Contextualism

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This is the the ninth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear.

According to the contextualist response to skepticism, we don't literally know things. Strictly speaking, the word 'know' requires absolute certainty, and we can't get that about most things. When speaking literally or strictly, contextualists will admit that the skeptic is right. But most of the time we aren't speaking strictly or literally. Consider some unrelated examples. We'll often describe a table as flat. It doesn't take much pushing to see that no table in real life is truly flat. It's flatter than a bumpy road or a lumpy pillow, but it's not absolutely flat. It's ok to call it flat it most ordinary contexts, though. It's just not ok when talking about detailed physics calculations. Those little bumps make all the difference in that context. According to the contextualist about flatness, the word 'flat' has a different meaning in different contexts. In physics contexts, it has the stricter or more literal meaning. Something isn't flat unless it's absolutely flat. In ordinary contexts, most tables really are flat. The reason it's ok to speak more loosely in ordinary contexts is that the meaning of the word 'flat' itself loosens up in ordinary contexts. Contextualists about knowledge say the same thing about 'know'.

This doesn't just apply to one word at a time. For instance, some people will say there's nothing in the fridge when there's air in there or they'll say there's no milk left in the fridge when there's a little puddle. If you take a contextualist view about the semantics of such expressions, the very meaning of the expressions changes when you loosen your requirements given certain contexts. In a stricter context, when you're trying to achieve a vacuum in the fridge or trying to see if any liquid spilled out of the milk carton, you would be saying something false. When someone wants to know if the carton is in the fridge or on the counter, a contextualist about expressions of this sort will say that what you've spoken is true. It's semantically true. It wouldn't be true in every context, but it's true in this one, because this is a context with lower standards.

The same kind of standard-lowering is what happens with contextualism about knowledge. We have higher standards for what counts as knowledge when you worry about skepticism. You have lower standards when you're worrying about whether your grocery store owner is cheating you by ensuring the scale will weigh vegetables a little heavier than they are. You're not worried about evil demons, just inaccurate measurements. When you can't refute the evil demon hypothesis in the philosophy classroom, it's correct to say that you don't know what your senses tell you. When you disprove the scale's results and try to show that the grocer owes you money, it's incorrect to point out that you don't know these results due to possibly being in the Matrix, which would mean the grocer might not exist. That kind of high standard for knowledge just doesn't apply in that context, even though it does apply in the philosophy classroom.

In ordinary life we can get some beliefs that are more reasonable than others, and we have a way to distinguish between them. We have the ones that are more reasonable. We say we know those things. It’s not literally true that we know them, at least in terms of the standards of the philosophy classroom, but in ordinary language it’s ok because we’re speaking loosely, the way we speak when we say a table with unnoticeable bumps is flat or when we say a fridge with air in it is empty. Only in the philosophy room do we care about speaking strictly on this issue. When we go out into the real world, speaking loosely is perfectly fine, so it’s ok to say we know things, even if it’s literally false. If it’s ok to say the fridge is empty and the table flat, why wouldn’t it be ok to say we know things (at least when we’re not in the philosophy room)?

The contextualist position faces a number of problems, most of them too technical for an undergraduate course, and this series of posts is intended to reflect what I cover in an introductory course, so I'm going to steer away from the technical issues in semantic theory and point out one worry some people present for contextualism about knowledge. That worry amounts to the same complaint some people might have about pragmatism. Some people think it concedes too much to the skeptic.

People who worry about skepticism aren't going to be less worried simply because it's ok to have lower standards in loose contexts. That doesn't help explain anything the skeptic is worried about. This is basically a kind of pragmatism that allows moving away from pragmatism when dealing with philosophers. A contextualist has this nice theory about how we can pretend to know things in ordinary life but admit that the skeptic is right when philosophers raise questions. How is this different in substance from skepticism or pragmatism? All three basically admit that Descartes was right to question his beliefs and right to conclude that he knew a lot less than he originally had thought, and they think there's really no way to get the strong kind of certainty he wanted.

Contextualists have the little wrinkle that the word 'knowledge' doesn't mean what philosophers call knowledge, but in the end they agree with the pragmatist and the skeptic that when you're speaking with the high standards of the philosopher the skeptic is right. We don't really know very much at all. Some philosophers want to say that the contextualist was right to go with ordinary speech in ordinary contexts, but they also want to be able to bring that result into the philosophical context by retaining just the ordinary meaning of 'know' as its meaning plain and simple. I'll turn to that in the next post.

7 Comments

Within this discussion, is there a valid distinction, given by Paul in 1 Corinthians chapter 1, between the wisdom of God and man, and the followon implication that those who have rejected God cannot even understand true reality or think wisely about it?

While all of this philosophical argument, logical deduction, and creation of systems of thinking and understanding seem well and good, are they chasing the wind so speak, since apart from God they are constructs lacking the key information sets that only faith and belief can supply?

How as a Christian can one reconcile this and do philosophy in the traditional sense? We are not talking about hard science or practical observations of the real world where God (Romans 1) has told us he has made himself and his truth visible in practical ways. We are talking about the deeper issues of the nature of being and knowing and Paul seems to aruge that those who accept God obviously now have the ability to think with the thoughts of God but those who reject him are left outside, blind and unwise.

