FA22 PHIL610

Proseminar (PHIL610): Facts, Certainty, Explanation
Professor Cory Wright

Mondays, Wednesdays  ·  7:00pm–9:45pm  ·  PH1–112

PHIL610: Proseminar is the main point of departure for advanced study in Philosophy at Cal State Long Beach. It is designed to initiate first-semester graduate students into the Department’s MA program, and, more generally, to introduce the discipline as it is practiced at higher levels of academic competence. The proseminar generally equips students with essential skills in analysis, composition, and research that are appropriate for satisfying the expectations of faculty in our MA program. More specifically, students are taught how to conduct themselves in a graduate-level setting, trained in how to analyze texts through presentations and discussion, argument extraction and reconstruction, how to conduct philosophical research, how to write focused and argumentative papers, how to properly cite sources, and many other related skills along the way. The proseminar also includes instruction on the Department’s basic qualifying examination (BQE), the thesis and comprehensive exam options, committee formation, etc. Each class meeting will have two components: (i) a discussion component and (ii) a skills component. Typically, the first half of the class meeting will be devoted to discussing the week’s readings while the second half of the class will be devoted to developing the basic proficiencies needed to be successful in a rigorous graduate program. Typically, the work in a given week will set up work for future weeks. And in at least some cases, these two components of a given class meeting will be integrated with one another, whenever possible.

The proseminar topic for FA22 will be on some seemingly interrelated topics in epistemology: facts, certainty, and explanation. On both inflationary compositional and deflationary propositional conceptions, facts are presumably the objects of knowledge: when we come to know what is the case, what we know are the facts of the matter at hand. But if taken to be true propositions, facts will also be well-suited to support an epistemic conception of explanation that takes them to serve as either explananda and explanantia and to aim at scientific knowledge in so doing. A sticking point, however, is the concept of ‘brute’ facts, which are facts that have no explanation. As explananda, brute facts are explanatory inert. Yet, according to the principle of sufficient reason, everything must have a reason or an explanation; and so no facts are brute—no explananda are brute facts. As explanantia, brute facts appear to be as fundamental as it gets. Yet, it’s unclear how to distinguish between facts that do, and facts that do not, admit of explanation, and unclear what the evidence would be for or against the existence of such dullards. The development of routine and dependable ways of knowing which facts are brute—that is, being able to reliably count on knowing that some things are inexplicably the case, and which things those are—might stir up a sense of certainty, which skeptics aim to disrupt through methods of doubt. Does this certainty originate from brute factivity? In a relatively new trend, so-called ‘hinge epistemology’ supposes there to be a class of entities upon which ‘swings’ the formation and evaluation of our cognitive states. Deploying the concept hinge is also said to provide a powerful response to skepticism and radical fallibilism—whether academic (e.g., Arcesilaus, Carneades), Pyrrhonian (e.g., Sextus Empiricus), or pre- (e.g., Sanches) or post-Cartesian (e.g., Popper, Næss). Appealing to the factivity of epistemological hinges might explain the power of this response to skepticism; and hinges do sometimes seem to have some of the features of brute facts. However, these posits are often construed as merely pragmatic commitments or presuppositions, that is, brute non-facts. Consequently, it is unclear what roles epistemologists who are focused on the grounds of certainty and doubt should assign to brute and non-brute facts and non-facts.

Course Readings:

  • Ludwig Wittgenstein (1969), On Certainty. Harper Torchbooks.
  • Arianna Betti (2015), Against Facts. MIT Press.
  • Annalisa Coliva & Danièle Moyal-Sharrock (2017), [selections from] Hinge Epistemology. Brill.
  • Elly Vintiadis & Constantinos Mekios (eds.) (2018), [selections from] Brute Facts. Oxford University Press.
  • Kostas Kampourakis, Kevin McCain (2019), Uncertainty: How It Makes Science Advance. Oxford University Press.

Various other readings from Gertrude Anscombe, Eric Barnes, John Heil, Hud Hudson, Kevin Mulligan, Duncan Pritchard, Wesley Salmon, Ned Markosian, and others.