Have a Question? Contact the Humanities Office or an Academic Unit

PHILOS 3O03 Theory Of Knowledge

Academic Year: Fall 2016

Term: Fall

Day/Evening: D

Instructor: Dr. Nicholas Griffin

Email: ngriffin@mcmaster.ca

Office: University Hall 309

Phone: 905-525-9140 x 23469


Office Hours: after class and Fridays 14.00-15.20 or by appointment

Course Objectives:

Aims and Objectives: The course will be concerned with examining philosophical debates about the concept of knowledge since the publication in 1963 of Edmund Gettier’s ‘Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?’   But we will also be looking back on the concept of knowledge before the Gettier bombshell.  In this we will be going (perhaps boldly) where few philosophers have gone before and I hope that we’ll learn something genuinely new, relevant and even interesting.  I don’t know where to find it, so I’m crowd-sourcing the search to the class.   It will become clear that the concept of knowledge is a problematic one.  And it may well  turn out that one of the things we don’t know is what knowledge is.    The purpose of the course, as with so much in philosophy, is to get clear about what the issues are and exactly what problems have to be solved before we can find out what knowledge is.  

Textbooks, Materials & Fees:

The text for the course is a coursepack.

Method of Assessment:

Assessment: Assessment will be by means of two short research assignments (approximately 600 words each) to be handed in (hardcopy, in duplicate) in class, the first on 21 September and the second on 19 October. Each will be worth 15% of the final grade.  Research topics for these two assignments will be assigned to you individually. They are listed on the course website.  Students will also be required to write a longer research paper (approximately 2000 words) to be handed in (hardcopy, in duplicate) in class on 7 December.  This will be worth 40% of the final grade.  A list of possible research topics will be posted on the course website and may be occasionally added to as the course progresses.   You are also free to choose your own topic for the long research paper from among the issues that come up in class. (If this is what you want to do, please clear your topic with me before you start.)  There will also be a final exam worth 30% of the final grade.

Policy on Missed Work, Extensions, and Late Penalties:

If you miss a deadline for submitting an assignment you must use the MSAF  to obtain the standard 3 day extension.  (Don't try to negotiate your way out of it, that's not the way the system works!)  If you miss that, the assignment won't be marked unless I have a letter from the associate dean's office notifying me of special circumstances.   (I have to start marking the papers sometime and I can't do so until I have all those that are going to be submitted.)  


Please Note the Following Policies and Statements:

Academic Dishonesty

You are expected to exhibit honesty and use ethical behaviour in all aspects of the learning process. Academic credentials you earn are rooted in principles of honesty and academic integrity.

Academic dishonesty is to knowingly act or fail to act in a way that results or could result in unearned academic credit or advantage. This behaviour can result in serious consequences, e.g. the grade of zero on an assignment, loss of credit with a notation on the transcript (notation reads: "Grade of F assigned for academic dishonesty"), and/or suspension or expulsion from the university.

It is your responsibility to understand what constitutes academic dishonesty. For information on the various types of academic dishonesty please refer to the Academic Integrity Policy, located at www.mcmaster.ca/academicintegrity

The following illustrates only three forms of academic dishonesty:

  1. Plagiarism, e.g. the submission of work that is not one’s own or for which other credit has been obtained.
  2. Improper collaboration in group work.
  3. Copying or using unauthorized aids in tests and examinations.

Email correspondence policy

It is the policy of the Faculty of Humanities that all email communication sent from students to instructors (including TAs), and from students to staff, must originate from each student’s own McMaster University email account. This policy protects confidentiality and confirms the identity of the student.  Instructors will delete emails that do not originate from a McMaster email account.

Modification of course outlines

The University reserves the right to change dates and/or deadlines etc. for any or all courses in the case of an emergency situation or labour disruption or civil unrest/disobedience, etc. If a modification becomes necessary, reasonable notice and communication with the students will be given with an explanation and the opportunity to comment on changes. Any significant changes should be made in consultation with the Department Chair.

McMaster Student Absence Form (MSAF)

In the event of an absence for medical or other reasons, students should review and follow the Academic Regulation in the Undergraduate Calendar Requests for Relief for Missed Academic Term Work. Please note these regulations have changed beginning Fall 2015. You can find information at mcmaster.ca/msaf/. If you have any questions about the MSAF, please contact your Associate Dean's office.

Academic Accommodation of Students with Disabilities

Students who require academic accommodation must contact Student Accessibility Services (SAS) to make arrangements with a Program Coordinator. Academic accommodations must be arranged for each term of study. Student Accessibility Services can be contacted by phone 905-525-9140 ext. 28652 or e-mail sas@mcmaster.ca. For further information, consult McMaster University's Policy for Academic Accommodation of Students with Disabilities.

Academic Accommodation for Religious, Indigenous and Spiritual Observances

Students requiring academic accommodation based on religion and spiritual observances should follow the procedures set out in the Course Calendar or by their respective Faculty. In most cases, the student should contact his or her professor or academic advisor as soon as possible to arrange accommodations for classes, assignments, tests and examinations that might be affected by a religious holiday or spiritual observance.

Topics and Readings:

Schedule: The schedule of classes will approximate  the following:


Week 1.   The Concept of Knowledge (1): The Gettier Problem and its Ramifications:

                        Readings: Gettier, Goldmann

                        Background: R.A. Shope: The Analysis of Knowing (Princeton UP: 1983)



Week 2:   The Solution to the Gettier Problem?

                        Reading: Klein

                  And a different sort of response

                        Reading: Kirkham


Weeks 1 and 2  Sidebar: Naturalism in Epistemology

Background: Quine, ‘Epistemology Naturalized’ in Quine, Ontological Relativity  and Other Essays (Columbia UP: 1969)


Week 3:   Infallible and Fallible Knowledge

                        Reading: Williams (1)


Weeks 4-6:   Scepticism: The Refutation of Arguments for Scepticism

                        Reading: Griffin (1) and (2)

Background: David Stove, Probability and Hume’s Inductive Scepticism (Oxford UP, 1973); Peter Unger, Ignorance: A Case for Scepticism (Oxford UP, 1975); Descartes, ‘Meditations I’; Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism 


Week 7:   But this does not mean scepticism is refuted: Agrippa’s Trilemma

                        Background: Michael Williams, Problems of Knowledge (Oxford UP, 2001), Ch 5


Weeks 8-9:   The Prior Grounding Requirement: Default and Challenge

                        Reading: Williams (2)

                        Background: Williams, Unnatural Doubts (Princeton UP, 1996) 


Week 10:   The Concept of Knowledge (2):   The Lottery Paradox

                        Reading: Hawthorne

                        Background: John Hawthorne, Knowledge and Lotteries (Oxford UP, 2004)


Week 11:  Alas, poor fallibilism. A possible diagnosis and an outstanding problem.


Week 12:   Concluding unsceptical postscript.   

Other Course Information:

Students are not expected to read all the background reading suggested for each topic (i.e. the whole book) but to make use of it judiciously. But they are required to read outside the material in the coursepack and they are encouraged to explore the literature on their own.