When the early Church said "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" wasn't it addressing this split view of knowing true reality in which the unbeliever would forever wander in error?

On one level, I think it actually goes the other direction. Religious knowledge has its own skeptical issues. I'm going to come to that starting with post #13. Someone who starts with skeptical worries will have that as much or worse with anything that purports to be religious knowledge. The only way to respond to the arguments will be to question the premises of the skeptical arguments, since the arguments have the same structure in both cases.

It will become clear by the end of post #15 (if my projections for what each post will cover are correct, anyway) that I just think we should reject the skeptic's assumptions. Once you do that, knowledge of God turns out to be in a very interesting position with respect to knowledge from the senses, which has been the main object of the skeptic's worries up to this point.

From what I understand, "what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" was simply raw anti-intellectualism, starting from the false assumption that you can't accomplish anything of value by using our God-given minds to think carefully about our lives. I wouldn't say this was a view of the early church. I'd say it was a rogue group of leaders who tried to steer the church into philosophical isolationism, much as the early 20th century fundamentalists did until the evangelical reformation.

The biblical statements that unbelievers' minds are darkened has nothing to do with the issue of knowledge from the senses anyway. The error that's involved here is how you can even know that you have two hands and aren't in the Matrix. That's not the same thing as stubbornly resisting the gospel because of a hardened heart. Why should we think that believers have some special information about the existence of their hands that unbelievers don't have? The only biblical statements in the direction you're talking about deal with how believers have access to knowledge of God and of the things of God, which unbelievers are blinded to. That shouldn't mean we don't know that there are chairs, trees, or pencils beyond just our experiences of them. These just aren't the same issue.

We all see the planets and study their cycles and know that they exist. But it's only by faith you know they were formed by the word of God. Sounds like the whole lessons (which I have been absorbing silently and repeatedly) are trying to establish of what we see is really even there.

The skepticism isn't quite about whether they're there. It's about the status of our beliefs that they're there. For a few of the responses the skepticism, that distinction is incredibly important. Pragmatists, for instance, don't think our beliefs are good in any intellectual or epistemic sense, but they think they're morally perfectly acceptable. Others think it's bad for you or even morally wrong to believe things without sufficient evidence. When we get to reliabilism in the next post, we'll see that some people think you can even know it without being able to prove that it's true. In two of these views, whether you can establish that it's true is somewhat independent of whether your beliefs are perfectly fine.

This--

According to the contextualist response to skepticism, we don't literally know things. Strictly speaking, the word 'know' requires absolute certainty

--doesn't sound like contextualism. It sounds more like Unger's view from IGNORANCE (see esp. the second chapter) -- a view to which contextualism is opposed.

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People who worry about skepticism aren't going to be less worried simply because it's ok to have lower standards in loose contexts. That doesn't help explain anything the skeptic is worried about. This is basically a kind of pragmatism that allows moving away from pragmatism when dealing with philosophers. A contextualist has this nice theory about how we can pretend to know things in ordinary life but admit that the skeptic is right when philosophers raise questions. How is this different in substance from skepticism or pragmatism?

One reason skepticism is worrying, at least to some, is that the arguments for sk seem to show that we've been wrong all along when we've said or thought that we knew things. If the contextualist solution works (which it does!), those arguments show no such things. Our ordinary thoughts and assertions to the effect that we "know" this or that have been perfectly (and literally, I might add) true all along.

Some skeptics might react by saying that they never meant to be questioning the truth of our ordinary judgments and claims to know various things; they only meant to be showing that we don't "know" according to absolutely high standards that almost never govern non-philosophical thought.

But (a) many -- most, I think -- skeptics have thought they were challenging our ordinary judgments about what is "known," and (b) skepticism doesn't seem that interesting (at least to me), and certainly doesn't seem very menacing if the reaction described in the above paragraph is all the skeptic is up to.

There are a few elements common to contextualism and an Unger-like view that I try to capture in my introductory courses. One does the work in semantics, the other in pragmatics, but both reduce the issue to something about language. Sometimes I shift back and forth between the two in class, and I don't use either name (I call it language pragmatism). In this post I tried to convert it all to contextualism, but that slipped through.

I actually think contextualism doesn't work that easily. John Hawthorne has out a number of issues that it doesn't handle well at all, but it's very technical, and I have to get his stuff out every time I want to remember it. I think reliabilism solves the problem without contextualism, and I think it's so clearly the obvious thing to say that I agree with you that skepticism isn't menacing, but I don't feel all that attracted to the contextualist way of putting it (which I do think is better than Unger's way of doing it, though).

I answer Hawthorne's main objection to contextualism, together with other related objections, in "'Bamboozled by Our Own Words': Semanitc Blindness and Some Objections to Contextualism," which will be in Philosophy & Phenomenological Research; preprint available at my list of on-line papers at http://pantheon.yale.edu/~kd47/OLP.htm

I also answer Hawthorne in "The Ordinary Language Basis for Contextualism and the New Invariantism," The Philosophical Quarterly, 2005; again, preprint available at the URL listed above.

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