Theories of Knowledge: How to Think about What You Know

Course No. 5701
Professor Joseph H. Shieber, PhD
Lafayette College
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Course No. 5701
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What Will You Learn?

  • Find out why epistemology and defining the nature of knowledge matters in our high-tech 21st century.
  • Examine our individual sources of knowledge, from sense perception to memory to logical inference.
  • Survey the nebulous world of social testimony.
  • Ground yourself in the theories of epistemology—and prepare to continue your study after the course concludes.

Course Overview

Humans have been attempting to understand for thousands of years what knowledge truly is and how we acquire it, but the more we learn about the human body, our brains, and the world around us, the more challenging the quest becomes. The 21st century is a fast-paced world of technological change and expanding social networks, a world where information is plentiful and cheap, but where truth seems in short supply.

When it comes to our never-ending search for the truth about knowledge, there are innumerable questions and considerations.

What is the best way to make a transformative decision, such as whether to have a child? What if common sense was diametrically opposed to rational decision theory?

If you see the correct time on a stopped clock, do you really know what time it is? Is that genuine knowledge or simply chance? And does the distinction matter?

Our memories are one of our primary channels for knowledge, but much of what we “remember” is actually false memories or confabulations. Where does that leave us?

Media organizations developed a strong culture of fact-checking in the 20th century, but can they continue to sustain this pursuit of truth in a world of “click-bait”?

These questions merely scratch the surface of “epistemology,” the philosophical term for our inquiry into knowledge: what it is, the ways we acquire it, and how we justify our beliefs as knowledge. Delve into these issues, and many more, in Theories of Knowledge: How to Think about What You Know. Taught by acclaimed Professor Joseph H. Shieber of Lafayette College, these 24 mind-bending lectures take you from ancient philosophers to contemporary neurobiologists, and from wide-ranging social networks to the deepest recesses of your own brain.

Epistemology is as old as philosophy itself. This survey takes you back to Plato, who defined knowledge in terms of “true belief”—a person’s belief that corresponds with some external truth. You’ll see how this relationship between knowledge, belief, and the truth aligns with what 20th-century developmental psychologists have learned about children and the way we first begin to access information.

It is these types of connections—between philosophical history and our world today, and between abstract theory and observed, real-world examples—that make Theories of Knowledge: How to Think about What You Know such a treat. This course will transform how you think about yourself, the world around you, and the very nature of reality.

Unpack Competing Theoretical Approaches

As you delve into this course, you’ll soon discover there are several competing frameworks for defining and validating knowledge. For an influential and widely accepted explanation of knowledge, a great place to start is Descartes’s “evil demon” argument. Descartes understood he could not be certain the entire world was not the fabrication of some evil demon. All he knew for certain, all he could say infallibly, was cogito, ergo sum—I think, therefore I am.

Epistemology has come a long way since Descartes, and while most philosophers take issue with much of Descartes’s reasoning, his theory still offers a foundational approach to understanding knowledge.

After reviewing this foundation, you will survey a number of key frameworks that will allow you to dive into a number of epistemological debates, including:

  • The foundationalist vs. the coherentist understanding of knowledge;
  • Internalist vs. externalist frameworks for justifying belief; and
  • The rationalism of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz vs. the empiricism of Locke and Hume—which led to Kant’s distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge.

By examining these debates, you’ll not only gain a sense of the breadth of epistemology, but you’ll also gain the language and the insights necessary to understand epistemology today.

Investigate Individual Sources of Knowledge

Regardless of whether you find the internalists or the externalists, the foundationalists or the coherentists more persuasive, there are two general ways of accessing knowledge: through personal channels and through our social networks. To bring the old philosophical debates to life and make abstract theories concrete, Professor Shieber outlines the individual sources of knowledge, including:

  • Sensory Perception: The most fundamental way we encounter the world is through our senses, but we must also understand that our senses are fallible. Using examples from cutting-edge ocular field theory and neurobiology, you will find out just how rocky our knowledge would be if it were based solely on what we perceive.
  • Memory & Self-Awareness: Surely, we know ourselves if nothing else about the world … right? Delve into the world of denial, false memories, confabulation, and more to challenge this key belief. See what advancements in computer science tell us about the very nature of the “self” as you take a foray into the “extended mind.”
  • Logic & Inference: From syllogisms to inductive reasoning, logic tells us much about the world—but like all personal sources of knowledge, logic has its weaknesses. For instance, the “raven’s paradox” asks us to ponder the claim, “All ravens are black.” Logic suggests the converse is true: “All things that are not black are not ravens.” Does evidence for the latter claim count as evidence for the former?

