic practices.

A priori knowledge, on the other hand, is inherently puzzling. On what grounds could one know something, other than some kind of experience?  Before we can address this question, however, students have to understand that there is such a thing as a priori knowledge in the first place (at least prima facie), and the way I do it is through a simple arithmetic example.  While we may have come to learn that two plus two equals four by counting pebbles or marbles or what have you, no amount of counting could possibly confirm or disconfirm this mathematical truth. After all, if one gathered one’s pebbles and counted five, rather than four, one would not conclude that one had discovered a counterexample to and thus, disconfirmed ‘two plus two equals four’, but rather that one had counted wrong.

The question remains, then, on what grounds we know things like this, and I suggested that we might find answers if we consider some other things that we know a priori, such as statements that describe synonymies, like ‘bachelors are unmarried men’, and outright logical truths, like ‘bachelors are bachelors’.  In these cases, the relevant epistemic grounds lie in the meanings of the words, and I explained to students that philosophers like Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell had thought that mathematical statements might be grounded in the same way; that one might reduce them to statements of pure logic and thereby confirm and disconfirm them in the manner that we confirm and disconfirm logical truths.

I told the students that virtually everyone at this point believes that the project was a failure, but I also observed that even had it not been, there would remain a further problem with regard to moral statements, for which it also seems that there can be no empirical justification (I pointed out that it does not follow from any statement regarding what is the case that anything ought – or ought not – to be the case) and which clearly cannot be confirmed merely by examining the meanings of the words out of which they are constructed.  So we would still need some account of the grounds on which some a priori statements are justified, even if the logicist program had been a success.

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The next thing we discussed was the tripartite theory of knowledge – the idea that knowledge is true, justified belief – and I spent a few moments describing each of the elements individually.  I wondered aloud why we might not simply conceive of knowledge as true belief, which led to a short discussion of the sense in which the ascription of knowledge to a person has an honorific dimension; that we are reluctant to say people know things that they have arrived at entirely by accident, which foreshadowed a discussion that we would have further along in the unit regarding justification and epistemic virtue/obligation.

In communicating the most famous critique of the tripartite theory of knowledge, I provided students with a simple version of a Gettier-style case that I have developed from an example given by Jonathan Dancy in his Introduction to Contemporary Epistemology (1):

Imagine that it is 1981 and you have just finished watching John McEnroe defeat Bjorn Borg in the finals at Wimbledon.  You call me and tell me that McEnroe beat Borg, and if asked, I would say that you know it, insofar as you (a) believe it; (b) are justified (i.e. have a good reason for) believing it; and (c) it is true.

Suppose, however, that it turns out that the Wimbledon video feed was unavailable this year and that, in fact, what you had watched was last year’s match.  Assume also, for the sake of argument, that McEnroe had beaten Borg last year as well.

What Gettier had done is come up with counterexamples to the tripartite theory of knowledge: cases in which a person might satisfy all three conditions of the theory and yet, still not be appropriately described as knowing the thing in question.

I discussed two strategies for confronting the Gettier cases.  The first involves adding an additional “defeasibility” criterion to the tripartite theory – as advanced by Keith Lehrer and Thomas Paxson in their 1969 paper, “Knowledge: Undefeated Justified True Belief” – while the second involves a causal criterion, as proposed by Alvin Goldman, in his 1967 paper, “A Causal Theory of Knowing.” (2)

I began by pointing out to the students that in all of the Gettier and Gettier-style cases, there is always something that, had one known it, would have defeated the justification for one’s belief. In the Wimbledon case, if one had know that one was watching last year’s match and one did not otherwise know the outcome of this year’s match, one would not have believed that McEnroe beat Borg this year. The idea, then, is to add a “no defeaters” criterion to the tripartite theory of knowledge, turning it into a quadripartite one:

S knows P iff (1) S believes P; (2) S is justified in believing P; (3) There are no other things, N, that would defeat one’s justification for believing P; (4) P is true.

