Philosophy 183: Theory of Knowledge
Marc Lange

Sellars, Quine, and Wittgenstein
the Foundations of Knowledge

The purposes of this course are:

  1. to examine a series of questions regarding the "foundations of knowledge", i.e., the places where justificatory regresses end

  2. to read closely large portions of three classics of late 20th-century epistemology that address these questions and give answers that dovetail in certain important respects:

    * Wilfrid Sellars's "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind" [hereafter EPM] (The University of London Special Lectures in Philosophy for 1955-56; first appearing in Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, volume 1, ed. H. Feigl and M. Scriven, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956; and reprinted in Sellars, Science, Perception, and Reality, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963)

    * Willard V.O. Quine's "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" [hereafter "Two Dogmas"] (read to the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in December 1950; first appearing in The Philosophical Review, January 1951; and reprinted in Quine, From a Logical Point of View, Cambridge: Harvard, 1980)

    * Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations [hereafter PI] (first published 1953, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe; 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1968)

    Note that these essays are roughly contemporaneous.

    Although this course will introduce a variety of approaches to the questions under consideration, it will not be a neutral survey. Rather, it will be opinionated; it will sketch a picture of how these questions should be answered, a picture to which these essays make massive contributions.

  3. to learn how to read hard philosophy and to write carefully about it

    Accordingly, there will be three short (3-5 page) papers during the course. Topics will be assigned. Each of the first two papers will be graded during a short (30 minute) conference with me, where we can review the paper together in detail. This seems to me the best way to help you to improve your thinking and writing. You must sign-up for these conferences on my office door (346 Dodd) during the week before they are to occur.

    There will be no final exam; the third paper will be a final paper, for which there will be no conference.

    Each paper and conference is required. (By "required", I mean that if any paper is not completed on time, or any conference does not occur as scheduled, you do not pass the course.)

Order of topics:

1. Introduction: justification, three regress arguments, observation reports and analytic claims as regress-stoppers

Lewis Carroll, "What the tortoise said to achilles."

2. Sense-data and sense-datum reports: infallibility, transparency.

EPM, sections 1-3.

3. EPM overview, the myth of the given, and the inconsistent triad.

EPM, sections 1-3, 6-7.

4. Looks-talk.

EPM, sections 10-19.

5. Observation-reports: their role, content and justification; reliabilism.

EPM, sections 32-38.
Quine, "Epistemology Naturalized," pp. 84ff.

6. Necessary truths as regress-stoppers: analyticity.

"Two Dogmas"
Quine, "Epistemology Naturalized," pp. 84ff
Wittgenstein, On Certainty, sections 95-99, 101-103, 117-125, 141-147, 160-169, 183-192, 204, 206, 208-210, 231-233.

7. Regresses of understanding: Wittgenstein on following a rule.

PI, sections 137-242, 289, 560-570.
Kripke, On Rules and Private Language, chapter 2.

8. Thoughts and sense-impressions: Are they given? The myth of Jones.

EPM, sections 45, 48-end.

All readings available for purchase in the Philosophy Department Office (3rd floor, Dodd Hall).

My office: 346 Dodd, 825-7583. I am in most days 10-4, which are my office hours.

Philosophy 183: Theory of Knowledge
Marc Lange
Winter Quarter 1996

First paper

Consider the following passage in light of the argument in sections 3-7 of Sellars's "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind."

The actual sense-data are neither true nor false. A particular patch of colour, which I see, for example, simply exists: it is not the sort of thing which is true or false. It is true that there is such a patch, true that it has a certain shape and a certain degree of brightness, true that it is surrounded by certain other colours. But the patch itself is of a radically different kind from the things that are true or false, and therefore cannot properly be said to be true. ... We shall say that we have acquaintance with anything of which we are directly aware without the intermediary of any process of inference or any knowledge of truths. Thus in the presence of my table I am acquainted with the sense- data that make up the appearance of the table -- its colour, shape, hardness, smoothness, etc.; all these things are things of which I am immediately conscious when I am seeing and touching my table. The particular shade of colour that I am seeing may have many things said about it -- I may say that it is brown, that it is rather dark, and so on. But such statements, though they make known truths about the colour, do not make me know the colour itself any better than I did before: so far as concerns knowledge of the colour itself, as opposed to knowledge of truths about it, I know the colour perfectly and completely when I see it and no further knowledge of it itself is even theoretically possible. Thus the sense-data which make up the appearance of my table are things with which I have acquaintance, things known to me just as they are.

Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (NY: Galaxy ed., Oxford UP, 1969), p. 113, pp. 46-7

Write an essay (4 pages maximum, double spaced, typed, and so on -- and you need not go this long!) in which you address the following issues. (You are to address them in a single unified essay, not in separate numbered paragraphs as answers to separate questions.)

