Relativism and Skepticism

Philosophy 124, Spring 2012
Tuesday & Friday, 1:10-2:35 | Paresky 220

No laptops or food in class.

Joe Cruz, Department of Philosophy & Program in Cognitive Science

Research and teaching assistant: Zoe Jenkin


From the Course Catalog:

Intellectually, we are ready skeptics and relativists. We doubt, we point out that no one can be certain in what she believes, and we are suspicious of declarations of transcendent reason or truth (unless they are our own). Emboldened by our confidence in skeptical arguments, we claim that knowledge is inevitably limited, that it depends on one's perspective, and that everything one believes is relative to context or culture. No domain of inquiry is immune to this destructive skepticism and confident relativism. Science is only "true" for some people, agnosticism is the only alternative to foolish superstition, and moral relativism and, consequently, nihilism are obvious.

But is the best conclusion we can come to with respect to our intellectual endeavors that skepticism always carries the day and that nothing at all is true? In this tutorial, we will investigate the nature of skepticism and the varieties of relativism it encourages. Our readings will come primarily from philosophy, but will be supplemented with material from anthropology, physics, psychology, and linguistics. We will look at relativism with respect to reason and truth in general as well as with respect to science, religion, and morality. Along the way, we will need to come to grips with the following surprising fact. With few exceptions, thoroughgoing skepticism and relativism have not been the prevailing views of the greatest minds in the history of philosophy. Were they simply too unsophisticated and confused to understand what is for us the irresistible power of skepticism and relativism? Or might it be that our skepticism and relativism are the result of our own laziness and failure? Of course, these questions cannot really be answered, nor is there any value in trying to answer it, and any "answer" will only be "true" for you. Right?

This is a writing intensive course.

REQUIRED TEXTS

The reading packet contains all of the required readings.


GRADING

    Grading on all writing assignments will be anonymous. Please turn in your papers with only your Williams ID number on it in some unobtrusive place. You may email your paper as an attachment.

Anonymous grading is one way of assuring that the collegiality of our interactions does not cloud my assessment of your work. Grading blindly is not a perfect mechanism for this purpose. One disadvantage to anonymous grading is that I will not know when your work is systematically inadequate and will not approach you with concerns about your writing. As a result, there is an additional burden of responsibility on your shoulders. You must elect to visit office hours, to discuss your work with the teaching assistant, and to seek out informal opportunities to improve your writing.

The desire to preserve the integrity of the anonymous grading system should never prevent you from seeking advice on assignments for this course. You are encouraged to speak with me with your work in hand. Naturally this will reveal facts of authorship, and may give the instructor some insight into your style and interests. Still, your success in meeting the challenges of this course should always be our first concern.

    1. Essay assignments

      For this course you will write FOUR essays, 1500-1800 words, strictly enforced. Indicate the word count not including the bibliography at the bottom of the last page.

    The point of these assignments is to have you present a well developed and carefully argued thesis on topics we have covered. THIS IS DIFFERENT FROM MERELY GIVING YOUR OPINION OR CONFESSING YOUR EXPERIENCES. You must give reasons for why the reader should agree with you.

    I have prepared an on-line writing tutor for introductory philosophical essays. Please put aside a couple of hours to go through it fairly early in the semester.

    Essays should be typewritten, double spaced in a 12 point font with 1 inch margins. No title page. You may turn in your assignments in advance. Papers turned in the day after it is due will be penalized 1 grade step (e.g., A- to B+). Papers turned in on the second day after it is due will be assessed an additional two grade steps (e.g., A- to B-, counting the first penality). Papers turned in on the third day after it is due will be penalized an additional four grade steps. The only exceptions will be due to medical issues documented by the Deans Office.

      Written work must reflect original thoughts and ideas.

    The essays for this course are not research papers. You will not be expected to consult outside sources for your work. Any direct quotations or paraphrased material from outside sources must be credited and footnoted. Violation of this constitutes plagiarism.

    If you have questions about how the honor code applies to written work, please do not hesitate to contact me.

      Each essay is worth 22.5% of your final grade.

    2. Participation

      Discussion is essential to the vitality of the class, and is a crucial component of philosophical engagement. Thoughtful participation in class discussion is also one indicator that you are reading carefully. Thus, the instructor reserves the privilege of treating participation as constituting 10% of the final grade.

      Your first priority is reading the assignments carefully and working diligently on the writing for the course. Thoughtful, honest, and respectful participation derives from these. Every effort will be made to ensure that the class is a welcoming forum for sharing serious ideas. In addition, 'participation' is more inclusive than many students realize. Being attentive and engaged in class, asking clarificatory questions, and discussing aspects of the course with the instructor during office hours all fall under this heading.