This solution is ultimately unviable in my estimation, for reasons that Lehrer and Paxson consider in the paper. One may think one has been confronted with a defeater that later turns out not to be one, and one can never really know whether every possible defeater has been considered. I spoke for a few minutes about Lehrer and Paxson’s “Tom Grabit” case which describes a scenario in which one believes that one has seen Tom Grabit steal a book from the local library. The justification for this belief is later defeated, however, upon speaking with Grabit’s mother, who claims that Tom is out of town, but that his identical twin brother was in the library. Later still, one finds out that Tom’s mother is a pathological liar and that Tom has no twin brother, so perhaps one’s belief that Tom stole the book is justified after all.  You get the drift.

We then turned to the second strategy for dealing with Gettier cases, in which we construe justification causally. One knows P, when one’s belief that P is causally connected to P in the relevant way, and P is true. By way of illustration, I discussed two knowledge-granting modalities that would seem to require such a causal connection: perception and memory.  I can only know that I saw my favorite cup on the table, if the cup in question was the actual cause of my perception.  If I found out later that in fact, what I had seen was a meticulously created hologram, I would conclude that I hadn’t seen my favorite cup on the table after all.  Similarly, I can only remember having taught my class this morning if teaching my class was the actual cause of the memory.  If it turns out I’d overslept and dreamt that I’d taught my class, I could no longer correctly say that I remembered it.  And If one considers the Gettier cases again, one quickly appreciates that in each case, the relevant causal connection is missing.  My belief that McEnroe won Wimbledon this year was not caused by watching this year’s match, but last year’s.  The point overall is that according to the causal theory of knowledge, one only knows something if the actual truth-maker is the cause of one’s belief.

I characterized this view as “construing justification causally,” but as I explained to my students, one might argue that it really eliminates justification altogether.  The causal theory of knowledge is known as an “externalist” theory, because whether my belief is warranted is a matter of whether it is properly related to the facts and not whether I have a personally accessible good reason for believing it, and we can imagine cases in which one might be causally connected to the facts in the right way but also be unaware of it. Imagine that one is able to predict the future with 100% accuracy and that as a matter of fact, there is a genuine, scientifically respectable way that your brain does it, of which you are unaware.  According to the traditional conception of justification, where being justified means that one has a good reason for believing something, a reason that one knows and can rehearse, one’s belief would not be justified under such circumstances, but if the causal theory of knowledge is correct, then it would seem that one would be.

A consequence of going externalist with respect to justification is that it would seem to undermine the normative dimension of epistemic warrant, which in turn makes it difficult to make sense of the ideas of epistemic obligation and virtue. I explain to students that this need not be thought of as a deal-breaker, but that they always should consider things carefully, when a view comes along that while attractive in some number of ways, renders it difficult or impossible to continue to make sense of things that one has already accepted and which otherwise seem useful.  We rightfully think that people should have good or better grounds for the things they believe, and we rightly praise those who do, and on an externalist picture of justification like this one, it is hard to see how we legitimately do that.

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Our final topic was the structure of knowledge, in which I offered sketches of both classical Foundationalism and Coherentism.  The foundationalist believes that justification is essentially inferential; that to say P is justified by F is to say that in some way it can be correctly inferred from F. As I explained to the students, this requires one to commit to the idea that there are some number of “basic” beliefs that require no justification themselves and by which all of the rest of the beliefs in our system of knowledge are justified.  Otherwise, we wind up with an infinite regress of justifications, which ultimately means that none of our beliefs are justified.

If a belief requires no justification, then it must be self-evident, necessarily true, or some variation thereupon.  As I pointed out to the students, we have already encountered statements that have these qualities, namely those expressing synonymy relations and logical truths.  Perhaps, epistemically basic beliefs are beliefs like these?  The trouble is that basic beliefs are supposed to provide epistemic foundations for everything else that we believe, which would suggest that they must be substantial in terms of their content, and not empty, in the way that synonymies and logical truths are. And this would seem to be a feature, not a bug; that is, it would seem that semantic substance and logical necessity are inversely related which, if one meditates upon it, makes perfect sense.

I described Coherentism as replacing Foundationalism’s linear model of justification with a holistic one.  Beliefs are not justified by inference from each other, one to one, but instead, a belief is justified if it “coheres” with all of the other things that we are already justified in believing.  By ‘cohere’ is meant that the belief in question is consistent with the others and in some manner, “mutually supporting.”

