Epistemology in Non-Philosophy Sources

Suppose you wanted to teach epistemology using sources other than those by philosophers. You want to use literature, science, and other kinds of things when they provide a vehicle for discussing important epistemological issues.

To get things started, here’s one idea: “The Tree of Knowledge,” by Henry James (thanks to Robert Johnson for the suggestion). It raises interesting questions about the value of knowledge, in particular. Other ideas?


Epistemology in Non-Philosophy Sources — 15 Comments

  1. How about Othello: lot’s of misleading evidence. Perhaps O. is subjectively justified, though it seems he’s ignoring a type of evidence or mishandling testimony. I’d love to hear evaluations of where (if anywhere) Othello went wrong epistemically. Maybe he’s epistemically innocent and merely the unfortunate victim if Iago’s deception, but I think not.

  2. Jon,

    The movie is good for merely introducing, at a very elementary level, concepts of evidence, prejudice, epistemic oughts, epistemic virtues and vices, etc. No big ideas; no subtle distinctions. It would not be terribly helpful to good students. But I think it would be helpful for 1st year students at colleges where the students are a bit weak academically and often take a Philosophy 101 course in order to satisfy some breadth requirement.

  3. There is, to my knowledge, no literary treatment of the problem of the external world that surpasses Proust. But I have no idea how one would incorporate Proust into a philosophy course. Joyce’s *A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man* is outstanding and is especially effective in depicting the many facets of struggling with religious convictions. I have not yet used it in teaching, however, though I recommend it to interested students. I have used Walker Percy’s *The Moviegoer* in introductory-level courses as a depiction of a fideist alternative to early modern evidentialism. The best movies I have seen that raise questions about mind and knowledge are *Blade Runner* (can beings that are structurally and behaviorally just like us be fully conscious moral agents?) and *Memento* (to what extent does our self-understanding depend on memory? is it possible to interpret bits evidence without a larger cushion of information against which to make sense of them? and the biggie: are our lives really better if we know the truth?). I discuss both of them in courses, but have not shown them. I find my students like to discuss *The Matrix* when we consider the possibilty of massive deception, but I find its adolescent libertarianism to be shallow and its aestheticized violence to be appalling. One movie I’ve shown portions of with great success is *Total Recall.* It contains what has to be the best philosophical line in contemporary popular culture: “If I’m not me, who the hell am I?”

  4. Several years ago, I used Francis Ford Coppola’s movie “The Conversation” (from the early 70’s, with Gene Hackman) for a talk about the Gettier problem for a general audience. It gives you a very clear instance of the reasoning-through-a-falsehood-type case. And it’s a really good movie.

  5. Epistemology, philosophy of mind and philosophical logic in pop songs:

    On the fallibility of introspection:

    Well, I’m scufflin’ and I’m shufflin’ and I’m walkin’ on briars.
    I’m not even acquainted with my own desires.
    (“Bye and bye”, Bob Dylan, 2001)

    I know that I’m forgiven,
    But I don’t know how I know.
    I don’t trust my inner feelings.
    Inner feelings come and go.
    (“That don’t make it junk”, Leonard Cohen, 2001)

    On the involuntariness of mental states:

    Dear landlord,
    Please don’t put a price on my soul.
    My burden is heavy:
    My dreams are beyond control.
    (“Dear landlord”, Bob Dylan, 1968)


    And I can’t forget, I can’t forget,
    I can’t forget but I don’t remember what!
    (“I can’t forget”, Leonard Cohen, 1988)

    (Suppose the object of forgetfulness/memory is a certain proposition p (that is, “I can’t forget” is short for “I can’t forget that p”). In addition, suppose that “I don’t remember what” is short for “I don’t remember whether p”. If the first conjunct of the speaker’s assertion is true, the second conjunct must be false. So, the assertion is a necessary falsehood. But, charitably, assume that the speaker notices this. Now, suppose you want to go all the way with your charitable interpretation and assume that the speaker (a) rationally believes what he asserts, (b) believes that what he asserts is a necessary falsehood and yet (c) rationally believes that (a) and (b) don’t make him irrational. That way, you will be as charitable as they come! You will then have to find him arguments in support of his beliefs. But you want those arguments to be at least decent. Remember: You are trying to be as charitable as possible. It seems that your best chance is finding him reasons in support of each conjunct of his assertion and making him a dialetheist.)

