Essay Topics

Essay Instructions

If you haven't read Jim Pryor's advice on writing a philosophy paper before, read it. If you have read it before, read it again. If you missed the lecture on Wednesday, September 19, read it twice. (OK, you probably don't have to read it twice, but, very seriously: writing a philosophy essay isn't like writing an essay for other classes, and Pryor's advice will definitely help your philosophical writing.)

Important: Do not put your name anywhere on your paper. Do put your student number on the first page.

Your essay must be three to five pages, double-spaced, in 12-point font, with one-inch margins.

The essay is due in your discussion section on Friday, October 12. If there is a reason why you cannot complete your essay by that date, contact the instructor well in advance to make arrangements. If no arrangement is made, late essays will be penalized 5% per day late.

First Essay Topics

(Choose only one.)

1. In the first Meditation, Descartes argues that his belief that 2 + 3 = 5 fails the method of doubt test. Why? (Be sure to explain what the method of doubt test is.) Is he right? That is, does his belief that 2 + 3 = 5 actually fail the method of doubt test? Present an argument that beliefs about arithmetic can pass the method of doubt test after all, and consider how Descartes would respond. Does the argument succeed?

2. Philonous argues that belief in matter/material substance represents a greater divergence from common sense than his Berkeleyan idealism. Why does he think this? Is he right? Why or why not?

3. Bearing in mind Berkeley's slogan "esse is percipi" ("to be is to be perceived"), can Berkeley adequately distinguish between genuine perception on the one hand, and dreams or hallucinations on the other? Be sure to explain what Berkeley means by "esse is percipi," and why one might think he would have trouble distinguishing genuine perception from hallucinations.

4. Susan Haack and Lewis Carroll point to a problem with showing that deduction is a genuine source of justification, and Haack argues that this problem is just as difficult as the problem of justifying induction. Is she right? That is, is there a good response to one problem which fails as a response to the other? You will need to carefully explain both the problem of induction and the problem of deduction.

Second Essay Topics

(Choose only one.)

1. Critically assess G.E. Moore's proof of an external world. Is he attempting to refute the skeptic? If not, what is he attempting to do? Does he succeed?

2. Present an argument against Goldman's intuition about the fake barns case (or against Harman's intuitions about the newspaper and trip to Italy cases)--i.e., an argument that Henry does, in fact, know that the object he's looking at is a barn. You will need to explain the fake barns case carefully. What point does it make?

3. Gettier's counterexamples to the "JTB" analysis of knowledge show that justified true belief is not sufficient for knowledge, but many epistemologists still consider justified true belief to be necessary for knowledge. On the other hand, accounts like Goldman's (1967) causal theory and his revised view of 1976 (seem to) take justification to be unnecessary for knowledge: one can have knowledge without justification, according to such a theory. Laurence BonJour argues that this is a mistake--that justification is necessary for knowledge after all. Is he right, or can we have knowledge without justification? Be sure to explain BonJour's argument carefully, and consider how either the 1967 or the 1976 version of Goldman would best reply.

4. 4. Here is an objection to contextualism, from Stephen Schiffer:

"[According to the contextualist's 'error theory,'] we mistakenly think that 'I don't know that I have hands' expresses a false proposition when the sceptic utters it to assert the conclusion of her argument, and we make this mistake because we're distracted by our knowledge that an utterance of the sentence would express a falsehood in a quotidian context. Yet we've seen that while this error theory is an inevitable corollary of the semantics the Contextualist needs..., it's a pretty lame account of how, according to her, we came to be bamboozled by our own words."
("Contextualist Solutions to Scepticism," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 96: 317-33. 1996.)

This is sometimes referred to as the "semantic blindness" objection to contextualism: according to the contextualist solution to skepticism, we are all mistaken about what we mean when we say things like "I know that I have hands" or "I don't know that I'm not in the Matrix." Critically assess this objection. Explain the basics of the contextualist view, explain Schiffer's point, and consider how the contextualist would best respond.


You may write on a topic not found in the above list, but you must discuss it with the instructor first.