You are on page 1of 5

Nick Fletcher PF302/3

How might a contextualist reply to a sceptic? What are the prospects for success?

According to DeRose, almost all contextualist theories of knowledge have

been developed in response to philosophical scepticism. Sceptical arguments
take roughly the following form:
(i) S does not know that not-H
(ii) If S does not know that not-H then S does not know that O, so
(iii) S does not know that O.
Where S refers to a person (the subject), H is some kind of sceptical hypothesis
such as ‘I am a brain in a vat’, and O is a proposition concerning the external
world that would ordinarily be considered knowledge such as ‘I have hands’. This
particular form of sceptical argument is called the ‘argument from ignorance’
(AI). Contextualists argue that through use of sceptical hypotheses sceptics are
able to manipulate the semantic standards for knowledge and create an artificial
context in which they can say, truthfully, that we can never attribute knowledge
successfully. Contextualist theory does not attempt to answer these strong
sceptical hypotheses directly; rather it makes an attempt to prove that sceptical
denials of knowledge are perfectly compatible with contextualist attributions of
knowledge. Herein lies the beauty of the contextualist argument, the
persuasiveness of the sceptical argument is explained and accepted, whilst our
everyday attributions of knowledge are protected from its powerful attack.
Unfortunately, this beauty is a double-edged sword that makes the final verdict
between the two theories a very personal decision rather than one that can be
found through logical argument.
The contextualist reply to the sceptic begins with a separate analysis of
the premises of the AI. The issue with the first premise, the belief that I am not a
brain in a vat, is that if it were false and I was indeed just a brain in a vat I would
still believe that I was not. In epistemological terminology my belief that I am not
a brain in a vat is an insensitive belief; it is insensitive to whether the belief held
is actually true or not. This is, in very brief format, the subjunctive conditionals
account of the plausibility of the AI’s first premise (SCA). It makes the sensible
generalisation that we tend to judge that S does not know that O if S’s belief that
O is insensitive. Sceptical hypotheses are thus constructed in such a way as to
ensure the insensitivity of S’s belief that O. If all beliefs can be made insensitive
in this way how can we ever purport that S knows that O is either true or untrue

Nick Fletcher PF302/3

whatever O may be? Unfortunately, the contextualist is unable to answer this

question at this point in analysis and so must accept the first premise of the AI.
The idea of relative epistemic position is key to contextualist theory; a
contextualist believes that the standards required for attribution of knowledge
vary from context to context. This is well illustrated by the notion of comparative
conditionals. Taking the common example of barn facades, S is driving through
the countryside and holds a justified true belief that he is looking at a barn. Now
consider two possible worlds, one of which contains only real barns, R, and
another that contains mostly papier-mache barns, F (for fake). In F it so happens
that S is looking at a real barn, so we can say intuitively that if S knows in F then
he knows in R. However, it is not possible to intuitively argue that if S knows in R
then he knows in F, as any of the real barns in R could be barn facades in F
without S being any the wiser. S is in a stronger position to know, or a relatively
stronger epistemic position, in R than in F. Comparative conditionals can also be
used to determine the epistemic position of S with respect to different
propositions that S believes in the same situation. Take for example not-H as
being ‘I am not a brain in a Vat’ and O as ‘I have hands’. We can see intuitively
that S is in a similar epistemic position to know that not-H as to know that O. This
comparative fact is behind the AI’s second premise, if S does not know that not-
H, S does not know that O. Thus, the contextualist happily accepts the second
premise of the AI.
So far the contextualist argument has done little to disprove the sceptical
outlook; indeed, it has done nothing but support it. In fact, when presented with a
sceptical argument such as the AI introduced above, the contextualist will agree
with not just the first two premises, but also the conclusion. However,
contextualists do not agree with the traditional epistemological view that there
are certain conditions that define what constitutes knowledge, and that these
conditions are the same in all situations. For the contextualist, whether or not S
knows that O is dependant upon the context in which the ‘knowledge’ is
attributed. Contextualists believe that in the same way as the truth-value of a
sentence can vary according to the context of the sentence, the truth value of
attributions of knowledge also vary according to the context.
The best way of illustrating this is through indexical sentences; sentences
that contain either personal pronouns such as I, he, it, or they, or pronouns that
refer to places and times such as now, then, here or there. For example, if I were
to say ‘I am sitting at my desk typing this essay’ it would be a correct statement

