From Kant to Coppola: Art, Life & the Nature of Knowledge

How do we know what we know? How do we know that what we know is knowledge? Far from being topics of abstract philosophical debate, these questions shape fundamental aspects of our existence. Epistemology, the study of knowledge, gives us a view into why we choose and judge as we do. It reveals to us the limits of our thinking and allows us to defend our ideas to our most formidable opponents … and to ourselves.

The role epistemology plays in how we view the world comes to the fore whenever we read a book, watch a movie, or look at a painting. With these actions, we enter into a tentative, unspoken agreement with the artist and the work. Sometimes, we are oblivious to the conditions being set; and in other cases, we recognize how the work and artist are trying to trick us into believing.

This seminar will be an opportunity to untangle the relationships between knowledge, opinion, fact, truth, illusion, and reality. After becoming familiar with classic short works by Plato, Hume, and Kant, we will turn our attention to 20th-century works that challenge many of the assumptions—such as the presence of an objective reality—that are central to Western thought about the nature of knowledge.

Learn more in John’s blog post Fear and Knowing in San Francisco.


Palm Tree
For John, this image represents the creative character of the mind


“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance,
it is the illusion of knowledge.”

– Stephen Hawking


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John Riley is a senior administrator at the Great Books Foundation. He has been conducting seminars in various settings for over 30 years. He is dedicated to making philosophical ideas approachable and useful. After all, it was Einstein who said "nothing is more practical than a good theory."

Books, Play, and Film
Participants are required to obtain the specified editions in order to facilitate the group’s ability to find and cite portions of the text during discussion.

Meno by Plato, trans. G.M.A Grube
(Hackett Classics, 1980)
ISBN-13: 978-0915144242

Selection from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume

Introduction to Critique of Pure Reason by Emmanuel Kant

Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello, trans. Eric Bentley
(Signet Classics, 1998)
ISBN-13: 978-0451526885

The Conversation directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1974

Selected 20th-century artworks

Note: John will provide PDFs of the Kant and Hume texts.

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