  6. Almost any philosophical idea can be found in Jorge Luis Borges’ stories. As examples related to epistemology: the way of thinking of the inhabitants of Tlon, for which Berkeleyian idealism is common sense and Materialism is an obscure and paradoxical philosophical doctrine; or how Funes’ perfect memory does not constitute real knowledge. I’m sure there are many more.

  7. This Saturday’s Dilbert reminded me of certain regress arguments against internalism:

    (frame 1) Boss: In order to avoid shoddy mistakes, everything we do from now on will be part of a documented process.

    (frame 2) Wally: What documented process did you use to decide what documented process to use?

    (frame 3) Wally: Or is this one of those shoddy mistakes I keep hearing about?

  8. Jon,
    I put this question to a very phi-informed colleague in English. For raising very interesting epistemic questions (apart from the too-lengthy Don Quixote which he said immediately came to mind) he recommended the following literary sources. I’ll just list them.
    Fyodor Dostoevsky, NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND
    Franz Kafka, “Report to the Academy”
    Jean-Paul Sartre, NAUSEA
    John Fowles, THE MAGUS
    Iris Murdoch, UNDER THE NET
    Henry James, THE TURN OF THE SCREW
    Luigi Pirandello, ENRICO IV
    Philip Roth, THE COUNTERLIFE
    Yann Martel, LIFE OF PI
    Samuel Beckett, MOLLOY
    Italo Calvino, MR. PALOMAR
    Jorge Luis Borges, FICCIONES
    Haruki Murakami, KAFKA ON THE BEACH
    Orhan Pamuk, THE WHITE CASTLE

  9. Jon,
    I wondered that too. He kindly offered the list and I didn’t press. I do have the specific question he was answering, though I didn’t question specifically. Here it is. “. . . I have in mind basic epistemic issues such as the reliability of perception, skepticism & solipcism, reliability of memory, (same for) testimony, the possibility knowledge without experience (or apriori knowledge), introspection (or self-knowledge/self-deception). Stuff like this…”

    So I guess the answer to your question is “stuff like this”. Sorry I couldn’t be more helpful here.

  10. With no shortage of good literary references above, and with my own obligatory Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen references on file, I thought that, as befits a Saturday, somebody would have to do the dirty work and cover the TV-for-philosophers front.

    TV series (now on DVD) that you can take straight to the classroom: “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (first season: 1955) and, of course, the original “Twilight Zone” (first season: 1959). These are easily connected with a number of epistemological issues. There’s all manner of goofy epistemology in the Twilight Zone. In a 1961 episode, the main character tries to devise a strategy for proving that he’s in a nightmare! I kid you not. But skepticism is only the most obvious topic. You get truckloads of relatively easy connections.

    But here’s my primary motivation for this post: Columbo is out on DVD, people! I’ll spare you the endless rambling I’d naturally plunge into when the name “Columbo” comes up. Just tell me: Where else do you get 15, 20 brilliant inferences crammed into 75-to-90-minute episodes? This Seventies series raises the bar so high that Conan Doyle will look like an amateur! (Hold me to it.) All kinds of inferences known to philosophers are well-represented — mostly brilliant cases of inference to the best explanation, of course. There are a few clunkers in the lot, but it’s generally an once-in-a-lifetime TV experience for philosophers. (You won’t be looking for film-critic-approved “art” here. We have the Coen brothers for that. But you’ll see people like Anne Baxter, Martin Landau, Ray Milland, Leonard Nimoy… in great performances, in addition to the phenomenal Peter Falk. Plus, there is that Seventies tackiness in all its raging glory. Very groovy!) Demand it at your public library.

    While I’m at it, apart from “The West Wing”, are there any pockets of intelligence in contemporary TV (I mean, fiction), for those late-night moments when one must stop thinking about closure? (If you don’t see any epistemology in your TV recommendations, use “good enough to make you forget closure for a moment” as cover. Alternative strategy: “Such-and-such is a great show. I wonder: Is there any epistemology in it?”)

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