Nick Fletcher PF302/3

as I am indeed sitting at my desk typing on my computer. However, if you were

to read that sentence aloud it would be incorrect as you are not sitting at your
desk typing this essay. You may well be sitting at your desk but you are most
certainly not typing this essay, you are reading it. Here it can be clearly seen the
difference in truth value of the sentence when uttered by me, here and now, and
when uttered by you, there and now. Another illustration comes in the form of
sentences containing a comparison. For example, to say that ‘Paris is a big city’ is
a true statement uttered in the context of other French cities, but an untrue
statement when uttered in the context of other capital cities in the world. Here
there is no contradiction in the description of Paris as either a big or a small city,
as long as it is kept in mind that the meaning of the word ‘big’ can vary according
to context. Once again the truth value of the statement depends upon the
context in which it is uttered.
Returning to the idea of epistemic position; S’s epistemic position with
respect to not-H must be stronger than S’s epistemic position that O for S’s belief
that O to be sensitive. Sceptical hypotheses are chosen specifically to create a
context in which S is in a very weak epistemic position with respect to not-H, thus
causing S’s belief that O to be insensitive and a failure to attribute knowledge.
However, in cases where S is in a very strong epistemic position to know that not-
H, for example if H were ‘I am a rabbit’, S does not need to be in a very strong
epistemic position to attribute knowledge that O, ‘I do not have fluffy bunny
ears’. The sceptic raises the standards for knowledge by postulating sceptical
hypotheses. When no such hypothesis is suggested a strong epistemic position
for beliefs such as ‘I have hands’ can be easily found. This is because in all worlds
similar to this one I also have hands. If in a nearby world I did not have hands,
possibly due to some accident, I would not believe that I had hands. Thus I am in
a strong epistemic position to postulate that my belief that I have hands is
sensitive and can be considered knowledge. However, as soon as the sceptic
raises the possibility of me being a brain in a vat the logical nearby worlds
change, and my belief that I have hands is no longer sensitive (as all worlds in
which I am a brain in a vat must now be considered) and as such can no longer
be considered knowledge. This conversational rule is known as the ‘rule of
sensitivity’, and explains how the sceptic is able to manipulate the standards
required for knowledge to be attributed by altering the context in which the
sentence is uttered; this in turn accounts for the plausibility of the AI without
threatening the truth of our claims to know in ordinary, more relaxed situations.

Nick Fletcher PF302/3

Another more general argument against bold scepticism concerns

systematic falsehood. To continue a trend and borrow an example, supposing that
an eccentric philosopher made a claim that not only must a physician have a
medical degree, but also be able to cure any conceivable illness1. Generally we
attribute the term physician to licensed practitioners of medicine who cannot
cure any conceivable illness; we describe these people as physicians sincerely
and more importantly do not deny that they are physicians. With this in mind, it
would seem sensible to accept the traditional view of the definition of the term
‘physician’ rather than the odd conjecture of the eccentric philosopher; the more
demanding theory would implicate us in systematic falsehood in our use of the
term. Similarly, to apply the conclusion of the AI to all everyday attributions of
knowledge would implicate us in systematic falsehood in our use of the term
‘know(s)’. Furthermore, it must be considered how we, speakers of English, have
allowed ourselves to become unwittingly involved in such systematic falsehood. A
sceptic would argue that although we do not know the O’s that scepticism
suggests that we don’t, it is often useful for us to claim that we do. This means
that we are warranted in making such claims, even if they are in fact false. We
then mistake this useful or warranted assertability of O as truth. However, the
sceptics are unable to strengthen their position with this argument. The
‘warranted assertability manoeuvre’ could be performed with equal apparent
success by advocates of all schools of knowledge theory, as it can also be argued
that we often mistake useless or unwarranted assertability of denials of truth as
A further problem for the sceptic is how to explain how we are not
warranted to know that sceptical hypothesis does not obtain even though we are
warranted in claiming to know many other things that we don’t. It seems
intuitively strange that we would be so blind to our lack of knowledge, yet see it
clearly when confronted with a sceptical hypothesis. A sceptic would argue that it
is when our beliefs are insensitive that we are not warranted in asserting that we
know; only then can we recognise our lack of knowledge. However, the sceptical
argument makes all beliefs insensitive by postulating an H that makes O
insensitive. If O is insensitive then we are not warranted in attributing knowledge.
This is a problem for the sceptics; they cannot explain away our commonly held
beliefs that we know certain O’s by arguing that we are mistaken but warranted
in attributing knowledge to them, and then argue that we are not warranted in
attributing knowledge to insensitive O’s whilst also claiming that all O’s are

Nick Fletcher PF302/3

insensitive. In order to reconcile these claims, the sceptic invokes the rule of
sensitivity, arguing that contextually sensitive epistemic standards govern the
conditions of warranted assertability, our attributions of knowledge, but the not
the truth value of those attributions.
These two views have very different origins, one seeking to prove that we
can attribute knowledge to certain beliefs, the other seeking to prove that we
cannot. A contextualist argues that the facts relevant to true or false attribution
of knowledge vary in different contexts, just as the truth value of statements
such as those discussed above also vary from context to context. On the other
hand, the sceptic uses the AI to show that we know nothing, or at least very little.
Both sides postulate a solid case for their views, and neither comes out clearly
victorious. The only real difference between the two views is that a contextualist
is happy to ignore certain arguments when attempting to attribute knowledge
and a sceptic is not. This distinction manifests itself in the contextualist belief
that contextually sensitive epistemic standards govern the truth values of our
attributions of knowledge and the sceptical belief that the context only governs
the conditions of warranted assertability of knowledge and our attributions of
knowledge are always false. Both sides can argue the finer details forever; it
seems that the only deciding factor between the two is whether or not the
attributor personally believes that sceptical hypotheses affect the truth value of
everyday attributions of knowledge.

See DeRose (1995, p32), who in turn borrowed the example from elsewhere

D. Lewis (1996), “Elusive Knowledge”, in The Australasian Journal of Philosophy
74, pp. 549-567.
K. DeRose, (1995), “Solving the Sceptical Problem”, in Philosophical Review 104,
S. Cohen, (1998), “Contextualist Solutions to Epistemological Problems:
Scepticism, Gettier, and the Lottery”, in The Australasian Journal of Philosophy
76, pp. 289-306.