Advanced Topics in Epistemology

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Advanced Topics in Epistemology

This module discusses two of the sources on which we rely for our knowledge, namely perception and inference. The first half is devoted to perception — how does it give us knowledge of the external world? We shall consider three theories: (1) the sense-datum theory, according to which what we are immediately aware of in perception are non-physical items or sense-data; (2) the intentional theory, which likens perception that P to acquisition of the belief that P; and (3) the disjunctive theory, according to which the term ‘sense experience’ covers two quite different kinds of thing, namely either veridical perception or illusion.

In the second half of the course we consider knowledge based on reasoning. Does all our knowledge rest ultimately on experience? Or do we have some knowledge a priori, without relying on experience? Rationalist philosophers suggest that we have a priori knowledge of some of at least of the following: logic, pure mathematics, metaphysics, and ethics. But opponents of rationalism have denied that we have such knowledge, or have sought to explain it away. We next consider the problem of induction, i.e. reasoning from the past to the future, from the observed to the unobserved. According to Hume, induction cannot be rationally justified, for it is merely belief induced by habituation. We consider Hume’s problem, and also Goodman’s ‘new riddle of induction’. In the last lecture we consider the theories of Quine, whose conformational holism attempts a unified discussion both of induction and of the propositions the rationalists had considered to be a priori.


  • Dancy, J (ed.), 1998. Perceptual Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lectures: The lectures for this module will be held in **, on Tuesdays from 6-7pm in the Autumn Term. The lecturer is Dr. Keith Hossack (
Seminars: The seminars for this module will be held in **, on Tuesdays from 7-8pm in the Autumn Term. They will be led by the lecturer and by **.
Readings: Every week there is one key reading that is the focus of the seminar discussion. One of the purposes of the seminar is to help you to understand the reading, so do not worry if you have not fully understood it in advance. Nevertheless, it is essential that you attempt the seminar reading each week if you are to follow the lecture and to participate in the seminar discussion. In addition, there are further readings listed for each essay topic.
Assessment (BA): This module is assessed by a two-hour exam in the Summer Term. You may also write up to two essays during the course, taken from the titles below, and receive feedback on them from your seminar leader. These can be useful practice for the exam. You should submit the first such essay by the first seminar after reading week, and the second by one week after the last seminar of term. [Notes: 1) You are welcome to submit an essay earlier than these dates; 2) the seminar leader should not be expected to comment on the same essay more than once.]
Essay (MA): This module is assessed by two essays of a combined total of around 3,500 words. These must be written in response to two of the set questions listed below, except with permission from the module convenor. For details concerning submission of the essays, including deadlines, see the MA Handbook.
Moodle: Electronic copies of course materials are available through Moodle, at You will need your ITS login name and password to enter.

Seminar Questions and Readings

1. The sense-datum theory

Seminar question: ‘What is a sense-datum? Are there any?’

  • Moore, G. E,1953. ‘Sense-data’ In his Some Main Problems of Philosophy. London: George Allen & Unwin, Ch. II, pp. 28-40. (The paper is widely available online)

2. The argument from illusion

Seminar question: ‘What is the “Argument from Illusion”? Does it establish that what we are directly aware of in perception are only sense-data?’

  • Ayer, A J, 1940. The Foundations of Empirical Knowledge. London: Macmillan. Read Chapter 1.

3. The causal theory

Seminar question: ‘Is the causal theory a satisfactory account of perceptual knowledge?

  • Grice, H.P., 1961. ‘The causal theory of perception’. Proc Aristotelian Soc., Supplementary Volume 35, 121-52. An abridged version is in Dancy 1998.

4. The intentional theory

Seminar question: ‘Is perception a mental relation to a proposition?’

  • Armstrong, D M 1968. ‘Perception and Belief’, Chapter 10 of his A Materialist Theory of the Mind, London: Routledge. Reprinted in Dancy 1998.

5. Disjunctivism

Seminar question: ‘Assess disjunctivism’s response to the Argument from Illusion’.

  • McDowell, J 1982. ‘Criteria, defeasibility, and knowledge’. In Dancy 1998

6. A priori knowledge

Seminar question: ‘Assess the rationalist doctrine that the human intellect can attain a priori knowledge.’

  • Plato, Republic 502d-513e

  • Russell, Problems of Philosophy, Chs. 7 and 8

7. Tautology

Seminar question: ‘Are a priori truths mere tautologies?’

  • Ayer, A J 1936. Language Truth and Logic. London, Victor Gollancz Ltd. Read Chapter 4.

8. Hume on induction

Seminar question: ‘Assess Hume’s critique of the rational standing of induction.’

  • Hume, Enquiries concerning Human Understanding, Sections 4 and 5.

9. The new riddle of induction

Seminar question: ‘What if anything is wrong with the inference “by induction” that all emeralds are grue?’

  • Goodman, N 1970. Fact, Fiction and Forecast. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. Read Chapter 3, which is widely available online.

10. The Quinean alternative

Seminar question: ‘Assess Quine’s claim that no statement is “immune to revision”’.

  • Quine, W v O, 1951. “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”, Philosophical Review, 60: 20–43.

Essay Titles and Readings

  1. How similar are perception and belief?

  • DM Armstrong, ‘Perception and Belief’ in J Dancy (ed.), Perceptual Knowledge.

  • Fred Dretske, ‘Sensation and Perception’, in J Dancy (ed.), Perceptual Knowledge.

  1. Induction has worked in the past. Is that a good reason to trust induction in the future?

  • Black, M 1958. ‘Self-supporting Inductive Arguments’. Journal of Philosophy 55: 718-25.

  • Achinstein, P. 1962. ‘The Circularity of a self-supporting Inductive Argument’. Analysis 22: 138-41.

  • Black, M 1963. ‘Self-support and circularity: a Reply to Mr Achinstein’. Analysis 23: 43-4.

  • Achinstein, P. 1963. ‘Circularity and Induction’. Analysis 23: 123-7.

  1. Does our knowledge of a priori truths derive from the meanings of words?

  • Horwich, P 2000. ‘Stipulation, Meaning and Apriority’. In New Essays on the A Priori, Boghossian P., and and Peacocke, C,. (eds.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. (Available on Oxford Scholarship Online)

  1. Assess disjunctivism as a theory of perceptual experience.

  • McDowell, J: ‘Criteria, Defeasibility and Knowledge’, in his Mind, Value and Reality, reprinted in an abridged form in J Dancy (ed.), Perceptual Knowledge.

  • Martin, M 2002. ‘The transparency of experience’. Mind & Language 17, 4: 376–425.

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