SEMINAR RESOURCES

    Office Hours - The instructor is available for office meetings each week in Hollander 306. You may visit individually or in a group. You do not need to have a specific assignment or difficulty in mind in order to come to my office. Wide-ranging conversations about the class, about philosophy, or about intellectual inquiry at Williams are very welcome. By appointment, or during the following open-door times:

      Tuesdays 2:30-4
      Thursdays 1-2:30

    Philosophy Table - You are invited to join me for lunch in Paresky before class to discuss philosophy. These may be topics that arise in seminar, but need not be. We may occasionally be joined by other Williams faculty, and you are welcome to invite friends who are not in the class. We will meet in the front of the great hall at noon. Obviously, philosophy table is completely optional.

    Teaching Assistant - Zoe Jenkin will be available to talk informally about the readings, the class discussion, and the paper assignments. Please email her for meeting times.

    Philosophy Study Hall - Before each essay is due the instructor and teaching assistant will meet to talk about paper ideas and to discuss philosophy. These OPTIONAL sessions will typically go from 9pm to about 11:30. Feel welcome to bring your notes, books, and laptop.

    Students with disabilities who may need disability-related classroom accommodations for this course are encouraged to set up an appointment to meet with me as soon as possible and to contact the Dean's Office (at extension 4262) to better insure that accommodations are provided in a timely manner.

Schedule of Topics and Readings

February

3

Discussion: Introduction to Relativism and Skepticism
Readings: None


7

Discussion: Plato and the Refutation of Protagoras
Readings:

Plato, from Theaetetus, 151d-171d



10
Discussion: Plato and the Refutation of Protagoras
Readings: Plato, from Theaetetus, 171e-186d


14 ♥
Discussion: On the Alleged Refutation of Protagoras
Readings: Maria Baghramian, from Relativism (2004), chapter 1


17

Discussion: Pyrronic Skepticism
Readings: Sextus Empiricus, from Outlines of Skepticism


21
Discussion: Pyrronic Skepticism
Readings: Sextus Empiricus, from Outlines of Skepticism


24
Discussion: Buddhist skepticism
Readings: Nagarjuna, from the Madhyamaka


28

Discussion: Buddhist skepticism
Readings: Nagarjuna, from the Madhyamaka


Wednesday
29

@11:59PM

FIRST ESSAY DUE

 


March

2

Discussion: Modern Skepticism
Readings:

Descartes, from Meditations on First Philosophy, Meditation I & II



6

Discussion: Ignorance
Readings: Keith Lehrer (1971), "Why Not Skepticism?"


9
Discussion: Idealism
Readings: Berkeley, from A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge


13
Discussion: Self
Readings:

Nagarjuna, from the Madhyamaka

Locke, from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Hume, from A Treatise of Human Nature



16
Discussion: Self
Readings: Robert Nozick, from Philosophical Explanations (1981), chapter 1



Saturday
17

11:59PM


SECOND ESSAY DUE

 


April

3

Discussion: Truth, Morality, and Perspectivism
Readings: Nietzsche, from Beyond Good and Evil


6

Discussion: Truth, Morality, and Perspectivism
Readings: Simon Blackburn, from Truth:A Guide (2005), chapter 4.


 10

Discussion: Moral Relativism & Objectivity
Readings: J. L. Mackie, from Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong


13

Discussion: Moral Relativism & Objectivity
Readings: Gilbert Harman, "Moral Relativism Defended"


17
Discussion: Moral Relativism & Objectivity
Readings: Alan White, "One Way to Be a Moral Relativist"


20
Discussion: Moral Relativism & Objectivity
Readings: Russ Shafer-Landau, from The Fundamentals of Ethics(2010), chapters 19-20.


Sunday
29

11:59PM

THIRD ESSAY DUE

 


24
Discussion: Mind, Language, & Relativism
Readings:

Whorf, "The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language"

Geoff Pullum (1991), from The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax



27

Discussion: Mind, Language, & Relativism
Readings:

Stephen Pinker, from The Language Instinct

Peter Gordon, "Numerical Cognition Without Words: Evidence from Amazonia"

Lera Boroditsky, "How Language Shapes Thought"



May

1

Discussion: Science
Readings:

Thomas Kuhn, from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions



4

Discussion: Science
Readings:

Richard Boyd, "On the Current Status of Scientfic Realism"




8
Discussion: Special Relativity
Readings:

Einstein, "What is the Theory of Relativity?"

Peter Kosso, from Appearance and Reality (1998), chapters 3-5.




11
Discussion: Quantum Mechanics and the Measurement Problem
Readings:

Bohr, "Discussions with Einstein on epistemological problems in atomic physics"

Einstein, "Reply to criticisms"

Peter Kosso, from Appearance and Reality (1998), chapters 6-7




16

11:59pm

FINAL ESSAY DUE