Reflect on Social Sources of Knowledge

After exploring the individual sources of knowledge, Professor Shieber turns to our social sources of knowledge, which often raise the question of trustworthiness. How can we verify we are receiving reliable and accurate information? How do I know someone isn’t lying to me? How can I be sure? Your investigation takes you through:

  • Social Testimony: Much of our knowledge depends on testimony from others. Even facts as basic as our names and the identities of our parents are based on information from others. How do we evaluate the truthfulness of social testimony? Or do we even evaluate the accuracy of what others tell us? Thinkers from David Hume to contemporary social psychologists have wrestled with this issue.
  • Scientific Achievement: Much of modern science relies on knowledge via “socially distributed cognitive systems.” For example, a 19th-century French project to update mathematical tables depended on the labor of ordinary workers relying on basic arithmetic—but who couldn’t comprehend the project as a whole. This process lends credence to a “social externalist” view of knowledge from testimony.
  • Media Reliability: We are living amidst a battle between fact-checking and “fake news.” How do you gauge the accuracy and reliability of the media? What role do our social networks have to play in our media consumption? And how do we incentivize a culture of fact-checking rather than “click-bait” and confirmation bias in our media institutions?

An Exciting Field

Professor Shieber closes the course with a look into the future of epistemology. While the field of inquiry has been around for thousands of years, philosophers are constantly opening up new areas of thought, from epistemic logic to issues of systemic injustice in the world. How do we combat cognitive bias? Who should we include in our social networks? How do we know we are not just brains in a vat?

