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PHIL 109
Skepticism and Relativism Fall 2020
Division II Writing Skills

Class Details

Intellectually, we are ready skeptics and relativists. We doubt, we point out that no one can be certain in what she believes, and we are suspicious of declarations of transcendent reason or truth (unless they are our own). Emboldened by our confidence in skeptical arguments, we claim that knowledge is inevitably limited, that it depends on one’s perspective, and that everything one believes is relative to context or culture. No domain of inquiry is immune to this destructive skepticism and confident relativism. Science is only “true” for some people, agnosticism is the only alternative to foolish superstition, and moral relativism and, consequently, nihilism are obvious. But is the best conclusion we can come to with respect to our intellectual endeavors that skepticism always carries the day and that nothing at all is true? In this tutorial, we will investigate the nature of skepticism and the varieties of relativism it encourages. Our readings will come primarily from philosophy, but will be supplemented with material from anthropology, physics, psychology, and linguistics. We will look at relativism with respect to reason and truth in general as well as with respect to science, religion, and morality. Along the way, we will need to come to grips with the following surprising fact. With few exceptions, thoroughgoing skepticism and relativism have not been the prevailing views of the greatest minds in the history of philosophy. Were they simply too unsophisticated and confused to understand what is for us the irresistible power of skepticism and relativism? Or might it be that our skepticism and relativism are the result of our own laziness and failure? Of course, this question cannot really be answered, nor is there any value in trying to answer it, and any “answer” will only be “true” for you. Right?
The Class: Format: tutorial; This tutorial will convene remotely via Zoom video according to a fixed weekly schedule agreed upon by the instructor and the two tutorial participants at the beginning of the semester.
Limit: 8
Expected: 8
Class#: 2528
Grading: no pass/fail option, no fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: participants will present substantial written work in the tutorial every other week, and will be responsible for commenting on their tutorial partner's work.
Prerequisites: none; this tutorial is an appropriate first course in PHIL.
Enrollment Preferences: first-year students; there is no need to write to the instructor indicating a special interest in the tutorial. If oversubscribed, students will be selected randomly.
Unit Notes: meets 100-level PHIL major requirement
Distributions: Division II Writing Skills
WS Notes: Students will write a tutorial essay every other week and will receive written feedback on composition and structure. Essays later in the semester will reflect the writing lessons of earlier in the semester.

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