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Contemporary Epistemology (Level 5)


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 5
  • Convenor and tutor: to be confirmed
  • Assessment: a 1000-word essay (40%) and 1500-word essay (60%)

Module description

Epistemology deals with the nature of knowledge and the conditions under which we can attain it. In this module we cover a variety of questions in contemporary epistemology, such as: Do we need to be conscious of our reasons for believing what we do in order to know? Or is it sufficient that we’re set up in such a way that we tend to get things right, irrespective of whether we can say why? Can we be said to know anything at all, even if we can’t rule out that we’re dreaming right now, or that we’re part of some elaborate Matrix-style illusion?

We will also cover recent work in social epistemology, an approach to epistemology that takes seriously the social aspects of knowledge, for example by asking: What is the role of trust in inquiry, and when is it appropriate for us to defer to experts? More generally, what are the conditions under which we can come to know things by relying on the word of others? And what is the relationship between knowledge and power, given that what we know - and the extent to which we’re afforded the opportunity to communicate what we know - often depends on our social position?

Indicative syllabus

  • Perception
  • Introspection
  • The a priori
  • Testimony
  • Foundationalism and coherentism
  • Internalism and externalism
  • Cartesian scepticism
  • The problem of the criterion
  • The value of knowledge
  • Knowledge and power
  • Trust in testimony and experts
  • Reasonable peer disagreement
  • Judgement aggregation
  • Epistemological arguments for democracy

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • demonstrate detailed knowledge of well-established positions in debates over knowledge and its sources, the justification for beliefs, and social aspects of knowledge and their differences from theories focused on the individual knower
  • demonstrate an awareness of different ideas, contexts and frameworks deployed by contributors to debates in contemporary epistemology, and recognise some of their strengths and weaknesses
  • analyse and compare different theories of knowledge and justification, such as foundationalism, coherentism, internalism and externalism, and different ways of applying social epistemology in considering real-world problems
  • select appropriate criteria to evaluate philosophical responses to the problems raised by sceptical arguments, the relationship between knowledge and power, trust in inquiry, deference to experts, justification by testimony and the significance of disagreement.