Skepticism & Contextualism in Epistemology

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Skepticism & Contextualism in Epistemology

Epistemology, is generally understood as the study of knowledge. The word Epistemology was coined by Scottish philosopher James F. Ferrier, it is a word derived from Greek – Episteme meaning knowledge and logos meaning study. The study of knowledge or Epistemology covers not only basic day to day conceptualizations and realizations, but it is a field of study in itself that covers wide array of topics and almost everything one have learnt throughout his or her life. However more specifically epistemology deals with the understanding of what is knowledge, what are its sources, structure, limits, & beliefs.

(Steup). In this paper we summarize and analyze two basic ways of studying and approaching knowledge – Skepticism and Contextualism. Skepticism: Since the dawn of human evolution or creation, we humans have been chosen as the superior beings. This sense of superiority or zealousness can only be attributed to one thing the power of human mind. Our mind surely has given us abilities to achieve impossible, crack upon unrelenting mysteries of science, math or be it any other field, but the question still remains how much of our mind to do we actually know or do we know what is mind?

The problem in studying knowledge arises here if we don’t know what is mind, can we trust anything that is learnt of it, or in essence we can basically say that we don’t know anything. This skeptical approach to knowledge is pursued by a French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes. Skepticism in general according to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary is defined as, an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object. (Webster).

But what exactly is Skepticism in the field of philosophy and more specifically in the context of this paper, to answer this let us first analyze and consider Rene Descartes argument. Rene Descartes in his paper Meditation on first philosophy argues that since he had found himself wrong on many occasions in respect to the supposed knowledge he had gained over the years, he feels the need to re-build this bank of knowledge by analyzing things and accepting only those things that he can absolutely be certain about.

To analyze all the facts and knowledge would take too long, so Rene targets the most basic source through which we take in knowledge – our senses. He argues that senses are many a times deceiving and it is not sane to trust something that deceives you so often, by the end of this argument Rene completely shatters the notion which claimed we humans have knowledge.

After rejecting the basic source of absorption of knowledge (senses), he then begins to doubt his existence he says all of what he see could be a dream, but he quickly arrives to conclusion that even the things that he sees in the dream have to had been derived from real world or waking experiences, and therefore Rene Descartes says that he can only doubt complex things which are build up from result of compiling or mixing simple things or facts.

In essence he says that simple things cannot be doubted and with this thinking he then rejects complex sciences such physics, medicine and astronomy whereas he says simple things such as arithmetic and geometry are true.

He then argues that even simple things can be doubted, he says an all powerful being, God, could deceive him and says that we can argue God to be loving and not deceiving but the fact that Rene cannot trust his own senses is in itself is dangerous and if we were to believe there is no God the chances of us being deceived are more higher, and he argues that the concept of God is too perfect to be doubted he then attributed his random thoughts that keeps popping up to evil being that’s trying to deceive him, because he is now certain that he can allot these thoughts to evil being he can say that he can be safe as he can reject all of these thoughts.

Rene Descartes then begins his 2nd meditation – the nature of human mind and how it is better known than the body. He starts of the meditation by outlining the same boundaries that he did for the first meditation – he says, anything with even a slightest amount of doubt would be set aside as if it were to be completely false, until he can find something that he can be certain of. He then says everything that he has – memories, limbs, body, shape, extension, movement are all-false, what remains is absolutely nothing so basically he can’t be certain of anything.

He quickly reconciles and says that these thoughts, ideas have to have an source – he earlier said he has no body, he cannot trust his senses, he denied the existence of the world, but this does not mean he doesn’t exists the argument that he is being deceived by someone is more than sufficient to prove that he exists, therefore he concludes that I am and I exists.

He then asks who is this “I” that exists; he has denied the possibility of him being a soul that has a body, he can only be certain about one thing that he is a thing that thinks, therefore he claims to be thinking being that is capable of sensing, imagining & has free will. He claims that the reason how he knew he existed is because of his intellect, he proves this by giving to us an example of a solid piece of wax wherein he identifies the honeycomb wax by its physical sensible properties such as shape, size, etc.

