Theories of Knowledge: How to Think about What You Know

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
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Theories of Knowledge: How to Think about What You A great course for smart people! It discusses epistemological questions and clarifies complex concepts.
Date published: 2019-03-26
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Theories of Knowledge: How to Think about What You Know
Course Trailer
Philosophy and Transformative Experiences
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.

29 min
Knowledge, Truth, and Belief
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.

28 min
Foundationalism: Descartes’s Evil Demon
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.

28 min
The Coherence Theory of Knowledge
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.

31 min
Externalist Theories of Knowledge
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.

29 min
Problems with Self-Knowledge
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.

29 min
Does Sense Perception Support Knowledge?
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.

30 min
Perception: Foundationalism and Externalism
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.

28 min
The Importance of Memory for Knowledge
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?

28 min
Confabulations and False Memories
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.

28 min
The Extended Mind
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.

28 min
Do We Have Innate Knowledge?
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.

29 min
How Deduction Contributes to Knowledge
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.

29 min
Hume’s Attack on Induction
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?

28 min
The Raven Paradox and New Riddle of Induction
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.

28 min
Know-How versus Propositional Knowledge
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.

30 min
Knowledge Derived from Testimony
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.

28 min
Social Psychology and Source Monitoring
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.

29 min
Testimony through Social Networks
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.

28 min
The Reliability of Scientific Testimony
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.

29 min
Testimony in the Media
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.”

28 min
Pragmatic and Moral Encroachment
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?

27 min
Radical Skepticism: The Brain in a Vat
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.

28 min
The Future of Epistemology
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.

37 min
Joseph H. Shieber

 The study of knowledge is as old as philosophy itself.


Brown University


Lafayette College

About Joseph H. Shieber

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 in Philosophy from Brown University.

Dr. Shieber has published numerous articles in epistemology, philosophy of language, and the history of modern philosophy in some of the top journals in the field of philosophy. He is also the author of Testimony: A Philosophical Introduction as well as a monthly Monday columnist for 3 Quarks Daily (

Dr. Shieber is a recipient of the Thomas Roy and Lura Forrest Jones Faculty Lecture Award in recognition of excellence in teaching and scholarship from Lafayette College. He regularly teaches courses in theory of knowledge, philosophy of language, history of 20th-century philosophy, logic, and metaphysics as well as a first-year seminar on propaganda.

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