As you will learn from the very beginning of this course, rationality and common sense often lead you to wildly different conclusions when it comes to making transformative decisions. But you don’t have to be making a life-changing decision to make use of the types of critical thinking epistemologists employ. We live in a messy, imperfect, and often irrational world, but Theories of Knowledge: How to Think about What You Know offers an excellent step toward becoming a better thinker, and a more engaged citizen.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 28 minutes each
  • 1
    Philosophy and Transformative Experiences
    What do philosophical “theories of knowledge” have to do with everyday life? If you believe the field of epistemology is esoteric and abstract, you’ll be surprised by how fundamental it is to everyday life. In this opening lecture, reflect on how we make “transformative” experiences—and why common sense might lead us astray. x
  • 2
    Knowledge, Truth, and Belief
    Philosophers have been ruminating on the nature of knowledge for thousands of years. Using Plato as your guide, investigate the relationship between “knowledge,” “truth,” and “belief.” Professor Shieber brings in contemporary psychology and what we know about child development to show how we come to know what we know. x
  • 3
    Foundationalism: Descartes's Evil Demon
    We’re all familiar with Descartes’s cogito, ergo sum, or “I think, therefore I am.” Delve into this powerful analysis of reality to discover what Descartes meant. As you’ll learn, he was trying to develop an infallible explanation for his knowledge of the world, which led him deep inside his own mind. x
  • 4
    The Coherence Theory of Knowledge
    Turn from Descartes's theory of infallible knowledge to fallible yet still internal theories of reality. The most prominent theory is coherentism, a framework for understanding the world in terms of logical cohesion and consistency. While this theory has much to offer, you'll also wrestle with several key challenges. x
  • 5
    Externalist Theories of Knowledge
    Not all theories of knowledge rely on internal justification. Here, you will explore several 20th-century approaches to knowledge that don't require that justification is internally accessible. Consider how to gauge beliefs in terms of external consistency, accuracy, reliability, and validity. x
  • 6
    Problems with Self-Knowledge
    Given all this talk of beliefs and external reality, surely it's safe to say we at least understand ourselves, right? Traditional, Cartesian epistemology may consider self-knowledge the foundation of all other knowledge, but as current research in psychology, biology, and neuroscience shows, our self-knowledge is far from complete or even accurate. x
  • 7
    Does Sense Perception Support Knowledge?
    One of the most significant sources of knowledge comes from sense perception—what we see, hear, smell, and experience of the world. Yet our common-sense way of thinking about sense perception is misleading at best. In this first of two lectures on perception, unpack the role of our senses in justifying beliefs about the world. x
  • 8
    Perception: Foundationalism and Externalism
    Continue your study of sense perception with a look at what it implies about the internalist and externalist theories you have studied so far. After examining several problems with internalist foundationalism, Professor Shieber explores how cognitive psychology supports an externalist view of knowledge. x
  • 9
    The Importance of Memory for Knowledge
    Memory plays a crucial role in knowledge because all of our perceptions are impermanent and fleeting. Here, you will examine the nature of memory. Are memories stored experiences in the mind, or are they past events themselves? And does memory merely preserve belief, or can you gain new knowledge from your memories? x
  • 10
    Confabulations and False Memories
    One of the most intriguing aspects of memory is just how fallible it is as a guide to reality. In this lecture, you will turn to how memory fits into the internalist and externalist theories of knowledge. False memories, confabulations, source theories, and forgotten evidence show just how tricky memory really is. x
  • 11
    The Extended Mind
    We are quickly approaching a future of augmented reality, simulated consciousness, brain implants, and more. These brain enhancements raise a number of philosophical questions: What counts as your mind? And is an enhanced brain a better brain? Consider the role of smart phones and photographs in preserving memory. x
  • 12
    Do We Have Innate Knowledge?
    Step back to one of the Enlightenment's most captivating debates: Do we know the world through our own minds (as Descartes argued) or through empirical evidence (as Locke and Hume argued)? After unpacking this debate, see how Kant came to the rescue to distinguish between a priori and a posteriori knowledge. x
  • 13
    How Deduction Contributes to Knowledge
    Much of our belief system stems from things we have not experienced directly; rather, we infer much of our knowledge through the processes of logical reasoning. Here, tackle the role of deduction, in which inference stems from the logical relationship of a series of steps. Consider syllogisms, “if-then” arguments, and other deductive procedures. x
  • 14
    Hume's Attack on Induction
    Deduction and induction are the two types of logical inference. In this first of two explorations of induction, you will examine the reliability and usefulness of induction. You'll start with David Hume's challenge to induction to see whether it can be used to generate knowledge at all. And even if knowledge comes from inductive inference, are humans any good at it? x
  • 15
    The Raven Paradox and New Riddle of Induction
    Continue your tour of induction by looking at a few logical puzzles. There are no easy answers to the raven paradox or the new riddle of induction, but picking apart these challenges can offer valuable lessons about inductive inference. Revisit Hume's attack, and reflect on how Bayes's theorem of probability applies to inductive reasoning. x
  • 16
    Know-How versus Propositional Knowledge
    So far, this course has tackled “propositional knowledge”—or knowledge that X is true. But knowledge-that isn’t the only kind of knowledge. Although philosophers didn’t think much about knowledge-how (know-how) until recently, it has much to teach us—especially about internalist and externalist theories of knowledge. x
  • 17
    Knowledge Derived from Testimony
    Sensory perception, memory, self-awareness, and logical inference are all personal sources of knowledge, but much of our knowledge comes from consulting others' expertise. Discover the breadth of knowledge that comes from testimony, and find out what perils exist in relying on the word of others. x
  • 18
    Social Psychology and Source Monitoring
    To evaluate knowledge that comes from testimony, you might think we analyze the trustworthiness of the source and weigh our beliefs accordingly. But as social psychology tells us and you will see here, we are very bad at spotting liars, and we tend to accept testimony without consciously monitoring the source of the information. x
  • 19
    Testimony through Social Networks
    Social networks play a powerful role in how we acquire knowledge from others. Here, explore the nature of our social networks—how many close friends we tend to have, and how many people are in our wider social network—and then see how our networks provide us information, and how reliable the information is. x
  • 20
    The Reliability of Scientific Testimony
    Previously, you discovered the “social externalist” theory of testimony. Examples from the scientific world provide evidence for this view of ensuring accurate testimony. Reflect on several scientific achievements made possible by “socially distributed cognitive processes”—processes where the sum is greater than the individual players. x
  • 21
    Testimony in the Media
    The media is a great example of a socially distributed process—but how do we know the information is reliable and accurate? Go inside the world of media fact-checking and how our media consumption impacts our knowledge. Consider the challenge of ensuring accuracy in the age of “click-bait.” x
  • 22
    Pragmatic and Moral Encroachment
    Much of this course has focused on the truth-likelihood of knowledge, without focusing on the particular interests of the knower. In this lecture, survey two key challenges to this approach: First, do your practical interests impact whether you have knowledge? Second, do your moral concerns impact whether you have knowledge? x
  • 23
    Radical Skepticism: The Brain in a Vat
    Return to the beginning, in which you studied Descartes’s radical skepticism. While there are many problems with Descartes’s theory of knowledge, his fundamental skepticism is tough to reckon with. How do we know we are not just a brain in a vat, à la The Matrix? Delve into several arguments against this scenario. x
  • 24
    The Future of Epistemology
    Epistemology is an old field, but in the 21st century there has been an explosion of new ideas, approaches, and applications. Conclude the course with a look at the future of the field, including “formal epistemology,” “epistemic injustice,” and the potential integration of externalist, foundationalist, and coherentist approaches to knowledge. x

