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Knowledge, Epistemic Possibility, and Scepticism

My 1990 UCLA doctoral dissertation,

Keith DeRose © 1990

I’m here posting electronic copies of the four chapters of my dissertation. These pdf image files were made at a copy machine from one of the physical copies of the dissertation that I still have. Much of my dissertation has been reworked into published papers, but a lot of it has not.

As I recall, I basically had only the first chapter written as I entered the 1989-90 academic year. The other three chapters existed only as outlines and notes, more or less developed. However, my wife and I had just learned that our second child was on the way, and I really had to go on the job market and finish up. I wrote a considerable amount during the Fall and Winter, while I was on the job market, but it was after I secured a job that the floodgates really opened and I began to write very quickly. I needed to be finished by the end of the academic year to get the salary I needed at my new job (it would have been less had I not finished), and I knew that the only standard I really had to meet was to make it acceptable as a dissertation. I considered cutting it down to just three chapters, but realized that it was good to be writing so quickly, so I stayed with the plan to write four, and tried to keep myself convinced that I had to finish all four of them by the end of the spring quarter. So Chapters 2-4 were all written very quickly – and it shows, more in some places than in others.

It was good to have this material written, however sloppily. When I started my new job, I had all new courses to get up to speed, limiting the time I could spend on my papers. It was very handy to have material that just needed to be edited, rather than written from scratch. In subsequent years, I’ve often thought it would be a good idea to try to again work in such a two-stage process: slopping material down quickly, and then editing it. But I haven’t been able to get myself to work that way since.

Chapter 1: Contextualism, Knowledge Attributions, and Scepticism

This chapter is a bit of a rewrite of the dissertation perspectus that I believe I wrote during or around 1988. Some of this material in it – including the bank cases – is from papers I had written still earlier for seminars. A “paperized” version of this served as my writing sample while I was on the job market. It was also the first part of the dissertation I converted into a paper – “Contextualism and Knowledge Attributions” – suitable for submitting to journals (though I had other papers, not coming from the dissertation, that were already submitted, and one that was already published while I was in graduate school). However, it was turned down by several journals, and, because of that, the paper I made out of Chapter 2 beat it into print. It was discouraging to have CKA rejected multiple times, but it finally found an extremely nice home in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (1992). Since the editor at PPR was the great epistemology expert, Ernest Sosa, and since it seemed that he, and not just the anonymous referees, liked the paper, my confidence was largely restored. Soon after it was published, Fred Dretske, whom I had never met, was kind enough to send me a nice note saying he enjoyed the paper. So I was feeling better about it. At least if GoogleScholar is to be believed, it is now my second most cited paper, so I’m glad I didn’t give up on it.

Chapter 2: Epistemic Possibilities

After I started sending off the paper that came from Chapter 1, I began work on Chapter 2. The resulting paper (with the same title as the chapter) quickly found a very nice home at The Philosophical Review (1991). I originally submitted it to the Phil Review as a 50-page manuscript, including notes. The response I received said that the journal would be very interested in considering a revised version of the paper, but that it was too long. I was instructed to cut it down to 30 pages, including notes (based on the same font and margins). Talk about major cuts! Much of the material I cut out was stuff I was quite fond of. As a result, there’s much – and much that I like – in the dissertation chapter that has not been published. Of particular note is my discussion of a key portion of G.E. Moore’s essay, “Certainty,” which shows the extent to which I’m working in the wake of Moore’s work on the topic, and a closing section on varying epistemic standards governing statements of epistemic possibility. However, as I made the revisions – which were all made over the weekend after I received the “revise and resubmit” request – I realized that the editors at the Phil Review were right: It was better as a shorter, harder-hitting paper that got right to the point, even if some of the material that was cut was nice in its own way.   This was a topic that no other philosophers seemed to be working on at the time, so I felt quite alone working on this stuff. Richard Feldman was nice enough to send me a nice note about it soon after it came out. These days, it seems a more popular topic.

Chapter 3: Contextualism and the Failure of Bold Skepticism

This huge chapter was going to be much harder to turn into a paper. But I gave a talk based on this material a couple of times early in 1993. When I got to Rice in the Fall of 1993, writing a contextualist paper on skepticism, based on this chapter, was the focus of my writing for a bit over a year, as I recall, It was tough but rewarding work. This time, my mode of working wasn’t revising material from the dissertation. Rather, I started a new document from scratch, but looked back at the dissertation chapter from time to time to see if there was material suitable for importing (with revisions) into this new paper. The result was a very long paper that I was very happy with, “Solving the Skeptical Problem,” which had a lot more new ideas in it that weren’t in the dissertation than was in the papers based on Chapters 1 and 2. SSP was accepted by The Philosophical Review (appearing in 1995), which was one of the few good journals that seemed to do papers as long as this one turned out to be. That was a great home for it, but I shudder to think what would have happened if they didn’t take it. Given its length, it might have been hard to get it anywhere good.

Chapter 4: Wittgenstein’s Suspicion and the Insignificance of Philosophical Scepticism

I have not made a publication out of any of this chapter. It, too, was huge. And I never came up with any paper-sized ideas for it. But I liked this chapter quite a bit. Some day, maybe…

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