Coherentism’s main advantage is that it does not face an infinite regress of justifications and thus, need not find a set of beliefs that are both substantial and necessarily true. But it is also at a significant disadvantage, insofar as it severs the ties between justification and truth: complete fictions, after all, can be coherent. Consistency is a purely internal property of a set of statements, and if we were to make enough of the idea of the beliefs in a coherent system being “mutually supporting” so as to reconnect a coherent set of statements with reality, then it will have to be by construing “mutually supporting” in terms of some notion of valid inference, which renders us essentially foundationalists again, saddled with Foundationalism’s problems.

I taught this material over the course of three one hour and fifteen minute lectures, and as you would expect, I went into significantly more detail in the classroom and provided many more illustrations of the various points covered than I have done in these Course Notes, which are only intended to provide readers with an impression of how I have been teaching this brand new course and not to deliver any kind of comprehensive re-enactment.

Notes

(1) https://www.amazon.com/Introduction-Contemporary-Epistemology-Jonathan-Dancy/dp/0631136223  In view, Dancy’s book is the best of its kind available.

https://www.iep.utm.edu/gettier/

(2)http://www.cola.calpoly.edu/~rgrazian/docs/courses/412/LehrerPaxson_KnowledgeUndefeatedJTB.pdf

https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/078a/d2b9117693dbab0739ab2001a25b10a5ef35.pdf

30 Comments »

  1. Nice overview. Would be interested in how the students are responding.

    My first thought related to motivation. At least some of the thinkers you are drawing on (Russell and Frege, for example) were motivated to write what they wrote by a deep knowledge of certain fields which created urgent and compelling problems for them. But already I am thinking in historical terms… and that is what you are trying to get away from here.

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  2. Your example of how you can’t confirm or disconfirm arithmetic by counting pebbles is extremely helpful. That’s a lot better than what I had come up with (which is to ask students whether two plus two would equal four if we did it on Jupiter; the thought is that yes it would, and yet no one has ever experienced this, so how can we know it?), and I’m going to use it.

    You then note that, even if logicism had been successful, it still wouldn’t show how we know a priori moral truths. I have two questions about this. First, how much resistance do you get from your students that there even are moral truths? Did you cover that issue before getting to this unit? (Based on the order you list in the opening paragraph of this post, it seems like you’re going to get to that last.) Second, you write, “I pointed out that it does not follow from any statement regarding what is the case that anything ought – or ought not – to be the case”. Is this something you take for granted in this class? Or do you bring up challenges to it later on? Let me offer this example:

    1. If God commands us to do X, then we ought to do X.
    2. God commands us to do X.
    3. Therefore, we ought to do X.

    Is 1 a statement about what is the case or a statement about what ought to be the case, in your view? Or is your view that “you can’t derive an is from an ought” so fundamental that 1 isn’t the sort of statement that could be true? (I get the sense that, although the divine command theory is a fairly recent innovation in Western thought, natural law theory is older and also far more widespread across human history, so if 1 contains a concealed category error or inconsistency, then it would perhaps follow that a lot of normative ethics was just incoherent for much of human history.)

    Re: the definition of knowledge, do students ever wonder whether there is a single thing, “knowledge”? Maybe there are different domains in which the word functions differently, and in some of those domains, a causal account would work (say, when you’re talking about whether animals know things) and in others a more complicated account would have to work. And maybe all these domains have only a family resemblance to each other.

    Re: the architecture of knowledge, you write, “If a belief requires no justification, then it must be self-evident, necessarily true, or some variation thereupon.” I was under the impression that moderate foundationalism says that, for a belief to be properly basic, it must be self-evident, evident to the senses, or logically necessary, and that these were three separate ideas. But you seem to treat self-evident as equivalent to logically necessary. I would take, for instance, “I exist” to be self-evident but not logically necessary, the correct answer to the Monty Hall problem to be logically necessary but not self-evident, and the fact that I’m typing on my keyboard as evident to the senses but neither self-evident nor logically necessary.

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    • My students are overwhelmingly religious fundamentalists and evangelicals, so I get zero pushback on the idea that there are moral truths.