Then he melts the honeycomb and he identifies the liquid as honeycomb wax even though there is nothing that tells us that this liquid is the same piece of honeycomb wax. He knows that these both are the same substances through his intellect, therefore with this argument Rene Descartes concludes that he knows his mind far better than his body. The only that we can be certain about after Rene’s argument is that we are intellect beings that think and we exist, the knowledge and experiences that we have gained could be deception.

After hearing this argument we can say that skepticism is an idea of doubting the body of knowledge that we have gained and subjecting it to various ideologies and tests, it is way of doubting and building up the knowledge brick by brick with right true foundations. Contextualism: Context is defined as circumstances that form the setting of an event, statement or idea in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed. (Google Dictionary). Stewart Cohen defines Contextualism as the view that statements, ideas, and knowledge in general are context-sensitive anything with the word “know” and other closely related words to “know” are all context sensitive.

By this she means that every statement or piece of knowledge that we claim to know is subject to scrutiny of having different meanings in different scenarios, situations and it might hold different value for different people as in each statement that we claim to know can have different levels of importance for different people and thus can be interpreted differently. For Example – Suppose that Kim is 50 years old. Scenario 1: Kim goes back to college & moves into the dorm. People say: She is old. Scenario 2: Kim retires early & goes to retiree lunch. People say: She is not old. In both the scenarios what people say is true and thus the word old is context-sensitive and could have different attribution, and meaning in different situations.

Similarly the word “know” is context- sensitive and Stewart Cohen gives an example of this wherein she says Mary & John are at L. A airport they are taking a flight to New York and they want the flight to stop at Chicago, but they aren’t sure about this, meanwhile a passage Smith checks his itinerary and says that he knows the flight to New York is stopping at Chicago but Mary and John aren’t sure about this and they call their Airline agent to check whether the flight is stopping at Chicago.

In the above case we can see that Smith was right in his belief that the flight was going to stop at Chicago, and he claimed he knew that. However Mary and John didn’t believe it because their standard to judge that were too strong. Thus we can conclude that the word know have different attributes for everyone. Each and every statement that we claim we know might have different meaning for other people and might be understood in a much different way than what our understanding of it was. (Cohen, 57 – 63).

Contextualism is very logical argument which without denying the existence of skepticism’s argument tries to encompass both and say that whatever skeptics say can be true but it doesn’t mean that contextualist’s argument has to be wrong for them to be right. Cohen claims that both the arguments are subject to their own context and they both are right when taken in their specific context without anyone of them being wrong. For Example – Descartes claims, “You don’t know that you have hands. ”

Descartes is a skeptic, when discussing his paper he is at an spiritual, intellectual high and in the sense of his argument to prove his point through his intellectuality and spirituality he is right when he says, you don’t know that you have hands. While at the same time in a common conversation we can claim that we know we have hands, as both of these statements are subjected to different contexts both of these statements are right without any of them contradicting each other. Similarly while we discuss something like Descartes paper we claim that we don’t know anything, we claim that we don’t have a body and soul and our senses are deceiving.

But when speaking in general context we know that we have a body, we believe that we have a soul, we claim that we know a lot if not everything and senses although deceiving can be trusted. It might look at first glance that the two claims contradict each other whereas in reality they do not contradict each other they simply exist in different contexts. Descartes argues in the context of his paper in his intellect and spirituality of various possibilities scenarios to various possible situations in his aim to dissect epistemology while the other set of claims are made in the context of day-to-day life and both of us are true without any of us being wrong.

References and Work Cited Cohen , Stewart. Contextualism, Skepticism, and the Structure of Reasons.

33. Nous, 1999. 57 – 89. Print. <http://www. jstor. org/stable/2676096 . >. Descartes, Rene. Meditations on First Philosophy. Print. “Dictionary and Thesaurus – Merriam-Webster Online. ” Web. 6 Mar. 2013. <http://www. merriam-webster. com/>. SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Meditations on First Philosophy. ” SparkNotes. com. SparkNotes LLC. n. d.. Web. 8 Mar. 2013. Steup, Matthias, “Epistemology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed. ), URL = <http://plato. stanford. edu/archives/win2012/entries/epistemology/>.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 5 November 2016

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