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Epistemological Contextualism Essay

“Epistemology robs us of our knowledge” (David Lewis). This statement is a direct result of skeptical theory in the epistemological community. For decades, philosophers have struggled with the possibility that individuals cannot know anything about the external world based on their senses. Many skeptical scenarios have been proposed, from Descartes’ “not being able to rule out the possibility that he is dreaming”, to the “Brain in the Vat” scenario, the possibility that no one can know what it is they have previously claimed to know; each haunts the steps of philosophers on their journey for understanding.

It seems that for as many instances of skeptical scenarios that have been proposed, counter theories have also risen. The argument against skepticism presented in this paper is called contextualism and in its varying forms, hopes to provide an answer to the issue of skepticism. However, this paper is not simply a recitation of contextualist ideas. It also seeks to show the analysis of the theory given by Richard Feldman. To begin, an understanding of basic contextualist theory is required.

Contextualism is a semantic theory that concerns itself with the meaning of the word “knows” in varying contexts. It is important to note that contextualism is not attempting to disprove skepticism, but rather provide a plausible answer to the problem of skepticism and prove that it is still possible to know things based on one’s empirical observations. In general, the contextualist will make two claims. The first is that (a) in ordinary (empirical) cases, it is generally said that something is true when someone says something that follows the form “S knows P”.

The second, (b) in more epistemologically stringent cases, such as when the skeptical scenario becomes salient, it is not true when someone makes such a statement about “S”. Therefore, whether the statement “S knows P” is true, varies depending on the context “S” finds itself in. In this argument, the meaning of “knows” is context sensitive. This context sensitivity gives the contextualist an edge on skepticism for the following reason; in any ordinary context, S does “know” P based upon empirical evidence.

Once S considers the skeptical scenario however, that empirical evidence is thrown into doubt, and they no longer “know” P. The skeptic considers this the end of the argument, but that is not how the contextualist views the situation. Because the contextualist claims that the word “knows” is context sensitive, one can conclude that in the first context S did “know”, and that in the second context S did not “know” and both of those conclusions are sound within their respective contexts.

The contextualist states that the reason for this shift is not that S changed their mind, but rather that S holds the non-skeptical context to a less epistemologically strict standard. Therefore, in the first context, S’s empirical evidence was enough to satisfy the requirement for “knows”, but in the skeptical context it can no longer met the requirements. Contextualism is an attractive alternative to straight skepticism as it provides an answer to the Skeptical Paradox. At this point Feldman begins his critique of contextualism.

He starts by stating that while contextualism does provide a plausible answer to skepticism, it is just not satisfactory. He concedes early on (for the sake of further discussion on the topic) that the word “knows” is context sensitive. Therefore, this leaves him with the burden of giving an alternate explanation for why people make the shift to skepticism if he is to deny contextualism. The contextualist claims that the shift occurs simply because the non-skeptical context fails to meet a higher epistemological standard. Feldman argues that this is not truly the case.

Feldman wants to argue that it is a misconception of skepticism that causes the shift from the ordinary case to the skeptical way of thought, not the context in which someone thinks they “know”. In an ordinary case, the person in the ordinary case contends that if they have no direct evidence against the skeptical alternative, then they cannot know. Feldman claims that this is a false assumption. He goes on to explain that in most ordinary cases (cases for knowledge); any alternative proposed can be refuted by direct evidence.

Feldman gives the example of Smith and Jones to illustrate what happens in an ordinary case. Feldman, upon seeing Smith from down the hall thinks that he knows he sees Smith. Someone suggests the alternative that he is really seeing Jones instead. Feldman then rules out the possibility that it is Jones based on the direct evidence that the man he is looking at is of the same height as Smith and has the same hair color, neither of which match Jones. Feldman argues that this use of direct evidence is not how someone would deny a skeptical alternative.

Feldman claims that when ruling out skeptical scenarios people rely on indirect evidence over direct evidence. He proposes the case of the zebra/painted mule to illustrate his point. When someone goes to the zoo and sees a zebra in its cage, that person thinks they know that they are seeing a zebra. However, suppose someone raises the alternative suggestion that the zookeepers have actually painted a mule to look identical to a zebra in order to save the zoo some money. The person at the zoo would no longer be able to know they were looking at a real zebra based on the direct evidence.

However, despite the skeptical alternative presented that person could still say they know they are seeing a zebra based on the indirect evidence that zookeepers simply do not put mules painted as zebras in exhibits. With this example, Feldman hopes to show that people’s flawed assumption about needing direct evidence to refute skepticism (a hopeless task in almost all skeptical scenarios! ) is the cause of the shift. By pointing to this flaw, Feldman provides an alternative explanation for why people shift into the skeptical scenario, an explanation that is not based on the context of the situation.

Next Feldman goes on to explain that this shift from “knows” being true to “knows” being false is implausible when considered from the contextualist framework. Feldman makes this point by appealing to his experiences in discussing skepticism. What he found was that people, when presented with discussions on skepticism all had very different reactions. According to the contextualist, all competent English speakers should be able to properly understand the term “knows” and adjust it appropriately from one context to the other.

This should produce a primarily universal consensus about whether someone “knows” in a scenario where epistemological standards are greatly increased. The majority consensus should be that people know very little in those cases. However, what Feldman found was that there were massive amounts of disagreement on whether or not each person knew something was the case. In this argument against the plausibility of contextualism, Feldman makes the case that contextualism does not adequately handle how individuals willingly assent to knowledge attributions.

Feldman relies on the fact that if a shift in what speakers are willing to assent to takes place between the ordinary context and the skeptical context, contextualism will not be the most adequate in explaining it that shift. He says this is the case especially when there are frequent disagreements between people within the same context. The reason for this is that the contextualist, instead of acknowledging the disagreement between the persons regarding a complicated topic, would simply have to say that each individual did not understand the language they were using as a result of the semantic nature of the theory.

The idea that these competent English speakers would not understand the meaning of the word “knows” is highly implausible and does not do an adequate job in explaining the shift between contexts. In this analysis of contextualism, Feldman gave reasons for why context is not the only means by which someone can shift from “S knows P” as true to “S knows P” becoming false. He also showed that context is not a plausible measure for showing why the shift between the two cases takes place.

With this in mind, Feldman makes his final point about contextualism. He argues that if, despite the alternative and the implausibility of contextualism being true, it would still not be a satisfying answer to skepticism. He says this because he claims that people are not truly concerned by the high epistemological standard for knowing in a skeptical scenario. What they are truly concerned about when pondering skepticism is whether they can truly know something in the ordinary case.

If the true worry then is that ordinary beliefs are not warranted in any ordinary sense, then claiming that knowledge attributions change in different contexts will not obviate the concern. Citation Page: Skeptical Problems, Contextualist Solutions Richard Feldman 1. Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition , Vol. 103, No. 1, The 1999 Oberlin Conference in Epistemology (Mar. , 2001), pp. 61-85 Alaina Cox 12/05/13.


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