      Re: the “is/ought” gap, I do go over it briefly and discuss the relevant issues. Re: your sample deduction, I would reject premise 1 as false. More than that, if you represented 1. as an argument, with the first part as premise and the second part as conclusion, it clearly would be invalid.

      I don’t present TJB as *the* definition of knowledge, but as *a prominent* definition of knowledge. Prior to discussing any of it, I discuss the difference between knowing-how and knowing-that. And no, my students don’t wonder about this. They struggle enormously just to barely understand what I am talking about. Understand that these students are wildly unprepared and operate at what, in my day, was about a ninth grade reading and writing level.

      Re: the last point, my coverage is extremely simple and basic. I make no distinctions between the myriad kinds of Foundationalism, and students are not in a position to understand all the subtle distinctions one might make between the epistemic status of various conceptions of basic belief.

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      • “More than that, if you represented 1. as an argument, with the first part as premise and the second part as conclusion, it clearly would be invalid.”

        I don’t understand this response. 1 is a premise; I couldn’t represent it as an argument. So I assume you’re saying the argument I gave, with 1 and 2 and premises and 3 as the conclusion, is clearly invalid? I think I misread you somewhere, but I’m not seeing where.

        It’s interesting that your religious students believe in moral truths. I have lots of religious students who don’t believe in moral truths. I mean, they do in their daily lives, but when they’re in the classroom they don’t. If I ask them if God exists, they’ll say stuff like “for me, He does”. I know what they’re getting at; they mean, “I think that God exists, but I don’t want to offend anyone by saying that someone who disagrees with me is wrong.”

        Weird things also go on with my non-religious students. They’ll say they don’t believe in moral truths. I’ll ask them if it’s OK for me to be racist, and they’ll say no, and I ask them whether that’s just their opinion, and then things get confusing to them.

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        • Oh, wait, I get what you’re saying about 1 now. You’re saying that if I reasoned like this:

          1. God commands X
          2. Therefore, X is morally obligatory.

          Then I would be offering an invalid argument. Yeah, fair. I would just say that we gets “is”es from “ought”s all the time; it’s just that we do so by means of premises that tell us what “is”es have moral significance.

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          • FWIW I liked Wieland (2013) on this kind of stuff

            https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10677-012-9397-9

            One solution is extra rules for inference (rationality):

            · S believes that p; S believes that [if p, then q] / S ought to believe that q. (Modus Ponens Consistency)
            · S intends to P; S believes that P-ing requires S to P/ S ought to intend to P. (Means/End Consistency)
            · S believes that p / S ought not to disbelieve that p. (Belief Consistency)
            · S intends to P ; S believes that S cannot both P and Q / S ought not to intend to Q. (Intention Consistency)
            · S believes that she should P / S ought to intend to P. (Enkrasia)

            An earlier Wieland paper is “Internalism does entail scepticism” on internal v. external justification of rules of inference. The Tortoise shows internalism is regress prone.

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  3. After reading Dan’s fine essay, written with his trademark clarity, all I can do is contribute the naive view of an unphilosopher in the hope that it illustrates another way(even if naive) of looking at the problem.

    It has always struck me that knowledge is socially determined. If you doubt this, make a careful inventory of your own knowledge and then consider what its sources are. You will be forced to concede that the overwhelming majority of your knowledge comes from other people. You have chosen to accept knowledge from some sources and to reject other sources. It is hard to put a number to this but I consider such indirect sources of knowledge to be greater than 99.9%. I call this proxy knowledge.

    Of course there are people working at the knowledge coal face, generating knowledge. It goes through the knowledge coal processing plant and reaches us. the great unwashed majority, in a filtered, cleansed, processed and refined form. Or you might call it a biased, twisted and distorted form! We then, the great unwashed majority, deal with proxy knowledge of sometimes(often?) dubious value, and Dan’s fine analytical exposition hardly touches us. For us the question becomes what sources of proxy knowledge should we trust. And why should we trust some sources more than others?

    This is the central problem that the judicial system faces and we can learn a great deal from the philosophy of law. Here matters such as plausibility, coherence(both internal and external), probability, reliability, reputation and credibility(to name a few) come into play. The law has a well developed body of thought around this matter and all I can do is wave my hand at good sources such as Douglas Walton’s Legal Argumentation and Evidence. And, by the way, the finest examples of practical reasoning that you can find anywhere are the legal judgements handed down in court. Try reading them. They are truly fascinating mirrors of real life drama as well as being examples of excellent reasoning.

