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.