Guidelines for Discussion Paper Writing
Nate Charlow
September 14, 2019
What is a discussion paper?
• A discussion paper presents a lean and rigorous reconstruction of an author’s argument
in a text, which is responsive to a discussion prompt for that text.
• The emphasis is on “lean and rigorous”. Try to approximate the care and detail I use when
I lay out arguments in class. Any detail that is not essential to understanding the author’s
argument and addressing the prompt should be omitted. Filler material is assessed harshly.
Grading. Each discussion paper is worth 100 points. Here is how those points will be assigned.
• Mastery of the text (40). Excellent papers demonstrate a subtle and sophisticated understanding
of the relevant philosophical text, the sort of understanding achieved through
careful reading and study. Unsatisfactory papers demonstrate a superficial understanding (or
lack of understanding) of the relevant text, and suggest a cursory reading of the text.
• Clarity, rigor, compellingness of presentation (40). Excellent papers present the author’s
argument using care and attention to detail; extraneous detail is omitted; the simplest
and most compelling version of the author’s argument is distilled. Unsatisfactory papers
present the author’s argument carelessly; important details are omitted, and extraneous details
are included; a compelling version of the author’s argument is not distilled for the reader.
• Writing and organization (20 points). Excellent papers use transparent philosophical
prose; they are concise, precise, and contain few or no grammatical or stylistic infelicities.
Unsatisfactory papers use unclear and difficult-to-understand prose; the writing is bloated,
imprecise, and may contain grammatical errors, errors of usage, and so on.
Grading Table
Mastery of the text (40 possible) 40 36 32 28 24 20 16
Clarity, rigor, compellingness (40 possible) 40 36 32 28 24 20 16
Writing and organization (20 possible) 20 18 16 14 12 10 8
An example of an excellent discussion paper is appended to this document.
Précis 1- Cohen
Contextualist solutions to epistemological problems: Scepticism, Gettier, and
the lottery
In his article Contextualist solutions to epistemological problems, Stewart Cohen seeks to
show that while the contextualist approach can offer a solution to both scepticism and the lottery
case, it cannot deal with Gettier cases. Cohen shows that the very thing that allows a contextualist
approach to deal with scepticism and the lottery, namely, the speaker-sensitivity of the Rule of
Resemblance, is what prevents it from being able to properly handle Gettier cases.
The contextualist approach to dealing with these epistemological problems relies on the
notion of context-sensitivity, which allows for certain possibilities to be properly ignored based on
the context. The rules of relevance determine what possibilities can, and cannot, be properly ignored
when trying to determine the truth of a knowledge ascription. The two main rules of relevance are as
follows: The Rule of Actuality states that the possibility that actually obtains is never properly
ignored and the Rule of Resemblance states that if one possibility saliently resembles the other, then
if one of them may not be properly ignored, neither may the other. Cohen introduces a further
qualification for the rules of relevance they must either be speaker-sensitive or subject-sensitive. The
operation of speaker-sensitive rules depends on facts about the speakers and hearers on a given
context, whereas subject-sensitive rules depend on the on facts about the subject. The Rule of
Relevance’s saliency requirement renders it a speaker-sensitive rule, as it depends one what it salient
to the speakers of a given context, whereas the Rule of Actuality depends only on what actually
obtains, regardless of what is salient to the speakers, and is therefore subject-sensitive.
Cohen maintains that while appealing to the context-sensitivity, and thus to the rules of
relevance, one can combat scepticism by finding a sort of middle ground between those who claim
Précis 1- Cohen
we have knowledge and the sceptic. In everyday contexts, where sceptical possibilities are not
salient, and therefore, not relevant, the standard for what possibilities need to be eliminated for us to
claim knowledge is lower; there is no need to rule our sceptical possibilities. In everyday contexts
then, we can truly claim knowledge without having to entertain sceptical possibilities. However,
when dealing with the sceptic, the context changes, the standard is much higher, the sceptical
possibilities become both salient and relevant, and thus, we fail to know. In this way, the
contextualist can deal with scepticism by showing that it is only in contexts where sceptical
possibilities are salient that we fail to know, while still allowing us to maintain the intuition that in
certain, everyday, contexts, we do have knowledge.
Cohen then exemplifies the use of the Rule of Resemblance to deal with what he calls the
“Poor Bill” version of the lottery. This is a case in which we pity bill for wasting all his money on the
lottery, knowing that he will never be rich. In such a case, it seems that we know that poor Bill will
never get rich, but we do not know he loses the lottery, even though knowing Bill will never get rich
entails Bill losing the lottery. By appealing to context-sensitivity we can explain our intuitions about
such a case. In contexts where the resemblance of the lottery (the resemblance between any given
ticket and the winning ticket) are not salient to us, like for example, when we are busy pitying poor
Bill, we can properly ignore the possibility that Bill’s ticket wins, and so, we can know that Bill will
never get rich and that he will never win the lottery. But in cases where the resemblance between
Bill’s ticket and the winning ticket are salient to us, we cannot properly ignore the possibility Bill
wins, and so, we cannot know that Bill will never be rich, or that he will lose the lottery.
If we appeal to the speaker-sensitivity of the Rule of Resemblance, it allows us, in certain
circumstances, to ascribe knowledge to someone who is in a Gettier scenario. Cohen provides an
example of a person, S, who is in a Gettier situation, and a person A, who is beside S, but is unaware
Précis 1- Cohen
that S is in a Gettier situation. Because the fact that S is in a Gettier situation is not salient to A, it,
according to the Rule of Resemblance, can be properly ignored. This would allow A to truly ascribe
knowledge to S. Cohen thinks this is a mistake; he maintains that one of the (rather intuitive)
conditions for knowledge, that is fixed across all contexts, is that the subject cannot be in a Gettier
situation of any kind. The speaker-sensitivity of the Rule of Resemblance, however, allows one to
ascribe knowledge to someone in just such a case.
In order for the Rule of Resemblance to deal with Gettier cases, it must become a speakerinsensitive
rule, thus eliminating its saliency requirement. This, however, raises two key issues.
Taking away the Rule of Relevance’s speaker-sensitivity renders it unable to deal with scepticism,
because it would render all possibilities, even far-fetched sceptical ones, relevant in every context.
The elimination of the Rule of Relevance’s speaker-sensitivity would also make it unable to deal
with poor Bill versions of the lottery case, as it would render us unable to know anything that would
entail Bill loses the lottery, even while we maintain we do, at least in some contexts, know things that
entail Bill’s loss (i.e. we want to say we know that Bill will never be rich).
In his paper, Contextualist solutions to epistemological problems, Cohen argues that while
the speaker-sensitive Rule of Resemblance can deal will scepticism, and the lottery, in order to deal
with Gettier cases it would have to become speaker-insensitive. Eliminating the speaker-sensitivity of
the Rule of Resemblance however, would render it unable to deal with scepticism, or the lottery.
Cohen maintains that we should appeal to context-sensitivity in the cases of scepticism and the
lottery, but that Gettier cases cannot be solved this way.