Junior Seminar in Epistemology, Fall 2019

Instructor: Adam Elga <http://www.princeton.edu/~adame>

This page: http://www.princeton.edu/~adame/teaching/PHIJS_F2019

Seminar meetings: 1-3pm at 121 1879 Hall on the following days:

1 Description

What justifies your confidence that the external world exists, or that you are not living in a computer simulation? Is it ever reasonable to believe something just because believing it will have good consequences for you? Should you reduce your confidence in your political views if you find out that you would have taken contrary views had you been raised by different parents? Can two people with the same evidence rationally disagree?

We will address these and related questions by carefully analyzing contemporary arguments and completing written assignments of increasing difficulty, culminating in a term paper on one of the seminar’s main readings. The seminar aims to be a bridge between regular coursework and pure independent work in philosophy.

2 Organization

There will be considerable in-class work with other students creating argument maps. You can get a taste of what argument mapping is all about at this page for a Freshman Seminar focused on argument mapping. If you’d like to try your hand at making a map, the argument visualization page for the mapping tool “Mindmup” is a good place to start (and includes a nice getting-started video tutorial).

Some portion of class time will be organized as follows. I will at the beginning of class randomly select a student to give a brief (2-3 minute) recap of a particular argument from that week’s assigned reading. It is expected that you will each week take some notes or annotations for yourself on the main arguments contained in that week’s reading so that you can give a reasonable recap in case you are randomly selected. However, it is not expected that you understand the reading perfectly in advance of class. If you were confused, you should just say so, and ideally have thought about things enough in advance to at least zero in on the point of confusion.

(You may if you wish write out in advance and bring to class a paragraph of prose that you read or refer to if you are asked to give a recap. Doing so is optional. What is required is that you have some sort of notes or annotations that allow you to give a reasonable brief exposition of the main arguments of the required reading.)

You will then work in pairs on an assignment related to that argument. The assignments will vary throughout the semester, and may include

  • Creating a map of the argument
  • Summarizing the argument compactly
  • Answering a particular interpretive question about the argument
  • Objecting to one of the argument’s premises

While you are working in pairs, I’ll be circulating to answer questions and look at your progress. Finally we will all reconvene to consolidate ideas.

Since we will be mapping and working on writing assignments almost every class, please bring a charged, wifi-enabled laptop to each class. When not using the laptop for mapping or working on writing assignments (for example during small-group discussions in class), please close your laptop lid (to increase conversational engagement).

3 Readings

The readings are linked below, organized by topic. Starred readings are required and any remaining readings are optional background. Note that sometimes a section or page range is indicated after a required reading. In such cases, only the indicated portion of that reading is required.

To access the readings, use userid “guest”, and a password distributed in class. (If you are a prospective student in the course interested in looking at the readings, please email me a request for the password.)

In addition, you may wish to access a folder containing all of the assigned papers (together with optional background readings, including ones not listed below).

4 First written assignment

Your first assignment is due noon on Thursday September 26 (for this assignment, both groups have the same due date). Before then please:

  • Set up Mindmup using this guide: Getting started with MindMup
  • Familiarize yourself with argument mapping by reading this handout: Getting started with argument mapping
  • Make a map of this passage: Are you a brain in a vat?
  • 24 hours before the first class meeting, submit this map to me as a pdf attachment (use “File > Print” within MindMup to produce a PDF of a map). A link to a the web submission form will be emailed to you separately.
  • Bring a printout of your map to the first class meeting.
  • Each student is assigned one of the starred readings below.
  • Read your assigned paper (only) and write a paragraph-long blurb (no more than 200 words) on what question the the paper concerns and what its main argument is.
  • The point of the paragraphs is to give other students in the class a sense of whether they might be interested in writing their final paper about that reading. Since the target audience is other students who have never read the paper, it is important to be clear and concise, and to avoid jargon whenever possible. Since the point is to help students figure out whether they are particularly interested in the reading, it would be good to point out something exciting, cool, challenging or novel in the paper.
  • Bring a printout of your paragraph to the first class meeting.
  • There is no mandatory reading for the first class meeting beyond the one paper that you were asked to write a paragraph on. That said, you may wish to flip through some of the other starred readings, to help start thinking about what topic you might be interested in writing your term paper on.

5 Sessions

Disagreement and group disagreement (10/11, 10/18)

Contingency and uniqueness (10/25, 11/5)

Draft workshop (12/5, 12/13)

  • Readings will be paper drafts written by other students. More information to follow.

6 Responsibilities

Weekly responsibilities

  • Do the required reading before class, which will typically be one philosophy article. Do the reading with enough care (and take enough notes) so that if in class you are randomly selected to give a brief recap of a central argument contained in the reading you are able to do so, or at least say with some degree of specificity why you had difficulty understanding that argument.
  • Participate fully in class, which I take to include leaving laptop screens closed except when in use for mapping or completing writing assignments, and leaving phones in pockets or bags. It also includes coming prepared, staying on task during class time, advancing group and pair discussions without monopolizing them, and bringing out the best in your partners.
  • Submit periodic short writing assignments on time.

Term paper

There will be a term paper of at least 4000 words on an argument or arguments from one of the starred syllabus readings. More detailed guidance on the term paper.

  • Substantial draft due: noon on Thursday Nov 14, 2019.
  • Final version due: 5pm on Tuesday Jan 7, 2020.

7 Grade

Term paper
In-class work / short homework assignments

8 Course mechanics and policies

Late homework

Since we may freely discuss the homework shortly after it is submitted, late submissions will not be accepted. When there are legitimate extraordinary excusing circumstances that have been supported by written documentation, the grading penalty for not submitting an assignment may be waived at the instructor’s discretion.