    We naturally seek coherence and will accept knowledge that fits a coherent network that has explanatory value and has internal coherence. By internal coherence I mean it has a good fit to our internally constructed model of the external world. If there is a good fit, both external and internal, we consider this knowledge to be plausible. If it comes from sources we consider to be credible and reliable we elevate this knowledge to the status of the truth.

    Truth then becomes a matter of the quality of our coherent belief networks and the perceived credibility and reliability of our chosen knowledge sources. This is not ‘real’ truth but is instead socially determined truth, which is what most of us have to live with.

    Underlying all of this is a bedrock of ‘real’ truth, clothed however with a layer of socially determined truth that claims to be the ‘real’ truth. And this is where our problems start since society aggregates into floating islands, each with their own, but differing networks of coherent belief.

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  4. Of course there is a typo at “Means/End Consistency” – it should be “S intends to Q; S believes that Q-ing requires S to P; S ought to intend to P”, For those interested and who don’t want to read the paper – Wieland doesn’t like this solution, because he can’t see any end to adding these ancillary rules, of which each one is, ISTM, something like a virtue.

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    • “Wieland doesn’t like this solution, because he can’t see any end to adding these ancillary rules” – I’m not surprised. I would be very wary of any “reparation” that multiplies rules to patch what is initially presented as an absolute; besides violating Occam’s Razor, that seems to lead us into paradoxes, which, after a brief review of Russell’s, seem resolvable only in an axiom-bound first order logic, which doesn’t actually answer the question initially asked.

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  5. Dan,
    it is important to help them see that knowledge-how is, in fact prior to and a prerequisite for knowledge-that; that acquiring propositional knowledge is itself a kind of performance that can be done competently or incompetently; and that good habits of scholarship must be developed before good scholarship can be produced.

    I agree with your distinction between knowledge-how and knowledge-that. To that I would add the category feels-like. What something feels-like is neither knowledge-how nor knowledge-that and yet it is a special kind of transient knowledge. I also agree with your claim “that good habits of scholarship must be developed before good scholarship can be produced.“. This has been called intellectual virtue. See for example The Inquiring Mind, On Intellectual Virtues and Virtue Epistemology, Jason Baehr.

    Drawing on my experience as an IT development manager I can’t agree with your claim that knowledge-how must necessarily precede knowledge-that. It is impossible for a programmer to develop good programming practices and heuristics(knowledge-how) before s/he has studied programming languages and methodologies(knowledge-that).

    Our problem with every year’s intake of programmers from universities was their fervent belief that their acquired store of knowledge-that was also sufficient knowledge-how. They could be quite insufferably arrogant as well as inexpert. We quickly disabused them of this notion by giving them the thankless task of maintenance programming. It was a kind of apprenticeship that exposed them to how things were really done in practice. They were forced to delve into, and understand how good practising programmers did things in real life. Only then were they permitted to move up to performing small, independent programming tasks. Some did not have the patient determination to go through this process and we heaved a collective sigh of relief when they left.

    But my point remains, that in our case, knowledge-that was a necessary prerequisite for acquiring knowledge-how.

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    • Peter Smith,

      Regardless of whether you’re right about whether knowing “programming languages and methodologies” is prerequisite for “developing good programming practices and heuristics,” the question at stake is whether knowing programming languages and methodologies counts as knowledge-that. You’ve asserted that it does but provided no reason to think that it does. And, in fact, the passage from Professor Kaufman’s article that you quote provides a reason to think that knowing programming languages and methodologies, does not count as knowledge-that, insofar as “acquiring propositional knowledge” (if that’s what you’re claiming knowing programming languages amounts to) “is itself a kind of performance which can be done competently or incompetently.”

