Philosophy 2220: Introduction to Epistemology

Memorial University of Newfoundland 

Class Time and Location: MWF 11-1150 am A2065
Instructor: Dr. James Scott Johnston (, 864-6924.
Office Hours: MWF 10-11am ED 5002 in Hickman Hall or, if necessary, by special appointment.
Prerequisite: Permission of Instructor

Theme: The Roots of Epistemology in Modern Philosophy


This course addresses the ‘roots’ of epistemology in the Continental tradition of modern philosophy. There was a gigantic shift in both the questions asked of philosophy and the methods pursued during and after the 17th century. We will attempt to ascertain just what this shift was about. We will begin with the rationalist tradition of philosophizing, including Descartes and Spinoza. Central questions here include the use and purpose of philosophic method, the status of the Idea, and the question of substance. Selections will be from Descartes’s Discourse on Method and Spinoza’s Ethics. We will then turn to the empiricist tradition of philosophizing, and discuss Locke and Hume. Selections will be from Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Central questions here include learning, perception, and causality.
We will then turn to the late 18th century, Transcendental Idealism, and the most important philosophical figure of the past 250 years: Immanuel Kant. We will examine Kant’s question: how are synthetic a priori cognitions possible? What does this mean for science? For philosophy? We will pay particular attention to the role of the pure concepts of Understanding and their role in conditions of judging. We will read Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Consideration of Metaphysics as a Science almost in its entirety. We will also look at Kant’s successor, Göttlob Fichte. The question here is: how subject and object can be both real yet regulative ideals. We will read Fichte’s first Introduction to the Science of Knowledge.
Finally, we will examine the response to Transcendental Idealism; Absolute Idealism. Absolute Idealism attempted to take the best of transcendental philosophy and render it systematic. We will look at the very beginnings of Absolute Idealism in Freidrich Hölderlin’s fragmentary Judgment and Being. Then we will turn to a fuller approximation of it in F.W.J. Schelling’s Presentation of My System of Philosophy, with particular attention to the role of subject, object, and the Absolute point of Indifference.
Along the way, we will examine central concerns of epistemology. These include (in no particular order) foundations of knowledge; the metaphysics of knowledge; the subject and object; coherence and systematicity; science; abstract and real entities; and a priori and a posteriori principles.

Additional Resources:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Jim Pryor Guide to Writing a Philosophy Paper)


There are three assignments for this class. The assignments consist in three papers of approximately 4-5 pages each, double-spaced. The topics of the assignments are negotiable; however, it is expected that each student covers at least three of the four major areas (rationalism; empiricism; transcendental idealism; absolute idealism) discussed in the course. I recommend that papers be expository rather than argumentative; an attempt to understand the various positions of the thinkers discussed rather than an argument for or against this or that position.

Grading: A Excellent 80-100%
B Good 65-79%
C Satisfactory 55-64%
D Minimally Acceptable 50-54%
F Failing below 50%

Note on Marking Papers: As much attention as possible will be devoted to marking papers for form as well as content (indeed, form and content are not properly separable, and clear development of a thesis depends on a sound and effective writing style.) I will use a rubric, which will be made available before the first writing assignment is due.

Use of Recording Devices in the Classroom:

I am open to students using recording devices provided they clear their use with me beforehand.

Intellectual Honesty:

Students are reminded of the University policy on intellectual honesty, especially that part which pertains to plagiarism and self-plagiarism (see the Memorial University Calendar p. 63). Plagiarism and self-plagiarism are forms of academic fraud; complaints or allegations of such are subject to the adjudication of the Senate Discipline Committee.

Statement on Students with Disabilities:

Students with permanent or temporary disabilities who would like to discuss classroom accommodations are asked to see the instructor as soon as possible.

Course Syllabus Outline:

Week 1-2: Introduction

Definitions of Epistemology

Schools of Thought in Modern Philosophy
-Transcendental Idealism
-Absolute (Systematic) Idealism

-The question of foundations and the role of metaphysics
-Science and Scientific Knowledge
-Abstract and Real Entities
-Subject and Object

Weeks 2-3: Rationalism

Week 2: Rene Descartes: Discourse on Method (complete)

Week 3: Benedict Spinoza: Ethics Part 1: of God

Weeks 4-5: Empiricism

Week 4: John Locke: An Essay on Human Understanding: Book I; Book II Chapters 8-9

First Paper Due end of Week 4

Week 5: David Hume: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Sections I-VII

Week 6-9: Transcendental Idealism

Immanuel Kant: Prolegomena to Any Future Consideration of Metaphysics as a Science (Complete)

Second Paper Due end of Week 8

G.J. Fichte: First Introduction to the Science of Knowledge

Week 10-12: Absolute Idealism

F. Hölderlin: Judgment and Being (fragment)

F.W.J. Schelling: Presentation of My System of Philosophy
Third Paper Due end of Week 12


Faculty of Education

230 Elizabeth Ave, St. John's, NL, CANADA, A1B 3X9

Postal Address: P.O. Box 4200, St. John's, NL, CANADA, A1C 5S7

Tel: (709) 864-8000