Philosophy | Sem in Metaphysics & Epistemology
P760 | 24877 | Ebbs

Topic: Skepticism and Meaning

The goal of this seminar is to examine assumptions about meaning that
underlie skeptical challenges to our beliefs about the external
world.  Many epistemologists today take for granted that radical
skeptical hypotheses, such as the hypothesis that we are dreaming, or
that we are brains in vats, are coherent and may possibly be true,
but that we can rule them out by appealing to empirical evidence,
together with a plausible theory of epistemic justification. J.L.
Austin points out that by ordinary standards it is outrageous to
raise the possibility that we are dreaming or that we are brains in
vats unless there is some concrete and specific reason in the context
for thinking that we may be dreaming or that we may be brains in
vats. In response, Barry Stroud argues that some genuine doubts may
appear outrageous only because they violate a non-epistemic norm that
we typically feel we must obey.   Stroud’s response relies on a
distinction due to H. P. Grice between the content of a sentence, on
the one hand, and conversationally implicated consequences of
asserting the sentence, on the other. In the first few weeks of the
seminar, we will examine arguments for skepticism, focusing on
Stroud’s use of Grice’s distinction, and ask whether any theory of
justification could adequately rule out the dreaming hypothesis if it
is understood in the way Stroud thinks it should be.

After this initial examination of the skeptic’s assumptions about
meaning, we will study Hilary Putnam’s and Tyler Burge’s arguments
for anti-individualism—the thesis that the contents of an
individual’s utterances are not settled by facts about her that can
be described independently of her social and physical environments—
and then look carefully at Putnam’s argument that the thought that we
are always brains in vats is self-undermining.  This argument can
succeed only if

(*)  	We are each in a position to know without special empirical
investigation what thoughts our own current utterances express.

A good portion of the seminar will be devoted to examining arguments
for and against (*), assuming that anti-individualism is true.  In
the last part of the seminar we will consider whether Putnam's
argument, if it is successful in the brain-in-a-vat case, could be
extended to show that the hypothesis that we are now dreaming is self-
undermining. If this and other skeptical “possibilities” are self-
undermining, then they do not challenge our ordinary knowledge
claims, despite the initial appearance that they do.

Readings by (among others) Austin, Stroud, Moore, Clarke, Grice,
Wright, Pryor, De Rose, Schiffer, Putnam, Kripke, Burge, Brueckner,
Boghossian, Davidson, Bilgrami, McLaughlin, Sosa, Soames, and