Theories of Knowledge: How to Think about What You Know

Rethink everything you know about the world as you delve into the fascinating field of epistemology.
Theories of Knowledge: How to Think about What You Know is rated 3.5 out of 5 by 17.
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Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not an Introductory Course Primary reason to listen to this series: You already have a little knowledge of epistemology and desire a broader, entry level, working understanding of the various theories of epistemology that have been presented by philosophers thru the ages. And you are willing to put in some time and effort outside of the lectures to reinforce and clarify the information presented in each lecture. Primary reason not to listen to this lecture series: You don't already have at lease some understanding of the philosophy of knowledge. You want something informative and also relaxing to listen to. This series may be intended to be an entry level course, but the subject matter is quite abstract and can be difficult to follow. The lectures do not tell anyone "how to think about what you know." Instead, it is a review of various theories of knowledge acquisition, with the speaker explaining why virtually all of the theories are wrong. The falsification of each theory depends on a contradiction arising from a logical proof beginning with the basic assumptions of each theory. This is all rather dense and requires concentration. Not that concentration is bad, but this series is not one that can be easily understood and enjoyed while walking or driving a car [which is when I listen to my Great Courses]. Spoiler Alert: It is not until the very last few minutes of the last lecture that the speaker finally presents what he considers to be the most likely correct method about how people acquire knowledge: Humans probably use a synthesis of multiple theories reviewed in the lectures. [I say "probably," because the speaker isn't really sure. This remains an area of ongoing debate and discussion.] A little bit of this theory, a little bit of that theory. Which theories are most useful? Probably this one and that one. Which theories are least useful or not useful at all? Try to remember what he said in the previous lectures. This seemed like a very long run for a short slide. The speaker has a nice voice and relaxed speaking style. No complaints there. His interest in the subject matter comes thru. I am sure that listening to him live, giving lectures in a classroom for an entire semester would be an enjoyable experience. Listening to this topic without some background knowledge, however, is a grind and is likely to disappointment to many. To really get a grasp of this subject matter will likely require a significant time commitment to carefully review the content multiple times and closely study the subtle differences between theories. Again, nothing wrong with that if that is what you want and realize what you are getting into.
Date published: 2021-08-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Requires heavy lifting This is not suitable for a first lecture series in philosophy unless you have a substantial background in philosophy, at least a college minor, or as in my case, prior interest in philosophy, with some self study and viewing several of the introductory Great Courses offerings in philosophy. The course is a good addition to Great Courses philosophy courses for those with some philosophy background that want to learn about the specific area of epistemology. In other words, for viewers who want to think about how they know what they know. You need to pay close attention to the lectures to follow the logic. I was not comprehending or remembering the material as well as I wanted for the first few lectures, so I went back and read the guidebook and that helped. Thereafter, I read the guidebook after each lecture for most lectures. I also took all the short quizzes in the guidebook after each lecture. I usually got 2 or 3 questions out of 4 questions right. So I was picking up most of the material, but not all of it. This is not so much a history of philosophy course, although some relevant philosophers such as Descartes and others are cited. This is more about where epistemology stands today and the various views. The professor favors an Externalist view and the viewer will learn what that is along with other views and their limitations. To me, the course illustrates that there are limits to how we know what we know, just as there are limits to what we know about consciousness.
Date published: 2020-12-06
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not Good I don't think this was a good course for the following reasons: 1. The professor constantly confuses psychology with philosophy. I'm not saying that empirical science (psychology) should be completely absent and not consulted while studying epistemology (philosophy); it's ok to use psychology to help inform some aspects of this philosophical topic as long as one clearly keeps them separate and clearly articulates what role each is playing. But, the professor mixes these two fields of study beyond recognition and distinction. It's difficult to tell when he's talking philosophy and when he's talking psychology, and he mixes them up in his arguments to the point where his philosophical conclusions are either confused or irrelevant. The result is that he often makes an argument merely about how most people actually tend to acquire what we might claim to be knowledge (psychology); but what he should be focusing on in this course is how we SHOULD acquire knowledge and what are the PROPER ways to acquire and justify beliefs. 2. Many times I had trouble understanding what the professor was trying to say and what his argument structure was. This likely is not a deficiency on my part since I've listened to plenty of philosophy courses and books and I usually can follow and understand their arguments just fine.