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      • Animal[!],
        “acquiring propositional knowledge” (if that’s what you’re claiming knowing programming languages amounts to)

        Yes, that is what I am claiming.

        is itself a kind of performance which can be done competently or incompetently

        Yes, students can study diligently and carefully and that is a kind of knowledge-how. But in this context it is a trivial claim because it does not determine the success of a programmer in his job, and this is what I am talking about. The knowledge-how that I am talking about is the deep set of heuristics, skills and judgement that the programmer acquires as he plies his craft under the direction of a master craftsman. It is the deep set of heuristics, skills, judgement and creative wisdom that makes an effective programmer, not his skill at university in acquiring propositional knowledge. This is the knowledge-how that I am talking about and it must necessarily follow on the acquisition of knowledge-that.

        Quite obviously every student must develop skills at studying so that he can be successful at acquiring propositional knowledge. This is trivially true and does not go to the heart of what knowledge-how is really about. That is because our real goal is not to produces programmers with pretty certificates. Our real goal is to produce competent, skilled programmers who exercise creative wisdom in the way they ply their craft. This is the knowledge-how which is the end goal and it can only follow on from the earlier acquisition of knowledge-that.

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        • Peter Smith,

          You’ve provided a wonderful, compelling description of the kind of knowledge-how that programming requires. I couldn’t agree more with what you say in this respect.

          But, again, you’ve succeeded only in asserting that there exists a case of knowledge-that-preceding-knowledge-how and not in providing reason to think that your supposed case of knowledge-that is indeed a case of knowledge-that. Thus, you may disagree with the Rylean claim — as you say, “I can’t agree with the claim that knowledge-how must necessarily precede knowledge-that” — but you’ve given us no reason to think Professor Kaufman is wrong.

          What’s more, the evidence required to show the falsity of the claim that knowledge-how precedes knowledge-that is to provide a case of knowledge which (a) counts as knowledge-that and (b) does not owe its status as knowledge-that to some kind of knowledge-how. So even if you did provide a case of knowledge-that-preceding-knowledge-how (which you have not yet done), it would not count against Ryle’s claim unless you also showed that the piece of knowledge-that at issue was not itself preceded by some knowledge-how.

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      • I might add that excellent academic records correlated poorly with skilled, competent programming, especially when creating large corporate systems.

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  6. It doesn’t seem like you view (or treat in class) virtue epistemology as a response to the Gettier problem. Is that something you cover elsewhere, something that simply didn’t fit, or something you don’t find valuable?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, I do get at it, both when I describe towards the beginning how to say that someone knows something has an honorific dimension and when I talk about some of the reasons to wonder about the causal theory of knowledge. But, you are correct, I do not present it as a solution to the Gettier problem. It is worth remembering that this is very much an introductory level class, so my sketches of the various positions and options is by design quite simplified.

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  7. Daniel- Do you know the article “Teaching Without Books” by William Irvine from the journal Teaching Philosophy March 1993? I always wondered how such an approach might go. Irvine emphasizes getting them to philosophize (to “do philosophy”) rather than reading other folks doing it. I’ve always wondered how well this might work.

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  8. Dan,
    Just as a matter of interest, what do you make of Putnam’s argument that the Fact/Value Dichotomy is too stringent to be maintained, given the entanglement of fact and value in language actually used, even in science?

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    • I don’t see how values can be derived from facts, in a natural world that is non-teleological. Now, with regard to systems that are inherently teleological, there is no problem deriving values from facts, because facts are “morally thick.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Dan,
        Yeah; I don’t think it’s a matter of deriving values from facts, and as one review of Putnam I read noted, the fact/value *distinction* (rather than dichotomy) is properly maintained. Rather it’s a question of 1) can some values be objective without sliding into a moral realism, and b) can discussion of facts ever be truly value neutral? After all even to discover a fact requires an interest in it, which implies a value-bound motivation. I think Putnam is responding to the Positivist dogma (which he sees as still influencing certain social sciences eg, economics) that held that only science and mathematics could ascertain rationally founded knowledge, all else being subjective expression.

        I think a serious problem with Positivism from Frege on was the implicit assumption that reasoning in math and in the empirical sciences was somehow categorically different from the reasoning we find in other human endeavors; this really cannot be the case. If one is going to make a choice, whether in research subject in chemistry or in buying a house, some similarity between these reasonings has to obtain, just to make each apparent as a choice. So too if one wants to develop a theory explaining evolution, or a theory of why a given high school is failing or succeeding, by some criteria, the processes of reasoning cannot be so distinct that we cannot recognize the theories as explanations.