  1. Is the author committed to the "myth of the given"? Why? State clearly what the myth of the given is, explain it a bit, and specify precisely where (and to what extent) it is implicated in the above passage.

  2. What does Russell mean by saying that sense-data are "known to me just as they are"? What does this have to do with the role of sense-datum reports in ending regresses of justification?

  3. Are difficulties for the myth, tensions within it, etc. evident in the passage? How might Sellars exploit the tensions in this passage to argue against the myth, along the lines of sections 3-7?

Be organized, careful, methodical. Ask yourself, about each sentence: "What point am I trying to make here? Do I make it as simply and clearly as I can?" Try to say everything in your own words -- in that way, the process of writing this paper will help you to understand the material.

Make sure that your paper is organized not only in its large- scale structure (i.e., from paragraph to paragraph), but within each paragraph. Use transitions like "therefore," "in addition," "and," "for this reason," "in other words," "to put the point more carefully," "in short," "in summary," etc. with care -- make sure you indicate correctly the relationship of one point to another. And needless to say, write crisp and grammatical sentences. No sloppiness!

Make one copy of the paper for yourself, and turn in the other copy. Papers will be due in class on Friday, January 26th (one week from today). Conferences (about 30 minutes each) will take place during the following week. You must sign up for a conference on my office door (346 Dodd). Bring your copy of your paper to the conference, so that we may each have a copy to look at. Papers will be graded then, together.

I don't see this assignment as having some single particular right answer. The above passage is (to be entirely candid) just an excuse for getting you to think about the myth of the given. I want to see that you understand it and what Sellars has to say about it. Try to make this evident in your paper.

Philosophy 183: Theory of Knowledge Marc Lange
Winter Quarter 1996

Second paper

How, according to Sellars, does the regress on premises end?

You should begin by explaining what this regress is. You should then work into your explanation of Sellars's position at least the following items:

*Why the issue turns on what it takes to be a qualified observer, i.e., why Sellars talks about "token credibility" (and what this is);

*How the regress ends according to reliabilism (the view Sellars mentions in introducing his own view), and what the problems with reliabilism are (namely, the gerrymandering point and the myth of the given);

*The two "hurdles" in section 35, with special care to explain why Sellars says

Clearly, on this account, the only thing that can remotely be supposed to constitute such authority is the fact that one can infer the presence of a green object from the fact that someone makes this report

and what Sellars means by this remark;{1}

*How the regress Sellars discusses in sections 36-7 appears to arise from his view, and how he avoids this problem;

*What Sellars means by saying

There is clearly some point to the picture of human knowledge as resting on a level of propositions -- observation reports -- which do not rest on other propositions in the same way as other propositions rest on them. On the other hand, I do wish to insist that the metaphor of Ifoundationlis misleading in that it keeps us from seeing if there is a logical dimension in which other empirical propositions rest on observation reports, there is another irgical dimension in which the latter rest on the former.{2}

*What Sellars means in the second paragraph of section 32 by "a privileged stratum of fact," and whether he accepts that there is such a thing.

There is no particular order in which you must deal with these issues. But your essay cannot simply deal with them one by one, connecting them merely with some such remark as "And another thing Sellars says is that ... ". You must write a unified essay. Sellars's view is complicated, but all of the pieces fit together. You must figure out a path through these elements that reveals how they are connected to one another.

Some of these elements involve stating a view. The views have motivations; they haven't been selected at random. You must explain what the motivations for them are (e.g., the motivation for the second hurdle). Other elements involve arguments (e.g., the argument for the regress in section 36). In these cases, you must be sure to explain these arguments carefully.

The various points I have mentioned above do not all require the same amount of space; some can be dealt with in a few sentences, while others require more elaborate development. You must decide how much (or little) to say. On no account go beyond 5 pages.

Be organized, careful, methodical. Ask yourself, about each sentence: "What point am I trying to make here? Do I make it as simply and clearly as I can?" Try to say everything in your own words -- in that way, the process of writing this paper will help you to understand the material. Do not repeat yourself.

And needless to say, write crisp and grammatical sentences. No sloppiness! You know what we spoke about during your last conference...

Make one copy of the paper for yourself, and turn in the other copy to me. Papers will be due in class on Wednesday, February 28th (one week from today) . Conferences (about 30 minutes each) will take place during the remainder of that week (the 8th week) and the following week. You must sign up for a conference on my office door (346 Dodd) . Bring your copy of your paper to the conference. Papers will be graded then, together.


{1} Don't waste space by including this remark in your paper. You may refer to it simply as "Passage 1." [Back]

{2} This is "Passage 2." [Back]