Date published: 2020-09-16
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Boring The professor starts the first lesson stating the proposition that people think philosophers are boring. He then spends the next 23 lectures proving that proposition. My background is in psychology; I'm interested in how real people process real information. I was hoping to broaden my knowledge. But the professor touches on real life only rarely. Most of the lectures are about concepts, how academic philosophers argue about concepts, and a whole litany of "isms:" internalism, externalism, incrementalism, presumptivism, inferentialism, ad nauseum. I missed the point that the course is not about knowledge itself, but about theories of knowledge, with the emphasis on "theories." I've taken dozens of Great Courses, and this is only one of two that I regret buying.
Date published: 2020-08-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from interesting m of philosophy & cognitive psychology i'm interested in epistemology, especially as it pertains to history & philosophy of science & technology (& great courses has some good stuff on these topics). in contrast to typical "big picture" meta-history of epistemology, this course more about everyday experience. the question of "knowledge" is analysed from a theory-of-mind perspective, with empirical evidence introduced to establish the plausibility of explanations of "how" we know. so, for me, very interesting for it's insights into "big" quest and how our minds seem to form beliefs & make practical decisions.
Date published: 2020-06-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Itereresting but difficult The lectures include a lot of information that required me to recall information from previous lectures or statements. Since the subject was new for me I often needed to back up or redo a previous lectue. I don't know that the material has any real useful purpose other than curiosity and interest. That was enough for me to entoy it. I would recommend it only for one who shares that curiosity.
Date published: 2020-01-10
Rated 3 out of 5 by from PHILOSOPHY FOR POSITIVISTS This is not the epistemology course that I had hoped for. Which is not to say that it does not accurately represent the current state of Anglo-American academic philosophy with roots in analytic philosophy, logical positivism, and an urge to render the subject as “scientific” as possible. Hence the course’s heavy emphasis on neuroscience, psychology and sociology. Personally, I prefer the traditional, historical approach to epistemology with roots in Continental European philosophy that is more hospitable to skepticism and more content with a lack of knowledge. For me, the high points of epistemology are the debates between Socrates and the Sophists, the contributions of Locke, Hume, and Berkeley resolved by Kant in a manner that has served as authority for positivists and skeptics alike, the strong support for skepticism provided by Nietzsche, the retreat from his earlier positivism by the later Wittgenstein, and the upending of structuralism by post-structuralists and postmodernists like Foucault and Derrida. In this course, the instructor’s presentation matches his approach to the subject. His delivery is almost machine-like with never a slip of the tongue, a loss for words, or a verbal or physical expression of perplexity or doubt. He sounds more like an engineer than a philosopher. He manages to take all of the fun out of what is otherwise a fascinating subject. A related Teaching Company course that I enjoyed much more than this one is "Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It" by Professor Steven L. Goldman.
Date published: 2019-06-26
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Theories of Knowledge Course was hard to follow. Didn’t start with Epistemology. Not used until the 3rd disk and then not defined. Epistemology is how you know things. The theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. As opposed to Heuristics, the process that you use to understand things. Disorganized. Hard to follow. Especially the metaphors explaining things Confused between knowledge and validity. Example I learn something, e.g., UFOs are real. - knowledge I learn the UFO’s are not real. Also, knowledge I now know that UFOs are not real, and that is still knowledge. You can (even need to know) know things that are not valid. Knowledge is something that is in your head (memory). Whether the knowledge is TRUE is a secondary consideration and separate from the knowledge. SIMPILIFY The standard example for the requirement to simplify is Occam’s Razor. Most useful – Section on the Dunning-Kruger information. Good detail. Will have to go over the course again.
Date published: 2019-06-26
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Delve into the exciting world of knowledge, belief, and truth in Theories of Knowledge: How to Think about What You Know. Taught by acclaimed Professor Joseph H. Shieber of Lafayette College, these 24 mind-bending lectures take you from Plato to Hume to contemporary neurobiologists, and from wide-ranging social networks to the deepest recesses of your own brain.