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        • ejwinner,

          I don’t think your (entirely correct) claim about interest and discovery is relevant. It’s worth heeding the distinction between (a) a condition of describing or discovering a fact and (b) the content of the description or what is discovered. It should be uncontroversial that valuing stuff is among the conditions mentioned in (a). What’s more controversial is whether the content of description of a supposed fact is value-laden (or whether we discover a value along with discovering a fact).

          Of course, many descriptions have value-content, and it’s common to discover that something has some kind value or other. But what about when I describe an NMR readout (that in its diagrammatic peaks and valleys shows me the arrangement of a molecule)? Suppose I say, “Ah, the phosphate is next to the third carbon atom.” Without values, of course, I wouldn’t be able so much as to formulate or understand that description — but does that mean my description is a description of values? I don’t think an affirmative answer is all that clearly forthcoming.

          By the way, I think you’re right about Putnam’s main point. He was concerned to show that without values there would be nothing that counted as factual. (I could spell out his argument as I see it, if you think it would make a difference to the discussion.) So it’s not that he wanted to blur the two; he wanted to grant their difference and show that the one is unintelligible without the other (a project that makes no sense if there’s no distinction between facts and values).

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  9. “Profound changes in the student population over the last several years, including an apparent inability to understand or even just read classics from the history of philosophy, as well as a troubling increase in the number of students plagiarizing exams and papers”

    Dan, any thoughts on why the students cannot cope with more demanding material? Presumably the quality of highschool teaching in the US hasn’t drastically changed? Why have reading (and writing?) skills declined – they prefer staring at a screen rather than reading a book? Are they not as resilient as previous cohorts – they haven’t learned to work independently, have less self-disciple, because it’s easy to cheat/plagiarize essays/assignments?

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    • I think something else is going on here, but it does have to do with reading. My own, informal observations lead me to believe that reading in pre-teen and early teen years changes the brain in quite deep ways. They acquire 1) a richer vocabulary; 2) a greater range of categories; 3) greater reasoning skills from the exposure to the reasoning of skilled people; 4) broader background knowledge; 5) better acquaintance with emotional drivers that motivate people; 6) the ability to concentrate and persevere for extended periods. Put these things together and you have enhanced cognitive ability.

      Where reading during these crucial formative years is limited these skills are only partly developed. The wide availability of compelling visual materials to this group of people greatly diminishes the amount of reading they do. Consequently their brains do not develop their full potential. And this presents as the problems that educators like Dan observe.

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    • …because it’s easy to cheat/plagiarize essays/assignments?

      The decline of virtue ethics has resulted in an inchoate form of moral consequentialism. Crudely put, if it gives me better marks and I can get away with it, why shouldn’t I do it?

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  10. I saw a call for papers today for a collected volume: ‘Theology and Batman’. There are also lot’s of ‘Philosophy and X (movie title)’ books available. The Batman volume caters to both the comic fans and movie fans. Film (or comics) and philosophy could be interesting to teach, but I worry that philosophy/theology teachers are catering to the tastes of their students and to their lack of reading skills. Comics and movies require minimal reading skills. This looks counterproductive to me, because it will not develop the reading and writing skills of old. I sound so old-fashioned…

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    • You should see the book Screen Schooled by two veteran teachers, Joe Clement and Matt Miles. It makes for depressing reading. One point they make is that the average teenager spends nine hours a day on his screen. Apart from the disturbing effects of so much time spent on passive entertainment there is a huge opportunity cost.

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    • The effects of so much screen time affects teenagers in many ways. This BBC article illustrates one of the ways
      Surgery students ‘losing dexterity to stitch patients’

      A professor of surgery says students have spent so much time in front of screens and so little time using their hands that they have lost the dexterity for stitching or sewing up patients.

      Roger Kneebone, professor of surgical education at Imperial College, London, says young people have so little experience of craft skills that they struggle with anything practical.

      “It is important and an increasingly urgent issue,” says Prof Kneebone, who warns medical students might have high academic grades but cannot cut or sew.

      https://www.bbc.com/news/education-46019429

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