If you miss a seminar session

If you need to miss a seminar session, please email me in advance.

If you miss a session for whatever reason, it is your responsibility to from another student find out what happened and get copies of any notes or handouts. After doing that, if you have questions about what was covered, please meet with me to discuss them.

Collaboration policy

For short writing assignments during the semester and the term paper, unless otherwise specified we encourage you to talk with other students about the assigned reading and the arguments contained in them, provided that:

  1. You meticulously document who you talked to.
  2. The work you produce arises from your own understanding of the material. In other words, talk with others to help understand the argument, but create your map (or short written assignment) based on that discussion rather than jointly creating a map (or piece of writing) with other students. Do not, under any circumstances, copy another person’s map or writing. When in doubt, ask the instructor for guidance.

    Keep in mind, also, that need to read the arguments on your own before you begin discussing them with others.

Use of work

The work you do for this course may be anonymously used for the benefit of other students. If you would prefer that your work not be used in this way, please email the course instructor at any time in the semester. No explanation is required: an email with subject line “I opt out of future use of my work” is sufficient. Students who opt out will not be penalized in any way. Also, if you are generally ok with such use but there is a particular assignment you’d prefer to be kept private, feel free to include a note saying so at the top of that assignment.

Grading standards

Philosophy Department independent work guide

Regardless of what the average of your graded materials, to pass the course all of the following conditions must be met:

  • No more than one unexcused absence
  • At least a minimal level of attention and engagement during discussion and small-group work
  • Submit a term paper that gets a passing grade
  • A-range work will typically have the following characteristics
    • Homework
      • All assignments submitted on time in the specified format according to the submission guidelines
      • Written assignments rarely contain mechanical errors
      • Written assignments all reflect having read the assigned readings carefully and having thought about and digested them
      • Many homework assignments contain a worthwhile and original thought or suggestion
    • In-class small-group work sessions
      • Full attendance
      • Any argument mapping done in appropriate shared folder
      • “Share the wheel”:
        • Work with your partner together on the joint project, as opposed to on your own
        • Contribute your own ideas and ask questions to clarify matters, even if you are confused and/or feel as though your partner understands things better than you. In other words: don’t just be a “passenger” and let your partner steer the work the whole time.
        • Let your partner contribute to the project, and help answer their questions, even if you know just what to do and/or feel as though you understand things better than your partner. In other words: don’t just be “the driver” and steer the work the whole time.
      • Keep discussion on class-related matters (as opposed to general chatting)
      • Do not use phone or laptop for non-class purposes. For example, don’t check messages even a single time during the semester. (Checking messages during a designated in-class break is OK.)
      • If you and your partner get done with the assignment or get stuck before time is up, ask the instructor to come over so that they can take a look at your work, set you up with something to think about, or give you help, as appropriate. Do not just start chatting about non-class matters or stare into space.
    • In-class discussions
      • Whenever called upon to lay out a central argument from the readings, have read and taken adequate notes on the reading to give a sensible account of the argument (this is compatible with your identifying points or aspects of the argument that you had a hard time following).
      • Your comments in class reflect having done all of the required reading carefully. For this component of your grade, there is no expectation that you read any of the optional readings.
      • You come to each class session with some sort of angle or issue that your consideration of the assigned reading raised. For example, you might have identified a portion of the reading that you had trouble following, or that you have an objection to or question about, or that you think could be strengthened with an additional consideration. Or maybe the reading got you to think of an argument of your own on the topic. This goes beyond just reading passively, and is often associated with the sort of reading that one needs to have a pen or laptop in hand to do (to make notes and record questions).
      • When an instructor or student says something you don’t understand, you typically ask a question.
  • B-range work will typically have some of the following characteristics
    • Homework
      • All but perhaps one assignment submitted on time in the specified format according to the submission guidelines
      • Written assignments contain a few mechanical errors
      • Written assignments almost all reflect having read the assigned readings fairly carefully and having thought about them a bit
      • Some homework assignments contain a worthwhile and original thought or suggestion
    • In-class small-group work sessions
      • Full attendance or perhaps one partial absence
      • Some argument mapping done outside of appropriate shared folder
      • “Share the wheel” followed fairly well, but some times of either wheel-hogging or pure-passengering
      • A small amount of non-class-related-chatting
    • In-class discussions
      • Mostly, when called upon to lay out a central argument from the readings, you have read and taken adequate notes on the reading to give a sensible account of the argument
      • Your comments in class mostly reflect having done all of the required reading reasonably carefully.
      • You come to several class sessions with some sort of angle or issue that your consideration of the assigned reading raised.
      • When an instructor or student says something you don’t understand, you sometimes ask a question.
  • Work that earns a C-range grade or below
    • Overall, lowered versions of the above standards are met or some of the above standards are met but others are very far from being met

Academic integrity policy

The policy for giving credit to others in your papers is the standard University academic integrity policy. When we ask you in a homework assignment to map a particular passage, it is ok to use language from that passage without special attribution when you complete the homework. However, keep in mind that one can often produce better maps by putting things into your own words to simplify matters.

When you have collaborated on work of any kind, always detail what help you received from collaborators.

Academic accommodations because of a disability

Students requesting academic accommodations must register with the Office of Disability Services (ODS) mailto:ods@princeton.edu (609-258-8840) for disability verification and determination of eligibility for reasonable academic accommodations. If you are approved for accommodations and would like to discuss implementation with me, please make an appointment to meet in order to maintain confidentiality in addressing your needs. Requests for testing accommodations for this course should be made at least two weeks in advance, or as soon as possible for newly approved students, in order to make arrangements to implement the accommodations. No accommodations may be given without authorization from ODS, or without reasonable advance notice.

Adam Elga | Princeton University