Joseph H. Shieber
Joseph H. Shieber

 The study of knowledge is as old as philosophy itself.


Lafayette College

Joseph H. Shieber is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Lafayette College, where he has taught since 2003. Before arriving at Lafayette, he taught philosophy at Brown University, Connecticut College, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Shieber earned a BA in Literature from Yale University, studied mathematics and philosophy at the Freie Universität Berlin, and earned AM and PhD degrees in Philosophy from Brown University.

Dr. Shieber has published numerous articles in epistemology, philosophy of language, and the history of modern philosophy in some of the top journals in the field of philosophy. He is also the author of Testimony: A Philosophical Introduction as well as a monthly Monday columnist for 3 Quarks Daily (

Dr. Shieber is a recipient of the Thomas Roy and Lura Forrest Jones Faculty Lecture Award in recognition of excellence in teaching and scholarship from Lafayette College. He regularly teaches courses in theory of knowledge, philosophy of language, history of 20th-century philosophy, logic, and metaphysics as well as a first-year seminar on propaganda.

By This Professor

Theories of Knowledge: How to Think about What You Know
Theories of Knowledge: How to Think about What You Know


Philosophy and Transformative Experiences

01: Philosophy and Transformative Experiences

What do philosophical “theories of knowledge” have to do with everyday life? If you believe the field of epistemology is esoteric and abstract, you’ll be surprised by how fundamental it is to everyday life. In this opening lecture, reflect on how we make “transformative” experiences—and why common sense might lead us astray.

29 min
Knowledge, Truth, and Belief

02: Knowledge, Truth, and Belief

Philosophers have been ruminating on the nature of knowledge for thousands of years. Using Plato as your guide, investigate the relationship between “knowledge,” “truth,” and “belief.” Professor Shieber brings in contemporary psychology and what we know about child development to show how we come to know what we know.

28 min
Foundationalism: Descartes’s Evil Demon

03: Foundationalism: Descartes’s Evil Demon

We’re all familiar with Descartes’s cogito, ergo sum, or “I think, therefore I am.” Delve into this powerful analysis of reality to discover what Descartes meant. As you’ll learn, he was trying to develop an infallible explanation for his knowledge of the world, which led him deep inside his own mind.

28 min
The Coherence Theory of Knowledge

04: The Coherence Theory of Knowledge

Turn from Descartes’s theory of infallible knowledge to fallible yet still internal theories of reality. The most prominent theory is coherentism, a framework for understanding the world in terms of logical cohesion and consistency. While this theory has much to offer, you’ll also wrestle with several key challenges.

31 min
Externalist Theories of Knowledge

05: Externalist Theories of Knowledge

Not all theories of knowledge rely on internal justification. Here, you will explore several 20th-century approaches to knowledge that don’t require that justification is internally accessible. Consider how to gauge beliefs in terms of external consistency, accuracy, reliability, and validity.

29 min
Problems with Self-Knowledge

06: Problems with Self-Knowledge

Given all this talk of beliefs and external reality, surely it’s safe to say we at least understand ourselves, right? Traditional, Cartesian epistemology may consider self-knowledge the foundation of all other knowledge, but as current research in psychology, biology, and neuroscience shows, our self-knowledge is far from complete or even accurate.

29 min
Does Sense Perception Support Knowledge?

07: Does Sense Perception Support Knowledge?

One of the most significant sources of knowledge comes from sense perception—what we see, hear, smell, and experience of the world. Yet our common-sense way of thinking about sense perception is misleading at best. In this first of two lectures on perception, unpack the role of our senses in justifying beliefs about the world.

30 min
Perception: Foundationalism and Externalism

08: Perception: Foundationalism and Externalism

Continue your study of sense perception with a look at what it implies about the internalist and externalist theories you have studied so far. After examining several problems with internalist foundationalism, Professor Shieber explores how cognitive psychology supports an externalist view of knowledge.

28 min
The Importance of Memory for Knowledge

09: The Importance of Memory for Knowledge

Memory plays a crucial role in knowledge because all of our perceptions are impermanent and fleeting. Here, you will examine the nature of memory. Are memories stored experiences in the mind, or are they past events themselves? And does memory merely preserve belief, or can you gain new knowledge from your memories?

28 min
Confabulations and False Memories

10: Confabulations and False Memories

One of the most intriguing aspects of memory is just how fallible it is as a guide to reality. In this lecture, you will turn to how memory fits into the internalist and externalist theories of knowledge. False memories, confabulations, source theories, and forgotten evidence show just how tricky memory really is.

28 min
The Extended Mind

11: The Extended Mind

We are quickly approaching a future of augmented reality, simulated consciousness, brain implants, and more. These brain enhancements raise a number of philosophical questions: What counts as your mind? And is an enhanced brain a better brain? Consider the role of smart phones and photographs in preserving memory.

28 min
Do We Have Innate Knowledge?