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Joseph H. Shieber

About Your Professor

Joseph H. Shieber, PhD
Lafayette College
Joseph H. Shieber is an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Lafayette College, where he has taught since 2003. Before arriving at Lafayette, he taught philosophy at Brown University, Connecticut College, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Shieber earned a BA in Literature from Yale University, studied mathematics and philosophy at the Freie Universität Berlin, and earned AM and PhD degrees...
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Theories of Knowledge: How to Think about What You Know is rated 3.6 out of 5 by 10.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from PHILOSOPHY FOR POSITIVISTS This is not the epistemology course that I had hoped for. Which is not to say that it does not accurately represent the current state of Anglo-American academic philosophy with roots in analytic philosophy, logical positivism, and an urge to render the subject as “scientific” as possible. Hence the course’s heavy emphasis on neuroscience, psychology and sociology. Personally, I prefer the traditional, historical approach to epistemology with roots in Continental European philosophy that is more hospitable to skepticism and more content with a lack of knowledge. For me, the high points of epistemology are the debates between Socrates and the Sophists, the contributions of Locke, Hume, and Berkeley resolved by Kant in a manner that has served as authority for positivists and skeptics alike, the strong support for skepticism provided by Nietzsche, the retreat from his earlier positivism by the later Wittgenstein, and the upending of structuralism by post-structuralists and postmodernists like Foucault and Derrida. In this course, the instructor’s presentation matches his approach to the subject. His delivery is almost machine-like with never a slip of the tongue, a loss for words, or a verbal or physical expression of perplexity or doubt. He sounds more like an engineer than a philosopher. He manages to take all of the fun out of what is otherwise a fascinating subject. A related Teaching Company course that I enjoyed much more than this one is "Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It" by Professor Steven L. Goldman.
Date published: 2019-06-26
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Theories of Knowledge Course was hard to follow. Didn’t start with Epistemology. Not used until the 3rd disk and then not defined. Epistemology is how you know things. The theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. As opposed to Heuristics, the process that you use to understand things. Disorganized. Hard to follow. Especially the metaphors explaining things Confused between knowledge and validity. Example I learn something, e.g., UFOs are real. - knowledge I learn the UFO’s are not real. Also, knowledge I now know that UFOs are not real, and that is still knowledge. You can (even need to know) know things that are not valid. Knowledge is something that is in your head (memory). Whether the knowledge is TRUE is a secondary consideration and separate from the knowledge. SIMPILIFY The standard example for the requirement to simplify is Occam’s Razor. Most useful – Section on the Dunning-Kruger information. Good detail. Will have to go over the course again.
Date published: 2019-06-26
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Questionable Title. I found the course interesting, but had difficulty with the vocabulary too often. However, to be honest the Professor did throughout the course refresh word meanings. I also had a bit of a problem with a number of his examples, and still wonder how he can come to the conclusions he did. But he did a number of times address theories and ideas that I had been exposed to in philosophy discussions, but never completely understood. I've mixed views on this course. I have to admit that it made me think and that I did learn from it. But it was not what I had expected when ordering it.
Date published: 2019-06-07
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Psychology of Interest; Philosophy Not So Much A more accurate title for this course would be "Philosophical Analysis of Some Recent Developments in Psychology." A number of interesting psychological observations are described throughout the course. (One of the most surprising is the failure of many study subjects to notice a man in a gorilla suit walking among them when they are focused on a task. Another example is the discussion of the fact, well-known to any scientist, that observations which "disconfirm" a theory have more import than confirmatory observations. Many other examples could be given.) But this is a philosophy course, and the focus is on epistemology, or the philosophy of knowledge - what it is, and how we acquire it. As a philosophical dilettante (I enjoy auditing philosophy courses and reading books on the subject; for what it's worth, my most admired philosophers are Nietzsche, except for his misogyny, and Wittgenstein), I would not presume to judge how well Professor Shieber has summarized his field. But I found the philosophy as presented to be overwhelmingly uninsightful, presenting a superficial analysis of the obvious. Consider one of the examples provided in the course description: "If you see the correct time on a stopped clock, do you really know what time it is? Is that genuine knowledge or simply chance? And does the distinction matter?" Now, come on! We all understand exactly what the situation is. It's called a coincidence. The person says she "knows" the correct time, and in fact it is the correct time, because she saw it on the clock. But those of us who are aware the clock is stopped, and that it just