12: Do We Have Innate Knowledge?

Step back to one of the Enlightenment’s most captivating debates: Do we know the world through our own minds (as Descartes argued) or through empirical evidence (as Locke and Hume argued)? After unpacking this debate, see how Kant came to the rescue to distinguish between a priori and a posteriori knowledge.

29 min
How Deduction Contributes to Knowledge

13: How Deduction Contributes to Knowledge

Much of our belief system stems from things we have not experienced directly; rather, we infer much of our knowledge through the processes of logical reasoning. Here, tackle the role of deduction, in which inference stems from the logical relationship of a series of steps. Consider syllogisms, “if-then” arguments, and other deductive procedures.

29 min
Hume’s Attack on Induction

14: Hume’s Attack on Induction

Deduction and induction are the two types of logical inference. In this first of two explorations of induction, you will examine the reliability and usefulness of induction. You’ll start with David Hume’s challenge to induction to see whether it can be used to generate knowledge at all. And even if knowledge comes from inductive inference, are humans any good at it?

28 min
The Raven Paradox and New Riddle of Induction

15: The Raven Paradox and New Riddle of Induction

Continue your tour of induction by looking at a few logical puzzles. There are no easy answers to the raven paradox or the new riddle of induction, but picking apart these challenges can offer valuable lessons about inductive inference. Revisit Hume’s attack, and reflect on how Bayes’s theorem of probability applies to inductive reasoning.

28 min
Know-How versus Propositional Knowledge

16: Know-How versus Propositional Knowledge

So far, this course has tackled “propositional knowledge”—or knowledge that X is true. But knowledge-that isn’t the only kind of knowledge. Although philosophers didn’t think much about knowledge-how (know-how) until recently, it has much to teach us—especially about internalist and externalist theories of knowledge.

30 min
Knowledge Derived from Testimony

17: Knowledge Derived from Testimony

Sensory perception, memory, self-awareness, and logical inference are all personal sources of knowledge, but much of our knowledge comes from consulting others’ expertise. Discover the breadth of knowledge that comes from testimony, and find out what perils exist in relying on the word of others.

28 min
Social Psychology and Source Monitoring

18: Social Psychology and Source Monitoring

To evaluate knowledge that comes from testimony, you might think we analyze the trustworthiness of the source and weigh our beliefs accordingly. But as social psychology tells us and you will see here, we are very bad at spotting liars, and we tend to accept testimony without consciously monitoring the source of the information.

29 min
Testimony through Social Networks

19: Testimony through Social Networks

Social networks play a powerful role in how we acquire knowledge from others. Here, explore the nature of our social networks—how many close friends we tend to have, and how many people are in our wider social network—and then see how our networks provide us information, and how reliable the information is.

28 min
The Reliability of Scientific Testimony

20: The Reliability of Scientific Testimony

Previously, you discovered the “social externalist” theory of testimony. Examples from the scientific world provide evidence for this view of ensuring accurate testimony. Reflect on several scientific achievements made possible by “socially distributed cognitive processes”—processes where the sum is greater than the individual players.

29 min
Testimony in the Media

21: Testimony in the Media

The media is a great example of a socially distributed process—but how do we know the information is reliable and accurate? Go inside the world of media fact-checking and how our media consumption impacts our knowledge. Consider the challenge of ensuring accuracy in the age of “click-bait.”

28 min
Pragmatic and Moral Encroachment

22: Pragmatic and Moral Encroachment

Much of this course has focused on the truth-likelihood of knowledge, without focusing on the particular interests of the knower. In this lecture, survey two key challenges to this approach: First, do your practical interests impact whether you have knowledge? Second, do your moral concerns impact whether you have knowledge?

27 min
Radical Skepticism: The Brain in a Vat

23: Radical Skepticism: The Brain in a Vat

Return to the beginning, in which you studied Descartes’s radical skepticism. While there are many problems with Descartes’s theory of knowledge, his fundamental skepticism is tough to reckon with. How do we know we are not just a brain in a vat, à la The Matrix? Delve into several arguments against this scenario.

28 min
The Future of Epistemology

24: The Future of Epistemology

Epistemology is an old field, but in the 21st century there has been an explosion of new ideas, approaches, and applications. Conclude the course with a look at the future of the field, including “formal epistemology,” “epistemic injustice,” and the potential integration of externalist, foundationalist, and coherentist approaches to knowledge.

37 min