happened to show the correct time when it was observed, can say "you don't really know the time, you are just lucky to have come up with the right answer." This has apparently led to deep philosophical disagreements about whether this person's awareness of the correct time is true "knowledge." It seems obvious to me that you can define it as knowledge or not, as you wish; there is no deeper truth to be established here. This is the most extreme example of my point, but there are many similar confusions of definition with analysis throughout. The course description provides a good overview of the issues discussed, and the difficulty with definition versus analysis can be inferred from the information there. One other major problem is our professor's approach. He presents his lectures as if he is at a philosophy conference arguing for his point of view, instead of providing a balanced assessment of the pros and cons of the different perspectives. One argument is described as "absurd"; of another our professor states "it is difficult to see how [it] could be at all plausible." Most lectures conclude with a defense of his own preferred theory. This is not a helpful way to present an overview of a field to non-specialists. For those interested in philosophy, I highly recommend "The Big Questions of Philosophy" by Professor David Kyle Johnson. It is superb in all respects, but I felt essentially the same way about its discussion of philosophical theories of knowledge. But - Why am I recommending this course, when I don't feel the time I spent taking it was worthwhile? Because I am having more difficulty than usual separating my personal reaction from an evaluation of the course itself. Others who disagree with me about theories of knowledge may find the time well spent. So, if you have an interest in this area, by all means consider it. If you do take it, please discuss your thoughts in some detail here! Thank you.
Date published: 2019-05-25
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Would NOT recommend this course I bought this course as I am interested in epistemology, and I have purchased a number of philosophy courses from The Great Courses which have all been outstanding. I was deeply disappointed in this course. I could not follow what the professor was trying to get across in the very first lecture. I wanted to give the professor a fair chance so I watched lectures 2 and 3 which were similarly confusing. At that point I gave up and returned the course. I suppose I should have watched more lectures, but I have so many other courses to watch that I didn't want to waste any more time.
Date published: 2019-05-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Informative about ways of thinking about the world The topics covered are good, though a mix of things, some of which will be more interesting and relevant than others. Many of the lectures are about various insider or professional 'isms' of philosophers and one can get lost in the use of terminology and academic arguments. This can sometimes be irrelevant to what non-professional viewers want to hear about. But you can skip and explore, and the main, interesting aspects of how we know things are covered. So there is much to learn here about some of the most interesting questions of the world.
Date published: 2019-04-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very well organized presentation Excellent, well-outlined, clear presentation of the subject with many 'real-life' examples.
Date published: 2019-04-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Problems of "Knowing" We live in a fact-challenged time, with a number of rather ill-informed people asserting that "their" views are true and reality-based. The real truth is that for even those among us who try the hardest to obtain facts, think calmly and comprehensively about matters, and then cautiously move to measure and/or test our hypotheses -- we still cannot really be certain that what we believe to be true is. The reasons are many, as this course points out, and much of it has to do with how our brains process and organize information, and then use it to project patterns of "reality." All of this was formed very early in our pre-human ancestors as necessary for day-to-day survival and, in dealing with daily occurrences in our own lives even today, works rather well. The problems begin when we attempt to extrapolate from our own experience; it is very easy for us to assume/believe that we "know" more than we actually do. And all of this is the case before we encounter those who intentionally are seeking to mislead and/or manipulate us! Our brains are truly incredible organisms, but we do well to understand their limitations. Humility regarding our own certainties would also go a long way to facilitate the kind of exchange of information and pursuit of facts that we need if we are to get ourselves out of the kind of inter-tribal shouting we experience all too often today. Non-scientists and non-philosophers (that is, persons like me) should be cautioned that this professor, while doing an admirable job in presenting material factually and clearly, nonetheless uses an academic, structural style of presentation that did not much appeal to me. I place this caveat last because I recognize that this is because of how I process information and, therefore, cannot be validly perceived to be a criticism of the professor or of the value of this course. My training and career has been in the social and political "sciences," making both philosophical and mathematical types of reasoning more foreign and difficult for me. There is great value in this course; persons like myself just have to work a little harder to extract it.
Date published: 2019-03-29
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